Archive for July, 2009

Three Good Reasons To Liquidate Our Empire and 10 Ways to Do It

Posted in Global Order, Welcome to The Machine on July 31, 2009 by CjH

By Chalmers Johnson, Alternet.org

However ambitious President Barack Obama’s domestic plans, one unacknowledged issue has the potential to destroy any reform efforts he might launch. Think of it as the 800-pound gorilla in the American living room: our longstanding reliance on imperialism and militarism in our relations with other countries and the vast, potentially ruinous global empire of bases that goes with it. The failure to begin to deal with our bloated military establishment and the profligate use of it in missions for which it is hopelessly inappropriate will, sooner rather than later, condemn the United States to a devastating trio of consequences: imperial overstretch, perpetual war, and insolvency, leading to a likely collapse similar to that of the former Soviet Union.

According to the 2008 official Pentagon inventory of our military bases around the world, our empire consists of 865 facilities in more than 40 countries and overseas U.S. territories. We deploy over 190,000 troops in 46 countries and territories. In just one such country, Japan, at the end of March 2008, we still had 99,295 people connected to U.S. military forces living and working there — 49,364 members of our armed services, 45,753 dependent family members, and 4,178 civilian employees. Some 13,975 of these were crowded into the small island of Okinawa, the largest concentration of foreign troops anywhere in Japan.

These massive concentrations of American military power outside the United States are not needed for our defense. They are, if anything, a prime contributor to our numerous conflicts with other countries. They are also unimaginably expensive. According to Anita Dancs, an analyst for the website Foreign Policy in Focus, the United States spends approximately $250 billion each year maintaining its global military presence. The sole purpose of this is to give us hegemony — that is, control or dominance — over as many nations on the planet as possible.

We are like the British at the end of World War II: desperately trying to shore up an empire that we never needed and can no longer afford, using methods that often resemble those of failed empires of the past — including the Axis powers of World War II and the former Soviet Union. There is an important lesson for us in the British decision, starting in 1945, to liquidate their empire relatively voluntarily, rather than being forced to do so by defeat in war, as were Japan and Germany, or by debilitating colonial conflicts, as were the French and Dutch. We should follow the British example. (Alas, they are currently backsliding and following our example by assisting us in the war in Afghanistan.)

Here are three basic reasons why we must liquidate our empire or else watch it liquidate us.

1. We Can No Longer Afford Our Postwar Expansionism

Shortly after his election as president, Barack Obama, in a speech announcing several members of his new cabinet, stated as fact that “[w]e have to maintain the strongest military on the planet.” A few weeks later, on March 12, 2009, in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington DC, the president again insisted, “Now make no mistake, this nation will maintain our military dominance. We will have the strongest armed forces in the history of the world.” And in a commencement address to the cadets of the U.S. Naval Academy on May 22nd, Obama stressed that “[w]e will maintain America’s military dominance and keep you the finest fighting force the world has ever seen.”

What he failed to note is that the United States no longer has the capability to remain a global hegemon, and to pretend otherwise is to invite disaster.

According to a growing consensus of economists and political scientists around the world, it is impossible for the United States to continue in that role while emerging into full view as a crippled economic power. No such configuration has ever persisted in the history of imperialism. The University of Chicago’s Robert Pape, author of the important study Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005), typically writes:

“America is in unprecedented decline. The self-inflicted wounds of the Iraq war, growing government debt, increasingly negative current-account balances and other internal economic weaknesses have cost the United States real power in today’s world of rapidly spreading knowledge and technology. If present trends continue, we will look back on the Bush years as the death knell of American hegemony.”

There is something absurd, even Kafkaesque, about our military empire. Jay Barr, a bankruptcy attorney, makes this point using an insightful analogy:

“Whether liquidating or reorganizing, a debtor who desires bankruptcy protection must provide a list of expenses, which, if considered reasonable, are offset against income to show that only limited funds are available to repay the bankrupted creditors. Now imagine a person filing for bankruptcy claiming that he could not repay his debts because he had the astronomical expense of maintaining at least 737 facilities overseas that provide exactly zero return on the significant investment required to sustain them… He could not qualify for liquidation without turning over many of his assets for the benefit of creditors, including the valuable foreign real estate on which he placed his bases.”

In other words, the United States is not seriously contemplating its own bankruptcy. It is instead ignoring the meaning of its precipitate economic decline and flirting with insolvency.

Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books, 2008), calculates that we could clear $2.6 billion if we would sell our base assets at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and earn another $2.2 billion if we did the same with Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. These are only two of our over 800 overblown military enclaves.

Our unwillingness to retrench, no less liquidate, represents a striking historical failure of the imagination. In his first official visit to China since becoming Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner assured an audience of students at Beijing University, “Chinese assets [invested in the United States] are very safe.” According to press reports, the students responded with loud laughter. Well they might.

In May 2009, the Office of Management and Budget predicted that in 2010 the United States will be burdened with a budget deficit of at least $1.75 trillion. This includes neither a projected $640 billion budget for the Pentagon, nor the costs of waging two remarkably expensive wars. The sum is so immense that it will take several generations for American citizens to repay the costs of George W. Bush’s imperial adventures — if they ever can or will. It represents about 13% of our current gross domestic product (that is, the value of everything we produce). It is worth noting that the target demanded of European nations wanting to join the Euro Zone is a deficit no greater than 3% of GDP.

Thus far, President Obama has announced measly cuts of only $8.8 billion in wasteful and worthless weapons spending, including his cancellation of the F-22 fighter aircraft. The actual Pentagon budget for next year will, in fact, be larger, not smaller, than the bloated final budget of the Bush era. Far bolder cuts in our military expenditures will obviously be required in the very near future if we intend to maintain any semblance of fiscal integrity.

2. We Are Going to Lose the War in Afghanistan and It Will Help Bankrupt Us

One of our major strategic blunders in Afghanistan was not to have recognized that both Great Britain and the Soviet Union attempted to pacify Afghanistan using the same military methods as ours and failed disastrously. We seem to have learned nothing from Afghanistan’s modern history — to the extent that we even know what it is. Between 1849 and 1947, Britain sent almost annual expeditions against the Pashtun tribes and sub-tribes living in what was then called the North-West Frontier Territories — the area along either side of the artificial border between Afghanistan and Pakistan called the Durand Line. This frontier was created in 1893 by Britain’s foreign secretary for India, Sir Mortimer Durand.

Neither Britain nor Pakistan has ever managed to establish effective control over the area. As the eminent historian Louis Dupree put it in his book Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 425): “Pashtun tribes, almost genetically expert at guerrilla warfare after resisting centuries of all comers and fighting among themselves when no comers were available, plagued attempts to extend the Pax Britannica into their mountain homeland.” An estimated 41 million Pashtuns live in an undemarcated area along the Durand Line and profess no loyalties to the central governments of either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

The region known today as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan is administered directly by Islamabad, which — just as British imperial officials did — has divided the territory into seven agencies, each with its own “political agent” who wields much the same powers as his colonial-era predecessor. Then as now, the part of FATA known as Waziristan and the home of Pashtun tribesmen offered the fiercest resistance.

According to Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, experienced Afghan hands and coauthors of Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story (City Lights, 2009, p. 317):

“If Washington’s bureaucrats don’t remember the history of the region, the Afghans do. The British used air power to bomb these same Pashtun villages after World War I and were condemned for it. When the Soviets used MiGs and the dreaded Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships to do it during the 1980s, they were called criminals. For America to use its overwhelming firepower in the same reckless and indiscriminate manner defies the world’s sense of justice and morality while turning the Afghan people and the Islamic world even further against the United States.”

In 1932, in a series of Guernica-like atrocities, the British used poison gas in Waziristan. The disarmament convention of the same year sought a ban against the aerial bombardment of civilians, but Lloyd George, who had been British prime minister during World War I, gloated: “We insisted on reserving the right to bomb niggers” (Fitzgerald and Gould, p. 65). His view prevailed.

The U.S. continues to act similarly, but with the new excuse that our killing of noncombatants is a result of “collateral damage,” or human error. Using pilotless drones guided with only minimal accuracy from computers at military bases in the Arizona and Nevada deserts among other places, we have killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed bystanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani and Afghan governments have repeatedly warned that we are alienating precisely the people we claim to be saving for democracy.

When in May 2009, General Stanley McChrystal was appointed as the commander in Afghanistan, he ordered new limits on air attacks, including those carried out by the CIA, except when needed to protect allied troops. Unfortunately, as if to illustrate the incompetence of our chain of command, only two days after this order, on June 23, 2009, the United States carried out a drone attack against a funeral procession that killed at least 80 people, the single deadliest U.S. attack on Pakistani soil so far. There was virtually no reporting of these developments by the mainstream American press or on the network television news. (At the time, the media were almost totally preoccupied by the sexual adventures of the governor of South Carolina and the death of pop star Michael Jackson.)

Our military operations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have long been plagued by inadequate and inaccurate intelligence about both countries, ideological preconceptions about which parties we should support and which ones we should oppose, and myopic understandings of what we could possibly hope to achieve. Fitzgerald and Gould, for example, charge that, contrary to our own intelligence service’s focus on Afghanistan, “Pakistan has always been the problem.” They add:

“Pakistan’s army and its Inter-Services Intelligence branch… from 1973 on, has played the key role in funding and directing first the mujahideen [anti-Soviet fighters during the 1980s]… and then the Taliban. It is Pakistan’s army that controls its nuclear weapons, constrains the development of democratic institutions, trains Taliban fighters in suicide attacks and orders them to fight American and NATO soldiers protecting the Afghan government.” (p. 322-324)

The Pakistani army and its intelligence arm are staffed, in part, by devout Muslims who fostered the Taliban in Afghanistan to meet the needs of their own agenda, though not necessarily to advance an Islamic jihad. Their purposes have always included: keeping Afghanistan free of Russian or Indian influence, providing a training and recruiting ground for mujahideen guerrillas to be used in places like Kashmir (fought over by both Pakistan and India), containing Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan (and so keeping it out of Pakistan), and extorting huge amounts of money from Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf emirates, and the United States to pay and train “freedom fighters” throughout the Islamic world. Pakistan’s consistent policy has been to support the clandestine policies of the Inter-Services Intelligence and thwart the influence of its major enemy and competitor, India.

Colonel Douglas MacGregor, U.S. Army (retired), an adviser to the Center for Defense Information in Washington, summarizes our hopeless project in South Asia this way: “Nothing we do will compel 125 million Muslims in Pakistan to make common cause with a United States in league with the two states that are unambiguously anti-Muslim: Israel and India.”

Obama’s mid-2009 “surge” of troops into southern Afghanistan and particularly into Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, is fast becoming darkly reminiscent of General William Westmoreland’s continuous requests in Vietnam for more troops and his promises that if we would ratchet up the violence just a little more and tolerate a few more casualties, we would certainly break the will of the Vietnamese insurgents. This was a total misreading of the nature of the conflict in Vietnam, just as it is in Afghanistan today.

Twenty years after the forces of the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan in disgrace, the last Russian general to command them, Gen. Boris Gromov, issued his own prediction: Disaster, he insisted, will come to the thousands of new forces Obama is sending there, just as it did to the Soviet Union’s, which lost some 15,000 soldiers in its own Afghan war. We should recognize that we are wasting time, lives, and resources in an area where we have never understood the political dynamics and continue to make the wrong choices.

3. We Need to End the Secret Shame of Our Empire of Bases

In March, New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert noted, “Rape and other forms of sexual assault against women is the great shame of the U.S. armed forces, and there is no evidence that this ghastly problem, kept out of sight as much as possible, is diminishing.” He continued:

“New data released by the Pentagon showed an almost 9 percent increase in the number of sexual assaults — 2,923 — and a 25 percent increase in such assaults reported by women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan [over the past year]. Try to imagine how bizarre it is that women in American uniforms who are enduring all the stresses related to serving in a combat zone have to also worry about defending themselves against rapists wearing the same uniform and lining up in formation right beside them.”

The problem is exacerbated by having our troops garrisoned in overseas bases located cheek-by-jowl next to civilian populations and often preying on them like foreign conquerors. For example, sexual violence against women and girls by American GIs has been out of control in Okinawa, Japan’s poorest prefecture, ever since it was permanently occupied by our soldiers, Marines, and airmen some 64 years ago.

That island was the scene of the largest anti-American demonstrations since the end of World War II after the 1995 kidnapping, rape, and attempted murder of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by two Marines and a sailor. The problem of rape has been ubiquitous around all of our bases on every continent and has probably contributed as much to our being loathed abroad as the policies of the Bush administration or our economic exploitation of poverty-stricken countries whose raw materials we covet.

The military itself has done next to nothing to protect its own female soldiers or to defend the rights of innocent bystanders forced to live next to our often racially biased and predatory troops. “The military’s record of prosecuting rapists is not just lousy, it’s atrocious,” writes Herbert. In territories occupied by American military forces, the high command and the State Department make strenuous efforts to enact so-called “Status of Forces Agreements” (SOFAs) that will prevent host governments from gaining jurisdiction over our troops who commit crimes overseas. The SOFAs also make it easier for our military to spirit culprits out of a country before they can be apprehended by local authorities.

This issue was well illustrated by the case of an Australian teacher, a long-time resident of Japan, who in April 2002 was raped by a sailor from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, then based at the big naval base at Yokosuka. She identified her assailant and reported him to both Japanese and U.S. authorities. Instead of his being arrested and effectively prosecuted, the victim herself was harassed and humiliated by the local Japanese police. Meanwhile, the U.S. discharged the suspect from the Navy but allowed him to escape Japanese law by returning him to the U.S., where he lives today.

In the course of trying to obtain justice, the Australian teacher discovered that almost fifty years earlier, in October 1953, the Japanese and American governments signed a secret “understanding” as part of their SOFA in which Japan agreed to waive its jurisdiction if the crime was not of “national importance to Japan.” The U.S. argued strenuously for this codicil because it feared that otherwise it would face the likelihood of some 350 servicemen per year being sent to Japanese jails for sex crimes.

Since that time the U.S. has negotiated similar wording in SOFAs with Canada, Ireland, Italy, and Denmark. According to the Handbook of the Law of Visiting Forces (2001), the Japanese practice has become the norm for SOFAs throughout the world, with predictable results. In Japan, of 3,184 U.S. military personnel who committed crimes between 2001 and 2008, 83% were not prosecuted. In Iraq, we have just signed a SOFA that bears a strong resemblance to the first postwar one we had with Japan: namely, military personnel and military contractors accused of off-duty crimes will remain in U.S. custody while Iraqis investigate. This is, of course, a perfect opportunity to spirit the culprits out of the country before they can be charged.

Within the military itself, the journalist Dahr Jamail, author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007), speaks of the “culture of unpunished sexual assaults” and the “shockingly low numbers of courts martial” for rapes and other forms of sexual attacks. Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2009), quotes this figure in a 2009 Pentagon report on military sexual assaults: 90% of the rapes in the military are never reported at all and, when they are, the consequences for the perpetrator are negligible.

It is fair to say that the U.S. military has created a worldwide sexual playground for its personnel and protected them to a large extent from the consequences of their behavior. As a result a group of female veterans in 2006 created the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). Its agenda is to spread the word that “no woman should join the military.”

I believe a better solution would be to radically reduce the size of our standing army, and bring the troops home from countries where they do not understand their environments and have been taught to think of the inhabitants as inferior to themselves.

10 Steps Toward Liquidating the Empire

Dismantling the American empire would, of course, involve many steps. Here are ten key places to begin:

1. We need to put a halt to the serious environmental damage done by our bases planet-wide. We also need to stop writing SOFAs that exempt us from any responsibility for cleaning up after ourselves.

2. Liquidating the empire will end the burden of carrying our empire of bases and so of the “opportunity costs” that go with them — the things we might otherwise do with our talents and resources but can’t or won’t.

3. As we already know (but often forget), imperialism breeds the use of torture. In the 1960s and 1970s we helped overthrow the elected governments in Brazil and Chile and underwrote regimes of torture that prefigured our own treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. (See, for instance, A.J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors [Pantheon, 1979], on how the U.S. spread torture methods to Brazil and Uruguay.) Dismantling the empire would potentially mean a real end to the modern American record of using torture abroad.

4. We need to cut the ever-lengthening train of camp followers, dependents, civilian employees of the Department of Defense, and hucksters — along with their expensive medical facilities, housing requirements, swimming pools, clubs, golf courses, and so forth — that follow our military enclaves around the world.

5. We need to discredit the myth promoted by the military-industrial complex that our military establishment is valuable to us in terms of jobs, scientific research, and defense. These alleged advantages have long been discredited by serious economic research. Ending empire would make this happen.

6. As a self-respecting democratic nation, we need to stop being the world’s largest exporter of arms and munitions and quit educating Third World militaries in the techniques of torture, military coups, and service as proxies for our imperialism. A prime candidate for immediate closure is the so-called School of the Americas, the U.S. Army’s infamous military academy at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Latin American military officers. (See Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire [Metropolitan Books, 2004], pp. 136-40.)

7. Given the growing constraints on the federal budget, we should abolish the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and other long-standing programs that promote militarism in our schools.

8. We need to restore discipline and accountability in our armed forces by radically scaling back our reliance on civilian contractors, private military companies, and agents working for the military outside the chain of command and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (See Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater:The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army [Nation Books, 2007]). Ending empire would make this possible.

9. We need to reduce, not increase, the size of our standing army and deal much more effectively with the wounds our soldiers receive and combat stress they undergo.

10. To repeat the main message of this essay, we must give up our inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of attempting to achieve foreign policy objectives.

Unfortunately, few empires of the past voluntarily gave up their dominions in order to remain independent, self-governing polities. The two most important recent examples are the British and Soviet empires. If we do not learn from their examples, our decline and fall is foreordained.

Consuming the Cultural Product

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on July 31, 2009 by CjH

Into the Vapid

By Ron Jacobs, CounterPunch

Britney Spears, American Idol, Desperate Housewives …  The material that passes for popular culture has never been so vapid.  Indeed, it’s almost too easy to ridicule this stuff sold to viewers and listeners the world around.  There is no enlightenment involved in the merchandise presented to us by car companies, banks, and other commercial failures whose primary intent is to convince us that our future involves us spending our money on their products.  Indeed, there is not even a pretense or supposition that there should be any enlightenment in the equation.  So, we spend our time watching and listening to these entertainment products while we work out how we’ll get that new car shown to us every ten minutes during the commercial break.

Trotsky wrote that “every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art.”  While one might be hard pressed to justify most television shows and most pop music as art, they are what pass for culture.  Once, a conversation with a friend who worked as a college faculty member turned to the question of whether film and music reflected or created popular trends and thought.  In other words, does the culture we absorb influence us or do we influence it.  Naturally, there is no conclusive answer to this question and we did not reach one that day.  However, there are some clear examples of each.  To begin with, television shows like the quasi-fascist “24” and its less unnerving predecessors like the 007 series of films exist to instill a fear not only of the enemies of the state but of the state itself.  Thusly, we are encouraged by these obviously propagandistic works to ignore or consent to whatever illegal and immoral actions taken by those who claim to protect us.  Furthermore, we are subconsciously trained to identify the state’s enemies as our own.  Reality shows like “Cops” further this consciousness.

To substantiate the other side of the coin let me turn to the most popular rock band of all time, The Beatles.  These young men arguably began as consumers who picked up musical instruments and replicated the music of their musical heroes, most of whom were bluesmen from the United States.  They went on to become the most popular rock group of the 1960s and a cultural phenomenon with out parity.  When the band grew their hair long and talked about LSD, were they propagandizing a new way of life or were they reflecting a way of life already in existence?  To put it differently, did the Beatles and other rock bands lead the youth of the western world into the counterculture or did the counterculture consume the bands into its community?  There is no clear answer to this, of course.  The relationship was symbiotic at best and parasitic at its worst.  Just like the later phenomenon of hip-hop, the streets created the music and the music in turn mutated, reflected and popularized the culture.  Unfortunately, the aspects which were popularized were those that challenged the dominant system the least.  In rock music that turned out to be the sex and drugs.  In hip hop it turned out to be the sex, drugs and money.  Politics and the sense of community were removed in favor of an individualistic pursuit of gratification.  In other words, the capitalist ethos prevailed.  This makes sense, of course, given that we live in a capitalist society and the companies that produce the music are instrumental players in that society’s economy.

Even on the occasion where something truly remarkable that serves a purpose beyond titillation comes into the cultural marketplace–a phenomenon seen in cinema and music more than television–the coverage of the work and its creators is often trivialized if it is covered at all.  This was brought home to me recently as I watched the coverage of the Golden Globe Awards at a friend’s house.  Little was said about the meaning of the films presented but thousands of words were wasted on the clothing worn by various actors and actresses as they walked around outside of the event showing off for the cameras.  In the media coverage the following day, more print space was used describing people’s clothing and who they were with than on the works that were nominated.  When it comes to music, reviewers tend to delve a bit deeper.  However, at the end of the year, it is usually the musical works that made the most money that are celebrated in the media events viewed by the general public.  This usually means that the works with the least meaning are those which are publicized most.  This in turn propels even more sales, leaving works of consequence to linger in the CD bins until they are dropped by the industry.

Books are quite similar.  Hundreds, if not thousands of titles, are rarely acknowledged by the media, while certain authors monopolize the sales charts and the minds of the reading public.  I see this phenomenon daily as a library worker.  Thousands of dollars are spent buying books that read very similar to the last work by an author, while other literature is never ordered.  Well-read people end up reading materials that not only endorse the thought processes of the dominant culture of consumption and alienation, but are convinced that they are consequently somehow more enlightened than those that don’t read.  Once again, we return to the question of which influences which.  For example are second- and third-rate crime authors like Patricia Cornwell popular because people like her writing or are these authors popular because the advertising budgets behind them convince people that they should read them precisely because they are popular?

I’m listening to Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “Machine Gun” from a concert he performed in Berkeley in May, 1970 while people rioted in the streets against the US invasion of Cambodia.  This song is not only a prayer for peace and love.  It is about the massacre of Blacks in the streets and Vietnamese in the jungle.  It is also a cry for an end to greed and the wars it causes.  It is a condemnation of the masters of war and a cry of defiance.  I don’t think it will be appearing in a commercial any time soon.  Do you think Obama has this song on his iPod?  Would it make a difference if he did?

Posted in Global Order, Welcome to The Machine on July 16, 2009 by CjH

Killing Hope, Sowing Terror

By Manuel Garcia, Jr.; CounterPunch

In June of 2009, Leon Panetta, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — the American Praetorian Guard guiding the course of the Dollar Area Empire — cancelled a program to assassinate al Qaeda leaders, which had been initiated by Vice President Richard (Dick) Cheney in 2001 following the 9-11 attacks, and which program Cheney had ordered be kept secret from the US Congress. (1)

Why make this cancellation public, and now? Because openly airing a few dirty underpants will distract simple short-attention span minds from the unavoidable stench of much worse that is rotting under hasty burial. Did this program metastasize into a wider ranging disease that consumed Benazir Bhutto, and other foreign political leaders? (2)

The concept of a Phoenix Program targeting al Qaeda leaders reflects the banal inelegance and grandiose ambition of the small minds that devise our national intelligence schemes. As aerial bombardments and missile strikes from drone aircraft were killing too many innocent bystanders (a concern, but insufficient to stop the practice), a more “surgical” tool was wanted, an assassination bureau.

The assassination bureau is a perennially popular idea in politics. In Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu dispatches the femme fatale Milady de Winter to ensure the Duke of Buckingham remains in England rather than leading English forces to the aid of the Huguenot rebels at La Rochelle during the 1627-1628 siege of that city by the Catholic forces of Louis XIII, King of France. The historic Duke of Buckingham was assassinated on 23 August 1628, stabbed.

Between 1968 and 1972, during the Vietnam War, the US Phoenix Program, aimed at the Communist Party in South Vietnam, “neutralized” 81,740 members of the National Liberation Front, of whom 26,369 were killed. The problem was that poor intelligence, a reliance on liars and conflicted stool pigeons, and corrupt bureaucrats padding their kill quotas and covering up their rake-offs, led to many politically inconsequential people being victimized, abused, tortured and killed. The network of resistance to the puppet regime of South Vietnam had grown in response to, and was maintained by the continuing presence of French and American imperialism in Vietnam, and this had long predated and far outpaced the weeding effort of the Phoenix Program.

A very drôle movie on the concept, The Assassination Bureau (1969), is based on an unfinished novel by Jack London, and set in Europe during WW1. The charm of this film lies entirely in the decorum of the main characters, and the degree of honor they display by adhering to the rules of their game. The contemporaneous Phoenix Program showed that real politics was far dirtier than this cinema comedy. The 1972 film of the 1969 novel The Godfather was closer to the grit and malevolence of programs like Phoenix, but though presented with Homeric grandeur it was focused on the relatively small scale of crime-family inner-city violence, in comparison to the vast campaigns of covert international warfare. (3) (4)

Cheney’s CIA assassination bureau scheme was envisioned as a US copy of the Israeli program of assassination of Palestinian leaders and other designated enemies. This type of program is run by a nation’s spy agency, which then calls on the military as needed to provide the firepower for an assassination, whether by commando units, aerial bombardment or missile strikes. Aside from any moral considerations (which never enter), the politically corrosive aspect of this covert assassination program is that an unaccountable and well-protected “intelligence” clique — which is freed of all democratic political and legal restraints — is conducting an undeclared and unacknowledged foreign war, thus making the nation’s citizens unwitting enemies of — and targets to — much of the rest of the world. The fact that Cheney gave the CIA orders to keep his program secret from the US Congress — and that this was obeyed! — shows that the American Praetorian Guard is as dangerously unregulated as was its Roman template. (5)

The CIA does not serve the interests of the American people, but instead milks them for the subsidy that funds the careerism of its covert bureaucrats, who engage in international crimes and intrigues that degrade peace, justice and honor generally, and stoke well-justified resentments abroad, which degrade the psychological basis of effective long-term security: goodwill. It would take an incredible revolution of popular democracy in the U.S. to regain control of the CIA and abolish it completely (as Constantine the Great did to the Praetorian Guard in the year 312, even to the point of razing its fortress in Rome, and grinding up the tombstones of its dead). Such an event seems as logically and politically impossible as it would be gloriously uplifting.

Ironically, though death is permanent, assassination does not terminate the ideas motivating the designated enemies du jour of the state. Killing people does not kill ideas. Campaigns of assassination can remove the intelligentsia and leadership cohort of a minority rights and social justice movement, but since such campaigns can only stall and frustrate liberation movements and not satisfy them, assassinations only prolong and coarsen the resistance to imperialism and domination. By removing the early, more educated, moderate and politically-oriented leaders, assassinations clear the way for impatient militants, whose resort to pitiless brutality is all too easily justified and supported by their constituencies, because of the failure of honest engagement by domineering powers (whether foreign imperialists or domestic authoritarian regimes). As the liberation struggles degenerate intellectually, militarily and humanistically, the prospects for a stable negotiated resolution diminish because: the popular leaders with demonstrated political skills — those who personify the ideas of the struggle — have been assassinated; careerist militants gain control of the war, be they rebels, insurgents, or government agents; and outrages committed out of despair by the frustrated and radicalized (or now “fundamentalist”) liberation movements, and out of hubris by the imperialist or authoritarian forces, blind reason to vengeance.

Victoria Brittain explains these consequences in her heart-rending, richly detailed scholarly work on assassinations by western states, committed in Africa and Palestine, primarily during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but stretching to recent years, and titled “They Had To Die: Assassination Against Liberation” (2006). (6)

The U.S. supported the apartheid regime in South Africa during its 1966-1989 Border War with Angola, Namibia and Zambia (and Zimbabwe), and it allowed former US military officers to work as free-lance mercenary assassins for the South African Defense Force (SADF). Though it is technically illegal for US citizens to act as mercenaries and work as assassins for foreign governments, this technicality was conveniently ignored in those cases where the success of a “private business deal” was of political interest to the US State Department and the CIA (who “winked” and afterwards debriefed). Former members of the US military who had combat experience or superior training as members of elite commando-type units (e.g., Special Forces, Army Rangers) could earn enough to fund a very comfortable and immediate retirement, far beyond what was likely with any tenure in the US military, with just one or two undercover operations for the SADF. The American and European agents dispatching the targets described by Victoria Brittain were merely politically expendable labor (some were captured and executed), though well-trained thanks to earlier taxpayer investments. (7)

South Africa lost its border war, so foreign troops (Cubans aiding, and South Africans invading) left Angola in 1988, Namibia gained its independence in 1989, and agitation in South Africa against the apartheid state swelled from 1990 till apartheid was overturned in 1994.

The ad hoc labor market for mercenary forces was systematized after the South African Border War, and today the public is familiar with private military companies (PMCs) like Blackwater USA (now Xe) and DynCorp International, because of their “exploits” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia. Today’s PMCs can provide a variety of non-combat services that support traditional military forces, specialized technology for armed attack (e.g., helicopter gunships); as well as do the classic mercenary jobs of providing personal protection, and supplying small to moderate-sized infantry units. The PMC business is now worth $100B a year, sapping trained personnel from the ranks of numerous national special forces (“money talks and bullshit walks”), and encouraging the growth of PMCs in many countries. There is always a demand for war services, and the “miracle of the free market” ensures a competitive corporate response to that market demand.

Today’s PMCs are the Pinkertons of globalization. And, it is no doubt safe to assume that assassination is still a profitable business. It just doesn’t solve anything; it is the equivalent of midnight dumping of historical toxic waste into our collective future.

Apocalypto-Nihilism

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on July 14, 2009 by CjH

Three fatal system errors and three mass “aha!” moments.

Imagine our global system disintegrates. Hunkered down in scattered pockets of survival, people try to adapt to the savage new landscape: scavenging for bits of food and water and defending themselves against marauding bandits. Imagine the recriminations and the finger-pointing as this dark age dawns … the gut-wrenching autopsy of our murdered way of life. What picture of blame would emerge? What were our fatal system errors and who among us was responsible for making them?

Culprit #1 would undoubtedly be the economists. How could this prolific class of scholars, wreathed in medals and PhDs, have led us so far astray? How could they not see that every product in the global marketplace was valued incorrectly, and that every purchase pushed us deeper into the cosmic red? And how could they, like villagers with their backs to Vesuvius, simply keep counting the money while the end drew so ominously near?

Culprit #2 would be the unholy alliance of commercialism and communication, which transformed our information delivery systems into tools of mass merchandizing. Why did we allow a cavalry of marketing hits to assail our minds every minute of every day, each of them telling us the same lie: that to live is to consume and to consume is to live?

Culprit #3 would be the corporation, or rather the way we abdicated our reason and endowed it with the legal rights of a human being. In doing so we created more than a person – we created a living monolith, stronger than any man and impervious to all assault. A supreme being who, once animated, could never, ever be stopped.

Now … imagine the power of three incidents of collective recognition. Three mass “aha!” moments in which we identify our fatal system errors and fix them, preempting the ultimate crash. First we break the unholy alliance of commercialism and communication and clean up the toxic areas of our mental commons … then we design a global marketplace in which the price of every product tells the ecological truth … and, finally, we kill the corporate “I” and get capitalism bubbling from the bottom up again.

Are we capable of such meta-level systems tinkering? Can we pull this thing off?

—Kalle Lasn, AdBusters.org

The Organic Monopoly and the Myth of “Natural” Foods: How Industry Giants Are Undermining the Organic Movement

Posted in Health, Food, Energy and Ecology on July 9, 2009 by CjH

By Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association

After four decades of hard work, the organic community has built up a $25 billion “certified organic” food, farming, and green products sector. This consumer-driven movement, under steady attack by the biotech and Big Food lobby, with little or no help from government, has managed to create a healthy and sustainable alternative to America’s disastrous, chemical and energy-intensive system of industrial agriculture. Conscious of the health hazards of Big Food Inc., and the mortal threat of climate change and Peak Oil, a critical mass of organic consumers are now demanding food and other products that are certified organic, as well as locally or regionally produced, minimally processed, and packaged.

The Organic Alternative, in turn, is bolstered by an additional $50 billion in annual spending by consumers on products marketed as “natural,” or “sustainable.”  This rapidly expanding organic/green products sector–organic (4% of total retail sales) and natural (8%)–now constitutes more than 12% of total retail grocery sales, with an annual growth rate of 10-15%.  Even taking into account what appears to be a permanent economic recession and a lower rate of growth than that seen over the past 20 years, the organic and natural market will likely constitute 31-56% of grocery sales in 2020.  If the Organic Alternative continues to grow, and if consumers demand that all so-called “natural” products move in a genuine, third party-certified “transition to organic” direction, the U.S. will be well on its way to solving three of the nation’s most pressing problems: climate change, deteriorating public health, and Peak Oil.

Sales statistics and polls underline the positive fact that a vast army of organic consumers, more than 75 million Americans, despite an economic recession, are willing to pay a premium price for organic and green products. These consumers are willing to pay a premium because they firmly believe that organic and natural products are healthier, climate stabilizing, environmentally sustainable, humane for animals, and well as more equitable for family farmers, farmworkers, and workers throughout the supply chain.

Many of the most committed organic consumers are conscious of the fact that organic food and other products are actually “cheaper” in real terms than conventional food and other items-since industrial agriculture’s so-called “cheap” products carry hidden costs, including billions of dollars in annual tax subsidies, and hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to our health, the environment, and climate. Strengthening the argument for organic food and farming, scientists now tell us that it will take a massive conversion to organic agriculture (as well as renewable energy, sustainable housing and transportation) to drastically reduce climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million and to cope with the advent of “Peak Oil,” the impending decline in petroleum and natural gas supplies.

Organic food and a healthy diet and lifestyle are obviously key factors in preventing chronic disease, restoring public health, and reducing out-of-control health care costs. While in 1970, U.S. health care spending appeared somewhat sustainable, totaling $75 billion, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project that by 2016, health care spending will soar to over $4.1 trillion, or $12,782 per resident.

Millions of health-minded Americans, especially parents of young children, now understand that cheap, non-organic, industrial food is hazardous. Not only does chemical and energy-intensive factory farming destroy the environment, impoverish rural communities, exploit farm workers, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and contaminate the water supply; but the end product itself is inevitably contaminated. Routinely contained in nearly every bite or swallow of non-organic industrial food are pesticides, antibiotics and other animal drug residues, pathogens, feces, hormone disrupting chemicals, toxic sludge, slaughterhouse waste, genetically modified organisms, chemical additives and preservatives, irradiation-derived radiolytic chemical by-products, and a host of other hazardous allergens and toxins. Eighty million cases of food poisoning every year in the US, an impending swine/bird flu pandemic (directly attributable to factory farms), and an epidemic of food-related cancers, heart attacks, and obesity make for a compelling case for the Organic Alternative.

Likewise millions of green-minded consumers understand that industrial agriculture poses a terminal threat to the environment and climate stability. A highly conscious and passionate segment of the population are beginning to understand that converting to non-chemical, energy-efficient, carbon-sequestering organic farming practices, and drastically reducing food miles by relocalizing the food chain, are essential preconditions for stabilizing our out-of-control climate and preparing our families and communities for Peak Oil and future energy shortages.

Decades of research confirm that organic agriculture produces crop yields that are comparable (under normal weather conditions) or even 50-70% superior (during droughts or excessive rain) to chemical farming. Nutritional studies show that organic crops are qualitatively higher in vitamin content and trace minerals, and that fresh unprocessed organic foods boost the immune system and reduce cancer risks. And, of course climate scientists emphasize that organic agriculture substantially reduces greenhouse pollution. Organic farms use, on the average, 50% or less petroleum inputs than chemical farms, while generating drastically less greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. Moreover diverse, multi-crop organic farms sequester enormous amounts of CO2 in the soil. Agronomists point out that a return to traditional organic farming practices across the globe could reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 40%. In other words, America and the world desperately need an Organic Revolution in food and farming, not only to salvage public health and improve nutrition, but also in order to literally survive in the onrushing era of Peak Oil and climate change.

Scientists, as well as common sense, warn us that a public health Doomsday Clock is ticking. Within a decade, diet and environment-related diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer-heavily subsidized under our Big Pharma/chemical/genetically engineered/factory farm system-will likely bankrupt Medicare and the entire U.S. health care system.

Likewise, climate chaos and oil shortages, unless we act quickly, will soon severely disrupt industrial agriculture and long-distance food transportation, leading to massive crop failures, food shortages, famine, war, and pestilence. Even more alarming, accelerating levels of greenhouse gases (especially from cars, coal, cattle, and related rainforest and wetlands destruction) will soon push global warming to a tipping point that will melt the polar icecaps and unleash a cataclysmic discharge of climate-destabilizing methane, fragilely sequestered in the frozen arctic tundra.

If we care about our children and the future generations, we obviously must reverse global warming, stabilize the climate, and prepare for petroleum shortages and vastly higher oil prices. The only way to do this is to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 90% by 2050, by shifting away from petroleum and coal-based energy to radical energy conservation and making a transition to renewable solar and wind power-not only in transportation, housing, and industry, but in farming, food processing, and food distribution as well.

In the food sector, we cannot continue to hand over 88% of our consumer dollars to out-of-control, chemical-intensive, energy-intensive, greenhouse gas polluting corporations and “profit at any cost” retail chains such as Wal-Mart. The growth of the Organic Alternative is literally a matter of survival. The question then becomes how (and how quickly) can we move healthy, organic, and “natural” products from a 12% market share, to becoming the dominant force in American food and farming. This is a major undertaking, one that will require a major transformation in public consciousness and policy, but it is doable, and absolutely necessary.

But before we overthrow Monsanto, Wal-Mart, and Food Inc., we need to put our own house in order. Before we set our sights on making organic and “transition to organic” the norm, rather than the alternative, we need to take a closer, more critical look at the $50 billion annual natural food and products industry. How natural is the so-called natural food in our local Whole Foods Market, coop, or grocery store? Is the “natural” sector moving our nation toward an organic future, or has it degenerated into a “green washed” marketing tool, disguising unhealthy and unsustainable food and farming practices as alternatives. Is “natural” just a marketing ploy to sell conventional-unhealthy, energy-intensive, and non-sustainable food and products at a premium price?

The Myth of Natural Food, Farming, and Products

Walk down the aisles of any Whole Foods Market (WFM) or browse the wholesale catalogue of industry giant United Natural Foods (UNFI) and look closely. What do you see? Row after row of attractively displayed, but mostly non-organic “natural” (i.e. conventional) foods and products. By marketing sleight of hand, these conventional foods, vitamins, private label “365” items, and personal care products become “natural” or “almost organic” (and overpriced) in the Whole Foods setting. The overwhelming majority of WFM products, even their best-selling private label, “365” house brand, are not organic, but rather the products of chemical-intensive and energy-intensive farm and food production factories. Test these so-called natural products in a lab and what will you find: pesticide residues, Genetically Modified Organisms, and a long list of problematic and/or carcinogenic synthetic chemicals and additives. Trace these products back to the farm or factory and what will you find: climate destabilizing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and sewage sludge-not to mention exploited farm workers and workers in the food processing industry. Of course there are many products in WFM (and in UNFI’s catalogue} that bear the label “USDA Organic.” But the overwhelming majority of their products, even their best selling private label, “365,” are not.

What does certified organic or “USDA Organic” mean? This means these products are certified 95-100% organic. Certified organic means the farmer or producer has undergone a regular inspection of its farm, facilities, ingredients, and practices by an independent Third Party certifier, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The producer has followed strict NOP regulations and maintained detailed records. Synthetic pesticides, animal drugs, sewage sludge, GMOs, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers are prohibited. Farm animals, soil, and crops have been managed organically; food can only be processed with certain methods; only allowed ingredients can be used.

On the other hand, what does “natural” really mean, in terms of farming practices, ingredients, and its impact on the environment and climate?

To put it bluntly, “natural,” in the overwhelming majority of cases is meaningless, even though most consumers do not fully understand this. Natural, in other words, means conventional, with a green veneer. Natural products are routinely produced using pesticides, chemical fertilizer, hormones, genetic engineering, and sewage sludge. Natural or conventional products-whether produce, dairy, or canned or frozen goods are typically produced on large industrial farms or in processing plants that are highly polluting, chemical-intensive and energy-intensive. “Natural,” “all-natural,” and “sustainable,” products in most cases are neither backed up by rules and regulations, nor a Third Party certifier. Natural and sustainable are typically label claims that are neither policed nor monitored. (For an evaluation of eco-labels see the Consumers Union website http://www.eco-labels.org). The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service provides loose, non-enforced guidelines for the use of the term “natural” on meat–basically the products cannot contain artificial flavors, coloring, or preservatives and cannot be more than minimally processed.

On non-meat products, the term natural is typically pure propaganda. Companies (like Whole Foods Market or UNFI) are simply telling us what we want to hear, so that we pay an organic or premium price for a conventional product. Perhaps this wouldn’t matter that much if we were living in normal times, with a relatively healthy population, environment, and climate. Conventional products sold as natural or “nearly organic” would be a simple matter of chicanery or consumer fraud. But we are not living in normal times. Pressuring natural and conventional products and producers to make the transition to organic is a matter of life or death. And standing in the way of making this great transition are not only Fortune 500 food and beverage corporations, Monsanto, and corporate agribusiness, as we would expect, but the wholesale and retail giants in the organic and natural products sector, UNFI (United Natural Foods) and Whole Foods Market (WFM).

UNFI & Whole Foods: Profits at Any Cost

UNFI and Whole Foods Market are the acknowledged market and wholesale distribution leaders in the $70 billion organic and natural foods and products sector. Companies or brands that want to distribute their products on more than just a local or regional basis must deal with the near-monopoly wholesaler, UNFI, and giant retailer WFM. Meanwhile retailers in markets dominated by Whole Foods have little choice but to emulate the business practices of WFM-i.e. sell as many conventional foods, green washed as “natural,” as possible. Unfortunately neither UNFI and Whole Foods are putting out the essential message to their millions of customers that expanding organics is literally a matter of life or death for public health, climate, and the environment. Neither are leading the charge to double or triple organic food and farming sales by exposing the myth of natural foods, giving preference to organic producers and products, and pressuring natural brands and companies to make the transition to organic. Neither are the industry giants lobbying the government to stop nickel and dime-ing organics and get serious about making a societal transition to organic food and farming. The reason for this is simple: it is far easier and profitable for UNFI and WFM to sell conventional or so-called natural foods at a premium price, than it is to pay a premium price for organics and educate consumers as to why “cheap” conventional/natural food is really more expensive than organic, given the astronomical hidden costs (health, pollution, climate destabilization) of conventional agriculture and food processing.

UNFI has cemented this “WFM/Conventional as Natural” paradigm by emulating conventional grocery store practices: giving WFM preferential prices over smaller stores and coops-many of whom are trying their best to sell as many certified organic and local organic products as possible. Compounding this undermining of organics is the increasing practice among large organic companies of dropping organic ingredients in favor of conventional ingredients, while maintaining their preferential shelf space in WFM or UNFI-supplied stores. In other words the most ethical and organic (often smaller) grocers and producers are being discriminated against. WFM also demands, and in most cases receives, a large quantity of free products from producers in exchange for being distributed in WFM markets.

The unfortunate consequence of all this is that it’s very difficult for an independently-owned grocer or a coop trying to sell mostly organic products to compete with, or even survive in the same market as WFM, given the natural products “Sweetheart Deal” between UNFI and WFM. As a consequence more and more independently owned “natural” grocery stores and coops are emulating the WFM model, while a number of brand name, formerly organic, companies are moving away from organic ingredients (Silk soy milk, Horizon, Hain, and Peace Cereal for example) or organic practices (the infamous intensive confinement dairy feedlots of Horizon and Aurora) altogether, while maintaining a misleading green profile in the UNFI/WFM marketplace. Other companies, in the multi-billion dollar body care sector for example, are simply labeling their conventional/natural products as “organic” or trade-marking the word “organic” or “organics” as part of their brand name.

The bottom line is that we must put our money and our principles where our values lie. Buy Certified Organic, not so-called natural products, today and everyday. And tell your retail grocer or coop how you feel.

Of Fireworks and False Memories

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion, Uncategorized on July 9, 2009 by CjH

“…the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further…the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”

— James Baldwin, 1952.

I have this fantasy, the indulgence of which I resist, due in part to the impracticality of it, but also, and mostly out of a general distaste for inviting potential violence upon my person. It only comes to mind once a year really, on this day in fact, as cities and towns across the United States gear up for their respective July 4th celebrations, replete with fireworks, hot dogs, and lots of red, white and blue banners, flags and wardrobe accessories ubiquitously assaulting the visual landscape from sea to shining sea.

In the fantasy, it’s incredibly hot out, even as the daytime sun recedes, giving way to the darkening skies that will soon serve as the canvas for a colorful explosion of incendiary art: the end product of two unstoppable forces–American self-love, and Chinese manufacturing–brought together in an audacious display of grandiosity, not unlike, say, Siegfried and Roy, or at least Peaches and Herb.

As Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” blares from the back of a sound system loaded onto a truck, and the yearly Independence Day parade begins, I bide my time. Then, just as the first procession of Boy Scouts passes by, I turn to the man standing next to me, the one with the big “God Bless the USA” button on his hat, and say:

“Why can’t you just get over it? I mean, why do you people insist on living in the past? That whole ‘breaking away from the British thing’ was like more than 200 years ago for God’s sakes. Isn’t it time to move on?”

In the fantasy, the man’s head explodes, bloodless but powerfully and very, very final, at which point I move on to the next reveler, knowing that I only have so much time in which to put an end to this special brand of sanctimony by thought-murdering the assembled. After all, once the big sky-booms begin, no one will be able to hear me.

Truth is, I’m not a violent person. But if I thought this would work, I just might try it. This is, of course, exactly the kind of thing that whites (especially white conservatives) say whenever the subject of racism is raised, and always, if it is linked to the brutal national legacy of enslavement, Indian genocide and imperialistic land grabs. As in, “Oh, that was a long time ago, get over it,” or “Stop living in the past,” or as one intrepid soul explained to me last week in an e-mail, “Shit happens.” That an otherwise literate, and by his own claims, well-informed individual would think nothing of turning hundreds of years of oppression–during which millions perished as a result of white supremacy–into the equivalent of a bumper sticker, should be more than enough to dampen the enthusiasm with which we celebrate our nation at this time of year. At least, it would be if the moral calibration of the people of said place played any role whatsoever in our understanding of the national self. Naturally though, it doesn’t.

Shit happens. In other words, the past is the past, and we shouldn’t dwell on it. Unless of course we should and indeed insist on doing so, as with the above-referenced July 4th spectacle, which is, to put it mildly, about some old shit. Or as many used to do with their cries of “Remember the Alamo,” or “Remember Pearl Harbor,” both of which took as their jumping off point the rather obvious notion that the past does matter and should be remembered, but which underlying logic apparently vanishes like fog before noon when applied to those historical moments we’d rather forget. Not because they are any less historical, but merely because they are considerably lessconvenient.

Truth is, we love living in the past when it venerates us. When it elevates us. When it places us upon the pedestal we have grown accustomed to seeing as our national birthright, as something to which we are entitled, as if placed there by the very hand of God Almighty, who of course speaks only English, lives in the suburbs, and drives a Hummer. If the past allows us to reside in an idealized, albeit mythical place, from which we can look down upon the rest of humanity as besotted, benighted inferiors, who are no doubt jealous of our greatness and our freedoms (and so that, of course is why they hate us and why some attack us), then the past is the perfect companion: an old friend, or lover, or at least a well-worn and reassuring shoe. If, on the other hand, some among us insist that the past is more than that–if we point out that the past is also one of brutality, and that this brutality, especially as regards race, has mightily skewed the distribution of wealth and opportunity in our nation–then the past becomes a trifle, a pimple on the ass of now, an unwelcome reminder that although the emperor may wear clothes, the clothes he wears betray a shape he had rather hoped to conceal. No no, the past, in those cases, is to be forgotten. Or if not forgotten, at least it is to carry no weight in the halls of power, such as the Supreme Court, which has reminded us repeatedly, and most recently this past week, that as regrettable as the history of anti-black racism is in this country (a history in which they themselves have played more than a mere supporting role), there is virtually nothing that can be done to remedy the effects of that history. It is, in the eyes of the court mere “societal discrimination,” a bloodless and apparently perpetrator-less crime, mentioned in a dismissively clinical tone, and without regard for possible repair. In other words, shit happens, sayeth Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy. So suck it up.

Of course, so as to put a more benign and intellectually appealing gloss upon their position, white folks will often dress it up in the language of compassionate concern. Thus, they insist that dwelling on past injustices, or the present-day effects of those, is unhealthy, whereas dwelling on the supposed glories of the past is perfectly salubrious. Yes, those bad things happened, they might admit in a moment of temporary honesty, but to spend too much time on such matters is to create, or perpetuate an already-created mentality of victimhood among the, well, victims, though we shouldn’t think of them as such. And so the right, with this master stroke presents itself as the defenders of black and brown dignity, merely seeking to protect them from the self-imposed straightjacket of victimization, rather than as the charlatans they really are: people who never, in any era gave two shits about the well being of people of color, and who stood in opposition to every single advance towards racial equity in this nation’s history, but who now deign to pose as modern day inheritors of the legacy of MLK.

But their hypocrisy in this regard is stunning, or rather, it would be, were one capable of being shocked any longer by the patently dishonest pedantry of such persons as these. After all, it seems beyond obvious that they would never tell the parents of a murdered child to “get over it,” or to “move on,” nor warn them that their continued recitation of their family tragedy was somehow turning them into carriers of a deadly social pathogen known as victimhood. No indeed; rather, crime victims are able to parlay their victimhood into celebrity status, and market their suffering to the masses, who will then elevate them to the status of experts on the subject of crime, as with John Walsh or Marc Klaas, whose only claim to expertise on crime control policy comes from the fact that their children were viciously murdered. But if this is all it takes to be an expert on crime, then I guess the fact that I once got food poisoning from eating a bad oyster in Tacoma means I’m qualified to weigh in on quality control standards in the nation’s fisheries. And no, I am not analogizing murder to food poisoning. For the record, a good childhood friend of mine was murdered exactly 29 years ago today, but this sad truth fails to imbue me with special insights on the particulars of proper crime control, though Nancy Grace would beg to differ I suppose, and although I would, as a result of this fact, reap the never-ending compassion of the very people who inveigh against the adoption of a victim mentality when the victimization is because of race.

Likewise, those who claim to be concerned only about the debilitating effects of a victim mentality never tell Jews to stop dwelling on the Hitlerian holocaust–indeed, historic Jewish victimization is today used to justify virtually any depredation against Palestinians, all in the name of Jewish nationhood, surrounded by cries of “never again”–and they don’t say it to Cuban exiles who still can’t get over their families’ lost financial stake in Batista-era casinos, or to the Kurds who were gassed by Saddam, or, for that matter, even to the religious fanatics who claim to be victimized by the fact that they aren’t allowed to recite a decidedly Christian prayer over the intercom in a public school. Oh no: to these there is nothing but sympathy. Their victimhood is recognized, honored and cultivated like soybeans in the post-Dust Bowl midwest. It is ennobled, even as the victimization of peoples of color is disregarded, downplayed, dishonored and turned into a subject of ridicule.

Of course, that the right–and especially its white members–would prove to be hypocrites on the subject of the harms of “victimhood” should hardly surprise. After all, this is a bunch that has, in every era, posing as the arbiters of tradition and defenders of all that is holy and true, played the consummate victim. Even as they sought to conquer the indigenous of the Americas they claimed victim status, notably, whenever those they sought to extirpate opted to fight back, rather than to go gently into that good night. And they claimed to be the victims of witches in Salem, and Papists, and foreign potentates (against whom those seeking to become citizens must still today swear a vow of bitter enmity), and abolitionists, and impoverished immigrants, and Jews, and evolutionists (also known in some quarters as scientists), and communists, and union bosses, and integrationists, and fluoridated water, and the United Nations, and hippies, and secular humanists, and feminists, and more communists, and the New World Order, and now Mexicans, and Mexicans, and Mexicans, and affirmative action, and multiculturalism, and of course big government, and taxes and welfare, and the liberal media, and gay marriage and Muslim terrorists.

The white right loves victims, as long as they are the right kind. In keeping with their great admiration of victimhood status, Glenn Beck inveighs on behalf of such an elevated and salutary identity as this, every time he implores Americans to return to “who we were on September 12th” of 2001. Such an entreaty takes as a given, after all, that we should bask in our victimhood, wallow in it, let it envelop us like a warm blanket, or perhaps an old discarded chrysalis, no longer functional but oh so reassuring about the place whence we come. Yes, if we can just get back to that, Beck assures us, we will recapture the purpose and mission that is ours to claim; we will soar to new heights, on the wings of the wronged, the attacked, the victimized, never allowing ourselves to forget for one minute what happened, nor even to get two days beyond it, always bringing it up, always using it as the excuse for anything and everything we do to anyone else in the world. It will allow us to claim the mantle of victim in perpetuity, until the end of time. And if we waver in our commitment to living as permanent targets of ill-fortune, never fear, perhaps Osama bin Laden will slaughter a few thousand more of ours in a new terrorist attack: something for which one of Beck’s TV guests recently hoped, and with which Beck took no umbrage nor uttered even a syllable of indignant protest.

In other words, victimhood, far from being self-defeating, is a status to which the right has long aspired, and a label they have long sought to wear, like a badge of honor on their lapels. They have wanted nothing so much as to be seen as the ultimate victims, of every evil conspiracy ever concocted: to usurp God and nation and mom and apple pie. Their concern is not that blacks and other folks of color, by remembering history, will somehow chain themselves to a crippling narrative of victimization, but quite the opposite: that by remembering history, they will perpetuate the recognition of who did the victimizing. It is not victimhood they mind, but an honest appraisal of their own implication in the injury.

Which is no doubt why Beck, on this very day–Independence Day–announced on his radio show that he “hates the last one hundred years or so of American history.” For it is that century in which the prerogatives of his kind of people (and the kind of people favored by the right generally) began to be effectively challenged. That was the century in which women got the right to vote, formal apartheid was dismantled, very much against the will of conservatives, child labor was outlawed, and workers received at least some basic protections from exploitative bosses. And so it is that one hundred years that has made a victim out of Glenn Beck and others like him. They now pose as the victims of a new America they can’t even recognize, and can’t abide. They claim to love the country, but actually only love the Leave It To Beaver version of it, which of course was always a fantasy, indulged by those whites too wrapped up in their racial narcissism to recognize how fundamentally insane was their rendering of the national truth.

This is why white folks suffered such apoplexy at the words of Jeremiah Wright, back in the spring of 2008: not because they had evidence to contradict what he said about U.S. militarism, the murdering of innocent civilians by the American empire, or about the regular and repeated medical experimentation done on black folks throughout the years–all of which has been amply documented by whiter and far less “radical” persons than he–but because his words forced a comeuppance with truth, for which they were none prepared. We had preferred the sanitized lie, and were incredulous that some among us might not be willing to play the game as we had played it for so many years.

Sadly, our national willingness to confront hard truths–or more to the point our unwillingness to do so–is a contagion, the likes of which has clearly infected the President, as evidenced by his July 4th message to the nation today, a copy of which arrived in my e-mail inbox as I was writing this, in fact. In it, President Obama–a man who surely knows better but who, having traded honesty for political viability, now finds himself tethered to patriotic blather as a condition of his public image–begins by insisting that on this day we should remember the “courageous group of patriots” who “pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the proposition that all of us were created equal.” Of course, as I’m sure the President learned at Columbia (or for that matter in prep school in Hawaii), most of them believed in no such thing. For many of the revolutionaries, indeed most, freedom and liberty were to be the preserve of white men only. And so, while whites like my own sixth-degree great grandfather received 10,000 acres of land for his service in the war, the 5000 blacks who served every bit as valiantly as he received no such prize. Indeed, slaves who fought rarely even obtained their freedom as thanks for their service. That is the truth of the independence we celebrate today: namely that it would remain a lie, even in theory, for virtually all non-white folks for another century, and in practice, for nearly two.

In other words, whereas Glenn Beck sees fit to condemn the last one hundred years of American history, it is only this century–and especially the last half of it, what with its steps forward, however incomplete, towards racial equity–that true lovers of liberty can possibly endorse and celebrate. The rest is mostly a menagerie of oppression, broken promises and outright lies: fraud masquerading as fact, tyranny posing as freedom, overt white supremacy and racial fascism smiling through the toothy grin of half-assed Constitutional guarantees that weren’t worth the parchment upon which they were written.

And so as the fireworks pop outside my window, and the celebrants of our national glory retreat to their homes, filled with the warm fuzzy feeling that only raw and naked hubris can provide, may the rest of us–the non-celebrants, who value truth more so than comfort–pledge to continue troubling their sleep, disturbing their dreams, and haunting their patriotic consciousness well into the future: a future which, in the absence of an honest appraisal of where we are and where we’ve been, will be little more hopeful than the past from which we’ve only recently begun to emerge.

And if their heads explode, well, all the better.

By Tim Wise, CounterPunch