By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
Once again hands are raised in stupefaction. How could they have missed him – meaning in this case Umar Abdulmutallab the Nigerian bomber on that flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Why, his own father – one of the most powerful bankers in Africa – gave the US embassy in Lagos a warning! He was on the US master computer list of potential terrorists but never made it on to the watch list.
The Truthers reject the obvious answers – caution, bureaucratic inertia, buck-passing, turf fights – and say it was a plot. Obama joins Bush and Cheney in the big conspiracy. It won’t be long before David Griffin rushes out a book on the affair.
Personally, I’m not at all dismayed at evidence that intelligence gathering networks are flawed, that bureaucrats pass the buck. Hyper-efficiency in these matters indicates we have arrived at the perfect police state.
Of course there is room for common sense and elementary vigilance. In the case of the Virginia Tech killer there was plenty of evidence that Cho Seung-hui was a time bomb waiting to explode. Students talked about him as a possible shooter and refused to take classes with him. His essays so disturbed one of his teachers with their violent ravings that she arranged a secret signal in case she needed security during her tutorials.
And then was there was proof positive that the time bomb had exploded and the mass murder session began in the engineering building, the police state proved all too human in actual performance. The police cowered behind their cruisers until Cho Seung-hui finished off the last batch of his 32 victims, then killed himself. Then the police bravely rushed in and started sticking their guns in the faces of the traumatised students, screaming at them to freeze or be shot.
Major Hasan offers another bracing illustration of the human capacity to avoid unpleasant decisions, like dealing with an Army shrink who had Soldier of Islam on his visiting cards, discussed openly the ethics of armed resistance to Christian assaults on Islam and so forth.
But without the advantage of hindsight were the signs that obvious? Not really. A Serbian woman I met at a New Years Party says that on her way from Abu Dhabi to Seattle she passed though Amsterdam airport the same day as Abdulmutallab and security was tight and the questioning she got was pretty rigorous. The story – now canonized by conspiracists – of the well dressed man trying to finagle a passportless Abdulmutallab onto the plane seems to be without foundation.
Now there’s an avalanche of punditry about Britain’s Islamic minority as the petrie dish in which toxic cultures of militant Islam flourish and multiply. At this rate they’ll soon be deploying the Delta Force in Birmingham and bombing mosques across the Midlands with drones.
The real petrie dish is US national policy, abetted by junior partners in the UK, France and Germany: widening attacks on Afghanistan, an unfolding record of torturing captives to death since 2001, full support for Israel’s onslaughts on Palestinians and calculated mass murder. What does a radical imam in the UK or Yemen have to offer as incitement to attack America that is as vividly persuasive as Obama and Hillary Clinton’s cheerleading for Israel or the posture of the US Congress?
A glance back through 2009
So many ghosts crowded the inauguration dais that it’s not surprising Chief Justice Roberts flubbed his lines and had to be corrected by the man he was swearing in. Over there on the right! That jowly fellow with the 5 o’clock shadow and the long upsweeping nose. It’s Richard Nixon on January 20, 1973. He’d swept every state in the union in November’s election, except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
Listen to him: "As we meet here today, we stand on the threshold of a new era of peace in the world." Yet American B-52s were still bombing Cambodia, as they had virtually throughout his administration. One-and-a-half years later he resigned, rather than face impeachment.
Why look! Nixon’s smiling. He’s just heard Obama call for “a new era of responsibility”. He’s remembering more lines from his second inaugural in ’73: “A person can be expected to act responsibly only if he has responsibility. This is human nature. So let us encourage individuals at home and nations abroad to do."
Obama offered a mild version of blood-sweat-and-tears. "We understand that greatness is never a given," he said. "It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame." The word “responsibility” from those set in authority over us usually means compulsory belt tightening and onslaughts on Social Security and Medicare, which Obama more or less promised the Washington Post five days before the Inauguration that he is eager to undertake.
It’s an invariable rule of inaugurals that at some point during the interminable proceedings some tv anchor will marvel out loud at the peaceful nature of the transition of power. So it was this time. More than one commentator seemed stunned at the fact that Obama had not been forced to purchase the loyalty of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to furnish him shock troops to winkle Bush and Cheney out of the bunker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Each time a new president strides forth, flourishing his inaugural menu of change, one feels the same gloom at these quadrennial displays of leader-lust. Eight years of complaining about George Bush’s arrogation of unconstitutional powers under the bizarre doctrine of the “unitary executive” and here we have the national audience enthusiastically applauding yet another incoming president rattling off the I-will-do’s as though there was no US Congress and he was Augustus Caesar.
It’s not rocket science to figure where Obama is headed. Just look at his picks: Emanuel as chief of staff, Summers and Geithner as his economic executives.
Predictably enough Obama has been standing by Geithner. “I have complete confidence in Tim Geithner and my entire economic team,” he said mid-week. In the president’s opinion, Geithner “is making all the right moves.” He’ll say the same thing right until Geithner makes his terminal right move through the hangman’s trap door.
Obama wouldn’t be the first president to realize that it does no harm to have public odium pleasantly deflected onto a subordinate. Year after year George Bush watched the mud getting hurled at Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. It was the late great historian Walter Karp who argued that the most politically adept of all Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, conceived his notorious court-packing proposal – up to six new Justices on the Supreme Court – to deflect attention from serious difficulties on other fronts.
So Geithner gets pelted with mouldy cabbages, while Obama -- entirely responsible for the basic economic strategy of bailing out the banks rather than taking them over – charms the nation.
On March 18 Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, had his opportunity to raise the dead and bring them back to life. This was the day he signed a law, already ratified by the State Senate and House, formally ending New Mexico’s death penalty.
Did Richardson ennoble this solemn occasion by endorsing the idea that all human life has value, and even those who have fallen into the lowest moral abyss are capable of redemption? Did he cite Holy Scripture as buttress for such thoughts? He did not.
Richardson festooned the signing with language about this being the “most difficult decision” of his political life, arrived at only after he had toured the maximum-security unit where offenders sentenced to life without parole would be held. “My conclusion was those cells are something that may be worse than death,” he said. “I believe this is a just punishment.”
Lest anyone be under the misapprehension that the governor was endorsing some quaint notion that all human life has value, the governor was at pains to emphasize that since the new law comes into force only on July 1, the two condemned men currently residing on Death Row in New Mexico still face execution.
For Richardson the flaw with the death penalty lies in its imperfection. “Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe.”
Embalmed in this self-serving verbiage are many pointers to how seriously the whole cause of death-penalty abolition has gone off the rails, fleeing the arduous moral battleground where Revenge tilts against Redemption for the low-lying pastures of Efficiency.
The pendulum is swinging against the death penalty. DNA evidence -- posthumously exonerating some, clearing others waiting to die –has been a big factor in waning enthusiasm for the ultimate sanction. The current total of defendants on state and federal death rows is 3,307. Fifteen states don’t have the death penalty, New Mexico being the most recent.
The economic news in the near and medium term is ghastly. Retail sales crashed again in March, nowhere worse than in the car market, though electronics and building materials were way off too. They now reckon there’ll be just over two million housing foreclosures in 2009, up 400,000 from 2008. Industrial output is going through the floor at an annual rate of 20 per cent, the biggest quarterly drop since the end of the Second World War. US industry is now running at only 70 per cent of capacity, the worst number since they started tracking this stat in 1967. Job losses are currently running at 650,000 a month.
Obama’s lucky to have succeeded a terrible president. He gets out a lot and talks a great game. His problem is the same as the country’s. The economic ice is cracking under his feet, and the “stimulus” is going to be about as efficacious as those cushions under the seats the flight attendants assure us are going to come in handy when the plane goes down in the North Atlantic.
With Democrat Al Franken finally certified as the winner by a few hundred votes against Norm Coleman in Minnesota, with Specter crossing the aisle and vice president Joe Biden in reserve, the Democrats can no longer hide behind the excuse of a Republican filibuster, as a way of saying that they can’t put up “divisive” bills, such as public enemy number one for corporate America: the “card check” law that would make it easier (i.e., from the virtually impossible to the merely arduous) to organize a union. Even without Biden, they’ll have the 60 votes. Specter had been pro-card check, had reversed position amid plummeting poll numbers among Republicans likely to vote in the primary, now may revert to his former posture. This doesn’t mean the Democrats will now smile on a retooled Employee Free Choice bill. This is a bottom-line issue for corporate America as much as for labor and, politically, corporate America holds the higher cards.
The class war in America already has adequate representation inside the Democratic Party, so tremulous predictions by right-wing Republicans of a looming one-party state are silly. But Specter’s move shows how the Republican Party is reeling . Six months ago, 32 per cent of voters in the presidential election identified themselves as Republican.
How long does it take a mild-mannered, antiwar, black professor of constitutional law, trained as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, to become an enthusiastic sponsor of targeted assassinations, “decapitation” strategies and remote-control bombing of mud houses the far end of the globe?
There’s nothing surprising here. As far back as President Woodrow Wilson in the early twentieth century, American liberalism has been swift to flex imperial muscle, to whistle up the Marines. High explosive has always been in the hormone shot.
The nearest parallel to Obama in eager deference to the bloodthirsty counsels of his counter-insurgency advisors is John F. Kennedy. It is not surprising that bright young presidents relish quick-fix, “outside the box” scenarios for victory.
Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan the counsels of regular Army generals tends to be drear and unappetizing: vast, costly deployments of troops by the hundreds of thousand, mounting casualties, uncertain prospects for any long-term success – all adding up to dismaying political costs on the home front.
Amid Camelot’s dawn in 1961, Kennedy swiftly bent an ear to the counsels of men like Ed Lansdale, a special ops man who wore rakishly the halo of victory over the Communist guerillas in the Philippines and who promised results in Vietnam.
By the time he himself had become the victim of Lee Harvey Oswald’s “decapitation” strategy, brought to successful conclusion in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy had set in motion the counter-insurgency operations, complete with programs of assassination and torture, that turned South-East Asia and Latin America into charnel houses, some of them, like Colombia, to this day.
As they drafted his speech to the Muslim world, delivered in Cairo on Thursday, President Obama’s speech writers strove to suggest that cordiality towards Islam is soundly embedded in America’s cultural history. The first Muslim congressman, Obama confided to his vast audience across the Muslim world, was sworn into the House of Representatives with his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran.
No names were mentioned, but this would have been Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Democrat elected in 2006. On his victory night rally the local crowd shouted “Allahu Akhbar!”. During the race Ellison understandably downplayed past associations with the Nation of Islam. Obama also reminded the world that Morocco had been the first nation to recognize the infant United States, signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, which declared in its preamble that the United States had no quarrel with the Muslim religion and was in no sense a Christian country. The second US President, John Adams said that America had no quarrel with Islam.
It’s a stretch. As my father Claud said, Never believe anything till it is officially denied. Adams and Jefferson both saw it as a vital matter of national security to settle accounts with the Muslim world, as represented by the Barbary states.
America needed free access to the Mediterranean and the Barbary “pirates” controlled the sea lanes and, furthermore, supposedly had some Christian slaves, all no doubt using the opportunity of captivity to imbibe the first principles of algebra, whose invention Obama took the opportunity in Cairo correctly to lay at the feet of the mathematicians of Islam, though ancient India deserves some credit too, or at least the Chinese thought so. He also credited Islam with the invention of printing and navigation which should surely require the Chinese People’s Republic to withdraw its ambassador in Washington DC. in formal diplomatic protest.
An early version of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, written in 1805 amid the routing of the Barbary states, offered a view of Islam markedly different from Obama’s uplifting sentiments in Cairo:
In conflict resistless each toil they endur’d,
Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation:
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d
By the light of the star-bangled flag of our nation.
Where each flaming star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.
Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.
In 1814 Key rehabbed this doggerel into the Star Spangled Banner. So America’s national anthem began as a gleeful tirade against the Mahommedans. And of course every member of the U.S. Marine Corps regularly bellows out the USMC anthem, beginning “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”
In short, America’s march to Empire was minted in the crucible of anti-Islamic sentiment.
I read the anguished valedictories to our sinking newspaper industry, the calls for some sort of government bailout or subsidy, with mounting incredulity. It’s like hearing the witches in Macbeth evoked as if they were Aphrodite and her rivals vying for the judgment of Paris. Sonorous phrases about “public service” mingle with fearful yelps about the “dramatically diminished version of democracy” that looms over America if the old corporate print press goes the way of the steam engine.
In The Nation recently John Nichols and Robert McChesney quavered that “as journalists are laid off and newspapers cut back or shut down, whole sectors of our civic life go dark” and that “journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States.”
Any exacting assessment of the actual performance of newspapers rated against the twaddle about the role of the Fourth Estate spouted by publishers and editors at their annual conventions would issue a negative verdict in every era. Of course there have been moments when a newspaper or a reporter could make fair claims to have done a decent job, inevitably eradicated by a panicky proprietor, a change in ownership, advertiser pressure, eviction of some protective editor or summary firing of the enterprising reporter. By and large, down the decades, the mainstream newspapers have—often rabidly—obstructed and sabotaged efforts to improve our social and political condition.
In an earlier time writers like Mencken and Hecht and Liebling loved their newspapers, but the portentous claims for their indispensable role would have made them hoot with derision, as they did the columnist Bernard Levin, decrying in the London Times at the start of the 1980s the notion of a “responsible press”: “we are, and must remain, vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued and the making of comment that others would prefer unmade.”
At least Gov. Mark Sanford has raised the aesthetic timbre of adultery as conducted by American politicians of both major parties. Hardened to tacky disclosures about hookers (frequented by Vitter of Louisiana and Spitzer of New York), senate office sex (a staffer exploited by Ensign of Nevada,) cruisers of airport lavatories (Craig of Idaho), Americans have emerged from this darkness into the soaring prose of the Abelard of South Carolina, bathed in the afterglow of an encounter last year with his Argentinian grande passion:
Tuesday, July 8. 1:42 a.m.
"Got back an hour ago to civilization and am now in Columbia [the state capital of South Carolina ] after what was for me a glorious break from reality down at the farm. I went out and ran the excavator with lights until the sun came up. To me … there is something wonderful about listening to country music playing in the cab, air conditioner running, the hum of a huge diesel engine in the back ground, the tranquility that comes with being in a virtual wilderness of trees and marsh, the day breaking and vibrant pink coming alive in the morning clouds - and getting to build something with each scoop of dirt."
Emotion recollected in tranquility, just as Wordsworth recommended as the font of poetry.
"Medicine is nothing but a social science. Politics is nothing but medicine on a large scale."
--Rudolf Virchow, reflecting on the revolutions of 1848 in Europe.
The first illusion to chase off the stage is that the great debate here has much to do with health. So far, as public health is concerned, many of the biggest battles were fought and won a hundred years ago, at the end of the nineteenth century, with better nutrition, birth control, the change from wool to cotton clothing, the introduction of modern sanitation in the urban environment and – most important – clean water.
Between 1900 and 1973, American life expectancy went from 47 to 71, but most of this rise had taken place by 1949, when the average life span reached 68. Much of the upward curve could be attributed to improved survival rates for infants and young people. Prohibition helped, since people drank less alcohol, ate more, and hence TB rates dropped sharply, well before the introduction of sulfa drugs.
Health in America is class-based, naturally. The poor die sooner, starting with black men who tend to drop dead in their middle 60s, usually from stress and diseases consequent on diet. The better-off folk drink less than they did in the 1950s, take a bit more exercise, and sometimes live longer. The poor get fatter and fatter. A real health plan would start with public executions of the top thousand CEOs and owners of the major food companies and fast food franchises. It would continue with serious penalties for health workers not washing their hands or merely holding them under the tap without using soap.
The plagues of America today are beyond the reach of the modern medical system, and that system is itself a peculiarly outrageous example of antisocial imperatives: high technology health care which serves fewer and fewer people. Part and parcel of this system are the drug companies, working in concert with the hospitals and insurance industry. Doctors have long since been shoved to the side as major players.
Mostly shunned in all this are the major causes of modern disease, which are environmental. Between 70 and 90 per cent of all cancer is environmental in origin. Heart disease and stroke – the largest killers today – are largely caused by hypertension and stress, which are derived from social conditions.
Health reform in the 1930s, in the Roosevelt era, came mostly in the guise of the Wagner Act – a better deal for unions and workers – and Social Security. Old people got something to live on in their later years. Health reform in the 1950s and 1960s came with better wages, a shorter working week, more leisure, plus Medicare – the federal health plan for older people – driven through Congress by the most consummately cunning and accomplished politician of the postwar era and maybe of the twentieth century (unless you make the case for FDR), Lyndon Johnson, who really did care about poverty, having seen a lot of it up close in Texas.
Since then, we’ve gone nowhere.
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The "Prince of Darkness" -- aka Robert Novak -- who died this week of a brain tumor was the Hunter Thompson of the right, albeit with predictable differences. Thompson, like Rimbaud, espoused a total disordering of all the senses -- with materials as varied as ayahuasca, LSD , cocaine and tequila whereas Novak stuck to booze. Thompson blew his brains out, whereas Novak fell prey to the Enemy Within - not Communism against which he inveighed for decades in the Cold War, but a brain tumor. Thompson was a gent from Louisville; Novak was a middle-class Lithuanian Jew from Illinois who joined the Catholic Church in the 1990s out of what he described as spiritual hunger, as surprising an admission from this brawler as discovering Mother Teresa shooting craps in Las Vegas. Thompson burned out long before his ashes were fired out of a gun in Aspen. Novak went on slugging, decade after decade until the tumor took him down. Just like the Right overall, Novak went the distance, whereas the Counter-Culture hung up the Out of Business sign sometime in the Nineties, finished off by identity politics and general self-satisfaction. But what both Thompson and Novak understood was that journalism is drama, with themselves playing a leading role.
* * *
Teddy Kennedy's disasters were vivid. His legislative triumphs, draped in this week's obituaries with respectful homage, were far less colorful but they were actually devastating for the very constituencies – working people, organized labor – whose champion he claimed to be. Though the obituarists have glowingly evoked Kennedy's 46-year stint in the US Senate and, as 'the last liberal', his mastery of the legislative process, they miss the all-important fact that it was out of Kennedy's Senate office that came two momentous slabs of legislation that signalled the onset of the neo-liberal era: deregulation of trucking and aviation. They were a disaster for organized labor and the working conditions and pay of people in those industries.
The theorists of deregulation were Stephen Breyer who was Kennedy's chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Alfred Kahn, out of Cornell. Prominent on Kennedy’s dereg team was David Boies. Breyer now sits on the US Supreme Court, an unswerving shill for the corporate sector.
In the mid to late 1970s these Kennedy rent-a-thinkers began to tout deregulation as the answer to low productivity and bureaucratic and corporate inertia. Famous at that time was a screed by Breyer, then a Harvard Law School professor, quantifying such things as environmental pollution in terms of assessable and fungible “risks” which could be bought and sold in the market place. (The Natural Resources Defense Council, adorned by Ted’s nephew, Robert Kennedy Jr., has long espoused this disastrous approach.)
The two prongs of Kennedy’s deregulatory attack – later decorated with the political label “neo-liberalism” – were aimed at airlines and trucking, and Kennedy’s man, Alfred Kahn was duly installed by Jimmy Carter at the Civil Aeronautics Board to introduce the cleansing winds of competition into the industry. By and large, airline deregulation went down well with the press and, for a time, with the public, who rejoiced in the bargains offered by the small fry such as People’s Express, and by the big fry striking back. The few critics who said that within a few years the nation would be left with five or six airlines, oligopoly and higher fares, were mostly ignored.
No one ever really wrote about the terrible effects of trucking deregulation outside the left press. It was certainly the most ferocious anti-labor move of the 1970s, with Kennedy as the driving force. Some of Kennedy’s aides promptly reaped the fruits of their legislative labors, leaving the Hill to make money hand over fist trying to break unions on behalf of Frank Lorenzo, the Texan entrepreneur who ran the Texas Air Corporation and its properties, Continental Airlines and its subsidiary, Eastern.
Did Kennedy fight, might and main, against NAFTA? No. He was for it and helped Clinton ratify the job-losing Agreement. Then he put his shoulder behind GATT, parent of the World Trade Agreement.
We also have Kennedy to thank for 'No Child Left Behind' – the nightmarish education act pushed through in concert with Bush Jr's White House, that condemns children to a treadmill of endless tests contrived as "national standards".
And it was Kennedy who was the prime force behind the Hate Crimes Bill, aka the Matthew Shepard Act, by dint of which America is well on its way to making it illegal to say anything nasty about gays, Jews, blacks and women. "Hate speech," far short of any direct incitement to violence, is on the edge of being criminalized, with the First Amendment going the way of the dodo.
The deadly attacks on the working class and on organized labor are Ted Kennedy’s true monument. But as much as his brothers Jack and Bobby he was adept at persuading the underdogs that he was on their side. If it hadn’t been for Kennedy, a lot more people would have health coverage . In 1971 Nixon, heading into his relection bid, put up the legislative ancestor of all recent Democratic proposals, but Kennedy shot it down, preferring to have this as his campaign plank sometime in the political future.
After reelection, Nixon did promote a health plan in his 1974 State of the Union speech, with a call for universal access to health insurance. He followed up with his Comprehensive Health Insurance Act on February 6, 1974. Nixon said his plan would build on existing employer-sponsored insurance plans and would provide government subsidies to the self-employed and small businesses to ensure universal access to health insurance. Kennedy went through the motions of cooperation, but in the end the AFL-CIO, with a covert nudge from Kennedy, killed the bill because Nixon was vanishing under the Watergate scandal and the Democrats did not want to hand the President and the Republicans one of their signature issues. Now the Republicans scream “socialism” at exactly what Nixon proposed and Kennedy
I suppose we should not begrudge Barack Obama his Nobel Peace Prize, though it represents a radical break in tradition, since he's only had slightly less than nine months to discharge his imperial duties, most concretely through the agency of high explosives in the Hindu Kush whereas laureates like Henry Kissinger had been diligently slaughtering people across the world for years.
Woodrow Wilson, the liberal imperialist with whom Obama bears some marked affinities, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, having brought America into the carnage of the First World War. The peace laureate president who preceded him was Teddy Roosevelt, who got the prize in 1906 as reward for sponsorship of the Spanish-American war and ardent bloodletting in the Philippines. Senator George Hoar’s famous denunciation of Roosevelt on the floor of the US Senate in May of 1902 was probably what alerted the Nobel Committee to Roosevelt’s eligibility for the Peace Prize:
“You have sacrificed nearly ten thousand American lives—the flower of our youth. You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit. You have established reconcentration camps. Your generals are coming home from their harvest bringing sheaves with them, in the shape of other thousands of sick and wounded and insane to drag out miserable lives, wrecked in body and mind. You make the American flag in the eyes of a numerous people the emblem of sacrilege in Christian churches, and of the burning of human dwellings, and of the horror of the water torture. ”
TR was given the peace prize not long after he’d displayed his boundless compassion for humanity by sponsoring an exhibition of Filipino “monkey men” in the 1904 St Louis World Fair as “the missing link” in the evolution of Man from ape to Aryan, and thus in sore need of assimilation, forcible if necessary, to the American way. On receipt of the prize, Roosevelt promptly dispatched the Great White Fleet (sixteen U.S. Navy ships of the Atlantic Fleet including four battleships) on a worldwide tour to display Uncle Sam’s imperial credentials, anticipating by scarce more than a century, Obama’s award, as he prepares to impose Pax Americana on the Hindukush and portions of Pakistan.
People marvel at the idiocy of these Nobel awards, but there’s method in the madness, since in the end they train people to accept without demur or protest absurdity as part and parcel of the human condition, which they should accept as representing the considered opinion of rational men, albeit Norwegian. It’s a twist on the Alger myth, inspiring to youth: you too can get to murder Filipinos, or Palestinians, or Vietnamese or Afghans and still win a Peace Prize. That’s the audacity of hope at full stretch.
In his little squib on 9/11 Paul Krassner writes , I once asked a true believer, “If the Pentagon was really hit by a missile and not a plane, then what happened to all the people who were on the plane that didn’t hit the Pentagon?”
I answered this many years ago. The people on that plane had been kidnapped at an earlier stage in the operation, and flown to an airbase in Louisiana – the very self-same airbase where George Bush briefly touched down in his erratic flight from Florida on 9/11/2001. George Bush then personally executed the captives.
Did I really believe this when I wrote it? No. It was a satirical sally. But I did receive serious letters from people troubled by the lack of detail.Where had he shot them? With what type of weapon? A summary burst from a machine gun, or a .22 bullet behind each ear?
For all too many on the left, the so-called 9/11 conspiracy has become the magic key. If it can be turned, then history at its present impasse will be unlocked and we can move on.
For those on the racist right, aghast at the reality of a black man (albeit half white) in the White House, the magic key to reversing this unpleasing development is Obama’s suposedly fake Hawai’ian birth certificate. Their suppositions and claims shift, but the essence is always the same: he’s alien. He has no right to be president. And as with the Truthers, the provision of evidence rebutting their claims is merely fuel piled on the bonfire of their insanity.
It’s piquant to think of Roman Polanski, a Polish Jew whose mother died in a concentration camp, being dragged back in chains to the US at the age of 75 to face the music, passing in the airport terminal some even older German being hauled out of the US to stand trial in Europe for the crimes buried in his past as a concentration camp guard.
Putting the distant past on trial is, in terms of ratings, a chancy business. These days the 85-year old bit players in the Final Solution don’t arouse the passions they used to. So far as old Nazis are concerned, geezer renditions now prompt a certain embarrassment at the trouble and expense involved.
Why not leave the ancient camp guard to rot in his nursing home in Cleveland, goose-stepping into oblivion, arm-in-arm with Herr Alzheimer?
Not so Polanski. The passions his case arouse here are vivid because sexual tolerance has shriveled so fiercely since 1977 when Polanski fatefully crossed paths with the 13-year old Samantha Geimer.
Many states have reverted to moral/legal postures that would be the toast of seventeenth century Puritans with parents racing to lawyers and prosecutors as soon as they hear their teenage child might have been involved in some sexual activity. The exceptionally wimpish Obama White House, thoroughly cowed by the crazed Beck is no doubt about to succumb to the right-wing assault on Kevin Jennings, who runs the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Jennings will be tossed to the wolves, just as surgeon general Jocelyn Elders was swiftly axed by Bill Clinton after she said masturbation wasn’t such a bad way of relieving sexual frustration. Given the timidity of the Obama crowd, over the counter sales of vibrators will probably soon go the way of ephedrine or placed on the same level as Schedule 1 narcotics, with prescriptions and parental permission required.The new prudery is in full swing in the court room and the day time tv shows, even as teenagers swap pictures of their breasts and genitals on their cellphones. If only Polanski and Samantha had I-phones back in 1977 perhaps he would not be sitting in a Swiss jail right now. But no. Polanski wouldn’t have settled for mere imagery. After all, he did have John Huston say in Chinatown, “Most people never have to face the fact they are capable of anything.”
Across the country, last weekend there were anti-war demonstrations, modest in turnout, but hopefully a warning to Obama that war without end or reason in Afghanistan, plus 40,000 more troops to Kabul, is not why people voted for him.
I spoke at our own little rally in my local town of Eureka, California. My neighbor Ellen Taylor decided to spice up the proceedings by having a guillotine on the platform, right beside the Eureka Courthouse steps. It’s in the genes. Her father was Telford Taylor, chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg.
When she told me about the plan for the guillotine, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. But Ellen said she wanted to reach out to new constituencies beyond the committed left, and what better siren call than the swoosh of the Avenging Blade? A hundred years ago, people liked to stress the similarities of the American and French revolutions. Mark Twain composed the most passionate defense of the Terror ever written in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court . But then, after 1917, the French Revolution was seen as the harbinger of Bolshevik excess and it grew less popular.
Up on the platform, I took the guillotine issue head on. In the Terror, only 666 aristocrats had been topped in Paris in what is now the Place de la Concorde; 1,543 throughout France. The reward: a decisive smack on the snout of the land-holding aristocracy; durable popular power for peasants, workers and the petit bourgeois: M. le patron and M. le proprietaire stepped into history.
Here, in America, the corporate class is now entirely out of control, lawless and beyond the sanction of prosecutor, juror or ballot box. If corporate lawbreakers felt that somewhere along the line the retribution of the guillotine might await them, it would concentrate their minds marvelously, and cow them into lawfulness.
I got some cheers, and a charming young hippy, Brooklyn, mother of three, told me she wanted to move to France forthwith. Ellen asked the executioner, Michael Evenson, to put the contraption through its paces. She invited the crowd to call out designated victims – CEOs of the major banks, billionaires of note. Michael hitched the blade up six feet, and down it came with quite a satisfactory thwock.
Ritual trumphalism about America’s righteous mission in the closing sentences of his speech did not dispel the distinct impression during President Obama’s 33-minute address to cadets at West Point Tuesday night that we were listening to a man defeated by the challenge of justifying the dispatch of 3o,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Contrary to the hackneyed references to his “soaring rhetoric”, the speech was earth-bound and mechanically delivered.
Obama didn’t make the case and he pleased few. The liberals seethed as they heard him say that it is “in our vital national interest” to send 30,000 more troops to a mission they regard as doomed from the getgo. The cheers of the right at the news of the deployment died in their throats as they heard his next line, “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
No mature American, seasoned in the ineradicable graft flourishing down the decades in every major American city, believes a pledge that corruption will be banished from Afghanistan in a year and a half, or that Karzai has any credibility as the wielder of the cleansing broom.
There are hurt cries from prominent pwogs such as Tom Hayden who now vows he will strip the Obama sticker off his car. Maybe so. Our sense here at CounterPunch is that Lady Macbeth would get those damned spots off her hands far quicker that American progressives will purge themselves of Obamaphilia.
At least the American political landscape is offering some pleasing spectacles. On Wednesday came tidings of a right-left alliance in Congress, challenging the reappointment of Ben Bernanke for a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a slap in the face not only for Bernanke but for Obama.
A friend down the coast here in California called Wednesday to say that her mother, 95, had fallen, cracked her ribs, got a cough and told her daughters, “That’s it. I’m checking out.” She’s given up eating. I remembered all the arguments I’d had down the years with the old lady – a perennial optimist about Democrats when it came to assessing the likelihood that Carter or Clinton or Obama would ever actually serve up the progressive banquets they’d pledged on the campaign trail.
“Tell your mother that at least she won’t have to put up with me saying ‘I told you so, about Obama.’” Her daughter gave a deep, sad sigh. She too has been a loyal liberal Democrat all her life and now, she said, Obama’s breaking her heart. So many high hopes, and there’s a man accepting the Peace Prize with one hand, while signing deployment orders with the other, sending 30,000 more young soldiers to Afghanistan.
Imagine having one’s foot on the lip of the great abyss, dimly hearing the radio in the kitchen playing snatches of the appalling drivel served up by Obama in Oslo. “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.”
McCain loves the speech. Sarah Palin loves the speech. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s Oslo address was a Republican speech. When it comes to invoking “just wars” Republican presidents can go through the motions, but they haven’t got their hearts in it. Who needs to talk about justice as you drop high explosive and scrawl Death to Ragheads on the side of the bombs? When you want a just war, whistle up a Democrat who can talk with a straight face about installing democracy in the Balkans. After eight years of Bushian crudities the Empire needed an upgrade in its salespitch, which is why we have Obama. Back at the time of the medieval crusades, the Western kings used to take Holy Communion from their Archbishops before heading east to battle Islam and scour the land for booty. I thought the ceremony in that austere hall in Oslo was a straight lineal descent – as Obama accepted his wafer, in the form of the prize -- in this modern age a substantial check – and then pledged his holy war.