Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Best and the Brightest: Conventionally Written History

 

The Best and the Brightest: Conventionally Written History

Peter Schultz

 

            I am re-reading David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest, and just wanted to comment on its conventionality.

 

            Halberstam writes of “the China tragedy unfold[ing].” [p. 111] But why is the Chinese revolution to be seen as a “tragedy?” He never says, apparently assuming that this description is just common sense, is accurate and irrefutable. But contained in those words are all the flaws of US policy both regarding China and Vietnam, in fact, regarding all of Asia in the aftermath of World War II. Keeping nations, not “losing” nations to communism, would prevent “tragedies,” regardless of whether people living in those nations viewed the revolutions therein as tragic. They might even have seen those revolutions as Americans view their own revolution, as vast improvements over the corrupt regimes they replaced. As General Giap, commander in chief of the Vietnamese military fighting the US said in response to Robert McNamara’s statement that the Vietnam War was a tragedy: “It may have been a tragedy for the US because it was an imperialistic war, but it wasn’t a tragedy for the Vietnamese because it was a war of national liberation and unification.”

 

            Or consider Halberstam’s words, again written without apparently needing any justification, “the fall of China.” [p. 120] Why did its revolution constitute China’s “fall?” Fall from what? Fall to where? Halberstam never says but we can assume that this fall was like Adam and Eve’s fall, which led to their exiting the Garden of Eden. And what was that garden from which the Chinese fell? Well, it had to be the American empire or the American sphere of influence. The Chinese had committed the sin of turning against the American elites and their plans to remake China in the image of the United States.

 

            Throughout Halberstam’s account are such expressions that reveal his conventionality. At another point, he wrote that “US governments [found] themselves prisoners of that rhetoric,” of anti-Communist rhetoric. But it is clear even from Halberstam’s account that US elites weren’t “prisoners” of such rhetoric; they were producers of such rhetoric. They embraced such rhetoric because it served their purposes; for example, in Eisenhower’s inaugural address in 1953 when he said that “the French soldier in Indochina and the American soldier in Korea were fighting the same thing.” [p. 120] And by pre-arrangement, Senator Lyndon Johnson asked Dean Acheson whether he could “comment … where our allies are helping us elsewhere? I mean Indochina.” And Acheson responded: “That is an excellent point. The French have been fighting that battle since World War II.” [p. 120] So, Acheson, who once thought the French war in Vietnam was a colonial war, embraced the rhetoric of anti-communism. If he was a prisoner of such rhetoric, Acheson had incarcerated himself, and the United States, voluntarily.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Biden v. Trump: WTF?


Biden v. Trump: WTF?
Peter Schultz

            Given that both the Biden campaign and the Trump campaign are hollow, are empty of almost any substance, I feel compelled to ask: What’s really going on? Is there anything going on at all?

            Whatever it is, it can’t have anything to do with partisan politics because the candidates agree about the major issues. To wit: Both want to keep or make America great, meaning that the both support US imperialism generally and the overthrow of governments not to their liking specifically. [Venezuela and Syria] They both support further distribution of the wealth to the wealthy via tax policies and humongous “defense” budgets. Both oppose “Medicare For All” and both want to “reform” policies of mass incarceration, “reforms” that are meant not undermine but to fortify mass incarceration. And the list goes on.

            So what is all the “fire and brimstone” generated by the campaigns about? Russia? China? Hardly, because despite superficial differences, both campaigns agree that the US must confront both nations. Moreover, both parties want Assange dealt with harshly, along with Snowden if that could be arranged.

            It all seems so odd.  So much to do about so little – and trying to make that little look like a lot. So something is afoot while being disguised as something else. What could it be?

            While I am pretty sure I don’t’ know, I am sure that this has happened before and even with some frequency. I felt this way in 2000 when I would joke that the choice was between “Bore and Gush,” as if it were difficult to tell distinguish between Bush and Gore. Although I didn’t feel this way at the time, I have come to see the Bush v. Clinton election in 1992 the same way. Regarding that election, I feel it’s a good bet Bush threw the election to Clinton in order to protect himself and his kind of politics from being exposed and undermined as illegitimate in a constitutional republic insofar as it was about to become clear that as Vice President, Bush was up to his eyeballs in Iran-Contra and that Iran-Contra was about much more than its public billing allowed. Reagan and Bush had been dealing with, allying with jihadists and other radicals, often Islamic, in order to help fund and maintain US imperialism. And this had to be hidden, even at the cost of George Bush, Sr., taking a dive. His loss also allowed him to pardon without consequence those who could have blown the whistle on his and Reagan’s policy of relying on extremists, something Caspar Weinberger threatened to do.

            Could the same game being played now? That is, could it be that the US has found it still necessary to deal with jihadists as allies, as partners in order to successfully maintain and fortify its imperialistic world order? Doesn’t the destruction of Libya suggest or even confirm this? And, of course, all the fire and brimstone surrounding Hillary’s role in that destruction conceals what was actually going on, does it not? Blaming Hillary hid the more important issue of whether our elites should be in bed with jihadist extremists. How else explain the situation in Syria, where the US openly relies on jihadists – labeled “moderates” of course – to accomplish its goals there, and to maintain US dominance? What of US support of alleged “democrats” in Venezuela, for example, “democrats” that are more accurately described as right-wing extremists? And of course the US is rather openly siding with right-wing extremists in Ukraine and Belarus. Again, the uproar about Trump’s allegedly threatening phone calls to some in Ukraine served to hide what is actually going on, viz., the necessity for US elites to rely on, to ally with extremists to maintain and fortify the American imperialistic world order. And so while mocking Trump, the Democrats are not mocking his appeals to greatness, while the fact that this greatness now requires relying on extremists goes unacknowledged.

            As Barry Goldwater once said: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Of course, it remains a question – largely unasked now – whether extremism can ever protect or maintain liberty. Several revolutions suggest rather strongly that the answer to that question is “No.” And recall, if you would, that even the American Revolution did not lead to liberty for several million human beings, both black and native. It could be, as I suspected long ago, that Goldwater was wrong. And this could prove quite important insofar as our elites are embracing extremism to maintain the American empire. They may maintain that empire but they will sacrifice liberty in the process.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Law and Order: The Politics of Injustice


Law and Order: The Politics of Injustice
Peter Schultz

            Question: Why are Biden and Trump responding similarly to the protests in US cities? Answer: Their responses are similar because neither one is primarily concerned with justice, with the justice of protesters grievances. And when there isn’t a concern with justice, the only policy remaining is “law and order,” a policy that masks the accepted irrelevance of justice.

            This is, actually, a phenomenon that elites in the US replicate over and over. It is one of the reasons that those elites may be called, accurately, “power brokers.” They deal in power, not justice. And “law and order” is essentially and deeply a power play. Again and again, when protests and disruptions against injustices occur in the US, the elites, the power brokers’ embrace “law and order.” So, while sympathizing with the protesters’ grievances, former President Obama said: “Violence is never justified,” a sentiment repeated by Biden. But such a sentiment only makes sense when the protester’s appeals to justice are ignored or considered irrelevant. As anyone who thinks about human history for thirty seconds realizes, violence in the face of injustice is often justified.

            This is, however, a scenario that US elites, both “left” and “right,” don’t want to consider. And they don’t want to consider it because once they do, they would be forced to admit that the prevailing order is marred by, perhaps even based on injustice. In other words, elites avoid, even suppress questions of justice in order to protect the status quo and the power and the authority the status quo confers on them. To question the status quo threatens the current elites, while “law and order” does not. In fact, “law and order” reinforces, fortifies those elites and their power, their authority.

            Bottom line: Embedded in the American political order is a deep antipathy toward justice. Concerns with justice are ignored, hidden, even suppressed in order to reinforce, fortify the reigning political order, thereby disguising the fact that that order is permeated with injustice. And when this fact threatens to become visible, the reigning elites must double-down on “law and order;” that is, double-down on their injustices.

            As Niccolo Machiavelli taught us long ago, those who wish to succeed in this world “must learn to be able not to be good.” Whatever justice exists in this world rests on injustice or, as Machiavelli also put it, that justice rests on “inhuman cruelty.” Or as a more recent commentator put it, that justice rests on “the management of savagery.”  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Conspiratorial Political Science: What We Need


Conspiratorial Political Science: What We Need
Peter Schultz

            Conventional political science sees politics as primarily composed of battles over particular public policies, e.g., US policy toward China, toward Russian, toward the environment, toward education, and so on and so on and so on. So presented, politics is not seen as a series of battles between, say, republicans and oligarchs, or between democrats and aristocrats, between the not-wealthy and the wealthy. These larger issues are ignored, even buried by conventional political science, to the point that it seems we no longer have to deal with them.

            One problem with situation is that although it appears that our politics is all about a series of battles over particular public policies, in fact those larger battles are being fought and decided with consequences of the utmost importance. But these larger battles are being fought clandestinely, covertly, and it behooves us to take note of this.

            This is where what I am calling a “conspiratorial political science” comes in handy; is, in fact, indispensable because conspiracy theories reveal or at least hint at the battles over these larger issues. For example, the question “Who killed JFK?” points toward the possibility that JFK was killed by, say, a conspiracy of right-wing oligarchs who were convinced that Kennedy, if allowed to continue as president, would undermine the authority they had been enjoying prior to Kennedy’s election in 1960.  Or consider the question: Was the Watergate scandal a way to remove Richard Nixon in a coup, a coup engineered by those who were opposed to Nixon’s Vietnam policies, his China policy, and his policy of détente with the Soviet Union?

            And this helps explain why conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists are treated by many with disdain: Because such theories threaten to expose (a) what is actually going on and (b) that what is going on calls into question the legitimacy of the reigning political honchos because these honchos have achieved or are maintaining their power by undemocratic, un-republican means. Conspiracy theories replace the view of conventional political science that politics is normally, ordinarily about open disputes and battles over particular public policy questions, a view that implicitly embraces the view that the existing political order is legitimate. So, in conventional political science, any suggestion that the reigning political order is illegitimate seems out of order. According to conventional political science, attempts at clandestine changes should be dismissed as mere conspiracies and, hence, not worth serious attention because they do not constitute normal, ordinary politics. They are aberrations, often the aberrations of distorted minds.

            As a result, many aspects of our political battles are ignored or buried, e.g., the fact that the Nixon administration was being spied on by the Pentagon, or the fact that JFK cancelled a scheduled trip before his fated trip to Dallas because there had been intell that there would be an attempt to assassinate him. And this means that much of the reality of our political battles disappears or is repressed, and as a result we don’t actually know what is going on in our own government. What looks like, say, competing foreign policies are actually competing imperialistic schemes, schemes embraced by different groups seeking power. And none of these groups want these competitions to be decided in the public arena because, of course, in a nation that aspires to be republican, imperialism cannot be openly embraced. If the nation is to wage war imperialistically, this must be done on the sly, must be dressed up to look like reluctant war-making. But again and again, this reluctance is overcome. Or, as conventional political scientists like to say, the US keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over. But, in reality, these wars aren’t mistakes. They are being waged, clandestinely as it were, to serve one faction or another.

            Often, it is asked: Why don’t things in the US change, even in the face of significant public dissatisfaction? One reason is that our elections don’t decide public policy in the United States. What decides public policy in the United States, as is true I would imagine of every national political order, are the conspiracies that happen before, during, and after our elections. Until we understand this, we will go on as we have been for a long time now, allowing our conspirators to decide our fates.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Disengagement: Is It Always Morally Reprehensible?


Disengagement: Is It Always Morally Reprehensible?
Peter Schultz

            Is disengaging politically always morally reprehensible? This is a question I ran into today on Twitter, when I was charged with “the morally inexcusable act of throwing up my hands and disengaging politically.” To which my response was that there are times when it is morally reprehensible not to disengage. And when faced with a choice between two parties, both of which embrace a violent imperialism, the militarization of society, some form of mass incarceration, no universal health care, regime changes whenever it suits US interests, and the drone assassinations of people who are merely trying to go about their lives but fit a certain “profile” that makes them legitimate targets, it seems to me time to disengage and, further, it seems to me not to disengage is reprehensible.  

            More broadly, I wondered how many Vietnams, how many Koreas are needed before a person decides to disengage? How many innocent human beings incinerated by drones are needed before a person decides to disengage? How many people have to die as the result of a virus because of poor health care and health care facilities before a person decides to disengage? How many people have to die as a result of police behavior before disengagement becomes justified? And, of course, the list could go on and on and on, but the point seems clear: There must come a time when disengagement, so far from being morally reprehensible, is in fact a morally responsible act.

            When I would teach the book No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, I would emphasize the part where Sheriff Bell thinks to himself that it is necessary for him to quit because to do otherwise would endanger his soul. I emphasized that part for two reasons: First, to remind students that they have souls and that their souls needed nurturing, needed care. They weren’t so much interested in that. After all they all had phones. And, second, because almost always, no, always some students rebelled against Sheriff Bell’s decision to quit, to disengage. They took the position that Bell should have stuck it out. “Even if there is no hope for improvement?” I would ask. “Well, there’s always hope for improvement,” they would respond. “Even if Bell is correct that by staying he’d be endangering his soul?” I would ask. Well, that was more than they were able to process and, so, we would end up at a standoff.

            I took away from these discussions that it is hard, extremely hard for human beings to disengage from their society. It seems like “giving up.” And, of course, in some sense it is. But what if the alternative is “giving in?” That is, giving in to inhumanity, to injustice, to savagery. What then?

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Nixon and the Politics of Secrecy

Nixon and the Politics of Secrecy

Peter Schultz

 

            In their book, Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin pass the following judgments of how the Senate Committee investigating Watergate responded to John Dean’s testimony in July of 1973.

 

            “The committee bought Dean, lock, stock, and barrel … because he was an arrow…pointed…toward the president.” [318-19] And then: “In effect, Dean had a free ride” despite the fact that “there were many holes in Dean’s story, and logical inconsistencies…[which weren’t] closely scrutinized.” [319]

 

            While factually, these assessments are correct, what Colodny and Gettlin don’t get is that Dean needn’t have been completely truthful, that he only needed to be partially truthful, only truthful insofar as his charge that Nixon had participated in the cover up. Even the facts that Dean initiated and implemented the cover up, which were true, were irrelevant so long as it could be established that Nixon had participated in the cover up. Even the fact that Dean tricked the president to participate in the cover up was irrelevant. What the committee witnessed, along with the American people, was the John Dean Show, just as what the nation had witnessed decades earlier regarding Alger Hiss was the Richard Nixon show. Dean’s motives and actions, just like Nixon’s motives and actions, were irrelevant because Nixon, like Hiss, was the accused. If the accusation was meant to cover up Dean’s own criminal acts, that was irrelevant.

 

            In other words, that Dean lied was irrelevant so long as he could establish that Nixon had lied. By establishing that Nixon had lied, Dean exposed Nixon as lying, as a liar, just as Nixon had exposed Alger Hiss as a liar – who was then convicted of perjury, not treason. Once Nixon’s culpability was established, anything that was said to impeach Dean, like the “Golden Boy” memo, was irrelevant. Hence: “The Golden Boy assault on Dean’s credibility soon faded, reduced in the press and in the senators’ minds to…an attempt to throw mud at the witness.” Even if some of that mud stuck to Dean, it was irrelevant.

 

            But more importantly than the Dean v. Nixon drama that was played out in 1973 is what this drama reveals about the politics of secrecy, about a covert politics. While such a politics is appealing because it seems to fortify a politician’s power, because it seems to protect politicians, one of its flaws is that once the secrecy is pierced, the politician is exposed and, worse, is powerless to protect himself or herself from charges motivated by partisan concerns, even from charges that mask some of the truth. Having lied or committed a fraud, the practitioner of a politics of secrecy, when exposed, is powerless. Once a fraud is exposed as a fraud the perpetrator of the fraud is just that, a perpetrator of a fraud, even if he is president of the United States.

 

            Interestingly, those who don’t embrace the politics of secrecy, that embrace what might be called a politics of transparency, are immune from such exposure, from such charges. For example, when Pat Buchanan testified before the Senate committee investigating Watergate, his testimony was praised, even by his political opponents like Sam Ervin. For example: “Senator Ervin: Well, I have to say I admire the Buchanan recommendations. They are very forthright.” [342, Nixon’s White House Wars] Or this from Senator Baker, after Buchanan laid out his four gradations of electoral shenanigans: “This is really a fascinating line of inquiry, Mr. Buchanan, and you are a fascinating witness in that you not only have a clear perception of your role in the political realm of the United States, but the verbal agility to express them most clearly and forthrightly….I do greatly admire your descriptions of the gradations of political activity.” [342-343]

 

            What Baker attributes to Buchanan’s “verbal agility” is actually the fact that Buchanan refuses to embrace a politics of secrecy, a covert politics. As a result, he cannot be exposed as a fraud, no matter how bizarre his politics might seem. Given Buchanan’s rejection of the politics of secrecy, to confront him it is necessary to confront his political views. Because he doesn’t hide his politics, the only recourse is to take on his politics. There are other examples of such political activity, e.g., G. Gordon Liddy. Again, as bizarre as Liddy was – and he was bizarre – he could not be exposed as a fraud. He embraced his actions, even his covert actions, to such an extent that he maintained his silence, even at the price of going to prison, because he genuinely believed that his loyalties to his superiors were in the service of national security. Again, many don’t agree with Liddy’s understanding of the requirements of national security, but to take Liddy on it is necessary to critique his understanding. He cannot be charged with fraud, with pretending to act in ways he had no intention of acting.

 

            So, it may be said that his politics of secrecy is what, in the final analysis, brought Nixon down. Being cunning, when cunning is understood to encompass a politics of secrecy, does not, despite appearances, fortify a politician’s power. Rather, it leaves politicians exposed or potentially exposed to charges of being frauds. And, yet, despite this, our politicians repeatedly embrace a politics of secrecy, or covert politics. Such is the appeal of lording it over others, of manipulating others, of playing the puppet master as if one were a god.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Politics as the Pursuit of Power


Politics as the Pursuit of Power
Peter Schultz

            It is difficult to understand how central the pursuit of power is for politicians in part because they come to us disguised as problem solvers or policy makers. But that these are just disguises is suggested by examining how politicians act.

            For this purpose, I want to unpack some passages from Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin’s Silent Coup, a comprehensive analysis of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. The following quote concerns John Dean’s decision to meet with the prosecutors dealing with the trial of the Watergate burglars, a decision that Dean promised would “deliver the P.”, that is, that would reveal Nixon as a coconspirator in the Watergate mess.

            “Dean’s plan for his testimony was . . . brilliant . . .. Dean would say that he had been complicitous, and paint a picture of how he had been enmeshed in the conspiracy because he was so ambitious and eager to please.” [273]

            Note, first, that Dean presents himself as being seduced into his criminality, as “enmeshed in the conspiracy,” almost against his will. But, second, note that Dean does not claim that he was seduced by the conspiracy itself, by its illegality, or by its criminality. That is, Dean became “enmeshed in the conspiracy;” he did not embrace the conspiracy, which was and is clearly not true. Dean initiated the Watergate cover up, meaning he chose to act conspiratorially, chose to act illegally and did so in order to maintain and even fortify his power in the White House.

            Dean’s presentation of himself is “brilliant” because he played all the right political notes, as it were. Decent people, politicians react to events, they seek solutions to problems. If they go astray as it were, then we want to believe that they were led astray by, say, in Dean’s case ambition or an eagerness to please. Committing illegal or criminal acts, or acting covertly have no intrinsic appeal in and of themselves. Decent people, politicians make mistakes; they do not embrace conspiracies, act conspiratorially, act covertly in order to display, acquire, or maintain their power. But acting illegally or conspiratorially is appealing, even seductive, because such acts are displays of power, and serve to confirm a conspirator’s, a politician’s power. Dean did not become enmeshed in the Watergate conspiracy. Rather, he created it, embraced it and he did so because it was how he could display and maintain his power. That it involved him in illegalities or crimes was not a deterrent at all. In fact, that the cover up involved illegalities and crimes made it more attractive to Dean, not less. At least as long ago as Augustine’s Confessions, the appeal of illegal or criminal acts should have been clear.

            There is a tendency to underestimate the importance of having and displaying power, especially in those we call politicians. So, for example, we prefer to think that our politicians, like John Dean during Watergate, became enmeshed in Vietnam, were drawn into what was called the quagmire of Vietnam. They made “mistakes,” they didn’t want to make war there, but apparently they couldn’t resist or made misstep after misstep until it was too late to get out. It’s all so very mysterious, isn’t it? But again it is pretty clear that LBJ, for example, embraced the war in Vietnam and did so as a way of displaying US power and, hence, his own power as well. He wasn’t going to be the first American president to lose a war, by golly! Certainly many others also embraced that war, although they usually hid their enthusiasm for the war behind arguments for its necessity, e.g., to prevent those alleged “dominoes,” the nations of Southeast Asia, from falling over and becoming communist overnight, as it were. That they enjoyed having and displaying their power is rarely considered as a possibility.

            It should be understood that illegal acts, conspiratorial acts are, in fact, seductive and they are as displays of power, even as displays of power exercised righteously. So, even John Dean, despite having created and executed a conspiracy that he managed to trick Nixon and other men to buy into by means of lies and deceit, could in the end come to believe that he had acted righteously by dethroning someone he said and still says was “evil.” I am not one to praise or even defend Richard Nixon. But to consider John Dean and his actions righteous is to mythologize him and Watergate.