Sunday, May 17, 2020

Strange Happenings


Strange Happenings
Peter Schultz

            There are strange political phenomena. One, cited by Walter Karp in his book The Politics of War, is the phenomenon of the “heroic defeat.” As Karp explains this regarding Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations:

“Defeat held irresistible attractions. The League, defeated in the Senate, would regain what it had lost at the peace conference: the pristine purity of a noble ideal. The League’s defeat would shift from Wilson the burden of guilt that was crushing him. Who could accuse him of vainly inflicting war upon his countrymen, after ignoble politicians made his noble war vain….The defeat, per force, had to be a noble one, a defeat after heroic efforts to triumph. In the summer of 1919 Wilson drew up his plans for staging a heroic defeat.” [pp. 342-343]

            In light of this, think of LBJ being “driven” from office in 1968 as he gave up re-election to work for peace, as he claimed, in the face of what he knew would be a “heroic defeat” in Vietnam, a defeat caused by the likes of imperialistic Communists, long-haired hippies, spoiled college students, treasonous professors, the mainstream media, and left-wing radicals who despised America.  And, of course, Nixon and Kissinger had waged deadly war in Southeast Asia, a war that was ultimately lost because of the actions of ignoble politicians in Congress who refused the necessary funds when Ford was president to win the war. And all of this prepared the way for Ronald Reagan to claim that the Vietnam War was “noble.” Of course it was, as its “nobility” was guaranteed by sending a lot of American soldiers to die and kill in Vietnam when it was known that that war was unwinnable.

            Here’s another strange political phenomenon: the surprise attack. Now, almost everyone knows that surprise birthday parties, for example, almost never work. The surprise is less than genuine. And yet both the “surprisers” and the “surprisees” have a mutual interest in pretending that the surprise did work. It’s more fun that way and it’s polite to pretend that you were surprised. Well, in surprise military attacks, like those that occurred on 9/11 in the US, this same mutuality of interest of pretending that the attacks were a genuine surprise is at work. If both sides pretend that the surprise was total, both sides benefit. The attackers benefit because they are made to seem quite impressive in their power and intelligence, especially when a powerful nation like the US was surprised. The attacked also prefer pretense to reality because the greater the surprise, the less blameworthy they are.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when nations and otherwise intelligent politicians ignore warnings like those made prior to 9/11, one of which was that bin Laden intended to attack inside the United States and cautioned that these attacks would be waged with aircraft. By ignoring such warnings, these politicians were, in fact, protecting themselves from blame for not detecting and detering the forthcoming attacks. By ignoring such warnings, these politicians could later claim that they were totally surprised and were, therefore, blameless because, after all, the attack was a surprise.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Disguises [My contribution to National Poetry Month 2020]


Disguises
Peter Schultz

Masks
Roles
Dramas
Selves

Republican
Democrat
Hillary Rodham
Hillary Rodham Clinton

Boy Scout
Hunter
Marine
Killer

Most Popular
Most Improved
Class President
Camouflage

Masks
Roles
Plays
Selves

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Destruction of HIllary Clinton and Its Irrelevance


The Destruction of Hillary Clinton – And Its Irrelevance
Peter Schultz

            I have recently read the book, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact That Decided the 2016 Election,” by Susan Bordo. Therein, as the title indicates, Bordo undertakes to defend Hillary Clinton against what she argues was a cartoon character version of Hillary that emerged before and during the presidential election of 2016. This cartoon version of Hillary was created by Bernie Sanders – who only focused on certain aspects of Hillary’s politics – by the mainstream media – who seemed according to Bordo to buy into the prevailing myths about Hillary – by political actors like James Comey – who did a great deal of damage to Hillary’s campaign with his strange revelations about Hillary’s emails. The cartoon character Hillary was also embraced by younger women who, according to Bordo, saw Hillary as a mainstay of the establishment and too much like their mothers.

            The book is interesting although its greatest fault for me was Bordo’s tendency to present another cartoon version of Hillary, namely, of an experienced, always honest, deeply committed, wonderful mother, stand-by-her man woman. Bordo seems at times almost at a loss for words in explaining how the Hillary she knows and has followed for some time could be replaced by the “untrustworthy,” “dishonest,” “insensitive,” and “disingenuous” Hillary that was embraced by many, otherwise thoughtful and knowledgeable people.

            I believe in large part Bordo’s confusion in this regard stems from the fact that she does not give enough consideration to Hillary’s politics and what they represented to many of those who rejected Hillary’s campaign for the presidency. Put differently, the distrust of Hillary was or reflected a distrust of “the establishment” and “establishment politics.” And, of course, this distrust is easily understandable given “The disastrous track record of the past three decades of neoliberal policy [which] is simply too apparent.” [Klein, This Changes Everything]

            This track record is why a person like Donald Trump could not only get a hearing from the American people but also helps explain why he was elected president. Surely Bordo is correct when she argues that Trump was in many ways far worse than Hillary. But that doesn’t make Hillary relevant. Given our situation after three decades of neoliberal politics, saving Hillary from destruction won’t do much of anything to address this situation. And neither would have electing her president done much to change, to improve our situation.

            Consider, briefly, one of Hillary’s alleged virtues according to Bordo, viz., the Clinton Foundation. As Bordo points out, the foundation was criticized for being used by other nations to funnel money to the Clintons in hopes that there would be a payoff after Hillary won the presidency. Of course, it would be simply naïve to deny that motivations like that were not present for those giving to the foundation.
But it also necessary to ask, and ask seriously: What role does this foundation, or any foundation or philanthropic project, play in improving in a substantial and long-term way the current situation where a very few control a lot of wealth while very many have little or no wealth? It is just too easy to assume, as Bordo does by ignoring this issue altogether, that the Clinton Foundation is doing anything to change this inequitable and unjust status quo. That is, for all its apparent good will, the Clinton Foundation is irrelevant when it comes to reforming what the neoliberals have created.

And this irrelevance explains a lot of the opposition to Hillary, for example, from Bernie Sanders and, more interestingly, from younger women who did not, according to Bordo, appreciate Hillary and what she has accomplished in her career. But that’s simply because Hillary’s career and the battles she fought are no longer relevant to these younger women, who are fighting different battles, for example, paying off huge college loans that, for the most part, did not exist when Hillary went to college. Nor when Hillary graduated college was the unwritten “contract” with employees of corporations what it is today. I use to tell students that when I got my first job out of college, with a corporation, no one asked me, ”Did you get benefits?” Then I would ask them why that question wasn’t asked. The most common answer was, “Because no one got them.” “No,” I would say. “Because everyone got them!” They were stunned. That was not their world, just as Hillary’s world, even in the 90s, was not the world of the “Me Too” movement and she could, because it was more acceptable then, “stand by her man.”

Again, that Hillary has a better resume than Trump doesn’t make her relevant. Where the nation is now is not where it was during the Vietnam War or during the Nixon administration. The issues have changed and the perception was that Hillary’s politics had become, generally speaking, irrelevant. For me, it is impossible to understand why Hillary lost to Trump without taking into account the issues that ordinary Americans are dealing with, economic, social, and political issues and asking whether or to what degree Hillary was perceived as addressing those issues. In other words, her politics were more important than her resume.  Relying on her resume against Trump, as Bordo does throughout her book, was not a winning strategy because it was, quite literally, irrelevant.
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Saturday, April 11, 2020

Constitutions Matter


Constitutions Matter
Peter Schultz

            Oligarchies differ from republics in that oligarchs claim the right to rule/govern based on their superiority while republicans claim the right to rule/govern based on sameness.

            At the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Ben Franklin tried to warn the convention that it was creating a government that would be oligarchic by creating an office, the presidency, that would attract people who thought they should rule/govern because they were superior to, not the same as, the “common people,” or “we the people.” In a speech on the presidency, Franklin proposed that presidents not be paid because to do so would make that office attractive to men characterized by avarice and ambition; that is, attractive to acquisitive men who thought they were capable of and deserving of much wealth and power because they were superior people. As a result, Franklin argued, peaceful men would not seek the office, while those tending toward “violence” would. And Franklin predicted that even after presidential elections, the victors would be set upon by their rivals and subjected to vicious personal attacks.

            Of course, taking into account the presidencies of JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama, and Trump, it may be said that Franklin’s warnings have proven correct. Each of these presidents and their presidencies have been subjected to vicious personal attacks, and two of these presidents, Clinton and Trump, have been impeached by the House of Representatives, although acquitted by the Senate. And the “violence” of our politics is attested to by the degree of security required to keep presidents alive. JFK was assassinated, while Ford and Reagan were attacked, with the latter being wounded by gunfire.  We are not privy to how many other attacks may have been planned but we do know that George Wallace was attacked and crippled while seeking the presidency.

            I believe what Franklin was on to was the fact that when rule is based on, legitimated by claims of superiority, those who claim to be superior must deny the claims of superiority made by their rivals, while of course asserting their own superiority. This necessarily leads to vicious personal attacks, as well apparently as physical attacks. These attacks may be said to be political phenomena facilitated by our governmental arrangements, including of course the office of the presidency. Want to change or moderate the violence, both rhetorical and physical, of our politics, then we should change the characteristics of our governmental arrangements. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to limit presidents to one, four-year term in office, as well as limiting the tenure of congresspersons and Supreme Court Justices.

            In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “The love of fame [is] the ruling passion of the noblest minds,” thereby indicating that he was desirous of drawing such men into the new government, men like George Washington and, of course, himself. The office of the president would, Hamilton hoped, draw into the government men who desired, perhaps above all else, fame, which is a kind of immortality. But this was precisely Franklin’s concern, because such offices and such men would make the new government oligarchic rather than republican, with the attendant violence accompanying such oligarchies. “Great men” seek to create “great empires,” thereby demonstrating their own “greatness,” while earning a measure of immortality. But such men and such empires are encumbered by violence and a violent politics, both at home and abroad.

            Others saw and were concerned with this possibility, mainly among those labeled “Anti-Federalists.” Patrick Henry argued in the Virginia ratifying convention that the Constitution had “an awful squinting,” it “squinted in the direction of monarchy” and toward a government characterized by great armies and war. By implication, Henry saw the roots of what is today called “American exceptionalism,” that is, the claim that because America and Americans are superior, it and they have the right to rule/govern the world. Those roots lay in the newly proposed constitution. As Henry said, and I am paraphrasing, in its youth the American nation was not about greatness, political, economic, or military greatness, but about individual liberty. And that youthful nation aspired not to a “splendid government” like those embraced by the monarchies of the world, but to a republican government and a republican society. It might do us well to recall what Franklin and Henry were about.
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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Flattening the Wave: US Technocracy in Action


Flattening the Wave: US Technocracy in Action
Peter Schultz

            I once knew a philosophy professor who would, deliberately, make the following “mistake:” He would say to his class that he had gone to McDonalds and had gotten a Whopper for lunch. Immediately, his students would correct him, telling him that he must have gone to Burger King because McDonalds didn’t sell Whoppers. Later though, when he tried to get his students to engage in discussions about philosophical or ethical issues, they were pretty much incapable of doing so. They were lost, most unlike their ability to navigate technical issues like the differences between Burger King and McDonalds.

            This strikes me as apropos of the current US reactions to the pandemic created by the coronavirus. That is, we Americans seem perfectly content to address this as a technical problem, viz., how can we “flatten the wave.” And we obsess over what technical adaptations, in available medicines, in living styles, we should make to moderate the impact of this virus. Other, non-technical issues are not addressed and, hence, are made to seem irrelevant.

            For example, I have seen very little written about how this virus’s impact is affecting the poor and what might be done to offset those affects. The virus is treated as if it were indiscriminate in who it affects, when this is clearly not the case. Moreover, people speak as if everyone can employ the same strategies to mitigate the virus’s affect, for example, as if everyone has “a place” to “shelter in.” “Stay home” the highway signs in my state of North Carolina are announcing but not everyone has a “home,” do they? And what about concerns with justice? That is, what about concerns about how some have the means to escape from those places most dangerous, while others cannot do so? And aren’t all small businesses “essential” to their owners? Why is Wal-Mart considered essential but a barber’s business is not?* Is that just?

            By viewing the pandemic as a “problem” to be “solved,” the tendency is to embrace technical solutions while leaving the justice, the morality, and the discriminating character of those solutions unaddressed. We focus on the number of cases and the number of deaths, congratulating ourselves when those numbers first plateau and then begin to descend. Indeed, that is perfectly understandable. But what about the injustices, the unethical actions, and the discrimination that we embraced in our understandable obsession with mitigating this virus? There is, of course, no way to measure these phenomena as there are ways to measure the virus itself. But even though they are not measurable, they are still real. And perhaps we should try to say something about them, to address them even though, or perhaps precisely because we are in the midst of a crisis.

*Just to let you know: my computer corrected my spelling of Walmart to Wal-Mart! My professor friend would be pleased with my ignorance.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Nixon's Impeachment, Trump, and American Politics


Nixon’s Impeachment, Trump, and American Politics
Peter Schultz

            Rick Perlstein in his Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, writes about “a spirit of the age” that led “Americans … to train their eyes on ugly truths. They had to abandon their heroes. They had to join the suspicious circles - to abandon blithe optimism.” [261]

            But this is precisely what the impeachment, the hunting of Nixon was all about: Confronting this “spirit of the age,” where the ugliness of American politics and even American life was being revealed – by the war in Vietnam, by the investigations into the CIA, by black power advocates, by feminists, by gays and lesbians coming out, by the free speech movement, by “stagflation,” to name a few phenomena of importance. Impeaching Nixon was a way to hide the ugliness of American politics behind a façade of righteousness. And then, once again, Americans could be made to believe that their politics was not ugly; rather, it was Nixon who was ugly. And, of course, it made perfect sense that this project led to the election of Ronald Reagan, a person who represented, even incarnated the idea that Americans and American politics were not ugly, who incarnated “blithe optimism,” that Perlstein shows was so much a part of Reagan’s politics.

            And after Nixon’s resignation, two phenomena confirm this. First, by forcing Nixon’s resignation, the establishment could claim, once again, that the political system “worked.” It cleaned itself up, as it were, confirming that the Constitution is one of the greatest political documents ever created. Second, by not following through with the impeachment proceedings against Nixon, which would have been perfectly constitutional as early on in our history the Congress decided that a resignation could not stop an impeachment, the curtain of respectability was once again drawn closed, covering over the ugliness of American politics. Nixon was banished and all was well again in the house built by our founding fathers.

            And this is how the story was played, from the White House to the mainstream media. From Gerald Ford, now president: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.” [273, Perlstein] A pundit at the NY Times said that “the end of the ‘Watergate agony’ presaged ‘an era of more open government.’” Frank Wills, the security guard who stumbled on the break in at the Watergate was quoted as saying “NO POSITION TOO HIGH” in a headline whose article said “in America even the president is not above the law.” NY Times senior columnist, James Reston celebrated “A SENSE OF NATIONAL RECONCILIATION” while guest writers quoted James Madison. As Perlstein summarizes: “They all resounded with the very same theme: the resignation proved that no American was above the law, that the system worked, that the nation was united and at peace with itself.” [273. Perlstein]

           
            And what a contrast the new president presented to the recently resigned president. He made his own breakfast; that is, he toasted an English muffin, which became “the joyous keynote – a national talisman of normalcy restored, “ according to the Washington Post. And Ford was “just a balding, square-jawed, honest, straightforwardly pleasant man….a man, who smoked a pipe, like one of those kindly old dads in a 1950s television situation comedy. A pure pragmatist, with no ideology to divide the nation.” Let the good times roll. [278, Perlstein]






            Hiding the ugliness of American politics behind a façade of righteousness has a certain ring to it, especially these days as so many righteously call out Donald Trump for his crassness, his politics, his racism and sexism. And, of course, like Nixon, Trump’s impeachment allowed this righteousness to flourish, while hiding the ugliness of our politics from view. There is no Reagan available to cap this project off these days but there is “Stumbling, Stuttering Uncle” Joe Biden to fill that role. While Biden is no Ronald Reagan, perhaps he will do until the next blithely optimistic doppelganger gets here.


           As William Faulkner wrote somewhere: “The past isn’t dead. In fact, the past isn’t even the past.” Indeed. Or as Mark Twain wrote somewhere: “Maybe history doesn’t repeat itself but it certainly rhymes.”  

           Of course as Perlstein points out, the ugliness of America was still there, even though buried beneath platitudes of pompous patriotic drivel. Three female Episcopalian deacons were banned from performing their official duties because they were …. women. In Jamaica, Queens “a criminal gang of police sergeants had extorted $250,000 from legitimate business owners.” And in Los Angeles, cops were buying bulletproof vests with their own money because they were being shot frequently and the police department wouldn’t buy the vests. It was also the year when Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson as a homicidal vigilante, became one of the most profitable movies of all time. . [274, Perlstein] And Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, asserted “the same kind of people who were paid to do the dirty work in Watergate were paid to so the dirty work in the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations.” [276’ Perlstein] As Malcolm X use to say, you would have to be asleep to believe the American dream, which was actually a nightmare.


           
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Sunday, March 1, 2020

No Country for Old Men? Violence, Bloodshed, and American Politics


No Country for Old Men? Violence, Bloodshed, and American Politics
Peter Schultz

            Americans like to think that our political order is somewhat peaceful, running along fueled by elections every two years and presidential elections every four years. There are debates, sometimes nasty, and there are scandals like Watergate or Iran-Contra. Sometimes presidents resign (once), sometimes presidents step down or don’t seek re-election (once in recent years, LBJ), sometimes a president is not re-elected (twice in recent years, Carter and Bush I). But by and large, people think of the American political order as non-violent and bloodless, even if not exactly peaceful.

            The facts, however, tell a different story, a very different story. In fact, violence and bloodshed are central to our political drama, driving it and impacting its character. Consider the following: JFKs presidency was cut short when he was cut down, assassinated in 1963. Certainly this violent bloodshed had a tremendous impact on our politics insofar as LBJ became president. Consider too that LBJ decided – within days of JFKs assassination – to embrace the use of US troops fighting the war in Vietnam. (JFK approved advisers but never the use of ground troops in Nam.) This led to what is called “the quagmire of Vietnam,” which of course had a tremendous impact on the US, including more violence and bloodshed even within the US as happened at Kent State and Jackson State where American soldiers fired upon and killed American citizens. And this violence and bloodshed eventually let to LBJs abdication of the presidency after one full term, along with more violence and bloodshed in Chicago during the Democratic Party’s national convention.

            It also led to the election of Richard Nixon, who continued and even expanded the war in Vietnam to include almost all of Southeast Asia. Nixon engaged in massive violence and bloodshed not only in Vietnam but also in Cambodia and Laos, the former leading to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and its “killing fields.”

            Also, in the late 60s, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, along with alleged “radicals” like Fred Hampton in Chicago. Surely these violent and blood soaked assassinations impacted our politics in significant ways as MLK, Malcolm, and RFK espoused significant political alternatives to the prevailing consensus.

            The violence and bloodshed continued with wars in the Middle East and with the overthrow of the Shah in Iran and, eventually, the taking of American hostages. Even Jimmy Carter turned to violence both in Iran – to try to rescue the hostages – and in Afghanistan – where his administration supported jihadists and other Muslims seeking to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Carter started what became the largest “covert” military action ever undertaken by the CIA.

            The Reagan administration also embraced violence and bloodshed in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas and in Afghanistan where it continued what Carter began, funding the likes of bin Laden, as well as the ISI in Pakistan. The violence and bloodshed in Nicaragua led directly to the Iran-Contra scandal that almost cost Reagan his presidency. Upon his succession to Reagan, George Bush I turned to violence and bloodshed with regard to Panama and, more significantly, with regard to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The latter violence and bloodshed was billed by Bush as liberating the US from what was called “the Vietnam Syndrome,” as well as being the foundation of “a new world order.”

            The Clinton administration embraced violence and bloodshed as well, preferring to label it “humanitarian,” at least in Eastern Europe. It continued the violence against Iraq via sanctions and continued the bloodshed against Iraq with continued and constant bombings. And the Clinton administration even brought violence home via his war on crime that led to the militarization of police forces and the mass incarceration of, primarily, African Americans.

            And then, of course, on 9/11 the violence and bloodshed hit “the homeland,” with the attacks on NYC and the Pentagon. Needless to say, the second Bush administration turned to violence and bloodshed in response to these attacks, using 9/11 as the justification for spying on American citizens, for making war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for torturing “enemy combatants,” et. al. American society was militarized to a degree hitherto unknown, with troops appearing throughout society as well as being glamourized as the protectors of our freedoms and our prosperity. Violence and bloodshed spread throughout the world via the US military, and the phrase “endless wars” became as acceptable as our wars on crime and drugs. The Obama administration continued these wars embraced by the Bush administration, a sign of how deeply indebted our politics was to such violence and bloodshed.

            And yet through all of this history, very few seemed to notice this indebtedness, to the point that the Trump presidency was often presented as a unique challenge to a politics that was, if not always peaceful, devoid of much violence and bloodshed. In fact, however, US politics cannot be understood except as recurring cycles of violence and bloodshed. Which is why perhaps the title of Cormac McCarthy”s book, No Country for Old Men, is a most apt description of the United States.