Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Blowback in Russia?

Blowback in Russia?
P. Schultz
December 31, 2013

            Below is an article from today’s NY Times entitled “Bomb Attacks Echo Threats by Chechen Insurgent.” And it made me think of something I had recently read in a book entitled Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll. Here are some of the relevant passages.

            “Drawing on his experiences running dissident Polish exiles as agents behind Nazi lines, [William] Casey [head of the CIA under Reagan] decided to revive the CIA’s propaganda proposals targeting Central Asia. . . .As [Mohammed] Yousaf recalled it, Casey said that there was a large Muslim population across the Amu Darya [River] that could be stirred to action and could ‘do a lot of damage to the Soviet Union.’ The CIA director talked about the propaganda efforts but went further. Casey said, according to Yousaf, ‘We should take the books and try to raise the local population against them, and you can also think of sending arms and ammunition if possible.’ . . .Robert Gates, Casey’s executive assistant and later CIA director, has confirmed that Afghan rebels ‘began cross-border operations in the Soviet Union itself’ during the spring of 1985. These operations included ‘raising cain on the Soviet side of the border.’ The attacks too place, according to Gates, ‘with Casey’s encouragement.’” [p. 104]

            The CIA, of course, has denied these assertions but as Coll says, “Gates’ account appears unambiguous, and Yousaf’s recollections are precise. It would hardly be unusual for Casey to pursue covert action outside the boundaries of presidential findings. . . .And as Gates reflected later, referring more generally to his sense of mission, Casey had not come to the CIA ‘with the purpose of making it better, managing it more effectively, reforming it, or improving the quality of intelligence. . . . Bill Casey came to the CIA primarily to wage war against the Soviet Union.’” [p. 105]
            So, perhaps, the current terrorism has it roots at least partially in Bill Casey’s war against the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviet Union is gone but Russia remains, as do some Muslims who are still willing and able to make war against Russia. And perhaps the “rewards” of Casey’s belligerence will be felt at the Olympics in Sochi. But then when you are willing “to play hardball,” these are the kinds of repercussions you should expect. They are the price of making war covertly or, as some might say, of encouraging terrorists to do your bidding.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Truman and the Bomb, Part 3

Truman and the Bomb, Part 3
P. Schultz
December 27, 2013

“The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.” Herbert Hoover, the day before the bombing of Nagasaki.

“I could not put into words the shock I felt from the news that a city of hundreds of thousands of people had been destroyed by a single bomb. That awful event and its successor at Nagasaki sank into my soul, and they sank into the souls of all of us, whether we recognize it or not.” Bishop of Seattle, Raymond Huntshauser.

“The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness [but] it is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as on an individual level.” Judith Herman, psychiatrist.

The United States “adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.” Admiral Leahy, chief of staff to the president [Truman].

“The readiness to use nuclear weapons….is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity – and indignity of monstrous dimensions – offered to God.” George F. Kennan, “A Christian’s View of the Arms Race.”

            Gar Alperovitz concludes his book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, by arguing that we cannot know, at least not yet, why Truman decided to use the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945. He goes through the reasons most often offered, the military reasons, the political reasons, the economic reasons, the governmental/bureaucratic reasons, and the diplomatic reasons. But he modestly asserts that we cannot know exactly why Truman made the decisions he made, and he did make decisions.

            But perhaps the “why question” is not as important or as interesting as the “what question.” That is, what did Truman do? And as some of the above quotes seem to make clear, what Truman had done was to sin. He committed “a blasphemy” which he “offered to God.” And this is why it revolted Hoover’s soul and why it “sank into [Bishop Huntshauser’s] soul” and, if the Bishop is correct, into “the souls of all of us.” It might be said even that Truman was possessed, that is, possessed by what some human beings have been possessed by throughout recorded history, the dream of possessing god-like power or powers, powers bordering on omnipotence. He possessed the power of fire that seems to originate in the heavens and can be used to cleanse the earth of its scourges. With this god-like fire, Truman would be able to control the world and bring it to a peace that is final and perpetual. In this way, Truman’s actions had little or nothing to do what Admiral Leahy calls “an ethical standard.” Truman was “beyond good and evil,” he was beyond morality. He had entered a different kind of realm altogether, the realm of sin.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Truman and the Bomb, Part 2

Truman and the Bomb, Part 2
P. Schultz
December 26, 2013

"The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” Genghis Khan

            For a fascinating, if excruciatingly detailed, account of the decision to drop two A bombs on Japanese, for the ostensible purpose of ending World War II and saving the lives, allegedly, of a million human beings, both American and Japanese, read Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. In summary, Alperovitz argues convincingly that the myth that the bombs were needed to avoid an invasion of the Japanese homeland, an invasion that would claim the lives of, say, a million Americans and Japanese is just that, a myth, and one that was propagated with purpose after the war. Former Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote, with the aid of George McBundy, an article for Harpers magazine that stifled almost all criticism of Truman’s decision to drop not one, but two atomic bombs on Japan.

            And another factor that influenced Truman to use the bomb was his desire to be able to dictate the terms of the post-war peace, especially with regard to the terms of that peace with the Soviet Union. In fact, the first time Stimson informed Truman of the existence of the Manhattan project was in the context of his conducting diplomacy with the Soviets and not in the contest of ending the war with Japan.

            And while this is all very interesting, it seems to me that Alperovitz overlooks one possible motivation Truman may have had, that which is illustrated by the quote above which has been attributed to Genghis Khan. There is pleasure in what might called “righteous killing,” killing of those who deserve it, killing that is, in the strictest possible sense, justified! Was this among Truman’s motivations? It is, of course, impossible to say with certainty. But it seems to me that when a man describes his enemy as beast-like, as despicable, then there is a good chance that their killing would be perceived as righteous.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Truman and The Bomb

Truman and the Bomb
P. Schultz
December 23, 2013

            Of late, I have been reading a book entitled The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, by Gar Alperovitz. It makes for fascinating reading although it is a bit too detailed and repetitive for my tastes. Of course, Alperovitz’s argument is that the idea that using the atomic bomb against Japan was a “military necessity” is a myth, one created by those who controlled the bomb and decided to use it against two Japanese cities.

            It is, Alperovitz makes clear, to almost everyone now and was clear to almost everyone in 1945, including those most responsible for using the bomb, Harry Truman and James F. Byrnes, that Japan was on the brink of surrender, was looking for a way to surrender, and would have surrendered in a few months after the Russians had entered the war against Japan or the United States had agreed to “clarify” what “unconditional surrender” meant. The Japanese were holding out for reassurances that the Emperor would be preserved and would not be charged with war crimes. And Truman, for a while after becoming president, was moving in this direction but then changed course and this despite the fact that almost all of his advisors were in favor of such a clarification. Even the higher ranking members of the military branches did not think using the bomb was militarily necessary, but, most strangely, they were not consulted for their opinions.

            So why did Truman decide to use the bomb? Interestingly, Alperovitz concludes that there is no really clear answer to this question and that several proposed answers are not persuasive. For example, some have argued that Truman was afraid of a political, read popular, backlash were he to appear to compromise with the Japs, as all officials called them then. But this argument is a stretch, to say the least. Moreover, as noted above, Truman knew that the Japanese were on the brink of surrender and probably would have if only he had been willing to protect the Emperor.

            So, why did Truman use the bomb? Apparently, it had something to do with post war concerns, especially concerns about the Soviet Union and how it would be possible to deal with it in order to prevent the spread of communism, especially throughout Europe. But even this reasoning is less than explanatory insofar as there were other ways to impress upon the Russians the power of this “new explosive,” as it was called.

            I am tempted to speculate that there is something about government, as we moderns know it, or something about what we call “executive power” that facilitated Truman’s decision to use the bomb. What this “something” is, however, I cannot say but suspect that “government” masks and, hence, facilitates extremism, especially an extremism in the use of power. As Alperovitz points out, basing his observations on the reports of those who were in contact with Truman on the day and in the days following the successful testing of “S1”, as it was labeled, there was a kind of giddiness in Truman’s manner, almost as if Truman was using drugs.

From the diary of Stimson, the Secretary of War: “I then went to the “Little White House” [used during the Potsdam Conference] and saw President Truman. I asked him to call in Secretary [of State] Byrnes and then I read the report [from General Groves of the successful test] in its entirety and we then discussed it. They were immensely pleased. The President was tremendously pepped up by it and spoke to me of it again and again when I saw him.” [p. 250]

And then this from Truman’s journal for July 25th: “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.” [ibid.] And from Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell: “The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying….” And from physicist Ernest O. Lawrence: “The grand, indeed almost cataclysmic proportion of the explosion produced a kind of solemnity in everyone’s behavior immediately afterwards. There was restrained applause, but more a hushed murmuring bordering on reverence in manner as the event was commented upon….” [p. 251]

An event of biblical proportions, as it were, left those witnessing it feeling reverence and awe, while it left Truman, who would wield this new power, “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world,” feeling “pepped up.” Even Winston Churchill noticed, without yet knowing why as he had not been informed of the successful test, a change in Truman’s behavior at the conference.

Again, to Stimson’s diary: “He [Churchill] told me that he had noticed at the meeting of the Three [Stalin, Churchill and Truman] yesterday that Truman was evidently much fortified by something that had happened and that he stood up to the Russians in a most emphatic and decisive manner…..Now I know what happened to Truman yesterday.” [p. 260] And in fact, according to the diary of Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the British General Imperial Staff, Churchill succumbed to the same feelings: “[The Prime Minister] had absorbed all the minor American exaggerations….and, as a result, was completely carried away….The secret of this explosive and the power to use it would completely alter the diplomatic equilibrium which was adrift since the defeat of Germany….” [p. 260]

Let me add what I think is important: The “new explosive” did not create the feelings that Truman and Churchill displayed here. Rather, it gave them what they thought would be the opportunity to satisfy those feelings. That is, if given the opportunity, Truman and Churchill wanted to and would “lord it over” the Russians – and any other nation, by the way. And it is this feeling, this desire that “government” reveals in the souls of human beings: The feeling, the desire to rule others, to lord it over others, by exercising “governmental power.” “Government” legitimizes those who seek to lord it over others.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Arrogance of Power

The Arrogance of Power
P. Schultz
December 19, 2013

            Senator William Fulbright wrote a book entitled The Arrogance of Power. And as the title seemed appropriate then, when the United States was bombing Vietnam “back into the stone age,” so it seems appropriate yet again. Here is the lead paragraph from an article in the New York Times today.

“The American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, landed in this besieged capital early on Thursday with what she called a blunt and simple message: The United States is watching.”

            What could be stranger than the message, “The United States is watching,”
especially given our wonderfully successful interventions throughout the past few decades and most recently in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. I think Samantha Power is either (a) a good comedian or (b) so arrogant as to be delusional. As she is an academic, I am going with (b).

            There is a link to the article below.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Nixonland", Part III: I Get It Now

Nixonland, Part III: I Get It Now
P. Schultz
December 15, 2013 [Posted from Gulf Shores, Alabama]

            In describing Bobby Kennedy’s campaign after he decided to jump into the contest in 1968, Rick Perlstein, in Nixonland, wrote the following:

            “In Nashville, then Georgia and Alabama and Kansas, Bobby Kennedy launched his campaign tacking right, condemning those who ‘burn and loot.’ He also opened a vein of astonishing vituperation at the president of the United States. He spoke of his proposed commission to settle Vietnam: ‘I wanted Senator Mansfield, Senator Fulbright, and Senator Morse….And the president … wanted to appoint General Westmoreland, John Wayne, and Martha Raye.’ He quoted Tacitus to describe Johnson’s war: ‘They made a desert and called it peace.’
            “This was supposed to be the heartland, where disloyalty to the commander in chief in wartime was tantamount to treason. But the people were eating it up. They seemed to share with the tousle-haired charismatic a bracing sense of catharsis – finally free to release bottled-up anger at Vietnam.” [pp. 245-46]

            But the rage here, allegedly felt by Kennedy and in the “heartland,” was not being directed at “Vietnam;” rather, it was being directed at Johnson. Note well the phrase here, “Johnson’s war.” Kennedy’s vituperation directed at Johnson made him, Johnson, the issue and not the war as a policy of the United States and what that policy meant for and about the United States. By doing this, Kennedy directed attention away from the war itself as a problematic phenomenon, as an illustration of, say, the imperialistic or hubristic character of US foreign policy following World War II. Hence, as the “problem” was Johnson and not imperialism, the “solution” was simple: Remove Johnson! And, further, there would be no need to question the character of the American political order as it existed and as it was acting after World War II.

            What did I finally “get” here? Well, just that a politics of personal vituperation is quite consistent with preserving the status quo. And such a politics is of this character because it directs attention away from what may and should be called “political questions of the first order.” So, in fact, Kennedy was tacking to “the right” in both domestic and foreign affairs and quite consistently at that. Domestically, the “problem” was arsonists and looters. If they could be controlled, all would be well in the nation. With regard to Vietnam, the “problem” was Johnson and if he could be jettisoned, then all would be well in Vietnam. In fact, all we needed to “solve” the “Vietnam problem” was a commission! Why anyone did or could take this seriously as a policy is, for me, inconceivable. It even seems laughable. But it is what happens when people fail to address political questions of the first order.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Nixonland", Part II

Nixonland, Part II
P. Schultz
December 13, 2013

            Some more interesting stuff from Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, is found in the places where Perlstein is considering the 1966 congressional elections. In those elections, Perlstein argues, Richard Nixon took on LBJ and he waxes eloquent over how Nixon “played” LBJ, got him to display anger when LBJ did not intend to. To wit: “All the needling, all that playing to Johnson’s deepest anxieties, had paid off: a providential loss of control, a huge strategic blunder.” [p. 161]

            But Perlstein barely notes that throughout this time, there were virtually no differences of substance between LBJ and Nixon on the war itself and how it should be conducted. The one notice is as follows: “Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon kept a careful eye on the polls, and they both knew that even where the war was the most unpopular, withdrawal was the most poisonous option you could mention. It made America look cowardly. The Times [by publishing Nixon’s critique of LBJ’s Manila Communiqué] had sacralized a Nixon con job.”

            As if the Times wasn’t aware of this? As if LBJ wasn’t aware of Nixon’s game? This seems a bit more than implausible, although to present the events at Perlstein does make them very dramatic, exciting even. It has all the makings of a Hollywood script.

            But consider an alternative. If LBJ knew his differences with Richard Nixon were miniscule or even non-existent; if he knew there were others seeking power who did have significant differences with him over the war; if these differences were such that were those others to gain power the politics of the nation would change significantly; if we make these assumptions, which are not implausible, then why shouldn’t LBJ play Nixon’s game?  

            Given that there were others, not including Richard Nixon, who had significant differences with LBJ over how the nation had been and should be governed, the debate over the war did not pit LBJ against Nixon; rather, it pitted the established political class against those who would overthrow that class, that “establishment.” In other words, the debate over the war masked another, more significant debate, a debate over what we would label today the desirability of “regime change.” And in this debate, LBJ and Nixon were on the same side.

            So, yes, Perlstein’s description is correct: After LBJ’s “outburst” there was “fireworks.” [p.160] This is a very apt description. And it underlines, perhaps unintentionally, that there wasn’t any real debate between Johnson and Nixon about the war and what it meant. This conclusion is supported by the fact that after the “outburst,” Nixon made the issue “a referendum on President Johnson’s temperament as leader of a nation at war.” [p. 163, emphasis added] So, as framed by Nixon, the issue was Johnson, not the war itself, which of course allowed people to vote against Johnson and the Democrats without voting against the war. Even Johnson would like this.

            And the results of those elections? “Twenty-seven of Johnson’s forty-eight Democratic freshmen were swept out – the class that had brought America the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and federal aid to education.” Further: “By one estimate the power of the conservative coalition in Congress – including both Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans – doubled.” [p. 164]

            Now, as opposition to the war was growing, and as the nation seemed at times to be in flames or beset by rioting – either phenomena that could lead to “regime change” – would such results be unwelcome by the predominant political class? Would such election results make it harder or easier for LBJ to continue his Vietnam policies? Would such election results make significant political change in the United States more or less likely? The answers are obvious.

            So, it is worth speculating that LBJ knew what he was doing after all. Perhaps he even sensed that it would be unlikely that he would a candidate for president in 1968 and he was setting the table, so to speak, so that the election of 1968 would not be or become what would be called a “crucial election,” ala’ 1800, 1832, 1860, or 1932. Certainly, given a man with LBJ’s political instincts, such a possibility could plausibly be labeled a probability. Nixon may have “played” Johnson, but perhaps LBJ “played” everyone while doing what was, at least in his mind, a service to his country.

"Nixonland" and Goldman

“Nixonland” and Goldman
P. Schultz
December 13, 2013

            I have been reading two books of late, Eric Goldman’s The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson and Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. Below are some passages from these books followed by some comments meant to illuminate our politics and politics in general.

            Goldman was hired by LBJ to put together a group of scholars and other “thoughtful Americans” in order to help the president understand what was going on and what he might do about it. This was to be done covertly for reasons that are not clear and were not clear to Goldman. However, Goldman polled several “thoughtful Americans,” asking them what “the general thrust” of LBJ’s administration should be. Each of these people came back with pretty much the same recommendation: LBJ should seek to rejuvenate the nation morally, an argument that Goldman himself liked, as he had thought “the modern president [has] tremendous power in setting public standards, and it had long seemed to [him] that the White House has been using the power too little.” [p. 139]

            Now, this led me to the following thoughts. First, although Goldman takes this consensus as a good thing and saw little need to question it, couldn’t it be argued that questions are precisely what are needed in the face of such a consensus? That is, where consensus appears, questions need to be raised and should be raised, especially when it comes to politics and political action.

            Second, one of the respondents quoted Woodrow Wilson, on the possibility of the president being a visionary, one “who can speak what no man else knows.” [p. 141] Again, Goldman cites this approvingly but couldn’t one say that this understanding of the presidency accounts for some of the dissatisfaction these respondents were reacting to? Given that Wilson’s understanding of the presidency had been “operational” at least since the New Deal, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to wonder if it played any role in the dissatisfaction being experienced?

            Thirdly, it is worth asking how these recommendations would work out in practice. That is, how does one appeal to moral or aesthetic standards while bombing in Vietnam or “tilting” toward Pakistan against East Pakistan despite a genocide being undertaken by Pakistan? These questions need addressing because we are talking about “government,” which as we know it was created by Machiavelli, among others, and Machiavelli was not known as a “moralist,” as one who took morality seriously. If “the prince” does not “learn how not to be good,” he will fail. Therefore, “the prince” must practice immorality, perhaps even inhumanity, in order to succeed. How is this to be reconciled with the idea that the government should lead a moral rejuvenation of a nation?

            This aspect of government should be kept in mind when considering JFK’s “general thrust,” which Goldman approved of. “Kennedy made ‘leadership for the 60’s’ a slogan [and] preached future like a new religion. ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do….If we stand still here at home, we stand still around the world….I promise no sure solutions, no easy life….’ Kennedy styled himself the very incarnation of youth: of action, of charisma, of passion, of risk-taking, stylishness and idealism and even heedlessness.” [Nixonland, Rick Perlstein, pp. 57-58]

            Read with Machiavelli in mind, Kennedy’s rhetoric and “style” take on an interesting “tone” in that the purpose or one purpose of “government” was to free human beings, legitimize human beings, and encourage human beings to act immorally, even inhumanly. This is what we call “the vigorous exercise of power” or what Alexander Hamilton called “energetic government.” Those wielding power should do so with little restraint, for their immorality and inhumanity will be redeemed by the results. And this points to the modern understanding of redemption: It comes not from renouncing worldly power, but by seizing it and using it ruthlessly, passionately, dangerously, stylishly, and heedlessly. These are the “virtues” needed on the “New Frontier” as well as those needed to build the “Great Society.”

            And yet…..we have to wonder how this all works out in practice. Here is an interesting passage from Nixonland: “The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist…has no name – but lives on every page. It is the voter who in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.” [p. xiii]

            Exactly! The voters did what the political class wanted them to do, viz., support the status quo or, as it was grandiosely put then, protect “civilization.” And this helps to give the game away, that many, perhaps even all, of the reforms undertaken by LBJ were undertaken in order to preserve rather than overturn the status quo. And so, when some, e.g., the New Left or the Black Power types, did not buy into these reforms or the new, allegedly “reformed” social order, the political class, both liberals and conservatives, rallied round the flag to preserve the status quo or, as they put it, “civilization.”

            And this new consensus of liberals and conservatives, who embraced such “thrusts” as “law and order,” illustrates that the reforms that were so highly touted did not go very deep. As Perlstein does a good job of pointing out, “white terror” preceded “black terror,” and was nothing new in the United States. When real attempts, which tried to cut deeper, were undertaken, for example, attempts to actually integrate schools or actually integrate neighborhoods, then the “backlash” began and was embraced across the political spectrum. It was as if to say, “Oh, no, that isn’t what we meant by ‘civil rights.’ Blacks are to have rights, yes. But they are to enjoy those rights in their own schools, in their own neighborhoods, not in ours. We only intended to replace ‘separate but equal’ with ‘equal but separate.’ Nothing more and nothing less.”

Monday, December 9, 2013

An American Melodrama

An American Melodrama
P. Schultz
December 9, 2013

            Of late, I have been reading the book, An American Melodrama, written by three Brits on the 1968 presidential election shortly after it was over. Below are some passages therefrom, followed by some comments by yours truly which I think help illuminate the character of American politics.

            “The Great Society was not the most daring, but is was perhaps the most bellicose program of social reform in history. It was to be a war on poverty. Federal funds were to be ‘fired in’ to pockets of poverty in what was known…as ‘the rifle-shot approach’….On…occasion, [LBJ] actually spoke of ‘throttling want.’ It was as if the President and the comfortable middle class…who supported…his program were intolerably affronted by the impudent persistence of poverty, rather than concerned at the condition of the poor.
                  “The same initial burst of aggressive confidence characterized the 1963 and 1964 efforts of the Administration and…the great foundations to destroy segregation and ‘achieve integration.’ The Congress did pass a long schedule of reform legislation, pieces of which…are probably of historic importance. But it is fair to say that this program was sold more energetically than it was carried out and that is was, from the start, more aggressive than radical. The Administration’s approach seemed curiously industrial. A problem was identified: in this case, there are too many poor people in the United States. Right. Let the problem be bulldozed out of existence. Experts were consulted and [they] suggested ‘solutions.’ These suggestions were priced and a carefully graduated ‘mix’ of ‘programs’ applied. Elaborate public-relations antics were directed where persuasion was thought necessary – to Congress; to the press, of course; even in certain instances to the proposed recipients, if they proved recalcitrant. Finally, quantitative estimates of success…were proudly produced.
                  “But the point of social reform…ought not to be to push x million people above some notional ‘poverty line.’ As poverty is relative, so there can be no useful ‘attack’ on it that does not involve the effective redistribution of goods, services, and wealth. But redistribution hurts. It demands hard decisions. And these the Johnson Administration did not seem willing to make. Indeed, it is very doubtful whether the classes that exercise power in the United States really want to abolish poverty, or any other major social problem if it is going to mean paying a price that will hurt. And it is hubristic to think you can conquer problems that have never been conquered before, however rich you are, if you are not prepared to pay a price to do so.” [Pp. 41-41]

                  A few comments:
(1)  The war on poverty was “conservative” in that it was an alternative to more radical options such as “the redistribution of goods, services, and wealth.” The authors write, though, as if the politicians and others involved here did not know this, while it seems just as likely that they, the politicians, did know that their approach was “curiously industrial,” and deliberately so. After all, had they adopted other, more radical approaches, they would have been admitting that poverty was not an unintentional result of their way of governing, their brand of politics, but was endemic to their “political system.” The notion of “pockets of poverty,” which allegedly could be “throttled” with some extra effort, reflects the self-satisfying view that poverty in the United States can be explained without indicting the social and political system itself.

(2)  The authors also say that “redistribution hurts,” that it “demands hard decisions” and involves “paying a price that will hurt.” And they also suggest that even though Americans are rich, they “are not prepared to pay [the] price” needed to conquer poverty. No doubt they are correct about the price that needs to be paid. But “the price” would not only be expensive monetarily; it would also be “expensive” to some politically as it would require political “realignment,” to say the least. That is, once the phenomenon of poverty is seen as systemic, then different experts would need to be consulted, different “solutions” suggested, to be implemented by politicians and bureaucrats with very different opinions than those currently entrusted with power. But by recommending “bellicose” policies aimed at “throttling” poverty, the predominant players present themselves as serious social reformers and not, as it actually the case, as supporters of the status quo. Waging war is, as every politician knows even without reading Machiavelli, one way of maintaining the status quo.

(3)  Most of this status quo approach to politics is facilitated by the “curiously industrial” approach as described by these authors. Once poverty is identified as “a problem,” and especially as a problem that exists in “pockets,” into which “programs” can “fired” and therefore “attacked,” the focus is on poverty, and not on its systemic roots. And, moreover, by this mindset, the current elites just need sufficient power to successfully attack and throttle poverty. That is, there is no need to redistribute, rearrange, or redirect power; it is only necessary to grant more of it. And any connection between the current elites and their brand of politics and the phenomenon of poverty is severed.

(4)  This is the same mindset that was evident with regard to the Vietnam War. That is, it was said, and is still being said, over and over and over, that the then predominant players just needed more power to solve the problem of Communist aggression in South Vietnam. That describing Vietnam as a “problem” was less than useful; that what was called “Communist aggression” was something else altogether; that the place Americans called “South Vietnam” was merely an illusion; all of this does not matter or went unrecognized given our predominant mindset, as laid out here in this book.

(5)  And, of course, by merely “pulling out” of the war on poverty or other wars does nothing to change this predominant mindset. The questions that need to be raised are not raised, a fact that might not escape the notice of politicians committed to maintaining the status quo, politicians like Bill Clinton who has won acclaim as a politician for making the Democratic Party “relevant” again by being a “new Democrat.” And, not surprisingly, Clinton is followed by an allegedly “conservative” president who gives us “No Child Left Behind,” built on the same reasoning that underlay LBJ’s Great Society, which is then followed on by a “Race to the Top” by an allegedly “liberal” Democrat president. Under these circumstances, it is exceedingly difficult to take what passes for political debate in the United States seriously. And it should be said that the bellicose rhetoric that characterizes that debate currently serves the same purpose as was served by the bellicose character of the war on poverty or the war on crime – it serves to preserve the status quo.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Douthat, the "Conservatives," and the Pope

Douthat, the “Conservatives,” and the Pope
P. Schultz
November 30, 2013

It is difficult to get a grip on what Douthat takes to be the debate over Francis’ apparent agenda with regard to the Catholic Church. [See the link below to Douthat’s column in the NY Times.] And I think this is consistent with what is probably Douthat’s intention or his effect: To paint a picture of Francis that will blur the most significant differences between him and those Douthat labels “conservatives.” If that can be accomplished then Francis can be “tamed,” and his agenda can be made to look like merely a footnote to what is called “the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

            What would this accomplish, you may ask? Well, if accomplished, then it short circuits attempts to create controversy with its inevitable accompaniment, questions about the way we humans have chosen to be in the world. That is, insofar as this works, then it would appear that there are no fundamental questions about the way we humans have arranged our world, especially “economically,” as we like to say.

[Whether there is such a thing as an “economy” I will leave to others to debate, but I will say that this is a legitimate question. For example, isn’t it interesting how many questions, like “What should wages be?” get turned into “economic” questions, rather than, say, questions of justice? “You want a just wage, you say? Well, that is idiotic. There is no such thing economically speaking.” But perhaps this is precisely what was the intended when the “economic sphere” was created.]

So, in order to short circuit any attempt to get people to think about “capitalism,” as it is conventionally called – although Aristotle might well call it “oligarchy” – what some are trying to do is to appear to embrace and then characterize Francis as little more than another traditional Catholic, whose agenda presents some wrinkles but no fundamental challenges to our conventional wisdom. That way, as noted above, no one will get the idea that it is legitimate and even reasonable to think that “capitalism” is a fundamentally flawed human arrangement. And if I am not mistaken, I think Francis is aware of this and, hence, he has undertaken to get “his message out” via interviews and other means available to him. Still, it will be a tough row to hoe for Francis insofar as the forces that be never roll over, unless it is to play dead. I can only hope that having opened what the “conservatives” take to be “Pandora’s Box” that Francis can keep it open and, thereby, challenge and even change our way of being in this world.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Romanticism of "Realism"

The Romanticism of “Realism”
P. Schultz
November 27, 2013

            The following is a quote from that foremost “realist,” Henry Kissinger: “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” [p. 150 in Ted Szulc’s The Illusion of Peace, an account of foreign policy during the Nixon administration. I highly recommend this book as an overview, a detailed overview of Nixon’s foreign policies.]

            There is much that could and should be said about this quote. For example, how Kissinger reduces Vietnam, first, to “North Vietnam” and then to “a little fourth-rate power.” It should have been clear to almost anyone that with this perspective, it was utterly unsurprising that this “little fourth-rate power” kicked the butt of the United States. Talk about an underestimation of one’s enemy! And it is disguised as a “sophisticated analysis” by someone who was reputed to be extremely intelligent.

            But here is something even more interesting: It wasn’t that “little fourth-rate power” that broke. Rather, it was the superpower, the United States of America, that “broke.” Or, to be more precise, it was the superpower, the United States of America that broke first. Now, when this happens, that is, when a prediction proves to be the opposite of what was predicted, it would seem to behoove the predictor to take notice and to try to reassess his or her premises. Here, we have a very “educated” man, Henry Kissinger, author of books on nuclear strategy, professor of political science at Harvard University, making a prediction or assumption that proved to be, well, just plain wrong. In fact, not only was his prediction wrong; his prediction was so wrong that the eventuality was the reverse of what he had predicted. It was not that “little fourth-rate power,” North Vietnam, that broke. Rather, it was that “great power,” the United States of America that broke first.

            Now, this would, I submit, lead a modest human being to question the assumptions that led to his prediction or his supposition. But not so with Dr. Henry Kissinger. He knew, he just knew that “a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam” had “a breaking point.” He just knew this, just as he knew that a society that utilized cars was “better,” was “stronger” than one that utilized bicycles! After all, cars are “more” than bicycles, aren’t they? So, those societies with cars had to be “more” than those societies with bicycles. And the society with cars had to be able to defeat any society with bicycles. It was, in fact, unthinkable that a society that utilized bicycles, that was inundated with “peasants,” could defeat a society that utilized cars and was devoid, utterly devoid of “peasants.” This was a thought that could not be thought.

            And yet, and yet, it happened. So, we should ask: What happened? That is, what actually happened? How did this happen? How can we explain this happening? But we don’t. Despite as much evidence as we need to raise these questions, we don’t. That which is unthinkable is still unthinkable…..and we go on like a leper without a bell!


P. Schultz
November 27, 2013

            These “analysts” are just amazing, aren’t they? Here is a column by Dana Milbank claiming and objecting to the fact that the Obama administration is now using its own photographers to snap pictures, and not using or allowing the press’ own photographers to shoot these pictures. OK. Sounds a little paranoid to me.

            But then Milbank goes on to argue that this policy “smacks of propaganda.” Again, I have no objection to this argument but wonder: Has Milbank not noticed that propaganda surrounds the presidency? I mean “Hail to the Chief”. What is that, if not propaganda? The White House: What is that if not propaganda? The “State of the Union” address: What is that if not propaganda?

            Moreover, what is even more interesting is that Milbank has no idea or displays no knowledge of the fact that what is called “the modern presidency” has always needed propaganda to function properly. This was recognized by those who helped create the modern presidency, the progressives and even by their opponents or those who claimed to be their opponents. Woodrow Wilson argued that statesmanship was, by and large, a matter of rhetoric, that is, of propagandizing for the sake of national unity. He knew such unity was, for the most part and certainly absent of war, artificial, the creation of a mind, no, a visionary using the tools available to make this one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

            And Milbank is worried about some photographs? OK. But contained herein is what strikes me as humorous about Milbank’s column. He complains that the picture[s] of Obama and others the night/day bin Laden was assassinated were doctored, apparently to remove some stuff visible in front of Hillary. So, let me get this straight, Mr. Milbank: You are complaining about these photos being doctored because that is “propaganda,” but you are not complaining about the picture[s] themselves or what they represent: Our president and other high officials taking pleasure in their assassination of bin Laden as if they were watching Jack Bauer take him out! OK. I got it. You just can’t make shit like this up.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Senate Democrats Act!

Senate Democrats Act: Wow!
P. Schultz
November 21, 2013

            Amazing! Senate Democrats have revised the Senate rules in order to short circuit the Republicans’ ability to stop the Senate from acting. I am amazed and surprised, pleasantly so. The link is below.

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Dirty Secret?" Not Here

“Dirty Secret?” Not Here
P. Schultz
November 18, 2013

            Well, folks, here it is, of all places in the nation’s paper of record, the New York Times. What is it? Well, finally, someone at that paper has recognized, or finally decided to publish, the “secret” that our “two” political parties are colluding to preserve the status quo.

            The headline is “Dirty Secret Lurks in the Struggle Over the Grand Bargain.” And here is one of its earliest and most important assertions: 

“That is, many Republicans are no more interested in voting to reduce Medicare and Social Security benefits than Democrats are, lest they threaten their party’s big advantage among the older voters who dominate the electorate in midterm contests like those in 2014.

“And Democrats are no more eager than Republicans, with control of both houses of Congress up for grabs, to vote for the large revenue increases that a grand bargain would entail. They do not want to limit popular but costly deductions, as Mr. Obama and past bipartisan panels, like his Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, have proposed. That is especially true for Democrats from states like California and New York where affluent voters value deductions for mortgages on first and second homes, charitable giving and state and local taxes.”

            Bottom line: We don’t actually have two political parties. Rather, we have, as some have noticed, a political class. And that political class is more concerned with keeping its power, which requires preserving the status quo as they see it, than with governing, assuming of course that “governing” means acting in the national interest or for what is called here the financial well being of the nation.

            And I love the following quote:

“It’s a lot harder than you’d think to find Republicans who’d actually want to cut entitlements, or Democrats who want to raise taxes,” said Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and now a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The only person who seems to have consistently been interested in a grand bargain is the president, and frankly I’m not even sure about him.”

            Finally, someone calling a spade a spade, although why Mr. Bernstein hesitates to include Obama in the political class is beyond me. What has he done to warrant any other opinion? Help me here because I cannot think of anything. Here is the link.