Monday, June 30, 2014

Outlaw Platoon II: The Politics of War

Outlaw Platoon II: The Politics of War
P. Schultz
June 30, 2014

            As the their stay in Afghanistan continued, the Outlaw Platoon found itself increasingly frustrated, both by its enemies, by its allies, and by other US Army personnel. There was, for example, a distinction between the platoon and those who were called “Fobbits,” or those who never left the FOB Bermel [forward operating base] and who seemed to take pleasure in making light of the platoon and its activities. When the platoon would return from its operations, the Fobbits took pleasure in cracking jokes about the condition of their vehicles. This created ill will between the two groups, which seemed to grow as time went by.

            But the platoon was also increasingly frustrated by the behavior of their allies, the Afghans. As Parnell reports it, this spilled over on July 4th, when the platoon returned from an engagement in which they were rocketed and could not return fire because the enemy was launching its rockets from Pakistan.

            “Late that afternoon, we returned to Bermel through the Afghan National Army side of the base. The ANA soldiers had spent the day inside the wire. We passed knots of them playing dice games and kicking soccer balls. Here and there, others sat in the dirt with vacant eyes, smoking hash. Their polyglot uniforms were ill tended. They were poorly groomed. They looked like a unit that didn’t give a shit.
            “From my turret, Christ Brown exploded, ‘You motherfuckers! Fight for your own goddamned country.’
            “Brown, knock it off,’ I said.
            “Fuck them! We’re out every day getting shit on, and they’re in here playing soccer.’” [p. 254]

            Parnell, although he tries to shut Brown up, knows that Brown is correct. As he puts it: “This was Afghanistan’s revolution, not ours. We had fought our war for independence. With great leaders like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, we had thrown off the yoke of terror and oppression and forged a new era…. But who was the Afghan Washington? Hamid Karzai? Give me a break.” [p. 255]

            But while Parnell knows that Brown is correct, he does not see that not only is Brown correct but that his description of the situation, as well as Parnell’s own description, points to the futility of America’s war in Afghanistan. And this lack of insight on Parnell’s part has implications for his own well-being insofar as it blinds him to certain phenomena. Parnell thinks, for example, that the death he sees around him is affecting him adversely, making him and the platoon depressed and increasingly anemic. And he is correct.

            But it is not just the death that is affecting him. It is also the futility of the entire “project” which is affecting him and his men. They may not know but they certainly sense the futility of their war. They may not know but they sense that change, real change, “revolutionary” change in Afghanistan is beyond their power to accomplish. It is this that led Parnell and his platoon to become depressed, angry, and anemic. These men were experiencing the same feelings that the soldiers in Vietnam experienced and that led them to say, when something bad happened such as the death of a buddy, “Don’t mean nothin’.” In a strange way, this phrase, “Don’t mean nothing,’” was a way of trying to preserve one’s sanity in the face of what appeared to be simply futile, what would otherwise appear to be madness.

            Parnell – and his platoon – don’t see that their feelings are, first, appropriate given their situation and, second, point to the delusional character of American policy in Afghanistan. For some reason, Parnell severs the connection between his feelings and the policies that give rise to those feelings. And so he tends to think that he should deal with his feelings in what might be called a “psychological way,” for example, by sharing them with his father as his confidant. [He does this until his mother tells him how his “sharing” is affecting his father and then he stops.] But he does not seem to see the connection between his country’s politics and his feelings.

            As a result, Parnell is hard on himself and keeps retreating to his position as “a leader” in order to suppress his feelings of futility. It is almost as if his feelings cannot be justified or that they reflect on his character, rather than reflecting the delusional character of America’s war in Afghanistan and the war on terror in general. He thinks he has to be “tough” so his men will be “tough” too. But, of course, as he does this, he sinks further and further into depression and repression. As he says in his “Acknowledgments:” “A year after deploying home from Afghanistan, my life was in shambles. Depressed and lost, I had strayed from the warrior path.” [p. 363] He didn’t question, even then, “the warrior path” or whether that path was the right path for America to follow in Afghanistan. Interestingly, he never looked outside himself, and so he could not see how his state of being, his “dis-ease,” was a product of more than his own character.

            And this lack of insight, this inability to question “the warrior path,” is most notable given that he thanks, “first and foremost, [his] loving wife, Laurie,” who “saved [him] and gave [him] purpose,” and who is “the glue that holds our family together and the most wonderfully compassionate person I’ve ever known.” [p. 363] One could be forgiven for thinking that Sean Parnell has been blinded by his faith in “the warrior path,” in “leadership,” and by a politics that values both of these phenomena more highly than the love and compassion that may have saved Lt. Parnell. It is a rather remarkable state of affairs.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Outlaw Platoon: The Irrelevance of American Virtues

Outlaw Platoon: The Irrelevance of American Virtues
P. Schultz
June 28, 2014

            Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan was written by Sean Parnell about the American war in Afghanistan that was initiated after September 11, 2001. It is a revealing and, ultimately, a sad book. It is revealing in its presentation of what American troopers did in Afghanistan, as well as revealing of their virtues, their patriotism, their camaraderie, their skills, and their advance weaponry. But it is sad in that, bottom line, these virtues did not and do not matter when it comes to confronting those we have labeled “terrorists.”  

            Sean Parnell did what, relatively speaking, very few Americans did after 9/11: He decided to become a warrior in the war on terror President Bush had announced after the attacks on 9/11. Parnell was in college, fully ready to leave it in order to enlist in the Army. He was, however, dissuaded by his father, who convinced him to finish college, while participating in ROTC, and then enlist in the war on terror. This is what Sean did. He became a second lieutenant in the US Army and eventually ended up in Afghanistan with the 3d platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, of the 87th Infantry Regiment, a unit that took the name “Outlaw Platoon.” He was moved to write his book by, among others, Horace, who wrote: “Many heroes lived…but all are unknown and unwept, extinguished in everlasting night, because they had no spirited chronicler.”

            As he presents himself and his men, it is impossible not to be impressed. They are patriotic, they are courageous, they are well trained, and they are committed to each other and to their mission. Which only makes their situation – and ours – sadder.

            Why is that? Because these virtues are, to put it bluntly, irrelevant to the outcome of the war on terror or to the war in Afghanistan. Would that it was different but it is not. And this becomes evident very early in the book in two events Parnell describes.

            The first event is a meeting with Major Alam Ghul, who is the commanding officer of an Afghan police force stationed at a place called Bandar, a mountain top base that Parnell and his men use as a base camp while they make forays into the country side. At this meeting, it becomes obvious to Parnell and his men that Major Ghul is untrustworthy. He lies about everything, alleged attacks on the camp, missing weapons and equipment, leading Parnell to write, “How do I work with such a man, let alone fight beside him?” [p. 43] Abdul, Parnell’s interpreter or ‘terp, concludes that Major Ghul had sold the missing weapons and equipment on the black market in order to make money for himself. Parnell comes to agree with this interpretation.

            A couple of observations are relevant here. When Parnell asks Abdul whether he should press Major Ghul, Abdul and one of Parnell’s sergeant, Sgt. Baldwin, tell him not to. As Abdul says, “This is not how business is conducted here.” And Baldwin says, “No point.” So, in fact, Lt. Parnell is powerless to affect how Major Ghul behaves, which could be generalized as an observation the situation of America in Afghanistan: It is pretty much powerless to affect the kind of changes that would be necessary to accomplish its mission there. Insofar as this is correct, the virtues possessed by Parnell and his men are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the outcome of the war in Afghanistan.

            Secondly, Parnell reacts to Major Ghul as if he, Major Ghul, is an American soldier. That is, American soldiers don’t sell their equipment and weapons on the black market, at least not as a matter of course. But Major Ghul – and other Afghanis – do and do so as a matter of course. Parnell, who seems not aware of this fact, does not ask why Major Ghul behaves as he does and assumes that he, Major Ghul, is just a corrupt individual. Once he makes this assumption, others follow, like with the proper training people like Ghul would not behave as Ghul is behaving. But this seems a bit naïve, does it not? Is it training that accounts for the fact that American soldiers don’t sell stuff on the black market? This seems doubtful.

            So what is it about the situation Major Ghul finds himself in that might explain why he sells perfectly good equipment and weaponry on the black market, thereby apparently putting himself and his men at risk? And why do his men, who are also put at risk, not object? But perhaps that is the point: Major Ghul’s behavior does not put him or his men at risk. In fact, perhaps his behavior makes them more secure. Ghul claims that he has received “night letters” from the enemy, that is, death threats from local enemy forces. And as becomes obvious later, these threats were probably made against Ghul’s family as well as Ghul himself. Parnell tells Ghul that he understands Ghul’s circumstances but, of course, he does not. His family is not being threatened with “night letters.” However, such threats are simply how “business is conducted” in Afghanistan and the Americans are powerless to change it, as becomes obvious in the second event, Abdul’s death.

            Parnell is very much attached to Abdul, considering that they are almost “soul mates” in that both were motivated by unjust attacks to join the war on terror. Members of Abdul’s family were killed by the Taliban and, of course, Americans died in large numbers on 9/11. And Parnell trusts Abdul as a virtuous man, a loyal man, and a good man.

            Abdul then receives a “night letter,” which threatens him and his family because he is helping the infidels. After being denied permission to go home to check on his family, Abdul goes anyway but, on the way back, he is killed, shot through the head, execution style. Parnell grieves for his ‘terp and even pins his Ranger pin on Abdul in his coffin. But Parnell does not ask about the meaning of Abdul’s death, that is, it’s meaning for what the Americans think they are doing in Afghanistan. Abdul was hardly typical of most Afghans Parnell presents to us and his death was not preventable. Or perhaps I should say that his death was preventable but only if Abdul quit helping the infidels. So long as he kept helping the Americans, the Americans were powerless to keep him or his family alive. And this helps to illuminate the motivations of Major Ghul while making them seem reasonable, not to say honorable.

We might wish that in Afghanistan waging war on terrorists would be a virtue that would be rewarded, but wishing doesn’t make it so. In fact, wishing it were so makes it more likely that the virtuous, men like Abdul, would die while those who are not virtuous, men like Major Ghul, live. We might wish that the virtues of our young men and women who serve in the war on terror would be relevant to the outcome of that war, but wishing doesn’t make it so. And, again, wishing it were so only increases the likelihood that the virtuous will die while those who are not virtuous live.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Shooting the Elephant, Again

Shooting The Elephant, Again
P. Schultz
June 27, 2014

            A lesson of George Orwell’s short story, “Shooting the Elephant,” is this: If you are “there” – in Burma as the Brits and Orwell were – you have to shoot the elephant. There is no way around it or, put differently, there is only one way around it: Don’t be there. This is Orwell’s lesson.

            This lesson is almost grasped in Anand Gopal’s excellent book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.” Gopal wrote: “the Karzai government was tethered to American aid, incapable of surviving on its own.” [p. 273] True enough but this also means that the U.S. government was tethered to the Karzai government and had to go on that way endlessly or “get out.” These were the only options.

            As Gopal points out, most the funds the US expended in Afghanistan was not for “development and governance” but for military purposes, and that most of this went to “regional strongmen.” This means that the US was actually funding “a network of power outside the state.” And this also means that the Karzai government, to remain in power, had to compete with these strongmen, these warlords, and as a result “the state became criminalized, one of the most corrupt in the world, as thoroughly depraved as the warlords it sought to outflank.” [p. 273]

            Gopal’s language, however, obscures that this corruption was and is endemic to the situation, as illustrated by our “involvement” in Vietnam. It is not “depravity” that led the Karzai government into “corruption,” but rather it was weakness. And that government was weak because it did not have the consent of the people to govern. A strong government cannot be bought because it isn’t money that makes a government strong. It is consent or, more technically, legitimacy. Without consent, any government is weak, no matter how powerful it might appear to be. Even governments that brutalize people are weak as they are constantly teetering on the brink of disintegration. Hence, the need for continuing and increasing brutalization.

            In Afghanistan, the Karzai government had to hide its weakness behind what it and the US claimed was “progress.” But as Gopal shows, “nearly every metric [used] to show progress unravels upon inspection.” For example, of the 740 schools alleged to have been established, 80% were “not operating at all.” Of the 4000 plus teachers employed, most were simply collecting paychecks without teaching.

            But this behavior is not the result of, say, bad intentions or even bad people. It is rather the result of the government’s weakness, its lack of legitimacy, and its need to spend money intended for “development and governance” in other ways in order to stay in power. Building real schools and paying teachers to really teach would not do the trick. As Gopal notes, “Afghanistan…had become a Potemkin country, built almost entirely for show.” [p. 274] Eventually, Washington viewed the Karzai government as “corrupt,” as if that government, or any government in Afghanistan propped up by American aid, had a choice not to behave as it did. What Washington did not realize was that it was its own policies that led to the “corruption” of the Karzai government and that the only alternative to this state of affairs was to “get out.”

            As Gopal notes, as time went on, the warlords who were contesting or supporting Karzai changed. However, the situation did not change, but “the new class of warlords was more sophisticated than their predecessors,” having been “rebranded” as “private security companies,” which of course only fed the corruption by making it look legitimate. Gopal’s illustration: Americans had about 400 bases throughout Afghanistan, which, of course, had to be supplied. This required trucks and the trucks required protection. This meant using the warlords, now labeled “private security guards,” and these “guards” had their own outlays to various groups, including the Taliban, in order to secure the supplies.

            When the Congress learned that “US tax dollars were going to support warlordism, racketeering, and the insurgency,” it promised reform. “But reform was impossible because the new contracting economy was inexorably bound up in the project of counterterrorism.” [p. 275] And “short of bringing in hundreds of thousands of additional soldiers…, there was no other option.” P. 275]

            But Gopal doesn’t go far enough here because, as illustrated by Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of soldiers would not “work” either. The only thing that would “work” was consent or, put differently, a political settlement.” That is, absent a settlement, a real settlement involving all parts of Afghan society, the “quagmire” would continue, endlessly.

            As Orwell saw from his experience in Burma, you have to shoot the elephant; you have no choice, other that is than getting out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Shooting the Elephant

Shooting the Elephant
P. Schultz
June 25, 2014

            I am currently reading a very interesting book, No Good Men Among the Living, by Anand Gopal. This is about, as noted in an earlier post, the American war in Afghanistan and how and why it went awry. Gopal argues that the Americans went about pretty much as blind persons insofar as they did not understand – and showed little interest in understanding – the situation as it existed in Afghanistan in reality. Consumed by the desire to conduct and win “the war on terror,” deluded by the thought that those who were “not with us were against us,” the Americans, who were greeted originally as liberators, ended up being seen as no better than and in some ways worse than the Russians, to say nothing of the Taliban.

            Two paragraphs should suffice to illustrate the blindness of the Americans. To wit:

            “Dr. Hafizbullah, Zurmat’s first governor [and supporter of the Karzai government], had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujadid. Mujadid wound up in Guantanamo because he crossed the Americans. Security Chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Begram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo.

            “No one in this group had been a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Some, like Abdullah Mujadid and Samoud Khan, should have been brought to justice – but that was not Guantanamo’s purpose. Others, like Commander Naim, were precisely the sort of pro-government figures that Washington had wanted to see at the helm of the new Afghanistan. Instead, Zurmat’s mood of hope and reconciliation was rapidly giving way to one of rebellion.” [p. 138]

            With the help of this book, I have finally, after some time of being puzzled, figured out George Orwell’s short story, “Shooting the Elephant.” Here is a summary of that story, with the some nice commentary.

“Despite Orwell’s aversion to shooting the elephant, he becomes suddenly aware that he will lose face and be humiliated if he does not shoot it. He therefore shoots the elephant. The death itself is sustained in excruciating detail. After three shots, the elephant still does not die. Orwell fires his two remaining shots into the elephant’s heart. He sends someone to get his small rifle, then pours “shot after shot into his heart and down his throat.” Still, the elephant does not die. Orwell, unable to stand the elephant’s suffering and unable to watch and listen to it, goes away. The elephant, like the Burmese people, has become the unwitting victim of the British imperialist’s need to save face. No one is stronger for the experience.”
            “No one is stronger for the experience.” Yes, indeed they are not. Nor is anyone better for “the experience.” And note should be taken too of the sentence: “Orwell, unable to stand the elephant’s suffering and unable to watch and listen to it, goes away.” Just as the United States will, sooner or later, leave Afghanistan, with no one the stronger or the better for the war. As Gopal put it: There are “no good men among the living.”

            But it should also be noted that Orwell was forced to confront his illusions because he was on the scene. He was present, as some might say. And this presence forced him to see that what he was doing was futile and inhuman. We Americans, however, are not all that present in Afghanistan and, thanks to our advanced technology, we can go on “shooting the elephants” without ever having to confront, to be present for, the results of our actions. We “shoot the elephants” without actually ever seeing them, except of course as blurs of heat on video screens. We do not hear the screams; we do not witness the suffering of those we are shooting. And as Gopal illustrates so well, we don’t even know if we are actually shooting terrorists or just some people we choose to label “terrorists.”

            And, still, we go on believing that we are the better because we are more technologically advanced than those who lived long ago and some of those who are alive today. It is a most interesting state of affairs.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The War on Terror and Crimes in Afghanistan

The War on Terror and Crimes in Afghanistan
P. Schultz
June 23, 2014

            I am currently reading an interesting book entitled No Good Men Among the Living, by Anand Gopal, which is about Afghanistan and especially about how the war on terror was conducted there after 9/11 by the United States. It makes for some interesting reading.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the American failure in Afghanistan was due to the invasion of Iraq and the lack of attention and military commitment in Afghanistan, Gopal argues that that failure was due to the fact that the Americans did not understand Afghani society, including the Taliban. For example, after the Americans arrived they helped turn Kandahar Airfield, KAF, in a center for Amerian operatons in southern Afghanistan. And as they did this, they turned to an Afghani, Gul Agha Sherzai, an anti-Taliban warlord, for help. As Gopal puts it:

“With Sherzai’s services, the cracked and cratered airstrip blossomed into a massive, sprawling military base, home to one of the world’s busiest airports. KAF would grow into a key hub in Washington’s global war on terror, housing top secret black-ops command rooms and large wire-mesh cages for terror suspects en route to the American prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” [p. 108]

            One result of this growth was that Sherzai became a wealthy man and became “one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan.” And he began “providing the Americans with hired guns” who like the contract soldiers who worked directly for the Americans lived beyond the reach of any law. In return for his access to American dollars, Sherzai provided “intelligence,” that is, alleged intelligence about the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There was only, one small problem: By April 2002, al-Qaeda had fled the country and the Taliban no longer existed.

            But this did not stop Sherzai from providing “enemies” for the Americans to kill or capture. “His personal feuds were repackaged as ‘counterterrorism.’” And Sherzai homed in on one place in particular, the desert district of Maiwand and one of its leading personages, Hajji Burget Khan, in particular. Khan and others were identified as Taliban by Sherzai and taken to KAF where they were deposited in metal cages and made to stand naked in front of American soldiers for “inspection.” They had their beards shorn off and some had their eyebrows removed as well. Despite the fact that he had been a tribal leader and war hero [against the Soviets], Khan was never to be seen alive again, even though Khan had embraced the new American order. When this became evident, some of those arrested with Khan were released and the beginnings of anti-Americanism were evident. But American officials declared that this mission was a success!

            And we wonder why they “hate” us? Really? And this isn’t even the worst of it.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

More on the Quagmire of American Politics

More on the Quagmire of American Politics
P. Schultz
June 22, 2014

            Presently, I am reading a book by Benjamin Ginsberg entitled, “Downsizing Democracy,” in which Ginsburg argues that our democracy has been “personalized” when once it was “politicized.” Ginsberg describes himself as a cynic and, indeed, he is and a thoughtful one at that. His argument that our government has been built in such a way since the rise of the Progressives that it no longer needs to rely on mobilizing the people to govern makes a lot of sense.

            Especially telling is his noticing that although our political elites pretend to be deeply divided and although there are a lot of people who don’t vote, neither of the two major parties shows any interest in increasing the size of the active electorate. “Divided government and political stalemate seem more acceptable to party elites than an effort to shift the balance by activating the politically inert.” [p. 49-50] And he goes on: “Only occasional political outsiders like Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura makes any real effort to bring non-voters into the electorate. Neither of the major parties supports electoral reforms such as the elimination of voter registration requirements or a shift from weekday to weekend voting….The parties’ apparent indifference to this enormous reservoir of potential voters is especially curious in light of the bitter conflicts that divide them….and the inconclusive outcomes of recent electoral contests.” [p. 49]

            This is all well and good. Yet at times, Ginsberg is just too conventional in his analysis. For example, he sees LBJ’s “gradual escalation” of the war in Vietnam as an “effort to sustain consensus among Democrats” and cites Joseph Califano as his source. LBJ’s strategy, by this view, allegedly backfired because as “escalation followed escalation…federal funds flowed away from the War on Poverty to the war in Vietnam.” [p. 70] This strengthened the “resurgent conservative forces in Congress [whose] support for…Vietnam was a federal retreat from social engineering at home.” [Ibid.]

            Now this implies that LBJ had no choice: He had to satisfy these conservatives if he was to continue the Vietnam War. But why did he have to continue that war? Why not go with those who wanted out of Vietnam, some of whom were even members of Johnson’s cabinet? Ginsberg doesn’t answer this question directly but he points us toward an answer.

            As Ginsberg notes in passing, some of those opposed to the war were “student radicals.” That is, they represented a brand of politics LBJ rejected, a brand that his “Great Society” was meant to co-opt. Surprisingly because he is a cynic, Ginsberg does not entertain the possibility that the Great Society was intended to co-opt or avoid more radical possibilities, such as Black Power and “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” to use a shorthand.

            LBJ had to stay in Vietnam not for Vietnam’s sake but to maintain the prevailing and predominant political class and its brand of politics, both of which were threatened by the unrest evident in society in the 60s. And this was a brand of politics and a class of politicians that included the Mayor Daley’s of Chicago. Thus, it could be said that LBJ’s “gradual escalation” did not backfire but succeeded. It led, ultimately, to the election of Richard Nixon and who better to turn to in order to continue and reinforce the ruling political class and its brand of politics?

            Of course, later it became necessary to get rid of Nixon, of “Tricky Dick,” and to do so without upsetting the established too much. This was a “trick” that outdid anything that “Tricky Dick” ever did, at least up to that time. But then, still later, it was useful, and especially useful as it was done under President Clinton, the baby boomer president and former draft dodger, to “resurrect” or “rehabilitate” Richard Nixon as a “statesman.” And with that magic trick, the existing political order seemed to come full circle.

            Now, this is cynicism, is it not? But that doesn’t make it wrong.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Iraq: Caught in the Quagmire of American Politics

Iraq: Caught in the Quagmire of American Politics
P. Schultz
June 14, 2014

            The political class in the United States is reacting as the “storyline” in Iraq seems to be getting away from them as some “militants” seem to be on the verge of taking over large swaths of Iraqi territory. And so it has become essential for our political class to reassert a storyline that will serve its interests. Not surprisingly, the “new” storyline – which is actually an old one, used several times in the past – is that the Obama administration, though well intentioned, has failed to preserve the “victory” that the Bush administration “won” in Iraq.

            Using this storyline, the illusion of “victory” in Iraq can be preserved and the nation need not confront more important questions, e.g., of the efficacy of military might or the efficacy of a militarized foreign policy. And while you might think that the Obama administration, because it is being “victimized,” would respond with a strenuous defense of its actions, don’t bet on it. As part of the reigning political class, the Democrats are as interested in supporting – if only “coyly” – the “new” storyline as are the Republicans! Hence, you can expect Obama to act somewhat indecisively before employing the military to “save the day.” Obama’s “surge” will be less effective than Bush’s. But that is fine insofar as it reinforces the myth of military might.

            And so the status quo is preserved even as the political class pretends to have at it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sometimes the light's all shining on me, Part 3

“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me…..” Part 3
P. Schultz
June 12, 2014

            The debate that should take place between “administration” and “community” rarely takes place and largely because these choices are blurred, even blurred by those who sense that the argument for “administration” is wanting. Example: Benjamin Ginsberg, in his book, The American Lie: Government by the People and Other Political Fables, when he is discussing those times when “the instrumental character of political issues include some of the great principles debated during the course of American political history” describes the debate during the New Deal era as a “debate over government power versus individualism….” [p. 21]

            Now, it would make a difference, and not a small difference, if that debate in the 1930s was characterized and conducted as one between “government power” and “community.” Rarely does “government power” subordinate itself to “individualism,” nor does it seem that it should given that “government power” claims to be exercised for the sake of society, whereas “individualism” serves the individual. To favor “individualism” over “government power” would be to favor the part over the whole, a difficult argument to make, to say the least. Which should prevail, the government representing society or the individual representing herself? Not much of a contest, not much of a debate.

            But if the contest is between “administration” and “community,” the desirable outcome is not so obvious. Who should prevail, those who rule impersonally, detached as it were from those they are ruling, or those who rule by virtue of being identified with and who identify with those they are ruling? Who should prevail, those distinguished from the many [by expertise or some other distinction], or those who are like, have a likeness with the many? Who should prevail, the detached and the distant or the attached and the close ones?

            When the debate is posed this way, it isn’t so easy to say who should prevail, is it? One reason for this is that it is not as easy to sacrifice “community” as it is to sacrifice “individualism” for the sake of “government power.” This is not to say that “government power” is useless or even merely a necessary evil. But it is to say that a host of questions arise once it is recognized that “government power” can be detrimental of “community.” It could be said that the mantra, “That that government is best which governs least,” does not quite hit the mark. Rather, it should be said “That that government is best which recognizes and respects community.”


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Sometimes the light's all shining on me....." Part 2

“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me….” Part 2
P. Schultz
June 10, 2014

            Why is it that administrators or BOBs, Basic Old Bureaucrats, need enemies? That is, those who they consider to be “racist,” or “sexist,” or traditional, reactionary, or standpatters.

            Partly, it is merely political, in the sense that administrators need allies to support their quest for power and this is one to get them. For each enemy there is an ally waiting.

            But this need for enemies goes deeper than that. It is also how administrators seek to replace the cohesion of the community they displaced.

            Make no mistake about it: Administrators are anti-community and communal values. Communities require, rest upon “irrational arrangements,” as it were, arrangements based on, say, tradition, personal connections, or just plain “having fun,” spontaneous, unplanned enjoyments such as that which takes place in bars or pubs, where the bartenders, the keepers of order, do not refer to their “clientele.”

            But having displaced such arrangements, even the BOBs realize that they need replacements for there to be cohesion or some kind of unity. Hence, BOBs like “retreats,” where they go to “interact,” to “build trust,” to experience camaraderie. However, this stuff works, if at all, only among the BOBs. To “cohere” with the non-BOBs, their “clientele,’ as the BOBs call people they interact with, more is needed and “enemies” or “threats” are thought to work well.

            So, the BOBs need “racists,” “sexists,” and other “others” and they will “look” high and low to find them. And as they look for these enemies, they will even create them, e.g., with such bogus concepts as “binge drinking” or very vague definitions of “sexual harassment.” And once these concepts are created, then those who embrace them will be said to “get it,” while those who do not embrace them “don’t get it,” and, hence, can be dismissed as simply ignorant reactionaries.

            This is why there seems to have been “explosion” of behaviors that need addressing. And, of course, it is the BOBs who are equipped to address these behaviors.

            Communities, on the other hand, are characterized by, not their opposition to others [“the other”], but by caring for each other. [See Aristotle’s use of “care” in connection with the polis in his Politics.] Modern states are not communities, however, and hence they are characterized by “opposition to,” even war against “the other,” both internally and externally. These others might be communists, socialists, sexists, racists, or merely traditionalists. But whoever they are, their “presence” is indispensable to the modern, administrative project.

Monday, June 9, 2014

"Sometimes the light's all shining on me......"

“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me, other times I can barely see….”
P. Schultz
June 9, 2014

            When the light is shining on me, this is what I can see, barely: There isn’t but there should be a battle going on between the proponents of “community” and the proponents of “organizations” or “administration.” But the light is not often shining on me – or others – because both of the major parties, factions, sects, or “ideologies” embrace “organizations” or administration at the expense of community.

            The “liberals” or “progressives” embrace government, seeing it as the engine of progress and seeing progress as the way to go to arrive at our destination, which is somewhere off in the distant future. The “conservatives” embrace what are called “corporations,” seeing these organizations as the engines of progress and seeing progress as the way to go to reach our destination, which is off in the distant future.

            Those who reject the embrace of organizations or administration – and all that these phenomenon imply – are seen as reactionaries, as those who oppose progress out of fear or a lack of faith [“Men of Little Faith,” title of one the earliest assessments of the Anti-Federalists] and who want to standstill in isolation from the world and in denial of the force of “history.” “Ahistorical isolationists,” as it were.

            Illustration: The “fight” over tenure [at least there is something of a fight in North Carolina]. Tenure is a way of creating community, both among the teachers and between the teachers and the local community. Tenure ensures stability or fights turnover “in the ranks,” while bringing teachers together as a community of scholars. It arose in part as a way for small colleges to keep their faculty from being taken away by larger, more prestigious colleges and universities with more money to offer. Those who oppose tenure want to replace it with organizational or administrative requirements or methods of evaluation, even or especially at the expense of community.

            [NB: Tenure often empowered teachers, as they were the ones passing on tenure, whereas a non-tenure regime empowers and is intended to empower administrators.]

            What is today labeled “the reform movement” in education – e.g., both “No Child Left Behind” and the “Race to the Top” – is called “standards based” or “assessment based.” And these standards are not – and definitely should not be – local or community standards. To wit: What is called “the common core.” [NB: The apparent “confusion” among Republicans in North Carolina, who fight tenure and fight the common core. But perhaps their fight against the common core is not undertaken in the name of community.]

            Note that Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” see education as a race of some kind or as a competition by which some, but necessarily only some, will “win,” i.e., become members of an elite that is constantly changing and in need of “restocking.” Hence, the need for standards, that is, administrative standards, quantifiable standards, because the alternative is social standards, which lead to what are called “social promotions,” which are of course promotions that take into account communal imperatives.

            And increasingly “impersonal assessments” – which means supplementing the traditional system of awarding grades – are required by the reform movement in order to ensure that other, extraneous concerns [ often concerns reflecting communal concerns] do not taint the “process.” And who else should make these impersonal assessments than administrators, than bureaucrats, as they are required to be and even strive to be – if only to be considered properly “professional”  and therefore “promotable” – impersonal. In fact, many or most administrators see impersonal as a virtue, as the way they and the world should be!


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Greewald v. Kinsley, Part 2

Greenwald v. Kinsley, Part 2
P. Schultz
June 7, 2014

            Below is a link to Glenn Greenwald’s review of Michael Kinsley’s review of his book, No Place to Hide. It isn’t long and deserves to be read, especially as Kinsley’s review skipped over the last chapter in Greenwald’s book on the rather incestuous relationship between the media and the US government. And as Greenwald points out, Kinsley’s review confirms his, Greenwald’s, characterization of how dissenters are marginalized in the U.S. when they dissent publicly. And pay particular attention to the advice Lawrence Summers gave Elizabeth Warren after was elected to the Senate.

            Still think the argument that our politicians are, almost universally, servants of the status quo is fanciful? Not so much.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Greenwald v. Kinsley

Greenwald v. Kinsley
P. Schultz
June 2, 2014

            Below is a link to Michael Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide, which is about Edward Snowden’s adventure as a “leaker par excellence.” Of course, Greenwald sees Snowden’s activities as quite useful and even honorable in the current environment in the United States, which Greenwald characterizes as repressive in the extreme.

“Greenwald writes about ‘the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: Pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you’ll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing. This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience and conformity.’”

            For Kinsley, this is just poppycock and Greenwald himself illustrates why this is the case:

“Greenwald doesn’t seem to realize that every piece of evidence he musters demonstrating that people agree with him undermines his own argument that “the authorities” brook no dissent. No one is stopping people from criticizing the government or supporting Greenwald in any way. Nobody is preventing the nation’s leading newspaper from publishing a regular column in its own pages dissenting from company or government orthodoxy.

            But Kinsley seems to miss or perhaps he wants to miss the character of what he labels “repressive tolerance,” a concept he identifies with Herbert Marcuse and attributes to Greenwald. Kinsley fails to recognize that Greenwald and his likes, and the apparent tolerance of his and their views, are absolutely essential to a regime of “repressive tolerance.” Without dissenters like Greenwald, how could the regime demonstrate its alleged “tolerance?”

            But where does the “repressiveness” come in? Precisely in reviews like Kinsley’s review, which is an attempt to marginalize Greenwald, as this is how a regime of “repressive tolerance” works. The dissenters are allowed to speak, even encouraged to speak, but then they are marginalized in this way and that. This is the meaning of David Gregory’s attempt to criminalize Greenwald’s activities, an attempt that Gregory thought was subtle. Consider the following:

Greenwald’s notion of what constitutes suppression of dissent by the established media is an invitation to appear on “Meet the Press.” On the show, he is shocked to be asked by the host David Gregory, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, ... why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Greenwald was so stunned that “it took a minute to process that he had actually asked” such a patently outrageous question.

And what was so outrageous? Well, for starters, Greenwald says, the “to the extent” formulation could be used to justify any baseless insinuation, like “To the extent that Mr. Gregory has murdered his neighbors. ...” But Greenwald does not deny that he has “aided and abetted Snowden.” So this particular question was not baseless. 

            I agree that Greenwald should not have been surprised by Gregory’s attempt to marginalize him in this way. But Kinsley misses the crux of this little drama, which is that Gregory felt free to raise a question with Greenwald he would never raise with, say, President Bush or Obama or even the head of the NSA. Can you imagine the outrage if a reporter had asked Bush or Obama whether they should be charged with “a crime” or with “high crimes and misdemeanors” given the illegality or secretiveness of the NSA spying activities? “To the extent that you lied to the nation about WMDs in Iraq, President Bush, why shouldn’t you be charged?” Oh boy, wouldn’t the outcry be fun to hear? 

            What Gregory and Kinsley are doing is marginalizing Greenwald and Snowden, which is the essence of “repressive tolerance.” It is the equivalent of Socrates’ banning of the poets from his best political order in book 10 of the Republic. Only the “banning” is disguised in such sentences as these from Kinsley’s review:

But in “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss, convinced that every issue is “straightforward,” and if you don’t agree with him, you’re part of something he calls “the authorities,” who control everything for their own nefarious but never explained purposes.

And, the proof of the pudding, so to speak, is that after having read Kinsley’s review of Greenwald’s book, if you take it seriously, there is no reason to read the book. You can dismiss as the work of “a self-righteous sourpuss,” even overlooking perhaps that Kinsley is as self-righteous in his review as Greenwald is said to be in his book! Why is it easy to overlook Kinsley’s self-righteousness? Well, because his is in the service of the established order. To wit: 

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.

NB: Without anything approaching an argument, Kinsley asserts that the U.S. is still a “democracy,” where, allegedly, decisions made by the government are in fact made by a majority of “the people.” BUT THIS IS THE ISSUE! Or, at the very least, it should be the issue. And how can it be asserted that a government which is secretly spying on its citizens, and even lying about doing so, be considered “democratic?” It is quite incredible, literally, to argue that a government that secretly undertakes activities and lies about them to its citizens is “democratic” insofar as in a democracy, it is the people who are suppose to determine the government’s policies. 

            But you would never know this from Kinsley’s review. And it is only once this issue is obfuscated that Greenwald and Snowden and their actions can be assessed solely from the point of view of “national security.” If this issue is not blurred, however, then Greenwald’s and Snowden’s actions can and should be assessed from a political point of view. Were Snowden’s actions – and Greenwald’s – in the service of “democracy” or not? And if they were in the service of “democracy,” rule by the people, shouldn’t the cost in terms of “national security” be assessed in light of this? 

            This is the essence of “repressive tolerance,” viz., the most important political questions are replaced with other, less important questions, allowing the powers that be to govern independently of and even contrary to the wishes of the people. And those who point to this situation are deemed “marginal” at best, “criminal” at worst, because after all we all know, or should know, that crimes against the state are far worse than crimes against the people and their right to self rule. In fact, it is the essence of “repressive tolerance” to teach the people that those who wield power are incapable of criminal behavior and that, therefore, their actions must be accepted or, at the very least, tolerated because they were done with the best of intentions.