Monday, July 21, 2014

The Republican "Wave": 2014

The Republican “Wave”: 2014
P. Schultz
July 21, 2014

            Here is a nicely written column by a chap named Nate Cohn from today’s NY Times. In it, he raises the possibility that what was deemed “the Republican wave,” meaning impressive gains for that party in the upcoming elections, might not materialize. I think his argument is interesting but he never, not once, raises a possibility that should be raised: This “wave” will not materialize because, among other reasons, the Republicans, that is, some Republicans, don’t want it to materialize.

            Why would they not want the “wave” to materialize? Because if it did, it would threaten their power. As Walter Karp liked to point out, “landslides” are dangerous and they are so especially to the prevailing leadership. Such events are almost always the result of voter dissatisfaction, intense voter dissatisfaction, and, hence, threaten the powers that be.

            So, it could be that what Cohn thinks he is witnessing is in fact happening. However, Cohn does not appreciate that such a result would please rather than displease the Republican leadership.

Saturday, July 19, 2014


P. Schultz
July 19, 2014

            Just a little something from an Israeli newspaper:

“From war to war, from incursion to incursion, Israel is gradually turning into Gaza – isolated, clergy-cursed, leader-poor, trapped and furious and writhing. A place of fear and fundamentalism, a place without a future, a place without hope. A place with no tomorrow.

“A place without consideration for some of the most basic needs and desires of its most fragile and vulnerable, decent, ordinary, normal residents. Like Gaza, a place which was once heartbreakingly beautiful, and is now, increasingly, taking on the dark colors of a bad idea.

“Mr. Netanyahu, now is the time to be a man. Observe this fast. End this war. End it now. You have plenty to do here at home. “

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Violence and Politics

Violence and Politics
P. Schultz
July 16, 2014

            I have a friend with whom I debate politics and often he makes the argument that radical political change is undesirable because such change is often accompanied by violence. And, of course, as a decent individual, he wants to avoid those situations that breed violence.

            So, OK, that is a legitimate concern, and perhaps one that I should take more seriously than I do. But here is another concern, in the form of a question: How much violence is necessary to preserve the status quo?

            See, it is not only radical change that often requires violence in order to be accomplished. The status quo could and, I would say, definitely does require violence as well. And this might be truer the more unstable the status quo is, the more tenuous it is.

            What might this mean, in practical terms? Well, it could mean, as Teddy Roosevelt use to argue, that a little war every now and again is a good thing. But it could also mean a more subtle kind of violence, say the kind of violence that puts large numbers of human beings “behind bars,” that relegates these human beings to places where violence is endemic. Or it could mean the kind of violence that is perpetrated on those who are unable to make a decent living, either because they lack the opportunity or they lack the needed skills to do so.

            And we should not forget the usefulness of violence that is perpetrated on the nation, either from foreign or from domestic enemies. After all, such violence is useful, very useful, in helping to create, on the basis of fear, a unity among the people that might otherwise be lacking. All one need do to see this is to recall the aftermaths of 9/11 or of the Boston marathon bombings.

            It would be interesting to try to delineate how the current status quo depends on violence, different kinds of violence, to perpetuate itself. We might be surprised to find that the alleged “peaceful” character of the current status quo is far less than we often assume it is. And, if so, then the question of the desirability of radical political change would assume a different aspect.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Captive Public

The Captive Public
P. Schultz
July 12, 2014

            “The ‘marketplace of ideas,’ built during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, effectively disseminates the beliefs and ideas of upper classes while subverting the ideological and cultural independence of the lower classes.” From Benjamin Ginsberg, The Captive Public, p. 86.

            This quote summarizes Benjamin Ginsberg’s argument in his book, The Captive Public, the only book I know of that takes seriously, that is, explores, the idea of a “free marketplace of ideas.” As Ginsberg notes, like the tendency of any “free market,” the tendency of a free marketplace of ideas is to serve those who have the most power, the most resources: “in the realm of opinion as in most other areas, the laws of the marketplace usually, albeit not always, favor the interests of the upper and upper-middle classes.” [p. 88] And, hence, “The construction of this forum, or ‘marketplace,’ was among the most important events of modern western history.” [p. 87] As a result of such a marketplace, modern western nations need not rely on coercion as much as other regimes did and do in order to control or “pacify” the many.

            And this marketplace or its effects are pervasive, to say the least. As Ginsberg puts it: “It is the idea of the market more than any other western social institution that provides privileged strata with the capacity to define the universe of political and social alternatives for the entire society. In the United States in particular, the ability of the upper and upper-middle classes to dominate the marketplace of ideas has generally allowed these strata to shape the entire society’s perception of poltical reality and the range of realistic political and social possibilities. While westerners usually equate the marketplace with freedom of opinion, the hidden hand of the market can be almost as potent an instrument of control as the iron fist of the state.” [p. 89]

            And those familiar with Tocqueville and his concept of “soft despotism” might be forgiven for thinking that Ginsberg has not gone far enough here, that in fact the “hidden hand of the market” can be, often, even a more powerful instrument of control than “the iron fist of the state.”

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"We Meant Well:" Failure is the Only Option

“We Meant Well:” Failure Is the Only Option
P. Schultz
July 5, 2014

            Every so often I come across a book that rattles my mind, or what is left of it. And this is what happened when I read the book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, by Peter Van Buren, who as a Foreign Service Officer [FSO] served a year in Iraq as part of Provisional Reconstruction Team {PRT] or, more precisely, part of a ePRT or embedded Provisional Reconstruction Team. He was serving his time on a forward operating base or FOB, embedded with other FSOs and with soldiers from the US Army.

            What makes this book so captivating is that it is a purely empirical account of the United States’ efforts to “reconstruct” Iraq in order to turn it into a prosperous, secure, and free democracy. You know, just like the United States. By “purely empirical” I mean Van Buren did not bring any theories to Iraq, whether supportive of or critical of, say, the prevailing counterinsurgency theory. His writing is not informed then by anything other than what he saw and what he experienced in his year in Iraq.  

            What he experienced is pretty much captured by his opening paragraph in a section entitled, “My Arabic Library.” Here is what he has to say:

“About eighteen months before I arrived in Iraq, one of my predecessors had ordered My Arabic Library, $88,000 worth of books, an entire shipping container. My Arabic Library was a Bush-era, US government-wide project to translate classic American books, so we now have Tom Sawyer, The House of the Seven Gables, and Of Mice and Men in Arabic. The Embassy had big plans for the books, claiming ‘It is so important that the children of Baghdad, the next generation of leaders of Iraq, obtain basic literacy skills. A love of learning and literacy will mean better job opportunities for them when they grow up. They will be able to better support their families and help build a more prosperous Iraq.’” [p. 1]

            As Van Buren points out, nothing came of this project, not surprisingly, with the books being “dumped…behind the school” by its principal. And this happened only after the books failed to sell on the black market.

            One wonders about this incident in several ways. One way, not related to Iraq, is how those who created this library understood the books they were having translated into Arabic. Tom Sawyer is hardly a book that would lead a sensitive reader or teacher to use it to highlight the virtues of the United States. After all, Tom is something of a scoundrel, a successful one but still a scoundrel at that. When I used this book in college level politics courses, often a student would say that the book had disillusioned them about their country.

            But regarding Iraq, what would make anyone think that these books would prove even interesting to Iraqi students, to say nothing of being enlightening? I know there is this thought out there about “the canon” and its importance, but to apply this thinking in a war torn country like Iraq seems not only weird but also delusional. This incident does reflect Van Buren’s claim that we Americans resembled no one so much as Mr. Magoo when in Iraq, thinking that the Iraqi only wanted to be like us. And why would they want to be like the U.S. when it was the U.S. who invaded and largely destroyed their country?

            There is another level to Van Buren’s critique of our efforts in Iraq post-invasion, viz, that not only were some of the things we were doing foolish and even silly but also that some of the things we were doing only made things worse. In his chapter entitled, “Humanitarian Assistance,” Van Buren points out this project consisted of the Army handing out bags of food or of school supplies. These give aways always drew a crowd which was fine with the Army because it created a good photo op, say, with “a soldier holding a kid in his arms, [or] a soldier smiling at a hijab-clad woman.” [114]

            But the photo-op was just that and nothing more. As Van Buren puts it: “The soldiers knew what to say around their officers and the Army media: best thing about being in Iraq, great to see kids happy, just doing our job, glad we could help. What they said afterward, spitting Skoal into an empty Gatorade bottle, was fuck these people, we give’em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.” [p. 115]

            Moreover, these events did harm rather than good. Van Buren again: “In a counterinsurgency campaign, there were several ways to make friends, most of them slow and difficult, like building relationships within a local community based on trust earned and respect freely given. Each iteration of handouts caused you to lose respect from a proud group of people forced into an uneven relationship….The Colonel who ordered these HA drops thought that them made him friends with the locals. He waited in vain for the groundswell of happiness set in motion to cause local people to start turning over to us info about the insurgents in their midst.” [p.115]

            The Colonel was making his situation worse, not better, by offering what was labeled “Humanitarian Assistance.” In fact, as Van Buren implies there was little that was “humanitarian” about it, as illustrated by the following: “This time, the Colonel was wrong. This was not Dances with Wolves; we were not going to be adopted into anybody’s tribe. I remember when we tried to give away fruit tree seedlings a farmer spat on the ground and said, ‘You killed my son and now you are giving me a tree?’ How many HA bags was a dead son worth?” [Pp.115-116]

            And this illustrates the delusional logic of the soldiers who spoke candidly among themselves about their feelings toward the Iraqis, viz., that “we give’em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.” But it wasn’t the Iraqis, it was the United States Army that started blowing stuff up and it did so without asking these Iraqis if they wanted the army to do it. What the soldiers and the Colonel do not, and perhaps cannot, see is that what is labeled “Humanitarian Assistance” has all the characteristics of a bribe or of a really cheap form of compensation. Bombing people and then bribing them or trying to buy their friendship with handouts will not pacify that people, nor should it. It will only make them hate you more.

            What appears from Van Buren’s account of his year in Iraq is the futility of U.S. policy in Iraq. Not only did it not work but it could not work; it was not a workable situation and, regardless of what “counterinsurgency theory” said, failure was the only option. It still is.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

If only

If only

Oh, if only I could drink lite beer
And be satisfied to talk about sports.
If I could do that, then “it” would be alright
Uptight, out of sight, yeah!
 At least among those who counted.

If only I could talk about “the draft,”
If only I could talk about the baseball
If only I could talk about the soccer,
If only I could talk about the pussy
If only I could talk about this and that.

If only, if only, if only, I could talk like that!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Outlaw Platoon: An Addendum

Outlaw Platoon:
An addendum:
            It should also be noted that Parnell’s acknowledgements, especially those directed to and honoring his family, both actual and extended, imply that the cure for what ailed him, for his “dis-ease” was to be found in the private realm. That is, there was, in his mind, no connection between his “dis-ease” and the political order in which he lived, had fought, and had killed. It was in “the family” that he found “the support” to go on, apparently also to “cure” his “dis-ease.”
            So there would be no need to confront or even discuss the policies that had taken Sean Parnell and many others into Afghanistan. Those policies were, for all practical purposes, irrelevant to the suffering, the anger, the loneliness, the depression that Parnell and others felt as a result of their service to their country.

But this take on matters must seem especially controversial, even weird, because how could it possibly be the case that what Parnell was doing in Afghanistan, the policies he was implementing and those he was victimized by – such as the duplicity of the Pakistani government and armed forces – had not affected him deeply? And it doesn’t take much insight to see, after reading Outlaw Platoon, that Parnell was affected and affected deeply by those policies. And is it any wonder that given these policies and their futility that significant numbers of military personnel suffer from what are called psychological traumas as a result of their “service?”

That these traumas have political roots needs to be recognized, not buried or obscured by a kind of “psychologizing” that focuses on individuals and their “character” or lack thereof. A politics of the warrior and of the leader asks human beings to be a certain way, and it is anything but clear that that way is good for the human soul, for the human psyche. It could well be that “the war on terror” actually terrorizes those fighting it. And this too is a remarkable state of affairs.