Friday, April 24, 2015

LBJ, Vietnam, and American Politics

LBJ, Vietnam, and American Politics
P. Schultz
April 24, 2015

            The conventional understanding of Lyndon Johnson’s use of the Vietnam War was that he needed to pursue that war, engage in its vigorously in order to make his “Great Society” acceptable to those conservatives who might otherwise not support it. In brief, American intervention on a grand scale in Vietnam was the price LBJ paid for his Great Society.

            However, an alternative view is possible and, at least, plausible and it goes something like this.

            First, it is necessary to keep in mind that Johnson went to war “whole hog” only after his victory in the 1964 presidential election, a victory that is most accurately labeled a landslide. But it is also necessary to realize that such landslides are dangerous because they are the result, in part, of forces let loose that need to managed or controlled if the established order, the prevailing ruling group is to survive. All landslides encompass what might be called “insurgent forces.” And certainly, in 1964, such insurgent or threatening forces existed and were growing, forces such as black power, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, flower power, the new left and SDS, to name a few of those forces. These forces had to be managed or controlled if the likes of LBJ were to go on controlling our national politics.

            Second, LBJ used the war to try to manage or control these forces, and this required a “vigorous” prosecution of that war. In this manner, LBJ hoped to “discipline” society as well as reinforcing the power, the authority of “the establishment” by making those insurgent or threatening forces seem “unpatriotic” or even “treasonous.” And win or lose, LBJ’s strategy would bear fruit. If the war were “won,” an eventuality LBJ did not hold out much hope for, there would be a new birth of patriotism, as it were, and the insurgents would look like, at best, fools. But if the war were “lost,” this could be blamed on those unpatriotic and treasonous forces that dissented against the war.

            In these ways, LBJ’s strategy of going “whole hog” into the war was a “no lose strategy.” Win or lose, this strategy would reinforce the power and authority of the established order, of the status quo. Moreover, it is important to point out that the greater the “unrest,” the greater would be the opprobrium for the dissenters, for the insurgents. The riots in Chicago, for example, at the Democratic National Convention could be seen as almost a godsend from this point of view. What better way to illustrate how “uncivil,” how “vicious” these insurgents were?

            I will submit as well both that Richard Nixon would continue this strategy and that LBJ knew this and, hence, would not have been all that upset that Nixon was elected president. In fact, as Nixon had even less reason to try to please the insurgents, the dissenters, his election would have been preferable to that of Humphrey in terms of preserving the status quo. And, of course, Nixon did not disappoint, promising that he was seeking to “unify” the nation, while also promising to reinstitute “law and order” which, as all knew, meant suppressing the insurgency and the insurgents. From his selection of Spiro Agnew as his vice president to his willingness not only to continue but to expand the war, while bringing American soldiers home, Nixon proved to be “all that he could be” when it came to preserving the status quo.

            If there is one aspect of politics that is too often overlooked in the United States, it is the fact that politicians, especially those “in” power, want to keep their power. And to do that, because all politicians owe their standing to a particular kind of politics, a particular kind of political order, they must strive to preserve the status quo. And, one result of this is that electoral landslides are dangerous and must be managed or controlled. That LBJ was willing to use the war in Vietnam, a war he suspected could not be won, is a testament to his “realism.” The sad thing is that it is also a testament to how inhuman, how extremist “political realism” can be.

Monday, April 20, 2015

One Nation Under God: Religious Nationalism Aborning

One Nation Under God: Religious Nationalism Aborning
P. Schultz
April 20, 2015

            I am currently reading an interesting and generally excellent book entitled, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton University. As the title makes clear, Kruse is interested in tracing how “corporate America” in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, and especially during Eisenhower’s presidency, helped convince people that the United States was and always had been a “Christian nation.” And it is quite an interesting story of how this happened. But even more interesting is why it happened, i.e., what corporate America and what is now labeled “the religious Right” were after, what they wanted to achieve.

            Now, Kruse traces this movement to conservative opposition to the New Deal, which the conservatives saw as “socialist” and as aiming at a comprehensively regulatory government. Kruse labels these conservatives “Christian libertarians” because of their emphasis on protecting individual rights in the face of the New Deal’s embrace of a comprehensively regulatory state. But this label is misleading, as Kruse himself senses when he writes:

“But this apparent triumph of the Christian libertarians would involve a significant transformation of their argument. After Eisenhower, religion would no longer be used to tear down the central state but instead to prop it up. Piety and patriotism became one and the same, love of God and love of country conflated to the core.” [p. 72]

            In fact, what Kruse presents as “a significant transformation” of the Christian libertarians’ argument was no such thing and it wasn’t because these conservatives, if that is what they were and are, were never libertarians. And they were not because they always espoused, even when they were opposing the New Deal, “religious nationalism,” which Kruse labels their agenda later in the book. [p. 140] Kruse fails to see this because of the context in which these christianizers arose, viz., in the context of attacking the New Deal and doing so, allegedly, in the name of limited government and individual rights. But they were not – and are not even today – proponents of limited government. They were rather proponents of divinely inspired government, which for many of them means a “Christianized government.” And once the government is “Christianized” or “divinely inspired” then there will be no need for limits on its powers because these powers would be used in the service of the “divine law” or something like that.

            Libertarians, strictly speaking, distrust government and they distrust it in general, that is, regardless of its “form,” whether that form be democratic, aristocratic, monarchic, theological, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. Hence, they are in favor of limiting any government’s powers either by way of individual rights or by way of decentralization and dispersion of government power. Those Kruse labels “Christian libertarians” were not libertarian; they were as he notes in passing, religious nationalists. Their nation should be, say, Christian or perhaps as Eisenhower said, famously, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” [p. 67] That is, it is not the government that governs least that is best, as a libertarian would assert, but rather that government is best which is “government under God,” which is what this movement was labeled. And of course once a government is “under God,” then there is, as noted, no reason to limit or disperse its powers. In fact, it is then that  that government should become pervasively powerful in order to create and maintain a religiously national way of life. As some of these christianizers argued, while church and state might be separate – that is, there would be no established church – government and God should be as one, with the government doing “God’s work” across the nation.

            An aspect of this that is interesting to me is the fact that the argument between “the christianizers” and the proponents of the New Deal was not an argument about nationalism or about the worth of a pervasively powerful national government. Both sides of this debate embraced such a government, if for different reasons, say, for secular or for religious reasons. And as a result of this, the views of the New Dealers and of the “christianizers” are indistinguishable when it comes to foreign policy, where both advocate for a pervasively and immensely powerful “national security state.” Whereas one side sees such a state as “realistic,” as serving to “democratize” the world in the face of a totalitarian threat never seen before, the other side sees such a state as “doing the Lord’s work” by fighting an officially atheistic ideology which sees religion as “the opiate of the masses.”

            But, the bottom line is that there are only nationalists competing for power in the United States. There are no libertarians, at least none who play significant roles in our political drama. And it might be added that given the religious character of the American people, it is less than surprising that the “secular nationalists” often find themselves on the short end. But then it is worth wondering whether they do or should care. After all, even when they lose, the result is more nationalism. And what’s the big deal if this nationalism is “founded in a deeply-felt religious faith?” What could go wrong?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The "Silly-ness" of Our Politics Explained

The “Silly-ness” of Our Politics Explained
P. Schultz
April 19, 2015

            Below there is a link to an article in today’s NY Times entitled: “At Republican Gathering, All Talk Is of Hillary Clinton (None of It Is Good)”. In this piece, with some subdued irony or sarcasm, attacks on Hillary by various Republican nominees and potential nominees for president are summarized. As the Times’ article makes clear, none of these attacks are very interesting but the overall effect is worth thinking about.

            It may be asked, Why is all of this fire directed at Hillary? That is, other than the obvious reason, viz., that she is likely to be the Democratic nominee for president, what political purpose is served by such a display which holds the danger, as the Times points out, of “getting too personal [and] carr[ying] the political risk of appearing minor league?” Let me suggest the following.

            By directing their fire at Hillary, and treating her as if she is “the Threat,” these Republicans are engaging in diversionary warfare, as it were. They know that, at bottom, Hillary is not “the Threat” but they are willing to treat her as such because in that way they divert attention from the important issues people are actually concerned about, an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, a political process increasingly controlled by the wealthy, an increasingly dysfunctional political system that rapes its citizens, especially its older citizens, or what appears to be law enforcement organizations who are increasingly out of control with regard to the use of deadly force.

            This diversion works in at least two ways. First, it is meant to take the steam out of what is a “left-leaning insurgency” by directing the left’s energies toward defending Hillary. Those engaged in the diversion could care less that their presentation of Hillary is an illusion of the real person; in fact, better that it be than not as that only ramps up the irritation of those on the left who support Hillary, just as has happened with the attacks on Obama as conducted by Giuliani, Trump, and others.

            Second, though, even while arousing the base on the right, this diversionary warfare also distracts the right from important issues, such as the burden that is being created by the establishment’s commitment to a foreign policy that is immensely expensive even while accomplishing very little, other than of course making our security less certain. Although our establishment politicians know it, many others fail to realize that there is a potential insurgency among the people from the right and this needs to be disarmed.

            All of this is merely a result of the fact, too often overlooked by citizens but never overlooked by the ruling political class – which includes both what is labeled “the right” and “the left” – that elections, and especially presidential elections perhaps, are dangerous political phenomena and, hence, must be controlled or managed. This is what was going on among these Republican politicians. As is so often the case in the United States, our presidential elections are turned into contests between particular candidates and not contests over divergent and competing issues. So if the Republicans can turn the election into a referendum on Hillary Clinton, they will have managed it in a way that renders it safe or, more precisely, that renders them safe.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Religioius Extremism: Home Grown

Religious Extremism: Home Grown
P. Schultz
April 16, 2015

            Below is a link to an article from the Intercept highlighting the role religious extremism plays in US policy toward Israel, and at least by implication US policy toward Islamic nations. As I have written about this phenomenon, especially the strange fact that while Muslim terrorists are identified as “Muslim” never is George Bush identified as a “born again Christian,” one who believes that God intended him to be president and who described his invasion of Iraq as a “crusade,” I wanted to post this article here. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Realism as Extremism

Realism as Extremism
P. Schultz
April 7, 2015

On Wed, Apr 1, 2015 at 8:14 PM, Peter Schultz wrote:
An excellent piece laying bare the bullshit of the “moderates” who are in power. 

PB responds:
"Real peace cannot be imposed; it can only emerge as a consequence of the resolution of conflict. " What does that mean? 

It seems guns appear as surveillance cameras ...hum. I gotta say you seem take the line that "militarization...[is] our entire way of life," and project onto the whole piece excellence. The article strikes me as incoherent as Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's comments, and that is my worry. Both sides don't get. –P

On Sat, Apr 4, 2015 at 9:09 PM, Peter Schultz

Please identify the two sides of which you speak, as I must ask: What does that mean?   

I really don’t know how to explain the sentences you quote, other than to quote them again. Seem clear to me. And I was pretty clear about what I thought was excellent about the article, but perhaps you didn’t get that.

Are you actually questioning that our way of life in the US today is militarized? If so, I would imagine we would have little to talk about usefully. Gee, I wonder what you would make of the fact that the Wake Forest baseball team, yesterday, wore camouflaged jerseys for their game against B.C. Why was that, if not some genuflection toward the military that we are all expected to make these days? And I cannot remember the last major sporting event that did not have some military types around to display and told us, as if it was something to be proud of, that this event is being watched by those who are “defending our freedom in 175 countries"? You really don’t see the “militarization of our entire way of life?” Really? Wow, that would be something. 

Hey, OK, so you don’t like the article. You disagree. OK. It is “incoherent.” Gee, I didn’t notice that but then I am not a philosophy professor so its incoherence probably passed me by. But you are “worried.” Wow, at last we agree about something; it is time to be “worried.”  

On Apr 6, 2015, at 4:07 PM, Paul

The two sides to which I referred were the one expressed by the author of the article and the one expressed by Gov. Nixon. Yours is a fair question about the "two sides" though. My expression makes it sound like there is some kind of debate or position that are neatly oppositional.

I agree with the militarization point and I think Bacevich is spot on when he talks about fly overs, nods to our heroes at sporting events, the perfunctory "thank you for your service," and yes, camo uniforms are part of the "deal" we Americans makes in order to keep our perpetual warring at arms length.

The thing that worries me about the article is the "Why can't we all just get along" aspect to it. Human beings are violent and have always been violent. Human beings devoid of violence are not human beings. The suggestion that we have to engage in conflict resolution, let's talk this out, is as silly as let's go to war and fight this out. One can be hopeful about nuclear arms treaties in the Middle East, but I am not. Any resolution banning proliferation is a pipe dream practically speaking. AQ Khan is not an aberration. --Paul 

Peter Schultz responds:

Well, I can see where we disagree better now. I don’t equate the point of view of the article with “we can just talk things out,” as if we all got together and sang “Kumbya” all would be all right. In fact, as I understand the point of view of what you take to be one side of this “debate,” without naming it [more below], is in fact as far from this as one can get. The argument, as I understand it, is that the arrangements we have in place fuel war, always have and always will, regardless of how many people are at Woodstock or singing folk songs. Institutional frameworks define us and our institutional frameworks make us, the US, warlike. Or in the terms you used: our institutions rest on the assumption that peace MUST BE IMPOSED and cannot be RESOLVED. And this is just a reflection of an older debate, which surfaced around the ratification of the constitution. 

By this, I am referring to the fact that some of those who opposed the ratification of the Constitution, known collectively as the Anti-Federalists, saw clearly that if the proposed constitution was ratified that it would lead to a warlike nation, a nation that liked, wanted, and needed war. As near as I can tell, they were and are correct. As Herbert Storing put it, in his little volume, “What the Anti-Federalists Were For,” the Federalists had, to quote him, “the stronger argument.” But the “stronger argument” is not necessarily the “better argument.” In fact, because the stronger arguments are stronger because they appeal to the passions, not to reason, they almost always are not the better arguments. Storing was a careful writer, so I am assuming he knew what he was and was not saying here. The arguments for war and imperialism and empire are always stronger than those against war, imperialism, and empire because they appeal to the passions. To wit: 

Aristophanes accused Socrates of trying to make the weaker arguments stronger and he was correct. Only he might not have realized that the stronger arguments were not always the better arguments. I think Aristophanes was correct: But Socrates was trying to make the better arguments the stronger arguments and, not surprisingly, he failed, at least with the Athenians, and he failed precisely at the time that his arguments made the most sense, when Athenian imperialism had suffered humiliation and defeat. And this is a phenomenon that, it seems to me, repeats itself over and over and over, because not only are human beings, as you say, violent, but they also think that violence “works.” They not only like violence; they defend it!! All the more reason to look for institutions that try to moderate this all-too-human tendency to violence. The Anti-Federalists, or some of them, were as aware of this as anyone has been and, hence, they opposed the creation of a potentially powerful national government meant for greatness. They lost the argument and we are paying the price today…and what is worse, we think that we are doing something “noble” or “just” or “virtuous.” 

As far as your not naming the two sides, this is why I asked the question in the first place. When at Assumption, I use to talk with a colleague named Jack Crutcher and we would debate foreign policy. And we got nowhere. Then I realized that this was in part due to the fact that he labeled me an “isolationist,” and I also realized that once he did this, I might as well shut up because he was structuring an argument that I could not “win.” I also realized later that if someone labeled, say, Henry Kissinger a “realist,” I might as well not debate them but just go home because for me, Kissinger was and is a war criminal. And there was little to be gained in arguing with someone who didn’t see that “realism” was just a cover for “war crimes,” as in, “well, violence is all we can expect from human beings, so get ‘real’ you naive twit!”  

When Nadine and I were in Spain, we went to Cordoba where Muslims, Jews, and Catholics actually lived together in relative peace for about 3 centuries. How did that happen? Was that any less “real” than the violence, which the Catholics eventually perpetrated on the Muslims and the Jews? Along similar but far less important lines, when I asked my mother about a priest who was banished from our parish when I was young for some sexual offense, of which I only had a glimmer, she said: “Priests are just men,” thereby excusing him because she was being “realistic.” But I know now that many men are not like that priest; in fact, most of them are not and most priests are not. 

Could it be that “realism” is just a cover for “extremism?” Seems to me a good case can be made in this regard - consult your Machiavelli. And this is why I liked the article and said it cut through the “bullshit” of our alleged “moderates.” They aren’t moderates at all; they are extremists and when their extremism fails, as it always does, they turn to violence to maintain it, ala Ferguson, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., etc., etc. And that, my friend, is something worth worrying about. 


Thursday, April 2, 2015

2015 NSS: Searchin' for the Ghost of Tom Joad

Obama’s National Security Strategy: “Searchin’ for the Ghost of Tom Joad”
P. Schultz
April 2, 2015

            Below is a link to an article by Andrew Bacevich that is a critique of the government’s 2015 National Security Strategy, the NSS in brief, entitled “Soft Thinking, Hard Problems.” It is interesting to me as much for what it says about Bacevich, who is very thoughtful generally speaking, as it does about the 2015 NSS.

            Overall, Bacevich argues that the NSS “consists of assertions that are misleading or altogether untrue,” that it “consists of matters directly relevant to national security that the NSS either skims past or dodges altogether,” and thatthe document offers in secular form a faith-based formula for earthly redemption.” On all of these counts, Bacevich is right on the money.

            However, what Bacevich ignores is the implication of the NSS that the current violence, the multiple wars the U.S. is engaged in, especially but not solely limited to the Middle East, is “transitional,” which is to say that it is not endemic to American foreign policy and its goal of “Americanizing” the world via the “formula [of] neoliberalism—the promotion of economic openness and transparency in concert with an agenda of cultural transformation.” That is, Bacevich fails to emphasize or underline that “neoliberalism” is necessarily built on violence and war and this is so and will be so even though our future is to be created by “women, youth, civil society, journalists, and entrepreneurs.”

Now, Bacevich faults the NSS here for ignoring religion and religious leaders, as “Imams are retrograde, archbishops infra dig.” But while this might be of some concern, it blurs the distinct possibility that “the new world order” the NSS sees arising, one that will alleviate “the underlying conditions that foster violent extremism” and “decrease the need for costly military interventions,” is simply delusional. And this is a possibility, to understate its likelihood, because the “violent extremists” are those who control the U.S. government. That is, the “underlying conditions that foster violent extremism” are created by that very “neoliberalism” that presides over – or tries to preside over – the world today. Hence, “violent extremism,” both from and against the prevailing political, social, and economic order, is rooted in the same phenomenon, neoliberalism.

American strategy does serve “an agenda of cultural transformation,” but it isn’t the kind of transformation American leaders like Obama prattle on about. Think about it this way: Bacevich points out that the NSS ignores the fact that while “Most (not all) Americans will see [the goals of protecting basic freedoms and protecting vulnerable minorities such as LGBT people] as responding to basic requirements of fairness and equality. . . . , others—especially in those parts of the world where the United States is most deeply embroiled in conflict—will instead detect a frontal assault on a divinely mandated order is something the NSS either does not grasp or does not bother to countenance.” 

This is, of course, quite right. But what Bacevich doesn’t point out is that some of these “others,” those who reject such goals as desirable, are allies of the U.S. Questions: What does it say about the neoliberal project that it needs to rely on such allies? And what does it say about the parameters of the “new world order” that is to be brought into being by, allegedly, “women, youth, civil society, journalists, and entrepreneurs?” At the very least, it means that the “new world order” will have to be built, not on the basis of “the consent of the governed,” but rather on the basis of pervasively powerful governments, governments that must be willing to act with “energy, secrecy, and dispatch,” as Alexander Hamilton put it so long ago. And, of course, when such governments meet resistance, as they undoubtedly will, they will engage in what should be called “violent extremism,” even if that extremism is masked as bureaucratic “imperatives,” which by the way they are. As a result, the “women, youth, civil society, journalists, and entrepreneurs,” who are allegedly the vanguard of a new order, become merely foot soldiers and followers who are required to toe the lines laid out by these pervasively powerful governments.

Bacevich’s heart is the right place, it seems to me. But he fails to see or emphasize that neoliberalism is, inherently and necessarily, violent and extremist, at least as it manifests itself in the American project as it is laid out in the 2015 NSS and as it has been pursued for a very long time now. There are alternatives, and some of them even got hearings at times in American history. But apparently these times are not one of those times, at least not yet. As Bruce Springsteen sang in his ballad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad:”

“Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks
Goin' some place, there's no goin' back
The Highway Patrol chopper's comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' 'round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin' in their cars out in the Southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

“The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the Ghost of Tom Joad.”