Sunday, February 21, 2016

Gangster Warlords and the War on Drugs

Gangster Warlords and the War on Drugs
P. Schultz

            I have recently finished reading a book, Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, by Ioan Grillo. As the title makes clear, the book deals with Latin America, specifically, Honduras, Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico with regard to illegal drugs and how those who cultivate and sell them have impacted politics in Latin America. The power, both legitimate and illegitimate, that is wielded by these drug lords, who Grillo argues should be called “warlords,” is quite amazing.  In fact, they are so powerful, it is quite clear that the war on drugs is being won by, as some put it, the drugs.

            It also becomes clear that so long as “the war on drugs” continues, there will be no end to drug abuse and the violence that accompanies it. The war on drugs guarantees the continuation of the very conditions it is being waged to end. Put differently, as long as the war on drugs continues, just so long will there be “gangster warlords” as these warlords are the inevitable product of this war, just as the war on terror will produce, inevitably, terrorists.

            But the situation is worse than that because those who started and those who continue the war on drugs knew and know this. They knew that a war on drugs would produce drug lords or cartels, and they chose or embraced their war anyway. Why? Because both the war on drugs and those Grillo calls “gangster warlords” serve to keep the political class, the prevailing regime in power, while simultaneously rendering any significant change unlikely, even to the point of being unthinkable.

            In other words, the war on drugs, which was and is presented to us as a great effort aimed at great change, eradicating drug abuse, is actually nothing of the sort. It is rather a way of preventing change, a way of preserving the status quo.

            This will seem strange to most, even inane to some. One reason this is so is because so many assume that preserving the status quo does not require great efforts and, indeed, dictates against great or visionary political agendas. Status quo politicians are, it is commonly thought, opposed to ambitious public policies, are conservative, and in favor of government doing as little as possible. But this is where people go wrong. It is anything but easy to preserve the status quo; in fact, it takes great efforts involving great force to do so. It even takes, as the war on drugs illustrates, significant violence.

            Once it is realized that the status quo is not, to say the least, self sustaining or self perpetuating, the actions, the deeds of the political class(es) appear in a different light. For then it appears that what is presented to us as an agenda for change is, in reality, a means of preserving the status quo. Hence, the political class(es) persevere in their actions, their policies long beyond the point where their failure, their ineffectiveness is obvious. Why? Because it is their ineffectiveness that makes them successful in helping to preserve the status quo.

            Strangely then, for the political class(es), the fact that the war on drugs is failing is not an argument against it but rather an argument for it. A politics of the status quo requires such “failures” because as long as drug abuse and its consequences continue, it will seem imprudent, unwise, even “radical” to change those holding power or to change their policies. The war has not yet been won, drugs are still being abused, and cartels and drug lords are still doing business. Thus, it can be made to seem, even in a time of considerable dissatisfaction with the prevailing regime and popular unrest, that changing policies that don’t seem to be working is “radical.”

            It is this sleight of hand – disguising status quo policies as the vehicles of change - that helps to explain the power of incumbency, of the tendency for the voters to continue the same people in office even though they recognize that things are not going well, to put it mildly. This sleight of hand is also a sleight of mind, so almost without knowing why, voters continue to re-elect members of the ruling class(es). It is as if they, the voters, have lost the capacity to think they have or could have alternatives, at least what are labeled “realistic” alternatives. Almost as a matter of course, the alternatives are made to appear “unrealistic” and this despite the fact that it is the prevailing policies, those policies underlying the status quo, that are genuinely unrealistic.

            Our politics has then the quality of being almost all “smoke and mirrors,” or the character of a magic show where change, real change is made to disappear while the status quo is made to seem like real change, “change we can believe in,” In the year Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, more people died in the U.S. from falling down stairs than died from ingesting or injecting both legal and illegal drugs. Why then the war on drugs? Because that way, Nixon could preserve the status quo while seeming to be seeking real change, change that could be believed in. Nixon practiced the same kind of politics in Vietnam, seeking change, “peace with honor,” while continuing the war and LBJ’s policies, which meant continuing the captivity of our POWs until his re-election was on the line.

            As Bob Dylan wrote and sang, “there is no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” Failure eventually catches up to us, but the damage done until it does is quite considerable.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Scalia's Dead: Good, Part II

Scalia’s Dead: Good, Part II
P. Schultz

            I have been confronted with what seems to me to be a strange or puzzling phenomenon recently, revolving around the death of Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice, and my assertion that his death was good. Apparently, in response to my having expressed my lack of regret at his death, several people I know took exception, with one stating that my reaction “squinted towards hate.” Now, given that this same person asserted that Scalia had sown “divisiveness and hate” in the US, I was left wondering why saying that I took Scalia’s death as good seemed so inappropriate.

            Even more recently, I reread an essay by Walter Karp, “Reflections (After Watergate) on History,” in which he distinguishes the “ancient view of history” with the “modern view”. The ancients, Karp says, discovered their view of history after the polis was created, where men discovered in their freedom that humans are “not by nature creatures of habit and circumstance.” “They discovered in the new experience of political freedom that history is the story of men acting.” History is not, as we moderns are taught, “the outcome of causes more potent than men’s deeds.” So, the ancients would say to the moderns: “Do not tell us about alleged basic causes of America’s emergence as a world power; tell us, instead, what men did that made it emerge.”

            This is not to dismiss forces or phenomena that play a role in human history. But it is a reminder that it is men’s deeds that cause, for example, an empire to emerge. It might be “that the closing of the frontier created social problems that American leaders chose to solve through a new, outgoing foreign policy [but] that still does not make the closing of the frontier an underlying cause of anything.” Our leaders could have chosen differently with different results even though the frontier would still be closed.

            I think this modern view of history plays a part in those who found my unsympathetic reaction to Scalia’s death inappropriate. Our leaders are captives, as it were, of history and, hence, they lack the freedom to choose or choose correctly. They are buffeted by historical forces this way and that and should not be deemed responsible for what can be labeled their “mistakes.” They are – all of them – well intentioned; it is history that was against them. LBJ did not choose to make war in Vietnam; he was dragged into that war, into that quagmire, by forces beyond his control.

            So, Scalia is to be pardoned for the fact that his politics was characterized by racism, sexism, and homophobia, as well as by his embrace of oligarchy as was evident in his participation in the Citizens United case. Being caught up in historical forces beyond his control, he is not responsible for his “mistakes.” He was well intentioned as the characterization of his deeds as “mistakes” implies because no one makes mistakes willingly. He is not to be condemned, his death is to be regretted, and maybe at the outermost boundary of appropriateness, he is to be pitied.

            But whether a republic – i.e., a political order founded on, fortified by, and productive of freedom – can be sustained given the implications of the modern view of history is doubtful. As Karp put it, the modern view of history resembles “some murky Babylonian scheme of universal and invariant cycles, a conception suited for barbarians who, enchained by immemorial custom and lacking experience of freedom and action, could well believe that history was the result of superhuman forces.” By this view, given the power of racism, Scalia should be pardoned for his. It was just another of his “mistakes.”

            The Greek view of history reminds us that the distinction between “Greek” and “barbarian” was not racial or physiological but a distinction between those living freely and those living a Babylonian-like captivity. This view of history also reminds us that as much as we might want to forgive those like Scalia who sow divisiveness and hate in order to maintain their own power, we should not do so because the political consequences of doing so is nothing less than the loss of the republic to which we pledge our allegiance. We need to speak honestly of those who have, like Scalia, done all they could to undermine that republic by usurping the power of the people, even if this means speaking “ill of the dead.” And we should be glad when they can no longer harm us.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Scalia's Dead: Good

Scalia’s Dead: Good
P. Schultz

            Why I am not at all sad that Antonin Scalia is dead may be summed up concisely: He was one of the mainstays of our ruling oligarchy and, hence, is partly responsible for the ills we are experiencing.

            It is because of our oligarchy that we have a militaristic, war-like, imperialistic foreign policy. It is because of our oligarchy that racism flourishes under the guise of “dog whistle politics,” while sexism is covered over by claims of creating a “meritocracy.” It is because of our oligarchy that vast sums of money are wasted on needless military weaponry, and the lives and bodies and minds of American soldiers are wasted in unnecessary wars. It because of our oligarchy that our schools are little more than training grounds for “consumers” and “workers,” producing, via standardized testing, standardized students.

            These ills - and more - we are experiencing are the products, the intended products of the oligarchy that controls our politics and Scalia was, proudly and uncompromisingly, a part of that oligarchy, helping to create and maintain it, while pretending to uphold the republican order the Constitution seeks to establish for “ourselves and our posterity.” Thus, I say, “Good, Scalia’s dead.”  And may it be true that “die Todten reiten schnell.”

Friday, February 12, 2016

Political Analysis ala' NPR: Inane

Political Analysis ala’ NPR: Inane
P. Schultz

            Driving home today from a week away, my wife and I were listening to NPR and a panel discussion on US domestic politics and the current primaries. Here are some of the things I learned.

(1) Anyone and especially the young supporting Bernie Sanders don’t understand our political order. They are not “realists,” as are Hillary and her supporters, including apparently George W. Bush, who was mentioned once as a “realist” when compared to the current crop of Republican primary contestants.
(2) Young women who refuse to allow their votes be determined by the “vagina politics” being peddled are lightweights, largely because they have lived sheltered lives, unlike Hillary, Albright, and Steinem – although C. Rice was not mentioned as another of the pioneering women. They are to be treated as the immature citizens they are because, well, they aren’t supporting Hillary.
(3) The only conceivable reason the Republicans won’t support rebuilding our infrastructure, which would also grow the economy, is because they dislike, intensely, Barack Obama.
(4) Politicians are to be judged not by the results of their policies – e.g., the war in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, the non-closing of Guantanamo, the current economic miasma – but by their sentiments, so Hillary et. al. are the “good guys” and Republicans are the “bad guys.” The one exception to this formula is Bernie Sanders who has decent sentiments but whose policies are little more than fantasies.  But he is quite old and from a small state, so he too is to be forgiven for his naivete’.
(5) Preserving the status quo is the only “realistic” form of political action available to we citizens.

These are things I learned today on NPR and I now understand why some people say that “Reality is for those who cannot or will not do drugs.”

Friday, February 5, 2016

And the Doorbell Rang: A Poem

And the Doorbell Rang
P. Schultz

And the doorbell rang.
It was late that night
You lay awake, all but inert,  
Unmoving in your innocence.

And the doorbell rang
A mother screamed.
Later to appear to say,
Through her tears, “I’m so sorry for you.”

And the doorbell rang
And tho’ you knew it not
You had entered a place, been interred
In a world you knew not.

And the casket was closed,
Its contents obscene.
Not be viewed or ever seen, confirming it
Was a world where you’d never been.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Virtue of "Doing Nothing"

The Virtue of “Doing Nothing”
P. Schultz

            “We are being given a runaround….When Congress is profligate of the public wealth, we are referred to the power of the Pentagon; when Congress is niggardly, we are referred to the power of the middle-class taxpayer. When cities are neglected, we are referred to the countryside; when the countryside is neglected, we are referred to the cities. When tax loopholes are given to millionaires, we are referred to the power of the rich; when racist policies flourish, we are referred to the power of poor whites. It is certainly a curious picture of political power in America, one in which every group in the country has the power to harm others, yet few have any power to help themselves….” [Indispensable Enemies, Walter Karp]

            Why is it, with so many politicians advocating change(s), very little changes? Are these advocates for change actually nothing more than status quo politicians, i.e., politicians who are served well by doing little or nothing? Results indicate that, indeed, our politicians are status quo politicians who are served well by doing little or nothing.

            The usefulness of doing nothing is more common in our political world than is generally thought. For example, when the electorate, the people are disillusioned with the reigning government, angry, and/or “acting out;” i.e., when the people are seeking changes because they feel they are being maltreated, that their prosperity and security is being threatened; then the reigning political class is endangered. It is threatened with the loss of power and prestige, with political disempowerment.
            Yet, in such times, the danger cannot be avoided or short circuited by instituting the change(s) the people desire insofar as those changes would alter, in significant ways, the existing political order and, therewith, the power and prestige of those who control the existing political order. The demand(s) for change, while being focused in part on policies, involve changes in personnel, in those who are deemed to justifiably be the most powerful.

            Consider the current scene. Who would have thought that a self-proclaimed “socialist” from Vermont had any chance against an establishment figure like Hillary Clinton? Who would have thought that a surly, irreverent billionaire, without any political experience, would have more political clout than on the Bushes? These are signs that the established order is tottering on the brink of extinction. And those who represent “the establishment” cannot advocate how or what “outsiders” such as Bernie or the Donald advocate, without undermining their own status.

            For them, “the established,” their best bet is to hold on, while waiting for the public unrest and discontent to dissipate or disappear. This means their best bet is doing little or nothing because any significant changes will be their undoing. Of course, they cannot say or appear to be doing nothing; and when little or nothing gets done, then this must be attributed to a “broken” political system or to allegedly ideological differences that make any progress impossible. Then the lack of change cannot or should not be laid at the door of the ruling political class and, therefore, there is no reason to think that electing “outsiders” will make any difference. Our ruling class is then seen to be powerless to make the kind of changes the people desire.

            Of course, it is all important for these “outsiders” to be seen as dangerous, promising reforms that are unworkable, overly expensive, or just plain batty. These “outsiders” are not genuine politicians; they don’t know what is actually, realistically possible or what “works.” They are not professionals; they are amateurs and it would be madness to entrust them with power. Of course, in the midst of what resembles a “clusterf**k” disguised as a presidential selection process, it is all-too-easy to buy into this story. And that is its purpose, after all.

            So, don’t be surprised if after this latest presidential election, very little or nothing changes. After all, doing nothing is the goal of our established ruling class of politicians. And when nothing changes, this should not be seen as a sign of a “broken” political system. Rather, it is a sign that the reigning political order and its power brokers have succeeded. Believe it or not, political failure is must less frequent than our politicians want us to believe. To see this, it is only necessary to keep in mind that a politician’s primary concerns are getting and keeping power. Whatever serves these ends is a success, even when it looks like a failure from a societal perspective. Doing nothing in the face of public unrest represents not failure but success. The system is “working;” that is, it is “working” precisely as those who control it want it to “work.”