Tuesday, March 13, 2018

JFK and Vietnam: Blinded by the Light

JFK and Vietnam: Blinded by the Light
P. Schultz

            I am reading an interesting book, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War, by Howard Jones.

            At one point, Jones asserts that “Lacking any understanding of these people, US observers attempted to explain their motives in terms that were meaningful to Westerners.” [p. 271] I believe what this means is that Westerners deal with political life – and perhaps life itself – as a series of problems, trying to solve each one with the application of expertise of one kind or another. So, for example, people in the US today conceive that there is “a gun problem,” just as in Vietnam when Kennedy was president there was “a Buddhist problem,” “an infiltration problem,” and/or “a corruption problem.”

            But as Jones intimates, it is questionable how much understanding this approach, this mindset promotes. And it seems to me that while it promotes what might be called “wide understanding,” it does not promote “deep understanding.” As a result, our politicians are left with a superficial understanding of the situations they confront.

            So, when the Buddhists rebelled in 1963 in Nam, JFK and his advisers were not aware of it’s meaning, of its depth or importance. As Jones puts it: “The Saigon event blindsided the Kennedy administration. ‘How could this have happened?’ the president stormed to Forrestal.” [p. 271] And “Years afterward [CIA agent] Trueheart made a revealing confession: ‘Nobody guessed the Buddhists had such an important role to play. We had zero knowledge of Buddhism.’” [271]

            This is as much to say that JFK and his advisers has no real knowledge of Vietnam. Whatever knowledge they possessed was superficial; it lacked the depth that would have allowed the administration to understand the Vietnamese and their society. The administration did have expertise of various kinds, political, economic, social, and military but this expertise only guaranteed that they saw widely, not that they saw deeply. And lacking such knowledge, JFK and his advisers did not know, could not know what “the Saigon event,” the Buddhist revolt, meant. They were even tempted to explain it with reference to drug use among the Buddhists, the influence of the Viet Cong on the Buddhists, or with such flaccid phrases as “religious fervor,” as if that explained anything. As one person pointed out, however, “Any threat to Buddhism, especially coming from a ‘non-Buddhist minority,’ could draw ‘a more personal and spontaneous response from the ordinary Vietnamese peasant than Viet Cong political propaganda.’” [278-79]

            Taking social and political phenomena as “problems” to be “solved” by the application of expertise blinds us to the context in which these phenomena occur. For example, to think that there is “a gun problem” in the US blinds us to an alternative view, viz., the US society is a violent society, that the American people are a violent people. To see a gun problem in the US is to see superficially, to confuse a symptom for a cause. It is like identifying drug dealing as our drug problem, thereby ignoring drug use, which is most often voluntary, as a deeper, more important phenomenon. By focusing on drug dealing and drug dealers, whose motives are clear to us, we don’t raise the more important issue: Why is drug use in the US so widespread? What is it about our society, about our way of being in the world that accounts for our use of illegal drugs?

            So, seeing superficially as JFK and his administration did, thereby failing to know what the Buddhist revolt meant, JFK and his administration found themselves drawn to assassinations, to killings, then to full-scale war to try to solve its “Vietnam problem.” Just as politicians, domestically, embraced making war on poverty, on crime, on drugs, and on terrorists to solve those problems. And not surprisingly these domestic wars have been as unsuccessful as was the US war in Vietnam. It turns out that, contrary to what our “realists” claim, power is never enough and power devoid of understanding is quite useless.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Time for Change? The Resignation of President Trump

Time for Change? The Resignation of President Trump
P. Schultz

            Is now the time to make a significant, even radical change in how our constitutional order functions, viz., by forcing President Trump to resign?

            Sounds weird no? Of course it does and this is because the Constitution of 1787 established fixed terms of office for all the offices it created, supplemented by an impeachment process that could result in removal from office. So, we Americans are not accustomed to thinking of tenure in office as unfixed, as something that would reflect a less certain, a less established period of time. But perhaps it is time to change this scheme, to adopt the practice more common in parliamentary systems of less permanent, less secure tenures of office.

            One advantage of such a scheme, especially if done “informally,” that is, without actually amending the Constitution, would be to make government more responsive to changing circumstances. Another advantage would be to facilitate the removal of officials/politicians who demonstrate “ethical deficits,” such as abusing their power and position in inappropriate ways, whether their behavior was sexually or financially inappropriate. Moreover, such a change might help direct, focus, or contain the “rumor mongering” that has come to characterize our political “discourse” insofar as such behavior, to be legitimate, would need to be linked to a political objective.

            Further, although such a practice seems strange to us Americans, it shouldn’t. After all, LBJ was driven from the presidency in 1968 for his Vietnam policies when he decided not to seek re-election. And his successor, Richard Nixon, was driven from the presidency via the threat of impeachment, as a result of Watergate, his domestic spying, and his Vietnam policies. And some would argue that President George H.W. Bush was also denied or relinquished the presidency in 1992 by the threat of exposure of his subversion of President Carter in the 1980 presidential election when he, and others, made a deal with the Iranians not to release the hostages before that election. And, of course, there have been numerous Congresspersons who were forced from office before their tenure expired, ala’ Senator Al Franken of Minnesota just recently. There has even been an example of a Supreme Court Justice being forced to resign, viz., Abe Fortas.

            So, why not make this practice a legitimate part of our constitutional order? To do so doesn’t require any formal changes to the Constitution insofar as many of our changes to our constitutional order, and even some of the most important ones, have occurred “informally,” i.e., without benefit of formal amendments to that document. Constitutional doctrines and practices, like “separate but equal” and “freedom of expression,” were created informally, and the former, “separate but equal,” passed away in the same way. In other words, constitutional changes, even significant constitutional changes have occurred without benefit of constitutional amendments.

            So, why not now openly embrace a movement to force President Trump, because he is unfit to be president, to resign his office? That is, why not treat this practice as a legitimate exercise of political power in our constitutional order, one that is consistent with what we like to think of as a “republican” or “representative” form of government? Seems like a good idea to me.