Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Great Political Battle Raging? Not So Much

A Great Political Battle Raging? Not So Much
Peter Schultz

            There is, many think, a great political battle raging in the US between the Republicans and the Democrats, between Trump supporters and Biden supporters, including the “Never Trumpians.” This battle is so great, it is said, that the fate of the US and its alleged democracy lies in the balance. Should Trump win again, his opponents argue, the US democracy will lie in ruins, sunk in that swamp Trump promised to drain. Should Trump lose, his supporters say, US democracy will be undermined by those who would make “socialism” the ruling force in the nation, thereby undermining, once and for all, its greatness.

            Heady stuff, to be sure. However, two books, neither of which is devoted to analyzing our current situation, make me wonder and even doubt these prevailing thoughts that there is a great political battle raging in the US presently. Those two books are This Town by Mark Leibovich and Secret Agenda by Jim Hougan. The former is or was a fairly well known book on how Washington works, while the latter is a little known analysis of what the Watergate crisis was actually about. Both books illustrate why it is risky to take at face value conventional accounts of what is going on in our nation’s capital.

            An example from This Town illustrates these risks, an example dealing with the raid that led to the assassination of bin Laden.

            “As it turned out, the president’s involvement [with the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner] was nearly messed up . . . by the US raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. A few days before the mission, on August 28, the tiny group of high-level national security principals who knew about the operation was discussing the timing of it in the White House Situation Room. While the raid ultimately happened on Sunday night, Saturday night was first raised as a possibility. But someone pointed out that Obama was scheduled to be at the Correspondents’ Association dinner that night and his absence (and that of other top administration officials) could tip off the journalist filled room that something was up.  At which point, Hillary Clinton looked up and said simply ‘Fuck the White House Correspondents’ dinner’.” [p. 245-6]

            So, when planning a raid on bin Laden’s compound and his probably assassination, a group of “high-level national security principals” concerned themselves with planning the attack – deemed to be of overwhelming importance in the war on terror – so it would not conflict with the White House Correspondents’ annual dinner. And from the scheduling it would appear the raid was in fact planned so as to avoid a conflict with that dinner, despite Hillary’s objections.

            In This Town, Leibovich makes it perfectly clear that Washington’s social milieu trumps political concerns repeatedly. People who seem to be enemies move in the same social and business circles comfortably and, more to the point, do not let their political concerns disrupt their socializing. Leibovich, for these reasons, dubs the controlling social set in D.C. “the Club.” And he argues: “You could do worse to explain the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country then to assemble a highlight reel from the Correspondents’ Association weekend’s event juxtaposed with scenes of economic despair, a simply military death toll, or montage of poor, oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf Coast, which had suffered the worst spill in history a few days before the 2010 dinner.” [p. 136]

            What seem like political phenomena – e.g., the removal of General McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan – are actually social phenomena. McChrystal’s removal had nothing to do with the military situation in Afghanistan. It was just that he and his men had broken the rules, the social rules that govern Washington society. For the same reasons, the reporter who broke the story for Rolling Stone had to be – and was – punished. “The substance and merit of the remarks were beside the point. Because McChrystal was playing the game wrong. He made a dumb PR move.” [pp. 129-30]

            And Hastings, the reporter involved, was also punished, being vilified by other journalists for violating “an ‘unspoken agreement’ between reporters and military officials.” [p. 132] “Hastings was treated as a suspicious interloper.” [ibid.] As Leibovich sums it up: “The bigger points in this case concerns the place of a ‘respectable journalist’ in the Washington Club – or lifetime banishment from it. Hastings trashed the Club. He was a skunk at the garden party.” [p. 133] And if you this is an isolated incident, I suggest familiarizing yourself with how the Washington Post treated Jim Webb of the San Jose Mercury after he broke the story of the Contras running drugs into the US during and with the knowledge of the Reagan administration.

            Trump himself is a social disturbance and, hence, must be dealt with insofar as he threatens the Club and its status. Trump is especially disturbing because he shamelessly rejects both the Club and membership in it. Those like Trump must be dealt with, their power limited, their reputations besmirched, and even their offices taken from them if possible. Joe Biden, however, is a member of the Club and, hence, he will if elected president restore Washington’s social balance. His politics, his talents or lack thereof are not important because his election will bring “the right people” – the socially acceptable people – back into the government and the Washington social scene. There is no great political battle taking place in D.C. any more than there were great battles in junior high or high school.

            In Hougan’s Secret Agenda, it is clear that what was actually going on during Watergate was quite different than what the official story said was going on. In the officially approved story, Watergate was the culmination of Nixon’s paranoid politics, which led to his certain impeachment that was only short-circuited by his resignation. But as Hougan shows, Nixon was as much a victim as a perpetrator. As J. Edgar Hoover said in a newspaper interview: “By God, [Nixon’s] got some former CIA men working for him that I’d kick out of my office. Someday, that bunch will serve him up a fine mess.” [p. 77] Of course, Hoover was correct although he did not live to the mess these men served up to Nixon.

            Hoover knew there were CIA men embedded in Nixon’s White House and administration, as did others like H.R. Haldeman and Pat Buchanan. But what Hoover may not have known was that at least two of these CIA men – Howard Hunt and James McCord – were not really working for Nixon. They were working with and for the CIA. That is, Hunt and McCord’s loyalties were not to Nixon or his presidency; those loyalties belonged to the CIA.

            Does this mean the CIA brought down Richard Nixon? Not necessarily, although their actions may have contributed to that result unintentionally. But it does mean that Watergate was not “a morality play,” was not “a simple story with the President at its center,” [p.56] as the official story would have us believe. Such morality plays necessitate some playing “the bad guys,” while others play “the good guys.” Most people don’t want to hear, as Hougan puts it, that “Watergate . . . was not so much a partisan political scandal as it was, secretly, a sex scandal, the unpredictable outcome of a CIA operation that . . . tripped on its own shoelaces.” [p. xviii] People prefer to ignore that the Nixon administration was “beset by leaks as massive as the Pentagon Papers, and besieged by critics on the both the Right and the Left,” and all of this amidst “the suspicions of a feuding intelligence community, as least part of which was convinced that . . . Henry Kissinger was objectively . . . a Soviet agent.” [p. 65] As Hougan put it: “our history [of Watergate] is a forgery, the by-product of secret agents acting on secret agendas of their own.” [p. xviii]

            In Leibovich’s terms, our real history is one in which the Club’s members seek to preserve their own and the Club’s social status, operating clandestinely because to do otherwise would give the game away. Were it known, for example, that the CIA was successfully seeking compromising “intell” on prominent Washingtonians, the Club would lose it legitimacy, as would its members. Were the Nixon administration to become known as engaging in criminal act, Washington would be perceived as harboring criminal enterprises.

            When such phenomena threaten to become public, then it is essential that the Club, the Washington establishment act to preserve its secrets. When such phenomena are exposed, as happened to Nixon during Watergate, then those responsible must be punished while making it look like such acts are aberrations. Hence, the need for what Hougan calls “morality plays” where the perpetrators are characterized as uniquely evil. And, of course, this was how Watergate was played out, as a morality play that succeeded in banishing Richard Nixon.

            Turning to our current situation, a president like Trump presents a real challenge to the Club, the established social order in Washington because not only does he despise the Club, he openly, shamelessly despises it. But that does not mean there is a great political battle going on presently, as so many like to say. What’s going on is nothing more and nothing less than the Club, the established order defending itself, defending its status and the status of its members. As a result, previous lines that were thought to be real dividing lines, e.g., lines between those who supported Bush’s war in Iraq and those who didn’t, have disappeared. When the Club’s endangered it is time to circle the wagons. And, of course, Trump must be punished and his punishment must be made to look like a defense of morality, as Trump himself is characterized as a terrible political evil. But he isn’t and there isn’t a battle for America’s soul going on presently. And the proof of this will come out when once Trump is defeated, very little will change socially or politically in the US.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Nations, Power, and Human Beings

Nations, Power, and Human Beings
Peter Schultz

            There is only one way to limit governmental power, by embedding it in a community. Once the connection between a government and a community is severed, the government will acquire great power, usually in the form of executive or bureaucratic power. Nations, which are not and cannot be communities, are created to facilitate the acquisition and exercise of great power, in the pursuit of greatness.

            There is a similar phenomenon regarding human beings. Once the link between human beings and community is severed, human beings will pursue power, power after power ceasing only in death. Without a community, a human being has no “place,” is left exposed, alienated and controlled by a fear of death, of annihilation. Thus, human beings pursue power to protect themselves, even while feeling and being alienated and fearful. Life becomes a “rat race,” an endless pursuit of security. It is not an accident that the specter of endless war is before us. It has always been there but is just now becoming visible. “The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Trouble With Being a War Hero

The Trouble With Being a War Hero
Peter Schultz

            The trouble with being a war hero is that those who become such heroes by virtue of being killed in action lose their humanity. That is, they become icons, as it were, and their flaws and idiosyncracies, those things which make us human, all too human, disappear in the fog of their idealization. Everything they did before they were felled in battle are seen as leading up and even pointing to their deaths, so that their lives are sanitized and even glamorized to a point where they become something like saints. They become unreal.

            I knew, as a brother, one such person, who has become something of a war hero, namely Charles J. Schultz, known to me and his family simply as “Charlie.” Charlie was KIA in Vietnam in 1967 where he was waging war as a 2d Lt. in the United States Marine Corps. He had volunteered to be a Marine officer and he could have avoided the war altogether as he had been accepted to the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources after graduating from Muhlenberg College in 1966 as a pre-med major. As to be expected and is appropriate, Charlie has been honored by those who knew him and a scholarship is given annually by Metuchen High School, where he went to school, in his name and the name of another graduate in the same class, Richard Herold, whose remains have not been recovered.

            In reading one of Charlie’s books on JFK – he was a devotee of Kennedy – I came across the following marginal note: “How do you know when you are angry?” It was the only marginal note in a rather large book. It intrigued me at first because I thought you must know when you are angry. On further thought, however, I concluded that that was not necessarily the case, that you could be angry and not realize it because it was buried in your unconscious. Maybe you were angry at a parent and, because such anger isn’t considered appropriate, you hid it or from it. Which is what I did with my mother whom I  thought of and often said was a saint. As a therapist pointed out to me two years after I had declared my mother was a saint, I was actually quite angry with my mother and was compensating so as not to deal with that anger. It just wasn’t something I wanted to face.

            So perhaps Charlie was feeling with anger too, although not produced by the same source as mine. We can never know now. But the point is this: Beneath all of Charlie’s nerdiness – he chose to wear a coat and tie to high school in order to raise its ambience, as he put it, beneath being Mr. Boy Scout, rising to head his troop in whatever rank is the highest in the Boy Scouts, beneath being his fraternity’s president and the president of the interfraternity council in college, beneath being a 2d Lt. in the United States Marine Corp, he was angry young man who didn’t know he was angry and didn’t know what he was angry about.

            In other words, he was a human being and one who felt things, especially injustices and cruelty perhaps. He rescued and healed an abused dog he named “Jack” after you know who and he wanted to do whatever it is one does after going to a school for natural resources. And so he was angry, or so it seems. And perhaps it was this anger that led him to think he should enlist in the Marines and to make war in Vietnam. Maybe he was angry at himself and was trying to prove his manhood by virtue of becoming a soldier. That’s something that happens frequently.

            It doesn’t really matter here what Charlie might have been angry about because the point is that he was beneath all his accomplishments – and they were many – a young human being who was angry. Which is to say he was a human being, nothing more and nothing less. His life was cut short, ironically in a war characterized by injustice and cruelty but a war also covered over with flags and other symbols of patriotism, as wars always are. Would it have mattered had Charlie been able to consciously know his anger? I don’t know but my bet is that it would have.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Hillside Cemetery

Hillside Cemetery
Peter Schultz

            Tomorrow is Flag Day and on this day in 1967 my brother Charlie was laid to rest in Hillside Cemetery in Metuchen, New Jersey. He had been killed in Vietnam and was buried with military honors in a sad but patriotic ceremony, a ceremony that honored the sacrifice Lincoln called “the last, full measure of devotion.”

            But Hillside Cemetery, before that day, had been part of my history. I was at one point dating a young woman, Cookie Kirwan, who lived on Main St. in Metuchen and when I would go home rather late at night, without a car, I had a choice: I could walk down Main St. to Woodbridge Ave., turn right at the post office, pass the train station and walk all the way down to Upland Ave. Or I could cut through Hillside Cemetery, cross the Lehigh Valley train tracks, cross over Amboy Ave. and cut off a lot of real estate in getting to Upland Ave. So I did the latter. But I didn’t walk through the cemetery because I knew there were spirits there and that some of those spirits might want to scare the crap out of me. So I ran through the cemetery at top speed, which really wasn’t very speedy as some of you might recall, ran across the tracks and did not stop until I got to Amboy Ave. Only then did I feel safe. And never once did I look back!

            After Charlie was buried there, I went to visit his grave and as my paternal grandmother was also buried there I thought I would visit her grave as well, although I never liked her all that much. She was rather stern and unkind to my mother even after my mother and father had been married for decades. But I couldn’t find her grave and when I got home I told my mother about it and she said: “Oh, Peter, she’s buried in the Protestant section of the cemetery.” I was - and still am - amazed. The Protestant section? WTF is that about? You mean Catholics and Protestants can’t properly be buried near one another? Is there an African American section in that cemetery? Could blacks even be buried there? I don’t know but apparently anything is possible. Good thing my father converted to Catholicism or otherwise, I guess, he couldn’t’ be buried next to my mother!

            Time goes on and while it doesn’t fully heal our wounds or completely displace our traumas, it sure changes how we respond to them. Metuchen and Hillside Cemetery will live in my memories until I can no longer remember things, for reasons both good and bad, both happy and sad.  So it goes.

Conversation #12 To Vote for Biden or Not

Conversation #12: To Vote for Biden or Not
Heard June 13, 2020

Susan: “So, you’re not going to vote for Biden?”
Sally: “No. I am afraid not. But are you?”
Susan: “Oh yes. Anyone’s better than Trump. Don’t you think so?”
Sally: “No, I don’t although I do agree that Trump is bad, very bad.”
Susan: “Then why not Biden?”
Sally: “Let me put it this way. How would you describe US foreign policy, pre-Trump?”
Susan: “Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it much.”
Sally: “OK, understood. But would you say US foreign policies are relatively humane and peaceful or brutal and savage?”
Susan: “Oh, definitely humane and peaceful, with some mistakes. Definitely humane and peaceful.”
Sally: “OK. But you see that where we differ because I see US foreign policies as brutal and savage for the most part and at heart. And that’s why I won’t vote for Biden because he supports what are brutal and savage policies.”
Susan: “Well, I don’t agree with that take on US foreign policies.”
Sally: “I know you don’t and that’s why you see Biden as a proper choice. So, at bottom, our real disagreement isn’t over whether to vote for Biden or not. Actually, it’s over US foreign policies because only if you think US foreign policies are humane and peaceful can you think of Biden as a proper choice. If, like me, you think of those policies as brutal and savage, then Biden is not a proper choice. And, of course, neither is Trump, for the same reasons.”
Susan: “So you’re taking a pass for this presidential election?”
Sally: “Well, yes, because I would rather take a pass than vote for brutal and savage foreign policies.”

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Shrewd Savagery of Obama

The Shrewd Savagery of Obama
Peter Schultz

[In the following, all references are to Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War, by Mark Danner]

            Obama practiced savagery while disguising it. He said, regarding holding those who justified or practiced torture that it was best to “look forward as opposed to looking backward.” [p. 111] But without “looking backward” the past controls the present because there will be no accountability and without accountability it is impossible “to enter the realm of justice and legality.” [p. 110] And, of course, it was precisely the realm of justice and legality that the Bush administration abandoned – willingly and even enthusiastically – in response to 9/11. By refusing to look backward, Obama legitimized, even embraced the Bush administration’s savage response to 9/11, including the destruction of Iraq. For a forever war must be savage.

            Once this is seen, it is less than surprising that “Rather than ending the state of exception, the Obama administration normalized it. Unlike George W. Bush, who often grounded his secret actions on his own authority as president, Obama and his team . . . worked hard to inscribe his predecessor’s improvisations into law and to make them permanent. And even as Obama [took] to warning that the country must not remain ‘on a perpetual war-time footing,’ he seemed trapped in a prison of his own making, perpetuating the very policies he demand[ed] must end.” [p. 89-90]

            Whether Obama was “trapped” or whether he was exactly where he wanted to be is an interesting question. But given his actions, it would seem he was very much at home where he was. His embrace of “targeted killings” led him to multiply the number of drone attacks throughout the world far beyond the number of such killings made by George Bush. This clearly indicates that Obama was “all in” on a virtually endless worldwide war on terror. As one commentator observed, Obama claimed “the unreviewable power to kill any person, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on information that is secret and has been collected and evaluated according to secret criteria by anonymous individuals in a secret procedure.” [p. 125]

            And of course Obama’s embrace of an endless war on terror had the added benefit of shielding him Republican attacks. As Danner summarizes: “Obama had taken a position so strongly in favor of quiet and unremitting military violence that he left his Republican rival [Mitt Romney] . . . no place to stand.” Because the Democrats in the White House “proved relentless in hunting down terrorists, and those who may look like terrorists, and killing them by the thousands,” because Obama did not “prosecute CIA officers for torture,” because he did not “abandon Bush’s indefinite detention policy,” because he did not close Guantanamo, there was almost no discussion of any of these policies during the 2012 presidential campaign. When Romney was asked in the second presidential debate about drone killings, he said, “that he ‘supported them entirely.’” [p.125]  
Savagery – torture and the killing of civilians, including children – had been normalized, thanks to Obama. As Danner put it: “If Obama made himself largely invulnerable to the politics of fear it is because he shielded himself from it by his cool and ruthless methods and left little political space for discussion. . . The politics of fear had been embodied in the country’s permanent policies, largely without comment or objection by its citizens. The politics of fear had won.” [p. 126]