Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
Saturday 11 December 2010
It is the climactic scene. Dorothy and her friends stand before the great Wizard of Oz. Toto wanders off and yanks back a curtain to reveal a man busy manipulating levers. Whistles and smoke bombs go off, and the great Oz thunders: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
The federal government, the military and the Library of Congress have all ordered those under their power not to look at the material published on the WikiLeaks website because it is illegal and looking would make them criminals. Meanwhile, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, is still jailed in Britain because his condom allegedly "malfunctioned" while having sex in Sweden with a woman with shady connections to anti-Castro Cubans and US intelligence.
This raises a very real question: How is the US approach to WikiLeaks any different from the tyrannical Chinese government’s crack down on websites publishing things Chinese leaders fear and want to control?
Despite all the “leader of the free world” propaganda hammered into us since first grade, are we really any different? As my dad liked to say, the Chinese were civilized when our WASP ancestors were living in trees. Is it time we stopped letting ourselves be deluded that we’re “exceptional” in the world?
The US government campaign to close down WikiLeaks uses the same tactics as the campaign by the Chinese to thwart its website enemies. They both rely on the intimidation of funding sources, they both publicly smear leaders of the criminalized website and they both use their nation’s legal system, since, in both China and the United States, the legal system has been designed by the powerful class of people most likely to be embarrassed by the revelations on “subversive” websites.
Here’s a novel idea: To make up for the undeserved Nobel Peace Prize given last year to Barack Obama and in line with the more appropriate Peace Prize given out this year to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, next year maybe the Nobel Committee should give the Peace Prize to Julian Assange. Especially if he’s in prison.
Samuel Huntington and US Decline
I’ve generally disdained historians like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, since both of them were used ad nauseum to bolster the imperial Bush Doctrine of preemptive military violence.
But the other day for 35-cents at a thrift shop I picked up Huntington’s 1996 magnum opus, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. While it has a testimonial on the back from the devil himself, Henry Kissinger, the book is important and more politically neutral than the list of its right-wing militarist worshippers suggest.
Huntington’s thesis -- that the post-Cold War world is shaking out to be a “clash of civilizations” -- rests firmly on the fact the United States is a nation/empire in decline. He says it has been in decline since around 1920, when productive US industrial might was at its pinnacle in the world.
Since then, European colonialism has been closed out. Flush with its post World War Two legacy and following the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union, the US was the undisputed top dog in the world. All Americans know this only too well. As a baby-boomer born of a World War Two PT boat captain, it has been my, and my generation’s, legacy.
Americans know this so deeply that most Americans, Huntington concedes, are consumed with deep-seated feelings of exceptionalism. He refers (a bit ironically) to western “arrogance.” He even agrees with Palestinian scholar Edward Said that the ideational separation of “West” and “East” is a western-created myth. And, he says, that myth should be criticized, in Said’s words, “for assuming the inherent superiority of the former to the latter.”
This American feeling of exceptionalism is based on an imperial machine composed of economic, cultural and military power. The trouble is, that machine is running low on gas.
The problem – our problem – is that the economic part of that three-legged stool is waning and in decline. At the same time, China, India, Brazil and other nations are building new economies to compete in the world. He includes Iran in this mix.
This, Huntington says, has led to a world of more equal, and more conflicting, civilizations. Members of the developing world are no longer looking to the West and the United States for answers. Our culture is exactly that – OUR culture, not so much a universal culture that all want to join. More and more, former “third world” nations are looking into their own cultures, exploring their own regional identities.
Here’s how Huntington sees it:
“Western powers in the form of European colonialism in the nineteenth century and American hegemony in the twentieth century extended Western culture throughout much of the contemporary world. European colonialism is over; American hegemony is receding. The erosion of Western culture follows, as indigenous, historically rooted mores, languages, beliefs, and institutions reassert themselves. The growing power of non-Western societies produced by modernization is generating the revival of non-Western cultures throughout the world.”
This is the world we live in, the stormy sea, if you will, that President Obama sees as he looks out the wheelhouse window of the ship of state.
The title of Obama’s memoir aside, Dreams From My Father, the current argument of right-wing writer Dinesh D’Souza criticizing Obama as a second-generation pawn of a socialist, anti-colonialist Kenyan father willfully misses the mark by a mile. If President Obama is about anything he seems to be about not rocking the boat or throwing overboard any portion of American exceptionalism in the world.
When it comes to Huntington’s thesis, Obama’s circumstance may be analogous to the big city African American mayor who turns out to be harder on poor black crime than a white mayor would be. Like the big city black mayor, Obama shows no special empathy for the formerly colonized and dominated in relation to the colonizer and dominator. He’s like Caesar’s wife: Because of his race and anti-colonial family backstory, he seems concerned about being above reproach as an American in the current “clash of civilizations.”
If Huntington is right, there is ample room for argument for a much different approach to the world than the one now in force inherited from the Bush administration, an approach based on US "air power capable of bombing virtually any place in the world.”
Thus, the 21st century American dilemma: On one hand, we are a people patriotically encouraged to feel “exceptional,” while, on the other hand, our civilization is in decline economically and culturally in relation to a host of civilizations formerly dominated by the US and the West. The trump card we're holding is an outrageously expensive and super-lethal military.
As if this is not bad enough, we make it even worse. Any suggestion of addressing the decline engages the exceptionalism trigger and sends our politics swinging to the reactionary, often irrational, blockheaded right. Plus, this is now occurring as the decline is speeding up.
As Huntington sees it, when the decline began circa 1920 it advanced at a quite slow and gradual pace. But as time moves forward the problems compound and the pace of decline tends to increase. At the same time, the pace of positive economic development in the former colonies picks up speed.
We’re now 90 years into this process and bogged down in two resource-sucking wars with a “Defense” budget that uses up over 50% of our tax revenues.
Getting Our Priorities Right
As the United States engages this new competitive world, it more and more feels like we’re cutting our own throat. Instead of falling back on our working population as a resource to be invested in for a competitive future, our leaders keep holding onto a fading past.
Post 9/11 fear has so gripped Americans and demagogues have so whipped them into a frenzy that, in conjunction with an incredible strain of anti-intellectual dumbness and religious chicanery, we may be doomed to the worst possible policies.
This, of course, only makes the fear worse. It is why FDR said: “All we have to fear is fear itself.” We're living it.
If the current political reality in America is distilled and reduced to its essence, we're left with two fundamental motivators: Wealth and Violence. Trusting and investing in people is nowhere to be seen.
Thanks to the cynical clarity of the current Supreme Court in its Citizens United ruling, wealth is the unabashed main mover and shaker of power. Billionaires now run for office on a regular basis and the top tier of wealthy Americans and corporations invest their money into candidates who, then, direct where our policies go.
Then there’s violence -- state violence in the form of militarism. Our military, police, judicial and prison systems are becoming more and more interconnected. The problem extends from the 700 foreign bases we maintain and the global capacity to bomb anywhere in the world down to the lowliest, local police force invested in the tragically disastrous Drug War.
As my good friend who is a state parole agent will tell me, cops are only doing their jobs. He's right -- and it's not an easy job our screwed-up policies have given them. Yes, violent crime must be curbed by somebody; predation and disrespect for others is as prevalent as guns in this culture.
But the basis for much local police and prison resources is the Drug War, which if anybody has looked lately is a tragic farce that long ago metastasized from a Solution into The Problem.
I've taught writing in a Philadelphia Prison for nine years, and I joke that the inmate/writers are POWs in the Drug War, which many are. The drug business is just that, a business that follows all the rules of free-private enterprise. Considering the dismal state of education and job availability, our inner city priorities are simply insane. There’s no other word for it.
Mexico is now engaged in a flat-out internal war. Living with historically corrupt and violent police forces, the Mexican drug gangs have discovered great power in the use of extremely ruthless violence. Gangs are now out-gunning the federales, something that was made frightfully clear in a WikiLeaks revelation. It seems only a matter of time before the US becomes involved and introduces things like lethal drones. Again, total insanity.
Anywhere violence is the main tool used for influence and control, corruption is inevitable. As Brazil readies itself for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, campaigns to clean up the gangs in its poorest barrios are frustrated by the corruption. One recent raid turned up drugs and guns, but few gang leaders and no money.
The gang leaders were slipped out of town by cops on the take -- and huge stashes of cash just disappeared.
“We are trying to solve the problem of the drug dealers by using the same police that originated the problem in the first place,” said a Brazilian filmmaker familiar with police corruption.
US leaders wring their hands about the corruption of the Karzai government in Afghanistan while they live and work within a cocoon of much more sophisticated and insidious corruption in Washington. Our press talks about Iran and Turkey “meddling” in Iraq, while somehow our invasion and occupation are not meddling.
Who are we kidding?
Nothing is going to change unless working Americans get truly fed up.
The political Left may be out of power and even verbally abused by the current centrist Democratic President, but as far as it represents what is the bottom-up genius of working America, it’s what can save this nation from the delusional bubble-talk our politicians and media spoon-feed us.
The Left doesn’t have the Wealth and the monopoly on Violence that the Right does. It just has better ideas that could save America.
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