This is my last blog for True/Slant. It looks like I'll be blogging elsewhere come September- but since no contracts are signed, I can't really tell you where (hint: it rhymes with Morbes). In the meantime, the LAST column gives me a chance to do something that blogging rarely allows me to do: reflect. And upon reflection, this is what I've learned from my time at True/Slant.
When I first started this column, I was pissed. Bush was still in office, two illegal and imperialistic wars were in full swing, and although the Wall Street Ponzi scheme built on the democratization of debt had not yet collapsed, it was increasingly clear that most of us had been screwed by Neoliberal capitalism. Three decades of tax giveaways to the richest Americans and the destruction of the social safety net meant 80% of us were worse off than in 1980. I was finishing up a book on just that topic (American Plastic) and the more I knew about how in debt Americans were, the more angry I became. It was clearly a case of us vs. them, the working classes vs. the super rich who were robbing us blind. I truly believed that it was time to stop this nonsense, band together as the majority, and take our country back. It was in this spirit that I started "Class Warfare."
Ah, has the world changed since then. Oh, don't get me wrong. The rich got even richer in 2009, the rest of us are worse off than ever, but the idea that there might be a possibility of uniting around our common class interests and taking our country back from the robber barons who have been running it seems so completely disconnected from reality that I want to travel back in time two years and throw a bucket of ice-water into my stupidly optimistic face.
If I had been shocked into reality with a faceful of water, perhaps I would have predicted the success with which white resentment would be mobilized in groups like the Tea Party. The righteous anger of the white masses is not at the bankers and politicians who put us in this mess, but at Mexican immigrants. And if I could have predicted that a huge portion of angry white Americans would have their rage misdirected, perhaps I could have also known that the Obama administration would not be able to resist the lure of military "solutions" to political and economic problems. I might have even predicted that the Obama administration would be given far too much of a free pass by the "Left" to do whatever they saw fit, and what they saw fit to govern as a Centrist Right party, especially without any pressure from their base.
Ah, but I was ever so young when True Slant editor Coates Bateman called me up two years ago and said "Listen, we've got this idea." Of course, I'm ever so much older now and can see that the world we have won is a bigger mess than I could have ever imagined. A good map of the place we're at can be found at today's New York Times. It is a map of the latest vote on military spending in Afghanistan. Just days after WikLeaks released documents to illustrate what a futile waste of life and resources the war in Afghanistan is, the House voted to spend another $59 BILLION dollars on it. And where is the resistance to this total disaster? The usual places- Democratic Vermont, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin. Some unusual resistance in Florida, Arizona and Texas and then some Republican resistance in Utah and Texas.
The rest of the country? Firmly on track to the end of Empire. Red and Blue armies marching to their doom- too distracted by the promises of patriotism, guts and glory, to notice that the economy is collapsing, the environment is destroyed, and the Empire has already imploded.
But here's the other lesson that I've learned . We cannot give up. There is too much at stake. We can all do things- right now- to protect ourselves and our futures. Here are ten of them. You readers can think of hundreds, maybe thousands, more. In other words, I may be less naive than I was at the beginning of "Class Warfare," but I'm angrier than ever and more convinced that WE must do something about it.
1. First and foremost, we must demand that our government be of the people and for the people; not of and for big banks and big guns. The only way to make this happen is to get campaign finance reform through. Without that, no matter how brilliant and even ethical a candidate, they will be sucked into the inevitable desire to get re-elected and the constant prostitution of themselves for contributions to their campaigns.
2. Second, we must convert the economy to peaceful means. Guns into plough shares and all that. Economic conversion is NOT a pipe dream. It is an absolute necessity because without it, we will always be wasting our resources on getting ready for wars and therefore there will always be a need to have wars.
3. Third, we must reinvigorate labor. Until workers have some ability to represent themselves, Americans will continue to work more hours than anyone else on earth. And working more hours means less time to exercise, to eat real food, to spend with our families, etc. It's not that Americans are falling apart because we live in a toxic food environment, but we live in a toxic food environment because our work environments are toxic. Stop feeling lucky to have a job and realize that without workers, capitalism would not produce profit. The owners of the means of production live off of our labor, and they live well. Let them share the wealth or face strikes, walk outs, and general sabotage.
4. Fourth, we must figure out a way to get single payer healthcare. We cannot even do it at a state level right now because the Obama administration not only shut down single payer as an option at the national level, but insisted that states not be allowed to implement their own single payer systems until well after the patchwork, half-assed system of national healthcare reform gets put into place. States must fight for their rights to have single payer and opt out of the national Frankenstein monster of insurance coverage we're being offered. Healthcare should not be a product sold in the market for profit. It should be a basic human right. Once all Americans have it, we will be able to band together for better working conditions. In other words, a social safety net also allows labor to get organized against greed and exploitation.
5. Fifth, higher education MUST be reformed. The system we have now of poor and working class students taking on ridiculous amounts of debt to get an education and then in half of the cases being forced to drop out of school before they've even finished their degree while upper class students get degrees from elite institutions at the cost of $50,000 a year, graduating with little or no debt and all the connections they'll ever need, is the opposite of democracy. It is an aristocracy- a way of passing wealth- economic, educational, and social- from one generation to the next while the vast majority of us are shut out. Higher education should be affordable to anyone who qualifies and should not require a lifetime of debt. Without this basic mechanism of fairness, the ruling elites will become increasingly dynastic.
6. For higher education to become more fair, we have to make our elementary and high school education more fair. No longer can we fund schools on property taxes- a way of ensuring rich neighborhoods with high property values have far more money for their schools than poor neighborhoods with low property values. Higher education must be funded fairly across an entire state. All students receive the same spending, regardless of the neighborhood they live in. No more kindergartens without paper and crayons while in the next town over kindergartens have state of the art computers and swimming pools. Education that is fair and equal is a basic building block of democracy. Without it, we are doomed.
7. Localize as much as possible. We must opt out of the global economy. Buy local foods, of course, but also move your money out of mega banks and put it in a local credit union, go see local live theater, consider a staycation and spend your leisure time and money where you live. This is good for the environment, good for your money, but even more importantly, a necessary brake on the madness that is globalization.
8. As long as we're localizing, we might as well get involved. Social psychologists are showing us what we already know: Americans are a socially isolated and therefore unhappy bunch. And coupling does not solve our isolation- in fact, coupling may increase our social isolation. So we must go out and join a local knitting group or even a religious group, invite your neighbors for dinner or start a community garden. We cannot solve our social isolation by technology- social networks, blogging communities, and online dating are fine, but we actually need to spend time in the same physical location with other human beings.
9. We may have screwed up the earth beyond repair, but we better start working now on creating real alternatives to the oil economy or we're going to burn up in a blaze of global warming as we drown in seas of oil. In the same way that we must force the government to convert the military economy to a peaceful one, we damn well better force them to convert the oil economy to a sustainable one. We have to force the state to regulate oil, tax gas, and invest in public transit and clean energy technologies. Period. Or we all die.
10. This is the most important one so pay attention. I know this is a long blog and kinda preachy, but it's aimed as much at me as at you. Anger is a far better response to threat than depression or apathy. We ought to be angry and we have to utilize that anger into action or we will perish as a country and possibly as a species. We cannot afford to wait and see. We cannot afford to allow half of the country to flirt with fascism. We have to work now to convince our fellow Americans to stop worrying about imaginary threats and focus on what's really going on. We have to work right now to focus ourselves on what our real interests are and not get distracted by pretty little pieces of plastic- like our new i-phones or our new breast implants. We have to band together as a class of people who are less economically secure, less environmentally secure, less emotionally secure than ever. Even if we don't figure a way out, at least we'll perish knowing that we're in this together.
And it is that human connection, the class as a group with solidarity and support for itself, that can move us from Class Warfare to class action.
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I do a sport that results in a lot of broken toes. What I've learned is this: once a toe is broken, it will break more easily in the future until having a broken toe becomes a regular part of life. This is, I believe, why God invented sports tape.
Broken hearts are different. Once a heart gets broken a few times, it builds up a tough shell that stops it from ever breaking again, or at least from breaking into a million pieces again. That's the way it is for those of us who actually opened our hearts and our wallets and our lives to getting President Obama elected. We got our hearts broken over and over and over again. And now, for many of us, we expect nothing but betrayal.
Of course, like any dysfunctional relationship, there were clues immediately that we should start hardening ourselves to the fantasy that we would finally have an administration that was ours and ours alone, rather than a President that is always sneaking off to cavort with big military and big banks. But then came Larry Summers and the TARP bailouts and the increase of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and so many betrayals that by now, my heart is like stone and there is nothing left for the Obama-ites to do that will hurt me.
Or so I say. Like any broken-hearted lover, continuously rejected and then courted and then rejected again, I harbor a small piece of hope. This time he'll do the right thing. This time will be different. This time he'll appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the consumer advocacy agency that she invented. But even that little piece of hopefulness buried deep in the recesses of my stony heart knows, deep down, that the chances of this happening are about the same as the chances of a perfectly romantic ending to my life, where my beloved rides up on a white horse and takes me off into a sunset to live happily ever after.
According to an article in today's New York Times, the Obama Administration has not ruled out appointing Warren, especially given how vocal the support for her is from leading Democrats and some of the press, as well as some labor unions and progressive. The Obama administration knows what we want.
It is essential to the bill and very, very important that Elizabeth Warren be appointed,” Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts and an architect of the law, said Friday on MSNBC.
But not surprisingly, our arch rival, the banking industry, opposes Professor Warren as too invested in protecting the people rather than being "neutral." As if the head of a consumer protection agency should be neutral about how the banks have profited from the immense information asymmetry involved in debt. In other words, Warren actually believes we ought to know what we're getting when we take on a mortgage or a credit card instead of continuing to allow a system where you would need an MBA to understand what the hell it means to sign on the dotted line.
According to Roger M. Beverage, head of the Oklahoma Banker's Association, Oklahoma native Warren is "competent" and "exceptionally bright" but
We just fear what she might come up with. She’s a partisan and she’s bull-headed and she’s opinionated. And she’s terrific. She’s a great advocate. We just respectfully disagree with her view of the world.”
Already key Democrats, such as Senator Christopher Dodd (CT), the chairman of the banking committee, are warning that they won't be able to muster the votes necessary for Warren's nomination. It is only a matter of time till the Obama administration shrugs and says "What can I do."
And the heart-broken progressives of this country either continue to excuse our beloved, like any abused spouse, with "He had no choice" and "He couldn't help it" or, more likely, turn our backs on the Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections and risk losing the only thing like a happy ending we have ever had.
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Ah, spy speak. "Goodness in having a robust capacity." That's Marine Colonel David Lapin, a Pentagon spokesperson, describing the ridiculously large super secret spy network that was spawned after 9/11. What does it mean? Let me get out my decoder ring and see if I can translate it.
The Washington Post writers, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, are releasing a series of articles entitled "Top Secret America" that outline the incredible expansion of the US spy agencies and their contractors after 9/11 and it's making those spy agencies nervous enough to try and defend themselves with completely incomprehensible spy speak. See, no real attacks on US soil after 9/11 is "goodness" and is the result of insane amounts of money being poured into spy agencies and their contractors.
What Priest and Arkin have found may surprise you, but probably not.
To ensure that the country's most sensitive duties are carried out only by people loyal above all to the nation's interest, federal rules say contractors may not perform what are called "inherently government functions." But they do, all the time and in every intelligence and counterterrorism agency... What started as a temporary fix in response to the terrorist attacks has turned into a dependency that calls into question whether... the government is still in control of its most sensitive activities... The Post investigation uncovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America created since 9/11 that is hidden from public view, lacking in thorough oversight and so unwieldy that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.
The Post investigation makes clear what we already know: bureaucracy's main function is to grow. Spy agency bureaucracy is no different. Given the injection of post-9/11 hysteria and helplessness, spy agency bureaucracy grew like e-coli bacteria in a pile of manure.
Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
And the news media can't stop talking about it. On True/Slant alone there are already at least five stories about the series.
Yet what do we really know now that we didn't know before? The series, an amazing piece of actual journalism at a time when our news is dominated by opinionated bloggers like myself, but it's real use is in the facts and figures, not the story. We already knew that defense spending (secret or not) is completely out of proportion to what the US can afford to spend and it only grows bigger by the day. There is little accountability in terms of private contractors or, let's face it, the paid employees of the US defense industry, here or around the world. And like a BP oil spill, curbing the military industrial complex seems unstoppable.
The real value of the Post series is that the facts and figures coming out might shame politicians in Washington to investigate and possibly limit some of these excesses. But a real shift in American priorities and spending would require a lot more than facts and figures. It would require a revolution. Curbing defense spending excesses would require dismantling the ideology that justifies the military industrial complex. Then the structure of politicians and corporations that feeds off military spending would also have to be taken apart. Only then can we say that "Top Secret America's" "goodness" is "in having a robust capacity."
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The financial reform bill has finally passed. Should we celebrate or feel even more disgusted that Washington cannot extract itself from the grips of Wall St. lobbyists? Disgusted, says Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), the only Democratic Senator to not support the bill and the reason? Because it will do nothing to protect us from the sort of Wall St. practices- like bundled derivatives and excess interest rates on mortgages and credit cards- that brought about the Great Recession. According to Feingold,
The reckless practices of Wall Street sent our economy reeling, triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression, and left millions of Americans to foot the bill. Despite these cataclysmic events, Washington once again caved to Wall Street on key issues and produced a bill that fails to protect the American people from the pain of another economic disaster. I will not support a bill that fails to adequately protect the people of Wisconsin from the recklessness of Wall Street.”
Sure, the reform does manage to create a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and some oversight of the Federal Reserve, but with Wall St. spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying since January 2009, it' s not a huge surprise that the reform will stop short of actually protecting our economy from Wall St.'s recklessness. Even Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who supported the bill and wrote some of its provisions, pointed out in an email to constituents that the reform does nothing to break up
banks deemed “too big to fail.” Incredibly, three of the four biggest banks in the country are larger today than they were before taxpayers bailed them out. Sanders also wanted the bill to impose a cap on runaway credit card interest rates. Senators rejected an even more modest proposal to let states enforce their own usury laws.
So whatever the reform is worth, it is hardly worth popping the cork on the champaign. Unless of course you are a lobbyist for Wall St. In which case, you can be drinking to a job well done.
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I'm afraid that I'm losing my ability to think critically. See, I sign up for all these right-wing email lists (part of my job as social critic), but today's missive from Ann Coulter actually made sense. Well, half of it did. Does that mean I'm now half stupid? Maybe, but listen to what the Coulternator is saying:
Dear Fellow Conservative,
"Somehow we just missed that home prices don't go up forever."
No, that's not your idiot brother-in-law explaining how his four home equity loans eventually landed him penniless on a futon in your rec room. It's the billionaire CEO of JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon.
Dimon was explaining to Congress's Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission how he and his fellow Magic Men crashed the entire U.S. economy and then turned to taxpayers for a bail out.
Really? So Dimon's defense to Wall Street's utter recklessness with other people's money is to claim that Wall Street doesn't really understand how the market works? Again: Really?
But no one on the Commission challenged Dimon because, while the Commission's stated purpose is "to examine the causes of the financial crisis," its actual purpose is to conceal those causes -- especially the federal government's own central role in creating the housing bubble.
Further proof that the Commission isn't serious...
See what I mean? She's kinda making sense. Of course, after this the letter devolves into a typical Coulter tirade where our current economic woes are blamed on Obama, the census, and a lack of commitment to Reaganomics. Saying Reaganomics will save us from the effects of, well, Reaganomics, is the sort of Alice in Wonderland, nothing makes sense that comes out of the Mad Hatter Coulter's mouth nonsense with which I find it easy to disagree.
Over at the Nation, Robert Reich makes far more sense when he argues that the current Recession and coming Depression is the result of the rising economic inequality created by the Neoliberal policies of Reaganomics in the first place. In other words, when you stop taxing the rich, take away the ability of workers to represent their interests, drastically cut the social safety net, and deregulate everything with a fetishistic belief that "the market knows best" you create the circumstances the US is in now and was in in 1929. According to Reich:
in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation's total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America's total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928—with 23.5 percent of the total.
Each of America's two biggest economic crashes occurred in the year immediately following these twin peaks—in 1929 and 2008. This is no mere coincidence. When most of the gains from economic growth go to a small sliver of Americans at the top, the rest don't have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing.
Get it? Rising inequality creates economic downturns. The greedier the rich are the more we all suffer, except of course for the rich. In fact, the rich are making a killing off the current Recession/Depression Era. That's right. The rich are getting richer.
Millionaires in the U.S. and Canada saw their wealth increase 15 percent in 2009, to a total of 4.6 trillion dollars."
So given that there is widespread agreement among many of the country's leading economic experts that rising inequality hurts nearly all of us, why can't the radical right that Ann Coulter represents get on board and start clamoring for worker representation, rebuilding the social safety net, and taxing the wealthiest among us?
That's where "class" gets complicated, because although Coulter's followers are primarily the working and lower-middle class whites who love her brand of vitriol, they are a class of people more interested in protecting their racial privilege with anti-immigrant sentiment and their sexual privilege with traditional marriage rhetoric than in protecting their economic interests.
And that's too bad. Because when the likes of Ann Coulter start making half sense to the likes of me, we're halfway there to a broad-based coalition of Americans who want a distribution of wealth that reflects fairness and opportunity, not selfishness and greed.
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A Texas woman in her 60s recently received a box of chocolates and a thank you note. When she opened the box, it exploded with a spray of nails and tacks and the woman was forced to undergo emergency surgery. And why did this happen? It's difficult to say, but the woman is married to an oil executive and there is a lot of speculation that this is in response to the BP disaster. A disaster for which there is more and more evidence was the result of greed and arrogance on the part of company executives.
Indeed, Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak, both on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, recently wrote
In effect, it appears that BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk."
But what if the cost of those cost-cutting measures that led to a variety of environmental disasters for BP isn't just the fines and lawsuits that follow? What if the real cost is that individual executives and their families are now specifically targeted by radical environmental activists? What if these environmental activists, like other revolutionary groups before them, are trying to stop the system of greed and destruction that is the oil industry by scaring the tar balls out of the individuals in charge?
It's not that far fetched a political strategy. It's been around at least since the Decembrists (no, not the Indie rock group- the Russian upstarts of the 1800s). Yet bombing the indivduals responsible is still the tactic of revolutionary groups. States and state-like entities, like the US or Al Qaeda, prefer to bomb innocent civilian populations. And although this is a tactic of power, it is really not a great way to get people on your side. But when the powerless start taking out the individuals (and perhaps their families) who directly profit from the greed that is the oil industry, something revolutionary is afoot.
Bombing oil executives is an immediate way to get people to notice that things like the BP oil spill didn't just happen by accident or as the result of some human-less system. The oil spill happened because individuals in charge made decisions that put all of us at risk so that they could increase profit. Instead, we are given a story that BP and the oil industry are these big machines that are unstoppable in their destruction of the environment. But in fact, actual humans made the decisions that creates such horror. The Gulf wasn't destroyed without individuals choosing to increase their wealth and the company's profit.
I have to admit that whoever did this may have made a mistake by targeting the wife of the oil exec and not the exec himself, but perhaps they were trying to send a message not to the American people, but to the oil industry itself. In other words, if this sort of greed is how you operate, you or your family might be at risk. And that's a message that so far has not been heard.
Sure- I know we're all guilty by association. I drive a car. I heat my home. I have more electronics than could possibly be ethical. But my complicity is not at the same level as an oil executive and neither is yours. At least I hope complicity is different than guilt in the eyes of environmental revolutionaries. Otherwise, the next exploding box of chocolates could be for us.
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Ah, Americans love a good romance. It's our most popular genre of literature. If you consider romantic comedies, it's one of our most popular genres of film. And there are a plethora of reality TV shows, from "Buy the Dress" to the seemingly unstoppable "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette." But a huge part of the ideology of romance is the US is not so much about the smoochy smoochy mushy stuff, but about the romance of individualism.
Think about it. How many weddings have you been to where the couple said: We wanted to do something different. So they had their wedding in a falling down farmhouse in Tuscany or a warehouse in Brooklyn. They wore red, or jeans and tee shirts. They hiked a mountain or got married underwater. I have a friend whose daughter is trying to get married- as in perform the ceremony- while skydiving.
And the wedding isn't the only place to display the romance of individualism. Proposals are getting increasingly elaborate and "unique." In fact, potential grooms are told that if they don't propose in a unique way, they will regret it for the rest of their lives. According to RomanceTips,
After all, you want the proposal to be very original and memorable. You want her to marvel at your creativity and planning.After all, you only ask someone to marry you once. You want her to have a great story to tell to her mother, girlfriends, and, someday, your children.
The increasingly elaborate proposal now must involve a trip somewhere, or a thousand candles in the backyard, or skywriting, or a nationally televised sporting event, or anything that marks the groom as "unique" and "creative." One of the interesting things about the "traditional" marriage proposal as we know it, the down on bended knee in a restaurant, is it was invented by the diamond industry as a way to mark the diamond as a not everyday item, as sacred if you will. Prior to the 1940s, proposals were between grooms and prospective father-in-laws and did not involve an elaborate ritual. But with the increasing popularity of the diamond engagement ring, in part because of the brilliance of DeBeers' "Diamonds are forever" advertising campaign, the diamond sellers thought they should sell a special way of presenting their goods. In order to really sell us the ritual, DeBeers didn't just sell it in ads, but convinced Hollywood to put the bended knee proposal into their movies.
And now the "uniqueness" of our romances must be displayed not just in the weddings themselves and the proposals, but in the ritual "first date." According to a story in today's New York Times, a new dating site allows single New Yorkers to propose their first date rather than the usual dating profiles of "likes" and "dislikes." The first dates proposed are not only highly idiosyncratic, but they tend to happen in waves. In other words, the hip, young New Yorkers looking for the perfectly individualistic romance are doing the exact same things as other hip young New Yorkers looking for the same thing.
New data from a Web site suggests that not only do many people plan similar dates, but like lemmings, they also collectively migrate from one theme to the next. In March, scores of New Yorkers opted to have their first dates over tacos: fish tacos, dried cricket tacos, taco tours of Brooklyn, even post-surfing tacos at Rockaway Beach in Queens. But by month’s end, tacos went out of vogue, and fondue became the fare of choice for first dates. In mid-April, singles relinquished their cheese forks and embraced bring-your-own-beer dates instead. A few weeks later, outings for lobster rolls were all the rage. By mid-May daters cooled on lobster rolls and were eating oysters.
The interesting thing is not that primarily educated, primarily white, primarily young New Yorkers would all engage in the same sort of activities. Sociologists have shown over and over again that our position in the social world determines our "taste." What's interesting is that they are so committed to seeing romance, the most formulaic of undertakings, as a chance to express individualism.
Avoiding romance in the US at this point in time is a bit like avoiding taxes. The government grants us rights and privileges based on marital status (over a 1,000 of them). Gay and lesbian Americans, at least the ones who are primarily white and educated themselves, fight bitterly for the "right" to marry. Most of our culture is obsessed with "true love" and "happily ever after." And so, even though most Americans are in fact unmarried, those of us who are part of the ruling romantic elite- or at least would like to be- do what everyone is supposed to do:
We go on a date, fall in love, get married.
At some level of the cultural unconscious, we know we are in fact doing exactly what is expected of us, what everyone ought to be doing. And so, we attempt to both march lockstep with the ruling ideology of romance and simultaneously mark it as "our own." Imagine lemmings each in a different brightly colored wig as they fall off the cliff that is true love.
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Democracy. A word and an ideology that have spawned revolutions and wars ever-lasting. And yet, as July 4th rolls around, even someone as jaded as I can admit there is something quite extraordinary about the idea of democracy. A place where informed citizens are given the chance to both represent themselves and pursue happiness, at least in its property-acquisition form. The shift from "subjects" to "citizens" that heralded the French and the American Revolution was a promise, not a reality, but nonetheless a compelling one that for the first 150 years seemed increasingly possible. And who was this citizen? At first, a property-owning white male, but as time went on, all white men, then all men, then women. And these citizens were different from subjects. Subjects bowed to the authority of the state; citizens were the state. Subjects behaved in courtly ways in front of the king; like barbarians when out of the court. Citizens, highly disciplined by new forms of power, were always civil.
These promises of democracy sound quaint these days in the US, with a populace so uninformed that they are easily misled by demagogues and charlatans into acting in the most undemocratic of ways. And what is to blame for the breakdown of civility and citizenship in America? I'd like to blame it all on Fox News and the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush LImbaugh, but the truth is the erosion of American democracy predates the appearance of fascism. America the Undemocratic began with the destruction of equal opportunity that was contained in the educational system. As the 20th century progressed, education became the engine of American democracy. Taking children and young people out of factories and mandating public high school educations lifted an entire generation of Americans out of sweatshop labor. After World War II, the GI Bill sent tens of thousands of working men into universities. By the 1970s, the American educational system was increasingly open to women and/or Black and Latino Americans.
And then a little revolution called Neoliberalism came along and democracy came to screeching halt. We didn't realize it at first. The seeds were planted, but it was only decades later that the undemocratic impulses of Neoliberalism would bear fruit. Today, your chances of going to college if your parents didn't are lower than they have been at anytime since before World War II. To make matters worse, if you go to college, you will probably have to take on large amounts of debt and the poorer you are, the more likely you are to drop out of school before you even finish your degree. In fact, half of all student loan recipients never receive a degree.
The result: a population that believes that Evolution is just a theory as is global warming, but whole-heartedly embraces the belief that space aliens and illegal aliens are here to destroy our lives.
And what is to be done? Unlike two centuries ago when France followed America in a democratic revolution, now the US would do well to follow France's lead in fostering democracy. Instead of Rousseau, our leaders should read the latest government decree on democratizing higher ed. At this point, fewer than 10% of the students at the top universities in France, the Grandes Ecoles, are from the poorest strata of French society. In the near future, nearly 30% of the Grandes Ecole students will be from Frances poorest families. This will radically shake up France's ruling elite, which is both overwhelmingly white and from bourgeois backgrounds.
Imagine such an experiment in the US. Suddenly places like Harvard and Stanford or even Middlebury College where I teach, would not be primarily for young Americans with so much privilege that they spend thousands of dollars on elite SAT tutors, go to private high schools that cost more than my annual salary, and spend their summers doing prestigious internships. Instead, university students would be the smartest among us, not necessarily the best prepared. Although elite schools like mine would have to do more basic instruction to get students ready to study- more writing classes, research instruction, etc.- the student body would be more dynamic, more diverse, and yes, far more DEMOCRATIC.
And then, when American students left these top universities and went on to take jobs in finance or education or medicine, to take over as America's ruling elite, they would be there not because their parents could afford the time and money to groom them for leadership, but because they were smart and hard-working enough to merit such a role. That would be a truly democratic revolution.
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There is shock and dismay in today's papers about the sneakiness that is Russia. Yesterday US authorities arrested ten "Americans" who were in fact Russian sleepers. As if off the pages of a bad Cold War era spy novel, these people had been sent to live in the US and become as American as apple pie all in an effort to extract information... eventually. In fact, it does not seem as if any of the sleepers were actively engaged in espionage as much as they were at "fitting in" so when the time came, they would be able to spy more easily.
A neighbor of one of the sleeper couples,"known as Richard and Cynthia Murphy of Montclair, NJ joked:
They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”
And even President Obama has expressed dismay about the timing of the arrests, coming as it does just days after hanging out for burgers with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and "pushing the reset button" on US-Russian relations.
But the real way to understand all of this is not through politics, but literature. Americans love them a good romance or even an adventure story. We like good guys and bad guys. We like unilinear narratives where a story progresses and is resolved. We are a country that believes in renewal and even "resetting" foreign policy. Russia is not. In fact, Russian literature is full of competing truths, contradictions, a circular notion of history that does not so much progress as move around and around. There are not heroes in white cowboy hats as much as characters who must reach some state of utter debasement (padeni'e) that then and only then can they understand the true absurdity of it all.
So when the Cold War ended in the US, we Americans rewrote our foreign policy narratives to turn the bad guys, the Soviets, into good guys, the newly "democratic" Russians. The Russians, meanwhile, continued to have very complicated feelings toward the US. For ordinary Russians as well as policy makers, the US was powerful and therefore had to be taken into account. But the US was also still seen as imperialistic (although primarily cultural imperialism after the Soviet Union), too simplistic, and far too arrogant.
When I was writing my first book, Queer in Russia, I was struck at the simplistic nature of Western notions of sexuality. One was either gay or straight. And many Western gays saw it as their mission to convert Russians to seeing things in the same way. The Westerners would patiently explain to the Russians that it was their job to "progress" and "come out" so they could be "liberated." The Russians, offended not just by the assumption of superiority on the part of the Westerners but also by what they saw as Western rules and regulations around desire, often complained bitterly about the Westerners/colonizers. "What do they think? We drink vodka and dance with bears and it is their job to civilize us?" they'd ask me. Yes, they kinda did and we as a country kinda do.
The hubris of Empire is that we truly and really believe that the way we do things is the most evolved way and thus all the world wishes to be like us. We missed the part that while we were living out a John Wayne fantasy of liberating the Russkis from the Commies, the Russian government and people were writing something far more like Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov." Remember the scene where the Grand Inquisitor is speaking with Jesus Christ who has returned to save the people? As they talk the Inquisitor - who is Russia - explains to Jesus - who is the US - that it is truly the Inquisitor who cares about the people since what the people really want is an easy set of rules to follow in this life, not some impossible set of standards to ascend into Heaven in the hereafter. At some point, Jesus/the US understands that his righteousness is not really what the masses need and he kisses the Grand Inquisitor to show that he understands the error of his ways.
Let the US kiss the Russian government in forgiveness over the spy scandal. The Americans were the ones that said the Cold War was over and that Russia was suddenly a democracy. All the Russians ever said is they would utilize other ideologies - like neoliberal economics and Christian Orthodoxy - to move the people to do the state's bidding.
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As I sat in a bar to watch the Ghana/US football match on Saturday, I was struck by the intense optimism of the young American men milling around the TV sets. Their faces painted red, white and blue and their large, corn-fed bodies tensely focused on the game, they really and truly believed that the US could win the World Cup. Their chants of USA and "You Suck" toward the enemy team were a stark reminder that not just masculinity, but national identity too is being created and performed in the ritual of televised sport. And then just as suddenly this boisterous gang of American men were quiet, fear showing on their faces, as the realization that America could lose hit them. These same young men who imagined America as heroic in all things- from football to war- suddenly looked like they might cry. The US lose? To Ghana? To the Taliban?
Increasingly, the reality of Afghanistan is sinking into an increasingly sober Obama administration and US Army. The Taliban is not going to be destroyed. Instead, it will be accepted as part of the mess the US will leave behind in Afghanistan. This is being described as a necessary response to the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government.
The approach amounts to "Afghan good enough" instead of an overly-idealistic "Afghan impossible," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In Washington and NATO capitals, there is now "more willingness" to reach an accommodation with middle and lower level members of the Taliban, as well as trying to peel away some senior figures if possible, he said.
Or, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, the Taliban are part of the "political fabric" of Afghanistan. Continuing the sports/war metaphor, the Chair of the House Subcommittee that oversees Afghanistan, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens) told the New York Daily News
The strategy in which we're engaged is certainly not a slam dunk. We're doing the best we can with a bad situation with players that we don't - and didn't - have the expectation of being able to completely control."
Meanwhile, back at the game, my table, a bunch of unAmerican types, joked about the End of Empire, but quietly, so as not to make the young men angry, but also so we wouldn't make them cry. After all, these beefy young men might be going to Iraq or Afghanistan. And even if they weren't, their friends were. It's one thing to lose a game; it's quite another to be killed in what is now being described as the Ignored War.
At $6.7 Billion dollars a month, Afghanistan ought to be a source of pride and prejudice for these young men. Instead, like the game on the TV, everyone, even the people running the war know it cannot be won. With tens of thousands of casualties (even though the US media usually only counts military casualties, there are far more Afghan civilians killed every day than soldiers), this is not a war to be celebrated.
And yet, like the US defeat at the World Cup, the best defense is a good offense. Soccer sucks. Who wants to play it anyway? Afghanistan? Let's either turn it into a real American style football match and kill the bastards or get the hell out of the game. As Ross Douthat points out in today's New York Times, there are apparently only two possibilities open to the US: soccer or football. If we continue to play soccer, we fight the counterinsurgency with strategic violence. If we play football, we kill indiscriminately and therefore "win."
This grim possibility is implicit in the Rolling Stone profile that undid Gen. Stanley McChrystal last week. Ostensibly a left-wing, antiwar critique of counterinsurgency, Michael Hastings’s article relied heavily on complaints that the current strategy places too much value on ... innocent Afghan lives. “In a weird way,” the Center for a New American Security’s Andrew Exum pointed out, Hastings ended up criticizing counterinsurgency strategy “because it doesn’t allow our soldiers to kill enough people.”
It's really too bad so much masculinity and patriotism is at stake in war and sport. Otherwise, the US government and the American people could think outside the football/soccer metaphor and see there are all sorts of other games. Like withdrawing all military and feeding the billions of dollars we're spending now on war to aid Afghan groups that support democracy in the region. But that might be too Ultimate Frisbee for the American jocks who run this country. And Ultimate Frisbee just doesn't have any balls.