Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: TPM (Liberal blog) (5-30-09)
I knew some PRLDEF staff but hadn't heard of Sotomayor, and since I've sworn off posting for awhile to write a book on other subjects, I don't know if she supported the specific suits I criticized. But it's likely, and, in response to some inquiries, I offer here some leads. (Also, my columns on Obama's handling of race in the 2008 campaign are in "Sleeper's Obama Chronicles.")
Republicans look ridiculous going into heat over Sotomayor's comments about her"Latina" perspectives. But that shouldn't stifle criticism by serious observers of positions she took at PRLDEF, or questions about whether her thinking has changed.
First, on what a"Latina" or other ethno-racial viewpoint should and shouldn't bring to court deliberations, here's an amusing, instructive assessment, in Dissent, drawn from my serving on New York juries.
In"Voting Wrongs," an important chapter of Liberal Racism that helped to change thinking about racial election-districting, I wrote pretty scathingly about a New York"Hispanic" congressional district in whose creation PRLDEF (and then-mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani!) played important roles.
I won't reprise those arguments here except to say that, at the time, such districts did little to increase their intended beneficiaries' turnouts at the polls and actually helped hand Congress to Republicans. Mayoral candidate Giuliani rode an Amtrak train to Washington with PRLDEF representatives and ushered them into the Justice Department (where he'd been associate attorney general under Reagan) to assist their successful bid for an Hispanic district. Many Republicans loved the left's color-coding strategy here, at least tactically. To follow what was at stake in it, do read this chapter.
This is also the place to mention that another chapter of Liberal Racism describes at some length the legal and political odyssey of , Harvard Law School Prof. Randall Kennedy, who tellingly (and, I think, very wisely) challenged what was known as" critical race theory" in legal studies when Obama was a student at the law school.
Regarding exams for cops and firefighters, on pages 162-4 of The Closest of Strangers, I took issue some of the reasoning behind challenges by PRLDEF and others to such exams.
Look these up if you're going to weigh in on the confirmation hearings.
And, again, I've collected my TPM columns on Obama's handling of race throughout the 2008 campaign as"Sleeper's Obama Chronicles." Posted from the morning after the New Hampshire primary of January 8, 2008 through Inauguration Day, these trace the evolution of my and many other people's thinking about Obama's candidacy and his handling of charges involving race, elitism, exoticism, and more.
If you or anyone you know is writing a book or article on the campaign, you'll want these columns. They include assessments of what other commentators --Shelby Steele (1 column), Sean Wilentz (2 columns), and leftist academic critics of Obama (2) -- were saying about his handling of race. They also assess Louis Farrakhan's unwanted endorsement, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's comment about whites who" cling to guns and God," and Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia.
Other titles suggest their contents:"Obama, Crowds, And Power","Obama: Neo-Liberal or Civic-Republican?" There are also two classic columns on Republicans --"Why Giuliani Really Shouldn't be President," -- a column that played a critical role in turning the chattering classes against his bid -- and"Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!" on the 2008 Republican National convention.
Also included in the"Obama Chronicles" are comments that others made about the columns in the New York Times "Opinionator," The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the website of neo-con Obama-basher Daniel Pipes.
Finally, I'll mention that I've also collected my eight TPM columns on Israel, Gaza, and how and how not to report on Israel-Palestine. At last, they're all in one place, along with a link to a 20-minute NPR interview I did on them.
Sorry not to be able to offer more on the Sotomayor debate, but I'd better get back to work.
Posted on: Sunday, May 31, 2009 - 22:35
SOURCE: Special to HNN (5-30-09)
There are many wonderful things about Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the US Supreme Court, but one of special interest to me, as a scholar of Bronx history, is the way it highlights an era when public housing was a place of hope and possibility for working class families in the Bronx.
Today, public housing is widely viewed as a failed experiment in social policy, a place where poor and troubled families are warehoused in prison like conditions that breed crime, violence and apathy. But Sonia Sotomayor's experience of growing up in the Bronxdale houses, a low rise public housing development in the Soundview section of the Bronx that opened in the mid 1950's, recall a different reality. The Bronxdale houses, like many other public housing projects that were built in Bronx in the early and mid 1950's, were filled with families of World War II veterans looking to escape crowded tenements and rooming houses, and their airy apartments, spacious, well kept grounds, seemed like wonderful places to bring up children, Not only were the projects designed with green space, playgrounds and outdoor sitting areas where parents could watch their children, they had community centers on premises and schools conveniently located within walking distance of the buildings.
In those years, there was no stigma attached to living in"the projects." To the contrary, many residents took tremendous pride in the beauty of their surroundings. Allen Jones who wrote a book about his Bronx experiences called"The Rat That Got Away" recalls friends and relatives of people who moved into the Patterson Houses in Mott Haven walking through the grounds in sheer wonder at the meticulously maintained lawns and litter free walkways, while Connie Questell, in an oral history interview she did with the Bronx African American History Project boasted that the Japanese Gardens in the nearby Melrose Houses was a favorite Sunday strolling site for Bronx families
But for many residents, the social atmosphere of the projects was as much an attraction as spacious apartments and well maintained grounds For Black and Latino families especially, who experienced extreme segregation in the private housing market during those years, public housing in the Bronx represented their first experience with living in an integrated neighborhood. Taur Orange, a college administrator who grew up in the Bronxdale Houses at the same time Sonia Sotomayor did, remembers Bronxdale as"a little United Nations" and recalls Black, Jewish, Italian, Latino and Asian mothers sitting on the project benches watching their children and sharing stories and recipes. Vicki Archibald Good a social work supervisor, who grew up in the Patterson Houses with her brother, basketball legend Nate"Tiny" Archibald recalls families of every nationality playing together, raising children together, and sharing each other's food and music. Allen Jones and Nathan Dukes fondly remember days when everyone regardless of race or ethnicity, sang doo wop, danced Latin and would defend their project against all rivals, on or off project grounds.
From 1950, when the Patterson Houses opened, through the early 1960's, public housing in the Bronx, low income and moderate income, located as far north as the Edenwald Houses (near the Mount Vernon border), as far West as the Sedgwick Houses (near the George Washington Bridge) as far east as Castle Hill Houses (near the Whitestone Bridge) and as far South as the Millbrook Houses (near the Triboro Bridge) represented a great urban success story, a place where tens of thousands of working class families found a safe, healthy envirnoment to raise children, and where thousands of young people grew up to become successful, productive citiznes, some of whom would make a tremendous mark on their nation as scholars, scientists, writers, musicians, journalists, athletes and leaders in government and public service.
Over time, the atmosphere in the projects would deteriorate. As the first generation of families moved out to buy homes or middle income Co-Ops, they would be replaced with poorer, more troubled families, many of them on public assistance, and a combinatinon of job losses, drug epidemics and white flight would erode the spirt of community and feelings of optimism that these developments had once been known for. These problems would be intensified by budget cuts that would reduce the quality of project maintenance, leaving lawns poorly cared for, hallways and grounds filled with debris, and elevators in need of repair, and local community centers deprived of needed staff.
Nevertheless, Bronx housing projects never became the broken, hopeless urban concentration camps that many people imagine them to be. The Bronx River and Bronxdale Houses, along with many other projects in the South and West Bronx, were important sites in the development of Bronx Hip Hop, hosting the early parties and jams of pioneering Bronx DJ's like Afrika Bambatta, Jazzy Jay, Disco King Mario, and Grandmaster Flash. And even through the present, Bronx projects house thousands of senior citizens who have lived in them for fifty plus years, and who refuse to move because their neighbors look out for and take care of them.
But the most important thing to remember, at a time when develoment of affordable large scale multiple dwellings has been neglected for more than a generation (while huge high rises for the rich dot the urban landscape throughout Manhattan and North Brooklyn) is that public housing was a tremendous success when it was rich in social services, provided excellent daily maintenance and was careful in its tenant selection.
Sonia Sotomayor's inspiring life story is one of many nurtured in the heyday of public housing in New York. There is no reason we can't provide this kind of opportunity for a new generation of children growing up in families of modest means.
Posted on: Sunday, May 31, 2009 - 15:37
SOURCE: Edge of the American West (blog) (5-30-09)
California’s crisis is such that the number one manufacturing and farming state is unable to sell its bonds. As I explained in my last post, this condition stems in part from constitutional requirements of the supermajority.
Some commentators on the right prefer a different explanation. This is the useful canard that California is congenitally left, and that liberal policies lead inevitably to financial collapse.
To be sure, the left is not blameless in this debacle. But much of California’s political upheaval of the last decade and a half has been driven by the collapse of the state’s once-formidable Republican Party. Alarmingly, national Republicans now seem to follow their lead. Progressives may think this cause for celebration – - but if the Republican Party in the U.S. becomes what it is in California, America has some hard days ahead.
To absorb the lessons that California provides, we first must understand that California was once, not so long ago, a Republican stronghold. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the tax revolt all came from here. There were eighteen governors of California in the twentieth century, and fourteen were Republicans. California saw 25 presidential contests between 1896 and 1996, and Republicans won 15 of them, including every presidential race between 1952 and 1988 except for 1964 (the year almost every state went for Lyndon Johnson).
California had a powerful, even dominant Republican Party just twenty years ago. What happened?
The watershed year that ended GOP fortunes was 1994, but the stage was actually set four years earlier, in 1990. That was the year a Republican, Pete Wilson, handily defeated Dianne Feinstein for the governorship. A so-called “moderate” Republican, Wilson took a page from a predecessor, Ronald Reagan, to sign on to what was then the biggest tax increase in California history to balance a budget reeling from the decline of defense spending at the end of the Cold War.
Indeed, the state’s condition was dire. The nation remembers the recession of the early 1990s as a mild one, but in California it was the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Huge defense companies such as General Dynamics, Raytheon and others laid off hundreds of thousands of engineers and other white collar workers. Housing values fell far from their 1980s peak, and many new homeowners soon held mortgages greater than their property values. The poor endured steep service cuts and high unemployment. In 1992, in the aftermath of the verdict exonerating the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, the city of Los Angeles exploded in the biggest civil insurrection since the Civil War.
So as 1994 approached, Wilson’s re-election was in trouble. His tax increase had balanced the budget, but Republicans were furious at their own governor for agreeing to it, and the economy seemed stuck in a death spiral. Wilson was a Marine Corps veteran with a “law and order” reputation, and the 1992 riots seemed symptomatic of his failing administration. His poll numbers were atrocious, with some surveys putting him twenty points behind the Democratic nominee, state treasurer Kathleen Brown (daughter and sister, respectively of Pat and Jerry Brown, the state’s most famous Democratic governors).
Perhaps it is not surprising that the state which produced the first two presidential candidates to ride the Southern Strategy to victory (Nixon and Reagan) would now produce a governor who created the southern border strategy. The social context for this maneuver was the state’s rapidly expanding Latino population. In 1960, most of California’s immigrants were from Canada or Europe, and the number one immigrant language was English. Even as late as 1970, California was less than 12% Hispanic. But upheaval in Mexico’s economy and particularly the collapse of the peso in 1982 drove millions of immigrants north, where legally and illegally they crossed into the U.S. By 1990, California’s population was 25% Hispanic. The large number of Mexican immigrants helped insure that by about 1994, roughly one in three of all foreign born people in the U.S. lived in southern California – - and the largest proportion of these was Mexican.
California’s racial animosities often flare in bad times. The Panic of 1873 occasioned anti-Chinese riots so vast that authorities worried about a revolution. The Great Depression fueled fierce anti-Okie and anti-Mexican political policies and vigilantism. The recession of the early ‘90s was about to produce a virulent anti-Mexican hysteria – -and Pete Wilson would turn it to his advantage.
In the summer of 1994, faced with a rapidly growing Mexican immigrant population and the worst economy in memory, many Anglo Californians suspected all Latinos were illegal immigrants and blamed them for the state’s hard times. The primary expression of their fury was Proposition 187. Introduced by Republican Assemblyman Dick Mountjoy, the initiative sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants (which by the 1990s was code for Mexicans). Any suspect person would have to prove they were a legal resident in order to remain in a public school, receive medical care, welfare, or virtually any other non-emergency service.
Staring defeat in the eye, Pete Wilson showed himself a savvy and ruthless campaigner. He hitched his career to Proposition 187. He not only endorsed it. He made anti-immigrant fervor the center of his campaign, and behind him his party climbed on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. White anxieties about the rising Latino population soon boiled into racial resentments, driven in no small measure by Wilson’s gritty, noir advertising that played to fears of lawless, dark-skinned immigrants overwhelming the state of California.
Mexican-Americans, some of whose families had been in California since the eighteenth century, were soon enduring taunts and challenges to “become a citizen or go back where you came from.”
Following what had become one of the most racially divisive campaigns in recent California history, Proposition 187 passed by large margins. Courts soon ruled the measure unconstitutional, but for Republicans it had provided a path to triumph. Not only did it carry Pete Wilson to a fifteen point victory, it brought California Republicans to dominance in the state senate (although the assembly remained narrowly Democratic).
But in the end, for the Republican Party the victory proved to be the political equivalent of a suicide bombing. Most of the engineers and technicians who lost jobs in the defense industry were Republicans, and hundreds of thousands of them had already left the state in search of new opportunities. In future years, California’s white population growth would be comparatively low. The party would have to recruit new supporters from some other group.
So, if the immediate result of Wilson’s immigrant bashing might have been to inflict grievous losses on Democrats, soon it became apparent that it had also sacrificed Republican prospects among the Latino population, which was (and is) California’s fastest growing demographic sector. Historically, Mexican immigrants were often wary of becoming U.S. citizens, and when they did they were only slightly more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. Many harbored dreams of returning to Mexico to retire.
But 1994 changed all that. By tarring Latinos as “illegals,” Republicans drove far more legal Mexican immigrants to become not only citizens and voters, but Democrats.
In this way, the campaign of ’94 destablilized the political establishment. The first temblor to strike came in the state elections of 1996. Latinos went to the polls in unprecedented numbers, helping to return the state senate to Democratic hands.
The gubernatorial election two years after that was a full-blown earthquake. Prior to 1994, in California gubernatorial elections, Latino voters had favored Democrats by about 6 percentage points. In 1998, Latinos helped elect Democrat Gray Davis to the governor’s office, giving him a whopping 61 point margin of the Latino vote, and helping carry Democrats to victory in five of seven statewide offices. Perhaps we could say that the “Big One” arrived in the elections of 2002, when Republicans failed to win a single statewide office. Their poor performance helped drive Republican donors to finance the notorious recall election the following year. In 2003, they succeeded in installing Arnold Schwarzenegger (an immigrant who broke with his party on immigration and so drew immigrant votes), but they have had precious few victories since then.
After 2003, in other states, as immigration from Mexico and elsewhere has reached new heights, national Republicans have mostly failed to heed the lessons of California history. (For that matter, so have California Republicans.) The anti-immigrant vitriol of the 2006 congressional elections could have been borrowed from Pete Wilson’s playbook. By the election of 2008, many leading Republicans were channeling Wilson’s campaign.
The results have been utterly predictable. Last fall, with critical margins from newly energized and many newly-registered Latinos, Democrats swamped Republicans in once reliable southwestern bastions like Nevada and Colorado. Back in the state where it all began, Republicans have not won a presidential election since 1988. In 2008, Barack Obama won California by margins not seen since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.
Today, the Republican Party in California lags far behind in registrations and in elected officers. The only strategy of their legislative delegation is to deny Democrats the supermajority they need to determine budgets and taxes. Party prospects have seldom looked dimmer.
And yet national Republicans seem hell bent on repeating California’s mistakes even now. Newt Gingrich has denounced Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a “Latina woman racist.” Gingrich, of course, was the visionary of 1994, who that year led Republicans to dominance in the U.S. Congress for the first time in forty years. He dreamed of a “permanent majority,” and pundits spoke of a national party realignment. In fact, the days of Republican dominance were already numbered. Nowhere was that clearer than out in the Golden State, where the overwhelming GOP triumph of 1994 paradoxically foreshadowed their party’s national unraveling.
Republicans should take heed – - but so too should Democrats and everyone else. In California, Republican self-destruction has not empowered Democrats as much as you might think. By some measures, since 1994 California has become less progressive, not more. The supermajority requirements for tax increases have taken a terrible toll. Elementary school funding has not improved. State funding for higher education takes up a smaller proportion of the budget than it did in 1994 (when it was already on a downward curve). The Democratic coalition of Latinos, Anglos, and African-Americans is often testy, and its fault lines helped bring on the recall of 2003 – -as we shall see in a future post. With minority Republicans blocking any tax increase, Democrats are girding themselves to slash state aid to the poor, medical care for children, higher education, state parks, and a host of other services. So the political structure of the Golden State continues to rattle and shake, and it’s impossible to tell if these are aftershocks or the precursors of the Big One headed our way.
In a two-party system, the collapse of a major party is a shock that takes years to absorb, particularly if the minority party is invested with extraordinary powers. Whether the majority can achieve supermajority status and drive the agenda might not be clear for some time. But another possible outcome is to change the system of governance and make the minority party less powerful. The prospects for a constitutional convention are looking better every day.
Posted on: Saturday, May 30, 2009 - 21:21
SOURCE: Huffington Post (5-29-09)
The President has chosen Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Of the reported finalists, she appears to be the easiest choice for confirmation. Sotomayor has the "right" gender, ethnicity, and experience; nevertheless, we can expect the Republicans to mount an "ideological" opposition, perhaps less strained for this nomination, but in what has become the familiar pattern of challenging Supreme Court nominations.
Barack Obama has cornered his conservative critics. George H. W. Bush first appointed Sotomayor to the federal bench, and then William J. Clinton elevated her to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senate has confirmed her twice, with 8 Republicans supporting her as the appellate court nominee. Life narratives are compelling, and Sotomayor clearly has one, perhaps side-by-side with the President's -- and Clarence Thomas.
What now is so familiar, does not have much of a historical track record, and in fact, before 1968, was clearly the exception rather than the rule. Supreme Court nominations only rarely resulted in contentious confirmation battles. Franklin D. Roosevelt chose nine men for the Court, and only Hugo Black's nomination in 1937 aroused significant opposition because he briefly had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. But that was not enough to bring down a nominee at the time, especially as Black was the sitting senator from Alabama -- whose prior experience had been as a night court judge.
Woodrow Wilson's selection of Louis D. Brandeis in 1916 probably is the quintessential precedent for what we now have become to expect. Brandeis was a prominent public figure -- the "people's lawyer" -- who had challenged a wide array of vested interests and had the distinction of being the first Jew nominated to the Court. Brandeis's public record and no doubt his ethnicity brought out the Harvard establishment and its minions to wage a vigorous opposition, not too dissimilar from the "cultural" conflicts generated by recent nominations. Brandeis won confirmation, and had a very distinguished career, one greatly admired for its independence and judicial craftsmanship. Brandeis incidentally had no "prior judicial experience," neatly illustrating its unreliability in predicting a later record.
The inevitable debate now will begin, and as so often, we can thank Richard Nixon, the Uncrowned Father of our Cultural Wars. During his successful presidential run in 1968, Nixon demonized the Warren Court, roundly denouncing it for being "soft" on "law-and-order." As president, after announcing his selection of Warren Burger (a lower court judge), to succeed Earl Warren, Nixon explained his "judicial philosophy" to reporters. Nixon claimed he was a "strict constructionist." Once a clearly understood term in scholarly political discourse about the Constitution, Nixon employed it as code language, and it became a pliant phrase, grist for political exploitation and manipulation.
Racist politicians now wrapped themselves in a convenient slogan. After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, they re-discovered their heritage when they invoked "strict construction," for it had been the language of John C. Calhoun. other apologists for slavery, and the Supreme Court in its infamous Dred Scott decision a century earlier. In the early days of the American republic, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton locked horns in a famous debate in George Washington's cabinet, with Hamilton advocating "broad construction," while Jefferson, responsive to local interests, preferred "strict construction." Hamilton won, of course, and in the stream of history, Jefferson's own expansive views of his constitutional powers as President belied his "strict construction" argument. (Today's Republicans might ponder George W. Bush's "broad construction" of presidential powers.) The hollow history of "strict construction" is not very enviable.
Ironically, Nixon's use of "strict construction" was new for him, and it was the philosophy of a zealous convert. In 1962, when the Supreme Court struck down state-mandated requirement of prayers in public schools, Nixon said he "had no intention of criticizing" the prayer ruling. In the next breath, Nixon typically complained that the Court had "followed its usual pattern of interpreting the Constitution rigidly"; he denounced the judges for their narrow, "strict construction" of the Constitution. Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the opinion, must have smiled for he would have readily agreed that he had strictly applied the Constitution's command against "no law respecting an establishment of religion."
The Republicans' assistant leader, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) recently announced he may start a filibuster against any Obama nominee who makes decisions "not based on the law or the merits, but on his or her feelings, emotions, and preconceived ideas."
Sotomayor's own remarks about her sex and ethnicity are being re-cycled for the Right-Wing Attack Machine. She has said that a judge's ethnicity and sex "may and will affect our judging" -- almost as if she had anticipated Kyl's remarks. She went on to add that she hoped a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Maybe. Kyl meanwhile now has his reasons for a predictable reaction. Undoubtedly, he wanted someone with "prior judicial experience," and he probably will have one with a particularly valued, diverse, and yet undoubtedly unmatched experience that goes into the making of a judge.
If laws were clear and self-interpreting, then why have judges at all? Judges match facts to the law, but judging is no mechanical task. Over seventy years ago, this country recognized that "mechanical jurisprudence," or "slot-machine" justice, was illusory; outcomes derive from human judgment, both in the writing and the interpretation of the law. Do judges "make" or "interpret" law? Of course they do; silly question, but one unfortunately raised in public discourse. Do "feelings" and "emotions" enter the process? We can certainly find them in the present Supreme Court majority.
When Kyl enthusiastically voted for Justice Samuel Alito, he knew that Alito had well-publicized, well-recorded judicial feelings on the issue of abortion? They did not disqualify him.
Could Kyl have had in mind his faithful ally, Justice Antonin Scalia -- no "feelings, emotions, and preconceived ideas?" Scalia, of course, has consistently demonstrated contempt and rejection for anyone who disagrees with him -- whether of the so-called "liberal bloc" or even his sometimes-concurring Justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy. Are we to believe Scalia had no "feelings, emotions, and preconceived ideas" when he voted in cases involving habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees, cruel and unusual punishments for either juveniles or the mentally retarded, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and, of course, the Florida Supreme Court's decision to order a recount in the presidential election of 2000?
Sotomayor's judicial experience -- an experience surely tempered by her gender and ethnicity -- gives us a potential Justice who has dealt with ordinary folks: litigants, prosecutors, defense lawyers, accused and victims alike. No Supreme Court Justice today has had such experience -- none.
Perhaps Sotomayer's "feelings" and "emotions" are different than Sen. Kyl's. But she certainly echoes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's memorable remarks about judging: "The life of the law has not been logic," Holmes wrote, "but experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories," Holmes went on, "even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed."
Sotomayor's experience should be welcomed. She has worked within a framework of the Constitution and the law; the Republic will not then fall, nor will the Constitution.
Posted on: Saturday, May 30, 2009 - 13:30
SOURCE: Times Literary Supplement (5-27-09)
On February 10, 2007, Barack Obama, then a relatively unknown US senator, stood on the steps of the Illinois statehouse. A crowd numbering in the thousands braved the winter weather to hear him speak. Obama first warmed his audience with inspirational snippets drawn from his autobiography. Then, setting up the key passage of his address, he invoked one of the critical chapters in the nation’s political history: “In the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States of America”. As the crowd cheered and chanted his name, Obama repeatedly circled back to Lincoln’s memory: the sixteenth President’s rise from humble origins, his perseverance, and his unrelenting focus on reuniting a nation ripped apart by the scourges of slavery, sectionalism, and Southern secession. Obama concluded with one more homage to Lincoln – an allusion to his greatest speech, the Gettysburg Address – asking his supporters to help him “usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth”.
Less than a year later, Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas, roasted beneath arc lights on the television programme Meet the Press. Opposing the war in Iraq while equating federal power with tyranny, Paul at the time commanded an army of supporters, millions of shock troops eager for radical change: the so-called Ron Paul Revolution. The congressman hoped to march with these libertarian followers to the Republican presidential nomination. Midway into the interview, the journalist Tim Russert said: “I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln”. Paul, it seemed, had remarked a year earlier that “Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war”. Here was Russert’s signature move, a personal quotation designed to shatter a guest's composure and political ambitions. As Russert waited for Paul to recant what passes for heresy in the church of American politics, the congressman stood by his words. Insisting that Lincoln had sought “to get rid of the original intent of the Republic, displaying the iron fist of Washington”, Paul called the Civil War “senseless”.
From uncommonly frank discussions of race and citizenship, to confrontations over the Confederate flag’s semiotics and the proper scope of federal authority, to Senator Obama’s ongoing efforts to wrap himself in Lincoln’s mantle, the 2008 election threatened to become a referendum on the sixteenth President’s legacy. With the bicentennial of his birth looming, the sesquicentennial of the war he waged following soon after, and a relatively inexperienced legislator from Illinois in the race, an African-American man with a background in law and a once-in-a-generation gift for oratory, perhaps this should have come as no surprise. Still, a spate of recent books, all timed to celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday, reminds us that beyond the coincidence of historical anniversaries and a historic candidate in 2008, ’twas ever thus in the United States. Americans have long fought over Lincoln’s meaning; they did so even while he was still alive. And Lincoln’s ghost has loomed over American culture and politics from the time of his death.
That’s the moment that the Kunhardts – Philip III, Peter, and Peter Jr – use to open their new book, Looking for Lincoln, a lovingly illustrated inquiry into the origins of enduring myths and memories of Abraham Lincoln. On the night of April 14, 1865, Good Friday, Lincoln sat in a private box at Ford’s Theater, Washington, watching the third act of Our American Cousin. John Wilkes Booth, an actor driven to violence by the President’s recent support for African American voting rights, sneaked into Lincoln’s box and fired a single bullet into the back of his skull. After leaping on to the stage and fracturing his leg, Booth shouted out Virginia’s state motto, “Sic semper tyrannis!”. He then escaped into the night. Three doctors on the scene rushed to the President’s aid, and they decided to bring him across the street to a boarding house, where a huge group of people kept vigil through the night. Lincoln died the following morning. ...
Even after winning the presidency, Barack Obama continues to channel Abraham Lincoln. Obama arrived in Washington via the same train route that Lincoln did in 1861. He swore the oath of office on Lincoln’s bible. He chose the same lunch that Lincoln ate on his inauguration day. And with the nation mired in a dizzying array of crises, Obama says that he looks to Lincoln for inspiration. Ron Paul, meanwhile, did not secure the Republican nomination, despite the passion of his supporters. Nevertheless, he, too, continues to use Lincoln for political purposes. On April 15, Paul and hundreds of thousands of limited-government activists took to the streets to rail about the long reach of federal authority. In addition to claiming that income tax is unconstitutional, leaders of these so-called Tea Parties raised the spectre of secession. Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, warned that if pushed, the Lone Star state might decide to leave the Union. And when political commentators heaped scorn on Perry, Paul defended him, noting that, “it is very American to talk about secession”. Perhaps, but Lincoln deserves a more generous 200th birthday present.
Posted on: Saturday, May 30, 2009 - 13:13
[Dr Andreas Umland is Assistant Professor (Wissenschaftlicher Assistent) of Contemporary Russian History at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt (http://ku-eichstaett.academia.edu ), general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” (http://www.ibidem-verlag.de ) as well as co-editor of the German print and Russian web journals "Forum for the Ideas and History of Contemporary Eastern Europe" (http://www1.ku-eichstaett.de ). He also administers the web archive “Russian Nationalism” (http://groups.yahoo.com ), which contains extensive information on recent trends in Russian radically right-wing thought and politics.]
Aleksandr Dugin, a prominent advocate of fascist and anti-Western views, has risen from a fringe ideologue to penetrate into Russian governmental offices, mass media, civil society and academia. Prominent members of Russian society are affiliated with his International Eurasian Movement. Among Dugin’s most important collaborators are electronic and print media commentator Mikhail Leont’ev and the legendary TV producer and PR specialist Ivan Demidov. If Dugin’s views become more widely accepted, a new Cold War will be the least that the West should expect from Russia during the coming years.
The Rise of Aleksandr Dugin
In recent years, various forms of nationalism have become a part of everyday Russian political and social life. Since the end of the 1990s, an increasingly aggressive racist sub-culture has been infecting sections of Russia’s youth, and become the topic of numerous analyses by Russian and non-Russian observers. Several new radical right-wing organizations, like the Movement Against Illegal Emigration, known by its Russian acronym DPNI, have attracted extensive attention from domestic and foreign journalists, scholars and monitors. Parallel tendencies within Russian intellectual life, in contrast, have received less national and international notice although their repercussions can increasingly be felt in the political thinking and behavior of Moscow’s rulers. It is generally acknowledged that a shrill anti-Americanism, as well as various other phobias, characterize today not only marginal groups, but also the Russian mainstream. However, in many analyses, the sources of, and channels for, such tendencies in Russia's elite strata remain obscure.
Among the dozens of extremely anti-Western publicists and pundits present in Russian official and public life today, Aleksandr Dugin and his various followers stand out as a network of especially industrious political ideologues and activists who have managed to penetrate Russian governmental offices, mass media, civil society and academia. Dugin’s bizarre ideas have been analyzed in dozens of scholarly and journalistic texts (see the Suggested Reading at the end of this article). At the same time, instead of being treated as a political phenomenon, the Duginists are sometimes presented as peculiarly post-Soviet curiosities. Occasionally, they are used to illustrate the degree of Russia’s confusion after the collapse of its empire rather than perceived as engines of broader trends in contemporary Russian discourse that may be taken seriously. Dugin’s numerous links to the political and academic establishments of a number of post-Soviet countries, as well as of Serbia and Turkey, remain understudied or misrepresented. In other cases, Dugin and his followers receive more serious attention, yet are still portrayed as anachronistic, backward-looking imperialists – merely a particularly radical form of contemporary Russian anti-globalism. Many such assessments downplay the manifest neo-fascism of Dugin's bellicose ideology. Neither the stunning public appeal nor the grave political implications of Duginism are well-understood in Russia or the West today.
The Members of the Supreme Council of the International Eurasian Movement
A marginal conspiracy theorist in the 1990s, Dugin has, during the last 10 years, become a respected commentator and writer on contemporary world affairs, in general, and Russia’s foreign policy, in particular. This has happened in spite of his frank praise of the SS Ahnenerbe institute (Heritage of the Forefathers), enthusiastic prophecy of a Russian “fascist fascism,” and numerous similar statements during the early and mid-1990s. Dugin’s rise began in 1998 when then State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznëv, a leader of the Communist Party, appointed him as an advisor. Dugin’s unexpected appearance as an official employee of the presidium of the parliament’s lower house marked the radical rightist’s break-through from the lunatic fringe into the political establishment of the Russian Federation (RF). Since then, Dugin’s presence and weight in Russian political and academic life has grown, by the year.
Since its foundation as the Socio-Political Movement “Eurasia” in 2001, Dugin’s main organization, the Mezhdunarodnoe “Evraziiskoe dvizhenie” (MED; International Eurasian Movement), has included a number of high-ranking government officials, such as:
- former RF Minister of Culture Aleksandr Sokolov,
- Chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on International Relations Mikhail Margelov,
- former advisor to President Yeltsin and RF Ambassador to Denmark Dmitrii Riurikov,
- Head of the RF Ministry of Justice Department on Political Parties and Social Organizations Aleksei Zhafiarov, and others.
While these figures are today no longer listed on the MED’s website (http://evrazia.info/), and may have cut their ties with Dugin, the MED still boasts a number of prominent personalities as members of its Supreme Council. They included in early April 2009:
- Federation Council Vice-Speaker Aleksandr Torshin,
- Presidential advisor Aslambek Aslakhanov,
- South Ossetia President Eduard Kokoity,
- Odnako (However) TV show host and editor-in-chief of the weekly political journal Profil’ (Profile) Mikhail Leont’ev,
- former Deputy Foreign Minister and current RF Ambassador to Latvia Viktor Kaliuzhnii,
- Yakutiia (Sakha) Minister of Culture and Rector of the Arctic State Institute of Culture and Art Andrei Borisov,
- Head of the RF Territorial Directorate’s State Committee for Property responsible for Moscow State University Professor Zeidula Iuzbekov,
- Chief Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Russia and European Countries of the C.I.S. Talgat Tadzhuddin,
- President of the National Association of TV and Radio Broadcasters and member of the Directorate of the Academy of Russian Television Eduard Sagalaev,
- Head of the RF Council of Ambassadors and President of the Russian-Turkish Friendship Society “Rutam” Al’bert Chernyshëv,
- Editor-in-Chief of the Russian army newspaper Krasnaia zvezda (Red Star) Nikolai Efimov,
- President of the Consulting Firm Neokon and founder of the website Worldcrisis.ru Mikhail Khazin,
- Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Vice-President of the Society of Georgians of Russia Severian Zagarishvili,
- Head of the Congress of the Peoples of the Northern Caucasus and Secretary for National Issues of the Union of Writers of Russia Brontoi Bediurov.
In addition, the MED’s Supreme Council contains political and academic functionaries from various CIS countries. Among them were, in early April 2009, the:
- Rector of the Lev Gumilëv Eurasian National University of Astana (Kazakhstan) Sarsyngali Abdymanapov,
- Ambassador of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan to Russia and Head of the Council of Directors of Postnoff Ltd Apas Dzhumagulov,
- Director of the Academy of Management attached to the Office of the President of Belarus and Director of the Research Institute on the Theory and Practice of Government of the Republic of Belarus Evgenii Matusevich,
- Rector of the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University of Bishkek Vladimir Nifad’ev,
- Director of the Akhmad Donish Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Tajik Academy of Sciences Rakhim Masov,
- Rector of the Makhambet Utemisov Western Kazakhstani State University of Uralsk Tuiakbai Ryzbekov,
- Leader of the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine Nataliia Vitrenko,
Finally, it is noteworthy that a number of public figures from countries outside the former Soviet Union have, according to MED’s website, also agreed to enter the Supreme Council of the International Eurasian Movement. They include the
- Head of the İşçi Partisi (Labour Party) of Turkey Doğu Perinçek (a denier of Turkey's genocide of the Armenians who is, currently, in prison for participation in the recent "Ergenekon" conspiracy),
- French Air Force General (ret.) and leader of the Forum for France Pierre-Marie Gallois,
- Director of the Center for Central Asian and Caucasian Studies at Luleå, Sweden, and Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly journal Central Asia and the Caucasus Murad Esenov,
- Lecturer of the Faculty of Policy Studies of Iwate Prefectural University, Japan, Iukiko Kuroiwa
- conspirologist and author of the book Vladimir Poutine et l'Eurasie (Charmes: Les Amis de la Culture Européenne, 2005) Jean Parvulesco,
- Editor-in-Chief of the Milano journal Eurasia: Rivista di Studi Geopolitici (of which Dugin is an editorial board member) Tiberio Graziani,
- Head of the Congress of Serbs of Eurasia (KSEA) Mila Alečković-Nikolić, and
- General (ret.) of the Yugoslav Army and deputy head of the Serbian Radical Party Božidar Delić.
Dugin's Public References to Fascism
While the ties linking some of these figures to Dugin are obvious, the reasons for the MED affiliation of others listed here remain a mystery. As indicated, throughout the 1990s, Dugin repeatedly eulogized, in disguised or open form, inter-war European and contemporary Russian fascism (sometimes, under his pseudonym as a poet "Aleksandr Sternberg," he did so in rhymes). The most explicit apologies for fascism can be found in Dugin's programmatic articles “Left Nationalism” (1992) or “Fascism – Borderless and Red” (1997) which are, as of April 2009, still openly accessible on the MED leader’s official web sites http://arcto.ru/ and http://my.arcto.ru/. Moreover, a number of these articles from the 1990s are, by now, available in Western languages. Some of them have been repeatedly quoted, in Russian and English language scholarly and journalistic analyses of Dugin and his movement.
To be sure, Dugin has, for obvious reasons, been eager to disassociate himself from German Nazism, at times strongly condemning Hitler’s crimes, and now often introduces himself as an “anti-fascist.” Yet, at certain points, he seemingly could not help but acknowledge the relevance of, above all other regimes, the Third Reich as a model for his own ideological constructs, like for instance, in his seminal analyses “Conservative Revolution: The Third Way” (1991) or “The Metaphysics of National Bolshevism” (1997) at http://my.arcto.ru/. As late as March 2006, at a point when he was already a full member of Moscow’s political establishment, Dugin, in a KM.ru online conference, publicly admitted that his ideology is close to that of the inter-war German brothers Otto and Gregor Strasser. In that interview, the transcript of which was re-produced on MED’s website, Dugin introduced the Strasser brothers as belonging to the anti-Hitler branch of German left-wing nationalism. Dugin, however, “forgot” to mention that the Strassers were once themselves National Socialists and played an important role in the rise of the Nazi party (NSDAP), in the mid-late 1920s. They subsequently indeed opposed Adolf Hitler, but did so first within the Nazi party. Gregor Strasser’s one-time personal secretary, Joseph Goebbels, in spite of his once also “left-wing” inclinations, went on – as is all too well-known – to become one of Hitler’s closest associates. Today, Strasserism is an important branch within the world wide network of neo-Nazi groupuscules – a pan-national movement to which Dugin, in view of his stated closeness to the Strassers, would seem to belong.
Mikhail Leont'ev and Ivan Demidov as Dugin's Accomplices
Normally, such details would be sufficient for serious students of international security to dismiss this figure and his organization as objects worthy of deeper political analysis. Dugin and Co., it would appear, are phenomena better left to the scrutiny of cultural anthropologists, psychopathologists, sociologists, or, at best, historians of current affairs. Yet, as illustrated by the list of former and current MED Supreme Council members, Dugin is, by now, firmly located within the mainstream of Russian political and intellectual life. He publishes in major periodicals and is regularly invited to top-notch political and academic round-tables and conferences.
Among Dugin’s most important collaborators is electronic and print media commentator Mikhail Leont’ev. Once called Vladimir Putin’s “favourite journalist,” Leont’ev officially entered the Supreme Council of the MED only recently, although he had participated in the foundation congress of Dugin’s movement in 2001, after which he was also briefly listed as a member of the organization's leadership on Dugin's website. Since then, Leont’ev has provided for Dugin, numerous times, a mass audience by letting the MED leader present his views on prime time television shows broadcast by Russia’s First Channel. One of Russia’s most well-known propagandists of anti-Americanism, Leont’ev’s frequent tirades against the West, in general, and the US, in particular, are obviously informed by Dugin’s Manichean schemes. To be sure, Dugin himself appeals to an only limited circle of political activists and young intellectuals. Via television shows like Leont'ev's Odnako, an encrypted and somewhat softer from of Duginism, however, reaches much of Russia's population on an almost daily basis.
Another consequential figure with unofficial, but apparently equally close ties to Dugin is the legendary TV producer and PR specialist Ivan Demidov. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Demidov worked on national television and became famous for his participation in a number of popular TV projects like Vzgliad (View) or Muzoboz (Music Cart). At that time, he appeared, like Leont’ev in his early years, to be a representative of the new generation of anti-Soviet young, Westernizing media figures who helped to emancipate Russian pubic discourse. In the new century, Demidov’s profile, however, changed as he became the anchorman of one of Russia’s most brazenly nationalistic TV shows Russkii vzgliad (The Russian View) shown weekly on the Moskoviia (Muscovy) Channel. In 2005, Demidov was one of the co-founders of the new nationalist cable channel Spas (Saviour), where he provided Dugin with his own show called Vekhi (Landmarks). In the same year, Demidov became a politician when – allegedly, upon the request of Vladimir Putin – he was named leader of United Russia's official youth organization Molodaia gvardiia (Young Guard). He also directed the so-called "Russian Project" of United Russia – an attempt to attract ethnocentric Russian youth and intellectuals to Putin's regime. In 2008, Demidov was promoted to be the head of the Ideology Section of the Political Department of United Russia's Executive Committee, i.e. Putin's party's chief ideologist. A few months earlier, Demidov had, in an interview for Dugin's website Evrazia.org, admitted that Dugin's appearance was a "deciding factor, a sort of breaking point" in his life, and that he wants to use his talents to implement Dugin's ideas. Demidov called himself, with explicit reference to these ideas, a "convinced Eurasian." Oddly, this is the same phrase with which, fifteen years earlier, Dugin had, in the original version of his seminal article "The Great War of the Continents" (1991-1992, http://my.arcto.ru/), characterized SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich – the Holocaust's chief early organizer (the phrase was deleted in later editions of that article). In March 2009, Demidov was promoted to be the Head of the Department for Humanitarian Policies and Public Relations of the Domestic Politics Directorate of the RF Presidential Administration. In this function, Demidov will have special responsibility for the president's relations with religious organizations, i.e., above all, with the Russian Orthodox Church. In May 2009, Demidov was appointed "responsible secretary" of Dmitry Medvedev's infamous Commission for Counter-Action Against the Falsification of History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests.
The Mimicry Tactics of the "Neo-Eurasianists"
Dugin himself recently managed to make further inroads into Russian public life. In 2008, he was appointed professor in the Sociology Department of Moscow's renowned Lomonosov University (MGU) where he now directs the Center for Conservative Studies (although Dugin, a Muscovite, acquired his academic degrees at obscure south Russian higher education institutions). His promotion to an MGU Professor is an important step in Dugin's further penetration of the mainstream since it provides him with a respected title and prestigious site for his press conferences and other meetings. Dugin's active use of the term "conservatism" also continues his earlier strategy of camouflaging his doctrine with terminology that fits Russian and international political correctness. While at the fringe of Russia's political life, in the early-mid 1990s, Dugin described his own ideology frankly as a program of the "Conservative Revolution," a construct he explicitly used to define fascism, or as "National Bolshevism" – a Russian version of National Socialism as the colors of the flag of the National Bolshevik Party, which Dugin co-founded in 1994, suggested. When he started drawing closer to the establishment, however, Dugin put more emphasis on labels like "Eurasianism" or "Traditionalism" although his "neo-Eurasianist" ideology, in important regards, sharply diverges from both classical Eurasianism and Integral Traditionalism. Today, Dugin poses front-stage as a proponent of "conservatism" while his back-stage agenda is still unabashedly revolutionary. The success of Dugin's and his supporters' tactic of political mimicry was recently illustrated when one of the activists of Dugin's youth organization, Evraziiskii soiuz molodezhyi (Eurasian Movement of the Young), the artist Aleksei Beliaev-Gintovt was awarded Deutsche Bank's Kandinsky Prize (in view of the rather different styles of Kandinsky's art and Beliaev-Gintovt's paintings - an odd choice, in any way). That one of their supporters won the prestigious German award was proudly presented by Dugin's organizations as another confirmation of the substance and seriousness of their intellectual project.
In view of the depth and multifariousness of Dugin's connections into Russia's highest political and cultural echelons, it is difficult to imagine how his current influence could be limited, or, at least, his future advance contained. At the same time, Dugin's recent political words and deeds indicate that, in comparison to his openly fascist phase in the early and mid-1990s, today only his terminology and public behavior, but not his ideology and aims, have fundamentally changed. Should Dugin and his followers succeed in further extending their reach into Russian politics and society at large, a new Cold War will be the least that the West should expect from Russia during the coming years.
Galina Kozhevnikova in collaboration with Alexander Verkhovsky and Eugene Veklerov, Ultra-Nationalism and Hate Crimes in Contemporary Russia: The 2004-2006 Annual Reports of Moscow's SOVA Center. With a foreword by Stephen D. Shenfield (Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 77). Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2005.
Marlène Laruelle, Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire. Translated by Mischa Gabowitsch (Baltimore and Washington, DC: The Johns Hopkins University Press/Woodrow Wilson Center Press 2008).
Marlène Laruelle, ed., Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion of Russia. With a foreword by John B. Dunlop (Routledge Contemporary Russia and Eastern Europe Series). London: Routledge 2009.
Anastasia Mitrofanova, The Politicization of Russian Orthodoxy: Actors and Ideas. With a foreword by William C. Gay (Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 13). Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2005.
Andreas Umland, ed., Theorizing Post-Soviet Russia's Extreme Right: Comparative Political, Historical and Sociological Approaches (Russian Politics and Law 46:4). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe 2008.
Andreas Umland, ed., The Nature of "Neo-Eurasianism:" Approaches to Aleksandr Dugin's Post-Soviet Movement of Radical Anti-Americanism (Russian Politics and Law 47:2). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe 2009.
Posted on: Friday, May 29, 2009 - 14:29
In the days just before Easter, the Mexican government bulldozed nearly forty shrines to La Santisima Muerte (Holy Death) along the US/Mexico border. The shrines, according to the military, formed an integral part of the “narco-culture” that the government is determined to wipe out. Does devotion to Santa Muerte reflect the “death cult of the drug lords,” as a US military intelligence website suggests?
The chosen saint of the marginalized,Santa Muerte holds a globe in one hand and a pendulum in the other. She wears a robe covering her arms down to her wrists; there her fingers are exposed as bone. Over her skeletal head rests a halo. Santisima Muerte, a symbolic representation of death blended with Catholic characteristics, surfaced in Mexico’s religious landscape to much popular acclaim. Very little is known about the Holy Death’s origins; her followers and scholars promote divergent theories. Some claim that she first appeared to a healer in Veracruz in the 19th century, and ordered him to create a cult. Others claim that the strong cult of death practiced among the ancient Mexicas merged with Catholicism in the form of Santa Muerte. Other devotees claim that Holy Death came from Yoruba traditions brought by African slaves to the Caribbean and passed to Mexico through Cuban Santería, Haitian Voodou, or Brazilian Palo Mayombe; these religions merged with Christian practices to create Santa Muerte. Other Mexican scholars insist that Holy Death’s origins can be traced back to medieval Europe; she is an archetype of death commonly seen in religious art. Most scholars do agree however, that Santa Muerte should not be confused with the more well known Day of the Dead. Although Holy Death may be venerated on that day, as Kevin Freese points out, she “appears to be a distinct phenomenon emerging from a separate tradition.”
Devotion has grown dramatically since 1965; Santa Muerte boasts nearly five million followers in Mexico. Santa Muerte is particularly popular among drug traffickers, police officers, gang members, prison inmates, and sex workers; in short, those who live close to death. She also has a following among some artists, intellectuals, politicians, and actors. Her largest social base, however, is among the most marginalized sectors. Her principal sanctuary is found in the barrio, Tepito, among the poorest and most dangerous sectors of Mexico City. Her popularity among migrants has also skyrocketed. In markets in Tijuana and other border towns, artifacts related to Santa Muerte outnumber those for the Virgin of Guadalupe. Thousands of shrines to Santa Muerte are found throughout Mexico, but they are especially concentrated along the northern border.
The rapid growth of the movement over the last decades has led to conflict between devotees of Holy Death, the official Roman Catholic Church, and the Mexican government. Archbishop David Romo Guillen, founder of the Mexico-US Apostolic Traditional Catholic Church, created the Sanctuary of Holy Death in Mexico City in 2002, and registered the church as a religious organization in 2003. The archbishop promotes condom use for men and women and the doors of the church are open to gays, lesbians, transvestites, and transgendered. Priests are allowed to marry, women can become ordained, and divorce is not censured.
These practices, in addition to the worship of Holy Death herself, place the church in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church – and, increasingly, to the government. In April 2005, the government revoked the church’s status as a religious organization. Now the government is making the claim that worship of Santa Muerte is a threat to national security. The government is partially right, although not because of alleged links to drug traffickers. The author of a military intelligence website devoted to Santa Muerte concluded that as long as exclusion, isolation, and political despair characterize life for the marginalized in Mexico, we can expect that the cult of Santa Muerte will prosper. Most devotees feel that both the government and the church have failed them. Thus, they turn to folk saints such as Santa Muerte, who does not judge but reflects the excluded – in other words, much of Mexico. The political despair characteristic of much of Mexico’s population poses more of a threat to national security than a small border shrine visited by poor and working class people and migrants. Some of La Santa Muerte’s devotees do indeed happen to be drug lords, but she is also the patron saint of the dispossessed, acquainted with death as they are.
Kevin Freese. “The Death Cult of the Drug Lords: Mexico’s patron of crime, criminals and the dispossessed.” fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Santa-Muerte/santa-muerte.htm –
Cymene Howe, Susanna Zayarsky, and Lois Lorentzen. “Devotional Crossings: Transgender Sex Workers, Santisima Muerte and Spiritual Solidarity in Guadalajara and San Francisco” in Lois Ann Lorentzen, Joaquin Gonzalez, Kevin Chun, Hien Duc Do, Eds. Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana; the intersection of faith, politics and identity in new migrant communities. Duke University Press, forthcoming.
Posted on: Thursday, May 28, 2009 - 20:38
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (5-28-09)
Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don't perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.
Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today's so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today's collapsing job market.
Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life -- 20 years' service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level -- I'm convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It's simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)
And here's one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job -- if it's merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods -- you've effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.
Three Myths of Higher Ed
Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.
Today's college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn"degrees that work" (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They're being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They're being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to"keep current" is to"stay competitive in the global marketplace." (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won't be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)
And here's a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.
One"bonus" from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or"assess," as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).
A third pervasive myth -- one that's found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education -- is: If it's not quantifiable, it's not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?
Three Realities of Higher Ed
What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system's technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls -- thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.
Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don't know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don't know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that"graveyard of empires," and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.
Perhaps I'm biased because I teach history, but here's a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.
We don't have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history -- not when they never learned them to begin with.
Donning New Sunglasses
One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That's a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.
It's a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country's direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself -- and so your own limits and those of your country as well.
To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous -- kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive"B" movie They Live (1988). In Piper's case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.
Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds -- a struggle against accepting the world as it's being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.
Posted on: Thursday, May 28, 2009 - 18:29
SOURCE: Philadelphia Inquirer (5-27-09)
What are you doing over the summer?
That's what adults like to ask teenagers this time of year, as school draws to a close. And we're often surprised to hear the answer: more school. Believe it or not, the kids actually choose this option.
When I was growing up, summer school was a kind of low-security prison for students who had failed during the regular year. But in affluent communities like my own, it's increasingly dominated by high-achieving kids who want to buff up their transcripts for college.
By taking required classes in the summer, they can pack their fall and spring schedules with honors and advanced-placement courses. They can also clear out space for study halls during the school year, giving them more time to hit the books and get the grades.
I've always been a bit depressed by this phenomenon, which reflects the worst aspects of contemporary, upper-middle-class childhood: the rigid management of time, the grim quest for the upper hand, and the constant fear that someone, somewhere, is getting a leg up on you.
So I was almost relieved to read that cash-strapped school districts around the country are dropping summer school. In California, 41 percent of parent-teacher associations say summer school has been cut or limited in their districts. Two-thirds of school districts in North Carolina report the same.
But then I thought about those who will get hurt: our poorest children. Unlike most students in my community, who will be fine without summer school, disadvantaged kids really need it. Low-income students typically lose more than two months of reading achievement over the summer, whereas their middle-class peers make slight gains.
It's not hard to figure out why. Wealthier kids are more likely to have books and magazines at home, as well as parents who read to them. So, each summer, the more affluent kids move forward, and the poorer kids fall further behind.
Unless, that is, they go to school. Students who participated in Baltimore's Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) summer program in 2007, drawn from 12 low-performing schools, gained an average of four months of reading and math skills. In New York City, 82 percent of students in a program run by Harlem RBI showed no reading loss at the end of the summer.
Instead of eliminating summer school completely, then, our school districts should restrict it to the kids who need it most. And if federal stimulus money helps shore up summer-school budgets, as some districts are hoping, the Obama administration should make sure the money goes solely to low-achieving students.
Earlier this spring, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spelled out what typically happens to these children in the summer. "You have kids who don't have a lot of books at home and aren't read to," Duncan told an interviewer. "You get kids to a certain point in June, and when they come back in September, they're further behind than when they left you three months ago. It's heartbreaking."
Yes, it is. In these tough times, let's devote every available summer-school dollar to the least fortunate American families. The rest of us can fend for ourselves.
Posted on: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 - 19:47
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (5-26-09)
history at the London School of Economics.]
All historic events seem to need a definition in terms of where they start and end. The collapse of communism in Poland was played out in full view of the world's media. The establishment of the Solidarity movement could well be treated as the starting point of this process. The alternative date could be that of the conclusion of the round table talks or even the first genuinely free elections. For Poland, 1989 was a time of change.
I initiated a debate on this subject at this year's Hay festival. Timothy Garton Ash, well known to Guardian readers, and Slawomir Sierakowski, a young editor of a challenging leftwing publication in Poland, were asked to tell the audience when they thought the history of communist Poland had come to an end and the transformation in accordance with the liberal democratic model and free market principles began. Both speakers grappled with the problem created by the power of symbols, which tend to trap us in a timewarp and prevent us moving on to understanding the complexities of present day politics in Poland. The belief that the Polish pope destroyed the evil communist regime is a cliche beloved by the Conservatives as much as it is by the left, which was profoundly critical of the communists' lack of respect for human rights. It was my aim to lead the speakers away from such stereotypes.
To an audience only too well aware of the way politics distort principles, as has been the case in British politics, any thoughts on Poland will be interesting. The present-day Polish political landscape looks unimpressive; parties defined by personalities rather than political programmes, an embarrassing president who seem to pride himself in not wanting to understand international politics, controversial intervention in the European parliament, all suggesting political immaturity and lack of a way forward. For Poland the last 20 years have not been easy. The process of party formation – dealing with the post-communist realities and finding a way of communicating with a constituency that demanded that solutions should be very different from those that the fallen communist regimes had followed – created problems and, by implications, new solutions.
Garton Ash, a witness of the great defining moment in the birth of Solidarity, has suggested that Poles have been seeking and should continue to seek a Polish neo-liberal way forward, not neccessarily based on what happens in other developed European states. Sierakowski, who was too young to participate in the events that shaped Poland's present political institutions, presents a new road: that of Poland reclaiming the right to consider the full spectrum of political ideas, including leftwing ideas, unburdened by its communist one, which he calls the Third Way. His view is that Poles should get over their anxieties about the left and should once more look at social democracy as a way forward...
Posted on: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 - 04:50
SOURCE: NY Review of Books (6-11-09)
But we were in denial. And we stayed in denial until September, more than a year later, of last year. Then we had the breakdown. Notice how psychological terms are very helpful when economics fails as a discipline. After the breakdown, we came out of denial and we realized that probably more than one major bank was insolvent. Then in September and October the world went into shock. It was deeply traumatic.
Now we're in the therapy phase. And what therapy are we using? Well, it's very interesting because we're using two quite contradictory courses of therapy. One is the prescription of Dr. Friedman—Milton Friedman, that is —which is being administered by the Federal Reserve: massive injections of liquidity to avert the kind of banking crisis that caused the Great Depression of the early 1930s. I'm fine with that. That's the right thing to do. But there is another course of therapy that is simultaneously being administered, which is the therapy prescribed by Dr. Keynes—John Maynard Keynes—and that therapy involves the running of massive fiscal deficits in excess of 12 percent of gross domestic product this year, and the issuance therefore of vast quantities of freshly minted bonds.
There is a clear contradiction between these two policies, and we're trying to have it both ways. You can't be a monetarist and a Keynesian simultaneously—at least I can't see how you can, because if the aim of the monetarist policy is to keep interest rates down, to keep liquidity high, the effect of the Keynesian policy must be to drive interest rates up.
After all, $1.75 trillion is an awful lot of freshly minted treasuries to land on the bond market at a time of recession, and I still don't quite know who is going to buy them. It's certainly not going to be the Chinese. That worked fine in the good times, but what I call "Chimerica," the marriage between China and America, is coming to an end. Maybe it's going to end in a messy divorce.
No, the problem is that only the Fed can buy these freshly minted treasuries, and there is going to be, I predict, in the weeks and months ahead, a very painful tug-of-war between our monetary policy and our fiscal policy as the markets realize just what a vast quantity of bonds are going to have to be absorbed by the financial system this year. That will tend to drive the price of the bonds down, and drive up interest rates, which will also have an effect on mortgage rates—the precise opposite of what Ben Bernanke is trying to achieve at the Fed.
One final thought: Let's not think of this as a purely American phenomenon. This is a crisis of the global economy. I'd go so far as to say it's a crisis of globalization itself. The US economy is not going to contract the most this year, even if the worst projections at the International Monetary Fund turn out to be right; a 2.6 percent contraction is far, far less than the shock already being inflicted on Japan, on South Korea, on Taiwan, to say nothing of the shock being inflicted on Europe. Germany is contracting at something close to 5 or 6 percent. So we are faced not just with a problem to be dealt with by American policy, we are faced with a crisis of global proportions, and it's far from clear to me that the prescriptions of Dr. Friedman and Dr. Keynes together can solve that massive global crisis.
Posted on: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 21:17
SOURCE: WSJ (5-26-09)
... Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was secular through and through. The pillars of his political life had been British law and Indian nationalism. Both had given way, and he set out for his new state, in 1947, an ailing old man, only to die a year later. He was sincere in his belief that Pakistan could keep religion at bay.
Jinnah's vision held sway for three decades. It was only in the late 1970s that political Islam began its assault against the secular edifice. A military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, had seized power in 1977; he was to send his predecessor, the flamboyant populist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to the gallows. Zia was to recast Pakistan's political culture. It was during his decade in power that the madrassas, the religious schools, proliferated. (There had been no more than 250 madrassas in 1947. There would be a dozen times as many by 1988, and at least 12,000 by latest count.)
Zia had been brutally effective in manipulating the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. His country was awash with guns and Saudi and American money. He draped his despotism in Islamic garb. He made room for the mullahs and the mullahs brought the gunmen with them.
Say what you will about the ways of Pakistan, its people have never voted for the darkness that descended on Swat and its surroundings. In the national elections of 2008 the secular and regional parties had carried the day; the fundamentalists were trounced at the polls. The concessions in Swat were a gift the militants had not earned.....
Posted on: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 21:07
SOURCE: American Thinker (5-24-09)
While waiting for America's publishers to find their nerve, I had put my research into the authorship of Barack Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father on the back shelf. But then I heard Chris Matthews.
The Hardball host was weighing in on the subject of Sarah Palin's new book deal. "Sarah Palin - now don't laugh - is writing a book," sneered Matthews. "Not just reading a book, writing a book."
"Actually in the word of the publisher she's "collaborating" on a book," Matthews continued. "What an embarrassment! It's one of these ‘I told you,' books that jocks do. You know she's already declared, I mean, why they do it like this? ‘She can't write, we got a collaborator for her.'"
I dedicate what follows to Matthews and those willfully blind souls like him. It is a work in progress, a collective one at that, aided and abetted by nearly a score of volunteer co-conspirators from Hawaii to Ohio to Israel to Australia. The thesis is simple enough: Barack Obama needed substantial help to write his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. Moreover, unlike Sarah Palin, Obama chose to conceal the identity of his collaborator and not without good reason. To admit that he needed a collaborator would have undercut his campaign for president and to reveal the name of that collaborator would have ended it.
My involvement in this occasionally harrowing literary adventure began in July 2008, entirely innocently. A friend sent me some short excerpts from Dreams and asked if they were as radical as they sounded. I bought the book, located the excerpts, and reported back that, in context, the excerpts were not particularly troubling.
But I did notice something else. The book was much too well written. I had seen enough of Obama's interviews to know that he did not speak with anywhere near the verbal sophistication on display in Dreams.
About six weeks later, for entirely unrelated reasons, I picked up a copy of Bill Ayers 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days. Ayers, I discovered, writes very well and very much like "Obama."
In mid-September, after considerable digging, I wrote a few speculative articles for American Thinker and other online journals and discovered that I was not alone in my suspicions.
Looking for some scientific verification, I consulted Patrick Juola of Duquesne, a leading authority in the field of literary forensics. Juola, however, advised me against relying on computer analysis on a subject this sensitive. "The accuracy just isn't there," he told me. He encouraged me instead "to do what you're already doing . . . good old-fashioned literary detective work." I took his advice.
The first question I had to resolve was whether the 33 year-old Barack Obama was capable of writing what Time Magazine has called "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." The answer is almost assuredly "no."....
Posted on: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 19:24
SOURCE: Executive Watch--A weblog of the Duke Law Program in Public Law (5-5-09)
The George W. Bush Administration had the most ambitious view of executive power in history. Bush sympathizers see little difference in the Obama Administration. Bush’s detractors, in some respects, agree.
The truth is probably closer to the following: The Obama Administration has cast aside some of the Bush Administration’s more audacious claims. It is still struggling, however, to find a consistent stance with regard to its philosophy of executive power.
On one hand, the Obama Administration has asserted the state secrets privilege in national security litigation. It resisted judicial review of enemy combatant detention in Afghanistan. It has pursued the Bush Administration’s Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, even though it was never approved by Congress.
The Obama Justice Department even urged in federal court a newly expansive interpretation of the USA PATRIOT Act. If the argument prevails, it could immunize the federal government from liability under any federal law for warrantless wiretapping.
On the other hand, President Obama revoked President Bush’s obnoxious executive order on presidential records, which seemed to invent the idea of vice-presidential privilege from whole cloth and purported to allow family members of former Presidents to claim privilege in their name. He implicitly repudiated the Bush Administration’s restrictive view of the Freedom of Information Act, and famously released Bush-era OLC memoranda on torture. The Obama order on military interrogations reasserts the applicability of congressional restrictions to the conduct and conditions of military detention.
Equally telling, although arguably more obscure, are the moments in the conduct of national affairs where the Administration’s impulses seem to pull obviously in opposite directions. For example, within his first two weeks in office, President Obama pointedly revoked two Bush Administration executive orders that tightened White House oversight of regulatory policy making by executive branch agencies. In March, however, OMB Director Peter Orszag issued a memorandum reclaiming much of the authority the Obama order seemed to repudiate.
Despite these moments of ambivalence, I remain hopeful that the Obama Administration will turn its back with increasing clarity on the theory and practice of the “unitary presidency.” The test is not whether he eschews all claims to presidential authority; the President does, in fact, have substantial constitutional and statutory powers. The test is the clarity with which he accepts the other branches’ roles in checks and balances, and the scope with which he allows other executive branch officers to take the lead in fulfilling their own statutory roles.
I draw my optimism from the way in which the President has so far addressed matters that Congress has assigned to executive branch agencies.
Consider, for example, the recent release by the National Institutes of Health of proposed new guidelines on federal funding for stem cell research. The most remarkable thing about the guidelines is not the way in which they either preserve or remove limits on such research. The most remarkable thing is that they were not drafted by the White House.
Federal law charges the director of NIH with making decisions on federal health research funding. In August 2001, however, President Bush personally commanded that federal funding would be available for stem-cell research only if based on existing stem cell lines. President Obama revoked the 2007 executive order that formalized the Bush policy, but he returned stem cell funding authority where the law places it. Reinstating NIH’s authority to decide on research funding policy was clearly a rebuke to the Bush Administration’s theory of “the unitary presidency.”
Consider, in the same vein, how President Obama treated his predecessor’s decision to relax interagency consulting requirements with regard to federal projects potentially threatening to endangered species. Instead of purporting to order federal agencies to rescind the prior policy, President Obama wrote: “I hereby request the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce to review the regulation issued on December16, 2008, and to determine whether to undertake new rulemaking procedures with respect to consultative and concurrence processes that will promote the purposes of” the Endangered Species Act. Again, the language of “request” and implicit deference to the judgment of others are conspicuous.
Obama doubters may find signals like these too subtle. Curtis Bradley and Eric Posner have accused the Administration of using “symbolic gestures and changes in labeling to mask the continuity” in the Administrations’ respective stances on executive power. Symbols and language matter, however, especially in the psychology of institutions.
Among the primary functions of Bush’s repeated invocation of unitary presidency theory was the attempt to discipline the second branch of government to follow a view of executive policy making in which the White House dictates policy content, and much of what the President does is simply immune to congressional regulation or judicial review.
An equally important function of President Obama’s rhetoric is signaling his acceptance of pluralistic policy deliberation within the executive branch and his embrace of external accountability. I expect the Obama rhetoric, like Bush’s, to have clear operational consequences.
I also draw heart from the character of President Obama himself. The impact of unitary executive theory was worse in the Bush Administration because the President and Vice President seemed to personally embody the very worst tendencies in governance that presidential unilateralism portends – tendencies towards shallow, defensive, ideologically driven, and sometimes lawless decision making.
In a contrary spirit, President Obama seems to embody the very tendencies in governance that checks and balances were intended to foster – tendencies towards thoughtful, inclusive, deliberative, and legally accountable decision making.
The problem for constitutionalists is that legal and historical precedents outlast an Administration, while a President’s personality does not. I thus hope that, as the Administration sorts out its thinking, a clearer and more consistent embrace of checks and balances and policy pluralism emerges.
Posted on: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 13:04
SOURCE: Counterpunch.com (5-22-09)
The revelation this month in GQ Magazine that Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary embellished top-secret wartime memos with quotations from the Bible prompts a question. Why did he believe he could influence President Bush by that means?
The answer may lie in an alarming story about George Bush's Christian millenarian beliefs that has yet to come to light.
In 2003 while lobbying leaders to put together the Coalition of the Willing, President Bush spoke to France's President Jacques Chirac. Bush wove a story about how the Biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East and how they must be defeated.
In Genesis and Ezekiel Gog and Magog are forces of the Apocalypse who are prophesied to come out of the north and destroy Israel unless stopped. The Book of Revelation took up the Old Testament prophesy:
"And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them."
Bush believed the time had now come for that battle, telling Chirac:
"This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people's enemies before a New Age begins".
The story of the conversation emerged only because the Elyse Palace, baffled by Bush's words, sought advice from Thomas Romer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne. Four years later, Romer gave an account in the September 2007 issue of the university's review, Allez savoir. The article apparently went unnoticed, although it was referred to in a French newspaper.
The story has now been confirmed by Chirac himself in a new book, published in France in March, by journalist Jean Claude Maurice. Chirac is said to have been stupefied and disturbed by Bush's invocation of Biblical prophesy to justify the war in Iraq and "wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs".
In the same year he spoke to Chirac, Bush had reportedly said to the Palestinian foreign minister that he was on "a mission from God" in launching the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and was receiving commands from the Lord.
There can be little doubt now that President Bush's reason for launching the war in Iraq was, for him, fundamentally religious. He was driven by his belief that the attack on Saddam's Iraq was the fulfilment of a Biblical prophesy in which he had been chosen to serve as the instrument of the Lord.
Many thousands of Americans and Iraqis have died in the campaign to defeat Gog and Magog. That the US President saw himself as the vehicle of God whose duty was to prevent the Apocalypse can only inflame suspicions across the Middle East that the United States is on a crusade against Islam.
There is a curious coda to this story. While a senior at Yale University George W. Bush was a member of the exclusive and secretive Skull & Bones society. His father, George H.W. Bush had also been a "Bonesman", as indeed had his father. Skull & Bones' initiates are assigned or take on nicknames. And what was George Bush Senior's nickname? "Magog".
Posted on: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 11:28
SOURCE: Austin American-Statesman (5-25-09)
American soldiers have been risking and losing their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan for seven Memorial Days, longer than any American war except Vietnam. Omar Bradley's wisdom"nothing succeeds like excess" only applies to conventional warfare. Our overwhelming advantages in mobility, manpower and firepower are negated in guerilla wars of insurgency. Why have we let this happen?
In"Just How Stupid Are We?," historian Rick Shenkman cites John F. Kennedy:"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie - deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth - persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
Shenkman offers doses of cold, uncomfortable truth on many topics, but especially on our collective willingness to believe the myths surrounding our ongoing use of preemptive military force in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For example, the 9/11 Commission reported in July 2004 that Saddam Hussein had not supported al Qaeda. Yet a Newsweek poll in September 2007 found that 41 percent of Americans still believed"Saddam Hussein's regime was directly involved in financing, planning or carrying out the terrorist attacks on 9/11."
Since we are trying to extract our fighting men and women while believing in the Iraqi version of the myth of Vietnamization, I recommend Larry Engelmann's"Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam." Read Pete McCloskey's sobering account of the congressional delegation sent out in February 1975 to see whether we should pour our money to sustain the illusion that South Vietnam was ready to wage war successfully on its own as a stable western-style democracy. McCloskey saw the handwriting on every wall he looked at, and he firmly believed then that U.S. officials had to know that"the south Vietnamese were going to collapse."
Another antidote to myth-induced political myopia is World War II veteran Edward W. Wood Jr.'s"Worshipping the Myths of World War II: Reflections on America's Dedication to War." It was sent to me by another WWII veteran, who, like Wood, believes that we have been seduced by the myth of the"greatest generation" into believing we can and should spread our versions of justice, government and freedom by using major military force. Wood devotes a full chapter to how the greatest-generation myth clouded our judgment after 9/11.
Lastly, I recommend Dwight D. Eisenhower's speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953, sent by yet another WWII veteran. Eisenhower enunciates five principles that we should follow in pursuit of a just world peace. We have violated all five since 9/11, including Ike's fourth principle:"Any nation's attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible."
Eisenhower also warns that using the weapons of war has a terrible cost: every gun, warship and rocket is"a theft from those who hunger and are not fed"; a modern heavy bomber is"a modern brick school in more than 30 cities"; and"we pay for a single fighter plane with a half-million bushels of wheat."
Our soldiers pay, too, with their lives, bodies, minds and souls.
Here is one moving passage by Brian Ellis, then of CBS News, from Engelmann, Tears Before the Rain, p. 197. It reminds us that our wars, really all wars, are fought largely by college age kids. The Greeks called them ephebes, literally those who are at the point of blooming. As Eisenhower cautioned, we should send them out to risk their lives and their well-being for better reasons and as a last resort.
The first time I went down to see the Vietnam memorial, I was with a Vietnam vet. Most people think Edward Alvarez was the longest-held POW--but there's another guy who was held a lot longer than he was, who lived down in Key West. And he suffered a stroke not too long ago. When I was doing the program in 1985 I was looking for POW's to go back to Vietnam, and I had not been to the memorial until then. Anyway this fellow came to Washington, and I met him in a restaurant. It was obvious that i couldn't interview him because he had trouble, speech was difficult for him. And I said,"Tomorrow would you like to go out and look at the memorial? ... Have you ever seen it? And he said,"No." I said,"Would you like to go out?" He said,"Yeah."
He was wearing his uniform. He had not worn his uniform in i don't know how many years, but he felt like he should wear his uniform to the monument. We walked down there. It just seemed like a wall with names. I really wasn't struck too much by it. We walked by it and he kept looking at it. He kept shaking his head, saying,"All those names, all those names." Then we got to the statue, and he stood there and kept looking at it. And he started crying and said,"They were just boys, good boys." And the suddenly it hit me what he was saying, they were just boys! You kind of separate soldiers--men who are paid and trained to go out and kill--from kids. But these were just kids. It was at that moments, I guess, that it really came home to me and I realized they were just a bunch of boys on that wall. It struck me. here's a guy who spent almost fourteen years in a prison camp, and he felt sorry for them. The guy stood there, tears rolling down his cheeks. and since then I've gone back a number of times.
NOTE: I believe Ellis is speaking of Col. Floyd James Thompson who was a POW from March 1964 to March 1973, nine years, not fourteen.
Posted on: Monday, May 25, 2009 - 12:48
SOURCE: TruthDig.com (5-23-09)
Congress is broken. The framers of the Constitution, building on nearly six centuries of parliamentary experience, situated Congress at the heart of the American constitutional system. Representative government was believed to be the purest, and yet workable, means of self-government. For the past 25, however, Congress has made a joke of that system, as it has trivialized and mocked any meaningful representation in the sense that the makers of the Constitution framed it.
That sense was best captured by Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the great English parliamentarian and statesman, whose work became the lodestar for the rising intellectual conservative movement 50 years ago. Burke was a contemporary of the Founding Fathers and a keen observer of the American scene. Today, however, he is not in fashion; in particular, when neoconservatives and neo-liberals alike celebrate the historical expansion and maintenance of the American empire, they ignore Burke’s warning that “great empires and small minds go ill together.”
Burke had much to say about the role of people’s representatives. He acknowledged that representatives owed the “strictest union ... and the most unreserved communication” to their constituents, yet he insisted that representatives possess “independent judgment and enlightened conscience.” A representative must strike a delicate balance, offering constituents “his judgment,” said Burke, while bearing in mind that “he betrays, instead of serving [them], if he sacrifices it to [their] opinion.” Burke recognized it is easy to “run into the perilous extremes of servile compliance or wild popularity.” Instead, the interest of the whole community must be pursued, not some local, individual interest, or a “momentary enthusiasm.”
In the Federalist No. 10, James Madison saw the danger of representatives pandering to “factions,” or groups “actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest adverse to ... the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.” Burke and Madison alike would be appalled by Congress’s ready acquiescence to executive power.
Congress has been a spectator to President George W. Bush’s Iraq war and to the shameful use of “enhanced interrogation” and other forms of torture that were widely documented during Bush’s presidency. Congressional Democrats roundly criticized the Bush administration for maintaining the prison facilities at Guantanamo. Although Bush’s successor now has made pointed efforts to remove and reject such polices, Congress is once again derelict, as it refuses to take any responsibility for cleaning up after the Bush crew.
Congress’s palpable fear of voters would have left Burke and framers of the Constitution aghast. “Momentary enthusiasms” dominate our political landscape, with considered judgments subordinated to emotional, partisan responses.
In our current congressional follies, both parties refuse to take responsibility for the shameful maintenance of the Guantanamo facility, where “detainees” have been tortured, abused, but not charged and tried—truly a wholesale violation of any remote understanding of the “rule of law.” While Republicans predictably and dutifully defended Bush, congressional Democrats flayed him for these departures from America’s stated principles.
President Barack Obama has renewed his commitment to close Guantanamo within a year, but that may be contingent upon his administration’s ability to relocate prisoners. Instead of helping to find a solution, congressional Democrats, along with the usual Republican suspects, have abandoned principle in favor of popularity.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., doesn’t want detainees in his backyard—presumably meaning Leavenworth, which housed many notorious criminals and provided jobs to Kansas residents until the supermax prison in Florence, Colo., was built. Football star Michel Vick was one of Leavenworth’s guests, and Brownback apparently had little concern for the safety of his constituents’ dogs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., doesn’t want the prisoners in San Quentin.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., summed up these senators’ sentiments: “The American people don’t want these men walking the streets of America’s neighborhoods,” he said. “Americans did not want detainees in their backyards either,” he added.
Congress wants to close the Guantanamo facility, but it will not accept the responsibility that goes with that action. We cannot hold prisoners in Cuba indefinitely. Sadly, few are willing to stand for principle in the face of undoubtedly misplaced fears; instead, our representatives rant about imagined prisoners loose in some imagined backyard.
By a 90-6 vote, the Senate voted to strip money from a war supplemental bill to close Guantanamo. Those who mustered some political courage and voted in a responsible, considered way are terribly few: Richard Durbin, R-Ill., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Carl Levin, D-Mich., Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. (Robert Byrd, Edward Kennedy and Jay Rockefeller did not vote). Once again, Democrats have panicked for fear of being considered “soft” on national security.
The Gang of 90 must be oblivious to the population at the supermax facility in Colorado. It includes Dandeny Munoz Mosquera, chief assassin for the Medllin cartel; Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber;” Eric Robert Rudolph, bomber of abortion clinics and the Atlanta Olympic Park; Terry Nichols, co-conspirator of the Oklahoma City bombing, Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” from the 9/11 World Trade Center destruction; and Ramzi Yusef from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. When not in solitary confinement, prisoners generally are allowed out of their windowless cells for an hour a day. None wander in our backyards; they will go nowhere.
Congress loves domino theories. Bring the “detainees” to American shores and they will unleash violence and terror on American citizens. Representatives have pounced on this popular proposition, believing it an easy path to re-election. They betray their own judgment, Burke would say. Instead, they might consider the principle President Obama has laid before them: “We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens and keeps us safe,” he said in his National Archives speech on May 21.
While Congress plays to its home crowd, the Obama administration has brought an alleged al-Qaida militant accused in the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya to New York, where he will be tried in a civilian court, marking a first for a Guantanamo prisoner. Even Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who never met a microphone or camera he did not like, has said nothing.
President Obama recently withheld releasing photos that depicted abuse and torture of prisoners by American military personnel, bowing to the Lieberman-Cheney-Gates contention that the photos would bring harm to our troops. But he also has said that he and Congress can “keep us safe” by restoring and strengthening our commitment to the rule of law. Good advice—perhaps Congress might reassert its role as a proper representative body, reflecting real values and principles, not mere momentary enthusiasms.
Posted on: Sunday, May 24, 2009 - 21:00
SOURCE: Huffington Post (5-20-09)
Adolf Hitler was born 120 years ago on April 20, 1889. Is another Hitler possible? I was recently asked that question in connection with my research into the social catastrophe that swept Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. I started to think about Hitler's improbable rise from complete obscurity. A late bloomer, he gave no hint of political ambitions until he was into his thirties. The context was a country shaken to its foundations by the First World War, revolution, and a dictated peace. By 1923 Germany had experienced years of social upheaval capped by a massive inflation that wiped out the savings of solid citizens. To Hitler and his small following, the moment seemed right to take power, but their coup late that year was easily suppressed. The Weimar Republic then found a precarious normality. When Hitler was released from prison, he saw that the only hope of getting into power was via the ballot box. Yet despite tireless efforts, the Nazis mustered less than three percent of the vote in 1928, the last elections before the Great Depression hit. They were energetic, demonstrative and violent, but politically inconsequential and would have stayed that way had the stock market not crashed.
In Germany a succession of weak governments mishandled the recovery and made things worse. In the 1930 elections the Nazis shocked everyone when they became the second strongest party in the Reichstag. Two years later no less than 230 Nazi deputies won seats and almost 38 percent of the vote. Hitler was now Germany's dominant political personality, growing still stronger as the economy unraveled and banks failed. Unemployment soared to almost 40 percent on the eve of his appointment as Chancellor in January 1933. Electoral support for Communism also grew, and for good citizens that "Red threat" was almost as alarming as the jobless figures. Voters bet on Hitler to get their country out of the depression. The political elite thought he would be manageable and become more moderate, but soon Hitler carried out a "legal revolution," and roared out of control. If there had been no major crisis, Hitler would have remained an eccentric and politically marginal misfit. No depression, no Führer.
Is another such figure possible? We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the Nazi phenomenon could only have happened in Germany, and that, as we are not Germans, it could not befall us. The most significant factor underlying the spread of Hitler's brand of extremism was political gridlock, along with persistent and seemingly insoluble economic problems. In our own day, it could be that our economy, rather than bottoming out, is still, as in 1929, at the beginning of a greater downturn to come. Today people in government and business are struggling to understand how best to cope. Globalization and the evaporation of our manufacturing base make it arguably even more difficult to find solutions. If unemployment, real shortages, and desperation were to grow, then extremist movements almost certainly would form. This scenario is not far-fetched. Moreover, other crises from abroad could intrude. Our neighbor to the south (Mexico) is being pressured by the drug cartels, and that country's collapse into anarchy could have disastrous consequences for the United States. Social anxiety has broken into lawlessness in Europe and even in China. To the combustible mix we must add the real possibility of the failure of a nuclear state (Pakistan) under attack by the Taliban. I'll leave rogue states like Iran and North Korea out of this picture lest it be thought I am unduly negative. But we cannot overlook the threat posed by international terrorism.
Even as we try to cure what's wrong with our economy by pouring more of the present and future generations' wealth into overcoming it, we make ourselves vulnerable to the fallout from a terrorist attack such as took place on 9/11. The stimulus packages that are already straining our resources would then be found utterly inadequate. It is true that much has changed since the 1930s, so that the responses would necessarily be different but also unpredictable. Nonetheless, one could plausibly argue that new political figures would emerge. Authoritarian regimes or highly invasive systems that might arise in our future need not take the form of strongmen like Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. Instead we might face "softer" versions, such as in the form of creeping "statism" or a bureaucracy that encroaches ever more into our lives in the name of fixing capitalism, redistributing the wealth, and ironing out social conflict. It is important to read about how nations in the past dealt with severe social crises and reflect on what paths, in our present circumstances, we should take and avoid. Our duty as citizens today is to become more active and watchful. Our freedoms are precious and we must protect them as the heritage our forefathers passed on to us.
Posted on: Friday, May 22, 2009 - 14:24
SOURCE: Edge of the American West (blog) (5-21-09)
While the scolding and the tut-tutting goes viral — “California, such a shame those weird, flaky people can’t live within their means” — it’s time for some serious reflection about how the nation’s richest, most populous state got where it is. California, home to one in eight Americans, has a GDP bigger than Canada’s. And it’s in the middle of an on-going fiscal calamity which threatens to rip our legislature apart (again). This week, the governor went to the White House to beg for federal backing of state bonds, a move which threatens to make California’s predicament a national drama.
So, whatever the solutions to California’s problems, rest assured those problems are coming soon to a theater near you, because unlike any other place, the Golden State is where the future is now. In a sense, California is the un-Las Vegas. What happens here does not stay here, it goes global. The growth of independent political voters? Auto emission regulations? The tax revolt and modern conservatism? We saw them all first in LA and San Francisco. Watts erupted in flames before any other American ghetto in the 1960s. Harvey Milk led the charge for gay rights on our televisions first. The tech boom was here first. And so was the bust.
So what explains California’s budget crisis, and what can we learn from it? In truth, the reason California has been unable to balance its budget has little to do with being an outlier, and more to do with some small, structural peculiarities that simply don’t suit a modern American state. Our politicians are about as partisan as Americans in general (read “very”). Our state tax rate is marginally higher than most others (but it is not the highest), and the level of our spending on public education and other services is also somewhat higher. So what gives?
The root of our problem is our state constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority to raise taxes or pass a budget. In some ways, this is peculiar. No other state requires two-thirds majorities to perform those two vital functions (although Rhode Island and Arkansas both require 66% to raise taxes, their budgets pass on simple majority votes). In other words, to pass a budget every year in California requires the same level of amity and consensus other states require for a constitutional amendment.
Where did the supermajority originate? Although many blame Proposition 13 (passed in 1978), California’s constitution has in fact been this way for a very long time. The state first passed a constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds majorities to approve budgets back in 1933. The rule kicked in only when budgets increased by 5% or more over a previous year. But since most budgets did increase by at least that much (California was growing by leaps and bounds), it kicked in a lot.
Even then, budgets passed with little trouble. California Republicans fought to restrain expenditures, then voted to raise taxes to cover what the budget required. Democrats fought for public education (including the nation’s most extensive system of higher education). In the 1950s and ‘60s, California took on more debt than any state in history to fund massive public works, including highways, university campuses, and the state aqueduct system (which together did much to create the wonders of LA and San Diego as we know them).
All this spending was funded by taxes and bonds, which voters approved at the ballot box. This despite the fact that in 1962, voters and legislators united to “streamline” the budget process and require two-thirds majorities for ALL state budgets and tax increases. Still, Republicans and Democrats typically hammered out deals, with Republicans voting for taxes only after exacting concessions from Democrats.
So it went for another decade or so, when the rise of movement conservatism changed the terms of debate. Republicans never liked taxes, but they saw them as an unfortunate necessity. By the 1970s, conservatives increasingly sounded like the leader of California’s tax rebellion, Howard Jarvis, who condemned all taxes as “felony grand theft.”
Still, for many years, leading Republicans could contain their most conservative brethren and hammer out deals in the old-fashioned way. As late as 1991, a Republican governor (Pete Wilson) championed a tax increase and budget cuts to close a deficit. In 1994 he won re-election.
But already the tide was turning. As Wilson discovered during his abortive presidential campaign in 1995, the “No New Taxes Pledge” had become a litmus test which he had failed. This hostility to all taxes is now conservatism’s defining feature. It is also, historically speaking, quite new. More than anything else, this is what killed the consensus that drove California’s 66% majorities.
The proof is in the pudding. The state has had the same supermajority requirements for the last 47 years. But only for about the last two decades has the budget become a source of continual drama, with legislators deadlocking 18 years out of the last 22. There has been chronic division in the last ten. We are a long way from the consensus that built the Golden State.
But it’s worth observing that we’re not beyond consensus. Today, California’s state assembly is less than 40% Republican, a situation that is not likely to change much in favor of Republicans (for reasons I’ll discuss in a later post). They are stalwarts for tax cuts, but over 60% of the state’s voters have opted for higher taxes and more public services. In any other state, this wouldn’t even be an argument. But in California, it’s a crisis because of the supermajority amendment to the constitution. The state is not “dysfunctional.” It’s not “flaky.” But the constitution no longer suits political realities, and it seems bound for some kind of change. The Bay Area Council, a group of prominent San Francisco business leaders, has proposed a state constitutional convention to require only a simple majority for new budgets and taxes. Their idea appears to be gaining ground.
This all might seem a peculiar California story, but to any observant American it is a sign of the times, a symptom of the country’s divisions. The U.S. Congress has no supermajority requirement, but California’s travail is echoed in the Senate, where rules require 60 votes to end a filibuster. Democrats now control 59 seats, Republicans have 40. The empty seat is Minnesota’s, where Democrat Al Franken appears to have eked out a victory over Republican Norm Coleman in the 2008 election. That was six months ago. Since then, Republican operatives have poured money into legal appeals, tying up the business of the country, stalling health care reform, threatening a filibuster of the president’s Supreme Court nominee and many other big initiatives, to buy their flagging party some time. From the Pacific to Minnesota to the nation’s capital, California blazes a path into the future — like it or not.
Posted on: Thursday, May 21, 2009 - 22:04
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (5-21-09)
Yes, Stanley McChrystal is the general from the dark side (and proud of it). So the recent sacking of Afghan commander General David McKiernan after less than a year in the field and McChrystal's appointment as the man to run the Afghan War seems to signal that the Obama administration is going for broke. It's heading straight into what, in the Vietnam era, was known as"the big muddy."
General McChrystal comes from a world where killing by any means is the norm and a blanket of secrecy provides the necessary protection. For five years he commanded the Pentagon's super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which, among other things, ran what Seymour Hersh has described as an "executive assassination wing" out of Vice President Cheney's office. (Cheney just returned the favor by giving the newly appointed general a ringing endorsement:"I think you'd be hard put to find anyone better than Stan McChrystal.")
McChrystal gained a certain renown when President Bush outed him as the man responsible for tracking down and eliminating al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The secret force of "manhunters" he commanded had its own secret detention and interrogation center near Baghdad, Camp Nama, where bad things happened regularly, and the unit there, Task Force 6-26, had its own slogan:"If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it." Since some of the task force's men were, in the end, prosecuted, the bleeding evidently wasn't avoided.
In the Bush years, McChrystal was reputedly extremely close to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The super-secret force he commanded was, in fact, part of Rumsfeld's effort to seize control of, and Pentagonize, the covert, on-the-ground activities that were once the purview of the CIA.
Behind McChrystal lies a string of targeted executions that may run into the hundreds, as well as accusations of torture and abuse by troops under his command (and a role in the cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the death of Army Ranger and former National Football League player Pat Tillman). The general has reportedly long thought of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single battlefield, which means that he was a premature adherent to the idea of an Af-Pak -- that is, expanded -- war. While in Afghanistan in 2008, the New York Timesreported, he was a"key advocate... of a plan, ultimately approved by President George W. Bush, to use American commandos to strike at Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan." This end-of-term Bush program provoked such anger and blowback in Pakistan that it was reportedly halted after two cross-border raids, one of which killed civilians.
All of this offers more than a hint of the sort of"new thinking and new approaches" -- to use Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's words -- that the Obama administration expects General McChrystal to bring to the devolving Af-Pak battlefield. He is, in a sense, both a legacy figure from the worst days of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era and the first-born child of Obama-era Washington's growing desperation and hysteria over the wars it inherited.
And here's the good news: We luv the guy. Just luv him to death.
We loved him back in 2006, when Bush first outed him and Newsweek reporters Michael Hirsh and John Barry dubbed him"a rising star" in the Army and one of the"Jedi Knights who are fighting in what Cheney calls 'the shadows.'"
It's no different today in what's left of the mainstream news analysis business. In that mix of sports lingo, Hollywood-ese, and just plain hyperbole that makes armchair war strategizing just so darn much fun, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, for instance, claimed that Centcom commander General David Petraeus, who picked McChrystal as his man in Afghanistan, is"assembling an all-star team" and that McChrystal himself is"a rising superstar who, like Petraeus, has helped reinvent the U.S. Army." Is that all?
When it came to pure, instant hagiography, however, the prize went to Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, who wrote a front-pager, "A General Steps from the Shadows," that painted a picture of McChrystal as a mutant cross between Superman and a saint.
Among other things, it described the general as"an ascetic who... usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness. He is known for operating on a few hours' sleep and for running to and from work while listening to audio books on an iPod... [He has] an encyclopedic, even obsessive, knowledge about the lives of terrorists... [He is] a warrior-scholar, comfortable with diplomats, politicians..." and so on. The quotes Bumiller and Mazzetti dug up from others were no less spectacular:"He's got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.""If you asked me the first thing that comes to mind about General McChrystal... I think of no body fat."
From the gush of good cheer about his appointment, you might almost conclude that the general was not human at all, but an advanced android (a good one, of course!) and the"elite" world (of murder and abuse) he emerged from an unbearably sexy one.
Above all, as we're told here and elsewhere, what's so good about the new appointment is that General McChrystal is"more aggressive" than his stick-in-the-mud predecessor. He will, as Bumiller and Thom Shanker report in another piece, bring"a more aggressive and innovative approach to a worsening seven-year war." The general, we're assured, likes operations without body fat, but with plenty of punch. And though no one quite says this, given his closeness to Rumsfeld and possibly Cheney, both desperately eager to"take the gloves off" on a planetary scale, his mentality is undoubtedly a global-war-on-terror one, which translates into no respect for boundaries, restraints, or the sovereignty of others. After all, as journalist Gareth Porter pointed out recently in a thoughtful Asia Times portrait of the new Afghan War commander, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld granted the parent of JSOC, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM),"the authority to carry out actions unilaterally anywhere on the globe."
Think of McChrystal's appointment, then, as a decision in Washington to dispatch the bull directly to the China shop with the most meager of hopes that the results won't be smashed Afghans and Pakistanis. The Post's Ignatius even compares McChrystal's boss Petraeus and Obama's special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, to"two headstrong bulls in a small paddock." He then concludes his paean to all of them with this passage -- far more ominous than he means it to be:
"Obama knows the immense difficulty of trying to fix a broken Afghanistan and make it a functioning, modern country. But with his two bulls, Petraeus and Holbrooke, he's marching his presidency into the 'graveyard of empires' anyway."
McChrystal is evidently the third bull, the one slated to start knocking over the tombstones.
An Expanding Af-Pak War
Of course, there are now so many bulls in this particular China shop that smashing is increasingly the name of the game. At this point, the early moves of the Obama administration, when combined with the momentum of the situation it inherited, have resulted in the expansion of the Af-Pak War in at least six areas, which only presage further expansion in the months to come:
1. Expanding Troop Commitment: In February, President Obama ordered a"surge" of 17,000 extra troops into Afghanistan, increasing U.S. forces there by 50%. (Then-commander McKiernan had called for 30,000 new troops.) In March, another 4,000 American military advisors and trainers were promised. The first of the surge troops, reportedly ill-equipped, are already arriving. In March, it was announced that this troop surge would be accompanied by a " civilian surge" of diplomats, advisors, and the like; in April, it was reported that, because the requisite diplomats and advisors couldn't be found, the civilian surge would actually be made up largely of military personnel.
In preparation for this influx, there has been massive base and outpost building in the southern parts of that country, including the construction of 443-acre Camp Leatherneck in that region's"desert of death." When finished, it will support up to 8,000 U.S. troops, and a raft of helicopters and planes. Its airfield, which is under construction, has been described as the"largest such project in the world in a combat setting."
2. Expanding CIA Drone War: The CIA is running an escalating secret drone war in the skies over the Pakistani borderlands with Afghanistan, a"targeted" assassination program of the sort that McChrystal specialized in while in Iraq. Since last September, more than three dozen drone attacks -- the Los Angeles Times put the number at 55 -- have been launched, as opposed to 10 in 2006-2007. The program has reportedly taken out a number of mid-level al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but also caused significant civilian casualties, destabilized the Pashtun border areas of Pakistan, and fostered support for the Islamic guerrillas in those regions. As Noah Shachtman wrote recently at his Danger Room website:
"According to the American press, a pair of missiles from the unmanned aircraft killed 'at least 25 militants.' In the local media, the dead were simply described as '29 tribesmen present there.' That simple difference in description underlies a serious problem in the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. To Americans, the drones over Pakistan are terrorist-killers. In Pakistan, the robotic planes are wiping out neighbors."
David Kilcullen, a key advisor to Petraeus during the Iraq"surge" months, and counterinsurgency expert Andrew McDonald Exum recently called for a moratorium on these attacks on the New York Times op-ed page. ("Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent -- hardly 'precision.'") As it happens, however, the Obama administration is deeply committed to its drone war. As CIA Director Leon Panetta put the matter,"Very frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership."
3. Expanding Air Force Drone War: The U.S. Air Force now seems to be getting into the act as well. There are conflicting reports about just what it is trying to do, but it has evidently brought its own set of Predator and Reaper drones into play in Pakistani skies, in conjunction, it seems, with a somewhat reluctant Pakistani military. Though the outlines of this program are foggy at best, this nonetheless represents an expansion of the war.
4. Expanding Political Interference: Quite a different kind of escalation is also underway. Washington is evidently attempting to insert yet another figure from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era into the Afghan mix. Not so long ago, Zalmay Khalilzad, the neocon former American viceroy in Kabul and then Baghdad, was considering making a run for the Afghan presidency against Hamid Karzai, the leader the Obama administration is desperate to ditch. In March, reports -- hotly denied by Holbrooke and others -- broke in the British press of a U.S./British plan to"undermine President Karzai of Afghanistan by forcing him to install a powerful chief of staff to run the Government." Karzai, so the rumors went, would be reduced to"figurehead" status, while a" chief executive with prime ministerial-style powers" not provided for in the Afghan Constitution would essentially take over the running of the weak and corrupt government.
This week, Helene Cooper reported on the front page of the New York Times that Khalilzad would be that man. He" could assume a powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government under a plan he is discussing with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, according to senior American and Afghan officials." He would then be"the chief executive officer of Afghanistan."
Cooper's report is filled with official denials that these negotiations involve Washington in any way. Yet if they succeed, an American citizen, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. as well as to Kabul, would end up functionally atop the Karzai government just as the Obama administration is eagerly pursuing a stepped-up war against the Taliban.
Why officials in Washington imagine that Afghans might actually accept such a figure is the mystery of the moment. It's best to think of this plan as the kinder, gentler, soft-power version of the Kennedy administration's 1963 decision to sign off on the coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnamese autocrat Ngo Dinh Diem. Then, too, top Washington officials were distressed that a puppet who seemed to be losing support was, like Karzai, also acting in an increasingly independent manner when it came to playing his appointed role in an American drama. That assassination, by the way, only increased instability in South Vietnam, leading to a succession of weak military regimes and paving the way for a further unraveling there. This American expansion of the war would likely have similar consequences.
5. Expanding War in Pakistan: Meanwhile, in Pakistan itself, mayhem has ensued, again in significant part thanks to Washington, whose disastrous Afghan war and escalating drone attacks have helped to destabilize the Pashtun regions of the country. Now, the Pakistani military -- pushed and threatened by Washington (with the loss of military aid, among other things) -- has smashed full force into the districts of Buner and Swat, which had, in recent months, been largely taken over by the Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas we call"the Pakistani Taliban."
It's been a massive show of force by a military configured for smash-mouth war with India, not urban or village warfare with lightly armed guerrillas. The Pakistani military has loosed its jets, helicopter gunships, and artillery on the region (even as the CIA drone strikes continue), killing unknown numbers of civilians and, far more significantly, causing a massive exodus of the local population. In some areas, well more than half the population has fled Taliban depredations and indiscriminate fire from the military. Those that remain in besieged towns and cities, often without electricity, with the dead in the streets, and fast disappearing supplies of food, are clearly in trouble.
With nearly 1.5 million Pakistanis turned into refugees just since the latest offensive began, U.N. officials are suggesting that this could be the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Talk about the destabilization of a country.
In the long run, this may only increase the anger of Pashtuns in the tribal areas of Pakistan at both the Americans and the Pakistani military and government. The rise of Pashtun nationalism and a fight for an "Islamic Pashtunistan" would prove a dangerous development indeed. This latest offensive is what Washington thought it wanted, but undoubtedly the old saw,"Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true," applies. Already a panicky Washington is planning to rush $110 million in refugee assistance to the country.
6. Expanding Civilian Death Toll and Blowback: As Taliban attacks in Afghanistan rise and that loose guerrilla force (more like a coalition of various Islamist, tribal, warlord, and criminal groups) spreads into new areas, the American air war in Afghanistan continues to take a heavy toll on Afghan civilians, while manufacturing ever more enemies as well as deep resentment and protest in that country. The latest such incident, possibly the worst since the Taliban was defeated in 2001, involves the deaths of up to 147 Afghans in the Bala Baluk district of Farah Province, according to accounts that have come out of the villages attacked. Up to 95 of the dead were under 18, one Afghan lawmaker involved in investigating the incident claims, and up to 65 of them women or girls. These deaths came after Americans were called into an escalating fight between the Taliban and Afghan police and military units, and in turn, called in devastating air strikes by two U.S. jets and a B-1 bomber (which, villagers claim, hit them after the Taliban fighters had left).
Despite American pledges to own up to and apologize more quickly for civilian deaths, the post-carnage events followed a predictable stonewalling pattern, including a begrudging step-by-step retreat in the face of independent claims and reports. The Americans first denied that anything much had happened; then claimed that they had killed mainly Taliban"militants"; then that the Taliban had themselves used grenades to kill most of the civilians (a charge later partially withdrawn as"thinly sourced"); and finally, that the numbers of Afghan dead were "extremely over-exaggerated," and that the urge for payment from the Afghan government might be partially responsible.
An investigation, as always, was launched that never seems to end, while the Americans wait for the story to fade from view. As of this moment, while still awaiting the results of a"very exhaustive" investigation, American spokesmen nonetheless claim that only 20-30 civilians died along with up to 65 Taliban insurgents. In these years, however, the record tells us that, when weighing the stories offered by surviving villagers and those of American officials, believe the villagers. Put more bluntly, in such situations, we lie, they die.
Two things make this"incident" at Bala Baluk more striking. First of all, according to Jerome Starkey of the British Independent, another Rumsfeld creation, the U.S. Marines Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC), the Marines' version of JSOC, was centrally involved, as it had been in two other major civilian slaughters, one near Jalalabad in 2007 (committed by a MarSOC unit that dubbed itself"Taskforce Violence"), the second in 2008 at the village of Azizabad in Herat Province. McChrystal's appointment, reports Starkey, has"prompted speculation that [similar] commando counterinsurgency missions will increase in the battle to beat the Taliban."
Second, back in Washington, National Security Advisor James Jones and head of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, fretting about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and faced with President Karzai's repeated pleas to cease air attacks on Afghan villages, nonetheless refused to consider the possibility. Both, in fact, used the same image. As Jones told ABC's George Stephanopoulos:"Well, I think he understands that... we have to have the full complement of... our offensive military power when we need it... We can't fight with one hand tied behind our back..."
In a world in which the U.S. is the military equivalent of the multi-armed Hindu god Shiva, this is one of the truly strange, if long-lasting, American images. It was, for instance, used by President George H. W. Bush on the eve of the first Gulf War."No hands," he said,"are going to be tied behind backs. This is not a Vietnam."
Forgetting the levels of firepower loosed in Vietnam, the image itself is abidingly odd. After all, in everyday speech, the challenge"I could beat you with one hand tied behind my back" is a bravado offer of voluntary restraint and an implicit admission that fighting any other way would make one a bully. So hidden in the image, both when the elder Bush used it and today, is a most un-American acceptance of the United States as a bully nation, about to be restrained by no one, least of all itself.
Apologize or stonewall, one thing remains certain: the air war will continue and so civilians will continue to die. The idea that the U.S. might actually be better off with one"hand" tied behind its back is now so alien to us as to be beyond serious consideration.
The Pressure of an Expanding War
President Obama has opted for a down-and-dirty war strategy in search of some at least minimalist form of success. For this, McChrystal is the poster boy. Former Afghan commander General McKiernan believed that,"as a NATO commander, my mandate stops at the [Afghan] border. So unless there is a clear case of self-protection to fire across the border, we don't consider any operations across the border in the tribal areas."
That the"responsibilities" of U.S. generals fighting the Afghan War"ended at the border with Pakistan," Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt of the Timesreport, is now considered part of an"old mind-set." McChrystal represents those"fresh eyes" that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talked about in the press conference announcing the general's appointment. As Mazzetti and Schmitt point out,"Among [McChrystal's] last projects as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command was to better coordinate Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency efforts on both sides of the porous border."
For those old enough to remember, we've been here before. Administrations that start down a path of expansion in such a war find themselves strangely locked in -- psychically, if nothing else -- if things don't work out as expected and the situation continues to deteriorate. In Vietnam, the result was escalation without end. President Obama and his foreign policy team now seem locked into an expanding war. Despite the fact that the application of force has not only failed for years, but actually fed that expansion, they also seem to be locked into a policy of applying ever greater force, with the goal of, as the Post's Ignatius puts it, cracking the"Taliban coalition" and bringing elements of it to the bargaining table.
So keep an eye out for whatever goes wrong, as it most certainly will, and then for the pressures on Washington to respond with further expansions of what is already"Obama's war." With McChrystal in charge in Afghanistan, for instance, it seems reasonable to assume that the urge to sanction new special forces raids into Pakistan will grow. After all, frustration in Washington is already building, for however much the Pakistani military may be taking on the Taliban in Swat or Buner, don't expect its military or civilian leaders to be terribly interested in what happens near the Afghan border.
As Tony Karon of the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog puts the matter:"The current military campaign is designed to enforce a limit on the Taliban's reach within Pakistan, confining it to the movement's heartland." And that heartland is the Afghan border region. For one thing, the Pakistani military (and the country's intelligence services, which essentially brought the Taliban into being long ago) are focused on India. They want a Pashtun ally across the border, Taliban or otherwise, where they fear the Indians are making inroads.
So the frustration of a war in which the enemy has no borders and we do is bound to rise along with the fighting, long predicted to intensify this year. We now have a more aggressive"team" in place. Soon enough, if the fighting in the Afghan south and along the Pakistani border doesn't go as planned, pressure for the president to send in those other 10,000 troops General McKiernan asked for may rise as well, as could pressure to apply more air power, more drone power, more of almost anything. And yet, as former CIA station chief in Kabul, Graham Fuller, wrote recently, in the region" crises have only grown worse under the U.S. military footprint."
And what if, as the war continues its slow arc of expansion, the"Washington coalition" is the one that cracks first? What then?
Posted on: Thursday, May 21, 2009 - 20:21