War Crimes, Lady Liberty, and Values Voters
2005 (re-edited August 2013)
When the muse of history looks back on the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, her countenance frozen in shock and awe at the sheer audacity of the lies, the tragicomic credulity of the American public and the utter absence of reason in any of it, she will write of the moment an American GI refused to drive a Hummer without armor as the beginning of the end of this sordid affair.
Ma History will note the courage another soldier displayed in choosing conscientious objection over a second tour of duty in Iraq. And then she will weep for the 100,000 bombed into oblivion because of an illegal, immoral and criminally stupid invasion of the land of Eden. She will not write of the 3,000 murdered in New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia some three years ago. Why? Because that act of monstrous evil had nothing at all to do with this carnage, and has its own, separate volume.
It’s also true enough what they say: power yields not to facts, nor reason, nor right, nor the public good. And while it remains to be seen whether ‘W’ will have to pay the piper for stuffing the square peg that is Saddam Hussein into the round hole that is the so-called ‘war on terror,’ for now might makes right.
But we will all pay for this one.
This is a morose habit of mine–watching the spectacle unfold with unbridled disgust and fury. The response I often receive is the cooing of the pendulum theory of history. You know, history repeats itself, endlessly swinging to and fro, in comforting, concentric circles. Somehow, I am supposed to take comfort in the idea that soon the pendulum will swing back.
Everything balances out.
But even if one were to accept this notion of plus ca change, it deliberately misrepresents the idea that while the pendulum does swing two and fro, it’s fulcrum may move to the right or to the left, leaving the path of the pendulum swinging over different terrain. Besides, the pendulum notion suggests another classical allusion that has also long since been shorn of any meaning through over- and mis-use: that of Lady Liberty holding the scales of justice, keeping in balance the counterweights of American jurisprudence: presumption of innocence, weighing of evidence, the dispensing of justice, and, of course, vengeance.
But I don’t take comfort in the pendulum swinging back because I no longer recognize the terrain over which the pendulum of history swings. That landscape has become increasingly barren and bereft of hope such that the part of history endlessly repeating itself seems to be the murderous and cruel part.
Lady liberty remains blind, but that just means she is unaware her scale is corrupted. She is now incapable of weighing in a fair manner the souls in the balance; her gaze is now permanently fixed on tabulating and re-tabulating the 3,000 or so Americans murdered on September 11, 2001. She considers the 100,000 (or so) dead in Iraq, –a result of the most egregious war crime one can commit, that of one sovereign nation invading another without just cause–to weigh less than those 3,000 lives lost in spectacular, jumbo jet-cum-missile fashion. If she was actually weighing anything of any consequence to humanity, if whatever she has been doing with those scales had anything at all to do with justice, the President of the United States would be tried as a war criminal. That’s the hard truth of the matter.
Some lives, then, are worth more than other lives. That principle is alive and well in American jurisprudence. You can see it at Abu Ghraib in the now infamous photo of the Iraqi prisoner standing on a crate, his arms out crucifixion style, hooked by wires at the fingertips to an electrical shock machine, his head covered by the capuche, or hood, so popular throughout Latin America for the past four decades. All this is instantly recognizable the world over as the dress code and pantomime of Imperial torturers.
The reverse is true as well: the United States policy of not allowing photographs of dead American soldiers, in or out of coffins, is to deny that American soldiers die at all, their lives so precious that we cannot even be allowed to see their lifeless bodies. So you can show an Iraqi being urinated on, hooked up to a torture machine, but you won’t show an American soldier in his coffin.
What do you glean from this?
This principle, that American lives are worth more than others, that we are an exceptional country, is a principle absolutely anathema to a functioning democracy. It is toxic to core values of justice and equality and it follows from a relativistic notion of ethics in the world: you know, we can do whatever the hell we want because they suck worse than we do.
America, love it or leave it.
But you can accept this from a realist (relativistic) manner; or you can continue drinking the Koolaid–actually believing in the content of the fabrication. Either way, we have become incapable of recognizing the unique humanity of other peoples.
I am not undergoing that classic American epiphany; the one where the man of conscience wakes up in the middle of the night with the terrible recognition that their government tells lies. I am no apostate from the American Dream; I never believed in it to begin with. I am a heretic. So I don’t experience that disorienting sensation of a fall from grace.
What gets me, what seems new this time around, is the utter oblivion that one is consigned to when you point out these seemingly irrefutable, common sense truths. That seems to be novel. That’s my epiphany. I mean, I never felt entirely in the wilderness in the 1980s and 1990s. But now? Trees are falling in the woods, I hear them, I even see them falling; but seemingly no-one else does. They didn’t fall, I guess. What’s left of the left is as irrelevant as it has ever been in the history of this nation. I know, there is Michael Moore with his jocular and populist anti-corporatism. But really, he is going to lead us in storming the Winter Palace? Will he provide the rope to the plutocrats with which they can hang themselves?
I don’t think so.
The pendulum pushers are those people who believe that when things get worse it just means they are about to get better. Meh. I’ve always thought this position, so popular among American progressives, reflects as much analytical subtlety and wisdom as the rallying cry of those German Communists who, just prior to Hitler being named Chancellor, took to the streets shouting “After Hitler, Our Turn!”
We know where they ended up.
Democrats may yet find a way back to power, but I am reminded of a mirthful query I occasionally toss up to my meat-eating compatriots: If, after decades of interbreeding and biological engineering the gene pool of the modern chicken is so fucked up that the fight or flight instinct has been bred out of the animal and it greets foxes with a merriment previously reserved for roosters; if, after so many generations of existence in a tiny cage it can no longer fly; if, after so many lives lived in complete darkness it can no longer see; and, if the thing increasingly eats its own young, then tell me, is that thing you eat, that thing you call a chicken, really a chicken? Or is it something else, something that requires a new name?
The battle cry for Democrats to ‘reconnect’ with values voters sounds like the feeble cackle of the modern ‘chicken’ embracing its natural predator.
A mobilized and active population will characterize the early phase of all fascist movements. Authoritarian regimes, Caudillo-style plutocracies, European monarchies and other dictatorships of all stripes do not, as a general rule, like excitable, mobilized populations. They may fight a war—as did Argentina against Britain, Iran against Iraq, etc., but these ventures are a sign of weakness, and it seems to me such activities usually involve the undoing of such regimes. One has to consider how much worse racist attacks could have been in the United States post-September 11 with a mobilized population, rather than a nation of ‘reality television’-watching, McDonald’s eating, Hummer-driving, xenophobes.
I guess I should be thankful.
The current trend towards an electorate evenly divided and deeply polarized could very well portend the early stages of just such a population ‘waking up.’ Fascism, in its fetal stage, is dynamic and requires an active, autonomous, mobilized segment of society. It must have an alchemical, volatile mixture of ideas and activity on which to feed. The Republicans do not yet have a grip on such ideas, trapped as they are with the mutually exclusive goals of maintaining, extending and deepening their institutional power but also mobilizing a constituency that is increasingly hostile to such a project–their elitist leadership vs their base.
Ironically, it is within pluralist democracies that one will find the most fertile ground for the development of a full-blown fascist movement. This resolves the seeming conundrum of why Weimar Germany, the polestar of western, democratic societies of its time, would descend into fascist barbarism. The liberalism of the Republic provided the necessary, if not sufficient, groundwork for the incubation of the Nazi movement.
One could argue that there would be no need for fascism in America—liberal economic policies and an individualist moralism at home and abroad provide a modicum of stability; the siphoning off of profits from the third world channeled into stabilizing the social contract at home. While this may be true, it misses the point. It’s not whether America ‘needs’ fascism or not. The question is under what conditions does it becomes possible, plausible, likely or even inevitable?
How about under the current conditions within which we live? I think it is about time that progressives began to seriously ask the question: what is coming down the pike? If you think that we already live with a fascist government, then you and I have nothing to say to one another–because it isn’t. Assuming then, that whatever is coming is taking shape as I type, and it probably won’t be good, we should discuss how to stop it.
One could argue that the time to snuff out an incipient fascist movement is right then, in its infancy, right now. However, even this is probably too late. The better allegory is that of an abortion because in all likelihood fascism only becomes possible, its infant stage only realizable, after opposition movements have already been defeated. In other words, it wouldn’t be conceived at all if opposition had been strong enough to begin with. It’s necessary to turn the old (disastrous and wrong) leftist diagnosis of fascism on its head. Instead of fascism born as a reaction to the threat of progressive victory (the most common variant of this argument is that a segment of the ruling class will turn to fascists to protect itself against the threat of the left or, in its most infantile formulation, fascist movements are considered to be headless aggregates of disgruntled criminals fighting and dying for their capitalist masters, the latter secretly pulling the strings to achieve higher rates of profit) fascism is born in the ashes of the failed revolutions of the left.
In America, was the birth of fascism in the early 1970s when the civil rights movement and all the other progressive movements formed around it, lost? I know that’s counterintuitive, because most people, even progressives, are accustomed to speaking of the triumph of the civil rights movement. But I disagree. What, really has changed in Black America? When you break that down it all looks like the failure that it really is–most specifically for Black people, but also for most everyone else. No, the specter of American fascism feeds, and grows stronger, on the desiccated corpse of a union movement that today represents all of 13% of non-public workers. It grows stronger because the most promising civil rights and liberation leaders were assassinated in the 60s and 70s, the remainder of the movement jailed and beaten, commodified and gentrified into leisure rebellion and pseudo integration, into a retreat deep within the urban enclaves of crushing poverty, social Darwinist triage care, de facto disenfranchisement and a reactionary right wing business class.
The vultures of fascism are getting fat on the carrion. If anyone had bothered to hazard a passing glance at the mad copulating going on over the past 30 years between Christian conservatives, free market parasites, militia types and national security state operatives–a perverted union, the kind that can produce a fascist baby–if someone had seen this act of brutal, loveless fucking for what it was, then perhaps the parents could have been dispensed with. But alas, I fear we already have the prodigal son running around among us. And now he may be too strong to kill. Perhaps it’s time to run to the hills. I’ve heard Canada has mountains.
Fascism feeds on feeling states. It is always tribal and will concoct an imaginary heroic history from which to project an hallucinatory moving picture of the future. Fascism is the quintessential celluloid creation. This is why arguably the two most influential films in the history of cinema are both (proto)fascist films: Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. Fascism in its movement stage seeks to supply an answer for that deep, collective yearning we all feel (some of us more than others) for community. In this age of digital anomie and multiple identities fascism supplies an answer to the question, ‘who am I?’ Fascism offers itself as profoundly solid and compact in contrast to rapid and inexplicable economic and cultural change (globalization, etc.) and demands that people be willing to fight for an alternative vision of the future. In fact, the very act of fighting is how the collective identity of a fascist movement is forged.
The esprit de corps of fascism is forged in the flames of war.
With the ‘War on Terror’ this country is now permanently at war. And now we have a demographic—the values voters—that wants a new beginning. These largely white voters constitute a self-aware group of people who want to be ‘born-again’ in the dung heap of its national mythology; a group of people whose own religious experience dovetails in a remarkable manner with that of classic fascist activists; a population that is ready to fight against the elites who have betrayed them (wait for this crop of ‘War on Terror’ veterans to come back home from Iraq, as my friend remarked, “they’ve already begun killing their wives”) and against the subversives (insert long list here) who assail the morality of their mission, subvert their manhood and impugn their honor.
The mark of an American fascist movement will be its ability to alchemically represent the battleground where racism and religion intersect. Pat Buchanan’s key supporters offer us a fabulous taxonomical specimen of this phenomenon (if only it were dead, stuffed and mounted on a wall by a political taxidermist). These voters, who make up the hard, fascist nut of the ‘values voters,’ but who are not synonymous with them, are ideologically defined. Don’t bother with the demographic profiling. It will tell you less than nothing–you will be misled.
Call them Middle American Radicals or ‘MARs’. What’s critical to the MARs is not their education, income level or propensity to watch Fox News. What is central to the concept of a MARs constituency is their worldview: the notion that post Civil Rights era white Americans are a dispossessed majority forced to contend for political power as a new white minority competing with other ethnic and religious groups within an increasingly balkanized set of American identities. And they are trapped between opposing groups: exploited from above by a deracinated, cosmopolitan, urban elite associated with the ‘blue states’ of the democratic west and east coasts and politicians such as John Kerry, they also consider themselves squeezed from below by poor people, minorities and especially immigrants of color. Anti-immigrant organizing is now their central issue. Corporate elites, by supporting programs such as outsourcing and immigration, conspire with the poor to undermine America’s unique place among nations: as that of God’s chosen vessel wherein all riches are divided among the chosen; or, in the secular, colloquial MARs version, the greatest ass-kickin’ country ever, dude!
Why did Kerry lose? Malaise. His ideas merely reflected Republican hegemony, rather than an alternative. Democrats were mobilized pretty narrowly to defeat Bush, rather than for anything. It’s as though the War in Iraq has somehow made the left within the democratic party irrelevant again, rather than insurgent force.
Where’s my peace dividend?
Where’s my peace movement?
“Oh no, we can’t win with those issues,” I am told. Much better to continue endlessly triangulating towards the goal of political power, sacrificing people and ideals along the way. As the sailboat shifts to and fro, tacking from left to right, plotting the most inefficient, confused and confusing course, everyone becomes too sick to guide the boat anywhere, and, most importantly, everyone on board fails to keep their eyes on the prize.
Perhaps you disagree?
Perhaps you really think that John Kerry’s duck hunting so as not to be pigeonholed as a girly-man was effective, but wasn’t taken far enough? Perhaps you think his manly threat to “hunt down, capture and kill the terrorists”, amounted to something other than a murderous mantra? Perhaps you think such xenophobic frothing at the mouth somehow subverted the deadly logic of Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. Perhaps you think Kerry’s “Reporting for Duty!” al la Gomer Pyle routine moved anyone but the hapless veterans busy trying to shore up his sinking swift boat routine. Maybe you flushed with pride when John Kerry adopted the schizophrenic position that [paraphrasing] “had he known then what he knows now he still would have voted for the war.” Maybe you believe all that, and you think Kerry lost the election because he failed to appeal to the faith-based constituency (I just made up that term, because I’m sure someone is going to use it as a weighty synonym for ‘values voter’). Maybe you think he lost because Johnny NASCAR and his big-hair Security Wife and linebacker kids didn’t feel safe enough with Kerry?
Kerry lost because although people hated Bush in droves, Kerry failed to energize core Democrats, which would have required doing something other than betraying them, yet again. Kerry betrayed them when he took the nomination for president from the Democratic Party, simultaneously running away from Howard Dean’s mobilized anti-war constituency. Just as the Republicans were getting geared up to kick gays and lesbians off the steps of city hall in eleven states, the democrats demobilized around the War in Iraq. Go ahead. Tell me I’m wrong. But that seems to be the order of events.
To win, Kerry would have had to be for something. What he was for was not really clear, as various pundits have correctly argued. The election was his to win. The war was going badly, the economy sucked and all historical indicators favored a Democratic win. And while I think Kerry is a putz, I didn’t take him to the wall for being out of touch with values voters. Various pundits, including a gaggle cloistered around the Democratic Leadership Council argued for him to chase the proverbial, independent ‘undecided’ vote. Just weeks away from election day the Gallup Polling organization identified this august constituency as having become, for the first time in American election history, statistically immeasurable.
Nice going guys. Help the candidate tailor a message to a phantom voter that some wanker pollster identified in a focus group. Then off they go, looking for the phantom voter rumored to exist in habitat somewhere adjacent the yellow lines of some small town highway, right in the middle of the road then…Bam! Kerry gets run over by a confederate flag waving, white evangelical, in a NASCAR vehicle who never intended to vote for him anyhow. And the guy was dragging an authentic African-American values voter behind him–someone Kerry should have been courting. How long will the democrats be able to take for granted their base before the GOP or some other party cannibalizes the remains? Perhaps it’s already too late. Perhaps the feast has already begun.
By the way, the GOP didn’t have to suppress the African-American vote. The Democrats did that for them. The Democrats don’t just take for granted African Americans, they aggressively undermined their influence. Up until Barack Obama, there wasn’t a single Black Senator in the Senate. Forty-eight Democratic Senators and not one is black? That’s a stunning statistic. A real humdinger. I mean, the democrats were in danger of having the Republicans get a black senator before they did?
White people seem to be able to invent excuses not to vote for black people. My favorite anecdotal example was the white, normally Democrat-voting, gay guy—openly gay guy—who insisted on voting for the multi-millionaire Republican heiress, a first time congressional candidate with no public service experience whatsoever, as opposed to the eminently qualified and cool candidate, the black guy. That white gay guy supported the heiress right up to—and past—the point where the woman sent him a pre-recorded phone message accusing the black guy of supporting the homosexual agenda. Ugh. Oh, no that couldn’t possibly be about race…This explains why white people, as a matter of routine, vote against their own interests. Because they would rather be relatively poor among their ‘tribe’ than rich among the undeserving. One prejudice can undermine, or in this case, reinforce, another.
Only a few weeks before the presidential election I went to see Jesse Jackson preach some truth to power at a large African-American church in Kansas City, Missouri. A huge choir rocked the house with gospel singing, much crooning and crying, blues-based rock and roll, soul and R&B. There were 700 people there; ten of them white people. And me. There was no article in the local daily, the Kansas City Star, before or after the event. Not even a peep from the alternative weekly. White candidates like Kerry go to Black churches, at election time, but not white people. When Jerry Falwell dragged his meat sack to some mega-church in a Kansas suburb, the newspapers couldn’t give the huckster enough ink. Fifty people showed up.
That’s a heartland without a heart.
Sometimes I wonder about those clichés we like to use as metaphors on the road to ruin: Was the 2000 election, stolen by the Republicans with the complicity of the democrats themselves the canary in the coal mine? Was it the signal that democracy is dead, an elaborate game of three card monty, the rank vestiges of a revolution defeated 30 years ago? Are we the frog in the skillet, with the heat on low? Is there a scorpion on our back, and as we cross the river on our way out of Egypt? When it stings us, will we ask why? Will it respond that our deal was to get out of Egypt, but that no deal was cut about getting to the Promised Land?
I believe the time is past for dispassionate analyses of ‘the fascist aesthetic’ drawn, as blood from a dying patient, from sociological data present in the behavior of pedestrians at intersections or fashion models on cat walks. I think the time for post-modern identity politics that descend into lurid digressions on alienated otherness, is over. Or should be over.
Stick a fork in it, already.
To those who lost it all in the 1960s: You lost. Get over it, and try again. You didn’t lose because you were too radical; you lost because, well, revolutions always lose. What’s important is that you move the pendulum–the whole thing–off its fulcrum. Two rather fanciful theorists of social movements–Daniel Foss and Ralph Larkin–once called this inevitable period of post revolutionary malaise the re-imposition of social reality with an accompanying state of quiescence.
Get up, dust yourself off, and do it again. Perhaps, this time, with a little more panache. Or at least get out of the way. What is important is that somehow we not allow the passivity and fuzzy logic endemic to the institutionalized Democratic Party chain all of our passions; all of the truths as we know them.
I want a prophet, someone to lead, not follow the shiny bauble of American myth-making. I want some new, American insurgents to give me hope.
Where are you?