american history

The book of laughter and forgetting


At 7:31, I looked up and said, “It’s 7:31” at the same time Lila ran in from the kitchen, shouting, “It’s 7:31.” Heather popped her head out of the bedroom: “7:31, everybody.” It was 7:31.

Call me shallow but I really enjoyed this. Christina’s impressions of Britney and Cher were spot-on. Jimmy Fallons’s Bowie wasn’t bad either. And the Roots are the Roots. I would totally watch a weekly series in which celeb singers mimic one another. I watch the Voice with the family most Mondays, and have to admit to enjoying the bickering among the judges more than the performances of the contestants. It brings up warm memories of watching the Match Game with my mom on a little black and white tv.

I was writing yesterday about how the basic assumption of a U.S. official in a press conference is that there is no history. So, for example, any suggestion that the U.S. is involved, directly or indirectly, in trying to overthrow the Maduro government in Venezuela is outrageous on its face. The ability of reporters or the general public to search for Venezuela Coup 2002 — well, let’s pretend that’s impossible.

Another egregious example of this History Starts Now, or At Least When I Say was John Kerry yesterday baldly stating, without an iota of self-awareness, that Bibi Netanyahu can’t be trusted because of his support for the 2002 invasion of Iraq.

“The prime minister was profoundly forward-leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq under George W. Bush,” Kerry replied. “We all know what happened with that decision.”

It was a peculiar decision on the part of TPM writer Catherine Thompson not to mention a fairly obvious bit of context:

Of course, Kerry voted for the war in Iraq in 2002 and said he was for the invasion during his presidential campaign against George W. Bush in 2004.

I’m beginning to think the war on AP History in Kansas is not an idea from the fringe. This hatred of history is simply a core part of what makes American thought American.

Shame, Come Back!

Really good article by Neal Gabler in Politico today. In How conservatives lost their moral compass, America’s Republicans, Gabler writes, have decided that shame is some sort of liberal plot designed to hobble tough, robust Conservatism. Hence, Perry’s unseemly boast about his record-setting execution numbers. And Paul’s (theoretical) condemning of an uninsured 30-year-old man to death if he can’t pay for medical care.

As Gabler notes, the crowds at the debates cheer for this sort of nastiness.

An excerpt:

American history can be read as a series of episodes in which we reached what could be called a “tipping point” of shame — when our behavior became so egregious that we, as a people, decided to desist from our worst excesses, whether it was slavery or antipathy to immigrants.

Take civil rights. The majority of Americans, even outside the South, might originally have had little real enthusiasm for the civil rights movement. Most urged patience. It was only after the public saw the beatings during the Freedom Rides, the firehoses and police dogs at Selma and the church bombing in Birmingham that Americans were shamed into accepting the claims of African-Americans to equal justice under the law. Shame was the moralizing force.

Shame also defeated the hatred of Father Charles Coughlin, the famous “radio priest” who laid the Great Depression at the feet of Jewish international bankers, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who recklessly accused his critics of communist treachery. Both had reached that tipping point at which ordinary Americans felt these provocateurs had gone too far. Americans felt shamed.

There is a reason we have never previously had a hatemonger like Rush Limbaugh enjoy popularity for as long as he has. The reason was shame. You couldn’t find enough people, let alone a broadcaster, who wanted to be identified with that sort of viciousness. The initial enthusiasm for it eventually waned.

But that was then. Surely when a group can publicly cheer a man’s death for not having health insurance, the sense of shame is gone. It faded not only because liberals had subverted it by casting it as a conservative scheme to corset society, but because conservatives managed to delegitimize it. They attacked it as yet another elitist scheme, contrived to neuter strong conservatism.

Great stuff. I highly recommend reading it. I would only add that Gabler could be a little more inclusive.

I would stop short of saying this shamelessness is shared equally by liberals, but you’re not paying attention if you don’t see it across the political spectrum. Consider how giggly  the Secretary of State became when she sat down with Diane Sawyer to have a Just-Us-Girls chat about the death of Gaddafi (“We Came We Saw He Died”), or Obama’s joking about using predator drones to assassinate the Jonas Brothers. Ha-ha. You thought he was joking? Nope. Sixteen-year-old boys in foreign lands are legitimate targets these days. Or maybe not. Maybe Awlaki’s son, vaporized as he sat down to eat with some friends, was “collateral damage.” Obama won’t say,  because he doesn’t have to ask permission, and he doesn’t have to explain.

I wrote in an earlier post about the giddiness I notice when politicians like Madame Clinton play at being tough guys. In the last week, Ice T said she should be the next president and brought the tough-guy schtick to an entirely new level:

She did the Secretary of State job, she was a G, she held it down, she didn’t cry.

Set aside for a moment the patronizing “she didn’t cry.” This is a shout-out from Ice-T! Hillary Clinton an honorary “G”! I’m pretty sure that HuffPost piece has been printed out and taped up somewhere conspicuous at the Secretary’s office. Did it gave Hillary and her staffers another case of the giggles and high-fives all-around? I have a feeling it did.

True, the Democrats do not seem to revel in cold-heartedness (theirs is still a little school-marmish, “it’s for your own good” affect–see Albright, M.),  but let’s look at the bipartisan coldness that is at large in the land.

Start by taking a look at Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece on our sprawling, and growing, prison complex, and the ugly fact that, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.”

Is that only the product of Republican mean-spiritedness? I think not. Is it possible for a situation like the one described by Gopnik to exist without broad support from politicians of all stripes?

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

As Gopnik notes, the fact that we’re sticking millions of our citizens down a hole for decades at a time is just the beginning. Absurd numbers of prisoners are singled out for solitary confinement. The very existence of even one “Supermax” prison is pretty much enough to indict our culture as broadly vindictive, even sadistic. There are dozens of  prisons with Supermax wings, and I would venture to bet they are in districts represented by politicians of both parties.

And, if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, not only will you be locked up, you will be pretty much on your own vis a vis preventing yourself from being raped. This should be the subject of much outrage, right? Uh, no. Gopnik again.

Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing.

Again, I’m not rejecting Gabler’s point. There’s no question: the state of “conservative” discourse has changed into something that is unspeakably ugly to behold. The past months of virtually non-stop debates have put this fact on dramatic display (while at the same time setting the range of topics for whichever candidate emerges from this clown/monster show to debate Obama).

There are of course significant differences between the parties, but a similar agenda gets enacted no matter who wins. Bold prediction: It will be More War, More Austerity and More Prisons for the foreseeable future. Three things few voters are clamoring for. And you’ll have a hard time finding a politician of either party willing to apologize for (let alone be ashamed of) that state of affairs.

“Self-serving mendacities” and the American Century

Andrew J. Bacevich’s The Short American Century: A Postmortem is excerpted in this month’s Harper’s (subscription required, alas).

Bacevich is a West Point alum, retired colonel, self-described Catholic conservative, professor of international relations at Boston University, and the father of Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., a soldier who was killed in Iraq in 2007, aged 27. He cannot be touched by the typical slanders cast  against antiwar voices.  Like Smedley Butler and James Carroll, he offers an insider’s  critique of militarism and American exceptionalism (which of course go together rather well). He also writes astonishingly well.

As such, he’s the perfect puncturer of the myths surrounding what has come to be known as The American Century, a concept still current in some circles, like, for example, whoever wrote this.  (Bacevich reminds us that candidate Obama was wont to  invoke the American Century on the campaign trail).

The phrase “the American Century” is credited to Henry Luce, who, as Bacevich points out, slipped the eponymous February 1941 Life magazine essay between “a feature on women’s fashion … and a profile of Betty Carstairs, oil heiress, adventuress, and speedboat racer.”

I want to share a big chunk of this, without (I hope) violating the spirit of the Harper’s business model.  Here, in a couple hundred words, Bacevich puts the Good War/Greatest Generation claptrap to rest in a rather authoritative manner.

Framed as chapters in a longer narrative of liberation, these two events [WWII and the Cold War] invest the ambitions inherent in the vision of an American Century with a modicum of plausibility. Yet sustaining that narrative requires the careful selection and arrangement of facts, with inconvenient or uncomfortable truths excluded, suppressed, or simply ignored.

With regard to World War II, the many facts that don’t fit include the following: in the destruction of Nazi Germany, U.S. forces played at best a supporting role, with Stalin’s Red Army—the vanguard of a totalitarian police state—doing most of the fighting, killing, and dying;  as a result, the price of liberating Western Europe included delivering Eastern Europe to Stalin and his henchmen. Meanwhile, in its aerial bombing campaign against German and Japanese cities, the United States engaged in the conscious, intentional, wholesale slaughter of noncombatants. In the aftermath of the European war, the Allies collaborated in enforcing a massive involuntary transfer of populations—that is, a policy of ethnic cleansing. When they found it expedient to do so, U.S. officials allowed Nazi war criminals—rocket scientists and intelligence officials, for example—to escape prosecution and to enter the service of the United States. Then there is this: at no time prior to or during the war did the United States make any substantive effort to prevent or even disrupt the Nazi persecution of Jews that culminated in the “final solution.” In Washington the fate of European Jewry never figured as more than an afterthought. As much or more than the promotion of American ideals—that “sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, [and] our Constitution” that Luce dearly hoped to see—these decisions, along with the priorities they reflect, laid the basis for the interval of American primacy that followed.

He then goes on to warn that the “self-serving mendacities” underpinning the American Century are not just wrong, but also dangerous:

The way that Americans choose to remember World War II and the Cold War—evil overthrown thanks chiefly to the United States—invests the American Century with reassuring moral clarity. Fixing December 7, 1941, as the start date of the struggle for Pacific dominion, for example, saddles the Japanese aggressor with responsibility for all that followed. The high-handedness of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in coercing Japan to open itself to the outside world, nearly a century earlier;  systematic American discrimination against Japanese immigrants, codified in insulting state and local laws;  Washington’s refusal to acknowledge a Japanese sphere of influence in East Asia,  while asserting American primacy throughout the Western Hemisphere; and, more immediately, the impact of U.S.-imposed sanctions intended to strangle Japan economically:  for most Americans, Pearl Harbor renders all these irrelevant.

Self-serving mendacities—that the attacks of September 11, 2001, reprising those of December7, 1941,  “came out of nowhere” to strike an innocent nation—don’t enhance the safety and well being of the American people.  To further indulge old illusions of the United States presiding over and directing the course of history will not only impede the ability of Americans to understand the world and themselves but may well pose a positive danger to both. No one opens an old issue of Life today in the expectation of unearthing truths with contemporary relevance. They do so to satisfy their taste for nostalgia, resurrecting memories, real or imagined, of an America that was good and getting better, a land and people overflowing with promise. Something of the same can be said of Luce’s other great creation: his vision of an American Century likewise survives as an artifact, encapsulating an era about which some (although by no means all) Americans might wax nostalgic—a time, real or imagined, of common purpose, common values, and shared sacrifice. Only by jettisoning the American Century and the illusions to which it gives rise will the self-knowledge and self-understanding that Americans urgently require become a possibility. Whether Americans will grasp the opportunity that beckons is another matter.

The book containing this essay is scheduled for publication in March.

Also, here is the most recent video clip I could find featuring Bacevich, from September, on RT, a network that, in spite of occasionally erratic production values, provocative but clumsy captions (“is it time for the US to send the sacred military cow out to pasture?”), and borderline inappropriate fashion sense of their interviewers (who are nevertheless very sharp), is still one of the best places to hear people like Bacevich talk at length. This is a terrific interview.

The Chieftains and Ry Cooder make an album about los san patricios

The Chieftains, in collaboration with Ry Cooder, Los Tigres del Norte, Linda Ronstadt and Van Dyke Parks, will release San Patricio on March 9. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the San Patricios (as I was), they were “a downtrodden group of Irish immigrant conscripts who deserted the U.S. Army in 1846 to fight on the Mexican side against the invading Yankees in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).”

Below is Part One of a six-part documentary on the subject by Mark R. Day.

Also, from what I can gather, Howard Zinn discusses los san patricios in The Stories Hollywood Never Tells audio book.

Thanks to Chris Floyd, who has a great site and who pointed this out….

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