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The conclusion of Paul Street’s essay is important in naming the situation the US currently inhabits.  “You cannot maintain democracy at home while conducting an authoritarian empire abroad” is the idea that lies at the bottom of the problems plaguing the United States.  The notion that there are people, by default, undeserving of the same rights you grant to your citizenry, who don’t deserve the access to the rights/responsibilities (liberty, equalty, happiness) is eroding those very same ideals within the United States itself.

 

What Goes Around: “Trampling on the Helpless Abroad” Comes Home

     A final matter concerns the problem of imperial chickens coming home to roost. Liberals don’t like to hear it, but the ugly, richly documented historical fact of the matter is that their party of binary and tribal choice has long joined Republicans in backing and indeed crafting a U.S. foreign policy that has imposed authoritarian regimes (and profoundly undemocratic interventions including invasions and occupations) the world over. The roster of authoritarian and often-mass murderous governments the U.S. military and CIA and allied transnational business interests have backed, sometimes even helped create, with richly bipartisan support, is long indeed.

     Last fall, Illinois Green Party leader Mike Whitney ran some fascinating numbers on the 49 nation-states that the right-wing “human rights” organization Freedom House identified as “dictatorships” in 2016. Leaving aside Freedom House’s problematic inclusion of Russia, Cuba, and Iran on its list, the most remarkable thing about Whitney’s research was his finding that the U.S. offered military assistance to 76 percent of these governments. (The only exceptions were Belarus, China, Central African Republic, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria.). “Most politically aware people,” Whitney wrote:

     “know of some of the more highly publicized instances examples of [U.S. support for foreign dictatorships], such as the tens of billions of dollars’ worth of US military assistance provided to the beheading capital of the world, the misogynistic monarchy of Saudi Arabia, and the repressive military dictatorship now in power in Egypt… apologists for our nation’s imperialistic foreign policy…try to rationalize such support, arguing that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are exceptions to the rule.  But my survey…demonstrates that our government’s support for Saudi Arabia and Egypt are not exceptions to the rule at all. They are the rule.”

     The Pentagon and State Department data Whitney used came from Fiscal Year 2015.  It dated from the next-to-last year of the Obama administration, for which so many liberals recall with misplaced nostalgia. Freedom House’s list should have included Honduras, ruled by a vicious right-wing government that Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped install in a June 2009 military coup.

     The problem here isn’t just liberal hypocrisy and double standards. The deeper issue is that, as the great American iconoclast Mark Twain knew, you cannot maintain democracy at home while conducting an authoritarian empire abroad.  During the United States’ blood-soaked invasion and occupation of the Philippines, Twain penned an imaginary history of the twentieth-century United States. “It was impossible,” Twain wrote, “to save the Great Republic.  She was rotten to the heart.  Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.”

     “Just a decade after Twain wrote those prophetic words,” the historian Alfred W. McCoy has observed, “colonial police methods came home to serve as a template for the creation of an American internal security apparatus in wartime.” The nation’s first Red Scare, which crushed left and labor movements during and after World War One, drew heavily on the lessons and practices of colonial suppression in the Philippines and Cuba. As McCoy shows in his latest book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power,the same basic process – internal U.S. repression informed and shaped by authoritarian and imperial practices abroad and justified by alleged external threats to the “homeland” – has recurred ever since.  Today, the rise of an unprecedented global surveillance state overseen by the National Security Agency has cost the US the trust of many of its top global allies (under Bush43 and Obama44, not just under Trump45) while undermining civil liberties and democracy within as beyond the U.S.

    “The fetters imposed on liberty at home,” James Madison wrote in 1799, “have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.” Those are wise words well worth revisiting amidst the current endless Russiagate madness, calculated among other things to tell us that the FBI, the CIA, and the rest of the nation’s vast and ever more ubiquitous intelligence and surveillance state are on our side.

Facts do not necessarily win political arguments. The sooner the progressive left realizes this, the better. As a progressive lefty I’m consistently amazed by the voting patterns of the common people i.e. the people the political left is supposed to represent. Recently in Canada our most populace province decided to elect an business sense challenged, no political platform, boorish individual who spoke not in terms of political policy, but in catchy, folksy, accessible language:

His populist message resonated with voters who were unhappy with the provincial Liberals. Ford promised “buck a beer,” ten cents off a litre of gas and major tax cuts. He also promised to cut government spending by $6 billion but didn’t say how.”

Like, jesus christ in a fuckbasket, what kind of platform is that?  Anyone with more than two neurons to rub together can see the bread and circuses messaging and the usual conservative trojan-horsery going on here.  I’m not sure people get it, so let me state it here.  Conservative party policy focuses on maintaining the good times for people who most likely are not YOU.  The business elite, the wealthy, the current power structure are all beneficiaries of conservative rule – the hoi polloi – is not.

Not ever.

But hey, my fellow Canadians, enjoy your cheap beer while the newly minted government savages and merrily defenestrates the social safety net and related infrastructure that makes your life bearable.  Your vote indicates that you are good with that.

Why I shake my head (more) is that these paradoxical voting patters are nothing new.  Sharun Mukand and Dani Ridrik expound on how world view memes (in the Dawkins sense) can influence people to vote against their self interests.

 “Importantly, identity and worldview memes do not prevail equally across all subgroups of the population. Political entrepreneurs target these memes toward the electorally critical subgroup. Our model predicts that identity polarisation and support for policy memes will both see their greatest rise within the lower- and middle-income group of the majority-identity group. These are the potential switchers to whom the memes will be targeted. We should not expect those memes to operate as strongly among the wealthy who belong to the majority group or the minority-identity group of all incomes.

Increased inequality raises the reward to the rich from successful ideational politics. The returns from discovering a policy meme that persuades the median voter, for example, that lower taxes are in the interests of not only the rich, but also the low-income median voter are much higher when inequality is high. Similarly, an effective identity meme that catalyses identity around issues such as gay marriage, women’s rights and immigration can also serve as a ‘wedge’ giving low-income voters a reason to vote for the high-income party. As one team of economists concluded in 2015: ‘Despite the large increases in economic inequality since 1970, American survey respondents exhibit no increase in support for redistribution … demand for income redistribution in the US has remained flat by some measures and decreased for others.’ This is remarkable. And it happened, as our research framework suggests, thanks to the role of ideas as a catalyst for policy change. The elite, along with an allied ‘political-ideational complex’ (including academics, think tanks and talk-radio), successfully disseminated the worldview that rising inequality was an inevitable byproduct of structural changes in the global economy, which in turn necessitated the adoption of financial deregulation, low capital-income taxes and the embrace of globalisation.

Ideas and interests both matter for political change, and the two feed into one another. On the one hand, economic interests drive the kind of ideas that politicians put forward. As Kenneth Shepsle, professor of government at Harvard University, put it in 1985, ideas can be regarded as ‘hooks on which politicians hang their objectives and further their interests’. However, ideas also shape interests. This happens because they alter voter preferences and/or shift their worldviews ex-post, in both cases shifting rankings over policy.”

Fuck.  I wish the notion of concise writing would make a comeback in academia.  There are the makings of a great article in this piece, but it is severely hampered by clunky, inaccessible writing.

The gist is that you make people focus on an bullshit issue(s) that has little relation to the actual levers of power in society.  Once elected, on said mountain of bullshit, its like “Oh, by the way, along with your buck-a-beers, we’ll be needing to privatize healthcare (and other policies that screw the Average Joe and Jane sideways).

This isn’t magic, folks.   Honest.

“For those who view politics in terms of a narrow and static notion of interests, the electoral support for Trump, Brexit and other populist movements seems to pose a puzzle. It seems as if many poor people are voting against their self-interest. But the puzzle is more apparent than real. It is rooted in a habit of thinking of interests only in economic terms, and also as fixed. Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon understood well that interests are malleable. With the right message and framing, Bannon noted in 2013, you could change the political calculus by shaping popular perception of self-interest: ‘Trade is No 100 on the [Republican] Party’s list. You can make it No 1. Immigration is No 10. We can make it No 2.’

What appears to be culture might be economics – the consequence of identity or worldview memes marketed by economic elites for their own self-interest. For example, Reagan used the imagery of a ‘welfare queen’ to attack unemployment benefits and the welfare state. So identity politics was being deployed by him to ensure that voters supported the Republican low-tax economic agenda. Similarly, what might look like economics might be shaped by cultural predispositions that provide voters with their interpretive frameworks – such as Merkel’s celebration of the ‘Swabian housewife’ when making the case for austerity.

Defeating autocratic and nativist political movements will likely require strategies based on both ideas and interests. As we have seen in recent elections, proposing policies that are better suited to the economic needs of middle- and lower-income voters will likely not be enough. Successful challengers will also need to come up with narratives that help to reshape peoples’ worldviews and identities”

What a long way of saying is that left needs to up its bullshit game, so we can baffle the brains of the populace and then introduce policy that will actually benefit them.

Interesting conclusion though, is that the right consistently wins through the bait and switch that treats people as if they were feckless, greedy, morons.   Yet, the left politic seems hesitant to do so, as if somehow the patronizing authoritarian method is somehow disdainful and wrong.  I’m at the point of ‘fuck it’ and do what works already, because I’m tired of the Right being the sole benefactors of this proven, winning political strategy.

(The best part is that the Right always accuses us lefty types of elitist authoritarian tendencies, all the while exemplifying the best practices of the former.   Like, okay, then let’s do this then, and beat them at their own shitty game.)

If we have to live within a capitalist framework, the very least we can do is make sure everyone has a chance.

     Silly me.  I thought Alberta was timidly embracing the idea that the province was going to be run for the benefit of someone other than the corporations and the rich.  This latest poll (via the CBC) suggests that many of the people of Alberta want to get back to the good times of kowtowing to the business class and letting the rest of us dine on the meagre scrapes that ‘trickle down’ from the lavish head-table feast. 

   “In focus groups CBC conducted after the survey found that most people — from all political stripes — said the NDP wasn’t to blame for Alberta’s tough economic times, but that the party wasn’t doing enough to dig the province out.

Yet, there was praise for Premier Rachel Notley.

“There’s not too many politicians that could have navigated what she’s had to,” said 44-year-old Kelly Kernick, who participated in CBC News’s focus group of middle-of-the-road voters.

Right-leaning Tristan Arsenault, 22, echoed others in the focus groups, saying the recent recession hit people hard and many still aren’t feeling the recovery.”

Undoing the damage of 40 plus years of one party rule isn’t exactly a small endeavour.  Cleaning out the cronyism, and rot takes time.  Yet it seems that after a brief 5 year stint we Albertans are done with this idea of government being run for the benefit of the people and are rushing back to the party that best enshrines the idea of the neo-liberal corporate state.

The election is still far away, and there is the chance that our dear UCP party will have more than a few bozo eruptions that boldly illustrate their incompetence and inability to govern.

I’m not ready to be plunged back into yet another dark conservative political regression.

Hey Alberta, can we not vote in the regressive conservatives?  That’d be great, thanks.

Why do we act surprised when areas of the world erupt into bloody vicious conflict.  We are shocked at the intensity and absolute disregard for human life.  Yet how do the ‘bad guys’ get access to all these calamitous weapons?  

We sell them.  We sell a whole bunch of weapons in nearly every corner of the world to pretty much anyone who has the cash.  That’s how.  This has been a feature, as Mr.Hartung states, of every presidency from Nixon on in.  It is the status-quo and has bi-partisan support, for decades.

Another prestigious brick in the monument attesting to the trivial worth of human life.  We in the civilized West speak of human rights while ensuring through our arms sales they they will never become universal rights.

Fuck.

If it makes you feel better, slap the ‘business is business’ rhetorical dodge all over this appalling fact.  This is what happens when we divorce the public from the political decision making process.  This is what happens when we lose the basic trait of empathy toward others.  The feelings are the same when someone on the other side of the globe loses a loved one.  Gunshot wounds maim people and cripple family units for life whether it is here in North America or in San Salvador, Syria, or Yemen.

Yet geography makes a (fateful) difference.  We disassociate from the losses people experience ‘over there’.  We remain ignorant of our contribution in the slaughter of innocent people across the globe.  It is a moral chasm that follows us. arms dealers to the world, ignorant or not, of to what we are really committed to as a nation.  The lofty rhetoric we hear on the news from the political class is divorced from the realpolitik in which we actually operate and base our foreign policy on.

My real fear is this – what if people are informed of the real nature of this aspect of the world, and their response is apathy.  I would not know what to do after that.

Anyways, my moralizing aside read the entire article at Tom’s Dispatch, but this is the part I was commenting on:

 

 

“Though Saudi Arabia may be the largest recipient of U.S. arms on the planet, it’s anything but Washington’s only customer. According to the Pentagon’s annual tally of major agreements under the Foreign Military Sales program, the most significant channel for U.S. arms exports, Washington entered into formal agreements to sell weaponry to 130 nations in 2016 (the most recent year for which full data is available). According to a recent report from the Cato Institute, between 2002 and 2016 the United States delivered weaponry to 167 countries — more than 85% of the nations on the planet. The Cato report also notes that, between 1981 and 2010, Washington supplied some form of weaponry to 59% of all nations engaged in high-level conflicts.

In short, Donald Trump has headed down a well-traveled arms superhighway. Every president since Richard Nixon has taken that same road and, in 2010, the Obama administration managed to rack up a record $102 billion in foreign arms offers. In a recent report I wrote for the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy, I documented more than $82 billion in arms offers by the Trump administration in 2017 alone, which actually represented a slight increase from the $76 billion in offers made during President Obama’s final year. It was, however, far lower than that 2010 figure, $60 billion of which came from Saudi deals for F-15 combat aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, transport aircraft, and armored vehicles, as well as guns and ammunition.

There have nonetheless been some differences in the approaches of the two administrations in the area of human rights. Under pressure from human rights groups, the Obama administration did, in the end, suspend sales of aircraft to Bahrain and Nigeria, both of whose militaries were significant human rights violators, and also a $1 billion-plus deal for precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia. That Saudi suspension represented the first concrete action by the Obama administration to express displeasure with Riyadh’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen. Conducted largely with U.S. and British supplied aircraft, bombs, and missiles, it has included strikesagainst hospitals, marketplaces, water treatment facilities, and even a funeral. In keeping with his focus on jobs to the exclusion of humanitarian concerns, Trump reversed all three of the Obama suspensions shortly after taking office.

Fueling Terrorism and Instability

In fact, selling weapons to dictatorships and repressive regimes often fuels instability, war, and terrorism, as the American war on terror has vividly demonstrated for the last nearly 17 years. U.S.-supplied arms also have a nasty habit of ending up in the hands of America’s adversaries. At the height of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, for instance, that country’s armed forces lost track of hundreds of thousands of rifles, many of which made their way into the hands of forces resisting the U.S. occupation.

In a similar fashion, when Islamic State militants swept into Iraq in 2014, the Iraqi security forces abandoned billions of dollars worth of American equipment, from small arms to military trucks and armored vehicles. ISIS promptly put them to use against U.S. advisers and the Iraqi security forces as well as tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. The Taliban, too, has gotten its hands on substantial quantities of U.S. weaponry, either on the battlefield or by buying them at cut-rate, black market prices from corrupt members of the Afghan security forces.

In northern Syria, two U.S.-armed groups are now fighting each other. Turkish forces are facing off against Syrian Kurdish militias that have been among the most effective anti-ISIS fighters and there is even an ongoing risk that U.S. and Turkish forces, NATO allies, may find themselves in direct combat with each other. Far from giving Washington influence over key allies or improving their combat effectiveness, U.S. arms and training often simply spur further conflict and chaos to the detriment of the security of the United States, not to speak of the peace of the world.”

The parochial attitude of North Americans is quite disturbing, and unjustified.  We have unparalleled access to information and news from across the globe and by this feature alone we should be attuned to the plight of others and the injustice in the world.   Yet, most of us are not.  As long as shit happens ‘over there’ whether it be across an ocean, or the local river the daily pattern of our lives does not change.

Only when our routines are disrupted and our comfort zones threatened do we awake from our slumber.  In our defence, there really isn’t another way to go about one’s life as the amount of horror in the world is a completely paralyzing notion and can only be examined at arms length if one wishes to remain sane.

But.

I think the balance between our safe cocoons and concern for the situations others needs to be reordered.  The slow-fast human catastrophe that is Syria highlights exactly what I’m talking about.  

“A chemical attack in Douma, the last rebel-held stronghold near Syria’s capital, Damascus, has killed at least 70 people and affected hundreds, rescue workers have told Al Jazeera.

The White Helmets, a group of rescuers operating in opposition-held areas in Syria, said on Saturday that most of the fatalities were women and children.

“Seventy people suffocated to death and hundreds are still suffocating,” Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets, told Al Jazeera, adding that the death toll was expected to rise as many people were in critical condition.

Al-Saleh said that chlorine gas and an unidentified but stronger gas were dropped on Douma.”

We sit complicit while the Assad regime gasses its own people in their efforts to ‘stabilize’ their country.

“We are currently dealing with more than 1,000 cases of people struggling to breathe after the chlorine barrel bomb was dropped on the city. The number of dead will probably rise even further.”

The Douma Media Centre, a pro-opposition group, posted images on social media of people being treated by medics, and of what appeared to be dead bodies, including many women and children.

Rescue workers also posted videos of people appearing to show symptoms consistent with a gas attack. Some appeared to have white foam around their mouths and noses.

Symptoms of a chlorine attack include coughing, dyspnea, intensive irritation of the mucous membrane and difficulty in breathing.”

Being a civilian is Syria isn’t such a welcoming proposition.  Chemical warfare is an agreed upon ‘no-go’ for most of the nations of the world.  There is a treaty and everything.

“The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control treaty that outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. The full name of the treaty is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction and it is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an intergovernmental organization based in The Hague, The Netherlands. The treaty entered into force in 1997.”

This image released early Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets, shows a rescue worker carrying a child following an alleged chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. White Helmets via AP

Yet this happens.  And most of NA placidly accepts this.  Maybe some tsk-tisking and/or a lament on how horrible the gassing of civilians is.  But then, most of us just scroll onward past this tragedy that has been disconnected from our consciousness.

What is missing, at least in part, is the feeling of responsibility (not to mention the empathy of what it must be like trying to survive during a civil war) of our part in their ordeal.

Joseph Massad on Al Jazeera said the term was “part of a US strategy of controlling [the movement’s] aims and goals” and directing it towards western-style liberal democracy.[17] When Arab Spring protests in some countries were followed by electoral success for Islamist parties, some American pundits coined the terms “Islamist Spring”[20] and “Islamist Winter”.

Also this from The Atlantic:

“Egyptian military officials wagered, rightly, that they could get away with what became, according to Human Rights Watch, the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history—as well as one of the worst single-day mass killings in recent decades anywhere in the world.

America’s relative silence was no accident. To offer a strong, coherent response to the killings would have required a strategy, which would have required more, not less, involvement. This, however, would have been at cross-purposes with the entire thrust of the administration’s policy. Obama was engaged in a concerted effort to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. The phrase “leading from behind” quickly became a pejorative for Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, but it captured a very real shift in America’s posture. The foreign-policy analysts Nina Hachigian and David Shorr called it the “Responsibility Doctrine,” a strategy of “prodding other influential nations … to help shoulder the burdens of fostering a stable, peaceful world order.” In pursuing this strategy in the Middle East, the United States left a power vacuum—and a proxy struggle. During Morsi’s year-long tenure, Qatar became the single largest foreign donor to Egypt, at over $5 billion (with Turkey contributing another $2 billion). Just days after the military moved against Morsi, it was Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait that pledged a massive $12 billion to the new military-appointed government.

 The United States, along with the conservative Gulf monarchies and many others, also viewed Islamist parties with considerable suspicion.”
   Being a world power, only when convenient, isn’t being a world power.  Behaving only to protect the national interest places us squarely in the realm of realpolitik and the (a)moral compass associated with that mode of thinking.  Syria lies on the border of two spheres of influence.  The Russian empire and the American Empire.  Arguably, Russia has greater influence, not least of all because of geographical proximity, on Syria and the maintenance of the current regime is in their national self interest.  Thus the frisson between the American tacit support for the revolution (toward a US friendly regime) and the Russian support for the status quo and continuation within their own sphere of self-interest are the only realpolitik concerns on the table.  The humanitarian disaster resulting from this friction between empires is but a footnote and not really mainstream news worthy – at least not past the ratings ‘bump’ procured for showing disconnected images of human suffering.
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    A non-corporate real media would be all over the context of the situation portraying the real cost in human misery of what happens when spheres of influence collide and how little the ‘national interest’ cares about people dying ‘over there’.  Yet with all our glitzy internet power and googleplexes of information at our fingertips has this sort of contextual analysis even been hinted at in North American mainstream media?
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   Not really.
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   Compare how the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera frame the article (also the sources on which this piece is based).  A telling difference,  the focus on the ‘facts’ versus the human angle that the Al-Jazeera piece.  I think we need more of the second variety as we need to inspire empathy and the common human nature that binds us all together, so we can work toward a more peaceable future.
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   (Unlikely as it may be.)

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