Thursday, April 18, 2013 10:57 AM
From right-wing think tanks to Homeland
Security to the “drone lobby,” a lot’s riding on the constant threat of global terrorism. Here’s how it all started.
This article originally
appeared at TomDispatch.
The communist enemy, with the “world’s
fourth largest military,” has been trundlingmissiles around and threatening the United States
with nuclear obliteration. Guam, Hawaii, Washington: all, it claims, are targetable. The coverage in
the media has been hair-raising. The U.S. is rushing an untested missile defense system to Guam,
deploying missile-interceptor ships off the South Korean coast, sending “nuclear capable” B-2 Stealth bombers thousands of
miles on mock bombing runs, pressuring China, and conducting large-scale war games with its South Korean ally.
Only one small problem: there is as yet little evidence that the enemy with a few nuclear weapons
facing off (rhetorically at least) against an American arsenal of 4,650 of them has the ability to miniaturize and mount even one on a missile, no
less deliver it accurately, nor does it have a missile capable of reaching
Hawaii or Washington, and I wouldn't count on Guam either.
It also happens to be a desperate country, one possibly without enough fuel to fly a modern air force, whose
people, on average, are inches shorter than their southern neighbors thanks to
decades of intermittent famine and malnutrition, and who are ruled by a bizarre
three-generational family cult. If that other communist, Karl Marx, hadn’t once
famously written that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,”
we would have had to invent the phrase for this very moment.
In the previous century, there were two devastating
global wars, which left significant parts of the planet in ruins. There was
also a "cold war" between two superpowers locked in a system of mutual
assured destruction (aptly acronymed as MAD) whose nuclear arsenals were
capable of destroying the planet many times over. Had you woken up any morning
in the years between December
7, 1941, and December 26, 1991, and been told that the leading
international candidate for America's Public Enemy Number One was Kim Jong-un’s
ramshackle, comic-opera regime in North Korea, you might have gotten down on
your hands and knees and sent thanks to pagan gods.
The same would be true for the other candidates for that
number one position since September 11, 2001: the original al-Qaeda (largely
decimated), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula located in poverty-stricken areas
of poverty-stricken Yemen, the Taliban in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, unnamed
jihadis scattered across poverty-stricken areas of North Africa, or
Iran, another rickety regional power run by not particularly adept theocrats.
All these years, we’ve been launching wars and pursuing a
“global war on terror." We’ve poured money into national security as if
there were no tomorrow. From our police to our borders, we’ve up-armored everywhere. We constantly
hear about “threats” to us and to the “homeland.” And yet, when you knock on
the door marked “Enemy,” there’s seldom anyone home.
Few in this country have found this
striking. Few seem to notice any disjuncture between the enemy-ridden,
threatening, and deeply dangerous world we have been preparing ourselves for
(and fighting in) this last decade-plus and the world as it actually is, even
those who lived through significant parts of the last anxiety-producing, bloody
You know that feeling when you wake up and realize you’ve
had the same recurrent nightmare yet again? Sometimes, there’s an equivalent in
waking life, and here’s mine: every now and then, as I read about the next move
in the spreading war on terror, the next drone assassination, the next
ratcheting up of the surveillance game, the next expansion of the secrecy that
envelops our government, the next set of expensive actions taken to guard us --
all of this justified by the enormous threats and dangers that we face -- I
think to myself: Where’s the enemy? And then I wonder: Just what kind of a
dream is this that we’re dreaming?
A Door Marked “Enemy” and No One Home
Let’s admit it: enemies can have their uses. And let’s
admit as well that it’s in the interest of some in our country that we be seen
as surrounded by constant and imminent dangers on an enemy-filled planet. Let’s
also admit that the world is and always will be a dangerous place in all sorts
Still, in American terms, the bloodlettings, the
devastations of this new century and the last years of the previous one have
been remarkably minimal or distant; some of the worst, as in the multi-country
war over the Congo with its more than five million dead have passed us by entirely;
some, even when we launched them, have essentially been imperial frontier
conflicts, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or interventions of little cost (to us)
as in Libya, or frontier patrolling operations as in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia,
and Northern Africa. (It was no mistake that, when Washington
launched its special operations raid on Abbottabad,
get Osama bin Laden, it was given the code name “Geronimo” and the message from the SEAL team
recording his death was “Geronimo-E KIA” or “enemy killed in action.”)
And let’s admit as well that, in the wake of those wars
and operations, Americans now have more enemies, more angry, embittered people
who would like to do us harm than on September 10, 2001. Let’s accept that
somewhere out there are people who, as George W. Bush once liked to say, “hate us" and what we stand for. (I
leave just what we actually stand for to you, for the moment.)
So let’s consider those enemies briefly. Is there a major
state, for instance, that falls into this category, like any of the great
warring imperial European powers from the sixteenth century on, or Nazi Germany
and Imperial Japan in World War II, or the Soviet Union
of the Cold War era? Of course not.
There was admittedly a period when, in order to pump up
what we faced in the world, analogies to World War II and the Cold War were
rife. There was, for instance, George W. Bush’s famed rhetorical construct, the Axis of
Evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), patterned by his
speechwriter on the German-Italian-Japanese “axis” of World War II. It was, of
course, a joke construct, if reality was your yardstick. Iraq and Iran were then enemies. (Only in
the wake of the U.S.
invasion and occupation of Iraq
have they become friends and allies.) And North Korea had nothing whatsoever
to do with either of them. Similarly, the American occupation of Iraq was once regularly compared to the
U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan, just as Saddam Hussein had long been presented as a modern Hitler.
In addition, al-Qaeda-style Islamists were regularly
referred to as Islamofascists, while certain military and neocon types
with a desire to turn the war on terror into a successor to the Cold War took
to calling it “the long war,” or even “World War IV.” But all of this was so wildly out of whack
that it simply faded away.
As for who’s behind that door marked “Enemy,” if you
opened it, what would you find? As a start, scattered hundreds or, as the years have
gone by, thousands of jihadis, mostly in the poorest backlands of the
planet and with little ability to do anything to the United States. Next, there were a
few minority insurgencies, including the Taliban and allied forces in Afghanistan and separate Sunni and Shia ones in Iraq. There
also have been tiny numbers of wannabe
Islamic terrorists in the U.S.
(once you take away the string of FBI
sting operations that have regularly turned hopeless slackers and lost
teenagers into the most dangerous of fantasy Muslim plotters). And then, of
course, there are those two relatively hapless regional powers, Iran and North Korea, whose bark far exceeds
their potential bite.
The Wizard of Oz on 9/11
in other words, is probably in less danger from external enemies than at any
moment in the last century. There is no other imperial power on the planet
capable of, or desirous of, taking on American power directly, including China. It’s
true that, on September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers with box cutters produced a
remarkable, apocalyptic, and devastating TV show in which almost 3,000 people died. When those giant towers in
downtown New York
collapsed, it certainly had the look of nuclear disaster (and in those first days, the
media was filled was nuclear-style references), but it wasn’t actually an
The enemy was still nearly nonexistent. The act cost
bin Laden only an estimated $400,000-$500,000, though it would lead to a series
of trillion-dollar wars. It was a nightmarish event that had a
malign Wizard of Oz quality to it: a tiny man producing giant
effects. It in no way endangered the state. In fact, it would actually
strengthen many of its powers. It put a hit on the economy, but a passing one.
It was a spectacular and spectacularly gruesome act of terror by a small,
murderous organization then capable of mounting a major operation somewhere on
Earth only once every couple of years. It was meant to spread fear, but nothing
When the towers came down and you could suddenly see to
the horizon, it was still, in historical terms, remarkably enemy-less. And yet
9/11 was experienced here as a Pearl Harbor
moment -- a sneak attack by a terrifying enemy meant to disable the country.
The next day, newspaper headlines were filled with variations on “A Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century.”
If it was a repeat of December 7, 1941, however, it lacked an imperial Japan or
any other state to declare war on, although one of the weakest partial states
on the planet, the Taliban's Afghanistan, would end up filling the bill
adequately enough for Americans.
To put this in perspective, consider two obvious major
dangers in U.S.
life: suicide by gun and death by car. In 2010, more than 19,000 Americans killed themselves using guns. (In the same
year, there were “only” 11,000 homicides nationwide.) In 2011, 32,000 Americans
died in traffic accidents (the lowest figure in 60 years, though it was again on the rise in the first six months of 2012). In other
words, Americans accept without blinking the equivalent yearly of more than six
9/11s in suicides-by-gun and more than 10 when it comes to vehicular deaths.
Similarly, had the underwear bomber, to take one post-9/11 example of
terrorism, succeeded in downing Flight 253 and murdering its 290 passengers, it would have
been a horrific act of terror; but he and his compatriots would have had to
bring down 65 planes to reach the annual level of weaponized suicides and more
than 110 planes for vehicular deaths.
And yet no one has declared war on either the car or the
gun (or the companies that make them or the people who sell them). No one has
built a massive, nearly trillion-dollar car-and-gun-security-complex to deal
with them. In the case of guns, quite the opposite is true, as the post-Newtown
debate over gun control has made all too clear. On both scores, Americans have
decided to live with perfectly real dangers and the staggering carnage that
accompanies them, constraining them on occasion or sometimes not at all.
Despite the carnage of 9/11, terrorism has been a small-scale American danger in the years since, worse than
shark attacks, but not much else. Like a wizard, however, what Osama bin Laden
and his suicide bombers did that day was create an instant sense of an enemy so
big, so powerful, that Americans found “war” a reasonable response; big enough
for those who wanted an international police action against al-Qaeda to be
laughed out of the room; big enough to launch an invasion of revenge against
Iraq, a country unrelated to al-Qaeda; big enough, in fact, to essentially
declare war on the world. It took next to no time for top administration
officials to begin talking about targeting 60
countries, and as journalist Ron Suskind has reported, within six days of the attack, the CIA had
topped that figure, presenting President Bush with a “Worldwide Attack Matrix,”
a plan that targeted terrorists in 80 countries.
What’s remarkable is how little the disjuncture between
the scope and scale of the global war that was almost instantly launched and
the actual enemy at hand was ever noted here. You could certainly make a
reasonable argument that, in these years, Washington has largely fought no one -- and
lost. Everywhere it went, it created enemies who had, previously, hardly
existed and the process is ongoing. Had you been able to time-travel back to the Cold
War era to inform Americans that, in the future, our major enemies would be in
Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and so on, they would surely have
thought you mad (or lucky indeed).
Creating an Enemy-Industrial Complex
Without an enemy of commensurate size and threat, so much
that was done in Washington
in these years might have been unattainable. The vast national security building and spending spree -- stretching from the Virginia
suburbs of Washington, where the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
erected its new $1.8 billion headquarters, to Bluffdale, Utah, where the
National Security Agency is still constructing a $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center for storing
the world’s intercepted communications -- would have been unlikely.
Without the fear of an enemy capable of doing anything,
money at ever escalating levels would never have poured into homeland security,
or the Pentagon, or a growing complex of crony corporations associated with our
weaponized safety. The exponential growth of the national security complex, as
well as of the powers of the executive branch when it comes to
national security matters, would have far been less likely.
Without 9/11 and the perpetual “wartime” that followed,
along with the heavily promoted threat of terrorists ready to strike and
potentially capable of wielding biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons,
we would have no Department of Homeland Security nor the lucrative mini-homeland-security complex that surrounds it; the
17-outfit U.S. Intelligence Community with its massive $75 billion official budget would have been far less impressive;
our endless drone wars and the “drone lobby” that goes with them might never have
developed; and the U.S. military would not have an ever growing secret military, the Joint Special Operations Command,
gestating inside it -- effectively the president’s private army, air force, and
navy -- and already conducting largely secret operations across much of the
For all of this to happen, there had to be an
enemy-industrial complex as well, a network of crucial figures and institutions
ready to pump up the threat we faced and convince Americans that we were in a
world so dangerous that rights, liberty, and privacy were small things to
sacrifice for American safety. In short, any number of interests from Bush
administration figures eager to “sweep it all up” and do whatever they wanted in the world
to weapons makers, lobbyists, surveillance outfits, think tanks, military intellectuals, assorted pundits... well, the whole
national and homeland security racket and its various hangers-on had an
interest in beefing up the enemy. For them, it was important in the post-9/11
era that threats would never again lack a capital “T” or a hefty dollar sign.
And don’t forget a media that was ready to pound the
drums of war and emphasize what dangerous enemies lurked in our world with
remarkably few second thoughts. Post-9/11, major media outlets were generally
prepared to take the enemy-industrial complex’s word for it and play every new
terrorist incident as if it were potentially the end of the world. Increasingly
as the years went on, jobs, livelihoods, an expanding world of “security”
depended on the continuance of all this, depended, in short, on the injection
of regular doses of fear into the body politic.
That was the “favor” Osama bin Laden did for Washington’s national
security apparatus and the Bush administration on that fateful September
morning. He engraved an argument in the American brain that would live on
indelibly for years, possibly decades, calling for eternal vigilance at any
cost and on a previously unknown scale. As the Project for the New American
Century (PNAC), that neocon think-tank-cum-shadow-government, so fatefully put
it in "Rebuilding America's Defenses" a year before the 9/11 attacks:
“Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings
revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and
catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor.”
So when the new Pearl Harbor
arrived out of the blue, with many PNAC members (from Vice President Dick
Cheney on down) already in office, they naturally saw their chance. They
created an al-Qaeda on steroids and launched their “global war” to establish a Pax
Americana, in the Middle East and then perhaps globally. They were aware
that they lacked opponents of the stature of those of the previous century and,
in their documents, they made it clear that they were planning to
ensure no future great-power-style enemy or bloc of enemy-like nations would
For this, they needed an American public anxious,
frightened, and ready to pay. It was, in other words, in their interest to
manipulate us. And if that were all there were to it, our world would be a
grim, but simple enough place. As it happens, it’s not. Ruling elites, no
matter what power they have, don’t work that way. Before they manipulate us,
they almost invariably manipulate themselves.
I was convinced of this years ago by a friend who had
spent a lot of time reading early Cold War documents from the National Security
Council -- from, that is, a small group of powerful governmental figures
writing to and for each other in the utmost secrecy. As he told me then and
wrote in Washington’s China, the smart book he did on the
early U.S. response to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China,
what struck him in the documents was the crudely anti-communist language those
men used in private with each other. It was the sort of anti-communism you
might otherwise have assumed Washington’s
ruling elite would only have wielded to manipulate ordinary Americans with
fears of Communist subversion, the “enemy within,” and Soviet plans to take
over the world. (In fact, they and others like them would use just such
language to inject fear into the body politic in those early Cold War years,
that era of McCarthyism.)
They were indeed manipulative men, but before they
influenced other Americans they assumedly underwent something like a process of
collective auto-hypnotism in which they convinced one another of the dangers
they needed the American people to believe in. There is evidence that a similar
process took place in the aftermath of 9/11. From the flustered look on George
W. Bush’s face as his plane took him not toward but away from Washington on September 11, 2001, to the image of
Dick Cheney, in those early months, being chauffeured around Washington in an armored motorcade with
a “gas mask and a biochemical survival suit" in the backseat, you could
sense that the enemy loomed large and omnipresent for them. They were, that is,
genuinely scared, even if they were also ready to make use of that fear for
their own ends.
Or consider the issue of Saddam Hussein’s supposed
weapons of mass destruction, that excuse for the invasion of Iraq. Critics
of the invasion are generally quick to point out how that bogus issue was used
by the top officials of the Bush administration to gain public support for a
course that they had already chosen. After all, Cheney and his men cherry-picked the evidence to make their case, even formed their own secret intel outfit to give them what they
needed, and ignored facts at hand that brought their version of events into question.
They publicly claimed in an orchestrated way that Saddam had active nuclear and WMD
programs. They spoke in the most open ways of potential mushroom clouds from (nonexistent) Iraqi nuclear weapons
rising over American cities, or of those same cities being sprayed
with (nonexistent) chemical or biological weapons from (nonexistent) Iraqi
drones. They certainly had to know that some of this information was useful but
bogus. Still, they had clearly also convinced themselves that, on taking Iraq, they
would indeed find some Iraqi WMD to justify their claims.
In his soon-to-be-published book, Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill cites the conservative
journalist Rowan Scarborough on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s growing
post-invasion irritation over the search for Iraqi WMD sites. “Each morning,”
wrote Scarborough, “the crisis action team had
to report that another location was a bust. Rumsfeld grew angrier and angrier.
One officer quoted him as saying, ‘They must be there!’ At one briefing, he
picked up the briefing slides and tossed them back at the briefers.”
In other words, those top officials hustling us into
their global war and their long-desired invasion of Iraq had also hustled themselves
into the same world with a similar set of fears. This may seem odd, but given
the workings of the human mind, its ability to comfortably hold potentially
contradictory thoughts most of the time without disturbing itself greatly, it’s
A similar phenomenon undoubtedly took place in the larger
national security establishment where self-interest combined easily enough with
fear. After all, in the post-9/11 era, they were promising us one thing:
something close to 100% “safety” when it came to one small danger in our world
-- terrorism. The fear that the next underwear bomber might get through surely
had the American public -- but also the American security state -- in its
grips. After all, who loses the most if another shoe bomber strikes, another
ambassador goes down, another 9/11 actually happens? Whose job, whose
world, will be at stake then?
They may indeed be a crew of Machiavellis, but they are
also acolytes in the cult of terror and global war. They live in the Cathedral
of the Enemy. They were the first believers and they will undoubtedly be the
last ones as well. They are invested in the importance of the enemy. It’s their
religion. They are, after all, the enemy-industrial complex and if we are in
their grip, so are they.
The comic strip character Pogo once famously declared: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
How true. We just don’t know it yet.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the
and author of
The United States of Fear
as well as a history of the
The End of Victory Culture
, runs the Nation Institute's
His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is
Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt
Image by ISAF Media,
licensed under Creative
Monday, April 08, 2013 4:23 PM
Since the beginning of the gay rights movement, it
took Democratic leaders four decades to “evolve” on marriage equality. But the
climate movement, and the planet, don’t have the kind of time.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will
bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the
U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.
Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and
bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers
of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for
the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the
“environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility
and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put
pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous
round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for
TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.
Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took
place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide
if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement
takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The
section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this
winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac
River out of downtown DC.)
It was certainly joyful to see marriage
equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the
most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide
that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings.
In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri,
Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay
Rockefeller of West Virginia
figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the
greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had
signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate
John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too,
had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe
Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest
part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to
do about the Democrats.
Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole,
they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney
declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if
necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said). Every
Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the
pipeline -- every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to
the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you
know exactly what you’re getting from them.
With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their
Senate caucus -- about a third -- joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone
XL. As the Washington
insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate:
Which actually may have been generous to the president.
It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he
has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for
that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change.
His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental
impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists
and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.
Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough,
that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite
his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist
on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientistJames
Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week,
simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.
All these men and women have excuses for their climate
conservatism. To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and
they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic
and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can’t get re-elected, you can’t do
even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they
also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of
voting records than party affiliation.
Anyway, aren’t all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic
sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad
enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights.
Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given
long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At
least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: if the
Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able
Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human
justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain
point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will
prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so
the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more
fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for
their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need,
desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public
opinion and public policy.
Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the
edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for
Action, for instance -- an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into
a kind of quasi-official MoveOn.org -- has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of
joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to
other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more
energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great,
but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of
climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly
the kind that makes the administration and Congressional “moderates” nervous.
Last Century’s Worry
So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to
face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of
concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is
now badly weakened: plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have
disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House
finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways,
including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could
start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).
Recently, I had a long talk with an administration
insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our
energies on “killing coal.” Why? Because it was politically feasible.
And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it
clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into
killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic -- from Greenland to its
seas -- essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic
is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your
left arm was missing. You’d panic.
There is, however, no panic in Washington. Instead, the administration and
Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North
Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia,
even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into
more decades of fossil fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting
nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last
century’s worry. It dates back to the crises
set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early
1970s, not long after… Stonewall.
So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that
physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough
answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly
offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been
decisivein nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments.
But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have
been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an
enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s
Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont). It’s not clear to me how that will
effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with
carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism. It makes it harder to
follow one’s heart.
Along with some way to make a third party truly viable,
we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform -- not just a
change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end
to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on
revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see
broad new campaigns
underway around them. It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what
needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their
most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the
scientists tell usthat we have no hope of holding the rise in the
planetary temperature below two degrees unless global emissions peak by 2015.
Of course, climate-change activists can and should
continue to work to make the Democrats better. At the moment, for instance, the
350.org action fund is organizing
college students for the Massachusetts
primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to
build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not okay. Maybe electing his opponent,
Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got
considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund
manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but
any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal
here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said,
demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might
actually start to shake things up.
It will take a while, though. According to press reports,
Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer
hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still
underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your number one concern.”
By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage. At
this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase
actually mean “underwater.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that
perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he
said, is “going to take people in Washington
who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks
politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve -- not two
miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”
That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit
ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.
And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head,
I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the
time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a
movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the
trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At
which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe
even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is
what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the
The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics
is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time.
He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the
same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.
A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global
warming summit he convened in Vermont’s
state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think
of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A
movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”
“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he
And so, down to work.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign
, and the author, most
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
Image of November 2011
climate march at the White House by TarSandsAction.
Image of a 2012 Barack Obama speech by Matt Wansley. Both
are licensed under Creative
Tuesday, March 26, 2013 3:20 PM
After a decade of war, Iraq
is a cauldron of sectarian violence, state-sponsored terrorism, and humanitarian crisis. Now a U.S.
client under the autocratic and corrupt Maliki government, Iraq has little
chance to escape the vicious cycle of violence and injustice.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
Back then, everybody was writing about Iraq,
but it’s surprising how few Americans, including reporters, paid much attention
to the suffering of Iraqis. Today, Iraq is in the news again. The
words, the memorials, the retrospectives are pouring out, and again the
suffering of Iraqis isn’t what’s on anyone’s mind. This was why I returned to
that country before the recent 10th anniversary of the Bush administration’s
invasion and why I feel compelled to write a few grim words about Iraqis today.
But let’s start with then. It’s April 8,
2004, to be exact, and I’m inside a makeshift medical center in the heart of
Fallujah while that predominantly Sunni city is under siege by American forces.
I’m alternating between scribbling brief observations in my notebook and taking
photographs of the wounded and dying women and children being brought into the
A woman suddenly arrives, slapping her
chest and face in grief, wailing hysterically as her husband carries in the
limp body of their little boy. Blood is trickling down one of his dangling
arms. In a few minutes, he’ll be dead. This sort of thing happens again and
over, I watch speeding cars hop the curb in front of this dirty clinic with
next to no medical resources and screech to a halt. Grief-stricken family
members pour out, carrying bloodied relatives -- women and children -- gunned
down by American snipers.
One of them, an 18-year-old girl has been
shot through the neck by what her family swears was an American sniper. All she
can manage are gurgling noises as doctors work frantically to save her from
bleeding to death. Her younger brother, an undersized child of 10 with a
gunshot wound in his head, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually
vomits as doctors race to keep him alive. He later dies while being transported
to a hospital in Baghdad.
According to the Bush administration at the
time, the siege of Fallujah was carried out in the name of fighting something
called “terrorism” and yet, from the point of view of the Iraqis I was
observing at such close quarters, the terror was strictly American. In fact, it
was the Americans who first began the spiraling cycle of violence in Fallujah
troops from the 82nd Airborne Division killed 17 unarmed demonstrators on April
28th of the previous year outside a school they had occupied and turned into a
combat outpost. The protesters had simply wanted the school vacated by the
Americans, so their children could use it. But then, as now, those who respond
to government-sanctioned violence are regularly written off as “terrorists.”
Governments are rarely referred to in the same terms.
10 Years Later
Jump to March 2013 and that looming 10th
anniversary of the U.S.
invasion. For me, that’s meant two
books and too many news
articles to count since I first traveled to that country as the
world’s least “embedded” reporter to blog about a U.S. occupation already spiraling
out of control. Today, I work for the Human Rights Department of Al Jazeera
English, based out of Doha,
Qatar. And once
again, so many years later, I’ve returned
to the city where I saw all those bloodied and dying women and children. All
these years later, I’m back in Fallujah.
Today, not to put too fine a point on it, Iraq is a
failed state, teetering on the brink of another sectarian bloodbath, and beset
by chronic political deadlock and economic disaster. Its social fabric has been
all but shredded by nearly a decade of brutal occupation by the U.S. military
and now by the rule of an Iraqi government rife with sectarian infighting.
Every Friday, for 13 weeks now, hundreds of
thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Amman,
runs just past the outskirts of this city.
Sunnis in Fallujah and the rest of Iraq’s vast Anbar
Province are enraged at the government
of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because his security forces, still heavily
staffed by members of various Shia militias, have
been killing or detaining their compatriots from this region, as
well as across much of Baghdad.
Fallujah’s residents now refer to that city as a “big prison,” just as they did
when it was surrounded and strictly controlled by the Americans.
Angry protesters have taken to the streets.
“We demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah. We demand they allow in
the press. We demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions. We
demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons!” So Sheikh Khaled
Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the demonstrations, tells me just prior to one
of the daily protests. “Losing our history and dividing Iraqis is wrong, but
that, and kidnapping and conspiracies and displacing people, is what Maliki is
The sheikh went on to assure me that
millions of people in Anbar province had stopped demanding changes in the
Maliki government because, after years of waiting, no such demands were ever
met. “Now, we demand a change in the regime instead and a change in the
constitution,” he says. “We will not stop these demonstrations. This one we
have labeled ‘last chance Friday’ because it is the government’s last chance to
listen to us.”
“What comes next,” I ask him, “if they
don’t listen to you?”
“Maybe armed struggle comes next,” he
replies without pause.
Predictably, given how the cycle of
violence, corruption, injustice, and desperation has become part of daily life
in this country, that same day, a Sunni demonstrator was gunned down by Iraqi
security forces. Lieutenant General Mardhi al-Mahlawi, commander of the Iraqi
Army’s Anbar Operations Command, said the authorities would not hesitate to
deploy troops around the protest site again “if the protesters do not
cooperate.” The following day, the Maliki government warned that the area was
becoming “a haven for terrorists,” echoing the favorite term the Americans used
during their occupation of Fallujah.
In 2009, I was in Fallujah, riding
around in the armored BMW of Sheikh Aifan, the head of the
then-U.S.-backed Sunni militias known as the Sahwa forces. The Sheikh was an
opportunistic, extremely wealthy “construction contractor” and boasted that the
car we rode in had been custom built for him at a cost of nearly half a million
Two months ago, Sheikh Aifan was killed by
a suicide bomber, just one more victim of a relentless campaign by Sunni
insurgents targeting those who once collaborated with the Americans. Memories
are long these days and revenge remains on many minds. The key figures in the
Maliki regime know that if it falls, as is likely one day, they may meet fates
similar to Sheikh Aifan’s. It’s a convincing argument for hanging onto power.
way, the Iraq
of 2013 staggers onward in a climate of perpetual crisis toward a future where
the only givens are more chaos, more violence, and yet more uncertainty. Much
of this can be traced to Washington’s
long, brutal, and destructive occupation, beginning with the installation of
former CIA asset Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. His hold on power
quickly faltered, however, after he was used by the Americans to launch their
second siege of Fallujah in November 2004, which resulted in the deaths of
thousands more Iraqis, and set the stage for an ongoing
health crisis in the city due to the types of weapons used by the
In 2006, after Allawi lost political clout,
then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq
neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad tapped Maliki as Washington’s new prime minister. It was then
widely believed that he was the only politician whom both the U.S. and Iran could find acceptable. As one
Iraqi official sarcastically put it, Maliki was the product of an agreement
between “the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil.”
In the years since, Maliki has become a de
facto dictator. In Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad, he is now bitterly referred to as a
“Shia Saddam.” Pictures of his less-than-photogenic face in front of an Iraqi
flag hang above many of the countless checkpoints around the capital. When I
see his visage looming over us yet again as we sit in traffic, I comment to my
fixer, Ali, that his image is now everywhere, just as Saddam’s used to be.
“Yes, they’ve simply changed the view for us,” Ali replies, and we laugh.
Gallows humor has been a constant in Baghdad
since the invasion a decade ago.
It’s been much the same all over Iraq. The U.S. forces
that ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime immediately moved into his military bases
and palaces. Now that the U.S.
has left Iraq,
those same bases and palaces are manned and controlled by the Maliki
Saddam Hussein’s country was notoriously
corrupt. Yetlast year, Iraq ranked
169th out of 174 countries surveyed, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
It is effectively a failed state, with the Maliki regime incapable of
controlling vast swaths of the country, including the Kurdish north, despite
his willingness to use the same tactics once employed by Saddam Hussein and
after him the Americans: widespread violence, secret prisons, threats,
detentions, and torture.
Almost 10 years after U.S. troops entered a Baghdad
in flames and being looted, Iraq
remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth. There are daily bombings,
kidnappings, and assassinations. The sectarianism instilled and endlessly
stirred up by U.S. policy has become deeply, seemingly irrevocably embedded in
the political culture, which regularly threatens to tip over into the sort of
violence that typified 2006-2007, when upwards of 3,000 Iraqis were being
slaughtered every month.
The death toll of March 11th was one of the
worst of late and provides a snapshot of the increasing levels of violence
countrywide. Overall, 27 people were killed and many more injured in attacks
across the country. A suicide car bomb detonated in a town near Kirkuk, killing eight and
wounding 166 (65 of whom were students at a Kurdish secondary school for
girls). In Baghdad,
gunmen stormed a home where they murdered a man and woman. A shop owner was
shot dead and a policeman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Ghazaliya. A
civilian was killed in the Saidiya district, while a Sahwa member was gunned
down in Amil. Three government ministry employees in the city were also killed.
In addition, gunmen killed two policemen in
the town of Baaj,
a dead body turned up in Muqtadiyah, where a roadside bomb also wounded a
policeman. In the city of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, gunmen killed a blacksmith, and in the northern
city of Mosul,
a political candidate and a soldier were both killed in separate incidents. A
local political leader in the town of Rutba in Anbar Province
was shot and died of his injuries, and the body of a young man whose skull was
crushed was found in Kirkuk
a day after he was kidnapped. Gunmen also killed a civilian in Abu Saida.
And these are only the incidents reported
in the media in a single day. Others regularly don’t make it into the news at
The next day, Awadh, the security chief for
Al Jazeera in Baghdad,
was in a dark mood when he arrived at work. “Yesterday, two people were
assassinated in my neighborhood,” he said. “Six were assassinated around Baghdad. I live in a
mixed neighborhood, and the threats of killing have returned. It feels like it
did just before the sectarian war of 2006. The militias are again working to
push people out of their homes if they are not Shia. Now, I worry everyday when
my daughter goes to school. I ask the taxi driver who takes her to drop her
close to the school, so that she is alright.” Then he paused a moment, held up
his arms and added, “And I pray.”
“This Is Our Life Now”
Iraqis who had enough money and connections
to leave the country have long since fled. Harb, another fixer and dear friend
who worked with me throughout much of my earlier reportage from Iraq, fled to Syria’s
with his family for security reasons. When the uprising in Syria turned violent and devolved into the
bloodbath it is today, he fled Damascus for Beirut. He is literally
running from war.
Recent Iraqi government estimates put the
total of “internally displaced persons” in Iraq at 1.1 million. Hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis remain in exile, but of course no one is counting. Even
those who stay often live as if they were refugees and act as if they are on
the run. Most of those I met on my most recent trip won’t even allow me to use
their real names when I interview them.
My first day in the field this time around,
I met with Isam, another fixer I’d worked with nine years ago. His son narrowly
escaped two kidnapping attempts, and he has had to change homes four times for
security reasons. Once he was strongly opposed to leaving Iraq because,
he always insisted, “this is my country, and these are my people.” Now, he is
desperate to find a way out. “There is no future here,” he told me.
“Sectarianism is everywhere and killing has come back to Baghdad.”
He takes me to interview refugees in his
neighborhood of al-Adhamiyah. Most of them fled their homes inmixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods and towns
during the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007. Inside his cobbled-together
brick house with a roof of tin sheeting held down with old tires, one refugee
echoes Isam’s words: “There is no future for us Iraqis,” he told me. “Day by
day our situation worsens, and now we expect a full sectarian war.”
Elsewhere, I interviewed 20-year-old Marwa
Ali, a mother of two. In a country where electric blackouts are a regular
event, water is often polluted, and waste of every sort litters neighborhoods,
the stench of garbage and raw sewage wafted through the door of her home while
flies buzzed about. “We have scorpions and snakes also,” she said while
watching me futilely swat at the swarm of insects that instantly surrounded me.
And she paused when she saw me looking at her children, a four-year-old son and
two-year-old daughter. “My children have no future,” she said. “Neither do I,
and neither does Iraq.”
Shortly afterward, I met with another
refugee, 55-year-old Haifa Abdul Majid. I held back tears when the first thing
she said was how grateful she was to have food. “We are finding some food and
can eat, and I thank God for this,” she told
me in front of her makeshift shelter. “This is the main thing. In
some countries, some people can’t even find food to eat.”
She, too, had fled sectarian violence, and
had lost loved ones and friends. While she acknowledged the hardship she was
experiencing and how difficult it was to live under such difficult
circumstances, she continued to express her gratitude that her situation wasn’t
worse. After all, she said, she wasn’t living in the desert. Finally, she
closed her eyes and shook her head. “We know we are in this bad situation
because of the American occupation,” she said wearily. “And now it is Iran having their revenge on us by using Maliki,
and getting back at Iraq for
the [1980-1988] war with Iran.
As for our future, if things stay like they are now, it will only keep getting
worse. The politicians only fight, and they take Iraq down into a hole. For 10 years
what have these politicians done? Nothing! Saddam was better than all of them.”
I asked her about her grandson. “Always I
wonder about him,” she replied. “I ask God to take me away before he grows up,
because I don’t want to see it. I’m an old woman now and I don’t care if I die,
but what about these young children?” She stopped speaking, looked off into the
distance, then stared at the ground. There was, for her, nothing else to say.
I heard the same fatalism even from Awadh,
Al Jazeera’s head of security. “Baghdad
is stressed,” he told me. “These days you can’t trust anyone. The situation on
the street is complicated, because militias are running everything. You don’t
know who is who. All the militias are preparing for more fighting, and all are
expecting the worst.”
As he said this, we passed under yet
another poster of an angry looking Maliki, speaking with a raised, clenched
fist. “Last year’s budget was $100 billion and we have no working sewage system
and garbage is everywhere,” he added. “Maliki is trying to be a dictator, and
is controlling all the money now.”
In the days that followed, my fixer Ali
pointed out new sidewalks, and newly planted trees and flowers, as well as the
new street lights the government has installed in Baghdad. “We called it first
the sidewalks government, because that was the only thing we could see that
they accomplished.” He laughed sardonically. “Then it was the flowers government,
and now it is the government of the street lamps, and the lamps sometimes don’t
Despite his brave face, kind heart, and
upbeat disposition, even Ali eventually shared his concerns with me. One
morning, when we met for work, I asked him about the latest news. “Same old,
same old,” he replied, “Kidnappings, killings, rapes. Same old, same old. This
is our life now, everyday.”
“The lack of hope for the future is our
biggest problem today,” he explained. He went on to say something that also
qualified eerily as another version of the “same old, same old.” I had heard
similar words from countless Iraqis back in the fall of 2003, as violence and
chaos first began to engulf the country. “All we want is to live in peace, and
have security, and have a normal life,” he said, “to be able to enjoy the
sweetness of life.” This time, however, there wasn’t even a trace of his usual
cheer, and not even a hint of gallows humor.
“All Iraq has had these last 10 years is
violence, chaos, and suffering. For 13 years before that we were starved and
deprived by [U.N. and U.S.]
sanctions. Before that, the Kuwait
War, and before that, the Iran
War. At least I experienced some of my childhood without knowing war. I’ve
achieved a job and have my family, but for my daughters, what will they have
here in this country? Will they ever get to live without war? I don’t think
For so many Iraqis like Ali, a decade after
invaded their country, this is the anniversary of nothing at all.
Dahr Jamail is a feature story staff writer and producer for the Human
Rights Department of Al Jazeera English. Currently based in Doha,
Qatar, Dahr has spent more
than a year in Iraq,
spread over a number of trips between 2003 and 2013. His reportage from Iraq,
, has won him several awards, including the
Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism. He is the author of
the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us
on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The
Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and
Copyright 2013 Dahr Jamail
Image by the U.S. Army,
licensed under Creative
Friday, March 22, 2013 1:01 PM
Secretive, paranoid, and aggressive, our militarized, hyper-masculine political culture feeds violence abroad and in the home. As John Stuart Mill argued, the subjection of nations has everything to do with the subjection of women.
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Picture this. A man, armored in tattoos, bursts into a
living room not his own. He confronts an enemy. He barks orders. He throws that
enemy into a chair. Then against a wall. He plants himself in the middle of the
room, feet widespread, fists clenched, muscles straining, face contorted in a
scream of rage. The tendons in his neck are taut with the intensity of his
terrifying performance. He chases the enemy to the next room, stopping escape
with a quick grab and thrust and body block that pins the enemy, bent back,
against a counter. He shouts more orders: his enemy can go with him to the
basement for a “private talk,” or be beaten to a pulp right here. Then he wraps
his fingers around the neck of his enemy and begins to choke her.
No, that invader isn’t an American soldier leading a
night raid on an Afghan village, nor is the enemy an anonymous Afghan
householder. This combat warrior is just a guy in Ohio named Shane. He’s doing what so many
men find exhilarating: disciplining his girlfriend with a heavy dose of the
violence we render harmless by calling it “domestic.”
It’s easy to figure out from a few basic facts that Shane
is a skilled predator. Why else does a 31-year-old man lavish attention on a
pretty 19-year-old with two children (ages four and two, the latter an equally
pretty and potentially targeted little female)? And what more vulnerable
girlfriend could he find than this one, named Maggie: a neglected young woman,
still a teenager, who for two years had been raising her kids on her own while
her husband fought a war in Afghanistan? That war had broken the family apart,
leaving Maggie with no financial support and more alone than ever.
But the way Shane assaulted Maggie, he might just as well
have been a night-raiding soldier terrorizing an Afghan civilian family in
pursuit of some dangerous Talib, real or imagined. For all we know, Maggie’s
estranged husband/soldier might have acted
in the same way in some Afghan living room and not only been paid but also
honored for it. The basic behavior is quite alike: an overwhelming display of
superior force. The tactics: shock and awe. The goal: to control the behavior,
the very life, of the designated target. The mind set: a sense of entitlement
when it comes to determining the fate of a subhuman creature. The dark side:
the fear and brutal rage of a scared loser who inflicts his miserable self on
As for that designated enemy, just as
American exceptionalism asserts the superiority of the United States over all
other countries and cultures on Earth, and even over the laws that govern
international relations, misogyny -- which seems to inform so much in the
United States these days, from military boot camp to the Oscars to full frontal political assaults on a woman’s right
to control her own body -- assures even the most pathetic guys like Shane of
their innate superiority over some “thing” usually addressed with multiple
Since 9/11, the further militarization of our already militarized culture has reached
new levels. Official America,
as embodied in our political system and national security state, now seems to
be thoroughly masculine, paranoid, quarrelsome, secretive, greedy, aggressive,
and violent. Readers familiar with “domestic violence” will recognize those
traits as equally descriptive of the average American wife beater: scared but
angry and aggressive, and feeling absolutely entitled to control something,
whether it’s just a woman, or a small country like Afghanistan.
Connecting the Dots
It was John Stuart Mill, writing in the nineteenth century, who
connected the dots between “domestic” and international violence. But he didn’t
use our absurdly gender-neutral, pale gray term “domestic violence.” He called
it “wife torture” or “atrocity,” and he recognized that torture
and atrocity are much the same, no matter where they take place -- whether
today in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Wardak Province, Afghanistan,
or a bedroom or basement in Ohio.
Arguing in 1869 against the subjection of women, Mill wrote that the Englishman’s habit of
household tyranny and “wife torture” established the pattern and practice for
his foreign policy. The tyrant at home becomes the tyrant at war. Home is the
training ground for the big games played overseas.
Mill believed that, in early times, strong men had used
force to enslave women and the majority of their fellow men. By the nineteenth
century, however, the “law of the strongest” seemed to him to have been
“abandoned” -- in England
at least -- “as the regulating principle of the world’s affairs.” Slavery had
been renounced. Only in the household did it continue to be practiced, though
wives were no longer openly enslaved but merely “subjected” to their husbands.
This subjection, Mill said, was the last vestige of the archaic “law of the
strongest,” and must inevitably fade away as reasonable men recognized its
barbarity and injustice. Of his own time, he wrote that “nobody professes” the
law of the strongest, and “as regards most of the relations between human
beings, nobody is permitted to practice it.”
Well, even a feminist may not be right about everything.
Times often change for the worse, and rarely has the law of the strongest been
more popular than it is in the United
States today. Routinely now we hear congressmen
declare that the U.S. is the
greatest nation in the world because it is the greatest military power in
history, just as presidents now regularly insist that the U.S. military is “the finest
fighting force in the history of the world.” Never mind that it rarely wins a
war. Few here question that primitive standard -- the law of the strongest --
as the measure of this America’s
The War Against Women
Mill, however, was right about the larger point: that
tyranny at home is the model for tyranny abroad. What he perhaps didn’t see was
the perfect reciprocity of the relationship that perpetuates the law of the
strongest both in the home and far away.
When tyranny and violence are practiced on a grand scale
in foreign lands, the practice also intensifies at home. As American militarism
went into overdrive after 9/11, it validated violence against women here, where
Republicans held up reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act
(first passed in 1994), and celebrities who publicly assaulted their girlfriends faced no
consequences other than a deluge of sympathetic girl-fan tweets.
invasions abroad also validated violence within the U.S. military itself. An estimated
19,000 women soldiers were sexually assaulted in 2011; and an unknown number have been murdered by fellow soldiers who were, in many cases, their
husbands or boyfriends. A great deal of violence against women in the military,
from rape to murder, has been documented, only to be casually covered up by the chain of command.
Violence against civilian women here at home, on the
other hand, may not be reported or tallied at all, so the full extent of it
escapes notice. Men prefer to maintain the historical fiction that violence in
the home is a private matter, properly and legally concealed behind a
“curtain.” In this way is male impunity and tyranny maintained.
Women cling to a fiction of our own: that we are much
more “equal” than we are. Instead of confronting male violence, we still prefer
to lay the blame for it on individual women and girls who fall victim to it --
as if they had volunteered. But then, how to explain the dissonant fact that at
least one of every three female American soldiers is sexually
assaulted by a male “superior”? Surely that’s not what American women had in
mind when they signed up for the Marines or for Air Force flight training. In fact, lots of teenage girls
volunteer for the military precisely to escape violence and sexual abuse in
their childhood homes or streets.
Don’t get me wrong, military men are neither alone nor
out of the ordinary in terrorizing women. The broader American war against
women has intensified on many fronts here at home, right along with our wars
abroad. Those foreign wars have killed uncounted thousands of civilians, many
of them women and children, which could make the private battles of domestic
warriors like Shane here in the U.S. seem puny by comparison. But it would be a
mistake to underestimate the firepower of the Shanes of our American world. The
statistics tell us that a legal handgun has been the most popular means of dispatching a
wife, but when it comes to girlfriends, guys really get off on beating them to death.
Some 3,073 people were killed in the terrorist attacks on
the United States
on 9/11. Between that day and June 6, 2012, 6,488 U.S.
soldiers were killed in combat in Iraq
and Afghanistan, bringing
the death toll for America’s
war on terror at home and abroad to 9,561. During the same period, 11,766 women
were murdered in the United States by their husbands or
boyfriends, both military and civilian. The greater number of women killed here
at home is a measure of the scope and the furious intensity of the war against
women, a war that threatens to continue long after the misconceived war on
terror is history.
Getting the Picture
Think about Shane, standing there in a nondescript living
room in Ohio
screaming his head off like a little child who wants what he wants when he
wants it. Reportedly, he was trying to be a good guy and make a career as a
singer in a Christian rock band. But like the combat soldier in a foreign war
who is modeled after him, he uses violence to hold his life together and
accomplish his mission.
We know about Shane only because there happened to be a
photographer on the scene. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz had chosen to document the
story of Shane and his girlfriend Maggie out of sympathy for his situation as
an ex-con, recently released from prison yet not free of the stigma attached to
a man who had done time. Then, one night, there he was in the living room
throwing Maggie around, and Lewkowicz did what any good combat photographer
would do as a witness to history: she kept shooting. That action alone was a
kind of intervention and may have saved Maggie’s life.
In the midst of the violence, Lewkowicz also dared to
snatch from Shane’s pocket her own cell phone, which he had borrowed earlier.
It’s unclear whether she passed the phone to someone else or made the 911 call
herself. The police arrested Shane, and a smart policewoman told Maggie: “You
know, he’s not going to stop. They never stop. They usually stop when they kill
Maggie did the right thing. She gave the police a
statement. Shane is back in prison. And Lewkowicz’s remarkable photographs were posted online on February 27th at Time
magazine’s website feature Lightbox under the heading “Photographer
As Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence.”
The photos are remarkable because the photographer is
very good and the subject of her attention is so rarely caught on camera.
Unlike warfare covered in Iraq
by embedded combat photographers, wife torture takes place mostly behind closed
doors, unannounced and unrecorded. The first photographs of wife torture to
appear in the U.S.
were Donna Ferrato’s now iconic images of violence against women at home.
Like Lewkowicz, Ferrato came upon wife torture by chance;
she was documenting a marriage in 1980 when the happy husband chose to beat up
his wife. Yet so reluctant were photo editors to pull aside the curtain of
domestic privacy that even after Ferrato became a Life photographer in
1984, pursuing the same subject, nobody, including Life, wanted to
publish the shocking images she produced.
In 1986, six years after she witnessed that first
assault, some of her photographs of violence against women in the home were
published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and brought her the 1987 Robert
F. Kennedy journalism award “for outstanding coverage of the problems of the
disadvantaged.” In 1991, Aperture, the publisher of distinguished photography
books, brought out Ferrato’s eye-opening body of work as Living with the Enemy (for which I wrote an introduction).
Since then, the photos have been widely reproduced. Timeused
a Ferrato image on its cover in 1994, when the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson
briefly drew attention to what the magazine called “the epidemic of domestic
abuse” and Lightbox featured a small retrospective of her domestic violence work on June 27, 2012.
Ferrato herself started a foundation, offering her work
to women’s groups across the country to exhibit at fundraisers for local
shelters and services. Those photo exhibitions also helped raise consciousness
and certainly contributed to smarter, less misogynistic police procedures of
the kind that put Shane back in jail.
Ferrato’s photos were incontrovertible evidence of the
violence in our homes, rarely acknowledged and never before so plainly seen.
Yet until February 27th, when with Ferrato’s help, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s
photos were posted on Lightbox only two months after they were taken,
Ferrato’s photos were all we had. We needed more. So there was every reason for
Lewkowicz’s work to be greeted with acclaim by photographers and women
Instead, in more than 1,700 comments posted at Lightbox,
photographer Lewkowicz was mainly castigated for things like not dropping her
camera and taking care to get Maggie’s distraught two-year-old daughter out of
the room or singlehandedly stopping the assault. (Need it be said that stopping
combat is not the job of combat photographers?)
Maggie, the victim of this felonious assault, was also
mercilessly denounced: for going out with Shane in the first place, for failing
to foresee his violence, for “cheating” on her already estranged husband fighting
and inexplicably for being a “perpetrator.” Reviewing the commentary for the Columbia
Journalism Review, Jina Moore concluded, “[T]here’s one thing all the critics seem to agree
on: The only adult in the house not responsible for the violence is the
man committing it.”
They Only Stop When They Kill You
Viewers of these photographs -- photos that accurately
reflect the daily violence so many women face -- seem to find it easy to
ignore, or even praise, the raging man behind it all. So, too, do so many find
it convenient to ignore the violence that America’s warriors abroad inflict
under orders on a mass scale upon women and children in war zones.
invasion and occupation of Iraq
had the effect of displacing millions from their homes within the country or driving them into exile in foreign lands. Rates of rape and
atrocity were staggering, as I learned firsthand when in 2008-2009 I spent time
in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon talking with Iraqi refugees. In addition, those women who
remain in Iraq now live
under the rule of conservative Islamists, heavily influenced by Iran. Under the
former secular regime, Iraqi women were considered the most advanced in the
Arab world; today, they say they have been set back a century.
too, while Americans take credit for putting women back in the workplace and
girls in school, untold thousands of women and children have been displaced
internally, many to makeshift camps on the outskirts of Kabul where 17 children froze to death last January. The U.N. reported
2,754 civilian deaths and 4,805 civilian injuries as a result of the war in
2012, the majority of them women and children. In a country without a state
capable of counting bodies, these are undoubtedly significant undercounts. A
U.N. official said, “It is the tragic reality that most Afghan women and
girls were killed or injured while engaging in their everyday activities.”
Thousands of women in Afghan cities have been forced into survival sex, as were
Iraqi women who fled as refugees to Beirut and
That’s what male violence is meant to do to women. The
enemy. War itself is a kind of screaming tattooed man, standing in the middle
of a room -- or another country -- asserting the law of the strongest. It’s
like a reset button on history that almost invariably ensures women will find
themselves subjected to men in ever more terrible ways. It’s one more thing
that, to a certain kind of man, makes going to war, like good old-fashioned
wife torture, so exciting and so much fun.
Ann Jones, historian, journalist, photographer, and TomDispatch regular, chronicled violence against women in the
U.S. in several books, including the feminist classic Women Who Kill (1980) and Next Time, She’ll Be Dead (2000), before going to Afghanistan
in 2002 to work with women. She is the author of Kabul in Winter (2006) and War Is Not Over When It’s Over (2010).
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones
Image by CMY Kane, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013 12:37 PM
This essay will appear in the next issue of
and appears at TomDispatch.com.
Shakespeare’s Polonius offered this classic advice to his
son: “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Many of our nation’s Founding Fathers
emphatically saw it otherwise. They often lived by the maxim: always a
borrower, never a lender be. As tobacco and rice planters, slave traders, and
merchants, as well as land and currency speculators, they depended upon long
lines of credit to finance their livelihoods and splendid ways of life. So,
too, in those days, did shopkeepers, tradesmen, artisans, and farmers, as well
as casual laborers and sailors. Without debt, the seedlings of a commercial
economy could never have grown to maturity.
Ben Franklin, however, was wary on the subject. “Rather
go to bed supperless than rise in debt” was his warning, and even now his
cautionary words carry great moral weight. We worry about debt, yet we can’t
live without it.
Debt remains, as it long has been, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde of capitalism. For a small minority, it’s a blessing; for others a curse.
For some the moral burden of carrying debt is a heavy one, and no one lets them
forget it. For privileged others, debt bears no moral baggage at all, presents
itself as an opportunity to prosper, and if things go wrong can be dumped
without a qualm.
Those who view debt with a smiley face as
the royal road to wealth accumulation and tend to be forgiven if their default
is large enough almost invariably come from the top rungs of the economic
hierarchy. Then there are the rest of us, who get scolded for our impecunious
ways, foreclosed upon and dispossessed, leaving behind scars that never fade
away and wounds that disable our futures.
Think of this upstairs-downstairs class calculus as the
politics of debt. British economist John Maynard Keynes put it like this: “If I
owe you a pound, I have a problem; but if I owe you a million, the problem is
After months of an impending “debtpocalypse,” the dreaded “debt ceiling,” and the “fiscal
cliff,” Americans remain preoccupied with debt, public and private. Austerity
is what we’re promised for our sins. Millions are drowning, or have already
drowned, in a sea of debt -- mortgages gone bad, student loans that may
never be paid off, spiraling credit card bills, car loans, payday loans, and a
menagerie of new-fangled financial mechanisms cooked up by the country’s
“financial engineers” to milk what’s left of the American standard of living.
The world economy almost came apart in 2007-2008, and
still may do so under the whale-sized carcass of debt left behind by financial
plunderers who found in debt the leverage to get ever richer. Most of them
still live in their mansions and McMansions, while other debtors live outdoors,
or in cars or shelters, or doubled-up with relatives and friends -- or even in
debtor’s prison. Believe it or not, a version of debtor’s prison, that relic of early American commercial
barbarism, is back.
In 2013, you can’t actually be jailed for not paying your
bills, but ingenious corporations, collection agencies, cops, courts,
and lawyers have devised ways to insure that debt “delinquents” will end up in
jail anyway. With one-third of the states now allowing the jailing of debtors
(without necessarily calling it that), it looks ever more like a trend in the making.
Will Americans tolerate this, or might there emerge a
politics of resistance to debt, as has happened more than once in a past that
shouldn’t be forgotten?
The World of Debtor’s Prisons
Imprisonment for debt was a commonplace in colonial America and the early republic, and
wasn’t abolished in most states until the 1830s or 1840s, in some cases not
until after the Civil War. Today, we think of it as a peculiar and heartless
way of punishing the poor -- and it was. But it was more than that.
Some of the richest, most esteemed members of society
also ended up there, men like Robert Morris, who helped finance the American
Revolution and ran the Treasury under the Articles of Confederation; John
Pintard, a stock-broker, state legislator, and founder of the New York
Historical Society; William Duer, graduate of Eton, powerful merchant and
speculator, assistant secretary in the Treasury Department of the new federal
government, and master of a Hudson River manse; a Pennsylvania Supreme Court
judge; army generals; and other notables.
Whether rich or poor, you were there for a long stretch,
even for life, unless you could figure out some way of discharging your debts.
That, however, is where the similarity between wealthy and impoverished debtors
Whether in the famous Marshalsea in London where Charles
Dickens had Little Dorritt’s father incarcerated (and where Dickens’s father
had actually languished when the author was 12), or in the New Gaol in New York
City, where men like Duer and Morris did their time, debtors prisons were
segregated by class. If your debts were large enough and your social
connections weighty enough (the two tended to go together) you lived
comfortably. You were supplied with good food and well-appointed living
quarters, as well as books and other pleasures, including on occasion
manicurists and prostitutes.
Robert Morris entertained George Washington for dinner in
his “cell.” Once released, he resumed his career as the new nation’s richest
man. Before John Pintard moved to New Gaol, he redecorated his cell, had it
repainted and upholstered, and shipped in two mahogany writing desks.
Meanwhile, the mass of petty debtors housed in the same
institution survived, if at all, amid squalor, filth, and disease. They were
often shackled, and lacked heat, clean water, adequate food, or often food of
any kind. (You usually had to have the money to buy your own food, clothing,
and fuel.) Debtors in these prisons frequently found themselves quite literally
dying of debt. And you could end up in such circumstances for trivial sums. Of
the 1,162 jailed debtors in New York
City in 1787, 716 owed less than twenty shillings or
one pound. A third of Philadelphia’s
inmates in 1817 were there for owing less than $5, and debtors in the city’s
prisons outnumbered violent criminals by 5:1. In Boston, 15% of them were women. Shaming was
more the point of punishment than anything else.
Scenes of public pathos were commonplace. Inmates at the
New Gaol, if housed on its upper floors, would lower shoes out the window on
strings to collect alms for their release. Other prisons installed “beggar
gates” through which those jailed in cellar dungeons could stretch out their
palms for the odd coins from passersby.
Poor and rich alike wanted out. Pamphleteering against the
institution of debtor’s prison began in the 1750s. An Anglican minister in South Carolina denounced the jails, noting that “a person
would be in a better situation in the French King’s Gallies, or the Prisons of
Turkey or Barbary than in this dismal place.”
Discontent grew. A mass escape from New Gaol of 40 prisoners armed with pistols
and clubs was prompted by extreme hunger.
In the 1820s and 1830s, as artisans, journeymen, sailors,
longshoremen, and other workers organized the early trade union movement as
well as workingmen’s political parties, one principal demand was for the
abolition of imprisonment for debt. Inheritors of a radical political culture,
their complaints echoed that Biblical tradition of Jubilee mentioned in Leviticus, which
called for a cancellation of debts, the restoration of lost houses and land,
and the freeing of slaves and bond servants every 50 years.
Falling into debt was a particularly ruinous affliction
for those who aspired to modest independence as shopkeepers, handicraftsmen, or
farmers. As markets for their goods expanded but became ever less predictable,
they found themselves taking out credit to survive and sometimes going into
arrears, often followed by a stint in debtor’s prison that ended their dreams
However much the poor organized and protested, it was the
rich who got debt relief first. Today, we assume that debts can be discharged
through bankruptcy (although even now that option is either severely restricted
or denied to certain classes of less favored debt delinquents like college students). Although the newly adopted U.S.
Constitution opened the door to a national bankruptcy law, Congress didn’t walk
through it until 1800, even though many, including the well-off, had been
lobbying for it.
Enough of the old moral faith that frowned on debt as
sinful lingered. The United
States has always been an uncharitable place
when it comes to debt, a curious attitude for a society largely settled by
absconding debtors and indentured servants (a form of time-bound debt peonage).
Indeed, the state of Georgia
was founded as a debtor’s haven at a time when England’s jails were overflowing
When Congress finally passed the Bankruptcy Act, those in
the privileged quarters at New Gaol threw a party. Down below, however, life
continued in its squalid way, since the new law only applied to people who had
sizable debts. If you owed too little, you stayed in jail.
Debt and the Birth of a Nation
Nowadays, the conservative media inundate us with
warnings about debt from the Founding Fathers, and it’s true that some of them
like Jefferson -- himself an inveterate, often near-bankrupt debtor -- did
moralize on the subject. However, Alexander Hamilton, an idol of the
conservative movement, was the architect of the country’s first national debt,
insisting that “if it is not excessive, [it] will be to us a national
As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton’s goal was to transform the former 13 colonies,
which today we would call an underdeveloped land, into a country that someday
would rival Great Britain.
This, he knew, required liquid capital (resources not tied up in land or other
less mobile forms of wealth), which could then be invested in sometimes highly
speculative and risky enterprises. Floating a national debt, he felt sure,
would attract capital from well-positioned merchants at home and abroad,
especially in England.
However, for most ordinary people living under the new
government, debt aroused anger. To begin with, there were all those veterans of
the Revolutionary War and all the farmers who had supplied the revolutionary
army with food and been paid in notoriously worthless “continentals” -- the
currency issued by the Continental Congress -- or equally valueless state
As rumors of the formation of a new national government
spread, speculators roamed the countryside buying up this paper money at a
penny on the dollar, on the assumption that the debts they represented would be
redeemed at face value. In fact, that is just what Hamilton’s national debt would do, making
these “sunshine patriots” quite rich, while leaving the yeomanry impoverished.
Outrage echoed across the country even before Hamilton’s plan got
adopted. Jefferson denounced the currency
speculators as loathsome creatures and had this to say about debt in general:
“The modern theory of the perpetuation of debt has drenched the earth with
blood and crushed its inhabitants under burdens ever accumulating.” He and
others denounced the speculators as squadrons of counter-revolutionary
“moneycrats” who would use their power and wealth to undo the democratic
accomplishments of the revolution.
In contrast, Hamilton
saw them as a disinterested monied elite upon whom the country’s economic
well-being depended, while dismissing the criticisms of the Jeffersonians as
the ravings of Jacobin levelers. Soon enough, political warfare over the debt
turned founding fathers into fratricidal brothers.
Hamilton’s plan worked -- sometimes too well. Wealthy speculators in land like
Robert Morris, or in the building of docks, wharves, and other projects tied to
trade, or in the national debt itself -- something William Duer and grandees
like him specialized in -- seized the moment. Often enough, however, they
over-reached and found themselves, like the yeomen farmers and soldiers, in
default to their creditors.
Duer’s attempts to corner the market in the bonds issued by
the new federal government and in the stock of the country’s first National
Bank represented one of the earliest instances of insider trading. They also
proved a lurid example of how speculation could go disastrously wrong. When the
scheme collapsed, it caused the country’s first Wall Street panic and a local
depression that spread through New England, ruining “shopkeepers, widows, orphans, butchers...
gardeners, market women, and even the noted Bawd Mrs. McCarty.”
A mob chased Duer through the streets of New York and might have
hanged or disemboweled him had he not been rescued by the city sheriff, who
sent him to the safety of debtor’s prison. John Pintard, part of the same
scheme, fled to Newark, New Jersey, before being caught and jailed
Sending the Duers and Pintards of the new republic off to
debtors’ prison was not, however, quite what Hamilton had in mind. And leaving them
rotting there was hardly going to foster the “enterprising spirit” that would,
in the treasury secretary’s estimation, turn the country into the Great Britain
of the next century. Bankruptcy, on the other hand, ensured that the
overextended could start again and keep the machinery of commercial
transactions lubricated. Hence, the Bankruptcy Act of 1800.
If, however, you were not a major player, debt functioned
differently. Shouldered by the hoi polloi, it functioned as a mechanism for
funneling wealth into the mercantile-financial hothouses where American
capitalism was being incubated.
No wonder debt excited such violent political emotions.
Even before the Constitution was adopted, farmers in western Massachusetts,
indebted to Boston
bankers and merchants and in danger of losing their ancestral homes in the
economic hard times of the 1780s, rose in armed rebellion. In those years, the
number of lawsuits for unpaid debt doubled and tripled, farms were seized, and
their owners sent off to jail. Incensed, farmers led by a former revolutionary
soldier, Daniel Shays, closed local courts by force and liberated debtors from
prisons. Similar but smaller uprisings erupted in Maine,
Connecticut, New York,
and Pennsylvania, while in New
Hampshire and Vermont
irate farmers surrounded government offices.
Shays' Rebellion of 1786 alarmed the country’s elites.
They depicted the unruly yeomen as “brutes” and their houses as “sties.” They
were frightened as well by state governments like Rhode Island’s that were more open to
popular influence, declared debt moratoria, and issued paper currencies to help
farmers and others pay off their debts. These developments signaled the need
for a stronger central government fully capable of suppressing future debtor
Federal authority established at the Constitutional
Convention allowed for that, but the unrest continued. Shays' Rebellion was but
part one of a trilogy of uprisings that continued into the 1790s. The Whiskey
Rebellion of 1794 was the most serious. An excise tax (“whiskey tax”) meant to
generate revenue to back up the national debt threatened the livelihoods of
farmers in western Pennsylvania
who used whiskey as a “currency” in a barter economy. President Washington sent
in troops, many of them Revolutionary War veterans, with Hamilton at their head to put down the
Debt Servitude and Primitive Accumulation
Debt would continue to play a vital role in national and
local political affairs throughout the nineteenth century, functioning as a form
of capital accumulation in the financial sector, and often sinking
pre-capitalist forms of life in the process.
Before and during the time that capitalists were fully
assuming the prerogatives of running the production process in field and
factory, finance was building up its own resources from the outside. Meanwhile,
the mechanisms of public and private debt made the lives of farmers, craftsmen,
shopkeepers, and others increasingly insupportable.
This parasitic economic metabolism helped account for the
riotous nature of Gilded Age politics. Much of the high drama of late
nineteenth-century political life circled around “greenbacks,” “free silver,”
and "the gold standard." These issues may strike us as arcane today,
but they were incendiary then, threatening what some called a “second Civil
War.” In one way or another, they were centrally about debt, especially a
system of indebtedness that was driving the independent farmer to extinction.
All the highways of global capitalism found their way
into the trackless vastness of rural America. Farmers there were not in
dire straits because of their backwoods isolation. On the contrary, it was
because they turned out to be living at Ground Zero, where the explosive energies of
financial and commercial modernity detonated. A toxic combination of railroads,
grain-elevator operators, farm-machinery manufacturers, commodity-exchange
speculators, local merchants, and above all the banking establishment had the
farmer at their mercy. His helplessness was only aggravated when the
nineteenth-century version of globalization left his crops in desperate
competition with those from the steppes of Canada
and Russia, as well as the
outbacks of Australia and South America.
To survive this mercantile onslaught, farmers hooked
themselves up to long lines of credit that stretched back to the financial
centers of the East. These lifelines allowed them to buy the seed, fertilizer,
and machines needed to farm, pay the storage and freight charges that went with
selling their crops, and keep house and home together while the plants ripened
and the hogs fattened. When market day finally arrived, the farmer found out
just what all his backbreaking work was really worth. If the news was bad, then
those credit lines were shut off and he found himself dispossessed.
The family farm and the network of small town life that
went with it were being washed into the rivers of capital heading for
On the “sod house” frontier, poverty was a “badge of honor which decorated
all.” In his Devil’s Dictionary, the acid-tongued humorist
Ambrose Bierce defined the dilemma this way: “Debt. n. An ingenious substitute
for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.”
Across the Great Plains
and the cotton South, discontented farmers spread the blame for their
predicament far and wide. Anger, however, tended to pool around the
strangulating system of currency and credit run out of the banking centers of
the northeast. Beginning in the 1870s with the emergence of the Greenback Party
and Greenback-Labor Party and culminating in the 1890s with the People’s or
Populist Party, independent farmers, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, small
businessmen, and skilled workers directed ever more intense hostility at “the
That “power” might appear locally in the homeliest of
disguises. At coal mines and other industrial sites, among “coolies” working to
build the railroads or imported immigrant gang laborers and convicts leased to private concerns, workers were typically
compelled to buy what they needed in company scrip at company stores at prices
that left them perpetually in debt. Proletarians were so precariously
positioned that going into debt -- whether to pawnshops or employers, landlords
or loan sharks -- was unavoidable. Often they were paid in kind: wood chips,
thread, hemp, scraps of canvas, cordage: nothing, that is, that was of any use
in paying off accumulated debts. In effect, they were, as they called
themselves, “debt slaves.”
In the South, hard-pressed growers found themselves
embroiled in a crop-lien system, dependent on the local “furnishing agent” to
supply everything needed, from seed to clothing to machinery, to get through
the growing season. In such situations, no money changed hands, just a note
scribbled in the merchant’s ledger, with payment due at “settling up” time.
This granted the lender a lien, or title, to the crop, a lien that never went
In this fashion, the South became “a great pawn shop,”
with farmers perpetually in debt at interest rates exceeding 100% per year. In Alabama, Georgia,
90% of farmers lived on credit. The first lien you signed was essentially a
life sentence. Either that or you became a tenant farmer, or you simply left
your land, something so commonplace that everyone knew what the letters
“G.T.T.” on an abandoned farmhouse meant: “Gone to Texas.” (One hundred
thousand people a year were doing that in the 1870s.)
The merchant’s exaction was so steep that
African-Americans and immigrants in particular were regularly reduced to
peonage -- forced, that is, to work to pay off their debt, an illegal but not
uncommon practice. And that neighborhood furnishing agent was often tied to the
banks up north for his own lines of credit. In this way, the sucking sound of
money leaving for the great metropolises reverberated from region to region.
Facing dispossession, farmers formed alliances to set up
cooperatives to extend credit to one another and market crops themselves. As
one Populist editorialist remarked, this was the way “mortgage-burdened farmers
can assert their freedom from the tyranny of organized capital.” But when they
found that these groupings couldn’t survive the competitive pressure of the
banking establishment, politics beckoned.
From one presidential election to the next and in state
contests throughout the South and West, irate grain and cotton growers demanded
that the government expand the paper currency supply, those “greenbacks,” also
known as “the people’s money,” or that it monetize silver, again to enlarge the
money supply, or that it set up public institutions to finance farmers during
the growing season. With a passion hard for us to imagine, they railed against
the “gold standard” which, in Democratic Partypresidential candidate
William Jennings Bryan’s famous cry, should no longer be allowed to “crucify
mankind on a cross of gold.”
Should that cross of gold stay fixed in place, one Alabama physician
prophesied, it would “reduce the American yeomanry to menials and paupers, to
be driven by monopolies like cattle and swine.” As Election Day approached,
populist editors and speakers warned of an approaching war with “the money
power,” and they meant it. “The fight will come and let it come!”
The idea was to force the government to deliberately
inflate the currency and so raise farm prices. And the reason for doing that?
To get out from under the sea of debt in which they were submerged. It was a
cry from the heart and it echoed and re-echoed across the heartland, coming
nearer to upsetting the established order than any American political upheaval
before or since.
The passion of those populist farmers and laborers was
matched by that of their enemies, men at the top of the economy and government
for whom debt had long been a road to riches rather than destitution. They
dismissed their foes as “cranks” and “calamity howlers.” And in the election of
1896, they won. Bryan
went down to defeat, gold continued its pitiless process of crucifixion, and a
whole human ecology was set on a path to extinction.
The Return of Debt Servitude
When populism died, debt -- as a spark for national
political confrontation -- died, too. The great reform eras that followed --
Progessivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society -- were preoccupied with
inequality, economic collapse, exploitation in the workplace, and the outsized
nature of corporate power in a consolidated industrial capitalist system.
Rumblings about debt servitude could certainly still be
heard. Foreclosed farmers during the Great Depression mobilized, held “penny
auctions” to restore farms to families, hanged judges in effigy, and forced
Prudential Insurance Company, the largest land creditor in Iowa, to suspend foreclosures on 37,000
farms (which persuaded Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to do likewise). A Kansas City realtor was
shot in the act of foreclosing on a family farm, a country sheriff kidnapped
while trying to evict a farm widow and dumped 10 miles out of town, and so on.
Urban renters and homeowners facing eviction formed
neighborhood groups to stop the local sheriff or police from throwing families
out of their houses or apartments. Furniture tossed into the street in eviction
proceedings would be restored by neighbors, who would also turn the gas and
electricity back on. New Deal farm and housing finance legislation bailed out
banks and homeowners alike. Right-wing populists like the Catholic priest
Father Charles Coughlin carried on the war against the gold standard in tirades
tinged with anti-Semitism. Signs like one in Nebraska -- “The Jew System of Banking”
(illustrated with a giant rattlesnake) -- showed up too often.
But the age of primitive accumulation in which debt and
the financial sector had played such a strategic role was drawing to a close.
Today, we have entered a new phase. What might be called capitalist underdevelopment and once again debt has emerged
as both the central mode of capital accumulation and a principal mechanism of
servitude. Warren Buffett (of all people) has predicted
that, in the coming decades, the United States is more likely to
turn into a “sharecropper society” than an “ownership society.”
In our time, the financial sector has enriched itself by devouring the productive wherewithal of industrial America through
debt, starving the public sector of resources, and saddling ordinary working people with every conceivable
form of consumer debt.
Household debt, which in 1952 was at 36% of total
personal income, had by 2006 hit 127%. Even financing poverty became a lucrative
enterprise. Taking advantage of the low credit ratings of poor people and their
need for cash to pay monthly bills or simply feed themselves, some
check-cashing outlets, payday lenders, tax preparers, and others levy interest
of 200% to 300% and more. As recently as the 1970s, a good part of this would
have been considered illegal under usury laws that no longer exist. And these
poverty creditors are often tied to the largest financiers, including Citibank,
Bank of America, and American Express.
Credit has come to function as a “plastic safety net” in a world of
job insecurity, declining state support, and slow-motion economic growth,
especially among the elderly, young adults, and low-income families. More than
half the pre-tax income of these three groups goes to servicing debt. Nowadays,
however, the “company store” is headquartered on Wall Street.
Debt is driving this system of auto-cannibalism which, by
every measure of social wellbeing, is relentlessly turning a developed country
into an underdeveloped one.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are back. Is a political
resistance to debt servitude once again imaginable?
Steve Fraser is a historian, writer, and editor-at-large
for New Labor Forum, co-founder of the American Empire
Project, and TomDispatch regular. He is, most recently, the
author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. He teaches at Columbia University. This essay will appear in
the next issue of Jacobin magazine.
Copyright 2013 Steve Fraser
insurrection in Pennsylvania,”
depicting the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion (R.M.
Wednesday, January 09, 2013 9:39 AM
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
looked great for 78 years old. (At least, that’s about how old he thought he
was.) His hair was thin, gray, and receding at the temples, but his eyes were
lively and his physique robust -- all the more remarkable given what he had
lived through. I listened intently, as I had so many times before to so many
similar stories, but it was still beyond my ability to comprehend. It’s
probably beyond yours, too.
Pham To told
me that the planes began their bombing runs in 1965 and that periodic artillery
shelling started about the same time. Nobody will ever know just how many
civilians were killed in the years after that. “The number is uncountable,” he
said one spring day a few years ago in a village in the mountains of rural
“So many people died.”
And it only got worse. Chemical defoliants came next, ravaging the land.
Helicopter machine gunners began firing on locals. By 1969, bombing and
shelling were day-and-night occurrences. Many villagers fled. Some headed
further into the mountains, trading the terror of imminent death for a daily
struggle of hardscrabble privation; others were forced into squalid refugee
resettlement areas. Those who remained in the village suffered more when the
troops came through. Homes were burned as a matter of course. People were
kicked and beaten. Men were shot when they ran in fear. Women were raped. One
morning, a massacre by American soldiers wiped out 21 fellow villagers. This
was the Vietnam War for Pham To, as for so many rural Vietnamese.
One, Two… Many Vietnams?
beginning of the Iraq War, and for years after, reporters, pundits, veterans,
politicians, and ordinary Americans asked
whether the American debacle in Southeast Asia
was being repeated. Would it be “another
Vietnam”? Would it become a “quagmire”?
The same held
true for Afghanistan.
Years after 9/11, as that war, too, foundered, questions about whether it was “Obama’s
Vietnam” appeared ever more frequently. In fact, by October 2009, a
majority of Americans had come to believe it was “turning
into another Vietnam.”
even proved a surprisingly two-sided
analogy -- after, at least, generals began
reading and citing revisionist
texts about that war. These claimed, despite all appearances, that
the U.S. military had
actually won in Vietnam
(before the politicians, media, and antiwar movement gave the gains away). The
same winning formula, they insisted, could be used to triumph again. And so, a
failed solution from that failed war, counterinsurgency, or COIN, was trotted
out as the military panacea for impending disaster.
between the two ongoing wars and the one that somehow never went away, came to litter
newspapers, journals, magazines, and the Internet -- until David Petraeus, a
top COINdinista general who had written his doctoral dissertation
on the “lessons” of the Vietnam War, was called in to settle the matter by
putting those lessons to work winning the other two. In the end, of course,
U.S. troops were booted
out of Iraq, while the war in Afghanistan continues to this day as a
dismally devolving stalemate, now wracked by “green-on-blue”
or “insider” attacks on U.S. forces, while the general himself returned to
Washington as CIA director to run covert wars in Pakistan
before retiring in disgrace
following a sex scandal.
all the ink about the “Vietnam analogy,”
virtually none of the reporters, pundits, historians, generals, politicians, or
other members of the chattering classes ever so much as mentioned the Vietnam
War as Pham To knew it. In that way, they managed to miss the one unfailing
parallel between America’s
wars in all three places: civilian suffering.
For all the
dissimilarities, botched analogies, and tortured comparisons, there has been
one connecting thread in Washington’s
foreign wars of the last half century that, in recent years at least, Americans
have seldom found of the slightest interest: misery for local nationals.
Civilian suffering is, in fact, the defining characteristic of modern war in
general, even if only rarely discussed in the halls of power or the mainstream
An Unimaginable Toll
Pham To was
lucky. He and Pham Thang, another victim and a neighbor, told me that, of the
2,000 people living in their village before the war, only 300 survived it.
Bombing, shelling, a massacre, disease, and starvation had come close to wiping
out their entire settlement. “So many people were hungry,” Pham Thang said.
“With no food, many died. Others were sick and with medications unavailable,
they died, too. Then there was the bombing and shelling, which took still more
lives. They all died because of the war.”
Leaving aside those who perished from disease, hunger, or lack of medical
care, at least 3.8 million Vietnamese died violent war deaths according to
researchers from Harvard Medical School
and the University
of Washington. The best
estimate we have is that 2 million of them were civilians. Using a very
conservative extrapolation, this suggests that 5.3 million civilians were
wounded during the war, for a total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian
casualties overall. To such figures might be added an estimated 11.7
million Vietnamese forced from their homes and turned into refugees,
up to 4.8
million sprayed with toxic herbicides like Agent Orange, an
estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million war orphans, and 1 million war widows.
are staggering, the suffering incalculable, the misery almost incomprehensible
to most Americans but not, perhaps, to an Iraqi.
No one will
ever know just how many Iraqis died in the wake of the U.S. invasion
of 2003. In a country with an estimated population of about 25
million at the time, a much-debated survey -- the results of which
were published in the British medical journal The
suggested more than 601,000
violent “excess deaths” had occurred by 2006. Another survey
indicated that more than 1.2
million Iraqi civilians had died because of the war (and the various
internal conflicts that flowed from it) as of 2007. The Associated Press
tallied up records of 110,600
deaths by early 2009. An Iraqi family health survey fixed the number
violent deaths by June 2006. Official documents made public by
Wikileaks counted 109,000 deaths, including 66,081 civilian deaths, between
2004 and 2009. Iraq Body Count has
tallied as many as 121,220 documented cases of violent civilian deaths alone.
are those 3.2
million Iraqis who were internally displaced or fled the violence to
other lands, only to find uncertainty and deprivation in places like Jordan, Iran,
and now war-torn Syria.
By 2011, 9% or more of Iraq’s
women, as many as 1
million, were widows (a number that skyrocketed in the years after
invasion). A recent survey found that 800,000 to 1 million
Iraqi children had lost one or both parents, a figure that only grows with the
continuing violence that the U.S.
unleashed but never stamped out.
country, which experienced an enormous
brain drain of professionals, has a total of 200 social workers and
psychiatrists to aid all those, armed and unarmed, who suffered every sort of
horror and trauma. (In just the last seven years, by comparison, the U.S.
Veterans Administration has hired 7,000
new mental health professionals to deal with Americans who have been
psychologically scarred by war.)
too, would surely be able to relate to what Pham To and millions of Vietnamese
war victims endured. For more than 30 years, Afghanistan has, with the rarest of
exceptions, been at war. It all started with the 1979 Soviet invasion and Washington’s
support for some of the most extreme of the Islamic militants who
opposed the Russian occupation of the country.
iteration of war there began with an invasion by U.S. and allied forces in
2001, and has since claimed the lives of many thousands of
civilians in roadside
attacks and helicopter
raids and outright
massacres. Untold numbers of Afghans have also died of everything
from lack of access to medical care (there are just 2 doctors for
every 10,000 Afghans) to exposure,
including shocking reports of children freezing to death in refugee camps last winter and again
this year. They were among the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have been
internally displaced during the war. Millions more
live as refugees outside the country, mostly in Iran
Of the women who remain in the country, up to 2
million are widows. In addition, there are now an estimated 2
million Afghan orphans. No wonder polling
by Gallup this
past summer found 96% of Afghans claiming they were either “suffering” or
“struggling,” and just 4% “thriving.”
American Refugees in Mexico?
Americans, this type of unrelenting, war-related misery is unfathomable. Few
have ever personally experienced anything like what their tax dollars have
wrought in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Southwest
Asia in the last half-century. And while surprising
numbers of Americans do suffer from poverty and deprivation, few
know anything about what it’s like to live through a year of war -- let alone
10, as Pham To did -- under the constant threat of air strikes, artillery fire,
and violence perpetrated by foreign ground troops.
Still, as a
simple thought experiment, let’s consider for a moment what it might be like in
American terms. Imagine that the United States had experienced an
occupation by a foreign military force. Imagine millions or even tens of
millions of American civilians dead or wounded as a result of an invasion and
resulting civil strife.
country in which your door might be kicked down in the dead of night by
heavily-armed, foreign young men, in strange uniforms, helmets and imposing
body armor, yelling things in a language you don’t understand. Imagine them
rifling through your drawers, upending your furniture, holding you at gunpoint,
roughing up your husband or son or brother, and marching him off in the middle
of the night. Imagine, as well, a country in which those foreigners kill
American “insurgents” and then routinely strip
them naked; in which those occupying troops sometimes urinate on
American bodies (and shoot videos of it); or take trophy
photos of their “kills”; or mutilate
them; or pose with the body
parts of dead Americans; or from time to time -- for reasons again
beyond your comprehension -- rape
a moment, violence so extreme that you and literally millions like you have to
flee your hometowns for squalid refugee camps or expanding slums ringing the
nearest cities. Imagine trading your home for a new one without heat or
electricity, possibly made of refuse with a corrugated metal roof that roars
when it rains. Then imagine living there for months, if not years.
things getting so bad that you decide to trek across the Mexican border to live
an uncertain life, forever wondering if your new violence- and poverty-wracked
host nation will turn
you out or if you’ll ever be able to return to your home in the U.S.
Imagine living with these realities day after day for up to decade.
disasters like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, small numbers of Americans briefly
experience something like what millions of war victims -- Vietnamese, Iraqis,
Afghans, and others -- have often had to endure for significant parts of their
lives. But for those in America’s
war zones, there will be no telethons, benefit
concerts, or texting
Pham To and
Pham Thang had to bury the bodies of their family members, friends, and
neighbors after they were massacred by American troops passing through their
village on patrol. They had to rebuild their homes and their lives after the
war with remarkably little help. One thing was as certain for them as it has
been for war-traumatized Iraqis and Afghans of our moment: no Hollywood
luminaries lined up to help raise funds for them or their village. And they
“We lost so
many people and so much else. And this land was affected by Agent Orange, too.
You’ve come to write about the war, but you could never know the whole story,”
Pham Thang told me. Then he became circumspect. “Now, our two governments, our
two countries, live in peace and harmony. And we just want to restore life to
what it once was here. We suffered great losses. The U.S. government should offer
assistance to help increase the local standard of living, provide better
healthcare, and build infrastructure like better roads.”
No doubt --
despite the last
decade of U.S. nation-buildingdebacles
in its war zones -- many
Iraqis and Afghans would express similar sentiments. Perhaps they will even be
saying the same sort of thing to an American reporter decades from now.
last years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of war victims like Pham Thang, and he’s
right: I’ll probably never come close to knowing what life was like for those
whose worlds were upended by America’s foreign wars. And I’m far from alone.
Most Americans never make it to a war zone, and even U.S. military personnel arrive only
for finite tours of duty, while for combat correspondents and aid workers an
exit door generally remains open. Civilians like Pham To, however, are in it
for the duration.
Vietnam years, there was at least an antiwar movement in this country that
included many Vietnam
veterans who made genuine
efforts to highlight the civilian
suffering they knew was going on at almost unimaginable levels.
In contrast, in the decade-plus since 9/11, with the rarest
Americans have remained remarkably detached from their distant wars, thoroughly
ignoring what can be known about the suffering that has been caused in their
As I was
wrapping up my interview, Pham Thang asked me about the purpose of the last
hour and a half of questions I’d asked him. Through my interpreter, I explained
that most Americans knew next to nothing about Vietnamese suffering during the
war and that most books written in my country on the war years ignored it. I
wanted, I told him, to offer Americans the chance to hear about the experiences
of ordinary Vietnamese for the first time.
American people know about these incidents, if they learn about the wartime
suffering of people in Vietnam,
do you think theywill sympathize?” he asked me.
I should finally know the answer to his question.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and
a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has
appeared in the
Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of Kill
Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). Published on January
15th, it offers a new look at the American war machine in Vietnam and the
suffering it caused. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.
2013 Nick Turse
Image by the U.S. Army,
licensed under Creative
Monday, August 20, 2012 10:59 AM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
. She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her book
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on TomDispatch in 2008.
I still don't know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at forty-ish, passed as the occasion's young ladies. The house was great—if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets—a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave, when our host said, "No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you." He was an imposing man who'd made a lot of money.
He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his authentically grainy wood table and said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."
I replied, "Several, actually."
He said, in the way you encourage your friend's seven-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"
They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.
He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"
So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book—with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said—like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen's class on Chaucer—"gladly would he learn and gladly teach." Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, "That's her book." Or tried to interrupt him anyway.
But he just continued on his way. She had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless—for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we've never really stopped.
I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that's eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.
When River of Shadows came out, some pedant wrote a snarky letter to the New York Times explaining that, though Muybridge had made improvements in camera technology, he had not made any breakthroughs in photographic chemistry. The guy had no idea what he was talking about. Both Philip Prodger, in his wonderful book on Muybridge, and I had actually researched the subject and made it clear that Muybridge had done something obscure but powerful to the wet-plate technology of the time to speed it up amazingly, but letters to the editor don't get fact-checked. And perhaps because the book was about the virile subjects of cinema and technology, the Men Who Knew came out of the woodwork.
A British academic wrote in to the London Review of Books with all kinds of nitpicking corrections and complaints, all of them from outer space. He carped, for example, that to aggrandize Muybridge's standing I left out technological predecessors like Henry R. Heyl. He'd apparently not read the book all the way to page 202 or checked the index, since Heyl was there (though his contribution was just not very significant). Surely one of these men has died of embarrassment, but not nearly publicly enough.
The Slippery Slope of Silencings
Yes, guys like this pick on other men's books too, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men.
Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.
I wouldn't be surprised if part of the trajectory of American politics since 2001 was shaped by, say, the inability to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda, and it was certainly shaped by a Bush administration to which you couldn't tell anything, including that Iraq had no links to al-Qaeda and no WMDs, or that the war was not going to be a "cakewalk." (Even male experts couldn't penetrate the fortress of their smugness.)
Arrogance might have had something to do with the war, but this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to let Mr. Important and his overweening confidence bowl over my more shaky certainty.
Don't forget that I've had a lot more confirmation of my right to think and speak than most women, and I've learned that a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing—though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots, like the ones who have governed us since 2001. There's a happy medium between these poles to which the genders have been pushed, a warm equatorial belt of give and take where we should all meet.
More extreme versions of our situation exist in, for example, those Middle Eastern countries where women's testimony has no legal standing; so that a woman can't testify that she was raped without a male witness to counter the male rapist. Which there rarely is.
Credibility is a basic survival tool. When I was very young and just beginning to get what feminism was about and why it was necessary, I had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One Christmas, he was telling—as though it were a light and amusing subject—how a neighbor's wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her. How, I asked, did you know that he wasn't trying to kill her? He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand....
Even getting a restraining order—a fairly new legal tool—requires acquiring the credibility to convince the courts that some guy is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Restraining orders often don't work anyway. Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist. About three women a day are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country. It's one of the main causes of death in pregnant women in the U.S. At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.
I tend to believe that women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, when the big things that stop us and kill us were addressed legally from the mid-1970s on; well after, that is, my birth. And for anyone about to argue that workplace sexual intimidation isn't a life or death issue, remember that Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, age 20, was apparently killed by her higher-ranking colleague last winter while she was waiting to testify that he raped her. The burned remains of her pregnant body were found in the fire pit in his backyard in December.
Being told that, categorically, he knows what he's talking about and she doesn't, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light. After my book Wanderlust came out in 2000, I found myself better able to resist being bullied out of my own perceptions and interpretations. On two occasions around that time, I objected to the behavior of a man, only to be told that the incidents hadn't happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest -- in a nutshell, female.
Most of my life, I would have doubted myself and backed down. Having public standing as a writer of history helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women must be out there on this six-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever. This goes way beyond Men Explaining Things, but it's part of the same archipelago of arrogance.
Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I'm not holding my breath.
Women Fighting on Two Fronts
A few years after the idiot in Aspen, I was in Berlin giving a talk when the Marxist writer Tariq Ali invited me out to a dinner that included a male writer and translator and three women a little younger than me who would remain deferential and mostly silent throughout the dinner. Tariq was great. Perhaps the translator was peeved that I insisted on playing a modest role in the conversation, but when I said something about how Women Strike for Peace, the extraordinary, little-known antinuclear and antiwar group founded in 1961, helped bring down the communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC, Mr. Very Important II sneered at me. HUAC, he insisted, didn't exist by the early 1960s and, anyway, no women's group played such a role in HUAC's downfall. His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.
I think I was at nine books at that point, including one that drew from primary documents and interviews about Women Strike for Peace. But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch—even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf's long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie. Back in my hotel room, I Googled a bit and found that Eric Bentley in his definitive history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities credits Women Strike for Peace with "striking the crucial blow in the fall of HUAC's Bastille." In the early 1960s.
So I opened an essay for the Nation with this interchange, in part as a shout-out to one of the more unpleasant men who have explained things to me: Dude, if you're reading this, you're a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.
The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled down many women—of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to speak of the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.
After all, Women Strike for Peace was founded by women who were tired of making the coffee and doing the typing and not having any voice or decision-making role in the antinuclear movement of the 1950s. Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won't end in my lifetime. I'm still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by Renato Ganoza, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012 3:19 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
We’re at the
edge of the cliff of deficit disaster! National security spending is being, or
will soon be, slashed to the bone! Obamacare will sink the ship of state!
Each of these
claims has grabbed national attention in a big way, sucking up years’ worth of
precious airtime. That’s a serious bummer, since each of them is a spending
myth of the first order. Let’s pop them, one by one, and move on to the truly
urgent business of a nation that is indeed on the edge.
Spending Myth 1:
Today’s deficits have taken us to a historically
unprecedented, economically catastrophic place.
This myth has
had the effect of binding the hands of elected officials and policymakers at
every level of government. It has also emboldened those who claim that we must
cut government spending as quickly, as radically, as deeply as possible.
In fact, we’ve
been here before. In 2009, the federal budget deficit was a whopping 10.1% of
the American economy and back in 1943, in the midst of World War II, it was
three times that -- 30.3%. This fiscal year the deficit will total around 7.6%.
Yes, that is big. But in the Congressional Budget Office’s grimmest projections, that figure will fall to 6.3% next
year, and 5.8% in fiscal 2014. In 1983, under President Reagan, the deficit hit
6% of the economy, and by 1998, that had turned into a
surplus. So, while projected deficits remain large, they’re neither
historically unprecedented, nor insurmountable.
still, the size of the deficit is no sign that lawmakers should make immediate
deep cuts in spending. In fact, history tells us that such reductions are
guaranteed to harm, if not cripple, an economy still teetering at the edge of
A number of
leading economists are now busy explaining why the deficit this year actually ought to be a
lot larger, not smaller; why there should be more government spending,
including aid to state and local governments, which would create new jobs and
prevent layoffs in areas like education and law enforcement. Such efforts,
working in tandem with slow but positive job growth in the private sector,
might indeed mean genuine recovery. Government budget cuts, on the other hand,
offset private-sector gains with the huge and depressing effect of public-sector layoffs, and have
damaging ripple effects on the rest of the economy as well.
When the economy is healthier, a host of promising options are at hand for
lawmakers who want to narrow the gap between spending and tax revenue. For
example, loopholes and deductions in the tax code that hand enormous subsidies
to wealthy Americans and corporations will cost the Treasury around $1.3 trillion in lost revenue this year alone -- more, that
is, than the entire budget deficit. Closing some of them would make great
strides toward significant deficit reductions.
deficit-reduction fever that’s resulted from this first spending myth has led
many Americans to throw their support behind de-investment in domestic
priorities like education, research, and infrastructure -- cuts that threaten to undo
generations of progress. This is in part the result of myth number two.
Military and other national security spending have already taken their
lumps and future budget-cutting efforts will have to take aim at domestic
The very idea
that military spending has already been deeply cut in service to deficit reduction is not only
false, but in the realm of fantasy. The real story: despite headlines about
“slashed” Pentagon spending and “doomsday” plans for more, no actual cuts to
the defense budget have yet taken place. In fact, since 2001, to quote former Defense
Secretary Robert M. Gates, defense spending has grown like a “gusher.” The
Department of Defense base budget nearly
doubled in the space of a decade. Now, the Pentagon is likely to face an
exceedingly modest 2.5% budget cut in fiscal 2013, “paring” its budget down to
a mere $525 billion -- with possible additional cuts shaving off
another $55 billion next year if Congress allows the Budget
Control Act, a.k.a. “sequestration,” to take effect.
But don’t hold
your breath waiting for that to happen. It’s likely that lawmakers will, at the
last moment, come to an agreement to cancel those extra cuts. In other words,
the notion that our military, which has been experiencing financial boom times
even in tough times, has felt significant deficit-slashing pain -- or has even
been cut at all -- is the Pentagon equivalent of a unicorn.
What this does
mean, however, is that lawmakers heading down the budget-cutting path can find
plenty of savings in the enormous defense and national security budgets. Moreover,
cuts there would be less harmful to the economy than reductions in domestic
A group of
military budget experts, for example, found
that cutting many costly and obsolete weapons programs could save billions of
dollars each year, and investing that money in domestic priorities like
education and health care would spur the economy. That’s because those sectors
create more jobs per dollar than military programs do. And that
leads us to myth three.
Government health-insurance programs are more costly than private
about the higher cost of government health programs have led many people to
demand that health-care solutions come from the private sector. Advocates of
this have been much aided by the complexity of sorting out health costs, which
has provided the necessary smoke and mirrors to camouflage this whopping lie.
is indeed growing faster than any other part of the federal budget.
It’s gone from a measly 7% in 1976 to nearly a quarter today -- and that’s
truly a cause for concern. But health care costs, public and private, have been
on the rise across the developed world for decades. And cost growth in
government programs like Medicare has actually been slower than in private health insurance. That’s because the
federal government has important advantages over private insurance companies
when it comes to health care. For example, as a huge player in the health-care
market, the federal government has been successful at negotiating lower prices
than small private insurers can. And that helps us de-bunk myth number four.
The Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare -- will bankrupt the federal
government while levying the biggest tax in U.S. history.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, this health-reform legislation
will reduce budget deficits by $119 billion between now and 2019. And only around 1% of American households will end up paying a penalty for
lacking health insurance.
Affordable Care Act is hardly a panacea for the many problems in U.S. health
care, it does at least start to address the pressing issue of rising costs --
and it incorporates some of the best wisdom on how to do so. Health-policy
experts have explored phasing out the fee-for-service payment system -- in
which doctors are paid for each test and procedure they perform -- in favor of
something akin to pay-for-performance. This transition would reward medical
professionals for delivering more effective, coordinated, and efficient care --
and save a lot of money by reducing waste.
Care Act begins implementing
such changes in the Medicare program, and it explores other important
cost-containment measures. In other words, it lays the groundwork for
potentially far deeper budgetary savings
down the road.
the landscape of four stubborn spending myths, it should be easier to see
straight to the stuff that really matters. Financial hardship facing millions
of Americans ought to be our top concern. Between 2007 and 2010, the median
family lost nearly 40% of its net worth. Neither steep deficits, nor
disagreement over military spending and health reform should eclipse this as
our most pressing challenge.
skipped the myth-making and began putting America’s resources into a series
of domestic investments that would spur the economy now, their acts would yield
dividends for years to come. That means pushing education and job training,
plus a host of job-creation measures, to the top of the priority list, and
setting aside initiatives based on fear and fantasy.
, is senior research
analyst at the
and lead author of the new book
A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and
check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
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Tuesday, July 10, 2012 4:28 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom
There are so many things I could apologize for, from the way the U.S. biotech
your corn to the way Arizona
and Alabama are persecuting your citizens, but right now I’d
like to apologize for the drug war, the 10,000 waking nightmares that make the
news and the rest that don’t.
the stories about the five severed heads rolled onto the floor of a Michoacan
nightclub in 2006, the 300 bodies dissolved in acid by a servant of one drug lord,
the 49 mutilated bodies found in plastic bags by the side of
the road in Monterrey in May, the nine bodies found hanging from an overpass in Nuevo Laredo
just last month, the Zeta Cartel’s videotaped beheadings just two weeks ago, the carnage that
has taken tens of thousands of Mexican lives in the last decade and has
terrorized a whole nation. I've read them and so many more. I am sorry 50,000 times over.
The drug war is
fueled by many things, and maybe the worst drug of all is money, to which so
many are so addicted that they can never get enough. It’s a drug for which they
will kill, destroying communities and ecologies, even societies, whether for
the sake of making drones, Wall Street profits, or massive heroin sales. Then there are the actual drugs, to
which so many others turn for numbness.
There is variety in the range of drugs. I know that marijuana mostly just
makes you like patio furniture, while heroin renders you ethereally indifferent
and a little reptilian, and cocaine pumps you up with your own imaginary
fabulousness before throwing you down into your own trashiness. And then
there’s meth, which seems to have the same general effect as rabies, except
that the victims crave it desperately.
differences, these drugs, when used consistently, constantly, destructively,
are all anesthesia from pain. The Mexican drug cartels crave money, but they
make that money from the way Yankees across the border crave numbness. They sell unfeeling. We buy it. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year doing so, and by some estimates about a third to a half of that money goes back
Price of Numbness
We want not to
feel what’s happening to us, and then we do stuff that makes worse things
happen -- to us and others. We pay for it, too, in a million ways, from
outright drug-overdose deaths (which now exceed traffic fatalities, and of which the United States
has the highest rate of any nation except tiny Iceland, amounting
to more than 37,000 deaths here in 2009 alone) to the violence of drug-dealing
on the street, the violence of people on some of those drugs, and the violence
inflicted on children who are neglected, abandoned, and abused because of them
-- and that’s just for starters. The stuff people do for money when they’re desperate for drugs generates more violence and more crazy
greed for the money to buy the next round. And drug use is connected to the
spread of HIV and various strains of hepatitis.
our futile “war on drugs” that has created so much pain of its own.
It’s done so by locking up mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and
children for insanely long prison sentences and offering no treatment. It does
so by costing so much it’s warping the economies of states that have huge
numbers of nonviolent offenders in prison and not enough money for education or
healthcare. It does so by branding as felons and pariahs those who have done time in
the drug-war prison complex. It was always aimed most directly at
African-Americans, and the toll it’s taken would require a week of telling.
divides the pain caused by drugs from the pain brought about in Latin America by the drug business and the narcotraficantes.
It’s one big continent of pain -- and in the last several years the narcos have
begun selling drugs in earnest in their own countries, creating new cultures of
addiction and misery. (And yes, Mexico, your extravagantly corrupt government,
military, and police have everything to do with the drug war now, but file that
under greed, as usual, about which your pretty new president is unlikely to do
Imagine that the demand ceased tomorrow; the profitable business of supply
would have to wither away as well. Many talk about legalizing drugs, and
there’s something to be said for changing the economic arrangements. But what
about reducing their use by developing and promoting more interesting and
productive ways of dealing with suffering? Or even getting directly at the
causes of that suffering?
Some drug use
is, of course, purely recreational, but even recreational drug use stimulates
these economies of carnage. And then there are the overdoses of the famous and
the unsung on prescription and illicit drugs. Tragic, but those dismembered and
mutilated bodies the drug gangs deposit around Mexico are not just tragic, they’re
Gross National Pain and the Pain Export Economy
Mexico, my near neighbor, I have
been trying to imagine the export economy of pain. What does it look like? I
think it might look like air-conditioning. This is how an air conditioner
works: it sucks the heat out of the room and pumps it into the air outside. You
could say that air-conditioners don’t really cool things down so much as they
relocate the heat. The way the transnational drug economy works is a little
like that: people in the U.S.
are not reducing the amount of pain in the world; they’re exporting it to Mexico and the rest of Latin
America as surely as those places are exporting drugs to us.
we talk about “externalized costs”: this means the way that you and I pick up
the real cost of oil production with local and global ecological degradation
or wars fought on behalf of the oil corporations. Or the way Walmart turns its employees into paupers, and we pick up
the tab for their food stamps and medical care.
With the drug
economy, there are externalized traumas. I imagine them moving in a huge
circulatory system, like the Gulf Stream, or
old trade routes. We give you money and guns, lots and lots of money. You give us drugs. The guns
destroy. The money destroys. The drugs destroy. The pain migrates, a phantom
presence crossing the border the other way from the crossings we hear so much
The drugs are
supposed to numb people out, but that momentary numbing effect causes so much
pain elsewhere. There’s a pain economy, a suffering economy, a fear economy,
and drugs fuel all of them rather than making them go away. Think of it as
another kind of GNP -- gross national pain -- though I don’t know how you’d
A friend of
mine who’s lived in Latin America for large
parts of the last decade says that she’s appalled to see people doing cocaine
at parties she goes to in this country. I mentioned that to an anthropologist
who was even bleaker in describing the cocaine migration routes out of the Andes
and all the dead babies and exploited women she’d seen along the way.
movements to get people to stop buying clothes and shoes made in sweatshops,
grapes picked by exploited farmworkers, fish species that are endangered, but
no one’s thought to start a similar movement to get people to stop consuming
the drugs that cause so much destruction abroad.
middle-class people here stuffing the blood of campesinos up their
noses. Picture poor people injecting the tears of other poor people into their
veins. Picture them all smoking children’s anguish. And imagine if we called it
, #1 in Pain
I don’t know
why my country seems to produce so much misery and so much desire to cover it
up under a haze of drugs, but I can imagine a million reasons. A lot of us just
never put down roots or adapted to a society that’s changing fast under us or
got downsized or evicted or foreclosed or rejected or just move around a lot.
This country is a place where so many people don’t have a place, literally or
psychologically. When you don’t have anywhere to go with your troubles, you can
conveniently go nowhere -- into, that is, the limbo of drugs and the dead-end
something else front and center to our particular brand of misery. We are a
nation of miserable optimists. We believe everything is possible and if you
don’t have it all, from the perfect body to profound wealth, the fault is
yours. When people suffer in this country -- from, say, foreclosures and
bankruptcies due to the destruction of our economy by the forces of greed --
the shame is overwhelming. It’s seen as a personal failure, not the failure of
our institutions. Taking drugs to numb your shame also keeps you from
connecting the dots and opposing what’s taken you down.
So when you’re
miserable here, you’re miserable twice: once because you actually lost your
home/job/savings/spouse/girlish figure and all over again because it’s not
supposed to be like that (and maybe thrice because our mainstream society
doesn’t suggest any possibility of changing the circumstances that produced your
misery or even how arbitrary those circumstances are). I suspect that all those
drugs are particularly about numbing a deep American sense of failure or of
you think of the rise of crack cocaine during the Reagan era, wasn’t it an
exact corollary to the fall of African-American opportunity and the
disintegration of the social safety net? The government produced failure and
insecurity, and crack buffered the results (and proved a boon to a burgeoning
prison-industrial complex). Likewise, the drug-taking that exploded in the
1960s helped undermine the radical movements of that era. Drugs aren’t a goad
to action, but a deadening alternative to it. Maybe all those zombies
everywhere in popular culture nowadays are trying to say something about that.
Here in the United States,
there’s no room for sadness, but there are plenty of drugs for it, and now when
people feel sad, even many doctors think they should take drugs. We undergo
losses and ordeals and live in circumstances that would make any sane person
sad, and then we say: the fault was yours and if you feel sad, you’re crazy or
sick and should be medicated. Of course, now ever more Americans are addicted
to prescription drugs, and there’s always the old anesthetic of choice, alcohol,
but there is one difference: the economics of those substances are not causing
mass decapitations in Mexico.
to Destruction and the Palace of the Dead
When I think
about the drug wars and the drug culture here, I think about a young man I knew
long ago. He was gay, from Texas,
disconnected from his family, talented but not so good at finding a place in
the world for that talent or for himself. He was also a fan of the beat
novelist and intermittent junkie William Burroughs, and he believed that line
about how “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Maybe it was fine
when William Blake said it in the 1790s, since Blake wasn’t a crackhead. But my
friend got from Burroughs -- a man with family money and apparently an iron
constitution -- the idea that derangement of the senses was a great creative
This was all
part of our youth in a culture that constantly reinforced how cool drugs were,
though back then another beat writer, the poet David Meltzer, told me
methamphetamine was a form of demonic possession. The young man became
possessed in this way and lost his mind. He became homeless and deranged, gone
to someplace he couldn’t find his way back from, and I would see him walking
our boulevards barefoot and filthy, ranting to himself.
Then I heard he
had jumped off the Golden Gate
Bridge. He wasn’t yet 30;
he was just a sweet boy. I could tell four or five more stories like his about
people I knew who died young of drugs. The meth that helped him down his road
of no return was probably a domestic product then, but now vast quantities of
it are made in Mexico for us
-- 15 tons of it were found earlier this year in Guadalajara, enough for
13 million doses, worth about $4 billion retail.
When I think
about the drug wars, I also think about my visit to Santa Muerte (Saint Death) in Mexico City in 2007. A young friend with me
there insisted on going. It was perilous for outsiders like us even to travel
through Tepito, the black-marketeers’ barrio, let alone go to the shrine where
imposing, somber men were praying and lighting candles to the skeleton goddess
who is the narcotraficantes’ patron saint. They worship death; they’re
intimate with her; they tattoo her on their flesh, and there she was in person
-- in bones without flesh, surrounded by candles, by gifts, by cigarettes and
gold, an Aztec goddess gone commercial.
wanted to take pictures. I wanted to live and managed to convince him that
thugs’ devotional moments were not for our cameras. When it came time to leave,
the warm patroness of the shrine locked up the stand in which she sold votive
candles and medallions, took each of us by an arm -- as if nothing less than
bodily contact with death’s caretaker would keep us safe -- and walked us to
the subway. We survived that little moment of direct contact with the drug war.
So many others have not.
Mexico, I am sorry. I want to see
it all change, for your sake and ours. I want to call pain by name and numbness
by name and fear by name. I want people to connect the dots from the junk in
their brain to the bullet holes in others’ heads. I want people to find better
strategies for responding to pain and sadness. I want them to rebel against
those parts of their unhappiness that are political, not metaphysical, and not
run in fear from the metaphysical parts either.
I want the narcotraficantes
to repent and give their billions to the poor. I want the fear to end. A
hundred years ago, your dictatorial president Porfiro Díaz supposedly remarked,
“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United
States,” which nowadays could be revised to, “Painful
Mexico, so far from peace and so close to the numbness of the United States.”
Solnit lived through the inner-city crack wars in the 1980s and tried most
drugs a very long time ago. A
, she is the author of
thirteen books, including, most recently,
Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
maps, among other things, the 99 murders in her city in 2008, most of them of
poor young men caught up in the usual, and the lives of undocumented laborers
in San Francisco.
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and
check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
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licensed under Creative
Thursday, April 05, 2012 3:45 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
“fivedollaragallongas,” the energy watchword for the next few months is:
“subsidies.” Last week, for instance, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez proposed ending some of the billions of dollars in handouts
enjoyed by the fossil-fuel industry with a “Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act.”
It was, in truth, nothing to write home about -- a curiously skimpy bill that
only targeted oil companies, and just the five richest of them at that. Left
out were coal and natural gas, and you won’t be surprised to learn that even
then it didn’t pass.
President Obama is now calling for an end to oil subsidies at every stop on his
early presidential-campaign-plus-fundraising blitz -- even at those stops where
he’s also promising to “drill everywhere.” And later this month Vermont Senator
Bernie Sanders will introduce a much more comprehensive bill that tackles
all fossil fuels and their purveyors (and has no chance whatsoever of passing this
Whether or not
the bill passes, those subsidies are worth focusing on. After all, we’re talking
at least $10 billion in freebies and, depending on what you count, possibly as
much as $40 billion annually in freebie cash for an energy industry already
making historic profits. If attacking them is a convenient way for the White
House to deflect public anger over rising gas prices, it is also a perfect fit
for the new worldview the Occupy movement has been teaching Americans. (Not to
mention, if you think about it, the Tea Party focus on deficits.) So count on
one thing: we’ll be hearing a lot more about them this year.
But there’s a problem: the very word “subsidies” makes American eyes glaze
over. It sounds so boring, like something that has everything to do with
finance and taxes and accounting, and nothing to do with you. Which is just the
reaction that the energy giants are relying on: that it’s a subject profitable
enough for them and dull enough for us that no one will really bother to
challenge their perks, many of which date back decades.
By some estimates, getting rid of all the planet’s fossil-fuel
subsidies could get us halfway to ending the threat of climate change. Many of
those subsidies, however, take the form of cheap, subsidized gas in
petro-states, often with impoverished populations -- as in Nigeria, where popular protests forced the government to back down on a
decision to cut such subsidies earlier this year. In the U.S., though,
they’re simply straightforward presents to rich companies, gifts from the 99%
to the 1%.
attention is to be paid, we have to figure out a language in which to talk
about them that will make it clear just how loony our policy is.
Start this way: you subsidize something you want to encourage, something
that might not happen if you didn’t support it financially. Think of something
we heavily subsidize -- education. We build schools, and give government loans
and grants to college kids; for those of us who are parents, tuition will often
be the last big subsidy we give the children we’ve raised. The theory is: young
people don’t know enough yet. We need to give them a hand when it comes to
further learning, so they’ll be a help to society in the future. From that
analogy, here are five rules of the road that should be applied to the
subsidize those who already have plenty of cash on hand. No one would propose a
government program of low-interest loans to send the richest kids in the
country to college. (It’s true that schools may let them in more easily on the
theory that their dads will build gymnasiums, but that’s a different story.) We
assume that the wealthy will pay full freight. Similarly, we should assume that
the fossil-fuel business, the most profitable industry on Earth, should pay its
way, too. What possible reason is there for giving Exxon the odd billion in
extra breaks? Year after year the company sets record for money-making -- last
year it managed to rake in a mere $41 billion in profit, just
failing to break its own 2008 all-time mark of $45 billion.
subsidize people forever. If students need government loans to help them get
bachelor’s degrees, that’s sound policy. But if they want loans to get their
11th BA, they should pay themselves. We learned how to burn coal 300 years ago.
A subsidized fossil-fuel industry is the equivalent of a 19-year-old repeating
third grade yet again.
you’ll subsidize something for a sensible reason and it won’t work out. The
government gave some of our money to a solar power company called Solyndra. Though
it was small potatoes compared to what we hand over to the fossil-fuel
industry, it still stung when they lost it. But since we’re in the process of
figuring out how to perfect solar power and drive down its cost, it makes sense
to subsidize it. Think of it as the equivalent of giving a high-school senior a
scholarship to go to college. Most of the time that works out. But since I live
in a college town, I can tell you that 20% of kids spend four years drinking:
they’re human Solyndras. It’s not exactly a satisfying thing to see happen, but
we don’t shut down the college as a result.
subsidize something you want less of. At this point, the greatest human
challenge is to get off of fossil fuels. If we don’t do it soon, the
climatologists tell us, our prospects as a civilization are grim indeed. So
lending a significant helping hand to companies intent on driving us towards
disaster is perverse. It’s like giving a fellowship to a graduate student who
wants to pursue a thesis on “Strategies for Stimulating Donut Consumption Among
5. Don’t give
subsidies to people who have given you cash. Most of the men and women who vote
in Congress each year to continue subsidies have taken
campaign donations from big energy companies. In essence, they’ve been
given small gifts by outfits to whom they then return large presents, using our money, not theirs. It’s a
good strategy, if you’re an energy company -- or maybe even a congressional
representative eager to fund a reelection campaign. Oil Change International estimates that fossil-fuel companies get $59 back for every
dollar they spend on donations and lobbying, a return on investment that makes
Bernie Madoff look shabby. It’s no different from sending a college financial
aid officer a hundred-dollar bill in the expectation that he’ll give your
daughter a scholarship worth tens of thousands of dollars. Bribery is what it
is. And there’s no chance it will yield the best energy policy or the best
These five rules
seem simple and straightforward to me, even if they don’t get at the biggest
subsidy we give the fossil-fuel business: the right -- alone among industries
-- to pour their waste into the atmosphere for free. And then there’s the small
matter of the money we sink into the military might we must employ to guard the various places
they suck oil from.
rid of these direct payoffs would, however, be a start, a blow struck for, if
nothing else, the idea that we’re not just being played for suckers and saps.
This is the richest industry on Earth, a planet they’re helping wreck, and
we’re paying them a bonus to do it.
In most schools
outside of K Street,
that’s an answer that would get a failing grade and we’d start calling
subsidies by another name. Handouts, maybe. Freebies. Baksheesh. Payola. Or to
use the president's formulation, "all of the above."
McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of
the global climate campaign
, and the author, most
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Image by Ben Lunsford, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012 11:50 AM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
If you’ve been fretting about faltering math education and falling test scores here in the United States, you should be worried based on this campaign season of Republican math. When it comes to the American military, the leading Republican presidential candidates evidently only learned to add and multiply, never subtract or divide.
Advocates of Pentagon reform have criticized President Obama for his timid approach to reducing military spending. Despite current Pentagon budgets that have hovered at the highest levels since World War II and 13 years of steady growth, the administration’s latest plans would only reduce spending at the Department of Defense by 1.6% in inflation-adjusted dollars over the next five years.
Still, compared to his main Republican opponents, Obama is a T. rex of budget slashers. After all, despite their stated commitment to reducing the deficit (while cutting taxes on the rich yet more), the Republican contenders are intent on raising Pentagon spending dramatically. Mitt Romney has staked out the “high ground” in the latest round of Republican math with a proposal to set Pentagon spending at 4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That would, in fact add up to an astonishing $8.3 trillion dollars over the next decade, one-third more than current, already bloated Pentagon plans.
Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journalengaged in polite understatement when he described the Romney plan as “the most optimistic forecast U.S. defense manufacturers have heard in months.”
In fact, Romney’s proposal implies that the Pentagon is essentially an entitlement program that should receive a set share of our total economic resources regardless of what’s happening here at home or elsewhere on the planet. In Romney World, the Pentagon’s only role would be to engorge itself. If the GDP were to drop, it’s unlikely that, as president, he would reduce Pentagon spending accordingly.
Rick Santorum has spent far less time describing his military spending plans, but a remark at a Republican presidential debate in Arizona suggests that he is at least on the same page with Romney. In 1958, the year he was born, Santorum pointed out, Pentagon spending was 60% of the federal budget, and now it’s “only” 17%. In other words, why cut military spending when it’s so comparatively low?
Of course, this is a classic bait-and-switch case of cherry-picking numbers, since the federal budget of 1958 didn’t include Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The population was 100 million less than it is now, resulting in lower spending across the board, most notably for Social Security. In fact, Americans now pay out nearly twice as much for military purposes as in 1958, a sum well in excess of the combined military budgets of the next 10 largest spending nations.
Of course, in a field of innumerates, Santorum’s claim undoubtedly falls into the category of rhetorical flourish. It’s unlikely that even he was suggesting we more than triple Pentagon spending -- the only way to return it to the share of the budget it consumed in the halcyon days of his youth. (Keep in mind that profligate Pentagon spending in that era ultimately prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to coin the term “military-industrial complex.”) Still, Santorum clearly believes that there’s plenty of room to hike military spending, if we just slash genuine entitlement programs deeply enough. He would undoubtedly support a Pentagon budget at Romney-esque levels, as would Newt Gingrich based on his absurd claim that the Obama administration’s modest adjustments to the Pentagon’s record budgets would result in a “hollowing out” of the U.S. military.
Mitt Romney at Sea
But let’s stick with the Republican frontrunner (or stumbler). What exactly would Romney spend all this money on?
For starters, he’s a humongous fan of building big ships, generally the most expensive items in the Pentagon budget. He has pledged to up Navy ship purchases from 9 to 15 per year, a rise of 50%. These things add up. A new aircraft carrier costs more than $10 billion; a ballistic missile submarine weighs in at $7 billion or more; and a destroyer comes with a -- by comparison -- piddling price tag of $2 billion-plus. The rationale for such a naval spending spree is, of course, that all-purpose threat cited these days by builders of every sort of big-ticket military hardware: China.
As Romney put it late last year, if the U.S. doesn’t pump up its shipbuilding budget, China will soon be “brushing aside an inferior American Navy in the Pacific.” This must be news to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who noted in a May 2010 speech to the Navy League that the fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined -- 11 of which, by the way, belong to U.S. allies. As for the Chinese challenge, much has been made of China’s new aircraft carrier, which actually turns out to be a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998 and originally intended to be a floating casino. It would leave the U.S. with only an 11 to 1 advantage in this category.
It’s true that China is increasing the size of its navy in hopes of operating more freely in the waters off its coast and perhaps the contested South China Sea (with its energy reserves), but it is hardly engaged in a drive for global domination. It’s not as if Beijing is capable of deploying aircraft carriers off the coasts of California and Alaska. In the meantime, Romney’s shipbuilding fetish doesn’t add up. It’s as ludicrous as it is expensive.
Romney is also a major supporter of missile defense -- and not just the current $9-$10 billion a year enterprise being funded by the Obama administration, primarily designed to blunt an attack by long-range North Korean missiles that don’t exist. Romney wants a “full, multi-layered” system. That sounds suspiciously like the Ronald Reagan-style fantasy of an “impermeable shield” over the United States against massive nuclear attack that was abandoned in the late 1980s because of its staggering expense and essential impracticality.
If the development of Romney’s high-priced version of a missile shield were again on the American agenda, it would be a godsend for big weapons-makers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, but would add nothing to the defense of this country. In fact, it stands a reasonable chance of making things worse. Given the overkill represented by the thousands of nuclear warheads in the American arsenal, the prospect of a nuclear missile attack on the United States is essentially nil.
As arms experts like Dr. Theodore Postol of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have pointed out, in the utterly unlikely event of a massive nuclear missile attack, Romney’s plan would be virtually useless. There’s just no way to provide a near-perfect defense against thousands of warheads and decoys launched at 15,000 miles per hour. The only reasonable defense against nuclear weapons would be to get rid of them altogether, a course suggested by scores of retired military leaders, former defense officials, and heads of state. Even Henry Kissinger has joined the “go to zero” campaign, supporting a far more sensible approach to the nuclear dilemma than Romney’s fantasy technical fix.
The Romney anti-missile program would, however, do more than just waste money. It would restore the Bush administration’s plan to emplace a long-range anti-missile system in Europe officially aimed at Iran but assumedly capable of taking out Russian missiles as well. Given that the Obama administration’s far more limited plan for Europe has already caused consternation among Russia’s leaders, imagine the harsh reaction in Moscow to the over-the-top Romney version. It could put an end to any hopes of further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions -- a significant price to pay for a high-tech boondoggle with no prospect of success.
Ensuring a Cost-Overrun Presidency
If you were hoping that, with an eye to fighting yet more disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East like the $3 trillion fiasco in Iraq, the U.S. would raise ever larger armies, then Mitt’s your man. While Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s latest plan would reduce the Army and Marines by about 100,000 over the next five years -- essentially rolling back the increases that were part of the post-9/11 buildup -- the former Massachusetts governor would double down by adding 100,000 more troops to present force levels.
His rhetoric and the bona fides of his neoconservative advisors suggest that one place President Romney might send those bulked up forces would be to Iran as “boots on the ground.” He has repeatedly claimed that, if President Obama is re-elected, Iran will get a nuclear weapon, and has asserted that if he is elected it will not. He has mocked the president for not being “tough enough” on the Iranians and implied that a Romney administration would consider force a go-to option against that country, rather than a threat meant to back up a diplomatic strategy.
Keep in mind that if Romney were to follow through on these costly undertakings and others like them, it would only add to the good old-fashioned waste and fraud that’s the norm of Pentagon contracting these days. As former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen pointed out, the post-9/11 national security spending binge played havoc with any sense of fiscal discipline at the Pentagon, eliminating the need to make “hard choices” or “limit ourselves” in significant ways. In his former position as Pentagon procurement czar, Under Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter acknowledged that “in a decade of ever-increasing defense budgets... it was always possible for our managers... when they ran into a technical problem or a difficult choice to reach for more money.”
Romney’s Republican math would ensure that this will continue. Defense giants like Lockheed Martin, whose F-35 combat aircraft has more than doubled in price over original projections, must be salivating at the prospect of another cost-overrun presidency, which would result in soaring profits and few punishments.
And let’s not forget the “spend more” brigades in the Republican House, led by Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA). Having received more than three quarters of a million dollars in campaign contributions from weapons contractors since 2009, he has never met a weapons system he didn’t like. Under a Republican administration, McKeon and his pork-barrel pals in Congress would have free rein to jack up spending on weapons and personnel with little concern for the impact on the deficit.
If a Republican president were to follow through on his campaign pledges, massive Pentagon increases and a dogged resistance to raising revenues would also result in major hits to every other item in the federal budget, from education to infrastructure. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Romney budget plan could cut domestic discretionary programs by as much as 50% over the next 10 years.
In an April 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King assailed the buildup for that conflict as a “demonic destructive suction tube” that drew “men, money, and skills” away from solving urgent national problems. Romney’s military buildup would waste far more money than was expended during the Vietnam years. His presidency would exceed King’s worst nightmare. When will someone ask him to explain his fuzzy math?
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, a
, and the
Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex
. (To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hartung discusses how to manipulate Pentagon budgets, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)
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Copyright 2012 William D. Hartung
Tuesday, March 06, 2012 11:09 AM
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
What’s worse: to be persecuted and indicted for trying to expose an act of wrongdoing—or to be ignored for doing so?
Whistleblowers have been under intense scrutiny in Washington lately, at least when it comes to the national security state. In recent years, the Obama administration has set a record by accusing no fewer than six government employees, who allegedly leaked classified information to reporters, of violating the Espionage Act, a draconian law dating back to 1917. Yet when it comes to workers who have risked their careers to expose misconduct in the corporate and financial arena, a different pattern has long prevailed. Here, the problem hasn’t been an excess of attention from government officials eager to chill dissent, but a dearth of attention that has often left whistleblowers feeling no less isolated and discouraged.
Consider the case of Leyla Wydler, a broker who, back in 2003, sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about her former employer, the Stanford Financial Group. A year earlier, it had fired her for refusing to sell certificates of deposit that she rightly suspected were being misleadingly advertised to investors. The company, Wydler warned in her letter, “is the subject of a lingering corporate fraud scandal perpetrated as a ‘massive Ponzi scheme’ that will destroy the life savings of many, damage the reputation of all associated parties, ridicule securities and banking authorities, and shame the United States of America.”
It was a letter that should have woken the dead and, as it happened, couldn’t have been more on target. Wydler didn’t stop with the SEC either. She also sent copies to the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), the trade group responsible for enforcing regulations throughout the industry, as well as various newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. No one responded. No one at all.
In the fall of 2004, Wydler called the examination branch of the SEC’s Fort Worth District Office to relay her concerns. A staff person did hear her out, but once again nothing happened. More than four years later, as the aftershocks of the global financial meltdown continued to play out, the news finally broke that Stanford had orchestrated a $7 billion Ponzi scheme which cost thousands of defrauded investors their savings.
Making Law for Wall Street
Wydler might have preferred the attention of the Espionage Act to the dead silence that greeted her efforts, and she was hardly alone. As with her, so with Eileen Foster, a former senior executive at Countrywide Financial who, in 2007, uncovered evidence of massive fraud—forged bank statements, bogus property appraisals—perpetrated by a company that played a major role in the subprime crisis that eventually caused the U.S. and global economies to implode. No one listened to her then and no one—in the government at least—seems to care now, either.
Interviewed recently on 60 Minutes, Foster said she would still be willing to provide the names of people at Countrywide who belong in jail, if she were summoned to testify before a grand jury. She may never get the opportunity. As 60 Minutes reported, a Justice Department that has gone to such extraordinary lengths to prosecute national security whistleblowers has made no effort to contact her.
The experiences of corporate whistleblowers like Foster and Wydler underscore a truth highlighted by legal scholar Cass Sunstein in his book Why Societies Need Dissent. The voices of dissidents who have the courage to bring uncomfortable news to light—information that can prevent disastrous economic or other blunders from happening—matter only to the extent that anyone pays attention to them.
“A legal system that is committed to free speech forbids government from silencing dissenters,” observed Sunstein. “That is an extraordinary accomplishment.” But as he went on to note, the formal existence of this right hardly ensures that individuals who exercise it in situations that cry out for opposition have an impact. “Even in democracies, disparities in power play a large role in silencing dissent—sometimes by ensuring that dissenters keep quiet, but more insidiously by ensuring that dissenters are not really heard.”
And it seems that, if the present House of Representatives has anything to say about it, the law will soon ensure that corporate whistleblowers are silenced anew. Although the financial meltdown of 2008 didn’t exactly inspire the Justice Department to hold high-ranking Wall Street executives accountable (to date, not one CEO has been prosecuted for fraud), the abusive practices and billion-dollar scams that regulatory agencies somehow overlooked did prompt some reform. As part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Congress put in place new rules that, at least theoretically, enhanced the protections and incentives available to whistleblowers.
One provision of Dodd-Frank, for example, allows employees to bypass corporate internal compliance programs and report violations directly to the SEC. Another provides rewards for Wall Street whistleblowers who step forward and offer the government tips that lead to successful prosecutions of fraud.
But even these modest steps may soon be reversed. Last year, Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) unveiled the antidote to Dodd-Frank’s gestures toward the urge to leak. His “Whistleblower Improvement Act”—a name that Orwell might have appreciated—would do away with the Dodd-Frank protections, such as they are, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups lobbied against and continue to vigorously oppose.
Grimm’s proposal would indeed mark an “improvement”—for companies hoping to deprive whistleblowers of their voices. If passed, it would strip the financial rewards from Dodd-Frank and require most whistleblowers to first report problems to their employer before even thinking about going to the government. “This would be like requiring police officers to tip off suspects before they begin an investigation,” the Project on Government Oversight has wryly observed.
Harry Markopolos, a financial analyst who repeatedly tried to warn the SEC about Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme—and who, like Leyla Wydler, was persistently ignored—has said the law “reads as if it were a wish list from those who once designed the Enron, Madoff, Global Crossing, Stanford, and WorldCom frauds.” Evidently, that only proved an incentive for the House Subcommittee on Capital Markets to approve Grimm’s measure in December 2011, on a party-line vote, which means it could now be tacked onto some must-pass piece of legislation and enacted.
The Silent Treatment
Should the Grimm Act eventually become law, it would not mark the first time corporate whistleblowers had been encouraged to step forward in the wake of rampant abuse and misconduct, only to discover that public officials had no intention of emboldening them to speak out. Back in 2002, after the accounting scandals broke at Enron and WorldCom, President George W. Bush signed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which made it a crime for companies to retaliate against employees who reported suspected fraud and illegal activities.
“The era of low standards and false profits is over,” Bush declared at the time. “No boardroom in America is above or beyond the law.” It didn’t quite turn out this way. In fact, his administration promptly set about staffing the federal agency in charge of whistleblower complaints with judges determined to deprive employees who reported suspected fraud of the protections they thought they’d just been guaranteed.
According to the Wall Street Journal, of 1,273 complaints filed by employees who claimed they had been subjected to company retaliation for speaking out between 2002 and 2008, the government ruled in favor of whistleblowers 17 times. Another 841 complaints were dismissed unheard, sometimes thanks to minor technicalities. Other times they were tossed out because the potential whistleblowers worked at the private subsidiaries of publicly traded companies, which the Department of Labor bizarrely decided were not covered by the statute.
Some might assume that, if the government ignores corporate whistleblowers again, a citizenry incensed by the greed and recklessness of Wall Street is not likely to allow history to repeat itself. But this might be wishful thinking. Despite the lore of the whistleblower that pervades popular culture, Americans turn out to be less sympathetic to such dissenters than Europeans. Drawing on data from the World Value Surveys and other sources over multiple years, the sociologist Claude Fischer has found that U.S. citizens are “much more likely than Europeans to say that employees should follow a boss’s orders even if the boss is wrong.” They are also more likely “to defer to church leaders and to insist on abiding by the law,” and more prone “to believe that individuals should go along and get along.”
Whistleblowers may often be praised in the abstract and from a distance, but Americans have a tendency to ignore or even vilify them when they dare to stir up trouble in their own workplaces or communities. In the case of Leyla Wydler, it wasn’t just the SEC that disregarded her warnings about Stanford. It was also her fellow brokers, none of whom came forward to defend her, and her clients, who for the most part brushed aside the concerns she voiced about Stanford’s certificates of deposit (and so their own investments).
Later, after the facts had come to light, Wydler testified at a Congressional hearing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before an audience full of defrauded investors. She received a standing ovation. The belated recognition felt nice, she told me, but it would have felt a lot better if more people had listened to her beforehand, and maybe even stood by her side.
If we really want to honor people like Wydler, we ought to make sure that financial industry whistleblowers who emulate her example in the future don’t have to languish in isolation or wait so long for the applause, and that, unlike Eileen Foster, Harry Markopolos, and Leyla Wydler, they will be spared the silent treatment.
Eyal Press is the author of the new book
Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux). To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Press discusses the treatment of American whistleblowers, click here, or download it to your iPod here. Follow Eyal Press on Twitter @EyalPress.
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Copyright 2012 Eyal Press
Image by ElectronicFrontierFoundation, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 28, 2010 11:14 AM
This piece was originally published by TomDispatch.
Less than a year ago, General David Petraeus saluted smartly and pledged his loyal support for President Obama’s decision to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011. In December, when Obama decided (for the second time in 2009) to add tens of thousands of additional American forces to the war, he also slapped an 18-month deadline on the military to turn the situation around and begin handing security over to the bedraggled Afghan National Army and police. Speaking to the nation from West Point, Obama said that he’d ordered American forces to start withdrawing from Afghanistan at that time.
Here’s the exchange, between Obama, Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported by Jonathan Alter in his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One:
OBAMA: "I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"
PETRAEUS: "Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame."
OBAMA: "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
PETRAEUS: "Yes, sir, in agreement."
MULLEN: "Yes, sir."
That seems unequivocal, doesn’t it? Vice President Joe Biden, famously dissed as Joe Bite-Me by one of the now-disgraced aides of General Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone profile that got him fired, seems to think so. Said Biden, again according to Alter: “In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”
In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the U.S. military, however, things are rarely what they seem. Petraeus, the Centcom commander “demoted” in order to replace McChrystal as U.S. war commander in Afghanistan, seems to be having second thoughts about what will happen next July—a \nd those second thoughts are being echoed and amplified by a phalanx of hawks, neoconservatives, and spokesmen for the counterinsurgency (COIN) cult, including Henry Kissinger, the Heritage Foundation, and the editorial pages of the Washington Post. Chiming in, too, are the lock-step members of the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, led by Senator John McCain.
In testimony before Congress just last week, Petraeus chose his words carefully, but clearly wasn’t buying the notion that the July deadline means much, nor did he put significant stock in the fact that President Obama has ordered a top-to-bottom review of Afghan policy in December. According to the White House, that review will be a make-or-break assessment of whether the Pentagon is making any progress in the nine-year-long conflict against the Taliban.
In his recent Senate testimony—before he fainted, and afterwards—Petraeus minimized the significance of the December review and cavalierly declared that he “would not make too much of it.” Pressed by McCain, the general flouted Biden’s view by claiming that the deadline is a date “when a process begins [and] not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits.”
The Right’s Marching Orders for the President
Petraeus’s defiant declaration that he wasn’t putting much stock in the president's intending to hold the military command accountable for its failure in Afghanistan next December earned him an instant rebuke from the White House. Now, that same Petraeus is in charge.
The dispute over the meaning of July 2011 is, and will remain, at the very heart of the divisions within the Obama administration over Afghan policy.
Last December, in that West Point speech, Obama tried to split the difference, giving the generals what they wanted—a lot more troops—but fixing a date for the start of a withdrawal. It was hardly a courageous decision. Under intense pressure from Petraeus, McChrystal, and the GOP, Obama assented to the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops, ignoring the fact that McChrystal’s unseemly lobbying for the escalation amounted to a Douglas MacArthur-like defiance of the primacy of civilian control of the military. (Indeed, after a speech McChrystal gave in London insouciantly rejecting Biden’s scaled-down approach to the war, Obama summoned the runaway general to a tarmac outside Copenhagen and read him the riot act in Air Force One.)
If Obama’s Afghan decision was a cave-in to the brass and a potential generals’ revolt, the president also added that kicker of a deadline to the mix, not only placating his political base and minimizing Democratic unhappiness in Congress, but creating a trap of sorts for Petraeus and McChrystal. The message was clear enough: deliver the goods, and fast, or we’re heading out, whether the job is finished or not.
Since then, Petraeus and McChrystal—backed by their chief enabler, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican holdover appointed to his position by George W. Bush—took every chance they could to downplay and scoff at the deadline.
By appointing Petraeus last Wednesday, Obama took the easy way out of the crisis created by McChrystal’s shocking comments in Rolling Stone. It might not be inappropriate to quote that prescient British expert on Afghan policy, Peter Townsend, who said of the appointment: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
On the other hand, Petraeus is not simply another McChrystal. While McChrystal implemented COIN doctrine, mixing in his obsession with “kinetic operations” by U.S. Special Forces, Petraeus literally wrote the book—namely, The U.S Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
If the COIN cult has a guru (whom all obey unquestioningly), it’s Petraeus. The aura that surrounds him, especially among the chattering classes of the Washington punditocracy, is palpable, and he has a vast well of support among Republicans and assorted right-wingers on Capitol Hill, including the Holy Trinity: John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Joe Lieberman. Not surprisingly, there have been frequent mentions of Petraeus as a candidate for the GOP nomination for president in 2012, although Obama’s deft selection of Petraeus seems, once and for all, to have ruled out that option, since the general will be very busy on the other side of the globe for quite a while.
Even before the announcement that Petraeus had the job, the right’s mighty Wurlitzer had begun to blast out its critique of the supposedly pernicious effects of the July deadline. The Heritage Foundation, in an official statement, proclaimed: “The artificial Afghanistan withdrawal deadline has obviously caused some of our military leaders to question our strategy in Afghanistan... We don’t need an artificial timeline for withdrawal. We need a strategy for victory.”
Writing in the Washington Post on June 24, Henry Kissinger cleared his throat and harrumphed: “The central premise [of Obama’s strategy] is that, at some early point, the United States will be able to turn over security responsibilities to an Afghan government and national army whose writ is running across the entire country. This turnover is to begin next summer. Neither the premise nor the deadline is realistic... Artificial deadlines should be abandoned.”
And the Post itself, in the latest of a long-running series of post-9/11 hawkish editorials, gave Obama his marching orders: “He… should clarify what his July 2011 deadline means. Is it the moment when ‘you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out,’ as Vice President Biden has said, or ‘the point at which a process begins… at a rate to be determined by conditions at the time,’ as General Petraeus testified? We hope that the appointment of General Petraeus means the president’s acceptance of the general’s standard.”
Is the COIN Cult Ascendant?
It’s too early to say whether Obama’s decision to name Petraeus to replace his protégé McChrystal carries any real significance when it comes to the evolution of his Afghan war policy. The McChrystal crisis erupted so quickly that Obama had no time to carefully consider who might replace him and Petraeus undoubtedly seemed like the obvious choice, if the point was to minimize the domestic political risks involved.
Still, it’s worrying. Petraeus’s COIN policy logically demands a decade-long war, involving labor-intensive (and military-centric) nation-building, waged village by village and valley by valley, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless U.S., NATO, and Afghan casualties, including civilians. That idea doesn’t in the least square with the idea that significant numbers of troops will start leaving Afghanistan next summer. Indeed, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer with long experience in the Middle East and South Asia, who headed Obama’s first Afghan policy review in February 2009, told me (for an article in Rolling Stone last month) that it’s not inconceivable the military will ask for even more troops, not agree to fewer, next year.
The Post is right, however, that Obama needs to grapple seriously with the deep divisions in his administration. Having ousted one rebellious general, the president now has little choice but to confront—or cave in to—the entire COIN cult, including its guru.
If Obama decides to take them on, he’ll have the support of many traditionalists in the U.S. armed forces who reject the cult’s preaching. Above all, his key ally is bound to be those pesky facts on the ground.
Afghanistan is the place where theories of warfare go to die, and if the COIN theory isn’t dead yet, it’s utterly failed so far to prove itself. The vaunted February offensive into the dusty hamlet of Marja in Helmand province has unraveled. The offensive into Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and a seething tangle of tribal and religious factions, once touted as the potential turning point of the entire war, has been postponed indefinitely. After nine years, the Pentagon has little to show for its efforts, except ever-rising casualties and money spent.
Perhaps Obama is still counting on U.S. soldiers to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and win the war, even though administration officials have repeatedly rejected the notion that Afghanistan can be won militarily. David Petraeus or no, the reality is that the war will end with a political settlement involving President Karzai’s government, various Afghan warlords and power brokers, the remnants of the old Northern Alliance, the Taliban, and the Taliban’s sponsors in Pakistan.
Making all that work and winning the support of Afghanistan’s neighbors—including India, Iran, and Russia—will be exceedingly hard. If Obama’s diplomats managed to pull it off, the Afghanistan that America left behind might be modestly stable. On the other hand, it won’t be pretty to look at it. It will be a decentralized mess, an uneasy balance between enlightened Afghans and benighted, Islamic fundamentalist ones, and no doubt many future political disagreements will be settled not in conference rooms but in gun battles. Three things it won’t be: It won’t be Switzerland. It won’t be a base for Al Qaeda. And it won’t be host to tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops.
The only silver lining in the Petraeus cloud is that the general has close ties to the military in Pakistan who slyly accept U.S. aid while funneling support to the insurgency in Afghanistan. If Obama decides to pursue a political and diplomatic solution between now and next July, Petraeus’s Pakistan connection would be useful indeed. Time, however, is running out.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He is a contributing editor at the Nation magazine, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. His blog, The Dreyfuss Report, appears at the Nation’s website. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, was published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books in 2005. Listen to Dreyfuss in the latest TomCast audio interview discussing Obama's war with the military by clicking here, or to download to your iPod, here.
Copyright 2010 Robert Dreyfuss
Image by the Department of Defense.
Friday, May 22, 2009 4:46 PM
Reporter Nick Turse is one of a small number of journalists making the connection between the global financial crisis and domestic abuse. Here he is in a piece published over at Tom Dispatch:
Even in good times, life for poor working women can be an obstacle-filled struggle to get by. In bad times, it can be hell. Now, throw domestic violence into the mix and the hardships grow exponentially.
"Clients are coming in more severely battered with more serious injuries," reports Catherine Shugrue dos Santos of Sanctuary for Families, New York State's largest nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to dealing with domestic violence victims and their children. "This leads us to believe that the intensity of the violence may be escalating. It also means that people may be waiting until the violence has escalated before they leave."
"Difficult financial times do not cause domestic violence," says Brian Namey from the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "But they can exacerbate it."
"When there are tough financial times," Namey notes, "couples can be under greater pressure, have higher stress levels." In fact, a 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice reported that women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over five years were three times more likely to be abused.
He reaches a bit deeper and discovers a phenomenon victim advocates call "economic abuse":
Sanctuary for Families points to "Jen," a battered client who came to them in the fall of 2008 just as the financial crisis was beginning to sweep the country. According to its staff, she represents an ever more typical case.
Speaking of her partner, she put her dilemma this way:
"Sometimes I think it would be easier just to go back to him. I know that he could possibly kill me but... when we lived with him he always had the refrigerator full and I never had to worry about what my baby was going to eat or what we were going to wear. It's just really hard to watch my baby live like this. Sometimes I don't think it's worth it."
Jen is one of an increasing number of women caught between violence in the home and the violence of being moneyless, powerless, and alone in the world. One way in which economic abuse occurs, as Shugrue dos Santos explains, is when "as part of the power and control dynamic, the batterer tries to exert control over the finances of the family. We talk to many women, and even if they're the primary bread-winners in the family, they end up turning that money over to the batterer who either doesn't give them money or gives them an allowance."
Source: Tom Dispatch
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