Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why I Voted Republican Yesterday

The words "I voted Republican" sputter from my fingers with trepidation. I killed my mother. I lost my virginity. I gave away my dog. That's how it feels. But I was driven to it by the Democrats' penchant for disaster when mere setbacks can be had -- and I feel I'm not alone. Watch out, Barack Obama, I may do it again in 2012.

The election I voted in was insignificant. In my Democratic-dominated city, there was a special election to fill a seat on the council and I was sick of voting for the same bunch of corrupt, unimaginative bumblers. "My" candidate lost, anyway.

Yet beware: Obama campaign analysts should see in my naughty yet harmless municipal voting the butterfly's wings aflutter that could set in motion an electoral tsunami in 2012.

I didn't expect too much better from the set of cronies who run City Hall. But I had developed dreams about Obama, with his seductive "yes we can" and his smooth palaver about "change you can believe in." Yet after a health bill without a public option, financial "reform" written in bank boardrooms, and the largest single-year set of cuts in federal spending in history along with the continuation of historic tax cuts, I feel like the voter who's woken up alone in a strange bedroom the morning after election night.

I won't say that Obama is corrupt -- although he got to the Oval Office with a suspiciously large amount of Wall Street money. But his White House could be mistaken for functioning unimaginatively, sometimes to the point that one thinks it's Bush still in charge. As for bumblers, what else should I call an administration that keeps bargaining against itself?

Even the unions, which are not the havens of the most saintly people ever known, have woken up. The International Association of Fire Fighters announced it was cutting off the campaign money spigot for Democrats given their failure to respond to the wave of labor policy rollbacks Republicans are pushing across the nation.

Hispanics and Asians sat out the 2010 elections, according to the latest news. As a Hispanic, I agree with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill) that Obama's immigration policy failures have a lot to do with it. Obama didn't even dare put forth a reform bill, sat on his hands during the DREAM Act debacle and then, to cap insult with injury launched the most intensive deportation sweeps since the Palmer Raids of the 1920s.

For me, the path to convincing myself to vote Republican in 2012, win or lose, begins with the notion that Obama has turned out to be very little better than Bush, if that. Yes, we now have a president who can pronounce the word "nuclear" and who isn't a sheer embarrassment to me in front of my foreign friends.

As with John F. Kennedy in 1960, we broke a prejudice barrier at the ballot box. Although, take note, African-Americans: no Catholic was ever elected to the White House since.

Beyond that, those of us who enthusiastically voted for Obama, who put pro-Obama bumper-stickers on our car (and not the Obama logo one, either), those of us who would like an America that is progressively better, more generous and more kind, we got extremely little.

Would McCain have let the country go to the dogs? Perhaps. This is what scares me about the Libertarian-leaning Tea Party. They're willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater and just watch what happens. We already know what happens when there's nothing standing between ordinary people and those with money: it's called the Middle Ages.

But there's another path to voting Republican in 2012.

Who united the whole world against U.S. imperialism best but George W. Bush? Who convinced people who gave up on the Democrats 30 years ago to do anything to prevent more Republican economic misrule, but George W. Bush? Who convinced everyone most potently of the utter failure of savage, untaxed capitalism, but George W. Bush?

The answer is clear: to radically change the United States we need two, three or more George W. Bush presidencies, driving at least half the country to live in trailer parks and work in gated compounds as maids and security guards (if they're lucky enough to be spared the sweatshops and the unsafe mines). In the 1960s this approach was thought of as intensifying the contradictions of capitalism to create revolutionary conditions, or as others put it, breaking eggs to make an omelet.

Maybe when most Americans live in Brazilian favela-like slums they will wake up. And get out of the way when angry Americans arise.

It's up to Obama. Show me what you've done to earn my vote by November 2012. You haven't yet.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Great American Myth ... Is It False?

After all the debunking of the posts last week, perhaps it's time to take a good look at the spark that has set people dreaming for centuries: the myth of the United States, some call it the American Dream.

Myths, like dreams, are neither true nor false, but simply wishful thinking.

Some are necessary for sanity and survival. If we didn't have ways to mentally soothe our aches and worries or to assure us of a golden horizon somewhere ahead, we would surely commit suicide, cease our labors, give up the struggle of living, we'd lose hope.

Of course, the best-known myths are religious. The cavorting Greek and Roman gods, the powerful Egyptian goddess Isis, Noah and the flood, the Jehovah and Moses of Exodus are all mythical. In my opinion, even the Galilean woodworker the Romans called Jesus was a mythical figure.

These myths all attempt to answer primal archetypal questions of human beings: What am I here for? Who is in charge? What am I supposed to do? How do I seek help against disaster? Who's to thank for my good fortune? And so on.

The lore about these gods and prophets and heroes is all of our own making. We find ways to explain things to ourselves that are soothing and, at least at first blush, satisfying. The reality that God or gods are profoundly unobservable doesn't stand in the way of elaborate systems of thought based on one version or another of the cult of the divine.

I like the take of Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz: "If you talk to God, you are praying. If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia."

Much the same can be said about 'murrica. Most of what Americans learn as children about their country is patently false, as I have modestly shown. This is true of almost any country in the world.

The 19th and 20th century nationalist idea invented the myth that the Earth is populated by people who are distinct by virtue of somehow belonging to a certain territory, speaking a certain language, idolizing the colors of a certain piece of cloth and singing a certain ancient hymn that is almost always literally absurd. Americans, Frenchmen, Australians, Germans, Russians, Brazilians, Chinese.

The peculiarity of the American Myth is its the way the United States is cast in roles soaked in bibliolatry: Messiah and beacon of the world, Promised Land, Land of Milk and Honey. It's the dream image of wishful immigrants who braved a perilous journey and years of sacrifice to reach the American Dream, which most never saw.

In "Sail Away," Randy Newman has even composed a slaver's myth for Africans about to be enslaved:
In America you'll get food to eat
Won't have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It's great to be an American
Isn't that just the way of that hussy Lady Liberty? She swings her hips seductively and with a wink she makes us think the fire in her torch is made of gold. Just like the cobblestones on the streets from California to Staten Island.

Sure it's all bunk. But why else would we get up every morning, rush through coffee, drive to a cubicle, then reverse it after 8 hours, if there wasn't a rainbow there somewhere?

Why would the least favored Americans leave their hollows and their slums to bleed and lose limbs for reasons no one since December 1941 has had the decency to explain in terms that make plain sense, if there wasn't the red, white and blue to cover up recruiters' lies?

When I read the august words of Thomas Jefferson, I don't read a slaveowners' yen to be his own king in a society where everything was trick-sprung to keep only his own ilk on top. No, when I read words, sometimes entire paragraphs, that he borrowed without attribution from John Locke, I don't see the work of a plagiarist.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights ..."
Hear the brass and the flute and the cymbals? Hear Aaron Copland and Jerry Goldsmith's musical paean to America?

That's the beguiling myth of America calling.

Friday, April 15, 2011

English? Male? Christian?

See spot run. Run spot run. See the neighbors, store owners and policemen. They're all white, square jawed men, some have blue eyes, a few have freckles. They go to (Protestant-looking) church. They work. Let's parse this.

The archetypal image of significant Americans as transplanted English, Protestant men goes back to the Constitution (read the whole thing, Tea Party fans!), which defined nonwhites as a fraction of a person, even though whites at the time were the minority in the United States.

English was never adopted as an official language; indeed, no vote was taken — English likely would have lost to German. In fact, the notion that Americans come from English stock is a myth.

Even among the U.S. white settlers who were English speakers by family tradition, most flew that false-flag nationality known as "Scotch-Irish," that is to say, they were from Ulster —not English at all. They sure as hell weren't Irish (ask the IRA). They were the descendants of the Scots sent to vie for the English throne, then left there.

The ones who came to America were the ne'er-do-wells who hadn't made it a century or two after landing as conquerors. They won the Battle of the Boyne and nothing else. That's why they hated the Irish who came during the Potato Famine in the 1840s: the real Irish knew what riffraff they really were.

And men ... Haven't men, in almost all societies, been somewhat less than the majority of the population? Why, then, did laws and custom presume that only men could work for pay, lead, vote, own property and so forth?

Lastly, there's the claim to being Christian.

When in history has U.S. society prized the poor, those who mourn, those who thirst for justice and those who make peace? When have we, collectively or individually in some significant way, turned the other cheek: is that what was done at Fort McHenry, at the Alamo, Fort Sumter, on the Maine, in the fields of Flanders, at Iwo Jima, after 9/11?

Thomas Jefferson, believed in a Creator — more or less. George Washington told the truth (but not in his expense accounts to the Continental Congress). Benjamin Franklin was a decidedly avaricious and pleasure-seeking man.

The reality is that the United States believes in money, was built by Africans, Spaniards, the Dutch, Germans, Irish and Chinese of a variety of religions; most Americans were and are women. That's the real America.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Home of the Chumps Who Got Sent to War

Ever since the first propaganda films in the 1940s, we all learned that American GIs are originals who always win and their enemies, who often enough wore more finely tailored uniforms and had better manners, were stodgy and dull and dropped dead like flies.

The Germans could never hear an American approaching. The French all wore berets and brought their liberators wine. The Italians were cowardly. The Brits were whimsical. Dinkum Aussies and Kiwis cursed using colorful, but never profane, vocabulary. But the (white, Anglo) Yank got the girl.

In fact, proportionally very few Americans fought in the Second World War. Far fewer Americans died in that war than any other ally save France, which was defeated in less than a year. Several times more Americans died in the Civil War.

The myth of American invincibility — unchallenged until Vietnam — was so pervasive and the pride so misplaced that even a B-list actor who became president proudly told an Israeli foreign minister visiting the White House that he had liberated a Nazi concentration camp as a soldier. Which he had — in a fiction film.

To tell the truth, however, the United States didn't emerge as one of the victors of World War II, with unparalleled logistical power to deploy troops anywhere in the world, merely because the nation was, supposedly, the home of the free and the brave.

The USA won because while every German soldier was supported by three people in reserves, supply and manufacturing, every American soldier was supported by 32. The USA won because the nation was building 11 Liberty ships a day to supply Russia and Britain with war materiel.

Rosie the Riveter won the war.

Concentrated attacks on conventional installations and armies involving massive and overwhelming numbers of American soldiers, ships and warplanes won the war.

But the adversaries of the United States eventually figured out what mice know about terrifying elephants. None but the most lunatic of tin-pot dictators will ever challenge the U.S. armed forces to open battle again. The U.S. military is physically larger than the next 11 smaller armed forces combined.

World War II can never be won again.

The day of the big bomber, the giant aircraft carrier and even of the Marines is long gone. Nuclear and bacteriological weapons (which the United States has, despite all denials) are still worth keeping as deterrents. The rest of the war toys are useless against men with determination and simple tools.

That's why the flower of American youth refuse to fight. The Pentagon has to scour for dropouts and poor kids coming out of high school with skills two or three grades below their grade level. That's why Abu-Ghraib happened.

Want to wave the flag and talk about power? Slash military spending to the point that the nation has a reliable cadre of men (and women) determined to win with the simplest of tools in the roughest of conditions — without computers and PXs and the 1,001 toys that have kept U.S. armed forces from a decisive victory since World War II.

Better still. Give the Pentagon's budget to the U.S. Institute of Peace, to figure out how to avoid and defuse conflict in the first place.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Johnny Never Knew How

Almost any discussion of what to do about the United States (or any number of similarly placed countries) ultimately devolves into education, with almost every national candidate claiming to want to become the "education president." Let's stop spinning our wheels.

Behind all that lies the notion that the good ol' U.S. of A. was once a nation of inventive tinkerers from whose "know how" came the horn of plenty we came to know after World War II, from about 1945 to 1973. Hear that buzzer? Wrong answer. False history.

Average Americans were never great geniuses, never particularly well educated. Ask any European who came to these shores in the 1930s, 40s, or 50s. The fabled "greatest generation" did not know encyclopedias from footwear, their forks from one another, or Brazil from Peru.

Sophistication, or its approximate appearance, came in the 1960s, with a handsome young couple in the White House.

Before that, the United States imported genius: Einstein, Fermi and Bohr had more to do with the supposed "American know how" that gave the USA a nuclear monopoly in 1945 than any educational system.

The steam engine was a Scotsman's idea, James Watt. Electricity was invented by the Italians Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. The internal combustion engine came from Alphonse Beau de Rochas. All of them were Europeans.

What did Americans excel at? Swindling (aka "investment banking"), selling used cars (to other Americans) and faking their way to apparent success ("fake 'till you make it").

That Johnny can't read, compute or write is nothing new. The wealthy get the necessary tutoring, the poor get pushed into jail or war, the rest muddle through. That's been true for a very long time.

Want a more educated American?

Pay his or her parents a family-sustaining wage, a college-affording salary, a house-buying income. Almost all alleged "failures" of education are traceable to socioeconomics. The level of general knowledge broadened somewhat after the children of GI Bill university graduates went to college on their parents' income.

Caring for each individual child as a person is more effective a tool to raise confidence in the ability to learn and a thirst for knowledge than anything else. Testing, teaching to tests, and attempting to quantify knowledge as if it came in conveniently measurable units won't and hasn't worked.

Let's stop having undereducated and incurious automatons dispensing widgets of knowledge in classrooms in which you can hear a pin drop. Show some imagination!

In the end, even that may not change things. Because Americans did not succeed at becoming a wealthy nation: our country was the sole industrial nation left standing after two World Wars. We filled an unrepeatable historical vacuum.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The American Revolution Wasn't

A number of House lawmakers and misguided ordinary American citizens argue that their "Tea Party" represents a contemporary effort to re-awaken the spirit of the so-called American Revolution. It is, but not the way they think.

As during the American Revolution, ordinary people are being led by their noses to stage a false revolt for the benefit of the very few and the continued and even increased burdens of the many — especially the majority of the well-intended folks who have fallen for the public relations snow job.

Back then, the few were a handful of slave owners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, bankers such as Alexander Hamilton and wealthy businessmen such as Benjamin Franklin. Today, most people don't even know the names of the wealthiest people, save for celebrities such as monopolist marketer Bill Gates, but there is a 1 percent getting richer as the rest of the country gets poorer and there are giant corporations that pay nothing in taxes.

Back then, the revolution did not change anything in American society. Slavery remained intact, as did indentured servitude for whites. In 1794, ordinary farmer took up arms to protest taxes being levied on their backs to pay off Hamilton and his friends who held the government hostage to loans they had made during the war of independence.

But here comes the lesson of this post: Hamilton had them put down harshly and there was never another rebellion like it ever again. Scour the history of the United States of America and you will not find any widespread challenge of the social order.

Americans have never revolted and they are way too busy watching television to be bothered to be awakened by anything any Tea, Coffee, or Pretty Please Sugar Party may bring about.

Americans went through more than twice today's level of unemployment during the Great Depression without a whimper. Wages have been dropping — and I do mean actually dropping — since 1973 without the slightest public awareness.

Indeed, Americans have repeatedly elected those who are most obviously at the service of those few who profit off their progressively more poorly paid work — Reagan, the two Bushes (admittedly these two came from among the rich few).

And, I hate to say this, those of us who voted for Barack Obama were misled to believe that his campaign could be banked by Wall Street without selling out the candidates' principles. Obama serves the rich and the few, let's not fool ourselves.

Let us remember today — the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired in the Civil War — that Americans were led like lambs to the slaughter to defend slaveholders against industrialists. Did anything change for the common man after the Civil War?

Even emancipation was quicky turned into a merely symbolic legal fiction as the descendants of slaves were blocked from every path to enjoying "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Almost 50 years from the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., prisons and jails are filled to the brim with the flower of African American youth.

What was King doing the day he was murdered? He was linking the struggle for civil rights to the struggle for economic democracy, supporting sanitation workers on strike.

The wealthy elite didn't care who sat at the Woolworth lunch counters they would never visit — except maybe to slum around in as college students. They cared about and feared the activism of civil rights spreading to the bread and butter issues. That's why King was killed.

The American Revolution was not revolutionary in that it didn't change anything but the names of the masters. Americans have never revolted in any significant way against their masters and I don't see any evidence they ever will.

Indeed, last week the rank and file supporters of the Tea Party begged their leaders to demolish anything that might one day save them from poverty. That day that is not too distant for most of us, as economic inequality widens in America.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The nation as a dysfunctional family

Last week the Republican House pouted, stamped its feet and held its breath until the Democratic Senate and White House agreed to serve a federal meal made mostly of ice cream. Who is to blame? The citizens are: we are in one of those moments in which the government comes close to representing a vectorial sum of the political forces in play.

Allow me to explain.

One of the first things I learned in physics was the idea of forces and how they interact. Say we're pushing a big, human-size ball: you're pushing east and I'm pushing west; the ball will either stay put from equally opposing forces or it will veer  northwest or southwest if my force is stronger or northeast or southeast if yours is. This is the sum of our vectors.

Right now the U.S. government comes close to representing the variety of political forces at play. Most people, who were sick of George W. Bush's misrule, elected Barack Obama and the Democratic majorities. The few people who are rich and have corporate power (who, not being stupid, recognized Bush was a colossal failure) made sure Obama and his pals were bought men incapable of doing them any harm. The elderly voted to protect their Social Security and Medicare. The white lower middle class threw away their votes on a former fly boy who really didn't want to win, then got mesmerized by an invention of millionaires and K Street consultants called the "Tea Party." The poor, as always, didn't vote.

Voilà! The politics of 2010. The nation is a dysfunctional family and the government reflects it in miniature. Misbehaving and unruly children in the House. A neurotic, narcissistic wife on the verge of a breakdown in the Senate. A pusillanimous peace-at-any-price husband in the White House.

That's the "royal family" that governs us.

It reflects our own national childishness, our unrestrained and irrational greed, the sheer illogic of wanting the mansion and the swimming pool but not the work, our thinking we are somehow entitled and have earned our privileges. It reflects our collective inability to lose weight, to make things that work, to be as young as we once were without huge infusions of foreigners, coupled with our pathological depressive, fearful and phobic state about our situation. Finally, it reflects the willingness to play whatever theatrical roles are required to keep the farce going that this is a reasonable, can-do, high-minded national family whose house is a beacon to the world.

The first step in any kind of redirection in thinking is to face facts. Awareness. We need to come to grips with the following facts:

1. The "American Revolution" was not a revolution in any sense of the word and Americans are not now, nor have ever been, a revolutionary people.

2. American prosperity did not come about by dint of effort or "know-how" and no amount of wheel spinning and education reform will solve the problems that appear to afflict us.

3. American power did not come as a result of brilliant military strategy or the most effective soldiers, but because of an outmoded military doctrine that will likely never work again.

4. Americans were never primarily English, male and Christian but always an uneasy demographic mix uncomfortable with religious beliefs.

5. The United States is for the moment wealthy, among the largest countries, in diminishing measure a remarkably open and flexible society, an awesome nation of superlatives, yet one whose myth of greatness is often glaringly blinding to those who most believe in it.

Think about and comment on these themes, please. In coming posts, I will try to expand on each of them, perhaps pointing to some of the national therapy we need.