May 12, 2009

Against Prosecution (III): Obama and the Triumph of the American Myth

Part I: A Vicious Fury -- with Nukes

Part II: Concerning the State, the Law, and Show Trials

Reality and Truth Are Banished: The Descent into National Madness

Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us.


Brand Obama offers us an image that appears radically individualistic and new. It inoculates us from seeing that the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country. Corporations, which control our politics, no longer produce products that are essentially different, but brands that are different. Brand Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than did Brand George W. Bush.


In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not seek reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by clich├ęs, stereotypes and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on Earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our own attributes, or our national character, or because we are blessed by God. Reality is not accepted as an impediment to our desires. Reality does not make us feel good.


The junk politics practiced by Obama is a consumer fraud. It is about performance. It is about lies. It is about keeping us in a perpetual state of childishness. But the longer we live in illusion, the worse reality will be when it finally shatters our fantasies. Those who do not understand what is happening around them and who are overwhelmed by a brutal reality they did not expect or foresee search desperately for saviors. They beg demagogues to come to their rescue. This is the ultimate danger of the Obama Brand. It effectively masks the wanton internal destruction and theft being carried out by our corporate state. These corporations, once they have stolen trillions in taxpayer wealth, will leave tens of millions of Americans bereft, bewildered and yearning for even more potent and deadly illusions, ones that could swiftly snuff out what is left of our diminished open society.
-- Chris Hedges, " Buying Brand Obama," May 3, 2009
Let it be noted that a few of us, a very few of us, repeatedly tried to warn you about all of this. With regard to certain aspects of Hedges' theme, I wrote the following in September 2007:
Ever since the end of World War II (and going back to the Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Philippines), the goal of our foreign policy has been world hegemony -- and this is the goal shared and advanced by both the Democratic and Republican parties. It may not serve the purposes of "ordinary" Americans or of foreigners numbering in the millions -- and God knows, it has murdered enough of them (but mostly poor, brown foreigners, so as to prevent unrest among the docile American public) -- but it certainly serves the interests of the ruling elites.

As it goes abroad, so it goes at home. Our bloated, corporatist, increasingly authoritarian government similarly serves the interests of the ruling elites, as the lives of more and more Americans become exercises in mindless stupor. Most Americans are capable of experiencing what passes for "emotion" only when watching the latest stupidity on teevee, or a new Hollywood blockbuster, or contemplating the latest widget offered at the nearby mall. Our government has murdered more than a million innocent people in Iraq. Hey, man, who are you rooting for on American Idol? Our politicians will not tell us or themselves the truth. What murderer willingly admits he is a vicious sadist, undeterred by the screams of his victims as he counts his money? Nor do most Americans wish to acknowledge what their country has become, or the nature of its actions.

So it's all about self-delusion and marketing. We can't speak of genocide or the pursuit of power and wealth by means of mass murder -- so we talk about "American freedom," "spreading democracy" and "national interests." We insist on our "good intentions" and that, no matter the catastrophic devastation that directly results from our actions, we "mean well."

On the domestic front, because the Democrats and Republicans both want and enjoy the fruits of the corporatist, authoritarian state but still vie with each other for control over the mechanisms of power, the two parties have a problem. In terms of basic principles and the interests they serve, they are indistinguishable. The Republicans are primarily financed by and do the bidding of hugely wealthy corporate powers; so are the Democrats. The Republicans have numerous and intricate ties to the defense industry, which makes incalculable amounts of money from our perpetual war economy; the same is true for Democrats. The Republicans want an increasingly repressive surveillance state to ensure their rule and their own lives of comfort and privilege; so do the Democrats.

So why should any voter support one party over the other? This is not to say there are no differences at all between the parties, as we shall see in a moment. But when we consider the deeper level of analysis, we see that the problem is not one of fundamental political principles, since neither party is about to change those. We come back to marketing.
The full essay discusses these ideas in further detail.

Given the fundamentalist fervor with which the U.S. ruling class maintains and burnishes the national mythology, an exercise in which the majority of "ordinary" Americans join with equal enthusiasm (for such dedication to onanistic joys will forever find many followers), Barack Obama was inevitable. It was dangerous enough when truth was the enemy; truth was to be destroyed, but there remained a barely discernible acknowledgment that the truth still existed. With the ascension of Obama the Marketer, Obama the Fulfiller of Dreams, Obama the Commander of Illusion, the lie occupies the most prominent national space. Once installed, the lie grows daily and hourly. The smallest remaining tatters of truth are pushed always farther to the edges, until they vanish into the growing swamp of pain, suffering and death. To search for the truth in these circumstances is to sentence oneself to ridicule and hatred. To speak the truth is to render oneself irrelevant and invisible.

But, the liars insist, after our disgusting and vile history of slavery and discrimination, we miraculously have a Black president. Surely, this must be regarded as a wonderful development. In the unlikely event that you missed the intended intimidation, an additional phrase is often included: "Surely, this must be regarded as a wonderful development by all decent people." Now you understand, and now you will shut up.

Honest to Christ, talk about the lie ascendant. I suppose it is "uniquely American" that the first Black American president could only have been elected by molding himself entirely in the image of the white, male ruling class, and by adopting a white racist perspective. But still he has Black skin! O, glorious symbolism! O, wondrous marketing!

To hell with this vicious nonsense:
It appears that, in many cases, they wish to see a Black American president -- simply because he is Black, and simply because he's a member of their political tribe. You can be certain they would not extend the same consideration to a J.C. Watts, for example.

For this, too, is where we are in America today. Not only is truth the enemy, but we live in a world of the most superficial of appearances. Completely empty symbolism -- symbolism stripped of all meaning and of every connection to fact -- is what motivates such people. Rigorous thought and analysis and seriousness of purpose can find no place in this view of the world. These people live only on the surfaces of things, and they are not living or thinking to any measurable extent. The surfaces where they barely exist are those determined by others who came before, and they are entirely covered with lies. The images constantly flicker and are gone, to be replaced by other lies, which will also disappear almost immediately. There is no past and no future, and the present is stripped of all those elements that give life meaning and purpose.
I confess that I am very fearful for the future of this country, even more fearful than I have been in the Bush years. And that, I also confess, is a development I would never have predicted. But there had been the possibility of opposition over the past seven years, although it finally became clear that all such opposition was a deadly illusion, and that the nominal opposition was in certain respects even guiltier than the Bush criminals.

An Obama victory will kill much of the possibility for meaningful political opposition for good -- that is, opposition that might significantly alter the existing system without destroying it (if that is at all possible, which I am almost entirely convinced it is not). But the resentments, the anger and possibly even the hatred will remain, and they may grow. What happens then?

It hardly bears thinking about.
Torture and the American Project

When we attempt to gauge whether an individual is genuine and honest about his proclaimed goals and intentions, we can look to various indicators in our search for evidence. We will note conflicts and contradictions between a person's statements and his actions, always remembering that, especially in the realm of politics, a person's statements will convey what he wants you to believe, while his actions will reveal what he himself is in fact concerned about. (Keep that point in mind; we will return to it later in this series when we consider the realities of Obama's foreign policy.)

We might also examine another issue: if and to what extent a person ignores, denies or seeks to minimize obviously relevant evidence which would tend to cast doubt on his stated goals. This can be tremendously useful and revealing, yet this method of analysis is rarely used by most people. There are a number of reasons for this failure; here I will mention just two. First, it requires that the person engaging in this kind of analysis has exerted the effort to educate himself about the subject in question. To confine oneself to the argument offered by others requires a minimal amount of work: you simply listen, and then apply what reasoning skills you may have acquired (which are also tragically minimal most of the time for most people, and not infrequently nonexistent).

Second, and this is the more general methodological point, to educate oneself in this way requires a process of self-generated question-asking. If you hear an argument about the necessity of the State, or about the supposedly crucial issue of "getting the intelligence right," or about the allegedly unique evils of "the Bush torture regime," it will not always be immediately apparent exactly what questions we ought to ask. The education and the question-asking usually proceed together: as we learn more about a particular issue (the U.S.'s history on torture) or a very complex general subject (development of the U.S.'s foreign policy of worldwide hegemony), more questions will occur to us. Those questions will lead to further reading and investigation, which will lead to still more questions, and so on. But none of this will occur automatically and without effort, especially given the trivial superficiality and criminally constricted nature of public debate today. If you want to educate yourself in this manner, you will have to make a sustained effort on your own. That effort will take years and even decades. And it never ends: that is the challenge, and the joy. (I will be discussing aspects of thinking and of the failure to learn how to think in more detail in future installments of the tribalism series.)

I want to remind you of this statement of mine from the first part of this series: "By seeking to localize the evil in only one aspect of the much broader and more fundamental evil involved and within a falsely delimited period of time, the torture obsessives would thus whitewash the American project as a whole." Now I would like you to consider the following excerpt from an essay I wrote in early January of this year.

I especially draw your attention to the huge number of facts and the immense amount of history that are omitted from the current ongoing obsession with torture, but only torture as practiced by the Bush administration. And a more fundamental failure is involved: an inability and/or refusal to understand that torture is only one part, granted an especially heinous part, but still only a part of much larger system of destruction and death. I will analyze this further in later parts of this series, but consider this brief preview for the moment: certain segments of the American polity rush to condemn, and condemn, and condemn "the Bush torture regime" -- but who rushes to condemn a criminal war of aggression that has led to genocide and the slaughter of more than a million innocent Iraqis? Who will even call it a criminal war of aggression? Who will even call it a genocide? Only a very, very few people. Who will acknowledge that, applying the relevant Nuremberg Principles -- Principles which the United States itself was largely instrumental in shaping -- the invasion and occupation of Iraq represent a continuing, monstrous war crime, and that all those who supported and continue to support this crime are war criminals? This is not an arguable point; the Nuremberg Principles allow no other conclusion. But who will say so? Almost no one.

Omissions of this kind -- and there are many more, equally awful omissions that we will soon be discussing -- leave no room for doubt. The obsession with torture, when coupled with the determined omission of any mention of the recent and continuing monumental war crimes committed by the U.S. government, means that those who exhibit this highly selective torture mania are astoundingly ignorant or stupid, and/or loathsomely, contemptibly dishonest. In brief: they are trying to get away with something. Consideration of exactly what it is they're trying to get away with is one of the primary concerns of this series of essays.

To return to the immediate subject, and to the United States' long, repellent embrace of torture, here is the critical passage from, "You Aren't Going to Beat the System, Baby":
Over three years ago, in December 2005, Naomi Klein wrote about what she called Bush's "infamous 'We do not torture' declaration." Klein noted the location of Bush's viciously dishonest pronouncement, Panama City, and further noted that it is but a short drive from there to the location of the School of the Americas from 1946 to 1984. She discusses the history of the evil taught at SOA, and some of the effects of that evil around the world. Klein then writes:
Suffice it to say that choosing Panama to declare "We do not torture" is a little like dropping by a slaughterhouse to pronounce the United States a nation of vegetarians.

And yet when covering the Bush announcement, not a single mainstream news outlet mentioned the sordid history of its location. How could they? To do so would require something totally absent from the current debate: an admission that the embrace of torture by US officials long predates the Bush Administration and has in fact been integral to US foreign policy since the Vietnam War.
Here, Klein herself is far too generous, and her truncated history is dangerously misleading. The U.S. government's embrace of torture unquestionably goes back to the monstrously inhumane occupation of the Philippines at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Moreover, when one considers the genocide of Native Americans and the centuries-long practice of slavery, one appreciates that systematized, institutional torture is as American as sickeningly rancid, fatally poisoned apple pie. If one views the American government as a brutally dysfunctional family, then, my friend, Mom and Pop are the torturers-in-chief. (This is true in a more literal manner than most people are willing to countenance. See all of my series on "On Torture" on this question -- and the last two parts in particular, here and here. Another essay also analyzes certain of the dynamics in play: "Let the Victims Speak.")

In her article about America's longstanding embrace of torture, Klein mildly takes William Pfaff to task for his minimizing of parts of this history. I had forgotten her disagreement with Pfaff on this point, and I find it of more than passing interest. As I noted in "'Regrettable Misjudgments': The Shocking Immorality of Our Constricted Thought," I respect much of Pfaff's analysis of the dynamics of geopolitical events and trends a great deal. But in that same essay, I noted a significant difference I have with one aspect of Pfaff's analysis. In considering how the myth of Good America and uniquely Good Americans collides with the reality of our own history, I wrote:
[A]s I have continued to reflect on these issues, I realize that I must strongly disagree with Pfaff's assessment that "the influence of the national myth of divine election and mission was generally harmless" during the first period of this nation's history, when our actions were largely confined to the continental U.S. For it was precisely during that period when the complex mechanisms of national self-delusion and lethal mythmaking became firmly entrenched in America's conception of itself. Consider two of the most momentous aspects of those first years for America: the continuing genocide of the Native Americans, until finally almost all of them were slaughtered -- and the monstrous evil of slavery, the importation and brutal enslavement of millions of human beings, accompanied by an endless train of horrors that almost forbid contemplation.

Consider those two facts in all their horror -- and then ask yourself what would be required culturally and psychologically to maintain a belief in a "national myth of divine election and mission" in the face of them. I have formulated that so as to underscore the problem: you cannot recognize these facts and simultaneously maintain a belief in the notion that the United States is a divinely "chosen" nation, a nation superior to all others, a nation of spotless moral glory. The myth can be maintained only by denying the greatest part of the truth -- denying the full nature of the genocide systematically committed over a long period of time, and denying the full implications of the institution of slavery, which similarly lasted for several hundred years. As the United States consolidated its grip on the North American continent, it consolidated and made impregnable its view of itself: the United States conquered territory, displaced huge populations, murdered, enslaved and slaughtered for God, for "national greatness," for "Manifest Destiny," for "freedom."

I would further submit that Woodrow Wilson was only able to expand this national vision to the entire world with the ease he did because it was so firmly implanted in American culture by the beginning of the twentieth century. It is true that Wilson utilized a deeply dishonorable and shamefully dishonest propaganda campaign to convince Americans of the need to enter World War I -- but that campaign ultimately connected to a belief system widely shared by Americans. Most Americans believed then, as they believe now, that they are "special" in a way that no other peoples are, that God favors them as He favors no one else, that our "mission" is a sacred one. One would think that a people which views itself as religious would reject a program so lacking in humility as "saving the world," but this is only one of many contradictions to be found in such a belief system. When Americans, including our political leaders, talk of "saving the world," they mean it. Given the weapons at our disposal, it is a frightening and terrifying belief to hold. As I have remarked before, for our national leaders and the foreign policy establishment: "America is God. God's Will be done."
As that last-linked essay demonstrates, Obama subscribes in full to this immensely destructive notion of America as "divinely" chosen to "save the world."
To emphasize how little any of this has changed during America's history, let me also remind you of some details about the U.S. occupation of the Philippines over a hundred years ago. The earlier article has more about these horrors, and Paul Kramer's The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines has much, much more:
On the ground, racial terms like "gugu" and "nigger" both reflected and enabled a broadening of the enemy. In their letters and diaries, U.S. soldiers sometimes attached them to descriptions of combat status -- such as "nigger army" -- which, in effect, made them racialized terms for "insurgent." In some cases, they continued to distinguish combatants and non-combatants, referring to the latter as "natives" or "Filipinos." But in other cases, soldiers used both "gugu" and "nigger" to refer explicitly to noncombatants. "At meals [sic] times there are always a lot of little 'gugus' around, each with his tin can, begging scraps to eat," wrote Perry Thompson. Peter Lewis described how "the Niggers keep going to Church" on Easter. ...

Racial terms and exterminist sentiment were at the center of the most popular of the U.S. Army's marching songs, which marked the Filipino population as a whole as the enemy and made killing Filipinos the only means to their civilization.


One Nebraskan soldier boasted to his parents of his comrades' bold, aggressive fighting spirit, restrained only by officers' reticence. "If they would turn the boys loose," he wrote, "there wouldn't be a nigger left in Manila twelve hours later." ...

Racial exterminist impulses were also in evidence in U.S. soldiers' descriptions of violence against prisoners and civilians. The American torture of prisoners -- some fraction of which appeared in soldiers' letters, newspaper accounts, and court-martial proceedings -- was often, if not always, justified as a means of intelligence-gathering. The most notorious form of torture by the American side, if far from the only one, was the "water cure," in which a captured Filipino was interrogated while drowned with buckets of filthy water poured into his mouth. The scale of its practice and the frequency of death remain difficult if not impossible to establish. Later blamed almost exclusively on the United States' Macabebe Scouts [a Filipino group with whom the U.S. Army closely collaborated, just as the Spanish colonial army had previously "recruited" them], it was in fact the tactical expression of the military policy of attraction, undertaken in many cases by U.S. and Filipino forces working together both secretly and with the tacit approval of U.S. officers. In the context of guerrilla war, the water cure would simultaneously cure Filipinos of their unknowability and Americans of their ignorance.


Along with torturing them, U.S. soldiers also killed Filipino prisoners. Rumors of "no-prisoners" orders were common. ...

The ultimate form of exterminist war was the killing of acknowledged noncombatants. As early as April 12, 1899, an entry in Chriss Bell's diary took derecognition to its furthest extension: Filipinos had already "caused so much trouble & murdered so many of our boys" that U.S. soldiers "recognize them no longer but shoot on sight all natives. Natives will not or cannot understand kind & civilized treatment. If you treat them as equals they will think you are afraid of them & murder you."


One of the most banal and brutal manifestations of racialization was U.S. soldiers' imagination of war as hunting. The Manila occupation and "friendly policy" had frustrated martial masculinity; the metaphor of the hunt made war, at last, into masculine self-fulfillment. All at once, a language of hunting bestialized Filipinos made sense of guerrilla war to American troops, and joined the latter in manly fraternity. "I don't know when the thing will let out," wrote Louis Hubbard one week into the war, "and don't care as we are having lots of excitement. It makes me think of killing jack rabbits."


The most notorious orders of indiscriminate killing were Gen. Jacob H. Smith's late October 1901 instructions to Marine Maj. Littleron W.T. Waller, following Filipino revolutionaries' successful surprise attack against U.S. soldiers at Balangiga on the island of Samar, to make reprisals against the entire population of the island. "I want no prisoners," he had directed. "I wish you to kill and burn." Smith ordered "all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States." When Waller had asked the general for clarification, Smith stated that he considered any person over the age of ten "capable of bearing arms." The interior of Samar must be made "a howling wilderness!" The direct result of these instructions was systematic destruction and killing on a vast scale.
Keep this history at the forefront of your mind, along with (as I wrote) "two of the most momentous aspects of those first years for America: the continuing genocide of the Native Americans, until finally almost all of them were slaughtered -- and the monstrous evil of slavery, the importation and brutal enslavement of millions of human beings, accompanied by an endless train of horrors that almost forbid contemplation."

Remember all this -- and also remember that the United States government and its military repeated all this in Vietnam, just as they have repeated much of this behavior in interminable interventions around the world ever since World War II, just as destruction, overthrow, mass murder and torture are inextricable parts of the U.S. ruling class's explicitly declared goal of American worldwide hegemony, just as oppression, institutionalized racism and unrelenting cruelties are constantly practiced against disfavored Americans here at home.

And then consider this paragraph, which comes from a fifth-grade civics lesson about the glories of America offered to not very bright young children -- and straight from the diseased heart of the torture obsessives:
America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. "This government does not torture people," declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.
Thus speaks the liberal-progressive God, Paul Krugman. "[N]ever before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for."

The lie is breathtaking in its scope and comprehensiveness. The Native Americans, the millions of slaves and their millions of descendants, including all those Black Americans imprisoned in the disgusting "War on Drugs" yesterday, today and tomorrow, the slaughtered Iraqis, the tortured and murdered Filipinos, the murdered Vietnamese and other grievously unfortunate inhabitants of Southeast Asia, and all the many millions around the world who have suffered from America's unending drive to worldwide domination might be heard to protest that America has "betrayed everything [it] stands for" long before this latest descent into hell. But such objections, fully grounded in fact and supported by reams of evidence and mountains of broken, maimed bodies as they are, will never be heard or acknowledged by those who subscribe to the American myth.

I will have further commentary about Krugman's column and additional similar examples from other torture obsessives in a later installment. And even if we restrict ourselves to the question of torture and Obama's proclamation that he has "ended torture," we will see that this, too, is a lie. Of course, the torture obsessives will never tell you that.

But I will, and I will begin with that particular lie next time.