There are more reasons for Americans to feel aggrieved today than at any time since the Vietnam War ended nearly 40 years ago. At no time before or since has there been so little effort to remedy those conditions. That contradiction should be our main grievance.
The array of deeply troubling national abuses is extensive and varied. There is the unprecedented assault on personal liberties best exemplified by the de facto repeal of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. We are subject to massive, indiscriminate surveillance that opens our private communications and movements to governmental scrutiny. This is done with impunity by spy agencies that are encouraged in this intrusion by the President, a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and a judiciary that casts a blind eye on these infringements. Citizens are by law now subject to imprisonment at the whim of the Executive wherever and whenever an arbitrary determination is made that anyone is a threat to national security. Incarceration can be done anonymously without right to appeal – an annulment of habeas corpus. American citizens outside the country are liable to be targeted for assassination on the basis of a similarly arbitrary determination by the President that he or she may take violent action against the United States, its people or its interests. Four citizens already have been so liquidated – only one of whom had association with a hostile organization. The standard of “clear and imminent” threat has been so twisted as to be infinitely elastic.
In the economic sphere, the country has degenerated into a plutocracy wherein the wielders of great wealth dictate the terms of economic policy while exploiting what is for practical purposes immunity from punishment or meaningful regulation. Financial predators triggered the financial collapse of 2008 through egregious actions that were aided and abetted by those with the nominal responsibility to monitor their conduct. They escaped chastisement or suppression of their privileges to exploit and to outright plunder. Their representatives were appointed to the key positions whose supposed mandate was to remedy the situation by President Obama. The result was an emasculated legislation, the Dodd-Franks bill, that carried little potential to rein in abuse. The deliberately lethargic process of implementing its provisions has seen the regulatory authorities work hand-in-glove with Wall Street to eliminate or neutralize whatever potential there was.
The Great Recession of 2008 – 2014 has been used to transfer roughly one trillion dollars in national wealth from 70% of Americans to the top 1%. Inequality is greater today than at any time since the introduction of the progressive income tax nearly a century ago. The inflation discounted earnings of salaried Americans have barely risen since 1970, i.e. virtually all of the expanded wealth created over that period has gone to the owners of capital and not to workers. Tax laws and regulations are riddled with exemptions that allow corporations, and the super-rich, to minimize their obligations to the Treasury. Apple used virtual cyber addresses to pay zero taxes last year. GE received a refund on revenues of $83 billion; so did Boeing on profits of $5.9 billion – over the past five years, its aggregate tax bill has been zero.
Prospects are for an aggravation of this condition. Cutbacks in Social Security are now the taken as a given by both the Republicans and most Democrats. The evisceration of trade unions, the freedom given businesses to eliminate benefits and slash wages by hiring more and more part-timers, the scapegoating of public employees as the cause of what ails American competitiveness, the resort to outsourcing and expatriation of jobs as the standard business practice – all of these developments together ensure that the fate of the American wage earner is bleak. To aggravate their work life even further, draconian forms of worker control made possible by sophisticated monitoring technology are turning them into regimented chattels.
Looking abroad, we see the United States committed to a strategy of global power projection – political and military – independent of any concrete threat or specific purpose. That entails the maintenance of a vastly inflated Pentagon budget, a vastly inflated intelligence budget, the extension of military bases into over 100 countries, and the subordination of diplomacy to coercion as the operative principle of the nation’s foreign policy. Projection of American power is integral to a loosely conceived but boundless Global War On Terror (GWOT). Set on achieving absolute security, it leads inexorably to a strategy of prevention that targets anyone or any group that could become a threat. What began as a campaign against al-Qaeda has spiraled into an open-ended war against Islamic radicalism anywhere – even though most of groups have no intention of attacking the United States and none has the means to reach us.
The GWOT has had the effect of legitimizing the radical doctrine of establishing “full spectrum” military dominance in every region of the world. None of these grand ideas have been candidly stated, much less debated. They have led to embarrassing failure almost everywhere. The immediate expression of this strategic vision is the Obama administration’s unrelenting efforts to keep 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. This is in direct contradiction of repeated pledges that the war there would be over by the end of 2014. It also is pursued without any half-way persuasive justification; indeed, there is no public justification made whatsoever. Despite the twelve plus years of serial fiasco that marks American interventions under the aegis of the Global War On Terror, despite the sullying of the country’s good name through torture, mass incarceration and “collateral” killing, our leaders presume deference to their dubious judgment and feel no obligation to pay a decent respect to the opinions of their fellow citizens.
Trapped in the warped post-9/11 mindset, the country has lost any sense of the absurd. We see American soldiers scrambling around the high valleys of the Hindu Kush in pursuit of Pashtun tribesman become Taliban whose main interest in the United States is as a distant embodiment of what salafists despise. No Taliban has ever attacked an American outside of the Afghanistan we occupy. The al-Qaeda leadership which they hosted to their rueful regret is long gone. We use drones to wipe out al-Shabab fighters in the wastelands of Somalia whose capabilities are primitive and who pronounced themselves al-Qaeda associates only two years ago when doing so promised them publicity and funding. We similarly have embroiled ourselves in the maelstrom of Yemeni tribal cum sectarian politics which are Iraq in spades. We operate surreptitiously on the Pakistan side of the Hindu Kush in pursuit of other Islamist militants whose objectives lie in Lahore rather than Los Angeles (and whose political position is strengthened by our meddling). We get lathered up over the noxious machinations of born-again ex-cigarette smugglers in the depths of the Sahara because they have announced themselves as combatants in one of the proliferating Islamist causes. None of this involves consequential threats to the United States: none of this engages any significant American interest.
To the extent that any of these people are a nuisance, they warrant the attention of local authorities, Interpol and maybe a few CIA skilled operational people who actually have an experienced understanding of the local scene. Instead, we have mounted a Hollywood production of vast scale to chase the wisps of our own fevered imagination into the remotest corners of the world.
If some of the resulting scenes were depicted on Saturday Night Live fifteen years ago, we would be splitting our sides in laughter (e.g. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” descent onto an aircraft carrier; L. Paul Bremer’s imitation of a Roman proconsul in Baghdad costumed in a 3-piece Brooks Brother suit and desert camouflage boots in the 110 degree heat; the defection by 3 of 4 Mali elite units, trained for three years by Africa Command, as soon as the jihadis showed up; in Afghanistan, we sponsor talks with a Petraeus certified top Taliban leader who, months later, turns out to be a grocer from Quetta; high State Department official Victoria Nuland on the loose in combustible Kiev earns the Trifecta of alienating pro-West demonstrators, the existing government, and our European allies on an unsecured phone – using the F… word she later cited as part of her “charm.” Then there is Raymond Davis, the CIA super sleuth, whose blown cover prompted him to panic and kill two Pakistani agents in the heart of Lahore; when arrested by police he had a make-up kit in his SUV and multiple U.S. government identity badges strung around his neck. Today, lacking all perspective or inclination to rebel against the scary fanciful stories that we are spoon fed, Americans don’t laugh – they cower in dread.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
This is just a partial list of the injustices and indignities inflicted on the American people. The greatest menace to our democratic principles and traditions is the lack of any significant rebellion against the abuse of our rights and interests. The egregious state of affairs enumerated above is the product of an implicit bipartisan consensus on the essential elements of each. The swing to the far-Right by the Tea Party dominated Republicans — buttressed by a cynical campaign organized and led by money-bags, demagogues and dogmatists – gives the superficial impression that a great breach has opened between the two parties. The radical tactics of the Republicans in Congress and in State Houses add to that impression. On some social issues like abortion, that is the case. Yet, a closer examination shows that the core thinking that has led to the conditions described above is shared to a considerable extent by both parties. That reality is at once cause and effect of the meek reaction that these assaults on decency and the well-being of most citizens has produced.
Especially striking is the passivity of those who cast themselves as the liberal/progressive opposition to these developments. In Washington, the Obama administration (as well as its supporters and apologists) have swallowed or even avidly adopted the outlook and policies of conservatives on national security, on surveillance, and the deference to the financial community as the mainstay of the economy. In Congress, vocal criticism is episodic and muted – at best. In contrast to the drumbeat of diatribe, denunciation and invective that comes from the forces of reaction, so-called liberals act as if it were unseemly to raise their voices. They look mildly apologetic that they may be creating a fuss. Months can go by without hearing a word from Senator X or Senator Y – supposed spokesmen for the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. There are in fact only two Senators who make their presence, and their views felt on a regular and sustained basis: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. It is no different on the House side. So Democrats, on the NSA issue, put themselves in the shameful position of leaving the field of combat to the Tea Party darling, and sometimes Libertarian, Rand Paul. Meanwhile, the “liberal” Diane Feinstein from liberal California declares that the question of whether Edward Snowden acted as a Russian agent is open.
So the Democratic caucus, in their bafflement, goes off for a winter retreat on the shores of the Chesapeake to ponder their bleak electoral prospects. Joe Biden shows up with a grin-and-bear-it pep talk. They are puzzled why the surveys show clearly that a substantial majority of opinion aligns with the Democratic platform, that they are revolted by the Republicans, yet appear ready to keep them in control of the House and perhaps take the Senate. “What we have here is a problem of communication” – some say. The electoral districts have been gerrymandered – say others. What they won’t admit is their own lack of conviction, their political ineptitude,* and – not least – their subservience to a White House that never has seen the party as more than a label to run under and an assurance of automatic votes. Yet, this abject state provokes no insurrections, no Young Turk movement, no dissent – nothing except whining and defeatism and misplaced loyalty.
Self-imposed reticence holds, too, for those elements of the media and punditocracy that consider themselves enlightened. To find anything like truth –telling on a regular basis, one must revert to electronic sources and blogs outside the mainstream media. Even the self-avowed Democratic leaning programs on MSNBC devote almost all their time slamming the Republicans while giving the White House a free ride. Beyond the political arena, the absence of any rebellion against the affronts the country has been suffering has left a void. On the abuse of civil liberties, the bar associations have not a word to say. The American Medical Association has not a word to say about certified doctors participating in torture. The American Psychological Association washes its hands off the reprehensible conduct of members who advised at Guantanamo and elsewhere on the most effective abusive techniques for interrogations. As for the universities, they have been comatose. On none of the issues discussed has there been any organized opposition to speak of by faculty or students. Academic leaders, for their part, subtlety discourage any “controversial” activities that could alienate fat-cat donors, state legislators, or the federal agencies on whose research funding they depend.
Even on local matters that affect them directly, students and faculty remain inert. Let’s recall the scandal a few years back when many schools (including some very prestigious universities) were found entering into sweetheart contracts with financial institutions that gave them a monopoly on lending to students. As a result, interest rates and other terms were unfavorable. In some instances, university officials received kickbacks (either personal or institutional). The common response was to quickly sweep the matter under the rug. Campuses remained mute. Students, accustomed to being misused, saw it as just another bump on the road of life.**
Faculty simply couldn’t be bothered and/or were intimidated at the prospect of challenging administrators who had the power to determine whether to grant them salary raises – however paltry. The same pattern of institutional flight from responsibility and faculty passivity is evident in the current epidemic of scandals at scores of universities involving the suppression of rape cases and/or the punishment of victims by officials intent on safeguarding the schools’ “good name.”
Perhaps the ultimate abrogation of civic responsibility is the reflexive anointment of Hillary Clinton as the next great hope. And this after the historic misreading of Barack Obama. The Clintons have been accomplices to every one of the adverse trends we have noted. From encouragement of financial predation to the abuses of the GWOT, from the undermining of Social Security that began under Bill (remember his call at the 2012 Democratic convention to support the Bowles-Simpson emasculation of Medicare and Social Security) to Afghanistan, from whole-hearted backing for NSA spying to the corporate globalization of American jobs, they have been unswervingly promoters of established interests. Here is Hillary stepping forth boldly on NSA spying: “This is a very important question….We need to have a sensible adult conversation about what is necessary to be done.” (Oct 12 Chatham House)
Hillary Clinton last fall took $400,000 from Goldman Sachs for two token appearances at closed door gatherings of clients where she mouthed platitudes about America’s future. This is the improbable Jeanne d’Arc of rebellions still unborn. What more is there to say.
* It should be obvious that going out of your way to antagonize a natural, historical ally like teachers is no way to win elections – even without resorting to pricey consultants who helped the Democrats to lose a series of elections that they should have won.
** At one major state university this month, the student Assembly was engaged in deliberations over proposed legislation to urge the university to invest in two-ply bathroom tissue instead of the one-ply now available across the campus. The campaign was launched by two business schools students who claimed that “it has been the No. 1 complaint from students for a while” at the business school. University administrators have put off a decision until a cost-benefit analysis of the switchover has been completed.
Michael Brenner is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations and Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He blogs regularly at Huffington Post. Article used by permission of the author.