Monday, November 20, 2006
We’ve recently added a few readers to our subscription list, some of whom are not quite up to speed on how this republic is falling apart before they’ve had a chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg, hence this week’s post; it’s a little long-winded, and many of our Gentle Readers already know most of what’s in it, but a little refresher in recent American history might be just what the doctor ordered, seeing as we also have a freshman Congress waiting in the wings, many of whom probably don't know squat about American history.
Mike Whitney wonders how we got to where we are politically in only six short years. Actually, it took a lot longer than that: the failure of the American democratic experiment is only now becoming glaringly apparent as the political Other Shoe dropped with Pelosi's endorsement of the fascist policies of this administration. To paraphrase Shakespeare: the death of the Constitution has come about from a thousand cuts. The present unpleasantness is merely a repeat of events seen before.
In order to see where we really are, and how we got here, it's necessary to take a look back along our trail, and see where we missed the bread crumbs, so bear with me; we'll get to the point soon enough.
The methods of totalitarians are well known, and throw their shadows before them. We have been warned, early and often: everyone from Gibbon to Benjamin Franklin to Oswald Spengler has warned us that we can easily lose our freedom. It's my contention [here comes the pretentious-intellectual part] that the upward trajectory of America's historic role as model republic to the world - a template of humanist dignity and individual freedom - has, in Spengler's sense, been rudely interrupted.
This interruption has been aided and abetted by the reinvigoration of fundamentalist religions in America, obfuscated by the rise of multi-culturalist New Age movements, and encouraged by the discredited policies of the neoconservative cabal, who's hero - Woodrow Wilson - gave us WWI, the League of Nations and the exorable Treaty of Versailles, which resulted in World War II. And he was a Democrat.
America should still be on an upward arc of citizen government; instead, she is threatened with cultural and political collapse as the Middle East, which had passed out of History with the rise of post-Enlightenment Western Civilization, is now being dragged back onto the world stage in an untimely and unhistoric fashion with a dubious quasi-religious Crusade - our Never-ending War on Terrorism. Note well: the last time the West invaded the East, the conflict lasted over five hundred years, and the East won. They didn't call it the Dark Ages for nothing.
While most historians don't think history is linear, or necessarily predictable - Spengler, for instance, understood history to be cyclic, following a kind of sine-wave pattern - most do think that civilizations go through various phases of religious and intellectual growth in their evolution to historical pre-eminence, followed by political and cultural rigidity, then collapse. [Now back to plain English]. The object is to put off that collapse as long as possible.
Europe experienced its cultural and political rigidity with the rise of democratically-elected neo-paganistic Nazism and Italian corporate state Fascism - despite the Enlightenment - then collapsed under the invasion of the citizen-soldiers of America, all of them - as hokey as it may sound now - educated in the liberal ideals of the American Revolution inherited from that very same Europe.
We could have demanded un-payable reparations from Europe, leaving it desolate and miserable forever - or sowed their fields with salt - but we forbade retaliation and generously rebuilt the whole continent. Post-WWII Europe was revitalized by the importation of American-style republican democracy, as well as massive American corporate investment. However, having heeded the lessons of class-warfare and the consequences of unfettered capitalist/colonialist imperialism, the Europeans relinquished their colonies and remade their countries into representative democratic quasi-socialist states, ensuring a high standard of living for the majority of their citizens, without having to diminish the principles of Enlightenment liberalism. (After all, they invented it). All signs are that a healthy, united, and democratic Europe has arisen from what were fields of ashes.
Back home, certain establishment intellectuals (e.g., George Kennan) began formally trying to fit future history into a mold of their choosing with the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. This was America's first formal attempt to impose American will on the historic process, with mixed results. The Soviet Union became the country behind what Churchill called the "Iron Curtain," and American politicians of every denomination joined the communist witch-hunts, led by the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. He personally was shown to be a bully and brought down when Boston lawyer Joseph Welch asked, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" ('Decency,' now there's a concept!) In any case, America's foreign adventures began in earnest during this period - most egregiously in the former French colony of Vietnam.
(As an aside, it bears repeating that, while well intentioned and often bumbling, Democrats have never been a "Peace Party" or shrinking violets before the guns, having produced more than their fair share of warhawks. Don't lose sight of the fact that the major conflict began with John F Kennedy and escalated under Lyndon Johnson, both Democrats.)
Make no mistake: Vietnam was a complete moral cataclysm for America. The last helicopter lifted off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon on Tuesday, April 29, 1975. The sight of former Vietnamese allies clinging desperately to the Huey's skids, only to fall back as the chopper rises, is sickening to watch, even today.
A Republican - Richard Nixon - was elected on the promise that he would end the war "with honor." He lied, of course; while he thought no one was looking, he increased the zones of violence into neutral Cambodia and Laos with massive carpet bombing of those countries, setting the stage for Pol Pot and the "Killing Fields," effectively setting back the civilization of Southeast Asia by a thousand years.
The infamous motto of this period is, "We had to burn the hamlet to save it."
Nixon also engaged in tactics that would cause his critics to accuse him of trying to establish an "Imperial presidency." It was during his presidency that massive protest movements - begun during the latter part of the Johnson administration - caused ordinary Americans to doubt the validity of the electoral process, and hence, American democracy. He was eventually threatened with impeachment, and he resigned his office in shame before the Articles of Impeachment were even drawn up! Everyone applauded and said, "See, the Constitution works!" So, it did, just barely.
As America was never intended nor designed to be a global empire ("No foreign entanglements!") the failure of the Vietnam adventure was never properly integrated into the American psyche, as empires rely on main force as their first tool of persuasion (the "Kissinger Principle") - a concept antithetical to average modern Americans (who are basically ignorant of their country's history of violence on behalf of economic hegemony) - which resulted in a national psychic schism, with a turning away of her elites-in-training from the heritage of the Enlightenment with its Rationalist ideals.
While the Vietnam conflict raged, this schism manifested itself as a broad-spectrum rejection of secular rationalism by the Yippies, hippies, and uncritical liberal multi-culturalists on the Left ("Tune in and drop out"), and an accelerating economic libertarianism by the Yuppie Right ("The Me Generation" and "Greed is good!") in the mid 1970s, continuing through the present.
Further, the social unease of America's eventual defeat in Vietnam produced both our now-familiar neoconservative 'democracy-imperialists' (former radical leftists turned radical rightists - to show you just how deeply the confusion runs) as well as a bitter backlash from conservative religious denominations of every stripe, and the 'political correctness' of an increasingly rigid and anti-intellectual left.
In practical terms, this resulted in vast numbers, who otherwise would be actively involved in the political process, to form anti-establishment attitudes and quit the political playing field, opening it up to anti-democratic forces.
In plain English, the Vietnam experience - which opened America's eyes to the fact that average Americans could be just as despicable and evil as the dictatorships we had only so recently demolished - threw ordinary Americans into a loop. It was during this Rude Interruption that certain elements of the economic elites - ever vigilant for the Main Chance - took advantage of our moral and civic confusion to hijack the American economic and political system, big time.
The social confusion of the Vietnam era cut across the board, but it was most especially troublesome in the inner cities, which were being systematically abandoned by cheap purse elites whose goals were not egalitarian ("White Flight") and in many cases exclusionary, if not out rightly retaliatory ("Red-lining").
With the abandonment of the inner cities by tax-paying homeowners and their replacement by non-tax-paying renters, the tax burden was thrown to the corporate sector, which is historically hostile to taxes for any reason. Thus it was necessary to embark on a program of tax reduction.
This abandonment of education in general and civic responsibilities in particular was accomplished by the massive slashing of social services starting in the Reagan administration - particularly in education, but not disregarding his union-busting and the throwing of the mentally ill to the curb - in order to shift the national economy to morally unjustifiable but highly profitable war material production, paid for by an increasingly ignorant and socially insular American taxpayer. Not coincidentally, this also resulted in sky-high interest rates and a massive national debt, enriching the investment community no end. Reaganite apologists explained this as the "trickle-down" theory, while a still socially disoriented public chose to refrain from examining this theory with the critical eye it deserved.
Basic social service budgets were gutted and 'privatized', to the horror of even Republican liberals, to be picked up by religious organizations with their own agendas, cementing ignorant Americans on the Right to religious institutions and ideologies, most of which are non-egalitarian, self-righteous and anti-democratic. While not immediately obvious, on the Left this includes most - but not all - New Age movements, embracing as they do paganistic and anti-intellectual ideologies, which have well-documented racist as well as elitist tendencies (including the for-profit Montessori schools), and are rigidly hierarchical.
While the theocratic impulse in American political life has always been with us (the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established as a theocratic dictatorship), this impulse had remained submerged under a reasonably good public education system, which had traditionally emphasized secular civic virtues and participation in public life.
The collapse of the American educational system has as a consequence the sad fact that Americans across the entire political spectrum (including, apparently, most of our elected officials) are totally ignorant of America's long experience with terrorism going back to before the Declaration of Independence, including by the colonists themselves, and as they are increasingly distracted by a pandering mass-media (the modern equivalent of the Roman 'bread and circuses'), fueled by base consumer lust, in turn sponsored by corporate/Chinese/Wal-Mart slave labor - they will not or cannot formulate effective counter-arguments, while their elected leaders are too busy playing golf in Scotland - paid for by corporate lobbyists - to attend to the People's business.
It is educational to note that almost every single major policy maker in the present Bush administration can trace his career back to service under Reagan, where, in fact, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Addington first began formulating policies of executive over-reaching, as well as perfecting capitalist interventionist policies in Central America and the Middle East, including the highly illegal funding of those policies (Iran/Contra - now conveniently forgotten by Reagan's cheerleaders).
It's also sobering to note that there is an office dealing with religious service organizations in the White House! While we're at it, why not an office for a visiting Pope, or the representative of the Missouri Synod of Southern Baptists?
Further, these policy makers use the Jesuitical argument of the 'end justifying the means' (the 'end' in the present example being the revived Crusades of the "clash of civilizations, or the non-sequiter of "Islamo-fascism") to continue promoting the theory of the 'unitary executive' - presidential dictatorship - thereby eroding Constitutional guarantees of the balance of powers. During the original Crusades, the slaughter of the followers of Islam and the conquest of their lands was justified by the slogan, "God wills it!" Today, we might say "the Decider wills it!"
So, did anybody in public life - the politicians, the political intellectuals, the policy wonks, the campaign advisors, the American public, or even the military - learn a damn thing from the Vietnam experience? Apparently not.
As has been previously pointed out, our Constitution was forged in the fires of bloody terrorism and revolution, and was designed to withstand anything, if one bothers to read and follow it, except a nonchalant citizenry. On the other hand, who's got money for Civics classes these days?
So there's one answer for you, Mike: the socio-psychic energy that should have been devoted to perfecting the republican experiment in America was re-channeled into immature war-hawkishness, selfish and distracting voyages to discover one's "Inner Me," or a general retreat into religious dogma as ordinary Americans withdrew from the public political arena and nursed their various grudges, creating a massively dumbed-down American citizen.
Given the recent congressional elections, it would seem that most Americans did indeed reject the blatantly obvious state of moral corruption of the Republican-dominated Congress and the undeclared war in Iraq. Unfortunately, even a casual examination of polling data reveals that nearly half of all Americans (Republicans, Democrats and independents) cannot parse the illogical arguments of this administration in its promotion of anti-republican methods in its make-believe war against an idea. Again, this inability to recognize the congruence of similarly repellent ideas (American fascism vs. Islamic revenge) is not unexpected given the sad state of American civic consciousness, and the lack of knowledge of American history and the Enlightenment's ideals of liberty and basic human rights.
As he was leaving the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1798, Benjamin Franklin was famously asked what kind of a government the delegates had formulated. He replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." Franklin was keenly aware that a republic requires a constantly vigilant citizenry, well educated in the civic virtues, and always ready to throw the rascals out.
The first order of business of the new Democratic majority should be the utter rejection of the anti-constitutional policies of this administration, including an immediate cessation of hostilities in this unconstitutional and undeclared war. Unfortunately, incoming House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for raising the minimum wage as her first priority - as if that had anything to do with democratic republicanism - with impeachment hearings "off the table," in effect endorsing a bipartisan, anti-constitutional administration in America.
Many of the incoming Democrats, and probably most of those re-elected, no doubt assume that we voted for them and their agendas personally, whereas in fact, we did not: we voted for the Constitution, and they need to hear that message, loudly, and often.
Spengler's prediction of cultural rigidity and collapse hasn't fully happened to us yet; we are still a republic, but we are balanced on a razor's edge. His theory of rise and fall is not necessarily an ironclad guarantee; nevertheless, there is also no reason on earth to assume that our Constitution - and with it, our unique Republic - can survive this present administration given its present state of neglect.
They said it couldn't happen here; sorry to tell you this, Gentle Readers, but it very much can, all too easily and all too soon. The Bush-Cheney junta has two years left to bury the Constitution forever.