Hillary Clinton’s War Abroad Will Come Home Soon Enough

Hillary Clinton’s response to the Orlando massacre reminds many why they are nervous about a person who carelessly voted for the Iraq war becoming US president:

Whatever we learn about this killer [Omar Mateen], his motives in the days ahead, we know already the barbarity that we face from radical jihadists is profound. In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities. They are slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their medieval ways. They are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people. They are murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing and raping women and girls. In speeches like this one, after Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, I have laid out a plan to defeat ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups in the region and beyond.The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it. And the good news is that the coalition effort in Syria and Iraq has made recent gains in the last months. So we should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.

On Facebook, Corey Robin responds and draws a damning conclusion:

Forget about policy, just examine the rhetoric. The way Clinton escalates and turns it up to 11, moving us away from Orlando and a police investigation, away from any domestic considerations and social concerns, to the platform of civilizational warfare, to a cosmic evil that isn’t containable but must be destroyed and defeated, to internationalizing and militarizing the whole thing. This is the language of George W. Bush.

I’m afraid Robin is right. The little excerpt above is very similar in tone to the kinds of speeches George W. Bush made when he was infected by the spirit of 9/12–which seems to mean ‘national unity’ for some, but which in point of fact turned out to be a paranoid, vengeful, misdirected, wasteful, rage. It resulted in the war crime called ‘the Iraq war’ and if you really take causal analysis seriously, ISIS itself.

Perhaps the most crucial sentence in the excerpt is the opener. For there, Clinton makes quite clear that no matter what we learn about the actual motivations of the killer, her focus on ISIS will not waver. That is where the easier action lies; that calls for saber-rattling and bombing, all the better to unify a nation with (the one doing the bombing, not the one getting bombed, as Libyans and Iraqis will testify.) In the next four sentences, the rhetoric is ratcheted up with ‘genocide,’ ‘medieval,’ ‘slaughtering,’ ‘beheading,’ ‘executing,’ ‘torturing,’ ‘raping,’ and ‘enslaving.’ The following four sentences showcase  a segue into aggressive plans for action, which are curiously and ironically informed by a sense of futility: the threat of ISIS “cannot” be contained; it requires–implicitly–a fight to the death. (Which as we all know, often tend to take down more than just the protagonists in the battle.) And then, finally, to wrap up, there is the nod to a global battle–waged on distant lands, from air, naturally, the American way, while hopefully, ‘allies’ sacrifice their foot soldiers to the maws of war.

There is no mention of homophobia, guns, masculinity, cultures of violence; there is no mention of domestic pathology. There is a problem; and here is a bomb that will fix it. Somewhere else. Never here. But those bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Wars are not just waged abroad.

War Criminal Charges Money To Speak At Fundraiser For Veterans

If you declare an illegal war, send thousands of men to their death, and cause the death of hundreds of thousands others, the ones who are bombed, shelled, and then later, become the victims of fratricidal conflict; if you refuse to adequately protect those you send to war, and care little for their eventual rehabilitation–physically, mentally, and socially; if you have been lucky enough to escape prosecution as a mass murdering war criminal because the political class you are a member of protects its own and would rather get on with the business of lining its pockets; then, hopefully, for the sake of this world’s moral orderings, you possess a modicum of self-aware shame that causes you to slink away–post-retirement–into the shadows, keeping a low profile and hoping a prosecutorial boom is never lowered on you.

But if you are George W. Bush, you do no such thing. Instead, you double and triple down, and ask for exorbitant speaking fees at fundraisers for the very community you have done the most to betray: military veterans. And you ask to be flown there in a private jet.

There was a time, when in the midst of some fulmination against the Unholy Troika of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, I would stop and say, “You know, Dubya feels a little less malevolent to me; his mental capacities seem diminished; perhaps one can forgive him just a tad; this much benevolence can be shown to those who are not as blessed as we are.” But that time passed quickly, because Dubya was always as bad as he came across as being. We shouldn’t expect any less from a man whose very rise to the Presidency was ensured by a compliant Supreme Court, who never had a mandate of any kind, but acted as if he had been elected by a landslide, who roped in old, encrusted remnants of another criminal administration as his Vice President and Secretary of Defense.

Dubya’s speaking engagement highlights yet another coach on the gravy train that our elected representatives can look forward to occupying during their long, lucrative careers: the speaking circuit. Fools and their money are parted every day, and there is no end to the national–or perhaps international–obsession with getting ‘big names’ to ‘speak to us.’ Whether it’s commencement or ground-breaking, we, as a species, as a culture, are convinced that among the most profitable–no pun intended–way to spend our time is to pay pontificators large amounts of money. Think silence is golden? Think again. (This disease is noticeably manifest in academia where departments fall over each other to deplete their budgets as quickly as possible so that they may invite a ‘superstar’ to come shower his intellectual benedictions on them.)

The Deadly Trio–Dubya, Dick and Donald–are the most vivid elements of a long, never-ending national nightmare. Having escaped jail time, they now mock us, not from the sidelines, but from the cultural center. Their time on this planet, like ours, is finite. But not finite enough.

Thomas Jefferson: Creepy, or Redeemed by the Declaration of Independence?

The Thomas Jefferson nightmare is on us again. Was the Mother of All Founding Fathers a dastardly racist, and perhaps worse, a hypocrite to boot? Paul Finkelman has an Op-Ed in The New York Times that makes that case: at the time he penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson owned 175 slaves; over the next fifty years he did not free all his slaves, not even after his death; he opposed private manumission and public emancipation; he punished slaves by selling them away from families and friends; he suggested expelling the offspring of mixed-race unions from Virginia; and in many writings, spoke disparagingly of slaves’ mental and moral qualities.

David Post over at The Volokh Conspiracy has a rejoinder that suggests the correct response to the Finkleman Op-Ed should be a resounding, and I quote ‘So what? So what?  Really – so what?’ because–as part of his evidence for this claim–Post notes that Lincoln cites Jefferson as the true inspiration for anti-slavery and abolition platforms in 1858:

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society….All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression. [italics in Post’s article]

and then goes on to say:

Even if Jefferson had done nothing more than pen those words and get them inserted into the foundational document for the new country— and he did plenty more, see my paper here — declaring that principle to be a self-evident truth and at the foundation of any legitimate government was an act of political courage, not cowardice or hypocrisy, at a time when slavery was at the heart of the way of life and an economy across vast swaths of colonial America.

If I’ve understood Post correctly, his claim–in this post at least, for I have not fully read the paper he links to above to make a longer case for Jefferson–is that Jefferson’s declaration of universal equality of man, made in the abstract, supersedes or at least ameliorates his slave-owning record. This kind of defense of the sordid personal side of a public figure is not unknown: the figure in question deserves our tolerance for the public record outweighs the personal lacunae.

The problem here, of course, is that Jefferson’s slavery record is not a mere personal peccadillo, and it is not in indirect conflict with his public record. Rather it is a straightforwardly direct repudiation of his publicly avowed political claims. Imagine, for instance, someone trying to get George W. Bush off the hook for his illegal war in Iraq and his violations of civil rights at home by pointing to his various speeches, at home and abroad, where he waxes eloquent about freedom and democracy. The invocation of Lincoln, I think, does even less work. As Ann Bartow pointed out, in a comment on Post’s Facebook page, ‘[I]t is likely that Lincoln was using Jefferson strategically. Selling the idea that black men were “men” was perhaps less threatening if you could tie someone like Jefferson to the idea.’

I’m afraid it isn’t so easy to wash out the blot of slavery. The ‘damned spot’ sticks.

Tales of Three Morning Afters

The 2004 Presidential election was my first. I had not voted in the 2000 election because my naturalization came a few weeks too late for me to participate; I had observed the election itself from afar, in Brazil, and watched, amazed by the Supreme Court’s intervention, as the final, lame denouement came about. In 2004, I was cautiously optimistic, hoping that somehow, John Kerry would pull it off. He didn’t; Kerry was never a particularly effective candidate and US voters too, remained bizarrely trusting of the spectacularly mendacious and incompetent erstwhile inhabitant of the White House. I went to a election-result-watching get-together at a friend’s place, ordered Chinese food, and sat down, chopsticks and food cartons at hand, to watch the news. Not too long before midnight, it had become clear Bush was headed for a second term. I left, walking a long, cold walk back home, passing a traffic light that could have looked like a surfer’s greeting but, amazingly enough, that night, looked like it was giving me the bird. The next morning, when I awoke to read of four more years for George Bush, I felt a little sick. I felt guilty too, that my ignoring the Kerry’s campaign’s calls for donations, for help with getting out the vote by phone-banking or door-to-door knocking had somehow contributed to the loss. I couldn’t console myself my inactivity had nothing to do with it.

Four years later, my reactions were very different. I felt I had to contribute somehow–financially or with my time–to blocking any possibility of an extension of the idiocy that had ruled the White House for eight years. The memory of that November 2004 morning was still too strong. I worried I might wake up the day after, convinced I had enabled a John McCain-Sarah Palin White House. I did my bit–sent in money, knocked on doors etc–and after election night, awoke feeling much better than I had four years before.

This election season, I didn’t contribute money to the Obama campaign and I didn’t participate in voter turnout. I did though, fear the same outcomes as I had worried about in the previous two elections. The dissonance in my beliefs about the political monopoly of the Republicans and Democrats, my hopes for a third-party alternative, and my disappointment with Obama’s first four years, had by the end of the evening crystallized into a fairly simple desire: that Obama win, that though no matter how Tweedledum and Tweedledee I considered the two parties, I knew one of the two possible outcomes would upset me much, much more. So by the end of the night, I cheered for an Obama victory and when I went to bed, I did so knowing I would not wake up with a repeat of the 2004 hangover.

Obama’s victory is cause for relief, not exultation. Substantive progressive legislation still looks doubtful because, well, there is a Republican Party and a Democratic Party to deal with. And besides, there’s Obama himself, and the question of how he wants to run his second term. In the end, I’m sobered by the fact that fifty million Americans found an incoherent platform good enough to vote for, the election was as close as it was, and that so much political change still remains necessary.

Election Fiascos: Unlikely, and Unlikely to Provoke Serious Protest

John Heilemann at New York Magazine suggests four ways in which the election on Tuesday, November 6, could be headed for a nightmare of narrow ‘illegitimate’ wins or deadlocks. I don’t think any of these apocalypses are likely. They are based on the assumption that the election outcomes talked about will result in widespread protests. In doing so, they reveal a common misunderstanding of American political life: that it features so much partisan wrangling, so much political disputation that a narrow or ‘illegitimate’ election will plunge the nation into crisis. Au contraire, political life in the US is more quiet quiescence, more calm acceptance of political shenanigans than anything else. As you read below, remember that the 2000 election handover to George W. Bush, engineered by the US Supreme Court, could have sparked similar protests but any chance of that was shouted down by both parties, eager to get back to business as usual.

Here are Heilemann’s scenarios.

1. The Romney Squeaker Scenario

[I]t’s perfectly possible for Romney to end up with a bit north of 50 percent of the popular vote. Then proceed to the electoral vote, where the GOP nominee has always faced a difficult path to 270. But imagine that Romney achieves the first step of carrying the three southern swing states—Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia—which he may well do. And then either (a) takes Ohio plus Colorado, Iowa, or Wisconsin; or (b) falls short in Ohio but wins both Colorado and Wisconsin as well as Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada; or (c) conquers Colorado or Wisconsin plus all three of the smaller swing states. In any of these eventualities, Romney would win the White House with 271 to 276 electoral votes. This would amount to the narrowest possible victory—and one that would all but certainly provoke the left into a howling fit.

My call: unlikely to happen. Not the squeaker itself but the ‘howling fit’ part. A little huffing and puffing, and then, back to the usual programming.

2. The Reverse Gore Scenario

[I]t’s not hard to conjure a scenario in which Romney wins the popular vote narrowly, as Gore did then—but Obama winds up playing the role of Bush….Obama’s national popular-vote weakness is to no small extent a result of his staggering weakness in the South and Appalachia, where he trails Romney in many states by 20 or 30 points—far more than his advantage in the deep-blue West and Northeast…despite the tightness of the race nationally, the margins of advantage he holds with Latinos, African-Americans, young voters, and college-educated white women, and their concentrations in the battleground states, are what gives him many more routes to 270 than Romney has. How would the right react to seeing Obama reclaim the presidency after he lost the popular vote? In much the same way the left would respond to scenario No. 1: with wailing, gnashing, and a dudgeon so high that if you reached the top of it, you’d be able to touch Pluto.

Again: unlikely. Would the opposition that Obama would face be any worse than he already has in the past four years?

3. The Recount (or Recounts) Scenario

This campaign has already featured extended legal wrangling in several states over those voter-I.D. laws—which means both sides have litigation-ready boots on the ground and are raring to engage already. Given just how corset-tight the polls are in Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida itself, a Florida Redux scenario might be more likely than anyone imagines—and could even, perish the thought, play out in more than one state simultaneously. Remember how bad 2000 was? This would be much worse. And not simply because the level of partisan vitriol heading into the fracas is so much higher, but also because the disruption in terms of governing would be so much greater….in the aftermath of the election, the federal government will be staring into the abyss of the so-called fiscal cliff: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the sequester, and another fight over the debt ceiling. Now consider the prospect of two or more months of 2000-style paralysis in the face of that challenge.

What 2000-style paralysis is Heilemann talking about? That business got settled pretty quick. Remember all the calls for putting the election behind us?

4. The Tie-Goes-to-the-Romney Scenario

 Now we come to the most nightmarish possibility of all: Obama ekes out a popular-vote victory but he and Romney are deadlocked, 269-269, in terms of electoral votes….all it would require is the following (entirely credible) chain of results: Romney wins the southern battleground trio and Ohio, Obama holds on to Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin but loses in New Hampshire….The election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, where the Constitution ordains that every state receive one vote as determined by the party makeup of its congressional delegation. Today, that would likely mean 32 Republican votes and 18 Democratic ones, a composition unlikely to change on November 6—and hence, voilà, President Romney.

 To be crystalline, this would not be a nightmare because Romney would prevail. It would be a nightmare because he’d prevail in opposition to the popular vote and outside of the Electoral College—through an unprecedented process in which Idaho and Wyoming would have a weight equal to New York and California. For millions of Americans, and not just partisan extremists, it would call into question our entire system of selecting the dude in charge, and make the U.S. look like a superrich banana republic around the world. To be honest, though, it would only be barely worse than Scenarios 1, 2, and 3 in terms of rending the nation asunder.

Indeed, of all the scenarios listed by Heilemann, this strikes me as one that has the makings of a genuine disaster. It would not ‘rend the nation asunder,’ but it would force a closer look at the Constitution, which might be interesting for a while, before everyone decides that it’s better leave it alone. If it were to happen, which according to most polls, seems unlikely.

Not Nearly Enough Change I Can Believe In

Yesterday’s post and Dan Kaufman’s comment on it, have prompted me to pen some thoughts on Barack Obama (and elections).

In 2008, I made two separate donations of $50 to Barack Obama’s campaign. I also drove down with some friends to Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania and spent the day walking around several neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and talking to residents about their possible election choices, thus helping the Obama campaign build up a map of voting patterns that they could use in estimating their chances in the region. I’d like to think that in some small way, I actively helped Obama’s victory in the elections that followed. I took these actions because, besides  wanting to vote for Obama in New York State, I wanted to contribute as much as I could elsewhere, to help the Obama campaign in the so-called swing states.  My vote in New York, a state that votes overwhelmingly Democratic, and where Obama was all but guaranteed the Electoral College votes, didn’t feel like that it would be that useful to Obama; at most it could help some him make some talking points about the size of his mandate.

By late 2008, as the elections approached, I was alarmed in a way that I had not been in 2004 (when I had voted for John Kerry). In 2004, I had merely voted; that was the extent of my involvement in the election process. But in 2008, I might have been described as a member of ‘the energized base’. I was ‘energized’ by Sarah Palin, by eight years of GW Bush, by the chance for change that I saw in Obama’s election. Back then, I was happy Obama had trumped Hilary Clinton’s campaign; even though her election would have been a historic event, I was made just a tad bit uneasy by her connection with the ‘old’ Democrats. Thus, I should have been more alarmed than I was by Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as vice-president; it was the first serious indicator, for me at least, that this candidate would indulge in a great deal of the ‘ol same-‘ol, same-‘ol.

Some three years on, as this election season heats up, and writing the day after Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage,  my disappointment remains acute. The language of betrayal is tempting, but I’m too weary to deploy it. Rather I’m inclined to think that I’ve just been reminded of the cartel-like nature of party politics in our nation, and of the disappointing inability of politicians to recognize where historical opportunities lie. Obama could have been a great one-term president; he has chosen, instead, to aspire to be a disappointing two-term president. I do not think I will send $100 to his campaign this year, and I most certainly will not take the time to go door-knocking for him in Pennsylvania or anywhere else. I wonder how many there are like me, and how much that will hurt Obama (Obama will have gained some new supporters in these past few years and perhaps they will be enough to get him over the finish line.) But I do not intend to fall for the tired old Democratic line ‘if you don’t vote for us, the bad old Republicans will come to power’. I do not feel like voting for Obama, and I certainly do not intend to vote Republican. Perhaps the Working Families Party? Who knows? November is still a long way away.

But there is a far more fundamental problem in all of this: it centers on my disillusionment with elections–especially in modern politics in this nation–and with my evolving understanding of my political responsibilities. More on that in a follow-up post tomorrow.

The Decline and Fall of Christopher Hitchens

I have no talents to speak of; all I can do is read and write. Thus, it would make eminent sense for me to admire those that read a great deal, and write really well. Christopher Hitchens evidently read a lot, and he wielded his pen and keyboard with great flair. He was also a stylish rhetorical pugilist, and I would not have wanted to have ever had him in an audience after I had given a talk whose central points he disputed. But sadly for my desire to admire the well-read epistolary genius as a human archetype, Hitchens botched his record, and in spectacular style. Amongst other things, he aggressively and unapologetically cheered on an illegal war and the gruesome troika of mass-murdering criminals–George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–who prosecuted it, and later, descended into unvarnished bigotry directed at Muslims under the guise of keeping the world free from ‘Islamofascism.’

Once Hitchens had placed himself in the company of those that could be fawned over by the unspeakably vile Michelle Malkin and her ilk, I knew I was done with my incipient admiration. Hitchens was keen, as many newly-minted Americans are, to show his allegiance to his newly-found country and political faith, and he thought he would do this best, I think, by throwing his not-inconsiderable physical and intellectual weight behind what he thought were its considered responses to the violent external assault of the World Trade Center catastrophe. But he did so by cheering on those who did their best to eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and the rule of law it entailed. In doing so, he seemed not to have figured out that those whose side he had gone over to were doing their best to make the America he thought he was signing on to unrecognizable.

If Hitchens had ever attained a self-consciousness of the irony implicit in the self-proclaimed resister of religious fundamentalism turning into a fundamentalist of sorts himself, he never revealed it publicly. Did he never hold his nose when he received praise from the same bigots who he might have fancied himself eviscerating in his older days? Did he ever realize that his older self would have chuckled with delight at the easy target that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld presented for his poison pen? It does not seem so. He seemed so caught up in his desire to place himself on what he thought would be a position vindicated by history–the lone, courageous voice of reason urging a insufficiently muscular polity and culture to defend itself against external threat–that he never stopped to consider that he might be undermining that very culture’s proudest achievements.

I own more than one book by Hitchens and I don’t intend to get rid of them. But their status in my library has morphed into being exhibits of how a great talent can be diverted to the wrong ends. I still aspire to the kind of ravenous appetite he showed for the printed word and its production. But I also hope never, ever, in a fit of sustained insanity, to join the company of those whose principles stand in such direct contradiction to my own.