zaterdag 23 mei 2020

Why Russiagate Still Matters


Why Russiagate Still Matters

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Photograph Source: Samuel Mann – CC BY 2.0

A thought experiment with a purpose is to ask: if a group of former Directors of the CIA, NSA and FBI put forward a story about a malevolent foreign power acting against the U.S. without providing evidence that their story is true, who would believe them? While this wasn’t precisely the setup for Russiagate, all of the former Directors came forward as former Directors of intelligence agencies, not as private citizens. And the information they presented was compiled as opposition research for a political campaign. It might have (did) provided a basis for further inquiry, but it wasn’t evidence as it was presented.
Oddly, ironically even, the part of the population that in earlier history would have taken former government officials at their word and been ready to fight, kill, or die to right this alleged wrong, was circumspect in the case of Russiagate. At the height of the Russiagate hysteria, as charges were flying that the ‘attack’ was worse than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 rolled into one, the class that had filled military recruiting stations following these earlier events was notably quiet. The faction that believed the charges, managerial class liberals (PMC), still substantially believes them despite none of the evidence put forward to support them holding up under examination.
This seeming role reversal of managerial class liberals being whipped into a nationalistic fervor while the rest of the country looked away was a long time coming. Trump loathing explains why liberals want Donald Trump gone from office, but not the nationalistic fervor or the studied disinterest of the rest of the country in the ‘attack’ by a foreign power. The receptivity, or lack thereof, of these political factions (classes) to official proclamations is the result of lived history. The Iraq War and the Great Recession created political divisions that are unlikely to be resolved without a redistribution of political and economic power downward.

Graph: As was much reported at the time, the Great Recession was orders of magnitude more economically destructive than prior post-WWII recessions. Both the severity and persistence of unemployment were far outside of the post-War experience. At the time of the 2016 election, long-term unemployment had still not returned to pre-recession levels. Its levels and impact were differentiated by class, with employment amongst the PMC, composed largely of liberal Democrats, quickly returning to pre-recession levels. while working class employment permanently disappeared or was turned into gig jobs. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Up through the U.S. war against Iraq, working class men joined the military and fought American wars while the rich and professional classes got educational deferments or a doctor’s note claiming one or another exemption-worthy malady to do the hard work of ‘changing the system from within.’ Even with the class-blind farce of a ‘volunteer’ military, there came a time around 2006 when the intersection of official lies and body bags accumulated to the point where a righteous rebellion against official power took hold amongst the ‘lesser’ classes. Barack Obama won election in 2008 based in part on his carefully worded rejection of wars of choice.
By the time the Great Recession struck in 2007, the U.S. war against Iraq was widely understood to be a strategic and military blunder, murderous almost beyond comprehension, and based on lies from American officials. And it was far from being resolved. For structural reasons including three-plus decades of planned deindustrialization, the systematic weakening of labor’s power and the social safety net, and the partitioning of the economy into financialized and not financialized sectors, the bailouts of Wall Street produced different outcomes by class, with the PMC seeing its fortunes quickly restored while the working class was left to languish.
Prior to this— in the early 1990s, the New Democrats had made a strategic decision to tie their lot to the ‘new economy’ of Wall Street. Recruiting suburban Republicans into the Democratic Party was old news by Bill Clinton’s second term. The PMC was made the ideological core of the Party. This helps explain the substantial overlap between the ‘liberal hawks’ who would some years later support George W. Bush’s war against Iraq and the Russiagate truthers who were tied through class interests to its orthodoxies.
To tie this together, the Americans who died, were permanently disabled or who lost family members and friends in the U.S. war against Iraq, also found themselves on the wrong side of the class war that began in the 1980s with deindustrialization. By the time of the Great Recession, working class labor was forced to contend with long-term unemployment (graph above) or with the perpetual insecurity of the gig economy. Contrariwise, those whose class position meant that they had ‘better things to do’ than to volunteer to serve in Iraq had their fortunes quickly restored in the Great Recession through government bailouts.
While Democrat versus Republican or left versus right are most often used to distinguish Russiagate proponents and believers from skeptics, it was the urban and suburban PMC that gets its news from the establishment press— the New York Times, Washington Post and NPR, that believed and supported the story. As it happens, the PMC and rich are the demographic that these news sources serve. Class connotes substantively different lived experience. The Russiagate true believers have benefitted from official connections and the skeptics and large majority of those disinterested in Russiagate haven’t.
Referred to, but not yet addressed, is the complete failure of the Russiagate evidence to match the DNC / establishment press / national security state storylines. From collusion between the Russian government and Donald Trump to emails leaked to, and then published by, Wikileaks to the Russian troll farm and its ties to the GRU (Russian intelligence), none of these theories have been supported by the evidence offered. And most of the political actors who spent years promoting them knew they weren’t true before Donald Trump even took office.
As one who spent years using scientific methods to conduct empirical research, 1) it is as easy to lie with evidence as without it and 2) every source for the Russiagate charges that I followed tied back to the DNC, the CIA or its NGO affiliates like the Atlantic Council. These are political actors, not disinterested parties. The method of reporting is to state charges in the headline, and then to correctly state that official sources claim that the headline charges are true in the body of the article. This leaves the impression that evidence supports the headline charges with no actual evidence having been presented. Deference to authority isn’t evidence.
This kind of journalism isn’t just poor reporting. It is either naively trusting of official sources or it is intended to deceive. Given how little follow-up has been done on the serial failures of the evidence, the most probable answer is that it is straight-up propaganda. But the conception of propaganda that the facts support requires something like a unified state interest, as well as an explanation of how and why the establishment press serves as a permanent conduit for official disinformation. Given that an elected President was the target of the Russiagate campaign, the unified state interest theory doesn’t work.
More broadly, the neoliberal project seems to have been modeled on the Marxist / Leninist conception of the state as existing to promote the interests of prominent capitalists. Beginning around the time of Bill Clinton’s election to the presidency, the privatization of government services led to the creation of a public-private amalgamcomposed of PMC workers who perform state functions like domestic spying for the CIA and the NSA. Russiagate certainly appears from its motives, sources, ‘facts’ and constituency, to have been carried out by functionaries in this public-private amalgam who saw it as their right to reverse the outcome of the 2016 election.
As I laid out in 2018 here, the role of the CIA in oil and gas geopolitics ties the motives for demonizing Russia to U.S. machinations in Ukraine and to weapons production and distribution as the business of U.S. based corporations. Further back, while the George W. Bush administration’s war against Iraq was a strategic, military, moral and humanitarian disaster, oligarchs and corporate executives made personal fortunes from it. This ‘model’ of the modern state acting on behalf of business interests ties all the way back to the alleged pre-capitalism of mercantilism.
The PMC is the service class of this state-capitalism, with corporate lawyers, tech workers, Wall Street traders and middle managers whose livelihoods and identities are tied to their class position through these jobs. Through the social partitions of class, they are free to have self-flattering politics that have no bearing on how their lives are lived. Identity politics like ‘ending racism’ have no bearing on who their co-workers are, who their neighbors are or who their children attend school with. Class determines these. This largely explains why beliefs, rather than acts, are the currency of this politics. Class is invisible for those who never encounter, or more precisely see, the economic and social consequences of capitalism on different classes.
This difference in lived experience explains why the PMC saw the Wall Street bailouts as both necessary and effective, while much of the rest of the country didn’t. Wall Street is the functional core of the PMC economy through the process of financialization. That the vast majority of the country works and lives far from this functional core makes it the center of the PMC economy, not of the broader economy. And the bailouts ‘worked’ in the sense that they quickly restored PMC jobs and bonuses. That they topped off four decades of declining fortunes for working class workers (graph above) was hidden behind economic aggregates.
The endless reading of the political tea leaves over Donald Trump’s electoral victory, over whether it was a dispossessed working class or Republican plutocrats that brought him to victory, is the analytical equivalent of the debate over the economic impact of the bailouts. Rich people vote, poor people don’t (graph below). Electoral politics is a struggle that takes place amongst the rich and the PMC. The visceral disdain the PMC has shown for the ‘little people’ throughout Russiagate is the product of four decades of class warfare launched from above, not the start of it.

Graph: The tendency to vote rises with family income. The well to do elected Donald Trump, as they do every president. As the machinations to make Joe Biden the Democrat’s candidate in 2020 suggest, the poor can vote for their choice to represent the interests of the rich, but not their own. This gives credence to Thomas Ferguson’s ‘investment theory’ of politics. The rich vote to protect their investment in political outcomes. Source: econofact.org.
Russiagate was and is defense of a class realm, of the power of the rich and the PMC to do as they please without the political chatter of the ‘little people’ or the populist pretensions of Donald Trump. While it seems evident now that Trump was never more than a minor inconvenience in the CIA’s plans for murder, mayhem, and world domination, this wasn’t evident at the outset of his tenure in the White House. John Brennan and James Clapper have demonstrated over long careers that the well-behaved fascism of corporate political control, for profit militarism, targeted and occasionally brutal repression of the ‘little people’ and democracy in name only, are fine with them.
What they and the PMC do object to is any notion of democracy that doesn’t leave them in control of everything that it allegedly exists to determine. If elected leaders believe they have a legitimate reason for taking military action, why do they resort to using political and psychological coercion (like Russiagate) rather than taking their case to the people? If other, much poorer, countries can run free and fair elections, why can’t the U.S.? And why are corporate representatives allowed to craft public policies when their interests diverge from the public’s?
That none of the Russiagate charges turned out to have merit has had no determinable political impact to date. Its central protagonists knew they were telling lies (links above) all along. Not considered by the Russiagate acolytes is that those telling lies weren’t lying to the marginally literate ‘fascists’ who should in elite theory have been the easiest to fool. Those people don’t spend their days reading the New York Times and listening to NPR. They were lying to the educated elite. And lest this elite imagine that it was in on the lies— they quite conspicuously believed every word of them.
That Brennan, Clapper and company are everything that liberals claim to hate about Donald Trump—tacky talk show hosts who spout whatever bullshit comes to mind if they think it will close the deal, suggests that Trump himself would be a #Resistance hero if he had run as a Democrat. Otherwise, bright lights on the left can’t seem to get past the notion that the establishment press always reports bullshit when doing so is politically convenient. Reporting what power says rather than what it does is to be a mouthpiece for power. That is what the establishment press does, and that is why it is considered the ‘legitimate’ source.
As befits this moment in history, there are no generally applicable lessons to be drawn from Russiagate. Its central protagonists have already moved on to the ‘restoring integrity to the White House’ grift. By making the election a choice between getting ass cancer or shingles, Biden or Trump— you decide which is which, the nation has reached a zenith of sorts. This type of moment produced punk rock in an earlier age. Again, as befits the age, we now have the moment without the punk rock. As the existential philosophers had it, despair is our friend. At least that’s what Putin tells me.
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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

Plea for Sanity in a Time of Plague



Aiming Missiles at Viruses: a Plea for Sanity in a Time of Plague

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Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
The point I am trying to make here is a simple and obvious one, or would be in a society not burdened with a two-pronged ideology of extreme militarism and extreme individualism. It is this: In feeding the military-industrial complex so richly at this time, we are starving ourselves of many vital things and weakening ourselves as a society, perhaps to the point of suicide. We are in effect sacrificing our future on the altar of American imperialism, which like some dark god of the past, is ever hungry and can be assuaged only by human life.
The coronavirus plague now sweeping the globe – sickening millions, killing hundreds of thousands, bringing normal life for the world’s masses to an unprecedented and indefinite halt – puts into sharper relief than ever before the distinction between what we refer to reflexively as “national security” and the safety and security of real human beings. The ability to grasp that distinction at this moment is the difference between sanity and insanity.
Right now, as at least 40 of the nation’s states still fail to test their populations at the benchmark rate set by the World Health Organization, the Pentagon continues to chew through its bloated $700 billion-plus budget, larger than the next 10 countries combined. At a time when states still scramble to locate and pay for basic protective equipment for doctors and nurses, when every level of government here in the so-called “richest country in the world” is trying to square the circle of escalating costs and radically diminished revenues, the great American war machine grinds on, fighting its forever wars and extending its intimidating presence into every continent. A quarter-million American troops and mercenaries are now deployed in at least 177 countries and territories, at last count. It’s easier to list the places not housing U.S. forces; those would be, by and large, the nations our military, intelligence and diplomatic services are attempting to subvert, sanction or otherwise bludgeon into proper submission to the geopolitical and economic agenda of the global leviathan.
What exactly are these soldiers doing in Australia, Norway, the Philippines, Mali, Bahrain, etc.? Who knows? Defense Department bureaucrats feel as much need to explain and justify the stationing of their legions as did the Roman emperors. It all falls under the convenient, no-questions-allowed rubric of “national defense.” The exorbitant spending on high-tech weapons against low-tech terrorists, or whomever this week’s existential threat is – this too is largely unaccountable. It is managed by the fourth and most efficient branch of government, the revolving-door lobbyists employed by weapons makers, whom I hope and pray are maintaining proper social distancing as they perform their essential work of channeling corporate largesse to the campaign funds of key congressional committee members.
What we do know is what our ubiquitous military is not fighting: the only enemy that matters at the moment, the novel coronavirus, the real red menace. No amount of gunboat diplomacy with oil-rich nations, or support for Saudi Arabia’s murderous and endless war in impoverished Yemen, will bring us one minute closer to a vaccine or useful treatment against COVID-19, the microscopic invader that within a couple of months since its arrival in the U.S. has produced as large a death toll as the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. No rattling of sabers against China or Russia, no chest-thumping assertions made to a bemused world of American greatness or exceptionalism will bring to heel a contagion that, thanks to the current administration’s total lack of preparedness and tardy and inept response, has overcome our feeble public health defenses and made America the world’s epicenter of illness and death. Nor, obviously, do the plans in place to “update” our already planet-destroying nuclear capability protect us one bit from the catastrophic destruction – physical, psychological, cultural and economic – already wrought by these invisible specks of protein and genetic material. No, the $5 trillion and change we have spent this century on devastating and pointless warfare has only moved us closer to bankruptcy, financial and moral, while undermining COVID-19 prevention, treatment and research efforts, as well as related social support.
The raw numbers of the pandemic – with the U.S., representing just over 4 percent of the world’s population, accounting for 32 percent of total cases, 41 percent of active cases and 29 percent of deaths as I write this – serve as an irrefutable index of bad decisions made, of skewed priorities and sheer failure. The wave of suffering and fear that has come upon us has produced altruism and insight among some, but it has also triggered much misplaced rage and denial on the part of the MAGA crowd. The aggression, confusion and willed stupidity we see on display these days among militant “reopeners” is to some extent a karmic rebound of our geopolitics, an increasingly fascistic domestic belligerence that echoes the arrogant, bullying, me-first-and-only face our nation has long presented to the larger world.
That old radical pacifist America-hater, Dwight D. Eisenhower, famously wrote that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” In the same letter, he also presciently noted, “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: … two fine, fully equipped hospitals.”
Which is just the sort of thing that could come in handy about now. Along, of course, with the ability to test the minimum of 900,000 people per day that Harvard researchers claim is necessary to reopen the economy with any margin of safety. That number is almost three times the country’s current daily testing rate, which is still limited, after all these weeks, by supply issues, including shortages of swabs. (Which in itself is symptomatic of an industrial plant so corrupted by military spending and Defense Department procurement practices that it can readily produce complex and deadly weapons, but not modified Q-Tips.) It’s hard to imagine such a crisis affecting the Pentagon, with its rich legacy of $500 hammers and $600 toilet seats. However, the swabs are intended not to take lives but to save them, a goal that many on the Right seem to find unseemly and unmanly. This includes the president and vice president, with their selfish, macho refusal to protect the health of others and send a positive message to the citizenry by wearing a mask.
I think I understand their reticence. Once you start treating human life – all human life – as just a tiny bit precious and maybe a hint sacred, where will it end? With a questioning, perhaps, of our current concept of national greatness, based as it is on the concrete reality of perpetual war. And maybe, too, of a healthcare non-system designed around private profit, which withholds its benefits from those who are most susceptible to disease and most likely to spread it to others. In his grandiose way, the president declares his commitment to quickly (i.e., before the November election) develop a vaccine against the killer virus, likening this effort to the Manhattan Project in its urgency and budgetary priority. But the Manhattan Project took place during a real war, and this is just the moral equivalent of war – which is to say, it is driven by compassion rather than hatred and xenophobia. And so whatever resources end up being pledged to this seemingly humanitarian medical initiative – which will undoubtedly be tainted by the capitalist imperatives of Big Pharma – they will still be dwarfed by the monies allocated to the direct descendant of the Manhattan Project, the Strangelovian nuclear war-fighting capability that for 75 years has kept us all in a man-made climate of demoralizing terror.
In his Riverside Church speech of 1967, Martin Luther King stated that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Perhaps we have passed that point already, maybe long ago, judging by the complacency with which our society accepts a bellicose status quo in a time when nothing is normal. American companies continue to supply the smart bombs that Saudi pilots dumbly – or perhaps quite intentionally – drop on Yemeni children. Vindictive, senseless sanctions continue to be levied against Iran, a nation hard hit by the epidemic, as well as Venezuela, an oil-exporting nation in “our backyard” that cannot be allowed to function as a sovereign state, lest the example spread. American boots remain planted in myriad places the American public cannot pronounce or find on a map. The Pentagon pledges to build hundreds or thousands of hypersonic missiles, their newest toy, triggering yet another dangerous, futile and ruinously expensive arms race. Trump sputters on about his Space Force, declaring that “We must have American dominance in space” – a far cry from “We came in peace for all mankind,” the words left, however sincerely, on the surface of the moon by the Apollo astronauts half a century ago. The Cold War and its ideological rivalry is a generation past now, and not even lip service is paid anymore to peace and humanity, ideas fit only for wimps and losers in the Darwinian struggle of all against all that is life in the MAGA Republic.
The inhuman language of domination, power and control emanates endlessly from the top these days, from the lips of a deranged and dangerous president and the leadership of the Republican Party, which has completed its metamorphosis into right-wing death cult. But the context has changed, and so, subtly and inevitably, has the language’s meaning. Blustering about our arsenal and striking power at a time when we have failed so spectacularly to protect ourselves from a primitive microbe signals weakness, not strength. It reveals a thought structure so ingrown and ossified that it can no longer recognize its own situation or adapt to changing circumstances.
When I see photos of the militia types milling around state capitols, unmasked and brandishing AR-15 rifles while denouncing the emergency measures designed to keep them and their families alive, I wonder: Do these people mean to shoot the virus dead, Rambo style? There’s something strangely poignant beneath the reopeners’ ugly, threatening posturing. Paunchy and paranoid, born victims, they swagger childishly and flaunt their phallic weapons because, like all of us, they are afraid. But unable to honestly acknowledge their own fear, they mask it with anger and suspicion and hostility aimed at straw-man enemies. Dimly aware of their own isolation, vulnerability and powerlessness in a culture of exaggerated self-reliance, torn social safety nets, toxic masculinity and Fox TV, they come together in illusory and transient communities cemented by shared anti-social attitudes and excess testosterone.
These sad-sack right-to-deathers are a disturbing reflection of larger forces. Only in America would we have the Blue Angels – shining symbol of the military behemoth that spreads so much death and destruction worldwide while consuming half or more of the federal government’s discretionary spending – salute the lifesaving labor of the frontline healthcare workers who have gotten so little tangible support from Washington. Spectacle we do well; it’s planning, cooperation, mutual aid and shared sacrifice for the common good we find more challenging. A shallow patriotism comes easily to Americans, but real solidarity does not.
This is a terrible moment we’re going through, but also one of unwonted clarity. We must choose – in our thinking, our behavior, our policy and budgetary decisions – between life and death, between saving actual lives and projecting brute, abstract force. If we continue to pretend that things haven’t shifted fundamentally, that out of a crippled and traumatized economy we can extract both new missiles and new medical treatments, then we have learned nothing from this experience and have not earned a livable post-virus future.
Making America Great Again proved an effective campaign slogan, a sadly popular invitation to collective self-delusion and the unleashing of pent-up hatreds. The question we can no longer avoid is whether we can make America good for once. If it’s still possible at this late date, it will begin with a reconsideration of the muddled and mystified concepts of national security and national defense, and a plan for moving as a society from a passive acceptance of the sickness that is war to an active pursuit of healing and of peace.
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Hugh Iglarsh is a writer, editor and critic based in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago with over 700 confirmed coronavirus cases and 23 deaths, at last count. He wrote this essay at the prompting of Chicago Area Peace Action’s Foreign Policy Working Group. He can be contacted at hiiglarsh@hotmail.com.


How Obama Could Find Some Redemption



How Obama Could Find Some Redemption

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Photograph Source: jamesomalley – CC BY 2.0
History, literature, film, and scripture are loaded with stories and examples of redemption. Buddhism gives us the story of Aṅgulimāla, a pathological mass-murderer who became a follower of the Buddha and went on to be enshrined as a “patron saint” of childbirth in South and Southeast Asia.
Rick Blaine, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, put side his cynical bitterness and seeming indifference to the rise of the Nazi Third Reich to help Isla Lund (played by Ingmar Bergman) – the former lover who jilted (and embittered) him – escape the grip of the Nazis with her husband, an anti-fascist Resistance fighter. The movie ends with Blaine declaring his determination to join the Resistance in Morocco.
The New Testament tells the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector and a wealthy man:
“Jesus looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to Jesus, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.’ And Jesus said to Zacchaeus, ‘Today salvation has come to this house. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’”
Zacchaues was perhaps inspiration for Charles Dickens’ character Ebeneezer Scrooge, a vicious exploitative capitalist turned into a benevolent and kindly employer when the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future visit him to tell him the story of his heretofore miserable, money-grubbing, and misanthropic life.
Malcom X told his life story to Alex Haley as one of redemption. It was a tale of progression from violent and criminal hustler (known as “Detroit Red”) to the righteous and radical channeling and focusing his anger at White Society as a fiercely eloquent Civil Rights fighter for all the oppressed.
When the leading munitions and arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel read a premature obituary that condemned his as “the merchant of death,” he bequeathed his fortune to establish the annual Nobel Peace Prize.
After a long career of leading bloody, racist, and imperialist interventions in the Philippines, China, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, the United States Marines Major General J. Smedly Butler was at the time of his death, 1940, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. Upon retirement in the early 1930s, however, Butler became widely known for his outspoken lectures against war profiteering, U.S. military adventurism, and what he viewed as nascent fascism in the United States. In 1933, he exposed the “Business Plot,” telling a Congressional committee that a group of wealthy American industrialists were planning a military coup to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Butler selected to lead a march of veterans to become a fascist-style dictator. Two years later, Butler published War is a Racket, which has been widely quoted by antiwar activists ever since. America’s left and anti-imperialist intellectual Noam Chomsky has long kept on his wall a framed picture of the following statement from Butler’s book:
“WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives…I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
The United States’ greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, found a measure of redemption on the slavery issue during the Civil War. Like many moderate Republicans in the late 1850s and 1860-61, Lincoln was – much to the chagrin of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass – “unwilling to jeopardize the Union by interfering directly with slavery in the states” (Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War [New York: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 215.) He undertook the Civil War with the sole stated aim of restoring the treasonously seceded slave states of the southern Confederacy to the Union. Faced with early Confederate victories and the need to cripple the South’s slave-based economy to defeat it, however, Lincoln bowed to pressure of the abolitionists and let his longstanding moral opposition to slavery find voice in the Emancipation Proclamation. From that point on, the epic conflict was a struggle over the slave system. In his justly famous Gettysburg Address of November 1863, Lincoln called the Civil War a struggle to see whether a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…can long endure.” He identified the Union Army’s cause as “a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In his less well remembered but equally eloquent Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 18654, Lincoln left no doubt about where he stood on the need to abolish chattel slavery:
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Another American president who deserves at least some redemption credit because of a speech he gave near the end of his time in office is Dwight Eisenhower. A lifelong militarist whose presidency undertook numerous murderous, destructive, and imperial actions around the world, Eisenhower concluded his two terms in the White House by warning against the rise of an authoritarian “military-industrial complex” in his January 17 1960 Farewell Address:
“Th[e] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist…We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
(Eisenhower hardly invented the notion of the “military-industrial complex.” The notion suggests a deadly anti-democratic nexus of political, economic, and military power that lay at the heart of the left U.S. sociologist C Wright Mills’ haunting 1956 study The Power Elite. Still, it was a remarkable and prescient warning for Eisenhower to issue in his final public statement from the peak office atop the world’s leading military superpower. The warning has gone un-heeded ever since.)
There is always hope for a change of legacy and a measure redemption. We do not live in the past. As the Buddhists say, the present moment is the only moment that exists. There is always a chance to change one’s path, building on the lessons of one’s mistakes and even one’s crimes to chart a new direction – to seek a measure of redemption, “salvation,” and recovery.
What would redemption look like for Barack Obama? It would involve eight things, for starters. First, it would entail admitting something unpleasant: his own deep complicity in the deadly ascendancy of the neofascist Donald Trump, who Noam Chomsky aptly calls “the most dangerous criminal in human history.” To no small extent, Trump owes his disastrous and malevolent presidency to the silver-tongued Obama’s eight years of White House service to the rich and powerful. The corporate-Democratic Obama presidency betrayed the working people, poor, and minorities in whose name Obama campaigned under the banners (inherited from the master corporate Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign) of Hope and Change. Obama’s eight years in the White House demobilized and depressed the nation’s progressive majority while antagonizing the nation’s racist right-wing in ways that produced dangerous political openings for an ever more apocalyptic and authoritarian, white-nationalist Republican Party – a party that united behind an at least instinctual fascist (Trump)who was under the influence of actual and conscious fascists Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller in the summer of 2016. I published a long Counterpunch essay on precisely how Obama contributed to the rise of Trump. It was titled “Barack Von Obamdenbug: Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens.” The title says it all but please read the whole thing for the details.
“Please stop wearing those t-shirts that say, ‘Do You Miss Me Yet?” Obama would tell liberals. “Yes, Trump is terrible, he’s a monster, but guess what: I’m a big part of why he’s in power.”
Second, redemption would require Obama apologizing to the nation for following Trump’s election by going out into the Rose Garden the next day and telling the American people to give Trump a chance and “root…for his success in uniting and leading the country…because we’re actually all on one team. We’re Americans first, we’re patriots first, we all want what’s best for this country.”
That was idiotic, deeply conservative advice and Obama knew it. During the 2016 campaign, we learned from a recent Hulu documentary on Hillary Clinton, Obama said this to Hillary’s lame vice presidential pick Tim Kaine: ‘Tim, remember, this is no time to be a purist. You’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.”
It was an all-too accurate description of Trump. No responsible political actor tells the American people to “root for the success” of a demented arch-authoritarian racist, nativist, sexist, and eco-cidal demagogue – a fascist – in the world’s most powerful job.
Third, Obama would apologize for helping kick off RussiaGate, which turned out (predictably) to be a “great political gift to Trump” (Chomsky). As the Russian dissident Masha Gessen warned early on, Russiagate “will not bring down Trump.” Further:
“He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’(emphasis added).
Other, far more urgent issues like the corporate war on livable ecology, which raises the real specter of human extinction, with Trump in the vanguard of the effort to turn the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber. Like the lack of elementary and responsible readiness for a global pandemic that public health experts had been warning the U.S. government about for many years – a public health crisis that Trump has predictably used to deepen his authoritarian rule.
Fourth, redemption would require the Obamas giving away the tens of millions of dollars they have received from the nation’s ruling class as deferred oligarchic payment for their obedient service to the wealthy Few while the rest of the country struggled to keep their heads above water in the wake of the Great Recession. That service helped put a fascist in the world’s most powerful job. The money could be given away to the victims of the current new Great Depression or to the formation of grassroots organizations equipped to fight white nationalism and plutocracy.
Fifth, Obama would suspend work on the environmentally toxic gentrification project that is his big presidential library on Chicago’s South Side. He could invest remaining project funds into a library dedicated to research on how the American corporate and financial ruling class rules, how that rule leads to disastrous consequences (including but not limited to fascism in its various forms, and what the working-class majority can and must do to meaningfully counter and overthrow ruling class power. As one of Obama’s distinguished biographers (or at least chroniclers), I, the author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Routledge, 2014), will be happy to deliver the Keynote Address at the unveiling of this library.
Sixth, Obama could go public on a regular basis with his all-too pathetically private understanding of the Trump presidency as neo-fascistic – and with an admission that this corporate-Democratic administration helped hatch that presidency. If that is too much to ask (it probably is), Obama could at least use his status as “more popular than Jesus” among Democrats to show some guts and challenge Trump’s policies and behavior in a direct and forceful way. It’s been disconcerting to (not) hear Obama’s deafening silence as the nation has drifted ever further into Trumpism-fascism, now under the cover of Trump-amplified COVID-19 – a creepy hush that has persisted even as Trump regularly attacks every one of Obama’s policies he can get his hands on and blames Obama for every imaginable evil at home and abroad.
Seventh, Obama would suspend work on his forthcoming 1000-page book – his third volume on his favorite topic: Obama. It is certainly going to be a self-serving whitewash of his two decades of “public” service in elected office to the possessing classes and their domestic and global Empire. Who needs that?
It would useful if he would turn the volume into a short and readable reflection on how and why he became a servant of the corporate and financial oligarchy and a deadly imperialist – and on how those life choices influenced world history in disastrous ways, including his contribution the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Obama could channel J. Smedly Butler, with a little Eisenhower thrown in (Obama once described himself to corporate CEOs as an Eisenhower Republican), reflecting on his years of service to Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.
Eighth, Obama would give a speech in which he rescinded his endorsement of the center-right corporatist Joe Biden. He would apologize for his central role in foisting the depressing Biden atrocity on America and the world. He would tell Americans that Bernie Sanders was the only major party candidate who ran in accord with the policy wishes and values of the nation’s silenced progressive majority. The onetime community organizer Obama would also tell Americans that voting under the deeply flawed and corporate-captive U.S. elections and party system is a very minor and marginal act compared to the kind of peoples’ politics they need to develop in order to fight the combined authoritarian forces of corporate and financial oligarchy, imperialism, militarism. white nationalism, racism, sexism, and ecocide. Obama’s address would include the following passage from the late radical American historian Howard Zinn’s brilliant March 2008 Progressive essay “Election Madness,” published as liberals, progressives and even some leftists were losing their minds over., well….um, Obama:
“Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war….Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”
What are chances of Obama doing any of these things?


Foreign mercenaries were burned to the ground

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