Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Real Silent Majority

It's pretty much a truism that, in any society, the loudest voices are of those who want change – the dissatisfied... the disenfranchised... the victims (whether actual or self-styled). A subset of this group would be the theorists – the “idea people” who set the terms of the debate and use language in the service of their agenda (whether for good or ill). They are the agents of influence, and of change – but they would be helpless without their loyal followers – the “true believers” (or “useful idiots” in some cases). In the current election season (would that it were only a “season” rather than perpetual) we have – as I've commented on previously – a rare, if not unique, situation of raised voices on both the left and the right – populist movements of people who feel cheated, ignored, and left out. On one side we have the Tea Party (still alive and well, as far as I know – not that it was ever a formal organization), and on the other the “Occupy” crowd (ditto). The Tea Party is represented to a greater or lesser degree by the more “conservative” Republicans; Trump's relationship with them is ill-defined, if it exists at all. And the Occupy contingent is represented fairly well by Bernie Sanders.

This is, as I said, a rare thing in American politics – to have dueling populist movements. Most of the time, there is one party – one world view – in charge, and the “loyal opposition” on the other side. Populist movements, when they spring up, often create a third party, which rarely lasts for more than one election cycle. Someone has commented that Trump's campaign represents a third-party movement within the Republican Party; it seems that the same could be said of the Sanders campaign within the Democrats. And then you have the real third parties, like the Libertarians and Greens, which only complicates the picture even more. But in any case, it seems that no one is satisfied these days, and they are all protesting and fighting against the depredations of some ill-defined establishment -- “big government” for the right, and “not big enough”, or “big enough, but with the wrong priorities” for the left. But both sides are trapped in their own contradictions, since the right wants smaller government except for “defense”, which you can apparently never have too much of... and the left wants government to somehow mend its ways and start serving “the people” -- even though big government is, by and large, a creation of the left, and it was created precisely in order to, guess what, serve “the people”. Obviously, something funny happened on the way to Utopia. The “democratic socialist” (referencing Bernie Sanders' position) movement, which started during the Progressive Era and went into overdrive with the New Deal, has now morphed into oligarchy, domination by the Money Power and the military-industrial complex, and perpetual war – and this with nary a shot being fired, to say nothing of any sort of revolution. If Sanders and the leftists want to rewind the tape and start over, they'll have to go back at least as far as pre-World War I, in other words 100 years. Socialism without a love affair with war and empire might be possible – look at Scandinavia – but for the “major powers” it seems to be an impossibility. Even the former colonial powers, who should have learned their lesson, jump at any chance they get to return to the fray and make a cameo appearance on the world stage, as witness England and France's pathetic tag-along enthusiasm for our follies in the Islamic world.

And yet, having said all this, there is nonetheless a large, faceless, non-noisy portion of the citizenry, and they are, in fact, the biggest single piece – a plurality at least, and most likely a majority. And they are satisfied – complacent... smug, even. They don't object to paying taxes (the ones who do, I mean)... they don't have any problem with big government, even in its current manifestation... they are perfectly happy with every law and regulation that the rest of us find intrusive and onerous... they think that anyone who doesn't like the way things are is some kind of radical, nut, or “hater”... and one never hears from them, because they are profoundly satisfied. They are the true establishment of our time, at the grass-roots level. They are the true conservatives, as opposed to the “conservatives” who want radical change, or who talk like they do.

Who are these people? Why, Hillary Clinton supporters, of course! They are the ones who have completely sold out to the system – or were born into it, so didn't have to. They are like a huge baby that is perpetually locked onto the teat of government, and spends its life in a dream-like stupor. The only thing that can ever get their attention is any sort of threat to their “rights” -- which means their entitlements, which means their right to the fruits of someone else's labor. They are the current-day manifestation of the communist concept “to each according to his need” -- except that their “needs” are titanically greater than anything Marx or Lenin ever dreamt of, or would have tolerated.

And I don't want to give the impression that I'm talking only, or even mainly, about “the deserving poor”. There aren't nearly enough of those to fill this box, and to scapegoat them would show a lack of compassion. No, these would be people of all social classes, right up to and including billionaire “crony capitalists”, who could not imagine getting along without government help of some sort. There might have been a time in our history when welfare was for the poor, but those days are long gone. The poor get a trickle, but the so-called “capitalists” get a windfall. And again, is this a natural and inevitable evolution of our society, or did something go terribly wrong at some point, and might it be possible to go back and take the “road less traveled” again? (This is certainly the fond wish on the part of Bernie Sanders and his supporters.)

So here we have an election arena – a marketplace of ideas, if you will – that is using up all the air time (and all the air) and which seems to involve everyone to some degree or other. It's as if everyone in Rome is at the Colosseum and no one is out there doing ordinary, everyday tasks. But that's not the case! There is a silent majority, and they're silent because they're satisfied... and they are firmly in Hillary Clinton's camp because she represents what they all want – the “nanny state”. She is Big Nurse – just do what she says and we'll get along fine. Otherwise... you don't want to know.

The problem for the noisemakers – populists left and right, and their candidates – is that they don't fully realize that this demographic exists – or if they do they're in serious denial. They assume that revolutionary fervor will carry the day, that it is a force multiplier of sorts and can turn a numerical minority into a majority in terms of energy and impact – and they can point to plenty of historic examples, like pretty much any bonafide revolution. But I don't think we're living in times like those. For revolution to work, you need a lot of desperate people – a majority, even; we might have come close to that state during the Depression, but it's been far from the case ever since. (And no, “quiet desperation” won't do, because that's too akin to despair and is therefore enervating.) 

Religion was supposed to be the opiate of the people, but that was just a myth perpetuated by those who wanted government to be the opiate of the people – which it has, in fact, become. And even those who occasionally stagger out of the government opium den into the fresh air can only think clearly up to a point. They still accept the premise that “something has to be done” and the only entity that can do it is government. If they thought more clearly they would realize that government is the problem, and it can't be expected to fix itself. But then they would also realize that they are in the minority, and... what's to be done? Pass the opium pipe, I guess.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Bottomless Pit is Open for Business

The powers that be have finally admitted – with great reluctance, of course – that our expedition in Afghanistan is not having the expected (or at least advertised) result, and that we must – must! We have no choice! -- remain there as an occupying force for the foreseeable future, i.e. forever, for all intents and purposes. No Cold War, this – which, despite all the bluster and threats, at least had some symmetry... some balance. Yes, it was one political/social/economic system versus another, but it was also one empire versus another, with many of the same strategies and tactics used on both sides. The result was a sort of mutual understanding; each side was the image of the other, in a dark mirror.

The Cold War was not unlike a chess game – and even though the Russians are far better chess players than we are, they were the ones who retired from the field, not from lack of resources or sheer fatigue, but because they eventually tired of their own propaganda and illusions. Their empire got old, the hard-liners died off, and the temptations of the world economic community were too great to resist. So that empire faded in a remarkably peaceful way; no one surrendered, they just underwent a major shift in priorities – a sea change, if you will, from collectivist dogmatism to relative pragmatism. (And there are worse things than having leaders who are pragmatists rather than theorists.) And it's not that there were, and are, no regrets – there's plenty of Stalinist nostalgia floating around Russia these days, at the same time that the Romanovs have been granted icon status by the revitalized Orthodox church. (We have our own Cold War nostalgia, which is alive and well. Any number of government and military types long for the conflict they grew up with, with its clear demarcations, as opposed to the tangled mess we now face in the Middle East. This is one reason why they mistakenly fight the War on Islam as if it were conventional warfare.) The real story of Russia in the 20th Century may not be how the Soviet Union came to be – that's a fairly clear picture. The real story is how it managed to evolve, or devolve, with a minimum of violence and strife, without a civil war, without starvation and mass displacement of people... in short, a model for how an empire can come to an end in a reasonable way, which is a much rarer phenomenon than how empires are established and grow.

Afghanistan, however, is another matter, as the Russians found out first and as we are now finding out. The “graveyard of empires” certainly contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union (with no little help from us, and now we find that our friends then are our enemies now), and the question is how much it has contributed, is contributing, and will contribute to our own demise – as an empire at least, if not as a nation.

That's all on the conventional wisdom/historical model side. But there is another level of analysis at work, and it has been from the outset... and I've discussed it many times. In short, the War on Islam (my term, but I believe it to be more accurate than the alternatives) replaced the Cold War just in the nick of time to keep the military-industrial complex from suffering any economic hardship, and just in time for an oppressive domestic policy that had been in the works for decades to become firmly established and justified – for the rule of war is that no matter how physically removed the battles are from home and hearth, the citizenry must, sooner or later, pay the price. Security is touted as the main justification for “why we fight”, but when security necessitates an ever-increasing loss of freedom, one wonders whether that wasn't the idea all along. Diminished freedom seems to be the cost of “security”, and yet we aren't even all that secure, so it winds up being a net loss for the citizenry (and a huge gain for those in power).

Another facet of all of this is the adoption of perpetual war as an economic, political, and diplomatic reality – and the more politicians (including the president) claim that this is not the case, the more clearly it seems to be the case. And this is another reason why the War on Islam, AKA the “War on Terror”, is so ideal – because we are dealing with an amorphous enemy that doesn't play by the “rules”... there are no “exit criteria”, i.e. there is no way of knowing if we've ever “won”... and we are continuously sowing dragon's teeth, i.e. all of our efforts to weaken the opposition – however defined – only result in more opposition. We have an endless parade of monsters and bogeymen to deal with – first the Taliban, then Al-Qaeda, and now ISIS, along with countless lesser organizations, bands, brigades, insurgents, factions, rebels, counter-rebels, counter-counter-rebels, and splinter groups, not to mention actual countries like Syria and Iran. Pair that with our on-again, off-again “allies” in the Middle East and Europe, and it starts to look more and more like our fight – that we are the ones riding out on a white charger while everyone else stays warm and cozy at home, with attitudes ranging from skepticism to outright mockery and derision. “Oh yeah, there goes Uncle Sam again, blowing titanic amounts of blood and treasure in order to, somehow, save the Middle East from itself.”

Afghanistan in particular is frustrating simply because the “radicals” seem to be the only ones who give a damn – who care how things turn out. The populace in general is hunkered down, desperate, and helpless, and either unwilling or unable to aid in the effort. Perfectly good armies seem to evaporate the minute we set foot on their soil, to be replaced by hordes of wild-eyed fanatics; it happened in Iraq, it happened in Libya, and it will, eventually, happen in Syria. Like it or not, for all of the strife that characterizes that part of the world, the one thing that will make them all unite in common cause is our presence – for us to invade and occupy. Then suddenly Job One is to get rid of us... or, failing that, to make our lives as invaders and occupiers thoroughly miserable. And from the humanitarian point of view, how does the civilian death toll compare, pre-U.S. invasion with post-U.S. invasion? I daresay it's much worse after we get involved; again, this is demonstrably the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seems to be the case in Libya as well. Even the lowest form of colonialist ambition – take the oil and run – turns out to be a fallacy; we can turn oil exporters into oil importers in the twinkling of an eye. So where is the profit? Where is the benefit? Cui bono? Clearly, it's in the interests of the military-industrial complex to keep up this dreary routine for as long as possible, and on the domestic side, as I said, it's in the interests of power-hungry politicians to promote totalitarianism in the interests of “national security”. “Department of Homeland Security” -- “Transportation Security Agency” -- “National Security Agency” -- anyone see a trend here?

So back to the issue at hand. Headline: “Afghan exit strategy fades” (as if there ever was one). Sub-headline: “Terrorists' resilience could keep thousands of soldiers in country for decades, commanders say.” The first questions that should be asked, but never are, are as follows: Where did these “terrorists” come from? And what makes them so “resilient”? (And really, folks, where do they get all of that weaponry, much of it made here, or in Russia, or even in Israel?) And what makes us think that we can ever defeat them, even given “decades”? And – the most radical idea of all – why not just leave? Are they really going to follow us back to the homeland and create all sorts of death and destruction? Well, they already are, to some extent. But what if that's because we persist in occupying their country, or their part of the world? What if Ron Paul was right when he said that “they're over here because we're over there”? (That remark, made during a presidential debate, nearly caused Rudy Giuliani to have a fatal stroke, if you'll recall.)

Of course, this is all represented as a “shift in mindset” on the part of the military, and especially on the part of Obama, who really, truly wanted us to get out of that godforsaken place – honest, he really did. Right. My theory is that he has standing orders: Whatever you do, and whatever you say, we are not getting out of Afghanistan, not now, not ever. (Again, who benefits?) The only thing that has changed is not some “mindset” or “outlook” but their willingness to publicly admit that the situation is hopeless – a variety of hopelessness that, mysteriously, requires us to stick around rather than getting the hell out.

But! But! – you might say – hasn't the military been planning, for years now, to leave Afghanistan once they could say “mission accomplished”? Well, no. They've been making that claim for years, sure... but anyone could see that the day when we could say “mission accomplished” would never come – not only because of the reality of the situation, but by design. For example, one of the countless bogus criteria presented is “building an effective Afghan army and police force”. Um... has it ever had these? I seriously doubt it. National character comes into play here. Afghanistan is simply not one of those places that is cut out to have an effective army and police force. It is ideally suited to having warring tribes, which it has had down through recorded history – and if we pulled out it would go back to ancient ways, and probably be too caught up in feuds and vendettas to cause any damage outside its (artificial, by the way) borders. Hence, another foolproof “criterion” which is not a criterion at all. But why quibble? Why not spend “billions of dollars a year” and have “thousands of advisers on the ground” (the diplomatic term for combat troops)?

The best quote from the article is as follows: “'What we've learned is that you can't really leave', said a senior Pentagon official...” How true! But how did they “learn” that? Who told them?

Well, it's sort of like what happens when your team is knocked out of Super Bowl contention – you can finally sit back, relax, not worry, and enjoy the show rather than engage in endless nail-biting. All the American public has to do now is accept that we'll be in a state of war forever... or at least until the Republic collapses from its follies. Perhaps we will get a break, and the end won't really be the end, as exemplified by the Soviet Union. There might be a light at the end of the tunnel – but as long as the people who are now in charge remain in charge, that light will not come any closer.

One final quote, again from a Pentagon official: “This is not a region you want to abandon.” That's funny, I sure do – and I'll bet a lot of other Americans do as well. But who listens to us?