American Culture

God Bless the USA: a few stray thoughts on freedom, democracy and the 4th of July

1: The enemy of my enemy

Conservatives hate Obama. Progressives hate Obama. Hmmm.

Let’s say that you and I and our mutual friend Bob are going to dinner. Bob is up for Mexican and suggests that we hit The Hacienda. I say no, The Hacienda sucks. Their chile verde is too hot. You say no, The Hacienda sucks. Their chile verde isn’t hot enough.

Q: Do you and I agree on The Hacienda?

2: The Newspeak definition of “treason”

Happy 4th of July. Today we celebrate our nation’s independence and, if one can believe Lee Greenwood, the fact that at least we know we’re free. I think there was originally supposed to be a verse about all the brave soldiers who gave their lives to assure the economic interests of the wealthy and the ideological fantasies of neocon empire builders. But they took it out because it doesn’t rhyme. No Bushes were killed in the making of the Iraq War.

CATEGORY: PrivacyThe problem is that Old Glory isn’t the only thing flapping in the breeze above us today. There’s also that deeply troubling Edward Snowden case. Here’s the nut of it. The Federal government has now usurped the right to make secret law administered by secret courts. It has asserted the right to violate the Constitution and to kill Americans on foreign soil. It has decided that it can hold anyone it likes indefinitely, without due process of any sort, if it deems that person a threat to America. And those decisions, of course, are secret and not subject to review.

Once upon a time Richard Nixon suggested that if the president did it, it was by definition legal. That doctrine brought down his administration in disgrace, but today it’s the law of the land. The secret law of the land, I should say.

And when you reveal that the government is behaving illegally and unconstitutionally, that is treason.

Do I have it about right?

3: Barry O: the baddest motherfucker in the schoolyard

The Bolivian president’s plane was denied the right to land in one country and denied the right to enter the airspace of a few others because it was feared that he was smuggling Snowden to safety and asylum in the South American country.

That’s the story, anyway, and like everything else we hear out of the Obama administration these days it was bullshit. You think that Russia allowed Snowden to sneak out of their airport like that? You think that the US didn’t know Snowden’s location to within a meter the whole time?

No, this was about sending a message. Barack Obama is the biggest bully in the international schoolyard and he was flexing his muscles so that any nation contemplating granting Snowden asylum would know precisely what was waiting for them at recess.

Bolivia and its friends are right – this was a bald-faced flogging of international law. It was bullying and thuggery of the rankest sort you’ll find in superpower politics these days.

If we had any doubts whatsoever about what Barack Obama is before now (and we didn’t, by the way), it’s now clear.

4: The political law of relativity

If you recall, the S&R team covered the Democratic National Convention/Obama coronation in Denver back in 2008. A few months before the free world landed here in the 5280 there was an orientation session in Pepsi center for all the media credentialed for the event.

I remember sitting in the stands before the session began talking about Obama with a colleague. I was arguing that BarryO was in no way, shape or form a progressive. My colleague said of course he is, and made a series of points in support of the argument. Back and forth we went.

The thing is, it was easy to see him in that light back in 2008, for a couple of reasons. First, he talked a good progressive game. And second, context is everything. Next to the Bush legacy he was hoping to follow, he looked positively hippie. And if you define your politics in relative terms, then “a step or two to the left of Dubya” is operationally liberal. Ish. Maybe.

Of course, if our dumb asses had forgotten that politicians talk one game and walk another one, we have now been reminded. And the sport of horse racing is littered with jockeys who look pretty tall if they’re standing next to Peter Dinklage.

I argued at the time that Obama was a tried and true corporatist who wasn’t likely to do anything to upset the money boys. And while the money boys have screamed bloody murder, we have to understand that a) Obama reaped a lot more in Wall St. campaign contributions than McCain, b) no banksters have been indicted for crashing the economy, c) on the contrary, they were showed with cash in repayment for their corruption and malfeasance, d) the godawful horrible socialist Obama policy machine has done little without the express approval of said money boys, e) you may have noted that the administration is delaying for a year the part of the Obamacare program that they like the least (check back for another yearly grace period next summer), and lastly f) the corporate screeching is kabuki. If you and I are in cahoots, pretending like we hate each other in public is a great way to throw people – especially the kind of uncritical public we have these days – off the scent.

I was wrong in one respect. I didn’t think Obama would double-down on Bush’s unconstitutional security state. I didn’t expect him to throw open the gates and usher in a new generation of Woodstocky free love and unfettered freedom, but I didn’t expect a rationale that could even be technically construed as justifying the use of drones against US citizens domestically.

5: On Sochulism

Obammer’s a Socialist! We’ve heard that a lot, haven’t we? Not that this needs saying to a vaguely educated readership, and not that saying it makes any difference for the rest, but if you believe Obama has a Socialist bone in his body, it proves two things:

  1. You don’t know the definition of “Socialist.”
  2. You haven’t been paying the slightest bit of attention to what he’s actually done as president.

Please, do shut the fuck up.

6: The end of freedom

I could go on for days – literally days, perhaps weeks – on this one. And in truth, that line isn’t correct. It isn’t that we’re reaching the end of freedom. It’s that things like the Snowden case are waking us up to the fact that freedom of the sort we think we enjoy ended some time ago and we’re just now noticing.

Back in the mid-’90s when I was in my PhD program, I was talking one day with one of my professors, Dr. Michael Tracey. Tracey was and is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, and if you knew all the folks I do you’d understand how high a compliment that is. Anyway, we were talking about democracy and political economy and global trends in government and the like and I asked him where he thought the world was heading. Communism was discredited and fading rapidly, “democracy” was deep into what some social theorists were calling “late-stage capitalism,” and there wasn’t anything out there that looked like a new organizing principle. So what next?

His answer was utterly prescient: totalitarian capitalism. He saw the rise of China as more than just the rise of China. It was clear to him that they were the society leading the way into the next stage of global political economic hegemony.

Flash forward 18 years or so. China is the dominant economic engine on the planet in many ways. Not to say they’re the only ones who matter, of course, but when Beijing talks, your ass listens.

The US is hardly a perfect analogous comparison. China’s middle class is booming while, thanks to Kochs and the Art Popes and the politicians (of both parties) who serve their agendas, either directly or indirectly (I’m looking at you, Barry), ours is evaporating. We’ve long since ceased to be a manufacturing power, and China is just beginning to see places like Vietnam eating away at its dominance. And so on. Let’s be clear – I’m not trying to tell you that we’re just like China because we aren’t. However, I can’t help seeing the rise of their middle class and appetite for consumerism in the same way I see the US post-War period.

What I am saying is that in China you have a totalitarian capitalist society where nothing is allowed to interfere with the business of business. Here we are evolving into a sort of services-based totalitarian economy. The business of America is business, remember, and thou shalt not interfere with a company’s right to make a profit. What happens when a public entity does something that a company construes as competitive? Well, go have a look at what the telecoms did when various US cities began talking about rolling out ubiquitous municipal wi-fi. I believe Philly might be a good case to learn from.

Homeland Security Precrime

Now, you’re probably thinking that the Snowden case is all about preventing terrorism. I doubt it. Sure, that’s a priority. But when all is said and done, I strongly suspect that a good bit of the surveillance we’ve been conducting on our allies (Germany has been really mad about the Snowden revelations, you notice) is less about terrorists and more about corporate espionage. Can’t prove this, and we may never get proof. And I may be wrong. But if you read your Winn Schwartau, you’re going to walk away scratching your head. He alleges that US companies are being punked to the tune of billions of dollars a year in corporate espionage, much of it supported, funded and conducted outright by political allies like Germany, France, Korea, Japan, Israel, etc. Schwartau isn’t without his detractors, and I’m open to being further educated on the subject, but it adds some interesting context to our speculation.

Regardless, I’m cynical enough to think that our official terror regarding terror is less about the potential loss of life and more about its impact on business and the markets. If you recall, in the wake of the Trade Center attacks were we told that we could strike back at al Qaeda by going shopping.

Many people who contribute heavily to political campaigns lost a lot of money after 9/11, and they’d probably rather it didn’t happen again. But public opinion isn’t going to rally around that message quite like it will the whole keeping America safe meme.

7: Happy Independence Day. I’m done.

When I was young and stupid, I voted for Reagan. Twice. I believed in his corrupt message and am ashamed of the fact that I contributed to what he (and his puppetmasters) made of the country. Then I voted for Bush the elder because … well, ultimately it was because his PR and meme machines weren’t very good, I guess. Not proud of that one, either. I voted for Clinton twice – I liked the guy, although I had few illusions about him. He is to the modern Democratic Party – that is, GOP Lite® – what The Gipper was to the modern Republican Party – that is, Sociopathy Platinum®.

But I’m no more ashamed of those votes than I am my two votes for Barack Obama. In my defense, the alternatives were John “Bush III” McCain and Mitt “Man of the People” Romney, and yes, I do believe that both of them would have been worse in some respects. “Worse” can be a sticky concept, though. Getting shot in the balls ten times is probably worse than getting shot in the balls nine times, but there’s also the argument that you’re way past the point where it much matters. Obama might be driving the car a little more slowly than Romney would have, and he might be taking a more scenic route, but make no mistake, the destination is the same.

I have, for most of the past 25 years, been stepping into the booth and pulling the lever for the lesser of two evils. And afterward, I’ve always felt like I couldn’t possibly take enough showers to scrub my soul clean. Say what you will, but I voted for the man behind the unconstitutional programs that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on. I voted for the man who pissing on international law the same way he does the Constitution in his strong-arming of Bolivian president Morales.

I voted for the man who promised to put an end to the Bush administration’s Big Brother act, and then doubled down on it.

Never again. I will never again vote for the lesser of the evils. I will only vote for those a) who are promoting a message I believe in, and b) whom I trust to actually walk the talk. If the 2016 general election gives me a choice between someone like Obama and the devil himself, I will vote third party or stay at home, even if I somehow know for a certainty that doing so will hand the White House to Satan. The faster we hit bottom, the sooner we can begin parading heads around on pikes – figuratively speaking, of course – and maybe settings aright.

I’ve been writing about politics here at S&R since April of 2007. My very first post was on Joe Wilson’s speech at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, the one where he called Fred Thompson a “member of the treason wing of the Republican Party.” Looking back, it’s hard not feel a measure of despair. How much breath wasted? How many photons sacrificed tilting at windmills? Like everybody else who writes about these issues, I’d like to do so with a bit of hope, and perhaps the occasional sense that maybe it made a difference.

But today, on the 4th of July, 2013, I don’t have much of either. And a decision has been made over the past few months. Sometime in the not so distant future, whenever I can muster the time and energy, I’ll be cranking out a two-part farewell series articulating, well, articulating where I think we are, where I think we’re heading, and in a desperate last gasp, what I think has to be done to save us.

Then I’ll be retiring from political commentary forever. I set out, many years ago, with the goal of spreading truth and beauty throughout the world. Idealistic and a bit arrogant, no doubt, but at least these were worthy goals that sought to make life a little better place for my fellow citizens. I feel like a failure on both counts right now, and never moreso than last night, standing on the rooftop of The Tavern Downtown in Denver taking pictures of the fireworks show across the street at Coors Field and listening to the kids behind me belting out Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” like it was the processional march into eternal glory.

Not long ago I retired from writing poetry, an art form to which I had dedicated 35 years of my life. I gave up teaching for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the creeping suspicion that nobody really wanted to learn. Now this.

I’ll keep writing about music and maybe sports, and I’m busting my ass trying to learn to take photographs that people will pay for. Truth is beauty, beauty truth a famous guy once said. I hope he’s right.

Happy Independence Day, America. Amuse yourselves to death. I’m out.

21 replies »

  1. Just a quote from a book I’m that hit eerily home when I read it this morning: “In May 1969, in the middle of the night, the security police arrested Winnie at her home in Orlando, detaining her under the Terrorism Act, which enabled them to imprison her without charge and without any access to legal representation, in solitary confinement, indefinitely.” – ‘Mandela – A Biography- by Martin Meredith

  2. Regardless of where we are heading at least we can celebrate that America is finally gluten free. Herr Smith, take heart and continue your writing. When voices like yours fall silent all I can hear is the sound of madness. I wish you the very best in your practice of proper mental hygiene.

  3. I had a dear friend who did a double tour in ‘Nam in 1969-70. He told me lots of stories, including this one – he was on R&R, sitting in a hotel lobby in Bangkok, and a Ranger in full dress came down and sat in a chair across from him. Now, no soldiers dressed in uniform on R&R – made you a target in a lot of ways.

    So my buddy gave the guy the once over. Guy looks at him and says, “You see this?” and showed him a small ribbon – Chris knew immediately he was talking to a sniper and nodded recognition. “You know what my government pays me to do?” Before Chris could respond he said, “They pay me to kill motherfuckers.” Chris nodded again. “And you know what?”

    “What?” Chris asked.

    “Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all. Fuck the President, Fuck Congress, Fuck Westmoreland (US troop commander in Vietnam), fuck the Army. Just fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all.”

    Chris told me that in two tours in ‘Nam that was the only time he heard anybody who made sense to him. When he finished telling me the story he said, “Whenever shit goes sideways, I always think, ‘Remember the Ranger.'”

    I began following the Ranger’s advice a while back when it became clear to me that no amount of rational discourse at this blog or from any other outlet was going to bring us to any sort of useful consensus on our country’s problems or make our government responsive to its citizens or get the majority of the American public to think in any rational way about the disaster I firmly believe we drift inexorably toward.

    So my advice, old friend, is just that – “Remember the Ranger….”

    • While I appreciate both of your opinions here, I can’t agree with it. Rational discourse on this blog and others, as well as a number of useful connections, is why I’ve slowly worked myself into a position where I can (and have) indirectly influence policymakers on climate policy.

      It is possible. Insanely frustrating and frequently discouraging, but still possible. And I’m saddened that you’re taking (or, in Jim’s case, have already taken) your distinct voice out of the conversation. I won’t try to convince you otherwise, Sam, as each of us has to decide for ourselves where our personal lines fall, but I for one will miss your voice.

      • I don’t think you’ve ever fully understood the degree to which I envy you, Brian. What a wonderful thing it must be to invest hours into writing something important and have it be acknowledged and taken seriously by an audience that matters. I count myself lucky if I invest hours in something important and 20 people click on it.

        • Most of what I write gets very little visibility too, and sometimes what visibility I get is the wrong kind of visibility – people who can’t formulate logical arguments, are incapable of admitting error, can’t do even basic mathematics, and so on. People like this drive you to despair, and they do that to me as well sometimes. I suspect that you have had a far greater impact than you realize, but it’s hard to know that unless you have feedback about, either by way of hits or links or off-line discussions with people you have influenced in some way.

          Again, I am saddened by your choice, but I understand how you could have reached it.

  4. A) You’re right, what we write online makes little difference to what occurs in the world.
    B) But. It helps sustain the sane who must otherwise watch in horror as the world begins to burn around them, wondering if they are alone in seeing it.

    And that’s not nothing.

    • Keeping yourself sane is critical. But when trying and never seeming to get traction drives you even crazier, it’s time to take a break or stop entirely. My read of Sam’s post is that this is where he’s at.

      If you are tightly focused on one thing, however, it is possible to drive change in the real world with online writing. I was one of many bloggers who forced the Heartland Institute to drop their deceptive, dishonest, and hypocritical billboard implying that everyone who accepts the reality of industrial climate disruption was a terrorist, mass murderer, or serial killer. I was one of many, but the efforts of lots of scientists, activists, and my fellow journalists that day led to Heartland losing a significant number of donors and having to spin off an entire organization (FIRE) as a result of industry outcry. It doesn’t happen often (I’d guess about 5 times over the last 8 years), and usually it’s a lot more subtle than that, but it is possible.

      • I understand the need to step away at times, but I was actually referring to the effect of one’s work on OTHERS’ (i.e., those who read it) sanity. As you note in another reply, this is often extremely difficult to gauge without adequate feedback, but it’s a very real and important impact.

  5. It’s not the kindest fate to be born with intelligence in a world where average can easily mean dullard. To know how things work while wishing we didn’t because the truth is ofttimes mean and brutish.

    My defense is simple. Be a good human, it’s all that can be asked. Do kind things and small favors and don’t take the weight of the world as a sole responsibility when comporting oneself through life with charity and honor and humor is task enough for one man or woman.

    And if we can be characters rising above the crowd, making people pause and think if only for a moment, if we can do good deeds and exert positive influence no matter how minuscule then bravo and well played because in the human march of time a little goodness exerted by a lot of people ultimately turns into a huge push for our team.

    So if it’s fuck politics for you Dr. Smith then fuck fuck fuck politics it is, but don’t give up on the race. There will always be weak to be protected, hungry to be fed, and even small minds can eventually be opened with carefully crafted leverage.

  6. Well said. Barry is the biggest voting mistake of my life, although I’m proud to say, not as bad as Reagan or Bush I. (You have some things to answer for in heaven.)

    More seriously, I’m not sure you can just get off the bus, brother.

  7. While I respect your decision I tend to give some credence to Otherwise thought. Or, at least, you will weigh in with a comment or two from time to time.

    However, given the possibility that you really are getting off the bus, would you at least take a few minutes to explain to me what a progressive is? I can’t figure it out and I have asked a few acquaintances/friends/colleagues who are really smart and describe themselves as progressives and have actually rendered several of them speechless with a “deer in the headlights” look in their eyes. I find it fascinating that really intelligent people describe themselves as something they cannot define or describe. So I look to you.

    And thank you for all you have done and do.

    • I appreciate all the comments. In response I have a couple of my own. First, while I’m retiring from political writing, I’m not retiring from writing. And much of what I expect to do has political implications. But I’m instinctively a culturalist and it’s time to be me.

      Second, I’m not going out without a bang. My final political series will provide folks with something to think about and talk about for years, if they’re so inclined.

      Finally, for Fnay. I can answer that question a lot of ways, and having been a conservative who evolved into a progressive, I’d probably do so in a way that had a predictable slant to it.

      Instead, let’s point you to this, which is far more thoughtful, detailed and “balanced.”

      • Not to pee in the pool, but that looks like a breakdown of Liberal vs. Conservative ideology. I see very little there specific to Progressivism (which is VERY distinct from Liberalism, despite overlaps).

        Personally, I think this captures a much broader and more accurate range of political thought than the popular either/or Left/Right dichotomy.

        • Well, the whole progressive vs liberal thing has gotten muddled in operational pragmatics of late. As the right wing successfully rebranded “liberal” to mean “Satanic baby-eating socialist who’s probably French on top of it all,” we’ve had this need for a word that signifies the same principles without being so pejorative and instantly dismissible. I guess we can crawl down in the weeds if you like, but when I think about the folks I know who are more or less to the left of center, either term works well enough.

          That said, you’re right, there’s boatloads of nuance out there, and the Political Compass is a helpful (if not comprehensive or definitive ) tool. The S&R staff has taken it a couple of times, most recently here. I don’t think it will reveal anything you didn’t already suspect, but I can assure you that most of us were frustrated with how it fails to describe elements that are critically important to really understanding our thinking.

      • Hmm…does the lack of a reply button to your reply mean that I’m supposed to shut up and stop replying?

        I don’t disagree re: the Political Compass. What I like best about it is that it can blow open the Us vs. Them left/right mindset for some people and start them thinking, not that it’s the be-all, end-all answer.

        I guess what really bothers me about appropriating “Progressive” to rebrand the demonized “Liberal” is that a) they don’t mean the same thing, so the progressive viewpoint (which I identify with to an extent, whereas I don’t particularly with “Liberal”) is being annihilated, removed from the national discussion, simply because the liberals don’t have the cojones to mix it up with the conservatives and defend their brand, and b) almost no Democrats in Congress qualify, in my eye, as progressive, so if we’re now going to call liberals progressives, what are we going to call the Democrats?

        I’m kind of a stickler for defending words when dramatically overhauling them will result in a net loss of nuance and complexity. But I realize everyone’s going to have their own take on this.

        • Hmm…does the lack of a reply button to your reply mean that I’m supposed to shut up and stop replying?


          I don’t disagree re: the Political Compass. What I like best about it is that it can blow open the Us vs. Them left/right mindset for some people and start them thinking, not that it’s the be-all, end-all answer.

          As I say, it’s helpful. Very helpful, actually. It’s just that if you think as unconventionally as many of the S&R staff do, you’re still omitting a couple of critical dimensions.

          I guess what really bothers me about appropriating “Progressive” to rebrand the demonized “Liberal” is that a) they don’t mean the same thing, so the progressive viewpoint (which I identify with to an extent, whereas I don’t particularly with “Liberal”) is being annihilated, removed from the national discussion, simply because the liberals don’t have the cojones to mix it up with the conservatives and defend their brand, and b) almost no Democrats in Congress qualify, in my eye, as progressive, so if we’re now going to call liberals progressives, what are we going to call the Democrats?

          The Democrats are what we used to call “Republicans.”

          There aren’t more than five or six genuine liberals or progressives in Congress. If you’re looking for a party that’s genuinely either one you’re going to have to consider someone like the Greens. We’ve slid so far to the right in the last 40 years that Richard Nixon would be too liberal to get the DEMOCRATIC nomination and Reagan would be way too far left for the GOP.

  8. Thanks for the discussion; that’s helpful. Clarity is too much to ask for but I am comfortable with ambiguity — it just seemed there were so many people who were so sure.

    I found the August, 2010 post on the Political Compass fascinating. I have many of the same problems with it that were discussed. How can I answer purely ideologically when I know what really happens? And many of the questions forced what I consider false choices. So I ended up in the lower left quadrant but slightly toward center from where the S&R staff clustered.

    The clustering of the S&R staff on the Compass compared with the diversity known to exist echoes Whitman, “You say I contradict myself. Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Or something close to that — I’m not going to look it up.

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