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America cannot be America at perpetual war

2010 July 4
by Ian Welsh

On this, the 4th of July, I, a Canadian, want to talk to Americans about their values.  Perhaps that’s presumptuous.  Perhaps I should just shut it and say “it’s none of my business.”

I could argue that it’s my business on purely pragmatic grounds: where goes the US, Canada often follows.  We are a US subject state in all but name, and your failure to fix your problems makes it much harder and sometimes impossible to fix our problems.

But forget that.  I don’t primarily care about the US because of Canadian interests, I care about the US because I care about the American dream.

I sometimes think that many of us who aren’t Americans believe in American ideals more than American citizens do.  We imbibe, in other countries, a particularly pure form of the American civil religion.  We hear about doing the right thing, about always giving the accused a day in court, about freedom of speech, about division of power and about rights that are rights not because they are given by government to its subjects, but because they are inalienable human rights.

Oh, as time goes by, you realize that America has always had problems with its virtues.  You learn of the red scares, the Japanese internments, the genocide against the Indians, slavery and Jim Crow.

And yet… and yet, both people and countries are defined not just by their failures, but by the ideals they strive towards.  America’s ideals, and its striving towards them, were what gripped the world and gave others hope.  If the American experiment in freedom, in rights, could succeed, then perhaps it could succeed in other places.

But what we see today is the American Dream dying.  Not just the dream of every generation being better off than the one before, though that’s dying, but the dream of a country where the citizens actually had rights, where they actually were free.

There are a number of reasons, but I think Jefferson’s prescient phase sums it up best:

I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies

I’m not so sure that banks are more dangerous than standing armies, but certainly the two of them together have brought the US to where it is.

The problem with standing armies is simple enough: if you’ve got one, politicians are always tempted to use it.  When it’s a professional standing army, so the majority of the population is not effected by its use, that temptation increases.  When the army is the most powerful (though not the most effective) in the world, well, that temptation increases even further.

War is an executive function.  A war cannot be run by a legislature.  As a result, during war the power of the executive grows.  In the US the executive can now hold people without charge indefinitely, meaning President has the ability to lock people up without a trial.  If he does bother to grant a trial, the accused does not have the right to face their accusers or to see the evidence against them and evidence obtained through torture can be used.

The President can spy on any American he wants, and you have essentially no recourse, since it is illegal to let you know that you’re being spied on.  The President can declare American citizens combatants and have them assassinated, which is capital punishment without a trial.

Meanwhile, instead of the whole country being a free speech zone, free speech is only allowed in small areas if anyone important is nearby.  Lord save the important people from having to actually see the people whom their policies are impoverishing and whose rights they are destroying.

The right of association has been severely crippled, since the executive can now declare any organization a terrorist organization without any trial and without any appeal.  Any American who works with “terrorists” is a criminal.  Even if they are, say, like Jimmy Carter, helping Hezbollah participate in fair elections.

To sum up, the President can do all of the following, in most cases without meaningful appeal or a trial: execute Americans, imprison people indefinitely, spy on anyone he wants, forbid people from flying, torture people, kidnap people, forbid people from associating with whoever they want, and deny them the right to speak freely anywhere except in small cordoned off zones.

This is America?

This is what the American dream has come to?

Your founders warned you about this.  Warned you that standing armies and unrestrained banks would cost you your freedom.

And the sad thing is that most Americans are ok with it.

Are Americans who don’t believe that everyone is endowed with inalienable rights still Americans worth the name?

That is my question to you on July 4th.

Happy Independence Day.

15 Responses
  1. Barbara D permalink
    July 4, 2010

    What I don’t remember, in my seventy plus years on this earth, is the apathy.

  2. July 4, 2010

    The American can-do spirit has become the can’t-do spirit.

    Few businesses bother to innovate any more, they spend all their energy and capital paying our legislators to help them prop up old products. It’s a rational decision, because there’s a better return on investment paying off legislators than trying and failing on new products or services.

    Because businesses, you see, have only one objective–to maximize the short-term profits for the inner circle.

    The other stakeholders–small shareholders, employees, lenders, vendors, citizens of the communities in which they do business–are to be totally disregarded in search of the short-term profit.

    Carolyn Kay
    MakeThemAccountable.com

  3. July 4, 2010

    Thanks, Ian. Well said. The flags and the gluttony and the bunting just feel mournful to me anymore…with twinges of rising anger at unjustified jingoism.

    It’s not that i hate my country. It’s not even that i expect it to be perfect. I’m concerned with the process, with continually striving towards a more perfect union.

    And this administration has proven that Bush (with some precedents in Clinton and before) was not the exception but rather has become the rule. I find it difficult to get choked up with pride for what has become a crumbling ghetto on the hill. Worse, the majority don’t care. The flags and the slogans are enough. An SUV and a flat screen TV are now the pinnacle of freedom and democracy. Apathy and even willful destruction of the self-evident truths with barely a murmur of opposition.

    The Star Spangled Banner just sounds like a funeral dirge these days. I think of the men who sacrificed their lives for the nation when i hear it, but now i can’t help thinking that they did so in vain.

    Sad.

  4. July 4, 2010

    Great post, great questions. Like Barbara D, the apathy is more disturbing to me than the creeping fascism taking over.

  5. Mad Hemingway permalink
    July 4, 2010

    So tell me dear Ian, what should a 2012 presidential candidate’s platform look like?

  6. Tom Hickey permalink
    July 4, 2010

    Military Keynesianism. The US is economically dependent on “defense” spending, and you have to use up that stuff somehow, if you are going to keep on ordering more. The defense industry is spread out through states and congressional districts in order to insure that everyone gets a piece of the pie. So expect more war.

  7. July 4, 2010

    Tom…,

    your comment here probably fits better under the “War of Choice” post…, but it does bring to mind another question in regard to this post.

    Which is MORE deplorable…, using the war as an continuing economic engine…, or using the war as a vehicle to further suspend our civil liberties?

    And…, “… expect more war.”? This is my comment at The Agonist a while back (and when are you coming back BTW?) about a Paul Craig Roberts piece on the Afghan situation.

    “We are there for economic reasons…, not idealogical ones. These wars are keeping the Bomb & Bullet manufacturing economic engine that is keeping this country afloat purring along. Any bets on what our next stimulus package will consist of? My money is on North Korea. China is going to need a little economic help soon too.”

  8. anonymous permalink
    July 4, 2010

    I think it’s all economic. Everyone was willing to let their civil liberties erode while the economy was good (even though “good” mostly meant a false sense of prosperity from the stock market and housing bubbles). Now it sucks, but not bad enough to overcome denial. The sooner the crash comes the sooner reform can come. Of course, the crash could result in an even worse situation for civil liberties. I’m not hopeful at all.

  9. Jeff Wegerson permalink
    July 4, 2010

    http://xkcd.com/326/

    “population is not effected by” 994 Google Hits
    “population is not affected by” 94,300 hits.

    🙂

    As always good points Ian.

  10. Steve permalink
    July 4, 2010

    This is a comment tangential to the topic being discussed, but since you brought up our relationship with our largest trading partner and neighbour to the south, I thought I’d submit the following stream of consciousness for discussion. Perhaps this would be better suited for your Canada Day post, but like a lot about Canada, it co-mingles with a lot of things.

    Yes Ian, as Canadians we imbibe American civil religion. And yes, we do believe in most American ideals more than most Americans now. A couple of years ago, I’d say we were more “free” than Americans to the south, but I have to question that with the dammed G20 incidents.

    But the one thing I wanted to comment on is the strangeness about being a Canadian–ignored by Americans and America at large, and yet there are lots of Canadians who have helped crafted and communicate these expressions of ideals to Americans. It’s almost as if Canada was in some sort of “Golden Age” of American idealism, where there was never a betrayal or tarnishing of American ideals.

    So, when an American President needs words to address the republic, or a think tank needs communication strategy to communicate with the public, or a controversial t.v. series needs to be made, or a tourism poster needs a backdrop, it’s Canada and Canadians that step in. We’re a strange sort of place where we know the American ideals almost better than Americans, and can critique and create from these ideals without swallowing more of the inherent contradictions that have come up. It feels to me that we’ve had more than our share of helping America continue along, where it might have digressed from these ideals even more.

    I guess my question is, if the American dream in America dies, does the American dream in Canada die as well? Or do we as Canadians robustly build up our own civil culture as John Ralston Saul might have us do? What do we do and how do we respond to our neighbour to the south going tits up?

  11. Tom Hickey permalink
    July 4, 2010

    Scott R.: (and when are you coming back BTW?)

    Scott, I have seriously cut back my time on political blogs for some time in order to focus on economics. I had not paid that much attention to economics, but with the onset of the global financial crisis, I realized that economics really is key to both causes and solutions. This is the only political blog on which I post and then irregularly. Most of my posts recently have been at Bill Mitchell’s and Warren Mosler’s places where the focus is on policy options based on the possibilities that realistic monetary/fiscal policy affords.

    Right now the world is being run on myths that conveniently perpetuate the status quo and advance the interests of the oligarchy. That has to change or “the road to serfdom lies through debt peonage,” as Michael Hudson (economic advisor to Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign) like to put it. The New World Order conspiracy theorists may have their issues and facts misplaced, but their basic insight is correct. This is a bid for a take-over by financial capitalism, and it is pitted only only against workers but also productive capitalism. It’s about wealth extraction. Of course, military Keynesianism, and energy Keynesianism have a part to play also. They are essentially extractive rather than productive, too.

  12. July 4, 2010

    “Are Americans who don’t believe that everyone is endowed with inalienable rights still Americans worth the name?”

    In a word, no… and well, yes. The perfidy of American “exceptionalism” has been with us since we popped our breast-buttons for knocking George off his colonial throne, and this, over time, has allowed us to settle into the despicable idea that American citizens are the only righteous vessels into which the wine of inalienable rights can be poured.

    The fact that we now have made that cleavage between “good” and “bad” American citizens, and now serenely withhold that wine from the “others” among us is just good, cold justice.

    “THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists…”

    Thanks for the post, Ian.

  13. C. T. Brown permalink
    July 4, 2010

    I am not okay with how things stand. This is not ‘apathy’ which I feel. I feel trapped and exhausted. I have been painting pictures about what the U.S. war machine has been doing in Iraq. http://web.mac.com/ctb3. I think what I have been working on will soon be described as lending support to ‘enemies’, and this is a denial of my 1st Amendment rights. Often when I feel defeated, I remind myself of the words of Milton S. Mayer, a pacifist, who wrote in 1939,…..”

    “And if there is only one Mayer, his case against this war remains the same. That one Mayer will have to take his kicking around like the man he claims to be, and he may not get a chance to open his mouth, much less build a better world. But he will have taken his stand, not because he can take no other. And he will have to say, with William the Silent, that it is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere.”

    (from page 194, “We Who Dared To Say No To War”, Polner, M & Woods, T.E., Basic Books, 2008.)

  14. July 4, 2010

    Tom…, I can see why you have to devote so much time to economics…, I have lurked around The Billy Blog a bit. Heady stuff…, over mine I am afraid.

    I did link to Hudson’s Europe’s Fiscal Dystopia: the “New Austerity” Road in the comment section of one of Sean Paul’s posts a couple weeks back. A bit eye opening…, to say the least.

    I don’t think we will see much financial reform though…, until we see Campaign Finance Reform. Not much chance of that with the recent Supreme (Supine?) Court decision.

  15. Tom Hickey permalink
    July 4, 2010

    Scott: I don’t think we will see much financial reform though…, until we see Campaign Finance Reform. Not much chance of that with the recent Supreme (Supine?) Court decision.

    I’ve been saying all along that campaign finance reform and locking down the revolving door are the sine qua non of reform. It will probably take a constitutional amendment. That’s not easy to do, and the powers that be know it. This is was the real agenda behind the appointments of Roberts and Alito to SCOTUS. I was calling de facto coup d’état at the time at Daily Kos.

    Michael Hudson’s article lays out the plan for the New World Order under finance capital and central bank independence. The EMU is the model, in which nations cede monetary sovereignty and thereby the ability to manage their economic policy through monetary and fiscal means. Warren Mosler recently called Trichet the emperor of Europe. Bill Mitchell calling totalitarianism. This is really bad stuff in the making, and so far it’s slipping under the radar. This is an agenda for neo-feudalism.

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