Public policies regarding social issues almost always originate at the grassroots level, not the federal level. Yet with a national election coming up, those issues take center stage as usual, even though they’ll almost certainly not play a significant role in the subsequent term. Why might that be the case? I think that’s how the media keeps the masses engaged in the process, enamored with coverage of the political “horse race.” I also think that’s how candidates fire up their base and keep people from realizing that moneyed interests rule the roost. I don’t mean to say so-called wedge issues are unimportant (civil rights issues certainly do matter), but they do sometimes serve as distractions.
There will be talk of “illegal immigration” without any discussion of undoing “free trade” agreements that lead to the mass migration so many love to complain about (and let’s not pretend race doesn’t play a role). Here is a paper that you don’t need to read in its entirety to understand the relationship. Basically, when you flood another country with a relatively inexpensive subsidized good, you are going to put inhabitants of that country out of business. When people lose their livelihood, what do you suppose might happen? What would you do? I’m supposed to get upset because people aren’t observing some arbitrary border (a border that forms a nation that was built on the genocide of an indigenous population, the enslavement of another population and the outright theft of resources)? Give me a break. Furthermore, no viable, corporate-approved candidate is going to be taking a meaningful stance on the issues of imperialism, the excessively wasteful but profitable “War on Drugs”, domestic and global poverty, Medicare for all, climate change, etc. (where are the “budget hawks” on those issues?). Even if a candidate did, bear in mind that rhetoric is not policy.
Simply put, the notion that the two major national political parties in the US are greatly divided is a myth spawned by a trillion-dollar propaganda industry. An example of just how effective the propaganda is (and I’m including the mis-education of the formal education system), consider how the average US citizen vastly overestimates certain US expenditures and vastly underestimates others. Foreign aid constitutes about 1 percent of the federal budget, but surveys (click here) demonstrate that the various segments of the population – based on educational attainment – believe foreign aid accounts for anywhere between 15 and 45 (OMG, as the kids say) percent of the budget. From another article from World Public Opinion:
“The fact that the number of Americans who favor lower defense spending rises so dramatically with more complete information about the size of the defense budget strongly suggests that most Americans do not have this information. Indeed, when I have conducted focus groups and described the make-up of the federal budget, they often express astonishment at the relative share devoted to defense.”
I don’t think I’d be out of line in suggesting that a majority of people who complain about federal government spending don’t have a clue how the federal government is spending. If you encounter someone who fits that description, show them this pie chart (who doesn’t like pie, right?). Both mainstream media outlets and schools are failing miserably to fulfill their duty.
But don’t you still think it’s important to support whichever candidate or party you believe is the least bad, I could be asked. I admit that I might be tempted to cast a vote for Obama if I lived in a so-called “battleground state,” especially given the recent influence of the Tea Party – a reincarnation of the John Birch Society of the 20th century – on the Republican Party. Even then, I wouldn’t waste any real energy on national politics. The aforementioned Noam Chomsky recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now that Obama is “at least somewhere in the real world.” He went on to describe the views expressed by the clown car of 2012 GOP candidates as being “off the international spectrum of sane behavior.” I don’t watch television, but I’ve listened to enough guests on BBC when I’ve been in Canada, as well as on Democracy Now, and read enough foreign newspaper articles to gather that’s a pretty fair assessment of how the international community views the likes of Santorum and Romney. At least the portion of the global population that isn’t so focused on survival that it can give a rip about a US election. But, again, rhetoric designed to suggest that voters have a clear choice is not policy. That point really can’t be overemphasized. Saying and doing are two different things. And corporations rule the day regardless of who occupies the White House. That would seem to be a legitimate reason for being angry. Yet I frequently encounter anger over trivial matters or stories that simply aren’t true. And I’m talking about stories that really ought to be transparent – no Snopes required.
Anyway, what’s the problem with lesser evilism? I think Andrew Levine hit the proverbial nail on the head:
“Lesser evilism is ultimately illogical because evil choices can and do affect future choices in ways that make the lesser evil down the road worse than the greater evil now is.”
I know some think “evil” is hyperbolic, but remember that the end result is the murder of innocent civilians (be it through sanctions like those that began in the 1990s that led to the deaths of at least 500,000 Iraqi children, drone attacks, or through resource wars), as well as the further destruction of the natural environment upon which every species on Earth depends. It’s been said that killing 1 person is murder and that killing 100,000 people is foreign policy. This isn’t a game, folks. We’re talking about life and death, and I for one don’t believe there is life after this one. Being far removed from and desensitized to state-sanctioned murder doesn’t make it any less of a reality. What I think, based on personal experience, can be most difficult for privileged people to accept is the unfortunate reality that we’re complicit in the suffering of others. Naturally, unless you have some clinical pathology, you want to believe you aren’t harming others. And it’s easy to believe that’s the case when so many day-to-day decisions only have an indirect impact on people you never see, or on the global ecosystem.
Let me make it clear that I don’t think Romney or Obama or the latter’s predecessors are evil. I also don’t think I’m akin to Charles Manson because I use a disproportionate percentage of the world’s resources in spite of my efforts to live more simply, nor do I suppose those of you reading this blog are evil. It’s the system. Empires do what empires do, and those of us who inhabit the US Empire – from the President on down – each play a role. I suggest we need to think more deeply about those roles.
What I’ve just written might be perceived as conspiratorial. I am not a conspiracy theorist. Grand conspiracies are far too convoluted to be taken seriously. I’ll quote Vietnam Veteran Stan Goff from his excellent piece titled, The Roles of Finance, Food, and Force in US Foreign Policy:
“In saying this, I am obliged to clear up a common misunderstanding of what this means and what I mean to say. It is easy to jump from the very general outline I have presented of three aspects of US foreign policy – finance, food, and force – to the conclusion that I mean to say, or that these facts tend to support the idea that, there is a conscious group of the conspiring powerful who direct the world. On the contrary, I want to emphasize that this system has evolved through a series of contingencies, and that its stability is maintained precisely because it is what some systems theorists call self-organized. It’s most powerful actors are in many ways as constrained, or more constrained, by neo-neo-liberalism – or whatever you choose to call this particular period – than most of us are. President Obama is far less free, for example, to say the kinds of things I can say here as an unemployed grandfather.
I, on the other hand, do not have the legal power to send US troops to war, or to call them home.
We each play our parts, and while some conspiracies have always been part of the terrain of politics, they are generally reactive, and far less determinative of large-scale outcomes than, say, changes in the built environment, demographic shifts, or institutional inertia. Many of the most pivotal events in history emerge unexpectedly from long-standing trends that have gone unnoticed or ignored until they reach a breaking point – the 2008 housing bubble crash being a good recent example.”
We humans have invented these hierarchal, machine-like institutions that come to rule our lives, that essentially dehumanize their creators. Perfectly nice and frequently compassionate people will blithely accept as inevitable and unavoidable that billions – with a ‘b’ – of fellow humans will lack basic necessities for survival, that a person dies from hunger-related causes every few seconds, attributing those realities to a lack of personal responsibility or to a few bad apples charged with running “third world” nations (nevermind the acceptance that there is a “third world” – in which most humans live no less). As George Kennan, architect of the Marshall Plan, wrote in 1948:
“Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”
Perhaps more of us should question how this acceptance occurs. Perhaps when we fail to see how what one might call “the problems of the world” are interrelated, we end up too focused on symptoms instead of working to expose and then combat the underlying causes. Perhaps we’re too afraid to discover that the way we “first worlders” have come to live is a primary cause. Yes, the land mass we call the US has some inherent advantages that many other nations do not have and that by itself accounts for some disparity. But the stealth of resources from other nations, the misuse and overuse of resources, and a failure to share resources greatly exacerbates the inequity.
As the late great Howard Zinn said, the world is topsy-turvy. Members of Food Not Bombs in Orlando were arrested for feeding homeless people in a park, but nobody involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster spent a single day in jail. Whistleblowers get punished, while the whistleblown receive bonuses. Or, as Zinn put it in an essay on civil obedience, an undue respect for “the law:”
“I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down. Daniel Berrigan is in jail-A Catholic priest, a poet who opposes the war-and J. Edgar Hoover is free, you see. David Dellinger, who has opposed war ever since he was this high and who has used all of his energy and passion against it, is in danger of going to jail. The men who are responsible for the My Lai massacre are not on trial; they are in Washington serving various functions, primary and subordinate, that have to do with the unleashing of massacres, which surprise them when they occur. At Kent State University four students were killed by the National Guard and students were indicted. In every city in this country, when demonstrations take place, the protesters, whether they have demonstrated or not, whatever they have done, are assaulted and clubbed by police, and then they are arrested for assaulting a police officer.
Now, I have been studying very closely what happens every day in the courts in Boston, Massachusetts. You would be astounded-maybe you wouldn’t, maybe you have been around, maybe you have lived, maybe you have thought, maybe you have been hit-at how the daily rounds of injustice make their way through this marvelous thing that we call due process. Well, that is my premise.
All you have to do is read the Soledad letters of George Jackson, who was sentenced to one year to life, of which he spent ten years, for a seventy-dollar robbery of a filling station. And then there is the U.S. Senator who is alleged to keep 185,000 dollars a year, or something like that, on the oil depletion allowance. One is theft; the other is legislation. something is wrong, something is terribly wrong when we ship 10,000 bombs full of nerve gas across the country, and drop them in somebody else’s swimming pool so as not to trouble our own. So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.”
In the final installment of my introduction, I’ll get into labels and the phenomenon known as neoliberalism that has dominated the US for decades.