• We’re Still Here, 1/20/17, Consumed Most of All by Our Fears

    January 20, 2017 // 188 Comments »



    One of my favorite quotes includes the lines “I awoke this morning to find that it was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.” I think that sums up a part of my thinking, but certainly not all.


    A nuclear reckoning, war with China, or anything else quite so violently apocalyptic is imminent, or even underway, as far too many of us think. I live in one of those bubbles, the sum of which make up America now. Many of the people I talk to, in person and here online, seem to believe, truly believe, the world is coming to something of an end. These are by and large educated, once-rational people, some of whom have been voices of reason in the past. They are not that way now.

    We are however falling, some important threads of our nation being teased apart, and our best days are behind us. But this did not start on November 8, 2016, or January 20, 2017, thoough historians will note those dates as significant milestones (same as September 11, 2001.) But not because of Donald Trump. Because his name just happened to be attached to what has been growing inside us since the end of WWII.

    The Russians did not elect Trump. They may or may not have tried to get involved in the election, but we did this to ourselves. As the historian you have probably not read but should read Morris Berman predicted years ago, we are eating each other.


    We are consumed most of all by our fears. Fear of what the Soviets, and maybe the Chinese, would do after WWII. We created a nuclear arsenal measured in how many multiples of times it could destroy the world. We dragged our country through disasters like Vietnam, that murdered so many and cracked apart our nation. Our fear of race, our war on drugs, and then of course our fear of a world beyond our control after 9/11. Another quote that seems to fit is “The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”

    The fears were encouraged at every opportunity by those who profited from them, either by rawly making money, or by acquiring power and control, or in most cases, both. We are unconcerned — it’s normal — that politicians routinely leave office wealthy despite modest salaries. We have so much, and share so little. We enthusiastically abandoned so many of the good things about America, such as our Bill of Rights. America’s pre-WWII Constitutional Era was grossly imperfect. Yet for its obvious failings, there was a sense of the possibility of progress; halting, awkward, unfinished, but, well, for lack of a better word and to use a word that has become a symbol of modern irony, hope.

    Of course none of that was close to perfect, but it was good and it is gone in some arenas and going away in most of the rest. We’ll still be allowed to rant on Twitter, a modern day bread and circus, but the real stuff of standing up and speaking back to government will happen only with handfuls of whistleblowers who will sacrifice their lives and freedom to say what they need to say.


    I thought we had a chance at change in 2008 but instead was proven to be a dupe. I thought he might turn it all around, in those first weeks he could have asked the rivers to flow backwards and they just might have. He could have grounded the drones, torn up the Patriot Act, held truth commissions to bring into the light our tortures, re-emancipated America in ways not unlike Lincoln did in the 1860s. Slam shut the gates of Guantanamo, close the secret prisons that even today still ooze pus in Afghanistan, stop the militarization of Africa, bring the troops home, all of it, just have done it. What a change, what a path forward, what a rebirth for an America who had lost her way so perilously. One man could have made a difference and when he did not even try, he helped solidify in America a sense of cynicism and powerlessness that empowers evil people further. If there was no Obama there would be no Trump.

    A new generation, and me again, thought there was another chance with Bernie Sanders. We were stupid. He was a distraction, and showed his true colors throwing away everything he said previously to support a candidate of the same old old school we’ve been voting for since WWII.

    Trump is at best/worst a symbol of all this. How powerful people play us against each other and exploit our differences. How fear (currently fear of Trump filtered through fear of Putin) can be used to manipulate us. How the ideas of democracy can be so easily tossed aside so that our most progressive thinkers are convinced elections are illegitimate, and anything from silly name calling to demands for something akin to a coup are justified when the enemy is as perceived evil as Trump. Echoing the famous lines from Vietnam, it is in their minds necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.


    I’ve written here before open letters to my daughters, talking about the world they are maturing into. This is in that spirit. Somebody, maybe them, is one day going to stop and wonder how they got to where they ended up, an oligarchy that profits from mouthing the nice words of our Founders while ignoring them. Maybe they will find this essay, dated for convenience only, January 20, 2017.




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    Morris Berman’s New Book, Spinning Straw into Gold: Chicken Soup for Reality

    September 5, 2014 // Comments Off on Morris Berman’s New Book, Spinning Straw into Gold: Chicken Soup for Reality

    Look at any list of popular books and you’ll see it obsessively packed with self-help manuals, Chicken Soup for Teens, How to Be a Better Whatever, books about having better sex, better relationships, better jobs. At the same time, we live in a world under attack from advertising that cleaves to a single theme: whatever you have now, it is not enough. You need to buy something new! to smell better, look better, have a bigger TV, a bigger penis, a faster car. Buy a Model II today! and see it overwhelmed by the new must-have features in the Model III, three months later. With all that need for personal and material improvement, it can be darn hard to just be… happy. So you get back on the circle and read some more self-help books.

    Repeat. Want more? Desire less.

    Morris Berman Writes to Us

    Morris Berman, whose prescient work detailing the decline and literal deflation of the American economy forms much of the philosophical underpinning of my own upcoming book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has written a new volume, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times.

    Unlike his previous books, which focus on society and economy in decline, Spinning Straw is different. Maybe.

    Actually, maybe not. The themes here are indeed about society, and economy, but zoomed out then into a very personal view. Berman reflects on his own life, with mention of a failed marriage, his decision to move to Mexico, all part of tracing his personal journey away from a world based on I Want into one where one’s happiness and contentment is divorced from more material things. But this is no hippie trip, and Berman’s book is no feel-good experience with a happy ending. In that sense, and it matters, Spinning Straw picks up the themes from his previous books and slaps them down inside you. In an interview, Berman spelled it out:

    I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. I discovered that the best way of escaping American values—values that were killing me—was to escape America. It was the smartest decision I ever made. Most of us don’t realize how the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life has wrapped its tentacles around our throats, and is squeezing the life out of us. We merge with “our” narrative so as to have some measure of safety in our lives; but what if it’s a death-oriented narrative? (Usually it’s some version of the American Dream, which is the life of a hamster on a treadmill)… Life has a tragic dimension, and no amount of Oprah or Tony Robbins can change that. To hide from sadness—and one way or another, that’s what Americans struggle mightily to do—is to remain a child all your life. Most Americans have never grown up. Americans are probably the most superficial people on the planet. To dull your sadness with Prozac or cell phones or food or alcohol or TV or laptops is to suppress symptoms, and not live in reality. Reality is not always pleasant, but it does have one overriding advantage: It’s real.


    Old Kyoto

    In reading Spinning Straw, I was reminded of my chance encounter in old Kyoto with an elderly man who was one of the last makers of hand-crafted wooden buckets for use in a Japanese bath. He worked slowly, and seemed to make very little money, selling his product to mostly other elderly people. I asked him why he did what he did and he said “Because wooden buckets are good,” turning away from me. It was up to me to discard the simple truth– he did what he did because it was right– or learn from it. The old guy could care less what I thought, he had buckets to make. So it is with Spinning Gold; the author is not selling seats at a seminar or a CD collection of his happy talk; there are no “steps” or Five Most Important Things to Do Now. Indeed, you walk away with the feeling that while the author has much to say, if you’re too stupid to listen he could probably care less. There are buckets to make.

    If the author was however forced into making some sort of list, it would be short. Slow down. Think more, purchase less. Look for meaning more than Wikipedia-ized facts. Enjoy the dance. The journey’s all we have until we get there, then that’s that. Hell, the whole book’s only 90 pages.

    Those 90 pages are packed with stuff to think about. The need to break a cycle of what the author calls “stuckness,” the focus on elevating little things into big things where you end up screaming at a minimum wage worker because your coffee isn’t right or the Bubblicious is out of stock. There is the danger of buying (!) too deeply and quickly into a “narrative,” a way of life dictated to you where you falsely think you’re picking up safety and security but instead fall into a trap. Choosing competition over community isn’t like deciding caff or decaff, it is a philosophical “vector” that shoots you down a very different life path.

    Blended into the pages are inklings of the “old” Berman. Obama’s seemingly overnight transformation from Hope and Change into a nightmare of drones and perpetual war is offered as an example of what happens when one doesn’t care about one’s soul. Power and influence require you to “inject poison into culture’s veins on a daily basis.” But if instead you follow the fairy tale of making straw into gold, you have a chance at a life that is full, meaningful and pleasantly finite– you can be happy and content once and for all. As Berman says, life is over faster than a blink, and then all you are is dead for a really long time.

    You get it. The book is brief, the lessons long. In the time it took to read this review you could be well-stuck into Berman’s thoughts. Better to put this down and pick those up before another blink goes by.



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    Dinner with Morris Berman

    August 30, 2014 // 12 Comments »

    They say never meet your heroes to avoid disappointment, and what with the various restraining orders and security, I have not met many of mine (maybe next year Miley?)

    I did have dinner with Dr. Morris Berman, and that made up for a lot of missed opportunities elsewhere. Dr. Berman, for those who don’t know, runs the blog Dark Ages America. Berman (pictured, left, perhaps not the best photo either of us has ever taken, but then again, the raw material is what it is) also wrote three books that to me are crucial to understanding the changes in America over the past couple of decades: The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire and Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline.

    The titles tell the tale, and Berman’s blog is equally dark and straightforward. I’ve written more about Berman’s work here.

    Dr. Berman gave a talk at Washington and Lee University in Virginia on post-9/11 America. As you might imagine, his survey, and, more significantly, his predictions, were of great concern.

    Central was the notion that Americans have become enveloped in their own myth, what some call “American Exceptionalism,” to the point where critical thinking, reflection and debate are no longer possible among us. Anyone who tries to engage on America thoughtfully is either ignored, shunned or dismissed as a traitor (it is thus not surprising that under the Obama Administration whistleblowers are punished with the Espionage Act.) Replacing reflection in America is cheerleading, the endless pronouncements of who is Number One (as if anyone was asking outside our borders) and of course the citing of our exceptionalism as justification for everything from the destruction of the Native Americans to plans for the bombing of Syria.

    Our present days are defined, according to Berman, by endless war and the completion of our police state. Is it not odd that the only country anyone can claim that won WWII has somehow seen fit to engage in continuous conflict ever since? Following a very brief respite between the Cold War ending and the convenience of 9/11 kicking off the Global War on Terror, America has now firmly set itself on course for endless war. The elements are all in place, primarily an enemy defined more by a tactic (“terrorism”) than anything else. Such an “enemy” can never really be defeated, and that indeed is the point.

    The police state in America, always bubbling below the surface, with zit-like bursts during the J. Edgar Hoover years and the 1968 Chicago police brutality, now is in place. Cops regularly exercise “frontier justice” on our streets, gunning down the guilty and the innocent alike in what the media rushes to call righteous shoots. Police departments across the U.S. are equipped with the weapons of war, everything from armored vehicles in suburbia to drones soon everywhere. Things like “stop and frisk” in New York City criminalize everyone, with particular attention to race.

    But worst of all is the realization that the power of government, spurred by surveillance tech undreamed of by the SS and the Stasi, has grown in power such that Americans can be denied jobs, travel and life itself based on their names being put by anonymous officials on secret lists. Indeed, the president can now indefinitely imprison Americans with the stroke of a pen, or choose to simply have them killed as they stand at the push of a Predator drone button. Imagine such power in the hands of a terrorist, then look out the window and realize it’s us.

    Overlaying all this is of course our society and economy’s descent into what Berman calls Neo Feudalism. A very few rich control everything, served by a class of workers kept dangling just over starvation, with the mass of poor available in the wings to replenish the ranks should those workers complain or demand food and lives.

    America as anyone might recognize it based on the previous definition, will simply devolve out of existence.

    Now that was a hell of a lecture. We had a great dinner afterwards. I shall also note that Dr. Berman outdrank me two-to-one while still telling better jokes.



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    Morris Berman: Home of the Brave

    April 19, 2014 // 7 Comments »

    We’ve talked about historian Morris Berman before here, and his view of a fading (some say faded) American economy and society. If you’re not familiar with his work, read a previous blog post, or visit his own website to catch up.

    With Dr. Berman’s permission, we’ve reprinting one of his recent essays.

    Home of the Brave

    One of the more famous quotes made by Nelson Mandela during his lifetime has been curiously omitted by the mainstream American media in the gushing obituaries that have recently appeared. It goes like this: “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.”

    I had occasion to remember this remark upon recently reading a review of Stephen Kinzer’s book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, recently published in the NYTBR. Kinzer used to work for the NYT, then switched over to The Guardian, and in between wrote two important books on American interventionism: All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror and Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq—both of them powerful indictments of U.S. foreign policy. He now returns to the scene with a biography of the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen.

    The opening paragraph of the Times review is worth quoting in full:

    Anyone wanting to know why the United States is hated across much of the world need look no farther than this book. The Brothers is a riveting chronicle of government-sanctioned murder, casual elimination of ‘inconvenient’ regimes, relentless prioritization of American corporate interests and cynical arrogance on the part of two men who were once among the most powerful in the world.

    Both brothers, Kinzer tells us, were law partners in the New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, the firm that, in the 1930s, worked for I.G. Farben, the chemicals conglomerate that eventually manufactured Zyklon B (the gas used to murder the Jews). Allen Dulles, at least, finally began to have qualms about doing business in Nazi Germany, and pushed through the closure of the S&C office there, over John Foster’s objections. The latter, as Secretary of State under Eisenhower, worked with his brother (by now head of the CIA) to destroy Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, among others. The two of them pursued a Manichaean world view that was endemic to American ideology and government, which included the notion that threats to corporate interests were identical to support for communism. As John Foster once explained it: “For us there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who are Christians and support free enterprise, and there are the others.” It was not for nothing that President Johnson, much to his credit, privately complained that the CIA had been running “a goddamn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean,” the beneficiaries of which were American corporate interests.

    The destructiveness of the Dulles brothers in foreign policy was mirrored by what went on in their personal lives. They were distant, uncomfortable fathers, not wanting their children to “intrude” on their parents’ world, and they refused to attend the wedding of their sister, Eleanor, when she married a Jew. At home and abroad, the two of them were truly awful human beings. But the most trenchant comment made by Kinzer reflects an argument I have repeatedly made, namely the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. “They are us. We are them,” says Kinzer, and this is the God-awful truth: that it is a rotten culture that produces rotten representatives. Americans benefited, materially speaking, from the corporate profits generated by the violence fostered by the CIA and the State Department, and didn’t say boo. They mindlessly got on the anti-Communist bandwagon, never questioning what we were doing around the world in the name of it. Their focus was on the tail fins of their new cars, and the new, exciting world of refrigerators and frozen foods, not on the torture regime we installed in Iran, or the genocide we made possible in Guatemala.

    By the latest count, 86% of them can’t locate Iran on a world map, and it’s a good bet that less than 0.5% can say who John Foster Dulles was. When Mandela says that “they don’t care for human beings,” we have to remember that the “they” is not just the U.S. government; it also consists of millions of individual Americans whose idea of life is little more than “what’s in it for me?”—the national mantra, when you get right down to it. The protesters who marched in the streets against our involvement in Vietnam, after all, amounted to only a tiny percentage of the overall American population, and it’s not clear that things have changed all that much: 62% of Americans are in favor of the predator drone strikes in the Middle East that murder civilians on a weekly basis. You don’t get the Dulleses rising to the top without Mr. John Q. Public, and he is as appalling as they. Like the Dulleses, he typically believes in a Christian world of free enterprise vs. the evil others who do not, “thinks” in terms of Manichaean slogans, and is not terribly concerned about anyone outside his immediate family—if that. America didn’t get to be what it is by accident; this much should be clear.

    “They are us. We are them.”

    ©Morris Berman, 2013



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    Slouching Towards Nuremberg with Morris Berman

    June 27, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    With thanks to regular reader Teri (not pictured) for the suggestion, I have spent the day mesmerized by the blog Dark Ages America by author Morris Berman (pictured, left). Berman wrote three books I now have on order about the changes in America: The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire and Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline.

    The titles tell the tale, and Berman’s blog is equally dark and straightforward.




    His post from May 9, Slouching Towards Nuremberg (I can’t seem to link to it directly, so go to the blog and scroll down, we all need the exercise), sums up so many things I have been thinking about, and writing about, this past year.

    In charting America’s decline in that article, Berman lists topics before diving deeply into each one:

    — The creation of a political climate in which the police are out of control, arbitrarily free to intimidate anyone for virtually anything;

    — The persecution of whistleblowers, protesters, and dissenters;

    — The dramatic expansion of the surveillance of American citizens on the part of the National Security Agency (NSA);

    — The corruption of the judicial system by means of show trials of Muslim activists;

    — The construction of political detention centers, also known as Communication Management Units (CMU’s);

    — The shredding of the Bill of Rights by means of the National Defense Authorization Act;

    — Future scenarios: The “disappearing” of intellectual critics of the U.S. government?


    Maybe this is one of those things where most of you already knew about Berman and his work and are now wondering what rock I’ve been living under. But if not, take a look at the article cited here and see if your eyes don’t open a little wider for the trouble.

    Not convinced yet? How about another Berman quote:

    When a country puts laws such as torture or indefinite detention or arbitrary assassination on the books, sooner or later it will use these legal instruments. They won’t just lie dormant, in other words. As in the case of technology, once the mechanisms are there, the temptation to employ them simply becomes too great to resist. That is what is happening today.




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