Thursday, September 12, 2013

Preaching to Myself

Peter Beinart has a gift.
I've been a fan of his for some time now.  I almost always like what he says, and I'm always impressed by how clearly he says it.  He’s been described as a wunderkind.   I’m happy to see him as an ordinary man who thinks better than most of us.  To see what I mean, have a look at his piece today in The Daily Beast entitled “The Rise of the New New Left.”
Since Monica Lewinsky became a household name and Clinton's personal peccadillos and semen stains on a blue dress first occupied the national interest, I've been bothered by America's love of Bill Clinton.  Certainly not because of his girlfriend under the desk at the Oval Office, but because of the atmosphere of "wisdom" that seemed to be generated around him.  I never knew where the adulation came from and assume it came from confusing compromise with wisdom. Compromise is essential to the collective governance of a democracy. But it isn't wisdom.

Beinart's argument that Clintonism is just an extension of Reaganism puts it in perspective for me and helps it all makes sense.  We in America have come to define “moderation,” the go-with-the-flow approach, as wisdom.  It’s not.  Following the polls isn’t democracy.  It’s mobocracy, when what we need is informed governance.  We don’t even have moderation.  We have right-of-center ideologists calling the shots.  Beinart's analysis suggests the fault lies at least as much in the people governed as in their elected officials.  That too rings true to me.

Beinart sums up what he means this way.  “Even after the financial crisis,” he says,  “the Clinton Democrats who lead their party don’t want to nationalize the banks, institute a single-payer health-care system, raise the top tax rate back to its pre-Reagan high, stop negotiating free-trade deals, launch a war on poverty, or appoint labor leaders rather than Wall Streeters to top economic posts. They want to regulate capitalism modestly.”

That’s why we can’t get out from under the abuses of capitalism.  Our starting point is not really equality of opportunity; it’s compromise between those in the middle who have already given away most of the store, and folks on the right who want it all.

Complicating this battle of ideologies and Peter Beinart’s suggestion that they may be explained by the zeitgeist, especially the economic conditions prevailing at the time you were born, are the media reports, many of which have given up all pretense to objectivity.

I found an example of this when I couldn't get the Charlie Rose interview with Bashar Al-Assad out of my head.  I was amazed at how brazen Assad was in insisting that he was on the right side because he was fighting Al Qaeda, while the U.S. was bungling another international conflict by stupidly supporting them.  How could we be supporting the folks who attacked us on 9/11, the folks we have been pretending to be at war with in Iraq?   If Putin and Assad are right, we're being suckered once again, bigtime this time.   Obama admits we cannot be the world's policeman, but then has no other explanation for why this punitive attack on Assad should be a military one.  Once again, he wants us to ignore international law and attack yet another sovereign nation, all the while using moral superiority as a pretext.  Charlie Rose backed away from challenging Assad effectively.  He pushed hard on chemical weapons, but never seriously addressed Assad's thuggish rule or his claim his enemies were mainly Al Qaeda, rather than the 10-15% figure we routinely get from Western media sources.  

When I came across an RT article yesterday which seemed to confirm what Assad was saying, that he was fighting Al Qaeda, I sat up and took notice.  We expect a lack of objectivity from Russian sources.  The slant of the RT account of a battle in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula on September 12, 2013 is obvious in the title: “Syrian Army battles jihadists.”  The RT story is persuasive.   One member of their crew, which was physically present at the site in the town square, was even grazed by a richocheting bullet.   The rebel forces are allegedly Al Nusra forces, which David Ignatius of the Washington Post last year described as the fastest-growing rebel force in Syria.  More recent sources, even in the west, such as the "senior military official" quoted by NBC news, now claim that Al Qaeda and/or fundamentalist Islamists are now over 50% of the rebel forces and "growing by the day."  Assad may turn out not to be stretching the truth all that far. Another interesting story in this same light is the story of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Brigades, ostensibly a non-Al Qaeda rebel force fighting with the Free Syrian Army - the main rebel force the United States would like to support.  On their Facebook page, however, they posted a picture of themselves marching away from the U.S. Capitol in flames.  And, to make the story even more complicated, for some reason you can no longer access that Facebook page.  

The telling of the battle at Maaloula as a story of the strategic value of the town as part of a ring around Damascus could be the wrong focus, interesting as it is to learn both this fact and the fact that the folks speak Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.  The French account of the battle, for example, describes the Al Nusra forces only as part of the rebel forces, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in the UK as their source.   And a UPI account backs up the French report and describes the rebel forces as “Free Syrian Army units and members of the jihadist al-Nusra Front fighting in tandem.”   Should we not be more concerned with the relative contribution of the Al Qaeda and non-Al Qaeda forces and not simply with the fact that both were present?

When RT entitled their article “Syrian Army battles jihadists” your first response, like mine, may well be to call it a biased account and go with the French and UPI accounts as more credible. It's not a stretch to see RT as a kind propaganda machine of the FOX News type variety, one working as a shill for the American right wing, the other for the Putin government.  In both cases there is usually truth in the fog somewhere and, as always, the devil is in the details.  Even though news sources lack credibility, their weakness is more often in their spin rather than in outright lies, and spin is fine as long as we take their accounts as starting points and not as gospel.

Putin himself also illustrates the importance of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  As tyrannical as any modern day leader, Putin has learned how to use the Russian Orthodox church in a national campaign against LGBT rights, he has spoken before the Russian parliament and urged them to remove minorities from Russian life, has stopped adoptions in progress to the United States as a political tool.  Not anybody’s idea of a progressive.  But when he spoke the other day of the United States as an international bully, he was speaking the truth.  

America’s willingness to cause the death of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe is routinely overlooked by Americans themselves, less so by the rest of the world.  Reagan fought proxy wars in Angola, George Bush père did the same in Panama.  And those were piddling events in comparison to Vietnam and Iraq.  Before that, the U.S. overthrew democratically elected Mossadegh in Iran and placed a brutal Shah in power.  The consequences of that folly are alive today with Iran considered the winner of the war in Iraq and Israel’s greatest threat.  The CIA likewise overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile and replaced him with Augusto Pinochet, who helped make “disappear” into a transitive verb in English, the direct object being “political opponents.”  America had Manuel Noriega on the CIA payroll even while he was a major player in the international drug trade, caused untold misery in Guatemala, and the list goes on and on.  It created a boycott of Iran, but then secretly sold weapons to Iran for money to support the dictator Somoza in Nicaragua.  Today America has given up habeas corpus and the rule of law.  It sends drones and kills civilians without apology, it maintains the illegal prison at Guantanamo where prisoners have been sitting for nearly a decade without trial.  When Putin calls the United States an international bully, heads nod in affirmation all over the world.  They understand, too, that while Obama insists, as he did in his powerful address yesterday, that for the last seventy years America has been the “anchor of global security,” he’s speaking rhetorically and telling Americans what they like to hear about themselves.

In the back-and-forth of the battles for the minds of the next generation, whether you see generations in in baby-boomer/Generation X/Millenial terms, or in Peter Beinert’s zeitgeist terms, I find it fascinating that today, for all our failures to resist vulture capitalism and rule by corporate America for the benefit of the 1%, and for our gullibility in being taken in the Tea Party and the likes of Sarah Palin*, who blamed 9/11 the other day not on Al Qaeda but on the Muslim Brotherhood, we do have access to information, if we only know how to reach it, filter it and interrogate it.  RT is one example.  So is Al Jazeera, which launched Al Jazeera America a couple weeks ago.  It still has to contend with America’s cable companies, who have forced it to relinquish its online streaming option – too much competition.  But it’s there if you look for it.    There’s also Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’s Democracy Now, which last night had an hour-long segment featuring Noam Chomsky, our most articulate (he drones on, but he’s articulate) voice of the left.  That interview is available in its 45-minute entirety here.  And let's not miss the fact that Vladimir Putin was listed in the New York Times yesterday as an "Op-ed Contributor."

There's no doubt that the debate over whether Obama is a hawk in disguise, a liberal who has failed to keep his promises, an incredibly crafty politician who got Kerry to get the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons, using the threat of military action as motivation, or simply Clinton light, means these are interesting times.

And thus ends this sermon-to-myself, in which I try to get myself back into following the daily news and international events as they transpire, and not escape into despair and the belief that the only solution is music, philosophy, my two greater-than-life Chihuahua/Jack Russells and other splendid distractions.

*correction, September 20 - my dear friend Bill just pointed out it was Michelle Bachmann, not Sarah Palin who blamed the Brotherhood (while in Egypt to congratulate the Egyptians for overthrowing their democratically elected government, no less).  Can't imagine for the life of me how I mixed them up.  Sorry.

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