Archive for February, 2011

A Kernel of Wisdom in Ross Douthat’s Stool

We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Even someone as steadfastly dedicated to American Exceptionalism as Ross Douthat can correctly identify the cause and effect of US foreign policy. The false dichotomies that form the pillars of his world view–supporting autocratic thugs vs. pseudo-democratic thugs, of raining death and destruction and withdrawing vs. raining death and destruction and occupying–causes him palpable anxiety and confusion. The one red herring in his list is Rwanda, a colony fucked all to hell by Belgium instead of the US.

Let us, for the moment, combine Ross’ two categories of kill-for-team-A and kill-for-team-B into a single category: violent intervention. Now, let’s examine the new category against its actual alternative of not intervening violently.

It’s not controversial or, like, just my opinion, man, that there’s a clear, logical and theoretically sound way to avoid all the terrible situations that plague Ross’ mind. Stop intervening. Stop invading for humanitarian reasons. Stop invading for non-humanitarian reasons. Stop arming dictators. Stop arming rebel groups. Stop bombing Sunnis. Stop bombing Shia. Stop capturing, imprisoning, maiming, torturing, humiliating, mutilating, killing, and supporting other bastards who engage in these activities. Just stop.

In this otherwise forgettable article, Ross points out what everyone who’s given it a moments thought knows, that “terrorist attacks” against the United States are “blowback” from 60 years of violent domination of the middle and far East.

It’s quite possible that if Mubarak had not ruled Egypt as a dictator for the last 30 years, the World Trade Center would still be standing.


(h/t A Tiny Revolution for reaching into the dungheap that is the New York Times and pulling out this Douthat gem.)

Early Corporate Welfare: “An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen”

A friend pointed out a fascinating article on “An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen[1] which the author points to as a precedent for Congress mandating health coverage for citizens of the United States.

I don’t have any disagreement with his conclusion, that the Constitution in no way prevents the government from mandating . . . well anything really, but specifically the purchase of some consumer good or service. I’m most interested by the story behind his example which is already pretty illuminating, but becomes even more so when translated from its high-school civics format into a reality-based narrative (a process I humbly think of as conferring a Zinn-like quality to the tale).

But before we get to that, one last word on the Constitution and those who believe it constrains human behavior in any way: it doesn’t. Unless the goal of drafting the Constitution was to create the largest government apparatus in human history (and as I recall, the goal was supposedly the opposite[2]–but opposite often accompanies violent solutions to problems), the piece of paper has missed its mark. A quick stroll through the Bill of Rights while simultaneously observing the interactions of the state with the citizenry should register an multitude of discrepancies across the spectrum.

On to the tale. We begin with “the founders” in 1798 . . .

During the early years of our union, the nation’s leaders realized that foreign trade would be essential to the young country’s ability to create a viable economy. To make it work, they relied on the nation’s private merchant ships – and the sailors that made them go – to be the instruments of this trade.

Zinnified: The rulers of the nascent United States were tightly tied to overseas shipping. Many of the revolutionaries had been smugglers or associated with organizations who opposed the British crown’s claim to a portion of the revenue from shipping in and out of major colonial harbors. Everyone in the political class of the time stood to benefit from increased shipping profitability, either directly as a merchant, or indirectly as one in control of the newly won power to levy taxes.

The problem was that a merchant mariner’s job was a difficult and dangerous undertaking in those days. Sailors were constantly hurting themselves, picking up weird tropical diseases, etc.
The troublesome reductions in manpower caused by back strains, twisted ankles and strange diseases often left a ship’s captain without enough sailors to get underway – a problem both bad for business and a strain on the nation’s economy.

Zinn’d: The problem is that physical laborers get hurt and decrease the workforce willing to work at a particular wage level. When the number of available workers doesn’t meet the supply required by business, business has to increase wages . . .
a political solution can be sought, which, when the beneficary is the ruling class, it always is. The government built a series of hospitals to treat “injured and ailing” sailors. And who paid for the hospital system that was so obviously benefiting the shipping industry?

This government provided healthcare service was to be paid for by a mandatory tax on the maritime sailors (a little more than 1% of a sailor’s wages), the same to be withheld from a sailor’s pay and turned over to the government by the ship’s owner.

Ah, no Zinn-lation needed here. Sailors preferred to spend money on pursuits that did not directly benefit their rulers and employers (not even %1, apparently). They could not be induced to contribute to this collective endeavor voluntarily, so the monopolist of violence was called on to compel the workers to subsidize the business interest.

Here we are 200+ years later and look how fantastically this system has worked out for our rulers. So many of the things that one might expect a profitable company to pay for: medical care, retirement, and insurance for the workers; and even infrastructure and dispute resolution (courts) that almost exclusively benefit the corporate class are all paid for by the workers themselves.

The workers produce for a the military that occupies foreign countries to ensure corporate control of resources and foreign labor, which helps drive down domestic wages. They even pay for the domestic security state which protects the property of the rulers from workers who have fallen on desperate times.

The children of the workers are collateral on loans taken out and handed to the corporate class and the meager savings, where they exist, have their value driven towards zero by the creation of additional dollars that are summoned from thin air and spent by the state, typically to buy products from favored corporations.

Sooooo, yeah. Nothing groundbreaking with this particular aspect of compulsory mandate. It’s interesting that anyone even noticed, really. For anyone who is concerned that our rulers will have their plans foiled by their own courts in this matter, put aside your fears. Any setback will be extremely temporary, and the corporate-political class will carry on draining the wealth and resources of the country until it’s time for them to board a plane and flee the wreckage that their rule has created.

  1. [1] It’s funny to note that the naming-things-the-opposite-of-what-they-do scheme, popularly identified by Orwell’s 1984, extends all the way back to this act. An act that forces seaman to pay for the suppression of their own wages named an act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen. Brilliant.
  2. [2] That’s the narrative anyway. See RadGeek’s comment for the actual reasons for the creation of the Constitution, which are entirely correct

The Bikecast Episode #51: American Exceptionalism

“American Exceptionalism” undergirds nearly every channel of information and every aspect of political discourse in the United States. It is, at its core, the belief that the unbending laws of nature and the consistent historical forces that have affected every institution throughout human history are not and will not be factors in the history and future of the American people.

Download this episode of the Bikecast

One aspect of this delusional concept comes immediately to mind and wouldn’t be disputed by readers of this blog, though it would be by most Americans. American Exceptionalism is used to recast the aggression of our rulers against foreign peoples as wars of liberation, humanitarian interventions, peace keeping, police actions and the like.

Every ruling class in recorded history initiated wars to accrue control over additional resources, territory, slaves, and tax base to themselves. This expansion of power always takes place at the expense of the subjects who produced and had expropriated the materiel for war and who are called on to fill the ranks of the army. Nobody seriously disagrees with this most basic, obvious, and repeatedly demonstrated fact of human history.

The popular narrative, however, exempts the United States from this ironclad historical pattern. Illumination collapses the dichotomy and returns us to the reality in which the aggression of our current rulers and the sacrifices of the workers parallel those of rulers and subjects throughout history.

The domestic facet of American Exceptionalism is even more widespread and is more immediately dangerous to those of us living here. Behold the remarkably clear analysis of one Anne Applebaum:

The result: Egypt, like many Arab societies, has a wealthy and well-armed elite at the top and a fanatical and well-organized Islamic fundamentalist movement at the bottom. In between lies a large and unorganized body of people who have never participated in politics, whose business activities have been limited by corruption and nepotism, and whose access to the outside world has been hampered by stupid laws and suspicious bureaucrats.

-Anne Applebaum

As IOZ points out, and let me state again that each and every one of you should read IOZ every day and send him threatening letters on days that he doesn’t post (don’t really do that last part). Anyway, as IOZ points out, “with a few tweeked adjectives,” the above critique fits the United States to a T. He also observes that she, and I will add most Americans, would dismiss such a claim as absurd.

We’ve recently seen European social programs stripped down and eliminated, food and energy prices increasing and the rising up of people against their governments. Many Americans are already facing the challenges of getting by without regular work while prices increase and state assistance becomes increasingly scarce. Somehow, the idea that a confrontation is coming between the state and the people remains popularly inconceivable.

Even when the world is watching the rulers of a country shut down the country’s communication infrastructure, systematically imprison popular leaders, and send para-military “security forces” out to do battle with those demanding very basic institutional reform, the myth of American Exceptionalism keeps most people from seeing the connection to domestic events.

The myth is pervasive and deeply ingrained. Anyone who even suggests that “national security” policies (for example, the internet kill switch, massive increases in security infrastructure/personel/armament, the elimination of habeus corpus and basic legal principles) aren’t intended to protect us from terrorists, but rather to protect the ruling class from future domestic dissent is immediately labelled paranoid, a wingnut, a conspiracy theorist.

We who live on the North American landmass are not immune from any of the historical forces that govern the dynamics of human interaction and have special predictive powers around human systems premised on violence. We are not protected by the rulers. The “defensive” apparati that we are taxed to build are intended to protect the rulers from expressions of our discontent.

The ruling class has disassembled and replaced voluntary social networks with compulsory institutions that they control. They’ve syphoned off so much wealth and warped the economy to such a degree that they can no longer afford to stuff their pockets with gold while maintaining payments to those that have come to depend on them. Thus, the payments will dwindle or cease (what? you thought that they’d stop stuffing their pockets?) and, out of desperation, people will take to the streets, demanding a restructuring of the social order.

They will be met with the tear gas, batons and bullets that they’ve spent their life funding. They’ll be tossed into the prisons they’d imagined were meant for drug dealers. Their communications will be disrupted by technologies sold as protections against terrorism. This is a historical inevitability. This is the ironclad dynamic of societies whose “order” is premised on violent domination of one group by another. America is no exception.