4. An Aggressive Foreign Policy
As must have been the case with all previous hegemonic societies, our nation’s pursuit of warfare abroad is inevitably cloaked in the rhetoric of national defense. Somehow the story is sufficiently twisted that it seems an inferior military force abroad poses an enormous threat to our national interest, and to such an extent that we must send our troops abroad to confront this force in its own territory and with civilian casualties almost entirely limited to its population. Intellectuals vent their doubts, so homespun Americans become indignant in response, insistent on the need once again to enforce their vision of democratic exemplification to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, our nation’s banks and defense industries reap enormous profits and increased financial liquidity benefits the rest of our population at least to a certain extent.
Warfare accordingly continues to play too big a role in our nation. There has been too much combat on foreign soil–far more than for all other nations combined since World War II. Vietnam and Iraq were illegal, the first because Secretary of State Dulles refused to sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, thereby precluding American involvement in the avoidance of a plebiscite election as dictated by the Accords, and the second by having bypassed Article 42 of the U.N. Charter, having already benefited from Article 41. The rest of the wars, if arguably legal, could have been avoided without much difficulty by effective negotiations. And too many innocent civilians have needlessly died in these wars. U.S. troops caused the deaths of as many as three million people in Vietnam and an estimated one million in Iraq, totaling two-thirds of the Holocaust victims during World War II. Throw in the two million lives lost in Korea, which was partly our responsibility, and we just about match the Holocaust. Not to forget the heavy financial burden of war, for example the congressional allocations to the military industrial complex to equip and supply the pursuit of warfare. According to Stiglitz, the total cost of our “war of choice” against Iraq will ultimately cost $3 trillion dollars from taxpayers that go into the military industrial complex.
The total financial cost of our military establishment has been no less debilitating to our economy than was the case for most of the previous hegemonic civilizations described two decades ago by Paul Kennedy in his excellent book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1987). It seems that all U.S. military expenditures combined, inclusive of such items as the Veterans Administration, now consume at least 55% of our annual federal budget. This might seem useful in military Keynesian terms, but the total now equals or exceeds military expenditures for the rest of the world combined. Whether we like it or not, our nation has become addicted to warfare since World War II. Most of our military budget is spent on defense industries with trickle-down benefits to a large number of grateful subcontractors (most of them highly patriotic for obvious reasons) as well as their host communities (also highly patriotic for obvious reasons), but this can only be at a substantial cost to the rest of the nation without sufficient trickle-down access. In general Vermont farmers tend to lose; Texas laborers tend to win.
But it cannot be sufficiently emphasized that the Vietnam and Iraq wars–as well as the military operations in Korea, Panama, the Persian Gulf, and even Yugoslavia–have been only the tip of the iceberg. According to Chalmers Johnson in The Sorrows of Empire, published in 2004, 725 U.S. military bases, inclusive of sixteen Main Operating Bases (MOBs), exist in as many as 41 nations. Altogether, 250 thousand U.S. troops are stationed abroad, including 118 thousand in Europe, 92 thousand in east Asia, and 14 thousand in the western hemisphere. Significantly, there was almost no military conflict in these regions at the time of Iraq’s invasion and occupation, yet large numbers of U.S. troops continued to remain deployed in these regions instead of being transferred to Iraq to participate in the fighting there. Preceding the 2007 “surge,” military spokesmen repeatedly insisted in prime time interviews that more troops were needed in order to win in Iraq. They neglected to explain why many thousands of U.S. troops were retained in military bases elsewhere in the world, apparently as a no longer necessary Cold War measure that seamlessly converted into a peacetime occupation strategy. It almost seems as if our government has had an unspoken commitment since the fall of the U.S.S.R. to dominate the entire world into the indefinite future. Proponents might argue that their purpose is to protect the world, but this is to protect the world under our nation’s authority, hence to dominate the world, just as gangland protectionist rings “protect” those they extort money from. It’s no accident that U.S. investors are active worldwide with governments fully cooperative with U.S. authority.
Also deplorable has been the ongoing effort of our government to intervene in other country’s internal affairs by manipulating elections, assassinating both enemies and potential enemies, and in general bringing into play whatever dirty tricks seemed useful. As calculated by William Blum in Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, published in 2003, at least fifty such interventions can be counted for less than the four decades since World War II. Among the many countries manipulated by the CIA and other such U.S. organizations have been Greece in the late forties, the Philippines in the 1940s and 50s, Iran and Guatemala in 1953-54, Syria in 1956-57, Ecuador in 1960-63, Iraq in 1972-75, Australia in 1973-75, Angola in 1975-the 80s, Morocco in 1983, and so on. Among the many foreign political leaders targeted for assassination were Chou en-Lai of China, Lumumba of the Congo, Castro of Cuba, Torrijos of Panama, Sukarno of Indonesia, Mossadegh of Iran, Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, Sihanouk of Cambodia, Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, De Gaulle of France, Allende of Chile, Manley of Jamaica, Milosevic of Yugoslavia, etc. Fortunately many of them lived to talk about it, but others didn’t.
According to John Perkins in Confessions of a Hit Man, published five years ago, the arrangement was simple enough. Bogus U.S. economists including himself (which he freely admitted) would try to convince foreign governments to “liberalize” their economies by accepting U.S. investments without imposing fees, tariffs, or other such costs. If these governments refused to cooperate, U.S. secret agents identified as “jackals” would arrive to take whatever steps seemed necessary in order to reverse the situation, even if it meant destabilizing the government or assassinating whoever seemed an impediment, presidents and friendly dictators included. And if the jackals failed, then an invasion became necessary as in the cases of Iraq, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. Of course the issue was always the war against communism, but somehow the beneficiaries just as inevitably turned out to be U.S. business ventures that had financial interests to be protected and/or advanced by U.S. military forces.
Our country’s unique relationship with Israel has been the source of enough problems that it deserves to be listed here in a category of its own. The $3 billion per year of foreign “aid” to Israel ($500 per capita) is relatively small compared to our nation’s budget as a whole even when a large variety of supplemental benefits provided to Israel is taken into account. However, this supportive relationship has borne unexpected difficulties that Truman should have recognized when he hastened Israel’s creation as a campaign strategy in 1948. Without any clear mandate, Israel’s relentless effort since then to annex adjacent territories in the West Bank has led to such excessive persecution of the Palestinians that the world’s entire Muslim population has become hostile to both Israel and the United States as its primary benefactor. Bin Laden’s first public statement after 9-11, made available on October 7, primarily spoke of retaliation for the American role in Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians.
The perhaps unrecognized Machiavellian advantage of our nation’s connection with Israel right now is that it has permitted military Keynesianism to persist during the Obama administration through combat with a variety of Arab nations hostile to Israel. Arab terrorists have replaced the commies as our nation’s most invidious enemies. As a result, warfare continues to play its role as a crutch to our economy exactly when it needs it the most. Obama insists the Afghan campaign is not a war of choice, but of course it has become one, and its potential economic benefit to our defense industries (i.e., all our major industries) can hardly have been overlooked. There is no doubt that bin Laden is still loose and that al Qaeda continues to thrive in Afghanistan as a potential threat to our nation. However, their role focuses U.S. aggression and thereby intensifies their appeal in almost every nation in the region. In fact, al Qaeda’s successful recruitment of guerrilla fighters thrives because of our nation’s aggressive military effort of to root it out in any particular country. And why not? If U.S. troops invaded and forcibly occupied Canada to root out murderous Canadians hostile to Americans, it wouldn’t be long before everybody in Canada could be treated as a potential enemy. The same with Afghanistan, especially now that the brutal Afghan warlord general Dostum has been allowed to return to the fold as a supporter of our puppet president Karzai.
One also asks whether Obama actually thinks combat can be limited to the mountainous region on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or is a new full-scale war what he really wants? Because that’s what he is going to get. Of course we’ll “win” if this is his intention–but all we need to do is declare victory and withdraw any time we want, since the Taliban lacks the capacity to chase us beyond their own border. Nor do they want to. As a result the war is both unwinnable and unlosable–in other words at least as much a quagmire as Vietnam had been. But does Obama really want to mount an escalation that might be judged by history with the same disfavor as President Johnson’s fabricated 1965 Tonkin attack and Bush’s fabricated 2003 threat of Saddam Hussein’s atomic capability? Does he want to be another infamous American president for exactly the wrong reasons?
One also wonders why Obama has, if anything, expanded the use mercenary forces such as Blackwater (now identified as Xe) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Africa. It has been disclosed, for example, that roughly one quarter of our nation’s intelligence activity in Afghanistan is farmed out by the CIA to Blackwater. Once Obama and Secretary of State Clinton opposed Blackwater–now they depend on it. Also, why has Obama chosen to enlarge the size of our military by as many as 21,000 new troops, 17,000 of which will be sent to Afghanistan? And why doesn’t he put more effort into negotiating with Taliban factions who are willing to reject al Qaeda–just as was done to “win” the war in Iraq by paying once hostile Sunni tribal leaders monthly salaries between $240 and $300 per month to participate in the so-called surge? And when will our administration finally realize, if they haven’t already, that U.S. combat troops make inferior occupation troops, often provoking a hostile opposition sufficient to initiate a costly full-scale war? This is exactly what happened between March and September, 2003, when the Iraqi populace were goaded by the severe and unprovoked aggressiveness of U.S. troops into outright resistance. Many of these troops are now being used in Afghanistan. Do we truly want déjà vu all over again? Would McCain have gotten away with this sort of thing if he had been elected president? Indignant liberals would be demonstrating in Washington, New York City, and elsewhere.
As for potential conflict with Iran, why does Defense Secretary Robert Gates announce a “routine” trip to Israel to consult its leadership and deny that this consultation would involve the current standoff with Iran? And then, having concluded consultations, why does he announce in his press conference a September deadline imposed on Iran to fully cooperate with U.S. objectives? And why does he insist that if Israel chooses to attack Iran the U.S. would have no recourse but to accept this choice? Is an attack on Iran now in the works? Would this also be suggested by Dennis Ross’s reassignment to the National Security Council perhaps to take operational control of such an attack? If this is what happens, Zionists will once again succeed in diverting U.S. policy from the effort to obtain negotiations with the Palestinians to a peripheral issue that diverts our energies toward a useful and relatively harmless cause beneficial to Israel on another front–this time Iran instead of Iraq.
Speeches by Obama now and again indicate his full awareness that genuine peace is only possible in the Near East once a two-state solution has been implemented between Israel and the Palestinians. But what exactly has been done to bring this about since he came into office? Why hasn’t his administration offered Israel an obvious quid pro quo through diplomatic and trade relations with all Arab nations plus the guaranteed elimination of Iran’s nuclear weapons program–if it has one–in exchange for Israel’s full acceptance of a viable two-state solution respected by both parties? Just as our government has generously financed Israel’s aggressive foreign policy since 1967, it would even more generously finance a peace settlement based on all the agreements already in the works at Oslo, Madrid and Taba, to say nothing of Camp David, Roadmap and Annapolis. All groups and nations involved would get a fat payoff, even ourselves by once and for all terminating the crisis. Suddenly there would be an area-wide peace agreement such as has been proposed repeatedly by the Arab League. Both the Iranians and Palestinians would gladly accept such an arrangement as would most nations outside the Near East. Until this can be brought about, the United States will remain hostage to the Near East quagmire so effectively orchestrated by the Zionist lobby with lies, threats, broken promises, staged indignant rallies, and the like.
Turning to South America, why the announced establishment of three or four new U.S. military bases in Colombia near the border of Venezuela? Even if the command of these bases is turned over to the Colombian government, as Hillary Clinton promises, construction costs would obviously be paid by ourselves, and we can expect that American troops would be permitted to be stationed there. There would also be an airfield for military transport planes and fighter planes. Is this Obama’s first step to enlarge our military presence in South America in order to combat “Chavismo” at the very edge of South America’s most hostile nation? Also, why has it been disclosed that several other bases–half a dozen in all–would be constructed elsewhere in South America from the Andes to the Caribbean? Moreover, was the present military insurrection of Honduras a thousand miles away intended (or permitted) as a “friendly” takeover in the spirit of President Aristide’s forced exile from Haiti in 2004 orchestrated by the Bush administration? Is Obama actually dusting off Otto Reich’s counter-productive South American strategy a couple decades ago in order to initiate full-fledged regional imperialism once again in South America? How can an apparently aggressive shift in policy be undertaken at the same time both in South America and the Near East inclusive of Russia? Is some kind of an overarching strategy in the works to expand our military presence worldwide even further? Or is the timing simply to be chalked up to ineptitude by Washington bureaucrats? They shouldn’t want this kind of thinking to happen.
5. Running Dogs That Bark Up The Wrong Tree
American news coverage is heavy, lasting from morning to night, but with a paucity of genuine new information. Crime and human interest stories predominate, and, relevant to what might be described as “hard” news, the same stories are incessantly repeated until the topic has exhausted the public “mind,” whereupon the press switches to other such stories to fill the gap. In too many instances the primary task is to suppress crucial facts and shape and craft the stories that cannot be avoided to such an extent that they keep the American public ignorant of exactly the issues that matter the most. On the other hand, information that cannot be ignored but is found distasteful and/or ideologically unacceptable (for example, U.S. drones that accidentally kill large wedding parties in Pakistan) lasts just one or two news cycles at most.
Most obviously, the “respectable” American media has almost without exception given full support to our nation’s foreign intervention across the globe. Seldom does news coverage feature information that might discredit military operations against a foreign nation. Instead, with the current exception of Afghanistan, our press has celebrated the cause with full patriotic approval exactly when its approval has seemed the most useful. News coverage repeatedly vilifies the putative enemy and extols the American cause and those engaged in making it happen. And whenever needed, competent patriotic reporters can be found who willingly participate in bending their evidence to support a positive judgment, as illustrated by Barbara Miller’s famous coverage of U.S. preparations preceding the invasion of Iraq as well as the bias of “embedded” war correspondents in response to the fighting. The same “respectable” journalistic support, if not quite at the same level, was put into play to justify military operations in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan. All of these wars of choice were more or less illegal and ill conceived, and in at least two instances–Iraq and Vietnam–they were finally ruinous to our nation’s sense of collective decency among those who keep track of foreign policy issues. Yet the press promoted them with great enthusiasm exactly when they could have been prevented if there were more public opposition at the time.
Many claim the basic problem is that news coverage has become a commodity almost totally dominated by such media giants as Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, NBC Universal, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and the New York Times Company. Among all these corporate entities, profit predominates at the expense of keeping the public informed. In varying degrees, with Fox at one extreme and the New York Times at the other, the reporter’s “job” of telling stories with a guaranteed audience takes precedence over informing the public at large on an adequate basis. Of course a modicum of information remains important, but it plays second fiddle to the bottom line, the profits guaranteed by the size and enthusiasm of the audience. As a rule of thumb, media owners are Republicans, reporters are middle-of-the-road Democrats (with one or two liberal Democrats to enliven the package), and publishers mediate between owners and reporters, almost inevitably giving the nod to the owners when the choice really matters, for example when it comes time to endorse a political candidate. The bias–and there always is one–thus tilts toward conservatism with a sprinkling of information that might be considered middle-of-the-road liberal.
As an exception to the rule, significant bias often occurs in news coverage relevant to Israel. The news corporations listed above are dominated by billionaires and multi-millionaires incidentally friendly to the Zionist cause as illustrated by their willingness to publicize Arab atrocities and to suppress information about Israeli transgressions. This bias seems evident in the almost total suppression of information about Sivan Kurtzberg and four other Israeli citizens (two of whom were connected with Mossad) when they were arrested at the edge of a New Jersey highway cheering and photographing the 9-11 catastrophe across the Hudson River. It seemed at the time that they were somehow involved in the event, if only as witnesses who knew in advance that it was going to occur. They were held in detention for 71 days, then flown back to Israel with little if any publicity. This bias may also be observed in the almost total lack of press coverage relevant to the 2005 story about Larry Franklin, a Zionist spy who served at a high level as a Pentagon analyst, having been caught and then involved in a sting operation that trapped Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman of AIPAC in the act of accepting secret information to be forwarded to Israel. Many other Zionist spies embedded in U.S. agencies might also have been uncovered if the investigation had been pursued more effectively, but it wasn’t, and the case against Rosen and Weissman was finally closed based on the argument that the secret information was so sensitive that it could not have been used as evidence in a courtroom hearing.
On the other hand, the media’s persistent anti-Arab bias has been in in full display most recently in the media’s top billing over the better part of a week of its indignation with the release of Abdel Baset al Megrahi from prison in Scotland for the destruction of Pan American flight 103 in 1988, over two decades ago, in which a total of 270 people were killed. The official explanation for releasing Megrahi, the token culprit, was his terminal cancer. But whether or not he had any part in the conspiracy–which he has persistently denied–the U.S. media has featured his presumed guilt while totally neglecting the probable justification for this act of terrorism, either the earlier sinking of a couple of Libyan boats in the Gulf of Sidra by American fighter planes or the destruction just six months earlier of an Iranian civilian airliner, flight IR 655, by antiaircraft fire from the U.S. aircraft carrier Vincinnes under the command of Captain Will Rogers III. In this case 290 passengers died (twenty more than in flight 103), 66 of whom were children en route to a vacation with their families on a recognized civilian air route. Neither Rogers III nor President Bush ever apologized for this inexcusable “mistake,” but a couple years later the U.S. government paid slightly over $60 million in damages.
Significantly, the IR 655 incident led to Iran’s acceptance of a U.N. ceasefire that ended the war between Iran and Iraq at a time when Reagan’s administration was intensifying the conflict with its Iran-Contra strategy that just happened to benefit Israel through the mutual destruction of two potential enemies. Today, newsmen such as Wolf Blitzer, a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post, excoriate Megrahi’s release without at all mentioning the overall context. As usual, they totally ignore the full story with the justified expectation that the American public has an even shorter memory than they themselves. But some of us don’t.
Too often the media seems almost eager to convey approved misinformation without questioning it. The majority of intrepid Fox watchers, for example, did not realize for a couple years beyond the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein had no connection whatsoever with al Qaeda. Vice President Cheney kept insisting that a connection existed between the two based on false reports, and Fox kept this assumption afloat on the airwaves as an unassailable fact–which it wasn’t.
But excessive collaboration has been in effect at all levels in the media, including the three most respectable newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.
Even today, for example, during the supposedly enlightened Obama administration, the American public is kept ignorant of the likelihood that our government secretly encouraged the recent coup d’etat in Honduras. Suggestive of this possibility are the facts that our nation already has 400 troops stationed there and that the military coup leaders are using the Washington lobbyist Lanny Davis, once closely connected with Bill and Hillary Clinton, to represent their case in Washington. It also seems relevant that a U.S. military airfield was used to help fly the deposed president out of Honduras and that U.S. government apologists first tried to excuse themselves with the argument that U.S. representatives in Honduras–whether military, diplomatic, or both–warned the coup leaders not to go through with their plan. How, though, could these Americans have done this if they weren’t aware that a coup attempt was being undertaken? And if they did know of it and opposed such a possibility, as they now insist to their Latin American friends, why didn’t they make an effort to prevent it?
But there are more questions as well. Honduras’ military leadership, mostly educated in Fort Benning’s School of the Americas, avoids doing anything we don’t let them do–so why did we let them do this? Why has our government belatedly cancelled its aid of $30 million to Honduras at exactly the same time as an aid package of $150 million is being provided by the IMF? Could our current administration’s manipulative involvement have anything to do with the State Department’s concern about President Zelaya’s friendship with President Chavez of Venezuela? And is its “lukewarm” support of Zelaya linked with the strategy of “waiting it out” until the next election is held on November 29, less than three months from now, when our government can once again help to manipulate election results as it has done so many times before? One wonders, though, if Zelaya might be able to run for reelection on the technicality that he has not served his full term. The answers to these and other such questions will have far-reaching impact on our nation’s relations with most of Latin America during the rest of Obama’s presidency. Yet coverage in the American press tells us very little. Everybody who is anybody in Latin America is well aware of what is involved–it is the supposedly informed American reader who remains ignorant.
Of course one cannot discount the possibility that the NYT and WP are now researching the Honduras issue to be able to give a full report later, but this did not happen after last August, when Georgia waged a surprise attack against South Ossetia. U.S. newspapers inclusive of the NYT and WP treated the counter-attack of Russian troops as having been the initial assault. But this was not true, and these news sources never fully conceded their error afterward. This left American readers with the false impression that the Russians were mostly at fault–which was not the case. Instead, the encounter began with a highly destructive midnight surprise attack on South Ossetia’s capital planned by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. One suspects his strategy was at least partly to expedite admittance in NATO in the near future. But Russians troops stationed in South Ossetia staged a successful counter-attack the next morning, and Georgian troops fled for their lives.
In his recent visit to Georgia, Vice President Biden was able to reinforce the notion that Russia was at fault in his repeated insistence that Russia had first launched the invasion, once doing so while standing arm in arm with Saakashvili. Whether he believes it himself, Biden’s misinformation is only possible because of the failure of most of the American press, especially the New York Times, to set the record straight. Now, just a couple weeks later, we hear that 750 Georgian troops are to be trained by U.S. marines, presumably to serve in Afghanistan. But who is kidding whom? If Russia retaliates, for example by supplying its most advanced technology to augment Iran’s defensive missile system, as it has already announced, the Cold War just might be effectively resurrected, and Obama will have pulled off what McCain could never have achieved if he had been elected. We also learn from a recent Nation article by Alexander Cockburn that Saakashvili has actually boasted of Georgia’s defense minister, David Kezerashvili, and Temur Iakobashvili, its minister in charge of negotiations regarding South Ossetia, having both been Israeli residents before coming to Georgia.
So the picture gets complicated. Israel demands that pressure be exerted on Russia to withdraw its offer to Iran, and the State Department seems to be making an effort to use both the training of Georgian troops and a new missile system offered to Poland, manned by as many as 100 American technicians, as leverage against Russia in order to give Israel what it wants–the opportunity to attack Iran without any possibility of high-tech Russian intervention. A little news coverage is to be found in our major newspapers relevant to some of what is happening right now, but only in bits and pieces, and without acknowledging the other side of the story or the full extent of all the tradeoffs now in play. If and when military conflict erupts in the region involving a Zionist attack on Iran, our press can take satisfaction in Israel’s “existential” justification, and nobody in the United States will know any better. And with Iran eliminated as a potential threat, Israel can junk any prospects of a regional solution for the Near East, letting it (Israel) continue doing what it pleases in its suppression of Palestinians, hopefully culminating in their transfer elsewhere within another decade or two.
6. Matters Cultural (or not)
And finally the demoralization of the American public cannot be disregarded as a byproduct of collective decline resulting from what might be described as spent expansionism. When a hegemonic civilization begins to disintegrate, in imperial America no less than our nine hegemonic predecessors, this decline bears with it with a full array of negative consequences that are more or less precipitous. Just as our economy is both broke and extravagant at the same time, and just as our military juggernaut is both powerful and ineffectual at the same time, our collective lifestyle and the social infrastructure that supports it are both wasteful and impoverished at the same time. The virtue of growth has degenerated into mere extravagance, and traces of decline can be expected to penetrate every aspect of society that has directly or indirectly shared in this excess. Enlarged rewards proportional to output become an insistence at all levels of economic behavior, and innovation (today a corporate mantra) usually consists of useless variation to suggest improvement instead of a cheapening of the product. Greed thrives, and intrinsic value almost completely takes a back seat to profit maximization.
Cherished possessions become junk too soon. Almost every feature of what we buy and use manifests planned obsolescence as first explained by Bernard London in 1932. Our cars, appliances, TV, computers, cameras, and telephone gadgetry too quickly become obsolete, far too vulnerable to damage, and far too intricate to understand for anybody but the most avid junkies devoted to their use. New houses and furniture are actually stapled together, and new cars and appliances too often depend on plastic components exactly at the sites where wear is the greatest, thus guaranteeing the need for early replacement. Metal isn’t exactly metal, nor is plastic quite plastic. Nor are wood and its various substitutes straight from the tree, if at all. Also, our food, our lawns, and everything we touch, smell or breath is laced with presumably non-toxic chemicals that somehow increase corporate profits but whose combined effect on our health can only be harmful. And so on.
Our medical system is the most expensive and least productive, dollar for dollar, in the entire post-industrial world. Our longevity statistics are actually forty-sixth from the top worldwide according to the 2008 CIA World Factbook estimates. Almost all of Europe lives longer than we do. Obesity has become rampant resulting from the consumption of processed junk food, much of it with the “diet” brand. Today an estimated one-third of the American public are both too bulky and too unhealthy, emblematic of our society as a whole. Also contributing to our nation’s bad health, as many as forty-six million Americans go without health insurance, and according to the Institute of Medicine in 2004, quoted by Wendell Potter (a former private health insurance publicist), as many as eighteen thousand Americans die each year because of the lack of health insurance. Their medical care at emergency wards is both too expensive and necessarily insufficient.
Meanwhile the 1200 private health care providers collectively reap about $30 billion in annual profits. Thirty percent of the health industry’s overall budget is spent on administration costs inclusive of profits, lobbying, and so-called “rescissions,” the ongoing effort of lawyers and medical researchers to exclude potentially unprofitable individuals (i.e., those with bad health) from its benefits programs. Trained employees scour the medical records of patients suddenly in trouble to find an earlier medical problem unmentioned in their original applications, however minor, then retroactively cancel these application for fraud exactly when these patients are the most desperately in need of this support.
No wonder the private health care industry depends as heavily as it does on lobbying elected officials in Washington and dredging up a swarm of blustering “angry” demonstrators presumably eager to retain their private health insurance. During the first three months of this year alone, it is also estimated that health-care companies and their employees have contributed almost $1.8 million to House members supervising health care reform, with the 52 Blue Dog Democrats receiving 25 percent more apiece than other Democrats. Another report says altogether $5.4 million has been spent in campaign donations, 60 percent of which went to the Blue Dog Democrats who now control the committees.
Unfortunately, single-payer insurance comparable to the programs of other post-industrial nations no longer seems a viable possibility in Congress. Moreover, even the substitution of a public option that would include single-payer insurance as a competitive alternative to private insurance plans seems likely to be sacrificed in favor of a much watered-down co-op option guaranteed to fail. Not surprisingly, conservative congressmen supportive of the health insurance industry are now suggesting that even this concession would be unacceptable to them. And it appears their lobby has the political leverage to impose their own choice. As a result, Obama’s campaign promise to obtain genuine health insurance reform if elected seems to have caved in despite its widespread public support, in large part because his public relations effort has been inadequate and he and his subordinates have been too compliant in their negotiations toward acceptable compromises. It seems he is willing to make basic concessions before obtaining an adequate tradeoff from those with whom he is negotiating.
Our educational system is also victimized by bloated costs matched with inferior results. This contradiction is relevant to both the current K-through-12 test-based improvement strategies and the steady degeneration of colleges and universities into corporate ventures that primarily treat knowledge and student enrollment as marketable commodities. Business Administration and computer technology have almost completely replaced history, philosophy, anthropology, and comparative literature as the chosen majors of students, and this is in fact the appropriate choice, given our nation’s current economic crisis. Our universities feature expensive new construction, high salaries for an excessive number of administrators, and a variety of operational costs that have escalated proportional to the total budget. If all these expenses were pegged to faculty salaries and/or student tuition at the same level as five, three, or even one decade ago, one suspects there would be no serious budget crisis. To offset these needless costs peripheral to the basic task of education, our colleges and universities jack up tuition each year and substitute instructors and teaching assistants for tenure-track faculty as much as possible–to the extent that many students do not encounter a genuine tenured professor until they reach their junior year. As a result many college-educated individuals are no longer particularly educated, only competent in making money–that is to say, in maximizing their income relative to the effort expended.
The gap between poverty and perceived respectability seems to have become almost unbridgeable. Vertical mobility has become less accessible than in the past, quite opposite the prevalent myth of poor people striking it rich one way or another. The few who do succeed (rock stars, etc.) get heavy publicity, and most others rest satisfied with the dream. The poor are mostly to be found in run-down urban neighborhoods, the middle-class in stapled split-level houses located in upscale housing projects, and the wealthy in gated communities crowded with stapled McMansions minus personal libraries except for Christmas and birthday books.
Moreover, traditional families have become almost archaic.
Among two-parent families both fathers and mothers work to support an artificial standard of living, and their children either run free or endure the supervision of nannies, many of whom have trouble coping with the English language. Similarly, the rates of divorce and single parenthood are off the chart, as is the deliberate rejection of parenthood among exactly the best and most suitable candidates for this role. Too many of our most promising potential parents don’t parent, while too many of our most challenged parents excessively test this challenge.
Meanwhile, a steady diet of teen-appeal TV movies, reality TV programming, violent computer games, and internet pornography consume the attention of too big an audience. Extravagance has become an obsession of too many Americans who live otherwise impoverished lives. Hollywood movies have become for the most part hebephrenic junk except for a few weeks preceding the March Oscar ceremonies. In response to this collective vulgarity, an ultra-reactionary tide of mindless opposition now manifests itself among our nation’s quasi-literate sub-population of supposedly concerned citizens. As to be expected, these strident misguided soldiers of democracy have latched onto arch-patriotism, fundamentalist religion, the rights of unborn babies, and the freedom to bear arms as the primary answers to our nation’s most compelling problems. A fraudulent $3 trillion war is far less offense to them than health care reform at a far lower cost that actually saves many tens of thousands of American lives.
So exactly who, then, best fits the description as our current generation’s great thinkers, great creators, great jurists and great statesmen comparable to those of previous generations? Alas, they don’t exist except for a few dozen angry iconoclasts, further testimony to our nation’s present decline into mediocrity despite its abundance of glitz and technological gimmickry.
7. Flopping on the Dock
President Obama is certainly bright and competent enough to confront this challenge under the right circumstances. However, he is far too conciliatory with the Bush-style Republicans who managed to survive the last election. It is to be conceded that his supposedly unbeatable majority in both houses of Congress is vulnerable to partisan resistance by blue-dog Democrats working in conjunction with their Republican friends equally indebted to the K-Street lobbyists. Nevertheless, Obama seems almost eager to appease these people, and if his ultra-conciliatory strategy persists much longer his administration is likely to replicate the disappointing outcome of the Carter and Clinton presidencies as opposed to the earlier successes of the FDR and Johnson administrations, the latter despite the glaring exception of the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Obama’s current foreign policy adventurism should be curtailed, to begin with by coming up with an acceptable withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan. Obama might seem a more effective spokesman in defense of military operations abroad than Bush had been, but his ability to gild a sullied strategy will eventually catch up with him.
Again it is to be acknowledged that the United States enjoys dominant status in the world today similar to that of a handful of hegemonic societies–nine in all–that preceded us throughout the history of Western Civilization. But as much as anything this historic similarity suggests the likelihood of a similar outcome, of course in a manner appropriate to our particular circumstances. For history cannot entirely be forgotten. In 1909, exactly a hundred years ago, England seemed completely dominant across the entire world, and in 1809 so did Napoleon across Europe inclusive of Spain, Egypt, and soon enough Moscow. Both hegemons tumbled, England beginning with the First World War five years later, and France more decisively with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo six years later. So what about our current prospects as a world power in 2009? As with all our precursors, paradoxically, our economy and military capabilities are at once both formidable and fatally overextended, dependent on a debt level one trillion dollars in excess of the total annual GDP of the entire world combined, the United States included. This amounts to incredible extravagance. It is what has paid for everything else, and now the party is over–almost. Like a landed barracuda, our nation vigorously flops on the dock. It is dangerous to everybody who stands too close but its chances of surviving much longer as a threat to others are slim. So the question poses itself what can be done to slow down this process, if not turn it around. For, again, our nation’s particular version of hubris seems to be running on empty, unable to take things much farther in the direction we’re going.