One would think that if condemned to lose sanity it would be preferable not to be aware of what was happening. On the contrary, as in lucid dreaming, there is something empowering and even comforting in lucid derangement, particularly national as opposed to personal derangement.
We may be in the advanced stages of going loony as a society and a polity, and yet expanding one’s awareness of how this process is proceeding is a form of enlightenment, even if the enlightenment is offered with some defeatist shading.
The United States of Fear is a collection of Tom Engelhardt’s writings from his TomDispatch blog. It turns our world inside out any number of times, allowing us to glimpse with startling clarity the horrifying world outside our cave without ever quite persuading us that the real world can be real if it isn’t on television, and not infrequently building into the presentation the understanding that there is no cure for what ails us.
Here’s an example. According to Engelhardt we dwell in a “Postlegal America”:
Is the Libyan war legal? Was Osama bin Laden’s killing legal? Is it legal for the president of the United States to target an American citizen for assassination? Were those ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ legal? … [Such questions] are irrelevant. Think of them as twentieth century questions that don’t begin to come to grips with twenty-first-century American realities. In fact, I think of them, and the very idea of a nation based on the rule of law, as symptoms of nostalgia for a long-lost republic.
This formulation crystallizes our understanding that we are not dealing here with something in the way of the peaks of corruption seen in past cycles. There is something new and different about an age in which our leading criminals go on book tours while people scream for the blood of our leading whistleblowers, an age in which blanket immunity shields those guilty of the largest crimes from either prosecution or public identification, an age in which Ed Meese’s contention (that anyone among the peasants who is accused of a minor crime is by definition guilty) walks hand-in-hand with Richard Nixon’s explanation (that if a president does it then it is not a crime). But Engelhardt’s formulation simultaneously belittles and discourages efforts to undo this development. Who wants to be irrelevant, to fail to come to grips with the proper century, to suffer from nostalgia? Well, I do, of course. I want to join Martin King’s International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. I don’t want to adjust to Postlegal Land.
In addition, according to Engelhardt, we have entered the Soviet Era in America:
It gives you chills to run across Communist Party general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at a Politburo meeting in October 1985, almost six years after Soviet troops first flooded into Afghanistan, reading letters aloud to his colleagues from embittered Soviet citizens. … Or, in November 1986, insisting to those same colleagues that the Afghan War must be ended in a year, ‘at maximum, two.’ … Or what about Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev … ‘There is no single piece of land in this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels.’
Not only has the United States transformed itself into the Soviet Union as the new occupier of Afghanistan whistling past the imperial graveyard, but we have accomplished this in the most Hopeful manner without really changing anything other than creating a collective fantasy called Change:
In the midst of the Great Recession, under a new president with supposedly far fewer illusions about American omnipotence and power, war policy continued to expand in just about every way.
Engelhardt’s book takes us through the dark Bush-Cheney era and on through the sunkissed dawn of Obama’s codification and entrenchment of Bush-Cheney crimes as the new normalcy. Engelhardt starts with the Cheney-run empowerment of the members of the Project for the New American Century:
This may, in fact, be the first example in history of a think tank coming to power and actually putting its blue-sky suggestions into operation as government policy, or perhaps it’s the only example so far of a government in waiting masquerading as a think tank.
The agenda of that think tank is still the agenda of the White House and Pentagon. What has changed? In Engelhardt’s telling, we’ve gone from a government of fanatical pro-war visionaries to one with no vision at all, just momentum. Oh, and, as Engelhardt points out, the U.S. corporate media has stopped seriously covering the deaths of U.S. men and women in war. That’s a change. And the world’s biggest ever embassy in Iraq from the Bush era is now being duplicated in Pakistan — with Hopey Changey drapes no doubt.
Another change that Engelhardt draws out and focuses our eyes and ears on is what might be called the logorrhea of the lieutenants. “There’s a history still to be written,” writes Engelhardt as he publishes the first draft, “about how our highest military commanders came to never shut up.” Military propaganda targeting our own people is a daily diet now. And while the generals are talking, our economy is imploding, our infrastructure crumbling. We know this is happening, but we don’t usually contemplate the scale of it or push to do something about it. We’re too fascinated by all the medals on the generals’ uniforms. And we’re not the only ones. “I have no greater job,” Engelhardt quotes Obama saying, “nothing gives me more honor than serving as your commander in chief.” Engelhardt comments in typical fashion:
As ever, all of this was overlooked. Nowhere did a single commentator wonder, for instance, whether an American president was really supposed to feel that being commander in chief offered greater ‘honor’ than being president of a nation of citizens. In another age, such a statement would have registered as, at best, bizarre.
Like the Italian cruise ship captain who accidentally “tripped” and fell into a lifeboat and abandoned his floating city to its fate, the power madness Engelhardt depicts is framed in his book as the flailings of a beast in decline:
The proximate cause of Washington’s defeat is a collapse of its imperial position in a region that, ever since President Jimmy Carter proclaimed his Carter Doctrine in 1980, has been considered the crucible of global power. Today, ‘people power’ has shaken the pillars of the American position in the Middle East, while — despite the staggering levels of military might the Pentagon still has embedded in the area — the Obama administration has found itself standing helplessly and in grim confusion.
Now Engelhardt comes around to the possibility that indeed something can be done, at least by foreigners: “Never in memory,” Engelhardt writes in the excitement of last year’s Arab Spring, “have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so helpless, despite being armed to the teeth — in the presence of unarmed humanity. There has to be joy and hope in that alone.”
If “The United States of Fear” helps the United States set aside the fear, there is no limit to what unarmed humanity can do, even here, even acting on its nostalgia for the never-quite-existent age of equality before the law.