Those Were the Days

 

In 1947, as Jews leaving Europe were working toward establishing their independent state of Israel in Palestine, an anti-communist scare was gaining momentum in the United States, leading President Harry Truman to sign an executive order requiring loyalty oaths from federal workers suspected of communist sympathies and possibly conflicted allegiance. Over 70 years later, the state of Israel is well established with economic and military help from the United States, and the idea of a loyalty oath as an assurance that a government employee owes allegiance to America only, and not to any foreign power, has been turned on its head by state and federal laws assuring loyalty to Israel as well, or at least not to engage in criticism of that nation’s increasingly aggressive policies toward Palestinians within and without its disputed borders.

100 dollar bill
2015 release of the 100 dollar bill, showing the design measures taken to foil counterfeiting. The portrait of Benjamin Franklin remains. Presentation by Sar Maroof.

 

These laws, which require a state employee or government contractor to sign a pledge not to engage in Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) actions against Israel, are so blatantly unconstitutional that it beggars belief they have not been challenged and struck down in the courts already. They are a return to the old days of anti-communist loyalty oaths, but with a bizarre twist. And it’s that twist which complicates matters, because any criticism of the pledges or of Israel bypasses reason and plain reading of the Constitution and goes straight to emotional howls of anti-Semitism. Most people know that’s coming, and since they don’t want to withstand it, they don’t speak up in the first place. The lobbyists for Israel then have their own way.

What has also complicated the relationship between the United States and Israel since the late 1940s is how support for Israel has taken on a polyglot nature in the intervening years, particularly with the rise of white evangelical Christians in American politics since the 1980s. In the 1940s, American support for Israel came largely from American Jews and from the large numbers of people who sympathized with the plight of European Jews after the tragedy of the Holocaust. There are other reasons having to do with the labyrinth of Middle Eastern politics and, of course, oil, but those are beyond the scope of this post.

Since the 1980s, as support for Israel’s increasingly hard line toward Palestinians and relations with its Arab neighbors dwindled among some American Jews, the slack was taken up by white evangelical Christians who looked at the modern state of Israel and saw the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. They cared little about the multitude of practical complications, and they had an interested ear in the White House with Ronald Reagan. By the 1990s, a litmus test for election to political office in some parts of the country was support for Israel, right or wrong, and the test was administered not by American Jews, but by white evangelical Christians and, increasingly, by lobbying groups supported by the right wing in Israeli politics.

Lobbying in Congress by foreign powers is supposedly regulated by law, though in practice it goes on mostly unimpeded. In the 1980s, when Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime gained steam in this country and around the world, the South African government did not have anywhere near the lobbying clout in American politics of the Israeli lobby then, and certainly not as powerful as it has become since. South Africa did not have millions of Christian soldiers in this country who were willing to go onward for it no matter what. About all South Africa had were diamonds, and it turned out they were not enough to resist pressure from the rest of the world to reform its immoral system.

A scene early in the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, with Sal Mineo and Jill Haworth arguing their different world views in 1947 aboard a refugee ship from Europe bound for Palestine. Paul Newman looks on. Indeed, those were the days.

Now times have changed for Israel, and it’s no longer the plucky underdog deserving sympathy; its policies of the last 40 to 50 years have tainted that image, turning it into a kind of South African apartheid regime, and if people in this country want to criticize it for that, or for anything else, then it’s none of this government’s business, no matter how many “Benjamins” change hands in the halls of Congress, or how many white evangelical Christians with fever dreams of a picturesque Holy Land as they imagine it from their family Bibles, a place for fulfillment of the Gospel that they probably suppose would be nicer if it weren’t inhabited by all those dusky modern Jews, no matter how many of those people angrily pull away their support from any politician who dares criticize Israel, and with it their fantasy.
— Vita

 

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Talking Heroes

 

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain died on August 25 after a long battle with brain cancer, and since then there has been much discussion nationwide of his role as an American hero both for his service in Vietnam and as a political figure afterward. Less noticed was the 63 month jail sentence imposed on former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Reality Winner on August 23 at a federal court in Georgia for supposedly violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Ms. Winner had in early 2017 turned over to online investigative news outlet The Intercept classified documents relating how the Russians had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. For many people and for Ms. Winner herself, what she did was more whistleblowing about malfeasance in the United States government than espionage on behalf of a foreign power because the NSA obviously knew of the meddling but for reasons it won’t specify sat on that information.

 

We Support Whistleblowers Free Bradley Manning (Chelsea Manning) Twin Cities Pride Parade (9181428436)
2013 Twin Cities Pride Parade in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in support of whistleblower Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning. Photo by Tony Webster.

Reality Winner is the latest in a recent series of whistleblower defendants to be charged by the government under the Espionage Act, starting in the Barack Obama administration. The most notable whistleblowers charged have been Army Private First Class Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning in 2010, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer John Kiriakou in 2012, and NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Ms. Manning and Mr. Kiriakou have served time in prison, and Mr. Snowden lives as an asylum seeker in Russia. The Espionage Act was always a draconian piece of legislation open to abuse by authoritarians in power, but it is only in the past ten years that those authoritarians have enlisted it to hammer down on whistleblowers to intimidate others into silence.

Calling whistleblowers national heroes in no way takes anything away from Senator McCain. Rather, it broadens the concept of heroes to include those whose patriotism included the courage to speak out against abuses of patriotism and authority by those in power. Sitting quietly by while a foreign power meddles in American elections is not patriotism, and neither is putting a lid on military abuses in Iraq or condoning torture by CIA agents or spying on American citizens at home. Whistleblowing on those abusers and their actions is true patriotism, while using the heavy hand of the Espionage Act to prosecute the whistleblowers is another abuse of government authority.
— Vita

To those principled individuals bothered by abuse of authority and ethical dysfunction within any system the two options available are fighting or selling out, as illustrated in this scene near the end of the Mike Nichols film Catch-22, with Alan Arkin as Yossarian, Martin Balsam as Colonel Cathcart, and Buck Henry as Colonel Korn.

 

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Afflicting the Comfortable

 

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz is the latest public figure to claim people who disagree with him and object to policies he supports are afflicting him with public shaming. In his case, the people afflicting him are his wealthy neighbors at the summer retreat of Martha’s Vineyard, who have apparently been giving him the cold shoulder. That may well be, but it’s ludicrous that in an asinine bid for sympathy, Mr. Dershowitz has whined about his ostracism and compared it to the McCarthyism tactics of the 1950s. Mr. Dershowitz’s reaction proves that you can’t shame the shameless.

 

While Alan Dershowitz is not employed by the current administration, he has not been shy about making the rounds of the talking heads television shows, where he has spoken as an advocate for the administration in many respects. He is, therefore, fair game, and he should stop his whining before he makes an even bigger fool of himself. The same goes for actual administration officials who have had their lives disrupted lately when they have been out in public, though not on official business. Being called names by protesters while dining in a restaurant comes with the territory for a public official, and hand-wringing about the loss of civility only serves to protect those whose policies and actions are causing harm far worse than name calling.

The North Wind and the Sun - Wind - Project Gutenberg etext 19994
In this 1919 illustration by Milo Winter for an anthology of Æsop’s Fables, the wind attempts to strip a traveler of his cloak in “The North Wind and the Sun” by blowing gales at him, with the result that the traveler draws his cloak tighter. The sun wins the challenge of getting the traveler to take off his cloak by warming him in sunlight.

Respect breeds respect, and civility engenders civility. At least that is how it’s supposed to work. When the top official in a presidential administration is a low-grade schoolyard bully, however, who cynically uses hateful language to whip up the enthusiasm of his most goonish supporters, encouraging them to act out violently against people they resent, and the bureaucrats and politicians in his administration implement without complaint despicable policies, then, as they should be, all are lumped together by the rest of society as people who have no respect for others unlike them, and therefore are not deserving of respect, and as people who behave without civility toward others who disagree with them, and are therefore not entitled to civility in return.

There is no valid comparison to be made between a bakery owner who refuses to bake a cake for a homosexual couple getting married and a restaurant owner who refuses service to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The key to the difference is in Ms. Sanders’s job title, capitalized no less. Refusing service to someone because of who they are, whether homosexual or black-skinned or female, is wrong, both legally and morally. Refusing service to someone because of their actions is a different matter and is protected legally, though there is debate about the ethics of it. It’s something every business owner can and should decide on their own, without then being condemned by public officials who quite unethically use their bully pulpit to whip up public hatred for that business owner.

In this early scene in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, directed by Stanley Kramer, and starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as opposing lawyers, Gene Kelly plays a reporter who mentions his job is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. The saying has been appropriated in all seriousness and without a hint of irony by journalists for over a hundred years, never mind that the originator of the saying, Finley Peter Dunne, meant it as a satirical deflation of journalists’ avowed high-minded pretensions, and that the corporate media often have served as uncritical mouthpieces of the rich and powerful, leaving it up to citizen protesters to truly “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”.

Protesters who confront officials in public places are generally anonymous, but Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, had no safe retreat when she confronted Ms. Sanders and asked her to leave, and for that she deserves respect as well as a civil acknowledgement of her principles, rather than an outpouring of hatred and death threats. Calls for civility are pointless under the circumstances, though an opponent of the current president, his policies and his behavior, would be wise not to descend to fighting with a pig in the mud, for the simple reason that the pig wins since he is happily in his element, while you end up muddy and discouraged. When possible, keep to the higher ground.
— Ed.

 

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Obsessed with Bugaboos

 

“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” — John Quincy Adams (1767-1848)

There has always been a strong strain of paranoia in American political life, and it erupts occasionally in official policy, from the Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law in 1798 by John Quincy Adams’s father, President John Adams, to the Patriot Act of 2001, signed by George H.W. Bush’s son, President George W. Bush. In the early days of the republic, when the Adams family was prominent in national politics, there was of course no social media or Fox News to whip up hysteria about The Other, though there were plenty of locally circulated broadsheets that made little effort at objectivity.

 

Now the media landscape is far different than it was in 1798, and people who feel threatened by cultural changes which erode the power and influence of white conservatives have platforms like Fox News, Twitter, and Facebook that reach far and wide. As the self-styled Silent Majority slips to Ranting Minority status, their paranoid hysteria ratchets up in intensity to the point that Fox News is not a strong enough salve for their imagined wounds, and they turn to fear mongering websites like InfoWars. The information available in the bubble in which angry, old white conservatives live can’t exactly be called news, but more a drug that reinforces feelings, thoughts, and ideas they already dwell on resentfully, nursing their grievances like mean drunks wallowing in self-pity.

Brooklyn Museum - Here Comes the Bogey-Man (Que viene el Coco) - Francisco de Goya y Lucientes crop
Here Comes the Bogey-Man, an aquatint print from the 1799 set of 80 known as Los Caprichos, by Francisco Goya (1746-1828).


Pooh Bear has a bad dream.

They tend to lash out angrily, these constant consumers of spoon-fed rage, and because they tend to be more conscientious about voting than other groups in American society, their views make it into government policy more than the views of less paranoid people, at least when they coincide with the interests of corporate and political leaders. And then support for those policies among the general populace becomes tied to patriotism in the minds of these people, because they have bestowed on themselves the mantle of True Americanism. True Americans want to build a wall along the Mexican border. True Americans don’t want gays marrying each other. True Americans believe climate change is a liberal hoax, and therefore no steps need be taken to restrain the fossil fuel industry. That particular list goes on and on. There is another list about what True Americans believe and want, and it starts with changing the definition of who they are to include everyone who lives here, not just one group raging and warring against all The Others.
— Vita

 

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When We Were Okay

 

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
― Jesus Christ, quoted in the Gospel of Mark, 8:36, King James Version.

For many Americans in the growing lower class and shrinking middle class, the American Dream of their parents and grandparents no longer means the same things or presents the same possibilities. How can it, when they have been either treading water or slipping beneath the waves for over a generation now? In 1971, the middle class was 61 percent of the population, and the lower class was at 25 percent. In 2015, the middle class had slipped to 50 percent, while the lower class had increased to 29 percent. What group had increased it’s numbers the most at the expense of the middle class? The upper class increased from 14 percent in 1971 to 21 percent in 2015. Those numbers reflect population shifts within income groups; the shifts of actual income have been proportionally even greater.

Cass Elliot sang this version of the old standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me” when she was with The Mamas & The Papas in 1968.

We hear a lot lately about American Exceptionalism, as if it was somehow tied in with the American Dream. But that is an unfortunate misconception. American Exceptionalism, as invoked by modern politicians, isn’t much more than the Manifest Destiny of the nineteenth century or the pushy nation meddling and nation building of the twentieth century. We’ve got a lot of crust, telling everybody else what to do and how to live just because we think we’re special. Of course, all that political proselytizing is merely a cover for corporations to grab resources and exploit cheap labor abroad. They don’t “hate us for our freedoms”, they hate us for our hypocrisy and our meddling.

Back home, where we belong, the American Dream is a noble sentiment when it refers to a better life through hard work, education, and civic virtue. According to the Gospels, those are values Jesus Christ spoke of many times. The American Dream has not historically meant “grab all you can and the Devil take the hindmost”. It is truly amazing how many wealthy Americans profess Christian values, yet in their actions do little or nothing to uphold them.
Claude Vignon and Workshop - Croesus showing Solon his treasures
Croesus Showing Solon His Treasures, a painting from the 1630s by Claude Vignon (1593-1670) and his workshop assistants. Croesus was the famously wealthy King of Lydia in the sixth century, BCE, and Solon was a renowned Athenian lawgiver.
Those wealthy hypocrites, the money-changers, are the ones who need their taxes raised to 1950s levels. They are the ones whose overseas tax shelters and corporate headquarters need to be brought back home, where they belong. They are the ones whose profiteering from the military-industrial complex needs to be severely curtailed by bringing the troops back home and closing down the more than 1,000 military installations overseas. Those troops could be put to work in this country repairing infrastructure, and then given a proper GI Bill for their education. There is a long laundry list of other things that need doing to return this country not to when it was “great”, which bespeaks the hubris of the American Exceptionalism that has caused so much trouble for us and the world, but to when the middle class at least was okay, and with a prospect for the lower class of getting better. To start, stop glorifying the wealthy. They don’t need your help, unless it’s to carry their water.

A scene with Harvey Korman and Mel Brooks from Brooks’s 1981 movie History of the World, Part 1, depicts his vision of France before its revolution in the eighteenth century. Twenty first century America is not there yet, but we’re closing in on it. Warning: foul language.
― Vita
Special note: To learn more about this subject, watch the 2015 documentary Requiem for the American Dream, featuring Noam Chomsky, or read his book by the same name.

 

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The Nonconformists

 

“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

It’s easy to be a nondescript face in the crowd, to blend in, to not rock the boat. It takes no courage at all. It takes courage to stand out, to fold your arms when everybody else is saluting, to take a knee when others go with the flow. Dissent is not un-American, it is at the core of what it means to be an American.

August-Landmesser-Almanya-1936
A crowd in Hamburg, Germany in 1936 give the Nazi salute,
except for August Landmesser, circled, who folds his arms in protest.

The corporate oligarchy in charge of the United States has co-opted “Support our troops” to undermine dissent from nonconformists against military adventurism overseas. Constant war keeps the profits rolling in for the defense industry and helps the oligarchy control the domestic population by curtailing civil liberties in the name of national security. Pressure from the crowd to support jingoism takes on the colors of patriotism when the oligarchy cynically whips up their fervor with “Support our troops.” That is a phrase which, like the phrase “States’ rights” when used to support Southern secession in the American Civil War, takes on some clarity and cuts through the emotional fog wreathing it when we append to it a questioning clause. States’ rights to do what? Continue slavery? Support our troops in doing what? Enforcing the agenda of the oligarchy?

At home, criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement is used to divert attention from the real need for police reform. Criticism of authoritarian, militarized, unaccountable police is co-opted by talking about and booing the nonconformist protesters of the abuses committed by those out of control police. There is no logic to this; it is all emotion used for manipulation. This is stepping through the looking glass. This is like diverting attention from the revelations about the misconduct of government officials at home and abroad published by WikiLeaks by making the conversation about Julian Assange and speculation about his sources instead. Personalities, not critical analysis of public policies, are what the mainstream corporate media are selling. America, love it or leave it, the mass of faces in the crowd bellow in return.


Blessed are the Peacemakers
Blessed Are the Peacemakers by George Bellows, a 
1917 anti-war cartoon depicting Jesus with a halo,
wearing prison stripes, and in a sidebar a list of His seditious crimes.

 

So fold your arms when you feel the need, stand out when you have to, and take a knee when that seems the best course. It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.
― Ed. 

 

“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.” ― Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

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With a Song in My Heart

President Barack Obama visits Pentagon for Sept. 11 ceremony - Washington, D.C. 2012

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, left, President Barack Obama and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, render honors during the playing the National Anthem during a ceremony commemorating the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon.

 

The recent flap over U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas not placing her hand over her heart during the playing of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Rio Summer Olympics medal ceremony prompts this week’s post. Etiquette for citizens during the national anthem is spelled out in U.S. Code, but that’s the extent of it. Civilians should place their hands over their hearts, and military personnel in uniform should salute. Veterans can place their hands over their hearts or salute, as they wish. There are no legal prohibitions for civilians who do not observe etiquette, whether knowingly or out of ignorance. Any deviation from etiquette by civilians is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Military personnel who do not salute may be prosecuted non-judicially by their command under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The upshot of all this is that for most Americans their behavior during the national anthem is guided by custom, though in this case custom has been explicitly codified by Congress, as questionable as that practice may be. As with all matters of custom, those who deviate from the norm open themselves to criticism and opprobrium from the community at large. In the case of Gabby Douglas, public censure goes too far, and certainly legal sanctions are inapplicable, no matter how much people may howl on Twitter about what they perceive as her inappropriate lapse. The rush to judgment is just that, a hasty reaching for the first stone.

– Ed. 

 

 

John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman 1968cr

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, along with Australian Peter Norman, during the award ceremony of the 200 m race at the Mexican Olympic games. During the awards ceremony, Smith (center) and Carlos protested against racial discrimination: they went barefoot on the podium and listened to their anthem bowing their heads and raising a fist with a black glove. Mexico City, Mexico, 1968.

 

 

 

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