Prick Up Your Ears

 

It’s hard to fathom how far to the right Republicans in particular, and the country generally, have moved in the past half century that people are surprised to be reminded, or to learn for the first time, that it was the Republican President Richard Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. To be sure, Nixon was no environmentalist, and his establishment of the EPA was in his view a way to steal thunder from his political opposition on the left, where the environmental movement had been gathering momentum since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. Nonetheless, he signed the necessary papers and backed the new agency’s initiatives such as the Clean Air Act.

 

Fifty years later, Republicans abominate the EPA and associated environmentally protected areas around the country. The latest natural areas to come under attack are Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah. The current Republican administration, at the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, wants to reduce Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50%, opening up the areas taken away from them for commercial and recreational use. The executive order mandating the change pleased Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch a great deal. The changes will undoubtedly be challenged in court by private environmental protection groups and by Native American tribes in the area.

Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill
Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, a painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909).

When President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act at the end of 1970, he did so in the White House in front of a painting by Frederic Remington called Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, which prominently featured Theodore Roosevelt leading his regiment of volunteers at the 1898 battle. It was not the most politically correct staging of the signing of an important document by today’s standards, considering how the United States merely replaced Spain as the colonial power overseeing Cuba, rather than liberating the Cubans as American propaganda had it at the time of the Spanish-American War, but for the period around 1970 that aspect may have been overlooked by most bystanders to the signing in favor of the possibly intended point of celebrating Theodore Roosevelt and his championing of environmental protection, a first for an American president.

 

Contrast that rather sensitive staging with the completely insensitive, tone deaf staging by the current administration of a recent ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers and their contributions to American military efforts in World War II. Not only did the ceremony take place in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, infamous for his hostility to Native Americans and for his authorization of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, known as the Trail of Tears, but the current president added a completely irrelevant snide remark that doubled as a smear of one of his political opponents on the left as well as Pocahontas, a Native American woman notable as a mediator with the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s. The current president apparently mistook his comment for wit, because he laughed, while very few others at the ceremony did. Paying attention to the current president’s remarks in person and on Twitter gives us insight into his character, but his actions and his choice and use of symbols speak louder than his words and tell us what he and his administration are actually doing to this beautiful country and its people.
― Izzy

Andrew jackson head
Portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, painted by Ralph Eleasar Whiteside Earl (1785/88-1838).

 

Not a Piece of Cake

 

“All politics is local.” ― An old saying, most famously uttered by former Speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill

This fall the Supreme Court will hear the case of Gill v. Whitford, a partisan gerrymandering case from Wisconsin, where redistricting lines drawn up by Republicans in the state legislature in 2011 after the 2010 census resulted in grossly unbalanced election results, such as in the 2012 election when, despite a majority of the votes statewide going to Democrats, Republicans nonetheless won sixty of the ninety-nine State Assembly seats. While the case is specifically about the redistricting lines drawn for state elections, there are implications for national elections because state legislatures also draw the lines for federal congressional districts. National election results have similarly tilted toward Republicans winning more seats in the House of Representatives than simple vote tallies warrant, and Democrats typically gain fewer seats than vote totals should grant them.


The Gerry-Mander Edit
“The Gerry-Mander”, a political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), published in the Boston Centinel in 1812. The district depicted in the cartoon was created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates sponsored by Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists.

Gerrymandering has been around since the founding of the Republic, ever since Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution specified that the states had the power to apportion congressional districts based on census results every ten years. There’s nothing in there about how the states should draw the lines, though the 14th Amendment, adopted 149 years ago on July 9, 1868, set guidelines for citizenship and equal protection under the laws for all citizens, and that has been invoked by the Supreme Court to overrule racially motivated gerrymandering. State legislatures have nevertheless taken the broad leeway left in Article 1, Section 2, and run with it, with both parties divvying up the cake as they liked if they had enough votes from their own members to push new district lines onto the books. Once one party or the other established districts in their favor, subsequent elections had the effect of consolidating their power.

There have been partisan gerrymandering cases brought before the Supreme Court in the past, but the Court has always been reluctant to step into what it has deemed politics as usual, and their rulings have always been narrow enough to have little effect on the practice of partisan gerrymandering. The Court has been more willing to rule broadly against racial gerrymandering by applying the equal protection principles of the 14th Amendment. It’s hard to see the ultimate ruling in Gill v. Whitford deviating from past rulings unless one or more of the conservative justices rule against the State of Wisconsin, and by extension the Republican party. The Court is currently split 5-4 along party lines, with Republicans in the majority.

A scene from the 1974 film The Godfather: Part II, in which the gangsters Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasburg, and Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, discuss divvying up business in Cuba before the revolution.

 

This gerrymandering case is a reminder of how failure to pay attention to state and local politics can result in a minority party exercising disproportional power. There are more important elections than the presidential one every four years. The party that turns people out for local school board elections, for city council elections, and for state legislature elections every year, year after year, is the party that ultimately takes power in the national elections. Those seemingly insignificant elections lay the groundwork and set the rules for what follows on a grander scale.

Motivated people turn out for elections, and Republicans have done a much better job over the past thirty or more years of motivating their people than Democrats have done with their people. They have done so with with some dubious tactics, it’s true, mainly motivating people through fear and loathing of The Other, whoever or whatever that might prove effective at the moment. That was easily seen in the 2016 election.

On a national scale, where state boundaries do not change, the Electoral College has worked to gerrymander the presidential election result on behalf of the Republican candidate as Democrats lose strength in the small towns and countryside of the middle of the country. For instance California, the most populous state in the nation, and one with a strong Democratic party majority, has 55 electoral votes (53 congressional districts plus 2 Senate seats) to offer the Democratic presidential candidate whether that candidate wins the state with a simple majority of one vote or an overwhelming majority of three million votes.

This is from a network television appearance by George Carlin in the early 1990s. No foul language warning necessary.

 

In the language of gerrymandering, Democrats are effectively “packed” into California and other highly urban states, mostly on either coast. Getting rid of the Electoral College and deciding the presidential election with a simple nationwide majority vote would eliminate this gerrymandering effect, but with Republicans controlling the Presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, 33 out of 50 governors’ offices, 31 out of 50 state houses, and 37 out of 50 state senates, that won’t be easy.

Magpie eating cake-rubens peale
Magpie Eating Cake, an 1865 painting by Rubens Peale (1784-1865).

It would take working from the grass roots on up instead of snoozing until 2020 and dreaming the current Republican president will be impeached along the way. It would also mean holding the Democratic party establishment to account for selling out the middle and working classes while they chased after financial and professional elites. Since the Democratic party establishment has shown no inclination to change in response to the 2016 election debacle, however, it appears the best course in the years ahead will be to discard the Democratic party apparatus altogether and form an entirely new major party. It’s not like that has never been done before.
― Ed.

 

Walk the Walk

 


In Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket, two marines engage in an ironic “John Wayne” face-off. Wayne’s chickenhawkish stances were well-known and widely held in contempt by combat veterans from World War II to Vietnam. Warning: foul language.

 

America’s wars continue with no end in sight, from one presidential administration to the next. One proposal to curtail the corporate oligarchy’s military adventurism is to bring back the military draft or to institute Universal National Service, the idea being that if a greater percentage of the population has a personal stake in foreign policy then they will be more likely to make their preferences known to their leaders, and people with a personal stake are less likely to want more war. The oligarchy knows this, too, as it’s a lesson they learned from an aroused public during the Vietnam War and are unlikely to want repeated if the public reawakens.

 

Since the draft ended in 1973, the per capita percentage of the population serving in the military has steadily declined, while the number of American military interventions overseas has drastically increased. Linking the two trends could be coincidental, but it’s worth considering that in the 40 years from 1933 to 1973, in most of which there was a draft, the US sent the military abroad on 27 occasions, and in the 40 years from 1974 to 2014 the US sent the military on 175 different foreign interventions. Has the world really become 6.5 times more dangerous since 1973? Or is it that the US has taken on in earnest the burden and profits of empire and the role of world policeman, putting out small fires everywhere, many times at the behest of corporate interests?

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

― Marine Major General (Retired) Smedley Butler, writing in the
Socialist newspaper Common Sense in 1935.

 


The 1994 Robert Zemeckis movie Forrest Gump is an excellent portrayal of the diversity of experience awaiting Vietnam era draftees, though of course most of them did not want to be there. Warning: foul language.
The majority of Americans catch the news about these numerous foreign conflicts as they go about their daily business, and because they don’t know anyone in the military and didn’t serve themselves, the news pretty much goes in one ear and out the other. Who can get agitated or even interested about what’s happening in Kosovo or Libya or Yemen or the Horn of Africa, wherever that is? Afghanistan and Iraq, oh yeah, are those still dragging on? Are we going into Syria now, too? And so these busy Americans go on with their lives, paying their taxes and going shopping, surprised to learn that when the US deploys Predator drones to these foreign hot spots, the controllers of the deadly drones sit in air-conditioned trailers halfway around the world in Nevada or Germany. It’s the New Age, alright, a deadly video game.

 

Or so we might choose to believe. As technocratic and bloodless as the military brass and the politicians may try to make modern war seem in order to make it more palatable for the general public, it will always nevertheless be a nasty mess both physically and morally. They don’t want to show that part, though; they learned that lesson from Vietnam as well. Rah-rah Hollywood movies are not the answer to getting Americans to come to terms with their current situation in world politics. Far from it. There are far too many chickenhawks making movies in Hollywood and making policy in Washington to serve anything but the basest emotions of too many Americans, the “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” among them, who are stirred to cheer movies glorifying war and the macho posturing of Supreme Leader. As long as they reflexively say “Thank you for your service” to a service member or veteran when they encounter one, they’re covered. Aren’t they?
― Ed.

An early scene in Full Metal Jacket depicts Marine boot camp in a less lighthearted vein than the boot camp of Forrest Gump. Some of that can be attributed to the differences between the Marines and the Army, and some to the aims of the two films. Nonetheless, some of the drill sergeant’s insults will ring bells in the dark sense of humor shared by many veterans, an emotion Kubrick effectively turns inside out at the end of the scene. Warning: foul language, of course.