Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Uncle Sam

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (January 2007)

[A free people has] an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the Characters and conduct of their rulers. - John Adams

Adams had in mind the ministers of the British crown in the reign of King George III, and presumably he knew that the knowledge in question was interactive, moving mostly in the direction of the man afraid of being discovered as a thief but also toward the man afraid of finding out that he's been robbed. When the newly elected Congress assembles on January 4 in Washington, the Republican gentlemen in column A can be counted upon to say nothing apt to reveal a flaw of character, a proof of misconduct, or the earmark for a prison sentence. Yes, it's true, the invasion of Iraq proceeded under the flag of an expedient lie, but the intention was noble, the objective honorable and just - all allegations to the contrary, Mr Chairman, are false, vindictive, and shamelessly partisan.

The chance for a more illuminating form of public education (Adams's topic in 1765) rests with a Democratic majority recruited from column B into a coherent body politic willing to acknowledge our current loss of a democratic republic and unafraid to find in the Bush Administration's specious war on terror a textbook lesson on the ways in which a predatory movement goes about the work of stealing from a free but inattentive people their lives, liberties, fortunes, good name, and sacred honor. If the Congress can muster enough courage to exercise the power entrusted to it by the Constitution, the record won't have much trouble speaking for itself:

1. A foreign war conceived as a means of advancing the Bush Administration's imposition on the American people of a not-so benevolent despotism, the army sent to fight and die not for the defense of country but for a corporate dream of commercial empire.

2. A government that tortures people classified as enemy combatants, denies their right to hear all the evidence bearing on their confinement and arrest, forbids their resort to petitions of habeas corpus.

3. The administration's systematic plundering of the Federal Treasury on behalf of its accomplices in the arms and construction trades.

4. The National Security Agency directed to monitor, without first obtaining a court order, any and all telephone and email traffic suspected of carrying the germs of terrorism.

5. The president's use of 136 signing statements since he took office to exempt himself from the rule of more than 1,000 federal laws.

The sum of the evidence warrants the impeachment of President George W Bush on charges comparable to those brought by the Declaration of Independence against the "long train of abuses and usurpations" attendant upon the monarchy of George III. The odds don't favor the undertaking. Representative Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California), the incoming speaker of the House, was quick to declare so intemperate an initiative "off the table", wholly lacking in the spirit of bipartisan outreach needed to move the country forward on its patriotic search for common ground. Consistent with the Democratic Party's fear of being thought unduly liberal, still lost in the Day-Glo discontent of the 1960s with the flower children and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, , Pelosi's press statements during the week following the November elections stressed the importance of avoiding condemnations and recriminations. The money was gone, and what's to be gained by crying over spilt blood. The time had come for the Democratic Party to behave in the manner of geopolitical adults, to face up to the hard choices that confront the country, to quit striking poses trembling with virtuous indignation. "We have made history", Pelosi said, "now let us make progress".

Not surprisingly, the motion was seconded by the White House - "The most important priority right now is to win a war on terror and keep America safe and figure out ways that both parties can work together with the shared responsibility of having victory in Iraq" - but it was Robert Reich, once-upon-a-time secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration, who posted the notice of a general pardon on the website of The American Prospect. "Some Democrats", Reich said, "want to expose the malfeasance and nonfeasance of the Bush Administration - find out who really knew what and when with regard to weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, Katrina, payoffs to Abramoff, and all the other rot. That's understandable, but it would be far better if Democrats used their newfound power to lay out a new agenda for America. There's no point digging up more dirt."

Democracy is born in dirt, nourished by the digging up and turning over of as much of it as can be brought within reach of a television camera or a subpoena. We can't "lay out a new agenda for America" unless we know which America we're talking about, the one that embodies the freedoms of a sovereign people or the one made to fit the requirements of a totalitarian state. We owe it to ourselves to know the difference. Seldom in our history have we been offered a better chance to learn a more useful civics lesson, and by holding up to the light the malfeasance, nonfeasance, and "all the other rot" embedded in the character and conduct of the Bush Administration, we might discover what we mean by America the beautiful. Like it or not, and no matter how unpleasant or impolitic the proceedings, the spirit of the law doesn't allow the luxury of fastidious silence or discreet abstention.

Whether Congress is controlled by Democrats or Republicans, by Vice President Dick Cheney or Senator Joe Lieberman, the doctrine of the separation of powers invites it to remove from office a president committing high crimes and misdemeanors. A duty implicit in the principle of a democratic republic, not a judicious or injudicious option subject to the daily verdict of the opinion polls. The Constitution doesn't serve at the pleasure of Representative Pelosi any more than it answers to the whim of President Bush, and by taking "off the table" the mess of an impeachment proceeding, the lady from California joins the president in his distaste for such an unclean thing as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Rightly understood, democracy is an uproar, the argument meant to be blunt, vigilant, and fierce, not, as the purveyors of our respectable opinion would have it, a matter of liveried civil servants passing one another polite synonyms on silver trays.

Fortunately for any lawyers choosing to poke around in the administration's several compost heaps (at the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, at the White House and the Justice Department), the malfeasance won't be hard to smell or find. Never have the attempts at regime change been so stupidly managed - those in the United States even more harebrained than those in Iraq; the testimony already entered on the record suggests that the invasion of Iraq was designed to the specifications of a criminal fraud, that the threat presented by the permanent emergency of the "war on terror" is a fiction providing an extortionate government with an alibi for its seizing, in the name of the national security, what John Adams would have recognized as the powers of obnoxious despotism.

In an essay entitled "The State", and published posthumously in 1919, Randolph Bourne found his premise in President Woodrow Wilson's adoption of the same maneuver to send 50,000 American troops gloriously off to their destruction on the battlefields of the First World War. The American people had no quarrel with Germany (the country hadn't been attacked, no national interest was at stake); how then did they find themselves fighting the war to end all wars? Bourne answered the question by drawing a distinction between the American political democracy (modest, tolerant, easygoing, content to mind its own business) and the American industrial autocracy, the country's "significant classes", self-important, vain, eager to extend their economic privileges and appear on the world stage in the roles of British dukes, pleased to think of war as an upper-class sport, the means of disguising their own venal and incompetent politics in the dignity of handsome military uniforms. To play the game they needed polo ponies, and in the effort to round up the lower social orders for the work of dying in the French mud, the Wilson Administration's publicists elevated the idea of the sanctity of the American state, an august and mystical entity patched together with heroic "bedazzlements" - slogans, flags, band music, and posters of Uncle Sam. A nom de guerre for the interests of the industrial autocracy, Uncle Sam, then as now, represents nothing and nobody other than the cost of his production; the American state for which he stands becomes the property of the corporate management, conducting his affairs in secret, dependent for his existence on the subsidies (financial and emotional) furnished by the pomp and circumstance of never-ending war.

Bourne died in the course of writing the manuscript, at age thirty-two, of the Spanish flu that killed 675,000 people in the United States in 1918 and 1919 (an actual as opposed to an imaginary catastrophe), and on rereading the essay soon after the November election, I was reminded of the truism usually attributed to Mark Twain that although history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes. The politicians ascending Capitol Hill on January 4 also might want to reread the farewell radio and television address that President Dwight D Eisenhower delivered to the American people in the winter of 1961. Like Bourne, Eisenhower understood that the exploitation by the American state of the resources of the American democracy (its wealth and intelligence, the energies and freedom of its people) presented the country with a clear and present danger as deadly as the one the American armies had encountered on the roads from Normandy to the Rhine. A general who knew and once said that "every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed", Eisenhower didn't sweeten his last and final word:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal movement. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

{For a further discussion of this speech, see "Republic or Empire", by Chalmers Johnson, page 63.}

Both the security and the liberty of America have suffered heavy losses over the last fifty years, but none more apparent and therefore easier to weigh and count than those indicted on the American political democracy by the military-industrial complex (aka the industrial autocracy, the commercial oligarchy) wearing the mask of the Bush Administration. The question now before the country is the one confronted by the man afraid of finding out that he's been robbed. How much longer do we wish to pretend that nothing really happened, or that nothing really valuable is lost; that the crime is the losing of the Iraq war, not the making of it? That in place of the constitutional questions asking why, to what end, and in whose interest, we can afford to substitute the questions of logistics - how many troops to dispatch or withdraw over a period of how many days or months; when to tell the Iraqi government that we're not renewing its social contract; what deals to cut with Syria and Iran; where to find another expedient lie to justify what we can present as an honorable exit strategy. The answers to the secondary questions will teach us nothing worth the knowing, but by impeaching President Bush the Congress not only can impart that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge without which a free people can't know whether the adjective is true or false; it also might turn over enough dirt to unearth the American democracy buried at the feet of Uncle Sam.


Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper's Magazine.

Bill Totten


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