The Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!

The “Passion” of a film studio troubleshooter

By Joanne Laurier 

9 February 2016

Hail Caesar!, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a comedy about the film industry set in the early 1950s. The film is essentially a series of vignettes involving the efforts of fictional Capitol Pictures “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to put out various fires at the studio.

Production on “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” (a film within a film), one of Capitol’s “prestige” pictures, is underway when the movie opens. It is a foolish Ben-Hur– or Quo Vadis– like epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as Roman tribune Autolycus, who will ultimately have a sudden, epiphanous conversion to Christianity. (Narrator’s portentous voice: “A new wind is blowing from the dusty streets of Bethlehem!”) Whitlock is unceremoniously drugged and carried off by kidnappers.

Mannix also has to deal with the pregnant, unwed DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), star of aquatic pictures (i.e., a nod to Esther Williams); acrobatic cowboy singing star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who has landed unhappily in a brittle drawing-room melodrama; and aggressive gossip-columnist twin sisters, Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton), eternally in search of dirt.

Scarlett Johansson in Hail Caesar!

(The historical Eddie Mannix was the general manager and vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who reported daily to studio head Louis B. Mayer and is famed for covering up the many misdeeds of film stars and other industry personalities. He was reputed to have spied on Mayer for MGM owner Nicholas Schenck in New York, whom the film turns into “Mr. Skank.”)

A devout Catholic, Mannix, who rather too frequently rushes off to confession where he admits to trivial offenses, receives a ransom note demanding $100,000 for the return of Whitlock, in the name of “The Future.” It turns out the star is being held at a Malibu beach-house by a group of Communist Party screenwriters who try to win him to their cause. A “Professor Marcuse,” the venerable sage of the group, also makes an appearance.

Meanwhile, Mannix faces a major life-decision of his own: whether to leave the headaches of the film industry behind for a relative sinecure in the defense industry at aircraft manufacturer Lockheed.

Several confessions and a considerable amount of silliness later, things sort themselves out…

If truth be told, the Coen brothers are best at satire, especially at sending up certain middle class professions, relationships and settings. They are keen observers of social detail, even minutiae. Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading, along with the lighter moments inFargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man make up their most memorable work.

However, the Coens bear the unmistakable marks of decades of artistic-intellectual stagnation and reaction. Whenever they give vent to their social views, the result is confused and misanthropic (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink,Fargo in part, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), or simply overwhelmed.

In Hail Caesar! both elements are present: the comic-satirical and the seriously confused.

The film enjoyably mocks Hollywood’s sanctimonious attitude toward its own products, including religious extravaganzas and their empty-headed stars (one is presumably meant to think of either Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis or Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, or both)—although Clooney is a bit strained in the Whitlock role.

George Clooney

In one amusing scene, Mannix brings in Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Catholic clergy to vet the screenplay, and a theological debate breaks out over Christ’s “parentage” and other related matters. (Rabbi: “God is a bachelor and very angry.”) In another sequence, while Mannix is watching the daily rushes, the raw footage includes a title card that reads: “Divine presence to be shot.” To their credit, the Coens also manage to ridicule Clooney’s final penitent speech before Christ on the cross.

Along the way, they make a point as well (by casting a single black actor as an extra) about the insignificant presence of African Africans in mainstream Hollywood at the time.

The co-directors’ special gifts are on display in their amiable quasi-recreation of the various film types or styles. Johansson, Ralph Fiennes as the effete Laurence Laurentz, Heather Goldenhersh as Mannix’s super-efficient and earnest secretary Natalie, and Frances McDormand as the legendary but accident-prone editor C.C. Calhoun (based on a real figure at MGM), all hit exact notes in relatively small parts. Ehrenreich is rather sweet as the singing cowboy.

Mannix is the pivotal figure here, and Brolin, as usual, offers a remarkable, precise characterization. The semi-comic parallels between the studio “fixer” and the Son of God are fairly obvious. Like Christ, Mannix takes the sins of Capitol Pictures and its personnel on his shoulders. He is also “tempted by the devil,” the Lockheed merchant of death, who proudly shows him a photo of the recently detonated H-bomb as an inducement—and offers him cigarettes (Eddie is desperately trying to quit!). And, in the end, Mannix too proves to be a “savior.”

Where Hail Caesar! weakens considerably, or even falls down, is in its treatment—comic or otherwise—of the more substantive issues. The film is set in 1951 at the height of the Cold War and the anti-communist witch-hunts. (Baird makes an oblique reference to “naming names” at one point.) The Coens seem to be registering, in their own excessively mild and diffuse manner, a protest at the purges.

The group of Communist screenwriters is not presented as some sort of monstrous cabal, but, on the other hand, whatever points are being made about the rather ineffectual group are unclear or blunted. The writers bandy about phrases such as “the system,” “the dialectic” and the “exploitation” of the masses. They claim (and this is underlined as especially ludicrous) to have worked out a scientifically accurate and certain view of the future course of events.

But what is the attitude of the filmmakers toward all this? Are they simply ridiculing the “Marxist” terminology, half-agreeing with it or covertly sympathizing? An indication they are flying blind on these questions is the presence of a Herbert Marcuse stand-in, entirely inappropriate in this setting or crowd. All one senses in the final analysis is that while the Coens are hostile to the blacklist, their overall stance is non-committal and light-minded. And by “light-minded” we do not mean satirical or humorous, but shallow.

Hail Caesar! portrays the Hollywood studio set-up itself in too genial or amiable a fashion, an industry capable of extraordinary viciousness and darkness. The real Mannix, for instance, was alleged to have had underworld connections and covered up numerous violent crimes. There have also been claims that he was mixed up in the murder of actor George Reeves, his wife’s former lover in 1959.

All in all, the Coens’ Hail Caesar! is in its element when it is spoofing the film industry, religion and American institutions generally. The film is at its flabbiest when it turns its attention to Hollywood’s blackest hour.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/09/hail-f09.html

Has the Banksy Approach Run its Course?

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(Or how to think of images as tools for public argument)

by Christa Olson


Recently, students in my graduate class have wondered whether “image events” staged by social movements — Greenpeace, Earth First!, the Civil Rights Movement — have lost some of their oomph in the post-social media world. Now that anything can go viral and anyone can stage a spectacle, they asked, do dramatic, image-based interventions like tree-sits, lunch counter sit-ins, and confrontations with whalers even register?

I find myself reading — and nodding along with — Joel Golby’s snarky take-down of a piece of political graffiti (above) whose critique of racism in the Academy Awards falls absurdly far off the mark. Golby’s article takes that one, sad stencil to task but, in the process, ponders whether the whole idea of the Banksy-esque critique has run its course.

By way of the dedicated actions of some of the twentieth-century’s most profound social movements and by way of the lazy activism of an east London graffiti artist, I find myself wondering about the possibilities for visual politics today. Are we, ultimately, so fully saturated with images that they’ve lost the power to move us toward anything but cynicism?

I often play the cynic, but for once I’ll eschew pessimism and offer three quick takes on the enduring power of images as tools for making marginal arguments visible in public. I would also welcome a conversation on this question with other picture people.


Appropriating visuality: Political theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff suggests that the “right to look” has long belonged to the powerful. Visuality, he argues, originates with surveillance by an oppressive state and its representatives. But cell phone videos of police brutality, of teachers harassing students, and of politicians speaking frankly when they think no one is listening quickly remind us that there is a visual politics of surveillance emerging from the ground-up as well. Visuality is a powerful tool for those asserting their own right to look.

Valuing accumulation: Too often lately, justice has been denied even in the face of overwhelming visual evidence and our right to look seems impotent. So, it’s not enough to see that grassroots surveillance is happening or that more traditional forms of image-based politics continue. On their own, singly, pictures are as unlikely to change minds as are any other sort of communication. But the accumulation of images does have force over time. Who can deny, for example, that repeated images of police violence against people of color have begun to shift national conversations? And the whole idea behind #OscarsSoWhite is that the accumulation of images — absurdly white-washed or complexly diverse — matters and makes a difference for good or for bad.

Acknowledging Small Triumphs: It’s easy to look nostalgically at Charles Moore’s photographs of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign or Greenpeace’s encounter with whalers and imagine a by-gone era of powerful images that changed the world. The truth is, though, that even those famous photographic moments of resistance were, ultimately, small moves in a much longer arc. Sometimes, even those of us who know better attribute a quasi-magical power to pictures. We’re better off, I’d argue, letting pictures do their incremental work, celebrating the small victories that come fromrecalibrating how film is developed in order to better capture the diversity of skin-tone or — to contradict myself — re-making a pin-up calendar into a celebration of strong women. It’s not that pictures can’t ever spark massive change; it’s just that we shouldn’t assume that the absence of revolution indicates a failure of visual politics.


So, now I return to the Oscar-wielding starving child so aptly critiqued in Golby’s Vice post. Without discounting the critique or offering any defense of the artwork itself, it does seem fair to say that the graffiti in question, despite its hackneyed symbolism, its strange conflation of starving children and actors of color, and its terrible ‘caption’ is, in fact, evidence of an on-going visual politics.

This piece of graffiti suggests that the surveillance of the Academy extends even to a random street corner in London (whether or not the Academy notices that surveillance); the stencil gives evidence of a horizontally accumulating argument (from #OscarsSoWhite to celebrity boycotts to Banksy imitators); and it gets the message out (even if in an entirely ham-fisted manner). Heck, it was enough to get Vice and now Reading the Pictures to take notice. That’s not nothing.


Originally published at Reading The Pictures, the only site dedicated to the daily review of news and documentary photography. Sign up for the Reading The Pictures Week in Re-View email. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Detroit and Chicago teachers fight to defend public education

save-philly-schools

8 February 2016

The past month has seen the entry of thousands of teachers into open struggle against the attack on public education by the Obama administration and both the Democratic and Republican parties. After decades of relentless budget cutting, teacher layoffs and school closings—accelerated in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash—teachers in Detroit and Chicago have begun a battle that is of immense importance for the entire working class.

In fighting to defend the fundamental democratic right to a decent education, teachers have been thrust into a conflict with every section of the political establishment, from the two big business parties and the capitalist courts to the corporate-controlled media and the teachers’ unions that falsely claim to defend their interests.

Last month, thousands of Detroit teachers conducted a series of “sick-out” protests that culminated in the shutdown of virtually the entire school system on January 20, the day of President Obama’s visit to the city. The actions were initiated by rank-and-file teachers using social media and carried out independently of and in defiance of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Teachers in the city named by Obama’s former education secretary as “ground zero” for the administration’s education policies demanded adequate resources and personnel to repair unheated and unsanitary school buildings, reduce class sizes, and provide social services to address alarming rates of poverty among their students. They also demanded a return of wages and benefits ceded by the DFT.

The efforts of the media and the state-appointed emergency manager of the school system to slander the teachers as greedy and indifferent to the needs of their students backfired. Parents vocally supported the sickouts and hundreds of students walked out of their high schools to oppose a witch-hunt against their teachers for “illegal strikes.”

In Chicago, the third largest school district in the US, tens of thousands of teachers and other school employees are battling the demands of Mayor Rahm Emanuel—a former investment banker who served as Obama’s White House chief of staff—to starve the public schools, slash wages and benefits, and funnel even more money to big bondholders and for-profit education firms.

More than three years after the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) betrayed the 2012 strike, leading to the closure of 50 schools and the layoff of more than 1,000 teachers, rank-and-file teachers rebelled against the union and its so-called left leaders, who sought to push through an agreement on behalf of Emanuel to shift pension and health care costs onto the backs of teachers and give school authorities a free hand to expand privately run charter schools.

Last Monday, the CTU’s bargaining committee unanimously rejected the deal after rank-and-file teachers began circulating on social media the details of the sellout, which the CTU had hoped to keep secret.

The day after the bargaining committee vote, the school authorities, complaining that they had a deal with the CTU, announced plans to cut $100 million from the school budget and lay off another 1,000 teachers. Defying this blackmail threat, 2,000 teachers marched in downtown Chicago Thursday evening, drawing expressions of solidarity from thousands of office workers, public employees, young people and other city residents.

The eruption of social opposition among teachers and students is a part of a broader radicalization of the working class, signaling a return of mass class struggles in the US. Last fall, in an incipient rebellion against the United Auto Workers union, autoworkers rejected a national auto contract for the first time in 33 years. The union was able to push through sellout deals with General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler only by resorting to lies, threats and outright fraud.

In Flint, the birthplace of General Motors and the site of the 1936-37 sit-down strike that established the UAW, working class residents have mobilized to protest the poisoning of the city’s water supply by state and local officials, assisted by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

These stirrings of the American working class are part of the resurgence of class struggle internationally. From Greece and Brazil to China and South Africa, the working class is coming into conflict with capitalist governments, from the pseudo-left Syriza regime in Greece to the Tory government in Britain, which have imposed savage austerity on workers while transferring vast amounts of wealth to the world’s billionaires since the financial breakdown in 2008.

The fight of the teachers directly and urgently poses basic political questions. The AFT and its local affiliates in both Detroit and Chicago, which have long collaborated with the enemies of public education, are trying to smother the movement by promoting the Democratic Party and depicting the attack on education as a purely Republican matter.

This is a fraud. The Obama administration has gone well beyond the reactionary policies of its Republican predecessor in using test-based “accountability” schemes to scapegoat teachers, close so-called failing schools, and undermine the public schools in order to make education a new source of profit for the corporations and banks. Under Obama, more than 300,000 teachers and other school employees have lost their jobs and the number of students enrolled in charter schools has grown at a faster rate, almost doubling, since George Bush left office.

The Obama White House has cut Title 1 funds earmarked for impoverished districts like Detroit and Chicago by 11 percent, while special education funding has been cut by 9 percent. The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by Obama late last year to replace Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, authorizes a “Pay for Success” scheme that allows wealthy investors in the for-profit education business to bid for services previously under the control of public schools, including special education, and lowers standards for the education of teachers in high-poverty districts.

The teachers’ unions do not oppose the attacks on teachers and public education. They merely seek a seat at the table so they can secure new sources of dues money from low-paid charter schoolteachers. The unions, including the CTU, whose vice president is a member of the pseudo-left International Socialist Organization, defend the capitalist system and insist that teachers and students must pay for the consequences of its crisis.

The democratic and egalitarian principles embodied in public education are incompatible with a society that is divided by such colossal levels of social inequality that 28 billionaires control as much wealth as the bottom half of the population—152 million people. The American ruling class long ago repudiated the principle that all children, regardless of socioeconomic background, have the right to a quality education.

The corporate and financial elite has nothing to offer working class youth except poverty-level jobs and war. Like the slave owners of an earlier period, today’s financial oligarchs want to keep those they exploit in ignorance. They fear the spread of knowledge and culture among a generation that is increasingly dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and determined to have a future free of oppression and war.

While the Chicago teachers were gearing up for mass protests last week, top officers in the Army and Marine Corps were telling a Congressional hearing that it is time for young women to register for a future military draft. On the one hand, schools are being starved of resources and working class students relegated to dilapidated and filthy buildings with over-packed classrooms. On the other hand, the White House is touting plans for a new generation of nuclear missile submarines costing $100 million each.

The struggle to defend the right to a quality public education is a political struggle against both big business parties and the capitalist system they defend. In this fight, teachers and students must turn to their real allies—the broad mass of working people. The immense social power of the working class must be mobilized to break the grip of the corporate-financial elite over society and reorganize the economy on the basis of public ownership and democratic control of the corporations and banks. Only on this socialist foundation can the basic social rights of working people, including the right to education, be secured.

Jerry White

 

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/08/pers-f08.html

45 Years: A nightmare on the brain of the living?

By David Walsh
5 February 2016

Directed by Andrew Haigh; screenplay by Haigh, based on a short story by David Constantine

In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling), a childless, middle class couple living in a provincial English town, are on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary. A large, elaborate party is planned at a historic venue. They are both retired. She was a teacher and he worked his way up from the factory floor apparently to be some sort of a manager.

Out of the blue, Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his former girl-friend, Katya, who fell to her death in the Swiss Alps half a century before, has been spotted, as the result of the impact of climate change on a glacier. She is there under the ice, frozen as she was, as a young woman. How strange it is, he says, that “she’ll look like she did in 1962” while “I look like this.”

The discovery and letter precipitate a crisis in the couple’s relationship. Geoff has been informed about the discovery in Switzerland, he tells Kate, because he is registered as the dead woman’s next of kin—the pair pretended to be married on their travels in the early 1960s so they could always share a single hotel room. Other revelations are even more unsettling, including Geoff’s blunt admission that he would have married Katya had she survived.

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years

He begins to smoke, becomes agitated, investigates traveling to Switzerland. Kate grows increasingly perturbed. Was she his “one and only”? Was she ever enough for him—or at least did he ever think she was? Can she feel the same way about him knowing what he has concealed for decades? The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Presumably, things will not return to the same comfortable groove.

The author of the short story (In Another Country) that inspired the film, British writer David Constantine, based the work on an incident he became aware of 15 years or so again. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Constantine heard of the discovery of a twenty-something mountaineer who had fallen down a glacial crevasse in Chamonix [in the French Alps] in the 1930s. Seventy years on, the retreating ice released its hold on the guide’s body, which the son he had fathered before his death was taken to identify. The shocking sight of his father—perfectly preserved in his prime, while he himself approached his eighties—tipped the son towards insanity.”

It is an intriguing premise, and Haigh does a reasonably good job of exploring it. But 45 Years includes some significant alterations. In Constantine’s story, the couple is considerably older—and his Geoff and Katya were mountain climbing in the late 1930s when the fatal accident took place. That has some importance. Geoff thinks of himself and his girl-friend as having been “brave,” traveling from Germany through Switzerland to Italy (“Hitler where they’d come from and Mussolini where they were going to”)—having “turned their backs on civilization.” Not insignificantly, Katya, an only child, was Jewish.

There is unmistakably a certain historical resonance in the story, and a sharp, deliberate contrast between this possibly “brave” past and the intervening decades of terribly conventional existence for Geoff and Kate and the apparently drab, uneventful quality of their marriage. The “Mr. and Mrs. Mercer” of In Another Country are considerably more stifled and self-repressed than the Rampling and Courtenay characters, and, ultimately, more despairing. At one point, in Constantine’s story, Kate weeps to herself, “for the unfairness,” and thinks, “Surely to God it wasn’t much to ask, that you get through to the end and looking back you don’t fill with horror and disappointment and hopeless wishful thinking? All she wanted was to be able to say it hasn’t been nothing, it hasn’t been a waste of time, the fifty years, they amount to something. …”

Do the changes introduced by the filmmakers matter? Yes, they do, in fairly major ways. Haigh’s Kate Mercer/Rampling is younger, more stylish, clearly more “with-it” in terms of both modern life and her own emotional states. Courtenay, although somewhat befuddled and disoriented, also seems fairly in touch with his own feelings and moods. It is more difficult in the case of the film characters’ marriage to imagine that some powerful undercurrent has been suppressed for more than 40 years, or that the husband and wife might be flooded with “horror and disappointment” at the thought of their lives together.

45 Years

Haigh explained to an interviewer, “I love the idea of them being together for 45 years, but the possibility still existing that it could all break down in a week.” This is a little light-minded. In fact, there are many long-term relationships that would not “break down in a week” in the face of the Katya revelations (which, after all, relate to events before the couple met), or considerably worse. That such disclosures would produce a sudden lurch and upheaval in this particularmarriage seems somewhat out of character and fails to convince entirely. As a result, I found 45 Years less moving than it clearly—and a little too pointedly—intends to be. Rampling is relatively restrained, but I grew a little tired of her moping and her sad face. Oddly, though it does not seem planned that way, Courtenay (a wonderful actor, now 78) proves the more sympathetic figure.

Haigh, in fact, gives the strongest speech in 45 Years to Geoff, who returns from a reunion lunch at his former workplace quite bitter: “You wouldn’t f—–g believe what they’ve done to the place. It’s all been streamlined. My first job on the floor doesn’t exist any more. I tell you, if I was still in management, I wouldn’t have let that happen. And the unions, they don’t give a s–t. Well, maybe they do and nobody takes any notice. … And Len, he’s got a villa on the Algarve [in Portugal]. Do you remember Red Len? We used to call him Len-in, and now all he can talk about is playing golf on the Al-f—–g-garve with his grandson, who’s a banker. Red Len, with a banker for a grandson.”

45 Years and its central motif bring to mind another work, James Joyce’s “The Dead.” But here too the differences are telling. Joyce’s wonderful story, the final and longest piece in his collection, Dubliners (published in 1914), centers on Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, guests at an annual celebration held in January at the home of his aging aunts. Over the course of the evening, Gabriel’s feelings for his wife, with whom he is going to spend a rare night in a hotel, grow in intensity. By the time they reach their room, on a snowy night, he is quite overwhelmed with desire.

Much to his consternation, Gabriel learns that the performance of an old ballad at the party has reminded his wife of a young boy of 17, who loved her and with whom she had been in love years before in another town. The youth, already ill, had come to see her in miserable winter weather and she believes this led to his early death. Gabriel discovers that the memory of the dead boy hovers powerfully over the present. “Gabriel felt humiliated. … While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.”

But Joyce had something larger in mind than merely an individual dilemma. The writer had left Ireland in disgust at its oppressiveness and backwardness in 1904. The “Dead” in the title who weigh so heavily on the living refers not simply to the boy who died tragically and whose memory endures, but to the condition of everyone in the story, the sentimental, nostalgic, self-pitying Irish urban petty bourgeois, “the living-dead who still inhabit a ghost world,” as commentator Charles Peake noted. These are “people who have allowed their lives to be annexed by the dead.” Dublin’s population is paralyzed, living in “a moribund city, where warmth and romance belong only to the memory of the dead who are buried.” Although the story is written with great sympathy for the individual characters, Joyce’s disgust and even horror at the general Irish malaise come through.

Contemporary artists and filmmakers generally ask considerably less of themselves. As a result, the ability of their work to penetrate and influence deeply is sharply limited. 45 Years is intelligently done, but the filmmakers’ reduction of the drama to the fate of a couple of dissatisfied souls takes its toll. The opportunity was there, for example, to consider the influence of memories—or fantasies—about the more “liberated” 1960s on a certain generation, an ongoing and very tangible social phenomenon, but it was not taken.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/05/45ye-f05.html

Sanders and the left feint in capitalist politics

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, to discuss Republican efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare and other programs that have an impact on working families. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, became the ranking minority member on the Senate Budget Committee when the new GOP-controlled Congress began. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

6 February 2016

Four days before the first presidential primary election, self-styled “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders holds a double-digit lead in New Hampshire over the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The first national poll taken in the wake of Sanders’s virtual tie with Clinton in the Iowa caucuses showed that the senator from Vermont had surged nationally, trailing Clinton by only a narrow margin, 44 percent to 42 percent. If confirmed in subsequent polling, this would signal a remarkable shift in political sentiment compared to three months ago, when Clinton led Sanders by 61 percent to 30 percent.

The growing support for Sanders signals a dramatic change in the political environment in the United States, and hence, the world. It is all the more remarkable in a country where socialist ideas have been suppressed and excluded from official political discourse for three-quarters of a century.

The past three decades, in particular, have seen an extraordinary lowering of political culture, even by the standards of American politics. The political environment has been utterly stagnant, dominated by a relentless glorification of wealth and the exclusion of anything that smacks of genuine opposition. Every State of the Union address, including President Obama’s last month, has carried the obligatory assurance of how good things are in America.

The corporate media have perfected the art of creating a synthetic public opinion that bears no relation to the real sentiments of the vast bulk of the population, and then using that supposed public consensus to justify the reactionary policies of the ruling class. The broad support for Sanders and the crisis of the supposedly unbeatable Clinton campaign, which have taken the entire political and media establishment by surprise, have exposed the fraudulent character of what has passed for public opinion.

Particularly noteworthy is the radicalization among young people, who sided with Sanders over Clinton in the Iowa caucuses by 84 percent to 14 percent. Sanders leads Clinton by similar margins among likely Democratic primary voters 30 and under in New Hampshire, according to the most recent polls.

As Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell grudgingly admitted in the Friday edition of the newspaper, the current generation of youth, to which she belongs, “love Sanders not despite his socialism, but because of it… Many of us also entered the job market just as unbridled capitalism appeared to blow up the world economy. Perhaps for this reason, millennials actually seem to prefer socialism to capitalism.”

The support for Sanders is inextricably linked to his professions of intransigent hostility to the financial aristocracy that dominates American society. In Thursday night’s debate in New Hampshire, Sanders declared again that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud,” while reiterating his criticisms of Clinton for accepting millions in campaign contributions and speaker’s fees from Goldman Sachs and other major financial institutions. The entire first hour of the debate was devoted to a discussion of the pernicious role of big business and whether the major banks should be broken up to prevent a recurrence of the 2008 Wall Street crash.

The rise of Sanders is a response to decades of war and reaction, culminating in the financial collapse of 2008, with its devastating impact on social conditions in the United States. As the consequences of the global crisis of capitalism have unfolded—the destruction of decent-paying jobs, the austerity policies of capitalist governments throughout the world, the buildup of the forces of a police state to suppress working class opposition, and the unending series of wars by American imperialism—tens of millions of workers and youth have begun to draw increasingly radical conclusions.

There are signs of panic setting in within the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party establishment as a whole. This is not because they view Sanders himself as a threat to capitalism or the political domination of the corporate-financial elite. The ruling class has a long experience with the “independent socialist” from Vermont. For decades, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate, he has caucused with the Democratic Party and supported every Democratic presidential candidate and every Democratic administration.

Always treated respectfully, he has been seen as a valuable political asset, providing a left cover for the Democratic Party and promoting the illusion that this right-wing capitalist party is somehow a progressive party of the people.

However, the popular credibility of the Democrats has been massively undermined by seven years of the Obama administration. In this situation, the grave danger confronting the American capitalist class is the emergence of a political movement outside the two-party system that challenges the domination of the super-rich over every aspect of US society. Bernie Sanders is not the herald of such a movement, but a false prophet who is neither genuinely socialist nor genuinely independent.

The Socialist Equality Party evaluates the significance of the Sanders campaign not by its campaign promises, or the illusions of those who now support him, but on the basis of a Marxist analysis of objective class relations and a historically grounded international perspective.

The rise of the Vermont “socialist” is not purely an American phenomenon, but the American expression of an international process. In country after country, under the impact of the global economic crisis of capitalism, the ruling class has brought forward “left” bourgeois parties to divert mass opposition into harmless channels. This is the role of figures like Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party in Britain, and Podemos in Spain, now maneuvering to form a coalition government with the discredited social democrats. In the most extreme cases, as in Greece, the “left” has been brought directly into power, in the form of the Syriza government, and charged with the responsibility of imposing capitalist austerity policies on the masses.

Leon Trotsky, the co-leader of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, explained how the ruling class manipulates the political system within the framework of bourgeois democracy. “The capitalist bourgeois calculates,” he wrote, “’At the right moment I will bring into existence opposition parties, which will disappear tomorrow, but which today accomplish their mission by affording the possibility of the lower middle class expressing their indignation without hurt therefrom for capitalism’” (Terrorism and Communism, p. 58).

If the American financial aristocracy thought Sanders represented a genuine threat to its interests, it would not be putting him on national television to deliver his jeremiads before a mass audience. The ruling elite has more than a century of experience in the use of such figures to manipulate mass sentiment and safeguard the profit system from challenges from below. These include third-party efforts like the Populist Party of the 1890s, the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, the Farmer-Labor Party of Robert La Follette in Wisconsin in the 1920s (and related groups in Minnesota and the Dakotas) and the Progressive Party of Henry Wallace in 1948. All these campaigns dissolved, sooner or later, back into the Democratic Party.

In the past half-century, the ruling elite has sought to avoid any significant “left” third-party efforts, using the Democratic Party itself as the principal vehicle for containing and dissipating mass popular opposition to the US ruling elite, whether over the Vietnam War, the violent attacks on labor struggles in the 1980s, or the endless wars in the Middle East and the staggering growth of social inequality. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 were followed by Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Howard Dean in 2004, and now Bernie Sanders.

Considered in this historical framework, what is remarkable about Sanders is how vacuous his supposed radicalism really is. He is far less radical in his domestic policy than the Populists, the anti-Wall Street presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, and the Farmer-Laborites. In the crucial area of foreign policy, he is virtually indistinguishable from Obama and Hillary Clinton, even attacking them from the right on issues like trade with China. When asked directly last year about his attitude to US military intervention abroad, he declared he was for “drones, all that and more.”

If Sanders goes on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, he will betray the aspirations of his supporters flagrantly and with extraordinary speed. A thousand excuses will be brought forward to explain why the wars must continue abroad and nothing can be done to rein in Wall Street at home.

Sanders is not the representative of a working class movement. He is rather the temporary beneficiary of a rising tide of popular opposition that is passing through only its initial stages of social and class differentiation.

The Socialist Equality Party welcomes every sign of a leftward movement and radicalization among workers and youth. The objective conditions of capitalist crisis and imperialist war are the driving forces of a profound leftward shift in the consciousness of tens of millions. But there is nothing more contemptible than to patronize and adapt to the illusions that characterize the present, initial stage in the development of class consciousness and popular opposition. That is the specialty of the various pseudo-left appendages of the ruling class and the Democratic Party.

It is legitimate for genuine socialists to adopt a sympathetic and patient attitude to the growth of popular opposition, but it is politically impermissible to politically adapt to the movement’s prevailing level of understanding. It is necessary to expose the contradiction between Sanders’ social demagogy and his bourgeois program, without suggesting that he can be pushed to the left by popular pressure from below.

The task taken up by the Socialist Equality Party is to open up a new path for the movement of the working class and lay the foundations for a broadening and deepening of the radicalization, breaking irrevocably from the Democratic Party and all forms of bourgeois politics and establishing the political independence of the working class. This is the essential basis for transforming the growing opposition into a conscious political and revolutionary movement for international socialism. The prerequisite for this task is to tell the working class the truth.

Patrick Martin

 

https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/06/pers-f06.html

White America’s ‘Broken Heart’

On Sunday, at the Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines, former President Bill Clinton, looking frail and sounding faint, stumped for his wife, working through her qualifications with a husband’s devotion and a Svengali’s facility.

But one thing he said stood out to me for its clear rhetorical framing.

He attributed much of the anger that’s present in the electorate to anxiety over a changing demographic profile of the country, but then said: We are going to share the future. The only question is: What will be the terms of the sharing?

This idea of negotiating the terms of sharing the future is an expansive one, on both ends of the ideological spectrum, but it also seems to me to be an internal debate white America is having with itself.

Much of the energy on both the left and the right this cycle is coming from white Americans who are rejecting the direction of America and its institutions. There is a profound disappointment. On one hand, it’s about fear of dislocation of supremacy, and the surrendering of power and the security it provides. On the other hand, it’s about disillusionment that the game is rigged and the turf is tilted. It is about defining who created this country’s bounty and who has most benefited from it.

White America is wrestling with itself, torn between two increasingly distant visions and philosophies, trying to figure out if the country should retreat from its present course or be remade.

The results from the Iowa caucuses revealed that Republican caucusgoers gave roughly even support to the top three finishers — Ted Cruz, a much-loathed anti-institutional who has shown a pyromaniac’s predilection for wanting to torch Washington rather than make it work; the real estate developer spouting nativist and even fascist policies with the fervor of a prosperity preacher; and Marco Rubio, a too-slick-to-be-trusted stripling who oozes ambition with every obviously rehearsed response.

On the left, the white vote was nearly evenly split in Iowa between Hillary Clinton, a pragmatist who believes that the system can be fixed, and Bernie Sanders, a revolutionary who believes that system must be dismantled. At least on the Democratic side, age, income and liberalism seemed to be the fault lines — older, wealthier, more moderate people preferred Clinton and younger, less wealthy and “very liberal” people preferred Sanders.

Clinton won the support of nonwhites in Iowa 58 percent to Sanders’s 34 percent. This gap also exists — and has remained stubbornly persistent — in national polls, and in some polls is even wider. For instance, according to a January Monmouth University Poll, nationwide black and Latino support for Clinton was 71 percent as opposed to 21 percent for Sanders. At this point, this is a settled issue for nonwhite voters, and those voters are likely to be Democratic primary king- or queen-makers.

During Bill Clinton’s speech on Sunday, he brought up the recent report about the rising death rate among some white people in America.

As Gina Kolata reported in November in The New York Times:

“Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.”

He rattled off the reasons for this rise — suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses — and then concluded that these white Americans were dying of “a broken heart.”

It was, again, an interesting framing: that these people dying of sadness and vice were simply the leading edge of a tragic, morbid expression of a disappointment and fear shadowing much of white America.

America has a gauzy, romanticized version of its history that is largely fiction. According to that mythology, America rose to greatness by sheer ruggedness, ingenuity and hard work. It ignores or sidelines the tremendous human suffering of African slaves that fueled that financial growth, and the blood spilled and dubious treaties signed with Native Americans that fueled its geographic growth. It ignores that the prosperity of some Americans always hinged on the oppression of other Americans.

Much of America’s past is the story of white people benefiting from a system that white people designed and maintained, which increased their chances of success as it suppressed those same chances in other groups. Those systems persist to this day in some disturbing ways, but the current, vociferous naming and challenging of those systems, the placing of the lamp of truth near the seesaw of privilege and oppression, has provoked a profound sense of discomfort and even anger.

In Sanders’s speech following the Iowa caucuses, he veered from his position that this country “in many ways was created” on “racist principles,” and instead said: “What the American people understand is this country was based and is based on fairness.” Nonwhite people in this country understand that as a matter of history and heritage this simply isn’t true, but it is a hallowed ideal for white America and one that centers the America ethos.

Indeed, the current urgency about inequality as an issue is really about how some white Americans are coming to live an experience that many minorities in this country have long lived — structural inequity has leapt the racial barrier — and that the legacy to which they fully assumed they were heirs is increasingly beyond their grasp.

Inequality has been a feature of the African-American condition in this country since the first black feet touched this ground.

Last month, the MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes tweeted: “This campaign is starting to feel more and more like a long, national nervous breakdown.” For white America, I believe this is true.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/04/opinion/white-americas-broken-heart.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1

America’s New Vietnam Is the Middle East

WORLD

Rather than a rush to yet more war, it’s time to have a real national debate on the subject.

Close up of the flag of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on silky fabric.
Photo Credit: Ronnie Chua

Who even remembers the moment in mid-February 2003, almost 13 years ago, when millions of people across this country and the planet turned out in an antiwar moment unique in history? It was aimed at stopping a conflict that had yet to begin. Those demonstrators, myself included, were trying to put pressure on the administration of George W. Bush not to do what its top officials so visibly, desperately wanted to do: invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, garrison it for decades to come, and turn that country into an American gas station. None of us were seers. We didn’t fully grasp what that invasion would set off, nor did we imagine a future terror caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but we did know that, if it was launched, some set of disasters was guaranteed; we knew beyond a doubt that this would not end well.

We had an analysis of the disaster to come and you could glimpse it on the handmade signs we carried to those vast demonstrations (some of which Irecorded at the time): “Remember when presidents were smart and bombs were dumb?”; “Contain Saddam — and Bush”; “Use our might to persuade, not invade”; “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?”; “Pre-emptive war is terrorism”; “We don’t buy it, liberate Florida”; and so on. We felt in our bones that it was no business of Washington’s to decide what Iraq should be by force of arms and that American imperial desires in the Greater Middle East were suspect indeed. And we turned out to make that point so impressively that, on the front page of the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler referred to us as the planet’s second superpower. (“The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”)

Of course, this vast upsurge of global opposition would prove to be right on the mark, while all the brilliant policymakers and pundits in Washington who beat the drums loudly for war were desperately wrong. And yet the invasion did happen and, in its disastrous wake, we, not they, were wiped out of history. None of us would be consulted when the retrospectives began. No one would want to hear from those who had been right about the invasion (only officials and “experts” who had been dismally wrong). In the process that pre-war movement of ours would essentially be erased from history.

Mind you, we knew that, whatever we did, George W. Bush was bound and determined to invade Iraq. As I put it that February, “I’m not a total fool. I know — as I’ve long been writing in these dispatches — that this administration is hell-bent for a war. The build-up in the Gulf during these days of demonstrations has been unceasing. I still expect that war to come, and soon. Nonetheless, I find myself amazed by the variegated mass of humanity that turned out yesterday… The world has actually spoken and largely in words of its own. It has issued a warning to our leaders, which, given the history of ‘the people’ and the countless demonstrations of the people’s many (sometimes frightening) powers from 1776 on, is to be ignored at the administration’s peril.”

On that, unfortunately, I was wrong. We were indeed ignored and it didn’t prove to be “at the administration’s peril” (not in the normal sense anyway). The large-scale antiwar movement barely made it into the war years. There were a couple of massive demonstrations still to come, but as time went on, as things got worse, as the situation in Iraq devolved and those millions of demonstrators were proven to have been unbearably on the right side of history, the antiwar movement itself essentially disappeared, except for scattered veterans’ groups and heroic protesters like the members of Code Pink.

At a time when Americans should have been in the streets saying hell no, we better not go, the Bush administration and then the Obama administration were repeating the same militarized mistakes endlessly, while turning the Greater Middle East into a charnel house of failure. Today, as Pentagon officials prepare for their next set of forays, interventions, drone assassination campaigns, and special ops raids in, among other places, Libya — and what could possibly go wrong there? — next to no one is pressuring or opposing them, next to nothing is in their way. As a result, TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus’s latest post on what’s missing from the missing antiwar movement in America couldn’t be more timely. Tom Engelhardt

America’s New Vietnam in the Middle East: A Civil War Story About the Islamic State Might Spark a Peace Movement

by Ira Chernus

It was half a century ago, but I still remember it vividly. “We have to help South Vietnam,” I explained. “It’s a sovereign nation being invaded by another nation, North Vietnam.”

“No, no,” my friend protested. “There’s just one Vietnam, from north to south, divided artificially. It’s a civil war. And we have no business getting involved. We’re just making things worse for everyone.”

At the time, I hadn’t heard anyone describe the Vietnam War that way. Looking back, I see it as my first lesson in a basic truth of political life — that politics is always a contest between competing narratives. Accept a different story and you’re going to see the issue differently, which might leave you open to supporting a very different policy. Those who control the narrative, that is, are likely to control what’s done, which is why governments so regularly muster their resources — call it propaganda or call it something else — to keep that story in their possession.

Right now, as Americans keep a wary eye on the Islamic State (IS), there are only two competing stories out there about the devolving situation in the Middle East: think of them as the mission-creep and the make-the-desert-glow stories. The Obama administration suggests that we have to “defend” America by gradually ratcheting up our efforts, from air strikes to advisers to special operations raids against the Islamic State. Administration critics, especially the Republican candidates for president, urge us to “defend” ourselves by bombing IS to smithereens, sending in sizeable contingents of American troops, and rapidly upping the military ante. Despite the fact that the Obama administrationand Congress continue to dance around the word “war,” both versions are obviously war stories. There’s no genuine peace story in sight.

To be sure, peace activists have been busy poking holes in the two war narratives. It’s not hard. As they point out, U.S. military action against IS is obviously self-defeating. It clearly gives the Islamic State exactly what it wants. For all its fantasies of an apocalyptic final battle with unbelievers, that movement is not in any normal sense either planning to attack the United States or capable of doing so. Its practical, real-world goal is to win over more Muslims to its side everywhere. Few things serve that purpose better than American strikes on Muslims in the Middle East.

If IS launches occasional attacks in Europe and tries to inspire them here in the U.S., it’s mainly to provoke retaliation. It wants to be Washington’s constant target, which gives it cachet, elevating its struggle. Every time we take the bait, we hand the Islamic State another victory, helping it grow and launch new “franchises” in other predominantly Muslim nations.

That’s a reasonable analysis, which effectively debunks the justifications for more war. It’s never enough, however, just to show that the prevailing narrative doesn’t fit the facts. If you want to change policy, you need a new story, one that fits the facts far better because it’s built on a new premise.

For centuries, scientists found all sorts of flaws in the old notion that the sun revolves around the Earth, but it held sway until Copernicus came up with a brand-new one. The same holds true in politics. What’s needed is not just a negative narrative that says, “Here’s why your ideas and actions are wrong,” but a positive one that fits the facts better. Because it’s built on a new premise, it can point to new ways to act in the world, and so rally an effective movement to demand change.

At their best, peace movements in the past always went beyond critique to offer stories that described conflicts in genuinely new ways. At present, however, the U.S. peace movement has yet to find the alternative narrative it needs to talk about the Islamic State, which leaves it little more than a silent shadow on the American political scene.

Vietnam Redux

That’s not to say that the peace movement is stuck story-less. One potentially effective narrative that might bring it back to life is sitting in plain view, right there in the peace activists’ most common critique of the U.S. war against the Islamic State.

IS is not making war on the U.S., the critique explains, nor on Europe. Its sporadic attacks on those “infidel” lands aim primarily to radicalize Muslims living there in hopes of recruiting them. Indeed, all IS strategies are geared toward winning Muslims to its side and gaining more traction in predominantly Muslim lands. That’s where the vast majority of IS-directed or inspired violence happens, all over what Muslims call dar al-Islam, “the home of Islam,” fromNigeriato Syria to Indonesia.

The problem for the Islamic State: the vast majority of Muslims are just not buying its story. In fact, IS is making enemiesas well as friends everywhere it goes. In other words, it is involved in a civil war within dar al-Islam.

Every step we take deeper into that civil war is a misstep that only makes us more vulnerable. The stronger our stand against the Islamic State, the more excuses and incentives we give it to try to attack us, and the easier it is for IS to recruit fighters to do the job. The best way to protect American lives is to transcend our fears and refuse to take sides in someone else’s civil war.

That’s the positive narrative waiting to be extracted from the peace movement’s analysis. One big reason the movement has had such a paltry influence in these years: it’s never spelled out this “Muslim civil war” narrative explicitly, even though it fits the facts so much better than either of the war stories on offer. It radically shifts our perception of the situation by denying the basic premise of the dominant narrative — that IS is making war on America so we must make war in return. It points to a new policy of disengagement.

And it’s a simple, powerful story for Americans because it’s so familiar. It sends us back half a century and half a world away — to Vietnam. At that time, my friend and (a bit later) I, too, embraced the narrative that Vietnam was indeed gripped by a civil war. That explanation would play a major role in boosting the success of the Sixties peace movement. Within a few years, many millions of Americans, citizens and soldiers alike, saw the conflict that way — and not so many years after, all U.S. troops were gone from Vietnam.

The peace movement’s story then was both simple and accurate. No, it said, we’re not the good guys protecting one independent nation from invasion by another nation. Nor are we fighting an enemy intent on doing us harm. Boxing champion Muhammad Ali got it right when he said: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”

Intervening in Vietnam’s civil war cost us more than 58,000 American lives anddid untold damageto the vets who survived, not to speak of what it didto millions of Vietnamese. It showed us that, no matter how superior our technology, we could not swoop in and win someone else’s civil war. Our intervention was bound to do more harm than good.

Fifty years later, we are repeating the same self-defeating mistake. Military action against the Islamic State is leading us into another Vietnam-like “quagmire,” this time in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East. Once again, we have enmeshed ourselves in a complex civil war abroad with no strategy that can lead to victory. It was wrong then. It’s wrong now.

To put it mildly, the U.S. has a less than stellar track record when it comes to intervening in other people’s civil wars. We’ve also interfered quite selectively.  In the last two decades, we stayed out of brutal conflicts in places like theCongo and Sri Lanka. So a decision not to intervene militarily in a foreign civil war should be familiar enough to Americans.

To become neutral is not to condone the grim brutality and reactionary values of the Islamic State. It’s hardly likely that twenty-first-century peace activists will give the IS anything like the sympathy many Vietnam-era protesters offered the insurgents of that moment. In this case, becoming neutral merely means suggesting that it’s not Washington’s job to fight evil everywhere. Its job is to adopt the strategies most likely to keep Americans safe.

That’s a view most Americans already hold to quite firmly. So the “Muslim civil war” story just might get a sympathetic hearing in the public arena.

The Bewildering Maze Of Muslim Civil War

Of course, the Islamic State is not involved in what we conventionally think of as a civil war, in which two sides fight for control of a single nation. Even inside Syria, the number of factions involved in the struggle, including the oppressive government of Bashar al-Assad and rebels of every stripe from al-Qaeda-linked to Saudi-linked to U.S.-linked ones, is bewildering. Since IS is fighting for control not just of Syria but of all dar al-Islam, many other movements, factions, and forces are involved in this Muslim civil war as well.

Some observers are too quick to simplify it into a battle of “traditionalists versus modernizers.” In the U.S. mainstream media that usually translates into a desire for us to intervene on behalf of the modernizers. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is probably the best-known advocate of this view. Others simplify it into a battle between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Since Iran is the leading Shi’ite power, those in the media tend to favor the Sunnis.

All these simple pictures are painted to build support for one side or another. The only kind of peace they aim at is one that leaves their favored side victorious.

In fact, no simple dichotomy can capture the tangled maze of struggles in dar al-Islam. Sunni traditionalists battle other Sunni traditionalists (for example, al-Qaeda versus IS). Modernizers join traditionalists to fight other traditionalists (for example, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in an uneasy alliance to weaken IS). Sunnis and Shi’ites become allies too (for example, Kurdish Sunnis and Iraqi Shi’ite militias allied againstIS). The U.S. supports both Shi’ites (like the government of Iraq) and Sunnis (like the oil-rich Gulf States), while it resists the growing power of both Shi’ites (like Iran) and Sunnis (like IS).

By emphasizing the true complexity of the Muslim civil war, a peace movement narrative can cast that war in a different light. Precisely because there are not two clearly demarcated sides, it makes no sense to cast one side as the good guys and launch our planes and drones to obliterate the bad guys. It’s bound to lead to incoherence and disaster, especially in this situation, where the Islamic State, however repugnant to most Americans, is arguably no worsethan our staunch allies, the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

Given the confusing, some might say chaotic, maze of intra-Muslim conflict, it is equally senseless to go on promoting the American fantasy of imposing order. (“Without order,” Friedman has written, “nothing good can happen.”) Taking this road so far has, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, actually meant unleashing chaos in significant parts of the Greater Middle East. There’s no reason to think the same road will lead anywhere else in the future.

Bring the Boys, Girls, and Drones Home

The Muslim civil war story leads directly to a radical change in policy: stop trying to impose a made-in-America order on dar al-Islam. Give up the dubious gratification of yet another war against “the evildoers.” Instead, offer genuinely humanitarian aid, with no hidden political agenda, to the victims of the civil war, especially those fleeing a stunning level of violence in Syria that the U.S. has helped to sustain. But cease all military action, all economic pressures, and all diplomatic maneuvering against any one side in the Muslim civil war. Become, as we have in other civil wars, a genuine neutral.

To call this change of narrative and policy a tall order is an understatement. There would be massive forces arrayed against it, given the steady stream of verbal assaults the Islamic State levels against Washington, which have already inspired one terrible mass killing on American soil. We don’t know when, or if, other attacks will succeed in the future, whether organized by IS or carried out by “lone wolves” energized by that outfit.

The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that none of this is evidence of a war directed against America. It’s mainly tactical maneuvering in a Muslim civil war. For the Islamic State, American lives and fears are merely pawns in the game. And yet this reality in the Middle East runs against something lodged deep in our history. For centuries, most Americans have believed that our nation is the center of world history, that whatever happens anywhere must somehow be aimed directly at us — and we continue to see ourselves as the star of the global show.

Most Americans have also been conditioned for decades to believe that what’s at stake is a life-or-death drama in which some enemy, somewhere, is always intent on destroying our nation. IS is at present the only candidate in sight for that role and it’s hard to imagine the public giving up the firmly entrenched story that it is out to destroy us. But half a century ago, it was difficult to imagine that the story of Vietnam would be just as radically transformed within a few years. So it’s a stretch, but not an inconceivable one, to picture America, a few years from now, ringing with cries that echo those of the Vietnam era: “U.S. out of dar al-Islam.” “Bring the boys — and girls and bombers and drones — home.”

And if anyone says the analogy between Vietnam and the current conflict is debatable, that’s just the point. Rather than a rush to yet more war, it’s time to have a real national debate on the subject. It’s time to give the American people a chance to choose between two fundamentally different narratives. The task of the peace movement, now as always, is to provide a genuine alternative.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.

 

http://www.alternet.org/world/americas-new-vietnam-middle-east?akid=13941.265072.3QB7qD&rd=1&src=newsletter1050050&t=10