Report: Low-income households are low priority in US budget

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By Brad Dixon
6 February 2016

According to a January 27 report by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities (CBPP), the 2016 appropriations legislation enacted by Congress in December includes funding increases for non-defense programs, but the increases for social programs that benefit low or moderate income households are substantially smaller than in other areas.

Eleven subcommittees are in charge of allocating funding to non-defense programs. Two subcommittees handle the appropriations: (1) the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education; and (2) the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

These two subcommittees handle more than 80 percent of the appropriations for programs that benefit low-income groups, but saw a mere 3.6 percent growth in funding, less than seven of the other subcommittees.

By contrast, the nine other subcommittees saw increases averaging 6.9 percent.

As a result, social programs benefiting low-income households continue to lack adequate funding in the midst of growing economic inequality, high rates of unemployment and stagnant or declining wages.

For example, due to cuts to HUD funding, only about 25 percent of eligible families receive low-income rental assistance. As a result of the sequestration budgetary measures implemented in 2011, state and local housing agencies cut the number of families receiving housing vouchers by about 100,000. While roughly a third of these were restored between 2014 and 2015, the final appropriations package only managed to restore a further 8,000 vouchers (earmarked for homeless veterans).

And while the president requested $295 million to fund 25,000 new housing units for people with disabilities, the final bill only included $38 million aimed at reducing youth homelessness.

The low levels of funding appropriated to the Departments of Labor, Education and HHS means that funding for education for disadvantaged students was increased by only 3.1 percent (leaving the program at 10 percent below its funding level in 2010), while grants for job training grew by a mere 3.3 percent (18 percent below the 2010 figure).

Dramatic budget cuts were imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which has governed appropriations for the past five years and placed caps on funding through 2021. It also imposed a “sequestration” mechanism that substantially lowered caps in the event that legislators failed to agree on deficit-reduction measures.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, enacted by Congress in December, raised the appropriation caps set by the BCA for 2016 and 2017. The 2015 Act also increased appropriations for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which is used to pay for the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and is funded outside of the BCA caps.

The structure and priorities of the latest budget reflect the irrationality of the capitalist system. While social infrastructure crumbles in the US—seen most vividly in the widespread lead toxicity in the drinking water of Flint and other American cities—and vast sections of the population face poverty, homelessness and unemployment, the ruling class spends astounding sums on weapons and other means of destruction to support its endless wars abroad, maintain the unchallenged superiority of its armed forces, and conduct military provocations that threaten the outbreak of nuclear war.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/06/budg-f06.html

Whose lives matter? The limitations of Bernie Sanders

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  • February 7, 2016

Our only hope for a radical internationalist movement lies in the self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

As the next US presidential election creeps closer, a significant segment of the American left — including the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, and the socialist publication Jacobin — has thrown its support behind the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. While perhaps predictable, these stances are symptoms of an American left that is both devoid of a practical strategy for radical change and ethically bankrupt with regard to the principles of solidarity.

The principles at stake are not fringe concerns. If anything, they are basic litmus tests of any individual’s commitment to socialism and human dignity. The fact that Sanders fails these tests raises an important question: Why is a large swathe of the left promoting a candidate who is neither anti-imperialist, nor anti-border, nor even socialist?

REASONS TO REMAIN SKEPTICAL

In terms of his actual policy proposals, Bernie Sanders is a milquetoast social democrat at best. He is not an anti-capitalist; he believes in the private ownership of the means of production and production for profit. In a socialist system, the means of production are owned and controlled by the working class. Sanders more-or-less explicitly rejects this vision, arguing instead for a US version of Scandinavian social democracy: a single-payer healthcare system, free higher education, a decent minimum wage, and Keynesian economic stimulus to support employment.

These policy issues are the basic positive proposals put forth by the Sanders campaign, and they have earned him the support of many US socialists. There are good reasons to remain extremely skeptical of Sanders’ candidacy, however.

First, Sanders is an imperialist whose foreign policy is more akin to that of Barack Obama than any anti-interventionist leftist. In his platform-defining speech, Sanders calls for a new “organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century.” In Congress, Sanders has been a vocal supporter of the appallingly wasteful F-35 program, opting to designate even more funding for the US military despite an ostensible commitment to cut defense spending.

Sanders is also a long-time supporter of Israel, even going so far as to approve of Israel’s unprovoked 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 1,600 Palestinian civilians. In October, the Sanders campaign ejected a group of activists from a campaign event for holding up a vague pro-Palestinian sign. If this were not enough, Sanders clearly states that he approves of and would continue Obama’s drone targeted assassination program, which has killed over 3,300 people in Pakistan alone since 2004.

Even beyond the question of imperialism, Sanders demonstrates an almost complete lack of internationalist principle. Sanders described open borders as “a Koch brothers proposal …which says essentially there is no United States,” contending that open borders would flood the country with immigrants who would wreck the job market and take ‘American’ jobs. This sort of rhetoric should be familiar to any leftist — it is exactly the same as that used by right-wing nativists to justify violence and discrimination against migrants.

The fact that Sanders buys into such nativist fantasies is particularly appalling. In doing so, he lends credence to a narrative that displaces working class anger from capitalism, which is actually responsible for poverty and unemployment, onto working people from other countries. In effect, Sanders implies that he would be more than happy to continue the disastrous immigration policies of the Obama administration, which has broken previous records by deporting over two million people.

A WIDER POLITICAL SHIFT

More than anything, Sanders’ success is symptomatic of an ongoing political shift in the United States. Popular support for “Third Way” neoliberal politics, as exemplified by the Clintons, is crumbling. The Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have begun to reintroduce radical thought into the American political consciousness. In particular, young people are starting to recognize that capitalism is a deeply flawed system, and they are looking for alternatives.

Now is the time to articulate a coherent vision for radical change and organize in working-class communities so that we stand a chance of actualizing that vision. Organizing for Sanders, however, is not a realistic way to build a radical movement in the United States.

The arguments in support of the Sanders campaign remain remarkably unconvincing. In a recent Jacobin article, Nivedita Majumdar argues that the Sanders campaign can be used as a tool for organizing around the idea of socialism. She chides Bernie’s critics on the left for being “insular” and “apolitical,” seemingly more concerned with the social pressures of work within small activist groups than becoming politically relevant. However, as Lance Selfa points out, the strategy of organizing within the Democratic Party in hopes of building a larger movement has never been successful, despite repeated attempts by left reformists to that end.

Majumdar’s stance is based on an analysis of the American left that presumes an almost crippling weakness. She argues that revolutionary transformation is simply “not on the table,” which leads her to endorse Sanders despite his many flaws. The problem with this analysis is that it accepts defeat before the struggle has even begun. If the American left is so weak that we must be content with supporting any left-liberal candidate, how exactly do we plan to build support for the radical changes we actually need? We cannot build support for a socialist future by misleading the public about what socialism is. We cannot hope to win if we accept the premise that revolutionary change is impossible.

The American socialist left seems to be aware of many of Sanders’ limitations: his lack of genuine socialist politics, his imperialism, and his unjustifiable stances on immigration. The question, then, is why so many socialists choose to support his campaign anyway. If one’s stance on the means of production, NATO, the Israeli occupation, drone strikes and border controls are all negotiable, what positions are non-negotiable?

It is hard to believe that these shortcomings should be ignored simply because Sanders has social democratic convictions. By choosing to support Sanders, the reformist left suggests that it is acceptable to advocate for policies that seriously harm people of color, from undocumented migrants in the United States to innocent civilians in the Middle East.

A QUESTION OF LEFT STRATEGY

As much as it poses an ethical dilemma, the Sanders campaign presents the American left with a question of strategy. Reformist participation in electoral politics is appealing because the route to power appears to be a question of running a successful election campaign. If Sanders can succeed, the argument goes, why not a real socialist party in the near future?

The problem with this line of thought is that the United States is constitutionally undemocratic — its political system was explicitly designed to thwart radical change. Through the Senate, representatives of just 11 percent of the nation’s population — concentrated in some of the country’s most rural, conservative states — can veto any national legislation. Any meaningful reforms would face immediate constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, which is made up of lifetime legacy appointees whose politics are liberal at best and reactionary at worst.

Participation in US electoral politics is therefore not a realistic strategy to bring about radical social change. It is easy to believe that we can gradually transition to socialism by winning a series of elections. It is much harder to realize that this route will never deliver the change we desire, because that realization requires us to pursue strategies beyond the ballot box.

Rather than channeling popular anger into institutionalized politics, we need to articulate a vision for the radical reconstruction of the political and economic structures of society. We have to devote ourselves to the hard work of organizing in working-class communities, building power in the streets and in workplaces rather than the halls of Congress. More than anything, we have to recognize that the radical left is at its strongest as a grassroots movement and at its weakest when it tries to bargain with institutional powers.

We cannot succumb to an opportunistic streak that is more than willing to sacrifice vital principles for legal expediency and electoral fantasies. It is painful to see this tendency in today’s left, despite the myriad lessons offered by Syriza’s recent failures. A left that values minor economic gains over humanity is not worthy of the name — it is a left that has defeated itself before even beginning to struggle.

What we need now is a movement that is both rigorously internationalist and capable of victory. Our only hope for such a movement lies in the collective self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

 

Ben Reynolds is a writer and activist based in New York. His commentary has appeared in CounterPunch and other forums.

 

https://roarmag.org/essays/whose-lives-matter-bernie-sanders/

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

American capitalism has failed us

We’re overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all thriving under democratic socialism. Why is it so difficult for us to embrace?

American capitalism has failed us: We're overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before
(Credit: Kim Seidl via Shutterstock/samdiesel via iStock/Salon)

[This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print in slightly shortened form in the new issue of the Nation magazine.]

Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.

It’s true that they didn’t work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, workedonly about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends — which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.

Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafés unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.

Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America’s wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?

Ducking the Subject

One night I tuned in to the Democrats’ presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America’s crooked version of “casino capitalism” that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

He believes, he added, in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they’ve worked at producing things for the use of everyone — not the profit of a few — so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.

But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, “We are not Denmark.” Smiling, she said, “I love Denmark,” and then delivered a patriotic punch line: “We are the United States of America.” Well, there’s no denying that. She praised capitalism and “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” She didn’t seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.

The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can’t get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing “if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” (As George Carlin said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”)

In that debate, no more was heard of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. The audience was left in the dark. Later, in a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders tried to clarify his identity as a Democratic socialist. He said he’s not the kind of Socialist (with a capital S) who favors state ownership of anything like the means of production. The Norwegian government, on the other hand, owns the means of producing lots of public assets and is the major stockholder in many a vital private enterprise.

I was dumbfounded. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden practice variations of a system that works much better than ours, yet even the Democratic presidential candidates, who say they love or want to learn from those countries, don’t seem to know how they actually work.

Why We’re Not Denmark

Proof that they do work is delivered every year in data-rich evaluations by the U.N. and other international bodies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report on international well-being, for example, measures 11 factors, ranging from material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction. Year after year, all the Nordic countries cluster at the top, while the United States lags far behind. In addition, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index for 12 of the last 15 years, and it consistently tops international comparisons of such matters as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press.

What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different?  Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic Model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they are concerned, you can’t have one without the other.

Right there they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy — a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super rich. Perhaps you noticed that.

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power — not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested — by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other — but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.

In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the most income-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.

So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11% of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52%; in Denmark, 67%; in Sweden, 70%.

In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. They bamboozle the people by insisting, as Hillary Clinton did at that debate, that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams — to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Family Matters

Maybe our politicians don’t want to talk about the Nordic Model because it shows so clearly that capitalism can be put to work for the many, not just the few.

Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another — a husband, for example, or a tyrannical father.

Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” — currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.

American feminists also marched for such goals in the 1970s, but the Big Boys, busy with their own White House intrigues, initiated a war on women that set the country back and still rages today in brutal attacks on women’s basic civil rights, health care, and reproductive freedom. In 1971, thanks to the hard work of organized feminists, Congress passed the bipartisanComprehensive Child Development Bill to establish a multi-billion dollar national day care system for the children of working parents. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and that was that. In 1972, Congress also passed a bill (first proposed in 1923) to amend the Constitution to grant equal rights of citizenship to women.  Ratified by only 35 states, three short of the required 38, that Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was declared dead in 1982, leaving American women in legal limbo.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, obliterating six decades of federal social welfare policy “as we know it,” ending federal cash payments to the nation’s poor, and consigning millions of female heads of household and their children to poverty, where many still dwell 20 years later. Today, nearly half a century after Nixon trashed national child care, even privileged women, torn between their underpaid work and their kids, are overwhelmed.

Things happened very differently in Norway.  There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement — with hubby at work and the little wife at home — the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women.  Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians — still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men — surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.

Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largelyoutdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal.  (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)

To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous.  In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another.  More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice.  For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the U.S. finishes far down the list in 33rd place.

Don’t Take My Word For It

This little summary just scratches the surface of Scandinavia, so I urge curious readers to Google away.  But be forewarned. You’ll find much criticism of all the Nordic Model countries. The structural matters I’ve described — of governance and family — are not the sort of things visible to tourists or visiting journalists, so their comments are often obtuse. Take the American tourist/blogger who complained that he hadn’t been shown the “slums” of Oslo. (There are none.) Or the British journalist who wrote that Norwegian petrol is too expensive. (Though not for Norwegians, who are, in any case, leading the world in switching to electric cars.)

Neoliberal pundits, especially the Brits, are always beating up on the Scandinavians in books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs, predicting the imminent demise of their social democracies and bullying them to forsake the best political economy on the planet. Self-styled experts still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher tell Norwegians they must liberalize their economy and privatize everything short of the royal palace. Mostly, the Norwegian government does the opposite, or nothing at all, and social democracy keeps on ticking.

It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort.  You might think of it as slow democracy.  But it’s light years ahead of us.

Ann Jones has a new book published today: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over.

Wall Street donors account for 40 percent of super PAC funds in US election

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By Barry Grey
4 February 2016

The 2016 US election campaign has exposed deep-seated popular alienation from the entire political establishment and growing anger over the domination of US society and politics by Wall Street. Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, has capitalized on this sentiment by basing his campaign on denunciations of the “billionaire class” and an electoral process dominated by corporate money.

New figures on the funding of so-called “super PACs,” the nominally independent “political action committees” that are the main vehicles for corporate bribery of would-be officer-holders, shed light on the degree to which the political system is controlled by big business in general, and Wall Street in particular.

Statistics compiled from Federal Election Commission reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, an election watchdog group, and the Wall Street Journal show that cash from major banks and investment, real estate and insurance firms accounts for more than $116 million of the $290 million raised thus far in the current election cycle by super PACs and other independent campaign organizations. That amounts to 40 percent of the total.

In the second half of 2015, super PACs backing the various presidential candidates took in $100 million. Of this, $81.2 million came from the financial industry.

The weight of finance capital in funding the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans has grown by leaps and bounds, particularly since the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling that lifted all limits on corporate campaign donations via super PACs.

In the 2012 election, donations from the financial services sector comprised 20 percent, or $169 million, of the $845 million raised for the entire election cycle by super PACs and other independent campaign groups. Thus, as a share of total super PAC money, financial capital’s role has doubled in this year’s election cycle.

This compares to the “mere” $2.4 million of super PAC money donated by Wall Street in the 2004 election. Already in the 2016 election, the total from banks and financial firms is 70 times the level 12 years ago.

Former President Jimmy Carter felt obliged, in an interview Wednesday on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program, to denounce the US campaign finance system as “legalized bribery.” Carter, who was elected in 1976 and defeated in his reelection bid by Ronald Reagan in 1980, said, “As the rich people finance the campaigns, when candidates get in office they do what the rich people want. And that’s to let the rich people get richer and the middle class get left out.”

A Wall Street Journal article published Sunday provides details on Wall Street funding for various presidential candidates. The super PAC supporting Republican Senator Marco Rubio received over half of its money in the second half of 2015 from financial industry contributors. The two biggest donors were hedge fund billionaires Paul Singer (net worth of $2.1 billion) and Ken Griffin ($6.6 billion), who gave $2.5 million each in the last two months of the year. Hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness and Florida mega-investor Mary Spencer each donated $1 million.

Half of the $5 million raised by the super PAC supporting Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey came from Wall Street, including a $2 million donation in December by hedge fund mogul Steven Cohen (net worth of $11.4 billion) and his wife, who also gave a combined $2 million to the super PAC in the first half of 2015.

The super PAC backing Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas received at least $11 million from billionaire hedge fund founder Robert Mercer and $10 million from private equity firm founder Toby Neugebauer.

The super PAC backing former Florida Governor Jeb Bush raised $10 million of its $15 million for the second half of 2015 from Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of American International Group, the mega-insurance firm that was bailed out by the US government in 2008 to the tune of $182 billion. As of the end of September 2015, half of Bush’s top donors were employed by major financial firms, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Barclays, where Bush previously worked as a consultant making $2 million a year.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is no slouch when it comes to Wall Street bribes. Of the $25 million raised by the super PAC supporting her in the second half of 2015, $15 million came from financiers. Nearly half of that came from billionaire investor George Soros (net worth of $24.5 billion).

Soros gave the pro-Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA Action, $6 million in December, bringing his total in donations to $7 million. Priorities USA Action also received $3 million from entertainment industry investor Haim Saban (worth $3.6 billion) and his wife, who also gave $2 million earlier in the year.

These figures were compiled from incomplete Federal Election Commission filings, as most of the candidates and their associated super PACs had not filed with the FEC as of early Sunday evening. The deadline to do so was midnight Sunday.

The New York Times reported this week that a super PAC associated with the political network of the right-wing Republican Koch brothers (net worth of $44.3 billion each), reported Sunday that it had raised $11 million. The Koch brothers’ umbrella political organization, Freedom Partners, announced Saturday at its annual winter conference in California that it spent $400 million in 2015 to fund political and “philanthropic” organizations. That put the Koch political network at less than half of the two-year spending goal of $1 billion it announced last year.

Among those at the closed-door conference were two supporters of senators Rubio and Cruz, offering their obeisance in the hope of getting cash from the billionaire arch-reactionaries.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/04/fund-f04.html

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