The Real Danger: Questioning Domestic Hierarchy
United States policymakers were significantly encouraged to scale back and finally call off their military crucifixion of Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s by realization that their actions overseas were feeding a rebellion that endangered cherished hierarchies at home. They would have been more willing to tolerate masses of Americans organizing and protesting only against their government’s actions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The Sixties protest movement, however, did not play along. It refused to mimic the stultifying specialization and ideological discipline of modern professionalism, which assigns the feet to the podiatrist, the heart to the cardiologist, the soul to the minister, crime to the criminologist, the Vietnamese past to the Southeast Asian historian, the Iraqi present to the political scientist specializing in the Arab world, urban poverty to the sociologist, and the “workings” of the dominant political system of socioeconomic management to the economist.
It was too free-floating to respect these and other artificial, authoritarian and disabling divisions. Emerging in the wake and building on the model of the great Civil Rights Movement, antiwar protestors saw and acted upon the connections between imperial projects and domestic power structures and ideologies.
The linkages were hard to miss in the 1960s and early 1970s. Troops returned home from the jungles of Vietnam to suppress a black rebellion sparked by racist police brutality in Detroit. Working-class kids and the sons of poor southern cotton farmers and northern ghetto residents were disproportionately place at the front lines in Vietnam. Powerful domestic corporations like Dow Chemical and numerous other “defense” contractors made huge profits on the rape of Vietnam. The initially promising War on Poverty was strangled in its grave to pay for the racist American butchery in Southeast Asia.
As the Vietnam War protest movement grew in depth and breadth, American policymakers pretended not to care. They would not be affected, they told the public, by the apparently (for them) trivial mass demonstrations and dissent of their own citizenry. They made sure to remind us how fortunate we were to possess the right to protest – denied by the “Communist” enemy to its subjects.
Privately, however, the “power elite” was seriously concerned, something that Richard Nixon admitted in his 1978 memoirs – a rare if retrospective acknowledgement by a US policymaker that protest matters. Their concern was not limited to the viability of the racist and imperial campaign in and around Vietnam. It also and more fundamentally related to the frightening (for them) way that the antiwar movement spilled over into a broader questioning of domestic hierarchies and injustices.
The pivotal 1968 refusal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson to give the military 200,000 additional troops in response to the Tet Offensive followed in the wake of an interesting report he requested and received from a small group of Pentagon “action officers.” The Pentagon specialists warned Johnson that escalation “runs the risk of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions” by feeding “unrest in the cities” and furthering “the belief we are ignoring domestic problems.” (See Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, p.252)
Before it was over, the great sixties rebellion spread to challenge the legitimacy of far more than the war on Vietnam. It also questioned domestic racism, sexism, bureaucracy (corporate as well as public), authoritarianism, environmental practices, dollar-democracy/plutocracy, ideology (including the nation’s whitewashed official history), academic curriculum and the relation of all of these and other domestic problems to the nation’s longstanding addiction to imperial expansion.
No wonder leading American academics pronounced a “crisis” – meaning an “excess” – of democracy at home. No wonder an authoritarian ruling-class dullard like George W. Bush can’t think back to the Sixties without sneering, a response that covers the memory of the fear and inadequacy he must have felt in the face of popular rebellion.
No, it’s not the 1960s. Saddam Hussein is not Ho Chi Mihn. The Iraqi Republican Guard is not the National Liberation Front. The current antiwar movement does not build on a recent explosion of civil rights and related urban social justice activism, heroic Civil Rights victories and mass progressive political engagement (though it does build partly on recent impressive global justice activism). There’s no Soviet Union to set limits on the global reach of Uncle Sam.
George W. Bush makes even Johnson and Nixon look like brilliant, sensitive statesmen at home and abroad And the possibility that the steam will be taken out of the antiwar movement by a very un-Vietnam-like quick and “easy” “victory” for a New Age high-tech Empire is very real. It is certainly no small part of what the White House is counting on.
Still, how interesting it is to hear Bush denying that he will be affected by antiwar protests, no matter how large. How interesting to hear his handlers tell us how fortunate we are to possess the elementary right to protest, denied to Iraqis – as if Saddam Hussein were some kind of threat to topple the right of popular assembly in the United States. As if the right to dissent is benevolently granted to us by our social and political superiors.
And how interesting to recently attend large demonstrations and meetings where participants are making a number of free-floating connections between external Empire and domestic hierarchy: between (for example) fascist high-tech “Super-Max” prisons in Southern Illinois, racial profiling on the West Side of Chicago, under-funded schools in the south Chicago suburbs, oil fields in Iraq and base camps in Kuwait.
Between plutocratic tax cuts and racially disparate mass incarceration at home and “American” campaigns in places like Columbia, the Philippines, and Iraq. Between savage global and savage domestic socioeconomic and racial inequality.
In one recent action among many, global justice (so-called “anti-globalization”) activists turned anti-war activists led a multi-cultural group of protestors including a public housing activist and a recently released Death Row inmate (both African-American) on an attempted “peoples’ inspection” of the posh Chicago headquarters of the cutting edge multi-cultural advertising firm Leo Burnett.
How did Leo Burnett, known for commitment to racial, ethnic and gender diversity, work its way into the crosshairs of the new peace movement? By being a key part of what protest leaders rightly call “The Poverty Draft.” Building on and epitomizing the incomplete victories and cooptation of the civil rights movement, Leo Burnett receives $150 million from the Pentagon to launch the “Army of One” advertising campaign, which targets the victims of domestic American racism and economic inequality for recruitment into the imperialist armed forces.
The connections between the imperial and the domestic American power structures are deep and wide in a time and place where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth and 42 million Americans go without health insurance and the White House pushes massive tax cuts for the super-rich even as it plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on attacking and occupying a distant, weak, and impoverished nation in a volatile, unstable and dangerous region of the world.
“Parallel Time”: “Victory” in Iraq as the Key to Deepening Inequality at Home
How especially interesting, then, to read in yesterday’s New York Times (February 24th as of this writing) that White House officials and “Republicans close to the White House” “concede” that “the President’s ability to sell the public and Congress on the most ambitious domestic agenda in decades is linked to the outcome of the potential war in Iraq.”
“Victory” in Iraq, New York Times White House reporter Elizabeth Bubmiller learned from White House insiders, “is the turnkey to legislative success.” It would “give momentum to the president’s plan to cut taxes and overhaul Medicare.” “It is hard to ignore the obvious,” writes Bubmiller, “which is that Bush’s domestic agenda and a possible war are moving forward in parallel time.”
If the “mainstream” (really corporate)media were really as “liberal” or even “left” as American “conservatives” (really authoritarian right-wingers who are often quite radical) claim, the nation’s leading newspaper would describe Bush’s “conservative” domestic agenda not merely as “ambitious” but as radically regressive, repressive, authoritarian, plutocratic and racist – a perfect and directly related mirror image of an overseas agenda that serve the same basic constituencies of concentrated and heavily subsidized “private” power.
Consistent with the Reagan playbook from which it is lifted, the White House’s domestic agenda seeks nothing less than eradication of the last vestiges of the minimally decent social policy that was still largely intact, in fact undergoing expansion, when the last great antiwar movement took off.
Last Fall, I attended a talk by Rahul Mahajan, author of The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism (NY: Monthly Review Press, 2002) – an excellent book. At the end of a presentation in which he reminded listeners that the same basic power structures were served by US domestic and foreign policy, Mahajan warned (I paraphrase from memory) “we [Americans] better watch out” if “they pull this [a predicted war on Iraq] off. The White House will think they can get away with anything.” He was on to something, as Ellen Bubmiller’s story suggests.
More Gratitude for the French I recently wrote a ZNet article somewhat sarcastically accusing American bashers of supposedly “ungrateful” (because anti-war) France of being themselves ungrateful for France’s crucial assistance in the American War for Independence. I should have added a sincere expression of contemporary gratitude to French and other antiwar protestors around the world. They are helping me and my fellow Americans protect our future access to old-age social and health insurance by working to stop an American imperial project the arch-corporate-plutocratic White House sees as vital to victory in its domestic class war.
Paul Street ([email protected]) is a frequent ZNet and Z Magazine contributor.