One of my favorite quotations, from James Madison in 1822, is that “a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both” (this was used as the title of Nichols and McChesney’s valuable book on the U.S. media, Tragedy and Farce). We are in the midst of both a farce and a tragedy in the United States today: the farce, a government of great incompetence and hostile to the interests of the general citizenry, a leadership headed by a wild jackass, an elite including the corporate media and Democratic leadership unable or unwilling to constrain the jackass, and corruption now competitive with that of the Gilded Age. A tragedy in the huge pro-wealthy tax cuts and overlapping military and corruption waste in the face of a distressed majority and deteriorating infrastructure at home, the killing, destruction, and foregone opportunities abroad, and the domestic and global problems unmet.
By “popular government” I think Madison meant an elected government and by “popular information” I think he meant information that would be useful to the citizenry and allow them to make intelligent choices consistent with their own interests and perception of the public interest. Of course, if you have an elected government without “popular information” there is a good chance that you may end up with a government that serves the special interests that control that flow of information. In that case “popular government” would be a misleading phrase, as the elected government would likely be a servant of those special interests, as is obviously the case today.
The word “popular” is a close relative of the word “populism.” The latter is an invidious word, a word of derogation in the U.S. political economy today. The trouble with Ralph Nader in the 2000 election and Dennis Kucinich in 2008 is that they are “populists,” which means that they have called for policies that may serve the general citizenry but which are disapproved by the corporate community. This means that such candidates will not get sufficient funding to be competitive and hence can be (and are) virtually ignored as well as sneered at in the mainstream media. Candidates are vetted by anti-populists and, in a system of “golden rule,” populists are automatically disqualified, a disqualification which the mainstream media regularly implement (see Lawrence Shoup’s “The Presidential Election 2008: Ruling class conducts its hidden primary,” Z Magazine, February 2008).
But as these “populist” candidates are the only ones calling for a range of policies serving the interests of the majority—with the partial exception of Edwards whose populist positions and rhetoric have caused him to suffer dwindling attention and credibility—the media will ignore those policies and focus on the horse race among the funded candidates and occasionally some of the issues they raise, but carefully excluding discussion of the solutions proposed by the “populists” (e.g., single-payer health care reform, a rapid exit from Iraq, a massive cut in the “defense [i.e., offense]” budget, tax changes that reverse the Bush-era giveaways to the “haves”). In this way “popular information” can be kept at a minimum, the public’s electoral choices will exclude a populist who might actually represent their interests and carry out major policy initiatives on their behalf, and the farce and tragedy can continue under the auspices of either party.
Conservatives Versus Liberals, or Reactionaries Versus A Mixed Bag?
It is commonplace language in this country to call George Bush, Dick Cheney, Rick Santorum, and, say, Bill O’Reilly “conservatives,” contrasted with Nancy Pelosi, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and, say, Thomas Friedman and Richard Cohen, who are “liberals.” But this usage is badly obsolete and fails to take into account the massive shift to the right of the entire political spectrum and the resultant rightward drift in the actual policies and positions of these individuals. A conservative should want to conserve, not overthrow major existing institutions and return society to conditions in 1890, or those in an authoritarian state where the head-of-state can act without legal limits on his power to imprison, wage war, and secretly invade the private lives of the citizenry.
Bush, Cheney, Santorum, and O’Reilly aren’t trying to conserve anything. They are trying to increase elite economic, political, and social power, which entails further centralization of executive power, weakening any containing legislative and independent judicial powers, curbing individual rights, shrinking or eliminating the welfare state and any organized opposition to corporate power and freedom of action, and pressing onward with militarization and power projection (i.e., imperialist expansion) abroad. One real merit of perpetual war is that it strengthens undemocratic power at home as “national security” considerations tend to override any popular rights. The ends are reactionary and radical, surely not conservative, and tend toward a police state and some form of fascism, with the masses kept in line by force and the threat of force, as well as cultivated fear and terror-war propaganda. We should strongly object when these statist reactionaries are described as conservative.
Pelosi, the Clintons, Friedman, and Cohen fail one important classic liberal test—hostility to “the tyranny of armaments” and recognition that “the military spirit eats into free institutions and absorbs the public resources which might go to the advancement of civilization” (L. T. Hobhouse, Liberalism). They have certainly not spoken out against the militarization of the United States and power projection under the guise of a “war on terror,” have not put up a fight over the Iraq war, and have been pretty quiet about the anti-civil liberties thrusts of the PATRIOT and Military Commissions Acts. They haven’t opposed very strongly if at all the growing racism and the prison-industrial complex, or neoliberalism and the growth in inequality. They are liberal on social issues and favor mild reformist actions on health care, jobs, and environmental matters. If we put up a political spectrum line, we would have the Bush-Cheney-O’Reilly reactionaries on the right; Pelosi, the Clintons, and a large part of the Democratic party and media establishment in the mixed-bag of a social liberal-economic conservative-militaristic and moderate-expansionist center; and the majority of the public and a minority of journalists on the left (anti-militarist, anti-war, anti- neoliberal, populist). The mixed baggers have adapted to the rightward shift, thereby helping consolidate it.
Bill Clinton was notorious for “feeling your pain” as he inflicted it on ordinary citizens, with NAFTA, the WTO, and the ending of federal welfare support, and his anti-crime and anti-terrorism legislation that helped fill the prisons and fed right into Bush II policies. The major contending Democrats now favor mild reformist actions on health care and other matters, but even on these, as with Clinton, their promises as candidates tend to fade when they take office and must face the establishment’s pressures to cut spending, show their toughness in resisting their voting constituency’s demands for relief, and demonstrate their “national security” credentials. They may talk about change, but cannot be relied on to bring it about.
Czech Missile Shield
Poland and Czechoslovakia are planned beneficiaries of a U.S. manufactured and funded “missile shield” to protect them and everybody in the civilized world from Iran’s missiles that may some day be dispensing nuclear weapons. It is a bit frightening that the mainstream U.S. media can take this at face value and not see: (1) that this plan is a fraud in its pretense that it is a defensive weapon and “shield”; (2) that it is in fact an offensive weapon that must be taken as such by Russia; and (3) that producing it is one more boondoggle in a huge stream servicing the military-industrial complex and keeping the arms (boondoggle)-race flourishing.
Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon, won’t have one for years if ever, and has long been prepared to negotiate a firm commitment not to get one if the United States would guarantee abandonment of its long-standing “regime change” objective in dealing with Iran. The United States has never been willing to do this, so the “threat” is contrived and derivative of a U.S. plan of destabilization and aggression, in conflict with UN principles but still supported by the UN with its U.S.-organized threats to Iran rather than to the potential aggressor. But the “shield” plan is also insane in that an Iran with a few nuclear weapons would hardly use them to attack Czechoslavakia or Poland or the United States, for that matter. Any Iranian use of nuclear weapons on the United States or one of its allies would be suicidal. It might at some future date, if Iran did finally acquire nuclear weapons, try to use one on the United States if the United States first used nuclear weapons on Iran, but this would make them responsive to a U.S. first strike—it would not justify the shield as “defensive.”
But the placement of this “shield” right next door to Russia is an obvious threat to that country, as it could be used in a first strike against Russia with little time elapsing for Russian defense, or it would be useful in the case of a U.S.-based first strike against Russia as a means of dealing with any Russian response. The Russians feel threatened by this insane action, as they should, but the “free press” follows the official party line in considering the negative Russian reaction a bit paranoid. Imagine, however, the U.S. media’s reaction if the Russians planned on putting up such an anti-missile shield in Venezuela and Cuba, on the grounds that both countries, as well as Russia, were threatened by Israeli nuclear weapons (weapons which at least exist).
The new missile shield, and the establishment of bases all around the periphery of Russia, are very provocative. As Vladimir Putin recently pointed out, “Nobody feels secure any more because nobody can hide behind international law…. This is nourishing the arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons” (Imre Karacs, “Putin: America is fuelling worldwide nuclear arms race,” Sunday Times, February 11, 2008). But this is a plus from the standpoint of the Pentagon and military contractors, as it will justify further arms expenditures with new “threats” and maybe some nice little wars. “Blowback” is profitable, and with the “populists” marginalized, who is to stop the process?
The Five Military Nuts
It was recently reported in the press that five leading Western military officers had put forward a manifesto calling for a new NATO and a “grand strategy” to deal with the “increasingly brutal world.” The most notable feature of this new strategy is its claim that, “The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction” (see Ian Traynor, “Pre-emptive nuclear strike a key option, NATO told,” the Guardian, January 22, 2008). The reasons for the crisis, according to the five generals, are: (1) political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism; (2) the negative effect of globalization in stimulating terrorism, organized crime, and the spread of WMD; (3) climate change and the quest for energy security; and (4) the weakening of national state and international institutions like the UN and NATO.
The most notable features of this analysis and program are: first, the confusion of cause and effect and failure to see the root of the increasing brutalization in the West’s own policies; second, the deep irresponsibility and illegality of the novel new proposal; and third, the Kafkaesque idea of preventing the use of WMD by using them. The confusion of cause and effect is important for the generals because a reversal toward reality would call for a change in Western policies that are themselves brutal and that induce responsive brutality. The Iraq invasion-occupation was and remains very brutal and has admittedly provoked a resistance and given a lift to al Qaeda. Logic tells us that it was this Western “preemptive” and preventive action that was the cause of the brutality, along with the weakening of the UN and its and NATO’s excessive subservience to the United States. Logic also tells us that if the “preemptive nuclear strike” strategy had been in effect in 2002-2003, the United States and NATO might have unleashed nuclear weapons on Iraq based on a lie, thus greatly increasing the criminality of the actual “supreme international crime.”
The generals fail to see that “political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism” pervade the United States and Israel, countries that over the past decade have engaged in serial aggressions and (in the case of Israel) ethnic cleansing based on a Biblical vision of a promised land for a chosen people (accepted also by an important segment of the Bush constituency and perhaps Bush himself). Giving the go ahead for first use of nuclear weapons to these groups is especially insane. Their actions, and corporate globalization, with its mass impoverishment effects, have greatly stimulated terrorism, and organized crime, and the spread of WMD. These are responses to the impact of Western policies. The weakening of the UN and turning it into an organization servicing Western policy and the wide acceptance of the right of the strong to intervene across borders has encouraged aggression by the strong and caused weaker countries to hasten to rearm and gain WMD in order to protect themselves. The proposal of the five generals will increase that rush to WMD.
The five generals’ proposal ignores the fact that the projection of power by the Bush administration, its threat and implementation of preventive wars, and its opportunism and complete disregard of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty—except in its bearing on the nuclear policy of a U.S. regime-change target, Iran—has been a major stimulus to the global quest for WMD. A sane proposal for controlling nuclear arms would be to urge a return to and an even-handed enforcement of the NPT, which included a call and promise for a gradual reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons by the countries that possessed them, but the five generals are not interested in such ideas as they speak for the main abusers of the NPT and the countries that have engaged in serial violations of the UN Charter over the past decade.
The five generals’ proposal is a new landmark in the increasing willingness of the Western powers to assert their military muscle and enforce their vision of a neoliberal world by force and violence. It is not surprising that their dramatic new proposal for enhanced violence should be a Kafkaesque contradiction—that the West should use nuclear weapons to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. It has become so commonplace in the nuthouse for Western terrorism to be something other than terror, and Western aggression not aggression, why not nuclear bombing not being the use of nuclear weapons? Why not normalize nuclear war?
Edward S. Herman is an economist, social critic, and author of numerous books and articles.