Making Connections

Questioning Domestic Hierarchy

United States policymakers were 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 hierarchy at home.  They would have been more willing to withstand mass organizing and protest if the movement had only been concerned with American government actions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The free-floating 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, and urban poverty to the sociologist.

Emerging in the wake and building on the model of the great Civil Rights Movement, antiwar protestors saw and acted upon the strong evident connections between imperial projects – and not just those in Southeast Asia – and domestic power structures: troops returning home from the jungles of Vietnam to suppress a black rebellion sparked by racist police brutality in Detroit, the disproportionate presence of working-class kids and the sons of poor cotton farmers and ghetto residents at the front lines in Vietnam, the profits made by Dow Chemical and numerous other “defense” contractors on the rape of the Vietnamese countryside and people, the military execution of four young protestors in Kent State, and the cradle-strangling of the War on Poverty to pay for the racist butchery overseas. 

Before it was over, the Sixties rebellion challenged the legitimacy of more than US policy in Southeast Asia.  It 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 silver-spoon 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.

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 mass protest 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.  In his 1978 memoirs, Richard Nixon acknowledged that fear of the protests shaped the decision to roll back the war.  And of course, the Vietnam era White House invested considerable energy in the surveillance, infiltration and disruption of the antiwar and civil rights movements whose “free speech” rights they claimed to honor and protect.

The elite’s concerns were not limited to the viability of their campaign in and around Vietnam.  They also related to the frightening (for them) way that the antiwar movement spilled over into a questioning of domestic hierarchies and injustices. The pivotal refusal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson to give the military 200,000 additional troops in response to the Tet Offensive followed 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.”

Connecting the Dots: Linking Empire to the War At Home

No, it’s not the 1960s.  Saddam Hussein is certainly not Ho Chi Mihn.  The Iraqi Republican Guard is definitely not the National Liberation Front.  The current antiwar movement does not build on a recent explosion of civil rights activism and 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. The sneering little dull boy currently residing in the White House makes Johnson and Nixon look brilliant, mature, sensitive and statesman-like by comparison. And there is the possibility that some steam will be taken out of the antiwar movement by a very un-Vietnam-like quick and “easy” “victory” for a high-tech cruise-missile Empire, aided and abetted by a corporate-state media that has refined the art of de-sensitizing the American masses to imperial atrocity.  This possibility is small part of what the dull boy and his neo-fascist cabal are counting on.    

Still, how interesting it is to recently attend large demonstrations and meetings where participants are making a large number of free-floating connections between external American Empire and domestic hierarchy: between 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. 

Last Sunday, 10,000 gathered in downtown Chicago to hear numerous local activists, two labor leaders, three city aldermen, one state Senator and one US Congressman (Danny Davis) decry, among other things, the Bush administration’s determination to spend millions on an unjust war while continuing to ignore and indeed deepening domestic problems like poverty, racially disparate hyper-incarceration, unemployment and racial inequality. The crowd was diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and race and labor union jackets were highly visible.  More than once, speakers related Bush’s overseas agenda to the White House’s elitist class war against America’s own poor and working people – “the War at Home.” This same theme, this core connection, the same one that helped end the War on Vietnam, was also widely evident during Saturday’s large antiwar rally in Washington DC and during the remarkable mass outpourings of February 15th.   

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 of the Chicago –based Students for Social Justice 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 clearly targets the victims of domestic American racism and economic inequality for recruitment into the imperialist armed forces.

“Parallel Time”: “Victory” in Iraq as the Key to Deepening Inequality at Home

The connections between the imperial and the domestic power structures are clear in a nation where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth and 42 million Americans go without health insurance.  They are clear in a time when the White House simultaneously pushes massive tax cuts for the super-rich and plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on provocatively attacking and occupying a distant, weak, and impoverished nation in a tinderbox region of the world. They are clear in a time when, as the New York Times reported three weeks ago, White House officials and “Republicans close to the White House” see “the President’s ability to sell the public and Congress on the most ambitious domestic agenda in decades” as “linked to the outcome of the potential war in Iraq.”

 â€œVictory” in Iraq, 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” claim, the nation’s leading newspaper would describe Bush’s “conservative” domestic agenda not simply as “ambitious” but as radically regressive, repressive, authoritarian, plutocratic and racist – a perfect mirror image of an overseas agenda that serve the same basic constituencies of concentrated “private” economic power.  Consistent with the Reagan playbook from which it is lifted, the Bush domestic agenda seeks nothing less than eradication of the last vestiges of the minimally decent social policy that was still intact, in fact undergoing expansion, when the last great antiwar movement took off. 

More Gratitude for The French 

Like Nixon and Johnson, Bush publicly denies the significance of mass protest and popular dissent.  Also like his predecessors, he and his handlers like to tell us how fortunate we are to possess the elementary right to protest, denied by official enemy states to their subjects – as if Saddam Hussein were a greater threat to free speech and popular assembly in the United States than John Ashcroft. 

Their private, policy-relevant fears of the protest movement will ripen, however, as activists and citizens increasingly make and act upon the many rich connections existing between the Masters’ domestic and imperial agendas and the homeland hierarchy that underpins both.  

How interesting, finally, that we find indirect overseas allies in the effort to protect our domestic society from imperial attack. I recently wrote a ZNet article somewhat sarcastically accusing American bashers of (supposedly) “ungrateful” (because anti-war) France of themselves being ungrateful for France’s crucial assistance in the American War for Independence.  I need to add a sincere expression of contemporary gratitude to French and other antiwar protestors around the world.  They are helping Americans maintain future access to social and health insurance and other basic protections by working to stop an American imperial project the corporate-plutocratic White House sees as vital to victory in its domestic class war.  Merci!

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a frequent ZNet and Z Magazine contributor.

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