Book and Music Reviews
America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy
The Truth About U.S. Foreign Policy and Everything Else
By William Blum
London: Zed Books, 2013, 304 pp.
Review by Jeremy Kuzmarov
In 1967, William Blum resigned from the State Department to protest the Vietnam War and went on to write Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower. In his latest book, America’s Deadliest Export Democracy: The Truth About U.S. Foreign Policy and Everything Else, Blum provides fresh insights on U.S. foreign policy and its double standards. He pontificates in Chomsky-esque fashion on the hypocrisy of leading politicians and media analysts who continue to claim that American intervention around the world is selfless and designed to spread freedom and democracy when it has been driven by classic imperialist motives. Blum writes “to have convinced a majority of the American people of the benevolence of the government’s foreign policy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary must surely rank as one of the most outstanding feats of propaganda and indoctrination in all of history.”
Blum’s chapter on the U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya is insightful, as he challenges the view that it was designed for humanitarian purposes. Whatever his repressive qualities, Muammar Qadaffi had long been a bête noir of American strategic planners precisely because he led the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and reinvested Libya’s oil wealth in social development, producing the best health and economic outcomes in all of Africa. Western media, along with Al Jazeera, drummed up support for the invasion by falsely claiming that Qadaffi committed genocide against his people, while obscuring the violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, U.S. client states which received a $60 billion arms shipment from the Obama administration.
The U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya compares to American efforts to overthrow Chile’s Salvador Allende and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, democratically elected leaders who promoted alternatives to neoliberal capitalism and sought to build more egalitarian societies. The invasion also resembled the “humanitarian” bombing of Kosovo in the late 1990s, which killed thousands of civilians, provoked ethnic cleansing, and empowered the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), who allied with al-Qaeda and was known for trafficking in drugs and human organs.
While claiming to fight a War on Terror, the U.S. has long sheltered right-wing terrorists and promoted terrorism, as in the bombing of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It has also sanctioned torture and death squads. Mainstream news outlets have helped to “manufacture consent” by whitewashing U.S.-backed war crimes, slandering official enemies and running fabricated atrocity stories. Much like the Sandanistas in the 1980s, Hugo Chavez was accused of anti-Semitism without any basis. His authoritarian tendencies paled in comparison to U.S. clients such as Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and the Bush administration after passage of the USA Patriot Act. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, never actually denied the holocaust, or ever called for Israel to be wiped off the map as pundits alleged in drumming up support for a possible U.S.-Israeli invasion.
Blum’s book includes rich details on CIA covert activities little known by the public, including the agency’s financing of opposition candidates in Nicaraguan elections, and the CIA’s role in trying to foment sabotage in East Berlin during the 1950s, a crucial factor accounting for the construction of the Berlin Wall. Blum emphasizes how the claim of an international communist conspiracy was utilized by strategic planners to expand U.S. foreign policy interventions throughout the Cold War. While quick to mock conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination or the CIA, mainstream historians have predominantly accepted the communist conspiracy, while marginalizing leftist critiques. CIA whistleblowers Philip Agee and John Stockwell’s books are not even cited in New York Times journalist Tim Weiner’s supposedly comprehensive history of the CIA.
Through its promotion of drone strikes and prosecution of Wikileaks whistleblowers who exposed U.S. war crimes instead of Bush administration officials, Obama’s presidency has represented more continuity than change. The signs were apparent in Senator Obama’s voting for war appropriations and in a possible family connection to the CIA. At an antiwar rally in 1965, SDS President Carl Oglesby asked the audience to “think of the men who now engineer the war [in Vietnam]—those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President [Johnson] himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.” Oglesby’s remarks remain resonant, as America’s wars are perpetual and continuously supported by liberal establishment figures such as Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry.
Hope for change lies in the buried history of GI rebellions as well as the public’s growing fatigue with the War on Terror. Blum’s book, with others of the genre, can provide an effective tool for educating the public about the horrors that have been perpetrated in their name. He includes bits of sarcasm and humor which make the book especially well suited for this task.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).
Poverty, Politics, and the Failure of Social Policy
By David Wagner with Jennifer Barton Gilman
Lynne Rienner, 2012, 207 pp.
Review by Craig Hughes
Where I reside in New York City, homelessness is at historic highs. More than 57,000 stay between the streets and shelters and the number is much higher if one counts those in jails or hospitals without beds outside these institutions or the perhaps hundreds of thousands doubled-up in apartments. Nationally, an increasing number of families are without homes. Professional advocates have continued issuing policy calls, but with little quelling effect. While grassroots movements of homeless folks have been marginal and wielded little power, the distance between professional policy advocates—people paid to have strong opinions on a given issue—and homeless people impacted by policies is ever-growing.
It’s in this context that Wagner and Gilman’s Confronting Homelessness is so important. The major question of the book is why homelessness was an issue on the public agenda in the 1980s, but faded into backlash and institutionalization by the 1990s.
Wagner and Gilman give a chronological overview of homeless policy that consistently weaves homeless struggles, advocacy efforts and policy shifts into a coherent narrative. While the authors devote some space to setting the stage of homelessness in discussing its broader history, the bulk is focused on the “new homelessness” since the late 1970s. The notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor has defined the contours of who gets what minimal type of aid and when.
Confronting Homelessness includes an analysis of decades of media stories in print and television, activist newsletters, and the authors’ reflections from front-line work and organizing. They focus on the “social construction” of homelessness: the process by which the problem became of note and how it became understood by the public. While many poor people had always been without homes, the media increasingly attended to this issue in the 1980s, offering a mix-mash of messages as to underlying causes. Advocates were impressive in their ability, particularly under Reagan, to draw attention to the growing numbers on the streets and in the shelters. Anti-Reagan efforts would become the point of convergence among the left, though the issues underlying poverty went far beyond the president’s draconian policies and included structural shifts in the economy and attacks on the poor beginning years prior.
Early on, media outlets ran stories implying even the middle class could end up on the streets in the economic downturn. This helped construct the “new homeless” as those fallen on hard times and “deserving” of charity. Homeless advocates initially made pleas for shelter and also attempted to frame homelessness as an issue that “could happen to anyone”—though it was, realistically, disproportionately an experience of people of color in urban areas.
As with other problems associated with poverty under Reagan, both politicians and advocates framed “homelessness” as an emergency, not a structural issue. For many advocates, if Reagan and the Republicans were responsible for the production of the homeless, then getting Reagan out of office would bring a new day. They emphasized Reaganomics even though homelessness had been increasing prior to his presidency.
During the 1980s and the 1990s the federal government sought to divest from public housing assistance, and crisis shelter and transitional housing became typical governmental responses to homelessness. Many advocates became invested in the sheltering industry while some homeless people sought an end to the sheltering system entirely and state commitment to “housing, jobs and income.” The authors point out that such tensions evinced themselves, for example, when homeless people picketed a courthouse where Legal Aid had pressed a suit for better shelter conditions. The protestors were infuriated at Legal Aid’s calls for better shelters instead of housing. By the end of the decade, according to the authors, homeless “protestors had unified behind slogans for housing, not shelters.”
While some leading professional advocates may have agreed with these sentiments, the sheltering industry they’d helped usher in and vowed to protect was its own impediment and many professionals were entrenched in its maintenance. By the end of the 1980s, the major policy victory was the underfunded and complicated McKinney Homeless Assistance Act that largely funded shelters and food assistance. Some argued that McKinney succeeded in pitting advocates against each other for funding and moving more intently into the world of bureaucratic governance.
With homelessness defined as an emergency issue to be solved by crisis interventions, charitable efforts with limited impacts emerged in the spirit of the 1980s celebrity-driven philanthropy. The authors cite the Hands Across America effort that raised millions of dollars with little impact. This focus on charity dovetailed with Reagan’s approach to social problems, which pushed volunteerism over state responsibility. This is an important insight, as voluntarism has continued to be cheered as an appropriate response to political and economic problems by administrations ever since.
The public understanding of homelessness, according to the authors, was limited and ambivalent. As a result of media and political rhetoric, as well as people they saw on the streets, many believed the homeless to be disproportionately mentally ill. While many advocates had sought to frame homelessness as an issue that could occur to anyone in context of hard times, they faced a consequential reality that many did not actually know homeless people and such distance could lead to reactionary responses when this “new” problem didn’t disappear quickly. Charity events failed and the door was open to backlash.
By the early 1990s, the authors argue, “compassion fatigue” and widespread “criminalization” had set in. It’s during this period where increasing numbers of anti-homeless efforts were administered in various cities. In New York this looked like efforts to push homeless people out of public areas and elsewhere it looked like instituting shelter fees and cutting food programs. In New York, such criminalization efforts became notorious parts of Mayor Giuliani’s repressive “quality of life” efforts decisive to gentrification of the City. Homelessness increasingly became institutionalized alongside other issues to be dealt with via services. Channeling political issues like homelessness into official avenues causes them to become “depoliticized and bureaucratized and kept away from public view.” It is here that the authors are most insightful.
Homelessness largely faded from the media spotlight in the 1990s. Given how homelessness was constructed in the 1980s, the election of Bill Clinton caused a muting of critique. Though Clinton’s anti-welfare efforts ended entitlement to cash assistance for many people who were homeless or at-risk of homelessness, there was little protest by the institutional left.
Moving on, the authors’ assessment of G.W. Bush’s efforts on homelessness are limited—in short, his administration helped shape the focus on “chronic” homelessness and he cheered the voluntary sector more than actually funding programs to help the poor. The authors astutely point out that the “chronically homeless” are difficult to actually define and that Bush’s initiatives to end “chronic homelessness” relied on pathologization and medical understandings of homelessness—as opposed to addressing questions of poverty and affordable housing.
What is particularly refreshing about this book about policy is that those seeking to “end homelessness” are placed front and center. Equally engaging is the authors’ willingness to discuss how advocates become co-opted into official channels—often shifting from their role as critics and protesters to “street-level bureaucrats” on the various beltways of U.S. politics.
The authors’ final assessments are provocative. They argue that “social problems that affect a relatively small number of people are generally too weak for constructing social movements, much less electoral campaigns.” Accordingly, they argue for a larger movement for economic justice and offer a critique of “identity politics” that is largely based on the inability of relatively small numbers of marginalized people to make a larger social movement to address inequality and poverty. They argue that homelessness is different from identity-based oppressions and that “identity politics” has often been “one of style rather than real social and political change.” Even when contemporary anti-poverty groups have used “militant” rhetoric, they have largely focused on reminding others of the existence of homeless and poor people via “rallies and marches” without clear goals and without clear impact.
These are important insights and very much worth thinking through. For example, even if numerically small in number, efforts of groups like ACT UP resulted in a major safety-net for people who are HIV positive. Their utilization of strategic and multifaceted forms of direct action, amongst other factors, resulted in significant concessions from the state. Additionally, struggles with “identity” at their core are often focused on questions of resource allocation and access—they are often also “economic justice” struggles. Perhaps less an issue of policy proposals, the question of how “marches and rallies” have become ineffective seems extremely important to put front and center. That is, with the growth of the non-profit industrial complex, organizing efforts have increasingly utilized a limited set of tactics that are orchestrated and stale, and persistently without impact. But what tactics can work to successfully address issues of poverty is an open question. Demands are important, but tactical choices are of equal importance.
In discussing the need for economic justice struggles, they state that Occupy Wall Street “stirred hope that some of the key underlying issues at stake (capitalism and income inequality) might be confronted.” But OWS can in some ways be seen as an example of how relying on “economic justice” rhetoric and reducing issues to class matters can also be extremely limiting. At its height in New York City, Occupy had strong middle class elements and marginalized issues of poverty in rhetoric, while often refusing to make demands on the state.
Meanwhile, the tactics that got the movement attention were often illegal or quasi-legal—park occupations, unpermitted marches, and so on. Middle America tuned in, but issues of homelessness and poverty were not seriously attended to—even though it was often homeless and poor people involved in the direct actions. When state repression caused squashed direct actionists—for example the brutal dispersal of the Zuccotti Park occupation, which was largely held by homeless and poor people—the movement largely faded.
With these examples in mind, the authors’ point of the need for a larger economic justice movement seems a truism—how such a movement will successfully be constructed is an open question.
Here in New York, like elsewhere in the country, there is a deeply-entrenched class of non-profit bureaucrats who cast opinions on policy but, as a rule, don’t change the terms of debate. Sometimes they cause direct harm to those who they “advocate” for. Yet, an organized response of homeless people has been marginal. The result has been a serious disparity between advocates efforts and any sort of movement capable of fundamentally altering the situation. The authors begin to assist us in understanding why this might be the case.
Confronting Homelessness is a very important contribution to discussions of social movements, poverty, and homelessness. It has important insights for activists hoping to contribute to struggles of poor people. It is also easily accessible and most of its chapters could easily be taken on their own as points of discussion for study groups trying to understand and organize against poverty. Highly recommended.
Craig Hughes is a member of the Team Colors Collective and lives in New York City.
Eric Clapton’s Old Sock and Tribute Concert, Love for Levon
Review by John Zavesky
Eric Clapton’s career now spans five decades and covers the driving psychedelic guitar work of Cream, the smoking blues/rock of Derek and the Dominoes and a host of FM friendly hits that include “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Lay Down Sally,” “Cocaine,” and “Tears in Heaven.” With his 21st solo release, Old Sock, Eric Clapton is no longer the firebrand guitarist burning down the house on every song. He is content to be pleasant. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, at the age of 68 with his body of work, Clapton no longer needs to prove anything.
Old Sock is a collection of 12 songs—10 covers and 2 originals. The music hits just about all points of Clapton’s storied career, from reggae to rock, from blues to standards. This is one of those “guest star” projects, with each cut featuring Clapton performing with a diverse stable of artists that include Chaka Khan, Steve Winwood, J.J. Cale, Taj Mahal, and Paul McCartney. Some might say, given the material contained, this was a missed opportunity with the band and artists assembled for the project. Old Sock plays more like Clapton getting together with a bunch of buddies and playing songs that are personal to him. Short of showing up at your house, that’s as intimate a portrait any artist can offer his audience.
The album opens with a reggae turn of Taj Mahal’s “Further on down the Road” conjuring up memories of Clapton’s early 1970’s hit, “I Shot the Sheriff,” with Mahal providing backup on harmonica and banjo.
J. J. Cale’s “Angel” compares with “Tears in Heaven,” with its sweet acoustic guitar work and soft vocals juxtaposed against razor sharp lyrics. “Born to Lose” is Clapton at his country best. “Still Got the Blues” is a great cover, showcasing Steve Winwood on the Hammond B-3. A reggae version of Otis Redding’s “Your One and Only Man” and the original “Every Little Thing” sound more like outtakes than songs that might have made the cut 15 or 20 years ago.
The album’s standout cut is another original, “Gotta Get Over.” The song opens with a driving guitar lick and sounds like it would have fit nicely in the repertoire Clapton was performing with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. Clapton comes up with a winner playing with Paul McCartney on “All of Me,” but doesn’t necessarily raise the bar with his cover of “Our Love is Here to Stay.” What makes this version click is Clapton’s laid back style and great guitar work.
Love for Levon, a tribute to the Band’s singer and drummer, Levon Helm, has many of the same pluses and minuses of Clapton’s latest. The double CD is enjoyable, but fails to raise the bar on any of the material covered. The singular stand-out song is an original penned for the concert. The Benefit’s purpose was to raise money for Helm’s “Barn,” the site of his Midnight Rambles which was the real deal in performing music Americana.
The majority of the material is songs from The Band. The source material is solid and for the most part the versions performed are enjoyable. Where the album fails is in the absence of Helm’s unique vocals. Warren Haynes turns in a solid version of “The Shape I’m In” and doubles up with Greg Allman on “Long Black Veil.” Both are fine renditions, but without Helm’s vocals, something is missing from the mix.
The concert, which took place at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey in October 2012 features a who’s who of guest artists that includes John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Allen Toussaint, Joan Osborn, Mavis Staples, Joe Walsh, Bruce Hornsby, Marc Cohn, Jakob Dylan, Roger Waters, and Garth Hudson to name just a few.
Joe Walsh performs a blazing guitar solo on “Up on Cripple Creek,” Dierks Bentley and Garth Hudson turn in a smoldering version of “Chest Fever,” and Joan Osborn rocks on “Don’t Do It.” The album’s standout song, though, is Marc Cohn’s “Listening to Levon,” which evokes the sound of The Band. The entire cast closed out the evening with a seven-plus-minute version of “The Weight.”
Love for Levon was born out of love for the artist and the music he performed. Old Sock was born out of an artist’s love of certain songs. Neither CD is going to set the world on fire, but both are enjoyable albums that showcase the performers and their material. In the case of artists like Clapton and those on Helm’s tribute, pleasant is plenty.
John Zavesky’s articles on culture have appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times.