Monday, November 21, 2011

History, Blah, Blah

Caption: A "duck and cover" drill during the Cold War. Weren't those just the best times ever? Nothing worried our little heads back then.

Glenn Greenwald makes a number of interesting points in yesterday's column, but this one stands out for me, in the context of what I've been writing recently:
The second exacerbating development is more subtle but more important: the authoritarian mentality that has been nourished in the name of Terrorism. It’s a very small step to go from supporting the abuse of defenseless detainees (including one’s fellow citizens) to supporting the pepper-spraying and tasering of non-violent political protesters. It’s an even smaller step to go from supporting the power of the President to imprison or kill anyone he wants (including one’s fellow citizens and even their teenaged children) with no transparency, checks or due process to supporting the power of the police and the authorities who command them to punish with force anyone who commits the “crime” of non-compliance. At the root of all of those views is the classic authoritarian mindset: reflexive support for authority, contempt for those who challenge them, and a blind faith in their unilateral, unchecked decisions regarding who is Bad and deserves state-issued punishment.

The roots of the UC-Davis pepper-spraying
Here I have to differ. Having grown up during the Cold War, and having seen much of the early propaganda that our government and other "concerned" organizations of the time produced, I can tell you that there's nothing new about this impulse. What's new is that it has been so successful this time.

Caption: According to Wikipedia, this is the Trinity explosion 0.016 seconds after ignition.

Image credit Los Alamos National Laboratory (via Wikipedia).

During the Cold War, we actually had a real threat to our existence, which was the threat of all out nuclear war. This is something that I think people under thirty-five have a hard time understanding - we lived with the threat of annihilation every day. I remember vividly the first time I was really confronted with this reality as a seventh grader - that the place I lived in was near enough to military targets that it could be destroyed by the huge weapons of the day, or, worse yet, that we could all be killed by the radioactive byproducts of those weapons.

Caption: In between drinks, Senator Joseph McCarthy [left] hunts for terroristscommunists.

Image credit: Library Of Congress/Wikipedia

Facing a threat like that, it should not be surprising that there were repeated calls for just the sort of things we're seeing now. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and all the foreign and domestic hijinks that followed, was an example of the paranoia and ruthlessness of those times. The Army spied on anti-war protests during the 1960s, and the CIA, with the help of the National Security Agency (NSA), felt free to spy on Americans in the name of finding out who the traitors and communists were among us. The McCarthy hearings were just another symptom of the paranoia, as good people were "black listed", prevented from finding work in their professions, because they were suspected of having communist leanings, and thus, sympathies toward the USSR. We were told that communists were everywhere, that they could be any of us.

Some of us were fool enough to believe it, too.

There were folks like the John Birch Society and Young Americans for Freedom to remind us how suspicious we should be. I remember being shown a John Birch Society film that smeared Alger Hiss as a traitor. Nowadays, we seem to remember the JBS as the nuts who were afraid of fluoride in water, but in reality they and their compatriots were a paranoid reaction to the dangers posed by the Soviet Union. Some of the dangers were real, of course, like the Red Army and the thousands of nuclear weapons the USSR possessed, but much of it was the paranoid ravings of these folks. Their message was "be afraid", and many of us never missed a chance to be.

Thankfully, calmer heads prevailed back then. The Church Committee ended domestic surveillance by the defense establishment, establishing that this was the province of the FBI. One of the results of this was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which basically decreed that any spying done by the defense establishment on Americans had better be related to foreign intelligence operations. Eventually, the USSR was shown to be the hollowed-out, corrupt empire that quickly fell apart in the late 1980s. For a little while, at least, we could rest easy, knowing that there were no real threats to our existence.

Which, near as I can tell, is the difference between then and now. Oh, that, and that we aren't facing anywhere near the danger of nuclear armageddon now.

What's changed since then, you ask? I'm not really sure. I think one answer, though, is that back in the 1950s through the 1980s, we were still led by people who remembered fighting despotism in two world wars. By that I mean, they literally remembered it. President Harry S Truman was a WWI veteran. Presidents John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush were both WWII veterans, and both were nearly killed in combat missions. Joseph Kennedy, Jr., JFK's brother, was killed when his bomber was destroyed testing a new munition. Contrast that with Vietnam, where it was rare for the sons of America's leading families to be involved. John Kerry is one of the few exceptions I can think of. Vietnam-era scions President George W. Bush and Vice President Dan "Potatoe Head" Quayle avoided serving in Vietnam. The elder Bush and the two Kennedys volunteered for service, where Little Bush and Quayle voluntarily stayed away. In contrast to the elites of our parents' and grandparents' generations, the elites of the baby boomer and younger generations have learned that they can do whatever they want, and leave all the sacrificing to the rest of us.

Caption: One of the Harolds discovers a flaw in his defense policy.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Based on Internet traffic and the like, it appears that the collective reaction to the things I've written about history and its meaning for our own political problems has produced nothing but a big yawn. History is just so darned boring, isn't it? Yet not understanding those lessons has continually led us to do the wrong things. Endless waiting for President Obama to do the right thing, for instance, could have been avoided if those people had paid attention to the lessons I wrote about in the first of these essays. What history ought to be telling us right now, in big, bold, bright letters is that the elites of our country no longer feel the need to care about what happens to us. They only cared about freedom back in the day was because they risked their own lives for it, which they now realize they don't need to do. They can and will take care of themselves.

The only way they'll care about us is if we make them.

So, I suppose I'll just keep writing about this until people get the idea, or until there is so much material that I can print it out, roll it up into a nice, solid club, and whack people over the head with it the next time they try to tell me that all this is, like, completely unprecedented and all.

I think I'd better do some weight training so I can heft it, because I think it's going to be one huge club before we're done.


Expat said...

Best of luck with that history thingie project, it looks like for "duhmericans" not only history is "off the table" as one congressional leader who shall remain nameless put it, so too are the classic sources of any discipline you'd care to name - and this holds for the "educated" classes from whence leaders are drawn. Not to end well.

Cujo359 said...

Yes, it does seem as though I'm writing to myself some days...

The elites in America don't seem to have to do anything well to get ahead, at least in the sense that they get ahead of the rest of us. The rest of us suffer from either inadequate schooling or inadequate interest, and in many cases both.

Expat said...

If you look at it from another angle, by dumbing down the 99's, then the elite don't have to be so good - a falling tide lowers expectations on all boats. ;-)

Have experienced crossing paths with folk with letters after their names, most were decent, however some thought themselves scholars as well. Funny thing, when someone has all the answers, it leaves everyone else with none. Fun ensues - usually.