Racism, Yes, But What About Militarism and Materialism?

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Americans are finally — or is it once again? — confronting the racism that afflicts this country and extends into just about every corner of our national life. Something fundamental just might be happening.

Yet to state the obvious, we’ve been here before. Mass protests in response to racial inequality and discrimination, including police brutality, have been anything but unknown in the United States. Much the same can be said of riots targeting black Americans, fomented and exploited by white racists, often actively or passively abetted by local law enforcement officials. If Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, was correct in calling violence “as American as cherry pie,” then race-related urban unrest is the apple-filled equivalent. 

The optimists among us believe that “this time is different.” I hope events will prove them right. Yet recalling expectations that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 signaled the dawn of a “post-racial America,” I see no reason to expect it to be so. A yawning gap, I fear, separates hope from reality.

The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom

Americans are facing “A Spring Unlike Any Before.” So warned a front-page headline in the March 13th New York Times.

That headline, however hyperbolic, was all too apt. The coming of spring has always promised relief from the discomforts of winter. Yet, far too often, it also brings its own calamities and afflictions.

According to the poet T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruelest month.” Yet while April has certainly delivered its share of cataclysms, March and May haven’t lagged far behind. In fact, cruelty has seldom been a respecter of seasons. The infamous influenza epidemic of 1918, frequently cited as a possible analogue to our current crisis, began in the spring of that year, but lasted well into 1919.

Or Going Off-Script in the Age of Trump

The impeachment of the president of the United States! Surely such a mega-historic event would reverberate for weeks or months, leaving in its wake no end of consequences, large and small. Wouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it?

Truth to tell, the word historic does get tossed around rather loosely these days. Just about anything that happens at the White House, for example, is deemed historic. Watch the cable news networks and you’ll hear the term employed regularly to describe everything from Oval Office addresses to Rose Garden pronouncements to press conferences in which foreign dignitaries listen passively while their presidential host pontificates about subjects that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with him.

Of course, almost all of these are carefully scripted performances that are devoid of authenticity. In short, they’re fraudulent. The politicians who participate in such performances know that it’s all a sham. So, too, do the reporters and commentators paid to “interpret” the news. So, too, does any semi-attentive, semi-informed citizen.

Yet on it goes, day in, day out, as politicians, journalists, and ordinary folk collaborate in manufacturing, propagating, and consuming a vast panoply of staged incidents, which together comprise what Americans choose to treat as the very stuff of contemporary history. “Pseudo-events” was the term that historian Daniel Boorstin coined to describe them in his classic 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. The accumulation of such incidents creates a make-believe world. As Boorstin put it, they give rise to a “thicket of unreality that stands between us and the facts of life.”

The “Revolution of ’89” Reassessed

Thirty years ago this month, President George H.W. Bush appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver his first State of the Union Address, the first post-Cold War observance of this annual ritual. Just weeks before, the Berlin Wall had fallen. That event, the president declared, “marks the beginning of a new era in the world’s affairs.” The Cold War, that “long twilight struggle” (as President John F. Kennedy so famously described it), had just come to an abrupt end. A new day was dawning. President Bush seized the opportunity to explain just what that dawning signified.

“There are singular moments in history, dates that divide all that goes before from all that comes after,” the president said. The end of World War II had been just such a moment. In the decades that followed, 1945 provided “the common frame of reference, the compass points of the postwar era we’ve relied upon to understand ourselves.” Yet the hopeful developments of the year just concluded — Bush referred to them collectively as “the Revolution of ’89” — had initiated “a new era in the world’s affairs.”

While many things were certain to change, the president felt sure that one element of continuity would persist: the United States would determine history’s onward course. “America, not just the nation but an idea,” he emphasized, is and was sure to remain “alive in the minds of people everywhere.”

How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory

Donald Trump was born in June 1946, the son of a wealthy New York real estate developer. I was born thirteen months later in Normal, Illinois. My parents, both World War II veterans, were anything but wealthy. At the time of my birth, my father was attending college on the GI Bill, with my mother, a former army nurse, working to keep our family afloat. In most respects, Trump and I had (and have) almost nothing in common.

Yet however the particulars may have differed, he and I were, in another sense, born in the same place, governed by certain identifiable propositions. Just then beginning to assume concrete form, those propositions informed post–World War II America. They described a way of life and defined what it meant to be an American. They conferred prerogatives and apportioned benefits. And not least of all, they situated the United States in the stream of history. Metaphysically, even though we have never met, Trump and I are kin—white heterosexual males who came of age at a time when white heterosexual males were granted first claim on all the privileges heralded by an American Century just then hitting its stride.

At the time of his birth and mine, ordinary Americans, whatever their race, gender, or sexual orientation, wanted nothing more than to move past the trials of the recent past, and the sooner the better. Mobilizing the nation for total war, a process directed from Washington, had taken years to accomplish. Demobilization, driven from the bottom up, occurred virtually overnight as the armed forces of the United States all but disintegrated. In the wake of Japan’s surrender in September 1945, an eruption of civil disobedience unlike any in U.S. history swept through the ranks of the armed forces, an event all the more remarkable in that it was without structure or leaders. America’s citizen soldiers were done with war and done with taking orders. With millions of GIs demanding to shed their uniforms and their loved ones echoing those demands, authorities in Washington had no option but to comply.1

Donald Trump and the Ten Commandments (Plus One) of the National Security State

Let us stipulate at the outset that Donald Trump is a vulgar and dishonest fraud without a principled bone in his corpulent frame. Yet history is nothing if not a tale overflowing with irony. Despite his massive shortcomings, President Trump appears intent on recalibrating America’s role in the world. Initiating a long-overdue process of aligning U.S. policy with actually existing global conditions just may prove to be his providentially anointed function. Go figure.

The Valhalla of the Indispensable Nation is a capacious place, even if it celebrates mostly white and mostly male diversity. Recall that in the eighteenth century, it was a slaveholding planter from Virginia who secured American independence. In the nineteenth, an ambitious homespun lawyer from Illinois destroyed slavery, thereby clearing the way for his country to become a capitalist behemoth. In the middle third of the twentieth century, a crippled Hudson River grandee delivered the United States to the summit of global power. In that century’s difficult later decades, a washed-up movie actor declared that it was “morning in America” and so, however briefly, it seemed to be. Now, in the twenty-first century, to inaugurate the next phase of the American story, history has seemingly designated as its agent a New York real estate developer, casino bankruptee, and reality TV star.

In all likelihood, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan would balk at having Donald Trump classified as their peer. Yet, however preposterously, in our present moment of considerable crisis, he has succeeded them as the nation’s Great Helmsman, albeit one with few ideas about what course to set. Yet somehow Trump has concluded that our existing course has the United States headed toward the rocks.  He just might be right.

Putting Donald Trump’s Impeachment in Context

There is blood in the water and frenzied sharks are closing in for the kill. Or so they think.

From the time of Donald Trump’s election, American elites have hungered for this moment. At long last, they have the 45th president of the United States cornered. In typically ham-handed fashion, Trump has given his adversaries the very means to destroy him politically. They will not waste the opportunity. Impeachment now — finally, some will say — qualifies as a virtual certainty.

No doubt many surprises lie ahead. Yet the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives have passed the point of no return. The time for prudential judgments — the Republican-controlled Senate will never convict, so why bother? — is gone for good. To back down now would expose the president’s pursuers as spineless cowards. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC would not soon forgive such craven behavior.

So, as President Woodrow Wilson, speaking in 1919 put it, “The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God.” Of course, the issue back then was a notably weighty one: whether to ratify the Versailles Treaty. That it now concerns a “Mafia-like shakedown” orchestrated by one of Wilson’s successors tells us something about the trajectory of American politics over the course of the last century and it has not been a story of ascent.

Leaving a Misguided War and Choosing Not to Look Back

When the conflict that the Vietnamese refer to as the American War ended in April 1975, I was a U.S. Army captain attending a course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. In those days, the student body at any of our Army’s myriad schools typically included officers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Since ARVN’s founding two decades earlier, the United States had assigned itself the task of professionalizing that fledgling military establishment. Based on a conviction that the standards, methods, and ethos of our armed forces were universally applicable and readily exportable, the attendance of ARVN personnel at such Army schools was believed to contribute to the professionalizing of the South Vietnamese military.

Evidence that the U.S. military’s own professional standards had recently taken a hit — memories of the My Lai massacre were then still fresh — elicited no second thoughts on our part. Association with American officers like me was sure to rub off on our South Vietnamese counterparts in ways that would make them better soldiers. So we professed to believe, even while subjecting that claim to no more scrutiny than we did the question of why most of us had spent a year or more of our lives participating in an obviously misbegotten and misguided war in Indochina.

For serving officers at that time one question in particular remained off-limits (though it had been posed incessantly for years by antiwar protestors in the streets of America): Why Vietnam? Prizing compliance as a precondition for upward mobility, military service rarely encourages critical thinking.