November 26, 2010

FYI: Truthdig Review of "Question of Values"

November 23, 2010

Taking It Up a Notch

Journalist Ted Rall recently published a remarkable book, The Anti-American Manifesto. It is not remarkable for its all-too-familiar argument that the US is a violent nation, by now almost totally dysfunctional and in the hands of a plutocracy. Anyone familiar with my work, or (much more likely) that of Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Chalmers Johnson et al. will not be shocked by this argument. What distinguishes Rall’s work is the explicit call for violent overthrow of the American government as the only serious way of addressing our situation. It is, thus, a courageous book; he worries that he could wind up in jail, or at the very least see his career destroyed, which is hardly a far-fetched scenario (informal censorship is very powerful in the US). But he is committed to putting the case before the American people (or more realistically, a tiny fraction thereof), that there is simply no reforming the system; that it is simply beyond repair, and needs to be replaced by something completely different.

Rall’s documentation of how violent we are and have been, and of our present decay and corruption, is quite elaborate, and certainly worth reading even if you already know the score. Thus on pp. 72-81 he compiles a table of wars the United States has been involved in over the period 1798-2007. It’s quite breathtaking, and would seem to confirm the argument I’ve made elsewhere that the country derives its identity via opposition, i.e. the creation and pursuit of enemies. (Cf. Walter Hixson’s thesis that war is at the center of American identity, as he presents it in The Myth of American Diplomacy.) The data of our dysfunction are supplied more or less randomly throughout the text: Americans live shorter lives than the citizens of almost every other developed country, ranking 42nd in terms of life expectancy; the top 10% of wage earners receive nearly 50% of all national income, and hold 80% of the nation’s wealth; a murder is committed every 31 minutes in the United States, and a rape every 5.8 minutes; more than 47 million of us live in poverty (with the definition of the term very conservatively drawn); more than 3% of the adult population is in jail, on probation, or on parole (actually, 1 out of every 31 people--!); 1 out of 5 of us is unemployed, with little prospect of altering our situation for years to come; the national debt is off the charts (see the previous post on this blog); and so on. His first conclusion, that we are in a state of advanced collapse, is by now a truism, though most of the country is in denial about this, or just simply blind to it.

Rall’s second conclusion is that there is no real political left to speak of, in the sense that it is, at best, a collection of wimps. Radical groups spend time selling newspapers on college campuses; organizations such as Democracy Now! or Common Dreams threaten no one, as the US government well knows. American college students do not call for replacing that government with something better, and if you go to the website of the CPUSA (American Communist Party), it says that it is not, and never was, “a supporter of violent revolution”—“as though impotence was something to brag about,” Rall wryly remarks. As for Michael Moore, an “agent non-provocateur,” “the best the official Left has to offer,” Rall regards the man as little more than a joke. Moore declares that the system is “fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic,” but keeps on rooting for Obama to rectify the situation. When one interviewer asked Moore, apropos of his film Capitalism: A Love Story, “Short of revolution, what can people do?”, Moore lamely replied that the purpose of the film was to open the audience to new ideas. He never questioned the interviewer’s premise, writes Rall, that a solution should fall short of revolution. “He thinks he’s dangerous,” Rall comments sarcastically.

This brings him to his third, and major, conclusion, that we must forsake the pseudo-left, start amassing an arsenal, and take over the government by means of violent uprising. This is how history works, he tells us, and of course he’s right (Gandhi excepted, I suppose). The problem I have with this, and which haunts the book, is the inability to say, precisely, who “we” is. This is the Achilles heel in the whole argument, an argument that Rall himself undercuts quite decisively at various points. For “we” seems to be basically, “the good guys”—folks like Rall, or the ones he calls “people of good will.” His definitions are as follows:

We: “Hard-working, underpaid, put upon, thoughtful, freedom-loving, disenfranchised, ordinary people”

They (i.e., the enemy): “Reactionary, stupid, overpaid, greedy, shortsighted, exploitative, power-mad, abusive politicians and corporate executives.”

And this is where things fall apart, because the stats don’t bear Rall out. By and large, Americans are not thoughtful and freedom-loving; instead, they are reactionary, stupid, greedy, shortsighted, and given a chance would like to be corporate executives raking in $50 million a year. They don’t vote for Nader or Kucinich; 99% of the electorate just wants the American Way of Life, which is stupid, greedy, shortsighted, etc., to continue. There is no interest in rebellion here: as Rall himself notes, the public collectively shrugged after the Supreme Court stole the election for the GOP in 2000, and didn’t care all that much that no WMD’s were found in Iraq three years later. Contrary to all common sense, 91% of Americans regard themselves as middle class (this from a 2008 Pew Charitable Trust poll). Americans, says Rall, believe that they are better than everyone else and so deserving of more than anyone else, and this is their religion—what he calls “the Cult of the Asshole.” So in 2009 CNN found that 50% approve of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding—torture apparently being an effective way to ensure the continuation of our Asshole way of life. Rall writes that “we” have to educate people about what is wrong with the country, and teach them how to think—“propaganda comes first,” he says—but adds that “the ability to absorb it intelligently is required before propaganda can become effective.” Meanwhile, he admits that a large fraction of the American public is illiterate, and that (CBS News poll, 2004) 55% of Americans don’t believe that man evolved (actually, I think it’s closer to 67%). “How does one reason [with them]?”, he rightly asks. Hence, “The number of truly independent-minded Americans willing and able to commit to what can and should and must be done at this time is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent.”

Then what, Mr. Rall, are we talking about? There is an endless call in this book for the reader to “stand up and act.” Again, who is We? And what is it We should do? We and whose army? A revolution requires having the military on your side, or at least remaining neutral during the uprising, and the American military is generally conservative and committed to following the government’s orders. Rall’s prescription for action is that “we” form cells and cadres—talk to a friend, spread the word, develop a decentralized revolutionary network. Meanwhile, he again undercuts his argument by observing that it is the right wing in this country that is armed and ready to take action, not the (nonexistent) left. Anger, he admits, exists on the political right; the rest of the populace is docile. It is the right that is opening camps in rural areas, accumulating weapons, training new recruits, etc. They are, he points out, preparing for war, exchanging information about these weapons and stockpiles and discussing various strategies. Rush Limbaugh, it turns out, has actually endorsed such activity, whereas there is no influential figure on the left crazy enough to publicly endorse a similar left-wing mobilization. Nor is there any popular interest in it; that strikes me as being too obvious to warrant comment.

Rall’s description of the state of disintegration and decay of the United States is right on the money. Given the stupidity and docility of the American public that he himself documents, the most likely scenario is further disintegration and decay, until, like Rome or England, we drift away to nothing. That process is, in fact, well underway. And yet, Rall persists in the fantasy that American rage will boil over into left-wing revolution; that the segment of the population that is “in the know” will obtain guns and learn how to use them; that they will take out “the idiotic, incompetent, greedy, evil, and stupid people who are ruining our lives,” even if they have to work with racist skinheads in Idaho to accomplish their goals (which Rall says might be necessary). “Unless you choose to lay down and die,” he tells the reader, “there is no other choice.” Don’t worry, he concludes: millions will be with you.

Where these millions are going to come from, of course, is not clear, for this “Rall Call” ultimately has no basis in reality, and this by the author’s own admission. The author is honest in recognizing that there can be no substantive social change in this country short of revolution; and that no matter whom we elect, no matter how many books Noam Chomsky publishes or movies Michael Moore makes, none of it redistributes power, none of it makes any difference for how business and government are actually conducted. His strange, even bizarre, error is to think that this sad and stupefied population will somehow transform itself from sheep into (left-wing) wolves. When pigs fly, is the only thing I can say in response.

©Morris Berman, 2010