The Circus Is In Town

The United States of Absurdity, Circa 2015

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
                                    - Franz Kafka, The Trial

A couple weeks ago, our military special operations command began an eight-week military exercise called Jade Helm 15 in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. As reported in The New York Times, some Texans worried it was “actually a ruse for a federal takeover of the state.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor movements of federal special ops elements. A group of volunteers planned to follow military vehicles they could detect and post their locations on a website.

This is not your traditional, old-school military. This is ARSOF Next. No, that’s not a movie title along the lines of Apocalypse Now. ARSOF Next: A Return to First Principles is the title of a propaganda magazine put out by the US Army Special Operations Command. ARSOF stands for Army Special Operations Forces, the doctrine specializing in surgical strike capabilities and special warfare now taking over our military.

A special ops soldier, a lecture on ARSOF Next, and a local police force having fun with a cool new toolA special ops soldier, a lecture on ARSOF Next, and a local police force having fun with a cool new tool

According to the magazine, the United States has reached a “strategic inflection point” characterized by an “uncertain strategic security environment framed by diminishing defense resources and an increasing number and variety of potential threats.” Huge invasions and occupations are totally yesterday, something the Bush debacle in Iraq made quite clear. “Social, political, informational and economic trends in international competition are converging between state and non-state actors and others for superiority over the physical, cognitive, moral security and adequate governance of populations.” Read this military gobble-de-gook about 10 times and you begin to realize we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The nation state idea begun with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia is breaking down and corporate and other “non-state actors” are filling the void. The New York Times has been running a series on the lawless nature of the world’s oceans, where seaborne slavery and unaccounted-for murder are common occurrences. The next step up in this brave new world is the geographical “failed state,” a term of world politics applied by still-intact nation states to those places where anarchy rules. The “free” market is now king and the still-civilized world is engaged in a world-wide capitalist free-for-all. The “real” world is becoming very mixed up with the cyber world. This all means powers like the US will rely more and more on sophisticated intelligence-gathering and secret, a-legal operational capacities to protect their realms. Hence ARSOF Next and PR about our military as a great empathetic institution.

One of the burdens faced by American politicos is sustaining a nostalgic fiction that we’re still living in a golden age of American Exceptionalism. Marketing strategies for selling cars, toothpaste and political candidates will continue to work this realm with glossier and glossier messages how special we are and how the rest of the world pines for our rule. Likewise, they will continue to fall short on sustaining our crumbling public infrastructure and the dignity of our poor. America’s resurgence depends, we’re told in a full-page New York Times ad, on Reagan-like conservative optimism. Reagan optimism amounts to symbolically polishing up the locomotive pulling the American dream while conveniently forgetting about the fetid, jammed cattle cars and the dilapidated caboose at the end of the train.

When something doesn’t go according to plan in this brave new world, special ops is being fashioned to take care of it in total secrecy — unless the action has propaganda value, in which case it will be turned into a national media narrative. Our post-Vietnam volunteer military has become a self-contained, self-reflective, self-sustaining and self-aggrandizing institution with diminishing rapport and contact with the day-to-day civilian world. Militarism is now our national religion. Community police forces symbiotically continue to link up with federal forces, militarizing themselves and relying more and more on oppressive intelligence-gathering capacities to control the citizenry it is becoming afraid of. We’re told the “broken windows” doctrine of policing is yesterday’s doctrine; today, it’s something called “intelligence-based policing.” The former was about focusing on low-level “crimes” in order to maintain order from the bottom up. The latter is about learning as much as possible about potential crimes and criminals. For those affected, the former amounts to harassment of the poor, while the latter is a blueprint for a police-state system of oppression.

The publication ARSOF Next is directed at military personnel. They are told, “Our enemies target our cognitive and spiritual space in the same way our former enemies targeted our trucks and places.” The ARSOF team is “faced with internal challenges, one of which [is] collaborators” — ie, domestic fellow travelers and useful idiots. The vagueness of this kind of internal military propaganda is what makes it so insidious. At a time in history when our citizenry would benefit from a K to 12 curriculum of Critical Thinking, this kind of top-down, militarized thinking encourages the opposite. The problem is not us; the problem is THEM, and they’re out there attacking our cherished values and beliefs. All you need to do is understand your marching orders and trust in your special operations team.

For me, the question is this: When does insisting that the belligerent Bush/Cheney military actions against Iraq led inexorably to ISIS madness constitute one being a “collaborator?” When does speaking unpleasant truth become a hostile burden to the call for a renewed Reagan optimism? When does the popular semantic misuse of the term “radicalize” become turned on someone who does what real, responsible radicals do: examine the roots of things like the Iraq War? Or mass incarceration? Or global warming?

The answer is simple: The truth will become dangerous when the forces of domestic opposition begin to find backbone and get legs as a movement. Then the fight will be on.

I’m reminded of the cartoon in the early days of the Bush military responses to 9/11 where a man questioning US military attacks is kicked in the pants and told to “Get back in your cave in Afghanistan!” Satire can be our savior, one of the few recourses available in times of runaway militarism. One thing I take delight in is understanding Franz Kafka’s under appreciated sense of the comic in works like The Trial. His work is a hoot. You laugh so you don’t cry.

                     The New Reconstruction

Which brings us to another trend hinting at forces going the other way. For lack of a better term, I’m calling this trend a third reconstruction. Writers like Chris Hedges, in a new book called The Wages of Rebellion, like to use the term revolution. The terminology depends on how much one allows “established” power into the process of reform. In the first formal American Reconstruction period followed the Civil War, establishment figures like President U.S. Grant fought hard to extend rights and to establish new institutions in the conquered states of the Confederacy. As we know, eventually that period of reconstruction lost ground to the retrograde forces of oppression in the institution called Jim Crow and the actions of the KKK. Lynching became a tool to preserve the perceived glories of the past.

The Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s into the 1970s can be seen as a second reconstruction period. It involved a mixture of bottom-up and top-down struggles. African Americans wanted change now, while Whites perceived advances among Black people as losing ground. The cliché is White liberals preaching patience as Blacks lose patience and demand change now “by any means necessary.”

That second reconstruction period ended with Jimmy Carter’s talk of a domestic American “malaise.” Ronald Reagan’s “optimism” swept the country. Beginning with direct mail campaigns and think tanks, the political right in the mid-70s began an inexorable ascent to the power they now hold over America. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran thanks to oppressive crimes against the Iranian people piqued fear in the US and reinforced militarism. Reagan opposed human rights reform in Central America and supported militarist regimes there, foisting an army of thugs to wreak havoc in Sandinista Nicaragua.

Liberalism was ridiculed to the point the term “liberal” became an epithet for foolish. So-called liberals like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden hitched their political wagons onto this right-wing ascendance. As a senator during Reagan’s run, Biden figured out that Democrats could get back into the game by fighting crime and supporting the police. Biden worked hand-in-hand with ex-Dixiecrat, now Republican, Senator Strom Thurmond passing a number bills beefing up police. It was the rise of the Drug War. Just Say No! It was also the rise of what is now widely accepted as the police-driven mass incarceration of African American males — what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow, the title of her powerful book.

Probably in an effort to clear a path for his wife’s presidential campaign, ex-President Clinton recently apologized for his part in the current shameful state of mass incarceration. Craven, for sure; but an interesting sign. Next, President Barack Obama commuted a handful of drug sentences and made an unprecedented visit to a federal prison, meeting with inmates doing time for drug possession. Having admitted he used marijuana and cocaine in his youth, the President of the United States said, “There but for the grace of God …” Even John Boehner and the Koch Brothers are for reforming the mass incarceration problem. Videotaped incidents like the unjustified arrest and then mysterious death in custody of Sandra Bland only raise the volume on calls for reform.

The excesses of the free-market religion are becoming clear, thanks to things like the Occupy Movement. The fact developments in computerization could soon put 40 percent of the US labor force out of work — turning them into extraneous human beings — is sobering to ponder. The environmental crisis and global warming loom over us; questions about feeding the world’s populations can’t help but impact us here in America; there’s a future struggle brewing over water. All these things involve difficult political decisions that have been put off and put off. In place of making the tough political decisions, we have militarism and our special operations teams ready to surgically kill. The Obama nuke treaty with Iran seems a rare and positive exception to this madness.

Something is in the air. The call for reform is even reaching across the political divide in odd ways. The snarling plutocrat Donald Trump is dazzling the right; still, he went off the other day about our un-maintained, rotting infrastructure and how it’s keeping American from being great again. Meanwhile, declared socialist Bernie Sanders is baffling the pundits by drawing huge crowds in odd places like Louisiana. Even those Texans fearful of a special ops assault are aware something is very wrong; the trouble is, they attribute the problem to an illegitimate black president out to take away their guns and their ten-gallon redneck arrogance. The ARSOF Next special-ops vision doesn’t want to waste precious surveillance resources on angry southern bigots like Dylann Roof and John Russell “Rusty” Houser; they want to focus on people with Arab names. What the Texans are really worried about is a new climate of national reconstruction coming to get them.

The Black Lives Matter movement is directly aimed at the narcissistic pathology of our local police departments and a criminal justice systems caught between the racially-oppressive past and post-911 paranoia. The terrorist nature of the Dylann Roof killings in Charleston was so symbolically volatile it brought down the Confederate battle flag in a matter of days — something astonishing to ponder. The same with the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage; who would have thought this possible even a few years ago? Then there’s Pope Frances and his liberation theology campaign to expose the shortcomings of capitalism. The preferential option for the poor versus what we have now: the preferential option for the rich and the powerful. These are radical ideas going mainstream.

Former Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume sees reform in the air. “It took a long time for us to dig ourselves into this hole,” he says, “and it will take a long time to dig ourselves out of it.” This is the spirit of a third reconstruction period. It has to be a movement — like the 30-year ascendancy of the right — for the long haul. It relies on ordinary citizens acting upon their fed-up feelings. It’s not even so much about left or right; it’s more about the simple dignity of human beings and developing a sense of mature, un-exceptional collaboration as a society.

My revolutionist friends don’t like this kind of talk, but they’re the ones — the radicals at the vanguard — who will do a lot of the pushing. Disgust and disdain for electoral politics is understandable circa 2015. If the notion of a third reconstruction period has any merit, it will be a period noted for the competition of ideas. Many of these ideas are necessarily “radical” and will naturally threaten conservatives desperate to hold onto some perceived past glory. Someone once said, “One man’s nostalgia is another man’s nightmare.” It’s possible, in the militarized climate of ARSOF Next, reform-minded, radical voices will be seen as linked with exterior enemies; in fact, it’s almost inevitable, given how much the semantically misapplied term “to be radicalized” is bandied about. All the media and politico talk of “lone wolf” terrorists being “self-radicalized” or “radicalized” by some website is comic. The word they should be using is extremism, which refers to violent behavior — not ideas related to reform. Setting off a bomb at the Boston Marathon and gunning down four Marines and a sailor are acts of extremism, and we need to ask how men like this were driven to such violent extremes.

My dictionary defines radical this way: “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough; characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive; of or relating to the root of something.” People frustrated with governments and interested in reform naturally gravitate to radical ideas. It’s a healthy response. Extremism is not healthy.

Barry Goldwater called for extremism. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he famously said. He may have been a right-wing radical, but it was his extremism referring to actions that scared people. It’s easy to see our current conditions with NSA surveillance and a creeping police state as the kinds of extremist “defense of liberty” he was talking about in 1964.

                     Something Has Got To Give

If these two trends — the top-down creation of a surveillance-focused, federal/local special operations military system and bottom-up pressure for a new reconstruction — are happening, something has to give. They don’t jibe. It suggests that a new reconstruction period will be as messy as the previous two.

The domestic aspect of such a reconstructive movement would seem to echo the progressive bargain established by Teddy Roosevelt and employed by “liberal” politicians ever since. Obama is a perfect example: He has a soft side for domestic reform, arguably to keep the torches and pitchforks out of the streets. But he’s either complicit or powerless to do anything about the imperial militarism reaching outward in the world. It takes eloquent radicals like Martin Luther King to do the domestic pushing. When King began to link the civil rights, reconstruction movement with the imperial war in Vietnam he went over the line — and paid for it. Our presidents change every four years, but the National Security State has been a steady, unwavering impulse of rising power from 1947 to now. As always, it’s the daunting problem.

Largely because our presidents are so limited in what they can do, presidential elections have become absurd cycles of entertainment, as well as a sort of national conversation. Donald Trump is a master of the venue. He cut his performing teeth on no-holds-barred reality TV game shows and as the subject of a flagrantly obscene Comedy Channel roast. The Donald can take it and dish it out. He’s running on his own billions and he knows what pathetic bullshitters the line-up of Republican candidates really are. As despicable as Trump is, he’s also refreshing in such an absurd milieu. What more can you say about Lindsey Graham than, “What a stiff!”

In a nation like ours so historically and contemporaneously steeped in violence as a solution to problems, a sketch of such an absurd milieu would not be complete without adding lone-wolf killers like Muhammad Youssuf Abdulazeez and John Russell “Rusty” Houser. Like Trump, they demand and get attention in the three ring circus — in their case, a dark Warholian 15 minutes of stardom.

Besides keeping up with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, I read Italian Marxists like Franco Bernardi. He’s part of a school-of-thought called the “autonomists.” According to fellow leftist George Katsiaficas, “… autonomous social movements involve people directly in decisions affecting their everyday lives. They seek to expand democracy and to help individuals break free of political structures and behavior patterns imposed from the outside.”

In a 2015 book called Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, Bernardi makes a connection between people like James Holmes, the man who murdered 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, and the Bush administration that gave us the invasion and occupation of Iraq. His thinking is in line with the bumper sticker: “Kill One Person It’s Murder; Kill 100,000, It’s foreign policy.” He quotes a famous statement made by Karl Rove in 2004 to reporter Ron Suskind.

“We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality. … We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This kind of arrogant disdain for the real is like a softball pitch for a cultural analyst like Bernardi. He writes, “James Holmes’s inability to distinguish between reality and movies mirrors the attitude of Karl Rove, the master of the American political imagination during the years of Bush’s Holy War.” And let’s not forget the movie actor Ronald Reagan who literally could not help mixing up reality with old movies in his mind.

It’s fair to say the radical Bernardi is not a favorite among our mainstream US media and politicos. But in the what-goes-around-comes-around department, he makes a compelling point. The media and politicos are always playing catch-up to reality. And if things get just a little weirder, just a bit more “Kafkaesque,” you can imagine Donald Trump’s wrecking ball id slinging such an analogy to a hungry crowd and having it play.

It’s great to be an American circa 2015.