Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tea Drinking and the Ironies of History

Whatever else the tea drinkers who assembled in Washington on August 28 might have accomplished, they did manage to turn the National Mall into an irony-free zone, at least for an afternoon.

They certainly seemed oblivious to the obvious ironies of the day. Like the fact that even as the tea party movement was portraying itself as a “grassroots” upwelling from the people, the New York Times and the New Yorker were running big stories about the right-wing billionaires who are funding the whole show. I’d like to get me some of that “populism.”

Nor did they seem fazed that featured speaker Glenn Beck - former shock-jock, now Messiah Complex victim - was exhorting the nation to return to “traditional values.” Beck has made his career playing so fast and loose with the facts that he no longer knows when he is lying and when he’s not. This is the guy, after all, who lied to the ladies on “The View.” How low can you sink?!

Many people got upset that the event took place on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at the same location where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” You could see that this would make some people touchy since the tea partiers want to re-open debates most of us thought were settled long ago, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 14th amendment, which was passed in 1868. Ironic for sure.

Personally, I got the biggest giggle being lectured at by Sarah Palin about “character.” When the going got tough up there in Alaska, not only did Governor Palin quit her job in order to cash out, but she gave one of the most memorably bizarre speeches ever delivered by an American politician who wasn’t drunk. A model for any of us facing tough times.

The biggest irony of the day, however, came from Abe Lincoln, whose memorial was appropriated for this tea party.

Lincoln, if memory serves, was the president who prosecuted the Civil War against the southern confederacy. He fought the war for two reasons: first, to preserve the Union; second, to end slavery in the United States. When he promised, in the Gettysburg Address, a “new birth of freedom” he wasn’t talking about the freedom of the wealthy to get richer, which is what the tea drinkers seem to have in mind, but about removing the stain of slavery from the fabric of the nation.

In order to achieve those goals Lincoln engineered the largest expansion of the Federal government and of Federal power to that point in our history. He instituted the nation’s first military draft; he suspended habeas corpus rights. Most importantly, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was viewed by slave owners as an outrageous infringement of private property rights. Abe Lincoln was arguably the first “big government” president.

He did all this over the yapping objections of those who insisted on “states rights” because he knew that only through the actions of the Federal government would the institution of slavery be crushed and freedom granted to roughly 4 million enslaved Southerners.

Had Lincoln left the question of slavery to the Southern states, how much longer would that human tragedy have endured? Hard to say, but the Confederate Constitution, the legal framework for the nation Southerners fought to establish is pretty clear about this. It reads: “no law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

And yet there they were, thousands of tea drinkers standing in front of Lincoln talking about the evils of the Federal government and the need to return to states rights. All with straight faces. Martin Luther King might have been spinning in his grave, but I think I saw Abraham Lincoln roll his marble eyes in disgust during those speeches.

So the next time you want to have a little fun, ask one of these Earl Grey aficionados about Abe “Big Government” Lincoln. Ask them which side was right during the Civil War. And since the “states rights” position was on the wrong side of history about slavery, and about segregation, ask them why they think they think they’re on the right side now? You’re liable to get some rambling, semi-coherent answer that will be positively Palin-esque.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baghdad Goodbye

Today the last American combat troops left Iraq, nearly 7.5 years after Bush/Cheney launched this military fiasco. There is no measure of this war that makes anything other than an unalloyed disaster with few parallels in American history - not the number of deaths and injuries, the $2 trillion spent on it, nor the way it has weakened the American position in the region and the world.

The Obama Administration deserves - and will surely not get - a great deal of credit for fulfilling this campaign promise. After all, even as Obama may be sinking us deeper in Afghani quicksand, he resisted calls to abandon his original timeline in Iraq.

Violence has subsided in Iraq and a measure of stability has returned, but in fact the country remains a basket case and will be that way for some time. The troop escalation - the so-called "surge" - led by Gen. David Petreaus (to whom George Bush more or less abdicated his role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces in 2007) deserves some credit for this.

But the surge was always intended to create enough safe space for the Iraqis to come up with a long-term political resolution to the civil war of 2004-07. That, clearly, has not yet happened. Politics has ground to a halt in Iraq months now after the elections. There is still no real government now in Baghdad, and none on the horizon.

Some while ago I suggested the right analogy for the Iraq war was not Vietnam, but Cambodia. There, after the United States contributed to the destablization of the country, the country descended into a fratricidal, genocidal civil war, brought to an end - ironies of ironies - when the Vietnamese invaded and restored some order.

American combat troops are not necessary for whatever may happen in Iraq going forward and it is long past time for them to come home. Let's hope Obama is demonstrates similar resolution with his timetable to get American troops out of Afghanistan.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Xenophobia I Can Believe In

Not too long ago I attempt a little piece of research. I wanted to know how many military bases the United States maintained overseas. Answer?


Suffice it to say that the number runs well into the many dozens if not several hundreds. They range from the venerable and infamous, like Guantanamo Bay, to the much more recent and volatile, like the staging areas in several of the 'Stans that the military has used for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the bulk are left over from the Cold War when the United States established this global military presence to counter the Soviet threat.

Last time I checked, however, the Cold War is over. In fact, the college students I now teach were all born after the end of the Cold War. For them it might as well be ancient history, like the Victorians, or the War of 1812. And yet we remain saddled with this Cold War military infrastructure. Tens of thousands of soldiers in places all over the world, costing us hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The bloated Pentagon budget has been the budgetary elephant in the room as Congress frets about deficits, debt and spending cuts. Nor is that obese budget liable to be put on a serious diet, given how geographically spread out military spending is, and how important it is to the economy of the those red states whose politicians complain loudest about government spending.

Yet surely the vast number of overseas installations is an easy place to start the slashing. What possible justification can there be, after all, for keeping 65,000 troops in Germany?! Or even in South Korea, whose own military is now one of the most advanced in the world?

Surely there must be a way to tap into the nativism and xenophobia currently abroad in the land and turn it toward a movement to bring our troops home from these far flung places. Americans are famously suspicious of foreign places and we don't like foreigners. So can't we put those forces to work for good instead of evil and use it to shrink the American military presence around the world?

PS. After I wrote this little essay I picked up the NY Times Magazine and found Deborah Solomon's interview with Barney Frank. It seems that he and Ron Paul have found some common ground on this very issue!