Thursday, November 29, 2007

312. In a Nutshell

In 12 short paragraphs Chris Hedges manages to hit the main points and clarify what it is that causes so many thinking Americans to despair of the course their nation has been taking. Friends and allies overseas have been finding it increasingly difficult to support US policies and public opinion in these countries with regard to America is at an all-time negative low. The more optimistic among America's friends hope that relations will improve with the passing of the current Bush administration, one of the most arrogantly disastrous interludes in American history, but it would probably be more realistic to expect a modification rather than any drastic reversal of US policies and trends no matter which candidate wins the 2008 election.

America in the Time of Empire
Posted on Nov 26, 2007

By Chris Hedges

This column was originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

All great empires and nations decay from within. By the time they hobble off the world stage, overrun by the hordes at the gates or vanishing quietly into the pages of history books, what made them successful and powerful no longer has relevance. This rot takes place over decades, as with the Soviet Union, or, even longer, as with the Roman, Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empires. It is often imperceptible.

Dying empires cling until the very end to the outward trappings of power. They mask their weakness behind a costly and technologically advanced military. They pursue increasingly unrealistic imperial ambitions. They stifle dissent with efficient and often ruthless mechanisms of control. They lose the capacity for empathy, which allows them to see themselves through the eyes of others, to create a world of accommodation rather than strife. The creeds and noble ideals of the nation become empty cliches, used to justify acts of greater plunder, corruption and violence. By the end, there is only a raw lust for power and few willing to confront it.

The most damning indicators of national decline are upon us. We have watched an oligarchy rise to take economic and political power. The top 1 percent of the population has amassed more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, creating economic disparities unseen since the Depression. If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president, we will see the presidency controlled by two families for the last 24 years.

Massive debt, much of it in the hands of the Chinese, keeps piling up as we fund absurd imperial projects and useless foreign wars. Democratic freedoms are diminished in the name of national security. And the erosion of basic services, from education to health care to public housing, has left tens of millions of citizens in despair. The displacement of genuine debate and civil and political discourse with the noise and glitter of public spectacle and entertainment has left us ignorant of the outside world, and blind to how it perceives us. We are fed trivia and celebrity gossip in place of news.

An increasing number of voices, especially within the military, are speaking to this stark deterioration. They describe a political class that no longer knows how to separate personal gain from the common good, a class driving the nation into the ground.

“There has been a glaring and unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders,” retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of forces in Iraq, recently told the New York Times, adding that civilian officials have been “derelict in their duties” and guilty of a “lust for power.”

The American working class, once the most prosperous on Earth, has been politically disempowered, impoverished and abandoned. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas. State and federal assistance programs have been slashed. The corporations, those that orchestrated the flight of jobs and the abolishment of workers’ rights, control every federal agency in Washington, including the Department of Labor. They have dismantled the regulations that had made the country’s managed capitalism a success for ordinary men and women. The Democratic and Republican Parties now take corporate money and do the bidding of corporate interests.

Philadelphia is a textbook example. The city has seen a precipitous decline in manufacturing jobs, jobs that allowed households to live comfortably on one salary. The city had 35 percent of its workforce employed in the manufacturing sector in 1950, perhaps the zenith of the American empire. Thirty years later, this had fallen to 20 percent. Today it is 8.8 percent. Commensurate jobs, jobs that offer benefits, health care and most important enough money to provide hope for the future, no longer exist. The former manufacturing centers from Flint, Mich., to Youngstown, Ohio, are open sores, testaments to a growing internal collapse.

The United States has gone from being the world’s largest creditor to its largest debtor. As of September 2006, the country was, for the first time in a century, paying out more than it received in investments. Trillions of dollars go into defense while the nation’s infrastructure, from levees in New Orleans to highway bridges in Minnesota, collapses. We spend almost as much on military power as the rest of the world combined, while Social Security and Medicare entitlements are jeopardized because of huge deficits. Money is available for war, but not for the simple necessities of daily life.

Nothing makes these diseased priorities more starkly clear than what the White House did last week. On the same day, Tuesday, President Bush vetoed a domestic spending bill for education, job training and health programs, yet signed another bill giving the Pentagon about $471 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. All this in the shadow of a Joint Economic Committee report suggesting that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been twice as expensive than previously imagined, almost $1.5 trillion.

The decision to measure the strength of the state in military terms is fatal. It leads to a growing cynicism among a disenchanted citizenry and a Hobbesian ethic of individual gain at the expense of everyone else. Few want to fight and die for a Halliburton or an Exxon. This is why we do not have a draft. It is why taxes have not been raised and we borrow to fund the war. It is why the state has organized, and spends billions to maintain, a mercenary army in Iraq. We leave the fighting and dying mostly to our poor and hired killers. No nationwide sacrifices are required. We will worry about it later.

It all amounts to a tacit complicity on the part of a passive population. This permits the oligarchy to squander capital and lives. It creates a world where we speak exclusively in the language of violence. It has plunged us into an endless cycle of war and conflict that is draining away the vitality, resources and promise of the nation.

It signals the twilight of our empire.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

311. Forgotten Debts: 1914-18

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Please go here for the original, longer article.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

310. The Irish Cycle: Lord Malahide

Fourteen years. Two children.
One miscarriage; her racking sobs in the night.
Her eyes reveal nothing; I hardly know her.

Her eyes are hazel with flecks of green,
She has noble carriage, a proud woman’s gait;
Her black sweeping hair has a blueish sheen,
She stands before me, my wife and mate.

- Dear wife.
- My lord husband.

Why have I ignored her all these years,
Under the one roof, food from the one table;
My voice when I speak holds back the tears:
Can I bridge this chasm, am I still able?

- The children?
- Quite safe, My Lord. They sleep.
- I have need to speak with you.
- My Lord?
- Come, let us move into a private chamber.
- Shall I disrobe?
- No, no, no, no, no – it’s not like that at all!
- Have I displeased you in some way?
- Not at all, my dear, quite the contrary.


- Sir, yes sir?
- Bring us some wine, like a good fellow.
- Very good, sir. The usual, is it?
- No, no … bring in the good Spanish.
- Not much left, sir. Are ye sure?
- Just do what I tell you, dammit!
- Rightyo, sir.
- And don’t say rightyo!
- Righty …very good, sir.

We move into the wind-cooled room,
It has Italian marble walls and floor;
There is a passing chill, a hint of the tomb,
I softly, firmly, shut the door.

- My Lord?
- My dear, I cherish and respect you.
- My Lord is most gracious.
- O, stop that! The fact is I love you.
- Love, my Lord?
- Perhaps I haven’t made my feelings plain.
- Lady Agnes, Lady Jane,
Lady Patricia, the parlour maid,
and that little blonde wench in the kitchen?
My Lord has made his feelings plain enough.
- O, come now, that means nothing!
- My Lord, I think it does.


- What now?
- The wine, sir.
- Bring it in, blast you!
- Rightyo, sir.
- And don’t you bloody well …
- Ah, sorry, sir.
The good Spanish, sir.
Not much left of it, mind,
I was just after telling the cook …
-Would you kindly pour the wine, O’Reilly?
Pour the wine, man, and clear off!
- There was fourteen sat down to breakfast
and every one, sir, was dead before dinner.
- What? Not now, O’Reilly.
- Tis a vision, sir. I saw it clearly.
These things will come to pass.
- I’ll wring your bloody neck, O’Reilly.
How’s that for a vision?
- Rightyo, sir.

A pause. A tasteless sip of priceless wine.

- My dear, the situation …
- I am aware of the situation.
The enemy has marched from Dublin.
We will soon be under attack.
- Yes, well, I suppose the whole castle knows.
- And now my Lord is … afraid?

When she spoke those words, love drained from my heart,
I gazed at her coldly from across four hundred years;
Like my forefathers I too could play my part,
I would never, could never, succumb to my fears.

- You misunderstand me, my Lady.
- I think I understand you well enough.
- I see. You will stay with the children.
Neither they nor you will come to any harm.

There was a glint in her eyes, a hint of derision,
a mockery in those hazel, green-flecked eyes,
and I could suddenly catch a glimpse of myself
as seen by this woman through all those years.
Upon this, not the battle, I reflected, ruefully,
as I strapped on my nearly new armour
and called for my old but sharpened sword.

Soon came the enemy to the gates:
dear God, these brazen, upstart English!
Well, it was the usual confused affair,
a lot of noise and dust and private agony.
We were deemed to have won since we didn’t quite lose,
the traditional form of Irish victory,
and our lives settled back to the normal round.

I continue to live at the castle,
Richard, Lord Admiral of Malahide
and the adjoining seas surrounding,
with my lady wife and children.
She looks at me now with apprehension.
O’Reilly has a brother, a prosperous smuggler;
we have twenty new barrels of good Spanish wine.
Upon occasion, as a means of diversion,
I ride to Dublin with a light escort,
there to visit certain friends of mine.

Malahide Castle was built by the Talbots in 1185 and remained in the family until the death of the last in the male line, Sir Milo, in 1973. On the morning of July 1, 1689 (by the Old Calendar) fourteen men of the family sat down together for breakfast and by nightfall all fourteen had fallen at the Battle of the Boyne. The castle and surrounding parklands were sold to the Irish State in 1975 and are a popular picnic destination for Dubliners. The pleasant seaside village bearing the same name is now home to Adam Clayton and the Edge of the rock band U2.