Wednesday, November 03, 2010

403. America Votes -- Don'cha Love It?

Midterm elections today with the Republicans reckoned to win control of the House -- they need something like 39 new seats and are thought to be heading for 50 or more. Only 37 seats up for grabs in the Senate where it's less likely the Republicans will reach a majority -- less likely but not impossible.

Midterms are generally a reaction against the President elected two years previously. Americans are impatient people and when the Mr Fixit elected in a glorious wreath of promises and declarations finds reality a tougher nut to crack, the American public duly turns against him. There never has been a her, not yet, and probably not for some time to come. Strange that other countries around the world, backward by definition, have already managed female presidents and prime ministers, but we obviously don't want to go there right now: don't want to be accused of 'America-bashing' which covers just about every damn thing any foreigner says about America that falls short of drooling praise. Not now.

Two of the things highlighted in this election round have been the enormous costs, apparently the highest ever (interesting, when one considers that the abyssmal state of the economy has been one of the main issues) and the prevalence of attack ads in which candidates, straining at the leash, fall slightly short of calling their enemies (sorry, opponents) sad camel-humping degenerate blobs of slime beneath their shoes, with some off-the-wall comments on witchcraft and ... was that some brand of after-shave? Terrible, terrible, but nothing new as Clancy Sigal reports below:

To refresh our memories: In 1800 John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once warm friends, tore each other apart because President Adams found himself running against candidate Jefferson.  Adams’s hacks called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived…son of a half-breed Indian squaw sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”   (Race mattered even then.)  Jefferson’s PR man, a proto-Karl Rove, slammed Adams as a “repulsive pedant” and “hideous hermaphroditical character.”  That’s before the mud slinging got really ugly, Tom labeling John as a hypocrite, criminal and tyrant anxious to drag us into war with France and John calling Tom a sex-mad atheist and coward. 

Mud stuck, and Tom stole – er, won – the election.   A few years later John Quincy Adams was called a pimp, and Andrew Jackson’s wife a slut and his mother a Negro-loving prostitute.  Davy Crockett accused Martin van Buren of wearing women’s corsets.  Of course Abe Lincoln was for slave-loving Democrats the “gorilla tyrant” – and he had stinky feet too.  In the 1884 elections Republicans accused nominee Grover Cleveland of fathering and abandoning an illegitimate child with the party slogan “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”.  (And when Cleveland won the presidency the Democrats paid back with, “In the White House, ha ha ha!”)

Closer to modern times, Teddy Roosevelt running against obese William Howard Taft called him “a rat in a corner”, and William McKinley’s supporters tagged candidate William Jennings Bryan a crazy degenerate.  In my time, President Roosevelt was compared unfavorably to Hitler, had committed “the crime of the century” by giving Federal money to the jobless, was a demented paralytic cripple and probably Jewish (“Rosenfelt” was a common slur) and had a lesbian wife.   It follows that Jack Kennedy had to be the Pope’s captive, Barry Goldwater a dangerously psychotic warmonger, thrice-wounded Lt.John Kerry ‘swiftboated’ as a cowardly liar, and in the 2000 presidential primaries John McCain effectively lost the nomination when South Carolinians were leafleted that he had fathered an illegitimate black baby.
I confess to loving that "In the White House, ha ha ha!".

Are US midterm elections important in any way? Sure. They generally change the balance of power in the ornery, self-seeking, and very hard-to-handle legislative branch of government, usually to the detriment of the reigning President. Does this have international repercussions? Duh ... do bears hunt around for Portakabins? Does the Pope hang with Hare Krishna? When America sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold; part of it come down with double-pneumonia when this or that program gets delayed, diluted or simply slashed or mashed. Do these voters and all these candidates in their hundreds of constituencies and havens of local concern know or even care? Course not. It's just too much to hold in people's brains which have about a 500 cc capacity to start with. Hell, what's that in ounces?

The really dangerous thing is that policy-making loses continuity, stutters, bends to the winds of political change. The Chinese don't have to worry about that. Democracy is not just an excuse for everyone to argue and fight and shout others down. It's a system of government based on the idea that power derives from the people and not from a traditional sheltered elite, although there is this tendency among the rich and well-connected in all nations. A democratic nation depends on the wisdom and common sense of its collective citizenry. A totalitarian nation doesn't have to: it just tells people what to do, or else. When the two systems come in conflict there is an initial advantage to the powers run by central rule. This goes back to the Greeks and Persians. Hitler revived the Asiatic ideal in the very heart of Europe, as did Stalin in Russia. The real history of the Second World War is how these two conflicting political empires tore each other apart like snarling wolves. The British "won" by holding out in their island fortress in 1940-41 and waiting for America to come to its aid. America, dilatory as usual, hung around for a few years and came in to bomb Germany and apply the coup de grace in the Normandy invasion, when the war had already been lost by the Germans in the East. This is not the history you learn in school but this is what actually happened. The German Wehrmacht was broken on the Eastern Front where they took 8 out of 10 of their total casualties. The Russians lost millions, not only soldiers but civilians.

The subsequent Cold War between the US and USSR changed the whole way of thinking about how Nazi Germany had really been defeated. Just look at the movies, the comics, the TV shows, every damn thing. Of all the nations involved the United States suffered the least. I'm talking in terms of comparison with other nations. The US had military casualties, many, but far fewer than other combatant nations and hardly any civilian casualties to speak of. Their homeland was never under threat. They were never bombed or invaded. There were no refugees on the roads. The country went on pretty much as normal, as it had during all its wars since the last real war on its own territory which was the Civil War of 1861-65. Every war since then has been in other countries which provides us with the "F" in the VFW cap badge. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. No way! From any point of view it was a damn good thing. Who needs burning cities, dead children, concentration camps?

The distance from the real horror of war -- the stinks and the smells, the collapsed rubble of towns, the bloated bodies of humans and animals scattered all over -- has inoculated this country in a way to the decline of respect for the military in Europe. Europe, having seen two devastating wars in the 20th century, wants no further part of militarism. All the pomp of the Kaiser and his goose-stepping armies, not to mention Hitler with his tens of thousands of troops in steel helmets at mass Party rallies, is a thing nobody ever wants to see again. We all know what happened. No, thank you! Military officers do not wear uniform in public in European countries and the enlisted men would never even consider it. Conscription does still exist in some countries (the most effective of all is in Switzerland, probably the most historically belligerent country in Europe, but that is a strange Minute-Man story all of its own) and the general status of professional military people is low. Been there, done it, never again, is the public attitude.

The public attitude in America remains totally different. The military hold a position of respect. It's OK to wear your uniform in public. No politician would ever dare criticize the military (have you ever heard one doing so?) The military are as American as Mom and apple pie. Why? Because, I would suggest, the civilian population of the US  has never had to live through any of its wars since 1865. They haven't actually seen or experienced what war is actually like. It's all movies and TV and computer games. Sure, the military went through a bad patch during and after Vietnam -- but that was far away and overseas. Some poor returning GIs, survivors, got spat upon by ignorant anti-war activists, and I call them ignorant for the good and simple reason that they were spitting on the wrong people. But memories are short. The hippie chicks of the 60s are, many of them, roly-poly grandmothers -- with a little stash of weed on the side. Vietnam might as well be a million years ago.

If there was an active national memory (take Germany, for example, or even Japan) there would be no rush on the part of any young men to engage in a new war. If you don't know what war really is, how destructive it can be, and if it doesn't affect your own home and community, it can become a false test of manhood. God Bless You, Son ... Defend the Flag! The Hemingway, the John Wayne mystique: once people read books, later they learned about life from movies. Ironically, a great deal of this nationalist fog derives from Germans such as Fichte and Schelling, Schopenhauer and poor bloody Nietzsche. The whole neo-Prussian ideal under Bismarck (partially effective) and the wild-eyed revival under the (eventually self-destructive) Nazis came from these airy-fairy philosophical sources extolling the supremacy of the nation-state . Mystical, unquestioned nationalism. But that's OK. Only foreigners are nationalists. Americans are patriots.

This is where I remind you about China. It's huge. Every fifth person on the planet is Chinese. I was in Peking (Beijing) last July-August and the young people there were open and friendly but blame their unhappiness (not enough goddam money) not on their own government but on the Japanese. Huh? They are incredibly nationalistic, or should that be patriotic? Since I was there these young people have been out on huge anti-Japanese demonstrations (late September) and all the violence and noise comes across as an "allowed" diversion policy orchestrated by the government. You'd have to be really dumb to forget Tian-An-Men Square in '89.

If the people are unhappy, wrote Machiavelli back in the 1200s, the Prince must direct their rage on outsiders. Over the centuries, this paleo-con policy still seems to work. The Chinese seem to use it effectively, and so do some American politicians when their target is immigrants, possibly the hardest-working people in the country. Always target the outsider. If you trawl through the oral histories of any immigrant group into the US from the Famine Irish of the 1840s to the Boat People Vietnamese of the 1970s you'll find the same sad story of intense local hostility. The Negroes, now elevated to the title of Afro-Americans, have been living this story for, what, nearly 400 years?

But this election doesn't really seem to be about foreign policy  does it? The economy, unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, the Mexican Border (if that works, what's to stop the Canadians building a fence to keep the Yanks out?),  environmental protection, health care, one hears about all these things but very little about the two wars that are smouldering (Iraq) and intensifying (Afghanistan), in the latter country to the point of possible defeat. Even Lord Petraeus admits the US can't defeat the Taliban according to Woodward's recent book on Obama's War. The best plan is, apparently, to separate them from Al Quaida and go after AQ in Pakistan instead. Sure, guys, run into nuclear military-run Pakistan, presently funding the Taliban through unacknowledged elements of ISI, their military intelligence branch, while the government is also engaged in a proxy war with nuclear India using militants in Kashmir and (very secretly) arranging the terrorist attack on Mumbai.

Simple. Americans are can-do people. We make plans.
Right. Well, that's OK, then.

The British were facing more or less the same problems with the unruly Afghans back in 1897 when a young junior officer, some uppity pudgy little chap , wrote a book about it called 'The Malakand Field Force'. His name was ... em ... Winston ... Winston Spencer Something.