We Can Try Our Best and Still Fail

If we take the idea seriously, that the United States has not become an empire, but always, since its founding, has been an empire, we could be situated, I believe, better to evaluate its present position.

If ever there is a political arrangement which distorts actual facts in service of an imagined ideological view, it is that of an empire. The German Empire, for example, was always an affair that corresponded very badly with the actual political facts, whether you are talking about the Holy Roman Empire of the 14th century or the Wilhelmenian Empire of the late 19th century; the first of these spoke (without admitting it) of a force which rested on Papal tolerance of a sort of subordinate in Europe north of the Alps, the second unified a state in Central Europe which rested upon the (assumed) hostility of the states, France and Russia, to either side. Once France and Russia became allies, the German Empire was unable to go to war — either in the First World War or the Second. Hitler succeeded so long as he could count on French (and English) estrangement from Russia. The wonderful accomplishments of the magnificent German People counted for very little, in the end.

A little more reflective of our present circumstances is the Soviet Union. The ideological blinders are even more evident in that history than in that of the German empire. Here, in what really was, both before and after the 1917 revolutions, a Russian empire, there was (before the revolutions) an imagined special destiny which ruled out any change from an autocratic state totally inappropriate for an industrialized society, followed by (after them) a magnificent belief system, with virtually no basis in reality, proclaiming an economic system run by and for the working class. From total denial to proclamation of utopia, with no acknowledgement of reality, even as an intermediate between the two. Wow.

The American Empire rests, I think it fair to say, upon a belief in ineluctable progress. I’m not saying things have always gotten better — certainly not for the Native Americans — but that the imperial ideology rests upon that belief. The most searching examination of this, to my knowledge, was Christopher Lasch’s most penetrating and ambitious work, The True and Only Heaven, the 1991 work which showed the erasure we have applied throughout the history of the country, to those who opposed the various “progressive” economic, social, and political changes which destroyed groups hitherto enjoying autonomy and self-reliance.

Not the Enlightenment thinkers, but the Calvinist theologians, appreciated the costs of the establishment of industrial factories; not the unions, but the rural populists, imagined a radical future of equal dignity for all. And, in the twentieth century, Lasch argues, the Civil Rights movement succeeded in the South because of a supposedly “backward” community of religiously-connected poor blacks, and failed in the North because of the very lack of that ethic of responsibility. It wasn’t “white racism” in the North that defeated Martin Luther King, since it was if anything stronger in the South, where he succeeded. It was a shared community with white people in the South that informed the common struggle and which had been lost by the dominance of secular individualism in the North.

In those circumstances (setting aside the reasons and arguments Lasch advances in favor of his thesis), the construction of an “identity politics” within the imagined realm of the American Empire is fatal to its existence. To insist that we must divide the resources and wealth according to population groups — a tactic, that, to be fair, has worked in many other circumstances and situations — undercuts radically the ideology which supports the imperial enterprise.

Personally I consider the American Empire a brutal installation of exploitation by violent means of global hegemony. Its dissolution is not something I consider an unmitigated evil. But speaking from an impersonal viewpoint, it is interesting that just that attitude which will destroy the cohesive myth that holds the country together, as an empire with a raft of competing populations and groups, is the one most popular with current educated opinion.

Posted in Brian Willson, Dan Handelman, Don Gavitte, Economics, Education, Empire, Fascism, Global, Inequality, Permaculture, Ronald Reagan, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, War | Leave a comment

Deir ez-Zor Has Been Relieved

The Syrian armed forces control the area in pink; ISIS in grey.

The Syrian Army, with assistance from Russian and Iranian armed forces, today broke the two-year siege of the last substantial city controlled by ISIS in Syria, Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates.

Update 5 September 2017:  You heard it here first.  As illustrated by this selfie, the forces of besieged and relieving units fraternized and celebrated the event.

Syrian, Russian, and Iranian troops join Brigade 137 at the gates of Deir ez-Zor.

Update 7 September 2017: Robert Fisk sees this victory of the Syrian army as putting the end of the war in Syria within reach.

Update 22 September 2017: Russian television takes a victory lap.

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American Empire

Jean-Baptiste Belley, the elected representative of St. Domingue in the French Revolutionary Convention, 1797. He leans on the statue of the Abbé Raynal, a white advocate of the rights of slaves.

The recent textbook of world history — winner of the 2011 World History Association prize — by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, provides a well-researched, thoroughly-documented, balanced interpretation of the history of humanity without nation-states at the center.  Burbank and Cooper’s thesis is that through most of the recorded history of humanity most people lived in empires, right down to the present day.

One reason to pay attention to this presentation is the insight it offers into the history of the, as it were, empire of the United States.  For a start, empires have been ever since Rome, rather fantastic in their self-image: the reader may recall Augustus Caesar’s insistence that he was merely a distinguished member of the Senate.

Augustus restored the outward façade of the free Republic, with governmental power vested in the Roman Senate, the executive magistrates, and the legislative assemblies. In reality, however, he retained his autocratic power over the Republic as a military dictator. By law, Augustus held a collection of powers granted to him for life by the Senate, including supreme military command, and those of tribune and censor. It took several years for Augustus to develop the framework within which a formally republican state could be led under his sole rule. He rejected monarchical titles, and instead called himself Princeps Civitatis (“First Citizen of the State”). The resulting constitutional framework became known as the Principate, the first phase of the Roman Empire.

From the point of view of early U.S. history then, the hypocrisy of the first words of the Declaration of Independence appear no worse than that of an emperor of Rome who claims to be no more than the First Citizen.  (Note, incidentally, how close that title is to the one Napoleon Bonaparte assumed as he ruled France following a military coup d’état — “First Consul”.  In his case he soon dropped the pretense and took the title of Emperor of the French within a decade.)

France was an empire at the time of the French Revolution, and, as Burbank and Cooper explain (pp. 226-228), French planters in St. Domingue [what is now Haiti] demanded a measure of self-rule. That is, they wanted just what the British subjects of the United States had won not a decade before from King George III. However,

[T]he revolutionary assemblies in Paris also heard from gens de couleur, property-owning, slave-owning inhabitants of Caribbean islands, usually born of  French fathers and enslaved or ex-slave mothers.

Notice that it was unique to the Southern states of the United States, the conception that the child of a master and a slave was born without the freedom of his father, and was perpetually a slave.  These free people of mixed heritage owned one-third of the land of St. Domingue and one-quarter of its slaves.

Citizenship, they insisted, should not be restricted by color. The Paris assemblies temporized.

It was only under the pressure of a slave revolt that the metropolitan authorities gave citizenship to free gens de couleur and then, when that appeared to be insufficient to stop the outbreak of resistance to French authority, liberated all of St. Domingue’s slaves as well, granting all adult male residents citizenship in the French Republic.

The concession worked.

Toussaint L’Ouverture . . . contemplated for a time allying with the Spanish, but when France, not Spain, moved toward abolishing slavery, he went over to the French side, becoming an officer of the republic and by 1797 the de facto ruler of French St. Domingue, fighting against royalists and rival empires and in defense of ex-slaves’ newly claimed liberty.

Five years later Napoleon imprisoned L’Ouverture under offer of safe-conduct and re-instituted slavery.  Burbank and Cooper place this sordid episode of imperial rule in context by showing, throughout their 500-page discussion, how various empires employed a variety of tactics, varying with the times, to rule over inhomogeneous populations with differing sorts of methods, professing consistency while practicing discrimination.

The United States of America satisfies the usual criteria of empire, from its very inception.  The territory had a variety of ethnic groups, treated its inhabitants with pragmatic brutality, and rested ultimately on force to establish its writ.  Just as Rome had its elections, so did — does — the United States.  Now, admittedly, the most recent Presidential election, in which the candidate who spent the lesser amount of money won despite the opposition of the entire gamut of leading elites, does indicate a certain remaining degree of democracy in our country.  But the actions of the new government betray the futility of even that victory.

Interpreted as the history of an empire, the purported horrific racism of this country is recognizable as the analogue of strategies adopted by other empires, throughout the history of humanity, to establish and maintain central control over distant provinces and populations.  The British means of ruling the Irish, for example, involved the granting of a Parliament in 1782 and its revocation in 1801.  The French, of course, condemned Perfidious Albion, but the historically informed has to regard the English elites as similar to, if not indistinguishable from, the writers of treaties with the Native American Indians.  The arrival of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 echoes the liberation of the slaves of St. Domingue, and the 1877 end of Reconstruction the re-imposition of slavery by the successor to the French Directorate.

From the perspective of the history of the world as a history of empires, George Orwell’s prescient picture of 1984 loses some of its originality; the world has always had a number of competing empires, and the empires have always been run hierarchically, concentrating power at the center as much as possible.  We have at present, just as Orwell wrote, the empires of Russia, China, and the United States.  The interaction among them, and their relations with the smaller, less powerful states of Europe, Africa, Latin America, and South Asia constitute international politics.

Just as Winston Smith does, so we put our hopes in the majority of the population, but the efforts of the imperial propagandizers are devoted to avoiding the threat of overthrow of the elites currently in power in each of the three empires.

We have always been an empire.

Posted in Afghanistan, Brian Willson, Elections, Empire, Global, Inequality, Ronald Reagan, U.S. Constitution, War | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to Congressman Earl Blumenauer

Two emotionally unstable national leaders who threaten to use nuclear weapons


My elder son, who participated in the Grant High School Constitution team, proposed to me tonight a means of you, Mr Blumenauer, helping to de-escalate our present circumstances of near-nuclear-war with the supposedly “rogue” state of North Korea.

Would you please introduce a bill into Congress to the effect that Congress insists upon the President consulting with the Congress before any first use of nuclear weapons.  Include, would you please, the requirement of a vote, for the record — as was done with the so-called Authorization for the Use of Military Force, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon nearly two decades ago. I will promise, in return, not to run against you in the next election.

Update: 11 August 2017 : I find that such a bill has already (on 24 January of this year) been introduced:

Today, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D | Los Angeles County) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 669 and S. 200, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017. This legislation would prohibit the President from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. The crucial issue of nuclear “first use” is more urgent than ever now that President Donald Trump has the power to launch a nuclear war at a moment’s notice.

Posted in Afghanistan, Brian Willson, Elections, Empire, Global, Pacific Green Party, Ronald Reagan, U.S. Constitution, US Senate, War | 1 Comment

What Transgender Means

from the cover story of Grant Magazine, May 2016


Surely in writing this post, which is a highly personal meditation, I have to begin from the admission of my own lack of principled stance over time.  My opinions have changed and developed in the course of years.

Today the principal of Grant High School sent the parents of the Class of 2017 an email, notifying us of the suicide of one of the members of the class.  Aditi Staub.  This notice, which my 18-year-old son Michael Kepler Meo did not receive, had a significant impact on him because he recalled being very friendly with Staub, as a freshman, before the young man’s transition to female presentation.

He wondered whether his discomfort with the female, Aditi, as opposed to his warm appreciation for the male, Jack Staub, contributed to the tragic outcome. In discussing this sad news I advised him that I had just today learned that the head of the Healthcare for All Oregonian movement in my city, Portland, a woman named Robin Cash, is transgender.  She writes today:

Analysis of today’s news: (TW: this is dark)
Today Trump announced trans people cannot serve in the military, and simultaneously that Taiwanese manufacturer FoxConn is making a $10 billion investment in building factories in Wisconsin. These two announcements are connected. This day has Steve Bannon written all over it.
I don’t personally care whether we can serve in the military, and don’t particularly want to get into a debate about whether this is an issue trans folk should focus on.

I connected this to the fact, which I had already shared with him, that the treasurer of the statewide Green Party, Trish Driscoll, as well as its secretary, Christina Lugo, are both of them transgender male-to-females.  I am perfectly comfortable with these two last people — I may have met Robin Cash, but I do not recall it well, if at all — but I am not comfortable with the prominence of transgender people within the political party in which I am an activist.  No, it is not that I am not comfortable . . . it makes me wonder about the nature of the political party.

I don’t know whether the suicide rate of transgenders after the sex-change operation is four times that of the rest of us, or six times.  It’s a lot, and that’s all that matters.  It doesn’t drop down to anything like a rate comparable to the general population. I consider the demand for transition to a different sex to be unethical, although I am willing to let people do it.  That suggested to me the Green Party is run by people I like personally, but whose ethics I do not accept; that is, that I ought to quit the Party.

I reject that option because I reject the idea that we all have to agree on everything before we can work together on social justice.  Let me continue, however, to riff on my own lack of consistency before the reader demands an elaboration of the rational basis for the above “unethical” comment.  I have previously celebrated those women who have breast implants.  I posted their pictures on this blog.

That got me more or less read out of the Green Party, for “sexism”.

How can I allow, indeed glorify, surgical implantation of plastic bags into a woman’s body and then turn around and condemn in for god’s sake moral terms the surgical transition operation?

Well, that suicide rate has a lot to do with it.  I will admit, as well, that my masculinity is involved, and I am conscious of a general social re-evaluation of people with penises and testicles at the present time, and so as one of those folk, I claim that there’s an inherent difference between adding a bit of padding to a body part and cutting your entire genital equipment out.

Perhaps I am in error.  I don’t think so, but then again, there was a time when —  it was back when I was in my 20s — I opposed equal rights for gays.  I can remember George Balint, a Hungarian refugee I knew in the late 1960s, pointing out to me how widespread homosexual behavior and status had been in many different cultures around the world.  I lived in Oakland, California, then, and I subsequently came to meet a wide spectrum of gay men. I learned to acknowledge my own liking for submissive feminized individuals willing to give me blow jobs.  It was not enough for me to engage in the practice — just as I’ve never been to bed with a prostitute, but I’ve certainly thought about it (and my opposition is not purely to the empirical problem of sexually transmitted disease, but also to the payment for affection).  Homosexuals also have a higher suicide rate than the general population, but less than transexuals.  The argument that many gays have contributed, in so many different ways and means, to the heritage of human accomplishment which I appreciate — science, music, education, the arts in particular, but there are too many to mention — also contributed to my change of opinion.

If everyone in leadership positions of a political party of which I am a member is/were gay, that would also make me wonder what’s up, even though I’m firmly on board with gay people having no bar to social, economic, or legal acceptance.  I do wonder about the Green Party of Oregon, but not enough to leave.

That’s about it.

Posted in Bradley Manning, Cameron Whitten, Education, Elections, Friendship, Inequality, Oakland, Pacific Green Party, Spiritual life, Vali Balint | 15 Comments

Good News

The day after the long-overdue termination of the U.S. program supporting Syrian rebels, a hawkish high-ranking Defense Department official (in the words of the headline “Trump’s top Middle East aide”) got the boot:

Harvey was viewed as one of Trump’s more hawkish foreign policy advisers—particularly on Iran, whose leadership he has studied closely and which he recommends confronting more aggressively. He has also been a staunch critic of the Iran nuclear deal. And Harvey has pushed for a strong U.S. military role against the Islamic State in Syria. Many military officials consider him the government’s most knowledgeable source on the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and Syria.

I consider this at least provisional evidence that there remains a degree of anti-intervention sentiment within the Trump Administration.

Posted in Afghanistan, Iran, Ronald Reagan, Saudi Arabia, War | Leave a comment

The Fine Line between Prediction and Paranoia

Ruins of the Forum in Rome, the classic example of a collapsed empire.


James Petras is a commenter with whom I find myself frequently agreeing.  In a good way, it’s something akin to how I feel about Paul Krugman (with whom I have plenty of disagreements, of course; but I’m generally on the same side).

Today I feel obliged to mull over his prediction of a coming breakdown in the federal government, which, again, I view pretty similarly as Petras does, as an institution running a global empire, and maintaining it by means of an endless war. I perform this exercise not as a critique of Mr Petras alone, but as a warning about how we can all go off the cliff of overconfidence.

The post begins with a valuable prefatory statement, saying that the ruling elite, the imperial power of the United States, has a variety of conflicting factions, and that the surprise election of Donald Trump has revealed, since his accession to power, an open struggle for power within these factions.

When I say I agree with this I am not only consenting to its plausibility but asserting that Mr Petras is simply examining our own government within a framework informed by the history of virtually all imperial regimes, bar none; they all suffer factional struggle for control among competing factions.  Roman, Holy Roman, Spanish, Russian, Austro-Hungarian histories — all of these could provide innumerable specific examples if the reader wished me to elaborate.

Then the column turns to a prediction of a coming struggle between factions.

The September Showdown

The big test of power will be focused on the raising of the public debt ceiling and the continued funding of the entire federal government. Without agreement there will be a massive governmental shutdown – a kind of ‘general strike’ paralyzing essential domestic and foreign programs – including the funding of Medicare, the payment of Social Security pensions and the salaries of millions of government and Armed Forces employees.

Well, what if there is  an agreement; what then?  Mr Petras is not simply suggesting what might happen if there’s no agreement (which might indeed take place, although we have reason to doubt it); he’s so certain that there will be no agreement that he draws horrific conclusions from this coming lack of agreement.  The next sentence speaks about the militarized bureaucracy and the Democratic Party which have been openly conspiring to overthrow the Trump Administration since it began.

The pro-‘regime-change’ forces (coup makers) have decided to go for broke in order to secure the programatic capitulation of the Trump regime or its ouster.

You see the verb use is in the perfect indicative tense: “have decided”.  No reason to believe that a fairly large group, with shifting allegiances and agendas, has come to a definite plan of decisive action, is given by Mr Petras.  He simply asserts it without any evidence.

The Presidential power elite may choose the option of ruling by decree – based on the ensuing economic crisis. They may capitalize on a hue and cry from a Wall Street collapse and claim an imminent threat to national security on our national borders and overseas bases to declare a military emergency. Without support from the intelligence services, their success is doubtful.

Were there to be a significant threat by (let us call it) the Deep State to the powers of the Trump Administration, the classic response would appear to be a declaration of an external threat.  We might go to war with North Korea, for instance.  We won’t see that, says Mr Petras, because the intelligence services won’t support it.

We just saw that the intelligence services did not support a strike against Syria. I put the recent summary of that incident in boldface:

Hersh’s article, “Trump’s Red Line,” based on US intelligence sources, documents that the US intelligence apparatus knew that the Syrian attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 was a conventional weapons attack on a meeting of anti-regime Islamists. Plans for the attack were communicated to the US military-intelligence apparatus ahead of time by the Russian military.

“A Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) by the US military later determined that the heat and force of the 500-pound Syrian bomb triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud that began to spread over the town, formed by the release of the fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement, its effect magnified by the dense morning air, which trapped the fumes close to the ground,” Hersh writes.

The Syrian bombing of Khan Sheikhoun was used as a pretext by the Trump administration for firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the al-Shayrat airbase, reportedly killing nine civilians. The Democratic Party, which has based its opposition to Trump on demands that it adopt a harder line against Syria and Russia, supported the strikes.

So we are expected to believe that the very same intelligence services which allowed Trump to bomb Syria and, a few days later, shoot down a Syrian air force jet, without objection, are going to intervene in some future adventure by Trump in some other theater.

Both sides will blame each other for the mounting breakdown. Temporary Treasury expedients will not save the situation. The mass media will go into a hysterical mode, from political criticism to demanding open regime change. The Presidential regime may assume dictatorial powers in order ‘to save the country’.

Congressional moderates will demand a temporary solution: A week-to-week trickle of federal spending.

However, the coup-makers and the ‘Bonapartists’ will block any ‘rotten compromise’.

The military will be mobilized along with the entire security and judicial apparatus to dictate the outcome.

The hysterical mode here is that of Mr Petras, not the putative mass media discussion of the circumstances of a failure to increase the debt ceiling.

Now, I could be wrong and Mr Petras right.  We will see in September.  What I am saying is, that he’s going out on a very long limb here, and I disagree, not only with this prediction, but even with the self-assurance with which he makes such an extraordinary statement.  Recall how shocked the Republicans were when Romney didn’t win, or the Democrats, when Hillary Clinton lost.  On such quicksands you cannot build a reliable conception of the way the world works (you can practice your Doublethink, if that’s what you’re choosing to do; but that’s exactly the opposite of what I am attempting here).

Factional struggle in Washington’s ruling circles is especially open these days, revealing a great deal of what is usually decided behind closed doors.  With that I think we all can agree.  With that Mr Petras begins, and I wish he had stayed there.

Posted in Afghanistan, Bradley Manning, Brian Willson, Dan Handelman, Empire, Fascism, Global, Inequality, John Schweibert, Pacific Green Party, Ronald Reagan, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, US Senate, War | Leave a comment