what i'm reading: scott orton and kevin baker, two important articles in harper's

After finishing Northern Passage, I read two stories from older issues of Harper's magazine, each important and enlightening in different ways. I had half-read and skimmed these stories while I was in school, but finally went back and read them both entirely. I've blogged about these before, but I want to highlight both stories again.

In "The Guantánamo "Suicides": A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle," Scott Horton uncovers the apparent torture and murder of three prisoners at the US concentration camp, and the subsequent cover up of the crimes. It's a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, and a eye-opening, sickening view into what the US has become.

Harper's, a nonprofit organization that needs our subscription dollars to do its great work, has made it available for free here. Orton concludes:
Nearly 200 men remain imprisoned at Guantánamo. In June 2009, six months after Barack Obama took office, one of them, a thirty-one-year-old Yemeni named Muhammed Abdallah Salih, was found dead in his cell. The exact circumstances of his death, like those of the deaths of the three men from Alpha Block, remain uncertain. Those charged with accounting for what happened—the prison command, the civilian and military investigative agencies, the Justice Department, and ultimately the attorney general himself—all face a choice between the rule of law and the expedience of political silence. Thus far, their choice has been unanimous.

Not everyone who is involved in this matter views it from a political perspective, of course. General Al-Zahrani grieves for his son, but at the end of a lengthy interview he paused and his thoughts turned elsewhere. "The truth is what matters," he said. "They practiced every form of torture on my son and on many others as well. What was the result? What facts did they find? They found nothing. They learned nothing. They accomplished nothing."

The second story brings some perspective to the discussion of why things continue the way they do. It's a history of progressive politics in the US by historian and novelist Kevin Baker: "The vanishing liberal: How the left learned to be helpless".

I was especially interested in this article because of an email conversation I had with the author a while back. He was excited and hopeful about the 2008 election, and felt the US would soon start to get back on track. I was surprised that someone as knowledgeable about US history and politics would buy into that trope. After reading his excellent story, I wondered if Baker's hopeful expectation was more wishful thinking than serious belief.

It's quite a brilliant piece, and I hope you'll read it. The entire text is posted here. Baker begins:
In the first day of December last year, Barack Obama stood before the assembled Corps of Cadets at West Point and announced his decision to send another 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. The president's nationally televised address was, in many ways, the most honest speech made to the American people by their leader in a generation. Obama conceded that our client state in Afghanistan "has been hampered by corruption" and "has moved backwards." He told us he had rejected "a more dramatic and open-ended escalation" of the war because that would require setting "goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests." He called on the nation to restore "the connection between our national security and our economy," since "our prosperity provides a foundation for our power," which means therefore that "our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."

It was as if the president were walking back half a century of American overreach and hubris in foreign affairs, back past John F. Kennedy's inaugural declaration that the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Now Obama was finally conceding that there were limits. It was an argument in the very best tradition of American democracy: educational, unshirking, and honest; grounded in history; cognizant of physical realities and limitations but no less cognizant of humane and democratic principles. Had Obama delivered these words soon after he took office, as a prologue to making a major change in our foreign and military policies, they would have justified every hope his liberal supporters had for him.

Instead, of course, these words were merely a coda, a belated attempt to reassure us that the policy of escalation Obama had just announced was nothing of the sort. The decision stood: 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. After stating the case for standing down in the most deliberate, accurate, and insightful words possible, our president went ahead and did the wrong thing anyway.

How could this be? It was the question that Obama's most fervent supporters had been asking themselves for months, as their candidate discarded almost every vision of a new America, a new world, that he had described during his campaign. By the time of his West Point speech, health-care "reform" had already been transformed into yet another scheme to transfer wealth to the richest corporate interests in the country. The stimulus program had been botched, the promised money delayed and diverted from badly needed public projects into unhelpful tax cuts. The banks had been bailed out but not the people, and any significant proposals for repairing our infrastructure, addressing climate change, re-regulating the financial markets, or rebuilding New Orleans were generally acknowledged to be dead letters.

Now, with the president's decision on Afghanistan, our foreign policy settled back into its familiar pattern of endless war for unknown purposes. To people who had been clamoring for real change in how we work and consume, how we live in the world and with one another, this retreat to the failed policies of the recent past was stunning. No other president in our history had so thoroughly spurned his political base in so short a time.

He then takes a historical view on where liberal America came from, what it did, who attacked it and how, how it chose to surrender, and where it stands, or doesn't, now. He concludes:
Who will challenge this shining fortress upon a hill? The right-wing pseudo-Populists who have devoured the Republican Party may win some victories in the short run. But the Tea Party and its fellow travelers have already become a jointly owned subsidiary of News Corp. and the likes of Dick Armey's FreedomWorks lobby. (To understand just how fraudulent the movement is, one need only look at the $549-a-seat price tag for tickets to its first convention, and the $100,000 speaker’s fee paid to Sarah Palin. So much for box socials and sing-alongs.) Right-wing Populism is anyway inherently contradictory, a demand that the state recede to a size that will leave its citizens utterly defenseless against the gigantic forces at loose in the world today. . . .

Coming to power when he did, with the political skills and the majorities he possesses, Barack Obama squandered an almost unprecedented opportunity. But it is increasingly clear that he never intended to challenge the power structure he had so skillfully penetrated. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations are, once more, people, American democracy has snapped shut again — the great, forced opening of the past 130 years has ended. There is no longer any meaningful reformist impulse left in our politics. The idea of modern American liberalism has vanished among our elite, and simply voting for one man or supporting one of the two major parties will not restore it. The work will have to be done from the ground up, and it will have to be done by us.

If you're interested in history and politics, I hope you'll take the time to read the whole piece. There's a lot to be learned. And not just for USians: Canadians who believe the Liberals and NDP should consolidate, or who think the New Democrats should continue tacking to the centre "to keep up with the times," could learn a few things, too. Those of us who know that's the wrong direction can learn more about why.

Kevin Baker and I might disagree on what rebuilding from the ground up might mean, but that's not important right now. It's understanding the need for a complete rebuilding that matters.

No comments: