Some hide themselves, and some are hidden; some are forgotten, and some forget themselves

July’s issue of The American Conservative features a piece by Sydney Schanberg arguing that American prisoners of war were left over in Vietnam after direct US involvement in the war there ended in the early 1970s.  Several other pieces pick up on Schanberg’s claims, drawing various dire conclusions about the nature of the political leadership in the USA.   

In October 2008, The Nation ran an article in which Schanberg made this same case.  I noted that article here, remarking that I had never given that idea much credence, but that I was impressed by what Schanberg wrote.  Amid the pro-Schanberg pieces in this issue of The American Conservative is a short article by Gareth Porter titled “The evidence doesn’t stack up.”  Unlike the readers who wrote The Nation to protest the appearance of Schanberg’s piece there , Porter does not list his credentials as a scholar of the US military involvement in Vietnam.  Also unlike them, he does not declare himself to be displeased that the topic is being discussed.  Most profoundly unlike them, he looks at Schanberg’s evidence and judges it on its merits.  Indeed, the only way in which Porter resembles the outraged letter writers of The Nation is that he finds Schanberg’s case entirely unconvincing.  Porter argues that the document to which Schanberg has attached the greatest weight is almost certainly a forgery, and in any case doesn’t say what Schanberg claims it says.   Porter goes on to find many other faults with Schanberg’s argument. 

Something that is, I think, quite well-founded appears in Andrew Bacevich’s contribution to the discussion:

Like slavery or the Holocaust, Vietnam is part of the past not yet fully consigned to the past.

The practice of publicly displaying the POW/MIA flag testifies to this fact. On the one hand, it represents a lingering communal acknowledgment of loss and more broadly of massive national failure. On the other, it sustains the pretense—utterly illusory—that a proper accounting, not only of the missing but of the entire Vietnam experience, is still forthcoming. “You deserve to be brought home,” the flag implicitly states, “And we deserve to know why you were sent in the first place.”

Yet to undertake a serious accounting would find Americans facing a plethora of discomfiting truths, not only about the knaves and fools who concocted the Vietnam War but about the American way of life and the premises on which it is based. Tell the whole truth about Vietnam and you crack open a door that few Americans wish to peer behind. To do so is to come face-to-face with troubling questions about the meaning of freedom and democracy as actually practiced in the United States.

Few Americans are willing to confront such questions, the answers to which could oblige us to revise the way we live. So we salve our consciences by flying flags, sustaining the pretense that we care when what we desperately want to do is to forget as much as possible.

In the same issue, Paul Gottfried finds it odd that many Americans who stand on the political Right are so fond of calling their opponents “fascists” and of claiming that fascism was a left-wing movement.  Gottfried is himself very, very conservative in his politics.  Much as he might like to disassociate himself and his fellow Rightists from the taint of fascism, Gottfried also has a scholarly reputation and a lifetime of intellectual integrity, both of which he would like to preserve.  Gottfried lists a number of facts which, he says, make it impossible for a serious person of any disposition to see fascism as anything other than a phenomenon of the extreme Right, and ridicules those who disregard these facts.    

If the idea of fascism as a leftist movement is so ludicrous, why does it have so much support among American right-wingers?  Gottfried gives four possible reasons.  First, Leftists who keep their cool when they are accused of being Communists or utopians tend to sputter and look silly when they hear themselves being called fascists.  While this might be fun for conmservatives who are frustrated to meet opponents who don’t take their ideas seriously, Gottfried says that “only a cultural illiterate could believe that interwar fascists were intent on pursuing a massive welfare state centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles, and whatever else the latter-day Left is about.”    

Second, some American right-wingers in the 1930s “had a very limited understanding of the European Right or the European Left” and so “made the unwarranted leap from thinking that all forms of economic planning were unacceptable to believing that all were virtually identical.”  Thus they came to believe that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, the Five-Year Plans of Stalin, and the corporatism of Mussolini were three names for the same thing.  Those thinkers started a tradition that is still alive and well in some circles in today’s USA. 

Third, the use of “fascism” as an all-purpose term of abuse represents an appeal to the argumentum ad Hitlerem, in which any resemblance between one’s opponent and Adolf Hitler, no matter how superficial or strained, is treated as if it released one from the obligation to answer that opponent’s claims.  Fourth, by attempting to brand what Gottfried calls “the latter-day Left” as fascist, the latter-day Right can pretend to be more different than it in fact is from its opposition.  

I can think of a fifth possible reason.  American economic analyst Lawrence Dennis became notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for a series of books in which he argued that market-driven capitalism was doomed, and that representative democracy would go down with it.  The economic system of the future, Dennis decided, was one in which capitalists retained nominal ownership and day-to-day control of the means of production, but government coordinated their activities.  The political system that would go along with this corporatist economy might be dressed up to look like a democracy, but would in fact be dominated by an elite that would remain in power regardless of the outcome of any elections that might be held.  To keep the public in support of this system and to keep the money supply from contracting, the elite would likely encourage an attitude of militant nationalism and a warlike foreign policy.  This system Dennis called fascism. 

 Dennis consistently said that when fascism came to America, it would not be called by that name.  Rather, it would be marketed as a new form of democracy, as the very antidote to fascism.  He predicted that he himself would be among the first dissidents prosecuted once the USA had become fascist.  Indeed, in 1944 Dennis was put on trial for sedition.  The prosecution collapsed, and Dennis wrote a book about it

In his 1969 book Operational Thinking for Survival, Dennis reviewed the arguments he had made in the 1930s and early 1940s.  He concluded that his predictions had been substantially correct.  Avoiding the word “fascism,” he wrote that our current political and economic system “is one that has no generally accepted name.” 

So, perhaps the reason Left and Right are so eager to fling the word “fascism” at each other is that each is haunted by the fear that it is powerless to keep the country from becoming fascist.  For all that Rightists might long to restore the Old Republic and Leftists might long to create a new system “centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles,” each looks on helplessly as events make a mockery of these ambitions.  Whatever success each side might have in its attempts to promote its vision of freedom, the movement towards fascism goes on relentlessly.

How to avoid becoming a “faceless, slinking thing”

If only Robert A. Taft were still alive...

The March issue of The American Conservative notices a reissue of Russell Kirk’s The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft.  Taft, long the Republican Party’s leader in the US Senate, opposed US entry into the Second World War; that was a common position on the American Right before 7 December 1941.  Unlike many of the conservatives who had been reluctant to commit the USA to war with Germany, Taft continued to resist the creation of a militarized superstate after America’s would-be warlords shifted their attentions from the defeated Germany to the insurgent Communist powers.  

Taft never accepted the premises of the Cold War.  He led opposition to the formation of NATO, faulted President Truman for ignoring the Constitution and sending US troops into the Korean War without congressional authorization, argued against the doctrine of “collective security,” demanded reductions in military spending, and in 1950 braved widespread derision to predict that if the US continued the interventionist policies of the day, American troops might someday be sent to war in some preposterous place like Vietnam.  Not even Taft would dare to incite the laughter that would greet a warning that Americans might someday be sent to make war in Afghanistan. 

When Taft died, the New Bedford, Massachusetts Standard Times said that he had left a void that the Republican Party would never fill.  While there might still be a political group under that name for many years to come, it was destined to be a “faceless, slinking thing” for want of a man like Senator Taft.  I don’t suppose we can call today’s Republicans “faceless,” and their spokesmen are more likely to strut and preen than to slink, at least when the cameras are on them.  But their unfailing support of ever-larger military budgets and an ever-wider scope of authority for the government headquartered in Washington DC would have struck Taft and his coevals as the very opposite of conservative. 

You might think that cultivating a cheerful outlook and making a consistent effort to show that cheerfulness would be a sure way to avoid becoming a “faceless, slinking thing.”  But depending on what brings you to those habits, they may have the opposite effect.  Self-declared misanthrope Florence King reviews Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.   King begins with Ehrenreich’s description of her time as a breast-cancer patient, a time spent in a world slathered with pink and buried under teddy bears.  While breast-cancer professionals may intend to create a space where women can feel free to let go of burdens that might get in the way of their healing, what they have actually brought about suggests to Ehrenreich and to King not a liberation from troubles, but an exile from adult womanhood.  Relentless cutesiness infantilizes women, while “The emphasis placed on industrial-strength cheerfulness also [leads] to victim-blaming… and self-punishing guilt… Ehrenreich soon discovered that ‘dissent is a form of treason.’  One day she posted hers on an online message board and heard back ‘You need to run, not walk, to some counseling.'”  It wasn’t enough she had to be in medical treatment to be freed of cancer, she was also supposed to go into psychological treatment to be brought into conformity with the prescribed attitudes.  

When a person is diagnosed with a major disease, the number and variety of people who wield power over that person often increases dramatically.  Suddenly, one is dependent on the good conduct of health-care professionals and the goodwill of friends and relatives.  Such an experience of subjection can be quite demoralizing all by itself.  Added to the suffering and weakness that disease inflicts on the body, this subjection might be enough to teast any person’s mettle.  If one’s new masters use their power to force one to display cheerfulness amid the agonies of disease, one might well be stripped of one’s dignity, and feel like a “faceless, slinking thing.” 

I suppose people who wield power might themselves become “faceless, slinking things.”  That was the point the New Bedford editorialist was making about the post-Taft Republican Party, that under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower that party had come to echo the Democrats’ will to make war abroad and centralize authority at home.  Traditional conservatives had traded their principled opposition to statism, and with it their dignity, for a chance to play the role of Caesar in the new drama of empire.  One statesman who seems to have thought along lines that Senator Taft might have favored was George Ball, who was undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  A piece in this issue carries the subhed “From Vietnam to Palestine, George Ball got it right.”  Taft and Taftians may well have thought Ball was right, but did he escape the fate of becoming a “faceless, slinking thing”?  This question haunts the piece.   


“Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” by Martin Luther King, Jr

No moving picture, but extremely moving words.  A 1967 speech doesn’t have any business being so relevant to the events of 2010.  The “demonic destruction tool” Dr King describes from about the 5 minute mark on is still operating quite smoothly.   

30 April 1967

Here’s a transcript.

The Nation, 3 August 2009

nation 3 august 2009Jonathan Schell’s remembrance of former Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara begins with the story of Schell’s meeting with McNamara in 1967, at which he, then a young reporter for The New Yorker, briefed the secretary on what he had seen American forces doing in Vietnam.  Schell would not hear from McNamara after that meeting, but declassified documents would subsequently reveal that the secretary had responded to it by attempting to discredit Schell’s story and block its publication.  Schell mentions McNamara’s subsequent contrition for his Vietnam policies, stressing that the remorse he suffered was quite trivial compared with the what the people of Vietnam suffered during the war McNamara did so much to design.  Still, Schell points out, McNamara was unique among high-level US policymakers of recent decades in publicly admitting error.  The piece ends with Schell’s line “If there is a statue made of McNamara, as there probably will not be, let it show him weeping.  It was the best of him.” 


The Nation, 1 December 2008

Nick Turse looks into American forces’ conduct of the war in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in the period from 1 December 1968 to 1 April 1969.  Turse concludes that the facts were much worse than has generally been known in the USA.  Civilians were targeted more systematically than has been acknowledged, more of them were killed than has been acknowledged, and a coverup of the some of the worst atrocities continued for decades.  Turse quotes a contemporary letter signed “Concerned Sergeant.”  The otherwise anonymous soldier denounced the operations to which he was attached and estimated that the rate at which unarmed civilians were being killed amounted to “a My Lai a month.” 

Ever since Studs Terkel died, The Nation has been memorializing him.  In this issue, his editor, Andre Schiffrin, remembers their attempt to put together an oral history on the topic of power.  The project failed because none of their prospective subjects would even admit that he held power, let alone give insight into what it was like to use it.  That’s hardly surprising when Schiffrin describes the key to Terkel’s work.  His subjects talked to him, Schiffrin explains, because “he approached people with utter respect.  Those he talked to immediately felt this and poured their hearts out.”  Powerful people usually seem to expect to be approached with utter respect, if not indeed with abject servility.  That so many people from so many backgrounds found it a shock to be approached with respect is a sad commentary on our society. 

Hoosiers and others marveling at the fact that Indiana voted for Obama will enjoy Mark Hertsgaard’s piece about Luke Lefever, a plumber (a real one!) who volunteered for the Obama campaign in Elkhart. 

Siddhartha Deb reviews several novels by Elias Khoury.  At first, Deb praises the “fragmented” style of Khoury’s work as suitable to his native Lebanon, but at the end he suggests that the time may have come for a smoother style of writing and, apparently, a more settled view of Lebanese identity.

This brings us to Barry Schwabsky’s review of Art Worlds by Howard S. Becker and Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton.   Becker’s newly reprinted 1982 book is a sociological study of various milieux from which products came that could be called “art,” while Thornton, also a sociologist, spent her time in “an art world that claims the right to call itself the art world.”  Schwabsky puts the question:

In the sociologist’s art world, hierarchies, rankings, and orders of distinction proliferate.  Status and reputation are all, and questions about them abound.  Why does the seemingly kitschy work of Jeff Koons hang in great museums around the world while the equally cheesy paintings of Thomas Kinkade would never be considered?… How do conflicting views on the value of different kinds of artworks jell into a rough and shifting consensus about the boundaries of what will be considered art in the first place?

That’s quite a weighty question.  As for the Koons/ Kinkade riddle, my suspicion is that perspective drawing and the rest of the conventional skills of representational art are not really all that difficult to master.  Some years ago I read an essay by Eric Gill called “Art in Education: Abolish Art and Teach Drawing,” in which he argued that given a chance virtually any child could and would learn these techniques.  I haven’t seen any scientific work testing this hypothesis, but it doesn’t seem fantastic to me to think that if all children were introduced to art in the same way that, let’s say, Thomas Kinkade was, that some large percentage of the population would grow up to paint pictures very much like his.  If that is so, then the problem with Kinkade isn’t that he’s cheesy, but just that they are nothing special.  If a collector wants to attain a high rank, s/he can hardly buy paintings that may be very pleasant but that could be equalled by, let’s say, a third of the adult population. 


The American Conservative, 20 October 2008

Psychotherapist Jim Pittaway looks at John McCain and sees a man badly in need of psychiatric evaluation.  Pittaway stresses that he would never diagnose a patient whom he has not met, but published accounts of McCain’s experiences and behavior suggest that he may suffer from moderate Traumatic Brain Injury.  Pittaway writes:

There are three signal characteristics of moderate TBI: emotional disregulation (volatility), perseveration (inability to let go of thoughts or feelings or to see them in broader perspective), and concrete thinking (abstractions and nuance are compressed into right or wrong, good or evil, people are either “for me or against me.”) 

McCain’s notoriously bad temper (for example, hitting a 93 year old colleague on the Senate floor), his insistent repetition of ideas that have been proven false (for example, claiming that Iran was arming the anti-Iranian group “al Qaeda in Iraq,” a claim that earlier this year humiliated him when he had to be publicly corrected by a friend- and which he then continued to repeat at subsequent appearances), and his habit of describing every conflict as a moral struggle (for example, briefed on some structural difficulties in international finance his response was to ask the briefer “So, who’s the villain?”) suggest the behavior patterns associated with moderate TBI.  Torture and beatings McCain has described receiving from his North Vietnamese captors could hardly have failed to inflict substantial injury on his brain.  Psychiatric tests and neurological scans can rule TBI in or out rather easily, but McCain has made it clear he will never submit to such examination.  McCain’s stated belief that he avoided any psychological damage by sheer willpower is what psychologists call “magical thinking,” and suggests that his psychological wounds are surrounded with a formidable structure of denial. 

Pittaway himself has treated many TBI patients, and his description of their lives is terrifying if it applies to a man who may find his finger on the nuclear trigger.  “Difficulties with abstract thinking breed obsessive behaviors and tendencies to personalize issues in very concrete terms in lieu of dealing with nuance and complexity.”  Moreover:

In my work with TBI patients with moderate symptoms, I am invariably struck by the level of frustration they encounter on a daily basis.  Unless it is severe, brain injury is a closed wound.  Since victims appear undamaged, everyone around them expects- and they themselves often expect- normal skill sets, behaviors, and emotional ranges.  The energy it takes to compensate for functional deficits is extraordinary, and the absence of affirming feedback breeds a senseof isolation that morphs over time into deep-seated resentment.  It ismuch, much easier to stay focused on one thing, which accounts for the characteristic obsessiveness.  Execution is driven by resentment and anger rather than objective circumstances.  Thisbreeds a toughness that can endure enormous amounts of stress before decompensation- which is almost always of an extremely violent nature- occurs.

Elsewhere in the same issue, David Gordon looks at Public Choice Economics.  Public Choice economists argue that indifference to politics is rational among voters, inasmuch as no one vote is likely to decide an election.  Gordon points out that there are other motives for voting than the hope that one will decide the election.  For example, even votes for a losing candidate may send a message that the eventual winners will notice, and being among the winners of a high-profile contest brings a satisfaction that many people desire. 

John Derbyshire reviews the “Stuff White People Like” book.  Unlike The Atlantic‘s reviewer, Derbyshire doesn’t get the significance of the phrase “White People”-the targets of Lander’s mockery are trendy progressives who would hate to be labeled as typically white.  He does mention Lander’s personal favorite among sites that have imitated his, “White Stuff People Like” (plaster, cream cheese, plastic bags, swans, mayonnaise, cocaine, and snow are the list so far.)

The Nation, 3 November 2008

This issue starts with letters from writers upset with the magazine for publishing Sydney Schanberg’s piece on American POWs unaccounted for after the US disengaged from the Vietnam War.  These correspondents cite their own published work indicating that North Vietnam did not hold American POWs back and arguing that the story that it did merely enables Americans to see in their own captive countrymen as the main victims of the Vietnam War.  In response, Schanberg points out that his critics do not offer new information or level any specific criticisms of his research. 

Eric Foner reviews Philip Dray’s Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen.  The sixteen African American members of Congress Dray discusses led exciting lives, and Foner mentions several of the rollicking tales of adventure featured in the book.

The Atlantic Monthly, October 2008

This issue‘s cover features a controversial picture of Senator Crazy John McCain. 

Hail the Leader!

Hail the Leader!

 The controversy mainly has to do with the photographer’s other images of McCain.  The Atlantic defended the image above. 

The legend, “Why War is His Answer,” seemed eerily apt- the magazine arrived in the same mail as a gift from a friend (thanks, cymast!) a Quaker “War is Not the Answer” bumper sticker. 

Interesting points after the jump.


If Vietnam Were Now


Counterpunch, August & September 2008

August- Alexander Cockburn reviews Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland.  Cockburn has a lot of fun reminiscing about the 1964-1974 period, but denies Perlstein’s thesis that the American political scene hasn’t changed much since then.  “It’s a different, less strident, less violent, less creative time.”  He and Jeffrey St. Clair then offer “One cheer for Sarah Palin.”  “The liberal attacks on Sarah Palin are absurd to the point of lunacy… Given the highly experienced maniacs who have been destroying this country and the rest of the world decade after decade, one would have thought that the E word would be an immediate disqualification.”  They also point out that the three-point oil plan she introduced as governor of Alaska are now on display as the three-point oil plan of one B. Obama: “a windfall profits tax on the oil companies, an energy rebate tax, and the development of a transcontinental natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay across Canada to the Midwest.”  They don’t mention that Obama has been a presidential candidate longer than Palin has been governor, so it’s not so clear who came up with the idea first. 

1-15 September- Promoted on the Counterpunch website as “The Timebomb Who Would Be President,” this issue features two front-page articles about Crazy John McCain.  In “McCain’s 14th Amendment Problem,” Douglas Valentine argues that since the 14th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits traitors from holding public office, the man the North Vietnamese codenamed “Songbird” while he was their prisoner is not eligible to be elected president.  Cockburn and St. Clair tell the story of Crazy John’s two marriages, including this: “According to two emergency room physicians in Phoenix, interviewed by Counterpunch and who tell us they don’t want their names used, it was at this time” [when Crazy John was under investigation for his ties to corrupt financier Charles Keating] “that Cindy McCain sought medical attention in the Phoenix area for injuries consistent with physical violence: bruises, contusions, and a black eye.  There were at least two more visits for medical attention in the Phoenix area by Cindy, with similar injuries, between 1988 and 1993.”  True?  Who knows?  But those who paid attention to the 2004 Illinois Senate race can’t help but remember the end of Blair Hull‘s campaign.