|Number 596||May 18, 2016|
It’s been a long time since the last Nygaard Notes! Number 595 went out on March 18—exactly two months ago—which was just three days before I went into the hospital for major surgery to correct a defect in my spinal cord. I knew it would be a while before I could start writing again, but I didn’t expect it to be this long! First I was on drugs (opioids, actually; I did not get addicted, but I was in no condition to write). Then I couldn’t sit without pain for more than a few minutes at a time. For a long time the pain was too distracting to concentrate fully. Et cetera. But the surgery went as well as it could be expected. It’ll be some time before we know how successful it is, but I’m hopeful.
As far as day-to-day activities, I’m almost back to where I was. Whether I can really concentrate enough to make sense, that’s another question. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Whether or not it makes sense, what you see before you is a double-sized issue of the Notes, reflecting in part the backlog of things I’ve been noticing but not writing about. You can see that this issue is about “extremism,” and for many people that makes them think of Donald Trump, or ISIS. And that’s my point in this issue. We’ve become so accustomed to some very extreme things that they have come to seem “normal” to many of us. I’m not saying that Trump and ISIS are not extremists. What I’m saying is that many people who are NOT labeled as “extremists” play a role in creating and perpetuating some very extreme policies and systems. This is not a Democrat/Republican thing, despite how it’s often portrayed.
I know I called the last issue “Individualism, Part 1,” which sort of implies that this issue would be Part 2. But the research and background reading for Part 2 are taking longer than expected, so Part 2 will be coming your way, but not just yet. I’m going to try and do some catching up first. And maybe talk a little bit about neoliberalism, too.
Glad to be back!
In a 2004 essay called “Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness,” philosopher Charles W. Mills argues that “current debates about ‘racism’ are hindered by the fact that the term is used in ... a confusingly diverse range of ways.” In the process of making his argument, Mills explains why it might be helpful to replace the familiar concept of “racism” with a more complex (and more accurate, as he argues) concept of “white supremacy”:
“The dominant interpretation of white racism in the white population is probably individual beliefs about innate nonwhite (particularly black) biological inferiority, and individual hostility toward people of color (especially blacks). Given this conception, most whites think of themselves as nonracist—one positive thing about the present is that nobody wants to be a racist, though this has also motivated a shift in how the term is defined—while continuing to hold antiblack stereotypes. But in any case, with the decline in overt racism in the white population, the real issue for a long time has not been individual racism but, far more important, the reproduction of white advantage and black disadvantage through the workings of racialized social structures. The idea of white supremacy is intended, in part, to capture the crucial reality that the normal workings of the social system continue to disadvantage blacks in large measure independently of racist feeling. Insofar as ... our attention as philosophers concerned about justice is supposed to be on the ‘basic structure’ of society and its workings, the concept of ‘white supremacy’ then forces us to confront the possibility that the basic structure is itself systemically unjust. Corrective measures to end racial injustice would thus need to begin here.”
The headline on the front page of the New York Times of April 26th read “Where Free Trade Hurts, Voters Seek Extremes.” Another story on the same day’s front page was headlined “Iraq Battle Gains But No Stability.” On May 9th the front-page headline read “In Afghan War, Role of Adviser Turns to Battle.”
The three stories—seemingly unrelated—are all part of a larger and very interesting story, but one that may not be obvious to the average reader. I’ll try to reveal that less-than-obvious story in this piece and the next.
Stress and Extremism
The first Times article—and a lengthy one it was—noted that “research to be unveiled this week by four leading academic economists suggests that the damage to manufacturing jobs from a sharp acceleration in globalization since the turn of the century has contributed heavily to the nation's bitter political divide.” That is, voters “under economic stress” (this study focuses on voters “hardest hit by Chinese imports”) were found to be likely to “move to the far right or the far left politically,” and to “choose more ideologically extreme lawmakers” than voters who do not feel like they’re under attack.
I’ll ignore for the moment the “free trade” misnomer found in the headline (see NN #306: The Key Fact about “Free Trade:” It’s Not About “Freedom”). For now we’ll just accept the idea that voters can be expected to look for extreme solutions to what they perceive as extreme problems.
It should be noted that manufacturing is only a part of the economy, and a part that has been getting smaller since 1970. When talking about “economic stress,” then, the more important point is that overall economic growth has been slowing and the income gap has been growing since the 1970s, and not only “since the turn of the century.” As The American Prospect put it in a 2013 report, “The middle has fallen out of the American economy—precipitously since 2008, but it’s been falling out slowly and cumulatively for the past 40 years.”
And here it must be noted that “the worst of what most Americans experienced during the past recession doesn't even compare to the economic hardship that African-Americans have endured for decades.” That’s writer Chris Walker, from a 2014 article in Policy.mic. Walker adds that “for 24 of the past 40 years, black unemployment was higher than the peak national unemployment of 11.4%. That means normal economic conditions for African-Americans are worse than recession conditions for most Americans.”
As economic conditions have worsened, have political representatives taken positions more in line with the changing needs of their constituents? Not really. The Times quotes one of the authors of the report that was the subject of this story: “It's not about incumbents changing their positions. It's about the replacement of moderates with more ideological successors.”
Note what we are expected to believe here. The message is that “moderates”—those unlikely to rock the boat—are not “ideological,” and that it’s only in the past 16 years that we have seen the rise of a “bitter partisan divide” caused by ideology. If you don’t believe that—and I’m suggesting here that you shouldn’t—then you’ll never get a job as an editor at the New York Times. Or any other mass media outlet, for that matter.
“A Depressingly Familiar Pattern”
The second April 26th front-page story (also quite lengthy) tells of how “Iraqi forces, backed by American airstrikes and advised by American officers, have been making strides in Anbar Province, slowly taking back territory from the Islamic State.” The Times notes that, “in Falluja, a city in Sunni-dominated Anbar that has been in the hands of the Islamic State longer than any other in Iraq or Syria, civilians are starving as the Iraqi Army and militias lay siege to the city.” All of this is “part of a depressingly familiar pattern: battlefield gains that do not bring stability in their wake.” The problem, says the Times is that “Iran's proxies are undercutting efforts to unite the civilian population, a necessity if Iraq is to eventually extinguish extremism.”
There’s that word “extremism” again. The article makes it appear that the U.S. goal in Iraq is to “unite the civilian population” so they can “extinguish extremism.”
Within the U.S., the dominant thinking has it that the “extremes” are people like Trump and Sanders. In Iraq the extremes are different, or so we’re supposed to understand. “Laying siege” to a major city filled with starving civilians, with the help of “American airstrikes” and “American officers,” is apparently not considered “extreme” in the corporate media.
“Threatening the Delicate Stability”
A third story, again a lengthy one, appeared on the Times front page of May 9th, with the headline “In Afghan War, Role of Adviser Turns to Battle.” In it was found the following comment:
“On the morning of Oct. 1, about 30 soldiers were in close-quarters combat against Taliban fighters—even though White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly insisted that American troops no longer play that role... [The fighting] offered the starkest example to date of a blurry line in Afghanistan and Iraq between the missions that American forces are supposed to be fulfilling—military training and advising—and combat. Mr. Obama has portrayed that combat role as over. But as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq have threatened the delicate stability he hoped to leave behind, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight.”
It’s everywhere you look! In Iraq, “stability” is directly threatened by the Islamic State, and indirectly by Iran. In Afghanistan, “stability” is threatened by the Taliban. So the U.S. continues its military response, but doesn’t get “stability.” And the other Times article tells us that “voters under stress” move “to the extremes.” But what is it, exactly, that puts voters under “stress”? Is it different than the “stress” that gets Iraqis or Afghans to move to the extremes? And does U.S. violence reduce the stress?
Embedded in these three stories is a hidden assumption about what is “extreme” and what is “moderate.” The next essay pulls together a brief collection of facts that may help to illuminate how such mundane, everyday reporting functions to normalize some pretty extreme stuff.
In a political ad that ran last November, Donald Trump said that, if elected, “I will... quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS. We'll make the military so strong, no one and I mean no one, will mess with us.” It’s statements like this that make some people think of Donald Trump as an “extremist.” After all, the idea of building up a military strong enough to intimidate the entire world into passive acceptance of a U.S.-dominated world order does sound pretty extreme. But how extreme is it in the context of the realities of the U.S. Empire, or what remains of it?
The Nation magazine of September 14, 2015 ran an article entitled “The United States Probably Has More Foreign Military Bases Than Any Other People, Nation, or Empire in History.” The author, Professor David Vine of American University in Washington DC notes that, “While there are no freestanding foreign bases permanently located in the United States, there are now around 800 US bases in foreign countries.” Overall, U.S. military expenditures are roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world, combined. (Donald Trump is not responsible for this.)
Specifically in the Middle East, where U.S. policy is said to be to “extinguish extremism” but where “battlefield gains” are not bringing “stability,” the U.S. is ramping up its capacity for violence. It was on December 10th of 2015 that the NY Times reported that “the Pentagon has proposed a new plan to the White House to build up a string of military bases in Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East.” Added the Times “The bases could be used for collecting intelligence and carrying out strikes against the [Islamic State’s] far-flung affiliates.” True enough. Of course, they “could” be used for some quite different reasons, as well.
In a 2003 pamphlet called “Understanding the U.S.-Iraq Crisis: A Primer,” Phyllis Bennis spelled out a reality that may explain why many in the Middle East may find the prospect of more U.S. bases more sinister than the Pentagon would have us believe: “Expanding U.S. power, central to the Bush administration’s war strategy, includes redrawing the political map of the Middle East. That scenario includes U.S. control of Iraq and the rest of the Gulf states as well as Jordan and Egypt. Some in the administration want even more—‘regime change’ in Syria, Iran, and Palestine, and Israel as a permanently unchallengeable U.S.-backed regional power. The ring of U.S. military bases built or expanded recently in Qatar, Djibouti, Oman and elsewhere as preparation for a U.S. war against Iraq will advance that goal.”
This kind of grand strategic thinking did not die with the rise of Obama. In Nygaard Notes #475 I noted a statement made by Obama’s Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton. She was testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs on March 10th 2011, and there she commented on the Arab Spring, saying that it was “exciting and it also presents very significant challenges to America's position, to our security and to our long-term interests.” Challenges? Interests? That’s worrisome enough, but it was a comment she made later on that tells the tale. She told the Congressmembers that “We have an enormous stake in insuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see.”
When the U.S. says that it is promoting “democracy,” no doubt most USAmericans think of the standard definition of democracy—that is, sovereignty, elections, government of the people/by the people/for the people, etc. But that’s not necessarily “the kind of democracy that we want to see.” What “we” want to see is the kind of democracy that produces a “stable” region, the nations of which pursue policies in line with U.S. “interests.” And U.S. interests are often quite different than the interests of the residents of the nations of Southwest Asia. Which brings us back to that other word: Extremism.
Back in March of 2011 I called attention to a major 2010 survey of the people in six Middle Eastern countries. Asked which two countries “pose the biggest threat to you,” 88 percent named Israel, and 77 percent named the United States. No other country was even close. (Algeria and Iran tied for third place, at 10 percent.)
And here we have one of the “very significant challenges” to which Ms. Clinton refers. Maybe THE significant challenge, at least in the public relations sense: How to promote “democracy” when the voters that would be empowered under that system consider you an enemy?
As noted in reference to the United States, voters will look to extreme solutions to problems they consider extreme. That’s true everywhere. And the problem appears pretty extreme when you’re being asked to be a subservient member of the global polico-economic system favored by The World’s Only Superpower (and backed up not only by 800 military bases, but also by overwhelming economic power). Because what is favored by all that power is a neoliberal world order that is based on fiscal austerity, deregulation, “free” trade, privatization and greatly reduced government spending. People on the receiving end of that can get pretty desperate.
Back to Hillary: In U.S. political and media circles she’s not considered an extremist. Nor is George W. Bush, who after all unleashed U.S. bombs on four countries during his two terms. Meanwhile, the non-extremist Barack Obama has bombed seven countries in his two terms.
The Real Extremism
At the beginning of this essay I quoted Donald Trump saying, “We'll make the military so strong, no one and I mean no one, will mess with us.” In fact, the maintenance of a super-strong military has been U.S. policy since World War II, and very explicitly since the fall of the Soviet Union, when the U.S. was acknowledged to be The World’s Only Superpower. And it’s more or less been true that no one has messed with us, in the sense that nobody has chosen to mount a direct military challenge to the United States.
But as long as the U.S. clings to its role as chief architect and guardian of the neoliberal world order favored by global business interests, people will “mess with us.” Not via direct military confrontation, which the U.S. has put enormous resources toward assuring that they can’t win. No, resistance to the neoliberal world order will be aimed at what are perceived as the weakest, or most strategic, points in the system. The soft underbelly, one might say.
One part of that resistance—and I emphasize one part—is, and will be, what we know as “terrorism.” And that’s because, contrary to the dominant thinking about it, there is a strategic logic to terrorism. In fact, I referred in these pages to a piece published in 2003 called “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” in which the author, University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, explained it like this:
“Suicide terrorism does not occur in the same circumstances as military coercion used by states, and these structural differences help to explain the logic of the strategy. In virtually all instances of international military coercion, the coercer is the stronger state and the target is the weaker state; otherwise, the coercer would likely be deterred or simply unable to execute the threatened military operations.... Suicide terrorism (and terrorism in general) occurs under the reverse structural conditions. In suicide terrorism, the coercer is the weaker actor and the target is the stronger.”
In an interview with the Chicago Policy Review last May, Pape said it simply: “Suicide attack has created major political and strategic benefits for groups that don’t have other alternatives. It’s not like they’re choosing a suicide attack over using an army.”
The lesson should be clear: A stronger military will not protect us from terrorist attacks. In fact, to the degree that it is perceived to close off alternatives for those who would dissent from the Grand Plan, an increased U.S. capacity for violence may actually increase the threat of terror attacks.
At the beginning of the previous essay I said that the three front-page articles I’m featuring are all part of a larger and very interesting story. And that story is the story of the increasing reliance of a fading U.S. empire on violence to preserve its power and prestige. And, seen in this light, the election of 2016 is not about “extremism” vs “moderation.” All of the candidates are extreme—just in different ways. And they MUST be, if they want to have any chance of winning. No one will win by promising to challenge the global neoliberal system that puts the U.S. at the top. That challenge has to come from the bottom.
One of the New York Times articles I just mentioned tells us that the U.S. wants Iraq to “extinguish extremism.” Every article that talks about “extremism” in Iraq should be required to remind readers of the following facts:
Fact 1: The U.S. attacked Iraq in 1991 in what is known as “The First Gulf War.” The BBC reported in 2003 that “Estimates for the number of Iraqi soldiers killed [in that war] range from 60,000 to 200,000 soldiers... Nobody knows how many civilians died in the war, but estimates for civilian deaths as a direct result of the war range from 100,000 to 200,000.”
Fact 2: This attack occurred after the beginning of “a near-total financial and trade embargo imposed on Iraq by the United Nations Security Council,” which began in 1990 and lasted until 2003. Commentator Juan Cole reported in 2013 that “The US/ UN sanctions on Iraq of the 1990s, which interdicted chlorine for much of that decade and so made water purification impossible, are estimated to have killed ... 500,000 Iraqis, mainly children.”
Fact 3: As for the second U.S. war against Iraq, a study published in the medical journal PLOS Medicine in 2013 noted that “Approximately a half million deaths in Iraq could be attributable to the war” against Iraq launched by the United States in 2003.
Fact 4: As noted elsewhere in this issue, the war continues. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that “at least 3.3 million Iraqis were internally displaced as of 31 December 2015.”
Summary: Over a million killed as a result of (largely) U.S. actions, with over 3 million displaced. And now we want “stability”!
As for Afghanistan, which was invaded by the U.S. in 2001, and the much-less discussed (in this country) Pakistan, a report in the Washington Post from last June tells us that “War has directly resulted in the deaths of 149,000 people in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2001 and 2014, according to estimates in a new report released by the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute. That figure includes U.S. military members, contractors, and opposition fighters—as well as at least 26,270 civilians in Afghanistan, and 21,500 in Pakistan. These figures illustrate not only the drastic human cost of the U.S.-led ‘War on Terror’ that [has been carried out] in Afghanistan since 2001—but also that the war is not over.”
Elsewhere in this issue I say that “all of the candidates are extreme.” I mean that in the sense that, in order to have a chance of being elected President, a “major” candidate cannot be perceived as too big a threat to the neoliberal agenda at home and the imperial agenda abroad. So what about Bernie Sanders?
Elsewhere in this issue I refer to a New York Times article that contrasts the “ideological” Bernie Sanders with what are known as “moderate” politicians. The Times is hardly alone in this. Most of the corporate media pushes the same idea.
The Israeli press calls Bernie Sanders a member of the “radical left.” The Washington Post declares that “Mr. Sanders and Mr. Cruz will appeal to the extreme wings of their parties...” The ever-amusing Investor’s Business Daily ranted on February 23rd that “Bernie Sanders has been winning the hearts and minds of Democrats everywhere with a health care plan so reckless, extreme and fanciful that even liberals are appalled.” And the nation’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, USA Today, referring to Trump and Sanders, claims that “The two parties have been seized by their peculiar extremes,” calling Sanders’ “radical” policies nothing but “political pipe dreams.” A Boston Globe commentary refers to Sanders as a “far-left radical,” and the London Guardian speaks of Sanders’ “radical financial reforms.”
So, how “extreme,” how “radical,” is Bernie Sanders, really? Well, let’s have a look at how his positions on eight key issues relate to the positions of the U.S. public on those issues. You might be surprised.
Money in Politics
PBS reported on February 2nd that “Sanders proposes a Constitutional amendment that would effectively reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling [which said that political spending is “speech” and therefore cannot be limited] and ban corporations and nonprofits from unlimited campaign expenditures.”
Back in September, the business-friendly news service Bloomberg News reported on a national poll they had just conducted which showed that “78 percent of those responding said the Citizens United ruling should be overturned, compared with 17 percent who called it a good decision.”
Sanders has sponsored a bill which would charge companies for their carbon emissions and use some of the money raised to boost renewable energy technology. A 2014 poll done by the University of Michigan found that 60 percent of USAmericans support such a tax when it is applied toward developing renewables (70 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of Independents). Considering the severity of global warming, this can hardly be considered an extreme position.
Sanders supports free, universal preschool and free tuition at public colleges and universities. Gallup reports (May 2, 2016) that “By more than 2-to-1 (59% vs. 26%), U.S. adults agree with the idea of providing free child care and pre-kindergarten programs for all Americans.” When asked if we should “Make tuition free at all public colleges and universities throughout America,” 47 percent said we should, while 45 percent disagreed. Not a majority, but more support the idea than oppose it. Hardly “extreme.”
According to “FeelTheBern.org,” Sanders has proposed that we “break up the big banks.” Here’s how he justifies it: “When banks are so large that their bankruptcy would devastate the economy, the government is forced to bail them out. If banks know that they’ll be bailed out, they’ll chase profit by gambling and making risky investments knowing that they can’t really lose.”
Speaking at the Brookings Institution on February 16th Neel Kashkari, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said, “I believe we must ... give serious consideration to ... Breaking up large banks into smaller, less connected, less important entities.” His Bernie-like rationale: “Large banks must be able to make mistakes—even very big mistakes—without requiring taxpayer bailouts and without triggering widespread economic damage.”
Sanders says he would “strengthen and better enforce the instant background check system.” That idea is supported by 88 percent of respondents to a CBS News/NY Times poll. He would “close the gun-show loophole,” which is supported by 89 percent of poll respondents. His least-popular proposal is to “ban semi-automatic assault weapons,” and even that is supported by (a shockingly-low) 50 percent of poll respondents.
Most people likely know that Sanders would work to institute a single-payer system of universal national health care. Most people likely do not know that a majority of USAmericans now also support such a plan. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in December that “When asked their opinion, nearly 6 in 10 Americans (58 percent) say they favor the idea of Medicare-for-all [aka “single-payer”] including 34 percent who say they strongly favor it.”
Sanders says that “a path toward citizenship is something I strongly support.” On January 28th the Pew Research Center reported that “Roughly-two thirds of Americans favor either a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants (54%) or a way to stay in the U.S. legally without citizenship (12%), according to a CBS News poll last week.”
Sanders would increase income tax rates for those earning over $250,000 (that is, for the top three percent of households). A November CBS News/NY Times Poll shows that 63 percent favor “increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and large corporations.
Back in November, the Los Angeles times noted that Sanders “expressed bewilderment that his embrace of free public education, universal healthcare and an economic system that does not concentrate so much wealth among so few would be perceived as radical.” If we believe what public opinion polls say, it is bewildering. Unless we consider the possibility that what is considered “moderate” and what is “radical” in the mass media has little to do with what the majority wants, and much to do with who sets the agenda when the media is run for profit instead of for the public good.
It’s hard to tell what Sanders would really do if he were President, but he seems to be advocating a more friendly form of capitalism, similar to the Scandinavian social democracies. And that passes for “extremist” in the United States. So Sanders is not extreme enough to attract the corporate support needed to prevail in a general election (capital does not want to be more friendly!), but in the current intellectual/media climate, his insistence on promoting policies that reflect the desires of the general public mark him as “extreme.” It’s a topsy-turvy world, isn’t it?
Speaking of extremists, let’s talk about a man named Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan was the 2012 Republican nominee for vice president, is the current Speaker of the House of Representatives, and is frequently mentioned as a candidate for President. Some say his 2020 campaign has already begun.
Ryan is often portrayed as a “voice of reason,” and the Republican “point man on the economy and the budget.” Bloomberg News tells us in a March 26th story that “Ryan occupies perilous ground” between “extremists in his party, including Ted Cruz, massed on one front, and Donald Trump positioned on another.”
Nygaard Notes has discussed Paul Ryan on occasion, especially in regard to his 2013 federal budget proposal, which he called the “Path to Prosperity.” I remarked at the time that “The most amazing thing that I’ve discovered so far is that the budget proposed by Mr. Ryan would result in the elimination of the federal government’s role in... well, in just about everything.”
I’m not the only one to notice. I’ll let economist Dean Baker spell it out: In a blog post on April 5th Baker noted that Ryan “has repeatedly proposed eliminating most of the federal government... This fact can be found in the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) analysis of Ryan's budget (page 16, Table 2). The analysis shows Ryan's budget shrinking everything other than Social Security and Medicare and other health care programs to 3.5 percent of GDP by 2050. This is roughly the current size of the military budget, which Ryan has indicated he wants to increase. That leaves zero for everything else. Included in everything else is the Justice Department, the National Park System, the State Department, the Department of Education, the Food and Drug Administration, Food Stamps, the National Institutes of Health, and just about everything else that the government does. Just to be clear, CBO did this analysis under Ryan's supervision. He never indicated any displeasure with its assessment. In fact he boasted about the fact that CBO showed his budget paying off the national debt.”
Doesn’t that sound rather extreme? And it’s hardly a secret. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a reference in the corporate media calling Paul Ryan an “extremist.” You’d have to go to a publication like Nygaard Notes to hear the term in relation to the Ryan Budget. And it exemplifies a particular kind of extremism. Its name is neoliberalism. I’ll be discussing the meaning of the term “neoliberal” in these pages in the very near future.