Mike Davis, How Obama Became the Curator of the Bush Legacy

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If I hear one more radio or TV journalist or pundit tell me what Mitt Romney must do, I think I’ll scream.  Election 2012 is still 14 months away and yet the nattering commentators, the Iowa straw poll — we were told it was meaningless and to prove it 800 reporters showed up from a downsizing media — the first “debates,” the instant rise and fall of possible candidates (and the ignoring of others) have already been part of the scenery for months.  If the job of journalists is now to tell us what Mitt Romney or any other candidate must do, then we, the viewers or listeners or readers, essentially become millions of mute political advisors in an endless campaign.

I mean what do I think Mitt Romney must do, now that what’s-his-name is on the rise and Michele Bachman’s advisors are jumping ship like so many proverbial rats, and what about that crowd in the Ronald Reagan library cheering Rick Perry’s Texas execution record, or the idea of social security as a Ponzi scheme, and — sorry to harp on it — but really what should Mitt do about the Tea Party, or evolution, or Obama-rama-care?  Or really, at this point, who cares?

And don’t think you can find relief by visiting oppositional websites online.  They’re already geared up 24/7 to feed off mainstream “reporting,” while discussing what Mitt and his pals have done — their gaffes, stupidities, idiocies, etc. — presumably for the next 14 months.  And here’s the shameful thing: they’re not even making real money off it!

For the mainstream media, especially TV, it’s another matter.  In fact, it’s one of the great, unmentioned conflict-of-interest stories of our time.  If, in a different context, someone was selling you on the importance of a phenomenon and at the same time directly benefiting from it, that would be considered a self-evident conflict of interest.  For campaign 2012, TV alone is likely to have close to $3 billion in ad money dropped into its electronic lap — especially if news shows can drum up attention for the eternal election season as the political event of a lifetime.  So whenever those pundits go on about Mitt and his musts, they are functionally shilling for their owners’ bottom lines, though no one in our world bothers to say so.

Focused on picking and handicapping candidates, the media version of the political campaign is a process which now begins the day after the previous campaign ends.  As a result, elections have become the political equivalent of our ever-expanding, increasingly overlapping sports seasons.  If you don’t mind logrolling at three in the morning, sports is never absent from our onscreen lives, and it looks like the same may soon be said about electoral politics.

These days, of course, every crisis or alarum in American society — take the most recent terror alert that coincided with 9/11 coverage as an example — can be transformed with remarkable ease into eyeball-gluing screen fare and so into a money-maker for some complex or other (military-industrial, homeland-security, media-industrial, etc.).  So endless months before the first vote that counts, we get polls pouring in, elections coming out of our ears, and constant chatter. But democracy?  In a country where, in the best of times, only 60% of its citizens actually vote, don’t make me laugh.  The people’s representatives?  Please!

My apologies to the Roman Empire, but politics is now part of bread-and-circus time in the increasingly chaotic American version of empire.  The circuses are, of course, for us, the bread (and I mean dough, moolah) for them.  They grow fat.  We remain riveted to our many screens.  Meanwhile, out there in the real world, where towers are falling all the time, even American decline is undoubtedly being gilded, and readied to be put up in lights, and sold as yet more fun for the masses: disintegration, the last word in on-screen entertainment.  With the magisterial Mike Davis’s eulogy at the graveside today, TomDispatch switches off the TV and embarks on a triple look at American decline.  (Michael Klare and Pepe Escobar will tackle other aspects of the subject in the coming weeks.)  Tom

Edward Gibbon at America’s Grave

1. Twin Towers

Two years from now the staffs of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker will move into the most haunted building in the world.  There, the elite of American celebrity photographers, gossip columnists, and magazine journalists may meet some macabre new muses.

Aloft in the upper stories of 1 World Trade Center (where Condé Nast publishing has signed the biggest lease), they will gaze out their windows at that ghostly void, just a few yards away, where 658 doomed employees of Cantor Fitzgerald were sitting at their desks at 8:46 AM, September 11, 2001.

Not to worry: The “Freedom Tower” — the boosters reassure us — will be an enduring consolation to the families of 9/11’s martyrs as well as an icon of civic and national renaissance.  Not to mention its dramatic resurrection of property values in the neighborhood.  (I confess that I find this conflation of real-estate speculation with sublime memorial unnerving: like proposing to build a yacht marina over the sunken Arizona or a Katrina theme park in the Lower Ninth Ward.)

One World Trade Center, in the original design, was also meant to restore vertical architectural supremacy to Manhattan and to be the tallest building in the world.  This global phallic rivalry was won instead by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa super-tower, completed last year and twice as high as the Empire State Building.

In a few years Dubai, however, will have to surrender the gold cup to Saudi Arabia and the bin Laden family.

Financed by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who revels in being known as the “Arabian Warren Buffet,” the planned Kingdom Tower in Jeddah — the ultimate hyperbole for Saudi despotism — will pierce the clouds along the Red Sea coastline at an incredible altitude of one full kilometer (3,281 feet).

One World Trade Center, on the other hand, will max out at 1,776 feet above the Hudson.  (Conspiracy theorists can obsess over this coincidence: the number of feet higher the Saudi Arabian tower will be than the American one almost exactly equals the number of people who died in the North Tower of the WTC in 2001.)

With little publicity, the initial billion-dollar contract for the Jeddah spire was awarded by Prince Al-Waleed to the Arab world’s mega-builders and skyscraper experts — the Binladen Group.   It may keep their family name alive for centuries to come.

2. Collusion

Ten years ago, lower Manhattan became the Sarajevo of the War on Terrorism.   Although conscience recoils against making any moral equation between the assassination of a single Archduke and his wife on June 28, 1914, and the slaughter of almost 3,000 New Yorkers, the analogy otherwise is eerily apt.

In both cases, a small network of peripheral but well-connected conspirators, ennobled in their own eyes by the bitter grievances of their region, attacked a major symbol of the responsible empire.  The outrages were deliberately aimed to detonate larger, cataclysmic conflicts, and in this respect, were successful beyond the darkest imagining of the plotters. 

However, the magnitudes of the resulting geopolitical explosions were not simple functions of the notoriety of the acts themselves.  For example, in Europe between 1890 and 1940, more than two dozen heads of state were assassinated, including the kings of Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, an empress of Austria, three Spanish prime ministers, two presidents of France, and so on.  But apart from the murder of Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, none of these events instigated a war.

Likewise, a single suicide bomber in a truck killed 241 U.S. Marines and sailors at their barracks at the Beirut Airport in 1983.  (Fifty-eight French paratroopers were killed by another suicide bomber the same day.)  A Democratic president almost certainly would have been pressured into massive retaliation or full-scale intervention in the Lebanese civil war, but President Reagan — very shrewdly — distracted the public with an invasion of tiny Grenada, while quietly withdrawing the rest of his Marines from the Eastern Mediterranean.

If Sarajevo and the World Trade Center, in contrast, unleashed global carnage and chaos, it was because a de facto collusion existed between the attackers and the attacked.  I’m not referring to mythical British plots in the Balkans or Mossad agents blowing up the Twin Towers, but simply to well-known facts: by 1912, the Imperial German General Staff had already decided to exploit the first opportunity to make war, and powerful neocons around George W. Bush were lobbying for the overthrow of the regimes in Baghdad and Tehran even before the last hanging chad had been counted in Florida in 2000.

Both the Hohenzollerns and the Texans were in search of a casus belli that would legitimate military intervention and silence domestic opposition. 

Prussian militarism, of course, was punctually accommodated by the Black Hand — a terrorist group sponsored by the Serbian general staff — that assassinated the Archduke and his wife, while al-Qaeda’s horror show in lower Manhattan consecrated the divine right of the White House to torture, secretly imprison, and kill by remote control.

At the time, it seemed almost as if Bush and Cheney had staged a coup d’état against the Constitution.  Yet they could cynically but accurately point to a whole catalogue of precedents. 

3. “Innocence” and Intervention

To put it bluntly, every single chapter in the history of the extension of U.S. power has opened with the same sentence: “Innocent Americans were treacherously attacked…”

Remember the Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 (274 dead)?

The Lusitania torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915 (1,198 drowned, including 128 Americans)?

Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916 (18 U.S citizens killed)?

Pearl Harbor (2,402 dead)?

Same sneak attack, same righteous national outrage. Same pretext for clandestine agendas.

In addition, historians will also recall the besieged legation in Peking (1899), Emilio Aguinaldo’s alleged perfidy outside Manila (1899), various crimes against American banks and businessmen in Central America and the Caribbean (1900-1930), the Japanese bombing of the USS Panay in 1938, the Chinese army’s crossing of the Yalu River into Korea (1950), the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam (1964), the North Korean capture of the Pueblo (1968), the Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez (1975), the U.S. Embassy hostages in Tehran (1979), the imperiled medical students in Grenada (1983), the harassed American soldiers in Panama (1989), and so on.

This list barely scratches the surface: the synchronization of self-pity and intervention in U.S. history is relentless.

In the name of “innocent Americans,” the United States annexed Hawaii and Puerto Rico; colonized the Philippines; punished nationalism in North Africa and China; invaded Mexico (twice); sent a generation to the killing fields of France (and imprisoned dissenters at home); massacred patriots in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua; annihilated Japanese cities; bombed Korea and Indochina into rubble; buttressed military dictatorships in Latin America; and became Israel’s partner in the routine murder of Arab civilians.

4. Decline and Fall?

Someday — perhaps sooner than we think — a new Edward Gibbon in China or India will surely sit down to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire.  Hopefully it will be but one volume in a larger, more progressive oeuvre — The Renaissance of Asia perhaps — and not an obituary for a human future sucked into America’s grasping void.

I think she’ll probably classify self-righteous American “innocence” as one of the most toxic tributaries of national decline, with President Obama as its highest incarnation.  Indeed, from the perspective of the future, which will be deemed the greater crime: to have created the Guantanamo nightmare in the first place, or to have preserved it in contempt of global popular opinion and one’s own campaign promises?

Obama, who was elected to bring the troops home, close the gulags, and restore the Bill of Rights, has in fact become the chief curator of the Bush legacy: a born-again convert to special ops, killer drones, immense intelligence budgets, Orwellian surveillance technology, secret jails, and the superhero cult of former general, now CIA Director David Petraeus.

Our “antiwar” president, in fact, may be taking U.S. power deeper into the darkness than any of us dare to imagine.  And the more fervently Obama embraces his role as commander in chief of the Delta Force and Navy Seals, the less likely it becomes that future Democrats will dare to reform the Patriot Act or challenge the presidential prerogative to murder and incarcerate America’s enemies in secret.

Enmired in wars with phantoms, Washington has been blindsided by every major trend of the last decade.  It completely misread the real yearnings of the Arab street and the significance of mainstream Islamic populism, ignored the emergence of Turkey and Brazil as independent powers, forgot Africa, and lost much of its leverage with Germany as well as with Israel’s increasingly arrogant reactionaries.  Most importantly, Washington has failed to develop any coherent policy framework for its relationship with China, its main creditor and most important rival.

From a Chinese standpoint (assumedly the perspective of our future Ms. Gibbon), the United States is showing incipient symptoms of being a failed state.  When Xinhua, the semi-official Chinese news agency, scolds the U.S. Congress for being “dangerously irresponsible” in debt negotiations, or when senior Chinese leaders openly worry about the stability of American political and economic institutions, the shoe is truly on the other foot.  Especially when standing in the wings, bibles in hand, are the mad spawn of 9/11 — the Republican presidential candidates.

Mike Davis teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of California, Riverside.  He is the author of Planet of Slums, among many other works.  He’s currently writing a book about employment, global warming, and urban reconstruction for Metropolitan Books.

Copyright 2011 Mike Davis