Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Point of the Circle

Just as the circle is the perfect figure, so is Thanksgiving the perfect holiday.  It requires neither more nor less to be entirely satisfying. 

The heart of Thanksgiving and the all of it is simply feasting with friends.  This is the core of all religious commemoration, of all reconciliation, of all exultant howling around the carcass of the prey.

Thanksgiving entails none of the ego of birthdays or motherdays nor any of the impossible obbligatos of Christmas which more often than people will admit are simply a set-up for misery.

No.  Thanksgiving can be celebrated anywhere, with anyone with as little or as much as one has.  It is always good.

But the idea of giving thanks has always appalled me.  I can't count the number of times, while my host has rattled through a veritable laundry list of things he is thankful that God has vouchsafed to bestow on him, that i have wanted to add:

... and we thank you Lord, for the terrified animal whose pain and death has provided us with these succulent loins to savour; and that Thou, in Thy Gracious Mercy, have deigned not to number us among those starving children who are this night wandering streets and sniffing glue to stifle their hunger; and we thank You also, Oh Fount of Mercy and Love, that Thou has been so  very good to us, your unworthy but fortunate servants, that Thou has not let us fall among those despised and desolate, the truly blessed recipients of Your Grace....
The idea of giving thanks for accounted blessings has always struck me as an insufferable exercise of egotism wrapped in self-deluding and hypocritical humility, no different in spirit than the miser, gleefully counting his coins. Does anyone give thanks for suffering and going without? Saints perhaps.  

How is it possible to be grateful for having without necessarily being grateful for not not having? The catholic prayers a table which i dimly remember were always on the aesthetic side along the lines of:  "teach us to hunger after your spiritual blessings as you have given us food for our bodies..."  That at least was more of a cautionary reminder than an indulgent or indifferent reckoning.

Some may protest that life cannot always be so morose and i would heartily agree.  There are times to simply exult and be happy... and bringing in a harvest that yielded rather than not is one of those times too.  But being happy -- and limitlessly so -- is not the same as numbering one's acquisitions and successes.

What makes the circle perfect is that it points nowhere.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Aftermath - The Vulgarity of Empire.

The morning after Kennedy was buried, the country awoke to find a stranger in its bed.  The indefatigable vulgarity of Lyndon Baines Johnson made unfavourable comparison inevitable.  As I.F.Stone put it,

"He is a sharp drop from Kennedy.  He has hardly read a book in years; never reads when he can help it; prefers to get information by ear, but rarely listens.  He is one of the most long-winded men in Washington... with a remarkably small stock of basic ideas....

"Money and power have been the motivating passions of his life.  He was a New Dealer when that was the road to power; he became a conservative when that was the way to stay in.  ...  He is the perfect extrovert,  with no convictions and a passion for getting things done, anything.  ... [¶]... His vanity, his thin skin and his vindictiveness make even the mildest criticism ... dangerous.  ...
"Johnson is not a racist or a reactionary. ... As a shrewd politician, he knows he must move slightly leftward and make civil rights his number 1 issue... if he is [to become more] than a Southern politician with a basically stand-pat philosophy.  ... The hope is that men change and grow.  The sense of role, the maturing effect of responsibility, the consciousness of duty and love of country, the sense of humanity and history, all have their effect.  ... There may be surprises in Johnson and we wish the new President luck."  (Vol XI, No. 24 12/9/63;

The sting of Stone's portrayal gives it a taste of truth and he was right in his prediction that the "level of literacy and civilization will fall again, as it did after F.D.R."

But it is a tad unfair to subject public figures to too much light.  Men do not accomplish anything without power and do not get into power by being poets. Politics is the art of the sordid.

If Kennedy was -- as his ghost writer once put it -- the author of his poetry, it was only because his father, Joe Sr.,  had authored all the sordid deals for him.  Jack was untouchable because he hadn't touched a damn thing.  Johnson, a true nobody from nowhere, had to claw his way in and clawing is never pretty.

Johnson was a figure cut from Shakespeare, at once the bumbling peasant and the despicable overseer promiscuously out of place in the Court of Savoir Faire that did not know how.

And so, in a curious and indirect way, the country also awoke to an awareness of the stricken hero's imperfections. The whispered coda on everyone's lips was: "but maybe now things can get done."  Johnson stood for the drudge work of a dream Kennedy could evoke but not accomplish. 

It was Johnson who pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 even if, as he said, it would be the act that destroyed the Democratic Coalition, which it did and which more than anything else enabled Nixon and Reagan to come to power. 

It was Johnson who pushed through Medicare which is the one program that keeps senior Americans from literally dying in gutters including those who once chanted "Hey, Hey, LBJ - How many Kids Have you Killed Today."

It was Johnson who enacted a slew of small social and economic programs which in small but real ways made the difference for small but real people.

It is unfair to excoriate politicians for impurity of motive as if they should do good without the slightest hint of egotistical drive or satisfaction.  No one can pass such a test. It was Johnson's misfortune that, following upon the pseudo saintliness of Jack Kennedy, his ordinary vices and even his virtues appeared for the worse.

Beneath the vulgarity and ambition Johnson retained simple but humane instincts.  He really had wanted to bring rural electrification to Texas and he really did want to make the United States a more fair union. 

The tragedy of Lyndon -- and it was a tragedy --  was that he had embraced power with the notion of doing something good and found that Power had embraced him for her own ends. 

Johnson might fix and finagle things in what I.F. Stone called "the decayed underside" of the U.S. Senate.  What  Johnson could not fix was the decayed underside of Kennedy's lofty Inaugural Address.   Vietnam was the pustule of America's status as a world power.  The war was no more avoidable than America's chosen "manifest destiny."

The unending slew of homiletic pieties which passes for American rhetoric has convinced us that America is a basically good and decent land which from time to time makes atrocious mistakes.  Rubbish.

Ever since 1776, when the Colonists revolted against the Quebec Act which had forbidden westward expansion (and which Jefferson denounced as inciting the "merciless Indian Savages" against us), the country has been about expansion and empire.  The endeavour reached its culmination in 1945 when the United States stood astride a devastated world which it more than anyone else had blasted into rubble.  Americans are wont to think of themselves as liberators but such self-massaging is one thing that doesn't gratify beyond our shores.  Any European understands that the United States no more liberated Europe than Rome liberated Greece.

With the success achieved in 1945, U.S. policy became one of consolidation and extension.  The aim was to erect a cordon sanitaire around the Communist world (what Churchill, in a delirium tremens of deflected accusation, called the Iron Curtain) and then to foster what were called "zones of democratic freedom" in the no-man's land of the "third world."  The Cold War consisted in ongoing skirmishes over "push points" in the Congo, Cuba, Laos or Iran -- outposts, colonies and satrapies tied to one or the other of the blocs by "shared values" and trade.

Five decades later, all that really changed was the unvarnished candour with which the policy got stated.  The aim of Dick Cheney's doctrine of ongoing "power projection" operations was to "preserve and extend American preeminence" and "to secure and expand" “zones of democratic peace;” "in line with American principles and interests."

The unvarnish was inadvertent. It resulted from the fact that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was nothing left to contain and the U.S. could no longer cast itself in the shining armour of freedom's guardian.   Thus, the essential thrust of NeoCon doctrine was a colossal "Who Gives A-Fuck."  America was top dog and would stay top dog by kicking ass around the world. Containing Communism transmuted into Maintaining Preeminence. 

It is pointless to ask whether John Kennedy would have gone that far.  The answer is, no; but only because Kennedy was not president that far along on history's trajectory.  It is a different question altogether whether Kennedy would have seen the "need" to "contain and push" in Vietnam.  The answer is, yes.

It is worth remembering that it was Kennedy who first institutionalised the use of "full spectrum" forces and "special operations."  That was what the Green Berets were all about, even if they were decked out as some kind of uber-athletic bivouacking team, replete with their own best-selling, pre-Weider,  fitness manual. 

Vietnam was the first muddled test of the new strategy.  It began with black ops (an assassination) was carried on by "pacification" programs (the murdering and concentration of entire villages) and ended in all out aerial and chemical bombing short of nuclear war.
Vietnam was a "necessary" war because (as Kissinger would later say) it was necessary not to be perceived as weak -- in other words to be seen as ever-ready, ever-eager to project power.  That was the entire dynamic of the post-war construct.

The notion that Kennedy was back-tracking from engagement in Vietnam is too pretty for words. It was Kennedy who had loftily intoned that we would "pay any price, bear any burden, .... oppose any foe, in  order to assure .... the success of liberty."  His administration was already implementing the play-book Johnson would continue to use.  To think that Kennedy would call the whole thing off two years later, one has to believe that Kennedy would have ignored the very same cadre of cabinet officers and advisers who stayed on to advise Johnson.  It is possible but not probable.

Even to say as much erroneously presupposes that leaders exist independently of the forces that thrust them forward and sustain them.  They do not. As President of "the most powerful nation on earth" Johnson had to serve the cause of power once in power himself.  There was no way out from that  Faustian embrace and he was just as trapped as Kennedy would have been.

The difference between Johnson and Kennedy was that Saint Jack would have let loose a noble and inspiring War Whoop which would have had an entire generation marching off to war under fluttering flags instead of half of it being surreptitiously shipped off to slog around in rice paddies while the more privileged half sloshed around in mud-fields protesting and what-not.

At bottom, Kennedy was a jock.  Although he had the good sense to keep it within limits, he relished a good fight.  As he said in his Inaugural,

Only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it.

For all his physical presence, Johnson never spoiled for a fight.  Some said he was a physical coward.  He had lusted for power with the idea of improving the lot of poorer Americans.  Vainglorious as it might have been, he did want to go down in history as the Great Benefactor of a Great Society. 

Caught between the demands of power and the empowering of his dreams, Johnson pursued an ambivalent course.  The disaster of his "guns and butter" policy was that it succeeded at neither and drove a permanent wedge into the country between those who got the guns and those who got the butter.  That was something Kennedy would not have permitted.

But Kennedy's crusading spirit did not mean that the war would have ended sooner or bankrupted the country less.  The war was unwinable because it was the kind of war that cannot be won, even by Green Berets!  Only conventional wars have conventional endings.  The idea that you can "win" an unconventional war is an oxymoron because there is no one around to admit defeat.  The best one can do (as was said of Rome) is to "create a desert and call it peace."

It would take U.S. policy makers 40 years to realise that it did not matter if you won or lost because power projection was an end in itself.  But in 1964 U.S. policy makers were still tied to the tinsel of "democratic values," to the notion that nation building mattered and to the idea that "winning" (over what was not very clear) was a possible outcome.

Was it possible to alter the historical trajectory the nation had embarked upon in 1776?  No; and no one wanted to.  But Kennedy had led us to think that our undoubted preeminence could be used for good,

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts  If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.   ....  [T]he trumpet summons us again– to struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

It was stirring stuff. The Inaugural  beckoned to the idea of a beneficent empire.  It was America's Ara Pacis -- a New Rome uniting the Free World within New Frontiers of peace, progress and prosperity.  We thrilled to the challenge and thought it possible.

But despite the friezes and phrases, no empire is beneficent because the essence of empire is exploitation.  There is no such thing as "gentle power."  Empires are what they are and they exact their price from rulers and ruled alike.

Kennedy was the noble fraud, the way we wanted to see ourselves.  Johnson was the ugly truth and we hated in him what we did not want to acknowledge about us.  His tragedy will be ours.

©WCG, 2013

Friday, November 22, 2013

Saint Jack

Anyone over the age of seven, the world over, can tell you where he was on that day.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy had evoked the imagination of the world even among those who  considered him to be an inexperienced, preppy playboy, little different in political substance from Nixon or among those, like Kruschev, Castro or DeGaulle, who were not mired in sentimentalities about America or the forces that drove her. 

There was something about Jack that shone through the carefully cultivated propaganda as opposed to Ronnie who only shined because of it.  And what shone through was simply a reflection of the projected hopes of mankind.  Truly great statesmen are devoid of content; the greater their emptiness the more they can act as a transparent prism for the light that appears to emanate from them. 

We were curious about what I.F. Stone -- the great counter-journalist of the Fifties and Sixties -- had to say about that day.  We were struck by how, of all the blather that streamed over the coffin, Stone's remarks bear the balanced judgement of time.  

"There was a fairy tale quality about the inaugural and there was a fairy tale quality about the funeral rites.  One half expected  ... some winged godmother would wave her wand and restore the hero whole again in final triumph over the dark forces which had slain him. ...

"Of all the Presidents this was the first to be a Prince Charming. ... To watch the President at press conference ... was to be delighted by his wit, his intelligence, his capacity and his youth.  These made the terrible flash from Dallas incredible and painful. 

"But perhaps the truth is that in some ways John Fitzgerald Kennedy died just in time ... to be remembered as he would like to be remembered, as ever young, still victorious, struck down undefeated...

"For... in the tangled dramaturgy of events this sudden assassination was ... the only satisfactory way out. The Kennedy Administration was approaching an impasse ... from which there seemed no escape. 

"In congress the President was ... confronted with a shrewdly conceived and quietly staged sitdown strike by Southern committee chairmen determined to block civil rights even if it meant stopping the wheels of government altogether. ... Never before ... has the Southern oligarchy dared to go so far in demonstrating its power. ...

"In foreign policy the outlook was as uncompromising. It was proving difficult to move toward co-existence a country so long conditioned to cold war. The president recognized the dangers of an unlimited arms race... but was afraid ... to move at more than a snail's pace toward an agreement with Moscow. ... In Vietnam, the stepping up of the war by the rebels was deflating all the romantic Kennedy notions about counter-guerillas. ...

"Abroad, as at home, the problems were becoming too great for conventional leadership, and Kennedy, when the tinsel was stripped away, was a conventional leader, no more than an enlightened conservative... with a basic distrust of the  people...."
[ Stone went on to list the belligerent deeds undertaken by Kennedy the Cold Warrior from the assassination of Lumumba in the Congo to Diem in Vietnam, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Cuban Missile Crisis,  before concluding:  ]
"Where the right to kill is so universally accepted, we should not be surprised if our young President was slain.  It is not just the ease in obtaining guns, it is the ease in obtaining excuses that fosters assassinations. ... When a whole people is in a state of mind where it is ready to risk extinction -- its own and everybody else's -- as a means of having its own way in an international dispute, the readiness for murder has become a way of life and a world menace.  ... It would be well to think it over carefully before canonizing Kennedy as an apostle of peace."  (Vol XI, No. 24 12/9/63 ©
It was all true enough and equally as depressing that so little has changed.  But that is not why Kennedy has been canonised.

Kennedy's clarity allowed us to see our better selves in him.  He was the man we wanted to be.  The husband we wanted to have.  The hero of our own ideals and the embodiment of what we expected from that cornucopia of hopes called "America." 

I stood on the tombstone of a long dead patriot atop the knoll that overlooked where the slain man was being laid to rest.  The air was crisp under a clear azure sky and the rays of the setting sun turned marble monuments a golden pink.  The bagpipes droned their plaintive dirge as the flags whipped into the wind.  I had never felt so sad, so proud to be an American. 

That was the last time.

©WCG, 2013.