Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Heroic Extremism?

When I was young and receiving my education in the United States, it seemed that most people viewed the world in surprisingly simplistic terms. Ronald Reagan, the handsome, former actor turned president, was living a dream life, and seemed to epitomize the quintessential American success story. So, everybody liked him, or so it seemed. 

He seemed to allow people to dream and, even better, encouraged us to dream right from his inaugural address. And dream we did, as he spoke in lofty terms about the greatness of America. Reagan kept saying the things that people wanted to hear, such as how he believed America's best days were still ahead of her.

People gobbled it all up. We Americans just could not get enough of that stuff!

Perhaps the most telling moment like that in my own personal life came, fittingly enough, in the classroom. It was 8th grade social studies, and my teacher was very passionate about the subject. He told us right from the first day that he wanted us to love our country, if we did not do so already. And he promised us that we would commit to memory two things in particular: the preamble of the Constitution, and a snippet of the Declaration of Independence. He was right, too. I believe that everyone did memorize that well before that academic year was out. Hell, I still remember it, and every now and then, for no reason at all, I will find myself reciting them.

Indeed, he did get people to discuss and think about things, although not always for the right reasons. He considered himself an old school conservative, particularly appreciating Dwight Eisenhower, as I recall. That is certainly not a bad thing, as I find myself admiring Eisenhower more whenever I discover something new about him. 

However, this teacher had a dark side. He once told the class (and presumably, other classes) that he believed that the races should be segregated. "Separate...but equal." he suggested, emphasizing that he seemed to take the equality aspect seriously, even though by and large, the notion of "separate but equal" was laughable in the places where official segregation resided, such as in the Jim Crow South.

But the one memory that I remember more than any other with him was when President Reagan was set to visit Moscow to meet with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. He was worried that it might be a trap, and clearly did not trust the big, bad Ruskies. And he described our role, suggesting that the world needed America to serve as it's policeman, so to speak.

"We're the good guys...with the white hats." he said, and used his hands to outline or adjust an imaginary white cowboy hat.

Indeed, that is how many Americans view themselves, or at least want to view themselves enough to allow themselves to not just express that belief, but also to act upon that belief. Whether or not they realize the truth somewhere deep down is open to debate. Suffice to say that enough Americans have viewed themselves in this manner to essentially act in a manner that would suggest that Americans do, in fact, believe it. After all, one of the biggest criticisms that Americans argued against Europeans during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq was that they were unappreciative of how the United States saved their butts during World War II, at least as they saw it.

Here's the thing about that: Americans opened up that front in western Europe very late in the war, when it was already clear that the Soviets were beating the Germans back. I recently got in an online argument with several strangers, who were aghast at my suggestion that the Soviets were more responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany than Americans were. In fact, one or two people sounded downright offended at the suggestion. I answered that this was not so much a matter of debate, but of historical accuracy, and urged him not to take my word for it, but to go ahead and look at the history books or online, which would show that the decisive battle of the European war happened in Stalingrad, when the invading Germans were stopped dead in their tracks, really for the first time. They obviously wanted the oil fields in Stalingrad, but without being able to take them, their fate was sealed. From the point that the Germans lost that battle, they were basically retreating the rest of the way, back to the borders of the Reich and, eventually, deeper and deeper into the Reich, until the final battle in Berlin, which lay in ruins, finally brought the curtain down on the European war.

That is not to say that the United States was not involved. America played a part, sure, and an important part at that. It was the Arsenal of Democracy, and it did fight in both Europe and Asia simultaneously. American forces fought the Germans for the better part of a year in western Europe, and helped to liberate France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, and, of course, occupied Germany and Austria in the end. There were Americans who liberated Nazi death and concentration camps.

However, it is also important to understand that no less of an important figure in American history than Harry Truman basically wanted the United States and Britain to sit out and take a less active role in the European war deliberately for a while, so that the Soviets and Germany would bleed each other white. Here is a direct quote from Truman:

"If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible." 

All of this is to say, essentially, that we all seem to view things in whatever way that we want to see them. I am not trying to detract from America's efforts during World War II, believe me. In fact, it used to please me that Americans at that point had been seen as liberators, as heroes, in both Europe and Asia. Indeed, many of my fellow Americans - probably a solid majority - have seen these images and believe that version of history that has it that the only power in the world that proved too strong for the Nazi German empire was the military might of the United States. But indeed, the Soviets fought tooth and nail against the invading Germans, and it cost them somewhere between 10 to 20 million people. In the end, however, they were the ones who finally stopped the Nazi war machine from rolling over all of Europe, and possibly all of the world. The Soviets kept urging the United States and Britain to open up that second front from early on in the days when the United States was officially at war with Nazi Germany, shortly after Pearl Harbor. But that event took place early in December, 1941, while they actually opened up that second front with the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944 - nearly two and a half years later. They had fought in Italy, of course. But the crucial, final campaign against the dying Nazi empire came midway through 1944, while the Soviets had beaten back the Germans nearly a year and a half before that in Stalingrad, and were descending upon the borders of the Reich itself by the time of the D-Day invasion.

Presently, Americans seem to believe similarly faulty notions about capitalism, particularly about what is sometimes referred to as "pure capitalism."

Capitalism as an economic system was first thought up by Adam Smith, although I very much doubt that Smith would approve of what passes for capitalism these days. Back in those days in the 18th century, cities were much smaller, and most people still lived and worked in rural areas. The scale of communities was much smaller, and competition between two parties selling essentially the same product was not likely to be as cutthroat. There were not huge multinational conglomerates who's sole purpose of existence was to generate more profits and more profits, even if it hurts people.

Yet these days, that is what people have mistaken capitalism for, and nowhere is that as true as right here, in the United States. These days, we have Washington politicians and millionaire political pundits on television and on the radio incessantly equating the right of a corporation to exploit workers and/or natural resources with "freedom." Ever since Reagan popularized "deregulation" back in the 1980's, it has been the magical catchphrase that numerous politicians, mostly but certainly not exclusively Republicans, have turned to as the de facto magic wand that will solve all of the country's problems.

However, those regulations are often protections that governments of the past put into place to stop, or at least contain, exploitation of workers or of the environment by corporations. Once these begin to be removed, as they have consistently been removed now over the course of decades here in the United States, things get worse. It is not coincidental that salaries have largely stagnated, and in some cases outright frozen, for going on decades now. Reagan popularized union busting as well, which has only grown more extreme in the decades since the end of his presidency. And, of course, environmental regulations that were put in place ot protect people following some serious environmental disasters many decades ago are now once again being scaled back and effectively weakened. Trump just got rid of one huge regulation, or protection, which will now have the effect of allowing big corporations to pollute much more freely by dumping chemicals into bodies of water. Also, he is trying to scale back regulations against big, polluting personal vehicles, and there are whispers that he might try to open up national parks for possible exploitation.

Now, how does this benefit anyone, other than a tiny few at the head of corporations who will receive still more profits, because they do not have a greater sense of responsibility towards the world at large. All they want are their short term profits, and for their personal banking accounts (many of them off shore) and their wallets to be fatter so that, as Reagan once mused, they might obtain a second yacht, or a third yacht, or maybe a second or third or fourth mansion. Perhaps again, somewhere overseas, in some sunny resort.

Then, we have the exploitation of this economic system, where tens of millions of people are basically forced into ghettos and more often than not, prepared for lives of servitude at menial jobs, and that is to say nothing about the brutal exploitation of our for profit prison system.

Indeed, Americans have largely allowed themselves to believe what they want to believe about this country. This is revealed in how they interpret history, and how they view their lives, and their country's economic and political system presently. But it is far from a perfect system, and in fact, that is a weak criticism. At this point, it is downright bordering on a sadistic and evil system, and it is killing people slowly but surely. Frankly, it is a bit like a virus, and until this virus is eliminated, the entire country and, by extension because of American power right now, the entire world is at risk, so the stakes could not be any higher.

This version of capitalism has gone mad, and has turned every bit as extreme and intolerant of opposition as communism used to be, and it needs to end. This might be an idea that scares many Americans, but yes, if what we have now is capitalism (which it is not), then it needs to go. 

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