Letters from America, take ten: Land of the camo people.

datePosted on 07:42, November 10th, 2017 by Pablo

I spent most of last week in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma. I have a friend from the 1970s who lives in that neck of the woods with his extended family. Since it has been 20 years since I last visited them–in fact, on the even of my departure for NZ–I decided to make the trip and introduce them to my Kiwi family. It was a great personal reunion and an eye-opening experience in general.

The region between Dallas and the Oklahoma border town of Durant is dotted with small towns separated by low rolling hills dedicated to small-scale ranching. Old oil derricks litter the landscape, and many are still in service. Much of the industry in the region is dedicated to ranching and drilling services, although larger towns like Sherman, TX  (pop 38,500) serve as commercial and entertainment hubs for the surrounding communities on both sides of the border.

The region as a whole is known as Texoma, but the contrast between the two states is significant. The Texas side is relatively prosperous in a low-key, country sort of way: people are unfailingly polite, cowboy culture is enshrined, the pickup trucks and ten gallon hats American-made and expensive, and the music runs the gamut of country and western sub-genres (I had never heard of the phrase “country pop” until I heard it on the radio while driving from the Forth Worth suburbs to Durant). Although I did see a dead deer with an arrow sticking out of it along state route 51, there was otherwise a peaceful air about the countryside. There is no personal income tax in Texas so state revenues depend on assorted value-added taxation schemes, where ranchers with oil on their land receive a percentage of (and pay taxes on) the revenues accrued from their wells. Property taxes are relatively high even if working land is taxed lower than residential or commercial lots. This helps explain why education in Texas is pretty well-funded and scholastic achievement statistics are generally good. Not suprisingly unemployment in NE Texas is low and other social stats are on the positive side.

Crossing the Red River into Oklahoma things change. The landscape remains rolling but gets more barren. Dwellings are more run-down, trailer homes more prevalent, commercial buildings are often shuttered and the people appear more hard scrabble. In the US Oklahoma has the fourth highest percentage of indigenous people living in it, and the part of SE Oklahoma where I visited is the home of the Choctaw Nation. Along with sister tribes like the Chichasaw and Cherokee, the Choctaw were removed from their ancestral lands further East in Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Removal to what were then known as the “Indian Lands” was contentious and often bloody, but in then end the Choctaw and other tribes were settled on land that was largely infertile or otherwise not suited for agriculture.  This led to a steady slide into poverty on the reservations, something that was paralleled in the non-Indian communities adjacent to them. That situation has been slightly ameliorated by the promotion of gambling industries on Indian land, something permitted by federal law. Not surprisingly, the largest commercial enterprise in Durant (pop 16,600) is a casino resort operated by the Choctaw Nation, although the sum effect of its operations is as much making money off of misery as it is adding opportunity to the Choctaws. I do not gamble but stayed one night at the casino resort as part of a larger gathering. Suffice it to say that the demographic cross-section in the gaming rooms was, to my untrained eyes, a sample of despair, desperation and delusion under bright, blinking lights.

Beyond that, economy of the region is driven by small-scale manufacturing and services related to ranching and mining, public sector agencies and public goods provision and small-scale professional services such as lawyers, doctors etc.

Interestingly, unlike Texas, in Oklahoma ranchers do not control the mineral rights to the land underneath the topsoil that they own. State regulations allow commercial drilling underneath private land and what revenues are extracted from that drilling goes to the commercial outfit and the state by way of taxation on corporate profits. This includes the practice of side-drilling from one property into another and fracking, which is the mechanical introduction of highly pressurized water mixed with leaching chemicals into defunct, low yield or potentially productive shale deposits in order to force out oil and/or natural gas. Since fracking is very destructive to aquifers due to its contamination effects, the introduction of fracking spells the end of ranching on the land above it (since trucking in water is not economic for any commercially viable herd). This could well explain in part why ranching in SE Oklahoma is not as healthy as it is across the southern border.

Oklahoma also spends the least amount on education of the 50 US states. It shows. From what I gathered people’s social horizons are very limited, their knowledge (and interest in) of public affairs outside of their immediate communities is negligible, their access to a cross-section of media and opinion non-existent, and their prospects for the future mixed at best. Some people are doing pretty well, such as the remaining local ranchers in and around Durant and Ardmore, OK (pop. 32,300). Many others seem to be living a sort of Oliver Twist existence, scrambling to get by on odd jobs or menial, manual or semi-skilled labor. A large share of people are on some sort of benefit, although preference is given to those with indigenous blood lines or lacking any source of income. Unemployment in Durant is listed at 4.2 percent, higher than the surrounding Bryan County average of 3.8 percent. Yet those living in poverty in Durant amount to 25.3 percent of the population (18.3 percent in Bryan County). The dependency rate in Bryan County (those people on some sort of benefit) is at 56.6 percent, well above the national average of 49.7 percent, as is that of Durant (52.7 percent). Along with the data on poverty, that suggests that under-employment is a problem in that corner of Oklahoma, and that the official statistics hide a grimmer reality between the lines.

One such reality is an epidemic of opioid addiction. For a variety of reasons intrinsic and extrinsic to the people involved, the supply and consumption of prescription painkillers is rampant. Most of the pill trade is legal, as pharmaceutical companies have discounted the price of prescription painkillers, doctors are inclined to prescribe them even for minor ailments and pharmacies all too happy to supply them to otherwise able-bodied people. The result is a vicious circle of addiction in which the main impediment to sobriety is the incentive structure built into the supply chain. Short of a doctor refusing to prescribe more pills, patients are shuttled conveyor belt style through the assembly line of pain clinics and pharmacies catering to their vice. Even when doctors refuse to continue to write scripts for patients clearly suffering from addiction symptoms, other less scrupulous physicians will step into their place. And then there is the black market trade in opioids, which overlaps with the illicit drug trade in cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine and which intersects with the legal trade in alcohol outside of the reservations (but available inside of the casinos, as it turns out).

I was astounded at the amount and variety of drugs prescribed, some of which I have never heard of before but which are apparently many more times stronger than morphine or heroin. Within the extended family that I visited there were two people suffering from addiction to opioids, one ostensibly for pain and the other for anxiety. Both were well down the path of chemical dependency and both had dysfunctional lives as a result of that.

The other grim reality, at least in my view, was the presence and amount of guns in that society. Every adult that we came into contact with had guns, in most cases multiple guns. They had guns for hunting and self-protection. They had guns in their homes, sheds, boats and cars. They had pistols, revolvers, bolt-action single shot rifles, multiple shot carbines, shotguns and semi-automatic military-style long arms. Some liked to collect guns, some like to target practice and some liked to hunt. At least two had shot at another person in anger(although my friend, a Vietnam War vet, had done so while in combat). These were responsible people, so the guns that they were not carrying on them were presumably locked away. But I had an uneasy feeling when interacting with strangers at places like gas stations or bottle shops that I was one misunderstanding away from getting a hot lead injection.

Although the region is also heavily religious, especially of the Protestant-Baptist variety, guns are the secular equivalent of a religion in Texoma. People worship, in fact deify guns. Some of that worship is fetishistic, but most of it is cultural. The love of guns is not driven by National Rifle Association Second Amendment lobbying or public advertising. It is driven by something much deeper, much more visceral than rights-based. That deeper root is fear.

I was struck by how much fear is layered into the lives of Texoma residents even though the threats that they face are comparatively few and relatively minor. Some of that fear is of the unknown–of Muslim extremists (none of whom live anywhere near the region), of hordes of undocumented Latinos (although the region has a long and amicable history of Mexican migration and settlement, to include generations of intermarriage with Indians as well as Anglos), of unseen liberals and “others” who want to destroy their way of life under the guise of PC mandates and forced toleration of non-Christian customs and behavior.

They also fear a known threat: the federal government. Yet, although the threat is identifiable and in the case of the Indian Nations historically grounded in fact, the degree of threat posed by the federal government to the people of SE Oklahoma seems exaggerated. Sure, there are taxation issues, but no more than any other semi-rural jurisdiction. Sure, there are complaints about federal regulations interfering with the right to make a living, but these are far fewer than those that are imposed by the state legislature and are more focused on things like environmental security than the pursuit of profit per se. Sure, there are central versus local government disputes involving decision-making about public funding priorities and levels, which are compounded by the sovereign status of Indian nations and the autonomy of reservation governance. But these are no more or less than in other states with significant Indian populations. Likewise, there are fears over federal seizure of lands, yet the possibility of this in SE Oklahoma (and the extent of federal land ownership itself) is less than in other Western states where arguments about grazing rights on federal land have descended into violence. And then there is the conspiracy side of the equation (although it is not so crazy to think if one happens to be Indian): fear of the Feds coming to take their guns and/or sending troops to impose central rule over them. Since I try to deal in practical realities of the current and immediate future, there is not much I can say to counter those concerns.

The contradictions inherent in hatred for the federal government are mulitlayered. Much of the welfare dependency of Bryan Country is tied to federal benefit programs such as social security and Medicaid (in fact, the majority of people in Durant stand to lose medical benefits should Obamacare be repealed). The fear of “the Feds” is contradicted by the dependency on them on the part of a significant portion of the local population, on the one hand, and their relative absence from daily life, on the other. Added to this is the worship of the US military by non-Indian Oklahomans, something that is attached to the gun culture and which serves as an avenue of recruitment for the military and upward mobility and mind-broadening for many local youth (recalling the adverts about “joining the military and seeing the world,” which were quickly subverted into “join the military, see the world, meet new people, and then kill them” piss takes).

In sum, fear of “the Feds” is seemingly out of proportion to the threats to local harmony, identity and prosperity emanating from Washington, DC. In other words, there is a fair bit of paranoia imbedded in what is an overall sense of false consciousness on the part of many living in that part of the country. Yet that is the reality that they perceive and live.

The combination of cultural, economic and sociological traits embedded in the Texoma demographic gives rise to what one of the family members that I visited called the “camo people”: beer and bourbon drinking, tobacco chewing, gun-toting, lower-income working and middle class, God-fearing patriotic folk who love the flag while wearing camouflage during their daily trips to the Wal-Mart down the road and to their cousin’s weddings. That is their culture and they want it to stay that way.

All of this makes for an obvious thing: Texoma is a hard red political district and it lies at the core of Donald Trump’s support. No amount of disdain or argumentation by “flyover” effete liberal coastal elites is going to change their minds or shake that support. Nor will the glaring contradictions between Trump’s words and deeds or his background and theirs. Many of them may be close to down and out or one beef jerky pack away from starvation, but they know what they fear and don’t like even if they do not personally have contact with or understand what they fear, and they know what they do like when it comes to guns, God and the pursuit of happiness unencumbered by the conventions of propriety prescribed by others.

All talk of the “land of the free” aside, it may not be an exercise in freedom as might be understood by the likes of me, but then again, what understanding of freedom they have is circumscribed by the opportunity structures to which they are exposed given the cultural, socioeconomic and political contex in which they live. If freedom is defined, as Janis Joplin once sang, as “having nothing left to lose” rather than having range of choice and control over the circumstances of their lives, then indeed many of the people of SE Oklahoma are free. If they are happy for it thanks to the power of God, guns, flag and drugs, then more power to them.

In the upper reaches of Texoma, serfs rejoice that Trump is King.

The deaths of four US servicemen in Niger has brought attention the fact that the US military operates in far more places and in far more numbers than the public, and apparently senior members of the US Congress (which supposedly has oversight responsibility for US foreign military deployments) are aware of. Estimates of US bases abroad range from 800 bases in 70 countries to 900 bases in 130 countries, with anywhere from 250 thousand to over 750 thousand troops deployed overseas a given time (the total of bases on foreign soil operated by other countries is around 30, mostly by former colonial powers). The reason that the figure varies is that the Pentagon refuses to reveal the precise number of clandestine or “lilly pad” bases (less than 200 troops on station), so the numbers publicly acknowledged are grounded in the permanent installations the US maintains in places such as Okinawa, Spain, Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.  This does not include CIA paramilitary forces operating abroad, which are roughly thought to be in the hundreds.

The ambush that killed the four US Army Special Forces (SF) sergeants was staged during a routine “train, advise and assist” (TAA)/reconnaissance mission in the Southwestern border with Mali. They were part of a 12 man Green Beret team accompanying a 30 man Nigerien partner unit during a routine meeting with local leaders in the village of Tongo Tongo, part of an area in which Daesh is known to operate on both sides of the border (but which until this particular attack had not been sighted near Tongo Tongo during 29 previous patrols). The SF team was part of an 800 strong US military presence in Niger under the jurisdiction of the US African Command (AFCOM) deployed there to help the Nigerien and French militaries fight Daesh as it seeks safe havens in relatively lawless or stateless parts of Subsaharan and West Africa. The SF team/partner  platoon were attacked after they left the village on their way back to tactical HQ.

Leading figures in US Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claim that they were not briefed on the mission and have not been given answers as to what went wrong. Press attention has focused on the insensitive treatment of one widow by the President once her husband’s body was returned to the mainland, why one of the soldiers was left behind during the evacuation (he was later found dead a mile from the ambush site) and the fact that “no one knew” about the US military presence in Niger. In fact, most Americans and the President himself were unaware of what Niger was until the ambush. Now, partisan rebukes are being thrown and answers are being demanded. Yet, with only one percent of the US population directly connected to the US military as serving personnel or immediate relatives of those doing so, it is not entirely surprising that the public and corporate media are unaware of the full extent of US military activities outside of the open conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

A bit more surprising is the apparent Congessional ignorance of what is happening in AFCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) or the rules of engagement (ROEs) under which that SF team and other troops operate (that is relevant because it turns out that the ill-fated patrol had no US close air support and required French air assets to come to its assistance more than an hour after the ambush began). Since it is routine for the Pentagon to provide off-record briefs to the Armed Services Committees of both deliberative chambers on military operational matters abroad, this seems unusual unless there was a highly classified scenario being developed in that part of the world.

The surprise and arguments about the ambush in Niger–“Trump’s Benghazi,” as some are calling it–obscures an underlining fact: US imperialism is in crisis. It may or may not be terminal and it may or may not be positive for world peace, but the reasons for the crisis are worth exploring.

The crisis of US imperialism (or neo-imperialism, should one want to be pedantic) is rooted in both domestic as well as international factors. Domestically, the long era of “liberal internationalism” is over, and so far nothing as emerged by way of a coherent foreign policy and military strategic doctrine to replace it. Liberal internationalism, which emerged during the Cold War and remained as the guiding principle of the US approach to international relations until Donald Trump entered presidential office, is premised on the belief that the US has a special responsibility to engage in the international system in order to safeguard and expand a liberal democratic order based upon market capitalist principles. This was evident in the US role in creating international institutions such as the UN, WTO and IMF but also in its role as the ‘world’s policeman.” The idea was that the US, as the world’s superpower, had the responsibility to promote and maintain a system that, if not made in its image, was supportive of the liberal mores that it espoused, especially when these were challenged by actors with less noble motives. Many might disagree with both the premise and practice of liberal internationalism, but that is what guided US foreign policy and military diplomacy for almost a half century.

The liberal internationalist (some call it interventionist) consensus spanned both major parties and the foreign policy elite in Washington and in academia. But with the emergence of an economically nationalist and neo-isolationist “America First” Alt-Right led by the likes of Steve Bannon and endorsed by Trump, the consensus has broken down. Where American neo-conservatives and neo-Wilsonians, neo-realists, idealists and constuctivists could all paper over their differences under the umbrella of liberal internationalism in pursuit of US global hegemony, they are repudiated in their entirety by the America Firsters. However, other than the appeal to economic nationalism, xenophobia and a “strong military,” the latter are themselves unsure how to approach world affairs. This is seen in the Trump administration’s ad hoc approach to assorted foreign policy issues as well as in the lack of high and upper management level appointments in the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies (over 250 such positions remain unfilled ten months after Trump’s inauguration).

By way of default, the US imperial reach is increasingly maintained by the military rather than the diplomatic corps. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decimated the upper ranks of the foreign service in favor of relying on a small cadre of trusted advisors, only a few of whom have the type of diplomatic experience that a career foreign service officer would have. In parallel, Trump has staffed the White House and Pentagon with retired and active duty generals, even in positions traditionally filled by civilians. The combination, when added to the lack of strategic vision and baseline foreign policy principles, has resulted in the conduct of US diplomacy led by military threat or fiat, as opposed to military diplomacy being subordinated to and guided by broader strategic and diplomatic objectives.

This is a major sign of weakness because the role of global hegemon requires that the majority of other states and international actors support US leadership and eventually accept and share its values as organizing principles for the international order. That is how the difference between “super” and “great” powers is drawn: “super” powers intervene in the international community in order to maintain and defend systemic interests grounded in the promotion and acceptance of shared perspectives and values, whereas “great” powers intervene in the international community to promote national interests in the absence or rejection of universal standards. Both approaches are grounded in realpolitik, but only the former is hegemonic because it relies more on diplomatic cooperation than military coercion.

Evidence that the US is declining in influence and moving from a “super” to a “great” power is seen externally. The return or rise of old and new powers has shifted the international system towards multipolarity after a decade or so of post-Cold War unipolarity. The US may still be central to the strategic equation inherent in the emerging mulitipolar system but it no longer dominates it. The endless wars since 9/11 have sapped its finances and public morale and demonstrated that its much proclaimed capability to fight and win 2.5 major regional conflicts (MRCs) was baseless in fact (the 2.5 MRC scenario was premised on the US simultaneously fighting and winning two major and one minor conventional regional conflicts alone and against any combination of adversaries. Unfortunately for US military planners and the troops that were deployed under that strategy and unlike Saddam Hussein’s forces, various enemies refused to cooperate by fighting the way they were expected to fight). And while its blood and treasure were and are drawn in dozens of conflicts such as that in Niger, other states push economic development and  military modernization as the path towards great power status.

Although it remains a potent, perhaps unchallenged fighting force under the right conditions, the impotence of the US when it comes to imposing a preferred political solution in the wake of military conflict has been noted by allies and adversaries alike. The latter now challenge the US more and more, in places both far from and near to what should be essential US national interests. They include states as well as non-state actors, and they undertake covert and overt hostilities against the US on several dimensions across multiple fronts, be they cyber, kinetic, economic or diplomatic. The US is increasingly unable to respond symetrically and effectively to these challenges even with a forward military presence spread across the globe.

The problem of US challengers acting with relative impunity in a multipolar world is not its only concern. US allies no longer see its as a reliable partner. This is largely due to the deleterious impact of the Trump presidency on the US reputation, but it is not reducible to it. Allies and adversaries can all see the political polarization within the US, the increase in racial and ethnic tensions, the growing economic inequalities, the culture clashes over traditional values, the overtly tribal nature of interest group intermediation, and the overly violent nature of a popular culture enabled and promoted by weapons manufacturers and the lobbies that use fear-mongering and mythology on their behalf to keep the culture of violence alive and growing. These internal contradictions all spell out the weakness of a society in decline. For many at both home and abroad, the US gives all the appearance of being Rome before the Fall.

It seems that the mainstream media and the public that watches it are slowly cottoning on to this fact even if the political class does not want to admit it. The lack of victories abroad, the lack of information about what the US military does and where it does it (even as the Trump administration authorises expanded CIA paramilitary operations, including drone hunts of suspected extremists), and the notion that the more the US tries to maintain its international position the more it weakens itself on the home front, appear to be gaining traction in the social consciousness. There is more open wondering about “why are we there and what purpose is being served” as opposed to the “if not us, then who” rationales that have dominated public discourse for the past decades. And even though concerns about terrorism remain strong, it is harder for people in the US to rationalize and support policies that claim that tribespeople with pre-modern social organizations in West Africa (or Afghanistan for that matter) are, through a long string of connections, a potential existential threat to the US mainland and its way of life.

Eroded from within and challenged from without, it appears that for this era of US (neo) imperialism, twilight has arrived. The question is what comes next, because if one thing is proven in history is that Empires in decline seldom go quietly into the night. And night is approaching, fast.

Postscript: The radio interview that prompted this reflection (and which covers more than this particular subject) can be found here.

A walking Tui ad?

datePosted on 06:57, October 20th, 2017 by Pablo

The election turned out OK as far as I am concerned. My decision to support Labour after years of supporting the Greens seems to have paid off as they are now leading the new government. The Greens were punished for their shift from red to blue at their core and for bringing in neophytes onto their list, but not too much (although I still have serious reservations about their ideological direction and one of their new MPs). Save for ACT the various useless parties disappeared. And the Nats got what they deserved, which was the boot, even if it took that old dog Winston to apply his toe to their posteriors. As for NZ First, time will only tell if they are the fly in the ointment or the straw that stirs the drink.

When it comes to how the new government will be organized, I am very curious to see who will be appointed Minister of Defense. Ron Mark is a likely candidate, and I have no problem with him in that role in spite of his otherwise reactionary views (apologies if the list of Ministers is out and someone else is the new MoD). With the exception of Phil Goff he will be the most informed person to assume that portfolio in the last 18 years, which is good because the NZDF have some major decisions to make when it comes to upgrading and configuring the force.  There are issues of equipment purchases, recruitment and retention, foreign alliance commitments and the overall thrust of NZDF operations that need immediate addressing. He has been critical of the lack of strategic vision on the part of NZDF and MoD leaders, so my hope is that he will push for an overhaul in the strategic thinking underpinning NZDF operations that goes beyond the periodic exercises known as Defense White Papers. And he will have to address the problem of drug abuse within the NZDF, which has been kept largely under wraps but which is large enough to run the real risk of jeopardizing operational security and/or getting someone killed.

However, when it comes to intelligence matters and the general subject of security, I have concerns about the ability of the new government to impose its will on the intelligence community and Police as well as avoid so-called “bureaucratic capture:” the situation where the lack of experience in a subject field by new overseers or managers allows career bureaucrats to shape the former’s views of the subject in ways that serve the entrenched interests of the latter. I do not see anyone in the top tiers of Labour, the Greens or NZFirst who display particular fluency in matters of intelligence and security, and when it comes to direct political oversight of the NZ intelligence community, the lack of expertise is dire.

Or let me put it in this way:

One notable aspect of contemporary US politics is the re-emergence of so-called culture wars. Orchestrated by Steve Bannon, assorted alt-Right platforms and Murdoch media outlets in response to what could be called the de-WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant)-ification of US society, the conflict is centered on symbols and messaging. The regression into appeals to tradition, “culture” and “values” (read: white privilege) is a modern version backlash against what author and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) called “good Negro government” after the Reconstruction Era in US history (1863-1877). The theme that today’s culture wars hark to the backlash against “good Negro government”  has been picked up by the writer Ta Nehisi Coates in his latest book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” where he argues that Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 was in large part due to white voters fears that Barack Obama had conclusively proved that people of color could run the federal government competently and that whites could no longer claim that colored people were ill-suited, emotionally, tempermentally, intellectually and culturally, to govern. It is one thing to have “good” Negros portrayed as equals on TV shows. It is quite another for them to actually wield power over whites.

Du Bois outlined his thoughts on “good Negro government” by watching the sequels to post Civil War reconstruction in the South, in South Carolina in particular. After the civil war US authorities mandated a period of social reconstruction in the defeated Confederacy in which free slaves were, by federal mandate, integrated into municipal and state governments and other social institutions. This forced intervention was designed to lay the foundations of a more egalitarian Southern society, and in many instances free Negros took up managerial positions in a variety of public and private agencies. However, after Reconstruction and federal government intervention ended (along with the withdrawal of federal troops), Southern states set about undoing the social changes that it had wrought. In 1895 South Carolina held a state constitutional convention in which most of the gains made by blacks were reversed and they were legally reduced to second class citizens prohibited from holding political offices and purged from public and private bureaucracies. This was also the time when the Klu Klux Klan was founded (as an extrajudicial enforcement arm of the socially revanchist South), the period of building monuments to heroes of the Confederacy was begun and the foundations of Jim Crow were laid.

For Du Bois, this backlash demonstrated that what White Southerners feared most was not a “bad Negro government” rife with incompetence and corruption, something that was already evident in pre-war Southern white governments. Instead, the greatest fear of Southern whites was of “good Negro government” that did the things that only whites were purportedly capable of doing due to their supposedly superior attributes. To that was added the battlefield record of black Union troops, who Southerners thought would be cowards and run from battle but who instead proved to be very competent soldiers, and the fact that instead of rioting, raping and pillaging once they were freed, former slaves went about peacefully rebuilding the South without major problems of their own (in fact, the majority of violence during the Reconstruction was white-on-black as white Southerners resisted treating recently freed slaves as equals).

This combination of factors destroyed the myth of white supremacy that Southerners clung to, so legislative reforms such as the 1895 South Carolina constitution were enacted in order to restore and enshrine the “proper” racial hierarchy under slave-free conditions. In effect, although unable to return to slavery, post-reconstruction legal reforms that restricted the citizenship and human rights of free slaves amounted to an early American version of apartheid, the origins of which were rooted in the fear of usurpation of white privilege.

Coates sees the Trump phenomenon as a repetition of the fear of “good Negro government.” The election of Barack Obama and the success of his administration in the face of disloyal opposition by Congressional Republicans and the Right-wing media was a nightmare for white (mostly working-class male) social revanchists who had been forced to suppress their racism and bigotry since the 1960s, when the Civil Right Act (1964), opposition to the Vietnam War and the adoption of anti-status quo and “countercultural” lifestyles upended traditional hierarchies. In the ensuing 40 years the white wage labouring classes have seen their social status eroded along with their jobs vis a vis competitors, most of them people of colour, emanating from home as well as abroad.

Objective explanations for white working class decline offer no relief to those suffering within it. It is bad enough for them to have to compete on US wages with undocumented immigrants and foreign wage slaves. It is particularly bad for them to have to compete with robotics and other aspects of computer generated productive automation. They have to find explanation for their plight in something other than the inevitable progression of US capitalism in a globalised system of production, communication and exchange. For the white demographic in decline, the answer to their plight lies in no fault of their own under conditions of capitalist competition, but in the social changes occuring corollary to it. That is, the explanation for white decline has to be socio-cultural rather than structurally capitalist in nature, specifically seen in the decline of WASP “values” and emergence of non-WASP perspectives as dominant influences in contemporary US society.

In that light the election of Barack  Obama to the presidency and his subsequent success at mastering the art of governance compounded white social revanchist fears by promoting and celebrating Hispanics, Asians, gays and other minorities in leadership roles in government, business, academia and communities, and by openly embracing minority cultures as part of the mainstream of US society.

Steve Bannon has seized on this to lead the cultural charge in support of “tradition” and against “unAmerican” values, which are now open code words for a return to white supremacy. He and his political acolytes have been successful in orchestrating a pushback that has prompted a regression in US social development, with a white backlash against the gains made by minorities of all persuasions now growing stronger than in the previous three decades. The cultural wars are between an ascendant multicultural, multi-ethnic, poly-religious yet increasingly secular, pro-choice, pro-gun control, pacifist, sexually diverse and egalitarian-minded, “keep your hands off unless invited,” post-modern demographic with a rationalist and normatively relative global perspective, on the one hand, and a monocultural, white dominant, Judeo (but mostly) Christian, heterosexist, patriarchical, sexually aggressive hands -on, pro-gun, militarist, anti-choice, anti-science, industrial, xenophobic, normatively absolutist and economically insular demographic on the other. For the moment, the struggle is even but the numbers do not lie: given current and projected birth rates, the Bannon target demographic is in decline.

The last time there was a cultural clash in the US anywhere similar in scope was in the mid-60s. Until the early 60s the US was run in the image that Bannon and Trump supporters now hark back to: Dad at a good paying manufacturing job that allowed him to own his own home, Mom happily tending to the domestic front, both regularly attending a Christian church with 2.2 kids and a car in every garage (or, for those who may remember such things, basically operating as Ozzie and Harriet of 1950s TV fame).

But the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opposition to the Vietnam war and counter-cultural lifestyles pushed by rock music broke the consensus on the national myth and prompted a major ideological struggle. In that instance, progressive forces won over the rednecks and defenders of tradition. Now the struggle is being repeated but is sparked, as it were, from the other side–conservative whites are pushing back against the progressive secularization and egalitarianism of US society, as exemplified by Barack Obama and his good Negro government. The champion of these social revanchists is Trump, but it is Bannon who is the puppeteer.

There is a popular saying in the US these days: “Stay in your lane.” It is taken from car culture and references highway traffic dynamics. But it has a subtext of implicit or threatened road rage and it is in fact a substitute for “know your place.”  “Stay in your lane” is now used widely to address stroppy females, uppity Negros, recalcitrant children, surly teens, overly camp gays or butchy lesbians–basically any minority individual or community that dares to challenge WASP conventional wisdom about social hierarchy. For Steve Bannon, who has been doing the rounds of talk shows and conservative conventions this past week, it is all about getting the usurpers of white privilege to either get back into their traditionally prescribed roles or return to hiding.

Bannon believes that his 20-25 percent of the electoral base is homogenous, scared and united through social and corporate media. It is a short term vision, but given the uncertain shadow of the future it is possible that short term political gains based on a socially revanchist ideology could seep into the broader electoral fabric. Whatever their antipathy towards Trump aand the GOP, his opponents are heterogeneous, hopeful and yet fractious and divided. The erosion of horizontal solidarities in an age of ideological individualism is abetted and pushed by adavances in telecommunications technology–the same technology that social revanchists use so effectively.  Bannon has already invited Democrats to continue to play the identity politics game (and there is a lesson for New Zealand here), because that allows him to successfully impose the weight of his demographic against those aligned against it. The Bernie Sanders/versus Hillary Clinton campaigns show one end of the “liberal” internecine division in the US; the feminist arguments about the #metoo hashtag show another. There are many more sources of liberal/progressive cleavage, and in Bannon’s eyes they spell “Achilles Heel.”

The success of the cultural wars pushback is concerning. The Right-wing (including alt-Right) media, both corporate and social, have very much influenced the discourse with their attacks on the Obama legacy (him being “weak” in foreign affairs etc.) and in their support for Trump’s demeanour and his dismantling of that legacy via Executive Orders. The impact is real. Things that one would have thought were done and dusted years ago–arguments about gender differences as they apply to employment and wages, racial differences as they apply to law and order, whether being native born as opposed to foreign born should be a criterion for security clearances, are homosexuals trustworthy with kids, what constitutes patriotism, etc.–are now back in the public domain in a measure not seen in decades.

All of which is to say that things in the US are pretty tetchy at the moment, and the possibility of physical conflict between those who embrace “good Negro government” and those who fear it are quite real.

Let us not think that this is exclusively a US problem. Be it in the “I told you so” comments of white South Africans or Zimbabweans about the bad Negro governments that followed the abolition of white supremacy in those countries, or in the similar comments about poor governance of black-ruled cities like Detroit or the District of Columbia in the US, or those who point to problems with aboriginal self-governance in the Northern Territory, there are many who find comfort in black failure and find threats in black success. That is true for some quarters in Aotearoa, where the possibility of “good Maori government” or “good Pasifika government” is dismissed out of hand not so much because of their outright impossibility due to some instrinsic traits of those involved, but because of Pakeha fear that they could do no worse, and perhaps even better than Pakeha dominated government.

Let’s remember this if there is pushback against the notion of “good Negro government” in New Zealand.

Mitch Harris and I continued our weekly radio conversations from the US, this week discussing Harvey Weinstein, reports that Trump is  mentally “unraveling” and how the Mueller investigation into possible Russian interference in last year’s US election is progressing. Theme of the week might as well be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Letters from America, take seven: Dark Irony.

datePosted on 07:50, October 4th, 2017 by Pablo

The fact that a country western concert in the US was the target of yet another mass murder spree by an automatic weapon- toting white man is darkly ironic given that country western fans tend to be ninety percent white, predominantly middle and working class, republican in political orientation and a core demographic of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Trump support base. They are known for wearing and displaying US (and confederate) flags along with cowboy boots and hats, and indeed many of the victims were clad in patriotic-themed apparel.  The guns used were apparently US-made semi-automatic assault rifles converted to fully automatic by the use of converter kits known as “bump stock” kits (which provide an anti-lock override mechanism attached to a short stock that allows the shooter to hold the trigger down and use the recoil to simulate an automatic setting). The shooter used extra capacity magazines, which are legal in Nevada, as are the conversion kits. In fact, the weapons, ammo and conversion kits can be purchased at the same time in any gun store. Truth be told, a converter kit is not always necessary. A simple file can be used to file down the spot welds that often are the only thing preventing a semi-automatic weapon from becoming fully automatic, especially on older model combat weapons like AK-47s and M-14s.  In any case, semi-automatic weapons are classfied as hunting weapons so purchases do not need to be entered into a federal databank (as some states require automatic weapons to be).

The entire cache of weapons, amunition and acessories stockpiled by the killer were legal. And since he had no prior criminal convictions, so was his possession of them.

With the exception of some rightwing conspiracy types who claimed that the killer was a Muslim convert, and Daesh, which tried to claim credit for the attack, no one in a position of authority is claiming that this was an act of terrorism.

I tend to agree with this assessment even though people in the killing field were clearly terrorized and many more traumatized by what they experienced. Beyond the motivation-versus-effect argument about how to define terrorism, the hard fact is that here again we have another example of a white male getting a pass on the “terrorist” label. Be it in Sandy Hook, Charleston or Colombine, white males who commit mass murders, even when motivated by racial, political or religious animus, are described as mentally ill, insane, maniacs or lunatics. They are not called domestic terrorists.

That is not the case when people of color engage in similar acts, even though the majority of mass murders with guns in the US are committed by white males. Plus, by definition someone who undertakes such acts has to be at least a little bit mentally out of kilter. So why call some US mass murderers crazy and some cold-blooded terrorist killers? Given the level of planning put into the Las Vegas attack, it can be argued that the perpetrator was much less nuts than many other murderers. Yet the “T” word will not be used on him even though what he did was deliberate, calculated, well-planned and executed and designed to have the maximum lethal effect on what was a carefully chosen mass target.

We shall see what set off him off.  It might be gambling debts, a romantic breakup or a psychopathic meltdown rather than a political or musical grudge. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he acted in premeditated fashion. So the forensics on the event will be interesting. Less so is the tragedy porn now playing 24/7 on US television screens, where tales of human misery and pathos, be it man-made (Las Vegas) or natural in origin (Puerto Rico) are on repeat loops for the morbidly obsessed (I am in the US on an extended sabbatical so am getting to live this in real time).

What is noticeably absent from the official police statements and pretty much all of the hourly “news” coverage is any discussion of gun laws that allow an individual to amass 30 or so automatic firearms, thousands of rounds of combat grade ammunition and precursor chemicals for explosives. Instead, the coverage is all about the shooter, his motivations and the wonderful character and/or heroism and/or sacrifice of all of his victims. Leave it to the “liberal” talk show hosts to address that elephant in the room, and leave it to the rightwing media and politicians to make the discussion about gunowners rights as opposed to the victim’s rights that were so brutally violated.

That is why I have no illusions that anything good will come of this. If nearly 30 kids can be murdered in Sandy Hook and nothing gets done in terms of gun control, and instead rightwing freaks saturate social media with claims that it was a government conspiracy hoax done to take away guns from law abiding people (like the Las Vegas shooter), then there is little hope that the president or Congress are going to do anything to change the status quo just because some good ole boys and girls got the hot lead hose down by a disgruntled accountant. This is especially true since Republican congresspeople and the president have received large sums of campaign (if not other) money from the NRA.

It is, however remotely, possible that because of who he targeted, the Las Vegas killer might have sparked a pang of conscience in the gun lobby and the politicians who pockets are lined by it. If that is the case then the victims will not have suffered and died in vain. But for the moment one can only repeat what has been said many times before: the time for thoughts and prayers for the victims is over. The time for action on gun control is long past due.

This week Mitch Harris and I talked about Trump’s  attacks on the so-called “take a knee movement,” his lack of compassion for the Puerto Rican victims of two hurricans and the increasingly risky rhetoric he uses vis a vis North Korea. It can be found here.

Brinkmanship and the security dilemma

datePosted on 01:53, September 24th, 2017 by Pablo
There is a concept in international relations known as the “security dilemma.” Uncertain about each other’s capabilities and intent, adversaries ramp up their military preparations for war as a hedge against a preemptive strike against them. Seeing rivals ready themselves for war and still unsure of their intent, states escalate their own preparations so as to show resolve and the ability to win the fight. This leads to arms races and, in the event of a miscalculation or mistake on either side, war that otherwise should have been avoided had uncertainties about capabilities and intent been addressed via peaceful means (read: dialogue and negotiations).
 
Add to this another IR concept: brinkmanship. Brinkmanship is a form of calculated risk-taking by which an actor engages in provocative, even recklessly dangerous behavior in order to intimidate an opponent into desisting or retreating from a given course of action.This is done by words and/or deeds depending on what an opponent’s perceived weaknesses may be (to include leadership ego, vanity and fear of losing face). When actors resort to brinkmanship in order to impose their will on others, the possibility of misperception leading to miscalculation increases dramatically.
 
Can anyone think of a situation today where these two concepts might be in play?
 
This is yet another reason why the absence of foreign policy intellectuals and international relations theorists from discussions about the DPRK-US standoff is troubling. It is as if those running the show in DC (if not Pyongyang) are unaware of these concepts and the consequences of their application in real life. To this can be added a myriad of media pundits, including former military officials, who speak more about the possibilities and types of military exchange rather than the larger dilemma and the alternative means to resolve it (in NZ a historian was used by a media outlet to explain why a DPRK nuclear test in the Pacific was a threat to Aotearoa in spite of the fact that he did not appear to know much about nuclear yields, the logistics and physics of missile targeting or the geopolitical implications of the threatened test).
 
What is really insane is that the Drumpf administration now seems intent on picking a simultaneous fight with Iran over the nuclear delimitation agreement signed with Iran by its predecessor and several other powers. That opens the possibility of aggravating another security dilemma punctuated by brinkmanship games in the Persian Gulf. Perhaps some among the president’s security advisors still cling to the belief that the US can prevail in a 2.5 Major Regional War (MRW) scenario, where it can on its own simultaneously fight and defeat adversaries in two major wars and one minor conflict. But if so, they have ignored the painful fact that the US has proven unable to decisively prevail in even one regional or minor conflict, including against adversaries that have limited to no air and sea power and even with the help of allied coalition forces. Regardless of the harping by some practicioners and commentators about restrictive rules of engagement and the lack of political will on the part of civilian politicians hampering the US military ability to sucessfully prosecute the 2.5 MRW scenario (or any war, for that matter), the notion that the US can militarily engage the DPRK and Iran simultaneously and win is a pipe dream even if it does not escalate to nuclear exchanges.
Yet barking continues from the dogs of war in the US, DPRK and Iran. What that means is that the US is the meat in that conflict sandwich, or, to put it less colloquially, the brinkmanship hub of the most dangerous security dilemmas now in play. 
 
Is there anyone in DC who does not see this? Surely there must be, but are they being ignored? Because even if one wants to believe that the leadership in Pyongyang and Tehran are irrational lunatics, then it is even more important for the US government to display nuance and calibration in its approach towards them rather than act as a mirror image of what it (or at least the White House) perceives to be lined up against it.

As part of the series of radio interviews I do with Mitch Harris on RadioLive on Wed nights, this week we decided to be a bit more free ranging than usual (since the normal focus of the radio version of the “Letters from America” series tends to concentrate on matters of US politics and society).  The issue of Chinese influence in NZ is getting a fair bit of attention as of late, and the pipe rupture causing shortages in aviation fuel and petrol supplies provides a basis for pondering the down side of N8 wire culture. And then there is Hillary blaming Bernie Sanders and the Russians for her loss last year while taking no responsibility for it, and Drumpf ranting incoherently at his first UN General Assembly speech. There was plenty to talk about. You can find the interview here.

Is he a spy?

datePosted on 07:48, September 14th, 2017 by Pablo

There is a fellow in NZ who once lectured at an elite foreign military school that trained military and civilian intelligence agents. His position required him to meet certain protocols and standards in order to receive a high level security clearance. In return for receiving that clearance and his lecturing on topics of interest to the intelligence community, he was privy to classified subjects and materials as well as being allowed to interact with the agencies from which his students originated.

His students learned foreign languages as part of their studies, combining that with training in the practical and operational skill sets required of them once they graduated and entered the field.

After leaving the military education institution, the fellow in question went on to work closely with the intelligence community in his country of origin, eventually taking a fairly senior position within the defense and intelligence establishment and continuing to consult with it even after his departure from active government service.

Some time after, he moved abroad and found his way to NZ, where he was hired as a lecturer in politics at the University of Auckland and settled into his adopted country by buying property and engaging in community servcie. He became fairly well known in political circles, wrote academic titles on NZ and comparative foreign policy and engaged with government on topics of common interest.

The question is: is this guy a spy given his past? Could he have come to NZ as an undercover “mole” ready to be sprung into service by his foreign masters after lying dormant for some time?

I ask because another former University of Auckland lecturer now in public service as a parliamentarian has found himself under some scrutiny after it was revealed that he also had lectured to intelligence agents at military educational institutions in his country of birth. It seems that there are questions as to whether he left that life behind him when he came to NZ even though his academic and community life in NZ broadly resemble that of the first individual mentioned above. But now the political knives are pointing at him.

It seems to me that the question about whether either individual is a spy reduces to two things. What were the cirumstances surrounding their emigration from their countries of origin, and what sort of security vetting was done on them before they took up residency and later, when one decided to enter public life?

In both cases security background checks would have been done as part of their visa appllication process. In both cases the University of Auckland would have presumably checked their academic credentials (which is an issue because the second fellow apparently fudged his academic credentials on his citizen application form, which makes one wonder if due dilligence was done on him by the UA prior to it recommending him, as an employment sponsor, to immigration authorities). For the individual who entered public service, more extensive vetting conducted by the SIS or an agency contracted by it would have examined the case a bit more in depth.

Based on what I know of the second case so far, the individual in question is no more a spy than the first guy is, and the first guy is clearly not. The problem for the second guy is that he comes from a country ruled by an authoritarian regime with neo-imperialist ambitions that is known to use its diaspora as a human intelligence collection network, where emigrants take out citizenship and settle into target countries but continue to report back to intelliigence authorities in their homelands. For his part, the first guy was more involved in his home country’s intelligence community prior to his arrival in NZ than the second guy apparently was (as far as has been reported), and the first guy’s home country has an extensive record of imperialism, including covert intelligence collection in NZ and elsewhere in the South Pacific that historically dwarfs that of the second guy’s motherland. Unfortunately for the second guy, his country of origin is not a NZ intelligence partner like the country the first guy came from, and in fact is a major counter-intelligence target for NZ security agencies.

So the question remains: can either or both of these guys be legtimately called a “spy” based on their backgrounds prior to arrival in NZ?

I ask because I am the first guy and I do not like being misidentified without cause (as I have been from time to time). It is unfortunate that my former colleague now stands accused (even if by insinuation) of something that he might not be based on assumptions about what he used to be. For his sake as well as that of NZ security, it is appropriate and necessary for the SIS or other NZ security agencies (not the government of which he is an MP) to issue a clarification on the matter now that the question has been raised in  public and there is a cloud over his career and reputation.

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