News for progressives

Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:58

For soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, coming home is more lethal than being in combat.”

― Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston

Not all heroes wear the uniform of war.

In the United States, however, we take particular pride in recognizing as heroes those who have served in the military.

Yet while we honor our veterans with holidays, parades, discounts at retail stores and restaurants, and endless political rhetoric about their sacrifice and bravery, we do a pitiful job of respecting their freedoms and caring for their needs once out of uniform.

Despite the fact that the U.S. boasts more than 20 million veterans who have served in World War II through the present day, the plight of veterans today is America’s badge of shame, with large numbers of veterans impoverished, unemployed, traumatized mentally and physically, struggling with depression, suicide, and marital stress, homeless, subjected to sub-par treatment at clinics and hospitals, and left to molder while their paperwork piles up within Veterans Administration offices.

Still, the government’s efforts to wage war on veterans, especially those who speak out against government wrongdoing, is downright appalling.

Consider: we raise our young people on a steady diet of militarism and war, sell them on the idea that defending freedom abroad by serving in the military is their patriotic duty, then when they return home, bruised and battle-scarred and committed to defending their freedoms at home, we often treat them like criminals merely for having served in the military.

The government even has a name for its war on America’s veterans: Operation Vigilant Eagle.

As first reported by the Wall Street Journal, this Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program tracks military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and characterizes them as extremists and potential domestic terrorist threats because they may be “disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war.”

Coupled with the DHS’ dual reports on Rightwing and Leftwing “Extremism,” which broadly define extremists as individuals, military veterans and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely,” these tactics bode ill for anyone seen as opposing the government.

Yet the government is not merely targeting individuals who are voicing their discontent so much as it is taking aim at individuals trained in military warfare.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that the DHS has gone extremely quiet about Operation Vigilant Eagle.

Where there’s smoke, there’s bound to be fire.

And the government’s efforts to target military veterans whose views may be perceived as “anti-government” make clear that something is afoot.

In recent years, military servicemen and women have found themselves increasingly targeted for surveillance, censorship, threatened with incarceration or involuntary commitment, labeled as extremists and/or mentally ill, and stripped of their Second Amendment rights.

An important point to consider, however, is that under the guise of mental health treatment and with the complicity of government psychiatrists and law enforcement officials, these veterans are increasingly being portrayed as threats to national security.

This is not the first time that psychiatry has been used to exile political prisoners.

Many times throughout history in totalitarian regimes, such governments have declared dissidents mentally ill and unfit for society as a means of rendering them disempowering them.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum observes in Gulag: A History: “The exile of prisoners to a distant place, where they can ‘pay their debt to society,’ make themselves useful, and not contaminate others with their ideas or their criminal acts, is a practice as old as civilization itself. The rulers of ancient Rome and Greece sent their dissidents off to distant colonies. Socrates chose death over the torment of exile from Athens. The poet Ovid was exiled to a fetid port on the Black Sea.”

For example, government officials in the Cold War-era Soviet Union often used psychiatric hospitals as prisons in order to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society, discredit their ideas, and break them physically and mentally through the use of electric shocks, drugs and various medical procedures.

Insisting that “ideas about a struggle for truth and justice are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure,” the psychiatric community actually went so far as to provide the government with a diagnosis suitable for locking up such freedom-oriented activists.

In addition to declaring political dissidents mentally unsound, Russian officials also made use of an administrative process for dealing with individuals who were considered a bad influence on others or troublemakers.

Author George Kennan describes a process in which:

The obnoxious person may not be guilty of any crime . . . but if, in the opinion of the local authorities, his presence in a particular place is “prejudicial to public order” or “incompatible with public tranquility,” he may be arrested without warrant, may be held from two weeks to two years in prison, and may then be removed by force to any other place within the limits of the empire and there be put under police surveillance for a period of from one to ten years. Administrative exile–which required no trial and no sentencing procedure–was an ideal punishment not only for troublemakers as such, but also for political opponents of the regime.

Sound familiar?

This age-old practice by which despotic regimes eliminate their critics or potential adversaries by declaring them mentally ill and locking them up in psychiatric wards for extended periods of time is a common practice in present-day China.

What is particularly unnerving, however, is how this practice of eliminating or undermining potential critics, including military veterans, is happening with increasing frequency in the United States.

Remember, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) opened the door for the government to detain as a threat to national security anyone viewed as a troublemaker. According to government guidelines for identifying domestic extremists—a word used interchangeably with terrorists—technically, anyone exercising their First Amendment rights in order to criticize the government qualifies.

It doesn’t take much anymore to be flagged as potentially anti-government in a government database somewhere—Main Core, for example—that identifies and tracks individuals who aren’t inclined to march in lockstep to the government’s dictates.

In fact, as the Washington Post reports, communities are being mapped and residents assigned a color-coded threat score—green, yellow or red—so police are forewarned about a person’s potential inclination to be a troublemaker depending on whether they’ve had a career in the military, posted a comment perceived as threatening on Facebook, suffer from a particular medical condition, or know someone who knows someone who might have committed a crime.

The case of Brandon Raub is a prime example of Operation Vigilant Eagle in action.

Raub, a 26-year-old decorated Marine, actually found himself interrogated by government agents about his views on government corruption, arrested with no warning, labeled mentally ill for subscribing to so-called “conspiratorial” views about the government, detained against his will in a psych ward for standing by his views, and isolated from his family, friends and attorneys.

On August 16, 2012, a swarm of local police, Secret Service and FBI agents arrived at Raub’s Virginia home, asking to speak with him about posts he had made on his Facebook page made up of song lyrics, political opinions and dialogue used in a political thriller virtual card game.

Among the posts cited as troublesome were lyrics to a song by a rap group and Raub’s views, shared increasingly by a number of Americans, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job.

After a brief conversation and without providing any explanation, levying any charges against Raub or reading him his rights, Raub was then handcuffed and transported to police headquarters, then to a medical center, where he was held against his will due to alleged concerns that his Facebook posts were “terrorist in nature.”

Outraged onlookers filmed the arrest and posted the footage to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Meanwhile, in a kangaroo court hearing that turned a deaf ear to Raub’s explanations about the fact that his Facebook posts were being read out of context, Raub was sentenced to up to 30 days’ further confinement in a psychiatric ward.

Thankfully, The Rutherford Institute came to Raub’s assistance, which combined with heightened media attention, brought about his release and may have helped prevent Raub from being successfully “disappeared” by the government.

Even so, within days of Raub being seized and forcibly held in a VA psych ward, news reports started surfacing of other veterans having similar experiences.

“Oppositional defiance disorder” (ODD) is another diagnosis being used against veterans who challenge the status quo. As journalist Anthony Martin explains, an ODD diagnosis

“denotes that the person exhibits ‘symptoms’ such as the questioning of authority, the refusal to follow directions, stubbornness, the unwillingness to go along with the crowd, and the practice of disobeying or ignoring orders. Persons may also receive such a label if they are considered free thinkers, nonconformists, or individuals who are suspicious of large, centralized government… At one time the accepted protocol among mental health professionals was to reserve the diagnosis of oppositional defiance disorder for children or adolescents who exhibited uncontrollable defiance toward their parents and teachers.”

Frankly, based on how well my personality and my military service in the U.S. Armed Forces fit with this description of “oppositional defiance disorder,” I’m sure there’s a file somewhere with my name on it.

That the government is using the charge of mental illness as the means by which to immobilize (and disarm) these veterans is diabolical. With one stroke of a magistrate’s pen, these veterans are being declared mentally ill, locked away against their will, and stripped of their constitutional rights.

If it were just being classified as “anti-government,” that would be one thing.

Unfortunately, anyone with a military background and training is also now being viewed as a heightened security threat by police who are trained to shoot first and ask questions later.

Feeding this perception of veterans as ticking time bombs in need of intervention, the Justice Department launched a pilot program in 2012 aimed at training SWAT teams to deal with confrontations involving highly trained and often heavily armed combat veterans.

The result?

Police encounters with military veterans often escalate very quickly into an explosive and deadly situation, especially when SWAT teams are involved.

For example, Jose Guerena, a Marine who served in two tours in Iraq, was killed after an Arizona SWAT team kicked open the door of his home during a mistaken drug raid and opened fire. Thinking his home was being invaded by criminals, Guerena told his wife and child to hide in a closet, grabbed a gun and waited in the hallway to confront the intruders. He never fired his weapon. In fact, the safety was still on his gun when he was killed. The SWAT officers, however, not as restrained, fired 70 rounds of ammunition at Guerena—23 of those bullets made contact. Apart from his military background, Guerena had had no prior criminal record, and the police found nothing illegal in his home.

John Edward Chesney, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran, was killed by a SWAT team allegedly responding to a call that the Army veteran was standing in his San Diego apartment window waving what looked like a semi-automatic rifle. SWAT officers locked down Chesney’s street, took up positions around his home, and fired 12 rounds into Chesney’s apartment window. It turned out that the gun Chesney reportedly pointed at police from three stories up was a “realistic-looking mock assault rifle.”

Ramon Hooks’ encounter with a Houston SWAT team did not end as tragically, but it very easily could have. Hooks, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran, was using an air rifle gun for target practice outside when a Homeland Security Agent, allegedly house shopping in the area, reported him as an active shooter. It wasn’t long before the quiet neighborhood was transformed into a war zone, with dozens of cop cars, an armored vehicle and heavily armed police. Hooks was arrested, his air rifle pellets and toy gun confiscated, and charges filed against him for “criminal mischief.”

Given the government’s increasing view of veterans as potential domestic terrorists, it makes one think twice about government programs encouraging veterans to include a veterans designation on their drivers’ licenses and ID cards.

Hailed by politicians as a way to “make it easier for military veterans to access discounts from retailers, restaurants, hotels and vendors across the state,” it will also make it that much easier for the government to identify and target veterans who dare to challenge the status quo.

Remember: no one is spared in a police state.

Eventually, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we all suffer the same fate.

It stands to reason that if the government can’t be bothered to abide by its constitutional mandate to respect the citizenry’s rights—whether it’s the right to be free from government surveillance and censorship, the right to due process and fair hearings, the right to be free from roadside strip searches and militarized police, or the right to peacefully assemble and protest and exercise our right to free speech—then why should anyone expect the government to treat our nation’s veterans with respect and dignity?

So if you really want to do something to show your respect and appreciation for the nation’s veterans, here’s a suggestion: skip the parades and the retail sales and the flag-waving and instead go exercise your rights—the freedoms that those veterans risked their lives to protect—by pushing back against the government’s tyranny.

Freedom is not free.

It’s time the rest of the nation started to pay the price for the freedoms we too often take for granted.

Categories: News for progressives

Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:56

One cannot serve both the one percent and the 99 percent as their interests are at odds with each other. Although many join for righteous reasons, actions speak louder than intentions. Actions of the U.S. military has always been death, destruction, anguish of the working class, and entitlements for the elites. When the ruling class benefits it’s always at the expense of the poor.

I’m a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Not only that, I’m a veteran of both surges. Eight years after separating from the military I see that I did not provide a service for my country. Clearly the wars have sucked our hard-working dollars and placed them on a silver platter for the economic ruling class–war contractors (oops I mean ‘defense’ contractors), politicians, and corporations that literally profit from the death of innocent people, including little children.

Although I served in the U.S. Army as a Paratrooper working as a mechanic, the world sees me as nothing but an imperialist watchdog. The people impacted by the wars in which I participated don’t care about the difference between an infantry soldier and an administrative paper-pusher. It’s all the same to them: soldiers occupying their homelands and pointing weapons at innocent people, like women, children, and the elderly.

When I visited Palestine last year for the first time, a local Palestinian activist greeted our delegation with open arms. I traveled with the organization Veterans For Peace. In many languages, the word ‘veteran’ is not translatable. Most languages refer to veterans as ‘retired soldiers’ or a similar translation. After a while, I explained that some of us ‘veterans’ had fought in the Iraq War. Our host’s face lit up with shock and anxiety. He began to tell his friends around us and began ranting while pointing his finger at me. I only remember one thing he said: “I will never forgive you for what you have done!” I just sat there in tears. He was absolutely right.

I realized in that moment that there is no forgiveness for destroying an entire country–generations of Iraqis whose lives have been shattered. Was I to explain to him about my intention of providing a service to my country? Was I to justify the wars that are rooted in his oppression? Was I to justify the actions of the troops that deny his humanity and right to exist? We all know that answer.

The Arab world isn’t the only group impacted by U.S. imperialism. Even veterans suffer. Veteran suicides are currently an epidemic. If veterans provided a real service to their fellow countrymen and women, why would they end their own lives? Providing a service to people we love is a fulfilling duty, one I would say all human beings inherently want to do. We are social creatures. Without each other, we cease to be human. What would be a real service is helping veterans who are considering suicide, not promoting another war based on lies, racism, and the drive for corporate profits.

We often hear troops saying that they love providing a service to their country and veterans speaking about their service with pride. But how did they provide a service? After 17 years of endless war in the Middle East, we are mired in more conflicts while the majority of the population suffers from economic distress. The war contractors and corporations are richer than ever. Our local water sources are poisoned, and the United States consists of the most obese population in the world. The U.S. security apparatus is stronger than ever before and the strongest in the world. We have TSA patting us down at airports, police officers shooting innocent people, corporations working with government agencies to conduct illegal surveillance on their own people, politicians spouting off lies, and the wars just keep on going. How has the serviceof veterans helped this country?

The only service which veterans have provided has been for the ruling class, the top ten percent of this country. The rest of us are worried about rent, our children’s future, and the threat of annihilation caused by climate change (an actual threat). We, as a nation, need to come to terms with this. The troops are not providing a service but rather are watch dogs for the imperialist ruling class who continue to benefit from death and destruction around the globe. Seven countries are currently being bombed, eight hundred military bases exist in eighty countries, counter-terrorist operations continue in 76 countries, and the blowback of these actions will be worse than al-Qaeda and ISIS combined. This is not a service to anyone.

I once wore the uniform with pride. I came from a family full of people who wore the same uniform. I dutifully deployed overseas and put my life in danger to fight for a cause that I thought was real. In the end, I realized it was all a lie. I was used, then discarded like a rag not worth washing. Twenty veterans commit suicide every day. I know I am not alone. Calling our fighting in the military a service is a disservice. It’s a disservice to the Iraqis, the Afghans, our own people, and the entire world which suffers from US militarism one way or another.

Did I provide a service to the people of Iraq? I say no after learning the US and coalition forces killed half a million innocent people and the creation of ISIS was simply blowback from US atrocities. Did I provide a service to the people of Afghanistan? I say no after learning the surge completely failed and actually caused terrorism to grow. Did I provide a service to Americans? I say no after learning that our economy still hasn’t recovered to pre-2008 economic levels and that economic inequality is at its highest ever in this country’s entire existence.

Since becoming an anti-war activist and organizer, I learned how the wars in which I participated actually did more harm than good. The wars wasted tax dollars, distracted us from addressing climate change, tortured and killed innocent civilians, and none of this is helping my fellow veterans with the silent epidemic of suicide. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other nations the Pentagon is currently destroying continue their lives in a wretched existence, partly caused by my own ignorance, which led me to fight for the interest of the elite in battles they themselves would never fight. The working class of one country is fighting and killing the working class of another while the elite sit back in their leather seats with money spilling out of their pant pockets.

The best thing I have done is admit to myself that I had no idea what I participated in. It led me to ask questions and seek answers which would have never come from my chain of command. My self-confession drove me to learn more and inevitably changed the course of my life. I am now more cautious of my actions, and indeed the words I use, for I know that my actions and language have impact on the world. In doing so, I’ve flipped my world upside down. I once was an ignorant soldier who obeyed commands without thought but today I question all illegitimate authority I encounter. I understand the decisions I make today will have lifelong consequences for myself and others around me. Never again will I provide a service to the ruling elite. Never again will I fight for the rich. Never again will I sacrifice my life for a cause I do not understand. This all started with denouncement of one word, service.

Will Griffin is the director of The Peace Report with over 150,000 followers on social media. He was deployed to Iraq when President Bush announced the surge in 2007 and in Afghanistan when President Obama announced the surge in 2009. He is now a full-time anti-war activist, organizer, and speaker.

Categories: News for progressives

Harold Pinter’s America: a Giant Criminal Conspiracy…

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:53

If you’ve never read or seen Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it’s amazing—a 46-minute piece of thunderous power—but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Pinter’s plays, when well-acted, braid together moments of existential terror and electric comedy, but his Nobel speech is not a bundle of laughs.  It begins with an intriguing but much too long rumination on his creative process, but just when you think he’s going to call it a wrap, he suddenly pivots from the inward to the outward and begins a furious condemnation of the United States government that kicks so hard and hurts so deeply that it makes you ashamed not to be an outright leftist revolutionary.  He forces us to look at what the great William Burroughs called the “naked lunch”—calmly but viciously indicting us for our crimes in South America and all around the world.  And though he delivered the speech in 2005, it could run as an op-ed piece today, with only a few minor details changed.

Watching the speech is exponentially scarier than reading it.  Pinter couldn’t travel to Stockholm to accept the prize in person because he was hospitalized with some God-awful kind of cancer, so he sent a video which shows him sitting in a chair with a blanket on his knees, obviously ill, but methodically building his indictment as he stares at the camera, as if daring you to look away. And you want to look away.  You don’t want to be a silent partner in all the murders we commit, all the rapes we encourage, all the torture we teach and practice, all the money we steal, all the air and water and creatures we poison, all the stupidity manufactured by our media, all the—well, you get the picture. To wit: “the United States has supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths,” Pinter asks: “Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy?” Then he answers his own question: “The answer is yes, they did take place, and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.”

Pinter, ever the changeling, suddenly becomes a character in one of his plays, slipping into the speech-rhythms that make his work so seductive as he describes America’s vision of history: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

Take a bow, Barack Obama.

“I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self-love. It’s a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, ‘the American people’, as in the sentence, ‘I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.

Pinter, the genius, dreamed President Donald Trump into existence thirteen years ago!  Donald fucking Trump, not only a criminal but a sloppy and incompetent criminal, a “total loser” in any meaningful sense—since the real game is compassion, generosity of spirit, and creativity, and people like Donald Trump don’t even know the game has started.

Perhaps we all joined together with Pinter and co-wrote Trump into the White House. Perhaps we needed to see the naked lunch up close, writhing on the tines of our fork.

And here’s what’s on the menu: two political parties engaged in idiotic bickering on TV, a bloated moron president who walks around with toilet paper stuck to his shoe–an extremely unhealthy guy who shows clear signs of dementia and who wasn’t that bright to begin with, a waddling nitwit who not only fails to cover up his petty crimes but is so dumb that he scatters clues wherever he goes.

But he’s a “winner!”

But, of course, he’s also an easy target.  Following Pinter’s logic, why doesn’t MSNBC, for example, provide even the merest wisp of historical context when covering all their Breaking News?  Let’s take a quick look at the big stories of the past few weeks and look for America’s role in them.

Story: the “caravan” of asylum seekers from Honduras, reported so breathlessly right up to election night and then dropped completely the next day.  Needless to say, these fellow human beings are fleeing a fascist dystopia that we created through decades of imposing hideous dictatorships, funded by Clintons and Bushes alike, and supported by top-notch death squads.  We have turned the Honduran world into such a hell that all they can do is grab their babies and walk into the distance, without food or water, refugees from the misery we created.

None of this, of course, is ever mentioned on MSNBC.  (Maybe it’s just coincidence, but Hillary Clinton is actually proud of the role we played down there.)

Story: wildfires all over my adopted state of California.  Exciting TV footage—high drama!—but it’s as if all these fires are burning in a vacuum, in a world of deafening silence, where America’s creation of a never-ending drought has brought another kind of hell into being.

Story: one more traumatized veteran enacts the ultimate American male-bonding ritual of murdering his brothers and sisters, a young man who was troubled from childhood and should never have been sent to fight in a never-ending war in Afghanistan that never should have started and will seemingly never end.  But no mention of what he saw and did in that endless war, what nightmarish images burned themselves into the fragile tissue of his brain.  Again: a scene ripped out of context, just the big action sequence with the Glock and the smoke bombs and the blood and the dead, but none of the backstory that might stimulate our thinking or give us any insight into war-trauma and its effect on troubled soldiers, who continue to kill themselves in horrifying numbers.

On and on. But, as Pinter points out so eloquently, America is never to blame.  Not for the hideous torture and murder of Khashoggi; not for the creation of violent gangs throughout South America, not for any of it—“America is great because America is good,” as Hillary Clinton so inanely claimed.

As if replying to Hillary, here’s Pinter: “It’s a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words ‘the American people’ provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it’s very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.”

So: what to do?

Like you, I grapple with this riddle every day.  Yesterday the local LA news showed a man wearing a surgical mask to minimize his smoke inhalation, using a garden hose in a feeble and pathetic attempt to water down the embers of his house, which was completely burned down.  When the camera pulled back, you could see that his car and his SUV had also been burned into twisted gray sculptures, barely recognizable as vehicles any more. It looked like Iraq after our magical Shock and Awe attack. The TV reporter didn’t even try to hide her bewilderment: the area was under an evacuation order, little snake-like flames were flicking up out of nowhere as embers drifted on the Santa Anna wind, the man’s surgical mask was useless against the smoke, and the house was completely gone.  But still he stood there at the edge of the wreckage, aiming his slender green garden house against the leaping embers, a dribble of water against the all-powerful fire.  I became somewhat obsessed by this guy.  He was obviously, in that moment, completely insane, not to put too fine a point on it.  The fight was over.  Fire had won; human beings had lost.  And yet there was a poignant kind of courage in the man that I couldn’t help but admire. If all you have to fight with is a garden hose, then you fight with a garden hose.  Maybe you can salvage one single keepsake—one photograph of your grandfather; one set of earrings you bought for your wife twenty years ago…

It’s better than nothing. Anything is better than nothing.

So even as I watch the fires burning across America–the visible fires and the hidden fires that Pinter described with such painful clarity—I hold my garden hose aloft.  Last week I talked with a Lyft driver from El Salvador, a 60=year-old man who told me how the American-supported death squads came to his village and murdered every person and animal without mercy or passion, as if simply doing a job; he survived by hiding, but the rest of his family was killed.  And yet it meant something to him—something important—that one of his passengers actually knew about his story, and cared about his story.  In the emotion of the moment I apologized to him, as an American citizen, for my inability to stop my government from murdering his family.

I guess that apology was my garden hose.  A feeble, even laughable stream of water against all those flying embers. Tomorrow my garden hose might be a conversation with my son about some other aspect of our history and culture that he needs to question for himself.  Or to stop and talk to a homeless veteran. Or to write a piece for CounterPunch.  Harold Pinter, wracked by cancer, insisted on bearing witness to the truth about America. I can’t approach his eloquence, but as a citizen of America I can do no less.

Categories: News for progressives

Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:51

Since Donald Trump’s selection as president two years ago, a growing movement of citizens has been fighting back at what it sees as a dangerous march toward fascism US style. And, despite the election of some progressive candidates in the midterm elections, it would be a mistake to count on them alone to interrupt the erosion of an already tattered democracy in a largely corporate controlled society.

Still, the diverse community of activists, old and young—a veritable rainbow coalition—is already a force, both as potential allies to the newly elected progressives and as a check on them to follow through on their campaign promises.

Like many born after World War II and before the moon landing in 1969, my activism began in the 1960s, volunteering for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign and as an anti-Vietnam war protestor. Ever since, I have been a part of a range of campaigns and causes, in recent years focusing on challenging men’s violence against women and working to transform masculinity. Today’s activists, from Black Lives Matter to, for example, count at their core women—many active well before the Women’s March—who have long been leading the way in a feminist wave revitalizing activism today.

In campaigning in the midterms, activists saw a simultaneous truth: in addition to the energy and enthusiasm many felt in working to help the Democrats take back the House of Representatives, they also recognized that electoral politics alone cannot fix a broken system. Those outraged by the white supremacist misogynist temporarily residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue felt that working to flip the house was a struggle worth engaging in.

For my part, I spent the final week of Texas senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Ted Cruz, “block walking” the streets in a mix of neighborhoods across Dallas. Thousands were doing the same across the state, including those I walked with, from one of my daughters to a history professor from Kentucky, to a Mexican American X-ray technician. Our shared experience created a powerful bond which has only strengthened my conviction that activists double down to advance grassroots movements.

I talked—and listened—to voters, many of them exercising their franchise for the first time in years. I heard how marginalized they feel and how—for a moment, anyway—Beto’s candidacy interrupted their despair. Was it an illusion that the charismatic progressive 46-old Congress member from El Paso could transform conservative Christian Texas? Could he lift up the spirits of the disenfranchised, including Mexican-Americans and non-citizen Mexican and Central American residents, fearful of an administration relentlessly threatening them? He certainly tried. His message was inclusive; he recognized the diversity in the state’s 30 million citizens, and he spoke to voters’ better angels—standing up for families, for teachers, for communities of color, for gays, lesbians and transgender Texans. Beto became the embodiment of hope for progressives from coast to coast. If hope is a muscle, Beto showed Texas what it looked like when it was exercised.

Yes, Ted Cruz is still the state’s junior senator. But as a Texas native told me in a Dallas coffee shop the day after the election, that a Democrat came as close as Beto came to unseating Cruz is proof the state is changing. (And the results of many races statewide backed up his contention.)

On my last day of canvassing, I knocked on the door of a 75-year-old African American man with a trimmed white beard. He closely resembled the late actor and activist Ossie Davis. He appreciated my being there but told me he thought it was time for the younger generation to step up. “We’ve done our walking,” he said, noting my white hair and beard. “It’s their time now.” I nodded, but added, “It’s still our time, too. We can’t stop now.” As I headed down his front walk, he called to me. I turned to him standing in his doorway. “I’m not gonna say good luck,” he said. We’re gonna need more than luck.”

Categories: News for progressives

Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:47

President Donald J. Trump has a special, strained take on the world.  Defeat is simply victory viewed in slanted terms.  Victory for the other side is defeat elaborately clothed.  Both views stand, and these alternate with a mind bending disturbance that has thrown the sceptics off any credible scent.  “It wasn’t me being slow,” came Frank Bruni’s lamentation in The New York Times. “It was America.”  Dazzlingly unsettling, the results has been tight “but many of the signals they sent were mixed and confusing.”

Those daring to make predictions that the House would fall to the Democrats were not disappointed, even if they could not be said to be spectacular.  Losses to the incumbent party in the White House in the mid-terms tends to be heavy, varying between 24 and 30.  President Barack Obama’s presidency bore witness to 63 loses to his party in 2010.  On this occasion, the GOP yielded ground in Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Senate, just to press home the sheer polarity of the results, slid further into red territory.  Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who had, in any case, been deemed quite vulnerable in the state, fell to Mike Braun.  Braun was one who drank from the cup of Trumpism, a move which seems to have paid off.  Missouri Democratic senator Clair McCaskill succumbed to Republican challenger Josh Hawley. North Dakota also turned red.

The Democrats showed some resurgence in various state level capitols. Key governor’s seats were reclaimed, though their victories in Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin were matched by Republicans clawing on to Florida.  The governor’s offices of Arizona and Ohio also remained in the hands of the GOP.  The defeat of Republican Scott Walker in Wisconsin was particularly sweet, given his lingering dedication to the abridgment of union rights that resulted in an effective end to collective bargaining for public workers.

Moving aside the gripping minutiae and individual bruising, and the US is a state fractured and splintering, putting pay to such notions as “waves” of any one party coming over and overwhelming opponents.  Walls – psychic, emotional and philosophical – have been erected through the country.

Rural areas remain estranged from their urban relatives; urban relatives remain snobbishly defiant, even contemptuous, of the interior.  “The midterms,” came a gloomy Mike Allen in Axios AM, “produced a divided Congress that’s emblematic of a split America, drifting further apart and pointing to poisonous years ahead.”  The angry voter was very much in vogue, be it with record liberal turnouts in suburbs, or high conservative voter participation in Trumpland.

What Trump succeeded in doing after the mid-terms was implanting himself upon the GOP, grabbing the party by the throat, thrashing it into a sense that their hope of survival in the next two years rests with him.  He could blame losses on Republicans who decided to keep him at tongs length, those who “didn’t embrace me”, while Democrats who sided against his choice of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh were duly punished.

Trump could also smirk with excitement that the punditry is still awry about how to assess the US political landscape. Republican pollster Frank Luntz insists in a magical two to three percent “hidden Trump” vote that analysts refuse to factor into their calculations.

The news conference in the East Room provided Trump the perfect platform to spin, adjust and revise.  He also reverse heckled, striking out at journalists with brutal surliness.  PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor was accused of asking a “racist question” in pressing for his position on white nationalists. “It’s a very terrible thing that you said.”

He could also weigh heavily into his favourite playground targets, one being CNN’s Jim Acosta.  “CNN should be ashamed of itself, having you working for them.  You are a rude, terrible person.  You shouldn’t be working for CNN.” (The politics of playground fancy also took another turn, with Acosta’s accreditation subsequently suspended “until further notice” by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.)

As has been frequent, if scattered, the president was not entirely off the message in attempting to reason the results.  The “wave” that was supposedly to come from the Democrats had not exactly drowned the GOP, and in terms of performance, he could happily point to a Republican increase of numbers in the Senate.

He then brandished a weapon he has mastered since he became president: the art, less of the deal than the diversion. Within hours of the results coming in, Attorney General Jeff Sessions came another addition to the long list of casualties that has made this administration particularly bloody.  Zac Beauchamp supplied a depressed note in Vox: the sacking of the marginalised and mocked Sessions was not shocking, which made it worse, a sort of normalised contempt. “The truth is that Trump firing Sessions, and temporarily replacing him with a loyalist named Matthew Whitaker who has publicly denounced the special counsel investigation, should scare us.”

Trump, for his part, anticipates “a beautiful, bipartisan type of situation” working with Democrat House leader Nancy Pelosi.  “From a deal-making standpoint, we are all much better off the way it turned out.”  Far from being further rented, the chances for legislation have presented themselves, though the president was just as happy to issue a slap down warning: avoid initiating any investigations.  “They can play that game, but we can play it better because we have the United States Senate.”  As the dark lord of the Bush era, Karl Rove, surmised with apposite force: “Let’s be clear… Both parties are broken.”



Categories: News for progressives

Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:40

This is a fact that would have been worth mentioning in a NYT piece on how health care may be affected by last Tuesday’s elections. Near the end, the article referred to the Trump administration’s promotion of short-term insurance policies but only said that they, “do not have to cover pre-existing conditions or provide all the benefits required by the health law.”

The important feature of these short-term plans from the standpoint of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is that they are designed to be appealing to relatively healthy people. By excluding people who are likely to suffer from costly health conditions, they can offer insurance at a lower price. This has the effect of pulling healthier people out of the ACA insurance pools.

This means that the people remaining in the ACA pools will be less healthy on average and therefore have higher costs. That will drive up the price of insurance in the ACA pools, likely pushing more relatively healthy people to buy short-term insurance plans. The end result in this story is that the ACA pools end up being extremely expensive, which makes the prohibition on discrimination over pre-existing conditions pointless.

This is the importance of the short-term insurance policies. It should have been mentioned in the piece.

This article originally appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

Categories: News for progressives

Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:36

The spectacularly glaciated Gallatin Range stretches south from Bozeman into Yellowstone National Park. The 250,000-acre roadless area is the largest unprotected wildlands left in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.


The Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages (BHP) that drain into the Gallatin River near Big Sky, Montana are a miniature ecological equivalent of the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone.

These lower elevation drainages contain a mix of meadows, aspen groves, and conifer forest and support some of the most important wildlife habitat in the Gallatin Range as well as the entire northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The densest grizzly bear populations in the entire northern Yellowstone area occur here. The BHP is also a major elk migration corridor, and also important in its own right as a winter range for elk as well as moose. The Gallatin Range is also home to one of the few bighorn sheep populations that have never been extirpated. Mountain goat, wolves, cougar, wolverine, lynx, and many other wildlife species also call the BHP home. And it is the best place in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem outside of Yellowstone Park for the restoration of wild bison.

Besides charismatic megafauna, the Montana Heritage Program lists 18 bird species, two amphibians, one reptile, three fish, and eight mammal species considered to be at risk due to declining populations that may reside in the Gallatin Range.


Protecting this landscape has been recognized of critical importance for decades. Beginning in 1909, Gifford Pinchot, head of the newly created US Forest Service, petitioned to have the southern Gallatin Range in the BHP area set aside as a game range. In 1911, the state of Montana established a wildlife reserve there.

In 1977 a 155,000-acre core area was Congressionally designated under S. 393 as the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalohorn Wilderness Study Area (HPBH), including the Buffalohorn-Porcupine area, in part to protect these critical wildlife values.

During the initial legislative efforts in the early 1980s to create a Lee Metcalf Wilderness, the Gallatin Range was part of the proposal, but dropped primarily due to checkerboard ownership of private lands that were mixed in among the public Forest Service sections, as well as recognition that the 1977 designation of the HPBH WSA status provided some interim protection.

Staring in the 1980s through the 2000s the private checkerboard lands in much of the Gallatin Range were traded out or purchased for lands around what is now Big Sky Resort.

This loss of public lands in the Big Sky area was justified in part due to the wildlife values of the BHP which the MDFWP testified contained “… some of the most important wildlife/biological corridors in the West.”

The acquisition of these private checkerboard parcels by the Forest Service was always assumed to be a step in the eventual designation of these lands as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

For instance, in 1993 testimony before Congress on behalf of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Wilderness Society, Wilderness Society Northern Rockies Regional Director, Michael Scott, proclaimed “The consolidation of the checkerboard in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area within the Gallatin Range sets the stage for future consideration of the WSA and surrounding lands for wilderness.”


That is why it is particularly ironic given this past support and recognition of the high wildlife and wilderness values of the Buffalohorn Porcupine drainages in what is essentially the ecological equivalent of the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range that today these organizations, along with the Montana Wilderness Association and others have signed on the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP) that promotes eliminating WSA status for the Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages.

While the GFP supports 102,000 acres of the high elevation “rocks and ice” portion of the Gallatin Range for wilderness designation, the GFP proposes eliminating Wilderness Study Area status for the low elevation lands in the BHP drainages. Instead, GFP espouses designation of a 31,290-acre Buffalohorn Porcupine “Wildlife Management Area” to facilitate recreational use, particularly mountain biking.  (The GFP also proposes a similar WMA designation for 25,000 acre West Pine area, a critical wildlife corridor, on the northeast corner of the Gallatin Range.)

This is particularly ironic given that all these groups have been criticizing Montana US Senator Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte for their efforts to remove WSA status for other WSAs. Yet GYC, MWA, TWS, and other groups are willing to eliminate wilderness study status for the BHP portion of the Gallatin Range.

While I am pleased with the outstanding effort of these organizations to counter Daines and Gianforte’s attempts to reduce protection for these wildlands, it should not come at the expense of the wilderness designation of the BHP.

The GFP proposal does advocate for restrictions on mountain biking and ORV use to protect wildlife, however, whether these restrictions would be implemented or enforced is unknown. Plus the proposal would allow non-commercial logging (all recent FS timber sales are justified for other reasons like forest health or wildfire prevention, so this prohibition does not necessarily protect the area).

Promoting something other than wilderness designation for the Buffalohorn Porcupine area denigrates the true wildlands values of this area.  It puts recreational use ahead of wildlands and wildlife values in an area that for decades has been recognized as some of the most exceptional wildlife habitat in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Imagine what wildlands advocates would say today if there were a similar debate over the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. If conservation groups conceded to remove the Lamar Valley from park protection to permit recreational use by mountain bikers, snowmobilers, and others, it would be viewed scandalous.

Members of the GFP argue that proposing wilderness designation for these areas is politically difficult given the opposition from mountain bikers and other recreationalists.

However, I would remind all wilderness advocates that a similar situation existed at the time when the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness was created in 1978.

At that time, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and even jeeps traveled between the Boulder River and Cooke City in what was known as the Slough Creek Corridor.

During the debate about the boundaries of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, some wilderness advocates made exactly the same argument against support for a more expansive wilderness (what we actually got) in favor of a diminutive proposal that would only protect the high-country area east of the Boulder River as wilderness, suggesting that a more expansive wilderness was “politically impractical.”

But politics isn’t a straight line, and there is much serendipity to all conservation efforts. One cannot know what may be politically feasible until you try. Fortunately, the advocates for a more comprehensive Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness won out and today we have a nearly million-acre wilderness that is one of the gems of the national wilderness system.


Until conservationists advocate for wilderness designation for the entire Gallatin Range, one cannot know what may be politically possible.

There are other issues with the GFP that needs remedy including greater wilderness advocacy for areas in the Hyalite Canyon region such as South Cottonwood Canyon and Chestnut Mountain, but suffice to say that it is my hope that wilderness advocates including organizations like the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and Greater Yellowstone Coalition reassess their promotion for the halfway measures of the GFP and instead seek full wilderness protection for all roadless lands in the range, especially for the Buffalohorn Porcupine drainages or what could be called the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range.

If you are a member of any of these organizations, I urge you to contact them and compliment them for making protection of the Gallatin Range a priority but ask them to advocate for wilderness designation for all of the roadless lands in the Gallatin Range.

Keep in mind these are lands owned by all Americans, as well as internationally significant. The Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages lie just north of Yellowstone National Park which was designated International Biosphere Reserve in 1976, and a World Heritage Site in 1978.

Therefore, the Gallatin wildlands deserve the best protection possible and wilderness is the Gold Bar for conservation status. Conservationists should be advocating nothing less.

Categories: News for progressives

A Note on the Paris Peace Forum

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:28

France is convening an international forum in Paris from November 11 to November 13, 2018 to promote peace. Intended to be an annual event, the Paris Peace Forum is part of France’s commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the ceasefire signed  on 11 November 1918 ending the Great War which caused 18 million dead.The gathering will be inaugurated by heads of state and representatives of more than 80 countries Warning that peace was again in danger, President Macron called for ‘concrete proposals’  to drive forward multilateralism and international cooperation.

France is the  the world’s third arms suppliers and  its exports increased by 27% compared to 2008-2012, according to SIPRI Arms Tranfers Database.

Faulkner’s best known line never goes out of date: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Categories: News for progressives

Does America Have a “Gun Problem”…Or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?

Counterpunch - Mon, 2018-11-12 15:07

It’s been another fortnight of mass murder inside Fortress America.   Carnage reigns from Coast to Coast, from a progressive synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, to a line-dancing bar in Thousand Oaks, CA.  The high-profile shooters?  Both white American men: One a 46-year-old die-hard white supremacist, publicly declaring his hatred for Jews and for immigrant “invaders,” opening fire on a morning Shabbat ceremony.   The other, a 28-year-old, US Marine veteran, experienced with machine guns from tours in Afghanistan, targeting “College Night,” at the Border Line Bar and Grill, a country music establishment he reportedly frequented.  Both commando-style killers wielded legally purchased Glock handguns (and one of them an AR-15 assault rifle), as they each slaughtered nearly a dozen people, just eleven days apart.

It seems like we can’t get through a semester anymore without a mass shooting forcing me to change my syllabus in “American Popular Culture”—the news forces gun violence center stage. And so once again, in the wake of mass murder, I have assigned my students to watch Michael Moore’s 2002 film Bowling for Columbine. Moore’s apocalyptic vision of an America armed-to-the-teeth and pushed-to-the-edge has again proven prophetic. Once more, contrary to war-mongering and Islamophobic media, we have been reminded of how, here in America, terror is most often home-grown.  Once again we are being asked to reflect on the question of why the USA stands so alone in the world when it comes to this kind of murderous madness. 

While much has changed since 2002, I continue to be stuck by how Bowling for Columbine continues to resonate. Moore’s film remains a vital resource for radical educators and activists in the wake of these terribly predictable tragedies.

* * *

Looking back across the sixteen years since the film collected the Oscar for Best Documentary, Bowling for Columbine seems prescient, just as the shooting at Columbine High School that prompted Moore’s film looks more and more like part of a trend that is here to stay. From the 2006 shooting at Virginia Tech that left 32 dead, to the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that killed 27, to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre that same year, to the nightmare in Las Vegas last year that killed 58, to the Parkland, Florida shooting in February that triggered the massive “March for Our Lives,” the shameful ‘records’ set by the Columbine killers have been broken, time and again.

According to recent reports, the shooting in Thousand Oaks, CA was the 307thmass shooting in 2018 alone.  A subset of an American gun violence epidemic that altogether steals tens of thousands of lives per year,‘mass shootings’ in the United States now occur approximately once per day.[iii]

Compared to other ‘Western powers,’ all these numbers are essentially off the charts.  How to explain this ugly American exception?

In the wake of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, US President Barack Obama led one wing of the chorus in asserting that while “Every country has hateful or mentally unstable people…What’s different is that not every country is awash with easily accessible guns [the way the US is].” (Quoted in the Boston Globe, 6/20/15, A4). The acclaimed HBO documentary Requiem for the Dead: American Springechoed Obama’s emphasis, closing its hour-long homage to victims of gun violence with a suggestive statistical pairing: there are 310 million privately owned guns in the country, (approximately 1 for every person living here); and approximately 88 people are killed by gunshots every day. While Requiem avoids overt prescription, its narrow focus on the human tragedy of gun murders coupled with the sheer fact of widespread gun ownership leaves us feeling that the violence problem is at root a *gun* problem.

And of course, on one level, how could anyone disagree? You cannot have gun deaths without guns (duh). And the USA is awash in them.

Flash forward to 2018, a moment where the Commander-in-Chief openly advocates for arming teachers and installing armed guards at places of worship, diverting outrage at gun violence into calls for further arming (parts of) the population.  It’s easy to wax nostalgic for even basic sanity around this issue.

But it’s important to reflect: even Obama’s liberal theory of gun violence explains little. It describes the situation we are in, yes, but without giving us a sense of how or why we have come to it, without telling us what it means.

How has the USA come to the point that so many people feel compelled to own guns—and to use them—in the first place? Citing lax gun laws—or even the influence of the gun lobby—again does not so much answer as beg the question of why and how it has come to be that the US is characterized by such gun culture, laws, and lobbies. Nor does it help to explain the particularly traumatic form of the mass public (school, movie, church) shooting that has become so common.[iv]

Liberal hubs have often brought Michael Moore himself into the current fray, citing his “anti-gun violence” documentary to support the case for greater gun control. (Moore has also interjected himself.) But instrumentalizing Bowling for Columbine in this way threatens to suppress what it was that made it such a vital intervention in the first place. At its best, the film insists on broadening and radicalizing the gun violence ‘debate,’ in ways that push well beyond even Moore’s own liberal affiliations.

What struck me when I first saw Bowling in 2002, and what has kept me coming back to it as a teaching tool ever since, is the way the film powerfully reintroduces key context for grasping violence in the USA, context that too often falls out of the mainstream ‘liberal-conservative’ back and forth about gun laws and gun lobbies. Elements that Barack Obama—and maybe even Michael Moore himself—would prefer we not dwell upon, and that a film like Requiem for the Dead won’t go near.

Bowling does not simply fixate on bad US gun laws or the tragedy of lives taken too soon. It pushes further to link US gun violence to underlying legacies and systemic problems: from the history of white supremacy, to the racialized post-911 paranoia inflamed by corporate media and politicians, to the long-standing normalization—indeed the sanctification— of American violence in the form of US militarism and empire. Just as powerfully, the film refuses to engage in demonizing or pathologizing the killers it considers, instead tying their violence to the pressures put on young people today and to the despair affecting so many US ‘post-industrialized’ working-class communities in the age of predatory capital’s devastating abandonment.

Granted, the film does begin and end by lampooning and lamenting America’s gun-excess—from the absurd opening, where Moore receives a free rifle for opening a new account at a bank, to the bittersweet ending, where he shames K-Mart executives and then NRA President Charlton Heston himself for their complicity in the wake of Columbine. But Moore himself admits that his closing attempts to ‘make a difference’ (by eliminating bullets from K-Mart shelves etc) is really just picking around the edges. Lacking a proposal to take on the systemic crisis he’s exposed, he turns to ways to ameliorate, rather than to cure.

And yet the heart of the film rumbles deeper, reverberating radical suggestions, even as the film-maker himself can’t bear to speak them aloud. Put simply, the film implies that what the USA has is not just a ‘gun problem’ but a white racist empire capitalism problem, the trend in gun violence being but a symptom of a deeper malady.

Towards Mo(o)re Radical Questions

Moore starts by taking aim at cliché answers spouted by pop-experts. He complicates or refutes prevailing ‘explanations,’ particularly those that would lay the blame for US gun violence on one or another form of ‘youth culture,’ from heavy metal music, to violent Hollywood movies, or video games. As he points out, such youth culture is tremendously popular in many other countries, without the associated gun violence. (As he further implies, such anti-youth hostility may in fact itself be part of what pushes some young people over the edge.[v])

More surprisingly, Moore then challenges the idea that access to guns alone can explain the gun death rate. Notably, he points out that Canadians are in the same ballpark as Americans when it come to the sheer number of guns, and yet they lack anything like the gun-murder rate of the USA. As his hounding of NRA President Charlton Heston makes clear, Moore certainly does not dismiss the problematic implications of easy gun access—nor should we.  But his focus is not so much on why it is dangerous for Americans to have guns lying around as it is on why it is so dangerous for Americans to have guns lying around. The difference is key: Moore is more interested in diagnosing the danger posed by American psycho-sociality than he is in the dangers of guns per se. Here and elsewhere, the radical edge of Moore’s approach involves revealing how what appears at first to be fundamentally at odds with “normal American society” is in fact an unacknowledged product or reflection of that society, its ideologies, institutions, and standard practices.

Report from Inside ‘Whacko’ White America

Moore opens the film with an autobiographical review of his own “gun country” roots, including a montage of childhood hunting photos and marksmanship trophies. As if to disarm skeptical viewers on the look-out for liberal elitism, he points out that he is from the same state as Charlton Heston and the Michigan Militia, that he graduated high school the same year as (Oklahoma City bombing suspect) James Nicholls, and that he is a long-time member of the National Rifle Association.

Nonetheless, Moore spends a good amount of time mocking the ridiculousness of his gun country cousins, just as he directs considerable indignation at the NRA for its complicity and callousness in the wake of Columbine. Indeed, much of this up-close-and-personal footage is shocking, humorous, or moving, so much so that it can exert a kind of gravitational pull away from closer, deeper analysis. The superficial viewer may cling to the bombastic NRA rhetoric of Charlton Heston or the whacky apocalyptic talk of James Nicholls as a way of avoiding deeper issues that strike at more mainstream American idols and ideologies, such as, say, US imperial foreign policy since World War Two, or the bipartisan ruling class assault known as “welfare reform” (more about both below).

Such a tension between zany or personalized content (on the one hand) and more sustained radical analysis (on the other) runs through much of Michael Moore’s work. And there are dangers here. Such freak scenes can steal the show, dragging discussion down to the level of personalized moralizing. But approached critically, they can serve as the humorous hook that enables rather than disables more penetrating social analysis—including a meta-analysis of how sensationalizing extreme cases can stifle more serious social critique. After all, zooming in on “extremists” in such a way as to suppress consideration of the “normal” horrors presided over and prepared by mainstream American institutions (and often by Democratic politicians) is hardly unique to Michael Moore.  It is a mainstay of contemporary liberal ideology, a fact which makes Moore’s symptomatic sensationalism all the more crucial to unpack.

But what makes Bowling for Columbine worth close attention is that it does not rest with blaming “gun nuts” or the “gun lobby” for the violent horror show of American society, though the lazy or liberal viewer might come away thinking so. We may laugh when Moore gets Oklahoma City bombing suspect James Nicholls— a man who sleeps with a loaded .44 magnum under his pillow and takes an absolutist stance on the 2nd Amendment— to admit that, yes, “There’s whackosout there,”  —after all, who could be more of a “whacko” than he is? But there is an uncanny, familiar quality to the Nicholls brother’s reasoning. For if the surest sign of being a “whacko” is the fervent belief that “there are whacko out there,” then isn’t so-called “mainstream America” as “whacko” as they come? Isn’t the predominant cultural narrative of our society, post-9/11, as fed to us by pundits and politicians alike, precisely that “there are whacko out there” and that the continued existence of such “whackos”—ISIS terrorists being perhaps the latest example—necessitates an aggressive US military and police state, armed to the teeth and ready to kill? Isn’t this entire society taught to sleep with a .44 magnum under its pillow? Read against the grain of its laugh lines, Bowling suggests that “normal America” is not nearly so far from “whacko” James Nicholls as it might like to think.[vi]

A bit later in the film, Moore interjects a brief cartoon history of the USA—narrated by a talking bullet —depicting white America as dominated by a version of James Nicholls’ mantra. Americans here appear as a people driven to homicidal madness by their fear of the “other,” driven to stockpile arms and to commit mass violence out of a mix of racist paranoia, ignorance, and pecuniary interest. Crucially, this cartoon history decodes America’s “gun culture” as deeply entwined with the country’s legacy of white supremacy, noting that Samuel Colt invented the revolver in response to slave rebellions of the early 19th century, that the NRA was founded the very year that the KKK was made illegal (1871), and that one of the first gun control laws passed in the United States focused on making it illegal for the newly emancipated Black people to own one. White Americanness stands revealed as a normalized form of the “Whacko” syndrome, the spread of gun ownership as a means for controlling a potentially rebellious Black population.

Against such a backdrop, the extreme actions of Columbine killers—or the recent church murderer in Charleston[vii]—no longer look so alien; their actions are symptomatic of broader, deeper social sickness.

Sympathy for the Devil

While forcing us to face the horror of the Columbine killers actions—including poignant footage of the events and their aftermath — Moore makes a remarkable effort to try to understand what may have driven them to such murderous ends, considering the bullying and the fear of failure that haunts so many young people in the USA today. Perhaps the most poignant example of sympathy comes when Moore interviews ‘shock rocker’ Marilyn Manson, himself the subject of scapegoat smears in the wake of the Columbine massacre. (Allegedly the shooters were fans of his music.) Asked by Moore what he would have said to the two boys had he had a chance to speak with them, Manson replies that he “wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they had to say. And that’s what no one did.”” His sensitive eloquence refutes those who would lay Columbine blood at his stage.

Manson also shows some smarts, offering Moore an alternative theory for who may have influenced Eric and Dylan to turn to violence to solve their problems: then President Bill Clinton, who was launching missile attacks on the former Yugoslavia the very same day that that boys attacked their school. “Who’s a bigger influence [on youth], the president, or Marilyn Manson?” Manson asks, “I’d like to think me, but I’m going to go with the President.” Moore supports Manson’s contention by showing then-President Clinton giving two press conferences on April 20, 1999, just one hour apart.  In the first, Clinton announces that the US is bombing Serbia, “striking hard” at the enemy regime, justifying an attack that—as Moore shows—would in fact level a number of civilian targets, including a hospital and a primary school. In the second, Clinton professes shock and horror at the news coming out of Littleton, Colorado, where bullets ripped through Columbine High. The greater, state-sponsored violence is endorsed without batted eye. The smaller scale horror of the school shooting fills those killer eyes with tears.

Here, in one unforgettable scene, we strike upon two radical aspects of Moore’s work at once: first, his humanizing of those considered outcasts or monsters within dominant culture; second, his estranging of the ruling ‘common sense’ that allows Americans to accept and even to support the mass killing of people in one context while expressing horror and hysterical sadness at similar killing in another.

Crucial here is American ideology’s construction of a line between “us” and “them,” a line between those whom it is “ok” to kill and maim and those it is not. Drawn from the toxic well of racism and nationalism, it is a line that depends on a double delusion: not only the fiction that some lives matter more than others, but the fantasy that what is allowed on one side of the sacred line will stay on that side of the line, that what happens to “them” will not boomerang back on “us.”[viii]

It is Michael Moore’s suggestion that the Columbine massacre represents just such a bloody boomerang.  And we might say the same of other mass killings since.

Beyond the Innocence of Empire

The hypocrisy runs deeper than Bill Clinton’s bombing orders. Bowling explores empire and militarism as a structuring presence in “normal American” life, reminding us, for example, that a quarter of the planes that dropped bombs on Iraq during the slaughter of the first Iraq War took off from Oscoda, Michigan, the location of a military base where Eric Harris lived with his bomber-pilot father for years before the massacre.  Moore’s review of the South Metro Denver area near the shooting includes not just golf courses and pristine white suburbs, but nuclear missile silos, bomb manufacturing plants, and—perhaps most sobering— actual monuments to mass murder, such as Nixon’s “Christmas Bombing” of Vietnam in 1971. In particular, Moore lingers over the fact that the largest employer in Littleton, Colorado, where the Columbine shooting happened, was Lockheed-Martin, USA’s #1 arms manufacturer. Might it be possible that kids in Americaare influenced by the fact that their parents’—and their society’s–idea of “going to work” involves manufacturing weapons of mass destruction to drop on people?

The nature of the ‘influence’ at work here need not be conceived as a simple ‘monkey see-monkey do’ theory of military mimicry. More reasonable is to understand USAmerican tendencies towards violent response to ‘problems,’ ‘threats,’ or ‘enemies’ as partaking of a similar reactive structure, one grounded in an ignorance of history and an obtuseness to social context. Such a mentality makes violence—whether in the form of “crime” or of “terrorism”— appear as an inexplicable, terrifying, almost other-worldly presence, an alien entity incapable of being understood, an “evil” in need of violent annihilation. In this regard, Moore’s treatment of 9-11 is particularly stunning.[ix]

The film strips America’s 9-11 of its exceptionalism and its “innocence,” confronting us with the brutal effects of US military interventions abroad, from the 1950s to 2001, as well as with the pervasive American ignorance to this crucial history. Most immediately, the montage of statistics and graphic images that fills the unforgettable “What a Wonderful World” sequence  starkly contradicts the claims of a Lockheed-Martin representative that Moore interviews in Littleton. The company rep claims that the weapons Lockheed builds aren’t meant to be dropped on people, but merely to “defend us” from others who intend harm against us—thus they could not of course be teaching kids to resort to aggression. Set to Louis Armstrong’s bittersweet classic, the post-WW2 montage makes mincemeat of the notion that US foreign policy has been “defensive” in this way, showing us, in two minutes, more footage of US-sponsored massacres—from Latin America to Southeast Asia to the Middle East—than most Americans have probably seen in their entire lives.

Beyond refuting the myth of America the Innocent, the “What a Wonderful World” sequence outlines a causal chain that starts to make 9-11 itself intelligible, an outline that most Americans lack, and suffer for the lack of. One can hardly understand the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon without recourse to absolutist notions of “evil” unless one has some grasp of the events Moore reviews: the US’s role in overthrowing Mossadeq and re-installing the Shah in Iran, its role in supporting Bin Laden and like-minded Islamic radicals in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, its brutal attacks on Iraq both during and after the first Gulf War. Reframing 9-11 in relationship to US regime toppling, invasions, bombings, sanctions, and covert funding schemes that have all in various ways worked to undermine democracy and to inflame fundamentalism, the film reframes what official US ideology presents as an attack on “our way of life” as rather an expression of that so-called way of life. What those in the biz call “blowback.”

Inflaming the Wound: the problem of the media (and the state)

As pervasive as gun violence in the US is, the problem is distorted and inflated by the corporate mass media, with its mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads.” As an acadmic expert Moore interviews points out, even during periods when violent crime has been decreasing (by 20%), US media coverageof violent crime continues to climb at a dramatic rate (by 600%). The disconnect between reality and broadcast perception is alarming.[x]

Bowling thus makes much of the role corporate news media play in inflaming a fearful, even paranoid, mentality among USAmericans. Marilyn Manson again serves as our unlikely guide, denouncing what he calls a “campaign of fear and consumption.” Commercial media prey upon public fears, keeping people glued to their tubes and consuming products as the “solution” to their never-ending (media-amplified) anxieties. Within this basic framework, Moore spotlights the particular ways that racism and demonization of the poor and non-white structure and fuel this continual campaign of fear, a fear that stokes not only individual spending on guns and home security systems, but also government spending on military contracts (and, we should add, increasingly militarized police). Thus do corporations and politicians alike profit from the very fears they help induce.

Crucial here is Moore’s examination of the show COPS, a vanguard program when it comes to the business of criminalizing and demonizing Black and Hispanic, poor and working-class people.[xi] The idea of blaming such a show for spreading racist images of Black and Brown people is hardly new.   Still, in interviewing a former producer of COPS, Dick Herlan—a self-identified “liberal”—Moore reaches beyond the low hanging fruit.   Pitching the TV exec a catchy idea for a show called “Corporate Cops,” which would feature camera-accompanied police going after white-collar corporate criminals, Moore is told by the producer that while he’d like to see such a show made, it “won’t make for good television.” Why not? Moore counters. Surely millions of Americans would love to see the boss busted on TV after a hard day at work, right? Because, the producer adds, the police don’t go after corporate crooks aggressively in a way that would make for good live action. As he points out, the cops treat people who steal $83 worse than those who steal $83 million. The latter they are likely to treat with patience and respect, whereas the former they will physically assault and slam to the ground—maybe even shoot dead.

The interview moves us from blaming the disproportionate criminalization of poor Black and brown people primarily on racially biased media to blaming this slant in media on the class-biased nature of the state itself. Without letting the networks off the hook for cashing in on sensational images of often racialized violence, Bowling thus presents us with the possibility that US media images are less the cause than the effect of a police system that tolerates and enables the abuses of the rich, but wages televised war against the poor. In showing such “criminality” stripped of context, the media effectively help the state to encourage more fear, disdain, and victim-blaming towards those who are not rich and white, teaching Americans to view one another through the eyes of COPS. But the media is dancing to a tune called by the state.

Returning to Flint: Historicizing Homicide

Nowhere is Moore’s criticism of both the state and the news media more acute than near the very end of the film, when he returns to his own hometown of Flint, Michigan, to cover yet another school shooting, this one the youngest yet in US history. Moore explores the social-economic forces that set the stage for tragedy, while condemning the commercial media for its systematic neglect of the context that makes such violence legible.

While the mass media descend on Flint, anchored to the site of the shooting, holding ribbons for the young white victim, six year-old Kayla Brown, Moore puts the killing in fuller context. Paying tribute to Kayla’s memory, his camera then wanders down the road, away from the immediate scene of the crime. He links the seven year-old boy killer’s act to facts the mass media ignore: his being left alone at his uncle’s house (where he found the gun that he took to school without his mother’s knowledge); his mother’s eviction from her previous apartment for lack of rent money; her being compelled to take an early morning bus to work multiple jobs out of town; her poverty wages working for Dick Clark’s American Restaurant; the privatized “welfare to work” program that compelled her to wage-labor in the first place, a program being pushed and profited from by corporations such as…Lockheed Martin. The Buell elementary school shooting comes to stand not as an example of simply bad behavior or poor parenting, but of racialized class exploitation that separates mothers from their children in order to produce cheap wage labor for corporations and their celebrity collaborators—kids be damned. “Welfare reform” (signed into law we should recall, by Democratic President Bill Clinton) stands revealed as a regime of child neglect, as deadly for communities as it is profitable for the likes of Dick Clark and Lockheed.

Moore then adds a brief social history of Flint, Michigan, picking up threads he had woven through his breakthrough film Roger and Me (1989) more than a decade earlier. The scene of the crime in Flint, as Moore recasts it, extends not just to the household of the boy-shooters’ mother, Tamarla Owens, but to the doorstep of the then-largest corporation in America, General Motors, a company that in the 1980s shuttered factories that sustained whole communities, creating massive unemployment and poverty in order to make a bigger killing someplace else. Moore historicizes the homicide, showing how economic devastation and social despair have brought this once hopeful and prosperous city to a state where shootings are the leading cause of death, and the local high school football stadium is sponsored by a funeral home. Though he closes the film by shaming Charlton Heston and the NRA for rallying nearby in the wake of the school shooting, Moore’s more radical insight is that the death of Kayla Brown is to be laid at the foot of corporate America, and those who serve it.

Moore does not utter the fundamental point aloud. Nonetheless, it would not be too much to say that Bowling for Columbine lays the blame for both the Columbine and the Buell school shootings at the foot of militarized, racist American capitalism. The particular causal chain that pulls the trigger varies in each case. But the kids in the post-industrial wreckage of Flint and in the booming family-friendly suburbs of Littleton alike stand linked, to each other, and to a system that has dealt them death so that others may profit.

Conclusion: Confronting America’s Home-Made Monstrosity

Americans who open fire on their peers, neighbors, classmates, and teachers offer us the opportunity and the impetus to grapple with a contradiction at the heart of the USA. For what are these “mad men” doing but applying the approved and honored teachings and techniques of American civilization…just in the ‘wrong place’ and against the ‘wrong people’?  In ‘monstrously’ mis-directing the kind of mass violence that official American ideology incessantly sanctions—so long as it is directed against officially designated ‘terrorists’ abroad or ‘criminals’ at home— these killers confront us with the possibility that America will never be safe so long as it continues to traffic in fear, mass destruction, and racism as national religion and big business.  Not only because terrorists from elsewhere will seek revenge for American crimes, but because home-grown wannabe American gunslingers see enemies around every corner.  The point holds up in 2018, in the wake of massacres perpetrated by a US Marine veteran and an avowed white supremacist who apparently perceived his act of aggression as an act of “self-defense” for his (white) “nation”.

Such monstrous massacres stand revealed in Moore’s account as symptoms of a deeper malady. And this deeper malady cannot be dealt with by addressing issues of gun laws or domestic policies alone–though gun control laws must certainly be part of the solution.  But Bowling for Columbinecalls for more than that: it calls for the dismantling an empire that makes not only murderous weapons but the ideologies that justify their use as common here as the air we breathe. It calls, too, for challenging a capitalist disorder that puts the profits of corporations ahead of the needs of families, children, and communities, as well as a media-police state that makes our social atmosphere so toxic. Revealing Americans as both the perpetrators and the victims of the violence of empire capitalism, the film offers a rare chance to clear the air, to reclaim our humanity. More than just another anti-gun diatribe to arm liberals in the face of conservative extremists, Bowling for Columbine sketches the basis on which we might unite a truly massive movement across all sorts of inherited borderlines—a movement to dismantle the bloody system that rules in our name.


[ii] Of course one complicating aspect here is that of media amplification; the eye-ball hunting 24-hour news cycle’s credo of “if it bleeds it leads” may give us an inflated picture of how often such attacks occur. It can be difficult to distinguish the actual gun violence trend from the trend in media coverage of gun violence, a theme that Bowling for Columbine is very much concerned with. For an insightful recent treatment of the media image vs. empirical reality of gun violence in the US see Chase Madar’s recent review in The Baffler, “Have Gun, Will Liberate.”

[iii] “There have been 204 mass shootings — and 204 days — in 2015 so far” by Christopher Ingraham, July 24, 2015:

[iv] For a provocative and insightful analysis of recent mass shootings and their cultural reception, see Ingar Solty, “Dear Left, the NRA is Right—the Mass Shooter as High Achiever,” in Socialism and Democracy. Vol. 6. No. 3. November, 2012.

[v] Moore explores this issue in particular through his interview with South Park co-creator, and Columbine High School graduate, Matt Stone: . For a sharp critique of the culturalization and pathologization of mass shooters, see Ingar Solty:

[vi] A similar moment, easy to laugh at but harder to own, comes when Moore interviews a number of troubled (white) young men in Oscoda, Michigan. Informed by one young man that he was at one point ranked as the “#2” threat on the “bomb list” by Oscoda police, Moore asks the man if he knew who was “#1,” prompting the young man to admit that he felt regret, even years later, for not having made it to “#1.” He “wanted to be #1 at something, even if it was the bomb threat list.”   It’s a moment we are meant to laugh at, and yet it’s one that we ought to recognize as pointing to a growing cultural tendency, namely the existential longing for officially recognized celebrity status in a late capitalist society increasingly bled dry of stable meaning or secure employment alike.

[vii] We should recall that Dylann Storm Roof chose as his target the legendary site where Denmark Vessey is thought to have planned his ill-fated slave revolt of 1820. As one of the Columbine survivors in Bowling recalls, the high school shooters killed at least one classmate “because he was black.”

[viii] For the latest mass monument to such racist-imperialist ideology, see last year’s Hollywood blockbuster, American Sniper (2014).

[ix] For my review of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 see Cultural Logic’s 2004 issue.

[x] Again, I refer to Chase Madar’s insightful review of this topic at The Baffler

[xi] As others have noted, poor whites also feature prominently in the show, a point that often gets skirted.


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