Monday, November 17, 2008

On Erasing Culture

I have been thinking about the relationship between war and the elimination of “difference” for a number of years now, especially in light of what happened to Italian American culture when home-front restrictions and internments were imposed on 600,000 Italian immigrants during World War II. I have written elsewhere about how this “shaming” of an entire culture affects cultural retention. A recent reading of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007) has given new breadth and power to these thoughts. In particular, Klein’s description of the plans and machinations of Paul Bremer on behalf of the Bush Administration and its corporate cronies in Iraq makes plain that, far from being random, the attempt to debase the culture of an invaded country, and replace it with an entirely new culture is part of an overall scheme with clear methods in mind, and well-articulated and profitable end states envisioned.

First, it is necessary to understand what Klein posits as the conceptual notions underlying such plans. Briefly, they are the notions advanced by one of the most strangelovian psychologists ever to don a doctorate, Dr. Ewen Cameron of Canada. Cameron, supported for years by a CIA which found great promise in his ideas for their growing programs of torture, was the one who initiated the program he called “de-patterning” as a method of “curing” his mental patients. His idea was that by using electroshock therapy and isolation boxes, he could interrupt a patient’s “time and space image” by upsetting both sensory input (isolation) and memory (electroshock). This was meant to break down an individual so that he could be regressed to an infantile state, and then remade on a better mental model. To accomplish this “rejuvenation,” Cameron would often administer shock treatments as often as twice a day for thirty days—sometimes administering as many as 360 electric shocks to a single patient’s brain. As to the success of such “therapy,” a study by his own institute, the Allen Institute in Canada, found that 75% of his former patients were worse off after treatment than before.

Despite this dismal record, neither the CIA—in designing its own torture program—nor the Bush Administration—in applying it to whole countries—seems to have been discouraged. Rather, they found the idea of de-patterning and re-patterning on a newer and brighter template quite captivating. This is revealed by what Klein describes of the American plan for Iraq. The plan was first to shock the Iraqi people with, naturally, “schock and awe” aerial bombing, follow it with subsequent culture shocks, and then remake the whole country’s economy on a fresh “free-market” model. (This plan, not incidentally, was also used in countries such as Chile, the former Soviet Union, and many others, but nowhere as purely and savagely as in Iraq.) As Klein puts it, “the initial bombardment was designed to erase the canvas on which the model (corporatist) nation could be built.” Indeed, the comparisons to shock therapy and sensory deprivation are explicit: “the bombing was designed to take out the eyes (electricity) and ears (phone system) of Baghdad...the entire city was (thus) shackled and hooded. Next it was stripped” (pp 333-35). The stripping, of course, took the form of allowing 80% of Iraq’s National Museum to be ransacked. This theft of Iraq’s soul (and since Baghdad is considered the mother of Arab culture, of soul of the entire Arab world) was as much a part of the plan as the subsequent pillaging of state property. In this way, not only was Baghdad’s cultural heritage (the oldest in the civilized world) raped, but its public sector, once the finest in the entire Middle East, was also dismantled. Incredibly, Bremer and the Bush administration actually believed that they were bringing something superior to these deprived desert rats. For as Klein points out, in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, interrogators used “Pringles” as a way to soothe prisoners, thinking that this American high-tech junk food would amply compensate them for the torture they endured. This was the plan for Iraq as well: “terrorize the entire country, deliberately ruin its infrastructure, do nothing while its culture and history are ransacked, and then make it all ok with an unlimited supply of cheap household appliances and imported junk food” (p. 339). And so, almost immediately after he arrived, Bremer declared that Iraq was “open for business,” and proceeded to institute a series of proclamations to totally privatize Iraq’s 200 state companies, invite American corporate cronies in to share in the bonanza, lower taxes for them to 15%, and of course, put millions of Iraqis out of work. And best of all, foreign investors could take 100% of their Iraqi profits out of the country. In return, Iraqis would get a Pringle-rich economy and culture: Burger Kings, cheap consumer products, American entertainment and values.

We all know by now how well this worked. It led directly to what American officials called the “insurgency.” In truth, the insurgents were the Iraqi people saying “no” to the theft of their country. But here, the lesson is not in the results, but rather in the paradigm. The paradigm, I believe, is the wiping out or erasure of cultures—be it the culture of a nation conquered in war, the culture of a nation with whom the United States wishes to “trade,” or the culture of groups of people the United States wishes to assimilate—in order to soften them for the remodeling that is desired. Examples from U.S. history abound.

The first one that springs to mind is Native American culture. Just last night, a KQED program about the Navajo, “The Long Walk: Tears of the Navajo,” featured unforgettable photos of Indians at the boarding schools they were forced to attend, their hair cut short, their faces grim and chiseled, their bodies clothed not in traditional attire but in tight-fitting military uniforms. Administrators were quoted as saying they had to erase all sign of the Indians’ previous culture, including the languages they were forbidden to utter, in order to remake them as good Americans.

The same was done to African slaves brought to the pre-Civil War South. Families were separated, all signs of their previous culture were extirpated, and all forms of cultural grouping or cultural retention were suppressed in order to avoid any possibility of organized resistance to the gruesome existence the southern economy required of its slaves.

What is not so well accepted is the extent to which this same process applies to ordinary immigrants. This is probably due to the fact that most immigrants, in order to improve their economic or political lot, voluntarily make the wrenching decision to leave their homelands and settle in the United States. But the truth lurks beneath the surface. Those who expect to thrive in the United States quickly learn that retention of the old culture carries with it certain disadvantages—disabilities associated with foreign ways of speaking, foreign ways of viewing the world, foreign customs concerning the debts owed to families or friends or co-villagers. In other words, they learn about culture shock.

It is war, however, and the culture shock it brings, which paints the dynamics of culture abandonment into high relief. In this, the Italian immigrants during WWII are a good type case. On Dec. 8, 1941, those who had not yet obtained full American citizenship were classified by Executive Order 2527 as “enemy aliens.” This meant that their rights were forfeited: they could be rounded up, searched, arrested, and deported with no further authority. They could be restricted as to travel and possessions, as well as excluded from certain areas. In California, this exclusion took place when the Department of Justice set up “prohibited zones” from which all enemy aliens had to evacuate: along the coast, inside San Francisco Bay, and near sensitive installations. And of course, the enclaves called “Little Italies” (the Italian immigrants, up to that point, called them “colonies”), where Italian was spoken, and where Italian culture and mores more or less thrived, were investigated and raided and searched and kept under suspicion. “Don’t Speak the Enemy’s Language” warned a poster, and thousands of families and commercial establishments suppressed their native tongue in response, many of them forever.

The most vivid expression of this cultural suppression came in May of 1942 during the Assembly hearings on UnAmerican Activities in California held in San Francisco by what came to be known as the Tenney Committee. There, an exchange made quite clear what many in government had in mind for these Italian colonies: the erasure of their traditional culture. It came in an exchange between committee-member Kellems and a witness from the Italian community itself, Gilbert Tuoni:

TUONI: As I was saying to you before, gentlemen of this committee, the best thing is to close the papers, close the Italian broadcasting, reorganize or close the Italian organizations, they are poison—this is the time that the Italians should come into the American family…
KELLEMS: It is your opinion—or rather, I should say conviction—that there are a special group of people whose culture and background is so different from ours, and I think we do admit it is radically different—
TUONI: (Interrupting) Yes.
KELLEMS: (Continuing)—and it will only be possible for them to forget that only if they will enter the American way of life—
TUONI: (Interrupting) They will.
KELLEMS: (Continuing)—and I believe they will. Is it not your feeling that instead of persisting generation after generation teaching these things, creating a Little Italy here, that they will only find their own happiness and strength by forgetting…?

Thus did the Tenney Committee put into words what the federal government had already put into action: Italian Americans had to prove their loyalty. The way to do that was to FORGET—forget what they knew, forget who they were. In short, the wartime provided a shock to the Italian community powerful enough to induce them to regress—to forget the culture they had grown up with once and for all—and then replace it with American culture and values. And though for Italian and German and Japanese immigrants, the war with their mother countries provided an exceptionally dramatic occasion for cultural erasure, the same is true, to a lesser and slower degree perhaps, for all immigrants to the United States. Forget what you were; become all you can be, i.e., American.

The question that has always haunted this paradigm is: why? Other than bigots, who benefits, and how, from a cultural makeover? Naomi Klein’s description of the shock doctrine provides the answer: Pringles. Pringles, as used by the U.S. military, symbolizes and essentializes the program. First, when someone retains and remembers and clings to the values of his own culture, he maintains a structure for resistance. Knowing who he is and what he stands for, can strenghten the courage to resist. If he can remain in a group of like-minded people, that resistance will be even more powerful. If, on the other hand, he can be de-patterned, and re-patterned on a new model, and then isolated from comrades, he will be merely an individual, on his own in opposing overpowering force. He will become malleable. He can then be re-educated in the ways and mores and values of the new culture. Pringles. He can be induced, in short, to believe that being a consumer is the key to the highest human values. To be able to buy an endless array of consumer goods and services—TV sets bigger and better than all others, cars that symbolize status, homes and clothes and foods that mimic the highest social strata—is to approach the summit of human happiness, the reason for which humans are born. And those who produce these “goods,” those who reckon the health of a culture by the always accelerating Gross Domestic Product that measures how many more useless needs are created, smile in the background, their profits intact, their share of the GDP growing ever larger.

In sum, as long as the populace has been stripped of all resistance to such a hijacking of the human drive for ultimate good, as long as it can be diverted from any notion of sensory or cultural or mental recovery, as long as it can be convinced that its well-being depends on its continually hyped-up desire for newer and glitzier toys, the profitable game can go on. For those in on the game, the erasure of culture is a negligible price to pay.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Governator Goes Regressive

California’s “grade-B” Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has just announced his solution to the state’s fiscal crisis: a steep increase in the Sales Tax. The Governator, who swept into office in a recall election on the basis of his allegedly superior skill at balancing the state budget, has never been able to balance it at all. In the past, he has resorted to borrowing via huge bond issues whose billions will need to be paid off for decades. Now he has proposed a 1.5% increase in the state sales tax, as well as upwards of $2 billion in cuts to the education budget. This hews to his conservative bias: when the state needs a bailout, go regressive, making the poor and middle classes pay.

Here is how that works. In 1913, the United States finally agreed that the Gilded Age had to come to an end. The conspicuous wealth of titans like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie, living in their munificent palaces, contrasted too visibly with the lives of the poor barely able to eke out a living in city slums. It also made a mockery of the nation’s creed about “equality.” The 16th Amendment, therefore, legalized a tax on individual income. The tax rate was modest, with the top bracket paying a rate of only 7% of their income. Then, in 1917 during WWI, the rate for the top earners rose to 67%. Income tax had thus become notably “progressive,” the idea being that those who earned the most, and therefore derived the most from government services, should also contribute the most. This was seen as the only fair way to tax. Of course, the wealthy never fully accepted this, and by 1929 they had lobbied successfully enough with Republican administrations to get the top tax rate down to 24%. Then the economic roof caved in. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to mitigate the vast inequality that had set in before the Depression, then raised the top tax rate to 63% in 1933. With the coming of the Second World War, the need for government expenditures for arms and men led to an even higher top rate of 94% by 1944. The top rate remained high throughout the next decades, lowering some to 70% in the 60s.

Then came the Reagan revolution, with its free-market ideology and its theory of “trickle-down” economics, which said that when the rich do well, the benefits trickle down to the rest of us. Accordingly, Reagan lowered the top rate to 50% and then to 38.5%, and George H.W. Bush lowered that to 31% in 1992. His son, George W. kept it at about the same level, 35% today. The result has been the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich in our history.

The point of all this, here, is that even with the radically unequal policies of the most die-hard neoconservatives in the Reagan-Bush administrations, the policy, if not the willingness, has remained firm that the wealthiest Americans should pay a progressively higher portion of their incomes in taxes than the poor and middle classes. The point is also that while income taxes, since their inception, have been graduated, or progressive—i.e. those with the highest income pay higher rates—sales taxes are REGRESSIVE. That is, every single person who buys a pencil or a book or a car or a TV set or shoes must pay the same percentage as a tax. The same tax rate. This, of course, means that when a wealthy person like the CEO of Google, with a personal fortune in the billions, pays a sales tax, its effect on his income is negligible. Like an elephant bitten by a mosquito, he hardly feels it. A middle class or poor person, however, feels the sting of the sales tax bite far more keenly. If he must pay an extra $8 for each hundred dollars he spends, and now an extra $1.50 on top of that, that $1.50 is a much higher percentage of his disposable income than it is for the wealthy person, who may barely notice an outlay under $100 or $1000 or even $100,000. In other words, for the rich, sales tax is barely an issue, while for the poor, it can make the difference between purchasing a needed item and going without.

It is for this reason that the sales tax is always the refuge of scoundrels like Governor Schwarzenegger. He knows he can get the rich to agree to it. He also knows that they would balk at any suggestion of an increase in their income tax, or, god forbid, in their property taxes. For in those areas, they would pay noticeably more than the poor. So where at one time, a popular mantra said “soak the rich,” in our time it has become “soak the poor.” And that is exactly what the Governator is proposing. For not only is he proposing an increase of 1.5% in the regressive sales tax (many areas will now have to pay over 10% in sales tax!), he is simultaneously proposing a reduction in expenditures for the public schools. And this is also regressive, and a key indicator of what conservative and Republican party policies have come to rely on. For the wealthy, who are the core constituency of Republicans, the public schools are already a matter of indifference, indeed, a bothersome drain on their finances. Most send their children to private schools in any case. Therefore, to let the public schools and those who rely on them wither and die suits them just fine. But there’s more. As Naomi Klein points out in her Shock Doctrine, the wealthy have now decided that they can privatize just about everything, including security services for their gated communities and, indeed, whole townships where they can live walled off from the nasty realities of the riff-raff who inhabit cities. With everything privatized, including companies to help them get away in case of natural disasters like hurricanes (which do not respect the gates that keep out the poor), they can live truly virtual, sanitized lives.

This withering away or privatizing of government services has been a key element in the conservative program of the last forty years. The latest proposal by California’s Governor fits right in with this program. It only remains to be seen if the Democrats, who control the majority in the California legislature, cave in once again to this latest heist, this blatant attempt to make the poor bear the burden once again, or if they wake up and say No. No way. No how. There is either going to be fairness, or there is going to be resistance, non-cooperation, and whatever else it takes to right the balance of power.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Coming of Obama

What a night. The pundits have all said it ad nauseam, but it’s worth repeating: this was an historic election victory, one putting, against all odds, a Black man for the first time into our Whitest of Houses. What follows are simply some observations and feelings garnered from watching the returns starting at 4 PM Pacific Time and on to the late news after Obama’s victory speech to a crowd of more than 500,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park.

Images: Jesse Jackson at Grant Park, tears rolling down his face, his hand to his mouth trying to control his emotions—no doubt a mix of absolute joy and disbelief and perhaps regret that this Black man had done it, done what he himself could not do in his try for the presidency in the 80s. Not far from him, Oprah Winfrey, also in tears at the sight of a man she had championed in his moment of triumph. And throughout the crowd there, and at dozens of other places throughout the country—Times Square and Harlem in New York, Oakland in California, and outside the White House itself—people of all colors shouting and jumping and pumping and weeping at the breadth and depth and sheer exhilaration of the victory of this man and this movement which had inspired so many to do so much to bring home the prize. And the relief: of being at last, free at last, from second-class citizenship to be sure, but also free from the frustration and criminality of a President who had, for this election season, become a pariah, a Bush animal skulking in back rooms and back alleys and literally afraid to show his face to an electorate and members of his own party that now found him so toxic it must have told him, bellowed at him, “Stay away. The shoe is now on the other foot. Where you have slandered and ostracized millions who disagreed with your wars, now you are the leper no one can even bear to be seen with.”

Maya Angelou. Interviewed on one of the major channels, the poet and Nobelist, after expressing her real emotion at the pride for her people in this, said something like: ‘At last, the American people have shown their willingness to elect someone with intelligence.’

Donna Brazile, not long ago Al Gore’s chief strategist and acting as a commentator for one of the networks. And she, more than once, mentioned this wonderful irony: It had been African Americans who built the steps to the White House; and now, an African American was going to actually reside in the White House.

John Lewis, the representative from Georgia, describing the scene inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King had begun his civil rights movement—a movement that Lewis himself had played a major part in—now filled with laughing, cheering, joyous, weeping people unable to believe that after all that had happened to them and their leaders, one was now the President-elect of the United States. And at about the same time, Andrew Young, another of King’s lieutenants in the civil rights struggle, near tears describing all that he and King and millions of others had been through to get the Voting Rights Act passed under Lyndon Johnson, and now, less than 50 years later, seeing all that work and struggle coming to fruition in this amazing election.

And all these references came rushing to the fore at the moment the President-elect took the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park, and one realized that here he was, out in the open, with bullet-proof panels of glass to each side, but with the stage open to the front where he spoke; and a knifeblade of fear raced through with the thought that this was still America, and that it was still possible that some crazy racist might try to take a shot at yet another Black man. Because after all, it had only been less than 50 years since the first of those horror scenarios erupted in Dallas, ending the presidency of another reviled young president, John F. Kennedy. And it had been even fewer years since Martin Luther King, on the cusp of becoming the real leader of the anti-war movement against the war in Vietnam, had been shot on a balcony in Memphis. And fewer than that when yet another Kennedy, Robert, had been poised to take the Democratic nomination for president to succeed Lyndon Johnson, and he, too, was shot and killed in the kitchen of a hotel in Los Angeles. And at about the same time, Malcolm X, yet another brilliant black leader beginning to stir masses of people with an even stronger message than King’s, also assassinated on the stage of a ballroom in New York’s Harlem. All these killings. All these wasted lives, radical progressive lives, cut short before they could come to fruition. And here, in Chicago’s Grant Park, was another life, a mythic Black life on an almost miraculous rise to power from near-obscurity, a political life coming to fruition on this near-miraculous election evening in the 21st Century, and the blood pumped fear that the mad, reactionary forces that seem endemic to America could do it again.

Perhaps that was why Obama’s speech seemed subdued. There were no pumping of fists in victory, no shouts of joy that “we did it” or “I did it when no one thought I could,” no hint even of gloating that many who thought it improbable that he could not only beat the Clinton machine, but also the residual resistance in this land to a black man getting too uppity, were wrong. Nothing of the sort. It was somber, that speech. As if mindful not only of the terrible road ahead, of the dangerous rocks and shoals in the way of any president being able to rescue the broken economy, the broken image of America in the world, of a military broken and bogged down by two wars, of a system that has grown rich and fat on cruelty and chicanery and outright theft and massive indifference to the suffering of “others,” not only that: but mindful as well of the risks that he, a Black man, took exposing himself here and continuously on like stages for the next four or eight years to the still festering resentment of those who would like nothing so much as to see him get his “comeuppance.” And he must have been mindful of it, for the networks told us all that though the Obama victory was sweeping, it had hardly dented the solid South. It was there that McCain racked up his only string of victories of the night. In Alabama and Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee and Louisiana and South Carolina and Texas and Kentucky and Oklahoma and once-bleeding Kansas, the polls showed conclusively that the white vote went for the Republican candidate by margins of 8 and 9 and 10 to 1. This was the core of the “southern strategy” evolved by Richard Nixon in 1972. Take advantage of that white resentment, the resentment of still unreconstructed southerners outraged at the rights being “given” to blacks, outraged at the northerners who came south to help get them those rights in the 60s, outraged at the “liberals” from New York who had presumed to enter their land and instruct them about rights and equality and about who had the right to sit where and eat and drink what. And vote. And that resentment, harnessed by Nixon and his followers in the Republican Party ever since, gave the minority party just the edge they needed to win four of the last six elections. And Obama knew it. And must have been mindful of it as he gave that subdued speech, emphasizing not victory but unity, not a new deal or any deal at all, but mostly coming together. It was, on some level perhaps, a plea, the same he has been making all along. We intend no major upheaval, no revolution, no attack on values. We mean only to implement a fair way to get the change America needs to get back on track. Whether it worked or not, whether it impressed that still-solid South, remains to be seen. But in Chicago, on this night of transcendent victory over the forces of unreason, that was the tone the winner struck.

And it capped what can only be called a remarkable night; a night and a campaign in which race came to the fore, but in such a way, and in such circumstances, that a huge majority of the country decided that perhaps it was time. Perhaps the time had come to put this most contentious of American conflicts behind us, at least for the moment, and let the more qualified candidate, the clearly more intelligent and compassionate and informed and humane candidate take the helm of a ship of state which eight years of greed and ignorance and criminal hubris have put on the rocks. And though it is clear that the coming of Obama is not the second coming that many hope it is, not by a long shot, it surely is a cause for relief and even joy that at long last, one long national nightmare is over, and a time of renewal, of renewed faith in community and service and the fine art of governance in its best sense may be at hand.

Lawrence DiStasi