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Fixing America?

by Berry Friesen (September 18, 2017)

During the ‘80s, I worked as a civil legal aid attorney for indigent men and women. Their legal claims concerned debt relief and access to health care, food and housing. *

More than any other time in my life, during that decade I contributed to the project of fixing America. I did this by making the rule of law available to people who could not afford to hire legal counsel.

Toward the midpoint of the ‘80s, I began to read Stanley Hauerwas, the Methodist scholar from Texas who wrote about Christian ethics via an Anabaptist perspective. I’ve never been quite the same since.

Though I was a member of an Anabaptist congregation, I was startled by what Hauerwas had to say. The Christian life, he said over and over again, is not about fixing America. Nor is it about getting to heaven or maximizing one’s potential as an individual to be a wonderful and creative person. Instead, it’s about embracing a communal experience—the church—incarnating an alternative way of living in the world.

Here are three Hauerwas quotes from that era.

“Christians must again understand that their first task is not to make the world better or more just, but to recognize what the world is and why it understands the political task as it does . . . Theologically, the challenge of Christian social ethics in our secular polity is no different than in any time and place—it is always the Christian social task to form a society that is built on truth rather than fear” (A Community of Character, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981 at 74).


“I am in fact challenging the very idea that Christian social ethics is primarily an attempt to make the world more peaceable or just.  Put starkly, the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church—the servant community . . . By being that kind of community, the church helps the world understand what it means to be the world.  For the world has no way of knowing it is world without the church pointing to the reality of God’s kingdom” (The Peaceable Kingdom, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983 at 99-100).


“To recover a sense of how Christian convictions may be true (or false) requires a recovery of the independence of the church from its subservience to liberal culture and its corresponding agencies of the state.  For without the distinctive community we call the church, there is no place for the imagination of Christians to flourish” (Against the Nations, Winston Press, 1985 at 6-7).

By the end of the ‘80s, I was sufficiently persuaded by Hauerwas that I left my legal practice and went to work for the church. I never returned to the practice of law.

Hauerwas became well known during the ‘90s. In 2001, Time magazine anointed him “America’s best theologian.”  Now, living in Scotland and near the end of his illustrious career, Hauerwas is still writing. His work can be counted as one of the sources of inspiration for the Benedict Option, the strategy of Christian renewal promoted by Rod Dreher.

Yet Hauerwas also is often sharply criticized (see here and here) and his message is out-of-step with current churchly emphases on affirmation, inclusion and the blurring of the line between the church and the world.

In a recent interview, Premier Christianity asked Hauerwas about his most famous quote—“the first task of the church is to make the world the world.” He replied:

“Years ago, at the outbreak of the first Iraq war, I was to give some lectures at the Washington cathedral for the continuing education of Episcopal clergy. I said, ‘I hope if President Bush came over here from the White House and wanted you to share the Eucharist with him, you wouldn’t commune with him.’ They said, ‘What? We’re people of grace!’ And I said, ‘But, how will he know he’s the world? How will he know that bombing human beings made him the world? He won’t know he needs forgiveness.’ That is what I mean by our task to ‘make the world the world’.

“I mean, read the Gospel of John. The light has come into the world to darken the world and help the world see the darkness, because it’s very hard in darkness to see darkness. And so it’s an ongoing discovery for us to define in what ways we are the world. So it’s not like the world is ‘out there’, and we Christians are OK. I mean, the world is in us, and how to discover it means you’re going to need the help of brothers and sisters in Christ.”
  
In the previous post at this blog, John asked us to consider assumptions of supremacy that are part of our American identity.  We’ve been marinated in those assumptions our entire lives; it’s silly to claim we haven’t absorbed them to some degree. Now what do we do?

Obviously, if we believe in a god, this is a place where we would look to him/her for help. Purging ourselves of the imperial assumptions we swim in each day isn’t the sort of thing we can do by ourselves; we need a power greater than ourselves—yes, greater than the empire.

Problem is, many of us have placed our faith in the god of America, the divine being who provides the blessings of freedom, liberty and choice.  Listen to Hauerwas from his 2013 essay, “The End of American Protestantism.”

“Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.”

If America is our church, then the god of that church is not likely to be of much help in subverting our assumptions of American supremacy.  And if we really want to be cleansed of such assumptions, we will need another god and another kind of church. Again, here is Hauerwas in the same essay.

“The (faithful) church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, ‘Christian.’ A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.”

Compared to American religion, this sounds narrow and restrictive, doesn't it? It's easy to see why Hauerwas' account of the Christian life can be perceived to be unattractive.

Yet the task of fixing America--and giving up all those war-producing claims to supremacy--remains. In the end, we have to choose: are we content to remain on the path we're on, or do we want a god who will save us from ourselves?
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*  Here are three of the reported cases in which I was involved: Cha v. Noot, Morrison v. Heckler, Dow v. Public Housing Authority.

White Supremacy, Anyone? American Supremacy, Everyone?

By John K. Stoner (September 15, 2017)

Speaking at the Riverside Church in April 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. upset many of his supporters.

“Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this [poverty] program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

Why upset?  Because King had included more in his condemnation of supremacy thinking than many of his contemporaries and supporters wanted him to include. King had undertaken to address America’s reach for global hegemony as well as its practice of white supremacy.

The purpose of this post is to critique the label and identity “American” in the same way we are critiquing (rightly, of course) the identity of "white" supremacy.

We cannot condemn “white supremacy” and give “American supremacy” a pass.

But it is popular, almost universally acceptable, to do just that.

King said it was time to break the silence on America’s war in Vietnam. Today it is time to break the silence on America’s “war on terror,” justified, legitimized and sanctified by 9/11 (did you celebrate that this week?), America’s war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, America’s endless wars, drone wars, preemptive wars, propaganda wars, wars that make the war profiteers rich (Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatamala, Texas, West Virginia, Korea, Iran, Lebanon, Vietnam,  Laos, Cambodia, Detroit, South Dakota). See Zoltman Grossman’sessay on US interventions written a month after the Twin Towers bombing in 2001. 


“The white supremacy that some of us see as more insidious is not reflected in the simple, stereotypical images of the angry, Nazi-saluting alt-righter or even Donald Trump. Instead, it is the normalized and thus invisible white supremacist ideology inculcated into cultural and educational institutions and the policies that stem from those ideas. That process doesn’t just produce the storm troopers of the armed and crazed radical right but also such covert true believers as Robert Ruben from Goldman Sachs, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Tony Blair and Nancy Pelosi -- 'decent' individuals who have never questioned for a moment the superiority of Western civilization, who believe completely in the White West’s right and responsibility to determine which nations should have sovereignty and who should be the leaders of 'lesser' nations.”    

Tom Engelhardt has been speaking to this in his Tomdispatch.com, publishing people like Ariel Dorfman and his essay, “How to Read Donald Trump.”

“Perhaps more crucial today is the cardinal, still largely unexamined, all-American sin at the heart of those Disney comics: a belief in an essential American innocence, in the utter exceptionality, the ethical singularity and manifest destiny of the United States.

“Back then, this meant (as it still largely does today) the inability of the country Walt was exporting in such a pristine state to recognize its own history. Bring to an end the erasure of, and recurring amnesia about, its past transgressions and violence (the enslavement of blacks, the extermination of natives, the massacres of striking workers, the persecution and deportation of aliens and rebels, all those imperial and military adventures, invasions, and annexations in foreign lands, and a never-ending complicity with dictatorships and autocracy globally), and the immaculate Disney worldview crumbles, opening space for quite another country to make an appearance.”

Anyone who has been reading this blog has seen reason enough to rest uneasy with the identity of “American.”  The behavior of the Empire which is condemned here cannot be condoned overseas.

American supremacy is in a class with white supremacy, and we will not get far toward a sustainable world until this is widely understood and acted upon.

Faking It

by Berry Friesen (September 11, 2017)

Last week, ConsortiumNews.com published “On the Brink of Nuclear War,” an essay by William R. Polk, veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor.

Polk began his career in 1955 as a professor at Harvard. He went on to serve in the Kennedy Administration’s State Department where he was a member of a Policy Planning Council helping Kennedy defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Polk has hard-won credibility and I encourage you to read his essay about the US and North Korea.

His analysis focuses on the gap between “the national interest”—which certainly rejects a nuclear weapons exchange—and the interests of the people in government making the decisions. He illustrates this gap with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when both President Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev were determined to avoid nuclear war, but each was under intense pressure from close associates who thought such a war was winnable.

Polk explains:

“We were lucky that at least Kennedy realized this dilemma and took steps to protect himself. What he did is not well understood so I will briefly summarize the main points. First, he identified General Lyman Lemnitzer, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), as the main hawk. Lemnitzer was pushing him toward a nuclear war and had shown his hand by presenting a ‘black’ plan (‘Operation Northwoods’) to be carried out by the JCS to trigger war with Cuba.

“[Curiously, ‘Operation Northwoods’ is hardly known even today. It was described by the eminent scholar on intelligence James Bamford in Body of Secrets (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 82 ff, as the ‘launching [of] a secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an-ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba.’ Provocations were to be manufactured: hijacking of aircraft, murders and the explosion of the rocket that was carrying astronaut John Glenn into space. Lemnitzer lied to Congress, denying the plan’s existence, and had many of documents destroyed. Although he was dismissed as chairman of the JCS by Kennedy, the organization he formed within the JCS continued to plan covert actions. It would have been surprising if Kennedy did not worry about a possible attempt on his government.]

“Apparently realizing that the plan could easily have been turned into a coup d’état, Kennedy removed Lemnitzer as far from Washington as he could (to Europe to be the NATO commander).”

Operation Northwoods?  Do you know about it?  Go back and read that paragraph again: “a secret and bloody war of terrorism (launched) against their own country in order to trick the American public . . .” It was designed to put the blame on Cuba, but was cooked up entirely by the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the leadership of General Lemnitzer.

Imagine what America would be like today if Kennedy had not uncovered Lemnitzer’s plot. It’s not hard to do; just consider what America has become since 9/11.

That’s right, like the plan Lemnitzer put together, I’m persuaded the terror attacks of 9/11 were scripted (“manufactured”) by insiders within the US government “in order to trick the American public.”

Since 9/11 we have been reaping the harvest of this deceit. We see it in continuous war, out-of-control Pentagon spending, a covert intelligence system that uses “national security” to eviscerate the protections of the Bill of Rights, a dysfunctional Congress, a corrupted media, a deep cynicism all across society about “truth,” an inexorable slide toward a police state.

This is not something to talk about if you fancy yourself “a cheerful person” or if you wish to be highly regarded by “important people.”  The entire subject has been effectively stigmatized. If you speak about it publicly, you will be shut out of important conversations and shunted to the side of public life.  Don’t blunder into this unless you are prepared to “lose your life,” as Jesus put it (Matthew 10:39).

This helps explain why we no longer see courageous leaders on the national stage. Only people who first swallow the deceit of 9/11 are given a turn at the microphone.

Want to know more?  Again, be forewarned:  learning about 9/11 entails not general essays such as this blog, but detailed, sometimes tedious materials such as one would expect from a fact-oriented investigation into an event that involves many moving pieces of a technical nature.

Here are a few up-to-date resources.

WTC7 Evaluation Progress Report:  Video presentation of the results to date of a two-year study by Dr. J Leroy Hulsey, Chair of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’ Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and two Ph.D. research assistants into the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7 on the afternoon of 9/11.

"Will the 9/11 Case Finally Go toTrial?" by Andrew Cockburn (Harpers, Sept.10, 2017), surveys the many obstructions erected to block the case against Saudi Arabia for financing intrnational terrorism and the 9/11 attacks.

9/11 in the Academic Community, a collection of nearly 30 peer-reviewed studies and papers prepared and published 2006-2017 by 9/11 researchers.

Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, the group leading the campaign for a new and independent investigation of the destruction of the three World Trade Center towers on 9/11.

Dig Within, the blog of researcher, Kevin Ryan. Ryan is a former senior manager with Environmental Health Laboratories, a subsidiary of Underwriters Laboratories Inc.

Bush and Cheney: How They Ruined America and the World by David Ray Griffin (Olive Branch Press, 2017).  Griffin is a Christian theologian distinguished by his work in process theology. His book discusses the world altering events that occurred 2000-2008 and closes with a brief summary of the “miracles” on 9/11 that energized and justified those events.

What should readers do with information gleaned from such resources? In my view, nothing in particular. What's important is that we understand our world--including the distortions required by the empire--and live accordingly.

A Season of Humiliation

by Berry Friesen (September 7, 2017)

“The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled
    and human pride brought low;
the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
 The LORD Almighty has a day in store
    for all the proud and lofty,
for all that is exalted:
 they will be humbled.”
                                                  Isaiah 2:11-12

Watching the evening news these days is spiced by moments of schadenfreude—pleasure I feel upon hearing of the troubles of our national politicians.

This is a guilty pleasure I feel; it is wrong to enjoy another’s distress, even when the distress is caused by the return of the chickens to their roost.    

Still, there also is a sliver of purity in my heart. It is what the Psalmist expressed: “O LORD, how long shall the wicked—how long shall the wicked—exult” (Psalm 94:3)?

Let’s start with the Republicans.

Donald Trump—the candidate Republicans chose to run for the White House—embodied the more bombastic policies and detestable tricks of the Grand Old Party. Much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment, Trump as President hasn’t toned-down those policies and tricks—he flaunts them.

So he calls for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and passage of a substitute that would cause over 20 million Americans to lose health insurance coverage. While Barack Obama was President, the Republicans in the House voted over 60 times to repeal the ACA.  But now with Trump in the White House, they can’t get the job done. It’s an embarrassment to them.

Or consider the DREAM Act, which proposes a pathway to permanent residency for people who entered the US illegally as children.  The legislation has been around for 16 years; Republicans have repeatedly blocked its passage. They even portrayed President Obama as a dictator for implementing some provisions of the Act via an administrative work-around called DACA.

Now their guy in the White House is ending the work-around, thus subjecting 800,000 US-educated residents to deportation.  Again, Republicans are embarrassed; Trump’s action is reflecting badly on them!

Then there’s the Republican strategy of using racist strategies and tactics to win elections. It’s been their standard operating procedure for decades.

And Trump?  He simply makes it all too obvious as he speaks disparagingly of people of Mexican descent, pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s federal conviction for contempt of court related to racially discriminatory law enforcement, and launches a voter fraud commission that extends the long-running Republican scheme of manufacturing phony voter fraud scenarios in order to drive down voter participation by African Americans.

Trump’s flamboyant disregard for common decency is a huge embarrassment for establishment Republicans.  Yet they will do nothing about it because impeachment would split the party down the middle (and most current Republican office-holders would never again be elected to public office). So they swallow their pride and endure their public humiliation.

And the Democrats?  Ample opportunities for the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude here too.  

They pose as the voice of everyday working people, but now have to live with the fact that their party leaders rigged the 2016 primary against Bernie Sanders, the “little guy’s” candidate.

As further embarrassment, their party ran a candidate for President who was more inclined to war and militarism than the bombastic Donald Trump. Imagine, Democrats are now more hawkish--more inclined to military intervention--than Republicans!

To hide their humiliation, Democrats have been peddling a phony Russia-stole-the-election story for nearly an entire year now, poisoning US relations with Russia.

Then there’s the embarrassment of California, where “Medicare for all” legislation has gone down to defeat despite having a Democrat as governor and Democrat super-majorities in both state houses.

As we contemplate this mess, here are two important threads to follow.

1. Humiliation is a strong emotion.  When not followed by repentance, it’s powerful enough to override sound judgment and rationality.  Few national leaders show any inclination toward repentance; most are fixed instead on changing the subject and restoring battered reputations. Their response makes this a volatile time because actions to divert national attention to external threats and national “crises” (e.g., violence and war) are very attractive.

During this time of national humiliation, we need to be especially alert to contrived emergencies. If national politicians attempt such, we must be quick to register our disbelief. This is the most effective form of political engagement I can imagine at the moment.

And Donald Trump?  As always, he is the wild card. His humiliation threshold is higher than anyone I can remember; I pray that will become a positive factor during this volatile time.

2. The second implication also has to do with where we put our time and energy as concerned citizens. Is it on electing better leaders to Congress? Or on electing effective leaders locally?

Imagine you are a civic-minded person with excellent people skills, a solid public reputation and the desire to do your part to fix our systemic problems. Do you run for Congress? Or work at things at the local level?

Going to Washington to fix anything looks more and more like a fool’s errand. Once you get there, you’ll be required to serve your time as a toady for party leaders who spend most of their energy mending the holes in tattered reputations and pretending to be something they’re not.

Beyond that dysfunction, there is the reality that Washington is a company town, owned lock-stock-and-barrel by Pentagon contractors, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and “intelligence” spooks with oh-so-scary stories and transcripts of every digital conversation you’ve ever had.

Perhaps we should focus on local leadership instead.

As for that pleasure we feel as the arrogant are humbled, let it pass quickly. This is a serious moment in our history; it’s important to be engaged.

Finding an Answer

by Berry Friesen (September 4, 2017)

The title of our book—If Not Empire, What?—poses the question clearly enough. But does the book provide an answer?

Living as we do within the belly of the beast, John K. Stoner and I are unlikely candidates to come up with an alternative to empire.  After all, part of what an empire does is consume and digest (break down) anything that hints of an alternative.  Along with the rest of you living in America, John and I experience this co-opting process constantly in our work, daily routines and the myriad media-driven debates that fill our thoughts and conversations.

So no, John and I did not come up with “an answer” to the question.

Those who live far from the center of the empire—geographically or spiritually—are better situated to imagine an alternative.

Thus, so-called rogue nations such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea*  give us worldviews and lifeways that are distinctive and surprising, in part because the empire has banished those nations to the margins, far from the usual discourse and exchange of “benefits.” The same could be said about the separatist Amish. These distant people and places can be sources of “an answer.”

For those already convinced the world would collapse without an empire to keep the lid on, the “answer” needs to be similar to what we have now, only better. You know, less violence, a more equitable distribution of goods and services and higher quality emperors, but still fully capable of holding back chaos and keeping the world working in coordinated fashion.

Of course, John and I have not described an alternative of that sort. Following as we do the core thread of the biblical texts, we reject the premise of the imperial worldview—that without a dominating power ruling the world through overwhelming violence, it will collapse into chaos and decline.  No, we haven’t even tried to offer that kind of “answer.”

The story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)—with its rejection of centralization and uniformity—is a cornerstone of our stance.  We contend that if we repent of our desire to dominate and yield to the compassion and just order of the god who made us (YHWH), we will experience a capacity to create, nurture and produce life-sustaining abundance. That is, out of the apparent chaos of thousands of uncoordinated responses, human creativity and cooperation will emerge to make a way.

But more to the point of this post, by pointing to the biblical record, our book suggests where to find “an answer” to the question of empire.  It’s the Bible with its prophetic texts, the teachings of Jesus and two very helpful historical alternatives—post-exilic Judaism and the Christian communities of the first century.  Both pursued a vision of shalom (community, security, reconciliation) rooted in a combination of religious tradition, present-day deliverance and commitment to YHWH.

So yes, notwithstanding the long history of compromise, collaboration and corruption between empire and Jewish and Christian religious institutions, our book makes the claim that we can find “an answer” to empire in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

I realize how little sense this makes in the West, where religion at its best is a free therapist and at its worst is the source of bigotry and ignorance.

Indeed, many here in the West seem not to understand what traditional religion does: elevate ancient wisdom in order to create and nurture a life free from the deceit and captivity imposed by today’s consensus.  Frederick Turner captured this blindness in his essay, “The Freedoms of the Past: On the Advantage of Looking Backward:”

“Our cultural myth is one of liberation, of the present breaking the shackles of the past. But what if it is the past that breaks the shackles of the present?”

It’s important to catch this point:  within the West today, few look to the religions of the past to offer them a different way for the world to work today.  It’s not even a passing thought. Instead, most insist that for religion to be worthwhile, it must add value to a life and worldview already fully formed by the empire.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t very successful. Unless it is odd, unless it is in honest tension with the empire, religion becomes pretty weak tea (e.g., god loves me, god loves you, let’s all love one another).  More and more people are concluding they don’t need it; pop music and walks in the park will do just as well.

So where do we go from here?

There’s not much that can be done to affect the playing out of the empire’s inexorable agenda. Nor is there much to be done in the short-term to convince an increasingly secular culture that ancient texts are potential sources of “answers” to modern problems of economics, social equality, governance and peacemaking.

What we can do as people of faith is reverse the narrowing of vision within our communities of faith. Bring back to active memory, in other words, that the religious traditions that formed us have this dynamic potential to break our bondage to today’s dogmas and life-threatening constrictions.

As an example of this narrowing of religious vision, consider the nationwide church in which I hold membership, Mennonite Church USA.  Traditionally, Mennonites have articulated an alternative to empire via a refusal to participate in the military; a commitment to mutual aid and service to the needy; and the practices of community accountability and servant leadership. Yet in recent years, this church has been declining rapidly due to controversies related to personal liberation and same-sex marriage. Just around the corner is further controversy related to “the gender revolution.” Traditionalists and progressives continue to go their separate ways over these matters, leaving a weakened, discouraged and less resilient church.

Aspects of these controversies affect the shalom of the community, are important and are not easily resolved. Yet other aspects are on the church’s agenda mainly because they're part of the empire's agenda. We need the skill—typically found most frequently among traditionalists—to tell the difference. And we need to hold these difficult controversies within a broader perspective that recalls our mandate to offer the world an alternative to empire.

Because without alternatives the world is lost. Do we really imagine the US-led empire has any answers?
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*  For perspective on the escalating tensions between the US and North Korea, see “North Korea Tests a New Nuke—Continues to Press for Negotiations,”  “What the Media Isn't Telling You about North Korea's Missile Tests” and “How History Explains the Korean Crisis.”

Celebrating Syria

by Berry Friesen (August 31 , 2017)

We anti-imperialists don’t often have cause for cheer.  These days we have one.

Against all odds, Syria has beat back a 6-year assault by the US-led empire and its proxy Salafist militias. Syria’s future as an independent, self-governing, secular nation is no longer in doubt. It will remain a place where Muslims and Christians of all kinds live together in peace.

So say a prayer of thanks to your god today (as I have to mine) for saving Syria—its people, its government and its leader, Bashar al-Assad.  And promise yourself to learn more about the remarkable people of Syria, who confounded the entire world by hanging together across lines of tribe, ethnicity, class and religion through years of horrible violence, excruciating pressure and overwhelming odds.

For a thumbnail history of the war, see here.

All ISIS forces have been defeated and removed from the western regions along the border with Lebanon and from the suburbs east of Damascus. Al-Qaeda-led mercenaries in Idlib (the northwest province of Syria) are encircled and effectively confined. ISIS-led mercenaries in central Syria—just north of Palmyra—are similarly surrounded and contained. Along the Iraqi border—west of the Euphrates River—the Syrian Army is closing in on ISIS forces making a last stand near Dier es Zor.

No, Syria has not yet recovered all of its territory.  Kurds supported by the US hold a broad slice of land across northern Syria and along the border with Turkey. Salafist forces (yes, including al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters) working with Israel continue to hold territory along the Israel-occupied Golan Heights.  For a map, see here.

And yes, Syria is heavily obligated to two nations—Russia and Iran—and one Lebanese militia—Hezbollah; without their help, Syria would be shattered, chaotic  and ruled by Salafist extremists, much as Libya is today.  Instead, earlier this month, Damascus hosted an international trade fair and exhibition that attracted delegations and visitors from around the world.

Since 9/11—that day when we Americans took leave of our senses and began to inhabit a delusional world in which a few men with box cutters could cause US air defenses to stand down and steel-framed towers to crumble—we have had continuous war: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen. We have not learned as much as we should have from these disasters.

But in Syria, startling realities became too obvious to miss. Here are a half-dozen.

1.  Good leadership makes a difference.  Bashar al-Assad is the case in point. Faced with the overwhelming force and violence of the empire, he laid his life on the line and stayed put, rallying his people to defend their country.  His policies actually became more liberal as the scope of the threat to Syria came into focus.  Read this analysis by Thierry Meyssan (end of the long article) for more.

2. In Syria, the US-led empire and terror groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS functioned as a team; they shared a common purpose and a common strategy. Junior members of the empire (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan) enabled the funding and logistical support for the terrorists; the CIA arranged for the weapons deliveries and training (see here and here); NATO members provided the air support, satellite intelligence and battlefield communications. Al-Qaeda and ISIS did the head-chopping. It was a team effort, all the way down.

3.  The mainstream, corporate media do not tell us the truth about these imperial wars. For all practical purposes (as Caitlin Johnstone puts it) “the corporate media is state media.” Regarding foreign events, the corporate media publish government propaganda. Thus, it dependably gives us a supply of images and stories about the brutality of the intended victim (Syria in this case). Occasionally those images and stories will be true, but most often they will be manufactured by so-called humanitarian groups (like the White Helmets) or fabricated via false flags (like the Ghouta gas attack in 2013).

4.  The US-led empire does not want to control targeted nations; it wants to destroy them as functioning, integrated, successful states.  In Syria, the empire never had a plan to replace President Assad with someone more humane or more skillful in governance. The empire simply wanted Syria to cease to exist as an opponent of Israel; as a moderately successful, non-sectarian alternative to the Salafist autocracies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; and as a roadblock to Western energy companies.  For the empire, chaos is victory. It can always hire private security agencies to guard private US assets like oil production facilities.

5.  Both the Democrats and the Republicans are enthusiastic war parties. If we had to choose one as worse than the other in this regard, it would be the Democrats because they are so skillful at masking US aggression with humanitarian rhetoric.

6.  The US peace movement is fragmented and compromised by identity politics, an infatuation with globalism and slavish loyalty to the Democratic Party. If a Democrat is in the White House, the US peace movement falls silent (as it did regarding President Obama’s war on Syria). It only raises its voice when a Republican goes to war.

If we’ve really learned these lessons from Syria’s travail, we’ll never be the same. We’ve glimpsed how treacherous and brutal the empire is, and we’ll never think of it as a positive force in the world again.

One more thing:  today, if you get a chance, tell your friends and neighbors how happy you are that Syria has survived the assault by the US and its terrorist proxies.  When you get a quizzical look, remind folks that ISIS, al-Qaeda and the US all worked together in the terrible war on Syria.

Never forget.
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*  Published this morning just after I posted is this excellent essay, "Homage to Syria," by Aidan O'Brien; its analysis of liberal Westerners who stand in judgment of Syria's effort to defend itself and its cultural heritage cuts to the quick.  I highly recommend it.

The Color of Empire?

by Berry Friesen (August 28, 2017)

If you read this blog regularly, you know I am critical of the ever-expanding practice of racializing public dialogue and debate. By “racialize” I mean the practice of assigning a color (black, brown, white, etc.) to perspectives, points-of-view and diaolgue participants, thereby signaling how seriously to take whatever is being offered.

It’s not that color is irrelevant, either in life’s outcomes or in regard to points-of-view. Nor do I think we should pretend to be “colorblind.”

Our history in the US clearly documents how the so-called "white race" invented 350 years ago by Anglo-American plantation owners has used skin color to justify a comprehensive system of oppression and violence against people of color. This "invention" continues to shape our society today, creating risks, hurdles and disadvantages for "black" and "brown" peoples that "whites" never encounter. Today, it rarely appears in its original form--blatent color-based discrimination--but persists in the myriad ways in which the effects of race-based discrimination have become naturalized (and thus masked) in the social and economic structures of American life.

Yet the colorization of our discourse has had truly pernicious effects we dare not ignore. Here are three of the worst:  (a) group-think, which lowers the quality of dialog and decision-making; (b) the reification of “race” as a thing, which entrenches racism; and (c) the setting of people against one another, thus alienating people who share identities of faith, community and class.

So why am I blogging about "the color of empire?"

For starters, to call the empire “white” would attract attention—much more attention than the topic receives without the adjective. And by speaking of “the white empire,” we easily could proceed to call the empire “racist.” That simple rhetorical move would put “empire” on the agenda of many who ignore it now. Perhaps we’d soon be able to build the first strong anti-imperialist movement since the days of Mark Twain.

And it wouldn’t be that hard to make the case that the empire is "white." Look at the skin color of the empire’s victims:  mostly brown.  Look at the skin color of its beneficiaries: mostly white.

What do you think?  To reveal the dynamics of empire, do we need to colorize it?

Ajamu Baraka, co-founder of the Black Alliance for Peace, 2016 vice-presidential nominee of the Green Party, and long-time global human rights campaigner, provides an example of an anti-imperialist who sees racial dynamics at work in the actions and policies of the US-led empire. Baraka is a coalition builder who reaches out widely seeking allies and collaborators. Because of our high regard for his approach and message, John Stoner and I arranged for him to speak at the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, Florida.

So let’s consider excerpts from one of Baraka's recent essays, “The Story of Charlottesville was Written in Blood in the Ukraine,” published by BlackAgendaReport.com.

“What is the character of racist right-wing politics today? Is it the crazed white supremacist who plows into an anti-fascist demonstration in Charlottesville, VA or can it also be the assurance by Lindsay Graham that an attack against North Korea would result in thousands of lives lost…. but those lives will be ‘over there’? 

“What about the recent unanimous resolution by both houses of Congress in support of Israel and criticism of the United Nations for its alleged anti-Israeli bias? Would that qualify as racist and right-wing, since it appears that the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians is of no concern? 

“And what about the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to go even beyond the obscene proposal of the Trump administration to increase the military budget by $54 billion dollars and instead add a whopping $74 billion to the Pentagon budget?

“What I find interesting about the current discussion around what many are referring to as the emboldening of the radical white supremacist right is how easy it is to mobilize opposition against the crude and overt white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville. So easy, in fact, that it’s really a distraction from the more difficult and dangerous work that needs to be done to confront the real right-wing power brokers.

“The white supremacy that some of us see as more insidious is not reflected in the simple, stereotypical images of the angry, Nazi-saluting alt-righter or even Donald Trump. Instead, it is the normalized and thus invisible white supremacist ideology inculcated into cultural and educational institutions and the policies that stem from those ideas."

Baraka never uses the word “empire” in his essay, but it’s very clear he is writing about imperial behavior—such as “regime change” operations in other nations. His case in point is Ukraine, where the Obama Administration

“manipulated right-wing elements in Ukraine to overthrow the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych. Not only was it dangerous and predictably disastrous for the Ukrainian people, but because U.S. support for a neo-fascist movement in Ukraine took place within a context in which the political right was gaining legitimacy and strength across Europe, the political impact of the right gaining power in Ukraine could not be isolated from the growing power of the right elsewhere.”

Liberals and the left both in the US and in Europe generally supported Obama’s Ukraine policies, says Baraka; they failed to realize that “playing footsie” with neo-fascists in Ukraine might indirectly empower neo-fascists elsewhere who are struggling to cope with “the contradictions of neoliberal capitalist globalization.”

Bringing the discussion back to Charlottesville, Baraka nails the point:

“The alt-right that showed up in Charlottesville this past weekend was mimicking the tactics of the frontline neo-fascist soldiers who orchestrated the coup in the Ukraine, yet everyone is saying this is a result of Trump. The objective fact is that the U.S. has become a dangerous right-wing society as a result of a steady shift to the right over the past four decades. The idea that Trump’s election somehow ‘created’ the right cannot be taken seriously . . .”

Of course, if we’re color-coding our analysis, we quickly note that Ukraine was “white” nation before the February, 2014 coup and it was “white” after the coup. So it couldn’t have been "white supremacy" alone that animated US policy in fomenting a coup against the elected Ukrainian government, right?

Certainly Baraka recognizes that factors beyond skin color drive imperialist policies. As I read him, he's trying to understand a more subtle reality: our apparent naiveté as Americans, our bottomless capacity to look past the horrid consequences of US-led violence and imperialism and nonchalantly assume the empire’s policies benefit everyone. What is the root of this clueless arrogance, this sense of unbridled entitlement?

“Trump and the alt-right have become useful diversions for white supremacist liberals and leftists who would rather fight against those superficial caricatures of racism than engage in more difficult ideological work involving real self-sacrifice—purging themselves of all racial sentimentality associated with the mythology of the place of white people, white civilization and whiteness in the world in order to pursue a course for justice that will result in the loss of white material privilege.”

By "racial sentimentality" I understand Baraka to be speaking about the widely held assumption that we Americans are an exceptional people, blessed with the indispensable ability to bring stability, peace and prosperity to the world. Certainly this assumption has been repeated often by US leaders in recent years. Might it function (among liberals and conservatives alike) to justify behavior that is obviously brutal and morally corrupt? Doesn't it suggest a right to rule those who are less capable?

Reflect for a moment on the security enjoyed by the US. No hostile nation sits on US borders.  Two oceans protect against invasion.  Overwhelming military capacity deters attack. Next, consider for a moment the devastation the US-led empire has visited upon Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen in recent years.

How deeply does this schizophrenia--a secure nation engaging in relentless, manic violence--trouble the American people?  Not very much, right? Why not? Aren't we a sane and moral people?

Sure, simple greed explains most imperial behavior. But we humans are social and spiritual beings, even when we are greedy.  We are never content in our greed; it must be rationalized and legitimized in terms of the good of all people, even the victims. This seems to be where Baraka's diagnosis of "white supremacy" fills in the picture; it explains how we justify what is otherwise unjustifiable.

I need more time with this.  The rhetoric of color is divisive. It blocks the formation of coalitions based on common values and aspirations and it plays into the divide-and-conquer tactics of the empire. It suits as a cry of frustration, but not as a constructve way forward. Yet it explains our nonchalance about imperialism better than anything else I’ve come up with. Maybe we should begin to add a bit of "color" into our discussions of empire.

What do you think? Read Ajamu Baraka's entire essay and then share your thoughts.

Unspeakable Truth

by Berry Friesen (August 24, 2017)

Earlier this week (August 21), President Trump told the American people that it is necessary for the military occupation of Afghanistan to continue.

The President’s announcement was a bitter disappointment for those who had supported him because of his criticism of the interventionism of presidents Bush and Obama. Not only did Trump betray his promise to end US participation in that war, he justified the extension of the war with the same sort of platitudinous Washington-speak that a president Clinton would have used.

So while broad swaths of United States deteriorate and fall into decline, $50 billion in US taxpayer funds needed here will continue to be wasted annually in Afghanistan (in addition to the $1 trillion aready spent in direct appropriations).

How does the empire rationalize this extension of an unpopular and expensive war into a 17th year? It doubles-down on the 9/11 deception—the claim that those terror attacks were hatched, planned and carried out by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. It cranks up the media reports about how ISIS is becoming active and strong in Afghanistan.  It boasts of the empire’s commitment to gender equality and expresses anguish over the Taliban’s misogynistic policies.

Yet we do understand what’s going on, don’t we? The US-led empire regards Afghanistan as essential real estate in order to block China’s $900 billion plan to open a westward overland trade route that stretches through Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey all the way to Europe and western Russia.*  Located as it is on the eastern border of Iran, Afghanistan also is essential to the empire’s efforts to destabilize Iran’s current government and bring that independent nation into the empire’s grasp.

Location, location, location; it’s the great imperial chess game.

What none of our “leaders” will admit is that the empire has no intention of ever leaving Afghanistan.  It needs Afghanistan to be a broken and compliant state, a staging ground for imperial forces and the base for covert operations against nations who insist on independence. For that to happen, Afghanistan must remain unstable and chaotic, a place of unending war, suffering and sorrow.

This ugly truth is only the beginning of the rot we find when we start digging. Then we uncover the fact that the Afghan warlords are treating the war as a racket, manipulating the conflict so that a decisive result is never achieved and the empire’s money keeps on flowing. US arms manufacturers are greasing the wheels of war, knowing full well that their prosperity depends on the extension of the occupation. The Afghan government is helping ISIS get established. Then there is the vanity of a generation of military officers who earned their stripes in Afghanistan. They much prefer an extension of the war to a US departure as losers.

So the killing must continue. Too many of the key players are heavily invested in the war.

What to expect under Trump’s new plan?  A few thousand more troops, but mostly the war increasingly will become privatized via contractors who bring in mercenaries to do the training and the dirty work. Increasingly, we can expect the CIA to be in charge, thus making the entire operation covert and out of public view.  The funding will be provided by taxpayers and via borrowing. An off-the-books bonus will come from the CIA’s share of Afghanistan’s opium production, which is at record levels. **

Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater and currently head of Frontier Services Group, favors a longer and more thoroughly privatized war effort. His company is already running a private army for the United Arab Emirates and could just as well do it for the empire in Afghanistan as well. There would be a kind of poetic justice in such an arrangement. When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and drove the Taliban out of power, the private Afghan warlords were the primary local beneficiaries. So why not arrange for a private US warlord to get a piece of the action too?  Prince’s company is located in Dubai, but maybe some of the loot would trickle back to the US via Prince’s family channels; after all, his sister is now the US Secretary of Education.

Where does all of this leave us?  Well, that depends on what we value. We have another reason to dislike President Trump if we need one.  We have another reason to bet on a bullish stock market if that’s where our heart lies.  If we’re more worried about China than the empire, then the President’s “decision” may cause us to relax just a bit.  If we’re learning to become anti-imperialists, we’ve just experienced a valuable lesson about how the empire operates.

Most of us are aware of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It tells the story of two weavers who dress the emperor in a stunning outfit that is invisible to anyone who is incompetent, stupid or otherwise unfit for his/her position.

Often the story is told to mock leaders who are so caught up in vanity and hubris that they are unable to recognize what is obvious to most everyone else. Yet the story also is aimed at a broader audience: the ass-kissers who tell leaders what they want to hear and commoners like us who go along with deception because we want to get along in life. We all willingly submit to the “necessity” of pretense. Only a guileless child voices the unspeakable truth: “The emperor is naked!”

“A little child shall lead them” said the prophet Isaiah (11:6). We need such children today—no matter their age— voicing what we are too afraid to say: “The empire is malignant, leaving death and decay in its wake.”
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* For background reading about China’s plan for a new Silk Road—also known as the Belt and Road Initiative—see the writings of journalist Pepe Escobar, including his latest here.

** Remember the controversy around US support of the Nicaraguan Contras of the ‘80s? Congress said “no” to aid to the Contras, but the Reagan Administration found a way, first through illegal arms sales to Iran and then through illegal CIA facilitation of a collaboration between the Contras and drug traffickers running cocaine into the US. It was an off-the-books covert operation—illegal as could be—and the kind of thing the CIA continues to do all across the world, but especially in Afghanistan. For an engaging overview of the CIA's involvement in the drug trade, see Alfred W. McCoy's very personal account of his research into this dark side of  American history, published August 24 by TomDispatch.com. For a short account of how Afghan opium production accelerated after the US occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, see Mnar Muhawesh's article in MintPressNews.com.

Me Against the World

by Berry Friesen (August 21, 2017)

Greater empathy for Trump supporters isn't high on your priority list, I know. Yet here I am--writing in the wake of Charlottesville--with yet another post trying to understand Trump supporters. True, it would be easier to  "judge" them with some pejorative term, but "easier" is not the point; building an anti-imperialist movement is the point.  

Today, I’ll venture into social psychology to highlight a factor that contributes to Trump's support: widespread American anxiety about rapid social change.

Zigmunt Bauman, a Polish-born sociologist, coined the phrase “liquid modernity” to describe our frenetic, constantly changing world.  Many intellectuals say we are living in a “post-modern” world, but Bauman insists it is more accurate to say we live in a hyper-modern era.  Wikipedia describes Bauman’s view of “liquid modernity” this way:

“It is a kind of chaotic continuation of modernity, where a person can shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner. Nomadism becomes a general trait of the 'liquid modern' man as he flows through his own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, spouses, values and sometimes more—such as political or sexual orientation—excluding himself from traditional networks of support, while also freeing himself from the restrictions or requirements those networks impose.

“Bauman stresses the new burden of responsibility that fluid modernism places on the individual—traditional patterns (are) replaced by self-chosen ones.  Entry into the globalized society (is) open to anyone with their own stance and the ability to fund it . . . The result is a normative mindset with emphasis on shifting rather than on staying—on provisional in lieu of permanent (or 'solid') commitment—which (the new style) can lead a person astray towards a prison of their own existential creation.” 

Applying Bauman’s ideas to national political scene, we might reasonably say that the anxiety of constant change is part of what causes people to respond positively to a leader who will slow things down and demonstrate firm commitment to familiar themes.

Let’s step back a bit and consider this question: in our journeys through life, how does authority function for us?  What legitimizes authority, thereby prompting us to follow where it leads?

One way to visualize the thought process this entails is to imagine a horizontal plane that narrows sharply at each of two ends.  At one end stands the solitary individual; at the other, the empire. We could think of this tableau as a representation of our life-long process of negotiating life.

The empire’s authority rests on its violence and power, which it holds to such an overwhelming degree that it seems absurd to place an individual (me) on the same plane.  Nevertheless, we all live together in the same time and space, so cope we must.

In the pre-modern worldview (and to a lesser degree in the modern worldview), many collective structures—most human, some mythic, some ideological—stand between the empire and us individuals, helping us cope.  Each structure is durable and resilient; each claims to be a moral authority, available to guide us through the journey of life and buffer us from forces that could easily overwhelm. To the extent that I embrace an authority, it provides content, direction and meaning to my life and a degree of collective strength as well.

We can quickly list some of the authorities available to us:

Kinship (parents, siblings and cousins, clan, ancestors)
Religious (sacred texts, creeds, clergy, congregations, moral codes, hierarchies)
Educational (schools, teachers, academic disciplines and methods)
Vocational (businesses, apprenticeships, guilds, professions, labor unions)
Associational (neighborhoods, civic organizations, recreation, clubs)
Experiential (ethnicity, military service, travel, accomplishment or loss)
Public (governments, lawmakers, law enforcement, judges, military service)

Typically, these authorities are structured (institutionalized) in some visible way.  A healthy society has many of them.  Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of US society, spoke with great admiration of the plethora of such “mediating institutions” in 19th century America.  He also said America would survive as a democracy only if those structures continued to thrive.

So here is the problem: "liquid modernity" is undermining the authority of mediating structures. For some of us, this assertion may require much more discussion, but for most, I assume it can be stated as a bald fact: we no longer easily accept the authority of mediating structures to tell us how to live.

For sake of brevity, we can list a few of the huge changes within our world that have made it increasingly easy to ignore and avoid authority structures, either because we prefer to be autonomous or because we have concluded these structures no longer deserve our respect.

Easy geographic mobility
Instant worldwide communications
The inherently destructive and insatiably greedy nature of capitalism
Global liquidity of capital 
Mass media and entertainment
Elevation of diversity and multiculturalism as leading values
Scandals, corruption, malfeasance

Generally, we don’t associate these factors with a political party, so these factors are not likely to drive our electoral choices.

But there is an additional factor—one highly corrosive to mediating institutions—that is strongly associated with liberalism, higher education and the Democrats.  This is the post-‘60s educational and intellectual emphasis on the primacy of the individual and the consequent necessity to deconstruct social authority structures that restrict individual autonomy.

Generally, such deconstruction projects proceed by (a) analyzing the dynamics of power within structures of authority, (b) demonstrating how those power dynamics favor some people at the expense of others, and (c) stigmatizing those dynamics as unjust and immoral.  Generally, these stigmas are portrayed as forms of bigotry:  sexism, racism, heterosexism, transphobism, nativism, sectarianism, etc.

These deconstruction projects have been easy wins for liberals because evidence justifying claims of "bigotry" is not hard to find. Even a nuclear family without “unjust” power dynamics is almost unimaginable. Thus, liberalism has become associated in the popular mind with (a) the discrediting of mediating structures and their claims of authority over us; and (b) exalting each individual's heroic quest to fashion an identity, discover purpose and forge a meaningul life.

Philosopher Charles Taylor describes the liberal point-of-view this way:

“Everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value.  People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own fulfillment.  What this consists of, each must in the last instance, determine for him-or-herself.  No one else can or should try to dictate its content.” *

In my view, the anxiety triggered by this worldview is a factor in people turning away from the Democrats and toward the obviously unqualified Donald Trump.

If we assume this is correct, what does it suggest for the future?

First, to recognize why it’s getting more and more difficult to vote for liberals (something I’ve usually done throughout my life).

Second, to admit that "liquid modernity" is flat-out scary, leaving us isolated and alone against the empire.  I’d like some of those social supports back, even at the price of giving up some of my vaunted autonomy and independence.

Third, to ask:  do the people deconstructing our mediating institutions bear any responsibility for the consequences of endless deconstruction?  Are they really foolish enough to imagine we will manufacture righteous substitutes out of whole cloth? Or that we can survive, naked against the empire?
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*  The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Take a Stand! Escalate!

by Berry Friesen (August 15, 2017)

Three days after the violence in Charlottesville, the drumbeat sounds all around. This morning, my local paper told me to “Take a stand.”  Yesterday, a national church publication told me to escalate my efforts to “resist white supremacy” by becoming “an accomplice” to those shutting down the alt-right.  

Take a stand, escalate; that’s the mantra now.  And I agree with the part about “taking a stand,” as you will see if you stay with me to the end of this essay.  But I’m flat-out opposed to this idea of escalation.  

Think it through.  The alt-right will continue insisting on its constitutionally protected right to assemble and speak.  The ACLU (I am a member, in case you find that relevant) will continue reminding judges that the rule of law supports what the alt-right demands. The alt-right will continue using its permits to stage propagandistic displays of weaponry, fascist regalia, hateful slogans, intimidating behavior and violence.  The resisters will continue depriving the alt-right of their freedom to assemble and speak, using enough violence of their own along the way to force the police to “take a side” and shut everything down.  The media will continue bringing the entire spectacle to us live, inflaming relationships across our society.  

We don’t want this kind of escalation, do we?  I’m asking because it sounds wretched to me.  To anyone getting ready for a replay of Charlottesville, I ask: has anyone thought about where this is going?

Look, racism—white supremacy—was baked into the cake of US society.  We cannot escape it, no matter how we obsess and escalate our opposition.   This doesn’t mean we accept it and acquiesce!  No, we name it and resist its influence each and every time it appears.  And yes, that influence is nearly everywhere.  But it’s not something we can root out and destroy; it’s been baked into the cake.

My point is that resistance to racism requires wisdom as well as courage.  Vestiges of white supremacy can be found most anywhere, yet not everything we see is a vestige of white supremacy.  If we are not wise, our best efforts can destroy things nearly all of us value and want to nurture and grow.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Civil Rights Movement reflected this wisdom.  It taught us that "race" is a lie told by those who find advantage in division and oppression.  There is no such thing as white, brown, black and yellow races.  Those are made-up categories meant to divide and conquer and enable oppression.  We are one species, biologically indistinguishable from one another.  

Following that wisdom, public policy attempted to accomplish three things:  (1) delegitimize the use of “race” as the basis for making decisions; (2) provide remedial compensation in specific instances where “race” was used to make decisions; and (3) avoid any policy or practice that entrenches racism or legitimizes race, racialized conduct or race consciousness in American life.    

It is this last goal that has been abandoned by the generation since the ‘70s.  

The white supremacy baked into the cake of American society has been re-legitimized by the Republican Party in its efforts to win elections.   This goes on yet today in efforts to create new voting eligibility standards, reduce voting convenience and voter access to polling places, and disenfranchise people who have criminal records.

Meanwhile, race-conscious talk and thought has been re-legitimized via left-wing activism, education, entertainment and religion. Practitioners of this approach insist on prefacing every noun with a color adjective.  If “white,” then a negative inference follows; if some other color, then the inference is positive.

Thus, we are not only a society with white supremacy baked in, we now also are a highly racialized society where powerful Republicans cynically manipulate the voting process to benefit “whites” and leading voices of the left promote the lie of “race” as a core and exalted identity.   Though working at apparent cross-purposes, these “leaders” have achieved together a great regression from the aspirations of the Civil Right Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

And guess what:  their cynicism and their racialized discourse have exacerbated the white supremacy baked into our cake. 

Who could have known, right?  I mean, whoever could have imagined that young men living in imperial, oligarchic, debt-ridden America would pick up the racialized mantra of their superiors (teachers, pastors, professionals of every ilk, journalists, entertainment leaders) and put their own spin on it?  Whoever could have imagined a growing segment of such men (and women) would absorb the cynicism of political leaders and laughingly embrace the term “racist” as if it were a virtue, not a badge of shame?  Simply astonishing, isn’t it?  

Sorry for the sarcasm, but I’m trying to make a point here.  I’m asking you to take seriously the possibility that it isn’t just the alt-right to be blamed; lots of other people of much higher social class bear responsibility too.  

Please don’t misunderstand me:  just because white supremacy is baked into the cake does not doom us to racist behavior or racialist discourse.  Healing remedies are available to us.  Simply working together is an effective way for people of different skin colors to devalue white supremacy and the entire lie about race.  People of different colors playing together (sports) or training together (the military) does the same.  So does people of different colors struggling together in congregations and in neighborhood improvement groups.

In contrast, talking about race often hurts as much as it helps because everyrepetition of a lie—even if our intention is to refute the lie—serves to reify the lie, make it real.

So yes, let’s take a stand.  Let’s stand for our common humanity, skin color be damned. 

Let’s stand for our shared interest in becoming a nonimperial people, living on what we produce without pillaging the world and killing people whose lives allegedly aren’t as valuable as ours.  

Let’s stand for an economy of shared prosperity and a life-sustaining environment less dependent on carbon.  

Let’s stand against the deception of race, against the deception that “white” is anything at all but the figment of a demented past, against the lie that our core identities are defined by the color of our skin. 

Let’s stand against this obsession to push the voice of white supremacy underground, out of the public square; we only empower it by giving it such rapt attention. 

Let’s stand for a way forward that has a fighting chance of success.

August Reflections

by Berry Friesen (August 11, 2017)

For many people, August is the least hectic month of the year, a time for vacation get-aways, reading and regaining perspective. Following are three items worthy of some of that precious August time.

1. Why do Democrats keep losing elections?

Conventional political wisdom has long held that demographic and economic trends within the US will gradually shift the political environment toward the left. That is, a more minority-ethnic and more economically stressed electorate will move naturally toward a stance that values a level economic playing field, opposes the market-driven redistribution of wealth and income from the middle to the top, and insists on government restraints on private economic power.

This conventional wisdom has not proved itself to be correct. Apart from contests in which Barack Obama has been a candidate, the candidates endorsed by the more left-leaning of the two major political parties (the Democrats) keep losing elections.

Why is this happening?  As someone who leans strongly left economically (though not socially), I am very interested in this question.

Mark Lilla, a humanities professor at Columbia University, suggests an answer in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, the Harper-published book to be released August 15.

Lilla introduces the book in “The Liberal Crack-up,” an op-ed published August 12 by the Wall Street Journal.  Here is Lilla’s premise:

“There can be no liberal politics without a sense of We—of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other. If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country . . . they must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, share.”

Left-leaning political activists have abandoned an emphasis on “we,” says Lilla, preferring instead to focus on an intensely personal approach that reflects “our highly individualistic bourgeois society—a society that keeps (people) focused on themselves and teaches them that personal choice, individual rights and self-definition are all that is sacred.”

Thus, people who lean left tend to engage politically as members of identity groups--especially race, gender and sexual orientation.  As Lilla describes this stance, “What we think of as political action is in fact nothing but personal activity, an expression of me and how I define myself. As we would put it today, my political life is a reflection of my identity.”

This shift in stance from the encompassing “we” to the self-referential “me” has been catastrophic for the political left.  “The main enemies (are) no longer capitalism and the military-industrial complex; they (are) fellow movement members who (are) not, as we would say today, sufficiently ‘woke’.” Thus, political activism on the left no longer focuses on building a strong Democratic Party and a broad, inclusive agenda for America, but instead on “a wide range of single-issue social movements.”

If you are part of an active identity group, this kind of political activism can be exhilarating and deeply satisfying, even religious.  Yet to the broader public, the agenda is unattractive and off-putting.

Writes Lilla:

“The results of this shift are now plain to see. The classic Democratic goal of bringing people from different backgrounds together for a single common project has given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition.”

Lilla’s analysis is highly relevant in fields other than politics, especially education and the church.  I expect it will become part of conversations in many venues and I encourage readers to pay attention.

2. Did you hear the latest about ISIS?

The Islamic State (ISIS) is being crushed militarily in Iraq and Syria. It is rapidly losing its territory and its financial base, which has consisted of tax revenue extorted from people within ISIS-held territory and the proceeds from oil and gas sales. Its combat personnel have been devastated with losses inflicted by a coalition of a dozen nation states, including Iraq, Syria, Iran, Russia and many NATO members.

What a relief, right?

Guess what:  ISIS has taken the fight to Asia.  In May it seized control of Marawi, a city of 200,000 in the Philippines.  Government efforts supported by the US military have thus far failed to recapture the city.  Listen to this August 8th NBC video report for a sample of how this story is being reported in the US.  Note particularly this dire warning:

“The danger here is ISIS using this as a springboard into Asia, opening up a totally new battlefield as it loses ground in the Middle East.”

Severe skepticism is required here, dear reader.  ISIS is an irregular military force that emerged out of virtually nothing only 4-5 years ago.  Now, after suffering a string of major defeats and devastating losses, it pops up thousands of miles away ready and able to open “a totally new battlefield” in another part of the world.

As has been said many times here, terrorist groups to do survive for long in today’s world without state support.  This is a maxim of modern life we dare not forget. Thus, we can be certain that ISIS is a proxy force for one or more governments; that’s what enables it to not only survive, but thrive.

Which governments?   Tony Cartalucci’s essay, “Facing Defeat in Syria, ISIS Inexplicably Expands Globally,” provides a helpful overview.  He notes documentation showing support for ISIS from Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf States.  Israel supports ISIS in the part of Syria bordering the Golan Heights, and the US—as leader of the empire—is inextricably involved in ISIS support along with these subordinate members.

So what do you think is most worthwhile?  Freaking out about ISIS’ frightening foothold in Asia?   Or at long last, publicly denouncing US support for proxy terrorists?  This is the question we need to be asking our members of Congress and anyone seeking national office.

3. Is the US about to attack North Korea?

North Korea seems determined to develop the capacity to deliver a devastating nuclear strike against the US, perhaps via a missile attack on Guam.  This is consistent with the lesson learned world-over by observing US actions over the past 15 years vis-à-vis Iraq, Libya and Syria:  to oppose the US-empire without a nuclear-capable arsenal is suicide.

During the Clinton Administration, agreement was achieved on a plan by which the US would end trade sanctions and assist North Korea to develop nuclear energy capacity for purposes of electrical generation.  In return, North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons program. That agreement was abandoned by the Bush Administration.  Events have moved on since then and such an agreement is no longer possible.

Yet other agreements remain within reach.  In May, 2016, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, speaking to the first Workers’ Party of Korea Congress in 35 years, announced a no-first-use nuclear policy:

“As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes.”

As recently as March, 2017, Chinese media reported North Korea’s offer to de-escalate tensions with the US via a statement of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi:

“As a first step, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) may suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises”.

There it is:  a specific proposal for resolution of the current crisis. Have you heard about this via the US media?  No, I haven’t either.  On some subjects, one must read the alternative media to get real news.

In short, North Korea’s leadership has been following a rational course of action. We can only hope and pray US leadership is as rational as the Koreans.

Targeting Russia

by Berry Friesen (August 7, 2017)

The new US economic sanctions against Russia are a very big deal because they cement in place a stance of hostility against a nation with enough nuclear weaponry to resist. From here on forward, US intent is clear: destroy Russia’s ability to build a successful society that stands before the world as an alternative to the US-led empire. From here on out, Russia has little choice but to stand ready to defend itself.

Thus, the fate of the world again depends on the reliability of a hair trigger and the countless, split-second judgments of men and women in the nuclear chains-of-command in Russia and the US.

My sympathies clearly are with Russia.  I’m an anti-imperialist; based on what I see in the Bible, I can’t see how I could be anything but an anti-imperialist and still claim to be a faithful follower of Jesus.  So no, I do not support US efforts to dominate the world and destroy all political alternatives, nor do I find its claim to moral superiority to have merit.

Do you?

This US escalation of hostility toward Russia—this declaration of economic war—is another gut-check moment:  will we finally recognize the criminal character of US policy in the world?

True, the enactment of sanctions pales before the horrors we’ve somehow brushed aside previously.  That list of horrors is long.  It includes the US wave of terror unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 72 years ago this week.  It includes wars that claimed millions of lives against the Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian peoples.   It includes the persistent destabilization of African and Latin American nations.  It includes the wars of aggression against Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

So what’s the big deal about economic sanctions?

Perhaps I’m making too much of this.  At this point, it isn’t anything comparable to the killing fields just mentioned.  My elevation of this moment to epic status depends entirely on pessimistic projections into the future.  But maybe Russia will quietly accept US dominance. Maybe US policy will evolve in a less aggressive direction when someone less imperialistic than Donald Trump is in office.  Maybe Russia and the US will work things out; after all, that’s what competing nations usually do.

Okay, let’s consider each of those possibilities.

Yes, there is some chance Russia will quietly accept US dominance, re-open its economy to rank Western exploitation and become a vassal state like other European nations have become. That’s how Russia functioned during the first 15-20 years of the post-Communist era, and it’s conceivable Russia will return to that stance again.  After all, its economy is organized along the lines of oligarch-led capitalism, just as the US is. Money and wealth dictate many of Russia’s public policies, just as in the US. Given these similarities, why wouldn’t Russia accept the status of an important vassal state rather than risk annihilation?

However rational that may sound, there is another worldview that values matters of the spirit above all else.  There is little evidence of such a worldview in the West; by-and-large, we have drunk the cool-aid and absorbed the neo-liberal view that “value” is measured in dollars and moral “legitimacy” is measured in military firepower. But in Russia, it seems a spiritual view of life maintains a strong foothold.  By “spiritual” I of course include religious faith, but also an abiding trust in values largely abandoned in the West: culture, loyalty, solidarity, tradition.

From our Western perspective, these are “conservative” values (in a cultural rather than political sense). So what I’m saying might be rephrased this way: Russia is likely to resist US hostility so long as it is led by culturally conservative leaders, men and women who believe there is something in life more important than money and that Russia’s way of being in the world is a treasure, something worth dying for.

The second possibility for a peaceful end to the current hostility doesn’t merit much discussion.  The new sanctions were not driven by President Trump; it was an initiative coming out of Congress.  Every Democratic member of the US House and the US Senate voted for this policy. Every one!  Only four Republicans opposed (three in the House and Rand Paul in the Senate). No, there is no hope on the horizon within the US political system; it fully and enthusiastically supports this escalation.

The third possibility (that the new sanctions are merely part of the routine jousting between competing national states) drops away when contextualized within recent world history.

It was the US who broke the promise made by President George H. W Bush to not move NATO east toward Russia’s borders.  It was the US that withdrew from the ABM treaty with Russia, thereby declaring its intention to neutralize Russia’s ability to deter attack. It was the US that repeatedly interfered in Russia’s elections, most notably 1996 when US agents basically ran the campaign for the inebriated Boris Yeltsen and bought his electoral victory, but in recent years as well. It was the US that enabled al-Qaeda terrorists to foment rebellion and war in Russia’s Muslim populated provinces, especially Chechnya and Dagestan. It was the US that precipitated the current crisis in the Ukraine by organizing a February 2014 coup against the duly-elected government. It was the US that conspired with Saudi Arabia to drop the price of oil and push the Russian economy into depression. It is the US that is installing missile batteries in Poland and Romania targeting Russia. It is the US and its NATO military allies that have positioned thousands of troops on Russia’s borders.

And it is the US that now is committed to using sanctions to destroy Russia’s commercial investments, steal its customers in Europe and ruin the Russian economy.

This is not routine competition; this is war, now endorsed by the entire Democratic membership of Congress and all but one handful of Republicans.

And the only two sources of “evidence” supporting this outright hostility toward Russia are (1) Democratic National Committee computers that have never been examined by a competent public agency and (2) an intelligence assessment compiled by Obama Administration holdovers who hand-picked employees within the CIA, NSA and FBI to do the research and failed to include any specific evidence, only conclusions.

So how exactly is President Putin supposed to “work things out” with the US? If he believes in anything beyond money and military power (and there is ample evidence he does), Putin must resist.  I expect he will resist; every day he does so increases his popularity among the Russian people.

So where do your sympathies lie in this epic struggle? With the empire or with those resisting the empire?
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*  For background reading, see Robert Parry’s “Neocons leverage Trump-hate for more wars” and Bernhard Horstmann’s “New Sanctions Against Russia – A Failure of U.S. Strategy.”  For more on the biblical view of empire, see If Not Empire, What? by John K. Stoner and me.