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Tom Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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Ira Chernus, Political Dreaming in the Twenty-First Century: Where Has It Gone?

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A painting of a person dreaming

Can we imagine a better political future?

Before plunging into TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus’s piece on political dreaming, there’s one historical reality worth considering in the largely dreamless night that is our present planet.  As everyone knows — but few give the slightest thought to these days — the Soviet Union, that “evil empire,” that other “superpower,” gave up the ghost in 1991. In that moment, history as humanity had long known it ended.  A series of great power rivalries that dated back at least to the sixteenth century, often involving several imperial states, each eager to gain further control over parts of the planet, was instantly relegated to the dustbin of human experience.  More than half a millennium of history came to an end with only one imperial power left standing, representing a single economic system, a single way of life, a single way of thinking called capitalism.  On Planet Earth, it no longer mattered whether you called yourself a “communist” power, you were traveling “the capitalist road,” as was everyone, whether they liked it or not.

I suspect we still haven’t fully absorbed the meaning of that moment.  If 1992 was Year One of the new system, the following years would be hailed as the era of “globalization.”  That was the word chosen to celebrate the triumph of Washington and its global system, the much-hailed victory of Hollywood, the Swoosh, the Golden Arches, and the so-called Washington consensus.  There can be no question that one kind of dreaming, or perhaps a dreamy public-relations frenzy, was sparked at that moment and didn’t end until the global economic meltdown of 2007-2008.  Then, the dirty underside of capitalism’s great boom was revealed for all to see (and feel), while a spotlight suddenly fell on the rise of “the 1%” and ever more staggering economic inequality.

In those years, something else occurred: a kind of flattening of the planet that wouldn’t have made a bestselling book for New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.  Think of it as a let-the-good-times-roll(-over-you) phenomenon.  With all other systems discredited and abandoned, with only one way to imagine, political dreaming was flattened, too.  Wherever you looked, it seemed that you just saw another version of the same old same old.  Without a sense that alternatives were possible, it proved remarkably hard to dream, to have a vision of something else, something better.

It’s strange, though, how few have mentioned the global dreamlessness of the post-1991 era, which is why Chernus’s piece couldn’t be more timely — especially in this post-meltdown moment when, as revolts and turmoil grow across an increasingly crippled planet, we are being shown the way into a world of darkness and fears, but also new dreams and hopes.  That some of us dream in waking life is crucial, as Chernus points out today, because if you can’t dream, politically speaking, if you can’t imagine a different world, how will you begin to fix the one we have, the ever hotter, more tumultuous planet we continue to create, to the detriment of those who follow us? Tom

Political Dreaming in the Twenty-First Century 
Where Has It Gone? 
By Ira Chernus

All right, I confess: I have a dream. I bet you do, too. I bet yours, like mine, is of a far, far better world not only for yourself and your loved ones, but for everyone on this beleaguered planet of ours.

And I bet you, like me, rarely talk to anyone about your dreams, even if you spend nearly all your time among politically active people working to improve the planet. Perhaps these days it feels somehow just too naïve, too unrealistic, too embarrassing. So instead, you focus your energy on the nuts and bolts of what’s wrong with the world, what has to be fixed immediately.

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Matthew Harwood, Counterterrorism in the Twilight Zone

6:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

They went without saying a word.  In the dead of night, the last U.S. troops slipped out of Iraq and across the Kuwaiti border.  There was no victory parade.  No departure ceremony.  They never said goodbye. They didn’t even cancel scheduled meetings with their Iraqi counterparts. They just up and left, weeks before their departure deadline in December 2010.

The Americans took home their weapons and vehicles, of course.  They took much of their heavy equipment and electronics gear, too.  They also took something far more intimate, something you might assume belonged to the Iraqi people, something you probably never knew existed: “a massive database packed with retinal scans, thumb prints, and other biometric data identifying millions of Iraqis,” as Spencer Ackerman put it when he wrote about those digital records in 2011.

In the years after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the U.S. military collected biometric data on around three million Iraqis.  It’s done the same for millions of Afghans.  And it’s keeping this information in perpetuity.  Back in 2011, a spokesman for the Tampa, Florida-based U.S. Central Command told Ackerman, “We have this information, and rather than cull through it all and say ‘bad guy, good guy, bad guy, good guy,’ it’s better to just keep it.”  Just why may be unclear, but the capture and retention of this data fit a pattern: the U.S. drive to expand its national security state into a global security initiative.

This includes vacuuming up billions of pieces of intelligence from worldwide computer networks (13.5 billion from Pakistan in March of this year alone), spying on European allies, and hacking the computer and telecommunications systems of its largest foreign creditor, among other activities.  The goal is to possess the world’s data, then do who knows what with it.

Muslims using computers in Pakistan or those whose retinas were scanned by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan are not, of course, the only ones to fall under the gaze of U.S. surveillance.  Since 9/11, as Matt Harwood makes clear in his inaugural article for TomDispatch, American Muslims have been disproportionately targeted compared to right-wing Christian groups.  The roots of this discrimination stretch back hundreds of years, beyond the birth of this country, and reveal blind spots and shortcomings that no amount of data, computing power, or cyber-prowess can correct. Nick Turse

Political Violence and Privilege
Why Violent Right-wing Extremism Doesn’t Scare Americans
By Matthew Harwood

The evangelical Christians of Greenville County, South Carolina, are afraid.

There has been talk of informants and undercover agents luring young, conservative evangelicals across the South into sham terrorist plots. The feds and the area’s police want to eliminate a particularly extreme strain of evangelical Christianity opposed to abortion, homosexuality, and secularism, whose adherents sometimes use violent imagery and speech. They fear such extreme talk could convince lone wolves or small groups of Christian extremists to target abortion clinics, gay bars, or shopping malls for attack. As a result, law enforcement has flooded these communities with informants meant to provide an early warning system for any signs of such “radicalization.”

Converts, so important to the evangelical movement, are now looked upon with suspicion — the more fervent, the more suspicious. In local barbecue joints, diners, and watering holes, the proprietors are careful not to let FOX News linger onscreen too long, fearing political discussions that could be misconstrued.  After all, you can never be too sure who’s listening.

Come Sunday, the ministers who once railed against abortion, gay marriage, and Hollywood as sure signs that the U.S. is descending into godlessness will mute their messages. They will peer out at their congregations and fear that some faces aren’t interested in the Gospel, or maybe are a little too interested in every word. The once vibrant political clubs at Bob Jones University have become lifeless as students whisper about informants and fear a few misplaced words could leave them in a government database or worse.

Naturally, none of this is actually happening to evangelical Christians in South Carolina, across the South, or anywhere else. It would never be tolerated. Yet the equivalents of everything cited above did happen in and around the New York metropolitan area — just not to white, conservative, Christian Americans. But replace them with American Muslims in the New York area and you have a perfect fit, as documented by the recent report Mapping Muslims.  And New York is hardly alone.

Since 9/11, American law enforcement has taken a disproportionate interest in American Muslims across the country, seeing a whole community as a national security threat, particularly in California and New York City. But here’s the thing: the facts that have been piling up ever since that date don’t support such suspicion. Not at all.

The numbers couldn’t be clearer: right-wing extremists have committed far more acts of political violence since 1990 than American Muslims. That law enforcement across the country hasn’t felt similarly compelled to infiltrate and watch over conservative Christian communities in the hopes of disrupting violent right-wing extremism confirms what American Muslims know in their bones: to be different is to be suspect.

Conducting Suspicionless Surveillance

In the aftermath of 9/11, law enforcement has infiltrated Muslim American communities and spied on them in ways that would have outraged Americans, had such tactics been used against Christian communities after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, or after any of the other hate crimes or anti-abortion-based acts of violence committed since then by right-wing extremists.

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