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Posted by Time for change in General Discussion
Fri Dec 31st 2010, 11:02 PM
My favorite books for the past year all have something very important to say (in my opinion) about the tragic state of our country and the world today. I consider these books crucially important because these problems will be solved only when a critical number of people understand them and are motivated to do something about them. The issues covered by these books include:

How increasing corporate power and wealth is driving our nation towards fascism
How our imperial ambitions causing us to become a great menace to planetary survival
The potential of climate change to destroy human civilization as we know it
How the Reagan presidency led to our current economic crisis
The psychological roots of disastrous national policies
The terrible consequences of our “War on Drugs”
The contribution of the Obama presidency our economic crisis
The terrible consequences of income and wealth inequality
An exploration of 20th and 21st Century genocide

Because in my effort to do justice to these crucial topics this turned out to be a very long post, I’m dividing this up into two posts, each to include discussions of 5 of the 10 books. This is the second one. I posted the first one earlier to today.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by me) – Why we Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts – by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The main theme of “Mistakes Were Made” is the many terrible consequences of self-justifying thought and action. The authors discuss self-justification as arising from the need to reduce cognitive dissonance to tolerable levels. People need to think of themselves as basically “good”. So when they do bad things, they tend to justify it – to themselves and others – through whatever twisted reasoning they can summon.

They describe self-justifying thought and behavior as addictive and destructive, and they use the analogy of a pyramid – which is identical to the concept of the “slippery slope”. In a moment of weakness a person may give in to temptation and do something thoughtless or unethical or immoral. They then may give in to the temptation to justify their actions, thereby making it easier for them to repeat them. The more they repeat their bad actions, the more they justify them, and the more they justify them the easier it is to repeat them the next time they have the opportunity. Eventually they find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid – or slippery slope.

These basic principles have profound consequences not only at the individual psychological level, but also at the societal level, including national politics. Tavris and Aronson provide plenty of examples:

The role of self-justification in hatred and aggressively hostile behavior
Self-justification plays an important role in facilitating most hostile and violent behavior. Once you treat someone badly or unfairly there is the tendency to justify it, which in turn makes it easier to continue:

The same mechanism underlies the behavior of gangs who bully weaker children, employers who mistreat workers, lovers who abuse each other, police officers who continue beating a suspect who has surrendered, tyrants who imprison and torture ethnic minorities, and soldiers who commit atrocities against civilians. In all theses cases, a vicious circle is created: Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression… The greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth. Because our victims deserved what they got (we say), we hate them even more than we did before we harmed them, which in turn makes us inflict even more pain on them…

Self-justification as a basis for criminal national policies
The authors show how self-justification serves as the basis for criminal acts on a national scale:

Most people want to believe that their government is working in their behalf, that it knows what it’s doing, and that it’s doing the right thing. Therefore, if our government decides that torture is necessary in the war against terrorism, most citizens, to avoid dissonance, will agree. Yet, over time, that is how the moral conscience of a nation deteriorates. Once people take that first small step off the pyramid in the direction of justifying abuse and torture, they are on their way to hardening their hearts and minds in ways that might never be undone. Uncritical patriotism, the kind that reduces the dissonance caused by information that their government has done something immoral and illegal, greases the slide down the pyramid…

Excessive Party loyalty
Tavris and Aronson describe a study by psychologist Geoffrey Cohen titled “Party over policy – The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs”, which demonstrates the general phenomenon of excessive attachments to political parties. People who develop these excessive attachments become blinded to the faults of their political party for similar reasons to why they become blinded to the faults of their nation or of themselves:

Cohen found that Democrats will endorse an extremely restrictive welfare proposal, one usually associated with Republicans, if they think it has been proposed by the Democratic Party, and Republicans will support a generous welfare policy if they think it comes from the Republican Party. Label the same proposal as coming from the other side, and you might as well be asking people if they will favor a policy proposed by Osama bin Laden.

How self-justification corrupts our politicians and political system
The book goes into great detail about the effects of self-justification on the political process in our country:

Most politicians, thanks to their blind spots, believe they are incorruptible. When they first enter politics, they accept lunch with a lobbyist, because after all, that’s how politics works and it’s an efficient way to get information about a pending bill, isn’t it? “Besides,” the politician says, “lobbyists, like any other citizens, are exercising their right to free speech. I only have to listen; I’ll decide how to vote on the basis of whether my party and constituents support this bill and on whether it is the right thing to do for the American people.”

Once you accept the first small inducement and justify it that way, however, you have started your slide down the pyramid. If you had lunch with a lobbyist to talk about that pending legislation, why not talk things over on the local golf course? What’s the difference? It’s a nicer place to have a conversation.

We can overcome the drive to self-justification if we choose
Near the end of their book, Tavris and Aronson summarize the problem and hint at the solution. They briefly summarize the benefits of self-justification as giving people more self-esteem and precluding the need to think too hard about why they believe what they believe. After summarizing the harmful effects they note the fact that human beings have the ability to overcome their weaknesses if they choose to do so:

The need to reduce dissonance is a universal mental mechanism, but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to be controlled by it. Human beings may not be eager to change, but we have the ability to change…. Is the brain designed (for self-justification)? Fine – the brain wants us to stock up on sugar, too, but most of us learn to enjoy vegetables. Is the brain designed to make us flare in anger when we think we are being attacked? Fine – but most of us learn to count to ten and find alternatives to beating the other guy with a cudgel. An appreciation of how dissonance (and associated self-justification) works, in ourselves and others, gives us some ways to override our wiring – and protects us from those who can’t.

The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – by Michelle Alexander

The title of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, derives from her argument that our “War on Drugs” primarily represents a backlash against the success of the Civil Rights movement. When slavery ended with the Civil War, it was followed by about ten years of Reconstruction, during which attempts were made to integrate our former slaves into White society. After Reconstruction ended, White Supremacists began to take their revenge, through such means as the Ku Klux Klan and a series of repressive laws that came to be known as “Jim Crow” laws. The “War on Drugs” and the massive incarceration of black men associated with it has been their answer to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. No longer legally able to keep black people “in their place” through an explicitly racist system, the War on Drugs makes use of racially neutral language to hide its racist purposes.

Racial discrimination in the War on Drugs
Not only has the “War on Drugs” proven to be no exception to the racial discrimination found elsewhere in our criminal just department, but it has been shown to be an especially egregious example of it. The “War on Drugs” is tailor-made for racial discrimination. This derives from the fact that there is much more drug usage in the United States than could ever possibly be investigated, so police and prosecutors must prioritize where and whom to investigate. Because court decisions have repeatedly allowed them virtually unlimited discretion in choosing where and whom to investigate, racial discrimination has been given virtually free reign.

Consequently, while the overall increase in prison population of the United States has increased about 7- or 8-fold since 1980, prison admissions for blacks have increased 26-fold since 1983. Furthermore, though illegal drug use is no more frequent among black than white men, and although drug trafficking is more frequent among whites, blacks constitute 80-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison in seven states.

The tragic consequences of the “War on Drugs”
Shouldn’t any nation – especially one that prides itself on being “The land of the free” – be ashamed of having the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world? The fact that the “War on Drugs” is permeated with racial discrimination and requires an intricate web of propaganda and lies in order to make it politically viable (as Alexander thoroughly documents) makes it all the worse. The toll of human misery is astounding: Productive lives lost, lives lived in fear, families broken up. Alexander spends a good deal of space to document the many tragic consequences of this “War”.

There are the reduced resources left over for much more important activities, such as combating violent crime. And with all the emphasis on fighting the “War on Drugs” with the incarceration approach, funding was drastically cut for treatment and prevention programs, which are considered by experts to be much more effective means of reducing illicit drug use.

With all the federal pressure to get “results”, along with the distribution of military equipment by the federal government to local law enforcement officials, not to mention the inherent military zeal of some police officers, the temptation to use excessive, disproportionate force has proven to be to difficult to resist. Alexander provides gruesome examples of police officials giving in to that temptation.

Providing financial incentives to law enforcement agencies to punish people should be viewed as the perverse nonsense that it is. The legitimate purpose of a criminal justice system is to protect citizens – not to meet arbitrary arrest quotas. Anyone who couldn’t foresee the potential for corruption inherent in such a strategy doesn’t belong in government. Especially rife for the potential for corruption are the seizure forfeiture laws, which allow police departments to confiscate for their own use cash and property seized in the course of their “Drug War”. Largely as a result of these laws and other financial incentives, the extent to which some law enforcement agencies will go to obtain arrests and convictions is often despicable, including the planting of drugs on people and the use of paid snitches, who are notoriously unreliable.

The draconian sentences incurred under mandatory minimum and three strike laws are often way out of proportion to the “crimes” committed, and they have rightly been the target of attacks in our court system under our 8th Amendment (which bans cruel and unusual punishment) and the equal protection clause of our 14th Amendment. Alexander notes that some federal judges have quit in protest of these stupid laws.

The potential for harassment is rife in a system such as this, and harassment is frequently used. I’ve noted the seizure forfeiture laws, which don’t even require that a person be found guilty of any crime as a condition of losing his property.

Finally, the rules of the “War on Drugs”, especially the draconian sentences that it often mandates, allow prosecutors to use the threat of draconian punishment as a bargaining chip in efforts to persuade innocent people to plead guilty to lesser offenses.

A final word on the “War on Drugs”
There are many Americans who have known for a long time that the “War on Drugs” has been a dismal failure. That is, it has been a dismal failure if one assumes that its purpose is to reduce drug use in the United States. But the dirty little secret is that for the purposes for which the “War on Drugs” was designed, it has been a resounding success: It has reversed many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, which the White Supremacist types so strongly fought, and it has removed so many black people from the voter rolls that that the current electorate is way to the right of what it otherwise would be.

The “War on Drugs” is a sham and a disgrace to our country. It is time to end it. In the last part of her book, Alexander talks about ways that we could end it (which I discuss in much more detail in this post) despite all the political barriers. Near the end of her book she writes:

Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create – rather than prevent – crime….

As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them.

A Presidency in Peril – The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Street’s Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future – by Robert Kuttner

A Presidency in Peril is one of the best accounts of an American presidency I’ve ever read – notwithstanding the fact that the presidency is incomplete and that the book focused almost exclusively on economic issues. The book is in many ways a scathing indictment of Obama’s economic policies, although it is clear that Kuttner desperately wants our president to succeed, as suggested in the introduction to his book:

For progressives like me, Obama represented a chance to reclaim a tradition of enriched democracy, affirmative government, and social justice…

Earlier in 2008… candidate Obama was sounding like a radical reformer… In his review of why the system had failed, Obama pointed squarely to the political power of the financial industry: “This was not the invisible hand at work. Instead, it was the hand of industry lobbyists tilting the playing field in Washington.” It was, sadly, an all-too-prophetic description of his own administration.

Further indication of Kuttner’s hopes for the Obama presidency is provided in the book jacket. After summarizing some of Obama’s failures, the narrative continues:

But this story is not over. Kuttner shows how Obama and a resurgent progressive movement may yet redeem this president’s promise and enact the sweeping reforms that America needs.

Failing to require Wall Street financial reforms
The main theme Kuttner’s book is how virtually all of Obama’s actions thus far have greatly favored Wall Street over ordinary people. Kuttner blames such policies for contributing to the woeful state of our current economy, as well as greatly hampering the potential for recovery and the future outlook for our country.

Kuttner describes how the Obama administration’s handling of the Wall Street bailout failed to extract meaningful concessions from Wall Street, despite the fact that it was their irresponsible behavior that caused the recession and the need for the bailout:

Bankers were pleased to take the taxpayer money and guarantees from the Federal Reserve but fiercely resisted changing their business models…

In stark contrast with Roosevelt, who made a clean break with the old political and financial regime, Obama and his economic aides chose instead to work in concert with the Wall Street elite. The government’s immense sums of emergency aid were not used as leverage to compel more fundamental reforms. Even when continuing abuses were disclosed – exorbitant bonuses, new speculative schemes, conflicts of interest, refusals to supply needed credit to small businesses and homeowners – Obama seldom criticized the banks except on occasions when he needed a quick dose of symbolic populism. His administration’s goal was to restore trust in capital markets, even if confidence in the existing order was far from justified. All of this would prolong recession and favor Wall Street over Main Street. It was dubious economics, and worse politics…

On subsequent efforts to establish financial “reform”, Kuttner writes:

At the most fundamental level, the Obama blueprint left largely intact the broader business model that had enabled the financial industry to take down the economy. There was no serious effort to shrink the financial sector back down to a scale that would leave it as servant of the rest of the economy rather than master, or to promote a comprehensive simplification of the system or a reining in of the exotic abstractions that produced such profit for the financial sector at such risk for the larger economy. Nothing would interfere with the long-term trend in which bankers and investment bankers… all tended to behave more like… engines of speculation for their own enrichment rather than sources of credit for productive investment… It was a reform effort worthy of a McCain administration.

Favoring Wall Street over desperate homeowners
Given that the sub-prime mortgage crisis leading to millions of home foreclosures was at the heart of our economic crisis, one would hope that government interventions would be targeted towards helping homeowners rather than relying on a trickle down sort of solution in which primarily banks were targeted for relief. But it didn’t quite work out like that. Kuttner writes:

The Bush administration made the fateful decision to give primary relief to banks, not to homeowners. Obama continued the basic policy… The collapse in housing prices had wiped out at least $7 trillion of net worth of American families…

Obama’s solution was a program called “Making Home Affordable”. Kuttner explains that this program had several fatal flaws. Consequently, the banks offered very little help for most homeowners. Regarding the one part of Obama’s bill that had some teeth (the proposed authority of bankruptcy judges to compel banks to modify loans to prevent foreclosures), Kuttner writes:

In this key battle, the White House did not lift a finger to urge wavering legislators to support their president… Word was quickly passed on Capitol Hill that this was not a provision that mattered to the White House.

Kuttner comments on the difference in government solicitude for banks, compared with the rest of us – the bottom 99%:

The contrast was all too vivid – several trillions in loans and loan guarantees for the banks, and a grudging $3 billion for the homeowners who had been the banks’ victims. As a consequence of the administration’s half measures and failure to move boldly, the mortgage foreclosure crisis is continuing to drive millions of Americans from their homes, depress housing prices… and retard the recovery… Refinancing underwater retail mortgages is comparatively easy. It just requires political will.

Very poor choice of economic advisors
Kuttner comments a great deal the fact that on economic matters Obama primarily listens to the advice of those who set the stage for financial disaster during the Clinton administration. In addition to discussing Ben Bernanke and Rahm Emanuel, Kuttner devotes much attention to Robert Rubin and Larry Summers:

Given the abject failure of the financial deregulation that Rubin championed as Clinton’s top economic adviser, followed by the collapse of the business model that he promoted as senior executive at Citigroup, it is remarkable that a consummate outsider like Barack Obama did not view Rubin (or his protégé Summers) as fatally damaged goods. On the contrary, Obama felt he needed men like Rubin and Summers for tutelage, access, and validation. That itself speaks volumes about where power reposes in America…

Glass-Steagall was designed to prevent the kinds of speculative conflicts of interest that pervaded Wall Street in the 1920s and helped bring about the Great Depression (and that reappeared in the 1990s and helped cause the crash of 2007). The Clinton’ administration’s prime architect of the Glass-Steagall repeal was Robert Rubin….

On potential explanations for Obama’s favoring of Wall Street
Giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, Kuttner speculates that maybe Obama’s actions could be explained by just a flawed ideology. He uses the term “visionary minimalist” (which means someone with sound visions who believes that they are best reached by going slow) to describe Obama, as well as his tendency towards compromise and “bipartisanship”:

In ordinary times, a post-ideological “visionary minimalist” might be sufficient to coax new areas of common ground. But in a severe crisis created and prolonged by the hegemony of Wall Street, minimalism is capitulation. And with a Republican Party determined to destroy Obama no matter how much he listens, a politics of accommodation is a fool’s errand. The moment required transformative leadership, not visionary minimalism…

But Kuttner also poses the possibility that Wall Street money flowing into Obama’s campaign coffers explains a lot:

Despite the carefully cultivated buzz about Obama’s small-money base, his biggest donor source was Wall Street. As the year wore on, large donors were instructed to break up their contributions into small checks over time, in order to reinforce the campaign’s small-donor myth… Obama was a particular favorite at Goldman-Sachs, whose employees provided the biggest single bundle, $571,330 for the year 2007

Explaining the 2010 election disaster
Though Kuttner’s book was printed prior to the 2010, he could see the handwriting on the wall, and attempted to explain the massive Democratic defeat at the polls. He noted Obama’s excessive efforts to appease Republicans, his appointing of the infamous right-wing “Cat food Commission” to attack Social Security, and Obama’s deals with the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries to omit the public option from his health “reform” plan. He concludes by comparing Obama with FDR to explain the crushing Democratic defeat at the polls:

Unlike Obama, Roosevelt was not afraid to take on Republicans for fear of being called a partisan. Nor was he reluctant to take on Wall Street for fear of being called radical. Roosevelt was not intimidated by claims that drastic reforms would “unsettle” financial markets, which were already unsettled to the point of collapse. The point of the New Deal was not to appease money markets, but to remake them – which Roosevelt did. The strategy was not to conciliate the Republican Party, but to outvote it. Virtually all of Roosevelt’s major reforms were enacted over the strenuous opposition of both Wall Street and Republicans in Congress. But it didn’t matter, because the reforms served the people and the goal of a broad recovery. Roosevelt didn’t aspire to consensus at all costs but to help people, and that proved astute politics. Despite the hysterical opposition from the Republican Party and Wall Street, the people reciprocated. In his reelection campaign, Roosevelt carried forty-six (of 48) states.

During that campaign, Roosevelt brilliantly framed the battle as one of the people versus the selfish special interests. He could do this with credibility because his policies were bold enough to yield concrete benefits in people’s lives… Far-right movements trying to rally desperate people kept bumping into folks who loved Roosevelt, because Roosevelt had tangibly improved their lives. Socially conservative citizens who did not think much of Roosevelt’s relatively liberal views on race… nonetheless supported him in droves…

The Spirit Level – Why Greater Equality makes Societies Stronger – by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Income and wealth inequality have reached record levels in the United States, and there is as yet no indication of that trend reversing or even slowing. Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explore in their book, The Spirit Level, the relationship of income inequality within societies to several measures of social problems and well-being.

Their first major point is that, though average income per person strongly affects both human longevity and quality of life in the poorer countries, the relationship becomes much weaker to nonexistent among the richer nations. Life expectancy and quality of life rises very steeply with increasing average income among the poorest countries. But at about an average of $10,000 per person, the rise in life expectancy and quality of life with additional average income becomes much less. At about $20,000 per person, there is virtually no additional rise in life expectancy with additional average income, and the rise in quality of life is very small.

But while among the industrialized countries of the world there is little or no effect of average income upon average length and quality of life, within countries individual income is strongly related to length and quality of life. Take the United States, for example. It has the highest average income level of any nation in the world. Yet life expectancy in the United States is lower than that of most of the industrialized nations of the world, and even lower than that of some of the poorer ones. But within the United States (as within all countries) richer people live longer and happier lives on average. Thus it is that the social well being of a society that has reached a modest level of average annual income is much more related to income inequality than it is to average income.

The authors found that other consequences of a high level of income inequality include more mental illness, greater use of illegal drugs, higher imprisonment rate, higher infant mortality rate, more homicides, lower educational performance of our children, lower index of child well-being, lower trust in our fellow citizens, and lower status of women, among other adverse societal effects. I discuss these relationships in much more detail in this post.

Explanation for the adverse societal consequences of high income inequality
Wilkinson and Pickett explain that income inequality within a society is a reflection of the extent to which that society is hierarchical. It’s not just income. Large income inequality generally translates to a society that is divided along class lines, with large differences in social status between classes. The authors explain how that produces so many ill effects within societies:

Greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status. Instead of accepting each other as equals on the basis of our common humanity… getting the measure of each other becomes more important as status differences widen. We come to see social position as a more important feature of a person’s identity…

As greater inequality increases status competition and social evaluative threat, egos have to be propped up by self-promoting and self-enhancing strategies. Modesty easily becomes a casualty of inequality: we become outwardly tougher and harder in the face of greater exposure to social evaluation anxieties, but inwardly probably more vulnerable, less able to take criticism, less good at personal relationships and less able to recognize our own faults…

Not only do large inequalities produce all the problems associated with social differences and the divisive class prejudices which go with them, but it also weakens community life, reduces trust, and increases violence.

I would add that large inequality of income almost always manifests itself in political inequality as well, as those who have the most wealth use that wealth to influence government to create legislation and policies that benefit them in every way, at the expense of everyone else. That in turn leads to further degradation of society.

Take our prison system and our obscenely high imprisonment rate, for example. Over the past few decades wealthy individuals have used their wealth to influence our government to put much of our prison system into their own private hands. They then continued to use their wealth to pressure government to pass laws and create policies (such as the “War on Drugs”, mandatory minimum sentences, and three strike laws) which have had the combined effect of tremendously increasing our prison population.

Implications for national policy
Near the end of their book, Pickett and Wilkinson comment on the implications for national policy:

Nor should we allow ourselves to be cowed by the idea that higher taxes on the rich will lead to their mass emigration and economic catastrophe. We know that more egalitarian countries live well, with high living standards and much better social environments. We also know that economic growth is not the yardstick by which everything else must be judged. Indeed we know that it no longer contributes to the real quality of our lives and that consumerism is a danger to the planet. Nor should we allow ourselves to believe that the rich are scarce and precious members of a superior race of more intelligent beings on whom the rest of us are dependent. That is merely the illusion that wealth and power create… We need to recognize what a damaging effect they have on the social fabric. The financial meltdown of late 2008 and the resulting recession show us how dangerous huge salaries and bonuses at the top can be.

Stripping Bare the Body – Politics Violence War – by Mark Danner

This book tells stories of extreme violence involving Haiti in the late 1980s (as well as a brief history of Haiti, starting with the events leading up to the establishment of an independent Haiti in 1804, when “half a million illiterate African slaves had defeated the armies of the most powerful nation on earth and created the world’s first independent black republic”), genocide in the Balkans in the 1990s, and the U.S. “War on Terror”. Mark Danner is a journalist who was on the scene for many or most of the violent events that he tells about, and they are reported in great detail. The general theme for the book is described in his Introduction:

Violence is the continuation of politics by other means. When power re-emerges from society and embodies itself as violence the underlying realities of policies are laid bare. Thus the governing metaphor of this book: Violence strips bare the social body… Want to understand a society, comprehend the roots of its injustices, trace the structure of its power? Examine it at a moment of intense political struggle, when leader assassinates leader, party militia battles army, deaths quads liquidate rivals, paramilitaries massacre the defenseless… This book, telling as it does stories of violence and political conflict from around the world – from Haiti, the Balkans, and Iraq; from the secret “black sites” of Asia… is a gathering of those moments of nudity: a cycle of narratives that attempt to piece them together, slowly and deliberately, as they actually happened.

Another of the major themes of this book is the tragedy of what is happening to American society. Danner has this to say about our torture practices:

Go beyond laws broken and treaties violated. It is hard to think of a dynamic more corrosive of the liberal idea of government… These images (of torture) came before us in 2004, accompanied by the usual defense of the nation that tortures – they depicted only the activities of a “few bad apples.” … Surely only a handful of sadists, acting without supervision, could have been responsible. After a momentary outcry, and a dozen or more investigations – none of which confronted the responsibility of those who made the policies and those who gave the orders – the question of torture receded… and we have learned to live with it.

In my opinion the most telling comments about the legacy of the Bush years, and our ongoing road to lawless empire comes at the end of the book, where Danner comments on the National Defense Strategy of the United States of 2005, specifically the quote, “Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism”. Danner comments on this:

A remarkable troika, these “weapons of the weak”, comprising as it does the United Nations and like institutions (“international fora”), international and domestic courts (“judicial processes”), and … terrorism. This strange grouping, put forward as the official policy of the United States, is borne of the idea that power is, in fact, everything: the only thing. In such a world, international institutions and courts – indeed law itself – can only limit the power of the most powerful state. Wielding preponderant power, what need has such a state for law? The latter must be, by definition, a weapon of the weak. The most powerful state, after all, makes reality.

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The Unfulfilled Promise
The Unfulfilled Promise of the American Dream: The Widening Gap between the Reality of the United States and its Highest Ideals

Time for change

Notwithstanding the lofty sentiments and purpose of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the reality of the United States of America did not then – and never has – lived up to its ideal. Our nation remains today a long way from fulfilling the promise implied by those ideals. Yet, our Declaration was a great start, and it has long shone as a beacon of hope for people all over the world.

Throughout our history, while many have striven to close the gap between our highest ideals and the reality of our nation, others have focused on the accumulation of private wealth and power, at the expense of everyone else. In recent decades the latter have gained much ground, leading to increasing imperialism abroad and deteriorating democracy at home, characterized by routine (and legal) bribery of our public officials, the fusion of government and private corporate interests (corporatocracy), a corrupt election system largely in the hands of private corporations, a corporate controlled communications media, and the widespread acceptance of Executive Branch secrecy, routinely justified with little if any questioning, by the magic words “national security”. All of this is rapidly turning our country from the democracy proclaimed at our founding into a plutocracy (government by the wealthy and for the wealthy). The result is the most obscene wealth gap our country has ever known, the highest imprisonment rate in the world, rampant militarism, routine flaunting of international law, the least efficient health care system in the developed world, a pending environmental catastrophe that threatens to destroy the life sustaining forces of our planet, and myriad other problems that threaten to destroy our nation and tyrannize our people.

My new book, The Unfulfilled Promise of the American Dream – The Widening Gap between the Reality of the United States and its Highest Ideals, explores the roots and consequences of the demise of our democracy, and why most Americans have been unable to understand this process or even become aware of it. A good understanding of why and how we have deviated so greatly from the ideals of our nation is the first and necessary step towards getting back on the right track and revitalizing our society.

The book is currently being sold in electronic PDF format and can be purchased at for $3.99. It will also soon be available in Amazon Kindle format. DU members who cannot afford to buy the book but would like to read it can pm me with your e-mail address, and I will send you a free PDF copy.

I’ve previously posted on DU a slightly earlier version of the introduction to the book, which is also posted at my site. Here is the Table of Contents, followed by a brief description of the three parts of the book:


Prologue – What is Wrong with the United States of America?

Part I – Root Causes of the Impending Demise of American Democracy
Chapter 1 – Legalized Bribery
Chapter 2 – Human Psychological Factors
Chapter 3 – Corporatocracy
Chapter 4 – Corporate Control of Media
Chapter 5 – Corrupt Election System
Chapter 6 – Government Secrecy
Chapter 7 – American Exceptionalism

Part II – A Sampling of Imperialist Actions
Chapter 8 – Slavery and its Legacy
Chapter 9 – Early U.S. Imperialism
Chapter 10 – U.S. Imperialism in Cold War
Chapter 11 – Iraq War and Occupation
Chapter 12 – Afghanistan War

Part III – Consequences
Chapter 13 – Election of George W. Bush
Chapter 14 – War and Imperialism
Chapter 15 – Class Warfare
Chapter 16 – Predator Financial Class
Chapter 17 – Shock Therapy
Chapter 18 – Contempt for Int. Law
Chapter 19 – The “War on Drugs”
Chapter 20 – Climate Change
Chapter 21 – “War on Terror”
Chapter 22 – Health Care
Chapter 23 – Unaccountable government
Chapter 24 – Response to 9/11 Attacks

PART I – Root Causes of the Impending Demise of American Democracy

It is somewhat difficult to separate the causes of our problems from their consequences, since they combine to form a long chain of cause leading to consequence, leading to more consequences, etcetera. Nevertheless, it seems worth while to identify the root causes of our problems, those that occur early in the chain and lead to so many of the tragic consequences we see today. The only chance we have of reversing the demise of our democracy is through addressing and attacking its root causes.

At the top of the list is the systematic bribery of public officials by the powerful corporations (Chapter 1) whom our government is charged with regulating in the public interest. Instead of calling it bribery, we call it “campaign contributions”, but what we call it isn’t as important as what it is. It is hard to fathom how democracy can survive when such a practice is legal and condoned.

Working in tandem with our system of legalized bribery is the nature of the people who inhabit our country. That is not to say that Americans are inherently substantially different than any other people. Human beings are imperfect, and that is probably a major reason why in a world where civilization began more than five millennia ago, the oldest written national framework of government in the world today – the Constitution of the United States of America – is only a little more than two and a quarter centuries old. Chapter 2 explores the roles of basic human needs, authoritarianism, psychological defense mechanisms used to prevent us from perceiving reality as it is rather than as we’d like it to be, and corrupted ideologies in causing us to passively accept the accumulation of power in the hands of ambitious and ruthless individuals who care about little else than expanding their own wealth and power.

When bribery of public officials is tolerated as an inevitable aspect of public life, government inevitably grows close to the wealthy interests that shower it with money in return for legislative and other favors. A malevolent symbiosis grows between the state and corporate power, resulting in rule by an oligarchy that is highly detrimental to the lives of ordinary people (Chapter 3). Using their accumulated wealth and power to manipulate our legislative process, the oligarchy grabs for more and more control of the communications media (Chapter 4) that are used to control the information available to and shape the attitudes of our nation’s people, in pursuit of their own narrow interests.

Since the 1980s an orchestrated campaign has been underway to demonize “big government”, thereby paving the way for private corporate control over more and more functions that were previously deemed intrinsic functions of government. Among those functions is the running of public elections (Chapter 5) – the function that symbolizes democracy perhaps more than any other single function. Consequently, the purging of selected registered voters from our computerized voter rolls has become a routine recurring event throughout much of our country, and without a doubt determined the results of the 2000 – and probably 2004 as well – presidential election. Just as bad, more and more of the counting of votes in our public elections have been turned over to private corporations, which count our votes using electronic machines using secret software to produce vote counts that cannot be verified by anyone.

Bribery, the fusion of government and private interest, fake and biased news, and corrupt elections are not things that government and its corporate allies want us to know about. Consequently, they construct walls of secrecy (Chapter 6) to keep us from obtaining information that sheds light on their activities. The perfect phrase for facilitating this is “national security”. When our government tells us that the “national security” requires that certain things be kept secret from us, the understanding is that to question such a pronouncement is unpatriotic, and to actually attempt to obtain the “secret” information may be treasonous.

But indefinitely maintaining secrets from the American people can be very difficult, because at least some people want to know what their government is up to. So in addition to the formal mechanisms of secrecy, informal mechanisms are constructed (Chapter 7) to keep vital information away from us. One of the primary methods for doing this is to make certain sensitive subjects taboo – that is, to create the widespread belief that discussion of these topics is so outside the bounds of acceptable human discourse that anyone who discusses them should be shunned by society, or worse. The most common issue that falls into this category is any discussion that sheds light on the disparity between American ideals and the reality of life in our country today.

PART II – A Sampling of Imperialist Actions in U.S. History

Notwithstanding the fact that our founding document says that “all men are created equal” and speaks of the inalienable rights of humankind, the United States has throughout its history partaken of massive exploitation of other peoples.

It is estimated that at the time of our birth, 18% of our population was black slaves. In our expansion westwards during the late 18th and 19th centuries, we decimated the original inhabitants of our continent, and often treated them with great cruelty. In 1846 we manufactured an excuse for war with our neighbor Mexico, in which we continued to expand our country westwards and southwards. In 1893 we began our overseas imperialism with the conquest of Hawaii. Our overseas expansion was greatly accelerated in 1898 with our participation in the Spanish-American War, which led to our conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. With our arrival at world superpower status at the end of World War II, we began the Cold War, which led to and served as a rationalization for covert and/or direct military actions against myriad foreign nations over the next 46 years. With the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, we declared a perpetual “War on Terror”, which served and continues to serve as an excuse to invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, nations that posed no threat to us. We do not know when or if this perpetual war will ever end. We don’t know how many additional imperial conquests it will lead to.

Most Americans don’t think much about all this. Many of these actions are done in secrecy, and the American people don’t find out about them until many years later – or we never find out about them at all. Those that we do know about are spun into the most favorable light, to make them seem benign or even noble.

But these actions come at great costs: in the lives of our soldiers; in the ruined lives of the peoples of the victim countries; in trillions of dollars cost to our people and their future generations; in our international reputation; in anti-American hatred leading to terrorism; and, to our democracy itself. For how can a nation claim to believe in the inalienable rights of humankind specified in its founding document, while making a mockery of that belief in the way it treats other peoples? For that reason alone it is worth while to take a brief look at our long history of imperialist actions.

PART III – Consequences

In the Prologue I give a brief account of what I see as some of the worst and tragic consequences of the root causes that I discuss in Part I – to enable the reader to see where this book is heading. When elections of our public officials are for sale to the highest bidder… when our public officials are so addicted to the “campaign contributions” of their wealthiest constituents that they develop a symbiotic relationship with them… when our communications media are owned and controlled by an oligarchy of wealthy elites… when our citizenry lack the ability to differentiate propaganda from reality… when we allow machines provided by private corporations to count our votes using secret electronic software… then we should expect that the consequences will not be pretty or comfortable for the vast majority of our citizens.

In Part III, I explore those consequences in much greater detail, in the hope that the reader will agree with me that these are very serious problems, and that they must be successfully addressed if our country is ever to fulfill the promise of its ideals, or even make progress in that direction. When enough Americans recognize our problems as problems, stripped of the gloss and spin put on them by our oligarchy, they will rise up and do something about them. Until then there will be no progress, and we are very likely to head in the direction of all the former empires of our planet, ending in chaos, widespread catastrophe, suffering, and ignominy.

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