[Note for TomDispatch Readers: With this post, TomDispatch is taking its usual late summer rest. We’ll be back on Thursday, September 5th. Have a good end of August! Tom]
Orwell Revisited in the Age of Trump
By Tom Engelhardt
I, Winston Smith... I mean, Tom Engelhardt... have not just been reading a dystopian novel, but, it seems, living one -- and I suspect I’ve been living one all my life.
Yes, I recently reread George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel, 1984. In it, Winston Smith, a secret opponent of the totalitarian world of Oceania, one of three great imperial superpowers left on planet Earth, goes down for the count at the hands of Big Brother. It was perhaps my third time reading it in my 75 years on this planet.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always had a certain fascination for dystopian fiction. It started, I think, with War of the Worlds, that ur-alien-invasion-from-outer-space novel in which Martians land in southern England and begin tearing London apart. Its author, H.G. Wells, wrote it at the end of the nineteenth century, evidently to give his English readers a sense of what it might have felt like to be living in Tasmania, the island off the coast of Australia, and have the equivalent of Martians -- the British, as it happened -- appear in your world and begin to destroy it (and your culture with it).
I can remember, at perhaps age 13, reading that book under the covers by flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep; I can remember, that is, being all alone, chilled (and thrilled) to the bone by Wells’ grim vision of civilizational destruction. To put this in context: in 1957, I would already have known that I was living in a world of potential civilizational destruction and that the Martians were here. They were then called the Russians, the Ruskies, the Commies, the Reds. I would only later grasp that we (or we, too) were Martians on this planet.
The world I inhabited was, of course, a post-Hiroshima, post-Nagasaki one. I was born on July 20, 1944, just a year and a few days before my country dropped atomic bombs on those two Japanese cities, devastating them in blasts of a kind never before experienced and killing more than 200,000 people. Thirteen years later, I had already become inured to scenarios of the most dystopian kinds of global destruction -- of a sort that would have turned those Martians into pikers -- as the U.S. and the Soviet Union (in a distant second place) built up their nuclear arsenals at a staggering pace.
Nuclear obliteration had, by then, become part of our everyday way of life. After all, what American of a certain age who lived in a major city can’t remember, on some otherwise perfectly normal day, air-raid sirens suddenly beginning to howl outside your classroom window as the streets emptied? They instantly called up a vision of a world in ashes. Of course, we children had only a vague idea of what had happened under those mushroom clouds that rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we huddled under our desks, hands over heads, “ducking and covering” like Bert the Turtle while a radio on the teacher’s desk blared Conelrad warnings, we knew enough, however, to realize that those desks and hands were unlikely to save us from the world's most powerful weaponry. The message being delivered wasn't one of safety but of ultimate vulnerability to Russian nukes. After such tests, as historian Stephen Weart recalled in his book Nuclear Fear, “The press reported with ghoulish precision how many millions of Americans ‘died’ in each mock attack.”
If those drills didn’t add up to living an everyday vision of the apocalypse as a child, what would? I grew up, in other words, with a new reality: for the first time in history, humanity had in its hands Armageddon-like possibilities of a sort previously left to the gods. Consider, for instance, the U.S. military’s Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) of 1960 for a massive nuclear strike on the Communist world. It was, we now know, meant to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets, including at least 130 cities. Official, if then secret, estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured (and probably underestimated the longer term effects of radiation).
In the early 1960s, a commonplace on the streets of New York where I lived was the symbol for “fallout shelters” (as they were then called), the places you would head for during just such an impending global conflagration. I still remember how visions of nuclear destruction populated my dreams (or rather nightmares) and those of my friends, as some would later admit to me. To this day, I can recall the feeling of sudden heat on one side of my body as a nuclear bomb went off on the distant horizon of one of those dreams. Similarly, I recall sneaking into a Broadway movie theater to see On the Beach with two friends -- kids of our age weren’t allowed into such films without parents -- and so getting a glimpse, popcorn in hand, of what a devastated, nuclearized San Francisco might look like. That afternoon at that film, I also lived through a post-nuclear-holocaust world’s end in Australia with no less than Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire for company.
Here’s just a small reminder of the country you now live in. On his Twitter account, Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old white-nationalist killer of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart including local Hispanics and eight Mexican citizens, reportedly “liked” a tweet that had first been posted elsewhere in 2017. It featured a photo of the name T-R-U-M-P spelled out with rifles and pistols. Recently, Crusius picked up his own AK-47-style assault rifle and extra magazines of ammo, harboring a desire (as he later told investigators) to “kill as many Mexicans as he could.” He then headed south, “invading” a city ranked sixth among the “top 10 safest” in America. He left behind a four-page white nationalist screed that spoke of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” It certainly reflected the president’s endlessly invasive rhetoric, not to speak of the moment at a rally in El Paso last February when he intoned the line “murders, murders, murders. Killings, murders!” while speaking of undocumented immigrants, as the crowd chanted “build the wall!” (Of course, few even remember anymore, historically speaking, who was in Texas first and who invaded what then.)
In case you’ve forgotten how we got to this grim moment, think back to June 2015 when Donald Trump descended a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Here’s part of what he said:
“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems... When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you... They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people… It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably -- probably -- from the Middle East.”
The “invasion” followed. It would, in fact, be a Trumpian invasion of America’s borderlands, which the president has worked incredibly single-mindedly to militarize and turn into contested territory. As Guardian reporter and author of the book Amexica Ed Vulliamy pointed out recently, it was a sign of the times that the terror, the horror, when it finally arrived in El Paso, didn’t come from the other side of the border, “It arrived from the opposite, northerly, direction.”
Today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon offers another kind of reminder of the strange upside-down nature of this increasingly terrifying world of ours. She reminds us that those mainly Central American immigrants crossing the border in large numbers whom the president has raged against since 2015 are, in fact, the desperate victims of a set of decisions made not in Tegucigalpa, Guatemala City, or San Salvador, but in Washington over more than half a century. Tom
What Happens in El Norte
Doesn’t Stay in El Norte
By Rebecca Gordon
It’s hard to believe that more than four years have passed since the police shot Amílcar Pérez-López a few blocks from my house in San Francisco’s Mission District. He was an immigrant, 20 years old, and his remittances were the sole support for his mother and siblings in Guatemala. On February 26, 2015, two undercover police officers shot him six times in the back, although they would claim he’d been running toward them with an upraised butcher knife.
For two years, members of my little Episcopal church joined other neighbors in a weekly evening vigil outside the Mission police station, demanding that the district attorney bring charges against the men who killed Amílcar. When the medical examiner’s office continued to drag its feet on releasing its report, we helped arrange for a private autopsy, which revealed what witnesses had already reported -- that he had indeed been running away from those officers when they shot him. In the end, the San Francisco district attorney declined to prosecute the police for the killing, although the city did reach a financial settlement with his family back in Guatemala.
Still, this isn’t really an article about Amílcar, but about why he -- like so many hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and El Salvadorans in similar situations -- was in the United States in the first place. It’s about what drove 225,570 of them to be apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2018 and 132,887 of them to be picked up at or near the border in a single month -- May -- of this year. As Dara Lind observed at Vox, “This isn’t a manufactured crisis, or a politically engineered one, as some Democrats and progressives have argued.”
It is indeed a real crisis, not something the Trump administration simply cooked up to justify building the president's wall. But it is also absolutely a manufactured crisis, one that should be stamped with the label “made in the U.S.A.” thanks to decades of Washington’s interventions in Central American affairs. Its origins go back at least to 1954 when the CIA overthrew the elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz. In the 1960s, dictatorships would flourish in that country (and elsewhere in the region) with U.S. economic and military backing.
After almost 18 years of the war (or rather wars) on (or perhaps of) terror, there's some good news! The Washington Post reports that American troops are finally coming home from Afghanistan! Actually, let me amend that slightly. They will only come home if Taliban and U.S. negotiators complete a deal by September that leads to a countrywide ceasefire (and if the Taliban agrees to certain other conditions as well). In fact, let me amend that one more time: “they” turns out to refer to the withdrawal of just about 5,000 U.S. military personnel, leaving 8,000-9,000 U.S. troops still in place after “peace” breaks out.
For Donald Trump who, years ago, repeatedly demanded that the Afghan War be ended and all American troops brought home, only to agree in mid-2017 to dispatch another 4,000 of them to that land, such a peace pact would just return U.S. troop levels to more or less what they were at that moment two years ago. In the age of Trump, that, I suppose, is the definition of “progress” in America’s never-ending wars. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to also learn that, according to the Post, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, is “open” to such a peace proposal precisely “because he believes it would protect U.S. interests by maintaining a counterterrorism force that can strike the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.” If one were to turn this into a riddle, it might go something like: When is a Trumpian withdrawal hardly a withdrawal at all?
On the other hand, don’t let any of this worry you. The troops may not be coming home, but the wars have been on their way here for a long time. That should have been obvious at least since, in 2014, local police, using equipment off America's distant battlefields, made such a public splash in responding to protests in Ferguson, Missouri. From thousands of troops sent to the U.S.-Mexican border to the Pentagon spy drones that have long flown over parts of the U.S., further examples of the growing militarization of this country abound. Perhaps the most recent, as reported by the Guardian, is the news that the military is now “conducting wide-area surveillance tests across six Midwest states using experimental high-altitude balloons... Travelling in the stratosphere at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet, the balloons are intended to ‘provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats,’ according to a filing made on behalf of the Sierra Nevada Corporation, an aerospace and defense company. The balloons are carrying hi-tech radars designed to simultaneously track many individual vehicles day or night, through any kind of weather.”
As it happens, almost unnoticed, America’s twenty-first-century wars have been coming home in another way as well: in the increasingly worshipful attitudes of so many Americans (especially those in the seats of power in Washington, D.C.) toward the Pentagon and the U.S. military, as vividly described today by retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore. Tom
In Wars and Weapons We Trust
America’s Militarized Profession of Faith
By William J. Astore
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I looked to the heavens: to God and Christianity (as arbitrated by the Catholic Church) and to the soaring warbirds of the U.S. military, which I believed kept us safe. To my mind then, they were classic manifestations of American technological superiority over the godless Communists.
With all its scandals, especially when it came to priestly sexual abuse, I lost my faith in the Catholic Church. Indeed, I would later learn that there had been a predatory priest in my own parish when I was young, a grim man who made me uneasy at the time, though back then I couldn’t have told you why. As for those warbirds, like so many Americans, I thrilled to their roar at air shows, but never gave any real thought to the bombs they were dropping in Vietnam and elsewhere, to the lives they were ending, to the destruction they were causing. Nor, at that age, did I ever consider their enormous cost in dollars or just how much Americans collectively sacrificed to have “top cover,” whether of the warplane or godly kind.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Call it a summer whim or something about this grim moment of ours, but I had an urge to post at TomDispatch my very first piece of published writing. It appeared 48 years ago in what was, at the time, one of the more obscure journals on the face of the Earth, one I helped found as a then-antiwar-China-scholar-to-be: the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. As happens in so many lives, however, I became anything but a China scholar. I was instead swept out of my life by opposition to the Vietnam War and ended up elsewhere entirely. The piece I wrote would, more than two decades later, lie at the core of my second book, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Anyway, having been on this planet for three-quarters of a century, I wanted to bring this piece, “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” and its vision of how Americans (particularly white Americans) were once taught to look at the rest of the world back to our twenty-first-century moment. It’s long compared to normal TD posts and I’ve changed nothing in it (except to add section titles). I’d stand by it today. Tom]
In the later 1960s, thanks to the efforts of the antiwar movement, the Vietnamese -- the dead, the wounded, the mistreated, as well as “the enemy” -- seemed to come ever closer to us until, though I was living in quiet Cambridge, Massachusetts, I sometimes had the eerie feeling that Vietnamese were dying right outside my window. In the present American world, that undoubtedly sounds ludicrous and histrionic. You’ll have to take my word for it that the sensation then was visceral indeed.
Which brings me to the old black-and-white TV I got at some point in 1968 or 1969. What I remember about it is that, in the era before remote controls, the dial you turned by hand to change channels was broken, so I had to use a pair of pliers. Sometimes, I had it on my desk while I worked; sometimes, propped on a chair, an arm’s reach from my bed. And in the off-hours when old movies filled secondary channels, I began to re-watch the westerns, adventure films, and war movies of my childhood.
It became an almost obsessional activity. I watched at least 30 to 40 of them, no small feat in the era before you could find anything you wanted online at a moment’s notice. Those films from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s -- grade-B westerns, John Wayne-style World War II movies, and the like -- had for me been the definition of entertainment sunny side up. I had only the fondest memories of them. You always knew what to expect: the Indians (or Mexicans, or Japanese) would fall in vast numbers, the cavalry would ride to the rescue in the nick of time, the Marines would advance triumphantly, the West would be won, victory assured. It was how it should be. Imagine my shock, then, to look at those films again years later -- with that visceral sense of Vietnamese dying in my neighborhood -- and realize that the sunniest part of my childhood had been based on a spectacle of slaughter. The “Vietnamese” had always been the ones to fall in staggering numbers just before the moment of victory or the cowboy got the girl.
This was, of course, my own tiny version of the disillusionment so many experienced with a previously all-American tale in those Vietnam War years. Our country’s triumphs, I suddenly realized, had been built on conquest and on piles of nonwhite bodies. Believe me, looking back on my childhood from that antiwar moment was a shock and it led me to produce “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” the first critical essay of my life. It is now up at TomDispatch for the first time almost half a century later. Tom
Ambush at Kamikaze Pass
By Tom Engelhardt
[This essay first appeared in volume 3, number 1, of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars in 1971.]
"I was visiting an Indian school and a movie was being shown in the auditorium about the cavalry and the Indians. The cavalry was, of course, outnumbered and holding an impossible position where the Indians had chased them into the rocks. The Indians, attempting to sneak up on the cavalry, were being killed, one every shot. When it finally appeared that the Indians were going to overrun the army position the ubiquitous cavalry appeared on the far horizon with their bugle blowing, and charged to save the beleaguered few. The whole auditorium full of Indian students cheered."
-- Our Brother's Keeper: The Indian in White America
It was a thrilling drama of love and death they saw silently reeled off; the scenes, laid at the court of an oriental despot, galloped past, full of gorgeousness and naked bodies, thirst of power and raving religious self-abnegation, full of cruelty, appetite and deathly lust, and slowing down to give a full view of the muscular development of the executioner's arms. Constructed, in short, to cater to the innermost desires of an onlooking, international civilization."
-- Thomas Mann, Magic Mountain
"Westerns" may have been America's most versatile art form. For several generations of Americans, Westerns provided history lessons, entertainment, and a general guide to the world. They created or recreated a flood of American heroes, filled popcorned weekends, and overwhelmed untold imaginations. It's as difficult today to imagine movies without them as to think of a luncheonette without Coca-Cola. In their folksy way, they intruded on our minds. Unobtrusively they lent us a hand in grinding a lens through which we could view the whole of the non-white world. Their images were powerful; their structure was satisfying; and, at their heart, lay one archetypal scene which went something like this:
White canvas-covered wagons rolled forward in a column. White men, on their horses, ride easily up and down the lines of wagons. Their arms hang loosely near their guns. The walls of the buttes rise high on either side. Cakey streaks of yellow, rusty red, dried brown enclose the sun's heat boiling up on all sides. The dust settles on their nostrils, they gag and look apprehensively towards the heights, hostile and distant. Who's there? Sullenly, they ride on.
Beyond the buttes, the wagon train moves centrally into the flatlands, like a spear pointed at the sunset. The wagons circle. Fires are built; guards set. From within this warm and secure circle, at the center of the plains, the white-men (-cameras) stare out. There, in the enveloping darkness, on the peripheries of human existence, at dawn or dusk, hooting and screeching, from nowhere, like maggots, swarming, naked, painted, burning and killing, for no reason, like animals, they would come! The men touch their gun handles and circle the wagons. From this strategically central position, with good cover, and better machines, today or tomorrow, or the morning after, they will simply mow them down. Wipe them out. Nothing human is involved. It's a matter of self-defense, no more. Extermination can be the only answer.
There are countless variations on this scene. Often the encircled wagon train is replaced by the surrounded fort; yet only the shape of the object has changed. The fort, like the wagon train, is the focus of the film. Its residents are made known to us. Familiarly, we take in the hate/respect struggle between the civilian scout and the garrison commander; the love relations between the commander's daughter and the young first lieutenant who-has-yet-to-prove-himself; the comic routines of the general soldiery. From this central point in our consciousness, they sally forth to victory against unknown besiegers with inexplicable customs, irrational desires, and an incomprehensible language (a mixture of Pig Latin and pidgin Hollywood).
What does this sort of paradigm do to us? Mostly, it forces us to flip history on its head. It makes the intruder exchange places in our eyes with the intruded upon. (Who ever heard of a movie in which the Indians wake up one morning to find that, at the periphery of their existences, in their own country, there are new and aggressive beings ready to make war on them, incomprehensible, unwilling to share, out to murder and kill, etc.) It is the Indians, in these films, who must invade, intrude, break in upon the circle -- a circle which contains all those whom the film has already certified as "human." No wonder the viewer identifies with those in the circle, not with the Indians left to patrol enigmatically the bluffs overlooking humanity. In essence, the viewer is forced behind the barrel of a repeating rifle and it is from that position, through its gun sights, that he receives a picture history of Western colonialism. And imperialism. Little wonder that he feels no sympathy for the enemy as they fall before his withering fire -- within this cinematic structure, the opportunity for such sympathy simply ceases to exist.
When it comes to Donald Trump's racism -- whether his now-infamous “go back” tweet, his attack on Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and the city of Baltimore, his many uses of “infested” and “infestation” in relation to African-American neighborhoods, or his reference to African countries as “shitholes” -- don’t for a second think that you’re in a new world. You’re actually in just about the oldest American world there is. When it comes to race, Donald Trump isn’t breaking new American ground but very old ground in a particularly voluble and public way. Presidents with racist streaks have been a commonplace of our history from slave-owner George Washington on. They just didn’t tend to speak on the subject quite so publicly.
In 1915, for instance, President Woodrow Wilson actually screened D.W. Griffith’s silent movie, The Birth of a Nation (based on the novel The Clansman), a film that would almost singlehandedly breathe new life into the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House for his cabinet. President Lyndon Johnson not only called his regular driver “nigger” and “boy,” but reportedly told two governors, regarding the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, “I'll have them niggers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years.” As we learned just the other day, when he was governor of California in 1971, future president Ronald Reagan called then-President Richard Nixon to vent his frustration over African delegates at the U.N. voting against an American position on China. Secretly taped by Nixon, Reagan said, “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries -- damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon laughed and later called the same delegates “cannibals” in a conversation with Secretary of State William Rogers, not atypical of his own secretly taped thoughts.
And no one should be surprised that, in his racism, the president is also playing very directly to just where that base of his is right now. In recent polling, as Michael Tesler of the Washington Post reports, “the percentage of Republicans who consider the word [“nigger”] offensive or unacceptable has actually declined in recent years. As of 2018, only 33% of self-reported Trump voters said that it was racist for whites to use the n-word, compared to 86% of Clinton voters.”
This, then, seems like a particularly appropriate moment for former New York Times sports columnist and TomDispatch regular Robert Lipsyte to revisit his experience as a young white man working with famed comedian Dick Gregory on his autobiography, Nigger. Gregory, who died two years ago, had Donald Trump’s number decades before he entered the Oval Office. Tom
When Comedian Dick Gregory Tried to Bust the Word
Nigger, the Book, Never Overcame “Nigger,” the Slur
By Robert Lipsyte
One afternoon in New York City in the spring of 1964, I marched at the head of a small civil rights demonstration, one of the few white people in the group. I was carrying a watermelon. It was a Dick Gregory joke.
To say the least, not everyone liked that joke, but I thought it was hilarious, a jab by the hottest comedian in the country at one of the oldest racial stereotypes. Some of the black demonstrators in that little parade felt that Gregory’s version of guerrilla theater (in which I was a bit player) diminished the seriousness of the occasion -- and they said so. Some of the white bystanders had another opinion entirely. In words that couldn’t have been more blunt, they suggested I was a traitor to my race.
More than a half-century later, as Gregory’s jokes and accomplishments are being revisited, that watermelon bit still seems brilliantly mocking to me. Yet it is also quaint, almost antediluvian, symbolic of a once-thrilling sense of progress. The current struggle against racism faces an orchestrated resistance led from the White House. The racists on the twenty-first-century sidewalk are emboldened, having found a malicious leader impervious to comedy. Too many others realized too late that Donald Trump was no joke after all. And now they’re squabbling among themselves over such important but often diverting topics as cultural appropriation, white male privilege, and plain old bad taste -- instead of uniting to fight a truly dangerous enemy of equality and democracy.