Durbin, Daley, Democrats, and the New American Militarism

by Paul Street

ZNet, June 24, 2005


United States Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) should resign - for backing down to ignorant and authoritarian militarists like Richard M. Daley, the longtime "Democratic" Mayor of Chicago.

Durbin, as most ZNet readers surely know, recently faced a barrage of criticism from the White House, Fox News, and other hyper-militarist outposts of the in-power American right. The reason? He dared to tell a small part of the terrible truth about how Uncle Sam is conducting its terrorist "war on terror."


Durbin's Unforgivable Sin: A Modest and Accurate Analogy

The passage for which Durbin has been vilified is quite mild. In a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, he quoted from an FBI agent's description of what he observed in Guantanamo:

"Let me read to you what one FBI agent saw. And I quote from his report: 'On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. ..... On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.'"

Then came Durbin's damning 76 words: "If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others-- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. "

There you have Durbin's great sin. He reproduced -- and commented moderately on -- one tiny story in the overall record of American atrocity in the conduct of its current "War on Terrorism." There was nothing in his comments about Abu Ghraib or the U.S. murder of prisoners in Afghanistan or the estimated 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians or the list goes on. There was nothing about the long U.S. history of torturing foreign detainees and conducting, funding, and otherwise supporting horrible atrocities during illegal and immoral operations in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua (to name just a few locations). Leaving all that out, Durbin simply noted that the specific "interrogation" and torture described by an FBI officer - denial of food and water and toilets, chaining, temperature torture, sleep deprivation, etc. - are like those conducted by state terrorist regimes of previous eras and in other parts of the world. It was a modest and eminently reasonable observation.

The New American Militarism - A Bipartisan Affair

But, of course, we Americans are not living in a land of modesty and reason. We live under the rule of what former West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran Andrew J. Bacevich calls "the New American Militarism." According to Bacevich, who is Director for the Center for International Relations at Boston University, "a new and dangerous obsession" has "taken hold of many Americans, conservatives and liberals alike. It is the marriage of militarism to utopian ideology - of unprecedented military power wed to blind faith in the universality of American values." For Bacevich, "various groups in American society - soldiers, politicians on the make, intellectuals, strategists, Christian evangelicals, even purveyors of pop culture" - have come "to see the revival of military power and celebration of military values as the antidote to all the ills besetting the country...In public life, today," Bacevich adds, "paying homage to the those in uniform has become obligatory and the one unforgivable sin is to be found guilty of failing to 'support the troops.'"

As part of that revival, political and cultural authorities now exhibit what Bacevich calls "a tendency to elevate the soldier to the status of national icon, the apotheosis of all that is great and good about contemporary America" (Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005] pp. 23-24).

In the partisan political world, Bacevich notes, "the political Right has shown considerable skill in exploiting this dynamic, shamelessly pandering to the military itself and by extension to those members of the public laboring under the misconception, a residue from Vietnam, that the armed service are under siege from a rabidly anti-military Left."

But, Bacevich hastens to add, the New American Militarism is a richly bipartisan affair. By his account, "the Democratic mainstream - if only to save itself from extinction - has long purged itself of any dovish inclinations. When it comes to advocating the use of force," Bacevich notes, "Democrats can be positively gung-ho. Moreover, in comparison to their Republican counterparts, they are at least as deferential military leaders and probably more reluctant to questions claims of expertise "(Bacevich, p. 24).

This was clearly displayed in Kerry's 2004 campaign, which "did not question the wisdom of styling the U.S. response to the events of 9/11 as a generation-long 'global war on terror.' It was not the prospect of open-ended war that drew Kerry's ire. It was simply that the war had been 'extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted" (Bacevich, p. 15). As I argue in a forthcoming ZNet Sustainer Commentary, the Democratic 'opposition" candidate did not seriously oppose George W. Bush's illegal and immoral and occupation of Iraq or the culture of messianic militarism that Bush has advanced. John "Reporting for Duty" Kerry ran on the claim that he was more qualified to properly finish the Iraqi mission. "I," Kerry proclaimed (to crudely paraphrase), "am the better, more sophisticated man of empire. I am also," he added, "the only presidential candidate with direct service in the American military assault on Vietnam."

Soldiers: "They're The Best"

How perfect for this dark era of rampant bi-partisan proto-fascist American hyper-militarism (see Henry A. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy [Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004], pp. 1-54),then, that "an emotional" Durbin was compelled two days ago to apologize on the Senator floor "for comparing American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay prison camp to Nazis and other infamous figures. At times," Chicago corporate media reported, "the senator choked up as he publicly told all U.S. soldiers that he never intended to insult or disrespect them." Durbin "called his remarks a poor choice of words when he compared conditions at Guantanamo Bay to a repressive regime. Senator Durbin said he didn't want anything in his public life to affect the men and women in the armed forces, so he says this recent episode has pained him a great deal" (http://abclocal.go.com/wls/news/062105_ns_durbin.html).

"When you look into the eyes" of American soldiers, Durbin tearfully reflected, "you see your son, you see your daughter. They're the best. I never, ever intended any disrespect for them."

Never mind that very few among the nation's political class and economic elite actually have children in the nation's predominantly working-class armed forces. Under the rules of the New American Militarism, people who have not "served" and would never put their children into the armies of Empire are expected to claim that they think that the troops are "the best" America has to offer.

Harsh Criticism from "a History Buff"

How fitting for Bacevich's argument that one of Durbin's leading critics as has been leading Democratic icon Richard M. Daley. Last Tuesday, Daley said that his fellow Democrat "should apologize for comments comparing the actions of American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay to Nazis, Soviet gulags and Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot." "I think it's a disgrace to say that any man or woman in the military act like that," Daley said.

Daley, who recently enlisted his son in the U.S. Army, claims to be "a history buff." His historical musings show, he told reporters, "that Durbin was wrong to evoke comparisons to the horrors of the Holocaust or the millions of people killed in Russia under Stalin and in Cambodia under Pol Pot."

Daley became upset when a reporter dared to make the accurate observation that he thought Durbin's remarks were being mischaracterized. "If you really believe that those men and women in Guantanamo Bay are Nazis, you better rethink what America is all about," Daley lectured the reporter, "you go and talk to some victims of the Holocaust and they will tell you horror stories. And there are not horror stories like that at Guantanamo Bay" (see http://www.suntimes.com/cgi-bin/print.cgi)

The Mayor should have had one of his staffers read and tell him what Durbin actually said. The Senator did not claim that the U.S. was conducting a Holocaust ala Hitler or Pol Pot. He did not deny the supreme horror or the Nazi Holocaust, or Pol Pot and Stalin's crimes or - to mention two crimes that never seem to get much attention from Democratic or Republican "politicians on the make" - of the Native American or African-American Holocausts.

Durbin simply and correctly observed that American military personnel in Guantanamo Bay happened to have behaved in illegal ways that happen to be similar to the practices of state-terrorist actors in other places and times. He was careful to a patriotic fault, denying that such conduct was rooted in specifically "American" traditions. He could have said a lot more regarding the extent of such practices in the American "war on terror" and the culpability of top policymakers. He never called military personnel in Guantanamo "Nazis."


"Rethink[ing] What America (and Chicago) is All About"

For what it's worth, people who want to "rethink what America is all about" ought to visit the celebrated Mayor's celebrated city beyond and between its affluent lakefront and suburbs. As I noted in a comprehensive civil rights and social (in-)justice report issued on the same day that Durbin was tearfully eating New-Militarist crow, there are 77 official community areas in Chicago. Seventy-four percent of the city's black residents live in just 22 neighborhoods that are 90 percent or more African-American.

Racial separatism correlates richly, of course, with racial inequality and extreme human misery in Daley's Chicago. Of the city's 15 richest among those 77 neighborhoods, all but two are disproportionately white. Of its 15 poorest communities, with average household incomes ranging from $11 to 28,000, all but 12 are very disproportionately black and none are disproportionately white. Of the 22 neighborhoods where 19 percent or more of rental households are spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing, all are 90 percent or more black.

Of the city's 15 highest unemployment neighborhoods, with official jobless rates ranging from 18 to 34 percent (and real unemployment rates that are much higher), all are disproportionately black. Of the city's top 20 neighborhoods ranked for loss of manufacturing jobs between 1980 and 2000, all are disproportionately black and the great majority are more than 90 percent black.

Of the 15 neighborhoods ranked by the Boston Consulting Group as the most "economically vital" neighborhoods in the city, all are disproportionately white. Fourteen of the bottom 16 neighborhoods for "economic vitality" are disproportionately black. Those disadvantaged neighborhoods get the short end not just of economic health but also of private and public economic development (including job-training) funding dollars.

Of the city's 15 poorest neighborhoods, with poverty measures ranging from 32 to 56 percent, 14 are disproportionately black. Of the city's top 15 neighborhoods for child poverty, with rates ranging from 55 to 71 percent, 10 are disproportionately black and none are disproportionately white, the rest being disproportionately Latino. In 15 of the city's 77 officially designated Community Areas at the relatively prosperous time of the last census, more than 25 percent of the kids were growing up in "deep poverty" - at less than half the poverty level- at the peak of the Clinton boom. There are six neighborhoods - Oakland, North Lawndale, Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, Douglass, and Riverdale - where more than 40 percent of the children are deeply poor and in the last one (Riverdale) it is actually more than half.

The racially disparate concentration of urban misery extends to health issues. Counter-intuitively for those who identify HIV and AIDS with white gay North Side populations, 13 of the city's top 15 neighborhoods for HIV mortality are predominantly black communities on the South and West side. Twelve of the top 15 community areas for heart disease and ten of the top 15 for diabetes are disproportionately black. And so on.

"Defense" and Other "Afterthoughts"

The list of unmet social needs found in Chicago and other U.S. cities is practically endless. The notion of addressing those needs in serious and substantive ways is deeply challenged, however, by the White House and the Republican "majority's" determination, richly enabled by the spineless Democrats, to simultaneously slash the taxes of the wealthy and to spend unprecedented sums on a seemingly permanent new militarism. As Bacevich, a self described "conservative" notes, "the present-day Pentagon budget, adjusted for inflation, is 12 percent larger than the average defense budget of the Cold War era...by some calculations, the U.S. spends more on defense than all other nation in the world together."

But "defense" is not what Boeing and the Pentagon's massive budget is really about. "The primary mission of America's far-flung military establishment," Bacevich observes, "is global power projection...defense per se figures as little more than an afterthought" (Bacevich, p. 17).

In Daley's corporate Chicago and Bush's militarized America, it's questionable whether the poverty of black and other children living in the forgotten shadows of prosperity qualifies even as "an afterthought." Daley joined George W. Bush in a helicopter convoy that roared over some of the Chicago's most desperately poor neighborhoods in January 2003. According to the White House, Bush had come to sell an "economic stimulus plan" to "the American heartland." In truth, he had come to the ritzy Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers in the city's affluent North Loop to sell a hyper-regressive tax cut for the wealthy to rich people in the corporate-elitist Economic Club of Chicago.

Insisting that "we're all in this together," Bush accused those who claimed his tax-cut plan was overly friendly to the rich of engaging in "class warfare." He received support in this claim from Economic Club member Daley. According to Daley, Dubya's speech was a winner. "I believe he hit a home run," the Mayor told reporters, "in that he talked to Middle America. I don't think it was good versus evil, 'rich versus poor.'" But of course, "class warfare" - of the unmentionable top-down variety - is exactly what Bush's tax policy was and is all about.

Meanwhile, while the poorest Chicago neighborhoods receive the least of the city's economic development largesse, the Daley administration and the State of Illinois have worked with the state of Illinois to provide the Boeing Corporation with tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives offered so that that Boeing would situate its headquarters in "the city that works." Boeing is a notorious corporate Master of War - a leading profiteer in America's lavishly expensive obsession with "global power projection." Millions of American children live in poverty, including the "deep" version, o that noble America can keep Boeing and other "defense" firms happy with massive high-tech corporate subsidies filtered through an annual Pentagon budgets in excess of $400 billion. For Daley and his ilk, the desires of those whose contributions to society include the murderous B-2 Stealth Bomber and the notorious Arab-killing Blackhawk helicopter trump the essentially invisible needs of many thousands of black children living in the shadows of Chicago's expanding world-connected corporate downtown and its growing ring of gentrifying condo complexes.

As sociologist Kim Scipes noted at the press release of our report, it's impossible to understand the persistence and worsening of urban poverty without taking into account the massive diversion of public resources that American militarism requires.

Media Priorities

Our report on racial and social inequality in Chicago made it into just one of the two leading corporate newspapers in Chicago. It got a brief mention buried in the back of the lesser of those two papers - the Chicago Sun Times. The headlines in the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times were dominated by two leading stories. The first was Durbin's appeal for forgiveness for appearing to be critical of America's glorious New Militarism. The second was Daley's authoritarian and puritanical new campaign to make public the names of people arrested for soliciting prostitutes.

If you want to know how the U.S. got into its current dangerous, potentially pre-fascist state, don't just look to "red" states and counties. You'll also want to examine the deadly, authoritarian nature of political and social life in "bluer," more urban and Democratic territories like Chicago and Illinois.


Paul Street (pstreet99@sbcglobal.net)is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004); Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago" (Chicago, IL: The Chicago Urban League, 2005); and Segregated Schools: Class, Race, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005 [forthcoming]). You can order a copy of Still Separate, Unequal by e-mailing cjordan@cul-chicago.org.

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