Podcast • October 10, 2008

Andrew Bacevich: The End of Exceptionalism

Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer’s scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen’s horror at the Long Peace that became the Long ...
Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer’s scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen’s horror at the Long Peace that became the Long War — war today as “a seemingly permanent condition.” He burns with a Nieburhian realist’s dread of our imperial self-destruction; with a father’s remorse at the loss of his son and namesake on Army duty in Iraq. Representative prat boys in Bacevich’s account (and there are many of them) are the “insufferable” Doug Feith, #2 in the Rumsfeld Pentagon who was dubbed by General Tommy Franks “the stupidest fucking guy on the planet,” and also the same Tommy Franks, who spun the vulgar celebration of himself as an all-conquering hero in quick wins over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is the distillation of Andy Bacevich’s fury. It is the single best stab I’ve read at accounting for the general “meltdown,” the political, military, financial, cultural and moral disarray we are still heading into; and amazingly it’s a best-seller (7 weeks on the New York Times list, as high as #4 in hardcover non-fiction). The short form of a compact book is this: bullying abroad cannot sustain an orgy of consumption back home. Or conversely, as Bacevich puts it: “A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis on which to erect a vast empire.”

In Bacevich’s neat-but-not-too-neat formulation, a single year set the trap we’re now in — the twelvemonth between August 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union started to sink, and August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and dared the US and its allies to undo the deed. American mythmaking spun the first into a war victory, not Russia’s internal collapse, and it hyped the second, an overmanned police action, into a world-historical invitation to redesign the Middle East. Thus did hubris gear up for nemesis.

Not the least appealing thing about Andy Bacevich is that his mind is in motion. I first encountered him six years ago, in the week that the Bush Doctrine (written for “the boys in Lubbock,” as the president said) foretold an era of unilateral arrogance, pugnacity and preemption. On a panel with Andy before a mass of Boston University freshman, I blurted out the Founders’ warning against empire and Jefferson’s caution about a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” My memory is that Andy Bacevich blew me off and argued that the Bush Doctrine was no worse than the Clinton record. He had just published a half-hopeful account of American Empire. We recall that symposium in our conversation the other day:

I may have said ‘there is an American Empire; get used to it,’ because my own evolving, and there’s no question about it, evolving thinking about US foreign policy especially after the Cold War ended, persuaded me that we needed to think in terms of an imperial presence. We need to see that we’re imperial, not to brag about it but to recognize the course we had embarked upon and where it had brought us. If you insist, and many people in my conversations and talks insist on this, we’re not an empire, we don’t have colonies, we’re not like Britain, we’re not like Rome. In a formal sense you can make that case, you know we don’t have colonies that’s true, but we are an empire in the most fundamental sense in terms of our expectations, the expanse of our influence, the prerogatives that we insist upon. Now if I said ‘we’re an empire; get used to it,’ I’m guessing what I meant was we’re an empire and by recognizing that we’re an empire it might be possible for us to manage the empire in ways that the empire will be sustainable. That the empire might at least minimize the moral offenses that it commits. That an empire can be managed in a way to serve the larger interests and purposes of a variety of people. I don’t think empires have to be evil and oppressive and stupid. Now the direction that my thinking has evolved since that time 6 years ago is I’ve become persuaded that at least with this administration that its recklessness, its arrogance, its hubris has been very much at odds with the notion of an empire wisely managed. And the actions of this administration have so squandered American power and influence in the world that they have rapidly accelerated the decline of the American empire. Again, it’s not that I’m interested in the empire as such. I am interested in the well-being of the United States of America. And I think this administration has done great damage to our well-being.

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and The Limits of Power in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 30, 2008

Podcast • September 17, 2008

Philippe Sands’ Torture Team

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961). Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? ...

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961).

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? If violations of the Geneva Conventions — and specifically of Common Article 3, against torture, cruelty and “outrages upon personal dignity” — are “‘war crimes,’ punishable as federal offenses,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Hamdan case two years ago, who will prosecute them?

Will Americans and the US government initiate an examination of the record — and of our national conscience? Or are we waiting for a prompt from abroad — waiting, in effect, for Donald Rumsfeld or Antonio Gonzalez to get their version of the Pinochet “tap on the shoulder,” as they’re strolling on a sidewalk in London, Berlin or Mexico City?

Philippe Sands of Torture Team: “…doing nothing is not an option.”

In his book Torture Team and in our conversation, Philippe Sands aims such questions at the top tier of his own legal profession. Who will hold to account the lawyers who gave President Bush the very bad advice that the Geneva rules, the US Army manual on interrogation, and the long tradition against torture (President Lincoln’s order in 1863 was that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty”) did not apply to the Al Qaeda suspects picked up after 9.11? And then: what about the lawyers who gave Donald Rumsfeld a green light to introduce abusive interrogation at Guantanamo in the autumn of 2002?

Torture Team can be read as a fiercely accusatory extension of Jane Mayer’s argument in The New Yorker and her book, The Dark Side, that “but for the lawyers this would not have happened.” Philippe Sands brings to bear an English barrister’s perspective and a generous investment of shoe leather in the US. He interviewed a large cast of principals and credits the marvelous openness of American society for his access to (among others) Rumsfeld’s chief counsel William “Jim” Haynes; the first commanding officer at Guantanamo, Major General Michael Dunlavey and his counsel, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver; the Navy’s General Counsel who blew the whistle on enhanced interrogation, Alberto Mora; the Pentagon’s aggressive Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith, and the apparently witless chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. But then he turns scathingly to the judgment that ideology, and lawyers, drove the mission to create something new: a “legal black hole” in which designated persons would be stripped of their humanity and all their rights.

That is precisely what the system of rules that the United States had done so much to put into place after the Second World War was intended to avoid. It comes back to Spencer Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg: the dignity of even a single human person is what our values are about. There are no legal black holes. The moment you go down that route you undermine the entirety of who it is we believe we are, and what it is we believe we’re doing… I think there was a conscious decision to remove international legal constraints (and U.S. legal constraints — after all, that’s why Guantanamo is outside the US) which would limit the ability of the administration to adopt new techniques of interrogation. The legal black hole was the removal of international constraints on interrogation as part of an ideological drive to increase executive power and remove the shackles of international law. It has failed miserably.

Philippe Sands in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 15, 2008.

The press and popular culture didn’t help us notice what was underway, Sands observes. Notably, the Fox TV hit, 24 (another Jane Mayer subject) was as insidiously wrong about the long-term issues as Judgement at Nuremberg was once eloquently right. Sands also makes you wonder about the elite legal establishment — most particularly Harvard Law School, training ground of principals like Alberto Gonzales and Jim Wright and home base of the inescapable advocate of “torture warrants,” Professor Alan Dershowitz. But the hard focus here is on the legal minds who used a devious process to create a lawless prison (seedbed, not least of Abu Ghraib) that became an even more monstrous symbol of American power out of control.

The choice we don’t have, Philippe Sands argues, is to do nothing about this stain on the American reputation, the American soul.

Podcast • September 12, 2008

An American Exception, in Danger

Chuck Collins is an analyst and agitator around the grand canyon of inequality in American incomes and property. With Bill Gates Sr., the grandfather of Microsoft, so to speak, and father, till yesterday, of the ...

Chuck Collins is an analyst and agitator around the grand canyon of inequality in American incomes and property.

With Bill Gates Sr., the grandfather of Microsoft, so to speak, and father, till yesterday, of the richest man in the world, Chuck Collins wrote the book in favor of “death” taxes: Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes.

Our conversation with Chuck Collins picks up on James Q. Wilson’s view that Americans have no problem with extreme wealth as long as it’s earned — by Michael Jordan, as Wilson said, or Warren Buffett. The catch, as proud papa Gates is impelled to say, is that even the great entrepreneurial harvests are not exactly earned — certainly not earned alone:

What’s interesting about Bill Gates’ dad is: he grew up in working class Bremerton, Washington. His dad had a little furniture store. He fought in WWII, went to University of Washington and law school on the GI bill and then into law practice. He had a prosperous life. His son was fortunate, went to Harvard, almost graduated and was very successful. He would be the first person to tell you that as smart as his son is, he didn’t earn all that wealth alone. It was a function of growing up in a particular society that has a lot of common welath, a lot of public investment in research, and education, and infrastructure, and technology – and all the things we do together to make this a good soceity. So his view is: an inheritance tax is a righteous tax, a fully beautifully American tax. Which is to say: “Blessings on you, now that you’ve made all this money; but if you make this much money – over $5 million or $10 million or $50 million, you have an obligation to pay back the society that made your wealth possible… Bill Gates Sr. calls the estate tax the gratitude tax – it’s the tax you pay back as a person who’s prospered in this society so that other people can have the same opportunity.

Chuck Collins in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 9, 2008.

Our conversation is about American Exceptionalism again: about the civic DNA of the first middle-class society in the world, and evidence on all sides that we are in fact becoming Richistan (Robert Frank’s coinage) and its sullen suburbs. The rising culture (and fact) of inequality, Chuck Collins says, is one of the most important conversations America isn’t having. Comments please.

Podcast • September 4, 2008

What’s So Great About Us

Which words and ideas in the definition of exceptional America do you underline? It is bit odd for any nation to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically savage, and ungenerous to those ...

Which words and ideas in the definition of exceptional America do you underline?

It is bit odd for any nation to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically savage, and ungenerous to those in need, while maintaining a political stability, a standard of living, and a love of country that are the envy of the world — all at the same time. To do all these things at once, America must indeed be unusual. Or even, as Alexis de Tocqueville said a century and a half ago, exceptional.

Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson, in their Preface to Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation.

Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation is the book that the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson said all the presidential candidates had to read. “What is unique about America?” Patterson asked in the New York Times Book Review this summer. “What drives its vitality in economic, cultural and social affairs? Why is it so envied and reviled in the rest of the world? Why are its politics so peculiar? Why is it so culturally fraught?”

There are giant gaps in this big book, it turns out, starting with the Iraq War as an expression of how Americans think and act outside the neighborhood. Editors James Q. Wilson and Peter H. Schuck decided to duck foreign policy altogether. It’s an odd omission especially because the unilateralism inside George Bush’s “coalition of the willing” is so clearly an extension of an “exceptionalist” premise — that old alliances, United Nations rules, even Geneva Conventions do not restrain the United States of America.

The mood of the book tends toward the celebratory. Most of the score of contributing scholars seem to agree we’re more unlike the rest of the world than like it, and better off for the difference. But counter-indications are also spelled out — on the matter of inequality and upward mobility, for example — and some gravely worrisome trends. A rising tide lifts all yachts in our economy today. “The evidence for increased inequality since the 1970s is overwhelming,” write Gary Burtless and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. “The top of the distribution is pulling away from average and below-average earners, and until the early 1990s there was evidence that the bottom was falling further behind the middle of the distribution.” The gift of upward mobility in the U.S. is bestowed mainly on immigrants, the day they get here. “People born in the U.S. do not enjoy exceptional opportunities for upward mobility compared with people born in other rich countries.”

In our conversation, panjandrum James Q. Wilson voices the dismay of his generation at the corruption and commercialization of American culture for export — which in another day meant gems like Walt Whitman, Jerome Kern and Gene Kelly. In our own era it’s a long way from Louis Armstrong to the knock-offs, far and wide, of “American Idol.” This is a subject we take up next with the insatiably curious and critical Martha Bayles, a contributor to Understanding America.

Podcast • May 14, 2008

Bad News in High Style: Kevin Phillips

Kevin Phillips: how bad is it really? People I know count on Paul Krugman in The Times to give us all the bad news we can believe in. But Kevin Phillips (a Nixon-brain turned populist ...
kevin phillips

Kevin Phillips: how bad is it really?

People I know count on Paul Krugman in The Times to give us all the bad news we can believe in. But Kevin Phillips (a Nixon-brain turned populist grand historian) not only trumps Krugman in the Cassandra Stakes, he also explains why Krugman and media in general have gone soft and squishy (“now that the financial clouds have lifted a bit”) on the global apocalypse coming in the convergence of our housing collapse, the explosion of public and private debt, the fall of the dollar, the rise of (a) China and (b) $125 oil, and the consolidation of finance (the debt business) as our leading industry. Phillips notes that the best of big media, meaning the Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, hate to be out front with bad news. And Krugman, the best of the best, is too heavily invested in the Clinton Democrats’ myth of a renewable once-and-future politics of prosperity — and too polite to dwell, for example, on the financialization of the Clinton campaign base. Nobody I know tells the story of catastrophe with higher style and a broader sweep of knowledge than Kevin Phillips — in his new book, Bad Money and in conversation here:

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Kevin Phillips here (36 minutes, 16 MB MP3)

There’s a growing sense that the imperial era of the United States is over almost before it started. I think we’re seeing the weakness of the United States that has allowed the financial sector to take over the private economy… 20 to 21 percent of GDP is now finance, pushing manufacturing way down. I think what you’ll see happen to the US is… a degree of implosion that will involve everything from too much debt, collapsing home prices, rising oil prices and the declining dollar. It doesn’t spell the end of the United States, but it spells the end of the United States as the total big cheese in the world. We’re going to lose some of the yardsticks that everybody enjoyed for a long time…

We used to be leading world creditor nation, lead world manufacturer, leading world producer of oil; we’re now leading the world’s leading debtor, the largest importer of manufactures in the world, and we’re the worlds largest oil importer. It’s a disastrous transformation. The only part of the economy that’s really profited is the financial sector because an awful lot of the transition is towards more debt,

more credit, more living on things you can’t afford, more keeping up pretenses, and more ambition around the world and less to back it up. And the consummation of this in many ways has been the George W Bush administration…

They invade Iraq, partly in order to get Iraq’s oil which hasn’t been tapped too much historically, and they thought they might be able to get 6 or 7 million barrels a day, and they could use that to bust open OPEC, and that would bring the price down — that was their ambition. And the futures market showed briefly in 2003, that there was an expectation that oil would come down to $15-18 dollars a barrel. At the time it was $20-25 — and now its $120-125. The notion that this imbecility was orchestrated, totally contrary to what they wanted, by two people who came from the oil industry — we could have done better with two bums or two Good Humor men, than these two men from the oil industry who knew nothing about the forces they were unleashing…

There was the ‘neutron loan’ – it kills the people but leaves the housing standing. The real thing they did that made this thing gain legs, is that no matter how crummy the loans were, most were securitized…. It’s mindboggling — If these people were in the manufacturing business, production of these things would have been enjoined because they were unsafe. You have consumer safety product commissions and things like that — you don’t have a financial products safety commission, which we sure as hell should have.

Kevin Phillips, in conversation with Chris Lydon on Open Source, May 14, 2008

Podcast • May 9, 2008

Errol Morris’ "Feel-Bad" Masterpiece

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers ...
abu ghraib

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib

Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib were a perfect kernel of the war on Iraq. See the movie anyway, for confirmation or as penance. It is a blood sample of a gross policy of humiliation, emasculation, sophisticated mental cruelty and pitiless domination in the Arab Middle East. Errol Morris makes no bones about it. He says: we are looking at icons of American foreign policy:

One of the most infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib is a photograph of Lynndie England: 20 years old at the time; 5 feet tall, I believe under 100 pounds, holding what in effect is a tie-down strap [on] a prisoner named ‘Gus’, who is naked on the ground. The photo is taken by Lynndie England’s then boyfriend Chuck Graner. Well, the photograph of course has fascinated me for many, many reasons. Here would be the central reason. I believe the picture is a graphic representation of American foreign policy, pure and simple.

errol morris

Errol Morris: “the word is denial”

Pictures become iconic for some reason. They answer a certain idea we have. It’s not just simply by happenstance. Oddly enough I know that that method of removing Gus from his cell had been approved by the medical authorities at Abu Ghraib. There was nothing “illegal” about what was happening. But in fact the photograph is absolutely appalling, because part of our foreign policy — and make no mistake about this — was this idea that American women should be used to humiliate Iraqi men, without a thought of course that this might be degrading to the American women as well. It’s not something that was devised by a handful of MPs on one tier at Abu Ghraib. It was part of our foreign policy.

And one of the things I find most appalling is that the photographs were used to blame a handful of MPs, really letting everybody else off the hook, as though nobody else was involved and this was just a few guys on this one tier. By the way Abu Ghraib was not one one tier or two tiers. It was a city. There were close to 10,000 people in there — a vast concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. The pictures are misleading in that respect as well. They made you think you were dealing with something much, much smaller and more confined than the reality of what was there.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, talking about Standard Operating Procedure at the Watson Institute at Brown, May 7, 2008.

A lot of pretty forgettable questions buzz around Standard Operating Procedure. There are Errol’s own philosophical distractions: is it true that “seeing is believing”? Or must we commit ourselves to “believing” before we can “see” the truth of these pictures. Do photographs in fact encourage us not to look (or think) further? Then there are the critical nit-picks: can we credit the witnesses that Errol Morris paid to be interviewed? Do some visualizations and reenactments belong in the picture?

There’s a darker set of political questions, nested like those Russian dolls, around many levels of cowardice, scapegoating and denial of responsibility for Abu Ghraib. Only a few lost souls (and no civilians) went on trial for the wholesale dirty-work. The officer class and the political chiefs excused themselves. The voters in 2004 seemed to absolve George Bush in reelecting him. And by now moviegoers (in a stampede to get behind the armor of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man) have made it clear that they don’t much want to see S.O.P. or any other movie about the war in Iraq. See Errol Morris’ movie anyway, and take your kids. It’s sickening, but your kids should know what was done in our name — and what their kids, too, will pay for those world-famous pictures.

Podcast • April 18, 2008

Patrick Cockburn: The New War in Iraq

We are asking the bravest reportorial hand on the ground in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent from London, to make a coherent picture of the news of the war — starting with the flight ...

We are asking the bravest reportorial hand on the ground in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent from London, to make a coherent picture of the news of the war — starting with the flight of under-equipped and under-committed Iraqi Army units from their assigned war on Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army… and, among other things, the assassination of Muqtada’s brother-in-law in Najaf and, of course, General David Petraeus’s plea in Congress for an extension of the American “surge.” Cockburn’s strongest theme is that the Bush team in Baghdad is in fact fomenting a civil war within the Shia majority — a war that the government troops don’t want to fight and cannot possibly win against Muqtada Al-Sadr’s militias in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Cockburn (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

pcockburn

Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn:The US forces in Iraq are beginning a new war against a new enemy in Iraq. For five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the US was confronting (fighting) the Sunni Arab community — about 20 percent of Iraqis, or 5 to 6 million people. Now in the last few months it’s confronting a large part of the Shia community — those that are loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr, his Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army, which really represent the Shia poor. But, you know, one Iraqi official who’s not sympathetic to Muqtada was saying to me the other day that the Shia are a majority of Iraqis and Muqtada’s followers are a majority of the Shia. So this is probably 30 to 40 percent of the whole population. This is a massive new confrontation that the US is undertaking in Iraq.

CL: And why is the US undertaking it?

Patrick Cockburn: I think it’s a misjudgment. It think that rather as in 2003 they thought it would be easy to confront the Sunni — I remember going to endless press conferences in Baghdad where we used to have Jerry Bremer, the US viceroy, and various American generals all saying we were fighting the remnant of the old regime of Saddam Hussein. It was obviously untrue but they may well have believed it. This time around there seems to be the idea that if we eliminate Muqtada things will come right. But this won’t happen, because Muqtada’s supporters are too well integrated into Iraqi society. There are too many of them. They’re too committed. They’re not going to give up. This isn’t just a political party. It’s a religious movement.

Patrick Cockburn, Author of Muqtada

(Scribners, 2008), in conversation with Open Source, April 2008

Patrick Cockburn: The most convincing evidence that the surge isn’t working, in terms of restoring security to Baghdad and central Iraq, is that we have 3.2-million Iraqi refugees — that’s about one in nine Iraqis — who’ve fled to Jordan or Syria or within Iraq. Living in appalling conditions, money running out, poor health. I’ve been to refugee camps where there’s no fresh water, where cholera is beginning. And they don’t go home! These are the best judges of what the real security situation is in Iraq — not Senator McCain, not me. But these people who if they felt they could go back to their homes in some security, if they and their children could be safe, they’d do it tomorrow. But they’re not because they know it’s not true; they know it’s as dangerous as it ever was. And that’s really what everybody should remember when they’re asked: how is the surge doing, or for an optimistic moment they think things are getting better in Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn, Iraq correspondent of the London Independent, in conversation with Open Source, April 2008

Podcast • April 8, 2008

"Armed Chair": Bill Flynn’s Seat of Empire

Bill Flynn at his drawing board Bill Flynn’s mother was throwing out an old parlor chair five years ago. Bill Flynn — master draughtsman and teacher at the Boston Museum School — grabbed it as ...
bill flynn

Bill Flynn at his drawing board

Bill Flynn’s mother was throwing out an old parlor chair five years ago. Bill Flynn — master draughtsman and teacher at the Boston Museum School — grabbed it as a “set-up” to draw. Almost immediately the chair started morphing into images of the war in Iraq. By this Spring of 2008 Bill Flynn has finished more than 500 mostly charcoal versions of the chair, and has mounted two exhibitions and published a book, Armed Chair, variations on a theme that could be called “one man’s Guernica.” To pore over the drawings is to be drawn into the raging and unfinished autobiography of a man, a war and a piece of furniture. “Two weeks into drawing the chair,” Bill Flynn recounts in a conversation in his Dorchester studio in sight of Boston Harbor, “we got the news there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and it hit me…

“The polished and nicely carved parts of the chair were our outward, democratic stance. The back of the chair” — the stripped wood, the nail holes, the strings hanging down were the back story of the men and the fighting and of “how we were being manipulated and pushed into something that made no sense. Every week I got a little more perturbed… The question was: why are we doing this? And the real drawings began” — drawings in which the chair writhes, explodes, sinks into black pools of oil, abstracts itself, catches fire with red crayon, morphs into barbed wire.

I like to draw, and it’s what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years… I am excited by the emotional and formal aspects of drawing. It’s very musical. I see it as music, not just line and form. I’m drawing to a beat, or making up a beat… I’d be listening to music — to Tom Waits or to Shostakovich, people who seem to have opinions about things and have a beat and power in their work that could help me elevate my own marks. It changes what you see.

The evolution of this political stance — saying: if you weren’t for this war you were against the troops — made me very angry. It made me start to realize that the legs of this chair — with lines in the foot indicating a claw and a ball — were about control of the universe: so aggressive, so powerful, and righteous. That’s the other things that hurts me. It’s a righteous stand for democracy that would pummel us into submission. So sometimes the front leg of the chair is all power and claw, and the back is the residue. The nuances of the arms are frail and fragile and the threads and stains I left on the chair are the people that are left, the residue of a moral stance I have a lot of questions about.

Bill Flynn mocks the war media with a blank TV screen that comes to live inside the chair, and with newsprint that sometimes upholsters the chair, front and back.

The red crayon smears well, and it talks about the physicality of the act of making a drawing. The war in Iraq is very physical, except in the newspaper. People are losing limbs. There’s blood on the wall, and destruction all over the place. And we keep getting this little shot of a car that’s been destroyed, and a little boy in a white shirt which contradicts what might have happened. So when I see that in the newspaper the back of my neck gets a little bit anxious and I draw with a little more vengeance. I try to get at what they’re trying to tell me. Is it that this war is okay because there’s still a little boy in a white shirt? … I see the war dissolving in front of us. No one in the country seems to be paying much attention; we’re just going forward with the war. That’s why I put the newspaper into the drawings. I’m just indicating type that isn’t saying anything, as a backdrop.

Chaos seems to be part of what I’m playing with. The first drawing of the day is a search. I caress the paper a little bit. I rearrange the chair, and I go searching. I hold the charcoal very lightly and flat, so it cruises over the paper. I create clouds. It’s like looking at a series of clouds, and then I can bite into something that happens, and I probably overdo the first drawing, put in too much information. The second drawing I’m feeling more secure. The third drawing I can edit down and put the full physicality of my arm into it. I like making a drawing feel as if someone was there. I want a drawing to have perpetual motion. Every time you look at it, it’s still moving. It’s not going to burn out. I doesn’t need a battery. It’s there. And I want you to feel the fact that I was there making it.

Somewhere in back of Bill Flynn, inside his working arm and hand, stands his father, who sounds a great deal like my own: both of them wise, untutored Irish-American gents who learned their lessons from World War I. I’d asked the artist “what part of Bill Flynn” did the drawings.

I guess it’s the older part. My father was always aware of the political connotations of things. He had a sense of the futility of war, of how war is manipulated. He used to tell me the story of Smedley Butler [the “Fighting Quaker” (1881 – 1940) and most-decorated Marine of his time, later the author of War is a Racket]. He said Butler refused to go back into battle and would shoot his sons if they joined the Marines, because he’d been shooting Remington rifles at the enemy and they were shooting Remington bullets back at him. He realized they were just selling weapons and they didn’t care about the war. They cared about selling munitions. And I think that’s still going on. That scares me, and that makes me draw harder… My chair will probably go on for a long time… I think I’ve found something I’m not going to be able to let go of for a long time.

William Flynn in conversation with Chris Lydon, in his studio on Savin Hill, Dorchester, Massachusetts, April 3, 2008

William Flynn’s War Drawings (2004 – 2008) are on show at Victoria Munroe Gallery, 179 Newbury Street, Boston through April 12.

Podcast • February 4, 2008

After the Empire: Must Reading from Parag Khanna

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Parag Khanna here (60 minutes, 27 mb mp3) Everybody’s homework assignment this week is, first, to absorb Parag Khanna‘s breathtaking revisioning of the United States in the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Parag Khanna here (60 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Everybody’s homework assignment this week is, first, to absorb Parag Khanna‘s breathtaking revisioning of the United States in the world, and, second, to add your comment on the late great American Empire. Can it have come and gone so fast? Parag Khanna will join us in class with James Der Derian, the master of global security and media studies at Brown, on Thursday afternoon.

Parag Khanna: Who Shrunk US Power?

Parag Khanna’s scorecard-lineup of the “post-American world” is more striking for appearing counterintuitively in the safe, smug New York Times Sunday magazine. Five years ago in the same spot, Michael Ignatieff’s version at the start of the Iraq war was titled: The American Empire: Get Used to It. The headling on Parag Khanna’s piece was Who Shrank the Superpower? (Answer: GWB and “imperial overstretch.”) The main points, Letterman-style, might be these:

10. The Big Three in the real world these days are China, the European Union, and with a worrisome limp, the U. S. of A.

9. The big-name non-contenders are Russia, Islam and India.

8. The swing-states out there are the nations of what Parag Khanna calls “the second world.” Think Malaysia, Morocco, Venezuela, Vietnam, Turkey, Brazil, Kazakhstan: nations not of the First nor the Third World, but a mix of both: places often with their own “fissured personalities.” Their primary interests seems to be economic inclusion and self-development. Their acquired skill is in playing several angles of international politics at once. “Right now,” writes Parag Khanna, “from the Middle East to Southeast Asic, the hero of the second world — including its democracies — is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.”

7. Our American cultural power is declining with our political charm.

Many poor regions of the world have realized that they want the European dream, not the American dream. Africa wants a real African Union, like the E.U.; we offer no equivalent. Activists in the Middle East want parliamentary democracy like Europe’s, not American-style presidential strongman rule. Many of the foreign students we shunned after 9/11 are now in London and Berlin: twice as many Chinese study in Europe as in the U.S. We didn’t educate them, so we have no claims on their brains or loyalties as we have in decades past…

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

6. China is the counter-broker of what we have thought of as our unanswerable power. As in: “Every country in the world currently considered a rogue state by the U.S. now enjoys a diplomatic, economic or strategic lifeline from China, Iran being the most prominent example.”

5. Globalization is a three-way street.

” Globalization is not synonymous with Americanization; in fact, nothing has brought about the erosion of American primacy faster than globalization… The second world’s priority is not to become America but to succees by any means necessary… the new reality of global affairs is that there is not one way to win allies and influence countries but three: America’s coalition (as in “coalition of the willing”), Europe’s consensus and China’s consultative styles. The geopolitical marketplace will decide which will lead the 21st Century.”

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

4. Russia — being bought out by Europe even as it becomes a petro-vassal of China — is reduced to being “the ultimate second-world swing state… For all its muscle flexing, Russia is also disappearing. Its population decline is a staggering half million citizens per year or more, meaning it will be not much larger than Turkey by 2025 or so — spread across a land so vast that it no longer even makes sense as a country.”

3. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela signals an ideological awakening in Latin America, but Brazil marks out an even more important structural shift in China’s direction, virtually a “strategic alliance.”

Their economies are remarkably complementary, with Brazil shipping iron ire, timber, zinc, beef, milk and soybeans to China and China investing in Brazil’s hydroelectric dams, steel mills and show factories… Latin America has mostly been a geopolitical afterthought over the centuries, but in the 21st century, all resources will be competed for, and none are too far away.

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

2. “Despite the ‘mirage of immortality’ that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.”

1. We have very little time to adjust our thinking and our policies. “Maintaining America’s empire can only get costlier in blood and treasure. It isn’t worth it, and history promises the effort will fail. It already has.”

Comments please, and push-back questions for Parag Khanna.