Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Harry Targ

When the Soviet Union sent 85,000 of its troops to Afghanistan in late December, 1979, President Carter declared that the United States was forced to return to Cold War military preparedness. But, in fact, the Carter administration had been escalating military commitments and operations throughout 1979, months before the Soviet action.

In a brief televised address two weeks after the Soviet invasion, the President denounced it as “a deliberate effort by a powerful atheistic government to subjugate an independent Islamic people.” He said it threatened “both Iran and Pakistan” and was “a stepping-stone” for the Soviets possible control “over much of the world’s oil supplies.”

The President followed his brief condemnation with a lengthy State of the Union address to the American people on January 21, 1980. In it he announced some extraordinary changes in United States foreign policy that constituted a decisive return to Cold War with the Soviet Union.

The changes Carter initiated included the following: reduction of grain sales to the Soviet Union; curtailment of high technology trade with them; postponement of ratification of the SALT II arms control agreement; enlarging strategic forces; beefing up NATO forces; establishing a Caribbean Joint Task Force Headquarters; unleashing the CIA; installing a program of draft registration; and providing more military assistance to Pakistan, South Korea, and Thailand.

Perhaps the most important policy change was the establishment of a 100,000 person military “rapid deployment force” which could be instantly mobilized in crisis situations. And he proclaimed that the Persian Gulf was vital to U.S. security interests and would be protected; what became known as the Carter Doctrine.

All these announced changes were billed by administration spokespersons as a response to the duplicitous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Soviets wanted to invade Iran, secure Persian Gulf oil, secure warm water ports, and expand their Asian empire. The U.S., they said, had to respond to this expansion of the Cold War.

But a careful examination of the events of 1979 prior to the Soviet invasion suggests a different timeline and interpretation. In January, 1979, the Shah of Iran, the closest of U.S. allies, was toppled in a revolution. Carter aides initially had urged him to send troops to Teheran to save our Persian Gulf cop from ouster but the revolution came too fast to save the Shah.

After Iran, in the Caribbean and Central America revolutions occurred in tiny Grenada (March, 1979) and historically anti-Communist Nicaragua (July, 1979). There was a coup by military reformers in El Salvador (October, 1979). In early November, 1979, Iranian students took approximately 70 U.S. government representatives hostage.

The administration perceived itself as being threatened by the spread of hostile regimes and movements and the collapse of the vital ally in Iran was deemed the most critical to U.S. interests. As a result of all these crises, Carter began military rearmament, secured new bases, tried to undermine the changes occurring in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and allowed the Shah of Iran to enter the United States in October, 1979 for medical treatment.

Inside the Carter administration, foreign policy decision makers feared the collapse of U.S. power around the world. However, they felt the United States could not respond because of the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.” That is, decision makers believed that most Americans opposed a return to militarism and interventionism.

Then, fortunately for the Carter team, the Soviet Union, fearful of the collapse of an allied regime in Kabul and increasingly seeing itself as encircled by China in the East and a beefed up NATO in the West, sent troops into Afghanistan. The Soviet Union fell into a trap set by the Carter Administration.

What was the nature of this trap? Well, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in an interview given to the French newspaper, Le Nouvel Observateur in January, 1998, said that official CIA accounts which say the United States began to support rebels in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion were lies. In fact, he said, “…it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.” The National Security advisor said he wrote the President “…that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.”

Brzezinski told Carter that the Soviets would probably intervene in Afghanistan if we funded rebels and that they, the Soviets, would then be buried in their own Vietnam. In retrospect, he said, the Soviet incursion led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its “empire.” He suggested that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was of minor concern compared to the threat of international communism.

Reflecting back thirty years, the following conclusions seem justified. First the United States returned to an aggressive Cold War policy not after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but before it.

Second, President Carter announced a broad array of aggressive policies toward the Soviet Union after the Soviet invasion but these were in place or in the process of development before the Soviet moves of December, 1979.

Third, the United States began funding the various fundamentalist groups to fight against the secular and modernizing regime in Kabul before the Soviets sent troops. And that led subsequently, as the Center for Defense Information estimated, to the United States funneling $2 billion to rebel forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Fourth, the war on the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul destroyed efforts to modernize the tradition-bound country. Women, who had become active participants in public life and the economy in the 1980s lost control of their lives after the pro-Soviet regime collapsed. In general, an estimated one million Afghans died in the 1980s from war and repression and some five million fled the country.

We know about what happened after the troubled 1980s in Afghanistan. The Soviet troops withdrew. After a time, the secular regime in Kabul was ousted from power. Competing fundamentalist militias vied for control of the state. The Taliban consolidated their power by 1996. Then the United States launched its public war on Afghanistan in October, 2001. But, the record suggests, the United States initiated its war on the country as far back as July, 1979.

The pain and suffering of the peoples of Afghanistan have a long history before and since the United States intervened in their political lives in 1979. Many outside powers share responsibility for their plight. But today’s situation directly relates to the covert war the United States encouraged and funded from the summer of 1979.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Harry Targ

Turn, Turn, Turn
Words from Ecclesiastes, text adapted and music by Pete Seeger


To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time for every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

(repeat chorus)

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

(repeat chorus)

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

(repeat chorus)

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time for peace, I swear it's not too late

We received a wonderful Chanukah present the other day, a children’s book called “Turn! Turn! Turn!” It is an illustrated adaptation by designer Wendy Anderson Halperin, of words from the Old Testament and music by Pete Seeger. This present rekindled for me emotions, as I am sure it does for others, as I remembered things past; youth, family, naïve images of peace and tranquility. There is poignancy for us now too as we move towards the holidays at the same time that we struggle over the range of issues that will shape the destiny of humankind: peace, saving the environment, jobs, and health care reform.

This season progressives are debating whether we have been betrayed by Barack Obama; who is the biggest scoundrel-Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe; how to revitalize the peace movement; and whether to finally break with the Democrats.

But then “Turn, Turn, Turn” reminds us that “to everything there is a season.” The song suggests that the ebbs and flows of history are not bound by calendars, dates and times, and heroes and villains. A “season” is defined by its historic projects.

And these historic projects, the words suggest, include “a time to reap,” “a time to build,” “a time to break down,” “a time to cast away stones,” and “a time to gather stones together.”

Our projects, our seasons, entail defeats and victories, tears and laughter but the seasons go on and encompass “a time to love” and “a time to hate.” And in the end the song declares, “ I swear it's not too late.”

So if we are inspired by the song, as we were in the 1960s, we remember that the struggles for peace and justice are not about individuals, political parties, and calendar deadlines but about the continued commitments which we have made to create peace, save the planet, put people back to work, and provide secure health care for all.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Harry Targ

Last January Jonathan Clarke, co-author of America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the World Order, posed a question to readers of BBC News: “With the Bush Administration about to recede into history, a widely asked question is whether the neo-conservative philosophy that underpinned its major foreign policy decisions will likewise vanish from the scene.”

While Clarke tended to believe the answer to the question was “yes,” he did warn that pundits had predicted the end of neo-con influence when President Reagan left office as well.

Clarke then listed several key characteristics of neo-conservative foreign policy:

-viewing the world in terms of the forces of good and evil
-rejection of diplomacy as a tool of international relations
-readiness to use military force as a first tool to achieve global goals
-disdain and rejection of international organizations
-concentration on the Middle East and the Persian Gulf

Years earlier I had labeled the neo-conservative foreign policy advocates the “globalists.” They were committed to an unbridled use of force to transform the world in the political, military, and economic interests of the United States. The doctrine of preemption epitomized this approach to the world. In his National Security Strategy document of 2002, and elsewhere, President Bush asserted the right to engage in military action against nations and/or groups that the United States perceived as a threat. The days of deterrence were over. The United States was prepared to act first.

While globalists dominated United States foreign policy off and on for the last thirty years, they have been challenged by foreign policy influentials I have called the “pragmatists.” Even though both the globalists and pragmatists are driven by the needs of capitalist expansion, the pragmatists see the world as much more complex and demanding of a variety of approaches to other countries and peoples.

Globalists are committed to acting unilaterally while pragmatists are multilateralists; that is they prefer to act in coalition with other nations. Pragmatists regard diplomacy as an important tool for relating to other nations, even when others are enemies.

Whereas globalists are militarists, pragmatists regard the use of the military as a last resort. And when pragmatists endorse the use of violence to achieve particular goals they choose subversion and small wars to big ones. Pragmatists regard international organizations as a site for diplomacy, coalition-building, and engaging in behaviors designed to communicate respect rather than distain for others. And finally, pragmatists usually embrace deterrence, rather than preemption, as their military doctrine.

Reflecting on Barack Obama’s first year in office we can see evidence of these two kinds of influences on his policymaking. Obama evidenced pragmatism in his performance at the first G20 meeting in London last spring. He engaged in public and private diplomacy and seemed to hear demands from the Global South about increasing its representation in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. At the G20 meeting and elsewhere in his travels he admitted that the United States is responsible for some of the world’s problems.

Shortly after G20, Obama met with leaders of Western Hemisphere countries and was caught on camera shaking hands with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. In addition, he lifted some Bush era restrictions on the rights of Cuban Americans to travel to the island to visit relatives and increased the amount of money relatives could send to Cuba.

As to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, Obama demanded that the Israeli government halt construction of settlements in the occupied territories and began modest troop reductions from Iraq as part of a phased withdrawal. The President initiated some dialogue with the regime in Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.

In addition pragmatist Obama condemned the military coup in Honduras. And he canceled construction of a US missile shield in Eastern Europe.

However, the President has embraced a variety of policies that resemble those of his predecessors. He committed the United States to establishing seven US military bases in various parts of Colombia. This projected military presence has been coupled with strong words critical of the regime in Venezuela. Despite growing expectations, the Obama administration has not publicly demanded an end to the embargo of Cuba nor has his government acted to reverse the sentences of the Cuban 5. No significant action has been taken to insure that those who carried out the coup against President Zelaya step down. In fact, the administration has declared that it will respect the recently completed Honduran election.

The Obama administration seemed to reduce the pressure it originally applied to Israel about the occupied territories and ongoing violence against the Palestinian people. There still is a large US troop presence in Iraq. Defense Department budget requests continue to rise (despite a few publicized cases of contract cancellations for individual weapons systems).

Finally, President Obama last week announced a substantial increase of some 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. He claimed that it was necessary to eliminate Al Queda from Afghanistan (even though there are less than 100 in the country) and keep the Taliban from power, even though the current Afghan regime is riddled with corruption and the eight-year war resembles the quagmire that was the Vietnam War.

While the political philosophy articulated or implied by President Obama is far from that of the neo-conservatives, these concrete policies that he has embraced do in fact resemble Reagan/Bush era policies. The language the current president uses to defend these policies do not have the apocalyptic and zealous quality that his predecessors utilized, but the consequences for targets of war and US military personnel are the same.

Perhaps the Obama foreign policy can best be described as a “hybrid globalist/pragmatist” approach. The first task of those committed to peace is to demand of the new president that he reverse, not shift toward, the policies of his predecessor.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Harry Targ

After a 1966 presentation by Dean Rusk before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey commented about the Secretary of State that he could not have believed what he had just said about Vietnam. I thought of Case’s comments the other day after hearing that President Obama was going to announce the sending of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan with a cost of $40 billion.

The President is a smart man. He knows that the demonic image of Al Qaeda as a world wide threat to the United States is about as accurate as the old story about the threat of international communism during the Cold War. He has to know that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have their own separate agendas. He has to understand that the Taliban have been motivated by two concerns: corrupt local government and foreign occupation of their country. Further, he has got to know that these foreign forces cannot subdue or defeat the Taliban in their own country because the population prefers them to the foreigners who are killing civilians and destroying what survives of their desperately poor country.

The President knows that his predecessor gained world wide condemnation for ignoring the traditional international relations tool of diplomacy. He has to see that countries in the region and those that share common cultures, languages, and religions are more likely to be able to defuse conflicts than the Christian superpower from North America.

Yes indeed, the President is a smart man. He knows that military spokespersons have always proposed exaggerated battle plans guaranteeing such favorable results as defeating indigenous enemies and strengthening friendly governments while enhancing the security of the United States. And most of all, Obama has to know what the Vietnam War did to the United States.

The Permanent War Economy

If he knows all these things why is the president going to expand U.S. military operations in Afghanistan? The answer to the question has its roots in the formation of the permanent war economy. The PWE was constructed during World War II as government, the corporate sector, and the military mobilized to defeat fascist armies in Europe and Asia. While others demobilized after the war (or were forced to do so), the United States launched a several trillion dollar program to build the largest war machine in world history.

As economist Ismael Hossein-zadeh reported, military spending has been the second largest item in the federal budget behind social security, which is really a self-financed fund. Quoting from William Hartung, U.S. military spending in 2008 was greater than the entire world combined and thirty times greater than all State Department operations. Military programs constituted over fifty percent of all discretionary spending.

Pollin and Garret-Peltier added that military spending rose from 3 percent to 4.3 percent of the GDP during the Bush years. In 2008, military spending in excess of $600 billion created approximately five million jobs, both military and defense industry related. As Seymour Melman documented years ago, military spending meant funding a huge bureaucracy, contracts for the defense industry, and sub-contracts for manufacturers that produce goods that find their way into weapons systems. Nowadays spending includes private armies, security forces, civilian contracted services for the military, homeland security programs, large grants to major research universities, and many more activities funded and related to military missions.

Of course, military spending is never justified in narrow institutional terms but rather in terms of grand projects and campaigns; fighting communism, combating terrorism, or checking drug smuggling. These campaigns are presented as almost timeless. For example, Tom Hayden has alerted us to the doctrine of the “long war” quoting a counter-insurgency strategist who in 2004 wrote that “there is a growing realization that the most likely conflicts of the next fifty years will be irregular warfare in an ‘Arc of Instability’ that encompasses much of the greater Middle East and parts of Africa and Central and South Asia.”

These campaigns are reinforced by the general proposition embedded in our political culture that there always has been war and there will always be war. Generals and media pundits from time to time comment on the need for this or that weapon system “for the next war.” The scourge of war will always be with us.

Threats to the Primacy of the Permanent War Economy

Debate about military missions today comes in the context of deep economic crisis and growing demands for scarce societal resources. Banks had to be bailed out. One in eight Americans are on food stamps. Health care needs to be reformed. Millions of people need jobs. Logic would suggest cutting back on military spending particularly since Pollin and Garrett-Peltier have shown once again that each billion in government expenditures in education would create almost three times more jobs than military spending. In fact, government investment in every civilian activity generates more jobs than investment in the military.

The newly released Economic Policy Institute “American Jobs Plan” includes a proposal for a $40 billion per year allocation of government funds to create one million public service jobs. The cost of this aspect of the EPI jobs program could be paid for with funds that will be going to expanding the war in Afghanistan instead.

So when we ask ourselves why military operations in Afghanistan will be expanded the answer seems clear. First, the military constitutes the largest organized, armed, and funded institution in American society. In today’s political economy it stands shoulder to shoulder with Wall Street as a source of almost unstoppable resistance to change. Second, military largesse trickles down throughout the society affecting manufacturing, scientific research, education, private armies, spy operations, and myriad other activities. Third, pentagon elites see the danger of this new administration reallocating spending to meet the needs of a crisis-ridden economy: health care, jobs, education, and transportation (it is interesting to note that Senators Lugar and Graham already have called for shelving health care reform until the battle in Afghanistan has been won). Finally, military institutional interests demanding increasing shares of government money use in their advocacy expanding wars playing upon the deeply embedded war-proneness of American culture.

What are the consequences of this analysis for peace? One conclusion is that grassroots activists must take on the permanent war economy. It has been an enduring feature of American foreign and domestic policy since the end of World War II. The wastefulness of military spending, the folly of claims made justifying each and every war, and the war culture must be challenged. In addition, peace and justice movements must show clearly that every dollar that is allocated for the military is a dollar that is not used to sustain life, create jobs, promote education, and provide for health care.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Harry Targ

The world is a mess. Progressive movements for change are frantically trying to beat back reaction and offering anything from patchwork to global solutions to our problems. I think we need to stop, take a deep breath, and reflect on the political, economic, cultural, and technological context in which we live. We need to reflect because we now find ourselves in a new age, the Age of Chaos

What elements constitute “the Age of Chaos?” Here is a short list for starters.

First, we are barraged with and respond to a whole array of problems which have the potential for exacerbating hunger, disease, violence and war. We organize around military spending, stopping the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ending Israeli violence and exploitation of the Palestinian people. Domestically, we mobilize around health care, jobs, the struggle for immigrant rights, an end to racism, and justice for women. We are being dragged into the twenty-first century by our friends in the environmental movement because they compelling argue that fixing the planet requires major change and fast.

Second, we have too many groups that are part of the progressive majority. Years ago, Mike Davis wrote that the virtue of progressive politics in the United States (as opposed to Europe at that time) was that it was distributed in a whole array of single issue groups. He was reacting, I think, to some of the rigidities of old left politics. Now, I believe, we have too many single issue groups, each with the ownership of the most important problem Americans face.

Third, the confusion is multiplied by the profusion of demands, positions, lobbying campaigns, and iconic spokespersons’ declarations. And since most of us are tiptoeing in a relatively new twenty-first century political terrain, each position is potentially useful.

Fourth, we live in an age where the fundamental contradictions in the political economy have surfaced in their unbridled brutality. Just looking back to the onset of the “neo-liberal” age in the late Carter and Reagan period we see massive cuts in government programs; deregulations of banks and corporations; ruthless efforts to destroy unions; and huge tax breaks for the rich. Government policies rewarded shifting corporate investments overseas and shifting from an economy based on the production of goods and services to one based on financial speculation. And to protect the ruling class from growing reactions of outrage, the U.S. government launched more wars, covert interventions, and police violence at home.

The short of the story here is that the political and economic system in which we live does not work. And proposed programs and visions of something better, as suggested above, are in their infancy.

Finally, the morass of issues, groups, proposals for change, and the fundamental contradictions of capitalism have been aggravated by qualitative technological and cultural changes. Of course, the computer age is central to this point. As writers such as David Harvey, the Marxist geographer, have pointed out, globalization means the declining salience of time and space. With instantaneous communication across the vast worldwide landscape, consciousness of time, as ordering human experience and particularly regulating work, has changed. The capacity to communicate immediately without reflection changes how all of us behave. Also, the diminution of space means the loss of community, a sense of place, a consciousness of doing politics with like-minded others who we may know and share common experiences with, such as our fellow workers.

Further, our new sources of information provide instant information of all kinds. We can watch, hear, and read “stuff’ about the world 24/7. In fact we are barraged with information, including information we can add to the vast cyber pool of stuff for any and all to see (such as this blog entry).

At least two consequences flow from this new technological age. The media that control our lives on the one hand are as consolidated as ever in history such that ten media corporations control about half of all that we read, see, and hear. And they enter our lives in all our spaces, from offices to homes. Our world experience is shaped for us by a handful of multinational corporations. However, and in contradiction to the monopoly of culture, the new technology affords the greatest possibility of mass participation in global dialogue in human history (at least so far). Paradoxically we suffer from too much control of information and too much democracy at the same time. In the end, we have much too much media “stuff” to process, use and discard.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new technology and culture is what Fredric Jameson alerted us to: the institution of a post modern culture. This post modern culture, the 24/7 culture, the culture with little or no use for time and space, is anti-historical. It is a political culture without any historical referents, any sense of the connection between people’s work lives and struggle in the past and their experiences today, and no sense of what might be useful to know today about how mass movements were build in the past for today

Where do we as progressives go from here? I am not sure. But it may be that all these aspects of the Age of Chaos are direct results of our lack of a theory that can be used to make sense to us and to others we wish to reach about why the world is the way it is. This theory would provide a compelling, historical explanation of the basics of capitalism, how it works and in the end cannot work, and who and what can bring about its transformation. This theory needs to be historical, analytical, able to incorporate in its analyses contradictory forces, and convincingly explains how economics is indelibly interconnected with politics, society, culture, and the environment. And this theory needs to give some direction for our work that links the past to the present and to the future. Ultimately it is concrete political activism that changes the world but an activism that is guided by coherent explanations of the inter-connectedness of our world. Building this theory is essential for replacing the Age of Chaos with an Age of Justice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Harry Targ

“Moderate Republicans-yes, they are not extinct, though most are in hiding-scoff at Sarah Palin and wish she would go away.”

“Reagan piously gave lip service to the right-wing social agenda while doing nothing to further it by legislation.”

“The ‘Gipper’ talked tough about the Russians-while doing more that any other president to foster détente.”

“But it’s no coincidence the Eisenhower ‘50s and Reagan ‘80s were periods of unusual peace and prosperity.”

(Evan Thomas, “Gone Rogue,” Newsweek, November 23, 2009).

“Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc.” (from Karl Marx, ‘Preface,’ The German Ideology)

Insights from Social Science

A long time ago the eminent political scientist Murray Edelman wrote a book entitled The Symbolic Uses of Politics. In it he postulated that most people experience the political world not through concrete reality but through emotional symbols. For example, the classic way in which people relate to their political institutions is through the flag of their nation. Americans viewing the flag see images of men in combat fighting for freedom or men and women standing in line waiting to vote for their preferred political candidates. A colorful cloth with stars and stripes gets transformed in our consciousness into a rich, glamorized history even when the emotive images are in direct contradiction with people’s lives.

In addition, Edelman suggests the ways in which the emotional symbols get embedded and reinforced in the consciousness of peoples by borrowing from anthropological writings on myth and ritual. Myths are networks of emotional symbols that collectively tell a story that explains “reality.” Rituals reinforce in behavior the mythology of public life. We need only reflect on the pledge to the flag that opens elementary and secondary school class sessions in rich and poor communities alike or regular meetings of AFL-CIO labor councils.

Edelman pointed out that emotional symbols (he called them “condensational”) provide the primary way people connect with the world beyond immediate experience. The extraordinary complexity of the modern world is reduced to a series of powerful symbols such as the threats of “international communism” or “terrorism.”

Media analyst Todd Gitlin, wrote about “media frames;” that is the ways in which media construct the symbols and myths that shape information about the world. Print media shapes what we read, who are regarded as authoritative spokespersons, and what visual images shape our thinking about countries, issues such as war and peace, trade, investment, and the global climate. Television emphasizes visual images rather than words. Whatever the media form, points of view are embedded in the words and images communicated.

Writers such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, and Robert McChesney accept implicitly Edelman’s counsel that people experience the world indirectly and usually in emotional form. They also assume, as does Gitlin, that what we read, see, and hear about the world is framed for us. They go further to suggest that what Marx called the “false conceptions about ourselves” in symbols, myths, rituals, and frames are usually the product of ruling class interests.

Enter Rogues and Centrists

The Newsweek article cited above was selected not because it was unique but rather because it was representative of ongoing and dominant media discourse. Sarah Palin, while popular with an undetermined but substantial segment of the U.S. population, is presented as an extremist. The article hastens to add that a similar collection of “Democrats can be just as rigidly partisan on the left.” The article suggests that these extremes represent big problems for the political parties in which they operate and most importantly this “polarization” is a threat to the wellbeing of the United States itself.

The article then refers to the “two greatest postwar presidents,” Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. They were great in part because they presided over two periods, the 50s and the 80s, “of unusual peace and prosperity.” Reagan was the president who did the most to stimulate détente with the former Soviet Union.

In addition to this curious revisionism about “peace and prosperity,” the author claimed that while these two presidents were products of conservatism in their respective Republican parties, they ruled from the center.

To generalize from this extraordinary historical rendition, therefore, contemporary politicians must learn that “populism” from the left or right must be avoided if American society is to survive and thrive.

Further, the article says that the Eisenhower and Reagan years symbolize peace. The collapse of the former Soviet Union occurred because of the policies of the latter. And, despite an enormous array of data and human experiences to the contrary, the 50s and 80s were years of prosperity as well as peace. One can conclude from the description that history is myth, symbol, and ritual and it is packaged and provided to us in media form as frames.

Perhaps the most potent assumption embedded in this mystification is the proposition that only centrist politics can work.

What role for the Rogues?

It is clear that the centrist agenda could not be defended on its own terms. It is an agenda that supports militarism, financial speculation, deindustrialization, and globalization. The byproducts of these processes are experienced directly by working people throughout the country as joblessness, declining real wages, inadequate access to health care, education, and transportation, and forms of pollution that can be seen from many people’s bedroom windows. But if Americans can see “extremism” from the “left and right,” often shown on the screen as screaming protestors, then the centrist logic becomes more compelling even though people know that centrism means a weak public option in health care and Wall Streeters regulating themselves.

And which political extremist today can better promote the symbols, myths and centrist media frame than Sarah Palin. So while journalists and their bosses have nothing but scorn for her, she is trumpeted on every news and talk show on television.

The analysis above is not too surprising but what remains more difficult is figuring out a progressive agenda for recapturing the production of symbols and myths and establishing a space to provide more effectively alternative media frames. While alternative media and advocacy groups exist the need to develop a national and global progressive media agenda still is required.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Harry Targ

“…you are Americans and are meant to carry liberty and justice and the principles of humanity wherever you go, go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.” (Woodrow Wilson shortly after the Russian Revolution quoted in L.S. Stavrianos, Global Rift, 1981, 492.)

“there are two great evils at work in the world today, Absolutism, the power of which is waning, Bolshevism, the power of which is increasing. We have seen the hideous consequences of Bolshevik rule in Russia, and we know that the doctrine is spreading westward. The possibility of proletarian despotism over Central Europe is terrible to contemplate.”(Secretary of State Robert Lansing shortly after the Russian Revolution in Stavrianos, 494).

“ Daniel Barenboim, who was in town the night the Berlin Wall came down in 1989,” …said that “the fall of the wall ‘has changed so much of Europe for the better,’ Barenboim said in an interview at the Berlin Staatsoper, where he is chief conductor. ‘It has given so many thousands, probably millions of people, a better existence’” (Catherine Hickley, Washington Post, November 8, 2009)

Debasing the Socialist Vision

Reflections on the anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 should stimulate a reexamination of the pain and suffering of the twentieth century. It was a century in which over 100 million died in wars all around the globe (60 million alone in the two World Wars). Nazis killed six million Jews and six million others in Europe: liberals, communists, gays, opponents of genocide of every persuasion. And, during the Cold War years (1945 to 1991) approximately six million Vietnamese and Korean peoples died in wars and hundreds of thousands in Central Europe, Latin American, and South Asia.

The great revolutions of the twentieth century promised a different outcome for humankind: peace, justice, and democracy. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, the gap between the dream and the practice, resulted from the failures of the former Soviet Union. Masses of its citizens died in campaigns to collectivize agriculture and the purge of dissidents. The regime developed an omnipresent dictatorship and following the revelations about Stalinism evolved into an autocratic state driven by top down bureaucracy. In addition, the Soviet Union would not tolerate political independence from the Socialist states of Eastern Europe, invading both Hungary and Czechoslovakia to crush reform movements. So from this vantage point, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall was cause for celebration.

But History is Complicated

However, as the sentiments of President Wilson and his Secretary of State suggest, the United States as superpower emerged from World War I to embark on a global campaign to crush the new Soviet Union economically. As we know, the United States, along with a dozen other nations sent troops into the Soviet Union to help counter-revolutionaries overthrow the new Bolshevik regime.

In subsequent years, until 1933, the United States refused to recognize the Soviet Union. Western powers watched as Germany rearmed and expanded its control across the heartland of Europe. Italian fascist armies and German airpower were used to destroy democratic Spain, again with the United States and the British on the sidelines.

After the war, the Truman Administration launched a “cold war,” against the Soviet Union. It transferred resources to Western Europe to rebuild the capitalist part of it. It unleashed covert operators to infiltrate trade unions and political parties in Europe and Latin America and began beaming propaganda and sending operatives into Eastern Europe to undermine Soviet influence.

Germany was the centerpiece of this new global struggle. As the source of military forces that killed 27 million Soviet citizens in World War II, the status of Germany became most critical to the Soviets. And for the United States a reindustrialized, remilitarized Germany would constitute the centerpiece of the campaign to fight Communism and promote capitalism on the world stage. Ironically, the Cold War started over Germany and could have ended there with a mutually derived agreement to create a neutralized and united Germany (much as was agreed to in Austria). But western diplomats ignored Soviet offers to negotiate the creation of such a Germany.

Without revisiting all the critical points of contestation between the East and the West, it is important to make clear that the Soviet Union, the weaker of the two “superpowers,” was targeted for challenge and defeat by every United States administration from 1917 to 1991. This cost both countries and their allies trillions of dollars in military spending and millions of lives.

The Soviet Union Had Something to Do with Social Change

There were some positive developments during the Cold War years for which the Soviet Union may have made a contribution.

In 1945 most of Africa was still living under the yoke of colonialism. The British, French, Dutch and others still controlled territories and peoples in Asia. The Chinese were mired in a violent civil war. And all of Latin America was “in the backyard” of the United States. Within thirty years all this had changed. Africa achieved its independence, the Communist movement came to power in China, Indochina was freed from French and then American colonialism, and the Cuban revolution provided a beacon of hope for peoples living in the Western Hemisphere.

The Soviet Union provided arms, economic assistance, technical assistance, and inspiration for those seeking independence and economic development. Further, and this may be the most important point, the Soviet Union served as a check on the unbridled expansion of military and economic power of the United States and the Western alliance.

What if the Soviet Union had not collapsed?

Of course, we can never know what might have happened since 1991 if the Soviet Union, after its Eastern European allies, had not collapsed. But we do know what has happened. And we can make educated guesses about what might have happened in a world in which a power competitive in military, economic, and ideological resources with the West still existed.

First, the Gulf War might not have occurred in the way it did, (While the Soviet Union did collaborate with President George Herbert Walker Bush in the fall, 1990, on Gulf War policy, the collaboration was from a position of considerable marginalization). For sure, the Soviet Union would have waged a propaganda war against the U.S. military operation and the economic embargo of Iraq and bombing campaigns that continued throughout the 1990s and, particularly, the second war on Iraq in 2003.

Probably, in the bipolar world of the Cold War, the United States would not have been able to launch a war on Afghanistan and continue it for eight years.

And what about the global economy? Neo-liberal globalization, initiated in the 1980s but expanded to every corner of the globe in the 1990s, would have been checked by Soviet influence and arguments about overweening reliance on the “free market.” The mal-distribution of wealth and income might not have been as grotesque as it has become if there had been a Soviet Union critiquing International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies.

Without exaggerating the influence or good intentions of a surviving Soviet Union, I would argue that the world since 1991 might have been different; particularly given the hundreds of thousands who have died in war since 1991 and the devastating impacts of growing economic inequality.

And Back to Germany

Bruni de la Motte in the Guardian (November, 8, 2009) reported that the collapse of the former German Democratic Republic and its integration into West Germany led to social breakdown of society, widespread unemployment, “crass materialism,” the privatization of public enterprises, farms and forests, and two million lost homes. Hundreds of thousands of professional workers including teachers and professors lost their jobs and were blacklisted because they had been credentialed in the old regime.

There is no question, as one U.S. trade unionist once said to me, the former Soviet Union and the GDR were not “workers’ paradises” but they provided basic economic security to workers. That has long since been lost most places around the world.

And About History

It is a common place now to repeat the old adage: “history is written by the winners.” Old adage or not, the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall is being orchestrated by the same kinds of imperial voices that have been raised for almost one hundred years now.

As contentious as it might be, it is time for progressives to revisit the history of the Cold War in a way that is not chauvinistic and self-serving and does not justify current and future wars.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Harry Targ

I teach a course on United States foreign policy. I was just finishing up a discussion of foreign policy in the Nixon/Ford (and Kissinger) period, 1968 to 1976. As I talked about how the consciousness of most Americans in the 1970s changed, I emphasized the rising crisis of legitimacy of American political institutions and opposition to presidents sending troops into foreign lands, the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.” As I lectured on to a large group of students who may have been thinking, “What the hell is he talking about?” I began to reflect on what might be instructive about the mid-1970s for analysis and activism today.

Richard Nixon won the presidential election in 1968, promising that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. As the subsequent years unfolded the secret plan became clear: pulling most U.S. troops out of Vietnam while launching a massive bombing campaign targeting virtually every conceivable site in North and South Vietnam, and invading Cambodia.

The U.S. led war expanded in the most brutal way, at the same time that ground troops returned home. To undermine growing opposition to the war he initiated carrot and stick policies, ending the draft and launching a nationwide program of counter-intelligence and police violence against anti-war and anti-racist activists. The drive to repress dissent spread to opponents of the war in the Democratic Party including against the 1972 anti-war candidate Senator George McGovern. The Nixon team, from the White House to small time burglars, engaged in covert programs to disrupt the McGovern campaign. Thus the seeds were planted for the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon to resign his presidency.

Because of the war overseas, repression at home, and rising economic crisis brought on by war in the Middle East, dramatic increases in the price of oil, declining relative competitiveness of the United States economy, the American people began to turn against their government. Enter “legitimacy crisis” and “Vietnam Syndrome.”

What is a Legitimacy Crisis?

Theorists as varied as Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and a variety of American political scientists have written in their own ways about “legitimacy” of political institutions and how degrees of it affect stability and change. We can say that a “legitimacy crisis” exists when there is a substantial decline in the level of support for particular regimes, governmental institutions and/or the political leadership of a country.

Polling data from 1964 (when Lyndon Johnson won a huge election victory over conservative opponent Senator Barry Goldwater) until 1976 (at the end of the eight-year period of the Nixon/Ford administration) indicate a dramatic decline in the trust that the American people had in the government. In 1964 seventy-five percent of the people said they trusted their government “always or most of the time.” That declined to thirty percent in 1976. The slide continued until 1980. By 1984 President Reagan’s popularity boosted trust to over forty percent. Then a decline followed bottoming out at twenty percent during the mid-1990s. Trust in government increased after 9/11 in 2002 but by 2007 had declined again to 26 percent. While we can quibble over the meaning of numbers, methodologies, and questions asked, the general thrust of the data indicates a substantial decline in support for government and its leaders since the 1960s spurred by Vietnam, Watergate, and economic crisis at home. As popular as Ronald Reagan was, he never reached the level of support held by Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson.

The Vietnam Syndrome

As to foreign policy, polling data, protest activity, and pressure from influential and grassroots lobbying groups led politicians “inside the beltway” to conclude that the American people did not want their country to engage in another long, unwinnable, and controversial war again, such as Vietnam. Thus every presidential administration from Jimmy Carter on regarded with scorn the constraint that the “Vietnam Syndrome” placed on their capacity to act in an overt and massive military way overseas. President George Herbert Walker Bush confirmed this perceived constraint when he announced at the press conference ending the first Gulf War: “At last we have licked the Vietnam Syndrome!” He probably was premature in his exuberance.

More recently, political scientist John Mueller refined the idea of the “Vietnam Syndrome” by studying polling data from U.S. participation in three wars, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. He found a common trend in declining support for these wars. Namely duration and casualties (particularly number killed) are correlated with the systematic decline in support for the wars in question. When a president sends troops into combat, temporarily, the people “rally round the flag.” But as wars continue support declines.

Meanings of the Past

What is relevant about all this for today? Are there enough similarities between now and the 1970s to learn from the past? What is different today from the 1970s? Is there anything to be gleaned about the “consciousness of the American people” at various points in time that bear on the question of how to build a progressive majority and against more war and for social justice?

The 1976 candidate for president, Jimmy Carter, ran on a program, he hoped, to bring the disenchanted anti-war activists back into the mainstream political process. He said he would “learn the lessons of Vietnam,” cut military spending, and most importantly use human rights as the primary criteria for foreign policy. He also pledged to continue the policies of “détente” that his predecessor had initiated with the Soviet Union.

The anti-war movements and social justice movements of the mid-1970s, never well-organized or interconnected continued to disintegrate. After two years of modest efforts as promised, the Carter Administration tilted back toward the Cold War policies of its predecessors, spurred on by the trauma the collapse of the Shah of Iran created in the foreign policy establishment. The Iranian revolution was followed by revolutionary change in Grenada, Nicaragua, and reformism on the horizon in El Salvador. In the summer, 1979, Carter signed a secret directive authorizing covert assistance to anti-Soviet rebels who were launching a war against the secular, Marxist regime that had come to power in Afghanistan.

In other words, as the social movements of the 1960s and 70s dissolved, American foreign policy returned to its historic struggle against revolutionary ferment, albeit in a more covert way. It was candidate Reagan who took the struggle for legitimacy further by promising a more aggressive foreign policy that would lead to victory against the Soviet Union, “the evil empire.” Even so, Reagan had to gradually bring the American people along to military intervention by invading and winning a one-week war in Grenada, and developing a covert strategy to fight communism in Central America, Southern Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast and South Asia called “low intensity conflict.” U.S. military intervention was “low intensity” for Americans while it was “high intensity” for peoples of the Global South.

Relevance for Today

Where is the consciousness of the American people in 2009? First, the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the illegal and immoral incarcerations and torture of suspected “terrorists,” egregious shifting of government funds to contractors tied to the administration, media manipulation and an host of other unethical and criminal acts stimulated a substantial decline in legitimacy of government in the years of the Bush presidency. The campaign of Barack Obama, by contrast, mobilized masses of people to the political process in the hope that government could be made to work for the American people. His first six months in office, however, have raised some questions about the new administration's ability to deliver on the hope.

In general, I believe we can conclude that despite ups and downs in levels of support for government since the end of World War II, there has been a substantial downward trajectory in support for government institutions and personnel. The American people are suspicious of their government and distrust their leaders. Many believe that government has been an impediment to the health and happiness of the people. Episodes of scandal, from Watergate, to Iran Contra, to Monicagate, reinforce the skepticism about government.

As to foreign policy, initial support for the invasion of Afghanistan and suspension of disbelief about the initiation of the war in Iraq has been superseded by the twenty-first century variant of the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Duration and growing casualties in both wars have led to growing anti-war sentiment.

In the 1970s, mass movements were dissipating. Today such movements, initiated over the last eight years, continue to grow. They are reinforced by the most significant economic crisis since the 1930s. Without mass movements, the twin consciousnesses of the America people as to legitimacy and foreign policy provide little hope for building a progressive majority. In fact, the legitimacy crisis, if not addressed with a progressive alternative vision of what government can be, can lead to massive alienation, right-wing populism, and violence.

Building a progressive majority, at this time, should include making our peace and justice organizations strong, presenting compelling images of what government can and should do, and strategizing about how the mass movements can demand participation in government. As to foreign policy, our campaigns should emphasize the length of our wars and the casualties resulting to Americans and victims in host countries, along with our arguments about the imperial underpinnings of such wars.

Even though the present and the future do not merely repeat the past, the past can inform what we do today,

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Harry Targ

For purposes of comparison I want to make some predictions about the outcome of two current political struggles. I predict that some kind of health care bill will pass the Congress and be grudgingly endorsed by President Obama. It will include a “public option.” I am leaving aside for purposes of this essay the question of whether it will address the fundamental health care needs of the American people.

In addition, I predict that President Obama will authorize the sending of some increment of new troops to Afghanistan, just modestly short of the request made by General McChrystal for between 40,000 to 80,000 troops. While my predictive skills are modest at best-I predict victory for my beloved Chicago Cubs every year-I want to use these predictions to compare what I see as the relative strengths and weaknesses of the health care movement and the peace movement today.

First, let us reflect on the health care movement. Despite an enormous campaign by insurance providers, drug companies, some health professionals, a vigorous and angry anti-government movement from the right, and a 24-7 news advocacy television station partnered with about 80 percent of all of talk radio which is right wing, we are on the cusp of a modest legislative victory for health care reform. What has contributed to this movement?

Two movements, one years old and one relatively new, have been working tirelessly to achieve some substantial increase in access to health care for the American people. The modern single payer movement goes back to the 1970s, inspired by legislative proposals from that time. The vision of comprehensive health care goes back 100 years. More recently, supporters of so-called “universal health care” embedded in the electoral campaign of candidate Obama have penetrated the consciousness of the entire population. As a result of these two campaigns, almost everyone says the system is broken.

Single payer and other health care reform campaigners are working vibrantly in every state. They are critically supplemented by organized labor’s strong support for health care reform. Polling data indicates that majorities favor some reform and sizable minorities support a single payer system. Health care reform advocates lobby and are in the streets. Cultural performers devote whole musical concerts and documentary films to the subject.

In sum, the health care movement is organized, passionate, well-planned, and targets both ruling elites and the grassroots. It has had some success penetrating the barriers of class, race, and gender.

How about the peace movement?

While the health care movement has some formalized national, state, and local organization connections, the peace movement today seems in disarray. United for Peace and Justice no longer plays a national leadership role in the peace movement and no other national organization is taking its place. The most organized activities come from individual projects such as Robert Greenwald’s encouragement of communities to show his documentary “Rethink Afghanistan.”

Long-time peace activists, from the American Friends Service Committee, to Code Pink, to local groups organized around opposition to wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or against Israeli policy in Palestine collaborate for specific public events. They reach out to workers, communities of color, and women’s groups but with limited success.

Mobilizations are organized around a variety of demands: no escalation in Afghanistan, bring the troops home from Iraq, cut military spending, or abolish nuclear weapons. The messages at rallies are diffuse. They do not lend themselves to specific demands, clear petitions, and criteria for evaluating the conduct of politicians.

It is also the case that the diverse peace movement has not clearly enough linked its demands to the living experience of workers, people of color, and women. As to the former, while US Labor Against the War has lobbied vigorously and effectively within the labor movement, the labor movement has not been forced to play a critical role in campaigns for peace the way it has in reference to health care. “Health care not warfare” is demanded at rallies but almost as an “add- on” or afterthought to “end the war” slogans.

I raise these comparisons tentatively and with humility; tentatively because I may be drawing the comparisons too strongly. And the differences may also be a reflection of the immediate context of the two struggles, with health care highlighted by the media and the town hall right wing protests. I raise the comparisons with humility because grassroots peace activists are articulate, passionate, and committed to their struggle.

But if the comparisons are correct there are lessons to be learned. Peace and justice activists have to more rigorously connect the understanding and presentation of their issues-both health care and peace. Bringing a kind of structural analysis to educational work, lobbying, and street action is called for now more than ever. The lack of adequate health care, long-term unemployment, war and military spending, and global warming must be analyzed together.

These analyses require theory and political activism that is shaped by understandings of how the structures of society construct classes, races, and genders.

Finally, we can use our knowledge of history to inform our campaigns. For example, President Johnson promised the American people that he would work to create a “Great Society,’ a society that eliminated poverty. That promise was destroyed in the jungles of Vietnam.

Dr. Martin Luther King was beginning to make the theoretical and practical connections at the end of his life when he said that: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Harry Targ

Speakers Link War on Afghanistan to Justice and Environmental Issues

Seventy Hoosiers rallied against escalating war in Afghanistan on Saturday, October 17, in Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana. They came from as far away as Fort Wayne, Manchester, Bloomington, and West Lafayette to demand that President Obama choose diplomacy rather than increased military operations in that troubled land.

The “October 7 Coalition” that organized the rally as the culmination of several days of anti-war events around Indianapolis included traditional peace groups and others such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Central Indiana Jobs With Justice, Women in Black, Code Pink, and Earth House.

The opening plea for a reconsideration of the military commitment to war in Afghanistan was made by Reverend Mmaja Ajabu, Minister of Social Concerns, Light of the World Christian Church. Reverend Ajabu recalled that when he went off to the Vietnam War forty years ago he thought he was engaging in a noble cause. He said it did not take him long to realize that he was not engaged in a cause which justified killing and dying in battle. In fact, he suggested, most soldiers have a radical change of consciousness when they are planted in the middle of a war that is not about their interests.

Dave Lambert, Fort Wayne veteran of the military and the peace movement, documented in passionate prose the utter futility of wars, from Vietnam, to Iraq, to Afghanistan. Concerning the impact of war on soldiers, he referred to National Guard Specialist Jacob W. Sexton, on leave from service in Kabul, who just days earlier had shot and killed himself in a Muncie movie theatre.

Timothy Baer, Bloomington Peace Action Coalition, identified ten historically-grounded reasons why the United States needed to withdraw from Afghanistan including cost, growing unpopularity of invading forces, and massive violence against civilians.

Dave Pilbrow, North Meadow Circle of Friends, linked issues of war and peace to devastation of the environment. Not only war, but the allocation of resources for war-the military/industrial complex-needs to be challenged if the human race and nature are to survive.

Shehzad Qazi, a student at Indiana University/Purdue University and member of an undergraduate think tank on international security issues, and Lori Perdue, Code Pink, demanded a negotiated solution to the war in Afghanistan. Qazi asserted that what we call the Taliban is a loose coalition of forces with differing perspectives on the willingness to negotiate with their enemies.

Lori Perdue said that she had initially favored an attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 and was moved to that position by the terrible treatment of women in Afghan society. She later realized that the position of women would not be improved by a U.S. war on the country. Women’s rights and peace can only come, she argued, through an all-parties conference to end the war. As the primary victims of the Afghan war, women needed to be at the negotiating table.

Peace Activists Rally and March While Jobless and Homeless Convene for Food

After the speeches, participants marched through downtown Indianapolis chanting for an end to war and money for health care and jobs, not for warfare.

Meanwhile, across the grassy mall from the American Legion monument where the rally was held, and just across the street from the large and elegant Indianapolis public library about 75 people, the same number as those rallying for peace, lined up for free food provided every other Saturday to those without work and housing. This assemblage was mostly African American, while the peace rally was mostly white. The peace rally was in front of the sculpture depicting the history of the U.S. war on Vietnam. So at the same time, a block apart there was a protest against another Vietnam and an assembly of those needing free food, as the country was spending billions of dollars to kill Afghan people while neglecting to feed its own citizens.

Harry Targ, representing the Lafayette Area Peace Coalition, had reminded the assembled protestors of the tragedy of President Lyndon Johnson 45 years ago. As president, Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, declared a war on poverty, and called on Americans to create a “Great Society.” The goal remained unfulfilled due to the cost of the brutal war on the Vietnamese people.

Tim King, rally organizer and moderator, interspersed speeches with relevant statements from Dr. Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, and former President Eisenhower who said in 1953 that; “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Postscript on the Rally and March Against the War in Afghanistan

Reflections on the rally and march stimulated both praise and self-criticism. What was praiseworthy was the numbers, group representation, sense of determination of participants, and emotional and intellectual power of speeches and chants. The rally was the culmination of networking and organizing of multiple events in a city and state with strong conservative traditions in the context of a political environment dominated by an enormous array of issues: health care, global warming, jobs, and unparalleled Wall Street corruption.

However, the peace movement in Central Indiana, and everywhere, must continue to connect the issues that impact on people’s lives. Metaphorically peace activists must strategize about crossing the mall from the Vietnam War memorial to the food distribution line. While the peace movement bridges some of the divides between people in terms of gender, and religion, for example, more work can be done to overcome barriers of class and race.

Finally, peace and justice activists need to figure out ways to overcome inertia, issue-fatigue, and the overuse of traditional tactics, to mobilize masses of people everywhere to be part of the struggles to create peace and justice. The dilemmas peace and justice activists face in the Heartland of Indiana are similar in substance to the problems all progressives face.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Harry Targ

“Media frames” are orientations towards information that shape the interpretation of events: what facts are used to report key events, what words are used to describe events, and what options are presented to address the problem in the story. Media frames depend on what sources are quoted as “experts,” the amount of space or time that competing interpretations and recommendations are given in a story, and which perspective gets the last word. In print media what is said in headlines matters as well as photographs accompanying stories. Of course, sound bites on television or radio shape the viewer and listeners' expectations about the story.

Communications scholars correctly point out that most of us experience the world through the media frames that shape the news we consume. While we are active receivers of information, we are limited by the frames that are communicated to us. Probably a majority of Americans who follow news know that Fox television is not “fair and balanced.” The way they frame virtually every story fits the extreme rightwing agenda they promote. But these same Americans often assume that other media outlets, “the mainstream media,” are “objective,” neutral,” or contrary to Fox, “fair and balanced.” And here is the problem.

Our most trusted media, from the networks to CNN (and even MSNBC), or from the Washington Post to the New York Times frame their stories. In fact, all communication of information is framed by the communicator. In the case of the “mainstream” media most often stories are shaped by pro-war agendas.

Take stories on the recent assessments going on in the White House about the next moves in Afghanistan. The occasion for decision is a seemingly endless eight year war in that country waged by the NATO alliance, and prominently the United States, against the so-called Taliban who ruled the country until the United States attacked them in October, 2001. In addition, the recently held election in Afghanistan is believed to have been riddled with corruption. Finally, the general running the war there, Stanley McChrystal, has recommended an additional 40,000 United States troops adding to the over 60,000 troops already in the country.

Given the context, National Public Radio and CNN frame the relevant debate over policy as between those who want to grant General McChrystal’s request for troops, implying an escalation of war, and those “in the left of the Democratic Party” who want to reject any additional escalation. Time after time, mainstream commentators suggest the debate is about those who support the McChrystal recommendation, the reasonable and necessary approach, and those who reject reason because they are “playing politics,” that is possibly being influenced by the 65 percent of the American people who oppose U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. They also suggest that President Obama is not acting in a timely manner to authorize the troop increases because he too is playing politics or is afraid to buck his own party.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has reframed the debate to more fully incorporate an analysis of the dangers of escalating U.S. military force in the country. She has effectively analyzed the eight years of failed policy, the rising opposition to the U.S. presence in the country, election corruption and the lack of popularity of the Hamid Karzai administration. But her frame is one with two alternatives, escalating U.S. troop commitments or continuing the current policy.

In the end, the news consuming public is given a story of Afghanistan that reflects either the need for military escalation-that is the dominant frame-or perpetual war. There is no discussion of other options, gradual but steady demilitarization of western troops, initiating dialogue with the “enemy,” reconceptualizing the “enemy” (that is the perpetrators of 9/11 rather than the former Taliban regime), and perhaps most importantly, drawing upon regional states, relevant secular and religious leaders, and others to launch a South Asia Peace Conference. These options have been suggested by a variety of public intellectuals, activists, and a few members of Congress.

In short, the presentation of facts, expert opinions, data on incidences of violence, pictures, headlines, ‘leaks’ from military spokespersons, and speculation about what the President and his party leaders and the opposition are thinking all conspire to leave the media consumer with the view that escalating the U.S. war on Afghanistan and the President overruling his party and the American people is the only right thing to do.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Harry Targ

We are approaching a time when critical decisions will be made on Afghanistan; whether the U.S. government will expand the war for years, sucking us into a quagmire of unimaginable proportions, or disengage, increasing the possibility of investing in health care reform, modest responses to the danger of climate change, and jobs and justice for workers.

Forty-five years ago, as President Johnson was signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and launching the Great Society programs to lift “the other America” out of poverty he was making apocryphal decisions to send thousands of young men to fight and die in Vietnam (and to kill some three million Vietnamese people). With growing Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. war effort, the U.S. military turned to massacring villagers, assassinating suspected enemies, and carpet bombing and napalming. The hopes and dreams of a better America were burned to a crisp in the jungles of Vietnam.

As many have written in print and cyberspace, the war in Afghanistan must come to an end. Francis Boyle, an international lawyer and professor, wrote in 2002 that the United States should never have made war on Afghanistan. The tragedy of 9/11 was an act of terrorism, not an act of war launched by Afghanistan. “An act of war is a military attack by one state against another state. There is so far no evidence produced that the state of Afghanistan, at the time, either attacked the United States or authorized or approved such an attack.” Nothing ever since justifies the war the United States initiated in Afghanistan in October, 2001. http://www.mediamonitors.net/francis21.html

In the subsequent years, the United States and its NATO allies slipped deeper and deeper into the Afghanistan quagmire with the same historical ignorance that characterized American lack of awareness of Vietnamese history. As Marc Pilisuk, social psychologist, reminds us about Vietnam, “Fear of admitting we were wrong led to one new tactic after another. With military efforts bogged down in unfriendly jungle areas, we resorted to the use of toxic herbicides and ‘open target area bombing,’ burning villages, torturing peasants for information, propping up a succession of puppet governments.…Efforts to ‘win the minds and hearts’ of people were undermined by military violence and a nearly universal wish to get the U.S. troops out of their country.” Pilisuk then elaborates on the complex history of Afghanistan; which includes defeating invading imperial armies, internal tribal conflicts, U.S. support for those now seen as terrorists in the 1980s war against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, and shocking underdevelopment. He compellingly argues that: “Planning to remake Afghanistan in the back offices of the Pentagon is to repeat the neglect of cultural and historical factors in Vietnam.” http://psysr.wordpress.com/2009/02/12/the-hopes-for-Obama-may-die-in

What to do now? Tom Hayden initiated a petition campaign in September, 2009, securing signatures of those who demand an end to the war in Afghanistan. In it he proposes an exit strategy that makes sense.

“Our government should adopt an exit strategy from Afghanistan based on all-party talks, regional diplomacy, unconditional humanitarian aid, and timelines for the near-term withdrawal of American and NATO combat troops.- The aerial bombardments of Afghan and Pakistan villages, like burning down haystacks to find terrorist needles, should end.- Military spending should be reversed in Afghanistan to focus on food, medicine, shelter, the socio-economic needs of the poor, and the dignity of women and children.” http://middleeast.change.org/actions/view/take_action_to_end_the_war_in_Afghanistan

As these scholar/activists correctly state: the United States should never have made war on Afghanistan and the eight year war reflects the same ignorance of the history the U.S. displayed in Vietnam. As the Hayden petition argues, the Obama administration must embark on a diplomatic effort to bring together contending political forces in Afghanistan with the assistance of interested governments in Asia and the Persian Gulf. The only solution to the war in Afghanistan is the withdrawal of United States troops from that country. Adopting the recommendations of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus for more troops is a blueprint for disaster.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Harry Targ

(Generally articles in this blog constitute commentary on politics, economics, and culture. From time to time I attend meetings that I believe may have substantive interest for readers beyond those in the organization. Because panelists addressed issues of health care and building a progressive majority, I thought it appropriate to include here my summary of the discussions that took place).

Approximately 28 labor activists, activists for single payer health care, gay rights, an end to mountain top removal, voter rights for ex- felons, students for socialism, and campaigners against racism and war in Afghanistan came together on Saturday, September 19 in Louisville to share information and action plans at the semi-annual Midwest Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism meeting. Participants were young and old, Black and white, long-time grassroots organizers, educators, health care and social work professionals, and a professional musician and published novelist.

Discussion was organized around three broad themes. First, attendees received a report on the national convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) which occurred in late July, 2009 in San Francisco. Report-backs from Marilyn Albert, Harry Targ, and Eddie Davis emphasized the enthusiasm, excitement, and renewed commitments for building a progressive majority and envisioning socialism that came out of the convention. People were informed of the new multi-racial, multi-age leadership that was elected at the convention and how that body engaged in a fully open revision of a “Goals and Principles” statement for the 21st century that was adopted for the years ahead. Eddie Davis presented an exciting slide show of images of the convention which captured the enthusiasm of most people who were there.

Then, the Midwest meeting addressed the two substantive issues of the day. Long-time health care activists initiated morning discussion on the healthcare crisis. Marilyn Albert, founding member of CCDS, registered nurse, labor organizer, and single payer activist since the 1970s, made a powerful argument for supporting HR 676 or other single payer bills. She argued that the various versions of the “public option” will not adequately address the health car needs of the American people and may in fact make the situation of many worse by having a limited and flawed piece of legislation. In addition, if a new program is adopted by the Congress and President that fails to provide affordable health care for all Americans, unencumbered by insurance companies, the single payer movement might be set back for years.

Kay Tillow, Kentuckians for Single Payer Healthcare, reported on the fact that despite mainstream media stories to the contrary, the single payer health care movement is as strong as it has ever been. She reported returning from the national convention of the AFL-CIO that a single payer system is broadly supported within the labor movement. International unions, state AFL-CIOs, local labor councils, and individual locals have publicly endorsed HR 676. She distributed data provided by Physicians for a National Health Program (http://www.PNHP.org) that compared a single payer amendment to HR 3200 as proposed by House democrats. It pointed out that with a single-payer system everyone in the United States would be automatically covered, while the more limited bill would leave 20 million uninsured, and tens of millions underinsured. HR 676 would also cover everyone who needs health care in the United States with no exceptions for undocumented workers.

After the two presentations lively discussion occurred, for the most part involving assessment of the single payer movement in the context of political opposition from so-called Blue Dog Democrats, Tea Baggers, insurance companies, and the mainstream media. The panelists provided much useful information, compellingly made the case that progressives must continue work in the single payer movement, and convinced most participants in the discussion that the single payer movement had come a long way from the 1970s when Congressman Ron Dellums from the Bay area introduced a precursor to HR 676.

Jim Glenn, Kentucky director for Organizing for America, participated in the last part of the morning discussion. He made it clear that many Obama supporters also support a single payer health care system and Obama himself would not be opposed to it either if HR 676 got to his desk for signature.

The afternoon panel addressed “The Crisis and Building the Progressive Majority in the Heartland-Race, Class and Gender.” While the panel presentations were more varied, in the end they led meeting participants to the point of discussing how activists need to come together to address the varied issues that drive our political work. Pem Buck, Professor of Anthropology, Elizabethtown Community College, Kentucky, presented a paper on how “whiteness” and race have been used to divide the working class. An attack on racism, Buck suggested, must involve an attack on whiteness, which in the United States became a juridical concept to justify privilege and class rule. There was discussion from the audience about “white skin privilege” as it applies in a practical manner.

Thomas Lambert, Lecturer, Department of Economics, Indiana University Southeast, New Albany, Indiana, presented results of a study he had done that showed the continued relevance of Marx’s theory of exploitation. Using contemporary national and global data, the Marxian formula that emphasizes capitalism’s expropriation of the surplus value produced by workers remains an excellent predictor of levels of inequality within countries and in the international system. Higher rates of exploitation in the Marxian sense, he concluded, lead to greater inequality. (The papers presented by Pem Buck and Thomas Lambert can be found at the Midwest Regional meeting link at http://www.cc-ds.org/ ).

K.A. Owens, chairperson, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, spoke of the historical election of Barack Obama and what it has meant to African-Americans, gays and other sectors of the society who have lived in discrimination. He then suggested that there is much work to still to be done. Along with grassroots activism, progressives need to work to revise our language and how we relate to each other. He used as an example the typical way in which people great each other for the first time. People are asked “what do you do?” Along with visible codes communicated physically as to race, and gender, “the what do you do question” signifies class. And, as with responding to people by virtue of race and gender, responses to the job/employment question shapes peoples reaction to others in class terms. Owens argued that we must transcend race, gender, and class in our organizing.

Bob Sloan, East Kentucky author who has written such novels as Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees: A Novel of Appalachia, described the horrific consequences of mountain top removal for workers and communities in East Kentucky and West Virginia. He described how he and other artists were mobilized by Wendell Berry to launch a campaign to stop this odious practice. He claimed that the campaign is having some success. He urged all of those who are engaged in building a progressive majority to use whatever media outlets they can to get the word out about health care, the devastating consequences of war, racism, and sexism, and issues like mountain top removal. Even though the national media is a monopoly, Sloan said, local media, public broadcasting, and other print and electronic outlets have open spaces for news and views. They are eager to fill their spaces and we on the left can help them in that regard.

In the final brief period, participants in the meeting thanked the Kentucky hosts and organizers of the panels. All agreed that progressives from the region need to continue meeting regularly to share insights and plan more collaborative political work. The next meeting was tentatively set for March 27, 2010. Participants agreed to discuss the feasibility, travel and expenses, for hosting the next meeting in Cleveland, or whether Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania should host their own regional meeting while Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois CCDS members meet in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Pem Buck’s book on class, race, and gender in Kentucky is called Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky, Monthly Review Press.

Bob Sloan’s web site is at http://www.bobsloansampler.com/

An interview with Bob Sloan on mountain top removal can be seen at

Friday, September 25, 2009


Harry Targ

All different kinds of data suggest that the economic circumstance of American workers has been declining since the current recession began in 2007. More troublesome is data that suggests that most workers have experienced declining economic security for at least thirty years. Increasing unemployment and shrinking wages, despite modest employment and wage gains in the 1990s, has been persistent.

-For most workers, including the college educated, real wages today are lower than they were in the 1970s.

-Rates of unemployment have grown over the years, doubling between 1999 and 2009. Unemployment rates are a third higher for African Americans and Latinos.

-There has been a sea change in employment as manufacturing labor has dipped below 15 percent of the work force. The sectors with most employment growth include health care, fast food, hotel work, and transportation. Generally higher paying manufacturing work is being replaced by low wage service labor.

-During the last forty years most manufacturing jobs have been transferred to other countries where wages are low, the right to form unions is limited, and costs for health and retirement benefits are minimum.

-There has been a qualitative shift in investment to financial speculation and away from manufacturing.

-Meanwhile, worker productivity in the United States has increased.

Rick Wolff, University of Massachusetts economist, reported that worker productivity increased by over 6 percent in 2009 as unemployment increased. He wrote that “…these numbers show that employers got a huge increase in output from each employee, while what they paid to their employees imposed on them a decrease in the goods and services they could afford.”

In addition Wolff reports that in July, 2009, factory utilization has declined to 65 percent (compared to 79 percent from 1972 to 2009). In other words, thirty-five percent of our current manufacturing capacity is lying idle.

An examination of data on mergers and acquisitions, rates of profits, and aggregate profits would suggest that since the 1980s many of the largest corporations and financial institutions have been the beneficiaries of declining worker standards of living. It seems that the trajectory of the U.S. economy is towards a high profit/limited jobs and wages economy.

In recent days politicians, economists, and pundits are indicating that the recession may be coming to an end. Financial institutions have recovered, their CEO salaries are going up, and some have resumed their risky loan practices. Daily stock market reports indicate that stock prices rise on days when corporations announce large worker layoffs. At the same time we are told that unemployment might stay the same or even rise for the foreseeable future.

It appears that without significant change most jobs will become obsolete due to capital flight, increased financial speculation, declining investment in manufacturing and infrastructure, the indiscriminate application of new technologies, and declining purchasing power and consumer demand.

All this suggests that those who argue that the capitalist system creates a system of growing gaps between wealth and poverty and as a consequence induces the general immiseration of the population have historical experience on their side.

Leaving aside a discussion of the long-term consequences of capitalism, there is a need to act now to create and maintain high wage jobs. The call for “industrial policy,” which some policy analysts introduced in the 1970s, needs to be revisited. Industrial policy signifies a concerted government policy to revitalize old industries and create new ones.

One kind of industrial policy that would be appropriate for the twenty-first century is the green jobs agenda. This approach would combine our massive environmental and job needs. To use an historical analogy, to save the lives of millions of Americans, a New Deal green jobs agenda must become part of our future.

Today our discourse on the global economic crisis, at the G20 meeting, in the halls of Congress, and at presidential press conferences, is all about finance capital, not about jobs and wages. In reality there are now two economies; one, the economy of finance capital; the other, the peoples’ economy.

The former economy is all about resuscitating a high profit/limited jobs and wages economy. The project of a progressive majority is to raise to the level of debate how to resuscitate a peoples’ economy.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Harry Targ

Leaders of 20 developed and developing countries, the G20 countries, will meet on September 24-25 in Pittsburgh to continue dialogue on the global economic crisis and financial regulation. One way to think about the G20 is to see it as an emergency response to an emergency situation, not necessarily a byproduct of the long and contradictory development of the global political economy.

Most of us ordinarily would not see the connection between contemporary economic problems and the complex global history that has brought us to where we are. Most importantly, we are not likely to realize that fixing the problems of immediate concern might require addressing the long-term structural developments that have led to the crises of our own time.

Some time ago, L.S. Stavrianos wrote a large history of the global economy, Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age. In it, the author developed a detailed discussion of the conflictful evolution of the global political economy from the dawn of commercial capitalism to the 1980s. Bringing the story up to the present would entail describing the emergence of neo-liberal globalization, the immediate “cause” of the global, largely financial crisis of our own time.

Stavrianos suggests that we can conceptualize the history of capitalism as the result of the conflict between what he calls “centers” and ‘peripheries.” Center nations have been those that accumulated economic, political, and military power, often aided by technological advances and military prowess. Through these elements center nations gained disproportionately from interactions with most of the world’s nations and peoples. Periphery nations by virtue of their limited power, control, access to technologies, lost from their interaction with the powerful countries of the world. In a sense, much of the value of goods and services and natural resources produced by peoples in the periphery were expropriated by those in the center. The 500 year history of the global economy has been based on the expropriation of value from the periphery to the center.

During the era of commercial capitalism (1400-1770), a rising merchant class, supported by state armaments and mercenaries seeking riches, traversed the globe, trading, investing, and extracting gold and other riches wherever they could. Central to the rise of global capitalism was the trade of commodities made in Europe for African slaves. Kidnapped slaves were brought to recently conquered western hemisphere lands to cut sugar, grow tobacco, cultivate dyes, and produce other agricultural commodities. The products derived from slave labor were brought back to Europe, processed, and sold on the world market. Therefore, the slave system was basic to the development of the global capitalist economy.

As extraction of natural resources, trade, and production advanced, an era of industrial capitalism emerged. In countries such as Great Britain, the industrial revolution occurred. A factory system was created which brought masses of workers together to produce goods more cheaply. This generated more and more goods for sale on the world stage. Center nations experienced an increasing thirst for markets in and resources from the periphery for the production and sale of goods. With industrial capitalism, powerful and wealthy center countries grew and most of the rest of the world experienced arrested development.

The expansion of industrial capitalism led to monopolies, individual or small numbers of corporations controlling larger and larger shares of individual industrial sectors. In addition small numbers of corporations and banks expanded their domination of the global economy at large. During the era of monopoly capitalism, as Stavrianos called it, stretching from the 1870s until today, smaller and smaller numbers of corporations and banks controlled more and more of all production.

Three particular changes shaped the late nineteenth and twentieth century global economy. First, banks became independent and interdependent actors in economic life connected to the corporate sector. Second, corporations and banks (and thus their governments), became increasingly dependent on the export of money capital, direct foreign investment, in comparison with trade in goods and services in prior eras. The seeds of modern financial speculation were planted. Third, from the 1880s until the 1950s, powerful center countries acquired colonies such that by the time of the Spanish American (Cuban) war, 70 percent of the land mass of the world was controlled by European and North American colonial powers.

After World War II, periphery countries won their political independence but remained neo-colonial countries; that is their economies were dominated by traditional center nations. The only exceptions to this continuing center/periphery structure of dominance and subordination was that reflected in the rise of the Socialist bloc, Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions, and countries organizing to pursue a “non-aligned” foreign policy.

As the socialist bloc and the non-aligned movement lost their power, traditional capitalist powers, assisted by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreements on Trade and Tariffs (later the World Trade Organization), demanded a renewed system of center/periphery relations to expand the expropriation of surplus from peripheries to centers. So-called neo-liberal policies were imposed on poor and debt-ridden countries requiring them to downsize their governments, de-regulate their economies, privatize public corporations, and shift their economies from producing goods and services for domestic use to exports.

Part of the economic crisis the G20 leaders and peoples all over the world face is the result of the expropriation of wealth from the periphery to the center (concretely from workers, farmers, and peasants), the excess accumulation of wealth in the center with decreasing capacities to use it to make greater profit, and overproduction and dramatically declining abilities of peoples of the globe to purchase what is produced. The root cause of this economic crisis, like others, results from the accumulation of enormous wealth at one pole, the center, and growing human misery at the other pole, the periphery.

Among the conclusions that can be gleaned from this brief history are the following:

-The contemporary period in global economic/military and political history is the byproduct of historic transformations in world history, from feudalism, to commercial capitalism, and then the industrial revolution, and finally the rise of a monopoly and a financially driven world system.

-Economic transformations have been intimately connected to transformations in military power (access to sea power, land armies, air war, and nuclear weapons) and technological advances.

-Human history, at least since the fifteenth century, has been shaped by the inequitable distribution of power and wealth, creating center and periphery nations and peoples.

-Periphery countries have been shaped economically, politically, and culturally by their connections to center nations.

-This global system of centers and peripheries has stimulated integration (what now is called “globalization”) which has been connected to violence, hunger, disease, and human misery.

While Stavrianos suggests that most of the world’s people have been shaped by their connection with the rich and powerful he also argues that the center/periphery relationship impacts on both actors. Peripheries always have resisted their domination. Sometimes they have achieved significant victories, other times not so much.

It will be interesting to see if voices of change at the G-20 summit can begin to restructure the global economy away from the historic center/periphery structure that has so influenced world history.