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How Safe Is Safe?

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Rachel Maddow: How America’s Security-Industrial Complex Went Insane

If no one knows if our security-industrial complex is making us safer, why have we built it? Why are we still building it, at breakneck speed?

 

The following is an excerpt from Rachel Maddow’s new book, “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power,” published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. 

In the little town where I live in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, we now have a “Public Safety Complex” around the corner from what used to be our hokey Andy Griffith–esque fire station. In the cascade of post-9/11 Homeland Security money in the first term of the George W. Bush administration, our town’s share of the loot bought us a new fire truck—one that turned out to be a few feet longer than the garage where the town kept our old fire truck. So then we got some more Homeland money to build something big enough to house the new truck. In homage to the origin of the funding, the local auto detailer airbrushed on the side of the new truck a patriotic tableau of a billowing flaglike banner, a really big bald eagle, and the burning World Trade Center towers.

The American taxpayers’ investment in my town’s security didn’t stop at the new safety complex. I can see further fruit of those Homeland dollars just beyond my neighbor’s back fence. While most of us in town depend on well water, there are a few houses that for the past decade or so have been hooked up to a municipal water supply. And when I say “a few,” I mean a few: I think there are seven houses on municipal water. Around the time we got our awesome giant new fire truck, we also got a serious security upgrade to that town water system. Its tiny pump house is about the size of two phone booths and accessible by a dirt driveway behind my neighbor’s back lot. Or at least it used to be. The entire half-acre parcel of land around that pump house is now ringed by an eight-foot-tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and fronted with a motion-sensitive electronically controlled motorized gate. On our side of town we call it “Little Guantánamo.” Mostly it’s funny, but there is some neighborly consternation over how frowsy Little Guantánamo gets every summer. Even though it’s town-owned land, access to Little Guantánamo is apparently above the security clearance of the guy paid to mow and brush-hog. Right up to the fence, it’s my neighbors’ land and they keep everything trim and tidy. But inside that fence, the grass gets eye-high. It’s going feral in there.

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It’s not just the small-potatoes post-9/11 Homeland spending that feels a little off mission. It’s the big-ticket stuff too. Nobody ever made an argument to the American people, for instance, that the thing we ought to do in Afghanistan, the way we ought to stick it to Osama bin Laden, the way to dispense American tax dollars to maximize American aims in that faraway country, would be to build a brand-new neighborhood in that country’s capital city full of rococo narco-chic McMansions and apartment/office buildings with giant sculptures of eagles on their roofs and stoned guards lounging on the sidewalks, wearing bandoliers and plastic boots. No one ever made the case that this is what America ought to build in response to 9/11. But that is what we built. An average outlay of almost $5 billion a month over ten years (and counting) has created a twisted war economy in Kabul. Afghanistan is still one of the four poorest countries on earth; but now it’s one of the four poorest countries on earth with a neighborhood in its capital city that looks like New Jersey in the 1930s and ’40s, when Newark mobsters built garish mansions and dotted the grounds with lawn jockeys and hand-painted neo-neoclassic marble statues.

Walking around this Zircon-studded neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khān (named for the general who commanded the Afghan Army’s rout of the British in 1842), one of the weirdest things is that the roads and the sewage and trash situation are palpably worse here than in many other Kabul neighborhoods. Even torqued-up steel-frame SUVs have a hard time making it down some of these desolate streets; evasive driving techniques in Wazir Akbar Khān often have more to do with potholes than potshots. One of the bigger crossroads in the neighborhood is an ad hoc dump. Street kids are there all day, picking through the newest leavings for food and for stuff to salvage or sell.

There’s nothing all that remarkable about a rich-looking neighborhood in a poor country. What’s remarkable here is that there aren’t rich Afghan people in this rich Afghan neighborhood. Whether or not the owners of these giant houses would stand for these undrivable streets, the piles of garbage, the sewage running down the sidewalk right outside their security walls, they’re not here to see it. They’ve moved to Dubai, or to the United States, or somewhere else that’s safer for themselves and their money. (Or our money.) Most of these fancy properties in Wazir Akbar Khān were built by the Afghan elite with profits from the international influx of cash that accompanied the mostly American influx of war a decade ago—built to display status or to reap still more war dollars from the Western aid agencies and journalists and politicians and diplocrats and private contractors who need proper places to stay in the capital. The surges big and small have been good to the property barons of Wazir Akbar Khān: residential real estate values were reportedly up 75 percent in 2008 alone. Check the listings under Kabul “villas” today and you’ll find properties priced from $7,000 to $25,000 a month with specs like this: four floors, a dozen rooms, nine toilets, three big kitchens, sleeps twenty.

No one sold the American people on this incarnation of Wazir Akbar Khān as one of the desired outcomes of all those hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent in Afghanistan. But it is what we have built at Ground Zero Afghanistan. Whatever we were aiming at, this is the manifest result.

Consider also the new hundred-million-dollar wastewater treatment facility in Fallujah, Anbar Province, Iraq, which provides only spotty wastewater treatment to the people of that city. In 2004, after the US military all but demolished Fallujah in the deadliest urban battle of the Iraq War, it was decided that the way to turn the residents of the recalcitrant Sunni Triangle away from Al-Qaeda and toward their country’s fledgling government would be to build a sewage system for all of Fallujah. The initial $33 million contract was let to a South Carolina company in June 2004, while the city was still smoldering. There was no time to waste. The Bush administration’s Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office identified the sewage system as a “key national reconciliation issue.” The goal was to have it up and running by the beginning of 2006.

Nearly five years after the deadline, having clocked in at three times its initial budget, there was still not a single residence on line. Accordingly, the plan was “descoped”—scaled down—to serve just a third of the city. In the midst then of doing a third of the work for triple the money, there was talk of walking away from the project without connecting even that one-third of Fallujah residences to the aborted plant. We had built a shit-processing plant that didn’t process shit.

And it gets worse. According to a 2008 report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, about 10 percent of the money paid to Iraqi subcontractors for the Fallujah project ended up in the hands of “terrorist organizations.” According to that same report, residents near two particular pump stations “[might] become angry” if the system ever did come on line, because “funding constraints” made “odor control facilities” impractical. Even households that were not part of the collection system would still be subject to what the Iraqi minister of municipalities and public works delicately called the “big stink.” The eighty-page report also noted, with dry finality, “The project file lacked any documentation to support that the provisional Iraqi government wanted this project in the first place.”

When, finally, late in 2011, seven years into the project, at a cost of $108 million, we managed to get a quarter of the homes in Fallujah hooked into that system, this partial accomplishment was not met with resounding huzzahs. “In the end it would be dubious to conclude that this project helped stabilize the city, enhanced the local citizenry’s faith in government, built local service capacity, won hearts or minds, or stimulated the economy,” the Special Inspector General said in 2011. “It is difficult to conclude that the project was worth the investment.” A hundred million American dollars, partially diverted to the groups fighting US troops, to build (poorly) a giant, unwanted wastewater-treatment project that provides nothing but the “big stink” for three-quarters of the city. No one would argue for something like this as a good use of US tax dollars. But it is in fact what we bought.

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Here at home, according to an exhaustive and impressive two-year-long investigation by the Washington Post, the taxpayer-funded Global War on Terror also built enough ultra-high-security office space (Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facilities, or SCIF, in bureaucrat-speak) to fill twenty-two US Capitol Buildings: seventeen million square feet of offices in thirty-three handsome and generously funded new complexes powered up twenty-four hours a day, where an army of nearly one million American professionals spies on the world and the homeland. It’s as if we turned the entire working population of Detroit and Milwaukee into high-security-clearance spooks and analysts.

The spy boom has been a beautiful windfall for architects, construction companies, IT specialists, and above all defense contractors, enriching thousands of private companies and dozens of local economies hugging the Capital Beltway. All those SCIFs and the rest of the government-contractor gravy train have made suburban Washington, DC, home to six of the ten wealthiest counties in America. Falls Church, Loudoun County, and Fairfax County in Virginia are one, two, and three. Goodbye, Nassau County, New York. Take that, Oyster Bay.

The crown jewel of this sprawling intelligopolis is Liberty Crossing, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington—an 850,000-square-foot (and growing) complex that houses the National Counterterrorism Center. The agency was created and funded in 2004 because, despite spending $30 billion on intelligence before 9/11, the various spy agencies in our country did not talk to one another. So the $30 billion annual intelligence budget was boosted by 250 percent, and with that increase we built ourselves a clean, well-lighted edifice, concealed by GPS jammers and reflective windows, where intelligence collected by 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies under government contract is supposedly coordinated.

It is a big, big idea, and perhaps necessary—the financial commitment to it implies at least that we think it is. But it turns out Liberty Crossing is a bureaucratic haystack into which the now even more vast intelligence community tosses its shiniest needles. When a businessman relayed to CIA agents in Nigeria that his son seemed to be under the spell of terrorists and had gone to Yemen, perhaps for training, that duly reported needle got sucked into the fifty-thousand-reports-per-year haystack, only to be discovered after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and tried to set off a bomb he’d stuffed into his underpants. “The complexity of this system defies description,” a retired Army lieutenant general and intelligence specialist told the Post reporters. “We can’t effectively assess whether it’s making us more safe.”

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If no one knows if it’s making us safer, why have we built it? Why are we still building it, at breakneck speed? Liberty Crossing is slated to almost double in size over the next decade. Remember the fierce debate in Congress over whether or not it’s worth it to do that? No? Me neither. But we keep building it. We keep chugging along.

National security is a real imperative for our country—for any country. But the connection between that imperative and what we do about it has gone as frowsy as my hometown’s little pump station in high August. Our national security policy isn’t much related to its stated justifications anymore. To whatever extent we do argue and debate what defense and intelligence policy ought to be, that debate—our political process—doesn’t actually determine what we do. We’re not directing that policy anymore; it just follows its own course. Which means we’ve effectively lost control of a big part of who we are as a country. And we’ve broken faith with some of the best advice the founders ever gave us.

Our constitutional inheritance didn’t point us in this direction. If the colonists hadn’t rejected British militarism and the massive financial burden of maintaining the British military, America wouldn’t exist. The Constitutional Convention debated whether America should even have a standing army. The founders feared that maintaining one would drain our resources in the same way that maintaining the eighteenth-century British military had burdened the colonies. They worried that a powerful military could rival civilian government for power in our new country, and of course they worried that having a standing army around would create too much of a temptation to use it. Those worries about the inevitable incentives to war were part of what led to the division of government at the heart of our Constitution, building into the structure of our new country a deliberate peaceable bias.

But in the past generation or two, we’ve drifted off that historical course. The steering’s gone wobbly, the brakes have failed. It’s not a conspiracy, there aren’t rogue elements pushing us to subvert our national interests to instead serve theirs. It’s been more entertaining and more boneheaded than that.

The good news is we don’t need a radical new vision of post–Cold War American power. We just need a “small c” conservative return to our constitutional roots, a course correction. This book is about how and why we’ve drifted. It wasn’t inevitable. And it’s fixable.

 

Copyright © 2012 Rachel Maddow 

© 2012, agentleman.

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April 5th, 2012 at 5:30 pm

It Is Your Fault I Beat You!

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How Right-Wing Bullies Blame and Attack the Victims of Violence and Oppression

 

The right-wing exploits tendencies toward victim-blaming to advance its worldview. But are Americans wising up?

When Geraldo Rivera and other right-wing figures zeroed in on Trayvon Martin’s hoodie as though it provided some sort of explanation or justification for the young man’s tragic death, when right-wing websites began a smear campaign against the dead child’s memory, they were playing right into a blame-the-victim script.

It’s a script that is used almost always to reinforce white supremacist and patriarchal power structures. And it’s a script that plays off a weakness of our Western worldview, our inclination to assign negative moral value to those who suffer–what psychologists call the “just world fallacy.”

For many, it can be less disturbing, simpler to blame the victim than the system (and, by extension, ourselves) and no one exploits this weakness better than the right wing. Any time there’s been a major backlash to a social movement, from civil rights to feminism to AIDS activism, the right has followed a similar victim-blaming script. The message gets injected into the culture: Black poverty is a symptom of pathology. Rape victims are asking for it. AIDS sufferers are being punished for their lifestyles. Those without health care should be left to die. And now, most horribly and tellingly, a dead young boy with skittles and iced tea in his hands had it coming.

The idea behind these smears is: it can’t happen to you. It’s not your problem. But racism, xenophobia, homophobia, patriarchy–these are our problems, problems the majority and the privileged perpetuate.

A Derailing and Damaging Process

Over the past month or so, the central injustice in the Trayvon Martin case–the idea that the killer has not even been arrested or charged–was so glaring and obvious that even complacent Americans grew outraged. The case garnered millions of petition signatures and a steadily growing stream of attention. A genuine conversation about race actually began. And then the victim-blaming script kicked in in earnest.

Here’s how the process goes: First, right-wing figures express perfunctory dismay that something terrible–in this case, the most nightmarish thing imaginable–has occurred. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney even weighed in on the Trayvon Martin “tragedy.” Then, extremists and their enablers get alarmed that a chorus of voices are (rightly) calling attention to the relationship between the tragedy and massive inequalities, in this case deeply embedded, deeply damaging racism.

Then, they attempt to reverse the story, and try to bully everyone else into reversing it, too. They begin to dig into the victim’s history to find something unsavory. To wit, the sudden cries emerging this week that Trayvon Martin wasn’t the perfect victim and therefore the entire line of thought connecting his death to racism was somehow invalid. After all, he was once found with a baggie that contained traces of marijuana. He tweeted teenage-type things and grimaced at the camera. These flimsy arguments, as some commenters on conservative blogs implied, suddenly meant we could absolve both George Zimmerman and ourselves of responsibility. Other white supremacists and racists went so far as to hack Martin’s online accounts in an effort to keep smearing him.

Although only the biggest extremists said the most explicit things out loud, the idea that Trayvon Martin deserved to be killed was the exact message they were supposed to receive–and transmit. Zerlina Maxwell at the Grio called it the “Thug-ification of Trayvon Martin,” writing:

It is a strategic manipulation of public perception with the purpose of turning Trayvon into a stereotypical black male predisposed to criminal behavior. The purpose is to spin the public outcry that followed as overreactions or as a rush to judgment.

Maxwell notes this is an effort to “derail” us, a crucial aspect of victim-blaming, shifting focus away from the damning facts: Zimmerman shot Martin after making an 911 call that strongly indicated clear racial profiling if not outright racism on his part; Martin was unarmed and told his girlfriend he was being followed; the police made a number of glaring missteps and didn’t collect evidence.

The idea is to change the conversation to speculation, conjecture and attempts to slant the story differently. This even included Michelle Malkin’s site posting fake pictures of Trayvon Martin’s alleged Facebook account to make him look more “thuggish.” Even after it retracted the story, damage had been done.

Media Culpability

When conservative media, like the New York Post, got Orwellian and claimed that liberals were exploiting the tragedy to “make it about race,” this also helped cow journalists, ever afraid of being labeled “liberals.” Thus, the right’s derailing efforts were aided and abetted by the wide media circulation of Zimmerman’s account. Through family surrogates whose stories were suspect at best, Zimmerman claimed that he was overpowered and afraid for his life before he pulled the trigger. His story was spread alongside the local police’s seemingly corroborating claims that Zimmerman was bloodied and bruised, claims that would have required a lot of explanation to match up with the evidence.

On Thursday night, video surfaced that appeared to show Zimmerman, contrary to his own and police department accounts, uninjured and not bleeding. Jesse Singal at the Daily Beast notes that this evidence shows there was far too little skepticism from “disinterested” observers to begin with:

In retrospect, there was so little reason for the Zimmerman account to have changed anyone’s view of the case. Neither he nor the Sanford Police Department were disinterested observers. He, after all, was facing potential murder or manslaughter charges, and the department was shielding itself from a nationwide barrage of criticism for not arresting him.

Why did some media outlets report the Zimmerman story so uncritically, and why is the right-wing able to get these counter-narratives into the national consciousness? Singal hints at the reasons:

Of course, that Zimmerman likely outweighed Martin by 50 pounds or more, or that the worst “criminal activity” alluded to in the Twitter account was smoking pot…didn’t matter. No. What mattered was that this version of events was so much more palatable and digestible than the notion that race had played a part in the death of an unarmed black teen (which is so…liberal). And that’s why the story festered and spread like a virus.

Protecting Power Structures, Comforting the Powerful

It’s fair to make the point that some of the backlash arose from an insatiable conservative drive to undercut anything liberals and progressives support, even a basic issue of justice like this one. But this is about much more than politics, it’s about power structures. Singal’s colleague Michelle Goldberg elaborates:

…some on the right are deeply invested in the idea that anti-black racism is no longer much of a problem in the United States, and certainly not a problem on the scale of false accusations of racism. You might call these people anti-anti-racists. They are determined to push back against any narrative that would suggest that a black man has been targeted for the color of his skin.

We are living in an inverted era: it generates more outcry to call someone a racist than to be a racist. But racism–not just casual racism but the racism that denies the very humanity of people of color–is alive and well. Dozens of young people tweeted that they didn’t care about the poignant death of Rue, a young girl in “The Hunger Games” because she was black. Naeesa Aziz at BET wrote that she found it: “impossible to think about how race affected people’s reaction to the death of the ficticious character of little Rue and not think of Trayvon Martin and the countless other young men and women whose lives were considered expendable because of their skin color.”

The Martin case has elevated the plight of young men of color, who are posited as possessing inherent criminality and are targeted by the police and now self-styled vigilantes, into the national consciousness. This is an area in which our society–and our own psyches–need work, analysis and reflection. It’s easier for media figures and onlookers to focus on something like the hoodie than to focus a hundreds-year old history of oppression and its widespread effects. As Singal noted, for many, even many who are not on the right-wing fringes, the story that Trayvon Martin himself was somehow at least partly culpable was more “palatable.”

To those who have studied rape culture, this notion sounds familiar. Goldberg, Maxwell and many others have noted the similarity between the focus on Trayvon Martin’s clothing and alleged pot-smoking and the frequent declaration by pundits, jury members and others that women who were raped somehow contributed to their rape by wearing short skirts or tight jeans or drinking. Trayvon Martin, who cannot speak for himself because his life was silenced, has undergone the same kind of personal “vetting” that other victims of race, gender and sexuality-based violence have always gone through–instead of their perpetrators being vetted, they are.

Historical, Psychological Phenomenon

But that’s because the very concept of blaming the victim is rooted in oppression.  Although victim-blaming has some of its roots in Western Biblical ideas of sinners being punished by acts of God, more recently, it’s a phenomenon that centers around race, gender, poverty and violence. Blaming the Victim is the title of a 1976 book by William J. Ryan that pushed back on “the lies we tell ourselves about race, poverty and the poor.”

Ryan debunked both right-wing scorn and middle-class liberal pieties that held the idea that the behavior of poor black families contributed to the bad conditions in their lives. This, Ryan argued, amounts to mass denial of a system that has been historically rigged to deprive African-Americans. Kai Wright, writing about how the Trayvon Martin case reveals the brutality of American society towards black men, makes the same point, saying that victim-blaming is an American speciality: “Surely all these people have done something to bring the murder, the poverty, the brutality down upon themselves! That’s America’s unique twist on systemic oppression. ”

 

“The just world fallacy” (as described in this academic paper from the 1970s) is a form of cognitive bias that assumes things happen to people because they deserve them, and allows us to dismiss broad injustices, including those we perpetuate. It enables people to distance themselves from victims, whether individual victims like Trayvon Martin or larger victimized groups, like young black men. Check out these depressing statistics on how many whites believe their black brethren should just “work harder” to achieve success.

The belief in victims’ culpability and in a “just world”  comes partly from socialization; when children are raised to respect authority figures, national leaders and the wealthy as “great” without critical analysis, when we watch shows or read stories that reward the virtuous and punish the evil, we ingrain the idea of a correlation between success and morality. While on some level a just-world belief may help us cope with random tragedies, when it comes to societal injustice, it can also contribute to the widening of divisions. Psychological experiments have shown that a majority of subjects will change their opinion of others based not on what they do, but on what happens to them. We are primed for a victim-blaming script, and that’s why the victim-blaming script gets used every time social justice makes gains–because it often works (unsurprisingly, recent studies have shown liberals are less likely to blame victims than conservatives are, but that doesn’t absolve liberals of our own victim-blaming propensities)

At Salon earlier this year, David Sirota noted that from the Southern Strategy onward, to current-day GOPers asking Iraqis for reparations after we invaded and destroyed their country, blaming the victim has been an important part of the right-wing modus operandi (and he also cites Ryan):

The list seems endless. From demonizing Occupy Wall Street protesters to bashing unions already under pulverizing corporate assault, the Republican Party is today organized around the politics of scapegoating the least powerful among us — and that’s a problem for the GOP’s opponents, because history shows that kind of politics works.

Yes, as crass tactics go, victim blaming has, unfortunately, been a reliable bet. From the mid-1960s to the beginning of the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s (as I demonstrate in my recent book), blaming the victim became the backbone of the ugly but electorally powerful backlash to the civil rights movement — a backlash that sociologist William Ryan famously identified as ”justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality.”

This sounds pretty grim–and accurate. However, there may be some optimism to be found in today’s grassroots activism. The movement declaring “I am Troy Davis,” the Million Hoodie marches, and year’s SlutWalks were all explicity organized to create outlets for empathy and identification with victims. Occupy Wall Street’s “We Are the 99%” Tumblr created an opportunity to humanize victims of the economic downturn. All these protests “went viral.” The fact that this is all happening at once is remarkable; although injustices are continuing and in some cases worsening, there are near-simultaneous outpourings to explicitly reject victim-blaming and declare solidarity with the unfortunate, the oppressed, the injured.

Our society has done a terrible job fighting the stain of racism, as this case clearly indicates. But the fact that so many are standing up and refusing to buy the victim-blaming script at this moment in time offers hope. Instead of seeing the world as just, protesters clad in hoodies are saying they want justice. And their voices are being heard.

Sarah Seltzer

© 2012, agentleman.

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April 5th, 2012 at 12:54 pm

The Church And State Together Again!

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Deciphering Right-Wing Code: What Conservatives Are Really Saying When They Seem to Spew Nonsense By Sara Robinson

Did Rick Santorum just declare the next right-wing crusade?

Progressive commentators have been piling on Rick Santorum for a weirdly incoherent statement he made about the state of American history classes in America’s colleges. Here’s what he said:

“I was just reading something last night from the state of California. And the state of California universities — I think it’s seven or eight of the California system of universities — don’t even teach an American history course. It’s not even available to be taught. Just to tell you how bad it’s gotten in this country, where we’re trying to disconnect the people from the root of who we are….”

The derision Santorum has received is well-deserved. He messed up the facts badly: 10 of the 11 UC campuses do teach US history (the only exception is UC San Francisco, which is exclusively a graduate-level health sciences campus and offers no humanities classes at all).

It also misses the point. It’s not news when a conservative says something that was flat-out wrong, or when liberals take smug satisfaction in demonstrating that they are (as usual) factually right. But there was something else Santorum said in that statement that was newsworthy and important — and in our zeal to debunk the facts, many progressives are completely missing it.

It’s Not About the Facts

The thing to remember is this: Even though right-wing narratives are often factually wrong, they are absolutely never content-free. Stories like this are always about something. And the weirder and more factually challenged they sound to liberal ears, the more important it probably is for us to know what that something is. Too often, our obsession with the gobsmacking wrongness of these statements deafens us to clues to the right’s current motives and intentions that are frequently lurking in these strange declarations.

I’m a native-born speaker of right-wing code. And what I heard in Santorum’s ramble was, frankly, hair-raising. To my ears, it was a very loud and clear tip-off that conservatives are gearing up an all-out frontal assault on funding for America’s public universities.

The Story Beneath the Story

Santorum’s brief comment, incoherent as it seemed, communicated a great deal to his audience by artfully triggering a vast universe of essential right-wing memes. Consider what got communicated here.

The University of California may have 11 campuses, but in the right-wing mind, “UC” is code for just one of them — UC Berkeley, the first and still-flagship campus, which holds a mythic position as Ground Zero for all of Dirty Hippiedom in the conservative imagination. If Satan is alive on earth, there is no doubt that his zip code is 94720. Everything conservatives loathe about the Evil 1960s is epitomized by the very word, “Berkeley.”

Oblique as this already is, invoking UC and Berkeley also calls forth the ghost of Ronald Reagan — always a good thing in conservative stories. Let it never be forgotten that Our Hero made his political bones by standing up to those Dirty Hippie brats while he was governor of California. He punished them by abolishing UC’s free tuition — which is still remembered by the faithful as the first historic salvo in the long war to defund all public services.

Furthermore: picking on UC was telling in another way. When conservatives seriously gather themselves to go after somebody, they always attack frontally, at their intended victim’s point of greatest strength. (See also: swiftboating.)  The University of California system has long been regarded as the best public university system in America, and Berkeley as the best single public university in the country. Santorum’s story’s focus on this particular system — the biggest, baddest exemplar of its type — is no random accident. It draws a bead on the strongest target on the field. This is almost always a clear sign that conservatives are lining up their artillery — in this case, for an open assault on America’s public colleges and universities.

The Crusade Begins

When wingnuts say stuff like this, it is never, ever offhand. This narrative is making the rounds on the right because somebody is laying the groundwork for an imminent, planned political action. Santorum’s screed is the first stage of this campaign. It’s a story that justifies the coming action, and puts the issue on the public table for discussion. It explains to right-wing followers that public universities, already well-understood as havens for liberal (!) public employees (!!) who exist only to corrupt the youth (!!!), are now also so blatantly unpatriotic (!!!!) that they no longer deserve taxpayer support.

Further inquiry bore this suspicion out. It turns out that Santorum’s weird claims about UC’s history departments were a garbled rendering of an op-ed that appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal. (The article is behind a paywall; but the report it referenced, from the conservative Hoover Institution, is not.) The WSJ piece deplored UC’s history programs thusly:

This decline in the quality of education coincides with a profound transformation of the college curriculum. None of the nine general campuses in the UC system requires students to study the history and institutions of the United States. None requires students to study Western civilization, and on seven of the nine UC campuses, including Berkeley, a survey course in Western civilization is not even offered. In several English departments one can graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare. In many political science departments majors need not take a course in American politics.

The report goes on to point out that university faculties skew decidedly liberal (perhaps because the facts have a well-known liberal bias), and that nothing but partisan education happens behind those ivy walls.

You can kind of squint sideways and see how Santorum got from here to there.

For the record: it is true that a single “survey course on Western Civilization” isn’t offered at most UC campuses. That’s because Western Civilization courses are more typically offered in a multi-part series, because the professors don’t think it’s possible to effectively teach 3,000 years of history in a mere 10 weeks. So all of UC’s undergrad campuses offer plenty of courses in both US and Western history, and a lot of students take them to fulfill their general education requirements. However, it’s also true that many students choose to broaden their horizons by taking something they didn’t already cover in both elementary and high school — say, Asian or African history — instead.

Given how fast and loose the WSJ played with this point, it’s probably not wise to credit it with much accuracy on the other claims, either.

But the content of this Hoover report isn’t as important as the fact of its provenance, its existence, and its publication on the pages of the WSJ. Right-wing crusades almost always start with think-tank reports; and are issuized on the pages of conservative magazines and newspapers. From there, the ideas are picked up and disseminated by Fox, politicians, conservative ministers, and right-wing bloggers. If all goes well, within weeks, legislators will be paying attention, and lobbyists will be presenting them with ready-written legislation to propose to deal with this manufactured “problem.”

This is the path we’re on now. Santorum was setting the stage. He warned us, very clearly: Following the War on Public Employees and the War on Women, this will be the summer of the War on Public Universities. Whether the proposals will be to revoke their charters, close campuses, or sell off their facilities to for-profit colleges, you can bet that ALEC already has the bills in the can, and will be introducing them in state legislatures presently.

We can waste our time and energy marveling at Mr. Santorum’s lack of facticity — or we can hear the clear warning of real danger just ahead, and start getting ready to defend our public universities.

© 2012, agentleman.

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Written by agentleman

April 5th, 2012 at 7:01 am

ekis.203 chinchilla.203@mailxu.com
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