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Tomgram: Ira Chernus, Obama Trapped by Myth

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

In New York City, my hometown, as in so many cities across the country, a hard-pressed local government and a desperate transit authority are cutting back on services while hiking prices for a deteriorating subway and bus system.  For night workers and those out in the lonely, dark early morning hours, some bus lines are simply being eliminated.  Meanwhile, in one small settlement of 14,000 people in embattled Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, a single marine platoon is spending on average $400,000 a month on "reconstruction projects." The Marines have, according to a BBC reporter who visited, "put up street lights, cleaned irrigation channels, handed out radios, paved the bazaar, built bridges, and are currently building a new school."  Do I feel safer? 

In the U.S., policemen and firemen are being laid off, and the budgets of police and fire departments cut back or, in a few small places, eliminated.  In Afghanistan, the U.S., having already invested $20 billion in building up the Afghan police and military, is now planning to spend $11.6 billion more this year alone, $12.8 billion in 2012, and more than $6 billion a year thereafter.  According to Washington's latest scheme, the Afghan security forces will be increased to 378,000 men in a poverty-stricken land, which means committing U.S. tax dollars to the project into the distant future.  Do you feel safer?

In the United States, teachers are being laid off, class-sizes are on the rise, and tuition at public colleges is soaring.  In Afghanistan, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) claims to have built or refurbished 524 schools and to be completing another 130 of them.  Do you feel safer now?

In the U.S., basic infrastructure has been fraying, bridges collapsing, natural gas pipelines exploding, and projects like a commuter-rail tunnel connecting New Jersey to New York City are being canceled or put off.  In Afghanistan and Pakistan, giant American-funded building projects are revving up (for which locals are being hired), especially a giant embassy/citadel in Kabul at the cost of $511 million (with nearly $200 million more going to the expansion of consular establishments elsewhere in that country).  Meanwhile in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, another monster U.S. citadel-cum-regional-command-center is being built for nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars.  Do you feel safer yet?

In the United States, according to the director of the Argonne National Laboratory, the aging national power grid "resembles the patchwork of narrow, winding, badly maintained highways of the 1920s and 1930s" before they were rebuilt as the interstate highway system and cries out for "strategic upgrading."  In Afghanistan, USAID has just awarded the Black & Veatch Corporation "a no-bid contract worth $266 million... to pump more power into Kandahar and Helmand provinces." Meanwhile the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investing $227 million in diesel-generator power plants and electrical-system upgrades for southern Afghanistan.  Finally feeling a little safer?

Oh, and in case you think that these reconstruction projects are actually making Afghans feel safer, many of them are ill-built, visible boondoggles, and already crumbling.  The cost of 15 large-scale reconstruction programs in Afghanistan studied by McClatchy News ballooned from slightly more than one billion dollars to just under three billion dollars "despite the government's questions about effectiveness or cost."  A previous Black & Veatch project to build a diesel-fueled power plant in Kabul for $100 million, for instance, ended up costing $300 million and was a year behind schedule.  Schools have reportedly been constructed so shoddily that they would have no hope of withstanding an earthquake and, according to the Washington Post, "roads, canals, and schools built... as part of a special U.S. military program are crumbling under Afghan stewardship." Does anyone feel safer? 

Think about this as TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus explores what he calls America's myth of national insecurity.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest superb TomCast audio interview in which Chernus discusses "us versus them" and "us with them" myths, click here  or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

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How the Power of Myth Keeps Us Mired in War 
Why Are We Still in Afghanistan? 

By Ira Chernus

When I try to figure out why we are still in Afghanistan, though every ounce of logic says we ought to get out, an unexpected conversation I had last year haunts me. Doing neighborhood political canvassing, I knocked on the door of a cheerful man who was just about to tune in to his favorite radio show: Rush Limbaugh.  He was kind enough to let me stay and we talked.

Conservatives are often the nicest people -- that's what I told him -- the ones you'd like to have as neighbors. Then I said: I bet you're always willing to help your neighbors when they need it.  Absolutely, he replied.

So why, I asked, don't you to want to help out people across town who have the same needs, even if they're strangers? His answer came instantly:  Because I know my neighbors work hard and do all they can to take care of themselves. I don't know about those people across town.

He didn't have to say more (though he did). I knew the rest of the story: Why should I give my hard-earned money to the government so they can hand it out to strangers who, for all I know, are good-for-nothing loafers and mooches? I want to be free to decide what to do with my dough and I'll give it to responsible people who believe in taking care of themselves and their families, just like me. I'll give my money to the government only to protect us from strangers in distant lands who don't believe in the sacred rights of the individual and aim to take my freedom and money away.

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What a story it is -- a tale of mythic proportions! As an historian of religions, I was trained to appreciate, even marvel at the myths people tell to make sense out of the chaos of their lives. So I can't help admiring the conservative myth: so simple yet all encompassing, offering clear and easy-to-grasp answers that cut through the everyday complexities besetting us all. 

Of course, the answers are far too simplistic, as stupid (in my opinion) as they are dangerous. But I was also trained to be non-judgmental and to admire the power of a myth even when I find it morally abhorrent. And this one is impressive, with its classic good-guys-versus-bad-guys plot line turned into a stark political tale of freedom versus slavery.

White Americans, going back to early colonial times, generally assigned the role of "bad guys" to "savages" lurking in the wilderness beyond the borders of our civilized land. Whether they were redskins, commies, terrorists, or the Taliban, the plot has always remained the same.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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