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America's Moral Meltdown

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Message Lawrence Velvel
Since I began my blog in 2004, it has been among the first spaces to discuss, has sometimes been the first space to discuss, a number of matters that most of the mainstream media would not at the time touch with a fork, but that subsequently have become conventional wisdom or at least widely bruited. Among such matters were that Saddam had planned a guerrilla war from the beginning; that torture by Americans might be more widespread than initially thought; that the Executive wished to use military tribunals rather than civilian courts because evidence had been obtained by torture, which would make it inadmissible in civilian courts; that Iraq should be divided into three parts; that George Bush is incompetent; that he is not very intelligent -- is, indeed, stupid, except for being venally crafty about political matters; that Iraq was proving to be another Viet Nam; that among the reasons for this war are that George the Pretexter and his friends have never fought in a war -- the Pretexter-in-Chief and the Vice Pretexter dodged Viet Nam, you know -- and that the Pretexter and Vice Pretexter do not send their family and friends to fight in the war, but instead send only other people's children to fight it; that the torture memos written by such as now-federal-judge Jay Bybee, the lamented but not late John Yoo, and other administration heroes were a legal and moral disgrace; and that Bush and the CIA sought these memos in an effort to give themselves legal cover for serious felonies.

To have been early-on in discussing these matters -- as Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up -- is not a bad record. It certainly is a lot better record than that of certain conservative mass media heroes, or frauds -- e.g., Minnesota Tom Friedman -- who continuously get things wrong, but whose mistakes, in the literal tradition of the mass media, are never kept track of, never remembered, and never cause them to be fired. (This is, in its own way, analogous to football coaches, baseball managers and university presidents, who keep getting rehired for lucrative new jobs after presiding over disasters elsewhere. (Dave Wannstedt, any one?) As John Kenneth Galbraith so perspicaciously said, in America it is far better for one's career to be conventionally wrong than to be unconventionally right. Far better. To be unconventionally right, I would add to Galbraith's wise perception, is to "earn" the opprobrious epithet of "radical.")

Let me now, therefore, be among the first (maybe even the first? -- probably not, because I imagine readers may be able to tell me of a few others taking the same position) to make another point that is not yet being heard widely, if heard at all, although much of what one reads and hears ineluctably points to it. What shall be discussed now is a matter that, if one judges by history, will take decades to become widely bruited or accepted, and indeed may never be, because Americans do not think in terms of the morality of their national actions. They discuss their national actions in terms of self interest, wisdom or folly, idealism or pragmatism, but never, or almost never, in terms of simple morality.

The point to be made here is that this country has suffered, and is in the middle of, a moral meltdown. What should one call it but immoral when a country tortures people; when it kidnaps them off the street; when its Department of Justice writes disgraceful memoranda approving the kidnapping and torture; when it causes the deaths of tens of thousands of persons by artillery, bombings, missiles and rifle fire for a cause nearly all think a great mistake and one caused by lies; when it claims it must continue this murder lest its position in the world decline, though the history of its relatively recent prior debacle, Viet Nam, in which it made exactly the same claim about a potentially declining position, shows that the opposite result occurs from terminating a horrid mistake; when it continues its horrid actions, despite the lesson of Viet Nam, in part because the Pretexter-in-Chief secretly relies on the advice of one of the arch, never punished, criminals of the Viet Nam era, Henry Kissinger; when it continues its horrid, losing actions even though a fundamental principle of the financial capitalism it seeks to force upon the whole world is to cut your losses?

What should one call it but immoral when the Congress (and the media) willingly, enthusiastically jumped aboard the bandwagon for this war that has caused tens of thousands of deaths; did so without questioning its lying rationale(s) to any significant extent; has never taken the slightest action to bring it to a close; refuses to even consider so slight a punishment as censure of those who brought it on; will not even mention the dread word impeachment; is in the grip of a tyrannical Republican leadership and corrupt Republican followers, assisted defacto by a Democratic leadership and followers who have no spine and who stood, and stand, for no principles; and when the only thing members of Congress care about is bringing home the pork -- including John Murtha, the king of pork, you know, though he did speak out on the war, for which he got blasted?

What should one call it but immoral when the Republican Party, with its K Street program, has successfully imposed upon the country what may be the most corrupt, the most bribe ridden, the most graft ridden, Congressional autocracy since the Gilded Age of the late 19th Century, and when the country's corporations and investment banks play ball with this and are, besides, riddled with financial corruption?

What should one call it but immoral when the Congress, desperately seeking reelection, and fearing to offend anyone, votes to give the President the power to continue approving what in effect is torture: he, after all -- the same man who previously authorized and desired torture -- will define what is or is not permitted; and when the Congress and media willfully refuse to recognize the obvious truth that the Pretexter and Vice Pretexter were the cause of the torture and kidnapping?

What should one call it but immoral when things mentioned in this essay have been permitted because so many conservatives in the country -- so many citizens who are red staters in viewpoint regardless of where they live -- have agreed with what has been done; continue to agree with it and want it done; vote for the people who are responsible for it; and by their agreement and votes have enabled it to continue, especially since the cheap hacks in politics who -- often knowing no trade or profession or job but politics -- fear loss of an election above all else?

What should one call it but immoral -- and even worse than the Germans under the Nazis -- when American citizens, unlike the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s, could speak against the criminals, and vote to throw them out, without fear of being hung from lamp posts or meat hooks, yet instead speak in favor of the criminals and vote to keep them in office?

There is, one thinks, only one conclusion from all of this. This has become, at least currently, a deeply immoral nation. It is a nation in the throes of a moral breakdown, a moral meltdown. Yet people are surprised when some nut walks into a school building and starts shooting children? Surprise is possible only because this country has not, as a country, looked in the mirror.

Iraq is by far not the first time this country has suffered a moral meltdown. Other examples are, unhappily, legion. This country approved of slavery for nearly 90 years and reviled abolitionists for decades. Southerners murdered black prisoners of war during the Civil War. The country allowed Jim Crow to be imposed by a brutal South for 90 years (and allowed the South defacto to run Congress and therefore the country, as it still does). The country allowed the South to lynch blacks by the thousands. The country has railroaded, and hung or electrocuted, so-called radicals who likely were innocent of, or at least some of whom were innocent of, the charges against them. (E.g., the Haymarket socialists, and maybe Sacco and Vanzetti too, though opinions differ about the latter two.) This country acted unspeakably in the Philippines Insurrection, when it tortured people, burned down villages and engaged in mass murder -- all of which our historians cavalierly ignored, reprehensibly ignored, for 65 or 70 years, until Viet Nam was well advanced. The country acted unspeakably in Viet Nam, which is too close in time for American actions to need detailing.

Moral breakdowns are, it appears, a regular phenomenon of American national life. And, without getting into it very deeply, they are always accompanied, as today, by false protestations that what is being done is in the name of a higher civilization, is in the name of an asserted moral imperative: slavery was claimed to be a positive good; Jim Crow was claimed to be a desirable and necessary separation of the races; socialists had to be eliminated lest they destroy the nation; we were civilizing the benighted in the Philippines; we were stopping the march of worldwide Communism in Viet Nam; today it is claimed we fight in Iraq to stop the march of worldwide jihadism, worldwide Islamofascism, etc., etc.

As said, this country's moral derelictions are not looked at as, or described in terms of being, moral delicts. They are looked at and described in other ways, and by the use of other terms. Why the country shies from using the word immoral does not seem hard to guess -- who, after all, wants to describe his or her own conduct as immoral, or the conduct of those he/she votes for and supports as immoral, or his or her own country as immoral. What American historian wants to say, and does not fear the consequences to himself of saying, that the actions of this country have been or are immoral? Yet immoral is exactly what the historical and current actions discussed here have been and are, and one suspects that a basic reason underlying the bitter opposition of many of us to what has been occurring recently is precisely that this country, its leaders, its media, its citizens have been acting immorally, very immorally, and continue to act very immorally. Call me radical (to steal from the opening sentence of Moby Dick), and call all of us radical who are motivated by the fact that the actions of this country have been horribly immoral, but that won't change the fact of historical and current immorality. (Nor will it change the fact, at the heart of one of Ibsen's plays, that persons who are willing to see and enunciate the truth are reviled for precisely that reason.) Nor will it change the justness of a comment made at an anti-imperialist rally in 1899 by Carl Schurz, in a take -off of Decatur's famous but usually incompletely quoted statement about my country right or wrong. "Our country," said Schurz, "right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right."*

├» éČ ¬ *This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at www.lrvelvel.libsyn.com
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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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