*Marines as the Face of America: Haiti’s Earthquake II

Why is it, I have asked myself, that the American relief efforts in Haiti appear to be dominated or headlined by American troops?  Why is it that the military seems, as it has so often in the past, to be the face of the United States in such endeavors?  A few days after the earthquake, American troops were described as having “secured Haiti” – secured from what, one should also ask, if not from its own supposedly errant citizens; and, a week into the relief efforts, the New York Times on its front page stated, one suspects rather proudly, “U.S. Troops Patrolling Haiti, Filling Void Left by Quake” (20 January 2010).  The Washington Post, on January 22, was similarly to headline the role of the military:  “U.S. troops to help oversee Haiti ports, roads in earthquake relief.”  The answer, many will aver, is self-evident:  when a catastrophe of this magnitude takes place, only the United States armed forces have the infrastructure, manpower, authority, and organizational experience that can meet the requirements of the situation.  Moreover, the United States has long been accustomed, as is well known, to thinking of Haiti, indeed all of central America, as its own backyard:  and in its backyard the dispatch of American troops is certainly the default reaction.

But, so long as such reasoning exists, the likelihood that the United States, whether acting in concert with the so-called ‘international community’ or independently, will ever put into place an organization drawn from civil society that can perform relief functions on a gigantic scale is negligible.  Whatever the mechanisms already in place at the United Nations, and associated relief agencies – Medicin sans Frontiers [MSF], the Red Cross, and many others (such as, for the Haiti Earthquake, “Partners in Health”) – for what is these days termed ‘disaster relief’, it is transparent that the existing infrastructure is woefully inadequate.  “The number of weather-related disasters”, an Oxfam 2007 report states, “has quadrupled over the past twenty years and the world should do more to prepare for them.”  Does this situation furnish the US military with a continuing mandate to make its presence felt in the Western hemisphere and across the world?

The deployment of American troops on such occasions should be recognized for what it is, namely an aspect of the militarism that is so deeply entrenched into the very fabric of American society.  Though the separation of the civilian and military spheres of life is one of the most fundamental and enduring principles of a democratic polity, its subversion is an aspect of everyday existence in the US, from the largely unquestioning ease with which the military conducts recruitment campaigns on college campuses to the ubiquitousness of ‘support our troops’ stickers and yellow ribbons across the front yards of American homes.  The anomalousness of American democracy, relentlessly paraded as a model to the world while grounded firmly in principles of militarism – a militarism that extends well beyond the distressingly abundant occasions for which the US has found cause to deploy the military for wars fought in the national interest and to secure America from its sworn enemies – has never adequately been confronted, either in public discourse or scholarship.

Haiti has long had an acquaintance with the presence of American troops on its soil.  In early 1915, the country came under American occupation.  If the Civil War, fought not only to preserve the Union but also to give some teeth to the Emancipation Proclamation, would compel Lincoln in 1862 to grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti almost 60 years after the slaves rebelled and proclaimed a free republic, it is not accidental that another war should have furnished the pretext for American intervention.  Fear of German infiltration of the Caribbean was enough cause to send marines to Haiti.  The historian Foster Rhea Dulles is candid in his appraisal that the US set up “virtual protectorates” in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua in an endeavor to transform the entire Caribbean into an “American lake from which all trespassers were rigidly barred.”  Then, as now, as US troops entered Haiti, to enforce an occupation that would last nearly 20 years, the New York Times would stand forth to celebrate the heroic achievements of the military:  “It was almost hopeless to expect an orderly government to be established without [military intervention] on the part of the United States.”

The need to project the Marines and the US military more generally as an indispensable force for good can never diminish as long as the military remains the backbone of American foreign policy and the desire to remain the world’s dominant power is undiminished.  In recent years, as the US fights two wars, both of which have discredited the US and neither of which can be defended as having advanced global stability and peace, the US will strive to put a good face on its military and its humanitarian missions.  The New York Times, among other American newspapers, is already circulating reports of the ‘warm reception’ being given to the Marines as they continue with their relief efforts among the earthquake’s victims.  To be sure, there is also the recognition that some Haitians at least might be wary about the presence of American troops on Haiti’s soil.  The present mission to Haiti might not have the overtones of the ‘liberation’ missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, but humanitarian missions have all too often been the guise under which violations of the sovereignty of other nations have taken place.

*The Evisceration of Democracy: More Good Days for the American Corporation

Nero fiddled while Rome burned.  Whatever else Nero may have accomplished, and some historians will tell us it was not wholly insignificant, this is the most enduring story that has survived from the reign of Nero.  The great fire that engulfed Rome broke out in mid-July AD 64.   The fiddle may not even have existed in 1st century Rome; the instrument that is associated with Nero’s Rome is the lyre.   But no new ‘facts’, or claims to tell us the ‘real truth’, can undo the popular understanding that Nero fiddled as good chunks of Rome were reduced to ashes.

Many years hence, it is entirely possible that people will mull over the present-day evisceration of the little that remains of American democracy while the Supreme Court went gallivanting.  Among the more hallowed of democratic institutions anywhere in the world, the United States Supreme Court has on occasion furnished grounds for optimism even to the most tried cynics.   Some of the court’s most memorable days may have been when it struck down Jim Crow laws, outlawed segregation, enhanced prisoners’ rights, and otherwise acted in the interest of a freer, open, and just society.   Others more familiar with the history of the court will no doubt go as far back as the early days of the Republic, when the Marshall Court, in a memorable series of decisions, established the principle of judicial review (Marbury v. Madison, 1803) or, to take another notable achievement, prevented states from taxing federal institutions (McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819).  For the last couple of decades, however, the Supreme Court has been singularly unimpressive, and most of the appointments of the last twenty years, from Clarence Thomas to Chief Justice Roberts, are not calculated to inspire confidence in those who would like to look to the court as the keeper of democracy.

If the court can be described as the preserver of liberties, the liberties are increasingly those of robbers and criminals often masquerading as politicians, bankers, financiers, and CEOs.  With its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to remove corporate campaign limits, and allow corporate America a free hand to influence the course of politics, the Supreme Court has sounded the death knell of democracy.  Some will proclaim this an exaggeration, and point to the alleged self-correcting tendencies of American society; others will submit that the US remains the most successful example of the capitalist model, which might even be rejected were it not for the circumstance that it is better than all other available and tested models of political society.  Since, apparently, corporations have not been permitted a free run for their money, and they have much the same rights that are permitted to individuals – in the bizarre language of the majority, “Government may not suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity” – the court in its wisdom has proclaimed that the protocols which permit the oppression of corporations must be brought to an end!

Most likely more than anywhere else in the world, candidates for high office in the United States have generally come from exceedingly affluent backgrounds.  The Supreme Court is packed with millionaires, and Roberts came to office as Chief Justice with an estimated wealth of $6 million.  While the liberals scanned his records to assess how he might vote on the question of abortion, his corporatist leanings were given scant attention.  The US Senate is often characterized as the most exclusive club in the world, and not only merely because its 100 members wield extraordinary power; indeed, a substantial majority of its members are millionaires, some obscenely so, and its four wealthiest members are all Democrats.  A campaign for a Senate seat can run in excess of $75 million; the cost of the last presidential election was in excess of $1 billion.  The lesson in this is clear enough:  only the heavily propertied classes should aspire for high political office, and they should understand that sanctioning the theft of the nation’s resources is among their principal obligations as office-holders.

In the eighteenth century, in which I live for some part of my life as a teacher of the history of British India, Englishmen returned home with some of the plunder from Bengal; they attempted to buy seats, much to the acute discomfort of those with landed wealth.  Now electoral triumphs are hard-fought gains – but such triumphs appear very much like the attempts to buy seats in the 18th century, even if our language has very much changed.  Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House, and the rags to riches narrative can always be summoned to illustrate the infinite possibilities in the land of promise.  Yet, the inescapable reality is that money determines to an overwhelming degree the outcome of elections, and the Supreme Court decision has laid bare the uncomfortable fact, transparent at least to a few of its critics, that the US has long been a plutocracy.

Justice Stevens, in his dissenting opinion, rightly describes the Court’s understanding of the corporation as akin to an individual, as the bearer of the rights of free speech that are granted in the First Amendment, as both a repudiation of common sense and a mockery of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. “While American democracy is imperfect,” writes Stevens, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”  In 2009 the US Chamber of Commerce spent $144 million in attempts to influence the US Congress and state legislatures, and financial companies spent close to $5 billion over a decade pursuing deregulation and other policy outcomes that would lead to the economic collapse of 2008.  The entire economic recovery appears to have been undertaken through the eyes of the bankers, whose ineptitude and greed continue to be rewarded.  The time is not so distant when Supreme Court justices, much like the occupants of some chaired professorships, will be known by the name of the corporation that has agreed to patronize them.  We are only left to imagine what kind of future is in store for the US with Exxon Chief Justice Roberts, Mobil Justice Scalia, Chevron Justice Thomas, and others of their ilk at the helm to guide the ship of justice to its shores.