Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Politics of Ganging Up On and Insulting One Individual Black Woman

NOTE: This post was edited and revised on 8 January 2011 in response to a critique of the original that I received by email. Thank you, to the sender of that email.

Black writers, of whatever quality, who step outside the pale of what black writers are supposed to write about, or who black writers are supposed to be, are condemned to silences in black literary circles that are as total and as destructive as any imposed by racism.
Audre Lorde

Black women are programmed to define ourselves within this male attention and to compete with each other for it rather than to recognize and move upon our common interests.
Audre Lorde

But the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women.
Audre Lorde

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.
Audre Lorde

I remember how being young and black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.
Audre Lorde

If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.
Audre Lorde

It's a struggle but that's why we exist, so that another generation of Lesbians of color will not have to invent themselves, or their history, all over again.
Audre Lorde

Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.
Audre Lorde

Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.
Audre Lorde

The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.
Audre Lorde

There's always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself - whether it's Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. - because that's the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else.
Audre Lorde

We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other.
Audre Lorde

[source site for the quotes above is *here*]
This post consists of three parts: the quotes by Audre Lorde above; the main body of the post by me below; and an essay on this subject below that, with some closing thoughts by me.

There are a few occasions online, in the last weeks, months, and years, where various groups of people in the white male supremacist West have ganged up to very harshly criticise One Individual Black Woman. There have been many occasions, over the millennia, where this has been done in public places. This is always done at the same time that Black women as a group are ganged up on, insulted, and degraded. So the individual acts mirror the class-based acts. They are, structurally speaking, one and the same thing: oppressive to Black women and supportive of white and male supremacy.

In case the critics of "One Individual Black Woman"--countless individual Black women--haven't noticed, none of those targeted Black women have any of the social-structural-institutional power and privileges of any individual white person or of any individual man who has the ways and means to rally a mob-like group against anyone. And curiously it is disproportionately, if not only, whites and men who gang up on these individual Black women, protesting how "hateful" they are, as if Black women's hatred, or alleged hatred, has ever been the primary source of fuel running social systems designed and protected by whites and men. In case you choose to be so ignorant--whites and men--Black women's anger, rage, and hate has historically been most used against oneself and other Black women. But especially against oneself. To not know that is to prove your structural location as a white and/or male privileged person.

To be a Westerner and to target one Black woman as an object of inhumanity, while inhumanity is what Western Civilisation is founded on and thrives on, is an especially nasty strain of liberal individualism. Are the actions of any individual Black woman really so threatening to the masses that they warrant a response such as ganging up in mob-fashion and publicly insulting an individual in ways that are always consistent with how the group, Black women, is targeted generally? (I don't observe critics of an individual Black woman publicly critiquing her individual actions or views as whatever the critics feels they are. No. Their critique necessary and predictably goes after the humanity of of the person.)

I hear, occasionally, from whites and men: "Why aren't you speaking out against [so-and-so: the actions of an individual Black woman]?!" as if this blog was ever designed to target individual Black women as the source of ANY form of oppression known to the Western world, and the world beyond, imperiled as it is by white het male supremacy, now globalised.

This blog speaks out against systemetised, structural, institutionalised oppression, not hurtful things individual Black women do to a few individuals. I hope that's clear from the banner of this blog and from every post that's been put up here, now approaching 1300 in number. And, unlike many people, I don't use Facebook--that fucking putrid cesspool of anti-radical, anti-activist misogyny and racism, to express my views about individual Black women. Sorry. Naht-gonna-duit.

I critique the acts of some individual whites and individual men, here particularly, because their actions participate in white supremacy and male supremacy--those institutionalised ideologies of callousness and murder. If and when I challenge the viewpoints of any woman of color for being pro-white male supremacist, it's the viewpoint I challenge: I don't "go after" the person and don't rally "friends" to help me do so; I especially don't criticise her humanity.

The ways that whites and men gang up on an individual woman of color is life-threatening to women of color, in case you haven't noticed. The way some individual Black women do hurtful things to individuals who are white, men, or other women of color--because individual Black women are fully human and do human things like become hurtful to other people at times--is never accomplished in such a way that the critiqued people are threatened by multiple other people with all manner of systematised harm and institutionalised insult at their disposal, or with such systems and institutions "having their backs".

Note the anti-radical, anti-feminist, pro-racist location of the politics of whites and men not ever taking the side of any individual Black woman, especially including by bothering to find out the whole story. Note the anti-radical, anti-feminist, pro-racist location of the politics of whites and men insulting and degrading the humanity of any individual Black woman who speaks out in whatever way she chooses--when she speaks out at all, when she isn't being systematically silenced by white and male supremacy and its enforcers. And that doesn't mean I haven't and don't call out individual Black women who do things that I view as racist, misogynistic, heterosexist, or transphobic. I just won't do it PUBLICLY. And I name my own issues with the particular action or actions, I don't call into question the full humanity of the person I bring an objection to.

I don't hold individual Black women to be saints or sinners, holy or heathens, gods or monsters. I use the phrase "Lorde knows" because I think Audre Lorde was fully human, not fully "divine". I use the phrase precisely because her humanity was as good an example of complexly divine humanity as any that of any white person or any man who has been termed "holy" or "god-like". If Jesus (the fully human, not fully divine, man), or Gandhi (who abused women), or Martin Luther King, Jr. (who used women), can be made into various forms of gods, so too can Audre Lorde and any number of other brave, brilliant Black women.

If U.S. white male presidents can be regarded as [cough] Great, for committing, promoting, and permitting genocidal murder, for engaging in military warfare, for never ever declaring rape to be an egregious and entirely preventable atrocity men must work to stop, then I can declare "Great" any woman of any color for standing up to men in whatever ways she determines to be useful and necessary; and I can declare any Black woman "Great" for standing up repeatedly to misogynists and racists who come in all shapes and sizes, who go on and on and on and on about how "dangerous" an individual Black woman is.

To the critics of the One Individual Black Woman:
Spare the world your "concern" for humanity because One Individual Black woman appears to be "out of control" to you. Yes, you do get to find anyone of any color or gender "hurtful" or "offensive" or "disrespectful". But when you find allies with whom to gang up on one individual woman of color and publicly go out of your way to call her all manner of misogynist-racist terms in retaliation as if "this is war", you are doing the White Man's work. And the White Man's work is what this blog is designed to call out and name as atrocious, in case you haven't noticed.
I hope this blog supports more individual Black women, and women of any color, to take action against the evils of institutionalised whiteness and patriarchal manhood. More power to the women who do so. And if I see any whites, or any men, ganging up on ANY individual Black woman, publicly or privately, and attacking her humanity, and insulting her being, I may well call those actions out here on my blog. Because that CRAP is racist and misogynistic to its core. There's nothing anti-status quo about whites and men insulting and degrading Black women, even if it is done one individual Black woman at a time.

For more, please read this (please click on the title to link back to the source website):
An Introduction to a Feminist Perspective on Prejudice and Racism (64)

By cobras

In defining racism, Beverly Daniel Tatum turns to David Wellman’sPortrait of White Racism. According to Ms. Tatum, Mr. Wellman defines racism as “a system of advantage based on race.” (pg. 360, Women) In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh refers to racism as “invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance.” (Pg. 426, Women) In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Audre Lorde writes of “systemized oppression” (pg. 427, Women) and of “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (pg. 428, Women) when characterizing racism. Each of these writers stresses that the nature of racism is systemic and, as such, cannot be perpetrated by a lone individual. Each writer correctly makes a clear distinction between simple-minded personal bigotries and institutionalized wholesale racism.

“Prejudice,” Beverly Daniel Tatum points out, “is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information,” (pg. 361, Women) and goes out of her way to disagree with most people’s tendency to equate prejudice with racism. Ms. Tatum sees racism as extending well beyond the boundaries of personal ideologies. In effect, she understands prejudice to be a mere subset of racism, and believes that people often benefit from (and contribute to) racism without being overtly prejudiced. She sees racism as a system of oppression involving established cultural and institutional standards as well as individual behavior and beliefs. Racism is “prejudice plus power.” (pg. 362, Tatum, Women)

Peggy McIntosh agrees and further elaborates by comparing racism to a double-edged sword; on the one hand it disenfranchises and puts at a disadvantage one segment of the community (people of color), while on the other it confers “unearned advantage” (pg. 426, Women) and privilege to another (whites). McIntosh refers to the advantages she, and other European-Americans gain from racism as white privilege, and writes that this “privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” (Pg. 424, Women) It is important to note that, from her point of view, white privilege is as much a part of racism as is cross-burning at a Baptist church, and she goes a step further. She echoes her colleague Beverly Daniel Tatum’s opinion that anyone enjoying the fruits of white privilege, willingly or not, consciously or not, is a racist.

McIntosh’s and Tatum’s opinions may seem harsh and extreme to some, but as presented by them, make good sense. Humanity long ago reached an evolutionary status that affords each of us a level of understanding that precludes any valid excuse for the persistence of racism. No one may justly plead ignorance. As is often the case, ignorance in this instance, is simply a matter of convenience. “Most talk by whites about equal opportunity,” says McIntosh, “seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.” (Pg. 427, Women)

What these ladies have written is insightful and true. Prejudice is carried out individually; racism is a collective effort. Oafish racial prejudice may be ugly and undesirable, but it cannot be compared to the pervasive cancer of racism. One individual’s narrow-minded and exclusionary outlook may hurt those immediately around him. The damage may even spread somewhat beyond that individual’s scope of influence and life, but it will certainly not alter for the worse the wellbeing and evolution of entire cultures, generation after generation. Prejudice cannot subordinate one race to another. Only racism can enslave a race. Prejudice cannot threaten the very survival of an entire race. Only the virulence of racism has the capacity to wipe entire cultures off the face of the Earth.

And it persists. “Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest…violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living—in the supermarkets, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us.” (Lorde, pg. 430, Women)

White women must deal with racism also, but on a whole different level. Audre Lorde warns that white women must guard against “being seduced into joining the oppressor” (pg. 429, Women) in the hopes of sharing the oppressor’s power. Tatum insists that white women “intentionally or unintentionally…benefit from racism.” (Pg. 364, Women) This is not to say that European-American women are immune to racial hatred. White women are victims of racial prejudice. I have met people who openly profess their hatred of whites simply for their whiteness. This, however, does not constitute, by any stretch of the imagination, the methodical assault upon and oppression of a people of the sort referred to by Lorde when she says to white women: “You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.” (Pg. 430, Women)

Works Cited

Kesselman, Amy, Lily D. McNair, and Nancy Schniedewind, eds. Women: Images and Realities, A Multicultural Anthology. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2003

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If you're still note clear on what's fucked up, racist, and misogynistic about what some whites and men are doing online and offline, to target and demean individual Black women, please read Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde, cover to cover, and anything else by her too. It's not that I believe she speaks to and for all Black women. It's that I believe her words--all of them, if carefully listened to and taken to heart and mind by whites and men, will humanise every reader, to some degree. If you're still not clear about what's wrong with targeting individual Black women, online of offline, then I'd say you're being willfully ignorant in ways your raced and gendered privileges support and encourage. Before you criticise, demean, or degrade another individual Black woman, ask yourself this: is she exactly as human as you are? If your answer is "no", then read more by Audre Lorde, as many times as it takes to "get it" that no Black woman is less human that any white person of any gender, or any trans person or man of any color. -- Julian Real

Hello, My Name is Dick Cheney and I Am A Warmonger. (Hi Dick!)

image is from here

What follows is cross-posted from Please click on the title below to link back.

One assumes against hope that at some point in time liberal, progressive, and radical men on the Left will "get it" that men are waging war against women, and for that we'll need far more than a 12-step program to remedy that recovery effort. We'll need a revolution. And I hope it is increasingly obvious to progressive men that for most women, whether men war against one another or not, men's interpersonal and institutionalised atrocities against women will continue unabated. What would help Afghan and Iraqi women considerably is to get U.S. rapists and warmongers out of those countries. ("Rapists" and "warmongers" being synonyms.)

It is clear to me that men on the Left only consider something "war" if men are killed; it is no different with men on the Right. This is a sad, tragic, callous, and patriarchally conservative viewpoint on "war" and "warfare". So where's that progressivism when we need it? I hope Tom Engelhardt will consider this omission of focus in his next book. But I want to thank him for exposing how addicted to militaristic war the U.S. government, and too many of its followers and apologists, truly are. I suspect if it didn't make the rich richer, the white whiter, and the men manlier, it would cease being an addiction.

Needed: A 12-Step Program for the Warmongers -- The Pentagon Been Hooked on Empire for 30 Years

Washington, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military need to enter rehab for their addiction to waging war and empire across the planet.

If, as 2011 begins, you want to peer into the future, enter my time machine, strap yourself in, and head for the past, that laboratory for all developments of our moment and beyond.

Just as 2010 ended, the American military’s urge to surge resurfaced in a significant way. It seems that “leaders” in the Obama administration and “senior American military commanders” in Afghanistan were acting as a veritable WikiLeaks machine. They slipped information to New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins about secret planning to increase pressure in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, possibly on the tinderbox province of Baluchistan, and undoubtedly on the Pakistani government and military via cross-border raids by U.S. Special Operations forces in the new year.

In the front-page story those two reporters produced, you could practically slice with a dull knife American military frustration over a war going terribly wrong, over an enemy (shades of Vietnam!) with “sanctuaries” for rest, recuperation, and rearming just over an ill-marked, half-existent border. You could practically taste the chagrin of the military that their war against... well you name it: terrorists, guerrillas, former Islamic fundamentalist allies, Afghan and Pakistani nationalists, and god knows who else... wasn’t proceeding exactly swimmingly. You could practically reach out and be seared by their anger at the Pakistanis for continuing to take American bucks by the billions while playing their own game, rather than an American one, in the region.

If you were of a certain age, you could practically feel (shades of Vietnam again!) that eerily hopeful sense that the next step in spreading the war, the next escalation, could be the decisive one. Admittedly, these days no one talks (as they did in the Vietnam and Iraq years) about turning “corners” or reaching “tipping points,” but you can practically hear those phrases anyway, or at least the mingled hope and desperation that always lurked behind them.

Take this sentence, for instance: “Even with the risks, military commanders say that using American Special Operations troops could bring an intelligence windfall, if militants were captured, brought back across the border into Afghanistan and interrogated.” Can’t you catch the familiar conviction that, when things are going badly, the answer is never “less,” always “more,” that just another decisive step or two and you’ll be around that fateful corner?

In this single New York Times piece (and other hints about cross-border operations), you can sense just how addictive war is for the war planners. Once you begin down the path of invasion and occupation, turning back is as difficult as an addict going cold turkey. With all the sober talk about year-end reviews in Afghanistan, about planning and “progress” (a word used nine times in the relatively brief, vetted “overview” of that review recently released by the White House), about future dates for drawdowns and present tactics, it’s easy to forget that war is a drug. When you’re high on it, your decisions undoubtedly look as rational, even practical, as the public language you tend to use to describe them. But don’t believe it for a second.

Once you’ve shot up this drug, your thinking is impaired. Through its dream-haze, unpleasant history becomes bunk; what others couldn’t do, you fantasize that you can. Forget the fact that crossing similar borders to get similar information and wipe out similar sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos in the Vietnam War years led to catastrophe for American planners and the peoples of the region. It only widened that war into what in Cambodia would become auto-genocide. Forget the fact that, no matter whom American raiders might capture, they have no hope of capturing the feeling of nationalism (or the tribal equivalent) that, in the face of foreign invaders or a foreign occupation, keeps the under-armed resilient against the mightiest of forces.

Think of the American urge to surge as a manifestation of the war drug’s effect in the world. In what the Bush administration used to call “the Greater Middle East,” Washington is now in its third and grimmest surge iteration. The first took place in the 1980s during the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and proved the highest of highs; the second got rolling as the last century was ending and culminated in the first years of the twenty-first century amid what can only be described as delusions of grandeur, or even imperial megalomania. It focused on a global Pax Americana and the wars that extend it into the distant future. The third started in 2006 in Iraq and is still playing itself out in Afghanistan as 2011 commences.

In Central and South Asia, we could now be heading for the end of the age of American surges, which in practical terms have manifested themselves as the urge to destabilize. Geopolitically, little could be uglier or riskier on our planet at the moment than destabilizing Pakistan -- or the United States. Three decades after the American urge to surge in Afghanistan helped destabilize one imperial superpower, the Soviet Union, the present plans, whatever they may turn out to be, could belatedly destabilize the other superpower of the Cold War era. And what our preeminent group of surgers welcomed as an “unprecedented strategic opportunity” as this century dawned may, in its later stages, be seen as an unprecedented act of strategic desperation.

That, of course, is what drugs, taken over decades, do to you: they give you delusions of grandeur and then leave you on the street, strung out, and without much to call your own. Perhaps it’s fitting that Afghanistan, the country we helped turn into the planet’s leading narco-state, has given us a 30-year high from hell.

So, as the New Year begins, strap yourself into that time machine and travel with me back into the 1980s, so that we can peer into a future we know and see the pattern that lies both behind and ahead of us.

Getting High in Afghanistan

As 2011 begins, what could be eerier than reading secret Soviet documents from the USSR's Afghan debacle of the 1980s? It gives you chills to run across Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at a Politburo meeting in October 1985, almost six years after Soviet troops first flooded into Afghanistan, reading letters aloud to his colleagues from embittered Soviet citizens (“The Politburo had made a mistake and must correct it as soon as possible -- every day precious lives are lost.”); or, in November 1986, insisting to those same colleagues that the Afghan war must be ended in a year, “at maximum, two.” Yet, with the gut-wrenching sureness history offers, you can’t help but know that, even two years later, even with a strong desire to leave (which has yet to surface among the Washington elite a decade into our own Afghan adventure), imperial pride and fear of loss of “credibility” would keep the Soviets fighting on to 1989.

Or what about Marshal Sergei Akhromeev offering that same Politburo meeting an assessment that any honest American military commander might offer a quarter century later about our own Afghan adventure: “There is no single piece of land in this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels.” Or General Boris Gromov, the last commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan, boasting “on his last day in the country that ‘[n]o Soviet garrison or major outpost was ever overrun.’”

Or Andrei Gromyko, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, emphasizing in 1986 the strategic pleasure of their not-so-secret foe, that other great imperial power of the moment: “Concerning the Americans, they are not interested in the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it is to their advantage for the war to drag out.” (The same might today be said of a far less impressive foe, al-Qaeda.)

Or in 1988, with the war still dragging on, to read a “closed” letter the Communist Party distributed to its members explaining how the Afghan fiasco happened (again, the sort of thing that any honest American leader could say of our Afghan war): “In addition, [we] completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan was always met with arms in the hands [of the population]... One should not disregard the economic factor either. If the enemy in Afghanistan received weapons and ammunition for hundreds of millions and later even billions of dollars, the Soviet-Afghan side also had to shoulder adequate expenditures. The war in Afghanistan costs us 5 billion rubles a year.”

Or finally the pathetic letter the Soviet Military Command delivered to the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan on February 14, 1989, arguing (just as the American military high command would do of our war effort) that it was “not only unfair but even absurd to draw... parallels” between the Soviet Afghan disaster and the American war in Vietnam. That was, of course, the day the last of 100,000 Soviet soldiers -- just about the number of American soldiers there today -- left Afghan soil heading home to a sclerotic country bled dry by war, its infrastructure aging, its economy crumbling. Riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized, the Red Army limped home to a society riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized led by a Communist Party significantly delegitimized by its disastrous Afghan adventure, its Islamic territories from Chechnya to Central Asia in increasing turmoil. In November of that same year, the Berlin Wall would be torn down and not long after the Soviet Union would disappear from the face of the Earth.

Reading those documents, you can almost imagine CIA director William Webster and “his euphoric ‘Afghan Team’” toasting the success of the Agency's 10-year effort, its largest paramilitary operation since the Vietnam War. The Reagan administration surge in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been profligate, involving billions of dollars and a massive propaganda campaign, as well as alliances with the Saudis and a Pakistani dictator and his intelligence service to fund and arm the most extreme of the anti-Soviet jihadists of that moment -- “freedom fighters” as they were then commonly called in Washington.

It’s easy to imagine the triumphalist mood of celebration in Washington among those who had intended to give the Soviet Union a full blast of the Vietnam effect. They had used the “war” part of the Cold War to purposely bleed the less powerful, less wealthy of the two superpowers dry. As President Reagan would later write in his memoirs: “The great dynamic of capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism -- money. The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever.”

By 1990, the urge to surge seemed a success beyond imagining. Forget that it had left more than a million Afghans dead (and more dying), that one-third of that impoverished country’s population had been turned into refugees, or that the most extreme of jihadists, including a group that called itself al-Qaeda, had been brought together, funded, and empowered through the Afghan War. More important, the urge to surge in the region was now in the American bloodstream. And who could ever imagine that, in a new century, “our” freedom fighters would become our sworn enemies, or that the Afghans, that backward people in a poor land, could ever be the sort of impediment to American power that they had been to the Soviets?

The Cold War was over. The surge had it. We were supreme. And what better high could there be than that?

Fever Dreams of Military Might

Of course, with the Soviet Union gone, there was no military on the planet that could come close to challenging the American one, nor was there a nascent rival great power on the horizon. Still, a question remained: After centuries of great power rivalry, what did it mean to have a “sole superpower” on planet Earth, and what path should that triumphant power head down? It took a few years, including passing talk about a possible “peace dividend” -- that is, the investment of monies that would have gone into the Cold War, the Pentagon, and the military in infrastructural and other domestic projects -- for this question to be settled, but settled it was, definitively, on September 12, 2001.

And for all the unknown paths that might have been taken in this unique situation, the one chosen was familiar. It was, of course, the very one that had helped lead the Soviet Union to implosion, the investment of national treasure in military power above all else. However, to those high on the urge to surge and now eager to surge globally, when it came to an American future, the fate of the Soviet Union seemed no more relevant than what the Afghans had done to the Red Army. In those glory years, analogies between the greatest power the planet had ever seen and a defeated foe seemed absurd to those who believed themselves the smartest, clearest-headed guys in the room.

Previously, the “arms race,” like any race, had involved at least two, and sometimes more, great powers. Now, it seemed, there would be something new under the sun, an arms race of one, as the U.S. prepared itself for utter dominance into a distant, highly militarized future. The military-industrial complex would, in these years, be further embedded in the warp and woof of American life; the military expanded and privatized (which meant being firmly embraced by crony corporations and hire-a-gun outfits of every sort); and the American “global presence” -- from military bases to aircraft-carrier task forces -- enhanced until, however briefly, the United States became a military presence unique in the annals of history.

Thanks to the destructive acts of 19 jihadis, the urge to surge would with finality overwhelm all other urges in the fall of 2001 -- and there would be a group ready for just such a moment, for (as the newspaper headlines screamed) a “Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.”

To take full stock of that group, however, we would first have to pilot our time machine back to June 3, 1997, the day a confident crew of Washington think-tank, academic, and political types calling themselves the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) posted a fin de siècle “statement of principles.” In it, they called for “a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities.” Crucially, they were demanding that the Clinton administration, or assumedly some future administration with a better sense of American priorities, “increase defense spending significantly.”

The 23 men and two women who signed the initial PNAC statement urging the United States to go for the military option in the twenty-first century would, however, prove something more than your typical crew of think-tank types. After all, not so many years later, after a disputed presidential election settled by the Supreme Court, Dick Cheney would be vice president; I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby would be his right-hand man; Donald Rumsfeld would be Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the Bush-Cheney transition team at the Department of Defense and then the first post- invasion U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as ambassador to Iraq and UN ambassador; Elliot Abrams, special assistant to the president with a post on the National Security Council; Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs; Aaron Friedberg, Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs and Director of Policy Planning in the office of the vice president; and Jeb Bush, governor of Florida. (Others like John Bolton, who signed on to PNAC later, would be no less well employed.)

This may, in fact, be the first example in history of a think tank coming to power and actually putting its blue-sky suggestions into operation as government policy, or perhaps it’s the only example so far of a government-in-waiting masquerading as an online think tank. In either case, more than 13 years later, the success of that group can still take your breath away, as can both the narrowness -- and scope -- of their thinking, and of their seminal document, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” published in September 2000, two months before George W. Bush took the presidency.

This crew of surgers extraordinaires was considering a global situation that, as they saw it, offered Americans an “unprecedented strategic opportunity.” Facing a new century, their ambitions were caught by James Peck in his startling upcoming book, Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, in this way: “In the [Reagan] era, Washington organized half the planet; in the [Bush era] it sought to organize the whole."

“Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” if remembered at all today, is recalled mainly for a throwaway sentence that looked ominous indeed in retrospect: “Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor.” It remains, however, a remarkable document for other reasons. In many ways canny about the direction war would take in the near future, ranging from the role of drones in air war to the onrushing possibility that cyberwar (or “Net-War,” as they called it) would be the style of future conflict, it was a clarion call to ensure this country’s “unchallenged supremacy” into the distant future by military means alone.

In 1983, in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” It wanted, as he saw it, what all dark empires (and every evildoer in any James Bond film) desires: unchallenged dominion over the planet -- and it pursued that dominion in the name of a glorious “world revolution.” Now, in the name of American safety and the glories of global democracy, we were -- so the PNAC people both pleaded and demanded -- to do what only evil empires did and achieve global dominion beyond compare over planet Earth.

We could, they insisted in a phrase they liked, enforce an American peace, a Pax Americana, for decades to come, if only we poured our resources, untold billions -- they refused to estimate what the real price might be -- into war preparations and, if necessary, war itself, from the seven seas to the heavens, from manifold new “forward operating bases on land” to space and cyberspace. Pushing “the American security perimeter” ever farther into the distant reaches of the planet (and “patrolling” it via “constabulary missions”) was, they claimed, the only way that “U.S. military supremacy” could be translated into “American geopolitical preeminence.” It was also the only that the “homeland” -- yes, unlike 99.9% of Americans before 9/11, they were already using that term -- could be effectively “defended.”

In making their pitch, they were perfectly willing to acknowledge that the United States was already a military giant among midgets, but they were also eager to suggest as well that our military situation was “deteriorating” fast, that we were “increasingly ill-prepared” or even (gasp!) in “retreat” on a planet without obvious enemies. They couldn’t have thought more globally. (They were, after all, visionaries, as druggies tend to be.) Nor could they have thought longer term. (They were twenty-first century mavens.) And on military matters, they couldn’t have been more up to date.

Yet on the most crucial issues, they -- and so their documents -- couldn’t have been dumber or more misguided. They were fundamentalists when it came to the use of force and idolaters on the subject of the U.S. military. They believed it capable of doing just about anything. As a result, they made a massive miscalculation, mistaking military destructiveness for global power. Nor could they have been less interested in the sinews of global economic power (though they did imagine our future enemy to be China). Nor were they capable of imagining that the greatest military power on the planet might be stopped in its tracks -- in the Greater Middle East, no less -- by a ragtag crew of Iraqis and Afghans. To read “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” today is to see the rabbit hole down which, as if in a fever dream, we would soon disappear.

It was a genuine American tragedy that they came to power and proceeded to put their military-first policies in place; that, on September 12th of the year that “changed everything,” the PNAC people seized the reins of defense and foreign policy, mobilized for war, began channeling American treasure into the military solution they had long desired, and surged. Oh, how they surged!

That urge to surge was infamously caught in notes on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comments taken on September 11, 2001. "[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon... Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq," even though he was already certain that al-Qaeda had launched the attack. ("'Go massive,' the notes quote him as saying. 'Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'")

And so they did. They swept up everything and then watched as their dreams and geopolitical calculations were themselves swept into the dustbin of history. And yet the urge to surge, twisted and ever more desperate, did not abate.

The Soviet Path

To one degree or another, we have been on the Soviet path for years and yet, ever more desperately, we continue to plan more surges. Our military, like the Soviet one, has not lost a battle and has occupied whatever ground it chose to take. Yet, in the process, it has won less than nothing at all. Our country, still far more wealthy than the Soviet Union ever was, has nonetheless entered its Soviet phase. At home, in the increasing emphasis on surveillance of every sort, there is even a hint of what made “soviet” and “totalitarian” synonymous.

The U.S. economy looks increasingly sclerotic; moneys for an aging and rotting infrastructure are long gone; state and city governments are laying off teachers, police, even firefighters; Americans are unemployed in near record numbers; global oil prices (for a country that has in no way begun to wean itself from its dependence on foreign oil) are ominously on the rise; and yet taxpayer money continues to pour into the military and into our foreign wars. It has recently been estimated, for instance, that after spending $11.6 billion in 2011 on the training, supply, and support of the Afghan army and police, the U.S. will continue to spend an average of $6.2 billion a year at least through 2015 (and undoubtedly into an unknown future) -- and that’s but one expense in the estimated $120 billion to $160 billion a year being spent at present on the Afghan War, what can only be described as part of America’s war stimulus package abroad.

And, of course, the talk for 2011 is how to expand the American ground war -- the air version of the same has already been on a sharp escalatory trajectory -- in Pakistan. History and common sense assure us that this can only lead to further disaster. Clear-eyed leaders, military or civilian, would never consider such plans. But Washington’s 30-year high in the region, that urge to surge still coursing through its veins, says otherwise, and it’s not likely to be denied.

Sooner than later, Washington, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military will have to enter rehab. They desperately need a 12-step program for recovery. Until then, the delusions and the madness that go with surge addiction are not likely to end.

[Note on sources: The National Security Archive, filled to bursting with documents from our imperial and Cold War past, is an online treasure. I have relied on it for both the Soviet documents quoted on the Afghan war of the 1980s and an analysis of the American version of that war. For those who are interested in reading PNAC’s “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” click here and then on the link to the pdf file of the document.]
Tom Engelhardt, editor of, is co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's.