For most of my life, I thought my country was fundamentally sound and moving in the right direction.
I knew there were serious problems and injustices in American life, but I thought that these were aberrations, contrary to our democratic ideals, which under our democratic system would be reformed over time.
I rejected the Communist belief that the crimes of capitalism are systemic, while the failures of Communism are failures to correctly understand or follow Marxist doctrine.
But my own beliefs were the mirror image of this. I believed that the crimes of Communist countries were the inevitable result of a bad system, while the crimes of Western countries were aberrations that could be corrected.
The first step in my radicalization was the passage of the USA Patriot Act in October 2001. I was shocked at how fundamental liberties, such as habeas corpus and trial by jury, could be simply wiped off the blackboard, and the majority of Americans would see nothing wrong with this.
I always thought of torture as the ultimate crime against humanity, because it destroys the mind and soul while leaving the body alive. Torture became institutionalized, and even popular—possibly because of the illusion that it would be limited to people with brown skins and non-European names.
But I still thought of this as an aberration, part of a scheme by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others to restore executive power that had been lost after the Watergate hearings. I voted for Barack Obama with great enthusiasm in 2008, not because I believed he would be a strong reformer, but because I thought he would restore the country to normal.
I soon learned that there was a new normal, one that was different from what I thought it was.
President Obama abolished torture as an official policy, but without questioning its legality and with a loophole that allowed prisoners to be handed over to friendly dictators to be tortured.
He established a new policy of extrajudicial assassinations. Once a week he approves lists of people to be killed by flying killer drones or Special Operations teams. The names on the list are secret.
The justification is that the United States is at war, and war means killing enemies. But in a real war, such as the Civil War or World War Two, there were a definition of the enemy and an expectation that the war would end. Now the enemy is whoever the President says it is, and there is no expectation that it ever will end.
What power would a dictator wish that Presidents Bush and Obama have not claimed? Again, these powers are tolerated because of the expectation that the targets will be people with dark skins and non-European names. This expectation is both morally wrong and unrealistic.
My other expectation of President Obama was that he would prosecute the bankers whose sales of fraudulent securities triggered the recession and made it worse than it otherwise would have been. Instead Eric Holder, his attorney-general, said the leading Wall Street firms were “too big to fail.” Neither he nor the President took any action or proposed any law that would have cut these firms down to size.
The Obama administration made me realize that there was something fundamentally wrong with the American government and institutions, which went beyond the personal flaws of any individual.
I realized that neither the Bush administration or the Obama administration represented radical change, as, at first, I had thought. Rather they represented forces that had long been growing in the background and that now were out in the open.
Although I don’t consider myself a part of the Left, I saw that my radical left-wing friends had all along had a better understanding of what was going on. I began to think that capitalism might be fundamentally flawed. The fact that state socialism had failed does not mean that capitalism is good.
I studied Karl Marx, who had good insight into what was going on in his own day. I learned the meaning of the words “neoliberalism” and the “Deep State“. I’ve been reading works of anarchist thinkers such as Murray Bookchin, who offer possible alternatives to both Marxism and neoliberalism.
I came to understand how stagnant wages for American workers and a growing concentration of wealth among the upper 0.1 percent were related to laws and public policy favoring the economic elite.
My core political values are still the ideals of American freedom and democracy that I was taught as a schoolboy. I am not an advocate of radical change for its own sake The necessary changes are modest.
All that is needed is are national leaders who don’t start wars, respect the Constitution, enforce the laws without fear or favor, restore some of the economic firewalls and safety nets that have been taken down in the past 30 or so years, and create a more level playing field for labor unions and co-operatives versus corporations.
But I now think that to bring about even such modest reform would require a radical change in the power structure of this country and maybe of the world. That is what I mean by being radicalized.
LINKS (added later)
Inside the fight to reveal the CIA’s torture secrets by Spencer Ackerman for The Guardian.
A constitutional crisis: the CIA turns on the Senate by Spencer Ackerman for The Guardian.
No looking back: the CIA torture report’s aftermath by Spencer Ackerman.