AMERICAS/Roberto Rodriguez

America’s Soul Sickness: Obama’s Rude Awakening

Obama’s first challenge will not be the unresolved Middle East crisis. Nor will it be Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo or the economy. His primary challenge will come in coming face to face with the Bush/Cheney doctrine of permanent worldwide war. Unless Obama renounces it on inauguration day, this doctrine will continue to be US policy.

Beyond that, an even larger challenge—one which he may not ever be able to meet—is healing a nation that for too long has been sickened by what American Indian historian Jack Forbes terms in Columbus and other Cannibals: soul-sickness. It is a disease that historically has allowed a majority of EuroAmericans to believe that God has chosen them to lead the rest of the world into the light, permitting the United States to employ massive military might in achieving that so-called mandate. It also permits Americans to feel racially, culturally and politically superior to everyone else.

Over the past eight years, it is the Bush-Cheney doctrine that has drawn the particular ire of the entire world—because it permits the United States to unilaterally attack any nation with massive force or to attack any target within any nation, regardless of civilian casualties. This doctrine has also permitted this outgoing administration to assert and amass extraordinary powers that have virtually rendered the US Constitution meaningless. This doctrine includes the assertion that the executive branch and its extraordinary powers can not be questioned or hindered by Congress or the courts during times of war, thus the assertion of permanent war (the war on terror).

Yet, even if Obama were to reject this Bush-Cheney doctrine, the soul sickness would remain.

That notwithstanding, the president’s first order of business has to be the rejection of the Bush-Cheney doctrine. Failure to do so immediately, will cause the promise of change [to the United States, the world and the future] to fall on deaf ears.

It will not be enough to wind down the Iraq War if it means that the president will simply shift resources to broaden the war in Afghanistan and to also continue the Bush-Cheney endless worldwide war against undefined enemies into the foreseeable future.

Eradicating that soul-sickness is probably not possible; it is what sustains the myths of this nation. It is what defines this nation. The secular equivalent of believing that God has chosen the United States for a special mission is the belief that being a superpower is an elected position and that with that title, the United States and its allies are entitled to invade, topple or occupy any nation they see fit. And it is not something that began with Bush and Cheney.

It can be no irony that those that initiated the invasion and occupation of Iraq—in defiance of the UN—were the United States, Britain & Spain … on Portuguese territory. In the past 500 years, these are the world’s leading imperialists and colonialist nations. Essentially, they have been the world’s architects of the policies of dehumanization—feeling entitled by God and blinded by greed to trample over the lands, bodies and rights of peoples [of color] worldwide.

Despite this imperial club, there’s a reason the US government is particularly despised by most of the world. It isn’t just the Bush-Cheney regime, though they have certainly put a face to the “ugly American.” It’s that smug soul-sickness that permits Americans to believe that they indeed know what’s best for the rest of the world.

When Obama was elected president, it was the hope of the world—evidenced by massive celebrations worldwide—that he would indeed reverse the arrogance of the Bush/Cheney doctrine. Though for those expecting president-elect Obama to bring about radical change to the world, all signs indicate that we are all in for a very rude awakening.

But it’s a sleep or dream that many Americans don’t want to wake from. To be sure, being elected US president is not the same thing as being elected high commissioner for human rights or prince of peace. Since WWII, the United States has become the most powerful military empire in the history of the planet. In the path of this machine, millions of casualties are strewn about in Asia, Africa and Central America. Some have been the result of secret, proxy, unnecessary, foolish and illegal wars—such as Iraq—but truly, which war or military action by the United States since WWII has been necessary and legal and not foolish?

This is what Obama is inheriting; not just a permanent war and a soul sickness, but also the reins to a voracious military-industrial complex that needs to be constantly fed. There’s little indication that he will starve this machine. But there is always hope.

Roberto “Dr. Cintli” Rodriguez is a research associate in Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona. Email Rodriguez at or PO Box 85476, Tucson, AZ 85754. Bilingual columns are posted at (


A Giant Ponzi Scheme

We need the brush of Caravaggio to depict the awful scene where—at least, on their lawyer’s account—the sons of Bernard Madoff confronted the errant paterfamilias, who informed his offspring that the cupboard was bare, the investors had been duped and all these years he’d been running “a giant Ponzi scheme.”

But this time, reversing Caravaggio’s terrifying image in the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” it was the old man who was bowed over the sacrificial rock and the sons with knives raised to dispatch their white-haired progenitor, turning him in to the FBI. Of course, there have been unkind souls eager to suggest that the three men had been working cheek by jowl for 20 years and that Bernie and his boys were in cahoots on the triage as an exercise in damage limitation. To such cynics I say, “Pshaw!”

On the other hand, I lend a more receptive ear to those who say that at least some of Madoff Sr.’s clients were not so naive as to believe he had a virtuous investment model that permitted him to report 10 to 12 percent annual returns on capital invested, through boom and bust. They thought Madoff indeed had a secret model, but one coming in the distinctly unvirtuous form of insider information.

On the larger canvas, what exactly separates Madoff’s operation from those of the banks rewarded for their shady follies by a $700 billion bailout? Just like Madoff, the banks finally had to admit that all their public financial statements were false, that the supposed assets were worthless. Unlike Madoff, who looted his clients of a mere $50 billion, they were “too big to fail.”

The operating assumption of the Ponzi scheme is that the tide will always rise, that old investors can be repaid by the infusions ponied up by the fresh recruits. For the past 20 years, the entire American economy has become—to quote again Bernie’s succinct resume of his business—“a giant Ponzi scheme,” bloating out like the metastasizing planet described by Stanislaw Lem in his strange science fiction novel Solaris.

Uncle Sam is the biggest Ponzi operator of all. Bernie had to constantly replenish his fund with new deposits. So does Uncle Sam, wheedling more money out of the Chinese, the Indians, the Japanese and poor Third World nations forced to pony up at the point of a gun. But in the end, Uncle Sam has one huge asset denied Madoff, who seems to have stopped short of the straightforward forgery allegedly practiced by Marc Dreier, the Manhattan lawyer arrested in Canada for trying to sell nonexistent bonds to the tune of $380 million. Uncle Sam has the printing press to run off the necessary dollars. He’s certainly going to need lots of fresh new bills. You can set your clock now for the alarms scheduled to go off all the way through Obama-time: credit card debt, commercial real estate implosion, option-ARM financing.

Maybe Madoff, trolling for suckers in the Palm Beach Country Club and the Jewish charitable foundations, will become the sacrificial symbol of Wall Street thievery, sent off to the penitentiary in lieu of the real big-timers. I guess the silver lining is that anti-Semitic grumbles about the Jews taking the country to the cleaners can be trumped by pointing out that many of Madoff’s victims are Jewish.

In tandem with Madoff’s symbolic role, Rod Blagojevich is carrying the can for the way politicians get elected in America. If his was felonious conduct, shouldn’t 98% of all elected officials in this country be behind bars?

The Washington Post congratulates Obama for steering clear of the slime of Chicago politics, but what actually happened is that Obama moved to richer pastures. Not for him Tony Rezko’s dingy billfold but the dignity of anticipatory bri— ... uh, campaign contributions from the Pritzkers, the Crown family, the big ethanol interests in the Midwest, the nuclear industry and Wall Street financiers, the biggest of big-time money, now gratefully acknowledged in the form of Obama’s cabinet appointments.

Amid the hubbub over the arrest of Blago, the New York Times ran a piece on Dec. 14 by Eric Lipton and Raymond Hernandez about Sen. Charles Schumer’s version of pay-to-play. Unlike Blago, Schumer moved from talk to action. Amid the bailout negotiations, he went to a Democratic Party fundraiser in New York and addressed some 20 of the heaviest Wall Street hitters. He “offered some reassurance,” wrote the Times reporters. “The businessmen could count on the Democrats to help steer the nation through the financial turmoil. ... The message clearly resonated. The next week, executives at firms represented at the breakfast sent in more than $135,000 in campaign donations.”

Of course, Madoff sent Schumer individual campaign contributions down the years, recycling some of his clients’ money for the worthy purpose of choking off any untoward regulatory zeal on the part of New York’s senior senator. All legal and not even a four-letter word.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor of CounterPunch (see or call 800-840-3683).


Orwellian Shadow Extends to Current Era

More than 15 years ago, on the eve of what would have been George Orwell’s 90th birthday, this column noted that “the great English writer has been dead for several decades, but Orwellian language lives on.”

The gap between Orwell’s day and today may seem larger now, but his relevance is in no way diminished. So, to start off 2009, here is the piece on Orwell’s unmerry birthday that appeared in 1993, when I was co-writing the “Media Beat” column with Jeff Cohen:

These days we have plenty of good reasons to echo poet W.H. Auden: “Oh, how I wish that Orwell were still alive, so that I could read his comments on contemporary events!”

Today, in the United States, media coverage of political discourse attests to Orwell’s observation that language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Anyone who pays attention to routine speeches by politicians is likely to recognize Orwell’s description: “When one watches some tired hack on the platform, mechanically repeating the familiar phrases ... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.”

News media frequently make things worse. Instead of scrutinizing the blather, reporters are inclined to solemnly relay it — while adding some of their own.

The standard jargon of U.S. politics in the 1990s is the type of facile rhetoric that appalled Orwell. This lexicon derives its power from unexamined repetition.

To carry on Orwell’s efforts, we should question the buzzwords that swarm all around us. For instance:

“Centrist” — A term of endearment in elite circles, usually affixed to politicians who don’t rock boats, even ones stuck in stagnant waters.

“Reform” — This word once described change aimed at removing corruption or privilege. Now the word offers a favorable sheen to any policy shift. A linguistic loophole vague and gaping enough to drive a truck through, whatever the political cargo.

“Bipartisan” — An adjective that hails the two major parties for showing great unity and national purpose: usually agreed to behind closed doors, out of view of the riffraff.

“Special interests” — A negative label commonly applied to mass constituencies of millions of people: seniors, the poor, racial minorities, union members, feminists, gays. ... Formerly a pejorative to describe monied interests that used dollars, since they lacked numbers of people, to influence politics.

“Sources say” — Leaks from on high, served up as journalistic champagne.

“Experts” — Oft-cited and carefully selected, they supply fertilizer for the next harvests of popular credulity.

“Defense budget” — Having precious little to do with actual defense of the country, these expenditures require the most innocent of names.

“Senior U.S. officials” — Unnamed, they are larger than life. In another culture they might be called “messengers of God.”

“National security” — An ever-ready rationale for just about any diplomatic or military maneuver ... or any suppression of incriminating information.

“Stability in the region” — Can be a tidy phrase to justify the continuation of existing horrors.

“Western diplomats” — These bastions of patience and wisdom provide the compass for navigating in foreign geopolitical waters.

“The West” — Often used as a synonym for global forces of good.

George Orwell wrote his last novel, “1984,” in the late 1940s — around the time the US “War Department” became the “Defense Department.” Orwell’s novel anticipated that “the special function of certain Newspeak words” would be “not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.”

The repetition of such words and phrases is never-ending. Like a constant drip on a stone, the cumulative effects are enormous.

Language, dialogue and debate are essential tools for a democratic process. But when words are wielded as blunt instruments, they bludgeon our minds rather than enhance them.

Never better than imprecise symbols, words and phrases come to dominate the conceptual scenery — maps that are confused with the land itself. All too often, familiar words are used to label ideas and events instead of exploring them.

And over the years, evasive and euphemistic language — from “pacification programs” in Vietnam to “collateral damage” (killed civilians) in Iraq — has served as camouflage for inhuman policies.

George Orwell died young, succumbing to tuberculosis in 1950. But his acuity can be brought to life, to the extent that we probe beneath all the facile words and search out the realities they so often obscure.

Norman Solomon’s latest book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death is available in paperback and as a documentary that is available on DVD. See

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 1, 2009

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