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“Our ‘American Sniper’ Sickness”: How American Exceptionalism Wrought Guantanamo

Let me begin with a disclosure: I have not yet had the chance to experience “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s phenomenally successful new film starring Bradley Cooper as the late Chris Kyle, the Iraq War veteran and Navy SEAL who is supposedly the most lethal long-range sharpshooter in U.S. military history. Aside from 1992’s “Unforgiven,” Eastwood’s searing anti-Western masterpiece, I’m not a big fan of the Man With No Name’s work, which I often find kitschy and generic. Still, my not having seen the film yet is due less to my qualms with the Chairman than the fact that, until recently, no one seemed to care much about the movie one way or the other. Funny what a $100 million opening weekend, and the “liberal” media’s Pavlovian fear of conforming to the out-of-touch coastal elitist stereotype, can do.

So rather than engage in the questionable practice of reviewing a movie I have yet to see (and which has already been ably reviewed by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir), I’d like to focus instead on an analogy established in “American Sniper” that those who have had the opportunity to see it say is among its central themes. Namely, that all 7 billion-plus humans in the world can be separated into three groups: wolves, sheepdogs and sheep. The wolves are the bad guys, the theory holds, while the sheep are most everyone else. And sheepdogs? They act like wolves, but only in order to protect the sheep.

The lecture from Kyle’s father that brings the schema into “American Sniper” is apparently a creation of the film’s screenwriter, who may have borrowed it from former U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, according to a piece from Slate. But whether or not Kyle actually held this mindset himself isn’t too important, at least not for my purposes. What matters, instead, is the fact that the “sheep, sheepdogs, wolves” breakdown resonates so powerfully with millions of Americans — and not just those who’ve seen Eastwood’s latest. It may sound nice, as formulas that promise to simplify our impossibly complex world often do; but it can take its adherents to some hideous extremes.

At heart, the sheepdog analogy, at least in the context of “American Sniper” and the Iraq War, is a kind of Aesopian repackaging of the hoary idea of American exceptionalism. Rather than view every human being as an individual, capable of making any number of decisions based off of their history and circumstance, the sheepdog worldview essentializes its targets, divorcing action from identity. It’s not that wolves are wolves because they kill; sheepdogs do that, too. Wolves are wolves because, well, they just are. They’re the “bad guys.” It’s as simple as that.

Similarly, the sheepdogs, who are the real protagonists in this morality play, also cannot be recognized as such by anything they’ve actually done. Sheepdogs coerce, they intimidate, they bribe, they maim, they kill. The difference, of course, is that the sheepdogs’ target is always a wolf. Except when it isn’t. To take an example from the “American Sniper” trailer (which, as something of a movie-theater junkie, I’ve seen more times than I can recount), there’s at least one moment in the film when Kyle and his fellow sheepdogs have to decide how to treat the Iraqi women and children being manipulated or forced into helping the wolves.

But, at least in the trailer, when Kyle’s got a prepubescent in his cross-hairs, there’s little question of whether the child, if left unharmed, will be making it more likely that violence will befall a sheep or sheepdog in the near future. He will. He’s carrying a weapon. Instead, the only question in that moment is whether Kyle has what it takes to assume the sheepdog’s burden, knowing that, as one of his fellow-soldiers whispers, “they” (presumably the sheep in Washington) will “fry [him] if [he’s] wrong.” Having not seen the film, I don’t know whether Bradley Cooper’s Kyle ultimately shoots the little boy; but in the real world, in Afghanistan, soldiers were told to take lethal action against “children with potential hostile intent.”

There’s something else that sheepdogs do, something arguably more wolflike than anything mentioned above. It’s been in the news a lot lately, and I’d hazard a guess that its recent prominence has more than a little to do with the American public’s enthusiasm for a film that makes their country’s fundamental goodness crystal clear. It’s torture — and as we were reminded last fall, with the limited release of the Senate’s so-called torture report, it’s something American sheepdogs did during the early years of the war on terror. And they did it a lot.

According to a thoughtful and insightful essay at Vulture by author and Iraq War veteran Brian Turner, “American Sniper,” like countless Hollywood war movies before it, pays essentially no attention to what the war years felt like to non-Americans. And, needless to say, we pay even less attention to those non-Americans we’ve labeled as wolves, the ones we’ve decided to leave at the sheepdogs’ mercy. Which is why “Guantanamo Diary,” the just-released and heavily redacted memoir from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 44-year-old Mauritanian and longtime Guantanamo Bay prisoner, is so vital and so stunning. Written by Slahi in the colloquial English he picked up after spending more than a decade in the custody of his tormenters, the diary is as close as most of us will ever get to understanding the living hell this man — who has never been charged with a crime, and whom a judge ordered released in 2010 — continues to suffer.

Slahi’s book, which has been covered repeatedly and expertly by the Guardian, is an historical watershed and a literary triumph. I won’t even attempt to do it justice here. But I do hope that even those who don’t have the time, wherewithal or stomach to read it at least take a moment to think about how the kind of American exceptionalism typified by the sheepdog analogy can often play out in the real world, and in the lives of real human beings. In perhaps the diary’s most chilling moment, Slahi, desperate to end one of his countless rounds of pointless torture, all but begs the men who are beating, freezing, sexually abusing and sleep-depriving him to just say what it is they want to hear. When he tells them that, in order to “confess” to their outlandish accusations, he’d have to indict other innocents, these American sheepdogs respond with a revealing and total lack of concern.

“So what?” Slahi quotes his torturer saying. “We know your friends are bad, so if they get arrested, even if you lie about [redacted], it doesn’t matter, because they’re bad.” Guilty, innocent; why bother with a distinction? Slahi’s a wolf, regardless. And despite all of the pronouncements over the years from Americans who swore the morally disastrous war on terror had taught them valuable lessons, the popularity of “American Sniper” testifies that there’s one conclusion many of us are still unwilling to reach: We can tell ourselves we’re sheepdogs who protect the vulnerable flock from bloodthirsty wolves. But a sheepdog and a wolf act much the same way, and in the dark of a Guantanamo torture chamber, it can be hard to tell the difference.


By: Elias Isquith, Salon, January 24, 2015

January 26, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Iraq War, Torture | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Ugly Assumptions Driving The Policy”: GOP Governors Recommit To Welfare Drug-Testing Schemes

The Wall Street Journal recently noted that when it comes to welfare recipients, “few” applicants have been caught up in the “drug-screening net.” How few? The piece noted that in Arizona, for example, between 2011 and 2014, over 108,000 people seeking benefits were subjected to drug screen. A grand total of 2 applicants were disqualified due to testing positive.

Note, I don’t mean 2 percent; I mean literally 2 individual people out of 108,408.

In recent years, the idea of imposing drug tests on welfare beneficiaries – which is to say, poor people receiving aid; those who receive corporate welfare benefits are exempt – has become exceedingly popular among many Republicans. The problem for proponents is that the programs keep failing – in practice, in the courts, or both.

And yet, several GOP policymakers just can’t seem to help themselves.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is pushing forward with a plan to make food stamp recipients pass drug tests – a requirement that the Obama administration says violates federal law. […]

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as FoodShare in Wisconsin), says it’s against the rules for states to require drug testing as a condition of receiving benefits. The federal government could yank administrative funding from states that are out of compliance – a threat the USDA leveled at Georgia over a similar drug testing scheme last year. Georgia backed down.

Walker has been aware of the rule from the start. “We believe that there will potentially be a fight with the federal government and in court,” he told the Journal Sentinel in September.

Indeed, for the ambitious Republican governor, it’s a two-fer – he gets to look “tough” on poor people in advance of his presidential campaign, and at the same time, Walker gets to boast about a big fight with the Obama administration, which will make a nice addition to his presidential stump speech.

Of course, it’s not just Walker. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) recently approved a policy of drug testing welfare recipients, and Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea.

The case against the policy is pretty straightforward. It’s legally dubious for states to require poor people to give up bodily fluids in exchange for benefits they’re entitled to; it’s exceedingly expensive to administer the tests; and wherever these policies have been implemented, they’ve failed to produce much of anything in the way of results.

But as we’ve discussed before, perhaps the most striking problem is the ugly assumptions driving the policy itself. For many, especially on the right, it makes sense to assume those who are struggling are to blame for their plight.

If you’re relying on TANF aid to help your family keep its head above water, maybe there’s something wrong with your lifestyle.  If you’ve fallen on hard times and need the public safety net, the state should probably assume you have a drug problem.

Real-world evidence, however, points in a different direction.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 23, 2015

January 26, 2015 Posted by | Drug Testing, GOP, Welfare Recipients | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Je Suis Barack”: Barack Obama’s Accomplishments Must Always Remain In The Forefront Of The American Mind

You’re probably familiar with the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, an effort launched by veteran right-wing activist Grover Norquist nearly twenty years ago to promote, in perpetuity, the idea that Reagan was the modern-day equivalent of the Founding Fathers. (I first heard about this project in early-2007, when then-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick rejected Norquist’s call to issue a proclamation naming February 6 “Ronald Reagan Day” in the Bay State).

Those who endlessly promote Reagan’s “accomplishments” argue that they have to do so because progressives have a vested interest in tearing Reagan’s legacy down. (Of course, what they don’t acknowledge is that there’s so much to tear down!) The right’s argument is pure projection. In reality, it is progressives who must go the extra mile in defending the legacy of Barack Obama.

This November marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of Reagan’s victory over President Jimmy Carter. For the past thirty-five years, Carter’s legacy has been relentlessly vilified by the right, with insufficient defense from the left. Sometimes, it seems as though progressives are ashamed of Carter—a man whose foresight on energy was remarkable, a man whose commitment to peace was unshakable.

Progressives cannot allow Barack Obama’s legacy to be relentlessly trashed the way Carter’s legacy was. Quite frankly, we need a Barack Obama Legacy Project, one that will recognize, today, tomorrow and forever, his true significance to America and the world.

With two years remaining in his term, a compelling case can be made that Barack Obama is one of the greatest presidents of all-time. Look at the track record: an economy resurrected, Osama bin Laden brought to ultimate justice, the Iraq War ended, millions of Americans finally accessing health care, dramatic advances in equal treatment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, two brilliant Supreme Court appointees, sweeping economic reform, and an energy policy that, while imperfect, nevertheless takes the climate crisis seriously.

He accomplished all of this despite raw hatred from “birthers” and Tea Partiers who went to bed every night dreaming of seeing Obama’s black body swinging from a tree—as well as that of his father, for being uppity enough to marry a white woman. He accomplished this despite hyper-partisan media entities that smeared him as a Marxist from Mombasa. He accomplished this despite being unfairly blamed for the dementia and depravity of a right-wing Congress.

Obama hasn’t been perfect. (We’re still waiting for that Keystone XL veto, sir.) Sometimes, he has frustrated those who seek more peace and more justice. Yet on the whole, he has been a blessing for humanity.

He has brought us through the worst financial heartache since the Depression. He has brought us through incidents of shocking gun violence. He has brought us through racial discord sparked by those who so obviously killed Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner because they saw these men, subconsciously, as proxies for the President.

Generations from now, children should read about the courage and conscience of Barack Obama, his passionate love for this country, his commitment to the hurting and the hungry and the hopeless. Generations from now, Obama’s name should grace public schools and federal buildings. Generations from now, his name should be honored in the same way we honor the names of Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt and Kennedy.

Those of us who were honored to live in the Era of Obama have a moral obligation to inform those who will be born after this era of just how great this man was, just how proud this man was, just how wise this man was. Did your grandparents tell you about how FDR boldly led this country? You must tell your grandchildren the same story about Obama’s equally bold leadership.

We must never allow what Obama meant to this nation to be forgotten or distorted. A courageous man shattered the ultimate glass ceiling. A man who recognized the insanity of Iraq concluded that wayward war. A man who understood the risks of a warming world fought for solutions to the problem of carbon pollution. A man who recognized the importance of health care reform brought millions of Americans from the savagery of sickness to the hope of health. A man who knew the immorality of injustice sought equal treatment for the LGBT community as well as communities of color.

Obama’s legacy must be cherished and defended. It is the legacy of a black man who worked tirelessly to protect Americans of all colors. It is the legacy of an American who tried to expand the blessings of liberty to every citizen. It is the legacy of a man who overcame the vicious lash of hyper-partisanship. It is the legacy of a man who was crucified over and over, but rose from the grave every time.

The hope and the change were real indeed. Barack Obama’s accomplishments must always remain in the forefront of the American mind. Is this a project progressives can accomplish?

Yes we can.


By: D. R. Tucker, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, January 24, 2015

January 26, 2015 Posted by | Jimmy Carter, President Obama, Ronald Reagan | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Mike Huckabee Pushes For An American Theocracy”: An Ayatollah Wannabe With A Barbaric Concept

Mike Huckabee sounds like quite the Ayatollah wannabe:

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said during an appearance Thursday on a Christian television show that he’s thinking about running for President to help the nation know where laws come from: God.

“We cannot survive as a republic if we do not become, once again, a God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God,” he said on the show “Life Today.”

When Huckabee added that he wasn’t demanding a theocracy, host James Robison said, “We have a theocracy right now. It’s a secular theocracy.”

“That’s it!” Huckabee said, describing the current political order as “humanistic, secular, atheistic, even antagonistic toward Christian faith.”

There’s an interesting discussion to be had about whether rights come from God or from man. Or, in more secular terms, whether rights are inherent or rather endowed by society. The Founders tended to come down on the side of inherent rights; I rather believe that they’re endowed by society, in part based on technological progress. For instance, given the easy availability of modern air conditioning, I believe that failing to provide basic climate controlled rooms to prisoners constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. I also believe that women have a right to birth control. That’s a controversial position to be sure, but one on which reasonable people can disagree.

But regardless of one’s view of rights, it’s an entirely different story to say that laws come from God. There is no secular way to interpret that comment. Laws cannot be inherent–only values can. Laws are at best the imperfect and often arbitrary attempted codification of our values. They are the imperfect rules we agree to live by, codifying our rights and binding us in an orderly society and (hopefully) protecting us from the wrongdoing of others. The notion that laws come directly from God is frankly a barbaric concept relegated in most parts of the world to the most backwards theocracies and the enemies of Western pluralism.

It matters little if Mike Huckabee is as dangerous as he sounds, or if he’s playing that way to appeal to the scariest parts of the Republican base for his own presidential aspirations. His notions are frankly unAmerican, and belong more in Riyadh or Tehran than in Washington, DC.


By: David Atkins, The Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, January 24, 2015

January 26, 2015 Posted by | Christian Right, Mike Huckabee, Theocracy | , , , , , | 4 Comments

“GOP Wants To Define Rape… Again”: How Lindsey Graham Reawakened The Ghost Of Todd Akin

Ah, Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina senator who says he’s thinking about running for president no doubt thought he was helping the GOP get beyond its meltdown over its 20-week abortion ban bill, which leadership dropped unexpectedly when some GOP congresswomen balked, by asking antiabortion zealots attending the “March for Life” to help him “find a way out of this definitional problem with rape.”

One major issue with the bill was the way it defined rape: a women would have to have made a police report in order to get an abortion under the bill’s rape exception. (Katie McDonough has the details here.) Most rape victims don’t report the crime.

So Graham went to the “March for Life” today and came clean with the group, which is seething over its betrayal by GOP leadership. There’s going to be some kind of rape exception in the bill, and he needs their input to shape it.

“I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem with rape,” Graham told the marchers, according to Dave Weigel.  ”We need to find a consensus position on the rape exception. The rape exception will be part of the bill. We just need to find a way definitionally to not get us into a spot where we’re debating what legitimate is. That’s not the cause. We’re not here debating legitimate rape. We’re talking about saving babies at 20 weeks.”

So there it is again, the GOP’s lust for getting into the gritty details of defining rape, to make sure slutty women aren’t using rape exceptions to get around various types of abortion bans. That’s what former Rep. Todd Akin was getting at in 2012, when he talked about women rarely becoming pregnant as a result of “legitimate rape,” because  “a woman’s body has a way of shutting that whole thing down.” As you’ll recall, instead, women shut the GOP down that November. Republicans don’t want that to happen again in 2016.

The funny thing is, clearly Graham thinks he’s smarter than Akin: he insists he doesn’t “want to get us into a spot where we’re debating what legitimate is.” But he doesn’t seem to understand that the whole effort to “define” rape, which he’s apparently now spearheading, is precisely about deciding whether a woman’s claim of rape is “legitimate” or not.

At its heart, this Republican project is predicated on the belief that women lie about rape, but Republicans can outsmart them. If some Republican women believe that requiring women to make a police report is draconian, then Graham is searching for another way to define a woman’s rape as legitimately deserving of an exception to their 20-week abortion ban.

Rep. Renee Ellmers, who supported the very same bill in 2013, had second thoughts this time around. “We got into trouble last year, and I think we need to be careful again; we need to be smart about how we’re moving forward,” Ellmers told National Journal. ”The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn’t be on an issue where we know that millennials — social issues just aren’t as important [to them].”

So Ellmers is not exactly the picture of integrity here. She’s not worried about passing a terrible bill that could hurt women; she’s worried about how it looks to millennial voters.

Still, there looks to be a real split between GOP congressional men and women over the issue. Only women came forward to take their names off the bill; then male leadership acquiesced to withdraw it from consideration. Reportedly the party had the votes to pass the bill in the House at least, but Speaker John Boehner and others were concerned about the “optics” of ignoring women in the caucus.

I guess that’s a kind of progress for women’s rights, albeit tiny. But in walks Lindsey Graham to try to mansplain the right way to handle this whole rape “definition,” and even as he thinks he’s helping, he’s making his party’s problems much worse.

I never thought Graham had a prayer of winning the presidency, or even the GOP nomination, but his chances just got a lot worse. Republicans did well in 2014 by avoiding Akin-like controversies over defining rape and holding forth on the intimate workings of women’s bodies generally. It seems they just can’t help themselves, and that’s good for Democrats generally in 2016.


By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, January 22, 2015

January 26, 2015 Posted by | GOP, Lindsey Graham, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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