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Whore: (verb) To debase oneself by doing something for unworthy motives, typically to make money.
-The New Oxford American Dictionary
It’s a challenge to make adult sense of the absurdities coming out of Colombia right now.
I had first planned to write about the Drug War aspect of President Obama’s summit meeting in Cartagena, since it’s quite amazing when the right-wing president of Colombia publicly lobbies the US president to shift the Drug War from military operations against supply in Latin America to a more social approach against demand in the US. After all, Colombia is the highly militarized US showcase nation in the 40-year Drug War.
“Despite all of the efforts, the immense efforts, the huge costs, we have to recognize that the illicit drug business is prospering,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told the attending leaders. He even advocated a process of decriminalization, though he recognized this was only a “starting point to begin a discussion that we have been postponing for far too long.”
This is real news.
Our Drug War is a military/police enterprise focused on attacking the supply of drugs coming from Latin America. Santos seems to concede it’s a dismal failure. He also knows the accumulated conditions of that failure are so entrenched in the hemisphere that it’s hard to even begin to discuss a way out.
Barack Obama’s administration is so cowed by entrenched, die-hard drug warriors that it’s doubling down on marijuana busts as local governments across the nation go the other way and ease enforcement of marijuana laws. The Feds are like fundamentalist puritans who see the decriminalization of marijuana as the social equivalent of a “gateway drug” leading to crack-addict Hell. There’s a desperate need for a much more pragmatic approach.
Besides the call from our Latin American neighbors for a more sane, demand-oriented approach to international drug problems, there was an equally consensus-driven call for the US to drop its aggressive and counter-productive 50-year embargo of Cuba.
Here’s the right-wing Santos again on lifting the embargo on Cuba: “There is no justification for that path that has anchored us in a Cold War. … It is the hour to overcome the paralysis produced by ideological stubbornness.” As expected, President Obama remained mired in the “ideological stubbornness” of the Florida Cuban vote.
When it came to approving a labor agreement with Colombia, Obama was in total agreement with the rightist Santos. It did not matter that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had lobbied hard against the agreement, citing killings of trade unionists and other human rights abuses. Trumka responded by saying, “We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and trade unions.”
Back in 1984, I was deported from Honduras for sitting down with union leaders who shared with me and friends a litany of murders and rights abuses against trade unionists. That was during the Contra War. It seems little has changed in 28 years. Capital and profits always trump unions and the human rights of workers.
It’s quite revealing that while profound historical discussions during the summit focused on reforming the Drug War, lifting the outmoded Cold War embargo of Cuba and violent abuses of trade unionists, that the really big story to come out of Cartagena is that US Secret Service agents and military security officers purchased sex.
And who is thumping the scandal? None other than Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security and the greatest War On Terror whore in America.
The heavy breathing soon began. Could any of the ladies contracted from the Pley Club brothel have been al Qaeda agents? How was the President’s safety affected? How much of a black mark was it on the honor of the United States? Whose heads would have to roll?
Reality Versus Distraction
Meanwhile, back in Reality-land, Latin America was in the midst of a major, future-oriented economic correction with the dynamic Brazil on the leading edge. The requests for the US to reform its Drug War and to lift the embargo on Cuba were in fact part of that greater dialogue, a dialogue that includes questions about energizing the middle and lower classes into a consumer engine that can lift all economic boats across the continent.
This is a deadly theme in 2012 in America. So it’s not surprising to see a ridiculous scandal pop up to distract Americans from the real issues. As was accomplished following World War Two, the US economy needs to rebuild its working and middle classes, and the only way to do that is to break the cycle of entrenched, right-leaning wealth. It’s a major epochal struggle in Latin America, as it should be in the United States. It was one of the big stories that should have come out of the summit, and instead we get distractions about agents and whores.
It’s a story about high-powered, red-blooded American men in an exotic location erotically fueled by the myth of American Exceptionalism; actually it’s one of the oldest stories in the annals of colonialism and imperialism. And it naturally involves the oldest profession, in this case, savvy Colombian entrepreneurs after top-dollar profits.
The weak link in all this apparently was an inebriated Secret Service agent who didn’t speak enough Spanish to understand the perfectly legal business contract he was engaging in. The 24-year-old woman offering her services to this gentleman is very beautiful, and she emphasized to The New York Times that she was not a prostitute or a whore; she was an “escort.” The marketing line for such expensive escorts is that a client is paying for class and, most important, discretion.
There would have been no scandal if the man had paid his bill. Failure to fulfill a legal contract amounts to theft of services. Thus the wronged woman went to the police, and the police, in turn, did their duty and took up the woman’s case against the US agent. Sex had nothing to do with the scandal; it was a contractual arrangement gone awry. The man might as well have been refusing to pay for a haircut.
One of the themes being voiced in this scandal is that a matter of national and military honor is at stake, that it’s a violation of our “core values.” It’s the same distracting note of concern we hear from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta when soldiers in Afghanistan photograph themselves grinning like geeks holding up the blown apart legs of a suicide bomber. Panetta said what these men did was “not worthy of our core values.”
So exactly what are our “core values” in this scandal? First, it has to be recognized that these so-called core values are generally expressed in the realm of public relations to respond to some embarrassment. It’s a sad fact of our times that our real values are those expressed in the realm of secrecy where most of US foreign and military policy unfolds. Real values are how we really operate — not how we envision ourselves.
Whoring in Vietnam
Back in 1966, I was a red-blooded 19-year-old kid in Vietnam serving my country as a radio direction finder. My job was to locate the enemy, which generally consisted of Vietnamese kids fighting to force me and 500,000 other Americans from their land. I located these young soldiers so Air Force F4 Phantoms could incinerate them into charred corpses.
When I wasn’t hunting Vietnamese radio operators, I spent a lot of time in Pleiku at the many brothel-bars that catered to kids like me engorged with the myth of American Exceptionalism. For me, Vietnamese girls were the most beautiful creatures on Earth. As an American soldier, I was drawing a salary, plus $65-a-month combat pay for being in Vietnam. There were many thousands more just like me.
Money burned a hole in our pockets, and prostitution was everywhere, in bars and in every little laundry beside the road. It was the juicy entrepreneurial receptacle for the arrogant, imperial engine that drove the war itself. Eventually, to control VD, the Fourth Division actually oversaw its own brothel-bars just outside the base camp in Pleiku.
At these bars, one was presented with an assortment of energetic and lovely child-women willing and eager to share their most intimate physical pleasures for five dollars. I was an armed young male propagandized with a sense of superiority suddenly presented with pliant young girls who wanted my money, of which I had more than I knew what to do with.
I’m now, of course, thoroughly ashamed of myself and mention the experience here only to shed a little light on the notion of Americans buying sex in foreign lands. My shame is intricately tied to the war and the fact I was paying a pittance for these girls’ services; they were there only because they were poor and because we were wrecking their country. It wasn’t the prostitution that was shameful or dishonorable; it was the wrecking, the exploitation and the larger, collective shame for the war itself and the massive amounts of killing and destruction it entailed against the Vietnamese people.
This kind of misplaced dishonor is part of the “core values” cited in the Secret Service scandal. Something is wrong when individual sexual peccadilloes become a more serious matter for public shame than collective actions like a disastrous and violent 40-year Drug War and a misguided 50-year embargo of a tiny island nation. Add in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the new doctrine of special operations assassination teams and lethal drones and the “scandal” of a few agents paying for consensual sex becomes laughable. Our wars are the real scandals.
Colombia and other Latin American nations have decriminalized prostitution and they now seem inclined to do the same for drugs. This has been the reality in places like Amsterdam for some time. Reasonable people have to wonder when the professed “core values” of American Puritanism will allow the same kinds of reform and evolution to occur in the United States. So far, the forces of obstruction and distraction have the upper hand.
None of this will be easy. But we know criminalization and militarization doesn’t work and that they are extremely costly approaches. In a way, we have become socially addicted to those approaches. Maybe it’s time to try a little of the spirit of E. F. Schumacher’s famous book Small Is Beautiful. To borrow the subtitle to the book, we’d be a whole lot better off if our leaders stopped being such imperial whores and began to govern “as if people mattered.”
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.