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Slavery, War and Presidential Politics

As I watched “unity” take hold of the Democratic Party this week, the believer in me wanted to be imbibe it — bottoms up.

Michelle Obama ignited the crowd. “That is the story of this country,” she said. “The story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done.”

And the Big Party opened its arms.

“So that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

Slaves?

Wow. I can remember when we didn’t talk like this in public, especially not on a national stage. Acknowledging slavery — at a profound level, in all its immorality — is so much deeper than simply acknowledging racism, which can be reduced to the behavior of ignorant people. But the ownership of human bodies and human souls, total control over people’s lives and the lives of their children, was inscribed in law. And such ownership was a core principle of the “greatest country on earth,” embedded in the economy, embraced by the Founding Fathers with no questions asked.

This isn’t just “history.” It’s wrong. Indeed, the United States of America came into being with a damaged soul. That was the implication packed into Michelle Obama’s words.

But no more, no more. The wild cheers she received when her speech ended seemed to acknowledge a long-, long-delayed public desire for atonement. We’ve become a country that can acknowledge its wrongs and right them.

And electing Hillary Clinton as president — the message continued — would be a further step along this journey toward full equality of all human beings. The Democratic Party has found its unity and stands for what matters.

If only . . .

I can take the infomercial aspect of all this — the pumped fists, the roar of victory, the clichés of American greatness emanating from one speech after another, even the endless media reduction of democracy to horse-race stats — but I am a long way from being aboard the Hillary bandwagon. And despite the lurking specter of Trumpenstein, I remain unconvinced that this year — come on, man, this year — the candidate of the lesser evil is the one I have to vote for.

And I’m not even speaking as a rebellious Berniecrat.

While I remain in awe of what the Bernie Sanders campaign has accomplished in the past year, even Bernie has not articulated, and fails to embody, the fullness of the revolution that has propelled his candidacy beyond all expectation.

“It’s no secret that Hillary and I disagree on a number of issues. That’s what democracy is all about!” Bernie said on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, standing solidly for real political even change as he called for party unity and endorsed Hillary.

He also said: “This election is about ending gross levels of income inequality” and called for serious Wall Street reform, containment of the billionaire class, free state college tuition and the expansion of various social programs.

What he failed to call for is, at the very least, a discussion of the disastrous consequences and hemorrhaging costs of the American war machine, which is the primary cause of the nation’s social impoverishment.

What I’m certain of is that the revolution Sanders has fomented is grounded, in the hearts of his supporters, in the transcendence of war as much as it is grounded in the hellish wrongs of racism and slavery. This wrong is not only part of the deep past, beginning with the conquest of and genocide against the continent’s original inhabitants, but it is alive, economically entrenched and wreaking planetary havoc today. And we can’t even talk about it.

Over the past quarter century, neocons and military-industrialists have vanquished Vietnam Syndrome and the public opposition to war, achieving the solidification of endless war.

“There was significant opposition to the First Gulf War — 22 senators and 183 reps voted against it, including Sanders — but not enough to stop the march to war,” Nicolas J.S. Davies wrote last October on Huffington Post. “The war became a model for future U.S.-led wars and served as a marketing display for a new generation of U.S. weapons. After treating the public to endless bombsight videos of ‘smart bombs’ making ‘surgical strikes,’ U.S. officials eventually admitted that such ‘precision’ weapons were only 7 percent of the bombs and missiles raining down on Iraq. The rest were good old-fashioned carpet-bombing, but the mass slaughter of Iraqis was not part of the marketing campaign. When the bombing stopped, U.S. pilots were ordered to fly straight from Kuwait to the Paris Air Show, and the next three years set new records for U.S. weapons exports. . . .

“Meanwhile, U.S. officials crafted new rationalizations for the use of U.S. military force to lay the ideological groundwork for future wars.”

And Barack Obama’s military budget is the largest ever. When you factor in all military-related spending, Davies points out, the annual cost of U.S. militarism is over a trillion dollars.

Before the value of this spending is addressed, the fact of it has to be acknowledged. And no presidential candidate without the courage to do at least this — open a discussion about the costs and consequences of war — deserves my vote, or yours.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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