The Violence of Silence

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

“Well, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Yes, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Well, you must tell me, baby
How your head feels under somethin’ like that.”

— Dylan

The age of cognitive dissonance. Sunday, the American public (millions of them) watched the NFL Super Bowl. This spectacle is, of course, rife with all manner of jingoism and military symbolism (as is the game itself). But this is also a game, American football, that has proved to destroy the human brain of those who play it. In fact there was even a Hollywood movie, a popular one, about the doctor who led the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE); the brain trauma caused by the collision of man and helmet. Great players such as Mike Webster and Junior Seau died by their own hand; Terry Long drank anti freeze as his brain went into full melt down. Here is a list of NFL players with CTE.

None of these facts have put much of a dent into the NFL profit sheet. Or the popularity of the pro game. In fact, the dark shadow hanging over this spectacle is that its popularity may well have been enhanced by the facts surrounding the cost of playing. A league that is over 60% black starts to serve as something of a gladiator sacrifice ritual. One with links to the American slave owning past. Never underestimate the deep lacerating and ugly racism of the U.S. public.

This was the same week that Donald Trump notched his first war crime, though I suspect he was only dimly aware of it (a common attribute, it is becoming clear, for The Donald). An 8 year old girl, the baby sister of a teenage American citizen also killed, a couple years back, by drone. This took place in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Why, you might ask, is the U.S. killing people (including children) in Yemen? Well, the U.S. is helping the murderous monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Why, you ask again….and the answer is because, well, that’s how foreign policy operates. Why are there 900 U.S. military bases around the globe? I will return to that a bit later.

This also marked the week where the anti Trump forces (well, the ones funded by various front groups, a good many of them the product of George Soros’ long tentacles) went into hyper drive. One meme I saw was mocking how Trump can’t read. And look, I don’t think he can, either. I think he is borderline functionally illiterate. But so was Ronald Reagan. So was Dan Quayle. Republicans must long for the age of literacy under Bush Jr. What is becoming clear, however, is that Trump has no idea what he is doing. I mean he thinks Frederic Douglas is still out there doing a ‘helluva job’. Trey Parker of South Park confessed he cant find a way to satirize Donald Trump. So he’s giving up for the time being.

I feel ya. But Trump is now surrounded by nearly equally sub literate advisors. Jerry Fallwell’s kid is now going to helm a task force on education. What this portends is anyone’s guess. But before getting too disturbed, one should remember the actual state of public education in the U.S. under Obama or Bush or Clinton. It was Reagan, again, who pretty much had already destroyed any semblance of a real education for america’s children. Trump cut arts spending, too. Gosh, no NPR? Am I supposed to care? I have to tell you I don’t. I mean the National Endowment for the Arts already had a budget less than the US Marine Corps band. And basically the entire arts infrastructure was monopolized by the white bourgeoisie and had excluded, for a long while, all voices of any radical nature. So I don’t care, really.

The problem is that with Trump, the message — the optics — the symbolism if you want, is what is so pernicious. The elevation of this rapey buffoon to the Presidency is a culture shock (Trump as a younger man actually liked Roy Cohn!). So I get that shock part. I’m shocked in a sense, too. But the reality is that Trump has no idea what is going on. So who is calling the shots then? Who wanted to bomb a group of people in Yemen and snuff out the life of a beautiful eight year old child? What sort of sociopathic personality does that? The answer is that the corridors of power in the U.S. — the deep state — never really changes its actors. And those actors are sociopaths, in fact. I think that is not hyperbole. Maddie Albright and the famous ‘it was worth it’ reply to the death of millions of Iraqi children suggests I am right.

The *War on Terror* has not abated since its inception, and really it was only an intensification of already existing U.S. foreign policy. The majority protestors against Trump almost never mention U.S. imperialist wars of aggression. They DO care about further shredding an already pathetic health care system and what will now be an even more egrigious assault on women’s reproductive rights. And that is certainly legitimate. But stepping back just a little would reveal that the war on the poor, on black neighborhoods, and the installing of draconian surveillance systems and a constant ever receding list of civil liberties is a part of this. You cannot separate the attack on women’s rights from the death of that 8 year old girl. Or the vicious coup in Honduras courtesy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Or the proxy war in Syria. The neo cons in positions of influence have never gone away. They were there before 9/11 and they are there now. Few in those protests have any grasp of the destruction of Yugoslavia. Most still think Milosevic was a war criminal. How many bother to mention U.S. black sites and those military bases around the globe? Do they wonder what goes on in those places? I think such facts only appear in their consciousness when watching a TV show or Hollywood film. And mostly they are perfectly fine with killing Arabs just as they are perfectly fine with mass incarceration and with eroding civil liberties. Do any of them protest the U.S. and especially the Clinton’s, grotesque plunder of Haiti?

If you love the Super Bowl, then you probably don’t dwell in any depth on the depravity of the U.S. government and its crimes around the world. And I say this because to enjoy the sight of young men turning their brains to mush should not be enjoyable. I say this knowing my own contradictions. I was close to the boxing world for much of my life. I admired the beauty and sacrifice and courage of great fighters. I still do. But I am aware of the problem with this. And if you asked me today I’d say ban all boxing. But I will watch fights again. (there is a side bar discussion to be had about why boxing feels tragic and heroic and MMA feels simply violent). But one needs to examine why young men are still willing to participate in these sports. The obvious answer is that for many of the poorer families in the U.S., the possibility of comparative wealth can come no other way. (And boxing at least rarely displays any jingoism. It is, as someone said, the red light district of sports).

But Trump is doing and saying pretty much what all presidents before him have done and said in foreign policy terms. Oh, he switched from Russia to China, but eventually he will get to both. So there is a cognitive dissonance to attack Trump but not have attacked Obama. And this is the core problem. The protests are about Trump the man, not his policies. Or rather, not his foreign policy. And really, even his domestic policy really doesn’t stand very far outside what is already mostly in place courtesy of the last six or seven U.S. presidents. They are not anti war protests, not even anti torture. Not anti Imperialism, except in a minority of cases and not anti Capitalist.

Edward Curtin wrote of the recent protests….

“At the call of organizers, they were roused from their long liberal naps. Reacting to Trump’s gross comments about “grabbing pussy” – sick words, macho aggressive in their meaning – they donned their pink hats, made signs, and took their newly awakened outrage to the streets. Rightly disgusted by being verbally assaulted and afraid that their reproductive rights and services were threatened, they pounced like tigers on their verbal attacker. Massive, very well organized, media friendly marches and demonstrations followed. It was a hit parade.
Yet as others have forcefully written, something is amiss here. During the Obama years of endless wars, drone killings, the jailing of whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning, etc., these demonstrators were silent and off the streets.
A large number of the women (if not the vast majority) who marched against Donald Trump – and the recent women’s marches can only be described as anti-Trump marches – were Hilary Clinton supporters, whether they would describe their votes as “the lesser of two evils” or not. Thus, opposition to Trump’s aggressive statements toward “pussy” was implicit support for Clinton’s and Obama’s “feminism.” In other words, it was support for a man and a woman who didn’t publicly talk aggressively about women’s genitals, but committed misogynist and misandrist actions by killing thousands of women (and men and children) all over the world, and doing it with phallic shaped weapons. Trump will probably follow suit, but that possibility was not the impetus for the marches. The marches centered on Trump’s misogynist, macho language, and his threats to limit women’s access to health services – i.e. family planning and abortion.”

Trump is the logical culmination of the rightward drift of U.S. liberalism over the last fifty years. He is the sunlamped face of Capital.

The Democratic Party systematically purged left voices and anything that lent support to communist goals and organizations, worldwide and at home. The fall of the Soviet Union signaled the onslaught of neo-liberalism in hyper drive. Enzo Traverso, the Italian historian, noted the failures of liberalism in assisting the rise of Hitler and National Socialism. And the deeply engrained tendency of the liberal to gravitate toward the fascist right. The liberal bourgeoisie had a dog in the fight for the status quo. Michael Parenti’s cogent article on left anticommunism (from 2014) noted

“In addition, the overthrow of communism gave the green light to the unbridled exploitative impulses of Western corporate interests. No longer needing to convince workers that they live better than their counterparts in Russia, no longer restrained by a competing system, the corporate class is rolling back the many gains that working people have won over the years. Now that the free market, in its meanest form, is emerging triumphant in the East, so will it prevail in the West. “Capitalism with a human face” is being replaced by “capitalism in your face.” As Richard Levins put it, “So in the new exuberant aggressiveness of world capitalism we see what communists and their allies had held at bay” (Monthly Review, 9/96).”

From Nicaragua to Yugoslavia, the anti communist hysteria was given credence and legitimacy by the right AND by much of the left. Or, rather, the non communist left. Watching Trump carry on the same policies as Obama, which in turn were carrying out the same policies as Bush Jr and Clinton and Bush Sr, it is remarkable the outrage coming from the liberal classes today. The privatizing of education and the further disempowerment of labor, along with a continuation of mass incarceration are all things that began back in 1989. And the endless search for new markets for Western capital has not halted since Reagan.

Norman Pollock wrote, here at CP just last week….

“This raises the question, applicable to Trump and his predecessors (for he cannot be examined in a vacuum), of the connectivity in America of power, wealth, and fascism, possibly from the time of Truman onward, and certainly, from Reagan onward.{ } America is fast crumbling into a boiling cauldron of hate, selfishness, and combativeness, Trump the perfect articulator, implementer, further executioner of capitalism…”

That Trump is so obviously incurious and ignorant suggests he will turn to others for advice, and likely some not officially within his administration. Ron and Nancy looked to the stars. One obvious voice for the Donald will be Benjamin Netanyahu. The other obvious candidate will be Eric Prince, late of Blackwater and insider pal to Trump and Pence both. And I suspect Pence almost serves as a life insurance policy for Trump. If anyone can be found to be more unstable and deranged than Trump, on a personal level, then it’s Pence. The logic of U.S. thinking on global hegemony, from those myriad think tanks that dot Washington, is one that will dovetail nicely with the fanaticism of a Netanyahu. The Israeli leadership has never had a problem working with anti semite fascists. And Trump is not an anti semite (that would be Steve Bannon, who’s influence may already be waning). In any case the targeting of Iran is directly linked to Israeli interests and the choice of General Mattis was quite possibly already a whispered suggestion.

It is fitting that the New England Patriots (sic) won the Super Bowl. Tom Brady and Coach Belichick both are Trump supporters. It’s the whitest team in the NFL, for what that’s worth (3 white wide receivers! Come on.), and somehow the entire spectacle of Super Sunday was one that suggested U.S. grandiosity and white supremacism.

I was thinking of Ryszard Kapuściński’s short book on The Shah of Iran (Shah of Shahs)…Reza Pahlavi was a U.S. client and his, Pahlavi’s, secret police, SAVAK, trained by the CIA and lend-out interrogation experts from Fort Benning and The School of The Americas.

“They would kidnap a man as he walked along the street, blindfold him, and lead him straight into the torture chamber without asking a single question. There they would start in with the whole macabre routine–breaking bones, pulling out fingernails, forcing hands into hot ovens, drilling into the living skull, and scores of other brutalities–in the end, when the victim had gone mad with pain and become a smashed, bloody mass, they would proceed to establish his identity. Name? Address?”

The CIA invented Pahlavi (Āryāmehr, The Light of the Aryans, the King of Kings) because Mossedegh had the temerity to nationalize the oil industry, and it feels oddly like a future foretold. Trump brings the nouveau riche desire to be a sort of American Shah. The same gold and cherebum, the same kitsch aristocratic trappings — though in Trump’s case these things mask the deep insecurities of the son of a brothel owner and slum lord. Trump is the counterfeit Shah. He embodies something of the crappy taste of all banana republic dictators. It is sort ‘despot cool’ ala Mobutu Sese Seko. Except one thing Trump will never be is cool. Never.

The entire shift in the ruling financial sector before the election; the shot callers in Wall Street boardrooms and the Pentagon, seemed to have thrown their weight behind Trump. The reasons remain obscure. But I cant shake the feeling Trump never intended to win. In any event, he cant be enjoying this. He is a daily endless 24/7 object of derision and ridicule. His consigliere, Bannon, appears himself a bit shaken. They woke up and suddenly a world beyond their preparation lay before them. Donald doesn’t know there is a country called Yemen. But he signed off bombing them. Didn’t he? Presumably. Trump is the 21st century version of a Shah — the shah of Atlantic City and reality TV, a bone ignorant crude and louche operator who did fourteen seasons of The Apprentice as preparation for this new role. But I suspect Trump sees himself as The Donald of Donalds: and the Art of the Deal as this eras Profiles in Courage — though perhaps not. Former cast members from SNL take time to make fun of him, now. And look, on one level I get it. But these same people continue to fawn over Obama. They voted Hillary. They have only barely little more grasp of Yemeni politics than Trump. They just cover it up more successfully. They know the right desert fork. They went to good schools. And what was once called middle America, or ‘the heartland’ are now the flyover states, and this populace today (what are really just white petty bourgeoisie and not swastika tattooed Klansmen) hates the entitled liberals who make fun of Trump. They are, for the moment, ready to forgive Trump. They don’t like him either, but they hate those making fun of him. For how long they will forgive him is unclear. But for now their hatred of the white liberals who manufactured the master narrative for America and made fun of NASCAR and duck hunting and college football tailgate parties trumps (sic) all else. There is enormous and complex cultural overlap, of course. But the reality is, some people somewhere backed Trump. The Clintons were thrilled he was running. Hell, I suspect the Clintons might have encouraged him to run. For the DNC, the leaked Podesta emails verifies they wanted him or Ted Cruz. Even they couldn’t lose to a Don Trump, so the reasoning had it.

But they did lose.

Bannon, remember, once produced a documentary on Reagan (In the Face of Evil) and honed his carny pitchman skills at both Goldman Sachs and Breitbart media. Bannon is the voice of, or at least serves as stand-in, for a shrinking class of American worker who vaguely still dream the American dream. Trump is the latter day Reagan in that sense. The Trump base are really, in their own way, social climbers. And the great miscalculation of the DNC in this election was to wildly underestimate the anger of middle America. The petty bourgeoisie who watched in rapture as Tom Brady orchestrated a historic comeback. A comeback to beat the team of the blackest city in the U.S. (well, the one with a football team anyway); these were people who instinctively rejected all that the Clinton’s stood for. Remember, too, that half the electorate didn’t vote. That is the other lesson in all this.

John Pilger wrote of the recent protests by quoting firstly journalist Martha Gelhorn (circa 1930s)…

“A writer,” the journalist Martha Gellhorn told the second congress, “must be a man of action now… A man who has given a year of his life to steel strikes, or to the unemployed, or to the problems of racial prejudice, has not lost or wasted time. He is a man who has known where he belonged. If you should survive such action, what you have to say about it afterwards is the truth, is necessary and real, and it will last.”
Her words echo across the unction and violence of the Obama era and the silence of those who colluded with his deceptions.”

Pilger added..

“According to a Council on Foreign Relations survey, in 2016 alone Obama dropped 26,171 bombs. That is 72 bombs every day. He bombed the poorest people on earth, in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan.”

This is what the Democratic Party, all of it, was silent about. Decades of removing communist and socialist and really, even just working class voices from what was supposed to be the party of ‘labor’ has resulted in the silence of bourgeois culture in the face countless global crimes and military aggressions. The age of humanitarian intervention stripped the patina from the deaths head of liberal apologetics. Cognitive dissonance. The complicity in war crimes in Yemen, with and in support of the most odious regime in the world, Saudi Arabia, passes in silence. Total media silence. Total. Hillary Clinton’s comment about deplorables reveals a mind set that sees poverty as something to ignore. One is led to expect such contempt from a Barbara Bush, but Democrats were supposed to different. The imprisonment and murder of radicals, from Fred Hampton to Leonard Peltier is simply not a topic at the Democratic convention. The cynical tolerance of a brutal never ending assault on the global south is not protested.

So, until protestors begin to find solidarity with those hundreds of thousands of malnourished children in Yemen, or the displaced and suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, or Honduras or Haiti or Gaza, or who pledge solidarity with the two million jailed in the U.S. prison system…then these protests are just as morally bankrupt as the Wall Street ghouls and Christian zealots who are salivating at the opportunity to punish women, the poor, and all people of colour domestically. These things cannot be separated. Ferguson is Port au Prince and is Fallujah and is Tripoli. The violence of such silence really cannot be tolerated anymore. The rights of women matter in central America and the Middle East, too. Trump, the cartoon Shah of TV reality entertainment is just a symptom. Covering up the symptom does not cure the disease. And the disease is Capitalism.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published by Mimesis International in 2016.