You can easily carbon date your friends on Facebook based on where they were during any major milestone in U.S. history. As a university professor teaching now for decades at what we euphemistically call a “land grant” university, many of my students these days were born after 9-11–into the U.S.’s seemingly endless “War on Terror.” It’s a war that some of their family members died in, but one that few of them seem to know much about.
Last month, older friends on Facebook who came of age in the 1960s were busy reflecting on what they were doing when they heard the news that JFK had been assassinated. Personally, I had only recently graduated from diapers to plastic pants and was likely occupied with important matters like trying to do the twist in front of the TV while my grandmother clapped and sloshed Scotch all over her TV table. But like most Americans who have not washed down decades of Rush Limbaugh with great swigs of QAnon Kool-Aid, I can’t help but wonder how we will look back at this moment in history. Is this the moment we turn the tide, or is it a brief respite from the country’s descent into full-blown fascism? The latter scenario would mean, of course, full speed ahead into climate collapse, given that the U.S. military is hands down the single largest carbon emissions machine on the planet, and our collective dust speck is already close to the boiling point.
May you live in interesting times. You got that right. These times are so interesting that we’ve had a lame duck president holed up in the White House consulting with his legal team from the Island of Malevolent Misfit Toys about the possibilities for declaring martial law to overturn the results of the election and it’s not the top story.
That stands to reason, I guess, when you’ve got a pandemic death count equivalent of a hundred 9-11s, and across the country bodies stacking up like cordwood in overstuffed mobile morgue units.
It’s hard to sustain the level of national alert so many of us felt during the run up to the election and the vote count, when Trump’s automatic-weapon-waving goon squads were busy battering on windows at voting precincts or sky-writing “Surrender Gretchen” over the Michigan State House. A meme was making the rounds at the time on Facebook: American politics as Night of the Living Dead. Personally, I was starting to feel like an insomnia-addled Lady Macbeth who’d been mainlining Halloween candy or days, and as in all things, I blamed my lovely spouse, who had shopped for Halloween candy like he was stocking up for Y2K.
Like me, my spouse knows how to brace for the worst, a skill we bonded over when we met organizing against the second Gulf War. One of the biggest misconceptions about the anti-war “movement,” if such a thing exists right now, is that peace activists somehow hate veterans. Since well before the war in Vietnam, the U.S. military has given veterans critical insight into the American war machine, along with heavy helpings of trauma and self-loathing. Some of my favorite peace activists are veterans, my spouse chief and foremost among them. We bonded organizing protests and staging a die-in in front of the Portland federal building. It was one of those “what are you doing after the die-in?” kinds of courtships.
I don’t remember exactly when I began thinking of Victor Jara’s hands and how they’d been crushed by Chilean soldiers in the early days of the U.S.-sponsored Chilean coup in 1973. I do know, though, that as my spouse and I took a left turn to drop our ballots off at our local library, Victor Jara had been on both our minds. It wasn’t a total coincidence, given that only a day or two before, on October 25, Chileans had voted overwhelmingly in favor of drafting a new constitution.
The referendum was a concession wrenched from President Sebastian Piñera following a year of street protests and civil unrest. The vote was a definitive kiss-off to the Chilean constitution of 1980, enacted under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet.
Living in the U.S., you’d never know that Chile had had its own national disaster on September 11, nearly three decades before the U.S.
Not many Americans can define neoliberalism, let alone know that on September 11, 1973, it was ushered into Chile by U.S.-made tanks and at the butt of U.S.-made guns—automatic weapons of the sort Trump’s “very fine” friends never seem to tire of waving. And not at all unlike the militarized Portland Police, and the BORTAC and Homeland Security armies that spent all summer pounding and traumatizing friends of mine in the streets of Portland, and spraying them with chemical weapons long ago judged too dangerous to use in war, the health effects being so severe and long term.
It was on September 11, 1973, that Richard Nixon and his henchman Henry Kissinger swept Pinochet to power as the front man for the U.S.-sponsored “experiment” in neoliberalism. A folksinger-songwriter, often referred to as “Chile’s Bob Dylan,” Victor Jara would be the most visible of more than 3,000 Chileans executed by Pinochet’s death squads in September, as the coup began. You can get a quick overview of the horrors that the U.S. helped unleash on Chileans in the 1970s by watching the 2019 Netflix documentary Massacre at the Stadium.
Shortly after Pinochet’s reign of terror began, an estimated five thousand were detained at a Santiago stadium—then named Estadio Chile, and since renamed Estadio Victor Jara—and another twenty thousand at the Estadio Nacional across town. Professors, students, musicians, farm and factory workers were crowded shoulder to shoulder and sorted into lines to live or die, to be interrogated, beaten, tortured, and/or murdered. At Estadio Chile, more than seventy were executed on site, while others were “disappeared.” Today a quote painted on the back of the Estadio Nacional reads: “Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro” – “A people without memory are a people without a future.”
Jara grew up poor, in a family of farmworkers, but went on to become a theater director and teacher, and to achieve international visibility with songs like “Manifesto,” which speaks to Jara’s understanding of art as a critical tool in struggles for justice, as an instrument of decolonizing resistance, of spiritual, material, and ecological liberation.
“I don’t sing for the love of singing, /or because I have a good voice,” sang Jara, “I sing because my guitar/has both feeling and reason. It has a heart of earth/and the wings of a dove….”
Jara’s music was inspired by his mother Amanda Martínez’s love of folk music rooted in her Indigenous Mapuche heritage; his music was also shaped by a Catholic education that included a brief period in the seminary. Jara’s music was embraced in the 1960s and ‘70s by American folk heavies like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Arlo Guthrie and Holly Near are among the American songwriters who have since written tribute songs. In the run-up to the election of Allende, Jara’s version of the song “Venceremos” or “We Will Overcome,” became the anthem of Allende’s Popular Unity Coalition, and also figured centrally in eyewitness accounts of Jara’s death. Pinochet’s U.S.-supported forces beat and tortured him, smashing his wrists.
At some point in the stadium, Jara reportedly sang to the other prisoners “Venceremos,” a song he’d adapted with new lyrics that had egged Allende on to victory. Before he was executed, shot more than 40 times by Pinochet’s U.S.-funded forces, Jara wrote his final song: “What horror the face of fascism creates!/They carry out their plans with knife-like precision./Nothing matters to them./To them, blood equals medals,/slaughter is an act of heroism./Oh God, is this the world that you created?”
No human cost was too high to pay to usher in neoliberalism, to eviscerate the gains that labor had made under Allende’s Popular Unity Coalition, and to maintain a steady flow of cheap copper, fruit and fish to the U.S. under the auspices of “trade liberalization.” The new constitution passed under Pinochet’s dictatorship rolled back the reforms instituted under Allende. It expanded the power of the presidency and enshrined private property and corporate profits over social needs; Pinochet rolled back taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and eliminated a host of government services. State-owned companies, public housing, education, health care, and pensions were all privatized, turned into profit centers for corporations and the wealthy. The constitution written under Pinochet limited reforms, and the gap today between rich and poor in Chile is one of the highest in Latin America.
Jara may be technically dead, but if you do a bit of digging around on the internet, you’ll see evidence of his long afterlife; hence the title of a documentary about his impact on musicians in particular: The Resurrection of Victor Jara. Tens of thousands of hands have gone on playing Jara’s songs in the nearly fifty years since his torture and murder in the stadium. Jara, says Chilean musician Horacio Salinas, in the documentary, “could create a ceremonial effect with his music.” On youtube, you can find countless videos of musicians playing Jara’s songs, and songs written in tribute to him, including my personal favorite, “Victor Jara’s Hands,” by Joey Burns of the Tucson-based indie-rock band Calexico, sung alternately in Spanish and English: “Songs of the birds like hands/ call the earth to witness/ Sever from fear before taking flight.”
And for the past year, as across the streets of the U.S. Black Lives Matter activists have demanded justice for George Floyd and the defunding of police departments that consume the lion’s share of city budgets across the country, Jara has been resurrected again and again–in an all-star Chilean studio recording–and on the streets of Chile. At an October 25, 2019 march in Santiago with a crowd estimated at more than a million, people sang together Jara’s anti-war anthem “El Derecho De Vivir En Paz,” or “The Right to Live in Peace,” while countless people played along on the guitar.
This past year, workers in Chile have risen up again to demand a world in which workers do more than just struggle to survive, one in which everyone has a right to not just bread, but roses, music, and art.
Over the past year, Chilean women have created their own distinctive, woman-centered actions on the streets of Chile, with thousands collectively performing the song “Un Violador en Tu Camino,” or “A Rapist in Your Path,” in a public rite of resistance to rape culture and femicide.
The song was inspired by the work of the renowned Argentinian-Brazilian feminist anthropologist/bioethicist Rita Laura Segato. The song calls out the role of police and the courts in perpetrating and perpetuating sexual violence that repeats, on a smaller scale, the systemic rape and torture of women that happened under Pinochet, and that is a central feature of fascism.
If the goal in Chile—as it would be later in Iraq—was, as Naomi Klein has argued–to disorient or “shock” the country into submitting to a radically different and patently exploitative economic system, the system that was imposed was also more rigidly patriarchal. Sexual violence and degradation were integral parts of Pinochet’s fascist playbook. But as Chileans battle the legacy of Pinochet, this rite of feminist resistance, together with other longstanding organizing, is propelling Chile to break new ground internationally: Chile will be the first country in the world with a constitutional assembly comprised equally of women and men.
I turned twelve the month that Pinochet came to power, and I have no memory whatsoever of hearing about the murder of Jara, the mutilation of his hands, or the thousands of Chileans who were tortured or disappeared. Looking back, I find this fact stranger for the fact that I grew up within miles of the White House. And when I look back on growing up in two very white suburbs on the edge of Washington D.C., it might as well have been Apartheid South Africa, the lines of demarcation between the Black inner city; Georgetown, where my father was a professor; and the white suburbs, were so clear and stark.
My first inklings of the Chilean coup came in 1976, when the political violence of the Pinochet regime erupted in Washington, D.C. I was fifteen, and a friend of my older sister was dating Pablo Letelier, the son of Orlando Letelier, when the latter was blown to pieces in a car bombing, along with his co-worker Ronni Karpen Moffett. Orlando Letelier had been a close associate of Allende and remained until his death an outspoken critic of Pinochet, who was eventually pegged for the bombing, though a fat lot of good that did.
By the age of fifteen in 1976, I was not a complete newbie when it came to assassinations. Just months before the Chilean Coup, in July of 1973, Colonel Yosef Alon, a 42-year-old an Israeli Air Force pilot and military attaché, whose daughter Yael rode the bus with us to school in the morning, was assassinated in their driveway.
But Alon’s assassination was not the first to have entered the sphere of my privileged white childhood. My guess is that would have been the Yablonski murders on New Year’s Eve, 1969.
We attended a parochial school at the time called The Little Flower School, which made the news not too long ago as the grade school alma mater of Brett Kavanaugh. I was eight and my sister was seven when we learned that the in-laws of one of the teachers at Little Flower—“Mrs. Yablonski”—had all been mowed down in their Pennsylvania home: Chip Yablonski, the President of the United Mine Workers Union, his wife Margaret, and their daughter Charlotte Yablonski.
I imagine this was around the time I came home one day from school to find myself locked out of the house, and when I banged on the window and peered inside, I found my two older siblings had staged their own murder, knives lying on the floor, a theatrical flourish of ketchup here and there. Perhaps I’ve coped with my third-grade trauma by picturing myself as a stony-faced critic who found the scene unconvincing, their characters lacking in development.
The field of Epigenetics assumes that stress is genetically transmitted. I don’t need to know that my genetic fibers are somehow entangled in my parents’ to understand that I’ve carried some of their trauma into my own life. I grew up listening to—and, at times taking notes on—my parents’ stories of trauma. My mother’s stories were about growing up the child of a working-class single mother too poor to raise her. She told stories about kids who accidentally jumped off trains onto chainsaws, and about her experience dressing dead bodies as a young student nurse on a deserted ward.
My father’s trauma centered around the May 10, 1940, Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. Barely a month short of his fourteenth birthday, he ended up lying in a ditch next to his eighty-year-old grandmother, mortars flying, trees bursting into flames overhead. His family narrowly made it across the border before it closed. My father had four brothers, including twins, one of whom, my Uncle Pierre, had suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation during delivery. My father lived with the knowledge throughout his life that something as small as a hand visibly shaking as a man pockets his papers, and they might have landed in Westerbork or Auschwitz rather than in England, and his brothers might have been medically tortured and dissected.
I know exactly where I was when my father’s life ended on May 8, V.E. Day, 1979, just outside Amsterdam. I was accompanying him on his lecture tour, the chance to see Europe a high school graduation present. I was at my uncle’s house, my father’s body still warm on the couch before me, where he’d reclined after diagnosing his own heart attack. He died just two days before the thirty-ninth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940. The last destination I visited with my father was Anne Frank’s “Secret Annex.” War, as I learned on that trip, throws out shockwaves and unexploded ordinance—both physical and emotional—that explode across generations, and can shave decades off a single life.
While the “Neoliberal Experiment” began in Chile in 1973 with tanks and guns—and on a smaller scale in New York City with the manufactured financial crisis of 1975—Reagan would become its American figurehead, its presidential mad social scientist. I was in my second year at Georgetown when Reagan was inaugurated, and I can remember exactly where I was when Reagan was elected 40 years ago, on November 4, 1980. I was at the Republican election watch party at some tony D.C. hotel, the details documented somewhere in a newspaper article buried deep in my office closet.
In the fall of 1980, I was in my second-year writing for the more liberal of Georgetown’s two student newspapers, The Voice. Whether the story was assigned to me or I chose it out of some perverse curiosity or out of an unshakeable conviction that Republicans had better hors d’oeuvres, I can’t quite remember. While I wasn’t the most savvy reporter at the time, I can say that voting for Reagan was as unthinkable to me then as now. And if memory serves, I covered the election party with all the rhetorical gravitas of a monkey throwing shit at their new zookeepers.
I would go on to attend the inauguration in D.C., again out of the kind of curiosity that one might feel toward newly–landed Martians walking the red carpet from their space capsule. I was a sophomore and busy running from one panicked deadline to the other, but Reagan’s inaugural speech got my attention. “[A]mong all the nations of the earth,” as Reagan would have it, “[The U.S. was] special…The freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured” in the U.S. “than in any other place on Earth,” Reagan claimed.
What I missed the first time around, though, was his distillation of neoliberal principles: The one barrier to the “individual liberty” of citizen/workers in a country “without ethnic or racial divisions” was government itself. “It is time,” Reagan proclaimed, “to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.” While Reagan deftly tipped his hat to working people—to “men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children,” and on and on—for Reagan, as for Trump, the joke was on working people.
The years I spent at Georgetown in the wake of my father’s death provided a crash course in the importance of the social safety net that Ronald Reagan was hell bent on gutting. At the time, if I was somewhat oblivious to the nuances of Reagan’s political agenda, it was likely because I was occupied a good bit of the time with trying not to have a nervous breakdown. My personal social safety net at the time consisted of Social Security Survivor’s Benefits, four years of free tuition to Georgetown–where my father had taught for more than a decade–and something I never thought very much about having: white skin. My father’s death sent my mother off her fragile rails, and within six months of Reagan’s inauguration, during the summer of 1981, my sister and I were homeless.
My sister and I learned that summer that with white skin, student I.D.’s, and a keen eye out for security guards, there are ways of getting by on a college campus rent-free. At the time, I didn’t think much about the role that whiteness played in stopping us from falling any further. I was oblivious to the fact that the safety net we found in sleeping in vacant dorms would not have been available to us had we been Black or brown. As it was, there would be no cops, no Karens staring skeptically at our student I.D.’s, no guns pointed in our faces, no one asking if we were enrolled or if we’d paid summer rent for the dorm rooms. That experience, together with my father’s death, would radically remap my life for decades to come.
When neoliberalism arrived in Chile, Victor Jara and working class supporters of Socialist President Salvador Allende were under no illusions about whose benefits the coup would serve.
If neoliberalism was brought into Chile with guns and tanks, in the U.S., it was done with smoke and mirrors. Reagan was inaugurated forty years ago this January on a platform based on the self-interested lies and deceptions crafted by the so-called “Chicago Boys”––the architects of neoliberalism. Reagan greased his personal path to the White House on the neoliberal snake oil of “Trickle Down Economics” and Free Market Fundamentalism. And while Jimmy Carter had already gotten the ball rolling, Reagan would jump start the neoliberal bait and switch transfer of funds from public housing, education, and welfare, to policing, prisons, and endless war.
Ronald Reagan was as eager to shill for trickle-down economics and gutting the social safety net as he’d been for the House Unamerican Activities Committee and the warmongers at General Electric. Meanwhile, in the UK, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was happily breaking the glass ceiling for women intent on dropping bombs on babies and exploiting working families. On opposite sides of the pond, Thatcher and Reagan were simultaneously slashing corporate taxes, deregulating the financial industry—and setting the stage for waves of future financial crises. And both of them were intent on breaking labor.
Though my siblings and I were all given four years of free tuition, in the 1980s, you didn’t have to have a scholarship—or a parent who was a professor—to walk away from a four-year degree debt-free or close to it. In 1983, the year I graduated, tuition at a public university barely topped a thousand a year.But public universities had already been on Reagan’s hit list in the 1960s when he was governor of California, and students at Berkeley were busy mobilizing for free speech, civil rights, and an end to the Vietnam War.
To Reagan, Berkeley students were nothing more than unruly “welfare bums”; free tuition was their dole, and Reagan was hell bent on sending them “back to work.”
Defunding higher education and slapping students with debt was, Reagan understood, a path to reign in “beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates….” Today California spends more money incarcerating people than it does educating them—from K-12 through university. In the U.S. today, tuition at public universities is ten times higher than it was when I graduated in 1983. Inflation counts for less than a third of the increase.
Over the past forty years, public universities have been steadily transformed into student debt delivery machines operated on the backs of debt-strapped adjuncts. University presidents, who routinely make five times more than governors, sell students—as “customers”—on the fiction that History–along with Literature, Women’s Studies, Comparative Ethnic Studies, Philosophy, and the Arts–are frivolous luxuries we can no longer afford to fully fund. The Gipper might be pleased today to see 18-22-year-olds signing off on documents they’d need MBAs in finance to understand and then emerging as desperate and pliable indentured servants for corporations. Even pre-COVID, 48% of university students in the U.S. were at risk of, or already, experiencing houselessness.
Historian Howard Zinn observed, “If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday,” and that lack of knowledge is convenient for corporate interests intent on red-baiting and enlisting workers to rail against social programs and benefits that their own grandparents struggled mightily for. I may have learned nothing while I was at Georgetown about the U.S.’s role in the Chilean coup that killed Victor Jara, but I did learn a few things about what can happen to white American nuns who are labeled Communist sympathizers for getting too cozy with Indigenous farmworkers in Central America struggling for some very basic forms of justice.
In 1981, I stumbled across a talk Daniel Berrigan was giving on campus. Berrigan, I’ve long since learned was a rock star of the American peace movement. By the early 1970s, Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, poet, playwright, and professor, had made the FBI’s Most Wanted List for burning draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, MD draft board with homemade napalm in 1968, and then going underground to dodge the charges so he could keep organizing other actions.
“Apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” Berrigan famously said of the action. The American banality of evil in a nutshell.
On this particular day in 1981, though, I knew nothing about Berrigan, who quickly surrendered the floor anyway to a middle-aged Catholic couple, the parents of one Jeanne Donovan, a “Maryknoll lay missioner.” And the story the couple told went something like this: on December 2, 1980, this nice, idealistic young Catholic woman was raped and murdered, executed at close range—along with three nuns, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel. And suddenly Donovan’s parents had a chilling political awakening, as they began to understand the role that U.S. military advisors and U.S.-funded and -trained death squads played throughout Central–and much of Latin–America in repressing labor organizing and movements for social justice. Donovan’s parents were extremely convincing. I couldn’t come up with any plausible communist plot that would explain these two straight-laced Catholic squares having to talk about the rape and murder of their daughter.
If the 1980 crimes against the nuns and Donovan occurred in the final month of Carter’s administration, the perpetrators knew that it would be left to Reagan to answer for it. It would be Reagan’s job to rationalize the rape and murder of nuns as acceptable collateral damage in the U.S.’s holy war against Communists. The chief spinner of malevolent tall tales about Donovan and the nuns would be a professor of political science at Georgetown, Reagan’s newly appointed ambassador to the U.N.: Jeane Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick is remembered as a “principal architect” of the bloodbath the U.S. helped fund and unleash throughout Central America.
Questioned by reporters, Kirkpatrick was eager to put the matter to rest, to drive rhetorical nails into coffins that held the bodies of Donovan and nuns that had been dragged out of the ground by ropes around their ankles. The nuns, Kirkpatrick told The Tampa Tribune, “were not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists.” They were aligned, she claimed, with guerillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front—the FMLN.
I have another somewhat fonder Kirkpatrick-related memory from that same Spring semester at Georgetown, one in which Kirkpatrick is standing at a podium delivering a commencement address and, slowly graduating seniors begin to rise and quietly turn their backs on her. Their message was clear, impressive, and unapologetic: Kirkpatrick didn’t deserve an honorary degree, and Georgetown had done them a disservice by pretending otherwise. What Kirkpatrick did, in fact, deserve–the student action clearly conveyed–was to be tried as a war criminal at the Hague.
There’s a famous quote from a Brazilian archbishop named Dom Helder Camara that encapsulates the distinction between charity and social justice: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” Union organizing, demands for the redistribution of stolen Indigenous lands, and anything else that threatened the profits of U.S. corporations would be labelled—and battled– under Reagan as part of an international Communist threat orchestrated by Cuba and the Soviet Union.
By the Fall of ‘81, having had my own brief and very privileged run-in with houselessness, I started volunteering at shelters in D.C. That experience gave me a small window into the
ways in which poverty served up daily reminders to D.C.’s Black residents of just how disposable they were to the city’s white elite and any god they might construct in their own image. Forty years of neoliberalism and gentrification have only intensified Black poverty in D.C. And poverty, coupled with the daily toll of racism in the U.S., can shave years–or decades–off a life. Today white privilege in Washington, D.C. translates into seventeen additional years of living. Seventeen years.
In 1981, the “Great Communicator” was busy cranking up his racist propaganda machine to rally low income white voters against their own best interests. Reagan managed to sell a sizable portion of the white working class on the patently obvious lie that the majority of welfare recipients were not only Black but living as “queens.” It turns out that all kinds of white folks would happily collaborate in slashing benefits they were desperately going to need in the future that Reagan’s administration was setting in motion–one in which jobs would become the U.S’s main global export.
“The Gipper” happily picked up the mantle of Nixon’s War on Drugs and ran with it. He stoked terror at the prospect of Black crack “fiends” running amok in inner city war zones, and SWAT teams began invading and terrorizing Black neighborhoods. As Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Reagan put the U.S. squarely on the path to becoming the global leader in locking people up. Prisons and militarized policing at home and abroad would begin sucking up enormous amounts of money that could have gone to housing, health care, and public education.
As expensive as in-state college tuition is these days, the annual cost of a prison bed in most states is equivalent to four years of in-state college tuition. In 2017 in California, the cost of a single prison bed exceeded the cost of a year’s tuition and living expenses at Harvard.
Prisons and immigrant detention facilities generate huge profits for a tiny elite, while brutalizing everyone else, including the people who work there. But Nixon, Kissinger, and Pinochet were all well aware that once people caught on to the swindle, the bait and switch trickle-down-free-market government-for-the-corporations game, there was a good chance they would need guns, tanks, and plenty of tear gas to hold back the rebellion.
Predictably one of the first casualties of the “neoliberal Experiment” would be people living in public housing. They would increasingly land on city streets and sidewalks, and the lucky ones in shelters like the ones I worked at in Seattle in the mid ‘80s. Between 1978–midway through the Carter administration–and 1983, midway through Reagan’s first term, the HUD budget was slashed by nearly three quarters. It went from “$83 billion to a little more than $18 billion (in 2004 constant dollars) and shelters opened throughout the United States.”
No administration to date–Democrat or Republican–has made a serious move to restore the budget to its level in 1978, which is why today, prisons—along with military bases—are now by far the country’s largest supplier of public housing.
And so, decades into the U.S.’s “neoliberal experiment,” it’s not unusual in Portland, LA. or Seattle to see walkers and wheelchairs next to tents on the street. And the real human misery—the economic and housing fallout–from COVID-19 has yet to fully register. In 2019, 117 people shuffled off their mortal coils on the streets and sidewalks of D.C. In L.A., 1039 died on the street, no bed to cushion their aching bones, no roof overhead, no privacy, no sanitation, no dignity.
If speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. were high school seniors, hands down, the one voted least likely to be read by American school children would be his 1967 sermon “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.”
As radical as the “military industrial complex” might sound the first time Americans hear it, the term wasn’t the demon spawn of Karl Marx, or the Weather Underground. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech writer coined the term in the farewell speech he wrote for him.
This was in 1961, back when the orderly succession of putatively democratically elected presidents was a given in the U.S., no matter how many coups Eisenhower and the Dulles Brothers had busied themselves orchestrating in Guatemala, Iran, Indonesia, the Philippines, and God–and historians–only know where else. Jack and Jackie and their Camelot myth-making press machine were about to sweep into the White House, followed by more military advisors and troops into Vietnam.
MLK would paint the consequences of the military industrial complex in far starker, more vivid, human and urgent terms than Eisenhower. The U.S., Dr. King seems to have suggested, was a war junkie–and it was a given that war and racism went hand in hand. The Vietnam War, King argued, was poisoning the country with racism and hatred:
This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.
The sniper fire that cut King down exactly a year later to the day—on April 4, 1968 in Memphis—likely said as much about his 1967 speech as it did his support for Memphis Sanitation workers. In his 1967 speech King famously compared the war in Vietnam to a “Demonic destructive suction tube” that vacuumed up funds that might have otherwise gone to LBJ’s “War on Poverty.”
If you want to get a really good idea of how much war just cost the U.S. in the time it took you to read this article, check out the National Priorities Project. The military budget for 2020 alone at $738 billion, , would be enough to provide “24.6 million [year-long] Hospital Stays for COVID-19 Patients,” “20.96 million [four year ] Scholarships for University Students,” or “23.65 million People receiving $600 weekly unemployment insurance payments for 1 Year.” There’s plenty of money. It’s just helping the super-rich, who are profiting at all our expenses.
King condemned in no uncertain terms the massive aerial spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange as akin to Nazi medical experimentation. “What do [the Vietnamese] think as we test out our latest weapons on them,” asked King, “just as Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?” Today in the U.S., the test subjects are the kids in Detroit drinking water contaminated with lead, while Nestles is pumping, bottling, and profiting to the tune of 400 gallons a minute of fresh Michigan water; the Water Protectors at Standing Rock drenched for months with pepper spray, tear gas, and reportedly other chemical agents, along with water in freezing and subzero temperatures; the Black Lives Matter activists sprayed—sprayed along with hundreds of houseless people—all summer on the streets of Portland with chemical weapons banned for use in war; the BIPOC, elderly, and people with disabilities, dying at vastly higher rates of COVID-19.
And meanwhile, Vietnam is witnessing the third generation born with Agent Orange-related health effects, from missing eyes and limbs to spinal bifida and severe intellectual disabilities. The Middle East is littered with depleted uranium, cancer rates are soaring, and babies are born with a wide range of “congenital anomalies.”
By 1967, King had struck up a friendship with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. And by ‘67, King, like every other major organizer in the Civil Rights Movement, had been pegged by the FBI as a Communist. Make of it what you will, it seems likely to me that given enough time on earth, King and Jara might have had long talks, written songs together, formed a fast and deep friendship. In his song “Derecho De Vivir En Paz”–or “The Right to Live in Peace”–released on his 1971 album, Jara wrote of “Indochina… the place/beyond the wide sea,/where they ruin the flower/ with genocide and napalm.”
He and King were definitely on the same page about the Vietnam War and so much more.
Feminists, in particular, have aptly spoken of our collective relationship to Trump as akin to domestic or intimate partner violence, with Trump a gaslighting batterer. But as metaphors go, battering and gaslighting are also fitting descriptions of the Chicago Boys’ neoliberal Magic Trick— brought into Chile, and later the Middle East, with guns and tanks. It’s the magic trick ordinary Americans have watched this year, as we’ve been fleeced of taxes that have gone to fatten the unimaginable wealth of a handful of billionaires, and to endless weapons and wars that have made the U.S. the hands down leader of the global arms trade. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us in 1967 that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Fifty years later, at the end of the Trump presidency, we seem to be rapidly approaching garlic and wooden stake territory.
Still too many Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief now that the Batterer-in-Chief has been handed his eviction papers, and they are looking to Biden as our collective white knight, our national pater familias. But anyone who knows anything about the dynamics of battering will tell you that the myth of the White Knight is a racist and patriarchal set up for repeating the cycle of abuse. We’re sitting now on the razor’s edge of fascism, and fascism isn’t interested in electoral cycles. We can’t count on having another four years to sort the situation out.
The RootsAction “No Honeymoon for Biden” campaign, embraced by Nina Turner, recognizes the urgency of the situation and would go a long way toward undoing the damage done by fifty years of neoliberalism. It would shift funds from militarism and mass incarceration to universal healthcare and a more inclusive, multi-racial “Green New Deal” that would fund free higher education. The campaign also calls for a $15 federal minimum wage and for Biden to cancel student debt across the board. Research has shown that wiping out existing student debt would be shot in the arm for the economy. We need to pull back from our domestic and global cycle of battering and make government work for working people if we are going to stop a free fall into fascism and climate chaos.
Finally, there are a lot of lessons the U.S. could draw from the Chilean fight against fascism and the legacy of Pinochet. The global spark that Las Tesis set off this past year with street performances that drew thousands of women to witness collectively to their shared experience of sexual harassment and assault is a testimony to the power of art to mobilize resistance and speak truth to power. And the immortal life of Victor Jara–his presence this past year on the streets of Santiago, where thousands of hands fluttered across guitars–testifies to the power of art to preserve history even in the face of guns, tanks and bullets bent on wiping it out.
Now, more than ever, we need to demand reinvestment in the arts—from K-12 to higher education. To paraphrase the quote Woody Guthrie famously scrawled across his guitar: we need art to kill fascism. What better reminder than the hollow man in the White House of the frustration life without art generates? We need art to foster empathy, to remind us of our collective humanity, to preserve in our national memory records of those who stood for justice, and those who collaborated to undermine it. We need art to preserve history, to sustain and energize us, to give us courage for the long struggle ahead.
Dedicated to the memory of Roxane Elizabeth Roberts (November 5, 1952-December 24, 2018).