Point Austin: August Horribilis
The dog days bring bitter reflections
No less a local luminary than Garry Brown, recently a candidate for Commissioners Court, recently posted this denunciation to his Facebook page: "OK! THAT'S IT!!! Between ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Israel and Gaza, Ukraine, Ebola, riots in Missouri, the deaths of 2 wonderful famous people, and anything else that I haven't mentioned, I have had enough of this Summer of Our Discontent!!!!! Just stop it already! I rebuke thee, Summer of 2014!"
Another close friend told me yesterday she has had to swear off the news for a while – not just because it seems more than usually bad all over, but feeling simultaneously depressed by world events and helpless to do much about them was driving her crazy. "It's the business I'm in," I responded grimly, sounding to myself like a more cynically resigned version of John Rooney (Paul Newman) in The Road to Perdition. The worse the news, the better the copy.
That was Newman's last film role, and as Garry Brown notes, we've lost a couple of other great actors this August: Lauren Bacall, after a distinguished acting career and long life, and of course Robin Williams, far too young and much more fragile than we knew. For the last few days, the FB laments on Williams' death have been alternating with the outrageous news from Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black youth was shot down mercilessly after a random confrontation with police. Beyond this all too common incident, the spectacle of heavily militarized police facing down citizen protesters at gunpoint is starting to recall other hot summers in American history: inequality and oppression coming home to roost, as Malcolm X once said, in another context.
Ranking outrages (or heroes) is mostly a pointless exercise, but the even larger context is of course the broadening war in the Middle East, where (as Brown notes) Israel and Palestine are again at hot war, a self-defined army of God threatens to dominate Iraq, and as a consequence the U.S. is once again waging war in a country it had already reduced to rubble over the last decade.
I'd say that's a pretty bad month.
I suspect most Chronicle readers share to one degree or another that same sense of helplessness. Beyond the bare facts is the knowledge that as Americans, we are inevitably implicated in many of these events. Growing inequality as well as persistent institutional racism – reinforced by ubiquitous guns and the steady transformation of peace officers into paramilitary forces – underlies events like those in Missouri, and such incidents will not be resolved unless we honestly address the conditions in which they thrive.
Here in Austin, the city just settled financially with the family of Larry Jackson Jr., victim of a 2013 police shooting – the details of the event remain murky, but it is difficult to believe that a white man pursued in the same circumstances would have suffered the same fate. Despite repeated private and official commissions of various sorts, racial and economic inequality has continued to grow, and Austin is hardly immune to the same sort of consequences of such conditions, historically or elsewhere.
On Iraq, Colin Powell said a great many foolish things in the service of that war, but he was certainly right about one thing, when he told President George W. Bush: "If you break it, you own it." Much later, Powell elaborated, "What I did say ... [is that] once you break it, you are going to own it, and we're going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us. And it's going to suck up a good 40 to 50 percent of the Army for years. And it's going to take all the oxygen out of the political environment ...."
We've already been through that cycle once, and it now appears that we're on the verge of again entering the vortex. President Barack Obama is saying all the right things about our latest "humanitarian intervention" – "limited," "temporary," "noncombatant," etc. – but we've all seen this movie several times before.
As Glenn Greenwald told Amy Goodman this week, concerning the selective nature of U.S. humanitarian interventions: "And so, one of the ways that you get a population to acquiesce to a permanent state of warfare – which is obviously what the United States government is in, and has been in for decades – how do you convince the population to continue to acquiesce to the continuous slaughter of people around the world, to the bombing of multiple countries, in a way that no other country would contemplate? Really, the only way that you can do that, is by continuously telling them that it's being done because you're benevolent, because we just love humanity, and love freedom, and love democracy so much that we constantly bomb people in pursuit of those goals."
That's even setting aside, of course, the major U.S. role in creating the conditions for and even the arming of the Iraqi insurgents we are now bombing, in an absurd recapitulation of the earlier background of our war on Afghanistan. Add to it our official crocodile tears over the slaughter of Palestinian civilians – with weapons we have supplied to Israel, while also funding illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
It's all well to rebuke the summer of 2014, but worse is the feeling that the fault is not in the season, nor in our stars. The fault is in ourselves.