After the American Century
American politics is undergoing an upheaval from the Left, in what appears to be a delayed but forceful reaction to the Tea Party Movement and what many see as the disappointing centrism of the Obama Administration. The new grass roots movements are protesting what they see as welfare for banks and corporations, foreign wars, and a tax system that favors the wealthy. On their own web site, "Stop the Machine" declares that a "large majority" of the American people agree with the following propositions, which I quote without alteration here.
- Tax the rich and corporations
- End the wars, bring the troops home, cut military spending
- Protect the social safety net, strengthen Social Security and improved Medicare for all
- End corporate welfare for oil companies and other big business interests
- Transition to a clean energy economy, reverse environmental degradation
- Protect worker rights including collective bargaining, create jobs and raise wages
- Get money out of politics
"Stop the Machine" further declared that "The government, dominated by elite economic interests, is going in the opposite direction from what the people want. The American people’s agenda is our agenda."
While this program may not be embraced by a "large majority" of Americans, it is certainly not particularly radical. Looking at it from Europe, the demands are rather mainstream. Indeed, many voted for Obama thinking that he represented something like this program.
The name "Stop the Machine" comes from a speech made by Mario Savio in 1964. He was a leader of the Free Speech and Anti-War movements in Berkeley, and famously declared, "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!" The very name of the movement forges a link with the counter-culture of the 1960s.
What surprises me is not this reaction but that it has taken so long to emerge. Dissatisfaction with the Obama Administration on the Left has finally boiled over into widespread protests, focused particularly on the banking system, which has received enormous subsidies while millions of ordinary homeowners have struggled and gone bankrupt. For three weeks protests have focused on Wall Street in particular.
However, now protests are widening to include the widespread use of drone airplanes in warfare, to kill perceived enenies by remote control. Several hundred protesters attempted to enter the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, which currently has an exhibit on drone airplanes. The protesters feel that it is wrong to celebrate this technology with an exhibition, and unacceptable that public funds should be used to do so.
This is not the first time the Smithsonian has been attacked for its exhibtion policy. Some years ago a virulent protest erupted -- from the Right -- against an exhibit of the Enola Gay, the plane used to drop the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, which brought World War II to an end. The protest on that occasion objected not to celebrating the atomic bomb, but to criticism of it. At the time, many historians supported the Smithsonian's attempt to be less celebratory and more reflective.
I have not seen the Drone exhibit. The Smithsonian explains on its webpage that "This exhibit showcases six modern military UAVs that represent a variety of missions and technologies. They range from large vehicles that can carry offensive weapons to a miniature system whose components are light and compact enough to be carried in a Marine’s backpack."
The exhibit is made possible by support from "the generosity of General Atomics Aeronautical" which profits from the sale of such drone aircraft. Notably, it produces "The Predator," a drone that was deployed in the Balkans and that has been used in almost 200 missions in Afghanistan. It is not only a reconnaissance drone but also can fire missiles.
Such drone aircraft are not the metaphorical machine that Mario Savio attacked, but actual machines - high-tech weapons that increasingly define post-modern warfare.