Saturday, August 4, 2012

On Creeping Militarism

Robo-Forces At the Ready, California State Capitol, Sacramento, c. 2011
In several recent installments, I've focused on the heavily militarized and highly abusive nature of today's more and more violent and oppressive police forces. We've all see it, time and time again.

While some Americans cheer these impositions of Authority, many are deeply troubled by what they see as a fundamental violation of basic American rights by an officious and out of control, mercenary and dangerous domestic control force.

I tend to be in the group of Americans who are very troubled by these developments. I have personally encountered the Robo-Forces at the the Capitol. It can be psychologically intimidating and shocking, even if you are not being chased, beaten, tased or shot by them. "Who are these people, and what are they doing on the grounds of my state Capitol? What are they doing on the streets of my city? What are they doing?"

I got to thinking about this phenomenon a little more deeply yesterday, though, while engaging in some reminiscences on another site about the way things were back in the early to mid sixties -- elementary school for one of us, junior high and high school for me.

As it turned out, we lived no more than a couple of miles from one another, though we had no knowledge of one another at the time. We were both youngsters in suburban Sacramento during a period when the whole city was essentially a military garrison town. There were two large Air Force Bases -- Mather and McClellan -- one to the south and one to the north, and there was an even larger one in Fairfield (Travis) not very far to the west; there was an Army Depot as well. There were plenty of Defense plants as well, the most prominent being Aerojet-General, where the rocket motors for many an intercontinental ballistic missile (along with all kinds of other rocket motors) were built and tested.

I was recalling that most of my friends in junior high and high school were Air Force brats -- and we took it for granted. What else are you going to do? Large parts of the population of the neighborhoods and communities round about were Air Force families. It's just the way it was. Those who weren't military households often had members who worked on base or out at "The Plant," ie: Aerojet. Some were government workers from in town who preferred to live in the suburbs.

The father of one of my friends was a B-52 bomber pilot who periodically went overseas to bomb the Gooks back into the Stone Age and would come back and act like his "job" was simply routine. I remember he was a very nice man.

It was a militarized and military culture that we took completely for granted. We didn't question how militarized civilian life was -- we didn't even notice if it was. Yet I got to thinking that the defense plants and the government presence, and especially the military bases themselves had been the basis of local and regional "stability and order," both in a socio-psychological sense and in an economic sense.

Nothing has been quite the same since the bases closed and the plants shut down. Travis is still in operation, but McClellan and Mather have been converted to civilian uses, and Aerojet has a very different and much smaller footprint and mission now.

Looking back from a distance of 50 years, it's hard to recognize just how militarized everything was back then, how controlled, conformist, and in many ways oppressive the whole society was.

No, we didn't have Robo-cops preening and protecting Our Betters from the rabble; in fact, in those days, the rabble had essentially open access to Their Betters. Government offices weren't behind barricades and metal detectors; there were very rarely any armed guards anywhere; and even the Highest of the Mighty were far more easily approachable than they are today. The idea of these Robo-forces to keep the proles in line was absurd -- at least until the upheavals and social unrest of the mid and later '60's.

But one shouldn't over romanticize the era or think that things were particularly "better." In fact, the local police and sheriffs were notoriously brutal, rigid, spiteful, and some were very corrupt. You got on the wrong side of them, and you took your life in your hands. There were far fewer of them for one thing, and they were much less tolerant of dissent and disruption than today's more numerous police tend to be. They were also grossly racist which meant that communities of color faced sometimes extreme levels of police abuse and oppression.

Perhaps because the whole society was militarized, there was less need for overt policing of the rabble. Most people understood adhered to social limits and conformed to social norms, so there was little call for the more general suppressive displays we've become used to as the New Normal -- at least since the Terror Trap we fell into back in Ought One.

I was a rebel by nature, so I was directly exposed to some of the tactics used against non-conformists during the period. I wouldn't say it was pleasant, and yet I can't recall anything even remotely resembling the kind of casual cruelty we experience from officialdom and police these days. It was a very different concept of social engineering, if you will. The psychology of control was completely different.

Of course school was the primary socializing and controlling element for children, as the job was for adults. But our neighborhoods and communities were just as important, and as this was the Post War Boom Era, suburban neighborhoods and communities were the idealized norm. I lived in a relatively new and expanding suburban communities that initially the freeways hadn't even reached yet throughout my childhood in Los Angeles and Sacramento, and when I wasn't living in a suburban community, I was living in small towns -- an alternate American ideal setting. Except in small towns, I almost always was in the first class in brand new schools.

There were no campus police; the idea was absurd. Even more absurd was the idea of school district police forces, despite the general fear and loathing of "juvenile delinquents" who were thought to be out running wild all the time, though they were rarely actually seen. They were more a media/police creation than a reality -- at least in my experience. The fictive "juvenile delinquent" was instead a kind of boogeyman produced as a contrast to keep everyone else in line.

That was one way of many used to ensure conformity. "You don't want to be like that do you? Of course not!" Big smile.

Very few people were jailed at any given time, but there were quite a few in psych wards and state mental hospitals. One's sanity was questioned before one's criminality. Social rebellion was relatively rare and low key until the mid-sixties, and such rebellion as there was (for example at the HUAC hearings in San Francisco in 1960) was considered the work of Communists and Fellow Travelers or in the case of Beatniks, was seen mostly as harmless eccentricity. Well, unless you were Alan Ginsberg, and then you were considered a Threat to Society.

There was no drug war, though there has always been a drug using subculture. Alcohol abuse was pretty rampant and generally tolerated as were many other kinds of abuse including that of children, single women and odd characters of any sort.

"Gangsters" and "mobsters" and "communists" were the social pariahs, but they were never numerous.

On the other hand, officials in office were respected no matter their party affiliation, the police were considered society's friends and helpers, teachers were regarded with remarkable respect (unless they were accused of communism or homosexuality) and pretty much everyone's economic situation was better than it had ever been and was getting better bit by bit all the time.

It was not an idyllic period of peace and prosperity, however. War with the Soviet Union and instant incineration via massive nuclear attack were constant existential threats, and there was no escape, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. There were periodic panics -- such as during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- that led to widespread social insanity. After Korea, there seemed to be constant low-level conflicts overseas, particularly in Vietnam which became the focus of American armed forces action early in the 1960's, certainly by the beginning of President Kennedy's brief term.

His assassination, following so closely on the assassination of  Diem in Saigon, was an unparalleled shock to the social and political system from which I believe the United States has never recovered. From November 22, 1963 until today, the United States has been in a nearly constant state of social, political and economic turmoil.

The student and counterculture rebellions of the 1960's grew out of the Civil Rights and Nuclear Disarmament movements of the 1950's, but the trigger for the rebellions of the 1960's was pulled in Dallas that sunny November day in 1963. That was when in a way the curtain was pulled back, we saw a very ugly side of the collective and conformist nature of American society and change -- toward peace and love and understanding, of course -- became essential.

Change actually came very quickly. Civil Rights and Great Society programs passed in Congress almost instantly, lifting up the poor and abused minorities in ways that had never been possible before. At the same time, the war in Vietnam -- which had been going on at a low key for some time -- ramped up into a full-scale conflict sucking more and more young people in to the military and for some a very ugly death or dismemberment in the nameless swamps of a far-away land.

Protest increased, and as campuses erupted, so did the inner cities; riots and civil insurrections were brutally and lethally put down by National Guard troops; campus unrest, on the other hand, was mostly handled by local and state police unless it got completely out of hand at which time the Guard was called in and more forceful measures were employed. Anti-war and civil rights campaigns were constantly infiltrated and spied upon by police at every level, notoriously as part of the COINTELPRO operation out of Washington, DC. Of course, anti-war and civil rights campaigns were considered to be the work of Communists during the period as no "true American" would be advocating peace and voting rights for the Colored.

As rights were extended, though, and poverty was reduced, there was a trade off that is still being paid in devastated communities, particularly communities of color, wherein a huge proportion of the male population is criminalized, incarcerated, and placed under a lifetime of scrutiny by the civil authorities.

Peace of a sort would be secured with the defeat of the "Allied" forces in Vietnam, and for a time, it seemed that the United States would de-militarize, especially after the military draft was ended. But something else happened instead.

As liberation advanced and poverty was reduced and peace seemed to break out for the first time in almost anyone's lifetime, economic conditions seemed to freeze and then to march backwards as wages stagnated and the cost of living kept going up. All of a sudden it took two incomes per household to make ends meet, and even then, it often wasn't enough. Debt skyrocketed as incomes stayed flat, but not expenses. Productivity increased spectacularly, but all the economic gains went to the Overclass, a phenomenon that first recognized during the Carter administration. Reagan's response was that "government was the problem." But liberating business from government regulation, as individuals had been liberated restrictive laws, had the effect of compounding the economic tribulations of ordinary people while endlessly enhancing the economic benefits to the already rich and growing richer.

Social militarization may have ended, and along with it restrictions and regulations on business and banking, but official repression was just getting going.

Now, after decades of this, we have a situation in which the People are socially liberated and "free," and yet they are faced with an indomitable extractive Overclass intent on impoverishing them on the one hand and suppressing any effective protest through what amount to military campaigns by mercenary police forces against the People on the other.

In a way, we are back where were were a hundred years ago and more.

Lucky us.

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