Blake & Military-Industrial Bunkum

by Paul Olson, NFP President Emeritus

First, thanks: The holiday ingathering brought in just over $30,000—enough to keep us through the next appeal. Thanks everybody who stretched. One woman gave up a Caribbean vacation to give to NFP. That is sacrifice.

In 1794, the poet William Blake published his “London,” which described the nexus between militarism and the meanness characterizing his society (also that of King George III). The first three stanzas go:

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:
How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

The “mind-forged manacles” valorising militarism and class disparity are still here. We could in 2014—220 years later—paraphrastically exclaim, “I can wander through each country road (or city street, for that matter)/ near where the emptied Platte does flow” and see the “marks of weakness, and woe (and poverty).” I can see them if I go into the older parts of our cities, whiskey towns adjacent to reservations, the ubiquitous trailer parks, or the declining rural towns like that portrayed in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” The chimney sweeper is no longer dying of smog, but the earth is—of CO2—and the hapless soldier, homeless and terrorized by PSTD, lies in our streets, jobless, and drug-infested. The soldier’s sigh no longer runs in blood down palaces but it stains Congress—a Congress that has funded our wars, but not our veterans, our hates but not our loves.

Our mind-forged manacles are myths that tell us that military spending can make us safe, that poverty can make us strong—especially the impoverishment of 22 percent of our children and their working parents, both often working two or three jobs to get by. Even with federal, local and religious programs, about 15 percent of our families are food insecure. Bad nutrition means brain damage, and yet we yammer on about how our schools have to be the best in science and math if we are to have an adequate national defense. Feed them and they will do well in calculus and chemistry.

According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation we spend between 50 and 60 percent of our national discretionary budget on militarism. When the sequester was passed, we took about $55 billion from the military budget (about ten percent)—not much from a budget six times that of its nearest rival. We took $11 billion from Medicare, $6 billion from other mandatory programs and $37 billion from non-defense discretionary programs. Then came the Patty Murray-Paul Ryan budget package that was to replace the sequester. This put $22 billion back into the military and $22 billion back into non-defense discretionary spending. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? But consider that the F-35 $1.5 trillion-dollar boondoggle of a fighter plane is not likely to be cancelled, since elites in benefitting Congressional districts will demand otherwise. The military bloat will continue.

Consider also that the Murray-Ryan budget cuts “Emergency Unemployment Compensation” for the 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers—workers whose families will descend into poverty when their benefits stop. The Senate has put that money back, but the House seems to be stuck in its usual mud. At the same time, assistance with those things that help people escape poverty—college tuition, early childhood education and constructive policing in low- and middle-income communities—is being cut to under 2010 levels in the Murray-Ryan agreement. That is how to build a strong society?

Consider what $1.5 trillion would do for child nutrition, poverty reduction, unemployment compensation, the extension of early childhood education, and the creation of alternative energy. It is not as if American business is not doing well. Columnist Froma Harrop has recently argued, rather persuasively, that Obama has been better for business than any other president in the last 60 years and that Democratic presidents had in general been better for prosperity than their Republican peers. It isn’t that we are poor. It is that we are callous and cover our hard heartedness with a veneer of ‘charity.’

Recently some useful signs have appeared. Mayor de Blasio of New York has won an election based on a massive critique of income disparity in New York City and been commended by the Clintons. A number of cities have enacted a minimum wage of ten dollars an hour or above (it should be double). The Nebraska Legislature has refused to pass the horrific Heineman tax modernization scheme that would give away the store to the rich. Pete Ricketts, the Koch Brothers and their innocuously named but malevent “American Legislative Exchange Council” (ALEC) seem to have a little less power. But the power of the military goes on—sequester or no-sequester—and we will not move from a military security state to a democracy until that changes. As Blake exhorts, we need to tune our hearing to the cry of every man, every voice, every ban. We need to free ourselves from the mind-forged manacles, and hear the equivalents of the chimney-sweeper’s cry and the hapless soldier’s sigh in our own streets. That is where democracy begins.

I hope that you will talk with your city and town officials, your legislators and your Washington representatives about these matters—sincerely and humbly but also with the passion of a righteous conscience. The future of our country depends on patriots like you who will.

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