'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Conversion of Chalmers Johnson 

Chalmers Johnson has surprisingly emerged as one of the foremost establishment critics of US global policy, assuming, of course, that one is still considered establishment once one embarks upon the endeavor of exposing the realities of it. Over the course of a long and prestigious academic career, he chaired the Center for Chinese Studies at UC Berkeley and served as an analyst for the CIA, emphasizing issues associated with the People's Republic of China.

In 2000, it became obvious that Johnson had changed his world view quite dramatically when he published the book Blowback, and popularized an espionage phrase that subsequently became associated with 9/11 and other violent acts directed towards the US, even if, curiously enough, he identified its roots in the US exploitation of East Asia. In Blowback, Johnson presented the troubling notion that the US, through the imposition of its military and economic values upon many nations around the world, was engendering such hostility that unpredictable, violent attacks upon the US and its institutional presence were inevitable.

Much like Tariq Ali's book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, it remains an essential text for trying to understand the world in which we live and how we arrived here. Later, in 2004, he published The Sorrows of Empire, wherein he explained the imperial reach of the US military, its forms of social organization and the tensions inherent within them, and the expansion of its influence, already substantial, in the post-9/11 world as it was increasingly unaccountable to traditional American political constraints. Now, in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, he elaborates upon a theme that he frequently mentioned during public appearances and interviews, namely that the US is being transformed from being a democratic republic into an imperial dictatorship.

But a fascinating question remains. What provoked Johnson into abandoning his idealistic support for American imperialism? During the course of this Democracy Now! interview, we learn the answer, and it emerged from his historic association with Japan, where he served as a naval officer during the Korean War, and subsequently focused much of his scholarship, because, why else would he have decided to visit Okinawa in 1996? Here's what he discovered during the course of that visit:

In the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa, site of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, there’s a small island, smaller than Kawaii in the Hawaiian islands, with 1,300,000 Okinawans. There's thirty-seven American military bases there. The revolt against them has been endemic for fifty years. The governor is always saying to the local military commander, “You're living on the side of a volcano that could explode at any time.” It has exploded in the past. What this means is just an endless, nonstop series of sexually violent crimes, drunken brawls, hit-and-run accidents, environmental pollution, noise pollution, helicopters falling out of the air from Futenma Marine Corps Air Base and falling onto the campus of Okinawa International University. One thing after another. Back in 1995, we had one of the most serious incidents, when two Marines and a sailor abducted, beat and raped a twelve-year-old girl. This led to the largest demonstrations against the United States since we signed the security treaty with Japan decades ago. It's this kind of thing.

I first went to Okinawa in 1996. I was invited by then-Governor Ota in the wake of the rape incident. I’ve devoted my life to the study of Japan, but like many Japanese, many Japanese specialists, I had never been in Okinawa. I was shocked by what I saw. It was the British Raj. It was like Soviet troops living in East Germany, more comfortable than they would be back at, say, Oceanside, California, next door to Camp Pendleton. And it was a scandal in every sense. My first reaction -- I’ve not made a secret of it -- that I was, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, certainly a Cold Warrior. My first explanation was that this is simply off the beaten track, that people don't come down here and report it. As I began to study the network of bases around the world and the incidents that have gone with them and the military coups that have brought about regime change and governments that we approve of, I began to realize that Okinawa was not unusual; it was, unfortunately, typical.

These bases, as I say, are spread everywhere. The most recent manifestation of the American military empire is the decision by the Pentagon now, with presidential approval, of course, to create another regional command in Africa. This may either be at the base that we have in Djibouti at the Horn of Africa. It may well be in the Gulf of Guinea, where we are prospecting for oil, and the Navy would very much like to put ourselves there. It is not at all clear that we should have any form of American military presence in Africa, but we're going to have an enlarged one.

Invariably, remember what this means. Imperialism is a form of tyranny. It never rules through consent of the governed. It doesn't ask for the consent of the governed. We talk about the spread of democracy, but we're talking about the spread of democracy at the point of an assault rifle. That's a contradiction in terms. It doesn't work. Any self-respecting person being democratized in this manner starts thinking of retaliation.

Johnson additionally commented upon a number of subjects related to his new book, Nemesis, especially his pessimism about the future (or lack thereof) for American democracy, and I recommend reading the transcript of the interview in its entirety.

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