In 1968, the legendary U.S. labour organizer Cesar Chavez went on a 25-day hunger strike. While depriving himself of food, he condemned abusive conditions suffered by farm workers. The slogan of his historic union drive was “Si se puede!” Yes, we can.
Last week, George Bush went on a four-day bus ride. While stopping for multiple pancake breakfasts, he praised tax cuts and condemned everyone who says American workers need protection in the global economy. His battle cry for laissez fair economics? “Yes, America Can.”
The echo was probably intentional. Bush is so desperate for the Hispanic vote that he has taken to shouting, “Vamos a ganar! We’re going to win!” during stump speeches in Ohio.
But the main purpose of the “Yes, American Can” bus tour, of course, was to shift the attention of U.S. voters away from the Iraq prison scandal toward safer ground: the recovering job market. According to a U.S. Labor Department Report, 288,000 jobs were created in April. Bush’s campaign has seized on these numbers to further cast John Kerry as the dour New England pessimist, always droning on with the bad news. Bush, on the other hand, is the bouncy Texan optimist, always flashing an easy smile and a thumbs-up. “The president has to make sure that we’re optimistic and confident in order for jobs to be created,” he told a carefully screened crowd in Dubuque, Iowa.
Some jobs, however, are more responsive than others to the power of positive presidential thinking. More than 82 per cent of the jobs created in April were in service industries, including restaurants and retail, while the biggest new employers were temp agencies. Over the past year, 272,00 manufacturing jobs have been lost. No wonder the President’s Economic Report in February floated the idea of reclassifying fast-food restaurants as factories. “When a fast-food restaurant sells a hamburger, for example, is it providing a ‘service’ or is it combining inputs to ‘manufacture’ a product?” the report asks.
But not all of the job growth in the U.S. has come from burger flipping and temping. With more than 2-million Americans behind bars (one of the ways unemployment stats are kept artificially low), the number of prison guards has exploded — from 270,317 in 2000 to 476,000 in 2002, according to the U.S Department of Justice.
Watching Bush give the thumbs up in the face of so much economic misery put me in mind of a certain widely circulated photograph taken in Iraq. There are Specialist Charles Graner and Private Lynndie England, the happy couple, standing above a pile of tortured Iraqi inmates, grinning and giving the double thumbs up. Everything is fine, their eyes seem to be saying, just don’t look down.
There’s something else connecting the sorry state of the U.S. job market and the images coming out of Abu Ghraib. The young soldiers taking the fall for the prison abuse scandal are the McWorkers, prison guards and laid off factory workers of Bush’s so-called economic recovery. The resumes of the soldiers facing abuse charges come straight out of the April U.S. Labor Department Report.
There’s Spc. Sabrina Harman, of Lorton, Va., assistant manager of her local Papa John’s Pizza. There’s Spc. Graner, a prison guard back home in Pennsylvania. There’s Sergeant Ivan Frederick, another prison guard, this time from the Buckingham Correctional Center in rural Virginia.
Before he joined what prisoner rights advocate Van Jones calls “America’s gulag economy,” Frederick had a decent job at the Bausch & Lomb factory in Mountain Lake, Md. But according to the New York Times, that factory shut down and moved to Mexico — one of the nearly 900,000 jobs that the Economic Policy Institute estimates have been lost since NAFTA, the vast majority in manufacturing.
Free trade has turned the U.S. labour market into an hourglass: plenty of jobs at the bottom, a fair bit at the top, but very little in the middle. At the same time, getting from the bottom to the top has become increasingly difficult, with tuition at state colleges up by more than 50 per cent since 1990.
And that’s where the U.S. military comes in: the army has positioned itself as the bridge across America’s growing class chasm: money for tuition in exchange for military service. Call it the NAFTA draft.
It worked for Lynndie England, the most infamous of the Abu Ghraib accused. She joined the 372 Military Police Company to pay for college, hoping to replace her job at the chicken processing plant with a career in meteorology. Her colleague Sabrina Harman told the Washington Post, “I knew nothing at all about the military except that they would pay for college. So I signed up.”
The poverty of the soldiers at the center of the prison scandal has been used both as evidence of their innocence, and to compound their guilt. On the one hand, Sgt. First Class Paul Shaffer explains that at Abu Ghraib, “you’re a person who works at McDonald’s one day; the next day you’re standing in front of hundreds of prisoners, and half are saying they’re sick and half are saying they’re hungry.” And Gary Myers, the lawyer defending several of the soldiers, asked The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, “Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own?”
On the other side, the British Sun tabloid has dubbed Lynndie England the “Trailer trash torturer,” while Boris Johnson wrote in the Telegraph that Americans were being shamed by “smirking jezebels from the Appalachians.”
The truth is that the poverty of the soldiers involved in prison torture makes them neither more guilty, nor less. But the more we learn about them, the clearer it becomes that the lack of good jobs and social equality in the U.S. is precisely what brought them to Iraq in the first place. Despite his attempts to use the economy to distract attention from Iraq, and his efforts to isolate the soldiers as un-American deviants, these are the children George Bush left behind, fleeing dead-end McJobs, abusive prisons, unaffordable education, and closed factories.
And they are his children in another way too: it’s in the ubiquitous thumbs-up sign that they flash, seemingly oblivious to the disaster at their feet. This is the quintessential George Bush pose. Convinced that U.S. voters want a positive president, the Bush team has learned to use optimism as an offensive weapon: no matter how devastating the crisis, no matter how many lives have been destroyed, they have insistently given the world the thumbs up.
Donald Rumsfeld? “Doing a superb job,” according to the optimist-in-chief. The mission in Iraq? “We're making progress, you bet,” Bush told reporters one year after his disastrous “Mission Accomplished” speech. And the U.S. job market, which has driven so many into poverty? “Yes, America Can!”
We don’t yet know who taught these young soldiers how to effectively torture their prisoners. But we do know who taught them how to stay happy-go-lucky in the face of tremendous suffering — that lesson came straight from the top.