The Octant
Insights and reporting from Caleb Maupin

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Belief in historical progress was once abundant in the western world. In fact, some of the uglier crimes of western colonialism were justified in the name of progress. Colonizers and imperialists often claimed to be more advanced than those they repressed and brutalized, and justified their mistreatment of others in the name of somehow “civilizing” and “advancing” their victims. However, in recent years, this very western concept has been largely eroded.

Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker tried to put forward a western, capitalist conception of historical progress in his article “The Enlightenment is Working” published by the Wall Street Journal on February 13th, 2018. Observing the condition of American discourse, he began his article saying: “For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.” Pinker’s article went on to give a defensive attempt to assert the concept of progress in an atmosphere where it is notably absent, and say that such progress is indeed coming from western countries.

Those who still have faith in the future most certainly breathed a sigh of relief when Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose ideological breakthroughs have been added to the Communist Party’s constitution, took the floor at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai for his widely viewed keynote address.

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As Americans become ever more nervous about pending problems in their economy, projecting these fears onto China is quite irresponsible and completely unjustified. 

The consistent rate of long-term economic growth in China over several decades is quite different than Trump's superficial boasts about stock market numbers.

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As Trump dramatically pulls out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, while sending John Bolton to Moscow to negotiate a new agreement regarding the production of nuclear weapons, it appears that false narratives about the Cold War’s conclusion could be influencing White House foreign policy.

It is clear that Trump seeks to present himself as a new Reagan to the elderly, red state, FOX news audience. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” was intentionally lifted from Reagan’s war-chest of campaign slogans, presented as “Let’s Make America Great Again” in 1980. Now, it looks as if Trump is “escalating the arms race” in order “defeat the Russians,” further fulfilling his image as the new “gipper.”

On FOX News, Right-Wing Talk Radio, and other Republican-aligned sections of US media, Ronald Reagan is treated as an immortal hero and icon. The religious and military obsessed neoconservative right-wing has canonized him to the point that one almost expects to see graphics of Reagan adjusted to include halos, or to see FOX news anchors cross themselves after uttering his name. Endless radio and TV segments in the right-wing media sphere have been dedicated to memorializing the man who held the US Presidency from 1981 to 1989.

The mythology perpetuated about the Reagan Presidency is that, while cowardly democrats had negotiated with the Soviet leaders and called for de-escalating the arms race, Reagan escalated the drive to build nuclear weapons. Reagan’s escalation of the arms race is said to have forced the Soviets to increase military spending, causing economic problems in the USSR. The heroic POTUS is said to have beat his chest with thunderous “tear down that wall” speeches, blasted the USSR as an “evil empire,” and eventually forced the Communists to surrender through his sheer strength, boldness, and refusal to compromise.

The problem is that the Republican narrative regarding the Cold War is largely inaccurate. While pressure to increase military spending certainly played a role in placing economic pressure on the Soviet Union, the USSR was destroyed by a political, not fiscal crisis. The political crisis that destroyed the USSR was mainly influenced by liberal soft-power policies from the US government not militarism and threats.

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As Americans brace for an economic downturn, adherents of free market ideology are busily assuring everyone that their ideas must be not be questioned.

Just two days after the Stock Market dropped on October 10th, the front page of the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Review featured an article entitled “How to Fix the Great American Growth Machine.” The piece repeated a series of neoliberal clichés, and contained some obvious logical holes.

The article pointed toward the unregulated nature of US railroad construction in 1800s as an example of American free market superiority, ignoring the millions who died in the process. The construction of railways connecting North America’s coasts involved the displacement and genocide millions of Native Americans. It also involved millions of Irish, African-American, and Chinese people being worked to death. The racist expression “You don’t have a Chinamen’s chance” referred the semi-slave conditions that Chinese Americans faced when laying rails in western states.

The article hailed the period of 1865 to 1900 as an ideal time in US history due to lack of government interference with business. The article ignored how frequently the US stock market fell into crises during this time, with “panics” frequently leading to bank failures, mass unemployment, and widespread societal turmoil. The article also ignored  in the appraisal of this supposedly glorious era, that it was the time, not just of robber barons and widespread government corruption, but also of child laborers and sweat shop factory conditions.

 

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While militarism is prevalent across US society, the idea of a new, big confrontation between superpowers seems quite unrealistic for contemporary America.

Our grandparents told us stories of the Second World War. All four of my own had participated in some capacity. The Second World War was not a “regime change” operation carried out under the guise of humanitarianism. The Second World War was a battlefield clash between two global alliances that sought to destroy each other. The war involved mass mobilizations of the population. In order to achieve victory, the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain were forced to put society under the most ironclad discipline.

In the USA, children collected scrap metal and watched the skies for Japanese planes. The population had “meatless Tuesdays” prioritizing agricultural products for the front-lines. The automakers put commercial cars on hold and manufactured military vehicles instead. Japanese-Americans were interned in prison camps. The Trotskyite Communists who opposed the war, along with fascist sympathizers like the German-American Bund, were locked in prison or detained by federal authorities, and every able bodied young man was required to join the military. The entire country was mobilized for victory, and victory was achieved.

Would such a thing be possible today?