Alec Baldwin: Americans have been lied to

Edward Snowden saw things he thought we, as Americans, should know. He valued the truth and thought you could handle it, says Alec Baldwin.

Obviously, we’ve been here before. The United States has been here before. The friction between democracy (or democracy as we like to think of it) and capitalism has often created agonising tensions and dramatic upheavals for America. Those spasms left us at least as demoralised as many Americans feel in the wake of the Edward Snowden-NSA revelations. The reality that the government is spying on Americans on a wholesale level, seemingly indiscriminately, doesn’t really come as a surprise to many, given the assumed imperatives of the post- 9/11 security state. People seem more stricken by the fact that Barack Obama, who once vowed to close Guantanamo, has adopted CIA-NSA policies regarding domestic spying, as well as by government attempts to silence, even hunt down, the press.

Americans, in terms of their enthusiasm for defending their beloved democratic principles in the face of an ever more muscular assault on those principles by the state in the name of national security, are exhausted. If you are a “boomer”, like me, and have lived through the past five decades with any degree of political efficacy, you can draw a line from JFK’s assassination to the subsequent escalation of the Vietnam war, on to 1968 with the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic Convention and Nixon’s resurrection; from there, to Kent State, the Pentagon Papers, Nixon’s re-election, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, Ford’s pardon, Carter’s one term and out, the curious Iran hostage situation, Reagan (who brings back a degree of the charm and affability that died in Dallas), Iran Contra, Oliver North, Bush the First (as in first CIA director to become president), Iraq the First, Clinton kills welfare, Gingrich shuts down the Congress, Clinton’s impeachment, the 2000 election, Bush v Gore, Bush the Second, 9/11, Iraq the Second, “Mission Accomplished”, the Swift Boaters, Afghanistan, Gitmo, Assange, Manning, Snowden.

I have left out a good deal. There is, of course, a lot that’s positive running through the American narrative during this time, but I think more bad than good. You look at all of this laid end to end and you’d think the US might have had a nervous breakdown. I believe it actually did.

Americans are pretty basic. Generally speaking, they are a “suit up and show up” type of crowd. In spite of images of rampant obesity running throughout the country, gun laws that border on madness and our debt ceiling made of Swiss cheese, more Americans wake up every day to participate in an experience defined by work, sacrifice and moderate self-denial. They are workaholics who exercise, eat fairly well, drink in moderation and refrain from drugs and extramarital affairs while, perhaps, fantasising about either or both. They are devoted to family, friends, churches and social organisations. They are generous with their money as well as time. When disaster strikes, America is a good place to be.

But one thing that Americans fail at, miserably, is taking their government to task when that government has lied to them, defrauded them, covered up its crimes and otherwise blocked them from knowing essential truths. In political terms, Americans have a strong devotion to afflicting the afflicted and comforting the comfortable. They have a hard time contemplating any meaningful overhaul of the rules of their political system, preferring to say “Please, sir, may I have another” in the face of abuses of power. Americans, despite all of their claims to an “exceptionalism” among the nations of the world, have been lied to for so long about so many relevant topics, they have lost sight of what the truth is.

It seems more difficult, at least to me, to effectively assess historical events that came before my lifetime with the same perspective as those I lived through. Pearl Harbor, Nazi appeasement, Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Pumpkin Papers feel slightly more remote, more like history, than what’s happened since 1958, the year that I was born. And two great and urgent factors that emerged during my lifetime, I believe, have kept us in a type of karmic stall and prevented the US from growing into what it might have been. One is the Vietnam war and the other is the assassination of President Kennedy.

Kennedy died 50 years ago. Since then, Americans have honoured his legacy, or their somewhat beatified version of it, in every conceivable way. Countless schools, highways, bridges and even airports have been renamed in his honour. Kennedy is not on Mount Rushmore, but in the hearts and minds of many of my generation he exists on his own equally exalted plateau. Yet while a mere photo of Kennedy can still overwhelm one with a sense of loss, while innumerable books have been written and countless words have flowed that till the soil of who Kennedy was, what he stood for and what might have been if he had lived, Americans have not done the one thing you would expect such deep affection for a fallen hero would demand: we still don’t know who killed him.

How much has been written on this subject? Too much, perhaps. To wander into the rabbit hole of JFK assassination theory, one must prepare for a Lewis Carroll-esque tumble through a record, half a century in the making, that is among the greatest lies any society has ever been asked to swallow in the name of moving forward in order to heal itself.

No sane person believes Kennedy was killed by one bitter ex-marine. To be an American today is to accept this awful truth and to live your life with unresolved doubts about your country as a result. Those who promote the Oswald theory do so knowing that some Americans are still incapable of seeing the truth, or they are still working on behalf of the portion of the US intelligence community that remains invested in the cover-up.

Kennedy died because a hell-bent confluence of anti-Castro, pro-interventionist Vietnam war architects believed, after the Bay of Pigs, that Kennedy didn’t have the mettle that a cold war US commander-in-chief required. They swore that Kennedy had to go for the sake of national security. Enter a crew of FBI-monitored American Mafia bosses who had their own beef with the Kennedy White House. A little Fair Play for Cuba here, a bit of David Ferrie there, a touch of David Atlee Phillips and a dollop of Jack Ruby, and it all comes out in a way that adds up to more than a Mannlicher-Carcano and a sixth-floor window. Anyone with eyes can see that Kennedy was shot from the front. Why we haven’t demanded answers after all this time relates to why what happens to Snowden seems so essential to our future.

Snowden saw things he thought we, as Americans, should know. He valued the truth and thought you could handle it. He thought you needed it. Here, in America, 50 years after Kennedy was murdered, after 50 years of destroyed or altered records and vital evidence, someone risked his career, reputation and even his life to bring you the truth about what US intelligence is keeping from you.

I am uncomfortable, no doubt, with the idea that exposing secret government information could jeopardise the lives of US troops or operatives. The efforts of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden carry with them the possible risk of real harm to US forces and agents. But I believe that without a random appearance by the truth now and then, from whatever source, we learn nothing. We are thus doomed to remain on a course bound for not only threats to our own security from within, but a spiritual death as well. As long as we choose to remain in the dark we risk a further erosion of our true nature.

And then we become a nation defined only by our consumption. We are closer to that now than we have ever been. Watergate is the dividing line in the American consciousness, separating the time when we suspected from the time we confirmed certain truths about our government. Setting aside Nixon’s own political campaign operations, Watergate’s subsequent revelations about Vietnam alone changed for ever the way a generation viewed their country and its motives. The government knew the war could not be won and yet ventured on out of pride, greed, ignorance and hatred. Fifty years laced with singlebullet theory, Eric Starvo Galt, the LAPD destroying the RFK crime scene, J Edgar Hoover, the Chicago Seven gagged in court, Nixon, Laos, Howard Hunt, Daniel Ellsberg, Woodward and Bernstein, gas shortages, airline deregulation, Ed Meese, Richard Secord, Dan Quayle, “Read My Lips”, Shutdown One, Kenneth Starr, Richard Mellon Scaife, hanging chads, Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US, yellowcake, Valerie Plame, Cheney, birthers, Shutdown Two.

That is quite a run and a reality that bears certain consequences. I am mistrustful of my government. I think it lies to us, reflexively and without a scintilla of compunction, on a regular basis. That mistrust began on 22 November 1963. In honour of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, I stand for truth. I stand for more truth and transparency in government. The intelligence community believes that most Americans don’t want to know how the sausage is made. But I can handle it. I think most Americans, a pretty tough bunch, can handle it, too.

Alec Baldwin is an actor and author. Follow him on Twitter: @AlecBaldwin

Americans wave flags at Barack Obama's second inauguration as president. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

***

Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.