Over the decades, Robert Parry has done yeoman service in exposing the vast criminality of the American state. From the foul bloodwork of American power in Central America to the treasonous machinations of the Iran-Contra scheme to the long, corrupt, murderous history of the Bush crime family, Parry has broken many important stories and brought much "lost history" -- the title of his best book -- to light. I have drawn on his work frequently, and learned a great deal from it.
Therefore it is extremely dispiriting to read his recent bitter blasts (here and here) at any and all of those "on the left" who might even contemplate refusing to support Barack Obama for re-election. Such people, he tells us, are vain, preening perfectionists who care more for their own self-righteousness than the fate of the world. Indeed, "leftists" who have refused to support the Democratic candidate -- no matter who he is, no matter what he has done -- are complicit, we’re told, in all the atrocities perpetrated by Republican presidents since 1968.
(Apparently, no Democratic president has ever perpetrated any atrocities; they are just "imperfect" politicians who might sometimes "do some rotten things" but always "fewer rotten things than the other guy.")
Parry believes he is preaching a tough, gritty doctrine of "moral ambiguity." What he is in fact advocating is the bleakest moral nihilism. To Parry, the structure of American power -- the corrupt, corporatized, militarized system built and sustained by both major parties -- cannot be challenged. Not even passively, not even internally, for Parry scorns those who simply refuse to vote almost as harshly as those who commit the unpardonable sin: voting for a third party. No, if you do not take an active role in supporting this brutal engine of war and injustice by voting for a Democrat, then it is you who are immoral.
You must support this system. It is the only moral choice. What’s more, to be truly moral, to acquit yourself of the charge of vanity and frivolity, to escape complicity in government crimes, you must support the Democrat. If the Democratic president orders the "extrajudicial" murder of American citizens, you must support him. If he chairs death squad meetings in the White House every week, checking off names of men to be murdered without charge or trial, you must support him. If he commits mass murder with robot drones on defenseless villages around the world, you must support him. If he imprisons and prosecutes whistleblowers and investigative journalists more than any other president in history, you must support him. If he cages and abuses and tortures a young soldier who sought only to stop atrocities and save the nation’s honor, you must support him. If he "surges" a pointless war of aggression and occupation in a ravaged land and expands that war into the territory of a supposed ally, you must support him. If he sends troops and special ops and drones and assassins into country after country, fomenting wars, bankrolling militias, and engineering coups, you must support him. If he throws open the nation's coastal waters to rampant drilling by the profiteers who are devouring and despoiling the earth, you must support him. If he declares his eagerness to do what no Republican president has ever dared to do -- slash Social Security and Medicare -- you must support him.
For Robert Parry, blinded by the red mist of partisanship, there is literally nothing -- nothing -- that a Democratic candidate can do to forfeit the support of "the left." He can even kill a 16-year-old American boy -- kill him, rip him to shreds with a missile fired by a coddled coward thousands of miles away -- and you must support him. And, again, if you do not support him, if you do not support all this, then you are the problem. You are enabling evil.
Given this wildly askew moral compass, what would Parry make of that great American refusenik, Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail rather than pay taxes to support a deadly militarist adventure in Mexico and the government-sanctioned system of slavery, and whose thoughts on civil disobedience and disengagement with evil inspired Tolstoy and Gandhi? Thoreau said: “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
What would Parry say to that? “Enough of your vain moral posturing, Thoreau. Forget the Mexican War; get out there and support James K. Polk. He’s a Democrat, for god’s sake! Do you want someone worse to get in there? It’s a disgrace not to associate yourself with this government!”
II. Parry’s “logic” is breathtakingly, heartbreakingly faulty. Perhaps that’s not surprising; after all, partisanship is the sworn enemy of logic, of objective reasoning, of clear thinking. But what is surprising, given Parry’s decades of deep-delving in the mines of politics and history, is how wrong he is on the “savvy” realpolitik he espouses, and his wanton misreading of history.
Parry rails against the “left” for not giving enough support to the Democrats in elections of 1968, 1980 and 2000. If these fastidious perfectionists hadn’t tried to “punish” the “imperfect” Democratic candidates in the those crucial years, the nation and the world would have been spared much suffering, we are told.
Well, maybe so, maybe not. This kind of ahistorical speculation is pointless in the extreme. If Hitler had been run over by a Vienna streetcar in 1919, then perhaps the world would have been a better place; or perhaps someone even worse would have come along. You can’t unring the bell of historical events – or tell what other tunes might have chimed in their place.
But even on a surface level, Parry’s analysis fails. He seems to think that the “left’s” desertion of the Democrats in 1968 gave the presidency to Richard Nixon and prolonged the Vietnam War. It was not the “left” that abandoned the Democrats that year; it was the millions of ordinary Americans who had only four years before given Lyndon Johnson the biggest electoral mandate in history up to that time. If every leftist in the country had stayed home (and of course the overwhelming majority of them did not, and almost all of them voted for Hubert H. Humphrey), the Democrats still would have lost. Parry, astonishingly, forgets the presence of George Wallace in the race (and race is the operative word here). Wallace’s pro-segregation campaign took five states from the Democrats’ formerly “solid South” and won 10 million votes, almost all of them from Democratic constituencies. Even if every “leftist” had been burning with fervor for HHH, no Democrat could have survived such a blow to the party’s base.
What’s more, the real abandonment of the party that year came not from disaffected leftists, but from the Democrat’s own leader: LBJ, who simply dumped the party, and the presidency, out of hurt feelings at being challenged in the primaries. He didn’t stand up and fight for his social programs and Civil Rights measures, he didn’t end the war (which Parry tells us he was “seriously” contemplating – and which he could have done with a snap of his fingers). Nor did he give more than the most tepid support to Humphrey until the very end of the campaign, when he knew it was too late. He just quit and walked away, with the nation reeling in turmoil from the war he had escalated, and from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. If any one person could be said to have given us Richard Nixon, it was LBJ.
Parry also seems to think that if Jimmy Carter had not been “abandoned” by “leftists" in 1980, in his second term he would have not kept supporting the Afghan religious extremists he himself had loosed on the Soviets (to the world’s everlasting betterment, as we see each day around us). Or that Carter would not have continued supporting murderous Latin American dictatorships and surrogate wars in Africa as he had done throughout his term. Or that he wouldn’t have continued the massive arms build-up he had launched, or continued saber-rattling at the Soviets, or proclaiming the American right to launch pre-emptive war if anyone threatened the vicious tyrants in the Middle East who supplied us with oil. And so on and on. (For more, see here.)
But neither was Carter abandoned by ‘leftists’ to any significant degree. He too lost the votes of millions of ordinary Americans who had supported him four years previously. The third-party “spoiler,” Republican-turned-Independent John Anderson, ended up with less than 7 percent of the vote, with polls showing his meager numbers of supporters split equally between Democrats and Republicans. Carter lost primarily because of a poor economy (not helped by his avowedly conservative economic policies), his own tepid ineptitude, and because of the Iran hostage crisis -- which occurred after his boneheaded mismanagement of the American reaction to the Iranian revolution, including his decision to allow the ousted Shah into the United States, and other measures which aided the revolution’s most radical elements and undercut the secular moderates at every turn. (A practice that has been faithfully followed by every American president since.)
As for 2000, Gore actually won that election, of course, which moots Parry’s point about leftist lethargy robbing worthy Dems of the big brass ring. Of course, the corrupt system that Parry urges us to preserve by continuing to legitimize its perpetrators with our votes did take the presidency away from Gore – or rather, Gore meekly allowed them to take it without pursuing the constitutional challenge he could have made in Congress. And even though my family’s tenuous connection to Gore goes back a long way – I first met him when my father introduced the young Congressional candidate around our town during his first run for elective office, and my cousin once worked as his press aide – I have to say that Gore, as Bill Clinton’s very active vice president, had his hand in a number of activities that might conceivably make even the most acquiescent “leftist” hesitate just a teeny bit. But let’s let his distant cousin, Gore Vidal, tell it (from The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2001):
“In order to be re-elected in 1996, the Clinton-Gore administration adopted a series of right-wing Republican, even protofascist, programs, with lots more prisons, death penalties, harassment of the poor, cries of terrorism, and implicitly, control by government over the citizenry.”
Gore’s tenure at the top also saw the stripping of the financial controls on high finance – a surrender of Democratic (not to mention democratic) principles that ushered in the casino royale that led to the current – and increasingly permanent – economic crisis. And there was also the little matter of the deaths of at least 500,000 children from the US-UK sanctions on Iraq. (And half a million – a vast mountain of child corpses – is just what the Clinton-Gore administration were happy to admit to on national television, to show how tough and savvy they were. The real figure is certainly much higher.)
Would Gore, who didn’t flinch at amassing that mountain of corpses, have launched a war against Iraq, as Bush – who, again, was given the presidency not by “leftists” but by a corrupt Supreme Court rife with partisan (and financial) conflicts of interest – did? Who knows? But we do know that it was the Clinton-Gore administration that signed bills formally committing the United States to “regime change” in Iraq. And Gore did pick the fanatical neo-con warmonger Joe Lieberman as his VP nominee. Gore had always aligned himself with the “Scoop Jackson” militarist wing of the party, unlike this father, Sen. Albert Gore Sr., who sacrificed his political career by publicly opposing the Vietnam War. Vidal again:
Alone, I believe, among the usually war-minded Southern legislators, Albert Sr. spoke out against the long idiocy of the Vietnam War. Essentially, populists don’t like foreign wars, particularly in lands that they know nothing of and for no demonstrable goals. For exercising good judgment, Albert Sr. was defeated in 1970 by an opponent who used the familiar line that he was ‘out of touch with the voters of Tennessee. If this was true, the voters, supremely misled by three administrations, were seriously out of touch with reality. ….
The classic Gores are against foreign military adventures. It was here that Al Jr. broke with tradition when he was one of only ten Democratic senators to support George [H.W.] Bush’s Persian Gulf caper [in 1991]; before that, he had approved Reagan’s Grenada invasion and Libyan strikes.
Gore also went to the Vietnam War his father had opposed – albeit just for a short resume-building, non-combat tour as a military journalist.
None of this is to exonerate the Republicans of the monstrous crimes they have most assuredly committed –and/or continued – during their turns at the top of the bipartisan helter-skelter. It is simply to note what the historical record clearly shows: first, that lack of ‘leftist’ support did not cost the Democrats the presidency in any of these years. And second, that the Democrats’ own crimes and atrocities and follies are part and parcel of a system of corporatist/militarist rule that has become so abominable that no one can without disgrace be associated with it. To see this clearly and say it plainly is not “vanity” or “perfectionism.” It is reality. And to deny this, distort it, and denounce those who no longer wish to legitimize it with their votes is not a courageous grappling with “moral ambiguity;” it is a self-infliction of moral blindness.
III. And I think this is Parry’s main problem: he still doesn’t see – or can’t quite believe – what is going on right in front of his eyes. He thinks we have some kind of normal politics in some kind of normal nation. He can’t seem to grasp that a bipartisan system that has wrought the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children and a million more Iraqis in a war of aggression; that has killed countless thousands of Afghans in a pointless, atrocity-ridden, deeply corrupt occupation; that operates a global death squad – out of the White House, directed by the president himself; that kidnaps and tortures innocent people and then protects the torturers; that prosecutes truth-tellers and investigative reporters – like Robert Parry – who expose state crimes; that gorges its wealthy, greedy, above-the-law elites with tax cuts and bailouts and war profits and privileges without end while sharpening its bipartisan knives to gut the last, frayed remnants of the social safety net, is a system that has gone far beyond “moral ambiguity” and “imperfection” and “lesser evilism.” It is itself a product and producer of evil.
Parry says there are no viable alternative parties to this double-headed beast. And he is right. He says there are no popular movements out there right now “that can significantly alter government policies strictly through civil disobedience or via protests in the streets.” And he is right. Therefore what is left to us, at the present moment, in this election, but the power of refusal? (Whether this is exercised by “throwing your vote away” on a third party or absenting yourself entirely from the legitimization and normalization of imperial monstrosity.) Where is the dishonor, the vanity in such a stance, in refusing to accept and affirm mass murder, repression, corruption and injustice in an implacable system that offers no other choices?
Would Parry have told Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Boris Pasternak or Josef Brodsky or other Soviet dissidents that they should not have disassociated themselves from the implacable system they confronted? “You should join the Party, Aleksandr, you must work within the system. That’s the only way we’ll see real change.” Perhaps Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst of the White Rose should have stifled their concerns about the “imperfections” of the German government and sought the path of “lesser evilism” instead, working to advance, say, Albert Speer or Herman Goring or some other figure who might have “done some rotten things” but “fewer rotten things than the other guy.”
Yes, I know the United States in 2012 is not the USSR or Hitler’s Germany. And Parry would doubtless say, “Of course they were right to disassociate themselves from such monstrous systems.” But where do you draw the line? How much evil is acceptable? Is there a certain number of victims that a system must reach before one is allowed to disengage from it honorably and morally? To murder six million in death camps or millions in purges is obviously unacceptable; but to kill 500,000 children – is that OK? A million innocent people in a war of aggression – is that beyond the pale? Or can you work with that, can you accommodate that, should you swallow these mountains of dead, washing them down with a big swig of moral ambiguity?
Romney might well prove to be a “worse” president than Obama. (Although Parry does not address the realpolitik argument that a Romney victory would likely wake the ‘left’ from its slumber and cause it to oppose heinous crimes and vicious policies – aggressive war, murder programs, safety net slashing – that it is now happily supporting because a Democrat is doing them.) But that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not one gives legitimacy and justification to a brutal and unjust system by actively supporting and empowering it – and thus perpetuating its bipartisan evils far into the future.
Robert Parry says we should do this. He says: if you don’t support one murderer, the other murderer (or rather, would-be murderer, since Obama has actually directed death squads and drone attacks that have killed hundreds of innocent people, including American children, while Romney is still just hoping to do so) might be worse. To choose one murderer over another murderer is the only moral choice open to us, Parry says. To refuse to cooperate with evil – as Tolstoy did, as Solzhenitsyn did, as Sophie Scholl, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King did – is pointless, perfectionist, vain. That’s what Robert Parry evidently believes.
But with all due respect to Parry and his valuable body of work, I disagree. On this, I will take my stand with Thoreau. I refuse to give this evil my assent.
A passage from my piece on Gore Vidal yesterday ("As with Tolstoy, Vidal's fiction -- the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across -- deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility") brought this response from a reader:
The comparison with Tolstoy fails completely, to the detriment of Gore Vidal. In his thought Tolstoy was a religious crank who thought in crude black and white. None of the genius he brought to his fiction carried across to his later religious and moralistic writings.
The plain fact is, having read both some of Gore Vidal's fiction and heard him speak on video etc, he is more consistent than Tolstoy and thus immeasurably superior.
To which, this brief reply:
Opinions on these matters are all subjective, of course; one man's "crank" (an epithet applied not infrequently to Vidal himself by those eager to dismiss his discomforting views) is another man's exemplar. But, with respect, I must say I find it hard to believe that you have actually read any of Tolstoy's non-fiction writings on politics and power and war (as opposed to any of the "religious crankery" you might have run across.) And I seriously doubt that Vidal would have shared your opinion of these anti-war, anti-elite, anti-establishment pieces. (Such as those collected in Letters From Tula, for example.)
Certainly Vidal would have found much of Tolstoy's religious writings to be risible -- though I doubt he would have found them 'crude,' as he would have recognized the complex learning that lay behind them, and their logical, iconoclastic rigour (while, again, rejecting their religious premises). But beyond Tolstoy's typically 19th century hang-ups about sex, his "religious crankery" focused mainly on ending war, ending coercion and corruption by powerful elites and institutions (including all religions), and establishing social, political and economic justice. There's very little there that Vidal would have found entirely uncongenial, I think.
He might also have delighted in the fact that Tolstoy's religious beliefs shook one of the world's most powerful and repressive religious institutions -- the Russian Orthodox Church -- to its foundations, and led multitudes of people out of its stultifying grip. At the core of Tolstoy's beliefs was a fierce commitment to intellectual liberty, to freedom of thought and conscience, even for those who disagreed with whatever particular notion he happened to hold at any particular time.
And I imagine Vidal might well have enjoyed Tolstoy's "inconsistency" -- especially the randy Russian's inability to quell his rampant sexuality. After all, 'consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,' and Vidal probably would have admired the restlessness of Tolstoy's rather large mind, as it groped through the darkness that surrounds us all, chasing flickers of light here and there, never quite satisfied with any final conclusion, but pushed always by doubt, by inner turmoil, and by the desire to know more.
No one would argue that Tolstoy's non-fiction has the power and genius of his greatest novels and stories. That was my point: that the true greatness of both writers lay in their artistic achievement, which lent greater depth and credibility to their non-fiction -- whether or not one agrees with every single judgment or opinion they rendered.
If the Republic still existed, if it was even a shadow of what it was meant to be (and never was), then bells would tolling across the land and flags would be flying at half-mast, in sorrowful honor for one of its true sons. Gore Vidal is dead.
The loss is great. His was a unique sensibility: artistic, caustic, unsentimental, casting a Yeatsian cold eye on the human comedy, and in this way -- with no false pieties, no dogma, no ideological crutches -- revealing, with inescapable clarity, the rank injustices and murderous hypocrisies of power, and the ludicrous pretenses of power's sycophants.
It was the artist in Vidal -- largely overlooked, especially now, in death, as pages and pixels fill up with quick ricochets of his Wildean bon mots and Twitter-ready soundbites -- that gave his work a special force. As with Tolstoy, Vidal's fiction -- the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across -- deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility. And as with Tolstoy, you might not agree with every conclusion (although in matters of politics, society and culture, I very rarely disagreed with Vidal), but the art showed a mind, a spirit, that deserved to be taken seriously.
Vidal obviously relished his outsized, gadfly role in American politics and media: his self-appointed (and entirely credible) persona as the Alternative President to whatever poltroon happened to be occupying the White House at any given moment -- even down to the issuing of his own "State of the Union" essays from time to time, always devastating in their corrosive wit and blistering truths about American society. The vast body of his non-fiction is captured best in the massive 1992 compendium, United States: 1,271 pages long -- and not a boring passage in the entire book. (This is in itself a near-miraculous achievement of the art of prose; even Montaigne nods, but not Vidal.) Its three sections -- State of the Art, State of the Union, and State of Being -- comprise a kind of marvelous postgraduate education in life and learning -- worth more, and far more useful, than a PhD from Harvard or an Oxford PPE.
It is here we see not only Vidal the thinker and media figure, but Vidal the man: steeped in history -- like few others of his time and almost no one of our day -- yet also riding on the sharp, cool edge of modernity as it sliced its way through the 20th century. He seemed to radiate a sense of liberation, in many forms: political, sexual, cultural. He was also a consummate detector of bullshit, and a ruthless dismantler of its celebrated dispensers. (His evisceration of John Updike -- "Rabbit's Own Burrow" -- is a splenetic wonder, on a par with Mark Twain's takedown of Fennimore Cooper or Robert Graves' demolition of Ezra Pound, leaving the reader incapable of taking the victim seriously again.)
But again, I come back to the fiction. I think this is where Vidal's true greatness lies. Perhaps so much in the "experimental" novels, the surreal affairs like Myra Breckenridge, Duluth, and Live From Golgotha. As enjoyable and insightful as these are, they seem to me more like extensions of his political writings: send-ups, or mash-ups, of American society, in broad strokes, a species of commentary. Of course, this might just be a matter of personal taste. But for me, his accomplishment reaches its height in several of his other novels, most of them in historical settings, which are brought to uncanny life through the sharply-realized consciousness of individual human beings. Though the novels are set in the past, these characters are always in their present, in the eternal now where we all live, making our way through the chaos of the moment to the forever-unknowable future.
Lincoln is generally considered the best of the novels, with good reason. It is a remarkably effective -- and remarkably subtle -- example of the "polyphonic novel," as pioneered by Dostoevsky and championed by Bakhtin. Through a kaleidoscope of consciousnesses, Vidal reanimates the crucible of the American experience -- the Civil War -- and the man whom Vidal called our "most mysterious of presidents." Lincoln was part of what Vidal came to see as a series of related novels, a family chronicle -- and a national epic of America's peculiar history: "Narratives of a Golden Age," beginning with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and ending at the dawn of the 1960s (with an epilogue in the new millennium). While Lincoln may hold pride of place in the Narratives, several others in the series are also outstanding works, particularly Burr, 1876 and Empire. The Narratives caught a perfect pitch of the faint but persistent idealism -- the humanism -- wafting through the always-overpowering, and always-triumphant, corruptions of power in the miasmic swamps of Washington and beyond, as the Republic slouched bloodily toward its current monstrosity of empire.
But Vidal, of all people, was no American Exceptionalist, and neither was his best work confined to America's mores and madness. In fact, I believe that his finest novel, his finest work of art, was Julian: an astonishing recreation of the life and mind of the Classical world during its final, fatal flowering during the short reign of "Julian the Apostate," the Roman emperor who tried to reverse the Empire's conversion to Christianity, initiated a half-century earlier by Constantine I. The book is steeped in a rigorous historical learning that is worn so slightly, is so thoroughly worked into the very human story of a very human man, that it is scarcely noticeable at all. Julian's world simply lives, and the reader lives in it -- yet at the end, emerges with a new understanding of this absolutely crucial period of history.
In the same vein is Creation, which once again immerses us in the human realities of a crucial era in the life of humanity: the "Axial Age," which saw the rise and development of new religions and new thinking across the world, an era when Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, early Greek philosophers like Heraclitus and other pivotal figures were walking the earth and revolutionizing ancient structures of thought and belief. But again, the learning is carried lightly, in the ironic person of Cyrus Spitama, a witty, aging Persian diplomat in Athens whose main claim to fame is that he is Zoroaster's grandson. He narrates the tale of his long life -- his youth in the Persian court of Darius and Xerxes, his sojourns in India and China, and the machinations and corruptions of the rising Greek city-states.
This is not the time or place for an exhaustive look at Vidal's literary achievements. (For more on this theme, see Critical Malfunction: Misreading Gore Vidal.) But in the media onslaught of obituaries and appraisals, most of which seem, perhaps understandably, to focus on the gadfly persona noted above, I thought it was important to recall this vital element of Vidal's legacy: his fiction, which at its best has richly enhanced our awareness of what it is to be a living human being -- mortal, troubled, confused, alone -- caught up in the maelstrom of historical forces we can scarcely understand and cannot control.
It is no small thing to have left such a mark. It is a legacy well worth celebrating, and one that will outlast even the wittiest and most telling of his aperçus.
On a personal note, it would be hard for me to overestimate Vidal's influence on how I see the world, in so many different areas. His death is like losing a spiritual father. (If I can be forgiven for using such an outrageous term for a man so entirely worldly! ) His work schooled me and sharpened me and, in the words of Henry Miller (another writer he once wittily skewered, albeit with more affection than bile), "inoculated me with disillusionment" -- a task which Miller called the highest purpose of an artist. Vidal made me see the world -- and myself -- with new eyes, and taught me how to keep on seeing in this way: relentlessly, fearlessly, unsentimentally casting "a cold eye, on life, on death." I've fallen short of this teaching -- woefully, continually -- at nearly every turn, but it is still there, a lodestar in a night sky that is now a bit more lonely, more harrowing than it was.
It is now obvious .. that the intellectual "narcissism which orders the past to please the present" can also find "violent external expression in war and in an indifference towards the destruction, suffering and death of others".
That's Pankaj Mishra, quoting Richard Drayton, in a new article in the Guardian, about the vogue for imperialist nostalgia that still permeates the increasingly rickety elites of the West, drawing these bankrupt enterprises deeper and deeper into pointless and murderous adventures. A few more excerpts:
The British empire, George Orwell wrote, was "despotism with theft as its final object". So what has made imperialism an intellectual fashion in our own time, reopening hoary disputes about whether it was good or bad? After five years as a colonial policeman in Burma, where he found himself shooting an elephant to affirm the white man's right to rule, Orwell was convinced that the imperial relationship was that of "slave and master". Was the master good or bad? "Let us simply say," Orwell wrote, "that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested." And "if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it."
Orwell's hard-won insights were commonplace truisms for millions of Asians and Africans struggling to end western control of their lands. Their descendants can only be bewildered by the righteous nostalgia for imperialism that has recently seized many prominent Anglo-American politicians and opinion-makers, who continue to see Asia through the narrow perspective of western interests, leaving unexamined and unimagined the collective experiences of Asian peoples.
Certainly, as Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, "the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." Two years after Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Roger Casement, then a British diplomat, revealed in a report that half of the population of Belgian-ruled Congo – nearly 10 million people – had perished under a brutal regime where beheadings, rape and genital mutilation of African labourers had become the norm. Such overt violence and terror is only a small part of the story of European domination of Asia and Africa, which includes the slow-motion slaughter of tens of million in famines caused by unfettered experiments in free trade – and plain callousness (Indians, after all, would go on breeding "like rabbits", Winston Churchill argued when asked to send relief during the Bengal famine of 1943-44).
... Nevertheless, in one of the weirdest episodes of recent history, a Kipling-esque rhetoric about bringing free trade and humane governance to "lesser breeds outside the law" has resonated again in the Anglo-American public sphere. Even before 9/11, Tony Blair was ready to tend, with military means if necessary, to, as he put it, "the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant" around the world. …Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands.
Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands. … Clearly, it would help if no Asian or African voices interrupt this intellectual and moral onanism. Astonishing as it may seem, there is next to nothing in the new revisionist histories of empire, or even the insidious accounts of India and China catching up with the west, about how writers, thinkers and activists in one Asian country after another attested to the ravages of western imperialism in Asia: the immiseration of peasants and artisans, the collapse of living standards and the devastation of local cultures.
In 1903, Liang Qichao, China's foremost modern intellectual and a major early influence on Mao Zedong, was visiting America when Washington manipulated its way into control of Panama and its crucial canal. It reminded Liang of how the British had compromised Egypt's independence over the Suez canal. Liang feared that original meaning of the Monroe doctrine – "the Americas belong to the people of the Americas" – was being transformed into "the Americas belong to the people of the United States". "And who knows," Liang added in a book he wrote about his travels, "if this will not continue to change, day after day from now on, into 'the world belongs to the United States'".
This is, of course, the precisely the view now taken by the entirety of America's bipartisan political elite, its media elite, and vast swathes of its ordinary citizens, who have been marinated in this belief for generations. They do believe -- simply, deeply, sincerely -- that the "world belongs to the United States" and that the United States has the right to order the world as it pleases. No one who looked clearly and dispassionately at American foreign policy in the post-war years could say otherwise.
And what lesson did our noble Western civilizers teach to their ignorant, differently-colored charges? Mishra notes:
"In the world," Liang concluded bleakly, "there is only power – there is no other force … Hence, if we wish to attain liberty, there is no other road: we can only seek first to be strong."
A lesson that Liang's pupil, Mao, took to heart -- and applied with horrific force. This process was replicated throughout the post-colonial world. Here one recalls the bleak saying of the Iraqis after the United States launched its war of aggression there in 2003 and overthrew its former favorite, Saddam Hussein: "The pupil has gone; now the master has come." Mishra notes these grim cycles:
In his book The Myth of Independence (1969), the Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto warned his postcolonial compatriots that their "power to make decisions radically affecting the lives of our peoples" was being "curtailed by the cannons of neo-colonialism". Overthrown and murdered by a pro-American military despot, Bhutto was himself to exemplify what Ryszard Kapuscinski described as the tragic "drama" of many well-intentioned Asian and African leaders. Kapuscinski focused on the "terrible material resistance that each [leader] encounters on taking his first, second and third steps up the summit of power. Each one wants to do something good and begins to do it and then sees, after a month, after a year, after three years, that it just isn't happening, that it is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way: the centuries of backwardness, the primitive economy, the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered, the blackmail by the imperialists, the greed of the corrupt, the unemployment, the red ink. Progress comes with great difficulty along such a road. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organises a coup. And the cycle begins anew."
Mishra concludes with the Drayton quote above, and this observation:
Moreover, a narcissistic history – one obsessed with western ideals, achievements, failures and challenges – can only retard a useful understanding of the world today. For most people in Europe and America, the history of the present is still largely defined by victories in the second world war and the long standoff with Soviet communism, even though the central event of the modern era, for a majority of the world's population, is the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence, still incomplete, from the ruins of both Asian and European empires. The much-heralded shift of power from the west to the east may or may not happen. But only neo-imperialist dead-enders will deny that we have edged closer to the cosmopolitan future the first generation of modern Asian thinkers, writers and leaders dreamed of – in which people from different parts of the world meet as equals rather than as masters and slaves, and no one needs to shoot elephants to confirm their supremacy.
Tears of a Drone Arthur Silber writes with power and eloquence about the Aurora killings -- and the monstrous hypocrisy of our national "leaders," who mouthed saccharine pieties about fragile and precious life is, and how tragic it is that innocent lives are so cruelly taken from us ... this while raining down terror and mass murder on innocent human beings all over the world. A brief excerpt:
Consider the staggering number of murders of innocent human beings committed by the United States government -- and ask yourselves how many Auroras those murders represent. ... Listen for the public lamentations about even a small fraction of these deaths. Listen as carefully as you can. What do you hear? Why, nothing at all. ...
President Obama and ...the U.S. government [assert] that he and they have the "right" to murder anyone at all anywhere in the world, for any reason they choose -- and that they need never disclose any details of their murders, including the fact that they have ordered them. ... This monstrous crime, what is in fact an ongoing, systematic series of monstrous crimes, is greeted by near universal silence in America. The U.S. government orders an unending series of Auroras: it ordered an Aurora last week, it will order an Aurora this week, it will order an Aurora next week. Almost no one cares. Almost no one even notices.
Silber then quotes Obama's statement after the killing, and notes:
... These are the remarks of a man who has suffered an irreparable break with reality, a man who who has rendered himself unable to connect obviously related facts. If Obama genuinely meant these comments -- if he understood how these remarks apply with far greater force to him ("we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this") -- his realization of the monster he has allowed himself to become would reduce him to gibbering incoherence for the remainder of his life. In varying degrees, the same is true of any individual who remains in the national government at this point.
More generally, this is American culture today. Like the killer in my story, many Americans hurl themselves with fundamentally false, deeply disturbed enthusiasm into public demonstrations of grief over the needless deaths of some human beings -- those human beings they see as being much like themselves, when the deaths happen in what could be their own neighborhood. As for all the murders committed by their government with a systematic dedication as insane as that of any serial killer: silence.
But every murder committed by the United States government, every murder ordered by Obama, represents a tragedy exactly like Aurora to someone.
There is much, much more; go read the whole thing.
*** Den of Thieves As we all know, the world is suffering through a severe economic crisis. Governments at every level are on evangelical fire with the gospel of austerity, slashing services and people and selling off essential public goods at knock-off prices to a few rapacious elites. Everywhere, at every turn, we are told that there is simply "no money" to sustain anything remotely like the quality of life known by the past few generations before us. ("No money," that is, except for the hundreds of billions in tax dollars -- our money -- these same austerian evangels continue to dole out to those same rapacious elites.)
OK, fine; for the sake of argument, let's take these plutocrat-serving poltroons at their word: there is no money. So where did all the money go then?
As the Observer reported this weekend, an extraordinary new study shows exactly where the money went: into the off-shore tax havens of the super-super rich. How much of the world's wealth has been squirreled away by this tiny group of gilded bucaneers? At least $21 trillion.
That's right: $21 trillion. And that's just the lowball end: the actual figure could be up to $32 trillion. The Observer reports:
A global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide an extraordinary £13 trillion ($21tn) of wealth offshore – as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together – according to research commissioned by the campaign group Tax Justice Network.
James Henry, former chief economist at consultancy McKinsey and an expert on tax havens, has compiled the most detailed estimates yet of the size of the offshore economy in a new report, The Price of Offshore Revisited, released exclusively to the Observer.
He shows that at least £13tn – perhaps up to £20tn – has leaked out of scores of countries into secretive jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands with the help of private banks, which vie to attract the assets of so-called high net-worth individuals. Their wealth is, as Henry puts it, "protected by a highly paid, industrious bevy of professional enablers in the private banking, legal, accounting and investment industries taking advantage of the increasingly borderless, frictionless global economy". According to Henry's research, the top 10 private banks, which include UBS and Credit Suisse in Switzerland, as well as the US investment bank Goldman Sachs, managed more than £4tn in 2010, a sharp rise from £1.5tn five years earlier.
The detailed analysis in the report, compiled using data from a range of sources, including the Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund, suggests that for many developing countries the cumulative value of the capital that has flowed out of their economies since the 1970s would be more than enough to pay off their debts to the rest of the world....
"The problem here is that the assets of these countries are held by a small number of wealthy individuals while the debts are shouldered by the ordinary people of these countries through their governments," the report says.
The sheer size of the cash pile sitting out of reach of tax authorities is so great that it suggests standard measures of inequality radically underestimate the true gap between rich and poor. According to Henry's calculations, [$9.7 trillion] of assets is owned by only 92,000 people, or 0.001% of the world's population – a tiny class of the mega-rich who have more in common with each other than those at the bottom of the income scale in their own societies. ...
Assuming [this] mountain of assets earned an average 3% a year for its owners, and governments were able to tax that income at 30%, it would generate a bumper [$187 billion in tax revenue] every year.
And much of that revenue would be going to world's poorest countries, whose wealth has been looted at levels outstripping the worst of colonial times.
Put simply, there is no good reason for the people in 'developing nations' to live in the crushing poverty that has long been their lot. There is no good reason for the people in the 'developed' nations to see their societies rot away before their eyes. These things are happening because unimaginable amounts of money have been and are being looted by a powerful elite abetted at every turn by banks and politicians -- by specific individuals freely deciding to do evil to their neighbors. Or as the Observer headline puts it in an accompanying story: "Wealth doesn't trickle down -- it just floods offshore." *** Away By the Water So Blue ... And now a few ancestral voices to see us out: intonations and incantations from a vanished world ...
The catastrophic situation in Greece has disappeared from the headlines in recent weeks, replaced largely by lurid reports from Syria, where religious extremists aligned with al Qaeda are wreaking carnage with suicide bombers in the capital -- to the cheers of America's adamant anti-terrorists.
[Such hypocrisy doesn't mitigate the hideousness of the current Syrian regime, of course. Why, I'm so old, I can remember when Washington sent innocent people to Assad's torture chambers for a little outsourced "rigorous interrogation." But as the hapless ophthalmologist teetering atop the slagheap in Damascus is now learning, no good deed -- or evil favor -- done on behalf of the Potomac Poobahs ever goes unpunished. Then again, the aforesaid hideousness does not gainsay the unsavouriness of the other side in the vicious Syrian civil war. I strongly recommend that readers consult As'ad AbuKhalil -- the "Angry Arab" -- for a clear-eyed view of both these plagued houses.)
But even though it is now off the media radar, Greece continues to groan under the draconian conditions imposed on it by Europe's financial elite. As always, everywhere, the weakest are going to the wall: the poor, the workers, and the middle class are being brutally punished so that the rich and powerful can escape the slightest consequence for their own monumental greed, their own ravenous crimes.
Germany continues to lead the way in the harrowing of Greece, with the full backing of Washington and London, who keep chipping in with their stern condemnations of Greece's fecklessness and lack of moral fiber. But as Richard Clogg pointed out in the London Review of Books earlier this month, this righteous hectoring by the lords of the West completely ignores the true context of the Greek catastrophe -- and the atrocious modern history that lies behind it.
I believe the piece is behind the subscription firewall at LRB, so here is a substantial excerpt. It is well worth reading in full, if you can get to it.
The tripartite German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation of Greece [after the Nazi-led invasion in April 1941] set in train one of the most virulent hyperinflations ever recorded, five thousand times more severe than the Weimar inflation of the early 1920s. Price levels in January 1946 were more than five trillion times those of May 1941. The exchange rate for the gold sovereign in the autumn of 1944, shortly after the liberation, stood at 170 trillion drachmas. ...
Commentators on the current crisis in Greece routinely pay obeisance to the notion that Europe owes the idea of democracy to ancient Greece – an arguable proposition. Some go further. Larry Elliott, the economics editor of the Guardian, writing of a Greek tragedy in the making, invoked in a single article not merely Greece as the birthplace of democracy but also the torment of Sisyphus and the flight of Icarus. To present-day Greeks these classical analogies have little resonance, save to remind them how little is known outside Greece of their recent history. Events that occurred within living memory shape reactions to their current plight. In particular, they bitterly resent the fact that it is a German who is leading the call for measures of austerity, and that it is the German tabloid press which pours scorn on ‘idle’ Greeks who supposedly think of little else but early retirement on a fat pension, when any Greek over the age of seventy will have lived through not only stratospheric hyperinflation but one of the worst famines in the modern history of Europe – a famine that was the direct consequence of the wartime occupation. Some, as children, will have had their growth permanently stunted by inadequate nutrition.
The occupation was established following a textbook Blitzkrieg invasion. Within months, the corpses of famine victims were being loaded every morning onto carts for burial in mass graves. It’s estimated that between 1941 and 1943 as many as 200,000 died of starvation. ... Famine and the accompanying hyperinflation were only two of the calamities that befell occupied Greece. More than 80 per cent of the long-established, largely Spanish-speaking Jewish community was killed, mostly in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the space of a few weeks, beginning in March 1943, some 49,000 Greek Jews, mainly from Salonica, ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’, were packed into cattle trucks and shipped to Poland. The image of two Jewish Greek children who were drowned in a pit of excrement, testimony that emerged in a trial of guards at the Majdanek concentration camp, symbolised the fate of the wider community.
During the three and a half years of the occupation, units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS caused immeasurable havoc. When Sture Linnér, a member of the Swedish Red Cross mission, visited the village of Distomo shortly after its inhabitants had been massacred in June 1944, he came across bodies, some still showing signs of life, nailed with bayonets to the avenue of trees which led up to the village. More than five hundred males were executed in Kalavryta; 317 inhabitants were slaughtered in the village of Kommeno. If a German were attacked or killed it was decreed that between fifty and a hundred hostages were to be killed in reprisal. Torture was routine. To deter attempts to sabotage railway lines, hostages were placed in open freight wagons covered with barbed wire, the notorious klouves, so that they would receive the full force of any explosive charge.
As the Germans pulled out of Greece in October 1944 they engaged in a scorched earth policy. The Corinth Canal, for example, was not reopened to navigation until 1949. In The Sacrifices of Greece in the Second World War, a book published by the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1946, Constantine Doxiadis calculated that 1,200,000 Greeks were made homeless and five thousand schools wrecked during the occupation. ...
Few of the war criminals responsible for these atrocities were brought to justice after the war. General Wilhelm Speidel, the military commander in Greece, and thus the man who had overall responsibility for the crimes committed by his troops, received a twenty-year sentence at Nuremberg. Three years later he was released. Max Merten, who had been closely involved in the fate of the Salonica Jewish community, was arrested in 1957 when on an ill-advised trip to Greece. He was charged with war crimes and sentenced to 25 years but immediately pardoned by the then prime minister, Constantine Karamanlis, who was anxious not to jeopardise the prospect of German aid. Back in Germany, he was compensated by the Federal government for the time he had spent in a Greek prison.
Few would insist that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the children, and postwar Germany has made impressive efforts to exorcise the demons of its recent past. So it is unfair, though scarcely surprising, that cartoons in the Greek press, protest banners and Lenten carnival figures lampoon Angela Merkel as a Nazi. But the bitterness, indignation and frustration that the cartoons reflect should be understood in the context of some of the worst atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht anywhere in occupied Europe.
Despite the fact that the UK is not a member of the eurozone, David Cameron has joined with Merkel in hectoring the recalcitrant Greeks. Not so long ago Cameron, on his first visit to the US as prime minister, declared in an interview with ABC News that, in 1940, Britain was the junior partner to America in the anti-Nazi struggle. The fact is that, in 1940, after the fall of France, Britain’s only active ally in Europe was Greece. A few weeks after the onset of the Blitz, the spectacle of the Greek army pushing Italian would-be invaders of their country back into Albania excited an extraordinary wave of philhellenic enthusiasm. The Germans were forced to come to the aid of the Italians and, in April 1941, they overwhelmed the British, Australian and New Zealand expeditionary force that had been dispatched in a doomed attempt to support the hard-pressed Greek army. Many Greeks risked, and not a few lost, their lives in helping British stragglers and escapees to reach the Middle East.
Christine Lagarde has also joined the chorus of critics. She is certainly right to point to massive tax evasion on the part of Greek shipowners, wealthy businessmen and the self-employed, particularly lawyers and doctors (as few as a third of the latter declare incomes of more than 12,000 euros) as one of the principal reasons for the current debt mountain. Greece really is a country in which only the little people pay taxes ... but it is no wonder that her remark that it is now ‘payback time’ for Greece causes nothing but resentment. Meanwhile, a word of contrition, if not apology, for German war crimes that are still a living memory (from Merkel), and a recognition of past Greek sacrifices in the common struggle against fascism, which are likewise still a living memory (from Cameron), would not come amiss.
(**CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly stated Assad's professional background as a dentist; as an astute reader points out, he actually trained as an ophthalmologist. Apologies for the mistake.)
Behind the all-consuming, overheated hypermania of the presidential campaign – Romney! Taxes! Swiss banks! Bain, Bain, Bain! – the dull-lidded behemoth of empire continues to trudge its way back and forth across the earth, knee-deep in human blood. Those who pray and pump and polemicize for the re-election of the behemoth’s current commander have to repeatedly gouge out their own eyes to avoid seeing the rank corruption and carnage their champion empowers and inflicts on the vulnerable and the defenseless.
We write here frequently of Honduras – the land where Barack Obama made his bones as hemispheric hierarch with the ritual overthrow of a democratic Latin American government and its replacement by murderous thugs. (Any American president who would be truly great must carry out this traditional blood sacrifice in the time-honored fashion.) The repression, death and corruption engendered in Honduras with Obama’s aid and complicity have been remarkable – yet have gone completely unremarked by the legion of progressives who rightly strained at the slightest gnat of evil during George W. Bush’s lawless regime but now happily swallow whole camels of crime when Obama wears the purple. Blind guides indeed.
Still, in fitful scraps and snatches, the story of what is actually happening in Honduras filters through on occasion, usually from foreign sources. Obama has seized the opportunity of the coup to launch a “surge” of a militarized American presence in Latin America, building new “forward bases” in Honduras and entwining U.S. soldiers and government agents more and more tightly with his compliant caudillos. The Guardian reports:
The deep bullet wound in Hilda Lezama's thigh is a livid pointer to Honduras's unwanted status as the latest front line in America's war on drugs. For all of her 53 years Lezama has lived in Ahuas, a village of wooden homes built on stilts, close to the fast-flowing Patuca river in the remote Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras. For 25 years, her family have run a business ferrying locals up and down the waterways that link the isolated jungle settlements.
On such a trip two months ago, she was shot from an American helicopter in a counter-narcotics raid involving US drug enforcement agents and Honduran troops. Four other local people, including two women, were killed.
"We were returning from a trip downriver with the fishermen," she remembered. "We were travelling at night to avoid the heat. We heard the helicopters above us, but we couldn't see them. They could have let us dock and then searched the boat, but instead they shot us. Maybe they were thinking we were someone else."
US officials say Lezama's boat had picked up a stash of drugs flown into an airstrip close to the river, a charge she categorically denies. "If we were criminals we could not complain, but we are innocent working people," she insisted.
As usual, the militarisation of the situation by the United States and its local coupsters has exacerbated the problems it was ostensibly launched to combat:
...The key to the traffickers' success was corruption, said Marlon. "Always, always, always when drugs are being moved, a member of the military is involved," he said. "They allow police officers to intercept a certain amount of drugs while the other part, majority is coming in through another channel. The police take a minimal amount, just to make it look as if they are doing a good job. Narco-trafficking has taken control of our country, it's everywhere, in politics, even in the churches."
...It is hardly surprising that Honduras's political institutions have failed to stem the tide of violence and corruption sweeping the country: Honduran democracy itself was undermined by a military coup on 28 June 2009, which ousted the populist president Manuel Zelaya … Latin American states condemned the coup. So – rather belatedly – did the Obama administration. But within months the US backed a new presidential election, and offered a warm welcome to the winner, Florida-educated conservative Porfirio Lobo. ...
According to the Honduran human rights group COFADEH, more than 300 civil society campaigners have been murdered since the coup. The figure includes trade unionists, campesino farmers demanding the restoration of lands acquired by Honduras's biggest landowners, gay rights activists, and more than 20 journalists.
...There is abundant evidence that elements within the police have been committing, not solving, murders. … According to Marvin Ponce, vice-president of the Honduran congress, up to 40% of police have ties to organised crime.
More than 300 innocent people murdered -- by the warmly-welcomed coupsters -- for the crime of supporting human rights and democracy: the very values we're told are the guide and goal of all American policy. Perhaps in wan acknowledgement of this powerful but empty myth, there was once a feeble flickering of institutional opposition to the flesh-ripping, murder-enabling, all-corrupting agenda being pursued by the Peace Laureate in Honduras, as the Guardian reports:
Last year 94 members of the US Congress called on the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to end all financial and logistical support for the Honduran security forces, "given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights".
So what happened? What do you think happened?
But US support for the Honduran government has in fact been boosted; a clear indication that Lobo is currently seen as a vital ally in seemingly never-ending war on drugs in Latin America.
I think we must set aside that bit of reflexive 'contextualizing' in the typical Establishment media mode at the end there. Washington is not supporting the Lobo regime because he's an ally in the 'war on drugs' -- especially given the glaring fact (outlined in the story itself) that the Lobo regime is facilitating the drug trade with its corruption. The 'war on drugs in Latin America' is simply the excuse du jour for the ancient American crusade to impose its military and economic will on Latin America -- and to thwart the rise of any possible alternative to rule by client thugs.
But what of that? Mitt Romney had a bad week! Obama looked cool in the rain! Who cares if the behemoth goes lumbering on? The ludicrous, hideous, hallucinatory sideshow is all that matters.
George Monbiot writes, and writes well, of one of my favorite poets, John Clare. Dirt-poor, little educated, ensconced deep in an ancient agrarian world that was being broken and transformed before his eyes, he made himself into one of the great English poets of the 19th century -- although much of his best work was written after he had been committed to an asylum, for decades, and was not rediscovered until the 20th century.
Another of my favorite poets, Robert Graves, was instrumental in rescuing Clare from oblivion, championing his work and making it much more widely known in the modern world. I had the great pleasure of annotating several of Clare's poems for a multi-media anthology I edited (in another lifetime, it seems), and I can testify that many of his poems repay close reading and exegesis.
In the last two decades, Clare has assumed a greater prominence in literary studies, but he retains for me that aura of a personal, private discovery -- having found out about him, many years ago, through an old and battered paperback compendium of essays by Graves, found in the stacked wooden crates of a used bookstore in a strip mall in Knoxville. So it was good to see Monbiot noting Clare's ever-deepening significance for our world today. Below are some excerpts:
The land around Helpston, just to the north of Peterborough in Northamptonshire, now ranks among the most dismal and regularised tracts of countryside in Europe. But when the poet John Clare was born this coming Friday in 1793, it swarmed with life. Clare describes species whose presence there is almost unimaginable today. …
While life was hard and spare, it was also, he records, joyful and thrilling. The meadows resounded with children pranking and frolicking and gathering cowslips for their May Day games; the woods were alive with catcalls and laughter; around the shepherds' fires, people sang ballads and told tales. We rightly remark on the poverty and injustice of rural labour at that time; we also forget its wealth of fellowship.
All this Clare notes in tremulous bewitching detail, in the dialect of his own people. His father was a casual farm labourer, his family never more than a few days' wages from the poorhouse. Clare himself, from early childhood, scraped a living in the fields. He was schooled capriciously, and only until the age of 12, but from his first bare contact fell wildly in love with the written word. His early poems are remarkable not only for the way in which everything he sees flares into life, but also for his ability to pour his mingled thoughts and observations on to the page as they occur, allowing you, as perhaps no other poet has done, to watch the world from inside his head. …
And then he sees it fall apart. Between 1809 and 1820, acts of enclosure granted the local landowners permission to fence the fields, the heaths and woods, excluding the people who had worked and played in them. Almost everything Clare loved was torn away. The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalised, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared. Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston – especially those who depended on the commons for their survival – were deprived of their living. The places in which the people held their ceremonies and celebrated the passing of the seasons were fenced off. The community, like the land, was parcelled up, rationalised, atomised. I have watched the same process breaking up the Maasai of east Africa. …
As Jonathan Bate records in his magnificent biography, there were several possible causes of the "madness" that had Clare removed to an asylum in 1837: bipolar disorder, a blow to the head, malaria (then a common complaint on the edge of the fens). But it seems to me that a contributing factor must have been the loss of almost all he knew and loved. His work is a remarkable document of life before and after social and environmental collapse, and the anomie that resulted.
What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere. His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over. His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad.
For while economic rationalisation and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities. We have gained unimagined freedoms, we have lost unimagined freedoms – a paradox Clare explores in his wonderful poem The Fallen Elm. Our environmental crisis could be said to have begun with the enclosures. The current era of greed, privatisation and the seizure of public assets was foreshadowed by them: they prepared the soil for these toxic crops.
…. As far as I'm concerned, 13 July is Clare Day, and I'll be raising a glass to celebrate and mourn him. I hope you'll join me.
It’s become a sordid place, hollowed by money, by fear, by a meanness bred in the mud of lies, in fever-swamps of self-regard and relentless self-deception.
For a long, long time, the energy of beginning, like the flush and fire of youth, gave a glamour and a momentum that could mask the many toxins feeding on the flame of life to grow more virulent, more corrosive. But youth is gone now, energy spent; the mask is tattered and hides nothing.
Here the last extracted, blood-flecked exhalation of the slave and the native are hanging in the ashen mist of sundown. Here the busted, bloated progeny of all-devouring pioneers are gathered in the dwindled light of an abandoned strip-mall storefront, where they grunt old war-cries and chew sour rags.
Stewing in righteousness. Strangled by the spittle of their garbled prayers to the wilting god in their mirrors. Tearing the songlines out of their brains. Losing the knowledge of letters. Shaving off the mountaintops, then blaming the sky for being too far away.
Below are a couple of refrains to mark this the day when we remember our freedoms. (And we certainly do have to remember them, like mourners at a funeral; most of them aren't here any more.) First we have a brief precis on political platforms in this election year, then a song in honor of one the very few patriots who have actually acted on behalf of their country in recent years: Bradley Manning, who tried to end our nation's damnable atrocity in Iraq by exposing the reality of imperial war. Unfortunately, he overestimated the moral character of his countrymen, who by and large greeted his revelations with a shrug of the shoulders -- when they weren't actively cheering his imprisonment and/or calling for his execution. The last refuge of scoundrels, indeed. Happy Fourth!
When I was growing up, the "four-day work week" was considered a viable political and social goal: the next logical step after the long and often bloody struggle to win a five-day week for most working people. Like "full employment," this idea was sometimes actually built into the public platforms of serious, broad-based parties and political movements.
Yes, children, before "wealth creators" and other masters of the universe were held up as worthy models for their 80-hour weeks and unstinting dedication to squeezing every single minute ever more tightly for a few more bucks -- before those of us who serve the creators and masters were supposed to be supinely grateful for working ever harder and longer to swell the bosses' private coffers -- there once existed the notion that there might actually be more to human life than the treadmill and the ant hill. And that we might even use the amazing technological advances that our species has produced to make life easier, richer, deeper, more engaging and humane for all of us.
All of this is long gone now, of course. As Owen Hatherly notes in the Guardian, both Right and Left have combined, for many decades, to advance the idea that pointless labor is our lot, and that we should be happy with it:
... Conservatives have always loved to pontificate about the moral virtue of hard work and much of the left, focusing on the terrible effects of mass unemployment, understandably gives "more jobs" as its main solution to the crisis. Previous generations would have found this hopelessly disappointing.
In almost all cases, utopians, socialists and other futurologists believed that work would come near to being abolished for one reason above all – we could let the machines do it. The socialist thinker Paul Lafargue wrote in his pointedly titled tract The Right To Be Lazy (1883):
"Our machines, with breath of fire, with limbs of unwearying steel, with fruitfulness wonderful inexhaustible, accomplish by themselves with docility their sacred labour. And nevertheless the genius of the great philosophers of capitalism remains dominated by the prejudices of the wage system, worst of slaveries. They do not yet understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the god who shall redeem man from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty."
Oscar Wilde evidently agreed – in his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he scorns the "nonsense that is written and talked today about the dignity of manual labour", and insists that "man is made for something better than distributing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine". He makes quite clear what he means:
"Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing".
Both Lafargue and Wilde would have been horrified if they'd realised that only 20 years later manual work itself would become an ideology in Labour and Communist parties, dedicating themselves to its glorification rather than abolition. ... American industrial theorists, strangely enough, seemed to share [these later] socialiists' views.
Of course, as Hatherly points out, in the hands of our wealth creators and universe masters, technology did eliminate a lot of work -- but not for those who labor and are heavy-laden. As with so much else in our system, the risks and downsides of technological development have been "socialized" -- borne solely by ordinary people -- while the profits and benefits are "privatized" into the coffers and control of the elite:
Yet the utopian vision of the elimination of industrial labour has in many ways come to pass. Over the past decade Sheffield steelworks produced more steel than ever before, with a tiny fraction of their former workforce; and the container ports of Avonmouth, Tilbury, Teesport and Southampton got rid of most of the dockers, but not the tonnage.
The result was not that dockers or steelworkers were free to, as Marx once put it, "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and criticise after dinner". Instead, they were subjected to shame, poverty, and the endless worry over finding another job, which, if it arrived, might be insecure, poorly paid, un-unionised work in the service industry. In the current era of casualisation, that's practically the norm, so the idea of skilled, secure labour and pride in work doesn't seem quite so awful. Nonetheless, the workers' movement was once dedicated to the eventual abolition of all menial, tedious, grinding work. We have the machines to make that a reality today – but none of the will.
Yes, in our ultramodern, technologically super-savvy 21st century, we all must be grateful -- yea, humble and worshipful -- if we are lucky enough to be vouchsafed the privilege of wage slavery by the masters and creators.
This is what is known as "progress."
II. Hatherly's piece put me in mind of some scraps on this theme which I set down some time ago. These lines were initially prompted by some readings inBabylonian history, especially a passage about their belief that the gods, tired of working so hard themselves, made humankind to labor on their behalf.
Babylonian Theology If the gods themselves grew tired of ceaseless labor and rebelled, making the clay things that we are, endowing us with sufficient mind and spirit not only to do their work but also look and yearn beyond, why shouldn't we in our turn overthrow divine order in search of ease, rich pleasures and idleness?
Death, you say, will follow; but death is here already, it waits on the good servant and the bad, swallows both, swallows all. Why then blister your hand with the heft of an axe when you might instead lay it gently on some soft flesh?
No: proclaim yourself an enemy of all industry; he who works for another man's bread is a slave. Declare your fast devotion to the goddess of Joy: serve her with song, and wine, and every kind of dream.
Let no black hat or stiff collar come to charge you with sin or sloth or crime: if he'll crush no cup, then send him to the devil. If he will not sing, then let him die the blank white agonizing death in life of a soul unrooted from the natural way.