In a world overshadowed by death and domination, life and love go on – at the margins, beneath the radar, far from the madding crowd …
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Already the story is starting to unravel, mutate, transmogrify. Government statements that were presented as gospel truths in every media outlet in the world, and which served as the basis for ten thousand earnest, serious commentaries, turn out, one day later, to have been false.
We had been told – by the president’s top “counterterrorism adviser,” John Brennan – that Osama had been “engaged in a firefight” when he was gunned down by American agents. This was not true; it turns out that he was unarmed when they shot him in the head. We were told that the base coward used his wife as a human shield while he pumped hot lead at America’s boys. This was not true. There were no human shields – although Osama’s wife was shot in the leg, while another woman, wife to a bin Laden aide, was shot and killed by the agents.
Of course, even these new officially released“facts” must be taken with a grain of salt, since they spring from the same impenetrable murk of the security apparat from whence the original story of the raid emerged. Will these new details change tomorrow?
(Meanwhile, actual reporters doing actual reporting independently uncovered another falsehood in the first story: the compound that was raided in Abbottabad was not a “million-dollar mansion,” but a rather ordinary house in a middle-class area, worth about $250,000.)
In any case, we are told by the Fightin’ Patriotic Progressives who now stand foursquare behind the apparat that we should not trouble our little heads over these “discrepancies.” Such things are to be expected in the “fog of war.” (But didn’t the president and his national security team – including John Brennan – actually watch the raid unfold on live video feed? Didn’t Brennan see what happened with his own eyes?)
Or if not fog, then the original misinformation can be put down to “subconscious” mythologizing, as Digby tells us. ("I think it was mythologizing for the sake of mythologizing, even if it was subconscious.") Our leaders wanted an old-fashioned cowboy shoot-out for the big climax of the bin Laden story, and so, somehow, the counterterrorism chief of the United States just, you know, subconsciously rearranged the facts to fit the myth. But as Digby sternly warns us: “Let's not get stupid. The fact that they embellished doesn't mean it didn't happen.” That’s true; but “the fact that they embellished” does mean that we would be, well, stupid to accept anything that belches forth from the Secret State at face value.
I don’t mean to pick on Digby; but the post linked above serves as an almost perfect example of the moral schizophrenia that has gripped the progressive movement since the advent of Obama. At one point, she rightly notes that no one would have been bothered if the Administration had admitted from the start that bin Laden was unarmed when they killed him. As she says, the assassination scenario was duly praised by such rock-ribbed liberal icons as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; and she notes, astutely, “I don't think there's any political downside, and in fact it probably makes them look more macho in the eyes of the people.”
(Indeed; all manner of liberals have been exulting in the new image of Obama the Heroic Hit Man. For example, Juan Cole and James Wolcott – both long-time scourges of the witless, brutal militarism of the Bush Regime – posted up a lolcat-style photo of a cool, grinning Obama in shades, emblazoned with the tagline, “Sorry it took so long to get you a copy of my birth certificate – I was too busy killing Osama bin Laden.”)
Digby then goes on to offer up another telling – and damning – insight:
Besides, the question of whether the president could order an assassination was settled some time ago. They assert the right to keep prisoners in jail forever and kill American citizens, and nobody cares, so why in the world would there be any domestic blowback for ordering the death of the world's most wanted man?
Here is where the schizophrenia sets in. It is obvious, from this and other posts, that Digby is horrified and outraged at Obama’s open claim of this universal license to kill and imprison with impunity. That is, she fully recognizes that the United States government is led by a man who believes he can murder anyone he pleases, at any time, at his own arbitrary decision. She knows that he has used this power over and over, most extensively in Pakistan, where even by the most conservative estimates hundreds of innocent people – including many women and children – have been killed in Obama’s drone missile campaign.
She knows, in other words, that Obama has killed hundreds of innocent people. Hundreds of innocent people. Little children, women, old folks, young marrieds, fathers, mothers, teenagers – he has killed them in their own homes, in the streets of their villages, in their cars, at their weddings and funerals and birthday parties and family gatherings, raining down missiles, without warning, with no way to escape, no defense, killed them, the babies, the children, the old, the sick, ripped their bodies to shreds, buried them under rubble, tore off their heads, set them on fire to die in the purest agony. She knows this. She decries this. She believes it is wrong. Yet the general thrust of her widely read blog is that this man who does these things, who commits these horrors, who claims these murderous, tyrannous powers, should, at all costs, be retained in power so that he can carry on doing these things which sicken and horrify her.
But this is not simply a case of lesser evilism in a system where all the alternatives are grim – i.e., “Well, Göring is a monster but he’s probably marginally better than Hitler; let’s support a bloody coup to install him as Führer”. No; Digby and many other progressives whose writings show they are perfectly aware of the atrocities that Obama has committed and the evil policies he embraces – such as the unrestricted license to kill – still display an active affection and celebratory support for him. To them, even though he has killed these people and claimed these awful powers, he is still one cool guy.
Witness their delight at Obama’s comedy routine at the Correspondent’s Dinner last week, when he poked fun at the pathetic Donald Trump, garnering big yocks from the Beltway elite – even as NATO missiles were killing three young grandchildren of Moamar Gadafy: more child sacrifices offered up on the altar of our modern Molochs. They didn't even notice.
Oh, they often shake their heads sadly or waggle their fingers sternly at some action or policy of Obama’s. They often can’t understand why he does these things – cut taxes for the rich, bail out the bankers, torture Bradley Manning, form commissions to gut Social Security, escalate and prolong the Terror War, kill hundreds of people with drone missiles, etc., etc. But nothing douses their fundamental (fundamentalist?) fervor to keep him in power and to scorn those who oppose him. Nothing keeps them from seeing themselves as his true and faithful "base," still waiting for him to return to them, despite his many betrayals. (Subconscious betrayals, no doubt.)
And we can expect more encomiums to the president’s eloquence and heroism from these quarters on Thursday, when, with the good taste and tact so characteristic of our bipartisan ruling class, Obama goes to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York City to celebrate the shooting of an unarmed man in the head.
Yes, the president of the United States, accompanied by various Establishment worthies and doubtless a few dignified clerics, will stand at Ground Zero to glorify a killing that his own minions tell us will change nothing whatsoever: the wars will go on, “vigilance will be redoubled” (i.e., civil liberties will continue to be eroded, black ops will continue in the 70 countries or more where America is carrying out covert operations), the Secret State will keep growing, the universal license to kill and snatch and incarcerate and torture will remain in full force. So what exactly is being celebrated?
A cynic – or someone being skeptically “stupid” in the Digbyian sense – might say the occasion is more exploitation than celebration: exploiting the grief of the families of 9/11 survivors who will be trotted out to express their tearful gratitude to the president who has given them “closure” – and who will reap the poll bounce from this moment of “national unity,” just as his predecessor rode a similar exploitation of death to his own re-election.
Oh, but let us not be stupid. Let us acknowledge that the president kills innocent people and “asserts the right to keep prisoners in jail forever and kill American citizens” and puts out false information (subconsciously, of course! Always subconsciously!) about murky operations which we must take on faith like dutiful subjects in militarized state, not fully-fledged citizens in a republic – but let us still revel in his triumphs, delight in his eloquence, and work with all our strength to make sure he continues to invert, pervert and subvert every progressive value we hold dear.
That’s not “stupid” at all, is it?
UPDATE: Administration officials are now denying that Obama's national security team watched the execution of bin Laden on video feed, as was originally reported. Officials now say that the team was receiving "minute-by-minute updates" -- via unspecified technology -- and that, according to CIA honcho Leon Panetta, "there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes that we really didn't know just exactly what was going on." That would be the 20 or 25 minutes when the actual killing took place, presumably.
It's hard to understand how this wild story about the team watched the whole thing unfold in real time. Just one of those crazy urban myths, I guess. Or perhaps it was because of this bit of "subconscious mythologizing" that was offered up by the president's own chief adviser on counterterrorism, John Brennan, just two days ago:
"We were able to monitor in a real-time basis the progress of the operation from its commencement to its time on target to the extraction of the remains and to then the egress off of the target… we were able to monitor the situation in real time and were able to have regular updates and to ensure that we had real-time visibility into the progress of the operation. I'm not going to go into details about what type of visuals we had or what type of feeds that were there, but it was – it gave us the ability to actually track it on an ongoing basis."
I suppose really vague language like "we were able to monitor in a real-time basis the progress of the operation" from the start to the kill to the "extraction of the remains" and the grand skeedaddle could be twisted by stupid conspiracy theorists into some kind of cockamamie notion that Barry and Hill and, er, John Brennan, had, well, monitored the operation in real time. But now we know better.
UPDATE 2: There will doubtless be more backtracking and backfilling and sidestepping and subconscious mythologizing in the days to come. For it turns out that the crack crew of American agents left a whole group of eyewitnesses to the operation behind -- including the 12-year-old daughter of bin Laden, who saw her father killed -- and was also wounded in the attack.
As the Guardian reports, at least 10 people were left behind after the raid -- presumably because the raiding party did not have room to cart them off after losing one of their helicopters before the kill. Pakistani officials found the survivors -- including bin Laden's wife and the wounded daughter -- when they arrived on the scene just after the American exit. All of the survivors had been handcuffed, Pakistani officials said. The Americans also left four dead bodies behind: three men and a woman, taking only bin Laden and his dead son. From the Guardian:
Local authorities arrived on the scene of the raid as American special forces were leaving. It is believed that the attackers originally planned to evacuate all those in the compound but the breakdown of a helicopter meant there was no space to take them.
Instead, only the bodies of Bin Laden and his son Hamza, who was in his early 20s, were taken to the aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson and buried at sea. Survivors were left with their hands fastened with plastic handcuffs, a second Pakistani official said, adding that initial communications with the survivors had been difficult as the Pakistani police and military arriving at the scene did not speak Arabic.
The survivors are now being held by the Pakistanis, who say they will return them to their home countries as soon as the respective governments ask for them. At the moment, they are not allowing American agents to interrogate them -- strenuously or otherwise. But no doubt as the survivors' stories begin to emerge -- and yes, they will have their own spin and agenda, just like Obama and his subconsciously mythologizing security apparatchiks -- we will see several more "corrections" of the "historical record" now being woven and re-woven in front of our eyes.Add a comment
WASHINGTON, May 5, 2004 – In a dramatic late-night appearance in the White House press room, President George W. Bush announced that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had been found in a secret stronghold near the Syrian border.
“We knew he had them, we knew we would find them. It was just a matter of time,” said an exultant Mr. Bush, who has been subjected to constant criticism for more than a year over the failure to find the WMD that sparked the invasion of Iraq in April 2003.
Bush said a covert military intelligence team discovered the arsenal in an underground fortress 10 miles west of the city of Anah. The stockpile included artillery shells and long-range missiles loaded with anthrax, nerve gas, VX, sarin and other deadly toxins. The team also found extensive laboratories where fatal poisons were being developed which could be used in smaller-scale terrorist attacks, such as in subways, airports, even city water supplies.
“It was like the gates of hell had been opened,” Bush said. “These weapons and toxins could have destroyed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, all around the world. Today has been a triumph of good over pure evil, and another ringing testament to America’s greatness.”
Bush said the weapons and the laboratories have been completely destroyed, to avoid any of the material falling into the wrong hands.
“These instruments of evil have been obliterated and scattered to the four winds,” the president said. “No trace of them remains. Let this be a lesson to all those who would raise their hands against the peace and security of humankind: they will be wiped from the face of the earth.”
Administration officials said that pictures of the operation will probably be released in the coming days, after being carefully vetted to avoid disclosure of any vital security information, including the identities of the secret military intelligence team.
White House officials said the discovery was the result of painstaking intelligence work. A senior official with direct knowledge of the operation said that “much of the actionable intelligence” had been garnered from the “strenuous interrogation” of Iraqi prisoners being held in Abu Ghraib prison. The discovery comes just days after news reports on alleged prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib – allegations which threatened to become a major scandal, and perhaps an obstacle to Mr. Bush’s chances for re-election in the fall.
But today’s news will likely sweep away such concerns, along with the lingering doubts over the existence of Iraq’s WMD, and the resulting discontent with a war that has proven more difficult to end than most people expected. The crowds that spontaneously appeared outside the White House and at Ground Zero in New York to cheer the news seemed to bear out this analysis.
“He was right all along, he was right to invade, he was right to treat these prisoners like the animals they are,” said Sandra Lucas, a day-care teacher from Baltimore who came to the White House to celebrate.
“You gotta do what it takes to get the job done,” said Ken Mahafalous, a stockbroker who joined the Ground Zero crowd. “If it takes a war to keep us safe, if it takes a little rough stuff now and then, that’s what you do. I admit I had my doubts – and I didn’t vote for Bush in the first place – but this is real leadership, making the tough calls. My hat’s off to him. USA! USA!”
There was wide bipartisan praise for the operation and for Mr. Bush’s “gutsy” call in launching the war and persevering with the occupation despite the doubts and the criticism. The few dissenting voices were swiftly rebuked for “politicizing” a moment of national unity. Sen. Ross Feingold (D-WI) was widely denounced for his skeptical comments after Bush’s announcement.
“They destroyed all evidence of the weapons as soon as they found them in a top-secret operation? That doesn’t make sense to me,” Feingold said in an interview with NBC’s Tim Russert. “Now no one else can independently confirm what actually happened. We are supposed to take the administration’s word at face value – no questions asked. I’m not saying the weapons weren’t there, but force-feeding a docile public with unconfirmable statements – especially about matters which have been swathed in murk and mystery for years – this is not the way a democracy is supposed to work.”
Feingold’s remarks drew the ire of prominent commentators such as Parton Digby.
“I expect this from a Neanderthal drunk in a bar today, but coming from a US Senator it's enough to make you sick,” Digby wrote. “But I think Feingold’s motives are probably fairly prosaic. He’s up for re-election and wants to shore up his antiwar cred among the fringe left. The moonbats are in desperate need of a fresh conspiracy theory and this one has the potential to be a doozy. I mean, why else would anyone ever express the slightest skepticism about our government’s covert actions? You either have to be crazy, or else pushing some partisan agenda. Or maybe both.”
Although the discovery and destruction of Iraq’s WMD was the aim of the 2003 invasion, President Bush made it clear that the war will go on.
“We are not yet safe from those who hate us for our freedoms and our way of life," said Mr. Bush. "We must in fact redouble our efforts to ensure the safety of our children and bring democracy and stability to these volatile swamps of extremism. And we can expect our enemies to strike back even harder in response to our triumph today. But to them, I say: bring it on. For we are America. And America can do whatever we set our mind to."
The excuse for the War on Terror is gone; will the War on Terror now come to an end? The bipartisan high and mighty rushed to insist that it most certainly will not. Obama, Bush, Kerry, McCain, Boehner, Schumer -- all the great and good were quick to say that "the fight is not over," the "threat is still there" -- the profitable wars and fearmongering will go on. And on. And on.
(Besides, who needs bin Laden when we've got Gadafy back as the demon du jour? In any case, Great Satans are always thick on the ground when the War Machine needs greasing.)
I suppose there is a chance, however -- a chance -- that the elimination of this emblem might finally stir a few more people to oppose, or at least begin to question, the continuation of the wars that were supposedly launched in response to 9/11. Perhaps a few more people will look around and say, "Why is our nation going bankrupt fighting all these wars? Didn't they kill ole bin Laden already? Wasn't that what it was all about?"
Of course, that never was "what it is was all about." But as the elites push forward with their wars, perhaps we'll see a bit more pushback. A wan hope, perhaps -- or rather, certainly. By and large, the American people seem to have accepted permanent war as a natural state, just the way things are and will always be. But perhaps the removal of this all-obscuring symbol from the public consciousness will let a few more chinks of light into a few more minds.
It was one of those horrific juxtapositions that an imperial state breeds in abundance: the emperor joking at a luxurious banquet with fawning courtiers, while his agents are killing innocent children on a distant frontier.
Such was the scene this weekend, as President Barack Obama enjoyed his star turn at the White House Correspondents Dinner, that sick-making orgy of cuddly collusion between the media and political elites. In recent years, the sycophantic shindig has turned into a veritable Oscars Night for the political set. (And increasingly the Hollywood set as well; one of the major stories of the big night was that Dinner guests Sean Penn and Scarlett Johansson were seen holding hands as they left one of the many glittering "after-parties" attached with the event! I mean, OMG! No wonder it got screaming headlines at HuffPo -- that bastion of hard-hitting progressive journalism.)
Obama delivered the usual professionally scripted zingers to appreciative howls of laughter from the savvy Beltway crowd. (The same kind of laughter that the same crowd gave in the same craven way to Dubya Bush when he was the bossman.) These paeans of praise later rippled out across the progressive blogosphere, where stalwarts like Digby rushed to post up video clips of Obama's "very funny speech" at the Dinner. The progressosphere was absolutely aglow with giddy, giggly pride at the sight of Obama shooting fat dead fish in a barrel -- i.e., making fun of Donald Trump.
This was real leadership! This was the president striking back, taking it to his enemies at last, and, hey, having some fun with it too. Oh, what a tonic! What a hoot! What yocks! 2012? Bring it on!
But even as the media mavens and the glitterati and the fightin' progressive keyboarders were lapping up the imperial schtick, Libyans were digging the eviscerated bodies of three young children out of the ruins of the private home where they were killed by NATO missiles Saturday night. They were the grandchildren of Moamar Gadafy, who was the target of the attack, which also killed his youngest son. The dead children were all under the age of 12.
The missiles tore into a residential area of Tripoli, where the Gadafys were having a family gathering. NATO -- along with the nasty little upper class twit now in charge of the British government, David Cameron -- insisted that the Humanitarian Interventionists were not, repeat NOT, trying to kill Moamar Gadafy by sending three missiles into a house where they believed he was staying. No, no, no. That would be wrong; that would be totally outside the UN mandate governing the intervention. That would be attempted assassination and regime change. The good and godly lords of the West would never do anything like that.
So even though Cameron and Obama and that little French guy all wrote a column together declaring that Moamar Gadafy cannot be allowed to stay in power, they are not trying to change the regime. And even though they are sending missiles into his houses, they are not trying to kill him. And anyway, even if they were trying to kill him -- which they're not -- they would be within their rights to do so under the UN mandate which permits attacks on the regime's "command and control" sites. Or as Cameron -- a former PR flack - put it, he and Obama and the little guy can send missiles into private homes and kill small children because they are trying to prevent "a loss of civilian life by targeting Gadafy's war-making machine." And since Gadafy is at the heart of that machine, they are permitted to try to kill him. But they aren't targeting him. Is it all clear now?
It must be clear, for the murder of these children by NATO missiles has occasioned almost no protest -- indeed, hardly any mention -- across the political spectrum in the United States. The progressives are too busy yukking it up at their man's comic cool. The rightwing militarists are too busy applauding this attempt to "cut off the head of the snake." The "centrists" are too busy sleeping off their Correspondence Dinner hangovers.
And so the killing on the frontiers -- the ever-expanding line of imperial dominance -- will go on. But while the yuks and yocks of the courtiers' banquet keep ringing through the Beltway, you can be sure that the people being blown to bits on those imperial lines -- in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc. -- will not die laughing.
NOTE: After yesterday's post on the deadly incident, a reader kindly called to mind a previous piece -- originally written eight years ago -- that might have some relevance to these latest imperial juxtapositions:
While you were dreaming
While you wrapped your mind in silks
Bronze Steel Stone
Did their work
While you breathed the fumes
Of the oracle's fissure
Deranged the senses
Settled in soft beds
Sent agents into the streets
Hard men pinched men
Bronze Steel Stone
To eliminate execute
Discredit and destroy
While you stood in the forum
Declaimed high words
Filled temples with fragrant smoke
Scrawled millions of learned disquisitions
Somewhere, in your name
Fired the village
In your name
Put steel to the belly
While you were wrapped in silks
While you grubbed
While you drank degraded waters
Drank dark, brilliant wine
While you sang, while you dreamed
Rome hammered the real
O how wonderful it is to live in such an enlightened age! Just think: not long ago, the U.S. government was seen as little more than a vast war machine -- brutal, murderous, inhumane, bent on global domination. Yet now, by some marvelous, miraculous twist of fate, that same government is being led by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate! It's as if Lyndon Johnson had been turfed out of office back in the day and replaced by Martin Luther King Jr.!
So what the modern-day MLK up to today? In what way was the Laureate in the White House advancing the vision and practice of peace? Why, he was murdering children in a "targeted assassination," of course! He was escalating an increasingly savage "regime change" operation in blatant contradiction to the UN mandate supposedly governing the latest of his escalations and surges around the world.
Yes, on Saturday -- just days after the Peace Laureate's administration announced it was sending unmanned drone bombers into the Libyan civil war, the residence of Libyan leader Moamar Gadafy was torn apart by a precision missile attack. The attack on a residential area of Tripoli missed Gadafy, but killed his youngest son, Saif al-Arab, and three of the leader's grandchildren.
With this great act of peace, Obama surpassed one of his favorite presidents, Ronald Reagan, who only managed to kill a single infant adopted daughter of Gadafy back when he was bombing Libya. The Laureate now has four Gadafy family members -- and blood members, too! -- notched on his gun belt.
This is surely an achievement in which all progressive lovers of peace can take enormous pride.
More confirmation of imperial perfidy is on tap today from the trove of classified files originally obtained by WikiLeaks on the U.S. concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay. Most of the information released so far was already known -- to the very, very few who cared to find out -- having emerged in dribs and drabs and fragments in various places over the years. But to see it gathered together, in raw form, in the words of the perpetrators and accomplices of this vast, still-ongoing crime, is a powerful, and sickening, experience.
Almost as sickening as the atrocities themselves, however, is the way the release has been played in the New York Times, whose coverage of the document dump will set the tone for the American media and political establishments. The Times' take is almost wholly devoted to showing how evil and dangerous a handful of the hundreds of Gitmo detainees were, and to justifying Barack Obama's betrayal of his promises to close the concentration camp. We are treated to lurid tales (many if not most of them extracted under torture, but who cares about that?) of monsters seething with irrepressible hatred of America, and so maniacally devoted to jihad that they inject themselves with libido-deadening drugs to ward off any sexual distractions from their murderous agenda.
There is almost no mention in the Times coverage of the many innocent people -- including children -- who spent years in the concentration camp, athough the main story about the documents does note, in an eyeblink, the case of one prisoner who was falsely imprisoned on the word of an Afghan official trying to hide his own complicity with insurgents. (Damn treacherous furriners!)
And the notorious case of Al Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj, held for six years in the concentration camp while interrogators pressed him for details not about terrorism but about the network, is also given one paragraph -- with a conclusion that implies our "serious" journalists at the Times still have their reservations about the grubby little Ay-rab: "While Mr. Hajj insisted he was just a journalist, his file says he helped Islamic extremist groups courier money and obtain Stinger missiles and cites the United Arab Emirates’ claim that he was a Qaeda member."
Yes, his file could say anything that his captors wanted it to say -- information they made up, information they tortured and terrorized out of other captives. But even though al-Hajj was finally released by the very people who first made those charges -- which they obviously could not make stick -- his fellow journalists at one of the world's leading newspapers still couch his case in iffy terms: "Well, he says he was just a journalist, but look here -- al Qaeda!! Ya just never know, do you?" That's real journalistic solidarity for you.
Now it's true that the Times also runs another prominent story that seems to take on the known fact that scores of the concentration camp's inmates were innocent people battered for years with "harsh interrogation techniques" to make them confess to crimes they never committed and implicate others. The story is headlined: "Judging Detainees’ Risk, Often With Flawed Evidence."
Flawed evidence! Now we'll some of the darker side. Perhaps we were too hasty to judge the main story, so .... er .... You will not be surprised at this point to find that the second story is not concerned with these scores of innocent, abused men (and children), but with ... evil Gitmo inmates who fooled their soft-hearted captors into releasing them.
Taken together, the Times' first "package" on the Gitmo documents is a breathtaking exercise in the Pravdazation of information in a putative democracy with a putative free press. The general thrust of the stories conforms almost entirely to the American elite's accepted myth about Gitmo -- and indeed, about all of the state's crimes against humanity: that well-intentioned, good-hearted people did the best they could in a volatile situation. Mistakes were made, sure, and of course there were a few bad eggs here and there at the lower levels, and yeah, some officials were more competent than others, and things are in a bit of a mess, but still. When we erred, it was usually because we were too soft for our own good. And in any case, the intentions of our leaders and their minions are always noble and pure: to protect the security of the American people, and advance democracy throughout the world.
This is the message that the New York Times wants you to take away from its first, scene-setting, tone-establishing package on the Gitmo files. (It also wants you to know that although the files were originally obtained by WikiLeaks, the Times got their copy "from a different source." They're not involved with those awful, icky, dangerous WikiLeakers, no sireebob! They are a serious, reputable organization.)
Here, perhaps, is the nut graph, the essence of the "insights" taken from the files by Messers Savage, Glaberman, Lehren and their editors:
The Guantánamo assessments seem unlikely to end the long-running debate about America’s most controversial prison. The documents can be mined for evidence supporting beliefs across the political spectrum about the relative perils posed by the detainees and whether the government’s system of holding most without trials is justified.
Nothing to see here in these files; nothing to end the "debate" over Gitmo. And what, according to the New York Times, are the parameters of this debate? The "relative peril" posed by the captives and whether holding any person for the rest of his life without trial is "justified." Think of that! Whether to hold a person -- any person -- in captivity, indefinitely, without trial, is now a matter of "debate" in the United States of America. Of course, the truth is that it is not a matter of debate at all; it is simply an accepted fact now, by our political and media elites, and by the general public.
Indeed, note this truly chilling phrase, in the second paragraph of the main story:
"What began as a jury-rigged experiment after the 2001 terrorist attacks now seems like an enduring American institution ... "
This is offered straight up, as a statement of fact, and not as, say, a prelude to moral outrage or deep shock. Certainly not on the part of the reporters, who maintain a completely ersatz "neutrality" as they "mine" the documents "for evidence supporting beliefs" in the elitist myth of America's bumbling, shambling goodness. But they don't even bother scrounging up someone -- someone "serious," of course, from a reputable human rights group, or maybe an Ivy League academic -- to offer even the mildest, blandest intimation that perhaps maybe it might not be the very best thing in the world for a center of torture, coercion, and lawless imprisonment to become "an enduring American institution."
There is apparently no room in this civilized "debate" for the expression of that idea, even in the severely attenuated form that any mildly dissenting thought is allowed expression in the pages of our leading news journal. Nor is there any room for the notion that it is a monstrous evil to kidnap people, buy them from bounty hunters, round them up in city streets all over the world, and dump them in a concentration camp where they can be tortured, abused, driven mad and abandoned without any legal recourse for years on end -- or years without end.
Such thoughts are now beyond the pale. The concentration camp is now "an enduring American institution." Our wise president is right to betray his sworn promises to end the system. We need to keep all these big bad men locked up. It's a mistake to be too soft. These are the "new insights" that the New York Times -- leader of, yes, the "liberal media" -- wants you to take away from the Gitmo files. It's all OK. It's all ... normal.
Which reminds me of something I wrote almost 10 years ago, in November 2001, in the very weeks that the concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay was bringing in its first hooded captives for "harsh interrogation":
It won't come with jackboots and book burnings, with mass rallies and fevered harangues. It won't come with "black helicopters" or tanks on the street. It won't come like a storm – but like a break in the weather, that sudden change of season you might feel when the wind shifts on an October evening: everything is the same, but everything has changed. Something has gone, departed from the world, and a new reality has taken its place.
As in Rome, all the old forms will still be there; legislatures, elections, campaigns – plenty of bread and circuses for the folks. But the "consent of the governed" will no longer apply; actual control of the state will have passed to a small group of nobles who rule largely for the benefit of their wealthy peers and corporate patrons.
To be sure, there will be factional conflicts among this elite, and a degree of free debate will be permitted, within limits; but no one outside the privileged circle will be allowed to govern or influence state policy. Dissidents will be marginalized – usually by "the people" themselves. Deprived of historical knowledge by an impoverished educational system designed to produce complacent consumers, not thoughtful citizens, and left ignorant of current events by a media devoted solely to profit, many will internalize the force-fed values of the ruling elite, and act accordingly. There will be little need for overt methods of control.
The rulers will often act in secret; for reasons of "national security," the people will not be permitted to know what goes on in their name. Actions once unthinkable will be accepted as routine: government by executive fiat, the murder of "enemies" selected by the leader, undeclared war, torture, mass detentions without charge, the looting of the national treasury, the creation of huge new "security structures" targeted at the populace. In time, all this will come to seem "normal," as the chill of autumn feels normal when summer is gone.
The new normality is here, and is being entrenched even further, every day, by the drone-wielding, war-surging, torturer-defending Continuer-in-Chief of this brutal imperial system. Obama is doubtless reading the package with a big smile on his face, as he watches the Times scurry to justify his wholesale adoption of the Bush-Cheney gulag mindset. And how many "progressives" will now seize on the Times' take to acquit their noble champion for betraying his promises on Gitmo? ("See, Obama was right: ya can't let those monsters loose after all!") Keeping Gitmo open -- indefinitely -- will now become the new "centrist" position. And those who felt a bit wiggly about their champion's failure in this regard can -- what else? -- move on, and fight wholeheartedly for his re-election.
The myth lives on ... even as the chill of autumn turns into a long, endless winter.
2. Another View
But while the sanitary engineers at the NY Times work hard to keep the American people as ignorant as possible about the goings-on at Gitmo, those unfortunate wretches living outside the Gates of Eden are being given a much more unvarnished look at the truth. The Guardian, which was also given access to the files, goes beyond the regurgitation of imperial spin to give us a portrait of the system, warts and all. Below are some of the "insights" gleaned by the Guardian from the save trove examined -- or not examined -- by the Times:
The US military dossiers, obtained by the New York Times and the Guardian, reveal how, alongside the so-called "worst of the worst", many prisoners were flown to the Guantánamo cages and held captive for years on the flimsiest grounds, or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment. The files depict a system often focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters, than on extracting intelligence.
Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year-old Afghan villager, suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim. The old man was transported to Cuba to interrogate him about "suspicious phone numbers" found in his compound. The 14-year-old was shipped out merely because of "his possible knowledge of Taliban...local leaders"
The documents also reveal ... Almost 100 of the inmates who passed through Guantánamo are listed by their captors as having had depressive or psychotic illnesses. Many went on hunger strike or attempted suicide.
A number of British nationals and residents were held for years even though US authorities knew they were not Taliban or al-Qaida members. One Briton, Jamal al-Harith, was rendered to Guantánamo simply because he had been held in a Taliban prison and was thought to have knowledge of their interrogation techniques. The US military tried to hang on to another Briton, Binyam Mohamed, even after charges had been dropped and evidence emerged he had been tortured.
US authorities relied heavily on information obtained from a small number of detainees under torture. They continued to maintain this testimony was reliable even after admitting that the prisoners who provided it had been mistreated.
...The files also detail how many innocents or marginal figures swept up by the Guantánamo dragnet because US forces thought they might be of some intelligence value. One man was transferred to the facility "because he was a mullah, who led prayers at Manu mosque in Kandahar province, Afghanistan … which placed him in a position to have special knowledge of the Taliban". US authorities eventually released him after more than a year's captivity, deciding he had no intelligence value. Another prisoner was shipped to the base "because of his general knowledge of activities in the areas of Khowst and Kabul based as a result of his frequent travels through the region as a taxi driver".
There is much more in the larger package offered by the Guardian. The paper also offers some telling comments by Julian Glover:
Let them read the documents. Let them try to tell us after that (as some still do, even now) that the Afghan war was fought well, and fought morally; that Guantánamo was a limited and necessary evil; that there was nothing that amounted to torture; that the prisoners stolen from across the world were almost all fanatics; and that it was necessary for democratic states to excuse themselves from the rule of law in order to save it.
"If you could only know what we can know, you would understand that what we are doing is right," our leaders used to assure us. Well now we really do know – we have the documents, we have the transcripts of interviews with former prisoners, we have everything it takes to understand the nasty story of Guantánamo, exposed today in 759 leaked documents containing the words of the people who ran the place. And it is obvious that we should have seen through the evasions from the start.
The leaked files ... reveal horror that lies only partly in the physical things that were done to inmates – the desperate brutality of heated isolation cells, restraining straps and forced interrogation. Such things are already grimly familiar and have been widely condemned, and perhaps for the 172 inmates who remain in Camp Delta despite President Obama's promise to close it, they continue in some lesser form. Worse things have been done in war, not least by us British, as emerging evidence from the campaign against the Mau Mau in Kenya should remind us.
But what is given new prominence by these latest Guantánamo files is the cold, incompetent stupidity of the system: a system that tangled up the old and the young, the sick and the innocent. A system in which to say you were not a terrorist might be taken as evidence of your cunning. A system designed less to hand out justice than to process and supply information from inmates, as if they were not humans but items of digital data in some demented storage machine programmed always to reject the answer "No, I was not involved". The clinical idiocy of this dreadful place is the most chilling thing of all, since it strips away even the cynical but persuasive defence: it was harsh but it worked and it kept the world safe.
It didn't work, much of the time. These files show that some of the information collected was garbage and that many of those held knew nothing that could be of use to the people demanding answers from them. Far from securing the fight against terror, the people running the camp faced an absurdist battle to educate a 14-year-old peasant boy kidnapped by an Afghan tribe and treat the dementia, depression and osteoarthritis of an 89-year-old man caught up in a raid on his son's house.
Other cases are just as pathetic. Jamal al-Harith, born Ronald Fiddler in Manchester in 1966, was imprisoned by the Taliban as a possible spy, after being found wandering through Afghanistan as a Muslim convert. In a movement of Kafkaesque horror the Americans held him in Camp X-Ray simply because he had been a prisoner of its enemy. "He was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics," the files record ....
The final indictment of Guantánamo is not just that it broke the rule of law temporarily, but that by doing so it made the breach permanent. Justified as a way of gathering information from the guilty, it forced the innocent to invent falsehoods as well. The security forces and politicians who permitted the camp often accuse its critics of being simplistic and squeamish. They say that the things that happened inside it were much less nasty than the things the people it contains did to others. In some cases that's right. But the Guantánamo system piled lie upon lie through the momentum of its own existence, until no one could know which those cases were, or what was true.
At times, I have feared that obsessing over the injustices of Guantánamo Bay has become a surrogate for a wider hatred of America. Read the files, and you'll realise that obsession is the only possible humane response.Add a comment
Back in the heady, heated days before the invasion of Iraq, one of the quickest ways to be relegated to the margins of the debate was to claim that the financial interests of politically connected oil companies played any role in the considerations of the great statesmen of the West as they confronted the global menace of Saddam Hussein.
Anyone who suggested such a thing was immediately declared "unserious," a "knee-jerk radical," even -- gasp! -- "a conspiracy theorist." Later protests with their "No Blood for Oil" slogans were similarly dismissed. "Serious" policy analysts followed the lead of one of the prime movers of Western policy, the Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, who declared, weeks before the invasion, that "the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it."
But this week, the Independent unearthed a remarkable cache of "smoking gun" documents that confirm, yet again, the collusion of political leaders and oil barons to divvy up Iraq's oil -- months before the invasion was launched. The documents -- minutes of meetings between British ministers and senior oil executives -- paint a bald, brazen picture of politicos and plutocrats jockeying to ensure that the oil barons get what one of Blair's own ministers called -- in the Capone-like patois that our great and good use when they think no one is listening -- "a fair slice of the action" when the invaders seize control of Iraq's oil.
Needless to say, these documents were withheld from the much-ballyhooed Chilcot Inquiry into the origins of the war. That toothless investigation served chiefly as a stage for bloodstained wretches -- like Blair himself -- to regurgitate their old self-justifying deceits; the oil angle received scant mention. Likewise, the oil companies themselves have always denied, vociferously, that they had ever talked with government ministers about grabbing Iraqi oil.
It would superfluous to point out that they were all lying. As the Independent reports:
The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time ...
Five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq's enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair's military commitment to US plans for regime change.
The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP's behalf because the oil giant feared it was being "locked out" of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.
Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: "Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis."
...The Foreign Office invited BP in on 6 November 2002 to talk about opportunities in Iraq "post regime change". Its minutes state: "Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity."
After another meeting, this one in October 2002, the Foreign Office's Middle East director at the time, Edward Chaplin, noted: "Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in [Iraq] for the sake of their long-term future... We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq."
Whereas BP was insisting in public that it had "no strategic interest" in Iraq, in private it told the Foreign Office that Iraq was "more important than anything we've seen for a long time". ... BP told the Government it was willing to take "big risks" to get a share of the Iraqi reserves, the second largest in the world.
Was the game worth the candle? Or rather, were the needless deaths of a million people slaughtered in the war and the bloody strife it spawned worth it? Well, for the oil companies, it certainly has been:
The 20-year contracts signed in the wake of the invasion were the largest in the history of the oil industry. They covered half of Iraq's reserves – 60 billion barrels of oil, bought up by companies such as BP and CNPC (China National Petroleum Company), whose joint consortium alone stands to make £403m ($658m) profit per year from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq.
Last week, Iraq raised its oil output to the highest level for almost decade, 2.7 million barrels a day – seen as especially important at the moment given the regional volatility and loss of Libyan output. Many opponents of the war suspected that one of Washington's main ambitions in invading Iraq was to secure a cheap and plentiful source of oil.
Come on: $658 million in pure gravy, year after year? What oil company wouldn't kill a million innocent people for that kind of juice? You owe it to your shareholders! And a great big reservoir of oil on tap to draw on while you are off upsetting apple carts (and oil rigs) in other parts of the region? What self-respecting Great Gamester could pass that up?
Of course, the invasion and rape of Iraq was not only about oil. It was also about war profiteering. And "projecting dominance" over world affairs. And the deliberate militarization of American society to facilitate authoritarian rule at home and endless war abroad. And the psychosexual anxieties of witless, pampered elites who crave a specious identification with "National Greatness" (expressed through vast arrays of military hardware employed to murderous effect against largely defenseless human beings) in order to fill the holes in their withered little souls.
But oil was always a prime factor in this poisonous mix. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the same kind of "conversations" revealed in the Independent are going on right now, hugger-mugger, between politically connected oil companies and the great statesmen of the West as they seek "a fair slice of the action" in Libya's oil fields.Add a comment
Dear Good Concerned Engaged Enlightened Rule-of-Law Liberal Progressives: Is it clear enough for you now? Does he have to spell it out for you, slowly, using short and simple words, and maybe some cartoons to make it clear? Your noble Nobel Peace Laureate – bringer of hope and change, restorer of the rule of law, world-historical paradigm-shifter, etc., etc. – has just publicly (not to mention arbitrarily) committed the nation to “the supreme international crime”: aggressive war.
He has pledged the blood and treasure of the United States to "regime change" in Libya: that is to say, an act of military aggression designed to overthrow the government of a sovereign nation which has not attacked your own country nor posed the slightest threat to it. This is, of course, precisely the same blatantly illegal posture taken by that great monstrous bogey-man of all good concerned engaged enlightened rule-of-law liberal progressives everywhere, George W. Bush, in his invasion of Iraq.
On Friday, Barack Obama scribbled his name at the bottom of a newspaper article written by hired minions of the leaders of Britain and France, pledging to keep killing people in Libya until Moamar Gadafy is driven from power. Nothing short of "regime change" will satisfy these towering colossi of world statesmanship; as the Guardian reports, they utterly reject any calls "for an immediate ceasefire, or a negotiated exit for the Libyan dictator."
Peace? Pah! No, it will be war, war, and more war until these leaders of the great Western democracies get the outcome they demand: the ouster of their clapped-out former client-tyrant, and his replacement by what they hope will be more amenable operators. Or is that too cynical? Surely what these Three Amigos of the Apocalypse are seeking is nothing less -- and nothing other -- than the "freedom of the Libyan people," right?
You know, the kind of freedom where your leader can take your country into an open-ended campaign of military action without the consent of the people or the people's representatives -- and then escalate the conflict far beyond the mandate of an already rubbery UN resolution into outright, undeniable aggressive war, through the oh-so-constitutional method of ... an op-ed piece in the Washington Post.
That's real freedom, baby! Can't you feel it in the air? Can't you feel it all over your body -- like a rash?
Now, you might think that such a brazen act of criminality would raise one or two hackles somewhere out there in God's shining city on the hill. (That is, you might think that -- if you'd been in a deep, dark cave the last ten years and hadn't seen the veritable tsunami of atrocity, deceit and lawlessness that the American people have swallowed without complaint.) In any case, across the length and breadth of freedom's land, scarcely a bit of notice has been paid to this open commitment to a policy that was unequivocally condemned as a "supreme" evil back in the Nuremberg Trials. It seems that nobody bats an eye anymore when an American president adopts Hitler's policies.
No, instead of offering blastments of moral outrage at yet another president launching yet another illegal regime change operation in yet another Muslim country, our Good Concerned Engaged Progressives have nothing to say. They are still too wiggly about Obama's meaningless expectoration of blather on the "budget battle" -- that ludicrous puppet-show where two factions of hirelings strut and bellow over the few infinitesimal differences in their techniques of corporate whoredom. This is what seems to be the most pressing matter of the day to the Good and Engaged -- because of course it may have some bearing on what is their Tillichian "ultimate concern": the re-election of a man who is now embarked on his first wholly-owned war of aggression. That's right, the Peace Laureate is no longer simply following (and extending) the Terror Wars of his predecessor -- he's done gone and started one of his very own! Reason enough to fight tooth and nail to get him another term; after all, you don't want one of those militarist Republicans in there, do you?
(Of course, we don't mean to imply that the Laureate's new war of aggression is some kind of radical departure. Heaven forefend! An arch-conservative like Obama would ever do anything that was not deeply rooted in American tradition. His killing spree in Libya is an echo -- perhaps even an homage -- to similar actions undertaken by one of the presidents that he most admires: Ronald Reagan.)
The Three Amigos' joint declaration of aggressive war notes ominously that Gadafy is so evil that "the international criminal court is rightly investigating [his] crimes committed against civilians and the grievous violations of international law." This would, of course, be the same international criminal court that the Peace Laureate's own government refuses to recognize -- for fear that its own leaders and minions might rightly end up in its dock for "crimes committed against civilians and grievous violations of international law." Such as, oh, say, waging an aggressive war of regime change that blatantly violates your UN mandate.
But of course, that "mandate" was, as usual, just a threadbare fig leaf to mask the hardcore machinations of power politics -- which these days consists largely of soft, weedy cowards finding ways to prove how tough and "credible" they are by shedding other people's blood. Thus you will not be surprised to learn that the Amigos' diplomatic minions are now feverishly "considering how the language of the United Nations mandate can accommodate a more active role on the ground."
So this is where we've come to: from earnest, knitted-brow assurances of a "limited intervention" to outright declarations of open-ended war for regime change -- and "accommodations" to bring in more boots, bullets and bombs "on the ground." This is a crime, "the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole," and it's being committed, openly, proudly, by the Democrat in the White House.
But precisely because this "accumulated evil" is being committed by a Democrat in the White House, the "progressive" movement is silent. They don't care. Aggressive war? They don't care. International law? They don't care. A blanket refusal of ceasefires and peace plans that could spare countless civilian lives? They don't care. An "active role on the ground" -- new mounds of Iraq-style "collateral damage," corpses, chaos, breakdown, extremism, brutality, suffering? They don't care.
And so we end with another address to our Good Concerned Engaged Enlightened Rule-of-Law Liberal Progressives: If you will stand for this, what won't you stand for? And further: If you will stand for this -- what do you stand for?
One side lies about money; the other side does the same. The only sure thing in this sinister kabuki is that the rich will make out like the bandits they are, and the weakest will go to the wall. You can waste your time trying to parse every little twist and turn of the "policies" of these murderous poltroons, as they set about gutting the carcass of their own country and bombing the hell out of several others; you can pretend their words have meaning, that they aren't the howls and grunts of brutal degenerates given over, sad wretches, to evil ... But me, I'm off to read Machado, to hear him
Sing of the ordinary oak,
the branch cut off by the axe,
and the flower that no one looks at.
Let the damned bury the damned in those vast marble tombs along the Potomac. I'm going to wash away their stench with a cool breeze from the blue hills of the Guadarrama. His words -- sharp, etched, subtle, true -- will take me there.
After Lear, walking unfamiliar streets in search of a pub, we found that we had circled back behind the theatre. There was a crowd bunching in a passageway, gathered around a small, white-haired man in a trim blue blazer; he was smiling politely, responding affably, signing programs proffered mostly by aged hands.
Not twenty minutes before, we had seen him die on the stage beside his hanged daughter, in the great existential boomerang of their earlier, rapturous reunion."No cause, no cause," she had said then, as her hands sought his ravaged face – the shattering scene, the heart of the oeuvre, the enacted ritual of transcendent forgiveness, so much harder-striking, deeper-delving than any seen in the cathedral up the street.
Was this wiped out by the double deaths, by the whispered roar of nothingness – its mocking laughter – that brings down the curtain? Or does the moment of enactment engender its own truth, incarnated, which survives independently of the onrush and backwash of time? The small old man, now returned to our common contingency, and strangely gnomish here with his sprightly manner, gave no hint of an answer, or of the slightest awareness that an answer might even exist.
Or were the gentleness, kindness and show of interest he displayed, in each moment of flickering encounter, themselves the enactment of an answer?
9 April 2011, Bath, England
In the LRB, David Runciman provides some telling insights in a review of recent books about the “off-shoring” of the world economy into tax havens, where the hyper-elite hide their money from the taxes and regulations that ordinary citizens are subject to. The review also deals with the political machinations involved in this corrosive process, which lies behind much of our dysfunctions and discontents. You should read the whole article, which provides rich historical context, but are some excerpts, in medias res:
When officials from Delaware toured the globe in the late 1980s advertising their services (and hoping, among other things, to provide a haven for all the hot money that was expected to flow out of Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover to China), they did so under the slogan ‘Delaware can protect you from politics.’ Shaxson defines a tax haven as ‘a place that seeks to attract business by offering politically stable facilities to help people or entities get around the rules, laws and regulations of jurisdictions elsewhere’. But this is the crux: where is the politics? Why aren’t these moves more politically unstable, or at least politically contentious? In the case of Delaware, as with other goldfish bowl communities, size probably tells (for a long time Delaware politics was shaped by the influence of the Du Pont family, whose vast chemical operations dominated the local economy). What, though, about Washington, where the shift to an offshore mindset at the national level might be expected to run up against some serious political opposition? What happened to the representatives of all those people who don’t have lots of money to move around, who can’t relocate even if they wanted to, and who have an interest in a fair, open and broadly progressive tax system? Didn’t they notice what was going on?
This is the question that Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson tackle in Winner-Take-All Politics. They don’t spend much time talking about offshore, but the story they tell has striking parallels with the one laid out by Shaxson. One of the ways you can identify an offshore environment, according to Shaxson, is that local politics gets captured by financial services. In that sense, Washington has gone offshore: its politics has been captured by the interests of a narrow group of very wealthy individuals, many of whom work in finance.
For Hacker and Pierson this, more than anything else, explains why the rich have got so much richer over the last 30 years or so. And by the rich they don’t mean simply the generally wealthy; they mean the super-rich. The real beneficiaries of the explosion in income for top earners since the 1970s have been not the top 1 per cent but the top 0.1 per cent of the general population. Since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves. Who are these people? As Hacker and Pierson note, they are ‘not, for the most part, superstars and celebrities in the arts, entertainment and sports. Nor are they rentiers, living off their accumulated wealth, as was true in the early part of the last century. A substantial majority are company executives and managers, and a growing share of these are financial company executives and managers.’
Hacker and Pierson believe that politics is responsible for this. It happened because law-makers and public officials allowed it to happen, not because international markets, or globalisation, or differentials in education or life-chances made it inevitable. It was a choice, driven by the pressure of lobbyists and other organisations to create an environment much more hospitable to the needs of the very rich. It was even so a particular kind of politics and a particular kind of choice. It wasn’t a conspiracy, because it happened in the open. But nor was it an explicit political movement, characterised by rallies, speeches and electoral triumphs. It relied in large part on what Hacker and Pierson call a process of drift: ‘systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy’. More often than not the politicians were persuaded to do nothing, to let up on enforcement, to look the other way, as money moved around the globe and up to the very top of the financial chain.
As Runciman notes, Hacker and Pierson make a vital point on the true nature of the “political engagement” we see today among our partisan flag-wavers:
One of Hacker and Pierson’s complaints about the way we usually regard politics is that we miss what’s really going on by focusing on the show of elections and the competition between parties. This is the theatre of electoral politics, to set alongside the theatre of probity. Too often, they say, we reduce politics to the level of sport: ‘This is no doubt why politics as electoral spectacle is so appealing to the media: it’s exciting and it’s simple. Aficionados can memorise the stats of their favourite players or become experts on the great games of the past. Everyone, however, can enjoy the gripping spectacle of two highly motivated teams slugging it out.’
Certainly this has been borne out, to a glaring degree, by our stalwart “progressives” since the election of Barack Obama. There are mounds – mountains – mountain ranges of evidence showing “progressives” staunchly defending, or meekly countenancing, a whole raft of outrageous crimes and follies that they once decried with furious indignation ... simply because it is now the guy from “their” team commiting them, instead of that goober from the other team. And even among those progressives who do bestir themselves to sternly denounce this or that policy of the Obama administration – one of his many, many “continuities” and exacerbations of Bush’s record on military aggression, civil liberties, torture, the manipulation and overthrow of governments, the orgasmic embrace of Wall Street, the deficit hawkishness, tax cuts for the rich, etc., etc. – you will hear, almost uniformly, the anguished cry that despite all this, we must fight to re-elect Obama. Because otherwise, one of those right-wing extremists might get in and ... er ... continue all the Bush policies that ... er ... Obama is continuing.
This is a politics almost entirely without substance, based on unsifted tribal loyalties and unsupported myths – just as we see on the Right.
Runciman and the authors also make a very important point that is almost universally overlooked. The true acceleration of the brutal rule of the hyper-rich that we see today did not begin with the ascension of Ronald Reagan (however avidly he helped the process along); its true origins can found in the grand collapses of political will, the surrender to the elite’s most pernicious power blocs, under the administration of the hapless Jimmy Carter:
Elections are seductive, and these days the build-up is so protracted that they can drown out the real business of politics: the way organised groups use pressure – money, lobbying, threats – to squeeze whichever politicians happen to be in power, in order to influence the shaping of policy. Elections also suggest false historical turning points. It is easy to assume that if the rich have been winning in recent decades, the process must have started with the election of the pro-big business, anti-big government Ronald Reagan in 1980 (and concomitantly, Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979). But Hacker and Pierson argue that the real turning point came in 1978, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. This was the year the lobbyists and other organised groups who were pushing hard to relax the burden of tax and regulation on wealthy individuals and corporate interests discovered that no one was pushing back all that hard. Despite Democratic control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, 1978 saw the defeat of attempts to introduce progressive tax reform and to improve the legal position of trade unions. Instead, legislation was passed that reduced the tax burden on corporations and increased the burden on their employees (through a hike in the payroll tax, a regressive measure). All this happened because the politicians followed the path of least resistance – as elected politicians invariably do – and the better organised and better-funded resistance came from the representatives of big business, not organised labour.
What took place in the 1980s was therefore an extension of the Carter years, not a reversal of them. The process of deregulation and redistribution up the chain accelerated under Reagan, who was broadly sympathetic to these goals. Yet it happened not because he was sympathetic to them, but because his sympathies were allowed free rein in a political environment where the opposition was muted and the expected coalition of interests opposed to the changes never materialised. After all, as Hacker and Pierson point out, Richard Nixon, who might have been expected to share some of Reagan’s sympathies, had gone the other way in his actual policies a decade earlier, shoring up the legislative framework of the welfare state and maintaining a broadly progressive tax system. ... He acted like this because he felt he had little choice: the organised pressure ready to resist change appeared much too strong. It was only during the Carter years ... that this pressure turned out to be weaker than anyone thought. The politicians of the Reagan/ Thatcher revolution did what they did not because they were committed ideologues, determined to stick to their principles. They did it because they found they could get away with it.
This is an important point. Politicians are, with the rarest of exceptions, venal, preening, shallow-minded third-raters. Many of them are psychologically damaged, which is what draws them into the pursuit of power – of dominating other people -- in the first place. Mostly, they like the perks (material and emotional) of power. They are not figures of deep character and solid principles. Strong political resistance -- or even a great lot of noise -- can scare them out of whatever “principles” they find it expedient to hold at any given moment. The Right has triumphed because no one has resisted it. Big Money has bought off and/or subsumed almost all of the institutional forces that once offered some resistance to its iron-fisted rule. Runciman then takes up the obvious question:
So where did the resistance go? This is the real puzzle, and Hacker and Pierson take it seriously because they take democracy seriously, despite its unhealthy fixation on elections. Democracies are meant to favour the interests of the many over those of the few. As Hacker and Pierson put it, ‘Democracy may not be good at a lot of things. But one thing it is supposed to be good at is responding to problems that affect broad majorities.’ Did the majority not actually mind that they were losing out for the sake of the super-rich elite? In the American case, one common view is that the voters allowed it to happen because they minded more about other things: religion, culture, abortion, guns etc. The assumption is that many ordinary Americans have signed a kind of Faustian pact with the Republican Party, in which the rich get the money and the poor get support for the cultural values they care about. Hacker and Pierson reject this view, and not just because they don’t think the process they describe depends on there being a Republican in the White House: they see strong evidence that the American public do still want a fairer tax system and do still see it as the job of politicians to protect their interests against the interests of high finance. The problem is that the public simply don’t know what the politicians are up to. They are not properly informed about how the rules have been steadily changed to their disadvantage. ‘Americans are no less egalitarian when it comes to their vision of an ideal world,’ Hacker and Pierson write. ‘But they are much less accurate when it comes to their vision of the real world.’
Why is no one paying attention? ... Hacker and Pierson’s argument ... does not see the weakness of democracy as a matter of the voters wanting the wrong things, or not really knowing what they want. They know what they want but they don’t know how to get it. It’s because they don’t understand the world they live in that democracy isn’t working. People aren’t stupid, but when it comes to politics they are ignorant, lazy and easily satisfied with pat answers to difficult questions. Hacker and Pierson recognise that it has become bad manners to point this out even in serious political discourse. But it remains the truth. ‘Most citizens pay very little attention to politics, and it shows. To call their knowledge of even the most elementary facts about the political system shaky would be generous.’
The traditional solution to this problem was to supplement the ignorance of the voters with guidance from experts, who would reform the system in the voters’ best interests. The difficulty is that the more the experts take charge, the less incentive there is for the voters to inform themselves about what’s going on. This is what Hacker and Pierson call the catch-22 of democratic politics: in order to combat what’s taking place under the voters’ radar it’s necessary to continue the fight under the voters’ radar. The best hope is that eventually the public might wake up to what is going on and join in. But that will take time. As Hacker and Pierson admit, ‘Political reformers will need to mobilise for the long haul.’
Yet time may be one of the things that the reformers do not have on their side. As Shaxson points out in his account of the rise of the tax havens, one of the reasons for the drift towards deregulation is that politics has been too slow to resist it. This, again, is one of the traditional critiques of democracy: while decent-minded democrats are organising themselves to make the world a better place, the world has moved on. In a fast-moving financial environment, it is usually easier to assemble a coalition of interests in favour of relaxing the rules than one in favour of tightening them. Similarly, it’s easier not to enforce the rules you have than to enforce them: non-enforcement is the work of a moment – all you have to do is turn a blind eye – whereas enforcement is a slow and laborious process.
And of course, what happens in a world ruled by Big Money is that the “experts” themselves are bought off; or rather, as time goes by, the system itself breeds “experts” who do not and cannot rise in the system unless they already, naturally, unthinkingly buy into the basic premises of elitist rule. In such a world, even the “reformers” accept the underlying assumptions – and agenda – of the elite, and seek, at the very most, only the most tepid reforms. Do the hyper-rich – the 0.1 percent – now control 12 percent of the nation’s income? Why, goodness gracious, we’ve got to get that down to ... 10 percent, maybe, or even – why not shoot the moon? – 8 percent! That’ll show ‘em! Power to the people, man! But of course, to do that, we must not raise their taxes, or regulate their dodgy investment schemes, or punish them when they crash the world economy; and we must continue the valiant humanitarian interventions and assassinations for peace we are conducting in dozens and dozens of nations all over the world, at exorbitant cost year after year – campaigns which perpetuate the extremism and instability they profess to combat, and which ensure there is no money in the treasury to address the actual needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens.
There are no easy answers to this situation, no Gordian knot to cut with one bold stroke, no single doctrine or program that will answer all ills. Especially given the conundrum that Runciman identifies, between the hard, slow slog of genuine change and the rapidity with which the worst elements in society (and in ourselves) can strike. But one thing is certain: adhering blindly (or even with grudging, gritted-teeth "savvy") to organizations and leaders – such as the Democratic Party and its bloodstained standard-bearers – who have demonstrated, time and again, beyond all doubt, their willing, eager embrace of the elitist agenda will only further entrench and empower the very forces that are devouring and degrading the world.Add a comment