Hirthler examines the real-life aftermath of the social breakthroughs and advances represented by the social justice campaigns of Martin Luther King, the ending of apartheid under the aegis of Nelson Mandela, and racial symbolism in the election of the first black American president, Barack Obama. In every case, Hirthler notes, genuine social achievements were followed by a brutal and ruthless expansion and entrenchment of 'neoliberal' economics -- that is, the aggrandisement of elite power and privilege.
One of the most glaring examples detailed by Hirthler is what happened after the genuinely astonishing and significant triumph of Mandela and the ANC: the share of South Africa's wealth owned by whites has actually increased since the ending of the apartheid, thanks to the ANC's betrayal of its own economic principles and its capitulation to the existing economic power structure.
This is the pattern that has been followed for decades: some social advances are accepted by the power structure -- as long as the economic dominance of the ruling elite is not challenged. In Obama's case, of course, this was a prerequisite, not a consequence, of his election. He would not have been allowed to be in the position of being elected president had he not clearly and continually signalled to the elite that he was in no way a threat to their power; in fact, as Hirthler notes, he went much further, and made it clear that he would be a more efficient and effective promoter of economic elite than cack-handed Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain and Sarah Palin. And so it has proved. The nation's oligarchs, corporations and financial sectors have devoured ever greater proportions of the nation's wealth under Obama's rule, while chronic unemployment and underemployment grinds on, the nation's infrastructure rots, and the quality of life (and hopes for the future) of ordinary people continues to be degraded.
The case of King is somewhat different. Unlike Mandela, who acquiesced in the ANC sell-out to the elites (no doubt as a tactical decision; social freedom would be more likely to come sooner, and with less violence, than economic justice, which could remain a future goal), and Obama, who was a signed-up sell-out from the beginning, King was actually growing more radical as time went on, broadening his critique from racial oppression to the underlying, all-pervasive evils of militarism and elitist greed that shaped American foreign policy and its economic system. He was killed for this, of course, having already become increasingly marginalized by "serious" and "respectable" political opinion -- precisely because of his increasing radicalism.
This dynamic is not confined to Hirthler's three examples. It was also played out in the breakdown of the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts at broad social reforms (and mild economic and political reforms) were met first with the backlash of an attempted coup by Soviet hardliners, and then, after the dissolution of the Union and the rise of Boris Yeltsin, by the imposition of "Shock Doctrine" economics. Here was the very apotheosis of neoliberalism -- unrestrained, unopposed, relentless. The result, as we know, was the beggaring of the nation, an unprecedented plunge in life expectancy, the collapse of society and the ascendancy of a rapacious elite. (Plus the loss of many of the political and social freedoms that had been genuine gains from the otherwise traumatic regime change.)
And so on it goes. In our day, social progress is a tool used deliberately by our leaders to extract more gains for the elite at the expense of the general public. Vast amounts of energy and attention, especially potentially dangerous progressive and/or populist energy, is expended on social gains -- on winning them, opposing them, maintaining them, trying to reverse them, etc. -- while the overall system of domination rolls on unopposed. Obama benefits from this on the left, where his cynical nods to social progress -- without actually doing anything very concrete about it with all the power he holds -- mutes 'progressive' criticism of his truly abominable foreign and economic policies, which include state murder, Stasi-like surveillance, the exaltation of the rich and the degradation of everyone else. In the same way, George W. Bush gave lip service to the opposition to social progress, on abortion, for example, while never really doing anything about it, which fired up his own political base even as he, like Obama, advanced economic and foreign policies that degraded the lives of ordinary people -- including his own fired-up followers. (Ironically, anti-abortion forces have made much greater strides during Obama's tenure, as the NY Times reported on Friday.)
None of this is to gainsay the great worth of those social freedoms we have managed to advance over the past decades. It is a great thing, a wonderful thing, that American and South African blacks have more political freedom than they once had. It is a great thing, a wonder, that people who love people of the same sex are no longer subjected to quite so many of the legal restrictions and cultural calumny that they have long endured.
But the dynamic -- social freedoms being 'allowed' or accepted only if the ever-increasing power of the economic elite is not threatened -- still holds. Hirthler's piece provides a good analysis of this phenomenon. Below are a few excerpts:
Almost as an antidote the onset of holiday cheer, the 2014 budget deal was released in December as a sort of deflationary tactic—lest the masses get their hopes too high … The 2014 budget strips away unemployment benefits, food stamp assistance, while doing nothing to shutter tax loopholes for the wealthy, all while proposed military cuts are essentially restored with some fantastic sleight of hand. This represents a continuation of the neoliberal austerity program implemented by bi-partisan consensus after the meltdown of 2008. And how nicely timed it was to follow on the heels of the global outpouring of feeling for the dearly departed Nelson Mandela.
…Alive, King was a provocation, and at the time of his assassination seemed to be turning toward racism’s companion grievances of poverty and war. How fortunate for the shadowy redoubts of wealth and militarism that he was slain. In death, his economic and foreign policy challenges were interred with his casket, and he was posthumously pedestaled for his commitments to civil rights alone—a cause that no right-thinking human could deny. Those companion causes, however, were bold and contentious critiques of power itself, and its capacities for self-enrichment. As such, the tidy janitors of historical revisionism swept them from sight.
How interesting that King died in 1968—just as he was shifting course, attacking the Vietnam War and the economics of poverty—and Lewis Powel’s rallying cry to the American Chamber of Commerce appeared in 1971, effectively launching the politicization of neoliberalism as a form of class war by elites against the disenfranchised, prioritizing the very evils—war and disenfranchisement—against which King fought.
…How curious that Barack Obama ascended to the throne of American power in 2008, just as the African-American populace found itself on the wrong end of one of the greatest transfer of wealth from one group to another—over half their wealth, mostly in the form of real estate, largely from black hands to white hands, from vulnerable families to faceless real estate trusts. One would think, by listening to the glistering orations of Mr. Obama, that he would have acted to instantly restore the wealth of an abused minority. But, of course, Obama would never have been handed the scepter of American power had he not first paid fealty to the embedded wealth of American society. Had he not assured real estate, finance, and insurance sectors he was “a free market guy”, capable of enabling corporatism like the best of Republicans. And that he could in fact do it better than his predecessor. Simply swap out the labels to suit the changing economic climate. Deregulation would be reconfigured as toothless regulation (with its overweening regard for the market). Privatization would be swabbed off as energy independence (using the American obsession with independence to undermine ecological mandates). Federal downsizing would be recast as deficit reduction (falsely conflating declining growth with social spending). But as he shouldered his way through the living rooms of silent power, he assured the assembled doyens of industry that it all came to the same. Thus, the downward spiral of blacks was simply accelerated, their claims denied, their houses foreclosed upon, their creditors enriched.
…How instructive that Nelson Mandela precipitated and oversaw the dismantling of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, but his ascendancy to power corresponded with a fatal shift in the economic fortunes of black South Africans, who would watch manufacturing, employment, and wages all decline during Mandela’s prime (see Patrick Bond’s expert summary). Even as whites watched their share of South African wealth rise, as white-held corporations evacuated their money from the newly free state, and as all the best land, mines, manufacturing, and finance remained in the hands of white power.
…What can we surmise from these three paradoxes of justice? Namely, that social gains seem to happen only when they don’t threaten established wealth, which is ensured by a clandestine decoupling of social issues from economics. As society steps forward socially, it steps backward economically.
…In each instance—following King’s assassination, and Obama and Mandela’s election—the social gains made by the majestic courage of millions were balanced by a backdoor betrayal of their economic interests. … All of this is disguised by the clever machinations of the budget office, which is able to artificially create the impression of general growth and prosperity by masking the negative metrics with astonishing stock market growth. Rather than investing in more productive fixed assets in the real economy, from which it is harder to extract one’s capital, investors prefer the easy mobility of financial speculation. Preferably through the creation of a derivatives-based real estate bubble (see Japan, the U.S., and Ireland for instructive examples in this regard). The numbers from this stupendous growth for the few are conflated with the figures of stupefying decline for the majority to produce a perverted per capita profile—one that characterizes a nation in free fall as one in flight.
And that process leaves us with a picture that oddly resembles modern South Africa. Enfranchised blacks in dire straits, with no political party representing their interests. A well-tanned imperial elite doing fabulously well. The government doing little to help the poor, but plenty to enable the rich. And when the complicit politicians and court journalists get a free minute, they step forward with poetic odes to another fallen champion of the underclass—even as they quietly celebrate the renewal of mass delusion and the injustice of the status quo.
Via an old Moscow Times comrade, John Freedman, an incredible piece of history torn from "the noise of time": Nadezhda Mandelshtam, talking (in English) of her life with the martyred poet, Osip Mandelshtam. It was Nadezhda who was responsible for preserving much of Mandelshtam's work from the ravages of Stalinist amnesia. It's a voice from "a life and fate much greater than [our] own," alive with an abiding humanity that feels, at times, like a thing vanishing from our earth. (But perhaps it's always vanishing, this voice; perhaps it's a cracked whisper passed down from generation to generation.) In any case, it's an embracing encounter.
For another take on Mandelshtam, see here and here.
Yes, it's that special time of year again, when you gather friends around, put on your weird wig hat, and watch hopped-up nutballs throw themselves through the front window. And don't forget those reindeer - Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton .....
*By the way, all proceeds from the Dylan Christmas album, this year as every year, go to charities feeding the hungry.
You can’t leave the bones that you were born with You’re trapped in the world that you’ve been torn with …
Middle-aged crazies, unrequited lovers, the repressed, the refused, the confused, the misplaced, living in dreams, personal, political … feeling the heat, never touching the fire …. For such as these, herewith the draft of a brief, syncopated essay.
*Below is a slightly revised version of my column in the latest print version of CounterPunch magazine.
Alex Cox was in full flow, holding forth across the candle-glittered wine glasses and fine china plates. The two of us had more or less gate-crashed High Table at an Oxford college. He had been artist-in-residence there for a year, but that year had passed and it was not entirely clear that he retained his dining privileges -- much less the right to invite a hick from the sticks for a free feed with the Fellows. But there we were.
He was in town trying to drum up money for a series of films based on Jacobean plays; I was, very briefly and completely ineffectually, helping him. Ignoring High Table protocol, which dictates a change of conversational partner with each new course, Alex kept up his passionate dialogue with me. He was talking of 9/11, then just a couple of years past, and how the official story was full of holes.
It’s still full of holes, of course. All the “official” stories -- 9/11, both Iraq Wars, Iran-Contra, Libya, Kosovo, the Osama rub-out, on and on -- are full of holes. Holes, evasions, misdirections, outright lies: black oil-smoke to hide the enormity and ubiquity of state crime, which each scandal and catastrophe threatens to expose, whether or not there is some direct official culpability in the particular matter at hand. The whole business of empire is carried out in a rolling, heaving hairball of infinitely tangled connections between the upperworld and the underworld, where ruthless factions use, betray, fight and ally with each other in ever-changing combinations. Any sliver of light falling anywhere on the hairball must be snuffed out immediately, lest it illuminate the true nature of the system.
I don’t remember us drawing any profound conclusions between the many courses that night. But the scorching skepticism we shared toward official stories had its origin in the same place, in the mother of all hole-ridden, oil-smoked hairballs: the Kennedy assassination.
As Cox notes in his new book, The President and the Provocateur, he was 8 years old when John Kennedy was killed. (I was five, but I remember it too; or rather, what I most remember was not Kennedy's assassination but Oswald's, being reported on our grainy black-and-white television as we came home from church.) Even then, Cox was struck by the strangeness of the event; shortly after reporting Kennedy was shot, he writes, the BBC suddenly went off the air for several hours -- an unprecedented event. Afterwards, the entire bipartisan British Establishment, mimicking its American counterpart, closed ranks around the official account, locking out the questions even of such redoubtable figures as Bertrand Russell. It was only a few years later that Cox ran across a pamphlet voicing the credible concerns that Russell and others had raised about the Warren Commission's obvious oil-smoke job -- a serendipitous find that set him off on the decades of diligent research summed up in the book. (And on its accompanying website here.)
Cox synthesizes a vast corpus of investigation into the hydra-headed morass of the Kennedy murder to succinct and powerful effect. With a director’s eye for cinematic jump cuts and well-paced narrative, Cox juxtaposes the parallel lives of Kennedy and Oswald as they race toward their joint rendezvous with death in Dallas in November 1963. Cox is especially good at laying out Oswald’s remarkable trajectory, which was surrounded in still-impenetrable murk even from his earliest years. (The “official story” has young Oswald attending two different junior highs in two different states at the same time, for example.) Oswald’s innumerable contacts with the “National Security State” are laid bare – including the fact that this brazen ‘defector’ to the Soviets, who openly declared his intent to reveal state secrets (from his work in the U2 intelligence-gathering program), was not only allowed back into the United States, but was even given a loan by the government to cover the expenses of his return.
Meanwhile, Kennedy is shown dealing with open insubordination from the military-industrial-security complex, enduring a level of hatred and vitriol from these armed and dangerous factions that makes the Tea Party look like purring pussycats – even as he cravenly appeased them at nearly every turn. Cox is careful not to paint JFK in falsely heroic colors; his Kennedy is no liberal saint brought down by evildoers, but an active accomplice in imperial crime who, toward the end of his short life, was -- perhaps – just beginning to grasp the enormity of the devil’s bargain he had made to win power.
Cox comes to no ultimate conclusions. Among the many power factions that wanted Kennedy removed, Cox seems to incline toward his mentor Mark Lane’s view that the CIA was likely a prime mover. But whatever else the mysterious Oswald might have been (including, without doubt, an agent or asset of the security state), the book’s skillful mastering of the facts makes it clear that he was, in the end, exactly what he claimed to be after his arrest: a patsy.
And so are we all, fifty years on: a nation of patsies, still being played by the brutal power-gamers of our unlovely imperium.
Glen Ford brings the heat, and the truth, about one of the most important -- and unreported -- stories of our day: the shackling of Detroit. Over the past year, we have seen the citizens of a major American city openly, 'legally' stripped of the right to govern themselves and forced into a form of indentured servitude in order to enrich a small predatory elite whose own machinations had driven the city to ruin.
It is an extraordinary -- and sickening -- spectacle. Detroit is now under the control of an unelected "Emergency Financial Manager," Kevyn Jones, forcibly imposed by the state governor, with all real power -- the power of the purse -- placed in his hands. And Jones is wielding this power with ruthless efficiency.
As Ford notes, Detroit is being looted and disenfranchised without the slightest peep from the great compassionate progressive community organizer in the White House. And 'white' is the operative word here; Detroit's population is more than 80 percent black, but the first African-American president will not lift a finger to help the city -- although he was more than happy to lavish trillions of dollars in bailouts on Wall Street (whose population is, shall we say, somewhat less than 80 percent black).
But Ford makes the salient point that Detroit's plight goes far beyond race. The city is in fact a test case, a template, a dry run for the extinguishing of any kind of genuine democracy across the land, and its replacement by overt corporate control. You should read the whole piece, but here are a few telling excerpts:
The “restructuring” of Detroit through bankruptcy is the model for drastically downsizing what’s left of democracy in all of urban America. Already, Black voting rights have been rendered null and void “on a scale not seen since the death of Reconstruction.” However, the legal precedents that are being established in mostly Black Detroit will obtain throughout the nation…..
The post-Civil Rights era vision to consolidate Black Power through purely electoral means in the major cities of the United States has all but evaporated. Wherever possible, capital has reclaimed the urban centers for upscale white habitation, most often with the active collaboration of a venal Black political class concerned primarily with its own upward mobility …
Some cities, including New Orleans and Detroit, were, in the words of Public Enemy, “too Black, too strong,” with African American majorities of 67 and 80-plus percent, respectively. Hurricane Katrina brought those numbers down to manageable size, creating the conditions for near-instantaneous Disaster Capitalist renaissance, in 2005. That same year, in Detroit, the so-called “Hip Hop Mayor,” Kwame Kilpatrick – actually the spoiled, morally degenerate spawn of the historical Black Misleadership Class – strapped the Black metropolis into a suicide vest wired with interest rate swap derivatives. Similar devices are embedded in the fiscal structures of cities around the country, ready to bring down what’s left of home rule so that capital can feast on the public space, unconstrained. …
The scheme is general, part of the worldwide offensive by Wall Street and its global annexes to absorb the public sphere wherever it exists, reducing humanity to total dependence on the dictatorship of money. In the United States, the finance bourgeoisie’s bacchanal is, like all American politics, organized along racial lines – the perfect, crowd-pleasing cover for the destruction of Black voting rights on a scale not seen since the death of Reconstruction. In place of an already straitjacketed, comprador-dominated home rule, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder governor imposed his own regent in the noxious form of Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr, who was until this year a bankruptcy attorney from the multinational firm Jones Day, which is the mercenary legal arm for much of the Fortune 500, including most of the banks that have conspired to destroy Detroit’s tax base. …
Earlier in the week, Judge Rhodes rejected the NAACP’s challenge to Kevyn Orr’s Emergency Financial Manager powers on the grounds that they unconstitutionally disenfranchise a majority of Michigan’s African American citizens. The judge said the public has a more “substantial interest in the speedy and efficient resolution of a municipal bankruptcy case that affects as many people and institutions, and as much of the local, regional and national economy, as this case does.” He said the NAACP could continue its suit after the bankruptcy is done.
In other words, the people’s right to vote is secondary to working out the financial claims brought by derivatives-wielding bankers. If the people’s franchise stands in the way of the Lords of Capital’s right to “restructure” Detroit to their liking, then the franchise must be rendered inoperative, at least until the spoils have been divvyed up – that is, until all the issues that matter have been made moot.
A great deal has been mooted in Detroit, whose fate will become the model, the legal precedent, for the rest of the country. We are witnessing the death of, not just dreams of urban Black power, but of previous notions of American democracy, itself.
This is my latest column for the print version of CounterPunch, published last month.
I flew into Washington the day the government shut down. I had come back to America to scatter my mother's ashes in the sea. It was her last request: to put her to rest in the Atlantic Ocean, off Myrtle Beach, where she had spent some happy times more than half a century ago.
I made my way to Tennessee, where her ashes were waiting in a black plastic box on the mantlepiece in our family home. All along the line, facilities and services were shutting down from a dispute over a corporate boondoggle -- "Obamacare" -- based on a conservative Republican template drawn up to enrich the rapacious insurance-healthcare complex, whose heavy, grinding gears had harrowed both my sick and aged parents to their graves, one inch from bankruptcy. But now, in the bizarre and ugly weirdness of our failing United States, this plan -- once the farthest feather on the rightest right-wing -- had become a commie monstrosity to be resisted at all costs.
While bullshit ruled the public world, private life -- and private death -- went on. My brother and I, the family's last remnants, set out on the 600-mile journey through the old Confederacy to carry out our filial duties. Beer, whisky, Coca-Cola, BC Powder and beef jerky carried us through Marietta, Atlanta, Lithonia, Augusta, Red Bank, Columbia and finally down the dark, moonless ribbon of Highway 501 to the coast.
Near midnight, we reached the sprawling, garish tourist trap that had grown up where that stunning young woman and her handsome soldier husband had once stolen away from his Army base for quiet seaside weekends. We found the town had been besieged, occupied, overwhelmed by swarms of growling, roaring hogs: it was Biker Week in Myrtle Beach! Up and down and around the streets they rolled, gunning their engines in bravura displays, hour after hour after hour. A motley mix of part-time hobbyists -- pudgy accountants and middle managers, hauling their soft bulk on wide, well-appointed suburban machinery -- and hard-core, black-leathered, tattooed lifers, leaning back on bad-ass Harleys.
Not quite the dignified setting she might have imagined for this last act, but what the hell. "It is what it is," my brother said, as he always says, and we set off for the beach. It was nearly empty in the post-midnight hour. The deep white sand was indirectly lit from the hotels behind, but the sea itself was black, fused with the black sky. The whitecaps seemed to emerge from utter darkness and disappear into it again. The rhythmic roar of the invisible waves filled the air. Only days before, I'd finished a reading novel about the Zen master, Hakuin, and now it suddenly struck me: this is what he was talking about – this is the sound of one hand clapping.
Such exalted thoughts vanished in the bleary morning after. The day of the scattering was at hand. The public world, where normally I spent hours greedily scarfing the news, had shriveled to nothing more than a few headlines glimpsed in a box on the street. The shutdown was still going on, and apocalyptic default was imminent; the entrails of polls were being examined to assess the all-important political ramifications. The Peace Prizer had kidnapped somebody in Libya; one of his hit squads had been chased out of Somalia. The never-ending, all-devouring, pointless, heartless psycho circus rolled on.
We drove down to nearby Murrell's Inlet, where our rented boat awaited. The two-lane road was lined with bars, roadhouses, restaurants, all of them crammed to overflowing with bikers. Cops were out to direct traffic through the metal morass. We finally found the rental place. They brought the boat around. We went three miles out to sea, as the law requires. We did what we came to do. Then we headed back to Tennessee, to clear out and close up the house for good.
In the inevitable self-centeredness of grief, I couldn't help but see it all as the emblem of something larger, the end of an era. My mother was born in the depths of Depression, to a sharecropper who'd been born in the 19th century. She worked the tobacco fields, helped in the hog-killing, wore flour-sack dresses until she was 10. Public schooling, electrification and government work lifted her family up. She got out of the holler -- though not far enough to suit her -- and lived the long, post-war, middle-class life that is now ending, in blood, absurdity and degradation, all around us.
The American Dream, I guess. But we know now its seeming solidity was built on sand -- or ashes. Built on the death and suffering of countless, faceless "others" around the world, and in our own streets. Built on the poisonous myth of "exceptionalism,” the cargo cult of “the market,” and the tragic denial of our commonality.
It didn't have to be that way -- but it is what it is. Her life rose and fell with this historic arc, like a wave going back into the dark. She is free now, drifting on the open sea; where are we?
Just a reminder: this is the true nature of the bipartisan, militarized "security state" now headed by the progressive Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. When you support the Laureate -- however "savvily" and "critically" -- when you support the system -- hoping to "reform" it from within -- this is what you are supporting. From the Guardian:
The last time I saw my mother, Momina Bibi, was the evening before Eid al-Adha. She was preparing my children's clothing and showing them how to make sewaiyaan, a traditional sweet made of milk. … The next day, 24 October 2012, she was dead, killed by a US drone that rained fire down upon her as she tended her garden.
Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. The media reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother's house. Several reported the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All reported that five militants were killed. Only one person was killed – a 67-year-old grandmother of nine.
My three children – 13-year-old Zubair, nine-year-old Nabila and five-year-old Asma – were playing nearby when their grandmother was killed. All of them were injured and rushed to hospitals. Were these children the "militants" the news reports spoke of? Or perhaps, it was my brother's children? They, too, were there. They are aged three, seven, 12, 14, 15 and 17 years old. The eldest four had just returned from a day at school, not long before the missile struck. ...
We want to understand why a 67-year-old grandmother posed a threat to one of the most powerful countries in the world. We want to understand how nine children, some playing in the field, some just returned from school, could possibly have threatened the safety of those living a continent and an ocean away.
Most importantly, we want to understand why President Obama, when asked whom drones are killing, says they are killing terrorists. My mother was not a terrorist. My children are not terrorists. Nobody in our family is a terrorist.
My mother was a midwife, the only midwife in our village. She delivered hundreds of babies in our community. Now families have no one to help them. And my father? He is a retired school principal. He spent his life educating children, something that my community needs far more than bombs. Bombs create only hatred in the hearts of people. And that hatred and anger breeds more terrorism. But education – education can help a country prosper.
I, too, am a teacher. I was teaching in my local primary school on the day my mother was killed. I came home to find not the joys of Eid, but my children in the hospital and a coffin containing only pieces of my mother.
Our family has not been the same since that drone strike. Our home has turned into hell. The small children scream in the night and cannot sleep. They cry until dawn …
Drone strikes are not like other battles where innocent people are accidentally killed. Drone strikes target people before they kill them. The United States decides to kill someone, a person they only know from a video. A person who is not given a chance to say – I am not a terrorist. The US chose to kill my mother.
No, Barack Obama didn't physically push the button on this particular murder. That was done by some video-game jockey sitting in a padded chair somewhere, very safe, very protected. But the murder was a direct result of the decisions made by the "Commander-in-Chief" to set up a framework of state murder -- sorry, "extrajudicial assassination" -- sorry, "protection for the security of the American people" -- that allows any number of lower-level agents and officers to carry out these high-tech mob hits on their own authority, for their own reasons. (Though no doubt these decisions are processed through a complex and sophisticated "decision matrix" made up of multifarious determining factors -- like, "Dark-skinned bodies in an open field; could be terrorists; what the hell, rub 'em out.")
Of course, the Commander-Laureate does, like Stalin, personally sign off on death lists on a regular basis, giving the direct order for a rub-out. But as heinous as the White House death squad is, the murder program is actually far more widespread than that, with faceless bureaucrats -- military and civilian (if indeed these distinctions still have any real meaning in our militarised and paramilitarized security state) -- making the call to kill as they see fit. We have no idea who these people are, or how or why they make their choices to kill, or who they will target next.
This is the system we have now. This is what you must deal with -- not the hallucinatory fantasy where a good guy "progressive" battles heroically against the bad guy "teabaggers," and needs our help to keep him on the good path toward "reform." It's not a comic book, it's not a civics book, it's a not a movie with a happy ending. It's a brutal, murderous, lawless, dangerous, out-of-control engine of destruction, encompassing the entire political establishment and all those who support it, politically and financially.
1. Clancy Lives! Take heart, you fans of slam-bang super-spy adventure stories! Tom Clancy is not dead; he lives on in the pages of the Washington Post, channeled through the airport-thriller prose of Barton Gellman -- one of the small coterie of media custodians doling out dollops from the huge archive of secret NSA documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Drawing on that archive of what should be shocking, empire-undermining revelations, Gellman and his co-authors last week penned a story that is, in almost every respect, a glorification of state-ordered murder: a rousing tale of secret ops in exotic lands, awesome high-tech spy gear, flying missiles, deadly explosions, and dogged agents doing the grim but noble work of keeping us safe. No doubt Hollywood is already on the horn: it's boffo box office!
The story describes how the NSA's determined leg-work helped Barack Obama shred the sovereignty of a US ally in order to kill a man -- in the usual cowardly fashion, by long-distance, remote-control missile -- without the slightest pretense of judicial process. It's really cool! Just watch our boys in action:
In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might “bed down.” …
“NSA threw the kitchen sink at the FATA,” said a former U.S. intelligence official with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the region in northwest Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s leadership is based. … Surveillance operations that required placing a device or sensor near an al-Qaeda compound were handled by the CIA’s Information Operations Center, which specializes in high-tech devices and “close-in” surveillance work. “But if you wanted huge coverage of the FATA, NSA had 10 times the manpower, 20 times the budget and 100 times the brainpower,” the former intelligence official said.
I mean, get a load of these guys: 100 times the brainpower of ordinary mortals! Didn't I say they were super-spies?
The target was Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda operative who was once in American custody but was released after giving his captors the tip that eventually led them to Osama bin Laden. (He was also tortured after giving the information -- because, hey, why not? Even super-powerful brains need to let off steam once in a while, right?) Returned to his native Pakistan, Ghul evidently became a bad Injun again in eyes of the imperium, so, after snooping on his wife, they found out where he was and ordered some joystick jockey with his butt parked in a comfy chair somewhere to push a button and kill him.
There is not a single word in the entire story to suggest, even remotely, that there is anything wrong with the government of the United States running high-tech death squads and blanketing the globe with a level of invasive surveillance far beyond the dreams of Stalin or the Stasi. There is not even a single comment from some token 'serious' person objecting to the policy on realpolitik grounds: i.e., that such actions create more terrorists (as the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai told Obama to his face), engender hatred for the US, destabilize volatile regions, etc. etc. There is not a shred of even this very tepid, 'loyal opposition' type of tidbit that usually crops up in the 15th or 25th paragraph of such stories. But there was, of course, plenty of room for quotes like this:
“Ours is a noble cause,” NSA Director Keith B. Alexander said during a public event last month. “Our job is to defend this nation and to protect our civil liberties and privacy.”
Makes you want to puddle up with patriotic pride, don’t it? These noble, noble guardians of ours: peeping through our digital windows, rifling through our in-boxes, listening to our personal conversations, reading our private thoughts, tracking our purchases (underwear, fishing gear, sex toys, books, movies, tampons, anything, everything), recording our dreams, our interests, our beliefs, our desires, skulking in the shadows, pushing buttons to kill people … yes, noble is certainly the first word that comes to mind. 2. Habituation Blues It was once thought that the Snowden trove -- which details the astonishingly pervasive and penetrative reach of America's security apparatchiks into every nook and cranny of our private lives -- might prove to be a stinging blow to our imperial overlords, rousing an angry populace to begin taking back some of the liberties that have been systematically stripped from them by the bipartisan elite. But instead of a powerful tsunami of truth -- a relentless flood of revelations, coming at the overlords from every direction, keeping them off-balance -- we have seen only a slow drip-feed of polite, lawyer-scrubbed pieces from a small portion of the trove, carefully filtered by a tiny circle of responsible journalists at a handful of respectable institutions to ensure, as the custodians constantly assure us, that the revelations will "do no harm" to the security apparat's vital mission.
The perverse result of this process has been to slowly habituate the public to the idea of ubiquitous surveillance. The drawn-out spacing of the stories -- and the small circle of well-known venues from which they come -- has given the apparatchiks and their leaders plenty of time to prepare and launch counter-attacks, to confuse and diffuse the issues with barrages of carefully-wrought bullshit, and to mobilize their own allies in the compliant media to attack the high-profile producers of the stories -- such as the angry assaults in recent days by Britain's right-wing papers, accusing the Guardian of treason, etc., and, once again, diverting attention from the dark and heavy substance of the revelations to the juicier froth of a media cat-fight.
And so, as we have seen time and again over the years, an outbreak of "dissident" revelations is slowly being turned into a means of habituating people to the horrors they expose -- such as the widespread use of torture, which became a widely accepted practice during the last decade. Remember the first Abu Ghraib stories, when even U.S. senators were shell-shocked as they came out of briefings on the horrors, and there was serious talk of criminal prosecutions shaking -- perhaps breaking -- the Bush administration? Outraged editorials rang across the land: "This is not what we are!" But most of the Abu Ghraib material was kept from the public, both by the government and by our respectable, carefully-filtering media outlets. We were told, by our masters and our media, that the facts and images were "too disturbing" for public viewing; and their exposure would threaten our soldiers and agents with retaliation by outraged Muslims.
Within months, many of those same outraged papers were endorsing Bush for re-election. And even in "liberal" bastions, like the New York Times, torture had become a matter not for outright, automatic condemnation and rejection – as it would be in any civilized society -- but instead was presented as an issue requiring “serious” debate. (Debate! About torture!). And so we had a series of serious players weighing in on the pros and cons of "strenuous interrogation" -- with the emphasis largely on whether it was effective or not. This became the respectable, savvy “liberal” perspective on the question: not that torture was an unspeakable, untouchable evil, but that, hey, it doesn’t really work, you get too much garbage data, so it’s not really a useful tool for our noble security forces.
And we all know what happened in the end: the initially shocked and outraged bipartisan elite agreed that no one should ever be prosecuted for these brazen war crimes (aside from a few bits of low-ranking trailer trash, of course), and that those who approved and perpetrated these acts should be protected, honored, and enriched by our society. By the time the smoke cleared, large percentages of the public voiced their support for the torture of imperial captives and the stripping of rights (constitutional rights, human rights) from anyone arbitrarily designated as a "terrorist" by our leaders.
The same thing happened -- in a much quicker, more telescoped form -- in 2012 when the New York Times revealed the details of Barack Obama's formal, official death squad program, run directly out of the White House in weekly meetings. Indeed, this entire "revelation" was stage-managed by the White House itself, which "leaked" the details and provided "top administrative figures" to paint the scene of thoughtful, even prayerful leaders doing the grim but noble work of keeping us safe. Of course, snippets about the White House murder program had been made public before, going back to 2001. (I wrote my first column on the subject in November 2001, based on laudatory stories about Bush's self-proclaimed license to kill in the Washington Post.) And of course, Bush himself openly boasted of the assassination program on national television in his State-of-the-Union address in 2003. So the NYT story was more of a culmination of the habituation process.
Still, many people -- perhaps most people -- had never stitched together the horrendous reality behind these scattered snippets over the years; but the NYT story made it crystal clear, front and center. This time there was not even the brief spasm of outrage that followed the Abu Ghraib revelations. A nation that had already accustomed itself to systematic torture, to "indefinite detention" of captives in concentration camps, indeed to what was described at the Nuremberg Trials as the "supreme international crime" -- aggressive war -- was no longer a nation that would be troubled by news of a White House death squad. It was just part of the "new normal." And it goes without saying that these revelations did not prevent any serious and respectable liberal and "progressive" figure from endorsing Obama's re-election months later.
Yet the Snowden revelations had the potential, at least, to cut through the murk of moral deadness that now envelops America. This is because, unlike distant wars and "black ops" and brutality against swarthy, meaningless foreigners with funny names, the NSA's surveillance programs are also aimed at them, at real people, Americans! For once, they could see a direct impact of overweening empire on their own sweet lives. (Aside from the innumerable indirect impacts which have degraded national life for decades.) There was a chance -- a chance -- that this might have galvanized a critical mass across the ideological spectrum to some kind of substantial pushback, And the series of confused, panicky, self-contradictory lies that government officials and their sycophants told when the Snowden story first hit gave some indication that, for a moment at least, our noble (and Nobelled) overlords were on the back foot.
But then -- well, not much happened. Stories based on the NSA documents appeared at intervals -- often rather lengthy intervals --- and always from the same sources, in the same dry, dense, Establishment style, interspersed with relentless counterblasts from the power structure -- and, always, mixed in with the million other bright, shiny things that pop and flash and draw the eye on the hyperactive screens that ‘mediate’ reality for us. (And what if you were one of the billions of people on earth who -- perish the thought! -- didn't read the Guardian, the Times and the Post?) So the Snowden-based stories rumbled away on the sidelines, the momentum was lost, the power structure got its bootheels back firmly on the ground.
3. The Rain it Raineth Every Day
"Fine word, legitimate." Edmund, King Lear
But what a minute, you say! Hold on just a rootin' tootin' minute there, Mister Cynical Blog Guy! What about the debate? What about the fierce debate -- in the press, on TV, even in the halls of legislatures around the world -- that the finely filtered NSA stories have already brought about? After all, provoking debate was the point, wasn't it? Over and over, custodians of NSA trove such as Gellman and Glenn Greenwald have told us that this has been the raison d’etre behind publishing the stories. Not to "harm" the security apparatus in any way, but to spark a debate over surveillance policies. For according to the serious and the savvy, debate is an inherent good in itself.
Snowden himself underscored this point in his interview with the New York Times last week. In fact, in one extraordinary passage, he says point-blank that he believes the lack of debate is more egregious than the actual liberty-stripping, KGB wet-dream abuses being perpetrated by the security apparat:
[Snowden] added that he had been more concerned that Americans had not been told about the N.S.A.’s reach than he was about any specific surveillance operation.
“So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision,” he said. “However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”
Even “the most morally wrong program” can have a “level of legitimacy” if it has “broad support amongst a people.” Well, if I may quote Mel Brooks quoting old Joe Schrank, I can hardly believe my hearing aid. Snowden apparently put his life and liberty at risk just to see if the American people supported blanket surveillance of themselves and the world. And if they do – well, that gives the whole sinister shebang “a level of legitimacy.” So if the polls eventually show that most people are down with the invasive-pervasive spy program – because, after all, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide” – then it’s all A-OK. Because there would have been a debate, you see, and that’s the main thing. That’s what gives even morally wrong programs their legitimacy. As long as, say, invasive surveillance, torture, aggressive war and hit squads have been given a sufficient modicum of ‘public input,’ of ‘transparency,’ then that’s all that matters. It would be too radical, too harmful, if one were to condemn such practices out of hand as sickening acts of depravity and state terror.
My word, we don’t want that kind of thing, do we? What we want – as our custodians have repeatedly declared – is to have our carefully vetted revelations provoke a debate that will lead to reform.
But "reform" of what? Reform of the very system that has produced these egregious abuses and capital crimes in the first place. 'Reform' which accepts the premises of imperial power, but simply wishes for a more tasteful, “transparent” application of them, with more “oversight” from the power structure. Such "reform" -- which, as Arthur Silber notes, buys into the basic premises of authoritarianism -- can never be anything other than cosmetic. The result will be what we have already seen with murder, torture and mass surveillance: a "legitimization" of state crimes, and their retrospective justification and entrenchment. For example, witness Candidate Obama's vote to "legitimize" the Bush Regime's unlawful surveillance programs (and to indemnify the powerful corporations suborned in these unconstitutional crimes) in 2008. And his zealous post-election assurances to the security apparat that they will never, ever face justice for their brutality, their murders and their abominable constitutional abuses.
Without making false equivalences, let us momentarily indulge in an assay of alternative history to put these remarkable assertions in some context. Entertain for conjecture this passage from some fictional Berlin newspaper in, say, 1943:
“A spokesman for the Berlin Herald said the paper is publishing the revelations of government whistleblower Dietrich Schmidt because it wants to 'spark a debate' about the Hitler administration’s systematic murder of Jews in the occupied territories. The spokesman said that the Herald is carefully screening the documents they've seen detailing the mass killings.
'We would never simply dump the entire trove of documents on the general public,' said the spokesman. 'That could do a lot of harm to people in the national security apparatus. No, what we are doing is simply what journalists always do: select and edit material that we think the public has a right to know, without doing undue harm to the nation and those who serve it. There has been almost no debate on the policy of killing the Jews of Europe, and we think such a debate would be healthy. If the government believes it's a good idea, then let them make their case to the public, let's all weigh the pros and cons and have a serious discussion of these policies. Perhaps then we can get some real reform and more oversight of the mass murder program. That would give the operations a level of legitimacy they now lack and reduce the administration’s unfortunate propensity for ‘governing in the dark.’”
Of course Snowden and the custodians of his archive would vehemently reject any compromise, any “debate” or “reform” concerning Nazi-style genocide. The example is meant to set a moral question in the starkest relief. But let us be clear: we are talking about moral compromise here. What is at issue is not the level of “legitimacy” that might or might not be produced by a broader “debate” or “reform” of the system. What is at issue is the actual moral content of actual policies being perpetrated by the government: the killing of human beings on the arbitrary order of the state, outside even the slightest pretense of judicial process; invasive surveillance, overturning even the slightest pretense of the integrity, autonomy and individual liberty of citizens; and all that falls between these two poles – such indefinite detention, black ops, and torture. (Obama’s early PR moves to ban some forms of torture by some government agencies have hardly ended government brutality in this regard, as – to take just one known example from this vast, secret world -- the truly horrendous force-feeding of captives in the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp has recently shown.)
Yet we are to believe that an imperial, militaristic system which produces such crimes and abuses as naturally and inevitably as storm-clouds make rain can be “reformed” by a “debate” within the power structure itself.
But again, let’s not be cynical. For surely, the carefully circumscribed NSA revelations will doubtless produce a modicum of reform – perhaps along the lines of the Church Committee reforms of the 1970s, when truly horrendous abuses of invasive government surveillance produced … the secret FISA court, which for decades has secretly approved secret government surveillance with a reliable diligence that would shame a rubber stamp. I’ll bet the “debate” provoked by the Snowden documents might possibly, eventually, expand the number of corporate-bought senators and representatives who sit on the committees overseeing, in secret, the government’s all-pervasive spy programs. Why, we might even get a new secret court to preside over the existing secret court that secretly approves the apparat’s operations. And maybe even a few more Hollywood movies out of it, like Zero Dark Thirty and The Fifth Estate. Now won’t that be something?
Meanwhile, we can divert ourselves with death-squad porn like the piece Gellman and the Post have wrought from the Snowden archive, complete with state-approved leaks from insiders and “former top intelligence officials” eager to turn Snowden’s dissident gold into self-serving imperial dross.