Here's a really weird "alternative history" thought experiment on this day set aside to celebrate workers around the world. Try to imagine a President of the United States standing up before Congress and saying something like this:
"There is one point … to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. … Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
Isn't that wild? Of course, it's the kind of thing only some ignorant goober from the sticks -- or maybe even from some other century -- would come out with. Today, fortunately, we know that people who work for wages are just moochers and takers: parasites feeding on the noble blood of their bosses and betters. Being advanced, savvy and modern, we now know that Labor deserves no 'consideration' at all (much less a higher one!): no safe work places, no job security, no secured pensions, no bargaining rights, no privacy, no decency, no dignity. Labor should be glad and grateful to give whatever it takes (and take whatever they give) to serve the interests of our precious elites -- our crusading corporate chieftains, our visionary venture capitalists, our wise shepherds of inherited wealth -- who graciously provide their beasts of burden with store of provender.
Unless, of course, the provender provisioning threatens to cut into the nobles' bloated profit margins too much. In that case, of course, the higher considerations of capital must take precedence, and the jobs have to go. And when that happens, Labor should humbly bow its head, without complaint, without whining, and quietly, meekly, accept its fate, in accordance with the ruling principle that governs our glorious modern world.
And what is that principle? Well, it just so happens that I addressed this theme in my latest column for Counterpunch Magazine, now offered for your perusal below.
Pay in Blood: Modern Politics Made Simple Modern politics can be hard to fathom, a bizarre mix of mind-bending complexities and bone-stupid banalities coming at us in a howling sandstorm of chaotic noise. How to sift the relentless, contradictory arcana of current events and make sense of it all? I find that a simple phrase helps thread the labyrinth – four little words that capture the grand, overarching political philosophy of the age:
Fuck Off And Die.
This is the lodestar guiding leaders of every political stripe across the breadth of western civilization. If you want to make your way through their billows of bullshit, hold fast to this phrase. It’s what they’re really saying to you.
Of course, elite attitudes toward the lower orders have never been exactly tender; but in times past, a rather large number of sufficiently quiescent peasants and proles were required to create the wealth for plutocratic plundering and maintain the machinery of power and privilege. Thus some attention had to be paid to the rabble’s basic needs and even -- occasionally – their pitiful aspirations for a more meaningful, more humane life for themselves, their families and their communities. But now the means of production (to borrow a phrase) are largely mechanized and digitized; you don’t need many warm bodies -- and certainly not skilled or experienced or well-paid ones – to keep the money rolling in. And perhaps more importantly, the means of control -- the technologies of violence and surveillance -- are now vastly more powerful and pervasive and efficient than ever.
To put it plainly, the elites don’t need us anymore -- or not many of us, anyway. And thanks to runaway population growth -- and the greasy mobility of global capital -- those few of us they do still need to keep the machinery going can be easily replaced, at any moment, by some other desperate chump trying to avoid destitution. So there is no longer any reason for elites to concern themselves with the wearisome creatures out there beyond the mansion gates and the penthouse glass. No need to worry about workers’ rights: if they get out of line, sack them, or even better, send the whole operation overseas, where sweatshop fodder is thick on the ground and comes dirt cheap. No need to worry about communities, the personal, social, economic and physical structures that gave a richer embodiment to ordinary life: just strip them, gut them and leave them to die -- and when the rot gets bad enough, as in Detroit, send in an unelected “manager” to pick the carcass clean.
And no need to worry about mass uprisings of the dispossessed, debt-ridden, insecure, angry, overwhelmed, isolated, media-dazed rabble. With hyper-militarized police forces, cameras on every corner, spies and provocateurs infesting every possible base of dissent, and gargantuan data-harvesters mining every public move and private click of the populace, repression is a piece of cake. And if by chance some pocket of protest does reach critical mass somewhere, your hi-tech, heavily armored goons can easily beat it, tase it and pepper-spray it into submission.
So the elites no longer need us or fear us. We are superfluous to their requirements. And their policies are now ever more nakedly geared to hammering this truth home.
The Great Crash of ’08 gave them the excuse to rip off the mask at last. For five years now, the iron hand of “austerity” has been pressed down hard upon ordinary people. We had no part in the criminal folly that caused the disaster -- yet we are the ones left paying for it, in lost jobs, lost homes, lost services, lost freedoms, lost opportunities, and cramped, crippled, diminished lives. From the "progressive" Obama to the Tory toff Cameron to the pseudo-Socialist Hollande to the dour centrist Merkel -- and all the other clowns, clerks and ciphers turning their self-proclaimed “great democracies” into cash cows for their cronies and controllers -- the infliction of pain on ordinary people is the only game in town. ‘O my gosh,’ our leaders cry, throwing up their soft, unblemished hands, ‘there's just no more money left, no money for your schools, your roads, your jobs, your pensions, your rights, your benefits, your elderly, your sick, your poor, your vulnerable. The money's all gone, what can we do?’
But of course the money is not gone, not at all. A new study -- by an inside man, James Henry, former chief economist at McKinsey -- shows that up to $32 trillion has been stashed away by the world’s elites in offshore accounts and other hidey-holes. Even a modest portion of this mountain of swag would completely alleviate the draconian “budget crises” and ludicrous “sequesters” that have been artificially imposed on nation after nation. All of the suffering, chaos, ruin and degradation being caused by these policies -- all the “skin in the game” that’s being flayed from the backs of ordinary people -- all of it is unnecessary. The money is there to solve these problems -- if our leaders wanted to solve them.
But they don’t. For “austerity” isn’t designed to fix our problems; it is instead meant to be a permanent condition, a new normal, the endless, changeless natural order. (Just as the “emergency” of the “War on Terror” has now morphed into a permanent way of life.) It’s all out in the open. Obama is eagerly offering to slash the social compact to ribbons. Cameron is driving the poor and sick to their knees. The IMF is breeding Nazis in Greece. They’re not even pretending to care about anyone outside the golden circle anymore.
Fuck off and die: that’s it, that’s all they’ve got to say. The rest is show-biz -- strip-tease and shell games -- to fleece us of our last few coins as they shove us out the exit.
For your potential delectation, a rambling disquisition on some aspects of our fractured reality, with cameos by Sigmund Freud, E.M. Forster, kings, slave singers, and love that burns beyond the grave.
In a veritable ocean of witless, sinister media gabble about the Boston bombing -- and the successful tryout of the "Major City Martial Law Revue" that followed (doubtless coming soon to Broadway, the Beltway and conurbations from coast to coast) -- Arthur Silber, as you might expect, cuts through the foaming sludge with this perceptive and powerful look at the "Killer Klowns" who rule us. The often darkly comic piece is studded with gems, but two particularly important points stand out: first, the absolute idiocy of relying on "the farcical charade that is 'intelligence'" when assessing any situation; and second, the malevolent effects of the "idealization of authority." Read it in full as an effective antidote to our ever more poisonous public discourse.
Who would have thought that the brutal Burma junta had not really and truly reformed itself when it made its much-ballyhooed leap forward toward democracy by releasing dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and loosening restrictions on the officially recognised political opposition -- a move that brought the much-sought pat on the head (and easing of sanctions) from the American Imperium, and even a visit from Caesar himself?
Having witnessed this miracle, who would have believed that this same militarist junta -- which has retained all its power and maintained its repressive forces in place -- would now be using Suu Kyi and "democracy" to provide a PR fig leaf for a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing? Yet, strangely enough, that appears to be what is happening. The Burmese regime has overtly and covertly been assisting in the ongoing sectarian strife led by violent fundamentalist Buddhist monks against the small Muslim minority in the country -- particularly the Rohingya and Kaman Muslims, stateless people who have been forced into refugee camps by the junta and subjected to constant attacks by the Buddhist majority in Rakhine state and elsewhere around the country.
The outpouring of violence has shaken the moral authority of Suu Kyi, as she tries to maintain the momentum of democratization through negotiation and cooperation with the power structure. Many have found her statements on the violence to be remarkably muted. This too plays into the hands of the Burmese rulers: they get kudos for freeing dissidents and making gestures toward democracy, while at the same time they weaken the opposition by co-opting it.
(This dynamic might not be totally unfamiliar to observers of American politics, particularly in the relationship between the militarist-corporatist, drone-bombing, extrajudicially-murdering, indefinitely-detaining, force-feeding, whistleblower-quashing Obama administration and what is laughingly known as the 'left.' Although naturally our morally tough and savvy progressive pundits deliver themselves of fierce criticisms of this or that particular policy or political move of the Administration, their opposition is fatally compromised by their need to maintain their own much-sought pats on the head from the Imperium (don't want to be disinvited from the next Oval Office confab with progressive bloggers or -- gasp! -- dropped out of rotation on the Chris Hayes show!) and by their own fervent efforts to keep the militarist-corporatist, drone-bombing, etc. Administration in power last year.)
A leading international rights group on Monday accused authorities in Myanmar, including Buddhist monks, of fomenting an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority that killed hundreds of people and forced 125,000 from their homes.
Human Rights Watch also described the bloody wave of violence and massacres in western Rakhine state last year as crimes against humanity, and slammed the government of President Thein Sein for failing to bring the perpetrators to justice months after mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes and homemade guns razed thousands of Muslim homes.
While state security forces sometimes intervened to protect fleeing Muslims, more often they fueled the unrest, the rights group said, either by standing by idle or directly participating in atrocities. One soldier reportedly told a Muslim man whose village was ablaze: “The only thing you can do is pray to save your lives.”
The allegations, detailed in a new report by the New York-based rights group, came the same day the European Union lifted all sanctions on Myanmar except an arms embargo to reward the Southeast Asian nation for its progress toward democratic rule.
Burma seems to be playing out a scenario we have seen with grim regularity in the past several years, where the introduction of "democratic reforms" is eventually (or immediately) hijacked either by existing elites or new forces in league with elements of the power structure, or by satraps installed by outside powers via regime change. The new "democratic" governments are either woefully ineffective (e.g. Afghanistan, Egypt) or brutally repressive (Iraq, Libya) or a combination of the two (Russia, Ukraine). But in almost every case, the end result is that "democracy" becomes associated with collapse, corruption, economic ruin, sectarian violence, rampant crime. The very concept becomes tainted for those suffering under "democracy"; in many cases, the word itself becomes an insult, used as a bitter, cynical joke. (I saw this first-hand in Russia during the 1990s.)
People thus subjected to the ravages of "democracy" become much more amenable to authoritarian "solutions" to the problems their "freedom" has caused. This is, of course, because they have neither democracy or freedom but just another set of elites (or the same elites in new drag, like the suddenly "civilian" leaders of the Burmese military junta, or the KGB-connected cronies who have feasted on the Russian carcass for years) ruthlessly exploiting the fears and uncertainties of societies in upheaval.
None of this is likely to stop the accelerating American embrace of Burma's militarist regime. (After all, they're just killing Muslims!) But it is, yet again, a depressing coda to another bright story of a "democratic dawn."
*** (This is not the only route to authoritarianism, of course; we're seeing another model at work in the United States even as we speak. But that's another story, although you'll find good stuff on this theme here and here.)
Without wishing to indulge in deep-fried conspiracy gobbling at this point, I will say that the revelations about the FBI's prior involvement with one of the suspected Boston attackers, apparently going on for years, are of great interest. Even more so in the light of the fact that a very large number of the terrorist attacks and attempted terrorist attacks in the United States over the past two decades have turned out to have had significant FBI involvement, often in the form of outright provocation by FBI infiltrators, egging on and sometimes even planning attacks that were later "foiled" -- by the FBI.
This doesn't automatically mean that the FBI or other government agencies were "behind" the events in Boston; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes people do bad things without government prompting. But the consistent pattern of prior FBI involvement, in various degrees and at various stages, with people and groups that later go on to attempt or carry out violent actions cannot be ignored, and should be more thoroughly explored in this case. Particularly considering the fact the agency at first denied having any contact with the suspect -- until her mother outed them to the media. From CBS News:
Although the FBI initially denied contacting Tsarnaev, the brothers' mother said they had in an interview with Russia Today. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva said her son got involved in "religious politics" about five years ago, and never told her he was involved in "jihad."
She insisted the FBI "knew what he was doing on Skype" and that they counseled him "every step of the way."
Tsarnaeva went on to say that "they were controlling him, they were controlling his every step...and now they say that this is a terrorist act." That may or may not be true; certainly if I were the parent of someone in this situation, that's what I would want to believe. But the now-established involvement of the FBI, as well as the probable involvement of both the American and Russian intelligence agencies with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, should not be ignored when the reasons and roots behind the Boston attack and its bloody aftermath are explored.
That said, it is of course very likely that these connections will be ignored, as the well-worn narrative of "good boys turned bad by Islam" hardens into conventional wisdom. This narrative might be the truth in this case -- but it also works to the advantage of so many powerful forces. This is true not just for those opposing immigration in the the United States (that bloody shirt is already being waved frantically by many American politicians and other high-toned peddlers of racial and ethnic enmity), but even moreso for all those in power structures around the world who profit -- politically and financially -- from the vast engines of a military-security complex gorging on the fear of Islamic terrorism. (Other kinds of terrorism -- particularly the far more constant and far more murderous attacks of state terrorism -- don't bother them too much.)
Most immediately, this incident will greatly strengthen the military-security apparat in the United States and Russia, helping further demonize Muslims in general for the American apparatchiks and Chechens in particular for the Russians -- especially all those opposed to the brutal rule of the Kremlin and its satrap in Chechnya. But every political power structure that feeds on fear -- and which ones do not? -- will benefit from the crime spree in Boston, whatever its origins.
Again, these are just speculations, drawing on the few facts that are known at present, and putting them in the context of recent history. Perhaps the Tsarnaev brothers were lone operators: tormented individuals emerging from the brutal and brutalizing background of invasion, repression, violence and murder that characterizes modern Chechnya, who then internalized this violence and hatred, and sought, in anguish, ignorance and error, to expel it by directing it outward toward some generalized enemy, a demonized Other. Perhaps not. Perhaps other psychological factors were at work that we know nothing of at the moment. Perhaps not. Perhaps some agency or other of some military-security apparat somewhere seized on these troubled individuals and turned them toward the agency's own ends, with results that were either intended or else slipped far beyond the agency's wishes or control. Perhaps not.
But I think there are deeper contexts to the case -- whether these are restricted to the twisting of individual psyches by the greater geopolitical and cultural forces that have done so much pointless violence to us all, and in particular to the direct targets of massive power structures, such as Chechnya or, latterly, the Muslim world at large, or whether there are more specific involvements of military-security apparatchiks in the development of this murderous tragedy. Yet, as already noted, we will almost certainly see none of these deeper contexts explored in the earnest postmortems -- by politicians, pundits, academics and self-appointed "experts" of every stripe -- in the weeks and months to come.
Yes, let us remember the victims of violence today, those who died and those who live on in the scarred, tormented aftermath. Let us remember them in Boston, in Baghdad, in Mogadishu, in Guantanamo, in Waziristan --and in every corner of the world where the crippled souls who live by violence seek to impose their evil dreams on us all.
As the unfortunate atoms that were so cruelly knitted into the malevolent form of Maggie Thatcher now enjoy their sudden liberation, the London Review of Books unearths an unlikely prophet of old who clearly foresaw the dangers of mythologizing "Thatcherism" and allowing it to establish the framework for all future politics. This insightful figure, writing boldly in the name of all "radical, progressive spirits" seeking a better world, also perceptively identified the historical and geophysical fluke -- a situation that had nothing at all to do with Thatcher's rapacious, hard-hearted and wrong-headed policies -- which temporarily sustained the illusion that it was her economic "reforms" that "restored prosperity" to Britain.
As the LRB's Thomas Jones notes in the piece, how different the world might be today if this prophet himself had become prime minister! Surely he would never have succumbed to the mythology of Thatcherism, including its cynical, murderous penchant for totally unnecessary wars, but would have worked tirelessly to reverse its foul effects, which are still with us, and growing worse, today. O for what might have been!
As millions around the world mark the death of a god this weekend, let us add our voice to the chorus on this theme with a little number laid down back in ancient times (i.e., the last decade): End Times.
In other news, I am off to the frozen north of these islands for a bit, where I will be locked in tight and out of range, as the saying goes. In the interim, here is the latest column I did for Counterpunch Magazine. More later, if the fates allow.
THIS IS NOT THE AGE OF DEFEAT
This is the age of loss, not the age of defeat.
Drone strikes, kill lists, murderers and torturers approved for high office. Austerity for the poor, record profits for the rich. Truthtellers shackled, liars lauded, ignorance exalted, cruelty and callousness gilded with righteous piety. Everywhere, goodness is driven to its knees, and this brutality is not decried but celebrated.
As in that age of iron that lowered over our forbears during dark night of the Thirties, you see faces once thought kind and kindred turn suddenly feral. Fear is behind it, but not just fear: also a self-hatred for what fear has turned them into, a self-hatred that cannot be borne and so is turned outward, thrown outward, into harsh projections of hatefulness, violence and desolation.
The avid embrace of what was once denounced, or the sad but “savvy” acceptance of the “lesser evil”: this is what we see at every turn today among ourselves, among those we thought were our own, and sometimes, maybe – when the lowering is darkest, heaviest – in mirrors as we pass. When the lowering is darkest, when the soul is lost. In them. In us.
This is the age of loss – but it is not the age of defeat.
What do you think goodness is? Some commodity, a material substance that can be wasted utterly, atomized, made inert? Do you think it is a thing, that can be destroyed, organic matter that can die? Do you think it is an idea that can lose its force, its coherence, its context, can be rendered quaint or antiquated by time’s passing, or by any suppression or negation? What do you think goodness is? Goodness is like fire: it is a process not an entity, not even a mental entity: it is process, it is relation, it exists only in the moment of its enacting, in the moment of ignition, of relation, where matter and energy become one, become nothing, become all.
Goodness is like fire, but it is not fire, because the matter it feeds upon is existence itself: inexhaustible, in all of its uncountable coalescences of innumerable elements – right down to the quantum switchings in the invisible cores: rising, decaying, recombining, rising again, decaying, recombining, on and on, in every direction, at every level, until the end of whatever time is, if whatever time is has an end.
Fearful, damaged creatures rule us. It is because they are more fearful and damaged than we are that they want to rule, that they aren’t content with mere images of projected self-hatred (like so many of their sycophants and followers). No, they must have the viscera in their hands, smell the overpowering stench of death, hear the wail of suffering, see the damage, the destroyed body that is the image of their own soul. They think that in this way what is fearful and damaged inside them will be expelled. But of course, the opposite is true; the hateful damage is only increased, exponentially, the rot grows deeper and deeper inside them.
This is what our politics is, this is what power is: the maniacal attempt to overcome relation -- to blot it out, stop the endless process, put out the fire, and impose a deadened stasis on the reality that pains them so.
But this is impossible to do, because the flame of reality cannot be extinguished. Individual points of consciousness can be destroyed – an abysmal, irreplaceable, inconsolable loss – but not the always-changing, rising, falling, recombining process that is reality. What do you think goodness is? Goodness is reality, it is Being itself. Evil is the attempt to quell reality, to quell goodness, to stop it, arrest it, indefinitely detain it, to beat it, terrorize it into submission, to assassinate it, sequester it, to make it go away somehow and stop reflecting back to us the damaged thing we have become.
But this cannot be done. It cannot be done. Goodness can lose, but it cannot be defeated. It can be balked, but it cannot be quelled. In every single moment of existence, the choice for goodness is there. Every single moment – the choice. And you can make it at any point, you can begin the process of accepting, enacting, igniting goodness at any point, even the darkest and most degraded.
Sometimes we don’t have the strength, of course. Sometimes we don’t know what’s working on us, turning us away from reality, the process, the flame, drawing us down into hatefulness, into the dead world of projection. Sometimes we know, but can’t control these forces. As I once wrote elsewhere (nothing new under the sun), “moments will be lost, moments will be won; this is the imperishable way.” This is the endless task of consciousness, of being alive in reality.
(And “goodness” here does not mean “goodiness” or righteousness or any kind of bloodless, lifeless thing. Goodness is the impulse or action that moves in relation, the impulse or action that does not abstract, exploit, dehumanize the other, does not solidify them, but moves, flows in empathetic relation to them. You can have a hell of a good time in that kind of flow.)
In any given age, the lowering clouds can bear down more heavily than in others. Ours is indeed a very hard age, another age of iron. It is an age of loss, of grievous loss – but it is not the age of defeat. Reality remains, the process goes on, the choice for goodness is always – always – there, no matter what.
It turns out that I have become, of all things, a print journalist again, for the first time since I was turfed out of the Moscow Times (and let go by the Bergen Record) many yonks ago. By the kind offices of editor Jeffrey St. Clair, I am now a regular columnist for the new Counterpunch monthly magazine, alongside such stalwarts as Mike Whitney, Kristen Kolb, Christopher Ketcham and St. Clair his own self. I've been associated, off and on, with Counterpunch for more than 10 years, so I'm well chuffed, as the Brits say, to be asked to take part in the new venture.
The latest issue -- featuring a most apt, droned-up, Obamaized take on Blind Faith's iconic album cover -- is out now. (See here for details.) My first column, from earlier in the year, is below.
*** The Whole Damn Camel “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken” – Bob Dylan
Surely the re-election of Barack Obama has, at long last, put the kibosh on the hoary notion that the “Professional Left” poses any kind of threat or counterbalance to the malignant spread of empire, within and without. Slice the timeline any way you like –10 years, 20 years, 30 years – and you’ll still come up with the same sad salami: a political world shifted so far to the right, so deep in the pockets of Daddy Warbucks, General Ripper and Elmer Gantry that even Boss Tweed might blush for shame. This is what the Prof-Left has to show for its decades of working diligently within the system.
Of course, America’s hard-right turn (or reversion) to militarism abroad and Hobbesianism at home is not solely the result of the Left’s egregious failures; far from it. It’s a brew made up of many poisons. And yes, failure can be honorable at times. But there is nothing honorable about what happened to “progressives” in Campaign 2012. After years of consciousness-raising – unmasking atrocities, tracking corruption, decoding propaganda, speaking truth to power, etc. – where did the Prof-Left end up in November? Supporting a lawless, cynical, corporate-coddling warmonger who has taken the tropes of imperial sway to their logical conclusion, their final solution: the arbitrary, unchecked power of life and death, not only over the grubby barbaroi but even over his own subjects. As the scripture saith, our professional progs strained at a gnat – but swallowed the whole damn camel.
Nowhere was this betrayal of principle more naked than in the very arena which, we were told, had “transformed” politics forever, shattering the old paradigms and giving unprecedented voice and power to reform and resistance: the progressive blogosphere. Yet here the cognitive dissonance was so jarring that it hurt just to look at it. (God knows what it must felt like inside those conflicted craniums.) Here you found stern denunciations of White House death squads, drone wars, whistleblower persecutions, corporate whoredom and other outrages standing cheek-to-cheek with gushing paeans to presidential cool, testy rebuttals of Tea Party attacks, minute nit-pickings over polls and soundbites, and sage tactical advice to ensure victory for … the same man they were simultaneously slating for murder and repression. For all their “savvy” caveats and subtle nuance, their Chomskyean parsing of narrow moral choices in a brutal power system (Democrats, said one prominent progblogger, are "2% less evil," so one must support them), in the end, the netrooters were as avid as David Axelrod in their partisan plumping for more drones, deaths, deportations, drilling, drug warring and all the other draconia wielded happily by Obama in his first four years.
This is a “movement” that has finally collapsed beneath the weight of its own incoherence. You cannot denounce state crime while supporting its perpetrators. Or rather, you can – but you will look like a fool. You will look like someone who has nothing to offer beyond a pallid, unprincipled tribal loyalty to a clapped-out party of bloodstained bagmen. And all the “ordinary people” out there whose consciousnesses you are trying to raise will sense this hollow core, this estrangement from reality. They will know you have no answers for the suffering they endure in a heartless system, that you can provide no understanding of what the system is doing to them – because you are part of the system, you speak its language, you play its games, you support its crimes, you cheerlead for its criminals. Why should they listen to you? And so the people you seek to help and enlighten turn away – to those whose certainties, however false, seem more coherent; or to ever-more frantic, frenetic diversions; or to a grim, ground-down, burnt-out , grudging acceptance of a system that seems inescapable, more like a natural order than a hell of our own making.
I certainly don’t exempt myself from this critique. (Except maybe for that 2012 criminal-supporting thing.) For 35 years now, in print and on line, I’ve been doing the same kind of consciousness-raising and outrage-recording described above. (And I must confess that for too much of that time, I also hewed to the “2 percent” line that induces moral blindness when the criminals ride donkeys, not elephants. The hardest consciousness to raise is always one’s own.) But the 2012 election seems to me to represent a milestone of sorts, or a turning point or – hell, why not? – a new paradigm. Decades of dissent – not just pallid progblogging or Beltway-liberal lobbying, but the real deal, down in the trenches, courageous, unsung, dedicated – has not slowed the imperial juggernaut, whose depredations are more brazen, more entrenched and more accepted, even celebrated, than ever. Something ain’t working. The tongues are all broken. The message is not getting through.
So what now? At this point, all I know is that I don’t know – which is, so they say, the beginning of wisdom. And that’s what I want to do in this column: begin again, re-think, see more, learn more, get away from the camel-swallowers and my own calcifications, and meet our new reality head-on.
All forms of political media -- in print, on line, on the air -- have been awash in recent weeks with retrospectives on the tenth anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Amidst the mountainous heap of drivel and falsehood such an occasion inevitably produces among the vast and vapid army of analysts who happily spend their days chewing the cud of whatever happens to be the conventional wisdom of the day, there have been a few outstanding pieces that put this continuing war crime in stark perspective.
One of the better short pieces I've seen on the subject comes from -- of all people -- an actual Iraqi. Sami Ramadani, a dissident forced into exile by Saddam, has been one of the most insightful observers -- and vociferous opponents -- of the atrocities inflicted on his country by Western elites and their local collaborators (including, of course, for many decades, Saddam Hussein). From the Guardian:
Ten years on from the shock and awe of the 2003 Bush and Blair war – which followed 13 years of murderous sanctions, and 35 years of Saddamist dictatorship – my tormented land, once a cradle of civilisation, is staring into the abyss.
Wanton imperialist intervention and dictatorial rule have together been responsible for the deaths of more than a million people since 1991. And yet, according to both Tony Blair and the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the "price is worth it". Blair, whom most Iraqis regard as a war criminal, is given VIP treatment by a culpable media. Iraqis listen in disbelief when he says: "I feel responsibility but no regret for removing Saddam Hussein." (As if Saddam and his henchmen were simply whisked away, leaving the people to build a democratic state). It enrages us to see Blair build a business empire, capitalising on his role in piling up more Iraqi skulls than even Saddam managed.
As an exile, I was painfully aware of Saddam's crimes, which for me started with the disappearance from Baghdad's medical college of my dearest school friend, Hazim. The Iraqi people are fully aware, too, that Saddam committed all his major crimes while an ally of western powers. On the eve of the 2003 invasion I wrote this for the Guardian:
"In Iraq, the US record speaks for itself: it backed Saddam's party, the Ba'ath, to capture power in 1963, murdering thousands of socialists, communists and democrats; it backed the Ba'ath party in 1968 when Saddam was installed as vice-president; it helped him and the Shah of Iran in 1975 to crush the Kurdish nationalist movement; it increased its support for Saddam in 1979…helping him launch his war of aggression against Iran in 1980; it backed him throughout the horrific eight years of war (1980 to 1988), in which a million Iranians and Iraqis were slaughtered, in the full knowledge that he was using chemical weapons and gassing Kurds and Marsh Arabs; it encouraged him in 1990 to invade Kuwait…; it backed him in 1991 when Bush [senior] suddenly stopped the war, exactly 24 hours after the start of the great March uprising that engulfed the south and Iraqi Kurdistan…"
But when it was no longer in their interests to back him, the US and UK drowned Iraq in blood.
…We haven't even counted the dead yet, let alone the injured, displaced and traumatised. Countless thousands are still missing. Of the more than 4 million refugees, at least a million are yet to go back to their homeland, and there still about a million internal refugees. On an almost daily basis, explosions and shootings continue to kill the innocent. … Lack of electricity, clean water and other essential services continues to hit millions of impoverished and unemployed people, in one of the richest countries on the planet. Women and children pay the highest price. Women's rights, and human rights in general, are daily suppressed.
And what of democracy, supposedly the point of it all? The US-led occupying authorities nurtured a "political process" and a constitution designed to sow sectarian and ethnic discord. Having failed to crush the resistance to direct occupation, they resorted to divide-and-rule to keep their foothold in Iraq. Using torture, sectarian death squads and billions of dollars, the occupation has succeeded in weakening the social fabric and elevating a corrupt ruling class that gets richer by the day, salivating at the prospect of acquiring a bigger share of Iraq's natural resources, which are mostly mortgaged to foreign oil companies and construction firms.
Warring sectarian and ethnic forces, either allied to or fearing US influence, dominate the dysfunctional and corrupt Iraqi state institutions, but the US embassy in Baghdad – the biggest in the world – still calls the shots. Iraq is not really a sovereign state, languishing under the punitive Chapter VII of the UN charter.
Yes, it has certainly been, as Barack Obama memorably characterized it, a "remarkable achievement." It is also, more and more, a forgotten "achievement." America's amnesia regarding the war crime in Iraq and its continuing ramifications -- not only the repression and death still going on there, but also the catastrophic impact of this atrocity on America itself, including the tsunami of suicide, homelessness and PTSD among its soldiers, and the back-breaking costs of this orgy of corruption and war-profiteering -- is indeed remarkable. It is no longer a reality -- a living, anguished, ongoing human tragedy -- but simply fodder for commentary, for partisan point-scoring, for barroom blather. This has always been the case with our misbegotten wars of imperial domination (for an especially acute and egregious example of our chronic amnesia, see this review of Nick Turse's new book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam), going back to the 19th century. And the "paradigm-changing" iadvent of the internet has done nothing to change that; despite today's easy access to unprecedented levels of information about the realities of the Iraq war (and other high crimes and atrocities), the amnesia and willful ignorance remains as profound as ever.
So here we are. Ten years on from the frenzied paroxysm (or was it an orgasm?) of mass violence -- which was itself the culmination of years of the bipartisan war-by-sanctions that American officials have openly acknowledged killed more than half a million Iraqi children -- what is the central "moral" issue of our national politics today? This once-unimaginable, horribly depraved and obscene question: Should the president be allowed to murder any American citizen he chooses, or should there perhaps be be some kind of secret Congressional oversight of the secret killing program? (The idea of restricting the president's power to kill any filthy foreigner he chooses is not in question anywhere in our national politics, of course; Rand Paul wasn't filibustering against that idea. No, any debate on the "ethics" of state murder is restricted to its application to Americans, who, as we know, are the only fully human beings on the face of the earth.)
Given the current trajectory of our plunge into barbarism, I predict that in just a few years we'll be "debating" whether the president has the right to stick the severed heads of "terrorists" on spikes outside the White House, or if the heads should be passed around discreetly to members of the relevant Senate committees before being dumped in the ocean.
Glenn Reynolds, the Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at my old alma mater, the by-god, orange-bleeding University of Tennessee, has responded to the "lefty lies" in a recent post here, taking me to task for mischaracterizing one of the tropes he trotted out during his incessant cheerleading for the military aggression in Iraq back in the day. I quoted his 2006 remark about "more rubble, less trouble" as a handy tag to encapsulate the neocons' notion of "creative destruction" -- using violence and war to re-shape the Middle East to their ideological tastes. I thought Reynolds would have been tickled to be the poster boy for his fellow propagandists, but I guess I was wrong. Anyway, here's what I said:
The aim of this deeply evil program, one supposes, was to achieve the "creative destruction" so beloved of the neocon savants who provided the "intellectual" framework for the Hitlerian act of aggression. True to their Trotskyist roots, they longed for the cleansing fire of war and ruin to clear the ground for their fanatical, world-shaping dreams. (Unlike Trotsky, of course, they never led troops in the field or put their own lives on the line.) Or as that deep thinker Glenn Reynolds once put it, gleefully: "More rubble, less trouble."
Now Glenn says this was a terrible twisting of his far more nuanced and sophisticated analysis of the war crime he cheered for. As he puts it:
"…what I was actually saying in the quoted but not linked post was that if we failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, we might wind up pursuing a “more rubble, less trouble” policy at the expense of democratization. There was no glee."
So let's go to the quoted -- but now linked! -- post. His original 2006 piece was sparked by a tide of criticism aimed at Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the war, which was then in its third year, and beginning its slide into the horrific, American-abetted hellstorm of sectarian strife that was the subject of my post last week. Glenn then quotes a number of people who rebut the criticism of poor, heroic Rumsfeld, including this anonymous commenter, who declared:
"The ball is in the Iraqis' court. We took away the obstacle to their freedom. If they choose to embrace death, corruption, incompetence, lethal religious mania, and stone-age tribalism, then at least we'll finally know the limitations of the people in that part of the world. The experiment had to be made."
Glenn likes that idea, but expresses his frustration about the "three-year rule" which is "well-known to U.S. planners -- U.S. voters will support a war for three years, but then get antsy for a conclusion. This attitude may be bad, especially as applied to 'messy small wars,' but it's a reality." (Yeah, ain't it a bitch that people can't send their sons and daughters off to die in endless, pointless exercises in war profiteering without getting all antsy about it after a few years? I mean, come on: if a he-man cheerleader is willing to waggle his pom-poms for decades without moaning about it, why can't these stupid widows and widowers and orphans and parents give up their loved ones more cheerfully? Really; it's almost as if the pathetic American people aren't even worthy of the deep thinkers and cheerleaders who provide these wars for them.)
Glenn goes on:
"On the other hand, it's also true that if democracy can't work in Iraq, then we should probably adopt a "more rubble, less trouble" approach to other countries in the region that threaten us. If a comparatively wealthy and secular Arab country can't make it as a democratic republic, then what hope is there for places that are less wealthy, or less secular?"
We should probably adopt a 'more rubble, less trouble' approach to other countries in the region that threaten us. ("Should probably": weasel-wording worthy of a guardhouse lawyer -- or even a tenured professor. Never have the courage of your convictions; always leave yourself an out. "I didn't say we should kill the homeless guy and take his money, your honor; I said we should probably kill the homeless guy and take his money. So it's not my fault!") In 2013, he dials this back a bit, now writing that we "might wind up" pursuing the more rubble, less trouble approach if countries don't accept the "democratization' we impose on them at gunpoint. I suppose "might wind up" is a little less prescriptive, more nuanced than "should probably" -- but let's leave the weasel-wording to the lawyers.
Later, as clarification, Glenn added this to the 2006 post:
The "more rubble, less trouble" phrase refers to what Victor Davis Hanson calls a kind of "punitive isolationism" that I think we'll see if we give up in Iraq -- and that was presaged by the Clinton Administration's cruise-missile-based antiterror policy. It's what I hope to prevent, not what I hope to see, and it's the likely consequence of doing what the lefties want in foreign policy.
In other words, it is far better to invade a country in an act of unprovoked military aggression and murder thousands upon thousands of innocent people in massive doses than it is to murder innocent people piecemeal with missile strikes. (Or in our super-modern techno-utopia, drone strikes.) Now, some people might say there is something slightly wrong with both of these approaches. Some people might find the idea of murdering innocent people in any fashion as part of a militarist agenda of "power projection," domination and war profiteering that sows hatred and retribution around the world while bankrupting one's own people and stripping them of their liberties to be, well, not OK. But for Reynolds and his ilk, there is no alternative, no other way for the United States to conduct its affairs, no other goal for our national life: there is only the way of war and dominance. Anything else is not even imaginable. So the only choices available are wholesale murder or a more boutique approach. I admit there is a fine strategic distinction at work here -- at least for those who embrace the principle of murdering innocent people to maintain a "unipolar world" of American dominance -- and I did not fully appreciate Reynolds' devotion to murder en masse. He likes people to die and rubble to bounce only in a certain way; if I left the inadvertent impression that he liked to see people die and rubble bounce in any old way, I apologize.
What is most remarkable about all this, of course, is Reynolds' unspoken, unquestioned -- and perhaps unconscious -- assumption: that the United States must go on invading countries that 'threaten us' (in completely unspecified ways -- or, as with Iraq, in completely falsified ways). This is simply a given: we should attack countries to bend them to our will. The only question in the mind of well-wadded cheerleaders like Reynolds is whether we give these backward countries three years to get with our program, or -- if they are less wealthy and secular than Iraq was before we got there -- we should just go ahead and reduce them to utter ruin.
I don't really think my "lefty lies" mischaracterized the cheerleader's basic position, either then or now. To put it in plain terms like we use back in Tennessee: Reynolds does not give a shit how many dirty foreigners we kill in our "messy small wars." If they give up early after we invade them and don't make "trouble," fine; if they make trouble, then we "should probably" reduce them to rubble. In the former case, we'll kill lots of people on the front end; in the latter case, we'll kill lots of people all the way through. I'm sure that Professor Reynolds, as an enlightened and educated guardian of the values of Western civilization, would far prefer the somewhat lower body count of the first instance; but if we "wind up" having to take the second approach -- so what? Who cares? The important thing is that our right to invade other countries and impose our will on them -- to the immense profit of a small elite (and the giddy goosebumps of our war cheerleaders) -- must not be questioned or thwarted in any way.
That said, with hand on heart, I apologize (or rather, I "should probably" apologize) for characterizing Reynolds' evocation of the "more rubble, less trouble" doctrine as "gleeful." In truth, I have no idea what emotion he was feeling when he wrote that phrase. In fact, I now believe there were probably tears of sorrow dropping on his keyboard as he contemplated the tragic necessity that makes good, decent, democratizing Americans kill thousands upon thousands of innocent people in pointless wars fought on falsified premises. It's so sad that the dark, backward races and recalcitrant tribes of this wicked world force the noble denizens of the shining city on the hill to take on the terrible duty of waging aggressive war. So I hope Professor Reynolds will forgive me for my unwarranted editorial interpolation in this regard. I know now that war cheerleading is a grim and weighty task, not a gleeful thing at all, and I am sorry indeed if I have added to his great burden and made his poms-poms even heavier.
P.S. Of course, one might say that Reynolds has actually produced his own mischaracterization (dare one call it a "righty lie"?) of another writer's position. Having read my post -- with its criticism of the Iraq War and its cheerleaders -- Reynolds automatically assumes that I am some sort of Obama apologist. (The binary worldview of our deep thinkers evidently can't handle the idea that some people can oppose senseless murder and plunder no matter which political party directs it.) Glenn writes:
But then, more rubble, less trouble is now the Obama Administration’s approach … so maybe I should take that as praise, not criticism. After all lots of things that were once decried are now okay since it’s Obama doing them.
And that's exactly right: Obama has indeed taken the course Reynolds said America "should probably" adopt if the "experiments" in Iraq and Afghanistan fail -- as they have done, in the most gruesome fashion. Obama has adopted, deepened, entrenched and expanded almost every evil policy, foreign and domestic, that he inherited from his predecessor -- a fact I have "decried" here for years. In terms of Terror Warring, corporate coddling, liberty quashing, entitlement slashing, recalcitrant tribe-killing and such, Obama is very much the same as Bush, often more so. And of course, Reynolds is also right to point out that many if not most "lefties' are indeed praising policies they once decried.
But then again, these policies are ones that Glenn himself has cheerleaded for all these years. So why doesn't he get his pom-poms out for the Big O? It seems that Reynolds, for all his professorial distinguishmentation, is himself a captive of the same dull-witted dynamic, the same binary tribalism, that he rightly "decries" in these "lefties": if the "other side's" guy is doing it, it's wrong; if "our guy" is doing it, it's OK. Of course, one hates see the distinguished name of Beauchamp Brogan -- or indeed, of Glenn's own father, Charles Reynolds, an anti-war dissident of some note (and a former teacher of mine in days of yore) -- associated with such fear-ridden, closed-off, third-rate thinking. But in this "low, dishonest decade" (or rather, this low, dishonest century), what else can you expect?