A little late with this, but I meant to mark Boris Pasternak's birthday this week (Feb. 10, 1890). It would be hard to express how much his work meant to me when I was first finding my way into the world. In later years, I had three brief, indirect contacts with Pasternak, beyond his work. In the mid-1990s, I went to his house in Peredelkino, remarkably preserved since his death in 1960, and got to spend a few minutes in his upstairs study, where he'd written his late verse and much of Doctor Zhivago. That same day, after a long, convoluted search, I found his grave nearby. Then a few years after that, in the downstairs den of a well-appointed house in Oxford, I came face to face with Pasternak's oldest son, Yevgeny -- by then an old man. He had come to Oxford for the opening of an exhibition of paintings and drawings by his grandfather, Leonid, Boris's father. They were to be shown at the Ashmolean Museum, but for now, before the opening, many of them had been hung throughout this private house, the home of the poet Craig Raine, who is married to Boris Pasternak's niece, Anne Pasternak Slater. It was some sort of open house for the paintings, I suppose; I don't remember how I heard about it, but I lived a couple of blocks away at that time, so I went over. I didn't expect to see Pasternak's son there. He was standing just across from me, chatting with someone; I thought I saw something of his father's face in him. I wanted to say something to him, shake his hand, but I hung back. I didn't know if he spoke English, and I knew my own poor Russian couldn't sustain even a light conversation very far; I was afraid of embarrassing myself, I suppose. I wouldn't hang back today, but it's too late. The moment has passed. (And Yevgeny Borisovich died in 2012, at the age 89.) But I was glad I saw him, glad for the other fleeting contacts.
Below are a couple of previously posted pieces on Pasternak, just to mark (belatedly) the occasion.
From February 2010:
From April 2008: Immortal Communion: One Lowly Word and the Subversion of Power
1. Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, is best remembered for its star-crossed love story and its sweeping panorama of the Russian Revolution – themes amplified in David Lean's 1965 film version, a beautiful travesty which has largely supplanted the book in the public mind. But within his conventional narrative of shattering passions and historic upheavals, Pasternak subtly diffuses a deeply subversive philosophy that overthrows power structures and modes of thought that have dominated human life for thousands of years. Yet remarkably, this far-reaching, radical notion is based on one of the most humble concepts and lowly words in the Russian language: byt.
The word has no precise equivalent in English, but in general it means the ordinary "stuff" of life: the daily round, the chores, the cares and duties, the business and busyness that drives existence forward. The connotations of byt are not always positive; it is frequently associated with another Russian word, poshlost', a more pejorative term for the miserable muck of daily life that can trap a noble soul yearning for transcendent heights – for shattering passions and historic upheavals, perhaps. Benjamin Sutcliffe has described this association well in his extensive analysis of the notion of byt in Russian literature by women:
"The 'everyday' is a problematic concept that Russian culture consistently links with women. Byt is not only povsednevnaia zhizn' (daily life), but also a corrosive banality threatening higher, often intellectual aspirations…. Vladimir Nabokov connects byt to poshlost', the soul-killing realm of the crass and insensitive. In an even more sepulchral metaphor, Andrei Siniavskii compares Soviet culture to a pyramid: the grandiose grave of a hollow society whose time has passed. Byt is the sum of both those constituent parts, often seen as 'women’s work' (care for the self, care for others, maintaining a household) and the negative adjectives ascribed to them: petty, small-scale, mundane, exhausting, repetitive, and ultimately deadening."
In contrast to this mundane and deadening level stands the realm of the transcendent: the "great questions" of life, the grand abstractions – nation, faith, ideology, honor, prosperity, family, security, righteousness, glory – for which millions fight and die. It's the world of power, fuelled by the dynamic of dominance and servitude – a dialectic that governs relationships in every realm: political, economic, religious, artistic, personal. Everywhere, hierarchies abound, even among the most professedly egalitarian groups, from monasteries to movie sets, from ashrams to activist collectives. Everywhere we find, in Leonard Cohen's witty take, "the homicidal bitchin'/That goes down in every kitchen/To determine who will serve and who will eat."
This, we are given to understand, is the real world, the important world, far above the tawdry, tedious humdrum that fills the dead hours between epiphanies and exaltations. The Russian Revolution is of course one of history's great manifestations of this dynamic, where the "transcendent," world-shaking abstractions of ideology and high politics (imperialism, capitalism, revolution, Bolshevism) uprooted whole nations and produced suffering and dehumanization on an almost unimaginable scale. The modern era's "War on Terror" bids fair to surpass the Revolution in this regard, with its wildly inflated rhetoric and grand abstractions, its epiphanies of violence and exaltations of terror – on both sides – inflaming a conflict that has already devoured nations and destabilized the entire globe. The dominance paradigm – so thoroughly worked into our consciousness, so ever-present in our interactions, large and small, public and private – is the engine driving this vast machinery of death and ruin.
But below this "higher plane" lies the reality of byt. Far from the soul-killing muck that Nabokov found so distasteful, in Pasternak's hands the true nature of byt is revealed: creative, sustaining, nurturing, an infinite source of meaning. For the most part, the novel conveys this indirectly, in passages where Pasternak shows us byt in action – people going about their work, having quiet conversations, preparing food, fixing stoves, tending gardens, washing floors – or in the richly detailed backgrounds and descriptions given for minor characters who pop up briefly in the narrative then are rarely, perhaps never, seen again.
Over the years, some critics have decried these passages as the clumsy strokes of a fictional amateur, a poet gamely trying and failing to match the rich plenitude of Tolstoy's novels. (And to be fair, the English translations of the novel, though serviceable, are hobbled by clunky prose that ill-serves the original Russian.) But surely Pasternak, a writer of immense talent and intelligence, knew exactly what he was doing with these portions of the novel. The "clumsy" strokes that brake and complicate the grand narrative are central to the book's meaning. "Zhivago" means "the living," its root word is "life." And life is immense, comprising every aspect, every atom of reality. "Life, always one and the same, always incomprehensibly keeping its identity, fills the universe and is renewed in every moment in innumerable combinations and metamorphoses," as Zhivago says at one point. It is in the careful observation and deeply felt experiencing of the details of daily life that the meaning of existence can be found – or rather, consciously created.
Elsewhere in the novel, Pasternak deals with more openly with this theme, especially in one of the book's central chapters, made up of a diary that Zhivago keeps when his family have been driven from Moscow by the privations of the Revolution – and by Zhivago's own political unreliability, which stems from his refusal to hew to any party line and its grand, impersonal abstractions, its distorted caricatures of the infinite complexities of human reality. They are living off the land, deep in the countryside, their whole life taken up by the struggle to survive: byt in its starkest terms. Only at night, their work done, can they turn to their books, the handful of Russian classics they've taken with them into exile.
The whole chapter is like a marvelous concerto, blending and concentrating all of the novel's themes and variations in what appears to be the most artless of forms: the ramblings of a private journal. Among the many passages that illustrate the relation of byt to the "overworld," the realm of dominance and hierarchy, this one stands out:
"What I have come to like best in the whole of Russian literature is the childlike Russian quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their shy unconcern with such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation. It isn't that they didn't think about these things, and to good effect, but they always felt that such important matters were not for them. While Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky worried and looked for the meaning of life and prepared for death and drew up balance-sheets, these two were distracted, right up to the end of their lives, by the current individual tasks imposed on them by their vocation as writers, and in the course of fulfilling these tasks they lived their lives quietly, treating both their lives and their work as private, individual matters, of no concern to anyone else. And these individual things have since become of concern to all; their work has ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness."
2. Of course, the supreme irony of the relation between the humble, private, "pointless" world of byt and the "real world" of power and exaltation is that the former is actually where any genuine "transcendence" can be found, while the latter is the merely the outgrowth of our most primitive and meaningless urges.
For what is the desire to "project dominance," to erect hierarchies, but the elaboration of the same unconsidered instinctual drives that underlie the social structures of the animal world? You can see it in any colony of apes (although they too have their forms of sustaining, nurturing byt). I've written of this elsewhere, but I think it has some application in this context as well:
Is it not time to be done with lies at last? Especially the chief lie now running through the world like a plague, putrescent and vile: that we kill each other and hate each other and drive each other into desperation and fear for any other reason but that we are animals, forms of apes, driven by blind impulses to project our dominance, to strut and bellow and hoard the best goods for ourselves. Or else to lash back at the dominant beast in convulsions of humiliated rage. Or else cravenly to serve the dominant ones, to scurry about them like slaves, picking fleas from their fur, in hopes of procuring a few crumbs for ourselves.
That's the world of power – the "real world," as its flea-picking slaves and strutting dominants like to call it. It's the ape-world, driven by hormonal secretions and chemical mechanics, the endless replication of protein reactions, the unsifted agitations of nerve tissue, issuing their ignorant commands. There's no sense or reason or higher order of thought in it – except for that perversion of consciousness called justification, self-righteousness, which gussies up the breast-beating ape with fine words and grand abstractions…
Beyond the thunder and spectacle of this ape-roaring world is another state of reality, emerging from the murk of our baser functions. There is power here, too, but not the heavy, blood-sodden bulk of dominance. Instead, it's a power of radiance, of awareness, connection, breaking through in snaps of heightened perception, moments of encounter and illumination that lift us from the slime.
It takes ten million forms, could be in anything – a rustle of leaves, the tang of salt, a bending blues note, the sweep of shadows on a tin roof, the catch in a voice, the touch of a hand. Any particular, specific combination of ever-shifting elements, always unrepeatable in its exact effect and always momentary. Because that's all there is, that's all we have – the moments.
The moments, and their momentary power – a power without the power of resistance, defenseless, provisional, imperfect, bold. The ape-world's cycle of war and retribution stands as the image of the world of power; but what can serve as the emblem of this other reality? A kiss, perhaps: given to a lover, offered to a friend, bestowed on an enemy – or pressed to the brow of a child murdered by war.
Both worlds are within us, of course, like two quantum states of reality, awaiting our choice to determine which will be actuated, which will define the very nature of being – individually and in the aggregate, moment by moment. This is our constant task, for as long as the universe exists in the electrics of our brains: to redeem each moment or let it fall. Some moments will be won, many more lost; there is no final victory. There is only the task.
And of course, that's what byt entails, in both its literal sense and in the heightened, deepened understanding of Pasternak's art: the task, the work, the busyness of sustaining life.
One last passage from Zhivago provides a striking encapsulation of this, although a word should be said about the Christian symbolism it employs – a symbolism worked deeply into the plan and language of the entire novel. As Pasternak told one interviewer, the religious symbols were "put into the book the way stoves go into a house – to warm it up. Now they would like me to commit myself and climb into the stove." Later he added: "The novel must not be judged on theological lines. Nothing is further removed from my understanding of the world. One must live and write restlessly, with the help of new reserves that life offers. I am weary of this notion of faithfulness to a point of view at all cost. The great heroic devotion to one point of view is very alien to me – it's a lack of humility."
Here Pasternak, like his Zhivago, resists adherence to any party line, even one that he finds enormously congenial, like Christianity. It is not in pious certainties but in the humble, shifting, temporary coalescences of everyday existence, in byt, that some measure of always-imperfect, always-provisional meaning can be found.
But the languages of faith – structures that for centuries were the chief embodiment and expression of the human yearning for illumination, encounter and escape from the brutalities of dominance and servitude – can still serve as vehicles to convey a deeper reality, as Pasternak shows here, in the voice of one of his characters, the philosopher Nikolai Vendenyapin:
"I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats – any kind of threat, whether of jail or retribution after death – then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion-tamer with his whip, not the preacher who sacrificed himself. But don't you see, this is just the point – what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the attraction of its example. It has always been assumed that the most important things in the Gospels are the ethical teaching and commandments. But for me the most important thing is the fact that Christ speaks in parables taken from daily life, that he explains the truth in terms of everyday reality. The idea that underlies this is that communion between mortals is immortal, and that the whole of life is symbolic because the whole of it has meaning."
Immortal communion, in the transient, private, churning flow of byt: this is what Pasternak offers as an alternative to the violent estrangement of the "overworld," to its violence and fear, its bombast and lies. This lowly word could bring down empires, and stands in defiance of death itself.
Arthur Silber is in dire straits again. Another bout of bad health has laid him low, bills are coming due, and now a computer breakdown threatens to silence him completely. At the moment, he is working with an antiquated back-up, not likely to last long. If it goes, then his voice will be lost to us -- and he will lose his lifeline to the world. If you are able to help at all, or know someone who can, I urge you to go to his website here, and get more information.
Silber has long been one of the most insightful, intelligent -- and indispensable -- analysts of our dismal and despairing age. But he is no mere compiler of crimes and outrages; he also offers thoughtful and practical ideas for genuine change, different approaches, new understandings of our political and personal realities. To resort to what has become a thoroughly degraded vernacular, what Silber offers is simply (and complexly) this: hope.
Are we so surfeited with hope and wisdom these days that we can afford to let a light like this go out? I think not. So please, if you can, do what you can to give Silber some assistance. We will all reap the benefit.
On Monday, the New York Times featured, on the front page of its website, a long piece of giddy gush about the latest trend in luxury hoteling: super-suites for the super-rich, costing up to $28,000 a night.
For more than 1,100 words, the Times gives us an uncritical (indeed, adoring) panorama of the new high-swankery expected by our owners as they perambulate around the global plantation. There's the $25,000-per-night room in the New York Palace, a three-story "penthouse Versailles," the Times, all atremble with excitement, tells us, which comes complete with a million dollars' worth of designer jewellery on display to refresh the weary eyes of the travelling titan. Or New York's Mandarin Oriental, 3,300 square feet of even greater opulence -- a steal at $28,000 a night.
Such elite enclaves are springing up all over the country, say the many industry insiders and financiers quoted in the piece. (Despite the vast acreage of news-hole available, the 'paper of record' could not find any space for comments voicing even the slightest hint of unease at these developments. Of course, it would be very hard to find anyone within the ambit of a NY Times business reporter who would object to such brutal ostentation; still, you'd think the paper could drag out some wheezing moderate-liberal-centrist type academic who could offer up a bromide on how this trend is, potentially, something that could possibly be somewhat troubling. I mean, the paper's rolodex is crammed with such worthies. But apparently not even the mildest moderate's most gentle murmur was to be allowed to besmirch the story's sweet, glossy bussing of oligarchical posteriors.)
However, you shouldn't think the frenzied construction of these gilded hog pens is simply a matter of Heep-like toadying to every whim of super-rich (although it is that). No, it's also a question of 'brand-building,' of luring in envious middle-class patrons who want to catch a faint whiff of elite effluent as it wafts down from on high. As the Times notes:
Hotel industry professionals say these over-the-top suites serve a dual purpose. “A large part of what we do is creating an image,” Mr. Tisch said. Super-suites cater to the needs of billionaire travelers as well as the imaginations of middle-class tourists.
“This hotel already had a fantastic flow of high-net-worth people using our suites,” Mr. Chase said, listing Saudi diplomats and royalty, as well as Hollywood and sports stars, as regular guests.
They also indirectly attract a middle-class, aspirational traveler, Mr. Chase said. “It is the attention — the halo effect — doing a suite like this brings,” he said. Even if they’ll never be able to drop the cost of a new compact car on a night’s stay at a hotel, some travelers want to brush elbows with that level of wealth.
Yes, work really, really hard, and you too might one day be able to afford one night on the bottom floor of a hotel where a Saudi prince or a movie star once actually took a dump hundreds of feet above you. Now there's something to fire up your pathetic little middle-class imagination!
The story is summed up with a piercingly accurate phrase from one of the chief quotees in the piece, Pam Danziger, the "president of the luxury marketing firm Unity Marketing and author of 'Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury.'" (Follow-up volumes will include Putting the Use Back in Usury: From Payday Loan-Sharking to the Penthouse, and Putting the Pen Back in Penury: Parking the Poor Where We Don't Have to See Them.) Eschewing the gauzy rhetoric of a "halo effect" and other euphemisms for protecting the power and privilege of the rich by exciting envy in everyone else, Danziger cuts right to the heart of the matter:
Ms. Danziger described it as a “shock and awe” campaign that would help drive bookings of regular rooms.
Shock and awe, baby: that's right, it's war -- class war. And guess who won?
But it's not enough just to win; you must be seen to have won, you must have your conqueror's status confirmed for you, at every turn, in the most ostentatious way, so that your victims know they have been crushed and dare not rise again.
2. On the same day -- the same day -- that the NYT's grovel-and-gush piece appeared, Oxfam released a report on the astonishing, well-nigh incomprehensible level of inequality between the Times' celebrated super-rich and the rest of the human race.
The Oxfam study showed that the richest 85 individuals on earth have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet. 85 people control as much wealth as 3.5 billion.
This is not the natural fruit of the market's mythical "invisible hand." It is the result of carefully crafted, deliberate policies put in place over the past 40 years by elected leaders who have been bought, like chattel, by the rich, and have used the power of the state to skew the political, economic and social structure of nation after nation toward the ever-increasing domination of an ever-smaller circle of elites. As Larry Elliot points out in the Guardian:
For much of the 20th century, the more far-sighted business leaders … understood that their workers needed reasonable wages so that they could buy the goods and services they were making. They grasped the idea that a market system in its rawest form was incompatible with democracy and so acquiesced while some of the rough edges were knocked off via progressive taxation, welfare states and curbs on capital. Deep down, they feared that the Russian revolution would provide a template for disaffected workers in the west.
Attitudes have changed in the past 30 years. The so-called Great Compression of incomes seen from the 1930s to the 1970s went into reverse, with the top 1% grabbing the fruits of growth. The rich used their money and their influence to ensure that governments did their bidding. After the Berlin Wall came down, there was no rival model and less need to show restraint. With the arrival of a unipolar world came a return to a more aggressive form of market economics that had not been seen since the early days of industrialisation.
Elliot then quotes the Oxfam report:
"When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favour the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all. Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich."
Anyone see any sign of one of these fatcat-curbing "bold political solutions" coming down the pike anytime soon? In most countries -- including most emphatically the US and UK -- even the so-called "progressive" or "liberal" factions who one might wistfully expect to wanly offer such solutions long ago sold themselves, happily, giddily, to Big Money. Who dismantled most of the (few) "curbs on capital" that had been instituted during those 40 years of growing income equality (and more widespread prosperity)? Why, Democrat Bill Clinton and Labour's Tony Blair, who else? Both of these cool, young, swinging liberal-type guys did more to destroy the restraints and unleash the elite dogs of domination than their conservative predecessors such as Reagan and Thatcher.
And the beat goes on under the even cooler, younger, hipper more liberal progressive-type guy in the White House today. As Elliot notes, one of "the most striking findings of the Oxfam report is this little nugget:
"…In the US, the wealthiest 1% have captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth since 2009 while the bottom 90% have got poorer."
Yes, this is the real truth of the much-vaunted "recovery" of the U.S. economy under the leadership of Barack Obama: 95 percent of the tepid growth since he took office has gone to the 1 percent. A full 90 percent of the American people have grown poorer. This is because Obama's carefully crafted, deliberately chosen economic policies have been designed to use the power of the state to skew the nation's economic, social and political structures toward the super-rich, in some of the most brazen ways imaginable. From the very beginning, the focus has been almost exclusively on "saving" the financial sector that caused the crisis, bailing it out, protecting its privileges, extending its reach and -- as the statistics clearly show -- enriching it at the expense of every other sector of American society.
Obama's defenders will point to the intransigence of the Republicans as the reason why the rich are getting obscenely richer under Obama while the rest get poorer and the 'safety net' and social structures (and infrastructure) of American life are relentlessly degraded. But of course, it is only this intransigence that has saved us so far from the even greater degradation that Obama has been seeking since his first days in office: the "Grand Bargain" that will slash the remaining threads of the safety net and gut most non-military spending in order to "balance the budget" (while maintaining a world-encircling military machine and all-pervasive "security" apparatus).
Over and over, Obama has offered the Republicans savage budget cuts and safety-net gutting that were beyond the wildest dreams of the arch-conservatives of yore -- or even, say, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, or George W. Bush's administration. But the GOP is now dominated electorally by theocratic extremists who believe any tax rise (even the minuscule bumping Obama meekly suggests as part of his "bargain') is of the devil, while the corporate interests who let these theocrats front for them have decided to vanquish even the pretense of any restraint on their power once and for all. Their scorched-earth campaign and the zero-cooperation stance of the zealots have blocked Obama's frantic efforts to destroy the remnants of the New Deal, but one day, they may take the bait -- and then you can tell Granny to go dumpster-diving, because the state ain't gonna feed no useless eaters no more.
And let's not forget that it was Obama's choice not to spend the enormous political capital of his first election triumph to rescue the millions of workers and homeowners going under, but to instead put all his energy into "saving" the perpetrators of the global collapse -- and pushing a "health reform" plan created by a right-wing think tank in the 1990s: a wretched piece of corporate profiteering that cleverly, and completely, co-opted the "left" into defending an elitist boondoggle and effectively killing genuine health care reform for years, perhaps for generations.
No; we are where we are because our elected officials, of both parties, on both sides of the ocean, have long been and still are the prostituted servants of a rarefied, ravening, bellicose elite. The elite have won the war; they've imposed a brutal occupation on the vanquished -- and now they are withdrawing beyond the clouds, to golden citadels and 'specialist suites,' where they can disport themselves in luxury and safety, while looking down, with a satisfied smile, on the billions and billions of worthless suckers they've left behind.
As soon as you're awake, you're trained to take What looks like the easy way out -- Bob Dylan, "Political World"
Once more, as so often, I want to point you to a powerful and important article by Arthur Silber, which will tell you a great deal about where we are as a culture and as individuals -- and how we got here. I'm not going to excerpt it, because I'd like you to read the whole piece as it is, take it straight, no chaser, without my own spin on it. It will be well worth your time.
And while you are there, why not throw something in the hat, if you can spare it? Silber lives solely on the earnings from his writings, while battling chronic illness year after year (and attacks on his threadbare livelihood by the government). Keeping this important voice of truth going -- in the midst of the endless tsunami of lies that overwhelm us (latest example: Obama's NSA speech, which Silber, characteristically, nailed even before it was given) -- is, in every sense, a worthy cause.
A few years ago, we saw them blazoned across our screens and newspapers: rugged, tough, battle-grimed warriors, slogging through hell to conquer evil and bring light to a land lost in darkness.
Last week, the New York Times brought them out again. But this time around, our clean-limbed, God-blessed fighters for a noble cause weren't conquering -- they were suffering. They felt sad, let down, even betrayed. Why? Because what had been the high point, the shining pinnacle, "the most iconic moment" of their righteous campaign was now tainted. Their conquest hadn't held; the old enemy had reared its head again in the city they had pacified with so much rugged, battle-grimed toughness long ago.
Now their feelings were hurt, their souls were troubled. All the goodness of their righteous campaign, all the noble intentions of their light-bringing crusade -- all had been for naught, it seemed. Theirs was indeed a lamentable tragedy. Here was real suffering, raw and anguished.
But what were they talking about exactly? What was this pinnacle, this extraordinary achievement whose great moral worth has now been besmirched?
The battle of Fallujah.
I kid you not.
2. Just over nine years ago, in November 2004, the United States military carried out an atrocious war crime at the behest of its civilian leaders. Having already committed what America's chief jurist at the Nuremberg trials called "the supreme international crime" -- aggresive war -- the American military now declared a whole city full of innocent civilians to be a "free fire zone" and proceeded to pulverize the town with bombs, missiles, chemical weapons and finally a ground attack by thousands of troops. This came after the American military had cut vital supplies of food and water to the city -- another brazen war crime.
"There are more and more dead bodies on the streets and the stench is unbearable. Smoke is everywhere. It's hard to know how much people outside Fallujah are aware of what is going on here. There are dead women and children lying on the streets. People are getting weaker from hunger. Many are dying are from their injuries because there is no medical help left in the city whatsoever. Some families have started burying their dead in their gardens."
One of the first moves in this magnificent feat of arms was the destruction and capture of medical centers. Twenty doctors – and their patients, including women and children – were killed in an airstrike on one major clinic, the UN Information Service reports, while the city's main hospital was seized in the early hours of the ground assault. Why? Because these places of healing could be used as "propaganda centers," the Pentagon's "information warfare" specialists told the NY Times. Unlike the first attack on Fallujah last spring, there was to be no unseemly footage of gutted children bleeding to death on hospital beds. This time – except for NBC's brief, heavily-edited, quickly-buried clip of the usual lone "bad apple" shooting a wounded Iraqi prisoner – the visuals were rigorously scrubbed.
So while Americans saw stories of rugged "Marlboro Men" winning the day against Satan, they were spared shots of engineers cutting off water and electricity to the city – a flagrant war crime under the Geneva Conventions, as CounterPunch notes, but standard practice throughout the occupation. Nor did pictures of attack helicopters gunning down civilians trying to escape across the Euphrates River – including a family of five – make the TV news, despite the eyewitness account of an AP journalist. Nor were tender American sensibilities subjected to the sight of phosphorous shells bathing enemy fighters – and nearby civilians – with unquenchable chemical fire, literally melting their skin, as the Washington Post reports. Nor did they see the fetus being blown out of the body of Artica Salim when her home was bombed during the "softening-up attacks" that raged relentlessly – and unnoticed – in the closing days of George W. Bush's presidential campaign, the Scotland Sunday Herald reports.
This was the battle of Fallujah. This is the noble cause that our Marlboro Men (and our "paper of record," which gave their laments such prominent play) now feel has been besmirched by the fact that some militant Sunni factions (many from the same groups the United States is now supporting, directly or indirectly, through its assistance to the Syrian rebels) seized control of the city for a time. It is this incident that has made the Marlboros and the Timesters suddenly feel that the "great sacrifices" of America's war of aggression in Iraq were made in vain. This -- not the multitude of Iraqis who have died this year alone in the violent sectarian strife that was created by the American invasion, and exacerbated by deliberate American policy.
Al Qaeda and its allies had no presence in Iraq before the American invasion. No, wait, that's wrong: al Qaeda associates were in fact living safely in Iraq before the invasion -- in Kurdish territory, which was controlled not by Saddam but by American-backed militias. Indeed, the seeds of the Fallujah atrocity sprang from this strange situation, where al Qaeda operatives lived under American protection -- or at the very least, their "benign neglect" -- even after the 9/11 attacks. As I noted during the 2004 storming of Fallujah:
What [we] saw instead were two loudly devout Christians, Bush and Tony Blair, clasping hands and proclaiming that Artica Salim had been torn to shreds in order to fight terrorism – specifically, the terrorism of Jordanian thug Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The city's alleged refusal to turn over Zarqawi was the ostensible reason for the attack; yet halfway through the assault, with dead civilian bodies already stinking in the streets, Coalition commanders finally admitted the truth: Zarqawi wasn't in Fallujah – and hadn't been there for weeks, perhaps months.
But then, Zarqawi leads a peculiarly charmed life. Three times before the war, U.S. forces were set to kill him and destroy his organization. It wasn't that difficult; after all, he was operating in Kurdish-held Iraqi territory, where the U.S. military had free rein. Yet each time, Bush called off the strike, the Wall Street Journal reports. He needed Zarqawi for his pre-war propaganda, so he could point to an "al Qaeda ally in Iraq" – even though Zarqawi was on Bush's Iraqi turf, not Saddam's.
The vicious, murderous, criminal attack on Fallujah was a microcosm of the vast atrocity of the invasion of Iraq -- an atrocity that continues today. A fake reason for an act of aggression was sold to a gleefully gullible media, and through them to a docile public raised on the potent poison of "American exceptionalism," to provide a "justification" for an action whose real purpose had to be concealed. And what was that purpose? To demonstrate and advance the bipartisan American elite's unslakeable desire for domination -- and to demonstrate that anyone who resists that desire will be punished, tormented or killed.
Iraq had no connection to 9/11, and the architects of the aggression (and their Democratic enablers, and their 'progressive' defenders like Christopher Hitchens and the New York Times) knew it. Zarqawi and his group were not in Fallujah, and the military planners of the atrocity knew it. (Indeed, they had let him go long before, even as they imposed a months-long siege on the city.) The civilian and military instigators and enablers of the invasion of Iraq (and of all of the inevitable crimes and atrocities that followed) acted in the full and conscious knowledge that they were perpetrating acts of mass murder on innocent people. This is an historical fact, this is what actually happened. And, according to the reckoning of America's willing executioner in the Iraq war crime, the government of Great Britain, somewhere around one million innocent people have been needlessly slaughtered as a result of the war. And the slaughter goes on -- again, as a direct result of this willful, deliberate, savage, inhuman act of mass murder, which was carried out to further the domination agenda of a morally depraved elite.
This is what actually happened in Iraq. This is the reality.
I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the soldiers who fought in Fallujah or took part elsewhere in this gigantic war crime thought of themselves as good people trying to do a good thing in difficult circumstances. That's what they were told they were doing; and, poisoned from birth, like all of us, by that all-pervasive myth of exceptionalism, of special privilege for anything and everything done by the United States, most of them lacked the will -- or even the conceptual tools -- to question this belief. (Brave souls like Chelsea Manning and the Iraq Vets Against the War are among the exceptions.) I am sorry if some of them -- and the survivors of the thousands of Americans killed in the process of unleashing this mass murder -- now feel that the war was fought in vain, and that the American dead "were sacrificed for nothing," as one "angry" ex-Marine told the Times after hearing that Fallujah was temporarily in the hands of the extremist militias engendered by the American invasion of Iraq.
This is unfortunate for them -- but let us be absolutely clear on this point. To any American soldier who thought he or she was fighting in Iraq for anything other than the aggrandizement of a bloodthirsty elite, then yes, yes, a thousand times yes: you fought in vain. You fought under false premises, you were ordered to carry out a great crime -- and you carried it out. And yes, yes, a thousand times yes: every American soldier who was killed in Iraq was "sacrificed for nothing." This was true from the very first moment of the war, from the moment you set foot in Iraq. [As Arthur Silber notes here.] It did not suddenly become the truth 11 years later, when Fallujah became embroiled in the sectarian strife the war set loose.
So remember again the reality. Remember again what actually happened. The United States military, at the behest of its political leaders, carried out an abominable war crime in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Think of those innocent people who were murdered -- and those who go on being murdered in the hellhole America made of Iraq -- and then consider where the real tragedy lies, whom the real victims are. Some might think it was people like Artica Salim, whose young body was blown apart by an American bomb during weeks of bombardment to "soften up" the city before the Marlboro Men moved in. But the New York Times -- which "stovepiped" so many helpful lies from government warmongers to help make the entirely specious case for aggression, and speaks today, as it spoke then, as the voice of the American establishment -- thinks the real victims were the Marines who attacked Fallujah.
3. As noted, the Iraq war was an atrocity from the beginning -- from long before the beginning, in fact. Its very conception -- the idea of launching an act of aggression against a broken-down country which posed no threat, could not defend itself, and which had already seen more than half a million of its children killed by American-enforced sanctions -- was an atrocity. And the brutal -- and brutalizing -- atrocities on the ground began long before the attack on Fallujah.
Just as a brief reminder, let's go back in time with -- who else? -- the New York Times, which carried this report about our Marlboro Men and their crusade for truth and light just a few days after the invasion began.
At the base camp of the Fifth Marine Regiment here, two sharpshooters, Sgt. Eric Schrumpf, 28, and Cpl. Mikael McIntosh, 20, sat on a sand berm and swapped combat tales while their column stood at a halt on the road toward Baghdad. For five days this week, the two men rode atop armored personnel carriers, barreling up Highway 1.
They said Iraqi fighters had often mixed in with civilians from nearby villages, jumping out of houses and cars to shoot at them, and then often running away. The marines said they had little trouble dispatching their foes, most of whom they characterized as ill trained and cowardly.
''We had a great day,'' Sergeant Schrumpf said. ''We killed a lot of people."
...But in the heat of a firefight, both men conceded, when the calculus often warps, a shot not taken in one set of circumstances may suddenly present itself as a life-or-death necessity.
''We dropped a few civilians,'' Sergeant Schrumpf said, ''but what do you do?'' ... He recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down.
''I'm sorry,'' the sergeant said. ''But the chick was in the way.''
"The chick was in the way." I've carried this story with me for 11 years. Less than two weeks into the war, it seemed to sum up the whole shebang. It embodied the amoral philosophy that has guided the bipartisan American elite -- and its media enablers -- not only throughout the Iraq War and its still-churning aftermath, but in every action undertaken to advance the agenda of domination. This is what it all comes down to, this is the blank, inhuman, heartless heart of the imperial enterprise: "The chick was in the way."
And those who get "in the way" -- even if they are innocent "chicks" -- get "dropped." That's just how it is. "What do you do?" Shrug it off. Keep going. Keep shooting
And if it doesn't work out, start crying.
4. When I first saw the headlines of the NYT story, "Fallujah's Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There," I confess I couldn't read it. I knew what it would say. I knew it was a specimen of the "shooting and crying" genre that is so popular in Israel, where soldiers tell of the anguish they suffer in their own noble occupation duties. I knew it would be a sickening display of exceptionalism. I planned to get to it at some point, but I just couldn't face it at the time.
Then I saw that Arthur Silber had bravely waded into the Times' morass of tears and gunpowder. And his powerful essay went much further into the deeper implications of the story than the background and context I've given above. Indeed, I had intended this piece to be a short introduction to extensive excerpts from his post. But once I got into the story, following Silber's lead, and began recalling the actual history of the atrocity, it "did put me into a towering passion," as the Elsinorean said, and I ended up writing much more than I'd planned. Silber is inspiring that way.
Now here some of those excerpts. But you must, without fail, read the whole of this eloquent blast of hard truth. (And follow the links! There's gold in them thar archives.)
On numerous occasions (here's one representative example from August 2008), I also pointed out that the most severe criticisms of these monstrous crimes permitted by our culture of denial were (and are) that it was a "mistake" based on "bad intelligence," and that it was a "blunder." The first of these evasions is a lie based on a complete misunderstanding of the role of "intelligence" with regard to decisions of policy, while the second represents the superficial babblings of a person so severely damaged that he is incapable of grasping the meaning of words such as "value" and "life." The U.S. government and its military (and all other personnel involved) committed a series of horrifying crimes, they murdered countless people, they wounded and damaged huge numbers of additional persons, and they destroyed a country. Carelessly smashing a vase or blurting out an inappropriate comment before your employer is a "mistake" or a "blunder." Murder and destruction on a vast scale require deliberate, intentional, planned actions over a lengthy period of time; they are crimes which annihilate the concept of forgiveness.
I frequently argued that there is still one more horror beyond these crimes: that neither the U.S. government, nor the ruling class, nor many Americans have learned a single, goddamned thing from these ghastly events. The commitment to America's "right" to dominate world events and the necessarily related commitment to America's perpetual military superiority remain axiomatic and unchallengeable. The ongoing treatment of Iran as a nation that must be brought to heel, the "pivot" to Asia, and the actions of the U.S. government around the globe all attest to the ruling class's belief that America remains unique and uniquely suited to lead and direct events everywhere, a belief that most Americans also continue to accept enthusiastically.
It is one thing to simply deny the reality of our own history. It is quite another to reach back into the past, completely recast the actions of the U.S., transform horrifying crimes which defy description into acts of nobility, and make ourselves into sympathetic victims -- moreover, the only sympathetic victims worthy of note. This New York Times story does all of that, in a manner which caused me to veer between shocked disbelief and nauseated horror: "Falluja's Fall Stuns Marines Who Fought There." The article discusses the "Sunni insurgents, some with allegiances to Al Qaeda," who "retook" Fallujah "and raised their black insurgent flag over buildings" where American Marines had fought. Its focus is on the reaction of the Marines who fought there, and its tone is one of deep sympathy and understanding. That is, deep sympathy and understanding with regard to the Marines. Is there any recognition of the ongoing agony of the Iraqis, agony which is the direct result of the U.S.'s actions -- and of the actions of these Marines themselves? Of course not.
Silber gives many examples of the Marines' shooting-crying anguish -- and the vast rewriting of history -- in the story, including this:
...The officer cited what he called the Marines’ success in helping foster the Awakening movement — where local tribesmen turned against jihadists and partnered with American forces — and said that “without these victories, we might still be there today.” The officer added: “What the Iraqi forces lost in the last month, four years after transition, is not a reflection of Marine efforts. If it is a reflection of anything, it is the nature of the Iraqi social fabric and long-suppressed civil discord.”
...Those who refuse to acknowledge the horror of what the U.S. government has done -- and the horror of what they have done -- are always led to the final redoubt of the blasted, shriveled, unrecognizable soul: Anything bad that has happened and that continues to happen is the fault of the Iraqis -- those primitive, barbaric, uncivilized Iraqis. This is exactly what Hillary Clinton has said, as well as almost any politician you can name. We are expected to forget that the U.S. deliberately fomented "civil discord" (and "ethnic cleansing," too) among the contending groups as a means of fostering "stability," which they also knew would only be temporary in nature but would allow the U.S. to claim "victory" for a brief moment.
Siber kindly quotes from some of the articles I've written about Fallujah, detailing the horrors of the American chemical attack on the city, and its continuing aftermath. (But as you are going to read his piece in full, I won't requote those bits here.) He also provides a sharply illuminating passage from Hannah Arendt, where she writes of "those who adamantly refused to be 'participants' in the Nazi regime." Silber writes:
Arendt asks: "in what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, though they could not and did not rise in rebellion?" Here is part of her answer:
The answer to the ... question is relatively simple: the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience. On the contrary, all our experiences tell us that it was precisely the members of respectable society, who had not been touched by the intellectual and moral upheaval in the early stages of the Nazi period, who were the first to yield. They simply exchanged one system of values against another. I therefore would suggest that the nonparticipants were those whose consciences did not function in this, as it were, automatic way—as though we dispose of a set of learned or innate rules which we then apply to the particular case as it arises, so that every new experience or situation is already prejudged and we need only act out whatever we learned or possessed beforehand. Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command “Thou shalt not kill,” but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer—themselves. The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking. This kind of thinking, though at the root of all philosophical thought, is not technical and does not concern theoretical problems. The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.
The story of Fallujah, and the war that engendered that atrocity -- and the attitude toward that atrocity shown in the New York Time's recent story -- all speak plainly, despairingly of "the total moral collapse of respectable society" in this imperial age of ours. Silber concludes:
Our politicians, our military personnel, and many Americans still refuse to face honestly and completely the reality of what the U.S. did in Iraq, just as they refuse to recognize the blood-drenched reality of U.S. foreign policy in general. It is inconceivable that any of the catastrophic consequences of our actions, including the suffering of U.S. military personnel, should be our own responsibility. We therefore blame anything and anyone else, including the victims of our own crimes.
The article makes one further fact unavoidable: The U.S. government, and many Americans, are fully prepared to do it all again. Perhaps in the next year or two, perhaps further in the future, perhaps against Iran, perhaps against some other country that will be designated as the target of our next campaign of destruction once it has been suitably demonized. When that happens, we must resist in every way we can, and we must say, No.
* Below is my most recent column for CounterPunch Magazine.
Last month, 500 famous authors signed a petition protesting the encroachments of the all-pervasive, techno-surveillance culture that is covering the earth with hidden eyes and ears, like a metastasized Stasi run amok. We’re talking heavy literary lumber here: Nobel Prize-winners, critic list-toppers, best-sellers – big names calling on the UN to create “an international bill of digital rights.”
The authors state the indisputable truth: the "fundamental human right" of personal privacy "has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations.” They rightly declare that “a person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space."
Of course, one might like to see those “democratic rights in real space” applied a bit more vigorously in these days of airport x-rays, mandatory drug tests, “indefinite detention,” “extrajudicial execution,” “free speech zones,” etc. The accelerating degradation of “real space” liberties hardly inspires hope for preserving freedom in the virtual realm. Still, no sensible person would dispute the very worthy goals espoused in the petition.
And yet, a cankerous old worm of skepticism keeps creeping in. Especially when the petitioners declare that this assemblage of Tolstoyan speakers of truth to power is not actually “against government.” Good gracious no! As Danish writer Janne Teller told the Guardian: "This initiative must be seen as helping governments, who like to preserve democracy in the western world."
Now, you rubes out there probably think that “governments” are actually prime culprits in the mass evisceration of privacy. But no; it seems our good-hearted, democracy-preserving leaders are victims: helpless babes manipulated by their sinister intelligence services, who, Teller tells us, "abuse power.” (Power that has been given to them by, er, governments.) Not to worry, though: a nice UN resolution -- and the stinging moral censure of petitioners like Iraq War supporter Ian McEwan, ethnic profiling enthusiast Martin Amis, and William Boyd, author of the latest “literary” sequel to the saga of James Bond, state assassin extraordinaire -- will doubtless bring these rogue services to heel. Then our noble rulers will be free at last to pursue their tragically frustrated dreams of peace, prosperity, equality and justice.
But wait; what about the literary luminaries' warning against "technological developments … by corporations" which suck up private data for profit? Oddly enough, the petition was coupled, as part of a one-two punch, with an "open letter" written by civic-minded corporate citizens such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, demanding "sweeping changes in surveillance laws" to "restore confidence" in companies like, well, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, whose sole reason for existence is to mine private data for corporate profit.
Here our earnest authors come up against a very 21st-century conundrum: the ever-widening notion that the fate of our liberties should be taken out of the hands of governments and given to … corporations and oligarchs. This is the logic behind the move by Glenn Greenwald and other dissident superstars to “partner” with hi-tech oligarch Pierre Omidyar, “leveraging” Greenwald’s control of Edward Snowden’s NSA documents to create a profitable new media venture. This would be the same Omidyar whose PayPal cut Wikileaks off at the financial knees in its hour of greatest peril, whose “microfinancing initiatives” have led to mass suicides among the debt-ridden poor in India and who now appears driven to monetize dissent in the same way he’s monetized poverty relief. It’s unlikely that hard-hitting exposes of hi-tech corporate chicanery will feature overmuch at Pierre’s new plaything.
But even the exposure of government misdeeds is to be kept within discreet limits by our new-style, media-savvy dissidents, who, like Greenwald, constantly assert they would never publish secrets that might “harm national security” or interfere with the “legitimate operations” of our neo-Stasis. Guardian editor and dissident hero Alan Rusbridger made that clear in his recent appearance before a Parliamentary committee investigating the Snowden revelations. As Arthur Silber, one of the most insightful political writers of our day, notes, the many press plaudits for Rusbridger's “bold” testimony overlooked the editor’s shocking admission that the Guardian has only published "one percent" of the Snowden material, while dutifully consulting "the FBI, the GCHQ, the White House and the Cabinet Office on more than 100 occasions before the publication of stories." Rusbridger also assured MPs that his paper will soon stop publishing stories from the Snowden cache.
Greenwald promises that his upcoming book on Snowden will provide a few more all-important revelations that the public absolutely must know (but which he must unfortunately withhold from us until the sale date). Yet as Silber points out, even with a few extra dollops of data here and there, it’s now obvious that only a tiny percentage of the massive Snowden archive of spy-state malfeasance will ever be revealed.
As always, our betters – in this case, not government apparatchiks but knee-capping oligarchs and government-consulting journalists – will let us know whatever modicum of truth they deem fit for our limited understanding. Or as another, long-dead literary luminary once said: four legs good, two legs better.
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.