When he was lambasted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu last week for the murderous debacle of the US-UK war of aggression in Iraq, Tony Blair pointed to the appalling human rights violations of the Saddam regime as one of his "justifications" for helping George W. Bush engineer the murder of a million innocent people.
Of course, as we noted here earlier, Blair never evinced such concerns about, say, the extremist religious tyrants in Saudi Arabia (whom he protected by personally quashing a judicial case involving mammoth corruption in a UK-Saudi arms deal), or his later paymasters in Kazakhstan, or even his once-and-former hug-buddy Moamar Gadafy in Libya.
But putting aside this sinister hypocrisy for a moment, it might be instructive for those concerned about appalling human rights violations by the government of Iraq to take a look at the regime that the Anglo-American invaders built on the mound of corpses they left behind. And what would they find? Why, appalling human rights violations by the government of Iraq. As'ad AbuKhalil, the "Angry Arab," points us to this article by Halfa Zangana in the Guardian:
Three women were among the 21 people executed within one day in Iraq, last Monday. It was followed, two days later, by the reported execution of five more people. The number of people executed since the start of this year is now at least 96 and they are not the only ones. … There is also news of another 196 people on death row. According to Iraqi officials, they have all been convicted on charges "related to terrorism," but there is little information about their names, what crimes they committed or whether they have access to lawyers or not.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have previously documented the prevalence of unfair trials and torture in detention in Iraq. Confessions under torture are often the only evidence against a person who has been arrested following a secret informant's report. Parading the accused with their tortured, empty looks on Al Iraqiya, the official TV channel, is the norm. It took a court in Baghdad only 15 minutes to sentence Ramze Shihab Ahmed, a dual Iraqi-UK national, to 15 years' imprisonment after being found guilty of "funding terrorist groups".
Amnesty has obtained and examined court documents and said it believes the trial proceedings were "grossly unfair". Ahmed was held in a secret prison near Baghdad, during which time his whereabouts were completely unknown to his family. During this period Ahmed alleges he was tortured – with electric shocks to his genitals and suffocation by plastic bags – into making a false "confession" to terrorist offences.
So what kind of human rights are observed in the "new Iraq"? Hardly any. The list of abuses is long and the tip of the iceberg is waves of arbitrary arrests (over 1,000 monthly), torture and executions. All are barely noticed by the world media and the US and British official silence is rather convenient to cover up the crimes and chaos they created. …
The Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq with its human rights outfits is following the same path [as Saddam]. … People who for years before the invasion of 2003 were highlighting human rights abuses as a reason to invoke war as a prelude to democracy and transparency are now either totally silent or actively covering up the current abuses, despite glaring evidence from international human rights organisations.
The so-called "war on terror" reformulated many aspects of world politics and state accountability has become the first victim of that war. It has acquired variable meanings with highly selective application. Therefore, some governments have "enjoyed" immunity, no matter how brutally they have behaved against their own or other people. The Iraqi regime is one of them.
Whoever would have thought that a regime implanted by a war of aggression -- which the Nuremberg Tribunal described as "the supreme international crime, only different from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of all the others" -- would end up violently oppressing, torturing and killing its own people? As we noted here three years ago, after yet another report of abuses in Baghdad:
As the Iraqis used to say just after the American invasion in 2003: "The pupil is gone; the master has come." Now new pupils are passing on the master's lessons. And those who dare speak out against the fruits of this sinister education find themselves in the cross-hairs of the client government -- and of those who do its dirty work "on the dark side, if you will." It is, as our eloquent president has said of the million-killing act of aggression in Iraq, "an extraordinary achievement."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused to attend a conference last week for a very good reason – he did not want to be publicly associated with a war criminal.
That war criminal was Tony Blair, who had been paid his usual whopping fee ($238,000 in this case) to deliver his usual sanctimonious blather at a South African conference on “leadership.” Tutu – who was speaking for no fee – withdrew from the meeting when he heard Blair was coming, the Guardian reports.
This was a rare – very rare – example of behavior which should be ubiquitous: shunning mass murderers. Blair, like George W. Bush (and Bill Clinton, he whose minions openly accepted responsibility for the killing of 500,000 Iraqi children in the US-UK sanctions regime that devastated Iraq before the US and UK finally launched their outright war of aggression in 2003), swans around the world collecting accolades – and mucho dinero – from the great and good and the high and mighty (and their simpering media sycophants), untroubled by his instrumental role in the Hitlerian invasion and its aftermath, which has left – according to measurement tools used by Blair’s own government – more than a million innocent people dead.
But Tutu did more than a simple shunning. He went on to pen a column in The Observer openly calling for Blair and Bush to be put on trial for war crimes. His indictment (quoted here in the Guardian) is damning:
Tutu, a Nobel peace prize winner and hero of the anti-apartheid movement, accuses the former British and US leaders of lying about weapons of mass destruction and says the invasion left the world more destabilised and divided "than any other conflict in history."
… But it is Tutu's call for Blair and Bush to face justice in The Hague that is most startling. Claiming that different standards appear to be set for prosecuting African leaders and western ones, he says the death toll during and after the Iraq conflict is sufficient on its own for Blair and Bush to be tried at the ICC.
"On these grounds, alone, in a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in The Hague," he says.
In his article, the archbishop argues that as well as the death toll, there has been a heavy moral cost to civilisation, with no gain. "Even greater costs have been exacted beyond the killing fields, in the hardened hearts and minds of members of the human family across the world.
"Has the potential for terrorist attacks decreased? To what extent have we succeeded in bringing the so-called Muslim and Judeo-Christian worlds closer together, in sowing the seeds of understanding and hope?" Blair and Bush, he says, set an appalling example. "If leaders may lie, then who should tell the truth?" he asks.
"If it is acceptable for leaders to take drastic action on the basis of a lie, without an acknowledgement or an apology when they are found out, what should we teach our children?"
Blair attempted to reply to this withering blast, with his best ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ shtick, but he only compounded his moral nullity with his defense. He offered, as usual, the facts that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who violently oppressed his people – a situation that has long obtained in many countries around the world (including many of Tony’s pals in the Middle East and Central Asia, who pay him so handsomely for his ‘counsel’). And of course, this oppression had nothing to do with the repeatedly stated “reasons” for the attack offered by Bush and Blair: that Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat of attack on Britain and America.
The knowing falsity of these pre-war charges has been confirmed in a multitude of quarters, but Blair, with the irreality of the genuine psychopath, now claims the opposite, saying “the old canard that we lied about the intelligence is completely wrong as every single independent analysis of the evidence has shown.” The fact is that every single independent analysis of the evidence has shown the complete opposite: that high officials throughout both governments were well aware of the weakness and falsity of the “evidence” of Iraq’s WMDs, and that these weak reeds were bent and shaped to fit the policy approved by both leaders: to invade Iraq, come hell or high water.
But Blair goes even further into the mire. One of the features of his defense is – I kid you not -- how “prosperous” the Iraqi economy is now compared to the situation before the invasion:
"I would also point out that despite the problems, Iraq today has an economy three times or more in size, with the child mortality rate cut by a third of what it was. And with investment hugely increased in places like Basra."
I must admit that, old cynic that I am, even I was taken aback by the brazenness displayed here. Blair was in power for six years of the US-UK sanctions regime against Iraq. He is just as complicit as Clinton and both George Bushes in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent children (and adults) who perished as a direct result of the devastating sanctions, which denied Iraqis most of the basic elements of life. If Iraq’s economy really is “three times larger now” (that is, assuming this smiling, unctuous, super-Christian liar is not lying in his usual lying manner), it is because it is starting from the “Year Zero” level imposed on the ordinary Iraqi people – by Tony Blair himself, colluding with his bipartisan masters in Washington, Clinton and Bush.
Blair himself helped grind the Iraqi economy – and the Iraqi people – into the dust. And now, after launching a war of aggression against the country which killed a million more people, he takes credit for the “improvement” from lifting the sanctions he himself imposed and sternly policed.
Surely this breaks new ground for war criminals. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed that his murderous invasions were “good” for the Poles and the Russians and the Jews, that by launching baseless wars of aggression and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people he was somehow doing them a favor. But Blair, like Bush and Clinton – and like Obama and Romney and the rest of the American political class – insist that their murders and invasions and black ops and sanctions are altruistic missions of mercy to the very people they are killing or strangling.
And as Tutu notes in his piece, the same dynamic is now being played out against Iran – with the stakes for mass murder, suffering and generations of chaos, hatred and destabilization engulfing the world even higher. Yet our leaders plunge on and on in this berserker frenzy in their impossible quest to dominate the entire world.
I’m writing quickly, on the road, grabbing a few rare moments of internet time, so I can’t do this outrage the justice it deserves. (And no, this is not some blanket endorsement of every position or personal association ever taken or made by Desmond Tutu.) But his shunning of Blair and his call for the instigators of the invasion of Iraq – an atrocity which dwarfs the suffering Saddam inflicted on the people there – are examples that should be emulated by everyone in public life. We can only hope it catches on.
UPDATE: George Monbiot has more on Tutu's humanitarian intervention in the Tony Blair war crimes case. From the Guardian:
When Desmond Tutu wrote that Tony Blair should be treading the path to The Hague, he de-normalised what Blair has done. Tutu broke the protocol of power – the implicit accord between those who flit from one grand meeting to another – and named his crime. I expect that Blair will never recover from it.
The offence is known by two names in international law: the crime of aggression and a crime against peace. It is defined by the Nuremberg principles as the "planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression". This means a war fought for a purpose other than self-defence: in other words outwith articles 33 and 51 of the UN Charter.
That the invasion of Iraq falls into this category looks indisputable. Blair's cabinet ministers knew it, and told him so. His attorney general warned that there were just three ways in which it could be legally justified: "self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UN security council authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case." Blair tried and failed to obtain the third.
His foreign secretary, Jack Straw, told Blair that for the war to be legal, "i) there must be an armed attack upon a state or such an attack must be imminent; ii) the use of force must be necessary and other means to reverse/avert the attack must be unavailable; iii) the acts in self-defence must be proportionate and strictly confined to the object of stopping the attack." None of these conditions were met. The Cabinet Office told him: "A legal justification for invasion would be needed. Subject to law officers' advice, none currently exists."
Without legal justification, the attack on Iraq was an act of mass murder. It caused the deaths of between 100,000 and a million people, and ranks among the greatest crimes the world has ever seen. That Blair and his ministers still saunter among us, gathering money wherever they go, is a withering indictment of a one-sided system of international justice: a system whose hypocrisies Tutu has exposed.
…But while the case against Blair is strong, the means are weak. Twenty-nine people have been indicted in the international criminal court, and all of them are African. (Suspects in the Balkans have been indicted by a different tribunal). There's a reason for this. Until 2018 at the earliest, the court can prosecute crimes committed during the course of an illegal war, but not the crime of launching that war.
Should we be surprised? Though the Nuremberg tribunal described aggression as "the supreme international crime", several powerful states guiltily resisted its adoption. At length, in 2010, they agreed that the court would have jurisdiction over aggression, but not until 2018 or thereafter. Though the offence has been recognised in international law for 67 years, the international criminal court (unlike the Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals, which hear cases from before they were established) will be able to try only crimes of aggression committed beyond that date.
The other possibility is a prosecution in one of the states (there are at least 25) which have incorporated the crime of aggression into their own laws. Perhaps Blair's lawyers are now working through the list and cancelling a few speaking gigs.
That the prospect of prosecution currently looks remote makes it all the more important that the crime is not forgotten. To this end, in 2010 I set up a bounty fund – www.arrestblair.org – to promote peaceful citizens' arrests of the former prime minister. … Our aim is the same as Tutu's: to de-normalise an act of mass murder, to keep it in the public mind and to maintain the pressure for a prosecution.
That looked, until this weekend, like an almost impossible prospect. But when the masonry begins to crack, impossible hopes can become first plausible, then inexorable. Blair will now find himself shut out of places where he was once welcome. One day he may find himself shut in.
On Thursday, with media attention focused on the gooberish plutocrat accepting the nomination of one faction of our single ruling party -- the bipartisan Imperial Bloc -- the leader of the other faction took the opportunity to bury a few more cases of state murder.
There could hardly be a better example of how the American system rolls in our enlightened, ultramodern 21st century: garish, empty pantomimes of politics coupled with the ruthless, lawless, brutal exercise of imperial power -- with no accountability, no responsibility, no consequences for the crimes and depravities committed by the elites and their agents and sycophants.
We refer of course to this story in the New York Times:"No Charges Filed on Harsh Tactics Used by the C.I.A." There is little need for further commentary on the story; it speaks for itself -- including the headline, which illustrates, once again, the establishment media's pathological refusal to name the systematic beating, freezing and murder of captives: torture. (Try to imagine what word the NYT would use if, say, the members of Pussy Riot had "died ... after being shackled to a concrete wall in a near-freezing temperatures at a secret [Russian] prison." Would they call that "harsh tactics"? Or if a Syrian prisoner "died in [state] custody in a [regime] prison...where his corpse was photographed packed in ice and wrapped in plastic." Would they call that "harsh tactics"? Would that be referred to as "strenuous interrogation" by the New York Times?)
But I digress. To be fair, the story tells the basic facts straightforwardly enough. The Obama Administration announced on Thursday that it would not prosecute anyone -- no one at all -- for the murder of two prisoners in American's Terror War gulags several years ago. As the story notes, this move "eliminat[es] the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the CIA" under the Bush Administration. Considering that dozens of detainees -- if not many more -- have been killed in detention over the course of the Terror War, this is a remarkable feat of erasure. Killing after killing after killing after killing -- and not a single killer prosecuted by the "Justice" Department of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
No, wait: we do the Peace Prize Laureate wrong in the above claim. The state-ordered, state-approved, state-protected murder and beating and freezing and slamming and stripping and ice-packing and plastic-wrapping of prisoners (many of them innocent people rounded up randomly or kidnapped or sold into captivity by criminals) has in fact produced one prosecution by the Laureate, as the NYT notes.
While no one has been prosecuted for the harsh interrogations, a former C.I.A. officer who helped hunt members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan and later spoke publicly about waterboarding, John C. Kiriakou, is awaiting trial on criminal charges that he disclosed to journalists the identity of other C.I.A. officers who participated in the interrogations.
There, see! The one CIA agent who revealed the names of people who tortured captives is being prosecuted with the full force of the law, with all the righteousness and moral fervor that we would expect from a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate! There's something that any progressive can point to with pride when he or she works the phone banks and doorsteps for Obama, telling people to support the president and save us from the militarist nutballs and enemies of the truth in the Republican Party.
And yes, of course, the faction of the Imperial Bloc that just nominated Mitt Romney is a pack of militarist nutballs and enemies of the truth. But so is the other faction, which protects torturers, murderers people whose names they don't even know based on arbitrarily chosen "life-pattern" details gleaned by robots in the sky, launches secret wars, foments coups, runs "black ops" in dozens of countries all over the world, killing hundreds of innocent people each year, plunging whole countries into chaos and ruin with its 'terror war' and 'drug war' and 'economic war' agendas -- and ferociously prosecutes anyone who tries to smuggle out a few crumbs of truth about the abominable atrocities and self-destructive follies being carried out daily by a berserk militarist system which has no goal other than its own self-perpetuation and the forced domination of others.
And this will go on and on regardless of which faction of the Imperial Bloc wins in November. Yes, there are differences between the factions. The Republicans and Tea Partiers and Koch-heads are more openly racist, are more proud of their willful ignorance, and hate more of their fellow citizens than the Democrats seem to. (Although actually killing innocent Muslims, including many children, all over the world on a regular basis as the Democrats are doing might possibly be construed as being even more racist than, say, protesting the construction of a mosque somewhere. And the persistent belief that maintaining an all-devouring, treasury-bankrupting, globe-spanning military machine that kills people across the earth is a sensible policy that will produce peace and prosperity could be construed by some as willful ignorance on a Todd Akin-like level.)
But the fact is we have only one party, the Imperial Bloc. You may find one faction more distasteful than the other, but both fully support the moral insanity of the militarism outlined above. Whichever faction wins, more people will die horrible deaths -- and no one will answer for it, no one will be prosecuted. And the firestorm of hatred and blowback that both factions of the Imperial Bloc keeps stoking against our country will continue to build. So be clear: if you vote for one of these factions, that is what you are supporting. Perhaps you may feel that such a dreadful moral compromise is necessary; that's your choice. But if so, you should know -- and feel -- just what that choice means.
Going away for awhile. I'll be back when I am back, if I get back. In the meantime, here are a few essais, new and old, addressing issues of import for the elucidation of anyone who cares to peruse them, concerning:
A couple of housekeeping notes: While I'm gone, it's possible that a few comments won't get through, because some of them, for various technical (not ideological) reasons, have to be approved 'by hand' before going live. So if you post a comment and it doesn't appear, don't be offended; it's nothing personal, and it will get there eventually. As I've explained in the past, this is due to the fact that the website has been severely hacked and damaged several times, often through hackers exploiting openings in the comments section. So the process we have now is somewhat cumbersome, but more secure.
Second, the front page of the website sometimes has a 'run-over' problem, with the text of posts spilling over into the side column. Again, this is something that has to be fixed by hand, and my hands will be elsewhere for a time. So if this happens while I'm gone, my apologies. I think if you click on an individual post, it opens into a more readable window.
Oh yes: don't forget to feed the chickens and slop the hogs while I'm gone. Thanks.
It is apparent that the nation of Ecuador will now be in the frame for what American foreign policy elites like to call, in their dainty and delicate language, "the path of action." Ecuador granted political asylum to Julian Assange on Thursday for one reason only: the very real possibility that he would be "rendered" to the United States for condign punishment, including the possibility of execution.
None of the freedom-loving democracies involved in the negotiations over his fate -- Britain, Sweden, and the United States -- could guarantee that this would not happen … even though Assange has not been charged with any crime under U.S. law. [And even though the sexual misconduct allegations he faces in Sweden would not be crimes under U.S. or UK law.] Under these circumstances -- and after a sudden, blustering threat from Britain to violate the Ecuadorean embassy and seize Assange anyway -- the government of Ecuador felt it had no choice but to grant his asylum request.
As we all know, some of America's top political figures have openly called for Assange to be put to death for the crime of -- well, what was his crime, exactly, in American eyes? His crime is this: he published information leaked to him by a whistleblower -- exactly as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC, Fox News, etc., etc., do on a regular basis. Some American leaders and media blowhards have demanded he be executed for "treason," although, as an Australian citizen, he cannot commit treason against the United States. Others say his leaking of classified documents (none of them remotely as sensitive as, say, the much-celebrated Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam Era) has put "American soldiers in danger" -- even though America's own military and intelligence officials have repeatedly stated that no one has been harmed from the publication of documents on Wikileaks.
No one has been physically harmed, that is. Of course, great harm has been done to the pride of the puffed--up poltroons who strut and preen atop the imperial battlements, thinking themselves the lords of all the earth and the apple of every little peon's eye. Their crimes and lies and third-rate minds were exposed -- in their own words -- by Wikileaks: and it is for this that Assange must pay. (And be made an example of to all those who might do likewise.) Our imperial elites (and their innumerable little yapping media sycophants on both sides of the political fence) simply cannot bear to have American power and domination resisted in any way, at any time, for any reason, anywhere, by anyone. It offends their imperial dignity. It undermines their extremely fragile, frightened, frantic egos, which can only be held together by melding themselves to an image of monstrous, implacable, unstoppable power.
It also -- and by no means incidentally -- threatens to put a slight crimp in their bottom line, for the American system is now thoroughly militarized; the elite depend, absolutely, on war, death, terror and fear to sustain their economic dominance. As the empire's chief sycophant, Thomas Friedman, once put it: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps." You really can't put it any plainer than that. The only path to prosperity is through domination by armed force. Others must die, must suffer, must quake in fear, to preserve our comfort. This is Modern American Militarism in a nutshell: the ruling ideology and national religion of American society today.
Anything or anyone who threatens this dominance -- or just disagrees with it, or simply wants to be left alone by it -- is automatically judged an enemy of the imperial state. You must accept the system. You must get with the program. You cannot question it. The beliefs or religion or ideology of the resister (or perceived resister) do not matter in the slightest. Even the impact (or lack of impact) of the resistance doesn't matter. It is resistance that it is the crime. It is the refusal to acknowledge the greatness and goodness of the strutters on the battlements, and the legitimacy of their armed domination over the earth, and over you.
It is not enough that you obey; you must be seen to obey. You must obey cheerfully, without complaint -- just ask any of thousands and thousands of your fellow citizens who have been tasered or beaten or arrested for failing to show due deference to a police officer or security guard or any of the many other heavily armed figures out there who can stop us, hold us, put us away -- or put us down -- on the merest whim.
Although Britain is acting as the beard in this case, the government of the Nobel Peace Laureate is clearly driving the action. It is simply inconceivable that Washington will not find ways to punish Ecuador for this act of lèse–majesté. What form it will take remains to be seen (although it could begin with covert backing for Britain's violation of the Ecuadorean embassy in London). But the fragile, frantic strutters will not let this pass.
*** UPDATE: Just to make it clear, sexual assault is a very serious matter. To say that the accusations now being made against Assange would not constitute a crime under U.S. or UK law is not to diminish the right of all women to be free from sexual assault in any form.
But these concerns have nothing to do with what is being played out in London right now. Assange has not actually been criminally charged with sexual assault, although this claim is repeated unceasingly in stories about the situation. [Including my post above, when I carelessly wrote "charges" in place of "allegations"; now corrected.] He is wanted for questioning in a case involving such allegations; a case which was at first dismissed by a prosecutor then reopened later by a different prosecutor. This prosecutor did not charge Assange with a crime, but wanted to question him further in the process of re-examining whether formal charges are warranted.
Now here is one of the many bizarre turns in this story. Assange was in the UK after the case was re-opened. If the prosecutors wanted to question him, they could have done so at any time, either by coming to London or interviewing him via video hookup. There are ample precedents in European and Swedish law for either course. They refused to do so. (They have also refused Ecuador's offer to have Assange interrogated in their London embassy.) Assange has also said he would return to Sweden for questioning if the government there would guarantee he would not be extradited to the United States. This was also refused.
Given the fact that Swedish prosecutors have repeatedly turned down opportunities to question Assange about the case -- even though they say this is their sole aim -- it is not entirely unreasonable to assume, as Assange has done, that there is some other intention behind the process that has led to the standoff we see today. If the primary concern was justice for the two women involved in the allegations, who have had the case hanging over their heads for almost two years, Assange could have been questioned by Swedish authorities at any time during that period, and the process of resolving the case, one way or another, could have moved forward. But this has not been done.
In August 2010, Assange was interviewed by the police for the first time, then released. A month later, the prosecutor requested an additional police interrogation be held, insisting this time that it be done with Assange behind bars. She called for Assange's arrest, issued a European arrest warrant and ordered that he be deported from the UK. Stockholm district court and the Svea court of appeal upheld her request and arrested Assange in absentia.
Neither Assange nor I can understand the motivation. Why couldn't the second police interview be conducted with Assange at liberty? Assange is not a Swedish citizen. He does not reside in Sweden. His work has worldwide impact and he must be able to travel freely to accomplish this. He would happily have presented himself for interrogation and, had the case gone to trial, willingly returned to Sweden to face charges. All this could have been done while he remained at liberty. Had Sweden handled the case in this way, the issue would have been resolved a long time ago.
Instead, Sweden insists on Assange's forcible removal to Sweden. Once there, he will immediately be seized by police and put in jail. He will be taken to the detention hearing in handcuffs, and will almost certainly be detained. He will remain in custody for the duration of the proceedings. This is unnecessary. The prosecutor is at liberty to withdraw the arrest warrant and lift the detention order, and a hearing in Sweden could be arranged very quickly. The prosecutor could also arrange a hearing in the UK or at the Swedish embassy in London.
Again, it seems evident that the Swedish authorities did not want to pursue any of these options, but have instead sought relentlessly to put Assange in a Swedish jail and keep him there. Whatever their motives for this heavy-handed course of action, concern for victims of sexual assault does not seem to be among them.
Over the decades, Robert Parry has done yeoman service in exposing the vast criminality of the American state. From the foul bloodwork of American power in Central America to the treasonous machinations of the Iran-Contra scheme to the long, corrupt, murderous history of the Bush crime family, Parry has broken many important stories and brought much "lost history" -- the title of his best book -- to light. I have drawn on his work frequently, and learned a great deal from it.
Therefore it is extremely dispiriting to read his recent bitter blasts (here and here) at any and all of those "on the left" who might even contemplate refusing to support Barack Obama for re-election. Such people, he tells us, are vain, preening perfectionists who care more for their own self-righteousness than the fate of the world. Indeed, "leftists" who have refused to support the Democratic candidate -- no matter who he is, no matter what he has done -- are complicit, we’re told, in all the atrocities perpetrated by Republican presidents since 1968.
(Apparently, no Democratic president has ever perpetrated any atrocities; they are just "imperfect" politicians who might sometimes "do some rotten things" but always "fewer rotten things than the other guy.")
Parry believes he is preaching a tough, gritty doctrine of "moral ambiguity." What he is in fact advocating is the bleakest moral nihilism. To Parry, the structure of American power -- the corrupt, corporatized, militarized system built and sustained by both major parties -- cannot be challenged. Not even passively, not even internally, for Parry scorns those who simply refuse to vote almost as harshly as those who commit the unpardonable sin: voting for a third party. No, if you do not take an active role in supporting this brutal engine of war and injustice by voting for a Democrat, then it is you who are immoral.
You must support this system. It is the only moral choice. What’s more, to be truly moral, to acquit yourself of the charge of vanity and frivolity, to escape complicity in government crimes, you must support the Democrat. If the Democratic president orders the "extrajudicial" murder of American citizens, you must support him. If he chairs death squad meetings in the White House every week, checking off names of men to be murdered without charge or trial, you must support him. If he commits mass murder with robot drones on defenseless villages around the world, you must support him. If he imprisons and prosecutes whistleblowers and investigative journalists more than any other president in history, you must support him. If he cages and abuses and tortures a young soldier who sought only to stop atrocities and save the nation’s honor, you must support him. If he "surges" a pointless war of aggression and occupation in a ravaged land and expands that war into the territory of a supposed ally, you must support him. If he sends troops and special ops and drones and assassins into country after country, fomenting wars, bankrolling militias, and engineering coups, you must support him. If he throws open the nation's coastal waters to rampant drilling by the profiteers who are devouring and despoiling the earth, you must support him. If he declares his eagerness to do what no Republican president has ever dared to do -- slash Social Security and Medicare -- you must support him.
For Robert Parry, blinded by the red mist of partisanship, there is literally nothing -- nothing -- that a Democratic candidate can do to forfeit the support of "the left." He can even kill a 16-year-old American boy -- kill him, rip him to shreds with a missile fired by a coddled coward thousands of miles away -- and you must support him. And, again, if you do not support him, if you do not support all this, then you are the problem. You are enabling evil.
Given this wildly askew moral compass, what would Parry make of that great American refusenik, Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail rather than pay taxes to support a deadly militarist adventure in Mexico and the government-sanctioned system of slavery, and whose thoughts on civil disobedience and disengagement with evil inspired Tolstoy and Gandhi? Thoreau said: “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
What would Parry say to that? “Enough of your vain moral posturing, Thoreau. Forget the Mexican War; get out there and support James K. Polk. He’s a Democrat, for god’s sake! Do you want someone worse to get in there? It’s a disgrace not to associate yourself with this government!”
II. Parry’s “logic” is breathtakingly, heartbreakingly faulty. Perhaps that’s not surprising; after all, partisanship is the sworn enemy of logic, of objective reasoning, of clear thinking. But what is surprising, given Parry’s decades of deep-delving in the mines of politics and history, is how wrong he is on the “savvy” realpolitik he espouses, and his wanton misreading of history.
Parry rails against the “left” for not giving enough support to the Democrats in elections of 1968, 1980 and 2000. If these fastidious perfectionists hadn’t tried to “punish” the “imperfect” Democratic candidates in the those crucial years, the nation and the world would have been spared much suffering, we are told.
Well, maybe so, maybe not. This kind of ahistorical speculation is pointless in the extreme. If Hitler had been run over by a Vienna streetcar in 1919, then perhaps the world would have been a better place; or perhaps someone even worse would have come along. You can’t unring the bell of historical events – or tell what other tunes might have chimed in their place.
But even on a surface level, Parry’s analysis fails. He seems to think that the “left’s” desertion of the Democrats in 1968 gave the presidency to Richard Nixon and prolonged the Vietnam War. It was not the “left” that abandoned the Democrats that year; it was the millions of ordinary Americans who had only four years before given Lyndon Johnson the biggest electoral mandate in history up to that time. If every leftist in the country had stayed home (and of course the overwhelming majority of them did not, and almost all of them voted for Hubert H. Humphrey), the Democrats still would have lost. Parry, astonishingly, forgets the presence of George Wallace in the race (and race is the operative word here). Wallace’s pro-segregation campaign took five states from the Democrats’ formerly “solid South” and won 10 million votes, almost all of them from Democratic constituencies. Even if every “leftist” had been burning with fervor for HHH, no Democrat could have survived such a blow to the party’s base.
What’s more, the real abandonment of the party that year came not from disaffected leftists, but from the Democrat’s own leader: LBJ, who simply dumped the party, and the presidency, out of hurt feelings at being challenged in the primaries. He didn’t stand up and fight for his social programs and Civil Rights measures, he didn’t end the war (which Parry tells us he was “seriously” contemplating – and which he could have done with a snap of his fingers). Nor did he give more than the most tepid support to Humphrey until the very end of the campaign, when he knew it was too late. He just quit and walked away, with the nation reeling in turmoil from the war he had escalated, and from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. If any one person could be said to have given us Richard Nixon, it was LBJ.
Parry also seems to think that if Jimmy Carter had not been “abandoned” by “leftists" in 1980, in his second term he would have not kept supporting the Afghan religious extremists he himself had loosed on the Soviets (to the world’s everlasting betterment, as we see each day around us). Or that Carter would not have continued supporting murderous Latin American dictatorships and surrogate wars in Africa as he had done throughout his term. Or that he wouldn’t have continued the massive arms build-up he had launched, or continued saber-rattling at the Soviets, or proclaiming the American right to launch pre-emptive war if anyone threatened the vicious tyrants in the Middle East who supplied us with oil. And so on and on. (For more, see here.)
But neither was Carter abandoned by ‘leftists’ to any significant degree. He too lost the votes of millions of ordinary Americans who had supported him four years previously. The third-party “spoiler,” Republican-turned-Independent John Anderson, ended up with less than 7 percent of the vote, with polls showing his meager numbers of supporters split equally between Democrats and Republicans. Carter lost primarily because of a poor economy (not helped by his avowedly conservative economic policies), his own tepid ineptitude, and because of the Iran hostage crisis -- which occurred after his boneheaded mismanagement of the American reaction to the Iranian revolution, including his decision to allow the ousted Shah into the United States, and other measures which aided the revolution’s most radical elements and undercut the secular moderates at every turn. (A practice that has been faithfully followed by every American president since.)
As for 2000, Gore actually won that election, of course, which moots Parry’s point about leftist lethargy robbing worthy Dems of the big brass ring. Of course, the corrupt system that Parry urges us to preserve by continuing to legitimize its perpetrators with our votes did take the presidency away from Gore – or rather, Gore meekly allowed them to take it without pursuing the constitutional challenge he could have made in Congress. And even though my family’s tenuous connection to Gore goes back a long way – I first met him when my father introduced the young Congressional candidate around our town during his first run for elective office, and my cousin once worked as his press aide – I have to say that Gore, as Bill Clinton’s very active vice president, had his hand in a number of activities that might conceivably make even the most acquiescent “leftist” hesitate just a teeny bit. But let’s let his distant cousin, Gore Vidal, tell it (from The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2001):
“In order to be re-elected in 1996, the Clinton-Gore administration adopted a series of right-wing Republican, even protofascist, programs, with lots more prisons, death penalties, harassment of the poor, cries of terrorism, and implicitly, control by government over the citizenry.”
Gore’s tenure at the top also saw the stripping of the financial controls on high finance – a surrender of Democratic (not to mention democratic) principles that ushered in the casino royale that led to the current – and increasingly permanent – economic crisis. And there was also the little matter of the deaths of at least 500,000 children from the US-UK sanctions on Iraq. (And half a million – a vast mountain of child corpses – is just what the Clinton-Gore administration were happy to admit to on national television, to show how tough and savvy they were. The real figure is certainly much higher.)
Would Gore, who didn’t flinch at amassing that mountain of corpses, have launched a war against Iraq, as Bush – who, again, was given the presidency not by “leftists” but by a corrupt Supreme Court rife with partisan (and financial) conflicts of interest – did? Who knows? But we do know that it was the Clinton-Gore administration that signed bills formally committing the United States to “regime change” in Iraq. And Gore did pick the fanatical neo-con warmonger Joe Lieberman as his VP nominee. Gore had always aligned himself with the “Scoop Jackson” militarist wing of the party, unlike this father, Sen. Albert Gore Sr., who sacrificed his political career by publicly opposing the Vietnam War. Vidal again:
Alone, I believe, among the usually war-minded Southern legislators, Albert Sr. spoke out against the long idiocy of the Vietnam War. Essentially, populists don’t like foreign wars, particularly in lands that they know nothing of and for no demonstrable goals. For exercising good judgment, Albert Sr. was defeated in 1970 by an opponent who used the familiar line that he was ‘out of touch with the voters of Tennessee. If this was true, the voters, supremely misled by three administrations, were seriously out of touch with reality. ….
The classic Gores are against foreign military adventures. It was here that Al Jr. broke with tradition when he was one of only ten Democratic senators to support George [H.W.] Bush’s Persian Gulf caper [in 1991]; before that, he had approved Reagan’s Grenada invasion and Libyan strikes.
Gore also went to the Vietnam War his father had opposed – albeit just for a short resume-building, non-combat tour as a military journalist.
None of this is to exonerate the Republicans of the monstrous crimes they have most assuredly committed –and/or continued – during their turns at the top of the bipartisan helter-skelter. It is simply to note what the historical record clearly shows: first, that lack of ‘leftist’ support did not cost the Democrats the presidency in any of these years. And second, that the Democrats’ own crimes and atrocities and follies are part and parcel of a system of corporatist/militarist rule that has become so abominable that no one can without disgrace be associated with it. To see this clearly and say it plainly is not “vanity” or “perfectionism.” It is reality. And to deny this, distort it, and denounce those who no longer wish to legitimize it with their votes is not a courageous grappling with “moral ambiguity;” it is a self-infliction of moral blindness.
III. And I think this is Parry’s main problem: he still doesn’t see – or can’t quite believe – what is going on right in front of his eyes. He thinks we have some kind of normal politics in some kind of normal nation. He can’t seem to grasp that a bipartisan system that has wrought the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children and a million more Iraqis in a war of aggression; that has killed countless thousands of Afghans in a pointless, atrocity-ridden, deeply corrupt occupation; that operates a global death squad – out of the White House, directed by the president himself; that kidnaps and tortures innocent people and then protects the torturers; that prosecutes truth-tellers and investigative reporters – like Robert Parry – who expose state crimes; that gorges its wealthy, greedy, above-the-law elites with tax cuts and bailouts and war profits and privileges without end while sharpening its bipartisan knives to gut the last, frayed remnants of the social safety net, is a system that has gone far beyond “moral ambiguity” and “imperfection” and “lesser evilism.” It is itself a product and producer of evil.
Parry says there are no viable alternative parties to this double-headed beast. And he is right. He says there are no popular movements out there right now “that can significantly alter government policies strictly through civil disobedience or via protests in the streets.” And he is right. Therefore what is left to us, at the present moment, in this election, but the power of refusal? (Whether this is exercised by “throwing your vote away” on a third party or absenting yourself entirely from the legitimization and normalization of imperial monstrosity.) Where is the dishonor, the vanity in such a stance, in refusing to accept and affirm mass murder, repression, corruption and injustice in an implacable system that offers no other choices?
Would Parry have told Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Boris Pasternak or Josef Brodsky or other Soviet dissidents that they should not have disassociated themselves from the implacable system they confronted? “You should join the Party, Aleksandr, you must work within the system. That’s the only way we’ll see real change.” Perhaps Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst of the White Rose should have stifled their concerns about the “imperfections” of the German government and sought the path of “lesser evilism” instead, working to advance, say, Albert Speer or Herman Goring or some other figure who might have “done some rotten things” but “fewer rotten things than the other guy.”
Yes, I know the United States in 2012 is not the USSR or Hitler’s Germany. And Parry would doubtless say, “Of course they were right to disassociate themselves from such monstrous systems.” But where do you draw the line? How much evil is acceptable? Is there a certain number of victims that a system must reach before one is allowed to disengage from it honorably and morally? To murder six million in death camps or millions in purges is obviously unacceptable; but to kill 500,000 children – is that OK? A million innocent people in a war of aggression – is that beyond the pale? Or can you work with that, can you accommodate that, should you swallow these mountains of dead, washing them down with a big swig of moral ambiguity?
Romney might well prove to be a “worse” president than Obama. (Although Parry does not address the realpolitik argument that a Romney victory would likely wake the ‘left’ from its slumber and cause it to oppose heinous crimes and vicious policies – aggressive war, murder programs, safety net slashing – that it is now happily supporting because a Democrat is doing them.) But that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not one gives legitimacy and justification to a brutal and unjust system by actively supporting and empowering it – and thus perpetuating its bipartisan evils far into the future.
Robert Parry says we should do this. He says: if you don’t support one murderer, the other murderer (or rather, would-be murderer, since Obama has actually directed death squads and drone attacks that have killed hundreds of innocent people, including American children, while Romney is still just hoping to do so) might be worse. To choose one murderer over another murderer is the only moral choice open to us, Parry says. To refuse to cooperate with evil – as Tolstoy did, as Solzhenitsyn did, as Sophie Scholl, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King did – is pointless, perfectionist, vain. That’s what Robert Parry evidently believes.
But with all due respect to Parry and his valuable body of work, I disagree. On this, I will take my stand with Thoreau. I refuse to give this evil my assent.
A passage from my piece on Gore Vidal yesterday ("As with Tolstoy, Vidal's fiction -- the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across -- deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility") brought this response from a reader:
The comparison with Tolstoy fails completely, to the detriment of Gore Vidal. In his thought Tolstoy was a religious crank who thought in crude black and white. None of the genius he brought to his fiction carried across to his later religious and moralistic writings.
The plain fact is, having read both some of Gore Vidal's fiction and heard him speak on video etc, he is more consistent than Tolstoy and thus immeasurably superior.
To which, this brief reply:
Opinions on these matters are all subjective, of course; one man's "crank" (an epithet applied not infrequently to Vidal himself by those eager to dismiss his discomforting views) is another man's exemplar. But, with respect, I must say I find it hard to believe that you have actually read any of Tolstoy's non-fiction writings on politics and power and war (as opposed to any of the "religious crankery" you might have run across.) And I seriously doubt that Vidal would have shared your opinion of these anti-war, anti-elite, anti-establishment pieces. (Such as those collected in Letters From Tula, for example.)
Certainly Vidal would have found much of Tolstoy's religious writings to be risible -- though I doubt he would have found them 'crude,' as he would have recognized the complex learning that lay behind them, and their logical, iconoclastic rigour (while, again, rejecting their religious premises). But beyond Tolstoy's typically 19th century hang-ups about sex, his "religious crankery" focused mainly on ending war, ending coercion and corruption by powerful elites and institutions (including all religions), and establishing social, political and economic justice. There's very little there that Vidal would have found entirely uncongenial, I think.
He might also have delighted in the fact that Tolstoy's religious beliefs shook one of the world's most powerful and repressive religious institutions -- the Russian Orthodox Church -- to its foundations, and led multitudes of people out of its stultifying grip. At the core of Tolstoy's beliefs was a fierce commitment to intellectual liberty, to freedom of thought and conscience, even for those who disagreed with whatever particular notion he happened to hold at any particular time.
And I imagine Vidal might well have enjoyed Tolstoy's "inconsistency" -- especially the randy Russian's inability to quell his rampant sexuality. After all, 'consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,' and Vidal probably would have admired the restlessness of Tolstoy's rather large mind, as it groped through the darkness that surrounds us all, chasing flickers of light here and there, never quite satisfied with any final conclusion, but pushed always by doubt, by inner turmoil, and by the desire to know more.
No one would argue that Tolstoy's non-fiction has the power and genius of his greatest novels and stories. That was my point: that the true greatness of both writers lay in their artistic achievement, which lent greater depth and credibility to their non-fiction -- whether or not one agrees with every single judgment or opinion they rendered.
If the Republic still existed, if it was even a shadow of what it was meant to be (and never was), then bells would tolling across the land and flags would be flying at half-mast, in sorrowful honor for one of its true sons. Gore Vidal is dead.
The loss is great. His was a unique sensibility: artistic, caustic, unsentimental, casting a Yeatsian cold eye on the human comedy, and in this way -- with no false pieties, no dogma, no ideological crutches -- revealing, with inescapable clarity, the rank injustices and murderous hypocrisies of power, and the ludicrous pretenses of power's sycophants.
It was the artist in Vidal -- largely overlooked, especially now, in death, as pages and pixels fill up with quick ricochets of his Wildean bon mots and Twitter-ready soundbites -- that gave his work a special force. As with Tolstoy, Vidal's fiction -- the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across -- deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility. And as with Tolstoy, you might not agree with every conclusion (although in matters of politics, society and culture, I very rarely disagreed with Vidal), but the art showed a mind, a spirit, that deserved to be taken seriously.
Vidal obviously relished his outsized, gadfly role in American politics and media: his self-appointed (and entirely credible) persona as the Alternative President to whatever poltroon happened to be occupying the White House at any given moment -- even down to the issuing of his own "State of the Union" essays from time to time, always devastating in their corrosive wit and blistering truths about American society. The vast body of his non-fiction is captured best in the massive 1992 compendium, United States: 1,271 pages long -- and not a boring passage in the entire book. (This is in itself a near-miraculous achievement of the art of prose; even Montaigne nods, but not Vidal.) Its three sections -- State of the Art, State of the Union, and State of Being -- comprise a kind of marvelous postgraduate education in life and learning -- worth more, and far more useful, than a PhD from Harvard or an Oxford PPE.
It is here we see not only Vidal the thinker and media figure, but Vidal the man: steeped in history -- like few others of his time and almost no one of our day -- yet also riding on the sharp, cool edge of modernity as it sliced its way through the 20th century. He seemed to radiate a sense of liberation, in many forms: political, sexual, cultural. He was also a consummate detector of bullshit, and a ruthless dismantler of its celebrated dispensers. (His evisceration of John Updike -- "Rabbit's Own Burrow" -- is a splenetic wonder, on a par with Mark Twain's takedown of Fennimore Cooper or Robert Graves' demolition of Ezra Pound, leaving the reader incapable of taking the victim seriously again.)
But again, I come back to the fiction. I think this is where Vidal's true greatness lies. Perhaps so much in the "experimental" novels, the surreal affairs like Myra Breckenridge, Duluth, and Live From Golgotha. As enjoyable and insightful as these are, they seem to me more like extensions of his political writings: send-ups, or mash-ups, of American society, in broad strokes, a species of commentary. Of course, this might just be a matter of personal taste. But for me, his accomplishment reaches its height in several of his other novels, most of them in historical settings, which are brought to uncanny life through the sharply-realized consciousness of individual human beings. Though the novels are set in the past, these characters are always in their present, in the eternal now where we all live, making our way through the chaos of the moment to the forever-unknowable future.
Lincoln is generally considered the best of the novels, with good reason. It is a remarkably effective -- and remarkably subtle -- example of the "polyphonic novel," as pioneered by Dostoevsky and championed by Bakhtin. Through a kaleidoscope of consciousnesses, Vidal reanimates the crucible of the American experience -- the Civil War -- and the man whom Vidal called our "most mysterious of presidents." Lincoln was part of what Vidal came to see as a series of related novels, a family chronicle -- and a national epic of America's peculiar history: "Narratives of a Golden Age," beginning with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and ending at the dawn of the 1960s (with an epilogue in the new millennium). While Lincoln may hold pride of place in the Narratives, several others in the series are also outstanding works, particularly Burr, 1876 and Empire. The Narratives caught a perfect pitch of the faint but persistent idealism -- the humanism -- wafting through the always-overpowering, and always-triumphant, corruptions of power in the miasmic swamps of Washington and beyond, as the Republic slouched bloodily toward its current monstrosity of empire.
But Vidal, of all people, was no American Exceptionalist, and neither was his best work confined to America's mores and madness. In fact, I believe that his finest novel, his finest work of art, was Julian: an astonishing recreation of the life and mind of the Classical world during its final, fatal flowering during the short reign of "Julian the Apostate," the Roman emperor who tried to reverse the Empire's conversion to Christianity, initiated a half-century earlier by Constantine I. The book is steeped in a rigorous historical learning that is worn so slightly, is so thoroughly worked into the very human story of a very human man, that it is scarcely noticeable at all. Julian's world simply lives, and the reader lives in it -- yet at the end, emerges with a new understanding of this absolutely crucial period of history.
In the same vein is Creation, which once again immerses us in the human realities of a crucial era in the life of humanity: the "Axial Age," which saw the rise and development of new religions and new thinking across the world, an era when Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, early Greek philosophers like Heraclitus and other pivotal figures were walking the earth and revolutionizing ancient structures of thought and belief. But again, the learning is carried lightly, in the ironic person of Cyrus Spitama, a witty, aging Persian diplomat in Athens whose main claim to fame is that he is Zoroaster's grandson. He narrates the tale of his long life -- his youth in the Persian court of Darius and Xerxes, his sojourns in India and China, and the machinations and corruptions of the rising Greek city-states.
This is not the time or place for an exhaustive look at Vidal's literary achievements. (For more on this theme, see Critical Malfunction: Misreading Gore Vidal.) But in the media onslaught of obituaries and appraisals, most of which seem, perhaps understandably, to focus on the gadfly persona noted above, I thought it was important to recall this vital element of Vidal's legacy: his fiction, which at its best has richly enhanced our awareness of what it is to be a living human being -- mortal, troubled, confused, alone -- caught up in the maelstrom of historical forces we can scarcely understand and cannot control.
It is no small thing to have left such a mark. It is a legacy well worth celebrating, and one that will outlast even the wittiest and most telling of his aperçus.
On a personal note, it would be hard for me to overestimate Vidal's influence on how I see the world, in so many different areas. His death is like losing a spiritual father. (If I can be forgiven for using such an outrageous term for a man so entirely worldly! ) His work schooled me and sharpened me and, in the words of Henry Miller (another writer he once wittily skewered, albeit with more affection than bile), "inoculated me with disillusionment" -- a task which Miller called the highest purpose of an artist. Vidal made me see the world -- and myself -- with new eyes, and taught me how to keep on seeing in this way: relentlessly, fearlessly, unsentimentally casting "a cold eye, on life, on death." I've fallen short of this teaching -- woefully, continually -- at nearly every turn, but it is still there, a lodestar in a night sky that is now a bit more lonely, more harrowing than it was.
It is now obvious .. that the intellectual "narcissism which orders the past to please the present" can also find "violent external expression in war and in an indifference towards the destruction, suffering and death of others".
That's Pankaj Mishra, quoting Richard Drayton, in a new article in the Guardian, about the vogue for imperialist nostalgia that still permeates the increasingly rickety elites of the West, drawing these bankrupt enterprises deeper and deeper into pointless and murderous adventures. A few more excerpts:
The British empire, George Orwell wrote, was "despotism with theft as its final object". So what has made imperialism an intellectual fashion in our own time, reopening hoary disputes about whether it was good or bad? After five years as a colonial policeman in Burma, where he found himself shooting an elephant to affirm the white man's right to rule, Orwell was convinced that the imperial relationship was that of "slave and master". Was the master good or bad? "Let us simply say," Orwell wrote, "that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested." And "if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it."
Orwell's hard-won insights were commonplace truisms for millions of Asians and Africans struggling to end western control of their lands. Their descendants can only be bewildered by the righteous nostalgia for imperialism that has recently seized many prominent Anglo-American politicians and opinion-makers, who continue to see Asia through the narrow perspective of western interests, leaving unexamined and unimagined the collective experiences of Asian peoples.
Certainly, as Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, "the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." Two years after Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Roger Casement, then a British diplomat, revealed in a report that half of the population of Belgian-ruled Congo – nearly 10 million people – had perished under a brutal regime where beheadings, rape and genital mutilation of African labourers had become the norm. Such overt violence and terror is only a small part of the story of European domination of Asia and Africa, which includes the slow-motion slaughter of tens of million in famines caused by unfettered experiments in free trade – and plain callousness (Indians, after all, would go on breeding "like rabbits", Winston Churchill argued when asked to send relief during the Bengal famine of 1943-44).
... Nevertheless, in one of the weirdest episodes of recent history, a Kipling-esque rhetoric about bringing free trade and humane governance to "lesser breeds outside the law" has resonated again in the Anglo-American public sphere. Even before 9/11, Tony Blair was ready to tend, with military means if necessary, to, as he put it, "the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant" around the world. …Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands.
Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands. … Clearly, it would help if no Asian or African voices interrupt this intellectual and moral onanism. Astonishing as it may seem, there is next to nothing in the new revisionist histories of empire, or even the insidious accounts of India and China catching up with the west, about how writers, thinkers and activists in one Asian country after another attested to the ravages of western imperialism in Asia: the immiseration of peasants and artisans, the collapse of living standards and the devastation of local cultures.
In 1903, Liang Qichao, China's foremost modern intellectual and a major early influence on Mao Zedong, was visiting America when Washington manipulated its way into control of Panama and its crucial canal. It reminded Liang of how the British had compromised Egypt's independence over the Suez canal. Liang feared that original meaning of the Monroe doctrine – "the Americas belong to the people of the Americas" – was being transformed into "the Americas belong to the people of the United States". "And who knows," Liang added in a book he wrote about his travels, "if this will not continue to change, day after day from now on, into 'the world belongs to the United States'".
This is, of course, the precisely the view now taken by the entirety of America's bipartisan political elite, its media elite, and vast swathes of its ordinary citizens, who have been marinated in this belief for generations. They do believe -- simply, deeply, sincerely -- that the "world belongs to the United States" and that the United States has the right to order the world as it pleases. No one who looked clearly and dispassionately at American foreign policy in the post-war years could say otherwise.
And what lesson did our noble Western civilizers teach to their ignorant, differently-colored charges? Mishra notes:
"In the world," Liang concluded bleakly, "there is only power – there is no other force … Hence, if we wish to attain liberty, there is no other road: we can only seek first to be strong."
A lesson that Liang's pupil, Mao, took to heart -- and applied with horrific force. This process was replicated throughout the post-colonial world. Here one recalls the bleak saying of the Iraqis after the United States launched its war of aggression there in 2003 and overthrew its former favorite, Saddam Hussein: "The pupil has gone; now the master has come." Mishra notes these grim cycles:
In his book The Myth of Independence (1969), the Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto warned his postcolonial compatriots that their "power to make decisions radically affecting the lives of our peoples" was being "curtailed by the cannons of neo-colonialism". Overthrown and murdered by a pro-American military despot, Bhutto was himself to exemplify what Ryszard Kapuscinski described as the tragic "drama" of many well-intentioned Asian and African leaders. Kapuscinski focused on the "terrible material resistance that each [leader] encounters on taking his first, second and third steps up the summit of power. Each one wants to do something good and begins to do it and then sees, after a month, after a year, after three years, that it just isn't happening, that it is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way: the centuries of backwardness, the primitive economy, the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered, the blackmail by the imperialists, the greed of the corrupt, the unemployment, the red ink. Progress comes with great difficulty along such a road. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organises a coup. And the cycle begins anew."
Mishra concludes with the Drayton quote above, and this observation:
Moreover, a narcissistic history – one obsessed with western ideals, achievements, failures and challenges – can only retard a useful understanding of the world today. For most people in Europe and America, the history of the present is still largely defined by victories in the second world war and the long standoff with Soviet communism, even though the central event of the modern era, for a majority of the world's population, is the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence, still incomplete, from the ruins of both Asian and European empires. The much-heralded shift of power from the west to the east may or may not happen. But only neo-imperialist dead-enders will deny that we have edged closer to the cosmopolitan future the first generation of modern Asian thinkers, writers and leaders dreamed of – in which people from different parts of the world meet as equals rather than as masters and slaves, and no one needs to shoot elephants to confirm their supremacy.
Tears of a Drone Arthur Silber writes with power and eloquence about the Aurora killings -- and the monstrous hypocrisy of our national "leaders," who mouthed saccharine pieties about fragile and precious life is, and how tragic it is that innocent lives are so cruelly taken from us ... this while raining down terror and mass murder on innocent human beings all over the world. A brief excerpt:
Consider the staggering number of murders of innocent human beings committed by the United States government -- and ask yourselves how many Auroras those murders represent. ... Listen for the public lamentations about even a small fraction of these deaths. Listen as carefully as you can. What do you hear? Why, nothing at all. ...
President Obama and ...the U.S. government [assert] that he and they have the "right" to murder anyone at all anywhere in the world, for any reason they choose -- and that they need never disclose any details of their murders, including the fact that they have ordered them. ... This monstrous crime, what is in fact an ongoing, systematic series of monstrous crimes, is greeted by near universal silence in America. The U.S. government orders an unending series of Auroras: it ordered an Aurora last week, it will order an Aurora this week, it will order an Aurora next week. Almost no one cares. Almost no one even notices.
Silber then quotes Obama's statement after the killing, and notes:
... These are the remarks of a man who has suffered an irreparable break with reality, a man who who has rendered himself unable to connect obviously related facts. If Obama genuinely meant these comments -- if he understood how these remarks apply with far greater force to him ("we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this") -- his realization of the monster he has allowed himself to become would reduce him to gibbering incoherence for the remainder of his life. In varying degrees, the same is true of any individual who remains in the national government at this point.
More generally, this is American culture today. Like the killer in my story, many Americans hurl themselves with fundamentally false, deeply disturbed enthusiasm into public demonstrations of grief over the needless deaths of some human beings -- those human beings they see as being much like themselves, when the deaths happen in what could be their own neighborhood. As for all the murders committed by their government with a systematic dedication as insane as that of any serial killer: silence.
But every murder committed by the United States government, every murder ordered by Obama, represents a tragedy exactly like Aurora to someone.
There is much, much more; go read the whole thing.
*** Den of Thieves As we all know, the world is suffering through a severe economic crisis. Governments at every level are on evangelical fire with the gospel of austerity, slashing services and people and selling off essential public goods at knock-off prices to a few rapacious elites. Everywhere, at every turn, we are told that there is simply "no money" to sustain anything remotely like the quality of life known by the past few generations before us. ("No money," that is, except for the hundreds of billions in tax dollars -- our money -- these same austerian evangels continue to dole out to those same rapacious elites.)
OK, fine; for the sake of argument, let's take these plutocrat-serving poltroons at their word: there is no money. So where did all the money go then?
As the Observer reported this weekend, an extraordinary new study shows exactly where the money went: into the off-shore tax havens of the super-super rich. How much of the world's wealth has been squirreled away by this tiny group of gilded bucaneers? At least $21 trillion.
That's right: $21 trillion. And that's just the lowball end: the actual figure could be up to $32 trillion. The Observer reports:
A global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide an extraordinary £13 trillion ($21tn) of wealth offshore – as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together – according to research commissioned by the campaign group Tax Justice Network.
James Henry, former chief economist at consultancy McKinsey and an expert on tax havens, has compiled the most detailed estimates yet of the size of the offshore economy in a new report, The Price of Offshore Revisited, released exclusively to the Observer.
He shows that at least £13tn – perhaps up to £20tn – has leaked out of scores of countries into secretive jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands with the help of private banks, which vie to attract the assets of so-called high net-worth individuals. Their wealth is, as Henry puts it, "protected by a highly paid, industrious bevy of professional enablers in the private banking, legal, accounting and investment industries taking advantage of the increasingly borderless, frictionless global economy". According to Henry's research, the top 10 private banks, which include UBS and Credit Suisse in Switzerland, as well as the US investment bank Goldman Sachs, managed more than £4tn in 2010, a sharp rise from £1.5tn five years earlier.
The detailed analysis in the report, compiled using data from a range of sources, including the Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund, suggests that for many developing countries the cumulative value of the capital that has flowed out of their economies since the 1970s would be more than enough to pay off their debts to the rest of the world....
"The problem here is that the assets of these countries are held by a small number of wealthy individuals while the debts are shouldered by the ordinary people of these countries through their governments," the report says.
The sheer size of the cash pile sitting out of reach of tax authorities is so great that it suggests standard measures of inequality radically underestimate the true gap between rich and poor. According to Henry's calculations, [$9.7 trillion] of assets is owned by only 92,000 people, or 0.001% of the world's population – a tiny class of the mega-rich who have more in common with each other than those at the bottom of the income scale in their own societies. ...
Assuming [this] mountain of assets earned an average 3% a year for its owners, and governments were able to tax that income at 30%, it would generate a bumper [$187 billion in tax revenue] every year.
And much of that revenue would be going to world's poorest countries, whose wealth has been looted at levels outstripping the worst of colonial times.
Put simply, there is no good reason for the people in 'developing nations' to live in the crushing poverty that has long been their lot. There is no good reason for the people in the 'developed' nations to see their societies rot away before their eyes. These things are happening because unimaginable amounts of money have been and are being looted by a powerful elite abetted at every turn by banks and politicians -- by specific individuals freely deciding to do evil to their neighbors. Or as the Observer headline puts it in an accompanying story: "Wealth doesn't trickle down -- it just floods offshore." *** Away By the Water So Blue ... And now a few ancestral voices to see us out: intonations and incantations from a vanished world ...
The catastrophic situation in Greece has disappeared from the headlines in recent weeks, replaced largely by lurid reports from Syria, where religious extremists aligned with al Qaeda are wreaking carnage with suicide bombers in the capital -- to the cheers of America's adamant anti-terrorists.
[Such hypocrisy doesn't mitigate the hideousness of the current Syrian regime, of course. Why, I'm so old, I can remember when Washington sent innocent people to Assad's torture chambers for a little outsourced "rigorous interrogation." But as the hapless ophthalmologist teetering atop the slagheap in Damascus is now learning, no good deed -- or evil favor -- done on behalf of the Potomac Poobahs ever goes unpunished. Then again, the aforesaid hideousness does not gainsay the unsavouriness of the other side in the vicious Syrian civil war. I strongly recommend that readers consult As'ad AbuKhalil -- the "Angry Arab" -- for a clear-eyed view of both these plagued houses.)
But even though it is now off the media radar, Greece continues to groan under the draconian conditions imposed on it by Europe's financial elite. As always, everywhere, the weakest are going to the wall: the poor, the workers, and the middle class are being brutally punished so that the rich and powerful can escape the slightest consequence for their own monumental greed, their own ravenous crimes.
Germany continues to lead the way in the harrowing of Greece, with the full backing of Washington and London, who keep chipping in with their stern condemnations of Greece's fecklessness and lack of moral fiber. But as Richard Clogg pointed out in the London Review of Books earlier this month, this righteous hectoring by the lords of the West completely ignores the true context of the Greek catastrophe -- and the atrocious modern history that lies behind it.
I believe the piece is behind the subscription firewall at LRB, so here is a substantial excerpt. It is well worth reading in full, if you can get to it.
The tripartite German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation of Greece [after the Nazi-led invasion in April 1941] set in train one of the most virulent hyperinflations ever recorded, five thousand times more severe than the Weimar inflation of the early 1920s. Price levels in January 1946 were more than five trillion times those of May 1941. The exchange rate for the gold sovereign in the autumn of 1944, shortly after the liberation, stood at 170 trillion drachmas. ...
Commentators on the current crisis in Greece routinely pay obeisance to the notion that Europe owes the idea of democracy to ancient Greece – an arguable proposition. Some go further. Larry Elliott, the economics editor of the Guardian, writing of a Greek tragedy in the making, invoked in a single article not merely Greece as the birthplace of democracy but also the torment of Sisyphus and the flight of Icarus. To present-day Greeks these classical analogies have little resonance, save to remind them how little is known outside Greece of their recent history. Events that occurred within living memory shape reactions to their current plight. In particular, they bitterly resent the fact that it is a German who is leading the call for measures of austerity, and that it is the German tabloid press which pours scorn on ‘idle’ Greeks who supposedly think of little else but early retirement on a fat pension, when any Greek over the age of seventy will have lived through not only stratospheric hyperinflation but one of the worst famines in the modern history of Europe – a famine that was the direct consequence of the wartime occupation. Some, as children, will have had their growth permanently stunted by inadequate nutrition.
The occupation was established following a textbook Blitzkrieg invasion. Within months, the corpses of famine victims were being loaded every morning onto carts for burial in mass graves. It’s estimated that between 1941 and 1943 as many as 200,000 died of starvation. ... Famine and the accompanying hyperinflation were only two of the calamities that befell occupied Greece. More than 80 per cent of the long-established, largely Spanish-speaking Jewish community was killed, mostly in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the space of a few weeks, beginning in March 1943, some 49,000 Greek Jews, mainly from Salonica, ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’, were packed into cattle trucks and shipped to Poland. The image of two Jewish Greek children who were drowned in a pit of excrement, testimony that emerged in a trial of guards at the Majdanek concentration camp, symbolised the fate of the wider community.
During the three and a half years of the occupation, units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS caused immeasurable havoc. When Sture Linnér, a member of the Swedish Red Cross mission, visited the village of Distomo shortly after its inhabitants had been massacred in June 1944, he came across bodies, some still showing signs of life, nailed with bayonets to the avenue of trees which led up to the village. More than five hundred males were executed in Kalavryta; 317 inhabitants were slaughtered in the village of Kommeno. If a German were attacked or killed it was decreed that between fifty and a hundred hostages were to be killed in reprisal. Torture was routine. To deter attempts to sabotage railway lines, hostages were placed in open freight wagons covered with barbed wire, the notorious klouves, so that they would receive the full force of any explosive charge.
As the Germans pulled out of Greece in October 1944 they engaged in a scorched earth policy. The Corinth Canal, for example, was not reopened to navigation until 1949. In The Sacrifices of Greece in the Second World War, a book published by the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1946, Constantine Doxiadis calculated that 1,200,000 Greeks were made homeless and five thousand schools wrecked during the occupation. ...
Few of the war criminals responsible for these atrocities were brought to justice after the war. General Wilhelm Speidel, the military commander in Greece, and thus the man who had overall responsibility for the crimes committed by his troops, received a twenty-year sentence at Nuremberg. Three years later he was released. Max Merten, who had been closely involved in the fate of the Salonica Jewish community, was arrested in 1957 when on an ill-advised trip to Greece. He was charged with war crimes and sentenced to 25 years but immediately pardoned by the then prime minister, Constantine Karamanlis, who was anxious not to jeopardise the prospect of German aid. Back in Germany, he was compensated by the Federal government for the time he had spent in a Greek prison.
Few would insist that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the children, and postwar Germany has made impressive efforts to exorcise the demons of its recent past. So it is unfair, though scarcely surprising, that cartoons in the Greek press, protest banners and Lenten carnival figures lampoon Angela Merkel as a Nazi. But the bitterness, indignation and frustration that the cartoons reflect should be understood in the context of some of the worst atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht anywhere in occupied Europe.
Despite the fact that the UK is not a member of the eurozone, David Cameron has joined with Merkel in hectoring the recalcitrant Greeks. Not so long ago Cameron, on his first visit to the US as prime minister, declared in an interview with ABC News that, in 1940, Britain was the junior partner to America in the anti-Nazi struggle. The fact is that, in 1940, after the fall of France, Britain’s only active ally in Europe was Greece. A few weeks after the onset of the Blitz, the spectacle of the Greek army pushing Italian would-be invaders of their country back into Albania excited an extraordinary wave of philhellenic enthusiasm. The Germans were forced to come to the aid of the Italians and, in April 1941, they overwhelmed the British, Australian and New Zealand expeditionary force that had been dispatched in a doomed attempt to support the hard-pressed Greek army. Many Greeks risked, and not a few lost, their lives in helping British stragglers and escapees to reach the Middle East.
Christine Lagarde has also joined the chorus of critics. She is certainly right to point to massive tax evasion on the part of Greek shipowners, wealthy businessmen and the self-employed, particularly lawyers and doctors (as few as a third of the latter declare incomes of more than 12,000 euros) as one of the principal reasons for the current debt mountain. Greece really is a country in which only the little people pay taxes ... but it is no wonder that her remark that it is now ‘payback time’ for Greece causes nothing but resentment. Meanwhile, a word of contrition, if not apology, for German war crimes that are still a living memory (from Merkel), and a recognition of past Greek sacrifices in the common struggle against fascism, which are likewise still a living memory (from Cameron), would not come amiss.
(**CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly stated Assad's professional background as a dentist; as an astute reader points out, he actually trained as an ophthalmologist. Apologies for the mistake.)