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.
*Below is a slightly revised version of my column in the latest print version of CounterPunch magazine.
Alex Cox was in full flow, holding forth across the candle-glittered wine glasses and fine china plates. The two of us had more or less gate-crashed High Table at an Oxford college. He had been artist-in-residence there for a year, but that year had passed and it was not entirely clear that he retained his dining privileges -- much less the right to invite a hick from the sticks for a free feed with the Fellows. But there we were.
He was in town trying to drum up money for a series of films based on Jacobean plays; I was, very briefly and completely ineffectually, helping him. Ignoring High Table protocol, which dictates a change of conversational partner with each new course, Alex kept up his passionate dialogue with me. He was talking of 9/11, then just a couple of years past, and how the official story was full of holes.
It’s still full of holes, of course. All the “official” stories -- 9/11, both Iraq Wars, Iran-Contra, Libya, Kosovo, the Osama rub-out, on and on -- are full of holes. Holes, evasions, misdirections, outright lies: black oil-smoke to hide the enormity and ubiquity of state crime, which each scandal and catastrophe threatens to expose, whether or not there is some direct official culpability in the particular matter at hand. The whole business of empire is carried out in a rolling, heaving hairball of infinitely tangled connections between the upperworld and the underworld, where ruthless factions use, betray, fight and ally with each other in ever-changing combinations. Any sliver of light falling anywhere on the hairball must be snuffed out immediately, lest it illuminate the true nature of the system.
I don’t remember us drawing any profound conclusions between the many courses that night. But the scorching skepticism we shared toward official stories had its origin in the same place, in the mother of all hole-ridden, oil-smoked hairballs: the Kennedy assassination.
As Cox notes in his new book, The President and the Provocateur, he was 8 years old when John Kennedy was killed. (I was five, but I remember it too; or rather, what I most remember was not Kennedy's assassination but Oswald's, being reported on our grainy black-and-white television as we came home from church.) Even then, Cox was struck by the strangeness of the event; shortly after reporting Kennedy was shot, he writes, the BBC suddenly went off the air for several hours -- an unprecedented event. Afterwards, the entire bipartisan British Establishment, mimicking its American counterpart, closed ranks around the official account, locking out the questions even of such redoubtable figures as Bertrand Russell. It was only a few years later that Cox ran across a pamphlet voicing the credible concerns that Russell and others had raised about the Warren Commission's obvious oil-smoke job -- a serendipitous find that set him off on the decades of diligent research summed up in the book. (And on its accompanying website here.)
Cox synthesizes a vast corpus of investigation into the hydra-headed morass of the Kennedy murder to succinct and powerful effect. With a director’s eye for cinematic jump cuts and well-paced narrative, Cox juxtaposes the parallel lives of Kennedy and Oswald as they race toward their joint rendezvous with death in Dallas in November 1963. Cox is especially good at laying out Oswald’s remarkable trajectory, which was surrounded in still-impenetrable murk even from his earliest years. (The “official story” has young Oswald attending two different junior highs in two different states at the same time, for example.) Oswald’s innumerable contacts with the “National Security State” are laid bare – including the fact that this brazen ‘defector’ to the Soviets, who openly declared his intent to reveal state secrets (from his work in the U2 intelligence-gathering program), was not only allowed back into the United States, but was even given a loan by the government to cover the expenses of his return.
Meanwhile, Kennedy is shown dealing with open insubordination from the military-industrial-security complex, enduring a level of hatred and vitriol from these armed and dangerous factions that makes the Tea Party look like purring pussycats – even as he cravenly appeased them at nearly every turn. Cox is careful not to paint JFK in falsely heroic colors; his Kennedy is no liberal saint brought down by evildoers, but an active accomplice in imperial crime who, toward the end of his short life, was -- perhaps – just beginning to grasp the enormity of the devil’s bargain he had made to win power.
Cox comes to no ultimate conclusions. Among the many power factions that wanted Kennedy removed, Cox seems to incline toward his mentor Mark Lane’s view that the CIA was likely a prime mover. But whatever else the mysterious Oswald might have been (including, without doubt, an agent or asset of the security state), the book’s skillful mastering of the facts makes it clear that he was, in the end, exactly what he claimed to be after his arrest: a patsy.
And so are we all, fifty years on: a nation of patsies, still being played by the brutal power-gamers of our unlovely imperium.
Glen Ford brings the heat, and the truth, about one of the most important -- and unreported -- stories of our day: the shackling of Detroit. Over the past year, we have seen the citizens of a major American city openly, 'legally' stripped of the right to govern themselves and forced into a form of indentured servitude in order to enrich a small predatory elite whose own machinations had driven the city to ruin.
It is an extraordinary -- and sickening -- spectacle. Detroit is now under the control of an unelected "Emergency Financial Manager," Kevyn Jones, forcibly imposed by the state governor, with all real power -- the power of the purse -- placed in his hands. And Jones is wielding this power with ruthless efficiency.
As Ford notes, Detroit is being looted and disenfranchised without the slightest peep from the great compassionate progressive community organizer in the White House. And 'white' is the operative word here; Detroit's population is more than 80 percent black, but the first African-American president will not lift a finger to help the city -- although he was more than happy to lavish trillions of dollars in bailouts on Wall Street (whose population is, shall we say, somewhat less than 80 percent black).
But Ford makes the salient point that Detroit's plight goes far beyond race. The city is in fact a test case, a template, a dry run for the extinguishing of any kind of genuine democracy across the land, and its replacement by overt corporate control. You should read the whole piece, but here are a few telling excerpts:
The “restructuring” of Detroit through bankruptcy is the model for drastically downsizing what’s left of democracy in all of urban America. Already, Black voting rights have been rendered null and void “on a scale not seen since the death of Reconstruction.” However, the legal precedents that are being established in mostly Black Detroit will obtain throughout the nation…..
The post-Civil Rights era vision to consolidate Black Power through purely electoral means in the major cities of the United States has all but evaporated. Wherever possible, capital has reclaimed the urban centers for upscale white habitation, most often with the active collaboration of a venal Black political class concerned primarily with its own upward mobility …
Some cities, including New Orleans and Detroit, were, in the words of Public Enemy, “too Black, too strong,” with African American majorities of 67 and 80-plus percent, respectively. Hurricane Katrina brought those numbers down to manageable size, creating the conditions for near-instantaneous Disaster Capitalist renaissance, in 2005. That same year, in Detroit, the so-called “Hip Hop Mayor,” Kwame Kilpatrick – actually the spoiled, morally degenerate spawn of the historical Black Misleadership Class – strapped the Black metropolis into a suicide vest wired with interest rate swap derivatives. Similar devices are embedded in the fiscal structures of cities around the country, ready to bring down what’s left of home rule so that capital can feast on the public space, unconstrained. …
The scheme is general, part of the worldwide offensive by Wall Street and its global annexes to absorb the public sphere wherever it exists, reducing humanity to total dependence on the dictatorship of money. In the United States, the finance bourgeoisie’s bacchanal is, like all American politics, organized along racial lines – the perfect, crowd-pleasing cover for the destruction of Black voting rights on a scale not seen since the death of Reconstruction. In place of an already straitjacketed, comprador-dominated home rule, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder governor imposed his own regent in the noxious form of Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr, who was until this year a bankruptcy attorney from the multinational firm Jones Day, which is the mercenary legal arm for much of the Fortune 500, including most of the banks that have conspired to destroy Detroit’s tax base. …
Earlier in the week, Judge Rhodes rejected the NAACP’s challenge to Kevyn Orr’s Emergency Financial Manager powers on the grounds that they unconstitutionally disenfranchise a majority of Michigan’s African American citizens. The judge said the public has a more “substantial interest in the speedy and efficient resolution of a municipal bankruptcy case that affects as many people and institutions, and as much of the local, regional and national economy, as this case does.” He said the NAACP could continue its suit after the bankruptcy is done.
In other words, the people’s right to vote is secondary to working out the financial claims brought by derivatives-wielding bankers. If the people’s franchise stands in the way of the Lords of Capital’s right to “restructure” Detroit to their liking, then the franchise must be rendered inoperative, at least until the spoils have been divvyed up – that is, until all the issues that matter have been made moot.
A great deal has been mooted in Detroit, whose fate will become the model, the legal precedent, for the rest of the country. We are witnessing the death of, not just dreams of urban Black power, but of previous notions of American democracy, itself.
This is my latest column for the print version of CounterPunch, published last month.
I flew into Washington the day the government shut down. I had come back to America to scatter my mother's ashes in the sea. It was her last request: to put her to rest in the Atlantic Ocean, off Myrtle Beach, where she had spent some happy times more than half a century ago.
I made my way to Tennessee, where her ashes were waiting in a black plastic box on the mantlepiece in our family home. All along the line, facilities and services were shutting down from a dispute over a corporate boondoggle -- "Obamacare" -- based on a conservative Republican template drawn up to enrich the rapacious insurance-healthcare complex, whose heavy, grinding gears had harrowed both my sick and aged parents to their graves, one inch from bankruptcy. But now, in the bizarre and ugly weirdness of our failing United States, this plan -- once the farthest feather on the rightest right-wing -- had become a commie monstrosity to be resisted at all costs.
While bullshit ruled the public world, private life -- and private death -- went on. My brother and I, the family's last remnants, set out on the 600-mile journey through the old Confederacy to carry out our filial duties. Beer, whisky, Coca-Cola, BC Powder and beef jerky carried us through Marietta, Atlanta, Lithonia, Augusta, Red Bank, Columbia and finally down the dark, moonless ribbon of Highway 501 to the coast.
Near midnight, we reached the sprawling, garish tourist trap that had grown up where that stunning young woman and her handsome soldier husband had once stolen away from his Army base for quiet seaside weekends. We found the town had been besieged, occupied, overwhelmed by swarms of growling, roaring hogs: it was Biker Week in Myrtle Beach! Up and down and around the streets they rolled, gunning their engines in bravura displays, hour after hour after hour. A motley mix of part-time hobbyists -- pudgy accountants and middle managers, hauling their soft bulk on wide, well-appointed suburban machinery -- and hard-core, black-leathered, tattooed lifers, leaning back on bad-ass Harleys.
Not quite the dignified setting she might have imagined for this last act, but what the hell. "It is what it is," my brother said, as he always says, and we set off for the beach. It was nearly empty in the post-midnight hour. The deep white sand was indirectly lit from the hotels behind, but the sea itself was black, fused with the black sky. The whitecaps seemed to emerge from utter darkness and disappear into it again. The rhythmic roar of the invisible waves filled the air. Only days before, I'd finished a reading novel about the Zen master, Hakuin, and now it suddenly struck me: this is what he was talking about – this is the sound of one hand clapping.
Such exalted thoughts vanished in the bleary morning after. The day of the scattering was at hand. The public world, where normally I spent hours greedily scarfing the news, had shriveled to nothing more than a few headlines glimpsed in a box on the street. The shutdown was still going on, and apocalyptic default was imminent; the entrails of polls were being examined to assess the all-important political ramifications. The Peace Prizer had kidnapped somebody in Libya; one of his hit squads had been chased out of Somalia. The never-ending, all-devouring, pointless, heartless psycho circus rolled on.
We drove down to nearby Murrell's Inlet, where our rented boat awaited. The two-lane road was lined with bars, roadhouses, restaurants, all of them crammed to overflowing with bikers. Cops were out to direct traffic through the metal morass. We finally found the rental place. They brought the boat around. We went three miles out to sea, as the law requires. We did what we came to do. Then we headed back to Tennessee, to clear out and close up the house for good.
In the inevitable self-centeredness of grief, I couldn't help but see it all as the emblem of something larger, the end of an era. My mother was born in the depths of Depression, to a sharecropper who'd been born in the 19th century. She worked the tobacco fields, helped in the hog-killing, wore flour-sack dresses until she was 10. Public schooling, electrification and government work lifted her family up. She got out of the holler -- though not far enough to suit her -- and lived the long, post-war, middle-class life that is now ending, in blood, absurdity and degradation, all around us.
The American Dream, I guess. But we know now its seeming solidity was built on sand -- or ashes. Built on the death and suffering of countless, faceless "others" around the world, and in our own streets. Built on the poisonous myth of "exceptionalism,” the cargo cult of “the market,” and the tragic denial of our commonality.
It didn't have to be that way -- but it is what it is. Her life rose and fell with this historic arc, like a wave going back into the dark. She is free now, drifting on the open sea; where are we?