Chris Hedges “Days of Revolt” [not directly related]: https://vimeo.com/135629801
[Below is a transcript which is about 95% complete and which contains links to some material that is cited in the commentary]
I ended Part 1 by castigating those who seek justice and redress from authorities like the ICC. This is not an era in which forward progress can be made through existing institutions. I am not against meaningful reform but working towards it has now become a form of rear-guard action in a war that the people are losing. Those who wield power in Western societies have become far too good at wielding power. They are not meaningfully opposed or moderated, and that means that they will continue down a path of social destruction, even at their own expense.
If it makes it easier to swallow, the point I am making is actually very closely linked to a point that Chris Hedges has been emphasising in the last few years. Actually it is more than one point, really, because Hedges is promoting revolt and he is saying that this age is one that needs rebels – true dissidents. He is fond of citing Václav Havel and sentiments he conveyed such as this: “The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public, he offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin — and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.” This resonates with the earlier quote from Dr Thiranagama cited in Part 1: “Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and critical, honest positions, is crucial for the community, but is a view that could cost many of us our lives.” Neither sentiment leaves room for sugar-coating the truth or leaving out parts of the truth on the grounds that they are confrontational, or may alienate potential allies. Moreover, they do not allow one to decide that others do not have the intellectual capacity to grasp the whole truth and must be spoon-fed half-truths and white lies calculated to bring support to the cause you think is righteous.
The other key thing about real dissidents is that they don’t think that they can convince the powerful of the error of their ways. It is actually quite disturbing that the voices we hear criticising power are dominated by a privileged tone that projects shared interests and innate benevolence onto people such as Clinton, Obama or Kerry. Whether people overtly state this belief or not, it is inherent in any discussion that suggests that if the powerful could only be brought to see things from our perspective they would end their harmful practices. It is the equivalent of an Auschwitz inmate trying to persuade a guard that the Nuremburg Laws were both immoral and against the interests of Germany. The guard is unlikely to want to hear what you are saying, but if you do manage to persuade them where does that leave you? Or him? It is also a type of fallacy.
To assume that our leaders act with the best intentions is generally treated as being more conservative and intellectually credible than to suggest otherwise. In fact, to do so is to impute motive. It is a bankrupt practice and it is automatically applied selectively in such a way that enemy regimes are assumed to act with ill-intent whilst our leaders are presumed to mean well at least for their own countries if not for humanity as a whole.
The most common argument used to deny that the US has committed genocide is that there was no intention to commit genocide because US leaders have no such intent. Those who use such arguments do not look for evidence of intentionality any more than they would look for evidence of unicorns, because they already know that that evidence doesn’t exist. If you confront them with the fact that there is, say, more evidence of US intent to commit genocide in Cambodia than there is of Khmer Rouge intent to commit genocide, they will be upset because they know that the words and acts that seem to indicate US intentionality are a misrepresentation of the actual inner processes of US officials, but the words and acts that suggest Khmer Rouge intentionality are revelations of their true nature.
In the final analysis, though, whether our leaders are monstrous psychopaths or normal people trapped within a monstrous system is irrelevant. In fact, this is a false dichotomy between agential individuals and mere cogs. Whether or not one considers Western leaders to be demonically evil they must accommodate to the degree to which the regimes in which they function are diseased and criminal. For example, a President of the United States, a US Secretary of Defense and a US Secretary of State must all commit war crimes in order to function within a system that requires it of them. The same can be said of the UK Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Defence. Even should someone in that position have a change of heart, like Robert McNamara did, they could never be trusted to set things right because they cannot help but live in denial. Likewise, as Chris Hedges points out, there is no longer any point in putting faith in individuals or groups to work to reform the regime within its power structure. In a recent talk with Truthdig editor Robert Scheer, Hedges specifically references Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and says: “…we’ve got to stop placing our faith in particular individuals. That’s just not how power responds. Power responds when it feels threatened.”
Hedges points out that working within the system is not an avenue to change, and closing it may seem negative, but it is actually a source of hope. It is unfortunate that it takes severe crisis and dysfunction to bring this point about, but it is only once people stop placing faith in fantasies that they can act in their own interests. We have seen in the US that faith placed in Barack Obama was taken as unconditional, because there were no electoral alternatives for people who aren’t hateful or stupid. Depending on your viewpoint this has either freed or forced Obama into being a tool of elite vested interest while making enough rhetorical obeisance to public will to keep the shabby and translucent façade of democracy from collapsing into a pile of dust. This is why, paradoxically, our political elites would act with more humanity if we treated them as being baby-eating reptilian invaders from outer space because then they would feel constrained not to act like baby-eating reptilian invaders from outer space.
Just as we cannot elevate heroes to effect transformation it is also true that we cannot transform by debasing villains. Modern states with their Inquiries and Commissions and Committee Investigations have developed a huge amount of expertise in channelling justified outrage into ever-decreasing spirals of ever narrower objection. These processes end with the anticlimax of a drivelling pseudo-apology: “We’re sorry because we tried to bring too much freedom to the world and we messed up because we we’re too damned democratic and our vicious free press stabbed us in the back.” The model resembles the appalling Frost-Nixon interviews where David Frost went out of his way to systematically absolve Nixon of every one of his truly momentous crimes. But every porn production must have it’s cumshot, and after hours of this fellatio Nixon ejaculates: “I let the American people down”. And what a powerful confession that was! A little bit like John Wayne Gacy apologising for bringing disrepute to the amateur clown fraternity as if that was his only crime: “I let the clowns of this great land of America down”.
In this vein, when modern Western states do take actions against their own personnel they follow these rules:
- Unless there is an inconvenient senior officer who could do with being taken down a peg, like Janis Karpinsky, ensure that you choose as few people as possible from as low in the hierarchy as possible.
- Decontextualise and minimise the crimes. Maintain above all that they are aberrant isolated acts not linked to anything broader. Their isolation shows that they are the exception that proves the rule of our fundamentally benevolent nature.
- Portray the accused as victims of the brutality generated by the savagery of their victims’ society.
- Give as lenient a judgement as humanly possible.
- Reverse the judgement with a pardon or reduction in sentence as soon as humanly possible.
- Milk the proceedings as much as possible to provide “proof” that yours is a society of laws whilst tacitly or explicitly reiterating that the genesis of the crimes lay in the unwanted contact with the unlawful and brutal society of the victims.
But going back to the shell game of will-they won’t-they criminal proceedings, Israel has this procedure down to a fine art. And like all truly brilliant acts of public diplomacy, this practice exerts a disciplinary influence on both supporters and opponents of Israel’s foreign policy at home and abroad. Israel can keep Palestinian human rights activists running on a treadmill that they can’t justify leaving because there is always hope that a judicial process will provide some small relief from the greater tides of injustice. But it is some time since Israeli courts have done anything significant to constrain the Israeli occupation forces, which includes the courts themselves, and they barely do anything to constrain Israeli settlers either.
There is also a broader problem that is encouraged by Israel or the ICC dangling the prospect of criminal convictions in that it helps obscure the systematic criminality of the occupation. The recent news of the death of 18 month old Ali Dawabsha has highlighted what Ali Abunimah describes as a “hypocritical display… [of] crocodile tears”. By unreserved condemnation of a singular act, Israel’s leaders quite clearly intend to create a false image that acts to obscure the greater systematic violence. The problem is not just that Zionists use this technique, but that anti-Zionists end up being drawn into doing exactly the same thing in slightly different circumstances.
For example, Charlotte Silver of the Electronic Intifada has reported that an Israeli, Lieutenant Colonel Nerya Yeshurun, was recorded ordering the shelling of a medical facility. Of course it must be reported when such evidence comes to light, but this tends to become what I would term “over-proving”. Not only did we already have eyewitness reports from Palestinians and international observers of such crimes, but Israeli personnel had already confessed such actions to Breaking the Silence.
As it stands, it is good that supporters of Palestinian human rights can point to this recording as being symptomatic because it shows that few Israelis consider it wrong to commit war crimes. On the other hand, if the focus becomes pursuing the punishment of Yeshurun on the grounds that he is a blatant war criminal and the prima facie evidence is impossible to ignore, then you get into very bad territory for the cause of Palestine.
Every erg of human energy that activists put into trying to get Yeshurun punished will be worse than a waste. Focussing on the one criminal risks entering an endless spiral of diminishing convolution. It will produce a discourse that combines screeching to the converted with a naïve belief that you can somehow shame your enemies into admitting that they are actually the bad guys. At the same time every bit of focus on Yeshurun’s blatant crime will devalue the clear testimony of Israeli whistle-blowers, of international observers and, above all, the voices of the Palestinian victims themselves. Perhaps even worse it will devalue the shared consensus experience. The media coverage of Operation Protective Edge in many countries was sufficient for most people to see that the narrative construction of a “conflict” is a farce. Despite the unusual number of Israeli casualties, what people saw and felt in their guts was a one-sided slaughter. Yet that comprehension is being eroded by a continuous miscontextualisation and the focus on individual crimes only furthers that diminishment of the greater truth.
And the odd thing is that the gut response of the uneducated layperson is a more sound legal opinion than than the mediated educated opinions of the mealy-mouthed weasels who function as international jurists. As long as Israel maintains its occupation and/or blockade of Gaza they cannot justify their actions under Article 51 of the UN Charter as being self-defence. That is true even if Gazan militants commit war crimes. That means that every single Palestinian killed by Israel outside of Israel’s borders, whether they are an armed militant or not, has been murdered. You can make a very good argument that even Palestinians who are killed inside Israel’s recognised borders are murder victims, because the Palestinians’ actions are still legitimate self-defence. This all means that by selecting certain individuals and prosecuting them you are inevitably suggesting that murder is legitimate if it is carried out in a certain manner, but not legitimate if it is committed while breaking other rules. You can see why I think that this is problematic. I am concentrating on the practical political realities here, but even in sentimental terms what does it mean to go after Yeshurun? What does it mean for the memories of those children murdered at the behest of Israeli officers and politicians who were careful enough not to be recorded ordering personnel to commit obvious war crimes? Where is their “justice”?
The mass murders committed by Israel are also part of a larger process of genocide. As with the Tamils a slow process of genocide will sometimes incline the perpetrators to commit acts of acute mass violence to weaken resistance to ongoing low-grade state violence and structural violence. Some Israelis, with a kind of schizophrenic and unnerving honesty, refer to this as “mowing the lawn”.
There are distinct genocidal similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine, Sri Lankan occupation policies, and US interventions in a number of countries both currently and in the past. However, the real reason that I bring up Israel here is the issue of the ICC, which bears some further attention still.
Earlier I posted a long condemnation of the ICC which was also a condemnation of those who are promoting an ICC investigation into Israel’s most recent crimes. I can’t really summarise the thousands of words I wrote on the issue of the ICC and Israel, but one key relevant point is that the “Rome Statute” states “a case is inadmissible where… [t]he case is being investigated or prosecuted by a State which has jurisdiction over it, unless the State is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution.” Immediately this places jurisdictional decisions in the realms of political judgement which inevitably favours the powerful over the weak. It is worth considering what that actually means in effect. It means that facts will exert one sort of influence in the form of a discourse of ideas and information, and it means that vested power will exert influence by shaping that discourse. If we view such a process as a contest between power and truth, the first thing we must take into account is the impact of “soft-power” on perception. This is used to ensure that public perception of the truth is muddled, uncertain and contested. When the powerful commit mass violence “soft-power” is used to minimise the perception of suffering caused, but the more crucial task is to conceal intentionality.
Once the manipulation of perception creates the widest possible room for debate in public, then in private the hard-power and the covert power are used to bribe, threaten, blackmail, subvert and co-opt both individual persons and institutions up to and including entire countries. Thereafter the powerful can be sure that officials will take the least action possible, which is quite likely to be no action at all. If a country like Sri Lanka or Israel wants to ensure that occurs it may choose to pursue its own prosecutions using the six rules I outlined above which will then enable the ICC to claim that the perpetrator country is rightfully exercising jurisdiction. Naturally this will be lapped up by journalists and bureaucrats alike, who so dearly love the tautological perfection of what is, to them, the best of all possible worlds. They will then convey this unto the public who will be split between the reassured and the nonplussed, whilst independent observers will rage ineffectually about the fact that we are drowning ourselves in our own smug bullshit.
I know that many people on reading this might think that this is all an extremist’s opinion on tactics, but that there are other equally valid opinions. To them, my opinion is likely to be seen as an expression of anti-authoritarian hatred or even the spiteful envy of one who is justly marginalised. But this is not a matter of opinion at all. The historical record is so clear that the only possible way one could advocate ICC involvement is through wilful ignorance to both the ICC’s record and the entire history of prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Equally, to hold that an elite international judicial body will dispense “justice” that is not desirable to US and European imperial interests is almost laughably intellectually lazy. It is not a secret that rising within the hierarchies of international bodies is a highly political process combining both elements of diplomatic horse-trading for some positions with a need for high ambition and the requirement that personnel be the discreet and disciplined insider type. No one in their right mind should think that the selective processes and the situational factors which constrain the behaviour of personnel at the court would ever allow them to become worthy of any level of our trust. In fact they are worthy of contempt and condemnation because, whatever their self-righteous pretensions, they profit in material terms, and gain very high social status, by taking a key role in a monstrous imperial project that has visited mass violence and immiseration through structural violence on hundreds of millions of people.
It is vital that national and international functionaries be forced to confront the injustices that they perpetrate. That is the most important fight in the world today. Part of that fight is the fight to expose the suffering brought about and the fight to humanise victims. The other part, however, is the fight over contextualisation. Contextualisation is the most crucial issue. It is important to a degree that simply cannot be overstated, because miscontextualised human suffering becomes the fuel for ever more massive crimes of mass violence such as aggression and genocide.
Every atrocity that happens in the world today is being interpreted according to an updated version of the ancient chauvinistic binary categorisation of civilisation and barbarity. We are civilised which means that when barbarians kill other barbarians we must kill barbarians to save barbarians from their own barbarity. When we kill barbarians our intent, if not our actions, must be civilised because we are civilised. It can be true of any self-identified group, but it is most acute and most stoutly defended amongst Westerners who have deep reserves of chauvinism – a sense of exceptionalism that is almost impenetrable.
There are so many ideological components to Western chauvinism that it is hard to portray the entire phenomenon accurately. I propose that we think of it in terms of being a complicated, schizophrenic and contradictory form of “white” racism. I am, of course, acutely aware that African Americans, for example, can expound this racism and no one should downplay the fact that Barack Obama embodies this racism. Nevertheless, the concept of an entity called the West arose at the same time as the concept that there were people who were in some manner “white”. In practical terms the two are inextricable because no matter how imprecise our concept of what white people are, and no matter how expansive our notion of the West is, it will always be that of a hegemonically “white” culture. Because Western Europe experienced a technologically and culturally driven explosion of imperialism that saw them impose domination on people who on average were generally darker, sometime pronouncedly so, an idea of whiteness came about, even though it was very arbitrary in terms of actual pigmentation.
Western chauvinism actually came to combine ideas of progress, capitalism, Christianity, atheism, liberalism, democracy, freedom, humanism and humanitarianism among others, but I choose to emphasise racism because it is so easy to see due to the fact that it is literally constructed as a matter of black-and-white. For that reason it becomes possible to see that whenever we essentialise any notion about the West, such as the idea that it has liberal democratic norms, it is actually a dog-whistle racial reference.
To put it in simple terms, Eurocentrism and US exceptionalism are expressions of white supremacy. That means that they inherently propound the inferiority of non-white people. If we claim that the West embodies values or so-called “norms” of, say, “democracy”, we are of necessity saying the inverse of the non-Western world. Not only does this require a completely distorted reading of history, but it is inevitably racist. Because the concept of the West cannot be disentangled from a concept of whiteness, the implications of making such statements are to reinforce notions that white people are civilised and non-white people are barbaric.
Moreover, because of the need to selectively overlook the atrocious violence of Western imperialism, Western chauvinism (or “Eurocentrism”) is inescapably a form of racism that fuels double standards. It fuels doublethink, it fuels cognitive dissonance, it fuels the vicious contradictory fanaticism of the white-hatted mass murderer of indigenous peoples whose only explanation for such brutality is that he must have caught it like a contagion from the unnatural contact with savage peoples. And thus Westerners construct an ideology in which they themselves are the victims of their own acts of mass murder.
The struggle that must be undertaken, therefore, is to counter this massive agglomeration of ideology with the following understanding – the savagery is in the act, not the actor. Yet at every level in every society since the invention of agriculture, the powerful have always tried to ensure that they are not judged by their deeds, but rather by the good intentions that they assure others they have. From the boss of a small business, to the ruler of an empire we are always enjoined to see things from their perspective and to accept a priori their fundamentally benevolent motives.
Continued in Part 3: “Lemkin’s Logic”.