Drone Hypocrisy: The Toxic Self-regard of the 5% and the Dangerous US Constitution Fetish

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Original image:Attribution Some rights reserved by Tjebbe van Tijen / Imaginary Museum Projects (updated by myself)

Many in the US are up in arms over the fact that Eric Holder has not rejected the President’s use of lethal force against US citizens on US soil, but what are the implications of the outrage shown by “progressives” in the US? Why is it so natural for US citizens to privilege themselves and their lives over the lives of others? Where is the shame of those who claim to oppose US militarism but devote their greatest passion and attention to a minuscule or non-existent threat to themselves?

On a personal level, it is sad for me to find people I normally admire among those reacting in shock and horror to the fact that there is a hypothetical outside chance that they may be killed in the same manner that the US employs to kill lesser beings on a regular basis. Sometimes I actually feel betrayed by people from the US, including some I know personally, who reveal that deep down they see foreigners like myself and my family and friends as having lives worth less than theirs. This was how I reacted in a comment when TomDispatch posted an article of this type on their facebook page: “What about all the people outside of the US? Are you all so jaded and selfish and despicable that you only care about whether they can get you when you are drinking coffee in Boston? Why do you have no shame about this? What do you think it looks like for those outside the US to constantly have our noses rubbed into the fact that you think your government that YOU voted for can kill us, but bleat on so much about the fact that they might be able to kill you? At least you can do something about it. Why is it breaking news that Obama (in “extraordinary circumstances”) can kill 5% of the population when 95% can be killed without even being identified personally. Just wiped out like insects, and you endorse that every fucking time you privilege your concern for US citizens over others – and now its US citizens on US soil that are more important than everyone else. This sickens me.”

Of course, the fact that people from the US endorsed my comment made me feel much better about life in general. I am quite happy to view US politicians as evil hell-spawn, but I tend to think that US people, like all people, are basically good. On the other hand, though, that leaves me to explain why some who devote a lot of themselves to opposing US imperial injustices, including drone strikes, should let themselves down so badly. Joining in the hysteria and hype over the Holder letter is unacceptable, and here is why.

First, divide the world into the “5%” (US citizens) and the “95%” (others). We already knew that the baseline of USG policy is that the executive branch can kill whomever it wants, wherever it wants, whenever it wants based on secret applications of secret legal rationalisations using secret evidence. So far the application of this when using UAVs to kill people has seen 5 US citizens killed. In contrast, the figure of 4700 killed in total has been acknowledged by Sen. Lindsay Graham and that must be excluding those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 95% are simply at a far, far higher risk than the 5%. This is acutely so in countries or regions where US destabilisation has destroyed the functioning of governments, or where governments are in some other way unable to protect their citizens from US violence. The figure of those killed on US soil, by the way, is 0. So the actual figures would suggest that Rand Paul’s dramatic image of someone being incinerated by a hellfire missile when drinking a coffee in Boston might be overdrawn. But it is so much worse than that. People in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and an ever increasing number of other places are really being incinerated when they sit down to have coffee with friends. I understand that Paul opposes the killing of those people too, but why bring up the unlikely hypothetical example when the reality is right there?

Attorney General Eric Holder responded to Sen. Paul with a letter. This letter confirms the privilege accorded to the 5%. The US isn’t going to kill people on US soil because “well-established law enforcement” obviates the necessity. One reading of this is that there was no need for White House involvement in Fred Hampton’s killing, or the MOVE bombing, while administration involvement in the Waco siege would now be unnecessary altogether (as with Christopher Dorner’s demise). US law enforcement killed at minimum an average of one person every 15 hours in 2012. Carrying out covert targeted killings in the milieu of such deadly and militarised policing seems far more logical than using drones. In other words, the US can rely on “law enforcement” to kill people when desirable, which also calls into question the point of Rand Paul’s fatuous question. As always, however, the implications are far worse for the 95% than for the 5%, but no US “progressives” seem to care. The 5% talk of the “chilling effect” of various repressive authoritarian government behaviours on their own society, but imagine the chilling effect that this might have on, say, Iceland – a country that recently deported FBI agents. This is a reiteration to the world that non-compliance with US law enforcement in its hunt for political dissidents may cause the US to take unilateral action, possibly lethal, without regard for sovereignty nor for international law.

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A fairly constant theme of the aghast is the horror of an attack on the Constitution. The basis of this, however, is an unhealthy and historically untenable vision of a mythic Constitution carved in granite and handed down from on high through the agency of semi-divine authorities known as “founding fathers”. But the aspects of the US Constitution that we today tend to admire the most came originally from being forced on the Federalists by anti-Federalists and Jeffersonians, while others were amendments added because of the insistence and agitation of the common people. Not only that, but the application of the Constitution to secure actual meaningful rights for the bulk of the people only tends to occur after people toil, fight and often die to secure them. I’m assuming that the progressives I complain of here (who should know better than to echo the sentiments of not one but several Republican Senators) have read A People’s History of the United States, and are familiar with critiques of Hamilton and Madison. And yet, clearly against their own interests, instead of the people actually taking credit for establishing their own human rights and civil rights through their own power and sacrifice, all to often the discourse is of “constitutional rights”.

Once upon a time, the wise men known as the “founding fathers” gave the US a wise Constitution and the wise men of the US Supreme Court are now tasked with the duty of interpreting it according to “founders intent”. Right? Well, the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the constitution was not originally mandated, but is a self-arrogated power. And they are political appointees. And they dress funny. And, though I may be an ignorant foreigner, no one has actually explained to me why there even is such a creature as a “Justice Scalia”, let alone why he is allowed to hold a responsible position. Altogether, this patriarchal myth is a quasi-religious understanding of the US Constitution (meaning the written document and 27 ratified amendments). But the actual constitution of the federal polity known as the United States of America is much more than can be found in such document. It includes, for example, English Common Law traditions. Moreover, I concluded a previous piece touching on this subject with these words:

This fetishisation of the idolised US Constitution is getting old. Besides which, the US Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” (Article 6, Clause 2) actually gives treaties the same status as federal law – which would include the Nuremberg Charter and the UN Charter, among other things. Furthermore, by allowing the issue to be framed in such a manner, psychologically you set yourself and others up for being mollified by cosmetic measures offered to guarantee the rights of US citizens while retaining the right to kill foreigners at will. Do you really believe that being a US citizen or being born in Denver makes someone more human?”

Since writing that I have come to realise that framing the issues as “Constitutional Rights” restricts and controls the discourse in a way that disempowers people considerably. Not only does all of the credit get given to the authority figures, but it emphasises those liberal rights of freedom from state interference over all else. But these were never even intended to be the rights of the poor, nor of women, nor the indigenous people, nor slaves. It is the English Whig tradition which had much to do with protecting privilege in the form of property, and little to do with universal notions of rights despite its pretensions. It would be preferable not to view this issue through the lens of the constitution at all, but rather through the lens of universal human rights. Or even better, targeted killings should be framed as violations of international law or criminal law. You don’t normally have to go to the supreme court to establish that a murder victim had a right to life under the US constitution, but it is accepted that the POTUS can murder whatever foreigner he wants because no one has yet established their constitutional right not to be murdered.

Of course, the Bill of Rights does not say at any stage that it is restricted to US citizens…

“…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….”

ADDENDUM – from a bit later.

I wrote a response to a comment which I feel may be superior to the actual article above. Becuase of this, and since the embedded videos did not come through on the comment, I am reprinting it here:

The inaptness of your analogies reveals the degree to which you are blinded to the reality and the extent to which you will fight to keep your own chains of mental slavery. People in other states do not automatically lack empathy in exactly the manner which you suggest. Distance does lessen empathy, and many other societies also dehumanise poorer peoples, traditional enemies, or those considered inferior due to culture, ethnicity, religion or race. However, the vast disparity in the way life is valued by those in the US, and the overtness of it, and the prominence of its repetition are without contemporary parallels. Chauvinism is a matter of degree, an the US is at the extreme end. It may not be alone in this, but it is alone in marrying this chauvinist patriotism (this exceptionalism) with a virulent militarism; and a military capacity beyond anything known to history; and an imperialist interventionism which brought about many millions of deaths.

To illustrate, let me use your first example of Nigerians and Canadians. If the Nigerian government had an assassination programme killing thousands of Canadians using missiles and refusing to give details of its justifications. A handful of Nigerians on Canadian soil had been killed and though many Nigerians opposed all such killings, much more mainstream public attention is devoted to those handful of Nigerians. The Nigerian victims generate several times more questions in Parliament, and 5- or 10-fold as many mainstream media mentions and editorial condemnations. And then, someone brings up the prospect that the Nigerian government might extend the programme to Nigerians on Nigerian soil. There is no ongoing programme to do so, like the ongoing assassination programme in Canada. There are no plans to do so. And an assassination of this type, using missiles to kill someone in Nigeria would lead to riots and the fall of the government. Yet somehow, in the mainstream discourse, this is what the Nigerians care most about, and even those who oppose the ongoing slaughter of Canadians join them in their cries of horror – because this barely hypothetical possibility, this empty signifier, this big fat nothing of no news at all, is taken as a sign of the dissolution of traditional Nigerian rights. Yeah, the cops can gun Nigerians down in the streets at will, but to kill them the same way you would kill a Canadian – what horror is this!

I’ll tell you how the world would react to this alternative world Nigeria, shall I? Nigeria would be an absolute pariah state. The Nigerian people would be viewed by most of the world with hostility, fear, suspicion and/or disgust. A rare few would pity them. The BBC and Al Jazeera English would compete to see who could make the most smug and pompous documentary about how the Nigerian Dream had turned into a poisonous sludge of fascistic nationalism, narrow-minded ignorance and violent xenophobia. The moderate Nigerians would object that that isn’t the real Nigeria, but the BBC and AJE microphones would be pointed at those other ones – the ones who say that all Canadians should be killed; the one’s who say that if they attack Nigerians again we should nuke them to show we mean business; and the ones who say that Canadians are Gods wrathful vengeance wreaked on Nigeria for straying from the path of righteousness. That is how we would see these Nigerians, even the ones that don’t say the mad things out loud must believe them inside because otherwise why would they continue to support valuing Nigerian lives over those of the victims of their own government. But what the Nigerians don’t understand is that those who are making monsters of them are also making fools of them.

I do not hold US citizens morally culpable for what their government does, nor even for their inhumane form of patriotism. It is the same as with the Germans of the Third Reich. On a purely intellectual level the claims of not knowing the basics of Nazi mass atrocities were untrue. The German people did know that their government was committing mass murder, but they were not the irrational Jew-hating monsters that Daniel Goldhagen would have people believe .They had systematically been indoctrinated and manipulated into a state of moral anaesthesia and psychological denial. Clear signals which should have let the Germans know immediately that their government was irredeemably monstrous were stripped of their real meaning – their ethical and moral significance. A seminal book about the creation of the national German consciousness by the Nazis was called They Thought They Were Free, here’s an extract:

But Then It Was Too Late

“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

Such was the German belief in German freedom, that part of their strategic calculation, and a widely held belief, was that Soviet soldiers would not put up much of a fight because, unlike Germans, they were unfree and thus deprived of initiative and sapped of will. You might well be thinking – ah, but this is exactly why we in the US must guard our constitutional rights, so that we guard our fundamental freedoms. But you are not guarding any real freedoms at all. You are just like those Germans. You have been led and manipulated, through your own excessive pride and self-importance, to fight for the meaningless fetish of a piece of paper while tyranny and rot spread throughout the entire regime from top to bottom. If you want to see the ugly militarist face of Western society, look at the excitement over the technology of death when a new war is launched. But if you want to see why the US slips into a different category, why the US looks more fascist than its allies, look at the celebrations of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Look at last year’s political conventions when if there was the slightest hint of protest or dissent the crowd around the protestor, without external direction, would begin chanting “U S A! U S A!” like hundreds of little kid blocking their ears and going “lalalalala I can’t here you”, but much, much scarier. What would you think if Mexicans started doing that at political rallies? Maybe you think it’s perfectly normal to do that and keep shouting “we’re number one!”, but no one else does it.

So they keep you on this track of patriotic rubbish and actually draw out and amplify the hypocritical and callous aspects of nationalism to make you accept the unacceptable. I have a good historical example, which has some currency at the moment thanks to Ritchie Cunningham. I love Arrested Development and I was brought up firm in the faith of Monty Python. Without David Frost there would never have been a Monty Python, yet I still consider him to be one of the most loathsome creatures ever to have slithered on the face of this Earth. Without Ron Howard there would have been no Arrested Development and though I doubt that Howard is as much of a scumbag as Frost, he nevertheless replicated quite faithfully Frost greatest crime against humanity. In a very famous series of interviews Frost talked to Richard Nixon (and Howard made a movie with the same punchline). Frost let Nixon rewrite history over and over again over many many hours of interviewing. He was not challenged on his crimes against humanity and his war crimes at all, but was able to contextualise all of his actions in his own apologetics without the slightest hint that he was a mass murderer responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Cambodia alone (just the top of a very long list of serious crimes). Towards the end there came a dramatic breakthrough, which to my mind was clearly a pre-ordained and staged breakthrough. Nixon, under suddenly dogged interrogation, finally broke down and admitted to something. Voice utterly laden with sombre reluctance (really very overacted if you actually listen to it critically) Nixon admitted to lying and that he had “let the American people down”. In a horrible way, this was genius propaganda. The people of the US could suddenly feel like they were the real victims.

Well, this sort of propaganda is fundamental to everything now, especially under Obama. Not all of it appeals to pride, vanity, selfishness and fear. The US regime has become very good and harnessing far more positive energies into meaningless empty nonsense or, sometimes, things that are very important on a human level but ultimately pose no challenge to the structural status quo. Among these are greenwashing, gaywashing and femiwashing. These can have real effects on people’s lives, but above all they feed myths of US freedom and a higher level of development.

When you act like your Constitution is some divine idol to be worshipped, one which makes you society superior to those poor benighted nations that do not have this shining fount of justice; and when any of you decides to privilege concern for US life over the life of others; and whenever you have the gall to say that others do the same, you feed the regime that oppresses you. If you are going to be selfish, you might as well be more enlightened about it.

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Argo: Time to Grow Up and Get Angry?

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The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” – Gloria Steinem.

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There have been a number of critical condemnations of the film Argo. The most thoroughgoing that I have read is this one. What seems to me to be missing is any critique that successfully conveys the utter ludicrousness of expecting something other than lying propaganda to come out of a Hollywood film about the CIA in 1979. It is like expecting the Soviets to have made an accurate and unbiased account of KGB activities during the Prague Spring. I saw the preview before the film’s release, and after about 5 or 10 seconds of suspense it became apparent that it was a load of crap – the usual Orientalist stuff, straight out of the Reel Bad Arabs playbook, except with Persians instead of Arabs. The film mirrors the preview – at first it seems possible that one might be about to see a balanced and thoughtful movie, and then… not. Decidedly not.

Let me begin with some historical context. The CIA’s first coup in Iran, considered at the time “its greatest single triumph”,1 brought the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi to a position of supreme power. The CIA “wove itself into Iran’s political culture”.2 They created SAVAK, a notorious “intelligence” agency, trained in torture by the CIA3 and supported by the CIA and DIA in a domestic and international dissident assassination programme.4 Repression was at its peak between 1970 and 1976 resulting in 10,000 deaths.5 By 1976 Amnesty International’s secretary general commented that Iran had “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture that is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record of human rights than Iran.”6

Nafeez Ahmed cites the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) who detail an extensive police state of intense surveillance and informant networks and torture “passed on to it” by US, UK and Israeli intelligence. Ahmed quotes the FAS on methods including “electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.”7 Racism allows commentators such as Tim Weiner to blithely exculpate the CIA of fundamental guilt: “The CIA wanted SAVAK to serve as its eyes and ears against the Soviets. The shah wanted a secret police to protect his power.”8 After all, what could civilised Westerners teach Orientals about torture? But something of the real US attitude to such repression can be seen in the official reaction to the unrest developing in the late 1970s. Aside from US officials consistently urging and praising military responses to protest action, including inevitable massacres,9 the US ambassador objected strongly to a reduction in repression. In June 1978 he reported his finding that, “the Shah’s new directives to his security forces, such as instructions to desist from torture… are disorienting.”10 The funny thing about this was that it occurred after the US had forced the Shah into the liberalisation that set loose the forces that were to rip his régime apart.11 This may seem puzzling, but it made more sense for the US to push Iran into the easily vilified “enemy” hands of an Islamic theocracy than to try to maintain control over a Shah who, however repressive, was determined to develop his populous oil-rich country independently.

That is the key point that you will almost never hear about: the US was sick of the Shah. He had become too nationalistic and developmentally inclined, and they didn’t want him any more. They may not have really wanted a revolution in Iran, but they weren’t going to shed tears over the Shah’s departure. Their main fear was the strength of the secular revolutionary left, which had more popular power than the Islamists (despite SAVAK’s repression) so the US helped nurture the Islamist factions.

The CIA were far from unaware of the impending fall of the Shah’s régime, here is a quote in the film which is an instance of absolute barefaced deception: “Iran is 100% not in a pre-revolutionary state. CIA brief, November first, 1979.” Let’s not be stupid here – it is one thing to claim not to know of an impending revolution, but the film is claiming that the CIA were unaware of a revolution that had already happened. Of course some people in the CIA knew that revolution was brewing and the actual CIA brief was from August 1978 and was plainly dishonest even then. By that stage even the State Department was planning for a post-Shah Iran.12 The revolution had actually happened nearly a year before Argo claims that the CIA believed it wasn’t going to happen (the Shah fled Iran in January, Khomeini returned from exile on February 1). But Argo makers really, really, really want you to “know” that the CIA were caught flat-footed and are willing to go to considerable lengths to make you believe this lie.

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[By XcepticZP at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

There is another deception in the film which indicates a conscious systematic attempt to indoctrinate the audience. Some describe Argo as “well-intentioned but fatally flawed”, but these “good intentions” cannot possibly be reconciled with the disgusting propaganda treatment of the issue of the shredded documents put together by Iran. The documents seized by radicals in the embassy takeover were the Wikileaks of their time. Most seized documents were not shredded and they exposed massive systematic illegality and wrongdoing by US personnel, especially the CIA. They were extremely historically significant. Iran spent years piecing together the shreds and the reconstruction was a major intelligence and propaganda coup. In the film, however, we see a very different narrative played out, and we are shown a set of very different images.

In the film, for some inexplicable reason, there were xeroxed photographic images of the staff who had escaped from the embassy when it was seized by radicals. Could this simply be a cinematic plot device for generating suspense? Not really. Any number of other devices might have been used – such as a dragnet, or informants, or surveillance (mobile or static), signals interception and cryptography. You name it, if you are willing to make stuff up, then there is quite a lot you could make up that would be potentially more suspenseful and, unlike this particular conceit, wouldn’t run such a risk of the audience losing their suspension of disbelief because of such an obvious unrealism.

Realism”, I should add, is a very import aspect of this film. It is not done in a documentary style, but is presented as a dramatisation of historical events. Let me illustrate with a quote at length from Wide Asleep in America:

[Salon’s Andrew] O’Hehir perfectly articulates the film’s true crime, its deliberate exploitation of “its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological.” Not only is it “a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue,” but “[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.”

Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck’s own comments about the film.  In describing “Argo” to Bill O’Reilly, Affleck boasted, “You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it’s a thriller. It’s actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It’s a complicated CIA movie, it’s a political movie. And it’s all true.”  He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he “absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story.”

“It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened,” Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premier, “This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts.”

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, “I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that’s another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible — because I didn’t want it to be used by either side. I didn’t want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them.”

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[Angela George [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

To emphasise this point, the initial part of the end credits juxtaposes images from the film with real documentary images. They show how much the actors look like the people they portray. The show how they had faithfully recreated scenes from the revolution. And they show the teeny tiny hands a the poor slave children forced to piece together shredded CIA documents. Wait a second though… don’t the hands in the real photo, despite severe cropping, look more like a woman’s hands? And why would young children be used to piece together valuable and vulnerable documents written in a language that they could not possibly understand?

For some reason the film makers took it upon themselves to invent a whole bunch of “sweatshop kids” putting together these documents. There is no conceivable reason to do so that does not involve conscious deceptive propaganda. In this case, the intent is to make deliberate emotive subliminal association. What do I mean by subliminal? As Joe Giambrone explains:

The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, wrote in the late 1920s:

The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions.  The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” (Bernays 1928)

Bernays noted the “unconscious” character of much film propaganda.  It was not necessary to directly state messages, but to let the scenarios and the story world carry the messages in the background.  Once immersed in the foreground story — whatever it was — the “unconscious” background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge.

This subliminal quality is praised by Bernays as a positive thing, in his view. This is hardly surprising as Bernays’ concept of propaganda is broad in scope encompassing every medium and method of communication that exists.  Bernays’ seminal book Propaganda begins:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.  We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” (Bernays 1928)”

Subliminality doesn’t mean that images are flashed too quickly to be noticed, rather that associations are made without conscious thought. It is true that you can find a great number of deliberately concealed images in advertising, but the claim that this is all that constitutes subliminal advertising is itself a deception. Advertising, in particular television advertising, is dominated by subliminal messaging, and it is not about tricky concealment. It uses repetition more than anything else, to make associations between advertised products and services with other desires – particularly, but not exclusively, sexual. If you want to sell a car, you don’t generally use brake horsepower or fuel consumption statistics. You associate it with a lifestyle, with attractive people, with status, with sex, with success, with normalcy, with excitement, with fine wine and food, and so forth. That is subliminal.

Obviously when film makers are unconsciously disseminating their own internalised propaganda they convey such messages subliminally. Subliminal means below the threshold, meaning, in this case, below the threshold of consciousness. This is a very, very significant manner in which an orthodox ideology, such as chauvinist US exceptionalism, is deepened and perpetuated. However the deliberate use of techniques designed to manipulate people by subliminal means can be far more powerful still. As an apposite example, let us examine Michelle Obama’s Oscar night appearance. Some have pointed out that Obama being flanked by military personnel as “props” suggests a desire to subliminally associate the First Lady and the presidency with military virtues. That may well be the case, but think how common it is to see faces arrayed behind political speakers in our times. Every time it is possible to do so nowadays, major US politicians will have a bunch of people in uniform behind them when they speak. But it is not strictly about the association with uniforms. Press conferences often pose colleagues behind the speaker – including military briefings almost as a matter of course – and when politicians speak to political rallies or party conferences, they are framed by a sea of supporters’ faces behind them.

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You see, we automatically respond to other people’s facial expressions. In fact eliciting an emotional response is as much a component of facial expression as conveying emotion is, and this occurs subliminally. Now think again of Giambrone’s description: “… the ‘unconscious’ background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge….” The people behind the speaker are being used as a way of evoking an emotional reaction like some science fiction mind control ray. Fortunately, people are fickle creatures and often their reaction to watching the back of a speaker’s head, no matter how eloquent, is to look bored or embarrassed. But clearly the technique is being perfected, and the people chosen are those who can be relied upon to convey the right emotions, hence the predilection for military personnel and partisan enthusiasts.

Similarly, subliminal messaging in advertising and film is often also aimed at a gut level. They are not conveying particular ideas, but emotions. The victim (I mean viewer) can rationalise these emotions any way they might later choose, and the brilliance of the system is that it enlists every victim’s own inventiveness tailored in response to each specific circumstance that might challenge or belie the conditioned sentimental sense of reality. So where does this leave us with regards to Argo‘s mythical “sweatshop kids”? We have precisely four references to them. The first is in our hero’s initial briefing: “The bastards are using these [pause and do gesture to indicate need to convey novel concept] mmm sweatshop kids.” Nearly an hour later, we are shown about 5 seconds of the “sweatshop”. It actually looks very stupid if you pay attention to it, but it is over too quickly to register (more subliminality similar to that used in The Hurt Locker). What it actually shows, when the camera pulls back to reveal the scene for around one second, is dozens of children aged about five to eight sitting amidst piles of paper shreds. There is an unnatural hush, redolent with a sense of fear. Half of them are just staring into space, and there is no conceivable way that any of them could actually be doing any useful work. Accompanying the scene is one of the 16 tracks on the official soundtrack. It is called “Sweatshop” and here it is:

Note the image chosen for the album cover.

The third sweatshop scene is also brief. A boy succeeds in producing a usable image. The image is taken without thanks or reward. Then there is a cut to a particularly young and vulnerable looking child. His expression is not inconsistent with a look of anxiety. He looks to the side, as if watching the successfully reconstructed image being taken. But there is only the merest hint of curiosity or concern as his head turns back and down almost immediately, as if returning to work. This is the culmination of this sweatshop depictions.

Inevitably now you feel a queasiness and a sense of concealed horror. The coda to this, the fourth reference, is the already mentioned juxtaposition of the film scene with the documentary photo. Just to tidy away any niggling sense that the film makers might be playing you like an idiot violin.

So why the “sweatshop kids”? As I’ve mentioned the whole pictures-from-shredded-mugshots scenario is a bit too cheesy and overtly Hollywood to make great suspense. It is true that the film has some other rather implausible nail-biting parts, but these are all last minute glitches. The sweatshop storyline carries on throughout most of the movie. And there is no need at all, other than propaganda, to just decide that it should be a bunch of oppressed kids who are doing the work of putting together paper shreds. Not only is it a very silly idea – risking the onset of disbelief – but it actually destroys the main potential for suspense. Engaged adults committed to reconstructing pictures because they actively wish to apprehend the fugitives are inherently far more suspenseful than a bunch of sullen, frightened and apathetic children forced to reconstruct documents without any understanding of why they must do so.

The answer to why this is done is that one of the purposes of this film is to transform, disrupt or destroy certain “memes”. I’m quite serious in writing that. “Meme” might be a buzzword (so to speak), or even worse, yesterday’s buzzword, but it is a very appropriate word to use for those quanta of information that convey a “truth”. In particular, and far more to the point, a “meme” can belie an entire orthodox discourse. The Iranian revolution created many such memes, their power being almost entire due to the fact that they ran counter to the established official discourse. In many instances, not least those coming out of the hostage taking at the embassy, one might see young impassioned revolutionaries animated by a desire for justice and freedom who gave of themselves bravely, sacrificing without hesitation. To present that as being all there was to the story would be ludicrous. One cannot, and should not, ignore the violence and excesses of revolution whether their source is secular or religious in its expression. But to erase it altogether is equally wrong, but hardly surprising on the US part.

A proper narrative of the hostage crisis in Tehran would juxtapose the aspirations of brave, intelligent, dedicated, moral revolutionaries; the vicious excesses of revolutionary violence; the repressive nature of Shah’s régime; the repression of the revolution and the republican régime; the role of the US and the ongoing role of the CIA operating out of the Tehran embassy; the suffering and ill-treatment of the hostages in a 444 day ordeal. But that sort of narrative is balanced. It does two unwelcome things – it humanises Iranians as victims of the US régime; and it indicts the régimes of the Shah; the US, and the Islamic Republic, but not the peoples of the US or Iran. Another undesirable thing is that the idea that a CIA officer could be a hero is risible. Indeed, without trying to sound too anarchistic here, a balanced view of what the history tells us with regard to the actions of individuals is that when they act out of individual conscience they may be “heroic”, but when they act under orders as agents of régimes they will almost always be either victims or “villains” or both. So, for example, Lt. Calley and Capt. Medina were ordered to “kill anything that moves” at My Lai; but W.O. Hugh Thompson who risked his own life, the lives of his men, and threatened to kill his compatriots in order to bring that same slaughter to an end, did so because of his own sense of humanity, not from orders, or duty, or military indoctrination. Indeed, the history of Iran-US relations going back to 1953 can be seen as two peoples who share exactly the same two enemies – their own and the other’s state régimes which would have them slaughter each other. As with the trenches of the Western Front in WWI, the revelation of common humanity and circumstance is a serious threat to the “fighting spirit” required to achieve the geostrategic goals of the ruling class. In the trenches, among the troops of WWI, demonisation and atrocity propaganda were common techniques to combat the threat of “live and let live”.13 Image

The point is to ensure that people don’t start seeing anything admirable in Iran’s revolutionaries, nor see them as potential agents of their own liberation. The US will bring them “democracy” in its own time. In the lens through which the West is meant to view the lesser beings of the East – Persians (like Filipinos) are “half devil and half child”, or maybe about four-fifths devil in this instance. The point is this, the US did a bad thing by overthrowing Mossadeq – that is the official reality, complete with official apology (unlike all of the other places where the US has overthrown the rightful government). However, the way they are constructing the meaning of this fact echoes Colin Powell’s “pottery barn rule” – you know, the one that says that if you illegally invade a country you are morally obligated to occupy it for years, steal billions from its people, kill hundreds of thousands, rewrite its constitution to your own liking; and so forth. I think you get the picture. The admission of guilt in the Mossadeq overthrow is being rewritten as license, nay duty, to deal with the consequences (the repressive régime of the Islamic Republic) while the Iranian people are necessarily recast as the monstrous creations of US intervention who can only be redeemed by further US intervention – 80% devil, 20% child (the approved portions for victims of Islamofascism).Image

The shredded documents are of central importance. The makers of Argo went to extraordinary lengths to subliminally create negative associations with the issue, though not that issue alone. The entirety of the Iranian revolution is sullied, not by the association of revolutionaries with the suffering brought about by the revolution in reality, but by filthying the very characters of the participants in the same way that the orators of Occupy Wall Street movement are smeared with ordure and disfigured (figuratively) in The Dark Knight Rises. Not only was this a serious undertaking, but it was a risky one too. If someone of prominence had, in timely fashion, started pulling at the “sweatshop kids” thread they could might have caused considerable unravelling long before Oscar time. I cannot help but think of Glenn Greenwald. But Greenwald, like many other astute political critics, has been so busy critiqueing the even more repugnant CIA propaganda of the year, that it is only now after Argo has won best picture that people are posting trenchant, but comparatively simple posts criticising Argo‘s historical inaccuracy, racist monolithic depictions of fanatical Iranians, and CIA/US boosterism. Image

In a sane world, the Hollywood critics would have so totally panned Zero Dark Thirty that it was never an Oscar contender, nor seen as anything but a prurient sadistic flick for maladjusted teenagers – the contemporary equivalent of another ambivalent CIA assassination/torture propaganda flick from the previous millenium, The Evil Men Do (the difference being that while Charles Bronson was known to some as “Mr Monkey Scrotum Features”, director Kathryn Bigelow more subtly manages to place the ugliness inside of her characters, like cancerous pus that oozes just below the surface).

In a sane world? One cogent blogger writes: “What if instead of making a movie about the hostage situation and replaying the same narrative of victim Americans, villain Iranians, Ben Affleck made a movie about the 1953 coup? What if someone made a movie about the CIA teaching the Iranian intelligence agency torture methods copied from the Nazis? What if we gave a little bit more background before jumping to make labels of good guy and bad guy?” But is the audience living in a sane world?

In a sane world the audience would never accept such a portrayal of the CIA. It might be possible to have a CIA hero, if, and only if, s/he was just doing a job in an Agency context of, in film terms, rampant evil villainy. I do hate to break it to everyone, but in cinema conventions the scheming, murdering, corrupt torturers are supposed to be the “bad guys”. At best, people should perceive the idea of CIA heroes as a bit off and uncomfortable, if not disgusting or simply comical. The irony is that the hostage crisis occurred in the middle of a period when no one would have dared make a film with a CIA officer as hero unless they were a renegade being persecuted by the agency (or unless it was some violent b-grade right-wing action film starring Charles Bronson). I am not merely referring to a matter of taste here. There is something utterly basic at issue as well. Something so fundamental that it strikes at the roots of the entire film, making a nonsense of everything that is projected on to the screen.

In a sane world the central premise that the CIA was animated by a concern for the preservation of the lives of 6 human beings, just because they were US citizens and innocent of wrongdoing, would be widely and immediately apparent as utter unadulterated nonsense. In 1979 many people were aware, and they seem to have since forgotten, that the CIA was happy enough to kill innocent US citizens themselves when it seemed expedient. Unknown numbers of deaths were brought about by the reckless drug experiments undertaken on thousands of unwitting victims. As investigations such as those of the “Church Committee” showed the CIA’s lack of concern for their victims’ safety alone established that these innocent US citizens were as disposable to the CIA as toilet paper. Enough people would have known this that no such movie as Argo could have been a large mainstream Hollywood hit without it raising serious questions about what exactly the CIA’s real motives were.

What were the CIA’s real motives? Let me begin by saying that I can understand why the fugitive diplomats would have feared for their lives at the hands of the Iranian government. I understand why Western diplomats such as the Canadians and the gratuitously maligned UK and New Zealand diplomats took steps to help them evade capture and escape. Nevertheless, in the cold light of day and historical retrospect, the greatest risk to the lives of the fugitives was from the CIA, not the Iranian régime. The film as much as gives that away at one point when a CIA character says: “Six Americans get pulled out of a Canadian diplomat’s house and executed it’s a world outrage. Six Americans get caught playing movie make-believe with the CIA at the airport and executed, it’s a national embarrassment.” The audience doesn’t see a problem with that, because they are preconditioned to expect that the “Mad Mullahs” will gladly cause “world outrage” because they froth at the mouth and hate everyone and everything Western, and because the film keeps telling us that they will execute them publicly and juxtaposing such claims with grotesque imagery based on real executions.

Let us take a step back from our conditioning here and remember that:

  1. contrary to the depiction of the film (which would have us believe that the embassy was stormed three days after the CIA reported no sign of “pre-revolutionary” activity) the revolutionary régime had been in power for over 9 months – long enough to stop screaming fanatical slogans and spraying spittle everywhere; and long enough to develop a degree of concern about international perceptions and diplomacy.
  2. One very central point about the hostage crisis which is omitted is the shady US role in its origins. Even if one dismisses some things as conspiracy nonsense, the perfectly well established and uncontroversial facts of the “October Surprise” conspiracy were also omitted from Argo. They were omitted because they would show that the US establishment tended to see the hostages as disposable pawns
  3. If the “mad mullahs” really were so determined to do public beheadings of US citizens as Argo claims, they had reasonably easy access to 52 others, some of whom they could very credibly have tried for spying and for committing other crimes in Iran.
  4. Another point about the hostage crisis, so crucial and central to the history that it absolutely had to be obscured, is that the Iranian régime was making a show of being at arm’s length from the actions of the kidnappers. You see they had learnt a thing or two from being at the receiving end of the CIA’s dirty tricks – (im)plausible denial being one of them.
  5. The US discourse around these events was ripe, it was fecund, it was completely laden with what I call “stuff”. The blindfolded hostages. The young radicals. The red headbands. The yellow ribbons. The counting of the days. And above it all the stern visage of the Grand Ayatollah (Big Brother) Khomeini.
    Image

[By Mr.minoque (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Tropes were flying through the air thick and fast, attaching themselves to memes with such violence that if you weren’t careful you could lose an eye. The resulting one-eyed narrative is positively mythic in quality.

The mythic narrative (where everything was larger than life) was a propaganda coup for the US régime, particularly for the CIA, who had been having a hard time of it since 1974 and weren’t exactly anyone’s favourite people, as has already been mentioned. The US government got to pull its “helpless giant” act – always a favourite, particularly to distract from dirty hands. The CIA and their Hawk allies were able to use the whole thing as leverage against Carter and do their bit to get him replaced by Reagan (that was the essence of the aforementioned “October surprise”).

Taking all of this into account, we can conclude that if the Iranian régime had gotten hold of the fugitives, then they might have simply put them with the other hostages, but that would have spoilt the pretence of the independence of the kidnappers. They might have killed them, furthering their international pariah status. Or, they might have done the thing that posed the greatest threat to the CIA. They might have protected them from those whom they would explain as being regrettably but understandably over-enthusiastic young revolutionaries. They might have interrogated them to check that they weren’t spies (for form’s sake), and then given them a nice escort to the airport for a civilised journey home as seen on TV by the entire globe. Having done that, the Iranian régime would suddenly look more reasonable, especially to non-aligned countries, and a little bit of a crack would appear in the US demonisation discourse. A crucial crack, because although the Iranian régime would remain brutally repressive to its own people, it would be plainly apparent that it was actually rational and subject to appeals other than brute force.

So you tell me: Is it more realistic that the CIA, an organisation that had shown itself in no uncertain terms to be both brutal and callous, would care deeply for the lives of 6 citizens? Or would they care more about geopolitical manoeuvres and the domestic political game against Carter? We need to get back to where we were in 1979 with regards to what was considered credible in film. In their own way of distorting history and privileging US personnel’s suffering over that inflicted by US personnel, films of the time like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now were bad enough, but Argo would not have been seen as a serious film in 1979. 1979 was more than 10 years after Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner had taken a postmodern pickaxe to the serious dramatic pretensions of spy adventures. In 1979, the small screen saw Alec Guiness playing George Smiley in an adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that was at least as grim and disillusioned and unheroic as the more recent film adaptation, while on the big screen Roger Moore’s James Bond saved the word from evil space shuttle hijackers in Moonraker (featuring that guy with steel teeth!). There was no in-between. That should tell you all you need to know.

Conclusion – Get Angry

In Sheldon Wolin’s conception of “inverted totalitarianism” one of the few differences between US totalitarianism and Fascist or Communist totalitarianism is that under Fascist corporatism or Communism the state exerts a central control over corporations and in inverted totalitarianism that arrangement is, umm, inverted. I’m always a bit sceptical about the use of the word totalitarian. It functions better, to my mind, at highlighting a tendency rather than being used as some absolute characterisation. But Wolin’s usage can easily accommodate this, and he is absolutely correct in characterising the locus of state power in US society. (Some people might pick a fight with him over the locus of power in Fascist and Nazi societies, but there are two sides to that argument.) The point is, however, that restricting our understanding of what constitutes the “state” in the US to government only and not including corporate power is foolish and untenable.

Hollywood produces state propaganda not because Karl Rove tells them to – he just gives them some suggestions and they are happy to oblige. Hollywood produces state propaganda because Hollywood is part of the state, a big and important part of the state. As I have written elsewhere, the corporatist powers of the US régime form an “empire complex”, a team that might squabble, but pulls in the same direction. Newscorp stands shoulder to shoulder with the DoD, Goldman Sachs walks arm in arm with the Dept. of Treasury, while the FDA seems little more than a deformed growth and mildly irritating growth on Monsanto’s back. You get the picture anyway. The non-governmental “stakeholders” of the imperial state are more numerous and often bigger than the biggest governmental peers. This is state propaganda – straight from the politburo with the rubber stamp of approval as state propaganda given by the people who made the film in the first place, because they are part of the politburo.

So we must stop catering to those who claim that Ben Affleck means well, or that Hollywood liberals are not jingoistic right-wing scumbags, or that the CIA was ever anything but rotten at the core. Mark Ames writes a fantastic retrospective on some of the unsavoury violence of the CIA. The only time they ever had real limitations put on them was during the administration of this guy called Jimmy Carter:

As everyone knows, Carter’s presidency was one long bummer. But what most people don’t know — or have forgotten — is that Carter did more than any president to bring the national security state under control. Especially the CIA, which Carter gutted, purged, and chained down with a whole set of policies and guidelines meant to protect American citizens’ civil liberties.

In his first year in office, Carter purged nearly 20% of the Agency’s 4500 employees, gutting the ranks of clandestine operatives, sending hundreds of dirty trickster vets into the private sector to seethe for the next few years. Carter signed an executive order worked out with Frank Church and the Senate committee on intelligence putting more serious limits on the CIA’s powers — unequivocally banning assassinations, restricting the CIA’s ability to spy domestically, and putting their covert operations under strict oversight under the president, Congressional committees and the attorney general. The CIA’s paramilitary was even disbanded, though not banned.

What happened to Carter, according to former US, Iranian, Israeli and Russian officials, is that there was this, like, hostage crisis thing, right? It was in Tehran in Iran, OK? Maybe you’ve heard of it? Anyway, this guy who worked for the CIA, called George H. W. Bush, went to Paris in October of 1980 to make deal with Iranian officials to delay reaching a deal with the US on releasing the hostages because any such deal might have gained Carter some votes. It worked. Carter was voted out. The CIA found new funds, new respectability, new drugs and arms to sell, new torturers and death squads to train, and new lies to tell. Yay.

And then liberal Ben Affleck and liberal George Clooney made a movie about what great guys the CIA are. How should we act when the wilfully blind watch this smug flag-waving offensive propaganda and tell us that we’re being unfair and political to criticise it? Do we go on the defensive? “Yes, but Edward Said wrote…”; “It is entertainment, but…”; “Yes, but when you analyse the protrayal of the Islamic male…”? Or do we show them our anger, our distaste, and our disdain? Why the hell should we be apologising for just pointing out basic known facts that people like to forget as much as possible? They’re the CIA. They are murderers. They were murderers. That is the reality. Grow up. Santa Claus does not exist, and if there is any such thing as a “hero” in real life then, by definition, they aren’t loyal CIA officers. Grow up.

Get angry.

1Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, London: Penguin, 2007, p 105.

2Ibid.

3William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (2nd ed.), Monroe:

Common Courage Press, 2004, p 72.

4Roger Morris, “The Undertaker’s Tally (Part 1): Sharp Elbows,” TomDispatch, 1 February 2007. Retrieved 2

February 2007 from http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=165669.

5 Frederick H. Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States: From Counterinsurgency to the War on Terror,Atlanta and London: Clarity Press and Zed Books, 2004, p 172.

6 Blum, Killing Hope, p 72.

7 Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Behind the War on Terror: Western Secret Strategy and the Struggle for Iraq,

Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2003, pp 38-9.

8 Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes, p 105.

9 Ahmed, Behind the War on Terror, pp 43-5.

10 Ibid.

11 Amin Saikal, Islam and the West: Conflict or Cooperation, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, p 73.

12 Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran. New York: Penguin Books, 1986, p 98.

13 Eric J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1979, p 107; J.G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p 17.