People should have known they were being played for fools when Cameron said “the British people have made a very clear decision….” In reality, under 52% of Britons voted to leave the EU in a non-binding referendum. Think about that, because apparently nobody has in these last 5-and-a-bit months. Less than 52% voted to leave and they only represent 37% of the total electorate because 13 million people did not vote at all. There was only a 72% turn-out and roughly half voted on each side.
So why are people like Cameron and Theresa May so adamant that “Brexit means Brexit”? Why is it only now that the High Court has reminded people that the UK constitution ensures, as lawyers have said all along, that parliament has the final say? Why is a government that largely wanted to remain in the EU putting on this ludicrous show of suddenly needing to uphold the will of the people? Is anyone stupid enough to believe that they care about the will of the people? They refused to allow Boaty McBoatface because of the extreme gravity of naming a ship, but they are honour-bound to redefine international and domestic relation drastically because of a small margin in a non-binding referendum? I do not think so.
17 of the 23 members in the current UK government campaigned to remain in the EU and yet now they are staging a farcical spectacle of girding their loins to fight valiantly for something they don’t want. Brexit Secretary David Davis even upped the hyperbole stakes by claiming that the leave voters had given the government the “biggest mandate in history”. Meanwhile, the most Brexity person in the UK cabinet is the outwardly oafish Boris Johnson, who recently claimed that Brexit will be a “Titanic success”. The obvious thing for people to do is feel good because the buffoon man said something dumb and it feels great to be superior to the idiot toff. But this is a guy who won a scholarship to Eton, won prizes there for English and Classics, and went on to become President of the Oxford Union. Maybe it is a blunder or maybe a Freudian slip, but we must always consider that it could be a witticism. Regardless, he is giving people what they want to see, and every time you laugh at him he is laughing twice as hard back at you. Every time you misunderestimate him, it feeds his contemptuous sense of superiority and power. But I digress….
Some in the government may be genuinely in favour of leaving, but if you think you know what lies in the hearts of people like Boris Johnson then you are fooling yourself. Collectively it should be clear that the exaggerated and silly pantomime currently being played out by the government is little more than B’rer Rabbit theatre meant to bamboozle B’rer Pleb (the public) that they are working incredibly hard and desperately want to get out of that nasty European briar patch. Ohhh, the pain of being held back by that sticky tar constitution and some nasty judges! What can B’rer B’rexit do against secretly European judges, one of whom is an “openly gay ex-Olympic fencer”?
So what is it all about then? Part of it, at least, is that the art of Western politics has now largely become the art of convincing people to be grateful and relieved to have their face stamped on by a boot covered in dog shit, or to blame themselves if they end up having their face stamped on by a boot covered in cat shit. This is also the essence of the current election campaign in the USA. Stupidity, greed, hatred, parochialism, ignorance, self-righteousness and, most importantly, fear are being harnessed to make people feel that Clinton’s presidency will be a lucky and narrow escape. Trump does a very good job of giving substance to those feelings. Alternatively if he does end up as President the blame, like that for Brexit, will be left firmly on the shoulders of the ordinary people. As with Brexit and the Colombian civil war referendum some elites will quietly but pointedly indicate that this demonstrates the dangers of democracy.
The UK has been offered two highly repugnant options by it rulers. One is a self-destructive Brexit that is already causing economic disruption, not to mention making the UK a laughing stock and further fueling Scottish secessionism. The other is a Bremain that means people have no right to complain unless they are xenophobes or take the David Cameron position of claiming (like a posh Trump) that the deal is bad and pledging to send the best negotiators to get the best deal out of those cunning foreigners with their greasy unboiled non-Anglo-Saxon ways. Never mind the actual substantive reasons to hate the EU: the inescapable neoliberalism wracking the poor and vulnerable and creating inequality and disastrous social exclusion. Never mind the gulf between the European Commission and the democratic voice of the peoples of Europe. Never mind the clear sentiment against neoliberal “norms” that are embedded in EU governance. Those things only matter to agitators and uppity proles. Real politics is the art of the possible and from an elite perspective the only thing possible is a finance-friendly fiscally-responsible slow painful descent into a new dark age. The elite conversation is dominated by the excuse that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, as evinced by this charming person who reviewed Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake:
Underwhelmed by I, Daniel Blake. Preachy and poorly made. A povvo safari for middle class people. REVIEW https://t.co/pZiVxnfSS9
A proper Brexit would have been a reclamation of popular sovereignty. It would have been an ultimatum to Brussels emanating from the grass roots: we will no longer comply with these unjust impositions, if you don’t like it then you can do the Brexit. I am being a little ridiculous, of course, because before they can reclaim democracy from Brussels, the UK people would have to reclaim it from the City of London. The obvious answer to this and other impediments that make a left-wing Brexit a current impossibility, is to remain, at least for the time being, and trying to work in solidarity with other Europeans to reform the EU, to make it democratic and to cleanse it of neoliberalism.
Wait a sec…
That sounds familiar.
I remember now! Yanis Varoufakis launched a European democracy movement just this year, but it was soon overwhelmed by the screaming and shouting over Brexit. Whether you think that Varoufakis has the answers or not, he is at least addressing the problem. Yet no possible solutions to real problems can even be heard over the insincere bellowing of scumbags who want to make people choose between gouging out their own eyes and injecting themselves with syphilis.
The latest episode of Westworld had a quote that, although aimed at the ultraviolence on our screens, also works for the political discourse in this well-spun world in which we live: “They create an urgency and a sense of danger so they can strip us down to something raw, animalistic, primal.”
So now we know. Brexit does not mean Brexit, and Project Fear did not die with the referendum. It may not have the same claims of immanent nuclear annihilation, but it is a nagging fear, and the urgency they build is now to end the suspense. Get it over with. That is the point of this current Brexit kerfuffle and drama. With neologisms like “remoaners”, “regrexit” creating a rising tide of twaddle all around, people have rather unsurprisingly started to shuffle back into the remain camp. Polls suggest now that 51% want to remain. The most surprising thing to me is that it has taken so long and shifted so little. Between the polls and the reminder that it was always going to be decided in Parliament, Theresa May and her Voltairesque high-principled crew will now be able to defend “democracy” with every ounce of their vocal chords until they are pulled kicking and screaming back to where most of them campaigned to be.
From the beginning, we knew that this election would never happen. An election of representatives for any office involves the belief that they will represent the electorate. In the past, this system has been imperfect and undemocratic, but developing tools of mass persuasion have taken voting societies further and further away from democracy. In 2016 USA things have reached the logical conclusion wherein the public acts of voting are no longer related to a real act of election by an actual electorate.
I take my title and opening line from Jean Baudrillard who claimed the 1991 “Gulf War” was a literal “non-event”. The USA has now become the Disney version of 1984 and it seems right to draw on Baudrillard’s superposition of Disneyland fakery and the all-too-real atrocities that happened in Iraq and Kuwait. However, though Baudrillard leaves room for anger and anguish at the human suffering from the non-event, he indulges the avoidance of naming the real that hides behind the “hyperreal”. The non-event is an extension of the control of language in what Orwell described as “the defence of the indefensible”. Baudrillard was in some ways determined never to look behind the façade, and the non-event of this fake election of dead politics hides a real dynamic of empire which ordinary people would never countenance if it were shown to them as it truly is. I want to go beyond performing the autopsy of US politics, and find the events that do still take place, the ones that polite people don’t like to talk about.
The time also seems right to revisit some lines in a Yeats poem that was written in 1919: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It describes people yearning for a “Second Coming”, and ends prophetically, on the dawn of Fascism and Nazism, with the lines:
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
We have entered a fact-free zone. Sometimes it seems that the truth has entered a state of quantum indeterminacy where two contradictory things are simultaneously true until the waveform is collapsed by observations by political pollsters. For example, when the Clinton camp attributed their candidate’s 9/11 collapse to overheating, differing journalists and commentators simultaneously reported a that it was an unusually hot day or an unusually cold day. Another instance can be seen in these headlines from editions of the Wall St. Journal:
A lot of amazing things are happening in “journalism” these days. Here’s one that still has me floored. pic.twitter.com/1nN309ZFvp
Events wildly plot a drunken careering narrative and each potential voter is forced into more and more speculative interpretation of what those events actually signify. People want to vote for a candidate according to their interests and principles, but those who still believe with “passionate intensity” that they can do so by voting for Trump or Clinton are dangerously deluded. As everything else about the year 2016 becomes muddier and weirder with each passing day, the only thing that is becoming more clear at every moment is that the 2016 election will not take place.
The Stinking Corpse of Democracy
From January to March 1991 the post-modernist Jean Baudrillard published 3 articles: “The Gulf War will not take place”; “The Gulf War is not really taking place?” and “The Gulf War did not take place”. Baudrillard was describing the war as a hyperreal simulation of something that has no origin in reality. “Hyperreal” refers to a situation where a simulation of a possible reality is indistinguishable from reality and is thus a type of reality itself. What happened in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 was not war, however it was made into a simulation of war and it was experienced as being war by those watching it on CNN.
“This is why the Gulf War will not take place. It is neither reassuring nor comforting that it has become bogged in interminable suspense. In this sense, the gravity of the non-event in the Gulf is even greater than the event of war: it corresponds to the highly toxic period which affects a rotting corpse and which can cause nausea and powerless stupor.”
Baudrillard put the basic case most succinctly when he wrote: “Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed. We will never know what an Iraqi taking part with a chance of fighting would have been like. We will never know what an American taking part with a chance of being beaten would have been like.”
The Baudrillard articles drew attention to something important (the fact that there was no war) but they also drew attention away from the fact that the “Gulf War” was an act of genocide; a very concrete, banal and definitely not at all “hyperreal” act of co-ordinated mass violence and destruction aimed at the nation and the people of Iraq. Baudrillard may have missed the mark on the Iraq War, but his remarks could be very fittingly adapted to 2016. To paraphrase: “…here comes the dead election and the necessity of dealing with this decomposing corpse which nobody from Washington DC has managed to revive. Trump and Clinton are fighting over the corpse of an election.”
Let me be clear, the people of the US have not lost democracy. They never had it. No modern countries are democracies. In countries with elections undemocratic power is given to numerous people, some of whom are elected. The theory is that by vesting the highest authority in officials who are elected, this will create an electoral process of candidates who seek and receive a mandate. Thus, by acting as a mandated elected official even though the power of the office may be undemocratic, this will bring about democratic governance. This is all jolly good, except that it doesn’t work. Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page made news a couple of years ago by releasing a study in 2014. While they acknowledge that having free speech is an important democratic institution, in policy terms: “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
One writer called the Page and Gillens paper “the ‘Duh’ report” because anyone paying attention should have already known the truth. It roughly confirms what C. Wright Mills had diagnosed nearly 60 years earlier in his book The Power Elite, which showed the oligarchic nature of US political governance. The US has long had issues of plutocratic corruption intervening in government but the 20th century saw a change from influencing government against the wishes of the electorate to consciously shaping the electorate in order to “engineer the consent” of the governed. Democracy had always been a unrealised promise in the US, shoehorned uncomfortably into the Constitution by anti-Federalists against the wishes of Federalists (like the puzzlingly celebrated Alexander Hamilton). The promise of democracy died with the advent of the Commission on Public Information in 1917 which began an era of “guided democracy” in the US. Oligarchs and bureaucrats turned their minds towards shaping and controlling public opinion while plutocrats still tried to ensure that governance was not overly influenced against the interests of capital by this already mediated public opinion.
We take it all for granted now, but suddenly many different entities wanted to adopt the purposes that had previously been those of politicians, impressarios and snake-oil salesmen. The FBI published heroic literature about “g-men”, and black propaganda smearing Black Power and left-wing movements. The CIA, still one of the biggest publishers in the world, promoted jazz, abstract art and the right sort of academic work. They established themselves in every major news media organ in the “free” world. Hollywood established a close working relationship with different parts of the US government, becoming a willing source of propaganda, and largely integrated into the military-industrial complex (through both ownership and the close working relationship with the Pentagon and CIA). Advertising agencies, over and above the immediate purpose of selling, were slavishly loyal promoters of “free enterprise”, the “American dream”, consumerism, and the values of gendered racialised class hierarchy. For evidence you need look no further than this extraordinary (and ballsy) meta-propaganda about advertising:
Throughout the 20th century, governance in the US also became ever more technocratic and removed from public sight at the same time as the more overt part of governance (elected administrations and legislators) became subject to ever more inescapable and sophisticated perception management. It is difficult to see past the projected self-image of the US as the sort of country that has a minimal government (even to the point of neglecting the vulnerable and allowing infrastructure to crumble) but the truth is that the US has a vast state sector. Combining all levels of government it spent $6.134 trillion in 2010. This is many times higher than China which seems to be a distant second in terms of state sector expenditure.
The machinery of government in the US is enormous and has a Byzantine bureaucratic complexity of overlapping jurisdictions. The documentary above gave an image of a society of free agents with a welfare oriented government. In reality under neoliberalism government, using the pretext of shrinking itself, reallocates resources to state coercion: military, intelligence, police and incarceration. What welfare remains becomes a tool of state control under an ideology that criminalises or pathologises neediness of any form. If you have no home, for example, the state feels it can dictate behavioural and moral codes that are the absolute antithesis of the proclaimed “liberty” that is considered the norm of society.
Meanwhile, the US government at various levels has control of the greatest machinery of state violence and oppression that has ever existed. Some people refer to these capabilities as a “turnkey tyranny” (the phrase existed long before Edward Snowden’s usage) but that creates the unfortunate sense that the entire apparatus is currently turned off (and that some people are conspiring to suddenly turn it on). In reality there is a continuum of state coercion. In the US case the capability for rounding people up and putting them in FEMA camps will probably never be more than a remote, but scary, potential. On the other hand, surveillance, intrusive policing and security, militarised policing, restrictions on liberties, and fear-mongering are already familiar parts of routine and banal oppression. These shape and control people in ways that don’t involve direct physical coercion, but are not merely brainwashing people into happy consumerist zombies either. There is a carrot laced with tranquillisers, but there is also a stick. Sheldon Wolin called the resulting system “inverted totalitarianism”.
The freedom enjoyed by Usanians is the contingent freedom enjoyed by the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ anti-capitalist allegory The Time Machine. They live lives of consumerist luxury right up until the point that some are abducted and eaten. The same is true of those who fall foul of the massive private or governmental bureaucracies that run the USA, and I think that it is good to set-aside our visions of a land with 48-flavours-of-ice-cream and look at the grim, grey inhuman machinery that coexists with consumerist pseudo-liberty.
We have found in all of the former “free world” that our sneers at communist bread queues were premature. We felt superior because capitalism seemed to be designed to meet our needs and desires efficiently, but now that it faces no ideological competition we find that it just wants to sell us barely functional goods and when we call for support or service, to place us on hold for hours. I guess it is better than being hungry waiting in the cold winter, but it is hard to deny that capitalist private bureaucracy is just as entitled and unhelpful as socialist government bureaucracy. In the US it can be deadly. For example, by denying insurance cover to people with life-threatening conditions pen-pushing penny-pinchers from Aetna and other such “providers” hand out death-sentences. The US has a corporatised health sector that is measurably more inefficient, more bureaucratic, more inhumane and much more expensive than actual “socialism”, and it forces people to buy private insurance or face a fine (or, as Forbesspins it, because of exemptions “only 4 million people” are expected to be subject to fines in 2016, and we all know that any law that only affects 4 million doesn’t really count). Employers can also simply garnish wages without permission to enrol workers in the employer’s chosen insurance plan.
Moreover, in this land of private/public dual tyranny, eminent domain laws in the US are often used to forcibly alienate property for the benefit of private capital (because individual states can determine what is “public use”) in the manner that does not happen in other countries.
Meanwhile those who fall into the gears of the “justice” system may find fates that seem akin to terrible stories of mediaeval cruelty, grim totalitarianism, or dystopian science-fiction nightmare. In a Milwaukee gaol, under the jurisdiction of Trump supporter David Clarke, an imprisoned suspect had his water shut off for 6 days. Witnesses heard him beg repeatedly for water as he slowly died of “profound dehydration”.
In many countries the rights of criminal suspects are minimal despite the supposed presumption of innocence, but in the US this can reach a soul-crushing extreme such as in the case of Kalief Browder. He refused to plead guilty to stealing a backpack and because the case against him was thin to non-existent, he spent 3 years, from age 16, enduring terrible conditions and violent abuse at Rykers Island prison. He killed himself 2 years after release. A different horror was endured by Roberta Blake. Not knowing that she had an arrest warrant for returning a rental car late, she was detained in California and spent two weeks in a cage in an overheated van being taken to Alabama to face “justice” for her heinous crime: “Lacking both privacy and sanitary napkins, she had to use a cup in front of the male guards and prisoners when she began menstruating. After another prisoner ripped off her shirt, she spent the rest of the trip in a sports bra.” In most developed countries it would be illegal to treat an animal that way.
Staying on the subject of the accused, I want to remind readers that a Pennsylvania judge received millions in kickbacks for sending thousands of children into institutions. Given the level of corruption victimising so many kids, some of them from white-collar households, is it any surprise that some claim similar corruption is part of the adult incarceration system?
I mention these things to show that “guided democracy” (which is not democratic) produces a tyranny with two faces. These things happen because the accused are unpeople and that itself is a product of an elite “guided democracy” culture in the US that is authoritarian, lacking in empathy, and phobic about poor people.
All I have detailed is just passive and reflexive brutality. It is incidental and can fall on any non-rich person unlucky enough to fall foul of a capricious state, but you will notice that I haven’t even mentioned racialised police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration. That is a more active aspect of tyranny that functions (like “anti-terrorism” or the “war” on any other internal or external threat) to normalise oppression and market it to a much wider demographic than that specifically targetted. I won’t waste anyone’s time by detailing the latest horrors of police violence in the US, nor the everyday obscenity of mass incarceration. Readers are probably familiar with the topic, and I just ask that they bear it in mind as being an important element of this story that I am consciously omitting.
The Stinking Corpse of Politics
When Sheldon Wolin wrote Democracy Inc. he was effectively writing the obituary of “guided democracy”. Guided democracy was beginning to give way to something new which Wolin likened to 20th century tyrannies, but characterised as “inverted”. A “new type of political system, seemingly one driven by abstract totalizing powers, not by personal rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, that relies more on “private” media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.”
Before continuing, I must clear up a problem I have with the terminology. I cannot endorse Wolin’s (or any) use of the term “totalitarianism” because it has no potential for judicious usage. It was coined to refer to Italian Fascism to refer to the totality of the purview of the state, but both that regime and the current US regime show that defining what is and is not the state is actually subjective. The very concept of “inverted totalitarianism” or “totalitarian democracy” along with new coinages like “globalitarian” show that the word itself is useless. In fact, totalitarianism has primarily been used to create a concept which suggests that Nazism and Communism are of the same essence, but Western liberalism existentially distinct (which, by the way, is why it was one of the academic notions promoted by the CIA). Both the Soviets and the Nazis did the same thing in their time, as Slavoj Žižek explains: “Thus Stalinism in the 1930s constructed the agency of Imperialist Monopoly Capital to prove that Fascists and Social Democrats (‘Social Fascists’) are ‘twin brothers’, the ‘left and right hand of monopoly capital’. Thus Nazism itself constructed the ‘plutocratic-Bolshevik plot’ as the common agent who threatens the welfare of the German nation.”
However, Wolin also referred to inverted totalitarianism as being “a kind of fascism”. “Fascism” is a much better term to use, as I have argued at great length (in two parts). Though “fascism” is clearly too common and low-rent a concept for some people (who maintain their status with claims to exclusive multisyllabic knowledge), it is perfect in conveying an apt historical comparison. Henceforth, therefore, I will use “fascism” because it may be subjective, but even people who disagree with the usage will know exactly what I am referring to and why.
Wolin’s annunciation of the conception of a new fascism should also have pointed to the immanence of a new “rough beast”. We have seen, in the last 14 years, that the “inverted” part of Wolin’s described fascism is unstable and contingent. Like the pluralism of Weimar Germany it could be replaced with leader worship and more conventionally oriented fascism in short order. Ann Coulter, (author of In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome) recently said: “I worship him like the North Koreans worship the ‘Dear Leaders’ — yes, I would die for him.” Coulter might seem to be a clown or a liar trying to flog a bad book, but we can no longer doubt that Trump does have a cult of personality and very dangerously deranged followers. For example there is this irrational rant from a Trump supporter:
Note that he is wrong in every aspect of what he accusers Shah of being: her candidate is running against Clinton; Shah is US born; and, as it happens, she is not Muslim. His passion for these lies, though, is about as real as anything gets in this time. The self-deception that is so widespread is part of this erosion of the “inverted” corporate and impersonal aspect of US fascism. Obama has very frequently evinced his Christian faith over the years, but millions think he is either Muslim or even the Antichrist. Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t make a big deal out of religion and yet he is still treated as the instrument of God. My argument would be that some feminists have exactly the same faith-based irrational and ironic view of Clinton that these “Christians” have of Trump. Both are equally unlikely avatars of the spirit of each faith and the blindness of the followers is very reminiscent of a fascist cult of personality.
The ever scary nationalist fervour in the US has also entered into the realms of mass hysteria. This year’s DNC and RNC showed plenty of evidence of violent irrationality. Only ten years ago neoconservatives were mocked by the “reality-based community” for saying things like: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Now, their view of history and of the US role in it has gone mainstream. There is no escaping the conclusion politics are dead and the US is taking an extended holiday (or vacation) away from reality.
We have entered what people are calling the “age of post-truth politics”. Here in Aotearoa it happened very suddenly. We went from being very hard on politicians when they were caught lying, to having a Prime Minister who lies constantly and freely and who gets away with it because the media adopted the self-fulfilling prophecy of saying that people are not bothered by his lying and therefore there is little point in drawing their attention to it by making a big deal of it. In short, the media created a new post-truth norm overnight.
In contrast, the US journey towards this post-truth moment has been a long and well sign-posted journey. The practice of “plausible denial” over covert action that began 70 years ago almost immediately became a practice that should more truly be known as “implausible denial” and was extended to overt military action. The system is simple: an official tells a blatant and obvious lie, then reporters report the statement as having been stated. No matter how thin the lie, it is treated as weighty. It is not analysed or fact-checked, because that is reserved for domestic policies that are contended between the two major parties. It may or may not be noted that others dispute the lie, but the real Orwellian and twisted part that occurs is that the media will forever after treat the lie as unquestionably having been believed by the officials in question.
Thus when the US destroyed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998, newspapers outside of the US reported that Bill Clinton knew that beforehand that it was a civilian factory, but inside the US the cruise missile attack, even after it was found that the target was not a chemical weapons plant, reported that the strike was “an effort to curb the activities of the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden”.
Hillary Clinton and Trump are the logical outcome of a combination of mainstream media permissiveness when it comes to politicians lies, and the existence of partisan spheres or “reference groups”. These spheres have two levels. The inner level is the “partisan echo chamber” where you will never be informed that your chosen candidate lies. Apparently the inhabitants of this bubble are a minority, but the outer sphere is may be more important. In the outer sphere people aren’t like Coulter; they aren’t uncritically loyal and they don’t think of themselves as belonging to the Great Leader; they just know that the lies of the candidate they support are regrettable but not outrageous, unacceptable and dangerous like those of the rival candidate. Clinton supporters know that their candidate has a few imperfections, but Trump threatens all life as we know it and they don’t seem to find it at all remarkable that their opponents feel exactly the same way in reverse. They do not recognise their mirror images because years of something called the “culture wars” (which I won’t get into here) have made them blind to similarities outside of that culture war framework. In fact each stance can be rationally argued and we once again see a kind of political quantum superposition where these contradictory stances are simultaneously true. Both of them are the greatest threat currently facing humanity and they must both be stopped.
That is why I say that this election shows the death of politics, rather then merely democracy. There is no longer a machinery to control public opinion, but rather opinions themselves are rendered meaningless. Only the delusional are still taking the rhetoric of Clinton and Trump as being an indication of ideology and policy intent. People are trying to discern their character, but if they juxtapose each against the other trying to make a relative judgement they get into trouble. Which one is the crook? Which one is the liar? Which one is the warmonger? Which one is pro-corporate? If you think that the answers to that are easy, then you aren’t really paying attention.
Things have gotten so bad that in South Park they clearly struggled to decide which candidate should be represented as a Shit Sandwich and which candidate is really a Giant Douche. The creators are lucky that their storyline depicts their own fictional character opposing Clinton, because otherwise they would have to admit that both candidates this year are Shit Sandwich. Their 12 year-old allegory for no meaningful electoral choice is now too mild for the circumstances. We now choose between a Shit Sandwich made with puffy white bread that has a tendency to go soggy with shit juice, and one made with a stale multigrain that is pretty similar but may or may not be a little bit healthier over time.
The Desert of the Real…
… was a book by Slavoj Žižek published in the same year (2002) as Wolin’s Democracy Inc. It has its faults. Like Baudrillard on Iraq, Žižek imposes an inappropriate, if not offensive, semiotician’s interpretation of the bombing of Afghanistan. Instead of being a brutal act of imperialist aggression that can and should be compared with historical imperialism, Žižek asks if it isn’t “the ultimate case of impotent acting out?” In fact Žižek’s judgement in this ironically similar to the limitations he describes in others who cannot accept answers that fall outside of presupposed truth. As the old wisdom tells us, when you gaze long into Keanu, Keanu gazes also into you – to which I will add that Keanu knows fuck-all about geopolitics.
Another complaint, of a sort, is that reading The Desert of the Real today is somewhat like reading Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock in that events have so overtaken and exceeded the prophetic work that I tend to react by thinking: “You call that future shock? That is not even mild astonishment compared to what we have to cope with nowadays.” Žižek refers to Alan Badiou’s notion that the 20th century was dominated by “the passion for the real” which “was fake passion whose ruthless pursuit of the Real behind appearances was the ultimate stratagem to avoid confronting the Real.” With the benefit of the last 14 years of reality television informing us we can say back to 2002 Žižek: “No shit, Einstein.”
But Žižek was quite perceptive in seeing the beginnings of the regime that we now live in. The world of 2002 was one of “politics without politics” and Žižek saw the potential for a resurgent and dangerous right-wing. One passage should particularly resonate with those who are following the 2016 US presidential race: “A decade ago, in the State of Louisiana’s governor elections, when the only alternative to the ex-KKK David Duke was a corrupt Democrat, many cars displayed a sticker: ‘Vote for a crook – it’s important!’”
The 20th century “pursuit of the Real” may have chased reality away, but clearly Žižek understood early that this would take us back to the dangerous yearning for the authenticity of a Second Coming that Yeats perceived in 1919.
The Desert of the Real ends by asking “What if the true aim of this ‘war [on terror]’ is ourselves, our own ideological mobilization against the threat of the Act?” In many ways the war on terror has made people in Western countries accept discipline, control and surveillance that they would never have accepted otherwise, but in other ways there has been resistance. In some ways the things that are most obvious are the least significant because they are resisted and ultimately rejected. After 9/11 the US rounded up and detained hundreds of Muslims and foreigners. That practice ended. What stayed was the Department of Homeland Security, the Transport Safety Authority, and a new officially promoted “if you see something say something”. The most profound changes have come in those spaces of knowledge where people assent and accept subliminally because they feel no friction of resistance and they are anaesthetised. Some changes are too subtle, but others are too big. People stop thinking about them almost immediately because they become everyday normality very quickly.
As I alluded to earlier, the path to the current US post-truth post-politics moment follows through the territory of imperialist wars justified by a skein of lies that creates a pseudo-history. It is possible to discuss and dispute aspects of the pseudo-history in that same way that people can discuss and dispute aspects of Game of Thrones. It is still fiction.
Žižek described a dearth and death of reality that, to my prosaic mind, was the culmination of post-WWII US hypocrisy and exceptionalism. What is happening in the 2016 election is due to the fact that on September 11 2001, the US stopped merely stringing together lies and launched a “global” war that is framed within one giant fairytale. For 15 years it has been as if every day the US has destroyed another Sudanese factory, but the lies have become to large and too numerous. They penetrate everywhere and inter-penetrate each other so that they cannot be refuted singly.
The real is abolished, and no one really wants it any more. Trump recently rewrote history by saying that a “stop-and-frisk” policing policy worked wonders for New York. Some challenge that, but not because it is untrue, but because they are not on Trump’s side. Yet there is little objection when John Kerry spoke to the UN General assembly:
The gall of the man is not merely from the inappropriate dismissiveness (compare this to attitude towards the attack on the USS Cole which killed 17 sailors), but also in brushing over the very obvious questions raised by claiming that this was an “accident”. It took me all of 5 minutes after putting in the search terms “syria deir ez-zor map forces” to find out that there is a prima facie case that the act must have been deliberate. I could easily just look at news reports from the past 6 months that make it hard to avoid the conclusion that the US-led attack must have been intended to aid the forces of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. Once you consider in addition that within minutes of the attack the self-proclaimed “IS” launched an attack that has halted or reversed 6 months of slow SAA progress towards lifting the siege of Deir ez-Zor, then the incident looks very much like air support for “IS” forces. I would defy anyone to give any other explanation as to why the US would suddenly decide to bomb in this area, where the only military forces are the Syrian Arab Army and the “IS”. At the very least every journalist should report that the circumstances suggest that until their actions are explained, US claims should not be seen as credible as they are not reconcilable with the facts as we currently understand them.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I am about to write something that may be the most controversial thing I have ever written. I realise that many people will hate me for this, and I fully expect to be hunted down and savaged by vicious sci-fi nerds. But there comes a time when destiny calls, and it is my destiny to say something heretical about The Matrix…
Here is my testament: If someone called “Morpheus” (the Greek god of dreams) offers to take you “down the rabbit hole” (an allusion to entering “Wonderland”) and you then end up perceiving a new reality in which you are the messiah, but the most fundamental fact of human existence (that people are in a virtual world being used by a machine intelligence as a way of generating electricity) makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, then accepting Morpheus’ offer is choosing delusion over reality. That means that “taking the red pill” means indulging delusions, lies and fantasy.
To recap: 1) Morpheus = god of dreams; 2) “down the rabbit hole” = journey into fantasy; 3) world of people hooked up as batteries = self-evident nonsense; 4) messianic mission = attractive delusion satisfying to ego and superego (and id once you throw in the inevitable “love interest”).
Ironically people refer to “taking the red pill” as being a path to enlightenment. Even more ironically it is linked to “9/11 truth” activism. But the people who took the red pill on 9/11 were the people in the US government, the elected officials, the military personnel, the spooks, the cops, the administrators. They, along with much of the population of the Western world, entered a phantasmagorical parallel universe, the GWOT Wonderland, where the fundamental premise of the main fact shaping the world makes no sense.
The Matrix tricks its viewers in the same way that science fiction author Philip K. Dick would often trick his readers. But where Dick’s deception was either playful or served a serious purpose (or both), the Wachowskis were either more mean-spirited or simply underestimated the human capacity for self-deception. The desire for purpose and the need for meaningfulness in one’s life drives people to perceive Neo’s journey as a revelation of truth rather than a descent into madness despite the heavy-handed hints I mentioned. The messiah figure is enticing because it satisfies narcissism and altruism simultaneously in a way that real life does not offer. As it happens, Phil Dick also explored this desire with black humour in “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” which formed the basis of the films Total Recall. The short story parallels the Total Recall film adaptations up to a point but has crucial further developments that we omitted from the films. When the protagonist’s belief that he is a secret agent becomes rationally unsustainable he “remembers” that he is actually an alien emissary sent to bring peace and enlightenment to humanity. When the alien emissary narrative is fatally challenged by its own irrational contradictions, then the protagonist “remembers” that even that was actually a cover identity for his real nature which is the actual messiah and saviour of all humankind.
There is a lot of power in the attractiveness of a sense of messianic purpose, but in The Matrix it is used to scam people. They overlook the obvious because that are deceived into doing so. I would even call it the “Neo con” (if I were cruel enough to inflict such a bad pun on readers) because it is a good model of the trickery that keeps people from seeing the obvious lies of the Global War on Terror.
The neocons themselves were and are a mix of scammers and scammed. Whether they believed the lies or not, they evinced a messianic purpose for the US. It is true that the fundamental benevolence of the enterprise did not bear much scrutiny, but then again the fundamental rationality did not bear scrutiny either. The point, like The Matrix, is not to conceal lies but to disincentivise the perception of unhidden lies. As the neocons’ direct influence seemed to fade, the fundamental parts of their worldview were left behind as mainstream political orthodoxy. The distinction between neocons and liberal interventionists (as I have repeatedly written) was never significant anyway and now we inhabit the world they created.
In The Matrix the whole purpose of the eponymous Matrix itself is explained as being a completely infeasible and physically impossible system of generating electricity. It is stated as quickly as possible, and the real trick is that those who do notice the impossibility will blame poor narrative construction and not suspect that it is key evidence of the real nature of what is happening. In the war on terror, Islamic terrorism is constantly highlighted but the connection with foreign policy is passed over very quickly, even though it is the central explanation for why the US needs to invade and bomb so widely. The US military still hands out medals for the GWOT so the basic premise is still that their far-flung interventions are a response to terrorism. The fall-back position is that even if it doesn’t make sense to attack other countries to stop terrorism, it is a real if mistaken belief on the part of officials.
Whether it is the Neocons or the Wachowskis, people never stop to consider whether it is reasonable to think that their unreasonableness is in earnest. Wolin, for example, keeps repeating that “inverted totalitarianism” came about without intention: “It has no Mein Kampf as an inspiration” he tells us in between quotes from various neocon equivalents. The ideology, the strategy, the intention and the foresight of consequences are all there to be seen, for those who will see them rather than asserting that they cannot be there. Once you figure out that the neocons and their allies must have deliberately crafted the terrorism lie, it puts quite a different spin on things.
15 years into this delusion we have seen military actions coalesce into a slow-motion World War. Without citing the threat of terrorism, the US could not have taken military action against Afghanistan or Iraq. Yet we shouldn’t forget that the threat of terrorism is still used to give people the impression that there is some natural and urgent reason for the US to be involved in Islamic countries. If we take the instances of Syria or Libya, they conflate concerns about the crimes of the dictatorial regime with concerns about terrorism. It makes no more sense than when the Nazis claimed that there was a single conspiracy of Communism and Western capitalism. Yet without being able to say the “IS” is a threat to the homeland, moves against regimes like Libya’s and Syria’s might be difficult to explain in light of, say, the ongoing support for Saudi Arabia or Egypt or any of the many brutal regimes that the US considers to be friendly and “moderate”. It makes no sense to attack regimes that oppose the alleged sources of terror, but that doesn’t really matter any more than it makes no sense to provide a massive life support and virtual reality infrastructure to billions of humans just so you can use them as energy cells. The senselessness is irrelevant.
We have gone down the rabbit hole, because even if we know that it is irrational to say that US interventions are against terror or because they oppose the oppression of dictators, we have no other coherent narrative. That is why I am constantly pushing for people to recognise that US interventions are genocides, attacks aimed at extending imperial power by committing violence and destruction against peoples and nations as such. It is that simple. It is also that banal. It is a grey world where even the most cruel of crimes are just another day at the office for some of the perpetrators. People prefer a dramatic fantasy narrative of anti-terror and humanitarian intervention to prevent the “next Rwanda”, yet most highly educated people would consider me a fantasist because suggesting a coherence in US foreign policy is a “conspiracy theory”.
Sauce for the Gander
In the end, if we have accepted irrationality and lies for so long; if we have for 15 years purged those who cannot live with cognitive dissonance from public and private areas of authority; should it surprise us that we have created the circumstances where truth is no longer relevant? Kerry, Clinton, Power and Obama are all capable at any day of the week of telling preposterous and monstrous lies. It is impossible to tell, for example, if Samantha Power is completely insane or not. Like Tony Blair she seems to be so deeply “in character” that the original human host, the once beloved daughter of Mr and Mrs Power, has been murdered by this bloodthirsty monster.
If you think Trump has gumption, think of the sheer chutzpah shown by Power when she turned the US massacre of Syrian personnel into an chance to attack Russia for daring to criticise the US: “even by Russia’s standards, tonight’s stunt – a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding – is uniquely cynical and hypocritical.” As Gary Leupp writes, she is “condemning Russia for condemning a war crime”.
Our semiotician friends Baudrillard and Žižek like to condemn atrocious actions, but they avoid suggesting that there might be some premeditation and conscious shaping of the semantic. Žižek would probably consider me to be crude, primitive and jarring in my insistence on continually returning to a realist perspective. However Žižek has alienated many on the left with his comments on the European refugee crisis and I like to think that my more pointed view allows me to be honest about the refugee crisis without falling into disproportionate victim-blaming that amounts to xenophobia (regardless of whether it is literally true or not). On this subject Žižek is purely and smoothly in concord with the right. He is effectively like one of those second-degree racists who neatly substitute nurture for nature and justify fear and bigotry on the basis of “environment” instead of genetics. To my mind this is the logical outcome of never being brave enough to go out on a limb and say that there is a locus of power behind the events that shape our narrative perception. It may not be a literal Star Chamber of sinister conspirators, but power coalesces again and again in ways that form virtual Star Chambers and once you understand that mass transformations are often imposed from above then it makes little sense to fret about whether some refugees are rapists in the midst of a metastasising holocaust that has killed millions and threatens tens of millions.
Žižek wants to state a generality that is true and comforting (that the West is not responsible for every bad thing in the world) without testing whether it is actually applicable to the specific case he addresses. For example, Žižek says that the Rwanda genocide can’t be blamed on the West, because he is ignorant of the history. The US acted in co-ordination with Uganda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front to destabilise the country and provoke ethnic violence. Perhaps the resulting genocide was far beyond what they wished for, or perhaps not. It was not the end of US-backed ethnic violence in Rwanda and bordering areas of the DR Congo, so the provocateurs cannot have been too appalled at the violence. Nor does the US history of slaughter in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East allow us to take seriously the horror they evince at the Rwanda Genocide, nor the way they use the memory of it as a pretext for their own acts of genocide.
Likewise, Žižek says that the refugee crisis cannot be blamed entirely on the West because “ISIS” is an “active response”. The problem is that we either have to confront the fact that “IS” is a deliberate creation of the US empire, or we remain in Wonderland where magically, just when the US needs a new pretext to carry on the wars that it is already fighting, “IS” appears. Miraculously, because of “IS”, the US gets to continue the wars it was already fighting for other reasons even when the primary activity of this wars is to attack the enemies of “IS”.
We know that the US armed the “IS” forces, but we are meant to believe that they did it somehow by accident. A country suddenly appeared and found itself governing millions while simultaneously fighting a four-front war against established national armies and ethnic militias. Despite being land-locked and surrounded by putative enemies it has remained in play for 2 years. It is as if the Nazis had consolidated in Bavaria in 1945 and were still there in defiance of the Allies best effort in 1947. It simply makes no sense.
That is why a lying reality show personality and probable child rapist can make a credible run for the highest office in the US. It is because we have had 15 years of deluded and/or shameless US imperialists doubling down over and over and over again on their lies. We are trapped in Wonderland, because it hurts people to think of reality; because people want to believe Žižek’s announcement that not everything is the West’s fault; and they want to join in with his implied sneer at those who say otherwise.
The 2016 US election will not take place because reality is in abeyance. Young people might not even know what it is any more. They see all the shades of grey, but they can no longer conceptualise black or white, so it is hard to find meaning. The trivial and the profound are no longer distinguishable, not because of some general social evolution, but because managed democracy evolved as a system of political domination. This is the result of astroturfing, greenwashing, pinkwashing, native advertising, product placement, grey propaganda, and so forth. We did not just end up like this because we are spoilt and spend too much time on social media. This was done to us.
So there is Trump. He is a sick joke. His party, which he seems almost completely detached from, is like magician’s illusion: a giant edifice that seems to be levitating with no visible means of support. He has the endorsement of the patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” Phil Robertson who offered to baptise him on camera to get “God on our side”. Apparently even God no longer believes in the Real until it is on reality television. But it takes two to tango; Hillary Clinton is no more real than Trump and the polls show that ordinary people know it.
The 2016 election will be a non-event. The way the votes are counted will shape the destiny of the world, but the voting itself will be an empty ritual. That is not a reason not to vote, it is actually a reason to reject the idea that your vote was wasted. The votes are not wasted, but even if they are counted they are stolen. Stolen by fictional candidates like Trump and Clinton and stolen by the death of politics. Vote your conscience and then live according to it. Let everyone know that your vote was stolen by a system that is fraudulent. Make sure that everyone remembers that it is a lie every time they tell you that you might not like what the President does but you have to accept it because that is the way democracy works.
One day they will push the lies too far and Wonderland will shatter, releasing us from this dark sphere back into the light.
In Part 1 of this article I argued that the 2016 US presidential race is the Alien vs. Predator election. The joke, which is at the expense of everyone on this planet, is that they are both aliens and both predators. Many ordinary people understand the situation perfectly well. A South Carolina real estate billboard shows Trump and Clinton and reads: “Moving to Canada? We can sell your home.” Even a month ago you could read thisOnionesque headline at The Hill: “Poll: 13 percent prefer meteor hitting earth over Clinton, Trump”. It is even heard “out of the mouths of babes”. My 11 year-old daughter and her friend just told me a joke they heard in school:
Q: Clinton and Trump are together in a plane crash, who survives?
Many ordinary US folks get it. They understand. Some may grit their teeth and vote for Clinton, but most people do not have positive feelings about her. A small number of others feel the same about Trump and argue that he is actually the lesser evil. I will return to that subject later.
Clinton and Trump are much more similar to each other than they are to any ordinary mortals. The Clintons are estimated to be worth $110 million in wealth. Trump is clearly also obscenely rich (even if it is partly delusional). It is widely known that Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton are friends, but Bill and Donald are much closer than people think. In 2012 Clinton said of Trump: “I like him. And I love playing golf with him,” and Trump called Clinton “a really good guy”.
The other link between Bill and Donald is their mutual friend, the paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. It is very important, if indirect, evidence that Clinton and Trump inhabit an elite sociopathic world where ordinary people’s lives are insignificant and expendable. People might think I am making the following stuff up, so I will simply quote from named news sources:
Daily Wire: “Both presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton have ties to convicted pedophile and Democratic donor, billionaire Jeffery Epstein and ‘Sex Slave Island.’”
Fox: “Former President Bill Clinton was a much more frequent flyer on a registered sex offender’s infamous jet than previously reported, with flight logs showing the former president taking at least 26 trips aboard the “Lolita Express” — even apparently ditching his Secret Service detail for at least five of the flights, according to records obtained by FoxNews.com.
…The tricked-out jet earned its Nabakov-inspired nickname because it was reportedly outfitted with a bed where passengers had group sex with young girls…”
New Yorkmagazine: “’I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,’ Trump booms from a speakerphone. ‘He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.’” [This is from 2002. The investigation leading to Epstein’s conviction for child-sex offences began 3 years later.]
VICE: “In 2010, Epstein pled the Fifth when asked by a lawyer representing one of Epstein’s victims about his relationship with Trump: ….
Q. Have you ever socialized with Donald Trump in the presence of females under the age of 18?
A: Though I’d like to answer that question, at least today I’m going to have to assert my Fifth, Sixth, and 14th Amendment rights, sir.”
Epstein was also allegedly involved as the procurer of the 13 year-old who was allegedly raped by Trump in Epstein’s apartment. As both Lisa Bloom and Drew Salisbury point out, these are not accusations that can be dismissed out of hand.
Hillary Clinton cannot wash her hands of Bill’s record of sexual violence, in part because her denials have helped him escape the consequences. Particularly damaging is Juanita Broaddrick’s belief that Hillary tried to ensure her silence after Bill almost certainly raped Broaddrick in 1978. The National Review reports: “Juanita Broaddrick’s claim was supported by not one but five witnesses and a host of circumstantial (though no physical) evidence.” The allegation seems difficult to deny because Broaddrick never voluntarily came forward. Rather, she was served with a subpoena and then taped without her knowledge after years of rumours. Hillary’s approach to this has been to brazen it out in a frankly Trumpian show of denial: “On December 3, a couple of weeks after Clinton tweeted, ‘Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported, ‘a woman at an event in Hooksett, New Hampshire, asked, ‘Secretary Clinton, you recently came out to say that all rape victims should be believed. But would you say that Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones be believed as well?’ Clinton replied, ‘Well, I would say that everyone should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.’ The audience applauded.”
These rape allegations are symptomatic of an aristocratic system in which Marie Antoinette would feel at home. Epstein, for example, received a secret “sweetheart” non-prosecution deal from the FBI and only served 13 months. There is no equality under the law and many ordinary people are becoming acutely conscious of the divide between Us and Them.
A good argument can be made that voting for Trump or Clinton is essentially exactly the same thing. They are friends, peers, comrades and co-conspirators. Trump puts on a good show of dirty negative campaigning, but remember that this guy really does come from the entertainment world and even from pro-wrestling. His CV includes “body-slamming, beating and shaving” WWE owner Vince McMahon, and anyone who doesn’t at least entertain some doubts about the sincerity of his campaigning trash-talk is simply refusing to see what is in front of them. It is possible that this invective is just his natural way of being, but if that is true then he isn’t actually sincere in anything he does. The only question is whether he remains friends with the Clintons after this campaign.
We have now reached a point where both of these super-rich aristos are campaigning for the votes of the working class. Trump knows that he gets far more votes campaigning against trade liberalisation than he does by pushing xenophobia, and it was a key component of his recent speech in Detroit (though he did promise jobs to “titties like… Detroit” instead of “cities”). But he mixed “fiscal conservative” tax-cut rhetoric with anti-trade-deal rhetoric in a way that was unconvincing. Trump runs as an outsider and a maverick, but so has every Republican candidate since 1996. He decries Clinton as a creature of Wall St., but his own economic team includes several billionaires including financier John Paulson.
In essence Trump and Clinton also have identical stances on the TPP, a point that should give as much pause to Clinton supporters as to Trump supporters. Tim Kaine, who went against most Senate Democrats in support of TPP “fast-track” authority and defended the decision hours before being nominated as VP candidate, stands out because his flip-flop objections to the TPP (a transparent ploy to dilute the left-wing anger against his nomination) differ sharply from Trump and Clinton in that they reference unfairness in practical, ethical, and moral terms. Clinton’s TPP stance agrees with Trump’s and his implication that the problem with the TPP is that US negotiators were outsmarted and outmanoeuvred by us cunning foreigners with our underhanded slyness. Indeed, while some of us here in Aotearoa are wondering why our government is signing us up to a pact which will hurt and alienate our biggest trading partner (China), Trump is saying that the TPP “was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.” The media don’t particularly care to highlight the fact, but Clinton has stuck to the same risible line: “We can not let rules of origin allow China — or anyone else, but principally China — to go around trade agreements. It’s one of the reasons why I oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership because when I saw what was in it, it was clear to me there were too many loopholes, too many opportunities for folks to be taken advantage of.”
Understanding the dynamics of these elections, and the ramifications of taking one stance or another, cannot be reduced to “candidate X says they support A and I support A, therefore I support X”, but our journalists and pundits are simply not capable of dealing with the reality of the politics we have to live with.
Broadcaster Paul Jay (who would much prefer Clinton as POTUS than Trump) put his finger on something when he observed that people should choose the lesser evil but “the problem is… they don’t call them the ‘lesser evil’; they start saying good things about them.”
Trump and Clinton are both vicious parasitic lifeforms too loathsome for people to bear in ordinary circumstances, but the people’s instincts are blunted and confuted by a journalistic and academic culture that gets stuck in half-think. Half-think, I should explain, is the process by which some people take the surface appearance of things and then apply fatuous received wisdom. Half-thinkers apply pre-fabricated generalities to any situation in order to make all things conform to an established ideology of complacent authoritarianism. Thus, when the common plebeians of Pompeii became alarmed by a smoking mountain and shaking ground they were probably reassured by one of their social betters: “Well actually, according the Greek authorities on such phenomena, belching is a healthy response for the human body and if the earth itself should belch it is surely a good omen. Quod erat demonstrandaaaaaaaah!”
Those who use half-think gain a sense of superior education and intellect, having gone past the mere vulgar issues of “plain fact” and “common sense”. However, this is no process of interrogation in which the half-thinker delves beneath the surface. It is an unthinking response that can be arrived at instantaneously, or sheltered behind over a long period. The half-thinker simply grabs onto any generality which they can pass off as being an educated insight in order to defend the status quo. That is to say that half-think is used to defend racism, inequality, war, state violence and so forth. It is fundamentally conservative in nature and often revolves around defending the indefensible because it is natural, unavoidable, part of human nature, or what anyone would expect of any “red-blooded male”.
I mention all of this because in times of political and social decadence and dysfunction, half-thinkers will always do their best to convince people that there is “nothing to see here”. Chris Trotter, who readers may remember from Part 1, has been employing the phrase politics is the “art of the possible” as a kind of snobby way of blocking his ears and going “lalalalala I’m not listening, I’m not listening lalalalala”. On one hand he is using a commonplace generality to assert something that he could never safely assert in specific reference to Clinton herself, and on the other hand, in doing so, he is performing the standard half-think trick of making remarkable things unremarkable.
I do agree with the half-thinkers on one thing, because they believe that there is nothing new under the sun. Where I differ from the half-thinkers is that for them this means: Western liberalism is the acme of civilisation; the people in charge are there for a reason; the police are doing their best in a difficult situation; North Korea is a rogue nation; ordinary people are dangerously stupid; Putin is a villain; our politicians mean well; you have to have a seat at the table to enact real change.
Half-thinkers like Trotter never examine their assumptions, they just use safety in numbers to avoid being challenged. They use their compatibility with power to keep real intellectuals at the margins.
In contrast to Trotter, Luciana Bohne, compares Clinton to Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha: “the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth.” She casts Trump as Charybdis, “a huge bladder of a creature whose face was all mouth and whose arms and legs were flippers”, and Clinton as the Basilisk. “I’m raving, you say? This is the Age of Empire, and empire breeds monsters.”
Bohne’s imagery is extravagant because her eyes are open and the times demand it. Man-eating giants are striding the land stuffing screaming peasants in their maw by the handful, like so many jelly-babies, and people like Trotter are saying: “What giants? I can only see windmills and people have always been crunched up in windmill accidents. It is nothing new. Yelling about it will only cause more windmill deaths.”
Trotter wants us to be practical, but is his business-as-usual, vote-for-the-lesser-evil-then-appeal-to-her-progressive-principles actually practical? Or is it based on Panzaist delusions that turn a bloodthirsty mass-muderer into a well-meaning advocate of the rights of children? To counter cliché with cliché, is supporting Clinton the “art of the possible” or is it sticking your head in the sand?
Trotter doesn’t simply rely on the threat of Trump to argue that the US electorate should settle for Hillary, he also claims “This was the battle that Bernie won. As he told the Convention: ‘This is the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party!’ Yes, he endorsed Hillary, but in doing so he took care to bind her to that progressive platform with chains of rhetorical steel.”
In reality the platform is fatally flawed. Cornel West abstained from passing the platform because it did not oppose the TPP, acknowledge the occupation of Palestine as an occupation, or call for universal healthcare: “I have no other moral option”, he explained. Worse still, by stating “we will not hesitate to take military action if Iran violates the agreement”, the platform is advocating illegal aggression. The US has no right to take military action if Iran breaks its nuclear deal. Moreover the threat of a war with Iran horrifies most of the US public, particularly Democrats, so slipping a phrase like that in without mass protest shows how US exceptionalism and these “lesser evil” oligarchic politics create a massive and dangerous cognitive dissonance.
Even if the platform did have stronger and less ambiguous commitments, it is still nothing more than rhetoric. In the US system, there is no comeback for an administration or a caucus that does not abide by a platform. The platform means nothing. Obama entered his first term with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress so the 2008 Democratic platform should have been more binding than ever, right? Here are some of my favourite excerpts from that 2008 platform so you can judge for yourself:
* “We believe that the people of Puerto Rico have the right to the political status of their choice, obtained through a fair, neutral, and democratic process of self-determination. The White House and Congress will work with all groups in Puerto Rico to enable the question of Puerto Rico’s status to be resolved during the next four years.” [Under the Obama administration Puerto Rico has just been stripped even further of self-determination and been placed under similar governance to that which worked so well for Flint, Mi.]
* “We support equal rights to democratic self-government and congressional representation for the citizens of our nation’s capital.” [For the actual situation here is John Oliver’s rant]
* “We will close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay,….” [No comment]
* “We support constitutional protections and judicial oversight on any surveillance program involving Americans.” [LOL]
* “Working together, we can cut poverty in half within ten years. We will provide all our children a world-class education, from early childhood through college.” [Data from Feb. 2015: “The official poverty rate is 14.5%, meaning 45.3 million people in the US live in poverty, up by over 8 million since 2008. An additional 97.3 million (33%) of people living in the United States are low-income, defined as incomes below twice the federal poverty line, or $47,700 for a family of four. Taken together, this means that 48% of the US population is poor or low income, 1 in every 2 people. More than 1 in 5 children in America (21.8%) are living under the official poverty line. Half of all children will be on food stamps before they turn 20, including 9 out of 10 African American children. ]
* “To renew American leadership in the world, we must first bring the Iraq war to a responsible end. … At the same time, we will provide generous assistance to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons. We will launch a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic surge to help broker a lasting political settlement in Iraq, which is the only path to a sustainable peace. We will make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq. We will encourage Iraq’s government to devote its oil revenues and budget surplus to reconstruction and development.” [The US just announced 400 more troops deploying to Iraq: “Last month, President Obama raised the “cap” on the number of ground troops in Iraq to 4,647. This cap has become something of a running joke, as the Pentagon has repeatedly admitted to having well more troops than that. Most recent estimates have over 6,000 US ground troops in Iraq already, before this new deployment.”]
The 2008 Democratic Party platform also promised to end nuclear weapons, whereas Obama has launched the biggest nuclear weapons programme since the Cold War. They promised to institute transparent government, but “transparency” and the FOIA system has become even more of a farce than under Bush II. Redactions are so commonplace and arbitrary that they release whole redacted pages that now have “redactions within redactions”, as if redacting something once is not enough any more.
So much for this year’s allegedly “progressive” platform, but we are still left with the major practical argument that supporting Clinton is necessary to stop Trump, even if she is not a desirable leader in her own accord. There are several important assumptions behind that which should be interrogated. One: can Trump win, and under what circumstances? Two: does supporting Clinton actually help stop Trump? Three: is Trump actually worse than Clinton? Four: balancing all these factors and more, what are the practical repercussions of supporting Clinton?
Like most people, I am frightened of what Trump might unleash on the world, but I have become much more relaxed on the specific subject of him winning the Presidency. All things being equal, Trump really doesn’t have a chance simply because this is a negative election (where the vote is decided on whom you most hate) and Trump alienates more people in swing states, while Clinton alienates people in populous safe Democrat states. In practical terms, as Rik Andino has pointed out, it is hard, if not impossible, to see a scenario in which Trump wins 50% of electoral college votes.
Since Clinton’s nomination, Trump is looking even less viable. In fact, with Clinton’s nomination it was as if a switch was thrown and suddenly the media that had previously made it seem that Trump could get away with murder, found his standard daily outrages now damaging and intolerable. Tellingly, it all began with him saying of Gazala Khan: “Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me, but plenty of people have written that.” Suddenly this typical Trump comment was unacceptable, with news reports switching from telling people that Trump can say these things with impunity to running pompous features like thisGuardian piece about how the dead “hero” Humayun Khan “could derail his campaign”.
Meanwhile, Trump has plummeted in the polls. Even previously safe Republican states , like Georgia, seem to be leaning towards Clinton. In Republican Arizona Clinton now leads in the polls. On the one hand this might seem to be expected in a state that is nearly 30% Hispanic, but on the other, Arizona has a history of supporting some extremely Trumpish policies including the notorious SB 1070 “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act”. This is widely felt to have encouraged racial profiling and was formally opposed by 11 other states, Mexico, large numbers of Obama administration officials and Obama himself, law enforcement heads, 68 national members of Congress, and dozens of human rights and civil liberties organisations. The state also banned successful Mexican-American studies programmes after Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal had been horrified to find that “they were portraying Ben Franklin as a racist”, and “they got a poster of Che Guevara.” Many books were banned from schools including important texts from James Baldwin, Isabelle Allende, and Howard Zinn along with Chicano writers that include some of the most important literary and scholarly figures in Arizona itself. They banned Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, and the novelist and professor Manuel Muñoz is banned in the school just across the street from where he lectures.
In Maricopa County, which is home to 4.2 million of Arizona’s 6.8 million population, SB 1070 was welcomed by 4 term “toughest Sheriff in America” Joe Arpaio. To call Arpaio controversial simply cannot do justice to his proven hatefulness, dishonesty, sadism, xenophobia (or crypto-racism), corruption and abuse of power. Arpaio is a Trump supporter who makes Trump himself seem like Mahatma Gandhi. I cannot detail his impressive record of lunacy, so I will take the unusual step of recommending this section of his Wikipedia page.
Arizonan’s have stuck with Arpaio through thick and thicker. They voted for a State Congress that banned hundreds of books from schools and a Senate that passed SB 1070. Yet they are turning away from Trump (perhaps they are also belatedly having qualms about their “tough” sheriff). It really doesn’t bode well for Trump’s bid for the White House.
There is also the question of how serious Trump is in his Presidential bid. From the beginning, on an escalator, his campaign has played out like a prolonged amateurish publicity stunt. A tax specialist who examined the possible reasons that Trump would continue to refuse to release his tax returns could only conclude: “Donald Trump will not publish his tax returns because he does not expect to be President, or at best has not internalized what becoming President actually entails. Trump’s tax return strategy is directed at a future in which he is not President, but is an even richer self-promoter.” More recently still, Representative André Carson (D-Ind.) claimed that Trump is “trying to sabotage himself to clear the way for President Clinton”: “It appears as if he knows he will not be the next President of the United States, so he’s trying to sabotage this thing because he’s not used to losing.”
Perhaps it is irrelevant whether Trump really wants to win or not. Trump is a threat and he has the potential to unleash violence upon the world, but it does not follow that supporting Clinton lessens that threat. As Kshama Sawant (a socialist city councillor from Seattle) suggested on Democracy Now!, if people to the left of Clinton give her their support out of fear, then they will drive masses of ordinary people into Trump’s camp. It is actually the politics of the lesser evil that have given us Trump. What is more Trump is not necessarily going anywhere.
If Trump is just playing a game, using extremist rhetoric to stampede people into the Clinton camp (like a sheepdog, but with rabies) then an electoral loss may or may not mean the end of Trump’s political career. If Trump is earnest, however, then everything we know about him suggests that he will not accept defeat in the way we have come to expect. Defeated major party Presidential candidates have a tendency to recede like clumps of rotting matter back into the roiling mire of party politics, thereafter surfacing occasionally or not at all. But Trump, if he is what he appears to be, will not accept defeat. He has repeatedly claimed in advance that the election will be rigged and one of his Republican Party supporters warned that there will be a “bloodbath” if he loses in November.
People are understandably concerned that Trump’s loaded language, such as his recent hint about “2nd amendment people” taking action, will inspire political violence, but let’s keep this in perspective: Trump may inspire some lone nutcases, but whoever is next President will be killing thousands of people with the US military.
The most tangible and certain fact about the Trump campaign is that his campaign is shifting the discourse of politics altogether. From that perspective it fits a long tradition of pushing rightwards, of increasing oversimplification, of increasing extremism, of increasing self-righteous chauvinism, and of decreasing empathy. It is a slow drift into what can best be described as a type of fascism. It is a one-way street, a ratchet system that can only go towards fascism and never away from it (though it may feature socially liberally aspects which are very different from historical fascism). The thing that makes this drift so certain and unremitting is the politics of the lesser evil. Democrat and Republican leaders have been playing Good Cop/Bad Cop since the Reagan years. The very logic of the lesser evil ensures that each new election cycle will see both greater and lesser evils being more evil than the last time around. We might worry about what Trump might hypothetically do if he takes office, but this is an effect that we know he is having. It is happening now and supporting Clinton only strengthens the shift towards a more encompassing and total fascism.
Not only does supporting Clinton empower Trump’s transformation of politics (bearing in mind that Trump and Clinton are merely the latest in a line of electoral double-acts), but some people see Trump as the lesser evil. Anthony Monteiro, for example, is an activist and African-American studies scholar linked to Black Agenda Reportand Counterpunch: “His positions come as close to the working class as you’re going to get.” Talking to Don Debar and Glen Ford he says “he is to the left of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama….” He and others like him point out that Clinton is supported by the neoconservatives, Wall St., the military-industrial-complex, and appears much closer to overt plutocrats like the Koch brothers than Trump.
Those who see Trump as the lesser evil point out that Hillary Clinton is an undeniable war hawk, whilst Trump is an advocate of détente. Clinton has a public and undenianble track record of advocating, supporting, and committing war crimes that is far more significant from any perspective (including a feminist perspective) than Trump’s overt misogyny and probable history as a rapist. But then again, Trump is a monster, so treating him as the lesser evil is no more sensible than treating Clinton as the lesser evil.
Listening to Anthony Monteiro talk about Trump is exactly like listening to apologists for Clinton. The polemic follows exactly the same formula for either: Find the positive things and avoid testing them to see of they actually make sense; point out how scary the opponent is; state that there really are good reasons to treat the nicer rhetoric as substantive (like “chains of rhetorical steel”); find some reason to say that unlike the opponent this particular very rich powerful establishment figure is actually on the side of the common people; don’t mention the long public record that shows your candidate is against the common people (but do mention the corresponding record of the opposing candidate); et cetera.
In the end it is impossible to support Clinton or Trump in good conscience and that in itself is a practical consideration. Trump supporters should be aware of his extensive record of scams, lies and ties to organised crime. David Cay Johnston, for example, has been reporting on Trump for 27 years: he is not some stooge for the Clinton campaign; he isn’t protecting Wall St. from the new champion of Joe Lunchbox (quite the opposite really); he just reports that Trump has a long ongoing close working relationship with organised crime and reaches the conclusion (which is amply supported by evidence) that Trump is a dangerous “world-class narcissist”.
I am personally less interested in the individual character of a candidate than in the political dynamic that they create and that would result form their taking office. From that perspective Trump is terrifying. Almost everything that Trump says stokes anger. He is not only inflaming aggrieved white male entitlement syndrome, he is appealing to all who believe in US exceptionalism. He paints a picture of a noble and strong USA belittled and persecuted by inferior foreigners. This trope has historical roots from 19th century nationalism that continue through Fascism and Nazism. In the US context the conceit was a staple of the most violent hard-line Cold Warriors, but went mainstream under Ronald Reagan. Most relevant to Trump, however, was when it was used to justify one of the greatest war crimes of the 20th century by Richard Nixon – the invasion of Cambodia, which was followed by bombing that killed hundreds of thousands and is significantly responsible for the Khmer Rouge takeover and subsequent autogenocide. Nixon justified his act of aggression by saying that if the US “acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
Trump is openly Nixonian, which again suggests that he is not very serious about winning the Presidency. Aides avowed that Trump’s nomination acceptance speech was modelled on Nixon’s 1968 acceptance speech. There are many similar themes, but in fact Trump’s speech was far more alarmist and negative, and thus more inflammatory. The scariest thing for me is that Nixon’s speech was a launching pad for a campaign of right-wing authoritarian law-and-order at home combined with a crucial promise of “peace with honor” abroad. Trump 2016 and Nixon 1968 are part of a US tradition of loudly avowing peace in an election campaign when you are set on war. Other examples include Wilson’s 1916 slogan “He Kept US Out of the War” and Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 declaration “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves”. Nison’s “Peace with honor” meant 7 more years of war, in which millions died. Incidentally Nixon had recruited the Democrat and liberal Henry Kissinger (who was on LBJ’s staff at the time) to sabotage the 1968 Paris peace talks thus guranteeing more war.
Another war hawk who donned the election-year dove suit was George W. Bush. He opposed military over-commitment and nation building. He said, “I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into another country and say: ‘We do it this way, so should you!’” Trump has reprised Bush’s semi-isolationist pragmatic deal-maker rhetoric in its entirety. People seem to have forgotten that this was the platform on which Bush campaigned because he did exactly the opposite when he was in office but that should be a lesson about how we really need to view political rhetoric. Rhetoric has meaning, but it is not as simple as equating an expressed wish with an actual desiure or inclination. Sometimes it means exactly the opposite. In taking the same pragmatic dove stance (which does not reject chauvinist patriotism or exceptionalism) Trump is positioning himself exactly as Bush, Johnson, Wilson and Nixon did. He is stating a desire for peace in order to create political space to wage war.
Choosing between Trump and Clinton is a lot like choosing between Nixon and Kissinger. Clinton is unashamedly close to Kissinger and is rumoured to be seeking his endorsement. Clinton and Trump, by their positive referrals to the widely loathed Nixon and Kissinger, are showing how contemptuous they both are of ordinary people.
I tend to see Trump as more dangerous, but someone responded to my stance by pointing out that Clinton is more dangerous because she would have bipartisan support for waging war. In parliamentary terms (not in terms of public opinion) this is certainly true and may or may not become crucial to the future of the world. GOP senators and congressional representatives will support every military adventure, every increase in surveillance and secrecy, every assassination, every arms deal, and so forth. Like Tony Blair in the UK, the only legislative opposition that Clinton will face will come from a weak sub-group of her own party. So as well as being like the choice between Nixon and Kissinger, this election presents a choice akin to voting either for Tony Blair or George W. Bush: one is unstoppable because she has captured and controls the one party that might oppose her warmongering, the other is unstoppable because he has created the space to govern as a partisan rogue who is not subject to congressional restraint or restraint by public opinion.
In the final analysis, any acquiescence to Trump or Clinton is a grovelling surrender to a sick slave-master who is demanding that we eat a pile of steaming dog turds. People like Chris Trotter lick their lips at the prospect and expect us to do the same, but how can supporting for Clinton not be an act of self-debasement? The FBI, predictably, decided not to prosecute her even though it is clear from their account that they believe that she committed a serious crime, but their account contradicts what Clinton said on three occasions under oath. As Clinton will be aware, that perjury makes her eminently impeachable, which really should have ended her presidential run then and there. How can people be expected to vote for someone who could be impeached on the moment she takes office? Now she is involved in a “pay-to-play” scandal from her time in the State Department that, among other things, is the perfect example of why her attempt to keep her emails private was a serious crime. Clinton will enter office with a number of unresolved scandals that should disqualify her. The worst thing is that she will probably do so with impunity, revealing that she is above the law and that people like her can openly mock the law. To support Clinton is to support demockracy [sic] – the farce of elections that are used to legitimate an actual kakistocracy.
Chris Trotter recently compared Clinton to F. D. Roosevelt and claimed that the US role in Libya was just lending “support to British and French efforts in the UN Security Council to provide air support to Libyan rebels fighting Muamma Gaddafi.” He is coming very close to simple outright lying and seems completely unfazed by the masses of negative comments he receives and equally disinclined to answer any of the arguments and evidence presented within them.
I agree with Paul Jay that our best hope for the future is that Clinton becomes President, but then becomes the immediate focus for discontent and agitation. If we support Clinton (by “we” I mean those of us who know more than what is fed to us by a mendacious system of mass media) we will undermine our own future. Mumia Abu Jamal said “If Trump is the price we have to pay to defeat Clintonian neoliberalism – so be it.” I want to suggest that Trump is not likely to become POTUS and the we already pay the price of having Trump in our world. The real issue whether we are willing to risk an outside chance of a Trump presidency, or whether we will be self-defeating losers who let ourselves be spooked by the scary clown. People in the US and outside need to gear up to oppose the next President, whoever she may be.
Many Trump supporters are like Brexit supporters who, as Jonathan Pie pointed out, made an almost rationally irrational decision to choose a self-destructive hopeless gamble over the certainty of slow neoliberal degradation. They weren’t really being offered a choice, because the entire referendum was framed so that voting stay would be taken as an endorsement of the wider status quo. US voters are faced with a similar non-choice. Clinton’s election will be taken as a mandate for war, empire and neoliberalism. Moreover, if people do not make a show of rejecting both Trump and Clinton it will validate and consolidate the demockracy. It will be a watershed in the slow murder of democracy, perhaps not as irremediable as the 1932 Nazi electoral victory, but a definite goose-step in the same direction.
As a long-standing student of US history and wars, this election reeks to me of the election before a major war. I suspect that we will be tested by the next administration and our responses will write the future for us and our children. The distinction between war abroad and war at home has always been blurry and it looks like becoming much more so. The US is heading back into the Middle East at a time when conflict in the Middle East and North Africa is metastasising and consolidating into a single historic bloodletting.
It is time to ask the question, which side are you on? Supporting Trump could be hateful or delusional or simply the product of desperation, but supporting Clinton (even out of fear) is a clear endorsement of neoliberalism, neoconservatism and empire. Do you think that your hatred of Trump can justify supporting the killing of tens of thousands in the Middle East? the suffering of tens of millions as whole countries are slowly ground up and turned into failed states to maintain US hegemony? the immiseration of hundreds of millions as neoliberalism continues its march towards a nightmare future? If you choose Clinton, whether you are witting or only half-witting, you are the enemy of humanity.
In a post on Aotearoa’s The Daily Blog, a supposedly “leftist” blogger, Chris Trotter, took “Bernie’s die-hard supporters” to task for being “ridiculous”. He was endorsing Sarah Silverman’s words, but after some inconsequential waffle, he took it a bit further: “That makes the ‘Bernie or Bust’ crowd something much more than ridiculous, Sarah, it makes them dangerous.”
Trotter is not alone in this sentiment, but it is highly arrogant to presume to criticise without showing any insight or seeming to know much about the subject at all. Not only is the disruption and protest valid, the circumstances that lead them to it have a significance even broader than this US general election. Trump v. Clinton is the Alien vs. Predator election. Those who refuse to reject the two-party system agree that they prefer Predator, but they disagree about which candidate that is. Meanwhile a growing number of people, with varying levels of politeness, are trying to get them to realise that Alien and Predator are both aliens and both predators. But this predicament facing US voters is to some extent faced everywhere that neoliberalism holds sway, it is just more scary and funny when you put it in the deranged context of US electoral politics.
In my country, as fellow Kiwi Patrick Gower explained to Democracy Now!, we have a “morbid fascination” with the political rise of Donald Trump, but our media have been much kinder to Hillary Clinton. I can only liken the phenomenon to US news media reporting on Israel which is far more obsequious and uncritical than Israel’s own media. I don’t know why our media gloss over the faults, weaknesses, scandals and crimes of Clinton, but they do. They also followed a script in which Bernie Sanders was a wannabe spoiler, threatening to hand the USA over to Trump by prolonging his primary campaign and splitting the Democrats (a narrative similar to that in which Nader is blamed for giving the 2000 election to Bush).
In reality, if you look for them even from half a world away, there are clear reasons why Clinton is so unpopular with the people of the USA. In fact, she and Trump currently have equal pegging in dislike with both having “unfavourable” responses of 58% according to Gallup. No past Democrat or Republican candidate “comes close to Clinton, and especially Trump, in terms of engendering strong dislike.” In ordinary circumstances neither Clinton nor Trump would be electable with that level of public disdain. The very fact that either could become POTUS is purely because they face each other.
These are strange times. We should reflect on the fact that each party can afford to put forward such a loser of a candidate only because both parties are doing so at the same time. Polls clearly showed that Bernie Sanders would have been able to beat Trump overwhelmingly in the popular vote (despite the vagaries of the electoral college system, this is historically reliable as an indicator of who will win ). Even though they come many months before the election these polls are not just an irrelevance and they probably even understate the advantage Sanders would have had over Trump. Like Clinton, and unlike Sanders, Trump is embroiled in ongoing scandals (over taxes, business practices and child rape allegations) that would in ordinary circumstances have made a presidential campaign highly problematic. Moreover, his campaigning style is key to his base of supporters, but the same theatrics and incendiary rhetoric inevitably make most people dislike him all the more. The only thing that keeps Trump in the race is Clinton, and vice versa.
Instead of feeling entitled to lecture and scold from afar, Chris Trotter should have taken the time to engage with the substance behind the discontent of Sanders delegates (not to mention the masses of protesters on the streets of Philadelphia, far greater in number than those protesting the RNC in Cleveland). To be “ridiculous” or even “dangerous”, as Trotter claims, the dissident Democrats would have to have no grounds to contest the legitimacy of Clinton’s selection as Democratic presidential candidate, no grounds to contest the legitimacy of the dominance of the two main parties in the electoral process, and no grounds to reject Clinton as morally unacceptable and insupportable as an elected representative. On all three counts those who refuse to accept Clinton have very safe and justifiable grounds.
Clinton’s selection as candidate has been far from democratic. She did not, as Trotter claims, win “fair and square”. There is evidence of systematic fraud in the Democratic primaries (the source is not a peer-reviewed paper, but this Snopes article confirms that there is substance to the claims). Similar findings come from a more recent non-partisan report (written in collaboration with Fritz Scheuren, former President of the American Statistical Association). In addition there has been voter suppression, most significantly in the psychologically and politically important states of California and New York. Then there is the media bias against Sanders (not to mention CNN dramatically biasing the electorate on the eve of the California primary).
Moreover leaked DNC emails clearly show that the primary process was unfair. DNC officials on DNC time were conspiring against a candidate and, by extension, the democratic process itself. How could anyone in good conscience simply brush this off as unworthy of examination? How much these DNC officials biased the process may be up for debate, but the fact that they did cannot be questioned. They were acting in bad faith all along, and decisions such as when and where to debate seemed to favour the Clinton campaign throughout. Politifact fatuously claims that there is no evidence in the DNC emails that they set out to rig the debates, but it is clear that important DNC staffers were willing and able to work to get Clinton the nomination, and her weakness as an orator is well recognised. To ignore these impacts also reeks of bad faith.
Perhaps we should also consider the fact that one of the leaks from Guccifer 2.0 showed that DNC staffers were planning Clinton’s strategy against the GOP “field” of candidates in May of 2015. This means that as far as they were concerned Clinton was already the anointed presidential candidate of their party. They were right: even though Clinton is highly unpopular; had to fight off a Sanders insurgency; and has been plagued by scandals about DNC emails, her own emails, and an FBI investigation, they were right to presume that she would get the nomination. The implications of this are that democracy is not really a factor in Democratic primaries and that insiders do not expect it to be.
And then there is the role of money in US politics. In simple terms, Clinton was given a lot more money than Sanders. According to the BBC in March, Sanders had received large numbers of small donations, but Clinton’s money was mostly from large donations with the finance industry being a crucial source. I would call that undemocratic whichever way you cut it, and while money is so crucial to the US electoral process, it can never ever be called “fair and square”.
Even if the #NeverHillary people did not have every right to reject the Democratic primary process in itself, they would still have grounds to reject it as part of a greater undemocratic system that maintains a duopoly of political power. Third parties are systematically excluded from publicly visible politics by the corporate news media. Social media has allowed third parties make a small amount of headway, just as soapboxes and pamphlets once did for Populists and Socialists, but now, as then, it is far from a level playing field. There is a media “blackout” of third parties. This became an issue in 2012, and it will be an even bigger issue this time. Not only are they quantitatively biased, but there is a qualitative bias in the news media with mentions of third parties being dismissive, mocking or negative. If Trump wins, for example, you can be certain that they will use the spoiler argument about Jill Stein, even though the most clear and direct cause will be the alienation of voters by the DNC’s decision to put forward a right-wing corporate-linked hawkish Clinton-Kaine ticket. And then there is the money thing, because the big corporate interests and billionaire donors have a huge sway in US elections (because of “Citizens United”) and they don’t like independent parties.
Yet the two-party system has never looked more undemocratic, more ridiculous, nor more fragile. The Republican primaries have become some sort of freak show and the party itself seems to teeter on the edge of a descent into a comical mash-up where crass aspirational consumer capitalism collides with Fascism and Torquemada’s Spanish Inquisition. The Democrats, meanwhile, continue a process that dates back to 1968 (though it has changed somewhat) of carefully canvassing their support base to find who would best represent everything that epitomises Democrat ideals, and then trying their best to paint their pro-corporate elitist neoliberal candidate as being something like that person.
The chaos in both parties shows that the chronic malaise of democratic deficit that has been eating away at the US for decades, has entered a terminal phase. Chris Hedges, prophet of doom and hope par excellence, has changed his metaphorical placardbycrossing out “The End is Nigh!” and replacing it with “Told You So!”.
People have every right to reject Clinton’s selection and to disrupt this burlesque parody of a democratic process because it is demonstrably undemocratic and because their rights are being violated, but they also have a clear moral claim to reject and disrupt as a matter of conscience. Make no mistake that among other things Clinton is a grade A war criminal with the blood of thousands on her hands. Even as First Lady she took a key role in Operation Desert Fox (an air war, justified with blatant lies, which killed thousands of Iraqis). She was a key exponent of the Libya intervention which, after securing UNSC approval, immediately (and with clear premeditation) exceeded its legal mandate and became a regime change operation. That is the crime of waging aggressive war, the greatest war crime that there is. Libya has been turned into a nightmare that quite literally makes Ghadafi’s period of rule seem like a Golden Age of freedom and prosperity. As Eric Draitser reports, we can now confirm that accusations of atrocities against the Ghadafi regime were lies; that the US intent was always regime change; and that Libya is now a festering sore of instability, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, militia violence, political repression and economic disintegration.
Libya has also been used to ship arms and fighters to Syria, fuelling a civil war which has caused 250,000 deaths. Not only do these arms go to some very brutal people in their own right (from the FSA leader who bit into a dead enemy’s heart or lung in 2013 to the US-backed Islamists who posted video of themselves beheading a 12 year-old boy last week) but, predictably, they have also been a major source of arms for the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. As for Clinton’s part, Jeffrey Sachs writes that “In 2012, Clinton was the obstacle, not the solution, to a ceasefire being negotiated by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. It was US intransigence – Clinton’s intransigence – that led to the failure of Annan’s peace efforts in the spring of 2012….” She supports current US airstrikes in Syria, such as that killed at least 28 civilians just this Thursday (only a week after a nearby strike killed at least 74 civilians). Because the Syrian government has not given permission, these airstrikes are themselves war crimes. Not only are acts such as this crimes, threatening such acts is itself a war crime. Therefore Clinton, who advocates imposing a no-fly zone on Syria, is both advocating and arguably committing a war crime as a central plank of her campaign. Given that military and diplomatic officials reject the plan as unworkable and irrational this is Clinton’s equivalent of Trumps’ wall except that it is also a war crime. She even has a bizarre “Mexico will pay” twist in that she has proposed “sharing” the no-fly zone with Russia. She should be pilloried, but she gets a free pass because people don’t understand what a no-fly zone is. This, in turn, is because they have intentionally been left in the dark in order that they think of a no-fly zone as a passive act, rather than what it is: a violent form of aggressive warfare that requires the destruction of all air defences on the ground as well as the destruction of aircraft.
Another country that owes much suffering and loss of life to Clinton is Honduras. After a coup there, as Adam Johnson of FAIR writes: “Fifteen House Democrats joined in, sending a letter to the Obama White House insisting that the State Department ‘fully acknowledge that a military coup has taken place and…follow through with the total suspension of non-humanitarian aid, as required by law.’ But Clinton’s State Department staunchly refused to do so, bucking the international community and implicitly recognizing the military takeover. Emails revealed last year by the State Department show that Clinton knew very well there was a military coup, but rejected cries by the international community to condemn it.”
Post-coup Honduras has seen the return of right-wing death squads and political murders such as that of Berta Caceres, an activist who, before her death, had herself singled out Clinton as responsible for the coup. Ironically, Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine frequently refers to his time in Honduras in 1980, decrying the dictatorship without ever acknowledging that it was installed and supported by the US, and showing no shame over sharing a podium with someone who helped destroy democracy and unleash violence there 3 decades later.
But if there is a people that has suffered most at the hands of Hillary Rodham Clinton, it may actually be the people of Haiti. In January of 2011 Hillary Clinton flew into Port-au-Prince to resolve an electoral dispute in this manner: the person who came third in the first round of Presidential elections should be bumped up to 2nd place because the US thinks he should and he should then compete in the run-off election. That is how Michel Martelly came to be President of Haiti. After 3 years the terms of the parliament’s deputies all ended, with Martelly refusing to hold elections. He ruled for a year by decree (without the international news media seeming to care in the slightest) before holding elections that were so fraudulent that they were scrapped after 8 months (in June). New elections are set for October of this year.
All of this was happening in a country tortured by an earthquake in 2010 that killed 220,000; a UN “stabilisation” mission, MINUSTAH, that acts more like a hostile violent occupying force; a cholera epidemic brought by MINUSTAH that has killed thousands; rampant corruption; and brutal political violence against the poor and the left. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton was put in charge of a much of the overseas construction funds and Hillary announced that they would test “new approaches to development that could be applied more broadly around the world.”
Instead of rebuilding Haiti it was decided to “rebrand” Haiti. After 5 years $13.5 billion of aid had been spent with little or no assistance being given to those affected. The money is systematically disbursed in ways that make the poor poorer and the rich richer. It goes to line the pockets of US contractors. It maintains a privileged class of NGO executives who wield regnal rights (those usually reserved for the sovereign) as if they were feudal lords. It goes on constructing enterprises that destroy farms and small enterprises to return only a pittance in slave wages (incidentally, during Clinton’s time heading the State Department, US embassy staff opposed a minimum wage rise and cables released by Wikileaks in 2011 showthat they helped block a law passed unanimously in Haiti’s parliament raising minimum wage from $US0.24 to $US0.61).
“Reconstruction” money also gets spent on luxury facilities for the rich on the theory (or rather the pretext) that poor homeless people will be able to get jobs. The US Red Cross raised $500 million for Haiti and only built 6 permanent houses, (note: this is not the International Red Cross, but rather the US organisation which also gained notoriety and condemnation for their response to Hurricane Sandy).
Meanwhile connected people from the US have found that Haiti is “open for business” (the actual slogan promoted by Clinton), with natural wealth to plunder and cheap labour to exploit. Among them is Hillary Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham, whose company scored a “sweetheart” concession to mine gold that had not been given for 50 years. The mining threatens to inflict severe environmental and humanitarian consequences. So when Clinton castigates Trump for ripping-off small businesses and workers, as she did in her acceptance speech, just bear in mind that her corruption hits people who are even more vulnerable. Like the no-fly zone issue she gets away with it because nobody knows about Haiti.
These are just some of the moral grounds on which people can legitimately refuse to support Hillary Clinton. Others have been highlighted by Black Lives Matter, often dating back to Bill Clinton’s terms as President. She was supportive of welfare reform, the drug war, and justice reform which all led to the current neoliberal security state. Complementing this are her ties to Wall Street, her immense wealth, her obscene speaking fees, and her clear political expediency and flexibility on issues that should be matters of conscience. Any real leftist should loathe Clinton in the same way that they would loathe Tony Blair and George Bush. They are a new aristocracy that have proven that they will steal and kill. These are all warmongering neoliberal neoconservative neofeudalist neofascists and it is time we finally understood that none of those labels is in conflict with any other of those labels. People like Trotter have an authoritarian streak that makes him far more offended by those who try to make themselves heard by disruption from below, then he does by a stinkingly corrupt decadent system that is far more offensive. His tone suggests that he views himself as being well above the ill-behaved rabble as if, despite his evidently ignorant and vulgar apprehension of the issues, he has some paternal wisdom. It is not a good look, but he is hardly the only example of his species abroad. He also has prior form: in 2007 when armed police terrorised an entire rural community with “anti-terror” raids on Māori and anarchist activists, he wrote “it wasn’t the actions of the police that provoked my fury, but of those who’d forced their hand.”
And yet, Hillary Clinton and the undemocratic behaviour of the “Democratic” party are not the only things that make disobedience and disruption a legitimate response. The Democratic National Convention showed extremely disturbing signs of militarist nationalism and fanatical fervour. Eddie Glaude described it as “retooling Ronald Reagan’s morning in America, the shining city on the hill”. That day a 4-star General marched out to a military drum-roll proclaiming Clinton’s credentials as a war leader. He scowled and yelled, probably trying to look like Churchill, but actually ending up looking more authentically Mussoliniesque than Trump: “To our enemies; we will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us!”.
And then there was the unforgettable end of Joe Biden’s speech. Long considered a non-entity only distinguished by his blinding teeth, Biden became a man possessed: a fist-pumping spittle-flecked vessel for the spirit of GI Joe and John Wayne: “We are America! Second to none. And we own the finish line. Don’t forget it! God bless you all, and may god protect our troops. Come on. We’re America! Thank you.”
Most significant of allwasthe moment that many considered the highlight of the entire conference. The crowd erupted when Khizr Khan,the father of a GI who died in the illegal and immoral occupation of Iraq, rhetorically asked Trump: “Have you even read the US constitution?” And then proffered his own copy from the left-hand shirt pocket (next to the heart).
Judging from the response on twitter Khan’s act was adored by nearly everyone, and that itself should be frightening because the moment carried many implications, and not one of them is good. Firstly we need to recognise that this is a ritual gesture popularised by the nationalistic right-wing Tea Party movement and linked in the public mind to that ideology. Secondly, as the US-Iraqi activist and writer Dahlia Wasfi commented: “the message that a ‘good Muslim’ is one who kills for US empire, oil, and Israel is no less offensive to me than whatever Trump has to say about Muslims or Islam.” Thirdly this is a type of disingenuous appropriation of Islam equivalent to greenwashing, pinkwashing or femiwashing. Even Piers Morgan tweeted: “Something very distasteful about Hillary using Khans as political pawns vs Trump given she’s partly responsible for their son’s death”. Fourthly it signifies that in the space of just 8 years, the Democratic Party has gone from viewing the Iraq War as a “war of choice” (which has connotations, if noticeably inexplicit ones, of immorality and illegality) to viewing the Iraq War as a fight to protect US freedoms.
The entire DNC was so nationalistic and militaristic that the actor and activist Margot Kidder was evidently driven to publish a cri de coeur in Counterpunch: she begins “the words are gagging my throat and my stomach is twisted and sick and I have to vomit this out”, and ends: “And there you all are tonight, glued to your TVs and your computers, your hearts swelled with pride because you belong to the strongest country on Earth, cheering on your Murderer President. Ignorant of the entire world’s repulsion. You kill and you kill and you kill, and still you remain proud.” My question is this: if Margot Kidder can see this clearly from within the belly of the beast (well, Montana), how can Chris Trotter, an Aotearoan and putative leftist, be such a blithe apologist for a mass-murderer like Hillary Clinton.
In all I have written I have focussed on morals and reasons of principle. They alone should make it clear that only thing that is “ridiculous” is the conceit of loftily condemning those who refuse to be drawn by fear into supporting the insupportable. I am aware, however, that there are many practical issues I have not dealt with. I am aware that some people will think that US voters, facing the possibility of Trump, do not have the luxury of rejecting Clinton. These are very important issues, because time and again even those who refuse to be chained to the “lesser-of-two-evils” cede the realist high-ground to intellectually and morally compromised dullards; dullards who insist, like broken records stuck in the era of vinyl, that we must play the game and change it from the inside. I do not intend to leave such claims unchallenged, so check back here for Part 2 of this article in which, amongst other things, I will test how strong “chains of rhetorical steel” are (hint: about as strong as chains of rhetorical butter).
I started a conspiracy to harm Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (HMGUKGB&NI). I wanted to deal as much damage to them as possible so I conspired with a poet to plant an explosive and incendiary petition right in the heart of their own website. It was a petition to make the UK Government respond or debate the question of appearing before the International Court of Justice and allowing it to rule on the case of the Chagos Archipelago.
At issue is the terrible injustice to the Chagossians and their descendants who were arbitrarily evicted from their homeland with trickery or brutality. It was the US that decided the negative repercussions of this crime were a reasonable price to pay for a completely depopulated archipelago in which to put a naval and air base. The US gave the order to their British subordinates in a now notorious 3 word telegram: “ABSOLUTELY MUST GO”.
At issue also are the rights of Mauritius. The UK broke international law by detaching Chagos in the lead-up to decolonisation but refuses to have the question adjudicated. Her Majesty’s Government takes the position that Chagos will be returned to Mauritius once the islands are no longer required for “defence” purposes. So far they have “needed” Chagos for 50 years and there is absolutely no reason to believe that they will not “need” the military base on the island of Diego Garcia for another 50 years.
The plight of the islanders, who continue to live in deprivation, is a worthy cause, but we allow it to distract us from what is most important. Our natural sympathies and our psychology as activists is used to make the issue into a lightning rod. We pour our energy into that, and the UK Government directs it safely away from its edifice of imperial violence. Ultimately this is not only turning our backs on the victims of US military violence, it is also useless to the Chagossians. The fact is that no one can argue against the proposition that an injustice was perpetrated against the Chagossians, but they and their supporters are forced to fight the same battle over and over again, and each time they win it gains them nothing. To understand why we need to understand that human rights discourse is dominated by establishment voices who are unquestioningly subservient to power.
Take the example of this educator and human rights professional. She writes:
Considering the crucial importance of the military base for the USA and having in mind all the conflicts that are currently taking place in the Middle East and Asia and those that might be coming soon, it is difficult to believe that even if the Chagossians win again, they would be allowed for real to resettle the islands again.
The case of the Chagossians is interesting precisely because of its complexity and the many factors that have to be taken into consideration when examining it: the interests of both American and British governments, international politics, diplomacy and security, are most certainly factors that could not just be disregarded. So how do human rights enter the picture? Are they taken into consideration when they are opposed to international security? Could they change the course of events? They should definitely influence it. And here comes the question – is something as important as international security worth risking, so that human rights are not violated?
This creates a false dichotomy between human rights and “international security”. The author clearly cedes precedence to security as the superior concern, but without devoting even a single atom of examination to what it might mean. The embedded presumption is that the US and UK can unilaterally decide what constitutes “security” and that their actions are necessarily in favour of “international security”. On a very basic level this violates logic by suggesting that killing people and wreaking destruction in a region geographically distant from both countries is somehow in the service of “security” when there can be no immediate threat from the victims of that violence and destruction. If that basic flaw is unconvincing then there is the fact that US/UK interventions in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia seem to have spawned incredible amounts of insecurity. If “security” is defined as being the physical security of human beings, or even UK citizens, it seems quite a stretch in these times of instability and crisis to say that US/UK military actions have been in the service of security, but to simply stipulate that this is the case without even giving some form of argumentation is ludicrous and unforgivable nonsense.
The political discourse of UK foreign affairs relies on unchallenged assumptions and areas of inquiry where silence is enforced. Like their US counterparts the UK establishment cultivates and inhabits a world of parochial narrow-mindedness and mirror-blindness where they never need to ask themselves why they consider it their right to take lands and resources from others by force. The assumptions are based on exceptionalist notions that presume a fundamental benevolence of nature and benevolence of purpose as the foundations of Western civilisation. These assumptions take on the character of articles of faith and challenges to those articles are greeted with hostility as being heresy. For those that would oppose unjust actions by HMGUKGB&NI it is made much easier to challenge on narrow grounds by suggesting that a particular crime is an exception, while they affirm the rule. That is why it is acceptable to criticise the UK for injustices perpetrated on the Chagosians or even on Mauritius, but it is not permissible to state that their purposes in doing so are themselves criminal, arrogant, imperialistic, militaristic, illegitimate and morally repugnant. In fact even bringing up the subject is offensive, because the facts are so clear. The UK has no right to be in the Indian Ocean and no right to use territory there in support of killing people in the Middle East and Africa.
It is easy to see, therefore, why well-meaning people are attracted to the easy option of treating the issue of the Chagos Islands as separate from the acts of mass violence that are facilitated by the base at Diego Garcia, but it becomes a trap, The callousness of the treatment of those deprived of a homeland is infuriating and exasperating by design. Both openly and behind closed doors officials will fight every step of the way to avoid any admission of wrongdoing. They will make challengers fight and fight for every little admission and then finally, when the time is right and the fullness of consciousness is invested in the blatant injustice, they will admit regret and cite “strategic necessity” for “defence purposes”. In practical terms neither an individual nor a movement can change track at that point. Leaders of the cause, such as crusading parliamentarians, will effectively be subverted or left in a halfway position of campaigning to moderate rather than end overt wrongdoing.
At the same time the voices of the dead of 50 years of mass killing cry out. Diego Garcia is a base for long-range cruise missiles and bomber aircraft as well as communications and logistical support. Even leaving aside the questions of its naval and nuclear role, it is the source of incalculable death, destruction and suffering. This is not potential or theoretical. Another 50 years of “defence purposes” will mean hundreds of thousands killed. The very nature of the weapons systems is such that “defence purposes” can only mean imperial aggression. These are true weapons of mass destruction. Despite pretences, they are not and cannot be used in a pure military sense against a chosen Hitler-of-the-month dictator and their armies, they are weapons that attacks “peoples and nations” – which is the original defining trait of genocide.
Since the end of World War 2 the most indiscriminate and obscene weapon of war to be used has been the B-52 bomber. After smaller aircraft and ground artillery had had created a 20 km traffic jam on the Mutla Ridge early in 1991, it was B-52s which carpet bombed those trapped there, massacring them in a period of hours. This became known as the “Highway of Death” and the B-52s which were responsible for the slaughter flew from Diego Garcia.
Most B-52s that flew in the 1990-1 “Gulf War” were based in Diego Garcia. The near obsolete bombers dropped one third of the aerial tonnage and every time they dropped ordnance it was, by the very nature of the weaponry, a war crime of disproportionate and/or indiscriminate killing.
B-52s were used from the first night of the war to the last. Flying at 40,000 feet and releasing 40 – 60 bombs of 500 or 750 pounds each, their only function is to carpet bomb entire areas. … B-52s were used against chemical and industrial storage areas, air fields, troop encampments, storage sites, and they were apparently used against large populated areas in Basra.
Language used by military spokesman General Richard Neal during the war made it sound as if Basra had been declared a “free fire zone”…. On February 11, 1991, Neal told members of the press that “Basra is a military town in the true sense…. The infrastructure, military infrastructure, is closely interwoven within the city of Basra itself” He went on to say that there were no civilians left in Basra, only military targets. … Eyewitness accounts Suggest that there was no pretense at a surgical war in this city. On February 5, 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the air war had brought “a hellish nightime of fires and smoke so dense that witnesses say the sun hasn’t been clearly visible for several days at a time . . . [that the bombing is] leveling some entire city blocks . . . [and that there are] bomb craters the size of football fields and an untold number of casualties.”
This was the opening of a period of genocide against Iraq. In 1998, during the sanctions period which was estimated in 1996 to have cost 500,000 children’s deaths, B-52’s from Diego Garcia launched 100 aerial cruise missiles as a major part of Operation Desert Fox. While officials, wonks and security studies hacks are triumphal about the efficacy of strikes against “regime” targets this comes from the long-standing habit of conflating civilian and military targets.
The patently false stated aim of Operation Desert Fox was to “degrade” the mythical WMD programme. The targeting of “command and control”, WMD industrial and “concealment” sites, and the Basra oil refinery were all deleterious to the people of the stricken country. Only retrospectively did the think-tank pundits decide that the real aim must have been regime destabilisation not WMD, but as with the sanctions inflicting misery and hardship on Iraqis only strengthened the governing regime. From 600-2000 civilians died along with an unknown number of military personnel who were attacking no one and had no chance to defend themselves or fight back.
In 2001, Diego Garcia was the most important base in launching attacks on Afghanistan. This was a high-altitude no boots-on-the-ground approach by the US which led predictably to a power vacuum, rampaging warlords, insoluble instability, refugee crisis, food insecurity and everything else we have since seen unfold. Like Iraq, the country is being slowly tortured to death. In 2003, Diego Garcia was once again central to US efforts against Iraq. Readers are probably somewhat familiar with what has happened in the area since.
Diego Garcia has never had legitimate “defence purposes”. It is a strategic asset of empire and it is used to maintain control over the Middle East, South Asia and parts of Africa. The base is there primarily for the purpose of killing large numbers of people at once when other means of exerting power are unsuitable, undesirable or unavailable. Its role is distinctly and inescapably genocidal.
Here’s the thing: it is difficult for activists to recruit people by accusing the government of war crimes, let alone mass-murder and genocide. A web search will show that even antiwar websites and writers tend mention Diego Garcia’s role in bombing only in passing while focussing either on its role in torture and “extraordinary renditions”, or on the injustice perpetrated against the islanders.
It is easy to see why the plight of the Chagossians appeals in the same way that seeing rabbits tortured in testing cosmetics was so rousing in the 1980s. The moral dimensions of the issue are readily apparent and very few people need to re-examine their ideology, challenge their beliefs, or question their loyalties. The Chagossian cause is just, but it is not right to ignore other crimes which are even more monstrous. It is not right, and it is not wise. Without undermining the “strategic necessity” argument then there can never be a victory. The Chagossians have already won in court – several times – but they remain in exile. Why? Because “defence purposes”.
People may not want to hear the truth about imperial aggression and the suffering inflicted in their names, but they can at least understand that giving the US a base in the Indian Ocean from which to bomb people has not made the United Kingdom in any respect safer. No one can suggest that carpet bombing Iraq reduced the threat of terrorism or Saddam’s WMD. If we do not accept that there are valid “defence purposes” then there are no legally or morally valid “strategic” reasons for keeping the Chagos Archipelago. That is something that we must always bear in mind when working in this cause – there is no strategic justification and the UK has no right to be there at all.
The cause of Mauritius is also just. They are the rightfully sovereign country deprived due to “strategic” decisions taken in 1964-5 which were no more defensible than the depopulation decisions of 1970-1. Mauritius recently won a case against the UK in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, but the UK denies the jurisdiction of the court and the court cannot rule on the issue of sovereignty. Mauritius is taking the case to the International Court of Justice for an “advisory” ruling, but that is only as good as the publicity it generates. They need allies, especially among UK activists who can keep the issue on the agenda at home.
For this reason I contacted Mhara Costello, an activist and poet who uses the pen name Tamerishe. Along with her poem “Once Upon a Palestine” she also wrote “Just a Word” which deals with the abuse of the term “terrorist”. It seemed an appropriate qualification. We formulated a petition that would incorporate a direct challenge to the narrative frame which ensures that critiques always remain atomised, specific and isolated – hermetically and prophylactically sealed away from infecting the self-righteous self-love of civilised Britons.
The characters allowed for e-petitions to HMGUKGB&NI are predetermined and restrictive, and this is what Mhara posted:
HMG should agree with Mauritius to an ICJ case regarding the Chagos Islands.
The Republic of Mauritius claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, but that claim is disputed by the UK. If the UK government agrees the International Court of Justice can hear and judge the issues as a “Contentious Case” in accordance with international law.
At issue is more than sovereignty. The UK forcefully removed the inhabitants of the islands and leased Diego Garcia as a US military base. The treatment of the islanders is cruel and unjust, and has been ruled unlawful. The US military base sends bombing sorties which cause countless deaths and may constitute crimes of aggression or terrorism. The base is also implicated in torture, illegal rendition, and concealment of illegal munitions. More at: http://johnpilger.com/videos/stealing-a-nation.
The first response was silence. The after prodding the following belated reply:
Thank you for your email. I apologise for the length of time it has taken to process your petition. We can accept the central request of your petition, but we cannot publish the second paragraph because it does not comply with our rules. This means that your petition would read:
HMG should agree with Mauritius to an ICJ case regarding the Chagos Islands.
The Republic of Mauritius claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, but that claim is disputed by the UK. If the UK government agrees the International Court of Justice can hear and judge the issues as a “Contentious Case” in accordance with international law.
If you could let me know that you are happy with this, we could publish your request immediately.
To which Mhara responded:
No, I am not happy removing the second paragraph. I would be willing to amend it. Can you be more specific please, regarding your objections? In what way does the petition not comply with the rules? Please cite which rules have been breached? I am unable to identify any (inadvertently) I may have overlooked.
She then sent a second reminder and eventually received a longer email including the following:
We cannot publish the second paragraph of your petition, because we have not been able to establish that the very serious allegations you make are true. I hope you will understand that we cannot publish allegations of unlawful conduct. We would be happy to look at alternative wording for this paragraph, if you would like to propose some. It would need to be worded moderately and fall within our rules. You might reasonably say, for example, that many people believe that the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands have been very badly treated by the Governments of the UK and the USA, and that this ought therefore to be examined by the ICJ.
They are saying that you can’t detail allegations that you want addressed in court, because you have to prove the truth of the allegations before petitioning to have the matter adjudicated. This response is a bureaucratic Catch-22 piece of nonsense. It must be assumed that, as intended, the petition itself is troubling. The offending paragraph deliberately broadens the issue as much as possible within the character limit. One petition is unlikely to really shake the UK establishment, but it may yet frighten them because it takes matters into a realm which they cannot control. What is more, there is a hook in it.
When they commit crimes or act unjustly the greatest vulnerability of the authorities is their perceived legitimacy. When they are forced to overtly display illegitimacy it breaks their support structure. Even in the face of mass popular condemnation, a government can act with blatant injustice as long as they have a cover story – a lie which, however unconvincing, allows those who really want to give them unconditional support to believe in benign intent or even the ineffable divine schemes of “security”, which lie beyond mortal ken. In this case the UK might be in an awkward position if the question were debated because it does not want to negotiate directly with Mauritius. To explain why they do not wish the matter adjudicated by the ICJ the UK government might either have to say it prefers bilateral talks or it would have to say that it does not think its actions should be subject to adjudication under international law because “defence purposes”. That would bring the spotlight back onto the criminal uses of the criminally acquired Chagos Archipelago.
Right at the moment the “perceived legitimacy” of the UK government may already be close to breaking. Foreign entanglements must surely seem even less attractive to the UK public than February 2003, when a million marched in London to protest the looming invasion of Iraq. The sordid aftermath of shame from that act continues while the ongoing Balkanisation of the oil rich Arab world is surely one of the most inglorious blood-lettings in the unpleasant history of conflict. Even for those who do not understand that US/UK intervention created the fractures and fervour that wrack the region, it is hard to see any nobility in backing the Saudis, the Israelis and the “moderate” forces that fight alongside al-Nusra.
Meanwhile, the establishment seems to have to put the UK public in its rightful place of silent subjugation more often than it would normally need to. It seems that every time that there is a popular consensus in the general population or some significant segment of it, they need to be reminded that their democratic voice must be conveyed through a mediating wah-wah pedal that is under the foot of their social superiors. Whether it is giving Thatcher an appropriate send-off, or naming a sea-vessel, or when Labour Party members mistakenly choose a leader whose views coincide with those of ordinary people. Much more of this and people will start demanding that the hollow sham of modern democracy have some populist stuffing shoved back in it, and once government’s start giving in to popular demands it just encourages more; things could spiral out of control and before you know it you are dealing with a sovereign self-emancipated people who do not want a society run by and for a controlling greedy and/or power-obsessed few.
That is why even an e-petition can frighten Her Britannic Majesty’s mighty Royal Government. They need people to continue to be their own worst enemies. They need people to sabotage their own efforts. They need people to think that those within the establishment have a greater understanding of issues and how to tackle them. They need them to make their own protests against specific injustice into an embrace and an endorsement of the system itself.
Let’s show them that we won’t play that stupid game any more.
[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 Intifadahas 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 facieevidence 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.
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Date: 18 February 2014
IRAQ: STOP THE MASSACRE OF ANBAR’S CIVILIANS!
Maliki’s use of the army against the civilian population of Anbar constitutes the defeat of the policies Iraq has been following since 2003 and cements the divorce between the people of Iraq and the current sectarian government.
This new round of bombing has already produced 300,000 displaced, adding to the tragedy of the millions of Iraqi citizens already displaced by the failed and brutal US occupation.
While states are legally obliged to refrain from assisting other states to undertake internationally criminal acts, the United States is upping its supply of arms and military advisors to Iraq, along with intelligence cooperation. A new US “Surge” is in the making and will only bring more death and destruction.
Maliki’s government cannot wantonly kill civilians and claim a “State of Law”:
— Collective punishment is illegal under international law.
— Shelling water and electricity facilities, religious buildings, and hospitals are war crimes and crimes against humanity.
— The scale and target of the Maliki military strikes and shelling is utterly disproportionate and illegal and criminal in the face of the legitimate demands of the Anbar tribes.
— The lack of proportionality itself constitutes a war crime and crime against humanity.
— It is paramount for people everywhere to mobilise now to save Fallujah’s and Anbar’s civilians, understanding that their suffering mirrors the impact of the fascist sectarian regime that the US occupation created.
We appeal to all individuals of conscience, to all those who support human rights, to all progressives who believe in democracy and the right to self-determination, to the UN Security Council, to the president of the UN General Assembly, to members of the UN General Assembly, to the European Commission and member states, to the European Parliament and peoples, to Islamic and Arab states and people and their organisations, and to all human rights, anti-war and civil society organisations to:
1. Order the Iraqi government to stop its use of wanton shelling, air force attacks, and heavy artillery against the civilian population in keeping with the responsibility of states to protect civilians under the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention and its additional protocols.
2. Constitute an independent investigative committee to document the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Anbar and submit its findings to the International Criminal Court.
Abdul Ilah Albayaty
Hana Al Bayaty
Eman Ahmed Khamas
Abdul Ilah Albayaty is an Iraqi political analyst. Hana Al Bayaty is an author and political activist. Ian Douglas is an independent political writer who has taught politics at universities in the US, UK, Egypt and Palestine.
I am writing to endorse your statement condemning state violence against civilians in Anbar. My name is Kieran Kelly. I have a Master’s degree in history from Massey University in Aotearoa/New Zealand. My Master’s thesis placed the Iraq Genocide in the context of prior genocides committed by the US under the guise of military actions. I consider the current violence in Iraq to be the direct result of deliberate and systematic policies of destruction aimed at the people of Iraq as such. Both the intentionality of these acts and their links to current divisions within Iraq are amply demonstrated by frequent references by US officials to the desirability of fostering division or even partition along sectarian and ethnic lines in Iraq. In line with these stated policies the actions of US forces in Iraq – though seemingly “mishandled” in the normal politico-military sense – efficiently implemented policies which inflicted economic, social, cultural, religious, and physical destruction. This included inflicting massive direct and indirect mortality; fostering eliticidal violence against academics; disruption and degradation of health services; ecocidal pollution with toxic and radioactive materials; and generating communal strife, division and violence.
The current violence does not merely threaten a subsidiary genocide against Iraq’s Sunni population (as suggested by Struan Stevenson) but also is an expression of the ongoing US genocide embodied through their material and political support for the Maliki regime’s divisive, oppressive and violent policies. The fact that the US is also inevitably channeling arms and money to Islamist opponents of the Baghdad regime (through its destabilisation programme in Syria) only serves to illustrate that it is the Iraqi people who are the target, not particular segments or formations. A strong Iraqi people (whether unified democratically or under brutal force) is inherently antithetical to US imperial interests. The objections they raise to putatively objectionable political or religious ideologies (and also their denunciations of leaders as being equivalent to Hitler) are simply rationalisations for morally unacceptable imperial policies including genocidal policies which inflict mass deaths.
For John Kerry the incoming Secretary of State, the bombing of Cambodia by the US was illegal. But, even as Kerry reaffirms his condemnation of US actions in Cambodia, it comes to light that in June his colleagues in the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees were issued a white paper from the Department of Justice which claimed US intervention in Cambodia as being a legal precedent for the administrations use of targeted killings using drone strikes. In fact, “legal precedent” might be too strong a term, because what is actually cited is an address given by legal counsel to the State Department to a legal forum. Yes, they are using a speech rather than an adjudication as a claim of precedence, much as one might in some future time quote John Yoo as the legal precedent for a systematic programme of child torture by testicular crushing. On the other hand, the carpet bombing of Cambodia was one of the most brutal and notorious war crimes of the post-WWII era and not only has no one been prosecuted for the crime, but the principle perpetrator was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few years later – perhaps this is exactly the sort of precedent that the Obama administration looks towards.
With all of that in mind, it is worth revisiting exactly what the US did to the people of Cambodia. Then we can understand exactly what sort of moral precedent applies here – the sort that would make almost any organised crime boss, or terrorist, or psychopathic serial killer blanch with horrified disgust. If you think I’m exaggerating, read on.
In 2007 Barack Obama said: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” In questioning John Kerry about Obama’s departure from that principle in Libya, Rand Paul elicited from Kerry, a reaffirmation that he, Kerry, still believed that the bombing of Cambodia was illegal. One might wonder, then, whether Obama’s new Secretary of State is going to oppose his famous “drone” assassination programme. I broach the subject because the Department of Justice rationalised the use of deadly force in other sovereign territories citing Cambodia as a precedent. This is an excerpt from their recently released White paper:
The Department has not found any authority for the proposition that when one of the parties to an armed conflict plans and executes operations from a base in a new nation, an operation to engage the enemy in that location cannot be part of the original armed conflict, and thus subject to the laws of war governing that conflict, unless the hostilities become sufficiently intense and protracted in the new location. That does not appear to be the rule of the historical practice, for instance, even in a traditional international conflict. See John R. Stevenson, Legal Adviser, Department of State, United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law, Address before the Hammarskjold Forum of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (May 28,1970)…, (arguing that in an international armed conflict, if a neutral state has been unable for any reason to prevent violations of its neutrality by the troops of one belligerent using its territory as a base of operations, the other belligerent has historically been justified in attacking those enemy forces in that state).
Now, let me start off by saying something absolutely clearly. The idea that the US can legally engage in a programme of assassinations using hellfire missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles is a patent falsehood – a complete joke – a non-starter – a parody – a stupid idea that no one should take seriously. A single ad hoc emergency strike might be justified as self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter, but a programme cannot be as self-defence because, under the charter, it can only be applied to imminent threats. This aspect of law isn’t rocket science, nor hidden within some mystical realm of legalese. The standard legal textbook dealing with this subject is Yoram Dinstein’s, War, Aggression and Self-Defense, now in its 4th edition. It is a pretty straightforward book (and I’m no lawyer) and on this particular subject it is so unequivocal that it is impossible that any superior authority might find some crucial flaw which would invalidate Dinstein. The reason it is so unequivocal is that the US arguments have already been ruled against by no lesser body than the International Court of Justice. The reason for this is that the US has already deployed almost the exact same reasoning to justify its actions against Nicaragua.
On Nicaragua v. United States of America, the ICJ ruled “By twelve votes to three, Rejects the justification of collective self-defence maintained by the United States of America in connection with the military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua the subject of this case; …. By twelve votes to three, Decides that the United States of America, by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State….” And goes on to add other grounds of violation, including a similar finding against the US mining of Nicaragua’s main port. Dinstein explores the US self-defence claims and notes that although self-defence was ruled out on other grounds this did not prevent judges from further noting that the three requisite conditions of immediacy, necessity, and proportionality were also unsustainable.1
In the Nicaragua case, as now, the US argued that conditions of immediacy, necessity and proportionality were met, but then, as now, these are just empty words disproved by the simplest of geographical facts. Such claims are even further disproved by publicly available details of the US assassination programme, such as the use of “signature strikes” and the use of “double tap” follow up strikes. These practices demolish self-defence arguments even as they raise further questions about breaches of International Humanitarian Law (such as the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949)) and International Human Rights Law (such as Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which affirms “the right to life, liberty and security of person”).
So, how much does citing US actions in Cambodia strengthen the feeble claims of legal rationale for drone strikes? I would say somewhat less than not at all, partly because US military actions in Cambodia were clearly not legal and partly because they too failed the test of self-defence (hence arguably being crimes against the peace) but they were also gross breaches of International Humanitarian Law, and should be classified as genocide – which is considered an “aggravated crime against humanity”
When people think of genocide and Cambodia, they tend to think of the Khmer Rouge, and the “Killing Fields”; of their evidently insane Democratic Kampuchea regime which began its “Year Zero” in 1975. But a Finnish Inquiry Commission designated the years 1969 to 1975 in Cambodia (a time of massive aerial bombardment by the US and of bitter civil war wholly sustained by the US) as Phase 1 of the ‘Decade of Genocide’.2Estimates of Cambodian deaths resulting from the 1969-75 war range from Vickery’s 500,000 killed3 to a credible 1 million excess deaths estimated by Sorpong Peou.4 Given that the Cambodian population was an estimated 6 or 7 million in the period of the Second Indochina War, this gives us a figure of between 1 in 6 and 1 in 14 of all Cambodians killed.
US actions inside Cambodian borders began years before the devastating carpet bombing. The US ‘Studies and Operations Group’ conducted attacks with US Special Forces personnel in Cambodia throughout the 1960s. In 1967 these were institutionalised as “Salem House” (later known as “Daniel Boone”). This programme was kept secret from the US congress and conducted a total of 1,835 missions. Their primary activity appears to have been the laying of “sanitized self-destruct antipersonnel” mines anywhere up to 30 kilometres beyond the border. Their supposed mission was intelligence gathering, but throughout the whole programme they only captured 24 prisoners.5 The Special Forces troops usually disguised themselves as Vietnamese PLAF fighters and sometimes murdered civilians in false-flag operations.6
In 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown by General Lon Nol7 and Prince Sirik Matak with tacit support from Washington and probable assistance by the CIA. Washington recognised the new regime within hours.8 So fast was recognition of Lon Nol’s government that it must have precluded any possibility that the changes on the ground were being assessed, which strongly suggests that the US must have had detailed foreknowledge in order to have any confidence in its judgement. Sihanouk’s overthrow made civil war unavoidable.
In 1969, before the above events, the US began bombing Cambodia in what was known as “Operation Menu”. From Saigon, US General Creighton Abrams insisted that he had “hard evidence” that the Central Office for South Vietnam headquarters (COSVN HQ) had been located in the “Fish Hook” salient of Cambodia.9 The problem was that no such place ever existed, though for years the US had mounted operations to crush it when they claimed it was located in South Vietnam.10 Once under way, Operation Menu spread to other areas. Despite the carpet bombing of area supposed to contain COVSN HQ, in April 1970 Abrams claimed that the headquarters still existed as a fortified underground bunker with 5000 personnel.11 In May US and RVN forces invaded Cambodia, the action justified in part as an attempt, yet again, to wipe out the COVSN HQ “which had become the Holy Grail of the American war”.12 The US/RVN invasion simply, and predictably, drove communist forces deeper into Cambodia.13
It is a known and predictable effect that the killing of civilians drives people to take up arms, it is a “counterproductive” counter-insurgency tactic which actually strengthens the enemy.14 It is worth remembering that the famous maverick US Army officer John Paul Vann made the same observation in 1962.15One of the most striking examples of generating an enemy by killing civilians, is what occurred in Cambodia from 1969 onwards. Ben Kiernan repeatedly cites evidence in numerous consecutive instances that US/RVN aerial bombardment strengthened the Khmer Rouge insurgency, and, more specifically the anti-Vietnamese faction of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.16 In 1969, the Khmer Rouge consisted of perhaps 4000 – an ultimately unthreatening insurgency. By the end of 1972, they were able, with DRV logistical support, to “hold their own” against Lon Nol’s armed forces, which, at US instigation, had been enlarged to between 132,000 and 176,000 (not counting “ghost” soldiers, who existed only on the books of the corrupt officers who collected their pay) and had massive US/RVN air support.17 In William Shawcross’s words, “the new war was creating enemies where none previously existed”18 and by this stage, Lon Nol’s regime was already reduced to the control of shrinking and fragmenting enclaves.19
When the the US generated a war in Cambodia they had already had a great deal of experience in Vietnam and Laos, and what occurred in Cambodia is, in many ways, a naked exposure of the logic behind the genocidal war system, less obfuscated because, ironically, Cambodia was a “sideshow” where it was not the details but the whole war which was kept obscure from the public.
Within a year of Lon Nol’s coup, as mentioned, the economy of Cambodia was virtually destroyed, not only by bombing, but also by US aid. Aid was channelled to the import of commodities and surplus US agricultural goods. It also underwrote the Cambodian government and armed forces: “By the end of 1970, the government was spending five times its revenue and earning nothing abroad.”20 Most of the population became reliant on US aid to eat, and rice supplies were kept at the minimum level needed to prevent food riots. By 1975, malnutrition was widespread and many children starved to death.21
Going back in time to 1970, less than two months after the coup that brought Lon Nol to power, the US invaded Cambodia, along with ARVN forces. They did not bother to forewarn Lon Nol who found out after Richard Nixon had announced the invasion publicly.22 This invasion along US and RVN bombing and the civil war made refugees of around half of the Cambodian population.23Lon Nol was outraged by the invasion and when later briefed by Alexander Haig (then military assistant to Kissinger) about US intentions he wept with frustration. According to Shawcross, “He wished that the Americans had blocked the communists’ escape route before attacking, instead of spreading them across Cambodia. … The Cambodian leader told Haig that there was no way his small force could stop them. … [Haig] informed Lon Nol that President Nixon intended to limit the involvement of American forces…. They would be withdrawn at the end of June. The the President hoped to introduce a program of restricted military and economic aid. As the implications of Haig’s words for the future of Cambodia became clear to Lon Nol, he began to weep. Cambodia, he said, could never defend itself.”24
As has been detailed, US actions, particularly in bombing, were directly responsible for creating the communist enemy which overthrew Lon Nol. The bombing between 1969 and 1973 took up to 150,000 lives.25 If averaged out, over 33 tons of ordnance were used to kill each Khmer Rouge insurgent.26 Despite the fact that Vietnamese pilots bombed any Cambodian they could, which aided only the Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol acceded to a US demand that he request an increase in VNAF bombing in 1971.27 By May 1972, the Lon Nol regime had control of perhaps 10 per cent of the country and continued to lose territory which was thereafter fragmented into ever smaller enclaves.28 The result was by that stage foregone, and yet the war dragged on for three years with the greater part of the 1 million deaths occurring after that point.
In 1970, when Henry Kissinger briefed Jonathan “Fred” Ladd, who was slated to conduct the war in Cambodia, he told him, “Don’t even think of victory; just keep it alive.”29 The point of the US bombing was not to win a military victory – it was to destroy Cambodia as part of an Indochina “exit strategy” – and that is a clear instance of genocide under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. When the US Congress finally blocked aid to Cambodia and South Vietnam, it was with the belated realisation that such aid would not give any hope of victory or improve a bargaining position. Senator Mike Mansfield spoke out, “Ultimately Cambodia cannot survive…. Additional aid means more killing, more fighting. This has got to stop sometime.”30
So that was the end of the US involvement in Cambodia, and their legal culpability. The Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, and the refugees were shocked to see that the black-clad cadres were mostly young teens, fanatical and brutalised by half a young lifetime of fighting and death. The US was not responsible for the fantasies of the Pol Pot clique, who believed that supernatural amounts of food could be produced without recourse to machine power, nor for their refusal to accept aid. But the US had deliberately brought the Cambodian population to the brink of starvation – destroying farmland and driving peasants off the land. Perhaps 500,000 or more died of starvation. Hundreds of thousands were executed for political or ideological reasons, murdered by the Khmer Rouge who the US had largely brought into existence. And when the Vietnamese put the regime to an end (and despite what you may read about this being justifiable as “humanitarian intervention” it was in fact legitimate self-defence – if you don’t believe me you can read about Khmer Rouge foreign policy, border attacks, and espoused official desire to exterminate all Vietnamese) when the Khmer Rouge were supplanted, the US insisted that they retain a seat at the UN and started giving aid to their guerilla forces.
So, do I think that the Cambodia precedent is a good one to justify an assassination programme? No, I do not. But then again I am not from the US, and perhaps I am failing to grasp the subtle point that next to no “Americans” died in Cambodia (none that were officially acknowledged) therefore it did not happen. I don’t want to be offensive, but if they do not wish to be complicit with the crimes of the US regime, US anti-drone campaigners must avoid all trace of exceptionalism. I am sure they mean no harm, but why allow yourselves to be drawn into this ridiculous framework of seeing the drone programme as being primarily a question of “the targeting of Americans without due process.” There have been 5 US citizens killed with US drones whereas at least 4000 non-US citizens have been killed. Why would anyone, in those circumstances, give primacy to concern over “US citizens” and “due process”? 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?
1 Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence (3rd ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp 184-5.
2 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. London: Vintage, 1994 (1988), p 260.
3 Ibid, p 263.
4 Sorpong Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000, p 54.
5 Ibid, pp 64-5.
6 Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, p 18.
7 The US had developed ties with Lon Nol in the 1950s and by 1970, according to CIA officer Frank Snepp, he was one of two candidates being groomed by the CIA to take Sihanouk’s place (William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. London: Fontana, 1980 (1979), pp 114-5).
8 Ibid, pp 114-23; William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (2nd ed.), Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2004, pp 137-8; Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, pp 125-6.
9 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 19.
10 Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, New York: Harper Perennial, 1991, pp 72, 186; Tucker, Vietnam, p 129; Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp 79-80.
11 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 140.
12 Young, The Vietnam Wars, p 245.
13 Shawcross, 1979, p 151.
14 David Keen, Endless War? Hidden functions of the ‘War on Terror’. London, Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2006, pp 58-61.
15 Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Vintage 1989 (1988), p pp 106-111.
16 Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, pp 19-23. Also see Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, p 128.
17 Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 73, 180, 194-5, 261.
18 Ibid, p 249.
19 Ibid, p 254.
20 Ibid, p 220.
21 Ibid, p 317-9.
22 Ibid, p 149.
23 Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia , p 127.
24 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 163.
25 Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 24.
26 Ibid, p 19.
27 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 186.
28 Ibid, pp 254-5.
29 Ibid, p 169.
30 Nigel Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2003, p 213.
The short film exposes the structure which perpetuates pro-Israel media bias in the US and then contrasts it with a more balanced reporting – ironically from the BBC which is facing serious criticism for its pro-Israel bias.
Below is a Media Lens alert. For those unfamiliar with Media Lens they, in their own words, “check the media’s version of events against credible facts and opinion provided by journalists, academics and specialist researchers. We then publish both versions, together with our commentary, in free Media Alerts and invite readers to deliver their verdict both to us and to mainstream journalists through the email addresses provided in our ’Suggested Action’ at the end of each alert. We urge correspondents to adopt a polite, rational and respectful tone at all times – we strongly oppose all abuse and personal attack.”
Media Lens are at their best when they are exposing war propaganda and in this alert they deal with an individual whom I find particularly alarming – Dr Juan Cole. I don’t know what sort of person Dr Cole is, although I could proabably hazard a few guesses as to how he comes to be the way he is. What I can say is that at crucial times he does the US government an immense service by selling war to those most likely to vociferously and actively oppose war. To prove the point I have appended clips of his debate with Vijay Prashad on Democracy Now! His efficacy as a war propagandist, even on an avowedly antiwar news outlet, is quite something to behold.
On March 30, 2011 – eleven days into Nato’s war on Libya – Professor Juan Cole wrote from his armchair at the University of Michigan:
‘The Libya intervention is legal [sic] and was necessary to prevent further massacres… and if it succeeds in getting rid of Qaddafi’s murderous regime and allowing Libyans to have a normal life, it will be worth the sacrifices in life and treasure. If NATO needs me, I’m there.’
Cole thus declared himself ready to suit up and reach for the sky with Nato’s bombers. It was an extraordinary moment.
The rationale, of course, was the alleged risk of a massacre in Benghazi by Gaddafi’s forces. Cole told Democracy Now!:
‘They mounted tanks, 30, 40, 50 tanks, sent them into the downtowns of places like Zawiyah, and they just shelled civilian crowds, protesters… And then they started rolling the tanks to the east, and they were on the verge of taking the rebel stronghold, Benghazi. And there certainly would have been a massacre there in the same way that there was in Zawiyah, if it hadn’t been stopped at the last moment by United Nations allies.’
This was mostly a product of the fevered atmosphere generated every time state-corporate propaganda targets a ‘New Hitler’ for destruction (Gaddafi, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Assad, et al). Two or three weeks of sustained moral outrage from Washington, London and Paris, echoed across the media, are more than sufficient to generate the required hysteria. Almost anything can then be claimed, with even rational questioning denounced as ‘apologetics for tyranny’. In The Politics of Genocide, Edward Herman and David Peterson wrote:
‘The vulgar politicisation of the concept of genocide, and the “emerging international norm” of humanitarian intervention, appear to be products of the fading of the Cold War, which removed the standard pretexts for intervention while leaving intact the institutional and ideological framework for its regular practice during those years.’ (Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, Monthly Review Press, 2010, pp.10-11)
With mainstream political parties no longer exercising restraint on the war wagon, the need to ‘do something’ can be turned on and off like a tap.
By way of a rare exception, Seumas Milne noted in the Guardian of Gaddafi that ‘there is in fact no evidence – including from other rebel-held towns Gaddafi re-captured – to suggest he had either the capability or even the intention to carry out such an atrocity against an armed city of 700,000’.
But most of the press was untroubled by a lack of evidence – the West was simply right to act. A leader in The Times commented on October 21, 2011:
‘Without this early, though sensibly limited, intervention, there would have been a massacre in Benghazi on the scale of Srebrenica.’ (Leading article, ‘Death of a Dictator,’ The Times)
An Independent editorial agreed:
‘Concern was real enough that a Srebrenica-style massacre could unfold in Benghazi, and the UK Government was right to insist that we would not allow this.’ (Leading article, ‘The mission that crept,’ Independent, July 29, 2011)
‘We Must Blow Gaza Back To The Middle Ages’
With the above in mind, consider that, on November 16, on the third day of Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, with at least 18 Palestinians already killed, the BBC reported:
‘Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza has intensified after it authorised the call-up of 30,000 army reservists, amid reports of a possible ground offensive.’
Israel’s cabinet quickly approved the activation of 75,000 reservists, as well as hundreds of Merkava main battle tanks, armoured bulldozers and other assault vehicles, which were transported into position for attack.
Was a massacre looming? The Israeli deputy prime minister Eli Yishai appeared to promise as much on November 18:
‘We must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water.’
A prominent front-page article in the Jerusalem Post by Gilad Sharon, son of the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, openly advocated mass killing:
‘We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.
‘There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire.’
Was the call to ‘Flatten all of Gaza’ beyond the pale of respectable discourse? Apparently not for the BBC, which quoted a less frenzied comment by Sharon three days later.
Recall the human cost of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week offensive waged between December 2008 and January 2009. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reported:
‘The magnitude of the harm to the population was unprecedented: 1,385 Palestinians were killed, 762 of whom did not take part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were minors under age 18. More than 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, of them over 350 seriously so.’
There is no question, then, that a ‘Benghazi moment’ had arrived for Gaza around November 16 or shortly thereafter. A Cast Lead-style massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians was a very real possibility. If Hamas rockets had killed more civilians, for example in Tel Aviv, it might well have happened.
Whereas Benghazi was being torn apart by a Western-fuelled insurgency, Gaza is under decades of military occupation and years of siege, greatly strengthening the moral case for external intervention. Escape from a ground assault would have been completely impossible for Gaza’s 1.6 million people, about half of them children. And whereas Benghazi was up against Gaddafi’s tin pot army, Gaza was targeted by the most advanced weaponry US taxpayers’ money can buy. Gaza, certainly, was facing a cataclysm beyond anything Gaddafi could have inflicted on his own people.
By any reasonable accounting, then, the case for a no-fly zone, indeed a no-drive zone – some kind of humanitarian intervention – was far more compelling for Gaza than it had ever been for Libya. And yet our search of the Lexis media database found no mention in any UK newspaper of even the possibility of setting up a no-fly zone over Gaza. There was no reference to Gaza’s ‘Benghazi moment’.
By contrast, many ‘Benghazi moments’ have been identified in Syria. A leader in the Independent commented in July:
‘It was the imminent threat to civilians in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, that clinched the argument at the UN for outside intervention. But with multiplying reports that the fight is on for Syria’s second city, Aleppo, the signs are that even government air strikes will not spur a similar Western and Arab alliance into action. Morally, that has to be deplored.’
We saw no commentary suggesting that Western military action might have been justified to prevent a massacre of civilians in Gaza.
Moral ME – The Armchair Warriors Doze Off
In 1999, David Aaronovitch (then of the Independent) made an announcement on Nato’s war to ‘defend’ Kosovo that equally stunned and inspired readers (Juan Cole among them, perhaps):
‘What would I myself be prepared to sacrifice in order to stop the massacres and to strike an immense blow against the politics of racial and ethnic nationalism? Would I fight, or (more realistically) would I countenance the possibility that members of my family might die?’
‘I think so… So yes, for this cause, if the government asked me to, I’d do what was necessary without complaining a lot.’ (Aaronovitch, ‘My country needs me,’ The Independent, April 6, 1999)
Presumably, with Gaza facing another massacre this month, Aaronovitch must again have been eager to swap his armchair for a cockpit to ‘strike an immense blow’ against racial and ethnic nationalism. Not quite:
‘Thinking about how to write about Gaza without just repeating laments of last decade. Sometimes seems little that is both true and useful to say.’
No fighting to be done, it seems, and not even much to be said – it was just all very sad. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky commented in Manufacturing Consent of a similar case:
‘While the coverage of the worthy victim was generous with gory details and quoted expressions of outrage and demands for justice, the coverage of the unworthy victims was low-keyed, designed to keep the lid on emotions and evoking regretful and philosophical generalities on the omnipresence of violence and the inherent tragedy of human life.’ (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon Books, 1988, p.39)
Leading Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland also shook his head sadly and wondered whether Israelis and Palestinians would be ‘locked in a battle that drags on and on, perhaps till the end of time?’ Freedland focused on ‘the weariness’: ‘I feel it myself, a deep fatigue with this struggle, with the actions of both sides’. ‘So yes, I’m weary’, ‘weary of it’, ‘I’m tired’, ‘I’m tired’, ‘I’m tired’, ‘I’m weary’, ‘And I’m especially tired’, ‘I feel no less exhausted. For I’m weary’, ‘I’m tired, too’, ‘And I’m weary’, ‘this wearying’… and so on.
Prior to the onset of this moral ME, Freedland had been the very picture of interventionist vim and vigour. In March 2011, he wrote an energetic piece on Libya titled, ‘Though the risks are very real, the case for intervention remains strong.’ A key obstacle was that ‘Iraq poisoned the notion of “liberal interventionism” for a generation’. No matter:
‘If those nations with the power to stop these pre-announced killings had stood aside, they would have been morally culpable. Benghazi was set to become another Srebrenica – and those that did nothing would share the same shame.’
Last February, ignoring the chaos he had helped make possible in Libya, Freedland wheeled out the same arguments in response to the Syrian crisis. The article featured a picture of Syrian children holding up a cartoon of a green-headed Assad pointing a Kalashnikov at the head of a little girl holding an olive branch. Freedland wrote:
‘The 2003 invasion of Iraq has tainted for a generation the idea once known as “liberal interventionism”.’
He added: ‘We have new problems now. Fail to see that and we make the people of Homs pay the price for the mistake we made in Baghdad.’
And Tripoli! Freedland had clearly not wearied of the price paid by the victims of ‘liberal interventionism’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
‘Terror Attack’ In Tel Aviv
One week into Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud, on a day when 13 Palestinians were killed – with more than 136 people in Gaza killed by that point in 1,500 attacks since the operation began on November 14 – 28 people were injured in a Tel Aviv bomb attack. ITV News’s international editor Bill Neely commented: ‘Tel Aviv bus bomb is first terror attack there in 6 years.’ And: ‘Israeli Police confirm terror attack.’
We wrote to Neely: ‘Bill, are the attacks on Gaza “terror attacks”? Have you described them as such?’
Neely replied: ‘Media Lens; Love what U try 2 do – keep us all honest – but pedantry & refusing 2 C balance hs always bn ure weakness.’
Neely wrote again to us and another tweeter: ‘U & Media Lens R absolutely right. Language is v. important. But a bomb on a bus, like a missile, is terror weapon.’
Neely clearly agreed that missiles were also weapons of terror. So we asked him: ‘Bill, agreed. Given that’s the case have you ever referred to Israel’s “terror attacks” in a TV news report?’
Neely responded: ‘Just to be clear, do you think British bombs on Afghanistan are terrorism? Or on Berlin in 44?’
We answered: ‘Very obviously. Winston Churchill thought so, too.’
We sent a comment written by Churchill to Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief of RAF’s Bomber Command in 1945:
‘It seems to me that the moment has come that the bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.’ (Blitz, Bombing and Total War, Channel 4, January 15, 2005)
Neely wrote back: ‘States use terror – the UK has in war, but groups do 2 & we shd say so.’
We tried again: ‘Bill, you’re not answering. You’ve described Hamas attacks as “terror” on TV. How about Israeli, US, UK attacks?’
Neely simply wouldn’t answer our question. But how could he? The truth, of course, is that ITV would never refer to these as ‘terror attacks’. Words like ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’, ‘militant’, ‘regime’, ‘secretive’, ‘hermit’ and ‘controversial’ are used to describe the governments of official enemies, not our own government and its leading allies.
‘Is This What They Mean By The Cycle Of Violence?’
The November 21 bus bombing, injuring 28 Israelis (initially reported as ten injured), was a far bigger story for the media than the killing of 13 people in Gaza that day. The bias was reflected in the tone of coverage. The BBC reported ‘Horror in Israel’ whereas they had earlier referred to a ‘difficult night for people in Gaza’ after 450 targets had been struck with scores of people killed.
Ordinarily, the BBC loves to compare the line-up of hardware available to combatants, for example here and here. But during Operation Pillar of Cloud, the broadcaster was far more interested in comparing the ranges of Hamas’ home-made rockets. In this deceptive example of BBC ‘balance’ two maps show ‘Areas hit in Gaza by Israel’ and ‘Areas hit in Israel and the West Bank by Gaza militants’ (only the Palestinians are ‘militants’). The impression given is of two roughly equal threats.
The BBC graphic also shows the exact ‘Range of Hamas rockets.’ But there was no graphic of this kind comparing Palestinian and Israeli firepower. Perhaps the juxtaposition of home-made weapons and a long list of very powerful high-tech weapons would have been too absurd, even embarrassing.
The final death toll of the latest massacre is horrifying: 103 of the 158 people killed in Gaza were civilians. Of these, 30 were children – twelve of them under ten-years-old. More than 1,000 Palestinians were injured. Six Israelis were killed, two of them soldiers. This infographic provides a shocking comparison of numbers killed on both sides since 2000. And this excellent little animation asks: ‘Is this what they mean by the cycle of violence?’
Inevitably, president Obama said: ‘we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself’.
‘You can’t defend yourself when you’re militarily occupying someone else’s land. That’s not defense. Call it what you like, it’s not defense.’
Obama also said: ‘There is no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.’
Try telling that to the many bereaved in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Irony is dead, it seems – killed by drone-fire!
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. Write to:
The following is a commentary, meaning that it is me editorialising a lot. Some listeners or readers may find some of what is said to be opaque. I am particularly aware that my use of the term “liberal” may be unfamiliar and problematic. I won’t go into what it is exactly that I mean by “liberal”, but it is broadly consonant with the usages in political science when describing regimes, policies or ideological formations. It is a definition of liberal that doesn’t fall apart when one tries to put it in a broader context.
In contrast, Chris Hedges has recently written of The Death of the Liberal Class. Everything Hedges writes makes perfect sense and everyone knows what he means when he uses the term ‘liberal’. What Hedges would be hard-pressed to do is to reconcile this usage of the term liberal with other unavoidable usages such as as a way of describing the inescapably (if not virulently) liberal policies of “conservatives” and “neo-conservatives”. I’m sure that Hedges is aware of this. What he is doing is referring to self-identified “liberals” which roughly corresponds to what US political scientists refer to as “welfare liberals”.
I don’t believe that there is any such thing as a “welfare liberal”. It is very well understood in political science that most in the US who identify as “conservative” are actually liberals, and I would argue that anti-socialist sentiment has driven many to misidentify themselves as liberals. Most “welfare liberals” are very much at one with their fellow liberals in the “conservative” camp. The putative divide between them is much as the divide between Republican and Democrat – not really a divide at all.
If, at times, it seems that I am overstating matters out of some callow need to dramatise and you feel that my credibility is tarnished, I would urge consideration of the following. 1) It is not possible in this medium to demonstrate the evidence and reasoning behind every position I take; 2) conservatism is not neutral – it is a positive affirmation of an orthodox position; 3) in many cases the orthodox position is not even a reasoned position, but rather simply unexamined “commonsense” received ideology, in other cases it is specious; 4) thus by the avoidance of statements which cannot be demonstrated I would, of necessity, be promulgating fallacies; 5) if there really are things that you simply cannot allow to pass unremarked, please feel free to contact me with and questions and I will happily explain the basis of any such assertions on my part.
Hello and welcome to this On Genocide audioblog commentary. Today I tackle the vexed question of whether Amnesty International are still the profoundly compassionate force for good which inspired millions like me in past times or have become a pack of mass-murdering sociopaths or are merely the pandering toadies of a pack of mass murdering sociopaths? I can reveal in advance that the answer is yes.
Part 1: The KONYism of Amnesty International
I received a phone call the other day from a telemarketer working for Amnesty International. He informed me that he was calling to raise awareness about events in Syria. He cited an urgent need for international action under the United Nations Security Council. Part of my response was to ask why Amnesty International felt a need to “raise awareness” over Syria, which is hardly absent from mainstream news reporting, while not having done so with their own reports of atrocities and ethnic cleansing in post-Gadaffi Libya.
In a formal sense, Amnesty International remains politically neutral, however, Amnesty has an extremely problematic record. In October 1990 Amnesty gave crucial support to the fraudulent, and now infamous claim that Iraqi personnel had murdered premature babies by removing them from incubators.
They would later retract that support, but less than three weeks after the incubator lies Amnesty released a report on atrocities carried out by Iraqis in Kuwait. The report contained unconfirmed as well as independently verified reports of atrocities. Atrocities were definitely taking place, but why dramatise the report with unconfirmed allegations? Amnesty’s answer: to “raise awareness”? But, the entire world was already watching. Saddam Hussein was the most vilified person on the planet (except among some Arabs). George Bush had labelled him as worse than Hitler.
And it was not as there were no atrocities taking place elsewhere such as Myanmar and Honduras, nor even that they were not occurring in military occupations such as those of Western Sahara, East Timor, Palestine and West Papua.
Amnesty produced this report as the US was trying to gain support for unleashing the greatest mass violence on the world since the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces. Amnesty must have known that this was going to involve massive suffering. To be absolutely clear, bombs dropped by US warplanes (even smart bombs) do not build schools, they do not organise elections, and they do not emancipate women (except in giving the equality of the grave).
I mention this because most news and entertainment media treatment of the subject would have you believe that they do these things. What bombs actually do is kill, maim and destroy bringing the suffering of physical pain, fear, grief and material loss.
Amnesty International played a crucial role in in unleashing Desert Storm and the repercussions dwarf by far any good that Amnesty has done in this world since its inception.
Part 2: What did Amnesty enable in Mesopotamia?
It is worth understanding just how much the scale of suffering brought about with Amnesty’s crucial support outweighs the suffering they prevent in their fights against political imprisonment, torture, and capital punishment. The numbers are simply beyond a level that Amnesty could realistically dream of helping. But these victims suffered too, and their suffering is equally tragic, equally unjustified and equally obsene.
Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Sabre can now be seen as the inauguration of a two decades long genocide which took hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives – probably in excess of 2 million.(1)
The US was never interested in any human rights as their betrayal of anti-Baathist rebels revealed. Famously, General Norman Schwartzkopf gratuitously allowed the rather surprised Iraqi military to use helicopter gunships against the uprisings that President Bush had personally and explicitly encouraged to take up arms against the Iraqi regime. Also, while US forces had allowed Iraq’s Republican Guard to withdraw intact from Kuwait, on the so called “highway of death”, they massacred hapless conscripts who, by some accounts, were mutineers.
In these accounts by exiles (who had fled Iraq after the Basra uprising was brutally crushed) those killed on Highway 80’s Mutla Ridge were conscripts headed to join the anti-Saddam uprising which had grown out of the antiwar movement in and around Basra.
There is some controversy over the numbers killed by US warplanes on the Mutla ridge. Initial military eyewitnesses and journalists such as Peter Turnley described and documented a large scale of mortality (perhaps thousands).
Later arriving journalists, most notably Michael Kelly, saw less evidence of mortality but given the undenied disposal of bodies by US personnel this is hardly surprising.(2) The explanation given later was that vehicles were abandoned before being attacked. Photographs of the vehicles are widely available, although they are often from long after the event. It is clear that they were almost all attacked, whether it is conceivable that most were abandoned at this point, or indeed whether it is conceivable that they were not abandoned at this point, I leave to the reader’s judgement.
Regardless of what exact portion of vehicles were occupied when attacked hundreds or maybe thousands of human beings died. Violent death is always obscene, but the photographs and descriptions of the victims here seem sometimes beyond obscenity. Helpless, fleeing, posing no conceivable threat to Allied forces, many victims were burnt alive while trapped in their vehicles.
Schwarzkopf said: “This was a bunch of rapists, murderers and thugs who had raped and pillaged downtown Kuwait City and now were trying to get out of the country before they were caught.” It is exactly this sort of application of mass condemnation (in this case, given substance and verisimilitude by Amnesty itself) that often underlies massacres and other atrocities, but along with reports of a column of mutineers, there are also reports of Palestinian refugees and even Kuwaiti hostages who were among those fleeing along Highway 80.
In Desert Storm, (the bombing campaign conducted under a specious air power doctrine which, like “Shock and Awe”, invented a military significance for civilian infrastructure(3)) the US had attacked all sorts of civilian targets including power generation and water treatment and so forth. It is a war crime to attack such targets, of course, and it is difficult to see how the US could even claim some military advantage. It made no difference to the military outcome what civilians were killed and what civilian infrastructure was destroyed. The military “contest” was so uneven, the opposing forces so disparate, that even the killing of Iraqi military personnel was gratuitous as well as grotesque.
What followed thereafter was the “sanctions regime”, a cruel slow form of genocide inflicting the greatest suffering of all on children. As water-borne disease and malnutrition condemned tens of thousands of under-5’s to avoidable deaths, ironically it was Iraq’s premature infants that were forced to share incubators and were dying for lack of simple bottled oxygen.
(In another irony, Madeleine Albright, who felt that 500,000 dead infants was “worth it” as a price for Iraqi containment, would in 2012 be the keynote speaker at an Amnesty International event, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Maybe in 1990 Amnesty was doing nothing more that to report Iraqi atrocities in that same way as any other, but the context of impending war was unmistakeable and they helped bring about one of the greatest mass atrocities of the post-WWII era.
Part 3: Unrepentant
Did Amnesty, seeing this horrifying mistake, take steps to ensure that in future it would not simply become a source of atrocity propaganda for Western warmongers? Clearly not. Instead its formal neutrality and its original central purpose are being corrupted by expedience and by the corrosive permeation of the Western discourse of humanitarian intervention.
The context is this: Since World War II the state that has committed the most war crimes is the United States; the state that has caused the most deaths of innocents (notwithstanding China’s Great Leap Forward) is likewise the US. One might use different modes and criteria of calculus, but any consistent and defensible reckoning will return the same answer. When it comes to the use of mass violence, when it comes to the use of deadly ordnance, none can even be considered in the same league as the US. Horrible atrocities such as the Soviet bombing of Herat, the Russian bombing of Grozny or the Syrian shelling of Hama are as buckets next to the swimming pools of blood from North Korea, South Korea, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Further context: every large-scale mass atrocity and the majority of those on a smaller scale is preceded by atrocity propaganda wherein the future victim group is portrayed as perpetrators. Sometimes the atrocities are fictitious or massively exaggerated; sometimes one blames one’s own atrocities on an enemy; sometimes false-flag atrocities are actually staged; and sometimes the atrocities are real. The attribution and contextualisation, however, are fantastically important. The actual perpetrators (often impossible to distinguish in any event) become of no importance whatsoever, the perpetrators become defined instead by a group membership. They become, as Schwarzkopf put it “a bunch”.
But, instead of learning the lesson of 1990, instead of taking steps to avoid becoming a source of atrocity propaganda which facilitates massive suffering and death, Amnesty has more often acted to embrace the very same US imperialist causes which facilitate atrocities. But Amnesty and others, including some alternative news outlets, actively jump at any opportunity to join with the US State Dept. and White House in condemnation of human rights abuses. It is as if they wish to ensure that everyone knows that they aren’t really anti-American, or anti-government, they do have haircuts, they do have jobs. It is as if the tension of having to oppose authority is suddenly released and they can get on with their job of righteous opposition to wrongdoing without fear of being criticised, misapprehended, scorned or argued with. Like the dissidents who, after years of hopeless opposition to Bush Jr’s crimes of aggression, so passionately embraced the slogan “Out of Iraq, into Darfur”, they themselves embrace the advocacy and support of war crimes.
By not rejecting outright the discourse of humanitarian intervention and of “R2P” Amnesty may become a party to war crimes while its history of refusing to determine the legality of military actions as a whole (for example, the Iraq Invasion or Operation Cast Lead) means that only selected suffering and death is worthy of protest. This is an extremely dangerous mixture. It means that as long as the conduct of the war is in accordance with International Humanitarian Law they are not going to comment on “lawful” killings, even in cases of aggression wherein these “lawful” killings are actually unlawful murders. They deal with “human rights” and apparently there is no right not to be maimed or painfully killed, or to have your family killed, or your children killed by a foreign military power.
In addition, Amnesty International has of late, like so many others, been embracing what might be described as KONYism. By this term I mean the enthusiastic and rigid insistence on criminal proceedings be taken against official villains who are generally not powerful (often spent forces and no longer a threat); are generally non-Caucasian and certainly not Westerners; and, ipso facto, are from the poorer countries in the world.
This functions to put a black face in people’s minds when thinking of atrocities, the face of savagery – a twisted uncivilised creature of personal violence and sadism. But the greatest culpable mass-murderers sit in offices, no matter what their skin colour, and usually don’t personally torture maim and kill. Amnesty has become a keen proponent of prosecutions in the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda as well as the International Criminal Court.
Both the ICTY and ICTR are seen by critics as overly politicised at the expense of justice. As ad hoctribunals they are unavoidably selective, while the ICC seems merely to be avoidably selective but selective nonetheless. Its indictments are, without exception, against the enemies and defiers of the US, a state which itself refuses to allow its own personnel to be subject to ICC prosecution. By analogy, it is as if the Mafia controlled a criminal court and used it against small-time rivals – sure those prosecuted may be guilty of heinous crimes, but there is still a massive injustice in that their very indictment advances the purposes of even greater criminals.
Supporters of such courts claim that we cannot allow impunity. Indeed, there are many times when impunity is tantamount to incitement. Some claim that the culture of tit-for-tat atrocities in some civil conflicts stems in part from impunity. So Amnesty International, set up to oppose political imprisonment, is a big proponent of this system which arguably creates political prisoners and inarguably creates selective impunity along strict and consistent lines of privileging the most powerful state actors and their leaders, who, not coincidentally, are quantifiably the greatest abusers of human rights. But its actually even worse than that because the current ‘international justice’ regime has become a massive impediment to conflict resolution. Evincing at all times self-righteous condemnation for the irredeemable evil malefactors, it is made increasingly clear to the enemies of the West that they will not escape Western vengeance. What, for example, can Bashar al-Assad glean about Western intentions? Should he look to Saddam Hussein’s fate?
Or maybe Gaddaffi’s? In the latter instance the ICC was so prompt in announcing an intent to prosecute and issuing an arrest warrant that Gaddaffi knew from very very early in the piece that his fate, at best, would be to end his days in prison. Not a great incentive to find a peaceful solution. What about Charles Taylor? His immunity under peace accords which had ended conflict and killingwas immediately undermined by the US Congress inducement of $2 million for his capture. The precedents all send a very clear message. Or how about Sudan’s OmarHassan al-Bashir, a man who now knows that his safety and freedom requires that he cling to power no matter what the cost?
Amnesty would claim, no doubt, that its stance stems from principles – they don’t change whether the perpetrator state is China or the US, Iran or Israel, Syria or Turkey. Is this true? In reality they exclude from their remit the most serious crimes committed by the US. Moreover, they clearly have decided, in the cases of Syria or Joseph Kony for example, to emphasise those instances where they are in accord with Western governments. Without shame they refer to this as “awareness raising” when it is clear that these are the instances of very heightened public awareness in the West. In these instances groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are massive force multipliers in propaganda wars waged by Western institutions and leaders who might otherwise have fragile credibility on the subject of human rights and be vulnerable to countercharges.
If Amnesty wanted to base itself on principle, it would base itself around opposition to the suffering caused by state violence. In conflict it can’t simply choose only to oppose jus in bello infringements (those relating to the conduct of war) as if jus ad bellum matters (the legality of the war itself) were of no relevance. Firstly, one cannot simply treat something as presumed legal because one does not wish to determine its legality. Secondly, Amnesty can’t ethically justify ignoring suffering simply because it may be legal – much of their energies are spent opposing the use of the death penalty which in most relevant jurisdictions is completely legal.
Consider the implications of Amnesty’s stance. Amnesty strongly condemned Israel’s use of white phosphorous in Gaza on the ground that it was indiscriminate, hence illegal. But that immediately means that Amnesty’s area of concern is not whether Israel inflicted horrible suffering and death, but whether this was lawful. Consider a child – it could be in Fallujah, it could be in Gaza, it could be in the next place – a victim of white phosphorous (WP). WP wounds and fatalities are particularly horrific in all instances. Fragments of WP can burn right through flesh and bone – they may continue burning until surgically removed. The remnants may still cause problems through toxicity and the very nature of the burns may cause crippling and agonising complications that last a lifetime. More horrifying than that, however, is that fine partially oxidised particles of WP can form a cloud where in both oxygen and moisture are depleted, a cloud that is forced downwards by airbursts as practiced in Fallujah and Gaza.
We know that in Fallujah this property must have been deliberately exploited because “shake ‘n bake” fire missions were described in a US military journal as being used against positions immune to high explosive artillery. Such a cloud might penetrate, for example, into the shelter of a family. Imagine this hypothetical child, cowering fearfully in a shelter, whose eyes start to burn as the phosphorous particles ignite on the eyeball itself. The child draws breath to scream and the child is as good as dead, because now the particles are in the lungs themselves. Many square meters of surface area are burning, a child is actually dying from being burnt from the inside out. This is not completely speculative. There are photographs from Fallujah of children who seem to have died in this manner.
Amnesty’s stance is to oppose the illegal use of white phosphorous, but this death could have resulted from the legal use of WP (except of course that it is not legal if the war isn’t legal, but that’s no concern of Amnesty’s). So you can see why I believe that the only possible stance of principle is to oppose the suffering caused by state violence. How can anyone say that its sometimes OK to inflict agonising death on a child as long as it is “lawful”? Yes, I do inevitably mean that Amnesty must oppose all war casualties, but remember that under international law (including the UN Charter) war is actually illegal. All casualties of war are crimes, and rightly so since these are actual human beings and there is no morally justifiable reason for saying its OK to kill some of them. Even if they are military personnel they still feel pain and fear, their passing still leaves grief. If a party is forced to take life out of a need for national self-defence, then the aggressor, under a precedent established at Nuremburg, is culpable for that loss of life.
So what should Amnesty do? Well, the fact is that there are more limits on doing good than there are on doing harm. On Syria they need to revert to marshaling intelligence and moral force and eschew alignment with state actors and advocacy of any form of “international action” based on a UNSC resolution. In general, advocacy of an international governmental response should be confined to cases of international aggression, Amnesty should harness citizen activism, not lobby states or international bodies. The whole world should, in addition, move away from the self-righteous demonisation of the ICC and strengthen the International Court of Justice or other mechanisms for holding states (not individuals) accountable and for putting an end to ongoing crimes such as occupations, blockades or aggressive sanctions regimes which inflict mass suffering.
Part 4: Or are Amnesty Really Evil Lizards Psychopaths After All?
The vast majority of people are in one of two camps – either Amnesty is a bunch of misguided bleeding heart lefties unintentionally helping the terrorists of this world, or they are unimpeachable fighters for justice, human rights and dignity. If one reads the Global Researchwebsite, however, it is replete with admirable writers and thinkers, such as Francis Boyle and Felicity Arbuthnot, for whom Amnesty is more of less The Enemy, whether they like it or not. Of course such critics understand that Amnesty members and activists try to live up to Amnesty’s founding principles, but in practical terms they have to deal with an organisation that is far more effective in promoting injustice, indignity and human suffering. It is probably worth contemplating this vast disparity between the commonplace perceptions of of Amnesty and those of what, in the final analysis, are a small subset of radical dissidents. Nevertheless it is these few dissidents who tend to have fact and logic on their side. In the final analysis Amnesty might as well be run by the evil alien lizards, and I think the explanation for this state of affairs lies in the nature of liberalism.
John Pilger recently described liberalism as “the world’s most powerful and violent ‘ism’” in an article linking liberal ideology to imperial state policies. At a later date I will doubtless be detailing all of the evils which can be ascribed to liberalism (always a fun topic) but here I will confine myself to saying that any ideology which claims to have tenets which are “good” in moral terms and by extension whose adherents are “good” as adherents (and inescapably better morally than non-adherents) is prone to violent hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance. A liberal can enthusiastically endorse condemnations of liberal atrocities, because those atrocities aren’t really liberal because liberal means good. You could ascribe the same behaviour to a Communist, a Muslim, or a Christian. The more predominant and self-satisfied an ideology is, the more violent and schizophrenic it becomes. There are two differences between liberalism and and other such ideologies. The first is that liberalism has made a quantum leap in its ability to subsume and subvert its own critics and their condemnations. The second is that liberal schizophrenia is being deliberately harnessed by the most massive imperial military in human history.
Imagine liberal interventionismn as being a call to enforce liberal political and economic governance within which is a “bundle”. The liberal “bundle” includes humanitarian aspects, or at least it seems to. Take women’s rights, liberals believe that imposing liberal governance and norms improves women’s rights. If women actually suffer under the imposition of liberalism, then things aren’t liberal enough. Either that or the liberal will trot out racist or cryptoracist rationalisations which either blame the victim directly or blame their, often equally suffering, male compatriots. In the final analysis, the imposition of liberal governance has not been a great boon for women and girls in places such as Southeast Asia and Latin America. In fact, compared with advances for women’s rights under socialist regimes of various types, liberal feminism has been beyond pathetic. Even in the West the women’s rights for which liberals claim credit have mostly come through grassroots left-wing agitation, like many other progressive changes.
So the liberal “bundle” is really kind of agnostic when it comes to humanitarian matters. Their ideology says that they have the cure, but they don’t care if the cure actually works. Likewise the economic aspects of the bundle are supposed to do all sorts of wonderful things, but they don’t and when liberals bother to concern themselves with that inconvenient fact, they tend to say that more drastic liberalisation is the answer.
Liberal interventionism is now often expressed as humanitarian interventionism. This is one of several Newspeak terms which attend the liberal interventionist discourse. “Intervention” being understood to be military in nature, it means that causing destruction and death is “humanitarian”. Here is where the creepy post-Orwellian brilliance of it comes, through: out of two sets of strident fanatics for explicitly liberal intervention in the US, one bunch deliberately positions itself as being right-wing and calls itself neoconservative and another lot characterises itself as being left-wing and calls itself liberal. They use exactly the same tropes, evince exactly the same motives and call for exactly the same interventions. There is only one significant difference, and I’ll get to that shortly. Perhaps the epitome of the latter variety, the liberals, is Samantha Power, the very image of a bleeding heart who wants to drop humanitarian bombs.
Journalist David Reiff tells of her response to his suggestion that “her reasoning on foreign policy was similar to that of neoconservatives who supported the Iraq War. “She said, jokingly, ‘I am not Paul Wolfowitz,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, actually, I think you are,’”
Power, along with Clinton and Obama, thrives by taking the moral high ground and harnessing opposition to the liberal imperialism of neocons and others who identify themselves as more right-wing (and may or may not take more socially and culturally conservative positions). The take the very energy of outrage at US imperialism and channel into support for… US imperialism. Pretty nifty, huh?
There is another of that ilk named Susanne Nossel – a former State Department employee who “would have worked for and with Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Samantha Power and Susan Rice, and undoubtedly helped them successfully implement their “Right to Protect (R2P)” – otherwise known as “humanitarian intervention” – as well as the newly created “Atrocities Prevention Board.”
She credits herself with having come up with the term “Smart Power” which is so often now on Clinton’s lips.(4) I won’t go into the complicated process of paring away the meaningless rhetoric around the term “smart power”. What it means, put simply, is exactly the same liberal imperialism pursued by Bush and his neocon allies, dressed up a bit differently. One can already detect that a key differentiation is in the way these costumes are gendered – smart power is sly and feminine whereas Bush era cowboy style is masculine and muscular. Thus, one could summarise the Obama vs. Romney foreign policy debate in two short lines (saving us a great deal of time). Romney calls Obama a wimp. Obama calls Romney an idiot. Then we all go home.
It is all just making a virtue of necessity. Bush era unilateralism isn’t practicable, nor realistically desirable for current imperial geostrategic wants. If, for example, they wished to repeat their actions against Iraq on Iran they would be looking at a decade or so of genocidal sanctions that isolate the Iranian people and increase an inescapable dependency on their increasingly oppressive regime. Only then, when international public revulsion and regional disobedience among client states threaten to destroy the genocide regime – would it be desirable to unleash the gung ho bulldozer of a Bush/neocon style war machine.
So that’s what Nossel is about, and guess what her job is now? That’s right, she’s the CEO of Amnesty International USA. That’s why people are referring to Amnesty as a “shill” or the “propaganda arm” of NATO or as an “imperialist tool”. Consternation has particularly been fueled by Amnesty USA’s crucial support for NATO’s ongoing occupation of Afghanistan. In an excellent article Ann Wright and Colleen Rowley write of “announcements posted online as well as billboard advertisements on Chicago bus stops, telling ‘NATO: Keep the Progress Going!‘” these “beckoned us to find out more on Sunday, May 20, 2012, the day thousands of activists marched in Chicago in protest of NATO’s wars.”
Another article is worth quoting at length where it takes up the same story of what Amnesty was doing on the very day that people were mobilising to oppose war:
…Amnesty USA put on a “shadow summit” of its own during the NATO meeting, featuring Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s notorious secretary of state, who will be forever remembered for her chilling response to a question on 60 Minutes about sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s. Correspondent Lesley Stahl asked, “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”
With a veritable war criminal as one of its star speakers, Amnesty USA’s shadow summit launched a campaign that, for all intents and purposes, called for the extension of NATO’s “good works” in Afghanistan. Its speakers and promotional materials recycled George Bush’s “feminist” justification of the invasion and occupation–that NATO would liberate women from Taliban rule.
The article then examines the realities of womens lives in occupied Afghanistan, finding claims of progress “laughable” – “As Sonali Kolhatkar, founder of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and Mariam Rawi, of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, wrote:
Under the Taliban, women were confined to their homes. They were not allowed to work or attend school. They were poor and without rights. They had no access to clean water or medical care, and they were forced into marriages, often as children. Today, women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions, with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war.”
Part 5: Conclusions
Yes to mass-murdering sociopaths. People like Nossels are mass murderers. OK she may not be a sociopath, but then again she might be. We don’t know, and why would we care. Some mass murders believe deeply that they will make the world a better place; others are driven by hatred, fear or insanity; and others still are monstrously callous and simply don’t care for the suffering they cause. In this I agree with the biblical sentiments – know people from their actions, but leave the judging to some hypothesised supernatural omniscient being because we aren’t in a position to judge.
Yes to toadies enabling mass-murder. Amnesty members want to do good, but self-satisfaction is unreflexive and causes complacency. Amnesty members need to discriminate more in terms of what they support and what they don’t. It might sound complicated, but it isn’t. When Amnesty is calling for petition writing and pressure to be put on a government which is commiting abuses it’s all good. When they are calling for petitions and pressure to be put on a government to “intervene” in another state, it is not good at all, it is the opposite of good, which some of us like to refer to as “bad”.
Yes to compassionate voice for good. Of course most Amnesty members, volunteers and staff are fundamentally committed to alleviating human suffering. Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that there is a movement to reform Amnesty International from within. Staff and members have expressed disquiet and there is also a Code Pink petition campaign.
I would argue that reform of Amnesty is worth pursuing. It might be too much to expect deep principled reform, but even at worst a curtailing of pro-imperialist efforts in order to regain lost credibility and avoid critical scrutiny deprives the empire of a very significant tool, albeit temporarily. A more confrontational approach, aiming to publicise Amnesty’s “true nature” and reveal it for what it effectively is might seem attractive and understandable, but most people are never really going to understand the premise that this renowned humanitarian organisation is engaged in warmongering with postmodern jingoism. That makes Amnesty and suchlike a bit of a tarbaby, which is also quite handy for the US empire as a form of distraction. If you want to attack something just attack the policies and the false justifications behind them. People will work out for themselves that Amnesty is behaving inappropriately from that context.
I would like to thank you for listening to this commentary. A transcript, complete with photographs, hyperlinks and even a few good old fashioned endnote citations is available at the On Genocide blog, which is at ongenocide.wordpress.com. There is also a facebook page called – you guessed it – On Genocide. If you like the facebook page I promise to post no more than 3 or 4 items a day, including, of course, updates to the blog.