Sunday, 20 July 2014

All You Need Is Kill: From Pre-Emptive Warfare in Iraq to 'PreCrime' in Gaza



I. The Inception of 'Precrime'

In a widely discussed and disseminated eyewitness account of a recent strike on Gaza by a Guardian journalist present at the scene, four Palestinian children are murdered by Israeli artillery fire. The first shell hits near where several children are playing on a beach. Four of them are seen running away. As they reach a group of tents used by bathers during peacetime, a second shell hits and kills them, the gunner having apparently adjusted aim to target the fleeing survivors. "Even from a distance of 200 metres, it was obvious that three of them were children," the reporter states.



Incidents like this are by no means isolated, as reported widely by a range of media outlets, from the liberal Israeli paper Ha'aretz to Newsweek and CNN. They might not all agree about the motives, but I think that anyone would be hard pressed to deny that, at least in the incident reported by the Guardian, the targeting appears to be deliberate. As Jon Snow suggested in a BBC interview of Israeli defence minister Mark Regev, it is indeed hard to believe in a lot of these cases that, with all this sophisticated technology the Israelis supposedly have, they would not know they were shooting at children.



Why would Israel be deliberately targeting children? One might ask. The answer may well be in an excellent, well-researched, and suprisingly Oscar-nominated documentary by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, entitled Dirty Wars. (There is also a book by the same title.)



Scahill investigates, among other things, a 2011 US drone strike in Yemen - far from any war zone - ordered (naturally) by President Obama, and apparently targeting a group of teenagers sitting in a restaurant. Their only crime - one of them was apparently the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent Muslim cleric (and US citizen) whose only crime, in turn, was apparently that his views were repugnant to the US administration, and that he had urged Muslims to fight against the USA. (Not a crime under any US law or constitution that I'm aware of, by the way, especially given how much Americans pride themselves on their constitutional tradition of 'free speech', even as compared to Europeans.)


Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, once future terrorist as deemed by US Presidential decree, aged 16, killed by US drone along with several teenage friends while sitting in a restaurant

By the time this happened, the father - Anwar - had already been killed by another US drone strike and confirmed dead, two weeks earlier. Now they were after the son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old posing no apparent threat to anyone, and himself also a US citizen, born in Denver, Colorado, with aspirations of going to college in the USA. He, along with several teenage friends and scores of other people from his ancestral village, was apparently extrajudicially executed by a drone strike while sitting in a restaurant, on the direct orders of the President of the United States - without trial or charge - not for anything he'd done, or even said for that matter; but for what he might one day become, as Scahill puts it. There is more than a whiff of self-fulfilling prophecy to this, I might add, given that the cycle of revenge is perpetuated precisely through acts of indiscriminate slaughter such as this.

According to an Esquire article, "it was initially reported that an Al Qaeda leader named Ibrahim al-Banna was among those killed, but then it was reported that al-Banna is still alive to this day. It was also reported that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a twenty-one-year-old militant, until his grandfather released his birth certificate." To muddy things even more, Scahill reports that US Attorney General Eric Holder claimed Abdulrahman was "not specifically targeted." Multiple inconsistent excuses, proffered by the White House - suggesting what in Freudian psychoanalysis is known as the informal fallacy of the 'borrowed kettle' or 'kettle logic' - indicate precisely the very truth of what they attempt to deny.

Think Minority Report. Precrime. You thought that was just science fiction? Well, it's already here and in full swing - foreign policy aspiring to global authoritarian police control at its purest and most perfect, coming at you straight from the home of 'freedom' and 'democracy'. And all the more perfect for the fact that most people have no idea any of this is happening.



This is indeed the stuff of science fiction. And it is the general drift of US foreign policy under President Barack Obama. Once you have designated your enemy as evil incarnate, even their offspring are a legitimate target. This is a rationale typical of any genocidal army, from the German Nazis to the Serbs in Bosnia.



So if you find yourself incredulous at the suggestion that Israel may be deliberately targeting Palestinian children with impunity, think again. If you think this is somehow "too crazy" to believe - read here about recent public statements made by Ayelet Shaked, a prominent member of the Israeli Parliament, who advocates the view that all Palestinians are enemies, including and especially Palestinian mothers, who should be seen as legitimate military targets for breeding "little snakes" as she put it. In the lead-up to the ground invasion, none other than the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset urged the military to cut power to Gaza before going in - regardless of the threat to the lives of, among others, kidney dialysis patients in Gaza hospitals - this in order to minimize the risk to the invading Israeli soldiers.

Back in colonial times, these were the kinds of approaches and policies that openly racist European colonists and intellectuals applied to colonized populations. According to an international law scholar named Joseph Hornung (quoted in Sven Lindqvist's excellent 'History of Bombing', p. 48): “Among civilized states, warfare is limited to states and their armies. But the civilized states deem such considerations unnecessary in warfare against the so-called inferior nations. In those cases the entire nation must be punished.”

In the last few days there have been reports of Israel using flechette shells in Gaza - artillery rounds that spray out thousands of tiny pointed steel projectiles, designed to maximize casualties. So much for 'pinpoint strikes' and limiting damage to the civilian population. And according to Mondoweiss, a progressive Jewish publication, Israeli forces have also apparently destroyed el-Wafa hospital despite knowing there were no weapons inside. The latest reports suggest that today Gaza saw the bloodiest assault by Israeli forces yet (in this conflict), with close to 100 Palestinians killed in scenes of utter devastation.



Those who accuse the Hamas of using civilians as 'human shields' are clearly not only clueless about Israeli tactics, but have no conception of what it means to fight a war in a densely populated urban area - an area that is moreover densely populated, at least in part, because its population lives under an occupation which has over decades squeezed it onto a smaller and smaller parcel of land.

But even more to the point, there is no independent investigation by any credible authority on the subject that ever provided any evidence for this. The only sources of these allegations are the Israeli Defence Forces and the Israeli Government. As a matter of fact, a report by Amnesty International following the 2008-09 Gaza conflict specifically said that, although Hamas committed some human rights violations, Amnesty "found no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings".

On the contrary - a whole range of independent investigations over the years by major human rights organizations and media have found that Israeli forces were in fact using Palestinians - and Palestinian children - as human shields. This includes reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (also here), The Guardian (also see this), the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN Human Rights Council, the BBC, Associated Press, and even the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. Most if not all of these reports are based in part on video footage, as well as testimony from former IDF soldiers. According to the testimonies of Israeli soldiers documented in the Amnesty report on the 2008-09 Gaza conflict, for instance, "Israeli forces used unarmed Palestinians including children to protect military positions, walk in front of armed soldiers; go into buildings to check for booby traps or gunmen; and inspect suspicious objects for explosives."


Flechette projectiles

Going back to the current conflict, Human Rights Watch has investigated 8 Israeli air strikes, including the one that killed four Palestinian boys on a beach as initially reported by the Guardian, and found no evidence of a military target in many cases. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for its part, said on Sunday that 43% of Gaza's territory has been affected by Israeli evacuation warnings or declaration of "no-go zones". The implication that almost half of Gaza is somehow a legitimate target beggars belief.


View of Gaza from space, photo by Alexander Gerst, 'my saddest photo yet'

In this context, I can't help agreeing with Hamas's contention that Israeli forces are using the evacuation warnings as psychological warfare, as Gazans flee from one neighbourhood and into the path of more bombs. Is this what the Israelis mean by 'pinpoint precision' - destroying an entire half of a 10 or 11-story building, which housed refugees from another part of Gaza, previously bombarded by Israeli forces?



“Where do we go to?" Asks a Palestinian refugee interviewed by the Independent. "Some people moved from the outer edge of Khan Younis to Khan Younis centre after Israelis told them to, then the centre got bombed. People have moved from this area to Gaza City, and Gaza City has been bombed. It’s not Hamas who is ordering us in this, it’s the Israelis.”

So yes, it would appear that the Israelis are deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians, and in particular children - not for anything they've done, but for what they might, perhaps, one day become. They are gathering on hillsides to watch and cheer on the bombardment, to boot. They are taking their cues from US foreign policy, and taking it to the next level. In case anyone thought that there is something particularly or uniquely repugnant about, say, the Boko Haram in Nigeria abducting 200 schoolgirls - the military tactics and aims of the USA or Israel are not much different. So who are the extremists now?



All this shouldn't, in the end, be all that surprising - didn't the US military emerge from the Vietnam War, after all, with the phrase 'baby killer' as a common epithet for the American soldier? The key difference being, of course, that there is no question or suggestion here of the US or Israeli military's experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, or of individual soldiers going berserk on the battlefield. It is now a matter of policy at the highest level.

Do you feel safer, my American and Israeli friends? If I were you, I wouldn't.


II. From Occupation to Concentration Camp

In this context it is no wonder that Ilan Pappe, a prominent Israeli historian (and former Zionist himself, author of The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge), stated in a recent interview on BBC Hardtalk that in his view Israel is "founded on a deliberate programme of ethnic cleansing." “This is about human suffering," Pappe claims, "created by people who are immune from international condemnation." Indeed, just the other day the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset was reported as saying that Israel should expel the Palestinians, and populate the Gaza strip with Jews.



Given that the current round of escalation and assault on Gaza began with Israel's military response to what should have been a homicide investigation (for the murder of three Israeli teens), it would not be far-fetched to suppose that the whole thing was a pretext for a campaign of ethnic cleansing. As Mouin Rabbani put it in a recent article for the London Review of Books, "The current round of escalation is generally dated from the moment three Israeli youths went missing on 12 June. Two Palestinian boys were shot dead in Ramallah on 15 May, but that – like any number of incidents in the intervening month when Israel exercised its right to colonise and dispossess – is considered insignificant."

Much is made of the fact that Hamas refused an Egyptian ceasefire proposal. And yet, demanding an end to the long-standing blockade of Gaza - not to mention the occupation, although they are not even demanding that at this stage - as a pre-condition for any ceasefire, is hardly unreasonable on their part. It's not as if the killing stops when there is a ceasefire - the killing goes on, but it is usually only Palestinians who get killed, in incidents such as this. It's just that most of the time we don't hear about it in the news, and most of the time it's not caught on CCTV. Whenever the Palestinians attempt to retaliate, any time a single Israeli is killed, Israel escalates the conflict to full intensity warfare, the world's attention is back on the region, and the genealogy of the conflict is traced only to the latest Israeli killed - in retaliation. And another few hundred Palestinians are murdered, in retaliation for the retaliation.



As one might expect, the Israeli army claims the CCTV footage - of Israaeli soldiers killing two unarmed Palestinian boys - was faked or edited, despite an Israeli human rights organization vouching for its authenticity. In other words - nothing, no evidence will suffice. Even if the whole world stood and watched - nothing will cause even a chink in the armor of Israel's vaunted moral superiority, guaranteed absolutely and for all time, and indemnified against any loss, no matter what the State of Israel does.

And again, the Israeli occupation, and the blockade of Gaza (from both Israel and Egypt) continues with any unconditional ceasefire (which is what the Egyptian proposal amounts to).

"Life inside the Gaza Strip is hellish even when there is no war," according to a Newsweek report. "Aside from immobility — no way out and no way in — there is, on average, 12 hours of power cuts a day...Even before the current fighting began, over 57 percent of the Gaza population was suffering from 'food insecurity' — UN-speak for not having enough to eat. Gaza has 41 percent unemployment and 80 percent of the population are refugees. Nearly 95 percent of the water is not fit for human consumption. Sewage spills into the sea."



Jewish-American writer Lawrence Weschler is among many who compare Gaza to a concentration camp. Even British Conservative PM David Cameron has stated that since the beginning of the Israeli blockade in 2006, conditions in Gaza had come to resemble a "prison camp", according to a National Geographic story on the tunnels of Gaza. The tunnels - far from being solely of military significance - have for years been Gaza's only lifeline, used for importing everything from essential medicines and food, to construction materials for rebuilding.

The Israeli blockade, for that matter, was introduced in response to Hamas's 2006 election win - immediately following the election Israel simply "closed ports of entry and banned the importation of nearly everything that would have allowed Gazans to live above a subsistence level. Egypt cooperated." In addition, Israel responded to the electoral result by arresting scores of Palestinian legislators, many of them moderates, some even from within Hamas, and many of whom, according to the Carter Center (which monitored the election) "were guilty of nothing more than winning a parliamentary seat in an open and honest election."



Making the situation even more sinister, it was the Israeli leadership itself, along with US allies, who deliberately undermined Yassir Arafat's moderate and secular Fatah and helped spawn Hamas back in the day - only to later impose a punitive economic blockade that turned Gaza into a veritable concentration camp when Gazans voted for Hamas.

So much for democracy. This blockade, not to mention Israel's current military assault, clearly has the aim of bludgeoning the citizens of Gaza into voting the way the Israeli leadership would prefer them to vote. This is how USA and Israel are bringing democracy to the Middle East. Even the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, declared earlier this year that Israeli policies bore "unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing."

So I have to ask, in what kind of demented moral universe do Israel supporters get all up in arms when someone suggests boycotting Israel? In what way does the above not suggest Nazi tactics? Only inasmuch as Israel has not yet gone for the all-out Final Solution - so far they are content to keep the Palestinians ghettoized, and only exterminate them little by little (relatively speaking), whenever they rebel against their imprisonment.



In sum, the Israeli approach to the conflict seems to be - tighten the long-standing blockade of Gaza that has already brought its citizens to their knees for years, destroy tunnels and escape routes, order all Palestinians to evacuate - with nowhere to evacuate - bomb the fuck out of Gaza with heavy artillery, including so-called flèchette shells that spray thousands of tiny steel projectiles in all directions, and then blame Hamas for using civilians as 'human shields' when they are hit by Israeli fire.

By the way, this might seem like stating the obvious but, I can tell you from personal experience, dear reader, that the natural human instinct under bombardment and under siege, when you find yourself between four walls, is to stay put, duck, lay low, seek cover - not run outside and evacuate, and risk getting killed out in the open. So all this Israeli propaganda about how they are trying to avoid civilian casualties reflects nothing more than the legalistic mindset of a 21st century army trying to evade liability. What they are saying is - hey, if you sign your own Death Warrant when we put a gun to your head, it's OK for us to murder you.



There has also been increasing hostility towards journalists from Israelis and Israel supporters (such as virtually every media outlet in the US). A CNN reporter was removed from Gaza following an incident in which Israelis cheering strikes on Gaza from a hilltop threatened to destroy her car if she 'said a word wrong'. An NBC reporter whose reporting was praised for its even-handedness (in contrast to the usual pro-Israel propaganda in US media which is mistaken for impartiality), was nonetheless inexplicably removed, only to be reinstated the next day. The IDF fired warning shots into Al Jazeera offices, following statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman which suggest that the targeting may have been intentional. And a BBC reporter was apparently attacked on air by an angry Israeli. Even before Israel's military campaign was in full swing, the IDF apparently launched a series of attacks on Palestinian journalists, confiscating equipment worth millions of dollars, according to Reporters Without Borders.

As George Orwell put it, "the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it."

Another groundbreaking and informative work by an Israeli academic is Eyal Weizman's Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. Weizman, a London-trained Israeli architect, provides a multi-faceted exploration of all the sinister methods used by Israel in its militarization of the Israel-Palestine landscape in order to encroach ever further on Palestinian land, destroy homes and economic infrastructure, and make life in Palestine generally unbearable, laying bare "the political system at the heart of this complex and terrifying project of late-modern colonial occupation." From the tunnels of Gaza to the militarized airspace of the Occupied Territories, Weizman "unravels Israel's mechanisms of control and its transformation of Palestinian towns, villages and roads into an artifice where all natural and built features serve military ends. Weizman traces the development of this strategy, from the influence of archaeology on urban planning, Ariel Sharon's reconceptualization of military defence during the 1973 war, through the planning and architecture of the settlements, to the contemporary Israeli discourse and practice of urban warfare and airborne targeted assassinations."



Yet another thing that occurs to me in light of Hamas's refusal to accept Egypt's unconditional ceasefire - we recently saw the anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica. A Dutch court also recently decided that Dutch UN troops were partly responsible. Srebrenica is a good reminder of the potential dangers for occupied/besieged populations of putting too much faith in institutions of international law and order, agreeing to internationally-brokered ceasefires, and giving up weapons without having demands met first.

Once once accepts the moral equivalence of occupier/occupied, one also accepts the occupying colonising force's higher valuing of its own human losses. If the genealogy of a conflict doesn't matter - if the background of occupation and blockade is irrelevant - then there's no problem in killing 200 Palestinians in retaliation for 1 Israeli. You ignore the history, and then it appears as if, well, Hamas started with their rockets. But the whole point is that one side kills more people precisely because they are in control from the outset, because they are the occupying force, because they are far superior militarily, and they can afford to prolong the situation indefinitely causing untold damage and loss of life while suffering minimal losses themselves, despite all the drama. In fact it is in their interest to prolong the status quo as long as they are in control.




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For the record, I once refused to sign a petition supporting Palestinian statehood, even though I support it in principle. Why? Because I read through the comments by petition signers, and noted some openly racist, anti-semitic comments expressing blatantly neo-Nazi sentiments, anachronistic quotes attributed to Adolf Hitler, etc. And I know they were for real because I have encountered people with similar viewpoints in this world. So I did not and could not sign the petition because I am after all the grandson of Yugoslav Partisans, anti-fascists, members of a generation who gave their lives fighting for freedom and against fascism, nationalism, and Nazism. I could not in good conscience have my name associated in any way with such people, and such statements. So yes, the Palestinians need to get their shit together and dissociate themselves from such people, but murder is murder. And even every attempt at non-violent resistance by Palestinians is continually thwarted by Israel and its supporters - the example in the Guardian story I posted earlier is a case in point. The two Palestinian boys shot by Israeli troops last month (as captured on CCTV, before the current escalation) were at a protest against the occupation, posing no threat to the Israeli soldiers - for one of them, it was his first time. And that is one incident among many.



Not to mention the BDSM movement, which advocates worldwide for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel - they are continually under heavy criticism, and there is a messianic uproar from Israel supporters at any proposed boycott, such as the one implemented a few years ago by the co-op food store in Olympia, WA, where I lived at the time. Why? It worked against Apartheid South Africa. What gives Israel the special right to illegally occupy a territory for forty years, slowly kill, maim, and brutally harass its population, gradually encroach on its land by building walls and settlements and uprooting olive groves, drain the economic lifeblood out of it bit by bit, and then - get all indignant even when that population turns to non-violent means of protest? Again, what kind of moral bizarro world do these people live in?

For all that, Israel's Ambassador to the US believes that Israel should be given the Nobel Peace Prize, for their efforts to avoid civilian deaths. Well, Obama got one - despite specifically targeting and killing innocent children with drones - so why the hell not? I hope that this also means I can get a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, even though I haven't done any work in that area since I left high school about 16 years ago.


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III. Masters of War



"You know when you are fighting the enemy, any option is open. No mercy," says US-backed Somali warlord Mohamed Qanyare, interviewed in Dirty Wars. Aside from drone strikes and US ground troop deployments, one of the ways that JSOC or the Joint Special Operations Command - described by an insider as the 'paramilitary arm of the White House' - targets individuals and groups on its 'kill lists' in over 75 countries worldwide, is by outsourcing kills to local warlords.

"America knows war," Qanyare goes on. "They are war masters. They know better than me. So when they funding a war, they know how to fund it. They don't even need to touch to tell them. They know very well. They are teachers. Great teachers."



According to the New York Times and Huffington Post, the Obama administration's drone strike policy counts "all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." Simple - just redefine the term 'combatant' and make any human being fair game, guilty unless proven innocent (posthumously) and liable to execution by drone, as long as they are the right age. In many countries, this would include 15 or 16-year-olds.

In effect, individuals at the highest level of the US government, including President Obama, are directly and without doubt responsible for ordering acts that unequivocally constitute not only war crimes, but crimes against humanity, extrajudicial executions, torture, intimidation of witnesses, silencing journalists (in one case the Obama administration explicitly asked the Yemeni government to keep journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye in jail for reporting on a US drone strike) - in the full knowledge of what was being done as it was being done, and full knowledge of the consequences.

Under President Obama, JSOC has taken the Bush administration's already repugnant doctrine of 'pre-emptive war' to the next level - 'precrime'. Murdering children who may one day become 'terrorists'. This puts a whole new spin on Kurt Vonnegut's description of war as 'a children's crusade'.

This takes even the idea of 'precrime' to a new level. 'Precrime' as originally conceived (in the Philip K. Dick story and Spielberg film) involves arresting (not killing) people when they are about to commit a crime, by a kind of 'thought police' guided by 'precogs' - mutated human beings with 'precognitive' abilities, who are able to see the future. However the precogs predictions do not overlap one hundred percent most of the time, and are usually combined into a 'majority report'; which suggests the existence of a 'minority report', predicting a different time path.



This raises some interesting ethical dilemmas, and it is on the existence of this 'minority report' that the drama hinges on. It could be argued that 'precrime' is in fact closer to the Bush-era policy of 'pre-emptive warfare' than to the Obama administration's drone/strike/raid/kill policy, perhaps falling somewhere in-between.

But for all its sinister implications, 'pre-emptive war' now seems almost a bit quaint in retrospect. In the nightmarish maze of a moral universe suggested by JSOC operational policy under President Obama, all this reaches a whole new level, a crescendo fever-pitch - we now have an absolute, total, fundamental disregard for things like innocence, guilt, due process, civil rights, and so forth. All these categories become irrelevant. Anyone deemed a future potential terrorist - for undisclosed reasons - is a legitimate target for extrajudicial execution by presidential decree.



In the post-Snowden era, I cannot help but wonder how exactly the byzantine surveillance apparatus amassed and operated by the NSA (which as we learned monitored the phone calls of no less than 20 million Germans, for instance) plays into these mysterious drone strikes and night raids where most or all of the victims turn out to be innocent civilians, as documented in Dirty Wars - innocent men, women, and children - although the strikes supposedly target suspected militants. And I can't help but wonder who is next, or by what depraved algorithms and morbid analyses people end up on these 'kill lists'.



There is a boundless, profound cynicism at the core of such policies. It suggests a complete and unwavering rejection of human agency and individual autonomy, of free will. I probably don't even need to explain why all this is a flagrant and fundamental violation of any and every moral and ethical principle or code that holds any validity in human history, of international law, of the US Constitution, of so many things that enlightened human beings hold sacred. This new foreign military policy practiced by Israel and the USA can appropriately be summed up by the title of a Japanese military sci-fi novel: All You Need is Kill.

Yet if there is a lesson to be learned from Minority Report, it is that this disturbed logic can easily turn against those who put it into practice. The hunter can become the hunted. By redefining innocent human beings as legitimate targets, you redefine yourself as a legitimate target.

The minority report - the alternate time-path that signifies free will and human agency - seems to be our only hope, the only chance of redeeming humanity. We can never lose sight of this lest we become sub-human - we always need the 'minority report'.

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To make matters so much worse, the aforementioned crimes have been perpetrated by the wealthiest nations in the world against some of the poorest and most underprivileged citizens of some of the poorest and most underprivileged nations in the world - in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and now Gaza. This is what I would call the quintessence of criminal brutality. None of this would be terribly surprising if it came from the playbook of someone like Vladimir Putin - but given that it comes from the 'land of the free' and 'home of the brave', and a US President who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (!), this is some pretty demented shit. And this is the kind of world we live in.

Given the predominant reaction to the conflict in Gaza from world leaders across the political spectrum and especially those in the West (in support of Israel, or critical for all the wrong reasons), and the predominant reaction among the peoples of the world (opposing the occupation and Israeli assault), I think it's clear where the real divisions lie. Governments sympathize with other governments, generally speaking. They first and foremost recognize Israel's "right to defend itself." From what? I wonder. Given that most of Israel's casualties are soldiers involved in the assault on Gaza (the toll now stands at 12), this sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A good portion of the people who run the world, it seems, the people who run the governments of the most powerful nations in the world - are clearly out of their minds. In a murderous, racist mood and certifiably insane.

Masters of War, I just want you to know I can see through your masks.

I will end with a contribution from my friend Max Haiven, posted the other day on Facebook:

As Israelis cheer on Gaza's pulverization and watch it like theatre from hillsides, as far-right gangs hunt down and beat up the few tenacious Israeli peace activists who remain, as Western politicians and pundits line up to defend this berserk state, as my fellow Jews in the diaspora remain silent or (worse) force silence on others, I recall Aimé Césaire's words of 1955, in his famous indictment of the violently dying French colonial regime "Discours sur le Colonialisme":

"We must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and 'interrogated', all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery."








Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Gnosis as 'Dark Precursor'



[idolatry and repetition: from simulacrum to gnosis]

In one of his poetic turns, Heidegger rejects the dichotomy of word and image, which in the German tradition was understood as meaning that images required space in order to be perceived, while words required time. To Heidegger, the truth of language - poetry - is image and therefore space par excellence; images, in turn, incorporate time in the form of the invisible - the truth of an image is not in the representation of the seen as conventionally understood, but in invoking what is outside itself, the 'thingness' of things, the hidden part - perhaps what Barthes calls punctum.

The reference to what is outside the immediate field of vision yet implicated in the image finds an inverse counterpart in Baudrillard's comments on photography as 'exorcism': "If something wants to be photographed, that is precisely because it does not want to yield up its meaning; it does not want to be reflected upon. It wants to be seized directly, violated on the spot, illuminated in its detail. If something wants to become an image, this is not so as to last, but in order to disappear more effectively."



Kafka, in a similar vein, equates this to writing: "We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes." The image at hand, whether a visual image or a sentence-image (to use Ranciere's term), is a fixed or bare repetition, the Platonic repetition of the same, the copy which is always haunted by the spectre of an original but which, precisely for this reason, is false, and can never truly repeat the Idea (per Deleuze), the 'thingness' of a thing. As Baudrillard puts it, "to make an image of an object is to strip the object of all its dimensions one by one: weight, relief, smell, depth, time, continuity and, of course, meaning". To this Deleuze counter-poses the simulacrum, the real repetition of the Nietzschean eternal return which is never repetition of the same. Real repetition is where the new emerges in nature.



Far from empty theoretical posturing, what this broadly evokes borders on the atavistic: in virtually every major religion there is some kind of prohibition or taboo related to visual representation - idolatry, the making of graven images, the depiction of the prophet, etc. The fact that such norms are rarely observed, at least in the strictest terms, by the mainstream forms of institutionalized religions is evidence of a tension - an internal difference - at the heart of religious traditions. The Heideggerian poetics taken up by Baudrillard and Kafka hints at an ancient gnostic principle abandoned by theologians and organized religions in their gradual transition to rationalist modernity.

Even Heidegger's rejection of the split between word and image can be accomodated within a gnostic framework. The prohibition on 'taking the Lord's name in vain', or even more explicitly, the Hebrew prohibition on writing it down at all, alternately insisting that the name, if written, be stripped of vowels (YHWH), aims precisely at this. What is holy cannot be imagined, represented or fixed in any way, and this applies to visual image and text alike. In order for it to be present, it must remain immanent. The gnostic God, to put it in Deleuzian terms, is the ultimate 'dark precursor', the differenciator of differences, the object=x which ensures the communication between disparate series by never being in its proper place, remaining a void.



An exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris a few years ago explored this very aspect of the visual image - entitled Voids, the exhibition was a retrospective of empty exhibitions over the past 50 years, starting with Yves Klein's 1958 exhibition of an empty gallery space at the Galerie Iris Clert. Empty space features as a platform for envisioning the invisible, for contemplating space in time, opening our eyes to the 'thingness' of things, their absence. It is a way of repatriating the exorcised content of the captured image, releasing the violated image back into the void, redeeming the holy.

It it this dimension again that is activated in Chinese artist Zhang Huan's "Berlin Buddha" - a performance-art piece in which a buddha sculpture made of concrete was ripped apart and reduced to dust in front of the gallery audience. This reference to the buddhist notion of 'killing the buddha' also hints at a shared element of gnosis that traverses a whole range of philosophical and religious traditions - from the Pagan ritual of the 'May King' or 'killing the god' to the Adonis myth (which echoes the earlier Sumerian 'Tammuz' and a number of other ancient myths of death/rebirth), the Crucifixion of Christ, etc. The very existence (as opposed to Being) of 'God' in any sense - as statue, flesh-and-blood, even ghost or spirit - is an imaging, a fixation, and therefore sacrilege.



Where the Kafka/Baudrillard gnostic indictment of the image and Heidegger's poetics part ways is in that Heidegger does not exclude the possibility of an authentic image. In Baudrillard's gnostic vision, the image is by necessity representation and therefore loss. But this seems too easy a dismissal for Heidegger - it is possible for an image to evoke the thingness of things, to show without representing.

It may be precisely this that makes Diane Arbus' photographs unique: it seems all too simple to say that she portrayed 'freaks'. Her uniqueness is that in her photographs, 'freaks' - giants, dwarves, transvestites, circus performers, those on the fringe of ordinary society - appeared normal, at home with themselves, ordinary; whereas the 'normal' people (i.e. couple with child strolling down 5th avenue) appeared unsettled, out of place, weird, plastic.



One shouldn't mistake this overarching theme in Arbus' work as a gesture of equation: the photographs form two distinct series. The common term between them, repeated in each series - 'freak' for lack of a better term - far from being an identity or similarity between them, is precisely what grounds their difference, what distinguishes the two series. It is the object=x, the 'dark precursor', the differenciator of differences. It establishes a point of contact between them, differenciates them, while remaining invisible, or outside the frame and without any positive content: one cannot locate it ('freakishness') precisely or explain its meaning, but it is there nevertheless, running silently througout each series. Through this displacement and repetition Arbus' photographs evoke something truly new, carving out a unique territory among images.



It is no surprise that, in her senior high school yearbook where each student was asked to provide, as a caption for their graduation photo, a statement about their goals in life upon graduating, among all the boring statements by her fellow students on career and marriage aspirations, Arbus stood out like a sore thumb with these words: "To shake the tree of life and bring down fruits unheard of."


[common humanity and resistance: quo vadis, domine?]

The first time Christ is crucified, he is merely a holy man who gives up his life for the sake of another, only one among many Judeans killed by the Romans in this gruesome manner. It is only with the second crucifixion - the repetition - that the truly new emerges, and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth is transformed into Christ, the redeemer - it is only the second time, with a second death, that 'God' truly dies on the cross.

The dark precursor is thus constituted retroactively (per Deleuze), and 'God' - the object=x - emerges as the invisible differenciator between the series, establishing a point of communication between them but without an identity or similarity; 'God' is the pure difference between series that repeat one another, the new that emerges in each repetition. It is the 'esoteric word' that ensures communication, while establishing against the background of the 'same' the difference between each series: the spiritual 'killing of the Buddha', the pagan ritual of spring ('killing the May King'), the crucified flesh-and-blood God of Christianity.



In this sense, the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring and Iranian revolts - in opposing state/religious authority from a position of faith (in many cases), referencing religious tradition - set out from the position of Antigone/Jesus. Rather than simply resistance, Antigone's position in ethical terms circumvents state authority (Creon) to establish a direct relation to a higher authority beyond the state ("the unwritten laws of heaven…"); in much the same way, Jesus opposes the Roman empire by appealing to the 'Kingdom of God'.

This is perhaps the result of Walter Benjamin's insight that state authority rests not on a 'rule of law' but on rule by 'exception' or whim, disguised by concepts such as 'the rule of law'. If the 'rule of law' can be suspended whenever it proves inconvenient to those in power, it becomes questionable whether it ever was an authentic principle or modus operandi. Within these parameters, the form that an authentic resistance must take, rather than operating within this farcical system of rules and rights granted by the state, is to invoke an authentic exception, as Benjamin puts it - an 'unwritten' authority beyond the state - and destroy the law as such, clean the slate.



This theological dimension cannot be underestimated in the context of the struggle in the Arab world, for what may be obvious reasons: by invoking the internal difference, the Egyptian or Iranian protesters' insistence on faith, far from indicating a 'lesser evil' or reformist moderation, radically lays bare the real struggle - not between Western liberal democracy and Islam, but between the authentic personal faith of gnostic populism on one hand, and the inauthentic authoritarian faith of those in power, on the other. They share a term - Allah - but this shared term is an emptiness that in fact differenciates them and splits them apart, their 'dark precursor'. It is the same struggle that goes on worldwide, traversing systems and religions.



In her essay on Hegel and Haiti, Susan Buck-Morss relates the story of a contingent of French soldiers sent by Napoleon to put down the slaves' revolt; upon hearing a group of former slaves sing the Marseillaise (which in one verse denounces "l'esclavage antique"), the Frenchmen decide not to ambush the rebels, laying down their own weapons and wondering aloud if they aren't fighting on the wrong side. Their faith - in the ideals of the French Revolution - is authentic. "Common humanity appears at the edges," Buck-Morss concludes. Power comes from below.



If I may digress a little, to quote at length from Tolstoy, War and Peace: "in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power - the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns - should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes."

Asserting further that the major historical players are in the end far more caught up in the inertial momentum of history than the people they command, Tolstoy concludes, "A king is history's slave."

By contrast, in the words of Salvador Allende, "La historia es nuestra y la hacen los pueblos." It is the people who make history, whether they know it or not.

The fundamental opposition here - between the unwritten and the written, between the sacred/holy and the concrete/fixed, between the raw, volatile will of the people and established state authority - invokes what Deleuze refers to as the only real opposition in nature: between the Idea and representation. Real difference is always internal, and it goes all the way down - this is precisely the consequence of Heidegger's insight that words, through poetry, can create images, and that images in turn can express absence; like the wave/particle duality in quantum physics, the split between word and image is internal to both word and image. In the words of Walt Whitman, "I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes; We convince by our presence."

Or as Louis Armstrong - jazz gnostic - put it, when asked how he would explain to the uninitiated what jazz music was all about: "some people, if they don't know, you just can't tell 'em." (The idea of jazz, beyond even the boundaries of genre or music as an art form, embodies in the purest sense the notion of repetition=difference.)

Not to miss out on a more contemporary pop culture reference when it rears its pretty little head - I've never found the song 'Royals' that interesting, despite its appropriation by Bill de Blasio in his progressive campaign for New York Mayor - musically and lyrically, 'Team' is Lorde's real gem, with this lyric especially:

    We live in cities
you'll never see on the screen
Not very pretty, but we sure know
how to run things
Living in ruins
of a palace within my dreams
And you know
we're on each other's team

It's those cross-connections again, that cut across cultures and make visible the real differences, and real allegiances - like the French soldiers and Haitian slaves singing the Marseillaise, the Syrian rebels and Bostonians exchanging messages of solidarity, or the Tahrir Square protesters in Egypt holding signs saying 'we stand with the people of Wisconsin' in the middle of Governor Scott Walker's union-busting campaign. We're on each other's team. We live in cities you'll never see on the screen - the revolution will not be televised, as Gill Scott-Heron famously put it.

*     *     *

"What becomes established with the new is precisely not the new," (Deleuze) and this is one of the pitfalls of any revolutionary struggle. A revolution can never establish itself or insinuate itself in laws and institutions, let alone state organs; it cannot make an image of itself - the revolution will not be televised. It is in this sense that effective resistance to state authority, by invoking an authentic exception, must rely on Benjaminian 'divine violence' - divine because it is 'unwritten', because it cannot inscribe itself in (written) law. In order to remain vital, revolution must remain a threatening presence, a force of nature, a pure momentum poised against organs of authority as such; its function - and its everlasting hope - can only ever be to set in motion a wheel of critical mass when necessary, to produce complex repetitions out of which emerge authentic differences, to perpetually "shake the tree of life and bring down fruits unheard of."










Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Democracy is Coming to the USA: Kshama Sawant, the New Face of Socialism in America


Following on my closing comments in the last post about the election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York, on a somewhat related note, a somehow even more promising ray of hope in US politics is the recent election of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council.

It's not just that she unapologetically describes herself as a socialist in a country where 'socialism' has become a bad word, nonetheless winning a surprise victory over a well-funded, business-friendly Democrat incumbent. And it's not just her articulate, direct, no-nonsense, cut-straight-to-the-chase public speaking style; or her experience as an organizer and campaigner for OWS and raising the minimum wage. And it's not just that she says all these things we want politicians to say but that they never say - even the most promising ones - for fear of upsetting their corporate sponsors, or being perceived as radical. It's that she does all these things, bucking all the trends and received wisdom of US electoral politics, changing the game as it were - running a low-budget campaign with no big business support, with less than half the campaign funding of her incumbent opponent - and succeeds in the most grass-roots way possible: by getting the voters' attention.

"There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants," she proclaims in her inauguration speech yesterday, and I believe her. "There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent."


Skip to 29:30 for Kshama's swearing-in and speech.

"A completely dysfunctional Congress does manage to agree on one thing," she says emphatically, "regular increases in their already bloated salaries…Yet at the same time allowing the federal minimum wage to stagnate, and fall further and further behind inflation…We have the obscene spectacle of the average corporate CEO getting seven thousand dollars an hour, while the lowest-paid workers are called presumptuous in their demand for just $15."

This is sexy stuff, people.

Sawant's response to Boeing's threat to move jobs out of Washington state if they don't get tax breaks and wage concessions? She calls their tactics 'economic terrorism', urging state leaders to reject "blackmail" and tell Boeing's CEOs, if you want to go, you can go - we don't need you. "The machines are here, the workers are here. Let us take this entire productive activity into democratic public ownership and retool the machines to produce mass transit."

Fuck yeah. This is what I've never understood about even some of the more progressive, left-leaning folks I know around here - they never seem to see a way out of this type of situation but to give in to corporate demands. This is why the unions are weak, and why the political establishment is for sale to the highest bidder - because there isn't enough of this type of thinking. Because people are naively afraid of taking risks, taking or even contemplating radical measures - like taking over factories - in response to what I will argue are just as radical threats and measures, macroeconomic blackmail and terrorism, such as the outsourcing and wholesale transfer of entire production systems to locales where workers can be more easily exploited. They did it in Argentina with FaSinPat and the fabricas recuperadas, why not here? If Big Business has you by the proverbial balls, you grab them by the balls.

This lady is pretty convincing, and she clearly means business. She could go much further than Seattle City Council. I really hope she does. And I hope there will be more like her.



It just might be that, as Leonard Cohen put it, democracy is coming to the USA.



Saturday, 4 January 2014

Universal History in The Dark Knight Rises: A Tale of Two (or More) Cities


I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises a few weeks ago, and have been mulling over some ideas ever since.

First off, I don't see the 'Occupy' reference at all - certainly not a criticism or indictment of Occupy Wall Street. I mean, seriously? Just because someone attacks the New York Stock Exchange, it's a reference to the Occupy movement? Are people really that hysterical nowadays? Did the Occupy movement have anything to do with using high-tech weaponry to take over an entire city's infrastructure and capture an atom bomb in order to blow up the city and kill everyone? Anywhere in that ballpark? Nope. I don't see it. Frankly, any suggestion that this is a criticism of the Occupy movement is plainly, on its face stupid. Or hysterical. Or both.

Yes, yes, I know - the rhetoric. When Bane blows up the tunnels and takes over Gotham City, capturing the entire police force underground, in his speech at the stadium he proclaims 'We come not as conquerors, but as liberators.' He then proceeds to talk at length about how he is giving the city 'back to the people', ridding them of their corrupt leaders who have been telling them a pack of lies all these years. I get it.

However the thing about that is, there is a pretty blatant, neatly spelled-out and virtually literal historical reference here, which it seems virtually everyone who has commented on and written about this film has entirely missed. The words spoken by Bane in the stadium speech are almost verbatim the words spoken to the Iraqi people by one General Stanley Maude in the Proclamation of Baghdad, on the occasion of the British occupation of Iraq, way back in 1917:

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."


After which the British army proceeded to maim and murder a large part of the civilian population of Iraq, quelling revolt with one of the very first documented uses of air-to-ground artillery against a civilian population in recorded history, decades before Guernica - a kind of Guernica before Guernica. (As related by Sven Lindqvist in A History of Bombing)

One British officer on the scene, Arthur 'Bomber' Harris (later responsible for the firebombing of German cities in WWII; and in particular notorious for choosing to target civilians rather than, say, railway transport links, including those used to transport Jews to the death camps, despite pressure from Jewish groups in Britain) reported with enthusiasm the remarkable effect that mowing down scores of Iraqis with heavy air-to-ground artillery had on the surviving population. Talk about state-sponsored terrorism.



Needless to say, the same rhetoric also blatantly echoes that deployed in Iraq 80-something years later, this time by the Americans. Wasn't it all about "winning hearts and minds" and "we're here to free you from your corrupt regime", and so on, and so forth? Anyone remember all the talk of 'regime change'? before they started all the torturing and murdering, that is - resulting in the death of over 100,000 people in a useless war started on false pretenses. Bane, too, is on a mission to rid Gotham city of its corrupt, lying leaders and 'give it back to the people'.

Paul Wolfowitz, one of the key neocon ideologues, notoriously told a congressional hearing: "I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators…"


The fact that Bane, along with Ras al-Gul, seems to have a vaguely middle-eastern or central Asian origin further reinforces this link. The entire story could be seen as a complex role-reversal scenario - we are shown in vivid detail what it might look like if a foreign power occupied a major American city saying 'we're here to liberate you from your corrupt leaders' and then proceeded to commit unspeakable crimes. Gotham is Baghdad, Bane is any old US or British general in Iraq, and the underlying message is: this is how they see us, the so-called liberators...

Given that the writing/directing Nolan brothers team are a couple of well-educated Brits (Christopher is an alum of my alma mater, UCL) is a reliable indicator that this cannot be a coincidence. They even suggest as much in the script, when Commissioner Gordon tells Blake: "You're a detective now, son. You're not allowed to believe in coincidence anymore."



One could of course view the referential whole of the story as ambiguous - it could be a reference to both Occupy and the empty liberation rhetoric of imperialist overlords with ulterior motives, along with the ambiguity of revolutionary language that unites them. Nolan is reported to have acknowledged the influence of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities on the writing of The Dark Knight Rises - a story of the French Revolution, which unlike Occupy certainly involved plenty of revolutionary violence. Bane, then, is a figure in the cast of Robespierre, though undoubtedly far more extreme or fanatical, given that his commitment to revolutionary goals is nonexistent and his aim is ultimately extermination - destruction of the city. The revolutionary rhetoric is deployed purely to create chaos and buy time.



In a Rolling Stone interview, Nolan denied any intent to vilify the Occupy movement, stating "If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed...You don't want to alienate people, you want to create a universal story."

Right, so - legitimate concerns, genuine need for social change, exploited by a villain with ulterior motives. And we have a 'universal story' - one that speaks to different contexts, time periods, different points of view. Role reversal is precisely at the heart of this historically-grounded universality - an intersubjective collective empathy accessed by walking in someone else's shoes, or for that matter swapping places. If this is a tale of two cities, it could just as well be Gotham/New York and (the spectre of) Baghdad, for instance.



When asked whether Bruce Wayne would vote for Mitt Romney, Nolan replies "Before or after Bruce goes broke?" He is clearly hinting at a fairly materialist message about how economic circumstances dictate one's political perspective. And the implicit lesson - the moral of the story - is a variation on the old biblical 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. Or to put it in Game Theory terms, it suggests the 'TIT FOR TAT' strategy , which has been shown to be the simplest and most successful in cooperative games such as the iterated prisoner's dilemma - demonstrating that over the long term, altruism and cooperation are (paradoxically, perhaps) closely linked to self-interest, and more beneficial to the individual as well as the whole of society than selfishness and 'dog eat dog' mentality.

"What's the worst thing our villain Bane can do?" Nolan asks. "What are we most afraid of? He's going to come in and turn our world upside down...That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham?  We want something that moves people and gets under the skin."

My thoughts exactly. The liberal hysteria about the supposed reference to Occupy seems, perhaps despite best intentions, fairly self-centered and myopic, confined to the relatively simple coordinates of recent American history and binary politics of Republican/Democrat. To me it seemed pretty obvious while watching The Dark Knight Rises that the story was an attempt to re-imagine an experience relatively foreign to Americans - a foreign military occupation by villains utilizing the same duplicitous rhetoric deployed by colonial/hegemonic forces worldwide, throughout history - on contemporary American soil, as if to say "this is what it would look like if this type of thing happened here."



And that's the important point, the key transposition. If so many critics and commentators missed it, that is rather their failure, an index of that same 'failure of imagination' that people talked of in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. It is all too easy to see the horror of Gotham in ahistorical terms, as pure fiction/fantasy, or at best a narrative that panders to xenophobic right-wing fantasies, and miss the clearly historical reference, the whiff of chickens coming home to roost. The failure to genuinely imagine and internalize the possibility that 'this could happen here' - with all its consequences, political and social - is a typical conceit stemming from the myth of American/Western uniqueness and exceptionality. But even more significant is the failure to recognize in the horrors wrought upon Gotham by Bane the very horrors that American or British troops have wrought on distant lands in military campaigns christened with poetic names such as 'Desert Storm' and 'Shock and Awe'. With the same empty rhetoric. And with similarly sinister and self-serving motives.

Even Slavoj Žižek, in a somewhat surprisingly positivist critique of The Dark Knight Rises, is unable to answer the key question:

The prospect of the Occupy Wall Street movement taking power and establishing a people’s democracy on the island of Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly unrealistic, that one cannot avoid asking the following question – why does a Hollywood blockbuster dream about it? Why does it evoke this spectre? Why does it even fantasise about OWS exploding into a violent takeover?

One can only be baffled by this question, again, if one fails to see the historical reference(s), the role reversal. The echoes of OWS are purely incidental - and the ambiguously revolutionary rhetoric should only alert us to the way in which the language of revolution is appropriated by figures like Bane, just like the British colonial prelates of yore, or the modern-day military-industrialists of American empire. To view this as a criticism of Occupy is to ignore context - to heed words and ignore actions; to make the mistake of taking seriously the hypocritical American rhetoric of "spreading freedom and democracy".



Among the first to sound the liberal hysteria alarm about the allegedly conservative politics behind The Dark Knight Rises was a blog post on Slate, which asks the insidious question: is Batman part of the 1 percent? And this only on the basis of a preview, prior to the film's release.

Where Nolan's vision perhaps encounters a kind of cognitive dissonance in the commentariat is that the structure of political organization evoked in the film is the inverse of that in the Wizard of Oz, a cultural milestone that may go some way in explaining American foreign policy of the past few decades. In the Wizard of Oz, the moment Dorothy accidentally kills the Wicked Witch, the Witch's subjects, freed from her spell, suddenly become good. This type of 'magical thinking' perhaps explains in part why many Americans, including (perhaps) Paul Wolfowitz, may have genuinely believed that the Iraqis would welcome their murderous, racist troops as liberators, once they got rid of the 'evil leader'.

The Dark Knight Rises, by contrast, gives a far more realistic portrayal of a flawed proto-revolutionary moment, which even Žižek might agree with on second thought - suggesting that revolutions are necessarily violent, and that the removal of even a corrupt leader by a foreign power imposing its will, in the absence of any indigenous revolutionary program, is bound to create a power vacuum and lead to a bad end - a decidedly un-revolutionary one at that. It is in this respect that another criticism of Zizek's is mistaken - Nolan's point is not the typical conservative one, that society needs a strong central state authority to preserve law and order; rather, it is the lack of an organized indigenous revolutionary or reformist initiative of any kind, the imposition of a revolutionary program and removal of authority from the outside, by a foreign agent, that guarantees chaos.



What Žižek seems to be getting at but not quite getting, in the concluding paragraphs of the above-cited piece, is the subversive core of this spectacle - how easily the society of Gotham crumbles when key figures of authority are removed; how easily the people take up Bane's bidding and sack the palaces of the rich, turning the city upside down. This is clearly not an indictment of OWS, or of 'people power', but a fairly subversive suggestion that an unequal society, in which the maintenance of law and order depends on a few figures of authority who can easily be removed or manipulated, a society heavily reliant on a state monopoly over the use of violence, is in fact a weak society - filled with discontent waiting to be unleashed and/or manipulated. That the rule of law, along with all the lofty ideals of a progressive, democratic society, is useless if it is not, as Rousseau put it, 'in the hearts of men'.

Another interesting echo of Nolan's reference to A Tale of Two Cities is the recent campaign for Mayor of New York. Bill de Blasio, the challenger from the progressive Left and eventual winner (a true Lefty for once) has vowed to put an end to New York's 'Tale of Two Cities' - one super-rich, the other abjectly poor.

It's probably a safe bet that Bruce Wayne, if he's around, voted for de Blasio.





Thursday, 26 September 2013

Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Only 'Slightly Fundamentally Wrong'


In the wake of the Boston bombings this summer, it is worth remembering that such massacres, and even worse, are a regular occurrence in places like Iraq or Syria. The Syrian rebels themselves drove the point home, expressing condolences to the Boston victims through a touching banner displayed at a protest in the city of Kafranbel:



A group of Bostonians replied with their own banner:



The beauty of these reciprocal gestures is that despite the apparent incongruity, neither minimizes the other's tragedy. They contextualize one another in a way that transcends the global political game that their respective governments are involved in, authentically approaching a kind of collective intersubjectivity. To paraphrase C.G. Jung, the closer together the individuals, the weaker the state, and vice versa. This works across national boundaries, too. True communal/collective spirit is not and should never be about negating the individual, but on the contrary - it is about making the collective, and each individual within it, stronger.** 'Individualism', as commonly understood in the sense of 'each man for himself' - weakens and alienates us, isolating and exposing each individual to the whims of state authority.

This Syria-Boston exchange of solidarity is not an isolated instance, either - during the Egyptian protests against Mubarak, while the people of Wisconsin were in the streets protesting against Governor Walker's all-out assault on unions, there were reports of Egyptian protesters holding signs in solidarity with Wisconsin. And it is not far-fetched to imagine that the domino effect that may have played a role in the 'Arab Spring' uprisings goes well beyond the Arab world, as discontent with governments worldwide grows and protest movements are spawned, from Spain to Greece to Turkey, Brazil, Israel, just to name a few of the bigger ones.

Vladimir Putin may be a total crony proto-fascist, but it's always amusing to see crony politicians/states calling out one another over each other's doublespeak. In particular, this: “I was always appalled when our western partners and the western media called the terrorist, who did bloody crimes in our country, ‘insurgents’, and almost never ‘terrorists’,” Putin explained, in reference to the fact that Russian authorities had alerted US authorities to Tamerlan Tsarnaev's activities and links to fundamentalist groups, long before the Boston bombings.

This reminds me of the film 'Good Kurd, Bad Kurd' - which explores the baffling incongruity of the Kurds in Turkey being on the CIA list of terrorist organizations (Turkey is a NATO ally), while the Iraqi Kurds are 'freedom fighters', even though they are both part of the same national liberation movement and fighting for the same thing.

It would be trite to criticize the US media for devoting more coverage to a tragedy closer to home - however another incongruity is worth noting. On the heels of the Boston bombings, two days later in fact, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, claimed far more casualties - at least 15 killed and more than 160 injured, with more than 150 buildings damaged or destroyed - registering as a 2.2 richter scale tremor.



According to an article in the Guardian, this is largely attributable to austerity cuts to agencies such as OSHA as part of the right's war on 'big government'. Greater reliance on self-reporting following the de-funding of government enforcement is "just one more part of a cycle that began in this country with the collapse of collective bargaining, an institution that at one point created workplace safety committees, which took the place of both expansive state regulation and whistleblowing as a means of securing safe places to work...It's no coincidence that many of the worst such incidents occur in states affected by both austerity cuts and low or declining union membership."

Indeed, OSHA had not made a site visit to the West, Texas plant since 1985, despite occasional complaints.



And yet - industrial accidents in remote, rural areas are just not sexy stuff, like terrorism. You can't make spy stories or exciting terrorist-hunting flicks like Zero Dark Thirty out of that.

So the US government pours billions of taxpayer dollars into spying on the entire world and fighting a 'terrorist' threat that, according to the FBI's own statistics, claims less lives globally every year - 12,533 in 2011, virtually none in the US - than there are gun homicides in the United States alone. (14,612 in 2011)

The threat from terrorism was never particularly significant in comparative terms, even if you take an anomaly year like 2001, and factor in the deaths on September 11. The total number of deaths from terrorism in the United States, from 1980 to 2001, including September 11? 2,993. In 2007, the highest year on record since 2001? 15,732 deaths from terrorism globally, of which only 33 Americans, 21 of those in Iraq. Tom Diaz, until recently a senior analyst at the Violence Policy Center, gives similar figures: "In 2010, 13,186 people died in terrorist attacks worldwide; in that same year, in America alone, 31,672 people lost their lives in gun-related deaths." That's a global rate of 0.23 per 100,000 population for 2007 (or 0.00023%), and 0.19 per 100,000 population for 2010.(0.00019%)

By contrast, here are some interesting bullet points:

  • According to OSHA, there were 4,609 fatal industrial accidents in the USA in 2011 - an improvement compared to 20 years ago, but a slight increase on 2009.  That's a rate of 1.4 per 100,000 population, about 6 times greater than the global rate of deaths from terrorism, according to the FBI's 2007 figures, and 139 times greater than the rate of Americans killed by terrorists, worldwide.
  • Over 30,000 Americans die in motor vehicle accidents each year. That's 9.6 per 100,000 population, about 48 times greater than the global rate of deaths from terrorism, and 900 times greater than the number of Americans killed by terrorism every year.
  • According to a Harvard study, over 44,789 Americans die each year due to lack of health insurance. That's 14.4 per 100,000 population, about 60 times greater than the global rate of deaths from terrorism. That's also an annual rate about 15 times greater than the number of Americans killed by terrorism in 2001 (the year of September 11), and 1,357 times greater than the number of American deaths from terrorism in 2007, the highest year on record since 2001. Let me rephrase that, just to make sure it sinks in - Americans die from lack of health insurance, every year, at a rate about one thousand three hundred and fifty-seven times greater than the rate at which they are killed by terrorists, worldwide. Talk about death panels.
  • In summary, far more Americans die every year from any one of these causes than have died from terrorism in the 33 years since 1980. In the case of annual healthcare-related deaths, based on the Harvard study figures, about 10 times more Americans die from lack of healthcare - every year - than the number of Americans killed by terrorists in the last 30+ years - according to FBI figures.


Driving a car or working in heavy industrial labour jobs in America - or for that matter, just being here, especially without health insurance - poses far greater risks than global terrorism, from a purely statistical point of view.



And it's not as if all the military/intelligence spending is what's keeping anyone safe from terrorism - on the contrary, the highest annual death toll from terrorism on record since 2001, as I mentioned, is 2007, which saw the most intense fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are wars started by the US, the latter as we know on completely false pretenses, and moreover fueled by an official and secret US policy of 'divide and conquer' - courtesy of one Colonel Steele, a veteran of the "dirty wars" in Central America in the 1980s who was sent to Iraq precisely for the purpose of organizing paramilitary Shia militias and uniformed death squads, along with interrogation/torture centers, inciting sectarian violence. (explored in a BBC documentary, James Steele: America's Mystery Man in Iraq)  Of the 100,000+ killed in the Iraq war, at least 30,000 - according to leaked documents included in the Wikileaks Iraq war logs - were innocent civilians killed by US troops. In other words, US troops have murdered at least 6 or 7 times more innocent men, women and children in Iraq than the number of Americans killed by terrorists in the 30+ years from 1980 to today, including those killed on September 11, 2001. The United States government may still be, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."***



Furthermore, deaths from terrorism worldwide, comparatively insignificant as they were to begin with, have declined since Bush left office, and since the 'war on terror' ceased to be as much of a policy priority. Which is a good reminder of Foucault's dictum on how law enforcement breeds its own monsters, where a given 'vice' - [insert "terror" or "drugs"] - "may have been designated as the evil to be eliminated, but the extraordinary effort that went into the task that was bound to fail leads one to suspect that what was demanded of it was to persevere, to proliferate to the limits of the visible and the invisible, rather than to disappear for good. Always relying on this support, power advanced, multiplied its relays and its effects, while its target expanded, subdivided, and branched out, penetrating further into reality at the same pace." (The Will to Knowledge, 42) In much the same way as Wall Street bankers are said to turn to Karl Marx for instructive tips on the functioning of the capitalist economy, this passage from Foucault easily sounds like a page from Colonel Steele's field manual.



The vast state surveillance apparatus devoted to fighting terrorism (or drugs, for that matter) is basically a bunch of grown-up kids with technology and guns living out their sick, violent fantasies, snooping on the whole world, and leaving it to the rest of us to solve the world's real problems, including the ones they create.

A quick browse through my notes on Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine is a good reminder that neoliberal economic policies will kill far more of us than global terrorism. They already have. Far more people die every year from the combined effects of hunger, treatable diseases, industrial accidents, pollution, malnutrition, mismanaged natural disasters, etc - or from any one of these causes - than from terrorism. In other words, from the effects of deregulation, post-colonial economic imperialism, austerity cuts, the hypocritical enforcement of patent regimes on pharmaceuticals in the developing world (see my Medicine, Ethics and Law paper on the left), and so forth. Not to mention state-sponsored violence - war, terrorism, drone strikes - which in the case of Iraq, basically comes down to one big, disastrous experiment in neoliberal/neoconservative free marketeer nation-building, given what we know of the motivations that drove the Straussian Milton-Friedmanite Chicago School devotees in the Bush administration.



So while more billions are being poured into fighting 'global terrorism' with its relatively negligible casualties worldwide, and military aid to corrupt third-world regimes, a single industrial accident this summer, the last in a series of similar accidents - the building collapse in Bangladesh - killed more than 230 sweatshop workers and left hundreds trapped under the rubble. Gotta keep those cheap goods comin'. As reported in the Guardian:

'...police ordered an evacuation of the building after deep cracks became visible in the walls, officials said. But factories based there ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working.

Dilara Begum, a garment worker who survived the accident, said supervisors had told them to return to work on Wednesday, saying the building had been inspected and declared safe. 

"We didn't want to go in but the supervisors threatened to dock pay if we didn't return to work."




More recently, another Guardian article reported on the deaths of dozens of Nepalese migrant workers due to brutal labour conditions in Qatar, where employers routinely confiscate workers' passports and hold back wages to keep labourers from running away. Thirty Nepalese recently took shelter in their embassy to escape working conditions:

"The overall picture is of one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world's most popular sporting tournament."



This might, I suppose, sound ironic to someone still labouring under the illusion that wealth in capitalist societies is accumulated through hard work rather than theft, lies, luck, and plunder. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the exploitation of migrants in Qatar is not news - this has been going on for years. The difference is that the World Cup preparations have drawn the world's attention to it, and perhaps exacerbated the situation somewhat.

In a recent episode of the Colbert Report, featuring Thomas Herndon, the UMass grad student who discovered the infamous 'spreadsheet error' in Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhardt's highly influential pro-austerity paper (incidentally, Herndon did his undergraduate study at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, where I live), Stephen Colbert eloquently and cheekily summed up the twisted logic of austerity: "we need to keep cutting the government budget, and keep laying people off until those people get jobs."


And the schtick goes on: "an academic paper by Harvard economists Rogoff and Reinhart, that fiscal conservatives worldwide used to argue for austerity, was recently refuted by a UMass grad student just because it had a few simple spreadsheet errors, and a couple of little staggering omissions, that made it slightly fundamentally wrong."

That's right. Only slightly fundamentally wrong. We don't need to worry about getting the numbers right - about the industrial accidents, gun homicides, car accidents, lack of access to healthcare, the economic stupidity of suicidal austerity cuts, corporate welfare, bank bailouts, foreclosures, exporting of jobs overseas, deregulation, drones, disaster response, starvation, malnutrition, foreign wars, state-sponsored violence, torture - as long as the borders are secure and we're safe from terrorists.



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NOTES
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** This is actually pretty straightforward stuff - in line with Marx and Engels' dictum (in the Communist Manifesto) that in a communist society "the free development of each must be the condition for the free development of all." It is in fact under conditions of capitalism that the needs of the individual are subjected to the needs of the market, capital, state, etc.

*** Given the US government's position in the bully pulpit of the world, its long-standing official refusal to even recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, as well as - in practice - international and local jurisdiction law generally in relation to its military activities, along with the Obama administration's effective amnesty of any wrongdoing by the Bush administration, it is unlikely that any US official will be brought to justice for crimes that, at a minimum, equal those of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides - the latter at least in severity, if not in magnitude. The occasional crime that is prosecuted, of individual low-ranking soldiers and on US soil, is basically a farce - and a classist/chauvinist one at that. Obama's statement upon entering the White House: "We've been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." Really? Nice going, Obama. Try telling that to the survivors and victims of the Iraq war. And is this meant to suggest that nothing was gained by the Nuremberg trials, or by prosecuting criminals like Karadzic and Milosevic? Or is there just a double standard at work here? Was it the Iraqis misfortune that their oppressors were American? Not even 'truth and reconciliation' for them, then?