Wednesday, 25 February 2015


I. The 'China price' on Freedom

There is a certain kind of inertia that leads people to rehash old tropes and repeat worn-out formulas of political thought, applying stale or long-past-expiry date cookie-cutter critical approaches to new and emerging political problems. In the wake of the tragic shooting of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris a few weeks back, a range of responses emerged on the left. Some simply condemned the shootings, some condemned the shootings but expressed some concern about Charlie Hebdo's allegedly 'racist' cartoons, suggesting that perhaps there should be some limitations on free speech or that we should use our rights 'responsibly', while some condemned the shootings unconditionally but nonetheless felt the need to invoke any number of things as a possible 'explanation' - the history of colonialism, 'Western' foreign policy and involvement in the Middle East, French racism and the marginalized status of French Muslims, and so on. And of course they all express concern about the far-right backlash against Muslim populations in Europe and the West.

The thing that strikes me about leftist or critical school constructions of 'The West' and 'The Muslim World', such as this one, is that they are no different from the ones that underpin contemporary right-wing and neoliberal political thinking. All the while that leftists decry the 'war on terror' and the grand narrative of 'a clash of civilizations', many of them subliminally incorporate its basic assumptions into their thinking - that there even are monolithic cultural entities such as 'the West' or 'the Muslim world', for instance. Thus even in leftist thought the battle here is between 'Western' liberal values of 'free speech' and democracy on the one hand, and the religious sensibilities of the 'Muslim world'. Because, naturally, all the people living under despotic regimes in that 'Muslim' world, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia and Morocco and Mali, presumably have no interest in free expression and other 'Western' values and human rights. It's their culture.

Meanwhile, a Muslim Saudi blogger recently received a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashings for the crime of 'insulting Islam', Boko Haram slaughtered another 2,000 people in Nigeria (their deadliest massacre to date), journalists are routinely sent to jail in Egypt, and a Saudi cleric just issued a fatwa against building snowmen. (In addition to 'idolatry', the crimes punishable by death in Saudi Arabia include apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, sorcery, witchcraft, adultery, and drug use.) In Afghanistan, as a folio in last month's Harper's magazine reports, women routinely run away from their families to escape being forced into arranged marriages, as well as abuse including facial disfigurement by acid or severed lips and noses, forced prostitution, and honour killings. And in Bangladesh this week, an atheist writer was hacked to death by a group of machete-wielding extremists who took exception to his views on religion - he wasn't drawing or mocking the Prophet, he was Bangladeshi (so it's not like this is about the history of colonial repression), and his attackers weren't members of a marginalized ethnic minority in Bangladesh - just a bunch of fascist whackjobs.

Also, let's not forget that the most famous fatwa ever issued was against Salman Rushdie, an Anglo-Indian writer born to Muslim parents in India, for writing The Satanic Verses - a novel seen as a grave insult to Islam, punishable by death. This is not a coincidence.

But even more to the point, one of the most significant events in the world in the past decade, if not the most significant, has been the wave of spontaneous uprisings and revolutions throughout the Arab world collectively known as the Arab Spring, which has seen governments forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt (twice), Libya, and Yemen; civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria; as well as major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Israel and Sudan, along with minor protests in Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Western Sahara, and Palestine. Primary motivating factors have included dictatorship and state repression, human rights violations, political corruption, and economic inequality. Many of these movements were notable in their effective use of social media to organize uprisings, in the face of state attempts at repression and censorship.

So, what about all that?

Some responses on the left seem to be on the right track, pointing to the hypocrisy of 'Western' states in selectively protecting free expression, but they too somehow miss the bigger point here - or fail to make one at all. For just as they ascribe (or condemn) free expression to the pantheon of 'Western' values, they seem to disown it in a way, guardedly, as leftists - with some absurd outcomes on occasion, such as a recent petition in a debate between two feminist camps, under the banner 'Student political protest is under threat, not free speech' - as if these are two totally separate things. Formulating a discourse that sees the 'right to protest' as an independent right, not derived from the right to free speech, the left thus undermines its own prospects - in the long run, any official limitation on free speech will wind up being used to clamp down on protest, as one of the most 'outspoken' forms of speech.

So what is the point exactly, of those who emphasize that 'this isn't about free speech' or that Western governments don't consistently protect free speech? Does this mean that we should give up fighting for freedom of expression? That we should allow free speech to be curtailed in cases such as that of Charlie Hebdo, even insist on it, since the position of Western governments is inconsistent? Why should the behaviour of governments influence my position at all, other than to oppose any and every curtailment or infringement of fundamental rights, by government or by terrorists?

Surely, the point here is that these aren't simply 'Western' values we are talking about at all. Of course Western governments routinely attack freedom of expression, there is nothing surprising or categorically hypocritical about this. These are not rights that somehow culturally belong to us 'Westerners', or that our governments impose on us. It is all too easy to forget that even in the so-called West these are hard-won political rights, the product of bloody and violent struggles, the result of revolutions and fierce battles against the state, and they still have to be protected and watched and fought for at every turn, at all costs. Giving up one inch can cost us all dearly.

It is no coincidence that, for instance, France, which happens to be the home of this most outrageous and offensive satirical magazine, is also the country that most vocally opposed the US war in Iraq, a war fought against the will of the majority of people in the nations involved. This is not to the credit of the French government, but the French people above all. This is the legacy of May '68. How, one might ask? Or even better, what was May '68?

Of course, there were protests around the world in 1968. But the level that they reached in France is unprecedented in history, and dwarfs even the largest popular mass movements today. A protest that began with a few students occupying the Sorbonne, it culminated in the largest general strike in history, with a wildcat walkout of 10 million workers - two-thirds of the entire French labour force at the time - the occupation of universities and factories across the country, and so on, bringing the French economy to a standstill, and a government to its knees. This movement may not have achieved all its political goals in the immediate aftermath, but it was a turning point that resonates in French politics to this day. Its legacy means that any French government will think twice before going head-to-head with the will of its people. And Charlie Hebdo, whether anyone likes it or not, is a part of that legacy.

Greece's new leftist finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, writing in the guardian about how he became an 'erratic Marxist', reminds us of this tension in leftist political discourse - the leftist movements of the 20th century, in his view, "failed, to their detriment, to follow Marx’s lead in a crucial regard: instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organising concepts, they opted for equality and justice, bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals. Marx was adamant: The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational…"

"Having failed to couch a critique of capitalism in terms of freedom and rationality, as Marx thought essential, social democracy and the left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of ideologies."

In Marx's (and Engels') own words, from the Communist Manifesto: "in a communist society, the free development of each must be the condition for the free development of all."

The emphasis (with or without my italics) is clearly on 'free' and 'each' - individual freedom. Collective freedom, the free development of the whole, cannot but be premised on this backbone - the free development of each individual unit. It is, after all, precisely neoliberal capitalism, despite all the sermonizing and lip service to freedom and individual rights by its acolytes, that in practice demands the sacrifice of individual and social interests for the abstract notion of the market and its needs, which in reality means the interests of the wealthy few - those who appropriate surplus value and accumulate capital.

It is worth remembering that in the early 20th century, the term 'libertarian' - today associated broadly with fringe right-wing anti-statism - was broadly applied to a range of left-wing anarchist and communist movements, especially in Europe. What many leftists seem to have forgotten, somewhere along the way, is that even communism only truly comes into its own as the state 'withers away', as societies become more capable of direct democracy or self-governance, and that the state form known as 'socialism' only marks the transition from the capitalist state to a communist society.

It is in this sense that Soviet and Chinese constructions of 'communism' rely precisely on a neoliberal conception of freedom and equality, coupled with authoritarian politics and some vaguely socialist ideas about the redistribution of wealth. In today's increasingly globalized and yet ever more restrictive world, this divergence is becoming even more clear - the global 'free' market means the free movement of capital, not of human beings. And China, communist or not, is more eager than most to take advantage of this situation, imposing restrictions on the freedom of its citizens while allowing capital to flow across the border in all directions.

There are however glimmers of hope, and other enlightened responses have emerged on the left - again, if not to Charlie Hebdo specifically, then to the broader issue(s) of human rights and freedom - even among committed Marxists, such as a recent piece by Nina Power.

(I would only add a couple of points or 'derogations' to her contribution, on my part - individual rights as discussed by Marx are not human rights in the modern sense, strictly speaking - private property rights, for instance, are legal rights but not typically mentioned or universally recognised in international human rights documents, as fundamental human rights. Even international instruments such as the ICESCR which protect 'economic rights' as human rights don't mention property rights as such, at all, to my knowledge, but rather the right to decent work, housing (for all, not as an individual property right, but in the sense of 'having a roof over one's head'), social security, healthcare, forming/joining a labour union, etc. Such distinctions are important, and formulating a truly Marxist or leftist approach may be a bit more complex. Also, rights aren't only against the state (i.e. union organising), nor are they strictly speaking 'part' of the state as Power's piece seems to suggest. What has always made human rights both problematic and enduring is precisely their claim to the status of 'natural' or universal rights that exist independently of any legal mechanism or document.)

II. 'You're with us or against us'

Still, my question to those on the left who continue to regurgitate the aforementioned worn-out 'critical' tropes on the hypocrisy of the West is - what do you want? Because that other long-standing problem with leftist discourse seems to be very much in play here - formulating demands. What is your point? These things are never made clear. One big mistake in all this 'monolithic' circle jerk groupthink on the left is the refusal to take an absolute, unequivocal stance against Islamic extremism, or Islamo-fascism, for instance. It's as if you can't do that on the left, it's just not the done thing, because, well, it would be taking sides with this mythical, monolithic 'West' we hear so much about. It's an imperial war. Best not to get involved.

But isn't this precisely the type of neocon-Bush-'war on terror'-type thinking that leftists supposedly abhor? Doesn't this amount to forcing us into a neutral or at best mildly critical stance towards something we should absolutely and unequivocally oppose - what amounts to Islam's version of far-right fascist politics - simply because certain 'imperial' powers are also involved in that fight? It's the old 'you're with us or against us' type of thinking, or alternately 'the enemy of my enemy isn't really my enemy'?

Yet if we struggle against this religio-fascism does it really have to be as 'Westerners', rather than as human beings, as Muslims, as Kurds? Isn't their struggle also our struggle? And isn't our struggle also their struggle? Aren't the same or similar forces at play here?

Recognizing with Deleuze that the greatest difference is always internal to a system - to an Idea - allows us to establish the proper relation here - the real fight is never between systems, between Ideas, civilizations, but between versions of one and the same, between different actualizations of the same Idea, between the Idea and representation, between a system and its shadow.

Or as Freud suggests, the struggle between 'civilization' and 'barbarism' is internal to civilization itself. The choice we are continually forced into - between, for instance, saying that the crimes committed by Islamic fundamentalists 'have nothing to do with Islam' on the one hand (as the liberal left insists), and on the other hand holding Muslims in general somehow 'responsible' for these crimes (as some on the right claim) - is a false choice. Both of these claims are wrong. Of course this Islamo-fascism has 'something to do' with Islam; but this does not mean that Muslims in general are in any way 'responsible' for it, any more than liberal democracy or Christianity or Science or any other discourse is responsible for its appropriation by fascists, or its excesses.

The discourse of 'political correctness' on the left is itself a kind of proto-fascist 'thought police' that panders to a disguised, latent racism. Leftists, in their barely disguised apologia for Islamofascism, perpetuating the narrative of victimhood that the extremists themselves use to drive recruitment, end up being ‘circle jerk’ apologetics for the very things they claim to hate the most - racism, sexism, fascism, oppression, and the slaughter of civilians. Or they simply fail to take up a coherent position on the issue - and this plays very neatly into the hands of the far right, the military-industrial complex, and our neoliberal oligarchs. But especially the racist far right, as an account in the Guardian by a formerly radicalised Muslim suggests.

So I don't quite follow the logic of those who say that the Paris shootings were "totally unjustifiable, but…let’s talk about how the shooters are part of a marginalized group dealing with French racism, etc". If the killings are totally unjustifiable, then what exactly is the point here? Well, since it's being thrown around, let's talk about racism and marginalized groups. As a kid I lived for several years in Egypt, where I witnessed first-hand the racism of Egyptians toward African black people - incidentally, most of my friends at school were black. And this is not a fringe phenomenon, it was rife. Imagine if the sentiments felt by the very fringe far-right in Europe towards minorities and immigrants were seemingly felt by the majority of people, and more pronounced. Systemic. That's what it's like to be black in Egypt, and most Arab countries.

And let's not even talk about sexism, homophobia, and anti-semitism. Anti-semitic cartoons, for instance - not the Charlie Hebdo 'equal opportunity satire' variety but rather more of the Nazi Der Sturmer type, exploiting a range of racist myths about Jews like the 'blood libel' - are a regular feature in mainstream media throughout the Arab world. It is common, it is seen as totally acceptable by vast numbers of people, and nobody does a damn thing about it. As may be obvious from previous posts on this blog, I am a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights, for instance, and opposed to militant Zionism - but racism and racist myths have no place in that debate. While it may be understandable for Palestinian rage to turn racist on occasion, it isn’t quite so for those who aren’t exactly suffering under the yoke of Israeli occupation.

What it comes down to is that there is a lot of hypocrisy here all around. And while most Muslims would certainly distance themselves from the violent extremists who brutally killed the French cartoonists in Paris, there is a broader problem of racism in the Arab world that the whole community needs to recognize and deal with, just like Europe has to deal with its own racism. In that respect – I have to say this – Europe is in many ways doing better, at this point in time. And Charlie Hebdo, in my view, in its own twisted way, belongs to a venerable tradition of free expression that, for better or worse, helped us get to this point – by destroying old values and outdated social codes, breaking taboos, taking aim at all forms of power and prejudice, profaning the sacred, disturbing the establishment, ushering in the new, and bringing about revolutions.

III. The Menagerie of Civilization and its Contents

There is also a historical reality that adherents of the 'clash of civilizations' idea and leftist cultural relativists alike seem to have missed - the way in which these civilizations that are supposedly clashing are actually far more intertwined than many today suppose, and form a continuity in fact - a sort of Moebius strip.

Long before the modern era and the means of sharing information we have today, before the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Europe went through the Dark Ages - ruled by the Church and by Christian kings who enforced their faith by the sword. Freedom of thought and expression was at such a low that the bulk of what we see today as the heritage of 'Western civilization' - the literature, philosophy, and science of Greek and Roman antiquity - was deemed contraband by the Church, and lost to history. For a time, at least - a good several centuries longer than our modern age has lasted, to put things in perspective. Books were burned and banned (as well as people), and the only way to get an education at all was through the Church.

It turns out, however, that many of the 'pagan' texts from European antiquity long thought lost in the Dark Ages were in fact preserved - by Muslim and Arab scholars who acquired their own copies from the Greeks and Romans, translating and expanding upon them during what is commonly known as the 'Islamic Golden Age' - an era of scientific, economic, and cultural flourishing that lasted for about 500 years, from the 8th to the 13th century.

Starting with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 8th century, where scholars from all over the world sought to gather all the known world's knowledge into Arabic, Islamic scholars built upon Persian and Indian mathematical systems, astronomy, algebra, trigonometry and medicine. This is why, for instance, along with our Latin alphabet, we use a numeric system based on Arab numbers, rather than the cumbersome Roman numerals. It is also why we use algebra - the name itself comes from the Arab word 'al-jebr', meaning "reunion of broken parts". Symbolic, that.

Later, as Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, Arab traders and scholars brought this knowledge back to Europe, in works of their own along with copies of the Greek and Roman originals. And in Europe, the rediscovery of this ancient heritage ushered in the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment.

Today, sadly, it seems it is ISIS militants who are looting libraries, and burning the very same ancient texts that their ancestors preserved while they were being burned by the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. The only upshot here is the suicidal nature of such acts, as one might expect from extremists, I suppose - in the long run, as history has shown time and again, any political movement or institution that destroys knowledge undermines its own credibility and viability. The most successful empires in history, for better or worse, and for all their faults and crimes, thrived in large part thanks to their multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, and fell when they abandoned or moved away from these principles.

Incidentally, one work of ancient philosophy particularly reviled by the Church fathers in the Dark Ages and long thought lost in Europe (its story partly dramatized in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose), though preserved and later brought back by the Arabs, was Aristotle's Poetics - a work in which the famed Greek philosopher discusses, among other things, comedy and laughter. In the same way in which modern Islamic fundamentalists don't like being ridiculed, not to mention having their Prophet portrayed in any way, the Church fathers of old considered laughter itself immoral. Comedy was contraband - as was Aristotle's work on the subject, for merely suggesting that it had a legitimate role in human intellectual life.

As a matter of fact, it is very likely that Aristotle and Plato would be totally unknown to us today, were it not for the work of one Averroës (his name is the Latinized form of Ibn Rushd), an influential 12th-century Andalusian Muslim thinker who wrote on a range of scientific and philosophical subjects, including logic, Aristotelian and Islamic philosophy, theology, psychology, music theory, geography, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and physics.

Avicenna (Ibn-Sina), another one of the most important thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age, was an 11th-century Persian scholar who has been described as the "Father of Early Modern Medicine".

Most interesting of all perhaps (for the present discussion), Averroës sought to reconcile Islamic philosophy with Aristotelianism and Platonism, along with a form of proto-humanism - among other things, he was a proponent of women's equality with men, going so far as to suggest that women should be educated and allowed to serve in the military, and could even become philosophers or rulers. This from an influential 12th-century Muslim scholar, writing long before the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and women's suffrage - centuries before gender equality was even mentioned in the West, let alone considered a valid political discourse.

And Averroës certainly wasn't importing 'Western' values or ideas on gender here, either, in any meaningful sense - Aristotle and Plato both held fairly conventional views on the subject, typical of patriarchal ancient Greek societies, while the status of women varied widely between Greek city states. Among the ancient Greek schools of thought, only the Stoics and the Cynics were known to espouse gender equality, but few of their writings survived and there is no indication that they had any influence on Averroës.

Of course, the views of a philosopher by no means reflect those of his social milieu, and many are in fact lone voices in the wilderness. Nonetheless, even if Averroës is merely an early harbinger of modern liberal humanism - a voice that inspired and predated Voltaire and Montesquieu by several centuries - it is telling that this voice is of an Arab Muslim scholar.

It is however also notable that, even after the Islamic Golden Age was over, Arab and Muslim societies as a whole were nonetheless far more progressive when it came to religious and racial tolerance. When Jews, Muslims, and Christian heretics were driven out of Europe during the Spanish Inquisition - those who weren't forcibly converted or burned at the stake, that is - they all found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, of all places, where they thrived and freely practiced their religion.

But it hardly stops, or begins there. If we go far enough in time and space, we find that these so-called 'Western' values - of modern liberal humanism - are rooted in traditions and schools of thought that span the globe. Early European humanist thinkers drew on or were influenced by a whole range of ideas, from Averroës to the Stoics, from Taoism and schools of Buddhist thought to the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia.

It should be clear that the broader historical context allows us to view the modern-day schema of 'civilizations' in a totally different light. Iran in the 1950s, for instance, was a far more progressive society than today, where women didn't wear the veil and achieved greater gender equality than many European societies at the time - before their democratic socialist government was overthrown with the help of British and American agents who installed the Shah. The Iranians weren't simply adopting 'Western' attitudes, and even surpassed much of the West in terms of social progress - and as already pointed out, they discovered the ancients centuries before the West did. The return of Islam several decades later was precisely that - a return, a reactionary force that sprung up as a result of British and American meddling in the region.

Even today, there is rumour that among the Iranian Ayatollahs there are adherents of various 'Western' schools of thought, including at least one Kantian. It is perhaps precisely the distortion of Hegelian dialectics in our 'Western' thinking, combined with historical ignorance, that leads to the conceit of Western uniqueness and progress, and a linear view of history. Forgetting, as it were, that history is full of throwbacks, regressions, cul-de-sacs, diversions, digressions, schisms, and that these sometimes last centuries, like the Dark Ages.

IV. The Internal Contradictions of Politically Correct Fundamentalism(s)

Of course, it is not enough to say that liberal humanist values are not uniquely 'Western', historically or philosophically. We should also recognize the inverse - the historic contingency of the despotism, extremism, sexism, mysogyny and other ills commonly associated with the Muslim world. Just like the 'clash of civilizations' discourse, the leftist cultural relativism that speaks of 'Western values', merely disguises a latent cultural racism under the banner of political correctness and cultural sensitivity: it is a racism that, deep down, thinks 'let them have their different (read: 'backward') culture, why should we impose on them our 'Western' values of democracy and humanism, equality and rights? It is a cultural racism that, despite its best intentions, deep down sees the autocratic, fascist, misogynist Islamism of a state like Saudi Arabia as somehow representative of the Islamic 'other' in its own historic milieu - when it is in fact representative of nothing more than one form of Islamic modernity, informed by patriarchal misogynist fascism - a thoroughly modern, atavistic fascist monarchism. Which just happens to have, in this case, instrumentalised the Muslim faith for its establishment - a religion no more susceptible to such appropriation, on its face, than any of the main monotheistic faiths.

It is an open secret, for instance, that the very Saudi elite who maintain this Islamic regime at home - who forge ties with the neocons and Bushes in America while funding terrorist organizations, who own prime real estate across the globe and control major multinational corporations - make regular trips to less restrictive neighbouring countries like Egypt, where they do their whoring and boozing. All under the eyes of their Prophet. Which is not to say that they don't do these things back home, too - child sex slaves, often trafficked from neighboring countries or Africa, are common among the Saudi elite. And even ISIS (with whom the Charlie Hebdo attackers are apparently affiliated) recently published a magazine, which appears to justify taking women and children as sex slaves.

The nuance, subtlety and complexity of well-crafted and provocative political or social satire often gets lost in the turmoil of political violence. In the wake of the Paris massacre, much has been made of Charlie Hebdo's latest literary cover star, Michel Houellebecq, and his latest work, Soumisson, a satirical novel about an Islamic party winning presidential elections in France in 2022, and instituting Sharia law across the country. Many people assumed, without reading the book or even a substantial review, that it was an 'islamophobic' tract that panders to far-right fears of an Islamic takeover.

Yet a review in The Guardian, of all places, suggests that something very different is at work here. "The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man." There is no violent takeover, but a thoroughly democratic one, and many French happily go along with the new Sharia system - including the narrator, a middle-aged academic who looks forward to his own conversion and a future of endless sexual gratification through polygamy, with wives of varying ages.

What Houellebecq is suggesting, in other words, quite apart from any criticism of Islam or religion, is that the lecherous misogyny on display here is by no means limited to Muslims. As to what really lurks beneath the surface in the psyche of some 'Western' men, real-life examples abound - from the white American college frat boys we see in Sacha Baron-Cohen's Borat film, making racist and sexist remarks and yearning for the days of slavery and women's subordination to men, to American televangelist Pat Robertson advising a man whose wife 'refuses to submit to [male] authority' to move to Saudi Arabia, among other things.

Far from pandering to right-wing fears, Houellebecq's fiction very much seems to furnish Borat's project, suggesting that the European far-right and Islamic religious extremists have far more in common than they realise. And once you strip away the cultural veneer, what's left, really?

It is interesting to contemplate Houellebecq's work alongside another novel where a fictional religious regime comes to power in a Western country, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In this far more dystopian work of speculative fiction, it is a totalitarian Christian theocracy that overthrows the United States government. It is far more brutal, and Atwood's target is primarily fundamentalism and religion. Her plot is arguably even more far-fetched, as it involves a coup d'etat (rather than a democratic election) and, despite some fundamentalist leanings in the U.S. political establishment, no Christian theocracy exists in the world today - modern Christianity has not quite found its political dimension the way Islam has, most notably in the form of wealthy and powerful states like Saudi Arabia.

Despite all this, the book has made its way around the world and into high school reading lists, even in god-fearing Texas, despite being frequently challenged as 'anti-Christian' and 'pornographic'. Ironically, it has even at times been challenged for portraying brutality towards and mistreatment of women, and alternately, for being 'anti-Islamic'. (The Christian theocrats in the novel mandate women to wear the veil, and allow polygamy).

V. Cartoonish Racism

As to the alleged racism of Charlie Hebdo, it seems many people here missed the point. For starters, out of the two or three cartoons bandied around the internet as examples of Charlie Hebdo's 'racism', one of them is a cover published in 1980 - 35 years ago - satirizing a papal visit to France. That fact alone is telling - that even to find an example of a non-racist cartoon that in today's context is being misrepresented as racist, Charlie Hebdo's accusers had to search far and wide, all the way back to 1980. And what does the cartoon say? It shows the pope greeting his French supporters, with the headline: "The Pope in Paris: The French are Cunts Just Like Negroes." It just so happens that the pope's historic visit to France in 1980 came on the heels of an extended tour of Africa - thus the words are presumably Charlie Hebdo's take on what the pope might be thinking.

Another of the handful of allegedly racist Charlie Hebdo cartoons portrays Boko Haram kidnap victims as French welfare queens saying 'Ne touchez pas nos allocs!' ('Don't touch our welfare payments!') This is clearly a jab at the anti-Muslim rhetoric of right-wing politicians who actually see French Muslim women in this light. By taking the claim to an absurd extreme - suggesting the same of Boko Haram kidnap victims/sex slaves (who are neither French nor on welfare) - Charlie Hebdo is satirizing this view point, in much the same manner as Baron-Cohen's Borat (who has been sued and/or accused both by minority groups and by the racist misogynists he exposed); or, even better, Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in fact, was not only accused of racism on various occasions, but numbered among his fans, at least in the early days of the show, many conservatives or right-wingers who didn't quite catch on to the satirical aspect of his talk show.

Another example in the English-speaking world, perhaps more relevant because it also involves cartoons, is the TV cartoon series South Park - which has itself been involved in a number of controversies over the years due to its particular brand of 'equal-opportunity' satire. A running theme of the show, apart from ridiculing everyone and everything under the sun (including Canadians), is that one of the main characters, 4th grader Eric Cartman, while repeatedly making racist statements, has a particular penchant for calling out and casually insulting his friend and fellow 4th grader Kyle as a Jew. Also, the only black kid in their school is named 'Token' - another frequent target of Cartman's casual racism, rage and fear.

I have no doubt that the thought police of political correctness would see much of South Park as racist - but to me it seems a fairly obvious jab at the deeply ingrained and institutionalized racism of Middle America in all its whiteness, its pretense to racial equality, its political correctness (which only serves to disguise racism and white privilege), and the struggles of four ordinary fourth-graders in coming to terms with all this in small-town Colorado. We cannot confront institutional racism - in fact we only affirm it - by pretending it doesn't exist. And that is precisely what 'political correctness' amounts to - a ruse, a disappearing act that masks and affirms latent institutional racism by purging our language and cultural production of its forms, satirical and otherwise.

As for depictions of Muhammad, it should be noted that aside from any explicitly offensive content, the prohibition in Islam relating to any depictions of the Prophet (positive or negative) is by no means universal. It is primarily a precept of Sunni Islam, it does not actually appear anywhere in the Quran, and - like similar prohibitions in ancient Judaism or Christianity (pertaining to 'idolatry' or the 'making of graven images') - it is addressed to believers of the faith, mainly Sunni Muslims. (Images of the Prophet are quite common in Iran, I am told, where the majority of Muslims are Shia. Yep – Iran.)

At its radical origin, this commandment is not about forbidding anyone depicting the Prophet, it's about believers themselves not making or worshipping images ('false idols') because it taints or weakens true faith. In principle, there is no reason why a Muslim should be offended by any and every depiction of the Prophet by a non-Muslim, any more than they should be offended by a non-Muslim eating pork, or violating any other religious rule. So this relatively modern and extremist take on it, where the prohibition becomes absolute and applies to all non-Muslims too, crosses the line between practising faith and imposing one's religion on others. And that is especially the case if in the process of imposing your religion on others, you violate someone else's belief system, which in this case includes freedom of expression, pluralism, and the right to life as fundamental tenets. As the slogan goes, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

Let’s also not forget, as we affirm the complexity in all this, that the very point of the cross-cultural dialogue, the insight that no community is monolithic, that there are violent extremists of all stripes – that it is precisely for this reason we cannot see these particular killers simply as members of a disadvantaged minority group. They are not killers because they are Arab, and they are not killers because they are Muslims, so by extension they are not killers because they are members of a disadvantaged minority in France. If you want to distance their extremism from the larger community, then don't rationalize their act as in any way expressing the marginalized status or the interests of that community. If anything, their group affiliation is primarily with the likes of ISIS (a recent target of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and likely motivation), which in those parts of the world where it operates is certainly not a repressed minority, but an oppressive scourge on the face of the earth – primarily oppressing other Muslims. Throughout history, fanatical religious extremism has taken many forms, from the Spanish Inquisition to modern-day cults – and its motivation or driving aim, more often than not, is some form of domination over others, not liberation from oppression.

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.

*       *       *

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.

*       *       *

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'.


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."