Hollywood’s Service to Empire: Two Examples

24/02/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, February 20-22, 2014

Paul Street

More Than Entertainment
The United States corporate media’s function of transmitting ideology and propaganda in service to those atop the nation’s reigning and interrelated structures of Empire and inequality is hardly limited to the news. Equally if not more significant for that that task are “entertainment” media, including – of special interest on the eve of the 2015 Academy Awards – the US movie industry. Far from restricting their hearts-and minds-influencing powers to the (Aldous) “Huxlean” tasks of mass diversion, distraction, and infantilization, US movies (like US television sit-coms and dramas and video games) are loaded with richly “Orwellian” political and ideological content.

US citizens are being more than merely entertained when they sit before the nation’s 40,000 commercial movie screens.  They are also propagandized by a film industry whose owners and executives are deeply biased on behalf of the aforementioned hierarchies.

Many Americans would find it strange to think of their local Cineplex as propaganda sites. But more than six and a half decade ago, the notion of US movies as tools of propaganda was hardly debatable for right-wing McCarthyites determined to eliminate leftists from Hollywood.  As US Court of Appeals Justice Bennett C. Clark explained in upholding the conviction of ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to “confess” current or past Communist Party membership in 1949, US motion pictures play “a critically important role” as “a potent medium of propaganda dissemination” (quoted in Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America [Boston, 1998], 328).

Zero Dark Thirty: “Pure Storytelling”?
Indeed they do.  Look, for example, at Zero Dark Thirty, a 2012 “action thriller” and war film that dramatized the United States’ search for Osama bin-Laden after the September 11, 2001 jetliner attacks.  Directed by the Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, the movie received critical acclaim and was a box office-smash. It was also a masterpiece of pro-military, pro-CIA propaganda, skillfully portraying US torture practices “as,” in Glenn Greenwald’s words, “a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America.” By “excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years,” The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer rightly noted, “the film …accept[ed] almost without question that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden.”  Under the guise of a neutral, documentary-like examination, Zero Dark Thirty marked a distressing new frontier in US military-embedded filmmaking whereby the movie makers receive unprecedented technical and logistical support from the Pentagon in return for producing elaborate public relations on the military’s behalf.

The film’s defenders and Bigelow herself argued that the film was neither pro- nor anti-torture: “Pure storytelling,” film supporter Mark Bowden wrote, “is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It can be simply about telling the truth.” In reality, however, Zero Dark Thirty’s outward impartiality over the sickeningly cruel and unusual punishments inflicted by CIA torturers amounted to a normalization and endorsement of torture that was all the more insidiously potent precisely because of its understated, detached, and “objective” veneer.

American Sniper: “Makes Me Wanna Go Shoot Some Fucking Arabs”
The 2014-2015 blockbuster American Sniper, directed by the Republican Clint Eastwood, is another good example of Hollywood’s “critical role” as “a potent medium of [US imperial and military] propaganda dissemination.” The film’s audiences are supposed to marvel at the supposedly noble feats, sacrifice, and heroism of Chris Kyle, a rugged, militantly patriotic, and Christian-fundamentalist Navy SEALS sniper who participated in the US invasion of Iraq in order to fight “evil” and to avenge the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001.  Kyle  killed 160 Iraqis over four tours of “duty” in “Operational Iraqi Freedom.” So what if the invasion was one of the most egregiously criminal, brazenly imperial and mass-murderous (evil anyone?) acts in the long and bloody history of Empire? And so what if Iraq had nothing to with 9/11 and al Qaeda?

Like Zero Dark Thirty’s apologists, American Sniper’s defenders claim that the film takes a neutral perspective of pure and true storytelling, neither for nor against the US occupation of Iraq.  Eastwood has even claimed that the movie reflects his opposition to the war. In reality, however, the movie is so rife with reactionary, racist, and imperial distortions and deletions as to function for all intents and purposes as flat out war propaganda.

Despite its director’s purported opposition to the war, American Sniper fails it to tell us why Kyle falsely believed that Iraq was connected to the 9/11 attacks. Doing so would mean confronting one of Washington’s numerous deceptive pretexts for the criminal war.

American Sniper uncritically portrays Kyle referring to Iraqi occupation resisters as “savages,” a racist term used by white US settlers to justify their genocidal destruction of the North American indigenous population during the 19th century.

It portrays Iraqis who resisted the monumentally criminal and imperial US invasion as fundamentally evil, consistent with Kyle’s skewed Christian-fundamentalist perception of them before he was deployed.

The movie suggests that any and all Iraqis who took up arms against the American occupiers did so for no other reason than that they were bloodthirsty killers – as if the “insurgents” had no legitimate reasons to resist the imperial takeover of a once proud and independent nation and region by American invaders.

American Sniper portrays al Qaeda in Iraq with no reference to the fact that the terrorist organization followed the US into the country, lacking a presence in Mesopotamia until the devastating US assault occurred.

It portrays the Iraqi city of Fallujah (where Kyle was sent in 2004) as a mysteriously devastated community, with no reference to Fallujah’s massive prior bombardment by the US.

It falsely suggests that US troops in Iraq would have been subject to arrest and incarceration as war criminals by the US military if they had mistakenly killed Iraqi civilians (nothing would be further from the truth).

It presents the main torturers and killers of Iraqi civilians as the “evil” occupation resisters – and Kyle and other US troops as those civilians’ protectors.  The opposite was much closer to the truth during a deadly US invasion that killed more than a million Iraqis.

American Sniper also portrays a US soldier as having becoming unforgivably weak and as therefore causing and deserving his own death because he came to question the invasion.

In the face of all this and more, Eastwood’s claim to have made an antiwar movie is laughable. It’s hard not to agree with Rania Khalek’s judgment that “American Sniper is dangerous propaganda that sanitizes a mass killer & rewrites the Iraq War.”  Clint “Dirty Harry” Eastwood’s latest film whitewashes the arch-criminal US occupation and lionizes a racist, Christian-fundamentalist mass murderer of unjustly invaded Muslims. It sends a very dark and ugly message.

After seeing American Sniper, I found it unsurprising to learn that a large number of Americans were influenced by the film to post comments like these on Twitter:

“Great fucking movie and now I really want to kill some fucking ragheads.”

“American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fuckin Arabs.”

“Just watched american sniper and I feel like killing every sand nigger on the fucking planet.”

“American sniper got me pumped up to kill sand people.”

“American Sniper was so good. Makes me wanna join the Seals and take some towelheads out.”

“Damn props for the director of American Sniper making me wanna snipe some towel heads/sand niggers.”

“American sniper made me appreciate soldiers 100x more and hate Muslims 1000000x more.”

“American Sniper best movie EVER hands down. Really captures just how insane Muslims in Iraq and Syria are.”

“Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are – vermin scum intent on destroying us.”

“American Sniper the movie is about one of our HERO warriors but it also exposes the sick culture of Muslims and there way of living.”

Clint Eastwood might want to review these and numerous other similar Tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram messages before he makes his next “antiwar” movie.

It will not bode well for the Hollywood elite’s commitment to keeping such terrible, incipiently fascist sentiments at bay if American Sniper does well during this weekend’s Academy Awards, where the movie is nominated for “Best Film.”

Perfect Timing for Renewed War and Denial
The movie is perfectly timed for Hollywood darling Barack Obama’s recent request for the Congress to grant him essentially unlimited, blank-check power to use military force to wage an expanded US war against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and its “associated persons or forces” – all understood to be fundamentally “evil” and “beyond civilization” (like Eastwood’s Iraqi insurgents) in the eyes of the president and the US government.

American Sniper is also nicely situated in relation to Obama’s address to a recent Washington “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.” In his vapid reflections on how and why millions of Muslim youth have been drawn to al Qaeda, ISIS and other fundamentalist organs of Islamist jihad, the president avoided what is by far and away the single leading recruitment factor: repeated devastating, mass-murderous and petro-imperial US incursions, interference, and invasions in the oil-rich Middle East, resulting in the death and displacement of millions of Arabs and Muslims. The deletion is hardly surprising given the fact that Obama “has launched 2,300 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since August 8, 2014. In his six years as president,” Marjorie Cohn notes, “he has killed more people than died on 9/11 with drones and other forms of targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – countries with which the United States is not at war.”  Now the president is ramping up an expanded US war, certain to involve considerable ground forces, in the Middle East, seeking an open-ended Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force – certain to be granted with some small modifications – for re-escalation of the endless imperial wars that drive “violent extremism” in the Middle East in the first place.

From the perspective of the White House and others in the vast bipartisan Washington War Lobby, movies like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper provide richly welcome propagandistic cover. Here’s guessing that Obama and his aides will be rooting for Republican Clint Eastwood’s dangerous propaganda film to out-perform Selma – a liberal film on Martin Luther King Jr, and the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle to win voting rights for Blacks in the US South during the middle 1960s – at the Academy Awards.  So what if Obama owes his political career to the heroic activism of King and other Civil Rights activists fifty years ago?  The great Civil Rights leader (whose bust sits in shame behind the desk of the corporatist and militarist Obama in the Oval Office) became an open opponent of the US military Empire not long after his voting Rights victory in 1965, a legacy that the imperial Obama can no more embrace than he can acknowledge King’s democratic socialism. Were he alive today, he would surely not approve of Obama’s endless war on the Muslim world. For that and other reasons, the President is much closer in essence to the likes of Clint Eastwood and countless other predominantly white agents (witting and unwitting) of US military empire.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Beyond False Dichotomies and Capitalist Exterminism in an Age of Environmental Crisis

18/02/15 0 COMMENTS

Paul Street, ZNet, February 11, 2015

I have long registered my agreement with the brilliant socialist philosopher Istvan Merszaros’ dark, environmentally informed 2001 judgment that:

“many of the problems we have confront – from chronic structural unemployment to the     major political/military conflicts [of our time], as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere – require concerted  action in the very near future.  The timescale of such action may perhaps be measured in a few decades but certainly not in centuries.  We are running out of time…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself…If I had to modify Rosa Luxembourg’s words, in relation to the dangers we now face, I would add to ‘socialism or barbarism’ this qualification: ‘barbarism if we are lucky.’  For the extermination of humanity is the ultimate concomitant of capital’s destructive course of development.”

I do not see how the movement required can emerge as long as leftists and many others here are plagued by the false dichotomies and false dilemmas discussed (below) in this essay. Here’s a useful definition and discussion of a false dichotomy, found online:

“a false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones…. There are two ways in which one can commit a false dilemma. First, one can assume that there are only two (or three, though that case is strictly speaking be a ‘false trilemma’) options when there really are many more. Second, one can take the options to be mutually exclusive when they really are not.”

Below I discuss and propose solutions from an eco-leftist participatory-socialist perspective to some of the leading false dichotomies and false dilemmas (hereafter abbreviated as “FD”s) that afflict leftists and those leftists would like to enlist in the cause of radical-democratic change.

Many of these FDs seem to have been internally created by the Left itself; others seem more externally than internally derived. They require attention and remedy – resolution – by leftists either way.

1. Self or society. According to this FD, one must choose between one’s own personal interests and health on one hand and the greater or common good on the other.  This is nonsense.  While the revolutionary project of my desired post-false dichotomous Left (hereafter referred to half-seriously as the “PFDL”) sees selfishness, excessive ego attachment, and narcissism as reprehensible, it also believes that individual development and health are enhanced by social and environmental justice. At the same time, the PFDL does not believe that people who sacrifice their individual well-being on behalf of changing society are likely to succeed in making the world a better place.  The opposite is more likely.  As the Buddhist teacher and author Chogyam Trungpa once observed, “our individual experience of sanity is inherently linked to our vision of a good society…If we try to solve society’s problems without overcoming the confusion and aggression in our own minds, then our efforts will only contribute to the basic problems, instead of solving them.”

2.  Earth or Jobs. According to this FD, we must choose between ecological sustainability on one hand and jobs on the other.  This is a false choice which ignores both the long-term reality that (to quote a favorite green protest slogan) “there’s no economy [and hence no jobs] on a dead planet” and the shorter term fact that a broad conversion to ecologically sustainable energy sources and infrastructure would generate millions of socially and environmentally necessary jobs. The PFDL advocates massive public works “green jobs” programs designed to move humanity off fossil fuels and away from extractivist relationships with the planet to renewable energy and other Earth-regenerative policies and practices (see point 14 below).  At the same time, the PFDL advocates a post-capitalist participatory-democratic society in which citizens are no longer compelled to rent out their labor power to an inherently exploitative capitalist employer class  (to work in “jobs”) to obtain life necessities.

3.  Race/Gender/Ethnicity/Nationality or Class. According to this FD, we must choose between advocating for racial justice and equality on one hand and fighting for economic and class justice and equality on the other.  This is a false choice which ignores the facts that racial injustice and inequality find much of their taproot in class oppression, that class injustice is significantly sustained by racial division, and that one cannot meaningfully struggle against class oppression without fighting also to overcome racial inequality. The PFDL does not feel forced to choose between fighting against class oppression and fighting against race oppression.  The same basic points holds for inequalities of gender, ethnicity, regional identity, nationality, sexual orientation, religious (or non-religious) identity, age, sickness, and disability. The PFDL is simultaneously against any and all structures, institutions, and ideologies of oppression, exploitation, and inequality.

4.  Pro-union or Anti-Union. This FD posits that one is either pro-union or anti-union. This ignores key differences between different types of unions. The PFDL does not align with purely job- and wage-conscious “business” unions that care about nothing more than employment opportunities and pay and benefit levels for their members.  Such unions show no concern for the often anti-social and environmentally toxic nature of the work tasks their members perform or for the deeply dehumanizing ways in which that work is structured and organized – typically on a militantly hierarchical basis, with an extreme authoritarian division of labor. (Examples of anti-social and eco-cidal work include the construction, operation, and maintenance of: oil, gas, and coal extraction and transportation facilities; nuclear power plants; mass prisons and police and surveillance facilities and technologies; obesity-inducing fast-food restaurants; nuclear weapons and other means of mass annihilation.)  At the same time, the PFDL believes that all workers (prison guards, oil-drillers, and weapons-makers as well as teachers, social workers, and nurses) under capitalism deserve union recognition and collective bargaining rights.  It backs and advances socially and politically oriented unions ready to fight for broad, many-sided progressive and radical-democratic change leading (among other things) to the non-authoritarian and egalitarian structuring of work (along “pareconish” lines) and the collective and the application of human labor power to socially necessary and useful, environmentally sustainable tasks. The PDFL supports radical and revolutionary unions – working class organizations that seek a new and democratically transformed world turned upside down rather than just a better deal for its members and its bureaucratic officials in the rotten old top-down world of ruled by the exterminist logic of capital.

5.  Voting or Apathy. This FD says that one either participates in political elections or is politically disengaged. Besides exaggerating the extent of politically relevant options that are commonly offered in time-staggered elections under “really existing capitalist democracy” (“ ‘RECD,’ pronounced as ‘wrecked,’” in the clever words of Noam Chomsky), it misleadingly identifies electoral politics as the only relevant form of politics. While the PFDL does not reject any and all participation in electoral politics (this writer would certainly have voted for Syriza in the recent Greek elections and for Socialist Kshame Sawant’s Seattle City Council candidacy last year and would vote for the Left third party Podemos in upcoming Spanish elections), it is more concerned with developing the power, disruptive capacity, cultural influence, and daily relevance of grassroots social movements beneath and beyond the candidate-centered election spectacles that are sold to US citizens as “politics,” the “only politics that matters.”  This is particularly true in the United States, where the range of “choices” offered by viable parties and candidates is especially narrow and Big Business-controlled/-friendly. To paraphrase the radical American historian Howard Zinn, it is much more interested in who’s sitting in the streets and on the shop-floors and in the schools and the offices and the public squares than in who’s sitting in the White House, the 50 state governors’ mansions, the US Congress, and other supposedly “representative” positions. At the same time, the PFDL supports changing the US party and elections systems to make US elections more worthy of popular participation than they are at present.

6. Democrats or Republicans. This US-specific FD claims that leftists and other progressives must support the Democratic Party to block the arch-reactionary Republican Party in US elections and policy. The PFDL understands why many US progressives feel compelled to grant tactical backing to Democrats over Republicans.  It does not believe that the two dominant US political organizations are identical (the Republicans and the Democrats have different histories, constituencies and funding streams among other variations between them), but it never forgets that those organizations are more alike than different in their shared captivity to the capitalist elite, the “free enterprise” (state-capitalist) system, and the US global and military Empire.  The PFDL also knows that the Democrats are in some ways worse than the rightmost of the two organizations (the Republicans).  They are to some degree “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford),  particularly when it comes to their ability to capture, co-opt, and shut-down the disruptive and radical potential of popular social movements. The PFDL does not believe that meaningful solutions to our current grave societal and environmental dilemmas are remotely attainable through the US “two party system,” both of whose wings (the far-right Republicans and the center-right Democrats) stand well to the right of the majority populace in service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, capital, business, empire, patriarchy, and white supremacy.

7.  Reform or Revolution.  This FD claims that one must support either reforms under the currently reigning power system or the revolutionary overthrow of that system.  The PFDL thinks that reform and revolution are not mutually exclusive goals. It grasps that revolutionary movements are built partly on the basis of popular support won through the advocacy and occasionally the winning of reforms that improve everyday peoples’ lives.  It understands the certain reforms create and expand popular expectations that the currently reigning state-capitalist system and its rulers cannot satisfy. At the same time, the PFDL knows that serious reformers need radical “thunder on the Left” to convince reluctant elites to pass reforms as alternatives to more radical change.

The PFDL knows that reforms will not suffice. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he wrote near the end his life that “the real issue to be faced” is “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” The PFDL is highly conscious and wary of reforms’ historical ability to co-opt, dilute, de-radicalize, divide, and demobilize popular movements. It is nonetheless ready and willing to work creatively with the tensions inherent in the dialectical dance of reform and revolution.

8.  Demands or Organization.  This FD posits that an emergent Left movement must focus either on specific demands or on the development of its organizational capacity for forcing change and winning demands from the bottom up.  The PFDL priorities organization since a strong and durable (“sticky”) institutional presence and power – not policy ideas or demands – is the primary thing missing on the Left right now.  Still, the PFDL does not ignore or indefinitely postpone the inevitable question of “what are you for” either in terms of immediate reforms or on the longer timeline of alternative societal and political-economic vision.  Ideas without organizations to fight for them have little chance of implementation, but organizations without specific, well-conceived demands and ideas for change are unlikely to be taken seriously or to recruit a large and durable membership.

9.  Growth or No Growth. According to the FD, we must either (a) support the environmentally disastrous economic growth that billions of people require under capitalism for employment and income or (b) oppose growth in the interests of saving livable ecology. Painfully conscious that a no-growth economy would lead to drastically expanded unemployment and poverty for billions under the currently reigning state-capitalist system, the PFDL does indeed oppose growth on the reigning chaotic and environmentally exterminist state-capitalist model.  Growth- and accumulation-addicted capitalism floods the world with toxic waste and climate-cooking carbon, squanders and poisons the world’s resources, and advances endless, soulless, and eco-exterminist material expansion as fatal and false substitutes for serious anti-poverty and anti-inequality efforts. Still, the PFDL does not so much reject growth as redefine growth to mean a number of things beyond and against the dominant capitalist meaning.  The great humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about peoples’ remarkable capacity for “psychological growth,” by which he meant advance toward “self-actualization” through (in the words of one his leading followers, Frank Goble) “a constant development of talents, capacities, creativity, wisdom, and character” – something he found contrary to capitalist society’s over-emphasis on material and economic “success.”  On a broader scale, the PFDL thinks of a society’s real and desirable growth in terms of the increased quantity, spread, and intensity of equality, justice, democracy, participation, sustainability, health, creativity, imagination, empathy, solidarity, compassion, and happiness experienced by the broad populace.  All of these (we think) positive attributes are assaulted and undermined by the currently reigning state-capitalist model and definition of “growth,” ultimately a form of human de-development and indeed extermination.

10.  More or Less. The PFDL rejects the argument of some environmentalists that the populace must be instructed to “make do with less.”  The command reinforces the neoliberal austerity that has been advanced by financial and corporate elites and their many agents in state power for the last three-plus decades.  It’s hard to expect calls for a more austere lifestyle to be received favorably by a working class majority whose standard of living has been relentlessly assaulted for more than a generation. Mass and wasteful consumerism is a giant ecological, social, and even spiritual problem, but the point is not to call for more mass self-denial. It’s not about more versus less; it’s about better versus worse. The task is to create qualitatively different and better material and social lives beyond the authoritarian and eco-cidal and exterminist rule of capital.

11.  The Environmental Crisis or Everything Else. Given recent ever-worsening climate projections, it is tempting to conclude that if the global environmental catastrophe created by anthropogenic climate change isn’t averted soon, then, as Noam Chomsky has warned, “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”  Chomsky was writing for leftists and progressives, a group for whom “everything else” includes standard portside targets like poverty, imperialism, racism, inequality, plutocracy, neoliberalism, sexism, police-statism, nationalism, government surveillance, mass incarceration, corporate thought control, militarism, and, last but not least, capitalism.

The warning is powerful and chillingly accurate enough given “capital’s destructive course of development” (Meszaros).  Still, the brilliant left environmentalist Naomi Klein is right to challenge activists to understand the environmental crisis and climate action within the broader political framework of issues and problems that are directly linked to global warming: housing, public space, labor rights, unemployment, the social safety net, human services, infrastructure, militarism, racism, democracy and more. Climate action, Klein shows, is intimately related to and consistent with positive government and collective action around each of these and other interrelated areas. A movement to address the climate crisis can be a bridge to broad progressive and even revolutionary change and the regeneration of democracy and the public sector in all areas of society. In her important new volume This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, the argument isn’t “solve climate change or soon everything else we progressives talk about won’t matter.”  Klein’s point instead is that climate action, necessary to save a livable planet, is also a crossing to progress on “everything else.” Ultimately, Klein argues – correctly in this writer’s opinion (notwithstanding Klein’s tendency to add qualifiers to the system in question) – that “the really inconvenient truth is that [global warming] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth” (a position with which Chomsky would likely agree). The PFDL (well, the present writer) concurs.

12.  Vanguard-ism or Spontaneity.  According to this FD, we must either advance a militant and controlling, top-down, vanguard style of radical leadership or we must “give in” to the “naïve spontaneity” of the insufficiently radical “masses.”  The PFDL does not romanticize or sentimentalize the rank and file working class and citizenry or reject the need for leadership, programs, strategy, tactics, cadres and organization.  Painfully conscious of the powerful role that ruling class propaganda, media, “education,” and ideology and other reactionary influences have long played in manufacturing mass consent to state-capitalism and imperialism (and other authoritarian oppression structures and ideologies), it does not support unquestioning deference to whatever oppressed people might say, think, or do. It does not shrink from its duty to struggle against elite and reactionary cultural and ideological influences and to advance a critical pedagogy of radical liberation. At the same time, the PFDL does not wish to substitute its own privilege and power for that of currently reigning elites.  It works to widen, not narrow, the depth and breadth of popular participation and power both in society and in popular movements. Seeking to rise with and not above the popular majority, the PFDL aims less to direct than to accompany and assist the “masses” – the great majority of world worker-citizens – in solidarity on the path to a genuinely popular, many-sided democratic revolution.

13. Real-life Struggle or “Utopian” Blueprints. According to this FD, we must choose between (a) organizing and fighting struggles in the here and now and (b) rigorously imagining and proposing a future beyond contemporary oppression structures. The PFDL prioritizes contemporary real-time struggles and recognizes that a revolutionary future will have to emerge primarily from those struggles.  At the same time, it thinks it is useful for activists in the present to develop, maintain, and update a strong sense and vision of what kind of future ends and aims and society we seek.  Doing so helps sustain us in our current struggles and helps shape those struggles in accord with ultimate intentions.

14. Capitalism or Really Existing Socialism. If we pose our vision of an alternative society purely in terms of the historical conflict between capitalism and really existing past and present socialism, it becomes all too easy to unduly suppress grave difficulties shared across both systems to date. The PFDL reminds us that really existing capitalism and really existing socialism have shared some terrible characteristics and patterns in the 20th and 21st centuries. Two such characteristics and patterns that deserve special mention are (a) attachment to an alienating and hierarchical “corporate division of labor” (Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s useful term) under whose reign the great majority of the working population is assigned to narrow and disempowering, low-status tasks that are conceived and coordinated by a comparatively privileged, empowered, and affluent elite class of managers and professionals (what Hahnel and Albert call “the coordinator class”); (b) attachment to an “extractivist” model of interacting with Earth – a model that is ruining livable ecology in ever more imminently catastrophic ways. The PFDL rejects these and other negative characteristics of really existing socialism.  It calls for a participatory and egalitarian economy that attacks and transcends capitalist and other corporate divisions of labor as well as capitalist property and ownership relations.  It fights for a new “regenerative” (the opposite of extractivist) relationship with the world’s resources and the natural environment.

15.  Local or Global/Systemic.  This FD tells us that we must choose between seeking change either at the “merely” local level or at the more systemic levels of nation and world. The PFDL does not foolishly imagine that giant oppressive structures of class, race, nationality, and empire can be overcome through merely local (or for that matter merely regional or national) struggles alone.  Still, it does not ignore or downgrade the importance of lived local and regional experience, local issues, and the ecological imperatives of local resource utilization. It is a sign of the capitalist and eco-cidal madness of our times that more than 90 percent of the edible items in a typical dinner in an agriculturally hyper-fertile states like Iowa derive from foodstuffs grown and raised outside that state. The PFDL’s vision of national and global change naturally includes provisions encouraging and even mandating the significant reasonable re-localization the provision and transport of food and other resources.

16.  State Socialism or Workers Control.  The PFDL recognizes the dual and simultaneous necessities of (a) Leftists seizing state power and using it against counter-revolutionary capitalist forces and (b) Leftists and others developing mass-based democratic institutions and modes of popular-participatory power in workplace and community. We reject the Bolshevik Revolution’s almost instantaneous subordination of (b) to (a).  Consistent with its rejection of the FD between capitalism and really existing socialism to date (see point 14) and its related rejections of the FDs between vanguard-ism and spontaneity (point 12) and between growth and no-growth (point 9), the PFDL advocates a mutually reinforcing and dialectically inseparable relationship between transitional state socialism on one hand and workers’ and people’s power on the other hand – a relationship in which a revolutionary state protects organs of workers and popular power, enhancing popular support for that state’s necessary struggle against capitalist and imperialist reaction.

17.  Forces or Relations of Production. In Marx’s and “Marxism’s” classic formulations, the revolutionary Left aims to free the “forces of production” (factories, mills, mines, railroads, steamships, farms, etc.) from the oppressive bourgeois (capitalist) “relations of production” that largely brought them into being, placing those forces under the democratic and social/socialist direction and ultimately into the hands of “the associated producers” themselves.  The task was to change the relations – not so much the forces – of production from capitalist to socialist. The PFDL remains committed to that project to no small degree but it also recognizes that many (if not most) of the productive and distributive and other techno-economic forces called into being by capital are now cancerous, exterminist, wasteful, destructive and eco-cidal. Examples include the bulk of the world’s giant carbon-industrial complex, the nuclear power industry, weapons and other military production, modern Confined Animal Feeding Operations [CAFOs], the fast-food industry, and countless production processes designed around the principle of obsolescence.  These and other horrific, exterminist “forces of production” need to be discarded, replaced, and/or re-converted in ways consistent with the necessary shift from an extractivist to a sustainable (regenerative) relationship between humans, other species, and the Earth – and with our intimately related obligation to dismantle weapons of mass destruction, imperial domination, and endless war.

18. Understanding History or Changing History. The young Marx is often misquoted by leftists as having written that “philosophers have tried to understand history; the point is to change it.” The real comment was “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  Marxology aside, the PFDL believes that people are in a better position to change history (or “the world”) in a desirable direction when they have studied and understood history (and “the world”).

19. Critique or Solution.  Leftists are commonly, even almost ritually told that they carp and complain without offering solutions. As Chomsky once wrote, “there is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’” While the work of Left thinkers is excessively weighted toward criticism over solutions, there is no shortage of good Left thought on radical peoples’ alternatives to currently reigning policies, practices, sociopolitical relations, and institutions.  The PFDL strongly encourages such thought, but it does not believe in separating its solutions from its critique any more than a medical worker believes in separating a patient’s treatment plan from her understanding of the condition being treated. Social critique and solution are inextricably linked like diagnosis and treatment in health care.

20. Marxism or Anarchism. The PFDL does not feel compelled to choose harshly or dogmatically between these two great and long-warring tendencies on the anti-capitalist Left. It draws inspiration from the “Haymarket synthesis” of both, combining respect for the trenchant critical of capitalism advanced by Karl Marx and his many declared followers with esteem for the left-libertarian and anti-authoritarian writing and activism of radical Left anarchists over the years. It also takes guidance and inspiration from other strains of thought and culture, including radical religion (see no.  21) and indigenous people’s spiritual attachment to harmony rather than conflict (see no.22 below) between human beings on one hand and other sentient beings, living things, and the Earth on the other hand.

21.  Religion or Revolution. Atheists have no monopoly on revolutionary potential.  There are radical-democratic and egalitarian strands in every major world religion and there is a long history up to the present of heroic and egalitarian activism on the part of religious believers, including (for example) the proponents of Latin American Liberation Theology, who combined Christianity with Marxism, anarchism, and indigenous influences to fight brutal US-sponsored dictatorships in Latin America.

22. Earth v. Homo Sapiens. The PFDL rejects capitalism’s and indeed industrial society’s long struggle to “conquer” nature.  It embraces humanity’s remarkable capacity to understand the laws of nature and the universe and to turn scientific knowledge to the benefit of the species  At the same time, it insists that we employ those capacities in a way that seeks to restore and advance relations of harmonious of co-existence between living things and their earthly surroundings – relations that have been collapsed in ever more imminently catastrophic ways by the war that capitalism is waging on life on Earth.

23. Hope or Hopelessness. The PFDL does not spend much time looking into the crystal ball, speculating on its chances for success or failure. We have a moral and existential duty to fight for justice, equality, democracy, and livable ecology – the salvation and flowering of the commons – “even if we do not know we are going to win” (Mario Savio, 1994). Hope is preferable to hopelessness, no doubt, but it is a largely maudlin and easily manipulated “pie in the sky” sentiment regarding future outcomes of present day struggles that need to be waged with no certainty of triumph if humanity is going to have any chance of enjoying a decent future.

Paul Street is a writer in Iowa City, IA.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.

Feb. 5 2015 KOPN-FM Radio Interview on They Rule (Paradigm Publishers, 2014) and Politics in New Gilded Age America

11/02/15 0 COMMENTS

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Oil, Empire, and False Paradox: Washington’s Contrasting Responses to the Deaths of King Abdullah and Hugo Chavez

09/02/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, February 6, 2015

King Abdullah: “A Man of Remarkable Character and Courage”

The United States purports to be the homeland, beacon, agent, and headquarters of modern democracy. How curious, then, to see U.S. President Barack Obama respond to the passing of Saudi Arabia’s medieval monarch King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz two weeks ago by hailing the despot’s “vision” and “courage.” Obama asked “God” to “grant [Abdullah] peace” and saluted the departed despot’s commitment to the sacred “partnership” between the U.S. and the Saudi kingdom.

Abdullah’s death was followed by high-profile visits to the Saudi royal palace in Riyadh on the part of the President and First Lady. Also sent to pay tribute to the deceased royal brute: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, CIA Director John Brennan. U.S. General Lloyd Austin (head of U.S. Central Command for the region), U.S. Senator John McCain, and leading U.S. House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Joe Cowley. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced a research and essay competition in honor of the king, who Dempsey called “a man of remarkable character and courage.” A fascinating act by a top military official in a nation that claims to have been born in popular opposition to absolute monarchy and hereditary aristocracy.

Never mind the savagely authoritarian and deeply reactionary nature of the Saudi regime. “If ‘totalitarianism’ has any meaning,” the leading Middle Eastern expert Gilbert Achcar noted seven years ago, “that’s totalitarianism there [in Saudi Arabia].” As Sarah Flounders reports at Fight Back! News:

“Saudi Arabia is an absolute and brutal dictatorship. The country is named after the royal Saud family that has expropriated the country’s fabulous oil wealth, and treats it as a wholly owned family asset. Their control is maintained by massive state-organized repression. All forms of political dissent and social organization, from political parties to trade unions, are banned under pain of death.”

“Executions by decapitation in public squares are held on average once every four days. Capital crimes include adultery, homosexuality and political opposition to the regime. Public stonings are also a common form of execution. Other punishments include eye gouging, limb amputation, tooth extraction, surgical paralysis and public lashings.”

“Government departments are treated as fiefdoms … Personal and state funds are completely commingled. All family members are guaranteed astronomical monthly allowances from birth, … 60 percent of the population live[s] below the poverty line… More than 1.5 million migrant women work in domestic slavery [and]… the International Trade Union Confederation … report[s] alarming levels of child labor, discrimination and forced labor … women have no rights to employment, property or education. They cannot step out of their homes unless covered head-to-toe in a long black abaya and accompanied by a male family member.”

The U.S. “dignitaries” – one of whom (McCain) recently called peace activists “low-life scum” for having the historical decency to remind Americans that U.S. president Richard Nixon’s former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is a war criminal – went to Riyadh to show that “democratic” America will continue to play it’s 80-year role as “Lord Protector…of the Saudi regime, which in turn is a ‘protected kingdom,’ as in medieval history” (Achcar).

Hugo Chavez: Dismissal and Disrespect

Obama and Washington had a very different response to the March 2013 death of Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela who used his nation’s also remarkable oil wealth to reduce poverty and inequality in his nation. Chavez won respect and even adoration from much of his nation’s citizenry, including especially the poor, even as he offered remarkable tolerance and freedom to wealthy elites who hated him and his egalitarian agenda.

Surely, then, the president of the world’s self-proclaimed greatest democracy, the United States, reacted to Chavez’s death with words of sympathy and respect that went beyond the reverence and compassion he expressed for the deceased king of an absolutist, arch-repressive, and ultra-reactionary dictatorship, right? Hardly. The White House responded with the following dismissive and disrespectful statement: “At Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights” – a commitment that finds curious expression in Washington’s longstanding support for the Saudi dictatorship.

Since Chavez’s death as before, Washington has helped spark, fund, and otherwise advance social, economic, and political instability and violence in Venezuela. The Obama administration has worked to undermine the government of Chavez’ successor, the democratically elected Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who is determined to carry on his predecessor’s populist policies. The White House has signed off on economic sanctions against Maduro and other top Venezuelan officials to punish them for supposedly violating the civil rights of those engaged in U.S.-sponsored protest against the Venezuelan state.

The Problem with Real Democracies

Why this starkly Orwellian contrast between the “democratic” United States’ response to the death of the absolutist monarch King Abdullah and its earlier reaction to the death of the democratic peoples’ president Chavez? In the real world beneath the doctrinal fairy tale long spun by U.S. propagandists, the United States is an Empire whose policymakers value democracy abroad only when and where it serves their ambition of ruling the world in accord with the interests of reigning U.S. economic elites.

Since no popular majorities in any nation abroad wish to be dominated and exploited by U.S. elites, Uncle Sam is no friend of democracy abroad – or for that matter in its ever more abjectly plutocratic “homeland”(a wonderfully imperial term). As the leading historian and critic of U.S. imperialism Noam Chomsky once observed, “We’ve consistently opposed democracy if its results can’t be controlled. The problem with real democracies is that they’re likely to fall prey to the heresy that governments should respond to the needs of their own population, instead of those of U.S. investors.” Thus it was that the aforementioned Kissinger said the following about the democratically elected Chilean presidency of the moderate democratic socialist Salvador Allende in 1970: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

Nixon and Kissinger responded to Allende’s election in Chile by ordering the CIA and the State Department to “make the [Chilean] economy scream.” The idea was to provoke social unrest that would create an opening for the U.S.-backed Chilean military to overthrow the unwanted Left leader – a standard part of the US CIA playbook within the beyond Latin America. On September 11th, 1973 (Latin America’s 9/11), Allende was killed in a U.S.-sponsored military coup that installed a fascist-style dictatorship that tortured, murdered, disappeared and forced into exile tens of thousands.

The Strategic Prize

Real democracy and national independence are seen as particularly undesirable by U.S. policy elites in nations that possess large-scale oil reserves. The control of planetary oil supplies has long been identified by U.S. planners as an imperial necessity. Thus is was that the U.S. State Department in 1945 called Saudi Arabia’s unmatched oil reserves “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in history.” That “prize” has long been understood by U.S. planners to be “a lever of ‘unilateral world domination,’” giving its controller de facto “veto power” over other industrial states while also “funneling enormous wealth to the U.S. in numerous ways” (Chomsky).

For more than seven decades now, the Saudi kingdom, which sits atop the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, has almost always played along with U.S. goals. Formal full Saudi ownership of its oil reserves (achieved by Riyadh by the early 1980s) cloaks reality: Western and U.S. oil companies possess billions of dollars in investments and joint venture linking them to the grand strategic and financial prize that is Saudi crude. ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Conoco Phillips are all giant investors in Saudi Arabia, with billions of dollars poured into highly profitable exploration, drilling, pumping, transport and the building of pipelines, and ports and terminals. “While the Saud family can take immense wealth for themselves,” Flounders notes, “the vast majority of these funds must be held in U.S. banks or be used to purchase U.S. materials.”

The purchases include massive military acquisitions required to keep its own subject populace and its regional rivals – Iran above all – at bay. As Flounders adds, the Saudi elite “relies on five U.S. military bases, Western arms and military training for its protection and survival. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, based in nearby Bahrain, defends the status quo ….In return, the Saudi royal family pays protection money to U.S. military industries like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Boeing. Billions also go to British, French and German military corporations… Saudi spending on weapons comes to 9.3 percent of its gross national product, the highest in the world.” The Saudis also understand that their protection depends on respecting U.S. wishes with regard to how it handles the “great material prize” under its soil.

Things have been different for U.S. Big Oil and Empire in Venezuela, home to the second largest proven oil reserves in the world. Eight years ago, Chavez gave foreign oil companies an ultimatum: surrender majority control of their Venezuelan operations to the state-owned company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA) or risk having assets seized. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips (the third-most valuable U.S. crude producers after Exxon and Chevron) rejected Venezuela’s terms and left. Both claim to have lost billions of dollars in confiscated assets and have sought compensation from international courts. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillps abandoned the country, unwilling to hazard the risks of operating in a nation whose avowedly socialist leaders privilege national independence and domestic poverty reduction over the profits of foreign investors.

Neither firm has joined Chevron in responding positively to Venezuela’s efforts since 2010 to attract foreign investment to help develop the nation’s abundant heavy oil deposits in its northern Orinoco Belt. Meanwhile, Chavez and Maduro’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” funded largely by PdVSA revenues, has slashed poverty rates from 42 percent in 1999 to 27 percent in 2013 – a very significant reduction. Venezuela has also used its wealth and influence to encourage other nations within and beyond Latin American to follow Cuba and its example by rejecting and resisting U.S. control of their economic and political development.

To Make Venezuela Scream

There are some interesting connections between the U.S.-Saud love affair and U.S. opposition to independent left nationalism and populism in Latin America. During the 1980s, Saudi Arabia opened up its bank accounts to U.S. counter-insurgency in Central America, committing millions of petrodollars to the CIA-coordinated Contra war on the popular-revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Currently, the Obama administration and major U.S. media are engaged in an escalated campaign against the Maduro government and the Venezuelan citizenry. They are engaged in what left analyst Eva Golinger rightly calls “a covert war on a people whose only crime is being gatekeeper to the largest pot of black gold in the world.” By flooding the world with U.S. oil (the U.S. has re-emerged as the world’s leading oil exporter thanks to its eco-cidal fracking revolution), “it doesn’t need” (Glen Ford), Washington hopes to make the economies of Venezuela and other perceived U.S. geopolitical and economic rivals – Russia and Iran – “scream,” something meant to bring about regime change in Caracas and elsewhere.

Never mind that the Venezuelan government is democratically elected and working on behalf of the nation’s poor and working class majority. That is precisely the problem in the minds of Washington planners, for whom petro-imperial objectives and global profit calculations trump any concern for real democracy at home or abroad. As far as the Empire is concerned, absolute monarchs and viciously repressive, arch-reactionary dictatorships are beloved “friends of the West” and “freedom” when they serve Uncle Sam’s global dominance agenda.

The Saudi regime is cooperating with the global oil price-slashing project, which it hopes will crush its regional arch-rival Iran, and punish Russia for backing Saudi’s enemy Syria. The Saudis are waging oil price war in cooperation with the United States, against their mutual enemies Russia and Iran. For the U.S., the negative consequences for Venezuela are more than just fortuitous collateral damage. They are part of Washington’s longstanding opposition to national independence and populist, social-democratic policy in Latin America and elsewhere.

Paul Street is a writer in Iowa City Iowa. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

Worse Than Fascism?

06/02/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, February 4, 2015. I’ve never been much for calling the United States (U.S.) “fascist,” something that a significant number of my fellow leftists and progressives like to do in a half-serious way. What do such progressives mean when they use that loaded and ugly term to describe the contemporary U.S.? In their more serious moments, the factors mentioned include a merging of corporate and state power; suppression of unions; a culture and vast apparatus of imperial militarism; celebration of violence and cruelty; nationalism; hostility to equality and democracy; demagogic appeals to a frustrated middle class; hatred of the weak and poor; attachment to tradition and hierarchy; the systematic subordination of racial and ethnic minorities; militarized policing; mass incarceration; the devaluation or erosion of basic civil liberties; and hostility to intellectuals, modern science, liberalism, and socialism.

I would be the first to acknowledge that all of these and other reactionary and authoritarian features and tendencies are all too terribly present in the contemporary U.S. I would add that certain American current events can take on a distinctly fascistic feel, as when paramilitary police crushed the Occupy encampments in Oakland, California and New York City in the fall of 2011 and terrorized locked-down Boston and Boston area residents after the Boston Marathon bombings in April of 2013; when Civil Rights protestors in Ferguson, Missouri faced graphic military-style police repression last summer; and when New York City police accused civil rights protestors and New York City’s liberal mayor of contributing to the murder of two NYPD officers last December. One could mention other examples.

Still, call me old fashioned and overly focused on European history, but I think it is misleading and even a little silly to call the U.S. “fascist.” Here, from historian Robert Paxton’s study Anatomy of Fascism (written largely with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind), is a useful if incomplete definition of fascism – the real thing – in interwar and WWII Europe:

“A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

I would elaborate on Paxton’s characterization, adding the existence of a (typically “charismatic”) dictator embodying the “national will,” a strong component of Social Darwinian racism, disdain for elections and normal bourgeois-parliamentary procedures and institutions, the systematic physical destruction of working class organizations, harsh suppression of the Left, and a highly mobilized largely petit-bourgeois sociopolitical base deeply resentful of labor, leftists, and intellectuals and ready to fight and kill liberal, Left, and ethnic/racial others and enemies at home and abroad. I situate fascism within capitalism, seeing it as a product of societal tensions produced by the bourgeois order, as allied with the most reactionary wings of the elite business class, and as unwilling to fundamentally challenge capitalist ownership and direction of the economy.

Held up against these historically appropriate criteria, the United States today is certainly corporatist, imperialist, authoritarian, un- and even anti-egalitarian, objectively racist and sexist, and much more terrible to mention, but not really “fascist.” It has numerous dreadful overlaps with fascism and a number of significantly fascistic components (many if not most of its police agencies, the prison system, much of the U.S. military). But it has no ranting, all-powerful dictator. It has not abolished bourgeois elections and parties, preferring instead to uphold (not-so) “democratic” voting and elections at all levels of government.

Highly mobilized mass movements of nationalist right-wing shock troops do not crush the bones and skulls of liberals, leftists, pacifists, and trade unionists in the streets or gather to undertake violent campaigns of ethnic cleansing and war in the U.S. today. American elites, media, and politics make a great point of claiming to be “post-racial” and non-sexist (a first technically female president following two terms of a first technically Black president is a distinct possibility in 2016) and even in many cases gay-friendly. Radical leftists and others do not generally worry about getting beaten up by jackbooted rightist thugs when they speak on behalf of civil liberties, civil rights, ecological sustainability, electoral reform, peace, or even revolutionary socialism.

The hard right is not terribly mobilized or together in the U.S. today. The powers that be here seem to want the masses apolitical, privatized, distracted, divided, and individualized, concerned primarily with consumerism and personal pursuits. Angry white lower middle-class Americans are expected to channel their violent impulses into watching football and playing sadistic video games, not beating up leftists and fighting wars (only a tiny percentage of the population is enlisted in the military). Nationalism is significantly contained by the broader hegemony of corporate globalization, despite obvious tensions.

Dependent on the money of billionaire oil and gas baron Koch brothers and other elite funders, the Tea Party crowd is clueless and disinterested when it comes to building anything like a mass movement, fascist or otherwise. The top U.S. officeholders reach their positions through the slimy, timeworn, and plutocratic machinations of money, media, public relations, and dollar-drenched major party politics, not by deploying enforcers to shoot, club, burn, and bomb their opponents and civil society into submission.

If the U.S. today is “fascist,” its fascism is cooking on a low flame and distant burner. It exhibits a distinctly “inverted” (demobilized and neoliberal, plutocratic, “market”-mediated and corporate-managed) form of the disease that probably doesn’t deserve the use of the term unless the word is drained of its basic historical essence.

To say this, however is not to offer anything remotely like grateful praise to the contemporary U.S., with its vicious, eco-cidal ruling class and its reigning sociopathic institutions. Under the “inverted totalitarianism” (U.S. political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s term) that is 21st century America’s “corporate-managed democracy” (Wolin again), many of the basic objectives of fascism – the defeat of unions and the working class, the degradation of democracy, the enforcement of hierarchy and savage inequality, racial subordination, the marginalization of the Left, racial divide and rule, militarization of society, and permanent arms and war economy – are achieved without the discomfort and uncertainly imposed by barking Fuhrers and marching brown-shirts. Chilling as it may sound to say, fascism would be redundant in the United States today. The U.S. ruling class doesn’t need it. It gets the same results with a different – more atomized, privatized, apathetic, consumerized, and “inverted” – model of authoritarian rule, one that makes an insistent and deceptive claim to be a great force for modern Western democracy, Enlightenment values (even if U.S. presidents end every major speech with “God Bless America”), and freedom at home and abroad.

One might even argue that the contemporary U.S. model is in some ways worse than classic or real historical fascism in advancing tyrannical imperial and state-capitalist goals. Real-deal European fascism made no pretense of being anything other than authoritarian and anti-democratic. Its hostility to popular governance, civil liberties, social justice, parliamentary deliberation, social diversity, the Enlightenment, free thought and discourse (and more) was open and explicit. It was quite forthright, to say the least. There was no mistaking its vicious, top-down evil. You knew what you were dealing with – and if you forgot, jackbooted thugs were there to remind you.

Things are trickier and more complex with contemporary U.S. state-capitalist and imperial-corporate-financial-neoliberal authoritarianism, which is adept at wrapping itself in the false and illusory false flag of democracy.

Most U.S. intellectuals would no doubt be aghast at the notion that there is any way in which the contemporary U.S. “homeland” might be worse than fascism..Many would remind us of Hitler’s death camps, where six million Jews (along with countless others, including Gypsies, gays, Communists, socialists and Slavs) were systematically butchered by poison gassing and other appalling means. I understand the discomfort, and I repeat that I do not think it is accurate to describe America as fascist.

At the same time, I would urge those who might cite the Nazi Holocaust to question my argument to acknowledge that the contemporary American System is heir to monumental acts and processes of American genocide and mass atrocity at home (the Native American and Black Slavery Holocausts) and abroad (the millions of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Laotian, Cambodian, Latin American, Iraqi, Afghan, Palestinian, and other civilians the U.S. military and its proxies have directly and indirectly killed since August of 1945). I also advise reflection on the massive crime of ecocide and omnicide being perpetrated by contemporary U.S. (and global) capital in soulless defiance of the ever more desperate findings, pleas, and recommendations of modern Earth science. Corporate- and Wall Street-managed America stands in the vanguard of anthropogenic global warming, “the leading issue of our or any time” (John Sonbanmatsu). Does this crime not amount to the attempted poison-gassing (carbon-gassing) unto death of, well, life on Earth – a transgression that promises to make even the almost unthinkable misdeeds of the ultimate fascist Hitler pale by comparison?

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Where “American Sniper” Fails

06/02/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, February 5, 2015. So I’ve finally gone to see “American Sniper,” the Clint Eastwood flick that has generated so much heated commentary left and right.  As everyone knows by now, the movie tells the story of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEALS sniper who registered a US record 160 “enemy kills” during four tours of “duty” in the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq.  I’d give it two stars.

It’s a real and expertly crafted blood and guts shoot-em-up, that’s for sure, as one should expect from Eastwood.  If you like seeing people’s brains – especially but not exclusively the brains of Arabs – splattered against walls and streets in spectacular fashion, then this movie is for you.  The squeamish should not attend.

As a longtime leftist who marched repeatedly against the Iraq invasion, I muttered to myself repeatedly during the movie. I recoiled when Kyle justified his kill shots by saying that “those [the US troops his targets were trying to attack] are American soldiers” and that “they are trying to kill Marines.” “Yes,” I thought to myself, “they are soldiers and Marines engaged in the monumentally criminal and imperial invasion of a nation whose people did absolutely nothing to the US and who had no involvement whatsoever in the 9/11 jetliner attacks that many of the US occupiers (Kyle included) thought they were avenging in Iraq.  Of course Iraqis were trying to kill them, just like Kyle would be trying to kill invading Chinese or Russian soldiers marching in the streets of his Texas hometown. That is what you get when you think that the United States owns the world.”

I shuddered when Kyle repeatedly referred to Iraqi resistance fighters in Fallujah and other unnamed locations as “savages” and when the movie presented the Iraqi anti-occupation militias (the real heroes of the Iraq “war” [invasion and occupation]in my opinion) as vicious, sociopathic torturers. “If you want to see real savagery,” I thought to myself, “look at the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, and countless other Hellholes of ‘enhanced interrogation’ the US operated in the wake of 9/11.  Look at the villages and wedding parties the US has bombed in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Look at the broad mass-murderous essence of the US invasion of Iraq, which killed perhaps a million Iraqis, and at the two US assaults on Fallujah, in which the ‘good guy’ Americans attacked ambulances and hospitals and deployed radioactive ordnance in a sadistic effort to practically level an entire city.”

Imperial America has been calling those who dare to resist its murderous expansions “savages” since the colonial and early revolutionary eras, when white settlers demonized North America’s indigenous people as barbarians because those people dared to oppose the bloody theft of their lands.  How chilling to see that telling frontier Indian-fighting term still in use by the Empire’s gendarmes 228 years after the nation’s founding.

Still, “American Sniper” is not really a pro-war propaganda film. Eastwood says he opposed the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Hillary Clinton invasion of Iraq on practical grounds.  He didn’t think US policymakers had a serious idea of what they were getting into either in Iraq or in Afghanistan.  In an interview before hundreds of Oscar voters last December, Eastwood criticized “the arrogance of wanting just to burst into war and not really researching the value of it and the tragic ending it’s going to be for so many people.” He reflected on the futility of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. “Contrary to public opinion,” Eastwood added. “I abhor violence.”

I believe him on both scores after seeing “American Sniper.”  Violence takes a terrible toll on numerous characters in the movie, including Kyle, who returns home numb from Iraq with a serious case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He visits a number of seriously injured Iraq invasion veterans and gets killed by a fellow veteran he was trying to help recover from his war experience.

“American Sniper” portrays the “war” (invasion and occupation) as a doomed and ill-conceived policy in which simple God and Country soldiers who wanted to defeat “evil,” avenge 9/11, and protect their brothers in arms are sacrificed for unclear ends.  Soldiers and survivors and their family members are shown questioning the war in light of the horror they witness, experience, sense, and/or perpetrate.

“This shit is biblical,” one soldier tells Kyle as the movie nears its end with a large-scale insurgent attack conducted as a giant sandstorm approaches. You can almost hear Eastwood saying “Like I thought, another Korea, another Vietnam.”

According to a Hollywood reporter last December, the movie was “already provoking considerable debate, with some asserting that the movie…serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of war. But others have suggested that it is the politically conservative Eastwood’s attempt to glorify and defend the Iraq War that was initiated by fellow Republican George W. Bush.”

Having actually seen the movie, I’d say that the second suggestion (that “American Sniper” glorifies and defends the Iraq War”) is false.  The opening assertion of the movie’s defenders (that it’s “a cautionary tale on the perils of war”) is closer to the truth.

It’s true that “American Sniper,” taking its narrative from Chris Kyle’s published and bestselling memoir with the same title, tells its story largely from Kyle’s perspective – a nationalist, white, fundamentalist Christian, military, Texan, and Good American perspective wherein US soldiers are inherently “good guys” and those who want to kill them are “bad guys.” Still, I couldn’t help but pick up Eastwood’s sense that Kyle and other largely well-intentioned and mostly working- class US troops – “salt of the Earth” folks who can hardly be expected to have examined the long and tragic history of imperial war and counter-insurgency – were sent into Hell yet again (as in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan) on the orders or foolish and distant elites who didn’t really study their history either.  The troops who survive the poorly conceived mission return broken and battered to a society that is not morally or culturally equipped to “reintegrate” them.

Eastwood is absolutely right about all that, of course.  What’s missing above all, and this is  standard in mainstream US cinema and intellectual culture, is any remotely equivalent concern for – to take the title of an important book by John Tirman – The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s [criminal and imperial] Wars.(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Like the hit 1978 Vietnam War movie “The Deer Hunter” and numerous other Hollywood Vietnam portrayals, “American Sniper” reflects and reinforces (US of) Americans’ autistic and narcissistic sense that they are the leading and most authentic victims in the wars that Washington has undertaken in distant places like the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  The reality is that death, maiming, displacement, madness – suffering –is always imposed to a monumentally greater degree on the civilian populations of these criminally invaded lands.  As Tirman notes, “Between six and seven million people died in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq alone, the majority of them civilians.  And yet Americans devote little attention to these deaths.  Other countries, however, do pay attention,” something that helps explain “why there is so much anti-Americanism around the world…It is worth noting,” Tirman adds, “that ‘casualty aversion,’ a supposed result of the Vietnam War, has been mush discussed in academic and policy circles as a political factor in choosing intervention…but the casualties are only those of U.S. military personnel.  The ratio of those Americans killed to the dead of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq is on the order of 1-100 (Korea), 1-40 (Vietnam), and 1-200 (Iraq.).”

Tirman rightly worries about this “absence of concern, the want of sympathy…so evident in Americans’ response to the human costs of war.”  One consequence of this “indifference or callousness” is that it “erodes U.S. standing” in the world.  Another is that “it permits more such [primarily civilian-killing] wars,” feeding further the vicious cycle of imperial violence and global alienation.

This – the issue of the far greater suffering experienced by the (in this case Muslim) Others – is where Eastwood’s latest movie comes up horribly short as “a cautionary tale about the perils of war.”

Paul Street’s latest book is The Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Postscript 

4 Comments

  1. avatar

    Paul Street February 5, 2015 5:13 pm  Reply

    But I want to add here a powerful reflection by Matthew Gosse of Concordia University, privately communicated and shared here with his permission: “To me it was less full-blown propaganda as it was a hokey and insincere melodrama punctuated with cartoonish action movie tropes. It wasn’t ‘Navy Seals,’ but it wasn’t made all that much better because of its Oscar-baiting elements.”

    “HOWEVER, it did serve to refresh the distortions of the American public’s collective memory (as many Hollywood films do). In this way it did deserve the charge of ‘propaganda.’”

    “In the film Kyle is depicted as being driven to enlist by the 1998 Embassy Bombings in Africa, giving as his reason ‘I want to kill terrorists.’ Not only is this not why he enlisted in real life, the manipulation of this creates somewhat of an anachronism. In 1998 the word ‘terrorist’ would not have been on the lips of some apolitical lunk like Kyle, certainly not because of a car bombing in Nairobi. The effect of the change is that it pits Kyle against al-Qaeda from day one.”

    “The most egregious distortion of the timeline relates to 9/11 and Iraq. Less than two and a half minutes after (shirtlessly, with his beefy arms around his girlfriend) watching the collapse of the Twin Towers, Chris Kyle is seen on his first tour of Iraq. In reality FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY DAYS passed between 9/11 and the first bombs on Iraq. 555 days of the Bush Administration slowly turning America’s attention from scattered Islamists forces to the entirely unrelated target of Iraq. Not even the slightest hint that any time whatsoever passed between. Eastwood claims that his ‘omission’ of politics makes this film passive or unpolitical, but the decision again serves the status quo.”

    “The men that American soldiers fought in killed in Iraq were almost all (90-96%) Iraqis, yet Eastwood erases almost all mention that the U.S. occupation was profoundly unpopular and that it had helped ignite and encourage a hideous civil war. Instead of reflecting this reality, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall take their cues from White House propaganda that suggested to the American public that they were fighting ‘al-Qaeda’ and ‘foreign fighters’ in Iraq, greatly exaggerating the presence of outsiders (not counting the Coalition Forces themselves). ”

    “The film gives us a briefing up front that focuses on Jordanian al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist al-Zarqawi (who in real life had to enter Iraq to fight the Americans but was later likely ratted out by al-Qaeda leadership). Later they assure us that the evil terrorist sniper Musafa is a Syrian, and then the evil man known as The Butcher (who drills the hands of children), is also Jordanian. There are some interactions with Iraqi civilians in the film, but they are depicted as victims of these outsiders, desperately in need of American intervention. Mustafa (and the Butcher) are portrayed as the lynchpins of the Iraqi resistance, artificially injecting into the film an attainable ‘victory’ denied to America in reality.”

    “Other distortions could be chalked up to ‘the compression of time’, but the decision to make Iraq in 2003 appear the same as Iraq in 2008 helped reinforce the idea that the occupation would have been smooth if not for the ‘terrorists’ turning the people against them. ”

    “His first kill is depicted as a young boy, an invention of the screenwriter that serves to acclimatize the audience to all the killing that follows. Kyle reflects on the kill with regret, muttering ‘that’s evil like I have never seen before,’ suggesting that ‘evil’ had pushed the innocent child to try to kill the Marines Kyle was protecting. Kyle’s buddy reassures him that he did what he had to do. After this exchange (and the sacrifice of innocence of the child corrupted by evil itself) there is nothing that Kyle can do to lose the audience. The other Iraqis who turn on the Americans are also depicted as pawns of the ‘foreign fighters’ / al_Qaeda terrorists, all with tell-tale wounds from the power drill of The Butcher. ”

    “The horrific door-to-door raids wherein American troops would kick in doors and terrorize entire families, zip-tying the wrists of any fighting age males and disappear them into the night to be tortured and abuse and humiliated in jail cells, are depicted as minimal disruptions of the Iraqi quotidian. In the film women huddle in a corner and cry a little and the men are given ample opportunity to negotiate with the American authorities, leading eventually to a calm conversation over tea. In reality, hundreds of Iraqis were shot dead during such raids. ”

    “Eastwood has claimed that the film is ‘anti-war.’ He seems to be under the impression that only an explicit defence of the rationale for the invasion of Iraq could be rightfully construed as ‘pro-war.’ He does not seem to realize that a defence of the institutions of war, the artificial isolation and disassociation from politics that create war, the wholesale adoption of the forms of rhetoric and propaganda of the state to explain the dynamics of the war, all constitute a film that is pro-war. His film is, at best, a soap opera with battle scenes. It is far from anti-war.”

    Gosse offers here I think a significant correction to my downplaying (in this essay) of this film’s role as war propaganda.

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      Joe Emersberger February 6, 2015 12:00 am  

      Zero Dark Thirty was more directly and flagrantly pro-torturer than it was pro-torture. To be precise it was pro-US-torturer.. But if you depict torturers as heroes sacrificing on “our” behalf, than the distinction becomes very minor. I suspect the same thing is at play with American Sniper but will watch it at some point.

Latin America Takes the Lead in Opposing Torture

29/01/15 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, February 2015. In October 2013, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced outrage over the giant global surveillance program conducted by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA). How could Merkel not have cried foul? Among U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden’s many revelations about U.S. spying, it was learned in October that the NSA had listened on her personal cellphone—a mind-boggling breach of faith between leading Western allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) and U.S.-led “global war on [of] terror” (GWO/OT). Other European and other leaders had also been placed under NSA surveillance, Snowden revealed.

Merkel said that Germany’s relations with the U.S. had been “severely shaken” and called U.S. spying on her and other European leaders “completely unacceptable…. Spying among friends is never acceptable.” The German Chancellor said that “Trust needs to be rebuilt,” adding that “words will not be sufficient. True change is necessary.” Other European officials “think the same,” Merkel added. France’s Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault called the reports of U.S. spying “shocking” and “worrying.”

The extent to which European elites really cared about snooping by their U.S. “friends” at the NSA can certainly be exaggerated. The issue has faded in European politics and has elicited little real change in European electronic security policy. A German prosecutor has recently claimed that there is no basis for the charge that Merkel’s phone was tapped. In the summer of 2013, just two days after the German magazine Der Spiegel reported (on the basis of documents made available by Snowden) that the NSA “not only conducted online surveillance of European citizens, but also appears to have specifically targeted buildings housing European Union institutions,” five Western European nations (Austria, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) assisted the U.S. in its openly expressed desire to capture Snowden. On July 1, 2013, Washington suspected that Snowden might be on board a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales home from energy talks in Russia. Under U.S. pressure, Morales’s plane was forced to land in Vienna, Austria. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain had (at Washington’s command) withdrawn permission for the plane to pass through their airspace. Morales’s flight was “kidnapped by imperialism” (in the words of his vice president) because he had said in a Moscow television interview that Bolivia would look favorably upon an asylum request from Snowden. Morales left Vienna only after spending 12 hours at the airport and after Austrian national police verified that Snowden was not on board. The forced landing, detention, and searching of President Morales’s plane was a remarkable and arrogant violation of international law committed at the instigation of the U.S. Empire. It was an act reflecting what Argentina’s president Cristina de Fernandez Kirchner called “the vestiges of colonialism.”

Still, Merkel and other leading European politicians had no choice but to respond with some measure of public indignation over the U.S./NSA spying disclosures of October 2013.

Those European leaders expressed considerably less indignation in response to the release last December of a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary of its still-classified 6,700-page report on the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) by the U.S. government—most specifically by the CIA—on behalf of the U.S. GWO/OT waged in the wake of the 9/11/2001 al Qaeda jetliner attacks. A Time magazine report was titled “CIA Torture Report Creates Few Ripples Across the Pond.” According to Time correspondent Simon Shuster: “Europe wasn’t exactly silent. But considering the scale of the abuses that the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee revealed on Tuesday in its report on CIA torture, one might have expected a bit more outrage from the leaders of the Old World. Instead, the most common reaction was to praise the report as a sign of American transparency and accountability—two of the values meant to bind the West together—while many European statesmen have so far avoided saying anything at all…That includes the leaders of France and Germany, who made no public reaction in the 24 hours that followed the report’s release…if the White House was expecting the Senate report to freeze relations across the Atlantic, it can probably breathe a sigh of relief.”

European Silence on Torture

street-cheneyThis, too, is unsurprising. As the Open Society demonstrated in an exhaustive February 2013 study titled “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret and Extraordinary Rendition,” “Germany participated in the interrogation of at least one extraordinarily rendered individual. It also had knowledge of the abduction of a German national held in secret CIA detention. Further, Germany permitted use of its airspace and airports for flights associated with the CIA extraordinary rendition program.”

Eighteen other European nations (including Belgium, England, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and even social-democratic Sweden and Denmark) also participated in the global CIA torture network. The roles they played ranged from letting CIA rendition flights use their airspace and airports to letting the CIA snatch captives up on their national territory and to actually (as in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania) hosting secret CIA prisons (torture sites).

“The muted reaction from European leaders,” Shuster learned, “is perhaps best explained by the dilemma this issue presents. If one of them praises the report’s transparency, they could be perceived as downplaying the gravity of the crimes committed in the execution of the war on terror. If one of them condemns those crimes, they will almost certainly face questions about their own country’s complicity, if not also its direct involvement, in torture and illegal detention.”

Another factor behind Europe’s mild response to the report was the U.S.-led “new Cold War” confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. This Western-driven conflict has “urged the West to band together against what they perceive as a common threat to their security.” An imperial “expert on Central and Eastern Europe” (an academic flak at the German Marshall Fund) told Shuster that “the key ingredient to any successful Russia policy is Western unity.” As Merkel “pursues an ever-tougher line against Moscow,” the “expert” adds, “she needs to rally the Europeans, and she needs to make sure the coordination with the Americans remains intact.”

The Latin American Exception

It wasn’t just Europe that collaborated with CIA extraordinary rendition and torture. Fifty four nations spread across five of the world’s six inhabited continents participated in the U.S. global torture network.

The one such continent where not a single nation played along with the CIA campaign of secret and extraordinary rendition? South America. No country there or anywhere else in Latin America (including Mexico and the Central American states of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) allowed the U.S. post-9/11 terror network to use even its airspace or airports. The only facility fully enlisted in the U.S. GWO/OT in Latin America is a U.S. colonial hangover: the Guantanamo Bay detention camp (“Gitmo”)—a U.S. prison and torture complex in the U.S. Navy base on the Southeastern tip of Cuba.

Not that Uncle Sam didn’t try to recruit its southern neighbors to his 21st century torture and kidnapping campaign. In November 2002, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew more than 5,000 miles to Santiago, Chile where he told a meeting of chiefly Latin American Western Hemispheric defense ministers that they needed to participate in the “integration” of “various specialized capabilities into larger regional capabilities.” Rumsfeld told them that “events around the world before and after September 11th suggest…advantages” for Latin American nations who collaborated with Washington and each other in the “war on terror.” Rumsfeld offered U.S. money, technology, training, and other assistance to Latin American militaries and governments who agreed to work with Washington in constructing a planetary system of kidnapping, torture, and murder.

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Rumsfeld was likely unaware that September 11 was already a black day in Latin American history because it was on 9/11/1973 that the U.S.-backed Chilean military undertook a CIA-backed coup that killed Chile’s democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende and led to the political state murder, torture, and disappearance of thousands of Chilean workers, activists, and intellectuals. Beginning in 1975, the fascist Chilean coup regime, headed by General Augusto Pinochet, joined with its fellow right wing dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil in the implementation of Operation Condor, an “anti-communist” campaign of state terror, torture, disappearance, and political repression. Operation Condor killed at least 60,000 people in the 1970s and 1980s, receiving critical military aid and technical assistance from the U.S., principally through the CIA. It was all perpetrated in the name of “democratic capitalism” and the so-called free market.

Rumsfeld and the Bush administration did not succeed in their efforts to resurrect a kind of Operation Condor for the post-9/11 era—one in which radical Islam replaced Soviet and Cuban “communism” (cover terms for the actual threats of Latin America populism, social democracy, and national independence) as the official enemy. As the Latin American historian Greg Grandin explained, “History was not on Rumsfeld’s side. His trip to Santiago coincided with Argentina’s epic financial meltdown, among the worst in recorded history. It signaled a broader collapse of the economic model—think of it as Reaganism on steroids—that Washington had been promoting in Latin America since the late Cold War years. Soon, a new generation of leftists would be in power across much of the continent, committed to the idea of national sovereignty and limiting Washington’s influence in the region in a way that their predecessors hadn’t been.”

“Empire’s Workshop”

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Latin America’s refusal to sign up with the U.S. GWO/OT was more than just collateral fallout from economic meltdown. As was certainly understood by left Latin American leaders Hugo Chavez (elected president of Venezuela in 1998), Lula da Silva (elected to Brazil’s presidency in October of 2002), Néstor Kirchner (elected to Argentina’s presidency in early 2003), Evo Morales (elected to Bolivia’s presidency in late 2005), and Rafael Correa (elected to Ecuador’s presidency in late 2006), the regressive neoliberal (arch-capitalist) “free market” economic model had been imposed on Latin America by Washington largely through the iron fist of state violence funded, equipped, trained, and overseen by U.S. military and intelligence. “Enhanced “interrogation” was a critical weapon in that U.S.-sponsored repression. The terrible torture methods recounted in last week’s Senate report were all too well known to Latin Americans during the last century. Deep in the 500-page summary of that report there is reference to KUBARK, code name for a July 1963 CIA interrogation manual. As the committee notes, the manual contained the “principal coercive techniques of interrogation: arrest, detention, deprivation of sensory stimuli through solitary confinement or similar methods, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis and induced regression.” Under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and through the 1980s, Washington and Latin America’s many U.S.-sponsored right-wing dictatorships turned the region into “a counterinsurgent laboratory” (Grandin) —one where U.S.-trained and U.S.-equipped gendarmes regularly conducted many of the “coercive interrogation” techniques used by the U.S. and its GWO/OT allies during the present century. United States military and intelligence personnel applied the same basic horrific techniques in Southeast Asia during the U.S. Indochinese wars of the 1960s and 1970s.

The CIA updated KUBARK when U.S.-sponsored Latin American military regimes faced popular resistance and armed insurgency during the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1983, the USSIC reports, “a CIA officer incorporated significant portions of the KUBARK manual into the Human Resource Exploitation (HRE) Training Manual, which the same officer used to provide interrogation training in Latin America in the early 1980s.” Beyond application in training death squads and armed forces who killed hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, and activists in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the new manual was “used to provide interrogation training to” a party whose name is redacted in the committee’s report. The deleted entity is clearly the Contras, a terrorist force created by the CIA to overthrow the popular Left Sandinista government in Managua.

Not surprisingly, there are some direct personnel connections between the U.S. terror campaign in 20th century Latin America and this century’s U.S.-led GWO/OT. The USSIC reports that “a CIA officer [who] was involved in the HRE training and conducted interrogations” that may have gone overboard (even by U.S. standards) became “in the fall of 2002…the CIA’s chief of interrogations in the CIA’s Renditions Group, the officer in charge of CIA interrogations.” According to a recent Newsweek report: “Other veterans of the Latin American counterinsurgency wars were key players in the questionable post-9/11 interrogation practices exposed by the Senate committee, although they went unmentioned in its report because they were not CIA officers…Retired Army Colonel James Steele, along with another retired army colonel, James H. Coffman, helped the Iraqi government set up police commando units and ‘worked…in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of U.S. funding,’ the London-based Guardian newspaper and the BBC reported in a joint project in 2013…Steele had been commander of the U.S. military advisory group in El Salvador during its 1980s civil war, a struggle remembered chiefly for the death squads the regime used against nuns and priests allied with the poor. Steele had previously been decorated for his service in South Vietnam as a U.S. Army reconnaissance patrol leader.”

Given Latin American governments’ deep collaboration with U.S. military and intelligence force’s torture practices during the last century, it might seem ironic that South and Latin America alone among the world’s great continents and regions can boast that none of its national governments agreed to participate in the global torture network created by the U.S. after 9/11. The irony disappears, however, when one realizes that the region living under the hemispheric thumb of the United States since the 19th century has in this century rejected both the imperial economic model and the intimately related state terrorism— both the “soft” rule of the (in fact brutal) “free market” and the iron fist of hard state power—imposed by its bad neighbor and bully to the North. As the longstanding early “workshop” (Grandin) of the U.S. state-capitalist Empire, Latin America quite logically stands in the vanguard when it comes to rejecting U.S. torture and murder techniques and programs.

Leading on Surveillance and Whistleblower Protection

It isn’t only on the torture/interrogation/rendition (kidnapping) issue that Latin America far surpasses Europe in standing up to the U.S. GWO/OT. Uncle Sam’s southern neighbors also lead on fighting NSA surveillance (which has also of course targeted Latin American citizens and heads of state) and on protecting whistleblowers who expose U.S. crimes. Morales expressed Bolivia’s willingness to host and protect Snowden—likely a sincere statement. Another South American state, Brazil, currently hosts and protects Glenn Greenwald, the U.S. civil-libertarian journalist to whom Snowden turned with his documents and revelations. Another left-led Latin American state, Ecuador, provides a sanctuary for the Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its embassy in London.

Assange is under siege by the United States, England, and even social-democratic Sweden because of his role in the publication of U.S. military and diplomatic documents leaked by U.S. Army private Chelsea Manning. As John Pilger has observed, “For two years, an exaggerated, costly police presence around the Ecuadorean embassy in London has served no purpose other than to flaunt the power of the state. Their quarry is an Australian charged with no crime, a refugee from gross injustice whose only security is the room given him by a brave South American country. His true crime is to have initiated a wave of truth-telling in an era of lies, cynicism and war.” After writing the paragraphs above, I happened by chance on a remarkable and heartwarming news segment on the reception received by six former Guantanamo prisoners—four Syrians, a Palestinian, and a Tunisian—in Montevideo, Uruguay. Although they were cleared for release in 2009, the U.S. refused to release them until Uruguay’s left wing president Jose Mujica offered to take them in as a humanitarian gesture last December. As one of the released detainees’ lawyers told the PBS “Newshour”: “I have never, in my many years of doing this work, seen a reception like this. It has been overwhelming in its warmth and its compassion. When my client, who has been on a hunger strike for most the past two years, was going around the hospital ward to have tests, other patients in the hospital came out of their wards and leaned in and smiled and waved. I have been hugged by grandmothers in the supermarket simply because I am a lawyer who represents a Guantanamo prisoner. The warmth of the people of Uruguay has been overwhelming. We’re so grateful and so pleased.”

The ex-detainee, Abedlhadi Omar Faraj, sent out a letter through his New York lawyer thanking Uruguay for its gracious welcome. “Were it not for Uruguay,” the letter read, “I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today. It’s difficult for me to express how grateful I am for the immense trust that you, the Uruguayan people, placed in me and the other prisoners when you opened the doors of your country to us…”

Michal Bone, a lawyer for another former “Gitmo” detainee, told the Guardian that “They got hugs from Uruguayan officials, friendly waves and thumbs up from the other patients at the hospital, the Uruguayan reception team even brought bathing suits for them.” Bone noted that while on the flight Cuba on a U.S. military plane, the former prisoners wore handcuffs, shackles, blindfolds and ear-defenders, “the Uruguayans refused to let them walk off the plane in shackles; they insisted that they be allowed to take their first step on Uruguayan soil as free men.”

As free men—imagine that. The six former detainees’ trip from the bottom reaches of the fascistic, racist, and totalitarian Hell that is the U.S. GWO/OT to peaceful and social-democratic Uruguay was a flight from savagery to civilization—from the clutches of a sadistic Empire of torture to a region that is finding democracy and justice as it emerges from the vicious control of its northern overlords.

Jose Mujica is a former left-wing militant who spent nearly 15 years in prison during the period when Uruguay was under U.S.-sponsored and CIA-assisted military rule. A veteran of the Tupamaro revolutionary organization, he knows a thing or two about U.S.-directed “enhanced interrogation”—torture, that is. “As a prisoner of the brutal military dictatorship that seized power in a [U.S.-backed] coup in June 1973, Encyclopedia Britannica reports, “Mujica was tortured and spent long periods of time in solitary confinement, including two years at the bottom of a well.” The venerable Left dissident and chronicler of U.S. global criminality and arrogance, William Blum, provides some deeper historical context: “The 1960s [in Uruguay] was the era of the Tupamaros, perhaps the cleverest, most resourceful, most sophisticated, least violent, Robin Hood-like urban guerillas the word has ever seen. They were too good to be allowed to survive. A team of American experts arrived, to supply the police with all the arms, vehicles, communications gear etc. they needed; to train them in assassination and explosives techniques, to teach methods of interrogation cum torture, to set up an intelligence service cum death squad. It was all out war against the Tupamaros and any suspected sympathizers….”

“In 1998, Eladio Moll, a retired Uruguayan Navy rear admiral and former intelligence chief, testifying before a commission of the Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies, stated that during Uruguay’s ‘dirty war’ 91972-1983), orders came from the United States concerning captive Tupamaros. ‘The guidance that was sent from the U.S.,’ said Moll, ‘was that what had to be done the captured guerillas was to get information, and that afterwards they didn’t deserve to live’” (Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, Common Courage, 2005).

Over the many decades of its unmatched global power, Washington has decided that millions of citizens across the planet don’t deserve freedom, comfort, and even life itself. As the first global region to feel the imperial presence and fury of the United States and to see U.S. power embedded in its own social and political life, Latin America logically leads the world in rejecting U.S. power both “soft” and hard—both the “Washington consensus” neoliberal economic model and the Washington war of terror and surveillance—in the deadly “neoliberal” era. And that, silly as it may sound, is no small part of why I rooted for Brazil and Argentina against Germany in the 2014 World Cup last summer.                                                                                                                 Z

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Paul Street is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11, 2004;The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, 2010; and They Rule: The 1 Percent v. Democracy.

Beyond “Selma”

28/01/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, January 27, 2015. In his magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Martin Luther King, and the American Civil Rights Movement, David Garrow relates an interesting story from Selma, Alabama, just a few weeks before the famous 1965 Selma marches that helped push United States (US) President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) and the US Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act (VRA) later that year. Writing about King’s brief stay in a Selma jail in February of that year, Garrrow notes that “King and [his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) partner Ralph] Abernathy shared a cell with white SCLC staffer Charles Fager.”  One morning, “King struck up a conversation with Fager about how difficult it would be to win true freedom.  King’s vision was more far reaching than his public remarks would indicate.  It was an unforgettable realization, Fager recalled years later. “I remember the words, exactly, ‘If we are going to achieve equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.’”

I wonder what King would think of the powerful, recently released Oprah-produced movie “Selma” and of the narrow debate that has emerged among some well-off Democrats about whether the film is historically accurate in its depiction of US President Lyndon Johnson as an obstacle to King and the Civil Rights Movement in Selma (the movie’s faithfulness to real historical facts is quite imperfect in that and other regards for reasons I have indicated in a recent ZNet essay.) My sense is that King would be less than enthusiastic about the movie and not particularly interested in the elite debate the film elicited. He would be particularly displeased with “Selma’s” false depiction of King as – in the words of the Black Left commentator Glen Ford — “yearning for an end to mass protests, so that Black people could achieve real political power – quite clearly meaning the election of more Black people to office. As if that’s what the mass movement was all about, in King’s mind. We know that’s not true,” Ford notes, “because Dr. King said the opposite in countless sermons, speeches, books and essays; that he was seeking social transformation, a new system of living. Three years after Selma, King died, still seeking to revive the mass movement.”

“The Real Issue to Be Faced”

The really untold or at least badly under-told story about Martin Luther King, Jr. is that he was a democratic socialist who was remarkably unimpressed by the legislation his movement passed in 1964 and 1965. The victories were not small. The 1964 Civil Rights Act ordered the desegregation of public facilities in the US South.  The VRA granted previously disenfranchised Southern Black Americans the right to vote. But in the years after Selma (if not before), King (never comfortable with the profits system) concluded that only “drastic reform” involving “the radical reconstruction of society itself” could “save us from social catastrophe.”  Consistent with the teachings of Marx (of whom King was something of an admirer during his time at the Crozier Theological Seminary in the early 1950s), King argued that “the roots of [economic injustice] are in the [capitalist] system rather in men or faulty operations.”  In King’s view the simultaneous existence of mass poverty at home and U.S. imperial violence abroad attested to the fact that “a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them.”  He insisted that Americans “question the whole society,” seeing “that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation [capitalism], and the problem of war are all tied together.” These “triple evils that are interrelated” were so intertwined, he said, that “you really can’t get rid of one of them without getting rid of the others.” As King explained in a posthumously published essay, “The black revolution …reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

“Power for Poor People”

Given his socialist and anti-imperialist beliefs – probably intact by his early twenties – King wrote and spoke of the need for cross-racial economic justice.  He included poor whites and the Third World along with poor black Americans in the circle of those who deserved an egalitarian new social order. “We want no classes and castes,” he said in 1956, the year he emerged on the national stage.

By King’s observation in 1966, impoverished blacks in US ghettoes were struggling with “class issues.” At the root of the problem was the fact that “something is wrong with the economic system of our nation…something is wrong with capitalism.”  That system, King felt, “produces beggars” alongside luxuriant opulence for the privileged few, calling for “the radical redistribution of economic and political power.”

“One unfortunate thing about [the slogan] Black Power,” King wrote that same year, “is that it gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike. In this context, a slogan of ‘Power for Poor People’ would be much more appropriate.”

“The Second Phase”

More than is commonly recognized, King saw his movement’s mid-1960s legislative triumphs over southern racism as strictly partial and even potentially problematic victories. He saw the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts as relatively fractional, bourgeois and all-too easily, even cheaply won accomplishments that dangerously encouraged mainstream white America to think the nation’s “race problems were automatically solved.” He saw these regionally specific victories as falling far short of his deeper objective: advancing social, economic, political, and racial justice across the entire nation (including its northern, ghetto-scarred cities) and indeed around the world.

It was one thing, King argued, to open the doors of opportunity for some few and relatively privileged African-Americans. It was another thing to move millions of black and other disadvantaged people out of economic despair. It was another and related thing to dismantle slums and overcome the deep structural and societal barriers to equality that continued after public bigotry was discredited and after open discrimination was outlawed. It was one thing, King felt, to defeat the overt racism of snarling white southerners like Bull Connor and Alabama Governor George Wallace; it was another thing to confront the deeper, more covert institutional racism that lived beneath the less openly bigoted, smiling face of northern and urban “liberalism.” It was one thing. King noted, to defeat the anachronistic caste structure of the South. It was another thing to attain substantive social and economic equality for black and other economically disadvantaged people across the nation.

King reflected on his bitter experience in the urban North when he penned the following trenchant considerations on the impasse that the struggle for black equality had reached in the wake of its fateful “turn North” in 1965 and 1966, after the voting rights victory:

“With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end.  A new phase opened…For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade – the first phase – had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality.  White America was ready to demand that the Negro be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination… When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared…the free-running expectations of the Negro crashed into the stone walls of white resistance… Negroes felt cheated, especially in the North, while many whites felt that the Negroes had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more so soon.”

“Even though we gained legalistic and judicial victories,” King told his colleagues during a 1966 SCLC gathering, these accomplishments, “did very little to improve the lot of millions of Negroes in the teeming ghettoes,” so that “the changes that came about were at best surface changes…not really substantive.

Beyond “Bargain Basement” Change

King argued that the cost of the radical change he advocated would be far greater than the comparatively slight price paid by white privilege for the comparatively easy victories achieved by the black freedom struggle to date. “When millions of people have been cheated for centuries,” King wrote, “restitution is a costly process… Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial as well as human terms. The fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain prices.  The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black officials.”

For Mass Civil Disobedience

Would the “new phase” change come through electoral politics, its scope widened by the Voting Rights Act?  After Selma as in earlier years (when the John F. Kennedy administration repeatedly tried to channel the Civil Rights Movement’s anti-desegregation struggles into voter-registration campaigns), King was less than impressed by U.S. elections as a vehicle for the transformation required.  He rejected antiwar and social justice progressives’ efforts to enlist him as a candidate for office, opting instead for a direct action campaign to end poverty in America. Having been badly defeated in his 1966 effort to bring progressive racial and socioeconomic change to Chicago – a city where (as across the urban North) Blacks had long possessed the right to vote – King clung to his longstanding emphasis on mass civil disobedience and social movement action beneath and beyond electoral politics.

“The dispossessed of this nation [the US] – the poor, both White and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society,” King told Canadian radio listeners in late 1967.  “They must organize a revolution against that injustice,” he added.  Such a revolution would require “more than a statement to the larger society,” more than “street marches…There must,” King added, “be a force that interrupts [society’s] functioning at some key point.” That force would use “mass civil disobedience” to “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force” by “dislocate[ing] the functioning of a society.”

King Would Not Be Impressed

Were he able to return today, King would not be happy to see the SCLC and SNCC’s Voting Rights victory celebrated on film while: the median income of white households is 20 times that of black households; more than a third of Black children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level; the Black unemployment and poverty rates continue as usual to double those of whites; the richest 400 Americans possess amongst themselves as much wealth as the bottom half of the US populace; the gigantic US “defense”(Empire) budget accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending; a militarized police state (revealed to television and Internet audiences like never before during the Ferguson drama last summer) and a racially hyper-disparate mass incarceration system (with more than 2 million prisoners, 40% of them Black) stalk the high-surveillance “homeland;” and the chaotic and unjust capitalist system pushes livable ecology past omnicidal limits.

King would hardly see the neoliberal and imperial presidency (enabled in part by the Voting Rights Act) of the technically Black Barack Obama and the rise of rich and influential Black Americans like Oprah Winfrey – a producer of “Selma” (as well as an actor in the film, playing a working class civil rights activist) – as remotely emblematic of the radical change for which he fought. If anything, he would observe that the ascendancy of bourgeois Blacks like Obama and his good friend the entertainment mogul Winfrey was part of the problem for Black America insofar as the much ballyhooed advance of a relatively small number of privileged Blacks tends to reinforce “white America’s” (King’s phrase) belief that all the racial corrections have been made and that the only remaining relevant barriers to Black progress and equality are internal to the Black community itself.

We can be sure that Winfrey would have vetoed the inclusion of Dr. King’s comment to Charles Fager on the necessity of socialism in “Selma’s” script. The comment does not fit the domesticated image of King that Oprah, Obama, and other guardians of the reigning white- and capital-friendly national memory wish to keep in place.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.

Sources: For the sources quoted and consulted in the writing of this essay, please go to the end of the essay linked here.

Putting Radical Life in Schools

26/01/15 0 COMMENTS

Truthout, January 25, 2015

Peter McLaren, Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy and the Foundations of Education, 6th Edition (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014)

“School reform” has a very bad reputation among left thinkers and activists for some very good reasons in the neoliberal era. Captive to corporate-backed school privatization activists, contemporary “school reform” sets public schools, teachers, and teacher unions up to fail by blaming them for low student standardized test scores that are all-too unmentionably the product of students’ low socioeconomic status and related racial and ethnic oppression. Its obsession with test scores assaults imagination and critical thinking, narrowing curriculum and classroom experience around the lifeless task of filling in the correct bubbles beneath droves of authoritarian multiple-“choice” questions crafted in distant, sociopathic corporate cubicles. Students become passive recipients of strictly limited information deposited into their brains by teachers who “are prevented from taking risks and designing their own lessons as the pressure to produce high test scores produces highly scripted and regimented” pedagogy, wherein “worksheets become a substitute for critical teaching and rote memorization takes the place of in-depth thinking” (Henry Giroux). Pupils are rendered incapable of morally and politically challenging – and envisaging alternatives to – the terrible conditions they face under contemporary state capitalism and related oppression structures outside and inside schools.

Much if not most of what passes for school reform is really about public school destruction, corporate takeover, slashing teachers’ salaries and benefits, and undermining students and citizens’ ability to question a system that has been concentrating ever more wealth and power into elite hands for more than a generation. It is deeply (and by no means just coincidentally) consistent with the late comedian George Carlin’s 2005 rant about what “the big wealthy business interests that control everything…don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking.” As Carlin elaborated:

“They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people…who are smart enough to, figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.”

But what if “school reform” meant the empowerment of radically democratic educators who sought the opposite what Carlin’s business owners want – and more? What if those teachers were dedicated to helping future citizens and workers become sufficiently smart, inspired, confident, courageous, loving and solidaristic, not only to understand what the capitalist owners and their coordinators are doing to society and life itself, but also to resist those elites and to create an egalitarian, democratic, sustainable, peaceful, and truly human world turned upside down? Such teachers wouldn’t think that schools could bring about such a revolutionary transformation on their own. They would, however, understand “how,” in the leading left educational and social critic Peter McLaren’s words, “schools are implicated in social reproduction…how schools perpetuate or reproduce the social relationships and attitudes needed to sustain the existing dominant economic and class relations of the larger society.” Determined to interrupt and overturn that deadly reproduction, they would grasp the “partial autonomy of the school culture” and the necessity of occupying that space as “a vehicle for political activism and creating a praxis of social equality, economic justice, and gender equality” (Life in Schools, 150).

That is the goal behind McLaren’s classic text Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy and the Foundations of Education, recently updated for the Obama era in a sixth edition. “We are living,” McLaren writes near the end of Life in Schools:

“…in what Antonio Gramsci called a war of position – a struggle to unify diverse social movements in our collective efforts to resist global capitalism – in order to wage what he called a war of maneuver (a concerted effort to challenge and transform the state, to create an alternative matrix for society other than value). Part of our war of position is taking place in our schools. Schools form part of Gramsci’s integral state as a government-coercive apparatus and an apparatus of political and cultural hegemony that continually needs to be renewed in order to secure the assent of the dominant group’s agenda.” (Life in Schools, 245-46).

Life in Schools is (among other things) a sprawling, many-sided, and brilliant manual of theory, history, and practice for teachers, teachers-in-training, and current and future education professors ready to enlist in that “war of position.” The stakes, McLaren reminds us (like his colleague and ally Giroux [1]), are not small:

“Today, amidst the most powerful conglomeration of cultural, political, and economic power aver assembled in history…we have seen our humanity swept away like a child’s sigh in a tornado…The marble pillars of democracy have crashed around our heads, leaving us ensepulchered in a graveyard of empty dreams… The omnicidal regimes of our Anthropocene Era have brutalized our planet to the point of bringing ecosystems and the energies of evolution and speciation to the point of devastation and Homo Sapiens to the brink of extinction….Time is running out quickly. We are being chased to by the hounds of both heaven and hell ‘with all deliberate speed’ and we are being continually outflanked.” (xxi, 259, 261)

Building on stories from his early years as what he considers a rather naïve liberal teacher in an inner-city Toronto school, McLaren takes his readers on a long and loving trip from his years in the classroom (Life in Schools contains a previously published journal [titled Cries From the Corridor] in which McLaren recorded his teaching experience prior to his engagement with radical theory) through the theory of revolutionary critical pedagogy; the roles that mainstream schools and educational doctrine play in subjugating working class and minority students; the structures and ideologies of contemporary oppression and inequality (class, race, gender, ethnicity, and empire); and methods for teachers to instill students with confidence, hope and capacity for resistance and solidarity.

Like the leading critical education theorists Henry Giroux and Paulo Friere, McLaren argues that educators have a duty to – in Friere’s words – “engage in politics when we educate.” The dominant methods and paradigms of North American education are richly political and ideological beneath their (false) claims of value-free objectivity and balance. Whereas those methods and paradigms covertly advance the predatory capitalist (neoliberal) project beneath the pretense of impartial neutrality (so that “being educated today constitutes a form of historically conditioned estrangement and alienation” [280]), critical pedagogy openly advances a liberating and participatory democratic socialism beyond both state capitalism and authoritarian socialism.

McLaren does not pretend that schools alone can rescue and re-energize democracy and justice in the United States. Still, he argues that schools can and must become zones of popular de-indoctrination, democratic re-imagination, and resistance to capital, whose giant transnational corporations are “taking hacksaws to the web of planetary ecosystems” and to “the covenant that once defined (however tenuously) the social commons.” The task is essential in an era of escalating empire, inequality, and authoritarianism, when millions are forced into long-term “structural unemployment,” prison, poverty, hopelessness and depression. The “rich are getting drunk on the tears of the poor” (233) while an “antiwar” US president kills Muslim civilians and even assassinates US citizens with arrogant impunity, and the Superpower shamelessly liquidates long-cherished civil liberties.

While Life in Schools seems directed primarily at academic departments of education, it deserves an audience far beyond the ivory tower. It is loaded with deeply informed radical perspectives that should interest progressive thinkers and activists in all spheres of life under contemporary capitalism. Especially relevant in light of recent events is McLaren’s critique of academic theories that “‘race,’ not class is the major form of oppression in society.” A dedicated anti-racist and anti-sexist, McLaren nonetheless reminds us that:

“Class exploitation…[is] the material armature material basis or material conditions of possibility for other forms of oppression within capitalist society… class exploitation is not simply one form of oppression among others; rather, it constitutes the ground on which other ‘isms’ of oppression are sustained within capitalist societies. When we claim that class antagonism….is [just] one in a series of social antagonisms – race, class, gender, and so on – we often forget the fact that class sustains the conditions that produce and reproduce the other antagonisms,…[whose] material basis can be traced to the means and relations of production within capitalist society – to the social division of labor that occurs when workers sell their labor power for a wage to the capitalist (Life in Schools, 217-18) ….Class as a social relation sets the conditions of possibility for many other social antagonisms, such as racism and sexism, thought it cannot be reduced to them” (125).

McLaren also offers trenchant insights on the reactionary role of the Obama administration. As portrayed (accurately by my estimation) in Life in Schools, the current US president is an abject “war criminal”(6-7, 274), a deadly enemy of civil liberties (232), a toady to Wall Street (6-7), a stealth agent of neoliberal so-called post-racial white supremacy (193-94), and a stalwart instrument of the corporate-neoliberal educational agenda, with its deadly testing obsession (16).

Equally instructive are McLaren’s reflections on how much of what passes for resistance today is actually an expression of capitalist hegemony, and on the central role of corporate-manufactured hopelessness in the ruling class’s intensifying destruction of justice, democracy, and life itself. “We have accommodated ourselves to the [contemporary state-capitalist and imperial] Deep State, and have routinized and ritualized our responses to it,” McLaren’s writes (xxi). The major barrier to the radical and democratic changes required, McLaren feels, has to do with hope and confidence: “The biggest prohibitive obstacle to organizing the Left is [a lack of] confidence that an alternative to capitalism can be made viable.”

As McLaren acknowledges, it’s not easy to answer the question of how to develop a widespread faith in socialism’s viability. “But,” he adds, “it’s not easy to live in the world as presently fashioned, either, so we’d best get to work on finding some solutions” (257). Wise words.

1. Giroux’s latest book begins with the observation that “America is descending into madness. The stories it now tells are filled with cruelty, deceit, lies, and legitimate all manner of corruption and mayhem. The mainstream media spin stories that are largely racist, violent, and irresponsible – stories that celebrate power and demonize victims…under the glossy veneer of entertainment…A predatory culture celebrates a narcissistic hyper-individualism that radiates a near-sociopathic lack of interest in – or compassion and responsibility for – others. Anti-public intellectuals …urge us to spend more, indulge more, and make a virtue out of personal gain, while producing a depoliticized culture of consumerism. Undermining life-affirming social solidarities and any viable notion of the public good, politicians trade in forms of idiocy and superstition that seem to mesmerize the undereducated and render the thoughtful cynical and disengaged. Militarized police forces armed with the latest weapons tested in Afghanistan and Iraq play out their fantasies on the home front…[while] defense contractors…market military-grade surveillance tools and weapons to a full range of clients, from gated communities to privately owned for-profit prisons.” Henry Giroux, The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine (San Francisco: City Lights, 2014), 9-10.

Absence of Outrage

26/01/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, January 26, 2015. Nobody who is familiar with the case of Milton Hall – shot to death by 8 police officers on July 1, 2012 in Saginaw, Michigan – should be surprised that the US Justice Department will not be bringing any charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. Last October, amidst protests over the Ferguson killing, the Michigan ACLU released footage obtained from the Hall family’s lawyers and used it as part of its testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the Organization of American States. You can view the video here (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Iigvm5iPkU)

In the video, you see the mentally disturbed Hall, 49, a local Civil Rights activist, surrounded by eight police officers, each with guns drawn and aimed at him. A police dog barks, growls and lunges toward Hall, who responds by bringing out a small penknife. When he turns towards the dog, the police open fire, getting off 46 shots in just a few seconds. Hall was hit 14 times. As he lay on the ground, “his blood running down the street like water” (in the words of his mother Jewell Hall), an officer rolled him over, placed a foot boot on Hall’s back, and handcuffed the dying man.

Right after the shooting you can hear response from eyewitnesses. “That was bullshit” – a Black women screams. “Man, why’d they shoot him so many times?” a Black man asks. “I don’t know,” another Black man answers.  “That was straight up bull.”

The notion that Hall posed some kind of serious threat to eight police officers and a police dog – an imminent danger that required lethal force to be exercised on the scale of 46 shots – is so absurd as to be sickening.

Last February, the US Department announced that it had failed to find “sufficient evidence of willful misconduct” to prosecute the cops who executed Hall in a Saginaw parking lot in the summer of 2012.

How any seriously justice-oriented Justice Department could give a free pass to such an egregious police murder is a fascinating question. But one thing seems clear: if the clear-cut execution of Milton Hall by eight cops, caught on video, doesn’t elicit federal charges, then neither will the killing of Michael Brown under less obviously murderous circumstances.  Don’t expect any positive federal “justice” action either on John Crawford (a 22 year old Black man unjustly executed on video by police in an Ohio Walmart last August) or on Tamir Rice (a 12 year old Black boy executed on video by Cleveland police last November) or on Eric Garner (a 44 year old Black man fatally choked on video by New York City police last July) or on many if any of the more than 300 cases of Black Americans killed by police and security guards each year in the US.

This brings me to another and intimately related issue: where is the outrage outside the Black community over such atrocious police killings – some captured on video and available to anyone with Internet access – of Black people in the US?

For better or worse, I periodically put up links to essays and videos reflecting my political and intellectual concerns on Facebook.  Typically, one of my intermittent postings garners a handful of comments. On some occasions, they elicit a large number of remarks, some quite heated. I have posted the Milton Hall execution video on the “social network” twice in the last month. Each time it has not elicited a single solitary comment. The same thing happened when I recently posted my latest essay on the racist police killing of the Black man Johh Deng in Iowa City five years ago.

Along with ZNet’s Mike Albert, I can’t help but note the contrast between (A) the giant public outpouring that occurred in France and across Europe in response to the remarkable and atypical murder of some satirical, Muhammad-mocking white cartoonists by fanatical Islamist terrorists in Paris and (B) the relatively minor public protest outside the Black community itself over the regular and by now practically routine murder of Black people by police officers across the United States.  No offense to Charlie Hebdo and the rest of France’s recent martyrs, but what about Milton Hall, John Deng, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Terrence Shaun, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Kimani Gray (16 years old), Ezell Ford, Shareese Francis, Reynaldo Cuervas, Victor White III, Chavis Carter, Tamon Robinson Raymond Allen, Shantel Davis, Manuel Loggins, Jr., Rekia Boyd, Kendree McDade, Kiwane Carrington (15 years old), Reginald Doucet, Ramarley Graham, Kenneth Chamberlain, Alonzo Ashley, Kenneth Harding, Kajieme Powell, Shereese Francis [1] and…(the list runs into the hundreds by the year and into the thousands over the decade)?

True, not all of those 300-plus killings each year are such clear and graphic examples of racist police lethality as the Hall, Crawford, and Garner killings.  Still, the disparity in public concern and outrage is chilling. As Albert reflects:

“In the U.S. there have…been recent incredibly heinous murders of innocent civilians and though such horrors are ubiquitous in U.S. history, the most recent racist policing has garnered far more notice than usual, due to public reactions. These U.S. murders were inexorable outcomes of ubiquitous profiling and intimidation policies perpetrated by trained agents of the institutional order of the U.S. and then exonerated in U.S. courts.”

“This mixture provoked an incredibly passionate reply in the streets and even in some corners of popular culture, but overwhelmingly from the assaulted community…overwhelmingly from the Black community and, beyond that, from very progressive activists – and not from the population at-large…In France, in contrast, what appears to have been a tiny group of maniacs – though quite well trained – assaulted and killed various journalists and associated media employees. As commentators all noted, this was a virtually unique event in French history. The outpouring of anger and support in Paris (and around the world) has been enormous and has appeared to span French society. The displays are in many instances angrily and even violently directed at a minority and impoverished community as are discussions of and likely implementations of new repressive freedom-curtailing policies, though the demonstrations rhetorically claim no desire other than to defend free speech and show solidarity with the slain victims. The scale of the events spurred by the assault on Charlie Hebdo appears to be much larger, proportionately, than were the U.S. reactions to Ferguson…”[2]

Why this unsettling contrast, reflecting remarkable public indifference of most of the US white populace to the regular heinous police murder of Black Americans? “I hope if there is further study,” Albert writes, “it will reveal that the part of the population that has been quiet and even complacent about police violence and judicial complicity is simply ignorant of the scale of the injustices rained upon the Black community…due to media machinations.”  My sense is that a serious examination would reveal that the media’s role would also be shown to be worse than merely encouraging ignorance of racial oppression.  From law and order television dramas to the nightly news, the local newspapers’ crime beat, and Hollywood films, United States corporate media mostly paints a vicious, fear-based, dehumanizing, demonizing, and victim-blaming image of the nation’s Black communities.  The nation’s still highly segregated and ghettoized Black population centers are portrayed as nightmare zones of rampant criminality, immorality, and violence: dangerous spaces of savage depravity[3]. Meanwhile, white Americans’ stunning ignorance about Blacks’ circumstance and experience is fed by persistent harsh racial segregation in the US (itself a leading factor in the highly disproportionate poverty and joblessness of Black America), leaving the terrible media images and narratives as the main source for white perceptions of Black life.

Domestically, urban Black and Latino victims of the contemporary US police and mass incarceration state and are the “homeland” versions of the media’s “unworthy victims” abroad: those killed and maimed by US and US-allied military forces, whose deaths come with a stunning “absence of concern” and even a “collective autism” on the part of most US citizens.  As John Tirman notes in his powerful and distressing book The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), “The human costs [of US military interventions abroad] simply are not discussed in any sustained or probing way [in the US]; even the scattered attempts to account for [foreign civilian] dead is a highly charged endeavor.  More disturbing still is the appearance of a ‘blame the victim’ mentality: that to the extent the American public reacts at all, it sees the civilian deaths, injuries, disease, and displacement as…something the war-zone population has brought upon itself” (p.13).

A similar and related dynamic holds for the Mike Browns and Trayvon Martins and Milton Halls and John Crawfords and Rakia Boyds and Tamir Rices of America, eliciting a sense among many whites that the US ghetto-zone population – the main targets in the “homeland’s” so-called War on Drugs – has brought repeated lethal police interventions and other terrible things upon itself.

1. Please see Rich Juzwiak and Aleksander Chan, “Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014,” Gawker, December 8, 2014.
2. Michael Albert, “America vs. the World, as Usual,” TeleSur English (January 20, 2015), http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/America-Versus-the-World-As-Usual-20150120-0037.html
3. See Stephen Macek’s remarkable study Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

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