Friday, February 22, 2013


My mind has been swirling around lately, discombobulated thoughts competing with each other for my all too scare attention.

One issue that has nagged with special persistence, however, is the idea of imperialism. In many ways imperialism is a fiction (and what isn't?): the images associated with it are as varied and numerous as the beholders themselves. Yet, like all fictions, the idea of imperialism can have deadly effect. What benignly resides in the mind can at times incite deadly action and, just as dangerously, deadly indifference.
This may call for some explanation. A "believer" in the goodness of imperialism may pursue or at the least condone the colonization and, consequently, exploitation of people whom are not part of their own society. These believers' faith in the supremacy of imperialism, whether it is seen as a harbinger of democracy, intellectual progress, or economic prosperity, is often entirely sincere.

However, even when sincere, the practical consequences of their colonial games are still destructive, as they have the result of superimposing a self-serving set of relations on another group of people, oftentimes at the end of a gun. In short, whether the intentions of the "believing" imperialist are honorable or not, the result is the same worn-out end.

The question then arises as to how devout imperialists can champion as system that enslaves people while honestly believing they are helping them. Since their ideal of imperialism is at heart a powerful, even mesmerizing fiction, it relies on their ignorance. Its grandeur depends completely on their obliviousness to the practical effects of the colonial institution itself.

To put it another way, the devout imperialist with benevolent motives relies totally on their inability to experience the other side of imperialism: the racial slurs, poverty, and lingering feeling of impotence under the shadow of a colonial master. It is only through this unfeeling, unseeing ignorance that they can credibly maintain the pristine quality of this self-serving fiction.

A subtle and generally unperceived way that imperialists reflect and reinforce this ignorance is by assessing the colonial enterprise based on their own set of criteria. The values and aspirations of the colonized are overlooked, their "advancement," "assimilation," or "enlightenment" measured entirely in the terms of the colonizer as if these were the natural yardsticks of happiness or success.

Axiomatic to the colonizer's criteria is the assumption of "progress," or the notion that societies are in varying stages of "development" (ever heard of a "developing country"?), most often qualified in terms of economic or political criteria. It is too often overlooked that the very notion of "progress" and the measures used to assess it are virtually, if not all, from the imperialist's society -- the colonizer's own goals and dreams.

What does this all have to do with the present-day?

Many, perhaps most politicians, academics, and citizens continue to subscribe to imperialist policies both past and present because they kneel to a colonial fiction that is benevolent and constructed with their own notions of progress. Most of all, none of these people have to experience the darker effects of imperialism. Unless they scour the issue with uncanny determination they are unlikely to even consider its potential ill-effects. They have the luxury to remain naive or indifferent.

The gap between the expectations of the powerful and weak remains as wide as ever. Popular writers like David Brooks and Niall Ferguson may sermonize about the supposedly beneficent role of the U.S. in the world while advocating American drone strikes in far-off lands, but neither of them will ever be on the receiving end of the missiles, mines, and other assorted instruments of death.

Unabashed imperialists may applaud the incorporation of "developing countries" (remember "progress") into the global capitalist economy, but neither of them will find themselves functioning as sweated labor or struggling to find food because producers have shifted to more lucrative industrial crops for the world market.

They may also speak about dispelling racism and "creating" democracy in the same breathe, and without a hint of irony. The quiet and unsensed implication is that those farther down the chain of "progress" do not know what is best for them. 'Those people are either too stupid or weak to know they are equal to us and help themselves. Don't worry, we'll teach them.'

When gazing longingly into the past, many present-day imperialists claim that because of colonialism non-Western countries have faired much better than they otherwise would have. Somehow they manage to look past the legacies of corrupt government institutions (Egypt), deepened of ethnic tensions (Rwanda), and the stratification of wealth and power (the Philippines) that have been its indelible mark of the colonial era for many if not most countries.

It is also important to note that by saying the colonized fared "better" because of imperialism their claim is framed as if there were two options, each of which can be compared to the other. Of course, this is not the case. As appealing (and self-serving) as such counterfactual claims may be there were not two such "options" to choose from. It is further necessary to remember that the people who selected the "option," if we are to take up this misleading language, were not even the colonized but, in fact, the colonizers.

And, rather predictably, the criteria that are used to assess the "benefits" of colonial rule are always those selected by the imperialists: a capitalist economy, "modern" political institutions (remember "progress"), and other paraphernalia of the powerful. The thoughts of the colonized are not consulted because they allegedly do not know what is best for themselves.

Attention to the language and assumptions of imperialism continues to be as relevant and necessary an activity as ever. 

It means raising one's eyebrows when newspapers assault Iran for being a "theocracy" while commending Israel's "cosmopolitanism," neglecting to mention the fact that only Jews enjoy full political rights in Israel. 

It means questioning the motives of the U.S. government when it gnashes its teeth at Cuba for holding political prisoners when the U.S. maintains an illegal concentration camp for political prisoners at, you got it, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Above all, it means questioning the positions of elites everywhere, especially when they profess to know what is best for those who supposedly do not know how to help themselves.

An Introduction (Literally) to Talking About Torture

The following is the opening statement I prepared for my thesis defense (which, thank God, I passed). Instead of delivering it verbatim I handled it fairly liberally. In any case, I thought it might be worth posting, and so here it is:
Any decent history of the Iraq War will have to discuss Abu Ghraib. The question then is how Abu Ghraib is to be understood – as a grotesque side-show to a larger conflict or something that illuminates the heart of the war itself in brutal, sharp relief. Undoubtedly some historians will claim, and not without reason that similar atrocities occur in all wars. The subtle and perhaps unrealized insinuation is that too much attention distracts from the so-called big picture: the complex geopolitics, the battles immortalized as “turning points”, and of course the much-debated motives of the Bush administration.  
The problem with this way of thinking, however, is its failure to understand that if atrocity is the common denominator of war then we simply cannot understand war without attempting to understand atrocity. To adopt a dismissive attitude to this “part” of war, if atrocity can simply be called “part” of war, is to misunderstand war from the start. And if this is true of all war than it is most certainly true for America’s war in Iraq.
When the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib prison were released in Spring 2004 they ignited a media firestorm as well as vigorous public debate about the use of torture. In many ways, however, the scandal was as an apt metaphor of the willful ignorance and fantasies indulged by Americans concerning the country’s much touted purity of arms and supposedly beneficent role in the world. Instead of disabusing Americans of the absolute terror taking place in Iraq the photos became America’s picture perfect view of torture – one that did not implicate other parts of the military, government, or ourselves as a society. The problem was a set of “bad apples” we were assured, whose corrosive influence was soon to be excised. With this thoroughly self-serving explanation we were encouraged to reassume an ignorant stupor.
The pictures’ frames quite literally confined the damage, providing us with a representation of torture catered to our tastes and sensibilities.  Utterly divorced of context, the photos really did not offer the public anything besides the fact that something had gone terribly awry during America’s latest “crusade.” Besides acting as fodder for tabloids, the pictures functioned as grist for academic speculation, each expert interjecting with their own theories about what took place. The cacophony of noise and color belied the fact that besides the photos there was very little to help us understand what was going on. And in the absence of context the scandal for the most part served to animate each participant’s prejudices rather than get up closer to the truth.

It is only by attempting to understand what is beyond the frame that we can begin to understand U.S. abuse in Iraq, and, in truth, the Iraq War itself. The conviction that a bottom-up approach, one that focused on the experiences of the soldiers themselves, is necessary is ultimately what drove this project.
By probing beyond the frame we learn that abuse was not only pervasive but formal policy. And while it is easy to bestialize those who found themselves trapped inside the frame, what is ultimately shocking is perhaps not so much the evil of their actions but the unimaginative normality of the abusers. If anything makes the terror of their crimes unnerving it is the fact that the people caught in the frame are not “bad apples” but people not so different from you and me.
The wide toothy grins of Lynndie England, Charlies Graner, or Sabrina Harman are discomfiting not because they are the smiles of abnormally cruel people, but because they are the uncomfortable, perhaps reflexive poses of normal people in impossibly muddled, if not simply impossible circumstances.
As one Iraq-War veteran Chris Arendt said, “Under certain circumstances, there are almost no opportunities for you to be the hero. At best, you can crawl your way up to be an acceptable enemy.”
Furthermore, their placement in the pictures is bizarre not simply because of their suggestive poses but because they were at the prison at all. None of these personnel were trained for military prison work and their unit was supposed to have returned home months earlier.
The ill-preparation of soldiers was a constant theme, and may only be described as criminal recklessness on the part of those at the top. One prison worker reminisced that:
 “It was like putting you into an operating room and saying ‘Okay, go ahead and do open heart surgery…And by the way, I’m not going to train you for it…we’ll give you one piece of paper, one general rule – use a knife, maybe some antiseptic. Good luck.”
The military’s investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal was equally appalling, betraying a gross misunderstanding of torture and justice itself. While anyone with brass was predictably overlooked, the actual reasoning presented by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) in regards to its investigation is noteworthy.
Special Agent Brent Pack who was in charge of scouring the photographs said in reference to the notorious hooded-man photo that:
“The individual with the wires tied to their hands and standing on a box, I see that as somebody that’s being put into a stress position. I’m looking at it and thinking, they don’t look like they’re real electrical wires. Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) – that’s all it is.” He goes on to assure us that forcing prisoners to live without clothes, putting female panties over their heads and hanging them from ceilings are all SOP too.
Lastly, looking at the plastic smiles or thumbs-up signal of the Abu Ghraib military police cannot convey the crushing pressure on soldiers to keep their mouths shut.
 By the military’s own admission 1000s of whistleblowers reported being threatened with death, rape, demotion and other forms of reprisal, often by their own commanding officers. In the case of Selena Coppa, her superior threatened to send her to an insane asylum – a threat that reveals much about what the military considers “sane.” She was lucky, as she escaped this threat, a success that was not achieved by many other whistleblowers.
It is also important to note that the time it took to complete a CO application was prohibitive. Most soldiers who sought CO status did not complete it until after their tours were finished, in the meantime living as pariahs amongst their peers. To frame it another way, compared to the prison sentences for most of those implicated in the AG scandal, the amount of time it took for soldiers to achieve CO status was several times longer. And if we are to use a different measure, it is also worth noting that the sentences of those implicated in this same scandal were often shorter than the amount of time it often took to release an Iraqi prisoner who was known to be innocent.
 I would like to close by examining how the government handled the first soldier to publicly protest the war, Sgt. Camilo Mejia.
 Mejia, a citizen of Nicaragua, had completed 8 years of service and was about to leave the military right before the U.S. chose to invade Iraq. Breaking its own law, the government sent him overseas in violation of his expired contract and on what later was found to be a computer glitch. After witnessing abusive behavior at Camp Bucca and elsewhere, Mejia decided to pursue CO status while criticizing American crimes overseas. Instead of letting him out, however, the army decided to prosecute him for desertion. Despite a Congressional Investigation and undeniable evidence in his favor he was sentenced to a year in prison. This measure was undoubtedly political, stifling his voice right as the Abu Ghraib scandal began to unfold. 

The American experience in Iraq will probably not occupy much space in the history books. People do not like to remember the wars that they did not “win” – to use the popular phrase. However, to not come to terms with the terror of this war as epitomized in American atrocities is to engage in the most malicious form of denial. Above all, this amnesic attitude allows our culpability as a society to go unexamined and to prolong our infatuation with the mystique of power, especially power realized in the form of torture.



Saturday, February 16, 2013

Understanding Contemporary Imperialism, Part I

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
                 - Rudyard Kipling
Last week the popular columnist David Brooks published an article commending the United States' drone wars as an adept use of realpolitik. However malodorous or unpalatable to the public, he explains, the pursuit of drone warfare is an inescapable necessity:

"[W]e are in a long war against al-Qaida; that drone strikes do effectively kill terrorists; that, in fact, they inflict fewer civilian deaths than bombing campaigns, boots on the ground or any practical alternative; that, in fact, civilian death rates are dropping sharply as the CIA gets better at this. Acting brutally abroad saves lives at home."

To provide the requisite philosophical underpinnings for this policy he cites the works of Machiavelli, boldly arguing that politics requires a special brand of morality, one enunciated in the formula 'the ends justify the means.' Or, as Brooks states, it is simply "not possible to rule with perfectly clean hands." The real world is far too complex and dark to seriously confront with unsoiled idealism or that outmoded vestigial organ known as a conscience.

Brooks argument is riddled with logical fallacies and sundry other problems, most notably the omission of a single concrete fact to shore up his argument. In attempting to outline a 'realist's' approach to the so-called Global War on Terror he ironically relies completely on the philosophy of Machiavelli, a writer who died in the 16th century -- hardly an apposite source for negotiating the dramatically altered geopolitical realities of the 21st century.

More to the point, however, is the fact that even if we are to accept Machiavelli as a legitimate source for America's foreign policy, Brooks' use of The Prince and The Discourses can only be described as a gross misapplication of Machiavelli's works.

To start, Brooks assumes that Machiavelli's The Prince, in particular, can act as a powerful manual of statecraft and thus function as a guide for Obama et al. in their role as guarantors of America's security. The problem with this assumption is fact that the political unit of the Italian city-state -- the political context addressed by Machiavelli -- functioned upon a set of criteria that is fundamentally different than that of the modern nation-state. Instead of playing an active role in the lives of its inhabitants, the rulers of city-states had a minimal presence, generally felt during times of taxation or war but seldom outside of these limited interactions.

Contemporary notions of an active government with more than a purely extractive character, and most certainly the heavy-handed ideal envisioned by Brooks, would have been unintelligible to a 16th century city-state's inhabitants -- including Machiavelli.

Yet more critically, The Prince is above all concerned about the dynamics of power: how to obtain, secure and prolong it. The goal is not to solve outstanding social problems or improve the lot of the people -- indeed these issues are never addressed in the tract -- but to establish a conceptual framework through which personal control of the state is maintained. While Brooks is not entirely wrong in claiming that the envisaged result is social harmony and security, this is seen as a byproduct, the paramount concern of the work being the consolidation of personal power.

And in contradistinction of Brook's notion of the government and the public good, the well-being of the people in The Prince is most often determined by what the ruler -- I will not use the term government since, again, the work is about personal control, not republican governance -- does not do. Revealing much about his own time and place, Machiavelli writes that the best ways to ingratiate one's self with subjects are by not raping their women, abstaining from excessive taxation and otherwise staying out of their lives. These instructions appear may bizarre until the reader realizes that the 'people' were as much a potential threat to the 'state' as outsiders since the 'state' ultimately amounted to the will of one person, a fact that has apparently eluded Brooks.

These critiques of Brooks' argument meet him on his own terms, namely the assumption that Machiavelli's philosophy should be at all taken seriously. Yet as every student of political science knows, it is highly likely that he was being disingenuous when he penned The Prince since it was written with the express purpose of enabling him to enter the good graces of the Medici family, an unscrupulous coterie of political bigwigs notorious for their venality and whose personalized form of rule Machiavelli most likely reviled. (To say that Machiavelli was ambivalent about the Medici family is to to put it lightly, considering he was tortured by them following their seizure of power.)

In truth, if one carefully examines the content of the 'ends justify the means' formula elucidated in The Prince and of which Brooks waxes so lyrically, it becomes eminently clear that this mantra is little more than distilled folly glossed with the most self-serving (and shallow) intellectual chicanery conceivable.

At its heart is the assumption that there exists two discrete phenomena of 'means' and 'ends.' Also assumed is the equation that as long as the brilliance of the 'end' outshines the repulsiveness of the 'means,' the later is justified no matter how repugnant it may be.

While the dichotomy of 'means' and 'ends' is helpful for the purpose of conceptualizing a goal and the steps needed to realize it, the distinction is in itself rather superficial and not very helpful beyond this most prosaic of functions. In the real world the so-called 'means' do not so much obtain an 'end' as breathe it into existence, in the process becoming inseparable from the 'end' itself. A goal and the steps towards its realization are fluid and seamless, not divisible and readily discernible. The corollary to this observation is that the 'result' once breathed into existence becomes itself a 'means,' distinguishable only in so far as being a punctuation mark along a continuous stream of existence or being.

To explain this point a few concrete examples shall suffice. To placate the desire to become rich a person may work furiously in order to save up a certain sum of money. Yet once this sum is reached their desire will likely only be temporarily satisfied. After a brief interlude they will, in all likelihood, desire even greater wealth or grow increasingly preoccupied with their finances as now they have more to manage/lose.

The greed-infused 'means' leads to a greed-infused 'end,' the two becoming indistinguishable as the covetous person becomes engrossed in a mutually compounded cycle of desire and paranoia.

Incidentally the United States' belligerent foreign policy is the example par excellence of the failure of the means-ends formula. In a misguided attempt to 'protect' the country (and of course oil interests, portfolios and egos) and secure that ever elusive goal of 'peace,' the U.S. government is currently engaged in several covert drone wars. The assumption is that vile 'means,' i.e. mass violence, will miraculously achieve the immaculate 'end[s]' of peace and security.

Rather predictably this has not, nor has ever been the case. The invective, prejudice and enmity required for engaging in this detestable policy has inevitably suffused itself with the 'end,' which has invariably been incalculable suffering, increased hatred, and the augmentation rather than the cessation of fears. Thus the cycle of violence with all its virile displays of power and inane destruction becomes a self-perpetuating, though thoroughly self-defeating, process.

Since Brooks conveniently overlooks that minor impediment to his argument known to the rest of the world as 'facts' it is worth stating some of them here. The highly respected Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that to date there have been between 473-893 civilian deaths in Pakistan alone as result of America's illegal drone strikes. Pakistan has repeatedly gone on record as opposing U.S. violations of its sovereignty, as the strikes are near universally condemned by the Pakistani people. Several indigenous armed groups, whom the U.S. snidely labels 'terrorists,' have formed as a direct reaction to the American slaughter of their children, homes and villages.

By violating the sovereignty of Pakistan the U.S. has unwittingly supplied fodder for indigenous groups who seek to overturn what is increasingly viewed by Pakistanis as an ineffectual and hopelessly corrupt government. Its alliance with the U.S. has become politically untenable -- how can people stomach a government that allows its 'ally' to raid its borders and murder its citizens? What is most striking, however, is that in trying to eliminate 'terrorism' the U.S. has literally breathed terrorism into existence, galvanizing a new generation of armed groups with potentially corrosive ideologies. And if a destabilized Pakistan does fall into the hands of militant groups they may very well gain access to the country's nuclear arsenal.

Simply stated, America's drone policy vis-à-vis Pakistan is folly of the first order.

Yet this should be no surprise. After all, Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers were bent against the U.S. not because of an intrinsic hatred towards its 'values' but because of real and, quite frankly, well-founded grievances. Unilaterally imposed sanctions on Iraq, or what a top UN official referred to as "cultural genocide," not only resulted in the senseless deaths of 100,000s of Iraqis but served to anathematize the U.S. in the eyes of many Middle-Easterners -- including members of al-Qaeda. The equally shortsighted decision to murder 290 Iranian civilians by shooting down their passenger plane, sodomize Iraqis in order to gain 'actionable intelligence,' or to piss on the bodies of dead Afghans for sport, have also done little to endear the U.S. to the average Middle-Easterner.

If anything, the magnanimity and forbearance of most Middle-Easterners towards to U.S. is truly remarkable in light of this America's rapacious history. The U.S. has ravaged the region for decades, its violence-induced inebriation only interrupted by the occasional terrorist attack performed by the understandably disillusioned individual. In grisly contrast, after 9/11, a tragic but anomalous punctuation mark in this history of gratuitous violence, the American public chose to inflict indescribable carnage on two countries that had absolutely nothing to do with the attack.

When all is said and done, Brooks' argument may be smooth but it is certainly not intelligently composed. Above all, it is thoroughly dangerous. 

The real problem our society faces is not that it is "awash in TV news segments celebrating the human spirit" and hence fails to comprehend the outlying violent reality, but that we have created this violent reality ourselves. Pundits like Brooks may subscribe to the Hollywood bromide that "you can't handle the truth!" attempting to be an intellectual path-breaker, but, ironically, it seems like almost everyone accepts this atavistic worldview. And not only is this worldview silly but it is, at heart, intellectually stultifying. 

If we were to truly engage our world realistically we would realize that throwing bombs cannot solve political problems any more than shredding paper can result in a literary masterpiece. The notion the 'ends justify the means' naively assumes a sterile dichotomy that allows what sane people recognize to be evil to be good. It is a formula that is not only intellectually barren, but entirely convenient and entirely self-serving. Murders, sadists and madmen are granted carte blanche to engage in the most atrocious acts while unfeeling, unthinking pundits like Brooks not only condone their actions but salute them. 

The philosopher Martin Buber has written what is probably the most famous vindication of Machiavelli's The Prince, asserting, like Brooks, that it champions a morality of its own (as if you can pick and choose an immutable 'moral' standard to suit your own tastes). Yet airy philosophical ideas can only be evaluated by how they play out in reality. Outside of his academic ramblings Buber was a Zionist who helped justify the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, igniting a conflict that has persisted over 64 years. So much for the envisioned 'end' justifying the 'means.' 

Lastly, it most be noted that the sum of David Brook's defense of America's drone wars is a panegyric for contemporary imperialism. Pundits and wordsmiths like Brooks are the Kiplings of our generation, dressing up aggression and exploitation as something that is at once sublime and patriotic. The "White Man's Burden" of our day are the catchphrases of exporting democracy, humanitarianism, or simply trampling upon others for our own 'security.'

Unfortunately, while the content of the arguments of imperialism's apologists are neither original nor particularly sophisticated they maintain their deadly allure.

Read more here:

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Passionate Rebuke of the University of Oregon's Warmongering

This week the student government of the University of Oregon unanimously approved a resolution condemning the potentiality of a nuclear-armed Iran. According to the student publication 'The Daily Emerald' the resolution was penned by a working group composed of members of QuackPAC, the campus arm of AIPAC, which is the most powerful arm of the Israel Lobby at the national level.

What the decision lacked in eloquence or acumen was more than made up for in bluster and braggadocio. Apparently enjoying fluent command of Farsi, the lingua franca of Iran, Senator Ben Bowman assured 'The Daily Emerald' that “Iran is a country that has explicitly stated that Israel is a country that shouldn’t exist.” Assuming an air of seriousness appropriate for discussing matters of such import, a member of the drafting committee added that “They also don’t like America very much." By these and similarly incisive geopolitical explanations the student government fell hook, line, and sinker for the bait, swallowing it whole.

If the reader is at this point grasping frantically for relevance, do not fear. The hardline Israel lobbyists who drafted the resolution explained that “We’re trying to bring it to our community and hoping that other campuses will pick this up as well...Ideally the UO would have this passed and we could take this to the State Senate and have it passed there too.” To lay it out in plain terms, the Israel Lobby is launching an astroturf campaign set on hijacking student institutions to press their own narrow and thoroughly repugnant agenda, eventually at the national level.

This decision is a curious one, making plain the fact that AIPAC and its quislings will do anything to push its morally indefensible line, even and especially at the cost of democracy in America and Israel. That the student senators of the University of Oregon fell for the bait is unnerving to say the least. Either our elected student officials are painfully ignorant of the political implications of this decision -- something that politicians are presumably aware of, crooked beyond description, or -- and this very well may be the case -- truly scared of the Lobby's power.

'Why worry about some insignificant resolution,' you may be asking. In actuality, the resolution is not just 'some' resolution but momentous in both its content and implications.

The first implication is fairly evident: the Lobby is asserting a personal agenda that is at odds with the views of most Oregon students, plus one that is entirely inappropriate to push in the forum of campus government. Passing it, in other words, was contradictory to the spirit of democratic process. What is all the more disturbing is the manner in which this suspension of transparency and debate, two prerequisites of the democratic process, were carried out without a moment's hesitance or serious impediment. Instead, the student senate, either too credulous to perceive the perverse magnitude of their decision or too scared to question it, lent their signatures to the it unanimously.

Secondly, this miscarriage of policy shows that our student government is operating on a plane divorced from the daily realities of the average student. If the Lobby did not intimate the senators into adopting its own program then it is safe to say that our 'representatives' are not representing the concerns of Oregon students. While students are drowning up to their eyeballs in loans, the quality of education daily deteriorates and the palpable specter of privatization continues to loom like a foreboding storm-cloud, the senators -- our 'representatives' -- are concerning themselves with, wait for it...Iranian energy politics and U.S. foreign policy.

For anyone who cares about the Middle-East, or people for that matter, the significance of this resolution goes well beyond the bounds of student government and campus life. At heart, it signals an unqualified willingness to underwrite a rapacious foreign policy that has wreaked devastation across the globe.

Ever since the United States assisted Great Britain in toppling the democratically-elected Mossedegh government of Iran in the early 1950s, the U.S. has lost any simulacrum of impartiality or moral authority with which to 'arbitrate' matters concerning Iran. The use of American largesse to shore up the Shah's reign during the 1960s and 70s, a reign notorious for some of the worst human rights violations in recorded history, further soils these claims. And if one needs an event with which to crown this blood-soaked history (principally Iranian blood, of course), the decision to supply Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons with which to slaughter Iranians during the Saddam-initiated Iran-Iraq War surely qualifies for the prize.

If there is a single unifying theme that may be used to stitch together this history of maimed limbs, lost innocence, and deferred dreams, it is the American government's eagerness to underwrite this senseless pageant of human carnage and ruin. While the QuackPAC lobbyist's blustery assertion that “They also don’t like America very much," is certainly not true for most Iranians, it is completely understandable if the intentions of the U.S. government are eyed with suspicion by not a few.It is indeed remarkable how deep the affinity of the average Iranian to American culture and society remains, even in the wake of this great epic of human tragedy. After 9/11 there was probably not one country in the Middle East that mourned as deeply or had as emotive public vigils in solidarity with the victims as the Iranians. For if anyone knows about grief it is surely the Iranians.

Even so, the U.S. continues to kowtow to the Moloch that is the Israel Lobby, a lobbyist group that perennially seeks to buttress the most extreme right-wing currents in Israeli politics, in the process stifling the voices of a good many Israelis and trampling the prospects for a truly democratic Israel. This is an easy decision for American legislators since it prevents them from catching flak from the Lobby, thus protecting their chances for reelection and ingratiating them with those who oversee the Lobby's coffers.

Yet, the ease with which American policymakers defer to the Israel Lobby stems from more than the Lobby's own chutzpah, but reflects an important truth about the nature of superpower status. In all its foreign policy decisions, the Obama administration has shown itself to be cast in the same mold as Bush et al. With just as much self-conviction, searing ignorance and an easy willingness to use force, Obama has expanded and, in fact, created new wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Uganda and elsewhere.

When it comes to Iran he continues to unilaterally impose a draconian sanctions regimen that is in explicit contravention of international law. This indiscriminate form of collective punishment, if imposed by another country on the U.S., would be considered a suitable case for war -- as has been articulated by the U.S. Senate. Obama's bellicose assertion that 'all options are on the table' is just as incompatible with explicit norms of international law, illegally insinuating that the U.S. may launch a preventive war in order to preclude the potentiality of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The almost perfunctory way in which 'all options' are openly discussed discloses much about the United States' privileged position as global bully. Unlike every other country in the world where war is only an 'option' if attacked, the U.S. reserves the exclusive prerogative to launch a war whenever it feels its 'interests' are 'threatened,' two criteria liable to such broad interpretation that they literally allow the U.S. to get away with murder. Imagine the U.S., like a patrician lounging in his armchair thousands of miles away from the site of bloodshed and incomprehensible suffering, gets to coolly contemplate whichever 'option' is most convenient for the day. Like a schoolboy choosing from a menu of sumptuous ice-cream flavors, the one that sparks his fancy at the moment is calmly selected. The effects of the patrician's actions are unseen and unheard of -- that is, unless he feels that it is convenient for him glance over the day's newspaper.

Just as revealingly, the student government's decision to bestialize Iran betrays the hypocrisy of their political idealism and activism. While America tore Iraq asunder it remained silent. As U.S. soldiers are thrust into the senseless chaos of Afghanistan it remains silent. As the U.S. underwrites the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homes and the wholesale repression of peaceable Palestinian grassroots movements, the student government remains silent. Only when the matter does not so evidently implicate our own society does the student government raise its pseudo-liberal conscience. All the more disturbing is that the University of Oregon, this supposed bastion of learning and progressive thought, is being goaded under the auspices of QuackPAK, and consequently AIPAC, to take the helm of a thoroughly immoral attack on Iranian culture and humanity.

For if a war with Iran is triggered because of this and like bullying it will be the Iranian people who suffer, and who have indeed been suffering at the hand of American caprice for over a half century.

 Above all, these issues must be recognized for what they are: a moral question. Neither Israel's gulag system for Palestinians, its politicians' references to Sudanese refugees (fleeing genocide) as a "cancer", or its use of terrorism in Iran (killing Iranian nuclear scientists) are justifiable according to any terms compatible with basic human decency. The U.S. is no better: it funds these despicable acts when it is not itself partaking in or orchestrating them.

If the student government of the University of Oregon has any desire to salvage its respectability it must rescind this immoral, truly bizarre, and entirely inappropriate resolution. The resolution is simply not justifiable on any grounds. Just as importantly, our senators must realize their job is to work for the good of the students, not special interest groups whose program is wholly lacking in relevance, student support and, most of all, a moral compass.

I have long been ashamed to be an American. Now I am ashamed to be a Duck.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

God, Christianity and Existentialism

Lately I was asked by several people as to why I believe in God. While having strong convictions about my position, their request has once more led me to mull over this necessarily important and inexhaustibly contested issue. The literature handling this one question -- perhaps the most momentous of human history -- is prolific, and I am not even going to begin to address it here. Instead I thought it would be helpful, for myself mostly, to put my on views on paper, whatever they're worth.

What follows is meant to contribute to the discussion in an intelligent, candid and respectful manner, not to denigrate the beliefs of any "side." Nothing could be less conducive to real discussion than to approach this subject in an combative way as, unfortunately, most discussions concerning the existence of God are engaged in the public sphere. This approach is terribly ironic when one considers that a common justification for their intensity, if not vitriol, is the idea that convincing those with contrary views will raise their existential lot. Bludgeoning a peer's views is hardly likely to endear them to your own, no matter how well-founded they may be; in the end both sides go home feeling bitter and crotchety.

With this in mind, what follows is meant to stimulate genuine thought and conversation without equivocation or dilution, but also without bombast and (silly) uncompromising snobbery. Take what you like, leave what you don't. The point is to think about the question for yourself, not to uncritically absorb or callously reject what someone else says. Only you can decide what you believe.

So, without further ado, let's rock and roll.

Many responses I have encountered to the question of whether or not a god exists somehow or other involve the linked problems of evidence and comprehension. To put it another way, for many people the notion that an omnipotent being exists seems too fantastic, even naive in the absence of irrefutable evidence. If God exists, wouldn't we have seen him/her/it by now? And if not God personally, what about other evidence alluding to the being's presence?

There are a couple assumptions embedded in these questions that are problematic for me. The first is that there is no evidence attesting to God's existence. After all, we exist don't we? Living in a society that is obsessed with understanding the causes behind the most ordinary phenomena, the fact that the origins of the building blocks that constitute the universe are seen as 'always being, always having been,' instead of originating from a transcendent force strikes me as oddly incongruous. Even if we are to allow this exception or assume their creation through other means, the complexity of the life processes within the human body -- all of them interdependent -- makes the absence of some directing force seem inconceivable. And, of course, this complexity and interdependency is extended to the environment in which we live with its own delicate ecological balance.

I do not know "how" exactly we originated, our evolution, etc. Nobody does. It just seems to me that a universe as inordinately complex and beautiful as ours cries out "evidence!"

Another assumption that I disagree with is the notion that humans would be able to comprehend the "evidence" if present as the idea is popularly conceived. Many friends have told me, for example, that they cannot understand how anyone could rationalize the existence of God. It seems to me that assuming God does exist, however, we would most definitely not be able to rationalize, i.e. fully comprehend, his/her/its existence. If an omnipotent and transcendent force creates a being whose intellect is limited and existence finite, then how can one expect the limited and finite being to comprehend the omnipotent and transcendent?

If discerning all the "evidence" of God's existence requires someone to be God then this has profound implications concerning our ability to ascertain the existence of such a being. The "problem" of evidence would not concern itself with how compelling or plentiful the "evidence" is, but our ability to perceive it. Faith is essential for believing in a god not because the evidence is lacking but because we are simply too stupid to fully understand it even when we do encounter it. Life, creativity, and moral compunction may be understood, to a certain degree, as originating from a greater motive power, and, in my opinion, to a degree that vastly outweighs doubt. Yet to fully appreciate their place in the schema of existence, one would have to be able to think on the same plane as God -- that is, if we can even describe a process of such sublimity as "thinking" in the case of God. 

The evidence is abundant, the sole outstanding impediment to its cognizance being our own dogged obtuseness and myopia. I suppose that it is this obtuseness is one of the most persistent features of the human condition -- our own condition.

One idea floating around, and which has gained considerable current, is the conviction that humankind is on a teleological march towards reason, the end of which being the dissolution of religious faith and, by implication, belief in God. Incredibly erudite colleagues have assured me with a straight face that the triumph of "universal human reason" is inevitable, its march as decisive as it is inexorable. Religion and faith is not only outmoded but regressive they say, part of a backward and near bygone era.

What is immediately striking about this essentially millenarian belief is its unintended but, nevertheless, decidedly theological quality. Its disciples' faith in the "universality" of human reason and progress is virtually dogmatic.

But to be honest what irks me most is the insinuation -- oftentimes not discerned by the purveyor -- that those who believe in a god of some sort are backwards, or at least foolish. In fact, the most developed stream of this argumentation that I have heard argues that evolution is the motive force pushing this process forward, that is to say, leading humans towards the exercise of undistilled reason.

The implication of this near-Hegelian idealism is decidedly less sanguine. By donning the argument in scientific terminology, especially under the moniker "evolution," the "enlightened" purveyor of this ideology implicitly argues that those who believe in God are not only fools but physiologically inferior. The result is scientific racism, which I will grant was a product of The Enlightenment as students of the period very well know.

Even when scientific terminology is not appropriated by the disciples of this school of thought, the term "universal" human reason has much the same effect. Whether intentionally or otherwise, they perpetuate a racist discourse that glorifies ideas ascendant in predominately white and capitalist societies while denigrating those held by the rest of the world (the majority of which believes in a god or gods of some variety) as not up to par with their own. This generates unintended dissonance since the notion of their ideology's "universality" comes into constant friction with the reality that it is not shared by the majority of humankind. When the term "universality" is omitted it continues to negotiate powerful contradictions, seeing as the allegedly progressive ideal of "reason" clashes with its exclusive, if not racist overtones when conceived as incommensurable with faith in God.

Like the Orientalists of yesterday, they entertain pretensions to holding the correct and "objective" worldview, while wielding their supposed monopoly of epistemic prowess to derogate the worldviews of the rest of the world -- most of it under their societies' thumbs.

And while discussing the reality or absence of God's existence is a legitimate and important enterprise, to me the far more pressing question is not 'does a god exist,' but what type of god are we talking about? Are we speaking in the singular or plural? Is this god(s) caring, wicked, or apathetic? Does this god(s) interfere in human affairs or have a purpose for this world?

It is my belief that there is one God who is intimately concerned about the affairs of the world and desires only good for the beings he (I use this pronoun out of convenience, not with gendered denotations intended) created. To speak succinctly but clearly, I am a Christian -- but this in itself requires a bit of explanation.  

Most of my friends view Christianity with pronounced skepticism, and to this I can only say that I respect their reservations. I say this because the malodorous associations that the term "Christianity" conjures up are associations that I just as strongly recoil at.

So-called "Christians" have waged crusades, committed innumerable genocides, protected chauvinistic policies, and continue to justify wars against the most vulnerable and marginalized members of human society. To support such a "Christianity" or attempt to justify it in retrospect is not only idiotic but patently immoral.

It is, however, precisely because every moral fiber in my body screams against such injustice that I am drawn to the Jesus of the Bible. For if one reads the stories about Jesus they will realize that virtually his entire ministry was spent denouncing the use of religion to justify similar antisocial and wicked behavior.

Radically breaking from the mores of his time, Jesus treated women as his social equals, freely interacted with those the Jewish establishment deemed racially inferior (the Samaritans), opposed those who extorted money from the poor by chasing them from their tables, and heaped so much criticism on the religious establishment of his day that the religious elite decided to kill him on a cross. His command for nonviolent action, i.e. to turn the other cheek if struck as well as his command to love your enemies, were so radical that many thought him crazy.

 It is equally worth noting the "type" of people he spent the majority of his time serving and the circles he most frequented. By pretty much any standard he chose to hang-out with the "wrong" people: the thieves, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and otherwise marginalized or forgotten. If Jesus came back to earth in human form today I have no doubt he would be living among the homeless, drug-addicts, prostitutes and immigrant field-laborers, those who the "right" people either forget or demonize -- especially the fashionable "Christians."

In a world scarred with poverty, addiction and entropy of all kinds, the message of Jesus as articulated in The Bible is the only truly revolutionary one I know. It is certainly the only one I have found that works when practiced -- something very rare indeed. It acknowledges that humankind is finite, screwed-up and unable to extricate itself from the centripetal pull of everyday drudgery and uniformity. It acknowledges that no one has their act together and to pretend otherwise is not only to entertain a tawdry illusion but to continue to emasculate one's personhood and individuality. Above all, it offers the hope of finding truth and resolution through acceptance of the reality that we cannot do any of this on our own: only God can disentangle us from the webs we have spun for ourselves.

I suppose for some this depiction of Christianity -- a term that I do not necessarily care for -- is shocking, most of all for those who are Christians but do not entertain these same views. For some, especially those for whom "Christianity" leaves a bad taste in the mouth, my position may feel a bit synthetic or too iconoclastic to be taken seriously. All I can say to both of these responses is that this is what I believe and, just as importantly, it is what I believe to be the real message articulated by Jesus in the Gospels. It it impossible to deny that Jesus was thoroughly against the hypocrisy, corruption, and bigotry of the religious establishment of his day. Not only did he criticize them ad nauseum but the establishment elite grew so infuriated with Jesus that they chose to kill him by the cruelest means imaginable for their period.

A related though somewhat divergent point must be made at this time. To expect people who commit evil acts to justify their misdeeds by invoking evil requires Panglossian naivete. The United States, to cite one example, does not justify its wars by invoking the political expedient aims of unscrupulous statesmen, dividends for avaricious financiers, or racism of hawkish constituents. Instead they cite palatable goals like democracy, humanitarianism, or the catchall of combating terrorism. The darker the actual aim, the more selfless the professed aim they choose to invoke. I say this not to justify evil done under the name of Christianity but, far from it, to emphasize that we cannot surrender what is good to those who do not hesitate to refer to it for their own selfish ends. We cannot allow the powers that be walk over our values, no matter what values these are, in order to do wrong. Instead, we must be all the more vigilant in working to breathe these values into being: peace instead of enforced inequality, democracy instead of rule by robber barons. Above all, we cannot surrender the values embodied in the slogans and speeches of the powerful to the powerful. If this becomes the case then they have not only defeated us, but we have defeated ourselves.

I suppose that I have gotten myself into a fairly good mess by this point. There is one last remark that I believe must be made and this too has to do with the assumptions embedded in questions concerning the existence of God or religion, more generally. Whether one is for against either side it is important to examine why the question has arrived at its specific form and, moreover, why you personally entertain the stance you have taken. The reason why personal introspection is important in these matters is simply this: the existential implications of your personal stance affect you foremost, your stance is a personal choice, and it is encompasses an issue in which everyone must take a position. Choosing to not address it is in itself a choice.

While prodding the question of God's existence and our own we are not neutral observers standing outside of the frame and looking in, but silly children within the frame who have already made a royal mess of the picture.