Saturday, May 25, 2013

Obama and War: Weeding out the Lies in His Recent Policy Speech

Did you hear Obama’s recent policy speech on national security? For those who did not have a chance to listen, here is the abridged version:

Al-Qaeda, blah, blah, blah. America, blah, blah, al-Qaeda. Weapons, blah, blah, America, blah, al-Qaeda. Blah, blah, let us not forget about al-Qaeda, blah, blah…drones, blah. God bless America, blah, blah. Drones.

I will admit that this synopsis is not entirely fair, as there was one noteworthy part of this otherwise insensate piece of political theatre. What I am referring to is the speech’s interruption by an articulate audience member who criticized Obama for the indiscriminate detention and torture of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.

These prisoners – alternately referred to by the coolly Orwellian titles “Persons under Control,” “Illegal Combatants,” or “Enemy Detainees” – have been languishing in America’s Auschwitz at Guantanamo in stunning contravention to international law, many of them for years. The illegality of this practice had been criticized by Obama, an expert in constitutional law who promised to close the concentration camp at the beginning of his presidential term – that is, his first term, over four years ago.

Since then Obama has not only equivocated on this simple moral issue but a litany of others. Instead of listening to the audience member, however, he chose to shrug her off, testily replying “Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me and much of what I said,” before closing with the predictable “May God bless the United States of America.”

“May God bless the United States of America” for what? Sodomizing innocent prisoners, abducting children from their homes (yes, children), murdering defenseless people just because they have an Arabic name?

I would suggest that the problem is not that the audience member “wasn’t listening” to Obama but, rather, that Obama was and has not been listening to the American public, international law and his conscience, if indeed he has one.

As far as substantive policies concerning Guantanamo Bay, the administration has said that it hopes to close down the prison by shipping the prisoners to other countries for incarceration. This is a transparently political move to quell domestic criticism since it in effect outsources the torture and imprisonment of these prisoners to foreign governments.

If the policy goes through then Obama and his quislings can continue to market themselves as “liberals” and plausibly deny that the U.S. abducts and tortures people. Of course, this will only be because the U.S. will have other governments hold and torture them for us. As one U.S. official confided during the long days of the Bush II era, if you want information, send them to Jordan; if you want to torture them, send them to Syria.

It is also worth noting that the policy speech was given in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. The president’s call for scaling down of the Global War on Terror while memories of the bombings remain etched in the public’s memory is, contrary to the official rhetoric, a tacit admission that the past decade of war has not made the U.S. any safer.

In fact, it is telling that the Boston bombers cited the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the key motivating factors in their move towards terrorism. Just as all the regional specialists and experts had predicted from the start, killing millions of Iraqis and Afghans would not make us safer but only embitter people towards the U.S. In other words, by chasing our own illusions we created our own enemies too, the ultimate act of “terrorism.”

And let no one make the mistake of thinking that Obama really intends to scale down the wars. Like Nixon and Kissinger who pulled the troops out of Vietnam only to escalate aerial bombing campaigns, Obama’s numerous and lyrical references to the use of drones makes it clear that the government plans to keep American drone warfare in the Middle-East a mainstay of U.S. policy for years to come.

The use of drones, if anything, just makes the wars even more one-sided. Now instead of risking any U.S. soldiers’ lives in war against elusive “terrorists” of our own making, our military gets to reap all the destruction without any losses. In other words, American forces can slaughter at will and without oversight; there will be no public feedback because no American lives are lost by manning drones, and because the drone programs themselves are shrouded in near-complete secrecy.

So I guess that Obama is right in one sense when he claims that drone warfare is not, in fact, warfare. It really is rape. One side gets to penetrate the other at will, regardless of boundaries or the sovereign rights of the victim. Totally and utterly powerless against the most formidable military force in world history, the other side does not get to tell their story of victimization even as they bleed themselves dry. And as the victims lie wasted in the gutter the perpetrator gets to deliver policy speeches at gala affairs, dressing down any naysayer who dares to question his management of an illegal brothel with the claim that she simply "wasn't listening."

“May God bless the United States of America”




Monday, May 13, 2013

The NRA Took My Baby Away

“Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.””
         - Mathew 26:50b-52

Watching the NRA exhort the faithful to arms has been mildly amusing. At their annual rally the leadership claimed that the Obama administration has not only chosen to politicize gun ownership but wage a cultural war against American values.

Owning a firearm, we are told, is inseparable from being an American; it is a part of the national fiber. To even suggest that guns need to be subjected to greater oversight smacks of heterodoxy, even sacrilege. In any case, it is thoroughly un-American.

The NRA definitely takes the cake for being the master of spin. Contrary to the organization’s claims, the Obama administration has never insinuated that it is going to outlaw gun ownership. Though the administration does support firmer gun controls, the changes it proposes are so slight and commonsensical that to raise the alarm of cultural warfare makes the boy who cried wolf look like a Cassandra.

Attempts to take high-capacity gun magazines off the market and adopt background checks for gun purchasers are characteristic of the administration’s proposals. If guns really are for self-defense as the NRA claims then these measures should, if anything, appeal to gun supporters. After all, if guns really are needed to protect people then why would you want them getting into the hands of the very people they are meant to defend against, an occurrence which background checks would help limit at the most basic level.

What is most laughable, however, about the NRA’s critique of those seeking these benign and, quite frankly, watered-down measures is their claim that Obama and his colleagues are “politicizing” the issue of gun ownership.

One should note that the NRA is a political lobbying group which rallies for political measures through political channels, using funds contributed by political supporters. In other words, the very existence of the NRA, a political lobbying group, politicizes matters of gun ownership and to claim otherwise requires them to lie through their teeth.

And if the NRA really believes that guns are an inseparable part of American culture, a claim which I find hard to swallow, then this is in actuality very scary.

By definition, a gun is a weapon whose function is to kill or wound. Consequently, to say that guns constitute something unique to American culture is to imply, whether knowingly or otherwise, that violence is an important part of our national identity – part of who we are. Even more disturbing is the suggestion that this violence is not only intrinsic to our culture but a good thing, something we should not change but choose to glory in.

The gun death of 30,000 people annually in the U.S. is not a tragedy but an efflorescence of American greatness. Sporting the highest rates of gun violence in the world is not a blot on our reputation but an indicator of our shining exceptionality. Slaughtering millions of Iraqis, Afghans and our own children with instruments of violence is not a grotesque act of savagery but necessary to assuage the bloodlust of our national gods.

Or so implies the NRA when they claim without a hint of irony that guns are an inseparable part of our culture.

True, the NRA does not really mean to imply this. But in callously averring that guns are an integral part of American culture – a rather fatuous proposal – they unwittingly hint at a real truth: violence really does contour American interactions at home and overseas in a uniquely American way. This has nothing to do with some ethereal warrior culture, however; it has everything to do with the existence of powerful American interests who profit from arms sales and war.

It goes without say that the NRA stands at the center of these interests. Without a porous arms market and frayed nerves of a public shocked by gun atrocity after atrocity, the organization would cease to exist. At the very least they would have to struggle harder to cajole the public into swallowing its emetic logic.

According to this disgraceful reasoning, the shootings of children are not aided by easy, even promiscuous access to guns. Do not worry, we are told, you can be protected from guns we manufacture by – wait for it – buying our guns!

For good measure here are a few other knee-slappers:

'Guns do not kill people, people kill people.' (But what did they kill them with?)

'Having access to guns makes us safer by providing us with ways to defend ourselves.' (If we are protected because of an open gun market then why did the Newtown shootings, or any of the others for that matter, happen at all? If we are safe because of the way things are – for that is in substance what they are saying – then these events would never have happened in the first place.)

Lastly, it is worth noting that the very language of cultural warfare betrays a violent tendency on the part of the NRA. They cannot even countenance an open, honest and civil discussion of gun regulations, as even when their position is thoughtfully questioned they reflexively resort to cries of warfare against their own person. Like a savage, untamed beast, they gnash and writhe upon perceiving the smallest slight, an ebbing shadow which they eye leeringly with a jaundiced gaze.

For them, an organization evidently suffused with violence, even dialogue is interpreted as an act of "war."

Let us put down our fists and our guns, and start to use our heads. The NRA and aligned interests have everything to benefit in seeing the American people go at each other’s throats while their own privileged positions are left unquestioned. There is a reason that their leaders are accoutered in custom-tailored suits and it is not because they are looking out for our best interests.

The domestic and global arms trade is one of the biggest money makers in the world economy; violence may be wrong but it is also extremely lucrative. That the transparently misleading justifications used by the NRA to bolster its position are seriously entertained at all is a startling yet eloquent testimony to its undue command of the political process.

This does not have to be the case, however. Together we can strive for a more sane, peaceful and safe world for everyone. To begin this process we must first recognize that weapons do not make the world a more peaceful place but only increase the potential for violence and, in many cases, breathe it into being.

It is not without reason that Jesus said, "all who draw the sword will die by the sword."
















Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Blind and Raging: A Look at a Peculiar but Devastating Form of Power

"I have reckoned upon a Medium, that a Child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar Year if tollerably nursed encreaseth to 28 Pounds. I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children."
        - Jonathan Swift, from A Modest Proposal

This is an examination of a peculiar sort of power, one that allows millions to suffer and waste away for no apparent reason, for what is preventable to become the inevitable, and for the highest form of lunacy to be touted as the most refined form of logic. It is the power to not care.

To begin this post I would like to take a look at the argumentative stance adopted by the putative opponents to this most crazed but stylish of opinions. Perhaps by doing so you will start to understand the cool, calculated insanity of it all.

Niall Ferguson, a prominent history professor at Harvard, wrote an article a few years ago about Harvard students' views of Henry Kissinger, one of Harvard's most renown graduates.

These students, he explains, obviously possess greater political acumen and finesse than those of past years, judging by their effusive reception of Kissinger during a recent visitation to the university. Such warm greetings could not have differed more starkly from past receptions of the former secretary of state since, as Ferguson grudgingly recalls, previous students often protested Kissinger's visits due to the destructive policies he pursued during his tenure in Washington.

Seething with venom -- as well as self-satisfaction -- Ferguson writes that other members of academia should follow the "younger and wiser generation" of students in choosing to welcome Kissinger with open arms. They need to realize that mud-slinging at Kissinger, though once "fashionable," is ultimately childish; in other words, they need to "grow up."

Ferguson -- a Harvard historian, believe it or not -- evidently wants us to forget about Kissinger's illegal bombing campaigns in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia which killed countless civilians and destabilized Cambodia, paving the way for the ascent of the genocidal Khmer Rouge (which the U.S. then backed diplomatically). Apparently he also wants us to forget the former secretary of state's move to support, and then cover up, the Indonesian military's genocidal campaigns against the indigenous people of East Timor -- a country it crushed with ample military aid from the West.

And of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Kissinger's steely maneuvers in Chile. By freezing Chilean assets and backing militarist forces he directly aided the toppling of the democratic Allende government of Chile on September 11, 1973. (Yes, Kissinger is one of the orchestrators of the original September 11.) After a paroxysm of violence, which left some 30,000 dead, came the infamous Pinochet dictatorship, a chapter of repression which has become synonymous with despotism in Latin America.

Yet, according to Ferguson, it is childish to raise these points. One should not only stomach Kissinger, war crimes and all, but grant him a privileged place at the country's top institutions, lavishing him with unqualified praise despite the bespattered blood of millions coagulating on his filthy hands. It is no longer "fashionable" to do otherwise, he assures us; we all just need to "grow up."

Many conservative intellectuals like Ferguson are adept at discrediting the unfathomable suffering of millions by insinuating that if it is not "fashionable" to remember these crimes then it is simply not worth doing so. Incalculable human tragedy is reduced to the despicably trite language of a modish trend. And not only is sticking up for those who suffer derided as conforming to "fashionable" trends, but this particular style is denounced as uncool.

Anyone with a simulacrum of decency would realize that ridiculing those who champion the rights of the victim when attempting to be a historian -- a recorder of truth -- is not only na├»ve beyond words but crass beyond comprehension. Most of all, the existence of the victims is obfuscated, their graves and scars pissed on if not simply denied.

Ferguson, a famous white historian descended from European colonizers of South Africa who now spends his time writing books at an ivy league university, has the privilege, indeed the power to not care. For him the daily hell of war, famine and political repression can be understood as a fashion, one he is free to not concern himself with, or to in fact distort if it does not conform with his tastes.

His decision to disparage the advocates of justice instead of even assessing the veracity of their message speaks volumes about his understanding of history, morality and politics. To Ferguson, these are nothing more than titillating games. And while maligning the protestors' positions he does not even mention the victims. In his eyes the victims are expendable, not even worth mentioning. (During his diatribe he does not even mention them once, as if they never existed!)
While the brute callousness of conservative intellectuals like Ferguson may seen exceptional, this could not be further from the truth. Unfortunately, the fantastic logic employed by Ferguson is virtually the same logic and approach which underpins the thinking of intellectuals across the First-World's political spectrum.
When hypothesizing from the comfort of an air-conditioned room, coffee in-hand, it becomes all too easy to gloss over the reality of suffering elsewhere in the world. That is to say, everywhere else.
Perhaps there is no more callous example of this amongst first-world thinkers than the current hype about world population growth. If whitewashing the crimes of the world's war criminal par excellence is "fashionable," then it is most certainly "fashionable" to bewail each increase in global population.
The typical "problem" is framed like so: the world population is increasing at an unsustainable rate and this will accelerate environmental degradation, plus engender humanitarian crises of epic scale. Those who have large families are engaging in backward practices, especially those living in the Third-World who are most vulnerable to the effects of high birth rates. Family planning must be put in place in order to preclude near-certain crisis -- the specter of Malthusian collapse.  
The October 2011 edition of 'The New Yorker' echoes this line of thought, its blurb on population growth centering around the infamous theories of Thomas Malthus which state that population growth will inevitably outstrip the world's ability to produce food at some point. Though the section does not address the Third-World with overt condescension, the piece is predictably approached from the vantage-point of First-World concerns.
In other words, whenever the question of population increase is addressed the concerns of the affluent, First-World beholder come to the fore. The fact that the shirt on the beholder's back was produced in a Bangladesh factory for pittance wages, that the cellphone they use was likewise created through a system of waged slavery, or that their daily consumption of any resource dwarves that of any Third-World individual is left unstated.
Spoken plainly, pundits can heave and haw all they want about the alleged irresponsibility of those in the Third-World who have more than two kids. No matter how much hell they raise, they will never be able to alter the fact that the very real problems of environmental degradation and limited resources are not exacerbated so much by birthrates in the Third-World as by the hedonistic patterns of consumption in the Global North -- in other words, the rich countries doing all the whining.
No matter how much you try to mess with the statistics, this much is clear: the rich countries' consumption patterns are so much higher than those of the poor countries that even the comparison is ridiculous
Yes, the Philippines may be suffering from profound environmental problems, but this is to no small extent because Japanese construction companies have stripped the hills of timber. Yes, the Congo is experiencing resource shortages and engulfed in hellish civil war, but the American corporations which loot the country's wealth do not seem to mind. Yes, China is facing environmental catastrophe but where was your shirt made, your pants, your shoes?
Yes, Bangladesh may appear to be a backward country to the Western eye but how can we seriously entertain such judgments as locals struggle to free workers from the rubble of a substandard factory building. For the children who lost their lives in the rubble, Disney was likely associated with the toil they daily expended to produce its merchandise, not a series of memorable platitudes strewn across a silver-screen.
Furthermore, First-World pundits conspicuously neglect to mention that even the high birth-rates in the Third-World are encouraged by a specific set of economic dynamics which unambiguously favor the rich peoples of the world. The poor often choose to have large families because they do not have a social safety-net and, consequently, must guarantee that they have children who will take care of them as they age. Children also play an integral part in sustaining the family economy, contributing their labor so that the family can eat (and so that you have a pair of shoes to wear).
It is also telling that almost without fail a publication that decides to touch the issue of population growth, such as 'The New Yorker,' inevitably includes some reference to Malthus and his theories. It is first worthwhile to note that Malthus' theory became an archaism long ago. Even while he was writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the agricultural revolution in Western Europe already allowed places like Great Britain and France to jump the Malthusian trap. Populations grew significantly and food was plentiful.
Even so, industrialization and its attendant effects led to mass pauperization and hunger. Yet the deprivations faced by common Europeans were not because of a natural lack of food but a decidedly unnatural occurrence: starvation amidst abundance. Food was produced just fine, rather, the industrial-age crisis was engendered by conscious decisions made on the part of rich persons to wrest land away from smallholders, thus reducing previously stable households to poverty.
In other words, such crises were not natural or Malthusian, but conscious and manmade.
Today when the question turns to that of resources and scarcity, the facts are eerily similar. It is simply disingenuous to claim that there is not enough food and water to meet the needs of everyone. The logic that claims otherwise is nothing more than a self-serving illusion which releases the privileged subject from their responsibility to others as a fellow human-being. The problem is not a technological one or even a matter of the earth's (real) limits, but purely one of human will.
At the end of the day, the issue is a matter of those who have the power to make a difference choosing to do so. Put differently, what happens ultimately depends on those who have the power to either care or not care, to act or not act.
During the 18th century the great English writer Jonathan Swift penned a brief satire now known as A Modest Proposal. In it Swift -- with tongue in cheek, and teeth firmly clenched -- proposes that Irish suffering could be remedied by selling Irish children as food. The Irish back then, as until very recently, were economically exploited by the British with the greatest degree of cruelty. When famines or other disasters struck the Irish, obtuse British rulers refused to acknowledge their role in instigating the suffering, writing it off as a result of Irish backwardness.
Galled by British cynicism, Swift wrote his essay for the purpose of verbalizing the insanity which underscored British condemnation against the Irish, as well as British blindness to their own culpability in causing Ireland's crises. The logic he uses, namely that Irish should sell their children as meat for economic reasons, is stylized on the economic rationalism current amongst the British intelligentsia of his day -- an economic rationalism that is still very much alive.
Then, as now, the problem was not the backwardness of the poor, Third-World or those who are different from us, but the cynical logic -- or insanity -- that passes for logic today amongst both liberals and conservatives.
And then, as now, the problem could readily have been solved if the people who had the liberty to not care instead chose to care: to do something.