- Drew Westen is asking What Happened to Obama’s Passion?
- Stanley Fish is asking Does Philosophy Matter?
- Paul Fromont is asking why poetry is necessary “To Mend the World”
- Brad East is asking about personal relationships with Jesus
- And Alesksandr Solzhenitsyn is writing about The New Generation who ‘felt bold enough to ask some questions’
Revenge, justice and pleasure
While watching President Obama’s
re-election speech this afternoon on the death on Osama bin Laden – and particularly while seeing the video footage of celebrating crowds – I was reminded of a few paragraphs from Don Carson’s Love in Hard Places:
‘Not that long ago on television we heard a soldier protest, “You must understand . . . it was our revenge!” The soldier was a Serb captured by the Kosovo Liberation Army. His words were broadcast in a television interview, nicely translated for the benefit of English-speaking peoples. He admitted that his unit had been involved in brutal acts of ethnic cleansing. Certainly he was frightened to be in the hands of his enemies, but he did not appear to be ashamed: “You must understand . . . it was our revenge!”
That is the trouble with revenge, of course: it does not feel like a sin. It feels like justice. Many of us have become inured to the distinction because we have watched so many movies or read so many books in which revenge, especially revenge that is adamantly pursued when the proper authorities either cannot or will not pursue justice, is itself just. It matters little if the hero is Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western or a Dirty Harry film, or Bruce Lee in a martial arts flick, or Rambo getting even in Vietnam. In every case, we enjoy a cathartic release because we are made to feel the violence is just and therefore that the revenge is justified. When the right is on your side, revenge, no matter how violent, is a pleasure. It is just‘.
– Don A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 72–3.
‘Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, But yet the body is his book’
- Jason Byassee on tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan and the Masai creed: ‘I love the way Herbert McCabe, the Dominican priest and theologian, put it: “We don’t know what Christians will believe in the 24th century, but we know they will not be Arians or Nestorians.” Creeds, usually occasioned by a new teaching the church must either bless or condemn, cut off certain roads. But they do not mandate which road we all must go down for all time. Future ages will have to figure that out, while submitting to what has come before. But that submission is a granting of freedom, not a tragic cutting off of possibility’. There are some important implications here for the conversation currently going on in my own denomination about writing a new confession of faith.
- Anthony Gottlieb on God and gardens.
- Cynthia R. Nielsen continues her series on Gadamer with two more posts.
- Stanley Hauerwas responds to Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
- Renardo Barden reviews Dylan’s Christmas album: ‘Occasionally Dylan chases and misses the high notes and botches daring full-throttle endings. His church Latin is no good, and he’s losing yet more ground on his claim to sing as good as Caruso. But he’s still out there, making new of what’s old, light of what’s silly, and merry for merriment’s sake’.
- Halden Doerge offers some critiques of individualism as will to power: ‘… “individualism” is only scary to those who want to control the social lives of others. Honestly I don’t think it can possibly be a coincidence that the folks most virulently critical of individualism are white males who have significant university posts. Indeed I’m hard pressed to think of a single female scholar who has attacked individualism in ways akin to say Robert Bellah or Zygmunt Bauman … It seems to me that critiques of individualism invariably come beset with a totalizing vision of “the good society” that, ostensibly should be actualized whether people like it or not (because obviously they don’t like it or they’d be doing it already). In short, I don’t know how critiques of individualism, as such, avoid the charge that they are simply instances of the will to power. They are always animated with angst, fear, and revulsion towards the current shape of social life and deeply desirous of reshaping society in accordance with their own vision. It’s hard for me to image that not being ultimately fascist (Milbank is perhaps the most sophisticated example of a theological fascist writing today)’.
- Andre Muller posts on music.
- Finally, I’ve been posting on advent: Part I, II, III, IV.
Žižek on Apocalypse, on the Future, and on Obama
In an earlier post, I suggested that few will embrace every element of Žižek’s compassionate-Marxist panacea, but that his analyses of history’s big movements nevertheless remain insightful, often compelling, and usually fascinating. I’ve received a bit of e-flack for reading (and posting on) Žižek, but let me say again that I don’t draw attention to Žižek’s work because I agree with all his conclusions, or with how he gets there. Rather, I read Žižek for many of the same reasons that I read from traditions and centuries other than my own – because I’m grateful for anyone who helps me to think differently about the world, and to ask some different questions about reality and human experience than does the literature I most typically immerse myself in. Apart from all that, reading Žižek is, at times, just such great fun. [Who is this idiot blogger, i.e. me, who feels the need to defend his own reading habits!]
Anyway, that said, here’s more from Žižek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce; this time, on Apocalypse:
‘Apocalypse is characterized by a specific mode of time, clearly opposed to the two other predominant modes: traditional circular time (time ordered and regulated on cosmic principles, reflecting the order of nature and the heavens; the time-form in which microcosm and macrocosm resonate in harmony), and the modern linear time of gradual progress or development. Apocalyptic time is the “time of the end of time,” the time of emergency, of the “state of exception” when the end is nigh and we can only prepare for it. There are at least four different versions of apocalyptism today: Christian fundamentalism, New Age spirituality, techno-digital post-humanism, and secular ecologism. Although they all share the basic notion that humanity is approaching a zero-point of radical transmutation, their respective ontologies differ radically: Techno-digital apocalyptism … remains within the confines of scientific naturalism, and discerns in the evolution of human species the contours of our transformation into “post-humans.” New Age spirituality gives this transmutation a further twist, interpreting it as the shift from one mode of “cosmic awareness” to another (usually a shift from the modern dualist-mechanistic stance to one of holistic immersion). Christian fundamentalists of course read the apocalypse in strictly biblical terms, that is, they search for (and find) in the contemporary world signs that the final battle between Christ and the Anti-Christ is imminent. Finally, secular ecologism shares the naturalist stance of post-humanism, but gives it a negative twist-what lies ahead, the “omega point” we are approaching, is not a progression to a higher “post-human” level, but the catastrophic self-destruction of humanity. Although Christian fundamentalist apocalyptism is considered the most ridiculous, and dangerous, in its content, it remains the version closest to a radical “milenarian” emancipatory logic. The task is thus to bring it into closer contact with secular ecologism, thereby conceiving the threat of annihilation as the chance for a radical emancipatory renewal’. (pp. 93–4)
So what future does Žižek look to?
‘The future will be Hegelian … The only true alternative that awaits us – the alternative between socialism and communism – is the alternative between the two Hegels’.
Žižek contrasts Hegel’s ‘conservative’ vision (which points forward to what Žižek describes as ‘capitalism with Asian values’, as ‘a capitalist civil society organized into estates and kept in check by a strong authoritarian state with managerial “public servants” and traditional values’; he suggests that modern Japan comes close to this model), with the young Hegelianism evidenced in Haiti. He suggests: ‘It is as if the split into Old and Young Hegelians is to be re-enacted once again’. (p. 148)
But what are the chances for an Hegelian Left today? Can we count only on momentary utopian explosions – like the Paris Commune, the Canudos settlement in Brazil, or the Shanghai Commune – which dissolve because of brutal external suppression or internal weaknesses, fated to remain no more than brief diversions from the main trajectory of History? Is communism then condemned to remain the utopian Idea of another possible world, an Idea whose realization necessarily ends in failure or self- destructive terror? Or should we remain heroically faithful to the Benjaminian project of the final Revolution that will redeem-through-repetition all past defeats, a day of full Reckoning? Or, more radically, should we change the field entirely, recognizing that the alternatives just proposed simply represent two sides of the same coin, that is, of the teleological-redemptive notion of history? Perhaps the solution resides in an eschatological apocalyptism which does not involve the fantasy of the symbolic Last Judgment in which all past accounts will be settled; to refer to another of Benjamin’s metaphors, the task is “merely” to stop the train of history which, left to its own course, leads to a precipice. (Communism is thus not the light at the end of the tunnel, that is, the happy final outcome of a long and arduous struggle – if anything, the light at the end of the tunnel is rather that of another train approaching us at full speed.) This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement. An act of “divine violence” would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress. In other words, one has to learn fully to accept that there is no big Other … (pp. 148–9)
And, in another place, Žižek offers the following reflection/commentary on ‘Obama’s victory’:
‘One can and should entertain cynical doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: from a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will turn out to be a “Bush with a human face” making no more than a few minor face-lifting improvements. He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode and thus possibly even strengthen US hegemony, damaged as it has been by the catastrophe of the Bush years. There is nonetheless something deeply wrong in such a reaction – a key dimension is missing. It is in light of the Kantian conception of enthusiasm that Obama’s victory should be viewed not simply as another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all its pragmatic calculations and manipulations. It is a sign of something more. This is why a good American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came through of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, for that instant of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.
The reason Obama’s victory generated such enthusiasm was not only the fact that, against all the odds, it really happened, but that the possibility of such a thing happening was demonstrated. The same goes for all great historical ruptures – recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the communist regimes, we somehow did not “really believe” that they would disintegrate – like Henry Kissinger, we were all too much victims of a cynical pragmatism. This attitude is best encapsulated by the French expression je sais bien, mais quand même – I know very well that it can happen, but all the same (I cannot really accept that it will happen). This is why, although Obama’s victory was clearly predictable, at least for the last two weeks before the election, his actual victory was still experienced as a surprise – in some sense, the unthinkable had happened, something which we really did not believe could happen. (Note that there is also a tragic version of the unthinkable really taking place: the Holocaust, the Gulag … how can one accept that something like that could happen?)
This is also how one should answer those who point to all the compromises Obama had to make to become electable. The danger Obama courted in his campaign is that he was already applying to himself what the later historical censorship applied to Martin Luther King, namely, cleansing his program of contentious topics in order to assure his eligibility. There is a famous dialogue in Monty Python’s religious spoof The Life of Brian, set in Palestine at the time of Christ: the leader of a Jewish revolutionary resistance organization passionately argues that the Romans have brought only misery to the Jews; when his followers remark that they have nonetheless introduced education, built roads, constructed irrigation, and so on, he triumphantly concludes: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, education, medicine, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Do the latest proclamations by Obama not follow the same line? “I stand for a radical break with Bush’s politics! OK, I pleaded for full support for Israel, for continuing the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for refusing prosecutions against those who ordered torture, and so on, but I still stand for a radical break with Bush’s politics!” Obama’s inauguration speech concluded this process of “political self-cleansing” – which is why it was such a disappointment even for many left-liberals in the US. It was a well-crafted but weirdly anemic speech whose message to “all other peoples and governments who are watching today” was: “we are ready to lead once more”; “we will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.”
During the election campaign, it was often noted that when Obama talked about the “audacity of hope,” about a change we can believe in, he relied on a rhetoric which lacked any specific content: to hope for what? To change what? Now things are a little clearer: Obama proposes a tactical change destined to reassert the fundamental goals of US politics: the defense of the American way of life and a leading role internationally for the US. The US empire will be now more humane, and respectful of others; it will lead through dialogue, rather than through the brutal imposition of its will. If the Bush administration was the empire with a brutal face, now we shall have the empire with a human face – but it will be the same empire. In Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he tried to reach out to the Muslim world, he formulated the debate in terms of the depoliticized dialogue of religions (not even of civilizations) – this was Obama at his politically-correct worst’. (pp. 107–9)
Robert Fisk: Obama, man of peace? No, just a Nobel prize of a mistake
Fisk offers the most interesting reflection I’ve read this weekend on the Nobel sham:
His Middle East policy is collapsing. The Israelis have taunted him by ignoring his demand for an end to settlement-building and by continuing to build their colonies on Arab land. His special envoy is bluntly told by the Israelis that an Arab-Israel peace will take “many years”. Now he wants the Palestinians to talk peace to Israel without conditions. He put pressure on the Palestinian leader to throw away the opportunity of international scrutiny of UN Judge Goldstone’s damning indictment of Israeli war crimes in Gaza while his Assistant Secretary of State said that the Goldstone report was “seriously flawed”. After breaking his pre-election promise to call the 1915 Armenian massacres by Ottoman Turkey a genocide, he has urged the Armenians to sign a treaty with Turkey, again “without pre-conditions”. His army is still facing an insurgency in Iraq. He cannot decide how to win “his” war in Afghanistan. I shall not mention Iran.
And now President Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize. After only eight months in office. Not bad. No wonder he said he was “humbled” when told the news. He should have felt humiliated. But perhaps weakness becomes a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Shimon Peres won it, too, and he never won an Israeli election. Yasser Arafat won it. And look what happened to him. For the first time in history, the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded its peace prize to a man who has achieved nothing – in the faint hope that he will do something good in the future. That’s how bad things are. That’s how explosive the Middle East has become.
Isn’t there anyone in the White House to remind Mr Obama that the Israelis have never obliged a US president who asked for an end to the building of colonies for Jews – and Jews only – on Arab land? Bill Clinton demanded this – it was written into the Oslo accords – and the Israelis ignored him. George W Bush demanded an end to the fighting in Jenin nine years ago. The Israelis ignored him. Mr Obama demands a total end to all settlement construction. “They just don’t get it, do they?” an Israeli minister – apparently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – was reported to have said when the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, reiterated her president’s words. That’s what Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s crackpot foreign minister – he’s not as much a crackpot as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he’s getting close – said again on Thursday. “Whoever says it’s possible to reach in the coming years a comprehensive agreement,” he announced before meeting Mr Obama’s benighted and elderly envoy George Mitchell, “… simply doesn’t understand the reality.”
Across Arabia, needless to say, the Arab potentates continue to shake with fear in their golden minarets. That great Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir – murdered in 2005, quite possibly by Mr Obama’s new-found Syrian chums – put it well in one of his last essays. “Undeterred by Egypt since Sadat’s peace,” he wrote, “convinced of America’s unfailing support, guaranteed moral impunity by Europe’s bad conscience, and backed by a nuclear arsenal that was acquired with the help of Western powers, and that keeps growing without exciting any comment from the international community, Israel can literally do anything it wants, or is prompted to do by its leaders’ fantasies of domination.”
So Israel is getting away with it as usual, abusing the distinguished (and Jewish) head of the UN inquiry into Gaza war crimes – which also blamed Hamas – while joining the Americans in further disgracing the craven Palestinian Authority “President” Mahmoud Abbas, who is more interested in maintaining his relations with Washington than with his own Palestinian people. He’s even gone back on his word to refuse peace talks until Israel’s colonial expansion comes to an end. In a single devastating sentence, that usually mild Jordanian commentator Rami Khouri noted last week that Mr Abbas is “a tragic shell of a man, hollow, politically impotent, backed and respected by nobody”. I put “President” Abbas into quotation marks since he now has Mr Ahmadinejad’s status in the eyes of his people. Hamas is delighted. Thanks to President Obama.
Oddly, Mr Obama is also humiliating the Armenian president, Serg Sarkisian, by insisting that he talks to his Turkish adversaries without conditions. In the West Bank, you have to forget the Jewish colonies. In Armenia, you have to forget the Turkish murder of one and a half million Armenians in 1915. Mr Obama refused to honour his pre-election promise to recognise the 20th century’s first holocaust as a genocide. But if he can’t handle the First World War, how can he handle World War Three?
Mr Obama advertised the Afghanistan conflict as the war America had to fight – not that anarchic land of Mesopotamia which Mr Bush rashly invaded. He’d forgotten that Afghanistan was another Bush war; and he even announced that Pakistan was now America’s war, too. The White House produced its “Afpak” soundbite. And the drones came in droves over the old Durand Line, to kill the Taliban and a host of innocent civilians. Should Mr Obama concentrate on al-Qa’ida? Or yield to General Stanley McChrystal’s Vietnam-style demand for 40,000 more troops? The White House shows the two of them sitting opposite each other, Mr Obama in the smoothie suite, McChrystal in his battledress. The rabbit and the hare.
No way are they going to win. The neocons say that “the graveyard of empire” is a cliché. It is. But it’s also true. The Afghan government is totally corrupted; its paid warlords – paid by Karzai and the Americans – ramp up the drugs trade and the fear of Afghan civilians. But it’s much bigger than this.
The Indian embassy was bombed again last week. Has Mr Obama any idea why? Does he realise that Washington’s decision to support India against Pakistan over Kashmir – symbolised by his appointment of Richard Holbrooke as envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan but with no remit to discuss divided Kashmir – enraged Pakistan. He may want India to balance the power of China (some hope!) but Pakistan’s military intelligence realises that the only way of persuading Mr Obama to act fairly over Kashmir – recognising Pakistan’s claims as well as India’s – is to increase their support for the Taliban. No justice in Kashmir, no security for US troops – or the Indian embassy – in Afghanistan.
Then, after stroking the Iranian pussycat at the Geneva nuclear talks, the US president discovered that the feline was showing its claws again at the end of last week. A Revolutionary Guard commander, an adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei, warned that Iran would “blow up the heart” of Israel if Israel or the US attacked the Islamic Republic. I doubt it. Blow up Israel and you blow up “Palestine”. Iranians – who understand the West much better than we understand them – have another policy in the case of the apocalypse. If the Israelis attack, they may leave Israel alone. They have a plan, I’m told, to target instead only US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their bases in the Gulf and their warships cruising through Hormuz. They would leave Israel alone. Americans would then learn the price of kneeling before their Israeli masters.
For the Iranians know that the US has no stomach for a third war in the Middle East. Which is why Mr Obama has been sending his generals thick and fast to the defence ministry in Tel Aviv to tell the Israelis not to strike at Iran. And why Israel’s leaders – including Mr Netanyahu – were blowing the peace pipe all week about the need for international negotiations with Iran. But it raises an interesting question. Is Mr Obama more frightened of Iran’s retaliation? Or of its nuclear capabilities? Or more terrified of Israel’s possible aggression against Iran?
But, please, no attacks on 10 December. That’s when Barack Obama turns up in Oslo to pocket his peace prize – for achievements he has not yet achieved and for dreams that will turn into nightmares.
[Source: The Independent]
John Pilger: Mourn on the fourth of July
The monsoon had woven thick skeins of mist over the central highlands of Vietnam. I was a young war correspondent, bivouacked in the village of Tuylon with a unit of US marines whose orders were to win hearts and minds. “We are here not to kill,” said the sergeant, “we are here to impart the American Way of Liberty as stated in the Pacification Handbook. This is designed to win the hearts and minds of folks, as stated on page 86.”
Page 86 was headed WHAM. The sergeant’s unit was called a combined action company, which meant, he explained, “we attack these folks on Mondays and we win their hearts and minds on Tuesdays”. He was joking, though not quite. Standing in a jeep on the edge of a paddy, he had announced through a loudhailer: “Come on out, everybody. We got rice and candy and toothbrushes to give you.”
Silence. Not a shadow moved.
“Now listen, either you gooks come on out from wherever you are, or we’re going to come right in there and get you!”
The people of Tuylon finally came out and stood in line to receive packets of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain Rice, Hershey bars, party balloons and several thousand toothbrushes. Three portable, battery-operated, yellow flush lavatories were kept for the colonel’s arrival. And when the colonel arrived that evening, the district chief was summoned and the yellow flush lavatories were unveiled.
“Mr District Chief and all you folks out there,” said the colonel, “what these gifts represent is more than the sum of their parts. They carry the spirit of America. Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no place on earth like America. It’s a guiding light for me, and for you. You see, back home, we count ourselves as real lucky having the greatest democracy the world has ever known, and we want you good folks to share in our good fortune.”
Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Davy Crockett got a mention. “Beacon” was a favourite, and as he evoked John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill”, the marines clapped, and the children clapped, understanding not a word.
It was a lesson in what historians call “exceptionalism”, the notion that the United States has the divine right to bring what it describes as liberty and democracy to the rest of humanity. That this merely disguised a system of domination, which Martin Luther King described, shortly before his assassination, as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, was unspeakable.
As the great people’s historian Howard Zinn has pointed out, Winthrop’s much-quoted description of the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “city upon a hill”, a place of unlimited goodness and nobility, was rarely set against the violence of the first settlers, for whom burning alive some 400 Pequot Indians was a “triumphant joy”. The countless massacres that followed, wrote Zinn, were justified by “the idea that American expansion is divinely ordained”.
Not long ago, I visited the American Museum of History, part of the celebrated Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. One of the popular exhibitions was “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War”. It was holiday time and lines of people, including many children, shuffled reverentially through a Santa’s grotto of war and conquest where messages about their nation’s “great mission” were dispensed. These included tributes to the “exceptional Americans [who] saved a million lives” in Vietnam, where they were “determined to stop communist expansion”. In Iraq, other true hearts “employed air strikes of unprecedented precision”. What was shocking was not so much the revisionist description of two of the epic crimes of modern times as the sheer scale of omission.
“History without memory,” declared Time magazine at the end of the 20th century, “confines Americans to a sort of eternal present.. They are especially weak in remembering what they did to other people, as opposed to what they did for them.” Ironically, it was Henry Luce, founder of Time, who in 1941 divined the “American century” as an American social, political and cultural “victory” over humanity and the right “to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit”.
None of this is to suggest that vainglory is exclusive to the United States. The British presented their often violent domination of much of the world as the natural progress of Christian gentlemen selflessly civilising the natives, and present-day TV historians perpetuate the myths. The French still celebrate their bloody “civilising mission”. Prior to the Second World War, “imperialist” was an honoured political badge in Europe, while in the US an “age of innocence” was preferred. America was different from the Old World, said its mythologists. America was the Land of Liberty, uninterested in conquest. But what of George Washington’s call for a “rising empire” and James Madison’s “laying the foundation of a great empire”? What of slavery, the theft of Texas from Mexico, the bloody subjugation of central America, Cuba and the Philippines?
An ordained national memory consigned these to the historical margins and “imperialism” was all but discredited in the United States, especially after Adolf Hitler and the fascists, with their ideas of racial and cultural superiority, had left a legacy of guilt by association. The Nazis, after all, had been proud imperialists, too, and Germany was also “exceptional”. The idea of imperialism, the word itself, was all but expunged from the American lexicon, “on the grounds that it falsely attributed immoral motives to western foreign policy”, argued one historian. Those who persisted in using it were “disreputable purveyors of agitprop” and were “inspired by the communist doctrine”, or they were “Negro intellectuals who had grievances of their own against white capitalism”.
Meanwhile, the “city on the hill” remained a beacon of rapaciousness as US capital set about realising Luce’s dream and recolonising the European empires in the postwar years. This was “the march of free enterprise”. In truth, it was driven by a subsidised production boom in a country unravaged by war: a sort of socialism for the great corporations, or state capitalism, which left half the world’s wealth in American hands. The cornerstone of this new imperialism was laid in 1944 at a conference of the western allies at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire. Described as “negotiations about economic stability”, the conference marked America’s conquest of most of the world.
What the American elite demanded, wrote Frederic F Clairmont in The Rise and Fall of Economic Liberalism, “was not allies but unctuous client states. What Bretton Woods bequeathed to the world was a lethal totalitarian blueprint for the carve-up of world markets.” The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the African Development Bank were established in effect as arms of the US Treasury and would design and police the new order. The US military and its clients would guard the doors of these “international” institutions, and an “invisible government” of media would secure the myths, said Edward Bernays.
Bernays, described as the father of the media age, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. “Propaganda,” he wrote, “got to be a bad word because of the Germans… so what I did was to try and find other words [such as] Public Relations.” Bernays used Freud’s theories about control of the subconscious to promote a “mass culture” designed to promote fear of official enemies and servility to consumerism. It was Bernays who, on behalf of the tobacco industry, campaigned for American women to take up smoking as an act of feminist liberation, calling cigarettes “torches of freedom”; and it was his notion of disinformation that was deployed in overthrowing governments, such as Guatemala’s democracy in 1954.
Above all, the goal was to distract and deter the social democratic impulses of working people. Big business was elevated from its public reputation as a kind of mafia to that of a patriotic force. “Free enterprise” became a divinity. “By the early 1950s,” wrote Noam Chomsky, “20 million people a week were watching business-sponsored films. The entertainment industry was enlisted to the cause, portraying unions as the enemy, the outsider disrupting the ‘harmony’ of the ‘American way of life’… Every aspect of social life was targeted and permeated schools and universities, churches, even recreational programmes. By 1954, business propaganda in public schools reached half the amount spent on textbooks.”
The new “ism” was Americanism, an ideology whose distinction is its denial that it is an ideology. Recently, I saw the 1957 musical Silk Stockings, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Between the scenes of wonderful dancing to a score by Cole Porter was a series of loyalty statements that the colonel in Vietnam might well have written. I had forgotten how crude and pervasive the propaganda was; the Soviets could never compete. An oath of loyalty to all things American became an ideological commitment to the leviathan of business: from the business of armaments and war (which consumes 42 cents in every tax dollar today) to the business of food, known as “agripower” (which receives $157bn a year in government subsidies).
Barack Obama is the embodiment of this “ism”. From his early political days, Obama’s unerring theme has been not “change”, the slogan of his presidential campaign, but America’s right to rule and order the world. Of the United States, he says, “we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good… We must lead by building a 21st-century military to ensure the security of our people and advance the security of all people.” And: “At moments of great peril in the past century our leaders ensured that America, by deed and by example, led and lifted the world, that we stood and fought for the freedoms sought by billions of people beyond their borders.”
Since 1945, by deed and by example, the US has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, crushed some 30 liberation movements and supported tyrannies from Egypt to Guatemala (see William Blum’s histories). Bombing is apple pie. Having stacked his government with warmongers, Wall Street cronies and polluters from the Bush and Clinton eras, the 45th president is merely upholding tradition. The hearts and minds farce I witnessed in Vietnam is today repeated in villages in Afghanistan and, by proxy, Pakistan, which are Obama’s wars.
In his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, Harold Pinter noted that “everyone knew that terrible crimes had been committed by the Soviet Union in the postwar period, but “US crimes in the same period have been only superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all”. It is as if “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn’t happening… You have to hand it to America… masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”
As Obama has sent drones to kill (since January) some 700 civilians, distinguished liberals have rejoiced that America is once again a “nation of moral ideals”, as Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times. In Britain, the elite has long seen in exceptional America an enduring place for British “influence”, albeit as servitor or puppet. The pop historian Tristram Hunt says America under Obama is a land “where miracles happen”. Justin Webb, until recently the BBC’s man in Washington, refers adoringly, rather like the colonel in Vietnam, to the “city on the hill”.
Behind this façade of “intensification of feeling and degradation of significance” (Walter Lippmann), ordinary Americans are stirring perhaps as never before, as if abandoning the deity of the “American Dream” that prosperity is a guarantee with hard work and thrift.. Millions of angry emails from ordinary people have flooded Washington, expressing an outrage that the novelty of Obama has not calmed. On the contrary, those whose jobs have vanished and whose homes are repossessed see the new president rewarding crooked banks and an obese military, essentially protecting George W Bush’s turf.
My guess is that a populism will emerge in the next few years, igniting a powerful force that lies beneath America’s surface and which has a proud past. It cannot be predicted which way it will go. However, from such an authentic grass-roots Americanism came women’s suffrage, the eight-hour day, graduated income tax and public ownership. In the late 19th century, the populists were betrayed by leaders who urged them to compromise and merge with the Democratic Party. In the Obama era, the familiarity of this resonates.
What is most extraordinary about the United States today is the rejection and defiance, in so many attitudes, of the all-pervasive historical and contemporary propaganda of the “invisible government”. Credible polls have long confirmed that more than two-thirds of Americans hold progressive views. A majority want the government to care for those who cannot care for themselves. They would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for everyone. They want complete nuclear disarmament; 72 per cent want the US to end its colonial wars; and so on. They are informed, subversive, even “anti-American”.
I once asked a friend, the great American war correspondent and humanitarian Martha Gellhorn, to explain the term to me. “I’ll tell you what ‘anti-American’ is,” she said. “It’s what governments and their vested interests call those who honour America by objecting to war and the theft of resources and believing in all of humanity. There are millions of these anti-Americans in the United States. They are ordinary people who belong to no elite and who judge their government in moral terms, though they would call it common decency. They are not vain. They are the people with a wakeful conscience, the best of America’s citizens. They can be counted on. They were in the South with the civil rights movement, ending slavery. They were in the streets, demanding an end to the wars in Asia. Sure, they disappear from view now and then, but they are like seeds beneath the snow. I would say they are truly exceptional.”
Adapted from an address, Empire, Obama and the Last Taboo, given by John Pilger at Socialism 2009 in San Francisco on 4th July.
John Pilger on ‘The politics of bollocks’
While much of the world has been observing the post-election balloons starting to deflate, the last streamers being swept up, and the last drop of bubbly being sculled (though some of us have now refilled our flutes after recent news), John Pilger‘s gutsy pen has been resisting all efforts to shut up and be grateful that at least President Bush is gone. It’s time, he says, for Obama-lovers to grow up. He is, of course, right. Here’s Pilger piece published in yesterday’s New Statesman:
‘Growing up in an Antipodean society proud of its rich variety of expletives, I never heard the word bollocks. It was only on arrival in England that I understood its magisterial power. All classes used it. Judges grunted it; an editor of the Daily Mirror used it as noun, adjective and verb. Certainly, the resonance of a double vowel saw off its closest American contender. It had authority.
A high official with the Gilbertian title of Lord West of Spithead used it to great effect on 27 January. The former admiral, who is a security adviser to Gordon Brown, was referring to Tony Blair’s assertion that invading countries and killing innocent people did not increase the threat of terrorism at home.
“That was clearly bollocks,” said his lordship, who warned of a perceived “linkage between the US, Israel and the UK” in the horrors inflicted on Gaza and the effect on the recruitment of terrorists in Britain. In other words, he was stating the obvious: that state terrorism begets individual or group terrorism at source. Just as Blair was the prime mover of the London bombings of 7 July 2005, so Brown, having pursued the same cynical crusades in Muslim countries and having armed and disported himself before the criminal regime in Tel Aviv, will share responsibility for related atrocities at home.
There is a lot of bollocks about at the moment.
The BBC’s explanation for banning an appeal on behalf of the stricken people of Gaza is a vivid example. Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director general, cited the corporation’s legal requirement to be “impartial . . . because Gaza remains a major ongoing news story in which humanitarian issues . . . are both at the heart of the story and contentious”.
In a letter to Thompson, David Bracewell, a licence-fee payer, illuminated the deceit behind this. He pointed to previous BBC appeals for the Disasters Emergency Committee that were not only made in the midst of “an ongoing news story” in which humanitarian issues were “contentious”, but also demonstrated how the corporation took sides.
In 1999, at the height of the illegal Nato bombing of Serbia and Kosovo, the TV presenter Jill Dando made an appeal on behalf of Kosovar refugees. The BBC web page for that appeal was linked to numerous articles meant to stress the gravity of the humanitarian issue. These included quotations from Blair himself, such as: “This will be a daily pounding until he [Slobodan Milosevic] comes into line with the terms that Nato has laid down.” There was no significant balance of view from the Yugoslav side, and not a single mention that the flight of Kosovar refugees began only after Nato had started bombing.
Similarly, in an appeal for victims of the civil war in the Congo, the BBC favoured the regime led by Joseph Kabila by not referring to Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and other reports accusing his forces of atrocities. In contrast, the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was “accused of committing atrocities” and ordained the bad guy by the BBC. Kabila, who represented western interests, was clearly the good guy – just like Nato in the Balkans and Israel in the Middle East.
While Mark Thompson and his satraps richly deserve the Lord West of Spithead Bollocks Blue Ribbon, that honour goes to the cheer squad of President Barack Obama, whose cult-like obeisance goes on and on.
On 23 January, the Guardian‘s front page declared, “Obama shuts network of CIA ‘ghost prisons'”. The “wholesale deconstruction [sic] of George Bush’s war on terror”, said the report, had been ordered by the new president, who would be “shutting down the CIA’s secret prison network, banning torture and rendition . . .”
The bollocks quotient on this was so high that it read like the press release it was, citing “officials briefing reporters at the White House yesterday”. Obama’s orders, according to a group of 16 retired generals and admirals who attended a presidential signing ceremony, “would restore America’s moral standing in the world”. What moral standing? It never ceases to astonish that experienced reporters can transmit PR stunts like this, bearing in mind the moving belt of lies from the same source under only nominally different management.
Far from “deconstructing the war on terror”, Obama is clearly pursuing it with the same vigour, ideological backing and deception as the previous administration. George W Bush’s first war, in Afghanistan, and last war, in Pakistan, are now Obama’s wars – with thousands more US troops to be deployed, more bombing and more slaughter of civilians. Last month, on the day he described Afghanistan and Pakistan as “the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism”, 22 Afghan civilians died beneath Obama’s bombs in a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds and which, by all accounts, had not laid eyes on the Taliban. Women and children were among the dead, which is normal.
Far from “shutting down the CIA’s secret prison network”, Obama’s executive orders actually give the CIA authority to carry out renditions, abductions and transfers of prisoners in secret without threat of legal obstruction. As theLos Angeles Times disclosed, “current and former US intelligence officials said that the rendition programme might be poised to play an expanded role”. A semantic sleight of hand is that “long-term prisons” are changed to “short-term prisons”; and while Americans are now banned from directly torturing people, foreigners working for the US are not. This means that America’s numerous “covert actions” will operate as they did under previous presidents, with proxy regimes, such as Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile, doing the dirtiest work.
Bush’s open support for torture, and Donald Rumsfeld’s extraordinary personal overseeing of certain torture techniques, upset many in America’s “secret army” of subversive military and intelligence operators because it exposed how the system worked. Obama’s newly confirmed director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, has said the Army Field Manual may include new forms of “harsh interrogation” which will be kept secret.
Obama has chosen not to stop any of this. Neither do his ballyhooed executive orders put an end to Bush’s assault on constitutional and international law. He has retained Bush’s “right” to imprison anyone, without trial or charge. No “ghost prisoners” are being released or are due to be tried before a civilian court. His nominee for attorney general, Eric Holder, has endorsed an extension of Bush’s totalitarian USA Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to demand Americans’ library and bookshop records. The man of “change” is changing little. That ought to be front-page news from Washington.
The Lord West of Spithead Bollocks Prize (Runner-Up) is shared. On 28 January, a nationally run Greenpeace advertisement opposing a third runway at Heathrow Airport in London summed up the almost wilful naivety that has obstructed informed analysis of the Obama administration.
“Fortunately,” declared Greenpeace beneath a Godlike picture of Obama, “the White House has a new occupant, and he has asked us all to roll back the spectre of a warming planet.” This was followed by Obama’s rhetorical flourish about “putting off unpleasant decisions”. In fact, the president has made no commitment to curtail America’s infamous responsibility for the causes of global warming. As with George W Bush and most other modern-era presidents, it is oil, not stemming carbon emissions, that informs his administration. His national security adviser, General Jim Jones, a former Nato supreme commander, made his name planning US military control over the exploitation of oil and gas reserves from the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea to the Gulf of Guinea off Africa.
Sharing the Bollocks Runner-Up Prize is the Observer, which on 25 January published a major news report headlined, “How Obama set the tone for a new US revolution”. This was reminiscent of the Observer almost a dozen years ago when liberalism’s other great white hope, Tony Blair, came to power. “Goodbye xenophobia” was the Observer‘s post-election front page in 1997 and “The Foreign Office says ‘Hello World, remember us?'”. The government, said the breathless text, would push for “new worldwide rules on human rights and the environment” and implement “tough new limits” on arms sales. The opposite happened. Last year, Britain was the biggest arms dealer in the world; currently, it is second only to the United States.
In the Blair mould, the Obama White House “sprang into action” with its “radical plans”. The president’s first phone call was to that Palestinian quisling, the unelected and deeply unpopular Mahmoud Abbas. There was a “hot pace” and a “new era”, in which a notorious name from an ancien régime, Richard Holbrooke, was despatched to Pakistan. In 1978, Holbrooke betrayed a promise to normalise relations with the Vietnamese on the eve of a vicious embargo ruined the lives of countless Vietnamese children. Under Obama, the “sense of a new era abroad”, declared the Observer, “was reinforced by the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state”. Clinton has threatened to “entirely obliterate Iran” on behalf of Israel.
What the childish fawning over Obama obscures is the dark power assembled under cover of America’s first “post-racial president”. Apart from the US, the world’s most dangerous state is demonstrably Israel, having recently killed and maimed some 4,000 people in Gaza with impunity. On 10 February, a bellicose Israeli electorate is likely to put Binyamin Netanyahu into power. Netanyahu is a fanatic’s fanatic who has made clear his intention of attacking Iran. In the Wall Street Journal of 24 January, he described Iran as the “terrorist mother base” and justified the murder of civilians in Gaza because “Israel cannot accept an Iranian terror base [Gaza] next to its major cities”. On 31 January, unaware he was being filmed, Tel Aviv’s ambassador to Australia described the massacres in Gaza as a “pre-introduction” – a dress rehearsal – for an attack on Iran.
For Netanyahu, the reassuring news is that the new US administration is the most Zionist in living memory, a truth that has struggled to be told from beneath the soggy layers of Obama-love. Not a single member of the president’s team demurred from his support for Israel’s barbaric actions in Gaza. Obama himself likened the safety of his two young daughters with that of Israeli children but made not a single reference to the thousands of Palestinian children killed with American weapons – a violation of both international and US law. He did, however, demand that the people of Gaza be denied “smuggled” small arms with which to defend themselves against the world’s fourth-largest military power. And he paid tribute to the Arab dictatorships, such as Egypt, which are bribed by the US treasury to help the United States and Israel enforce policies described by the UN special rapporteur Richard Falk, a Jew, as “genocidal”.
It is time the Obama lovers grew up. It is time those paid to keep the record straight gave us the opportunity to debate informatively. In the 21st century, people power remains a huge and exciting and largely untapped force for change, but it is nothing without truth. “In the time of universal deceit,” wrote George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”