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4 days Ago

Some thoughts on reactions to Charlie Hebdo

Published by marco on

After a few days of coverage, the Charlie Hebdo attack had already started to resonate with the same vibrant religious fervor in France as the 9–11 attacks quickly did in America. Through the entire (mainstream and largely fringe) spectrum, though, there was an utter lack of awareness that what happened at those offices was just another normal day in the many places where the West exerts its influence.

Just how sympathetic do the French suppose an average Libyan would be to Parisian wails over these unwarranted and unprecedented attacks? By that I mean the Libyans that recall the hundreds of days on which they could see French jet fighters soaring overhead, dropping bombs indiscriminately, sending them back to the stone age and delivering whole swaths of the country over to warlords.[1]

The shock, the awe, at the Hebdo attack seems—as Noam Chomsky described the similar reaction to the 9–11 attacks—to be due to “guns being pointed in the other direction, for once”. When the West wipes out entire families and villages, it’s not newsworthy. When Western journalists are murdered in their own offices on a quiet street in a Parisian arrondissement, “the world has changed.”

That France is in large part responsible for the destruction and unrest and warlordism of North Africa in no way excuses the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices. Only an idiot in search of a straw man would infer that. But acknowledging the context of the attack might help explain it. It will help us perhaps conclude that the attack was perpetrated by angry madmen rather than the usual claptrap: that it was a mad religion or entire culture that was behind it (and which must, with heavy heart, be eradicated for if not its, then at least our, own good).

Context and logic will be, of course and as usual, ignore. Tragedy will be utilized to entrench existing power. It will be high time for revenge-taking.

On a dangerous ideology

One of the first reactions I read was the article The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders by George Packer (The New Yorker). I was struck by the innocence and utter tone-deafness of the following paragraph,

“They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. […] The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. […] The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.”

Mr. Packer expect every single one of his readers to guess that the ideology to which he is referring is Islamofascism. But a more astute and less rigidly brainwashed student of history would guess whatever you would call the ideology promulgated by the West. Capitalism? Globalism? Economic Colonialism? Every one of the statements in the citation above applies ten-fold to the United States, or to NATO. The ideology of the perpetrators of the recent murders in Paris was clearly the target of Packer’s prose. But that ideology is a positive piker when compared to the sheer destructive power of that of the U.S., spreading democracy and opening private markets everywhere its businesses need them.

Is Charlie Hebdo art worth fighting for?

Is that just a stupid question? (Spoiler: it’s mostly a stupid question.)

The post Long Live Formal Freedom! by Justin Erik Halldór Smith discusses the stupidity of saying that racist cartoons should not be protected by free speech—which is where many arguments quickly ended up, whether they meant to or not.

“At the same time, I feel light-years away, politically, from the ignorant ‘social justice warrior’ version of politics, mostly coming out of North America, which says, basically: “I’m sad people died and everything, but, um, racist satire is not OK.” As if there were no problem of who is going to be in a position to offer the final verdict on the OK/not-OK question. The state? Death squads?”

This is not at all the argument I am making. People can make crass and at-times funny but also at-times silly and stupid cartoons—everyone’s jokes fall flat sometimes. No-one should die for doing so.

What happened in Paris was a major crime. Just not more major because it happened in France, to Westerners. All of the other times—where the victims were far less classically photogenic in Europe—were crimes of just as great import.

But no-one really gives a shit until it happens here, in the West. And then it must be stopped and stamped out immediately and, of course, taken absolutely seriously and given the highest priority. And talked about and discussed and analyzed endlessly.

And solidarity with people otherwise considered wholly obnoxious and unpalatable must be evinced throughout the political spectrum. It’s bad but no worse than many, many other events. To make this much noise about Charlie Hebdo says quite a bit more about you than you think it might. Smith disagrees, though, to a large degree. I’ll cite him at length,

“We are living in such an image-critically illiterate age that jihadists in France and professors in American universities alike are entirely unable to interpret the Charlie Hebdo cartoons beyond a dull, clerical registering of the content of the images. There has been virtually no effort to make sense of their context, nor indeed of their success or failure as instances of the art of caricature. The attackers say “These images are an insult to the Prophet and they must be avenged,” and the social-media activists say, “Um, these images are racist, and that’s not OK,” but the critical skills at work in both cases are roughly the same. I certainly will not defend all of them, though I do think many are works of true inspiration. They have little in common with the hack work in the Danish newspapers (to which the great Art Spiegelman gave generally low grades) that set off this brutal campaign against cartoonists some years ago.”

Smith finds the cartoons to be high art in many cases, saying that one must make an “effort to make sense of their context, nor indeed of their success or failure as instances of the art of caricature.” Well, you don’t have to. But you have to not be so offended by it that you want to kill someone. That I can totally get behind. Mad Magazine also had/has some brilliant and cutting satire/parody, but it’d be hard to label anyone who didn’t find them funny as a Philistine.

 Tout est pardonnéI personally think that Hebdo is pulling everyone’s leg and even Smith’s normal vigilance has been covered in wool. Charlie Hebdo received 1 million euros from the French government to boost their first printing after the attacks to 7 million (from a regular circulation of about 40,000). They printed a cartoon of Mohammed with not one, but two poorly disguised dick-and-balls on his head. Hilarious. Absolutely the height of art and provocation and political statement. That’s about on the same level as A Million Ways to Die in the West and yet nobody’s calling that high art.

Smith veers a bit too close for comfort to the argument that anyone who thinks Hebdo too crass for their taste has tastes utterly lacking in nuance and sophistication. If you don’t think Mohammed with a Jewish star in his ass is funny, then you should learn French and French culture, enlighten yourself and then you’ll see what’s so funny. Or not. It’s the classic it’s-not-bad-art-you-just-don’t-get-it argument, which works to a degree and can be based on noted sources—Smith cites éminence grise Art Spiegelman—but it’s a hard argument to float effectively when you’re going for mass appeal and the masses just refuse to agree.

Uphill battles can be worth it, but you should pick them wisely.[2] Smith also may be suffering a bit from what typically happens when you’re deep enough in a foreign culture and language to get the jokes, but not deep enough to notice the deeper nuance. You’re just so happy that you fit in somewhere other than home that you end up liking cruder humor than you would in your home culture or mother tongue.

Smith concludes by drawing interesting parallels between offensive and noxious material produced as advertisement for a corporation versus the same produced to promulgate a personal or political opinion.

“We are now entirely unable to understand that a rag that specializes in satirical caricatures has different rules governing its representations than those governing, say, a glossy brochure issued by a political party, or, what is nearly the same thing, an advertisement for some corporate product. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t in that business, and it’s that business that stands to gain most from the elimination of satire as a viable form of opposition.”

It’s an interesting point, but I read it differently than I think Smith intended. If you’re trying to sell something, He argues that there is a lower bound for crassness, one that shouldn’t be there for political statements. I argue the opposite: there is no lower-bound for crassness for corporate work, but it’s the crassness with which our whole culture is imbued, that is like the air we breathe and so, we don’t notice it.

Even highly morally questionable ad campaigns—that seek to draw the poor into even deeper debt—don’t draw any fire. But a cartoon mocking religion—or even mocking other races—is too evil to allow to exist. The advertising you see every day that forces a nearly morality-free lifestyle down your throat draws no similar ire. And why would it? No-one ever told us that there was something wrong with that. It is, in fact, the right thing to do. Drawing a prophet’s face out of penises and testicles? That’s way over the line. Because genitals are bad.

We will see later that Charlie Hebdo was careful to attack the powerless. And the powerless attacked the equally powerless Charlie Hebdo (their circulation of 40,000 was laughable, no?) And the powerful sit back and chuckle while everyone buys all of their crap and centers

Defending freedom or racism?

 Jen Sorenson 20.01.2015In Smith’s post, he references the article On Charlie Hebdo by Richard Seymour (Jacobin), citing it as an example of exactly the kind of craven liberal kowtowing to moral relativism that he hates so very much. He writes,

“I think it’s despicable. I think blasphemous, insolent satire is a fundamental freedom, and that it is a feature of French political culture –a ‘value of the Republic’– worth defending, not uncritically or jingoistically, and not in a way that serves as a pretext for xenophobia and bigotry, but still in a way that doesn’t concede an inch.”

But reading the article, one sees that it says nearly exactly the same thing that Smith himself wrote, though he painted it as nearly diametrically opposed. Smith is normally much more careful than this and I can only imagine that he, despite his protestations to the contrary, is swept up in this same Je suis Charlie bullshit peddled by lesser and even more careless intellects.

For example, the Jacobin article writes

“Now, I think there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow “legitimate targets,” and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.”

In its lead, it warns that “we should fear the coming Islamophobic backlash.” I don’t see this as anything other than a warning to those who will get so swept up in their support (of freedom of the press) that they end up in opposition of a target (Islam) they did not themselves choose. This is sage advice, and advice that it appears Mr. Smith needs to consider, though I have a feeling that he pushed publish a bit too quickly on his article, as seems to be nearly everyone’s wont these days.

Jacobin is not the only one making the following argument; it seems to actually be a given that Charlie Hebdo often crossed the line, not in its viewpoint or its opinions, but often in its representation.

“I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that — irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.”

Hypocrites in power

The article In Solidarity With A Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons by Glenn Greenwald (The Intercept) analyzes the main tenet of free-speech activism.

“Central to free speech activism has always been the distinction between defending the right to disseminate Idea X and agreeing with Idea X, one which only the most simple-minded among us are incapable of comprehending. One defends the right to express repellent ideas while being able to condemn the idea itself. There is no remote contradiction in that: the ACLU vigorously defends the right of neo-Nazis to march through a community filled with Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois, but does not join the march; they instead vocally condemn the targeted ideas as grotesque while defending the right to express them.”

This seems clear enough, no? You can interpret “Je suis Charlie” as expressing support for the idea of free speech and freedom of expression without supporting their at-times racist drawings. As Jacobin stated above: there isn’t really any doubt that many of the drawings were racist. Greenwald agrees, and tells us why they not only got away with it—in a country where even a tiny whiff of anti-Semitism is crushed mercilessly and without a care in the world for freedom of expression (as we’ll see below)—but are now lionized in death for their great contribution to culture.

“[…] it is simply not the case that Charlie Hebdo “were equal opportunity offenders.” Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. […] the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews. Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome. And this messaging – this special affection for offensive anti-Islam speech – just so happens to coincide with, to feed, the militaristic foreign policy agenda of their governments and culture.”

The article What everyone gets wrong about Charlie Hebdo and racism by Max Fisher (VOX) presents the argument that Hebdo is lauded now because it didn’t speak truth to power, but acted more or less as an organ of power.

“Within the French culture war, Charlie Hebdo stands solidly with the privileged majority and against the under-privileged minorities. Yes, sometimes it also criticizes Catholicism, but it is best known for its broadsides against France’s most vulnerable populations. Put aside the question of racist intent: the effect of this is to exacerbate a culture of hostility, one in which religion and race are also associated with status and privilege, or lack thereof.”

The article France Arrests a Comedian For His Facebook Comments, Showing the Sham of the West’s “Free Speech” Celebration by Glenn Greenwald (First Look) discusses the way in which France expresses its support for freedom of speech mostly for anti-Muslim points of view.

“Since that glorious “free speech” march, […] “France ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism.” […] Vanishingly few of this week’s bold free expression mavens have ever uttered a peep of protest about any of those cases […] where Muslims have been prosecuted and even imprisoned for their political speech. That’s because “free speech,” […] actually means: it is vital that the ideas I like be protected, and the right to offend groups I dislike be cherished; anything else is fair game.

In a just world, Dieudonné‘s comments on Facebook should be just as vigorously defended as the genital-laden drawings of Charlie Hebdo,[3] “That’s true even if he were murdered for his ideas rather than “merely” arrested and prosecuted for them.”

Kill the Terrorists!

Jacobin finished its article by chiding that,

“The argument will be that for the sake of “good taste” we need “a decent interval” before we start criticizing Charlie Hebdo.”

On the other hand, we don’t need to wait a decent interval for (what counts for) justice in the more enlightened countries of the West these days. The three alleged gunmen have passed Go without collecting two-hundred dollars and been dispatched to meet their maker without a charge, an arrest, a trial, a conviction, a sentence or the involvement of the involvement of any members of the judiciary. It was purportedly a three-day manhunt and shootout that ended in the tragedy of all terrorists dead.

And we swallow this story whole … why exactly? At the same time that protests erupt in every corner of America about police brutality against minorities and illegal tactics and illegal arrests, we believe wholeheartedly that French police would never, ever be capable of such a thing. The U.S. might lie all the time, but if France says it caught and killed the guys, then that’s how it went down.

And almost no-one will see anything wrong with that. In fact, I’d wager that even to point this out is tantamount to sympathizing with journalist-killing extremists—because we like to keep things super-simple.

Why is it so hard to arrest people these days? Wouldn’t we rather bring them to trial, so that they can answer our questions about their horrific crimes? Aren’t we worried about having gotten the wrong guys? Should they have been killed? France does not have the death penalty, so it wasn’t legally a just punishment. Hell, were the guys they killed even the perpetrators? Why did they do it? Only speculation from here on out because they will never say a word about it. How many were there? Who actually did the killing? No-one cares.

When a much more horrific act is perpetrated on utter children—Brejvik’s 70+ murders in Norway a few years back—the perpetrator is brought to trial and questioned about his motives. In this case, the world is satisfied with a quickly tied knot on the “case”.

Everyone loves a parade

Speaking of simple, as detailed in Who is Marching Anywhere to Honor Those Killed in Baga? by John V. Whitbeck (CounterPunch),

“Bibi Netanyahu, […] has lectured Western leaders that “the terror of Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and Al-Qaida” won’t end “unless the West fights it physically, rather than fighting its false arguments””

This from Netanyahu, whose leadership of Israel included presiding over indiscriminate killing of thousands of Palestinians, among them more than a few journalists, whom Israeli soldiers would mistakenly kill despite their being emblazoned with a giant “Press” tag.

It didn’t take long for England to jump on board, taking advantage of the opening provided by the attack. Here’s David Cameron, cited in the article UK prime minister wants backdoors into messaging apps or he’ll ban them (Ars Technica)

“The attacks in Paris demonstrated the scale of the threat that we face and the need to have robust powers through our intelligence and security agencies in order to keep our people safe, […]”

Of course, David. It’s clear that the problem is that England doesn’t have enough control over its citizens. Can anyone even imagine how much George Orwell would be drinking should he catch a glimpse of 21st-century England?

The terrorists always win

The article Striking Fear in Paris by Uri Avnery (CounterPunch) points out what should be obvious—that the drastic overreaction by France was certainly a gigantic reward for anyone desperate or disturbed enough to think that their viewpoint was worth losing their own lives.

“By committing two attacks (quite ordinary ones by Israeli standards) they spread panic throughout France, brought millions of people onto the streets, gathered more than 40 heads of states in Paris. They changed the landscape of the French capital and other French cities by mobilizing thousands of soldiers and police officers to guard Jewish and other potential targets. For several days they dominated the news throughout the world.

“Three terrorists, probably acting alone. Three!!!

“For other potential Islamic terrorists throughout Europe and America, this must look like a huge achievement.”

And not just Islamic terrorists: preening narcissists everywhere will be paying very close attention. Although the main result of these acts will be for the West to double down on what most likely caused them in the first place because “we won’t be cowed by terrorists.” So for every one of “ours” that “they” get, we’ll take out thousands of theirs. And make no mistake, this most-likely result is obvious to the leaders of the free world. They get to collect even more power for themselves while blaming Muslims. At the worst, people they do not know or care about will die.

Avnery goes on to chastise the organizers of the march because they refuse to try to figure out how to really solve the problem of people killing each other for stupid reasons.[4]

“To conduct an effective fight, one has to put oneself first into the shoes of the fanatics and try to understand the dynamic that pushes young local-born Muslims to commit such acts. Who are they? What do they think? What are their feelings? In what circumstances did they grow up? What can be done to change them?”

The article goes on to provide a fascinating analysis of Israeli involvement in this current chapter—Netanyahu invited himself!—and the history of Jewish and Muslim movements in former French colonies like Algeria (North-African Jews almost all sided with the colonial power).

And finally: psychoanalyzing hate

The article Are the worst really full of passionate intensity? by Slavoj Ži(z)ek (New Statesman) takes a typically contrarian view but provides a truly fascinating lens through which to view the whole affair. It has everything you would expect from a Ži(z)ek article:

  1. Contrarian beginning
  2. Trenchant analysis
  3. Mention Hegel/Nietzsche
  4. Big finish condemning our liberal democracy and capitalism

The only thing missing was a reference to Lacan.

I kid. It was quite a strong article; I had a hard time picking only a few citations and had to cut drastically. I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety at the link above.

Ži(z)ek starts off with the boilerplate condemnation of violence etc. etc.

“Now, when we are all in a state of shock after the killing spree in the Charlie Hebdo offices, it is the right moment to gather the courage to think. We should, of course, unambiguously condemn the killings as an attack on the very substance our freedoms, and condemn them without any hidden caveats (in the style of “Charlie Hebdo was nonetheless provoking and humiliating the Muslims too much”). But such pathos of universal solidarity is not enough – we should think further. (Emphasis added.)”

Žižek advises as Avnery does: “Of course we should not overreact, if by this is meant succumbing to blind Islamophobia – but we should ruthlessly analyse this pattern.” That is, we should not ignore the act, but neither should we enter the moment in history as a pivotal one. Ži(z)ek goes on to describe the dialectic as it is presented to us.

“We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” seems perfectly to render our present predicament: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

We in the West are decadent and too lazy to defend ourselves whereas the Muslim radical is full of revolutionary vigor, following a single-minded purpose. And therefore—here it comes—we need our Colonel Jessup on that wall, doing our dirty work, protecting us from a universe bent on our destruction and, most importantly, allowing us to continue to live in our dream world. A demand that we yield more rights that we aren’t using and more money for the military quickly follows.

Žižek goes on to psychoanalyze the fundamentalist terrorist (as presented to us).

“However, do the terrorist fundamentalists really fit this description? What they obviously lack is a feature [of] authentic fundamentalists, […] the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? […] In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers. (Emphasis added.)”

I would be more precise here: fundamentalists fight to defend a lifestyle that they want to lead and that they want everyone in their group to continue leading. But they acknowledge—at least somewhere deep down—that this lifestyle is very rigorous, at-times brutal and simplistic, especially when compared with the Western lifestyle, which appears on the surface to be all sunshine and rainbows.

Western society is also rigorous, at-times brutal and simplistic—especially in the U.S.—but it hides it much better. It sells it much better. But the idea of a small group of extremists deluding the rest of society into working against their interests—does that ring a bell? In the West’s case, in capitalism’s case, it’s the 1% or 0.1% hauling around everyone else by the nose. Instead of a promise of heavenly reward, the carrot is reward in this lifetime—just as elusive and fictive. The fundamentalist is afraid that the support system for his lifestyle will jump ship. And without a support staff, nobody’s cooking dinner for them.

“How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper? The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.

“The problem is not cultural difference […] but the opposite fact [sic] that the fundamentalists […] have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’ conviction of their own superiority. (Emphasis added.)”

It is important to remember that this is probably true of all fundamentalists—the Islamists we’re meant to condemn as well as those running our world for us. And I think that there’s more than a bit of fear mixed in—fear that their scam will be found out. That is always the fear, no? The slave driver on a galley is utterly aware that he stays in power through conviction alone. Were his slaves to rise up, they could easily overwhelm him.[5] In the same way, the 0.1% know that the best defense is a good offense. The mullahs as well. Keep your minions on the back foot, keep them bobbing and weaving, keep them distracted, keep them producing for you—else they might just start thinking.

The fundamentalism of our own dear leaders in the West is more dangerous because (A) it is largely invisible because it’s part of the background, so (B) they have already won. As Žižek himself says in his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the underlying ideology is more fundamentalist and deep-rooted than its comparatively minor and much more obvious enemies. These disposable enemies are used to keep people distracted from the control the overarching ideology has over every aspect of their lives. They are allowed to direct all of their hate there where it suits the prevailing powers the most, expending their revolutionary effort without damaging the existing power structure.

But that power structure is just as fundamentalist and perpetually scared. It knows that it can only maintain control as long as it continues driving forward, pointing to innumerable versions of Emmanuel Goldstein.

“What Max Horkheimer had said about Fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s − those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism − should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”


[1]

The article France Under the Influence by Diane Johnstone (CounterPunch) discusses this in more detail.

“French leaders need to take a hard look at their own totally incoherent foreign policy […] By taking the symbolic lead in the regime change war in Libya, France turned that country into a black hole of Islamic extremists. France collaborated in the murder of Gaddafi […] The NATO destruction of Gaddafi’s Libya brought France into war in Mali, in pursuit of an elusive enemy that Gaddafi had managed to control.”
[2] Sage advice that I utterly fail to follow often enough.
[3] Seriously, once you start looking for them, they’re everywhere in those magazine covers.
[4] Not only that but alternate-angle shots of the so-called parade showed it for the press-event farce that it was. There were fewer people there than at the pulling-down of Saddam’s statue and there were cops everywhere. Not only that, but certain religious newspapers digitally erased Angela Merkel (DE) and Simonetta Sommeruga (CH) because women aren’t allowed to be depicted with men.
[5] You’ll excuse the perhaps odd-seeming example; I’m reading Don Quixote right now.

3 weeks Ago

Stop blowing other people up #1342

Published by marco on

A few month ago, a friend sent a link to this article, The Islamic State Panic by Michael Brenner (Huffington Post). I found this response in my inbox.

tl;dr: Michael Brenner makes the point that the West—especially America—simplifies foreign policy to the detriment of all. He argues that they should stop doing this. I heartily concur and feel that they should, in fact, stop blowing things up entirely.

HuffPo? Really? Ok, fine. Ignore stupid chain of articles littering the right-hand side. Avoid long diatribe about our inevitable slide toward a worldwide Idiocracy. Avoid digression.

Decent article. Well-written. You know I’m a sucker for this kind of thing:

“The ensuing storm of static in our public space is invasive. It destroys the ability to reflect, to assess, to ponder, to imagine. We have come to ‘think’ in sound bites as well as to talk in sound bites.”

He chose a decidedly different conclusion than I would have. The evidence he amassed points to a pile of fools in the West who are not only occasionally wrong, but almost pathologically so.

In that case, I would have argued more strongly that all of these people are exactly not the ones who should be making decisions about what kind of military action to take in foreign countries.

The notion that there is a such a thing as a humanitarian military intervention is still very much accepted, even by Mr. Brenner, who is, at least, possessed of an otherwise laudable skepticism.

Rather than concluding that empty-headed leaders and medal-bespeckled commanders should keep their traps shut for once—ostensibly to let the diplomats do their work—he should have strengthened his argument to conclude that we in the West are perhaps the last ones who should be poking our noses in the affairs of others.

Especially if we continue to fly the flag of the moral high-ground rather than admit that everything we do is in our basest interests that makes us not at all any different from those we claim are the enemy. That we dress it up in a base capitalism that we’ve all but convinced the world is intrinsic to human society doesn’t make it any better.

2 months Ago

Relating to Race with Chris Rock

Published by marco on

I’d heard that the article In Conversation: Chris Rock by Frank Rich (Vulture) including some groundbreaking statements on race by Chris Rock. I like Chris Rock and I like his standup. He’s a comedian, though, so while his niggers vs. black people bit was funny at the time, in retrospect, it’s a savage attack on the poor and uneducated. Still, admittedly funny at the time.

On Bill Maher

Seeing that Frank Rich of the New York Times had interviewed him was not encouraging. So let’s see what Rock has to say. It starts off … suspiciously. Frank asks about “the attempt to bar Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley for his riff on Muslims”. How the hell is it appropriate to classify Maher’s material as a “riff” on Muslims? He is an adamant and unapologetic Islamophobe. He doesn’t riff on them; he basically advocates eradicating them as an otherwise unsolvable problem. And he’s been doing it long enough in non-comedic settings that we have to assume he means it.

Maher changed roles from comedian to political analyst quite a while ago. In neither role is he very good, in my opinion, but that’s neither here nor there. But it’s easy to see that Rock has a weird—though quintessentially American—definition of “left” when he later in the interview classifies “Maher [as] on the left”. Maher is in fact a self-described, fanatical libertarian who thinks Muslims are evil. That is in no way a leftist attitude. So take Rock’s political opinions with a grain of salt: he seems relatively well-indoctrinated, unfortunately. I say “seems” because Rock is a comedian and he generally tries to make people laugh, not to provide trenchant analysis.

Rock responds to the question about Maher’s “ban” from Berkeley[1] that he too “stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.” That’s his answer. Instead of distancing himself from Maher and his poisonous racism, he sympathizes with him, noting that kids these days are too intolerant.

Kids these days

There is evidence that this newest generation is considerably more sensitive to discrimination issues, that they feel more entitled to not hearing opinions that they consider unsavory. That this sensitivity leads to an aversion to Maher is not a bad thing. In addition, anyone who picks Berkeley to represent colleges in general is out of touch. I can’t imagine that Berkeley and Texas A&M are at all on the same wavelength as far as racism-sensitivity goes. Calling a college like Berkeley conservative is just baiting contrarianism. Rock’s just trying to get the interviewer to double-take. Classifying kids who don’t want their school to pay a racist for his hate speech as conservative is not correct, and is even unfair.

Let the idiot talk

I don’t agree with banning racists, by the way. I prefer to hear the racist or the islamophobe—give him or her enough rope to hang him- or herself. Will some people cheer him or her on? Sure, and they will self-identify as well as people desperately in need of guidance or avoidance, depending on how far gone they are.

But how many times do we have to hear someone’s unaccepting schtick before we stop giving that person a stage? Have we heard enough from Rush Limbaugh now to form an opinion? Can we stop listening now? Are we sure that he doesn’t have something useful to contribute to the conversation? Does Rock still listen to Limbaugh? You know, just to be sure he isn’t missing something? Probably not. And the rest of us have stopped listening to Maher.

We all have a limited amount of time to spend on things. Maher isn’t worth it, in my opinion. I understand that it’s highly unlikely that this is Berkeley didn’t host him—to help people avoid wasting time. They probably did it for the petty, closed-minded reason that Rock cited. Should Berkeley have booked him and paid him, but let all of its campus groups encourage no-one to show up? Pay him to play an empty room—there, that’ll show him? That sounds kinda stupid, too. Where a lovely guy like Maher’s involved, it’s damned if you do and damned if you dont’.

Comedians are different

Rock definitely has a point about comedians. Comedians are often not even representing their own opinions in their material and their act. They’re just being funny. Bill Burr is a classic example. Some of his material is jarring, but when you hear him banter with another comedian, you realize he’s a more even-handed guy than his on-stage persona. He has a pretty big audience, some of whom probably take him seriously, but what can you do?

And you can’t make people want to listen to stuff that makes them uncomfortable. Does it possibly expand your horizons? I think that it does. But it’s not for everyone. Most people don’t have the ironic background to let them process things that aren’t true and still glean something from the experience. I like Bill Hicks. I like Doug Stanhope. But I’m not surprised if Stanhope has trouble booking a gig at Berkeley.

Rock’s other policy ideas

Rich keeps asking Rock policy questions, but it’s unclear whether Rock is answering as a comedian or as a policy analyst. Most of his metaphors sound like bits, so it’s hard to take it seriously. He seems to be uncomfortably apologetic about Obama, which isn’t too surprising since he probably thinks Obama’s a goody-two-shoes leftist who’s trying his best.

His take on race relations is spot-on, though:

“Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”

I have nothing to add there.

Is a black president a sign of progress?

The following statement from Rock seems right, doesn’t it?

“[…] to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

Is it, though? Can we first agree on what we call progress? Or that we don’t all think of progress in the same way? Rock and I—I will venture—consider progress to be a society that is capable of electing the best leader regardless of skin color. That is, a society that can choose a leader based on qualities salient to the job rather than non-relevant ones is more advanced than one that cannot. At the very least, that society will have leaders more likely to fulfill the needs of a larger proportion of the population.[2]

Is that what happened, though? Is it that these “[qualified] black people” that Rock mentions simply kept on keepin’ on and white America finally noticed and elected one? Or is it more that these intelligent black people figured out how to make themselves more appealing to the entrenched system?

Obama is not Martin Luther King. Before we pat ourselves on the back for having elected a black man, we should consider what kind of man he is. He is policy-wise no different than Bush. He’s arguably worse.[3] He’s like Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas—all very powerful black people. However, the reason they’re allowed to be powerful is because they promulgate the white agenda. They play nice. They’re not Django; they’re Stephen. So I don’t think it’s progress in the way that Rock characterizes it.

End on a high note

Where Rock does hit a proper note is that the newer generations are objectively better at ignoring race than previous ones. It is not clear that we are moving toward the goal of being an actually “advanced” society, as defined above. Perhaps we have to wait for a few more generations to die off first.

So we’re still not great at it, but as Rock puts it,

“The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

Indeed. I can back that 100%.[4]


[1] Deciding not to pay someone a likely exorbitant sum to play your campus is not quite the same as banning that person. It’s likely he would have been allowed to play the campus for free, you know, standing in a quad or something. Maher presumably deemed that to be beneath his regard. That’s not banning, though. His free speech was not infringed upon.
[2] I am aware that this statement is only conditionally true but unpacking it in a way that does the issue justice is beyond the scope of this article.
[3] Or better, depending on your station in life (go 1%ers!) and/or attitude toward unbridled jingoism and militarism
[4] “But, but, what about the blacks?” I imagine some you sputtering, “don’t they have to be nicer too?” No, no, not yet. Because we’re not really on even footing yet (see yesterday’s article for some ugly, ugly statistics). Rock uses a metaphor with Ike and Tina Turner, but I’ll summarize it as: if a man is beating his wife, he has to stop beating his wife. While it’s possible that her constant mouthing-off is the reason he gives for beating her, only a monster would suggest that her shutting up is the solution. The person who says “shut up so I can stop hitting you” is the one with the problem. For those lost in the metaphor: suggesting that blacks simply stop moving their hands in public so cops don’t shoot them is a stupid, stupid idea. Sit down and we’ll call on you when we want another opinion.

Michael Brown and Ferguson

Published by marco on

I haven’t really weighed in on this topic because I’m still digesting it. There are so many interlocking parts and so many reasons for why things are not right that an off-the-cuff article just doesn’t do the topic justice. A lot of what you read gives the impression that the fact that people are rioting in one town in the Midwest is a good excuse for trotting out more unsavory opinions in the guise of chastening those thugs and hoodlums who can’t abide by the rule of law.

If you assumed that with “thugs and hoodlums who can’t abide by the rule of law”, I was referring to the folks on the streets in Ferguson, then you might want to count down from ten before you contribute anything to a discussion on race. If you wondered to yourself whether I meant those in power—represented by cops these days—instead of the knee-jerk target, then you’re in the right frame of mind for thinking about social policy in a U.S. in a way that might lead to solutions rather than a further cementing of existing disparities.

Kunstler’s theory: blacks are getting away with murder

The article Now Eric Garner by James Howard Kunstler is one such unsavory opinion. He’s wildly off base when he writes,

“Worse, the decision only muddied the public’s view of several events in recent years involving black people, police, and standards of behavior so that now a general opinion prevails that all black people are always treated badly for no reason. That was the same week, by the way, that a white Bosnian immigrant named Zemir Begic was bludgeoned to death by three black teenagers wielding hammers who were out beating on stopped cars on a St Louis street — a crime that was barely covered in the news media, and went unprotested outside the immigrant neighborhood where it occurred.”

I’ve followed Kunstler for years and have noticed the warping already in his discussions of Israel and Palestine, but this is almost too unpalatable to keep reading.

Why is that?

This is poorly veiled code for: black people sure seem to be committing a lot of crime. And now they’re whining about getting shot once in a while? Because cops notice that blacks commit crime? What kind of a messed-up country are we? By bringing Zemir Begic into it, Kunstler is comparing apples to oranges and is, honestly, not even trying to understand what is going on outside of his unfortunately warped lens.

Use your brain

I want to emphasize that this is a guy who can contribute in nuanced way to many discussions, but here he just seems tone-deaf. He falls into the same trap that the less-informed do: they come to statistically and experimentally untenable conclusions. For example, dozens of studies will tell you that the various racial groups in the U.S. tend to commit about the same percentage of crimes in the various categories in direct relation to their proportion of the population.

Where the racism comes in, is in the arrest rates. If only blacks are arrested for doing crack, we can conclude that only they are doing crack. Unless we also know from anonymous studies that everyone does crack, but the cops only seem to catch black people doing it. The theory that black people do more drugs is belied by the data. The next theory is that there is a racist component to the arrest rates. Science is really not that hard.

Desperation explains crime

People are not pissed because they are being treated slightly unfairly. They are pissed because they know that the whole system is tipped against them and now on top of having unutterably shitty lives of mostly silently suffering desperation they’re being murdered in increasing numbers and in ways that are sanctioned by the state. They have understandably moved to a game plan that is based on a realization that once they can just execute you with impunity, you don’t have very much more to lose and you just about have to fight back.

And this is not just a black thing. It’s very much a class thing, with homeless and poor of all races being treated poorly across the board. The incarceration numbers—percentages and sentence lengths—speak for themselves: the American justice system is extremely racist from top to bottom. No study bears out the theory that “black people commit more crime.” Poor and desperate people do commit more crimes.

That’s small stuff, though, Rich people do much more harm with their crimes. But we don’t care about those. Instead, we suck the poor dry, like vampire mosquitos, with fines and penalties and late fees and exorbitant interest rates. We have a society that drives them to crime, just to survive, and then we hammer them for it all the more, exclaiming exasperatedly that “these people just won’t learn”.

Oh, I think they’ve learned quite well the lesson that society has taught them. And just like many of us have learned the lesson our experiences in society have taught us: that nothing really bad can happen to us, no matter what, they’ve also learned their lesson: no matter what you do, you’re fucked.

Murder depends on the perp

To get back to Kunstler’s article, the difference between Begic’s murder and the murder of Michael Brown is that suspects were arrested in the former case whereas in the latter the perpetrator was let go without a trial.

The difference is that when the powerless prey on the powerless, arrests are made. When the powerful prey on the powerless, nothing happens.

And that’s why people are protesting.

People have been arrested for Begic’s murder and his family will likely get justice. Eric Garner was choked to death by several police and the country chuckles to itself that it was his own fault for being so fucking fat.

Disgusting.

An egoist’s reasoning against racism

While we’re on the subject of tone-deafness and “not helping”, the article When Whites Just Don’t Get It by Nicholas Kristof (New York Times) ends up exhorting whites to ask themselves “what’s in it for me?”

The article seemed promising at first, despite the byline, which is ordinarily a warning to keep away. I’d gotten a reference from a reliable source and the citations were also encouraging.

For example,

“The net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to 2011 census data.”

That is truly staggering. There are more equally staggering facts, all of them showing a massive disparity, based pretty much solely on skin color. Blacks are far more likely to go to jail, they get paid less—and the income and wealth disparities have only gotten worse, not better.

For once, Kristof’s heart seems to be in the right place—he writes that the feeling that racism is dead is a “smug white delusion”.

Unfortunately, it seems to be impossible for Kristof to write further about this topic without his standard veil of disingenuousness. For example, in the following citation, he take the “we’re all in this together” attitude, appealing to his mostly white readers with a message not of basic morality but of self-interest. As usual.

“All these constitute not a black problem or a white problem, but an American problem. When so much talent is underemployed and overincarcerated, the entire country suffers.”

Yeah, but blacks suffer just a bit more than whites. It’s like a husband telling him wife after he’s beaten her bloody one more time: “we’re both suffering, honey. Look—my knuckles are all skinned. And…and, I get nightmares.”

And here, while he’s able to correctly point out that mass incarceration is one of the chief weapons employed, he’s incapable of calling it for what it is: a deliberate means of unfairly keeping the black man in line.

“Because of the catastrophic experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated today than employed”

Don’t be stupid

It’s not exactly a tipping point for America today, but the world is looking on with an ever-more-appalled look on its face. Things have however been this bad—and worse—before, so we shouldn’t flatter ourselves into thinking that this time it will be different. Instead, we should examine our knee-jerk reactions to these killings and make sure we have some facts before spouting off 19th-century opinions about the “mind of the negro”.

We should all try to be better, try not to be so swayed by lazy, stupid arguments that end up in cul de sacs rather than in workable solutions. If you think you have the solution to America’s problems, think your idea through to the end and see if it wouldn’t eventually lead to internment camps or curfews or perhaps a quick little “cleansing”. If it does, back away slowly, and let the grown-ups do the talking for a while.

3 months Ago

Workfare instead of welfare

Published by marco on

I received the post Maine Just Changed Their Food-Stamp Policy… Every State Should Do This (Conservative Tribune) from a friend.

The friend wondered whether the following was a good idea. They thought it might be, but asked if I could confirm.

“[…] adults 18 to 50 years old with no children and who are able to work must do so or volunteer for 20 hours each week. Otherwise, their benefits will be limited to three months over a three-year period”

This is one of those superficially seductive ideas that keeps coming up. Basically, should the U.S. privatize and marketize the remaining social components of its safety net? Should it remove the last vestiges of mercy from its society?

They are not us

This idea assumes that people on welfare are lazy. That their inability to support themselves and their families and subsequent desperation is purely their own fault. That they deserve their fate.

But—and I think this is the most important part of all—if we believe that those on welfare deserve to be treated poorly, then those of us not on welfare are free to believe that we earned our much better lives.

There is no mercy in such a system, no acknowledgment that the system treats some much worse than others. That luck plays a large role in the lives of both the most disadvantaged and the most advantaged.

There are so many factors dooming people to poverty in America. Programs like this, that force their participants to dance for their supper, are a cruel joke. They make those of us who will never have to be part of one of these programs feel vindicated, but that feeling comes from a petty, stupid and cruel place.

Lazy. Stupid. Ignorant.

Given this presupposition, it of course makes sense to punish others for being poor, to extract what we can from them instead of supporting these parasites.

There are so many reasons other than laziness that people can’t get jobs:

  • There aren’t enough jobs that pay living wages
  • The jobs that are available are soul-killing or physically dangerous
  • The education system is a joke; There is no training for good jobs
  • The continuing education system is weak to nonexistent
  • Many “decent” jobs are out of reach for anyone without at least a bachelor’s degree
  • There is prejudice everywhere against the poor
    • Don’t have nice clothes? Forget office work
    • Can’t speak without an accent? Or slang? Forget office work
    • Bad teeth? Forget a whole slew of jobs
    • Not pretty? Overweight? Same thing.
    • Black? Hispanic?

Tantamount to slavery

Instead of giving the poor help to get them back on their feet, we give them what amount to jobs. I suppose this sounds good to some. There’s a lot of work to do and not enough people to do it.

If they don’t comply, they no longer get the benefit of the doubt. If they don’t comply, they get their super-generous benefits of a few hundred dollars per month for only three months and then nothing for thirty-three more months.

If you can’t find a job of your own—or are unwilling to do so—you have to do the job you’re given by the state. This is just a transformation of the unemployment program, though. Instead of making you seek out jobs in your area of expertise, these new programs just give you a job.

And what do you get paid for this job? The article says “or volunteer 20 hours each week”. If you have to do the work to get benefits, then it is, by definition, not volunteering. But what they mean by “volunteer” is that you’re doing the job for no salary, other than the benefits (which you used to get for free).

Welfare benefits are notoriously meager. Most recipients are scraping the bottom of the barrel by the third week of the month, no matter how well they stretch them. This is not a luxurious lifestyle.

So, even if you do get paid for your work, the salary is almost certainly far below minimum wage.

Life in the hands of the state

Under such a system, people will have a job of sorts, but far less chance to get control back over their lives.

If you spend 20 hours per week working at this shitty, super-low-paid job, do you have time to find a better one? No, you probably do not. Do you have time for your continuing education program? No to that too. What about your kids? Who takes care of them while you work? Hire a babysitter. It’s good for the economy.

It’s hard to imagine that society that converts its welfare program to something like this will pay a living wage. And you can forget about benefits or any thought for how a life is supposed to work under this regime. That’s not the taxpayer’s problem because they’re already being generous enough by throwing a few dollars and a job the recipient’s way.[1]

Don’t like it? Don’t take the extravagant benefits, you lazy bastard.

And stop whining about your kids.

You shouldn’t have had them if you can’t take care of them.

Freeloader.

And your kids are future freeloaders.

Race to the bottom

These programs are not new. Back in the 90s, the “workfare” program was the brainchild of Bill Clinton (yep, the so-called progressive). Mayor Rudolph Guiliani implemented it in NYC by making welfare recipients work in the park system.

What happened? Their salaries were on the order of a dollar or two per hour and so they were much cheaper to hire than the current park staff. The current staff was let go and replaced with much–lower-paid unskilled labor. A win all around, right? The skilled and trained labor lost their good jobs.

Taxpayers win because they also don’t have to pay for benefits or pensions or anything. Awesome, right? Because nobody who mattered knew anyone with a good job in the park system, so the park workers might as well not even exist.

So what happens with all of those people who just lost their jobs? No problem. They go on welfare and can go right back to work in the park, but at 1/10 of their former salary without benefits or a pension. Sweet.

This kind of program gets rid of good jobs and makes everyone race to the bottom, working harder for less. It’s capitalism at its finest.

No more unions, no more pensions, no more benefits. Not for the poor. They don’t deserve it. If they did, wouldn’t they already have it?

Being poor is not a crime

The problem with this workfare kind of thinking is that it demonizes those out of work or down on their luck. It takes the few that are really lazy, makes anecdotes out of them to convince people that everyone is like that, and then making slaves out of them, more or less.

You can’t say, as the governor of Maine did, that you’re doing “all that you can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work” if you haven’t actually created real jobs and real job training. If the only jobs around are life-draining and crappy—and you have to get two of them to survive—are we surprised that people don’t want to do them?

Do some take advantage? Sure, they do. Do we doom the majority that actually need welfare programs and could benefit from them just to punish the few that ruin it for everyone? Do we have to do it? Is it that we can’t afford it? Or that we spend money on everything but the poor?

This program will drive people off of welfare—not because they don’t want to work, but because they don’t want to get trapped into the forced-work program of the state. They want dignity and control over their own lives, even though they’re poor. Can’t we afford to give them that?

There’s no money in helping people

If we need to spend billions and trillions to deploy to Iraq or to build the next generation of super-weapons or to start giant new agencies—like Homeland Security and the TSA—ostensibly to fight terrorism, no one says a thing.

Spend a few millions on the poor without them somehow paying us back and we’re up in arms.

We have no sense of proportion. We are not very nice.

Behavioral therapy

And we are cruel to those less fortunate. Because ill fortune is mostly why people are poor: they aren’t lucky enough to have been rewarded for the right behavior. Life has taught them that it’s not even worth trying anymore. They’re not necessarily inherently stupid or lazy; they have just learned the lesson that their lives taught them.

We continue to try because our experience has trained us that if we work hard, we achieve. How many years would you continue to work hard if you never achieved? If you were never rewarded, not even once? If life swatted you down? Every. Single. Time. Would you really keep getting back up?

Would you work as hard as you do if you were paid $150 a week after taxes? Would you keep looking for that job with the same energy after the first year of joblessness? At what point do you say “yes” to something criminal just to get some cash to feed yourself or your family?

And then you’re going to jail. Because you’re a criminal and deserve it. Because being poor pretty much is a crime.

Standing in judgment

We find it so easy to judge people about whom we know nothing. And it’s easy to lump all the poor together because most of us don’t know any of them or don’t have to sympathize with them. Or we hear stories about them from TV. Stories written by people who also probably don’t know any poor people. Or from cops, who have an adversarial relationship to them, granted them by the state. It goes on and on.

We don’t know them but we feel perfectly comfortable judging them. Only a society without empathy could make a so-called welfare system life this.


[1] I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, but am not expecting it.