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10 months Ago

The West deigns to help Islam modernize

Published by marco on

In defense of Islam (3QuarksDaily) cites a same-named blog post by Ross Douthat (New York Times) in which he uses quite-dense prose to obfuscate the central message: he argues that the fanaticism of ISIS rises directly from Islamic scripture and shouldn’t be treated as necessarily crazy. The first step in ending a needless war is the recognition that the enemy is not crazy, but Douthat’s interpretation is more insidious, I think.

“Western analysts tend to understate not only the essential religiosity of ISIS’s worldview, but the extent to which that worldview has substantial theological grounding. It isn’t just a few guys making up a cult out of random bits of scripture; its political-religious vision appeals precisely because it derives “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” And we ignore the coherence of those interpretations at our peril: The Islamic State’s “intellectual genealogy” is intensely relevant to its political strategy, and its theology “must be understood to be combatted.””

He seems to argue, as others did before him—and as contemporaries like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins do—that Islam is inherently violent. This is a spectacularly tone-deaf and unproductive line of argument that fails to recognize the unbelievable level or violence and religious justification for it employed by the society in which Douthat—and all of his tone-deaf contemporaries—find themselves. The U.S. military is an extremely religious organization. It would be much more honest to just argue that humanity is inherently violent, independent of religious affiliation.

Douthat goes on to soften his initial paragraphs to “give the rest of Islam credit for being, well, Islamic as well, and for having available arguments and traditions and interpretations that marginalized this kind of barbarism in the past, and God willing can do so once again.” This is a wonderful sentiment but how is poor Islam to control its worst elements when crusading Christianity is constantly whipping up fervor with its bombs and suffering? And then there is the underlying superiority of these argument in which Douthat talks of “synthesiz[ing] Islam fully with Western modernity” as if there were a natural progression of civilization in which the current Western one was clearly superior to anything else. If we were to dig through objectively, that may end up being the case, but assuming so a priori is not bound to be convincing to those over whom you are claiming superiority—especially when it’s not immediately obvious.

I happened to stumble on an older, unpublished blog post that I wrote in early 2009 that described the exact same attitude of the west toward Islam, in this case as channelled by the late Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens on his friend, Rushdie (Jan. 2009)

Christopher Hitchens is an exquisite writer of English, as is Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s books are, on the whole, amazing reads, and Hitchens’s articles as well, when he’s not raging too hard about some of his more deep-seated, right-wing opinions (the unending justness and rightness of the Iraq war being one particular such hobby-horse). Assassins of the Mind by Christopher Hitchens (Vanity Fair) talks of his relationship with Rushdie over the years and, in particular, the violent attitude that leads followers of a religion to heed a fatwa issued against a novelist.

It is interesting that the violence of Islamic extremists gets consistent copy from Hitchens while examples abound of similarly violent efforts at suppression by others as well. When he speaks of “a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table”, it is very easy to get confused and think he is talking of the Holocaust, when he is, in fact, speaking of the outbreak of violence one can expect when writing, saying or showing something that may be taken as offensive by extremist Islam. It certainly seems to be granting a tremendous amount of power to a population segment that is (A) much more often getting the shitty end of the stick and (B) on the wane for years now, were it not for the efforts of exactly the governments that Hitchens so wholeheartedly continues to support in their efforts to do the Crusades right, once and for all.

It is especially ironic that the publishing cycle brings this article to the light of day now, two weeks into the latest, ghastly Israeli steamrolling of Gaza, when international commentary has failed to bring any serious form of condemnation to bear against Israel for their having thrown themselves into an attack based seemingly exclusively on tactics that are war crimes. For many that see the problem, that “shadowy figure” of the Holocaust prevents them from speaking out as they would against any other nation that acted in a similar manner.

When Hitchens calls Iran “the prison house that is the Islamic Republic”, he is only partly correct because such a statement can only be an exaggeration with a nation that has such a rich culture. It applies far better to a nation like North Korea, for example. His heart’s in the right place, but his condemnation of an entire nation—the 127 writers he mentions excluded, of course—puts him dangerously close to having his opinion interpreted as an implicit assent to a regime-change in Iran, as has been sought by the same regimes that brought us the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which Hitchens still approves, though not unreservedly. So, he’s right, but a bit too enthusiastically and exhibiting a bit of the fanaticism that he so rightly condemns in the target of his ire.

“To indulge the idea of religious censorship by the threat of violence is to insult and undermine precisely those in the Muslim world who are its intellectual cream, and who want to testify for their own liberty—and for ours. It is also to make the patronizing assumption that the leaders of mobs and the inciters of goons are the authentic representatives of Muslim opinion. What could be more “offensive” than that?”

Human Rights Watch is not credible

Published by marco on

HRW is clearly in the pocket of the U.S. government. From a recent tweet, which linked to the article Saudi Arabia: King’s Reform Agenda Unfulfilled (HRW),

“King Abdullah’s reign brought about marginal advances for women but failed to secure the fundamental rights of Saudi citizens to free expression, association, and assembly. […]”

 King Abdullah's Twipitaph from HRW

The verb employed here is not accurate. You cannot fail at something without actually trying it. In the main tweet, they do it again, characterizing a purely imaginary “reform agenda” as “unfulfilled”.

I suppose this tweet could be just misconstrued as misguided and uninformed, but isn’t HRW supposed to be on top of exactly the type of regime led by King Abdullah for 14 years? What exactly are they for, if not that?

Let’s take a look at another twipitaph, this one for Hugo Chavez and linking to the article Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy (HRW)

“After enacting a new constitution with ample human rights protections in 1999 – and surviving a short-lived coup d’état in 2002 – Chávez and his followers moved to concentrate power. They seized control of the Supreme Court and undercut the ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other Venezuelans to exercise fundamental rights.”

This is a pretty harsh characterization of a regime that made forward strides in many, much more social ways.

Oh right, HRW is a propaganda arm of the U.S. government. So they write hagiographies of official U.S. allies that ignore all manner of anti-democratic policies while denouncing official enemies of the U.S. that emphasize all manner of slanderous and largely unfounded accusations.

The point is to make sure the reader gets the right impression.

Saudi Arabia good; Venezuela bad?

Not exactly.

The lesson instead is what the U.S. says, goes.

And the U.S. wants any country that even think of having an anti-capitalist and pro-socialist component to think again.

And HRW is here to help in whatever way it can.

Using American Sniper as a microscope to examine America

Published by marco on

I have not seen American Sniper for the same reason that I have not seen Act of Valor, Zero Dark Thirty or Lone Survivor. I did watch one season of Homeland and lasted that long only because my watchin’ buddy refused to stop mid-season. This type of entertainment is mostly just the U.S. military advertising itself through Hollywood’s mouth. I’d rather read the news and come to my own conclusions without the hagiographies.

I watched Battleship ‘cause it had aliens and The Hurt Locker ‘cause the woman who directed it won an Oscar for it. Funny story: it turned out she won the Oscar because she’d managed to make a movie about American war in just as unquestioning a hoo-rah, patriotic manner as any man could have. So when Bigelow’s next paean Zero Dark Thirty showed up, I was once-bitten-twice-shy.

And now we have another hoo-rah movie over which the Academy has spooged six nominations and in which America onanates about its greatness on-screen, all directed by éminence grise Clint Eastwood, whose extreme rightward swing we’re all supposed to ignore in his oeuvres. That should be no problem: I never understood why Republicans hate George Clooney movies just because they don’t agree with his politics and I certainly don’t avoid Bruce Willis because I think his politics are laughable. Because they are. But he’s still a fun actor.

Anyway, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read some interesting takes on it. The first of these was the article Learning from American Sniper by Rory Fanning (Jacobin), which advises us to learn what we can from the movie, even if you think it crude to claim that a movie about a highly politicized war that only just ended (kind of) is non-political.

As Fanning put it,

“And American Sniper deserves every bit of criticism the Left throws at it. But the film’s racism and enthusiastic support for American empire shouldn’t blind us to its lessons about the sociological and ideological factors that have allowed the US to stay at war for fourteen years with at least the partial support of an all-volunteer military.”

That the movie has broken all records for January and for movies of this kind says a lot. Anyone with a social conscience and a hope for America should take heed: dozens of millions of people loved this movie, not because they wanted to wallow in the shame of having sent a military to a foreign country to indiscriminately slaughter its populace as “animals” and “savages” but because they approve of all of this. U-S-A. Say it with me.

Even if Eastwood and Cooper have managed to bury some critique of the occupation somewhere, most of the people watching do not notice and they do not care.[1] Most went to watch because they read the best-selling novel about a soldier whose only regret was that he could not kill more of the animals. Hoo-rah.

Fanning continues,

“To simply write off Kyle as a monster would be to ignore the people, institutions, and history that helped create him. […] Eastwood also does a masterful job showing us how a soldier’s view of the world can be narrowed to the size of a rifle scope, of showing us how bonds between soldiers are formed: in combat, it seems the only people in the world are those standing to your left and right, keeping you alive. For someone like Kyle, all he sees beyond his fellow soldiers are wolves. After combat, particularly if a soldier loses a buddy, the racism that is used as a killing and survival tool can be hard to discard.”

Fanning here possibly elicits more nuance from the film than was probably intended, but still it’s a point worth noting: from the soldier’s perspective, the treatment of other people in this way is completely justified. But we should absolutely not inherit the perspective of the most traumatized and damaged among us. While it’s understandable that they feel like that, in the situation that they’re in, with the training they’re given, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to feel about it. Soldiers “in the shit” will always slaughter everything around them to save their own skins and those of their bodies. It’s been that way in every war or conflict since time immemorial. Instead of getting sucked in to that mindset, people should think about not putting soldiers in such terrible situations for literally no reason. The innocent civilians of every other country would thank you.

While I agree that the movie could be understood to be teaching a lesson about hegemony, blood-lust, alienation of the other and colonization, that lesson will go unseen, ignored and unlearned by almost every single viewer. Most are going to sympathize with Kyle, reaching out with their whole hearts in sympathy with his regret that he just couldn’t kill enough Iraqi animals. This is wrong, horribly, horribly wrong.

However, for anyone who does see the well-hidden lessons in a film like this, there is work to do. It’s time to point it out to others, let them know what you’re seeing if they can’t see it for themselves. Make movies like this—because there will be more—do some work for good instead of letting it serve purely as propaganda for further, future military interventions. It’s an uphill battle, fighting against decades of propaganda and brainwashing about militarism and nationalism.

Fanning again,

“American Sniper can help antiwar activists understand what continues to drive many American teenagers to the military. […] But it is important to say more about the film than the obvious. We can start by asking why it is so successful and why it is appealing to large veteran organizations. […] As Vietnam taught us, if we want to build a successful antiwar movement, we have to engage the soldiers fighting the wars. American Sniper, if we take it seriously, might help us do just that.”

There seems to be less regret about the latest U.S. wars than Vietnam. There are a lot of soldiers and former soldiers whose attitude is no longer nearly as hoo-rah as it once was. The shine is off that apple, but there aren’t nearly enough resisting because the U.S. military still has enough soldiers to keep doing what it’s been doing for dozens if not hundreds of years.

Another review that is more nuanced than the standard “it’s awesome—hoo-rah!” or “it’s imperialistic trash!” is “American Sniper” and the culture wars: Why the movie’s not what you think it is by Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), which discusses how the source material is abhorrent but the quality of the cast and director carry the film to unexpected places—again, as noted above, once if you’re willing to look hard, though.

““American Sniper,” the movie, is a character study about a guy who sees himself as fundamentally honorable and decent, but whose simplistic moral code turns out to be exceptionally poor preparation for the real world and real warfare. How well Eastwood accomplishes that goal, whether or not it’s worth doing and how much that may or may not reflect the real story of Chris Kyle are all matters for debate.”

The movie seems to conveniently skip a lot of information about the third Iraq War[2]: it doesn’t prepare the viewer at all, instead dropping him or her into an ongoing conflict, the origins of which are not questioned, in veracity or morality.

A final take on this film worth reading is the article I Served in Iraq, and American Sniper Gets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need. by Brian Turner (Vulture), written by a former soldier and which says that a lot of what’s in the film jibes with reality. That is, if the movie is a racist, hoo-rah, unquestioning, propagandistic pile of shit according to any right-thinking or even partially moral individual, that’s because that’s exactly what the war in Iraq is. The movie gets it right; the problem is the audience. Instead of being appalled by what they see, they scream “America! Fuck, yeah!” and queue up to watch it again. That the movie is being feted to the high heavens by actual supporters is a judgment of our decayed culture.

In the reviewer’s words,

“Those scenes dredged up memories of Mosul and Baghdad, where I once heard the words You are authorized to shoot children come crackling over the radio. I also remember watching soldiers in my own platoon lob plastic water bottles filled with their own urine at village children who would run to us as we drove by — thirsty children who motioned with their thumbs to their mouths in a gesture pleading for water. There is truth in American Sniper, whether you think the film is crass jingoism or a portrait of a hero. (Emphasis added.)”

While the author is “grateful that Eastwood chose to visually elide Kyle’s own tragic death”, I’ve read in other places[3] that this elision allows the further canonization of guns. The film can be seen as a paean to the gun, whose overwhelming power to solve any situation for good could be the overarching message of this film. Again, that could be taken both ways: Guns help America gets its message of democracy and freedom across and that’s awesome…and, well, the same message, but with that conclusion being oxymoronic and not awesome at all. Guns are one of America’s big problems domestically and America’s guns are everybody’s problems internationally. But Kyle was killed by a gun wielded by a PTSD’d fellow veteran, but this murder was crucially off-screen, so we don’t get to see a gun doing anything that even avid supporters of Kyle in all that he does would consider to be definitely bad.

I’m going to quote Turner at length, because he writes quite well,

“This isn’t the defining film of the Iraq War. After nearly a quarter century of war and occupation in Iraq[4], we still haven’t seen that film. I’m beginning to think we’re incapable as a nation of producing a film of that magnitude, one that would explore the civilian experience of war, one that might begin to approach so vast and profound a repository of knowledge. I’m more and more certain that, if such a film film ever arrives, it’ll be made by Iraqi filmmakers a decade or more from now, and it’ll be little known or viewed, if at all, on our shores. The children of Iraq have far more to teach me about the war I fought in than any film I’ve yet seen — and I hope some of those children have the courage and opportunity to share their lessons onscreen. If this film I can only vaguely imagine is ever made, it certainly won’t gross $100 million on its opening weekend.”

Chris Hedges saw the movie as well and his reaction is predictable: nuanced and probably mostly right, but very predictable. He also cites the scene where Kyle’s father teaches him about wolves who “prey on people” while at the same time menacing his children with the business end of his belt. The tells of a film that depicts a culture utterly unaware that cheering a film that depicts “the belief that we have an innate right as a “Christian” nation to exterminate the “lesser breeds” of the earth”—quoted bits are from the movie dialogue—may reflect poorly on the viewer, or at least reveal rather more than the viewer may have wanted, much as a rebel-flag belt-buckle would.

Hedges also writes well, so I’ll cite him at length, on the anti-intellectualism, the insularity of American thought, the depth of brainwashing:

“There is no shortage of simpletons whose minds are warped by this belief system. We elected one of them, George W. Bush, as president. They populate the armed forces and the Christian right. They watch Fox News and believe it. They have little understanding or curiosity about the world outside their insular communities. They are proud of their ignorance and anti-intellectualism. […] And when they get into power—they already control the Congress, the corporate world, most of the media and the war machine—their binary vision of good and evil and their myopic self-adulation cause severe trouble for their country. “American Sniper,” like the big-budget feature films pumped out in Germany during the Nazi era to exalt deformed values of militarism, racial self-glorification and state violence, is a piece of propaganda, a tawdry commercial for the crimes of empire. That it made a record-breaking $105.3 million over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday long weekend is a symptom of the United States’ dark malaise.”

Where Hedges and some others he interviews about the movie were made “physically ill with its twisted, totally one-sided distortions of wartime combat ethics”, they should be careful not to miss the point that this might be a very accurate portrayal (as noted by Turner above). Apocalypse Now was a visceral, horrifying movie but it was accurate. So was Full Metal Jacket. It’s more horrifying because it’s true. American Sniper may turn out to be that movie, whether it intended to be or not.[5]

That is, the 9-figure opening weekend means that almost no-one else seemed to mind the one-sidedness of it and most probably no-one even noticed it as such. Even the pairing of Iraq with 9–11 in a causal chain is, while factually wrong, correct in the context of the film. Most of America still believes that Iraq sponsored the attacks; most think we found WMDs. Most of the soldiers do too. Their simple mythology is undisturbed by reality. This movie is for them and, for the rest of us, it shows us what we’re dealing with when we try to right this heavily listing ship of state. It’s a lesson we would do well not to ignore.

Hedges quotes at length from the book that inspired the film—and the text is clearly much, much worse than the movie could be. Truly hateful, small-minded stuff. And, yet, this man is a hero. Again, do not look away; learn from it.

[1] And the part of an interview I saw with Cooper had him going on at length about a “presence” he felt during filming and he ascribed it to the “Chris [Kyle]” watching over him and the set. So dispel any notion that good old Bradley Cooper might have had a less jingoistic ulterior motive to making the movie. He’s all but joined the Army himself (and no, I do not care at all of which branch of the military Chris Kyle was actually a member.
[2] The U.S. supported Saddam in his war against Iraq, then turned around and bitch-slapped him in what most consider to be the first Persian-Gulf War and then there is, of course, the war that lasted a dozen years and that is only technically over—because we don’t count the dozens of bases and dozens of thousands of “U.S. military advisors” left in Iraq to this day.
[3] No link, sorry.
[4] The first American boots on the ground were in August of 1990. That’s almost 25 years ago. We never left. Sorties. Every. Day. Imagine what could have been done with that money.
[5] I know, I know, I’ll have to see for myself.

11 months 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.”


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.

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.