Anyone see the movie Red Dawn. I actually haven't, but the basic premise is that the Soviet Union invades the US. Which is to say, the film is rightfully the subject of ridicule, and that's before you get to the part where a bunch of high school kids (Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen among them) defeat the red army.
But the possibility of a Russian invasion actually feels real to folks in Estonia, and it seems to be not quite the paranoid right wing fantasy that it is in the US.
I was reminded of all this when a Russian fighter-bomber mysteriously crashed in Latvia the other day. The same day, a Russian military plane flying through Estonia went off of its flight path and onto a civilian flight corridor (not sure of the terminology in English). Apparently this is just the last in a long string of provocations. The previously favoured method, I hear, was to fly fighters at top speed toward the Estonian border and turn away at the last minute. (In other recent news, Russia withdrew from the treaty it had signed a few months earlier. Negotiations leading up to the signing. Also, check out the selective coverage of the fighter incident in the Russian media.)
As I said before, a key part, if not the defining characteristic of Estonian foreign and domestic policy has been to avoid being conquered (for the nth time) by the Russians. This has been a primary motivation for joining NATO, the EU, the WTO, the IMF sending troops to Iraq (two of whom have been killed) and Afghanistan, giving Bush Sr. some kind of medal yesterday (he promised to mention his kind treatment by the Estonian government to his son), and so on.
Despite all this, uncertainty reigns. A few evenings ago, Lauri and I had a big chat about the state of Estonia and the world. He reckoned that obviously there's no chance that Russia will invade under the current conditions. But over the next fifty years, the EU could very well break up, or who-knows-what could change, and it would be the same thing once again.
While I'm not sure if most or even many people think about an invasion, there's certainly an overwhelming nervousness about what Moscow's got cooking.
Apparently, the Kaitseliit, the National Guard, is trained mostly in guerilla warfare, the idea being that [whoever] can go ahead and invade. If they try to occupy, though, they'll have a rather rough go of it. "A patriot behind every tree," or something like that.
In any case, I can now say firsthand that there's a (big!) difference between fearing a genocidal occupation and fearing a terrorist attack. Score one for basic truths.
[caveat lector: these are first impressions based on deeply incomplete information--hopefully, in that respect, unlike some other things I write.]
"Just turn it off," Aadam says in English with an exagerrated Estonian accent. On the way from the airport, I had remarked at the large number of ads for political parties. There are elections coming up, he concedes, but he doesn't know when and doesn't really care. Politicians do whatever they want. Igasugused intriigid, all kinds of intrigues and scandals are in the papers, with politicians going back and forth between parties. So Aadam doesn't care; in any case, he's tuned out the political background noise, and says he doesn't notice the ads anymore.
But it also seems that there's very little in the way of activism. Though the vast majority of the population is against the war, for example, but the government--like many others in Europe--has been enthusiastically on side. The stand (and other kowtowing) is generally understood to be for the principle purpose of securing the good graces of the Americans, which is overwhelmingly seen as favourable any graces of the Russians. Indeed, the foreign policy focus of the first decade-and-some after independence was gaining NATO and EU membership, primarily to stave off another Russian invasion, or incursion.
There are a few subversive filmmaker types and a well-known anarchist lead singer of a folk-punk band who wrote a book on the history of anarchism, but very little organizing. According to Aadam (who is a distant relative of mine) young people are simply laisad, lazy. (All of this was said with a half-joking, cynical tone, in casual conversation.)
The main exceptions to the rule of no grassroots movements seems to be rohalised, greens, and the pensioners. I actually don't know anything about the pensioners, except that they protest at the Parliament building on occasion, live on very small cheques from the government, and are a key constituency to appeal to if you're a politician.
The "green" movement here differs markedly from the North American or even Western European version in that it seems to stem--almost universally--from a pre-existing socio-cultural dependence on the land, rather than from a combination of economic, aesthetic and moral considerations. In other words, I don't think it's so much of a political choice to think ecologically as it is a prerequisite of understanding one's own identity.
Estonian green philosophy differs ontologically in a key respect as well. There's much less emphasis on keeping anything pristine (which ends up being a key rhetorical if not through-and-through political point in N. America), because people have been living here for thousands of years, and have had a huge impact on the landscape. It's just that that impact has been a dialogue (punctuated, no doubt, by shouting matches) with the regional ecology, rather than a one sided exploitation of it. While there's some talk of preservation, it mostly seems to be a matter of amplifying practices that have developed over millenia (though they may have been sidetracked by Soviet über-industrialism and hyper-exploitation of the landscape in the last half-century).
It's still very much an indigenous culture; ecology is present in many of the key metaphors that make up written and spoken Estonian.
(It seems that Canadian environmentalists could learn a bit from this. In addition to talking about the ecological necessity of preserving, say, the Boreal forest, they could also stand to talk a bit more with the folks who depend on it for their survival.)
N. American movements, on the other hand, seem to have much more of an analysis of the capitalist system (though I'm almost certainly prone to overestimate it as a result of the kinds of environmentalists I hang out with). Anecdotally, there doesn't seem to be as much understanding of how and why capitalism is ecologically fucked.
When celebrated Estonian naturalist Fred Jüssi was visiting a group of Estonians in Toronto a while back, someone asked him about the possibility of having a political party to represent environmentalism in Estonia. He responded that the problem is what they call tomatti rohelised, tomato greens. They start out green, but eventually turn red. And that, as they say, was that.
Broad, unfounded statement
The curious dilemma at the moment seems to be that while Soviet rule was successful in uniting the country (and getting a third of the Estonian-speaking population to turn out to one big singing protest), Capitalism has been just as effective at divvying up the country into apathetic interest groups. Marxism is so tainted, perhaps, that it's just impossibly out of fashion to express any anticapitalist sentiment.
I'm back to Estonia for the first time in nine years. I grew up speaking Estonian, mostly with my mom. My first words were in Estonian, and I've long felt an inexplicably strong connection to this place--much more than I feel a connection to, say, where I grew up. I've only ever been here a handful of months in total, but I've never felt more 'at home' anywhere else.
The last time I was here, I was sixteen. I only had a skeleton of my worldview at that point. Bones but no muscle.
So I've arrived with no plan at all, a vague intention to visit family and friends (almost all of whose primary connection is to my mother) and a set of questions about politics and history.
After a few days here, the main puzzle so far concerns the uncanny familiarity that I feel for this place. Does it come from some pre-conscious ancestral or cultural-linguistic rhizomatic entanglement? Or is it simply that capitalism has had access to the country for long enough to render it indistinguishable from any other place I've been, and thus deeply familiar in a particular way?
I doubt it's one or the other.
The questions I have stem from the appearance that Estonia is in many respects like Canada, except moreso. Colonized indigenous nations (Estonians have been colonized for a few hundred years more), tense relations with a settler population (though in Estonia, Russians are a minority), a small country (Estonia, pop. 1.5 million) forced to appease foreign powers.
The main difference is that Estonia has been blindsided by capitalism. A national consensus that Soviet rule (and thus anything communist-related) really, really sucks, built up over fifty-plus years of repression, culminated in the Singing Revolution, when 250,000 people defied Russian tanks and troops to sing banned songs. Independence was declared shortly thereafter, with the collapse fo the USSR not far behind.
Since then (the) Estonia(n elite), like (that of) many former Soviet republics, embraced capitalism wholeheartedly. Like Armenia (for example), cultural freedom has expanded while the freedom to subsist has subsided. It's not quite the wholesale privatization-without-benefits of Armenia, but prices are a-rising.
What I notice on the ground right away, though, is the apparent lack of psychological defense mechanisms that decades (rather than a decade) of life under capitalism compels one to develop.
Walking around in the brand-new shopping mall there's a feverishness of consumption that I don't notice in North American malls. (I don't know how to describe it more than that. Consuming shiny things is still new and appetites are less easily satiated, I suppose. The manic new drug addict vs. the jaded long-time user.)
More tangibly, the advertising is several steps short of subtle. A prominent ad from a cell phone company proclaims that "if you really care about your kids", you'll get them a cell phone. The leader of Keskerakond, Edgar Savisaar, made substantial electoral gains after he sent all pensioners in Tallinn (where he was on city council) an extra 500EEK ($50CDN) and a card featuring a photo of him at Christmas time.
Over the next week, I'm going to try to keep track of conversations, anecdotes and photos. The comment feature doesn't work, but I'd be happy to post commentary sent to me at dru at dru dot ca.
I met an Egyptian guy, Ahmed, on the Toronto-Frankfurt flight. He's a pilot in Egypt, and was in Canada for a week of flight simulator training. He didn't like Canada, though. Beautiful country, he said, but everything is expensive and people are busy; they don't have any time, he said. If he worked in Canada, he would make 20 times what he makes in Egypt, but he didn't want to do it. People are more relaxed in the middle east in general, according to him. You work, you don't work; you still live. The exceptions are Lebanon and Dubai, which are more European. People have less time there.
(And the women in Canada, he said, you can't talk to them. They might sue you. In Egypt, you talk to women, it's ok. As long as you don't touch them, everything else is fine.)
He's been all over the Middle East, but never to Iraq or Israel. He said there's too much paperwork. His colleagues flew to Israel, but they are intensively interviewed by the authorities. Why do you go to Tel-Aviv? What are you doing here?
He said rules are very relaxed in Egypt. You can drive straight ahead--he made a chopping motion with his hand--or you can go like this--he made a broad swerving motion. If the police catch you, you say "I'm sorry, brother, I won't do it again." And the police will point to the rules and tell you not to do it again. Then you're on your way.
I asked him about political freedom. He said it's ok to say "fuck the government" in Egypt, but you're not allowed to say anything bad about the President, at least until recently. It's more or less the same everywhere in the Middle East where he's travelled, he says. Saudi Arabia is loosening up a bit because of tourism, but everything happens underground. Shopping, drugs, alcohol. Life in Iraq was very hard, even before the war. Syria--he rolls his eyes--in Syria you don't criticize the government. In Jordan, everyone loves the King. Everything he does, they love it. It's true.
He says that Christians in Egypt complain about repression, but he doesn't see how it is happening. Many of them are very rich, he says. I agree that rich people sometimes complain about the limits placed on them. He says the Jews are the same way. They have a state, they are rich. Why are they always complaining? I find myself explaining the history of anti-semitism, not mentioning the Palestinians. He asks if I'm Jewish. But, I add, with Israel it's complicated because now the Jewish state is making people suffer. He says he thinks maybe that's true. Cautiously. But still, he says, they have everything. What is the problem?
We chat a bit more, and the fasten safety belt sign goes on, and we go back to our seats.
Through a serendipitous and unintentional sequence of events, my intervention on the NCMR, "Media Reform and Media Revolution: A Critique of Free Press and the National Conference on Media Reform", made it into the latest issue of Z Magazine.
So if you haven't read it, there's a dead-trees copy available at your local news stand.
I've been thinking about why I don't write and post here more often. I think it's because I see the format of the weblog as being about responding to something immediately present, and I'm constrained by that. I suppose I've been overcome with the (fairly realistic) feeling that my adding my two cents on any particular issue isn't going to make any discernible difference... in anything.
Political weblogging is driven by a consistant level of self-importance, as if one's contribution to the debate is somehow essential. I may have once felt that way, but these days it's the opposite: every time I think to write a letter or a weblog entry, I just feel that it's hopeless. I'll spend three hours researching a few points, and learn about a situation, write and rewrite about it, only to do nothing with the results. Preemptively deflated.
It isn't that there isn't an audience; I'm sure plenty of people would read it, for whatever reason. But something takes away my motivation, often before I even get started.
All of this is a negative way of saying that I'm trying to rethink how I use this space. The few folks who come back and check now and then have noticed that this hasn't amounted to much, as of late.
To paraphrase Donald Knuth: weblogs are great for staying on top of things, and though my work requires a fair bit of this, I'm personally more and more interested in getting to the bottom of things, as it were.
Staying on top of things can be, and perhaps inherently is, a mildly violent act. It involves the articulation and constant rearticulation of an approach, a set of concerns, or a philosophy, as applied to a daily example. It is the expression of a pre-established invulnerable position from which understanding has already happened before the facts arrive.
One does not often speak of attempting to get on top of things; one stays there.
The constant assertion of understanding can make it difficult to see anything unique, singular, or new in the things one is 'on top of'. One risks the opposite of what C. Wright Mills advocated when he wrote:
The independent artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things. Fresh perception now involves the capacity to continually unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communications swamp us.
In 'getting to the bottom of things', by contrast, one implicitly concedes that arrival is imminent, but not present. [I just realized that Knuth says "be at the bottom of things, but it still seems awkward to me.] It's interesting that while I might say "I need to get to the bottom of this", I can't imagine saying "I finally got to the bottom of it". Instead, the metaphors immediately switch from arrival to possession: "I've got it!" "I finally wrapped my head around it." Or at least the transition is quick, as in: "I've hit pay dirt!"
The transition to finding a way to shift my mindset (and the perceived constraints and expectations that are wrapped up with any medium) from responding to statements, reports, and facts to reflectively attempting to understand them.
In particular, I'm interested in understanding how a world of infinite facts is subordinated to the activity of watching the news, reading a paper, or perusing web sites. To put it in the already-tiresome terms, I want to get to the bottom of how we stay on top of things.
To this end, I've been compiling notes for the past six months on objectivity and journalistic practices. If I keep them in sunlight and water them regularly, I hope they will eventually turn into a book. I've begun writing for the media analysis section of the Dominion, so that, as Stan Goff put it, my abstractions touch the ground. Evan's recent posts have also inspired me to dig up some old threads in my thinking and begin watering the other book that's lurking in some recurring themes about the politics of communication technology.
Like jogging every day, writing and thinking in an externally tangible way is something that I, full of optimism, regularly re-commit myself to. Though the commitment sometimes rings hollow in hindsight, I see no alternative to continuing to do so. This post, and the writing that will follow, are as much for me as they are for anyone who might still be listening... as it should be.
(Here's the second half of Mills' paragraph:
These worlds of mass-art and mass-thought are inceasingly geared to the demands of politics. That is why it is in politics that intellectual solidarity and effort must be centred. If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political stuggle, he [sic] cannot responsibly cope with the whole of lived experience.)
A simplistic and yet apparently common-sense policy occured to me the other day. I call it "market communism", though it may as well be a flat tax of the far left, as it is undoubtedly too simple to work well. And yet, I find it compelling.
It works like this. First, a cap is placed on all salaries, everywhere. No one can be paid more than four times the amount paid to the lowest-paid employee. Any time the top-paid folks want a pay raise, they have to raise the salaries of all of the lowest-paid by 25% of their desired raise.
The rest is details.
A whole new set of laws would be needed to keep people from finding ways around this, and substantial sum would be needed to enforce it. This could be accomplished with the death penalty. Not that death penalty, the corporate death penalty. If executives at a certain corporation were found to be paying themselves more than 4x the lowest paid, the corporate assets would be used to pay severance to the employees of the firm, and the rest could go to an unemployment insurance fund.
Aside from some fine-tuning (the range of pay might need, to some extent, to be calculated by state, by type of business, etc.) I have trouble seeing any problem with this plan.
There is nothing about capitalism that says that one has to accumulate insane amounts of money. On the other hand, the more evenly income is distributed, the more it is likely to be spent or reinvested, making for a much more dynamic economy. Even Warren Buffet agrees with me on that.
A lot of other problems would be easier to solve after a few years of market communism. It would be easier to find funding for decent journalism, for health care, for new environmental and cultural ventures. As the "money primary" states clearly in its name alone, money is power, and the easiest way to get power to more people is to give them more of the money.
This also explains why market communism isn't likely to happen. For some strange reason, rich people never have a strange need to be richer than everyone else. Mutual prosperity doesn't cut it.
The inverted version of the market communism policy is concisely addressed by Conceptual Guerilla's piece on cheap-labour conservatives, which I recommend.
The US military is one of the last real socialist institutions in the world. I realized this talking to an old friend who currently works on a military base; he was complaining about his rent. All of the sailors from the base where he works get a housing allowance from the navy. As a result, local landlords are able to jack up the prices to otherwise untenable levels. Only the non-military folk are affected.
In this and other ways, people who join the US armed forces are taken care of. They are fed, provided with cheap or free transportation and accommodations, and given discounts on groceries and other goods. All this, thanks to collectivized production and taxpayer dollars.
If you're dropping off the bottom rung of the social ladder in America, the safety net of the military is there to catch you, and provide an attractive alternative to the hell of split shifts of minimum wage work. Just a few caveats: you have to be willing to kill others and die for your country. And by "for your country", they actually mean "for various interests whose connection to the well-being of your country is vague, or perhaps nonexistent." (Woody Guthrie sang, "if we fix it so you can't make no money on war, then we'll all forget what we was killin' folks for...")
So the military practices a skewed kind of socialism that views a relative increase in economic well-being as a means to an end (ensuring a supply of cannon fodder, for example), rather than an end in itself.
The same friend was also a bit depressed about the amount of spousal abuse that occurs on the base where he works. Submarine crew members, he said, are often enough jailed for beating their wives. Just as often, though, they are released by their commanding officers when they are needed for another six month mission across the Pacific. The socialist state of the navy is again skewed by having its own justice system: one geared toward the task at hand, not necessarily at justice.
A second tier of socialism is available for public servants, generals, politicians, and Pentagon types who are loyal to the military industrial complex. Cushy "consulting" gigs with defense contractors are subsidized by the taxpayer, but make no pretense of being accountable to her. From each according to his debility, to each according to his greed.
These socialist practices skewed to other ends are often copied by large corporations, though rarely carried to the same extent. Resources are collectivized, but not surprisingly, the benefits accrue to a chosen few. Why not spread things around just a bit more, to make everyone's life better? Perish the thought. Socialism for the rich is commonly refered to as "free market capitalism", but socialism for anyone else is "class warfare".
When German troops marched into Estonia during WWII, they were greeted as liberators. Not because the Germans were bringing democracy or even ambiguously-defined "freedom", but because life under the Russians had been the worst thing to happen to the country up until that point. As it happened, being ruled by Nazis wasn't much better. Life under Stalin after the war was still worse (thousands were shipped off to Siberian labour camps and prisons or simply killed), but that was yet to come.
Iraqis in Iraq seem to understand fairly well that the sanctions strengthened Saddam Hussein, strangled their economy, and led to the horrors of the past ten years. Many also don't seem convinced that being invaded by the Americans is better than life as usual under Hussein.
The US (or the UN) could have taken it upon itself to liberate Iraq at any point during the past ten years, through a combination of the following options: creation of autonomous zones in southern Iraq, adoption of sanctions that hurt Saddam instead of hurting his people, supporting dissident groups, and finding ways to ensure that people don't starve.
It's important to understand what makes those options different from a military invasion. Foremost, it involves giving power over to the Iraqis (of whom Shi'ites and Kurds form a vast majority). The Shi'ites would likely make peace with Iran and form strong cultural and economic ties with that other member of the axis of evil, while the Kurds would leverage political power into the creation of a Kurdish state, or put a lot of pressure (maybe by funding and staging terrorist attacks, among more peaceful means) on Turkey, which has oppressed the Kurds for a long time now.
For these same reasons, real democracy in Iraq would directly contradict US interests. I'm guessing that's why the Bush administration never says "democracy" in relation to Iraq, but substitutes effectively meaningless phrases like "self-government" and "representative government". Many observers have, with undue charity, claimed that Bush will set up a democracy, though I know of no instance where Bush himself has actually made the claim. (I would be happy to be proven wrong on this point, and any others.)
Washington Post: Iran's Nuclear Program Speeds Ahead
"Our three 'axis of evil' designees seem to have decided to push hard to provide themselves with weapons if they're going to be in the constant attention of the United States," Gottemoeller said. "We need a more proactive, positive way of engaging them first and then trying to shut these things down."
The current US behaviour towards countries that have nuclear weapons and those that don't makes the choice for those countries pretty clear: develop nuclear weapons quickly, or nothing short of a total Wall Street crash will stop a US invasion. In short: nukes and maybe terrorism are the only things that will keep you from getting invaded. This, compounded with Bush's promise to use nuclear weapons against countries that use chemical weapons, or keeping the option to proceed with "legitimate" first use of "tactical nukes" serves only to escalate worldwide nuclear proliferation.
Daniel Ellsberg writes:
With or without first-use in this conflict, I fear that an attack on Iraq will spur other nations into acquiring nuclear weapons for deterrence in the future. In the guise of averting proliferation in Iraq, this bullying attack by the world's preeminent nuclear power will accelerate proliferation dramatically. (It may already have had that effect in North Korea). The black market price for Russian (or Pakistani, or North Korean) nuclear materials or, better, operational nuclear weapons, will skyrocket. If a market and international trade in such materials and weapons does not develop in response to this, then the assumptions underlying the theory of markets and free trade need radical overhaul.
As Ellsberg points out, the #1 threat to the US right now is the possibility that Al Quaeda or other terrorist groups might acquire nuclear weapons. By invading and occupying Iraq, the US will not only be creating a huge demand for nuclear weapons, but severely increasing the possibility of that such weapons will get into the hands of terrorists. All it takes is one, after all.
On its own, the new nuclear proliferation (which has already begun) will have tremendous unforseen consequences. If Iran gets nukes, how will its neighbors react? In that event, Saddam Hussein will stop at nothing to get nuclear weapons, since he (probably legitimately) fears a reprisal for the war he started with Iran in the 80s. Any US-sponsored regime in Iraq would undoubtedly not feel it was secure until it also had nuclear capabilities to deter Iran. But that's just an obvious example; the point is, we cannot predict these things. No one can.
The obvious and sane alternative is to work for cutting down conventional arms buildup in general and nuclear capability in particular across the board in the Middle East. That means, of course, stopping much of the highly lucrative business that US arms dealers (usually subsidized by US taxpayers) do in many countries in the region. It also means working with Russia to make sure their vast nuclear arsenal is accounted for. This is the only possible way for governments in the region to feel secure without possessing huge arsenals. For obvious reasons, it is very much against the prerogrative of the Bush administration to do this, which is why only popular pressure can make the government responsive to the vast danger it is creating.
I, for one, don't want to see another September 11th, much less one involving nuclear fallout.
Newsweek has cranked up their propaganda machine to the next level of output. "Saddam's War," by Evan Thomas and John Barry, is apparently intended as journalism and not an op/ed polemic, and yet one of the primary objectives of the piece seems to convince the reader that any atrocities committed in a war on Iraq will be committed (by definition!) by the Saddam's evil minions.
Consider this bit:
Saddam has ordered thousands of uniforms identical, down to the last detail, to those worn by U.S. and British troopers. The plan: to have Saddam’s men, posing as Western invaders, slaughter Iraqi citizens while the cameras roll for Al-Jazeera and the credulous Arab press.
Ah! So it's the Arab press that's credulous. This claim, for which no source is given or even implied, is simply stated as fact. As if there couldn't be any other possible reason for Iraq troops to dress in similar garb to the invading force. And why would there need to be thousands of them to stage atrocities for a video camera? And wouldn't the fact that there aren't that many Arab-looking people in the American army pose a problem.
But there's yet another problem with the claim that is more significant than the rest: if the reports by the UN and various aid agencies are even remotely accurate, the truth would be far more effective than anything that could be conjured up by a propaganda ploy. One doesn't need to look farther than a few paragraphs down to find evidence of this:
The United States will try to rattle Saddam’s defenders into surrender with a "shock and awe" air campaign, 3,000 precision bombs in the first 48 hours. And Saddam will try to inspire his troops to be good martyrs by threatening to kill them himself.
Dropping 3,000 precision bombs on a city like Washington DC or New York would cause inconceivable damage, and take thousands of human lives--we can say this with some certainty; it doesn't matter how accurate the bombs are. But we are to believe, on some unstated yet widely assumed qualitative difference in the way cities in Iraq will react to bombs, that this is a morally and legally justified operation. Perhaps the assertion that Saddam will "threaten to kill" his troops himself was meant to distract the reader from this conclusion.
Indeed, even considering only the facts stated in the article, a war with Iraq would seem to be a potential, if not actual, disaster for everyone involved. Does this invoke a consideration of whether it would be wise to attack, in the same, sober (yet wildly imaginative) journalistic tone? No, it means it's time to firm up the connection between protesters, Saddam, evil, and lies, while affirming that the US forces are unquestionably good. Consider the following:
Saddam is hardly above gassing his own people and pretending that the Americans—the "Crusaders and Jews and infidels"—are to blame. Many Arabs watching Al-Jazeera would believe him. Anti-aircraft batteries and tanks and artillery have been placed beneath and beside mosques, hospitals and schools. Even the most accurate American bombs could produce atrocious TV images. To combat Saddam’s psychological warfare and refute disinformation, CENTCOM has created a "rapid-response team." CENTCOM will try to provide photographic proof to back up its claims, releasing footage from gun cameras and other weapons systems as well as before-and-after photographs from satellites.
Is it Saddam that's to blame for this "psychological warfare", or does the term refer to coverage of civilian casualties in general? The article continues:
Truth may not be an adequate defense. [...] Shocked by television images of human carnage, demonstrators will take to the streets at home and abroad. Politicians will call on Bush to get it over with, to declare victory and go home.
The credulous masses, in other words, will be swayed by images of death, and cleverly manipulated into believing that war is wrong. But the truth--the contents of which is left implied--may not convince them that... that what? That Iraq really will be better off after a drawn out ground war? That the terrorist threat will diminish, now that the already reviled American forces are occupying a Muslim country? That, despite the fact that the US is refusing to share information about plans to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the war, it will all work out in the end? That the possibility of a million kids starving to death is an "acceptable cost"? (100 kids starving to death is a tragedy. Anything over ten thousand is simply beyond the imaginative capability of any human being.)
All this adds up to a considerable need to dehumanize the enemy. Thus the fabricated story about Iraqi troops ripping babies out of incubators that was used to justify the first Gulf War, and the undoubtedly well meaning Private Gritz, who was quoted as saying, "there is a guy shooting over a pregnant lady's shoulder. The Iraqis strap kids to tanks. What can you do?"
"Saddam's War" contains many similar characterizations; many are listed above, but some are more subtle, like the bizarre reference to Saddam's men as "tribesmen", and the description of his tactics as "medieval". The rest takes bits of truth and generalizes it in a convenient but inaccurate way. Saddam did indeed gas the Kurds (not quite "his own people," but close enough) during a war, while Iranian soldiers were operating nearby. (How killing 5,000 Kurds is worse than killing a few hundred thousand Iranians is difficult to say--both happened with US support, in any case.) Does this mean that he will necessarily do it again, under completely different circumstances and for completely different reasons? Such a simplistic reading of motivations would imply that Bush Jr. plans to bomb food storage warehouses, water purification plants, electrical systems, all over again, as his father did in 1991? I certainly hope not. Then again, over 3,000,000 Vietnamese died in one of America's better known "humanitarian interventions".
There is, perhaps, nothing particularly remarkable about journalists toeing the line of official propaganda. Violent empires like that of the US would not be possible if the range of debate were not as narrow as it is now. What is striking, though, is that people like Evan Thomas and John Barry probably believe that they are being objective and balanced when they write this kind of stuff. That people can go to places like the Columbia School of Journalism, study the principles of objectivity and balance, and then churn out this kind of crap, is a truly impressive feat of institutional influence.
Over the last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been emphasizing the moral case for war against Iraq. Saddam Hussein, as the argument goes, has used chemical weapons against the Kurds, kidnapped and murdered people who defy him, and is now using the sanctions to deprive half of the population of Iraq of food and medicine.
[The ongoing series of guest articles continues with this essay by Amanda Jernigan. Amanda is a writer living in Guelph, Ontario. She currently works for Porcupine's Quill, a fine imprint of the small, Canadian variety.]
Travels in a Moral No-Man's-Land
by Amanda Jernigan
Photograph by Erin Brubacher
It has now been almost a year and a half since we woke up on a morning in mid-September to a phone call telling us to turn on the TV. Since then the world has gone galloping warwards, committing all sorts of injustices in deed and speech, and all this time I have been silent.
I've spoken, sure - I've griped about the news to friends and family, in desultory conversations had while chopping onions or driving to work. But as for serious expression - language polished by thought polished by language? Nothing.
Andrei Alezseyevich Amalrik says, 'If a person refuses the opportunity to judge the world around him and to express that judgment, he begins to destroy himself before the police destroy him ... ' I encountered this quotation not long after that September day, and the words have lingered in my mind as a reproof to me.
[And now for something completely different. Sort of. The following article was submitted by John Haney, a friend, photographer, and keen practicioner of off-colour humour. A veritable plethora of references, and maybe a bit of levity. A good excuse to say "veritable plethora", anyway.]
Bush's Blue Balls
A Short Editorial
I am pleased to have just read, from the Sydney Morning Herald, via (and courtesy of) Dru Jay's web site Misnomer, that, in preparation for a war in Iraq, George W. Bush has a plan in the works termed "Shock and Awe". This is a concept whereby the United States would bombard Iraq with approximately 800 missiles in 48 hours so that the effect would be rather like "[that of] the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima" Harlan Ullman, military strategist, croaks. "We want them to quit, not to fight..." so that any battle in Iraq would take not "days or weeks but minutes." The article goes on to note that operation "Shock and Awe" would target power sources and water sources in Baghdad. Hmmm. I think I can draw a worst-case scenario of all that water and electricity blowing-up and spraying this way and that. "Shock" no doubt! There will be no shortage of mustachios standing straight-up. Not to mention a lot of people in the desert without any more water or electricity.
Annual military spending globally is over $780 billion. The US alone accounts for over $343.2 billion in military spending annually.
What the World Wants is a simulation project that attempts to calculate the cost of various basic needs of humanity, which include:
Eliminate Starvation and Malnourishment
Provide Health Care & AIDS Control
Provide Clean Safe Water
Provide Clean, Safe Energy: Efficiency
Provide Clean, Safe Energy: Renewables
Retire Developing Nations Debt
Prevent Soil Erosion
Stop Ozone Depletion
Prevent Acid Rain
Prevent Global Warming
Eliminating Nuclear Weapons
According to their reckoning, all of the above would cost (annually) approximately 30% of the world's annual military spending. If we go with their estimates, it would take ten years for stable versions of all of the above to be put into place.
They also have fun comparative costs. For example, eliminating starvation would cost approximately 55% of what Americans spend on weight loss programs each year.
Each category is accompanied by an account, with references, so it's possible to dispute each one, and I have no idea if the estimates are realistic or not. I hardly need to point out, though, that that is most definitely not the point.
If the over-developed world didn't attach all kinds of self-interested strings to "aid for Africa" deals like NEPAD, then something useful might get done with the relatively tiny sums that we devote to foreign aid. Of course, most of what counts as foreign aid consists of direct or indirect subsidies of western business. Whether we make aid conditional on changes to economic policy or just hand it over to US companies (e.g. lucrative contracts for textbooks in Afghanistan, then and now), the little money that is supposed to be doing good is mostly funneled back to Wall Street or its other G8 equivalents.
I won't pretend that anything like a ten year devotion of 30% of military budgets to humanitarian programs is possible, but every once in a while, it can't hurt to stop and ask: what if we actually wanted to do something about the world's problems, and not just look like we're doing something?
Heck, the US could do this on its own, and end up with more power and economic clout than any military initiative could ever achieve. It would be a great way to shut up all those pesky European "anti-Americans", leave the vast majority of the world's population in awe, and defuse the rage of those who support terrorists. And who could attack so generous a country without pissing off all the people who benefit from these programs?
I am, of course, dreaming, but it's worthwhile to ask why this is the case.
Why am I dreaming, you ask? Good question. Three quick answers: racism, fear, ignorance, and an overwhelming asymmetry in access to politicians. Those are themes that have been and will be expanded extensively.
(What the World Wants links via Beyond Greed)
Two RoboCop bits:
Take a close look at the track record of this company, and you'll see that we've gambled in markets traditionally regarded as non-profit--hospitals, prisons, space exploration. I say good business is where you find it. --Richard Jones, VP at Omni Consumer Products---
Criminal 1: We're robbing banks, but we never get to keep the money.
Criminal 2: It takes money to make money--we steal the money to buy the coke to sell the coke to make even more money. It's capital investment, man.
Criminal 1: Yeah, but why bother making money when we can just steal it?
Criminal 2: No better way to steal money than free enterprise.
I just saw RoboCop for the first time. Despite the gratuitous, truly gruesome violence, it has some very interesting social commentary as scathing parody of corporate culture, which overlaps generously with organized crime. I keep forgetting that the corporate dystopia was a fairly common setting in 80's movies (Blade Runner being the other full-scale example).
But if you look at dystopic visions today, they're watered down, and the corporations that profit from crime and have taken over public services are strangely absent. In RoboCop, Omni Consumer Products (OCP) prides itself on corporatizing things "traditionally thought of as non-profit," like Police and Hospitals. Looking at Spielberg's Minority Report, we would be led to believe that in 20 years, the corrupt people in positions of power are going to be... mayors? Instead of Back to the Future, it's forward to some idealized-yet-mildly-disconcerting past of the 1950s.
Setting aside for the moment that mayors and politicians are not the ones really in power in the present, it's a little disconcerting that in the 80s, corporate control was a concern that showed up in mainstream culture, but now that the same corporate control is actually showing, pop culture goes out of its way to avoid these concerns. The worst thing about corporatization in Minority Report is the constant in-your-face marketing. Is this really the only real concern we can come up with about where we're heading? RoboCop, flawed though it is, effortlessly shows this not to be the case... fifteen years ago. From the movies I've seen, this trend seems to be fairly inclusive. 80s movies (which I've been watching a lot of lately) tend to comment directly on institutional issues, whereas 90s movies project these concerns onto individuals or ignore them altogether.
What brought all this to mind was, oddly enough, something that Stephen Henighan said when I interviewed him last week about novels and how they reflect and define the concerns of the day:
I think literature is extremely influential in shaping our view of ourselves as a nation. However, what worries me in the present situation is that a lot of the literature that has become very popular portrays a rather nostalgic view of our nation. There's very little that engages in an interesting way with the present. This has fortified or enhanced a certain tendency in Canadian life at the moment to turn our eyes away from the present and avoid a lot of the difficult issues we have, like "do we integrate our military with the states," or "do we sign Kyoto," and meanwhile we're all reading Alistair Macleod or Ann-Marie Macdonald about some misty Cape Breton of many years ago. In a way, the popularity of those novels actually goes along with our general reluctance to confront the present.
In the NYTimes, Tom Friedman argues that oil is what keeps theocratic regimes in power, and that the US should reduce its reliance on foreign oil by not using so much of it.
Which was the first and only real Arab democracy? Lebanon. Which Arab country had no oil? Lebanon. Which is the first Arab oil state to turn itself into a constitutional monarchy? Bahrain. Which is the first Arab oil state to run out of oil? Bahrain.
My understanding of Mid-East history is not as good as it should be, but wasn't Iran (the subject of Friedman's article) a democracy back in the 50's? According to Richard Cummings,
the Shah was on the Peacock throne thanks to Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA station chief in Teheran, who engineered the coup that deposed Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadegh, who had headed a secular, fledgling democracy that had the temerity to nationalize the oil fields that, up to that point, had been exploited by BP. Having sued in the World Court and lost, the UK turned to its ally, Uncle Sam, to get the oil fields back. Rent-a-Mobs appeared, the CIA paid off the military, and Mossadegh fled in his pajamas. Once in power, the Shah stifled all dissent, using the notorious SAVAK, his intelligence service, to torture his political opponents, all under the watchful and approving eye of the United States government.
That, of course, ultimately led to Ayatollah Khomeini taking power, and the Brits lost their control of the oil fields anyway. Iran was then a threat to the Middle East, so the US supported Saddam Hussein, giving him money and chemical weapons to keep Iran at bay. (We kept selling him chemical weapons, even after he used them "against his own people", as has been repeated ad nauseum.)
While I don't see any problem with Friedman's conclusion that we should learn to use less oil, it seems that anyone who wants to speak intelligently about the source of fundamentalism should at least acknowledge all the times that the US has explicitly funded and supported it.
If the US had supported Iranian democracy instead of undermining it (or not given Saddam chemical weapons, or not funded the muhajideen, or not supported the Taliban, or the repressive Saudi regime, or given billions of dollars worth of arms to Israel...) things might be quite a bit different.
In fact, there might be a lot more democracy in the Middle East than there is now. The US is officially not interested in supporting democratic movements in other countries, but an Iranian democracy might have provided the inspiration and support needed for things to be a fair bit better. But since the US is still not interested in supporting democratic movements within these countries, and is committed to undermining them when democracy conflicts with its interests, things are, quite simply, worse than they could be.
For anyone who doubts Simmons' account above, here's (then Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright in a speech on Iran-US relations:
In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.
Moreover, during the next quarter century, the United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah's regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah's government also brutally repressed political dissent.
As President Clinton has said, the United States must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations. Even in more recent years, aspects of U.S. policy toward Iraq during its conflict with Iran appear now to have been regrettably shortsighted, especially in light of our subsequent experiences with Saddam Hussein.
I've been discussing free speech again, and thinking about what is legitimate direct action.
Recently, the cover of the Globe and Mail featured an incident at Concordia University in Montreal, where Benjamin Netanyahu (former Israeli PM), was scheduled to speak.
About 200 protesters -- including a small number of Jewish students, though who knows who was doing what -- suceeded in shutting down the Netanyahu's talk by crowding around the building and blocking the entrance. After police tried to move them with tear gas and pepper spray, some chairs were thrown and windows were broken. No one explicitly threatened Netanyahu with violence, but he decided not to speak. The Canadian press reported:
Mr. Netanyahu was never in the building and his handlers had said he would not give his speech unless his safety could be guaranteed.
Following the incident, there was a bit of an uproar about freedom of speech, and how Netanyahu's right to speak had been violated. This seems a little of bizarre on the face of it, since he chose not to speak, and I haven't seen any report of a credible threat to his safety.
But I'm interested in whether intending to keep someone like Netanyahu from speaking can be morally (and tactically) justified. I haven't reached a conclusion yet, but what follows is a sketch of the tools I think are useful in thinking about freedom of speech and direct action.
Would freedom of speech in this case (a speech on a university campus) apply to everyone? Would a neo-nazi who advocated the removal of Jews from Israel be allowed to speak, and if he was, would it be justifiable to use nonviolent direct action to keep him from speaking?
Answer: if hate speech is intolerable, then yes. So is it hate speech or intolerable?
If it was legal for someone like the hypothetical neo-Nazi to speak, but I knew/was convinced that it was politically unacceptable (i.e. greater harm would come from giving him a space to spread hate than would come from establishing an exception to free speech), then what course of action is available to me, politically?
Answer: write a letter opposing his right to speak, demonstrate, hold a counter-speech, petition the proprietors not to let the speech happen, or organize to physically prevent him from speaking or prevent the space being used without hurting anyone.
How much less legitimate is physical prevention compared to more "civil" means?
This raises some other interesting questions. What the protesters did was create a situation in which it was undesirable for Netanyahu to speak. This happens all the time. Notably, at Izzy Asper's newspapers, where all but the bravest columnists are afraid to criticize Israel or Jean Chretien for fear of losing favour with their employer, and even the brave ones have been fired in a few notable instances. Interestingly enough, Asper was the man responsible for bringing Netanyahu to Concordia.
Clearly, there is a difference between Asper creating conditions in which columnists are extremely likely to choose not to criticize Israel and some students creating conditions in which it is undesirable or more difficult for Netanyahu to speak. But I think the difference is one of the right of ownership and the fact that there are no laws against controlling the content of a newspaper you own, no matter the public importance.
The answer, then, is that to some extent, everyone is involved in making some positions more or less desirable for other people. The question is of degree, and whether the likely ends justify the means.
Next question: is Netanyahu worthy of censure, and to what extent?
Netanyahu is worthy of censure to the extent that his views are politically abhorrent. According to more than a few sources, he is a leading advocate of toppling the Palestinian authority, and was instrumental in stepping up the building of settlements in the west bank, escalating tensions between Palestinians and Israelis to a large degree. Some might emphasize other things or call the aformentioned sources anti-Semetic. I'll leave the question open.
A few questions remain.
Is direct action (especially if it is successful) worth setting the precedent for other dedicated groups with strongly-held opinions to do the same?
If I take part in a protest against Israeli policies, will I be inadvertantly supporting people who really are anti-semetic?
The gain in media exposure is indisputable (100-student passive, peaceful protests don't make the cover of the Globe), but are perceptions of the cause being spoken for skewed by perceptions of it being against freedom of speech (thanks in no part to punditry and skewed reporting)?