More ‘Isolated Incidents’: Critical Readings from the Genre Formerly Known as Journalism

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'Blank Pages', 2008

Reading last night about the horrific, systematic murder of 16 civilians (including 9 children) by an American Service Member in Afghanistan recently, I conducted a small, morbid experiment: see how many times the mainstream media uses the word “massacre” to describe the events. Unsurprisingly, of all the mainstream North American networks last night, only one (ABC) was running with the “M” word. Journalism today seems to find the word “massacre” a particularly fickle beast; liberally applied when atrocities being reported are attributed to “them” and in short supply when said atrocities are attributed to “us.” In Haditha Iraq, in 2005, when a group of US marines systematically shot at close range 24 unarmed men women and children, defining the events as a “massacre” seemed to be too much for the American press, who headlined their stories using the less visceral, more agency free “killings” or “shootings” (other world media at the time were not so shy about using the word “massacre” to describe what happened in Haditha). As such, the recent reluctance of the North American press to label the systematic murder of 16 civilians by an American service member “a massacre” didn’t surprise me. What is interesting however, is what happened to the headlines just a day later when further information about this case emerged.

In a March 11 Associated Press article by Heidi Vogt and Mirwais Khan, The Globe and Mail reports on the Afghan murders as “shootings,” going with the headline “U.S. soldier accused of shooting 16 Afghans likely acted alone: official.” The word “massacre” is used to describe the events once in the entire three page write up, in a quote by David Cortright “the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies” along with a caveat describing him as “an advocate for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan.”  On March 12, the Globe and Mail headline, for an article by the same AP authors  reads “Suspect in Afghan massacre had head injury, U.S. official says.”

Reuters follows suit, on March 11 going with the headline “Only one soldier believed involved in Afghan shooting: US” and March 12 with“U.S. soldier in Afghan massacre had brain injury: official.”

In fact, nearly all the major media outlets are using “massacre” in their headlines today, including The Wall Street Journal , The New York Times  , The Globe and Mail  , CBC  , ABC , CNN  , MSNBC and FOX  - every single one of which, either highlight or cite the new information that the soldier involved had previously been treated for a traumatic brain injury after an earlier deployment in Iraq, or the fact that he had been having “marital problems” at home. Agency free “shootings” and “killings” yesterday have become a “massacre” today when we learn of the explanatory personal failings and defects of the individual soldier involved.

Once again the mantra of the isolated incident is trotted out, apologies are made by top brass and we are assured that it is this “brain damaged” individual who should bear the brunt of our criticism and scorn – not the individuals who sent him to Afghanistan, not the inherently dehumanizing nature of an institution that requires its employees to kill on command, not the system of American imperialism that sent him into combat, not the litany of factors that exist in the United States that make such a ‘career choice’ an undeniably appealing option for so many. None of these things are questioned. Once again we are told these are the regrettable actions of one sick, brain injured man, once again we are told, his actions are not representative of a systemic pattern of violence and atrocity, and once again we are assured, such actions are not an accurate representation of the American military in any regard.

Additionally, in almost every one of these articles, it is telling to see in what a consistent manner the American Koran burning incident of last month is invoked. The ‘violent and fanatical Muslim’ has become an unquestioned stock character in much North American reporting on the Middle East, but it has become especially dramatized over the incident of the mistaken Koran burning, for which president Obama has also apologized (We didn’t mean to burn your holy book! We said we were sorry! What more do you people want?). As Arthur Silber pointed out several weeks ago, the narrative that has been completely erased (literally) from the public consciousness over the Koran burning incident is the Afghan outrage that the mistaken burning of their holy book is not an isolated incident, but only the latest in a pattern of systemic violence, atrocity and disrespect perpetrated on Afghans by their American occupiers, a pattern which the recent shootings continue.

This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children”, said Maruf Hotak, 60, a man who joined the crowd on the outskirts of Kabul, referring to an episode in Helmand Province when American Marines urinated on the dead bodies of men they described as insurgents and to a recent erroneous airstrike on civilians in Kapisa Province that killed eight young Afghans.

“They always admit their mistakes,” he said. “They burn our Koran and then they apologize. You can’t just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology.”

That excerpt comes from an article written by Alissa J. Rubin, published in the New York Times on February 22. Only four days later, on February 26, Alissa J. Rubin published another article (with Graham Bowley) for the New York Times. In the later article we read:

 “Rioting continued across the country on Sunday as anger over the burning of Korans by the American military continued unabated, putting the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States on shaky new ground…About 4,000 protesters massed in the city on the sixth day of protests around Afghanistan since first reports of the Koran burning at another NATO base appeared last week…The Koran burnings and the subsequent unrest is complicating relations between the United States and the Afghan government at a time of critical negotiations…”

Gone are the critical insights of Afghans like Maruf Hotek, all references to the murder of Afghan children and American desecration of bodies have been removed. Any “subsequent unrest” is solely attributed to the “Koran burning,” further solidifying the narrative of the ‘irrationally violent Muslim.’

This trend continues into the story of the latest American atrocity, linking the possibility for future Afghan violence in light of the recent murders to the simplified narrative of “riots and attacks after Qurans were burned at Bagram Air Field, leaving 30 people dead including six U.S. Soldiers.” 

It is indeed a damning indictment of our own attitudes and those of our media circus that such atrocity is immediately put into the service of again fanning the flames of fear over just how violently those ‘fanatical Muslims’ will respond this time. Once again the concern expressed is not over the fact that the targeted deaths of civilians continue to occur, but over how these events “will heighten anti-U.S. sentiments among a civilian population that is key to a successful counterinsurgency strategy against the Taliban.” and how much more of a “violent backlash” can be expected against American troops, who of course, only have the best interests of the Afghan people at heart.

It is the inherently violent, oppressive nature of the larger system in which these events occur that we will need to recognize, understand and ultimately challenge if we are sincere about stopping this tide of atrocities in the future. As the current mainstream media illustrates, this is not a struggle in which we can look to them for critical insight or guidance in any regard; for that, we must turn to each other. In my next post I’ll put forward some ideas of how to do just that.

Reframing the Questions (I): ‘Us’, ‘Them’ and Other Fallacies

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Reading=Burning II (2008)

“Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, 1946

In my last post, I detailed two historical examples which illustrate how the State manufactures or greatly skews information with the explicit intent of mobilizing public opinion for war. In addition to putting the aggressive actions of the United States into a greater historical context, I did this to illustrate the alarming parallels between the tactics that have been successfully employed to mobilize public support for war in the past, and the tactics that we are seeing being utilized against Iran in the present (Glenn Greenwald does an excellent analysis of those tactics in their current Iranian context here).  As Arthur Silber notes in one of his latest scathing posts , there is no shortage of knowledgeable, critical observers writing on these and other such vital themes today. There are libraries of excellent books, documentaries, blogs, alternative news columnists, speakers, activists, academics and regular Joe’s saying these things, articulately and with great scholarship and insight. They will not be in the mainstream media news, headlining their own TV show, or rising through the ranks of power in government, but many exist, and with a bit of effort it isn’t so hard to find them. While the State continues to attempt ever more aggressive means of limiting these dissenting voices (and the importance of this trend should not be minimized), I do not believe that the inaccessibility of information that challenges official narratives is the primary cause of inaction on these issues. So what is?

Why was the propaganda employed by the Nazi’s following Operation Gliewitz so effective in turning public opinion towards war against Poland? Why was the official “surprise attack” narrative of Pearl Harbour that left out hostile American actions towards Japan so readily and uncritically swallowed by the American public? Amid the mountains of critical theory and available evidence providing dissenting voices, why can exactly the same type of propaganda be counted on to produce exactly the same type of results today?

The Curious Case of the Systemically Isolated Incident

As I said in my last post, I believe the most important thing to grasp at this point is that the issues of impending action against Iran, worldwide human rights abuses and hunger, massive financial corruption, ever increasing income disparity, environmental destruction, and a litany of other offences are not isolated incidents, but are directly resultant from and inextricably linked to the way we have chosen to structure our societies; that is, they are systemic problems. It is going to take a radical and fundamental rethinking of our relationships to our governments, our environment and to each other to change these systems. The foundation I propose for that radical rethinking is this: there is no such thing as an isolated incident, everything is connected.

I do not mean this in any kind of dubious conspiratorial way. I don’t believe that the Free Masons, or the Illuminati or a massive and shadowy ‘world government’, or lizard people or anyone else is behind the scenes, plotting every machination of power. I mean this in both a philosophical and quite literal way: everything is connected. Society is just made up of people; people with more power and people with less, people who can see their connection to the world around them and people who cannot, people for whom it is in their best interest not to see it, people for whom it is in their best interest to convince you not to see it.

When graphic images of American service members torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison were released in 2004, the event was decried by both the President and the United States Military as being an “isolated incident”, the work of “a few bad apples,” and not representative of American policy in any regard. Since 2004, we have been similarly assured we are dealing with “isolated incidents” as further evidence of torture emerges, as civilians including children are intentionally targeted by American forces, as  drones target funeral mourners  , as  civilian children are raped by American service members  , as  military servicewomen are raped by their male counterparts , as  service members engage in acts of shocking animal cruelty , as soldiers are recorded desecrating the bodies of their victims . Each of these extensively documented and ongoing events are sold to us not as representative of a pattern of violence and atrocity, but as the unfortunate, isolated acts of a “few bad apples.”

Isn’t it a more plausible explanation that these ongoing atrocities are the inevitable products of an institution that systematically trains people not to value life, to believe that some lives have more value than others, to believe that some of us deserve life while others deserve death, and then requires that individuals act on those beliefs, the moment they are ordered to do so? That is, isn’t it more plausible to believe that such outcomes are systemic outcomes, the nature of which are inherent in such a system’s very premise?

It is part of the great western fallacy of the infallibility of our ‘meritocracy’ and our unquestioning worship at the altar of individualism that we accept this explanation of “a few bad apples.” If we see these events always as isolated incidents, we see them as individual failings. As it is one’s excellent personal attributes (natural talent, hard work, perseverance etc.) that can be counted on to make one respected and successful, so it is one’s inherent personal failings (weakness, violence, instability, etc.) that can be counted on to cause one to commit such heinous acts. Believing this makes our dealings with the world more manageable, our successes more worthy (after all, we earned it), our empathy for others more diminished (after all, it was their fault, their personal defect that lead to their circumstances, what could we do?), our responsibility for our collective actions decidedly less. And so we look to soldiers torturing detainees and do not see the tragic and inevitable expression of a deeply flawed system that has lead them to commit such acts. To do so would be to acknowledge our own complicity in such a system, our own complicity with atrocity.

When we see our world through this fragmented lens we deceive ourselves that all events and actions can be understood and addressed in isolation. Individual soldiers who torture can be court-martialed and disciplined. Crime can be curtailed through building more prisons and instituting harsher punishments, famine can be ended through judicious tweaking of foreign policy, the tide of mortgage foreclosures can be stopped by pouring more money into the banks, climate change can be arrested by legislation or more technology, terrorism can be ended by force. Like the military atrocities outlined previously, all of these issues are seen as isolated occurrences with little or no relation to each other. We are asked to address all of these issues in a similar way: with an appeal to the system in which they occur for greater intervention on our behalf. That is, an appeal to a powerful State actor who will respond as though each of these events are isolated incidents, requiring variously differing legislation of an identically top-down nature in order to rectify them. We cannot engage in a worldwide dialogue of peace and prosperity, be free from the hazards of climate change or safe from terror or crime, because, we are told, the State does not yet command enough power. The more power the state accumulates, the more these ‘isolated incidents’ are brought to our attention. The more they are brought to our attention the more the system is invoked to intervene with more power to rectify them. The more power is invoked, the more power is required to rectify the issue the next time, on and on, in an endless cycle of self justifying, escalating intervention leading to greater and greater consolidation of power in the hands of the few.

In our daily lives, we see both the causes of and the solutions to these issues as events that occur outside of ourselves and outside of our control. For the majority of us, we live every day comfortable in the belief that the responsibility for addressing the issues of the environment, famine, poverty, inequality, crime, or war are outside of our own responsibility or control, except on those few occasions when we are asked to vote to choose ‘the best people’ to deal with them. We deceive ourselves that while one or two such examples may effect us, they are overwhelmingly the realm of the other, a fragment of a world that does not apply to our daily experience. This fragment of the world is easy to fear or to ignore entirely because of its otherness and because of our belief that it is their many personal failings that justify the unfavourable situation those others now find themselves in. Former professor and environmental activist Sean Weaver speaks to this fallacy of isolated otherness in a particularly poetic way, he states:

“The global ecological and financial crisis is merely the global signature of institutionalized greed and ignorance writ large. Selfishness has always been in human societies but modernity made it sovereign. But an unsustainable economy does not even serve self-interest. To compromise one’s prospect of future survival is hardly self-serving. It is simply stupidity. More effectively serving the self comes with dynamic reciprocity delivered through mutual generosity: between individuals, groups, and the broader system itself. Look after the interests of the broader group or system and the law of reciprocity will kick in and look after the self. It is simply ignorance that assumes that the self is better off if it cheats other individuals, the group or the system.

But where can we turn for the source of the wisdom of generosity? A theory? A culture? Yes they can help but there is a deeper wellspring that trumps all theories and is more accessible and more powerful.

The seeds of selfishness lie in language itself because language creates the illusion of the separate self by naming the illusion as “me” and naming the complementary illusion “other”. This is because all language names things that are separate from other things. To understand what we mean by “tree” we need to understand what a “tree” is not – otherwise we say “look at the tree” and the person does not know where to look. When we explore the “tree” we soon discover that it cannot be separated from the non-tree. Without “water”, “sunlight”, “minerals”, “pollinators”, “soil”, “oxygen”, “carbon dioxide” and countless other non-tree elements the “tree” cannot exist. There is no actual boundary between the real tree and its other.

The world is an interconnected whole that cannot be torn apart in the way that language (any language) demands. Many cultures understood this, which is why they have poetic languages, and myths of origin that point to the creation of the world through the separation of opposites. For one example: first a void, then the act of speech separated light from darkness, and so the world (the collection of things we name) is created.”

When we see the world and our place within it solely in fragments, as separate and distinctive parts without recognizing our relationship and fundamental solidarity with the inclusive whole, we create this otherness.  Often, even those whose good intentions lead them to work for change fall into this trap. We become fervent supporters of one political party, ideology, or cause to the exclusion of all others. We become vehement ‘lifestyle purists’ with no patience or understanding for those who don’t follow our particular system of beliefs, we cut ourselves off from opposing viewpoints by surrounding ourselves in safe echo chambers of like minded individuals. In short, we embrace the idea of the other just as totally as those who use the idea to justify or ignore the status quo, rather than to act to change it. In either case when we embrace this concept of the irreconcilable other, we lay the foundations of tribalism.

The World in Fragments: Tribalism*

*I sincerely urge you to read Arthur Silber’s amazing series of essays discussing the complex roots of tribalism from childhood onwards (particularly “part III: on learning to hate the ‘other’”). His incredibly valuable, in depth analysis I only briefly touch on here.

In Silber’s analysis, he lays out the following observations as key to understanding the nature of tribal behaviour:

  1. “To the degree that membership in a particular tribe or tribes is important to a person’s sense of identity, that person believes that his own tribe(s) is inherently and uniquely good. To the degree that tribal membership is a critical element of personal identity, all members of all tribes are convinced this is true of those tribes to which they belong.
  2. Insofar as the tribe’s centrally defining characteristic(s) (race, religion, political beliefs, etc.) are concerned, all other tribes that differ with regard to these characteristics are necessarily inferior and wrong. This has an especially critical implication: at first with regard to these centrally defining characteristics, and inevitably in a more general sense, the individual members of all other tribes are necessarily inferior to and less worthy than the members of one’s own tribe(s).
  3. The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same. This applies to all tribes in two different critical respects. It is true of dynamics within the tribe — that is, of those particular mechanisms which create and maintain tribal identity and cohesiveness — and it is also true of how one tribe views itself and behaves in relation to other tribes.
  4. The major mechanism by which any tribe creates and maintains tribal identity and cohesiveness is obedience: the requirement that each member of the tribe conform his thinking and behaviour in accordance with the major elements of the tribe’s belief system.”

Silber goes into great depth to explain exactly how these patterns of behaviour are learned in childhood and continue to be cultivated and rewarded on into adulthood. The most crucial of these points to understand is regarding the necessity of obedience, the powerful agent under which tribalism operates. We are all capable of responding to an unfamiliar other from another ‘tribe’ with an openness and curiosity about our differences and a willingness to further our mutual understanding. However, in our current society this response remains highly unlikely. The system in which we live, the system perpetuated by our parents and theirs before them, has trained us to respond with apprehension, fear of the unknown and an appeal to the authority and inherent ‘goodness’ of our own tribe to protect our interests by ‘reforming’ the dangerous other (through force if they are incapable of recognizing ‘the error of their ways’).

By separating our interests into warring ‘tribes’ we can be convinced to fear or loathe each other, both of which are very useful reactions for inspiring obedience, and maintaining control. This tribalistic system persists based on two factors. Firstly, the majority, who have learned this behaviour since childhood, unquestioningly continue it. Secondly, a minority of powerful individuals, for whom such a system is in their self interest, ensure that it continues. Paradoxically, it is often these very ‘powerful individuals’ that have internalized the tribalistic understanding the most, (ie. learned their ‘lesson’ of obedience the most unquestioningly), and the extent of their power can, in part, be attributed to the extent to which they embrace these beliefs. But more on that another time.

We don’t have to look any farther than the latest mass media top story to see evidence of how this tribalistic demonizing of the villainous other is perpetuated through fear mongering (here CNN’s Erin Burnett discusses ‘Iran’s planned attack on American soil’). There are countless other examples. This technique is so pervasive as to be nearly universal throughout all major mass media in the United States (and numerous other countries as well, although the United States has become by far the most extreme example). All we have to do is recognize what we are being shown.

Without an awareness of how we buy in to different expressions of tribalism, and an awareness of how these systems are used against us, we set ourselves up to be manipulated by those who would exploit our fear, who would twist it into hatred of those ‘less than human creatures’ of other tribes, ‘with whom we have nothing in common’ to further their own ends; those who use our fear of the other to instill our obedience and thus consolidate their own power. In this way the Nazis’ framing of the Gliewitz incident manipulated the German people’s fear of the Polish, in this way the Roosevelt Administration’s framing of Pearl Harbour manipulated the American people’s fear of the Japanese. In this way we are today manipulated into fear or hatred of the one seen as other; the criminal, the members of an opposing political party, different ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or nationality. We name them with slurs that dehumanize and define them exclusively in terms of their otherness that is to be feared and despised: jap, commie, infidel, terrorist. In this way we arrest the process of dialogue and understanding and allow ourselves to be manipulated into obedience. In this way we become willing and active participants in normalizing inequality, persecution, atrocity, and war.

Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi said;
“The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.”

The world is not divided, neither into East and West, nor into ‘America’ and ‘Iran’, or even into ‘you’ and ‘me’. These are all constructed identities that we create in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world. There are no isolated incidents, there are no isolated lives; everything is connected. Any hope for fundamental, systemic change must start with this understanding. Therefore my radical proposal for stopping a war, for changing the world, is for all of us to start living like we believe that. Today.

Within the last few days, the United States has successfully convinced global banking giant SWIFT, which provides banks with a system for moving funds around the world, to block all Iranian banks from using its network to transfer money.  If it is implemented, this move will effectively shut down Tehran’s business dealings with the rest of the world, and likely have catastrophic impacts for average Iranian citizens. It is my belief that based on this action (in addition to the previously imposed financial sanctions), the decision to go to war with Iran has already been made and this is nothing short of a last ditch attempt to cause a desperate Iran to strike out first, thereby legitimating a ‘defensive’ strike in retaliation. If Iran is not enticed into striking first, an Operation Gliewitz style false flag event is entirely possible.

In the next few days and weeks how we respond to official narratives framing these events will be more crucial than ever. In my next post, I will talk about some specific ideas of how to act on the understandings I have outlined here. Whatever we can do, and we can do much, the sooner we can do it- the better.

I Can’t Believe We Keep Falling for this Shit: Iran and A Very Short History of Very Short Attention Spans

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August Landmesser: Not falling for it. Hamburg, Germany, 1936

It’s depressing learning about history. It gets progressively more depressing as one sees a pattern begin to emerge: an endless tide of human folly, one step forward, two steps back, repeating the same actions, over and over, duped again, in exactly the same fashion we were duped the last time. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…well, never mind.

Perhaps you have heard of the Gleiwitz incident. Probably not. History is a pain in the ass that way, so many inconvenient little details disappear down the memory hole.

Gleiwitz was the most famous incident of the notorious Operation Himmler,  a false flag propaganda program organized by Nazi Germany in August, 1939. The intent of the campaign, as sworn to at the Nuremberg Trials by SS Major Alfred Naujocks, who lead the operation, was to create the appearance of Polish aggression to justify a German invasion of Poland. In Gleiwitz, on the night of August 31 a small group of German SS dressed in Polish uniforms stormed Gleiwitz’s radio station and broadcast an anti-German message in Polish, leaving several prisoners and a local activist dead at the scene, dressed in Polish uniforms. The Gleiwitz incident was only one of Operation Himmler’s projects, which included various instances of SS troops, disguised in Polish uniforms, storming German border crossings, vandalizing German border villages and terrorizing the locals before ‘retreating’ and leaving behind the dead bodies of ‘Polish soldiers’ (who were actually dead concentration camp prisoners, charmingly referred to as ‘canned goods’), killed beforehand by lethal injection and shot for appearances. On September 1, Adolf Hitler justified undertaking “defensive” action against Poland as follows:

“I can no longer find any willingness on the part of the Polish Government to conduct serious negotiations with us. These proposals for mediation have failed because in the meanwhile there, first of all, came as an answer the sudden Polish general mobilization, followed by more Polish atrocities. These were again repeated last night. Recently in one night there were as many as twenty-one frontier incidents: last night there were fourteen, of which three were quite serious. I have, therefore, resolved to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland for months past has used toward us…This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our own territory. Since 5:45 a. m. we have been returning the fire… I will continue this struggle, no matter against whom, until the safety of the Reich and its rights are secured”

In short, operation Gleiwitz was used to effectively mobilize German public opinion for war against Poland, using a massive lie to justify ‘defensive’ action. The result was the commencement of WWII.

Think about that for slightly longer than a nanosecond. The German government fabricated ‘enemy’ aggression in order to justify the invasion of another country as ‘defensive action.’ What the German people were told was a lie, and set in motion a series of events that ended in the death of 60 million people. In 73 years, the justifications (“I can no longer find any willingness on the part of the [Iranian] government to conduct serious negotiations with us”), the rhetoric (“I have resolved to speak to [Iran] in the same language that [Iran] for months past has used towards us”), the very talking points (“I will continue this struggle, no matter against whom, until the safety of [The American People] and our rights are secured”) have not changed at all.

American entry into WWII did not come until Pearl Harbour, “the day that would live in infamy”: December 7, 1941. What preceded this “surprise offensive” of “unprovoked and dastardly” (quotes from Roosevelt’s Dec. 8 Pearl Harbour address) Japanese aggression? In 1939 the American Government began instituting sanctions against Japan. In July Roosevelt began with prohibiting the export of defence materials (the Export Control Act), amping up to an embargo in October “on all exports of scrap iron and steel to destinations other than Britain and the nations of the Western Hemisphere.” In July of 1941 Roosevelt went after Japan’s financial ties, freezing all Japanese assets in the United States; effectively bringing all commercial relations between the two countries to an end. A week later Roosevelt tightened that noose, placing a further embargo on the export of all commercial grade oil still flowing to Japan. The British and the Dutch followed suit, embargoing all exports to Japan from their colonies in southeast Asia.

As economic historian Robert Higgs explains:

“Roosevelt and his subordinates knew they were putting Japan in an untenable position and that the Japanese government might well try to escape the stranglehold by going to war. Having broken the Japanese diplomatic code, the Americans knew, among many other things, what Foreign Minister Teijiro Toyoda had communicated to Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura on July 31: “Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas.”

Because American cryptographers had also broken the Japanese naval code, the leaders in Washington knew as well that Japan’s “measures” would include an attack on Pearl Harbour. Yet they withheld this critical information from the commanders in Hawaii, who might have headed off the attack or prepared themselves to defend against it. That Roosevelt and his chieftains did not ring the tocsin makes perfect sense: after all, the impending attack constituted precisely what they had been seeking for a long time. As [Secretary of War, Henry L.] Stimson confided to his diary after a meeting of the war cabinet on November 25, “The question was how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”After the attack, Stimson confessed that “my first feeling was of relief … that a crisis had come in a way which would unite all our people.”

In short, the Roosevelt Administration, through the use of crippling Japanese sanctions, willfully provoked a calamitous event (and deliberately withheld information that may have mitigated loss of life), with the explicit intent of ‘uniting’ the American people against a common enemy and mobilizing public opinion for war. What the American people were told about the “surprising,” “unprovoked” nature of a Japanese attack was a lie and set in motion a series of events that culminated in the horrific creation of the most deadly weapon ever to be used: the atomic bomb.

These are not contentious or conspiratorial claims. All noted details of these events are well documented and exist as a matter of public record, were anyone to go looking for them. But we are not looking for them.

The United States has an incredibly long and equally uncontentious history of overthrowing regimes, usually violently, who are unsympathetic to American interests (ie. those who are unwilling to accept American hegemony). From the 1890 South Dakota massacre at Wounded Knee, to the most recent actions in Libya and nearly every year in between, the United States has been a nation perpetually at war; regardless of who was sitting in the oval office.  America has overthrown everyone from tyrannical dictators to sovereign monarchs and democratically elected leaders the world over, countless times citing dubious ‘enemy aggression’ as the cause, countless times under the auspices of ‘defensive action.’

And now the war drums beat again for Iran. Again we are asked to believe that the United States is left with no choice but to consider ‘defensive actions’ as justified by Iranian ‘enemy aggression’. As the United States ‘defensively’ invades, obliterates or occupies every neighbouring country that does not take a friendly stance towards American foreign interests in the region: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria. As the United States ‘defensively’ launches unmanned drones to spy on Iranian airspace. As the United States ‘defensively’ places an economic stranglehold on the country to such an extent that the Iranian government begins to barter with gold and oil for food to feed the civilian population.  As the United States has done before in that very country, when in 1953 Iran’s democratically elected leader began making decisions America did not approve of.

We are asked to believe the same arguments. The same arguments that have worked in achieving their desired aims countless times in the past. The same arguments that manufactured the positive public opinion necessary to bring us the atrocities of the second world war. The same arguments. Exactly the same.

We are asked to uphold this collective tradition of pathological short-term memory by the most powerful nation on the planet. The nation whose history of horrifically violent, imperialist interventions across the world has been a constant since the country’s inception. The nation whose military machine outspends every other country on earth, combined. The nation whose military expenditure currently outstrips Iran’s and North Korea’s by a ratio of 72 to 1. The nation whose current nuclear arsenal numbers over 5,000 nuclear warheads. The nation whose massive war machine still maintains the largest network of permanent military bases on earth: over 1000 of them on conservative estimate (although nobody knows the exact count for sure). The nation that is home of the world’s de facto currency, a financial juggernaut with the power to massively influence the economies of the entire world not only through its own domestic policy, but through its heavy handed influence with the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank. This is who we are asked to believe is the gravely concerned, fearful, wronged, ‘defensive’ party: the most powerful nation on earth.

The point here is this: history doesn’t just happen. It took an awful lot of uncritical ‘Good Germans’ to swallow Hitler’s official narrative of Operation Gliewitz in order for the Nazis to manufacture the public support needed for a ‘defensive’ war against Poland. It took an awful lot of uncritical ‘Good Americans’ to swallow Roosevelt’s official narrative of Pearl Harbour in order for his administration to manufacture the public support needed for a war against an ‘aggressive’ Japan and an entrance into WWII. And today, it will again take an awful lot of good, patriotic, uncritical Americans swallowing the same old arguments for the United States to enter into yet another ‘defensive’ war against yet another ‘aggressive’ enemy: Iran.

Looking to the lessons of history, I am genuinely fearful that a war with Iran is on the horizon. Hopefully it goes without saying that this would be a calamity of disastrous proportions for all of us. But such a war does not just happen. We make the decision to change the channel, to think these issues don’t apply to us, to believe that nothing can be done anyway, that it’s someone else’s problem to deal with, or that some people just deserve to die while we deserve to live. We let it happen.

In the next few posts I hope to lay out some ideas for individual actions we can take to grind the unceasing atrocities of this war machine to a halt. I believe the most important thing to grasp at this point is that the issues of impending action against Iran, systemic human rights abuses and hunger, massive financial corruption, ever increasing income disparity, environmental destruction, and a litany of other offences are not isolated incidents, but are directly resultant from and inextricably linked to the way we have chosen to structure our societies.

It took a long time to build the systems that support these and countless other evils. It is going to be a long, hard road to create new ones. The very greatest of the problems we face are systemic problems and to effect any meaningful long term change, they will require systemic solutions. It is going to take a radical and fundamental rethinking of our relationships to our governments, our environment and to each other to get us there. So we should really start now.

On Living Ecstatically

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Hiking the Oregon Coast, 2009

There are a good many people of the same kind as Harry. Particularly many artists are of his kind. These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement were the wolf and man in Harry. And these men, for whom life has no repose, live at times in their rare moments of happiness with such strength and indescribable beauty, the spray of their moment’s happiness is flung so high and dazzlingly over the wide sea of suffering, that the light of it, spreading its radiance, touches others too with its enchantment. Thus, like a precious, fleeting foam over the sea of suffering arise all those works of art, in which a single individual lifts himself for an hour so high above his personal destiny that his happiness shines like a star and appears to all who see it as something eternal and as their own dream of happiness. All these men, whatever their deeds and works may be, have really no life; that is to say, their lives are non-existent and have no form. They are not heroes, artists or thinkers in the same way that other men are judges, doctors, shoemakers, or schoolmasters. Their life consists of a perpetual tide, unhappy and torn with pain, terrible and meaningless, unless one is ready to see its meaning in just those rare experiences, acts, thoughts and works that shine out above the chaos of such a life. To such men the desperate and horrible thought has come that perhaps the whole of human life is but a bad joke, a violent and ill-fated abortion of the primal mother, a savage and dismal catastrophe of nature. To them, too, however, the other thought has come that man is perhaps not merely a half-rational animal but a child of the gods and destined to immortality.”

-Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf

Hesse is one of those authors I always thought was speaking directly to me, or rather through me. If I could ever attempt to approach such a level of writing, here were glimpses of the reality I would speak of. I first read Hesse seven years ago and his work was probably the first time I ever had such a profound response to another’s ideas. He remains for me, one of Camus’ consummate artists, a man who “awakens for all in this world asleep, the fleeting and insistent image of a reality we recognize without ever having known it.” He woke me up anyway. I consider the moments I find such thoughts, whether through traversing libraries or cyberspace or continents, to be some of the most profoundly happy ones I have experienced. Here is the most unexpected of gifts, a safe harbour in the storm, a lightning bolt in the dark.

I often hear the subjects I choose to write about and the subjects I choose to make art about characterized primarily by their excesses of various unfavourable qualities. Such work is too dark, too angry, too cynical, too impudent, too depressing, too judgemental, too serious, too negative, too fatalistic. I am too much of an ideologue with too little understanding of reality. I am too young to really understand The Way Things Are. To continually focus my attentions on such topics (and attempt to compel others to do the same) is too unnecessary, too exhausting, too hard, too much.

I can even agree with some of that.

Why does one look into the darkness? Why paint the agony of the bomb and not the beauty of the landscape? Why write about the filth and the nausea of life when everywhere one is presented with examples of life’s most stunning beauty? Why insist on the horror?

Few things infuriate and sadden me as much as such questions. These are the questions of a binary world. Here is not the ‘The mother’s blood and the father’s, the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering’, but the belief that one must exist always at the expense of the other; an obvious world of black and white, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

Why does one direct their energies towards these ‘unpleasant’ issues? Because these issues exist. Because to have a passion for life, to love life, means that you feel it all and are devastated when you see life desecrated. Because to really attempt to live, means that you do not deny or try to justify these issues out of existence, but work to learn about everything you can, not just what is most convenient or pleasant. Because above all things, you believe that the world does not have to be this way, and it is in your power, it is your personal responsibility, to work to make things better. It is in such work that the happiness Hesse speaks of exists, there can be no greater passion; It is everything.

My focus on what appears to some to be very ‘unpleasant’ topics is a direct result of the passion I feel for this life, my reverence for it and my total awestruck wonder at the infinite complexity and beauty of the world. I am in constant awe of life. In awe of my luck of being here, now, to experience what I am experiencing. In awe of the variety of life around me. Everything is a lesson, everything is new, everything is astonishing. There is no separating the ‘bad’ learning from the ‘good’ for me, the ‘successes’ from the ‘failures’, the sunlight from the darkness- it is all life. Mostly, my impulse is to devour it all, the whole world, as quickly as possible, before I no longer have the chance. To take in all of that possibility, to understand all that I can possibly understand, to stand on the shoulders of giants and see as far as I can see. It fascinates me, all of it.

It is not possible for someone to love life in this all consuming way, without being horrified and repulsed when one learns of or witnesses actions that deliberately desecrate it. One cannot stand it, when they see that in all of life’s infinite variety and diversity, only the very smallest number of particular experiences, ‘truths’, and ‘realities’ are defined as superior to all others. One cannot reconcile such complete wonder at all life has to offer, with the knowledge that so many are denied the incomparable pleasure of experiencing so much of it. I don’t want to stop being horrified and repulsed, to try to stand it, to try and reconcile it. I want to change it. I demand that it changes.

Why should you care about bombs falling in countries you’ve never been too, freedoms denied to people you don’t know, where that homeless guy is going to sleep tonight? Because you fucking love life that much. The reason you care is because you are so passionate about something (anything!) that the knowledge that others are being denied the experience of that passion, a passion that you cannot imagine life without, is absolutely devastating to you. I don’t care what that passion is, if it is love for your children, or body building, or performing, or traveling, or building cars. Find out what it is so you can feel that profoundly about something. Find out what it is so you can imagine how it would feel to have the opportunity to express that passion taken from you, or to never have experienced it at all. Wrap your head around the fact that such an incomparable, universal feeling is denied someone, every day, because of the actions you do or do not take, right now.

It is true that I’m angry, too angry. I think I have every reason to be under the circumstances, and you likely have every reason to be as well. However, anger is not the best reaction when trying to build something positive and I am trying my hardest to work to change it. For now though, I would settle for any impassioned response. When seemingly the greatest emotion aroused in people who learn of the scathing injustices and atrocities committed on this earth is most often one of fatalistic apathy or guilty discomfort at best, I would happily take anger as some kind of foundation to build on. What I want is for you to notice this world that howls just past your evening TV programs, just past your car door as you drive to work, just past your experience every single day. I’m begging you to notice it, and I am begging you to feel something about it. I am begging you to love life that much, that you are so completely horrified by the actions and events you see unfolding around you that you can’t bring yourself to look away. You can’t bring yourself to justify it continuing.

Feeling this way does not have a repose. I cannot paint inspiring landscapes or write perky travel bogs in a world where bombs fall every day; where people are starving amongst a glut of food production; where love for someone who looks too much like you, or not enough like you can get you killed; Where the earth that sustains us groans under the weight of our disdain for it; Where we school our children in obedience and competition and fear to the relentless interruption of a bell; Where all of us are made conspirators in this endless cycle of our own destruction. This is the world you justify by your silence, by apologizing for it, by defending it, by ignoring it. It exists, and if you value the sanctity of a single human life- that is not acceptable. Some days, I can’t do much of anything at all except bear witness, and feel it, and not turn away. I don’t ever want to stop feeling it. I love life far too much for that.

I hope that more often than not in all of this darkness, what I am doing is something more than just bearing witness. I hope to be presenting alternatives to this undeniable state of affairs, I am searching for them every day as this world teaches me more and more. The more I learn about, the less I realize I know. The more I try to understand, the more I begin to realize I will never understand- and that’s ok. I can only speak of my truth, my experience of the world, my alternatives, and they are certainly no more valid or legitimate than yours. But what I am begging you to do is for god sakes, think about it, go out and look for those alternatives, come up with something to add. Ask ‘why?’ over and over and over like the child who takes nothing at all for granted as the way Reality works. Destroy the answers with your questions.

The world is not just ‘the way it is’ in some kind of benign, agency free vacuum. The deliberate injustice and poverty and torture and war that you see on the news before changing the channel to something ‘less depressing’ are not what define our nature and are certainly not what define any kind of inevitable ‘reality.’ It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change all of it. The belief that ‘that’s Reality and I’m just lucky/blessed, so all I can do is try not to think about it and be grateful’ is the true fatalism. That mentality is dark, that is cynical, that is depressing. I am asking nothing less of you than to help change the world and the very first step is to start actually living in it.

Hesse was an impassioned advocate of uncompromisingly embracing the totality of life in all of its aspects. He symbolized this idea in the gnostic deity Abraxas, who encompassed all elements of humanity, positive and negative: “You say yes to the sunlight and pure fantasies so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea. Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain, the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death. Say yes to everything, shirk nothing.”

Say yes to everything. Shirk nothing. You can have your sunlight and your fantasies, but also seek the filth and the nausea. See the filth and the nausea. Really see it and I promise, you will want to change it. The desire to see the totality of life, the desire to work to change it for the better- that is the farthest thing in the world from a cynical, depressing negativity. That is the passion that makes life worth living.

Back Doors and Revolving Doors: The Many Roads to Power

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In my last post, I briefly mentioned ‘grass roots activist group’ EthicalOil.org, noting that their specific pro-tar sands rhetoric and tactics seem to show up rather frequently in Conservative party talking points, most recently in the case of our friend Joe Oliver, of “foreign radical hijacker” fame. Not surprisingly, it turns out the connections don’t end there. Doing some research two nights ago into EthicalOil’s web hosting I stumbled across some interesting information. Fortuitously, the folks over at DeepClimate and Desmogblog beat me to the punch, and have already come up with beautifully assembled analyses of some of the same data (head on over and read their excellent articles immediately).

Emma Pullman of Desmogblog summarizes:

 

“As previously noted, the Ethical Oil Institute was incorporated to the Edmonton law firm McLennan Ross, which has many tar sands industry clients.

The Ethical Oil Institute’s Board of Directors has two members, Ezra Levant (the creator of the ‘Ethical Oil’ myth) and Thomas Ross, Levant’s lawyer and a McLellan Ross partner. Thomas Ross is also one of ten lead partners in McLellan Ross’s OilSandsLaw.com initiative, a “slick new oilsands cross-selling strategy” and marketing campaign.

But that’s just the beginning of the connection. The websites of both OurDecision.ca and EthicalOil.org are hosted on exactly the same server and IP address as strategicimperativesonline.com. Normally this wouldn’t be surprising – it’s common for many websites to be hosted on the same server. But this isn’t a coincidence. Strategicimperativesonline.com is registered to GoNewClear Productions, a business incorporated in British Columbia to Travis Freeman, Brendan Jones, and Hamish Marshall.

WHO IS HAMISH MARSHALL?

Hamish Marshall is the President and COO of GoNewClear Productions. He is a well-known strategist and activist trainer within Conservative circles, and also served as one of two British Columbia representatives on the federal Conservatives’ national council between 2008 and 2010.

He started his political career working for Canadian Alliance MP Joe Peschisolido from 2001-2002, and for the Conservative Party doing outreach for the Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition from 2002-2003. He then left his position at the Conservative-Party connected NaiKun Energy in 2006 to work in the Prime Minister’s Office as Harper’s Manager of Strategic Planning until September 2007. In 2008, he managed polling for the Conservative re-election campaign.

The Ethical Oil-Harper government revolving door doesn’t end there. Hamish Marshall is married to EthicalOil spokeswoman Kathryn Marshall, who took over last fall when her predecessor Alykhan Velshi moved into the Prime Minister’s Office as the director of planning.

Hamish Marshall, through strategicimperativesonline, has registered 32 websites. Nearly all are connected to EthicalOil.org, the Conservative Party of Canada, and the right wing Alberta Wildrose Alliance Party.

Both ethicaloil.org’s americans4opec.com and chiquitaconflict.com are hosted on the server, as is Kathryn Marshall’s personal website, kathrynmarshall.ca.”

Not quite damning enough? It gets better.

 

“The web gets really interesting when you look at the other sites registered on Marshall’s server.

Conservative Party candidates with websites hosted on Hamish Marshall’s server include Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, one of the most vocal proponents of the tar sands. Oliver’s open letter last week refers to the “environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade”. See the WhoIs profile for www.JoeOliver.ca.

Pierre Poilievre‘s www.ResultsForYou.ca website is hosted on the strategicimperativesonline server as well. A Calgary-school graduate, Poilievre is Harper’s former Parliamentary Secretary, and is currently the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. Poilievre also worked for Jason Kenney, whose site www.JasonKenney.com is hosted on the same server. 

Former EthicalOil.org spokesman Alykhan Velshi used to serve as the Director of Communications for Kenney. And Velshi’s mother, Rumina Velshi, was just appointed by John Oliver to the national nuclear safety commission, raising ethics questions among critics. 

For the pro-tarsands Wildrose Alliance Party, Hamish Marshall hosts both the official party websites, wildroseallancecaucus.ca and wildrosecaucus.ca, as well as numerous Wildrose Party candidate websites. This includes former leader Paul Hinman, and candidates Doug Cooper, Corrie AdolphDave Yager, Heather Forsyth, and Richard Dur. Dur is also the Chairman of Policy for Jason Kenney’s Conservative Party constituency association.

Toronto City Councillor John Parker‘s website is also hosted on Marshall’s server. 

Back in BC, Marshall hosts the website of former BC Liberal candidate Kevin Falcon. After working on Falcon’s unsuccessful run for BC Premier, Marshall went to work for BC Conservative leader hopeful John Cummins as his campaign manager. His website is also registered on Marshall’s server. Hamish Marshall is now one of the directors of the BC Conservative party

Finally, Marshall’s server hosts a website that makes campaign signs for Conservative MPs, as well as the website of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Association (OPCCA), the campus youth wing of the PC Party of Ontario is hosted on this server (campuspc.ca).

This is certainly only the beginning of an expansive web of connections between EthicalOil.org and the Conservative Party.”

Indeed it is, and it’s not just EthicalOil.org. Some additional research turns up even more contentious points of interest.

Domestic Policy, Meet Foreign Policy

If this laundry list linking current federal and provincial government employees to the ‘grassroots’ of the oil lobby isn’t quite convincing enough for you, it’s looking more and more like the tangled web of special interest groups, lobbyists and government employees extends into some other high profile areas as well. Turns out, the revolving door in question isn’t even much of a door at all, but more of a wide open frame where some kind of door should probably be.

Also hosted on Hamish’s EthicalOil.org/Conservative Party/Wildrose Alliance server is Ottawa based Jewish charity Ten Yad and Canada-Israel committee website whatwouldwedo.ca.

Whatwouldwedo.ca cotains some pretty shocking propaganda, featuring sensationalist EthicalOil.org style PR videos, militant pro-Israel articles from the ultra conservative YNet news, official IDF propaganda videos and the especially egregious manipulation of facts, flotillafacts.com.

But the really interesting part of this information is who sits on the Board of Ottawa based Ten Yad. Ten Yad Vice Chair Debbie Scharf has worked for Environment Canada since 2004 in a number of roles, beginning as a Senior Policy Advisor for Environmental Protection, then moving on to management positions in Economic Affairs & Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, Trading Regimes (Climate Change) and most recently, Policy Coordination for the Chemical Production Division. Ten Yad Treasurer Elayne Adler’s linkedin profile lists her as a ‘Senior Government Analyst’.

Ten Yad Chairman of the Board Esti Fogel is the wife of Shimon Fogel, the longstanding CEO of the Canada -Israel Committee (1988-2010) and current CEO of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), which absorbed the CIC and several other bodies last July. The former CIC and current CIJA are registered government lobby groups, involved in a number of initiatives including Canada-Israel military cooperation.

The hawkish Pro-Israel stance of the Harper Conservatives is hardly ground breaking news. Harper has defended Israel’s bloody 2006 Lebanon campaign as a “measured” response, promised to vote against any UN bid for Palestinian statehood, remained conspicuously silent about Israel’s 2010 assault on a Gaza bound humanitarian aid ship in international waters that ended in the death of 9 activists (although Conservative MP Peter Kent did state that “Canada doesn’t believe a lot of noise is required in this instance”), vowed to “stand against anti-Israel rhetoric no matter the political cost to his government at international organizations” and greatly increased military ties with Israel (see Kole Kilibarda’s Canadian and Israeli Defense- Industrial and Homeland Security Ties: An Analysis).

What is fairly interesting news is how consistently the causes of special interest groups with strong ties to government employees just so happen to align particularly favourably with the foreign and domestic policy decisions enacted by the Harper regime. The network of connections and conflicting interests between these individuals and their state functions are so immediately apparent, it is almost laughable. Were anyone actually looking for it.

As Camus said in his 1951 Comedy About the Press (and if the latest performance of EthicalOil spokeswoman Kathryn Marshall is any example), In France today the simple suspicion of intelligence is enough to sink a man. But on all occasions you write that we are the most intelligent people on earth. The public no longer accepts intelligence except with idiotic commentaries. The public does not have a memory- we are its memory.”

Musings on ‘Reality’

It is a truly stupendous trick of ventriloquism that the likes of Stephen Harper, Joe Oliver, Hamish Marshall and the masterminds of EthicalOil.org have gotten so many of us to so mindlessly mouth the rhetoric of the Conservative Party back to them, no strings attached. It’s almost as though the critiques leveled against the opponents of their agenda are clever points that we came up with ourselves through much studied research and reflection (ok, with a bit of help from some completely unrelated lobbyists and ‘grass roots advocacy’ groups). Watch how convincingly the mouth moves!

As noted in my last post, this cozy three way of lobbyists/industry/government with the power to define the status quo and its “radical” outliers is something that looks very different than the admittedly imperfect but happily democratic system we believe we are living in. This is not a Harper Conservative-specific phenomenon. One need only look at the massive number of investment bankers intimately working today within the Obama administration, or examples such as former Goldman Sachs chief EU lobbyist Josh Bolton, who went from former President Bush’s Chief of Staff to Director of Office of Management and Budget. Or Linda Fisher, former assistant administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency before becoming vice president of multinational biotech giant Monsanto and then returning to the EPA as deputy administrator. Thirteen year Goldman Sachs veteran Mark Carney is the current Governor of the Bank of Canada and Chairman of the Financial Stability Board, an international body that works closely alongside the IMF, World Bank and WTO to ‘monitor and make recommendations about the global financial system’. Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Monti, Greece’s new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, Ireland’s former Attorney General Peter Sutherland, along with numerous other high ranking government officials across Europe, all have strong ties to Goldman Sachs. Hopefully a pattern is starting to emerge for you here.

This is certainly the reality that currently exists. All of this information is there, laid out for anyone to investigate and fact check at their leisure. This is not, however, the reality that must exist. The current system that so many deem “The Reality One Must Work Within” has no intrinsic power or intrinsic value. Every aspect of it was at one time just an idea, created from the philosophies of those who have come before us, not because it was ever predestined, or even the best possible solution, but because, for a multitude of reasons, specific people made specific decisions.

The Reality One Must Work Within is not the impenetrable monolith of inevitability so many seem to treat it as. Just as specific, conscious decisions have caused us to arrive at and maintain this state of affairs, specific, conscious decisions can cause us to arrive at some very different alternative. We can do this if we work together.

I am greatly disheartened that so often when discussing this reality with others, I find the first conversation cannot be about how to build these alternatives.  Rather, that it becomes necessary to first argue that there is something very wrong at all. I am daunted by the fact it must be pointed out that a revolving door between lobby groups, industry and political offices is a problem and not some sort of elegant free market solution to meeting government demand with the most relevant experience. That it even has to be said that when government ministers speak of opponents to their agenda using the same language they use to speak of violent enemy combatants, it is a problem and not a ‘refreshingly honest’ strategy for “just getting the facts out.” That I actually have to make the argument that a government policy of unconditional, uncritical support “at any cost” for a violent, serial abuser of human rights, is a problem, and not just someone ‘standing up for their friends’. These are the barest of examples, the tip of the iceberg (much more to come on that). If you can be presented with such evidence and not see anything amiss, then I suppose I don’t have much to say to you.  I wouldn’t know where to start.

To everyone else I must ask, why do we continue to choose this particular reality? A reality which is defined by all of these actions, and so many other actions that are far, far worse. What is it that makes this particular system legitimate to us? Why do we support it? Think about it. I’m tired of being called an idealist because of a lack of collective imagination.

In Defence of our Radicals, Foreign and Domestic

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In response to the latest of Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver’s  tragically comic farces much ink has already been spilled. Among the numerous outraged ‘open letters’ and indignant counter rants in response, I continue to see some key points missing from the debate. Overwhelmingly, the outcry from environmental groups and concerned citizens has gone something along the lines of, “We live here! We’re average tax paying moms and dads! We certainly aren’t ‘foreign’, or ‘ideological’, or ‘hijackers’ and concern for our environment can’t be called ‘radical’!” Unfortunately, I have to disagree with all of that.

Lets start off with some badly needed perspective and a deeply unpopular assertion: it is the First Nations communities, (as far as our minister is concerned, lumped in with “foreign funded special interest groups,” working to “undermine Canada’s national economic interest”) that are the original “local” population of Canada. It is Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver, and the vast majority of the rest of us, living here in North America on land that was forcibly taken from its original inhabitants, who have always been the real foreign special interests. I realize this argument has been reduced to a merely semantic or theoretical one, as far as the actions of Ottawa and Canadians in general seem to be concerned- which is a whole other can of worms and a much larger problem. In this particular case, the First Nations groups are not only the original inhabitants of the lands in question, but some of the current local populations immediately impacted by the project as well- the proposed pipeline cuts through tribal lands and the Great Bear rainforest. Mr. Oliver generously acknowledges that any regulatory system must “consider different viewpoints including those of Aboriginal communities.” Although as MP Elizabeth May rightly points out, First Nations groups are not merely ‘communities’, but a level of government constituting “a nation to nation relationship,” nations whose sovereignty the federal government has a constitutional responsibility to uphold; Not just benevolently “consider their viewpoints” when it is convenient.

Joe Oliver himself seems to have an especially hard time with this concept. This attitude of expedient condescension towards First Nations is unfortunately just more of the same from the man who, in a CBC interview last September discussing the Alberta tar sands lamented the unemployment and “culture of despair” among the resident native population of the region he incorrectly identified as “Inuit.” The minister then proceeded to explain that “no community is being disrupted” by tar sands activities because “oilsands land, which only represents one-thousandth of our boreal forest, is uninhabitable by human beings.”

In this latest tirade the systemically racist, colonialist attitudes on display in Ottawa show their ugly face in the disturbing theme of a legitimizing Canadian ‘nationality.’ As so many have already pointed out, the glaring hypocrisy of defining foreign money used to fund tar sands development as “critical investment” and foreign money used to oppose tar sands development as “radical ideological hijacking,” seems too large of an irony for even Joe Oliver to miss. However, the other thought processes on display here are far less amusing. Not only is the assertion that the main opposition the Northern Gateway project faces is from foreign lobbyists demonstrably false, the idea that a Minister would attempt to equate critique from abroad with a direct assault on Canadian families is incredibly telling, and should be downright worrying.

This sort of ultra nationalist rhetoric is the hallmark of a deeply imperialist mentality: you are either a ‘patriotic Canadian’ who agrees with Oliver and cares about “the financial security of Canadians and their families” or you are ‘foreign radical’ bent on ideological warfare “no matter what the cost to Canadian families.” In short: “You’re either with us or against us.” The language used to describe opposition to the government line is violent and militarized: radicals threaten to “hijack”, “kill good projects” and “stack public hearings with bodies.” Shouldn’t it concern us that a government minister is using such language to talk about dissidents in an open and democratic society?

If the tactic of attacking tar sands critics for their dubious ‘foreign funding’ and straw manning vocal American celebrities also sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve already heard it before from tar sands ‘activist’ group EthicalOil.org, the brainchild of former Conservative Party staffers Ezra Levant and Alykhan Velshi (more on their particularly interesting history here). Shouldn’t it concern us that the words coming out of the mouth of a federal minister (and subsequently, the mouths of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Allison Redford) are lifted verbatim from the rhetoric of the oil lobby?

As foreign ideological radical David Suzuki says, “how you imagine the world determines how you live in it.” So, for the sake of argument, let us attempt to imagine the world according to Joe Oliver; the world that has both lead him to the conclusions expressed in this news release, and lead him to hold the position of power he currently enjoys over those who would question those conclusions. This is a world where might makes right, ends justify means and the power of the almighty dollar reigns supreme. In this world, the actions of the Harper Conservatives have illustrated repeatedly that putting our environment, our civil liberties, our democratic processes, the health of our communities, or even the health of the communities of others a world away above toeing the Conservative party line in the ultimate quest for profit is indeed a radical position to take. This is business as usual. So yes, Mr. Oliver correctly identifies holding a predominant concern for the long term health of our environment over a concern for the short term gratification of immediate profits as exactly what it is: a radical position.

In this world, the world imagined through the eyes of Minister Joe Oliver, or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, we are indeed the radicals. We are also certainly ideological. The important point to grasp is that Joe Oliver, Stephen Harper, and everyone else in power, are every bit as ideological as their detractors.

Linguistics professor Robin Tolmach Lakoff discusses this as ‘the neutrality of the status quo’ in her book The Language War. She argues to be ‘unmarked’ in language is to be in the dominant position, a signifier of power that otherness is measured against (ie. In English the masculine has been unmarked while the feminine is frequently the ‘marked’: tiger/tigress, doctor/ ‘lady or female doctor’, the generic use of “man” to refer inclusively to all of humanity- both men and women.) Thus, because we have ceded them the rights to power, it is the prerogative of the likes of Mr. Oliver and Mr. Harper to determine what defines the ‘neutral’ status quo, and that means defining who the outliers (ie. ideologues/radicals/dissidents) are. They have the power, which means their ideology is more correct than yours, which makes you the ‘marked’ exception to the rule: the radical. If this all sounds like something very different than the democratic ideal you believed was being upheld in Canada, that’s because it is. But more on that next time.

Let us pretend for a moment that we are all naive. That we live in a world where we expect our Minister of Natural Resources to be a leader in advocating for the responsible stewardship of Canada’s resources and promoting their sustainable development for the future. Let us pretend that we are appalled when instead what we find his job description entails is hard selling the least environmentally friendly of our resources to our neighbours while lobbying to undermine the efforts of our other trading partners on meeting their clean energy targets. Let us pretend that we are just the slightest bit uneasy with the fact that Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver is yet another white-male-lawyer-who-began-his-career-as-an-investment-banker before presuming to represent us in government. Let us pretend that we are scandalized that our minister of Natural Resources cannot even conceive of a world where finite fossil fuel resources do not dominate his portfolio. Let us pretend that we are shocked that a Canadian minister would even release such a document, which reads more like an inflammatory op/ed in the Edmonton Sun or the transcript of a Bill O’Reilly interview than a press release from a government office. That these points have not seriously been raised, owes I think, to our collective cynicism when it comes to such actions by our esteemed leaders. We are not really shocked to realize any of this. This is how the government works. This is how Reality works. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got and nothing else has proved to work any better.

 

Right?

‘Serious Reservations’ and the Truth That Will Indefinitely Detain You.

Filed in Uncategorized

I am sick to my stomach to see yet another bill signed into law that promises the further destruction of human beings. There have been so many lately I feel like they roll over me in an endless night, and I try to pick them apart in the dark so at the very least I can see what we’re up against. But it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s all just different shades of black. And besides, you won’t read it (all 1441 pages of it). You’ll be watching ‘The Biggest Loser’ and believing this doesn’t apply to you.

In his latest piece blogger and constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald lays bare a comprehensive opus of Obama’s many achievements that preceded this one:

“The candidate supported by progressives — President Obama — himself holds heinous views on a slew of critical issues and himself has done heinous things with the power he has been vested. He has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with dronescluster bombs and other forms of attack. He has sought to overturn a global ban on cluster bombs. He has institutionalized the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield. He has waged an unprecedented war against whistleblowers, the protection of which was once a liberal shibboleth. He rendered permanently irrelevant the War Powers Resolution, a crown jewel in the list of post-Vietnam liberal accomplishments, and thus enshrined the power of Presidents to wage war even in the face of a Congressional vote against it. His obsession with secrecy is so extreme that it has become darkly laughable in its manifestations, and he even worked to amend the Freedom of Information Act (another crown jewel of liberal legislative successes) when compliance became inconvenient.

He has entrenched for a generation the once-reviled, once-radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism powers of indefinite detention, military commissions, and the state secret privilege as a weapon to immunize political leaders from the rule of law. He has shielded Bush era criminals from every last form of accountability. He has vigorously prosecuted the cruel and supremely racist War on Drugs,including those parts he vowed during the campaign to relinquish — a war which devastates minority communities and encages and converts into felons huge numbers of minority youth for no good reason. He has empowered thieving bankers through the Wall Street bailout, Fed secrecy, efforts to shieldmortgage defrauders from prosecution, and the appointment of an endless roster of former Goldman, Sachs executives and lobbyists. He’s brought the nation to a full-on Cold War and a covert hot war with Iran, on the brink of far greater hostilities. He has made the U.S. as subservient as ever to the destructive agenda of the right-wing Israeli government. His support for some of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes is as strong as ever.

Most of all, America’s National Security State, its Surveillance State, and its posture of endless war is more robust than ever before. The nation suffers from what National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh just christened “Obama’s Romance with the CIA.” He has created what The Washington Post just dubbed “a vast drone/killing operation,” all behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy and without a shred of oversight. Obama’s steadfast devotion to what Dana Priest and William Arkin called “Top Secret America” has severe domestic repercussions as well, building up vast debt and deficits in the name of militarism that create the pretext for the “austerity” measures which the Washington class (including Obama) is plotting to impose on America’s middle and lower classes.”

As such, the fact that he would sign the NDAA should come as no surprise to anyone. These are the actions I expect from our esteemed ‘leaders’: those who sow violence with abandon and kill with smug moral superiority and call it ‘freedom’, ‘liberation’, ‘safety’. This is the place where words have lost all meaning.

There are no words strong enough for the disgust I feel towards those who expound in wooden panelled rooms and echoing marble corridors on the dismemberment and anguish of their fellow human beings as ‘the responsibility to protect’, ‘economic necessity’, ‘leaving all options on the table’.  Academic, scholarly, civilized words, bleached and polished of their blood and grime for lily white tongues that flap incessantly.

What I cannot, cannot understand is how anyone witnessing this unending parade of ever more horrifying actions can continue to support their perpetrators as their own champions and liberators. If this is not enough for you, if you can explain away each and every one of these irrefutable facts; I ask what it will take to convince you of anything other than the benevolence of this man’s- and this system’s- intentions. Where is the point where you withdraw your support? What exactly must happen? To apologize for these actions is the ultimate betrayal of their victims- of which you are one.

This is the attitude of a battered child. The child that believes that the fault of the beating lies in his character; that if only he could be good enough, smart enough, obedient enough- he could save himself from this horrible fate, repeated always beyond the limits of his control, because he just can’t manage to ever quite live up to the expectations that would save him that next beating. The fault is his- he has failed the one who beats him and for this he must suffer. His abuser loves him. His abuser is doing what’s best for him. His abuser protests, he “does not like” that he has to beat the child to make him submit! If only the child would surrender to his will, he could stop! He has “serious reservations” about exercising his absolute power at all!

But he will.

He beats you because he loves you.

He beats you to save you.

Lessons must be learned.

Or, more specifically, as Arthur Silber* puts it- and it’s particularly worth noting this was written back in 2007- (‘whoever could have known Obama would act this way?!’):

*Go and read the rest of what this man has to say immediately, I can’t recommend his writing highly enough.

“Most Democrats and their dedicated partisans (and I regretfully include almost all liberal-progressive bloggers in this category) remain absolute in their determined refusal to see the continuity of our foreign policy, from the annexation of Hawaii, through the Spanish-American War and theoccupation of the Philippines, through Woodrow Wilson and the Open Door doctrine of global hegemony, to global interventionism, and all the other issues I’ve discussed in my “Dominion Over the World” series.

The Democrats don’t object and they completely fail to mount serious opposition to our inevitable course toward widening war and an attack on Iran, not because they are cowards, not because they’re afraid of being portrayed as “weak” in the fight against terrorism, and not because of any of the other excuses that are regularly offered by their defenders. They don’t object because – they don’t object.That is: they agree – they agree that the United States is the “indispensable” nation, that we have the “right” to tell every other country how it is “permitted” to act, that we must pursue a policy of aggressive interventionism supported by an empire of military bases. They agree about all of it; moreover, in most critical respects, they devised these policies in the first instance, and they implemented and defended them more vigorously and more consistently than Republicans, with the exception of the criminal now residing in the White House.

They agree. Try to wrap your head around it. Try to absorb the indisputable fact, which has been proven over and over and over again in the last century, and particularly in the last 60 years.”

And so. Onward with the kabuki theatre of protestations and very ‘serious reservations’, and much hand wringing and lily white speechifying of the Nobel variety, and every other variety, and ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ and all the rest of it.

They Agree.

Obama agrees.

You are not a child. Open your eyes.

 

The 2012 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA)

Read the latest monstrosity in its entirety.

Section 1021, On indefinite detention.

Section 1023, On Guantanamo.

Section 1245, On Iranian financial sanctions.

On Birds, Eggs, and Storms (not necessarily in that order).

Filed in All of the Above

The world I live in is loathsome to me, but I feel at one with those who suffer in it. There are ambitions that are not mine, and I should not feel at ease if I had to make my way by relying on the paltry privileges granted to those who adapt themselves to this world. But it seems to me that there is another ambition that ought to belong to all writers: to bear witness and shout aloud, every time it is possible, insofar as our talent allows, for those who are enslaved as we are.”

-Albert Camus, Combat, Dec, 1948

I’ve had some free time lately. Actually I’ve had a hell of a lot of free time. Nothing but free time, in fact. Almost a year ago now I quit my job, gave away all of my belongings and bought a one way plane ticket to the other side of the world. This wasn’t exactly out of the blue. I have developed a bit of a habit lately of dramatically throwing myself out of perfectly stable and respectable situations when I find those situations are beginning to chaff even slightly against my principles. Actually, I consider this to be something of a great achievement, as my previous response to such circumstances was to cultivate ‘put up and shut up’ into a high art form. Turns out that’s not a good coping strategy.

Anyway, It was brought to my attention at the time, that this level of reckless abandon was maybe not the most prudent move. It’s not how Reality works (more about Reality later), doing things like this. It certainly isn’t something considerate, responsible, serious people do. Which of course further convinced me it was exactly the right decision to be making.

So what have I been doing here on the other side of the world? Thinking. I wish I had something a bit more substantial to show for all of my time here, but that is another attitude I am trying my best to purge from my consciousness. It is all too easy to confuse the passage of time with growth, movement with progress. I think this is a particularly ethnocentric view, that productive activity can only be that which produces concrete, quantifiable outcomes (1257 words, two sketches, a blog post and a few emails today). Other cultures seem to have perfected the art of just enjoying life without any apparent recognition of the particular gnawing guilt I feel as I attempt to justify to myself why it is I lie in bed until noon reading Anarchist scholars (much more about them later) instead of doing something ‘productive’ like earning a few bucks waiting tables. I’ll eventually have a quantifiable outcome at some later date that will justify all this exceedingly indulgent behaviour, right? Like maybe another degree, or a book deal? I have these thoughts. These thoughts are a problem.

I am incredibly aware of the privilege of this position. And I don’t mean the privilege of taking a year off of work to ‘just to’ think. That is a small thing. It is not a thing that makes me ‘lucky’ in the way I have so often heard repeated to me by others who share my particular brand of luck, but, like so much, it is a thing countless people are capable of doing and choose not to do. That’s Reality for you.

The more that I see of the world, the more I understand exactly how profoundly the luck of ones birth determines every other opportunity and hardship they face. It is painfully clear to me every day, the incredible advantages my white skin, heterosexual identity, upper/middle class parentage and native English speaking ability provide. I basically won the lottery. You probably did pretty well in the lotto yourself, if you’re reading this right now. These great, great advantages are handed to us, or not, by the accident of our birth and that alone. The rugged individualist who seizes the reins of their destiny by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is a myth kids, s/he never existed- don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What is exceedingly, ridiculously lucky to a level of injustice I find gut wrenchingly appalling, is that I happened to be born on the bucolic prairies of Canada to two employed parents, rather than in famine ravaged Mogadishu, Somalia; where my lovely and intelligent 22 year old student Amina who I tutor in English literacy is from. Or, that the world’s leading colonial language just happens to be my mother tongue which affords me every opportunity for travel denied to my incredibly insightful and whip smart Korean flat mate, Hyem. Or, that in this militantly hetero normative society I am a cisgendered woman attracted to men, unlike many of my friends who identify with the multitude of other possible options that cause them to be stigmatized or alienated from their family. Or, that I have never personally experienced the disgusting racism that lead to my dark skinned partner being physically assaulted when he was living abroad and continues to cause him no end of thinly disguised harassment in airports. Or that the scariest thing that ever came down out of the skies of my home town was a tornado once, (that I don’t even remember) and not a constant barrage of warheads and chemical weapons as is the daily experience of so many. The list goes on ad nauseum.

This is the luck that weighs on my mind. When I sit down to record these thoughts I am paralyzed by the monstrosity of the task before me. The freedom that I have is a relative freedom, it is a pale shadow of the freedom I see for the world I want to live in- but it is so much greater than that afforded to so many others.

There is something very wrong with our world. Here’s where we start talking about how to fix it.

 

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