Archive for January, 2012
There have now been two democratic elections in the Middle East as a consequence of the Arab Spring. One was in Tunisia in October 2011, and the recent staggered elections of December 2011-January 2012 for a lower house of parliament in Egypt.
In both cases Islamist parties did the best. In Tunisia it was the Islamist al-Nahda (Renaissance) party that got 41% of the votes. In Egypt it was Hizb al-hurriya wa al-adala (Freedom and Justice Party), affiliated with country’s Muslim Brotherhood, that got 47% of the votes, while the hard-line Salafi group, the al-Nour (the Light) party got 29%.. In Tunisia the liberal parties came in a collective second with 34% of the votes, but in Egypt they did poorly. The liberal Egyptian Bloc Coalition only managed 8.9% of the vote.
Actually, the biggest surprise was the good showing of the liberals in Tunisia, and not the fact that relatively fair elections put the Islamists in positions of power. No one should be surprised at this result. Why? It has to do with history. While what I describe below is simplified for the sake of brevity, it gives a basically accurate picture of how the past has given us the present we now witness.
Part II – A Very Brief History Lesson
The Middle East has been the home of an evolving Islamic civilization since the 7th century. Civilization means more than just religion and religious practice–it means values, outlooks, mannerisms, habits of thought and behavior. The dynamic nature of this way of life was such that up to, roughly, the 16th century every outside invader that pushed its way into the Middle East ended up being “Islamized.” That is, whether they were Turks, Mongols, Crusaders, etc. most ended up adopting an Islamic way of life. But this changed sometime in the late 1500s.
It was about then that the military and economic balance of power between the Islamic world and Christian Europe shifted. From that point on European power allowed incursions into the Middle East by Western invaders who saw Islam and its civilization as inferior. These invaders proved not to be susceptible to “Islamization.”
In fact it was at this point that Western ways began to draw at least a certain class of Middle Easterners away from their traditional lifestyle. Those who became Westernized were largely the people who politically, economically, militarily and educationally interacted with the increasingly powerful Europeans. Many of them became secular in their outlook and some developed principled positions supporting liberal, open societies. Some sought to meld Western technology and educational techniques with Islamic tradition. Others, however, obtained leadership positions in which they behaved (and still behave) in corrupt and dictatorial ways.
It is a mistake to think that this process penetrated deeply within Middle Eastern society. One way to think of the result is in terms of a volcanic landscape. Here you have a thin crust of surface material beneath which is a deep pool of magma under building pressure. When the pressure gets high enough the magma breaks through. The thin crust represents Westernized elites, the magma is the great mass of Middle Easterners who have always identified with Islamic civilization and increasingly resent the penetration of Western culture into their lands. Historically, the resulting occasional volcanic eruptions, if you will, have occurred in the form of revolution–a modern example of which is Iran in 1979.
Of course Tunisia and Egypt had their own brief revolutions which led to democratic elections. You can think of these elections as controlled breakthroughs of the Islamic magma. Given the state of society in the Middle East, the results were predictable.
Part III – The Price of Historical Ignorance
On 22 January 2012 Juan Cole wrote a revealing piece on his blog Informed Comment. It was entitled “South Carolina & Gingrich, Egypt & the Muslim Brotherhood.” What Cole notes is that you can get a large number of religious fundamentalists swaying the primary election in South Carolina and the media hardly considers it an event to be looked into. But let religious fundamentalists do well in elections in the Middle East and it automatically generates stereotyping and shallow, inaccurate analyses. Thus, Cole notes:
1. “…it is implicitly deemed illegitimate for Egyptians to be religious or vote for a religious party. But it is legitimate for South Carolinians to be religious, to vote on a religious basis, to seek to impose their religious laws on all Americans.”
2. What if Egyptians voted for religious parties for reasons other than just religion? Given the shallowness of U.S. media coverage how would we ever know? Yet, polls in Egypt indicate that many Egyptian voters chose the Freedom and Justice Party because the Muslim Brotherhood has a reputation for honesty and a commitment to social justice.
3. And finally, “almost no Egyptians think that the revolution against [the military dictatorship of] Mubarak was made to establish a religious state.”
None of this makes much difference to U.S. politicians who usually know little or no relevant history and are therefore oblivious to reality in the Middle East. They are, however, deeply committed to ideologically driven stereotypes and conventions. And there are plenty of special interests out there pushing an Islamophobic message.
How can one ever create reasonable and workable foreign policy under these conditions? The answer is, you can’t. You end up thrashing around this way and that, running scared and talking yourself into war-like scenarios. This is utterly crazy and utterly typical.
Let’s end with a quote from a religious leader who does have a penetrating sense of history, the current Dalai Lama: “Where ignorance is our master there is no possibility of real peace.” Alas, that is reality!
Among the numerous wars that are perennially being waged worldwide is the one between truth-tellers and those who would suppress the truth. I have alluded to this war in prior analyses that took up the plight of such truth-tellers as Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. Their crime is not, as is sometimes suggested, the speaking of truth to Power. As Noam Chomsky once suggested, Power already knows the truth and doesn’t care about it. No, their crime is speaking truth to the rest of us, or at least trying to do so. Disenchanting the public of official lies is what really rattles those in power. Of course, it is quite possible that most of the public, in the U.S. and elsewhere, doesn’t care about the truth either, however Power is not taking any chances in this regard.
Recently, a new front in this continuing war has opened up. On 17 January 2012 Al Jazeera reported that Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon had “gone on trial in the country’s supreme court on [three separate] charges of abusing judicial powers.”
Garzon is a very important truth-teller. He has conducted a number of investigations into violations of international law against torture. Using the principle of universal jurisdiction Garzon went after Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet back in 1998, and in March of 2009 he stated that Spain could bring charges against six Bush Jr. administration officials for clearing the way for the use of torture during the Iraq war. At least four men who are Spanish citizens, and also former prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison, have accused the U.S. military of torturing them. It was at this point that the U.S. government appears to have placed Garzon in a category that would also include Manning and Assange: the category of the dangerous truth-teller.
The U.S. Ambassador to Spain in 2009, Eduardo Aguirre describes his actions (in a diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks in 2010) in relation to the Garzon investigation as follows, “…behind the scenes we have fought tooth and nail to make the charges disappear.” The significant word here is “disappear” for there are two approaches to suppressing an unwanted truth. The first is to create a counter-story that makes the truth appear untrue. The second is to simply suppress all evidence, all references, all interest so that the particular truth just “disappears.”
Aguirre managed to get the cooperation of Spain’s Chief Prosecutor Javier Zaragoza who is quoted in another U.S. diplomatic cable (also made public by Wikileaks) to the effect that he had a plan to “embarrass” Garzon into dropping his case against the Bush officials by misrepresenting Garzon’s actions in previous cases. This sounds like a bit of blackmail.
Garzon did not relent and now he is on trial for “abusing judicial powers” in this and other cases.
Garzon and his supporters, which include almost every human rights group on the planet, claim that the charges are politically motivated and, to be sure, the entire affair appears similar to the questionable rape charge facing Assange in Sweden. In the case of Garzon, the Spanish Public Prosecutor (different than the Chief Prosecutor) has recommended acquittal on all three charges and yet there is still serious doubt that this will happen. If he is found guilty on any of the charges Garzon “could be banned from serving as a judge for 20 years, in what would be a career-ending blow to the 55-year-old..” Just the outcome the U.S. government would like to see.
The good news is that this battle to silence Garzon, has not yet intimidated all other Spanish judges. On 20 January 2012 another Spanish judge , Pablo Rafael Gutierrez, took up the case of the former Spanish citizens who allege torture at Guantanamo Bay. This judge, again used the principle of universal jurisdiction, and noted that the United States government has consistently refused to investigate the Spanish citizen’s charges.
James Goldston, the executive director of Open Society Justice Initiative, described the situation this way, “These crimes [such as torture] are universal crimes and it is very clear that until the United States holds to account those responsible for these crimes, other judicial actors in other countries are going to press for accountability.” The most powerful and influential government in the world, the one with its capital in Washington, D.C., is going to fight to halt these foreign efforts. And so, we have a war that seeks to replace the truth with either lies or historical black holes.
Part II – Big Truths and Little Truths
One of the major themes of George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, is the control of information. In book 1, chapter 3 of the novel we find this proposition – if government controls all media and all public records it can either impose a lie as truth or simply make selected past events disappear from society’s collective memory. “Who controls the past…controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Is this not what the United States government is trying to do in the case its use of torture (among other actions): manipulate and hide the truth so people will ignore it and then forget it? And is this not what almost every country tries to do relative to their present crimes or those embedded in their pasts?
It is really amazing just how common this sort of manipulation is. And, the reason it is relatively easy for governments to get away with it is because the average man and woman cares mainly about little truths and not big ones.
Little truths are local truths. Don’t be misled to think that little means unimportant because that is not the case. Little truths are the truths that make possible successful daily interactions and that, of course, makes them very important indeed. Thus, one major reason life can go on relatively smoothly is that, most of the time, you can take as true what other local folks tell you. That this is so means we can rely on friends, have stable relationships with spouses and children, and maintain successfully operating offices, business arrangements, etc. When the little truths start to become lies, these relationships break down.
Alleged big truths are the ones governments and the major media outlets tell the masses. When the U.S. government tells its citizens that unregulated capitalism will make the nation strong and prosperous, or that there must be a war to prevent Iraq from using weapons of mass destruction; when the major American media outlets tell their viewers and readers that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons or that Israel is “just like us,” they are shaping perceptions that are not just local but regional and national. The problem is that, historically, most alleged big truths turn out to be big lies. But by the time the citizenry realizes this it is too late. Then it turns out that the citizens’ historical memories are short and they forget past big lies which allows them to swallow new ones a generation later. And, finally, as long as the little truths work, most people either don’t notice or don’t care about the big lies.
Part III – Conclusion
Yet truth-tellers, like Manning, Assange and Garzon have good historical memories and they do notice and do care. They realize that when big truths turn out to be big lies people suffer–they suffer in the millions, bombs rain down from the skies, economies falter and the public sphere of life becomes like a poisoned well. That is why accountability for the crimes hidden behind big lies is so important. That is why no government, no politician, no media organization should be allowed to manipulate the truth about the past or the present. On this the future depends.
Part I – Zionist Reality
Last month Amira Hass, one of Israel’s best, bravest and most disliked journalists wrote a short piece in Haaretz entitled “When ‘fascist’ is not a rude word.” Here she tells us that “in fascist regimes the state is above all” and then notes that the sort of fascist style bills pouring out of Israel’s Knesset would “make Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter [the leaders of the far right party of France] look like amateurs.”
Could this be so? Could that singular country which, for 64 years made every effort to show but one face to the American public, the face of a Dr. Jekyl, be hiding the hideous features of a Mr. Hyde? Could it be that the “only democracy in the Middle East,” the friend and ally that allegedly reflects American values, the mighty dam protecting the West from the flood of Islamic radicalism, the supposed champion of “gender equality” in the patriarchal East, and the reliable, if indirect, source of financial support for 99% of the U.S. Congress, is morphing into a fascist state? Deeply indoctrinated Americans are going to need more than Amira Hass’s word on this. They are going to need supporting evidence, and so here are some other experts they might consult.
Your average pro-Israel Americans might look up Danny Danon, who is a good looking, clean shaven sort of fellow as well as a Likud Party member of the Israeli Knesset. Danon has been working very hard to pass laws that would root out all those who might not be loyal to his Jewish state. It seems that, in his efforts to be “just like us,” he is following in the footsteps of Senator Joe McCarthy. One can hear the echo when Danon proclaims, “there are many people who act against the State that protects them. Anyone who is not faithful to the State should not be a citizen.” He mainly has in mind that quarter of the population who are not Jewish, but he would also throw into this category those Israeli Jews audacious enough to stand up for political equality for all citizens. In other words, Danon’s aim is to manufacture statelessness. And as both 20th century European history and Israel’s 45 years in the Occupied Territories attests, statelessness is a one-way road to physical and cultural destruction.
When our figurative American supporters of Israel are done talking to Danny Danon, they might move on to consult Benni Katzover. Katzover is a major figure in the Israeli settler movement and a supporter of the terrorist activities of the Zionist “price tag” campaign, a bunch of “patriots” who attack Palestinians and Israeli peace groups whenever the government frustrates their helter skelter expansionist activities on the West Bank. Katzover may well have the same ends as Danon, but he is much more out front about them. “I would say that today, Israeli democracy has one central mission, and that is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its historical role, and it must be dismantled and bow before Judaism.” All those leftists who find this proposal frightening are just “against anything that smells of holiness, and…act against the foundations of Jewish faith.” One wonders what American Zionists who see Sharia law undermining the foundations of democracy make of Benni Katzover?
While estimates vary, it is not unreasonable to assume that Danny Danon and Benni Katzover together command the support of at least 25% of the Israeli Jewish population. Otherwise the Israeli Knesset would not look and act as it does and the settler movement would not be so openly aggressive. And this category of Israelis are nothing if not aggressive. According to a recent survey the Danon-Katzover types are mostly young and express their opinions in an “open and unabashed” racist way. They express open hatred for Arabs and a wish that those under Israeli control would die.
Part II – Jewish Humanism
Of course, there are other Israelis who represent the opposite point of view. Thus, our figurative American supporters of Israel might also want to interview some of them. First they should look up Uri Avnery. Avnery is a founding member of Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc. Avnery has solid Israeli credentials: he was a heroic fighter in the 1948 war, a well known journalist and a distinguished past member of the Knesset. However, he has also always asserted that Israel evolved along the wrong path. It should not be a “nationalistic, theocratic ‘Jewish State’” but rather a “modern, liberal state belonging to all its citizens irrespective of national or religious roots.” This position earned him a lot of enemies including Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and his successor Golda Meir. Both considered Avnery a “public enemy.” Subsequently there was an assassination attempt and the office of his newspaper, Haolam Hazeh, was bombed. Avnery is a shining light of humanism in Israel’s dark corner, but he is not the only one.
After talking to Avnery our figurative inquirers should move on to Rabbi Arek Ascherman, the Director of Special Projects for Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel. Ascherman’s position is that the only legitimate way you can have Israel be a Jewish place is by having its institutions uphold Jewish values. For Ascherman that means getting in the way, as best one can, of the “ugly side” of Israeli behavior and policies: standing against the house demolitions, land confiscations, settler encroachments, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and killings of Palestinians, etc. For his efforts Ascherman and his organization have suffered the same sort of attacks as has Avnery. Asherman’s car has been stoned (by Israelis), he has been arrested and beaten up. His fate reminds one of the treatment received by Civil Rights workers in the 1960s U.S.- another way Israel is “just like us.”
Avnery and Ascherman are drops in a very shallow bucket. They and the other Israeli Jewish men and women who fight for human decency in the a country falsely rumored to be “a light unto the nations” probably command the support of, at most, 15% of the Israeli Jewish population.
Part III – The Indifferent
And what of the rest of Israel’s Jews? Well the survey mentioned above found that the other 60% are indifferent to the Palestinians, but in a generally negative way. For instance, many in this category (up to 46%) “would not be willing to live next door to them.” It is actually the negatively tinged indifference of this majority of Israeli Jews that allows the more assertive and aggressive 25% to gain power and assure the country’s status as a truly apartheid state. In turn, the 15 % that may support Avnery and Ascherman essentially become social mistakes within the Israeli milieu. They have somehow escaped the full impact of Zionist education and ideology. They have somehow broken free of the conformist pressures of family, community, army and media propaganda. And, having done so, collectively become a fringe element.
Part IV – Conclusion
It is strange, all countries have such self-aware and active humanists and all of them probably have these people in the same relative proportion–about 15%. This is just large enough to remind us of what good humanity is capable of, but just too small to help us realize that good.
Part I – Flawed Systems
Winston Churchill once said that “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” He was right. Democracy in its various manifestations is a flawed system, flawed by virtue of its roots. By definition it is the system where power flows from the people (or at least a supposed majority of the people), and as there are no perfect people, then…. Well, the logic speaks for itself.
Many of democracy’s problems are common to all forms of governance. For instance, (a) the tendency of the political leader to mistake his or her own interests or that of his party, for the nation’s or community’s interests and (b) the corruptive influence of powerful subgroups or lobbies usually coming through the manipulation of money and other resources. The ubiquitous nature of these problems suggest that they are structural. That is they are built into the system no matter what form government takes. That does not mean they cannot be held in check or minimized. As James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution believed, these flaws might be subject to control by a well crafted constitution. However, it is unlikely that they can be eliminated.
Part II – Today In The USA
Today, we are presented with a stark example of U.S. democracy’s systemic flaws. Again, these bring together the influence of small but powerful and wealthy subgroups with the tendency of national leaders to define interests in personal ways. The trigger for the present structural malfunction is a foreign policy issue. It is the issue of Iran (which, alas, is a reworking of the recent issue of Iraq).
As the Consortium News website puts it “a torrent of war propaganda against Iran is flooding the American political scene as U.S. neocons and Israeli hardliners see an opening for another war in the Middle East.” This statement which, in my opinion, is quite accurate, suggests to us:
1. There are relatively small warmongering lobbies in the country which are ideologically driven and continuously active. Hence, the powerful subgroups.
2. Principal among them are neoconservatives and hard line Zionists. Both of these groups are endowed with “deep pockets” and therefore can buy a lot of politicians and media access. Buying such influence, as long as it is done within very loose guidelines, is at once disastrous and perfectly legal. Hence, corruption through the manipulation of money.
3. Thus, despite their sizes, these subgroups have managed to flood the media with false allegations that Iran is about to become a dangerous nuclear power. This replicates recent history when the same subgroups flooded the media with false allegations of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The result is a major skewing of American policy. How so? The vast majority of elected leaders do not reckon interest in national terms, nor in terms of the truth or falsehood of their lobby supporters’ claims. They reckon interest in terms of their own personal and party political needs. Those needs are (a) financial assets to run elections and (b) aligning themselves with the popular mood in ways that generate votes. The lobbies, or subgroups, have the money to manipulate both of those needs. They can help the politician finance his or her election, and they can run the advertisements that help shape public opinion and mood. Hence the policy formation follows the dictates of the lobbies.
4. The aim of the two subgroups in question is a new war in the Middle East. The target this time is Iran. Iran’s dangerous nature, as put forth by the lobbies, goes largely unquestioned by both the politicians and a bulk of the media despite the fact that there is a recent, horrific precedent in simply accepting this warmongering. That precedent is the recent war in Iraq. In that case, the crippling economic sanctions, followed by invasion, led to the death and maiming of millions. That this horror was carried forward on the basis of lies, is now assiduously ignored. That the same fate may well await Iran is actually presented as desirous.
It is to be kept in mind that if those who spread lies that result in slaughter and massive destruction are citizens of or protected by a superpower, no punishment will accrue. None of the major liars that brought us the Iraq war have been punished. One can hardly think of a more corrupt political situation.
Part III – Learning from Herr Goebbels
The lies of the neoconservatives and Zionists are part of an “MO” or modus operandi that is not original to them. Whether they do so purposely or coincidently, they are following the advice of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. He tells us the following, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will usually come to believe it.” He goes on to say that simultaneously “it is vitally important for the state to use all its powers to repress…the truth…[which is] the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.”
In the present case, the neoconservatives and Zionists first created false charges (Iran’s alleged desire for nuclear weapons and willingness to use them against the U.S. and Israel) and are now, with the cooperation of the mass media, repeating them over and over again as if they were true. They ignore (and pressure the media to ignore) all the evidence that says their charges are false. Thus, the scant press coverage given to the two comprehensive National Intelligence Reports, one in 2007 and a followup one in 2011, both of which concluded that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not revived it since. Simultaneously, they bring forward untrustworthy testimony of Iranian expatriates and known liars that support their claims (this does get media coverage). All the while urging greater and greater sanctions aimed at the systematic destruction of target country’s economy.
Part IV – The Political Carry Through
As suggested above, the structural flaws in the political system make the warmongering neocons and faceless Israeli agents in the guise of lobbyists one half of the equation. Our own politicians are the other half. In the American system, one of the legal factors that serves to connect the two haves of the equation is the Supreme Court 1976 decision (Buckley vs. Valeo) declaring one’s unfettered right to buy as much “free speech” as one has money. Thus both the politicians and the media venues know where they are going when, as they say, they follow the money. Last season the money demanded war talk focused on Iraq. This season it demands war talk focused on Iran. And, sure enough, that is what we get.
In December of 2011 both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed bills seeking to destroy the Iranian economy by crippling its oil trade and destroying the functionality of the country’s central bank. It is a testimony to the strength of the neoconservatives and Zionists that the votes were 410-11 in the House and 100-0 in the Senate.
This is obviously an on-going bi-partisan fiasco. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) declared his satisfaction with the Congressional votes by effortlessly parroting the party line, “Iran’s actions pose a danger to United States and the entire world.” It makes no difference if the Senator believes his own hyperbole. His actions lead to the increased suffering of ordinary Iranians.
Out on the campaign trail most of the Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination also parrot the same line:
1. Mitt Romney supports “crippling sanctions” against Iran. Because, he declares, “the greatest threat that Israel faces, and frankly the greatest threat the world faces, is a nuclear Iran.” Again, it makes no difference if Romney really believes this or is just playing for Zionist lobby money. He adds to the building war mania and gets in line for his share of responsibility for the sanctions that are undercutting the livelihoods of innocent people.
2. Newt Gingrich has publically committed himself to attacking Iran if such action can result in regime change. He is ready to “collaborate with the Israelis on a conventional campaign” against Iran.
3. Rick Santorum told the American public that if he were elected president “I would be saying to the Iranians, you either open those facilities, begin to dismantle them and make them available to inspectors or we will degrade those facilities through air strikes.” Poor Rick, he seems unaware that international inspectors regularly visit the Iranian facilities. Poor the rest of us, if Rick becomes president!
Part V – Conclusion
There is a famous child’s idiom that goes “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Its message, whispered into the ears of millions of children, is just not true. Words are potential weapons. They not only can make us feel bad (and that hurts), they can also be used to motivate us to pick up the sticks and stones that break other’s bones. And, of course, we have long ago gone beyond sticks and stones.
Therefore it is with bloody irresponsibility that neoconservatives, Zionists, and a large array of American politicians blithely incite their fellows to war. Civilian life must mean very little to them, as little as truth itself. The former is readily reduced to splattered bits of flesh in the wake of attacks by drones, fighter jets, attack helicopters, cruise missiles, tanks, and machine guns, etc. and the latter is reduced to propagandistic incitement brought to you by a weaponized FOX TV.
So we and our leaders are myopic and greedy and our lobbyists savagely single-minded and this, in turn, finds license in a structurally flawed political system Actually, being aware of all this offers no excuse at all. We have known about our faults for a very long time. James Madison was thoroughly versed in these problems and his attempt, through the Constitution, to safeguard against them was sincere and noble. But his results, despite later attempts to augment his work, have been mixed at best. And things will stay that way until we address our main need – we need to find a constitutionally safe way to protect ourselves from our own lies.