Category Archives: Espionage/"Intelligence"

How the Hand of Israeli Spy Tech Reaches Deep into our Lives

Digital age weapons developed by Israel to oppress Palestinians are rapidly being repurposed for much wider applications – against Western populations who have long taken their freedoms for granted.

Israel’s status as a “startup nation” was established decades ago. But its reputation for hi-tech innovation always depended on a dark side, one that is becoming ever harder to ignore.

A few years ago, Israeli analyst Jeff Halper warned that Israel had achieved a pivotal role globally in merging new digital technologies with the homeland security industry. The danger was that gradually we would all become Palestinians.

Israel, he noted, treated the millions of Palestinians under its unaccountable, military rule effectively as guinea pigs in open-air laboratories. They were the test bed for developing not only new conventional weapons systems, but also new tools for mass surveillance and control.

As a recent report in Haaretz observed, Israel’s surveillance operation against Palestinians is “among the largest of its kind in the world. It includes monitoring the media, social media and the population as a whole”.

Big Brother trade

But what began in the occupied territories was never going to stay in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. There was simply too much money and influence to be gained from a trade in these new hybrid forms of offensive digital technology.

Tiny though it may be in size, Israel has long been a world leader in an extremely lucrative arms trade, selling to authoritarian regimes around the world its weapons systems as “battlefield-tested” on Palestinians.

This trade in military hardware is increasingly being overshadowed by a market for belligerent software: tools for waging cyber warfare.

Such new-age weapons are in high demand from states for use not only against external enemies, but against internal dissent from citizens and human rights monitors.

Israel can rightly claim to be a world authority here, controlling and oppressing populations under its rule. But it has been keen to keep its fingerprints off much of this new Big Brother technology, by outsourcing the further development of these cyber tools to graduates of its infamous security and military intelligence units.

Nonetheless, Israel implicitly sanctions such activities by providing these firms with export licenses – and the country’s most senior security officials are often closely involved in their work.

Tensions with Silicon Valley

Once out of uniform, Israelis can cash in on years of experience gained from spying on Palestinians by setting up companies developing similar software for more general applications.

Apps using sophisticated surveillance technology originating in Israel are increasingly common in our digital lives. Some have been put to relatively benign use. Waze, which tracks traffic congestion, allows drivers to reach destinations faster, while Gett pairs customers up with nearby taxis through their phone.

But some of the more covert technology produced by Israeli developers sticks much closer to its original military format.

This offensive software is being sold both to nations wishing to spy on their own citizens or rival states, and to private corporations hoping to gain an edge on competitors or better commercially exploit and manipulate their customers.

Once incorporated into social media platforms with billions of users, such spyware offers state security agencies a potential near-global reach. That explains the sometimes fraught relationship between Israeli tech firms and Silicon Valley, as the latter struggles to take control of this malware – as two contrasting, recent examples highlight.

Mobile phone ‘spy kit’

In a sign of the tensions, WhatsApp, a social media platform owned by Facebook, initiated the first lawsuit of its kind in a California court last week against NSO, Israel’s largest surveillance company.

WhatsApp accuses NSO of cyber attacks. In just a two-week period ending in early May examined by WhatsApp, NSO is reported to have targeted the mobile phones of more than 1,400 users in 20 countries.

NSO’s spyware, known as Pegasus, has been used against human rights activists, lawyers, religious leaders, journalists and aid workers. Reuters revealed last week that senior officials of US allies had also been targeted by NSO.

After taking charge of the user’s phone without their knowledge, Pegasus copies data and turns on the microphone for surveillance. Forbes magazine has described it as the “world’s most invasive mobile spy kit”.

NSO has licensed the software to dozens of governments, including prominent human rights-abusing regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Morocco.

Amnesty International has complained that its staff are among those targeted by NSO spyware. It is currently supporting a legal action against the Israeli government for issuing the company with an export license.

Ties to Israeli security services

NSO was founded in 2010 by Omri Lavie and Shalev Hulio, both reported to be graduates of Israel’s vaunted military intelligence Unit 8200.

In 2014, whistleblowers revealed that the unit routinely spied on Palestinians, trawling through their phones and computers for evidence of sexual improprieties, health problems or financial difficulties that could be used to pressure them into collaborating with Israel’s military authorities.

The soldiers wrote that Palestinians were “completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself.”

Despite officials issuing export licences to NSO, Israeli government minister Zeev Elkin denied last week “Israeli government involvement” in the hacking of WhatsApp. He told Israeli radio: “Everyone understands that this is not about the state of Israel.”

Tracked by cameras

In the same week that WhatsApp launched its legal action, US television channel NBC revealed that Silicon Valley is nonetheless keen to reach out to Israeli startups deeply implicated in abuses associated with the occupation.

Microsoft has invested heavily in AnyVision to further develop sophisticated facial recognition technology that already helps the Israeli military oppress Palestinians.

The connections between AnyVision and the Israeli security services are barely hidden. Its advisory board includes Tamir Pardo, former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency. The company’s president, Amir Kain, previously served as head of Malmab, the defence ministry’s security department.

AnyVision’s main software, Better Tomorrow, has been nicknamed “Occupation Google” because the firm claims it can identify and track any Palestinian by searching footage from the Israeli army’s extensive network of surveillance cameras in the occupied territories.

Grave concern

Despite obvious ethical problems, Microsoft’s investment suggests it may be aiming to incorporate the software into its own programmes. That has caused grave concern among human rights groups.

Shankar Narayan of the American Civil Liberties Union warned of a future all too familiar to Palestinians living under Israeli rule: “The widespread use of face surveillance flips the premise of freedom on its head and you start becoming a society where everyone is tracked, no matter what they do, all the time”, Narayan told NBC.

“Face recognition is possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces.”

According to Yael Berda, a researcher at Harvard University, Israel maintains a list of some 200,000 Palestinians in the West Bank it wants under surveillance around the clock. Technologies such as AnyVision’s are seen as vital to keeping this vast group under constant monitoring.

A former AnyVision employee told NBC that the Palestinians were treated as a testing ground. “The technology was field-tested in one of the world’s most demanding security environments and we were now rolling it out to the rest of the market,” he said.

Meddling in elections

The Israeli government itself has a growing interest in using these spying technologies in the US and Europe, as its occupation has become the focus of controversy and scrutiny in mainstream political discourse.

In the UK, the shift in the political climate has been highlighted by the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time Palestinian rights activist, to head the opposition Labour Party. In the US, a small group of lawmakers visibly supportive of the Palestinian cause have recently entered Congress, including Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman to hold the post.

More generally, Israel fears the flourishing international solidarity movement BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), which calls for a boycott of Israel – modelled on the one against apartheid South Africa – until it stops oppressing Palestinians. The BDS movement has grown strongly on many US campuses.

As a result, Israeli cyber firms have been drawn ever more deeply into efforts to manipulate public discourse about Israel, apparently including by meddling in foreign elections.

Private ‘Mossad for hire’

Two notorious examples of such firms have briefly made headlines. Psy-Group, which marketed itself as a “private Mossad for hire“, was shut down last year after the FBI began investigating it for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. Its “Project Butterfly”, according to the New Yorker, aimed to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within”.

Black Cube, meanwhile, was exposed last year to have been carrying out hostile surveillance of leading members of the previous US administration, under Barack Obama. It appears closely linked to Israel’s security services, and was a for a time located on an Israeli military base.

Banned by Apple

There are other Israeli firms seeking to blur the distinction between private and public space.

Onavo, an Israeli data collection company established by two veterans of Unit 8200, was acquired by Facebook in 2013. Apple banned its VPN app last year over revelations that it was providing unlimited access to users’ data.

Israel’s strategic affairs minister, Gilad Erdan, who heads a secretive campaign to demonise overseas BDS activists, had regular meetings with another firm, Concert, last year, according to a report in Haaretz. This covert group, which is exempt from Israel’s Freedom of Information laws, has received around $36m in funding from the Israeli government. Its directors and shareholders are a “who’s who” of Israel’s security and intelligence elite.

Another leading Israeli firm, Candiru, is named for a small Amazonian fish that is reputed to secretly invade the human body, where it becomes a parasite. Candiru sells its hacking tools mostly to Western governments, though its operations are shrouded in secrecy.

Its staff are drawn almost exclusively from Unit 8200. In a sign of how closely linked are the public and covert technologies Israeli firms have developed, Candiru’s chief executive, Eitan Achlow, previously headed Gett, the taxi service app.

Dystopian future

Israel’s security elite is cashing in on this new market for cyber warfare, exploiting – just as it did with the trade in conventional arms – a ready made and captive Palestinian population, on which it can test its technology.

It is no surprise that Israel is gradually normalising in Western countries invasive and oppressive technologies long familiar to Palestinians.

Facial recognition software allows for ever more sophisticated racial and political profiling. Covert data gathering and surveillance smashes the traditional boundaries between private and public space. And the resulting doxxing campaigns make it easy to intimidate, threaten and undermine those who dissent or, like the human rights community, try to hold the powerful to account.

If this dystopian future continues to unfold, New York, London, Berlin and Paris will increasingly look like Nablus, Hebron, East Jerusalem and Gaza. And we will all come to understand what it means to live inside a surveillance state engaged in cyber warfare against those it rules over.

•  First published in Middle East Eye

Microsoft Should Not Fund Israeli Spying on Palestinians

The act of Palestinian activists covering their faces during anti-Israeli occupation rallies is an old practice that spans decades. The masking of the face, often by Kufyias – traditional Palestinian scarves that grew to symbolize Palestinian resistance – is far from being a fashion statement. Instead, it is a survival technique. Without it, activists are likely to be arrested in subsequent nightly raids; at times, even assassinated.

In the past, Israel used basic technologies to identify Palestinians who take part in protests and mobilize the people in various popular activities. TV news footage or newspaper photos were thoroughly deciphered, often with the help of Israel’s collaborators in the Occupied Territories, and the ‘culprits’ would be identified, summoned to meet Shin Bet intelligence officers or arrested from their homes.

That old technique was eventually replaced by more advanced technology, countless images transmitted directly through Israeli drones – the flagship of Israel’s “security industry”. Thousands of Palestinians were detained and hundreds were assassinated in recent years as a result of drones data, analyzed through Israel’s burgeoning facial recognition software.

If, in the past, Palestinian activists were keen on keeping their identity hidden, now they have much more compelling reasons to ensure the complete secrecy of their work. Considering the information sharing between the Israeli army and illegal Jewish settlers and their armed militias in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians face the double threat of being targeted by armed settlers as well as by Israeli soldiers.

True, when it comes to Israel, such a grim reality is hardly surprising. But what is truly disturbing is the direct involvement of international corporate giants, the likes of Microsoft, in facilitating the work of the Israeli military, whose sole aim is to crush any form of dissent among Palestinians.

Microsoft prides itself on being a leader in corporate social responsibility (CSR), emphasizing that “privacy (is) a fundamental human right.”

The Washington-State based software giant dedicates much attention, at least on paper, to the subject of human rights. “Microsoft is committed to respecting human rights,” Microsoft Global Human Rights Statement asserts. “We do this by harnessing the beneficial power of technology to help realize and sustain human rights everywhere.”

In practice, however, Microsoft’s words are hardly in line with its action, at least not when its human rights maxims are applied to occupied and besieged Palestinians.

Writing in the American news network NBC News on October 27, Olivia Solon reported on Microsoft funding of the Israeli firm, AnyVision, which uses facial recognition “to secretly watch West Bank Palestinians”.

Through its venture capital arm M12, Microsoft has reportedly invested $78 million in the Israeli startup company that “uses facial recognition to surveil Palestinians throughout the West Bank, in spite of the tech giant’s public pledge to avoid using the technology if it encroaches on democratic freedoms”.

AnyVision had developed an “advanced tactical surveillance” software system, dubbed “Better Tomorrow” that, according to a joint NBC News-Haaretz investigation, “lets customers identify individuals and objects in any live camera feed, such as a security camera or smartphone, and then track targets as they move between different feeds.”

As disquieting as “Better Tomorrow’s” mission sounds, it takes on a truly sinister objective in Palestine. “According to five sources familiar with the matter,” wrote Solon, “AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank.”

“One source said the project is nicknamed ‘Google Ayosh,’ where ‘Ayosh’ means occupied Palestinian territories and ‘Google’ denotes the technology’s ability to search for people.”

Headquartered in Israel, AnyVision has several offices around the world, including the US, the UK and Singapore. Considering the nature of AnyVision’s work, and the intrinsic link between Israel’s technology sector and the country’s military, it should have been assumed that the company’s software is likely used to track down Palestinian dissidents.

In July, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointed out that “AnyVision is taking part in two special projects in assisting the Israeli army in the West Bank. One involves a system that it has installed at army checkpoints that thousands of Palestinians pass through each day on their way to work from the West Bank.”

Former AnyVision employees spoke to NBC News about their experiences with the company, one even asserting that he/she “saw no evidence that ethical considerations drove any business decisions” at the firm.

The alarming reports invited strong protests by human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Alas, Microsoft carried on with supporting AnyVision’s work unhindered.

This is not the first time that Microsoft is caught red-handed in its support of the Israeli military or criticized for other unethical practices.

Unlike Facebook, Google and others, who are constantly, albeit deservingly being chastised for violating privacy rules or allowing politics to influence their editorial agenda, Microsoft has been left largely outside the brewing controversies. But, like the rest, Microsoft should be held to account.

In its ‘Human Rights Statement’, Microsoft declared its respect for human rights based on international conventions, starting with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In occupying and oppressing Palestinians, Israel violates every article of that declaration, starting with Article 1, which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and including Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

It will take Microsoft more than hyperlinking to a UN document to show true and sincere respect for human rights.

Indeed, for a company that enjoys great popularity throughout the Middle East and in Palestine itself, an inevitable first step towards respecting human rights is to immediately divest from AnyVision, coupled with an apology for all of those who have already paid the price for that ominous Israeli technology.

Drug Dealers, Polluters and Sex Traffickers: Welcome to Oligarch Cloud Cuckoo Land

Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues
We write in water.
Henry VIII (IV.ii.)

The notion that American oligarchs amass great wealth due to their extraordinary intelligence has become a deeply engrained tenet of liberal fundamentalist dogma. For in order for neoliberalism to maintain popular support it is necessary that the media relentlessly extol the virtues of the new robber barons. This myth of the meritocracy is sustained with fawning from the presstitutes, but also from the dubious practice of philanthrocapitalism. And yet cracks have appeared in the meritocratic facade which even the mass media has not been able to conceal.

From Andrew Carnegie to Henry Clay Frick, from John D. Rockefeller to Cornelius Vanderbilt, American capitalists have long embraced philanthropy as a means with which to not only deify themselves, but to also glorify and perpetuate a system anchored in authoritarianism, cruelty, and the impoverishment of millions.

Jeffrey Epstein hails from this blood-soaked lineage, as his rise was inextricably linked with a culture in thrall to the lie that those who are the most virtuous acquire the most wealth. A sex trafficker, who for decades managed to maintain a carefully cultivated image of an urbane and munificent New Yorker, Epstein had become a magnet for careerists, opportunists, and fellow con artists alike.

Helaine Olen writes in The Washington Post:

The major lie of the age of wealth inequality is that the moneyed are somehow better than the rest of us day-to-day working schlubs. The aristocracy of prewar Europe had their bloodlines. Our latter-day meritocratic aristocrats, we are told, possess the modern equivalent, which is extraordinary intelligence. The slothful working class are slaves to short-term pleasure. The rich, on the other hand, are disciplined. They wake up early, and they refuse to live beyond their means.

This is a lie. The Epstein scandal proves it.

Epstein preyed not only on destitute American girls from broken homes, but also on foreign girls, some of whom did not speak English, making them even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Writing in The Miami Herald, Julie K. Brown writes that “after the FBI case was closed in 2008, witnesses and alleged victims testified in civil court that there were hundreds of girls who were brought to Epstein’s homes, including girls from Europe, Latin America and former Soviet Republic countries.”

The suspicious deal worked out a little over a decade ago by Epstein’s high powered legal team allowed their client to get off with incredibly lenient sentencing terms, and served to protect other creatures of dubious repute who may have been involved in a vast criminal network. Brown continues: “The deal, called a federal non-prosecution agreement, was sealed so that no one — not even his victims — could know the full scope of Epstein’s crimes and who else was involved.”

Epstein’s “black book” contained personal phone numbers belonging to such “masters of the universe” as Donald Trump, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, David Koch, Ehud Barak, John Kerry, David Rockefeller, Michael Bloomfield, Leslie Wexner, Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth, Saudi King Salman and Edward de Rothschild. Irregardless of whether these plutocrats were involved in the abuse of minors, the fact that Epstein was permitted to inhabit this peculiar parallel legal system for so many years signifies the degradation of checks and balances which has opened up the floodgates of the West to barbarism.

Ghislaine Maxwell, who allegedly procured underage girls for Epstein, founded the TerraMar Project in 2012, a nonprofit ostensibly devoted to protecting the world’s oceans. Ghislaine’s father, Robert Maxwell, was a Mossad agent, and some have speculated that she may have introduced her boyfriend to the Israeli intelligence services.

There is a high degree of probability that Epstein was running a blackmail operation in conjunction with an intelligence agency (or agencies), as he had hidden cameras scattered throughout the rooms of his many residences, and appeared to be filming his guests as they were “getting a massage.” Epstein also had an Austrian passport, coveted by spies, due to Austria’s neutrality.

Chicago criminal defense attorney Leonard C. Goodman writes in the Chicago Reader:

A public criminal trial would have made it very hard to cover up Epstein’s relationship to intelligence agencies. These are the agencies that tell our presidents which countries to bomb, what leaders to depose, and which terrorists to assassinate by drone.

Frequently referred to by the presstitutes as a “disgraced financier,” despite the fact that no one has seen a website for the firm which he allegedly operated; and often referred to as “pedophile Jeffrey Epstein,” as if he were a lone villain acting all by himself, Epstein’s life personifies the depravity of contemporary American society. Moreover, this “financial genius” was somehow able to acquire one of the most luxurious residences in Manhattan (21,000-square-feet, and steps from Central Park), a 10,000 acre ranch in New Mexico, an apartment in Paris, a luxury villa in Palm Beach; and two islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Little Saint James and Great Saint James.

Epstein’s charitable donations were clearly a smokescreen designed to disguise extremely nefarious activities. The mega-rich in other countries may be crooks (consider Pablo Escobar, described by Wikipedia as a “narcoterrorist”), but not wealthy Americans, who are simply smarter than everyone else. That Epstein came from a working class family, and that his father, Seymour Epstein, worked for the New York Parks Department as a groundskeeper, only deepens the mystery of where this money really came from.

Ever the debonair cool guy of Manhattan’s in-crowd, Epstein donated to the Independent Filmmaker Project, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Interlochen Center for the Arts, Ballet Palm Beach, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Cancer Research Wellness Institute and the Melanoma Research Alliance. In May of 2012, PR Newswire ran an article titled “The Largest Private Funder of Melanoma Research Receives Vital Support From Activist Jeffrey Epstein.”

One of Epstein’s favorite places to donate was Harvard, as this allowed him to hobnob with a variety of influential academics and scientists. As John Patrick writes in The Washington Examiner:

The disgraced finance mogul donated millions to Harvard endeavors from the late 1990s throughout the 2000s, including a $6.5 million donation to Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, and a $2 million pledged donation for Harvard’s Jewish organization Hillel. Plus, Epstein contributed more than $100,000 to a Harvard performing arts organization, and gave a gift of more than $100,000 to a non-profit run by Elsa New, wife of former Harvard president and Clinton administration member Larry Summers.

Epstein also donated $2.5 million to Ohio State University and $800,000 to MIT. Taking hypocrisy to new heights, he even donated to the Women Global Cancer Initiative, the Mount Sinai Breast Health Resource Program; and to The Hewitt School, a prep school for girls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Underscoring the netherworld of imaginary morality that our plutocrats inhabit, Epstein told the New York Post that “I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender.’ It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”

Bernie Madoff, another exhilarating New York success story, was managing – at least according to his computer printouts – the astronomical sum of $50 billion, and was equally fond of donating to charitable causes. Yeshiva University, The Ramaz School, Maimonides School, and the Hadassah Women’s Organization were some of the institutions that suffered serious losses when Madoff’s firm revealed itself to be the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

Cousins of human traffickers, polluters also need to unwind from time to time, and what better way to bask in the grandeurs of perdition than donate to the arts? The New York State Theater, an important performing arts space within Lincoln Center and home to the New York City Ballet, was renamed the David H. Koch Theater in 2008; while the Metropolitan Museum of Art now offers the David H. Koch Plaza, whose namesake paid $65 million to have the new plaza built in his name. The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT is another child born of Koch philanthropy.

The Charles Koch Foundation has donated enormous sums of money to hundreds of universities with the aim of inculcating impressionable young minds with their reactionary ethos, which is anchored in the idea that all attempts at corporate regulation and maintaining a public sector should be jettisoned. The Koch brothers donated over $95 million to George Mason University, which is a public university, and this led to the Charles Koch Foundation being granted a significant amount of leverage with regard to the hiring and firing of faculty.

Steven Pearlstein writes in The Washington Post:

When someone gives $10 million to an engineering school rather than the college of humanities, it changes the university’s priorities. When someone endows a center to study the causes and consequences of climate change, it affects who is hired and what is taught and researched. When someone gives enough to name a school after a public figure, it shapes a school’s ideological profile. It would be great if all donations were unrestricted, but they aren’t. Many donors have agendas. The Kochs are just an extreme example.

The Koch brothers have left behind a toxic legacy from Corpus Christi, Texas; to Chicago and Detroit; to Crossett, Arkansas; to New Delhi, India, and beyond. Greenpeace posits that “Koch Industries is a major polluter, with ongoing incidents and violations of environmental laws.” Tim Dickinson writes in Rolling Stone that “Thanks in part to its 2005 purchase of paper-mill giant Georgia-Pacific, Koch Industries dumps more pollutants into the nation’s waterways than General Electric and International Paper combined.” He goes on to point out that “Koch generates 24 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year.” Together, Charles and David Koch accumulated around $100 billion.

The Sackler Family, which owns Purdue Pharma and made billions off of the opioid crisis, deceived doctors about the highly addictive nature of OxyContin. This particularly dangerous opioid was promoted in part through dishonest advertising, but also though manipulating physicians into believing the drug was safe. Patrick Radden Keefe writes in The New Yorker that “The marketing of OxyContin relied on an empirical circularity: the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company.” The Sackler family is now attempting to sell the drug abroad through Mundipharma, a Purdue subsidiary, and is marketing OxyContin in Asia, South America and the Middle East.

It is noteworthy that Arthur Sackler aggressively marketed Librium and Valium in the 1960s, which earned tremendous profits for Hoffmann-La Roche, and also led many Americans down a path towards abuse and addiction. Judith Warner writes in Time:

Valium has long served extremely well as a vehicle for proving the perfidy of psychiatrists and the drug companies behind them. It was indeed dispensed in outrageous-seeming numbers in the 1960s and early 1970s. It did indeed lead to tragic levels of abuse and addiction.

The Sacklers are now one of our richest families. Like Epstein, the Sackler family sought to cultivate a worldly image anchored in their patronage of education and the arts, and some of the most prestigious museums in the Western world have galleries and wings named after them.

At the Guggenheim, there is the Sackler Center for Arts Education; at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is the Sackler Wing; and at the American Museum of Natural History, there is the Sackler Educational Laboratory. At Harvard, there is the Arthur M. Sackler Museum; in Washington DC, the Sackler Gallery; and at the Brooklyn Museum, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Moreover, there are Sackler wings and educational institutions at renowned British museums such as the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology, the British Museum, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and at the Tate Modern. The Sacklers have also donated to the Royal Ballet School, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Royal Opera. Perhaps the Whitney Museum of American Art, which has a board run largely by war profiteers, could receive the funds accumulated from the many lawsuits arrayed against Purdue and be renamed the Sackler.

Not content with defiling artistic institutions with their blood money, the Sacklers have donated to educational institutions. At Columbia, there is the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology; and at Oxford, the Sackler Library; at Yale, there is the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences.

Particularly egregious conflicts of interest are the Sackler Brain and Spine Institute at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Center for Biomedical and Physical Sciences at Weill Cornell, and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts. No less disturbing, in the winter of 2010 Thomas J. Lynch Jr., MD, was named Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professor of Medicine and Director of the Yale Cancer Center. The Sacklers have also donated millions to Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard’s oldest teaching hospital. Andrew Joseph writes in “Purdue Cemented Ties with Universities and Hospitals to Expand Opioid Sales, Documents Contend,” that “At Mass. General, the agreement with Purdue allowed the company to suggest curriculum for pain education.” No less outrageous, in Israel there is the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. Emblazoned in its lobby are the words “Dedicated to Mankind for the Health of All People.”

Some arts institutions have disassociated themselves from the Sacklers, such as the Louvre, which took down the Sackler name from its Wing of Oriental Antiquities. A number of prominent museums, such as the Guggenheim, the Met, and the Tate galleries have refused to accept further donations from the Sacklers, although the name continues to sully their august halls.

Teva Pharmaceuticals has likewise played a role in the opioid crisis, and partners with Mount Sinai, a blatant conflict of interest. Ostensibly, they will treat “multiple chronic conditions” together. Teva has donated to a wide variety of health care organizations and gave $2.5 million to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In an article in The Times of Israel titled “Federal Data Reveals Extent of Teva’s Role in Fueling US Opioid Crisis,” the authors write that between 2006 and 2012 “Teva Pharmaceuticals USA produced 690 million opioid pills.”

When not getting Americans addicted to opioids and psychotropic drugs, Johnson and Johnson delights in donating to Johnson & Johnson Vision and the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP), both of which make endearing videos replete with cute kids and teary-eyed grandparents.

Indeed, this was how some of the most diabolical drug dealers in America, were, at least for a time, able to convey an image of benevolence, munificence and altruism. Keefe writes that “Over time, the origins of a clan’s largesse are largely forgotten, and we recall only the philanthropic legacy, prompted by the name on the building.”

Where are our heroes, America? Our novelists, labor leaders, artists and intellectuals? What would Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, or Mark Twain say about these soulless creatures who sought to use their lucre to envelop themselves in a halo of veneration and hagiography? A society that prostrates itself at the altar of depravity is a society of death.

Let us disenthrall ourselves from the shackles of materialism and careerism. Let us cast the false idol of avarice from the tallest cliffs, and from its ashes embrace a phoenix reborn, a harbinger of compassion, altruism and justice.

No, Srebrenica did not “inspire” Christchurch

Earlier this month, popular ‘progressive’ news website The Intercept published an article entitled “From El Paso to Sarajevo: How White Nationalists Are Inspired by the Bosnia Genocide”, written by journalist and staff writer Murtaza Hussain. The piece argued that many of the perpetrators behind mass shootings and domestic terrorism in the West — from the convicted far right extremist behind the 2011 Norway attacks to the suspect charged in the recent mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand — were influenced by ethnic cleansing committed by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

Hussain uses a one-sided and Western-centric account of the inter-ethnic conflict in the Balkans to assess the Islamophobia burgeoning in Europe and the United States today. His analogy employs the same misreading used by NATO to facilitate the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia and justify its illegal military intervention and war crimes against Serbia. It is an irresponsible variety of yellow journalism that should be ruthlessly critiqued whenever it appears, especially at a news organization which purports to be “fearless, adversarial journalism that holds the powerful accountable.” It also does nothing to help address the growing foundations of fascism by diverting attention away from its real origins.

Hussain begins by accurately noting that the Australian-born suspect behind the massacre at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand, Brenton Tarrant, during his live-stream video prior to the carnage, played the song “Remove Kabab” (Serbia Strong”), an upbeat patriotic tune that pays tribute to former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić. Removed from the context of the Yugoslav Wars, the Serbian folk song and its accompanying wartime propaganda video were rediscovered by Western right-wing fanatics like Tarrant when it became a popular internet meme among the online fringe as an anthem for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in reaction to the influx of refugees from the European migrant crisis. The infamous convicted terrorist behind the July 2011 mass shooting and car bombing in Norway, Anders Breivik, also expressed affinity for the Serbs in his epic manifesto and was cited as an influence by Tarrant. However, despite the article title the author provides no evidence whatsoever to support the implication that the El Paso shooter, 21-year old Patrick Crusius, was in any way motivated by the Balkan conflict.

Brenton Tarrant also wrote the names of several historical Serbian military figures who fought against the Ottoman Empire in previous centuries in Cyrillic on his semi-automatic rifle used to carry out the slaughter. Curiously, he also wrote ‘Skanderbeg’, a legendary national hero of Albania who as a medieval military commander, defected from the Ottoman Turks and prevented their expansion toward western Europe in the 15th century. Despite his historical legacy of rescuing ‘Christendom’ from an Islamic empire to which Tarrant was likely referring, Skanderbeg holds varying significance to different peoples and for the predominantly Muslim Albanians he is viewed as a source of national pride and identity.

During WWII when Albania was under the Axis Powers sphere of influence, it was Muslim volunteers who formed the nucleus of the 21st Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Skanderbeg (1st Albanian), whose foremost victims were Christian Orthodox Serbs, in addition to Jews and Roma. In the Yugoslav Wars, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), de-listed terrorist group backed by NATO which fought against Serbia, sought to establish the modern equivalent of the ethnically pure ‘Greater Albania’ as envisioned by Benito Mussolini during WWII in the Kosovo protectorate. So if the Australian-born gunman was incited by Balkan history, it is because he was as confused and unknowledgeable about the complex subject as Hussain, given that he also wrote the number 14 on his firearm in reference to “the 14 words” from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Before falsifying the history of the Yugoslav Wars, Hussain does correctly observe that:

The Balkans are often condescendingly stereotyped as a backward region stuck in the grip of old prejudices. In reality, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had lived together as compatriots in the former Yugoslavia for a long time before violent demagogues came to power; it took years of effort during the late 1980s and early 1990s for ultranationalist leaders to drum up the level of fear and hatred necessary for war to start.

Unfortunately, the author does not bother to investigate why they had successfully lived together in harmony as southern slavs for decades (under socialism), nor how such leaders took power and incited the different ethnicities into warring with each other as the country disintegrated, as if everything occurred in a vacuum. Following WWII, partisan leader Josip Broz Tito had indeed united the various Yugoslav peoples in congruity under a popular motto that the country consisted of ‘six republics, five nationalities, four languages, three religions, two alphabets — but one Yugoslav.’ Even the most fervent critics of socialism admit the republic was a relative success as it enjoyed freedom from being undermined by economic embargo as a neutral ‘non-aligned’ country during the Cold War after relations soured between Stalin and Tito and it became a strategic buffer between the West and the Soviets.

Following Tito’s death in 1980, a series of austerity programs sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were put into effect and much like a recent study concluded regarding Weimar Germany in the 1930s, the gutting of the welfare system and the social fabric led to a resurgence of right-wing nationalism in the Balkans. Yugoslavia went through the same neoliberal ‘shock therapy’ as Chile the decade prior when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sent the CIA to “make the economy scream” to prevent Salvador Allende from taking power, as well as post-Soviet Russia which the author’s The Intercept colleague Naomi Klein described so thoroughly in The Shock Doctrine. Yet for Hussain, the driving force in Yugoslavia’s downfall was bigotry itself, somehow isolated from the disaster capitalism forced upon it.

As only an empire denialist could overlook, Hussain makes no mention of the “encouragement of racism” on the part of U.S. imperialism, beginning with the coercive diplomacy of the 1991 Foreign Operations Appropriation Act which instigated the separatist movements by providing aid exclusively to the republics that seceded and declared independence at the exclusion of the Yugoslav government. After the bill was passed by congress at the behest of the George H.W. Bush administration, only the federation of Serbia and Montenegro remained under the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. According to a declassified memorandum, the CIA had already been anticipating this collapse for several years.

Suddenly, much of the population consisting of the many different ethnic communities of the Balkans found themselves trapped within various newly formed ethno-nation states overnight that were not their own. They then began establishing proto-states within these new republics, spurring violent conflicts and territorial disputes resulting in ethnic cleansing (on all sides) across the country. Yugoslavia did not implode simply because of its own internal contradictions, but was the subject of exploitation by a more powerful outside actor seeking to economically and militarily dominate the Caspian Sea region in order to gain access to its crude oil and natural gas resources.

Serbian nationalism only saw a resurgence within Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina once Serbs became hostages under new hostile regimes, when we were told by the NATO acolytes in corporate media that it was Belgrade who were the real nationalists even though most Serbians still identified as Yugoslavs and generally wished to preserve the federation being partitioned. In fact, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague posthumously concluded that the late Serbian and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, who died mysteriously while in custody on trial in the Netherlands, was not responsible for war crimes committed during the Bosnian war. When Radovan Karadžić was convicted by the ICTY, it was determined the Bosnian Serbs acted on their own accord and were frequently at variance with Belgrade on the execution of the war:

Based on the evidence before the Chamber regarding the diverging interests that emerged between the Bosnian Serb and Serbian leaderships during the conflict and in particular, Milošević’s repeated criticism and disapproval of the policies and decisions made by the Accused and the Bosnian Serb leadership, the Chamber is not satisfied that there was sufficient evidence presented in this case to find that Slobodan Milošević agreed with the common plan.

Serbs certainly committed their share of war crimes, but why do Western journalists dare not speak of the thousands of Serbs ethnically cleansed in Croatia from the self-proclaimed quasi-state of Krajina? Or the mass deportations of Serbs from Kosovo in the years since? The innocent heroes and stigmatized villains were pre-selected and to do so would be actual “fearless, adversarial journalism.” Many of the war crimes committed by Muslims against Serbs and Croats in the Yugoslav Wars were by foreign mujahideen volunteers whose ranks even consisted of two of the future 9/11 hijackers — the Saudi nationals Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi — who allegedly seized American Airlines Flight 77 and crashed it into The Pentagon. Their barbaric acts included beheadings of Serb victims that were likely inspired by the Ustaše who did the same in WWII.

Hussain repeatedly refers to what took place in Bosnia as a “genocide”, citing the dubious Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. While it is certain that a horrific war crime took place in the town, to use such a politicized term is a slanted parroting of the NATO interventionist narrative. Virtually all of the victims were Bosniak Muslim men and boys as the Bosnian Serbs had specifically evacuated women and children from the enclave and the disputed, highly inflated quantity of Bosniak victims were mostly likely a combination of fatalities from the battle for the town and retaliatory summary executions by Bosnian Serbs once they besieged the territory. Prior to the incident, Srebrenica had been under the protection of the UN peacekeeping forces which Bosnian Muslim warlord Naser Orić had used to shield his militias following their routine attacks on neighboring Serb villages whose losses also numbered in the thousands. UN General Phillipe Morillon testified that the Srebrenica massacre was motivated by retribution for the war crimes committed by Orić:

JUDGE ROBINSON: Are you saying, then, General, that what happened in 1995 was a direct reaction to what Naser Orić did to the Serbs two years before?

THE WITNESS: Yes. Yes, Your Honour. I am convinced of that. This doesn’t mean to pardon or diminish the responsibility of the people who committed that crime, but I am convinced of that, yes.

If there were deliberate killings of large groups based on their ethnonationality on all sides, then what occurred was part of a civil war, not “genocide.” Noam Chomsky observed that while NATO based its intervention on the g-word, one of its member states in Turkey was carrying out far worse atrocities against Kurds and that to use the term was an insult to the victims of the Nazis in the region’s past. Who were the principal victims of the Ustaše and the Nazi puppet regime of the Independent State of Croatia during WWII? Serbs. It is also incredible that for a journalist so fixated on neo-fascism, Hussain did not find it significant that Bosnia and Herzegovina President Alija Izetbegović had been a literal member of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS “Handschar” (1st Croatian) in his youth during WWII when Bosnia was under the Ustaše and did three years in prison under Tito for his offense.

Why did the UN peacekeepers fail to protect Srebrenica? It is an important question considering it brought the real turning point in the war. Not long after, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force against Ratko Mladić’s forces resulting in the Bosnian Serbs capitulating to a return to negotiations in the Dayton Accord later that year. The former mayor of Srebrenica, Hakija Meholjić, claimed the town was deliberately sacrificed as part of a ‘red line’ agreement between Izetbegović and U.S. President Bill Clinton in a ‘false flag’ to prompt the NATO intervention, as shown in a 2008 Wikileaks Cable:

Meholjic suggested that Bosniak leaders “sold” Srebrenica to the RS (and abetted genocide) when “key members of the international community started saying publicly that enclaves cannot survive.” (Note: Oric, who left Srebrenica in 1993, was not asked to defend it in 1995; ever since there have been accusations that the then Bosnian leadership deliberately allowed the enclave to fall.

Hussain truly loses any remaining “progressive” credibility when he goes on to praise the Otpor! political organization which organized protests that led to the ouster of “dictator” Milošević (actually thrice democratically-elected) in 2000 following the three month NATO bombing campaign the previous year which left Serbia with the highest cancer rate in Europe from the use of depleted uranium ammunition, “justified” by the same lopsided argument made in the article. Otpor! was portrayed as a bona fide, grassroots movement while behind the scenes it was the recipient of millions of dollars from the US government through “soft power” NGOs and CIA-fronts like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and George Soros’ Open Society Institute, financed by the non-profit industrial complex or what author Arundhati Roy has called the “NGO-ization of resistance.” The success of Otpor! became the formula for Western regime change operations via indistinguishable “pro-democracy” Color Revolutions throughout Eastern Europe in the ensuing decade. Documentary filmmaker Boris Maligurski’s The Weight of Chains series is an excellent overview of the history of Yugoslavia and its first two installments are highly recommended, while the trailer for the forthcoming third film was just released.

Perhaps the reason Hussain unquestioningly heaps praise upon Otpor! is the enormous undisclosed conflict of interest on the part of The Intercept’s ownership in billionaire entrepreneur and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who established the site’s parent organization First Look Media. In The CIA as Organized Crime, journalist and author Douglas Valentine explains how Omidyar’s “philanthropic” investment firm co-financed with the U.S. State Department many of the NGOs in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution such as Center UA which flipped the 2004 Ukrainian election results to a pro-Western candidate. It went on to do the same funding the Euromaidan protests and subsequent coup in 2014 and both so-called Color Revolutions were modeled on the Otpor! movement.  Then, again, the entire premise behind First Look Media is suspect considering it made its name covering the revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden while Omidyar’s eBay simultaneously owns Paypal, one of the biggest backers of NSA surveillance. What better way to commandeer dissent then to throw money at journalists?

Hussain also eagerly mentions that “Russian volunteers” participated in the killings at Srebrenica, omitting the equal number of Greek militiamen. This is another instance of thinly veiled Russophobia and the assignment of guilt towards Moscow for the rise of the far right in the West. Its intention is to include Russia within The Clash of Civilizations narrative which is itself a hypothesis for ‘remaking the world order’ through a division and conquering of Eurasia. Hussain does so by isolating the Yugoslav Wars from its context and weaponizing the region‘s history so as to deflect fault for the Islamophobia in the Anglosphere. However, Samuel P. Huntington excluded the Christian Orthodox nations of Russia and Serbia from his “core civilizations” and rather considered them ‘torn countries’ among the major civilizations. In Brenton Tarrant’s mind he may have been elevating the Yugoslav Wars through his act of terrorism, when all he accomplished was provide ammunition for the Western yellow press to further slander the Serbian victims of U.S. imperialism and drag their name through the mud for something they had nothing to do with.

As for the mass shooting in El Paso, the author should try directing the blame closer to home. One can’t help but be reminded of the brilliant observation made by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore (before he became a shill for the Democratic Party) who made a connection between the Columbine High School shooting and its occurrence in the midst of the unilateral “humanitarian intervention” in Yugoslavia on the day the U.S. dropped the most amount of bombs in the Kosovo campaign which he further examined in his film Bowling For Columbine. President Clinton had to give two press conferences the morning of April 20th, 1999 — one addressing the Columbine massacre and another giving an explanation for the NATO killing of civilians in Serbia.

American society is suffering from a severely disconnected collective psyche when it fails to make a connection between mass shootings domestically and its endless wars abroad, the real catalyst for the Islamophobic reaction to the refugee crisis. U.S. gun culture is a product of the Cold War which conditioned a mass psychology of fear and liberals shedding crocodile tears who think gun control legislation is somehow a solution to the problem when it would only put a small band-aid on a much deeper wound are unwilling to explore the real roots of the issue. It’s true the U.S. is the only country that suffers from routine mass shootings like in El Paso and Dayton, but the U.S. is also the only country with 800+ military bases in more than 80 countries around the world while currently bombing 7 different nations. America is an insecure, terrified country that resolves everything with violence, at home and abroad, and until this connection is recognized, mass shootings like El Paso will likely continue just like our wars.

Normal Intrusions: Globalising AI Surveillance

They all do it: corporations, regimes, authorities.  They all have the same reasons: efficiency, serviceability, profitability, all under the umbrella term of “security”.  Call it surveillance, or call it monitoring the global citizenry; it all comes down to the same thing.  You are being watched for your own good, and such instances should be regarded as a norm.

Given the weaknesses of international law and the general hiccupping that accompanies efforts to formulate a global right to privacy, few such restrictions, or problems, preoccupy those in surveillance.  The entire business is burgeoning, a viral complex that does not risk any abatement.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has released an unnerving report confirming that fact, though irritatingly using an index in doing so.  Its focus is Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology.  A definition of sorts is offered for AI, being “an integrated system that incorporates information acquisition objectives, logical reasoning principles, and self-correction capacities.”

When stated like that, the whole matter seems benign.  Machine learning, for instance, “analyses a large amount of information in order to discern a pattern to explain the current data and predict future uses.”

There are several perturbing highlights supplied by the report’s author, Steven Feldstein.  The relationship between military expenditure and states’ use of AI surveillance systems is noted, with “forty of the world’s top fifty military spending countries (based on cumulative military expenditures) also [using] AI surveillance technology.”  Across 176 countries, data gathered since 2017 shows that AI surveillance technologies are not merely good domestic fare but a thriving export business.

The ideological bent of the regime in question is no bar to the use of such surveillance.  Liberal democracies are noted as major users, with 51 percent of “advanced democracies” doing so.  That number, interestingly enough, is less than “closed autocratic states” (37 percent); “electoral autocratic/competitive autocratic states” (41 percent) and “electoral democracies/illiberal democracies” (41 percent).  The political taxonomist risks drowning in minutiae on this point, but the chilling reality stands out: all states are addicted to diets of AI surveillance technologies.

Feldstein makes the fairly truistic point that “autocratic and semi-autocratic” states so happen to abuse AI surveillance more “than governments in liberal democracies” but the comparisons tend to break down in the global race for technological superiority.  Russia, China and Saudi Arabia are singled out as “exploiting AI technology for mass surveillance purposes” but all states seek the Holy Grail of mass, preferably warrantless surveillance.  Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 did more than anything else to scupper the quaint notion that those who profess safeguards and freedoms are necessarily aware about the runaway trends of their security establishment.

The corporation-state nexus is indispensable to global surveillance, a symbiotic relationship that resists regulation and principle.  This has the added effect of destroying any credible distinction between a state supposedly more compliant with human rights standards, and those that are not.  The common thread, as ever, is the technology company.  As Feldstein notes, in addition to China, “companies based in liberal democracies – for example, Germany, France, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the UK, the United States – are actively selling sophisticated equipment to unsavoury regimes.”

These trends are far from new.  In 1995, Privacy International published a report with the unmistakable title Big Brother Incorporated, an overview of surveillance technology that has come to be aptly known as the Repression Trade.  “Much of this technology is used to track the activities of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, student leaders, minorities, trade union leaders, and political opponents.”

Corporations with no particular allegiance except to profit and shareholders, such as British computer firm ICL (International Computers Limited) were identified as key designers behind the South African automated Passbook system, Apartheid’s stand out signature.  In the 1980s, the Israeli company Tadiran, well in keeping with a rich tradition of the Repression Trade, supplied the murderous Guatemalan policy with computerised death lists in their “pacification” efforts.

The current galloping power in the field of AI surveillance technology is China, underpinned by the clout-heavy Belt and Road Initiative rosily described by its fans as a Chinese Marshall Plan.  Where there are market incentives, there are purchasing prospects for AI technology.  “Technology linked to Chinese companies are found in at least sixty-three countries worldwide.  Huawei alone is responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least fifty countries.”  Chinese technology, it is speculated, may well boost surveillance capabilities within certain African markets, given the “aggressiveness of Chinese companies”.

Other powers also participate in what has become a field of aggressive competitors.  Japan’s NEC is its own colossus, supplying technology to some 14 countries.  IBM keeps up the pressure as a notable American player, doing so to 11 countries.  That particular entity made something of a splash in May, with a report revealing sales of biometric surveillance systems to the United Arab Emirates security and spy agencies stirring discussion in May this year.  Another recipient of IBM surveillance technology is the Philippines, a country more than keen to arm its police forces with the means to monitor, and more than occasionally murder, its citizens.  (The Davao City death squads are a bloody case in point.)

Issues with the report were bound to arise.  A humble admission is made that the sampling method may be questionable in terms of generating a full picture of the industry.  “Given the opacity of government surveillance use, it is nearly impossible to pin down by specific year which AI platforms or systems are currently in use.”  Nor does the index “distinguish between AI surveillance used for legitimate purposes and unlawful digital surveillance.”  A murky field, indeed.

For all the grimness of Feldstein’s findings, he is also aware of the seductive element that various platforms have offered.  Rampant, amoral AI surveillance might well be a hideous by-product of technology, but the field teems with promise in “deep learning; cloud computing and online data gathering”, “improved performance of complex algorithms; and market-driven incentives for new uses of AI technology.”  This shows, in a sense, the Janus-faced nature in critiquing such an enterprise; such praise tends to come with the territory, given Feldstein’s own background as former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Bureau of the US State Department.

Feldstein leaves room to issue a warning.  “As these technologies become more embedded in governance and politics, the window for change will narrow.”  The window, in many instances, has not so much narrowed as closed, as it did decades ago.

The West Oppressed The Third World For So Long That It Became Third World Itself

Many have already noticed: The U.S. really, really doesn’t feel like the world leader, or even as a ‘first world country’. Of course, I write that sarcastically, as I detest expressions like ‘first world’, and the ‘third world’. But readers know what I mean.

Bridges, subways, inner cities, everything is crumbling, falling apart. When I used to live in New York City, more than two decades ago, returning from Japan was shocking: the US felt like a poor, deprived country, full of problems, misery, of confused and depressed people, homeless individuals; in short – desperados. Now, I feel the same when I land in the US after spending some time in China.

And it gets much worse. What the West used to accuse the Soviet Union of is now actually clearly detectable in the United States and the United Kingdom themselves: surveillance is at every step these days; in New York, London, Sydney, and even in the countryside. Every move a person makes, every purchase, every computer click, is registered somewhere, somehow. And this monitoring is, mostly, not even illegal.

Speech is controlled by political correctness. Someone behind the scenes decides what is acceptable and what is not, what is desirable or not, and even what is permissible. You make one ‘mistake’ and you are out; from the teaching positions at the universities, or from the media outlets.

In such conditions, humor cannot thrive, and satire dies. It is not unlike religious fundamentalism: you get destroyed if you ‘offend’. In such circumstances, writers cannot write ground-breaking novels, because true novels offend by definition, and always push the boundaries. As a result, almost nobody reads novels anymore.

Only toothless, ‘controlled humor’ is permitted. No punches can be administered intuitively. Everything has to be calculated in advance. No ‘outrageous’ political fiction can pass the ‘invisible censorship’ in the West (and so, novels as a form have almost died). Those who read in Russian or Chinese languages know perfectly well that the fiction in Russia and China is much more provocative and avant-garde.

In the West, poetry has died, too. And so has philosophy, which has been reduced to a boring, stale and indigestible academic discipline.

While Hollywood and the mass media keep producing, relentlessly, all sorts of highly insulting and stereotypical racist junk (mainly against the Chinese, Russians, Arabs, Latinos and others), great writers and filmmakers who want to ridicule the Western regime and its structure have already been silenced. You can only humiliate non-Westerners in a way that is approved (again: somewhere, somehow), but God forbid, you dare to criticize the pro-Western elites who are ruining their countries on behalf of London and Washington, in the Gulf, Southeast Asia or Africa – that would be ‘patronizing’ and ‘racist’. A great arrangement for the Empire and its servants, isn’t it?

We all know what has happened to Julian Assange, and to Edward Snowden. In the West, people are disappearing, getting arrested, censored. Millions are losing jobs: in the media, publishing houses, and in the film studios. The Cold War era appears to be relatively ‘tolerant’, compared to what is taking place now.

Social media constantly represses ‘uncomfortable’ individuals, ‘unacceptable’ media outlets, and too ‘unorthodox’ thoughts.

Travel has become a boot camp. This is where they break you. Move through the Western airports and you will encounter the vulgar, insulting ‘securistan’. Now, you are not just expected to pull down your pants if ordered, or take off your shoes, or throw away all your bottles containing liquids: you are expected to smile, to grin brightly, like an idiot. You are supposed to show how eager, how cooperative you are: to answer loudly, looking straight into the eyes of your tormentors. If you get humiliated, still, be polite. If you want to fly, show that you are enjoying this stupid and useless humiliation, administered for one and only reason: to break you, to make you pathetic and submissive. To teach you where you really belong. Or else. Or else! We all know what will happen if you refuse to ‘cooperate’.

*****

Now, ‘they’ will use double-speak to let you know that all this is for your own good. It will not be pronounced, but you would be made to sense it: ‘you are being protected from those horrible Third World monsters, madmen, perverts.’ And, of course, from Putin, from the Chinese Communists, from the butcher Maduro, from Assad, or from the Iranian Shi’a fanatics.

The regime is fighting for you, it cares for you, it is protecting you.

Sure, if you live in the UK or the US, the chances are that you are deep in debt, depressed and with no prospects for the future. Maybe your children are hungry, maybe, in the US, you cannot afford the medical care. Most likely, you cannot afford housing in your own city. Perhaps you are forced to have two or three jobs.

But at least you know that your ‘wise leaders’ in the White House, Congress, Pentagon and security agencies are working day and night, protecting you from countless conspiracies, from vicious attacks from abroad, and from those evil Chinese and Russians, who are busy building progressive and egalitarian societies.

Lucky you!

*****

Except: something does not add up here.

For years and decades you were told how free you were. And how oppressed, unfree, those against whom you are being protected, are.

You were told how rich you are and how miserable “the others” were.

To stop those deprived and deranged hordes, some serious measures had to be applied. A right-wing death-squad in some Central American or Southeast Asian country had to be trained in US military camps; a thoroughly absolutist and corrupt monarch had to be supported and pampered; a military fascist coup had to be arranged. Millions raped, tens of thousands of corpses. Not pretty at all, but you know… necessary. For your own good, North American or European citizens; for your own good…. Even for the good of the country that we designated for our ‘liberation’.

Few dissidents in the West have been protesting, for decades. No one has been paying much attention to them. Most of them became ‘unemployable’, and were silenced through misery and the inability to pay their basic bills.

But suddenly…

What happened, suddenly? Because something really happened…

*****

The Empire got tired of plundering the non-Western parts of the world, exclusively.

Well-conditioned, brainwashed and scared, the Western public began to get treated with the same spite as people in the plundered and miserable parts of the world. Well, not yet, not exactly. There are still some essential differences, but the trend is definitely there.

The Western public cannot do too much to protect itself, really. The regime knows everything about everybody: it spies on every citizen: where he or she walks, what he or she eats, drives, flies, watches, consumes, reads. There are no secrets, anymore.

You are an atheist? No need to ‘confess’. You are confessing every minute, with each and every computer click, by pressing the remote control button, or by shopping on Amazon.

Is Big Brother watching? Oh no; now there is much more detailed surveillance. Big Brother is watching, recording and analyzing.

General Pinochet of Chile used to brag that without his knowledge, no leaf could ever move. The old, fascist scumbag was bragging; exaggerating. On the other hand, Western rulers say nothing, but they clearly know what they are doing. Without their knowledge, nothing moves and nobody moves.

Arriving from China, from Russia or Cuba, the first thing that strikes me is how disciplined, obedient and scared, the Europeans and North Americans really are. They subconsciously know that they are being controlled and cannot do anything about it.

When trains get delayed or cancelled, they sheepishly murmur half-audible curses. Their medical benefits get reduced; they accept, or quietly commit suicide. Their public infrastructure crumbles; they say nothing, remembering the ‘good old days’.

Why is it that I feel hope, I laugh with the people, in Mexico City, Johannesburg or Beijing? Why is there so much warmth in the geographically cold cities of Vladivostok or Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka? Why are the people of London, Paris, Long Angeles looking so concerned, so depressed?

Some historically poor countries are on the rise. And the people there show appreciation for every tiny improvement. Nothing is more beautiful than optimism.

The West has fought the so-called “third world” for many, long decades; oppressing it, tormenting it, looting it, violating its people. It prevented them from choosing their own governments. Now it has gone overboard: it is attempting to control and to oppress the entire world, including its own citizens.

As various countries all over the world are getting back onto their feet, resisting pressure from Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, people in the West are increasingly getting treated by their governments with the spite that used to be reserved exclusively for the “under-developed nations” (yes, another disgusting expression).

Clearly, the West has “learnt from itself”.

While countries like Russia, China, Vietnam, Mexico, Iran and others are surging forward, many previously rich colonialist and neo-colonialist empires are now beginning to resemble the “Third World”.

These days, it is very sad being a writer in New York City or in London. Just as it is frightening to be poor. Or being different. All over the world, the roles are being reversed.

• First published in New Eastern Outlook (NEO), Magazine of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Whittaker Chambers or Alger Hiss: Who’s the Real Traitor?

Though #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for 13 weeks in 1952, beloved of William Buckley and Ronald Reagan (“As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire.”), despite being hailed as “one of the dozen or so indispensable books of the century” (George Will), Witness quickly disappeared from our collective consciousness. We remember its most famous victim, Alger Hiss, as a nice guy who was mercilessly hounded, the prelude to the McCarthy purges of the 1950s, a gruesome stain on US history.

Chambers was a talented writer, penning popular short stories in the New Masses in 1931, a full time editor and journalist at Time. His autobiography is full of details of both sides of the so-called treachery of the times, and Chambers’ own ruminations about love and death and the whole damn thing. It swings from over-the-top self-righteousness to self-abnegation, maniacal zeal as a communist, then as a spy, then as self-proclaimed Mr Right, and woe to anyone standing in the way of his mission to Save the World from Communism.

Like his closeted father, his uncle and brother, all of whom committed suicide, he was possessed by a demon, which drove him to an early grave, working 36-hour days at Time in the 1940s, first doing book reviews, then editing the foreign news page (till he had his second heart attack), then back to books. His fellow journalists resented his new-found conservative attacks on their liberal New Dealer mindset, seeing them all as commie dupes. He immortalized himself destroying the careers of ‘good guys’, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White among many others, for their idealistic sins. He became a born-again Quaker, though, like fellow Quaker Richard Nixon, he still believed in ‘just wars’ against commies.

Victims

His worldview was apocalyptic, first through pink lenses, then puritan. Evil is the central problem of human life. The two opposing worldviews: man as flawed/ sinful (Christianity) vs man as good/ perfectable (enlightenment, liberalism -> communism).

Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss

We remember only Alger Hiss as Chambers’ victim, but Hiss got off lucky. Chambers exposed Harry Dexter White (1892–1948), the senior American official at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference that established the postwar economic order, as a spy. White died of a heart attack shortly after HUAC hearings in 1948.

White and Keynes at Bretton Woods

Hiss was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in 1950 (for perjury, as his ‘crimes’ were from 1938) serving only three years and eight months. While in prison, Hiss acted as a volunteer attorney, adviser, and tutor for many of his fellow inmates. Disbarred, he served as a lowly clerk until in 1975, he was readmitted to the Massachusetts bar, the first time a convicted felon was reinstated. The contents of the ‘pumpkin papers’ were finally revealed as of no importance to state security.

White and Keynes at Bretton Woods

Hiss insisted to the end he was innocent. Witness certainly reveals Chambers and Hiss as close friends for as long as Chambers remained in the party. What kind of spy was White? “The economics White advocated were hardly Marxist. They were by this time what would be described as thoroughly Keynesian … As for White’s domestic politics, these were mainstream New Deal progressive, and there is no evidence that he admired communism as a political ideology. White’s daughters still strongly maintain his innocence.1 Chambers crucified Hiss and White merely for wanting to treat the Soviets as what they were — allies, friends.

Revenge

Despite his protestations of fighting evil, what Chambers really was after was personal revenge. He had believed and found his faith was betrayed by Stalin’s crimes, which he now believed included wanting WWIII and world conquest, though we must take his word, as there is no evidence of this in Chambers’ Witness (or anywhere else, to my knowledge, beyond rhetorical flourishes). He quotes his own draft Time editorial ‘Ghosts on the roof’ about the Yalta conference in 1945, where he portrayed the Soviet Union and US as ‘jet planes’ flying towards each other, where one has to destroy other. This virtual declaration of war was removed before it was published, though the new Cold War theme remained.

His new Christian faith armed him for his heretical/ saintly battle against communists, despite his Time colleagues, who were all New Dealers riding high on the crest of WWII, when the Soviets were our friends. He made the transition from communist militant to communist heretic to Christian saint, always the mantra: ‘how could one man be right when so many say he’s wrong?’. Always the self-proclaimed martyr, forced to resign from Time, driving himself to an early death.

His original name was Vivian, his father an artist, a father in name only, so, of course, he was bullied, a lonely child. He ran away from home and found work tearing up street car tracks for a few months, his stint with the proletariat. Born in 1901, he was 16 when the Russian revolution electrified the capitalist world, and like idealistic youth at the time, he searched out those allied with it. He tried the Webbs, Fabian socialism,  but ‘there was no life there. The reek of life was missing.’ To remake the world, socialism involved violent struggle to get and keep power.

If you just read the first 300 pages of Witness, you can come away believing, like he did (but in his case, later with horror), that communism will triumph, despite the many horrors perpetrated in the name of the revolution under Stalin.

He explains three influences on him in his testimony to the grand jury’s question ‘what does it mean to be a communist’: the Cheka founder Dzerzhinsky, who cleaned latrines in his Warsaw prison as an example to those less developed, the German Jew Eugene Levine, leader of the 1918-9 Bavarian Soviet Republic, when sentenced to death, who told his executioner a communist is ‘always under sentence of death’, and the Russian Narodnik Kalyaev/ Sazonov, who burned himself alive as protest against flogging.2

Witness is an indictment of both great faiths of our times, capitalism (sorry, ‘freedom’) and communism. Both are doomed. WWI led to the Russian revolution. WWII has led to the last stage of the crisis with the rise of communism as a world power. Here, war led to revolution. Now it’s the reverse: revolution will lead to WWIII, launched by the communists to take control of the world. Wait a minute. Presumably capitalism/ freedom led to WWI and WWII. So now it’s communism leading to WWIII? Chambers sketched out the dubious scenario that would dominate the US zeitgeist for the next half century, and which continues today in the ‘war on terror’, now expanded to include Islam. It seems war is alive and well, sans communism, and is the result of capitalism/ freedom.

We must always be on guard, as it is easy ‘to fall into the communist trap: The vision inspires, the crisis impels.’ Communism offers two powerful certainties: a reason to live and die. But this belies ‘a shallowness of thought, and leads to incalculable mischief in action.’ Though his argument is a pox on both houses, he retreats to the protection of the devil he knew first as the lesser of two evils, and exhorts us to seek salvation in religion, as the mistake was ‘man without god.’ One could never be a complete man without god. This is the fatal deficiency at the root of all the troubles of modern man.

Chambers literally thanks the Lord for delivering him from evil. He saw the light. Breaking with communism was a religious experience, as indeed it was for other renegades like him. Elizabeth Bentley went through a similar life journey, becoming even more central to HUAC’s work, to the point that she became a full-time paid informer for the FBI. In 1948, like Chambers and Soviet defector Krivitsky, she has a spiritual awakening, becoming a Roman Catholic. She was frequently invited to lecture on the Communist threat by Catholic groups happy to pay her $300 fee. Krivitsky suddenly was (presumably) murdered in 1939 before he could be baptized Episcopalian.

Chambers was convinced communism would triumph, explaining to his wife: we are leaving the winning world for the losing one. It is hard to take this seriously, given his litany of bungling, both petty and epic, of communists throughout the period. He heard about the Ukrainian famine in the early 30s, he knew first hand of the devastating purges, the Spanish civil war (i.e., the uncivil war of the Stalinists against the Trotskyists there), the rejection by the Comintern of a common front with social democrats in Germany in 1929, allowing Hitler to move easily into power.

This movement was poised to conquer the world? He told Hiss of his doubts a few days before Christmas in 1938, just before breaking with the party. Hiss told him this was just ‘mental masturbation’. Hiss knew where the real danger to the world lay.

Hiss forgave Chambers his doubts (he no doubt shared them) and wanted to stay friends, giving Chambers a present for his daughter even as Chambers was telling him he was finished with communism. As Chambers was preparing to rat on someone who appeared to be his closest friend at the time, this sweet gesture brought tears to his eyes. Chambers was a hopeless romantic who fell out of love, lost his faith, sought revenge for its betrayal of him, and subconsciously drove himself to an early grave, a long drawn out suicide, a family trait.

Chambers’ accusations do have the ring of truth, but it is a personal vindictive truth, which ran roughshod over others’ lives in the cause of Chambers’ personal mission to save the world. He understands that communism is the logical conclusion of the enlightenment, liberalism, ‘Edwardian gluttonous pursuit of pleasure, secular good works, and progress,’3 but prefers staying at the level of gluttonous pursuit.

The pumpkin legacy

Chambers and his acolyte McCarthy did their best to destroy the best of American life, the New Dealers with their ideals and openness to ‘secular good works’ without the gluttony. I would hazard that he did just as much, no, more harm than Stalin’s very evil purging and hapless cat-and-mouse espionage. But Stalin’s purging was primarily of Russian communists or suspected Soviet plotters. I can’t think of one instance of real damage done to the West by Soviet spying. The Soviets were bound to crack the atom in any case, and, the sooner the better, given the anti-communist hysteria, when even Bertrand Russell toyed with the idea of a quick nuclear war before the Soviets had recovered from WWII.

In fact, Soviet espionage was far more benign than that of the US. The CIA and others parachuted defectors behind ‘enemy lines’ to sabotage industry, later planted computer viruses into equipment the Soviets were importing, poisoned progressive thought through media control. Proof of this is found in the so-called Mitrokhin Archives. KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin was for 30 years KGB archivist in foreign intelligence, and brought every conceivable secret when he defected to Britain in 1992.

Christopher Andrew’s Sword and the Shield (1992) and The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (2005), based on the archives show pathetically little in terms of subversion and no overarching plan to invade anywhere. Despite his anticommunist bias, Andrew shows that the KGB did little with the information it collected, which mostly involved technology acquisition, and which shows the reactive nature of Soviet undercover work—attempts to uncover sabotage by the West, use of blackmail to protect Soviet sources.

Canada’s most celebrated Soviet spy was Fred Rose, Canada’s one and only communist MP. In 1945, when the Soviet Union was branded as Canada’s enemy, this led to the arrest of Rose and denial of his parliamentary immunity, when he was found guilty of conspiring to turn over information about the explosive RDX44 to the Soviets. The Soviet defector Gouzenko had stolen documents from the Soviet embassy, and alleged that Rose was leading a spy ring of up to 20 Soviet spies.

He was never allowed to clear his name. Rose did not see sharing RDX information at the time as spying, as the Soviets were allies, doing most of the fighting against the Nazis, but he was quickly convicted. When released, his health broken, abandoned by his wife while in prison, he was unable to work, hounded by the RCMP, and finally emigrated to Poland. In later years, Rose admitted his error, saying, “I made one mistake in my life and I paid for it,” but he was denied the chance to clear his name of spying, as his Canadian citizenship was revoked in 1957, and his appeal was denied. Too late to matter, in 1958 Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Ellen Fairclough amended the Citizenship Act with the “Fred Rose amendment” so that such a removal of Canadian citizenship could never happen again.

“The horror of treason is sin against the spirit,” Chambers wrote in reviewing Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason for Time in 1947 (which, he boasts was read by ‘a million more or less’). But isn’t that what Chambers did? Hiss (sort of) betrayed (in the interests of world peace). But Chambers too betrayed. He betrayed his friends, and for what? Imperialism?

What about Forster’s “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”? Especially if ‘my country’ is doing nasty things.

The muck of McCarthyism endures in our collective memory. Chambers’ recounting of his HUAC testimony is, as he puts it, comedy. The committee members (including Nixon who became his ‘valued friend’) were the uncouth, undignified, ungrammatical, rude and ruthless, as no decent members of congress wanted to serve on it. They were almost uniformly bigotted, emphasizing Jewish names when calling and interrogating witnesses. The images we remember, if any, are of Lauren Bacall and others marching in protest at the blacklisting and jailing of actors.

It’s hard not to pity Chambers, who saw himself as testifying for something, rather than against people who were once his intimate friends, that is, he was blind to the harm he was doing to them. The HUAC media farce couldn’t help but portray him as the bad guy, even as the Cold War clouds were gathering. Those ‘witnessing’ the Hiss trials didn’t really care much about microfiche spools in pumpkins (though that was entertaining). They were fascinated, appalled by fat, pompous Whittaker’s tattling on, betraying his handsome, intellectual friend Alger, culminating in his sensational interview on Meet the Press in 1948, ‘a savage assault with little restraint or decency,’ ‘fun for the boys, death for the frogs.4 How could he stoop to this sordid business? To what end?

He admits that he was ‘bringing ruin on the lives of so many people and … would never again really be able to live with myself.’ ‘The penalty is a kind of death, most deadly if a man must go on living. He admits his witnessing ‘destroyed himself to make his witness.’5 Hey, Whittaker, remember Stalin’s ‘you have to break eggs to make an omelette’?

Bacall and Bogarte and other stars battle HUAC

Bacall, Bogart and other stars battle HUAC

He bemoans ‘the death of religious faith’, and takes shelter in Quakerism, but no one was listening. All they heard is the ugly HUAC clatter. Watched their beloved Hollywood stars like John Garfield, nice guys like White, dying of heart attacks as humiliated martyrs. My heroes are those brave enough to protest at the risk of their own careers (Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey, Humphrey Bogart….). The list of wonderful Americans who stood up to the anti-communist hysterics like Whittaker Chambers is long, and will be remembered long after Chambers et al are consigned to the dustbin of history.

Spydom’s legacy

Ethel Rosenberg

Whether or not Hiss et al were religious, whether or not they ‘sinned’ by breaking the law, they showed far more ‘spirit’ than newly christianized Chambers and Bentley. The victims have been slowly rehabilitated starting in the 1960s with Dalton Trumbo openly credited with the screenplay of Spartacus (1960). In 2015, New York City Council issued a proclamation stating that “the government wrongfully executed Ethel Rosenberg,” and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer officially recognized, “the injustice suffered by Ethel Rosenberg and her family,” and declared her birthday, September 28, “Ethel Rosenberg Day of Justice in the Borough of Manhattan.” In March 2016, Michael and Robert (via the Rosenberg Fund for Children) launched a petition campaign calling on President Obama to formally exonerate their mother. 60 Minutes presented the story of the Rosenberg children and their quest for justice.

While Chambers was loudly lauded in his 1961 obits, Bentley (whose victims numbered 80) was passed over. Already by the 1960s, people were tired of the spy mania, and rightly, as the Soviet spies were (misguided?) idealists, each one a personal tragedy, shot down by traitors-to-the-cause. Few besides the Reagans and Buckleys remembers Chambers or Bentley et al as noble patriots, rightly, as they were (excuse me) rats escaping/ scuttling their ship, betraying their friends. It seems Hiss really was on Soviet spy lists, as revealed when archives were opened after 1991. Whether he was a ‘card-carrying communist’ and lied, I don’t know and don’t care.

I do know that such spies as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Rudolph Abel and Kim Philby are now admired and increasingly honoured for their idealism and courage. They spied in the interests of humanity, against imperialism. I’m with them. Eat cake, Whittaker.

Witness was dusted off for its 50th anniversary in 2002, with a foreword by William F Buckley, who recalls that only two years after its publication ‘almost total silence had closed in on him.’ In his foreword, Robert Novak, relying on Hungarian archives, harrumphs: So, the case is closed. Hiss was a liar, spy and traitor. But these inveterate Cold Warriors are wrong on all counts: communism was not the all-powerful ogre intent on war and conquest, it was wrong to betray you friends for believing what you did and then didn’t.

Chambers’ ‘valued friend’, Nixon, made detente with the evil commies his greatest legacy. As communism mellowed, it turns out Christianity and communism are reconcilable after all.

As the red scare and blacklist unravelled in the 1950s, the journalist who led the expose of Chambers in 1948, David Sentner, went on to arrange a visit by William Hearst Jr with Khrushchev in 1956, which won a Pulitzer Prize, leaving Chambers’ plans to orchestrate the destruction of the communist ‘jet plane’ in shambles.

So where is Chambers/ Bentley’s legacy? Down there in Dante’s Ninth Circle—the “lowest, blackest, and farthest from Heaven”—with real American traitors like Jonathan Pollard (who gave away lots of genuine secrets) sentenced to life in 1987, granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, who despite Israeli pleas/ whining, is still under house arrest after 28 years in prison. Now there’s a real traitor — for all but the Israelis, who paint murals and name buildings (in east Jerusalem) in his honour.

  1. Benn Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order (2013).
  2. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952), Foreword as a letter to my children, p. 38.
  3. Ibid., p. 499.
  4. Ibid., p. 702.
  5. Ibid., pp. 710, 693.

Whittaker Chambers or Alger Hiss: Who’s the Real Traitor?

Though #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for 13 weeks in 1952, beloved of William Buckley and Ronald Reagan (“As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire.”), despite being hailed as “one of the dozen or so indispensable books of the century” (George Will), Witness quickly disappeared from our collective consciousness. We remember its most famous victim, Alger Hiss, as a nice guy who was mercilessly hounded, the prelude to the McCarthy purges of the 1950s, a gruesome stain on US history.

Chambers was a talented writer, penning popular short stories in the New Masses in 1931, a full time editor and journalist at Time. His autobiography is full of details of both sides of the so-called treachery of the times, and Chambers’ own ruminations about love and death and the whole damn thing. It swings from over-the-top self-righteousness to self-abnegation, maniacal zeal as a communist, then as a spy, then as self-proclaimed Mr Right, and woe to anyone standing in the way of his mission to Save the World from Communism.

Like his closeted father, his uncle and brother, all of whom committed suicide, he was possessed by a demon, which drove him to an early grave, working 36-hour days at Time in the 1940s, first doing book reviews, then editing the foreign news page (till he had his second heart attack), then back to books. His fellow journalists resented his new-found conservative attacks on their liberal New Dealer mindset, seeing them all as commie dupes. He immortalized himself destroying the careers of ‘good guys’, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White among many others, for their idealistic sins. He became a born-again Quaker, though, like fellow Quaker Richard Nixon, he still believed in ‘just wars’ against commies.

Victims

His worldview was apocalyptic, first through pink lenses, then puritan. Evil is the central problem of human life. The two opposing worldviews: man as flawed/ sinful (Christianity) vs man as good/ perfectable (enlightenment, liberalism -> communism).

Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss

We remember only Alger Hiss as Chambers’ victim, but Hiss got off lucky. Chambers exposed Harry Dexter White (1892–1948), the senior American official at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference that established the postwar economic order, as a spy. White died of a heart attack shortly after HUAC hearings in 1948.

White and Keynes at Bretton Woods

Hiss was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in 1950 (for perjury, as his ‘crimes’ were from 1938) serving only three years and eight months. While in prison, Hiss acted as a volunteer attorney, adviser, and tutor for many of his fellow inmates. Disbarred, he served as a lowly clerk until in 1975, he was readmitted to the Massachusetts bar, the first time a convicted felon was reinstated. The contents of the ‘pumpkin papers’ were finally revealed as of no importance to state security.

White and Keynes at Bretton Woods

Hiss insisted to the end he was innocent. Witness certainly reveals Chambers and Hiss as close friends for as long as Chambers remained in the party. What kind of spy was White? “The economics White advocated were hardly Marxist. They were by this time what would be described as thoroughly Keynesian … As for White’s domestic politics, these were mainstream New Deal progressive, and there is no evidence that he admired communism as a political ideology. White’s daughters still strongly maintain his innocence.1 Chambers crucified Hiss and White merely for wanting to treat the Soviets as what they were — allies, friends.

Revenge

Despite his protestations of fighting evil, what Chambers really was after was personal revenge. He had believed and found his faith was betrayed by Stalin’s crimes, which he now believed included wanting WWIII and world conquest, though we must take his word, as there is no evidence of this in Chambers’ Witness (or anywhere else, to my knowledge, beyond rhetorical flourishes). He quotes his own draft Time editorial ‘Ghosts on the roof’ about the Yalta conference in 1945, where he portrayed the Soviet Union and US as ‘jet planes’ flying towards each other, where one has to destroy other. This virtual declaration of war was removed before it was published, though the new Cold War theme remained.

His new Christian faith armed him for his heretical/ saintly battle against communists, despite his Time colleagues, who were all New Dealers riding high on the crest of WWII, when the Soviets were our friends. He made the transition from communist militant to communist heretic to Christian saint, always the mantra: ‘how could one man be right when so many say he’s wrong?’. Always the self-proclaimed martyr, forced to resign from Time, driving himself to an early death.

His original name was Vivian, his father an artist, a father in name only, so, of course, he was bullied, a lonely child. He ran away from home and found work tearing up street car tracks for a few months, his stint with the proletariat. Born in 1901, he was 16 when the Russian revolution electrified the capitalist world, and like idealistic youth at the time, he searched out those allied with it. He tried the Webbs, Fabian socialism,  but ‘there was no life there. The reek of life was missing.’ To remake the world, socialism involved violent struggle to get and keep power.

If you just read the first 300 pages of Witness, you can come away believing, like he did (but in his case, later with horror), that communism will triumph, despite the many horrors perpetrated in the name of the revolution under Stalin.

He explains three influences on him in his testimony to the grand jury’s question ‘what does it mean to be a communist’: the Cheka founder Dzerzhinsky, who cleaned latrines in his Warsaw prison as an example to those less developed, the German Jew Eugene Levine, leader of the 1918-9 Bavarian Soviet Republic, when sentenced to death, who told his executioner a communist is ‘always under sentence of death’, and the Russian Narodnik Kalyaev/ Sazonov, who burned himself alive as protest against flogging.2

Witness is an indictment of both great faiths of our times, capitalism (sorry, ‘freedom’) and communism. Both are doomed. WWI led to the Russian revolution. WWII has led to the last stage of the crisis with the rise of communism as a world power. Here, war led to revolution. Now it’s the reverse: revolution will lead to WWIII, launched by the communists to take control of the world. Wait a minute. Presumably capitalism/ freedom led to WWI and WWII. So now it’s communism leading to WWIII? Chambers sketched out the dubious scenario that would dominate the US zeitgeist for the next half century, and which continues today in the ‘war on terror’, now expanded to include Islam. It seems war is alive and well, sans communism, and is the result of capitalism/ freedom.

We must always be on guard, as it is easy ‘to fall into the communist trap: The vision inspires, the crisis impels.’ Communism offers two powerful certainties: a reason to live and die. But this belies ‘a shallowness of thought, and leads to incalculable mischief in action.’ Though his argument is a pox on both houses, he retreats to the protection of the devil he knew first as the lesser of two evils, and exhorts us to seek salvation in religion, as the mistake was ‘man without god.’ One could never be a complete man without god. This is the fatal deficiency at the root of all the troubles of modern man.

Chambers literally thanks the Lord for delivering him from evil. He saw the light. Breaking with communism was a religious experience, as indeed it was for other renegades like him. Elizabeth Bentley went through a similar life journey, becoming even more central to HUAC’s work, to the point that she became a full-time paid informer for the FBI. In 1948, like Chambers and Soviet defector Krivitsky, she has a spiritual awakening, becoming a Roman Catholic. She was frequently invited to lecture on the Communist threat by Catholic groups happy to pay her $300 fee. Krivitsky suddenly was (presumably) murdered in 1939 before he could be baptized Episcopalian.

Chambers was convinced communism would triumph, explaining to his wife: we are leaving the winning world for the losing one. It is hard to take this seriously, given his litany of bungling, both petty and epic, of communists throughout the period. He heard about the Ukrainian famine in the early 30s, he knew first hand of the devastating purges, the Spanish civil war (i.e., the uncivil war of the Stalinists against the Trotskyists there), the rejection by the Comintern of a common front with social democrats in Germany in 1929, allowing Hitler to move easily into power.

This movement was poised to conquer the world? He told Hiss of his doubts a few days before Christmas in 1938, just before breaking with the party. Hiss told him this was just ‘mental masturbation’. Hiss knew where the real danger to the world lay.

Hiss forgave Chambers his doubts (he no doubt shared them) and wanted to stay friends, giving Chambers a present for his daughter even as Chambers was telling him he was finished with communism. As Chambers was preparing to rat on someone who appeared to be his closest friend at the time, this sweet gesture brought tears to his eyes. Chambers was a hopeless romantic who fell out of love, lost his faith, sought revenge for its betrayal of him, and subconsciously drove himself to an early grave, a long drawn out suicide, a family trait.

Chambers’ accusations do have the ring of truth, but it is a personal vindictive truth, which ran roughshod over others’ lives in the cause of Chambers’ personal mission to save the world. He understands that communism is the logical conclusion of the enlightenment, liberalism, ‘Edwardian gluttonous pursuit of pleasure, secular good works, and progress,’3 but prefers staying at the level of gluttonous pursuit.

The pumpkin legacy

Chambers and his acolyte McCarthy did their best to destroy the best of American life, the New Dealers with their ideals and openness to ‘secular good works’ without the gluttony. I would hazard that he did just as much, no, more harm than Stalin’s very evil purging and hapless cat-and-mouse espionage. But Stalin’s purging was primarily of Russian communists or suspected Soviet plotters. I can’t think of one instance of real damage done to the West by Soviet spying. The Soviets were bound to crack the atom in any case, and, the sooner the better, given the anti-communist hysteria, when even Bertrand Russell toyed with the idea of a quick nuclear war before the Soviets had recovered from WWII.

In fact, Soviet espionage was far more benign than that of the US. The CIA and others parachuted defectors behind ‘enemy lines’ to sabotage industry, later planted computer viruses into equipment the Soviets were importing, poisoned progressive thought through media control. Proof of this is found in the so-called Mitrokhin Archives. KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin was for 30 years KGB archivist in foreign intelligence, and brought every conceivable secret when he defected to Britain in 1992.

Christopher Andrew’s Sword and the Shield (1992) and The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (2005), based on the archives show pathetically little in terms of subversion and no overarching plan to invade anywhere. Despite his anticommunist bias, Andrew shows that the KGB did little with the information it collected, which mostly involved technology acquisition, and which shows the reactive nature of Soviet undercover work—attempts to uncover sabotage by the West, use of blackmail to protect Soviet sources.

Canada’s most celebrated Soviet spy was Fred Rose, Canada’s one and only communist MP. In 1945, when the Soviet Union was branded as Canada’s enemy, this led to the arrest of Rose and denial of his parliamentary immunity, when he was found guilty of conspiring to turn over information about the explosive RDX44 to the Soviets. The Soviet defector Gouzenko had stolen documents from the Soviet embassy, and alleged that Rose was leading a spy ring of up to 20 Soviet spies.

He was never allowed to clear his name. Rose did not see sharing RDX information at the time as spying, as the Soviets were allies, doing most of the fighting against the Nazis, but he was quickly convicted. When released, his health broken, abandoned by his wife while in prison, he was unable to work, hounded by the RCMP, and finally emigrated to Poland. In later years, Rose admitted his error, saying, “I made one mistake in my life and I paid for it,” but he was denied the chance to clear his name of spying, as his Canadian citizenship was revoked in 1957, and his appeal was denied. Too late to matter, in 1958 Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Ellen Fairclough amended the Citizenship Act with the “Fred Rose amendment” so that such a removal of Canadian citizenship could never happen again.

“The horror of treason is sin against the spirit,” Chambers wrote in reviewing Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason for Time in 1947 (which, he boasts was read by ‘a million more or less’). But isn’t that what Chambers did? Hiss (sort of) betrayed (in the interests of world peace). But Chambers too betrayed. He betrayed his friends, and for what? Imperialism?

What about Forster’s “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”? Especially if ‘my country’ is doing nasty things.

The muck of McCarthyism endures in our collective memory. Chambers’ recounting of his HUAC testimony is, as he puts it, comedy. The committee members (including Nixon who became his ‘valued friend’) were the uncouth, undignified, ungrammatical, rude and ruthless, as no decent members of congress wanted to serve on it. They were almost uniformly bigotted, emphasizing Jewish names when calling and interrogating witnesses. The images we remember, if any, are of Lauren Bacall and others marching in protest at the blacklisting and jailing of actors.

It’s hard not to pity Chambers, who saw himself as testifying for something, rather than against people who were once his intimate friends, that is, he was blind to the harm he was doing to them. The HUAC media farce couldn’t help but portray him as the bad guy, even as the Cold War clouds were gathering. Those ‘witnessing’ the Hiss trials didn’t really care much about microfiche spools in pumpkins (though that was entertaining). They were fascinated, appalled by fat, pompous Whittaker’s tattling on, betraying his handsome, intellectual friend Alger, culminating in his sensational interview on Meet the Press in 1948, ‘a savage assault with little restraint or decency,’ ‘fun for the boys, death for the frogs.4 How could he stoop to this sordid business? To what end?

He admits that he was ‘bringing ruin on the lives of so many people and … would never again really be able to live with myself.’ ‘The penalty is a kind of death, most deadly if a man must go on living. He admits his witnessing ‘destroyed himself to make his witness.’5 Hey, Whittaker, remember Stalin’s ‘you have to break eggs to make an omelette’?

Bacall and Bogarte and other stars battle HUAC

Bacall, Bogart and other stars battle HUAC

He bemoans ‘the death of religious faith’, and takes shelter in Quakerism, but no one was listening. All they heard is the ugly HUAC clatter. Watched their beloved Hollywood stars like John Garfield, nice guys like White, dying of heart attacks as humiliated martyrs. My heroes are those brave enough to protest at the risk of their own careers (Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey, Humphrey Bogart….). The list of wonderful Americans who stood up to the anti-communist hysterics like Whittaker Chambers is long, and will be remembered long after Chambers et al are consigned to the dustbin of history.

Spydom’s legacy

Ethel Rosenberg

Whether or not Hiss et al were religious, whether or not they ‘sinned’ by breaking the law, they showed far more ‘spirit’ than newly christianized Chambers and Bentley. The victims have been slowly rehabilitated starting in the 1960s with Dalton Trumbo openly credited with the screenplay of Spartacus (1960). In 2015, New York City Council issued a proclamation stating that “the government wrongfully executed Ethel Rosenberg,” and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer officially recognized, “the injustice suffered by Ethel Rosenberg and her family,” and declared her birthday, September 28, “Ethel Rosenberg Day of Justice in the Borough of Manhattan.” In March 2016, Michael and Robert (via the Rosenberg Fund for Children) launched a petition campaign calling on President Obama to formally exonerate their mother. 60 Minutes presented the story of the Rosenberg children and their quest for justice.

While Chambers was loudly lauded in his 1961 obits, Bentley (whose victims numbered 80) was passed over. Already by the 1960s, people were tired of the spy mania, and rightly, as the Soviet spies were (misguided?) idealists, each one a personal tragedy, shot down by traitors-to-the-cause. Few besides the Reagans and Buckleys remembers Chambers or Bentley et al as noble patriots, rightly, as they were (excuse me) rats escaping/ scuttling their ship, betraying their friends. It seems Hiss really was on Soviet spy lists, as revealed when archives were opened after 1991. Whether he was a ‘card-carrying communist’ and lied, I don’t know and don’t care.

I do know that such spies as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Rudolph Abel and Kim Philby are now admired and increasingly honoured for their idealism and courage. They spied in the interests of humanity, against imperialism. I’m with them. Eat cake, Whittaker.

Witness was dusted off for its 50th anniversary in 2002, with a foreword by William F Buckley, who recalls that only two years after its publication ‘almost total silence had closed in on him.’ In his foreword, Robert Novak, relying on Hungarian archives, harrumphs: So, the case is closed. Hiss was a liar, spy and traitor. But these inveterate Cold Warriors are wrong on all counts: communism was not the all-powerful ogre intent on war and conquest, it was wrong to betray you friends for believing what you did and then didn’t.

Chambers’ ‘valued friend’, Nixon, made detente with the evil commies his greatest legacy. As communism mellowed, it turns out Christianity and communism are reconcilable after all.

As the red scare and blacklist unravelled in the 1950s, the journalist who led the expose of Chambers in 1948, David Sentner, went on to arrange a visit by William Hearst Jr with Khrushchev in 1956, which won a Pulitzer Prize, leaving Chambers’ plans to orchestrate the destruction of the communist ‘jet plane’ in shambles.

So where is Chambers/ Bentley’s legacy? Down there in Dante’s Ninth Circle—the “lowest, blackest, and farthest from Heaven”—with real American traitors like Jonathan Pollard (who gave away lots of genuine secrets) sentenced to life in 1987, granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, who despite Israeli pleas/ whining, is still under house arrest after 28 years in prison. Now there’s a real traitor — for all but the Israelis, who paint murals and name buildings (in east Jerusalem) in his honour.

  1. Benn Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order (2013).
  2. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952), Foreword as a letter to my children, p. 38.
  3. Ibid., p. 499.
  4. Ibid., p. 702.
  5. Ibid., pp. 710, 693.

Hollywood reboots Russophobia for the New Cold War

​It is an age-old question as to the extent art reflects the world we live in. Bertolt Brecht allegedly said to the contrary that art was “not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” The Marxist German playwright devised theatrical methods designed to distance the audience from the staged drama while drawing self-reflexive attention to the contrived nature of the spectacle itself. The idea was that by estranging the spectator and encouraging critical examination, they would come to view society’s manmade injustices as similarly unnatural and be given agency to transform them in the real world. One of the implications of Brecht’s notion was that art in its more conventional forms often functions as a tool of mass persuasion for those in power to reinforce those inequities. Marx and Engels themselves professed to have learned more about the contradictions of French society from the novels of Honoré de Balzac, which upheld the monarchy and the Church, than any historians or philosophers of their day. At its very worst, artistic mediums can be used by governments to manipulate a nation’s attitude towards other countries in order to justify war.

Brecht’s life and work coincided with the development of the film industry. However, most productions influenced by his ‘epic theatre’ were art-house and foreign films while commercial, mass-market Hollywood movies placed greater emphasis on appealing to the emotions over intellect. However, there were some exceptions such as Charlie Chaplin who not coincidentally was persecuted for his politics by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the Red Scare. In the Cold War, Tinseltown played an important role in the cultural battlefield against the USSR and anti-Soviet paranoia was an ever-present theme in American cinema for decades, from the McCarthy era until the Berlin Wall fell. Contemporaneously, a revival of geopolitical tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation — which many have dubbed a second Cold War — has seen the return of such tropes on the silver screen. Most recently, it has resurfaced in popular web television shows such as the third season of Netflix’s retro science fiction/horror series Stranger Things, as well as HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, which dramatizes the 1986 nuclear accident in Soviet Ukraine.

It was a famous cinematic work that many believe ominously foreshadowed Chernobyl in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science fiction film, Stalker, less than a decade prior to the calamity. It is unlikely that HBO would have been as interested in green-lighting a five-part program on the disaster without the current hysteria surrounding the unproven allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and ‘collusion’ between Moscow and the Trump campaign. ‘Russiagate’ has become a national obsession and suddenly the very idea of corruption and intrigue has been made synonymous with the Kremlin. Hollywood liberal figures have been some of the hoax’s biggest proponents, including the show’s writer, Craig Mazin. It is equally as hard to imagine Americans themselves being as captivated by a re-enactment of the nuclear accident without the current political climate of fear-mongering bombarding them every day in corporate media. From the perspective of the U.S. political establishment, what better way to deflect attention away from its own sins than onto a manufactured adversary?

For instance, a recent Columbia University study found that sections of the Marshall Islands, which the U.S. acquired from Japan following WWII and conducted countless nuclear tests nearby in the Pacific, is significantly more radioactive than Chernobyl. The highest radiation levels were found on the Bikini atoll, where evacuated islanders were initially told they could return shortly after tests began in 1946 but have been waiting more than seventy years to come home. On other coral atolls in the island country such as Rogelapp, the U.S. Navy allowed the native population to return too soon knowing full well the food and water were highly contaminated, resulting in a generation with high birth defects and cancer rates. The U.S. ceded the territory in 1994 only after the Marshallese negotiated a meager $150 million in damages for their mistreatment while permitting the establishment of a U.S. ballistic missile defense test site targeting China. Unfortunately, the presstitutes are too preoccupied with sensational coverage of the recent accident at the Russian military base in Nyonoska, salivating at another prospective Chernobyl. Not to mention, the ongoing cover-up of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 in the U.S. vassal state of Japan.

Already featuring a non-native cast and in the English language spoken with British accents, HBO’s Chernobyl is loaded with historical inaccuracies. The narrative takes many liberties both for the purpose of entertainment value and to create blatant propaganda seemingly as intent on discrediting socialism as it is in demonizing Moscow. This is unsurprising considering that screenwriter Craig Mazin is not only an establishment liberal with Putin derangement syndrome but a vocal critic of Bernie Sanders who has even ludicrously attempted to tie the Senator from Vermont to Russiagate on social media. Mazin has virtue signaled about the show as a parable about global warming (“the flaws that led to Chernobyl are the same flaws shown by climate deniers”) while simultaneously denouncing the candidate in the 2020 Democratic field with arguably the most comprehensive climate plan, leaving aside whether Sanders’ New Dealism is genuine socialism. For centre-rightists, the climate crisis is not tied to capitalism which as Marx reportedly said, “tends to destroy its two sources of wealth, nature and human beings” but is merely the failure of individual corrupt leaders like Trump. Early on in the series, Mazin invents a fictional elderly Soviet official who points to a bust of Vladimir Lenin while invoking socialism to silence those urging an immediate evacuation of Pripyat in the initial days of the disaster.

Mazin takes further artistic license to assign a protagonist in the story in Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), the high-ranking chemist who led the inquiry of the disaster and testified before the International Atomic Energy Agency before committing suicide in 1987. The story deviates from factual events in order to portray the scientist as a honest official blowing the whistle on a bureaucratic government. While his sworn statement was indeed straightforward, in real life Legasov did not blame reactor design flaws and deviate from the official government account of “human error” or breach of protocol as portrayed in the series, nor was he a witness in the trial of the nuclear plant operators who were found to be at fault. This is entirely a work of fiction designed to depict an incompetent and secretive Soviet government to be the cause of the accident. One would have no idea this same state was capable of inventing human space travel or industrializing an agrarian society in a single decade, a feat which took the British more than a century to accomplish. Not to mention that the accident occurred while the USSR was undergoing market-oriented reforms, a period in which the Soviet economy was at its most de-centralized and on the verge of collapse during perestroika.

At every turn, Legasov is up against cartoonish authoritarian officials who attempt to cover-up the severity of the catastrophe, including one particularly absurd scene when a Soviet apparatchik threatens to throw him out of a helicopter to his death if he does not explain how a reactor works. The Soviet working class are not spared either, as miners are coerced at gunpoint by Soviet troops at the order of the coal minister to dig a sarcophagus underneath the reactor to prevent radioactive contamination of the country’s water supply with the promise of financial reward. However, by all accounts no such use of the military ever took place and is contradicted by Legasov’s own statements which were not nearly as critical of state management as represented. The scientist had also attempted to take his own life once before while in the hospital suffering from radiation exposure, a more likely motive for his suicide. It is also rumored that the real reason for the Kremlin’s ‘secrecy’ about Chernobyl was that Pripyat was home to more than just a reactor-grade power station but possibly an undisclosed missile launching site or a facility producing warheads, with the meltdown a case of deliberate cyber sabotage by the C.I.A..

The series even finds time to rewrite WWII history in a scene where a stubborn babushka refuses to evacuate Pripyat, claiming to have endured worse surviving the Banderite hoax of the Holodomor. There was indeed a famine (throughout the entire USSR), but using the reconstruction of the tragedy to insert Ukrainian nationalist propaganda and Nazi myths of deliberate starvation is part of the West’s ongoing whitewashing of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators whose ultra-right descendants were instrumental in the 2014 Maidan coup. It is an insult to the Soviet people who sprung to action voluntarily and heroically to prevent the disaster from worsening to what could have left much of Europe uninhabitable, killed millions and caused incalculable damage to the environment. Then again, the West has never given the Soviets credit for defeating Germany, so it is to be expected they wouldn’t truly acknowledge the sacrifices made in Chernobyl.

During the 1980s as the Cold War reached a crescendo, Hollywood was churning out anti-Soviet movies marketed at teens like Red Dawn where a group of adolescents defend their small midwestern town from a fictional Soviet invasion. The same premise has been recycled for the most recent season of Netflix’s popular Stranger Things, a sci-fi horror vehicle carrying on the genre’s legacy of association with cold war paranoia going back to the 1950s with classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers which evoked domestic fears about communist infiltration in the form of an alien invasion.Stylishly imitative of the 1980s with a synth-heavy soundtrack, the first two seasons saw its young characters living in a fictional Indiana town, some of whom possess telekinetic powers, who battle paranormal beings from another dimension called the “Upside Down” on which a nearby U.S. Department of Energy facility has been secretly performing experiments.

The third season takes a different turn, however, where the adolescents go up against “evil Russians” and “Soviet scum” infiltrating the U.S. Perhaps it was for the better that Chernobyl decided to use British actors speaking in their own tongue because the Russians in Stranger Things are cartoonish, brute thugs that resemble Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. Even more absurdly, the children discover that a new local shopping mall in the town putting mom-and-pop stores out of business has been constructed by Russian operatives (not by multinational chains as it was in real life under Reaganism) to hide an underground laboratory. The preposterous sequence can only be interpreted as an expression of the anxiety underlying the U.S. decline and fear of the ascendancy of Moscow on the international stage. Like Chernobyl, the nostalgia-driven program disparages socialism as much as it villainizes Russia, including one ludicrous scene where a 10-year old black girl agrees to help the other kids on the condition they agree to give her free ice cream from the mall shop where several of the teens work. She then proceeds to lecture them on the purported benefits of trickle-down theory, because if anyone can appreciate the alleged rewards of Reaganomics with the reduction of social programs and spending cuts, it would be an African-American child during the 1980s.

It is apparent that the caricature of the Soviet Union in both productions is really a stand-in for the present-day Russian government under Vladimir Putin. As only American exceptionalism could permit, Hollywood did not hold the same disdain for his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, whose legacy of high inflation and national debt have since been eliminated. In fact, most have forgotten that the same filmdom community outraged about Russia’s supposed interference in the 2016 U.S. election made a celebratory movie back in 2003, Spinning Boris, which practically boasted about the instrumental role the West played in Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection in Russia. The highly unpopular alcoholic politician benefited from a near universal media bias as virtually all the federation’s news outlets came under the control of the ‘oligarchs’ (in America known simply as billionaires) which his economic policies of mass privatization of state industry enriched overnight. Yeltsin initially polled at less than 10% and was far behind Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov until he became the recipient of billions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) thanks to his corrupt campaign manager, Anatoly Chubais, now one of the most hated men in all of Russia. After the purging of votes and rampant ballot-box stuffing, Yeltsin successfully closed the gap between his opponent thanks to the overt U.S. meddling.

Spinning Boris was directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who previously helmed an installment in the James Bond series, Tomorrow Never Dies. The 1997 entry in the franchise is one of thousands of Hollywood films and network television shows exposed by journalists Matthew Alford and Tom Secker as having been influenced or directly assisted by the Pentagon and CIA in their must-read book National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood. Based on evidence from documents revealed in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, their investigation divulges the previously unknown extent to which the national security complex has gone in exerting control over content in the film industry. While it has always been known that the military held sway over movies that required usage of its facilities and equipment to be produced, the level of impact on such films in the pre-production and editing stages, as well as the control over non-military themed flicks one wouldn’t suspect to be under supervision by Washington and Langley, is exhaustively uncovered.

As expected, Hollywood and the military-industrial complex’s intimate relationship during the Cold War is featured prominently in Alford and Secker’s investigative work. It is unclear whether HBO or Netflix sought US military assistance or were directly involved with the national security state in their respective productions, but these are just two recent examples of many where the correlated increase in geopolitical tensions with Moscow is reflected. The upcoming sequel to DC’sWonder Woman set to be released next year, Wonder Woman 1984, featuring the female superhero “coming into conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the 1980s”, is yet another. Reprising her role is Israeli actress and IDF veteran Gal Gadot as the title character, ironically starring in a blockbuster that will demonize the Eurasian state which saved her ethnicity from extinction. Given the Pentagon’s involvement in the debacle surounding 2014’s The Interview which provoked very real tensions with North Korea, it is likely they are at least closely examining any entertainment with content regarding Russia, if not directly pre-approving it for review.

Ultimately, the Western panic about its imperial decline is not limited to assigning blame to Moscow. Sinophobia has manifested as well in recent films such as the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival where the extra-terrestrials who reach Earth seem more interested in communicating with Beijing as the global superpower than the U.S. However, while the West forebodes the return of Russia and China to greater standing, you can be certain its real fear lies elsewhere. The fact that Chernobyl and Stranger Things are as preoccupied with portraying socialism in a bad light as they are in rendering Moscow nefarious shows the real underlying trepidation of the ruling elite that concerns the resurgence of class consciousness. The West must learn its lesson that its state of perpetual war has caused its own downfall or it could attempt a last line of defense that would inevitably conscript all of humanity to its death as the ruling class nearly did to the world in 1914 and 1939.

The American Gulag

The exile of prisoners to a distant place, where they can ‘pay their debt to society,’ make themselves useful, and not contaminate others with their ideas or their criminal acts, is a practice as old as civilization itself. The rulers of ancient Rome and Greece sent their dissidents off to distant colonies. Socrates chose death over the torment of exile from Athens. The poet Ovid was exiled to a fetid port on the Black Sea.”

— Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, 2003

This is how freedom dies.

This is how you condition a populace to life as prisoners in a police state: by brainwashing them into believing they are free so that they will march in lockstep with the state and be incapable of recognizing the prison walls that surround them.

Face the facts: we are no longer free.

We in the American Police State may enjoy the illusion of freedom, but that is all it is: an elaborate deception, rooted in denial and delusion, that hides the grasping, greedy, power-hungry, megalomaniacal force that lurks beneath the surface.

Brick by brick, the prison walls being erected around us by the government and its corporate partners-in-crime grow more oppressive and more pervasive by the day.

Brick by brick, we are finding there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

Brick by brick, we are being walled in, locked down and locked up.

That’s the curious thing about walls: they not only keep those on the outside from getting in, they also keep those on the inside from getting out.

Consider, if you will, some of the “bricks” in the police state’s wall that serve to imprison the citizenry: Red flag gun laws that strip citizens of their rights based on the flimsiest of pretexts concocted by self-serving politicians. Overcriminalization resulting in jail time for nonviolent offenses such as feeding stray cats and buying foreign honey. Military training drills—showy exercises in armed intimidation—and live action “role playing” between soldiers and “freedom fighters” staged in small rural communities throughout the country. Profit-driven speed and red light cameras that do little for safety while padding the pockets of government agencies. Overt surveillance that turns citizens into suspects.

Police-run facial recognition software that mistakenly labels law-abiding citizens as criminals. Punitive programs that strip citizens of their passports and right to travel over unpaid taxes. Government agents that view segments of the populace as “subhuman” and treat them accordingly. A social credit system (similar to China’s) that rewards behavior deemed “acceptable” and punishes behavior the government and its corporate allies find offensive, illegal or inappropriate.

These are just a small sampling of the oppressive measures used by the government to control and constrict the American people.

What these despotic tactics add up to is an authoritarian prison in every sense of the word.

Granted this prison may not appear as overtly bleak as the soul-destroying gulags described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago, but that’s just a matter of aesthetics.

Strip away the surface embellishments and you’ll find the core is no less sinister than that of the gulags of the Cold War-era Soviet Union.

Those gulags, according to historian Anne Applebaum, used as a form of “administrative exile—which required no trial and no sentencing procedure—was an ideal punishment not only for troublemakers as such, but also for political opponents of the regime.”

The word “gulag” refers to a labor or concentration camp where prisoners (oftentimes political prisoners or so-called “enemies of the state,” real or imagined) were imprisoned as punishment for their crimes against the state. As Applebaum explains:

Over time, the word “Gulag” has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat-grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was such a political prisoner.

For the crime of daring to criticize Stalin in a private letter to a school friend, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and sentenced to eight years in exile in a labor camp.

That was before psychiatry paved the way for totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union to declare dissidents mentally ill and consign political prisoners to prisons disguised as psychiatric hospitals, where they could be isolated from the rest of society, their ideas discredited, and subjected to electric shocks, drugs and various medical procedures to break them physically and mentally.

In addition to declaring political dissidents mentally unsound, government officials in the Cold War-era Soviet Union also made use of an administrative process for dealing with individuals who were considered a bad influence on others or troublemakers. Author George Kennan describes a process in which:

The obnoxious person may not be guilty of any crime . . . but if, in the opinion of the local authorities, his presence in a particular place is “prejudicial to public order” or “incompatible with public tranquility,” he may be arrested without warrant, may be held from two weeks to two years in prison, and may then be removed by force to any other place within the limits of the empire and there be put under police surveillance for a period of from one to ten years.

Warrantless seizures, surveillance, indefinite detention, isolation, exile… sound familiar?

It should.

The age-old practice by which despotic regimes eliminate their critics or potential adversaries by making them disappear—or forcing them to flee—or exiling them literally or figuratively or virtually from their fellow citizens—is happening with increasing frequency in America.

We saw it happen with Julian Assange. With Edward Snowden. With Bradley Manning.

They, too, were exiled for daring to challenge the powers-that-be.

It happened to 26-year-old decorated Marine Brandon Raub, who was targeted because of his Facebook posts, interrogated by government agents about his views on government corruption, arrested with no warning, labeled mentally ill for subscribing to so-called “conspiratorial” views about the government, detained against his will in a psych ward for standing by his views, and isolated from his family, friends and attorneys.

Raub’s case exposed the seedy underbelly of a governmental system that is targeting Americans—especially military veterans—for expressing their discontent over America’s rapid transition to a police state.

Now, through the use of red flag laws, behavioral threat assessments, and pre-crime policing prevention programs, the government is laying the groundwork that would allow it to weaponize the label of mental illness as a means of exiling those whistleblowers, dissidents and freedom fighters who refuse to march in lockstep with its dictates.

That the government is using the charge of mental illness as the means by which to immobilize (and disarm) its critics is diabolically brilliant. With one stroke of a magistrate’s pen, these individuals are declared mentally ill, locked away against their will, and stripped of their constitutional rights.

These developments are merely the realization of various U.S. government initiatives dating back to 2009, including one dubbed Operation Vigilant Eagle which calls for surveillance of military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, characterizing them as extremists and potential domestic terrorist threats because they may be “disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war.”

Coupled with the report on “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” issued by the Department of Homeland Security (curiously enough, a Soviet term), which broadly defines right wing extremists as individuals and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely,” these tactics bode ill for anyone seen as opposing the government. Although these initiatives caused an initial uproar when announced in 2009, they were quickly subsumed by the ever-shifting cacophony of the news media and its ten-day cycles.

Yet while the American public may have forgotten about the government’s plans to identify and disable anyone deemed a potential “threat,” the government has put its plan into action.

Thus, what began as a blueprint under the Bush administration has become an operation manual under the Obama and Trump administrations to exile those who are challenging the government’s authority.

An important point to consider, however, is that the government is not merely targeting individuals who are voicing their discontent so much as it is locking up individuals trained in military warfare who are voicing feelings of discontent.

Under the guise of mental health treatment and with the complicity of government psychiatrists and law enforcement officials, these veterans are increasingly being portrayed as ticking time bombs in need of intervention.

For instance, the Justice Department launched a pilot program aimed at training SWAT teams to deal with confrontations involving highly trained and often heavily armed combat veterans.

One tactic being used to deal with so-called “mentally ill suspects who also happen to be trained in modern warfare” is through the use of civil commitment laws, found in all states and employed throughout American history to not only silence but cause dissidents to disappear.

For example, in 2006, NSA officials attempted to label former employee Russ Tice, who was willing to testify in Congress about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, as “mentally unbalanced” based upon two psychiatric evaluations ordered by his superiors.

In 2009, NYPD Officer Adrian Schoolcraft had his home raided, and he was handcuffed to a gurney and taken into emergency custody for an alleged psychiatric episode. It was later discovered by way of an internal investigation that his superiors were retaliating against him for reporting police misconduct. Schoolcraft spent six days in the mental facility, and as a further indignity, was presented with a bill for $7,185 upon his release.

In 2012, it was Virginia’s civil commitment law that was used to justify arresting and detaining Marine Brandon Raub—a 9/11 truther—in a psychiatric ward based on posts he had made on his Facebook page that were critical of the government.

Incredibly, in Virginia alone, over 20,000 people annually are forced into psychiatric wards by way of so-called Emergency Custody Orders and civil commitment procedures.

Each state has its own set of civil, or involuntary, commitment laws. These laws are extensions of two legal principles: parens patriae Parens patriae (Latin for “parent of the country”), which allows the government to intervene on behalf of citizens who cannot act in their own best interest, and police power, which requires a state to protect the interests of its citizens.

The fusion of these two principles, coupled with a shift towards a dangerousness standard, has resulted in a Nanny State mindset carried out with the militant force of the Police State.

The problem, of course, is that the diagnosis of mental illness, while a legitimate concern for some Americans, has over time become a convenient means by which the government and its corporate partners can penalize certain “unacceptable” social behaviors.

In fact, in recent years, we have witnessed the pathologizing of individuals who resist authority as suffering from oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), defined as “a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior toward authority figures.” Under such a definition, every activist of note throughout our history—from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.—could be classified as suffering from an ODD mental disorder.

Of course, this is all part of a larger trend in American governance whereby dissent is criminalized and pathologized, and dissenters are censored, silenced, declared unfit for society, labelled dangerous or extremist, or turned into outcasts and exiled.

Red flag gun laws, growing in popularity as a legislative means by which to seize guns from individuals viewed as a danger to themselves or others, are a perfect example of this mindset at work. “We need to stop dangerous people before they act”: that’s the rationale behind the NRA’s support of these red flag laws, and at first glance, it appears to be perfectly reasonable to want to disarm individuals who are clearly suicidal and/or pose an “immediate danger” to themselves or others.

Where the problem arises, of course, is when you put the power to determine who is a potential danger in the hands of government agencies, the courts and the police.

Remember, this is the same government that uses the words “anti-government,” “extremist” and “terrorist” interchangeably.

This is the same government whose agents are spinning a sticky spider-web of threat assessments, behavioral sensing warnings, flagged “words,” and “suspicious” activity reports using automated eyes and ears, social media, behavior sensing software, and citizen spies to identify potential threats.

This is the same government that keeps re-upping the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows the military to detain American citizens with no access to friends, family or the courts if the government believes them to be a threat.

This is the same government that has a growing list—shared with fusion centers and law enforcement agencies—of ideologies, behaviors, affiliations and other characteristics that could flag someone as suspicious and result in their being labeled potential enemies of the state.

This is the same government that has, along with its corporate counterparts (Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.), made it abundantly clear at all levels (whether it be the FBI, NSA, local police, school personnel, etc.) that they want no one challenging their authority.

This is a government that pays lip service to the nation’s freedom principles while working overtime to shred the Constitution.

Yes, this is a prison, all right.

Thus, for those who take to the streets to constitutionally express their opinions and beliefs, rows of riot police, clad in jackboots, military vests, and helmets, holding batons, stun guns, assault rifles, and sometimes even grenade launchers, are there to keep them in line.

For those who take to social media to express their opinions and beliefs, squadrons of AI censors are there to shadow-ban them and keep them in line.

As for that wall President Trump keeps promising to build, it’s already being built, one tyranny at a time, transforming our constitutional republic into a carceral state.

Yet be warned: in a carceral state, there are only two kinds of people: the prisoners and the prison guards.

In a carceral state—a.k.a. a prison state or a police state—there is no difference between the treatment meted out to a law-abiding citizen and a convicted felon: both are equally suspect and treated as criminals, without any of the special rights and privileges reserved for the governing elite.

With every new law enacted by federal and state legislatures, every new ruling handed down by government courts, and every new military weapon, invasive tactic and egregious protocol employed by government agents, “we the people”—the prisoners of the American police state—are being pushed that much further into a corner, our backs against the prison wall.

This concept of a carceral state in which we possess no rights except for that which the government grants on an as-needed basis is the only way I can begin to comprehend, let alone articulate, the irrational, surreal, topsy-turvy, through-the-looking-glass state of affairs that is being imposed upon us in America today.

As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we who pretend we are free are no different from those who spend their lives behind bars.

You see, by gradually whittling away at our freedoms—free speech, assembly, due process, privacy, etc.—the government has, in effect, liberated itself from its contractual agreement to respect the constitutional rights of the citizenry while resetting the calendar back to a time when we had no Bill of Rights to protect us from the long arm of the government.

Aided and abetted by the legislatures, the courts and Corporate America, the government has been busily rewriting the contract (a.k.a. the Constitution) that establishes the citizenry as the masters and agents of the government as the servants. We are now only as good as we are useful, and our usefulness is calculated on an economic scale by how much we are worth—in terms of profit and resale value—to our “owners.”

Under the new terms of this revised, one-sided agreement, the government and its many operatives have all the privileges and rights and “we the prisoners” have none.