The ruins carpeted the city market, rippling outwards in waves of destruction. Broken beams, collapsed roofs, exploded metal shutters and fossilized merchandise crumbled underfoot.
In one of the burnt-out shells of the shops where raisins, nuts, fabrics, incense and stone pots were traded for hundreds of years, all that was to be found was a box of coke bottles, a sofa and a child nailing wooden sticks together.
This is Sa’ada, ground zero of the 20-month Saudi campaign in Yemen, a largely forgotten conflict that has killed more than 10,000, uprooted 3 million and left more than half the country short of food, many on the brink of starvation.
— Gaith Abdul-Ahad in The Guardian,12/9/16
Yemen stands as the worst-threatened of four countries where impending famine conditions have been said to comprise the single-worst humanitarian crisis since the founding of the U.N. On May 2nd, 2017, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published a grim infographic detailing conditions inYemen where 17 million Yemenis — or around 60 percent of the population — are unable to access food.
The U.S. and its allies continue to bomb Yemen.
Jan Egeland, who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), says that seven million Yemeni people are on the brink of famine. “I am shocked to my bones,” said Egeland, following a five day visit to Yemen. “The world is letting some 7 million men, women and children slowly but surely be engulfed…” Egeland blames this catastrophe on “men with guns and power in regional and international capitals who undermine every effort to avert an entirely preventable famine, as well as the collapse of health and educational services for millions of children.” Egeland and the NRC call on all parties to the conflict, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, the U.S. and the U.K. to negotiate a cease fire.
This weekend, the situation stands poised to become dramatically worse with the apparently imminent bombing, by Saudi Arabia, one of the U.S.’ closest allies, of the aid lifeline which is the port of Hodeida.
Egeland stresses the vital importance of keeping humanitarian aid flowing through Hodeida, a port which stands mere days or hours from destruction. “The Saudi-led, Western-backed military coalition has threatened to attack the port,” said Egeland, “which would likely destroy it and cut supplies to millions of hungry civilians.” U.S. congress people demanding a stay on destruction of the port have as yet won no concessions from the Saudi or U.S governments.
The U.S. Government has as yet sounded no note of particular urgency about ending or suspending the conflict, nor has its close ally in the Saudi dictatorship. Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently gave “a positive view of the war in Yemen.” (New York Times, May 2, 2017). He believes that Saudi forces could quickly uproot the Houthi rebels, but rather than endanger Saudi troops he says “the coalition is waiting for the rebels to tire out.”
“Time is in our favor,” he added.
Even if Hodeida is spared, reduced import levels of food and fuel from the Saudi-imposed naval blockade puts the price of desperately needed essentials beyond the reach of the poorest. Meanwhile prolonged conflict, dragged out by a regime that feels “time is on its side” and punctuated by deadly airstrikes, has displaced the needy to those areas where food insecurity is the highest.
Refugees from three North African countries where conflict is also threatening to impose terrible famine have Yemen on their route to escaping the continent, so they have fled conflict and famine only to be trapped in the worst of this dreadful year’s arriving tragedies.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, describes the present situation, two years since Saudi airstrikes escalated the conflict:
“The violent deaths of refugees fleeing yet another war, of fishermen, of families in marketplaces – this is what the conflict in Yemen looks like two years after it began…utterly terrible, with little apparent regard for civilian lives and infrastructure.
“The fighting in Hodeida has left thousands of civilians trapped – as was the case in Al Mokha in February – and has already compromised badly-needed deliveries of humanitarian assistance. Two years of wanton violence and bloodshed, thousands of deaths and millions of people desperate for their basic rights to food, water, health and security – enough is enough. I urge all parties to the conflict, and those with influence, to work urgently towards a full ceasefire to bring this disastrous conflict to an end, and to facilitate rather than block the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
Time is on no-one’s side as regards the crisis in Yemen. As nightmare visions of living skeletons with bloated bellies and pleading eyes once more appear on the planet’s TV screens, we in the U.S. will have missed a vital chance to avert a world in which untold millions are to be shocked to their bones.
‘Here’s a response to the latest attempt by @medialens to dismiss the mounting evidence on the authorship of the #KhanSheikhoun attack’
This is a very serious misrepresentation of what we have argued in two media alerts. We made our position crystal-clear in the latest alert:
We have no idea who was responsible for the mass killings in Idlib on April 4; we are not weapons experts. But it seems obvious to us that arguments and evidence offered by credible sources like Postol should at least be aired by the mass media.
To interpret this as an attempt to ‘dismiss the mounting evidence on the authorship of the #KhanSheikhoun attack’ is to exactly reverse the truth, which is frankly outrageous from a high-profile Guardian journalist. We are precisely calling for journalists to not dismiss evidence on the authorship of the alleged attack. This is why we quoted investigative reporter Robert Parry:
The role of an honest press corps should be to apply skepticism to all official stories, not carry water for “our side” and reject anything coming from the “other side,” which is what The New York Times, The Washington Post and the rest of the Western mainstream media have done, especially regarding Middle East policies and now the New Cold War with Russia.
We have most certainly not urged anyone to ‘dismiss’ the White House version of events. We have asked journalists to consider that version as well as evidence offered by credible critics like former UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Scott Ritter, and by investigative journalists like Parry. We are clearly arguing in favour of inclusion of evidence, not exclusion. Monbiot has simply reversed the truth. In an expanded version of his tweeted response titled, ‘Disavowal’, he writes:
There’s an element on the left that seems determined to produce a mirror image of the Washington Consensus. Just as the billionaire press and Western governments downplay and deny the crimes of their allies, so this element downplays and denies the crimes of the West’s official enemies.
We have no interest in downplaying or denying any crimes. We hold no candle whatever for Assad or Putin, as we held no candle for Milosevic, Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. We are simply urging journalists to consider both ‘Washington Consensus’ arguments and serious counter-arguments offered by credible sources. Monbiot writes:
The pattern is always the same. They ignore a mountain of compelling evidence and latch onto one or a few contrarians who tell them what they want to hear (a similar pattern to the 9/11 conspiracy theories, and to climate change denial). The lastest [sic] example is an “alert” published by an organisation called Media Lens, in response to a tweet of mine.
Our latest alert was not ‘in response’ to Monbiot’s tweet; it was in response to Professor Postol’s analysis challenging a White House report on the alleged attacks in Idlib. We simply used Monbiot’s tweet as a typical example indicating what we described as the ‘corporate media zeitgeist’.
Is it reasonable to describe Postol, one of the world’s ‘leading weapons experts’, according to the New York Times, as a ‘contrarian’? Is Hans Blix, who led the weapons inspections team in Iraq in 2002-2003, a ‘contrarian’? How about former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who was 100% vindicated by the failure to find WMD in Iraq? Can Noam Chomsky also be dismissed as merely a ‘contrarian’ following a ‘pattern’ which is ‘always the same’? Chomsky commented recently:
Well, there are some interesting questions there — you can understand why Assad would have been pretty crazy [to provoke a US intervention] because they’re winning the war. The worst thing for him is to bring the United States in. So why would he turn to a chemical weapons attack? You can imagine that a dictator with just local interests might do it, maybe if he thought he had a green light. But why would the Russians allow it? It doesn’t make any sense. And in fact, there are some questions about what happened, but there are some pretty credible people — not conspiracy types — people with solid intelligence credentials that say it didn’t happen.
Lawrence Wilkerson said that the US intelligence picked up a plane and followed that it probably hit an Al-Qaeda warehouse which had some sort of chemical weapon stored in it and they spread. I don’t know. But it certainly calls for at least an investigation. And those are not insignificant people [challenging the official narrative].
We are saying no more or less than this – it calls for at least an investigation.
Chomsky pointed to comments made by Wilkerson, former chief of staff to General Colin Powell, in a recent interview on the Real News Network:
I personally think the provocation was a Tonkin Gulf incident….. Most of my sources are telling me, including members of the team that monitors global chemical weapons –including people in Syria, including people in the US Intelligence Community–that what most likely happened …was that they hit a warehouse that they had intended to hit…and this warehouse was alleged to have to [sic] ISIS supplies in it, and… some of those supplies were precursors for chemicals….. conventional bombs hit the warehouse, and due to a strong wind, and the explosive power of the bombs, they dispersed these ingredients and killed some people.’
There is also the collective judgment of 20 former members of the US Intelligence Community, the Steering Group of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity:
Our U.S. Army contacts in the area have told us this is not what happened. There was no Syrian “chemical weapons attack.” Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died…..This is what the Russians and Syrians have been saying and – more important –what they appear to believe happened.
Monbiot’s ‘one or a few contrarians’ include all of the above, plus journalists John Pilger, Jonathan Cook, Peter Hitchens, Gareth Porter, Philip Giraldi, and others. They also include Piers Robinson, Professor of Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the University of Sheffield, who responded to our request for a comment:
Monbiot supports the official narrative that the Assad regime is responsible for the April 4 event when it is alleged that Assad’s forces launched a chemical weapon attack on civilians. He is presenting this as factually correct even though some credible commentators have raised questions regarding these claims and whilst there remains a lack of compelling evidence. In a recent posting Monbiot quotes recent French intelligence service claims regarding Assad’s guilt in this matter.
The problem here is that there are substantial grounds for remaining cautious of official claims. It is no secret that Western governments and key allies of theirs (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) have been seeking the overthrow of Assad for many years now. Indeed, the recently published Chilcot Inquiry, in section 3.1, revealed discussions between Blair and Bush which indicate that Syria was considered a potential target straight after 9/11. Given these objectives it is entirely plausible that Western intelligence services might be manipulating information so as to generate the impression that the Assad regime is responsible. Indeed, this kind of propaganda was well documented in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq when weak intelligence was used by US and British politicians to justify their certainty that Iraq possessed WMD. These are all very good reasons for journalists and commentators to ask challenging questions rather than to dismiss out of hand any such attempts in the way Monbiot does. (Email to Media Lens, May 3, 2017)
Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory at Edinburgh University, has also responded to Monbiot’s piece here:
There are serious unsettled questions about every aspect of the incident, not only the anomalies concerning time of incident, identity of victims, causes of death, role of White Helmets, and about whose interests it served, but also concerning the forensic evidence itself.
In a tweeted response, he repeated his opinion that people like me, who question it, are denying a mountain of evidence.
So to state a point that should not need stating: to question is not to deny – although nor is it to affirm. It is to seek knowledge and understanding. Being less impressed than George by the quantity of data presented as evidence, I have only ever commented on its quality.
Hayward adds that in Monbiot’s latest post: ‘he has entrenched more deeply his defence of the NATO narrative’.
Monbiot says ‘the pattern is always the same’. In fact, there is indeed a pattern of ‘mainstream’ media insisting on the need for war in response to unproven claims that are often later debunked. We gave several examples in our first alert on the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Idlib. It is absurd for Monbiot to wearily dismiss our ‘pattern’, when our scepticism over claims made on Iraq and Libya – and numerous other issues, over many years – has so obviously been justified. Again, our problem is with the refusal of ‘mainstream’ media to report or discuss the opinions of credible experts challenging government claims. Back to Monbiot:
As it happens, just as Media Lens published its article, the French intelligence agency released a new report, which adds substantially to the growing – and, you would hope, un-ignorable – weight of evidence strongly suggesting that the Assad government was responsible:
Doubtless the French government will now be added to the list of conspirators.
We have not argued for any kind of conspiracy – perhaps the US, UK and French governments all agree because they have seen the same evidence and are correct in their apportioning of blame. We don’t know; we are not weapons experts. Our point is that if journalists like Monbiot are serious about establishing the truth, they will test the French government and other claims against the arguments and evidence offered by dissidents. They will consider the different claims, and come to some kind of informed conclusion. What is not acceptable is that journalists should simply accept as Truth arguments made by Western governments openly seeking regime change in Syria and that have a spectacular track record of lying about claims supposedly justifying war.
For the record, I oppose Western military intervention in Syria. I believe it is likely only to make a dreadful situation worse. I believe that the best foreign governments can do at the moment is to provide humanitarian relief, seek to broker negotiated settlements and accept refugees from the horrors inflicted by all sides in that nation.
I have no agenda here other than to ensure that the reality suffered by the people of Khan Sheikhoun is not denied. The survivors of the chemical weapons attack are among the key witnesses to the fact that the weapons were delivered by air – it is their testimony as well as that of investigators that is being dismissed by people who would prefer to deny that the Assad government could have been responsible.
Again, we are not arguing for any evidence or testimony to be ‘dismissed’. We are arguing for counter-arguments to be admitted and considered by a press that is supposed to be objective, neutral and fair. Monbiot adds:
When people allow geopolitical considerations to displace both a reasoned assessment of the evidence and a principled humanitarianism, they mirror the doctrines of people such as Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair. The victims become an abstraction, a political tool whose purpose is to serve an agenda. That this agenda stands in opposition to the objectives of people like Kissinger and Blair does not justify the exercise.
This is really outrageous. We are not mirroring, but exactly opposing, the positions adopted by the likes of Kissinger and Blair. They, of course, were strongly against fair consideration of all the available evidence. Blair, for example, did everything he could to manufacture a case for war on Iraq by manipulating and hyping evidence, and by keeping evidence exposing his fake case for war from public view. In responding to Monbiot, former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook is able to understand the point that somehow eludes Monbiot:
We need more debate about the evidence, not less of it. Postol, Blix and Ritter may be wrong. But they should have a fair hearing and their arguments should be fully aired in the mainstream – especially, in supposedly liberal media outlets like the Guardian. Anyone who wants to understand what happened in Idlib must also want a vigorous and open debate that most members of the public will have access to.’ (Our emphasis)
And, in fact, Postol was wrong in his April 27 misreading of the French intelligence report on the Idlib incident. He quickly issued a correction and has subsequently poured scorn on the French claims.
The implications should be obvious. If we deny crimes against humanity, or deny the evidence pointing to the authorship of these crimes, we deny the humanity of the victims. Aren’t we supposed to be better than this? If we do not support the principle of universalism – human rights and justice for everyone, regardless of their identity or the identity of those who oppress them – what are we for?
We agree but for reasons Monbiot would probably not understand. When we admit only the view of Western governments and agencies supporting their position, and ignore the evidence of courageous whistleblowers and dissidents, we are risking the lives of people in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. When those of us promoting inclusion of evidence are smeared as ‘deniers’, then we are in a sorry state indeed. Asking awkward questions is not a Thought Crime.
A few years ago, Monbiot had what he believed was a brilliant, revelatory insight: that the left is marred by a ‘malign intellectual subculture’, comprised of Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, John Pilger and others, including us, that is as blinkered and intellectually dishonest as the ‘libertarian right’. The left also sees only what it wants to see. Monbiot was able to grasp this because, as he says:
I’ve long prided myself on being able to handle more reality than most…
The perfect irony is that, to cling to this view of the ‘malign’ subculture, Monbiot has had to turn his own blinkered eye to the many times the left’s sceptical response to state-corporate claims justifying war has been vindicated. Saddam Hussein did not ‘expel’ weapons inspectors prior to bombing in December 1998, as claimed. He did not deliberately attempt to worsen the effects of sanctions by obstructing UN food supplies. He was not involved in the September 11 attacks and did not have links to al-Qaeda. He did not attempt to hide WMD that he did not have. Gaddafi did not fuel mass rape with Viagra, he did not use African mercenaries, and there is no evidence that he was planning a massacre in Benghazi. The ‘pattern’ of the left questioning these claims is something to celebrate, not disavow.
The Canadian media has mostly ignored recent Palestinian efforts to non-violently disrupt a half-century old occupation. They’ve barely reported on a prisoners’ hunger strike and associated solidarity protests, let alone Canada’s effort to suppress “popular protests” in the West Bank.
Around 1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons have been on hunger strike since April 17. In the occupied West Bank thousands of protesters have taken to the streets and gone on strike in solidarity with the 6,500 Palestinians currently imprisoned by Israel. The issue resonates with Palestinians since Israel has arrested 40% of the West Bank’s male population — 800,000 people — since 1967.
The hunger strike is directed at the occupying regime, but, it’s also a challenge to the “subcontractor of the Occupation” – the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Mahmoud Abbas. Ramzy Baround labelled it “a revolt within Fatah against their disengaged leadership, and a frantic attempt by all Palestinians to demonstrate their ability to destabilize the Israeli-American-PA matrix of control.” Nazareth-based commentator Jonathan Cook points out that Abbas wants the hunger strike to end since it threatens his negotiations with Donald Trump and “tight security cooperation with Israel.”
Growing opposition to PA security coordination with Israel is an important backdrop to the hunger strike and recent protests. For years PA security forces have been providing information to Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency and Israel often arrests Palestinian activists after they’ve been released from PA detention. Israeli soldiers recent assassination of prominent activist Basel al-Araj, after being released from PA detention, sparked protests against PA security cooperation with Israel. In mid-March Amnesty International criticized a PA security assault that hospitalized 17 Palestinians protesting security cooperation with Israel after al-Araj’s death.
Like all colonial authorities throughout history, Israel has looked to compliant locals to take up the occupation’s security burden. What is unique about the PA security forces’ operations are their international ties. In a 2011 story detailing how PA security “undermine efforts by Palestinians to challenge the occupation”, Adam Shatz writes: “It is an extraordinary arrangement: the security forces of a country under occupation are being subcontracted by third parties outside the region to prevent resistance to the occupying power, even as that power continues to grab more land.”
Since the mid-2000s Palestinian security forces have been trained by US, British and Canadian troops and police at the US-built International Police Training Center in Jordan (established to train Iraqi security after the 2003 invasion). Part of the US Security Coordinator office in Jerusalem, the Canadian military mission in the West Bank also trains and aids Palestinian security forces. Dubbed Operation Proteus, Canada’s involvement includes Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers as well as officials from the foreign ministry, Justice Canada and the Canadian Border Services Agency. In a September 2010 interview with The Jerusalem Post, minister of state for foreign affairs Peter Kent said Operation Proteus was Canada’s “second largest deployment after Afghanistan” and it received “most of the money” from a five-year $300 million Canadian “aid” program to the PA.
With little media attention, over the past decade tens (possibly hundreds) of millions of dollars in Canadian aid money has gone to training and supporting a Palestinian security force that serves as an arm of Israel’s occupation. Internal government documents unearthed by Postmedia’s Lee Berthiaume confirm that as the overriding objective of Canada’s $300 million five-year aid program to the Palestinians.
“There have been increasing references in the past months during high-level bilateral meetings with the Israelis about the importance and value they place on Canada’s assistance to the Palestinian Authority, most notably in security/justice reform,” read a November 2012 note signed by former Canadian International Development Agency president Margaret Biggs. “The Israelis have noted the importance of Canada’s contribution to the relative stability achieved through extensive security co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” The heavily censored note suggests the goal of Canadian “aid” was to protect a corrupt Mahmoud Abbas, whose electoral mandate expired in 2009, from popular backlash. Biggs explained that “the emergence of popular protests on the Palestinian street against the Palestinian Authority is worrying and the Israelis have been imploring the international donor community to continue to support the Palestinian Authority.”
Berthiaume effectively confirmed that Canadian aid money is used to train a Palestinian security force to serve as an arm of Israel’s occupation, but this startling information has simply been sent down the memory hole. While Berthiaume’s article was published in a number of Postmedia papers, there was no commentary in a major paper or follow-up stories about Biggs’ internal note or Operation Proteus (with the exception of stories in small town papers covering individual police or soldiers leaving for the mission).
Two years before Berthiaume’s revelation I emailed Globe and Mail Middle East correspondent Patrick Martin about Canada’s aid/military mission to support Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. I wrote, “Hi Pat, not sure if you saw Peter Kent’s comment on Operation Proteus, Canada’s military mission in the West Bank. In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post Kent dubbed Proteus Canada’s ‘second largest deployment after Afghanistan’ and said it receives ‘most of the money’ from a five-year $300 million Canadian aid program to the Palestinians. It’s an issue that has barely been discussed and I thought it might interest you. Below is a piece I recently wrote partly on it.” Martin responded, “it’s a good idea”, but the Globe has yet to publish anything on Operation Proteus or Biggs’ comment that Canadian aid to the PA was designed to suppress “popular protest” by a people suffering under a 50-year illegal occupation. (During John Baird’s 2012 trip to Ramallah Martin quoted the then foreign minister saying Canada was “incredibly thrilled” by the West Bank security situation, which Baird said benefited Israel).
It’s not too late for the Globe and other media to cover Canada’s role in suppressing “popular protests” in the West Bank. Operation Proteus continues with Brigadier-General Conrad Joseph John Mialkowski recently appointed the new head of the military mission. When Canada’s five-year aid package to the PA concluded in 2013 the Stephan Harper government extended it and the government’s website says $30 million was dispersed to Palestinians in 2014–15 (the last year cited).
The Canadian media should cover the prisoners’ hunger strike and its challenge to PA security cooperation with Israel. Even better, it ought to report on Canada’s role in entrenching Israel’s 50-year-old occupation.
In the agitated August of 1968, the myopic Soviet Union rolled its drab tank platoons into Czechoslovakia, crushing a spontaneous outbreak of free speech and self-determination known as the Prague Spring. Far away, perhaps cloistered in some poet’s atelier, W.H. Auden scripted his impressions from a distance:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
— “August 1968”
Auden’s swift and masterful portrait of the autocratic state imagined the Soviet state as Czech citizens surely saw it, though not as inhabitants of the Kremlin saw the monolith whose gears they so crudely engineered. Today the Ogre has relocated, no longer a habitué of Moscow and its onion-shaped domes, but of Washington and its own drab neoclassical domes and pedestals. It peers out of its labyrinth not at the Moskva River but the Potomac.
Propaganda as Projection
Today, U.S. foreign policy is the Ogre, a narcissistic psychopath for whom the mainstream media (MSM) is the mirror it glances in every morning to confirm its noble visage. Normally, the image reflected back to the onlooker confirms its identity: a judicious paternal chaperon of the new world order, guided in most cases by noblesse oblige, in rare instances by humanitarian concern, a felt responsibility to protect, and–it goes without saying–an overarching wish to impart democratic values to benighted tribes in various global backwaters. When in the rare instance that the mirror gives a glimpse of the ogre shrouded behind that mask of altruism (a stray truth-telling editorial in the Boston Globe, for instance), the shock is minimal. It is simply a question of optics. The lighting is poor, the wardrobe needs updating, the mirror itself is warped. At no point is there the slightest trace of self-recognition. All the qualities at the bristling core of the reflected cyclops—the obsession with power, the avarice, the bloodlust, the fearmongering, the compartmentalization, and the blindness—have been projected onto the perceived enemy, who then becomes the perfect replica of the Ogre itself.
The Media as Mirror-Image
In 2014, then Secretary of State John Kerry described Russian President Vladimir Putin thusly to the Wall Street Journal, “You almost feel that he’s creating his own reality, and his own sort of world, divorced from a lot of what’s real on the ground for all those people, including people in his own country.” He also said of Russia after it had reintegrated Crimea into the Russian Federation, “You just don’t, in the twenty-first century, behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” Kerry uttered neither of these comments with the slightest trace of irony or self-awareness. They were characterized by the now tiresome American quality of earnestness. An earnestness purblind to its own hypocrisies, in large part because the titular journalists that are on the receiving end of these bombshells refuse to deliver even the most meager of rebukes. Rather they nod, smile, reaffirm, compound, and ask benevolently for more. Instead of a reflective glass, the media are supposed to be the fourth estate, that institution tasked with holding power to account, which is a laughable proposition in the 21st century, when nearly every overt war or covert intervention has been cheer-led, mischaracterized, or unreported by the armchair courtiers tasked with showing the Ogre what he wants to see. You’ll rarely see the kind of gloves-off honesty you sometimes see in the movies or on Netflix, like Jeff Daniels’ cynical news anchor in Newsroom, finally cracking and telling a bubbly patriot that, “When you ask why America is the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Instead, when inconvenient facts slip through the filter, the corridors of power do not become halls of self-reflection, where the managers of bureaucracy pause the wheels of the machine and take stock of their strategy. Rather those corridors are flooded with consultants, each brandishing a fresh storyline that will restore the internal coherence of the narrative of manifest destiny, by which America would lay claim to the wealth of the world. Branding democracy has often preceded changing policy as a method of crisis resolution, as the Bush administration attempted in its failed in-country rebrand of Iraq policy. What the Bush administration failed to understand is that, like the Democrats in the 2016 election, “perception management” is far more difficult in the domestic arena because the target audience actively experiences the impact of government policy. Iraqis, like working class Americans, largely rejected attempts to recalibrate their perception of reality. When propagandizing a domestic audience on foreign policy, however, perception management is easier because the domestic population doesn’t experience the impact of policy firsthand, only through on-the-ground reporting. And their understanding of actual events can be reshaped by a media that reimagines the motivations for foreign policy action: instead of imperial aggression, actions can be recast as self-defense or nobly defending vulnerable allies. This can generally secure popular support, or indifference.
It is a fairly simple task. All one must do, as Adolf Hitler never tired of reminding his acolytes, is to make sure the masses are never presented with more than a single enemy. Focus their malleable minds with singular intensity, as Hitler biographer Joachim Fest wrote, “…upon a single phenomenon as the presumptive cause of the evils in the world…a specifically imaginable figure, never any elusive cluster of causes.”
As an empire, this is best achieved by projecting all of one’s faults onto some innocuous character pulled from the swelling ranks of proletarian nations. Ideally some colonial ruin now struggling to police its borders, feed its people, and conjure some notion of national purpose. However, sometimes actual world powers must be comprehensively demonized in order to prime the national consciousness for any manner of dangerously aggressive action, to be characterized as defensive. This is the case with Russia. Notice how the myriad complexities of its behaviors have been rolled like a piece of clay into a perfectly odious but psychologically digestible image of evil. This demented projection developed in the hermetically-sealed bubble of the beltway is then transcribed and replicated in a million television tickers, mobile alerts, and bite-sized summaries for the news-curious electorate.
Just consider the Ukraine. There Russia must be made to appear to be an absolute aggressor, having apparently invaded and annexed Crimea; and an inveterate meddler, having evidently and clandestinely funneled soldiers and weapons into Donbass; and a poor and untrustworthy negotiator, having apparently been unable to keep ceasefires in check. All of this can be chalked up to some underlying imperial impulse in the Slavic character, perhaps phrased in a more genteel fashion, so as not to needlessly awaken any social justice warriors. All other possible Russian motivations must be uniformly elided from view. No mention need be or can be made of the association agreement with the European Union that former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected, or the competing offer he favored from Moscow, or the importance of the federation’s sole naval port at Sevastopol, or the billions Washington poured into Ukraine this decade to effect a change in rule, or the U.S.-fomented neo-fascist putsch in Kiev, or the reasons why a civil war broke out in the country immediately afterward, or how Minsk Accords were used by Kiev to rearm, or the ethnic character of Eastern Ukraine, or the plebiscite that signaled that region’s desire to reunite with Russia, or the predictably disastrous surge in utility prices once the association agreement was finally penned with the EU, or the new regime’s open butchery of its own citizens in Odessa, or the geostrategic importance of Ukraine as a thoroughfare for energy to Europe, or its coveted heavy industry. Isn’t it so much easier for the lazy journalist with an obsequious desire to repeat the state’s talking points to simply sweep all such exhaustingly complicated matters aside and sketch a crude image of an ogre casting a dark shadow over Europe, his gaze appetitive, his mouth drooling, his eyes supercilious, his claws clutching cruise missiles, his boot on the neck of some tattered and luckless camp of freedom fighters? How much more appetizing for the public, too. How much more fun to be a Mary Shelly than a Walter Cronkite. More clicks, more dollars. More dollars, more status. Beowulf is memorable, but policy wonks fleshing out the details of some ill-starred ceasefire, not so much.
We have, as journalist Dmitry Babich of Sputnik News remarked, worked “to replace reality with ideology,” a prescient statement about the intellectual culture of Washington. (I recognize that the source of this comment instantly delegitimizes this article in the eyes of many a conspiracy theorist, but that rather makes my point in another fashion.)
Babich also noted how the American press reminded him of King Lear, particularly when Lear admonished Gloucester,
Get thee glass eyes,
And like a scurvy politician seem
To see the things thou dost not.
King Lear (4.6.163-5)
Where Kerry was a font of ideological cant in the Obama administration, the same comes courtesy of the revanchist cold warriors that President Trump has unleashed on the world. Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis has claimed that ISIS is Washington’s priority in the Middle East, and that Bashar Al Assad still possesses chemical weapons, the first claim belied by U.S. behavior in Syria and the second presented evidence-free. Then National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster literally blamed Moscow for having “perpetuated a civil war” in Syria, said the Russians did nothing to prevent the Idleb chemical attack earlier last month, and accused President Vladimir Putin of “subversive actions in Europe.”
There are at least four lies embedded in McMaster’s claims, most notably that Russia escalated the war in Syria, when it has intervened at Syria’s behest to bring the war to an end. Actually, the war would end if the United States and its extremist allies in the Gulf were not funding, training, and arming foreign jihadists against the Syrian government. The U.S. is likewise increasing its direct presence in Syria and massing troops and weapons on its border. Next, the war is not principally a civil war and never was; it has always been a proxy war by the West to stymie the influence of the Iranian-Syrian-Russian axis and assert its primacy. Trump’s bristling Svengali also presented zero evidence to support his claims that Russia knew a tragedy would happen or that the event was a chemical attack at all. His vague reference to Muscovite subversion elsewhere on the European continent simply resurrects the image of the old Ogre, peering hungrily across the European plain. The comment was likely an oblique reference to the French elections, where extremist neoliberal (called a “centrist” by the mainstream media) Emmanuel Macron has happily spread rumors of Russian interference, establishing, like the Democrats did, a fanciful excuse to deploy if he loses the runoff with Marine Le Pen.
The rest of the tale, that of the flour-pure protagonist, practically writes itself. Simply reverse all the moral horrors you’ve imputed to the make-believe mutant you’ve erected in the national consciousness. Not amoral, but noble. Not acquisitive, but altruistic. Not monstrous, but magnanimous. Easy work. The lusus naturae, as it were, the cackling colossus of your imagination, will seem more real than reality itself, as Secretary Kerry said, and you will find yourself charging windmills believing they are dragons, and perhaps one day finding that the dragons are indeed real, breathing a fire that feels fiercer than any bland fiction.
As liberal Democrats for the most part, United States historians have no doubt been having a field day with Donald Trump’s recently reported clueless comments on United States history. The president’s moronic take on the nation’s past was front-page news last Tuesday in liberals’ and academics’ favorite newspaper, The New York Times. Times reporters Peter Baker and Jonah Engel Bromwich told readers about Trump’s historical idiocy, seen in the president’s:
+ Suggestion that Andrew Jackson had been “really angry”about the Civil War, which did not break out until 16 years after his death.
+ Assertion that the Civil War could have been prevented by smart policymakers who should have just gotten together and cut a deal.
+ Apparent belief that the great 19th century Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass is still alive.
+ Apparent surprise at learning that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.
+ Putting up a golf course plaque marking a Civil War battle that never happened.
The Times quoted Princeton “presidential historian” Julian E. Zelizer, who thinks that “Presidents should have some better sense of the nation’s history as they become part of it.”
Historian Paul Starobin told the Times that “Trump seems almost uniquely ill equipped to process history, whether because of his lack of empathy, his allergy to complexity, or his tendency to keep distant from anything that might carry the whiff of defeat…History is not tidy. Trump likes tidy. He likes slogans. History doesn’t offer any.”
So, yes, Trump is a dummy about American history, too. I could almost hear the sneers and chuckles across the faculty rooms in academic history departments from coast to coast.
United States of Amnesia
Great, but once they’re done laughing at Dunce Cap Donald, the nation’s academic historians might want to reflect on the broader and unsettling historical ignorance that stalks the United States – and their own roles in enabling it.
Trump is of course E plurbius unum – “one of many” (the traditional motto of the United States) – when it comes to historical amnesia in the U.S. U.S.-of-Americans live and think in chilling accord with the vicious anti-Semitic U.S. capitalist Henry Ford’s famous dictum that “history is bunk.” They go through life in mass cluelessness about the millennia, epochs, centuries, generations, and decades that preceded them. They know little about the relevance of the past to their contemporary experience and the future. The whole nation seems “almost uniquely ill equipped to process history, whether because of [its] lack of empathy, [its] his allergy to complexity, or [its] tendency to keep distant from anything that might carry the whiff of defeat.”
It’s a very lethal way for a Superpower’s citizenry to carry on.
History is a Weapon
Part of this mass national memory loss has to do with the United States’ status as historical ground zero for the art and science of corporate and imperial thought control – something that Alex Carey wrote about darkly and brilliantly in his posthumously published book Taking the Risk of Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (1997) (See especially the first chapter, titled “The Origins of American Propaganda”). As George Orwell knew, the deletion, distortion, dismissal, and devaluation of history is a critical dimension of thought control. “Who controls the past,” the reigning totalitarian party portrayed in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (flying off bookstore and library since Big Brother Donald’s election) proclaimed, “controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
It’s not for nothing that the record and meaning of the past is butchered by ruling “elites.”
History properly and deeply understood is profoundly dangerous to authority. Consistent with Santayana’s oft-quoted remark that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it warns us about past mistakes. National leaders’ remarkably recurrent faith in splendid little wars that will be concluded quickly with little human cost is one among many examples.
It raises alarms and teaches lessons about the folly of imperial and environmental overreach and the related terrible consequences of the excessive concentration of wealth and power.
It counsels us not to repeat past crimes (not merely mistakes) like slavery, colonialism, genocide, and fascism.
It catalogues, frames, and explains horrors that should never be allowed to recur.
It tells remarkable and inspiring stories of poplar resistance, rebellion, and revolution – of people making history from the bottom up, with radical and egalitarian ideals and movements ruling classes and “power elites” natural want consigned to “the memory hole” (Orwell’s phrase).
It is full of lessons about how ruling classes and power elites rule and how ordinary people and activists have confounded masters.
It tells us that humanity survived and often thrived for most of its experience without the hierarchical class structures of capitalism.
It reminds us that the “modern” (and yet pre-historic) bourgeois mode of social and political relations is historically specific and transient, not the “end of history” or the logical destination or culmination of “human nature.” (This helps us imagine and work for a different and much less stratified and destructive society in the present and future).
It points to contingency and alternatives, reminding us that significant, even revolutionary historical change is possible and related to human agency, both individual and collective.
It takes us to the developmental taproots of contemporary problems like sexism, classism, racism, imperialism, militarism, and ecocide, showing how and why all of these evolved over time out of decisions and paths taken by human beings, not the mysterious workings of some dark, all-powerful deity and/or “human nature” – or some other form of imposed destiny. (How understand contemporary racial inequality and oppression in the U.S. with no grasp of the origins, nature, and consequences of Black chattel slavery in British Colonial North America and the United States through the Civil War?)
It helps us recognize and identify deadly developments in the present. It’s useful to know what classic fascism was in Italy and Germany as a neofascist president holds power in the U.S. and as neofascists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders vie for power in Western Europe. Those who don’t know what fascism was and how and why it arose in the 20th century may be condemned to live under a 21st century version of it today.
Just When and How Was “America Great”?
Historical knowledge gives us benchmarks to evaluate elite claims of “progress” and/or “decline.” How do you know if things are really getting better or worse in the long durée (the long run) if you don’t know what existed before?
It would be good to know a thing or two about American history when a neofascist president comes to power promising to “Make America Great Again.”
Just what part of America’s “great” past do Trump and his backers most want to restore – when children toiled in coal mines and textile mills?
When Black people were tortured and exploited under the savage regimes of chattel slavery?
The Jim Crow years, which included Black disenfranchisement, strict racial segregation, and savage anti-Black violence in the South through the 1960s?
When women couldn’t vote and were expected to remain in their homes and died in back-alley abortions? When single adult women were pitied as “old maids”?
When gay people were beaten and consigned to the closet?
When Chinese people were beaten in the Western United States because of their race? When Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps?
When left union organizers and political activists were taken out into the desert and left to die? When armed Pinkertons and state militias beat and shot union organizers?
When labor organizers and intellectuals were fired, blacklisted, jailed, imprisoned, and shamed for holding (or allegedly holding) left views?
When white North American settlers butchered Native Americans and pushed them off their ancestral lands to make way for slave plantations and commodity farming?
When the United States criminally and unnecessarily atom-bombed two cities in the already defeated nation of Japan?
When the U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia liquated as many as 5 million people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia?
Done well, history helps us de-code propaganda by providing us with an informational basis with which to respond to the remarkable extent to which American rulers rely on historical narratives and claims to sell their policies and doctrines idea even in a nation famous for not knowing or caring about history. It’s helpful to know a thing or two about what the nation’s profoundly anti-democratic and aristocratic Founders were really all about the next time you hear some politician invoke them to advance or oppose some policy or candidate in the name of democracy.
It useful to know a thing or two about German fascism and the rise and conduct of Hitler and the Nazi Party the next time some U.S. politician or talking head designates yet another foreign leader in Uncle Sam’s gunsights as the next “Hitler.”
It’s useful to know a thing about the long and ugly history of state-capitalist oppression within and beyond the United States the next time some politician or talking head tries to convince you that unleashing “the free market” and reducing regulation of Big Business yet more is the way to serve the common good.
It’s useful to know a thing or two about what the U.S. military and intelligence have done to Native Americans, Filipinos, Haitians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Central Americans Vietnamese, Japanese, Iraqis and so many other people who have suffered on the wrong end of Uncle Sam’s brutal foreign policies the next time you hear a U.S, politician or talking head claim that Washington is advancing “peace,” “democracy,” and “human rights” abroad.
It might be good to know a thing or two real about the history of the United States and that of other countries when American political elites and cultural authorities routinely speak the nationally narcissistic language of “American exceptionalism.” Among the things one might learn is that the ruling classes in all “modern” nations have disseminated myths about their countries’ supposed special mission and “unique” and benevolent excellence as deceptive cover for selfish capitalist and imperial agendas.
The United States is no, well, exception in that and other regards. It’s doctrinal claim to be and always have been a special beacon and headquarters of human freedom, democracy, and justice is just precisely that cloak.
Why So Many History Teachers Suck
Done right, without ideological blinders, history is a radically democratic weapon in the struggle for social justice, ecological sustainability, and popular sovereignty. And that’s precisely why it is done so poorly in American K-12 education on the whole – so badly that Americans routinely report it to be one of their least favorite school topics.
The most frequent complaint is that history classes were boring exercises in the rote memorization of facts, dates, and names. Facts, names, and dates matter, of course. If you think World War II happened in the 19th century or that Abraham Lincoln was one of the Founding Fathers then you are not going to have much chance of making sense of modern or American history. But what makes facts interesting, worth remembering, and easily remembered is the bigger story of where and how they fit into a fearlessly truthful rendering of the fascinating record of human triumph and tragedy.
The biggest problem with K-12 history is that the narrow ideological confines in which is presented precludes such rendering. The sterile hegemony of the nationally narcissistic “American Exceptionalist” narrative enforced by textbook companies, university education departments, right-wing ideological watchdogs, and local school boards reeks with bad faith and monumental falsehood. It helps drag high school history down to the tedious learning, regurgitation, and forgetting of “great” names and dates. High school history is all too commonly taught by the football coach, with less moral and intellectual substance than Drivers Ed.
One might say, “well, but that’s just high school. Things get better in colleges and universities.” History teaching and curriculum does improve better in “higher education.” But how much better is an open question. Most academic history professors are at leftmost liberal Democrats and thus remain largely stuck in dominant capitalist, imperialist, and nationalist narratives. That’s dull and depressing. It’s at least one part of why academia couldn’t muster a serious movement even against something as historically and morally outrageous as George W. Bush’s arch-criminal and mass-murderous invasion and occupation of Iraq – and of why so many academics (including hundreds of historians) were so foolishly enthralled by the corporatist, imperialist, and “American exceptionalist” candidacy  and presidency of Barack Obama.
Even if college and university history, taught mainly by somewhat left-leaning liberals, is far superior to high school history taught Tea Party Trump-voting football coaches, moreover, the great majority of Americans never take a college-level history class.
To make matter worse, academic historians do very little to tell people why their subject matter matters. During my many years in and around academic history departments – as a graduate student, teaching assistant, adjunct professor (in at least five different colleges and universities in an around Chicago), a visiting professor – I was often struck by the field’s taboo against linking its subject matter with contemporary politics and history. Historians’ nasty name for doing that is “presentism” – the sin of not appreciating history on its own terms and for its own sake. It wasn’t just a left vs. liberal thing. It was a professional class division of labor thing.
Academic historians love to bitch and moan about Americans’ ignorance of and indifference to history but they rarely if ever make the political case for why History matters for the present and future. They don’t really make it in the public sphere. They don’t make it to each other. They rarely make the case to their students, very few of whom are ever of course going to hit the archives and become historians. (All those reasons I gave above for why history matters to the present are from an opening lecture [titled “Why Study History?”] I used to give in any and every history class I ever taught. It was a very effective talk. I was not aware of a single other history professor who ever opened like that. I imagine some did and do, but I suspect it is very rare).
Another great handicap is specialization. Beyond political-ideological and professional class subject area expertise bias against making essential points on why history matters, many professional historians are ill-equipped to make the case because they have fallen so far away from “grand” and synthesizing narratives into an ever-multiplying panoply of overly disconnected sub-specialties that encourage a sort of divide-and-conquer incapacity to think big. They till so many different little gardens that they lose touch with the broader commons of the human past. It’s all very “post-modern” – and stupid and boring.
These were problems the libertarian-socialist history professor and activist Howard Zinn didn’t have, to say the least. It’s no wonder that he always had a certain suspect reputation among academic historians even as many of them almost grudgingly assigned his shining, radical, and monumental People’s History of the United States (a book not without empirical and interpretive flaws that any well-trained academic historian can discover in his opr her special area of expertise) since it got students to read and discuss – and even to think deeply about why history matters and their responsibility to engage in the making as well as the understanding of history. Imagine. It’s no wonder also that Zinn was so widely adored by students, readers, activists and others.
There are, of course, some admirable and enviable exceptions to my critique scattered across history department and even some high schools in the U.S. But they are too few and far between.
1/ Take a look back at this hilarious historical document: “Historians for Obama,” History News Network, April 21, 2008. More than 300 academic historians (including some very “big names” and some who might almost have called themselves Marxists) gave their signatures to the following childish statement: “Obama’s platform is ambitious, yet sensible…But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness – or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption…As president, Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world. But we believe he is that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called ‘the civic genius of the people.’ We invite other historians to add your name to this statement” (emphasis added). For some interesting, smart, and left reflections on the not-so admirable or progressive record of John F. Kennedy, see Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture (Boston: South End Press, 1999); Bruce Mirrof, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (Longman, 1979); Howard Zinn, Postwar America, 1945-1971 (a forgotten classic); Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality (2008)
Rough notes from an Earth Day talk at the Humboldt Anarchist Bookfair, somewhere amid the windswept Manila Dunes on the Samoa Peninsula.
It’s delightful to be here in Arcata on a sunlit day in Humboldt County, where the air is enlivened by the restorative scent of the Redwood Country’s most invigorating agricultural product. I just returned to the Northwest from a deflating week in Indianapolis, a city whose nightly soundtrack throbs to the shrieks of police sirens, as cops rush to put the street hassle on black teenagers selling weed in crumbling neighborhoods. Indy’s the city of my birth and I still have an affection for it, though it’s a tougher and tougher love to maintain as the decades roll by and the town remains encased in some of the most venomous prejudices of 1950s America.
On the flight back, I was poking through an unjustly neglected novel by the greatest Hoosier of them all (give or take Oscar Robertson), Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The book is Deadeye Dick and it is set in a Midwestern town, a lot like the Indianapolis of my youth, after the city has been blitzed by a neutron bomb, that emblematic weapon of the Cold War which was designed to inflict maximum damage on living beings and leave all of the mansions, bank vaults and oil refineries standing pretty much intact.
Alas, Vonnegut didn’t live to see Donald Trump become president, but, as a seasoned observer of Manhattan’s flim-flam capitalist class, he knew all about Trump and the toxic appeal of his post-fascist brand of politics. Kurt had seen it all before, from the KKK-ruled sundown towns of the Midwest to the firebombing of Dresden. In Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut observes that “the Dark Ages, they haven’t ended yet.” Note that he didn’t say, “We have entered a new dark age.” Instead, Vonnegut was remarking on the continuity of a vicious style of American politics, which only gets darker and darker as the faint glimmer of the Enlightenment recedes farther into the past.
Vonnegut’s joke, which like most of his one-liners cuts sharply to the core of a profound truth, can help us orient ourselves in the time of Trump, who seems like a scary new beast, with his twitchy microhand fluttering over the nuclear button. In fact, what Trump has done is to the reveal the Beast that has always lurked in the anterooms of American power, sucking the blood and mining the bones of the Earth.
A few days ago, the carbon dioxide readings at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i cracked 410 parts per million, an all-time record and a frightening one. On Earth Day, climate marches took place in cities across the world. Trump’s policies didn’t drive the spiking CO2 levels, but they did propel tens of thousands onto the streets for a few hours of fun. Where were those people during eight years of Barack Obama, an oil and gas man of some distinction? Where were they during eight years of Bill Clinton, one of the greatest environmental con men of our time?
Has Trump finally shattered our illusions, so that we can see clearly the forces—economic, political and technological—that are plunging the planet toward a man-made heat death? Is he, in fact, a kind of clarifying agent for the real state of things?
One can hope so.
Except one mustn’t hope.
As Kafka, the High Priest of Realism, admonished his readers, “There is hope. But not for us.”
Hope is an illusion, an opiate, an Oxycontin for the masses.
Instead of hope, we need a heavy dose of realism. A realism as chilling as reality itself.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha instructed us that the world is suffering, and indeed it is. He also advised us that the cure for suffering is empathy, especially for those living beings—among which I would include redwood trees, sea coral and saguaro cacti—which have no defense against the forces that are inflicting that globalized torment.
That’s where we come in. Defenders of the Earth need to abandon all hope before entering the fray. Hope is a paralytic agent. Hope is the enemy.
The antidote is action.
Action, however, is not marching in a parade a couple of times a year, featuring puppets, vagina hats and signs printed up by the Sierra Club©.
Action is not taking selfies with a celebrity in the back of a police wagon after a designer arrest.
Action is not typing your name on a MoveOn e-petition or voting for Jill Stein in safe states like Oregon or California.
Action is standing arm-in-arm before water cannons and government snipers on the frozen plains of North Dakota. Action is hanging from a fragile perch 150-feet up in Douglas-fir tree in an ancient forest grove slated for clearcutting, through howling winter storms. Action is chaining yourself to a fracking rig in rural Pennsylvania or camping out in the blast zone at a Mountain Top Removal site in the hills of West Virginia. Action is intervening when police in storm trooper gear are savagely beating a defenseless woman on the streets of Portland. Action is jumping into the Pacific Ocean with a knife in your teeth to cut the vast trawler nets ensnaring white-sided dolphins and humpback whales. Action is stopping bad shit from going down, or trying to.
The time for protests is over.
Protests will not prick the conscience of the unmasked beast called Donald Trump. Trump has no conscience to arouse, no shame to trigger, no remorse to cultivate. Trump is a full-frontal menace, that dangerous object in the mirror that is closer than it appears. It is the old threat, coming at us faster than before and from all directions at once. An unchained beast that will not be moderated by regulations, social conventions or appeals to common decency.
We are witnessing the wet-dream of Steve Bannon—the Trump Whisperer—made manifest: the dismantling of the regulatory state. This new reality compels us—for those who are willing to look—to confront the shedding of another illusion, an illusion that mainstream environmentalists have been marinating in since the 1970s, when our most progressive president, Richard M. Nixon, cynically created the modern environmental regulatory state in order to split the anti-war movement, pacify the Left and smother a much more radical defense of the natural world.
The green regulatory state–as personified by the EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the BLM (Bureau of Livestock and Mining), as well as thousands of laws, administrative rules and regulations, the meaning of which can only be divined by lawyers, lobbyists and professional environmentalists—has not slowed the decimation of native forests, the extirpation of wildlife or the poisoning of our air and water. It has simply codified and systematized the destruction, allocating the looting to a coterie of well-connected corporations large enough and shrewd enough to navigate the legal labyrinth for their own bloody profits.
At the same time, the creation of the regulatory state effectively neutered the once potent environmental movement as a real threat to the System. As their budgets swell, often fattened by the largess of grants from foundations linked to the fossil fuel industry, the big DC-oriented conservation groups—who many years ago Alex Cockburn and I dubbed Gang Green—become more and more complicit with the political fool’s gold of neoliberalism. Try finding a lobbyist from NRDC with callouses on their hands and a trace of mud on their boots.
As Trump begins the demolition of the regulatory state, we begin to see how hollow many of Gang Green’s alleged environmental victories of the past—from coal mining and air quality regulations to endangered species protections and new national monuments—really are. They are being wiped out with a slash of the pen.
As my old boss David Brower used to say: “When we win, it’s only a stay of execution, when they win it’s forever. Thus we must be eternally vigilant.” These days the corporate environmental movement is vigilant about only one thing: claiming fake victories in their sustained barrage of fund-raising appeals.
But the days of the laptop environmentalists are numbered. Trump is creating a battlefield where professional conservationists will fear to tread, a direct, face-to-face confrontation with the machinery of ecocide.
And we know who will rise to the call. The ones who always have in the past: the indigenous, the altruists and the anarchists. Those are the ones who will fight as if their lives depend on the outcome, because, of course, they do.
If we are to believe the Sociobiologists, such as E.O. Wilson, the altruistic gene may only be present in three percent of the human population—may their gene pool increase! But, hell, that’s still three times as many people as the one-percenters who are running the show! If you want hope, there’s a microdot to swallow.
Small, scruffy and unruly as it is, we’ve seen the power of our movement in the past. When our backs are—often literally—against the wall, when the battle lines are clear from the immobilizing fog of liberal rhetoric and free from the timid advice of professional compromisers. We’ve seen it emerge from the Lacandon jungle to say enough is enough and overtake the streets of Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization. We’ve seen grandmothers and housewives expose the toxic crimes of Love Canal and corn farmers shut down nuclear power plants. We’ve taken the international timber industry to its knees on its home turf, blocked strip mines, pipelines and river killing dams. We’ve thrown monkey-wrenches big and small into the gears of the System. It has been done and it will be done again and again. No grant applications or protest permits needed.
As Ed Abbey used to say: there’s no battle more important, no fight more fun waging, no comrades more trusty-worthy than those in the trenches with us when we rise up together in defense of life on earth. To crib a line from Leonard Cohen: “we may be ugly, but we’ve got the music.”
So draw a line and take a stand—almost any place will do, since the whole shebang is under threat—and let loose an old battle cry so that others will know where to come join you: Earth First!
+ Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton share many personality traits, none more puissant than a lack of moral conscience that borders on the sociopathic. Neither Trump nor Clinton ever admit to any taint of personal culpability. Fault always lies with others–or, in absence patsies, with the stars themselves. This week Hillary was back out on the road on her No Apologies Tour, promoting her as-yet-unwritten book, that casts blame on everyone except herself: Comey, Wikileaks, Putin, Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Julian Assange, the media and Trump. She even had the temerity to call herself part of the “Resistance” to a man that she–and only she–helped to elect. Resistance to truth is more like it.
+ A week in the life of Bernie Sanders: praise Trump’s approach to North Korea, defend Ann Coulter, attack the UN for being too tough on Israel, refer to the IDF’s human rights crimes in the Occupied Territories by using air quotes.
+ HRC can’t see her own faults and the Sandernistas can’t admit Bernie’s. No wonder he’s hired on as a shill for the still-Clintoneseque DNC that rigged the 2016 primaries, even to the point of agreeing to work as a political errand boy for the Senator from Citibank, Chuck Schumer.
+ We’ve come to the point where having a nuke is the only way to keep from getting nuked by the US.
+ This week the US Air Force provocatively launched an unarmed ICBM missile from Vandenberg Air Base in California out over the Pacific Ocean. I hope North Korea lodges a protest at the UN and a demand for sanctions….
+ The Justice Department announced this week that it will not seek federal charges against police officers in Baton Rogue involved in the killing of Alton Sterling. Let’s revisit this dreadful case. In the early morning of July 5, 2016, two police officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, accosted Sterling outside of the Triple S Food Mart. Sterling, who was selling CDs outside the store, had allegedly been involved in an altercation a few minutes earlier. The police hurled Sterling onto the hood of a nearby car, threw him to the ground, where he was penned down and then shot in the chest multiple times by one of the police officers. The shooting was captured on a cellphone camera. The footage leaves little doubt as to the culpability of the officers. The failure of the Justice Department to file charges in the case is evidence of the the cold hand of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions at work…At least 393 people have been killed by police since January 1, 2017, a number certain to rise as police realize there will be no consequences for their murderous tactics.
+ Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get more depraved, now comes news from Flint that more than 8,000 people are facing eviction from their homes for refusing to pay bills for toxic water that they can’t safely consume.
+ Paul Mosley is a particularly repulsive member of Congress from western Arizona, whose primary mission in Washington seems to be aimed at making the lives of the poor even more miserable. This week Mosley offered his jaundiced view that public education should be a privilege not a right. “Education used to be a privilege,” Mosely piously lectured the Arizona Capitol Times. “People used to believe getting an education was something you had to be privileged to get, that you had to work hard to get.” These jerks would nullify every “right” except the “right” for whites to bear arms…
+ This winter Trump’s White House handyman Jared Kushner offered to officiate the wedding of MSDNC’s morning lovebirds, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzesinski. The couple turned down the opportunity to be united in holy matrimony at Mar-a-Lago, instead opting for an engagement weekend in the Antibes. This will be Morning Joe’s third marriage. The former congressman once voted to ban LGBTs from adopting children. He’s a real family values man. As for Jared, is there anything he won’t do? Change the cat litter perhaps?
+ Ben Carson is off to a running start at dismantling the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson believes that the main problem with low-income public housing (i.e., the Projects) is that the conditions in these rat-infested firetraps are much too relaxing. So Carson is intent on making these federal slums much less comfortable, to the point where the unfortunate inhabitants might prefer sleeping on park benches and sidewalks. The problem, according to Carson, is that good-hearted bureaucrats have been showing the downtrodden too much misdirected compassion, creating dependency on having a roof over their heads. There’s no constitutional right to a warm and dry hovel to rest your weary bones. Don’t worry, Dr. Ben, I’m sure there’s a federal contractor out there who, for the right price, will construct beds made of nails and glass for your cardboard shacks…
+ Her poll numbers slipping, British Prime Minister Theresa May has raised the alarm that the EU is meddling in the her upcoming snap elections in an attempt to tilt the field toward the pesky insurgent Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps Ms. May will make an emergency call to Vladimir Putin with a request that his cyber-crew intervene to even the playing field?
+ Since the election of Trump, there has been a record surge in the number of illegal Israeli homes built on Palestinian land. Since the end of January, the Israeli government has announced plans for 11,000 new homes for Jews in the West Bank, has retroactively legalized 4,000 other homes in the West Bank and announced plans for 15,000 new homes in East Jerusalem. They call these people settlers, which is a much more palatable word for home invaders.
+ If S&M is your thing, you can get your kicks at nearly any border crossing in the US. Every day, more than 750 people are denied entry, often arbitrarily, into the US and another 850 people are tagged as potential security threats and subjected to intrusive searches, often amounting to a kind of full-body fondling. Customs agents have almost dictatorial powers at the border and act with legal impunity, even harassing US citizens, especially of the journalistic and activist variety, on their reentry into the states by demanding the passwords to unlock their cellphones, computers and i-Pads. Even cancer patients, returning to the US for chemotherapy treatment, have been interrogated for as long as four hours. The trends are getting more malign every week.
+ I’m a Baltimore Orioles fan and have been since I lived in DC and Baltimore in the 1970s and early 1980s. Camden Yard is the most beautiful stadium in the Major Leagues and Orioles fans, most of them working class people, have stuck with the team through some lean decades. For the past few years though, the Orioles, a small market team with a limited budget, have been very good indeed, with much of their success attributable to a fleet-footed centerfielder with incandescent skills named Adam Jones, who the Seattle Mariners let slip from their grasps in one of the worst trades in baseball history. This week the Orioles were playing their bitter rivals the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park, where Jones was repeatedly taunted with racist epiteths. Red Sox fans also threw bags of peanuts at him as he tracked down fly balls hit toward the Green Monster.
Despite its liberal pretensions, Boston has a rancid history of racism, which explodes in public from time to time, most notoriously during the period of court-ordered busing to integrate city schools in the mid-1970s and 1980s. For 60 years, the Red Sox were owned by the Yawkey family, whose stern patriarch Tom Yawkey privately vowed never to field “a n—-r” on his team. The old bastard kept his word for many years. The Red Sox were the last team to start a black player, Pumpsie Green in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Red Sox were the last profession sports franchise in Boston to field a black player, including the Boston Bruins NHL team. Even Red Sox players have been subjected to racist jeers from Boston fans. In January of this year, Red Sox pitcher David Price told Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe that racial slurs were shouted at him from Red Sox fans last year while he was warming up in the bullpen. It’s long past time to rename Yawkey Way after Pumpsie Green.
+ Even Bill Russell, the legendary center for the Boston Celtics, endured racist slurs from Boston basketball fans and has continued to be treated by the city as something of a second-class citizen. As Celtic player and longtime broadcaster Tommy Heinshon noted: “Bill Russell won 11 championships for Boston and the city named a tunnel after Ted Williams.”
+ Five states now have only one functioning abortion clinic: Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. In the past 10 years, more than 300 onerous regulations on abortion rights have been enacted across the country, nearly crippling unfettered access to abortion in dozens of other states. Yet, Nancy [Net Worth $48 million] Pelosi pronounced this that abortion is “fading” as a political issue for Democrats, even as right-to-lifers close in for the final kill. This is typical Pelosi palaver. Rich women can get abortions, even if they have to fly to other states. Poor women can’t. Hence, no problem…
+ The state of North Dakota has declared itself the first “protester disaster area” and now has its hand out for an infusion of federal money to pay for its violent suppression of indigenous people trying to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, which will no doubt spring a leak in a few months despoiling rivers and wheat fields and prompting a new plea for federal cleanup money. Demanding federal money to subsidize the armed goons who attacked grandmothers and kids at Standing Rock is like Exxon submitting a bill for the bar tab of Captain Joseph Hazelwood after he drunkenly rammed the Exxon Valdez into Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of Alaskan crude oil into Prince William Sound. Naturally, these jack-booted conservatives are implacably opposed to federal handouts of any kind … for poor people.
+ The fascist femme fatale of France, Marine Le Pen, apparently plagiarized passages from the speeches of her conservative rival François Fillon during the closing days of the French presidential elections. Her supporters called the word theft nothing more than a “small” loan. Le Pen was hers, the text wasn’t.
+ The Arctic Ocean, and with it the entire planet, seems to have passed the point of no return. A recent report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program suggest that even under the rosiest scenario for reducing carbon dioxide emissions under the Paris Climate Accords, which Trump wants to yank the US out of, sea levels will rise by .52 meters over the levels in 2010. If, as seems more likely, carbon dioxide emissions continue to puff along at current trends, the seas will rise by at least .74 meters. End game.
+ Let them eat cupcakes, washed down with giant Slurpees! Trump’s Department of Agriculture, now helmed by Sonny Perdue (who once held a prayer vigil for rain in drought-striken Georgia), is weakening nutrition standards for school lunch programs. No word yet on whether ketchup will once again be reclassified as a vegetable as it was under Reagan.
+ So you want to move to Portland, where another day brings another cop riot? This week the Rose City was aflame after the commissioners abruptly rescinded a permit for the traditional May Day rally and then sent their military-clad police goons in to violently crackdown on the demonstrators, a crowd which included many women, children and disabled people. Two days earlier, however, these same police allowed a neo-Nazi group to prowl through Portland’s streets without a permit, spewing racist chants and harassing blacks and Hispanics on block after block. The police protected these tender neo-Nazi marchers from angry anarchists. Reportedly, Hipsterville’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, who is marketing Portland internationally as a kind of pot-friendly Whitetopia, then commissioned three TriMet buses to safely transport the white power dregs back to their starting point.
+ Anarchists who break a few shop windows get charged with terrorism, oil companies that shatter entire towns in Oklahoma get billions in new subsidies…
+ Ernest Hemingway, who suffered dozens of concussions during his rambunctious life, may have suffered CTE, the degenerative brain disease that now ravaging through the ranks of former football players. Perhaps Papa wasn’t as hard-headed as we thought he was…
+ On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the bombing of Cambodia at Kent State University, killing four students–Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krauss, William Schroeder, and Sandy Scheurer–and wounding ten others. Most people are familiar Neil Young’s song “Ohio.” More obscure, but equally moving, is Harvey Andrews’ “Hey Sandy,” recorded a few weeks after the massacre.
+ More proof we are in the grip of another Cold War: UFO sightings are at an all time high.
+ Donnie: “Why was there a civil war, Daddy? Why?”
Fred: “How many times have I told you not to talk with a silver spoon in your mouth, Donald!”
+ Trump don’t know much about history
Except what he learned that time at Scientology
But he does know that one and one make three
And what a hugely great world this could be…
(Humblest apologies to the great Sam Cooke)
What I’m listening to this week…
What I’m reading this week…
Bertolt Brecht: War Primer
Walter Scheidel: The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality
Bruce Sterling: Pirate Utopia
China Miéville: “It is depressing to have to point out, yet again, that there is a distinction between having the legal right to say something and having the moral right not to be held accountable for what you say. Being asked to apologise for saying something unconscionable is not the same as being stripped of the legal right to say it. It’s really not very fucking complicated. Cry ‘free speech’ in such contexts, you are demanding the right to speak any bilge you wish without apology or fear of comeback. You are demanding not legal rights but an end to debate about and criticism of what you say. When did bigotry get so needy?”