Monthly Archives: January 2015
It’s all out of the bag now, as they say and say: America tortures. Of course, this news has been evident for quite some time. Who was in doubt of the implications lurking in Dick Cheney’s 2001 mumble-snark, “Time to take the gloves off”? In any case, in 2011, OR Books released The Torture Report, which details the deranged doings at Guantanamo, where hundreds of humans have been detained without trial for many years now.
And a couple of years ago, ex-CIA interrogator John Kiriakou belatedly blew the whistle on the Agency, at one point relating how one terrorist suspect was waterboarded so thoroughly that he ended up writing poems to the wife of his tormentor. “They hate us more than they love life,” quoth Kiriakou, and there can be no doubt why – our freedoms – or, at least, our license. (Oops, shouldn’t have said that.)
But the capper on the whole torture chamber music industry failings has to be the more recent acknowledgement that the torturers were aided and abetted in their Dark Knighthood doings by members of the APA – psychiatrists and psychologists who’d given their oaths, like Hippocrates, to ‘do no harm’. And apparently, if a recent report by an ex-APA executive is any indicator, these psychological architects of torture often did so gleefully, and not so much out of a sense of patriotism and justice but with career ambitions. In short, the ka-ching factor.
That’s depressing enough, but, then, who would you turn to for treatment? Who could you trust, when the profession which, next to Catholic confessionals, is built around honoring confidences turns around and sells those secrets to the Authorities for a song called, “The Bass Suddenly Sings Falsetto.”
You could argue that the first clear signs of the impending collapse of a civilization is when it throws its own most cherished ideals under the bus (or the chariot, if you require classical stim), and in America’s case the most important ideals, from a purely republican position, would be adherence to the Rule of Law and the application of due process. In America, the world’s once-premiere democratic republic, the law and the process were sacred symbols of trust, the manifest density of its transparent idealistic gas. The law and the process were a glad shackle of trust: Everyone here gets a fair shake. That’s what made gazing on the Statue of Liberty in the harbor so poignant, rather than just another accosting by the underarm deodorant industry. It was the value that made America exceptional.
But the law and the process were the first things to go under the Bush administration, and, by God, not even reluctantly. And when, a couple of years later, after the post-9/11 security lock-down was in place and well on its way to normalization, that he no longer much cared or thought about the atrocity’s presumed mastermind, Osama bin Laden, he revealed that the real mission he’d accomplished was the destruction of that sacred trust. The limited Congressional authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to wage war strictly against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack was morphed by corrupt lawyers into a justification for endless war, battlefields du jour, the militarization of all human communications, and, essentially, the martial outlawing of privacy – and not just in public communications, like texts and emails, but even, if they so choose, and using infrared technologies, the hand you wipe your bottom with. No doubt, terrorists use their left.
Borrowing, with heavy irony, from the post-modern relativists, the neo-cons and their kissing cousin neo-libs, have turned the Constitution into a feeble anachronism no longer to be taken any more literally than the Gospel of St. Paul. Never mind that the Constitution was the most literal document ever written, that it was intentionally written to be literal, and that that was what made it sacred.
But declaring war on an abstract noun –terrorism—and deleting due process as a syntactical inconvenience have messaged to the world that we’re pretty much right back in the world conjured up in living color by Voltaire in Candide, full of unspeakable horrors, Pangloss apologists and scaredy-cat gardeners. Ultimately, since the post-modernists demonstrated the relativism of controlling language and thereby weakened its hold, the controllers did one better and declared war on language itself. Because, in the end, that’s what the War on Terror is – a war on language.
It would be a mistake – and one I’m sure we’ll make—to think that now that we’ve fessed up and out our torturing ways that that’s the end to it; that long looks in the mirror will come next, followed by the rejuvenation and redemption of reform. Indeed, we have merely finished Phase One.
Consider that the same criteria used by psychologists to construct the Destructo machinery for the government are the same ones that help determine who gets put in the US government’s Disposition Matrix database – the one used to help determine who will be droned to death (‘and they will never see it coming’, haw-haw). The torture chamber was remedial; the Disposition Matrix is predictive. Like an astrology chart machine it algorithmically considers alignments of data stars and makes an analysis of how actors with certain star signs will respond in that alignment, and ices them ahead of time. (Man, I know some Aries punks who could use a good Hellfire in the belly, but I drift.)
The language of Terror (and the terror of language) being what it is, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the future blows. ‘Terror’ is a moveable feast. First, you wipe out the ones not willing to put up with any more crap (they’re easy to identify), and then you move on to their ‘material supporters’ and ‘sympathizers’, and then devolve to associates of sympathizers, until you reach that point where you are throwing Neanderthal Ned under the first wheel. Terror is the .gif that keeps on .giffing; a loopity-loop of fun and anticipation.
With the planet under siege and critical resources running low and dirty (think water), one imagines a future disposition matrix that includes most of the world’s people, all future billions of them, who, after all, add nothing to the future of the race but dirty genes and have only been useful as economic growth machines consuming what they’re told to (or else). Liberty and Democracy are fun words to say, especially with a few drinks in you, but they’ll soon come a time when government itself is anachronistic. Indeed, we may already be post-political and beyond the holy communion of self-governance.
Imagine gamers, armed with their Clint Eastwood joysticks and hacking acumen, hired by the government’s new morality enforcers, people such as the likeable Duane (Dewey) Clarridge, to snuff out ‘nonsense’ like over-population and other undesirables, culling down until there’s nobody left but elites, military leaders and family, rock stars and the like, the joystickers themselves (temporarily, wink) – in short, a Pol Potage of carnivalesque carnage, until there’s no one left but the ones Mick Jagger sings about in “Sympathy for the Devil.” In this world there’ll be no law or due process, no day in court. In fact, already, there are some places where not even the kangaroos get a day in court.
Is there no hope then? Hard to say. Voltaire, who thought we needed god to set us right, had Candide, in that cataclysmic best of all possible worlds filled with beheadings, failed states, and general pestilence, minding his own garden. One notes it was not a collectivist’s garden, Candide was no kibbutz-nik; he was alone with his private thoughts, blocking out the white noise of civilization collapsing all around him. Who knows, but maybe Candide was Voltaire’s hemlock and that lone constant gardener was his rude finger to the world? In the end, everyone picks his or her own poison, whether they know it or not.
Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York
OR Books (2014)
Available in paperback and as an e-book
When I was driving with my family back to England from a day trip to Dunkirk Beach, a French border guard in Calais told us at the Chunnel entry that America was under attack (did I detect a smile?). Later, back in Surrey, we watched the Sky news broadcast of the Twin Towers collapse, as neighbors in our cul-de-sac partied, fireworks and all (were they immune to the situation’s gravity?). Already a longtime ex-pat by then, the distance in time and space led me to respond not with the ululations for vengeance heard across the US mediascape that day but with an echo of my young daughter’s query –“Why?”
As circumstance would have it, almost two years later I visited a friend in lower Manhattan. The reek of horror smoke was still in the air. I wanted to visit Ground Zero, but my friend talked me out of it; maybe, being a psychotherapist, she was sensitive to overexposure to the still-suppurating trauma. In a deft segue of optimism, she said that while not much good had come out of the attack, one silver lining was the kindness New Yorkers were now showing each other, the deference to a shared fragility – the Big Apple, of all locales, had become what G. H. W. Bush had once called for: ‘a kinder, gentler place’.
But no human good seems to last forever, or else it’s always there but gets transformed, perverted, and tremendous amounts of focused will need to be applied to recover it for redemption. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, not even love. Yet dark energy pervades all, and it didn’t take long for the ageless pathological sharks and charlatans to see a way to make a buck off unspeakable grief and spiritual violation. The financial meltdown of 2008, a crisis which forced Obama’s hand even before he had been inaugurated, was the result of machinations years in the making, the other side of the now-counterfeit coin of contemporary capitalism – no one was there to punch the New Gordon Gekko in the mouth, and what the Triffids did to the towers and symbols That Day, Wall Street snorkel porkers in the treasure trough did to the economy: Make it scream, they cried, and it did.
The divide between the haves and have-nots has grown exponentially since, with New York a focal point because it remains the crucible of a corrupt capitalism and the main barometer of zeitgeist pressure systems exploding the world. The corrosion has been well-documented in such films as Park Avenue.
Is it any wonder that most Americans don’t seem to care if the torture works or not? They just need to hear a scapegoat scream. Turns out Americans live in Guantanamo cells of debt service, credit defaults, slaves to desires stoked by deus in machina algorithms. That’s you on that stool with a hood and a neck noose in the dark. Spend, purge, make room for ever more, barks the dog-god at your feet, Bulimius. And even ‘freedom’ leaves nowhere to go, because no one wants an Equifax credit ratings flunky in their midst, any more than they want terrorists. Kick the stool out: Clint Eastwood’s sniper ain’t coming to save you this time. Punk.
I was thinking of all this, and more, as I waded my way through Tales of Two Cities, a marvelous collection of some 30 narratives about contemporary life in New York City, edited by John Freeman, a former editor of the literary magazine Granta. For today, New York is largely back to being the cold, divided, rude split city it never really stopped being, even in its collective grief a decade ago. Back then, in those early healing days, it was perhaps unimaginable that cops would be shot to death in “revenge” for political events — lockdowns, repressions, all police state stuff– so newly appreciative were people for the perceived sacrifices of those who put their lives on the lines to serve and protect, who put out blazes, and who had suffered so much loss on 9/11. Economic erosion, class divides, rampant homelessness, feudal wages, deregulated rents, grim future tidings – these are the leit motifs of Tales.
The collection is packed with slice of life tales as varied as NYC pizza pies – with all the toppings: enormous energy, sage street wit, winsome wisdom, and the grit of Truth. And, I reckon, it would be worth the purchase for Zadie Smith’s edgy comical corset saga alone. But it’s a volume chock full of surprises: There’s Lawrence Joseph’s dazzling lyrical poem; bolshy transgenders; a Czech car mechanic (or is he Serbian?); a widowed former Red Cross chaplain turned bar tender dealing with power games of the entitled; gentrifying landlords driving out tenants by neglecting to heat their flats in mid-winter; Junot Diaz’ tale of reciprocal burglary; Bill Cheng’s memoir of being stuck in a hidden, forgotten cubicle writing copy that celebrates rags to riches go-getters; and so on.
We learn from Valeria Luiselli that “the area now occupied by Columbia University’s Morningside campus was the lunatic asylum until the late 1800s,” and, she adds devilishly, “The city must have been full of them—colonial lunatics, maddened by their own expansionist ambitions, souls sickened by solitude and nostalgia, minds turned against themselves for having seen too much—for having undone so many.” We learn that “the top fifth of the population here earns more than thirty times that of the lowest fifth.” And then Teju Cole treats the reader with samplings of fait divers (small fates), a French form of condensed journalism that attempts to capture the 5Ws in a sentence or two. For instance, this gem of the form: “Lorenzo Corello and Annie Pollilcolski, in Jersey City: love was his question, no her answer, a razor his riposte, critical her condition.”
Tales of Two Cities has been likened as a kind of postmodern update of Jacob Riis’ classic How the Other Half Lives, but that comparison, while valuable in a way, does not deliver full justice to either Riis’ work or to Tales. Riis’ 125 year old narrative is as confronting a black and white study in sociological depravity as any student of popular history is ever likely to read. It should be mandatory reading in high school, along with Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the US, which it likely inspired.
Riis describes and catalogues the rise of the tenement system in an overcrowded turn-of-the-century New York, which is what ‘the other half’ refers to (although, as Riis points out, by the time of publication upwards of three-quarters of the population of NYC lived in tenements). He describes a ramshackle crazy quilt of unsafe structures reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, where a typical apartment consisted of “one room 12 x 19 with five families living in it, comprising twenty persons of both sexes and all ages, with only two beds, without partition, screen, chair, or table.”
And deeper within these structures were “cave dwellers” composted by the dozens in single rooms without light or ventilation. Who lived in these miserable, cholera-permeated hovels? European immigrants flooding in for ‘a better life’ than what they left behind in London, Paris and Old Praha: Irish, Italians, Germans, Serbs, French, Spanish, Russians, Chinese. “Give me your unwashed huddled masses,” says the sign over Ellis Island, which could have been written by a slumlord, who might have added, “We know just where to crush their spirits and rob them blind.”
Unlike Tales, there is no kinetic energy in Riis’ narrative: pestled people survive mortars of greed and rapacity in miracles of resilience that almost defy human understanding. Such tenements are gone today, although rising rents, relentless un- or under-employment, and the tyranny of debt are forcing sharing situations unseen since at least the Reagan era. But Tales does share with the Riis study a series of snapshots of immigrant life in New York, for almost all the Tales are from the point of view of ‘foreigners’ or ‘hicks’ come to the Promised Land for a better life, just as they did more than 100 years ago.
However, instead of being herded and crushed into matchbook firetraps, some landlords not averse to setting their own tenement towers on fire for insurance, the human loss not factored into the profit, today’s immigrants largely live on the edge of physical survival and often close to falling into the abyss of despair. Today New Yorkers are composted in digital databases, and breathe in the dark, fetid air of compartmentalized debt they cannot escape. Call it: A Tenemental Journey.
Of course, Tales does contain grim reminders of the Riis “cave dwellers”, but this time in the form of the huddled masses who live like Morlocks beneath Manhattan’s surface, the tunnel dwellers, or ‘Mole People’ as the dailies call them. In “Near the Edge of Darkness,” Colum McCann went on an investigative journey of this underbelly and relates his experience thusly,
“The idea of living underground, in the dark, feeds the most febrile part of our beings. The tunnels operate as the subconscious minds of our city: all that is dark and all that is feared, pulsing along in the arteries beneath us. There are seven hundred miles of tunnels in the city. The capacity for shadowplay is infinite. There are hundreds of nooks and crannies, escape hatches, ladders, electrical rails, control rooms, cubbyholes. An overwhelming sense of darkness, made darker still by mall pinpoints of light from the grates of topside. And then there are the rats, in singles, pairs, dozens, sometimes hundreds at your feet. If anything can happen, the worst probably will.” Here is a milieu of madness, of the unconscious turned physical, the Minotaur’s labyrinth come alive.
McCann continues his Cabeza de Vaca-like adventure into the unknown interior of America’s greatest city and discovers it gets darker still: “A consequence of darkness is mystery. The farther underground I went, the more mysterious the people became. A pair of runaways. A Vietnam vet. A man rumored to have once worked for CBS. A former University of Alabama football player who now looked at his life through the telescope of a rack pipe. Bernard Isaacs, a man with long dreadlocks who called himself Lord of the Tunnel. Another man, Marco, a flute player, who lived in a cubbyhole in the rafters and wanted to be known as Glaucon. And Tony, a pedophile who pushed his shopping cart full of tiny teddy bears along the edge of the tracks.”
These are misfits, down-and-outers too far gone even for Tom Waits to rescue in song; a Lonely Hearts Club Band, maybe even too damaged to raise a glass in Charles Bukowski’s Barfly orbit. This is a Night Gallery that stirs and shakes the soul. If you were looking for T.S. Eliot’s “madman shaking a dead geranium,” you’d find him here, now, in the present, giving the lie to the notion of progress in the great tarantella dance of dialectical materialism.
There are other compelling visions and voices worth singling out as well. There’s the almost-archetypal Indian cabbie with a postgraduate knowledge of some obscure facet of myth, cultural anthropology or the like. Taiye Selasi describes one such cabbie as he hauls a rich Russian émigré uptown, his heart broken by his daughter’s American drive for independence: “The Indian man finds this lovely. He is not a cabbie, but the ferryman Charon. One who delivers. Attends to transitions. Bears witness, gives refuge with sound, scent, and story to travelers trapped between points A and B.” Tales is full of such myth-living in-the-making.
Indeed, Tales of Two Cities is all about myths, delusions, and debunked dreams – American, foreigner, human – and you don’t know whether the accompanying riff should be a Mile Davis blues, or Shostakovich cello chiller, or a ragged busker on a kazoo, but whatever it is it can have no lyrics, for there are no words beyond these words that leave one speechless with dismay. As Bill Cheng writes, “They tell you, ‘You are where you deserve to be.’ But I know the way bad luck can build into streaks—a day, a week, a month, a year—all the avenues you thought were open shutting off one by one until all of a sudden you’re drunk and shaking and can’t see or hear for all your howling.” Here’s something they don’t talk about when the Buddhist Geeks talk the Singularity talk.
In his introduction to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, Jose Barchilon paints a provocative, under-explored pre-asylum life — how Renaisance Europe dealt with the mad by placing them aboard narrenschiffen (ships of fools) and sailing them from port to port, where they’d alight for a few hours or days before returning on the ship and their onward journey into further unknown interiors. Foucault suggests a level of interactivity with and acceptance by the various townspeoples of the strange cargo. It was not so much a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ as it was a tacit acknowledgement of the thin red line that separates madness and civilization.
The Mole People of New York may be fractured and ‘bent out of shape by society’s pliers’, as the Dylan tune goes, but even stripped down in the dark they maintain the dignity of matter and possess the integrity of atomic indestructability. Whereas everyone on the surface carries on as if they truly were the King of Prussia. And mightn’t a Fool just crack a smile, stepping off his ship in New York Harbor, and reading the lead piece in The Fait Divers Daily: “Swimming in the East River, Whitestone found a message in a bottle from the State Hospital on Ward’s Island. It read: ‘Some of us are sane’”?
Tales of Two Cities is, then, not merely about New York, per se, or about modern cities in decline, but more about the expanding cracks and fissures of civilization, the widening chasm between haves and have-nots that betokens, this time, an end to progressivism, to the notion that we’re all in this together, and a cruel, triumphant return to the feudal and industrial, as if Scrooge listened to other ghosts that fateful night and the next day informed Bob Cratchitt he’d have to reduce his hours to avoid Obamacare costs, leaving Tiny Tim without a leg to stand on. And all you could hear was the centrifugal force of a howling wind, and the lone cry for dignity.
Mind rape and the tunnels beneath the borders of the mind
At the end of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Hundred Blows (les Quatre Cents Coups), there is an amazing, extended tracking shot that begins with the boy protagonist Antoine Doinel’s escape from a youth reformatory, during which the camera follows him as he runs for several minutes. The scene concludes with Antoine reaching the sea and then turning back to the camera, and in the direction of his pursuers and the viewers, for a sudden freeze-frame. When I first saw this movie as an adolescent, the freeze-frame ending was so fraught with resonance for me that I immediately began sobbing as though my heart had been broken.
The documentary The Green Prince, as yet unreleased in the Czech Republic, didn’t produce quite the same profound effect as the Truffaut classic, partly because I’m an old jaded humanist now, but I could feel the same tortured truth tunneling through to me as director Nadav Schirman’s surprisingly eloquent documentary reached its conclusion. For The Green Prince is at heart a morality tale about the crushing power of shame and betrayal, but also of the miraculous, redemptive capacity of trust. Or so, for a moment, it seemed.
Directed by Nadav Schirman
With Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen Ben Yitzhak
Because then it struck me that by the time Mosab Hassan Yousef completes the circuit through the unconscious maze of deceit and disloyalty, switching his allegiance from his Hamas-founding father to asserting that he “would die for” his former Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak, he has merely reached that ocean and that moment of freeze-frame inescapabilty. Although Gonen intervenes on Yousef’s behalf, after Shin Bet won’t, he is left beholden to his ex-handler and interrogator, in a bizarre psychological transference that Freud would have been proud to study.
The film is based on Yousef’s memoir, The Son of Hamas.Yousef grew up in the household of a founding member of the organization. “Hamas was not just a movement to us,” Yousef says. “It was the family business. It was our identity. It was everything.” Ostensibly, the memoir recounts how and why he decided to betray Hamas, which his father helped lead, in order to spy for Israel. I haven’t read the book, but in the film the precipitating moment of changed allegiances comes after he has gone to prison for the first time.
What had happened was that Yousef’s father had been arrested at home by Israeli forces and not returned for a year and a half. When he returns home upon his release, he is arrested again after just six hours. This enrages the young Mosab, who virtually worshipped his Dad, and he vows revenge. He is arrested on gun charges and sent to prison. And it is in prison that he recognizes the utter depravity and brutality that drive the soul of Hamas leadership. Suspected Israeli collaborators are tortured, often to death, by Hamas thugs, trying to extract information about networked fellow collaborators. It turns out there is no such network and that Hamas is often torturing for nothing.
Earlier in the film, Yousef alerts the viewer that collaboration with Israel is regarded by Palestinians as a crime worse than raping one’s own mother. It is hard to imagine a more confronting description of hatred than that. This understanding of the level and degree of betrayal involved in collaborating has profound resonances for Yousef himself. For, as he relates in the film, when he was five years old a friend of his father’s chased him down and raped him during an olive grove expedition. This caused a deep rupture in his psyche. “I was ashamed,” he said. “In my society, the more painful thing than being raped is to have the reputation for being raped.”
Consequently, he is forced to suppress his trauma. But no doubt the prison torture of Hamas on Hamas, Palestinian on Palestinian, brought that repressed energy to the fore. Torture is another form of rape, not so much of the body as of the mind. For him, Hamas becomes “cowards in the name of courage.”
A central theme of the film concerns the multiple layers of shame Yousef must cope with to survive. Shame is extraordinarily powerful in directing the energies of the psyche and to the integrity of self-identity. A person who feels deep shame is caught between the pincers of communal rejection, a sense of being kicked out of the human race, which is almost unbearable, as well as a nauseating and incapacitating loathing of one’s own being. As a moral motivating factor, surely shame is far more ‘useful’ than feeling ‘guilty.’
No doubt this is why Yousef breaks down toward the end of the film when he discovers that Shin Bet will not help him after he quits working for them and, after producing a tell-all book, is threatened by the United States with deportation to Jordan, a sure death sentence. He has spent years betraying his father, family, Hamas and fellow Palestinians, tunneling in among them with his lies, in order, he hopes, to save his people greater grief at that hands of Hamas’ brutal authoritarianism and to provide an opportunity for a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians to germinate. When they reject him, he is back to Shame One.
If the film has a drawback, it is the lack of balance attached to the picture of Hamas’ thuggery. There are indeed theories out there about the cause of the degree of savagery often associated with Hamas militants, and with Islamic jihadists in general, such as the one Judith Butler proffers, which suggests that beheadings are hysterical reactions of grief and rage to being culturally raped by Israelis. But I’m not sure it accounts for the extreme of like-minded violence that occurs in other parts of the Arab world that are not under such pressure, such as in Saudi Arabia, where they seemingly behead at the drop of a hat, so to speak.
Actually, Hamas and the whole Palestinian questions seem to have a parallel in the once-endless evils of Northern Ireland. One might compare the parading Protestant Orangemen of Belfast to the unrepentant radical Zionist settlers of the West Bank. Like the IRA once was, Hamas is split along political and military wings. Like the militant wing of the IRA and horrific blunder in Omagh, Hamas has portioned out episodes of grievous and outrageous violence against their own civilian population. And, of course, religion in each case is key. But the politics are entirely different.
The Green Prince is another one of those award-deserving productions that many people should see but will probably have limited distribution. However, like the recent 5 Broken Cameras (also a somewhat anti-Hamas, pro-Palestinian film) and the excellent Shin Bet documentary, The Gatekeepers, in which former heads of the agency explicitly condemn Israeli policy toward Palestinians and lay the blame on controlling radical Zionists, The Green Prince is well worth going out of the way to see and absorb. These are films whose visceral and narrative power go beyond the exhausting and unending chain of rants, bring clarity and precious elements of understanding to an otherwise incomprehensible saga of destruction. They are a freeze-frame of the soul in crisis.
After having watched the bobbing pundits as they went round and round on the carousel of the media circus, reaching for that golden circular meme with effusions they hoped would become the week’s buzzword, you’d have thought it was Charlie Brown, not Charlie Hebdo, who violently passed away a couple weeks ago, along with Lionel, Lucy and Pigpen – finally gunned down by a Red Baron swooping in with a ululating allahu akbar, crescent moon notches sprucing up his fuselage.
Let sleeping dogmas lie, they say, but then someone woke the sleeper cells – all the crazies of Abraham: Bush, bin Laden, radical Zion – and now all Hell has broken loose, no one happier than the zealots going at it like three dueling banjoes in a film called No Deliverance.
I’ve tried to stay away from the Charlie fray, seeing in it the usual tragicomedy of wasted lives, of sardonic ink spilled in an Ironic Age for naught, the world become in so many ways a self-caricature souped-up on Google juice. Frankly, I didn’t go with the handwringing flow on this catastrophe. Being the free-associative type (an oxymoronic expression if there ever was one), my first thought was: La Haine. The movie about hate and racism at work in the suburbs of Paris, whose violence left me feeling queasy when I watched it back in 1995. An Arab, a Jew and a Black, all friends, confront a police state on the local scale, like the residents of Ferguson.
But I also thought of France’s recent Burqa showdown; recalled Libya and how France was the first to raise her hand when it came time to murdering Gaddafi. And thought of French colonialism in Arabia. Thought: even my favorite existentialist novel, Camus’ The Stranger, features an Arab being rubbed out senselessly on a beach by a French nihilist. There’s a lot of karma at work here.
As it often does, Black Agenda Report adds some clear and succinct perspective on matters of Otherness. Bruce Dixon points out that “If you actually want to understand why some fraction of Muslims saw gratuitous insult instead of satire when the French magazine Charlie Hebdo depicted the prophet Muhammad doing things you wouldn’t want your own small children to see, or pregnant Muslims as ‘Boko Haram sex slaves’ howling for welfare checks, all you’ve got to do is look at is two bits of history.” He then cites philosopher Karen Armstrong’s observation that the notion of a separation of religion and state is a Western one, and that even in “modernized” Islamic states the separation has come not by consent but by force.
Of course, such a separation does not really exist even in the powerful West. In America, you are put through the ritual of swearing to God before taking the stand to bear witness in a court of law; money has the laughable slogan: In God We Trust. Even here in Australia, I was rather stunned a few months back when I watched a session of Parliament open with members murmuring the Lord’s Prayer.
Back in Europe, France is not the only nation with a growing intolerance toward Islam and its traditions, which are seen as hostile to the dominant Western culture they are embedded in, but it’s a dangerously multiplying phenomenon as the rise of PEGIDA in Germany attests to. It makes one wonder: Is there a Kristallnacht for Islam on the horizon? Dixon is right to suggest that given the ‘clash of civilizations’ forced on Islam by Western catalytic actions, “In this context, unlike jokes exposing the foibles of the powerful, which are real satire, Charlie Hebdo, which is now subsidized by the French government is engaged in something much like war propaganda.”
In yet another rightwing theft of postmodernist tactics, apparently it’s okay to jeer and sneer and stare at the people we are actively seeking to kill or depose, to humiliate as a softener before the hardball begins. These are old tactics by now. The CIA plotted to have Castro’s beard fall out so that he would ‘lose face’. Saddam Hussein was declared “a homo” in the first rumblings toward his demise. Gaddafi was, of course, daffy (and also the crucial principal financier of Mandela’s ANC party when its viability was on the line). Bin Laden had ‘his porn stash’. And more recently, of course, the West lit up with hilarity at the notion of assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jung-un in a Seth Rogen comedy.
But lampoon some Israelis, who took to the hills overlooking Gaza with lounge chairs and beverages, the Star of David firmly planted in the ground, while the IDF bombed Gazans with remote-controlled drone missiles – well, that cold get you fired, and did: Australian columnist Mike Carlton practically chased out of town by murderous Semites crying, “You hate me!” Of course, it was the cartoon accompanying Carlton’s column which caused the original uproar – never mind that the cartoon was adapted from a Guardian photo depicting the very scene the cartoonist dressed up with funny curls. Meh.
No question: While not exactly a Massacre of the Innocents, the mowing down of a set of journalists is a horrible thing. There is nothing funny about that. And just to prove it, there were calls by fellow Jews for the editors of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz to be assassinated after they ran a cartoon a couple of days ago depicting a kind of scorecard of journalists killed in Paris versus journalists killed by Israel Defense Forces in Gaza last summer.
So all the pollies and pundits and assorted power punks have flown in to lay their wreaths of hypocrite mon lecteur fleur de malice at the graves of the fallen anti-heroes, who despised the endless ground zeroes these weasels stood upon. Another chance to co-opt, to call for more security, more up-ratcheting. Just as they did after two NYC police officers were murdered by yet another woken up sleeping dogmatist. Authorities are always ‘flying in’ these days to validate or co-opt. Obama had the sense or couth to stay away from the Charlie Hebdo charade – maybe he learned something after a terminally ill Nelson Mandela purportedly pretended to be dead in 2013 rather than receive the President’s phony smile. Out have come the slogans, the T-shirts with “Je suis Charlie,” that will soon be discarded, collected and shipped en masse to some Third World hell hole, showing up worn by children rummaging through trash heaps in the ‘burbs of Port Morseby or the like.
One good thing has come for Charlie Hebdo though: circulation has shot through the roof. Everyone in Europe now seems keen to seize a copy. Which inspires a modest proposal. What with falling revenues forcing newspapers out of the biz everywhere, maybe editors could start designating staff to be sacrificed for love of free press and freedom of expression The New York Times, for instance, might hang someone out to dry. Not David Brooks, who is too much of a vanilla milkshake, but, let’s say, Maureen Dowd, who is about the only one on staff capable of stirring people to healthy outrage with her acerbic wit and saucy savvy.
Think of the rebirth, the revenue renaissance that the NYT could enjoy if Dowd were hung out like a piñata (naked, if she prefers) and beaten by dogmatic mobs with dust brooms until all those whiskey shot glasses come tinkling out of her (assuming she drinks up to stereotype) and Bill Maher wrings his hands and Obama rings dem bells and Kathryn Bigelow directs another “journalistic” biopic on Dowd with black cats and Charles Schulz shows up, like Groucho, and machine guns ‘em all down with cartoon bullets. “Look at them run,” he’ll sneer, “now they know they’ve been in a war.”
Lots of nasty stuff has been written about Henry Kissinger over the many years since he left government service. For me, though, the most telling and direct lead to the essence of his character came in March 1973. He was meeting with President Richard Nixon at the White House and they were discussing an urgent request from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to exert pressure on the Soviets to allow Jews to emigrate from Eastern bloc nations. Kissinger, totally aware of Nixon’s ferocious anti-Semitism, might have offered up any number of titbits of advice, but instead our aphrodisiacal maniac offered up vile lickety-split.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” a craven Henry tells Tricky Dick on a White House tape released in 2010. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.”
While it might be tempting to call Henry a self-loathing Jew here, he’s far more twisted, in a Picasso-esque way, than that: his cubes have cubes. No, suspending a merely reactionary response for the moment, one sees Kissinger’s geopolitical realpolitik in a nutshell at work here. More important – far more so – than human rights, or popular systems of self-government, are the strategies and whims of the global elite powerbrokers.
Consequently, Kissinger and Nixon were not happy, a year later, when Sen. Henry Scoop Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik got together to pass through Congress the human rights-respecting 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment that tied trade status to emigration policy. Vanik, one of the last genuine and outspoken critics regarding the influence on legislation by special interest groups, had proud roots in Czechoslovakia, from whence his grandparents had emigrated to the US, and who was a vocal critic of the Soviet silencing of the Prague Spring.
And, in his new book, World Order, Kissinger grumbles about contemporary European inter-State policies, seeing them as having been influenced too heavily by the kinds of humanitarian considerations that brought leaders like Vaclav Havel popular support and rejuvenated European statecraft after the fall of the Berlin Wall, albeit much of the goodwill energy has since dissipated or been co-opted by the commoditizers of everything.
For toads and toadies like Henry K, the middle classes are to be tolerated (though not really respected) because they are the ocean of will that can sink or float a ship of state, and so they must be carefully managed with propaganda and promises, while the indigent, the hoi polloi who make up the majority of the world’s population, are entirely disposable and of no importance beyond ravishment.
Kissinger is certainly not alone with his aphrosdiacs; one thinks of the “brilliant” former head of the IMF and French “socialist” presidential hopeful, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who one day, during a break in strategy meetings, tried to force his aphrodisium on a lowly maid from Guinea. Sex and violence meets at the center of the psyches of both of these otherwise closeted men. I’m sure there’s a psychosexual etiology attached to the condtion, but let’s not go there.
Readers expecting anything fresh from Kissinger’s new World Order will be disillusioned; there’s nothing here but the same old same old, with some minor updating to include the influence of ISIS, a reference to the Ukranian crisis, and a coded declaration that the two trade partnership agreements across the Atlantic and the Pacific – the TTIP and TTP – are the essential upgrade needed to the Westphalian principles that have provided “order” to the Western-controlled world since the 17th century.
And, on this latter point, certainly it is not inconsequential that Henry’s World Order arrives on the verge of Hillary Clinton’s coming out for the 2016 Democratic nomination for the presidency. That explains Hillary’s recent Washington Post review of Kissinger’s new book, in which she turns in her former loud and acerbic criticism of all things Henry in order to polish his German helmet to a fine sheen. Who better than a Clinton to see sovereignty-destroying trade legislation passed and then managed? They have been praising each other in public ever since. But when two old trolls make such love under the bridge, where all that blood flows, you can bet it ain’t the bed you hear creaking. And for those who see the Kissinger-Clinton connection as an anomaly, recall rigid Ann Coulter’s preference for Hillary of over John McCain – because “Hillary is absolutely more conservative.”
World Order itself is some 800 plus e-pages long. It contains 9 core chapters sandwiched between an Introduction and a Conclusion. Kissinger starts out by discussing the importance of the Peace of Westphalia in 1642 which brought stability to an old Europe following the Thirty Years War by a coming-to-terms on issues of sovereign territory and the balance of power. As Kissinger puts it, this was “a turning point in the history of nations because the elements it set in place were as uncomplicated as they were sweeping. The state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European order.” The procedures this agreement instituted made it portable and helped spread the Westphalian system throughout the world, but especially in the colonies of the Americas and Africa.
The first two-thirds of the book is a very readable lecture-like survey and summary of various kinds of political orders that have taken root throughout regions of the world, but especially Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where all the major players are situated. One notes rather quickly that Africa is not mentioned at all in the book, and South America is barely mentioned, and then only in the context of colonization. Nafissatou Diallo, the Guinean maid on whom the banker Straus-Kahn tried make a deposit, would understand this dynamic perfectly.
So, then, says Kissinger, Europe and her satellites have the Westphalian system. In the Middle East we find, obviously, a system of order that is religious in its appeal and metaphysical in its dimensions. Until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the region had no set boundaries, and it may be that such physical demarcations are proving incompatible with tenets of Islam, although the religion has global hegemonic aspirations. In Asia, there is a long tradition of empires built on introverted consolidation and inherited power, and a historical resistance to the impurities of Western cultures. The question Kissinger raises is whether it’s possible to bring these various spheres into a compatible world order. But he slyly suggests that ‘Ve have Vays’.
And chapters 7-9 of the book would seem to affirm the possibility – if, the chief arbiter of world order these last 50 years – oh, you know who: America, the exceptional and indispensable – were to oversee a new world order broken up into some five regions, like a Venn diagram. As Kissinger concludes, “To achieve a genuine world order, its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural, and juridical—a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation. At this moment in history, this would be a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities.”
And that’s the essence of Kissinger’s World Order. Update Westphalia with its familiar rules and Western hegemony and bring in the now-incompatible regions, such as the Middle East and Asia, by granting them regional sovereignty that respects, say Islam and Confucianism, but uses treaties like the TTIP and TTP to harmonize, and, in essence, bring together a new league of nations. Since this would lead to global radical economic de-regulation, one imagines a single world currency developing out of this, with a view to ending currency wars and current creeps back to the gold standard that could de-stabilize the US dollar and bring about World Chaos. The question is how to make Russia and China give up their selfish spheres influence (Russia’s near-monopoly on the gas supply to Europe)l China’s export surplus and monetary deflation).
Are such notions enough to justify a rapprochement and détente with a war criminal, whose realpolitik deceptions and policies led to perhaps 8 million needless casualties? Well, the mainstream media sure seems to be partying. And the smell of aphrodisium is in the air.