Skip navigation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HURTLING INTO DARKNESS: AMERICA’S GREAT LEAP TOWARDS GLOBAL TYRANNY

John Chuckman

 

The darkness to which I refer is something largely unanticipated in political studies and even in science fiction, a field which definitely enters this discussion, as readers will see. There have been many examples of national tyrannies and even stories of global autocracies, but the Hitler-Stalin-Mussolini type of tyranny is an antiquated model for advanced states despite its applying still to many third-world places. A unique set of circumstances now works towards a dystopian future in advanced states with no need for jackboots or brutal faces on posters.

Ironically, one of the key forces which brought Europe and North America over a few centuries to the kind of liberal democracies we know today is capable of delivering a new and unprecedented form of tyranny. That force is the body of interests of a nation’s middle class – the group of capable, ambitious, and rising people who were called a few centuries back by Europe’s landed old aristocracy “the new men.”

By “middle class,” I certainly do not mean what the average American Congressman encourages, in boiler-plate speeches, the average American to believe: that every family with steady work is middle class, all other classes having been eliminated from the American political lexicon. No, I mean the people of significant means – and, although not wealthy, of considerable talent and education – who hold as a group an important set of interests in society through their holdings and valued services. It was the gradual growth of this class of people over centuries of economic growth in Western societies that eventually made the position of monarchs and later aristocracies untenable: the middle class’s interests could no longer be represented by the old orders while their importance to burgeoning economies had become indispensable. They provided the indispensable force for what we now think of as democracy in their countless demands that their interests be represented.

But there is evidence, in America especially, that something altogether new is emerging in human affairs. The real middle class, at least a critical mass of it, has been folded into the interest of the modern elites, the relatively small number of people who own a great portion of all wealth just as they did in the 17th century, wealth today being generated by great global enterprises rather than the ownership of vast national estates. Great enterprises cannot be operated without much of the cream of the middle class: they serve in computer technology, finance, engineering, skilled management, the military officer class, and in intelligence. Their futures, interests, and prejudices have become locked-in with the interests of America’s corporate-military-intelligence establishment. They are indispensable to the establishment’s success, and they are accordingly rewarded in ways which bind their interests – health care, pension-type benefits, privileges, working conditions, opportunities for promotion, etc.

This marriage of interests between elites and the talented middle class effectively removes many of the best educated and most skilled people from being political opponents or becoming critics of the establishments for which they work. At the same time, America’s middle class in general – its small store owners, small factory owners, modest bankers, and even many professionals – has been under attack from economic competition in a globalized world for many years and has little to look forward to but more of the same. America’s legendary working class “middle class” – that brief postwar miracle of auto and steel workers and others who through unionized, unskilled labor earned long vacations, handsome pensions, home ownership, cars, and even small boats – has been battered beyond recognition, every year for decades seeing its real income fall and long-term having absolutely no prospects.

Despite the rise of a society much steeped in the illusions of advertising and marketing, most Americans likely still assume in their day-to-day affairs that their neighbors and business contacts do pretty much what they say they are doing, that while there may be an exaggeration or white lie here or there, most matters proceed according to understanding, laws, and ordinary civility. By and large for the present, they are still pretty much justified in their assumptions.

But when it comes to the level of the national government, and especially in matters of international affairs, these ordinary truths simply cease to hold, almost as though you had moved from the visible, work-a-day world to the quantum strangeness of the subatomic. Likely, it has always been the case to some degree, but the evidence mounts that we have entered a startling new reality, one which shares almost nothing with traditional civil society. America’s national government has become inured to lying and cheating the people whom it ostensibly serves, lying as consistently and thoroughly as would be the case with an occupying foreign power trying to keep a captive population pacified. Americans were lied to about Vietnam, lied to about Cambodia, lied to about the Gulf War, lied to about the invasion of Afghanistan, lied to about the invasion of Iraq, and lied to about a host of policies and interventions.

But we have reached a new level in these matters, a level where the extent of the misrepresentation almost severs the social contract between those governed and their government. America’s neo-con faction has had its agenda adopted over the last few decades, that of freely and happily using America’s great military and economic power to crush those abroad who disagree with America’s arbitrary pronouncements, creating a long crusade intended to re-order the affairs of others with no apologies to them and no honest explanation to America’s own people who pay the taxes and provide the lives of soldiers. While the neo-cons are a passing phenomenon, much as the Middle-eastern garrison state with which they are ferociously associated, the values and lessons they have successfully imparted will remain part of America’s ruling consciousness, serving yet other interests. A tool once successfully used is rarely abandoned.

Not only is there a quantitative difference now, there is a new qualitative difference. After the holocaust of Vietnam (3 million dead Vietnamese justify the term), the United States military realized that it could no longer depend upon citizen-soldiers in its colonial wars. It also realized that that it could no longer tolerate even a moderately free press nosing around its battlegrounds, thus was born the idea of an imbedded press in a professional army. Of course, in the intervening years, America’s press itself changed, becoming an intensely concentrated corporate industry whose editorial policies are invariably in lock-step over colonial wars and interventions and coups, almost as though it were an unofficial department of government. In addition, this corporatized press has abandoned traditional responsibilities of explaining even modestly world affairs, reportage resources having been slashed by merged corporate interests as well as by new economic pressures on advertising revenue, the result of changing technologies.

There is only one lens in America’s mainline journalistic kit, and that is one that filters everything through corporate American views, an automatic and invariable bias found in every image taken or written outside America’s borders. Now, some will say in response that a few newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post are exceptions here, but they couldn’t be more wrong. When a journalistic institution gains a reputation for thoroughness and detail in some of its operations, it becomes all the more able to powerfully leverage its reputation in matters which concern the establishment. If you examine the record of these newspapers for some decades, you will find absolutely without exception, their close support for every dirty war and intervention, as you will find their close support for the brutal, criminal behaviors of favored American satrapies like Israel. In a number of cases, CIA plants have worked directly for these papers as disinformation pipelines, but in all cases, reportage and editorial reflect nothing beyond what the publicity offices of the Pentagon and CIA would write themselves. It actually is a sign of how distorted American perceptions are that these papers are in any way regarded as independent, disinterested, or demonstrating consistent journalistic integrity.

The American political system at the national level makes these practices practicable. No one is genuinely responsible for anything in an open and direct fashion, secrecy is as much the norm in America as it is in any authoritarian government you care to mention, and money is the only governing principle in American politics. Openness or transparency simply does not exist, as one might expect it would, transparency being one of the hallmarks of responsible and democratic government. Without transparency, there can be no accounting for anything, and it is the sine qua non of democracy that politicians and officials be genuinely accountable to the electorate. Lastly, the things which tend to remain secret from the people today are far more likely to be pervasive, world-changing developments, far more so than in the past given powerful emerging technologies and the great concentration of power in American society. They are, in short, the very things citizens of a democracy should know about but don’t.

It has long been the case that dishonesty and secrecy have marked America’s foreign policy, as it invariably does with great imperial powers. After all, when Theodore Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, and others decided in private to arrange a nasty little war with the declining Spanish Empire, one to become known as the Spanish-American War, they were hardly being honest with Americans. “Remember the Maine” was a cheap, dishonest slogan while America’s brutal behavior in Cuba and the Philippines (the first place waterboarding is known to have been used by Americans) were raw truths. So it has been time after time, so that the national government has learned that dishonesty and secrecy are successful and virtually never questioned.

During the long Cold War, America’s government became inured to these practices with its dozens of interventions and coups and long wars of terror like that waged against Cuba from Florida and New Orleans, a terror operation whose extent made bin Laden’s later mountain training place resemble a boy scout camp. Now, at least two new developments have now influenced these practices, with a third just beginning to make itself felt.  One, America, under the influence of the insider group called neo-cons, has pretty much given up pretence in its aggressive foreign policies: it has come to believe that it is able and entitled to arrange the world according to its arbitrary desires. Two, under the pretext of a war on terror, the United States government has transferred the hubris and arrogance of its foreign affairs into domestic government, no one having voted for a Stasi-like secret surveillance state, one moreover where even local authorities are endowed with armored cars, drones, and abusive powers. Three, technology is genuinely revolutionizing the nature of war, putting immense new power into the hands of elites – power which, unlike the hydrogen bomb, can actually be used readily – and nowhere is this occurring at a more rapid pace than in the United States.

The approaching reality is America’s being able to kill, highly accurately, on a large scale without using thermo-nuclear weapons and almost without using armies. With no need to recruit and support vast armies of soldiers, no need for mess halls and sanitation, no need for px’s and pensions, costs can be slashed, and there is even less need to explain what you are doing or to account for your decisions, and secrecy is promoted even more perfectly.

Today, we see the American government sending killer drones to multiple parts of the world, having already killed several thousand innocent people, with absolutely no accounting of victims or purpose, beyond flannel-mouthed stuff about getting bad guys. But even more dramatic killing machines requiring no soldiers are well along in development. A robot soldier, something resembling Dr. Who’s dreaded delaks with machine guns, already exists, with various advanced models under development equipped with every form of artificial recognition and various means of killing. Eventually, such robots will be delivered to places America wishes to secure, unfortunately without any care for the mistakes and horrors they may inflict on civilians, but America’s establishment does not care about that now as people from Fallujah or Hanoi could readily testify. A hypersonic robot plane or missile, able one day to deliver conventional explosives with precision to almost any spot on earth within an hour or two of launch is well along. Intelligent torpedoes and underwater drones are also well along. Robot tanks and ships are being developed. America’s mysterious space-plane vehicle, resembling a scale-model space shuttle, just having been tested with 500 days in orbit without any crew, has many potential uses for killing and control from space, including the launch of missiles from a position above any target, putting the reach of a fleet of them within minutes of any target on earth, a kind of early prototype Death Star if you will. We also have the advent of extremely powerful new lasers and electric rail-guns, both of which can be completely computerized in their operation. Advances in software, especially in areas like facial and voice-recognition, will enable completely automated targeting of victims almost at the press of a button.

One day, victims may well include troublesome Americans, not just unwanted foreigners. After all, the components for slipping into such a practice are virtually in place, and we know there are no qualms on the part of many of the people leading America today. In a secrecy state, people disappearing would rarely be noticed and never explained. The NSA’s unblinking surveillance on all American citizens would provide targeting information on demand.

We are not quite there yet, but in the close future, less than twenty years, the United States will operate under a military system not unlike the automated, radar-operated machine-gun towers Israel uses to pen in the people of Gaza, only it will do so on a planetary scale. Such immense power in the hands of a relatively few people anywhere and always would be a threat, but in the hands of America’s corporate-military-intelligence elites, people who already are not held accountable for what they do and feel virtually no need to explain, it is a looming threat to the peace, decency, and political integrity of the entire world.

I have no idea how the relentless march towards this brave new world can be stopped. Indeed, I am almost sure that it cannot. Americans in general no longer have anything which could be termed control over the acts of their government, and their role in elections is nothing more than a formal choice between two establishment-loyal candidates heading two parties that differ on virtually no vital matter. George Bush’s time in office proved something profound generally not recognized in the press: America does not now need a president beyond the Constitutional formalities of signing documents and making speeches. Bush was an utterly incompetent fool, but America’s national government never skipped a beat during his eight years, never skipped a beat, that is, in matters important to the establishment, which of course excludes matters like a disaster in New Orleans, concern for the welfare of the American people having long ago faded away as one for the national government.

After all, when you have lied to and manipulated a people for a very long time, how can a growing contempt for them be avoided? It cannot, in much the way a heartless conman fools an old widow into giving up her life savings. Besides, the more government focuses on the kind of matters America’s government focuses on, running for office and government service almost certainly increasingly attracts and rewards narcissists and sociopaths and repels those with broader public interests. The lack of concern and empathy becomes a self-regulated mechanism.

Barack Obama’s tenure has only demonstrated the point made by George Bush further. He has signed off on many new ways of killing people, many secret and disturbing policies, continued to wage Bush’s pointless wars, supported anti-democratic forces taking power in a number of place, including importantly Ukraine and Egypt, reinforced anti-democratic forces in many places like Bahrain, Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and not lifted a finger over Israel’s decades-long suppression of democracy and fundamental rights for millions. Obama’s only claim even to helping his own people is a pathetic, costly, unworkable health-care program in which the establishment has absolutely no interest.

The argument that there is an underlying concern for humanity and for rights in the American government couldn’t be more wrong, even though those are themes in the blubbering speeches of a George Bush, a Barrack Obama, a Hillary Clinton, or a John Kerry. America’s deeds abroad are without exception now to control, whether through wars and coups and assassinations or through the cajoling and threats that go on behind the scenes at every single vote by any international body, such as the United Nations.

I do not believe the citizens of the United States any longer possess the capacity to avoid these dark prospects. They are being swept along by forces they mostly do not understand, and most are unwilling to give up on the comfortable almost-religious myths of enforceable Constitutional rights and a benevolent national government.  The world’s hope of avoiding global tyranny now lies in the rapid advance of nations such as China, Russia, India, and Brazil to counterbalance America. Europe, an obvious possible candidate to oppose America’s more dangerous and obtuse efforts, appears in recent decades to have fallen completely under America’s direction in so many areas where it once showed independence, an increasing number having been bribed or seduced or threatened to join NATO and unwilling to use the limited international agencies we have, such as the United Nations, to oppose America’s disturbing tendencies.

 

VLADIMIR PUTIN, THE WORLD’S LAST TRUE STATESMAN

John Chuckman

Everywhere you look in the West, you find political pygmies rather than statesmen. In France, we see a pathetic man whose own people intensely dislike him, François Hollande, attempt to speak as though he were something other than a dry, pompous school teacher-like purveyor of American views. Almost forgotten are the strong, independent voices of a de Gaulle or a Chirac. In Britain, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, is a wishy-washy man of little integrity and less ability, again a purveyor of American views, and I’m sure he goes to sleep every night fantasizing about the last Prime Minister who faithfully served American interests, Tony Blair, being showered with gold, resembling something from the Arabian Nights, every year since his retirement. The United States is represented by a man of not one achievement, unless you count instituting an industrial-scale system of extrajudicial killing, sending missiles against women and children and mere suspects, a man who serves the American military-intelligence complex as doggedly as George Bush, surely the most ignorant and cowardly man ever to be called President. Germany has a leader of considerable ability in Angela Merkel, but, as few people understand, Germany acts only under the most onerous secret agreements imposed by America after World War II, its independence still heavily constrained nearly three-quarters of a century later.

No, Putin stands out, for his independence of mind, keen intelligence, ability to make decisions, and his readiness to act in proportion to the threat of a situation. In Syria he blunted America’s effort to bomb its government into submission, a la Libya. In Ukraine, he has acted appropriately and without excess, quietly taking steps to secure a region whose population includes a majority of Russians and where Russia has a major naval base and longstanding interests and relationships. The bellowing we hear from the United States about “Russia is committing a breach of international law,” or “You just don’t invade a country on phony pretext in order to assert your interest!” should amuse the world rather than arouse it. These words come from the folks who slaughtered 3 million Vietnamese, precipitated the deaths of more than a million Cambodians through de-stabilizing secret invasions, killed a million Iraqis, killed tens of thousands in Afghanistan, invaded Grenada, invaded Haiti, invaded Panama, overturned democratic governments in Chile, Iran, and Guatemala, fought a years-long secret terror war against Cuba, supported the 1965 genocide in Indonesia with lists of names of communist suspects for killing after the fall of Sukarno, and today finds itself murdering strangers by the thousands in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It tolerates brutal suppression in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other places. The establishment in Washington, publically lecturing Russia despite its own blood-soaked record, apparently has utter contempt for the public’s intelligence, viewing them much as 1984’s Inner Party viewed Proles.

Going back to that Russian naval base on the Black Sea, I am reminded of Guantanamo, Cuba. In case Americans forget, Guantanamo is Cuban territory. Decades ago, America’s long-term lease – extracted after the Spanish-American War, another American-engineered war used to grab desirable territory – ran out, and the government of Cuba asked that the territory be returned. America refused and still it keeps this military base against the wishes of the Cuban government, having used it over the last decade for its infamous torture camp for people captured after 9/11 and proved guilty of nothing.

To hear Obama and the droning, tiresome John Kerry talk, you’d think Putin had recklessly hurled the world into danger. Of course, what their strained rhetoric really is telling us is that, just after a round of champagne toasts and patting themselves on the back over the presumed success of having secretly de-stabilized Ukraine for Western interests, they are seriously annoyed by Putin acting swiftly and decisively to secure an insecure situation. Most people don’t like being shown up in public, but when you get to the level of a Kerry or an Obama, being shown up in public is plainly infuriating. And, of course, it makes so much sense to be cutting off avenues of discussion, such as Russia’s G-8 meeting, talking of “going to the hilt” as Kerry has foolishly done, and threatening serious reprisals if Russia fails to do as Washington wishes

The “revolution” in Ukraine is the product of years of effort by the CIA to exploit weaknesses there and gain a major foothold on Russia’s border. Whether you like the man’s views or not, Viktor Yanukovich, a democratically-elected president was ousted, and some extremely unpleasant people have re-entered the national spotlight, including Yulia Tymoshenko – a founder of the right wing outfit, The Fatherland Party, once one of the wealthiest people in Ukraine, someone who had charges of bribery and embezzlement swirling about her and her husband, and someone who served 3 years in prison for abuse of office. Tymoshenko’s public image, with heavy (bleached) blond braids wrapped around her head as a crown, reminds me of nothing so much as 1930s images of Germanic womanhood promoted by the Nazis in books and films. And then there’s Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the All Ukrainian Union Svoboda Party, an unapologetically fascist organization. There are still other extreme right wing groups at work too, including The Right Sector Party, again a genuinely fascist organization. There is, and has long been, a strong streak of fascism in Ukraine. Ukraine, much as Baltic states such as Latvia, was at the forefront of supporting Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and violence against Jews, the infamous massacre at Babi Yar having been committed in part by Ukrainian police. Ukraine provided the infamous Galicia Division to serve as a unit of the Waffen-SS.

During “the revolution” right wingers provided most of the street thugs and snipers, and there is considerable evidence that they continue some of their violence against peaceful protesters. Already, many unpleasant legislative acts are being considered by those now running Ukraine, including a law offering a penalty of ten years in prison for dual-nationality Ukrainians who insist on holding Russian passports. One of the first acts of the new government was to repeal a law allowing minorities to conduct business and education in their own languages. The coup has thrown the country into serious economic uncertainty, leaving it unable to pay many sizeable debts. “We’ll regain our status as a nuclear power and that’ll change the conversation. Ukraine has all the technological means needed to create a nuclear arsenal – which would take us about three to six months,” threatened Svoboda Party MP, Mikhail Golovko.  Can you just imagine the reaction in Washington were such activities underway in Mexico or Canada? An invasion in force with no pause for diplomatic niceties would be swift.

It is not the slightest exaggeration to say that Putin’s prompt and low-key action stands in sharp contrast to the shrill, hypocritical voices coming from Washington and being echoed in Paris and London. We all know that Washington’s readiness to threaten or bomb those who disagree with it is exceeded only by the monstrousness of its hypocrisy when speaking about law or rights or democratic values. It is perfectly represented by that genuine American Gothic, Senator John McCain, a fossilized, corrupt old reprobate who flies off here and there, sticking his nose into other people’s countries, trying to stoke up the fires of war in every difficult place he thinks an American advantage is to be had, a much diminished version of what he once did in Vietnam where he flew jets to bomb civilians.

We cannot know what Ukraine is going to experience given America’s support of extremists and cutthroats to overturn an elected government, a situation somewhat resembling what was intended for Syria through support of extremists and terrorists there, including the supply even of small quantities of Sarin gas used to produce atrocities inviting American intervention. The Syrian effort has collapsed into a hellish situation for which the United States takes no responsibility. So too the situation in Libya, another American-manufactured disaster, but I am confident in the ability of Mr. Putin to outplay the current crop of uninspired politicians in the West at geopolitical chess, especially where Russia’s vital interests are at stake, and we should all wish him well to prevent anything like Syria or Libya being repeated in Ukraine.

The fact is that we will have a better world where there are independent actors able enough to thwart a world bully from kicking sand into everyone’s eyes, an activity which appears now to have become a favorite American pastime. How is a world dictator-nation any less contemptible and dangerous than a country dictator-leader? It’s not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

UNDERSTANDING MODERN ISRAEL: WHY IT IS DRIVING THE WORLD TOWARDS MADNESS

John Chuckman

Nothing that Israel does in its affairs would be of quite such great concern to the world were it not for the fact that Israel drags along, willy-nilly, the world’s greatest power, much like some impressive-looking but feeble-willed, dazed parent stumbling along behind a screaming toddler demanding yet another goody. The threat of serious wars has grown exponentially in recent decades precisely owing to this fact, and not just wars but wars reflecting neither justice nor principle, the aggressive reordering of other people’s affairs by sweeping them into the pit of hell. The so-called war on terror is just part of the fallout of millions of the world’s powerless and abused watching helplessly and without hope the embarrassing public spectacle.

The terrible bloody war in Iraq was almost exclusively for Israel’s benefit. The Syrian “civil war” is a deliberately-engineered conflict for Israel’s benefit. The coup in Egypt, wiping away the sacrifice of thousands of Egyptians in a revolution for democracy and restoring a junta, again reflects Israel’s interests in the region. The constant threats and needless hardships imposed upon Iran, a country which has no modern history of aggression and which every intelligence service knows has not been working towards nuclear weapons, reflects yet the same interest. Indeed, so determined is the government of Israel to keep this huge country pinned down that it pulled out all stops in using its immense congressional influence trying to embarrass the President and prevent a sensible international agreement with Iran. And, more ominously, Netanyahu has threatened countless times to attack Iran, knowing full well that the United States would be forced to come to his assistance when Iran struck back, as it would have every right to do.

But it is not just constant wars and threats of wars, the liberal use of extreme force against the interests of others, which make modern Israel perhaps the greatest threat to peace on the planet. The effects of America’s unprecedented and inappropriate relationship with Israel have corroded badly the values and meaning of American society. America’s democratic government, always rather fragile at best, is literally becoming hollowed out. Today America copies a great deal of the ugly garrison state practices of Israel: aggressive and intrusive intelligence, anti-democratic laws, police and security being given close to a free hand in attacking human rights, secret prisons, and even extrajudicial killing on a large scale. The President speaks of governing by “presidential order” rather than by legislation, the intelligence establishment ignores the Constitution and the courts, the “homeland” security establishment heavily arms itself against public disorder, and even military men make the odd public reference to military government in an emergency. Where is the Constitution with its crucial Bill of Rights in all this? Cut in scraps lying on the floor like snippets from a film-editor’s work.

Of course, so far as rights go, Israel never had, nor can it ever have a Bill of Rights, given its peculiar organization and the practices of its garrison-state establishment. Imitating Israel’s practices and adopting its views remove any state automatically from the whole trend of western society since the Enlightenment. Israel’s leaders may speak all they wish about “the Middle East’s only democracy,” but the words are as insincere as television advertising claims for a new mouthwash. Can you have democracy for only one carefully-defined group? Can you have democracy without the restraints of a Bill of Rights upon an abusive majority? Can you have democracy which holds millions in perpetual isolation and subjects them to countless abuses? Can you have democracy where you prefer dealing with juntas and kingdoms to democratic governments in neighboring states? Can you have democracy which constantly threatens war on those who do not threaten it? Can you have democracy which conducts witch-hunts on a grand scale, just re-naming the witches as terrorists? Can you have democracy which interferes in the internal affairs of other democratic states? And, in the end, can you have democracy founded on the Orwellian principle that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal”?

The truth always and everywhere has been that a society heavily burdened by the military cannot be a truly free and democratic society. An armed camp like Israel has its values and future far more determined by the sheer weight of its military-intelligence-security establishment than by any elections or slogans about democracy, and this same unpleasant truth applies increasingly to America.

The effect of Israel upon the United States in some ways resembles the effect in space of a black hole with its immensely powerful gravity pulling matter towards the certain destruction of its event horizon.

It has become common for criticism of Israel to be conflated with anti-Semitism. Canada’s Prime Minister Harper, an ungracious man at the best of times, has been himself guilty of doing so. It is, of course, simple name-calling, certainly not the kind of thing we expect from a prime minister, but even more, it is a bully’s technique used to intimidate people who disagree.

The practice of calling critics names is closely related to the endlessly-repeated argument of Israeli governments that settlement negotiations must start with the Palestinians accepting that “Israel is the country of the Jewish people.” On first hearing, that might seem plausible, but a moment’s reflection shows its dangerous nature and calculated dishonesty. It is not up to people outside a country to characterize the country’s nature or make-up, and no one has ever expected that in any case, until now in the case of Israel.

Negotiations are, by definition, between parties who have different views, not between parties who have agreed in advance, nor are they between parties where one has been served an ultimatum by the other. But straining the sense of things even more in this case, the subject of negotiations is really not supposed to be Israel’s definition but Palestine’s. Is Israel saying that the Palestinians must grant permission or authority for Israel’s idea of itself? No, of course not, so some other purpose is implicit in this bizarre demand.

How would one define a country like Canada or the United States, countries of immense variety of ethnic, national, and religious origin, under Israel’s idea? You could not. Of course, they are understood by everyone as the countries of Canadians and Americans. And just so, Israel is the country of Israelis, and nothing more, with the large majority of the world’s Jews in fact living elsewhere. Moreover, what is called Israel today was the home of other people for an exceedingly long time, longer than the history of most of the world’s modern states, and those people have not disappeared.

So, Israel’s position is that you do not negotiate with people who refuse to parrot your definition of yourself. That is, it seems fair to say, a pretty unusual approach to negotiations. Imagine Americans refusing to negotiate with the Russians during the Cold War unless the Russian negotiators first formally recognized America as “the land of the free and home of the brave.” That demand, I’m sure we can all agree, would have yielded stony silence, and just so Israel’s demand. You surely make such demands only where you do not want negotiations. Israel, for public relations reasons, always maintains an appearance of being ready to negotiate for peace, but the truth is that negotiations happen only when its benefactor-in-chief periodically decides that they should. There is no evidence beyond words that Israel wants to do so on its own initiative. Indeed, all hard evidence points in another direction.

Israel is chewing away ceaselessly in numberless small bites at what is left of Palestine, reducing it to a set of meaningless, unconnected islands in a sea of armed hostility called Israel. When Israeli officials speak ponderously of “facts on the ground,” that is what they really mean. In the end, Israel intends to solve the problems with its neighbors completely on its own terms. There already is little need, in the minds of Israel’s leaders, to negotiate anything, and there will be less with each passing year. Gaza, surrounded by fences, radar-operated gun towers, tanks, its society riddled with spies, its people having no ability to go anywhere without application, permission, interrogation, and search is the model, although Gaza, through the accident of 1948 events is a bigger concentration of people than would be the ideal, Israel’s terror campaign having created an undesirably large huddle of refugees rather causing them all to flee the territory.

Apart from the absurdity of declaring the exact definition others must employ for Israel, using the kind of national definition upon which Israel’s leaders insist first requires that you define Jewish people. Why would anyone want to open that conversation? The Nazis had difficulty even defining what it was that they hated so much when they implemented their dreadful laws against Jews. Reading the details of how the Nazis determined Jewishness should be instructive for anyone suggesting this approach. Israel, too, has failed to come up with a rigorous definition, despite its need for one under the policy of all the world’s Jews being able to claim Israeli citizenship and assistance in settling.

The religion of Judaism certainly cannot enter your definition because close to half of Israelis identify as non-believers, and even Israeli politicians recognize the problems of theocratic states since they constantly disparage those that do exist in the Muslim world. But this reality does not stop Israeli politicians who lobby American Christian fundamentalists for support from encouraging the conflation of modern Israel with biblical Israel and of worldly Israelis having a good time in Tel Aviv night clubs with the thundering prophets of the Old Testament. Nor does it stop them from passing many pieces of legislation which have the oppressive character of a theocratic state in order to please Israel’s extremist minority parties always required to produce a majority government.

Since only about a third of the world’s people identifying as Jews live in Israel, Israel cannot even claim some exclusive relationship. Its only real connection with the diaspora is that it promises they may all claim Israeli citizenship if they wish. It is hard to imagine what Israel would do were even a large fraction of the diaspora suddenly to act on the promise, showing up on the door step, as it were, suitcases in hand. But Israel knows that will not happen. Life is too good for Jews in dozens of places to exchange it for life in Israel.

So far as a definition based on ethnicity, the task becomes more difficult, as well as unacceptable to the liberal mind since categorizing people by ethnicity has a terrible historical record, is innately unfair, and is always inaccurate. Trying to define Jews by national origin is a non-starter because Israel accepts people it identifies as Jews from any country. Realistically, since Israel ceased to exist nearly two thousand years ago, no person can be a Jew owing to national origin, any more than someone can be a Trojan or a Phoenician today.

Two thousand years make about a hundred generations, and no one can accurately trace his or her family tree that far back, anywhere. Even if you were somehow magically able to identify a certain ancestor of the desired ethnic origin a hundred generations ago, there would be only the most infinitesimal trace left in the mix of your genes after centuries of marriages, migrations, wars, and plagues. To use the name of that nano-bit of hereditary identity to characterize the whole person and the country in which he or she lives does seem to beggar logic.

We know that most people have a quite mixed background if you go back just a few generations, and under the hypothesis of “out of Africa,” if you could go far enough back, you would trace a common origin for all people on the planet (much, as it happens, in the Adam and Eve myth). So, how far back do you go in anyone’s ethnic background in trying to label him or her? Going all the way back means there are no labels possible. So, just where do you stop to get the label you want? At which point in an inconceivably complex history of migrations and disasters and the rise and fall of states do we select just the “right” origin? Religion – and any matter influenced by religion – does tend to be peculiarly selective in these things, as we see from the stuck-in-the nineteenth-century dress of Mennonite Christians or ultra-Orthodox Jews (why not an earlier century, we might ask?) or the Middle Ages’ dress-occasion costumes of Catholic Bishops.

It is a futile and foolish exercise to start, and that is true even if “out of Africa” eventually were proved inaccurate as we may discover several geographic sources of origin. It then would still come down to common ancestries for huge groups of people who do not now regard themselves as related.

Shifting the definition of Israel from the “home of Israelis” to the “home of Jews” has many serious implications the general public may not appreciate. Today in Israel, being a passport-carrying citizen does not mean that you are equal in treatment and privileges by your government to other citizens. Israeli citizens who are also identified as Jews – and documents of every kind in Israel unpleasantly identify your “ethnic” identity over and above your citizenship – enjoy a special class of citizenship not attainable by others. Now, Israel is free to do this in its internal affairs, but it is not reasonable to expect others to formally ratify it, and it is not reasonable to expect that many of the world’s people to approve such a prejudiced and divisive practice. It is pretty easy to guess the fate of more than one million non-Jewish Israeli citizens if the Palestinians were to accept Israel’s definition.

The last way to categorize Jews, and one that plays a role in Israel, is by cultural identity. But what is a culture devoid of the context of religion and ethnicity and national origin, surely the richest ingredients in any cultural stew? Almost nothing, except possibly a language. Hebrew has been artificially imposed as the main language of Israel, despite the reality of Arabic’s total dominance in the region, despite the fact that many immigrants and settlers in Israel can speak little Hebrew, despite the fact that this more-or-less dead language was only kept alive because of its role in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and despite the fact that Hebrew is a useless language in the world’s commerce and affairs, much as Welsh or Navaho would be. Are an almost-dead language and a couple of holiday celebrations to determine Jewishness and the entitlement to be an Israeli? If so, it is a pretty feeble thing over which to fight.

I think the truth is, and there is a good deal of evidence to support this, that Israeli leaders are motivated by an (unproved) sense of Jewish ethnicity, or perhaps more accurately, the wish to create an ethnicity which does not now exist. That too does seem a feeble thing to fight over, as well as being in the end a hopeless pursuit. Israel is a state formed by migration, recent migration, and migrants always and everywhere bring their former customs, language, and habits with them, and the larger each group is in relation to the country they join, the more it will deeply influence the place’s future culture and identity. Parts of the United States are now more Spanish-speaking than English, and such changes are underway all over the world. Parts of Toronto or Vancouver have as a first language Cantonese. The relatively huge numbers of recent Russian migrants to Israel, for example, remain to a great extent Russians who happen to have moved to Israel. The many Americans who have served in prominent positions are clearly identifiable as Americans who happen to have moved to Israel.

The dilemma is unavoidable: either Israel is a state for Israelis, or it is a state for a self-defined group, the mysterious nature of the group’s self-definition not subject to scientific scrutiny. If someone for any reason wants to call himself a Jew in many places, it makes no difference to anyone else, but in Israel to be a full citizen you cannot just choose to be a Jew. The fathers of the Zionist movement were in many cases intellectually-gifted men, but they were, after all, intense ideologues, truly fanatical men in a number of cases, and they were seeking a solution for problems they experienced in European society, a solution, as it turns out, as unrealistic in nature as the religious fantasy of a better afterlife which has comforted various unhappy groups through history. The solution they fixed upon also is one that comes loaded with intractable new problems. And those intractable problems, regrettably, are now becoming the entire world’s problems.

Israeli leaders have long wanted to rid their country of its non-Jewish population. The late Ariel Sharon wanted to overthrow the government of Jordan and turn the place over to the Palestinians who would all migrate there with Yasser Arafat. It was just one of many hare-brained schemes proposed over modern Israel’s brief history. A prominent Israeli military historian, Martin van Creveld, offered the notion of a massive moving artillery barrage to chase the Palestinians across the Jordan River. Moshe Dayan spoke of making the Palestinians miserable enough to want to leave. A number of prominent Jews have advocated killing the families of Palestinians found guilty of terrorism, and Israel has practiced destroying their family homes. Clearly, with such ideas, we see Israelis begin to slip into the mental framework of the very people who inflicted horror upon the Jews in the 1940s, and when you observe that kind of thing, it should be an early warning that what you are doing is dangerous and not well thought-out.

Why do people get such desperate ideas? Because the basic assumptions of their enterprise were faulty from the start and have driven them to pernicious and unwanted results with the apparent need for still more faulty corrective measures, an endless vicious cycle. The foundation of modern Israel involved a series of manipulations and back-door deals with European colonial powers entering their decline. They often involved favors exchanged, but in no case did they reflect law or sound logic. And in all cases, the foundational ideas had more of emotion in them than intellect. Then came the Holocaust, and a United States – which hadn’t lifted a finger to save Europe’s Jews when Hitler made it possible to do so, the first Nazi policy having been mass emigration – decided to play the good guy by fixing crushing penalties on still another group of people, one who had nothing to with the suffering of Jews.

This pose of America as big brother to Israel was certainly not just a reflection of guilt and regret, it reflected a new political reality that emerged about the time of Harry Truman’s re-election campaign. A well-organized lobby for Israel in the United States began offering campaign financing and press support for friendly candidates as well as the opposite for those not so friendly. Truman was inundated by lobbyists for the quick recognition of Israel, and while his own first instincts were against doing so, he yielded to the lobbyists, facing as he was, a tough, uncertain re-election campaign.

And the pattern of lobbying behavior has only grown in size and sophistication over time. At the same time, American national elections have become the most money-drenched political exercises on earth with the Supreme Court declaring money to be free speech and billions spent regularly just for a slate of candidates.

The idea of a pure state for just one people – however defined, as by religion, ethnic background, or cultural identity – is ultimately unworkable, however much you may be able to force it for a time, and Israel works immensely hard in trying to force it through countless unfair laws and the constant hot breath of secret police forces and the military. The concept, importantly, violates all of the progress in democratic and human values established since the Enlightenment, and, on a strictly pragmatic basis, it stands in defiance of the inexorable workings of a globalized world. Even the European nations once seemingly so well identified by populations with centuries of common history, as the English or the Germans, are now facing unavoidable changes in the structure of their populations. They are all in the process of becoming more like Canada or the United States, nations formed by many diverse streams of migrants. You cannot hold your finger in the dike or shout at the raging sea to stop, yet that kind of activity truly is implicit in Israel’s concept of itself.

Insistence on a narrowly-defined citizenship in a place shared with millions of others means of course Israel can never have a Bill or Charter of Rights, and the truth is that without a Bill of Rights no state can claim to be a true democracy. Just having periodic elections does not define a democratic state because a majority of any description may impose its prejudices and even tyranny on a minority at any time, as we have seen in South Africa or the American Confederacy or indeed in modern Israel. The very idea of a democracy for only one group of people – again, however defined – is a contradiction in terms. Bills and Charters of Rights are about protecting minorities, but Israel does not want the minorities it has, and it certainly has no will to protect them, seizing their property periodically and subjecting them to gross abuses.

Without some degree of true democracy, a society cannot have democratic values, that important sense of values which becomes part of the fabric of a society over time. Israel feels it cannot afford to embrace and respect democratic values owing to its security situation: it doesn’t say this, but it is implicit in Israel’s behavior. Thus we see contradictions like Israel happily doing business with governments along the lines of the Saudi royal family or Egypt’s thirty-year president, Mubarak. Israel has expressed contempt for genuinely democratic movements, again like those in Egypt. It would rather deal with an unelected, accommodating hanger-on to power like Mahmoud Abbas rather than recognize the democratic aspirations of Palestinians so clearly demonstrated with Hamas.

Israel’s habit of declaring every party or organization which represents some barrier or inconvenience to its long-term desire to ethnically-cleanse most of Palestine and annex the territory as “terrorist” is akin to Christians of long ago declaring certain different or odd people to be witches, worthy only of killing, as by burning at the stake (It is also akin to Israel’s habitual name-calling of critics). Thus Hamas, which is by all available evidence more dedicated to democratic principles than the government of Israel, is a witch to be dealt with as witches should be. Thus Hezbollah, a freedom fighting organization owing its very birth to Israel’s long and bloody occupation of part of Lebanon and one which has never invaded Israel, is another witch.

But they are not witches: they are parties representing legitimate interests and aspirations in the region. People with democratic values would recognize this and treat them accordingly.

From the point of view of many, the re-creation of Israel was a mistake simply because it created more problems than it solved and added to the world’s stock of misery and injustice, to say nothing of instability. Much as was the case with the Soviet Union, Israel almost certainly will not survive in its present form. There are too many faulty assumptions and too much flawed logic in its make-up for it to be viable in the long term, but its dissolution will be a natural process, again much as was the case with the Soviet Union, not the violent act of invaders or enemies. In the meantime, Israel’s intense ferocity towards all who question its behavior and toward all of its neighbors, when combined with its unnatural relationship with the United States, will prove a growing threat to the world’s peace and stability. And as Israelis themselves begin to realize the genuine paradoxes and terrible conundrums their enterprise has created, we are likely to see even increased ferocity and irrational behavior, as so often happens when dreamers see their dreams failing.

Israel’s leaders have in recent years been little more than a series of meglo-maniacs determined to play the role of a mini-world power and dictate the fates of those for a thousand miles around, all while proving incapable of solving even their own society’s most fundamental problems, which are numerous and pressing.

Only the United States has the power and authority to restrain Israel and to insist on Israel’s obeying the laws of nations and respecting its neighbors, but since politics in the United States is now hopelessly mired in money and lobbies for the foreseeable future, and since America has voluntarily joined the delusional war on terror, adopting many of Israel’s ugliest practices, it seems impossible that America can summon the strength needed for genuine leadership. It will remain the hopeless lumbering giant of a parent being yanked around by a screaming child. With the gradual recognition that the national dream is becoming a nightmare, and as the more reasonable people leave Israel for a better life in other places, the intensity and desperation of the screaming child will only increase. The next couple of decades are going to be dangerous times indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE REAL LESSONS FROM THE DEATH OF NELSON MANDELA

John Chuckman

The press has echoed for days with admiration for Nelson Mandela and his genuinely heroic fight against the apartheid government of South Africa. There have been many recollections of the brutal quality of that government, all perhaps carrying an unstated sense of how could people live that way?

As I listened on the radio, I couldn’t help thinking of the common human frailty which sees us caught up in gasping over and memorializing what is past while ignoring much the same thing that is present, as on what is called Remembrance or Armistice Day, we’ve recalled for the best part of a century the terrifying experiences of a war which was to end all war, while yet marching on to even more brutal and murderous conflicts. This seems contrary to logic, and it certainly works against the interest of institutionalizing and making permanent what it is that we praise, but it remains a conflicting duality of thought we find almost universally established. After all, it is so much safer and easier to praise heroism once the threat it struggled against has faded into history. And, sad to say, but history does tend to support the idea of most people behaving like cowards while they sing the praises of heroism.

We have no less an authority than Nelson Mandela himself, in an opinion shared by the equally admirable Bishop Tutu, that the terrible system of oppression against which they struggled in South Africa is very much alive and flourishing in still another place today. That place is, of course, Israel and its occupied territories.

No matter what past abuse by the former apartheid government the newsmen and commentators may mention, there is an equal, or in some cases an even greater, one not mentioned for Israel. For the Soweto and Sharpeville Massacres, we have Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the several invasions of Southern Lebanon, the toll of these measured in thousands killed and thousands more injured. For the many people, like Mandela, arrested for opposing oppression and left to rot in prison, we have tens of thousands of illegal arrests by Israel of people also left to rot in prison and often tortured there. For the secret murders which South African security forces routinely carried out in the manner of the Argentine Junta’s “disappearing” people, we have scores of assassinations of Palestinian leaders, including not so very long ago Yasser Arafat. For the Bantustans South Africa created to pen up millions of blacks, depriving them of access to most of the country, we have Israel’s Wall, an armored fortress which snakes through the homes and farms of countless people without regard for their welfare or rights and the utter isolation of Gaza’s one-and-a-half million behind razor-wire fences with radar-controlled machine-gun towers set at intervals and warships blocking the coast. For South Africa’s two classes of citizenship with unequal rights and responsibilities, we have Israel’s two classes of citizenship with unequal rights and responsibilities plus the perpetual consignment of millions to a life of occupation with no defined citizenship or rights.

And what actually brought down the oppressive South African regime? Not really the bravery of the Mandelas and Tutus directly, but the outside world’s gradually turning against that government’s excesses and bringing the force of embargo and economic penalties. The United States was a late-comer to the process – after all, it highly valued the anti-Communist stance of the apartheid government in the Cold War, given its strategic position on the Cape. But once the United States was turned by its own people to join the boycott, apartheid’s days became numbered. And, happily, the end came with remarkable peacefulness.

I have often said that only pressure from the United States will correct the terrible abuses of Israel, but the United States shows few signs yet of exercising that potentially decisive power for good. It is, first, in the midst of another massive equivalent of the Cold War, its so-called War on Terror. In this War, Israel plays the role South Africa once played in the Cold War as occupier of a key strategic point. Israel also makes every effort to have Americans and others see its brutalities as part of a shared battle, a fight against terror, even though its struggles more closely resemble those of the late South African government, a war against the rights and dignity of millions of people with whom they do not want to live. And many Americans still do not understand, being given every encouragement in their press not to understand, that the War on Terror is blowback from Israel’s oppression.

Israel has another advantage it exercises to the fullest. American elections have become utterly corrupted by special interests and money, so much so that American democracy is, at best, described as on life support. This is the work of Americans themselves, but Israel has cleverly devised an expert and systematic way to exploit the corruption. Its lobby rewards with campaign funds and good publicity those who support Israel’s interests, and it punishes those who do not. Newly-elected officials are given the clearest set of guidelines for what is expected of them with initial paid trips to Israel for every new Congressman and regular consultation thereafter concerning issues on which they are to vote.

I have to believe that ultimately the basic human impulse for fairness – something we find remarkably in many people in many lands no matter what kind of government they may live under – will prevail, but I have no hope that can happen soon. In the meantime, maybe we can learn a little bit about our tendency to sing praises with our eyes closed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TIME WOUNDS ALL HEELS: WHAT TORONTO’S ROB FORD FIASCO IS ABOUT AND WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM IT

John Chuckman

For most of its history Toronto was a quiet and law-abiding place, up until a couple of decades ago bearing the nick-name, Toronto the Good, a name which actually had a double meaning, the second one being dull. And the city was rather dull, but it was also safe and decent, a place of quiet neighborhoods and corner green-grocers. In the 1960s, street cleaners carried the motto, Keep Toronto Clean and Tidy. Its mayors ranged from dull and honest to earnest and green. Toronto has grown greatly since that time and has gone from having a largely British-Scottish population to a cosmopolitan one with a great diversity of national origins, but it remains a relatively peaceful and quiet place which rarely intrudes on the world’s headlines.

So how did it end up making news around the world with a mayor whose behavior is insulting, laughable, embarrassing, and, in a number of cases, illegal? I think the answer is to be found in the behavior of his predecessor, David Miller, a man fixated by all things superficial and yuppie-fluffy.

Miller ignored real problems in the city for two terms while he went for Don Quixote charges like his long campaign to kill the city’s island airport, an attractive and useful facility on the waterfront, but one to which some waterfront condo owners objected. Basic urban housekeeping suffered badly, from pot holes in the streets and a crumbling downtown expressway to a growing cancerous and destructive bureaucracy in everything the city does (e.g., if you repair parts of your home near a tree on your property, you will be charged two thousand dollars or better to protect the tree with a temporary wooden structure), all while raising taxes annually by substantial amounts and never tiring of saying how Toronto’s people valued services and didn’t mind paying for them. Toronto is traditionally a city of homes (apartment buildings only starting to appear in numbers in the late 1960s), and many of its homes are extremely modest row- or semi-detached houses from a century or more ago belonging to people of modest means. Miller ignored them, and Ford came along to an unhappy electorate and promised, with a burst of pseudo-populism, to do things differently. Well, they had no idea how differently he meant.

Rob Ford is simply “Montezuma’s revenge” for two terms of David Miller. As it turned out, Ford not only had a closet bulging with skeletons, he truly did not understand much about cities. Several newspaper reports tried warning voters about Ford’s past: his 1999 arrest for drunk driving in Florida or his being led away by police in handcuffs after a 911 call from his wife five years ago or his charge of assault at a hockey game when he was younger. But the facts no more registered with many voters than early revelations in the United States about George Bush’s scandalous life before politics, and besides the opposition in the mayoral election tried rallying around a man whom many regarded as an abject failure in provincial politics. Ford’s claim to merit, parroted almost daily by his brother Doug, has been saving taxpayers money, but that claim has proved as phony as so much else about Ford, advocating, as he does, a money-wasting (but vote-getting) subway to a lower-density former suburb instead of a sensible LRT, something that will cost more than a billion unnecessary dollars.

Rob Ford’s public behavior reminds me somewhat of the literary character, Father Karamazov, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a man who would do the most absurd and embarrassing things and then act as though nothing of the kind ever happened. It is a trait which in Rob Ford superficially resembles lying but surely reveals something deeper, for the original acts themselves are often tasteless and there are many witnesses to them, yet there appears to be absolutely no sense of shame felt.

We learn now there is no straightforward way to remove a mayor in Toronto, no mechanism such as recall ever having been anticipated as being needed in Toronto the Good. Rob Ford has appeared drunk in public several times with slobber or drink or perspiration wetting his shirt front. He has made rude suggestions to women. He gave the finger to an old lady who called him out about his texting while driving. He tried to pass the open door of a streetcar and when the driver rebuked him, Ford reported the driver for leaving his seat to the head of Toronto transit. Ford was photographed reading papers while at the wheel on a busy highway. He always rejected suggestions that he have a full-time driver. He disappeared from city hall for long periods of time day after day with no explanations. He used city staff on some of his personal charitable work. He used city letter head to solicit funds for his football charity. He sometimes used a friend, a man twice convicted of violent acts and since arrested for drug dealing, as a driver, and he wrote letters of recommendation for this character, again on city letterhead.

The cracks really started to show when a mysterious man approached reporters of the city’s largest newspaper and tried selling a video from a cellphone. The video appeared to show the mayor smoking a crack pipe in the company of some shady men, one of whom was later murdered. It is also reported to have Ford using nasty language towards some groups. The newspaper did not buy the video, and the mayor called the newspaper’s careful (and as it proved, accurate) reportage of events “ridiculous,” one of his favorite glibly-mumbled words, and many were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though a still from the video was published of the mayor with the shady characters, but the mayor insisted he posed for hundreds of pictures with people he didn’t know. The mayor upped the ante on the video by telling reporters he could not comment on something that does not exist (use of that word causing many to fear that he may have obtained or destroyed it). The city’s other major newspaper, not to be outdone, ran a well-researched story on the mayor’s confidant, political ally and brother, Doug Ford and his other brother, Randy. It told of their days in the 1980s working as dealers selling hashish, and included the tale of a man who was kidnapped, driven off, and held in isolation for not paying a drug bill. This, as usual, was met with “ridiculous” and “lies.” Suddenly, some unknown person gave another video of the mayor in unknown circumstances to a newspaper. It shows him in a drunken rant, flailing his arms, shouting obscenities, and threatening to kill some unknown person.

Since that time we learn the police conducted an extensive surveillance on the mayor owing to his association with known criminal types. They also conducted a large drug raid in the neighborhood where Ford seems to have been photographed in the first video, a place said to be a known crack house. Bit by bit, the press has managed to get the court to release some of the records relating to these events as being in the public interest, and it has just been one bombshell after another. Night pictures of the mayor at a gas station going to the washroom while his questionable friend uses an open passenger-side door to place a package in the mayor’s parked car, the fact that the “non-existent” video was discovered by police in the raid and that his friend has been charged with extortion, confirmation of the general nature of that video, phone records showing the mayor calling his shady friend about 250 times, the fact that there is still another video of some kind yet unknown, long texts of police interrogations of people who worked in the mayor’s office containing testimony about drunkenness, drugs, possible prostitutes, and more.

One suspects that the extortion charge relates to secret efforts to obtain the video with the great flurry of phone calls, all during public denials of the video’s existence. One can imagine the police offering a plea bargain to the mayor’s friend in return for testimony against the mayor, but that is only speculation.

Suggestions have been made over and over by allies and opponents that Ford take a leave of absence to seek treatment or quit, but they are all stubbornly ignored and the mayor says he enjoys his job (an assertion which raises the question of which aspects of the job he means). One can almost picture a children’s book about Robby the Runaway Bulldozer continuing to smash things with a smile on his chubby, perspiring face despite efforts by every worker on the construction site to jump aboard and apply the brakes.

But the city’s councillors are so ashamed of his latest behavior, they’ve begun stripping him of authorities by overwhelming majority votes, the intention being to leave him as mayor in name only so that he either quits in frustration or lives out the remaining ten months of his term without smashing anything more. The determination for this approach came after Robby suddenly appeared at city hall before television cameras and uttered some utterly filthy words, the kind you generally only hear at a drunken table of puking college freshmen.

A short time later Ford reappeared to apologize, and I don’t know what number of his “sincere, sincere apologies” this one was simply because everyone in the city has lost count. This one proved less an apology than another bizarre stunt when he dragged his wife with him before the cameras, a woman who is virtually unknown, having avoided public light much as the late Nikita Khrushchev’s wife used to do. Robby didn’t literally drag her of course, but if you watch the video of his bizarre statement, you will see what I mean: Mrs. Ford does not stand by his side, turned to look up at him speaking the way American politicians well-trained prop-wives are so often seen doing during campaigns, hanging on every banality uttered as though listening at the feet of Jesus. No, Mrs. Ford takes several distinct steps away from him, and she stands, face towards the audience, looking what I can only call grim. But she doesn’t just stand there looking grim, she rolls her eyes up once and turns them down several times, rubs her ring finger nervously, and gives out several almost-audible deep breathes in the fashion most people might use to silently express exasperation or fear.

It was a performance by the pair of them such as I have never seen in politics. So why did he insist on exposing this private woman? Well, it was completely in keeping with his own apology for having said words earlier on camera along the lines of “I never said to [a woman] I want to eat her pussy because I have plenty to eat at home.” First he told us how shattered he was over the last six months since the death of his father, and then how upset he was that court-released police transcripts told of a former associate of his who thought the mayor had a sex worker with him on one occasion.

The transcript includes a lot of other stuff by other former associates, including drunk-diving, taking OxyContin and doing lines of cocaine, sending employees out to buy him flasks of vodka which he drank when driving, but it was the one about the supposed sex-worker that seems to have sent Robby into a ballistic trajectory. No, she wasn’t a sex-worker, said Robby, but a friend, and he was very upset over that description. By a logic which eludes me, this all got blurred into a supposed attack on him as a husband and father. Presumably, that logic was the key to his bringing his wife with him to exhale and look down and rub her finger several feet away as he explained his reasons for using grotesque obscenity on camera shortly earlier.

He left the podium after this statement and proceeded down the hall with his wife in tow, much resembling Robby the Bulldozer pushing aside newsmen gasping and gawking, one radio commentator saying he’d never seen anything like it.

There was one thing clearly explained by this performance, and that was that Ford was not just the drunken buffoon and regular liar so many now took him for but a man with genuine and serious problems, seemingly a mental disorder of some kind. So which came first, in chicken-and-egg fashion, the mental problems as a result of excessive drink and drugs or the drink and drugs being used as an effort at self-medication for a mental problem? The answer is, of course, we don’t know, and I doubt Rob Ford does either, but in the end it doesn’t really matter: he is a totally unfit person for any office.

The delightful coda to all this was a series of announcements by various organizations who let Ford know they did not want to be associated with him. The Toronto Argonauts football team, whose jersey he had worn earlier to root for them in a playoff game, let it be known he could not attend the game in his official capacity. Best of all was the organizers of the city’s Santa Claus Parade asking the mayor not to attend in his traditional capacity, walking in the parade and handing out lollipops.

Rob Ford’s political career is all but over, but it will take some time before the door to city hall can be closed on his back. His lawyer is making sounds about an injunction to stop city council from meeting to vote on more stripping of authorities, and Ford has threatened to sue everyone, including the people who were quoted in court-released documents being interrogated by police (who generally hold people responsible for the truthfulness of statements). While the likelihood of success in such acts seems extremely low, Ford is a rich man (his late father having built a company which has kept the Ford brothers going in comfortable style), as well as a stubborn one and an angry one.

I do have a couple of fears. One is that his true believers, and he still has some, will promote a stab-in-the-back myth. That will be divisive and poisonous in a city politics which has not traditionally been so, indeed a city politics which does not even have political parties, but that is precisely what happens when any politician chooses to abuse truth and transparency and ignore responsibility. My other fear is that the next government of the city will not learn from the Robby the Runaway Bulldozer experience and, feeling they are leaving a brief, bad nightmare behind, go ahead in the Mayor Miller fashion of focusing on the superficial and grandiose. That way likely lies more madness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A VAST WASTELAND OF EFFORT SPENT: AMERICA’S RAMPAGE THROUGH THE MIDDLE EAST

John Chuckman

I read that six thousand people have been killed by sectarian violence so far this year in Iraq, surely a good rough measure of what America’s invasion achieved there. In Afghanistan, America’s chosen man publically disagrees with America’s ideas of what withdrawal means, how many occupying American forces should remain, and the role the Taleban should play. Killing remains a daily occurrence, including regular instances of American special forces murdering civilians, drugs flow freely through the country and out to the world, and most women still wear the burka. Libya is reduced to rag tag bands engaged in fighting like rival gangs of bandits. Syria writhes in agony as the victim of an artificially-induced civil war with even the use of nerve gas on civilians by America’s proxy fighters winked at and lied about.

Such are just the continuing aftershocks of America’s violent, senseless campaign on the Middle East and the Muslim world.

The screams of the hundreds of thousands of initial victims of cluster bombs, Hellfire rockets, depleted uranium explosions, and white phosphorus were what Condi Rice once described as “the birth cries of a new Middle East,” likely just before she set off on another shopping spree to New York for more cute new shoes. You might say Condi and her psychopathic associates assumed the God-like perspective in their work, as the people being devastated were regarded with the importance of ants being squashed by gleeful children in a playground.

Ideas of “nation building” around all the slaughter and destruction are now almost forgotten in the press where they were once earnestly discussed like big government social programs of the 1960s. It is hard to know whether those ideas were ever taken seriously in Washington by the platoons of Pentagon consultants over expense account lunches or whether they were never intended as more than glib slogans and talking points for politicians’ convenience, banners with nice words to cover piles of bleeding bodies. No clear-thinking person ever took the idea seriously, but as we know there is not a great deal of clear thinking in times of war, nor is there much of it at any time among American politicians.

The notion that you can change the basic culture and social structure of a nation of tens of millions over a foreseeable time span is laughable. Culture, including the unpleasant parts contained by any of them, is a complex of habits, beliefs, relationships, and prejudices formed over an immensely long period in the workings of a people’s economy. Just as language and religious traditions cannot be greatly altered or undone quickly, so too all the other aspects of a culture. It is simply nonsense to believe otherwise. The efforts, over much of a century, by Russia’s Communists to change an ancient culture, including its church and national customs, should serve to intimidate glib references to nation-building.

The single most important part of any serious effort to change a place and its ways of doing things is the steady advance of its economy. It is the fluidity of a nation undergoing long-term economic growth that gradually washes away old and inefficient and fearful customs, changing everything from the nature of marriage and the way families work to the kind of clothes people wear and food they eat. After all, America’s backwaters still enjoyed family picnics at public lynchings as late as Franklin Roosevelt’s day, and it was largely the cumulative effects of economies restructured over decades with increasing opportunities and movement of people and ideas that brought those ghastly practices to a close.

Even changing minor aspects of an entire society, as we’ve seen many times in our own, is a long effort. Smoking is the clearest example of this, it having taken over half a century, despite medical understanding of its hazards, to move us from smoking being a stylish part of every Hollywood film to cigarettes being hidden behind the counters at corner stores.

And this is all the more true when you employ force, as the United States does habitually. People do not react well to aggression, and it is not the way to change anything which it may be desirable to change. On even so basic a level as raising children, our laws and courts and schools have evolved to rule out physical force. And despite decades of the war on drugs with its seemingly endless march of folly – armed raids, mass arrests, seizures, and imprisonment plus tens of billions spent – we have made no perceptible progress on what all of us recognize as a gigantic medical and social problem.

But when the force you employ includes B-52s, F-16s, and private armies of hired cutthroats, it is a certainty you will change little beyond the death rate.

The United States government now has been swept by a new enthusiasm in the application of violence. It is a new interpretation of the concept of airpower. In places like Libya, America embraced the almost benign-sounding concept of a “no-fly zone” to bomb and shoot the crap out of a national army fighting rebels. It developed the concept over the decade after the first Gulf War where it enforced a no-fly zone that was actually an active program of attacking any Iraqi installation or suppressing any movement it wanted while an embargo continued to inflict terrible suffering on the children of Iraq. Another version of the concept was used in the invasion of Afghanistan. The United States bombed the country with everything it had, including B-52s doing carpet-bombing, while most of the fighting done on the ground was done by other Afghans, the tribes of the Northern Alliance serving as American stand-ins.

The new approach has several advantages. It sends fewer coffins back home so that political opposition to the killing abroad never grows as it did in the Vietnam holocaust. It’s likely cheaper, too, than sending in and supplying large numbers of troops. After all, I read somewhere that just the air-conditioning bill for American troops in Iraq ran into many billions of dollars. And it maintains a kind of polite charade about not really invading a place.

Over the same period, another form of airpower came into its own, drones used as platforms for Hellfire missiles targeted by remote control. The Israelis, always leaders in the work and technology of murder, used a version of this method in what they blithely call “targeted killings,” a long series of acts known to most of the world by the terms “extrajudicial killing” or “disappearing people” or “political assassination.” Al Capone might have called it simply “rubbing guys out.” Well, whatever you choose to call it, the United States is in the business in a serious way now, having murdered people in Somalia, Bahrain, Pakistan, Yemen, and perhaps other places we don’t yet know about.  It has killed several thousand this way, many of them innocent bystanders and all of them people charged with no crime and given no due process.

Of course, Israel’s long string of murders have achieved little beyond making still more enemies and dragging in the gutter any claim it may once have had to ethical reputation or worthy purpose. And just so with America’s valiant effort by buzz-cut thugs sitting in crisply-pressed uniforms at computer screens playing murderous computer games with real people in the explosions.

As for diplomacy and reason and rule of law, these are practices almost forgotten by America in the Middle East, as it mimics Israel’s reprehensible behavior towards the people of the occupied territories and neighboring states. And all democratic values have been laid aside or bulldozed over in Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other places as Israel’s special interests are put before the democratic and human rights of many, many millions of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOW AMERICA LEARNED TO PLAY GOD

The Aftermath of 9/11: America’s Second Great Transformation and the Emergence of a Brave New World

 

John Chuckman

I call America’s pattern of behavior since 9/11 a “great transformation” because it involves revolutionary changes for the country and, unavoidably, the entire world. In its internal affairs, America has effectively weakened the protections of the Bill of Rights and instituted many of the practices of police states – all under the insidious rationale of “protection from terrorists,” a subject heading which incapacitates the courts and serves to draw a great dark cloak over matters vital to all. Secrecy, always a favorite tool of cowardly politicians, now has assumed an enormous, central position in America. Spying, both on your own people and on those abroad, has become pervasive.

America has increased spending on military and intelligence to levels dangerously high both for the stability of the world and the future integrity of its own society. These resource-wasting establishments also will entangle any state in all sorts of costly unanticipated difficulties over time. Foreign policy has shifted to adopt the once-laughable, malevolent fantasies of the Neocons as official America policy, including an unapologetic and unprincipled use of America’s military strength around the world and a savage effort to remake the entire Middle East to its own liking, ignoring the region’s acute problems and treating the hopes of tens of millions for better lives as so much collateral damage from a bombing run.

These massive changes add to a social and governing structure which already had grown far away from the people, a structure which in many ways resembles that of pre-revolutionary, 18th century France, a state ruled by and for a class of landed aristocrats, a class of church aristocrats, and a ruling family and its armies. In contemporary America, the great hierarchies are the Pentagon, a web of sixteen intelligence agencies, and the great corporations with their immensely wealthy owners.

America’s first great transformation was the Civil War, a war which was not about slavery as is commonly believed and generally taught in public schools but about the division of powers between states and the federal government, affecting the very economic and political structure of the nation. The United States under the original Constitution was a very different place than we have come to know it. The Civil War reduced authorities of the states, demolished many formidable internal barriers to trade and to federal political power, and elevated the federal government from a mere debating forum between states into a powerful central authority. The Civil War transformed, too, the United States into a world-class industrial nation and military power which would in coming decades embark on new colonial wars and adventures. The Civil War made possible the growth of mighty national industries and the coming Age of Robber Barons and was a necessary precursor to the changes now underway.

For a good deal of time, America grew a healthy middle class, and for a brief golden era even industrial workers in America prospered remarkably. Political rights and freedoms tended to expand with that growth. But real per capita income of middle to lower-middle class Americans has dropped for many years now, a result in great part of globalization and new competitors coming up in the world. That has been a major impetus for social change as American middle class families attempt to hold their positions with incomes from two careers and lower costs in a seemingly infinite sprawl of cheap hinterland suburbs. And for years now, the American establishment has made the keenest political issue of taxes, but an issue only in the sense of by just how much to lower them, most particularly those affecting the wealthy.

To some extent a fortress-like mentality had taken hold of the middle class for years as they saw themselves on their way to work passing parts of rotting cities – doors always locked on their tank-like SUVs and vans – struggling to raise their position in the world by fending off taxes as much as possible, and, even, in a growing number of instances, living in “gated communities” out of fear of crime spreading from rotted cities. I think that kind of prevailing mentality helps greatly for accepting America’s new, more oppressive measures.

One might think the United States would have learned from the country it now copies closely: Israel has had a paralyzing web of secret police, border restrictions, secret prisons, and a massive military establishment for 65 years, yet it has never enjoyed genuine peace and lives in a chilling, unpleasant relationship with all of its neighbors. The average Israeli too does not enjoy a great life in an economically-inefficient society (whose interests, moreover, are heavily tilted towards those of its privileged groups), and then there’s that “great mob of Arabs out there” regarded in much the same way America regards its poor blacks. And were it not for immense subsidies and special favors keeping Israel afloat, that security state likely would collapse under the weight of its economic inefficiency. When any state puts absolute security above everything else, much of what it achieves is not worth having. Stalin perhaps provides history’s bleakest, most extreme example of running an absolute security state.

Of course, security, as understood by what Stalin called “wreckers of the revolution” and what Israel and the United States call “terrorism,” is not the complete reason for secret prisons and building walls and networks and police forces and spy systems. Those with great power and wealth and special interests have always had an instinctive impulse to control their environment, including the other people who inhabit it. Vast guarded estates and fences and bodyguards and summary justice for those trespassing have always been features of life for the great and powerful, and the same impulses exist for powerful organizations within a state, especially militarized states. Close control over behavior unacceptable to an establishment – including behavior that is merely different or dissident or embarrassing or slightly shady or emotionally off-balance or politically threatening – is at the heart of the matter. A gigantic network has been created in the United States which will detect, track, and file away information on these behaviors in perpetuity. The potential for blackmail and intimidation of political opponents or NGO leaders or writers or the press is enormous. While this may not be the case at first, over time, can you think of any apparatus that has gone unused by those with power, any apparatus which has not been abused? We should not forget that as recently as the 1960s, the FBI was actively trying to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide with anonymous letters threatening to reveal secret recordings. America is, after all, a country that has used atomic weapons, twice, and both times on civilian targets.

America is now also doing something no other country is in a position to do: it is exploiting the dollar’s privileged position as the world’s reserve currency to pay for much of its gigantic waste through massive future devaluation of an asset held by millions around the world. Unconscionable? Arrogant? Bullying? Those words I think are fairly applied to the changes. It may be no consolation for those being steamrolled by America that its behavior is unavoidably weakening its position in the world, but that is a fact. The bullying will prevail for a time, but it does speed the day when world leadership shifts to new hands, not necessarily to any single country like China but possibly to a consortium of rapidly-growing large states – India, Russia, Brazil, and China – with interests of their own.

It is no wonder that the conspiracy-oriented regard 9/11 as some kind of black operation used to shift the direction of the country towards a brave new world. The only conspiracy I see in the events around 9/11, though, are the American government’s refusal to explain to its own people what happened while exploiting events to its benefit, doing things it likely long has wanted to do. It is covering up both the incompetence and destructiveness of the operations of its own intelligence and military establishments as well as the deadly stupidity of some of its foreign policies, policies which seem fixed in amber through the tireless work of special interests. Dishonesty now has become a hallmark of American government. Those with power feel no obligation to explain to the people they nominally serve what happened in almost any event of genuine importance, and a long-term practice has only become more intense and pervasive.

America’s press, still sometimes is heard patting itself on the back as the “fourth estate” protecting peoples’ interests and handing out meaningless journalism awards to itself, actually works as a silent partner with government, never once investigating the genuinely important stuff. A merged, corporate press has no interest in investigating a corporate government, indeed it depends on government agencies for the leaks and interviews and data access which make it appear as though it is investigating and reporting day-in, day-out. It often provides the security agencies with cover for their overseas operations, it frequently has hired them, sometimes unwittingly, onto its staff, and it provides an outlet for the agencies’ disinformation, again sometimes unwittingly. And of course the corporate advertising which sustains the press puts the scrutiny of many corporate matters out of bounds, including many cozy and anti-democratic relationships with government and its major agencies.

Just as there is a natural cycle in the life of great industries – the scores of early American car manufacturers are now reduced to a few functioning as an oligopoly, an historical pattern repeated in industry after industry  – there appears to be a life cycle for a government organized like that of the United States. The duopoly which runs the American government consists of two parties which differ in almost no particulars except some social issues, but even that difference is rather a sham because the American government no longer has any interest in social issues. It is concerned overwhelmingly with representing and furthering the interests of the nation’s three great power centers of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. Social issues now are soap-box stuff for street-corner politicians and members of NGOs.

But in any case, all players in this political duopoly, no matter to which office they may be elected, know they can never challenge the immense authority and virtual omnipresence of America’s military, intelligence, corporate hierarchies and special interests like the Israel Lobby, powerful anti-democratic institutions which literally shape the space America’s politicians must inhabit.

Americans today quite simply could not vote in an informed manner if they wanted to do so (and many are not interested in voting at all, as we shall see): they are completely in the dark as to what happens inside their government, both its operations within the country and in international affairs. No one knows the full extent of spending on intelligence, nor do they know what dark programs are underway. No one knows the full extent of spending on the military, nor do they know to what questionable tasks it is being put around the world. No one knows the immense extent and complexity of lobbying and special interests in the American government. And of course no one is privy to the planning and operations of the great corporations, nor do they know anything of the dealings and financing arrangements between those corporations (or the wealthy individuals who own and run them) and the people’s supposed representatives, who all must spend a substantial part of their time just raising money for the next election (the average American Senator is said to spend two-thirds of his or her time doing just that).

Americans’ votes in elections have become to a remarkable extent meaningless, although an elaborate political stage play keeps the appearance of meaning and keeps those interested in politics involved and entertained. Almost certainly as a result of sensing how little their votes count, Americans often simply do not vote and do so in increasing numbers. The further down the political totem pole you go from the presidential elections which generate the most noise owing to the obscene amounts of money spent on marketing and advertising, the greater is this truth. Maybe 60% vote for president, a minority vote in other national elections, and a tiny fraction vote in state and local elections.

For those who cherish rights and values won since the Enlightenment, it is a disheartening prospect we face. A nasty bully, armed to the teeth and endowed with a profound sense of entitlement and scant regard for the other 95% of humanity, casts a long shadow over the entire planet. Not so terrifying a figure as a Stalin or a Hitler, he is frightening enough, and his insincere words about rights and values and fairness fool many as he proceeds to do just as he pleases, including killing any individual on the planet he decides in secret to be an opponent. It is indeed a brave new world, not Shakespeare’s and something far grimmer than Huxley’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JOHN CHUCKMAN

 

Some Israelis are fond of comparing Israel’s displacement of Palestinians to the historical experience of North Americans in displacing indigenous people, but the comparison is inaccurate on almost every level. First, comparing events of two hundred years ago and today is misleading: norms of human rights and ethics and law have changed tremendously in that time. Besides, people all over the world see and read of such injustices today, something not possible at an earlier time.

Second, the indigenous people of, for example, Canada consist of roughly one million out of a national population of 35 million, whereas Palestinians have reached slightly more than half the population of Israel-Palestine which is about eleven million. The scale and relative size of any event are important, as we are reminded time and again concerning the Holocaust

Third, the original indigenous North American people lived in a non-intensive economy of hunting and gathering and early agriculture, activities not compatible by their very nature with European settlement and development in a given region. But the Palestinians often are shopkeepers and farmers and tradesmen and professionals, activities fully compatible with the European development Israel represents.

Fourth, and most importantly, all of North America’s indigenous people are full citizens of their countries with rights to move and to work anywhere and the right to vote in elections and the freedom to marry anyone or claim any benefit owing to a citizen, whereas Israel holds the best part of five million Palestinians (Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem) in a seemingly perpetual state of having no rights and no citizenship. A Jewish Israeli cannot even marry a Palestinian Israeli without serious consequences. The million or so Palestinians who are Israeli citizens – owing to the accidents of war in 1948 and certainly not to Israel’s embrace of diversity – are only technically so, having passports but having many restrictions and constant suspicions placed upon them. More than a few influential Israelis have spoken to the idea of driving them entirely out of the country at some point.

If, as Israel always insists as a pre-condition for peace talks, Israel were to be formally recognized by Palestinians as “the Jewish state,” what happens to the million or so Palestinians who are now (nominally) Israeli citizens?

Israel long has been concerned with the relative rates of growth of Jewish and non-Jewish populations in Israel proper and in the occupied territories. The populations are now roughly equal for the first time, and from now on the Jewish population likely will diminish as a fraction of the whole. These relative growth rates reflect the advanced European and American status of many Ashkenazi Jews, the people who largely run and own Israel. Advanced people today in all Western countries do not replace their populations. That is why even stable old European states are experiencing social difficulties with large in-migrations.

Significant in-migration always changes a country. Even a country such as Britain which we are used to thinking of in a well-defined set of characteristics is undergoing change, but the truth is our thinking about the character of a place like Britain is illusory. Britain over a longer time horizon was Celtic, Roman, Germanic, and Norman French with bits of others such as Vikings thrown in – all these going into the make-up of what we call the British people, what we think of as represented by, say, Winston Churchill with derby, umbrella, cigar, and distinctive accent, but, of course, Sir Winston also was half American (his mother).

Ethnic purity of any sort is a nonsense, and one hesitates even to use the phrase after the lunacies of the Nazis. Oddly, early in the Third Reich, the Nazis had considerable difficulty agreeing on what defined a Jew for purposes of the infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws. After years of preaching hatred against Jews during their rise to power, you might think the Nazis clearly understood exactly what the object of all that hatred was, but that proved not to be the case. Under the compromise reached between various factions of the party, “three-quarter Jews,” those with three Jewish grandparents, were considered Jews. “Half-Jews,” those with two Jewish grandparents and two “Aryan” grandparents, were considered Jews only if they practiced the faith. “Quarter Jews” were considered as non-Jews. Attempting to rationalize the irrational always leads to absurd, not to say dangerous, results.

And yet, in a bitter paradox, Israel perpetuates a version of this thinking. A conception of just who is a Jew is necessary because all those regarded as Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel and to receive generous assistance in settling there. But as with any such conception, it suffers disagreements and adjustments over time, a recent one involving whether to recognize certain African groups holding to ancient variations of Jewish belief. Moreover, inside Israel there are great disagreements about rules set by one group of Jews, the ultra-orthodox, governing important parts of the lives of other groups of Jews.

As for today’s population shifts, the larger a country’s population, the more easily it absorbs in-migrants with minimal disturbance, but countries the size of Denmark or even Holland have experienced serious disturbances given the generosity of their past acceptance of refugees. And just so Israel, whose small population has struggled with huge in-migrations of Russians and others in recent decades. Many older Israelis have been irritated by them, and many of the Russians irritated at what they find in Israel. Smaller groups of in-migrant Jews and of refugees, ones with dark skins, have aroused some very ugly scenes recently in Israel, especially among the ultra-orthodox, scenes not altogether different to those of Bull Connor’s Birmingham, Alabama.

The Arab population in Israel-Palestine grows along the rates of third-world populations which have not experienced full demographic transition, something demographers have identified as an historic event in all advanced countries, a one-time population adjustment from the ancient human pattern of high birth and death rates to a modern one of low rates for both. High birth rates yield a young and growing population in any land where high death rates once claimed the lives of many children and kept population growth suppressed, but vaccines and improvements in diet and hygiene have lowered traditional infant mortality in many parts of the world. In advanced countries, the pattern has been for birth rates to fall once lower death rates are seen as the new reality, yielding slow to non-existent or even declining population growth. This last part of demographic transition requires a degree of prosperity to be achieved, something which Israel’s occupation makes impossible for Palestinians.

Countries with modern, non-replacement levels of fertility must rely on in-migration to grow and, in many cases, just to keep their populations where they are. All of advanced Europe and the United States and Canada are in this situation. A declining population has many implications, from shortages of key skills and talents to a decreased pool for soldiers and an outright decline in a country’s economic output. All advanced nations today maintain their populations through immigration.

Israel has been built almost wholly through immigration. Because Israel defines itself in such limiting terms as a state for only one group of people, with that group being a tiny fraction of world population (about 15 million out of 7 billion), Israel faces likely an insurmountable problem obtaining required future migrants. Its last source of substantial population growth was from Russia, and there are no more large pools of Jewish population left in the world willing to trade their situation for that of Israel. Jews now living comfortably in Europe and North America are certainly willing to visit Israel and perhaps donate and perhaps even do a business deal, but most are not willing to pack up and move there.

And why should they? Life is good in Europe and much of North America. In modern Israel there are endless tensions and arguments and difficulties, and immigrants face everything from national service requirements (for men and women) to punishing taxes and high costs of living and, in more than a few cases, intense prejudices. It is not surprising that recent World Bank data show significant net out-migration for Israel over the last 5 years, something new in the country’s brief history.

Why does Israel hang on to the occupied territories, the source of great stress and conflict, with their Arab population approaching 5 million? The answer, to a great extent, is found in a concept called Greater Israel. Greater Israel is supposed to reflect information from the Old Testament about the extent of biblical Israel. It includes the West Bank and Gaza, a slice of Syria, much of Lebanon, and other bits, all depending on which of several definitions you accept, there being no maps in biblical literature and words having been used with far less precision than we accept today. And there is something almost silly and chimerical about taking so literally ancient writings which include people being swallowed by a whale or turned into a pillar of salt. Whether chimerical or not, It is easy to see how dangerous the concept is today.

Many astute observers believe Israel’s 1967 War was deliberately engineered to seize much of the territory required for Greater Israel. At the time, France and the United States, while promising security for Israel, warned it not to use the war to increase its territory, but Israel did use the war that way. One of the explanations for Israel’s intense attack on the USS Liberty, a well-marked spy ship about which Israel had been informed in advance, was to silence America’s minute-to-minute information as Israel hurriedly turned its armored forces from Egypt towards the north and murdered hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war to expedite the operation. Israel’s own behavior since 1967 certainly supports the idea of conquest as the war’s goal.

One suspects many Israeli leaders secretly believe in Greater Israel, with a number of them having spoken about it. It is important to know that the ultra-orthodox – whose parties are required for either major party’s forming a government – are the fiercest and most unapologetic believers in Greater Israel. For them “the promised land” must be as promised thirty centuries or so ago. Of course, believers in Greater Israel are not typically heard to explain what would happen to millions of Palestinian residents, other than such flip notions of their all moving to Jordan where they supposedly belong. What we see in Israel’s regular building of new settlements in the occupied territories does, for all the world, resemble a policy of slow-motion ethnic-cleansing towards creating Greater Israel. It certainly is a policy extremely hostile to any hopes of peace and stability.

How can you be so hostile and yet say that you search for peace? You cannot, at least in the real world. So how does any realistic person interpret Israel’s continued stealing of other people’s homes and farms? Israel calls these periodic thefts “facts on the ground” towards negotiation, but that ambiguous expression much resembles Israel’s public pledge never to be the first in the region to employ nuclear weapons, yet we all know that Israel does indeed have nuclear weapons while no one else does (most recent estimate is 80 nuclear warheads and a stockpile of fissile material adequate to better than double the number). While many Israelis rail against liberals who criticize such things, the simple fact is that the very definition of liberal-minded makes it impossible to accept them.

No place can sustain a sense of crisis indefinitely, something Israel has done since its founding, and the continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Syria’s Golan Heights only add greatly to that sense of crisis. The costs in material terms and in psychological ones are high. Indeed, it is an unnatural thing for any state to sustain itself as a garrison state, a garrison state being a fortified place where service in the armed forces, various secret services, and a large bureaucracy concerned with such matters, provides an unhealthily large part of the national economy. Such institutions consume great amounts of wealth and produce little beyond basic security, and any nation with an inordinately large set of such institutions is at a comparative disadvantage to other nations not so burdened.

Apart from the immense cost of occupation, Israel’s army is showing increasing signs of unhappiness and demoralization with its role in the occupied territories. Adding to the general malaise expressed by hundreds of soldiers and veterans, the recent government commitment to subject the ultra-orthodox to military service for the first time is sure not to prove a happy experience. It is the ultra-orthodox parties who have most driven the ferocity of Israel’s position with its neighbors. These are the people who every once in a while run out and seize Palestinian land, building shacks on it and calling it a settlement, or who chop down ancient olive groves so that the Palestinians who own them cannot make a living. And these are the people who absolutely will not live with others who are different, including even many other Jews. Their men will not ride with women on a bus, and there is a long history of attacks on people living near or passing through their neighborhoods, as the defacing of non-orthodox temples, the physical assaults on outsiders in the streets, and such extreme acts as burning down the homes of women regarded as loose, sometimes with the occupants inside. When their young men and women have to wear uniforms and do duties in the occupied territories and at borders – and note women as well as men are drafted into the army – they are going to be very unhappy, but if the government fails in its intentions, there will be continuing unrest in the larger part of Israel, many of whom regard the ultra-orthodox as an embarrassment and a national problem.

Israel hopes with such measures as drafting the young ultra-orthodox to better integrate them into society, but this seems a hopeless idea. Can you integrate old-order Mennonites into society at large? To even attempt to do so is to destroy the foundation of their beliefs, much like America’s futile attempts to alter behaviors of fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan.

Since the beginning there have been internal conflicts in Israel between the ultra-orthodox and others. Many outsiders are not aware of the extent of the secular, indeed worldly, nature of a great part of Israel’s population. A very large part of Israel’s population is secular, estimated at well more than 40% while the orthodox and ultra-orthodox are about 20%. Yet many social rules legislated in Israel are to please the ultra-orthodox – after all, they do hold the balance of power in Israeli elections – and since a great part of Israel’s population is not observant in religion, regarding its Jewish identity as cultural, most Israelis live under legislation with which they are uncomfortable, but it is difficult to imagine how these differences and irritations can ever be rectified. Indeed, within Israel’s Jewish population, the only people with larger-than-average birth rates are the ultra-orthodox. Much as with Mennonites or old-fashioned Mormons, the ultra-orthodox eschew many of the benefits of modern society and live to some extent as though it were still the 19th century, including 19th century rates of fertility.

It is also demoralizing for a good part of the population to realize that their country is in much the same business as past discredited societies such as apartheid South Africa. How else can it be, given the occupied territories and Israel’s notion of itself as the Jewish state? It is also demoralizing to read overwhelming expressions of disapproval in the world’s press and to see the reactions of others when travelling on an Israeli passport. Indeed, the Israeli government has gone to the desperate extreme of paying thousands of students to counter criticisms of Israel on internet commentary and social sites around the world.

The elite class of Israel consists largely of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and North America. Recent historical research and DNA testing do tend to support an old but unproven idea, once subject to the accusation of anti-Semitism, that their origin is not the ancient Hebrew people but a 7th to 9th century people from the Caucasus called the Khazars, converts to Judaism. And, to add more irony to the situation, historical research (and some DNA testing) supports the idea that today’s Palestinians are in part descendants of the Hebrews. There is no record from Rome of its having expelled the population when it conquered the region, nor would such an act be characteristic of Rome in its many conquests. Whatever the final truth of the matter, these ideas, now taken seriously by some world-class scientists and scholars, can only add to the unease and discomfort of modern Israelis.

Israel, since its founding, has been the most subsidized state in the world, maybe even in the history of the world. Israel’s economy for that reason cannot be sensibly compared to anything. It receives about $500 per year per Jewish citizen from the United States, and it has done so for decades. But that is only the beginning. There are periodic loan guarantees of tens of billions. There is constant access at the highest level for this nation with the population of Ecuador, something no other country, even a far more important one, has.

It has a plum free-trade agreement – indeed, without exporting its subsidized crops Israel’s agriculture would disappear – a costly gift to Israel because it has no tangible benefits for Americans. The opportunity cost of the water Israel squanders on tomatoes and clementines to export is unbelievably high because it is the cost of desalination-plant water. It thus sends subsidized produce to the United States under free trade, produce the United States doesn’t even need.

Israel receives billions worth of intelligence and defense cooperation every year from the United States, something few other countries receive. The billion and a half dollars a year going to Egypt is a bribe paid on Israel’s behalf by Americans since the Camp David Agreements. Israel receives heavily below-cost natural gas from Egypt, the result of U.S. pressure. Everyone knows this is scandalous, and the U.S. offered to pay a subsidy if Egypt raised the price. Israel also receives billions from the Jewish communities of America and Europe, and it receives important business intelligence and connections.

The great privilege granted to American Israelis to be recognized as dual citizens, a status of which the United States in general disapproves, means they move back and forth regularly, all the while sharing business and other intelligence. Israel’s farms and cities and water supply were all taken with absolutely no payment or reparations from other people, that being the biggest subsidy ever received, the very substance of the nation. Israel has received tens of billions in reparations from Germany – wholly appropriate in view of the past – but still a subsidy, and today Germany still subsidizes things like submarine construction. The list is even longer than this, but I think the point is clear: Israel is, in no meaningful sense, an independent national economy. It is in truth a gigantic international welfare case.

Israel, despite the subsidies, does not offer a good living for a great many of its citizens. Huge demonstrations – much hidden in the Western press – revealed great discontent in a country where the costs of basics like home ownership are intimidating. And it is hard to see how it can be otherwise in a very small, economically-inefficient country with military and security costs like no other.

Subsidies do not continue forever, and many of the sources of Israel’s subsidies must eventually tire of its never honestly trying to create meaningful peace. Many Jews in America, while continuing to support Israel, increasingly are irritated and embarrassed by its counter-productive policies and often outrageous acts. How long can they be depended upon?

Israelis like to complain of Western liberals and their views of the country, but they fail to remember who their historic allies and enemies were. Today’s “friends of Israel” represented by the likes of Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich or America’s religious right were the very types who exuded anti-Semitism and admired Nazis a bit more than half a century ago. How secure are such attachments?

The Holocaust generation will completely disappear soon, taking with it a great deal of the intense fear and guilt which powered Israel’s creation. The efforts of ideologue Zionists for decades would never have made Israel a reality. It took the immensity of the Holocaust, influencing both Jews and nations like the United States – which could have accepted refugees before the Final Solution, but flatly refused, sending boatloads back to Germany – to create modern Israel. The United States position on Israel has always been riddled with hypocrisy, imposing a terrible burden on Palestinians for something which was neither their fault nor anything they could have prevented and giving huge aid to Israel instead of helping with compensation for Palestinians rendered refugees in their own land.

The virtual industry we have seen in building museums and publishing books dedicated to the Holocaust largely goes against normal human nature: people have a built-in capacity to forget great pain and turn to the stuff of living. Saying that does not mean that the Holocaust will be forgotten, only that it will assume its place in history with so many other terrible events and great upheavals, events and upheavals which are hard historical facts, not ever-present sources of pain and fear. But the Holocaust as a continued rationalization for the injustice and abuse we see in Israel-Palestine is losing its force both inside and outside Israel.

No democratic state can thrive under the long continued presence of a large military and intelligence establishment, the United States being the world’s premier example of this truth. For its size, Israel’s military-intelligence establishment is quite huge. Such institutions simply do not operate under democratic rules, and they do not promote democratic values within society. Quite the opposite, through their training of cohorts of young people, their secret demands on politicians, and secretive operations, they erode democratic values and respect for human rights. That fact combined with Israel’s continued occupation and abuse of millions and the fundamental fact that Israel’s idea of democracy begins with one group making all decisions do mean that Israel’s democracy is a rather poor one.

Moreover, it is an historical fact that democracies, not protected by a Bill or Charter of Rights, will everywhere and always abuse minorities. Power, however granted, is power, and there is nothing magical about democratically-granted power which protects any group or party differing in its views. Yet, by its very nature, Israel can never have a Charter of Rights, and therefore Israel can never be a proper democracy.

Last, Israel plays a decisive role in keeping in place the very dictatorships and monarchs around it that its politicians regularly decry in speeches aimed at American audiences. Why was the Egyptian Revolution, for example, completely turned around so that eighty million people are back to living under a junta? Why was a clean democratic election with Hamas, a party which represented genuine reform from Fatah, treated as a terrorist event, leading to elected officials being arrested wholesale and their leader openly threatened with assassination, a bloody invasion of what is essentially a giant refugee camp, piracy on the high seas, and a years-long punishing blockade? Israel does not want, and will not allow, democracy in any meaningful sense to emerge amongst its neighbors. And the fundamental reason for this is that Israel knows the popular will of virtually all of its neighbors is not friendly to Israel’s most selfish interests. So does that mean that all of Israel’s neighbors are doomed to tyrannies or monarchs in perpetuity? I think it does, so long as Israel is the kind of state that it is.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, one extremely wealthy American supporter of Israel supplied Newt Gingrich with the best part of $20 million towards Gingrich’s ambition of becoming the Republican candidate. Even in America’s money-drenched political system, such generous support does not come free. The price in this case was Gingrich’s periodically announcing in speeches that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian,” an echo of Golda Meir’s years-ago, dismally dishonest claim. Do Jews in Israel or America really enjoy hearing such paid-for nonsense from American politicians? More than anything, Gingrich resembled a pet monkey on a chain dancing for his supper. Such performances only demonstrate desperation by Israel’s apologists, a kind of frenzied wish-fulfillment to make a tremendous real problem disappear, and I’m sure many are embarrassed or disturbed by them.

Many of Israel’s Ashkenazi people hold dual citizenships, America and other countries having made an exemption to their traditional opposition to dual citizenships. While it might have been an adventure or a special opportunity to live in Israel or an expression of religious or cultural attachment, it is very likely many of them increasingly will take advantage of their situation to return to the lands of their birth. There is a better life for almost any class of people to be had in Europe or North America than in Israel. Better economies, greater opportunities, higher standards of living, no military draft for children, no daily scenes of abuse, no need to rationalize or apologize about your citizenship, no intense, unresolvable internal conflicts, and no sense of being surrounded with hostility.

No matter how many ultimately leave, large numbers of Jews will continue to live in the Middle East, but a purely Jewish state is no more sustainable in the long run than was the Soviet Union with its built-in anti-economic assumptions generating perpetual economic weakness. So, too, a state based on fear, which is in part what Israel is today. Fear does not sustain and ultimately cannot be sustained in any population. Stalin’s Soviet Union operated on fear for a considerable amount of time, but in the end even the dedicated communists desperately wanted to end fear. The many Jews who do remain will have to accommodate the realities of the region. They will come to accept Albert Einstein’s idea of Zionism: Jews living in the Middle East without the apparatus of a special state and a large army and living with respect for their neighbors. Perhaps, what will ultimately emerge is a single nation living in genuine peace. At least we can hope.

 

 

 

 

 

John Chuckman

Of course, the cozy popular myth of America’s Founding Fathers as an earnest, civic-minded group gathered in an ornate hall, writing with quill pens, reading from leather-bound tomes, and offering heroic speeches in classical poses – all resembling Greek philosophers in wigs and spectacles and frock coats – was always that, a myth. They were in more than a few cases narrow, acquisitive men, ambitious for their personal interests which were considerable, and even the more philosophic types among them were well-read but largely unoriginal men who cribbed ideas and concepts and even whole phrases from European Enlightenment writers and British parliamentary traditions.

And much of what they wrote and agreed upon involved what would prove mistaken ideas, with a lack of foresight into what the almost unchangeable concrete their words would shape. Americans today often are not aware that the word “democracy” for many of the Founders was an unpleasant one, carrying just about the same connotations that “communist” would a century and a half later. Men of the world of privilege and comparative wealth – Washington, Morris, and many others – were having nothing to do with ideas which rendered unimportant men important. That is why the country was styled as a “republic” – that most undefined term in the political lexicon, which then meant only the absence of a king with decisions made by a tight group of propertied elites.

False as they are, the very fact that there are such pleasant myths does tell us something about past popular ideals informing their creation. Now, how would any future Americans manage to weave attractive myths about a president who sits in the Oval Office signing authorizations for teams of young buzz-cut psychopaths in secret locked rooms to guide killing machines against mere suspects and innocent bystanders, often adopting the tactics of America’s lunatic anti-abortion assassins, sending a second hellish missile into the crowd of neighbors who come to the assistance of the victims of the first?

How would they weave attractive myths around the CIA’s International Torture Gulag, including that hellhole, Guantanamo, where kidnapped, legally-innocent people are imprisoned and tortured and given absolutely no rights or ethical treatment under international laws and conventions?

During the Revolutionary War, the battles were between armies, and captured soldiers were frequently granted their freedom upon their paroles, pledges of not returning to the fight. Spies were thought poorly of and often hung. Torture was uncommon and certainly not embraced as policy.

What myths can be written of two wars involving the deaths of a million or so people, the creation of millions of refugees, and the needless destruction of huge amounts of other peoples’ property, and all to achieve nothing but a change of government? Or about massive armed forces and secret security agencies which squander hundreds of billions in resources year after year, spreading their dark influence to all corners of the globe, and offering an insurmountable obstacle to America’s own citizens who might imagine they ever can rise against a government grown tyrannous? After all, polls in America show that its Congress is held in contempt by the overwhelming majority of its people, with percentages of disapproval rivaling those held for communism or Satanic rituals.

There are no myths about today’s Congressional figures. Everyone understands they are often to be found bellowing in ornate halls about points most Americans couldn’t care less about. Everyone understands that they are ready to go anywhere and say almost anything for large enough campaign contributions. That they take off on junkets paid for by groups hoping to influence votes and put faces to the exercise of future influence, trips commonly involving a foreign power trying to shape American policy. That their work is often steeped in secrecy from the voters, secrecy not governed by genuine national security concerns but by the often shameful nature of their work. That a good deal of the legislation and rules they create repress their own people’s interests and favor only special interests.

That their government regularly suppresses inconvenient truths and labels those who raise questions as foolishly addicted to conspiracy or even as treacherous. What are just a few of the events which have been treated in this fashion? The assassination of a President. The accidental or deliberate downing of at least three civilian aircraft by America’s military in recent years – an Iranian airliner, TWA Flight 800 on the East Coast, and the fourth plane of the 9/11 plot over Pennsylvania. The CIA’s past cooperation and engagement with the American Mafia during its anti-Castro terror campaign. The CIA’s use of drug trafficking to raise off-the-books income. The military’s assassination of American prisoners of war cooperating with their Vietnamese captors. Obfuscating Israel’s deliberate attack on an American intelligence-gathering ship during its engineered 1967 War. The huge death toll of locals, civilian and military, in America’s grisly imperial wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. 9/11.

I do not believe in 9/11 insider plots, but I know there has been strenuous official effort to disguise that event’s full nature. The motives? One suspects a great deal of embarrassment at demonstrated incompetence has been at work. Blowback from CIA operations in the Middle East seems more than likely. The documented involvement of Mossad in following and recording the plotters inside the United States leaves disturbing unanswered questions. One also knows that America’s establishment discovered in the wake of 9/11 the perfect opportunity for doing a great many nasty things it had always wanted to do anyway. You might say the terrorists did the military-industrial-intelligence complex a big favor. Anti-democratic measures involving surveillance, privacy in communications, secret prisons, torture, and effective suspension of some of the Constitution are all parts of the new American reality.

The FBI can record what you borrow from the public library. The NSA captures your every phone call, text message, and e-mail. The TSA can strip search you for taking an inter-city bus. Drones are being used for surveillance, and the TSA actually has a program of agents traveling along some highways ready to stop those regarded as suspicious. Portable units for seeing through clothes and baggage, similar to those used at airports, are to tour urban streets in vans randomly. Agencies of the government, much in the style of the former Stasi, encourage reports from citizens about suspicious behavior. Now, you can just imagine what might be called “suspicious” in a society which has always had a tendency towards witch-hunts and fears of such harmless things as Harry Potter books or the charming old Procter and Gambel symbol on soapboxes.

America has become in many ways a police state, albeit one where a kind of decency veil is left draped over the crude government machinery. How can a place which has elections and many of the trappings of a free society be a police state? Well, it can because power, however conferred, can be, and will be, abused. And the majority in any democratic government can impose terrible burdens on the minority. That’s how the American Confederacy worked, how apartheid South Africa worked, and that’s how Israel works today. Prevention of those inevitable abuses is the entire reason for a Bill of Rights, but if you suspend or weaken its protections, anything becomes possible.

American police forces have long enjoyed a reputation for brutal and criminal behavior – using illegal-gains seizure laws for profit, beating up suspects, conducting unnecessary military-style raids on homes, killing people sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses – having earned international recognition from organizations such as Amnesty International. The reasons for this are complex but include the military model of organization adopted by American policing, the common practice of hiring ex-soldiers as police, the phenomenon of uncontrolled urban sprawl creating new towns whose tiny police forces have poor practices and training, and, in many jurisdictions, a long and rich history of police corruption. Now, those often poor-quality American police have unprecedented discretion and powers of abuse.

Further, according to the words of one high-ranking general a few years back, the American military is prepared to impose martial law in the event of another great act of terror. Certainly that is an encouraging and uplifting thought considering all the blunders and waste and murder and rape the American military has inflicted upon countries from Vietnam to Iraq.

Where it is possible, power prefers to know about and even to control what is going on at the most humble level of its society, and the greater the power, the more irresistible the drive to know and control. It is essential to appreciate that whether you are talking about the military or huge corporations or the security apparatus, you are not talking about institutions which are democratic in nature. Quite the opposite, these institutions are run along much the same lines as all traditional forms of undemocratic government, from monarchs to dictators. Leadership and goals and methods are not subject to a vote and orders given are only to be obeyed, and there is no reason to believe that any of these institutions cherishes or promotes democratic values or principles of human rights. Of course, corporations, in order to attract talent, must publicly present a friendly face towards those principles, but that necessary charade reflects their future behavior about as much as campaign promises reflect future acts of an American politician.

Those at the top of all powerful and hierarchical institutions inevitably come to believe that they know better than most people, and those with any hope of gaining top positions must adopt the same view. For centuries we saw the great landed gentry and church patriarchs of pre-democratic societies regard themselves as inherently different from the population. It is no different with the psychology of people who enjoy their wealth and influence through positions in these great modern, un-democratic institutions. The larger and more pervasive these institutions become in society – and they have become truly bloated in America – the more will their narcissistic, privileged views prevail. Also, it is axiomatic that where great power exists, it never goes unused. Large standing armies are the proximate cause of many of history’s wars. And just so, the power of corporations to expand through illegality of every description, this being the source of the many controversies about failing to pay taxes in countries where they operate or the widespread practice of bribery in landing large contracts with national governments.

So far as security services go (the United States, at last count, having sixteen different ones), they may well be the worst of all these modern, massive anti-democratic institutions. Their lines of responsibility to government are often weak, and citizens in general are often regarded as things with which to experiment or play. Their leaders and agents are freely permitted to perjure themselves in courts. The organizations possess vast budgets with little need to account for the spending. They can even create their own funds through everything from drug and weapons trading to counterfeiting currency, all of it not accounted for and subject to no proper authority. And their entire work is secret, whether that work involves legitimate national security or not. The nature of their work breeds a secret-fraternity mindset of superiority and cynicism. They start wars and coups, including against democratic governments sometimes, they pay off rising politicians even in allied countries, they use money and disinformation to manipulate elections even in friendly governments, and of course they kill people and leaders they seriously disapprove of. Now, does any thinking person believe that they simply forget these mindsets and practices when it comes to what they regard as serious problems in their own country?

The record of arrogance and abuse by security organizations, such as CIA or the FBI, is long and costly, filled with errors in judgment, abuse of power, incompetence, and immense dishonesty. Owing to the black magic of classified secrecy, much of the record involves projects about which we will never know, but even what we do know about is distressing enough. And I’m not sure that it can be any other way so long as you have Big Intelligence. Apart from Big Intelligence’s own propensity towards criminal or psychopathic behavior, one of the great ironies of Big Intelligence is that it will always agree to bend, to provide whatever suppressions and fabrications are requested by political leaders working towards the aims of the other great anti-democratic institutions, the military and the corporations. This became blindingly clear in the invasion of Iraq and, even before that, in the first Gulf War.

America’s political system, honed and shaped over many decades, fits comfortably with these institutions. National elections are dominated by a two-party duopoly (being kept that way through countless institutional barriers deliberately created to maintain the status quo) , both these parties are dominated by huge flows of campaign contributions (contributions which form what economists call an effective barrier to entry against any third party seriously being able to compete), both parties embrace much the same policies except for some social issues of little interest to the establishment, and election campaigns are reduced to nothing more than gigantic advertising and marketing operations no different in nature to campaigns for two national brands of fast food or pop. It takes an extremely long time for a candidate to rise and be tested before being trusted with the huge amounts of money invested in an important campaign, and by that time he or she is a well-read book with no surprising chapters.

If for any reason this political filtering system fails, and someone slips through to an important office without having spent enough time to make them perfectly predictable, there still remains little chance of serious change on any important matter. The military-industrial-intelligence complex provides a molded space into which any newcomer absolutely must fit. Just imagine the immense pressures exerted by the mere presence of senior Pentagon brass gathered around a long polished oak table or a table surrounded by top corporate figures representing hundreds of billions in sales or representatives or a major lobbying group (and multi-million dollar financing source for the party). We see the recent example of popular hopes being crushed after the election of Obama, a man everyone on the planet hoped to see mend some of the ravages of George Bush and Dick Cheney. But the man who once sometimes wore sandals and bravely avoided a superfluous and rather silly flag pin on his lapel quickly was made to feel the crushing weight of institutional power, and he bent to every demand made on him, becoming indistinguishable from Bush. Of course, the last president who genuinely did challenge at least some of the great institutional powers, even to a modest extent, died in an ambush in Dallas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE POOR PEOPLE OF EGYPT

John Chuckman

How is it that the people of Egypt, after a successful revolution against the repressive 30-year government of President Mubarak, a revolution involving the hopes and fears of millions and a substantial loss of life, have ended up almost precisely where they started?

After Mubarak’s fall, there were many comments from prominent citizens of one of Egypt’s neighbors, the one styling itself “the Middle East’s only democracy,” expressing great concern over the end of decades of brutal dictatorial rule for eighty million neighbors. The comments, from many prominent Israelis, were disturbing in tone and certainly did not welcome the idea of an expansion of democracy in the region.

But the revolution continued, with some starts and stops, and Egyptians voted in their first free election. By all accounts, it was a cleaner election than many in that other great defender of democracy, the United States, but democracy as Winston Churchill famously said is “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” and the majority went to a religious-affiliated party, the Muslim Brotherhood, a party which had been persecuted and suppressed for years by Mubarak, an activity which endeared him to democracy-loving Israeli governments.

Now, that name, Muslim Brotherhood, undoubtedly sounds ominous to many in a post-9/11 world, a world where fears and disinformation about Muslims have become a daily, unavoidable part of the news in much of the Western world. But the truth is that the Muslim Brotherhood was not radical, and in many respects the religious note in Egyptian politics was not altogether different from that of a long history of Christian-affiliated parties in Western Europe or Latin America, such as the Christian Democrats.

Indeed, Egypt’s good democratic neighbor itself has been ruled in many aspects of its national life by ultra-orthodox religious parties needed to make a governing coalition in its heavily-splintered political system. And these Israeli fundamentalist parties do not reflect anything like the mild religious traditions of Europe’s Christian Democrats. These Israeli parties are composed of people who believe in theocratic rule, in the superiority of one group over others, in the unique truth of one set of ancient writing, in ancient views of women’s rights, and in legalizing many practices violating principles of the Enlightenment. As political analysts know, small parties can exert inordinate leverage on a society where they absolutely are required to form a government, that leverage necessarily seeming quite undemocratic to most citizens living under its shadow.

Well, Egypt’s new government did do some things that strict secularists such as myself do not like to see, its new constitution being chief among them. No liberal-minded person wants to live under a constitution giving special place to one religious group over another, but then that is nothing unusual in the world, and it is especially the case for emerging countries with many years of political experimenting in democratic institutions ahead of them.

So Egyptians unhappy with Morsi’s brief time in government started demonstrating against him. In doing so, they unwittingly weakened the foundations of a fragile set of democratic institutions and played into the hands of those who wanted the military coup we have now witnessed, with members of an elected government under arrest and many hundreds of people on both sides, for and against the Morsi government, killed in the streets, and a distressing return to where Egypt was about three years ago.

The truth is that the road to a fully-functioning democracy is always a very long one. The United States from its founding took a couple of hundred years to achieve even the semblance of democracy we see today. America started – despite the high-sounding words of its constitution – as a place where the people did not elect the president (the elites of the electoral college did), where the Senate was appointed (not changed until the 20th century), where a massive industry in human slavery legally flourished, where no women or blacks or even most men (those without specified amounts of property) could vote, and where the Bill of Rights served as a mere advertising slogan because its list of rights could not be enforced by a Supreme Court owing strict allegiance to the concept of states’ rights. The common sentimental view of early America is just that, sentimental.

The journey toward free and fair democratic government must be started somewhere, and Morsi’s government was perhaps as promising a start as is possible in a country mired in poverty and lacking democratic institutions as Egypt is, but the re-establishment of a junta is no start at all.

So, who are the people who wanted the coup and why did they want it?

To answer this we must go back to some of the acts of the Morsi government and see just who was extremely unhappy about them. One was a new general policy towards the hostages Israel holds in Gaza, by which I mean the million and a half people who also elected a new government some years back, the Hamas Party, in clean elections. There is no use repeating the fairy tale about Hamas being a terrorist organization: it most certainly is not, although through Israel’s manipulation of the severe weaknesses in America’s political structure (the acceptance of political donations in any amount as free speech, the acceptance of virtually unlimited lobbying, and the duopoly party system allowing one to be played against the other) Israel did succeed in having white declared to be red.

Morsi’s new general policy, offensive to Israel but I’m sure acceptable to most Egyptians, was not one of throwing open the border with Gaza – that would have resulted in air strikes and dire threats by Israel – but it was one of easing up on the past harshness Mubarak maintained to please Israel and the United States, and Mubarak and his military were keen to keep them pleased because the United States pays a huge annual bribe to Egypt to keep just such matters under control.

Now we have the Egyptian military returning to harsh measures: I read, for example, that they were flooding the tunnels which have served as vital supply lines for the imprisoned people of Gaza. Before its overthrow, Mubarak’s government was looking to build a kind of underground Berlin Wall along the entire border with Gaza made of special steel supplied by the United States. Perhaps now the military will take the wall-project up again, surely bringing satisfied smiles to the lips of Israel’s brutal government. You know just on the face of it that there is something very odd and unnatural in Egypt’s behaving this way towards people with whom most Egyptians sympathize for the benefit of another people with whom they do not sympathize.

I think the single most important act leading to the coup likely was Morsi’s meeting with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, a much-hated man in Israel. The meeting in fact was a perfectly natural and normal thing for these two countries to do, given their mutual interests and an ancient history of associations. They are both predominantly Muslim and both are large countries, on the order of 70-80 million people. But I know the meeting must have sent Mr. Netanyahu into a sputtering dark fury and almost certainly had him reaching for the phone to Obama within minutes.

Does Netanyahu have a special phone to the Oval Office, a version of the ‘hot line” established between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s to help avoid a disastrous nuclear misunderstanding?

One suspects so because of what surely must be the volume of calls made from one of the world’s smallest countries to one of its largest, regularly asking for things – everything from increases in American aid or access to new technologies and weapons systems or seeking support for Israeli companies trying to land a contract or asking yet again that a damaging spy like Jonathon Pollard be freed or setting new demands in foreign policy towards this or that country fallen under Mr. Netanyahu’s wrath. And we have Obama’s own words when he was caught briefly with an open microphone while talking privately with President Sarkozy of France. Raising the eyebrows of reporters, Sarkozy remarked that Netanyahu was a liar who couldn’t be trusted. Obama agreed that you couldn’t trust anything Netanyahu said, and added further that Sarkozy was lucky in his dealings with Netanyahu: imagine having to speak with him every day the way Obama had to?

Every day? A call from the leader of 1/1,000 of the earth’s population every day? No wonder they keep such things secret.

When the demonstrations by Egyptians disenchanted with Morsi began, they provided the perfect opportunity and cover for a coup. Israel undoubtedly pushed the United States – after all, Obama had intervened to support the original revolution, something not pleasing to Netanyahu and only adding to his stock of reasons for often expressing contempt of the President, and now Morsi was carrying on in “I told you so” ways. The United States in turn undoubtedly let the Egyptian military know it would not object to the overthrow of Morsi (and it hasn’t objected, has it?), reminding the generals of what was at stake here – namely, about a billion and a half in annual bribes for keeping the government of Israel from complaining.

One suspects the CIA was active in stoking the fires of discontented Egyptians, handing out money and promises and encouragement to make the crowds larger and more aggressive. After all, that is just what the CIA does when it isn’t directly overthrowing someone’s government or assassinating someone’s leader or planting false stories in the press or secretly bribing government officials in dozens of countries deemed to be “ours.”

I heard one of CBC Radio’s lesser journalistic lights speak of such a close election as the one in Egypt leaving so many people there feeling the government didn’t represent them. She apparently was unaware that Canada’s Stephen Harper is deemed a majority parliamentary government with about 39% of the vote. Or that many American presidential elections end with margins as close as that in Egypt, Kennedy having been elected by a small fraction of one percent of the popular vote. George Bush received about a half million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, a victorious minority made possible by America’s antiquated constitution with its anti-democratic electoral college, a result which has been repeated a number of times in American history.

But Americans and Canadians do not go into the streets to overturn the results, nor would we say anything encouraging or positive if they did. If the existing rules are followed in an election, we accept the result, and that kind of stability is absolutely crucial to maintaining any form of democracy. Yet it is somehow acceptable for our press to take that view when the topic is government in the Middle East, and a struggling new democratic government at that.

After all, there has been a steady stream of prejudiced words and carefully selected facts about Islam and the Middle East in the mainline press since 9/11. And ever since that event, much as the five Israeli Mossad agents, disguised as workers for a moving company, who were reported photographing the strikes on the twin towers from the top of their truck while dancing and high-fiving before their arrest and deportation, apologists for Israel have steadily encouraged the notion of Islamic and Arabic irrationality to excuse Israel’s bloody excesses. The notion has become a handy tool to grab whenever there are other events viewed unfavorably by Israel, as in the case of the Egyptian election and some of the democratic government’s acts.

The political future for the poor people of Egypt is not bright. Their prospects for democratic government and all the social changes that it entails over time are indeed collateral damage of Israel’s endless bristling and America’s Israeli-like sense of exceptionalism and belief that it has the right to play God with the lives of tens of millions of others to satisfy troubles in its own domestic politics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICA’S RIDICULOUS POSITION ON SYRIA

John Chuckman

I read that an American Senator, Bob Menendez, wanted “to vomit” when he was supplied with a copy of Vladimir Putin’s New York Times’ op-ed piece about Syria.

Well, I’m sure it wasn’t just a matter of Sen. Menendez’s delicate stomach: there have been many times in the past I wanted to vomit over something in The New York Times.

It is, after all, an impossibly pretentious, often-dishonest publication faithfully serving America’s military-industrial-intelligence complex, one which never fails to support America’s countless wars, insurgencies, dirty tricks, and coups – all this while publicly flattering itself as a rigorous source of journalism and even a newspaper “of record.” Many regard The Times as simply the most worn-out key of that thunderous public-relations instrument an ex-Agency official once called his “mighty Wurlitzer.” Only in the antediluvian political atmosphere of America could The Times manage to have something of a reputation for being “liberal.”

Mr. Menendez, as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, holds a powerful position, one he has used in lockstep with President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to promote illegal war. Like them he blubbers about rights and democracy and ethics while planning death and destruction to people who have done nothing against the United States except disagreeing with it and being hated by that greatest single outside determinant of American foreign policy, Israel.

Sen. Menendez’s personal anecdote actually provides a perfect miniature replica of the entire operation of America’s foreign affairs. American officials never fail to invoke words about democracy or human rights when addressing their next piece of dirty work or effort to pressure another people into doing what America wants.

So naturally the Senator might be a bit upset over Putin’s upstaging the top officials of the United States and proving himself the superior statesman and rational politician in every detail.

First, every honest, well-read person, not trying to promote American special interests, knows there is no proof that Assad used chemical weapons. Absolutely none. Even as I write, an Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, reports that the UN inspection team could find no evidence of chemical weapons used in the place cited by Syria’s rebel army.

A video which made the rounds among American allies and which purported to show the attack has been declared a fake by the UN. Russia’s secret services also declared it a fake.

The only other bit of “evidence” worth mentioning is a supposed recording of Syrian officials provided to American officials by Mossad. Yes, that’s Mossad, the very people who pride themselves on deception and who have a long track record of expertly using it, even in several cases successfully against the United States.

You do not kill thousands of people and destroy a country’s infrastructure citing rubbish like that.

Again, as I write this, a former British Ambassador, Craig John Murray, states that the United States has been deceived by Mossad with its purported recording and that Britain’s super-sensitive listening post in Cyprus, vastly superior to Israel’s listening assets, had picked up no such information.

Germany, based on its secret service operations, also has publicly stated that Assad did not use chemical weapons.

And, of course, after all America’s huffing and blowing and threatening in recent months, Assad and his senior associates would have to have been genuinely mad to use them, but there is no sign of madness. Assad remains a calm and thoughtful person whose voice is largely silenced in the West by his having been declared arbitrarily not an acceptable head of state.

Second, there is significant proof that ugly elements of the rebellion – the substantial al Qaeda-like components who hate Assad for his tolerance towards all religions in Syria – did indeed use limited amounts on more than one occasion, hoping, undoubtedly to create a provocation for American entry. The UN has said so and so have other agencies.

We have incidents, reported reliably, of rebel elements receiving small canisters of chemical weapons, likely from Saudi agents working on behalf of American policy. We also have an incident of a canister caught by authorities moving across the Turkish border in the hands of rebel fighters, the Turkish border having been used extensively since the beginning of the rebellion as a way to inject weapons and lunatic fighters into Syria and as a refuge for rebels when corned by Syria’s army. Even the American military confirms this last event.

Third, we absolutely know that Israel has a stockpile of this horrible stuff, Sarin, but not a word is said about it. This stockpile has been confirmed by CIA sources recently. Even before CIA sources, we knew of Israel’s chemical weapons from the 1992 crash of an El Al cargo plane in Amsterdam, a plane whose illegal cargo proved to be precursor chemicals for such weapons.

Now, if you were regarded as an enemy by Israel, the most ruthless country in the Mideast when simply measured by the number of times it has attacked its neighbors, wouldn’t you want weapons to counteract theirs? And, of course, to counteract not just Israel’s chemical weapons but secret nuclear ones? So it is hardly a terrible thing for Assad’s military to posses them.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States is in no position to draw lines or make public judgments about the behavior of anyone with regard to such weapons.

It stands as likely the greatest user of various chemical weapons over the last four or five decades. Napalm and Agent Orange were used on a colossal scale in Vietnam, a true holocaust in which the United States killed about three million people. The residue from millions of pounds of Agent Orange still causes horribly mangled babies to be born in Vietnam, and the United States has never lifted a finger to clean the mess or treat its victims.

In the terrible Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the United States supplied Iraq – the clear aggressor in the war – with the materials for chemical weapons which eventually killed many thousands of Iranian soldiers.

In the illegal invasion of Iraq – where the United States killed upwards of half a million people and created millions of refugees – it employed white phosphorus (a good substitute for napalm), flame-throwers, depleted-uranium (cancer-inducing) ammunition, and hideous child-crippling cluster bombs. The children of Iraq today suffer a plague of cancer caused by breathing tons of vaporized depleted-uranium the United States dumped there.
In the unnecessary invasion of Afghanistan, the United States used massive carpet bombing to support the thugs of the Northern Alliance, who happened to be old enemies of the Taleban, though often being equally horrible in behavior. This was one of the first instances of the strategy America employed in Libya and wants to employ in Syria: local rebels on the ground, supplied with money and intelligence and weapons, are supported by high-tech hell from the air, yielding the needed results with minimum American casualties.

Thousands of Taleban prisoners of war were “disappeared’ by members of the Northern Alliance by sealing them in trucks, driving them out to the desert to suffocate, and then dumping their bodies in mass graves – all this while American soldiers looked on and picked their noses.

Nothing which has happened in recent years so horrifyingly recalls the work of Hitler’s Einsatzkommandos using mobile killing-trucks before the death camps were built, yet there can be no question that senior American commanders and the White House were aware of these events.

And of course, the only nation on earth ever to actually use atomic weapons – twice, and both times on civilian, non-military targets – is the United States, a country which also seriously planned to use them in Cold War pre-emptive strikes against Russia and China and later in Vietnam.

The voice of the United States today is shrill with hypocrisy and dishonesty and self-interest when it is heard condemning Syria, or anyone else, for using unacceptable weapons. Where was that voice when its ally, Israel, committed atrocities, as it did in Lebanon and in Gaza and on the high seas against unarmed humanitarians or when it steals the land of defenceless occupied people? Indeed, the white phosphorus and cluster bombs Israel used in some of Israel’s attacks were supplied by the United States, as were the planes and artillery used to deliver them.

And this brings us to the real cause of the rebellion in Syria. Israel would like Assad gone and Syria reduced to a broken state the way Iraq was reduced. It does not want to do this directly because Syria is a serious military opponent and not easy prey, and Israel’s doing so would arouse new waves of anger in the Mideast and new difficulties for the United States.

So the United States has had a long-term program of creating a kind of cordon sanitaire around Israel, breaking all of its potential opponents for many hundreds of miles around, but doing so always under contrived circumstances of supporting peoples’ revolts or removing dictators. It surreptitiously supplies large amounts of money and useful intelligence to the genuinely disaffected peoples of various states, encouraging them to revolt, indicating air and other support once things are underway. This is reminiscent of the dirty work of Henry Kissinger carried out with Iraq’s Kurdish population in 1975, promising them anything if they revolted but failing to deliver and leaving them to face a massive slaughter by Saddam Hussein’s troops.

Today’s is a complex black operation using a bizarre collection of intermediaries and helpers. Events in Benghazi, Libya, never explained in the United States, were certainly one little corner of this with the CIA operating there to collect weapons and jihadist types for secret entry into Syria through Turkey.

Saudi Arabia too plays a large role, surprising as that may seem to some given that Israel is a major beneficiary. Saudi Arabia’s ruling family plays the anti-Israel card just enough to keep its own fundamentalist Wahhabi population from revolting. But in truth, the wealthy Saudi elites have always had more in common with American and Israeli elites than with popular leaders in the Mideast.

Those Saudi elites were rendered extremely vulnerable to American pressures during 9/11. George Bush, always a good friend and beneficiary of Saudi largess, secretly rounded up a number of them who were in the United States (at places like Las Vegas casinos) and shipped them back to Saudi Arabia for their safety. As it proved, the greatest number of perpetrators of 9/11 were Saudi extremists, and it was discovered, though not publicly announced, that bin Laden’s movement regularly received bribes from the royal family to keep his operations out of Saudi Arabia. Thus the royal family financed bin Laden. All this made the Saudis extremely nervous and willing to be of more conspicuous future assistance in the Mideast.

And so they are, supplying money and weapons through various routes to the rebels. There is also a report of the Saudis releasing more than twelve hundred violent prisoners in return for their training and going to Syria to fight as jihadist volunteers.

American officials know all these things while they stand and blubber about democratic rebels and “red lines” and other fairy stories. They want to bomb Syria because the recent success of Assad’s army has begun to endanger the huge effort to have him overthrown. Just as their planes and missiles tipped the scales in Libya with a phony zero-fly zone, they want to repeat that success in Syria.

Now, Putin appears to have upset the plan with admirable statesmanship, and Sen. Menendez will just have to console himself with Pepto-Bismol.

But then the Russians have always been great chess players.

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
An exploration of the meaning of democracy and its state in America

John Chuckman

PREFACE AND INTRODUCTION TO THE LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY

When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the first volume of his famous book, Democracy in America, he noted that the single greatest novelty he observed on his travels was what he called “equality of conditions.” A great deal of his analysis of American society in the Age of Jackson hinges on that observation, but as any informed journalist or economist or observer of the human condition today will know, America now features a great and growing inequality of conditions.

Does this change mean that the democracy de Tocqueville observed is disappearing? This is just one of a number of questions we explore.

De Tocqueville, an aristocrat from an old French family, had observed that there was a general movement in Europe towards the decline of aristocratic power and wealth and the increase of middle-class power and wealth, a kind of “levelling” as he called it. He characterized the phenomenon as an “irresistible revolution.”

After his travels in America, he was convinced that this irresistible revolution had gone further there than anywhere else and wished to explain why this should be so and wished to provide guidance for those shaping the future of France.

What de Tocqueville was accurately observing in Europe were the social and political dimensions of what today we know as economic development, although he did not have the language. Today, we know that steady strong economic growth induces change in every aspect of society, political, social, and all its institutions. It is the story of the modern era, measured roughly from the late middle ages, to see changing technology driving the economy towards growth which, in turn, drives increasing social, political, cultural, and institutional changes.

From the late middle ages into the twentieth century, we see once-powerful monarchs gradually become constitutional figureheads while parliaments and assemblies and congresses of elected officials gradually assume political authority. These changes happened at varying rates in different countries now regarded as democratic, and they took on a character reflecting the history and customs of each country, but the overall trend across nations was the same. De Tocqueville saw this, and we see it today in a place as previously exotic to democracy as China.

The key driving force at work in these centuries of change – something de Tocqueville, at best, only vaguely understood – is gradual growth in the size and wealth of the middle class under conditions of continuous economic growth.

The structure of most early societies resembles a pyramid, with a supreme ruler at the top supported just below by aristocrats and priests and the great bulk of people spread along the bottom. In such a society, there is almost no change in status possible, always excepting a natural genius born at the bottom who comes to be recognized for a special skill valued by those at the top. In such a society, most boys end up doing just what their fathers did, most girls end up doing just what their mothers did, and there is limited opportunity to gain education, in part because there is limited opportunity even to use an education.

But starting in the late Middle Ages, something remarkable started to happen in Europe: the rate of change in applied science, ways and techniques for doing practical things, began to change noticeably. The harnessing of water and wind, the control of waterways and construction of canals, the building of new roads, the breeding of superior horses, and a thousand other changes accumulated in their impact to yield a rate of economic growth not previously known. Modest industries began to emerge, trade at greater distances picked up, and that great driver of economic growth, specialization of tasks, began its rise to dominance in society. We are all used to hearing of the Industrial Revolution, but that event did not, as it were, spring full-grown from the head of Zeus. Going back to Henry VIII’s time, and even before, the foundations were being laid with developments like improved plows, improved wheels and axles, ocean-worthy ships, and the enclosure of agricultural property previously treated as commons shared (inefficiently in economic terms) by all peasants during the Middle Ages.

As growth continued and even increased, it created previously-unimagined opportunities to work, to trade, and to make things for others. Those who were successful at these many tasks became what we now call the middle class, and the classic extreme pyramidal shape of early society began to fatten around the middle while the base narrowed. As a larger and larger group of people became well-off through expanding trade and industry, it came to have little reason to trust that a monarch or even, at a somewhat later stage, a group of aristocrats was capable of protecting and promoting its increasingly complex interests. Indeed, in many cases, the traditional aristocrats, whose wealth derived from the ownership of land, were uneducated people, quite ignorant of how business or trade worked.

With the rise of new wealth, gradually, the value of education began to grow along with the specialization of skills. These new men (for they pretty much were only men in the early modern period) proved not only useful to monarchs and aristocrats as advisors and experts but were skilled in gaining political power over time. The changing realities of wealth made them increasingly necessary to the state for everything from loans for trading voyages to supplying large quantities of new goods like guns or preserved food or textiles. Eventually, even many of the lands which had constituted the wealth of aristocrats over many earlier centuries and almost the sole source of wealth in early society began to change hands. Prejudice concerning the worthiness of birth gave way to recognition of the worth of knowing how to do things, especially things which generated new wealth. Respect for titles slowly gave way to respect for money and know-how.

De Tocqueville’s key explanation for the fact that the “irresistible revolution” had gone further in America than in other countries had to do with the nature of the early settlers. Many of them were puritans, what Americans call Pilgrim Fathers, a people who in their religion had democratic beliefs such as all men being equal before God and the rejection of hierarchies in the church. The puritans fled England and some other European countries because they were greatly disliked for good reasons, Americans always putting the events into terms of seeking religious freedom from persecution, and de Tocqueville has no argument with that. However, we now know that the early puritans were often extremely nasty and intrusive and even destructive. Scholars of the Tudor period give us a picture of puritans running through the ancient (formerly Catholic) cathedrals, smashing statues, slashing paintings, and destroying priceless manuscripts. Some puritan groups actually made a point of attending the services of other Christian groups just to make noise and disturb them. So it is quite understandable that they were disliked without talking about anyone trying to suppress their religious freedom.

De Tocqueville does not discuss any of the puritans’ negative history, but he says the puritans brought with them to the New World a good deal of know-how. And, indeed, they did: puritans were often tradesmen and businessmen, a key part of their religious beliefs including the idea that material success was a sign of God’s blessing. So de Tocqueville sees a young, energetic, and entrepreneurial people, all imbued with notions of equality before God, giving America its great start. De Tocqueville believed strongly that a people always bears the marks of their origin, and he was himself a religious man who was glad to be able to attribute America’s democratic success, in part, to “the spirit of religion”.

Except for the “spirit of religion,” a far less clear concept to my mind than de Tocqueville assumed it is, he was right. There was a role for puritan ideas of equality in influencing society’s political orientation. But it is interesting that often groups who seek a freedom for themselves end up later trying to deny it to others, and that was very much the case with the puritans and religious freedom. They were not tolerant, and many of their spiritual and genetic descendants today in the United States are among its least tolerant of its citizens. They are the people who insist on injecting religion into public life, despite Jefferson’s one unqualified great human-rights achievement of establishing religious freedom in Virginia, something in which the sceptic, for so he was, made agreements with the groups who felt oppressed by matters like the established church to which all previously had to pay taxes. Here is another interesting question about American society: whether freedom of religion can remain intact with the constant encroachments made by religious people everywhere from Washington lobbying groups to taking control of local school boards.

How does democracy work in America? That seems a simple enough question to ask, yet a great many people outside of the United States either do not know the answer or understand it in only the sketchiest fashion, and a surprisingly large number of Americans themselves do not know, for the workings of America’s government are complicated, and at times downright puzzling, despite the country’s elegantly simple founding document, the Constitution. The Constitution, it should be noted, explicitly calls the new nation a republic, rather than a democracy, many of the Founding Fathers having a poor idea of democracy – including such notable figures as Washington, Hamilton, and Morris – but few Americans in general speech today would describe their country as other than a democracy, and the Sunday School lessons regularly bestowed upon the world by the State Department never fail to take credit for being a democracy. We shall have more to say on these matters.

Today, a great part of the world is directly affected by the workings of American government through trade and security and financial issues, and no major American policy or legislation may fairly be said to be America’s private interests: that fact is simply the unavoidable result of having become the center of a global empire with treaties and agreements and trade almost everywhere and a currency used as the world’s reserve currency. Yet in this matter there is great confusion among ordinary Americans who like to believe it is no one else’s business what America does.

You cannot have it both ways – be at the center of the affairs of others while demanding that your own national political affairs are no one’s business outside of America – without implicitly advocating a form of aristocracy in which American voters, a tiny percent of the world’s population, decides internal matters in democratic fashion and external matters as a privileged aristocracy. Yet it is common today to find this peculiar combination of views in America.

It is similar to the thinking we’ve seen working in recent years with horrible places like Guantanamo and the rest of the CIA’s international torture gulag scattered over a number of obscure locations in the world. Somehow many Americans accept that the principles of their founding documents and best laws simply stop having any applicability or even meaning just over the American border, making it acceptable to do in a place like Guantanamo what you would not do inside the United States. It represents a rather odd set of principles whose limits are defined strictly by the extent of the jurisdiction of domestic courts. It is of course highly convenient when you are interested in doing some very unpleasant things.

But the inconsistencies in this thinking do not end there. In recent decades, it has become more common for the American government to apply American laws and the authority of American courts to those who are neither citizens nor residents of America. This went to the extreme of attacking a small country, Panama, whose leader, President Noreiga, had displeased the United States in order to arrest him and try him in an American court on American charges.

These inconsistent modes of thinking and acting demonstrate that democratic values do not consistently govern American instincts. If being a democracy means that citizens and their government always put democratic values first, I think it fair to say America has not arrived.

There is a massive industry in Washington consisting of consultants and lobbyists hired at sensational salaries by both foreign interests and Americans themselves simply to reach the appropriate officials with the right words on any given issue. That fact is perhaps the best evidence of how ungainly and swollen American government has become despite the almost pastoral simplicity of its founding.

But this book is not a guide to the mechanics of American government, something which would be a rather dry reading for most readers. Besides, when we ask the question of how something complex works, we usually mean more than having a book of diagrams or organizational charts, we want to grasp a sense of what happens when the machine or organization is running. We want to understand the nature of American democracy and its effects upon American society, and we want to understand the nature of democratic values as they are understood in America and the state of those values in the society.

For some, it will seem odd to ask whether America is a democracy, as that term is commonly understood and as we shall define it, but it is nevertheless a valid question, because America’s founding documents deliberately use the term republic, a concept which today means very little except that you do not have a monarchy. After all, even the Soviets styled themselves as belonging to republics. Many of America’s Founding Fathers – that late-18th century group in frock coats regarded almost in reverence by many Americans – did not believe in democracy and, indeed, regarded the concept rather the way some today might regard Islamic fundamentalism or communism as something alien and dangerous, dangerous especially to the interests of property. And if indeed, as most people assume, America is a democracy, then just what kind of democracy is it?

When Colin Powell was tilting at the United Nations over support for the illegal and unwarranted invasion of Iraq, acting as the friendly face of an administration much of the world viewed as hostile, uninformed, and arrogant, he responded to France’s Dominique de Villepin’s witty reference to France as an old country – “old Europe” having been used by the Bush government as a pejorative to belittle European opposition to invasion – Powell answered back that he represented the world’s oldest democracy.

Powell, despite the positive reaction of the diplomatic audience to his riposte, was wrong. America, by no stretch of the imagination, started as a democracy, and as far as republics go, quite a number pre-date the United States, including the Dutch and Venetian Republics. De Tocqueville’s use of the word democracy comes in a special context, including both his perspective as an aristocrat and the new momentum of expanding the franchise during the Age of Andrew Jackson, the time of de Tocqueville’s travels.

This work is an effort to analyze some of the strengths and weaknesses of American political society as they have evolved since Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous volumes of 1835 and 1840, and to offer an assessment of the contemporary meaning of American democratic society. It is also an effort to present a lively, and even entertaining, picture of what democracy means today in America. The author’s perspective and approach to democracy in America are different in many ways to those of de Tocqueville. First, the author is an American by birth, having spent both his formative years in the United States as well as a much later extended period plus a good deal of travel, in total nearly half his life, and I suspect there are nuances and meanings of American political society which only someone who has spent many years there may catch and appreciate. Yet, having lived outside the United States for the other more-than-half of his life and having adopted Canada as his home, the author also sees aspects of America with an outsider’s eye, as de Tocqueville did.

Perspective is everything, as we know from the various witnesses in a criminal trial or from the recollections of friends and associates of a dead notable person whose biography is being written. There is also the principle of modern science that some phenomena cannot be completely observed: given one measurement or observation of a sub-atomic particle, other contemporary ones become impossible. I think there is a sense of this principle which applies in human affairs. There is always some incompleteness or ambiguity in human affairs, something which I believe has not been widely enough recognized. This is why there are always alternative explanations possible in history and biography. To understand an important historical character, it is always necessary to read several biographies, but that understanding will still have inherent ambiguities and uncertainties. No less is true of entire societies.

De Toqueville travelled and wrote at the time of Andrew Jackson’s America, a time when the word democracy had become more common than it was at the founding. Of course, Jacksonian Democracy was itself not all that democratic since the majority of the population still could not vote, and important parts of government were not subject to direct election, including the Senate (originally appointed by state governments and made subject to election only in 1913), by far the most powerful branch of the legislature, but even the Presidency itself was subject not to popular votes but those of the Electoral College.

De Tocqueville, saw the young American society with the eyes of a curious and educated European aristocrat, one coming from a country which had experienced revolution, the ascent of an emperor, the restoration of monarchy, and another revolution which overthrew the restored monarchy. He called what he saw in America “democracy,” and indeed wrote of America’s “universal suffrage,” the property requirements for male voters in place since the beginning having been abandoned to a considerable extent (something actually not complete until a couple of decades after de Tocqueville’s travels), earlier religious requirements in some states having been dropped, and despite his being aware that women and slaves and some others could not vote.

Jackson himself favored the franchise covering all white adult men and abolishing the Electoral College, but Jackson also embraced Manifest Destiny, America’s quasi-religious slogan for continent-absorbing imperialism, the patronage or spoils system in government appointments, the arbitrary removal of American Indians from their homes and settled farms in the East to the Western wilderness, and the importance of the executive relative to Congress – not a set of principles we think of today as especially democratic in nature. But democracy, like anything else, must grow and establish itself by steps.

Interestingly, de Toqueville was from an old aristocratic family, and he viewed America with the eyes of a man who intensely disliked France’s July Monarchy which had been established in 1830, a government which essentially represented the rise of the middle class over the aristocrats. That in itself, as any student of the development of democracy in the modern era knows, is one of the basic steps towards democratic government, the growing interests of the middle class, as an economy advances, being far too large and demanding to be adequately represented by aristocrats of an Ancien Régime.

America today, apart from whatever else it may be, is clearly the center of a vast empire. Yet history provides us with no example of a truly democratic state being an empire, and the contradictions and challenges involved in such a situation seem apparent. Great Britain at the height of her influence in the Victorian period certainly had some democratic institutions, but it was hardly a democratic state when you consider the limits on the franchise and the inadequate, still-corrupt structure of parliamentary representation. There are truly great questions and issues around the idea of trying to be at one and the same time Augustan Rome and the inheritors of those who shook off British imperial power in the 18th century.

The author has made no attempt to produce a purely journalistic or academic effort. Footnotes, as in Page Smith’s great multi-volume history of America, are not used. Entertaining anecdotes have their place. Humor and satire are included because the author believes that subtle truths sometimes come out of laughter which cannot always be captured by reportage or analysis. Absurdity is, unfortunately, a part of the human condition, and one observes it in many forms in various societies. America, despite her advanced status in the world, has at least her share of absurdities and, for reasons to be discussed, likely somewhat more than her share. There is no danger readers will fail to distinguish observations and analysis from poking fun, and hopefully, too, they will enjoy the variety in ways of examining the subject. .

Frequently, false and even laughable claims are made for democracy, largely by politicians and generally without defining what it is that they praise. Defining democracy is no easy task, but, still, making great thumping claims for a poorly understood concept is helpful to no one except those in the business of advertising, marketing, or propaganda. When the State Department or the White House embroider statements about international affairs with bromides about democracy, we have every reason to become alert about what it is they actually are trying to say. That use of the word democracy is invariably dishonest and narrowly self-serving, intended to robe in nobility the basest drives and interests.

HOW AN ARISTOCRACY ARISES AND IS MAINTAINED IN AN OSTENSIBLY DEMOCRATIC STATE

De Tocqueville observed that the closest to an aristocracy in America was its lawyers, but he was observing America in something of a golden age, a rather innocent time when people worked hard to improve their worth yet great wealth was relatively unknown. Even in his day, lawyers were disproportionately represented in Congress – today it is sometimes facetiously said that having a law degree is virtually a union card required for working in Congress – and, of course, lawyers were the pool out of which judicial appointments were made. But becoming a lawyer today in America is not a great achievement, there being a huge number of law schools turning out a huge number of lawyers. Day and night, for it is even possible to get an American law degree in night school, and, for all I know, on the Internet. Many of these lawyers do not make a very good living because there are so many of them and so many of them are mediocre talents. So while a law degree today retains advantages it had in de Tocqueville’s day, it hardly marks, in and of itself, entry into an American aristocracy.

De Tocqueville did not believe that anything closer to the European model of aristocracy could emerge under the conditions he saw in America, believing that restrictions on primogeniture and inheritance, some of the mechanisms creating a recurring tendency towards what he called equality in society, would assure something of a middling class of people in America, what we might call Jefferson’s much-idealized class of sturdy yeomen.

In his second book, de Tocqueville does briefly mention the notion of an aristocracy of wealth emerging in America, but he does not develop the idea. It now is clear that, just as once aristocracy grew out of the ownership of land, the primary source of wealth for the Middle Ages, so in a modern democratic state, aristocracy emerges from the newer forms of wealth generated by trade and manufacturing. America’s experience proves that aristocracy and democratic forms of government are not incompatible, that there are forms and practices which can evolve to accommodate this seemingly incongruous situation. I would only make this stipulation: that in the case of something approaching a true democracy, this might not be the case, but America’s government is democratic only in limited aspects, a reality we will examine more closely later.

I believe there is a connection in this to what is commonly observed over time in any modern economy. Early in the life of an industry or enterprise – whether retail drug stores or automobile manufacturing – we often see genuinely competitive circumstances, not the perfect competition of economic theory, but something with enough of its characteristics to be compatible with the theory. Just as recently as the 1950s, there was a drug store on just about every second corner along a neighbourhood’s commercial streets, and many of these were small personal businesses. Going back a little earlier, to the 1930s and 1940s, there was a large number of manufacturers of cars, too, but both of these markets have evolved over the years into what economists call imperfect competition, where only a few large providers of the product or service dominate. And this tendency in markets is actually the typical pattern in a society like America’s: after an early stage of fairly vigorous competitiveness in a new business or industry, a much less competitive market structure emerges. It is a pattern seen in everything from soda pop manufacturers to newspapers.

The people running small drug stores in the 1950s undoubtedly made a fair living and were respectable members of their communities, but the people today owning large corporate drug chains, or large blocks of their stocks if they are public companies, are wealthy people and may even not be associated with a particular community. That phenomenon marks a very great change in the structure of a society over time and over many businesses and industries. The politics and political activities of wealthy people cannot be compared to those of ordinary working people or small businessmen, their very scale representing a change in nature. The inevitable growth in the scale of enterprises – something at work even in such tradition-bound, family-shaped work as farming or fishing – leads to the growth of an aristocracy within even a democratic state, although each citizen retains a single vote.

Other mechanisms are at work too. All laws concerned with restrictions on inheritance and inheritance tax are subject to change over time with the ever-changing face of business and politics. Only recently, Americans saw the Bush government strike down the inheritance tax, and no great waves of protest accompanied the fact, the measure being presented to the public in emotion-loaded and dishonest terms as preserving family farms. The inheritance of huge fortunes or vast on-going enterprises is an essential aspect of aristocracy.

De Tocqueville’s America was well on its way to accumulating truly great fortunes based on the success of new businesses. His “level” or “equal” society was dissolving perhaps at a rate not easily observed in the length of time he travelled. Half a century after his book, during the last part of the 19th century, came the era of the great “Robber Barons,” men whose industrial enterprises had reached immense size and worldwide influence: men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and others. Their vast fortunes were based in the previously unprecedented scale of their operations and from the decline of competition in important industries. A little while later, into the early 20th century, more great fortunes rose through the invention and mass production of new products and processes: the work of people like Ford, Edison, DuPont, or Watson. Needless to say, that trend has continued, even accelerated, and today unbelievably large fortunes are generated by computer-related and other high-tech companies which enjoy near or complete monopoly situations over some years, not just in America but indeed often the world.

The families controlling these great fortunes – whether involved with privately-owned companies or important blocks of stock in public companies – are in every respect aristocracies just as were the earls, barons, and marquises of 14th century Europe despite the fact that some of them enjoy wearing blue jeans or tee shirts. I was at an oil industry conference once years ago and was handed a business card from a representative of the U.S. State Department. I was struck by the family name on the card, Pabst-Wurlitzer, presumably a hybrid of the Pabst Beer fortune and the Wurlitzer Organ fortune. Thus, in the late 20th century, we see the names from mass-produced products in America – from Heinz Ketchup to Hershey’s Chocolate – taking on the same kind of psychological weight and presence as the names of earlier noble families, Norfolk or Westminster, names reflecting ownership of places.

America’s modern aristocracy cannot literally own electoral districts or numbers of voters the way earls once owned the peasants on their land or later controlled certain parliamentary constituencies called pocket boroughs. But America has managed to develop a sophisticated system over time which serves the interests of the aristocrats in a democratic society. One of America’s genuinely original contributions to the modern business world is in marketing and advertising, and the principles of marketing and advertising are indispensable parts of modern elections, especially for national office. Except in rare and special circumstances, you cannot run for national office without a great deal of money, money for advertising, marketing, consultants, and travel. That money simply does not come from the average citizen, and although efforts are made periodically to mount special appeals to the public for “grassroots support,” those efforts themselves are costly and time-consuming, and they still leave the need for large donations which come from America’s aristocracy. Indeed, campaign fund-raising is itself a recognized specialty, a form of expertise, in America, one which involves contacts and access to those able to make substantial contributions.

The Supreme Court of the United States has explicitly ruled that money is a form of free speech in politics, and there is no time in the foreseeable future one can expect fundamental change in this view. The success of money in politics much resembles the success of money in advertising consumer products, with a political duopoly sharing the market for votes just as a food duopoly shares the market for hamburgers or soda pop. Money cannot guarantee you will win in every case, but, on average over numbers of elections, it very much is decisive. The arts of skilful marketing and advertising assure that. A clever message repeated over and over produces votes exactly the way a good ad campaign moves product off shelves, and in modern elections the politician’s message often no more represents his true capabilities than an ad fairly represents the claims of an over-the-counter remedy. Indeed, the public has very much been conditioned to expect politicians often will not do what they said they would do when running for office.

Money – often cynically called the mother’s milk of politics in America – greatly increases the chances of being elected, and, once elected, the giving of money assures donors access to those in office. In a large country like the modern United States, it is virtually impossible for most people ever to meet the president or most other high office holders. In most large states, it is virtually impossible to meet even your senator, there being, for example, in California more than sixteen million people for each of two senators. This was not the case historically in the United States. There was a time that it was at least conceivable for anyone to meet a senator or even a president. The presidents indeed once held levees at which the general public could come to the White House, look around, and shake hands. The effects of scale over time have changed the entire nature of the relationship between those who govern and the governed. So, the access which comes with large donations of money truly has become something approaching exclusive, a situation which again parallels the that of old aristocracies vis-à-vis the king or one of his highest officials.

Senators in contemporary America also possess many of the characteristics of aristocracy. There are only a small number of them, the cost of obtaining the office effectively closes access to most, they are not elected in any proportion to population, and they enjoy great power and privilege. Senators approve every important appointment made and treaty signed by a president: simply by the tardiness of their application they may make a president look feeble. They must also approve every piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives, sometimes called “the people’s house” because it is elected in proportion with population. With the odd exception, especially from smaller states, when you see pictures of American Senators, the images are genuinely patrician in nature. And with good reason because the occupants are either wealthy and influential people or they are dedicated to serving wealthy and influential people, Senate seats do not have a high turnover rate, some of them serving as personal possessions for decades, and the inheritance of seats from father to son is not uncommon.

But the aristocratic nature of the American Senate is not understood just by those facts. The business of the Senate is conducted by committees, and the chairmen of the major committees are extremely powerful people, controlling the flow of legislation and even the discussion of legislation to a considerable extent. The chairmanships are based on seniority in the majority party, and accumulating seniority means some very cosy relationships with powerful families and industries in a district so that the flow of money is large and dependable. Of course, as in life in general, longevity tends to generate conservative principles. Further, we have the privilege of any senator or group of senators to filibuster a bill: they may speak indefinitely to block the passage of legislation. Filibusters may be overcome by a vote of cloture, but this requires three-fifths of senators, sixty senators in today’s senate, a number often extremely difficult to obtain. Thus, legislation in the senate, when there is any opposition to it, requires not just a majority but a supermajority.

AMERICAN DEMOCRACY AND RELIGION

You might think from the speeches of American politicians at gatherings such as Fourth of July picnics that they confuse democracy with an exalted religious state, one in which presumably there can be no sin or error. Representatives of the American State Department frequently speak in similar terms, although theirs is a more diplomatically subdued tone, as they announce the annual list of short-comings of the world’s other governments, apparently having been delegated by a higher power the task of separating the world’s democratic wheat from its chaff.

The humorous suggestion of an association between American democracy and religion is more apt than it may seem at first gloss: the entire collection of the nation’s political rituals and practices has been called the American Civic Religion, and not without good reason. There is a rather remarkable conflation in America of the expected norms of national political expression with those of Christian fundamentalism.

This comes despite the fact that most of the Founding Fathers were not religious men as we usually understand the description. The most eminent founders were men of their time, which in the intellectual capitals of Europe was characterized by the Enlightenment. A couple of centuries of pointless, bloody religious wars and persecutions finally had produced a generation of thinkers about society and government in England and France for whom religious questions were no longer a chief concern and, in some cases, no concern at all. Many of these thinkers were Deists and some were Atheists, and just so the main group of America’s Founding Fathers – Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Morris, and a number of others included.

Yet, to this day in America, the myth persists that America was founded as a “Christian” nation, or at least a nation “under God.” The very fact that this is possible, in the face of contrary historical fact, points to another association between religion and democracy in America.

THE AMERICAN CIVIC RELIGION

The expression America’s Civic Religion does not refer to simple, natural expressions of patriotism such as the occasional singing of the anthem or to celebrations around the anniversary of the country’s founding but to what are deliberate and seemingly needless personal public displays and declarations. Some of the displays are not personal but made in groups under considerable social pressure and even sometimes legislation.

The seemingly irresistible urge many Americans exhibit for public announcements of their patriotism and political views parallels closely what happens at fundamentalist revival meetings where believers in the congregation are expected to rise one by one during part of the service to give statements, an act typically called witnessing or giving testimony. When Christian fundamentalists do this, they are generally speaking to their own in the congregation, rather than to non-believing outsiders.

As part of America’s secular political religion, we have flags as lapel pins, not unusual for citizens of many countries when travelling abroad, but in America they are worn at home, and they literally are required of every national politician who does not want his patriotism promptly questioned. For some reason President Obama started his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination without the daily ritual of a flag pin on the lapel, but a storm of rather irrational arguments soon brought him around.

This wearing of flag pins and other patriotic trinkets while walking the streets of your own town does have some unpleasant past associations. One recalls historical practices such as wearing the tricolor cockade during the French Revolution, a practice which, likely more often than not, had more to do with self-preservation than patriotic fervor. Of course, there is always a war-paint aspect to the wearing of such emblems, and it is an interesting and revealing aspect of America’s democratic society that few Americans would publicly question why war paint should be needed in day-to-day life.

But flag pins are not enough of the dear old Stars and Stripes. Every time a speech is made during a campaign, you might have noticed, it is against a backdrop of a gigantic flag hoisted to the wall, something big enough to cover a large portion of a football field and likely requiring a crane to put up and take down, or at least against a whole row of more normal-sized flags on poles with eagle tops and usually gold fringe, stretching across the stage like soldiers on parade. So lots of flag behind and a flag pin on the lapel are the minimum requirements for every tired puff-piece speech from every high school gym or auditorium from one coast to the other. Surely, there can be no confusion in audiences about the nationality or loyalty of the speakers that requires identification of their nationality, but giving a speech in America without these props would be treated exactly like a priest showing up at mass without vestments and chalice.

THE THREAD OF PARANOIA

But actually there is some confusion over loyalty, and that is part of the explanation for the constant display. There is a genuine thread of paranoid fear in America, likely part of the genetic legacy of Puritan ancestors, which requires assurance and more assurance and over-assurance. Evidence for this is found in many aspects of American life. America has displayed from its origins the need for a demon or enemy, the name of the enemy changing periodically but always pretty much being imbued with the same threatening qualities. It is for this reason, I believe Moby Dick the great early American book, far more so than Huckleberry Finn: the image of Captain Ahab chasing the white whale across the world’s oceans encapsulates a profound truth about America.

In recent years, the enemy has been Islam, all its exoticism and mystery portrayed in earlier Hollywood movies having been transformed into dark things and evil plots. Before that, but actually never really fading away, there was Communism as a world-wide conspiracy of the godless. Merging with that was an earlier paranoid strain focused on Asians. America’s native people certainly had their period of being treated as the fearful other. Previous to America’s Revolution and for some time later, there were waves of paralyzing fear over the possibility of slave revolts. The American Revolution itself came about in large part because many colonists viewed Britain’s mere administrative act of putting them under the Quebec Act as a dire threat from Papism.

In grade schools, there is mandated daily pledging of the flag – this in addition to singing the anthem – the pledge being literally an oath taken in public, something which should be abhorrent to all who respect privacy of beliefs or regard the taking of public oaths as inappropriate. The pledge is given by placing the right hand over the heart, much as a witness in court raises his right hand to swear to the truth of his testimony. The practice, which has the important effect of making each person’s full participation easily observed by the others in the group, does represent some moderation over the one which preceded it, for up to America’s entry into World War II, the standard etiquette was the right hand, arm straight, raised at an angle towards the flag, a virtual duplicate of the Nazi salute.

The pledge does not have a long history. Coming into use at the end of the 19th century, de Toqueville would never have observed it, but it is no coincidence that that timing corresponds to America’s emergence as an imperial power in the world. A series of wars and fights and acquisitions belong to the period, including the forcible acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War, both in 1898. Interestingly, the original pledge was written by a Baptist minister.

The same hand-over-heart salute also applies to any passing of the American flag or playing of the national anthem, as when, accompanied by the flag, patriotic marching bands pass.

Patriotic marching bands are an American obsession. You might almost compare them to activities like soccer in other countries. Virtually every high school, college, and university in every small or large town is able to field at least one marching band playing bad music in uniforms resembling those favored by the armies of banana republics. The national total of patriotic signs of the cross – if we may so refer to the placing of right hands on hearts – made in America each year thus is likely beyond counting.

Patriotic bands often come accompanied by baton-twirling girls strutting in sequined or satiny outfits with boots, short skirts, and underpants in patriotic colors – the full band experience being a loud blend of showbiz and cheesecake.

Armed “color guards” accompany the flag at even the most humble get-together such as a booze-up for veterans at the American Legion Hall. The rifles carried by the color guard often are decorated – plated with chrome with shiny black stocks and perhaps white leather straps – giving them a visual appeal somewhere between props in a Busby Berkeley number and the shiny vessels raised and lowered by a priest during mass.

There are prescribed rituals around what should be the simple act of raising or lowering an American flag: these are laid out in pamphlets for the general public and in military manuals. I once watched the flag being lowered at the Annapolis Naval Academy where the ceremony reminded me of nothing so much as figures on an antique town-hall clockwork going through a sequence of jerky movements with the striking of the hour.

The flag is not to be left exposed to the dark, so just before sunset is the designated time for the lowering ritual. Why would it matter if a flag were left flying at night? Here superstition clearly plays a role. It is permitted under spotlights, a staging which possibly suggests Francis Scott Key’s vision of it on the battlements under “the rockets’ red glare.” It is all quite melodramatic, but then so are most religious ceremonies.

There is even a prescribed ritual for folding the flag when it is taken down or removing it from the top of a casket at a burial: it is to be folded in a sequence which result in a fat triangular bundle called a “cocked hat” in memory of the military headgear of officers in the late eighteenth century, and with only the blue and the stars showing on the outside. Why an eighteenth century hat? Who knows, but clearly there is the same obsessive, ritualistic quality we find in the prescribed movements of a priest during mass.

You cannot just throw away an old flag either: there are rules for destroying a flag once it has been damaged or has become faded or even has merely touched the ground. It is to be reverently handled by the acolyte who either cuts the blue union from the body of the flag, leaving it safe for disposal then as mere cloth, or the entire flag is respectfully burnt, presumably as though it were a departed loved one being cremated.

Of course, America is a big, brawling, and often extremely messy country, and it includes many who neglect the fine points of some of these official practices, but it is not shady used car dealers, motorcycle gangs, or urban street youth who set the nation’s official tone and rules.

There is a rather scholastic practice common among conservative and militia types of carrying in one’s wallet a folded copy of the American Constitution, leaving the practitioner in a position to settle arguments about rights on the spot. former Congressman Tom DeLay, charged with some very doubtful practices in amassing a fortune in campaign contributions, was a prominent wallet-carrier, always ready to pull it out and start quoting.

There are a good many more testimonials of faith, but I think my favourite is the interminable series of debates in Congress during the last half of the twentieth century on passing an amendment to the Constitution allowing Congress to outlaw desecration of the flag, a so-called flag-burning amendment. The House of Representatives actually several times passed such an amendment, and the Senate came very close to doing so, but in any case long periods of time were spent arguing and posing before cameras over what is surely a trivial issue.

For those unfamiliar, the entire process required to amend the American Constitution is so complex and demanding that only the most deadly serious or politically-charged topics ever are considered. Of course, the catch in the case of flag-burning always is the First Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech. A flag is just a piece of dyed cloth and disposing of it or burning it for some show or protest should be close to indistinguishable from the way you treat an old suit of clothes. But try telling that to a red-blooded patriot, and you could wind up with some extensive bruises for your trouble. How is it that a bit of dyed cloth gets magically transmuted? You might well ask a priest the same question about the wafer and wine.

That whole set of American political behaviors closely mimics religion in its many rituals and in its commandments. What’s more, America’s Civic Religion has its own Holy Writ in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, its own Twelve Apostles in the Founding Fathers, its panoply of saints from Betsy Ross to General MacArthur, and even its own Judas Iscariot in Benedict Arnold. No wonder many Americans get confused about its being a Christian nation.

AMERICA AS A YOUNG COUNTRY

One argument often heard from more thoughtful Americans trying to explain the seemingly overabundant expressions of patriotism is that the country is a very young one, still uncertain of itself, still awkward in many of its practices. Also, the idea is advanced that the melodramatic expressions are over-reactions to sensitivity around identity. This may have once been the case, but more than two and a quarter centuries after the Revolution seems a bit long to support the argument, at least without raising new issues around a very slow rate of maturing in American society.

There definitely was a time in the 19th century when Americans were self-conscious and ambivalent and over-protective around their identity. A number of American writers went to live in Europe to escape what they regarded as a parochial and rather artistically limiting society. At the same time, other American writers engaged in stubborn efforts to exalt American attitudes and ways in the world’s eyes. During the 19th century a number of important European visitors to American made some fairly tough observations on the state of the society. Apart from the famous, published observations of, for example, Dickens, there were many observations on such day-to-day matters as the practice of chewing tobacco and spitting so common in America that every public building had dozens of spittoons and stained carpets.

THE ATTRACTION OF AUTHORITARIANISM IN AMERICA

Yet another argument, one with a good deal of merit, is that put forward by Conor Cruise O’Brien that America’s excessive patriotic expression serves as a kind of defense against other tendencies in the society which would work against democracy. O’Brien stresses that the one important purpose that all the noise serves, the only welcome and beneficial one for the world at large, is in helping suppress a tendency, easily observable and consistently present through America’s history, towards strong men, often military types, a lack of patience with liberal milksops, and a recurring attraction to authoritarian measures and swift justice and heavy punishment – a tendency, in a word, towards fascism.

That shouldn’t surprise. Deference to authority is a characteristic of fundamentalist religion, whether the authority is understood as the literal words of the Bible or the words of a charismatic religious leader. Characteristic too is the urge for a certain kind of uniformity in human behavior: fundamentalist Christians believe that all people equally require salvation through Jesus and that those who have found that salvation will ever after conduct their lives within certain well-defined rules and standards. Authority and a drive for social uniformity are also, without doubt, fascism’s key characteristics.

The tendency towards fascism in America was observed by the great American journalist, William L. Shirer, around the time of his reporting on Nazi Germany, “Perhaps America will one day go fascist democratically, by popular vote.” Or there is novelist Sinclair Lewis’s line about fascism coming to America draped in the flag and carrying a cross. Influential historical figures like Henry Ford or Frederick Taylor or Charles Linbergh displayed powerful attractions in that direction: Hitler kept Ford’s photo on the wall near his desk in the Chancery and Stalin admired and tried to copy Taylor’s scientific management. This thread in America goes back to John Adams and the Alien and Sedition laws – under which journalists could be, and were, imprisoned for saying the wrong thing – and to the excesses of Thomas Jefferson who one moment could sound like a saintly spokesman for a free society and the next remarkably like an advocate for the opposite. Indeed, Jefferson didn’t just sound that way, he acted that way a number of times in his political career, including his assistance to Napoleon in attempting to put down Haiti’s slave revolt and his imposition, complete with spies and harsh enforcement, of an embargo against trade with Britain which destroyed huge sectors of the New England economy. As well, there was his admiration for the excesses of the French Revolution and all his talk about having to spill blood every twenty years or so for freedom.

WHAT IS DEMOCRACY AND DOES AMERICA HAVE IT?

Of course, democracy is just a set of rules for organizing ourselves into a society of laws, and there are many variations possible in those rules, and even the best sets of rules, carefully considered as to their fairness, may have some unpleasant consequences. But most democratic governments do not regularly scrutinize their rules in order to improve them, and this may be truest of all in the case of the United States, because it has treated as hallowed rules and institutions which were long ago obsolete from a democratic point of view: these include the Electoral College for presidential elections, the cloture rules for the Senate, the very make-up of the Senate in not reflecting population, the way campaigns are financed, and quite a number of equally important matters.

Most democratic governments are organized with sets of rules which are haphazard collections from the past, accumulations of the accidents of history, and most certainly, even rules designed originally with the intention of entrenching privilege and bias.

I use the term democratic government quite deliberately to distinguish the many hybrid forms which may even have less in them of democracy than of other forms of government. Democracy itself, at least at this stage of human development, is always an ideal which remains an ideal in not being too closely defined. In general, we understand by that ideal a set of rules whereby every citizen has the franchise and exercises it to direct the actions of government, or at least the weighty actions of government. The more complications there are in the rules and the more links to go through in order to legislate, the more remote we are from democracy.

Of course, when American politicians speak about democracy, it is not democracy in general whose praises are sung but America’s particular brand. And that is not an unimportant point since America’s system of government, while having many democratic aspects, is, even in the twenty-first century, a considerable way from anything we could fairly call democracy. Early Americans rarely used the word democracy, instead almost always emphasizing the country’s identity as a republic. Now, a republic is little more than a government without a monarch, one represented by some person or persons elected by a group granted the franchise, however small and exclusive that group might be. There were a number of republics before the United States, including the Venetian and the Netherlands, and a republic need not be at all democratic. If only a small and privileged group holds the franchise, then a republic may be no more democratic than a constitutional, or limited, monarchy. Strictly speaking, at the time of America’s founding, the British monarch had lost so much power to Parliament through several centuries of progressive change and civil war and revolution, that Britain was every bit as democratic as the United States. It may even be not far from a monarchy with few constitutional limits, for a small group of privileged people selecting a leader is not so different to a kingdom with a group of powerful lords who may uphold or topple him.

Democracy may be viewed as a special kind of limit in human political society, the kind we find in the mathematics of differential calculus, something we may approach ever more closely but actually never reach. In that sense democracy is always an approximation, but some approximations are close and some are wildly off.

The world’s major democratic governments appear theoretically organized as Burkean democracies, wherein voters periodically choose representatives who are then to exercise judgment over issues during the time they hold office, having the time and resources to gain expertise as they proceed. In the eighteenth century, when parliaments first were exercising great independent strength, political parties as we know them had not taken hold. The individual member mattered, and parliamentary business often resembled a series of temporary alliances, but the gradual emergence of major entrenched parties, both in parliaments and congresses, has changed all that. We also have, during the twentieth century, the emergence in parliaments of a party’s leader demanding close to complete obedience by members in voting and legislation.

Thus prime ministers have emerged as extremely powerful figures, able to behave quite closely to dictatorial figures in foreign or domestic affairs, at least until such time as their party members revolt. The President in American-style government is a comparatively weak figure in domestic affairs because he does not lead the legislature. However because the Constitution made the President Commander-in-Chief, he has a huge authority in military matters.

This naming of the president as commander-in-chief surely represents one of the serious defects of the Constitution. The Founders believed they had a proper balance and division of power in giving only Congress the power to declare war while making the president commander. But that has proved very faulty in the 20th century. Most of America’s wars since the end of World War II, and there have been many, never involved a declaration of war. It’s almost as though the concept of a declaration of war has become outdated, a relic of the 18th century. But the President’s power as commander-in-chief is no relic. That has become immensely important with a gigantic standing armed forces, something most of the Founding Fathers could not have imagined and by which they would likely be horrified. After America’s ghastly debacle in Vietnam, new laws were passed limiting the president’s unilateral powers over the armed forces, but these just slow things up a bit and are no barrier to a determined president, as George Bush demonstrated with the completely illegal invasion of Iraq.

Today, few elected officials anywhere exercise the tough-minded, independent judgment of an Edmund Burke: the day-to-day practice certainly includes checking the political winds in one’s constituency before charting a course on an issue. But more important still are the political winds of the member’s party leadership, for parties dominate most political activity, leaving room only rarely for a member to depart out of consideration for local constituency sensibilities.

Already in that rough sketch we can see how far from democracy we are.

Some countries allow or mandate referendums – either binding or non-binding – for certain limited matters, such referendums, especially binding ones, being as close as we get to the ideal of democracy. While referendums have been used by state governments in the United States, they are not a practice of the national government.

THE WORST FORM OF GOVERNMENT

Winston Churchill gave us one of the definitive comments on democratic government when he said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.

Churchill’s observation is far more than a witty quip, for it certainly identifies one of the fundamental limits of democracy, a tough and seemingly insoluble conundrum. Democracy, as Churchill understood it, is often inefficient, messy, and laggard in dealing with great problems, at least as viewed from the perspective of a person with critical intelligence, brusque personality, and impatience for action – the very kind of man Churchill was. For certainly, a man of Churchill’s exceptional gifts often is able to see an important problem, at least in those areas upon which his interests are focused, before others and often capable of proposing an appropriate solution.

But there have been even more gifted men in history, men who enjoyed power without the constraints of democratic institutions, whose interests focused on matters which brought untold horror to millions – Napoleon readily comes to mind.

Churchill certainly had a claim to authority on the subject of democracy, being an historian of distinction and having served as a genuinely inspiring symbol for the hopes of democratic society during the greatest war in human history.

Yet, as is perhaps not so widely known, Churchill was more than a little doubtful about the most basic component of democracy, the average voter. He was actually savagely cynical on the subject, having once remarked that the best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Of course, further testifying to the ambiguity of Churchill on democracy, we have the fact that at the same time he served as a great symbol to free societies warring against tyrants, he was devoted to the continuation of the British Empire, a devotion which influenced his political behaviour during and after the war.

THE LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY

In their complexity and ambiguity, Churchill’s views perhaps provide the perfect starting point in discussing the limits of democracy, although Churchill was not unique in these views among Western statesmen of his time. One finds similar themes in the thoughts and behaviors of Franklin Roosevelt or Charles de Gaulle. Roosevelt stood against the enslavement of others by fascist dictators, yet he was a happy builder of American empire and a politician who did not interfere in some very dark corners of his own society where it might cause problems with his majority. De Gaulle, much like Churchill, was an admirer of empire, so long as it was French.

Empire and democracy are certainly mutually exclusive concepts if by democracy you include all the actors in the story, and not just those in the “mother country.” But many people do not seem to make this distinction. Americans today, many of them, have little problem regarding the nation’s interventions abroad as legitimate because America itself has democratic government, even though those two concepts surely are non sequiturs.

Americans see their origins as a great revolt against British imperial tyranny, and the British establishment of the 18th century saw their Parliament’s rule in the American colonies as appropriate and even beneficent.

The data on colonial American life expectancy, births, and health of population plus the notable comments of some observers from abroad tend to support the historical British view. Many visitors from abroad commented on the relative freedom of the colonies, the lack of war, the freedom from conscription, and the energetic qualities of the local people. Some insightful people rated the pre-revolutionary colonies as the best known place on earth when all factors were considered.

So why was there an American Revolution, perhaps more accurately named an American Revolt because the colonies were simply throwing off rule from abroad rather than entering into any kind of radical departure in the way society was organized? There were a number of republics before America, and Britain herself was well along the path towards more democratic government despite being a monarchy. Newly-independent America certainly was no more democratic than Great Britain, and many of the thoughts and concepts of government attributed to the “Founding Fathers” were not original, indeed most of them originated earlier with British thinkers and the French philosophes.

Nor was America in any meaningful sense more free after the Revolution. It was free of the sensible Crown rules which had tried to prevent rampaging expansion and exploitation over the Indian territories west of the colonies as in the Ohio Valley, or perhaps that is an overstatement since the colonists regularly had broken those rules seeking quick fortunes, George Washington chief amongst them with his land speculation. America was free of British rules governing imports and tariffs, but then many colonists had studiously ignored those rules, men like John Hancock having made fortunes in smuggling, a major colonial industry. America was freed from the wild, paranoid fears about the Pope taking over which Britain’s institution of the Quebec Act had engendered, a major cause of the rebellion, or perhaps that is even going too far since anti-popery remained a fierce attitude in the colonies, with effigies of the pope

 

 

LIMITS TO DEMOCRACY: THE CIA AND KINDRED INSTITUTIONS

Apart from the obvious anti-democratic business of empires or spheres of influence maintained by military force, it is a notable that in all modern democratic societies large parts of the state and its private institutions are organized along lines virtually the opposite to democracy: they are organized along authoritarian lines.

This is remarkably so in the case of the United States. The Pentagon, the C.I.A., thirteen other intelligence agencies at last count, and various national police forces. We might also include major defense contractors working on top secret projects. All these institutions are not only secretive, they are organized on lines of authority little different to those in 16th century societies. Democracy, in any form has no role in these institutions, except presumably to direct their activities at a high level.

It is easy to say that because the national government directing these powerful institutions is itself democratic that the institutions serve democratic principles, but something’s being easy to say does not make it true. Power is power, however granted, and these institutions are centers of great power, and they are not, nor can they reasonably be expected to be, effectively scrutinized and directed by people serving the interests of democracy.

In many cases, perhaps most, such institutions actually enjoy great influence over the democratic government supposedly directing them. Hoover’s FBI springs immediately to mind. Naturally enough with these secretive institutions we never know very much concerning details of their activities, yet there are others instances which have come to light. The CIA’s misleading of a new and inexperienced President John Kennedy about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion was certainly an example.

The oversight committees of Congress must almost by definition be highly ineffective with regard to these complex and secretive institutions. Busy politicians can hardly be expected to keep up with vast resources and cleverness and ruthlessness of major intelligence figures. These powerful agencies include those who can print perfect duplicate currency, manufacture perfect false passports, and generate recordings or photos which are pure fantasy. Any congressman or senator on a committee who did manage to penetrate to some inappropriate truths would hardly be in a position to use the information in any way.

To whom would he turn with his information? Committee chairmen are invariably long-term, often ancient, politicians who, much like the heads of many government regulatory agencies, are closely bonded to the interests of the institution they oversee. To publicly suggest problems with such agencies would open any politician to ridicule, embarrassment, and even reprisals from people who have great resources at their disposal. We recall former CIA Director Richard Helms saying in testimony once that despite being under oath he regarded it as his responsibility not to tell the truth if it revealed secrets.

And, remember, a common activity of the CIA is subsidizing politicians and parties abroad to assure their election prospects against opponents, and who can reasonably doubt that that same nefarious activity may be used against selected American politicians? Of course, there is the infamous case in Britain of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s sudden retirement in the 1970s. There is substantial reason to believe it was the result of MI6 breaking into Wilson’s office and obtaining some embarrassing documents and recordings.

Besides, as we shall see, the national government itself often acts along undemocratic, and even anti-democratic, lines, so that effective oversight is not only exceedingly difficult, it often does not exist by choice. If you accept the idea, which I happen to believe is impossible to refute convincingly, that these great institutions effectively become a kind of government within a government – an ongoing establishment of careerists with sensitive and powerful jobs and great resources at their command – then we come to a very important set of limits in American democracy or in any democracy so organized.

State secrets are just one aspect of this government within a government, and state secrets, I believe, far more often than not, are classified only because they are embarrassing or compromising to an agency which has blundered or done something generally regarded as unacceptable or even criminal, not because they represent genuine threats to national security. We have, again considering the highly secretive nature of these agencies, a number of the most obvious failures by them in recent history: the assassination of an American president despite known threats; the failure to see the coming collapse of the Soviet Union, an epochal event of the twentieth century; the highly successful and complex attack of 9/11; and a number of terribly damaging spies. None of these events have been explained to the satisfaction of clear-thinking people, they remain surrounded with a deliberately generated fog of nonsense. Who can doubt that countless smaller events are classified only for what they reveal of incompetence, waste, or criminality?

Yet the citizens of every democracy tolerate the ongoing existence of great dark areas in their knowledge labelled as secret. It has been shown, many times, in the United States and other places where the practice of secrets is especially far-ranging, that when some of them finally come to be known decades later, the claim of their importance to national security is often laughable. Indeed, often the reverse is the case: national security in the truest sense is hurt by secrets which do not need to be secret.

Just in my lifetime, there have been examples of the last phenomenon. You do not have to be what is called a conspiracy theorist – sometimes a warranted label for the paranoid extremes of every human society, but too often a way of demonizing those who have honest questions and true observations about great events – to accept that assertion.

Indeed, the mushroom-like growth in size and variety of national security agencies in the United States since WWII is breathtaking. The CIA, for example, was signed into existence by President Truman in the belief that future executive decisions needed the support of sound, unbiased information about the world. It started as a fairly modest enterprise but in a matter of decades was consuming tens of billions of dollars. Since the events of 9/11 when the CIA’s annual budget had been estimated at around 30 billion dollars – the actual numbers are always secret – the size of the CIA’s budget has undoubtedly undergone a massive inflation, as have those of its many sister agencies.

Even during Truman’s term, already there were signs of trouble with the CIA. Truman expressed great concern over the operations side of the CIA versus its purely information-gathering side. Reasons for that concern have only multiplied over the years. Already by Kennedy’s time, CIA was running huge enterprises in secret, such as its anti-Castro operations. At that time, the CIA’s operations in the Southern United States for recruiting, training, arming, and organizing violent anti-Castro activities could be characterized as a gigantic terrorist enterprise, a company of thousands of workers with a budget of millions of dollars, dwarfing what we know of the pathetic little camp of Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan.

That vast, secret enterprise engaged in many attempted assassinations, invasion, intimidation of American opposition, spying on Americans, the downing of at least one Cuban airliner, shooting-up Russian ships in Cuban ports, planting bombs in Cuban hotels, and gun-running. If that list of activities doesn’t constitute terror on a grand scale, it’s hard to know what would qualify.

The full story of that time undoubtedly has never been told, but the Church Senate Committee of the 1970s uncovered enough rodent trails to shake the confidence of many in the agency’s integrity. High-ranking CIA employees effectively recruited and worked with elements of the American Mafia towards the goal of assassinating Castro and accomplishing other highly unethical ends. And there was a great deal of confusion, which remains today, over the degree of the president’s knowledge and control of those events.

Following Church’s limited revelations, new efforts were made to reassert control over, and limit, the operations side of the CIA, but it wasn’t long before enthusiasts of operations were given their way under Reagan. Today, following 9/11, operations appear to have a greater role than ever. Where once, for some brief years after the Church Committee, assassination was explicitly forbidden, today we have regular assassinations by missiles fired from computer-controlled drones on the other side of the planet. Dozens of them, people tracked and killed by machines with no charges, no trial, and no evidence, just a technician sitting somewhere in a locked room guiding a death-dealing machine to its human targets. As a matter of fact, many others are routinely killed – neighbors and relatives – each time one of these technicians plays his deadly computer game.

Is it rational to expect that an organization with virtually bottomless resources, one staffed with large numbers of people whose entire careers are dedicated to lying, cheating, and even murder, will behave as an obedient servant when it sees political or social events inside the country moving in directions it regards as unfavourable to its interests? Of course not, and while the tales of such behaviour are likely among the most closely guarded secrets, we do have hard examples adequate to demonstrate the point, a point whose intuitive truth should be clear enough.

LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY: ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Abraham Lincoln reassured Americans about the nature of democratic government in America with his pleasant saying that you can fool some people all the time, and all people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. It was classic Lincoln as homespun political philosopher.

Lincoln, regrettably, has been proved wrong on all counts. First, to direct or alter the course of elections, it is only necessary to fool all the people part of the time or indeed to fool a good portion all of the time, and we have many instances of both these situations having occurred in American history. The massive private financing of national elections in America is at its heart a mechanism to gain office and the spoils of office by misinforming voters.

Many of America’s “founding fathers” did not trust democracy, and the basis of their mistrust was the belief that citizens of substance had the only stake in society that warranted their receiving the franchise. Equally, they held the belief that a wider franchise offered the opportunity for the mob with no serious stake in society to vote to deprive those who had a stake of their wealth.

The protection against democracy of granting only a small fraction of white males the franchise – those meeting criteria of wealth – was buttressed by a series of Constitutional structures to make strong barriers against democracy. First, the Constitution creating the barriers was itself made excruciatingly difficult to alter. Then the Senate was made an appointed, rather than elected, body, the Senate being the part of the legislature with the great power of approving all presidential appointments and treaties while exercising a veto on acts of the House of Representatives. Further, the direct election of the president was given to a small, privileged group called the Electoral College: the votes of even the limited population who had the franchise being overridden by the still smaller, still more privileged group appointed to the College.

After two centuries of change and evolution in the Constitution, its mechanism of interpretation, and the extension of the franchise, the fears of the founders remain effectively threaded into the fabric of American society. Perhaps the main way – but not the only way, as we shall see later – those fears work today is through the system of campaign financing. In general, those who are best financed will win, but in a duopoly party system, even the party which is less well financed still clearly represents the interests of the people giving all that money.

And it is a great deal of money indeed. It is estimated that an American Senator must spend on average about two-thirds of his or her time chasing campaign funds. A Senate seat in a major state requires on the order of fifteen million dollars for each election. But the amounts just keep growing. Hillary Clinton spent an almost unbelievable $36 million in 2006 for her New York Senate seat, with the total spent by both candidates being $41 million. Races in Pennsylvania and Missouri saw amounts of $38 million and $28 million spent for one seat each. No one but the most dreamy-eyed sentimentalist believes that those amounts are donated through a sense of civic duty or public spirit. If nothing else, substantial contributions buy access, so that political access is rationed in America, as is the case for so many other things, from healthcare to education or legal representation, largely by money.

By Lincoln’s day, the original narrow limits on the franchise had broadened, but nothing which genuinely qualified as democracy had yet emerged, the Senate being still appointed and the President still being elected by a small and elite political group and a minority of voters even being qualified to vote. Lincoln, naturally enough, accepted many of the assumptions and attitudes of his day, including limits on democracy. His words, for example, on extending the franchise to freed slaves were quite guarded and conservative: perhaps, he said, it could be extended to a few of the most intelligent.

Yet I’m pretty sure Lincoln would have dumbfounded by a single national election in which a billion dollars is spent, and spent largely on advertising, polling, marketing research, spokespeople, and artificially-staged rallies. I feel confident that the thoughtful man who debated weighty matters with hand-written words would be horrified by American elections with debates which are nothing more than joint press conferences, featuring candidates sporting blow-dried hair, capped perfect teeth, and pancake make-up, supported by budgets for vacuous advertising in the hundreds of millions of dollars, teams of political flaks paid to pleasantly lie and insincerely praise, and a cast of carefully rehearsed candidates who never actually answer a question and indeed rarely ever touch a genuine issue.

And Lincoln was certainly not the innocent, intelligent rustic he is often regarded or portrayed. He was a tough, self-made man who went from squalor in a dirt-floor cabin to a handsome, well furnished, two-floor home built to his family’s needs. He was shrewd, anything but naïve, sceptical about many human beliefs, and a man who took less than two years of formal education and made himself a successful corporate lawyer, representing an important company like the Illinois Central.

Of course, what Lincoln truly represents in American history is the hard man who finally welded together a United States that would become a world industrial power, a United States whose regionalism, with institutions such as slavery constantly reinforcing regionalism, could often barely function as a single government. To do this, Lincoln had to ride over the principle of self-determination and launch a great and bloody war. To this day, it is not at all clear that he was justified since an independent Confederacy would certainly have been forced both by social pressures and economic needs to end slavery on its own in a few decades, as happened in many other jurisdictions.

LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY: EISENHOWER AND THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX

With the rise of what Dwight Eisenhower aptly called the military-industrial complex, we have an increasingly common situation in which all, or virtually all, the people are being fooled all of the time, at least in some vital areas of knowledge. Indeed, I think Jerome Weisner, former President of M.I.T., put it well when he extended Eisenhower’s warning, “It is no longer a question of controlling a military-industrial complex, but rather, of keeping the United States from becoming a totally military culture.”

The military by its very nature represents the very opposite of democracy: it is hierarchal and authoritarian, its job is control through killing and destruction, and it is always secretive. The rise in the size and influence of great authoritarian institutions like the intelligence establishment at the center of power in the United States parallels the rise in size and importance of the military, which serves the international imperial role demanded of it. huge permanent secret-service establishments, vast subsidized military contractors, and a large permanent military class exist precisely to serve those interests and grow as they grow.

If knowledge is power – a dictum as true as when it first was uttered and one, surely, with a special application to democracy – how can we ignore the backward-flowing power of ultra-secretive agencies over voters who must often cast ballots in blindness or, increasingly, armed with deliberate misinformation?

Just one example of the pernicious effects of ultra-secretiveness upon democratic society, of the scores one could cite, would be American elections leading up to, and during, the Vietnam War. The highly calculated and secretive nature of the American government’s efforts in Vietnam was largely unknown to American voters, starting with elaborate efforts to support continued French colonialism in Indochina during the early 1950s.

One of America’s popular attitudes early in the 20th century was against imperial power. The fact that many ordinary Americans had no sympathy with European imperialism was exploited time and time again by an American establishment keen on its own imperial destiny, most notably the complete assumption of Britain’s role in the world after World War II. The same line had previously been used towards Spain in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War.

So how was it that Americans during the 1950s supported governments which vigorously supported a renewed French imperialism? For the most part, they simply did not know, and that secret activity was to further and further embroil the U.S. into affairs in that part of the world, leading almost inevitably, when all factors are taken into account, to the Vietnam War, that gigantic and pointless waste of life and resources.

When the cause of French imperialism in Indochina was lost, Washington’s establishment worked diligently towards establishing and supporting a rump state of South Vietnam, a place which never possessed any more democratic bona fides than the Communist North: it served as an American imperial foothold in Asia at a time of the rise of communist China.

There was the almost ridiculous casus belli called the Gulf of Tonkin incident – its most generous explanation being a sailor hearing his own ship’s propellers and convincing himself he heard a torpedo – was exploded by an establishment eager for war into an excuse to launch a great army to the other side of the world.

Later, there were the secret bombings and incursions of Cambodia, an activity directly responsible for the fall of a neutral government and the coming of “the killing fields.”

Through all of that, Americans voted largely in blindness over events which would demand many to give up their lives, destroy millions of others in a great holocaust, and consume countless resources, eventually causing the serious depreciation of the currency. And, as if all that were not enough, the war almost ripped American society in two.

I think it fair to say that those are about as high as the stakes could be in elections, yet Americans voted through most of those events with no accurate understanding.

America’s great authoritarian institutions provide continuity in policy, as well as expertise, but their very size, relative independence, access to secrets, virtually limitless resources, and totem-like association with patriotism in a country where patriotism is a round-the-clock exercise not a little like fundamentalists professing Christ give them an inordinate degree of power and authority.

Some readers will at first regard that as an exaggerated claim, but if they will consider just some of the real-world examples of which we are aware, there undoubtedly being many of which we are not, they will likely convince themselves.

After all, what are the main day-in, day-out tasks of the “operations side” of intelligence agencies? In all major countries, they include disrupting other governments or organizations whose views or policies are unwelcome, influencing the rise of selected leaders in many countries, influencing the outcomes of elections, and, in the extreme, limit, overthrowing governments and assassinating leaders.

Even in a “nice,” largely congenial country like Canada, we see such things from what are essentially authoritarian agencies: our fabled RCMP – subject of countless pleasant myths from “always getting their man” to Dudley Do-Right or Sergeant Preston of the Yukon – a few years back, directly interfered in a national election with the announcement that it was investigating certain matters touching one of the political parties. Nothing came of it, but the well-timed public announcement had its effect, much like a well disguised road-side bomb in Afghanistan.

The RCMP had a not well understood role in the days of extremism in Quebec, being caught red-handed in some kind of minor agent provocateur act involving burning a building. Again in the wake of 9/11, the RCMP appears to have been instrumental in America’s disgraceful treatment of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian of Syrian origin whom American authorities deliberately deported to Syria for a long bout of torture after his plane merely made a stop-over in the United States.

One of Britain’s intelligence services, MI5, almost certainly played a role in discrediting Prime Minister Harold Wilson during his second time in office during the 1970s. MI5 had many materials to manipulate: Wilson was generally regarded as a highly intelligent and crafty man, which indeed he was, but one dedicated to changing many aspects of British society in a progressive direction.

Wilson also had been secretly accused by a Soviet defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, in 1963 of being a KGB spy. It was the kind of accusation, unsubstantiated to this day, that was a gift to political opponents during the Cold War. The then-influential James Angleton of the C.I.A., among others, accepted the accusation as true and undoubtedly worked towards pressuring British intelligence to act, British intelligence then being highly vulnerable to pressure after the highly successful exploits of the Cambridge circle of spies. Wilson resignation in 1976 surprised the world, and it most likely reflected inappropriate activities by MI5 putting pressure on him.

The creepy, quiet little political terror imposed on America for decades by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, while the subject of several excellent books, remains unappreciated by the average American. Hoover used his privileged position to spy on anyone who had political power, any public figure who either threatened his hold on power or represented values he personally deemed un-American, or indeed to influence the outcomes of elections.

Members of Congress for decades lived in genuine fear of his secret files on their private lives – both real and imagined. Hoover only had to make the most indirect and glancing reference in a private talk to achieve remarkable changes in a politician’s public stance. Hoover unquestionably effectively blackmailed several American presidents – notoriously including John Kennedy – presidents who on paper controlled his appointment. He typically ignored the various Attorneys General, cabinet officials, appointed as his direct bosses.

With the CIA having participated in many coups d’etat abroad – and importantly, coups including a number against democratically elected governments, as those in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile – who is naïve enough to believe to believe that that agency never touches the internal affairs of the United States? I don’t mean violent activity like coups, but the CIA has a huge repertoire of techniques and games that it can play. The CIA regularly works in other countries to influence elections by putting favored figures on secret pensions, by working to discredit politicians not favored, by subsidizing organizations or parties, and by creating with its boundless resources propaganda and disinformation of every description.

Who can trace a secret verbal suggestion from an agency official to an important reporter or editor which serves to give life to a noxious story? And who knows how many reporters or editors are actually closet agency personnel? Only fairly recently we had the notorious case of Judith Miller working at the much-vaunted New York Times, effectively helping to discredit those who worked against the invasion of Iraq.

During the Kennedy years, the CIA was so deeply involved in anti-Cuban activity, it ran a giant, secret terrorist operation with camps in places like Florida which made Osama bin Laden’s redoubt in the mountains of Afghanistan resemble a boy scout camp. Thousands were trained, millions spent, warehouses of weapons and explosives supplied, assassinations and terrorists acts planned – all on American soil, all paid for by American taxpayers.

Yes, that ghastly operation was approved by the highest levels of the American government, but who can possibly maintain tight control on such vast and secret operations and resources? Clearly, the American government then could not, because mysteries around those times were still being revealed more than a decade later by the Church Senate Committee, and the mystery around Kennedy’s assassination remains a mystery to this day.

When you have a two-party system, it is unavoidable that you have what economists call bundling applying to politics. A vote for a candidate or party represents a vote for a bundle of policies and views. Most voters have one or a few policies for which they care deeply, and they accordingly vote on that basis. But that means that on many, or even most, other policies the voter’s views are not represented.

The effect of bundling in voting is that a national government may often speak with democratic legitimacy while in fact saying things which do not represent a majority of voters’ views. On minor issues, this essentially undemocratic result may not be regarded by most people as a difficult result, but on important issues, this result can be highly disturbing.

Of course, what is important to American voters at any given time will itself reflect the impact of other democracy-distorting influences, including most notably the great impact of campaign contributions upon the size and reach of every candidate’s advertising and the impact of what is stressed day by day in the corporate media where most busy people obtain their sense of what is happening in the world.

These two influences are immensely important.

Where once in America, the press was somewhat competitive, today there can be no doubt that it is concentrated into relatively few hands, and this change towards great concentration is characteristic of the world’s press. Economists know that industries which often begin as fairly competitive – at least roughly approximating the theoretical concept of perfect competition which underlies all generalized predictions of the role of competitors in markets – over time tend to become imperfectly competitive or even quasi-monopolies.

This pattern has occurred in many industries from car manufacturing to candy-bar companies. There are a number of reasons for this common phenomenon, but it is closely related to the concentration of capital in the functioning of a business; huge plants for huge markets and huge distribution and marketing systems create advantages of economies of scale which gradually render smaller competitors impotent. The high capital costs of entering such an industry act effectively as what economists call barriers to entry against new competitors.

The effects of this process have been underway for decades in the press and broadcasting. Who could hope to compete with the cost structure of one of the world-scale “media” companies in any given market? Indeed, once this stage of concentration is reached in any industry, we have not only the natural barrier to entry of capital costs but others which come into play.

Such a large company can do many things to hurt upstart competition, including dropping the rates of its local advertising – effectively subsidizing them with revenue from other markets – long enough to drive its small, far less flexible competitor out of business. It may also use advertising and marketing promotions, which it again is able effectively to subsidize from other operations, to help drive upstart companies out of business.

Clearly, the editorial judgements and views of gigantic national, and even international, corporations – themselves, we must remember, being anything but democratic institutions – are not likely to take an open and liberal (in the best sense of the word) view of issues, even in the rare case where they do not have close ties with a party. Moreover, what we increasingly find in such companies is a centralized direction of editorial material and news policy. In one large Canadian media company, editorials for its various local papers are actually largely the product of corporate headquarters, much the way the mix of ingredients in a Big Mac anywhere in the world are determined in Oak Brook, Illinois.

Such concentrated situations in a market do not last indefinitely, but they last long enough to serve defined interests extremely well for a considerable time. What Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” the death of old industries displaced inevitably by new ones, comes into play, although not necessarily over any short time horizon.

What really is behind creative destruction is the constant flow of changing technology, and when the technology for doing something changes significantly, the costs of doing it also change. When you change the technology enough, you actually change the nature of the market itself. The automobile displaced horses and wagons, but it did more than displace them: the market for automobiles is different and more complicated than was the historical one for horses and wagons.

Personal computers and the Internet clearly today are eroding the revenues of traditional newspapers – in such historically lucrative areas as classified advertising – while enjoying the much lower costs of electronic production and distribution. However, it is not at all clear that the new set of great changes underway are going to result in a more democratic press. Too many things are happening at the same time to safely predict the outcome, but there ultimately be the same pattern of development in Internet communication of information as has happened in the printed or broadcast versions.

The contemporary trend only more deeply entrenches A. J. Liebling’s clever aphorism about freedom of the press being guaranteed only to those who own one.

Bias however is not new to the press: it has always been part of the fabric of newspapers going back to the beginnings of the American Republic. Each political party has its “own” newspapers, that is papers which favor the party’s views or policies, which may even be owned by people influential in the party.

Early on in America, parties showed little shame in controlling newspapers on their behalf. Indeed, the newspapers they controlled showed little shame in their often vicious and name-calling attacks on political opponents. Thomas Jefferson, for example, hired a couple of pretty unscrupulous fellows, Philip Freneau and James Callender to write attacks on the Federalist administration. Incidentally, Jefferson, no slouch himself at unscrupulous behaviour, had no qualms in his role of Secretary of State at putting Freneau on the government payroll as a translator while his important function was as attack dog of the Washington government under which Jefferson himself served.

Churchill’s second remark is an extension of the first, but it is also something more: it brings us face-to-face with the age-old problem of who is qualified to vote in a democracy. For example, one of the oldest and most powerful objections to allowing large parts of a population vote is the question of how an uneducated electorate can vote about issues it does not understand?

All countries which are today democratic in one degree or another started down the historical path of development in the modern era from forms of authoritarian government with monarchs and great lords beginning to share some authority with members of the rising business class. The new wealth of businessmen, so different in nature to the wealth of an ancient landed aristocracy, was the ticket for a seat at the table where decisions of state were made. It was a long and drawn out process with more than a few instances of old landed aristocrats objecting to sharing any power or privileges with upstarts.

Gradually, the new men of substance, assumed greater and greater powers within government, and the mechanism for putting them there – the franchise for electing them to whatever parliament or congress had emerged in each country – also spread to a larger and larger pool of people. Quite simply, democracy derives from the emergence of a middle class, and the larger that middle class becomes – hence the importance of strong economic growth – the more widely is the franchise granted and the larger becomes the pool of people eligible to participate in government.

A large and growing middle class has many interests which cannot possibly be served by a king and great lords or, for that matter, any other form of authoritarian government over the long term. Some of these interests will not even be understood by authoritarian figures of an old regime, such as needs for laws governing business and trade or for special economic policies. The middle class, too, as it grows, assumes a greater and greater portion of the total wealth in a country, and, today no less than in the past, wealth always is accompanied with privileges and power. After all, the basis for the authority of kings and great lords of the past was the land which they had inherited and owned, the land being understood earlier as the only real source of wealth, so much so that those who owned the land often owned the people who worked it too.

The modern era – that is, roughly the time since the beginnings of the Renaissance – has seen this process repeated many times in many places, with variations in its pattern which reflect local conditions, wars, economic setbacks, and the degree of strength of the local old order. It may be taken as the general rule for the birth of democracy, and special claims to bringing democracy to the world, from whole cloth as it were, a not uncommon notion in the United States even among educated people – may be treated for what they are, chauvinistic claims to being something special apart from the experience of others.

At various stages of the evolution of modern democracies, there were powerful arguments by privileged groups against sharing the franchise with people in general, the arguments focusing at one time or another on the lack of education, the lack of a real stake in society (i.e. property), inherent inferiority (the American South right into the 1960s), religious preferences distorting votes (an idea which lingered still in the United States in 1960, and one that had played a major role in the onset of the American Revolution, or more accurately, revolt against British authority and the hated Quebec Act), or indeed a combination of such factors as with the resistance against granting the franchise to women well into the 20th century.

Relatively few Americans appreciate that this was just as much the case in America as, say, in the United Kingdom. The early government of the United States called itself a republic, to distinguish itself from a kingdom, but the distinction was largely one without a meaning. Only a very small group of Americans could vote in the early republic. An estimate for the eligible voters of Virginia, for example, puts them at one percent of the population.

Except in the words used, the early American reality was little different to the reality in George III’s Britain. One European writer aptly characterized the American Revolution as an event which replaced a group of foreign-born aristocrats by local ones. Indeed, in modern China, the membership of the Communist party, the only people whose votes really do mean something, is roughly that same percent of the total population as those with the franchise in Virginia after the Revolution. Most of America’s chief founders not only were not democrats, they disliked the word “democracy” in very much the same way prominent American politicians regarded the word “communist” in 1955, indeed a repugnance in the latter case which remains to this day in subdued fashion.

I shall return later to that aspect of democracy in America. For now, we’ll continue with general limits to democracy.

THE ROLE OF HONESTY IN A DEMOCRACY

One does not usually think immediately of honesty playing a role in democratic government, but it does indeed play a great role. The most elementary example of its importance is in vote fraud, the honesty in counting the votes. People associate vote fraud with third-world countries or totalitarian regimes, but the practice has played an important role in American political history and continues to do so today.

When I was a young man growing up on the south side of Chicago, it was widely accepted that the Democratic machine controlling city politics used vote fraud. There were regular newspaper stories and personal tales about names from cemeteries being registered as voters, of ballot counters with pieces of lead stuck under fingernails to invalidate ballots by surreptitiously placing an extra mark on them, and about party men accompanying voters into early voting machines to “help” them vote. In general, there was a sense of humorous acceptance instead of anger at an attack on the very legitimacy of an election.

These practices and others were certainly not exclusive to Chicago politics. By all accounts, they have been common in many parts of the country for a long time: other big-city machines run much as the Chicago one plus many rural places where influential landowners or the owner of the only local industry or corrupt officials went unchallenged in much the same way as the patron or godfather went unchallenged by peasants in a third-world place. Every now and then, a new critical biography or history brings to light specific instances. We know, for example, Lyndon Johnson’s first win for Congress in Texas was owing to vote fraud by the local machine. The case of Kennedy’s victory in 1960 is well known, the Democratic machines in Chicago and Texas delivering the required votes in a close election. Vote fraud in Florida played a role in Bush’s victory in 2000, and vote fraud in Florida and Ohio played a role in his 2004 victory.

Vote fraud takes many forms. In Florida, one form it took was the closing of polling places while long lines of voters still had not cast a ballot. In a number of states, vote fraud included deliberately misinforming voters about registration or location of a poll.
The very fact that most Americans are not outraged by such tales tells us a good deal about the state of democratic political culture in the United States.

One of the fundamental problems with election honesty in the United States is that the administration of elections, including the elections for federal offices, is a local responsibility. Of course, the opportunity and incentive to cheat are greatest at precisely the local level where fewer critical eyes are involved and where local attitudes determine election ethics. Local administration of elections also explains why there is no uniformity across the country in the nature of ballots, the rules for registration, and the way polling places are run. Ballots include everything from paper ballots requiring the traditional “x” to voting machines with switches to the infamous stiff paper forms, used in Florida in 2000, that require punching out perforated circles called “chads” next to the names. Apart from dishonest registration and counting, ballots in all forms can be manipulated to some extent just by the way candidates are identified and ordered. Today there is increasing use of computer voting by touch screen, but the systems used have been shown to be subject to manipulation, and in any case, the need for valid registration can still be gamed.

The immense number of barriers to entry, created over many decades, by the two major parties in their respective comfortable fiefdoms. These barriers work to keep American politics running as a duopoly, making it very difficult for new parties to break into the political market, as it were. But they also serve in many cases locally as unfair weights against the opposing major party. There are a great many of these, but one example will serve to highlight

I don’t want to catalogue all the possible ways of cheating at an election, just to make clear that there are many, and with every advance in the technology of voting, new methods of fraud will be devised.

In general, when there is a very large gap in the popularity of two national candidates, vote fraud doesn’t play a role, but most modern Presidential elections tend to be fairly close, in which case, vote fraud can be decisive. With both major parties having absorbed the lesson of “moving to the center” as an election strategy, close elections are likely to be the rule in future.

Another kind of dishonesty is that involved in just getting a candidate’s name on the ballot. America’s neat division into Republican and Democrat is not quite the natural thing it is sometimes made to seem in the popular press, and here again the local administration of elections plays still another role. There is an immense variety of what economists call “barriers to entry” across the fifty states, all carefully crafted over time by local politicians wishing to maintain either their own advantageous position or at least securing the duopoly of power enjoyed by the two parties. The requirements for every state are different, some more complicated than others.

Getting a third party on all the ballots for a national election is a complicated and expensive thing to achieve even for an extremely rich man like Ross Perot who ran as a third-party candidate. The fact that is so again provides insight into the spirit of the democratic political culture in America.

There are other kinds of dishonesty which play an important role in American elections. Since the Supreme Court decided that corporations are not to be limited in their giving, the expense of elections has nowhere to go but up. The mid-term Congressional election just finished at this writing was the most expensive in history. In this way too, an effective barrier to entry is created. Just as very large corporations spending huge amounts on advertising make it close to impossible for new competitors to emerge, so this lavish spending by two parties serves the same purpose in the political sphere.

Of course, the vast spending has many more implications than serving as a barrier to entry. Large contributions buy access, and candidates are reduced to what should be embarrassing activities in seeking large contributions. Bill Clinton set a new level of crassness in seeking contributors by selling things like a night in the Lincoln bedroom.

First, I would cite the ever-increasing role of advertising and marketing. American elections today are run pretty much exactly the way two companies manage the sales of soda pop or hamburgers. A great deal of money is spent on market research – polls, focus groups, etc – so that the “message” of a campaign can be fine-tuned.

There is the role of promises being made during election which are not kept. This practice has become so common that it is the subject of cynical humor, but not all instances of it are the same. Some promises are made carelessly before a candidate appreciates from the perspective of office how difficult or impossible the promise is. In this case, the broken promise is usually credited to inexperience. Another form of

an increasing serious problem with politicians who want to grab voters’ attention and voters who have limited time to inform themselves and question issues and positions.

A DOUBLE PARADOX: A PRESIDENT WHO DOESN’T MATTER AND ELECTIONS PUTTING THE UNELECTED INTO POWER – A TROUBLING DEVELOPMENT IN AMERICAN DEMOCRACY

George Bush’s term as president taught us one remarkable new lesson: that the president, if ignorant enough, lacking in energy, and open to manipulation from powerful people behind him, actually does not matter a very great deal. Few astute observers can doubt that Bush served mainly as a kind of figurehead while the direction of policy was largely determined by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and a few others. He wasn’t in any way forced to be a figurehead: it was the nature of his personality and character that he chose to run understanding his inadequacies after a lifetime of stumbling performance and comfortable with the idea he could go to bed each night at nine o’clock. In effect, America had an unelected government.

You could argue that Cheney was elected, but that would be a purely technical argument because candidates for the virtually meaningless office of vice-president are picked by politicians, bundled with the candidate with whom people actually are concerned, serve with little sense of answering to the electorate, have no defined duties in the Constitution beyond breaking ties in the Senate, and if unsatisfactory may be jettisoned with no recourse to the people for the next election.

Sarah Palin is even a more extreme case of the same thing. The woman is plainly stupid, having demonstrated it dozens of times. Of course, there is no law against stupid or ignorant people running for office, but most people surely have an innate belief that people of no skill or talent will never reach high office. You could say that the nuclear “button” – not really a button but a device which always accompanies the president – is almost a public symbol of faith in this belief.

Of course, money plays just a huge role in Palin’s promotion, as it does in all American politics now, America approaching in many ways something pretty close to a plutocracy.
All Palin has done, since quitting her fairly humble job as governor of a state with about the population of greater Cleveland half-way through its term, is collect millions of dollars for cheerleading, waving her arms and shouting words that never go beyond clichés, slogans, and the odd ghost-written joke. You might dismiss her as the comic relief on the political rubber-chicken circuit, but the phenomenon truly is more serious than that: she is being guided from behind the scenes into being another even more grotesque Bush-like presidential candidate.

Had she an ounce of sense, she’d know she is completely unqualified for high office, but she is as ambitious and egotistical as she is stupid, a dangerous combination indeed.

For the powers that be – the big-money and establishment people behind her – her kind of candidate, gullible and easily manipulated while keeping the public stirred up with empty slogans and dumb rhetoric, is desirable.

Bush was her forerunner, a remarkably mediocre man who let the Cheneys and Rumsfelds actually run things without being elected.

It is a dangerous new development in an American society whose democratic credentials are badly worn.

The world’s only hope is that this woman is so overwhelmingly stupid she will not succeed beyond collecting millions from a minority of people who have more money than they know what to do with.

JOHN CHUCKMAN

A note to readers: Normally, I post my book reviews only on another site of mine, Chuckman’s Miscellanea of Words, but because of the nature of this book and its being the 48th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, I am also posting on this site.

The blurb inside this book tells us that Joan Mellen is a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University, and sadly that fact confirms my darkest fears about American education, because Ms. Mellen, as amply demonstrated by significant portions of this book, often cannot write a literate paragraph. It is appalling how many badly written pages are in this volume.

Why did I continue to read it? I am a great admirer of the late Jim Garrison, who incidentally was a pretty fine writer, and being aware of the hatchet-job books done on his efforts in the Kennedy assassination, I wanted to read something of a defense. Ms. Mellen’s book is one of the few, so I persevered through her muddy paragraphs in hopes of reaching a bit of clear water and learning something.

Well, it does get somewhat better through the middle of the book, and there are some interesting points and details raised here.

I very much believe that Jim Garrison stumbled upon something big in New Orleans, something very big, part of the conspiracy to kill John Kennedy, a conspiracy carefully ignored by the Warren Commission and later by The House Select Committee.

Garrison was a very intelligent and able man, but no individual, no matter how bright and brave and dedicated, could have completely withstood the assaults of a Washington establishment determined to smear and mislead and destroy him. The imbalance of forces was terrifying, and the efforts likely shortened Garrison’s life. This book does document some of that in its better-written portions.

I never shared Garrison’s belief that the CIA as an organization killed Kennedy, although it just could not be clearer to people who’ve read enough on the subject that the CIA always worked to manipulate and distort evidence in this matter. Indeed, it continues to do so to this day.

For Jim Garrison, fighting all the dirt and abuse, it would naturally seem that they were covering their own responsibility. I believe rather that they have been covering what would have been explosive information in the 1960s: that their private army of Cuban terrorists killed the President, aided more than likely by the direct or indirect help of the CIA handlers responsible for arming, training, and paying that gang of cutthroats in their long efforts at mayhem and murder in Cuba and in Florida.

People today almost cannot imagine the fetid political atmosphere in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s. It was poisonous, so much so that in many other places people were deeply concerned that the United States would do some terrible things. That view was part of what informed spies the Britain’s Cambridge Circle. The United States in that era seriously considered a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and later on China and it thought nothing of invading a country like Cuba or of overthrowing even democratically-elected governments like those in Guatemala and Iran.

Discrediting the CIA in any way at that time, much as it was deserved, was regarded almost as treason, and that was why the CIA lied and cheated its way through every effort at genuine investigation. The CIA was up to its armpits in collusion with mobsters and thugs of every description to achieve the overthrow of Castro, and when its secret army of Cuban fanatics killed the President, with or without the assistance of their professional CIA handlers, it simply could not be revealed. Truth be known, I feel confident many of the CIA’s career men were glad when he died, believing he did not possess the blind faith they embraced.

The FBI too was glad. Hoover hated the Kennedys beyond describing. And with CIA backing and other political backing, it felt safe to cover and even destroy evidence in its almost laughable race to find poor Oswald guilty, and it was very convenient to portray Oswald as a “Commie nut” since the lifelong passion of Hoover was to lynch as many Communists as he could, even while he was friends with American gangsters.

For some while after the assassination, the CIA tried – through articles and books by its assets in American publishing – to blame Castro for the assassination, but that pathetic story pretty much withered away, Castro being far too clever to have hired someone like Oswald or to have given America’s establishment the excuse it wanted to cover an invasion.

It is well known in intelligence operations that you not only prepare a primary fall-back story – the Castro story – but a secondary one should that fail to gain traction, and that second one is blaming the mafia. The inept Robert Blakey, largely responsible for the feeble efforts of the House Select Committee investigation, put that idea forward. So too did others in a series of contrived books.

It is still around today, with new proponents surfacing periodically. What the story ignores is the virtual impossibility of getting the various mafia clans – the mafia not being a single organization but a group of loosely cooperating families – to agree on so extreme an act, putting all their billions in assets at risk and giving law enforcement the perfect excuse to shut them down completely.

Again, in Bertrand Russell’s profound question, “If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?” So we pretty much know ipso facto that Oswald cannot have been the lone killer, and that’s apart from his lack of motive and talent and an almost complete lack of sound evidence.

So what is the CIA hiding? Its own embarrassment and incompetence and criminal behavior with terrorist groups like the Cuban refugees, as well as the extreme danger to a free society of having such a well-financed organization with almost no responsibility to anyone.

JOHN CHUCKMAN

A note to readers: Normally, I post my book reviews only on another site of mine, Chuckman’s Miscellanea of Words, but because of the nature of this book and its being the 48th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, I am also posting on this site.

This is a modest book both in its aims and in its physical size, but it is a book which makes a genuine contribution to understanding the Kennedy assassination, and it is the best thing I have read on the subject in some years.

The central finding of the Warren Commission was that Oswald was Kennedy’s assassin. So while Mr. Ernest’s aims seem modest, calling into question Oswald’s movements in the wake of the shooting, they work powerfully against that central finding.

Here is a self-published book written by a man who originally had not even planned to write a book, and it contains genuinely new and significant evidence.

You will find here no unproved theories against the officially accepted explanation, nor will you find phony efforts to protect the official story. Books of both those types have been published in abundance for decades, indeed to the point where I long ago sickened of reading them.

Mr. Ernest documents his long-term, off-and-on again efforts to satisfy his own curiosity concerning the assassination and, particularly, to locate a significant witness the Warren Commission went out of its way to minimize, slight, and ignore, Ms. Victoria Adams. Ms. Adams worked in an office on the fourth-floor of the Texas Book Depository in November, 1963. From a remarkable vantage point, she and some fellow workers watched Kennedy’s motorcade enter the Plaza and approach the fatal area. Then they heard noises like fireworks and saw the president’s car begin to rush away.

As a side note here, just the fact that a group of people, only about 40 or 50 feet above the motorcade, could gather and open a window to look down on it tells us a great deal about the terribly poor security arrangements made that day by all police and protective agencies.

Ms. Adams and a co-worker suspected something was wrong and quickly sought the stairs to the ground floor – the same stairs Oswald is supposed to have taken immediately after the shots, indeed the only full-height set of stairs in a building whose elevator at the time did not operate. Her seemingly insignificant act proved to have many serious implications.

Ms. Adams saw no one on the stairs. She heard no one, even though the creaky and echoing nature of the stairs and stair well meant that you always heard other steps on them, no matter how many floors away. She was accompanied by one of her co-workers, Sandra Styles, who could thus certainly corroborate or contradict any of Victoria Adams’ testimony, yet Ms. Styles was never interviewed by any of the agencies investigating. The FBI made no attempt to re-stage and time the path of these women, as they did for a number of other people.

The author, after finally finding Ms. Adams, gaining her trust (often a requirement with significant Kennedy-assassination witnesses who have been badgered and even intimidated in the past) and having her tell her brief story in fine detail, succeeded also in finding her former co-worker, Ms. Styles, who, indeed, corroborates Ms. Adams perfectly. She also provides a detail of just what was happening in the Plaza when they decided to go down, providing an amazingly accurate time marker for their descent’s start.

Ms. Adam’s own words – recorded e-mail exchanges – tell any perceptive reader that she was (she died a few years ago) an intelligent and perceptive observer, the very kind of witness any attorney or prosecutor likes to put on the stand.

The author also discovers a transmittal letter at the National Archives that has Dorothy Garner, office manager of the same text-book publishing company for which the two women worked, seeing Roy Truly and Officer Marion Baker arrive on the fourth floor after Victoria Adams and Sandra Styles left, an important fact because these two had previously stopped on the second floor where Officer Baker had a brief confrontation with a relaxed Lee Oswald in the cafeteria as they raced up from the ground floor to inspect the building.

Ms. Adams not only saw no one on the stairs, but when she and her friend briefly went outside, she did see Jack Ruby, a man she did not know until she saw the television pictures later of him shooting Oswald.

Many of the more unhelpful and even crazed books on this subject I sometimes think likely come under the auspices of the very agencies who have worked so hard to promote the official story: lunatic books help discredit all critics of the official story. When I say lunatic books I mean books along the lines of The Man Who Knew Too Much or JFK and the Unspeakable.

Worthless books which seem to serve the opposite side include Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, which offers the pretence of tough-minded analysis, or Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, which is just a giant prosecutor’s brief supporting another prosecutor’s brief, or Edward Jay Epstein’s Legend and Counterplot, both efforts to confirm the main conclusions of the Warren Commission after the author’s having gained some credibility with his Inquest, a book which supports limited and late criticism of the Commission.

For people coming to the assassination for the first time, Mr. Ernest provides a few nice little summaries of fact, the most important being J. Edgar Hoover’s virtually immediate acceptance of Oswald’s guilt, his then having prepared within weeks a report setting out the flimsy case. Lyndon Johnson’s appointment of the Warren Commission made the publication of his report inappropriate, but that report provided the structure on which the commission report was built, the commission itself never doing any genuine investigation of its own. Indeed, since the entire Warren Report was created in a few months, there is a prima facie argument for its complete inadequacy to so demanding a task.

Readers who wish to know more after reading Mr. Ernest’s book cannot do better than the books of Joachim Joesten, the finest and certainly the sharpest of all early critics, and Anthony Summers’ Conspiracy, which although dated remains the best single book ever written on the subject. Interestingly, both these authors came from Europe. The Warren Commission Report itself offers a valuable comparison for these and any other books on the subject.
My only serious criticism of Barry Ernest’s book is that he failed to provide an index, an important omission. However, except for that fault, I recommend this book virtually without qualification to all people curious about the greatest unsolved crime of its time.

I take this opportunity to remind readers of Bertrand Russell’s penetrating question, still never answered: “If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?”

Further, I remind them that if a matter so important as the assassination of an American president in the mid- 20th century could be handled in so careless and dishonest a way by government agencies, why would anyone expect something more with other sensitive issues and what are the limits of government’s lying? That is why the assassination of 48 years ago remains a timely matter.

A Note to Readers: I am re-posting this article in view of the coming forty-eighth anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. It remains an accurate critique of many key aspects of that event and was repeated in many publications around the world. You may also enjoy another later piece, “Lincoln was Wrong: The Ease of Fooling Most of the People Most of the Time,” at http://chuckmanwords.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/lincoln-was-wrong-the-ease-of-fooling-most-of-the-people-most-of-the-time/</

November 12, 2003

FORTY YEARS OF LIES

“If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?”
Bertrand Russell

John Chuckman

Bertrand Russell’s penetrating question, one of sixteen he asked at the time of the Warren Commission Report, remains unanswered after forty years. That should trouble Americans, but then again there are many things around national secrecy today that should trouble Americans.

The most timely lesson to be taken from the fortieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination concerns secrecy and the meaning of democracy in the world’s most powerful nation. Perhaps no event better demonstrates the existence of two governments in the United States, the one people elect and another, often far more influential, as capable of imposing false history about large events as the fabled Ministry of Truth.

Since the time of the Warren Commission we have had the investigation of the House Select Committee and, in the last decade, the release of truckloads of previously-secret documents.
These documents were suppressed originally in the name of national security, but the fact is, despite their release, much of their content is heavily blacked out, and dedicated researchers know many documents remain unreleased, particularly documents from the CIA and military intelligence. Would any reasonable person conclude anything other than that those documents are likely the most informative and sensational?

Was it ever reasonable to believe that material of that nature would be included in document releases? Just a few years ago, records of some of the CIA’s early Cold War activities, due for mandated release, were suddenly said to have “disappeared,” and that declaration was pretty much the end of the story for a press regularly puffing itself as the fourth estate of American society. You do not have to believe in wild plots to recognize here the key to the Warren Commission’s shabby job of investigation. As it was, several members of the Commission expressed private doubts about the main finding of Oswald as lone assassin.

There is a sense in these matters of being treated as a child sent to his or her room for not eating the spinach served. This is not so different to the way the American government treats its citizens about Cuba: it restricts them from spending money there so they cannot freely go and judge for themselves what is and isn’t.

As it happens, the two things, Cuba and the assassination, are intimately related. Almost no one who studies the assassination critically can help but conclude it had a great deal to do with Cuba. No, I don’t mean the pathetic story about Castro being somehow responsible. That idea is an insult to intelligence.

No matter what opinions you may hold of Castro, he is too clever and was in those days certainly too dedicated to the purpose of helping his people, according to his lights, ever to take such a chance. Even the slightest evidence pointing to Castro would have given the American establishment, fuming over communism like Puritan Fathers confronting what they regarded as demon possession, the excuse for an invasion.

There never has been credible evidence in that direction. Yet, there has been a number of fraudulent pieces of evidence, particularly the testimony of unsavory characters, claims so threadbare they have come and gone after failing to catch any hold, remaining as forgotten as last year’s fizzled advertising campaign for some laundry detergent.

The notion that Castro had anything to do with the assassination is like an old corpse that’s been floating around, slowly decomposing, periodically releasing gases for decades. And it is still doing so, Gus Russo’s Live by the Sword of not many years ago being one of the most detailed efforts to tart-up the corpse and make it presentable for showing.

Any superficial plausibility to the notion of Castro as assassin derives from the poisonous atmosphere maintained towards him as official American policy. Researchers in science know that bias on a researcher’s part, not scrupulously checked by an experiment’s protocols, can seriously influence the outcome of an otherwise rigorous statistical study. How much more so in studies of history on subjects loaded with ideology and politics?

When you consider with what flimsy, and even utterly false, evidence the United States has invaded Iraq, it is remarkable that an invasion of Cuba did not proceed forty years ago. But in some ways the U.S. was less certain of itself then, it had a formidable opponent in the Soviet Union, and there was an agreement with the Soviets concerning Cuba’s integrity negotiated to end the Cuban missile crisis, an agreement which deeply offended the small army of Cuban exiles, CIA men, and low-life hangers-on who enjoyed steady employment, lots of perquisites, and violent fun terrorizing Cuba.

Considering America’s current crusade over the evils of terrorism, you’d have to conclude from the existence of that well-financed, murderous mob in the early 1960s that there was a rather different view of terror then. Perhaps there is good terror and bad terror, depending on just who does the wrecking and killing?

If you were a serious, aspiring assassin, associated with Castro and living in the United States during the early 1960s, you would not advertise your sympathies months in advance as Oswald did. You would not call any attention to yourself. It is hard for many today to have an adequate feel for the period, a time when declaring yourself sympathetic to Castro or communism could earn you a beating in the street, quite apart from making you the target of intense FBI interest. Oswald was physically assaulted for his (stagy) pro-Castro efforts in New Orleans, and he did receive a lengthy visit from the FBI while held briefly in jail, but this was not new interest from the agency since he was already well known to them.

Whatever else you may think of Castro, he is one of the cleverest and most able politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. He survived invasion, endless acts of terror and sabotage from the CIA and Cuban exiles, and numerous attempts at assassination, and he still retains a good deal of loyal support in Cuba. A man of this extraordinary talent does not use someone like Oswald to assassinate an American president. And if Castro had made such a mistake, he quickly would have corrected the error when Oswald made a (deliberate) fool of himself, over and over, in New Orleans well before the assassination, his actions there looking remarkably like the kind of provocateur-stuff a security service might use to elicit responses and identify the sympathies of others.

Oswald’s (purported) visit to Mexico and clownish behavior in New Orleans laid the groundwork for the myth of Castro’s involvement, and that almost certainly was one of the purposes of the activity, laying the groundwork for an invasion of Cuba. The motive for the assassination is likely found there. It is just silly to believe Castro risked handing the U.S. government a new “Remember the Maine.”

In recent years, we’ve had Patrick Kennedy say he believes Castro was responsible, but his views on this matter are more like built-in reflexes than informed judgment. Besides broadcasting a tone agreeable to America’s political establishment, his statement comes steeped in de’ Medici-like conviction that Castro’s success stained the honor of his ferociously ambitious family. Cross that family’s path, and you earn a lifetime grudge. That’s the way the family fortune’s founder always behaved.

Robert Kennedy hated Castro (just as he hated other powerful competitors including Lyndon Johnson), and he took personal oversight of efforts to assassinate him. Robert also hated certain elements of the Mafia, who, after supporting his brother with money and influence in the election, felt betrayed by Robert’s legal actions against them. The killing of Castro would have made all these people much happier, Havana having been one of the Mafia’s gold mines before Castro. Interestingly enough, it appears that the FBI, under pressure from Robert, was at the same time making efforts to crackdown on the excesses of the Cuban refugees. Their excesses , including insane acts like shooting up Russian ships and killing Russian sailors in Cuban ports, threatened relations with the Soviet Union.

One of the centers of the FBI’s crackdown effort was New Orleans, and that is where it appears clearest that Oswald worked for them. His defector background made him a logical candidate for provocative activities like handing out leaflets about Castro. At the same time he was offering his services as an ex-Marine to at least one of the refugee groups.

Oswald almost certainly had a minor role in American intelligence, an assumption that explains many mysterious episodes in his life. We know the Warren Commission discussed this in closed session. We also know Texas authorities believed they had discovered such a connection. And we know the FBI in Dallas destroyed important evidence.

If you’re looking for Cuban assassins, why not some of those nasty refugee militia groups, armed to the teeth by the CIA and trained to terrorize Castro’s government? They also terrorized their critics in Florida. The extensive preparations necessary for assassinating the President might have raised little suspicion from the CIA or FBI at a time when these groups, subsidized and protected by the CIA, were carrying out all kinds of violent, lunatic acts. There are strong parallels here with the suicide-bombers of 9/11, who undoubtedly eluded suspicion because the CIA had been regularly bringing into the country many shady characters from the Middle East to train for its dark purposes in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Cuban extremists in Florida were furious over the Bay of Pigs and felt betrayed by Kennedy’s terms for settling the missile crisis. You couldn’t find a better explanation for the CIA’s unhelpful behavior over the years since. Imagine the impact on the CIA, already badly damaged by the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s great anger over it, of news that some of its subsidized anti-Castro thugs had killed the President?

I don’t say that is what happened, only that there is at least one conjecture with far more force and substance than the official one. Assassination-theorizing is not one of my hobbies, but I have contempt for the official explanation, and it seems rather naive to believe that the American security establishment would have been satisfied with the insipid conclusions of the Warren Commission.

Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that the vast resources of American security and justice employed at the time – that is, those not concerned with kicking up dust into the public’s eyes – were not able to identify the assassins and their purpose. Documents covering a surreptitious, parallel investigation almost certainly exist because what we know includes suggestions of two investigations intersecting at times. Perhaps, the best example of this is around the autopsy (discussed below).

Kicking-up dust around the assassination is an activity that continues intermittently to this day. In a piece a few years ago in the Washington Post about new Moscow documents on the assassination, a reporter wrote, “Oswald…defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and renounced his American citizenship.”

Oswald never renounced his citizenship, although he made a public show of wanting to do so. This was one of many theater-of-the-absurd scenes in the Oswald saga. We now know that on one of his visits to the American embassy in Moscow, Oswald was taken to an area reserved for sensitive matters, not the kind of business he was there to conduct.

The Soviets let him stay, never granting him citizenship, always treating him as an extraordinary outsider under constant scrutiny.

The Washington Post reporter also wrote, “Historians have expressed hope that the documents could shed light on whether Oswald schemed to kill Kennedy when he lived in the Soviet Union….” That begs the genuine question of whether Oswald killed Kennedy and kicks-up more dust. No historian of critical ability could think that way. The Soviets went out of their way at the time of the assassination to reassure the U.S. government that they had no connection with it. Any credible evidence they could produce, we may be absolutely sure, was produced. The stakes were immensely high.

The testimony of many Soviet citizens who knew Oswald agreed that he was a man temperamentally incapable of killing anyone. An exception was his (estranged) wife, Marina, who found herself, after the assassination, a Soviet citizen in a hostile country, able to speak little English, the mother of two young children with absolutely no resources, and hostage to American agents who could determine her destiny.

Even so accomplished and discerning a journalist as Daniel Schorr has assisted in kicking-up dust, writing some years ago at the release of more than a thousand boxes of memos and investigative reports from the national archives that there wasn’t much there. Somehow, Schorr had managed to digest and summarize that monstrous amount of information in a very short time. Then again, in view of all the blacked-out information, maybe Schorr’s assertion owed less to incredible skills at reading and digesting information than to serene confidence in the methods of the establishment.

Schorr went from the merely silly to the ridiculous with his assertion, “There remains no serious reason to question the Warren Commission’s conclusion that the death of the president was the work of Oswald alone.” How re-assuring, but, if you think about that for a moment, it is the equivalent of saying what never was proved has not now been disproved, so we’ll regard it as proved – absurd, yet characteristic of so many things written about the assassination.

Schorr went on to praise Gerald Posner’s new book, Case Closed, as “remov[ing] any lingering doubt.” We’ll come back to Posner’s book, but Schorr also saw fit to trot out the then obligatory disparaging reference to Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. Why would a piece of popular entertainment be mentioned in the same context as genuine historical documents? Only to associate the movie with Schorr’s claim that the documents had little to say.

Every handsomely-paid columnist and pop news-celebrity in America stretched to find new words of contempt for the Stone movie, miraculously, many of them well before its release. The wide-scale, simultaneous attack was astonishing. You had to wonder whether they had a source sending them film scraps from the editing room or purloined pages from the script. When Stone’s movie did appear – proving highly unsatisfactory, almost silly, in its explanation of the assassination – you had to wonder what all the fuss had been about.

I was never an admirer of President Kennedy – still, the most important, unsolved murder of the 20th century, apart from the lessons it offers, is a fascinating mystery for those who’ve studied it.

The President’s head movement at the impact of the fatal shot, clearly backward on the Zapruder film, a fact lamely rationalized by the Warren Commission, is not the only evidence for shots from the front. In the famous picture of Mrs. Kennedy reaching over the back of the car, she was, by her own testimony, reaching for a piece of the President’s skull. Equally striking is the testimony of a police outrider, to the rear of the President’s car, that he was struck forcefully with blood and brain tissue.

The doctors who worked to save the President at Parkland Hospital in Dallas said that the major visible damage to the President was a gaping wound near the rear of the skull, the kind of wound that typically reflects the exit of a bullet with the shock wave generated by its passing through layers of human tissue. We’ve all seen a plate glass window struck by a B-B where a tiny entrance puncture results in a large funnel-shaped chunk of cracked or missing glass on the opposite side.

The President’s head wound, as described in Dallas, is not present in published autopsy photographs. Instead, there is a pencil-thin entrance-type wound in an unknown scalp. Although the Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, who climbed aboard the President’s car after the shots, testified to seeing a large chunk of skull in the car and looking into the right rear of the President’s head, seeing part of his brain gone, the autopsy photos show no such thing.

The wound at the front of the President’s neck, just above his necktie, which was nicked by the bullet, was regarded by those first treating him in Dallas as an entrance wound since it had the form of a small puncture before a tracheotomy was done. But the throat wound in the published autopsy photos is large and messy.

The nature of the pathologists forcefully raises Russell’s question. Why would you need military pathologists, people who must follow orders? Ones especially that were not very experienced in gunshot wounds, far less so than hospital pathologists in any large, violent American city? Why conduct the autopsy at a military hospital in Washington rather than a civilian one in Dallas? Why have the pathologists work with a room full of Pentagon brass looking on? The President’s body was seized at gunpoint by federal agents at the hospital in Dallas where the law required autopsy of a murder victim. Why these suspicious actions and so many more, if the assassination, as the Warren Commission and its defenders hold, reduces to murder by one man for unknown motives?

The autopsy, as published, was neither complete nor careful, rendering its findings of little forensic value. There is some evidence, including testimony of a morgue worker and references contained in an FBI memo, pointing to autopsy work, particularly work to the President’s head, done elsewhere before receipt of the body for the official autopsy, but no new documents expand on this. We do learn the relatively trivial fact that the expensive bronze casket, known to have been damaged at some point in bringing it to Bethesda, was disposed of by sinking in the ocean, but the morgue worker said the bronze casket arriving with Mrs. Kennedy was empty and that the body, separately delivered in a shipping casket, displayed obvious signs of work done to it. The FBI memo, written by two agents at the “earlier stages” of the official autopsy, states that the unwrapped body displayed “surgery of the head area.” The same FBI agents also signed a receipt for a mysterious “missile removed” by one pathologist.

The official autopsy avoided some standard procedures. For example, the path of the so-called magic bullet through the President’s neck was not sectioned. A mysterious back wound, whose placement varies dramatically from the hole in the President’s jacket (a fact officially explained by an improbable bunching-up of the jacket), was probed but no entrance into the body cavity found. The preserved brain – what there was of it, and with its telltale scattering of metal fragments – later went missing. One of the pathologists admitted to burning his original draft before writing the report we now see.

The Warren Commission did no independent investigation (it did not even examine the autopsy photos and x-rays), adopting instead the FBI as its investigative arm at a time when the FBI had many serious matters to explain. The FBI had failed to have Oswald’s name on its Watch List even though they were completely familiar with him, seeing him at intervals for unexplained reasons. His name even had appeared earlier in an odd internal FBI advisory memo signed by Director Hoover. The FBI also had failed to act appropriately on an explicit threat from a known source recorded well before Kennedy went to Dallas. And the agency destroyed crucial evidence.

With a lack of independent investigation and the absence of all proper court procedures including the cross-examination of witnesses, the Warren Report is nothing more than a prosecutor’s brief, and a sloppy one at that, with a finding of guilt in the absence of any judge or jury. The only time the skimpy evidence against Oswald was considered in a proper court setting, a mock trial by the American Bar Association in 1992, the jury was hung, 7 to 5.

Oswald’s background is extraordinary. By the standards of the 1950s and early 1960s, aspects of his life simply make no sense if viewed from the official perspective. Here was a Marine, enlisted at 17, who mysteriously started learning Russian, receiving communist literature through the mail, and speaking openly to other Marines about communism – none of which in the least affected his posting or standing.

He became a defector to the Soviet Union, one who reportedly threatened to give the Soviets information about operations of the then top-secret U-2 spy plane. Some even assert he did provide such information, making it possible for a Soviet missile to down Gary Power’s U-2 plane just before the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit. Unlikely as that is, for Oswald would certainly have been treated harshly on his return to the United States were it true, he did know some important facts about the U-2′s capabilities, because this Russian-studying, communist literature-reading Marine was posted at a secret U-2 base in Japan as a radar operator before his defection.

At a time when witch-hunting for communists was a fresh memory and still a career path for some American politicians, Oswald returned to the U.S. with a Russian wife, one whose uncle was a lieutenant colonel in the MVD, the Ministry of the Interior, but the CIA and other security agencies supposedly took little interest in him. Oswald’s source of income in the U.S. at critical times remains a mystery. A mystery, too, surrounds the connections of this young man of humble means to some well-heeled, anti-Soviet Russian speakers in Dallas after his return from the Soviet Union. His later ability to get a passport for travel to Mexico in just 24 hours – with a personal history that must have ranked as one of the most bizarre in the United States – is attributed to “clerical error.”

Oswald, so far as we know, was a patriotic individual when he joined the Marines. There is no evidence that he was ever actually a communist or member of any extremist organization. In fact, there is striking evidence suggesting he did work supporting the opposite interest after his return to the United States. Thus the address on some of the “Fair Play for Cuba” pamphlets he distributed in New Orleans was the office of Guy Bannister, a former senior FBI agent and violent anti-communist, still well-connected to the agency.

Oswald’s connections with the FBI have never been satisfactorily examined. There are many circumstances suggesting his being a paid informant for the FBI, especially during his time in New Orleans. A letter Oswald wrote to a Dallas agent just before the assassination was deliberately and recklessly destroyed by order of the office’s senior agent immediately after the assassination with no reasonable explanation.

One way or another, all the major police or intelligence agencies were compromised during the assassination or its investigation. The Secret Service performed abysmally, in both planning the motorcade and responding to gun fire. Some of the agents on duty had actually been out late drinking the night before, as it happens at a bar belonging to an associate of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s own assassin. The performance of the Dallas police suggests terrible corruption. The FBI failed in vital respects before and after the assassination. The CIA failed to cooperate on many, many details of the investigation. These facts understandably encourage the more farfetched assassination theories.

The CIA has never released its most important information on Oswald, importantly including documentation of his supposed activities in Mexico City at the Cuban and Russian embassies where every visitor was routinely photographed and identified by the CIA. We may speculate what a thorough vetting of CIA files would show: likely that Oswald was a low-grade intelligence agent during his stint in the Soviet Union, perhaps working for military intelligence to collect information on day-to-day living conditions and attitudes there, one of several men sent for the purpose at that time; that he was trained at an American military school in basic Russian and encouraged to build a quickie communist identity by subscribing to literature and talking foolishly before defecting. We would also likely find that he was serving American security, probably the FBI, during the months before Dallas in the murky world of CIA/FBI/Cuban refugee/Mafia anti-Castro activities; and that in the course of that anti-Castro work, he was sucked without realizing it into an elaborate assassination plot, offering the plotters, with his odd background, a tailor-made patsy. The CIA assessment of Oswald would likely show, just as testimony from his time in the Soviet Union shows, that Oswald was not capable psychologically of acting as an assassin, lone or otherwise.

The case against Oswald is a flimsy tissue. It includes a poor autopsy of the victim offering no reliable evidence; a rifle whose ownership is not established; a rifle never definitively proved to have actually killed the President; a claim that jacketed bullets were used, a type of ammunition that could not possibly cause the kind of wounds to which many testify; the accused’s record of mediocre marksmanship in the Marines; a parafin test which showed no residue on his cheek despite his supposedly firing three shots from a bolt-action rifle; a single palm print claimed to have been obtained from the rifle after earlier failed attempts; gimmicky, suggestive photographs of Oswald with a rifle declared montages by several experts; a completely unacceptable evidence chain for the shell casings from the site of Officer Tippit’s shooting, those submitted as evidence being almost certainly not those found at the scene; a bizarre history for the bullets supposed to have killed Tippet; an illogical weighting of witnesses who told different stories about Tippit’s shooting; plus many other strange and contradictory details.

Moreover, Oswald had no motive, having expressed admiration for Kennedy. And Oswald was promptly assassinated himself by Jack Ruby, a man associated with the murky world of anti-Castro violence, someone whose past included gun-running to Cuba and enforcer-violence in Chicago.

There is a kind of cheap industry in publishing assassination books, most of which are superficial or silly. This fact makes it easy to attack credible efforts to question the official story, but in this respect the subject is no different from others. Just look at the shelves of superficial or trashy books on psychology, business management, or self-help available in bookstores.

Russell’s question echoes again and again down the decades as adjustments are made to the official story. Employing techniques one expects to be used for covering up long-term intelligence interests, various points raised by early independent researchers like Joachim Joesten or Mark Lane, have been conceded here or there along the way without altering the central finding. This is an effective method: concede details and appear open to new facts while always forcefully returning to the main point.

A significant writer along these lines is Edward Epstein, an author whose other writing suggests intelligence connections. His first book on the assassination, Inquest, conceded numerous flaws in the Warren Report. Epstein went on in subsequent books, Counterplot and Legend to attack at length – and for the critical reader, quite unconvincingly – ideas of conspiracy, Oswald’s intelligence connections, and his innocence.

The Report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, 1979, was the grandest effort of this type. The Committee was used for selective leaks and plants, as for example the publication of some bootlegged autopsy photos, which ended by raising only more questions. Leads often were not followed-up, greatly frustrating some of the able investigators employed. The Committee squandered the last opportunity to pursue an independent, well-financed investigation – last, in the sense of never again being able to overcome the inertia against assembling the needed resources and authorities and in the sense that with passing time evidence deteriorates, memories fade, and witnesses die. Despite the Committee’s attention-getting conclusion from technical analysis of an old Dictabelt recording that a shot probably was fired from the front, it also concluded that the shot missed, a truly bizarre finding that welds hints of conspiracy to yet another assertion that Oswald was the only killer.

Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, 1993, was another of these. You couldn’t help noticing this lamentable book being widely reviewed and praised. Why would that be? Because, without producing any new evidence and despite a number of errors, it freshly re-packaged the main speculations of the Warren Report, but no repackaging of the Report’s jumble of partial facts, guesses, and accusations can strengthen its conclusions. You can’t build a sound house with large sections of the foundation missing.

Priscilla Johnson’s Marina and Lee,1980 , was another kind of book, one of several resembling the kind of quickie books churned out to discredit Anita Hill in the Judge Clarence Thomas confirmation. Ms. Johnson managed to interview Oswald in Russia – I wonder what connections might have made that possible? – and later used that fact to gain access to Oswald’s widow, Marina. Impressing many who had heard her as a distracted and confused person, Marina was a woman who had been subjected to immense, frightening pressure from the FBI and other security services after the assassination. The book is an almost unreadable hatchet-job on Oswald’s character, effectively diminishing the image that comes through many photographs and anecdotes of a rather naïve, brash, sometimes rude but not unlikable young man caught up in events he incompletely understood.

The official story of the assassination remains pretty much unchanged from just a few days after events of forty years ago: one man with an almost broken-down rifle, no expertise, no resources, and no motive killed the President, and he was himself killed by a man with the darkest background simply out of sympathy for the President’s wife. Those with no vested interest and critical faculties intact can never accept such a fable explaining the brutal work of a well-planned conspiracy.

Now, the really horrifying possibility is that the security agencies never discovered the assassins despite vast efforts. That means officials hold tenaciously to the Oswald story to cover national nakedness. The FBI has a long and shabby record of blunders and going after the wrong people, and when you think of the CIA’s many failures assessing the capabilities and approaching demise of the Soviet Union, the many failures in Vietnam, and its miserable failure around 9/11, that is not a farfetched possibility. The answer to Russell’s question then becomes that national security indeed applies, if only in the unexpected form of hiding miserable failure.

But if you can write false history of an event so large as a Presidential assassination, what truly are the limits?

JOHN CHUCKMAN

A note to readers: Normally, I post my book reviews only on another site of mine, Chuckman’s Miscellanea of Words, but because of the nature of this book and its being the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I am also posting on this site.

I have long been an admirer of the work of Anthony Summers, one of the world’s great investigative journalists.

His biographical notes on J. Edgar Hoover, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover are required reading for an understanding of how the center of American power operated for a major portion of the 20th century.

His first book on the Kennedy assassination, Conspiracy, is the greatest book ever written on that event, and it has never been surpassed for the depth of its analysis and gripping nature of its writing. Indeed, because so little new evidence of any importance has emerged since that time, it remains the definitive study.

When I read that he was publishing a book on 9/11 – an event around which swirl clouds of doubt and mystery as great as the ferocious storm of dust which swept through lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed – I was ready to devour it.

And while there is a good deal to admire in the new book, my lasting impression is one of disappointment. It simply does not measure up to what I think of as the standard of excellence set previously by Mr. Summers.

There are assumptions here I cannot accept without better evidence, much of the main thread of detailed facts contained come ultimately from American torture of countless people in the CIA’s “rendition program,” a bureaucratic euphemism for an international torture gulag, and there are important facts not even touched on.

I have never accepted notions like insider plots and false flag operations pertaining to this event, but anyone who has followed matters over the last decade knows that a great deal remains obscured and unexplained, almost certainly deliberately so by the American government.

Mr. Summers believes it is essentially for several reasons: one is to cover up the close to utter incompetence of the CIA and other agencies leading up to the event. Another is to cover up the almost criminal incompetence of the Bush administration both before and after the event. And another is to guard the long and deep and fairly secret intimate relationship America has with Saudi Arabia.

I accept all of these, but none of them comes as news to critical observers over the years, and I do not believe they add up to an explanation of what happened on 9/11.

The CIA has flopped countless times – failing to correctly read the Soviet Union’s economic and military power, failing even to predict its collapse, failing completely in either preventing or investigating Kennedy’s assassination, and being the author of countless lunatic plots like the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The agency has squandered vast amounts of money in often counterproductive schemes since its creation following World War II, so its failure with regard to 9/11 was for me the expected norm.

The same Bush administration, which gave us a world record limp and pathetic performance for a government during Hurricane Katrina, could not be expected to operate in an entirely different mode around 9/11, and it most certainly did not.

The relationship with Saudi Arabia is one of those not-much-discussed matters in America, but it is a necessity so long as America keeps building three-car garages out into the desert of the Southwest.

New facts Summers presents us with are interesting and not contemptible, but they are inadequate to our curiosity. Some of those involved in 9/11 from Saudi Arabia may well have been double or triple agents for Saudi intelligence. Osama bin Laden was paid handsomely by Saudi princes to keep his various operations off Saudi soil, thus indirectly funding 9/11. After dumbly dawdling at a school-reading photo-op, Bush was finally whisked away in Air Force One where the commander-in-chief was virtually out of the loop with remarkably faulty communications. His Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the number two man in a wartime chain of command, was for some time wondering around the Pentagon unavailable to military commanders needing his authority.

Summers pretty well accepts the official version of 9/11, with the important proviso that the official version, the commission report, includes such matters as the fact that there was little cooperation from Bush officials during the investigation, and the CIA certainly did not explain itself adequately.

The collapse of building 7, which was not hit by an airplane and which occurred after the collapse of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center, is attributed to debris falling from the other towers. I just don’t know, but it did bother me that Mr. Summers seemed to go out of his way to poke fun at some of the scientists or engineers who doubt that.

The large effort of Israeli spies around 9/11 is not even mentioned in the book, and I found that a disturbing omission.

There was a group of five Israeli spies who were seen on the roof of their truck taking pictures of the explosions and then behaving in a raucous congratulatory manner, yelling and high-fiving. The police were called and they were arrested, but we know nothing of their purpose or achievements. There was another large group of Mossad agents posing as art students who travelled around the country apparently following some or all of the 9/11 plotters. They, too, were arrested and later deported, but we know nothing of them.

Summers accepts the “let’s roll” scenario for the fourth high-jacked plane which crashed in Pennsylvania, but I have always doubted it. First, the photos of the debris field certainly suggest to a non-technical person that it may have been shot down. Second, after three deliberate crashes into buildings, it seems almost unbelievable that the huge air defenses of the United States had not finally taken action. Third, on at least one occasion, Donald Rumsfeld spoke to the press inadvertently using the expression “shooting down” the plane over Pennsylvania in discussing the high-jackings. Fourth, only naturally, the United States’ government would not publicize the shooting-down of a civilian airliner because the resulting lawsuits would be colossal. I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but Mr. Summers does not succeed in doing it for me.

Another important fact is not mentioned in the book. An American consular official at the time was complaining in public about all the visas they were issuing in the Middle East owing to pressure from the CIA. It was not a headline story, but it was an important clue to something unusual going on.

I have always regarded it as a strong hypothesis that the high-jackers were part of a secret CIA operation which badly backfired, an operation which saw many questionable people receiving visas and being allowed to do some pilot training. Risky CIA operations have a number of times backfired, and they even have nickname for that happening, blowback.

Of course, we could see the entire matter also as blowback from the CIA’s secret war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan, Mujahideen, were recruited, provided training and money and sophisticated weapons to fight the Soviets. Several billion dollars were poured in. Osama bin Laden was himself part of the business, but, as Mr. Summers agrees, he later did not see the United States as any different to the Soviets when they sent troops onto the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Summers is trying to place a good deal of blame on the Saudis for their funding and secret operations, and while I regard it as an interesting observation that certain members of the royal family paid Osama, I do not regard that as a stunning fact. After all, Saudi Arabia’s countless billions come in good part either directly or indirectly from the United States and Osama bin Laden’s family was a very successful wealthy contractor there, so you could say in the same sense that the United States subsidized Osama’s operations. And it goes deeper than that, for Saudi business connections in the United States, including connections directly with the Bush family, go back many years.

This reader for one would like to see some hard proof of some things that Mr. Summers takes as fact. First, that bin Laden even was responsible for 9/11: the public has never been provided a shred of good evidence. Second, that bin Laden was not in fact killed in the unbelievable bombardment at Tora Bora, his death being kept hidden to prevent martyrdom. Third, that the recent assassination in Pakistan was genuine, not the effort of a president down in the polls and feeling that after ten years he could afford to make the claim.

Fourth, that there ever was an organization called al Qaeda. I know that sounds odd to people who assume everything they hear on television is true, but there are good reasons for doubting it. While Mr. Summers gives one translation for the Arabic word, people who speak Arabic have said it commonly means toilet, and surely no one running a terror organization would use such a name. Indeed, we have several very prominent people quoted in the past, including former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, saying that al Qaeda was just a derogatory catch-all term used for various “bad guys” out there. That is a tremendously meaningful difference between the two things, but Mr. Summers does not touch the issue.

Again, I cannot stress how important it is for all decent-minded people holding to democratic values to accept neither the CIA’s international torture gulag nor the results of its dark work. Yet the bulk of Mr. Summers’ idea of events is based on evidence deriving ultimately from torture, the people being tortured never receiving the benefits of counsel, fair trial, or even opportunity to rebut.

In summary, a book worth reading, if only to get mad at, but it hardly represents a definitive effort on its subject.

John Chuckman

French air force planes struck the first blows: using “intelligent” munitions, the planes struck tanks and artillery which threatened the people of Benghazi.

Now, who wouldn’t be heartened to learn that mechanized forces being used against civilians, civilians whose only demand was freedom from tyranny, were destroyed?

One might easily regard intervention, limited strictly to such targets, as both ethical and desirable, but the truth is that intervention is never limited to such targets, and the realities motivating it are loaded with error and, most importantly, with intentions at odds with high-sounding public statements.

The record for intervention is one of greater death and destruction than the threats it is supposed to stop where it is used and of allowing monstrous crimes to go unchallenged where it is avoided. Indeed, it has been avoided always where monstrous crimes are involved, the very situations in which its human costs might be more than offset by what it prevents. Nowhere in the record is there any consistency with regard to principle despite the press releases accompanying every new bombardment.

The glimmer of moral satisfaction we feel at the first instance of an event such as the French jets destroying some of Gaddafi’s armor about to attack a city is badly misplaced, for if ethics or morality is to mean anything, it must absolutely be consistent in application. You cannot meaningfully speak of selective ethics.

At the very time of the events in Libya, we have the same civil unrest and demands for an end to absolute and unaccountable government in Yemen and Bahrain, and they have been met with fairly large-scale abuse and killings by police. Literally scores have been shot dead in the streets. In the case of Bahrain, we have troops from Saudi Arabia – an absolute monarchy much resembling something from the 14th century – entering the country to assist Bahrain’s government in stopping its people seeking freedom.

Now, anyone who knows anything about the Mideast knows that Saudi Arabia would not march a single platoon of soldiers across its border without explicit approval from Washington. It just cannot be otherwise because America keeps an intensely close watch on matters affecting its client-state, Israel, and because Saudi Arabia’s advanced weapons come from America, and also because, following 9/11, most of the perpetrators having been Saudi nationals, Saudi Arabia has had to work long and hard to gain some trust back from Washington.

So where is the moral or ethical balance? Help the tyrant in Bahrain and attack the one in Libya? Why is only Libya a target?

There are many reports, not carried in the mainline press, about Israel supplying the African mercenaries who have been doing most of the bloody work in Libya. They are said to have been supplied by an Israeli military contracting firm connected to Mossad at the kind of high per diem rates which Gaddafi’s oil wealth allows. One of Gaddafi’s sons also made a visit for private talks in Israel in the early days of the rebellion’s repression. Such events, we can be absolutely sure, also do not happen without approval from Washington.

It appears America has both indirectly helped the tyrant while directly, albeit belatedly, fighting him. I don’t see any evidence of ethics in that situation.

Gaddafi certainly has grown into an unpleasant figure, displaying signs of deteriorating mental health while commanding the powers of a fairly rich small state. His early days as a rather dashing and intelligent revolutionary figure – few people recall he was featured in a cover story of the New York Times Magazine decades ago portraying him in rather flattering son-of-the-desert terms, the kind of article about a foreign leader which always has the imprimatur of the CIA – are lost in the reality of a mumbling old tyrant who has proved ready to strike down civilians to maintain his position. Naturally, people feel exhilarated to see him lose some military advantage.

Most humans do appear to be programmed by nature to cheer in situations where there is a clear bad guy and a good guy going after him. That is why blockbuster Hollywood movies and professional wrestling generate billions of dollars in revenue by repeating endlessly the same simple plot with only changes of costume. But world affairs are never so simple.

Just consider Israel’s assault on Gaza a few years ago, a place which is essentially a large, fenced-in refugee camp possessing no serious weapons. Israel killed something like 1,400 people, including hundreds of children, estimated at 400 young souls, and its soldiers committed such barbarities as using children as human shields. One saw pictures on the Internet of blood running like sewer overflow in the streets of Gaza. Yes, hundreds of children killed and with no rebuke from Washington or Paris or London and certainly no threat of having a no-fly zone or other violent measures imposed.

Up to the point of intervention, information from Libya suggests nothing on quite that scale of barbarism had occurred, rather there was the beginning of a conventional civil war with one side having better resources. So why the immense difference in response between the two situations? Why did we see Libyan victims on television, but the worst of what Israel committed could only be found on the Internet? Selectivity is at work always in these matters from the very start.

Not long before the Gaza atrocity, we had yet another invasion of Southern Lebanon by Israel. More than a thousand people were killed in their own land, and here we had the added horror of hundreds of thousands of bomblets from that cruellest of weapons, American cluster bombs, being showered over civilian areas, destined to kill and cripple for years to come. Along the way, Israel showed its contempt for international law by deliberately targeting a group of United Nations’ observers who died bravely doing their duty.

Yet there was no effort to punish or even restrict Israel as we see today imposed on Gaddafi. How can anyone claim that the response in Libya is ethical?

Libya is now being so heavily bombed that some Muslim states which joined the “coalition” are making loud noises about the United Nation’s mandate being exceeded. If you read newspapers from Britain as well as North America, you will know that there is disagreement between the public statements of the British and American governments as to what constitutes legitimate targets.

But when it comes to bombing, America never does anything by halves.

Shortly after the French attack at Benghazi, 124 cruise missiles, mostly American, began destroying targets in Libya. Reports say four B-52s flew from Europe, each with 30 tons of bombs, and three B-2 stealth bombers, carrying a total of 45 two thousand-pound, “bunker-buster” bombs, flew from the United States. And that was just the start.

Despite protestations, American targets certainly included sites associated with Gaddafi himself, his own compound having been destroyed.

And there you have another of many problems with intervention, or, as some like to call it, ethical war: it depends upon the Frankenstein military of the United States because no one else has its destructive capacities, forces which we have seen, again and again, not only kill in great excess but which typically are directed to dark tasks not featured in the propaganda leading up to the effort.

Recall the American “humanitarian” mission in Somalia in the early 1990s, the one that ended with “Blackhawk down.” We were all conditioned by endless pictures of starving Somalis to welcome efforts at their relief, but the American military, instead of serving the roles of distributing relief supplies and guarding those distributing relief supplies – the ostensible purposes of the mission – almost immediately went after what they regarded as “the bad guys.”

They attempted to kill one of the major local warlords with special planes equipped with modern Gatling guns, circling the sky and spraying large-calibre shells in built-up areas, at the rate of thousands per minute, much of that indiscriminate firepower killing innocent people and destroying property in a poor region. Hundreds of Somalis were killed by the American efforts, and some reports put the number at 10,000.

But we will never learn the truth from the American government, which, since its debacle in Vietnam, always suppresses the numbers it kills. It did so in the first Gulf War where tens of thousands of poor Iraqi recruits sitting behind sand walls in the desert were carpet-bombed by B-52s, their bodies later bulldozed into the ground. It did so in Afghanistan, where it regularly has killed civilians for ten years. And it did so in that pure war crime, the invasion of Iraq.

America’s effort to get the “bad guy” in Somalia was an act of complete arrogance and sheer stupidity, clearly reflecting America’s ingrained streak of hell-and-damnation Puritanism and its Captain Ahab obsession with chasing the white whale over whole oceans. All Americans achieved was to make a deadly enemy, as they shortly learned. They ended up, pretty much leaving the country shamefully and forgetting their first purpose in going there, distributing relief to the starving, something Canada’s soldiers and others routinely do without creating such aggression and such violent results.

Recall again President Clinton’s launching a large salvo of missiles in 1998 towards targets in the Afghan mountains and at a Sudanese plant in Khartoum. They were said to be aimed at terrorist targets, but the public was given no detailed information. We do know the plant in Sudan proved to be just what it was claimed by locals, a pharmaceutical plant, Dozens of innocent people were killed and property worth many millions of dollars was destroyed to no purpose, based entirely on incorrect information.

Clinton also launched 23 cruise missiles towards targets in Baghdad in 1993, supposedly in retaliation for an Iraqi-sponsored attempt on former-President George Bush when he visited Kuwait, although the public was given no details of the supposed plot. Even granting there was a plot, if you are entitled to hurl thousands of pounds of high explosives at a distant city owing to a faulty dark operation, what are we to say of the many countries and millions of people who have been victims of America’s many dark operations? What principle is at work here other than might makes right?

Ethical war is an absurd term, just as is the idea of bombing for democracy is. Always and anywhere, as soon as the military engines are started, just as is said for truth, ethics are left behind. War is a playground for adventurers and psychopaths. Just recall those American pilots during the first Gulf War whose cockpit transmissions were broadcast on television while they strafed Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait City: their chilling words included, “Hey, this’s like shootin’ fish in a barrel!” And readers should remember that that first Gulf War was itself little more than an American dark operation intended to put Hussein into a compromising position and topple him.

Deeply discrediting the whole confused concept of ethical war are not just the many crimes committed in its name but the many greater omissions. Genocide has become one of the most abused and misused terms of our time, someone ignorantly using it every time a group of people is killed anywhere, but we have had several authentic genocides since World War II, and I think we can all agree if ever there could be a case for ethical war, it would be the case of genocide. But it is precisely in the case of genocide that all the powers simply hide, the United States having a completely shameful record.

In the case of Indonesia, following the downfall of President Sukarno in 1967, about half a million people had their throats slashed and their bodies dumped into rivers because they were, or were suspected of being, communists. The entire nation was turned temporarily into an abattoir for humans, and where was the United States, defender of freedom, during the horror? Rather than any effort to stop the terror, it had employees of the State Department on phones around the clock feeding the names of people they’d like to see included in the extermination.

In the case of Cambodia during the late 1970s, the “killing fields” saw about a million people murdered by the mad ideologues of the Khmer Rouge. Where was the United States? Nowhere to be seen or heard, off licking its wounds from its long, pointless war in Vietnam, except when Vietnamese forces finally crossed the border to stop the bloodshed, the United States yelped, “See, we told you so, the ‘domino effect’ is now at work!” And to this day, few Americans take any responsibility for their county’s role in creating the “killing fields.” In its desperate efforts to win in Vietnam, President Nixon’s government launched huge aerial bombardments and incursions by troops into a neutral country, finally so destabilizing it that the Khmer Rouge took power.

In the case of Rwanda in 1994, the world watched something on the order of 800,000 people hacked to pieces, the victims selected merely for their ethnic identity. President Clinton knew every detail from the beginning but made every effort to avert his eyes and prevent the United States from being involved.

So much for the notion of ethical war in the very cases where it could conceivably have made a difference.

The United States’ motives for intervening in Libya are complex and anything but ethical. It was reluctant even to speak out at first. The truth is that stability in the Middle East – stability as defined by the bloody likes of Henry Kissinger – at the complete expense of democratic values or human rights has been bedrock American policy for decades. This policy had the duel objectives of securing the production of oil and making a comfortable climate for Israel.

The United States dithered during recent momentous events in Egypt precisely because Israel benefited from that country’s dictator and was not interested in seeing anything resembling democracy emerge in large Arab states, despite its hypocritical and much-repeated refrain about being the only democracy in the region. Numerous Israeli leaders made the most embarrassingly revealing and shameful statements while the scales were tipping against President Mubarak. But the events proved so unprecedented and so overwhelming and pretty much unstoppable without immense bloodshed that the United States finally came down on the right side, working to restrain Mubarak and to ease the transition in power.

The North African version of Europe in 1848 is very much viewed as a threat by Israel. Imagine all the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, some four million people, plus the non-Jewish people of Israel proper, about a million, stirred by events in North Africa, rising up to demand their rights? Stopping the series of rebellions against unrepresentative governments along the Mediterranean shores must be high on Israel’s list of current foreign policy objectives because it is clear that continued successes encourage new attempts.

Even further, as we have seen, Chancellor Merkel of Germany has rebuked Prime Minister Netanyahu in public for doing nothing for peace, asserting rightly that the changing conditions of the Arab world make it incumbent upon Israel to pursue genuine peace.

There is some hard truth assiduously avoided in Western mainstream press and by Western governments in their public communications: that what anyone outside of Israel would call peace has simply never been an objective of Israel’s government. There is no other way of understanding Israel’s actions over decades than its aiming to acquire virtually all the Palestinian lands without the Palestinians, or, at least, with a reduced number of Palestinians put into utterly subservient arrangements with no political integrity and very limited rights.

But again in Libya, events soon outdistanced United States’ policy. Images of freedom-fighters there being attacked by bloody mercenaries and mechanized forces affected public opinion and allowed of no further dithering, as did the initiatives taken by Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron and France’s President Sarkozy, each for their own political and economic reasons. The truth is that most people are decent, and the general public is always sympathetic with the victims seen in such images, which is precisely why American networks never show images of American troops brutalizing Iraqis or Israelis brutalizing Palestinians.

Gaddafi has long been a disliked third-world leader in the West – independent-minded leaders never are liked by the American government and there is a long list of them who have been overthrown or assassinated regardless of their democratic bona fides – and in a sense the West’s own past extravagant claims about his being a grand sponsor of terror has blown back on it. Added to the fact that he now appears rather mad and to the image of heroic Libyans winning and then losing in their fight for freedom, public opinion has made the course the United States intended difficult if not impossible.

But that does not mean public opinion is right about intervention, a subject not well understood by the average citizen. Even the case of a no-fly zone, something judging from the glib words seems to be considered by many a not very aggressive form of help, is not well understood. A no-fly zone is a complex and highly destructive operation, pushing the operator into something approaching a state of war, and yet having little likelihood of success in turning events on the ground.

Planes first had to fly all over Libya to get the radars turned on. Then attack planes and missiles quickly had to follow-up to destroy the located radars. Airfields and parked planes are also targets. Many people on the ground get killed in the effort, but that’s only the beginning. Twenty-four hour-a-day flyovers must be maintained afterwards to assure radars are not replaced and to attack planes which break the ban, all of which involves more civilian deaths.  And from the first day in Libya, the air attacks have gone beyond imposing a no-fly zone, as we saw in the French attack at Benghazi and, at this writing, British attacks on Libyan armor at Ajdabiya.

Anyone who has kept track of American pilots’ efforts in Afghanistan and in Iraq knows that they have killed very large numbers of innocent people, and that even in situations where they have complete air superiority. They still kill innocent Afghans regularly, scores at a time, thousands in total.

The record of no-fly zones is not a happy one. The United States maintained one against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for a decade after the first Gulf War, a decade of flying over the country and shooting up anything suspicious. There were countless incidents of American planes shooting and bombing people, but the no-fly zone did not prevent Saddam Hussein from achieving his objectives. Unless you are prepared to do to a country what the United States did to Japan during World War II – incinerate whole cities both with conventional or atomic weapons – air power cannot determine the direction of events on the ground with a determined opponent.

Reports at this writing from Libya suggest exactly the same result.

Once the no-fly zone is established, frustration over the opponent’s success on the ground creates a constant temptation to say, “In for a penny, in for a pound,” and to commit more force. You may easily find yourself engaged in yet another war. And everywhere and always in the modern era, the victims of war are mainly not the enemy soldiers or their “bad guy” leaders but the people just trying to live their lives. Just think about the roughly one million people who have perished in Iraq plus the more than two million refugees who fled their country, and consider the fact that one of the Arab world’s most advanced countries is now reduced to a generation without jobs, without dependable electric power and clean water. Saddam Hussein never dreamed of doing that much damage to his people despite his atrocities.

When your objectives going in are confused and uncertain, as are those of the United States, what is the hope for a good outcome? Not great I think. It’s a little like pouring concrete without having constructed a mold. And that is another reason why war for ethical of humanitarian motives has such a poor record: huge investments in death and destruction are made suddenly, upon the occurrence of unanticipated events, and often involving quick turns-around against long-established policy.

Perhaps the worst charge against intervention is that each instance only makes it easier and more acceptable in the future. The long list of minor to major interventions by the United States in the postwar era – most of them with no pretence of international legality or an ethical nature – should serve as a severe warning against going in this direction. From toppling democratic governments in Iran, Guatemala, or Chile to the holocaust in Vietnam with its estimated three million victims and a land left saturated with poisons and landmines, there is virtually no case for intervention that does not make future abuse and horror more likely by those with great power.

It is also well to remember that we have a greatly changed world political environment since the events of 9/11. Today the United States, without hesitation, sends drones into a country with which it is not even at war, Pakistan, and kills hundreds of innocent people. Its so-called “kill-teams” perpetrate horrors in Afghanistan, and recent events suggest they have been at work in Pakistan. It still holds people prisoner with no proper law in the secret locations of its CIA international gulag. The abomination of Guantanamo remains. The honouring of international law and agreements has suffered greatly in favour of doing as you please so long as you have the might.

Even the accepted institution for warranting ethical war, the United Nations, as it exists is a highly inadequate institution to exercise such authority. The United States frequently stands against pretty much the entire world there in opposing perfectly appropriate resolutions and gets its way. And when it wants a resolution approved, member states are subject to behind-the-scenes bribes, cajoling, and threats to produce the votes America wants. No one else has such vast economic, financial, and diplomatic leverage to get what they want there. America has exercised its unique power over the organization many times, from the Korean War to the invasion of Afghanistan. Sometimes, rarely, its demands are so unreasonable that enough of the world’s countries find themselves in a position to resist, as was the case for invading Iraq.

JOHN CHUCKMAN

I don’t know how anyone given the task could draw a map of Israel: it is likely the only country in the world with no defined borders, and it actually has worked very hard over many decades to achieve this peculiar state.

 

It once had borders, but the 1967 war took care of those. It has no intention of ever returning to them because it could have done so at any time in the last forty-three years (an act which would have been the clearest possible declaration of a desire for genuine peace with justice and which would have saved the immense human misery of occupation), but doing so would negate the entire costly effort of the Six Day War whose true purpose was to achieve what we see now in the Palestinian territories.

As far as peace, in the limited sense of the absence of war, Israel already has achieved a kind of rough, de facto peace without any help from the Palestinians. The Palestinians have nothing to offer in the matter of peace if you judge peace by the standards Israel apparently does.

Israel has the peace that comes of infinitely greater power, systematic and ruthless use of that power, the reduction of the people it regards as opponents to squatters on their own land, and a world too intimidated to take any effective action for justice or fairness.

Genuine peace anywhere, as Canadian physicist and Holocaust survivor Ursula Franklin has observed, is best defined by justice prevailing. But you can have many other circumstances inaccurately called peace; for example, the internal peace of a police state or of a brutally-operated colony.

Israel appears to have no interest or need for the kind of peace that the Palestinians can offer. What then can the Palestinians give Israel in any negotiation?

There are many “technical” issues to be settled between the Israelis and Palestinians, such as the right of return, compensation for property taken, the continued unwarranted expulsions from East Jerusalem, the Wall and its location largely on Palestinian land, but in a profound sense these are all grounded in the larger concept of genuine peace as Ursula Franklin defined it, something we have no basis for believing Israel is, or ever has been, interested in.

Israel wants recognition, not just as a country like any other, but as “the Jewish state,” whatever that ambiguous term may mean, given the facts both of Israel’s rubbery borders and the definition of Jewish, something which Israelis themselves constantly fight over – reformed, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, North African, observant, non-observant, and still other factions and divisions in what is quite a small population.

I very much think that the reasons Israel wants that particular form of recognition are not benevolent: it is the kind of term once put into a contract which opens the future interpretation of the contract to pretty much anything. After all, recognition of Israel as a state is something Arab states have long offered Israel in return for a just settlement, but Israel has never shown the slightest interest.

If recognition of Israel as “the Jewish state” were granted, what would be the status of any non-Jewish person in Israel? I think we can guess, given the awful words of Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, or the even more terrible words of Ovadia Yosef, founder of the Shas Party, a Netanyahu ally, and Israel’s former Chief Rabbi.

After all, about nineteen percent of Israeli citizens are non-Jews, mainly the descendants of Palestinians who refused to run from the terrors of the Irgun and Stern gangs in1948. They carry Israeli passports, but are not regarded as citizens in the same sense as Jewish citizens, and there are even laws and restrictions in place creating the kind of deadly distinction George Orwell wrote of in Animal Farm, “Some animals are more equal than others.”

The new talks do not include even the most basic requirement of a legitimate voice to represent the Palestinians, a desirable situation perhaps from Israel’s point of view, one Israel’s secret services have long worked towards with dark ops and assassinations. How do you negotiate with opponents you allow no voice?

Mahmoud Abbas, an almost pitifully shuffling character who is the man supposedly representing Palestinian interests, is now approaching two years of playing president without an election: he has zero legitimacy with the Palestinians and the outside world. Even at that, his assumed authority extends only to parts of the West Bank of the territories.

Hamas, despite the shortcomings found in any leadership of a heavily oppressed population (after all, it is often forgotten that the African National Congress in South Africa was communist-affiliated), is nevertheless the elected government of Gaza territory, but Israel has pressured the United States – and through it, effectively the world – to regard Hamas as a coven of witches, ready to unleash dark powers if only once Israel relaxes its stranglehold.

It would be far more accurate to talk of a settlement or an accommodation with the Palestinians than peace, but any reasonable agreement requires intense pressure on Israel, which holds all the cards, pressure which can only come from Washington. Accommodation involves all the difficult “technical” issues Israel has no interest in negotiating – right of return, compensation, the Wall, and East Jerusalem. Israel’s position on all of them is simply “no.”

But we know that Washington is contemptibly weak when it comes to Israel. The Israel Lobby is expert at working the phones and the opinion columns and the campaign donations. It even gets Washington to fight wars for it, as it did in Iraq, and as it now is attempting to do in Iran – surely, the acid test of inordinate influence on policy.

Most American Congressmen live in the same kind of quiet fear of the Israel Lobby as they once did of J.Edgar Hoover’s special files of political and personal secrets. Hoover never even had to openly threaten a Congressman or Cabinet Secretary who was “out of line.” He merely had a brief chat, dropping some ambiguous reference to let the politician know the danger he faced. It was enough to keep Hoover’s influence going for decades.

You never heard a thing in the press about the quiet power Hoover exercised in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, but it was there. Just so, the Israel Lobby today.

So where does the impetus for a fair accommodation come from?

Nowhere. Israel goes right on with its calculatedly-unfair laws taking the homes and farms of others, slowly but surely pushing out the people with whom it does not want to share space.

Anywhere else, this process would be called ethnic-cleansing, but not here, not unless you want to be called a bigot or an anti-Semite.

One says this about the impossibility of a settlement with a reservation. It is possible that the weak Abbas, locked in a room in Washington, could well be browbeaten and bribed into signing some kind of bastard agreement, giving Israel every concession it wants in return for a nominal rump Palestinian state composed of parcels Israel doesn’t want or hasn’t yet absorbed. It wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on, but Israel would then undoubtedly assume its perpetual validity and in future interpret it as it wished.

After all, the history of modern Israel involves agreements divvying up the land of others without their consent, but even those historical divisions – look at the maps attending the Peel Commission (1937) or the UN decision on partition (1947), and you see roughly equally divided territory – today are ignored by Israel or given some very tortured interpretation. So what will have changed?

There simply can be no genuine peace with justice where there is no will for it.

 

Critique of an article with the same title in Toronto’s Globe and Mail by Ian Buruma

 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/is-israel-a-normal-country/article1635159/

 John Chuckman

This article starts with a brave question, and I think for most people the answer is apparent with the asking of the question.

But like the famous line of T.S. Elliot, the piece ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.

After asking a question which would never pass the lips of Israel’s establishment, the article makes the very claims and assertions the Israeli government would make.

“Israel has never done anything comparable to the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad’s 1982 massacre of more than 20,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama.”

While I’m the last to defend dictators, this is a completely unsubstantiated claim of what happened in Syria. Perhaps worse, the assertion about Israel is just false. Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon was just about that bloody.

And what of the achievements of the Six Day War, a war deliberately calculated by Israel’s establishment to win the land of the self-defined Greater Israel – all the Palestinian territories plus slices of Syria and Lebanon – it had failed to grab at its founding?

Israel went so far as to attack ruthlessly an American intelligence ship to suppress information of General Dayan’s movements of armor, the general’s purpose being the quick seizure of all the lands Israel desired and then presenting the world with a fait accompli.  

And how do you reckon the toll of misery of decade after decade of hundreds of thousands of refugees plus the forty-plus years of truly abusive occupation?

I could continue, for unquestionably the invasion of Iraq was about and for Israel’s benefit. That’s million people killed and a couple of million refugees, refugees taken, in large part, by poor Syria.

“So is it true, as many defenders of Israel claim, that the Jewish state is judged by different standards from other countries? I believe it is.”

 

This completely ignores the fact of Israel’s establishment constantly claiming that is the only democracy and representative of human rights in its part of the world.

If you claim one standard but behave by another – truly indistinguishable from the region’s dictators – I do think the world is entitled to comment. Israel holds ten thousand illegal prisoners, imposes a ghastly blockade for over three years, imposes countless checkpoints on people’s ordinary lives in the West Bank, regularly assassinates those with whom it disagrees, and uses every underhanded technical gimmick it can think of to keep stealing other people’s land.

Indeed, it could be well argued that the kind of Israel we see has effectively retarded the development of democracy in the Arab world. Israel’s cooperative friend Mubarak, a dictator of thirty years, is supported by everything the United States can think of, suppressing all genuine democratic movements. For a long time, it was the same with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Opposing Israel’s excesses has provided a rallying cry for every dictator in the region. At the same time, the United States and Israel would prefer these populations suppressed by dictators who in private mind their own business or are even rather cooperative, a la Mubarak.

“That all Jews, including Israeli Jews, should remain haunted by a horrible past is understandable. But it must never be used to justify aggression against others.”

But that is precisely what Israel’s establishment and its army of apologists abroad do, day and night. It is, if you will, a ghastly form of special pleading.  

“There are other reasons, however, for the double standard directed at Israel. One is what the liberal Israeli philosopher and peace activist Avishai Margalit has called “moral racism.” The bloodlust of an African or Asian people is not taken as seriously that of a European – or other white – people.”

 

But isn’t that exactly what happens inside Israel? Day in and out in countless ways, Sephardic Jews are not treated with the same respect and regard as Ashkenazi Jews. And the poor small lot of dark-skinned African Jews are treated with palpable contempt. The world should have higher standards than Israel itself in these matters?

“…the legacy of colonialism works against Israel in another way, too.”

 

Oh please, this is tiresome old idea to trot out. Besides, in the eyes of most Arabs, Israel is itself an example of colonialism. Here is a tiny enclave – truly a garrison state – living in the midst of many tens of millions of people for whose cultures and aspirations it has absolutely no understanding or sympathy. You could draw a parallel to Israel’s position today with that of European Crusaders who built massive forts in the Middle East at places like Acre.

In the end, if Israel expects to be treated as a normal country, it must behave like one.

Surely, most people, including likely most Jews, know Israel has yet to behave as anything resembling a normal country.

__________________________

Note: Response to the comment of a reader

“Islam is the problem behind virtually all the problems that Israel faces.”

What a preposterous statement.

Does the author realize that there are more than a billion Muslims in the world?

How can any thinking person speak this way, condemning with one glib sentence about a fifth of the world’s population?

There is no history, also, of Muslims being especially hostile to Jews. Indeed, Islam adopted many of Judaism’s prophets and customs as its own.

Further still, until the creation of modern Israel, most Muslims in the Middle East treated Jews decently.

Israel, since its inception, has practiced a behavior towards its neighbors summed up by the Zionist slogan, “the iron wall.”

“The iron wall” means ignoring neighbors as legitimate residents of the region, treating neighbors with contempt and violence – in effect, a very hostile form of shunning.

Who can defend such treatment instead of living in peace and respect?

Yes, there were always bound to be some hostilities – after all, Israel proper is on land taken from people who lived there for countless generations – but I think a different approach would have achieved different results.

Israel could easily have made it worth the Palestinians’ while with assistance and compensation instead of spending vast sums on armaments in a mini-Cold War.

 

JOHN CHUCKMAN

It is relentless, the pictures of terror-stricken people, broken limbs, and bloated dead, and many of us cannot stand to see or hear more.

One has to ask: what are we to do with such information?

Create pressure on governments to keep the assistance flowing? Perhaps, but there is no shortage of assistance being sent to Haiti. There is however a huge problem in Haiti’s limited ability to absorb the assistance.

Whether it’s small and inefficient sea ports, one small and inefficient airport, a lack of decent roads, and a lack of government direction – all aspects of any place as poor as Haiti – it takes time for outsiders to come in, unload their cargoes, and organize a distribution network from scratch.

Certainly the disturbing reports and pictures are useless from the point of view of prevention. It was a natural disaster, not to be predicted, not to be prevented. One could argue that post-disaster investments could ameliorate events the next time there is an earthquake. But the kinds of images and reports being broadcast will be long forgotten if and when the world’s governments get around to re-building.

So the question for me remains, what are we to do with such information?

I am reminded of another disaster, one that happened in the last few years. It was not a “natural” disaster but the deliberate work of the immensely powerful.

In this other disaster, roughly a million people died, about five times the current estimate of death in Haiti. I don’t know how many were crippled, but it must have been a great number. This other disaster created more than two million refugees fleeing for their lives. Most of them fled to poor but generous countries, not being welcome by the rich and powerful, and especially not by the country responsible for the mayhem.

As far as pictures and reports, most of them seen in North America were sanitized. Many if not most of the reports were dishonest, clearly not informing people of the magnitude of the horror as it happened. There was a brave group of reporters who produced images every bit as terrible as those we see from Haiti, including scores of hideously mangled children.

But those pictures were not broadcast in North America, were not published in The New York Times or other newspapers “of record.” Indeed, the reporters taking these images and writing tough reports actually became targets of the forces causing all the horror.

I’m referring, of course, to the invasion of Iraq, an event whose toll of killing and damage easily compared to the dropping of a thermonuclear bomb on a good-size city.

Of course, the great and bitter irony is that that disaster was both preventable and could even have been stopped once it had started. One could almost guarantee that publication and broadcast of pictures and reports comparable to what’s now coming from Haiti would have stopped that demonic brutality. Here indeed gruesome, truthful press coverage could have made a difference, but not in Haiti.

And there was another, smaller disaster recently, smaller but still terrible, and it was completely preventable. In this one about 1,400 people died, including 400 children, and a great deal of the infrastructure of a relatively poor people was destroyed. The damage cannot even be repaired because those responsible for the horror maintain a siege on the victims, allowing no material assistance to be delivered.

Here too you likely will not have seen the kind of pictures or read the kind of stories coming out of Haiti. Some were available – I recall one of poor people trying to avoid stepping in a stream of blood flowing down a narrow street – again the work of amazingly brave reporters, but their work could only be found at not-widely known sites on the Internet. None were published or broadcast by the establishment press in North America. These events occurred in a place called Gaza.

If you think the press is objective, if you think the press does not slavishly serve the interests of the powerful, you just might want to think again.

A RESPONSE TO HILLARY CLINTON’S ASSERTION THAT ALL NATIONS SHOULD PLAY A PART IN THE AFGHANISTAN MISSION

John Chuckman

Hillary Clinton, in a just-published piece on the Afghanistan mission (see note at bottom), offers us nothing helpful or enlightening, only boiler-plate American slogans, the kind of stuff you’d hear from some provincial Congressman giving a Fourth of July speech in a place like Muncie, Indiana.

Indeed, her use of the question-begging word “mission” in the title to describe what has been the pointless conquest and occupation of a people signals the vacuity of the words that follow.

“The violent extremism that threatens the people and governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan also undermines the stability of the wider region and threatens the security of our friends, allies and interests around the world.”

No government in Afghanistan or Pakistan was threatened until the U.S. became involved. Yes, they are poor regions with much backward fundamentalism, but those governments knew how to handle the difficulties of their own affairs before the U.S. bombed and machine-gunned its way in.

No matter what the U.S. does, short of exterminating an entire class of people (for the Taleban is not an invading guerilla force but a substantial portion of the population), the fundamentalism is not going to go away in our lifetimes.

It would take decades of very healthy economic growth to bring these places forward, and so far America’s only contribution has been to kill tens of thousands of people and destroy a great deal of the meager physical assets in these places.

I would remind Ms. Clinton that it was only as recently as the 1930s, and into the 1940s, that families in the American South, likely considering themselves good Christians all, would attend picnics to watch the lynching of some black men. I am not exaggerating: such events were common even in Franklin Roosevelt’s day, and he never spoke out against them, despite prodding from Eleanor, for fear of losing his political support in the South.

Yet that grotesque horror has come to an end. How did it happen? The answer is decades of strong economic growth bringing jobs, wealth, and fresh air to America’s once-fetid South.

How much larger is the problem in a land that lives, to a considerable extent, in the 17th century? Immensely larger.

How is the security of the world threatened by these people? It’s not and never has been. The very fact that NATO countries have made such almost laughably small contributions is the strongest possible evidence that Ms. Clinton is not believed by any of them.

Imagine a genuine world threat in which the many countries of NATO each sent the troop equivalent of the police force of very modest-sized cities?

They have only indeed sent those owing to constant American browbeating, cajoling, and, in some cases, threats: the U.S. colossus can summon a great deal of economic and political force in getting its way.

Which fact brings us to the question of why the U.S. did not use those great non-lethal powers in Afghanistan after 9/11.

It simply demanded the extradition of people without supplying a shred of proof to the Afghan government, the Afghan request being the normal procedure for extradition anywhere.

Then the U.S. invaded while lining up a façade of support from the U.N. and NATO, everyone at that time being under both pressure from the U.S. and only naturally feeling sympathy over 9/11 .

What was America’s purpose? No person in the American government today, not Clinton and not even Obama, can give you a lucid and reasonable answer, because the truth was that there was nothing lucid or reasonable about the invasion. The purpose was blinding white-hot rage for revenge.

Once the U.S.got there, beyond its early cheap victory over 17th century people, it did not know what to do, and it still does not know what to do. Its victory consisted of displacing the Taleban with warlords of the Northern Alliance, supported by a level of horrific bombing perhaps not seen since America’s holocaust in Vietnam.

Eight years later, there is no democracy in Afghanistan, elections being pretty much a sham. The burka is still worn by most of the women in Afghanistan: after all, many members of the Northern Alliance are just as backward and vicious as the Taleban. General Dostum, for example, is a certified mass murderer, a man whose ghastly, brutal excesses were winked at by Bush and Rumsfeld, if indeed not quietly encouraged.

I heard an interview recently with the only woman elected to the Afghan legislature – since tossed out by the warlords – who says that nothing really has changed and, indeed, some things are even worse than they were under the Taleban.

I have heard from other sources that schools for girls are closed almost as soon as they are opened because no money flows to pay salaries and because of the threats from local authorities. The openings of such institutions are often little more than Potemkin village photo-ops. The Bush people used women’s rights as a propaganda tool to gain domestic support for their invasion, and, like all good propaganda, it worked because it was based on truth.

The truth is that Afghanistan is not even a country in the sense that we understand it. It is a remote, impoverished land of about 30 million where tribes live hardscrabble lives with almost no economic progress, steeped in superstitions having the same force they did in 17th century Spain with its Holy Inquisition. Even its border with Pakistan is artificial, never properly defined with the same tribes living on both sides.

You simply cannot change these realities, and certainly not with bombs.

The world is full of awful places. They burn brides in India, force child marriages, and treat young widows who were married to old men in horrible fashion.

The great irony is that the Taleban need never have been an enemy. No Taleban invaded anyone. No Taleban was involved in 9/11. That atrocity was committed by a group largely of Saudis. Importantly, they virtually all held valid American visas and were almost certainly part of secret CIA training program that failed terribly.

By the way, to this day, there is not one shred of valid evidence that Osama bin Laden did anything like the U.S. claims he did. Yes, he was a guest of the Taleban, but then he also was a past CIA operative, something that only enhanced his status for many in the region. Does that mean the CIA is responsible?

The entire Afghanistan invasion and occupation is an unqualified disaster.

One can only hope that Obama intends to use the next year or two to come to a reasonable modus Vivendi with the Taleban and then to withdraw.
________________________________

Note: Ms. Clinton’s piece may be read at:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/6722751/Hillary-Clinton-All-nations-must-play-a-part-in-Afghanistan-mission.html

November 16, 2009

AUNG SAN SUU KYI, OMAR KHADR, AND BARACK OBAMA: A DREADFUL TALE OF WHAT AMERICA HAS BECOME

John Chuckman

During his trip to Asia, President Obama called for the government of Burma to release Aung San Suu Kyi, a noted dissident who has spent years under house arrest.

It made headlines, a fact which tells us more about the role of media as an outlet for government press releases than in communicating genuine news.  

Obama’s was hardly a brave or innovative act when you consider that it is a universally-condemned military junta keeping Aung San Suu Kyi penned up.

But when you appreciate the full context of Obama’s call, you may agree with me that it was more a cowardly act than anything else.

A year ago, after eight years of mind-numbing stupidity, countless public lies and bloody war crimes, Obama’s arrival on the American political scene thrilled the world. His intelligence, his grace, and his sense of decency were striking. His like as an American politician, quite apart from his race, had not been seen in the lifetime of many.

But the hopes raised by Obama, like so many flickering little candles in a fierce wind, already are largely extinguished. This polished, educated, liberal-minded and decent man, after only one year in office, has been overwhelmed by America’s military-industrial complex, a terrible machine which grinds on night and day, chewing people in its gears, no matter who is elected ostensibly to be in charge of it.

Much as I resent Burma’s treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, it shines as genuinely humane compared to America’s treatment of Omar Khadr.

The key facts in the case of this young man, a prisoner at Guantanamo, are easily told.

Omar Khadr was born to a fundamentalist Muslim, highly political family whose father knew and died fighting for Osama bin Laden. In an era whose ruling myths are a clash of civilizations and a war on terror, Omar would seem to have been doomed from birth.

Under intense pressure from his family, fifteen-year old Omar went to fight in Afghanistan when America invaded it. In doing that, he was doing nothing that tens of thousands of Americans hadn’t done, both as idealists for causes and as soldiers of fortune in countless wars from the Spanish Civil War to the Cuban Revolution or the turmoil of the Congo.

Omar’s experience reminded me a little of American Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, a story where the need for maternal approval helped drive his destructive participation in America’s Vietnam holocaust (three million Vietnamese slaughtered, many hideously with napalm, and the legacy of soil saturated with Agent Orange and littered with millions of landmines more than justifies that term).

The American claim against Omar is that he shot an American soldier, a medic no less, a fact seemingly almost designed to increase his infamy.

The story, as I heard it in an interview a few years ago with an American soldier, a friend of the dead medic’s, was that after a small firefight, Omar hid himself, then leapt up, heartlessly killing the medic whose only interest was the wounded. Omar was then captured and eventually sent to Guantanamo.

Even were that story true, and it is not, there would still be no excuse for sending a fifteen-year old child to Guantanamo. That act violated all international conventions on the treatment of child soldiers, but then almost everything America has done over the last eight years has violated international conventions, international laws, common decency, and the spirit of its own Bill of Rights.

For years, Omar, like hundreds of inmates at Guantanamo, was held incommunicado: he was allowed no contact with his family, he was allowed no visits from the International Red Cross (again in contravention to international conventions) and he was allowed no legal counsel. Omar was allowed no rights of any kind: being kept shackled in a secret prison ninety miles offshore was considered adequate to efface the entire spirit and meaning of America’s own rights and laws.

We now know that the soldiers who captured Omar, in fact, shot him twice in the back as the frightened boy tried to run. Despite life-threatening wounds and his young age, Omar was consigned to years of imprisonment and torture at Guantanamo. Indeed, his worst torturer, a soldier with a reputation at Guantanamo as perhaps its most vicious interrogator, deliberately contrived his sessions with Omar so that the boy had to sit in a position which pulled at his slowly-healing and painful wounds.

We also know now, evidence having just been published in Canadian newspapers, that Omar could not possibly have killed the medic: Omar was photographed hiding under a pile of rubble as the soldiers passed.

So who killed the medic? One perhaps should recall the case of Pat Tillman, an American football player killed by his own forces in Afghanistan, a case at first covered up the military, but even now full of unanswered questions.

And why did the Americans shoot Omar, twice, in the back?  One simply cannot avoid the suggestion that the American soldiers involved acted with cowardice and savagery.

Some readers may object that American soldiers are incapable of such behaviour, but let’s go back to that time in Afghanistan, reviewing some things we now know as facts, and think about what they suggest about the ethos prevailing there when a fifteen-year old was shot in the back and sent to be tortured.

America’s carpet bombing in Afghanistan was destructive beyond anything Americans have ever been told. Just as was the case in the First Gulf War when uncounted tens of thousands of poor Iraqi recruits were bulldozed into the desert after having been literally pulped into tailing ponds of human bits and fluids by B-52s, the true horror of what massive bombing did in Afghanistan was understandably not well advertised..

The public has been led to believe that, compared to the horrors inflicted upon Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan was almost bloodless. But I learned recently from an expert journalist – an American no less – with many years of experience in that country that a great deal of blood was shed. In Kabul alone, fifty to sixty thousand Afghans died in America’s brutal bombing and artillery cover for its Northern Alliance proxy army, itself a gang of thugs many of whom are not one wit more ethical or civilized than the Taleban.

We knew too, those who cared to search, of the brutal tactics of American special forces in the mountains after the initial “victory”: tales of heavily-armed goons marching into remote towns, throwing stun grenades, breaking down the doors of homes, holding women and children at gunpoint while their male family members were marched away with no explanation. The men were often kept for considerable periods to be “questioned.”

At the least suspicion, air strikes were called in, and in dozens and dozens of cases, those air strikes wiped out whole families or groups of villagers who had done nothing to oppose Americans. They were the victims, thousands of them, of young Americans filled with irrational resentments over 9/11, anxious to prove how good they were with their high-tech killing machines, and let loose on someone else’s country.

And we knew, at least again those who cared to search, the story of America’s hideous treatment of Taleban prisoners in the early days of occupation, of Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld’s Nazi-like public demand that all prisoners should be killed or walled away forever. One of America’s ghastly allies of the Northern Alliance, General Dostum, took Rumsfeld in deadly earnest: he had his men round up three thousand prisoners, seal them in vans and drive them out onto the desert to suffocate in the heat. The bodies were then buried in shallow mass graves. All this was watched by American soldiers who somehow failed to act the way Jimmy Stewart did in war movies. Instead they picked their noses or smoked cigarettes as they gawked.

We also knew of the terrible tales of boys being raped while American troops never lifted a finger to help them. In a strict fundamentalist country like Afghanistan, where young women are kept guarded and almost hidden, the sexual behaviour of men often takes on the character of that common in prisons everywhere: that is, young and vulnerable men are brutally raped and often treated as “bitches” by older, tougher prisoners.

Only recently, I heard the horrible stories of a Canadian soldier with post traumatic stress who told of seeing a boy with blood running down his legs as two Afghan allies raped him. The soldier could do nothing and was told later only to buck it up. He told too of a translator, a hired Afghan, gleefully relating to him about the way he liked to use a knife on boys he raped.

We all saw the ghastly pictures from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Only now we know far uglier pictures and recordings have been suppressed, images and sounds of young Iraqis being raped and sodomized by American soldiers at the prison.

Those facts give us some realistic sense of the atmosphere in Afghanistan when American soldiers shot Omar in the back, falsely accused him of killing a medic, and sent a fifteen-year old boy off to years of torture.    

Omar remains a prisoner in Guantanamo, although the torture mercifully has stopped, but it was announced only a couple of days ago that he would be among those who would stand trial in New York.

Trial for what? For trumped-up charges of murder? Trial for acts in war? Trial for being an abused child soldier? Trial under American laws which never applied to Afghanistan? A trial where every scrap of government evidence is tainted with years of torture and human-rights abuse? Where the government doing the trying itself has acted against countless laws and treaties in invading and occupying two countries?

If there were one breath of decency left in America’s establishment, Omar and the other abused prisoners would all be released and allowed to live the rest of their lives in peace. They are no threat to anyone, most did nothing deserving imprisonment, and those who may have committed something we would regard as a crime have been viciously punished already.

Only days ago, Obama’s White House Counsel Greg Craig was let go. Craig, an old friend of the President’s, had promised to make his administration the most transparent in history. Craig was the main force behind the Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo in one year.

Well, there is no sign Guantanamo is to be closed any time soon, and the policy’s chief advocate is gone. But more importantly, when we speak of American torture chambers, it is easy to forget that Guantanamo is only the most publicized of many. What horrors go on at places like America’s secret base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean or at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, or in a number of other locations, all part of the CIA’s vast international torture gulag, is anybody’s guess.

Obama has not uttered a whimper about the CIA’s euphemistically-named extreme rendition, a practice whereby thousands of people have been kidnapped off streets and sent bound to some of the world’s hell-holes for months of torture. Afterwards, having been discovered innocent of anything, they find themselves dumped in some obscure place like Bosnia without so much as an apology for their treatment.

Obama told people repeatedly during his campaign that American forces in Iraq would be withdrawn promptly, saying “you can bank on it,” and people believed him because Obama did not vote in the Senate for that illegal war, but most of America’s soldiers remain there still.

Obama appointed a commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who has a background swirling with suggestions of black operations and dirty business, and now that ghastly man has said he needs forty-thousand more troops.     

American Predator drones, guided by buzz-cut, faceless men with computer screens in locked rooms in America, now frequently invade Pakistan’s airspace. One can just imagine them hooting and pumping their arms like young men playing a computer game when one of their terrible Hellfire missiles strikes its target, the home of someone not legally charged with anything, killing everyone who happens to be nearby.

No, I only wish the ugly stain on America’s flag was keeping a dissident under house arrest.

August 22, 2009

WALRUS BULLS BELLOWING ON A BEACH

John Chuckman

I am disappointed with the view of some knowledgeable commentators over Scotland’s release of the dying man who was convicted of the Lockerbie-airline bombing.

From a purely power-politics point of view, of course, they are right: judging by the ugly noises echoing across the oceans from America, Scotland has done itself no favor.

But if all affairs are to be carried on in every country from that point of view, it seems to me that it is acceptance of America’s right to dictate every matter over the planet, including such intimate matters as how individual countries interpret justice and the government of laws.

This is the acceptance of a de facto aristocracy running the world since American voters – and only about half of eligible Americans bother to vote – represent only a percent or so of the planet’s population. It is remarkable how many Americans do not understand the basic point that not everything a democracy does is democratic or decent or even acceptable, especially things done outside its borders.

Democracies abuse power just as surely as any other form of government, and a democracy with the immense military power of the United States – a power virtually cancerous to genuine democratic values – provides a case study in the inexorable workings of Lord Acton’s dictum.

It would also represent a repression of all the better motives from which individuals and societies act now and then, surprising us and raising the standard of human behavior from the violent-chimpanzee standard that tends to hold for much of humanity and is especially notable in America’s international affairs.

That is unacceptable to most people who are not Americans or who are not dedicated flatterers of America seeking leftovers being dropped from its groaning table.

You only have to ask yourself how Americans themselves would react to others telling them how they should run their court system. The sound would be deafening, like the bellowing of walrus bulls on a stony beach in mating season, which is actually pretty close to the sound of some of America’s professional-victim families today.

Mercy is never misplaced, and I think Scottish justice has reached an admirable decision despite the bellowing of the unthinking American families we have heard from for years.

Apart from that, and a very important consideration, it is almost certain that al-Megrahi is innocent, having been fitted up by American intelligence desperate for a scapegoat with the relentless political pressure of the walrus-bull families.

I have to say, also, I always find it troubling to read the press repeating the lines about 270 victims for the thousandth time. It is an American mantra, emphasizing the special and precious nature of American lives over all others, at least, that is, the lives of upper middle-class Americans.

Rarely do we read an accurate perspective on the Lockerbie event.

The United States Navy stupidly shot down an Iranian airliner with 300 souls aboard as it observed the devastation of the Iran-Iraq War, a devastation America had an important hand in extending.

Those 300 innocent men, women, and children received no mercy, and their horrible deaths certainly never saw any justice. Their families never received compensation. And no apology was even offered by Americans, a disgusting set of behaviors, entirely.

Lockerbie was absolutely clearly revenge, but no one knows who actually committed the act of revenge.

I might offer the observation, too, that it is the same bellowing Americans always ready to use capital punishment or torture and assassinate opponents or, indeed, to invade the lands of those with whom they disagree, bombing and killing countless innocents – three million just in Vietnam, another million or so in the Cambodia they de-stabilized, and another million or so in Iraq.

The whole pattern of the two acts of wanton destruction explains the basis for the so-called War on Terror. It is simply America’s saying, “I can do to you, but you can’t do to me.”

June 27, 2009

AHMADINEJAD WON INDEED AND THE REAL SOURCE OF INTERFERENCE IN IRAN’S ELECTION IS LIKELY THE UNITED STATES

John Chuckman

A recent article called “Ahmadinejad Won, Get Over It” by Flynt and Hillary Leverett is not the only source with serious credentials offering reasonable, non-sensational explanations for events around Iran’s presidential election.

Kaveh Afrasiabi, a scholar who once taught at Tehran University and is the author of several books, says many of the same things.

Close analysis of the election results gives absolutely no objective basis for making charges of a rigged election. Mousavi’s expected win – expected, that is, by the Western press and by Mousavi himself – never had any basis in fact.

Afrasiabi also tells us that Ahmadinejad is extremely popular with the poor in Iran, a very large constituency, and he tells us further that Ahmadinejad spent a great deal of time traveling through the country during his first term listening to them. Ahmadinejad is himself a man of fairly humble origins with a good deal of genuine sympathy for the poor.

Of course, the public in the West has been treated to a barrage of propaganda about Ahmadinejad, conditioned by countless disingenuous stories and editorials to regard him as the essence of evil, ready to stir up trouble at a moment’s notice. These perceptions, too, have no basis in fact.

Ahmadinejad is a highly educated man, ready and willing to communicate with leaders in the West, although given to poking fun at some of the shibboleths we hold to. His office as president is not a powerful one in an Iran where power is divided amongst several groups, just as it is in the United States. He has no war-making power.

Even his infamous statement about Israel – mistranslated consistently to make it sound terrible – was nothing more than the same kind of statement made by the CIA in its secret study predicting the peaceful end of today’s Israel in twenty years or the statement by Libya’s leader, Gaddafi, saying Israel would be drowned in a sea of Arabs. Unpleasant undoubtedly for some, the statement was neither criminal nor threatening when properly understood.

The post-election troubles in Iran definitely reflect the interference of security services from at least the United States and Britain. We have several serious pieces of evidence.

First, Iran discovered and arrested just recently a group with sophisticated bomb equipment from Britain. They were caught red-handed, although our press has chosen to be pretty much silent on the matter. Of course, we all recall the arrest of  a group of fifteen British sailors a couple of years ago, an event treated in our press as the snatching of innocents on the high seas when in fact they were on a secret mission in disputed waters claimed by Iran.

Robert Fisk recently wrote an excellent piece about photocopies of what purported to be a confidential official government report to the head of state, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, regarding the election results. It attributed a ridiculously small share of the vote to Ahmadinejad and was somehow being waved by Mousavi’s followers all over the streets. It seems clearly invented as a provocation, much in the fashion of the famous “yellow cake” document before America’s invasion of Iraq.

We know that Bush committed several hundred million dollars towards a program creating instability in Iran and that Obama has never renounced the operation.

Iran, surrounded by threatening enemies and the daily recipient of dire threats from Israel and the United States, has absolutely no history of aggression: it has started no conflicts in its entire modern era, but naturally enough it becomes concerned about its security when threatened by nuclear-armed states.

Such threats from the United States are not regarded idly by anyone, coming as they do, from a nation occupying two nations of Western and Central Asia, a nation whose invasions have caused upwards of a million deaths and sent at least two million into exile as refugees.

It is a nation moreover that definitely threatened, behind the scenes, to use nuclear weapons against Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, helping end that threat being one of the main reasons for Britain’s joining the pointless invasion in the first place.

In assessing the genuine threats in the world, please remember what we all too often forget: the United States is the only nation ever actually to use nuclear weapons, twice, on civilians. It also came close to using them again in the early 1950s hysteria over communism – twice, once against China and once in a pre-emptive strike at the Soviet Union – and again later considered using them in Vietnam.

As for the other regular source of threats against, Israel, it is a nation which has attacked every neighbor that it has at one time or another. In the last two years alone, it has killed more people in Lebanon and Gaza than the number who perished in 9/11. It is also a secret nuclear power, having broken every rule and international law to obtain and assist in proliferating nuclear weapons.

Of course, there are many middle class people in Iran who would like a change of government. Such yearnings are no secret and exist everywhere in the world where liberal government is missing, including millions of Americans under years of George Bush and his motivating demon, Dick Cheney.

But saying that is not the same thing as saying that a majority of Iran’s people want a change in government or that the election was a fraud.

And remember, too, Iran had a democratic government more than half a century ago, that of Mohammed Mosaddeq, but it was overthrown in 1953 and the bloody Shah installed in its place by the very same governments now meddling in Iran, the United States and Britain.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.