Friday, February 04, 2005

 

War is Fun!

Many of you have probably already heard about Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis of the USMC who talked (openly and in public) of shooting people being "a lot of fun." Here is the heart of the damning material:
Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. . . . It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling," he said at the forum in San Diego.

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," he added. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."
You see, that's troubling to me. But even more troubling is the response from his superiors. Which was: try not to say that kind of thing that way in public from now on.
"While I understand that some people may take issue with the comments made by him, I also know he intended to reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war," [Marine Corps Commandant Michael W.] Hagee said. "Lt. Gen. Mattis often speaks with a great deal of candor. I have counseled him concerning his remarks, and he agrees he should have chosen his words more carefully."
First of all, I agree that his comments reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war (namely that there are human beings who take pleasure in causing pain and harm to other human beings) but that certainly wasn't the intent of his remarks. Calling war "a lot of fun" and "a hell of a hoot" doesn't particularly seem intended to reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war, especially to an audience that is receptive and clapping in response to this stuff. Meanwhile, check out the coverage on al-Jazeera. The story is teamed up with a story about US Marine Colonel Gareth Brandl, who said that Satan lived in Fallujah. The photo shows a smiling soldier giving a thumbs up over an Iraqi (who appears either incapacitated or dead) with the following caption: "A number of US servicemen are facing action for prison abuses" (thanks, Aunt Deb, for the link.)

Now is it that hard to draw the lines of connection? Religiously motivated US Marines think that shooting people is fun. Not only that, you have pictures of US soldiers who appear to be having a hell of a lot of fun abusing detainees (smiling and giving the thumbs up over human pyramids of naked Iraqis, smiling widely on top of Iraqi detainees with bags over their heads, etc). Yep, they must hate us for our freedom. But don't they see how much FUN freedom is?

 

Azmi Bishara analyzes Bush's speeches

You probably couldn't pay me enough to watch talking head pundits on American cable news programs analyze George W. Bush's inaugural speech for his second term. However, I was very interested to see what Azmi Bishara had to say in Al-Ahram. Although it's not his best writing (I actually often find that his English pieces in al-Ahram lack focus) there is lots to think about in here and a few real gems.

Bishara starts off by talking about the growing willingness to openly talk about the fact that the president isn't writing his own speeches. While this was always an open secret before (everybody knew that there were speech-writers involved), it has now become an open and accepted fact, such that it becomes public knowledge that Michael Girson was responsible for the speech and that it underwent 22 revisions. Not that this is particular to George W. Bush, but Bishara thinks it significant nonetheless.
This applies not only to the US but to many other countries in today's world -- an undoubtedly new world in which charisma has assumed a new meaning and, more importantly, in which the concept of lying has undergone a complete upheaval. The lie has become the truth. Whereas formerly the fact that the president did not write his own speeches was something to be kept from the people, it is now no longer necessary to conceal the lie. The president can now recite speeches, feigning conviction in words everyone knows he never wrote but without having to feign he wrote them. To some people such open deception passes for honesty.
There is then some discussion of the use of "liberty" and "freedom" in the speech and the meanings that these words have taken on in the context of the Bush administration and the world.
Although both terms convey the sense of liberation and emancipation, freedom implies the general absence, or removal of, externally and internally imposed constraints, whereas liberty has a specific socio-political application dependent on a system of laws and regulations.

Bush, in his address, uses the words interchangeably. This is not because Bush's speech writer was unaware of the difference but because his aim was to blur the distinction between freedom, which is still an unresolved issue for many Third World countries, and political liberty, under which heading are many issues now precariously up in the air in American society.
Then we get to some meat and potatoes.
There was one sentence in the speech that revealed with spine chilling clarity the ulterior purpose behind Bush's rhetoric: "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." This must be the most insidiously propagandistic statement I have ever read. Nothing more clearly epitomises this administration's determination to compel the public to identify with the ideology of the state. The American people are to understand that their "deepest beliefs" and their interests are one and the same thing. Taken in the context of this speech, and in conjunction with Bush's other speeches, they should further understand that it is now in America's interests for that most American of beliefs -- liberty -- to be wielded as a primary instrument in foreign policy and the pursuit of imperial hegemony. On this, moreover, Bush is explicit: "Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honourable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time."
Bishara then goes on to talk about the Bush administrations coopting of certain frameworks of the left.
Bush does not leave the subject there; he couches the mission in philosophical terms with which no enlightened leftist could take issue: "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events."

The writers of this speech clearly listened in on discussions among their university colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s over the relationship between freedom and historical imperative and between subjectivity and objectivity as propounded by Hegel, Marx and the neo-Hegelians. Well, there's nothing wrong with a dose of anti- determinism, enlightened leftists might have thought, with a quick breath of relief. But, just as quickly, Bush knocks the wind out of them with a single punch: "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by the author of liberty."

Now, not only is the mission once again cast as a historical imperative but also as an article of faith. One does not have to look far for the inspirational source for this sentence. It is to be found in a speech by the neo-conservatives' godfather, Barry Goldwater who, when running as Republican contender against John Kennedy in 1964, said "this nation was founded upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom".
I haven't seen this Goldwater comparison yet. Maybe I am not looking in the right places, but it seems a bit ironic that a Palestinian member of Israel's Knesset would have to be the one to draw connections between Bush and Goldwater. Our historical memory in the United States has been put through the wringer. Nobody remembers that Elliot Abrams, recently promoted to deputy national security advisor, was involved in the Iran Contra scandal. Hell, nobody remembers Iran contra. That's so pre-9/11. The whole world changed. We have no need to remember what happened before, because it was all mistakes based on an assumption of safety. Safety is gone. Fear rules. Forget the past. In fact, we can't even go back a few years, when we thought we were going into Iraq because their weapons of mass destruction constituted a grave threat to us here in the United States. That's all been replaced by liberty and freedom and purple fingers raised in solidarity with the voters of Iraq. (Please excuse me while I vomit indignantly.) And thus we come full circle:
When introducing the New Deal, Roosevelt spoke of four types of freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom from want and freedom from fear. This was his response to a major economic crisis. Bush's new deal threatens the first three freedoms, the third of which inspired Roosevelt to establish the social security system. As for the fourth freedom, Bush has distorted this into the freedom to disseminate fear, which rapidly translates into the freedom to restrict all other freedoms and liberties.



Thursday, February 03, 2005

 

Disengagement Referendum

There are two articles on a possible referendum on Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan in today's Ha'aretz. A referendum has long been a topic of discussion. It has been supported from voices both on the left and on the right. On the left, it is seen as a way that the "silent majority," which has expressed in previous public opinion polls a certain level of distaste and lack of support for the settlement enterprise, can speak and shout down the vocal minority of settlers and settlement advocates. It is viewed by the "moderate" right (those in the Sharon camp and even some opposed to disengagement) as a way that they can deflect anger and blame for moving settlers out of the Gaza Strip away from themselves and onto the "liberal public." They can shirk responsibility, explaining that they were bound by the chains of democracy. However, there are voices on the extreme right (in the YESHA council and among settler leaders) that while a decision by the government to move settlers out of the Gaza Strip will be resisted tooth and nail, a referendum voted on by the Israeli public would be a means by which they would resist less vehemently their transfer.

The first article suggests that the "silent majority" may continue to stay silent, referendum or no. In a general study on referendums, a Hebrew University study showed that the public generally votes to maintain the status quo (in this case, keeping settlements in Gaza).
In a study of 26 national referendums held in 26 democratic countries, Moshinsky found that when a public vote was held to approve existing policy, it won between 80 percent and 85 percent of the votes. However, in cases in which a change in policy was up for decision, the results show that the approval rate was about 50 percent or lower.

The 50-percent rate holds true even if the government is sure of its chances of gaining approval of its policy via the referendum process, Moshinsky found.

That's because when people are required to make important decisions regarding changes in an existing situation, they tend to give greater weight to possible losses than potential gains, she found.

A Haaretz-Dialogue poll from mid-January showed that 59 percent of the population, particularly voters from the left and center, supports the disengagement plan.
Given actions on the ground (especially if violence in Gaza happens to flare up in a way that catches the public eye in Israel) between now and a possible referendum, that 59 percent may begin to crumble.

The second article is an op-ed by Yitzhak Laor. Yitzhak Laor is an outspoken critic of the Israeli right, but is often just as critical of the ineffectual Israeli left. In it, he argues from the assertion that the settlers who are now pushing for a referendum believe that they will lose (which, as the article above suggests, may not necessarily be the case). Laor argues that the referendum itself, no matter the results, will be structurally damaging to democracy and the pro-democratic left in Israel. This is the case, he argues, because it will institutionalize the Israeli public's right to decide the fate of the occupied territories.
Moreover, a referendum on the future of the occupied territories that is not held among the Palestinians - the only legal residents of the territories - not only makes a mockery of democracy, and not only from the perspective of international law, but also from the perspective of Israeli law. A referendum of Jews on the future of the Palestinian territories grants a legal seal of approval to the existing de facto state of apartheid in the territories. Why are the settlers so eager to conduct a referendum that they would clearly lose? Because this type of referendum, which requires a legislative process, would give legal validity to apartheid.
The change is not that Israelis would be making decisions that impact Palestinians; this is already the case. However, the referendum would put the onus on the Israeli left (not only those in government positions, but the broader public left) to accept that, indeed encourage it. Thus, what some on the Israeli left may view as salvation is only an opportunity to delve deeper into damnation.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

 

Optimism is one thing, bulldozers another

Amira Hass tells us why we maybe shouldn't be so optimistic about peace in the Middle East. Not that many of us were optimistic in the first place.

 

I love Rasheed Wallace. Love him. Loved him when he set the record for techinical fouls in a season. Loved him even more when he just kept saying "Both teams played hard." And now I have a new reason. On Monday the Detroit Pistons went to the White House to accept President Bush's congratulations on last year's championship. Leading up to it, Rasheed Wallace told the Detroit Free Press: "I don't have [expletive] to say to him. I didn't vote for him. It's just something we have to do." Then, if that weren't sweet enough, I managed to see the event on C-Span yesterday. As Bush went around shaking hands, you were just waiting until he got to Rasheed. He did and Rasheed not only gave him a long stare, but flipped his handshake into a clasp (you know what I'm talking about, but I don't know how to describe it - just look at the photo above). It was a thing of beauty.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

 

America's Failure

There were two articles that I read today. Neither one of them was, by its own, more than interesting. However, combined, I think they display a certain trend within two key American professions, teaching and journalism, to take the easy way out, to avoid inflaming controversy, at the expense of any sense of greater responsibility.

The first article is from Haaretz, and it is about American ombudsman (at NPR and the LA Times among others) reacting to the constant assault on them (from both sides, but primarily from pro-Israel individuals and pressure groups) whenever they print anything on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The result has been (although the ombudsmen deny that this is a concious decision) to simply have less coverage of the conflict.

The second article is from the New York Times (which has been widely linked on other blogs and was forwarded to me by Aunt Deb) about teaching evolution in American high schools, and the decisions by many teachers to either skip over it entirely or skim over it quickly or assign it as reading but not discuss it in class. They don't need to take the shit that they'll get from parents, community members, or their principals.

There is a serious problem here in American society. Now that I think about it, the first story is also related to the widely circulated story about students thinking that the First Amendment is overrated. The idea that the schools and the press should not be a place where ideas are challenged, where things should be discussed openly, is a departure from my conception of a healthy democracy. Even if these ideas are not important to the general American society as a whole (sad enough) I think it is important that these ideas should be at the core of those beliefs that are held by those inside the profession - journalists and teachers. When these people simply let things pass by because its easier, this is disturbing to me. This tells me that democracy, or certain ideals that are at the core of a healthy, open democracy, are being put on the back burner. And that's scary.

I'm sorry if any of this was not written with clarity. I've been trying to write it while at the same time listening to the panel discussion with Ali Abunimah and Norman Finkelstiein in Chicago that is available online at ElectronicIntifada. It's definitely interesting to listen to, but it's very very very long.

 

Knesset passes resolution on West Bank and Gaza

In today's Haaretz:
In a 26-8 vote ... the Knesset decided "the areas of Yesha [the West Bank and Gaza Strip] are not 'occupied territory' - neither historically, according to international law, nor according to political agreements signed by Israel."

The decision says "the Knesset decides that the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is a national, historic, eternal right that cannot be questioned" and that "the Knesset strengthens the hands of the settlers in Yesha and calls on the government to continue developing the settlements."
It is absolutely ridiculous to think that there is an "opportunity" to negotiate peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis when Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, obviously has no support within his party and within his government to do so.


(via Rafah Pundits)

 

US oil companies return to Libya

As Aunt Deb said, surprise surprise. Look who's taking advantage of Libya "rejoining the civilized nations." No, it couldn't be US oil companies, could it? It could! And whadya know, it just turns out that Libya has Africa's largest oil reserves. Says the BBC:
Occidental acquired five licences bidding alone, and another in conjunction with the Australian company, Woodside Petroleum Ltd.

ChevronTexaco will explore the Marzouk basin south of Tripoli, with Amerada Hess being the other US company to win a licence.
So when should we expect Qaddafi's title to be upgraded from Libyan strongman (already upgraded from Libyan military dictator which in turn was upgraded from terrorist regime leader) to Libyan free-market advocate?

Monday, January 31, 2005

 

Italian landscape with tree and sheep. (photo by my dad)

 

Truly Tasteless

As I came into work today and opened up the three newspapers we get (Washington Post, Washington Times, New York Times), I was really taken aback at the tasteless headline found on the front page of today's Washington Times: Joy explodes across Iraq. Given the fact that everybody is well aware of the real explosions (of cars, buildings, and, most horrifying of all, people) that go on across Iraq daily. And of course, this would not have escaped the headline writer either, who probably thought it was a cute little play on words. I really think it's disgusting, especially in light of the fact that 44 people died, and about 100 were wounded yesterday.

 

Temple of Afaia, Greece. (photo by my dad)

 

Scott Horton on responsibility

There is an excellent article by Scott Horton, a lawyer and lecturer at Columbia University, about Alberto Gonzales, torture, and the responsibility of those who craft bad policy in the context of the Nuremberg trials and the commemoration of Auschwitz. I don't have much time to write about it, but let me just say that the comparisons that Horton draws between the Bush administration and the Nazis are not wild-eyed "Bush=Hitler" type ranting. It is simply an examination of the rhetoric of reponsibility in the two cases, rhetoric which is eerily similar in specific cases. Maybe I'll write more on it later, but it's worth a read.

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