Wednesday, May 26, 2004

When the Idiots Turn against Each Other

Richard Perle, neoconservative icon who resigned last year from his position as Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, has turned against the administration that once was believed to be an indispensable home to all his ilk. According to today's Toronto Star, Perle
described U.S. policy in post-war Iraq as a failure. "I would be the first to acknowledge we allowed the liberation (of Iraq) to subside into an occupation. And I think that was a grave error, and in some ways a continuing error," [...]Perle said the biggest mistake in post-war policy "was the failure to turn Iraq back to the Iraqis more or less immediately. "We didn't have to find ourselves in the role of occupier. We could have made the transition that is going to be made at the end of June more or less immediately," he told BBC radio, referring to the U.S. and British plan to transfer political authority in Iraq to an interim government on June 30. This public criticism of U.S. policy from one of the leading advocates of the war - and a firm political ally of U.S. President George W. Bush - indicates just how much Bush's political fortunes are being damaged by post-war chaos.

The same article mentions that Tony Blair and Colin Powell are at odds over what the U.S.-led occupation's exit strategy really is. Blair insists that the new government of Iraq will have the power to order foreign troops to leave the country, while Powell says troops will still be under U.S. command and will do whatever they need to protect themselves. The position that Iraq can order troops out of the country is not, however, mentioned in the new UN Resolution, although China, Russia, France and Germany have proposed changes to the resolution that will allow Iraq to do just that.

The normally complacent and cheerleading mainstream media has also turned against Bush's seeming assumption that anything the administration, or major agencies say about terrorism must be automatically assumed to be true. For months, I have been asking the question: Why is it that whenever this administration is in political trouble, the terror alert level increases, or some videotape is conveniently found, or, in general, the terror-talk rhetoric goes up? Well, this time, Reuters ain't buying it. According to Caroline Drees, Security Correspondent:
A vague new U.S. warning that al Qaeda may be planning a massive attack smacks of political back-covering and campaigning, not just a call for heightened vigilance, analysts and former government officials say. [...]One former national security official in the Bush administration told
Reuters: "This is more butt-covering than anything else."
Critics say the new threat warnings may also just be a ploy to shore up the president's job approval ratings or divert attention from the increasingly unpopular Iraq campaign.
[...] But beyond urging citizens to be on their guard, officials failed to suggest what Americans should do to help mitigate the threat. They said the government had no plans to raise the terror threat level or announce new precautions, and gave no details on when, where or how it might occur.
[...]Some critical voices say the government may also be hoping the warnings could score political points on national security that could boost President Bush's flagging popularity ahead of the November elections.[...]One prominent terrorism expert, who would only speak on condition of
anonymity, said Bush may also be trying to staunch increasing criticism of the Iraq campaign by underlining the link in the public's mind between Iraq and security at home. "The president is running as a war president, so the timing is
interesting," he said, pointing to a speech by Bush on Monday that made frequent references to terrorist threats. "I wonder if there's not a connection to the president's speech when he
mentioned terrorism 18 times in the context of Iraq. Isn't this a very convenient way of linking back to the United States that Iraq is part of the broader war on terrorism?" he said.


Of course, we can delightedly add to this the Chalabi fiasco, wherein Ahmad Chalabi, the gangster-embezzler who, along with his faux Iraqi National Congress, had been championed by American neoconservatives, who goaded the U.S. into funding Chalabi and the I.N.C. in return for lies about Iraqi WMD and exaggerated speculations about a successful invasion of Iraq. Chalabi has now hopped on the anti-U.S. bandwagon, apparently incensed that he's lost his sugar daddy.

Is the house of cards falling down? Well, let me make two caveats here:

1. Islamo-fascism is certainly alive and well, and U.S. capitalism is its sworn enemy (ironic that Islamo-fascism is funded by Islamo-capitalists). Its preferred method is terrorism, a morally and politically bankrupt strategy that utilizes innocent life as a weapon in a much more brazen way than capitalism does. Terrorism is absurdly wrong on more levels than I could possibly cover here. It strengthens U.S. imperialism by turning public opinion against genuinely oppressed peoples (unlike millionaires like Bin Laden), and justifying repressive police-state measures. Each instance of terrorism, or even the ongoing threat of terrorism, undermines the creativity and revolutionary vision needed to transcend the dichotomy between corporate brutality and Islamo-fascism.

2. Some progressives are taking delight in Bush's plummeting approval ratings, as well as some surveys that show John Kerry leading Bush in the race for the U.S. presidency. But Kerry does not, in any meaningful sense, offer an alternative to Bush that would be optimal for the kind of world progressives want. He is not the "peace" candidate McGovern supposedly was. He would make U.S. intervention cleaner and less controversial by using the United Nations as a stalking horse for that wonderfully innocuous term, "U.S. interests." As one group puts it, better than I could:
The UN and its Security Council is only a space of bargaining between rival imperialisms using the smaller states as proxies and weapon to legitimate the aggression against an oppressed country. [...] The line proposed by pacifist organizers and sections of the Left [...] produces deadly illusions and adaptation to European, particularly French and German, imperialisms and to the "kitchen of the thieves", the UN, guilty already for a series of disasters from Korea, Cyprus and Congo to the Balkan wars in the 90s and Iraq itself.

So yeah, Kerry might be a little better on the environment, workers' rights, and a few other things (and I don't mean to trivialize those things), but fighting against war itself is going to require an independent course, one that rejects all extremism and manipulation by the powerful, all deployment of human beings for purposes in which they have no control. The fact that neither side makes it particularly easy to chart an independent course is no reason to reject the indisputable fact that such a course is necessary.

So where does this all cohere with Perle (and other former Bushies) attacking Bush, or Reuters calling B.S. on the administration's brilliantly-timed terror threats? Those battles, those revealed inconsistencies, can, with some germination and propagation, slowly whittle away confidence in ruling ideologies. We should celebrate news that Powell can't get along with the neocons, or that folks like Perle, and Richard Clarke, and others, leave the administration and then backbite. They aren't heroes (there are few heroes at that level of material power), but they are barometers. And there are more barometers every day.

Is cheering for Bush's misfortunes equivalent to cheering for the death of U.S. soldiers, or the triumph of backwards, medieval-minded terrorists? Of course not. That assumes the very dichotomy both sides insist we buy into. It means that Bush, who is quite possibly the worst of the worst among U.S. presidents, can hold us hostage, hold our common sense and critical thinking hostage, to a world that his cronies have been busy creating for the past thirty years. "You have to take sides sometimes," cry the shallow pragmatists. I do take a side. The side I take is the side of U.S. soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, and the men, women and children who are losing their lives because we live in a mean world, an uncreative world, a world where a few rich people make all the decisions, and where those decisions are increasingly brutal, violent, and short-sighted. There has got to be another way, and that way can only be found among those who yearn for empowerment and enlightenment. In the meantime, enjoy how the fearless leaders stumble and fall.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

We "do not flee from being deceived as much as from being damaged by deception..."

[The Nietzsche quotes in this column come from "Truth and Lies in the Moral Sense," available at this link.]

Check out John Tierney, "The Hawks Loudly Express Their Second Thoughts," New York Times, May 16, 2004. I'm not going to do the NYT any favors by linking to their subscription-only site (you can get a free subscription, yada yada), but yeah, the pro-war crowd is pretty contrite these days.

Lots of illusions have come crashing down in the last several weeks.

David Sirota, Christy Harvey and (former Claremont debater) Judd Legum chronicle the sudden fall of Ahmad Chalabi, former right wing hero of the Iraqi National Congress who is now being raided by U.S. troops and vilified by coalition spokespersons and conservatives at home.

What will be lost on pro-war and pro-Bush folks is that progressives actually called this one years ago. We said Chalabi was a shady gangster, a consumate liar, possibly even worse. Sirota, Harvey and Legum (it's great to see Judd doing such good work) chronicle this history of lies and deceptions better than I could, so hit the link and read the article.

Barbara Ehrenreich shows contriteness of a different kind in her article "What Abu Ghraib Taught Me."

For Ehrenreich, pictures of Megan Ambuhl, Lynndie England Sabrina Harman engaged in brutal acts against Iraqi prisoners reminded her that women should not automatically be held up as kinder, more progressive, or more humane than men. Now, as a socialist concerned about feminist issues, Ehrenreich has never been publicly guilty of radical feminist essentialism. She's no Mary Daly, and that's good. But I love her honesty, because she admits that, like many of us, her private thoughts did sometimes assign to women an expectation of progressiveness, humane-ness, a kind of hope for a humanity with women at the helm. She writes:
Secretly, I hoped that the presence of women would over time change the military, making it more respectful of other people and cultures, more capable of genuine peacekeeping. That's what I thought, but I don't think that anymore. A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib. [...]
The struggles for peace and social justice and against imperialist and racist arrogance, cannot, I am truly sorry to say, be folded into the struggle for gender equality.

This reminds me of a question I threw out to the edebate community a few weeks ago--a question that remains largely unanswered by those obsessed with identity politics:
What would happen if Condoleeza Rice were elected president, and Colin Powell elected Vice President? Would this make America less racist? Would it change the way America treats the rest of the world? Should I trust Condoleeza Rice more than I trust George Bush? Why or why not?

To me, the answers to those questions are obvious. But they also underscore my problem with any progressive critique that ignores class and materiality.

The crashing of illusions is important, but there's always the skeptic in me, the Nietzschean who wonders whether (especially in the political realm) illusions are stripped away only to reveal more illusions.
We still do not know where the urge for truth comes from; for as yet we have heard only of the obligation imposed by society that it should exist: to be truthful means using the customary metaphors—in moral terms: the obligation to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie herd-like in a style obligatory for all.

But we should have outgrown Nietzsche by now. Understanding Marx's project should have taught us that there are material referents, external environments, of which we are part, and we don't merely create them with our discourse and our thoughts. In fact, thinking that ideas matter more than materiality is a kind of ideological suicide; not merely because it buys into a bourgeois postmodernism that encourages fragmentation and opium trips in the face of genuine physical oppression, but also because it encourages a self-centeredness whose culminatory ethic is not just an ignorance of materiality, but an ignorance of other people, and their legitimate needs--needs that are often very much like our own.

A class/materialist perspective can also reveal something else about the political reaction to this recent unfolding of facts. Many self-proclaimed "leftists" take visible delight at the failure of the administration to successfully prosecute the Iraq war. Well, clearly the war was a horrible policy, and clearly it was driven by the worst, and most predictable, of motives. But the delight revealed by these "leftists" is targeted at the administration and its lies, while ignoring the fact that every one of these "failures" involves a massive loss of life--the lives of workers--our fellow workers--who happen to be wearing uniforms. And the lives of ordinary Iraqi working people as well. At least two or three times a week I read a post on the LBO-talk listserve expressing giddy delight at the death of U.S. troops, an explosion somewhere, a failed battle, whatever. I think this kind of attitude is a pretty obvious instance of bourgeois (non)radicalism. It's a manifestation of the fundamental alienation of a self-proclaimed enlightened "left" intelligensia from the everyday struggles and concerns of working people. I'd like to see those bloated false radicals laugh like that in the presence of parents, spouses, and family members of dead U.S. soldiers--however politically misinformed those loved ones might be. That kind of anti-cheerleading doesn't just play into the hands of pro-war demogogues who routinely vilify the left. It's also just flat-out elitist, bourgeois, and aloof from the everyday perspective of the poor and working people--the chief victims of Bush's reign of terror.

One of the most eloquent expositions of what I am trying to say is David North and David Walsh's now classic essay "Anti-Americanism: The Anti-Imperialism of Fools."

Analyzing the rhetoric of those who took delight in the September 11th attacks, and saw in those attacks some kind of progressive strike against imperialism, North and Walsh say:
The socialist future of mankind [sic] depends upon the awakening of the most humane and generous instincts of the working people of the world. What happened on September 11—the awful deaths of thousands of innocent people, among them office workers, firemen, janitors, and business people—profoundly offends those instincts. [...]
What does it mean to “dislike the US”? What sort of social element speaks like this? The United States is a complex entity, with a complex history, elements of which are distinctly ignoble, elements of which are deeply noble. [...]
All this of course is a closed book to the smug middle class philistine and snob, satisfied to make use of words and phrases that come most easily to hand...It is available cheaply and in large quantities in middle class circles in Britain, France, Germany and, for that matter, in the United States. It is available, so to speak, “on tap.” Such an outlook has the virtue of appearing oppositional, while not committing its adherent to any course of political action that might cause inconvenience. It is a form of pseudo-socialism, the phony “anti-imperialism” of cynics and fools.

Thinking of the Bush administration (and bourgeois politics in general), but also thinking of our sometimes hostile reaction to the gradual unfolding of the facts in the past several weeks, there is one quote by Nietzsche that does seem all too appropriate:

The liar uses the valid designations, the words, to make the unreal appear as real; he says, for example, 'I am rich,' when the word 'poor' would be the correct designation of his situation. He abuses the fixed conventions by arbitrary changes or even by reversals of the names. When he does this in a self-serving way damaging to others, then society will no longer trust him but exclude him. Thereby men do not flee from being deceived as much as from being damaged by deception: what they hate at this stage is basically not the deception but the bad, hostile consequences of certain kinds of deceptions. In a similarly limited way man wants the truth: he desires the agreeable life-preserving consequences of truth, but he is indifferent to pure knowledge, which has no consequences; he is even hostile to possibly damaging and destructive truths. And, moreover, what about these conventions of language? Are they really the products of knowledge, of the sense of truth? Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?

May the illusions continue to fall, and rather than replacing them with more bourgeois illusions, may we replace them with the shared vision of genuine human solidarity. We may still wrestle with conflicting appearances; we may not reach some "transcendent" anti-imperialist truth, but whatever we find or lose, we'll do so together.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

IT IS A TALE TOLD BY AN IDIOT

The Media Research Center, an organization dedicated to "documenting, exposing, and neutralizing liberal media bias," released a report May 12 lamenting that the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib have received more network news coverage than the mass graves full of Saddam Hussein's victims, unearthed in 2003 and 2004. There were vastly more news stories on the prisoner abuses than the unearthing of mass graves; this stands, with little further commentary, as obvious proof of bias:

To illustrate a fraction of the bias problem, we counted the number of prisoner-abuse stories on NBC’s evening and morning news programs (NBC Nightly News and Today) from April 29, when the story emerged, through May 11. There were 58 morning and evening stories. Using the Nexis news-data retrieval system, we counted the number of stories on mass graves found in Iraq from the reign of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and 2004. The number of evening and morning news stories on those grim discoveries? Five.


The MRC's lucid conclusion?

There is a vast difference between sexual humiliation and brutal murder. But to the national media, there is also much greater outrage for U.S. prisoner abuse than there is for the enemy’s murders. Viewers received a false picture of moral equivalence, with only American offenses amplified.


I came upon this data through some well-meaning debate folks over at Net Benefits (check out the "mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners" thread if you're interested). However, the mark of good debaters and good debate coaches (and more importantly, the mark of good political analysts) is the ability not merely to throw pieces of evidence at an audience, but to analyze that evidence, even above and beyond the often shallow self-analysis submitted by the source of the evidence in the first place.

In this case, unfortunately, that analysis was lacking. Let me offer some of my own:

1. With few exceptions, the entire world already knew Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. The "outrage" these well-meaning proponents of "balanced news" insist upon had already manifest itself for several years. There was nothing new about the news that mass graves had been unearthed; this news was merely the verification of something we knew all along.

2. The political implications within the United States, of revelations of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib far outweighs the domestic (U.S.) political implications of Saddam's murderous past. No U.S. political or military leaders stood to lose their jobs based the (admittedly horrific, but, again, well-established) news that Saddam was an evil, murderous dictator. No U.S. soldiers will go on trial over the latter revelation. No U.S. leaders' credibility was on the line.

3. Those who did try to exploit the revelation of Saddam's mass graves to the end of somehow establishing legitimacy for the U.S. invasion of Iraq were, let's be frank, changing the initial justification for going to war against Iraq. The "outrage" they were seeking (an outrage easily found in the hearts of anyone who despises murderous dictators) was a very unique, functional outrage in their minds: They hoped such outrage would eclipse the questions about inconsistencies in U.S. intelligence reports, distorted and exploited by a war-hungry administration for the purpose of gaining public support for a dubious case for war.

4. In one case (the Abu Ghraib revelations), news reports revealed a scandalous inconsistency between the way U.S. troops have been represented by the Bush administration, and the reality that at least some military personnel have been behaving. In the other case (Saddam's mass graves), no inconsistencies were revealed. Again, we have known for years that Saddam was murdering a lot of people. No misrepresentations have occurred; only nutcases would have denied Saddam's evil ways.

In short, seeing fewer news stories about mass graves than about prisoner abuses can only lead to the MRC's conclusions if one looks at that quantitative comparison from the most shallow lens possible--one that asks us to believe that someone, somewhere, is making the argument that prisoner abuse is worse than mass murder. What an incredible insult to our intelligence. What an inexcusable implication about our moral vision.

The same goes for the rather reactionary argument that the prisoner abuse story has received more coverage than the tragic murder of Nicolas Berg. Both stories have been in rotation for several days now, and any attempt to establish one as more "covered" than the other is little more than a tasteless exercise in quantitative reductionism. The bigger story, of course, is which interests are trying to deploy which story (or stories), and to what ends.

In fact, those with genuinely critical and comprehensive moral vision would be asking even bigger questions, using this nonsensical MRC argument as a springboard to ask the most obvious one:

How much news coverage do murderous dictators elicit when those dictators have been historically supported by the United States government--dictators such as: P.W. Botha of South Africa...Fulgencio Batista of Cuba...Sani Abacha of Nigeria...the Duvaliers of Haiti...all the kings of Saudi Arabia...Spain's Franco...Turgut Ozal of Turkey...the Shah of Iran...General Pinochet of Chile...??? The list goes on...and that list includes Saddam Hussein prior to 1990. Saddam committed some of his most atrocious crimes in the 1980s with the full knowledge of U.S. officials (including Rumsfeld and Cheney), and you can bet your Aunt Fanny there was neither extensive U.S. media coverage, nor moral disgust on the part of any right wing media watchdog groups for said lack of coverage.

So my concluding question is: If groups like the MRC, and well-meaning self-styled "moderates" at Net Benefits, are so angry at the current manifestation of "selective outrage," why does their own outrage seem so incredibly selective? And why does it come at the expense of any attempt to examine the differences between those contingencies that feed media coverage of any given set of atrocities? For an answer, those folks may want to examine their own agendas before claiming to know the agendas of others.

Friday, May 14, 2004

CELEBRATING BEAUTIFUL LYRICS

Following Emily's example over at her "fiercely feminist" blog, I present below one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Ironically, the lyrics to "Stockton Gala Days" are overtly feminist, while Emily's choice (the very fine "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd) is not. Next thing you know, Emily will be writing about socioeconomic and class issues (wishful thinking, perhaps...). I read these lyrics and literally feel tears welling up in my eyelids...and when I hear the song (studio version on "Our Time In Eden," live version on "MTV Unplugged"), forget about any semblence of dignity...I dance AND cry at the same time. Ann watches, amused, bemused...

STOCKTON GALA DAYS--by Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs

That summer fields grew high with foxglove stalks and ivy. Wild apple blossoms everywhere.
Emerald green like none I have seen apart from
dreams that escape me.
There was no girl as warm as you.
How I've learned to please, to doubt myself in need, you'll never, you'll never know.

That summer fields grow high. We made garland crowns in hiding,
pulled stems of flowers from my hair.
Blue in the stream like none I have seen apart from dreams that escape me.
There was no girl as bold as you.
How I've learned to please, to doubt myself in need,
you'll never, you'll never know.
You'll never know.

Violet serene like none I have seen apart from dreams that escape me.
There was no girl as warm as you.
How I've learned to please, to doubt
myself in need.
You'll never, you'll never know. You'll never know.

That summer fields grow high.
We had wildflower fever.
We had to lay down where they grow.
How I've learned to hide, how I've locked inside,
you'd be surprised if shown.
But you'll never, you'll never know.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

ON THE LATEST NEWS OF A BEHEADED AMERICAN SOLDIER

I am not a poet...the thoughts below that manifested themselves in verse came out in verse, but I wanted to say something about the horrible video released from Iraq today, and the attempt of conservative pundits in America to extract from this tragedy some kind of moral lesson about the ongoing investigation of American atrocities against Iraqi detainees.

Violence is violence. Violence on this scale is a symptom of two things: (1) a profound lack of creativity and original thinking on the part of all sides, leaders, commentators, and participants in this war and every war; and (2) a world where the rich and powerful deploy non-rich, non-powerful human beings to fight their material and ideological battles. So long as those two conditions exist, there will be more torture, more beheadings, and worse. It just won't ever stop, no matter how many times "our troops" are deployed to stop "their violence," no matter how many needles we stick in murderers' arms, no matter how many bombs we drop, prisons we build, smart bombs we make smarter...

My heart aches, my anger rises, my mouth numbs in misery--
but not because of the side you are on...
but because you are human--
because you are young--
because you were full of life--
because you have a family who loves you--
who will die a hundred times for your one death--
not because you are American...
but because you are human.

To the pundits, the bloodthirsty cheerleaders, the sowers of hateful rhetoric:
No matter how hard you try--those of you on either side--
to convince us that there is an "us" and "them"--
an "ours" and theirs"--
framed in the context of religion, race, or chosen tactics--
I will stand against you.
I will speak against you.
I will invoke history against you.
I will not take sides in a war between hegemonic imperialism,
and Islamo-Fascism.
I will not take sides between the uncreative ruling class that invades,
and the reactionary hyperreligious, cynical class that pretends to offer genuine resistance.
I will not sanction the uncreative, old world solutions of war,
simply because you offer them as the only alternatives
to the uncreative, brutal tribalism and terrorism of Islamo-Fascism.
There is an Us and Them, but not in the way you think--
or rather--
not in the way you want us to think.

As Arrested Development sang,
"Because I exist, I resist."
There has got to be another way.
That way is found, now, perhaps,
only in speculation and song--
in protest and intimate discussions--
in imperfect blueprints and real, dirty struggles--
That way is found in the Iraqi unionists and communist workers,
who have already made overtures and built bridges with unionists and communists in Iran--
who were the first to speak out against the attempt to impose Sharia law in Iraq--
who were the only voice rejecting terrorism in Iraq and across the world,
while simultaneously rejecting US invasion, occupation, and war.

Hamid Taghvaie writes:

"The question of power can only be resolved by expelling the US forces from Iraq in the interests of the people and this is only possible by the power of the people in defence of civilisation, life and a humane society. In contrast, the nationalists and Islamists' confrontation with the USA drives society deeper into barbarity and darkness. From our point of view, the people's and the communists' fight against the USA on the one hand and political Islam and Arab nationalism on the other, is not a fight on two fronts; it is rather one unified fight in opposition to the dark scenario and in defence of civilisation and humanity. "

Monday, May 10, 2004

HEY ANDREW SULLIVAN: WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK?

My reactions to some passages from Andrew Sullivan's condescending "I'm really close to saying the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake" column. As if we ought to stand or fall on Andrew Sullivan's bourgeois convictions...those bourgeois convictions are in italics below.

it has destroyed this narrative. It has turned the image of this war into the war that the America-hating left always said it was: a brutal, imperialist, racist occupation, designed to humiliate another culture.

I don't really care what the "America-hating left" allegedly said. I'm on the America-loving left, deeply unsatisfied with the way both major parties have misrepresented and misappropriated what I love about America, and the Iraq fiasco is simply one manifestation of said misappropriation. The ingenuity of this great nation could have been deployed to find far more creative, ethical, and effective solutions to conflicts and tyrants, but the blind-spots created by vast inequalities and wealth and power preclude that ingenuity. We should not be surprised at the micro-instantiations of macro-level uncreative brutality.

Shock has now led - and should lead - to anger. And those of us who support the war should, in many ways, be angrier than those who opposed it...

An interesting, subtle slight against the moral sincerity of those who opposed the war. Essentially, he is saying that war opponents ought to be pleased that these things are happening. Speaking for myself, I deplore the fact that mistreatment occurred, but celebrate the fact that it was revealed to the outside world. And of course Sullivan and other liberal supporters of the war ought to be angry, but that anger is constructive only if it functions in the same way as our anger when we were seven or eight years old and realized our parents had been lying to us about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

To my mind, these awful recent revelations - and they may get far worse - make it even more essential that we bring democratic government to Iraq, and don't cut and run. Noam Chomsky is wrong. Abu Ghraib is not the real meaning of America.

First of all, what a terribly predictable and uncreative conclusion--but at the same time, what a brilliant "heads I win, tails you lose" rhetorical strategy.

I am not sure if by "the real meaning of America" the author means the ideal meaning of America, but the following data at least shows that the violation of that "real meaning" is deeply embedded in the American corrections system:

"Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, similar to what has been uncovered in Iraq, takes place in American prisons with little public knowledge or concern, according to corrections officials, inmates and human rights advocates.

"In Pennsylvania and some other states, inmates are routinely stripped in front of other inmates before being moved to a new prison or a new unit within their prison. In Arizona, male inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's pink underwear as a form of humiliation."

...

"The corrections experts say that some of the worst abuses have occurred in Texas, whose prisons were under a federal consent decree during much of the time President Bush was governor because of crowding and violence by guards against inmates. Judge William Wayne Justice of Federal District Court imposed the decree after finding that guards were
allowing inmate gang leaders to buy and sell other inmates as slaves for sex."

[full: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/08/national/08PRIS.html?hp]

Okay, these anecdotes aren't "America" in some idealistic sense either, but many Americans don't care that these things happen, just as many of those who've posted on various message boards say that the offenders in Abu Ghraib deserve medals, since the Iraqis aren't human anyway.

I'll say something else: America has multiple, often contradictory meanings. I am uncomfortable giving Chomsky, Parenti and others unfettered license to assign America a unitary meaning in exploitation and colonialism, but Sullivan and other liberals (including my friend Russell Arben Fox) often write with the unspoken assumption that America was not also a process of colonialism, that we did not displace its previous residents using tactics that the Nazis later emulated, ignoring the argument eloquently made by M. Annette James that, in a sense, the foundational stone (I would amend only to say ONE foundational stone) upon which American arrogance rests is, in fact, genocide against indigenous people; or the argument less eloquently (but more forcefully) made by Ward Churchill that, even among "progressives" and do-gooders, there is a universal tendency to ignore the historical fact that the resources with which we promote our visions of the good are resources we stole from other people.

Rush Limbaugh quoted some mid-level American bureaucrat in Iraq, who had in turn quoted a mid-level Iraqi bureaucrat, who allegedly said "educated" Iraqis didn't care what happened at Abu Gharaib, that they were "non-plussed" about the whole thing. Riiiiiight. Here's what Riverbend has to say about it:

People are seething with anger- the pictures of Abu Ghraib and the Brits in Basrah are everywhere. Every newspaper you pick up in Baghdad has pictures of some American or British atrocity or another. It's like a nightmare that has come to life.

Everyone knew this was happening in Abu Ghraib and other places… seeing the pictures simply made it all more real and tangible somehow. American and British politicians have the audacity to come on television with words like, "True the people in Abu Ghraib are criminals, but…" Everyone here in Iraq knows that there are thousands of innocent people detained. Some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, while others were detained 'under suspicion'. In the New Iraq, it's "guilty until proven innocent by some miracle of God".

People are so angry. There’s no way to explain the reactions- even pro-occupation Iraqis find themselves silenced by this latest horror. I can’t explain how people feel- or even how I personally feel. Somehow, pictures of dead Iraqis are easier to bear than this grotesque show of American military technique. People would rather be dead than sexually abused and degraded by the animals running Abu Ghraib prison.


Last thought: What happened at Abu Gharaib is obscene, but bourgeois liberals who can handle the macro-violence of war but not the micro-violence of prison brutality are just plain disgusting. They make me want to cry into my soft little hanky. They make me want to vomit up my martinis.

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