Monday, April 20, 2009

Torture, secret memos and piracy(continued)

1.Last week in the comments for Rob's discussion of the Somali piracy incident, I noted that earlier this year Avedon Carol in The Sideshow discussed the Somali piracy phenomenon, and suggested that it was viewed very differently by the locals--

here's the quote, from Johann Hari, (from January '09):
http://sideshow.me.uk/sjan09.htm#01112352

Johann Hari : "You are being lied to about pirates: "In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since - and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas. Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. [...] At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. [...] This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent 'strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence'."



2. Last week I intended, initially, to write about the recent court ruling in favor of Minnesota's Al Franken(a mere five months after the election!), and the thick-headed participants in the so-called tea party tax protests, discussing the tribalism of the right, while also touching upon the tribalism of the left.

A few months ago I started an essay I never published in which I proposed a unified field theory of the right and the left in American Politics, in which I pictured the graph of the differences between the two as resembling a bowling pin, in which at the top of the pin, the elite left and the right are actually very close to each other in their views, with the richest and most powerful converging at the top of the pin. Then, as we go farther down, in connectedness, general awareness, and power, the body of the pin representing the middle-class starts to widen(appropriately enough, at the point at which the pin is actually struck by the ball), then when we get to the lower blue-collar depths we have another convergence, albeit one that is often obscured by the bar of the automatic pin re-setter. (By the way, did you know the very top of the bowling pin is called the crown? Strangely appropriate, I'd say.)

I'm reminded of this because when I reflect on the rescue of the American captain, the pirates, and the torture memos against the backdrop of the struggle over the Senate seat in Minnesota and the ludicrous tea party rallies, I'm struck by how the the meaningful differences between the left and the right seem to be lessening precisely as the symbolic(and mostly meaningless) differences between the two are becoming more heated and difficult to bridge.

Of course when I say the meaningful differences I'm talking strictly about those among elected democrats and republicans, not about theories of government. It's as if the mainstream US media
, and not just Fox News, is conspiring to make people even stupider, as if the powers that be actually want heightened social conflict, and not just an unsuccessful Obama presidency(which of course is pretty ironic if they do want that, insofar as Obama is essentially a latter-day Rockefeller Republican.)

I say this because even though I don't think most Americans are as dim as the "tea-baggers". I suspect if the release of the torture memos was properly explained to people by the major news outlets, a lot more people would realize the degree to which Obama represents a nearly seamless continuation of US foreign policy from the Bush II administration, that his hand was forced by the ACLU, and finally the ridiculousness of the argument that acknowledging torture, as opposed to the torturing itself, hurts the US. To buy that it helps if you believe that people in other countries have just as doggedly naive and blinkered a view of the US government as most Americans do, and I guess large numbers of
Americans DO believe that.

Initially, when I meant to discuss just the Minnesota Senate race and the Fox News Tea Parties, my working title was "Al Franken and the Myth of Bipartisanship". I reflected on the so-called Brooks Brothers riot in Florida in November of 2000 when republican activists intimidated a group of poll workers into stopping a recount and had to be extricated from the midst of the preppie rioters by local police. As far as I know, we saw no remotely comparable phenomenon on the democratic side, either in Florida in 2000 or in Minnesota in 2008-2009. Democratic tribalism tends to involve more bourgeois pissiness than threats of violence, even though democrats' same yearning for respectability is part the problem when it comes to the mostly exhausted left's squeamishness about resisting empire, especially now that Our President Jesus has the launch codes.


Whether you want to attribute it to republican tendencies towards authoritarianism or the comparative sheepishness of rank and file democrats, or both, or yet other factors, there are still areas in which the differences between the two parties matter, even if they're fewer than one might like. Of course a lot of that sheepishness comes from rank and file democrats being told to be sheepish by part leaders, as well as by the nice people on television who tell us what to think. One of the things that is rarely remarked upon in this context is the influence that democratic capitulation has not just on voters on the left but so-called independents and even conservative voters: every time a big name democratic politician is seen to agree with criticisms from the right it drives the right rightward, and makes potentially reachable independents less reachable.

OK, to some extent I am tripping myself up with my choice of words:they imply that the democratic party leadership are doing this reluctantly. In fact I no longer think this is the case, and they've actually chosen this path and continue to push faux liberalism rightward, a deliberate choice for at least the past 12 to 14 years. It's tempting to blame Bill "the era of big government is over" Clinton for this, but to recall a cliché, nobody held a gun to John Kerry or Harry Reed, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary, Obama, et al.


Back to the events of last week, and how the simple-minded identities the political leaders and media foist on us make it difficult for people to see them clearly.

(parenthetically, I would urge you to read Arthur Silber's four part series on tribalism(
Part I is here.), if you haven't done so already. I don't know precisely how to measure how his arguments have influenced the present discussion, but I don't doubt they have.)



Anyway-- look at these four different things: the trials of Al Franken, the "Tea parties", the rescue of the American captain and the release of the Torture memos. In a way, all four of these events from last week collapse into each other and are about one another, illustrating how prefabricated media-provided identities help us figure out "where to stand" on these as items to fight over rather than as events to understand.

The supposedly liberal New York Times described it as "another setback" for Norm Coleman, when in fact every count and every judicial ruling thus far has gone against him and you don't have to be a democrat or a Franken supporter to see that Coleman never had a case to stay in the race. I say this without any opinion about whether or not Franken will prove to be a good senator and without having read any of his books.

I saw two brief news stories(video, here and here) about the Tea Parties from April 15th. They didn't talk to anyone who wasn't white, and nobody mentioned being out of work or fear of impending job loss, just fear of paying taxes. I note that conservative media darling "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher was at an event in Lansing, Michigan.(Who pays this guy to run around the country? I'm guessing he has an agent.) The story in the Detroit Free Press(here) says the protesters were concerned about high taxes and mounting national debt, but makes no mention of any concern for the fate of auto workers at Chrysler and GM. This suggests to me that not only are they mean, but almost poignantly stupid, as all of Michigan will suffer if one or both of these companies go under.


I'm also guessing none of the tea part protesters complained when George W. Bush decided to squander the budget surplus he inherited from Bill Clinton by slashing taxes on the wealthy and starting two wars. One of the persons in the 2nd video(above, by the UPI) actually said she wanted to see more money spent to fight terrorism and on defense, although it also sounded like she wanted the troops brought home as well.

But there's the rub-- the tea partiers are right to be angered by the bailouts of the major banks, as well as being right to be concerned about a runaway deficit, even if the lightbulbs only come on when the bad, other guys occupy the throne, and their brains are often filled with a lot of other, screwier thoughts as well, like their hatred of Mexicans, and their fondness for creationism and the womb police. Of course the left will in all likelihood give Obama a pass on the Af-Pak war and torture, even among those cleverer lefties who understand the concept of blowback.

That's another way in which the media fails the citizens-- apart from an intuitive understanding some already have, I'm guessing your average tv news viewer has never seen a robust discussion of the concept, one that has to grow increasingly relevant to an empire in its waning days. You could try to explain that to people, and some of them would get it, and would understand why torture matters and how dehumanizing the Somali kidnappers and being indifferent to their deaths is not necessary in order to be glad the captain wasn't killed as well, and to understand why the whole phenomenon of Somali piracy is itself a kind of blowback.


Of course Dubya also got a pass-- on reckless deregulation and spending, because it was defense spending, the kind we can't question, just as nobody on your television-- not the politicians of either stripe, nor the million dollar reporters-- wonder if curbing the empire might help the US get out of the horrible financial shithole we're in. But what do they care, the people at the top of the bowling pin will stay above the sewage the rest of us will soak in.

see also-

: Bernard Chazelle
They've Always Tortured. The Difference Is Now They Write Memos

Nell Lancaster, Torture: It's not about "intelligence gathering"
(Cross-posted at A Tiny Revolution)

BBC: US boycotts UN racism conference



cross-posted at Hugo Zoom.

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5 Comments:

At April 20, 2009 7:26 PM, Blogger rob payne said...

Yes, I read something quite similar to what Hari wrote not too long ago. Of course the news media mentions none of this, at least what I have seen but it does put things in quite a different light concerning the pirates. Turns out we are the pirates, whoops, but you already knew that.

 
At April 21, 2009 8:06 AM, Blogger M. Pyre said...

Jonathan, I like that image of the bowling pin. From there you have to choose candlepin, duckpin or tenpin.

When I think about what causes the division at the base of the pin, I tend to think less about the way others' views are sold to me via news, "news," punditry, analysis, etc. and more about the people I know who might see the world a bit differently from me.

In other words, I strip away Republican vs Democrat and think about what it is people choose and why they choose it. As long as my analysis sticks with Donkeys and Elephants as a precondition, I'm screwed. I have to move beyond that.

Nationally, we all have to move beyond that.

So the height, width and shape of the pin are not static, and they depend on what you use as your fundamental assumptions.

I'd suggest it's a much more candlepin game, although in popular American culture it's sold to us as a Amazonian, Rubens-esque tenpin.

The only thing George Lakoff has done of any significance is get people thinking and talking about what he calls "framing." Personally I find Lakoff a fraud, because I learned rhetorical analysis and technique from a law professor who was a master of it himself. The idea of "framing" (in Lakoff's terms) is merely advocacy for a point or idea, or synthesis of points/ideas. Naturally you advocate with partisanship.

Lakoff's problem is that he's stuck in the Donkey-Elephant paradigm and so his analysis in "Moral Politics" was accusatory toward the Republicans and those who vote for them. In this way he did more harm than good, because he continued the partisan division.

Strip away that partisan fundament -- "frame" it differently -- and you find people aren't as far apart as you might think.

You just have to look in the right places, ask the right questions, personalize in a positive way -- ask people what motivates them, what they are seeking from a government.

+++++++++++

I haven't followed any of the news on the tea parties, but I can say I empathize with their spirit, no matter what partisanship (i.e. Elephant) is motivating them, no matter whether they're deluded about Obama being a pinko. At the very least, it shows people wanting to take back their government, which is a very positive step IMO.

 
At April 21, 2009 8:23 AM, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

Micah, I guess I should've posted my jpeg of the bowling pin that I made a while back to further flesh it out. I didn't do this because I felt the post was already too long.

From what I've seen of the tea party group, they're mostly driven by reactionary bile.

If you follow the two video links, each is a short (3-4 min) video on youtube, one from CQPolitics and the other from the UPI.

 
At April 21, 2009 8:30 AM, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

Almost forgot:

1. I agree with you re Lakoff

2. Versen's bowling pin, a visual aid.

 
At April 21, 2009 8:32 AM, Blogger M. Pyre said...

I think the bowling pin metaphor and the ideas behind it are well worth discussing. In my adult (voting qualified) life I've been a Republican, Independent, Democrat and found each one very limiting because each one's group seeks definition of itself by saying what it's not.

That's where we are today. I don't know what it was like before I could vote. I turned 18 shortly before the 1980 elections, and I was not a student of history at any point in my life so I don't know much about pre-1980. Post-1980 it's been all negativity.

The reason for this is, I suppose, tribalism. But what motivates the tribes to see themselves as a separate distinct tribe, antipathetic to all other tribes? Who benefits from that?

Silber's series is good but he doesn't do it exhaustively, except to exhaust his own analysis -- to think and write it out. From exchanging emails with him I know a bit about what sorts of views he's held and where his views on tribalism originate.

He and I have discussed this thing about people actually being more sympathetic to each other if the parties and labels are stripped away. That's the idea that I think is most worth pursuing.

 

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