Monday, April 14, 2014
John Chuckman is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. He has many interests and is a lifelong student of history. He writes with a passionate desire for honesty, the rule of reason, and concern for human decency. John regards it as a badge of honor to have left the United States as a poor young man from the South Side of Chicago when the country embarked on the pointless murder of something like 3 million Vietnamese in their own land because they embraced the wrong economic loyalties. He lives in Canada, which he is fond of calling “the peaceable kingdom.”
John’s writing appears regularly on many Internet sites. He has been translated into at least ten languages and has been regularly translated into Italian and Spanish. Several of his essays have been published in book collections, including two college texts. He has published a book, The Decline of the American Empire and the Rise of China as a Global Power, published by Constable and Robinson, London. John also writes book reviews.
Apart from his writing since retiring from the oil industry, John has taught university courses in economics, done a good deal of private tutoring, served as a professional newspaper restaurant reviewer (he likes cooking), followed his favorite hobby of photography, and created a popular family of image blogs on the Internet.
John may be reached directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
SOME INTERNET SITES FROM JOHN CHUCKMAN:
CHUCKMAN PHOTOS ON WORDPRESS: CHICAGO NOSTALGIA AND MEMORABLIA (SELECTED POSTCARDS AND RESTAURANT ITEMS)
CHUCKMAN’S PLACES ON WORDPRESS
CHUCKMAN’S PHOTOS ON WORDPRESS: TORONTO NOSTALGIA AND MEMORABLIA
CHUCKMAN' S NON-SPORTS TRADING CARDS OF THE 1950s VOL.1/4
CHUCKMAN’S GALLERY OF GROTESQUES
CHUCKMAN’S CARTOON COMMENTS
CHUCKMAN'S MISCELLANEA OF WORDS
CHUCKMAN'S COMMENTS FROM THE WORLD PRESS
CHUCKMAN'S POLITICAL ESSAYS
HURTLING INTO DARKNESS: AMERICA’S GREAT LEAP TOWARDS GLOBAL TYRANNY
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.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
VLADIMIR PUTIN, THE WORLD’S LAST TRUE STATESMAN
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.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
UNDERSTANDING MODERN ISRAEL: WHY IT IS DRIVING THE WORLD TOWARDS MADNESS
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.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
CBC RADIO AND ITS HEAVY BIAS TOWARDS ISRAEL - EVEN ON ONE OF ITS BEST SHOWS, SUNDAY EDITION - PALESTINIANS ARE ALMOST INVISIBLE
LETTER TO CBC RADIO'S SUNDAY EDITION ON INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL GOLDHAGEN
Michael Enright is such a fair-minded man, and one articulate in his fair-mindedness, when it comes to most things. Is it too much to ask that that fairness be applied and heard consistently?
The characteristics of a fair-minded person are just a few, and they comprise the gold standard if you will. He or she is willing to discuss almost any topic. He or she is willing to listen to all sides of an issue presented by others. And he or she is open to being convinced he may have been wrong, at least in part.
I think by this set of criteria that Michael and his producers fail, and rather consistently, on a long term basis when it comes to the related topics of Israel and anti-Semitism.
How many times over, say, the last half dozen years has Michael’s program had an articulate spokesperson for Palestinian rights and grievances? I can tell you: close to, if not actually, zero times.
How many times has the program had spokespeople for Israel’s interests or on the much-abused topic of anti-Semitism? I haven’t counted, but I know that it likely would average to as much as once a month.
That may seem to you not excessive, but I think it represents a continuing, subtle, and genuinely unfair practice. One supposes you don’t make it more regular, say every week, because you understand that heavy repetition of these views would generate hostility in your audience. But the issue of unfairness still is glaringly clear here
Even as you read these words, Israel prepares to seize more of the West Bank and Jerusalem. No compensation is even given to those whose homes and farms are seized for the flimsiest excuse. And when they protest or resist, they are abused, arrested and often imprisoned. Every day millions of Palestinians, never having done anything against the Jewish people, are treated like the residents of an unrelenting police state.
So, how is it that Michael and his producers believe, as they apparently do, that there is only one side in these matters?
The very definition of the word “liberal” does not make it possible for a true liberal to accept these ugly practices. Yet invariably, when anyone objects to Israel’s behavior, he or she is labeled an “anti-Semite” by the government of Israel and its many apologists abroad. It is a dirty and abusive and inherently unfair tactic.
It is this practice which explains illusory increases in anti-Semitism in “statistics” compiled by Israel’s apologists.
I’m sorry but I do not apologize for speaking against the practices of one of the meanest-natured governments on the planet and that does not make me or millions like me any more anti-Semitic than Michael is.
So, please, if you cannot deal with this set of issues fairly – and history indicates you cannot - leave it alone entirely.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
THE REAL LESSONS FROM THE DEATH OF NELSON MANDELA
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.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
TIME WOUNDS ALL HEELS: WHAT TORONTO’S ROB FORD FIASCO IS ABOUT AND WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM IT
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.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
A VAST WASTELAND OF EFFORT SPENT: AMERICA’S RAMPAGE THROUGH THE MIDDLE EAST
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.