Monday, October 28, 2013


John Chuckman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013



John Chuckman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The record of arrogance and abuse by security organizations, such as CIA or the FBI, is long and costly, filled with errors in judgment, abuse of power, incompetence, and immense dishonesty. Owing to the black magic of classified secrecy, much of the record involves projects about which we will never know, but even what we do know about is distressing enough. And I’m not sure that it can be any other way so long as you have Big Intelligence. Apart from Big Intelligence’s own propensity towards criminal or psychopathic behavior, one of the great ironies of Big Intelligence is that it will always agree to bend, to provide whatever suppressions and fabrications are requested by political leaders working towards the aims of the other great anti-democratic institutions, the military and the corporations. This became blindingly clear in the invasion of Iraq and, even before that, in the first Gulf War.
America’s political system, honed and shaped over many decades, fits comfortably with these institutions. National elections are dominated by a two-party duopoly (being kept that way through countless institutional barriers deliberately created to maintain the status quo) , both these parties are dominated by huge flows of campaign contributions (contributions which form what economists call an effective barrier to entry against any third party seriously being able to compete), both parties embrace much the same policies except for some social issues of little interest to the establishment, and election campaigns are reduced to nothing more than gigantic advertising and marketing operations no different in nature to campaigns for two national brands of fast food or pop. It takes an extremely long time for a candidate to rise and be tested before being trusted with the huge amounts of money invested in an important campaign, and by that time he or she is a well-read book with no surprising chapters.

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

Thursday, October 10, 2013



John Chuckman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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