Filed under: Capitalism, Democracy, Imperialism | Tags: Bill 94, Canada, Dana Olwan, Naema Ahmed, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Niqab, Quebec, rabble.ca, The Minister's Black Veil, The Veil
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836), Parson Hooper causes a sensation in the sleepy New England town of Milford by donning a black veil without explanation. Parson Hooper continues to wear this veil throughout his life while his bizarre behaviour convinces his clergy that the veil must hide some sinister, unspeakable sin. On his deathbed, the Puritan citizens of Milford demand that he remove the veil:
“Never!” cried the veiled clergyman. “On earth, never!”
“Dark old man!” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?”
Father Hooper’s breath heaved; it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort, grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life, and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful at that last moment, in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile, so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper’s lips.
“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
The moral of the story is clear: we are all of us sinners, and the Parson, good disciple as he is, wears the veil so that none of us need to. Yet this act of martyrdom nevertheless provokes darker feelings in his fellow townspeople, as if they knew all along that his act of contrition remained above all an unsaid implication of their complicity, an exposé of their confederacy of sinners.
Somehow, Hawthorne’s construction of the veil in the nineteenth-century American imagination doesn’t enter into our current obsession with a different veil. Naema Ahmed and Québec’s Bill 94 remain in the forefront of our collective minds, as Dana Olwan’s recent article at rabble.ca demonstrates.
Commentators suggest that the bill has received overwhelming and broad support in Quebec and outside it. A much-cited Angus Reid online-poll that surveyed a sample of 1,004 Canadians found that 80 per cent of respondents approved and 16 per cent disapproved of Bill 94. Put differently, four out of five Canadians are today likely to be in favor of this legislation.
Apparently, whatever its genesis, the veil still gets us North American settlers riled up. The niqab presents a problem to Canadians: it is a conspicuous manifestation of the inequality of the sexes, propped up by traditional patriarchy and old-school religion. Many Canadians, particularly those from a Judeo-Christian background, view the veil as an ominous statement of persecution and oppression. Of course, such statements are all around us: cheerleading at football games, magazine stands, T4 slips, Engineering faculties. Which is to say, we are inundated every day in this country that women are not treated as equally as men. Yet for some reason the public response to the niqab—indeed, their “outrage”—is signally disproportionate to the symbolic message of the veil. To wit, that women aren’t equal to men.
As Olwan asks, the troubling thing about this legislation is not what it reveals about Canada and Quebec’s dedication to the principles of liberalism and democracy and so on, but rather, what it conceals:
What are the narratives that enable the writing of the bill and the broad support it is receiving across Canada? What are the consequences of this legislation for Muslim Canadian women who wear the niqab, Muslim Canadians and religious minorities? How do we unpack the announced intentions of Bill 94 from their real and material effects on Muslim women in Canada?
What gives stories like Ahmed’s the extra oomph is not that a university-educated, urbane Muslim woman living in Canada is being oppressed—by whom? by her religion? by her family? by her Egyptian cultural roots?—but that her otherness, her foreignness, draws a line under her received inequality. It is as if legislation like Bill 94 acts as its own veil, directing our attention to the sins of others and away from our own misdeeds. It’s no secret that the West fetishizes the veil, but perhaps this fetish is not simply an over-investment in otherness, but a symbolic compensation for the oppression we enact and instantiate on a daily basis. Like the Puritan townspeople of Hawthorne’s Milford, we know we are not whole, but staring at the niqab allows us to ignore our fissures and shortcomings, illuminating the fault, the plight of the Other—as all of ours fall dark.
Perhaps the West’s recently developed obsession with the veil stems from some sort of cognitive, if unconscious, link with our culpability and complicity in the sufferings of Middle Eastern women, through our imperialist wars, our addiction to petroleum, our appetite for opiates. What we really object to is that the niqab walking around in our comfortable, commodity-strewn Western world, shortens the chain of this link and makes it plain. It is as if the Niqab, like Picasso to the Third Reich when asked if he was “responsible” for painting Guernica, responds to our question thusly: No! You are responsible! This is the result of your politics!
Inequality makes a democracy itch; but it’s accusations of complicity that make us rage. Especially when they are true.
Filed under: Democracy, Imperialism, Justice, Uncategorized | Tags: First Nations, Haida, Policing, Vancouver, Vancouver Police Department, World Police and Fire Games
The 2009 World Police and Fire Games kicked off in Vancouver this weekend. More than 12 000 police officers from around the world will compete in 65 sporting events over the next ten days. The event has prompted the Vancouver Anti-Poverty Committee to call for a mobilization against police brutality both locally and internationally, under the banner ‘Police brutality is not a game’. It is curious, then, that the Games chose this ‘Eagle Spirit’ image, by traditional Haida artist Garner Moody, as the official logo. The 1329-strong Vancouver Police Department boasts a meagre twenty-one First Nations officers (about 1.5%), and even fewer (if any) actual Haida officers. While this substantially less than the 4.4% First Nations make up the general population, perhaps the Games decided not to honour this small contingent by rooting their national heritage for the official crest, opted instead to salute the overrepresentation of First Nations our boys and girls in blue incarcerate: First Nations make up 18.5% of our national prison population, a bias even more acute in British Columbia.
This shameless appropriation of First Nations’ cultural heritage by the state has become a popular past-time in British Columbia, perhaps the most infamous example the Inukshuk logo of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. At least the Haida, unlike the Inuit, can be found within the borders of the province.
The audacity of the World Police and Fire games to choose the national art of the people they most brutalize and incarcerate as their logo bespeaks gross ignorance and criminal blindness. The fact that the choice was probably meant to sell Canada’s ‘multicultural’ society internationally adds further insult. Just as the purpose of our police forces is not to protect its citizens, but to protect the state against its enemies—in this case, the autonomy and nationhood of our First Nations—its gamesmanship and recreation extend this defence to new fronts. By appropriating without honour or good faith, the ‘correctional services of Canada’ engage in an act of cultural violence against the artistic heritage of its favourite victim, the First Nations of Turtle Island.
Filed under: Democracy, Imperialism, Media | Tags: 'Free and Fair', Axis of Evil, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, George W. Bush, Hamid Dabashi, Iran, Iranian Election 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami
‘Free and Fair’ elections is quickly becoming a registered trademark, patented by the West, used only in the negative against enemies of Western hegemony. To wit, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and most recently and most sensationally, Iran, all attract Western solicitude, debutante champions of ‘democracy’ soberly measuring the ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’ of brown people everywhere. When, I wonder, was the last time the Globe and Mail announced ‘Stephen Harper wins free and fair federal election’? Perhaps it would be better for Iran to follow the American-allied Saudi example: if you don’t hold elections at all, no one can complain about their legitimacy.
Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, calls the assumption of a fixed election in Iran a ‘social fact’. That is, it is no longer a question whether or not President Ahmadinejad and his followers rigged the election, a critical mass of Iranians now believe they did, and they are fighting with their lives. This makes it easier to ignore the frenzied Western media and their self-righteous braying in the name of free and fair elections (without, it is fair to say, a trace of irony), while still supporting the Iranian people and their struggle for democracy.
I don’t know enough about Iran to pass comment on the status of their revolution, so it would be prudent to start by contextualizing the West’s concern for the state of democracy in Iran. First: since, as written at Revolutionary Flowerpot Society, all elections held in Iran occur within a theocratic system. This means, contrary to what American and Israeli hawks have been successfully insisting since 2002, the presidency of Iran is not the highest executive office in the country: that privilege, as our media is slowly learning, belongs to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Aside from the fact that such a heirarchy suggests that no election in Iran has been ‘free and fair’ since about 1951 (and the Americans and British made sure those results didn’t stick), the result of this incongruous mixture is that Khamenei has emerged in the Western press paradoxically as a grandfatherly, judicious sage, pleading for stability and pondering a recount, rather than a theocratic patriarch who remains the largest barrier to Iranian democracy (a fact, it should be needless to add, not lost on Iranians).
Furthermore, the incessant tendency of the Western media to deliver heroes and villains to its readership means that since Ahmadinejad is our demon, Mir-Hossein Mousavi must be our angel. Consider first that Mousavi and democracy are rather recent bedfellows, and second, that his chief supporter, Mohammad Khatami, was the recipient of George W. Bush’s infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ prize in 2002 when he, and not Ahmadinejad, was president of Iran. Moreover, the reason that Ahmadinejad is grossly popular with the poor and dispossessed may have less to do with fundamentalist chicanery (although its draw cannot be ignored) and more to do with adroit local politics (h-t croghan), forging populist policies that afford full insurance to impoverished women and free university classes to Azeris. This toxic mixture of ideology and praxis defrauds the West’s monolithic view of Iran and pits oppressive fundamentalism against disenfranchisement of the poor, possible comfort to the Israeli-US war machine and potential of outright anti-revolutionary betrayal. An uncomfortable choice for a Western liberal not up to speed on 100 years or so of Iranian history.
More distressing is the inextricable relationship these elections and the attendant Western response share with the two imperialist wars in the Middle East, the subsequent occupations, and their genesis. The revelation that those who a few years earlier were advocating an American bombing campaign of the Iranian people are now suddenly concerned about their welfare should incite us to revisit what is motivating our desire for Iranian freedom and fairness. Such an impulse, cognate with the liberal support in 2002 for the Iraq war, suggests that urging a bourgeois revolution in Tehran is consonant with murdering the people behind it; that is, the people involved in both scenarios remain invisible to us. Both are spectacles of our narcissism, fantasies of our media, and betray Western imperialist desire.
The only rational conclusion that can be drawn, then, is to support neither the neo-liberalism and cross-class appeal of Mousavi or the populist, yet theocratic craft of Ahmadinejad. Indeed, as outsiders, it is neither our responsibility nor our purview to comment (a sentiment, surprisingly enough, shared by the American president). The election itself, whatever degree of fraud we choose to apply to it, is no longer an issue. A recount, now counselled by Khamenei, seems like an absurd solution in the wake of recent events. Our obligation, therefore, is to keep our ‘free and fair’ label in our pockets—to support enthusiastically, joyfully and without reservation the struggle on all sides of the Iranian people who can now glimpse a better world, plumbed from the depths of the delerious and frenetic soup of hope and tragedy in which they have been submerged.
Filed under: Democracy, Imperialism | Tags: 15 February 2003 anti-war demonstration, 7/7 Bombings, 9/11, Afghanistan, British Armed Forces, Great Britain, History, Iraq, Iraq War, Jack Straw, Madrid Bombings, Michael Ignatieff, Shock and Awe, Terrorism, United Kingdom, United States, World Trade Center
On 20 March 2003, under false pretences, under the grotesque banner of ‘shock and awe’, despite the protests of the largest demonstration the world had ever seen, despite two-million marchers in London on 15 February that year, the armed forces of the United Kingdom invaded Iraq. On 30 April 2009, with 179 British soldiers and untold hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens dead, UK combat operations ceased.
As someone who demonstrated against the invasion with 150 000 others in -30 C Montreal weather, an ‘I told you so’ has never come at a higher price. Exhausted with questions of the Downing Street Memo, the Dodgy Dossier, and Weapons of Mass Destruction, both now stale even as running jokes with the late-night talk show set, the question posed by the nation in the wake of the British withdrawal is: ‘Was the UK mission in Iraq a success?’
What a question. A success for whom, one might wonder; and for what? Certainly the original rationale and legality of the war have been so crippled and enfeebled to render the prospect of success farcical. For those of us with functioning memories the answer is simple: there were no weapons of mass destruction, therefore any injury, incurred or evinced, returns a negative sum. Despite the fact that then-Home Secretary Jack Straw was caught on tape saying that the case for war was based on ‘thin’ evidence, on Question Time recently he desperately clung to a tortuous justification that would have made Michael Ignatieff proud: based on what we knew, we made the best decision we could; those who made what turned out to be the right decision, therefore, did so for the wrong reasons, and may God have mercy on their souls.
So much for weapons of mass destruction. But there is another helix to this double coil: the war on terror. Britain, who fought fascism alone in the streets of London, would rise again to help their American allies in the desperate wake of 9/11. Never mind that none of the World Trade Center hijackers came from Iraq. Never mind that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party espoused pan-Arab secularism and was historically at odds with the fundamentalist Islamic al-Qaeda. If We Do Not Take The War To Them They Will Take The War To Us. Except they did. Would the 7/7 2005 bombings of London occurred if Britain was not in Iraq? Perhaps. Although the Spanish people thought otherwise when the Madrid underground was attacked: they almost immediately deposed the sitting government and voted in José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s leftist party who promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. One question, however, renders such speculation instantly moot: are there less terrorists in Iraq now than there were on 20 March 2003? The answer is an emphatic and resounding no.
So our men and women in parliament turn to a new charade. The charade of democracy. Perhaps we did go into Iraq for the wrong reasons but look what we’ve done: we’ve deposed a tyrannical and genocidal dictator and given democracy to the Iraqi people. As if it was ours to give. As if the Iraqi people needed it given. What is democracy anyway? Listening to the cheerleaders of the invasion, you’d think it was a show of theatre: blue thumbs, long queues, smiles and broken English. But this is not democracy. It is a circus.
Such arguments that hope to rectify, if not erase, the lies and deception fostered by those we trusted to lead us want to cleave justice from history. Well, here we are now boys, in the bed we made, and by gum we will make a game of it. But, those who make this case, those who would have us believe that history is beside the point, forget, as always, that history is the point. History shows us that Saddam Hussein, the vanquished ace in the hole for Iraq warmongers, is himself a product of Western imperialism and meddling. History shows us that every time the Iraqi people attempted to rise up in chorus, they were thwarted by an empire promising first pacification, then civilization, now democracy.
Democracy is the people. Democracy is not a gift bestowed upon a willing nation by a guardian parent who feels its offspring is ready. It is not a thing that can be pounded into a square inch of dust like embossing in so much beaten copper. It is of the people, by the people and for the people; and its genesis in Iraq has been baffled by British egotism throughout the last one hundred years. But the thing about democracy is that it will not be baffled forever. Like murder, it will out. And no one knows this better than the citizens of Iraq, who, despite being bloodied, abused and beaten, have now seen the backs of British soldiers three times in a century.
So Britain continues to laud its military efforts, with soldiers who are kinder, gentler, than their American counterparts, and made the best of a bad situation. Keep calm and carry on, goes the motto. Besides, victory in Afghanistan awaits. So too, I hope, does democracy for Iraq. It’s been a long time coming.
Filed under: Imperialism, Media | Tags: Afghanistan, Colonialism, Fox News, Peter McKay, Red Eye, United States
Peter McKay got the apology he demanded from Fox News after the late-night show Red Eye mocked the Canadian military on the day four more soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan. I find it incredible that a senior Canadian politician would even comment about what four idiots on an American sideshow Fox have to say about Canadian foreign policy, let alone demand an apology.
The public response (or ‘outrage’ to use the common parlance) too has been massive: letters to the editor, you tube comments, the mandatory facebook groups. I’ve never heard of Red Eye before, but after watching the clip, I would wager this latest horrorshow doesn’t make the top ten of offensive things ‘discussed’ on the show. Why, then, has this clip so engaged the Canadian public imagination?
If Canada had a principled armed forces that obeyed international consensus and the tenets of social justice; if it didn’t engage in fantasies of colonialist occupation as a lapdog sidekick for a bullying fading superpower; if Canada had a defence strategy that was actually based on defence rather than attack, we could stick to our convictions and rightly dismiss these Fox News hacks as so much detritus from a fading regime.
Instead, Canada has found that when they join a game they cannot play, a game that is obnoxious, odious and criminal, they are roughly treated by the very gang of obnoxious and odious criminals that invited them in. And so we respond cravenly, slavishly, shocked that these thugs do not lavish us with purple praise for obediently heeding America’s call. Why else would we care what this bunch of jokers think? Because it is the respect and acknowledgement of precisely these jokers and their lot that we crave. Instead, they call us as we are: a warmonger with no army, a conqueror with no horse. This mocking is righteous and deserved. It is the weed our governments, who desperately covet a place on the world stage, have sown, and now it has gone to seed.
Thank you for your apology, Mr. Fox. Now back to work.
Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: Beijing 2008, Capitalism, China, Claire Fox, Merchant of Venice, Olympics, Vancouver 2010
One can imagine China reading such Western stories and responding with mock incredulity and sly condescension. ‘But what have I done wrong? Where have I stepped awry?’
China has opened her doors to capitalist investment. Following the lead of North American colonization of the First Nations, she has ushered in modernity and development to the feudal and poverty-stricken theocracy of Tibet. She has made national security paramount and relegated political dissent to free-speech zones. All of these strategies come verbatim from the Western capitalist playbook. It would of course be easier for our protests if China were to adhere to the plot of the last Western-led Olympic boycott—the 1980 games in Moscow—and invade Afghanistan so we could assume a position of moral authority. Oh wait.
So China has needlessly amplified State security, is guilty of oppressing and attenuating indigenous cultures, and is flagrantly ignoring calls to address its growing poverty and human rights abuses? Make no mistake: these are massive crimes and acts of negligence. But I question the assumption that our concern with these abuses stems from a love of humanity and not from a hostile, orientalist political agenda. As the wonderful Claire Fox has put it:
None of these measures count for much amongst a sanctimonious Western commentariat because they are not interested in “Beijing’s smog” as a practical problem with practical solutions. Beneath the breathless headlines this week is our own anxiety about the growth of China and our willingness to put the boot into the toxic Chinese economy at any opportunity.
As the New York Times put it in a 10-part series at the end of last year, China is “choking on growth”. The possibility that China could become a fully industrialised and urbanised society, with living standards akin to our own, has become the ultimate environmentalist nightmare. It is often concluded that it would be better for the planet if China simply stopped growing.
The problem is that this selfishly sees only the pain and pollution that an industrial revolution brings to a country the size of China and ignores the undoubted and enormous gains to the Chinese people brought about by the concomitant economic prosperity.
If once Western racists dubbed China as the “yellow peril” and Mao’s regime was sometimes called the “red peril”, modern China is often viewed as a “green peril”.
It’s the yellow peril all over again, but we’ve learned a new vocabulary. This bias is exacerbated by our own hypocrisy. Canada turns a blind eye not only to the cartoonish cynicism of unapologetically hosting the Winter Olympics while occupying Afghanistan a mere thirty years after boycotting Moscow 1980 for the same imperialist crime, but for the exact same abuses for which it criticizes the inscrutable East (hat-tip to bcg on babble):
Often, with only hours’ notice, residents were dumped onto the streets to join the thousands of others who wander the alleys by day and sleep on the sidewalk by night. Anti-poverty groups such as the Pivot Legal Society, the Anti-Poverty Committee and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association say a number of hotels have closed in this manner, adding many more people to the legions of the homeless. According to David Eby of the Pivot Legal Society, a total of 1,314 rooms that formerly housed low-income individuals have been closed or converted to other uses since the awarding of the Games to Vancouver in 2003.
“Economic cleansing” is the ticket, and Mayor Sam Sullivan has the plan. If the Downtown Eastside is ugly and drug infested, he can sweep it all away courtesy of Project Civil City, Sullivan’s less than subtle manoeuvre to rid Vancouver of the relics of years of institutional neglect. Or maybe the city could ship the homeless out to other parts of the province “for treatment,” as the province’s Liberal Forests Minister recently suggested, the idea eerily reminiscent of the wholesale urban clearances of the poor in the run-up to Atlanta’s Olympics in 1996. The statement seemed likely to be a trial balloon, sent up to gauge public reaction.
The Anti-Poverty Committee began to get media coverage, and while the latter tended to be very negative, the genie was out of the bottle; many British Columbians were forced to face the fact that poverty in Vancouver had increased as a consequence of the 2010 Olympic developments. The city struck back: Anti-Poverty Committee members were arrested and charged, and another anti-poverty group allied to them, the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, had their city funding cut off.
Vancouver City Council had dug in its heels, and Mayor Sullivan declared that the city was not going to “surrender to hooligans.” They weren’t going to do anything serious about the underlying poverty issues either. The promises to the poor, promises that had led many social progressives to vote yes in the plebiscite, were simply abandoned. Although many Vancouverites noted the broken promises, a large number didn’t really seemed to care, at least if the mainstream media were to be believed. In this regard, Vancouver mimicked Sydney where, “Sydney Olympic organizers relied on ‘Olympic spirit’ discourse to diffuse public outrage on the numerous occasions when Olympic officials failed to live up to the lofty standards touted in pseudo-religious rhetoric.”
And just in case anyone in the Anti-Poverty Committee or any other organization had thoughts of doing anything even more radical, the Olympic security machine was beginning to sputter to life. As we will see, the 2010 security forces might not be able to do much against a real external threat, but perhaps that wasn’t to be their main purpose: Maybe their raison d’être would be to contain domestic Olympic opponents.
Economic cleansing, callous and active abuse of our Aboriginal populations (while hypocritically displaying the inukshuk on the Olympic logo to boast of our multiculturalism); while using it all to legitimate a security force more intent on suppressing domestic dissent and policing poverty than protecting us against an imaginary foreign menace. We prefer to focus our energies on China, who, coincidentally, are making a play for the global hegemony we used to enjoy. What really hurts is that this new yellow peril is stealing all our ideas and doing a better job. It’s enough to remind us of another wronged nation, whose ominous warning fell mutely on the oblivious ears of the Christian overclass:
—The villainy you teach me, I will execute. And it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.
The Merchant of Venice, 3.1.60-1
Filed under: Capitalism, Imperialism, Media | Tags: Bill Murray, Christopher Hitchens, Chutzpah, Spectacle, Torture, Vanity Fair, Waterboarding, What About Bob?
“Believe me,” Christopher Hitchens implores us. “It’s torture.“
He’s talking, of course, about waterboarding. First, the chutzpah. Most of us didn’t need Hitchens to take us glibly aside and explain in grave and serious tones that torture really was torture. ‘I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,”’ as Hitchens explains this grotesque tautology. ‘Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.’ We shall ignore the casual self-comparison to Abraham Lincoln and the moral poverty needed to believe that the question was in dispute. After all, waterboarding was declared illegal by American generals fourty years ago in Vietnam. But we shall note that Lincoln never needed to be chained, whipped or raped to realize that slavery is a sinister, evil thing.
Second: well, more chutzpah, really. Buried in this article is the implied assumption that the question is now settled because the prodigal son has come home and repented. That Hitchens should harness some particular authority with regard to waterboarding now, because he used to think it wasn’t torture. So when he changes his mind, it’s that much more puissant. Although the gleeful chorus of “no kidding, Hitch!” is fun, and it’s always nice to see a noisome bray from the other side come over to your point of view, Hitchens’ mea culpa should be more offensive than refreshing. Guess what? We have loads of testimonies saying that waterboarding is torture. The only difference is most of them have brown skin.
And third is the most odious of all. As skdadl cynically notes on Bread n’ Roses:
What’s next — torture tourism? As we all know, there’s nothing that capitalism can’t co-opt.
“Torture tourism” indeed. Hitchens acknowledges that he ‘could stop the process at any time’ (in the same breath as he assures us that as a coward, he ‘[dies] many times before [his] death’ because he signed an indemnification contract), but motivating his doubtless insatiable desire for the truth is the sense of entitlement and supremacy that underwrites the reasons we torture in the first place.
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning.
Perhaps, Hitchens. But this does not discount the fact that you are simulating torture (although he does distastefully joke that he might have admitted to being a hermaphrodite during his short ordeal). By simulating torture, we follow the logic of Bill Murray in What About Bob? After Richard Dreyfuss, a psychiatrist, asks Bob why he is pretending to have Tourette’s Syndrome, Bob responds: ‘Well, if I fake it—I don’t have it, right?’ Bob—and Christopher HItchens—are quite right. As long as we have the ability—the power—to submit ourselves to torture, we never have to worry about someone else doing it against our will, however dreadful it feels. Meanwhile, governments in our names are perpetrating real torture against real bodies for nefarious purposes, with no “indeminfication” contracts. And rather than redeem them, Hitchens disgraces these victims on the pages of Vanity Fair because he reduces their pain and suffering into a spectacle for our instruction.
Where is the article in Vanity Fair—I’d even take one written by Hitchens—that visits real waterboarding victims? That visits the prisons they are tortured in? Where is the journalism that exposes the criminal practices of our governments and the inhuman abuse they inflict daily on those they call enemies? Of course, there is none, only the sombre smirk of the great thinker who has changed his mind. “Believe me, it’s torture.” Instead, Hitchens shifts our sympathies from the tragedy of the real victims to his own, puffing up his insufferable ego in the process.
Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: BBC, China, Colonialism, Gordon Brown, Great Britain, Media Bias, Morgan Tsvangirai, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe
When Western governments and media heard that Chinese weapons were heading to Zimbabwe, they could scarcely contain their glee. Here was an opportunity to smear both the rising star of China and the easiest and most fruitful target Western leaders have whenever they need to boost their human rights credentials. How the United States and Britain can possibly keep a straight face while criticizing either the accumulation of weapons or their trade is certainly entertaining, but the spiteful gall of imperialism overpowers the gentle comedy of chutzpah.
The BBC, who never waste an opportunity to disclose with a smirk that they are banned from reporting in Zimbabwe, also never seriously examine why that might be the case. The BBC assumes that they simply remain the victims of state-sanctioned censorship, a savage suppression of journalistic freedom; meanwhile, they continue their portrayal of Zimbabwe as a country unable to hold democratic elections, fully under the thrall of a bloodthirsty, corrupt dictator. Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, for his part, insists that the guns are not needed because the country is not at war. Such a statement does not prevent the BBC from proffering that tantalizing possibility, however—a reportage that continues unembarrassed by the fact that they cannot report first-hand.
I admit that like most of the Western media, I do not know much about the Zimbabwe political climate (or “crisis” if we are to believe the likes of Sky News). On the other hand, unlike the media, I will not make assumptions about or condemnations of Zimbabwe and its people based on what I do not know. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, all bluster and vinegar, declared “I call on the whole world to express its view that this is completely unacceptable to the whole of the international community.” Nothing warms the heart more than a fading world power engaged in illegal conflicts in the Middle East pontificating to a former imperial colony on what it deems “unacceptable.”
Despite all the evidence that shows the barbarity and violence taking place in Zimbabwe, and the fragility of the political climate that could very well erupt at any moment, Great Britain has ceded its claim to the moral high road when it comes to her former colony. Here is a rule that Great Britain, on whom the sun has set, should take to heart: in the machinations of a world leader that issued from the catastrophic failures of your own imperialistic, exploitive and racist history, from the colonialist sense of entitlement of white land owners, you don’t get a say. Hush, now. That ship has sailed.
Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: China, Don Delillo, Imperialism, Media, Tibet, Uri Averney, White Noise
Uri Averney wrote an excellent article for Counterpunch.org that wonderfully articulates the difficulty I have with the global “Free Tibet!” campaign.
[W]hat is really bugging me is the hypocrisy of the world media. They storm and thunder about Tibet. In thousands of editorials and talk-shows they heap curses and invective on the evil China. It seems as if the Tibetans are the only people on earth whose right to independence is being denied by brutal force, that if only Beijing would take its dirty hands off the saffron-robed monks, everything would be alright in this, the best of all possible worlds.
Tibet offers an attractive combination of exoticism, morality and the plucky status of an underdog sparkplug to the world media. It’s a narrative almost tailor-made for Western bourgeois liberalism: we convince ourselves that they want what we have, and it’s our moral obligation to help them achieve it. Free Tibet! Free World!
Forget the fact that there are threatened peoples in our own country that want what we have. Hell, they’d settle for clean water. As Canadians, our first duty should be to ensure that we do not oppress people at home or abroad. Any pretension otherwise is moral blindness. As progressives and anti-imperialists, we should question any attempt to render China’s sin bigger than our own. Or, failing that, why the mote of Tibet is bigger than the beam of East Congo or Chechnya.
With that in mind, it seems to me that what’s really going on here is not that Tibet wants what we have, but that they have what we wish we had. Or rather, the Tibetan myth Western media has constructed—one based on peace, non-violence, abstinence and asceticism—purchases our largesse. As long as Tibet eschews consumerism and consumption, our destructive lifestyle can proceed apace. The irony is of course, that as we “free” such ethical impossibilities from themselves as reward for affirming our pretense, we threaten to eradicate the myths on which we rely. It’s a dilemma Jack Gladney discovered almost a quarter century ago:
“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?”
“If you don’t, why should I?”
“If you did, maybe I would.”
“If I did, you would not have to.”
“All the old muddles and quirks,” I said. “Faith, religion, life everlasting. The great old human gullibilities. Are you saying you don’t take them seriously? Your dedication is a pretense?”
“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe bu they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.”
“You’ve had long life. Maybe it works.”
She rattled out a laugh, showing teeth so old they were nearly transparent.
“Soon no more. You will lose your believers.”
—Don Delillo, White Noise (1985)
h/t to unionist at babble
Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: Afghanistan, Gillian Gibbons, Imperialism, Mohammed, Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre
Anti-cartoon Afghans are at it again.Thousands of Afghan students staged protests over a Dutch film that characterizes the Qur’an as fascist and over the recently reprinted famous Danish cartoon that depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a “bomb-shaped turban.” The incident also recalls the case of Gillian Gibbons who spent fifteen days in a Sudanese jail for naming a “teddy bear” Mohammed after her preschool class agreed on the name. Cue the usual questions of “What can’t be named Mohammed?” and warnings against this latest assault on the Western liberal enlightenment values of free speech and freedom of the press. Incidentally, Britain, Denmark and Holland all have troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. This fact alone should suggest that such questions are altogether the wrong ones.
In Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin historian Robert Darnton addresses a similar situation. Just prior to the French Revolution, a stable of printers on the Rue Saint-Severin suffered abject poverty and frequent beatings from their wealthy, bourgeois master and his wife.
They slept in a filthy, freezing room, rose before dawn, ran errands all day while dodging insults from the journeymen and abuse from the master, and received nothing but slops to eat. They found the food especially galling. Instead of dining at the master’s table, they had to eat scraps from his plate in the kitchen. Worse still, the cook secretly sold the leftovers and gave the boys cat food,old, rotten bits of meat that they could not stomach and so passed on to the cats, who refused it.
The cats came to symbolize the oppression and humiliation borne daily by the workers. One day, unable to suffer the cats any longer, the workers staged a mock trial for the felines, complete with evidence, testimony, guards, a confessor and a public execution. The cats were “publicly” hanged with special punishment reserved for the puss most favoured by the master’s wife. The great cat massacre was termed “the most hilarious experience in [the workers'] entire career,” a bloody, irrational, even hysterical revolt. “Yet,” Darnton adds,
it strikes the modern reader as unfunny, if not downright repulsive. Where is the humor in a group of grown men bleating like goats and banging with their tools while an adolescent re enacts the ritual slaughter of a defenseless animal? Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of pre-industrial Europe. The perception of that distance may serve as the starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony—that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. By getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to “get” a basic ingredient of artisan culture under the Old Regime.
His argument, essentially, is that the cats acted as a symbolic stand-in for the bourgeois, and that the whole elaborate arrangement was an dramatic rehearsal for the French Revolution fifteen or so years later. The servants hanged the cats because they couldn’t hang the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the fact that the workers’ ritual remains impenetrable to us signals its massive cultural implications.
Our governments enact ceaseless and explicit violence on the people of the Middle East in our names. The men and women of Afghanistan are subject to humiliation through daily expressions of our wealth in our mass, pulp media, while their poverty rings as a constant tonic to it. Icons of Western society like our newspapers and editorial cartoons are so loaded with symbolic baggage because of the fact that they are so rare in places like the Sudan and Afghanistan. When a culture emasculated weekly is given the opportunity to assert some measure of revenge, some measure of authority over a culture that constantly humiliates them, even on this small, symbolic scale, of course they are going to take it. Of course they are. That’s the tragedy of human nature.
Then we look at such an incident, out of context, and wonder why these men and women act so irrationally, when rationality has got nothing to do with it. Our egos are served by proxy through our governments, so we have the privilege of boiling it down to rationality. Even our analogies are absurd, and barely scratch the surface, even as we strain to understand. Can’t we see Christ or Yahweh mocked in the editorial pages? Isn’t naming a stuffed bear Mohammed the same as naming a pet Jesus? These analogies are the closest we can get, to be sure. Why do you think the children, who surely know more about Islam than the teacher, than most of us too, saw no problem with naming a doll Mohammed? Because it wasn’t for this crime, for this blasphemy, that the teacher was tried.
Incidents like the Dutch film are not about blasphemy laws, or corporal punishment, or a flawed justice system. Until our governments stop their murderous campaign against nations of Islam, crimes like this will continue to take place, because war, always, does sick things to people, on scales large and small. But this dynamic always reproduces itself too–since these incidents allow us to reflect on the barbarity of Islamic cultures and the enlightenment of our own, and provide more fuel to the war machine that brokered the crime in the first place. It is an impulse consonant with the perverse, grotesque argument that justifies foreign occupation under the auspices of “liberating” Muslim women and delivering democracy to the savages who need it.