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: Democracy, Literature, Uncategorized | Tags: Afghanistan, Anti-war Protest, Areopagitica, Censorship, Free Speech, G.K. Chesterton, Iraq, John Milton, Liberalism, Self-Censorship, The Man Who Was Thursday
In Areopagitica (1644) , John Milton, poet, revolutionary and parliamentarian, wrote what became the ur-text for defenders of free speech in the modern era. Although it had virtually no political impact at the time, it influenced the arguments of free-speech advocates for centuries: its heritage can even be observed in the United States Bill of Rights. In a virtuoso performance, Milton mixes Classical and Christian imagery to forward a profound statement against censorship:
Unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but he who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.
Lovely stuff. Milton was condemning the Licensing Order of 1643, which reinstated the authority to ban texts pre-publication, and represented, for Milton at least, a regression toward regimes like that of Spain, who were archaic and worse, Catholic (or, in the creative parlance of British sectarianism, ‘papes’). The only problem with Milton’s eloquent tract is that he’s not really against censorship at all. He’s only against censorship before a book is published. Here’s the almost equally vibrant passage that precedes the above:
I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
In fact, Milton’s treatise can be read as a plea to demand treasonous and blasphemous individuals publish their thoughts so as to ensure their crimes are adequately punished. We want our papists and royalists outed, after all.
Milton’s trick, a wondrous blend of revolution and conservatism, founds the strategy that would come to define free speech for the remainder of the millennium: he proposes a plan that enables coercion, facilitates the suppression of dissent, and ensures subversive forces are exposed and expatriated—all under the veil of what the ruling classes, never without a sense of humour, have labelled ‘Free Speech’. Milton knows that speech is never free—it’s only a matter of when your debt is called in. But this wrinkle in the modern understanding of free speech has faded from social memory.
Hence, the price of free speech is the principle commonly thought to be its synonym: freedom of thought. By shifting censorship post-production, we are forced to filter our expressions before they are published. That is, by removing pre-publication bans and replacing it with a censorious judiciary after publication, Milton’s brand of free speech effects a much more efficient type of restriction. If the book is ‘reason it selfe’, and the book is fair game for a moralizing lawmaker, then the best defence is altering reason. This so-called freedom breeds self-censorship.
But don’t take my word for it. Firebrand journalist and author G.K. Chesterton festooned the ironic logic of free speech in his wonderful spy thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908):
‘The work of the philosophical policeman’, replied the man in blue, ‘is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime….We say that the most dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher’.
The key difference between Chesterton’s ‘philosophical policemen’ and Milton’s hated papacy is that the ‘philosophical policemen’, a group of undercover officers infiltrating the subversive ‘anarchists’ of Britain, turn out to be more pervasive and prolific than the populace they are supposed to survey. Indeed, by the novel’s end, these policemen comprise the entire society, fighting and observing each other. In Chesterton’s cynical revision, censorship continues apace—the only difference being, in the words of Radiohead, you do it to yourself.
With that in mind, compare Chesterton’s satirical passage, in which Gabriel Syne, the latest recruit of the philosophical policemen, reveals his motivating convictions, to Milton’s treatise against the suppression of heresy:
‘Yes, the modern world has retained all those parts of police work which are really oppressive and ignominious, the harrying of the poor, the spying upon the unfortunate. It has given up its more dignified work, the punishment of powerful traitors in the State and powerful heresiarchs in the Church. The moderns say we must not punish heretics. My only doubt is whether we have a right to punish anybody else’.
What Chesterton’s delicious irony reveals, of course, is that modernity hasn’t given up punishing heresy at all: it’s simply shifted the responsibility.
Consider whence the loudest braying and appeals to free speech come: more often than not it issues from the far right, like when they fought for the privilege of Danish cartoonists to mock and villainize Muslims. When a concept meant to promote democracy and liberty ends up acting as a shield for racists and imperialists, it’s time to consider implementing a curfew. Is defending fascism what Milton had in mind when he wrote his famous apologia?
In fact, in a further twist of irony, our governments have used its shibboleth of ‘free speech’ to invalidate dissent. There is, first of all, the sardonically named ‘Free-Speech Zones’ that have leeched their way into Western ‘democracies’, relegating dissent into safely cordoned-off areas of impotence. Even when free speech is not so explicitly marginalized, it is systematically defanged by cynical smugness. The protests against the war in Iraq saw 36 million people speak out against the United States’ illegal, ill-fated pre-emptive attack. Rather than shortcircuit a now-hopless war that has since cost milions of civilians’ lives and set back hope for stability in the region for a generation, it permitted the administrations of Bush and Blair a wry smile of condescenion: ‘this is what we are fighting for’, they insisted. The right for Iraqis of free speech and political dissent. By upholding the spectacle of free speech rather than its essence, liberalism sold freedom of expression as a brand, draining the substance of its objection and hanging it on an unjustifiable war. Our empty freedoms have now become Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s.
Faced with such paralyzing impotence we might be tempted to dispose with free speech altogether. This would be a grave mistake. While Milton might have been treacherous in his spirited defence of free speech, he was not wholly wrong. Freedom of expression, however insidious and ethereal, must be pursued in a robust democracy. To dissuade discouragement, I can olnly turn to Chesterton again, and the words of his Professor de Worms:
‘Young man, I am amused to observe that you think I am a coward. As to that I shall say only one word, and it will be entirely in the manner of your own philosophical rhetoric. You think it is impossible to pull down the President. I know it is impossible, and I am going to try it’.
Shall we? Let’s.
Filed under: Democracy | Tags: Afghanistan, Barack Obama, Election America 2008, electoral politics, Iraq, Justice Potter Stewart, Neoliberalism, The Simpsons
In one of his more memorable lines, Mr. Burns, while looking upon Marge Simpson’s portrait of himself, revises Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous ‘I know it when I see it’ opinion on obscenity: ‘You know, I’m no art critic, but I know what I hate. And…I don’t hate this’.
After Obama’s resounding, indeed, dominant, victory last night, America made plain, with big, broad strokes, what they hate. It was a rejection of almost thirty years of neoliberal policies that have paupered the economy, mired the nation in an unwinnable and costly war, increased and polarized class and racial divisions while blatantly failing to protect its citizenry against anything from hurricaines to recession. I have remained cynical of Obama throughout the election, despite my tacit support of him, because he is poised to betray the progresive votes the Democrats have historically taken for granted and pursue the hawkish, poisonous tack Blue presidents have felt compelled to take in order to show their quality. But I don’t hate Obama, and that’s comforting somehow.
It’s hard to hate a man who is undeniably responsible for a 10-million-strong increase in votes, good for 64 percent. More than that, CNN reported that 72 percent of first-time voters voted for change. The symbolic value of Obama in the White House, not only its resonance for American race relations but for the reverberating rejection of neoconservative ideology, is encouraging. John McCain, the aging, jerky relic of the Republican party, has been set adrift, cast away from a nation that sees through his palour as if for the first time.
The cautionary message in this election is that Ralph Nader and the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney received less than 1% of the electorate; which indicates to me that while the American public knows what it hates, it has not yet turned its disapproval into a positive program for change. America has voted for change, but it has not demanded it. Now that progressives everywhere have lobbied Obama into the White House, do they still have the stamina (and more importantly, the money) to hold his feet to the fire? Obama promises to take his country out of the calamity that is Iraq, but to increase troop numbers in the equally shambolic Afghanistan. Is this the democratic solution to the Middle East?
I must admit, Obama-rama has stirred me, as it has stirred a nation. But the important thing to remember about democracy is that it does not start and stop on election day. If now is the time, then America must look within to decide not only what it hates, but why. Don’t settle for a softer, more charismatic version of the same toxic politics. Demand the change you voted for.
Filed under: Video Games | Tags: Afghanistan, George W. Bush, Grand Theft Auto, Imperialism, Iraq, Jean Baudrillard, Media, Misogyny, Murder, Robert Pickton, Rockstar Game, Sex Workers, Simulacra, Stephen Harper, The Gulf War, The Gulf War: Did it Really Take Place?, Violence, Virtuality
Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV raked in more than $500 million its first week—and was linked to a real-life stabbing and mugging. The game is praised for its innovative, realistic and complex gameplay—and vilified for its simulated violence and misogyny. Make no mistake: the game is misogynist. Any attempt to excuse the game’s misogyny is revealing. There is something barbaric about the phrase “You don’t have to kill prostitutes to beat the game.”
But what makes me suspicious of such criticism is that video games seem to bear a disproportionate level of ire compared to the much more graphic violence depicted in television shows like CSI or torture-porn film like Saw or Hostel. In fact, much of the female objectification that occurs in the game is no different than what you’d see during a prime-time commercial break on NBC.
The difference, we claim, lies in the virtual participation such games enable. Simulation, the argument goes, is a small step away from reality. In fact, there is little evidence that first-person simulation offer any more of a connection with violence than watching film or television. So why does the virtual murder of a woman attract more media attention than a real one?
The war in Iraq, which has killed more people in real life than GTA4 will ever kill virtually, was a “clean war.” A war with precision weapons that, we were assured, didn’t kill anyone who didn’t deserve to die. Indeed, didn’t President Bush, five years ago almost to the day smiling in his jumpsuit in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” assure us that the war is over? Jean Baudrillard, as he argued for the first Gulf War in The Gulf War: Did it Really Take Place?, would likely have said that it never really occurred in the first. “We are all hostages of media intoxication,” he writes, “induced to believe.” It occurs only in heavily mediated images on CNN with only cursory relevance to whatever is taking place on the ground.
Likewise Canada’s war in Afghanistan. Our government wages an imperialist act of aggression upon an unarmed nation for an act of terrorism that was neither directed at us, nor committed by those we attack; and we do it in the name of “defence.” Our military strategy, our Foreign Affairs Ministry informs us, is based on rhetoric, not substance. We are strengthening Canada’s role in the world by effecting American foreign policy. Our enemy is not an opposing army, but ethereal “insurgents.” And we are not allowed to see the bodies of our dead soldiers return home. There are no corpses, no weapons, no armies. “Just as wealth is no longer measured in the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital,” Baudrillard writes, “so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.”
The real violence our society inflicts has become simulated, and we combat this shift by criticizing virtuality as if it were real. Violence against sex workers is all but absent from the pages of our newspapers (unless it fits into our spectacular fantasies like the Pickton murders, effacing the individuals who lost their lives over a period of thirty years). Yet GTA4 comes out with attendant social outrage. It is as if the protests against the game are as simulated as the violence it represents: virtual protest for virtual violence while the real deal continues apace.
Games like GTA4 certainly provoke a visceral reaction, a watermark of the tragic misogynist violence that infects our society. But there is something altogether more tragic about a society that condemns sex-worker violence in a game yet does nothing about it in real life, for real sex workers and for real women. I suppose, when real violence becomes a simulation of itself, when the terror in which we are complicit is so overwhelming, so imposing, and so atrocious, what other recourse do we have? No wonder virtual games like GTA4 are so popular.
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.