Blind Man with a Pistol

Free and Fair

‘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.

Apology Accepted
24 March 2009, 12:53 pm
Filed under: Imperialism, Media | Tags: , , , , ,

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.

The ‘Impartial’ BBC

Oh, BBC, never change. When the BBC is not ‘reporting’ on the elections of former crown colonies in Africa with the trademark British smirk that communicates both imperial disdain and condescension, it is mired in sensational controversies surrounding Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and Andrew Sachs’s granddaughter. So it is with ironic bemusement that I read that in their recent decision not to air an emergence appeal for Gaza aid by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the BBC have rooted their refusal in ‘impartiality’.

The BBC decision was made because of question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation and also to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story. However, the BBC will, of course, continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza.

Well, it is comforting to know that the BBC is as impartial to suffering in Gaza as it is partial to the endless barrage of real estate  and cooking programs that make up its daily schedules. Also bizarre is the appeal to ‘question marks’ about the prospect of aid actually being delivered. If they are truly concerned with impartiality, shouldn’t those ‘question marks’ be left up to the viewer, or, indeed, elaborated and exposed by the crack BBC news team? Instead, such concerns seem tacked on in a desperate attempt to prove that the BBC is not just some heartless crown corporation. Too bad that such concerns look to disappear, and BBC Director General Mark Thompson admits that ‘this reason for declining to broadcast the appeal will no longer be relevant’.

So the BBC is tying its masts to the ‘more fundamental’ reason of  ‘impartiality’. The implication, of course, is that acknowledging human suffering in Gaza would indicate bias against Israel. That asking to assist non-combatant victims who have had their families killed, their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and their basic human dignity stripped from their persons would somehow, in the mind of BBC brass, favours Hamas. So in a grotesque sleight-of-hand, the BBC denies the humanity of one-and-a-half-million Palestinians and calls it honesty.

Luckily, the British public aren’t fooled, despite the fact that Britain as a whole is still highly divided on the crisis in Gaza. This division is due, ironically enough, to the refusal of the BBC to prosecute the violence and criminality of Israel’s apartheid policies. A group of 60 MPs are expected to lead a motion today at Westminster, urging the BBC to air the appeal. Now of course, if the BBC reverses its decision (which would be the right move), it will be seen as ceding to political influence—a now inevitable predicament the initial decision was meant to avoid.

However, what is most discomfiting about the pathetic floundering of Mark Thompson and the BBC, is that they’ve got the absurdity and tragedy of the current political climate exactly right. The most devastating moment of Ari Folman’s powerful animated film Waltz with Bashir (2008), which recounts an Israeli soldier’s memory of the massacre of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Phalangist militiamen and the complicitness of the Israeli Defence Forces, arrives when a ghostly hallucination of the protagonist switches abruptly from animation to live action. Since the film mostly surrounds the reconstruction of national memory through interviews with former soldiers and friends, the object of the massacre, the Palestinians themselves, are largely absent from the film. Indeed, as the film opens, the protagonist has a memory hole where the massacre should be. Palestinians are relegated to fleeting shots through telescopic lenses. The only time they feature centrally in any scene is in Ari Folman’s recurring hallucinatory dream, where a spectre-like stream of veiled women flow past him, open mouths frozen in soundless wails. Then, suddenly, at the film’s conclusion, these women become real: we can hear their screams and see the expression of suffering etched upon their faces. We are confronted with their humanity for the first time.

The Palestinians are an absent people. In the minds of Israel and the West, they simply do not exist. So when the BBC decides that the spirit of impartiality dictates that acknowledging the suffering of Gaza is not an option, they are correct. Because to acknowledge such suffering would be to acknowledge their humanity, which would in turn demand that Palestine’s right to self-determination, to sovereignty and to basic human dignity is upheld.  As long as Palestine is reduced to the caricature of an illegal, hostile, genocidal Hamas launching indiscriminate rockets at Israeli civilians, the West can remain ‘impartial’ to a humanity it cannot see.

‘Partial’ means ‘biased’ or ‘one-sided’, but it also means ‘incomplete’. It is a shame that the BBC thinks it can be less partial by refusing to broadcast the humanity of a suffering people. Click here to assist in the DEC’s appeal to Gaza aid.

Margaret Wente, Serial Bigot
28 October 2008, 10:43 am
Filed under: Media | Tags: , , , ,

I have made it a habit in recent years to avoid reading Margaret Wente. But over the past few days, too many people have been doing it for me. In case you missed her latest gem: What Dick Pound said was  really dumb—and also true.

North American native peoples had a neolithic culture based on subsistence living and small kinship groups. They had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies. The kinship groups in which they lived were very small, simply organized and not very productive. Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high. Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was “savagery.”

Wow. It’s impossible to dissect fully the Eurocentric assumptions and outright lies Wente packs into this tiny paragraph (there’s more at the link) without writing a monograph—not to mention that calmly explaining to a bigot that the First Nations were people too is an exercise in absurdity. The economical system of trade, tolls and tariffs employed by the Iroquois, Algonkian and Huron (there were, in fact, Ms. Wente, hundreds of native peoples across Canada, not some monolithic morass acting with singular purpose) was tailored to specific geographical and political needs. While surely their religious rituals might not have had the same verve as the witch-burning festival that was occurring across the ocean, these ‘savages’ enjoyed diverse and complex social and mystical systems. Unfortunately, we don’t really know much about the vast medical knowledge of the First Nations (the Aztecs, for example, kept large medicinal gardens) because Jesuit missionaries heaped scorn upon the heathens’ expertise (except when it saved them from scurvy). The Europeans were certainly superior in one medical area: their usage of biological warfare was unrivalled by the  First Nations.

I could go on. The requisite facebook group has popped up, calling for the columnist’s dismissal. I can’t agree with firing a journalist for writing a single article. Such censure amounts to censorship and creates an environment where journalists will self-censor in fear of offending the higher ups. Margaret Wente is, however, a habitually poor writer and plays fast and loose with things like ‘facts’ and ‘research’. She is wilfully reactionary, divisive and hateful and has no place in a newspaper that fancies itself ‘Canada’s’. Margaret should not be fired because of one editorial. She should be fired because she is an incompetent journalist.

But if the Globe hasn’t figured that out by now, they won’t. This is a newspaper that endorsed Stephen Harper in the last election. They endorsed an administration whose hostility to journalists and journalism is unsurpassed in Canadian history. They endorsed a government who made it their mission to dismantle and undermine every independent government body and check to executive power that exists in this country. So why should we be surprised that this editorial board supports, and indeed, encourages, a columnist like Margaret Wente?

Until we let the Globe know that in their current form they are emphatically not ‘Canada’s Newspaper’, until we show them in broad strokes that their vision, and Harper’s is not ours, they will continue to steer this country away from us, away from social justice, and away from democracy. Write to Canada’s newspaper and ask for it back.

Up for Debate

I despise the Green Party of Canada. They are completely divorced from the social democratic heritage of their American and European namesakes. They are the worst of mealy-mouthed bourgeois liberalism, and have made a politics based on commercial branding and reactionary populism rather than principled policies and moral courage. So when the GPC secured their first-ever Member of Parliament and asserted their right to participate in the televised federal leadership debates, I couldn’t agree more. With the other three federal parties, they’ll get along just fine. If anything, the Bloc Québécois is the odd one out.

On principle, I would like to see more small-party candidates on a televised debate stage (The Democratic Party Presidential Candidate debate on MSNBC, incidentally, had eight candidates on stage). It would be wonderful, for example, if Québec solidaire could participate in the Québec debates. The price of admission would be reasonably sized support base, probably calculated on a low vote threshold and a significant number of candidates—this would signify voter recognition, campaigning capacity and democratic legitimacy. There are no binding rules for CTV or CBC to let in anyone, of course, but as a crown corporation, the CBC owes some kind of public service during elections, which means if they value the democratic process, they should acknowledge the role of smaller parties. Of course, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

But, in the context of corporate media, it is clear that the mainstream media is concerned only with mainstream parties. Elizabeth May, despite the braying of NDP acolytes, has inserted her party and its platform into mainstream consciousness. Speakers like Al Gore and the increasing resonance of the environment as a political issue in general doubtless contributes to the GPC’s rise in fortunes, but May’s name repeatedly pops up in articles about environmental policy. For good or ill, Elizabeth May and the Green Party are mainstream Canada.

The GPC has a member of parliament now—in circumstances no less suspect than when Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to preserve Paul Martin’s Liberal Government. They have reached double figures in Federal polls and almost 5% in elections. They have a nationally recognized leader with nationally recognized policies. They are not a dissenting, subversive party—their economic and social politics align with most middle-class Canadians.

They deserve a spot in the debate not only based on moral and democratic grounds, but on the criteria the media has set and on the ethos by which the media governs itself. They are playing the games ‘Canada’s New Government’ and ‘the Green Shift’ Liberals have already taught us. This is how Canada does electoral politics these days. And as such, Elizabeth May deserves a seat at the debate table.

Of course, implicit in this discussions is that the debates, in their current form, are valuable to the democratic process in the first place. The suggestion that the inclusion of another party leader would detract from what usually occurs during a televised leadership debate is laughable. If anything, media execs should be jumping at the chance to include some fresh blood. It might actually attract some viewers for a change. When was the last time a leasdership debate had debate? When policies were weighed and interrogated? When was the last time a televised debate didn’t consist entirely of platitudes and slogan-lobbing? In short, when was the last time a debate changed anybody’s mind?

For her part, Elizabeth May should fit right in.

What about Hitch?

“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.

The Blog Driver Waltz

The Associated Press has had it with bloggers. Or at least, they are expressing concern that bloggers might be playing too fast and loose with “fair use” copyright, and frequently cite and repost AP stories without paying for it. “As content creators, we firmly believe that everything we create, from video footage all the way down to a structured headline, is creative content that has value,” Jim Kennedy, vice president and strategy director of The A.P, says in the NYT article linked to above.

Fair enough. The excessive reproduction of articles and editorials wholesale is intellectual theft, and essentially amounts to mindless proliferation of information without critical engagement. The best quality of blogging is its capacity for pluralistic, independent analysis of political and cultural events, not simply blogging for the sake of it (of course, it’s funny how close those two approaches come sometimes). The A.P. has a right to protect itself and its journalists, and they do seem to be approaching it in a thoughtful and considered way—they plan to meet with members of trade group Media Bloggers Association, among others.

But in their lawsuit against the Drudge Retort—which spawned this whole mess and has yet to be withdrawn—they target a post that quoted eighteen words from an A.P. article plus a 32-word direct quote. Here is the passage in question:

Hillary Rodham Clinton says she expects her marathon Democratic race against Barack Obama to be resolved next week, as superdelegates decide who is the stronger candidate in the fall. “I think that after the final primaries, people are going to start making up their minds,” she said. “I think that is the natural progression that one would expect.”

Not exactly scintillating, Watergate-type stuff. The original post, however, now removed, incited 108 comments. How, exactly, can the A.P. pursue this lawsuit with a straight face?

What’s more, as City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis points out, it’s a bit rich for The Associated Press to pretend such self-righteousness when their raison d’être is the homogenization of original, diverse journalism into the A.P. style and brand.

This complaint comes from an organization that leaches off original reporting and kills links and credit to the source of that journalism. Yes, it has a right to reproduce reporting from member news organizations. But as I point out here, the AP is hurting original reporting by not crediting and linking to the journalism at its source. We should be operating under an ethic of the link to original reporting; this is an ethic that the AP systematically violates.

In fact, as Jarvis points out elsewhere, The A.P. made a deal with Google that effaces the work of the original journalist and makes Google the effective content producer. The deal allows the Internet software behemoth to display new stories not from the source, but from the wire. Perhaps, then, this latest attempt to short-circuit unique, independent and multivocal analysis and comment is part and parcel of the overarching strategy of the Associated Press after all. No sourcing unless it’s to us, no writing unless it’s bland, undistinguished and branded.

The good news is that whatever the A.P. tries to do, I have a suspicion that bloggers won’t hold much truck with it. Stand up for fair use, Associated Press. It is the only principled position you’ve got.

Hat-tip to skdadl at Bread n’ Roses.