Blind Man with a Pistol


Pyrrhic Victories

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.

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Understanding Hope

Let me begin by saying that I am baffled by America. I do not know how one could possibly fix a nation so polarized, so self-absorbed, so isolated and so pervasive. Is ‘diverse’ even the right word for a country that can as easily lynch a black man as elect one as president? So when I see Barack Obama pick the homophobic and misogynist Rick Warren to introduce his inauguration, I can say that I understand. How else can you reach out to an entire class of people who are afraid, powerless and furious at a country that has abandoned them? If hate is the medium in which you have endured your entire life, what other language can you understand? Yet how can I understand this and condemn in my heart what I know is tantamount to fascism? How can I understand this and look my gay and lesbian friends in the eye?

German writer Bernhard Schlink’s bestselling novel The Reader (1997) (Der Vorleser [1995]) follows Michael Berg, who at fifteen, has a lengthy affair with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year old tram driver.  Many years later as a law student, Michael observes a war crimes trial for Nazi crimes, in which Hannah is one of the defendants. Michael struggles to understand the position of his first love, while his horror at her crime (unbeknownst to Michael, Hanna worked as a concentration camp guard. She and a group of other female guards watched as a church full of escaped Jewish prisoners burned to the ground, killing all inside) prohibits him from achieving full comprehension, closure or absolution.

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned.When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.

Hanna, of course, is Schlink’s allegory for postwar Germany. Here, too, is America. We find ourselves declaring ‘cautious optimism’ over the Obama administration. How can we, after the last eight years, reconcile Obama’s laudable decision to close Guantanamo in one year (albeit not in 100 days, as The Center for Constitutional Law recommends) with his hawkish cabinet appointments which include Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel and George W. Bush’s Defence Secretary Robert Gates? Is the twin inauguration invitation to homophobic evangelical Rick Warren and civil rights lion Joseph Lowery inclusive or ingratiatory?

And how can we parse a statement like this, that formed the heart of Obama’s impressive inauguration speech:

Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

Such a statement embodies the tenor of Obama’s presedential actions to date: now conciliatory, now aggressive. A pull-out in Iraq followed by a renewed offensive in Afghanistan. A promise to talk, finally, with our neighbours and with our enemies followed by an unapologetic renunciation and disavowal of blame. And where, Obama, is Gaza? Which world do you live in? Do we want, finally, consensus in America if it is a consensus of messianic warmongering and imperialism?

In Plato’s Ion, Socrates is discussing the art of oration with the great rhapsode Ion. Ion insists that rhapsodes contain multitudes. That is, they must be fluent in the abilities of the characters they channel in order to produce a realistic performance. But, Socrates questions, will you know how to speak of these abilities better than the workman himself? After considering it, Ion demurrs. A fisherman, a spinster, a cowherd, a pilot—they will all know their trade better than the rhapsode. Then Socrates asks, ‘Will he know what a general ought to say when exhorting his soldiers?’

Ion. Yes, that is the sort of thing which the rhapsode will be sure to know.
Soc.
Well, but is the art of the rhapsode the art of the general?
Ion.
I am sure that I should know what a general ought to say.
[…]
Soc. And in judging of the general’s art, do you judge of it as a general or a rhapsode?
Ion.
To me there appears to be no difference between them.
Soc. What do you mean? Do you mean to say that the art of the rhapsode and of the general is the same?
Ion. Yes, one and the same.
Soc. Then he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general?
Ion. Certainly, Socrates.
Soc. And he who is a good general is also a good rhapsode?
Ion. No; I do not say that.
Soc. But you do say that he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general.
Ion. Certainly.
Soc. And you are the best of Hellenic rhapsodes?
Ion. Far the best, Socrates.
Soc. And are you the best general, Ion?
Ion. To be sure, Socrates; and Homer was my master.

I don’t throw in with Plato, but he is the caution in our optimism. If a rhapsode, in Plato’s estimation, is good at two things—poetry and war—then how happy can we be that we have the most charismatic and erudite president in living memory? How can we laud his attempts at understanding and keep our moral courage against the forces of hate and fascism that have such a heavy foothold in America? Or is this compromise we have underwritten simply a capitulation to free-market philosophy on an emotional, affective level?

Here’s hoping, America.



Against Freedom: Free Speech

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.



No Country for Old Men

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.



Grand Theft Reality

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.