31 May 2011

The Sky Really Is Falling

By Chris Hedges

The rapid and terrifying acceleration of global warming, which is disfiguring the ecosystem at a swifter pace than even the gloomiest scientific studies predicted a few years ago, has been confronted by the power elite with two kinds of self-delusion. There are those, many of whom hold elected office, who dismiss the science and empirical evidence as false. There are others who accept the science surrounding global warming but insist that the human species can adapt. Our only salvation—the rapid dismantling of the fossil fuel industry—is ignored by both groups. And we will be led, unless we build popular resistance movements and carry out sustained acts of civil disobedience, toward collective self-annihilation by dimwitted pied pipers and fools.

Those who concede that the planet is warming but insist we can learn to live with it are perhaps more dangerous than the buffoons who decide to shut their eyes. It is horrifying enough that the House of Representatives voted 240-184 this spring to defeat a resolution that said that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” But it is not much of an alternative to trust those who insist we can cope with the effects while continuing to burn fossil fuels.

AP / Lori Mehmen
Global climate change has made for freak storms and more intense weather. Here, a tornado touches down in Iowa in 2008.

Horticulturalists are busy planting swamp oaks and sweet gum trees all over Chicago to prepare for weather that will soon resemble that of Baton Rouge. That would be fine if there was a limit to global warming in sight. But without plans to rapidly dismantle the fossil fuel industry, something no one in our corporate state is contemplating, the heat waves of Baton Rouge will be a starting point for a descent that will ultimately make cities like Chicago unlivable. The false promise of human adaptability to global warming is peddled by the polluters’ major front group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which informed the Environmental Protection Agency that “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” This bizarre theory of adaptability has been embraced by the Obama administration as it prepares to exploit the natural resources in the Arctic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced recently that melting of sea ice “will result in more shipping, fishing and tourism, and the possibility to develop newly accessible oil and gas reserves.” Now that’s something to look forward to.

“It is good that at least those guys are taking it seriously, far more seriously than the federal government is taking it,” said the author and environmental activist Bill McKibben of the efforts in cities such as Chicago to begin to adapt to warmer temperatures. “At least they understand that they have some kind of problem coming at them. But they are working off the science of five or six years ago, which is still kind of the official science that the International Climate Change negotiations are working off of. They haven’t begun to internalize the idea that the science has shifted sharply. We are no longer talking about a long, slow, gradual, linear warming, but something that is coming much more quickly and violently. Seven or eight years ago it made sense to talk about putting permeable concrete on the streets. Now what we are coming to realize is that the most important adaptation we can do is to stop putting carbon in the atmosphere. If we don’t, we are going to produce temperature rises so high that there is no adapting to them.”

The Earth has already begun to react to our hubris. Freak weather unleashed deadly tornados in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It has triggered wildfires that have engulfed large tracts in California, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. It has brought severe droughts to the Southwest, parts of China and the Amazon. It has caused massive flooding along the Mississippi as well as in Australia, New Zealand, China and Pakistan. It is killing off the fish stocks in the oceans and obliterating the polar ice caps. Steadily rising sea levels will eventually submerge coastal cities, islands and some countries. These disturbing weather patterns presage a world where it will be harder and harder to sustain human life. Massive human migrations, which have already begun, will create chaos and violence. India is building a 4,000-kilometer fence along its border with Bangladesh to, in part, hold back the refugees who will flee if Bangladesh is submerged. There are mounting food shortages and sharp price increases in basic staples such as wheat as weather patterns disrupt crop production. The failed grain harvests in Russia, China and Australia, along with the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, have, as McKibben points out, been exacerbated by the inability of Midwestern farmers to plant corn in water-logged fields. These portents of an angry Gaia are nothing compared to what will follow if we do not swiftly act.

“We are going to have to adapt a good deal,” said McKibben, with whom I spoke by phone from his home in Vermont. “It is going to be a century that calls for being resilient and durable. Most of that adaptation is going to take the form of economies getting smaller and lower to the ground, local food, local energy, things like that. But that alone won’t do it, because the scale of change we are now talking about is so great that no one can adapt to it. Temperatures have gone up one degree so far and that has been enough to melt the Arctic. If we let it go up three or four degrees, the rule of thumb the agronomists go by is every degree Celsius of temperature rise represents about a 10 percent reduction in grain yields. If we let it go up three or four degrees we are really not talking about a planet that can support a civilization anything like the one we’ve got.
“I have sympathy for those who are trying hard to figure out how to adapt, but they are behind the curve of the science by a good deal,” he said. “I have less sympathy for the companies that are brainwashing everyone along the line ‘We’re taking small steps here and there to improve.’ The problem, at this point, is not going to be dealt with by small steps. It is going to be dealt with by getting off fossil fuel in the next 10 or 20 years or not at all.
“The most appropriate thing going on in Chicago right now is that Greenpeace occupied [on Thursday] the coal-fired power plant in Chicago,” he said. “That’s been helpful. It reminded people what the real answers are. We’re going to see more civil disobedience. I hope we are. I am planning hard for some stuff this summer.

“The task that we are about is essentially political and symbolic,” McKibben admitted. “There is no actual way to shut down the fossil fuel system with our bodies. It is simply too big. It’s far too integrated in everything we do. The actions have to be symbolic, and the most important part of that symbolism is to make it clear to the onlookers that those of us doing this kind of thing are not radical in any way. We are conservatives. The real radicals in this scenario are people who are willing to fundamentally alter the composition of the atmosphere. I can’t think of a more radical thing that any human has ever thought of doing. If it wasn’t happening it would be like the plot from a Bond movie.

“The only way around this is to defeat the system, and the name of that system is the fossil fuel industry, which is the most profitable industry in the world by a large margin,” McKibben said. “Fighting it is extraordinarily difficult. Maybe you can’t do it. The only way to do it is to build a movement big enough to make a difference. And that is what we are trying desperately to do with 350.org. It is something we should have done 20 years ago, instead of figuring that we were going to fight climate change by convincing political elites that they should do something about this problem. It is a tactic that has not worked.

“One of our big targets this year is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the biggest front group for fossil fuel there is,” he said. “We are figuring out how to take them on. I don’t think they are worried about us yet. And maybe they are right not to be, because they’ve got so much money they’re invulnerable.
“There are huge decisive battles coming,” he said. “This year the Obama administration has to decide whether it will grant a permit or not for this giant pipeline to run from the tar sands of Alberta down to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. That is like a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet. We have to figure out how to keep that from happening. The Obama administration, very sadly, a couple of months ago opened 750 million tons of western coal under federal land for mining. That was a disgrace. But they still have to figure out how to get it to port so they can ship it to China, which is where the market for it is. We are trying hard to keep that from happening. I’m on my way to Bellingham, Wash., next week because there is a plan for a deep-water port in Bellingham that would allow these giant freighters to show up and collect that coal.

“In moral terms, it’s all our personal responsibility and we should be doing those things,” McKibben said when I asked him about changing our own lifestyles to conserve energy. “But don’t confuse that with having much of an impact on the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. You can’t make the math work one house or one campus at a time. We should do those things. I’ve got a little plaque for having built the most energy-efficient house in Vermont the year we built it. I’ve got solar panels everywhere. But I don’t confuse myself into thinking that that’s actually doing very much. This argument is a political argument. I spend much of my life on airplanes spewing carbon behind me as we try to build a global movement. Either we are going to break the power of the fossil fuel industry and put a price on carbon or the planet is going to heat past the point where we can deal with it.

“It goes far beyond party affiliation or ideology,” he said. “Fossil fuel undergirds every ideology we have. Breaking with it is going to be a traumatic and difficult task. The natural world is going to continue to provide us, unfortunately, with many reminders about why we have to do that. Sooner or later, we will wise up. The question is all about that sooner or later.

“I’d like people to go to climatedirectaction.org and sign up,” McKibben said. “We are going to be issuing calls for people to be involved in civil disobedience. I’d like people to join in this campaign against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s very easy to sign up. If you don’t own a little business yourself, you probably shop at 10 or 20 of them a week. It’s very easy to sign those guys up to say the U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for me. We can’t take away their [the Chamber’s] money, but we can take away some of their respectability. I would like people to demonstrate their solidarity with people all around the world in this fight. The next big chance to do that will be Sept. 24, a huge global day of action that we’re calling ‘Moving Planet.’ It will be largely bicycle based, because the bicycle is one of the few tools that both rich and poor use and because it is part of the solution we need. On that day we will be delivering demands via bicycle to every capital and statehouse around the world.
“I wish there was some easy ‘end around,’ some backdoor through which we could go to get done what needs to be done,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen. That became clear at Copenhagen and last summer when the U.S. Senate refused to take a vote on the most mild, tepid climate legislation there could have been. We are going to have to build a movement that pushes the fossil fuel industry aside. I don’t know whether that’s possible. If you were to bet, you might well bet we will lose. We have been losing for two decades. But you are not allowed to make that bet. The only moral action, when the worst thing that ever happened in the world is happening, is to try and figure out how to change those odds.

“At least they knew they were going to win,” McKibben said of the civil rights movement. “They didn’t know when, but they knew they were going to win, that the tide of history was on their side. But the arch of the physical universe appears to be short and appears to bend towards heat. We’ve got to win quickly if we’re going to win. We’ve already passed the point where we’re going to stop global warming. It has already warmed a degree and there is another degree in the pipeline from carbon already emitted. The heat gets held in the ocean for a while, but it’s already there. We’ve already guaranteed ourselves a miserable century. The question is whether it’s going to be an impossible one.”

Chris Hedges is a weekly Truthdig columnist and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His latest book is “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”

24 May 2011

Netanyahu’s Border War

by Shlomo Ben-Ami

TEL AVIV – Binyamin Netanyahu’s furious rejection of US President Barack Obama’s proposal to use the 1967 borders as the basis for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – frontiers that he called “utterly indefensible” – reflects not only the Israeli prime minister’s poor statesmanship, but also his antiquated military philosophy.

In an era of ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction, and in which the planned Palestinian state is supposed to be demilitarized, why is it so vital for Israel to see its army “sit along the Jordan River”? If such a tripwire is really necessary, why shouldn’t a reliable international force carry out that task? And how can hundreds of isolated settlements spread amidst a hostile Palestinian population ever be considered a strategic asset?

Netanyahu should, perhaps, have studied the lessons of the 1973 Yom Kippur war on the Golan Heights before denouncing Obama’s idea. When the war started, the first thing the Israeli army command sought was the evacuation of the area’s settlements, which Israel’s generals knew would quickly become an impossible burden, and an obstacle to maneuver, for their troops. Indeed, the last war that Israel won “elegantly” – in the way that Netanyahu imagines that wars should be won – began from the supposedly “indefensible” 1967 lines.

That is no accident. Israel’s occupation of Arab lands in that war, and its subsequent deployment of military forces amidst the Arab population of the West Bank and close to the powerful military machines of Egypt in the south and Syria in the north, exposed it to Palestinian terrorism from the east. At the same time, occupation denied Israel’s army the advantage of a buffer – the demilitarized zones that were the key to the 1967 victory against both Egypt and Syria.

For borders to be defensible, they need first to be legitimate and internationally recognized. But Netanyahu does not really trust “the gentiles” to supply that type of international recognition of Israel’s borders, not even when America is behind him, and not even when Israel today has the most powerful military capabilities in the Middle East.

The son of a renowned historian who served as the personal secretary of Zeev Jabotinski, the founder of the Zionist right, Netanyahu absorbed from childhood his father’s interpretation of Jewish history as a series of tragedies. The lesson was simple: the gentiles cannot be relied upon, for Jewish history is one of betrayal and extermination at their hands. The only remedy to our fragile existence in the Diaspora lies in the return to the Biblical Land of Israel. Our Arab neighbors should never be trusted; hence, as Jabotinski preached, the new Israeli nation must erect an Iron Wall of Jewish power to deter its enemies forever.

To be fair, such an existential philosophy was not the right’s monopoly. The legendary General Moshe Dayan, who was born in a socialist Kibbutz on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, was no less a skeptic about the chances of coexisting with the Arabs. A gifted orator, this is how he put it in a eulogy to a fallen soldier in 1956:

“Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken….This is the fate of our generation, this is our life choice, to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down….We are a generation of settlers, and, without the steel helmet and the cannon’s fire, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home.”

Yet the same Dayan, who in 1970 said that “the only peace negotiations are those where we settle the land and we build, and we settle, and from time to time we go to war,” was forced by cruel reality to admit that the best security to which Israel can aspire is that based on peace with its neighbors. Eventually, he became the architect of a historic peace with Egypt. His book Are We Truly Condemned to Live by the Sword to Eternity? marked the transformation of the soldier into a statesman.

If Netanyahu is ever to lead a historic reconciliation with the Palestinian people, he should start by endorsing a courageous, almost post-Zionist insight reflected in Dayan’s 1956 eulogy. Fully aware of the bitter legacy of Palestinian disinheritance following the 1948 war, Dayan refused to blame the murderers. On the contrary, he understood their “burning hatred.”

Unfortunately, Israel today has a prime minister with the mentality of a platoon commander who nonetheless likes to cast himself as a latter day Churchill fighting the forces of evil bent on destroying the Third Jewish Temple. Of course, a great leader must always have a sense of history. But, as the French philosopher Paul Valéry put it, history, “the science of things which are not repeated,” is also “the most dangerous product which the chemistry of the intellect has ever evolved,” especially when manipulated by politicians.

Menachem Begin, a hawkish predecessor of Netanyahu as prime minister, once had the insolence to say to the great historian Yaakov Talmon that, “when it comes to the twentieth century, I am more an expert than you are.”

Talmon responded with “The Fatherland is Imperiled,” a pivotal article whose conclusions are as relevant today as they were in 1981. Not until occupation ends, Israel lives within internationally recognized borders, and the Palestinians recover their dignity as a nation will the Jewish state’s existence be finally secured.

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who serves as Vice-President of the Toledo international Center for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: the Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

23 May 2011

When Did America Completely Jettison the Rule of Law?

In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial.

by Noam Chomsky for Alternet
May 22, 2011
After the assassination of bin Laden I received such a deluge of requests for comment that I was unable to respond individually, and on May 4 and later I sent an unedited form response instead, not intending for it to be posted, and expecting to write it up more fully and carefully later on. But it was posted, then circulated.
That was followed but a deluge of reactions from all over the world. It is far from a scientific sample of course, but nevertheless, the tendencies may be of some interest. Overwhelmingly, those from the “third world” were on the order of “thanks for saying what we think.” There were similar ones from the US, but many others were infuriated, often virtually hysterical, with almost no relation to the actual content of the posted form letter. That was true in particular of the posted or published responses brought to my attention. I have received a few requests to comment on several of these. Frankly, it seems to me superfluous. If there is any interest, I’ll nevertheless find some time to do so.

The original letter ends with the comment that “There is much more to say, but even the most obvious and elementary facts should provide us with a good deal to think about.” Here I will fill in some of the gaps, leaving the original otherwise unchanged in all essentials.

* * * *

On May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in his virtually unprotected compound by a raiding mission of 79 Navy Seals, who entered Pakistan by helicopter. After many lurid stories were provided by the government and withdrawn, official reports made it increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion itself.

There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 79 commandos facing no opposition - except, they report, from his wife, also unarmed, who they shot in self-defense when she “lunged” at them (according to the White House).

A plausible reconstruction of the events is provided by veteran Middle East correspondent Yochi Dreazen and colleagues in the Atlantic. Dreazen, formerly the military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, is senior correspondent for the National Journal Group covering military affairs and national security. According to their investigation, White House planning appears not to have considered the option of capturing OBL alive: “The administration had made clear to the military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command that it wanted bin Laden dead, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the discussions. A high-ranking military officer briefed on the assault said the SEALs knew their mission was not to take him alive.”

The authors add: “For many at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who had spent nearly a decade hunting bin Laden, killing the militant was a necessary and justified act of vengeance.” Furthermore, “Capturing bin Laden alive would have also presented the administration with an array of nettlesome legal and political challenges.” Better, then, to assassinate him, dumping his body into the sea without the autopsy considered essential after a killing, whether considered justified or not – an act that predictably provoked both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.

As the Atlantic inquiry observes, “The decision to kill bin Laden outright was the clearest illustration to date of a little-noticed aspect of the Obama administration's counterterror policy. The Bush administration captured thousands of suspected militants and sent them to detention camps in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. The Obama administration, by contrast, has focused on eliminating individual terrorists rather than attempting to take them alive.” That is one significant difference between Bush and Obama. The authors quote former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who “told German TV that the U.S. raid was ‘quite clearly a violation of international law’ and that bin Laden should have been detained and put on trial,” contrasting Schmidt with US Attorney General Eric Holder, who “defended the decision to kill bin Laden although he didn't pose an immediate threat to the Navy SEALs, telling a House panel on Tuesday that the assault had been ‘lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way’.”

The disposal of the body without autopsy was also criticized by allies. The highly regarded British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who supported the intervention and opposed the execution largely on pragmatic grounds, nevertheless described Obama’s claim that “justice was done” as an “absurdity” that should have been obvious to a former professor of constitutional law. Pakistan law “requires a colonial inquest on violent death, and international human rights law insists that the ‘right to life’ mandates an inquiry whenever violent death occurs from government or police action. The U.S. is therefore under a duty to hold an inquiry that will satisfy the world as to the true circumstances of this killing.” Robertson adds that “The law permits criminals to be shot in self-defense if they (or their accomplices) resist arrest in ways that endanger those striving to apprehend them. They should, if possible, be given the opportunity to surrender, but even if they do not come out with their hands up, they must be taken alive if that can be achieved without risk. Exactly how bin Laden came to be ‘shot in the head’ (especially if it was the back of his head, execution-style) therefore requires explanation. Why a hasty ‘burial at sea’ without a post mortem, as the law requires?”

Robertson attributes the murder to “America’s obsessive belief in capital punishment—alone among advanced nations—[which] is reflected in its rejoicing at the manner of bin Laden’s demise.” For example, Nation columnist Eric Alterman writes that “The killing of Osama bin Laden was a just and necessary undertaking.”

Robertson usefully reminds us that “It was not always thus. When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden -- namely the Nazi leadership -- the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture. President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson that summary execution ‘would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride…the only course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear’."

The editors of the Daily Beast comment that “The joy is understandable, but to many outsiders, unattractive. It endorses what looks increasingly like a cold-blooded assassination as the White House is now forced to admit that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot twice in the head.”

In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In June 2002, FBI head Robert Mueller, in what the Washington Post described as “among his most detailed public comments on the origins of the attacks,” could say only that “investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan…. We think the masterminds of it were in Afghanistan, high in the al Qaeda leadership.” What the FBI believed and thought in June 2002 they didn’t know eight months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence. Thus it is not true, as the President claimed in his White House statement, that “We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”

There has never been any reason to doubt what the FBI believed in mid-2002, but that leaves us far from the proof of guilt required in civilized societies – and whatever the evidence might be, it does not warrant murdering a suspect who could, it seems, have been easily apprehended and brought to trial. Much the same is true of evidence provided since. Thus the 9/11 Commission provided extensive circumstantial evidence of bin Laden’s role in 9/11, based primarily on what it had been told about confessions by prisoners in Guantanamo. It is doubtful that much of that would hold up in an independent court, considering the ways confessions were elicited. But in any event, the conclusions of a congressionally authorized investigation, however convincing one finds them, plainly fall short of a sentence by a credible court, which is what shifts the category of the accused from suspect to convicted. There is much talk of bin Laden's “confession,” but that was a boast, not a confession, with as much credibility as my “confession” that I won the Boston marathon. The boast tells us a lot about his character, but nothing about his responsibility for what he regarded as a great achievement, for which he wanted to take credit.

Again, all of this is, transparently, quite independent of one’s judgments about his responsibility, which seemed clear immediately, even before the FBI inquiry, and still does.

It is worth adding that bin Laden’s responsibility was recognized in much of the Muslim world, and condemned. One significant example is the distinguished Lebanese cleric Sheikh Fadlallah, greatly respected by Hizbollah and Shia groups generally, outside Lebanon as well. He too had been targeted for assassination: by a truck bomb outside a mosque, in a CIA-organized operation in 1985. He escaped, but 80 others were killed, mostly women and girls, as they left the mosque – one of those innumerable crimes that do not enter the annals of terror because of the fallacy of “wrong agency.” Sheikh Fadlallah sharply condemned the 9/11 attacks, as did many other leading figures in the Muslim world, within the Jihadi movement as well. Among others, the head of Hizbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, sharply condemned bin Laden and Jihadi ideology.

One of the leading specialists on the Jihadi movement, Fawaz Gerges, suggests that the movement might have been split at that time had the US exploited the opportunity instead of mobilizing the movement, particularly by the attack on Iraq, a great boon to bin Laden, which led to a sharp increase in terror, as intelligence agencies had anticipated. That conclusion was confirmed by the former head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 at the Chilcot hearings investigating the background for the war. Confirming other analyses, she testified that both British and US intelligence were aware that Saddam posed no serious threat and that the invasion was likely to increase terror; and that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan had radicalized parts of a generation of Muslims who saw the military actions as an “attack on Islam.” As is often the case, security was not a high priority for state action.

It might be instructive to ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush's compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic (after proper burial rites, of course). Uncontroversially, he is not a “suspect” but the “decider” who gave the orders to invade Iraq -- that is, to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: in Iraq, the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country and the national heritage, and the murderous sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region. Equally uncontroversially, these crimes vastly exceed anything attributed to bin Laden.

To say that all of this is uncontroversial, as it is, is not to imply that it is not denied. The existence of flat earthers does not change the fact that, uncontroversially, the earth is not flat. Similarly, it is uncontroversial that Stalin and Hitler were responsible for horrendous crimes, though loyalists deny it. All of this should, again, be too obvious for comment, and would be, except in an atmosphere of hysteria so extreme that it blocks rational thought.

Similarly, it is uncontroversial that Bush and associates did commit the “supreme international crime,” the crime of aggression, at least if we take the Nuremberg Tribunal seriously. The crime of aggression was defined clearly enough by Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States at Nuremberg, reiterated in an authoritative General Assembly resolution. An “aggressor,” Jackson proposed to the Tribunal in his opening statement, is a state that is the first to commit such actions as “Invasion of its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another State….” No one, even the most extreme supporter of the aggression, denies that Bush and associates did just that.

We might also do well to recall Jackson’s eloquent words at Nuremberg on the principle of universality: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” And elsewhere: “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

It is also clear that alleged intentions are irrelevant. Japanese fascists apparently did believe that by ravaging China they were laboring to turn it into an “earthly paradise.” We don’t know whether Hitler believed that he was defending Germany from the “wild terror” of the Poles, or was taking over Czechoslovakia to protect its population from ethnic conflict and provide them with the benefits of a superior culture, or was saving the glories of the civilization of the Greeks from barbarians of East and West, as his acolytes claimed (Martin Heidegger). And it’s even conceivable that Bush and company believed that they were protecting the world from destruction by Saddam’s nuclear weapons. All irrelevant, though ardent loyalists on all sides may try to convince themselves otherwise.

We are left with two choices: either Bush and associates are guilty of the “supreme international crime” including all the evils that follow, crimes that go vastly beyond anything attributed to bin Laden; or else we declare that the Nuremberg proceedings were a farce and that the allies were guilty of judicial murder. Again, that is entirely independent of the question of the guilt of those charged: established by the Nuremberg Tribunal in the case of the Nazi criminals, plausibly surmised from the outset in the case of bin Laden.

A few days before the bin Laden assassination, Orlando Bosch died peacefully in Florida, where he resided along with his terrorist accomplice Luis Posada Carilles, and many others. After he was accused of dozens of terrorist crimes by the FBI, Bosch was granted a presidential pardon by Bush I over the objections of the Justice Department, which found the conclusion “inescapable that it would be prejudicial to the public interest for the United States to provide a safe haven for Bosch. ”The coincidence of deaths at once calls to mind the Bush II doctrine, which has “already become a de facto rule of international relations,” according to the noted Harvard international relations specialist Graham Allison. The doctrine revokes “the sovereignty of states that provide sanctuary to terrorists,” Allison writes, referring to the pronouncement of Bush II that “those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves,” directed to the Taliban. Such states, therefore, have lost their sovereignty and are fit targets for bombing and terror; for example, the state that harbored Bosch and his associate -- not to mention some rather more significant candidates. When Bush issued this new “de facto rule of international relations,” no one seemed to notice that he was calling for invasion and destruction of the US and murder of its criminal presidents.

None of this is problematic, of course, if we reject Justice Jackson’s principle of universality, and adopt instead the principle that the US is self-immunized against international law and conventions -- as, in fact, the government has frequently made very clear, an important fact, much too little understood.

It is also worth thinking about the name given to the operation: Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound that few seem able to perceive that the White House is glorifying bin Laden by calling him “Geronimo” -- the leader of courageous resistance to the invaders who sought to consign his people to the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty, among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement,” in the words of the great grand strategist John Quincy Adams, the intellectual architect of manifest destiny, long after his own contributions to these sins had passed. Some did comprehend, not surprisingly. The remnants of that hapless race protested vigorously. Choice of the name is reminiscent of the ease with which we name our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Blackhawk. Tomahawk,… We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes "Jew" and "Gypsy".

The examples mentioned would fall under the category “American exceptionalism,” were it not for the fact that easy suppression of one’s own crimes is virtually ubiquitous among powerful states, at least those that are not defeated and forced to acknowledge reality. Other current illustrations are too numerous to mention. To take just one, of great current significance, consider Obama’s terror weapons (drones) in Pakistan. Suppose that during the 1980s, when they were occupying Afghanistan, the Russians had carried out targeted assassinations in Pakistan aimed at those who were financing, arming and training the insurgents – quite proudly and openly. For example, targeting the CIA station chief in Islamabad, who explained that he “loved” the “noble goal” of his mission: to “kill Soviet Soldiers…not to liberate Afghanistan.” There is no need to imagine the reaction, but there is a crucial distinction: that was them, this is us.

What are the likely consequences of the killing of bin Laden? For the Arab world, it will probably mean little. He had long been a fading presence, and in the past few months was eclipsed by the Arab Spring. His significance in the Arab world is captured by the headline in the New York Times for an op-ed by Middle East/al Qaeda specialist Gilles Kepel; “Bin Laden was Dead Already.” Kepel writes that few in the Arab world are likely to care. That headline might have been dated far earlier, had the US not mobilized the Jihadi movement by the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, as suggested by the intelligence agencies and scholarship. As for the Jihadi movement, within it bin Laden was doubtless a venerated symbol, but apparently did not play much more of a role for this “network of networks,” as analysts call it, which undertake mostly independent operations.

The most immediate and significant consequences are likely to be in Pakistan. There is much discussion of Washington's anger that Pakistan didn't turn over bin Laden. Less is said about the fury in Pakistan that the US invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination. Anti-American fervor had already reached a very high peak in Pakistan, and these events are likely to exacerbate it.

Pakistan is the most dangerous country on earth, also the world’s fastest growing nuclear power, with a huge arsenal. It is held together by one stable institution, the military. One of the leading specialists on Pakistan and its military, Anatol Lieven, writes that “if the US ever put Pakistani soldiers in a position where they felt that honour and patriotism required them to fight America, many would be very glad to do so.” And if Pakistan collapsed, an “absolutely inevitable result would be the flow of large numbers of highly trained ex-soldiers, including explosive experts and engineers, to extremist groups.” That is the primary threat he sees of leakage of fissile materials to Jihadi hands, a horrendous eventuality.

The Pakistani military have already been pushed to the edge by US attacks on Pakistani sovereignty. One factor is the drone attacks in Pakistan that Obama escalated immediately after the killing of bin Laden, rubbing salt in the wounds. But there is much more, including the demand that the Pakistani military cooperate in the US war against the Afghan Taliban, whom the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, the military included, see as fighting a just war of resistance against an invading army, according to Lieven.

The bin Laden operation could have been the spark that set off a conflagration, with dire consequences, particularly if the invading force had been compelled to fight its way out, as was anticipated. Perhaps the assassination was perceived as an “act of vengeance,” as Robertson concludes. Whatever the motive was, it could hardly have been security. As in the case of the “supreme international crime” in Iraq, the bin Laden assassination illustrates that security is often not a high priority for state action, contrary to received doctrine.

© 2011 Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements. His most recent books include: Failed States, What We Say Goes (with David Barsamian), Hegemony or Survival, and the Essential Chomsky.

22 May 2011

The Real IMF Assault

By Nomi Prins

As newly resigned International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn (aka DSK) hunkers down in his jail cell, IMF news has fallen into two categories. The first involves salacious details of his alleged attempted rape, and the second, questions about whether his absence will keep the IMF from its main focus of constructing pro-bank bailout packages for Greece, Portugal and other struggling European countries. Both categories miss the devastation the IMF causes, regardless of who heads it.

AP / Shannon Stapleton, pool
Focus on DSK: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, is seen through a video camera viewfinder at his arraignment Monday in Manhattan Criminal Court.

Meanwhile, the global economic assault caused by the misguided IMF and EU notion that public spending cuts and national infrastructure fire sales should be enacted to make up for bank rampages marches on. Rather than clamping down on banks and working on debt reduction strategies, bailout loans remain designed to keep banks solvent, investors shielded from loss, and outside buyers interested.

Though he had designs on leading France—from the socialist side, no less—DSK is nothing more than a proponent of very nonsocialist measures when it comes to other countries. His actions at the IMF speak louder than any words to the contrary.

It doesn’t matter whether DSK or anyone else from the euro power contingent heads the IMF; its practices will remain the same. Weaker countries get economically bullied in order to benefit stronger ones through bailouts rife with measures to pound people and aid banks and international firms. For, to the IMF and European Union elite, the “confidence” of free-flowing, unencumbered capital trumps the financial security of local citizens.

That same idea is central to the big bank bailout and subsidization strategy of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, current and prior administrations and most of Congress. The threat in 2008? A worse crisis will occur if the financial system isn’t saved. The related threat surrounding the debt cap debate today? A worse crisis will occur if we default on the debt we created to save the financial system. As for jobs … yeah, we’ll get back to you on that.

When the pre-2008 global bank pillage hit a brick wall, governments and central banks rushed to reward banks with trillions of dollars of subsidies, using the excuse of avoiding larger catastrophe. To the powers that be, it might take time to increase employment, but no time could be wasted propping up the global financial system. In their minds, pensions and teachers cause budget failures, not debt created for banks.
Here in the U.S., the lie is that boosting banks will lead to a trickling-down economic prosperity for the greater population, despite all evidence to the contrary. In Europe, the lie is slightly different, because economic security of the population runs a distant second place to preservation of the euro as an overriding currency, meaning the repayment of debts by outer European to core European countries.

Yet, neither the IMF nor the Fed and Treasury Department strategies even attempt to target problems like raging unemployment, or renegotiating personal or small business debt from the ground up. Instead, they deign to extract more from the citizens that had nothing to do with causing the financial collapse. Austerity measures, in any form, are a cruel weapon against a public forced to be economic collateral damage to unaccountable banking systems given cheap solvency.

As here, unemployment rates in Europe have risen substantially since the global banking debacle, and ongoing protests have followed. Today, the Greek unemployment rate stands at 14.2 percent. One out of three people under 24 years old can’t find a job. In Ireland (the recipient of a harsh $133 billion bailout package that required $23 billion in pension payment cuts), the jobless rate is 14.7 percent, and, similarly, the youth unemployment rate has tripled since 2008 to more than 33 percent. Spain has the euro zone’s highest jobless rate, 20.7 percent, with youth unemployment over 40 percent. These figures are only worsening under the burden of austerity.

On Monday, the IMF and EU approved a 78 billion euro bailout for Portugal (two-thirds of it will come from public program cuts). Portugal’s jobless rate jumped to 12.4 percent. Blame for Portugal’s weak economy has been cast on a Socialist government that didn’t embrace spending cuts quickly enough. But what’s more telling than this unsubstantiated claim is that private Portuguese banks tapped their bailout government guarantees to raise cash before the ink on the bailout agreement dried.

In echoes of our own bailout, the EU and IMF were concerned that not providing banks a way to raise more money would hurt the Portuguese economy further, since banks would lend less. Yet the bailout agreement contained no requirement for banks to lend locally, instead requiring severe public spending cuts, tax hikes (on people, not international companies) and more aggressive privatization programs.

Meanwhile, thousands of people are again striking in Greece, as the IMF and EU discuss more austerity measures, and thousands more are protesting in Spain fearing the same. People don’t need cuts in social programs and wages, they need jobs. They don’t need their countries racking up more debt to sustain flailing banks or the favor of global capital markets through fire-selling their infrastructure.

Last November, at the European Banking Congress and Central Bank Conference in Frankfurt, Germany, it was DSK (in a pot-calling-kettle-black sort of way) who pointed out the dangers of our own debt being so high and the necessity that the Fed bolster the dollar. That didn’t exactly endear him to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who spent his speech defending QE2 and blaming dollar problems on a slowly recovering global economy, while avoiding mention of the debt-bank connection.
Avoidance, it turns out, is a useful strategy. Last week, Bernanke urged Congress to approve another debt cap increase. The Fed has amassed $2.5 trillion of debt on its books (including $1.5 trillion in treasurys shell-gamed from the Treasury Department and nearly $1 trillion of mortgage-related securities it won’t sell for fear of hurting the values of similar securities on the banks’ books). It’s being used for nothing helpful to the general economy. A simple transfer of any of it would solve the debt cap problem in a nanosecond. Going a step further, an exchange of any of the $1.4 trillion of excess bank reserves receiving interest from the Fed would do the same.

Our public debt ballooned under Timothy Geithner by more than $4 trillion. But rather than even considering taking some back from the Fed’s balance sheet, Treasury Secretary Geithner threatened to halt civil service retirement and disability payments to free up borrowing capacity, repeating almost verbatim similar threats made by John Snow, George W. Bush’s treasury secretary at the end of 2004.

This is exactly the kind of thing going on in Europe, with a mild twist. If we can’t raise enough debt for banks, we’ll take it from citizens. Even though creating debt (massive debt) for this reason has not helped the general economy, nor will it.

Meanwhile, the global “remedy” for depressed economies and debt-bloated banking sectors remains to do more of the same and pretend it will lead to a different outcome. Sadly, there is no way this strategy will result in more stable economies. What we can expect instead is a further slide into global economic depression.

"No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state"

After affirming his very deep and special "respect" for Pakistan's sovereignty, stressing that he'd show the same kind of "respect" over and over again whenever needed, the World's Naked Emperor reiterates his equally deep and special "respect" for the rest of the World should the corporate, Military-Industrial Complex's New World Order be threatened by idle democratic chatter about human rights for peoples other than Mr. God's "chosen" ones...

16 May 2011

Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite

Author Bruce Levine describes how government-corporate alliances have created a passive populace, and how Americans can recover dignity, unity, and the energy to do battle.

May 13, 2011
The following is an excerpt from Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green, 2011) by Bruce E. Levine.

How many Americans believe that their voice matters in determining whether giant banks, insurance companies, and other “too-big-to-fail” corporations get bailed out? How many Americans older than twelve believe that they have any influence over a decision by the US government to invade another nation?

There are a slew of books and articles out there providing analyses of the profound problems of American democracy and offering recommendations aimed at improving matters. However, these analyses and recommendations routinely assume that Americans have sufficient personal energy to take action. Instead, what if many Americans have lost confidence that genuine democracy is possible? When such fatalism sets in, truths about economic injustices and lost liberties are no longer enough to set people free.

While a charismatic politician can still garner a large turnout of voters who are angry with whichever party is in power, the majority of Americans appear resigned to the idea that they have no power over institutions that rule their lives. At least that’s what I see. I was curious if what troubled me also was troubling others, so I wrote an article titled “Are Americans a Broken People?” It was republished on numerous Internet sites, and I read more than a thousand reaction comments (some of which are included in this book). I was swamped with e-mails and received several media interview requests to discuss the article, which had apparently touched a nerve among those who identify themselves as progressive, libertarian, or populist. They too wondered why so many Americans have remained passive in the face of attacks on their liberties and their economic well-being. Some of the questions that I first raised in that article and will answer more fully in this book are:

• Has “learned helplessness” taken hold for a great many Americans? Are many Americans locked into an abuse syndrome of sorts in which revelations about their victimization by a corporate-government partnership produce increased anesthetization rather than constructive action?

• What cultural forces have created a passive and discouraged US population? Have so-called right-wing and so-called progressive institutions both contributed to breaking people’s resistance to domination?

• And most important, can anything be done to turn this demoralization and passivity around? Is it possible for people to rebuild their morale and forge the connections necessary to support a truly democratic populism that can take power away from elite control?

Elitism—be it rule by kings or corporations—is the opposite of genuine democracy. It is in the interest of those at the top of society to convince people below them that (1) democracy is merely about the right to vote; and (2) corporations and the wealthy elite are so powerful, any thought that “regular people” can achieve real power is naive. In genuine democracy and in real-deal populism, people not only believe that they have a right to self-government; they also have the individual strength and group cohesion necessary to take actions to eliminate top-down controls over their lives.

If people lose sight of what democracy really is, or if they lose hope of the possibility of attaining it, then they lose their energy to fight for it. The majority of us, unlike the elite, will always lack big money, so we depend on individual and collective energy to do battle. Without such energy, the elite will easily subdue us.

Get Up, Stand Up is, in large part, about regaining that energy. There exist solid strategies and time-tested tactics that people have long used to battle the elite, and these will be detailed. However, these strategies and tactics are not sufficient. For large-scale democratic movements to have enough energy to get off the ground, certain psychological and cultural building blocks are required. With these energizing building blocks, it then becomes realistic—and not naive—to believe that large numbers of people can take the kind of actions that will produce genuine democracy. The belief that their actions can be effective provides energy to take actions, taking actions strengthens the faith, and an energizing cycle is created.

Continue reading this article on Alternet.

Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite by Bruce E. Levine is available now.

15 May 2011

Centuries of Lying in the Name of Christianity

A Review of Forged by Bart D. Ehrman

by Walter C. Uhler / May 14th, 2011

"The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed."

Thomas Paine

Professor Bart Ehrman has done something that more than 99 percent of American Christians have failed to do. He has devoted much of his adult life to a serious study of the New Testament.

Ehrman commenced his studies at a fundamentalist Bible college, Moody Bible Institute, before completing his undergraduate education at Wheaton College. While at Wheaton, Ehrman did what every serious student of the New Testament must do; he studied Greek. As he explained in Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, “I took Greek, so that I could read the New Testament in its original language.” [p. 4]

After graduating from Wheaton, Ehrman went to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied under one of the world’s great experts on the Greek New Testament, the late Bruce Metzger. Among Metzger’s many scholarly contributions is his indispensible book, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, which identifies the three classes of sources available for ascertaining the text of the New Testament: Greek manuscripts, ancient translations into other languages and quotations from the New Testament made by early ecclesiastical writers, such as Augustine, Eusebius, Tertullian and Marcion. [p. 36-89]

Readers of that book would learn, for example, that the oldest known portion of a New Testament is a few verses from John that were written during the first half of the second century — or approximately a full century after the crucifixion of Jesus.

Readers also would learn that the two oldest surviving complete New Testaments are the codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus. Sinaiticus is a fourth-century Greek Bible discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century that not only contains the complete New Testament, but also The Shepard of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, books that were considered to be part of the New Testament for several centuries. Vaticanus also is a fourth-century Greek Bible that has been housed in the Vatican Library at least since 1475.

Because approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament have been identified, textual criticism became a necessity. As Professor Metzger put it, “The necessity of applying textual criticism to the books of the New Testament arises from two circumstances: (a) none of the original documents is extant, and (b) the existing copies differ from one another.�”

(These are facts to keep in mind whenever some biblical literalist, presumably incapable of reading Greek, tells you that the New Testament is inerrant.)

Having studied under Metzger and reading all he could, Ehrman not only abandoned his early belief that the Bible was inerrant, he also was compelled to conclude: “the Bible not only contains untruths or accidental mistakes. It also contains what almost anyone today would call lies.” [p. 5] As he asserts in Forged, “Throughout this book it will become quite clear from the ancient writings themselves that even though forgery was widely practiced, it was also widely condemned and treated as a form of lying.” [p. 36].
Given that 84 percent of Americans believe the Bible to be a holy book, one would think that such people would be concerned to learn that many of the New Testament books are forgeries. Yet, whenever I have brought New Testament forgeries, mistakes or contradictions to the attention of a Bible-believing Christian, he or she invariably falls back to the excuse: “Well, it’s simply a matter of faith, isn’t it?”

Upon hearing this excuse, I always respond: “No, if it were simply a matter of faith, I could assert that my cell phone is my savior, and so could you. You obviously believe that your faith in Jesus Christ is superior to my faith in my cell phone because it is based on nearly two-thousand years of tradition that was legitimized by the stories told in the New Testament.” Protestants are even more focused on that book, because — ever since Martin Luther – they’ve been told, Sola scriptura, (by scripture alone).

What’s worse is the sad fact that few Christians even comprehend the disturbing paradox: Had Jesus returned as quickly as he predicted, nobody would need a New Testament.

Remember the biblical passages that suggest Jesus’ imminent return? “Verily I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here which shall not taste death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come to power.” (Mark 9:1)

Or, how about Paul’s expectation that he and some of the Thessalonians will be alive when the apocalypse occurs. Remember how he contrasts “those who have died” with “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord?” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17) [The New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, p.314]

Obviously, either Jesus or Mark got it wrong — and so did Paul. According to Professor Ehrman, Paul “appears to have no idea that his words would be discussed after his death, let alone read and studied some nineteen centuries later.” [Ibid]

Nevertheless, “as hopes of Christ’s imminent return began to fade in the later first century,” Christians began to realize that they must create structures which might last at least for a generation or more amid a world of non-believers. [Diarmaid MacCullough, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, p. 118]

Structures? Yes, Christians attempted to create a universal faith based upon: (1) an agreed list of authoritative sacred texts, (2) the formation of creeds and (3) the establishment of an authoritative ministry (bishop, priest and deacon) [Ibid, p. 127-137]

Thus, as Ehrman notes, “Christians from the very beginning needed to appeal to authorities for what they believed.” [Forged, p.7] “The ultimate authority was God, of course. But the majority of Christians came to think that God did not speak the truth about what to believe directly to individuals. If he did, there would be enormous problems, as some would claim divine authority for what they taught and others would claim divine authority for the completely opposite teaching. Thus most Christians did not stress personal revelation to living individuals.” [Ibid]

Yet, it was precisely the need to establish authority that prompted Christians to forge parts of the New Testament books, as well as entire books of the New Testament, by falsely claiming that they were written, for example, by Peter, Paul or Mark.

Consider, for example, the fact that neither of the two oldest complete New Testaments (codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus) contains the last twelve verses that we find in Mark today. According to Professor Metzger, “Since Mark was not responsible for the composition of the last twelve verses of the generally current form of his Gospel, and since they undoubtedly had been attached to the Gospel before the Church recognized the fourfold Gospels as canonical, it follows that the New Testament contains not four but five evangelic accounts of events subsequent to the Resurrection of Christ.” [p. 229]

Professor Ehrman is less diplomatic. He simply notes: “Whoever added the final twelve verses of Mark did not do so by a mere slip of the pen.” [p. 250] Somebody forged them so they would pass as being written by Mark.

Ehrman doubts that the letters of 1 Peter and 2 Peter were actually written by Peter. Through the examination of word usage that didn’t gain currency until after Peter’s death in 64 CE — such as the word “Babylon” which was a code word for Rome that came into use near the end of the first century; scholars have come to believe that the letters are forgeries. Moreover, “there are excellent grounds for thinking that Peter could not write.” [p. 70]

Now consider the thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to have been written by Paul. According to Ehrman, “Virtually all scholars agree that seven of the Pauline letters are authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.” Six, probably, are forgeries: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians. (Readers who are interested in the evidence used to categorize them as forgeries should turn to pages 95-114 of Forged.)

Thus, readers might now find it ironic that 2 Timothy 3:16 claims, “All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” After all, 2 Timothy, as noted above, is one of the Pauline letters now thought to have been forged.

Equally ironic, and more amusing, is the use of forged New Testament scripture by the leading proponent of Christian Economics, Gary North. As reported recently in the New York Times, Mr. North not only believes that “the Bible is opposed to organized labor, and especially to organized public employees,” he also believes that no form of government assistance “will escape the ethical limits” of the Apostle Paul’s dictum, in 2 Thessalonians, that “if any would not work, neither should he eat.” Being an evangelical Christian, the poor soul doesn’t even suspect that 2 Thessalonians is a forgery.

Unwittingly, Mr. North and all Christians who take the New Testament at face value commit a disastrous procedural mistake. They establish their Bible-based moral code of right and wrong before ascertaining the true and the false in that Bible. “Effective virtue, as Socrates pointed out long ago, is knowledge; and a code of right and wrong must await upon a perception of the true and the false.” [Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, p. 20]

Now that Professor Bart Ehrman’s Forged has demonstrated, “from the first century to the twentieth century, people who have called themselves Christian have seen fit to fabricate, falsify, and forge documents, in most instances in order to authorize views that they wanted others to accept,” today’s Christians have no excuse for their procedural confusion.

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: waltuhler@aol.com. Read other articles by Walter C. Uhler, or visit Walter C.'s website.

9 May 2011

The Un-Shock Doctrine

by Slavoj Žižek for Guernica: a magazine of art & politics May 2011

Despite everything, Slavoj Žižek still believes the Idea of communism is the most appropriate for our end times of crises and monsters.

The Left today faces the difficult task of emphasizing that we are dealing with political economy—that there is nothing “natural” in the present crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions—while simultaneously acknowledging that, insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, violating its rules will indeed cause economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own. So, although we are clearly entering a new phase of enhanced exploitation, facilitated by global market conditions (outsourcing, etc.), we should also bear in mind that this is not the result of an evil plot by capitalists, but an urgency imposed by the functioning of the system itself, always on the brink of financial collapse. For this reason, what is now required is not a moralizing critique of capitalism, but the full re-affirmation of the Idea of communism.

The idea of communism, as elaborated by Alain Badiou, remains a Kantian regulative idea lacking any mediation with historical reality. Badiou emphatically rejects any such mediation as a regression to an historicist evolutionism which betrays the purity of the Idea, reducing it to a positive order of Being (the Revolution conceived as a moment of the positive historical process). This Kantian mode of reference effectively allows us to characterize Badiou’s deployment of the “communist hypothesis” as a Kritik der reinen Kommunismus. As such, it invites us to repeat the passage from Kant to Hegel—to re-conceive the Idea of communism as an Idea in the Hegelian sense, that is, as an Idea which is in the process of its own actualization. The Idea that “makes itself what it is” is thus no longer a concept opposed to reality as its lifeless shadow, but one which gives reality and existence to itself. Recall Hegel’s infamous “idealist” formula according to which Spirit is its own result, the product of itself. Such statements usually provoke sarcastic “materialist” comments (“so it is not actual people who think and realize ideas, but Spirit itself, which, like Baron Munchausen, pulls itself up by its own hair”). But consider, for example, a religious Idea which catches the spirit of the masses and becomes a major historical force? In a way, is this not a case of an Idea actualizing itself, becoming a “product of itself”? Does it not, in a kind of closed loop, motivate people to fight for it and to realize it? What the notion of the Idea as a product of itself makes visible is thus not a process of idealist self-engendering, but the materialist fact that an Idea exists only in and through the activity of the individuals engaged with it and motivated by it. What we have here is emphatically not the kind of historicist/evolutionist position that Badiou rejects, but something much more radical: an insight into how historical reality itself is not a positive order, but a “not-all” which points towards its own future. It is this inclusion of the future as the gap in the present order that renders the latter “not-all,” ontologically incomplete, and thus explodes the self-enclosure of the historicist/ evolutionary process. In short, it is this gap which enables us to distinguish historicity proper from historicism.

Why, then, the Idea of communism? For three reasons, which echo the Lacanian triad of the I-S-R: at the Imaginary level, because it is necessary to maintain continuity with the long tradition of radical millenarian and egalitarian rebellions; at the Symbolic level, because we need to determine the precise conditions under which, in each historical epoch, the space for communism may be opened up; finally, at the level of the Real, because we must assume the harshness of what Badiou calls the eternal communist invariants (egalitarian justice, voluntarism, terror, “trust in the people”). Such an Idea of communism is clearly opposed to socialism, which is precisely not an Idea, but a vague communitarian notion applicable to all kinds of organic social bonds, from spiritualized ideas of solidarity (“we are all part of the same body”) right up to fascist corporatism. The Really Existing Socialist states were precisely that: positively existing states, whereas communism is in its very notion anti-statist.

The problem is how to avoid radical social uprisings which end in defeat, unable to stabilize themselves in a new order, or retreat into an ideal displaced to a domain outside social reality (for Buddhism we are all equal—in nirvana).

Where does this eternal communist Idea come from? Is it part of human nature, or, as Habermasians propose, an ethical premise (of equality or reciprocal recognition) inscribed into the universal symbolic order? Its eternal character cannot, after all, be accounted for by specific historical conditions. The key to resolving this problem is to focus on that against which the communist Idea rebels: namely, the hierarchical social body whose ideology was first formulated in great sacred texts such as The Book of Manu. As was demonstrated by Louis Dumont in his Homo hierarchicus, social hierarchy is always inconsistent; that is, its very structure relies on a paradoxical reversal (the higher sphere is, of course, higher than the lower, but, within the lower order, the lower is higher than the higher) on account of which the social hierarchy can never fully encompass all its elements. It is this constitutive inconsistency that gives birth to what Rancière calls “the part of no-part,” that singular element which remains out of place in the hierarchical order, and, as such, functions as a singular universal, giving body to the universality of the society in question. The communist Idea, then, is the eternal demand co-substantial with this element that lacks its proper place in the social hierarchy (“we are nothing, and we want to be all”).
Our task is thus to remain faithful to this eternal Idea of communism: to the egalitarian spirit kept alive over thousands of years in revolts and utopian dreams, in radical movements from Spartacus to Thomas Müntzer, including within the great religions (Buddhism versus Hinduism, Daoism or Legalism versus Confucianism, etc.). The problem is how to avoid the choice between radical social uprisings which end in defeat, unable to stabilize themselves in a new order, and the retreat into an ideal displaced to a domain outside social reality (for Buddhism we are all equal—in nirvana). It is here that the originality of Western thought becomes clear, particularly in its three great historical ruptures: Greek philosophy’s break with the mythical universe; Christianity’s break with the pagan universe; and modern democracy’s break with traditional authority. In each case, the egalitarian spirit is transposed into a new positive order (limited, but nonetheless actual).

The democratic axiom is that the place of power is empty, that there is no one directly qualified for the vacancy, either by tradition, charisma, or leadership qualities.
In short, the wager of Western thought is that radical negativity (whose first and immediate expression is egalitarian terror) is not condemned to being expressed in short ecstatic outbursts after which things are returned to normal. On the contrary, radical negativity, as the undermining of every traditional hierarchy, has the potential to articulate itself in a positive order within which it acquires the stability of a new form of life. Such is the meaning of the Holy Spirit in Christianity: faith can not only be expressed in, but also exists as, the collective of believers. And this faith is itself based on “terror,” as indicated by Christ’s insistence that he brings a sword, not peace, that whoever does not hate his father and mother is not a true follower, and so on. The content of this terror thus involves the rejection of all traditional hierarchical and community ties, with the wager that a different collective link is possible—an egalitarian bond between believers connected by agape as political love.
Democracy itself provides another example of such an egalitarian link based on terror. As Claude Lefort notes, the democratic axiom is that the place of power is empty, that there is no one directly qualified for the vacancy, either by tradition, charisma, or leadership qualities. This is why, before democracy can enter the stage, terror has to do its work, forever dissociating the place of power from any natural or directly qualified pretender: the gap between this place and those who temporarily occupy it must be maintained at all costs. This is also why Hegel’s deduction of the monarchy can be given a democratic supplement: Hegel insists on the monarch as the “irrational” (i.e., contingent) head of state precisely in order to keep the summit of state power apart from the expertise embodied in the state bureaucracy. While the bureaucrats are chosen on account of their abilities and qualifications, the king is the king by birth—that is, ultimately, he is chosen by lot, on account of natural contingency. The danger Hegel was trying to avoid here exploded a century later in Stalinist bureaucracy, which was precisely the rule of (Communist) experts: Stalin is not a figure of a master, but the one who “really knows,” an expert in all imaginable fields, from economy to linguistics, from biology to philosophy.

We can well imagine a democratic procedure maintaining the same gap on account of the irreducible moment of contingency in every electoral result: far from being a limitation, the fact that elections do not pretend to select the most qualified person is what protects them from the totalitarian temptation (which is why, as was already clear to the Ancient Greeks, choosing rulers by lot is the most democratic form of selection). That is to say, as Lefort has again demonstrated, the achievement of democracy is to turn what for traditional authoritarian power is the moment of greatest crisis—the moment of transition from one master to another, the panic-inducing instant at which “the throne is empty”—into the very source of its strength: democratic elections thus represent the passage through that zero-point at which the complex network of social links is dissolved into a purely quantitative multiplicity of individuals whose votes are mechanically counted. The moment of terror, of the dissolution of all hierarchical links, is thereby re-enacted and transformed into the foundation of a new and stable political order.

Measured by his own standards of what a rational state should be, Hegel was thus perhaps wrong to fear universal democratic suffrage (see his nervous rejection of the English Reform Bill in 1832). It is precisely democracy (universal suffrage) which, much more appropriately than Hegel’s own State of estates, performs the “magic” trick of converting radical negativity into a new political order: in democracy, the negativity of terror (the destruction of everyone who pretends to identify with the place of power) is aufgehoben and turned into the positive form of the democratic procedure.

The question today, now that we know the limitations of that formal procedure, is whether we can imagine a step further in this process whereby egalitarian negativity reverts into a new positive order. We should look for traces of such an order in different domains, including in scientific communities. The way the CERN [acronym for what is now known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research] community functions is indicative here: in an almost utopian manner, individual efforts are undertaken in a collective non-hierarchical spirit, and dedication to the scientific cause (to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang) far outweighs any material considerations. But are such traces, no matter how sublime, merely that—marginal traces?

In his intervention at the 2010 Marxism conference in London (organized by the Socialist Workers’s Party), Alex Callinicos evoked his dream of a future communist society in which there would be museums of capitalism, displaying to the public the artifacts of this irrational and inhuman social formation. The unintended irony of this dream is that today, the only museums of this kind are museums of Communism, displaying its horrors. So, again, what to do in such a situation? Two years before his death, when it became clear that there would be no immediate European revolution, and that the idea of building socialism in one country was nonsense, Lenin wrote: “What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilization in a different way from that of the West European countries?”

Is this not the predicament of the Morales government in Bolivia, of the (former) Aristide government in Haiti, of the Maoist government in Nepal? They came to power through “fair” democratic elections, rather than insurrection, but having gained power, they exerted it in a way which was (partially, at least) “non-statist”: directly mobilizing their grassroots supporters, bypassing the Party-State network. Their situation is “objectively” hopeless: the whole drift of history is against them, they cannot rely on any “objective tendencies” pushing in their direction, all they can do is to improvise, do what they can in a desperate situation. Nevertheless, does this not give them a unique freedom? (And are we—the contemporary Left—not in exactly the same situation?) It is tempting to apply here the old distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom for”: does their freedom from History (with its laws and objective tendencies) not sustain their freedom for creative experimenting? In their activity, they can rely only on the collective will of their supporters.

Wherever an opening for taking power does arise, the Left should seize the opportunity and confront the problems head-on, making the best of a bad situation.
According to Badiou, “The model of the centralized party made possible a new form of power that was nothing less than the power of the party itself. We are now at what I call a ‘distance from the State.’ This is first of all because the question of power is no longer ‘immediate’: nowhere does a ‘taking power’ in the insurrectional sense seem possible today.” But does this not rely on an all too simple alternative? What about heroically assuming whatever power may be available—in the full awareness that the “objective conditions” are not “mature” enough for radical change—and, against the grain, do what one can?
Let us return to the situation in Greece in the summer of 2010, when popular discontent brought about the delegitimization of the entire political class and the country approached a power vacuum. Had there been any chance for the Left to take over state power, what could it have done in such a situation of “complete hopelessness”? Of course (if we may permit ourselves this personification), the capitalist system would have gleefully allowed the Left to take over, if only to ensure that Greece ended up in a state of economic chaos, which would then serve as a severe lesson to others. Nevertheless, despite such dangers, wherever an opening for taking power does arise, the Left should seize the opportunity and confront the problems head-on, making the best of a bad situation (in the case of Greece: renegotiating the debt, mobilizing European solidarity and popular support for its predicament). The tragedy of politics is that there will never be a “good” moment to seize power: the opportunity will always offer itself at the worst possible moment (characterized by economic fiasco, ecological catastrophe, civil unrest, etc.), when the ruling political class has lost its legitimacy and the fascist-populist threat lurks in the background. For example, the Scandinavian countries, while continuing to maintain high levels of social equality and a powerful Welfare State, also score very well on global competitiveness: proof that “generous, relatively egalitarian welfare states should not be seen as utopias or protected enclaves,” writes Göran Therborn in “The Killing Fields of Inequality,” “but can also be highly competitive participants in the world market. In other words, even within the parameters of global capitalism there are many degrees of freedom for radical social alternatives.”

Perhaps the most succinct characterization of the epoch which began with the First World War is the well-known phrase attributed to Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” Were Fascism and Stalinism not the twin monsters of the twentieth century, the one emerging out of the old world’s desperate attempts to survive, the other out of a misbegotten endeavor to build a new one? And what about the monsters we are engendering now, propelled by techno-gnostic dreams of a biogenetically controlled society? All the consequences should be drawn from this paradox: perhaps there is no direct passage to the New, at least not in the way we imagined it, and monsters necessarily emerge in any attempt to force that passage.

One sign of a new rise of this monstrosity is that the ruling classes seem less and less able to rule, even in their own interests. Take the fate of Christians in the Middle East. Over the last two millennia, they have survived a series of calamities, from the end of the Roman Empire through defeat in crusades, the decolonization of the Arab countries, the Khomeini revolution in Iran, etc.—with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, the main U.S. ally in this region, where there are no autochthonous Christians. In Iraq, there were approximately one million of them under Saddam, leading exactly the same lives as other Iraqi subjects, with one of them, Tariq Aziz, even occupying the high post of foreign minister and becoming Saddam’s confidante. But then, something weird happened to Iraqi Christians, a true catastrophe—a Christian army occupied (or liberated, if you want) Iraq.

The Christian occupation army dissolved the secular Iraqi army and thus left the streets open to Muslim fundamentalist militias to terrorize both each other and the Christians. No wonder roughly half of Iraq’s Christians soon left the country, preferring even the terrorist-supporting Syria to a liberated Iraq under Christian military control. In 2010, things took a turn for the worse. Tariq Aziz, who had survived the previous trials, was condemned by a Shia court to death by hanging for his “persecution of Muslim parties” (i.e., his fight against Muslim fundamentalism) under Saddam. Bomb attacks on Christians and their churches followed one after the other, leaving dozens dead, so that finally, in early November 2010, the Baghdad archbishop Athanasios Dawood appealed to his flock to leave Iraq: “Christians have to leave the beloved country of our ancestors and escape the intended ethnic cleansing. This is still better than getting killed one after the other.” And to dot the “i,” as it were, that same month it was reported that al Maliki had been confirmed as Iraqi prime minister thanks to Iranian support. So the result of the U.S. intervention is that Iran, the prime agent of the axis of Evil, is edging closer to dominating Iraq politically.

In short, our times can be characterized as none other than Stalin characterized the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.
U.S. policy is thus definitively approaching a stage of madness, and not only in terms of domestic policy (as the Tea Party proposes to fight the national debt by lowering taxes, i.e., by raising the debt—one cannot but recall here Stalin’s well-known thesis that, in the Soviet Union, the state was withering away through the strengthening of its organs, especially its organs of police repression). In foreign policy also, the spread of Western Judeo-Christian values is organized by creating conditions which lead to the expulsion of Christians (who, maybe, could move to Iran…). This is definitely not a clash of civilizations, but a true dialogue and cooperation between the U.S. and the Muslim fundamentalists.
Our situation is thus the very opposite of the classical twentieth-century predicament in which the Left knew what it had to do (establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.), but simply had to wait patiently for the opportunity to offer itself. Today, we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic. We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss of the New in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the New just in order to maintain what was good in the Old (education, healthcare, etc.). The journal in which Gramsci published his writings in the early 1920s was called L’Ordine nuovo (The New Order)—a title which was later appropriated by the extreme Right. Rather than seeing this later appropriation as revealing the “truth” of Gramsci’s use of the title—abandoning it as running counter to the rebellious freedom of an authentic Left—we should return to it as an index of the hard problem of defining the new order any revolution will have to establish after its success. In short, our times can be characterized as none other than Stalin characterized the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.

Communism is today not the name of a solution but the name of a problem: the problem of the commons in all its dimensions—the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problem of our biogenetic commons, the problem of our cultural commons (“intellectual property”), and, last but not least, the problem of the commons as that universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. Whatever the solution might be, it will have to solve this problem.

This article was adapted from the afterword to the new paperback edition of Living in the End Times, out from Verso Books this month.

Living in the End Times
by Slavoj Žižek

Zizek analyzes the end of the world at the hands of the “four riders of the apocalypse.”

The underlying premise of the book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its four riders of the apocalypse are the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, the imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property, the forthcoming struggle for raw materials, food and water), and the explosions of social divisions and exclusions.

Society’s first reaction is ideological denial, then explosions of anger at the injustices of the new world order, attempts at bargaining, and when this fails, depression and withdrawal set in. Finally, after passing through this zero-point we no longer perceive it as a threat, but as the chance for a new beginning. or, as Mao Zedong might have put it, “There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.”

Žižek traces out in detail these five stances, makes a plea for a return to the Marxian critique of political economy, and sniffs out the first signs of a budding communist culture in all its diverse forms—in utopias that range from Kafka’s community of mice to the collective of freak outcasts in the TV series Heroes.