The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: September 2013

Destroying the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia Caused the Nairobi Mall Attack

Look, years ago, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) destroyed the warlords who ran Somalia’s capital.  These warlords, to give some context, would drag teenaged girls, by which I mean 14 years old, out of their parents shanty, take them away, and gang rape them.

The ICU were Islamic, to be sure, but they weren’t particularly radical as such folks go, and they brought law and order.  They were willing to make nice without the outside world, wanted to be the government and were willing to negotiate.  Sure, they would have imposed some variation of Sharia, but it would have been an improvement on the Warlords.  A massive improvement.

The West wouldn’t have it, it got African neighbors to invade (and don’t pretend it would have happened if the US, in particular, hadn’t wanted it to).  The ICU splintered, and as often happens, the people who replaced them were far nastier, were straight up Islamists.

And so you get this chilling statement:

An Al Shabaab spokesman as far back as in October 2011 had threatened Kenya with retaliation if it did not get its soldiers off Somali soil.

Ali Mohamud Rage said: ‘‘We, the Mujahideen, say to the Kenyan government: have you thought of the repercussions of the war against us? We are far more experienced in combat than you.’‘

Which is chilling because it is true.

As for driving them out of the cities, so what?  The Taliban was driven out of the cities too.  Rural based insurgencies don’t need the cities, they are not particularly important.  They’re easy for conventional militaries to hold, bit they also don’t matter much.



Egypt bans the Muslim Brotherhood

This includes seizing all their money and assets.  Among other things, this is a humanitarian disaster: who do you think feeds many of the poor in Egypt?  Who runs the clinics?

One of my friends worked in Egypt, for the Mubarak regime, for a while.  He’s a man with a strong stomach, but they disgusted him.  His most telling observation was this: “the middle class are all fat.  Obese.  Everyone else is skinny.”

I’ll be straightforward: the Muslim Brotherhood has the right to resist this violently.  They’ll probably lose, but they won the election fairly and the results of a democratic election were thrown out by a military coup.  You really can’t get any more legitimate reason to commit violence than that, except straight-up genocide.  So I don’t want to hear hand-wringing when the bombs start going off: it is the logical consequence of what the military has done, which includes gunning down unarmed civilians in the street.

As for the “liberals” who supported the coup, they have disgraced themselves.  If the Muslim Brotherhood or some much nastier successors do win, you can be sure liberals will have NO meaningful influence in Egypt’s government.  Perhaps they had very little under the Brotherhood, and certainly the constitution was unfair, but this was a coup, and they supported it.  It will not be forgotten, least of all because a lot of blood has been spilled and far more will be.

(Why did the Muslim Brotherhood win the election and not liberals?  Because they had consistently opposed Mubarak and paid the price for it, and because they, not liberals, fed the poor and cared for the sick.)

Let’s Talk American Public Responsibility for Torture and Iraq

I recently read a Guardian piece on Gitmo. Here’s an excerpt:

Gen Miller suggests reorganising the prisons so that the guards help the interrogators “set the conditions for … successful interrogation”.

It was following his visit that torture and humiliation by the guards began in earnest. Prisoners were hooded, threatened with rape, threatened with torture, had pistols held to their heads, made to strip naked, forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, beaten till they bled – sometimes with implements, including a broom and a chair – hung from doors by cuffed hands, deceived into thinking they were to be electrocuted, ducked in toilet buckets, forced to simulate masturbation, force to lie naked in a pile and be photographed, urinated on, menaced and, in one case, severely bitten by dogs, sodomised with a chemical light, ridden like horses, made to wear women’s underwear, raped, deprived of sleep, exposed to the midday summer sun, put in stress positions and made to lie naked, in empty concrete cells, in complete darkness, for days on end.

Here is another:

The worst may be to come. Little has yet emerged about conditions inside the prisons run by the US in Afghanistan, where eight deaths in US custody remain unexplained, and an internal military report remains unpublished. In an essay accompanying the documents, Danner draws attention to the language of one of the official investigators of Abu Ghraib, James Schlesinger, who wrote in his report of “five cases of detainee deaths [worldwide] as a result of abuse by US personnel”. Danner points out that Schlesinger could as easily have written: “American interrogators have tortured at least five prisoners to death.”


Hussain Adbulkadr Youssouf Mustafa, a teacher of Islamic law with Palestinian citizenship, describes how he was arrested in Pakistan, in May 2002, handed over to the Americans and taken to Afghanistan.

While at Bagram air force base, Hussain said, he was blindfolded, tightly handcuffed, gagged and earplugged and sodomised with a stick while three soldiers held him down. “It was excruciatingly painful,” said Hussain. “I have always believed that I am not a person who would scream unless I was really hurt. Only when the pain became overwhelming did I think I would ever scream. But I could not stop screaming when this happened. This torture went on for several minutes, but it felt like hours, and the pain afterwards was almost as bad as anything I experienced at the time.”

Feel free to read the rest.

Now, let’s talk a little about Iraq. We don’t know how many people died in Iraq. Why?  Because the US didn’t count, and did their best to make it impossible for anyone else to count either. We don’t know the number of orphans, but it’s in the hundreds of thousands (one of the readers of this blog, MFI, will probably supply a good estimate.) The killing is ongoing. Every week, even the Western press covers some bombing or massacre killing dozens, and every day people are killed, tortured, and raped in less newsworthy fashions.

Now let’s talk about democracy. In the the year 2000 A.D., the United States elected George Bush, a man who, as a child was known, at the time of his election, to have blown up frogs by putting firecrackers in them. This is, if you’re unaware, one of the classic childhood signs of psychopathy. Electing Bush was malfeasance, but let’s be honest: He stole the election. I know it, and anyone who’s taken the time to properly investigate what happened in Florida and with the Supreme Court, and who can also add and subtract, knows it.

So up until 2004, the rest of the world kept saying, “It’s not America, it’s not Americans.”

Then in 2004, America re-elected Bush. An argument can be made that that election was stolen too, though not as blatantly as the 2000 election (I was almost part of writing a book on the subject, but the publisher decided Americans didn’t care). But let’s examineit: If the election was stolen, it was stolen by a few hundred thousand votes.

About 122,349,000 Americans voted in the election. Even assuming fraud, 61 million Americans voted affirmatively for a vicious war based on lies, and for torture (and that America was torturing was widely known by 2004). Now, one can make the argument that approximately 97 million Americans didn’t vote. But not voting is a choice; it is a choice that says, “I don’t care that the US is torturing people enough to go out and vote.” Again, you can finding mitigating arguments: voter suppression, that the vote takes place on a working day, etc…but those arguments don’t add up to 97 million.

In 2004, America said: “We don’t care about torture, it’s just not that important to most of us.”

A lot of people will hate this post. Every time I write something like this, I’m told some version of “I opposed it,” or “Grow up, many of us opposed it.”

But Americans did have the right to vote against Iraq and Torture. They didn’t. It may be that Kerry would have kept torturing, it may be that Kerry would have continued the Iraq war for as long as Bush did (and as incompetently). But the question was not even put to the test: Americans did not, when it matters and where it matters, in the ballot box, say, “We don’t agree with torture and war.”

For that matter, in 2004, Democratic Primary Voters did not vote for the most anti-war candidates. Instead, they went with Kerry. The opposition party nominated a man who had voted for the war (albeit a man who said he’d made a mistake doing so).

This does not mean YOU, personally, are responsible for Iraq. Probably, if you read this blog, you were against it. It does not mean you, personally, were for torture. Again, my readers are mostly against torture and vote consistent with that principle. But it does mean that the rest of the world judges the US by the 2004 election–because you didn’t take that chance to repudiate Bush.

The consequence of not repudiating Bush in 2004, by the way, is that Obama has substantially continued to implement Bush’s policies. Oh, to be sure, there’s probably less torture than there was (though force-feeding prisoners you know to be innocent, while keeping them in solitary confinement, and refusing to free them is pretty heinous), but in its place, Obama has gone whole hog on drone killing, and, in the process, killing far more people than Bush did. Obama, and Washington, concluded from the results of the 2004 election, that you didn’t care about most of the stuff Bush did. Just as DC concluded from the fact that there were no mass protests in 2000, when the Republicans and the Supreme Court stole the election, that Americans don’t really care about democracy, and that its present form is generally sufficient. (Well, except for those Republicans elected by the Tea Partiers, because the Tea Partiers have guns and threaten to use them. Republicans are terrified of their base.)

The flip side of responsibility, and many readers won’t understand this (because by now they’ll be so defensive or outraged they can’t think clearly), is that it implies power. If you have responsibility, you have power. If you have a democracy in the United States, then that means Americans as a group don’t just have the responsibility for what happens, they have the ability to change it.

Now, of course, one can argue that the US is NOT a functioning democracy. I think that argument is, right now, credible, though it does need to be made, and cannot be assumed. If that is your argument, if you believe that American citizens are effectively subjects, and that democracy is dead in the US, then you can also argue that Americans are not responsible for what happened in Iraq, for torture, or much of anything else. (Though, of course, it begs the question: “Was the US ever a democracy, and if it was, are Americans responsible for losing that democracy?”)

But if you believe you don’t live in a democracy, if you believe that change cannot come through politics, then you’ve got bigger problems.

This argument about responsibility is an important one, and it touches on many different countries throughout the world. It also has to do with the question of consumer politics, of choosing from a slate of candidates and policies chosen by the elites, rather than creating your candidates and polices, and the question of whether that creation is possible. (For example, when primaries are not actually open or can be nullified by leadership, is a state actually democratic?)

That point, then, touches on the character of the people of a nation and of the changes in the character of developed nations and is too big to go into now (though should my book ever come out, it is something I’ll go into).

A people who do not control their own politics will have someone else do it for them. If they are not willing to do the work to keep control, then they will lose everything: their liberty, their prosperity, their democracy, and in many cases, their very lives. Along the way, if those people are the citizens of the hegemonic power, millions of people will suffer and die.

Historical cancer indidence rates controlled for age

Anyone know a source for this data?  It would be much appreciated. Every source I find goes on about how increased cancer rates are largely because “we live longer”.  That’s clearly part of it, but how much?  Same thing with heart disease, anyone have that data?

Shorter Federal Reserve: The Economy Breathes Sort of OK if We Keep it On Life Support

That’s what the decision to continue Quantitative Easing 3 (QE3), the purchase of 85 billion dollars of treasuries and mortgage backed securities a month, is an admission of.

It is also a way of not causing Brazil and India’s currencies to crash out, which just the suggestion of a reduction of QE3 was causing.

It is worth reiterating that the purpose of Quantitative Easing is to make the rich richer, and that it has done.  US stock markets increased 150% from their lows, one of those bull markets traders dream of.  However the employment situation has not significantly improved (ignore the unemployment rate, even in absolute terms there are still fewer people employed than there were before the financial crisis.)  Median household net worth is down, median income is down, but the rich are richer.

This is not to say that QE does no good for the regular economy, it does, but it does far less good than could be done with eighty five billion dollars a month.  A program to, say, retrofit every single federal building for active and passive solar would employ more people and have more of a ripple effect.  Eighty five billion dollars a month (970 billion a year) is a LOT of money.

Nonetheless, given its refusal to break up the large banks; the President and Congress’s refusal to actually tax rich people (thus necessitating the Fed buying treasury bonds); and a refusal to allow the housing market to settle to its actual value while supporting underwater homeowners, the Fed is in a bind.  If you refuse to do anything that is primarily intended to help ordinary people, refuse to engage in sufficient measures to break the oil supply bottleneck (and no, Fracking isn’t cutting it); refuse to tax rich people (who have the money); and refuse to engage in any sort of industrial policy while funneling money to industries like banking, insurance, pharma and the military-industrial complex which are ultimately parasitical, why then, it can certainly seem like you have no choice but to continue throwing money at banks and rich people, and hoping some of it gets to the real economy.

Yellen won’t be any better, by the way.  Bernanke’s job was to make sure  that the financial collapse did not cause an FDR or New Deal: to make sure that the rich weren’t wiped out by the financial bubble they caused. His academic work is about this exact problem: how to make sure that a New Deal doesn’t happen: how to make sure ordinary people don’t get their share of the pie.  Yellen won’t change that, no one will be picked for the Federal Reserve who would change that.

Emptywheel is fundraising

The blog does good work, and Marcy Wheeler (emptywheel) does work that is simply not found anywhere else, in depth analysis no one else does.  If you can afford to give (never give if your own food or rent is iffy), please consider doing so.

(Fundraising post).

Late nineteenth and early 20th century intellectual roots

I want to get some notes down on the reasons for certain literary tropes and intellectual beliefs in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The difference in how our ancestors thought about the world really smacks you in the face if you read 19th and pre-WWII fiction.  This is true from pulp fiction to high fiction—Robert E Howard’s Conan series draws on the same roots as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Nietzche is speaking to an experience that influenced both of them.

The Superman

If you were a white man who wasn’t lower class in the 19th century, you were a superman.  At home, because you received proper nutrition during childhood you were taller, stronger, smarter and healthier than most of the lower class.  If you put your mind to it, you were better than them at nearly everything.  Overseas, European military forces could wipe out armies ten to a hundred times their size, and take remarkably few casualties while doing so.  You had better machines and more understanding of the natural laws that ran the world.  Your experience was of being a superman—you were simply better than non-Europeans, and the lower class, either because of the benefits of your society, or because of superior nutrition during the formative years.

The White Man’s Burden and the Heart of Darkness

European civilization was, to you, simply superior.  Any who opposed you, you could crush.  We can cavil, we can say there are other more important virtues, we can find corner cases and talk about appropriate technology, but at the end of the day Europeans had superior agriculture, industry, science and military force.   The experience of being supermen leads to two main responses: one was to say that it was mostly a matter of civilization and that others should be raised to the European level and that it was European’s duty to do this (the White Man’s Burden), the other was to deeply abuse that power.  In many cases, it was both—abuse covered up by claiming virtue.

Still, if you look at the history of, say, Hong Kong, what you see is that it starts out with a very low population (a few thousand) and grows very fast—Chinese flock there.  Why?  Because the Manchu are worse, far, far worse.  In Hong Kong if you’re Chinese, you’re a second class citizen, but you do have access to some sort of law which is not entirely corrupt: it is a better place to live, a safer place with more opportunity than China is at the time.

In other places, the Congo being the most notorious, the natives are treated as subhuman, and a huge body of racial theory grows up in the 19th and 20th centuries to justify seeing non-whites as subhumans.  That theory allows you to feel that treating them inhumanely is fine, since they aren’t fully human.  This can combine with the white man’s burden “white men must do what they can for the inferior races, but that inferiority is biological and can never entirely be overcome” or it can act in opposition to it, if one believes it is a question of civilization.  Some see it as the latter, those who know that both Islamic and Chinese civilizations were superior to Western civilization for most of history, but the need to believe oneself superior is deeply human.

The End of Going Native

The Sepoy rebellion is the end of one way of ruling Empire and the beginning of a different way.  Before the Sepoy rebellion India is ruled by men who marry native women, have mixed-race children, who learn the language: men who stand between India and the Empire.  When that method fails, and fails in very bloody fashion (the wives, the mixed raced children, the friends—or if you wish collaborators are especially targeted by the rebels), the method changes: the British believe that the rebellion happened because the administrators became too close to the Indians, were not harsh enough, did not apply discipline sufficiently.  The new imperial service strongly discourages marriages with natives, close friendships, and even learning the language is often viewed with suspicion.  Combined with racial theory, which makes them regard mating with non-whites as mating with subhumans, going native declines, and marrying a local will dead-end your career.

This has widespread effects.  The Metis rebellion in Canada, for example, is a result of the clash between the new Victorian morality and method of governance and the older method.  The Metis are, essentially, the most important people in most of unsettled Canada.  The Scots and French who manned the fur trade married local women, their children continued to manage the relationship between white and native, and prospered doing so.  The new Victorian administrators, as the West is colonized, regard the Metis as subhuman, in many ways, as worse than the native Americans, since they are the product of miscegenation.  Instead of working with them, or through them, as Canada expands in to the West, they cut them out. This results in rebellion, which is crushed (in part because Riel, the leader, refuses to fight the war properly, and cut the rail lines.)  This history, of course, is not taught properly in Canadian classrooms, the textbooks make it out as if the Metis rebel for almost no reason at all.

The tragedy, of course, is that if the Metis had been worked with, instead of against, both they and the native Americans would have been better off, and Indian reservations might not, today, be the shame of Canada, 3rd world hovels.

The Decline Into Barbarism

At the same time as Europeans are expanding to every corner of the world, they are finding magnificent ruins.  Monuments like the pyramids, great ruined Mayan cities, brilliant Chinese literature and art, and so on.  They become very aware that civilizations rise and fall.  In many cases the people who live in the same area as the greatest ruins are very primitive indeed.  Combined with racial theory, many come to assume that the collapse of civilization is caused by the declining of racial stock—that the people themselves start becoming more and more “beast like” and thus are unable to maintain high civilization.  Some fiction takes it so far as to assume that humans can descend back to being apes.

This combines with the heart of darkness effect of great power, to lead to European enclaves.  Even if a man can’t change biologically in one generation (though some theorists think he can) when surrounded by savages, Europeans believe they are more likely to themselves become savages.  Women, white women, are a civilizing influence, they believe, and so wives and daughters are brought with colonial enclaves.  And indeed, where white men are not alone, but have their women, it is true that fewer atrocities tend to be committed.

The decline of civilization doesn’t just have to do with dark skinned people though.  The British and Americans are deeply enamored by classical Greece and Rome, but they notice that modern Italians and Greeks aren’t much like the people they read of when they read Cicero or Homer or Plato.  So even whites aren’t immune to this collapse of civilization, and the search for the causes consumes much of 19th century scholarship and fiction, and underlies the emphasis on discipline and fortitude, for the British become very aware that their supremacy rests on military might, and that that might rests not just on having the best weapons but upon organization and discipline of the troops.

The Noble Savage

Right through the Victorian era, alongside all the racial theories of how inferior the other races are is the myth of the noble savage.  This, too, is based on experience.  To be sure a milk and meat fed middle or upper class Briton or American is physically superior to the underclass and many of the peasants of the agricultural societies they are conquering but anyone who travels quickly becomes aware that those savages who live on the land and get a good diet, with enough calories of the right kind, are their physical superior.  Native Americans from some tribes can carry 500 pound packs for days, something virtually no white man can.  Kalahari desert trackers can run for days, and track animals across terrain in which no European can even see tracks.  South American Indians and Nepalese mountaineers climb terrain that seems impassable to white men, displaying strength, agility and hardiness that puts almost any European to shame.  Australian aborigines likewise perform physical feats that amaze.

You thus have a theory of civilization which posits the pinnacles of humanity being northern Europeans and certain groups of hunter-gatherers and nomadic tribesmen.  The noble savages are physically superior and civilization in the “oriental” style enervates them, taking away their primitive virtues.  Again, this arises, at its heart, from lived experience.

Freudianism, Oedipus and Electra

Those who are old enough, or who have read widely in early to mid 20th century literature and literary theory understand just how influential Freud was.  His theories look absurd to us, but they were a secular religion for millions during much of the 20th century, and those million included amongst them much of the literary and artistic class of the West.

Again, they are based on lived experience—the lived experience of the Viennese middle class in the time of Freud.  The first key thing to know is this: living space was precious, people had very small living spaces.

One of the key parts of Freudianism is the assertion of the Oedipal complex (boys want to have sex with their mothers) and the Electra complex (girls with their fathers–strictly speaking Jungian.)  In a small space, there is no way to conceal sex from children.  The first sounds and possibly sight of sex a boy or girl will have, is sex between their parents.  Assuming heterosexual orientation (the majority of the population), that sex will be associated with opposite sex parent.  Add in a bit of operant conditioning (sexual feelings coincident with the parent having sex) and  you have the appropriate complex.  Freud took this as a universal law, but it was contingent: in Vienna it was probably most people, but in societies without that operant conditioning (such as our own, where children’s first experience of sex will probably be watching porn on the internet) that loop doesn’t occur nearly so often.

Concluding Remarks

Much of what is distinctive in an age’s literature and intellectual thought is based on the lived experience of the class that does the writing and theorizing, and the experience of their peers.  The experience of the middle and upper classes of Europe was of superiority to the lower classes, overwhelming superiority to foreign societies and of the fragility of civilization, seeing and reading of so many great civilizations, who had created great art, literature and monuments which no longer existed.   Likewise the noble savage and the obsession with incest were a result of the actual way that the middle class (Freud’s patients) lived in Vienna.

(Obligatory note: because I write about racism, the white man’s burden, sexism, colonialism, or anything else doesn’t mean I approve of it.)

Putin Stings America

I bring to your attention these two beauties:

“We have a contract for the delivery of the S-300s. We have supplied some of the components, but the delivery hasn’t been completed. We have suspended it for now. But if we see that steps are taken that violate the existing international norms, we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain regions of the world.”

Translation: if you bomb Syria against our wishes, we will make sure it’s much harder for you to bomb other countries in the future.

6. On U.S. failure to bring Snowden home to face justice:

“Representatives of the American special services — and I hope they won’t be angry — but they could have been more professional, and the diplomats as well. After they found out that he was flying to us, and that he was flying as a transit passenger, there was pressure from all sides — from the Americans, from the Europeans — instead of just letting him go to a country where they could operate easily.”

Translation: Your secret services are incompetent.  Why not let him fly somewhere where you can send a drone, or helicopter gunships or covert operatives?

Of course, that’s why Snowden went first to China and then to Russia: they are countries that the US can’t drone without huge repercussions.  Most countries can’t do a damn thing if the US sends in drones or gunships, they just have to take it, they have no real retaliatory ability.

Putin’s a profoundly evil man, as with most world leaders, but he’s also one of the few who is also frighteningly competent.

As for Syria, it is now clear that Obama will almost certainly get his war resolution, unless there’s a huge caucus revolt amongst Republicans.  The Ba’ath will fight, they have no choice because they believe (correctly, in my opinion) that if they lose their families and communities will be slaughtered.  Syria may not have the best Russian AA weapons, but it has better weaponry than any other enemy the US has faced in decades, and has Iranian and Hizbollah support (ie. competent advisers and troops with which to use those weapons.)

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