Empire Burlesque
Extreme Measures: Arming the Zealotocracy, Serving the Elite
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Saturday, 26 June 2010 23:19

One of the most significant developments in the modern world -- history may find it to be a decisive one -- has been the deliberate cultivation of religious extremism by ruling elites trying to sustain and expand their power.

The rise of virulent extremism in almost every major religion -- Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism -- has many other causes, of course. Chief among these is the turbulent encounter between modernity and tradition, a confrontation that has played out -- and is playing out -- in so many different ways both within and across various cultures.

Modernity encompasses not only the technologies and techniques of capitalism that in its many guises (including state capitalism) has plowed up so much ancient ground and overturned so many ancient certainties, but also the historic development of ideas and ideals based, ultimately, on the notion of the inherent (even inalienable) autonomy and worth of the individual. These ideas too have found expression in myriad -- and often conflicting -- forms. And of course, there has never been and can never be any kind of clear dividing line between all of these swirling currents, the multifaceted dimensions of modernity and tradition; like a jar of colored sands, they mix and meld in innumerable, unstable combinations as they are sifted and shaken through the course of time.

So it would be wrong to say that the rise of sectarian zeal can be ascribed solely to its manipulation by elites. But it would be equally wrong -- and dangerously blind -- to deny the fact of these manipulations, or to minimize in any way the pernicious, atrocious effect they have had -- and are having -- on human existence. They have placed a deep -- and entirely unnecessary -- shadow over humanity for generations: a shadow that only gets darker, and more poisonous, as time goes on.

For the last 50 years, in country after country, ruling elites -- those factions which hold a disproportionate and thus illegitimate sway over society -- have fostered the growth of religious extremism for two main reasons: to distract the populace from the way their lives are unjustly diminished by the elitist agenda -- and to throttle and demonize any popular movement that might threaten the elite's hegemony.

This happened throughout the Middle East, for example, as tyrants of every stripe (often clients of the West) turned to hitherto marginal fundamentalist religious groups to dilute and drive back secular challenges to their rule. These challenges were often, although not always, led by movements that could be characterized as "leftist" to one degree or another. (Although it is also true that any challenge whatsoever to elite rule is almost always categorized as some kind of dangerous, revolutionary "leftism," even if it has little or no socialist content at all -- and even if it is entirely non-violent, or gradualist, or merely mildly reformist.) Usually with Western help, the tyrants cultivated religious extremists both as shock troops and cultural warriors to attack and divide any opposition. As the London Review of Books noted recently (in a piece highlighted this weekend by As'ad AbuKhalil):

The Islamisation of Egyptian society deepened after the 1967 war; it became explicit government policy under Sadat, the self-styled ‘believer president’ who supported radical Islamists in his battles with the left, and who made the sharia ‘the principal source’ of law in 1980 – a year before his assassination by an Islamist. Under Mubarak, praying has become as popular as shopping or football and now serves a roughly similar function as a distraction from the innumerable frustrations of Egyptian life. Indeed, Islam as observed by Egyptians is increasingly an Islam that caters to consumerist needs. The popular televangelist Amr Khaled mixes Quranic citations with boosterish advice of a more general kind. This variety of Islam is no threat to the regime, but it has made life far less easy-going. ‘My neighbour used to water his plants in his pyjamas on the balcony, where he’d be joined by his wife in her nightie,’ a friend tells me. ‘They’d drink beer in the open, and then he’d go downstairs for the sunset prayers in the local mosque. Today he’d be killed for this, but at the time he would have seen no contradiction.’


Over the past half century, this same dynamic has played out in various ways, and to various degrees, in countries all over the world. It has happened in Iran, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia (Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo), and many others. It is happening at an astonishingly accelerated rate today in Israel, which has become by far the most religiously and ethnically intolerant of any nation considered part of "the West." And it is most palpably happening on many levels in the United States, as Chris Hedges and many others have documented.

In most cases, this dynamic involves a strong fusion of religious extremism with a strident, exclusionary nationalism. Indeed, religious nationalism is one of the hallmarks of our age. At various times, and in various quarters, one element -- the religious or the nationalist -- might predominate over the other. We can see this in, say, the Tea Party movement, where exclusionary nationalism -- the self-defined "Real Americans" vs. the strange, traitorous Others -- is now in ascendance, occluding somewhat the sex-obsessed, church-based "Focus on the Family"-style religious nationalism that was somewhat more prevalent earlier in the decade. The whole career of Sarah Palin exemplifies this oscillation, as she has tracked back and forth between the most virulent, primitive, casting-out-devils Christian fundamentalism and the bellicose, militarist nationalism she shares with the Beltway neo-cons, a number of whom are, of course, Jews and/or atheists whom Palin, like George W. Bush, believes will burn in eternal hellfire.

Although these kinds of contradictions demonstrate the utter incoherence and moral vacuity of religious nationalism, they rarely lessen the power of these movements, which -- once unleashed, encouraged (and heavily funded) -- feed on the nuclear fuel of raw, unexamined emotions, fears and needs: a fuel that is constantly replenished by the relentless propagation of artfully filtered (and often fabricated) outrages and threats.

Here's an example from personal experience. I came of age in the mid-70s, in the Bible Belt, in a family rooted in that old-time Southern Baptist religion. This was the era when the TV preachers -- Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and others -- first began flooding the late-night airwaves. These televangelists, just beginning the fusion of religion and nationalism noted above, were widely, almost universally, regarded by the good, God-fearing, church-going grownups of my acquaintance as extremely marginal, even comical figures, of little note and little worth.

Yet in just a few years' time, many of these figures, and others like them, would be trooping to the White House to be courted and honored; they were commanding vast media networks, college campuses and commercial empires. One of them, Robertson, even ran for president.  They had become an integral and important part of the nation's power structure,  pushing "hot button" issues, almost always related to sex -- homosexuality, abortion -- and "traditional values" (e.g., submission to authority: biblical authority, corporate authority, military authority, male authority, etc.). They constructed a false history of a paradisiacal past that had been "stolen" from "real" Americans by liberals, feminists, unions, queers, darkies, commies,  college professors, Mexicans, etc. etc. And all the while, the elite interests who helped bankroll and magnify these marginal movements into national juggernauts were in fact beggaring the believers themselves, destroying their communities -- indeed, their "traditional values," their family and social networks, and their quality of life -- by gutting their towns and cities, driving family farmers from their land, sending tens of millions of jobs to near-slave labor overseas, befouling the environment, degrading public amenities and vital infrastructure, relentlessly restricting legal recourse against corporate predation and depredation, and corrupting the democratic process to send a steady stream of spineless hacks and whores to Washington to perpetuate the bipartisan corporate-militarist agenda.

The result has been poisonous rancor, social division, economic ruin, vast anxiety, endless war and the relentless, systematic degradation of the quality of life for working people, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable -- indeed, for everyone outside the small circle of the elite, and their sycophants and servants in the media-political class.

And at every step of the way, this ever-growing dynamic of religious nationalism -- which has found its highest, most complete expression in the war-profiteering militarist empire of the Terror War and its attendant atrocities, foreign and domestic -- has been aided and abetted and strengthened and expanded by the so-called "liberals" and "progressives" of the Democratic Party (and their own innumerable outriders, servitors and sycophants) who have been and remain among the fiercest proponents of ... the war-profiteering militarist empire. ("Progressives," of course want to "reform" the empire -- that is, make its deadly operations more efficient and codify its most heinous atrocities into law -- but none of them, not one, call for it to be dismantled.)

Just as in Mubarak's Egypt or the Shah's Iran, any secular opposition to the thuggish (indeed criminal) American elites  has been effectively neutralized. The resultant anger and confusion of a people who are indeed being robbed and screwed over is thus diverted from its true perpetrators, and instead is channeled into one of few avenues of "protest" against the "system" allowed to operate freely and fully on a mass scale: religious nationalism in its various forms. Of course, this kind of "protest" only strengthens the genuine systems of rapacious power, and thus, ultimately, serves both sides of the partisan divide. (Or rather the factional divide between two groups of squabbling courtiers jockeying for the top perks of the imperial state they both avidly serve.) And, as we have seen in Iran and will likely see in Egypt, these movements, once unleashed and empowered, cannot be completely controlled by their elite patrons (as some Republican incumbents and insiders have already learned to their sorrow).  

On every side, in country after country, and at varying levels, life is being made "far less easy-going" by the unholy alliance of rapacious corporate-militarist elites and the Zealotocracy of religious nationalists they have helped propel to heights of power and influence.  And as long as the imperial system keeps churning its way around the globe, this murderous, retrograde, life-strangling dynamic will continue to accelerate.

 
Termination Notice: McChrystal Sideshow Masks Murderous Reality
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Wednesday, 23 June 2010 12:20

(UPDATED)

(UPDATED AGAIN)

Some people seem to think that the question of which uniformed goober is in charge of the imperial bloodbath in Afghanistan is a vitally important issue, worthy of endless exegesis. It is not. It is a meaningless sideshow. What does matter, vitally, deeply, urgently, is the imperial bloodbath itself, and the fact that it will go on, and on, no matter what Barack Obama does or doesn't do about Stanley McChrystal. [*Now we know what Barry did about Stanley. See update below.]

What really matters is this:

Ten civilians, including at least five women and children, were killed in NATO airstrikes in Khost Province, the provincial police chief said Saturday.

And this:

“We have received five bodies of civilians in our provincial public hospital,” Khost provincial health director Amirbadshah Rahmatzai Mangal told AFP. “The dead include two female children of seven and eight years of age..."

McChrystal is in trouble for making disparaging remarks about fellow officers and civilian officials -- a military tradition that surely goes back to the armies of Hammurabi (and long before). Yet he faced no reprimand or remonstrance whatsoever for his admission, just a few months ago, that brazen war crimes were being carried out under his command:

“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who became the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan last year. His comments came during a recent videoconference to answer questions from troops in the field about civilian casualties.


As I noted at the time:

Now, what would the authorities say if you or I shot "an amazing number of people who have never proven to be a threat?" Why, they would call us murderers -- even mass murderers. Yet this is precisely what "the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan" has just declared, on videotape. ...

Again, just think of it, let it sink in, attend to the word of the commander: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." Again: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." Again: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat."

Again: what do you call it when innocent, unarmed, defenseless people who "have never proven to be a threat" are gunned down in cold blood? What do you call such an act?


But such acts are not to be punished -- because they are an accepted part of the process of the military domination of foreign lands. Wanton murder of the innocent? No problem, no scandal, a one-day story. "Insubordination" toward a few imperial satraps whose hands are steeped in blood? Shock, horror, wall-to-wall coverage.

But again: McChrystal's fate does not matter. As Justin Raimondo notes (see the original for informative links):

Our empire of bases and global military presence has engendered a whole new subspecies of American, a class or caste that derives its income, its tradition, and in many cases its family history from the long record of US military intervention overseas. They are the knights of the American imperium, not only military but also civilians whose social, economic, and political interests are inextricably tied to the growth of the empire. This includes but is not limited to the military contractors, the administrators, the Washington policy wonks who come up with endless rationales for war – and, really, the entire political class in Washington, and their vassals among the coastal elites.


Indeed. If McChrystal goes, another bureaucrat of death will take his place. Until the militarist empire itself is rolled back and broken up, we will continue to see, month after month, year after year, "an amazing number of people who have never proven to be a threat" killed in cold blood -- such as the two little girls who were slaughtered last weekend in Khost.

There they are, their bodies torn, their slender limbs twisted and broken, their lifeless eyes staring into eternal nothingness ... and we're supposed to care about the professional fortunes and political fates of the depraved, power-drunk thugs who run this brutal war machine?

***

UPDATE: Keep the Change
"Another bureaucrat of death" indeed. Since the above post was written, Obama has appointed the top imperial proconsul of the age, bipartisan fave David Petraeus, to take direct control of the wars -- overt and covert -- in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Petraeus, as head of "Central Command" -- the core provinces of the eternal War of Terror -- is already in overall charge of the Af-Pak morass, having previously been in charge of the Iraq bloodbath.

This is No-Change with a vengeance -- as Obama himself made clear. The Washington Post reports:

[Obama] said [the move] should not be read by anyone as a change in the direction of the country's war effort.

"This is a change in personnel," Obama said, "but it is not a change in policy."

So the bitter harvest of dead children will go on. And on. And on. But the most important thing, of course, is that Obama looked "strong" in the savage squabbling for chunks of power amongst the jackals of the imperial court.

***

UPDATE II: As you might expect, Arthur Silber has some wise words to say about the deeper implications of these unseemly rumblings in the bowels of the War Machine -- including the rather pertinent (and universally ignored) fact that every single official involved in the McChrystal imbroglio is, literally and legally, a war criminal.

 
Only Connect: Searing Insights From Arthur Silber
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Sunday, 20 June 2010 22:45

As I've said here many times before, no one that I know writing today is making the kinds of profound connections that Arthur Silber makes, year after year: drawing out the deeper implications of the operations of power on every level of our lives, from the global scope of high politics to the still, dark night of the individual psyche.

His latest post is a masterpiece of his insightful art. He uncovers the (literally) deadly dynamic by which the ruling elites not only enforce their ravenous and ravaging will -- but also how they make their victims "become collaborators in their own destruction."

Go there now, or as soon as you can, and read the piece in its entirety. Don't cheat yourself of a rare draught of wisdom when it's offered.

 
Occupational Hazards: Praise the Warlord and Pass the Ammunition
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Tuesday, 22 June 2010 10:40

(UPDATED BELOW)

High comedy from the Gray Lady:

American taxpayers have inadvertently created a network of warlords across Afghanistan who are making millions of dollars escorting NATO convoys and operating outside the control of either the Afghan government or the American and NATO militaries, according to the results of a Congressional investigation released Monday.


"Inadvertently!" Really, what yocks!

Coincidentally, I am currently reading a new edition of Norman Stone's 1964 book, The Honoured Society, dealing with the great "surge" of Mafia power in Sicily in the post-WWII years. Stone, who was in Sicily at the time, tells an interesting story of how the American military government "inadvertently" restored the Mafia to feudal lordship over Sicily by "inadvertently" placing Mafia leaders and their associates in charge of towns and villages all over Sicily, "inadvertently" giving them carte blanche to create a vast black market, "inadvertently" allowing them to crush any movement toward land reform or unionized labor, and "inadvertently" putting the political process in their stranglehold, laying the foundation for generations of violence, terror, corruption, suffering and deprivation for ordinary people.

As Stone notes:

Don Caló received the loyalist cooperation in these [black market] manoeuvres from his friends in AMGOT [Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories], who supplied the passes necessary for his caravan of trucks to travel without impediment up and down the roads of Sicily. At about that time, AMGOT in Sicily had fallen under the sway of its unofficial adviser, Vito Genovese, an American gangster -- later named as head of the Mafia offshoot, Cosa Nostra -- who had disappeared after his indictment on a charge of murder and turned up in Italy. Don Caló found Genovese most accommodating. From AMGOT came all the petrol he required, and sometimes, when he was short of transport for an exceptionally large shipment, his friends helped out with a military vehicle or two.

In 1944 I happened to be in the town of Benevento through which Don Caló's black market caravans were obliged to pass on their way northward, and although at times there were more trucks loaded with Don Caló's [olive] oil on the roads of southern Italy than there were military vehicles, there was nothing to be done to put a stop to this situation. All papers were always in order.


And here we are again. From the NY Times' chuckle fest:

The 79-page report, entitled “Warlord Inc.,” paints an anarchic picture of contemporary Afghanistan, with the country’s major highways being controlled by groups of freelance gunmen who answer to no one — and who are being paid [billions of dollars] by the United States.

Afghanistan, the investigation found, plays host to hundreds of unregistered private security companies employing as many as 70,000 largely unsupervised gunmen. “The principal private security subcontractors,” the report said, “are warlords, strongmen, commanders and militia leaders who compete with the Afghan central government for power and authority."

...“Long after the United States leaves Afghanistan, and the convoy security business shuts down, these warlords will likely continue to play a major role as autonomous centers of political, economic and military power,” the report said.


Just like the "good war" way back when! Which is only fitting, for as we all know, the nine-year morass of loot and domination in Afghanistan is the "good war" of our latest Greatest Generation, now led by a wise and noble prince of progress and peace.

But here's something strange from the Times' story of the "inadvertent" program of warlord creation:

These subcontracts, the investigation found, are handed out without any oversight from the Department of Defense, despite clear instructions from Congress that the department provide such oversight.


Hmm; the Pentagon is deliberately ignoring clear instructions from Congress ... yet the result of this deliberate, knowing, wilful course of action is somehow "inadvertent." Yes, let's drag out the old courtroom trope once again, for, once again, it is all too apt: "Your honor, it's true that I picked up the gun, loaded the gun, pointed the gun, pulled the gun's trigger, and fired five shots into the head of the victim -- but the death itself was entirely inadvertent."

The Pentagon's creation of "a network of warlords" to do its donkey work -- and its dirty work -- in Afghanistan is no more "inadvertent" than the empowerment and entrenchment of the Mafia in Sicily in 1944, or the creation of a international network of armed Islamic extremists under the Carter and Reagan administrations, etc., etc., etc. Our imperial militarists are happy to empower ruthless thugs of every description to keep the Great Game of loot and domination going, without giving the slightest thought to the worthless rabble who will suffer the consequences -- sometimes for generations.

Gee, maybe it's not so funny after all.

UPDATE: If you want to know just why our masters and commanders are waging their profitable wars abroad and their relentless class wars at home, then check out Arthur Silber's latest. You'll find the answer there.

 
Sincerely Yours: Another Legal Triumph for the Obama-Yoo Administration
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Thursday, 17 June 2010 11:45

James Bovard at Antiwar.com points out one of the more egregiously sick-making of the many atrocious "arguments" employed by Barack Obama in his successful effort to block the efforts of Maher Arar to seek justice for his unjust rendition and proxy torture in the Great War of Global Terror.

Obama bade his legal henchmen -- his own personal John Yoos, as it were -- to tell the Supreme Court that it should kill the Canadian citizen's case seeking compensation for his unlawful arrest by U.S. officials, who then rendered him not unto Caesar but to the untender mercies of Syria's torture cells. The Robed Ones agreed, dismissing, without comment, Arar's appeal of a lower court ruling that quashed his case -- a decision that Scott Horton rightly likened last year to the Dred Scott case, which upheld the legality of slavery, even in states which prohibited it.

The Arar ruling upholds the "legality" of a new, universal form of slavery, i.e., the United States government can deprive anyone in the world of their freedom, and dispose of their bodies as it sees fit: torture, "indefinite detention," or even "targeted assassination." The fact that it is a man of partly African descent who is now outstripping the Southern slavers in this extension of servitude to the entire world is one of those poisonously bitter ironies with which history abounds.

But grim and depraved as Obama's position is, it is not without its comic elements. As Bovard notes, one of the "arguments" offered by the Obama/Yoo administration was that the case should be dismissed because it might call into question “the motives and sincerity of the United States officials who concluded that petitioner could be removed to Syria.” We kid, as they say, you not.

So now cases of monstrous and criminal actions by agents of the United States government cannot be heard in court, because this might impugn the "sincerity" of the officials involved. And after all, as we all know, it is the inner feelings of government officials that are all important in determining the legality -- and morality -- of their actions. That is why the murder of more than a million Iraqis in an act of naked military aggression is not a war crime; it is, at the very worst, just a "tragic blunder," a misdirected excess of good intentions gone awry. Because we meant well, didn't we? We always mean well.

Even those Southern slavers were "sincere" in their belief that keeping people of African descent in servitude was the "right" thing to do. It's too bad that Barack Obama was not around in those days to stick up for them and ensure that their "motives and sincerity" could not be questioned. Heaven forefend that the delicate sensibilities of slavers, renditioners, torturers and assassins should ever be exposed to public scrutiny! 

So Arar's American case is now dead. (The Canadians long ago 'fessed up -- and paid up -- for their role in his torment.) But its implications live on. As I noted in my first article on the Arar case, back in December 2003:

... Arar's case is not extraordinary. In the past two years, the Bushist organs have "rendered" thousands of detainees, without charges, hearings or the need to produce any evidence whatsoever, into the hands of regimes which the U.S. government itself denounces for the widespread use of torture. Apparatchiks of the organs make no secret of the practice -- or of their knowledge that the "rendered" will indeed be beaten, burned, drugged, raped, even killed. "I do it with my eyes open," one renderer told the Washington Post. Detainees -- including lifelong American residents -- have been snatched from the homes, businesses, schools, from streets and airports, and sent to torture pits like Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan -- even the stateless chaos of Somalia, where Ashcroft simply dumped more than 30 Somali-Americans last year, without charges, without evidence, without counsel, and with no visible means of support, as the London Times reports.

But this is not the scandal we were speaking of.

Of course, the American organs needn't rely exclusively on foreigners for torture anymore. Under the enlightened leadership of Ashcroft, Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other upstanding Christian statesmen, America has now established its own centers for what the organs call "operational flexibility." These include bases in Bagram, Afghanistan and Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean island that was forcibly depopulated in the 1960s to make way for a U.S. military installation. Here, the CIA runs secret interrogation units that are even more restricted than the American concentration camp on Guantanamo Bay. Detainees -- again, held without charges or evidentiary requirements -- are "softened up" by beatings at the hands of military police and Special Forces troops before being subjected to "stress and duress" techniques: sleep deprivation (officially condemned as a torture method by the U.S. government), physical and psychological disorientation, withholding of medical treatment, etc. When beatings and "duress" don't work, detainees are then "packaged" -- hooded, gagged, bound to stretchers with duct tape -- and "rendered" into less dainty hands elsewhere.

But this is not the scandal we were speaking of.

Not content with capture and torture, the organs have been given presidential authority to carry out raids and kill "suspected terrorists" (including Americans) on their own volition -- without oversight, without charges, without evidence -- anywhere in the world, including on American soil. In addition to this general license to kill, Bush has claimed the power to designate anyone he pleases "an enemy combatant" and have them "rendered" into the hands of the organs or simply killed at his express order -- without charges, without evidence, with no judicial or legislative oversight whatsoever. The life of every American citizen -- indeed, every person on earth -- is now at the disposal of his arbitrary whim. Never in history has an individual claimed such universal power -- and had the force to back it up.

But this is not the scandal we were speaking of.

All of the above facts -- each of them manifest violations of international law and/or the U.S. Constitution -- have been cheerfully attested to, for years now, by the organs' own apparatchiks, in the Post, the NY Times, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Economist and other high-profile, mainstream publications. The stories appear -- then they disappear. There is no reaction. No outcry in Congress or the courts -- the supposed guardians of the people's rights -- beyond a few wan calls for more formality in the concentration camp processing or judicial "warrants" for torture. And among the great mass of "the people" itself, there is -- nothing. Silence. Inattention. Acquiescence. State terrorism -- lawless seizure, filthy torture, official murder -- is simply accepted, a part of "normal life," as in Nazi Germany or Stalin's empire, where "decent people" with "nothing to hide" approved and applauded the work of the "organs" in "defending national security."

This is the scandal, this is the nation's festering shame. This acquiescence to state terror will breed -- and attract -- a thousand evils for every one it supposedly prevents. 


And please note: none of this has changed. None of it. These crimeful, brutal abuses of power are becoming more thoroughly entrenched under the rule of the progressive Peace laureate now in the White House. What Bush did with winks and nods, Obama is openly championing, expanding and codifying into law. And these deeply sincere evils will keep reverberating, in ways that we can not even imagine, far into the lives of our children and grandchildren, and for generations beyond.

UPDATE: Scott Horton has much more on the latest ruling in the Arar case.

 
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