April 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A word of history is in order. Indispensable element of year’s end festivities, the papillote is a confection originating in Lyon, France during the late 18th century, consisting of a chocolate treat wrapped in glistening paper, usually accompanied by a paper featuring a phrase, or image, reminiscent of the Chinese “fortune cookie.” Found in the Lyon chez moi monthly publication from December 2007 is this concise explanation(Fr) [PDF] of how the papillote came about — like many momentous discoveries, a completely fortuitous event, the original motives for the innovation being completely unconnected to subsequent developments.
If the legend proves true, and it seems likely that it is, Monsieur Papillot was a confectioner of candies in the Terreaux quarter of Lyon whose company had employed a young man who, as young men will do, became enamored of a young woman. At the same time that Papillot began noticing that a certain amount of merchandise was missing from his stock of chocolates, he surprised the young apprentice disappearing certain items for his own personal use, enveloping them in wrapping, concealing secret messages to be given to the object of his passions. The apprentice was swiftly reprimanded and thrown out of the enterprise by his ears.
Though the young man was removed from his service, not someone to let a good idea go to waste, the inspiration wasn’t lost: Papillot developed the notion of enveloping messages along with the chocolates, transforming the love letters into jokes or puzzles, which were then commercialized in the form of “papillotes.” Now an exceedingly popular item, a concept subsequently taken over by numerous other chocolatiers, annual production presently reaches nearly 3,000 tons per year nationally (France). If Papillot was able to profit from his former employee’s idea, another lesson surely didn’t go unnoticed by the young apprentice, who, after some time, must have realized that having a good idea is not enough: one must also be in a position to capitalize on it.
— Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.
April 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment
When you are fighting the enemy, any option is open. No mercy. America knows war. They are war masters.
— Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, “Dirty Wars” (Rick Rowley, Jeremy Scahill)
…all the great scholars who have studied American character have come to the conclusion that we are a warlike people and that we love war… What we hate is not casualties but losing.
— Michael Ledeen (March 2003 speech, American Enterprise Institute)
The savage injustice of the Europeans rendered an event, which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive to several of those unfortunate countries.
— Adam Smith, “The Wealth of Nations” (1776)
By 1650 the West had already achieved military mastery in four separate areas: Central and Northeast America; Siberia; some coastal areas of sub-Saharan Africa; and the islands of Southeast Asia. Different as these regions, and their inhabitants, undoubtedly were, their experience of the European invaders was, in one crucial respect, identical: the white men, they found, fought dirty, and (what was worse) fought to kill. Thus the Narragansett Indians of New England strongly disapproved of the colonists’ way of making war. “It was too furious,” one brave told an English captain in 1638, “and [it] slays too many men.” The captain did not deny it. The Indians, he speculated, “might fight seven years and not kill seven men.” Roger Williams, a colonial governor, likewise admitted that the Indians’ fighting “was farre less bloudy and devouring than the cruell Warres of Europe.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the peoples of Indonesia were equally appalled by the all-destructive fury of European warfare.
— Geoffrey Parker, “The Military Revolution”
March 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Ta-Nehisi Coates has what he deems a satisfactory definition of “asshole”, and I have to agree with him that it encapsulates the idea quite well, in all of its implications:
I think what we have here is a working definition of an asshole — a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms.
The implications being, although he doesn’t explore the idea in his article, that the very act of demanding that social interaction happen on one’s terms is in its deepest sense an illegitimate exercise of power. In his example, admittedly a banal one, the individuals making noise in the “Quiet Car” are in effect forcing everyone else to be subjected to their behavior without consulting them or worrying about how it affects them — that is, they’re demanding that everyone else accept their terms, and not asking. They simply don’t care, and not caring is one of the primary and most prized privileges of power.
We don’t need Foucault to tell us that power is generally more effective (in more or less democratic societies, that is) when it is invisible. Those of us who are part of a hierarchy, or who are sensitive to these phenomena, understand through experience that it is often the unspoken, hidden rules which govern the various organizations and relations most tightly because the unspoken rules, by virtue of them being unspoken, aren’t subject to modification. They are simply tacitly accepted, though unacknowledged. The implications of this are much broader, of course, but I simply wanted to show how power manifests itself in even the most ordinary occasions, because I don’t think it’s trivial — quite the contrary. Being aware of it on this small level can only help develop one’s awareness of it, and consequently to apply this knowledge to all other areas of one’s life. David Wong writes, in a quite perceptive piece at Cracked.com:
…he has the power, everything is fine. It’s not even that he disagrees on the issue; it’s that he refuses to acknowledge it as an issue at all. This will happen to you. You will be on one side of a conflict that does not feel like a conflict to you, because that is the conflict. [...] You didn’t perceive yourself as being in a position of power because that is the main advantage of power – that you don’t have to think about it.
It’s actually a subtle observation. In other words, a healthy dose of a lack of self-awareness is necessary to any illegitimate exercise of power — and although the “check your privilege” refrain has become a knee-jerk platitude, it is grounded in a sound recognition that those in a position of power and privilege are often unaware of it, being shielded from this reality by that very privilege. Therefore, constant vigilance and self-monitoring are required to ensure that one isn’t being an asshole oneself — which is, of course, the whole point, as it is all too easy to recognize when others engage in egregious behavior while exonerating oneself. Don’t let it happen to you.
March 20, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Universally, a writer or speaker should endeavour to maintain the appearance of expressing himself, not, as if he wanted to say something, but as if he had something to say.
— Richard Whately, “Elements of Rhetoric” (1858)
I do not know: where I lack insight it is my custom to be silent.
— Creon: Sophocles, ”Oedipus Tyrannus”
January 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Man’s freedom, Camus pointed out, “is nothing else but a chance to be better” – and “the only way to deal with an un-free world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion”.
— Zygmunt Bauman, on Albert Camus
[...] the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” [...]
The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
— Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Letter From Birmingham Jail”, 1963)
King is no good anyway.
The question of gradualism in politics (in electoral politics known as “lesser evilism”, or LOTE) has been discussed by many: whether it’s more advantageous to work within the electoral system (or any organized, state-sanctioned system) to enact reform, or to ignore it, focusing one’s energies elsewhere. I won’t pretend this is a simple question because I don’t think it is, but I have a brief opinion on the matter. There are two main positions one can take that I see:
1) Working within the system is the most effective way enact policy changes, which, though incremental and often piecemeal, have some concrete effects on the lives of large numbers of people
2) The system is so corrupt and self-perpetuating, and the thinking permeating it so insular and doctrinal, that hoping to transform it from the inside is hopeless and a waste of energy — divestment is the answer
Let me say that I do not agree with the rather facile, bumper-sticker logic which dictates that “voting doesn’t matter”, leaving it at that. As a simple empirical matter, it’s easy to demonstrate that this is false, though there is much truth to it. Also, whether one is pursuing long-term or short-term goals is important. Simply divesting from electoral politics in order to withdraw one’s support for a broader system which rewards fraud and failure, increases the power of the “plutonomy” and prosecutes endless wars across the globe — without offering alternative structures or actions — is in my opinion unlikely to have much impact. I would simply call it neutral non-participation. The question of measuring (as much as that’s possible) the effects of one’s actions is crucial, and if it is shown that simple divestment by individuals following their own consciences does nothing to stop the bombs or the continuing ravages of upward income redistribution, then it can’t in my mind be considered a moral position — although it may be principled. As an individual, conscious decision to refuse to participate in evil, it is noble, but if it remains a single, isolated incident the results will be minimal. A broad, organized divestment campaign might be different, however.
Position 1) implies that “politics” is something only to be measured by state-sanctioned, organized elections, an activity to be exercised only punctually, at regular intervals, when it is authorized. This to me is the more pernicious and harmful view, as it narrows considerably the scope of what “politics” is, leaving anything outside of these events, which have become total farces handled by the public relations industry, as “a-political” — which is, of course, absurd. Whatever the truth is, it’s obvious that empowering outside voices, who have not been corrupted by the interests which feed our self-perpetuating political institutions (whether or not they are of use to the greater public), is absolutely vital to sustaining an honest discourse.
First of all, let us dispense with the misleading dichotomy between civil disobedience and illegality; civil disobedience — acts protesting the State when its policies are deemed unjust — is often by definition illegal, and indeed the fact that such acts are illegal is often an integral part of the strategy. Such a dichotomy implies that there are two forms of civil disobedience: one passive and peaceful, the other aggressive and “violent” — the underlying assumption being that one is more respectable, responsible and effective than the other. Such a simplistic view is dishonest and inaccurate, reducing the complexities of the situations faced by real human beings when confronted with real power by insidiously removing the societal and political contexts in which people act, and erasing any relations of structural domination which might exist. It is a view which normalizes violence when it emanates from entities sanctioned by the State — as if somehow protests in which citizens are attacked and injured are not “violent” (following one of the doctrinal usages of the word). It is in an imaginary world, where there is perfect equality and little arbitrary domination of one group over another, not the real one, that such a categorical rejection of violence or provocation is coherent. It is here that we see caricatures presented of the imaginary King and Gandhi, rendered harmless and passive through a false reading of their words, turning them into abstractions fit for popular consumption, more palatable — and here that we see the a-historical and bland exhortations demanding to locate the “Palestinian Gandhi” (hint: search the prisons).
The idea of a law which must not in any case be transgressed and be obeyed without question stems from a naïve conception of justice: a systematic and faithful codification of generally recognized moral codes. This is not necessarily what the law is, however let us assume for a moment that it is. It is an open debate whether or not there is an innate, genetically endowed set of morals which all humans possess, but it’s clear that across societies there are some very basic taboos and interdictions, which might be an indication of such a moral system. If this is the case, are we to believe that the particular system of case law in vigor in the U.S and elsewhere is wholly extrapolated from and built upon this very fundamental, yet barely understood, moral system? Clearly this can’t be the case, so it must be admitted that the law is an imperfect approximation of such a thing — and if it is an imperfect approximation, especially when it is administered by fallible individuals, then it cannot be held up as an inviolable, flawless institution. A more accurate interpretation could simply be: a common set of rules to be applied to all without distinction, principles to which all agree to submit, no matter how flawed, the goal of creating a faithful and accurate codification of innate moral principles being a misguided and impossible task.
In Resistance to Civil Government Henry David Thoreau writes:
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.
There are some difficulties here, primarily that there is no guarantee that “what I think right” must necessarily be recognized as ethical behavior by everyone — every tyrant and hoodlum has always found ways to justify his actions, appealing to the greater good to which some unfortunate innocent bystanders must be sacrificed. Appealing to one’s own “conscience” can also result in atrocities if the conscience in question is convinced of its own righteousness and finds itself at the command of significant power — and ultimately, power is the important issue. If the law is not to be a codification of ethical standards, then its ostensible purpose is to revoke the special privileges of the powerful, while defending the powerless, so that it might be the one domain in which some semblance of equality exists. Reality, however, demonstrates that, instead of acting as a check on the powerful, the law has often been bent into a tool of subjugation by those in a position to use it to their advantage. Laws, in other words, have often been used to shore up the privileges of those who drafted them — which should really not be such a surprise. The questions then of how much sovereignty an individual has when faced with what she sees are unjust laws, how much legitimacy to give them and whether or not to submit to them become pertinent.
Lawyers were everywhere and their influence was pervasive. Again and again, there was a need for legal justification. When the number two Nazi, Herman Goring, suggested in the course of a discussion at the end of 1938 that German travelers could always kick Jewish passengers out of a crowded compartment on a train, the Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, replied: “I would not say that. I do not believe in this. There has to be a law.”
In the cliché-thickened, mind-numbing swamp of U.S. political discourse, we see much talk of “returning to our roots” as a nation through strict adherence to the Constitution — as if it were a magical document the spells contained wherein would cure the country’s deepest ills; the wisdom of the “Founding Fathers”, who, if we would let them whisper to us through the ages, would enable us to “take back the country” to a magical era when all was right. Such mythologies, while containing a kernel of truth, like the mythologies built around King and Gandhi, stray rather far from reality.
Richard Seymour states the idea in a more condensed form:
I would just ask the reader simply to be positively disposed toward the thesis that, in the last analysis, the law is congealed class power.
Regarding history, perception of past events can be dramatized or skewed in order to conform to a particular narrative, being useful for illustrating certain principles but which weren’t necessarily animating the people participating in them. We should be careful to not impose an overarching narrative, or pattern on well-known historical events, which are sometimes more random and purposeless than they might seem in retrospect, simply in an effort to make them more understandable to us, or to bolster our own opinions or ideologies.
As I wrote about Aaron Swartz (and Bradley Manning), the general idea is that those who engage in civil disobedience act as precursors, the rest of the population benefiting from these acts by heightened awareness, or when the causes advanced become socially acceptable, normalized. In light of David Graeber’s statement, “Direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free”, acts of civil disobedience are only radical in that they operate in a space and time outside of the present — in other words, acting out a possible future in which their demands have already become a reality. Or, as Albert Camus would say: “I rebel, therefore we exist.”
Freddie deBoer writes:
Martin Luther King was adamantly opposed to gradualism, and as Ned Resnikoff pointed out, those events of resistance represent the rejection of the political process due to the urgency of profound oppression. [...] To ask for change in the face of injustice and suffering is to be called naive and sanctimonious; to advocate resistance that transcends voting once every four years is to be called a traitor. Yet the man who we celebrate today, and the events referenced by the very president who is defended in those terms, speak to the profound poverty of conscience that resides in the doctrine of the lesser evil.
Who would tell Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines and the slaves who revolted in Haïti, sparking a revolution that would even ignite fears in the U.S. of a possible spreading insurrection among slaves, that they should wait for a more propitious moment to make their demands known? John Brown (see Thoreau on John Brown) that his harsh tactics in his efforts to abolish chattel slavery weren’t gentle enough to win over public opinion? Draft card burners that they should find a better way to voice their discontent while the U.S. was systematically destroying South Vietnam, Cambodia and parts of Laos? Freedom Riders that they should have waited until southern whites, and their police collaborators, were more amenable to reconsidering their ideas on race? The Algerian National Liberation Front that they should have insisted on sitting down and negotiating with their colonizers and torturers? The Stonewall rioters they should cooperate and really just find better ways to channel their energies? Who would tell these people to temper their demands to accommodate the public’s sense of decency?
King spoke in 1968:
One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, “Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out.”
Barack Obama mentioned “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” in his recent inauguration speech. One could note the irony of Obama, the head of state presiding over the most prodigious expansion of covert and clandestine warfare in recent memory, as well as a record number of deportations of undocumented immigrants, an aggressive campaign against governmental transparency and dissent — a member of the very organization a main function of which is to maintain the status quo — approvingly referencing events which were explicitly challenges to the status quo. Far from being an abnormal display of hypocrisy, it is routine for a public figure to pay rhetorical homage to such liberating events once they are distanced enough into the past to be inoffensive and harmless, unable to spark any present action. Thus, one pays lip service to a revolutionary spirit while simultaneously implementing policies which are perfectly at odds with it, or counterrevolutionary. As such quotes become commonplace, taken out of context and repeated ad nauseum every time a speaker or writer wishes to ostentatiously encapsulate his philosophy with radical boiler plate, there is the risk that the sentiments expressed are transformed into rhetorical flourish, and the real fervor which animated them is reduced to trite formulas.
“Speaking truth to power”, while an admirable notion in its own right, suffers from the fatal flaw of presupposing that “power” is unaware of the truth — a refrain echoing the typical liberal conceit that a simple lack of information is at the root of injustice, that all that needs to be done is to understand and explain the problem correctly to those in a position to remedy it. While there is always something to be gained from studying and understanding the reasons for various ills plaguing humanity, what is needed at times is a not a careful, cogent argument, but simply an act, or a healthy dose of unmitigated rage.
January 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
On January 11th the New York Times featured an interesting article by C. J. Chivers, a journalist specializing in weaponry who is generally well-informed, on the recent findings of the Conflict Armament Research organization detailing the underground proliferation of small-arms ammunition throughout Africa. According to their research, the ammunition is Iranian-made, and was found in Kenya, Uganda, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as among Islamist insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Niger (which is not surprising, given how small arms have a tendency to spread beyond their original destinations).
The ammunition, matched to the world’s most abundant firearms, has principally been documented in Africa, where the researchers concluded that untold quantities had been supplied to governments in Guinea, Kenya, Ivory Coast and, the evidence suggests, Sudan. [...] But the long mysterious source of the ammunition appears beyond dispute. The cartridges were made, the researchers say, by the Ammunition and Metallurgy Industries Group, a subsidiary of the Defense Industries Organization. [...]
Mr. Bevan made clear in repeated interviews that he and his fellow researchers are not advocates for military action against Iran. When they began tracing the ammunition, they did not know or expect that the evidence would point to Tehran.
Rather than seeing this as an attempt to demonize Tehran as the most recent international pariah and subconsciously encourage support for overt military intervention against its nuclear sites (as opposed to the rather creative, clandestine, low-level warfare being carried out for many years now), let us give the benefit of the doubt to the researchers, assuming their work was pursued in good faith. After all, there is nothing all that surprising about Iran fabricating munitions, they do have armed forces; nor selling them: after all, everybody else is doing it. One need not presume, although it’s possible, that they steered their research to fit a foregone conclusion, but rather that they sincerely and objectively endeavored to solve this mystery during a several-year long period, finally coming to a solid conclusion: the weapons are Iranian. The introduction states:
- African governments appear to be the main vectors in the supply of Iranian ammunition (and weapons) to illicit markets in Africa—whether as a result of loss, theft, or deliberate policies of arming civilians and insurgent forces.
- The report highlights only one case (2010) in which there is clear evidence of direct, illicit supply by Iran to the continent. This contravenes the UN sanctions regime on Iran, which prohibits the export of Iranian weapons (effective since 2007).
- Transfers of Iranian ammunition also contravened UN sanctions on Côte d’Ivoire and plausibly violated UN embargoes on the DRC and Darfur. There is no evidence to suggest the direct involvement of Iran in these violations.
The report summarizes thus [PDF]:
In terms of its role in the African arms market, although a recent entrant, Iran’s ammunition ‘footprint’ is widespread. The 14 cases presented in this report are evidence of this alone. Iranian ammunition circulates in conflict-affected regions from East to West Africa. But it is important to recognise that, despite extensive circulation, Iranian ammunition and weapons are small in number in comparison to materiel supplied from former Soviet-bloc countries and, increasingly, China.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that the alleged Iranian munitions are a small percentage of the total arms in use in conflict-ridden regions in Africa, and were virtually undetected before 2001 — that will likely not prevent it from being seized upon by those commissars eager to vilify the ennemi du jour with anything at hand and useful. However, Western observers would do well to remember the European colonial legacy in Africa, as well as U.S. cold war policies of military and diplomatic support for dictators and various warlords during the 1980s and 90s, their hands are anything but clean. One may indeed be genuinely surprised to learn about these munitions. As when an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) ostensibly sent by Hezbollah violated Israeli airspace shortly before the recent “Pillar of Cloud” assault on Gaza, or when Iran possibly engineered the descent of an American RQ-170 stealth UAV, one might imagine the gods of war, like ever the abusive husband or master, unaccustomed to having his dominance questioned, smarting from the unexpected affront to his authority: ”That’s our domain…”
I’d like to submit three ideas/possibilities:
1) The decision to enter the arms market would be partly a result of US-led sanctions, which have significantly increased hardship on the Iranian economy, possibly causing Tehran to compensate with other sources of revenue
2) Sanctions, embargoes in general drive the activities of targeted countries underground, forcing them to engage in clandestine activities and often produce unintended consequences
3) The fact that Iran has entered the arms market would not be a cause for concern on the part of Western powers for humanitarian reasons, but rather for reasons of hegemony
U.S. sanctions against Iran began almost immediately after radical students took control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking hostages, prompting President Jimmy Carter to seize Iranian assets, issuing Executive Order 12170 — stating that:
I, JIMMY CARTER, President of the United States, find that the situation in Iran constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.
I hereby order blocked all property and interests in property of the Government of Iran, its instrumentalities and controlled entities and the Central Bank of Iran which are or become subject to the jurisdiction of the United States or which are in or come within the possession or control of persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
Thus begins a long history of U.S. sanctions against Iran, which have continued unbroken in one form or another up to the present. Although the stated goals of sanctions have evolved over time, and the multitude of various instruments and devices used to torture Iran’s body politic have been creatively, judiciously combined and overlapped, the core principle is one of coercion in order to force Tehran to agree to certain conditions. Such are the prerogatives of power.
Sanctions are primarily a weapon of the strong against the weak. We should pause for a moment to consider the nature of them, and if they really accomplish their ostensible goals — and failing which, to determine what their actual goals might be. Let us take Iraq as an example. Joy Gordon writes:
The documents reveal that the U.S. wielded extraordinary power, determining the crucial policies that would affect the entire population of Iraq. Within the closed meetings of the 661 Committee, the U.S., often acting unilaterally, determined the nature and severity of the sanctions, in the face of almost constant opposition from the majority of the Security Council, the UN’s humanitarian agencies, the UN Human Rights Commission, and international NGOs. And there is no sign that the sanctions contributed to Saddam Hussein’s downfall. To the contrary, in many regards they strengthened the regime. As food shortages set in, for instance, most of the population became dependent on state rations, further consolidating state control. The unemployment and impoverishment brought about not only malnourishment and disease, but crime and a deterioration of the social fabric. [emphasis mine]
The logic of those advocating sanctions to achieve their desired result, the overthrow of the “regime” (nomenclature: unfriendly foreign governments are often “regimes”, friendly ones are known as “governments”), is briefly that an angry populace, suffering from the effects of the sanctions, will focus their ire on their ruler, eventually demanding the overthrow of the despot, ushering a new era of peace and prosperity. With Iraq, though, we witnessed the inverse of the stated goal, namely a population more tethered to a government consolidating its own power, while civil society itself collapsed.
Despite findings that there was a strong association between economic sanctions and increase in child mortality and malnutrition rates, and despite the fact that Denis Halliday, once the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, resigned in protest against the sanctions, labeling the consequences of UN Resolution 687 “genocidal”, the Clinton administration blocked efforts by European countries, with China, to lift the sanctions on Iraq. There is a singular perversity in the idea that it is often self-proclaimed liberals who advocate for sanctions — also known as “war by other means” — as a means of avoiding outright war, as is the case currently with the stubble-chinned, world-weary “realists” populating today’s Democratic bestiary. Regarding Iran, once, proudly thundering that they weren’t taking “any options off the table” in order to appease the hardliners, they’ve moved on, thoroughly in the style of the bland, authoritarian empty suit so beloved in Washington, to eagerly showing how sanctions are getting the desired results to “bring Iranians to the negotiating table”: “Look, see? They’re suffering! I told you!”
One wonders if they actually believe in their own fairy tales, and perhaps some of them do — there is only so much cognitive dissonance one can withstand before one forces one’s beliefs to match one’s rhetoric. It may help that they aren’t the ones to suffer the consequences of such hallucinations. That such a logic is so transparently flawed either never occurs to them, or simply doesn’t matter — however, this ability to abandon logic when it suits your purposes and to experiment with hypotheticals when real human lives are at stake are some more of the prerogatives of power, and therefore need no further explanation. Andrew Cockburn writes:
I was assured at the time by officials at CIA headquarters in Langley that an overthrow of the dictator by a population rendered desperate by sanctions was ‘the least likely alternative’. The impoverishment of Iraq – not to mention the exclusion of its oil from the global market to the benefit of oil prices – was not a means to an end: it was the end.
A major turning point in U.S. sanctions against Iran occurred in the mid 1990s, when Iran’s energy sector was targeted, and President Clinton imposed a comprehensive ban on U.S. trade with and investment in Iran. The U.S. pretext for sanctions shifted in fact from “terrorism” to focus on Iran’s energy sector in 1995 with the “Iran Foreign Oil Sanctions Act”, the purpose of which was initially to sanction any foreign firms’ exports to Iran’s energy sector, then broadened to cover any foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector. Clinton then signed Executive Order 12959. A December 2012 Congressional Research Service report [PDF] states:
Executive Order 12959 followed an earlier March 1995 executive order barring U.S. investment in Iran’s energy sector, which was imposed when President Clinton that month declared that a state of emergency exists with respect to Iran. A subsequent Executive Order, 13059 (August 19, 1997) prevented U.S. companies from knowingly exporting goods to a third country for incorporation into products destined for Iran. The trade ban was intended to blunt criticism that U.S. trade with Iran made U.S. appeals for multilateral containment of Iran less credible.
Each March since 1995, the U.S. Administration has renewed a declaration of a state of emergency that triggers the President’s trade regulation authority under IEEPA [International Emergency Economic Powers Act].
The Iran Sanctions Act (originally the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act) is the main vehicle allowing the U.S. to punish and extract penalties from companies doing business with Iran’s energy sector. Enacted in 1996, its purpose was simply to try to starve the country of resources to prevent its energy sector from functioning, since Iran perceives a large proportion of its revenue from oil (20% of its GDP, and over half of its government’s income). Such a policy is, of course, rational from the point of view of a superpower attempting to weaken and marginalize the country as much as possible. Iran is among the top producers of oil, and as of 2011, the majority of Iranian oil exports went to China, the EU, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey, with the EU making up 18%.
Another major turning point came at the end of 2011. Since 2010 there has been a convergence in sanctions policy towards Iran among U.S. and European powers, partly as a result of continued U.S. threats and the judicious use of Israeli public relations consisting of persistent bellicosity and threats of military action — a strategy aimed partly at radicalizing U.S. policy and forcing EU members to commit to sanctions in order to prevent a feared military conflagration. Katzman writes:
Some countries have joined the burgeoning sanctions regime not necessarily out of conviction of the efficacy of sanctions but rather as a means of perhaps heading off unwanted military action by the United States or Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities. [...]
The European Union and other Western allies of the United States have closely aligned their sanctions with those of the United States. On November 21, 2011, in a concerted action with those taken by the U.S. Treasury Department (see above under §311 of the Patriot Act), Britain and Canada announced they would no longer do business with Iran’s financial institutions, including Iran’s Central Bank. [...]
In joining U.S. efforts to cut Iran’s oil export lifeline, on January 23, 2012, the EU decided to:
- Refrain from new contracts to purchase Iranian oil and to wind down existing contracts by July 1, 2012, after which all EU purchases of Iranian oil were to cease. Collectively, the EU bought about 600,000 barrels per day of Iranian oil in 2011, about a quarter of Iran’s total oil exports.
In March 2012 the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) organization agreed to end transactions with Iranian banks blacklisted by the EU, which purged several dozen Iranian banks from the network. This effectively barred them from trading in euros, cutting them off further from the international financial sector and creating confusion within Iran, including high inflation, a collapse of the rial and a thriving black market. In June the EU embargo prevented Asian refiners from buying protection and indemnity insurance for oil tankers, an added difficulty, though not an insurmountable one. Unsurprisingly, (we have come to know the man quite well) Barack Obama has proven to be quite a blithe and spirited signer of executive orders indeed, aggressively turning the screws on Tehran. As oil revenues continue to decline, all of these various intricate and blunt instruments, despite the shrieking for even harsher methods from certain domineering quarters, have in fact had the desired effect, resulting in a wholly predictable consequence: collective punishment.
The Guardian reports:
Naghdi, the head of Darou Pakhsh, which supplies about a third of Iran’s pharmaceutical needs, said he can no longer buy medical equipment such as autoclaves (sterilising machines), essential for the production of many drugs, and that some of the biggest western pharmaceutical companies refuse to have anything to do with Iran. [...] In addition, there are over 8,000 haemophiliacs who are finding it harder to get blood clotting agents. Operations on haemophiliacs have been virtually suspended because of the risks created by the shortages. An estimated 23,000 Iranians with HIV/Aids have had their access to the drugs they need to keep them alive severely restricted. The society representing the 8,000 Iranians suffering from thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder, has said its members are beginning to die because of a lack of an essential drug, deferoxamine, used to control the iron content in the blood.
The New York Times reports that air pollution in Tehran has increased due to fuel shortages:
Iran surprised outsiders by quickly making up for the loss of imports by producing its own brew of gasoline. While the emergency fuel kept vehicles running, local experts warned that it was creating much more pollution. [...] Iran’s Health Ministry has reported a rise in respiratory and heart diseases, as well as an increase in a variety of cancers that it says are related to pollution.
Muhammad Sahimi wrote in August 2012:
The supposedly “smart” sanctions that the United States and its EU allies have imposed on Iran have been expanded to all areas, even if they are not part of the official sphere of sanctions. This is because the U.S. and its EU allies have imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank and practically all other Iranian banks that are involved in commercial transactions with the outside world. Since these banks open lines of credit for exports and imports and provide financial guarantees for commerce with the outside world, it has become very difficult, if not impossible, to import vital good and products into the country.
— which was echoed in an August 2012 UNGA report detailing the human rights situation in Iran (p. 15):
The sanctions also appear to be affecting humanitarian operations in the country. Even companies that have obtained the requisite licence to import food and medicine are facing difficulties in finding third-country banks to process the transactions. Owing to payment problems, several medical companies have stopped exporting medicines to the Islamic Republic of Iran, leading to a reported shortage of drugs used in the treatment of various illnesses, including cancer, heart and respiratory conditions, thalassemia and multiple sclerosis.
The ostensible justification for the sadistic international austerity campaign against Iran is their supposed potential, or dormant, nuclear weapons program — ever insinuated, but never proven. Ongoing boisterous posturing in the media-military complex about it, while certain claims are not without merit, must be included among the more ridiculous farces on the international stage in the last decade, a veritable cornucopia of misinformation, disinformation and confusion, as well as the occasional media stunt. The 2007 NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) states that, if there ever was an Iranian nuclear weapons program (such as Mohsen Fakrizadeh’s Physics Research Center (PHRC)), it was halted in 2003. The Pentagon also readily conceded that Iran’s military posture is largely defensive, the purpose of which is to deter aggression. As for adhering to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), although there may be a slight difference of interpretation regarding the scope of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and the statutes and additional protocols, Iran is in compliance with its main safeguard agreements. Israel, Pakistan and India are not NPT signatories, despite all three possessing nuclear weapons programs. Iran is also apparently converting much of their 20% enriched Uranium (easier to convert into weapons grade material) into fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor.
If this all seems eerily similar to the confusion and the aggressive public relations campaigns preceding the 2003 Iraq war (or 1990, for that matter), we might need reminding of Sun Tzu’s famous phrase:
All warfare is based on deception
As for the real reasons underpinning the campaign against Iran, official government or corporate media declarations will not enlighten us greatly. The concern over Tehran’s nuclear program, while no doubt sincere for some, is for the most part an issue seized upon as a pretext for marginalizing a government perceived as not being pliant enough to Washington’s and the UK’s interests. It also reflects a longstanding concern to prevent Iran from achieving military dominance over the Gulf region.
Interest in Iran’s energy resources go back to the beginning of the 20th century when oil was discovered, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) being founded in 1908. The British government eventually developed an interest in the company in order to secure for itself a reliable supply of oil for its navy, later acquiring part control of APOC. Gradually, discontent grew among Iranians over what they saw as their small share of profits from the operations, the British deriving more revenue from taxing the company than Iran received in royalties. Many Iranians saw the company as an organ continuing a form of British imperialism, exploiting Iran’s resources for gain. In 1951, after years of conflict and re-negotiations, what was then called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was nationalized and Mohammed Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister. Mossadegh represented a broad program of national development to be financed by oil revenue, a philosophy putting him and his supporters into conflict with those representing the interests of Britain, naturally more concerned with maintaining a certain amount of control over profits from the concession. It is after nationalization that the British froze Iran’s sterling assets, British technicians abandoned the AIOC, effectively enacting the first anti-Iranian embargo, as well as challenging the nationalization of the oil fields at The Hague.
When the Eisenhower administration came into office, the British found a sympathetic ear to their plans to remove Mossadegh from power — British and American intelligence (MI6 with CIA) orchestrated the TPAJAX Project, which saw the coup d’état overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran on August 19, 1953 (known as the “28 Mordad coup” in Iran), collaborating with royalist military officers to re-install the Shah on the throne (a certain General Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr, the father of the famous U.S. Gulf War commander, played a prominent role in the proceedings). The government the Shah instated was well known for its repression and intransigence, one of the hallmarks being the SAVAK, the Shah’s dreaded secret service — an organization formed partly with the help of the CIA — whose main purpose was suppressing dissent, that resorted to spying, running interrogations as well as torturing and executing opponents of the Shah. The government’s brutality ultimately was its own undoing, as popular unrest reached a crescendo near the end of its rule, culminating in the revolutionary fervor which ushered in the Islamic revolution. Thus ends the period wherein Iran constituted the third pillar of “stability” in the Gulf region (the U.S. even entered into negotiations to supply nuclear weapons technology to Iran during this period, resulting in a nuclear pact), along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, wherein “stability” = amenable to U.S. interests, implying control, or resistance to popular opinion.
It is good to note here that Jimmy Carter’s opinion of the Shah, in line with the prerogatives of American foreign policy more generally, was rather favorable:
Under the Shah’s brilliant leadership, Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions of the world. There is no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like more.
The word “stability” here is understood, again, in its doctrinal sense.
It’s useful to keep in mind these historical developments, which are not forgotten, when considering the words and deeds of those currently holding power in Iran — whose own human rights record is rather poor — as well as popular opinion, which tends to be understandably resistant to the hubris of those advocating any foreign intervention into Iran’s internal affairs.
As for any real “threats” posed by the Iranian juggernaut, they are outlined here, in a presentation of the Pentagon report to Congress in 2010:
The report states that central to Iran’s “deterrent strategy” is its pursuit of a nuclear program that could potentially move it closer to developing a nuclear weapon. Iran contends that its nuclear ambitions are for peaceful purposes. “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy” [...] The written report to Congress cited Iran’s influence in the Middle East — including its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, in Lebanon and Gaza, respectively — and its reach into Iraq and Afghanistan. Military and defense officials have characterized such behavior as “destabilizing.”
— which corresponds to the 2012 Pentagon report cited above, agreeing that Iran’s military posture is largely defensive. In other words, the perception that Iran will one day have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons is the deterrent.
We should note at this point that the arms trade globally is notably rife with corruption, and any attempt to paint a clear picture of all global transactions involving weapons is almost impossible. Transparency International has identified 29 different types of corruption in the defense- and security-related sector. There are several reasons for this, among which: activities and research associated with state-centered military or “national security” endeavors (however loosely defined) are able to attach themselves to the state funding apparatus (such as the Pentagon system in the U.S.), even though their outcome may have little or nothing to do with security, or have little to no public utility. Such an arrangement enables various organisms and contractors to rely on a guaranteed source of funding (the public, through its contract with the protector-State), which lowers any incentives to operate efficiently. This is the mechanism, for example, by which the U.S. Navy was billed for a $436 hammer. Kevin Carson, in The Great Domain of Cost-Plus: The Waste Production Economy, writes:
Paul Goodman’s phrase “great domain of cost-plus” sums it up perfectly. The culture of cost-plus is traditionally associated with the public utility, and (in the brilliant work of Seymour Melman) the military contractor. The firm is insulated from market competition, and has a guaranteed revenue source, so that it can set its prices on a cost-plus markup basis. There is, accordingly, no incentive to minimize costs. The higher the production cost is padded with waste and featherbedding, the higher the firm can set its prices. [...]
Military production occupies industrial capacity that would otherwise be idle. [...] And of course the wars themselves have served an important purpose in soaking up surplus capital and productive capacity. In the words of Emmanuel Goldstein: “Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed.”
Another source of corruption is the secrecy which surrounds most of the arms trade, both legal and illegitimate. Joe Roeber writes [PDF]:
It is an opaque market. There is nothing particularly sinister in that; all companies would work behind screens if they could; but in any halfway efficient market they cannot get away with it. The arms trade gets away with it because defense goods are complex and each contract contains a mix of special requirements. Comparison is remarkably difficult and effective monitoring by public watchdogs is all but impossible. An unknowable price can be manipulated to accommodate any amount of covert payments.
The second of its unique features is more devastating: the secrecy that cloaks all of its activities. This privilege is allowed the industry because of its role in national security. [...] If an organisation consultant from Mars were given the job of designing an industry with the express purpose of making it corrupt, he might have come up with something looking very like the arms industry. It is hard-wired for corruption.
One may add to that what one could name the “second lives” of arms, or the unintended consequences: the repercussions can continue to echo long after the the conditions which induced their intended use no longer exist. The short-term logic which governs their proliferation, whether legal or on the black market, contrasts with the long term effects of arms which continue to function — this applies to everything, whether that be Iranian small-arms ammunition in Africa, or American cluster bombs in southeast Asia.
Militarily speaking, Iran is not a dominant world power, though it does serve its purpose as an extremely useful enemy — both for the U.S. and for Israel, who can divert attention away from the Occupied Territories to Tehran (much in the same way Arab despots can cynically point to Palestine to divert attention away from their own human rights abuses — external causes and enemies are always useful distractions to power systems). The latest SIPRI data for Iran is from 2008, listing $7,5 billion (2010 $US) — 1.8% of GDP. Since the preceding years hover around $10 billion, we can round up as a high estimation; the fated 127% increase would bring it to a hypothetical total of $22.7 billion. Regarding the military behemoth towering over the Persian Gulf, that its military budget is but a fraction of U.S. spending goes without saying: $698 billion (2010 $US) — 4.8% of GDP, and as high as 5.2% in 2011. A more faithful picture comes into focus when we consider military spending as a percentage of the federal budget, which for the U.S. represents around 25% of all federal spending, and 50% of discretionary spending. When we consider the broader figure of national security related spending, the figure is closer to $1 trillion, and some have calculated amounts as high as $1.2 trillion. U.S. defense and homeland security spending since September 11, 2001 has been calculated at $7.6 trillion. As well as being the undisputed champion of military and security spending, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports that the U.S. as of 2012 possesses approximately (it’s impossible to know for certain) ”1,950 strategic warheads deployed on 798 strategic delivery vehicles”, 200 nonstrategic warheads placed in Europe (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey), and an additional 2,800 warheads in reserve. In addition to this demonstration of lethal redundancy, the Federation of American Scientists reports that yet another “3,000 retired warheads are awaiting dismantlement”. Russia possesses a comparable inventory.
Regarding sanctions and declarations of belligerent intent towards Iran: it is almost certain that the result will be a proportional increase in military spending, leaving less for the civilian infrastructure already partly crippled by the sanctions, leaving the region generally less stable as a whole, not more stable — that is, unless we are using the correct doctrinal definition of “stability”. We can conclude that real stability in the region is not the primary concern for U.S. planners (nor the Israeli and Saudi members of this tacit, trilateral alliance). Rhetoric aside, Washington partly thrives off of global instability. We’ll return to this.
Turning to arms sales, a global industry the above-ground portion of which represented $411.1 billion as of 2010, there too the U.S. is without peer internationally: for the period 2007-2011, the U.S. represents 30% of all arms sales, ahead of Russia, Germany, France, the UK and China. The top 100 arms-producing and military services companies in the world are overwhelmingly dominated by U.S. corporations; the top 15 are all U.S./European — indeed, only 2 Russian and 1 Japanese firms figure within the top 30. U.S. arms transfers reached a record high in 2011 (bolstered by the sale of “84 new F-15SA jets [...] and upgrades to 70 F-15s in the Saudi fleet” to Saudi Arabia). According to the American Forces Press Service, the sale was:
[...] just one part of a broader U.S.-Saudi military sales and defense cooperation effort that’s central to regional security, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said. [...] Little noted the U.S. Military Training Mission in Saudi Arabia, which was established in 1953 and remains a cornerstone of the U.S.-Saudi military-to-military relationship. U.S. and Saudi defense departments cooperate regularly at the highest levels, through established bilateral planning forums like the Strategic Joint Planning Commission and the Military Joint Planning Commission, he said. [...]
In announcing the F-15 sales agreement Dec. 29, James N. Miller, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, and Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, emphasized the close military-to-military ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia. “The United States is firmly committed to the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as we have been for nearly seven decades, and … more broadly, the United States and Saudi Arabia have a strong mutual interest in the security and stability of the Gulf,” Miller said.
Understanding the fact that Washington has always had a primary interest in controlling the Middle East energy resources and that it values obedience and cooperation among elites over the democratic aspirations of whatever populations happen to be under their thumbs are essential to deciphering why the U.S. has always had friendly relations and military ties with Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Even during the recent uprisings in the Arab world, the U.S. continued to support autocrats like the Saudis, Egypt’s Mubarak, Yemen’s Saleh and continues to support the Bahraini monarchy, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is located. For the extent of arms sales and military training to Bahrain — even during its repression of the democratic uprisings — see Justin Elliot’s exposé: America’s Arms Sales To Bahrain Amid Bloody Crackdown. David Cameron recently visiting the UAE on business is proof that British armament manufacturers can also count on their government officials to use the Iranian threat to convince wealthy potentates that they need to upgrade their aging batteries of toys, hoping for a slice of the pie.
An important component of the security arrangements between the U.S. and the Gulf states is also what is called Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge” — meaning that the most advanced weaponry are to be first sold to Israel, which acts as an incentive, driving up the military procurement of neighboring states in the region in order to stay competitive. Being born in confrontation and maintaining the Occupied Territories, somewhat of a historical and societal laboratory useful for experimenting on novel techniques of repression, have made Israel into a serious high-tech weapons designer in its own right, exporting drones as well as developing mobile missile defense systems, among other technologies.
And so, toward the beginning of the 1970s, several groups of large U.S.-based firms saw their interests converging in the Middle East. To recap, the first of these groups included the large weapon makers of the Arma-Core which turned to the region in search of export markets. The second cluster comprised the leading oil companies of the Petro-Core, including those based in Europe, which were now driven toward a broader alliance with OPEC. These were also joined by a second tier of interested parties, including engineering companies such as Bechtel and Fluor with big construction projects in the oil regions, as well as large financial institutions with an appetite for petrodollars. Each of these groups stood to benefit from higher oil prices; and yet none could have done so on its own. To push up the price of oil, they needed to act in concert, and this is how a ‘Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition’ between them came into being. In this section, we argue that, deliberately or not, the actions of these groups helped perpetuate an almost stylised interaction between energy crises and military conflicts. In this process of ‘energy conflicts’, the ongoing militarisation of the Middle East and periodical outbreaks of hostilities contributed toward an atmosphere of ‘oil crisis’, leading to higher prices and rising oil exports. Revenues from these exports then helped finance new weapon imports, thereby inducing a renewed cycle of tension, hostilities, and, again, rising energy prices.
Other regions have also benefited from the U.S. policy of liberally spreading arms to promote freedom. The Obama administration sought to ease export rules for firearms and other weapons in 2012, “…in an effort to boost sales for U.S. companies, increase trade and improve national security…”, even initially raising objections from the Homeland Security and Justice Departments. In 2010, Obama decided to lift a more than decade-long ban on providing military assistance and training to the Indonesian Kopassus, the brutal security forces responsible for much of the repression during Indonesia’s war against the people of East Timor, which it has since turned towards West Papua. Leaked documents obtained by journalist Allan Nairn demonstrated that the elite unit continues its bloodthirsty and vengeful activities, including the deliberate targeting of civilians. The documents make clear that one of the purposes of the Kopassus’ activities is to intimidate the population into silence regarding the Indonesian occupation of West Papua.
In an effort to “improve its national security”, Mexico was the proud recipient of large amounts of U.S.-manufactured weapons, when starting in 2009 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began funneling firearms to dealers near the border in the hopes of eventually tracing the purchases back to Mexican drug lords. Indeed, a large proportion of the weapons associated with the drug cartels — which includes those contributing to the carnage in the midst of the fraudulent “drug war” — have apparently been arriving in Mexico through legal U.S. arms exports — as well as originating from previous arms transfers to foreign militaries.
Other friendly governments are soon to be on the receiving end of this prodigality, Reuters analyses, as the U.S. redirects its focus:
The security agency, in response to a Reuters request, said sales agreements with countries in the U.S. Pacific Command’s area of activity rose to $13.7 billion in fiscal 2012, up 5.4 percent from a year before. Such pacts represent orders for future delivery. [...] Contractors such as Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop and Raytheon Co expect regional demand for their products and services to help them offset Pentagon belt-tightening forced by U.S. deficit-trimming measures.
— such is the meaning of the phrase “Pacific ‘pivot’”.
Returning to Africa, several countries have benefited from American largesse (when not being subjected to clandestine subversion) in terms of arms. The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaïre) is a particularly sad case, as aside from the existence of the unhappy and brutal European colonial legacy, the U.S. has contributed in multiple ways to the continued violence and depredation in one of the poorest countries in the world. According to a 2000 study by William D. Hartung and Bridget Moix, the U.S. bears some responsibility for the “cycles of violence and economic problems plaguing the continent”:
A July 1999 Report by the U.S. Bureau of Intelligence and Research states clearly that “Arms transfers and trafficking and the conflicts they feed are having a devastating impact on Sub-Saharan Africa.” Yet, the authors fail to attribute responsibility to the U.S. for either its past or current military weapons and training exports to Africa, explicitly leaving the U.S. out of the picture: “Arms suppliers in Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North America, Latin America, and Asia have sold arms to African clients.” In fact, nowhere does the report mention U.S. arms transfers to the region, although more than $20 million worth of U.S. weapons and training were delivered to Africa in 1998 alone. Nor is there any recognition that the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of U.S. equipment transferred to the Mobutu regime in Zaire and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement in Angola since the 1970’s are still being utilized in current African conflicts. [...]
Because many U.S.-supplied weapons have outlasted the governments and conflicts for which they were intended, yesterday’s supplies are finding new uses today. Last March a Belgian arms dealer was arrested in South Africa for selling 8,000 U.S. M16 rifles from Vietnam War era arsenals to Kabila’s forces. In fact, many of the illicit arms traffickers working in Central Africa got their start as covert operators for the U.S. [emphasis mine]
When Rwandan soldiers invaded the former Zaire in 1996, attacking refugee camps and massacring civilians, the U.S. was caught having to defend the special operations training that had been underway with Rwandan troops. Although U.S. officials had claimed the training was devoted to human rights, the Washington Post later reported that Rwandan troops were being trained in combat as well.
From most of the information detailed above, we can conclude that those in Washington and most other wealthy nations cannot, without covering themselves in ridicule (though this is certainly not out of the question), reasonably claim that Iran’s supposed clandestine arms deals, lamentable though they are, or legitimate transactions — whether that be to Lebanon, Syria, Venezuela or Sudan — pose the gravest threat to world order. If they want to contribute to the reduction of violence in the world, they know where to begin looking.
As a post-script, I’d like to address another issue regarding the insistent and obtuse bellicosity towards Iran from the usual suspects and the understandable resistance to it from antiwar quarters (and, indeed, anyone with a sense of decency who is more than a little familiar with the issues and recognizes the spewing of transparent propaganda which accompanies any push for war): that is the idea that Iranians are, after all, good people, and that we are somehow supposed to be more averse to aggression against those who are recognizably similar to us; as if only those who share some of our characteristics — recognizably “human”, so to speak (to be defined, of course, by us) — are to be spared the violence reserved for “lesser” peoples not considerate enough to share customs we can easily relate to. Or the idea that the potential targets of aggression by former European colonial powers (the “West”, broadly defined) must somehow by definition be worthy souls exhibiting only good intentions, devoid of evil, and therefore to be defended from attack — as if it’s enough to simply remove the mask placed there by devious propaganda to reveal the true nature of the enemy, a mirror.
When the film A Separation came out, eventually winning the Golden Globe awards for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, we may have been breathlessly encouraged by some to see it, as a specimen of great cinematography (and it surely is) representing the lives of ordinary Iranians, going about their daily lives and personal struggles — as if to discourage any martial ardor by presenting a recognizable world we could all identify with. The logic can be encapsulated as: “Who would want to bomb them?” I should hope that we aren’t so bloodthirsty as a culture that we need to see the mountains surrounding Tehran, their smiling faces, or their city streets in order to stay our weapons.
It’s no more noble to lunge at the throat of a villain than at a saint, when the action is unprovoked — and it’s hardly a moral position to refrain from attacking simply because we see ourselves in the other. While it is true that understanding and mutual cooperation between peoples tend to abolish the irrational fears responsible for the animosities justifying aggression, the argument that “they” are, at bottom, “just like us” shouldn’t be the only protection against annihilation.
January 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
The ideas of free speech and freedom of information are intimately linked, and I’d like to discuss some ways in which to approach them, in light of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. These issues are complex, and often interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels with other issues such as media, class, race, gender, and other socioeconomic realities, though I won’t explore all of that here. It is unfortunate, but often true, that traumatic events like this often act as galvanizing forces, spurring the conversation and the attempt to remedy problems which would otherwise be set aside for later. Perhaps it’s due to something like procrastination, or the naïve belief that such matters don’t affect us — that is, until they do.
Swartz committed suicide on Friday, January 11th. Although the reasons which provoke a person to inflict his/her own death are complex, multiple and ultimately unfathomable to outsiders, it is reasonable to assume that the deep anxiety caused by the case brought against him by U.S. prosecutors, who, it was announced shortly before his death, insisted on a prison sentence, as well as the substantial amount of money drained as a result, were contributing factors. The family’s statement:
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.
Federal prosecutors brought 4 felony charges against Swartz in 2011, adding 9 charges to that in 2012, bringing the total to 13 charges, a rather large weight to bring on such a young man who had essentially engaged in trespassing at MIT and violating the terms of service of JSTOR, an online archive of academic journals which charges a fee for access to articles (although recently JSTOR began experimenting with giving the public free access to limited quantities). Read about the charges here: Feds Charge Activist with 13 Felonies for Rogue Downloading of Academic Articles
A previous “hack” targeted the PACER database, storing information from cases at federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts — reflecting the reasonable conviction that the public should have the ability to freely consult the records revealing the workings and logic of an institution which potentially affects it. The nature of his convictions regarding open access to information, the philosophy animating his deeds, and the honesty with which he pursued them — not for personal gain, but as matter of principle — are reminiscent of the selfless and noble motivations animating a certain Bradley Manning who allegedly freed documents to the world through Wikileaks; and are readily apparent in acts like his participation in developing the Creative Commons licensing program, his participation in the fight against SOPA (see his keynote speech here: How We Stopped SOPA), as well as the The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. The Manifesto states:
The control over scientific and cultural information by corporations should stop. Instead, we need to fight for Guerilla Open Access by posting such information on file sharing networks.
Individuals like the U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann would not have it that way, however; which, considering the “crimes” committed, is a grim object lesson on the arbitrary abuse of intractable and raw power to send a message of deterrence to future potential shit-stirrers. Ultimately, this is a story about control, something which has always been at the forefront of governments’ and power centers’ concerns for hundreds of years — a sentiment echoed accurately in a statement by Glenn Greenwald in his recent article on Swartz:
Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. [my emphasis]
One could ask: what is the purpose of restricting access to an online scholarly journal, or any media content which was presumably partly or wholly made possible with public funding? There is the prosaic answer, that such fees are needed to maintain a minimal functioning service, assuring its continued existence — but then there is a contradiction arising from the fact that whatever results from this publicly-funded research is not available… to the public. It’s not so simple. Thomas Knapp discusses it here:
The old media companies’ only chance of survival is to give up their failed state-created monopolies and protection rackets, and figure out how to generate profits through voluntary trade instead.
Knapp rightly excoriates the intellectual property monopolies (or, mafias) for rarefying their product with the help of the State in order to extract a profit, but at the same time proposes as a solution to simply find a different way to rarefy their product in order to extract profit. The question of whether or not there exists such a thing as purely free trade is a topic for another discussion. One way to interpret this critique is not that they are engaging in dishonest behavior for material gain, but rather that they are not clever enough to find a way to do it without the power of the State. This then turns to the question of whether or not the rarefication of a product, or idea, can be implemented not only by State power, but by any of a number of different methods. Ultimately, a clear distinction should be made between the use of force or sanction, or the threat of force, to prevent the transmission of information (the State), and other techniques, which do not (though the ideas of “violence” and “coercion” really are not so simple).
For example, I can make my research available only to a small clique of insiders, not by restricting access to it through financial instruments, but rather by making them understandable only to them. I can encrypt my communications, making, theoretically, only those who know how to decrypt them able to use them. That is, there is a rarefication not through restricting access by force or financial means (which in the end are the same thing), but rather through intellectual means. In this sense, much in the way coded language is a system for rendering statements unintelligible to outsiders, it’s a type of conspiracy – understood in the broad sense – which aims to enact a form of communication only accessible to those who hold the intellectual keys to decode it. This, however, neglects much more subtle techniques of control, such as propaganda, which don’t so much restrict the transmission of information as they shape and control what people think — which in turn transforms the nature of the information being transmitted. We’ll come back to this.
The idea underpinning freedom of information and the rejection of intellectual property “rights” is that knowledge is a universal, unquantifiable essence, and therefore non-subject to proprietary exclusion. There is no way to attach a nominal value to it in order to perform mathematical operations, either, other than a purely arbitrary one. How much is a poem, a song, a paragraph in a chemistry publication “worth”? It’s possible to assign a market value to anything, as long as there is a demand, but this is not a reflection of its intrinsic “value”, as such a thing does not exist — market value is a human invention, subject to arbitrary fluctuations, which has no counterpart in nature, indicating that it is indeed partly a reflection of power. Furthermore, new technologies have greatly lowered the monetary costs of publishing and reproducing information. This contrasts with physical objects, which can be quantified, and often cannot be duplicated at will by anybody. Therefore control over the diffusion and intellectual property of such documents must be enacted artificially in order to benefit certain interests, which extract a rent on controlling them (i.e., making them rare), much in the same way the pharmaceutical lobby harnesses the coercion of the State in order to extract egregiously high rents on their products.
There is no such thing as access to all knowledge without barriers, and it would be misleading to say such a thing exists — we often speak of internet freedom, but one must have an internet connection and a computer, as well as pay the company providing access, in order to exercise it. We often speak of freedom of speech, but freedom of speech is meaningless unless one has the means to express it to a larger audience — this makes it an inherently social right (or restriction, depending on how you see it). After all, a prisoner in her cell enjoys freedom of speech if her only concern is being able to speak, like a caged bird. Advocacy implies the ability to influence others, and to already be in a position to do so; therefore an act with the potential to change events — therefore, ultimately an exercise of power. Matt Stoller writes:
Corporate control over our communications infrastructure is the free speech question of our time. When Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder refuses to investigate Rupert Murdoch’s company for bribery in the phone hacking scandal, and Obama’s FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski works to help Rupert Murdoch’s company buy more media assets, and the number of broadcast media outlets owned by minorities continues to decline, it’s clear we have a free speech problem. But it has nothing to do with a comment on twitter or burning flags.
For me, this introduces the duality of
1) First Amendment rights, as interpreted by the courts (culminating in cases like Brandenburg v Ohio) — circumscribing the limits of State power to sanction individuals (or groups) for their political speech or advocacy
2) Free speech as it is actually exercised, with all the restraints put upon it by existing non-governmental institutions, socio-economic conditions as well as cultural norms
— which should be analyzed separately, the one being the product of a century-long struggle to constrain the State through judicial and Supreme Court decisions, and the other a more fundamental struggle to transform our values and ideas regarding power and privilege. There is no doubt that one struggle bleeds into the other, and while for the sake of analysis it’s useful to separate them, ultimately they are related. A far more competent discussion on this can be found here: First Amendment Architecture
Briefly, I see three different ways in which the free flow of information is impeded: by government fiat, by existing non-governmental politico-economic institutions (including corporations), and by our own cultural norms. Rather than saying that there should be an absolute free flow of information amongst people, which is impossible, it would be more accurate to say that we should minimize or abolish the artificial and arbitrarily imposed barriers and obstructions to the free flow of information as much as possible. Therefore, the question is not only whether information should be exchanged and duplicated freely, but also whether it can be.
As for subtler techniques of control, Hillary Clinton, in a 2010 address at The Newseum in Washington, DC which was suffused with hypocrisy, spoke this curious phrase, which appears transparent on the surface, but bears further examination:
As it stands, Americans can consider information presented by foreign governments. We do not block your attempts to communicate with the people in the United States. But citizens in societies that practice censorship lack exposure to outside views.
Indeed, they do, but only a lack of self-awareness — or a good education — could permit an American state official to utter such words. The soil from which such platitudes spring is nationalistic hubris. Just as the dissidents and prisoners held by their own governments in rival foreign nations are more deserving of the admiration and breathless support of political elites here, so are the faults of foreign regimes to be magnified so as to make oneself appear enlightened by comparison. To be fair to Clinton, it is not a uniquely American phenomenon, however the particular imperial heights on which Washington sits make the double standards all the more visible. There are indeed societies which practice government censorship, one only need invoke Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s cutting off the internet during the Egyptian intifada in January 2011, or China’s notoriously restrictive internet censorship policies. One can even invoke the extrajudicial banking blockade against WikiLeaks, done at the behest of US Congress members Joe Lieberman and Peter King, when they convinced VISA and MasterCard to refuse payments to Wikileaks (the Freedom of the Press Foundation was created partly to circumvent these purely Stalinist measures), even when the companies
…together hold a monopoly of 97 per cent of the market of EU card payments.
One need hardly speculate whether or not Clinton would include the United States in the group of “societies that practice censorship”, or whether she would deem Americans lacking in “exposure to outside views”… Considering the extraordinary consolidation of the mainstream press in the United States, a de facto form of soft censorship does indeed exist, albeit not overt. The gathering of major press organs in the hands of a small group of owners, already discussed, ensures that only a very restricted spectrum of views will be represented, although there is always limited room for moderate dissent (necessary to maintain the illusion that a broad range of views is being presented).
One could also invoke the masterful propaganda leading up to the joint US/UK Iraq aggression (although some journalists did act with integrity), or the American press establishment’s characteristically obedient representation of events during Washington’s war against Central America, CIA collaboration with the media, the fact that anthropocentric global warming is rarely discussed on national television even though it is recognized by an overwhelming scientific majority as a reality meriting attention (Aaron Swartz had an opinion on this), as well as more muscular methods, such as the American forces targeting Al Jazeera offices in Afghanistan and in Iraq — perhaps intentionally — as well as US cable companies’ refusal to carry Al Jazeera English until recently, the refusal to grant Tariq Ramadan an entry visa due to ”political views”, Obama’s apparent insistence on keeping Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye behind bars, without forgetting the tawdry collection of banalities and distractions presented as news by the major networks (designed to divert attention from the real problems facing Americans, on which they might otherwise focus their efforts) having the effect of maintaining a passive and contented population — one could go on. In fact, the very reason these various forms of propaganda and media consolidation are needed in order to control the population is precisely because there exists such a strong tradition of free speech in America — controlling what people think is the only alternative, when power cannot completely control what they are able to say. All of these things do have the effect of narrowing the debate, while ensuring that those who have opinions contrary to those who own the large media corporations are effectively marginalized.
As Orwell stated in his forward to Animal Farm:
Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question.
There is a debate as to whether new communication technologies, as they become available to more people around the planet, along with techniques of encryption and anonymization, will permit us to be definitively and permanently free from some of these constraints (having reached an inflection point), or if on the contrary, they are merely tools to be used more effectively by powerful factions, implying that we are doomed to play a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse, indefinitely. Both are right, of course, but I think there is a certain weakness in falling into a complacent pessimism. Real progress happens by jumps, not continuously, as when one arrives at a certain level a new set of problems is revealed, previously hidden, which demands to be solved. When surveying the progress made on this front over the last several centuries, I tend to be optimistic — indeed, if you don’t even have that, what’s the point?
There are always precursors, the vanguard, in any conflict, whose sometimes reckless but principled and brave acts help set the tone for the rest of us. Aaron Swartz, much like Bradley Manning, is among those numerous individuals and movements who refuse to accept the world as it is, but are on the contrary attempting to transform it into what they think it should be, taking matters into their own hands. That is, they are taking the risks upon themselves to suffer the consequences of transgressing immoral and unjust laws and circumstances in order to force changes which will ultimately benefit all of us. We owe them our gratitude and respect.
Update I: Kevin Paulsen at Wired reports the charges against Swartz have been dismissed. No comment.
Update II: Jennifer Granick at Stanford’s CIS has a good discussion on the dysfunctionality of both the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the criminal justice system more generally, in light of the Aaron Swartz case.
Update IV (Jan. 27): Declan McCullagh wrote on the 25th about a recent report in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly detailing how Swartz did not risk a prison sentence until federal prosecutors took up the case, how state prosecutors were planning on letting Swartz go with a warning. Carmen Ortiz’s office was indeed, exactly as I wrote, hoping to “send a message” to deter other future troublemakers. McCullagh writes:
Middlesex County’s district attorney had planned no jail time, “with Swartz duly admonished and then returned to civil society to continue his pioneering electronic work in a less legally questionable manner,” the report (alternate link) said. “Tragedy intervened when Ortiz’s office took over the case to send ‘a message.’” [...] The Boston U.S. Attorney’s office was looking for “some juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron’s case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill,” Elliot Peters, Swartz’s attorney at the Keker & Van Nest law firm, told the Huffington Post. Heymann, Peters says, thought the Swartz case “was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper.”
— all of which clearly demonstrates the basic fact that federal prosecutors seem to have far too much power.
Update V (Feb. 10): Timothy Lee elaborates on Swartz’s campaign to liberate the PACER court documents.