Charles Pierce | France's Retribution Will Be Swift and Harsh, as Will the Inevitable Reaction, and as Will the Retribution for the Reaction.
# 2015-11-14 17:54
I've noticed a real reaction among RSN commenters of not buying the talking points that are being shoved down our throats this time. You're a good example. Could it be that RSN commenters are speaking for a huge, this time TRULY, silent majority who aren't buying what we're being sold, and simply won't be hook-line-and-s inkered into another multi-decade world war for the sake of PNAC?
Maybe people are growing up. I hope our government doesn't throw a temper tantrum and decide martial law is needed because people aren't instantly thinking what they've been instructed to think this time.
We'll see. Thanksgiving is coming up. I hope all of you are ready to listen to your crotchety uncles lecturing you about the need to keep our mouth's shut and do what we're told…
Have the grandly illustrious candidates for the presidency of the U.S. (Bernie excused, of course) outed themselves as to their military bona fides sufficiently yet?
They are certainly getting every chance lately.
With the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS) emerging as being behind the attack, the question that remains is, who is behind ISIS itself? While the West has attempted to maintain the terrorist organization possesses almost mythological abilities, capable of sustaining combat operations against Syria, Iraq, Lebanon's Hezbollah, support from Iran, and now the Russian military - all while carrying out large-scale, high-profile terrorist attacks across the globe - it is clear that ISIS is the recipient of immense multinational state-sponsorship.
The rise of ISIS was revealed as early as 2007 in interviews conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh in his 9-page report "The Redirection." The interviews revealed a plan to destabilize and overthrow the government of Syria through the use of sectarian extremists - more specifically, Al Qaeda - with arms and funds laundered through America's oldest and stanchest regional ally, Saudi Arabia.
A more recent Department of Intelligence Agency (DIA) report drafted in 2012 (.pdf) admitted:
If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).The DIA report enumerates precisely who these "supporting powers" are:
The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China, and Iran support the regime.And to this day, by simply looking at any number of maps detailing territory held by various factions amid the Syrian conflict, it is clear that ISIS is not a "state" of any kind, but an ongoing invasion emanating from NATO-member Turkey's territory, with its primary supply corridor crossing the Turkish-Syrian border between the Syrian town of Ad Dana and the western bank of the Euphrates River, a supply corridor now increasingly shrinking.
A little bit of history clears up the befuddlement (misinformation).
Which terrorist attacks get the huge media coverage?
And can you think of a reasonable explanation for this difference?
Any time there is an attack on civilians in the post-9/11 West, demagogues immediately blame it on Muslims. They frequently lack evidence, but depend on the blunt force of anti-Muslim bigotry to bolster their accusations.
Actual evidence, on the other hand, shows that less than two percent of terrorist attacks from 2009 to 2013 in the E.U. were religiously motivated. In 2013, just one percent of the 152 terrorist attacks were religious in nature; in 2012, less than three percent of the 219 terrorist attacks were inspired by religion.
. . . These facts, nonetheless, have never stopped the prejudiced pundits from insisting otherwise.
On Friday the 13th of November, militants massacred at least 127 people in Paris in a series of heinous attacks.
There are many layers of hypocrisy in the public reaction to the tragedy that must be sorted through in order to understand the larger context in which these horrific attacks are situated — and, ultimately, to prevent such attacks from happening in the future.
As soon as the news of the attacks broke, even though there was no evidence and practically nothing was known about the attackers, a Who’s Who of right-wing pundits immediately latched on to the violence as an opportunity to demonize Muslims and refugees from Muslim-majority countries.
In a disgrace to the victims, a shout chorus of reactionary demagogues exploited the horrific attacks to distract from and even deny domestic problems. They flatly told "Black Lives Matter" activists fighting for basic civil and human rights, fast-food workers seeking liveable wages and union rights, and students challenging crippling debts that their problems are insignificant because they are not being held hostage at gunpoint.
More insidiously, when evidence began to suggest that extremists were responsible for the attacks, and when ISIS eventually claimed responsibility, the demagogues implied or even downright insisted that Islam — the religion of 1.6 billion people — was to blame, and that the predominately (although not entirely) Muslim refugees entering the West are only going to carry out more of such attacks.
Clampdown on Muslims and Refugees
Every time Islamic extremists carry out an attack, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are expected to collectively apologize; it has become a cold cliché at this point.
Who benefits from such clampdown on Muslims and refugees?
Two primary groups: One, Islamic extremist groups themselves, who use the clampdown as “evidence” that there is supposedly no room for Muslims in the secular West that has declared war on Islam; and two, Europe’s growing far-right, who will use the attacks as “evidence” that there is supposedly no room for Muslims in the secular West that should declare war on Islam.
Although enemies, both groups share a congruence of interests. The far-right wants Muslims and refugees from Muslim-majority countries (even if they are not Muslim) to leave because it sees them as innately violent terrorists. Islamic extremists want Muslim refugees to leave so they can be radicalized and join their caliphate.
More specifically, to name names, ISIS and al-Qaeda will benefit from the clampdown on Muslims and refugees, and Europe’s growing far-right movement will continue to recruit new members with anti-Muslim and anti-refugee propaganda.
ISIS has explicitly stated that its goal is to make extinct what it calls the “grayzone” — that is to say, Western acceptance of Muslims. The “endangerment” of the grayzone “began with the blessed operations of September 11th, as those operations manifested two camps before the world for mankind to choose between, a camp of Islam … and a camp of kufr — the crusader coalition,” wrote ISIS in its own publication.
. . . By making ISIS go viral, we are only helping them accomplish their sadistic goals.
In the meantime, France’s extreme right-wing National Front party stands to gain in particular. The party — which was founded by a neo-Nazi and is now led by his estranged daughter Marine Le Pen — constantly rails against Muslims, whom it hypocritically characterizes as Nazi occupiers. In 2014, a Paris court ruled it was fair to call the National Front “fascist.”
Before the Paris attacks, Le Pen’s extreme-right movement was France’s second-largest party. Now it may become the first.
The Massacres That Are Ignored
There are hundreds of terrorist attacks in Europe every year. The ones that immediately fill the headlines of every news outlet, however, are the ones carried out by Muslims — not the ones carried out by ethno-nationalists or far-right extremists, which happen to be much more frequent.
Yet it is not just right-wing pundits and the media that give much more attention to attacks like those in Paris; heads of state frequently do so as well. Minutes after the Paris attacks, Presidents Hollande and Obama addressed the world, publicly lamenting the tragedy. Secretary John Kerry condemned them as “heinous, evil, vile acts.”
Notable was the official silence surrounding another horrific terrorist attack that took place only the day before. Two ISIS suicide bombers killed at least 43 people and wounded more than 230 in attacks on a heavily Shia Muslim community in Beirut on November 12. President Obama did not address the world and condemn the bombings, which comprised the worst attack in Beirut in years.
In fact, the opposite happened; the victims of the ISIS attacks were characterized in the U.S. media as Hezbollah human shields and blamed for their own deaths based on the unfortunate coincidence of their geographical location. Some right-wing pundits even went so far as to justify the ISIS attacks because they were assumed to be aimed at Hezbollah.
Nor did the White House interrupt every news broadcast to publicly condemn the ISIS massacre in Turkey in October that left approximately 128 people dead and 500 injured at a peaceful rally for a pro-Kurdish political party.
More strikingly, where were the heads of state when the Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition bombed a Yemeni wedding on September 28, killing 131 civilians, including 80 women? That massacre didn’t go viral, and Obama and Hollande did not apologize, yet alone barely even acknowledge the tragedy.
Do French lives matter more than Lebanese, Turkish, Kurdish, and Yemeni ones? Were these not, too, “heinous, evil, vile acts?"
We have seen this all before; it should be oddly familiar. The reaction to the horrific January 2015 Paris attacks was equally predictable; the knee-jerk Islamophobia ignored the crucial context for the tragic attack — namely the fact that it was was the catastrophic U.S.-led war on Iraq and torture at Abu Ghraib, not Charlie Hebdo cartoons, that radicalized the shooters. Also ignored was the fact that the extremist attackers were sons of émigrés from Algeria, a country that for decades bled profusely under barbarous French colonialism, which only ended after an even bloodier war of independence in 1962 that left hundreds of thousands of Algerians dead.
After the January Paris attacks, leaders from around the world — including officials from Western-backed extremist theocratic tyrannies like Saudi Arabia — gathered in Paris to supposedly participate in a march that turned out to actually be a carefully orchestrated and cynical photo op.
And not only are Muslims collectively blamed for such attacks; they, too, collectively bear the brunt of the backlash.
In just six days after the January attacks, the National Observatory Against Islamophobia documented 60 incidents of Islamophobic attacks and threats in France. TellMAMA, a U.K.-based organization that monitors racist anti-Muslim attacks, also reported 50-60 threats.
Once again, mere days before the January Paris attacks, the global community largely glossed over another horrific tragedy: The slaughter of more than 2,000 Nigerians by Boko Haram. The African victims didn’t get a march; only the Western victims of Islamic extremism did.
A little-discussed yet crucial fact is that the vast, vast majority of the victims of Islamic extremism are themselves Muslim, and live in Muslim-majority countries. A 2012 U.S. National Counterterrorism Center report found that between 82 and 97 percent of the victims of religiously motivated terrorist attacks over the previous five years were Muslims.
The West frequently acts as though it is the principal victim, but the exact contrary is true.
Never interrogated is why exactly are so many refugees fleeing the Middle East and North Africa. It is not like millions of people want to leave their homes and families; they are fleeing violence and chaos — violence and chaos that happens to almost always be the result of Western military intervention.
Western countries, particularly the U.S., are directly responsible for the violence and destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen, from which millions of refugees are fleeing:
Syria is a bit more complicated. Many refugees in the country, which has been torn apart by almost five years of bitter war, are fleeing the brutal repression of the Assad government. Western countries and their allies, however, share some of the blame. Allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have greatly inflamed the conflict by supporting extremist groups like al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra.
- The illegal U.S.-led invasion of Iraq led to the deaths of at least one million people, destabilized the entire region, and created extreme conditions in which militant groups like al-Qaeda spread like wildfire, eventually leading to the emergence of ISIS.
- In Afghanistan, the ongoing U.S.-led war and occupation — which the Obama administration just prolonged for a second time — has led to approximately a quarter of a million deaths and has displaced millions of Afghans.
- The disastrous U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya destroyed the government, turning the country into a hotbed for extremism and allowing militant groups like ISIS to spread west into North Africa. Thousands of Libyans have been killed, and hundreds of thousands made refugees.
- In Yemen, the U.S. and other Western nations are arming and backing the Saudi-led coalition that is raining down bombs, including banned cluster munitions, on civilian areas, pulverizing the poorest country in the Middle East. And, once again — the story should now be familiar — thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
And it should go without saying that millions of Syrian refugees are fleeing the very same terror at the hands of ISIS that the group allegedly unleashed upon Paris. By suppressing Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing the ruthlessly violent extremist group, France and other Western countries will only be further adding to the already shocking number of its victims.
Dislocating the Blame
When the U.S. and its allies bomb weddings and hospitals in Yemen and Afghanistan, killing hundreds of civilians, “Americans” doesn’t trend globally on Twitter. Yet when Parisians are allegedly killed by Islamic extremists, “Muslims” does.
The imperialist West always try to dislocate the blame. It’s always the foreigner’s, the non-Westerner’s, the Other’s fault; it’s never the fault of the enlightened West.Islam is the new scapegoat. Western imperial policies of ravaging entire nations, propping up repressive dictators, and supporting extremist groups are conveniently forgotten.The West is incapable of addressing its own imperial violence. Instead, it points its blood-stained finger accusingly at the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and tells them they are the inherently violent ones.Unfortunately, tragedies like the one we see in Paris are daily events in much of the Middle East, no thanks to the policies of the governments of France, the U.S., the U.K., and more. The horrific and unjustifiable yet rare terrorist attacks we in the West experience are the quotidian reality endured by those living in the region our governments brutalize.This does not mean we should not mourn the Paris attacks; they are abominable, and the victims should and must be mourned. But we should likewise ensure that the victims of our governments’ crimes are mourned as well.
And thus we reap the whirlwind?
by Chris FloydWe, the West, overthrew Saddam by violence. We overthrew Gaddafi by violence. We are trying to overthrow Assad by violence. Harsh regimes all — but far less draconian than our Saudi allies, and other tyrannies around the world. What has been the result of these interventions? A hell on earth, one that grows wider and more virulent year after year.
Without the American crime of aggressive war against Iraq — which, by the measurements used by Western governments themselves, left more than a million innocent people dead — there would be no ISIS, no “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” Without the Saudi and Western funding and arming of an amalgam of extremist Sunni groups across the Middle East, used as proxies to strike at Iran and its allies, there would be no ISIS. Let’s go back further. Without the direct, extensive and deliberate creation by the United States and its Saudi ally of a world-wide movement of armed Sunni extremists during the Carter and Reagan administrations, there would have been no “War on Terror” — and no terrorist attacks in Paris tonight.
Again, let’s be as clear as possible: the hellish world we live in today is the result of deliberate policies and actions undertaken by the United States and its allies over the past decades. It was Washington that led and/or supported the quashing of secular political resistance across the Middle East, in order to bring recalcitrant leaders like Nasser to heel and to back corrupt and brutal dictators who would advance the US agenda of political domination and resource exploitation.
The open history of the last half-century is very clear in this regard. Going all the way back to the overthrow of the democratic government of Iran in 1953, the United States has deliberately and consciously pushed the most extreme sectarian groups in order to undermine a broader-based secular resistance to its domination agenda.
Why bring up this “ancient history” when fresh blood is running in the streets of Paris? Because that blood would not be running if not for this ancient history; and because the reaction to this latest reverberations of Washington’s decades-long, bipartisan cultivation of religious extremism will certainly be more bloodshed, more repression and more violent intervention. Which will, in turn, inevitably, produce yet more atrocities and upheaval as we are seeing in Paris tonight.
I write in despair. Despair of course at the depravity displayed by the murderers of innocents in Paris tonight; but an even deeper despair at the depravity of the egregious murderers who have brought us to this ghastly place in human history: those gilded figures who have strode the halls of power for decades in the high chambers of the West, killing innocent people by the hundreds of thousands, crushing secular opposition to their favored dictators — and again, again and again — supporting, funding and arming some of the most virulent sectarians on earth.
And one further cause of despair: that although this historical record is there in the open, readily available from the most mainstream sources, it is and will continue to be completely ignored, both by the power-gamers and by the public. The latter will continue to support the former as they replicate and regurgitate the same old policies of intervention, the same old agendas of domination and greed, over and over and over again — creating ever-more fresh hells for us all to live in, and poisoning the lives of our children, and of all those who come after us.(Chris Floyd is a columnist for "CounterPunch Magazine." His blog, "Empire Burlesque," can be found at www.chris-floyd.com.
One can hardly stop thinking about the petards being hoisted.
November 13, 2015by John WightYears spent depicting head chopping fanatics as rebels, moderates, and revolutionaries in an effort to effect the toppling of yet another secular government in the Middle East. Years spent cultivating Saudi Arabia as an ally against extremism and fanaticism rather than treating it as a country where extremism and fanaticism resides. Years spent treating the Assad government, Iran, and Russia as enemies rather than allies in the struggle against this fanaticism. And years spent denying any connection between a foreign policy underpinned by hubris and its inevitable blowback. All of this combined has succeeded in opening the gates of hell.
This hubris was on display just hours prior to the horrific events in Paris, when British Prime Minister David Cameron elevated the killing of Mohammed Emwazi by US drone strike in Raqqa, Syria, to the status of a major military victory in the war against ISIS. Out came the podium from Number 10, and out he came to proclaim that the killing of Emwazi (aka Jihadi John) had “struck at the heart of the terrorist organization [ISIS].”
That Cameron could venture such a fatuous boast the very day after an ISIS suicide bomb attack in southern Beirut killed 43 and wounded over 200 people was yet more evidence of the extent to which Western governments are detached from the reality of the Frankenstein’s monster their foreign policy has helped create and let loose upon the world.
There is also the truth that in the minds of people who only allow themselves to view the world through a Western prism, the deaths of Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians, and Kurds – in other words those engaged in the struggle against ISIS on the ground – constitute a statistic, while the deaths of Europeans and Americans to the same barbarism are an unspeakable tragedy.
In years to come historians will prepare such a scathing indictment against this generation’s leaders of the free world, it will make the indictment prior generations of historians have leveled against the authors of the Sykes Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration, the Treaty of Versailles, the Munich Agreement, and the Suez Crisis seem like a playful tap on the wrist in comparison. In fact, the only issue of debate in the course of preparing it will be where it should begin and where it should end. Worse, as things stand, it is on track to be open-ended.
In response to 9/11 the decision by the Bush administration, ably assisted by the Blair government, to crash first into Afghanistan without an exit strategy, followed by Iraq in the mistaken belief coalition troops would be greeted as liberators rather than occupiers, we now know beyond controversy marked the day not when a new dawn of democracy and freedom was about to break across the Arab and Muslim world, but the day an unsteady hand first reached for that rusty bolt securing in the place the gates of hell, and slowly started to pull it back. Over the succeeding decade back ever-further the bolt came, inch by inch, until in 2011 the gates finally, and inevitably, flew open with the West’s ill-fated intervention in an Arab Spring in Libya that by then had arrived at the end of its reach.
NATO airstrikes succeeded in dragging the Libyan ‘revolution’ from Benghazi all the way to Tripoli and victorious completion, whereupon the aforementioned David Cameron and his French counterpart at the time, Nikolas Sarkozy, descended to hail the Libyan people for “choosing democracy.” The hubris of those words, the military intervention which preceded them, have sent thousands of men, women, and children to the bottom of the Mediterranean in the years following, the final destination of their desperate attempt to escape Libya’s new democratic paradise.
Regardless, on we continued, driven by a myopic and fatal rendering of the brutal conflict in Syria as a revolution, even as legions of religious fanatics poured into the country, most of them across the border of our Turkish ally while Erdogan looked the other way. In the course of the five years of total war that has engulfed Syria since, the world has witnessed very conceivable variety of bestiality, carried out under the black flag of ISIL. But wait a minute, the barrel bombs, you say. Assad is killing his own people. He is the cause of all of this mayhem and carnage.
If his government was ‘the’ – or ‘a’ – cause of the Syrian conflict when it began in 2011, in 2015 Assad and his government are without any shadow a necessary part of it ending in Syria’s survival. Barrel bombs are an atrociously indiscriminate weapon, for sure, and their use rightly comes under the category of atrocity. However just as the atrocity of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today. When the survival of a country and its culture and history is at stake, war can never be anything else but ugly, which is why the sooner it is brought to a conclusion in Syria the better.
This is where we come to Russia’s intervention, which came at the point where the Syrian government was slipping towards the abyss. President Putin’s forensic accounting of the perfidious calamity of events leading up to Russia’s arrival, in his address to the UN General Assembly, should have heralded the glaringly and obviously necessary volte face required to turn a Western policy responsible for disaster into one approximating to coherence.
But, no, instead a moral equivalence has continued to be drawn between a secular and sovereign government under which the rights of minorities were protected, and a medieval death cult intent on turning the country into a mass grave of said minorities and others deemed superfluous to the requirements of the Caliphate.
This shorthand history of the elemental conflict currently raging across Syria, and also northern Iraq, and which has now come knocking on our door, places the crassness of David Cameron’s boast of ‘striking at the heart’ in its rightful context. We – i.e., the West – are in truth striking at the heart of nothing when it comes to the struggle against ISIS.
Russia on the other hand is, along with the Syrian Arab Army, the Kurds, and Iran. The extent to which their efforts are succeeding can be measured in this shocking series of attacks that have been carried out beyond Syria’s borders – starting with the downing of the Russian passenger aircraft over the Sinai, followed by the recent suicide bombing in southern Beirut, and now with this latest grisly episode in the heart of Europe. They reflect the desperation of a group that has suffered significant reverses in Syria and Iraq in recent days and weeks.
No matter, if terror was the aim of the Paris attack, it has undeniably succeeded, leaving the French, British, and US government with a dilemma over how to respond, both in terms of security measures at home and their ongoing role in the conflict in Syria.
Responding to this latest atrocity in the French capital, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed Russia’s condolences and said: “The tragedy in Paris demands that we all unite in our fight against extremism.”
These are no mere empty words. The longer Russia’s call for unity in this struggle goes unheeded and ignored, the longer it will take for the gates of hell to be bolted shut again – assuming, of course, they ever can be.(John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1.)
If you weren't a conspiracy theorist already, you'd almost have to suspect that there were some pretty purposive agendas in play for decades in the U.S. in order to ensure that most of America's students, those with little access to private school education, have been left so woefully under-educated and unprepared for the work world of their future. (But really good at playing videos.)
November 13, 2015by Michael Welton
The US National Geographic Society published a survey of geographic literacy. This international survey of young people in the US and either other countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, and Britain — asked 56 questions about geography and current events. The organization’s survey discovered that about 87% of Americans, aged 18 to 24, the prime age for military service, could not place Iraq on the map. Americans could find on average only seven of the 16 countries in the quiz. Only 71% of the surveyed Americans could locate the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest body of water.
John Farley, president of the National Geographic Society, thought that these results reflect something deeper than lack of geographic knowledge. He referred to the “apparent retreat of young people from a global society in an era that does not allow such luxury.” This survey occurred over 10 years ago.
Fahey said that this “generation is highly skilled in what they want to block out and what they want to know.” “Unfortunately, the things they block out seems to include knowledge of the world we all live in.” One can also assume that the inability to locate Iraq on a world map means that these students know next to nothing about Middle Eastern culture and politics or anything much about Islam.
Are we staring a giant paradox in the face? Visionaries tell us that we now live in an information age, indeed an age of info-glut. Yet the students living in the world’s most powerful and lethal country do not have much of a clue about the world out there. The US invaded Iraq (and other Middle East places too). Not many Americans know where Iraq is, let alone that their government used to support Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. And they have little idea about what their government is actually up to on the geo-political scene as it desperately seeks to remain the hegemonic, exceptional nation in a multi-polar world.
Celebrating uncritically the information age tells us very little about whether we as citizens and ordinary people are, in fact, becoming more knowledgeable and skilled in the managing of our personal and collective affairs. In his prescient essay, “Science as vocation,” Max Weber wrote of the “process of intellectualization” that had been grinding onward for thousands of years.
In his view, the “increasing intellectualization” did not “indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which we live our lives. It means something else, namely the knowledge or belief that if one but wished, one could learn at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” The Stone Age savage knew more, tacitly and explicitly, about the ground of their being than we do in our deracinated world.
Information is, indeed, everywhere and everywhere we are ignorant. The reasons for our deep ignorance are many and complex. But I think that there are several lines of inquiry that may help to illuminate this paradox. With the emergence in North America (and spreading elsewhere) of a high intensity consumerist society over the last 80 years or so, we have become increasingly less self-reliant. The driving force of the high intensity consumer society (which takes the “fetishism of commodities” to new heights) teaches its inhabitants to “learn to consume.” And that’s about it.
All the resources of this societal form — from primary schooling to telecommunications — are marshalled in this great learning project: to undermine our self-reliance and know-how. Everything is to be provided for us; everything is to be thought for us; everything is decided for us; everything is packaged to amuse us to death. We are being returned to the pre-enlightenment state of Kant’s “self-incurred immaturity.”
With the spread of urbanization, curative medicine and schooling, Andre Gorz (Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work ) suggests, “popular know-how on which self-reliance was based” is disappearing. We can’t treat common complaints and illnesses, we have lost the art of cooking, and we don’t know how to make our own furniture, care for children or keep fit. Rather, the consumer society is not at all organized to keep us healthy. The average supermarket is full of food that contributes to ill health, obesity and illness.
The store owners don’t place signs around their store saying, “eat this at your own peril.”
Their stores aren’t designed as knowledge-intensive food emporiums. Chocolate products do not carry the warning that the cocoa beans were produced with slave labour in West Africa.
Fair trade pedagogies make but a wee dent in our discombobulated understandings.
In a society where everything is done for you, where we suffer from historical amnesia, lose the ability to see connections between what we eat and where it was produced and under what conditions, believe what is presented to us, live in a confused fog day after day, where we are subjected to endless propaganda, it is easy to see how we remain deeply ignorant in the age of information.
The consumer society is designed to separate those who consume from those who make the big decisions about the way the world runs. We the citizenry are supposed to allow the experts in corporate and governmental worlds to make the decisions for us as we get on with the ordinary activities of fulfilling our heart’s desire in the commodity paradise.
Increasingly, the role of the mass media is to massage our minds and spur our cravings for more and more.
This system is, however, leaky and flawed. The masses may well be drugged on unscientific myths and half-baked religious ideas, popular culture and uncritical patriotism. But the knowledgeable, critically engaged citizen exists in pockets here and there; one might even argue that the pockets are growing deeper. The alternative media may hover on the sidelines, but it is present.
In the run-up to the war on Iraq in the winter of 2003, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the world’s cities, small and great, shouting out their heart cry against the devastations of war. And there are many brilliant people (and those ordinary persons living in smashed-up societies) around who actually do know much about the how the great powers operate in the world (Hint: it has nothing to do with morality).
This may be encouraging, it seems to be, but what needs careful analysis is why it is so difficult in the information age to be wise about what is actually going on in the world. Clearly the simple availability of information does not make us knowledgeable. Our great cities are full of absolutely lovely writings on every crisis everywhere in the world. These drops of consciousness could make an ocean sometime. Now, however, crises tumble out everywhere and none of them seem to get addressed, let alone solved. We live in the age of stupid.
I am boxed in with the nagging thought that critical thought, itself, can simply circulate through its own channels without ever having much to do with how power holders actually make decisions about which forest get logged, which government is overthrown or which box retail stores comes to your little town. I can say this all the while proclaiming almost in the same breath that our moral consciousness has its power to stop the invasion of the barbarians.
Nor does our knowledge of what is going on in the world — there are 800 million malnourished people in the world, one of half of humanity lives in poverty, one billion are illiterate, a billion and a half have no access to safe water and two billion have no electricity—necessarily result in action to alleviate suffering. Why does this data leave the West mainly cold?
An even more perplexing paradox ought to trouble the conscience of those who are proposing that we live in a knowledge society, namely the dispiriting US (and Western liberal democracy allies) responses to genocide in the twentieth century. Writing in the "London Review of Books," Stephen Holmes (2002) observes that no US troops were dispatched or UN reinforcements authorized to stop the Rwanda massacres. No US high-level governmental meetings were held to discuss non-military options. No public condemnations were uttered. No attempt was made to expel the genocidal government’s representatives from the Security Council, where Rwanda held a rotating seat at the time.
This depressing reality confronts us with (at least) three questions. To what extent does the ignorance of the Western public (however this occurs), preoccupied with fulfilling its private desires in the commodity paradise, actually permit the governing bodies to act immorally in the world? How do we understand the bitter truth that knowing can be so radically divorced from action in the information age? Have we become incapable, somehow, of actually feeling what we know?
Our suspicion thus far has been that the actually existing information age, or information society, privileges a calculating quantitative mentality among its participants and its theorists. To know is to have access to more bits of information only pertinent to expanding the rationality of the market.
But in his illuminating book, Return to Reason (2001), philosopher Stephen Toulmin argues that we need to balance “reason” (scientific forms of knowing) and “reasonableness” (practical forms of knowing). Several considerations follow from this call for balance.
First, the designing of the just learning society would not privilege technical-instrumental forms of reasoning to the exclusion of other forms of knowing (Habermas’s critical insight, endlessly present in his works).
Second, the “scientific way of knowing” would still be deeply respected, its spirit of critique valued for its potential to clear away the “unfounded customary and traditional assumptions that lie in the path to true knowledge” (R. Tallis, Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism ).
This latter affirmation needs urgent attention. More than ever, men and women’s lives are being transformed by the applications of science (genetics, etc.) and technology at the same time as citizens are becoming less and scientifically literate. In fact, an anti-science and anti-enlightenment sensibility actually pervades the Academy in the social sciences and humanities. How has this come to be?
Outside the Academy, aggressive and irrational forms of religion have their tight grip on the minds, hearts and emotions of millions of people in and outside the West. Fundamentalisms — Islam, Christian, Hindu and Jewish — are flourishing throughout the world. These apocalyptic, dogmatic belief systems close their followers’ minds to rational discussion or any discussion at all. Daring to know is forbidden.
Truth is declared from the High Mountain; submit don’t deliberate. Dogmatic religious forms fuel and mobilize aggressive, military spiritual energy oriented to destroying the unbeliever. Dazzling philosopher Wendy Brown (“American Nightmare:& The Neoliberalism, Neo-Conservatism, and De-Democratization” ) argues that “neo-conservatism does valorize power and statism, and when these energies are combined with the moralism and the market ethos, and when a public is molded by the combination of these energies and rationalities, a fiercely anti-democratic political culture results.”
Now is not the time to make silly and thoughtless denunciations of the global scientific enterprise. The Left Humanist educational project must consider how various societies actually function (or could) to increase our scientific literacy, enlarge the possibilities of technical artistry in all dimensions of our lives, nurture practical wisdom in our deliberations with each other, and increase our collective wisdom.
Increased wisdom emerges from the considered interplay of the three Aristotelean primary modes of knowing (episteme [formal abstract theory], techne [techniques to master practical problems] and phronesis [practical skills such as performed in clinical medicine, sailing or moral discourse]).
It is inconceivable, for example, that our species could solve the problem of holes in the ozone layer without the products of scientific thought and technological artistry. But when moral wisdom (pertaining to what is right for all) evaporates, we don’t even recognize there is a hole in the first place.
If sources of wisdom, Sophia, dry up, the baleful impulses inherent in an instrumental-rationality detached from and colonizing other forms of knowing, will continue on their destructive way.
(Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.)
Peer pressure or pressure from monitors of various kinds presupposes a strong consensus on the legitimacy of behavioral norms, a readiness to exert such pressure and a sensitivity to it on the part of the executive. These conditions do not exist today. We live in an era wherein careerist self-interest, often crudely partisan, rules thinking, the sense of citizenship is diluted, and an ethos of anything goes has become pervasive.
From the end of this month through early December, much of the world’s attention will be focused on Paris, the site of the upcoming round of UN climate negotiations. This is the twenty-first time diplomats and heads of state will gather under the umbrella of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a document first put forward at the landmark 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro – the same global conference where the elder George Bush told the world that the “American way of life is not negotiable.” The UNFCCC process has had its ups and downs over the years, including the approval of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the first international agreement to mandate specific reductions in climate-disrupting greenhouse gases.
As this year’s conference approaches, people around the world are suffering the consequences of some of the most extreme patterns of storms, droughts, wildfires and floods ever experienced. Western wildfires last summer reached as far north as the Olympic rainforest, and unprecedented mudslides earlier this fall in a corner of drought-baked southern California nearly buried vehicles caught on the route from Tehachapi to Bakersfield. Central Mexico recently experienced the most severe hurricane to ever reach landfall, and the role of persistent regional droughts in sparking the social upheaval that has brought nearly a million Middle Eastern refugees to central Europe is increasingly apparent.
It is virtually certain that 2015 will be the warmest year ever recorded, with several months having surpassed previous records by a full degree or more. While we are always cautioned that it is difficult to blame the climate for specific incidents of extreme weather, scientists in fact are increasingly able to measure the climate contribution of various events, and rising temperatures also heighten the effects of phenomena such as the California drought, which may not have global warming as their primary underlying cause.
The last time this much public attention was focused on the climate talks was in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference in 2009. At that time, the first “commitment period” of the Kyoto Protocol was about to expire shortly, and Copenhagen was seen as a make-or-break opportunity to move the process forward. Even as close observers decried the increasing corporate influence over the preparations for the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN climate convention, most observers held onto a shred of hope that something meaningful and significant would emerge from the negotiations.
There was a huge public lobbying effort by Greenpeace and other groups urging President Obama to attend, and China put forward its first public commitment to reduce the rate of increase in their greenhouse gas emissions. While the Kyoto Protocol’s primary implementation mechanisms – tradable emissions allowances and questionable “carbon offset” projects in remote areas of the world – had proven inadequate at best, the Copenhagen meeting was seen as the key to sustaining Kyoto’s legacy of legally binding emissions reductions.
Perhaps, activists hoped, the negotiators would agree on a meaningful plan to prevent increasingly uncontrollable disruptions of the climate. It soon became clear, however, that Copenhagen instead set the stage for a massive derailment of the ongoing negotiation process, and unleashed a new set of elite strategies that now render the Paris talks as virtually designed to fail.
Public office-holders in our constitutional democracy are trustees. They are custodians who supposedly act in the collective interest of the citizenry who have a stake in how our institutions perform. Governmental bodies in the United States are not meant to be owned by those who lead them. They are not possessions to be disposed of according to the will and inclination of governors. It follows that officials are authorized to exercise their proper powers within a set of constraints. Empowerment together with accompanying limitations are designed to ensure that the functions of leadership are performed in a responsible manner. It is a fiduciary responsibility in a broad sense.
Custodianship in concept and practice is the antithesis to autocracy, to rule by diktat. Yet, today we observe the abuse of power in arbitrary action on a growing scale. High public officials, from the President on down, too often see no obligation to explain or justify why and how they do things that drastically affect the general welfare. In the more extreme cases we examine below, they act with impunity in violation of constitutional or legal principles. That distain often is accompanied by deceit and outright lying – lying whose eventual revelation evokes a shrug of the proverbial shoulders rather than a mea culpa or repentance. It usually takes the form of a pro forma “I take responsibility” – an empty phrase that means “I want closure now – so shut up about this.” The examples are legion. Moreover, each occurrence of illicit action that escapes condemnation helps clear the way for subsequent abuses.
Theoretically, the checks on abuse of office in the American system are four-fold:
socialization into a political culture whose norms are upheld communally by other participants, the media and the general public; enforcement of legal stipulations by the courts; periodic elections; and, ultimately, the resort to impeachment by the legislative branch of government in accordance with procedures embodied in law at every level of government. None is an absolute guarantee of fidelity to proper conduct.
The judiciary has been corrupted by some of the same societal trends. Cavalier arrogation of personal prerogative by judges to impose their own standards and preferences is commonplace – most egregiously in the federal District, Appeals and Supreme Court. The last now satisfies itself with providing the thinnest veneer of legal exegesis to justify what manifestly are subjective convictions (the rewriting of the First, Second and Fourth Amendments in the Bill of Rights provide the outstanding examples).
The Roberts Supreme Court’s acts can have profound systemic consequences not only by virtue of their decisions in case that they hear – but in deciding which cases they will here. Thus, Hobby Lobby is granted the Court’s attention to consider a far-out claim of religious liberty while the Justice Department is denied that attention when a fundamental question of financial criminality is at issue (the Dewey insider trading case). Encouragement is thereby given lower courts to act in similarly cavalier fashion.
Competitive elections are frequently cited as the surest check on abusive executive behavior. They have intrinsic shortcomings, however. Voting preferences are formed in response to a multitude of an office-holders’ action; attention spans are short – especially in the age of declining journalistic standards and trivial pursuits; and partisan loyalties are the main determinants of how candidates are appraised.
Impeachment as a deterrent threat and control fails for two reasons. For one thing, the frivolous approach taken by many in Congress in recent years has tarnished its dignity and seriousness. First we had the Clinton/Lewinsky farce. Then, the Tea Party inspired movements to get rid of Barack Obama for one nominal reason or another when, in fact, their base motives are that he is black or his attitude “un-American” in the lights of Bible Belt uber-patriots or because they need an outlet for their personal frustrations and insecurities. The other reason is that these acts of partisan bitchiness make it impossible even to broach a sober discussion of possible offenses against the Constitution.
Hence, high officers of the Republic feel less and less constrained about assuming an intrinsic authority to do things that border on, or enter into the realm of the illegal. The government, its policies, the country somehow are theirs to use as they see fit. “We the people” get their say at election time; otherwise the citizenry are identified as the lobbyists and media who are to be cajoled or spun or appeased so as to secure leaders’ expansive prerogatives. That is the extent of the perceived commitment to a democratic polity and an informed citizenry. Yes, there is constant reference to a national “conversation” on this or that or the other issue. But two-way communication of a serious nature is normally avoided.
Consider electronic monitoring of private communications. The vast network of spying first was put in place by a small coterie of persons in the Bush administration and Congress (including the Democratic leadership) without any legal cover whatsoever. There was zero public discussion. Its elaboration then was justified on the basis of generous readings of the Patriot Act which accorded the executive powers equivalent to those of autocrats everywhere. Barack Obama, his successor, followed an analogous course. The public was kept in the dark until programs that raised grave legal issues were exposed by Edward Snowden. One key feature of the White House’s mode of formulating the troubling surveillance question is telling. Its central element is the reiterated claim that “security must be balanced against civil liberties.” This has been adopted by nearly all commentators - including distinguished law school professors.
So stated, the formula in effect affirms that government actions which violate constitutionally guaranteed privacy rights need only meet a standard of practical value in supposedly reducing some arbitrarily assessed security risk. But these are not considerations of the same order. The one is an explicit, constitutionally grounded right of citizens. The other is a subjective policy judgment based on a loose reading of inherently ambiguous legislation.
The blurring of this fundamental distinction serves to expand radically the range of discretionary action by rulers while subordinating a principle inscribed in the Constitution for the very purpose of circumscribing that claimed prerogative. The Obama administration’s systematic resistance to have the constitutional issues adjudicated in the courts is, in effect, a declaration that it “possesses” not only the Executive branch but the United States governmental system itself.
And thus the liberal, progressive view of individual liberty under Constitutional imperative is obviated.