tag: United States

Jan 2012

Politics, religion and the United States

Earlier today the TV news broadcast a report about the victory of Mitt Romney in the Iowa Caucus. This signals the beginning of the 2012 US Presidential Election and is the first step taken by the Republican Party in choosing who will run against Barack Obama in November. The report on RTÉ included short clips of the two front-runners, Romney and Santorum, speaking to their supporters. I was fascinated by Romney’s veiled reference to Manifest Destiny when he described America as the “hope of the world”, and by the openly religious language used by both candidates. In fact, in the case of Santorum I found the phrase “aggressively religious” leaping unbidden to mind.

Rick SantorumOf course, I’ve long been aware that the United States, for all its superficial similarities, is very much “a foreign country” from a European perspective*. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense, but simply as a description of the experience I had when I lived there. Just as with the time I spent in Egypt or Brazil, there was a real sense of being “outside Europe” when I worked in the US heartland, which is pretty odd considering the wide gulf that exists between many European cultures. I’ve lived in five European countries and I married a woman from a sixth. Yet despite the language barriers and the clear cultural differences, I felt much more of an alien when I lived in the English-speaking American Midwest than when I lived in Athens or Berlin.

No amount of US sitcoms or Hollywood movies can prepare a European for time spent in Ottumwa or Des Moines or Columbus. There’s a sense of dislocation precisely because everything seems so familiar on the surface, and yet the people you work with and spend time with clearly possess a very different value system. There’s the strange ideological attachment to gun-ownership, which I found quite disconcerting at times. And there’s the extreme patriotism, which in most European countries would be considered close to the dodgy end of nationalism despite being part of the mainstream of US society. And most of all there’s the heavily religious aspect of American life. Even coming from an Irish Catholic background, I found the seriousness with which many Americans take religious belief to be remarkable.

Although the United States is clearly in decline, it remains the only superpower at this moment in time; certainly the only superpower capable of projecting military and economic power around the world. One imagines that China or India might be at the stage where they could flex their muscles should they so wish, and test the dominance of the United States. But right now they haven’t done so, and so long as that’s the case, the US remains the only global superpower. Which is why US policy matters to the rest of the world. And why we should never forget – particularly when they have a Republican president – that US policy is not necessarily guided by the same considerations as those of European governments.

Witness, for example, the stark contrast between otherwise bosom-buddies Tony Blair and George ‘Dubya’ Bush when it came to their faith. Both professed to be religious Christians. But while Bush spoke proudly of leading his staff in daily White House bible readings, Blair’s irritation when asked by Jeremy Paxman if he ever “prayed together” with the US president (50 seconds into this video) was palpable. Blair clearly viewed the very premise of the question as being an attempt to ridicule him; as indeed, from a European sense, it probably was. But Bush would never have reacted in such a way and would almost certainly have taken the question at face value. That clip of Blair’s discomfort – almost embarrassment – when faced with questions about his faith (a faith that, let us not forget, he expressed openly in his writing) always calls to mind Matthew 26:31-75.

Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice…

Take the – admittedly more extreme than most – Rick Santorum who, having made it clear that he was running on an anti-abortion platform and “the sanctity of the American family” (which is almost certainly a reference to his profoundly homophobic views), came out with the following…

… America is a moral enterprise. Our founders understood that for the constitution to work, it had to be based on something deeper, something grounded. Our rights came from a creator [Santorum points upwards to heaven] and the creator has rules… ‘Nature and Nature’s God’, that was another phrase in the declaration of independence. They understood that through reason and through faith we could build a strong country from the ground up, based on a moral society. John Adams said our constitution was made for ‘a moral and a religious people; it is wholly inadequate for the governance of any other’. That is the mission of America

Prior to the report on the Iowa Caucus, the RTÉ news had run a story about the increasing tensions between Iran and the west, complete with a clip of President Ahmadinejad working himself into an impressive fury and shaking his fist at America. So when the Santorum clip was shown, Citizen S who was sitting next to me, wondered aloud, “how is that any different to the rhetoric of the Iranian government?” My reply… “it’s not”.

Indeed this point is made rather well by Ronald Wright, author of What is America? A Short History of the New World Order in this interview…

It’s well worth watching that clip. Wright lucidly explains how America developed as a nation riven with tension between religious fundamentalism and predatory capitalism, and how it has somehow managed to combine the two into a strange hybrid that has antecedents in the ‘frontier spirit’ of the 17th and 18th century and still looks forward with evangelical zeal to a world reshaped in its own image. The fact is, there are few things more dangerous than a powerful person who believes God is on their side. It makes them reckless with the lives of others and it provides them with a spurious justification for idiotic decisions. And it’s all the worse when that person feels backed into a corner, as the decline of the debt-ridden American Empire must surely do to future presidents.

Having said all that, and it pains me that religious discussion has become so polarised that I feel obliged to add this disclaimer; none of this is meant to be an attack on religion in and of itself. I believe the mytho-poetic aspects of religion and religious faith are of genuine importance to the future well-being of humanity. I believe the sterile atheism currently in fashion is also extremely dangerous in the long run; though in a different way to the various flavours of religious fundamentalism that grips much of humanity today. I believe that those “intellectuals” who are making a living tearing at the fabric of religion are doing terrible damage to our culture and our collective psyche. Yes, we need to radically re-evaluate our relationship with religion, but it needs to be done constructively and with subtlety and sensitivity. The boorish attacks of the new atheists are as unimaginative and unintelligent as the fundamentalist literalism of Rick Santorum or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

* Incidentally, I would exclude New York from that “foreign country”. Just as London is in no way representative of much of the rest of the UK, so New York feels more like an island off the coast of America than a part of the place.

Rick Santorum photo courtesy of salon.com

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Dec 2011

Hey Mister, can we have our drone back please?

Even as western capitalism teeters on the edge of an abyss of debt, tensions between the United States and Iran are increasing… threatening yet another international crisis. I’m pretty convinced that sometime during the next couple of years we will awaken one morning to the news of a “pre-emptive” Israeli strike on Iran. This will almost inevitably drag the United States into yet another war in the region. Which in turn will almost inevitably see British forces (and perhaps some Aussies and others) – even if only a token contingent – killing and dying in Asia once again. What it will do to a global economy already on life-support is anybody’s guess.

It’s a grim prospect and one that will – I’m almost certain – have a far worse outcome than either the Iraq or Afghanistan invasions. Israel’s involvement (and I can’t see them not being involved, given the escalating rhetoric on both sides) will make it a lot more messy than it would otherwise be, and Iran won’t be shocked or awed quite so easily as other recent targets of the US military. On top of that, the rise of political Islam (which I suggested would be a likely consequence of the Arab uprisings) is likely to shift the balance of power in the region and exacerbate any conflict; particularly one that involves Israel.

As I stressed in a piece on the North African revolutions, my problem with the rise of political Islam is nothing to do with Islam specifically and everything to do with the influence of any religious fundamentalism on the political landscape. From my perspective, given their access to massive military might, Israel (with their increasingly Orthodox approach to both domestic and foreign policy) and America (with the rise of the religious right) are far more worrying than any individual Islamic nation. But the ‘clash of civilisations’ that US neoconservatives appeared to relish so much during the Bush years could finally become a reality should Arabic nations that were once relatively secular (despite being brutal dictatorships) shift towards theocracy during a period of US / Israeli involvement in Iran.

It is against this worrying backdrop that one of the most farcical news stories of recent weeks has been playing out. The story began about eight days ago when the US military admitted that it had “lost a drone” over Iran. This alone caused me some degree of consternation. I appreciate that the official US position on Iran is that it’s a rogue state, actively developing Weapons of Mass Destruction, and guilty of destabilising the region. Yet by carrying out military incursions (whether manned or unmanned is surely academic) into Iranian airspace the United States is effectively acting like a rogue state and further destabilising the region. How can it not see this? I guess the big difference is that the US has already developed (and deployed) WMD rather than – allegedly – merely contemplating it.

US drone captured by IranIncidentally, can you imagine the US response if an unmanned Iranian military aircraft had crashed / been brought down while flying over Texas? Seems to me that in this instance, unlike with their decision to send warships through the Suez canal, the Iranians have been a model of restraint.

Still, despite the surely criminal actions of the US military (am I wrong in thinking that sending military aircraft into the airspace of a sovereign nation without prior clearance is a crime?) we were assured by defence analyst Loren Thompson that at least the drone would not be offering up any military secrets… “This is a high-flying unmanned aircraft that malfunctioned and then fell to earth. It’s likely to be broken up into hundreds of pieces”, said Loren.

A couple of days later, however, Iranian news media showed images of the drone. Far from being broken up into hundreds of pieces, the unmanned aircraft appeared in pristine condition. Moreover, claimed the Iranians, it didn’t malfunction but was in fact “hijacked” by their electronic-warfare experts who over-rode the control system and landed the drone intact. The United States is scornful of such a suggestion, but frankly the machine doesn’t look like it recently plummeted to the ground from high altitude… so until we have further evidence either way, I’m leaning towards the Iranian version of events.

I guess this possibility is giving the US military a bout of the heebie-jeebies… “if they can remotely over-ride our drones”, they’re probably wondering, “then what about our cruise missiles? Even worse!… what about the electronic systems on our manned aircraft? Just how safe are they?” I guess this new development has resulted in a lot of late nights at The Pentagon. People with job titles like “Deputy Assistant to the Director of Electronic Warfare” are producing lengthy reports, risk assessments and flow-charts. I wager that in the executive summary of one such report there appeared a statement along the lines of, “Of course, without access to the captured drone, we may never know precisely how – or even whether – the remote flight system was compromised”. And I suspect it was as result of such a statement that the truly farcical element of this story was born.

Ludicrously, the day after the Iranians had displayed the drone on TV, the United States government formally requested that the Iranians return the captured aircraft. It’s pretty unusual for me to actually laugh at something on the internet… lots of smiles but few proper laughs… and it’s even rarer for me to laugh at a story involving a US military incursion into Iran. But upon reading that headline – US asks Iran to return captured drone – laugh I most certainly did. The story gets even better when Hillary Clinton gets involved (and how often can you say that?)…

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that she did not think it likely that the drone would be returned.

I have to say that I rarely find myself in whole-hearted agreement with Mrs. Clinton, but on this issue we are definitely of one mind. She went on…

“We are very clearly making known our concerns. We submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment, as we would in any situation. Given Iran’s behaviour to date, we do not expect them to reply,” she said.

She said that despite numerous “provocations” from Iran, the US would continue to pursue a “diplomatic approach”.

I hate to perpetuate a lazy stereotype, but the Americans really don’t understand irony, do they?

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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Jul 2011

The curious death of a master signifier

A crowd gathered at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. Many carried American flags or wore t-shirts with patriotic slogans. They pumped their fists in the air. They shouted “U.S.A” and “We’re Number One!” while others sang The Star Spangled Banner. They were in celebratory mood. And they were celebrating death.

Specifically they were celebrating the shooting of an unarmed man in his fifties half a planet away. A group of well-trained killers entered a sovereign nation without permission, swooped down on a house and shot Osama bin Laden in front of his family. They then took photos, scraped some DNA samples and threw the body in the sea. Far away, insulated from all harm, the US president watched the killing unfold on a monitor. And crowds cheered. And of course, this being America, a few of them wondered how they could profit from the death celebration.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “It’s been a long time since Americans felt this good and strong about themselves — nothing like putting bullets in someone’s skull and dumping their corpse into an ocean to rejuvenate that can-do American sense of optimism.”

And then the lies began. The dead man had resisted capture. He’d opened fire on his assailants. In the last resort he’d grabbed his own wife and caused her death when he used her as a human shield. A day later, mystifyingly, we were told that none of that had happened. The dead man had been unarmed. He hadn’t used his wife as a human shield. She wasn’t even present when he was shot dead.

I found myself wondering how a man in his fifties, whose health – we’d been told for some time – wasn’t all that great, could have resisted capture so forcefully while unarmed, that a team of elite soldiers was unable to subdue him without shooting him numerous times in the face and chest. Don’t get me wrong, I shed no tears for Osama bin Laden. But nor do I find much to celebrate in the gunning-down of an unarmed man, followed by a series of official lies.

I also found myself wondering why we were being told this at all. Where had the first set of lies come from? And why bother correcting them given that there was no evidence one way or the other beyond the official version? It reminded me of the brutal slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London. Immediately after the killing a series of lies emerged from the authorities that were so far from the truth that they had to have been deliberately manufactured. They simply couldn’t have been mistakes or someone misinterpreting something. Jean Charles de Menezes had vaulted the ticket barrier in the tube station, we were told. He’d been wearing a bulky coat, we were told. He’d sprinted away from police who had clearly called upon him to stop, we were told.

Except he hadn’t. He’d used his season ticket to walk through the ticket barriers just like a hundred thousand other commuters that day. His clothes had been perfectly appropriate for the weather, and yes while he had sped up — like a hundred thousand other commuters that day — to catch the train that had just pulled into the station, he’d not been sprinting. We were just told lies. And the apparently casual manner in which the authorities appear willing to feed bullshit to the public suggests this is a routine occurrence.

The bizarre testimony of the police officer at the centre of the Ian Tomlinson “unlawful killing” case serves to reinforce this. Everyone had already seen the clear footage of the incident that killed Tomlinson. It was as unambiguous as something like this can possibly be. Yet at the inquest, the police officer whose action had resulted in the death of Tomlinson insisted upon a version of events that completely contradicted the video evidence. It was just weird. And what’s weirder is the fact that he clearly expected the jury, and the wider world, to accept his version above the evidence of their own eyes.

Over the years I’ve found it instructive, whenever I encounter a statement issued by an authority, to imagine that the exact opposite is true. It’s unsettling how often the news makes more sense when you do that. Admittedly it’s a little strange to have the strategy validated so quickly as we did when bin Laden was killed. Within 48 hours an armed man became an unarmed man, and the wife we were told was used as a human shield wasn’t even there.

What does all of this mean?

Well, it means those in power have no respect for those they claim to protect, serve and represent. This isn’t an earth-shattering piece of news. I’m not claiming to be telling you something you’ve not heard before. I’m merely pointing out that despite incontrovertible evidence that this is going on all the time, we appear happy to allow it. Our police and our politicians are constantly lying to us, and we choose to accept it. The psychoanalyst in me can’t help but find the words of Wilhelm Reich springing to mind and wonder whether this is inevitably going to end with the sound of a hundred thousand jackboots marching in unison beneath a fascist flag. The willingness of a population to accept obvious lies eventually gets exploited by someone even less sane than Blair or Cameron or Bush or Obama. And the phrase “it couldn’t happen here” is rarely any protection.

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Jul 2011

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project

I’ve got a new article up at On This Deity. To be honest, I could easily have written four or five times as much on this subject as it’s something I was obsessed with for quite a while, and it also feeds into my “advanced technology as pathology” thesis. But 12 hundred words is already a lot in these days of abbreviated attention spans.

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project.

At half past five on the morning of July 16th 1945, The Gadget exploded and the whole world shook. Three square miles of desert sand was melted into glass. A mushroom cloud rose almost 8 miles into the sky and cast a shadow that darkens our world even now. For it was on this day, in the final year of the second world war, that humanity entered the atomic age. A day of infamy. A day to lament. A day on which we should – as a species – collectively reflect on just how far our ingenuity has exceeded our wisdom.

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.
Albert Einstein

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Jun 2011

On This Deity: 27th June 1905

My new piece is up at On This Deity.

27th June 1905: The Founding of The Industrial Workers of the World.

It is late June 2011 as I write this. The news media – on the rare occasions it’s not discussing the sex lives of professional sportsmen – offers us a running commentary on an Arab Spring, now turned summer. We’re presented with images of disaffected Chinese workers rioting in Guangdong while dissidents with pixelated faces hold secret meetings in cramped apartments. In Peru an alliance between environmental campaigners and indigenous activists has seen its members injured and even killed in an attempt to prevent an expansion of mining in their region. And here, in the relative safety of our liberal democracies, we find ourselves dismayed by the violence, the oppression and the painful struggle for basic rights playing out on our screens and newsprint. And we often forget – because it’s so damned easy to do – just how recently our own nations experienced similar upheaval. And we don’t realise – as the forces of capitalism once again begin to squeeze the worker, marginalise the army of unemployed and bind entire nations with chains of debt – just how close to a return to those days we are, and just how cheaply our acquiescence in this return is being purchased.

One hundred and six years ago today, on June 27th 1905, a couple of hundred anarchists, socialists and vagabond activists gathered in a hall in Chicago for what would later become known as the First Annual Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Like activists in China, Peru, North Africa and elsewhere today they would find themselves targeted by the authorities, imprisoned and even murdered for the crime of disagreeing with those in power. They spoke out. They organised their dissent. Sometimes they withheld their labour. Often they demanded radical change. They united beneath a simple slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all”… a worldview simply incompatible with free-market capitalism; a philosophy which happily externalises all manner of injury in the pursuit of personal gain; a philosophy that dismisses collective responsibility unless there’s a profit to be made commodifying it.

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Jun 2011

On This Deity: 17th June 1972

Check out my new piece over at On This Deity.

17th June 1972: The Watergate Arrests.

On a balmy Saturday evening in Washington DC, Frank Wills was doing his rounds. It was June 17th 1972 and he was working as a security guard in the Watergate complex. During the course of his routine patrol he noticed that several of the doors had tape applied to them in order to prevent them locking. Suspecting that a burglary might be in progress, Wills called the police, little knowing his phone call would become one of the most influential of all time. While that night it would merely result in the arrest of five burglars, it would later set off a chain of events that was to shake the United States to the core, forcing the collapse of a government and the only US presidential resignation in history.

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May 2011

On This Deity: 31st May 1996

Check out my new piece over at On This Deity.

31st May 1996: The Death of Timothy Leary.

At 12:44am on the 31st of May 1996, Dr. Timothy Leary sat bolt upright in bed startling the small group of friends and family who had gathered to keep him company during his final days. He had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer the previous year and it had finally run its course. “Why not?” he asked those keeping vigil. Again, louder, “Why not?” He repeated the question a third time. “Why not?” Then, lying back down, Dr. Leary whispered his final word… “beautiful”… and slipped into death. He was 75 years old.

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Mar 2011

On This Deity: 24th March 1989

I’ve got a new piece up at On This Deity

24th March 1989: The Exxon Valdez oil spill.

At four minutes past midnight on March 24th 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Despite not even being in the top 50 global oil spills by volume, the Exxon Valdez disaster quickly came to symbolise the destructive impact of modern industry on the natural environment. The remote location made mitigation and clean up efforts next to impossible (less than 10% of the oil was recovered) and the incredible beauty of the pristine wilderness into which the tanker dumped half a million barrels of crude oil served to magnify the tragedy. Even the more recent Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico – though it involved more oil and had a far greater direct human impact – does not compare to the Exxon Valdez spill in terms of the stark imagery it produced, graphically demonstrating humanity’s utter disregard for the planet that supports us.

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Mar 2011

On This Deity: 19th March 2003

New article at On This Deity

19th March 2003: The Beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

On March 19th 2003 US President George W. Bush announced that US and UK armed forces had launched strikes against “targets of military opportunity” in Iraq. It marked the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom; a disastrous conflict that would drag on for the rest of the decade resulting in massive casualties, a huge economic cost and the further destabilisation of a region already beset by conflict and strife.

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Jan 2011

On This Deity: 10th January 1776

Another piece by me over at On This Deity

10th January 1776: Thomas Paine publishes ‘Common Sense’.

At the beginning of 1776 the American Revolution was well underway and growing in intensity with each passing week. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June ’75 had shaken the British army so badly they’d been on the back foot ever since. And by March of 1776 Washington’s advance on Boston would drive the bulk of that army into Canada. Of course, King George would respond with a lengthy military campaign and the War of Independence would continue for some years. In truth though, it was back between Bunker Hill and Boston that American independence became inevitable. Because it was on this day, January 10th back in 1776 that Thomas Paine published Common Sense.

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