Monday, February 26, 2007

America versus America

My children have a Dreamworks animated film called AntZ. I suppose it’s better than the average American children’s film, but still, once you’ve watched 15 minutes you can predict both the conclusion and the moral message that will be rammed violently past your gullet for the next hour and a bit. As in very many Disney films for children or in the Hollywood versions for adults, the message is BE YOURSELF. BE AN INDIVIDUAL. STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD.

It seems contradictory that the country which feeds its children unto obesity with this message is also the country with the most conformist of populations. Americans are more likely than any other people to confuse their national identity with their state machinery, to identify themselves with their leaders and their flag, to believe that their country has a divinely-ordained manifest destiny. The ability of Americans to contemplate alternative perspectives on the world, or even to understand that people in different countries may not want to speak English or eat hamburgers, is severely limited. The declared ideology is individualism, but the reality is rigid conformism.

Parallel to this, the American political system is described as democratic. The assumption even exists that America is in a position to export its vaunted democracy to more benighted lands. In reality, however, the American political system has much more in common with Italian fascism than it does with Athenian democracy. Athenian democracy suggests the rigorous debate of issues by the people in a public space, followed by direct voting. In Mussolini’s model, and in the contemporary US, the people are kept too busy to be able to think, are offered entertainment in place of debate and fantasy instead of facts. Corporations, media and the political parties are all on the same side. In the United States more than in Mussolini’s Italy, much of the religious apparatus is also absorbed into the corporate body. There is no public space. It has all been bought, from the airwaves to the shopping mall which replaces the old town centre.

BE YOURSELF doesn’t mean convert to Islam, or become an anarcho-syndicalist, or opt out of consumerism and live in the forest. There’s a strong media machinery to deal with such possibilities: you don’t want to be a freak, a loser, an evil-doer. GET REAL, buddy! There are prescribed ways to be yourself. You can, for instance, express your individuality by downloading a mass-produced individualised ring tone, or by wearing Ralph Lauren shirts, or Nike shoes, by hanging out with people who read a certain newspaper or drive a certain type of car. You can even prove your anti-establishment credentials by smoking Che Guevara cigarettes.

It’s important to rebel against your parents and the previous generation because by doing so you DEFINE YOURSELF and STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD. Novelty is important. Whatever was done last year is passé. REINVENT YOURSELF constantly. There was even an American TV show about women winning the opportunity to have extensive plastic surgery as well as posture and elocution lessons.

Our economy too requires constant tumult, continual renewal, in order to keep itself out of crisis. Standing still is, for it, disaster. And this points to the truth of American ‘individualism’ – not in fact particularly American, but specifically late capitalist. Marx predicted it. He called it the commodification of the human soul. There are other ways of defining your individuality, which do not rely on brands and products. You could, for instance, examine your position in relation to your family, your nation, human history, to the divine. This is a contemplative exercise which is not helped by the screen screaming BE YOURSELF, or by the late capitalist dissolution of the notion of history itself.

These thoughts have been sparked by Seymour Hersh’s latest article, and by the consequent question, what, and who, is anti-American? Hersh is America’s finest investigative journalist. He broke the My Lai story from Vietnam, and the Abu Ghraib story from Iraq. Now he’s investigating the coming US or Israeli attack on Iran and the proxy wars that the US is already involved in throughout the Middle East.

America is currently fingering Iran for supplying the weaponry that kills US occupying troops in Iraq. This is absurd, and the Americans at the top know it. 95% of American deaths in Iraq have been caused by Baathist or Salafi radicals who despise Iran. These anti-American fighters make or loot their own weapons, or buy them on the open market. They are funded not by Iran but by Saudi Arabia, America’s greatest Arab ally. The American ruling class don’t seem to actually give a damn about the American troops being killed.

Hersh also points to US funding of extreme Salafi groups in Lebanon and elsewhere. There’s nothing new in this. America has backed Wahhabi extremists before, to isolate revolutionary Iran and to trouble the Soviet Union. What makes this time different is that we are in the middle of a series of wars supposedly triggered by an attack on New York on September 11th 2001 … by extreme Salafis. The American ruling class don’t seem to give a damn about the American citizens killed on that historic day.

Last week a bus carrying Revolutionary Guards was blown up in Iranian Baluchistan by a Baluchi separatist (and Sunni fundamentalist) group which is funded by the US. One ‘strategy’ which Hersh describes is the weakening of Iran by arming and encouraging separatist terrorist groups among Iran’s Kurdish, Arab, Baluchi and Azeri minorities. Anyone who still thinks that the US administration is horrified by the civil war and fragmentation of Iraq should think again. They planned for it, and they are planning for it again. The disaster in Iraq has immeasurably strengthened instability and terror worldwide, as well as the global hatred of Americans. The American ruling class don’t seem to give a damn about Americans.

I despise the BE YOURSELF crap that passes for individualism in the US, but I’m not anti-American. Once Americans think beyond the capitalist poison (which is spreading far beyond America’s shores) and media illusion, they can be as bright as anyone else. America has produced Spike Lee and Martin Scorcese, Public Enemy and Miles Davis, John Cheever and Saul Bellow, the Bill of Rights and Malcolm X. America has a lot to be proud of.

What it should be ashamed of, and suspicious of, is its corporate ruling class. The people who whip up the wildest displays of flag-waving patriotism, and who actively collaborate with the enemies of the American people. Who ARE the enemies of the American people.

The Hersh article is here:
On the corporate rape of America, I recommend Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo.”

Friday, February 09, 2007

In Defence of Iran

Many people will have seen the excerpt from an al-Jazeera discussion programme in which Iraqi MP Mish’an al-Jabouri and Iraqi journalist Sadeq Musawi threaten and scream at each other. The occasion is Saddam Hussain’s execution, and the cleavage is sectarian (al-Jabouri is Sunni and Musawi is Shia). Al-Jabouri calls on the audience to read the fatiha for the soul of the ‘martyred president.’ When Musawi objects and points out that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, al-Jabouri says he will do ‘unimaginable things’ to Musawi, and calls him an Iranian, a Persian, and a Persian shoe. After Musawi has walked off, al-Jabouri demonstrates what looks to me like mental illness. He tells us that his own brother and brother-in-law were killed by Saddam, but that he nevertheless considers the martyr president to be the master of Iraq, and specifically the master of Musawi and Musawi’s parents. He regrets that Saddam was killed by “the same people who killed our master Umar and our master Abu Bakr.” Then he seems to remember that Abu Bakr wasn’t killed, and says “Sorry. The people who hate Abu Bakr and all the companions of the Prophet.”

I found al-Jabouri’s ranting tragic to watch. For people like him, sectarian hatred supercedes even family loyalty. And as far as he is concerned, anyone who disagrees with Baathist tyranny or Sunni dominance of Iraq is not Iraqi and not Arab, but Persian.

As the American campaign against Iran intensifies, there is a corresponding chorus of paranoid voices in the Arab world howling about Persian imperialism and Shia infiltration. The chorus includes pro-American ‘liberals’ and anti-American Baathists and Wahhabi fundamentalists. The interests these Arabs ultimately serve are neither liberal nor anti-American.

Some Arabs wonder why Iran is involved in the Arab Levant. I see nothing particularly sinister in this engagement. Iran is an important regional power. If it is engaged in the area, so are America, Israel and France, and to a lesser extent Russia and Turkey. I would go so far as to say that Iran is a lot less ‘foreign’ than these other interventionists. And I greatly admire Iran for providing political, financial and military help to resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon. It’s not as if Hamas and Hizbullah turned down Arab aid in favour of the Iranians. Arab states have not only failed to help, they have actively conspired against the resistance and against the democratically elected government of occupied Palestine.

Some Arabs worry that Iran has become a regional superpower after the fall of the Iraqi Baath and the Afghan Taliban. But surely Iran can’t be blamed if it has become stronger as a result of American wars against erstwhile American clients. Although Iran had suffered horribly at the hands of Saddam Hussain, it didn’t help America to invade Iraq. The Saudis, however, provided land and airspace for the American campaign. True, Iran has relationships with some of the Iraqi Shia militia, just as the Saudis have relationships with Sunni militia, but some of the most important Shia militia – such as Sadr’s Mahdi Army – are Iraqi and Arab nationalists who oppose Iranian influence. The Iranian leadership more than Arab leaderships has called on Iraqis to avoid sectarian warfare, and has more to lose from Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq than the Sunni Arab client regimes.

Most absurdly, Yusuf Qaradawi, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian newspaper columnists have recently fulminated against supposed Shia-Iranian efforts to convert Sunnis to ‘the Shia heresy’ in Sunni-majority countries. There are two responses to this. The first is that there is absolutely no evidence that it is happening. In his Ashura speech in Beirut Hassan Nasrallah addressed this issue, calling on the Saudis to establish an investigation into such allegations. The second response is that, even if Shia were trying to convince Sunnis that their brand of belief is best, so what? What’s wrong with theological debate, so long as it doesn’t become coercion? Anyway, is it not obvious (and regrettable) that the best organised and funded Islamic evangelists in the world are Wahhabis?

What else is there for Arabs to fear from Iran? Some condemn Iran as a tyranny. It would be overly optimistic to call the Islamic Republic a democracy, but it is certainly more democratic than any Arab state. There are real, if controlled, elections, in which real issues are debated. There is a vibrant, if besieged, press and student movement. The hijab is imposed on Iranian women (many of them wear it slipping off the back of their heads), but Saudi women are forced to wear niqab, and are forbidden from driving. Iran makes wonderful films. Iranian high streets are full of bookshops, and the bookshops stock titles on Buddhism, yoga, contemporary European philosophy, quantum physics, Russian literature. The most popular language for internet blogs after English is Farsi. I wish the Arab world was more like Iran.

I don’t pretend that Iran doesn’t have serious problems. When I visited I was surprised by just how many people complain about the government. Not only young, Westernised English speakers. I can speak guidebook Farsi, and even working-class and middle-aged people would quickly express to me their hatred of the regime. But I took some heart from the fact that people would shout their opinions in Farsi in the middle of crowded teahouses. In no Arab country would people have so little fear.

The key conflict in the area is between the ruling class, which is both a money class and a client to imperialism, and the ordinary, impoverished people, who now have more information about the links between their rulers and Zionist and imperialist forces. The rulers of the region and of the world don’t want this conflict to be revealed in the light of day, so they seek to mask it by sectarian and ethnic conflicts. The classic divide and rule strategy. So Abdullah of Jordan, that shining hero of Islam, warns of the Shia crescent. Mubarak of Egypt, the gallant knight of Arabism, points out darkly that Arab Shia are always more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. Tony Blair recently referred to an ‘arc of moderation.’ Meaning, I suppose, the moderate anal rape tactics of the Egyptian police, and the moderate public beheadings in Saudi Arabia. It’s a shame to see so many Arabs, for reasons of sectarian prejudice, siding despite themselves with Blair and the Arab puppets. Some liberal Arabs who claim to be in favour of peace and moderation, dazzled by Western media, are falling into the same trap.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


The end times are everywhere. The country where millenarian fundamentalists have the most sway over foreign policy is probably the United States. That means the Empire is partially run by people for whom ‘Bring it on!’ has cosmic connotations. For America’s Christian Zionists, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a clear sign that the end is near. Many have it carefully mapped out, from Rapture to Armageddon. And these days the apocalypse is almost as popular amongst Muslims. Many Sunnis like to point to the Signs of the Hour which they believe are already in place; my favourite, and one which is hard to argue with if you’ve visited Dubai or Riyadh, is ‘Beduin will compete in building high towers.’ The one-eyed dajjal or antichrist who will rule before the Mahdi, or guided-one, and the final return of Christ, is seen variously in the single eye of the dollar’s masonic pyramid or in the one-eyed television screen. I’ve even met someone who claims that their cousin saw the Mahdi in Mecca. Shia Muslims identify the Mahdi with the last, and hidden, Imam. Moqtada as-Sadr has frequently explained the build-up of US forces in the region over the past decade and a half as preparation of a rapid-reaction force to take on Imam al-Mahdi. The explosion in the shrine at Samara, the place where the final Imam was last seen, and chaos throughout Iraq – the holy land of Shiism – has naturally encouraged apocalypticism among Shia Muslims. But apocalypticism goes beyond the monotheisms. For some Hindus, we are reaching the end of Kali Yag, the age of darkness, which means this cycle of history is approaching a full stop. Doomsday cults thrive in Japan and Russia. Mayan prophecies locate the end in 2012. And, of course, environmentalists describe a hotter near future in which what we call civilisation could totally collapse, billions of us could die, and most of the world could become uninhabitable.

People have always worried about the apocalypse. An Assyrian clay tablet of 2800 BC says, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end.” But we seem to be having a spike in apocalypse-fantasies at the moment. There are good reasons for this.

Firstly, the power balance in the world is shifting dramatically. It’s a good bet that even if we are still here in a century, the world will look completely different. The West has been dominant for the last 500 years, to the extent that everybody now wears Western clothes, consumes Western cultural products, studies English, models their architecture, technology, state machineries and legal systems on Western prototypes. This century will see power shift decisively to China, India and other non-Western centres. It’s not at all clear what the consequences of this will be, but it’s natural that people’s dim sense of the huge change will expand to earth-shaking size.

Secondly, people everywhere feel lost, and frequently seek nihilistic compensations (fascism, Wahhabism, hedonist-consumerism, etc…), as they have been uprooted from their traditions and past. I include in this category young British people who don’t know the Bible or English literature, and therefore are disconnected from the long tradition of their culture, as much as tribesmen of the Southern Arabian peninsula who suddenly have no idea how to live without air conditioning and MTV, and who wouldn’t recognise desert poetry if it bit them on the nose. If your cultural rootedness reaches as far back as Britney Spears’ first release, it’s hard to conceptualise a non-exploding future.

Thirdly, the world capitalist system, to which there doesn’t seem to be any serious alternative, is clearly unsustainable. Marx’s suggestions about how to replace capitalism have all been discredited, but much of his basic criticism seems sounder now than ever before. Capitalism would be fine if it got stuck at the level of small business – a set-up which seems to me to be conducive of democracy and social responsibility – but capital inevitably concentrates, and corporations or state complexes take over. These cause ever bloodier and bigger wars. And the international concentration of capital is continuing apace. Marx said capitalism would inevitably morph into imperialism as capital seeks more capital and more markets. Well, look at the world. Marx said capitalism will inevitably commodify the natural environment and the human soul. Again, look about you.

Finally, there’s global warming, the environmental apocalypse. There is now very nearly consensus among scientists, although not among popular media and corporate-sponsored lobbyists, that climate change is happening very rapidly and is caused by our economic activity. If there is a 4 degree C increase in temperature over the century, as seems likely, our world will become significantly harsher even for the best-placed people. If there is a 6 degree increase, the scenario really is semi-apocalyptic. So what are we doing about it? Renouncing capitalism? Learning desert survival skills? Banning cars, planes, electric light and computers? Well, a few of us are buying energy-saving lightbulbs.

The more I talk about it the more convincing the prospect of apocalypse becomes. So it’s apt that Mel Gibson’s latest film, Apocalypto, addresses the issue head on. Gibson has hinted that Apocalypto is a critique of contemporary Western civilisation, specifically of the Iraq war. But that’s bollocks. What it really is is a celebration of Catholic imperialism as the answer to our problems. As such, it is much more problem than solution. The film mashes history to conflate Mayan and Aztec civilisations, implies that the great American city states were intact when Europeans arrived (in fact they collapsed centuries before), and portrays native Americans as, one the one hand, noble savages with an inarticulate, intuitive grasp of Catholic liturgy and, on the other, ignoble and very scary murderers. Much of the film is an extended chase scene structured around sub-Biblical imagery and prophecies of the end. The end for the wild men and redemption for the Christ-hero comes with the arrival of European ships, of bearded men in robes bearing crosses. The audience can’t help but think ‘Thank God for Christian Europe!’ Reality tells a different tale. Over 90% of native Americans died in the first century of European colonisation. Most of these were killed by European diseases, but many were killed by massacre. Genetic studies of the present population of Colombia, for instance, show what happened. Most Colombians are descendants of a group of European males and native females. So it was straightforward, kill the men or work them till they die, take the women for the bedroom. Not much redemption there.

The violence in the film is at times pornographic, in the sense that you feel Gibson must have actually had an erection while organising it. An example is the part when our hero clubs our villain in the head and blood spurts sideways for a good twenty seconds. The blood lust of the cinematic consumer, of course, is good and redemptive, while the blood lust of the savage Mayan-Aztec human sacrifice is bad and, well, savage.

A note on human sacrifice. Of course, human sacrifice was a grotesque and barbaric means of keeping people loyal to the ‘state,’ and was based on the worst superstition. Such practices are revealed in their spectacular and naked barbarism when you view them from outside the ideological prism in which they are performed. If aliens from the planet Zog were to invade the Earth, slaughter everybody, and burn our books, their archeologists would soon find Auschwitch, where Europeans recently committed mass slaughter for reasons of redemptive purity, or for that matter, Iraq, where hundreds of thousands have been killed in a slaughter sparked in the name of Democracy and Civilisation. Some of the worst superstitions.

If the Zog people wait a century, perhaps they won’t need to bother slaughtering us.

I should say before I go that Apocalypto is a wonderfully well-made, tremendously exciting and often beautiful film. Recommended, so long as genocidal reality doesn’t get in your way.