I know I’m not the only one who finds it outright painful to watch the news, nowadays. So much obedience, conformity, foolishness, proud ignorance and hatred – and this creepy stuff can be found on every side of every subject you can name.
And yes I know right away I’m in trouble, because we are all upset and have an urgent need to feel good, even if it means closing our eyes, since this is an age of non-stop fear and panic. Pandemic – Inflation – Housing Crisis – War – Famine. And all that piled onto our plate before we’ve even had a chance to repair the extraordinary damage done to our spirits, finances and social cohesion by the 2008 financial implosion, two straight decades of war for corporate profit, and the slow tragic death of skeptical, smart, locally informed media for everyone.
That last part is actually key to our levels of panic, frustration and division. We can’t tune-in to a common and embracing voice on Television or in a newspaper anymore – which despite the many trade offs, still had huge value as a common meeting place from which to start. Even the majors no longer broadcast, because the only revenue model which still makes any money is the radical disruptor model Fox introduced years ago – Pick one audience only, then tell them a curated version of the news which favours the sort of things they want to hear – in other words – narrowcast. Thanks to the internet, advertisers now practically demand it. And the piper always calls the tune.
Personally, I find this familiar, though also disappointing, because I have been digging into important stories which were missing from that consensus middle for more than four straight decades now. The nature of the clues which were kept out of that restrained and sometimes rather gutless middle ground story was always very revealing. Some power operates in an obvious way, and some is profoundly corrupt and destructive, and so naturally goes to great efforts to hide and misdirect.
The reason government censorship of citizens speech is self-evidently evil for anyone with a combination of intact principle and historical awareness, is that the secretive and powerful covet tools like this most of all, and no matter what cause we believe justifies such extreme interference with free citizen communications and debate (outrage is always used as a wedge here), such tools will inevitably be used against everyone with any challenge or serious critique to offer. If we build it, they will come.
In my recent podcast “Lost and Found and Lost Again” I tried to indicate something which we deny as a society, because it is painful and somehow shameful to admit, but it shows up in how our societies act, again and again, decade after decade.
The simplest harsh-truth version of my point? Western Civilization is a (recovering?) trauma victim. Has been for a century.
From this position, people who have never skipped a meal in their lives feel very comfortable telling people who have never known running water and plumbing that they are essentially bad people, unless they prioritize the rights of social groups which we only began to work on seriously here, long after we had raised up a solid middle class and given plumbing even to our workers (who did still have some backyard urban outhouses in major industrial cities, as late as the fifties).
In other words, we feel sure they are bad because they are not doing things a whole lot better than we ever did them ourselves.
There are few things more universal than this sort of contempt for foreign others, based not on knowledge, but on maliciously flattering curated rumour. Can this be anything other than the most grotesque sort of racism? (Yes, even from supposed ‘anti-racists’). Is there any more precise word, coupling the narcissism, hatred and ignorance involved? And yet this is our brand, one of the very few places where we Westerners all agree. (Brother against brother – but brother with brother against the cousins).
Ah – but what prize do we win from such thinking? We get to hate and feel good about it. Feel right and superior – hooray!
Yes I know this seems simplistic (and yes YOU know, that I can and will tease this out in a thousand more details, every one of which might raise new objections, from those who are determined to keep missing the central unifying point).
But the fact that we all so desperately want to find ways to be proud of our contempt for others, is what proves we are emotionally SICK.
We don’t actually want to be kind, modest, curious, open, interested, honourable and good. We want to find ways that we can be righteous, by being our own special kind of customized hateful bigots.
The key thing is to find a way to explain our latest fashionable bigotry, always a way to dehumanize others, that really feels nice and solid, so that we can wholeheartedly enjoy our hatred.
I actually jumped on for a round or two of this righteous fury myself a couple of decades ago, thinking myself compassionate for hating on behalf of the real and often forgotten victims of war – but I’ve been kind of horrified to see where those upstart threads have gone in the years since. Hate is not just poisonous to the hater, and a way to kill pleasure and satisfaction in life, it is also politically inadequate.
Protests against the war in Iraq were some of the largest the world has ever known. The American government became extremely paranoid and hostile to criticism during this time, and there was real fear and shock still being felt. But many citizens understood there was nothing to be won by this new madness, except by the war corporations which essentially transferred taxpayer billions directly to their already wealthy shareholders, as millions of others paid in blood and generational suffering.
The broadcast ‘consensus’ news did not ever adequately reflect the widespread skepticism of the public, not just on the left, but also from many veterans, who understood the strategic errors underlying the whole misadventure, all too well. But there were still many other vital print, radio and even some television outlets which were very interested in the stories which were being hidden, so there was still a ton of critical information available to the curious, throughout this period.
Funny thing is – back then, simple disinterest did the job many would now like to see done far more comprehensively by censorship. When people began to question the new war in Afghanistan, they realized there was a whole bunch of public material which raised serious doubt.
Zbigniew Brezhinski, who was the national security advisor for Jimmy Carter, the organizer of the Trilateral commission (that is, a lifelong ally of David Rockefeller) the reorganizer of the National Security Council, and the most powerful influence on American foreign policy after Kissinger (very possibly still, to this day) openly boasted in a 1998 interview that he had deliberately provoked the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan by arming islamist rebels, and thus drew the Soviet Union into a disastrous conflict – their own equivalent of America’s invasion of Vietnam – which fatally undermined the Soviet State as a whole. He didn’t just consider this secret support for terrorists which provoked a horrible war to be worthwhile, he was outright proud of his accomplishment.
Now there are a bunch of important things which must be said here. The Afghan war did indeed do huge damage to the Soviet Union, though it did far more horrifying damage to Afghanistan, of course. What no one here ever hears about, is that Gorbachev wasn’t just an internationalist – he was also a moralizing teetotaller, who was convinced that the potential accomplishments of Russia in particular, were being held back by widespread alcoholism. Using a typically crude Soviet approach, hoping to achieve a positive moral result, he drastically reduced the state production of alcohol.
Not only did this strain the economy instantly (massive loss of revenue) it also said to many citizens, that their government was suddenly directly opposed to fun, or their right to a bit of escape and relief at the end of a hard day (mostly depending on age). Naturally, at the same time as the government was suddenly struggling with the bills, there was an explosive growth in the black market and underground economy, and a further lessening of trust in the State to provide basic necessities.
Kind of like the case of Egypt, where decades of persecution had cut down all opposition except the tough as nails Moslem Brotherhood, who of course were the only group capable of mass organization, when the state’s tight control finally slipped. When the Soviet Union finally began to come apart, these newly enriched criminal organizations were the only ones standing with deep pockets – literally billions in cash to invest – meaning the crazy, chaotic and corrupt power games which followed, with a great deal of poorly conceived American “help” were actually fairly easily predictable. Trying to use force to compel people to be better in the way we want them to be, really does not often work out.
Another important point is that the Brezhinski story is extremely believable for anyone who understands the history of American foreign policy. The theories explaining strategies vary widely, but the primary functions of CIA are data collection and analysis on one side, and “Operations” on the other. “Operations” almost always means arming somebody else’s worst nightmare. That’s the basic job.
Then again – we also have to note the persistence of simplifying mythology. The left loves to talk about the Spanish Civil War – and I discuss it myself rather frequently – Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” and Malraux’s “Man’s Hope” are both on my must-read list for anyone with an interest in history, politics or revolutionary change. So many lessons and clues can still be found concentrated there with unusual density.
The Spanish Civil war began when fascists within the Spanish Military decided to attack and overthrow a democratically elected socialist government. The fact that the nations of the rich west were too afraid of leftism (even fully democratic) to help, and pretended to be ‘neutral’ against an insurrection against democracy (and also that Stalin’s Soviet Union “helped” the leftist resistors in a way which was anything but helpful) gave Hitler a huge boost of confidence, and accelerated his plans for the oncoming second world war. Many of the German commanders who would soon rise to fearful fame, tested their part of the new blitzkrieg doctrine in Spain first.
But just because the Spanish fascists were clearly wrong and bad and remained that way for decades after the war, that doesn’t automatically mean that the leftists were all pure sweet goodness.
In Spain, the conflict between the leftists and the Church was so bad that there were numerous atrocities committed against parts of the church which had nothing to do with state power or corruption, and these atrocities provoked many people in the middle who were not so politically engaged, to throw in with the fascists. When families start warring internally, good and evil get weird.
In the case of Afghanistan, the west speaks in such crude terms so often that we speak mostly of our fantasies and emotions, not often about them at all.
What we can say for sure is that many regular people were very upset with the way the newly elected leftist (and Soviet friendly) government treated traditional religious establishments – some of the outrages rolled out in the first few months were so great that even the Soviets were horrified, and tried their best to restrain their new ‘friends’ – and to be clear, absolutely UNLIKE the Spanish case, these institutions were not deeply involved in state corruption or odious fascism – what they absolutely were though, was key to Afghan culture and stability.
So – while we can reasonably assume the CIA went looking for the most motivated and organized factions they could find (as is their professional habit) we absolutely cannot assume that all who took their side were radical or extremist, many were simply outraged about really outrageous events.
The first phase of the Afghan war involved America arming the still always outgunned and out-spent Afghan Mujahideen, a loose alliance of diverse groups of rebels, some of whom were committed to specific local leaders, and some of whom were involved in more ambitious factions like Al Qaida, which the CIA adored and enriched greatly.
For the Afghan people to finally defeat the occupying Soviet Military was just as impressive a feat of arms as the stunning way the Vietnamese people had defeated the Americans, not so very long before. As an American veteran friend of mine once told me “We had the best technology in the world – and they beat us with pointed sticks!”
But, having served its strategic purpose, American interest in Afghanistan waned – and the rebel groups which had become so expert at violence did not prove capable of establishing central government and a functional economy. We have a memory about six months wide, so we forget this – but when the Taliban, (who had been trained in Saudi Funded Madrassas in the Tribal Areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly to serve the geostrategic needs of Pakistani intelligence) first swept aside the chaos of old mujahideen groups left over from the war, many citizens were hopeful they represented stability and peace at last.
Roads could be travelled, without having to pay a bribe every few miles, as you passed through another bandit’s territory. Economic activity began to pick up. The cultural cost, which was almost entirely due to the fact that the Taliban had been schooled in intolerant Saudi style Islam, instead of the far more open and diverse approach to Islam which was long established in Afghan tradition, began to weigh more and more heavily over time. We forget this too, but some parts of Afghanistan resisted the Taliban successfully and maintained what many would argue was a more genuine Afghan approach, throughout this period.
When the United States was attacked on September eleventh, the government took huge pains to make sure no one could accuse the Saudis of involvement. Not because they weren’t involved, but because they had no plans for how to run the American economy well enough to get re-elected, without Saudi Oil. On the other hand, the population was really upset – someone had to feel a big dose of wrath, to soothe all of the people who were shocked to find themselves suddenly afraid.
Again – because we don’t do memory here anymore, I have to remind people – the Afghan government did not in fact refuse to hand Osama Bin Laden over for American prosecution. All they did was ask for some (literally any) evidence he was involved. This was made to seem shocking and outrageous by our even then hysterical media, but it is a diplomatic convention rightly followed by most modern states, mostly to prevent corrupt regimes from extraditing legitimate refugees, or unjustly persecuting political opponents. It’s a freedom thing folks, which they honoured and we then declared war against.
America responded as if the Taliban had planned the attack themselves – which is absolutely not true in any way, nor did any in American government ever think so.
The largest group who had held out against repressive Taliban rule, the “Northern Alliance” were used, some say quite cynically, by the Americans, as a powerful and flexible ‘irregular force’ to help drive the Taliban out of power. I can’t help thinking of the way the Kurds were used by the US in Iraq, fought so bravely for decades, and were betrayed yet again. Their saying “We have no friends but the mountains” ought to be top of mind, whenever American ‘consultants’ offer their help.
To be clear, the plan was always to betray the Kurds, Turkey is a key strategic ally, they were always expendable pawns by comparison (in terms of American geostrategic thinking – very much NOT my own). But since that betrayal happened on the watch of the Donald, some momentary attention was paid to the tragedy and the vast and lasting stain of dishonour.
But what no one in North America seems to have noticed is that those who did manage to defy the Taliban right through their ascendancy, and then fought courageously with the Americans, to drive the Taliban out, were betrayed no less thoroughly in the end by their supposed ‘friends’ from afar. And yes of course the Taliban remembers who gave them the most trouble, and so of course these people, most interested in the rich diverse tradition of Afghanistan, and most sympathetic to us in many ways, are suffering in particular, as we cozy westerners now enjoy casually fulminating against the entire Afghan people, instead of objecting to the specific policies and damaging influence of radical Saudis and Pakistani spies.
If we cared about Afghan women, we would have punished Joe Biden for stealing the national assets of Afghanistan, to use them as repayment for a war crime which Afghanistan had nothing to do with. Somewhere in the state department (and then again somewhere else at CIA) there is a nice little graph showing how many human beings will for sure starve to death, and how many will simply suffer lifelong damage from malnutrition, as a result of this “Bold Ethical Move” by that geriatric hack.
Seriously folks – when we smile and say seizing assets, or imposing sanctions – what we really mean is – lets lynch way more foreigners. And hooray for that, right? Isn’t killing how we cave-people have always sought to be sure that good triumphs in the end?
Or is that whole idea – that force is how right is achieved in the world – not just wrong, but proven wrong a million times? (Honestly, are we just doomed to repeat it? Should we say dumbed, instead?)
I’m not even done with the complications yet – because the world changed so fast between 1998 when Brezhinski gave his interview, proudly claiming credit for using the devastation of Afghanistan to bring down the Soviet Union, and the post 9/11 era of “Homeland Security” and a permanent war state, that there has been a determined effort since, to pretend he actually never said any of that.
You can read the book he was promoting at the time “The Grand Chessboard” it you want to get a detailed sense of his geostrategic ideas in that moment. But since we all move fast, I have a super critical link below, which includes all the controversial quotes, as well as a whitewashing tribute from his former colleagues (again – there are always clues in the account we least favour – and that is for sure where we are most likely to be ignorant).
The fact that such deep criticism of the war was suppressed by mainstream media, gave many anti-war people on the left the feeling that the state and the media were in cahoots to promote war itself. Sadly, many identified supporters of these wars in a very crude and stupid way as simply Christians, and then began an especially vitriolic attack on religion from a highly questionable (that is, still proudly murderous) “high ground”, which to this day willfully misses the point of faith altogether.
I mention this specific curiosity, a sort of ‘dog whistle’ misdirection code on the left, really, only because it is an example of how things can become mixed together in ignorance, and then solidified into a form of proud bigotry which has absolutely nothing to do with understanding, compassion or reality. Let alone any genuine or useful goals.
Just to review here for one second (since education really has gone to shit) – civil rights advances in America were accomplished mostly through the outright heroic organization and participation of massive volunteer Christian associations. Without them, there is no solid basis to believe it would have been accomplished. (Their non-violent approach won their movement overwhelming public sympathy, just as surely as later hippy tantrums completely squandered and then lost it).
I’m not trying to be a jerk, or to mess with anyone’s head here. I’m just saying, commitment to a higher good and a deep sense of moral purpose are not without their great and proven value for society as a whole. Forgetting this is disrespectful of their sacrifices, of history, and is also the kind of ignorance which keeps us locked in emotionally satisfying fantasy, instead of learning to better and better address the real world we all share (for fetters, or for bourse).
For some people, opposing the agenda of corporatist Republicans still means simply hating Christianity (and outright savouring that contempt). We who can hold two thoughts at once, should help those lazy people overcome that bias, so they stop their ignorant bullying of powerful natural allies, and maybe even learn a bit about commitment and purpose themselves.
Opposing war, opposing corporatism, opposing neoconservatism and neoliberalism? Religion ain’t that. Apples and ions.
EXCEPT in that our one true (and almost post-hypnotically denied) religion remains consumerism (again, see my recent podcast).
We who say we hate pollution and industry so fervently, still insist that industry must offer us a pre-packaged form of environmental virtue which does not even cost us significant inconvenience. That’s how much we’ll sacrifice in the name of saving the planet – we’re willing to switch brands. Take that, capitalism! The Yellow Vests already proved that more direct citizen controls are not going to cut it – NEXT! (and please go listen to Brel’s “Au Suivant” for the full spirit of this particular next).
Can we call a spirit of unrelenting fury and resentment progressive? Can we call it righteous humble and faithful? How many leftists have deep abiding love for the poor here and overseas, and how many really just hate rich people? How many Christians still humbly overcome their resentments, to champion even those members of the great family who don’t yet see it?
It isn’t about the team or faction anymore, my friends, we are all cheering for dehumanization and lethality, and we are all actively fooling ourselves. Doing it wrong. Rude, I know – but it has to be said.
We want to be able to follow, obey, conform, hate and cheer and jeer. We want to remain stupid angry children our entire lives, and yet we demand that no matter how messed-up, we must be regarded as the best thing ever seen on earth. The most perfect template for the entire world. Yikes!
Like I say, watching news now is like standing under a waterfall of never ending clues to a diagnosis which we would not in any case accept, for a potentially curable illness that we are firmly determined to let fester – even knowing this means forcing a thousand times more suffering on to our grandchildren. Painful.
Because this is a time of fear, and we are just as determined that it simply isn’t reasonable to expect us to open our eyes and get to work growing. Not yet, not us.
We’ll get to it, though. We’ll save that sorry world – after all who else but us, in all our righteous magnificence, possibly could? Yes indeedy-do, we’ll get to it just as soon as we can stop shivering in the corner in a fetal position sucking our thumbs, banging our heads comfortingly against the wall, wishing we were dinosaurs, and humming lullabies that used to scare us when we were wee tykes.
We got this. We really are the greatest thing on earth, just as long as we keep our eyes closed.
And if the poor people of the world don’t want to run their lives the way we tell them to, we should smite them but good! That’s a project worth billions, for sure! Like Hillary’s great mentor Madeline Albright famously said “What’s the point of having such a fabulous military if you don’t ever use it?”
Why build schools, when we can manufacture war machines and bombs instead, right? Just think of all the good our confidence in our righteousness can still accomplish in this world.
Because we’re um, the good guys. Just ask us (but please be kind and wait awhile until the meds kick in, before you actually go ahead and pose the question – ’cause neither one of us is liable to like the real answer you might accidentally get, if you don’t).
Finally – to all my Muslim and especially Afghan friends – my apologies for all errors and omissions in tone, timing and detail – still grossly oversimplified I know, I’m just trying to take a very big block of Western igorance, and break it down into smaller (and hopefully somewhat less damagingly foolish) pieces, for which we still have some few memory anchors here.
In case you think I am off base in remarking on the depth of the rot in modern media, I have a recent gem of rare quality to offer. Taibbi has taken heat recently (no, the author of “Insane Clown President” is really not a Trumpie, folks), but he speaks for his smart skeptical independence rather well here.
I think this is one of the most entertaining debates in years – fun to see Malcolm Gladwell, representing the smug self serving institutions, more or less fill his diapers with manipulation, deliberate distortion and even repeated cheap-shot insults – and then be roundly (and deservedly) punished by the voting audience! (So rare you get to see just feedback, arrive that fast). For the impatient, the annoying Monk clip-reel is precisely 2:30 – introductions at 4:55 and the debate proper gets underway at 10:00
I’ve mentioned Scott Alexander before – he is both ridiculously smart (a physician and computer scientist), but also (far rarer) very open to being corrected, and thus getting smarter – and his readers help him and each other examine all kinds of interesting and unexpected perspectives on modern questions with unusual scientific rigour (they also often shed light on the very interesting conflicts between theories based on different conceptual models).
I think this piece says something very precise, which is incredibly important, and easily lost in our passionate simplifications. This is the best logical proof I’ve seen that censorship is not going to accomplish what its backers hope. Not a chance.
The second piece, in which he directly answers critics of the first piece, with a detailed examination of several hyper-partisan stories, is a tour de force of courage and rigour. We aren’t supposed to talk about any of it, really, and he sheds light on all of it, helpfully.
And finally – since it still takes us thirty years (at least) to begin to learn a lesson and admit we were lied to (and even then, we often retract that candid honesty later, in favour of more tactical and power serving stories, after the fact), here is the hard stuff on Brezhinski.
This article is unashamedly hostile – but also courageous enough to still contain controversial quotations in abundance.
Whereas this one is a loving tribute (from another Rockefeller associate?) which makes him seem a great (but still thoroughly whitewashed) hero. Talented guy, for sure – but then, so was Edward Teller, right? (Are you loving the bomb yet?) ;o)
Chalmers Johnson is perhaps the single clearest explainer of CIA and true American foreign policy we’ve ever had (and was with the state dept – really not a crazy radical). He’s got details here of great (albeit disturbing) value. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v26/n20/chalmers-johnson/abolish-the-cia