The thought of security bears within it an essential risk. A state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become more terroristic.
— Giorgio Agamben
George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society casts a dark shadow over the United States. The consequences can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, workers, unions, higher education, students, poor minorities and any vestige of the social contract. Free market policies, values, and practices with their emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections, and the deregulation of economic activity now shape practically every commanding political and economic institution in the United States. Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical dialogue and exchange have been increasingly militarized—or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to increasing profit margins. Citizenship is now subsumed by the national security state and a cult of secrecy, organized and reinforced by the constant mobilization of fear and insecurity designed to produce a form of ethical tranquilization and a paralyzing level of social infantilism.
Chris Hedges crystalizes this premise in arguing that Americans now live in a society in which “violence is the habitual response by the state to every dilemma,” legitimizing war as a permanent feature of society and violence as the organizing principle of politics. Under such circumstances, malevolent modes of rationality now impose the values of a militarized neoliberal regime on everyone, shattering viable modes of agency, solidarity, and hope. Amid the bleakness and despair, the discourses of militarism, danger and war now fuel a war on terrorism “that represents the negation of politics—since all interaction is reduced to a test of military strength war brings death and destruction, not only to the adversary but also to one’s side, and without distinguishing between guilty and innocent.” Human barbarity is no longer invisible, hidden under the bureaucratic language of Orwellian doublespeak. Its conspicuousness, if not celebration, emerged in the new editions of American exceptionalism ushered in by the post 9/11 exacerbation of the war on terror.
In the aftermath of these monstrous acts of terrorism, there was a growing sense among politicians, the mainstream media, and conservative and liberal pundits that history as we knew it had been irrefutably ruptured. If politics seemed irrelevant before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it now seemed both urgent and despairing. But history cannot be erased, and those traditional public spheres in which people could exchange ideas, debate, and shape the conditions that structured their everyday lives increasingly continued to appear to have little significance or political consequence. Already imperiled before the aftershocks of the terrorists’ attacks, democracy became even more fragile in the aftermath of 9/11. Almost fourteen years later, the historical rupture produced by the events of 9/11 has transformed a terrorist attack into a war on terror that mimics the very crimes it pledged to eliminate. The script is now familiar. Security trumped civil liberties as shared fears replaced any sense of shared responsibilities. Under Bush and Cheney, the government lied about the war in Iraq, created a torture state, violated civil liberties, and developed new antiterrorist laws, such as the USA PATRIOT ACT. It imposed a state of emergency that
justified a range of terrorist practices, including extraordinary rendition and state torture, which made it easier to undermine those basic civil liberties that protect individuals against invasive and potentially repressive government actions.
Under the burgeoning of what James Risen has called the “homeland security-industrial complex,” state secrecy and organized corporate corruption filled the coffers of the defense industry along with the corporate owned security industries—especially those providing drones– who benefited the most from the war on terror. This is not to suggest that security is not an important consideration for the United States. Clearly, any democracy needs to be able to defend itself, but it cannot serve, as it has, as a pretext for abandoning civil liberties, democratic values, and any semblance of justice, morality, and political responsibility. Nor can it serve as a pretext for American exceptionalism and its imperialist expansionist goals. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has suggested rightly that under the so war on terrorism, the political landscape is changing and that “we are no longer citizens but detainees, distinguishable from the inmates of Guantanamo not by an indifference in legal status, but only by the fact that we have not yet had the misfortune to be incarcerated—or unexpectedly executed by a missile from an unmanned aircraft.”
The war on terror morphed into a legitimation for state terrorism as was made clear under the willingness of the Obama administration to pardon the CIA torturers, create a “kill list”, expand the surveillance state, punish whistleblowers, and use drones to indiscriminately kill civilians—all in the name of fighting terrorists. Obama expanded the reach of the militarized state and along with Democratic and Republican Party extremists preached a notion of security rooted in personal fears rather than in a notion of social security that rallied against the deprivations and suffering produced by war, poverty, racism, and state terrorism. The war on terrorism extended the discourse, space, location, and time of war in ways that made it unbounded and ubiquitous making everyone a potential terrorists and the battlefield a domestic as well as foreign location, a foreign as well as a domestic policy issue. Obama has become the master of permanent war seeking to increase the bloated military budget—close to a trillion dollars–while “turning to lawless violence….translated into unrestrained violent interventions from Libya to Syria and back to Iraq,” including an attempt “to expand the war on ISIS in Syria and possibly send more heavy weapons to its client government in Ukraine.” Fear became total and the imposition of punitive standards included not only the bombing, abduction, and torture of enemy combatants, but also the use of the police and federal troops for drug interdictions, the enforcement of zero tolerance standards in public schools, and the increasing criminalization of a range of social behaviors that extended from homelessness to violating dress codes in school.
Under the regime of neoliberalism with its war-like view of competition, its celebration of self-interest, and its disdain for democratic values and shared compassion for others, any notion of unity has been contaminated by the fog of misguided patriotism, a hatred of the other now privileged as an enemy combatant, and an insular retreat into mindless consumerism and the faux safety of gated communities. With the merging of militarism, the culture of surveillance, and a neoliberal culture of cruelty, solidarity and public trust have morphed into an endless display of violence and the ongoing militarization of visual culture and public space.
The war on terror has come home as poor neighborhoods are transformed into war zones with the police resembling an occupying army. The most lethal expressions of racism have become commonplace as black men and boys such as Eric Garner and Tamir Rice are repeatedly beaten, and killed by the police. As Jeffrey St. Clair has pointed out, one index of how state terrorism and lawlessness have become normalized is evident not only by the fact that the majority of Americans support torture, even though they know “it is totally
ineffective as a means of intelligence gathering,” but also by the American public’s growing appetite for violence, whether it parades as entertainment or manifests itself in the growing demonization and incarceration of black and brown youth, adults, Muslims, immigrants, and others deemed as disposable. It should come as no surprise that the one issue the top 2016 GOP presidential contenders agree on is that guns are the ultimate symbol of freedom in America, a “bellwether of individual liberty, a symbol of what big wants and shouldn’t have.” Guns provide political theater for the new political extremists and are symptomatic less of some cockeyed defense of the second amendment than willingness to maximize the pleasure of violence and building a case for the use of deadly force both at home and abroad. As Rustom Bharacuha and Susan Sontag have argued in different contexts, “There is an echo of the pornographic in maximizing the pleasure of violence,” one “that dissolves politics into pathology.”
Notions of democracy increasingly appear to be giving way to the discourse of revenge, domestic security, stupidity, and war. The political reality that has emerged since the shattering crisis of 9/11 increasingly points to a set of narrow choices that are being largely set by the jingoistic right wing extremists, the defense department, conservative funded foundations, and fueled by the dominant media. War and violence now function as an aphrodisiac for a public inundated with commodities and awash in celebrity culture idiocy. This surrender to the pleasure of violence is made all the more easy by the civic illiteracy now sweeping the United States. Climate change deniers, anti-intellectuals, religious fundamentalists, and others who exhibit pride in displaying a kind of thoughtlessness exhibit a kind of political and theoretical helplessness, if not corruption, that opens the door to the wider public’s acceptance of foreign and domestic violence.
The current extremists dominating Congress are frothing at the mouth to go to war with Iran, bomb Syria into the twilight zone, and further extend the reach of the American empire through its over bloated war machine to any country that questions the use of American power. One glaring example can be found in the constant and under analyzed televised images and stories of homegrown terrorists threatening to blow up malls, schools, and any other conceivable space where the public gathers.
Other examples can be found in the militarized frothing and Islamophobia perpetrated by the Fox News Network, made concrete by the an almost fever pitched bellicosity that informs the majority of its commentaries and reactions to war on terror. Missing from the endless call for security, vengeance, and the use of state violence is the massive lawlessness produced by the United States government through targeted drone attacks on enemy combatants, the violation of civil liberties, and the almost unimaginable human suffering and hardship perpetrated through the American war machine in the Middle East, especially Iraq. Also missing is a history of lawlessness, imperialism, and torture that supported a host of authoritarian regimes propped up by the United States.
Capitalizing on the pent up emotions and needs of an angry and grieving public for revenge, fueled by an unchecked Islamophobia, almost any reportage of a terrorist attack throughout the globe, further amplifies the hyped-up language of war, patriotism, and retaliation. Similarly, conservative talking-heads write numerous op-eds and appear on endless talk shows fanning the fires of “patriotism” by calling upon the United States to expand the war against any one of a number of Arab countries that are considered terrorist states. For example, John Bolton, writing an op-ed for the New York Times insists that all attempts by the Obama administration to negotiate an arms deal with Iran is a sign of weakness. For Bolton, the only way to deal with Iran is to launch an attack on their nuclear infrastructure. The title of his op-ed sums up the organizing idea of the article: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
In the current historical moment, the language of indiscriminate revenge and lawlessness seems to be winning the day. This is a discourse unconscious of its own dangerous refusal to acknowledge the important role that democratic values and social justice must play in a truly “unified” rationale response, so as to prevent the further killing of innocent people, regardless of their religion, culture, and place of occupancy in the world. Instead of viewing the current crisis as simply a new and more dangerous historical conjuncture that has nothing to learn from the past, it is crucial for the American public to begin to understand how the past might be useful in addressing what it means to live in a democracy at a time when democracy is not only viewed as an excess, but as a liability to the wishes and interests of the new extremists who now control the American government. The anti-democratic forces that define American history cannot be forgotten in the fog of political and cultural amnesia. State violence and terrorism have a long history in the United States, both in its foreign and domestic policies, and ignoring this dark period of history means that nothing will be learned from the legacy of a politics that has indulged authoritarian ideologies and embraced violence as a central measure of power, national identity, and patriotism.
At stake here is the need to establish a vision of society and a global order that safeguards its most basic civil liberties and notions of human rights. Any struggle against terrorism must begin with the pledge on the part of the United States that it will work in conjunction with international organizations, especially the United Nations, a refusal to engage in any military operations that might target civilians, and that it will rethink those aspects of its foreign policy that have allied it with repressive nations in which democratic liberties and civilian lives are under siege. Crimes overlooked will be repeated and intensified just as public memory is rendered a liability in the face of the discourse of revenge, demonization, and extreme violence.
Many news commentators and journalists in the dominant press have taken up the events of September 11 within the context of World War II, invoking daily the symbols of revenge, retaliation, and war. Nostalgia is now used to justify and fuel a politics of in-security, fear, precarity, and demonization. The dominant media no longer functions in the interests of a democracy. Mainstream media supported Bush’s fabrications to justify the invasion of Iraq and never apologized for such despicable actions. It has rarely supported the heroic actions of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling, and others.
Mainstream media has largely remained mute about the pardoning of those who tortured as a matter of state policy. Against an endless onslaught of images of jets bombing countries extending from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan and Gaza, amply supplied by the Defense Department, the dominant media connects the war abroad with the domestic struggle at home by presenting numerous stories about the endless ways in which potential terrorists might use nuclear weapons, poison the food supply, or unleash biochemical agents on the American population. The increased fear and insecurity created by such stories simultaneously serve to legitimatize a host of anti-democratic practices at home-including “a concerted attack on civil liberties, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press,” and a growing sentiment on the part of the American public that people who suggest that terrorism is, in part, caused by American foreign policy should not be allowed “to teach in the public schools, work in the government, and even make a speech at a college.”
This legacy of suppression has a long history in the United States, and it has returned with a vengeance in academia, especially for those academics, such as Norman Finkelstein and Steven G. Salaita, who have condemned America’s policies in the Middle East and the government’s support of the Israeli government’s policies towards Palestinians. Language itself has become militarized fed by an onslaught of extreme violence that now floods Hollywood films and the violence that dominates American television. Hollywood blockbusters such asAmerican Sniper glorify war crimes and produce demonizing views of Islam. Television programs such as Spartacus, The Following,Hannibal, True Detective, Justified, and Top of the Lake intensify the pleasure quotient for viewing extreme and graphic violence to an almost unimaginable degree. Graphic violence appears to provide one of the few outlets for Americans to express what has come to resemble what could be construed as a spiritual release. Extreme violence, including the sanctioning of state torture, may be one of the few practices left that allows the American people to feel alive, to mark what it means to be close to the register of death in a way that reminds them of the ability to feel within a culture that deadens every possibility of life. Under such circumstances, the reality of violence is infantilized, transformed into forms of entertainment that produce and legitimate a carnival of cruelty. The privatization of violence does more than maximize the pleasure quotient and heighten macho ebullience, it also gives violence a fascist edge by depoliticizing a culture in which the reality of violence takes on the form of state terrorism. Authoritarianism in this context becomes hysterical because it turns politics and neoliberalism “into a criminal system and keeps working towards the expansion of the realm of pure violence, where its advancement can proceed unhindered.”
The extreme visibility of violence in American culture represents a willful pedagogy of carnage and gore designed to normalize its presence in American society and to legitimate its practice and presence as a matter of common sense. Moreover, war making and the militarization of public discourse and public space also serve as an uncritical homage to a form of hyper-masculinity that operates from the assumption that violence is not only the most important practice for mediating most problems, but that it is also central to identity formation itself. Agency is now militarized and almost completely removed from any notion of civic values. We get a glimpse of this form of violent hyper-masculinity not only in the highly publicized brutality against women dished out by professional football players, but also in the endless stories of sexual abuse and violence now taking place in frat houses across America, many in some of the most prestigious colleges and universities. Violence has become the DNA of war making in the United States, escalating under Bush and Obama into a kind of war fever that embraces a death drive. As Robert J. Lifton points out,
Warmaking can quickly become associated with “war fever,” the mobilization of public excitement to the point of a collective experience with transcendence. War then becomes heroic, even mythic, a task that must be carried out for the defense of one’s nation, to sustain its special historical destiny and the immortality of its people. ..War fever tends always to be sporadic and subject to disillusionment. Its underside is death anxiety, in this case related less to combat than to fears of new terrorist attacks at home or against Americans abroad–and later to growing casualties in occupied Iraq.
The war on terror is the new normal. Its adoration and intensification of violence, militarization, and state terrorism reach into every aspect of American life. Americans complain over the economic deficit but say little about the democracy and moral deficit now providing the foundation for the new authoritarianism. A police presence in our major cities showcases the visible parameters of the authoritarian state. For example, with a police force of 34,000 New York City resembles an armed camp with a force that as Thom Hartman points out is “bigger—that the active militaries of Austria, Bulgaria, Chad, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kenya,” and a number of other countries. At the same time, the Pentagon has given billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to local police forces all over America. Is it any wonder, that minorities of color fear the police more than the gangs and criminals that haunt their neighborhoods? Militarism is one of the breeding grounds of violence in the United States and is visible in the ubiquitous gun culture, the modeling of schools after prisons, the exploding incarceration state, the paramilitarization of local police forces, the burgeoning military budget, and the ongoing attacks on protesters, dissidents, black and brown youth, and women.
Under the war on terrorism, moral panic and a culture of fear have not only redefined public space as the “sinister abode of danger, death and infection” and fueled the collective rush to “patriotism on the cheap”, it has also buttressed a “fear economy” and refigured the meaning of politics itself. Defined as “the complex of military and security firms rushing to exploit the national nervous breakdown,” the fear economy promises big financial gains for both the defense department, and the anti-terrorist-security sectors, primed to terror-proof everything from trash cans and water systems to shopping malls and public restrooms. The war on terrorism has been transformed into a new market, a consumer goods for the hysterical war mongers and their acolytes in the media while making politics and extension of war. Fear is no longer an attitude as much as it is a culture that functions as “the enemy of reason [while distorting] emotions and perceptions, and often leads to poor decisions.” But the culture of fear does more than undermine critical judgment and suppress dissent, as Don Hazen points out, it also: “breeds more violence, mental illness and trauma, social disintegration, job failure, loss of workers’ rights, and much more. Pervasive fear ultimately paves the way for an accelerating authoritarian society with increased police power, legally codified oppression, invasion of privacy, social controls, social anxiety and PTSD.”
Fear and repression reproduce rather than address the most fundamental anti-democratic elements of terrorism. Instead of mobilizing fear, people need to recognize that the threat of terrorism cannot be understood apart from the crisis of democracy itself. The greatest struggle faced by the American public is not terrorism, but a struggle on behalf of justice, freedom, and democracy for all of the citizens of the globe. This is not going to take place, as President Obama’s policies will tragically affirm, by shutting down democracy, eliminating its most cherished rights and freedoms, and deriding communities of dissent. Engaging terrorism demands more than rage and anger, revenge and retaliation. American society is broken, corrupted by the financial elite, and addicted to violence and a culture of permanent war.
The commanding institutions of American life have lost their sense of public mission, just as leadership at all levels of government is being stripped of any viable democratic vision. The United States is now governed by an economic and social orthodoxy informed by the dictates of religious and political extremists. Reform efforts that include the established political parties have resulted in nothing but regression, a form of accommodation that serves to normalized the new authoritarianism and its war on terrorism. Politics has to be thought anew and must be informed by powerful vision matched by durable organizations that include young people, unions, workers, diverse social movements, artists, and others. In part, this means reawakening the radical imagination so as to address the intensifying crisis of history and agency, and engage the ethical grammars of human suffering. To fight the neoliberal counter-revolution, workers, young people, unions, artists, intellectuals, and social movements need to create new public spaces along with a new language for enabling the American public to relate the self to public life, social responsibility, and the demands of global citizenship.
The left in the United States is too fractured and needs to develop a more comprehensive understanding of politics, oppression, and struggles as well as a discourse that arises to the level of ethical assessment and accountability. Against the new authoritarianism, progressives of all stripes need an inspiring and energizing politics that embraces coalition building, rejects the notion that capitalism equals democracy, and challenges the stolid vocabulary of embodied incapacity stripped of any sense of risk, hope, and possibility. If the struggle against the war on terrorism, militarization, and neoliberalization is to have any chance of success, it is crucial for a loyal and dedicated left to embrace a commitment to understanding the educative nature of politics, economic and social justice, and the need to build a sustainable political formation outside of the established parties.
The United States is in a new historical conjuncture and as difficult as it is to admit, it is a conjuncture that shares more with the legacies of totalitarianism than with America’s often misguided understanding of democracy. Under the merging of the surveillance state, warfare state, and the harsh regime of neoliberalism, we are witnessing the death of the old system of social welfare supports and the emergence of a new society marked by the heavy hand of the national security state, the depoliticization of the American public, extreme inequities in wealth, power, income, and a new politics and mode of governance now firmly controlled by the major corporations, banks, and financial elite. This is a politics in which there is no room for democracy, and no room for reformism. The time has come to name the current historical moment as representative of the “dark times” Hannah Arendt warned us against and to begin to rethink politics anew through social movements in which the promise of a radical democracy can be reimagined in the midst of determined and systemic collective struggles. The war on terrorism has morphed into a new form of authoritarianism and its real enemy is no longer limited to potential terrorists, but includes democracy itself.
Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.
 Chris Hedges, “America’s ‘Death Instinct’ Spreads Misery Across the World,” AlterNet, (September 30, 2014). Online:
 Tzvetan Todorov, Torture and the War on Terror, Translated by Gila Walker with photographs by Ryan Lobo, (Chicago, IL: Seagull Books, 2009), pp. 2-3.
 See, for instance, Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004); Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008); and Phillipe Sands, Torture Team (London: Penguin, 2009). On the torture of children, see Michael Haas, George W. Bush, War Criminal?: The Bush Administration’s Liability for 269 War Crimes(Westport: Praeger, 2009). Also, see Henry A. Giroux, Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Boulder: Paradigm, 2010).
 James Risen, Pay at Any Price (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
 Agamben cited in Malcolm Bull, “States don’t Really Mind Their Citizens Dying: They Just don’t Like anyone Else to Kill Them,” London Review of Books (December 16, 20054), p. 3.
 Ajamu Baraka, “Obama’s Legacy: Permanent War and Liberal Accommodation,” Counterpunch (February 18, 2015). Online:http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/18/obamas-legacy-permanent-war-and-liberal-accommodation/
Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (New York: Metropolitan, 2014) and Nick Turse , The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives(New York: Metropolitan, 2009).
 Henry A. Giroux, “State Terrorism and Racist Violence in the Age of Disposability: From Emmett Till to Eric Garner – Expanded Version,”Truthout (December 2014). Online: http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/27832-state-terrorism-and-racist-violence-in-the-age-of-disposability-from-emmett-till-to-eric-garner
 Jeffrey St. Clair, “When Torturers Walk,” Counterpunch (March 20-22, 2015), Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/03/20/when-torturers-walk/
 David A. Fahrenthold, ““In the hunt to be the 2016 GOP pick, top contenders agree on 1 thing: Guns,” The Washington Post (March 28, 2015). Online: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/republican-presidential-hopefuls-sticking-to-their-guns/2015/03/28/b2ef4a1c-d3c4-11e4-8fce-3941fc548f1c_story.html
 Rustom Bharacuha, “Around Adohya: Aberrations, Enigmas, and Moments of Violence,” Third Text (Autumn 1993), p. 45.
 Sontag cited in in Carol Becker, “The Art of Testimony,” Sculpture(March 1997), p. 28
 John R. Bolton, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” New York Times (March 26, 2015). Online:http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/opinion/to-stop-irans-bomb-bomb-iran.html?_r=0
 There are many valuable sources that document this history. Some exemplary texts include: A.J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors: The Truth About U.S. Police Operations in Latin America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979); Gordon Thomas, Journey Into Madness: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse (New York: Bantam, 1989); Danner, Torture and Truth; Jennifer K. Harbury, Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005); Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).
 Jamie Tarabay, “Obama and leakers: Who are the eight charged under the Espionage Act?” Aljazeerra (December 5, 3013). Online:http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/12/5/obama-and-leakerswhoaretheeightchargedunderespionageact.html
 Eric Alterman, “Patriot Games,” The Nation (October 29, 2001), p. 10.
 Cited in the National Public Radio/Kaiser Family foundation/Kennedy School of Government Civil Liberties Poll. Available on line at wsiwyg:5http://www.npr.org/news…civillibertiespll/011130.poll.html (November 30, 2001), p. 3
 See, Henry A. Giroux, “Celluloid Heroism and Manufactured Stupidity in the Age of Empire,” Counterpunch (February 12, 2015). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/12/celluloid-heroism-and-manufactured-stupidity-in-the-age-of-empire/
 Franco Bifo Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody (New York, Autonomedia, 2009), p. 52
 Robert Jay Lifton, “American Apocalypse,” The Nation (December 22, 2003), pp. 12, 14.
 Tom Engelhardt, “Walking Back the American Twenty-First Century,” TomDispatch (February 17, 2015). Online: http://www.tomdispatch.com/dialogs/print/?id=175957
 Mike Davis, “The Flames of New York,” New Left Review 12 (November/December 2001), p. 44
 Ibid. Mike Davis, “The Flames of New York,” Ibid., p. 45.
 Don Hazen, “Fear Dominates Politics, Media and Human Existence in America—and it is Getting Worse,” Alternet (March 1, 2015). Online:http://www.alternet.org/fear-america/fear-dominates-politics-media-and-human-existence-america-and-its-getting-worse
. See, for instance, Adolph Reed Jr., “Nothing Left,” Harper’s Magazine (March 2014), pp. 28-36; Stanley Aronowitz, “Democrats in Disarray: This Donkey Can’t Save Our Asses,” The Indypendent, Issue #202. (December 16, 2014) Online:
I don’t normally jump on cue to see any film or read any book, no matter how big the hype might be. I made an exception for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, released this week, and with some passionately mixed reviews.The reason I made an exception to follow on the trail of this film, was not because of the movie itself, but because of the conversation which is forming around it...
At the very same time this film was being released on the heals of three consecutive weeks of wall-to-wall media coverage of the Paris Terrorist Attacks, US networks like CNN and FOX News were working incredibly hard to sell a possible military intervention in Yemen, and President Barack Obama was simultaneously softening the ground for a return of US troops to Iraq. Those suspicions were confirmed yesterday when America’s premiere war propagandist, Wolf Blitzer, was noticeably excited about the prospect of, ‘US troops joining the fight against ISIS in a campaign to recapture Iraq’s second largest city [Mosul].”
You might be asking: what has this got to do with Hollywood’s latest prestige biopic about a Navy SEAL ‘legend’? Everything.
Since 2002, American war heroes have been hard to come by. Previous attempts at lionizing members of the military have met with failure. First there was Jessica Lynch, a story which was concocted by the Pentagon before being exposed as a fraud. Then came the Pat Tillman deception. After Tillman’s death in an April 22, 2004, documents revealed how US Army officials knew he’d accidentally been killed via ‘friendly fire’ by fellow his Rangers, but those details were withheld from the public – and Tillman’s family, until well after the heavily publicized May 3 memorial service media event. Some of this was told in the film, The Pat Tillman Story. Then there was the honeypot slip by ‘the sage of the surge’, General David Petraeus. It seems that Washington and Hollywood have been desperate for a real war hero – one who could lend a face to the cause. Will it be Chris Kyle?
Aside from the timing of this film’s release, what’s most important is the net effect, or the overall public sentiment regarding the film’s subject matter. In terms of the Iraq War, or military deployment in general, opinion-makers would like to know how sympathetic audiences are to Bradley Cooper’s character and to other soldiers in the film.This is crucial. If that was indeed the objective of the film – to give the US military a human face, then this movie is a resounding success. The other achievement of this film is that it succeeds in immortalizing Chris Kyle the soldier in the eyes of so many, however, to pull this feat off, Eastwood and his team had to bend reality more than a little (more on that later).
I went into this film expecting one thing and getting something completely different. For anyone who is familiar with Clint Eastwood’s work, you’ll know that the film will not be a typical Hollywood drive-by action movie, complete with gratuitous violence and a meaningless love angle, punctuated by a stupid joke or trite irony at the end of the film. With Eastwood you can expect a deep character study – with any obvious politics left at the door. But by leaving out the obvious politics of war from his film, Eastwood leaves the door wide open for that conversation to happen in the reviews currently swirling around his creation. That is one of the geniuses of any great artist, Eastwood included, and I would not think for one moment that this was not intentional on his part.
As Hollywood war films go, Sniper, is one of the most interesting Hollywood war productions to date because it doesn’t come off as a typical war propaganda film. As a stand alone film, American Sniper succeeds in winning hearts and minds, not just of the typical GOP ‘Red State’, or flag-waiving Tea Party crowds, but it also wins over moderates as well, hence, the film’s opening box office numbers were outstanding, pulling in a record-breaking $107 million over its opening weekend. As I sat in the cinema, the emotion and suspense felt by theater goers was palpable. This is a testament to a combination of outstanding acting, and filmmaker Eastwood’s ability to draw the audience deep into the character and the experience.
Eastwood does not need to win over the patriotic crowd who will love this film and automatically cheer for their “warrior” no matter what. The real target for Sniper is the middle ground. Putting aside Kyle’s cowboy, alpha male cock-sure persona, what really comes across is a soldier who was numb to politics, and who seemed uncertain about his role in the war, and America’s place in the world. In the film, he kept telling his wife that he was going “over there” to protect her and the kids at home. Who really believes that? Was this line designed to lampoon Kyle, or was it meant to portray his ‘patriotism’. It’s things like this that make this film difficult to work out.
‘The War Genre’
Sniper attempts to personalize the Iraq War in the same vein as the 1978 Academy Award-winning film, Coming Home, directed by Hal Ashby and starring Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, which gave a human face to Vietnam and its veterans, revealing a new sensitive and interpersonal side of that war and its effects in a way never portrayed before it. Voight masterfully portrayed a crippled returning Marine struggling with himself, and a marriage seemingly crushed by a divisive conflict. It’s interesting to note what the critics said about that film then, and how you can almost transpose those reviews with today’s critical acclamations of Sniper. Charles Champlin from Los Angeles Times commented at the time: “Despite an over explicit soundtrack and some moments when the story in fact became a sermon, the movie effectively translated a changed national consciousness into credible and touching personal terms”. Indeed, ‘national consciousness’ being the operative words there.
Contrast this public reception to another war classic, The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino, which came out in the same year, 1978. The film was daring, and employed a number of daring storylines and allegories in its attempt to try and do what Coming Home succeeded in doing – that is, to try and make some sense of 15 years of madness in Vietnam. Producer Michael Deeley explains, “Men who fight and lose an unworthy war face some obvious and unpalatable choices. They can blame their leaders.. or they can blame themselves. Self-blame has been a great burden for many war veterans. So how does a soldier come to terms with his defeat and yet still retain his self-respect? One way is to present the conquering enemy as so inhuman, and the battle between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them) so uneven, as to render defeat irrelevant. Inhumanity was the theme of The Deer Hunter’s portrayal of the North Vietnamese prison guards forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The audience’s sympathy with prisoners who (quite understandably) cracked thus completes the chain. Accordingly, some veterans who suffered in that war found the Russian roulette a valid allegory.”
The imagery in Deer Hunter is unforgettable, and it is undoubtedly the sort of art that endures. However, where DeNiro and Walken struggle with self-loathing and regret, Cooper projects a soldier brimming with confidence, unhindered by the inconvenience of guilt, or any moral conundrums. This is the new, archetypal 21st century ‘warrior’ for a modern day American Sparta.
One similarity between Christopher Walken’s character in Deer Hunter and Bradley Cooper’s depiction of Kyle, is that both appear to be adrenaline junkies, eager to return back to the frontline for more action. Yet, Eastwood went to great lengths to make it appear that Kyle was only motivated by “getting the bad guys” and the thrill of the hunt. No other explanation is offered as to why Kyle would volunteer for a fourth tour in an asymmetric Iraqi war theater, while leaving his family to fend for themselves at home.
In remains to seen how well Sniper ages as a film. Will it be as powerful in 3-5 years as it appears to be today – presently dominating headlines and the debate on Hollywood’s depiction of war genres? Like a fine red wine, a film needs a lot more than hype, tension and technical execution to turn vintage. It needs to be daring and should challenge the whole perception of war as mankind’s last available option. Coming Home and Deer Hunter did that, as did Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Sniper attempted no such thing. It did not reinvent, nor did it recast the subject matter for its genre. However, it attempt at reforming the war genre – by taking the idea of an unpopular conflict and ‘dialing it down’ to the level of a highly skilled, but dispassionate character like Chris Kyle. In this way, Eastwood attempts to cast Kyle as a kind of anti-hero for our increasingly indifferent, nihilistic Iraq War generation, some of whom might be strangely attracted to Kyle’s haunting, and somewhat sadistic, detached personality.This challenges the archetypal war character, but it’s also the film’s Achilles heal, causing the film to feel quite dull, and with a lack of contrast. Regarding contrast, it appears that Eastwood and the writers missed an opportunity, having introduced the Arab character named ‘Mustafa’, an enemy insurgent and expert marksman who is meant to be Kyle’s opposite competitor, fueling Kyle’s desire to remain on the front line. It was this such rivalry that captivated audiences in the 2001 war epic, Enemy at the Gates, starring Jude Law and Ed Harris – the story of rival Soviet and German marksmen battling to hold Stalingrad during WWII. But Mustafa remains silent, with no speaking part, no back story, no history other than the Syrian sniper’s Olympic photo on his wall.
As little as Eastwood revealed about Mustafa, it was much more generous that any other Arab or “native” portrayed in the film. Instead, Sniper simply reinforced the tried and true American tradition of dehumanizing ‘the enemy’ in this case through the eyes of a knuckle-dragging, beer swilling Navy SEAL named Chris Kyle, to the point of banality. After all, aren’t Iraqi ‘insurgents’ simply defending their Homeland from an invading, occupying foreign power?
This shows us how little has changed in Hollywood in 35 years. In her 1978 review of Deer Hunter, writer Pauline Kael commented on this very same issue, “The Vietcong are treated in the standard inscrutable-evil Oriental style of the Japanese in the Second World War movies… The impression the viewer gets is that if we did some bad things there, we did them ruthlessly but impersonally; the Vietcong were cruel and sadistic.“
Other reviewers have recognized this, too. John Simon of New York Magazine wrote in 1978, “For all its pretensions to something newer and better, this film is only an extension of the old Hollywood war-movie lie. The enemy is still bestial and stupid, and no match for our purity and heroism; only we no longer wipe up the floor with him — rather, we litter it with his guts.”
Reading these old reviews is like opening a time capsule, and being met with the ultimate horror as far as war films are concerned: that nothing has really changed.
Eastwood’s deletion of ‘the enemy’ in this film certainly smacks of Orientalism, but it also indirectly reinforces a popular US media stereotype about Iraqis – that they lack depth as individuals, and therefore, are not worth as much as an American soldier. These are the exact same stereotypes that appear to have inspired the US Army’s 320th Military Police Battalion who presided over the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison photo sessions. Truth be told, I would be much more interested in seeing the ‘Natural Born Killer’-style film study of the US troops and command structure which brought us the twisted, sadism and institutional sickness on display at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. A lot of Americans would like to know how such evil is produced. That is a film we might learn something from, yet, no studio would allow that story to be made into a blockbuster, because as any studio executive will tell you, “that’s the wrong story” (even if it’s the only story worth telling).
As it turns out, most of the iconic signature scenes in this movie never actually happened. The list of outright fabrications is just too long to list here. These include the dramatic opening scene (used in the trailer) showing Kyle trained-in on a woman and child who were preparing to throw a grenade at Kyle’s approaching platoon, as well as Kyle’s seemingly impossible record-breaking 2,100 yard ‘kill shot’, allegedly taking out his rival Mustafa. Sadly, these and other liberties were clearly taken by Eastwood and the writing team, as The Slate explains:
“In the movie, Kyle sees this woman remove a grenade from beneath her dress and hand it to her child. He shoots the child, and when the woman wails and picks up the grenade shoots her as well. He visually shows guilt, blinking, sniffling, and refusing the congratulations of his fellow soldier. However, according to the memoir, Kyle shot only a woman that day, not a child, and he felt no guilt about it: “It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it.” It was his first kill with a sniper rifle, though he had not yet completed his sniper training. In his writing, Kyle calls the woman “evil” and reveals that many people, including himself, referred to Iraqis as ‘savages.’”
“As for his longest confirmed kill, Kyle targeted a roof-bound enemy insurgent aiming a rocket launcher at American soldiers outside Sadr City. And the shot did not, once made, alert Iraqi insurgents to their position and create a dramatic firestorm that disillusioned Kyle, as in the movie. (Elsewhere in his memoir he writes: “I loved what I did, I still do … I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.”)”
Again, a central part of Kyle’s Iraq experience in this film – that of dueling with his nemesis, an illusive Syrian sniper named “Mustafa” was more or less made-up. This is Hollywood history at its best: “As with Mustafa, the film exaggerates Kyle’s legendary status among his enemies. No $180,000 bounty was placed on his head or posters circulated bearing illustrations of his tattoos, as in the film—instead, $20,000 to $80,000 was the reward for killing any American sniper.”
This detail is absolutely key regarding the Chris Kyle myth-building exercise. One of the prerequisites for legend status (or sainthood) is to ‘do the impossible’, or to pull off a miracle. Without this, Kyle is just one of many tough grunts battling Haji in the desert. Contrast Kyle with another famous US sniper like Carlos Hathcock who served in Vietnam, and you can see that these were two very different animals. Hathcock was often sent out alone, behind enemy lines for days on end. He is not a household name, yet he was arguably the greatest sniper in American military history. As a Vietnam Vet, Hathcock was not worth as much to the establishment, because no matter how talented he was, even the very best sniper could never sell that war.
Aside from this, the film’s creators appear to have taken an enormous amount of creative license in order to write the perfect patriotic story line, including the image Kyle going to a Navy recruitment office after watching a terrorist bombing killing civilians on the news. The real story was a lot more complicated, and much less glamorous, involving Kyle as a penniless party animal in need of cash. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you’re building a legend, details like that tend to end up on the cutting room floor.
Where does the fiction end and the facts begin? It’s very hard to tell with Kyle, and unfortunately, this film does not make it any easier. The film’s ending was punctuated with a funeral procession for the fallen Navy SEAL, complete with silent closing credits and flashing images of overpass banners being hung over Texas highways in Kyle’s memory.
DIRECTOR CLINT EASTWOOD (Image: Cinema Blend)
The Military-Entertainment Complex
It’s important to understand that these big budget Hollywood productions do not exist in a creative vacuum. For most Americans, when they see ‘history’ played out on the big screen, it more or less validates that version of events. Both Washington and Hollywood understand this phenomenon very well. At between $150 and $200 million per production – it’s not cheap, and so the military-industrial stakeholders expect their film will have some desired effect, otherwise it’s a giant waste of money and a missed opportunity to steer public opinion. In many instances, even before production begins on a film like this, the US military industrial complex and the Central Intelligence are intimately involved, either on a consulting level, helping the production, or in a script advisory capacity, with the ultimate objective, we’re told, as far as the film production team and studio is concerned – is to make the film ‘as accurate as possible’. Pentagon officials normally ask to see the whole script, and not just the parts relating to the US military. If a historical film is being made, then it will also require a passing grade from the Pentagon’s historians. In this way, they are effectively writing a version of history for Hollywood. Al Jazeera’s report describes the surface layer of this relationship by profiling Phil Strub,the Pentagon’s liason officer to Tinseltown:
“While Strub is the point man for Hollywood in the Pentagon, usually the scripts come to his colleagues on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles. They work in a nondescript office block along downtown Wilshire Boulevard, in departments belonging to the different service branches of the U.S. military — Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines. They serve tours of duty for several years, just like their fellow troops, but their task is singularly different: to study film and television scripts producers have sent them in the hope the Department of Defense will help them with their project.”
THere’s also the business of keeping old myths alive. In American Sniper, one particular terrorist’s name was repeated multiple times. He was a popular character used frequently by the media during the Iraq War, and even by George W. Bush himself. Known as “al Qaeda’s No. 2 Guy”, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a made-to-order “myth” invented by US intelligence (go figure), and later adopted by the Pentagon as a rallying cry for US soldiers in desperate need of motivation, and also because it suited U.S. government political objectives in establishing Iraq as the primary front in the War on Terror. His appearance in Sniper serves to reinforce his myth, alongside a number of other popular terror avatars used by Washington and its allies.
As I pointed out previously with Hollywood’s wild stab at writing history in Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA played a pivotal role in making sure that film was actually made in the first place. The film helped to provide a public relations back-stop to a shaky “bin Laden raid” story which was quickly coming apart at the seams after some uncomfortable questions started to be raised from families of Navy SEALS allegedly killed later in the ill-fated ‘Extortion 17′ incident on August 6, 2011. Indeed, Katherine Bigalow’s Zero Dark not only gave the impression that the Bin Laden Raid happened exactly like Washington and President Obama said it did, but it also provided a nice PR cushion for the CIA’s controversial torture program, as the key premise of Zero Dark hinges on the CIA claim that by torturing detainee Ammar al-Baluchi a detainee from whom they were able to extract the information which led them to bin Laden’s courier named ‘al-Kuwaiti’ – which then led to the supposed ‘capture and killing’ of the illusive terror mascot Osama bin Laden. Quite a colorful and intriguing story, but that’s what Hollywood does best.
Just how deep does this relationship really go? Sony Entertainment’s The Interview is another recent example of the Hollywood-Washington-Pentagon Nexus. It lacked the stuff to break out on its own, and so a scandal was contrived between the studio and the White House to help boost the film’s popularity. But the story behind the film is much more interesting than the ‘North Korean Hack’ narrative. 21WIRE was one of the first media outlets to point out that Sony’s CEO Michael Lynton, who also sits on the board of the Rand Corporation, and who had passed an early version of the film on to both colleagues at Rand, as well as his contact at the US State Department in order to receive their blessing on the film and what impact it would have in furthering Washington’s stated foreign policy objective of regime change in North Korea.
It is central to both the Pentagon and the CIA missions, to make absolutely certain that when military blockbuster films hit cinemas they convey the correct message, in the context of what is going on around the world and within the country at that particular time. It’s expected that after this film, the amount of recruitment applications for military sniper positions will skyrocket. Whereas ‘Top Gun’ pilots were once the most revered, ‘safely’ removed combat technician/heroes, unmanned drones have since sidelined most of those men, leaving the snipers as one of the sole remaining ‘super-skilled’ warriors. All the signs are pointing to the inevitability of US troops returning to the Middle East combat theater, either in Iraq, Yemen, or along a new NATO-sanctioned ‘No-Fly’ buffer zone along the Turkey-Syria border. As we speak, media war messaging is centered around ISIS, and that Washington ‘may be forced to send our boys back there.’ To do this, they will need more men, and also more snipers, and more Chris Kyles.
Kyle in Real Life
If you compare this film to real life, there is a big gap between the Chris Kyle played by Cooper and the Kyle America knew. This is not so much as Kyle the soldier, but more as Kyle the media personality and entrepreneur. In the scenes depicting Kyle at home after his active duty service, Eastwood portrays Kyle as a mild-mannered family man who passed the time visiting and helping injured vets at the VA hospital and others suffering with PTSD, like Routh. Although this was the case, the film does not show the larger-than-life media personality which Kyle had cultivated when publisher Harper Collins released of his best-selling book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History in 2012. In addition to his book tour, Kyle was also busy as the CEO of Craft International, a burgeoning young Blackwater-type, Pentagon contractor and security training company based in Dallas. Just before his death, Kyle was embroiled in a defamation lawsuit with none other than fellow ex-Navy SEAL, Jesse Ventura, a case which was settled in Ventura’s favor after Kyle’s death. There were other accusations of lying by Kyle, most notably, the incident where Kyle claimed to have shot looters during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. During the Ventura controversy, Kyle was busy making the rounds on national television, and seems to be anything but the laconic, introverted character which actor Bradley Cooper and Director Eastwood show in the film. Watch this FOX News clip:
‘War and Peace’
Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore appeared to have used the release of Sniper as a media opportunity, regaining some attention to himself by accusing the film of ‘glorifying’ war and more specifically snipers, something Moore claims to take particular offense to after having “lost an Uncle” to a German sniper in WWII.
So the mass media debate really come down to this: is it art, or is it propaganda? Received wisdom says that if a film challenges a premise of a war, then it’s art. If the film doesn’t, or is seen to promote, or sugar coat a conflict, then it’s propaganda. However, with Sniper, despite Moore’s two-dimensional rant, it’s not easy to make such a distinction. Yet, Sniper just might just be the most sophisticated, precision of war propaganda tool seen to date.
While films are used to push and pull domestic and foreign policy, or to sway American hearts and minds, studio executives and big-time directors, including Clint Eastwood, are still counted on for their endorsements, and are, financially speaking, directly involved in deciding who wins US elections. However, if you are trying to pin Clint Eastwood down to fit into a nice little political category, or box, you will quickly become frustrated because he doesn’t really fit into any of them. A closer look at Eastwood’s record shows anything but warmongering though, as he has been an outspoken critic of just about every major conflict involving the US – from the Korean War to Vietnam, and all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan. A self-described ‘moderate conservative’, Eastwood has long been a believer that the US should not play the role of global policeman, and has even shown support of some gun-control measures. Some might even call him a ‘liberal’.
After the premiere screening of American Sniper at the Academy of Motion Picture Artists and Sciences’ Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, 84 year old Eastwood admitted, “I was against going into the war in Iraq since I figured we would probably trip over ourselves in some way.” He continues, “Sometimes the arrogance of wanting just to burst into war and not really researching the value of it and the tragic ending…”
As Eastwood’s views on war may not have shifted a whole lot over the years, Washington and Hollywood’s have. Presently, their joint efforts are still very much focused on taming the rebellious legacy of Oliver Stone, and evoking the ‘new improved’ world view of ‘warrior’ Chris Kyle. These days, it’s not uncommon to can see that actors and celebrities are now spokespersons for veterans’ charities. After his starring role in the film, Lone Survivor, actor Mark Walberg suddenly became the spokesman for Wounded Warrior Project, a “veterans service organization”, that offers “help for wounded veterans following the events of September 11, 2001″. Two narratives are clearly at play here. The first is a long-tail campaign designed to reform old 20th century language into 21st century Spartanspeak – by transforming previously maligned soldiers and ‘vets’, into brand new “warriors”, or “heroes”. With that, much of the collective guilt associated with Washington’s dirty wars is washed down the drain, as Americans can assuage their guilt by donating $19.99 a month to help their warriors. It’s seems like a noble cause, and for certain celebrities, it’s a safe charity place to position their star brand. It’s unclear whether or not Vietnam Vets are “warriors” too, or is if this a title reserved for Iraq and Afghanistan Vets?
The whole narrative here is disturbing though, and is rarely challenged for fear of being construed as ‘unpatriotic’ – as the dialectic goes, ‘you’re either with us, or against us’. One has to ask the question at this point: what sort of federal government would recruit its young men, promising its soldiers of fortune ironclad medical care for life, before sending them to a proverbial hell hole like Iraq or Afghanistan, and then allow their maimed and disfigured to be exposed so grotesquely, in an infomercial side-show, begging America for more money? Shouldn’t the US government pick-up any and all medical expenses and provide the best treatment for injured combat veterans? It would be refreshing to see Walberg camped out on the White House lawn demanding an answer to that question. And you’re at it, you might also ask the question – what the hell are we doing “over there” in the first place? Oh, I’m sorry – that question is too political, too complicated for the new Hollywood. Let’s not talk about the fraud of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We can just forget about all that and focus on our “warriors” instead, right? Sorry, my bad.
With the Oscars around the corner, it’s a given that this film will take home a few trophies, most likely for best actor, as Bradley Cooper reeled in the audiences’ attention with his stoic, but bold performance, clearly dominating the film with a carefully studied performance of Kyle the soldier.
As successful as this film was in casting Chris Kyle as an American legend, it shied away from the issue of war – a painless approach which actually suits a lot of Americans. In this way, the film was marketed towards a totally new demographic who would support such a film. These are the Americans who say, “We were never there, but we still care”. Undoubtedly, Eastwood knows this all too well, and that is probably why the film does not try, nor pretend to be anything more than it is, but one can’t help but be left wishing that it could have been so much more.
Many will still hold on to the hope that maybe, just maybe, Vietnam taught us something. After watching American Sniper, it’s become clear that politics in Hollywood is a quagmire. Hollywood is already way too far down the road, and too heavily invested in this new genre that makes war eerily palatable.
The reality is that after a decade and a half of brow-beating and synthetic patriotism, the America’s post-9/11 ‘Homeland’ has never been more insecure about its wars, and about its role as the world’s policeman.
Maybe Americans are just tired of their wars, and thus, tired of war films that make them feel bad about war. Or maybe, it’s just that being ‘anti-war’ in Hollywood is just not cool anymore.
Why let the politics of life and death get in the way of a good story? As Eastwood, Cooper et al – and Kyle, would all tell you, “Hey, we’re just hump’in money here. We’re just doing our job.“
This must be that ‘brave new world’ they warned us about
By Prof. Tim Anderson
In these times of ‘colour revolutions’ language has been turned on its head. Banks have become the guardians of the natural environment, sectarian fanatics are now ‘activists’ and the Empire protects the world from great crimes, rather than delivering them.
Colonisation of language is at work everywhere, amongst highly educated populations, but is peculiarly virulent in colonial culture. ‘The West’, that self-styled epitome of advanced civilisation, energetically reinvents its own history, to perpetuate the colonial mindset.
Writers such as Fanon and Freire pointed out that colonised peoples experience psychological damage and need to ‘decolonise’ their minds, so as to become less deferential to imperial culture and to affirm more the values of their own cultures. The other side to that is the colonial legacy on imperial cultures. Western peoples maintain their own culture as central, if not universal, and have difficulty listening to or learning from other cultures. Changing this requires some effort.
Powerful elites are well aware of this process and seek to co-opt critical forces within their own societies, colonising progressive language and trivialising the role of other peoples. For example, after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the idea that NATO forces were protecting Afghan women was promoted and gained popularity. Despite broad opposition to the invasion and occupation, this ‘humanitarian’ goal appealed to the missionary side of western culture. In 2012 Amnesty International put up posters saying ‘NATO: keep the progress going’, on women’s rights in Afghanistan, while the George W. Bush Institute collected money to promote Afghan women’s rights.
The unfortunate balance sheet of NATO’s 13-year occupation is not so encouraging. The UNDP’s 2013 report shows that only 5.8% of Afghan women have had some secondary schooling (7th lowest in the world), the average Afghan woman has 6 babies (equal 3rd highest rate in the world, and linked to low education), maternal mortality is at 470 (equal 19th highest in the world) and average life expectancy is 49.1 years (equal 6th lowest in the world). Not impressive ‘progress’.
In many ways the long ‘feminist war’ in Afghanistan drew on the British legacy in colonial India. As part of its great ‘civilising mission’ that empire claimed to be protecting Indian women from ‘sati’, the practise of widows throwing themselves (or being thrown) on their husband’s funeral pyre. In fact, colonial rule brought little change to this isolated practice. On the other hand, the wider empowerment of girls and women under the British Raj was a sorry joke. At independence adult literacy was only 12%, and that of women much less. While India still lags in many respects, educational progress was much faster after 1947.
Such facts have not stopped historians like Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James attempting to sanitise British colonial history, not least to defend the more recent interventions. It might appear difficult to justify colonialism, but the argument seems to have a better chance amongst peoples with a colonial past seeking some vindication from within their own history and culture.
North American language is a bit different, as the United States of America claims never to have been a colonial power. The fact that US declarations of freedom and equality were written by slave-owners and ethnic-cleansers (the US Declaration of Independence famously attacks the British for imposing limits on the seizure of Native American land) has not dimmed enthusiasm for those fine ideals. That skilful tradition certainly influences the presentation of Washington’s recent interventions.
After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq we saw a change in approach, with the big powers enlisting sectarian fanatics against the independent states of the region. Even the new Iraqi state, emerging from the post-2003 rubble, was attacked by these fanatics. An ‘Arab Spring’ saw Libya trampled by a pseudo-revolution backed by NATO bombing, then delivered to a bunch of squabbling al Qaeda groups and western collaborators. The little country that once had the highest living standards in Africa went backwards decades.
Next came brave Syria, which has resisted at terrible cost; but the propaganda war runs thick. Few in the west seem to be able to penetrate it. The western left shares illusions with the western right. What was at first said to be a nationalist and secular ‘revolution’ – an uprising against a ‘dictator’ who was killing his own people – is now led by ‘moderate rebels’ or ‘moderate Islamists’. The extremist Islamists, who repeatedly publicise their own atrocities, are said to be a different species, against whom Washington finally decided to fight. Much of this might sound ridiculous to the average educated Arab or Latin American, but it retains some appeal in the west.
One reason for the difference is that nation and state mean something different in the west. The western left has always seen the state as monolithic and nationalism as something akin to fascism; yet in the former colonies some hope remains with the nation-state. Western populations have never had their own Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela, Salvador Allende, Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro. One consequence of this is, as much as western thinkers might criticise their own states, they are reluctant to defend others. Many who criticise Washington or Israel will not defend Cuba or Syria .
All this makes proxy wars more marketable in the west. We could even say they have been a relatively successful tactic of imperial intervention, from the contra war on Nicaragua to the proxy armies of Islamists in Libya and Syria. So long as the big power is not seen to be directly involved, western audiences can find quite attractive the idea that they are helping another people rise up and gain their ‘freedom’.
Even Noam Chomsky, author of many books on US imperialism and western propaganda, adopts many of the western apologetics for the intervention in Syria. In a 2013 interview with a Syrian opposition paper he claimed the foreign-backed, Islamist insurrection was a repressed ‘protest movement’ that had been forced to militarise and that America and Israel had no interest in bringing down the Syrian Government. He admitted he was ‘excited’ by Syria’s uprising, but rejected the idea of a ‘responsibility to protect’ and opposed direct US intervention without a UN mandate. Nevertheless, he joined cause with those who want to ‘force’ the Syrian Government to resign, saying ‘nothing can justify Hezbollah’s involvement’ in Syria, after the Lebanese resistance group worked with the Syrian Army to turn the tide against the NATO-backed jihadists.
How do western anti-imperialists come to similar conclusions to those of the White House? First there is the anarchist or ultra-left idea of opposing all state power. This leads to attacks on imperial power yet, at the same time, indifference or opposition to independent states. Many western leftists even express enthusiasm at the idea of toppling an independent state, despite knowing the alternatives, as in Libya, will be sectarianism, bitter division and the destruction of important national institutions.
Second, reliance on western media sources has led many to believe that the civilian massacres in Syria were the work of the Syrian Government. Nothing could be further from the truth. A careful reading of the evidence will show that almost all the civilian massacres in Syria (Houla, Daraya, Aqrab, Aleppo University, East Ghouta) were carried out by sectarian Islamist groups, and sometimes falsely blamed on the government, in attempts to attract greater ‘humanitarian intervention’.
The third element which distorts western anti-imperial ideas is the constrained and self-referential nature of discussions. The parameters are policed by corporate gatekeepers, but also reinforced by broader western illusions of their own civilising influence.
A few western journalists have reported in sufficient detail to help illustrate the Syrian conflict, but their perspectives are almost always conditioned by the western ‘liberal’ and humanitarian narratives. Indeed, the most aggressive advocacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in recent years has come from liberal media outlets like the UK Guardian and corporate-NGOs such as Avaaz, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Those few journalists who maintain an independent perspective, like Arab-American Sharmine Narwani, publish mostly outside the better-known corporate media channels.
Imperial culture also conditions the humanitarian aid industry. Ideological pressure comes not just from the development banks but also the NGO sector, which maintains a powerful sense of mission, even a ‘saviour complex’ about its relations with the rest of the world. While ‘development cooperation’ may have once included ideas of compensation for colonial rule, or assistance during a transition to independence, today it has become a $100 billion a year industry, with decision making firmly in the hands of western financial agencies.
Quite apart from the dysfunction of many aid programs, this industry is deeply undemocratic, with powerful colonial overtones. Yet many western aid workers really believe they can ‘save’ the poor peoples of the world. That cultural impact is deep. Aid agencies not only seek to determine economic policy, they often intervene in political and even constitutional processes. This is done in the name of ‘good governance’, anti-corruption or ‘democracy strengthening’. Regardless of the problems of local bodies, it is rarely admitted that foreign aid agencies are the least democratic players of all.
For example, at the turn of this century, as Timor Leste gained its independence, aid bodies used their financial muscle to prevent the development of public institutions in agriculture and food security, and pushed that new country into creating competitive political parties, away from a national unity government. Seeking an upper hand amongst the ‘donor community’, Australia then aggravated the subsequent political division and crisis of 2006. With ongoing disputes over maritime boundaries and petroleum resources, Australian academics and advisers were quick to seize on that moment of weakness to urge that Timor Leste’s main party be ‘reformed’, that its national army be sidelined or abolished and that the country adopt English as a national language. Although all these pressures were resisted, it seemed in that moment that many Australian ‘friends’ of Timor Leste imagined they had ‘inherited’ the little country from the previous colonial rulers. This can be the peculiar western sense of ‘solidarity’.
Imperial cultures have created a great variety of nice-sounding pretexts for intervention in the former colonies and newly independent countries. These pretexts include protecting the rights of women, ensuring good governance and helping promote ‘revolutions’. The level of double-speak is substantial.
Those interventions create problems for all sides. Independent peoples have to learn new forms of resistance. Those of good will in the imperial cultures might like to reflect on the need to decolonise the western mind.
Such a process, I suggest would require consideration of (a) the historically different views of the nation-state, (b) the important, particular functions of post-colonial states, (c) the continued relevance and importance of the principle of self-determination, (d) the need to bypass a systematically deceitful corporate media and (e) the challenge of confronting fond illusions over the supposed western civilising influence. All these seem to form part of a neo-colonial mindset, and may help explain the extraordinary western blindness to the damage done by intervention.
Tim Anderson (2006) ‘Timor Leste: the Second Australian Intervention’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, No 58, December, pp.62-93
Tony Cartalucci (2012) ‘Amnesty International is US State Department propaganda’, Global research, 22 August, online: http://www.globalresearch.ca/amnesty-international-is-us-state-department-propaganda/32444
Ann Wright and Coleen Rowley (2012) ‘Ann Wright and Coleen Rowley’, Consortium News, June 18, online: https://consortiumnews.com/2012/06/18/amnestys-shilling-for-us-wars/
Noam Chomsky (2013) ‘Noam Chomsky: The Arab World And The Supernatural Power of the United States’, Information Clearing House, 16 June, online: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article35527.htm
Bush Centre (2015) ‘Afghan Women’s Project’, George W, Bush Centre, online: http://www.bushcenter.org/womens-initiative/afghan-womens-project
Some detail of Syria’s ‘false flag’ massacres can be seen in the following articles:
Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh (2013) ‘Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack’, MINT PRESS, August 29, online:http://www.mintpressnews.com/witnesses-of-gas-attack-say-saudis-supplied-rebels-with-chemical-weapons/168135/
Rainer Hermann (2012) ‘Abermals Massaker in Syrien’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 7 June, online: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/neue-erkenntnisse-zu-getoeteten-von-hula-abermals-massaker-in-syrien-11776496.html
Stephen Lendman (2012) Insurgents Named Responsible for Syrian Massacres’, ICH, 11 June: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article31544.htm
Richard Lloyd and Theodore A. Postol (2014) ‘Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013’, MIT, January 14, Washington DC, online:https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1006045-possible-implications-of-bad-intelligence.html#storylink=relast
Marinella Correggia, Alfredo Embid, Ronda Hauben, Adam Larson (2013) ‘Official Truth, Real Truth, and Impunity for the Syrian Houla Massacre of May 2012’, CIWCL,May 15, online: http://ciwclibya.org/reports/realtruthhoula.html
ISTEAMS (2013) ‘Independent Investigation of Syria Chemical Attack Videos and Child Abductions’, 15 September, online: http://www.globalresearch.ca/STUDY_THE_VIDEOS_THAT_SPEAKS_ABOUT_CHEMICALS_BETA_VERSION.pdf
Seymour Hersh (2013) ‘Whose Sarin?’, LRB, 19 December, online: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n24/seymour-m-hersh/whose-sarin
Souad Mekhennet (2014) ‘The terrorists fighting us now? We just finished training them’, Washington Post, August 18, online: http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/08/18/the-terrorists-fighting-us-now-we-just-finished-training-them/
Marat Musin (2012b) ‘THE HOULA MASSACRE: Opposition Terrorists “Killed Families Loyal to the Government’, Global research, 1 June, online: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-houla-massacre-opposition-terrorists-killed-families-loyal-to-the-government/31184?print=1
Sharmine Narwani (2014) ‘Syria: the hidden massacre’, RT, 7 May, online: http://rt.com/op-edge/157412-syria-hidden-massacre-2011/
Sharmine Narwani (2014) ‘Joe Biden’s latest foot in mouth’, Veterans News Now, October 3, online: http://www.veteransnewsnow.com/2014/10/03/510328joe-bidens-latest-foot-in-mouth/
Truth Syria (2012) ‘Syria – Daraa revolution was armed to the teeth from the very beginning’, BBC interview with Anwar Al-Eshki,YouTube, 7 November, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoGmrWWJ77w
by Chris Hedges
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Noam Chomsky, whom I interviewed last Thursday at his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has influenced intellectuals in the United States and abroad in incalculable ways. His explications of empire, mass propaganda, the hypocrisy and pliability of the liberal class and the failings of academics, as well as the way language is used as a mask by the power elite to prevent us from seeing reality, make him the most important intellectual in the country. The force of his intellect, which is combined with a ferocious independence, terrifies the corporate state—which is why the commercial media and much of the academic establishment treat him as a pariah. He is the Socrates of our time.
We live in a bleak moment in human history. And Chomsky begins from this reality. He quoted the late Ernst Mayr, a leading evolutionary biologist of the 20th century who argued that we probably will never encounter intelligent extraterrestrials because higher life forms render themselves extinct in a relatively short time.
“Mayr argued that the adaptive value of what is called ‘higher intelligence’ is very low,” Chomsky said. “Beetles and bacteria are much more adaptive than humans. We will find out if it is better to be smart than stupid. We may be a biological error, using the 100,000 years which Mayr gives [as] the life expectancy of a species to destroy ourselves and many other life forms on the planet.”
Climate change “may doom us all, and not in the distant future,” Chomsky said. “It may overwhelm everything. This is the first time in human history that we have the capacity to destroy the conditions for decent survival. It is already happening. Look at species destruction. It is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth, ended the period of the dinosaurs and wiped out a huge number of species. It is the same level today. And we are the asteroid. If anyone could see us from outer space they would be astonished. There are sectors of the global population trying to impede the global catastrophe. There are other sectors trying to accelerate it. Take a look at whom they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward, indigenous populations—the First Nations in Canada, the aboriginals in Australia, the tribal people in India. Who is accelerating it? The most privileged, so-called advanced, educated populations of the world.”
If Mayr was right, we are at the tail end of a binge, accelerated by the Industrial Revolution, that is about to drive us over a cliff environmentally and economically. A looming breakdown, in Chomsky’s eyes, offers us opportunity as well as danger. He has warned repeatedly that if we are to adapt and survive we must overthrow the corporate power elite through mass movements and return power to autonomous collectives that are focused on sustaining communities rather than exploiting them. Appealing to the established institutions and mechanisms of power will not work.
“We can draw many very good lessons from the early period of the Industrial Revolution,” he said. “The Industrial Revolution took off right around here in eastern Massachusetts in the mid-19th century. This was a period when independent farmers were being driven into the industrial system. Men and women—women left the farms to be ‘factory girls’—bitterly resented it. This was also a period of a very free press, the freest in the history of the country. There were a wide variety of journals. When you read them they are pretty fascinating. The people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings being forced into what they called ‘wage labor,’ which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery. In fact this was such a popular mood it was a slogan of the Republican Party—‘The only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that working for the wage is supposed to be temporary.’ ”
Chomsky said this shift, which forced agrarian workers off the land into the factories in urban centers, was accompanied by a destruction of culture. Laborers, he said, had once been part of the “high culture of the day.”
“I remember this as late as the 1930s with my own family,” he said. “This was being taken away from us. We were being forced to become something like slaves. They argued that if you were a journeyman, a craftsman, and you sell a product that you produce, then as a wage earner what you are doing is selling yourself. And this was deeply offensive. They condemned what they called ‘the new spirit of the age,’ ‘gaining wealth and forgetting all but self.’ This sounds familiar.”
It is this radical consciousness, which took root in the mid-19th century among farmers and many factory workers, that Chomsky says we must recover if we are to move forward as a society and a civilization. In the late 19th century farmers, especially in the Midwest, freed themselves from the bankers and capital markets by forming their own banks and co-operatives. They understood the danger of falling victim to a vicious debt peonage run by the capitalist class. The radical farmers made alliances with the Knights of Labor, which believed that those who worked in the mills should own them.
“By the 1890s workers were taking over towns and running them in eastern and western Pennsylvania, such as Homestead,” Chomsky said. “But they were crushed by force. It took some time. The final blow was Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare.”
“The idea should still be that of the Knights of Labor,” he said. “Those who work in the mills should own them. There is plenty of manufacturing going on. There will be more. Energy prices are going down in the United States because of the massive exploitation of fossil fuels, which is going to destroy our grandchildren. But under the capitalist morality the calculus is profits tomorrow outweigh the existence of your grandchildren. We are getting lower energy prices. They [business leaders] are enthusiastic that we can undercut manufacturing in Europe because we have lower energy prices. And we can undermine European efforts at developing sustainable energy.”
Chomsky hopes that those who work in the service industry and in manufacturing can organize to begin to take control of their workplaces. He notes that in the Rust Belt, including in states such as Ohio, there is a growth of worker-owned enterprises.
The rise of powerful populist movements in the early 20th century meant that the business class could no longer keep workers subjugated purely through violence. Business interests had to build systems of mass propaganda to control opinions and attitudes. The rise of the public relations industry, initiated by President Wilson’s Committee on Public Information to instill a pro-war sentiment in the population, ushered in an era of not only permanent war but also permanent propaganda. Consumption was instilled as an inner compulsion. The cult of the self became paramount. And opinions and attitudes, as they are today, were crafted and shaped by the centers of power.
“A pacifist population was driven to become war-mongering fanatics,” Chomsky said. “It was this experience that led the power elite to discover that through effective propaganda they could, as Walter Lippmann wrote, employ “a new art in democracy, manufacturing consent.’ ”
Democracy was eviscerated. Citizens became spectators rather than participants in power. The few intellectuals, including Randolph Bourne, who maintained their independence and who refused to serve the power elite were pushed out of the mainstream, as Chomsky has been.
“Most of the intellectuals on all sides were passionately dedicated to the national cause,” Chomsky said of the First World War. “There were only a few fringe dissenters. Bertrand Russell went to jail. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were killed. Randolph Bourne was marginalized. Eugene Debs was in jail. They dared to question the magnificence of the war.”
This war hysteria has never ceased, moving seamlessly from a fear of the German Hun to a fear of communists to a fear of Islamic jihadists and terrorists.
“The public is frightened into believing we have to defend ourselves,” Chomsky said. “This is not entirely false. The military system generates forces that will be harmful to us. Take Obama’s terrorist drone campaign, the biggest terrorist campaign in history. This program generates potential terrorists faster than it destroys suspects. You can see it now in Iraq. Go back to the Nuremburg judgments. Aggression was defined as the supreme international crime. It differed from other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows. The U.S. and British invasion of Iraq is a textbook case of aggression. By the standards of Nuremberg they [the British and U.S. leaders] would all be hanged. And one of the crimes they committed was to ignite the Sunni and Shiite conflict.”
The conflict, which is now enflaming the region, is “a U.S. crime if we believe the validity of the judgments against the Nazis. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor at the [Nuremberg] tribunal, addressed the tribunal. He pointed out that we were giving these defendants a poisoned chalice. He said that if we ever sipped from it we had to be treated the same way or else the whole thing is a farce.”
Today’s elite schools and universities inculcate into their students the worldview endorsed by the power elite. They train students to be deferential to authority. Chomsky calls education at most of these schools, including Harvard, a few blocks away from MIT, “a deep indoctrination system.”
“There is the understanding that there are certain things you do not say and do not think,” Chomsky said. “This is very broad among the educated classes. It is why they overwhelmingly support state power and state violence, with some qualifications. Obama is regarded as a critic of the invasion of Iraq. Why? Because he thought it was a strategic blunder. That puts him on the same moral level as a Nazi general who thought the second front was a strategic blunder. That’s what we call criticism.”
And yet, Chomsky does not discount a resurgent populism.
“In the 1920s the labor movement had been practically destroyed,” he said. “This had been a very militant labor movement. In the 1930s it changed, and it changed because of popular activism. There were circumstances [the Great Depression] that led to the opportunity to do something. We are living with that constantly. Take the last 30 years. For a majority of the population it has been stagnation or worse. It is not the deep Depression, but it is a semi-permanent depression for most of the population. There is plenty of kindling out there that can be lighted.”
Chomsky believes that the propaganda used to manufacture consent, even in the age of digital media, is losing its effectiveness as our reality bears less and less resemblance to the portrayal of reality by the organs of mass media. While state propaganda can still “drive the population into terror and fear and war hysteria, as we saw before the invasion of Iraq,” it is failing to maintain an unquestioned faith in the systems of power. Chomsky credits the Occupy movement, which he describes as a tactic, with “lighting a spark” and, most important, “breaking through the atomization of society.”
“There are all sorts of efforts to separate people from one another,” he said. “The ideal social unit [in the world of state propagandists] is you and your television screen. The Occupy actions brought that down for a large part of the population. People recognized that we could get together and do things for ourselves. We can have a common kitchen. We can have a place for public discourse. We can form our ideas. We can do something. This is an important attack on the core of the means by which the public is controlled. You are not just an individual trying to maximize consumption. You find there are other concerns in life. If those attitudes and associations can be sustained and move in new directions, that will be important.”
© 2014 Truthdig
Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.