Urban art by Spanish artist Deih
Urban art by Spanish artist Deih
The costs of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan now stand at more than 350,000 lives lost and $4.4 trillion spent.
The updated figures are from the Costs of War project, which has updated its data periodically since its launch in June 2011.
The human toll includes US soldiers and contractors, allied soldiers, security forces, insurgents, militants, and civilians.
In addition, another 250,000 lives have been lost to war-related causes like loss of civilian access to food and health care since 2003.
Another $8 trillion in interest on war debt may come due during the next 40 years.
Costs incurred for the war in Iraq are estimated to be $2.21 trillion, and costs for Afghanistan and Pakistan are believed to be around $2.15 trillion.
The new figures come as Sunni militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—ISIS—have begun to take over parts of Iraq, leaving the political future of the country in question.
“The decision to use further US military force in Iraq will only increase these human and financial costs,” says Catherine Lutz, professor of anthropology and international studies and co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University.
Source: Brown University
Slowly, the words emerge: “God has saved from weary strife, in its dawn this fresh young life.”
The gravestone belongs to a private in the British army’s Leicestershire Regiment, killed in France on Oct. 31, 1914 and named only as W. Walker. He was 28.
Walker was among 16 million soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in World War I.
Later this week, the world will mark 100 years since the assassination of an Austrian prince in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo dragged the great powers of the time into a conflict they called “the war to end all wars.”
Memories of WWI are fading — British sailor Claude Choules, who died in 2011 at age 110, is believed to have been the last surviving combat veteran.
But in cemeteries and memorial sites around the world, there’s no letup in the global operation to honor the fallen.
During a time of tight spending, the governments of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand,South Africa and India increased the budget of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by almost 4 percent last year to $99 million.
That enables the CWGC to maintain graves and memorials to 1.7 million combatants from the former British Empire who died in the two world wars.
“We are here to help people understand what happened, what the sacrifice of those soldiers meant,” says Nelly Poignonnec, a Frenchwoman who serves as communications supervisor for the CWGC.
“We have a duty to commemorate them in perpetuity.”
The Brits aren’t alone.
Germany‘s War Graves Commission has a $55 million budget, raised mainly by public donations to maintain memorials to soldiers who fell in both world wars. For France, a special service of the Defense Ministry cares for 1.3 million war graves.
The US Battle Monument’s Commission employs 50 people overseas to tend the graves of 124,908 American war dead, including 30,000 from WWI. Nearly half lie in the Meuse-Argonne American cemetery, a 2.5 hour drive southeast of here.
Every year, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission engraves thousands of new headstones.
A handful will mark new graves for bodies that are still occasionally uncovered by farmers plowing their fields around here. The vast majority will replace stones eroded by decades of exposure to the elements.
Pvt. Walker’s is one of 22,000 to be cut this year in the workshop the CWGC runs in this northern French town set amid rolling farmland where some of the war’s bloodiest battles were fought.
Quarries in southern England producing the original Portland stone used for the graves in France and Flanders can no longer keep up with demand, so alternatives are shipped in to Beaurains from Italy, Bulgaria and farther afield.
After they are engraved — either using computer-guided machines or by hand by the commission’s team of trained craftsmen — the memorial tablets are sent out around the world.
Headstone production manager Alan Jarvis points to a stack of stones destined for shipment to the Gaza Strip, where more than 4,400 Commonwealth casualties are buried. The previous week, he says, a consignment was sent to Benghazi, Libya, last resting place for 1,214 British Commonwealth soldiers from WWII.
The CWGC employs 1,300 people tending 23,000 sites in 153 countries.
The scale of its operation to care for cemetery gardens and maintain the memorials gives an indication of the worldwide scope of the Great War’s carnage.
There are 15 members of Lincolnshire Yeomanry laid to rest in Algeria after their transport ship was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915. Maala cemetery in Yemen contains the graves of 142 servicemen killed in WWI defending the city of Aden against the Turks.
However, it’s the vast graveyards of northern France and southern Belgium that reveal the industrial scale of the WWI’s slaughter, and its impact in shaping today’s world.
A short drive from Beaurains, a ridge of highland known as the Lorette Spur is topped with a stout white church surrounded by the graves of 45,000 French soldiers — the country’s largest military necropolis.
Down the hill in Neuville-Saint-Vaast stands a forest of gray crosses marking the tree-shaded resting place of 44,833 German soldiers. It’s especially poignant given Germany’s post-WWI history that 129 tablets engraved with the Star of David are mixed among the crosses.
Nearby Vimy Ridge was the site of an allied breakthrough in April 1917, when a force of mostly Canadian troops stormed German strongholds. Today, the ridge is a Canadian national shrine and place of pilgrimage for trans-Atlantic visitors.
“When you talk about Vimy Ridge, that was really where Canada became a nation,” says Fred Lowenberger, 69, a retired sports coach visiting from Saskatchewan.
A towering white monument inscribed with the names of 11,285 fallen Canadians whose bodies were never found now dominates the ridge. It features on Canada’s $20 bill.
“This is where we pulled together, where they finally got to fight as a unit, our four divisions. It’s part of Canada now, and it’s something I really had to see,” Lowenberger says.
WWI’s role in molding modern nationhood helps explain why it continues to exercise a fascination and emotional power unmatched by earlier conflicts.
Australian national identity was forged in the fire of the Gallipoli campaign against Turkey.Poland re-emerged as an independent country after WWI. States such as Finland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia grew out of the debris.
The war also triggered the Russian Revolution and saw the United States emerge as a world power. In Germany, humiliating defeat sowed the seeds of Nazism. The breakup of Turkey’s empire drew new borders across the Middle East.
Beyond the geopolitical legacy, the scale of the carnage meant more families were touched by that war than by any previous conflict. And the new technologies of photography and film ensured they had tangible images of the lost to pass down through the generations.
“There was hardly a family that wasn’t affected in some way, that did not have a casualty,” says Jarvis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “There’s a willingness among people for the commemoration to go on.”
As the centenary of the Western Front’s agony of trench warfare approaches, far from fading, the war’s presence is being kept alive by new museums and monuments sprouting on the battlefields.
The French authorities are building an international memorial to all war dead next to the graveyard at Notre-Dame de Lorette.
Schools from across Europe bring students to the region to witness the war’s heritage.
“I can’t imagine what happened here, the horror,” says 15-year-old Matilde from Orleans, visiting the Canadian memorial with her high school colleagues.
“Coming here is going to help me with my studies,” she says. “But I still can’t really explain how they could have done something like this. These guys were our age, it gives you a really strange feeling.”
A panel at the entrance to the German cemetery at Neuville-Saint-Vaast leads with a quotation from Franco-German Nobel Peace laureate Albert Schweitzer: “Soldiers’ graves are the greatest preachers of peace.”
With the current crisis in Ukraine reviving fears of a war in Europe, some see a growing need to disseminate the history of WWI for new generations to learn from the conflict.
“It’s never the ordinary people who make wars, no ordinary human wants that. It’s the leaders. That’s always been the same,” says Christian E. Schlegel, a veteran volunteer guardian at the Lorette memorial site. “We have to keep the memory alive, it is something that’s close to us because the suffering was so great, especially in this region.”
His thoughts are echoed back at the French headquarters of Commonwealth War Graves Commission, where a team of gardeners, stonemasons and gardeners toil to maintain the memorials to the millions of young men who died a century ago.
The way they tell it, it’s more than just a job.
“We are here to keep up the memory, to remember what those soldiers fought for,” says blacksmith Christian Cousin, a muscular 49-year-old hammering iron gate rails into shape over his forge.
“We are the artisans of remembrance.”
“The United States of America is not responsible for what happened in Libya, nor is it responsible for what is happening in Iraq today,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared at a Cairo news conference held in the midst of his recent crisis tour of the Middle East.
As Kerry spoke, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a growing Sunni insurgency were consolidating their grip over the north and west of Iraq, including the country’s borders with Syria and Jordan. Upwards of a million Iraqis had been displaced by the fighting, and thousands had been killed in the mounting sectarian slaughter.
Libya is in a state of complete collapse, with continuous fighting between rival militias, a government that exists in name only, oil production down by at least 80 percent, and over a million people forced to flee the country’s violence. Many thousands are incarcerated in a network of prisons run by armed groups that practice systematic torture.
Kerry’s statement merely made official the steady drumbeat from the political establishment and the media since the situation in Iraq turned into a complete debacle: “The US bears no responsibility.”
Typical was the commentary by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a “human rights” imperialist who was a vocal proponent of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He wrote: “The debacle in Iraq isn’t President Obama’s fault. It’s not the Republicans’ fault… overwhelmingly, it’s the fault of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.”
Maliki, the stooge put in power and kept there by the US occupation, is made the fall guy.
Thomas Friedman, the Times’ foreign affairs columnist, wrote Sunday that Maliki is an “arsonist,” who, “the minute America left Iraq,” deliberately unleashed mayhem. This is the same Friedman who in 2003 declared that the US invaded Iraq “because we could,” spoke proudly of US troops going house-to-house and ordering Iraqis to “suck on this,” and declared that he had “no problem with a war for oil.”
Listening to the chorus of statements insisting that the US has no responsibility for the deepening tragedy inflicted upon the people of Iraq and Libya, one is reminded of nothing so much as the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, from Hermann Göring on down, rising one-by-one in the dock to declare themselves “not guilty.”
What are the crimes for which Kerry and so many others in the ruling establishment insist Washington bears no responsibility?
The description that they used for their own actions at the time was “shock and awe,” the unleashing of colossal destructive force upon a society already shattered by a decade of sadistic US sanctions. Killing hundreds of thousands of people and turning millions into refugees, the US war and occupation destroyed every institution of Iraqi society, while Washington deliberately fomented sectarian divisions as a means of overcoming Iraqi nationalism. The country’s deposed ruler, Saddam Hussein, was tried by a drumhead court and unceremoniously executed.
All of this was justified with warnings about the imminent threat from “weapons of mass destruction” and ties between Baghdad and Al Qaeda. As the whole world now knows, it was all lies.
There were no WMDs and there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until US imperialism overthrew the country’s government and tore its social fabric to pieces. In fact, there was no Al Qaeda at all before Washington set about inciting a bloody war by right-wing Islamists in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In Libya and now in Syria, the Obama administration abandoned the “war on terrorism” pretext for an equally cynical and fraudulent justification for regime-change: “human rights.” In Libya, the US and NATO heavily bombed the country while organizing and arming Islamist-led militias in a sectarian war that destroyed all of the existing governmental and social structures. As in Iraq, it ended its war with the brutal murder of the country’s secular leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
Washington is carrying out a similar war for regime-change in Syria, backing Sunni Islamist and sectarian militias that are led by ISIS, the same force that has overrun much of Iraq. The US hopes to end this war with the assassination of a third secular Arab head of state, Bashar al-Assad.
Just last week, Obama proposed to funnel $500 million in arms to the Syrian “rebels”—weapons that everyone knows will end up in the hands of ISIS, which the US is supposedly committed to defeating in Iraq.
As the contradictions and deceptions of Washington’s policy become ever more glaring, US officials simply act as though the American people won’t notice, or will believe anything. Or, for that matter, they won’t see that $500 million can be conjured up instantly to pay for a criminal war, while working people are being told “there is no money” for health care, education, housing or jobs.
The destruction that the US oligarchs have wrought in the Middle East, with all of its terrible human consequences, is the external manifestation of their destructive role within the US itself—smashing up the country’s manufacturing base, turning its economy into a gambling casino for financial parasites, destroying the jobs and living standards of millions of people. With no answers to the growing crisis at home, they turn to violence abroad, only compounding the catastrophes they have created overseas.
The “not responsibles” and “not guilties” from Kerry, Kristof, Friedman and the other advocates and apologists for American military aggression won’t wash. US imperialism is responsible for terrible crimes against humanity.
Yet no one has been held accountable. Not those in Washington—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, et al.—who conspired to wage a war of aggression; not those in the current administration, from Obama on down, who conspired to shield their predecessors and continue the same predatory policies; not the military brass who carried out the war; not the private contractors who enriched themselves off of it; not the lying media that helped foist the war onto the American public; not the cowardly and conformist academics who justified and went along with it.
Together, they are responsible for the catastrophes that have been inflicted upon the peoples of Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Bill Van Auken
Street art in Berlin
GAY STREET ART
Jun 27 2014
On November 18, 2003, Michael Jackson’s 3,000-acre primary residence, Neverland Ranch, was searched by 70 police officers from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department after accusations that Jackson had molested some children (The People of the State of California v. Michael Joseph Jackson). Following this, Jackson abandoned his estate, saying it had been “violated,” and three years later the property went into foreclosure.
While the Ranch floated in real estate limbo, a group of photographers snuck onto the grounds and explored the abandoned kingdom, returning several times between December 2007 and March 2008. I spoke to the photographers to see what they saw. (Because tresspassing is illegal and I was feeling nostalgic for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they will be referred to as Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello. A fourth member contributed photography and was not interviewed.)
VICE: What inspired you guys to explore Neverland Ranch?
Leonardo: It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was aware that the park had been abandoned for quite a while, and I knew that Jackson was in Dubai at the time and that he wasn’t able to pay his electric bills. So, my understanding was that it would be a short-lived opportunity. I usually drive along the 101 freeway, and I decided, I have a few extra hours, I’m just going to go check it out. It just so happened that the day I was out there, it was pretty windy. It was a good cover because there were guards on-site, and the wind sort of blocked out my noise. I was able to sneak in without being heard. I had no expectation to make it in, but I just wanted to see.
What was the weirdest shit you saw?
Leonardo: Raphael is laughing because everything we saw was pretty weird. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of Michael Jackson, but I knew that he was an important American historical figure. At the time, most people probably didn’t realize that he was part of history, and I knew that there was the potential for everything that was associated with him to be quickly lost. Without our documentation, I think it would’ve been a huge loss. So, I thought it was important to do that as quickly as we could, before it was gone.
Raphael: Are we talking about going into his house? Is that part of the story?
Raphael: We haven’t really told anyone about it… OK, the strangest thing to me was the little boy in pajamas sitting on the moon logo, everywhere. Like, it amazes me how much it resembles the DreamWorks logo. That thing was painted on the ground, like, 60 feet wide. It was on the signs, on the bumper cars, it was on the coach station where they parked the coach, one on the ground.
Donatello: That’s his creepy logo, right?
Raphael: It’s got a little boy sitting on it in those footie pajama things. Isn’t the back open, or is that only on some of the paintings? [Laughs]
Oh my God.
Donatello: The other thing was that he collected memorabilia that had his likeness on it. He had Pepsi bottles and books and other promotional material in boxes. He also had stacks and stacks of fan mail, and one piece that really grabbed me was the prosecuting attorney of his molestation case with devil’s horns drawn on. That was just laying on a tabletop—maybe a Pac-Man table?
Raphael: You read his fan mail?
Donatello: We were flipping through some of it.
How did you guys get into his house?
Raphael: We probably don’t want to talk about the details about how we entered.
Was it difficult?
Leonardo: We didn’t have to break any laws, because it was open. It was all open. The house was open.
Raphael: One thing that really sticks out in my memory was drinking his grape soda from that walk-in kitchen storage area and then very carefully wiping the fingerprints off the bottle and hiding it in the bushes.
Wait, you drank his juice?
Raphael: I was thirsty and he had all of this grape soda, and I thought I’d just drink something from his house.
Was it actual grape soda?
Raphael: Yeah! It was actual grape soda. In the kitchen there was this “Children of the World” menu. Everything in there was geared toward children. I’m not sure he had any, but…
Raphael: That menu, on a permanently-printed chalkboard with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, that sticks out in my mind. And the strange hodgepodge of shit that he had bought that didn’t have any relation to his house. His entire house was filled with these expensive looking, one-off, semi-artistic things.
Raphael: These weird mirrors on this four-foot by four-foot platform. And that would be next to some Roman statue-looking thing. Next to that would be an eight-foot-tall oil painting of Michael Jackson himself. There were all of these paintings inside the house.
Donatello: There’s one where he’s leading a procession of children.
What was the vibe in the house?
Donatello: I was really on-edge and uncomfortable, mostly because I was worried that someone might find us in there and I think it’s just such a breach of privacy. It was so compelling to do it; I couldn’t not go in because the opportunity was there. But at the same time, it just felt wrong. It was this constant friction between fascination and, I’ve got to get the fuck out of here, I shouldn’t be in here.
Leonardo: That’s true. We all felt that way. We [as urban explorers] don’t normally ever go in peoples’ houses.
Raphael: It’s all usually industrial, or old schools, or things that aren’t people’s personal residences. At one point, I got so fed up with the weirdness that I went outside and I tried to loosen them up by banging on the door. I had a flashlight in my hand, and made it look like I was busting them. We fuck around with each other quite a bit, but Donatello was furious that I did that.
Donatello: I don’t remember that. It must’ve been such a bad memory.
Raphael: I scared the shit out of you.
Leonardo: I remember that vividly, actually. I didn’t find anything that creepy about the whole thing. I found it really odd and different, but I wasn’t scared at any moment. I think none of us were really scared. Mostly we felt like we shouldn’t be invading the privacy of someone else. But I never felt like I was afraid of any of the things that he put out there. It just seemed really exotic and different. There are far more odd things in this world than what Michael Jackson was.
Raphael: The whole thing was just really an adventure, and going somewhere that nobody’s ever seen, and seeing all of this stuff, it was right after he left the country because of the molestation charges. So in our mind, it was like looking at everything more from that angle. There’s the kids’ stuff, there’s toys everywhere, there’s the huge arcade—a giant child-magnet.
Donatello: I don’t know. I don’t want the whole gist of this interview to back up those allegations toward the guy.
That’s OK. I was actually going to ask how much of the property you ended up being able to see?
Donatello: We pretty much saw everything except for the petting zoo area. We went to the arcade, the mansion, the amusement park rides, the railroad train station, all of the statue areas…
I’m shocked that you guys weren’t caught.
Donatello: We’re kind of professionals. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but… We do this a lot. We do a lot of research and recon. But also, it’s surprisingly low-key because there’s a guard truck down by the road, and we just avoided that guard truck, and once you’re past that, you’re in the valley, and you’re on your own, and it’s pretty desolate.
Raphael: Surprisingly, we just roamed about the grounds. Casually.
It’s a pretty huge space, isn’t it?
Raphael: Really big. We didn’t even get to the zoo, because it’s so far away.
Donatello: One other interesting thing—we did go in Michael’s room, but both of the kids’ rooms were locked from the outside.
Raphael: We decided not to get into the kids’ rooms, because it didn’t seem right.
What about his toy room?
Raphael: It was maybe 60 feet by 30 feet, and filled with every toy you could imagine. Life-size Lego models, Darth Vader—all sorts of awesome toys.
Donatello: The other thing I remember is that there were game stations set up all around the house. Imagine those consoles for Super Nintendo that you might find at the Best Buy store, but set up with all different systems.
Was there anything adult in there? It all sounds like mostly kids’ stuff. And weird art.
Raphael: There were a lot of big, lounge-y spaces with couches and all the strange art objects.
Donatello: I remember seeing really normal things, change lying on a coffee table and a little office space with a computer and typical home stuff.
Roughly how many rooms did he have? It’s a mansion. It must’ve been fucking huge.
Leonardo: He probably had ten rooms, I would say. The mansion itself was not as huge as you’d think, but there were all of these other smaller buildings that we didn’t really go in.
Isn’t there a massive clock in the garden?
Donatello: Oh, dude, there’s all kinds of crazy shit in the garden.
Leonardo: Didn’t you take a picture of the clock with the hands stuck, and then you realized later on that you took the picture within three seconds of what the hands were stuck at?
Donatello: I did! There’s this clock that’s stopped around 2:55, and I just happened to snap the shot almost exactly at that same time, without even realizing it until a year later.
Pretty serendipitous. Although, how did you know that it had been stopped?
Donatello: The power had been cut off, and the hands weren’t moving.
The house didn’t have any power?
Donatello: If I remember correctly, there was no power in the mansion but the water was working.
Did you guys use the bathroom?
Donatello: I think we checked the water or something because we were just curious if it worked. What’s weird is that within his house, there was no dust. It was immaculate. The carpet was vacuumed, and there was no dust on any of those crazy sculpture or statues. That’s kind of why we were on edge—like, people are here. A lot of things were covered in vinyl-type tarps to protect them. But it was obvious that someone was in there cleaning, I would say, at least once a week, by how clean it was.
But he hadn’t lived there for a while…
Raphael: I think that’s what signified to Leonardo that he was OK to go in there.
Leonardo: The house is foreclosed, it’s basically derelict, defunct. That’s when it hit my radar.
Raphael: It’s probably obvious that we really only go to abandoned and defunct sites.
You don’t seem like paparazzi.
Raphael: We’re paparazzi of bridges, maybe.
Tales of lost horizons always spark the imagination. From the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La to the burning of the library at Alexandria, human history is rife with longing for better worlds that shimmered briefly before slipping out of reach.
Some of us may be starting to feel that way about the Internet. As a handful of corporations continue to consolidate their grip over the network, the optimism of the early indie Web has given way to a much-chronicled backlash.
But what if it all had turned out differently?
In 1934, a little-known Belgian bibliographer named Paul Otlet published his plans for the Mundaneum, a global network that would allow anyone in the world to tap into a vast repository of published information with a device that could send and receive text, display photographs, transcribe speech and auto-translate between languages. Otlet even imagined social networking-like features that would allow anyone to “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus.”
Once the Mundaneum took shape, he predicted, “anyone in his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain of its parts.”
Unpublished drawing of the Mundaneum, 1930s © Mundaneum, Mons, Belgium.
Conceived in the pre-digital era, Otlet’s scheme relied on a crazy quilt of analog technologies like microfilm, telegraph lines, radio transmitters and typewritten index cards. Nonetheless, it anticipated the emergence of a hyperlinked information environment — more than half a century before Tim Berners-Lee released the first Web browser.
Despite Otlet’s remarkable foresight, he remains largely forgotten outside of rarefied academic circles. When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, they destroyed much of his work, helping ensure his descent into historical obscurity (although the Mundaneum museum in Belgium is making great strides toward restoring his legacy). Most of his writing has never been translated into English.
In the years following World War II, a series of English and American computer scientists paved the way for what would become the present-day Internet. Pioneering thinkers like Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, Vinton G. Cerf and Robert E. Kahn shaped the contours of the present-day Internet, with its famously flat, open architecture.
Tim Wu recently compared the open Internet to the early American frontier, “a place where anyone with passion or foolish optimism might speak his or her piece or open a business and see what happens.” But just as the unregulated frontier of the 19th century gave rise to the age of robber barons, so the Internet has seen a rapid consolidation of power in the hands of a few corporate winners.
The global tech oligopoly now exerts so much power over our lives that some pundits — like Wu and Danah Boyd — have even argued that some Internet companies should be regulated like public utilities. The Web’s inventor Tim Berners-Lee has sounded the alarm as well, calling for a great “re-decentralization” of his creation.
Otlet’s Mundaneum offers a tantalizing picture of what a different kind of network might have looked like. In contrast to today’s commercialized — and increasingly Balkanized — Internet, he envisioned the network as a public, transnational undertaking, managed by a consortium of governments, universities and international associations. Commercial enterprise played almost no part in it.
Otlet saw the Mundaneum as the central nervous system for a new world order rooted squarely in the public sector. Having played a small role in the formation of the League of Nations after World War I, he believed strongly that a global network should be administered by an international government entity working on behalf of humanity’s shared interests.
That network would do more than just provide access to information; it would serve as a platform for collaboration between governments that would, Otlet believed, help create the necessary conditions for world peace. He even proposed the construction of an ambitious new World City to house that government, with central offices and facilities for hosting international events (like the Olympics), an international university, a world museum and a headquarters of the Mundaneum that would involve a vast documentary operation staffed by a small army of “bibliologists” — a sort of cross between a blogger and a library cataloger — who would collect and curate the world’s information.
Otlet with model of the World City, 1943 © Mundaneum, Mons, Belgium.
Today, the role that Otlet envisioned for the Mundaneum falls largely to for-profit companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, who channel the vast majority of the world’s intellectual output by exerting an enormous asymmetric advantage over their users, exploiting their vast data stores and proprietary algorithms to make consumers dependent on them to navigate the digital world.
Billions of people may rely on Google’s search engine, but only a handful of well-paid engineers inside the Googleplex understand how it actually works. Similarly, the Facebook newsfeed may sate our appetite for quizzes and cat videos, but few of us will ever plumb the mysteries of its algorithm. And while Amazon may provide book readers with easy access to millions of titles, it is hardly a public library: The company’s primary goal will always be to drive sales, not to support scholarly research.
Otlet saw the network not as a tool for generating wealth, but as a largely commercial-free system to help spur intellectual and social progress. To that end, he wanted to make its contents as freely available and easily searchable as possible. He created an innovative classification scheme called the Universal Decimal Classification, a highly precise system for pinpointing particular topics and creating deep links between related subjects contained in documents, photographs, audio-visual files and other evolving media types.
Otlet coined a term to describe this process of stitching together different media types and technologies: “hyper-documentation” (a term he first used almost 30 years before Ted Nelson invented the term “hypertext” in 1963). He envisioned the entire scheme as a kind of open source catalog that would allow anyone to “be everywhere, see everything … and know everything.”
Overview of Otlet’s cataloging scheme, 1930s © Mundaneum, Mons, Belgium.
Instead of knowing everything, we now seem to know less and less. The sheer mass of data on the Internet — and the difficulty of archiving it in any coherent way — imposes a kind of collective amnesia that makes us ever more reliant on search engines and other filtering tools furnished mostly by the private sector, placing our trust in the dubious permanence of the so-called cloud.
Otlet’s ideas about organizing information may seem anachronistic today. In an age of billions of Web pages, the idea of cataloging all the world’s information seems like a fool’s dream. Moreover, the premise of a single, fixed cataloging scheme — predicated on an assumption that there is a single, knowable version of the Truth — undoubtedly rankles modern sensibilities of cultural relativism.
Otlet’s empirical, top-down approach was rooted squarely in the 19th century ideals of positivism and in the then-prevalent belief in the superiority of scientifically advanced Western culture. But if we can look past the Belle Epoque trappings of these ideas, we can find a deeper, more hopeful aspiration at work.
This is why Paul Otlet still matters. His ideas are more than just a matter of historical curiosity, but rather a kind of Platonic ideal of what the network could be: not a channel for the fulfillment of worldly desires, but a vehicle for nobler pursuits: scholarship, social progress and even spiritual liberation. Shangri-La indeed.
Alex Wright is the author of “Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.”
Israel thrives on what it calls “existential threats,” fabricated perils that are just plausible enough to be believed.
As social divisions mount, they help hold Israeli society together. They also keep “diaspora” Jews on board.
And they keep Western, especially American, diplomatic, military and economic support coming.
This is crucial now that Western publics are beginning to realize that untrammeled support for a European colonial project, an ethnocratic settler state, in the heart of the Middle East is problematic – not only for moral reasons, but for reasons of national interest as well.
Serviceable existential threats are hard to find. So far, however, Israel has made due.
But times change. Before long, it may actually face a real one, an existential threat worthy of the name. The irony is palpable.
If and when this happens, it will be an object lesson: be careful what you wish for.
* * *
It was easier when the entire Arab world was nominally – though never really – at war with Israel. This hasn’t been the case for decades.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, leaders throughout the region began to concoct a more secure modus vivendi than had previously existed. With American help, they made decisive progress.
After the 1978 Camp David Accords and the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty signed the following year, the most threatening of the Arab armies, Egypt’s, could no longer be construed as a threat. This was the good news.
The bad news – for Israel — was the same: an existential threat had gone missing.
Jordan and Israel didn’t actually sign a peace treaty until 1994, but the Hashemite Kingdom had been collaborating with Zionists since even before the state of Israel was established. Lebanon was never much of a problem for Israel either.
There was still Syria, of course; and far off Iraq. But, despite the sense of insecurity to which Israeli and diaspora Jews are prone, and despite the best efforts of the Zionist propaganda machine, it became increasingly difficult to maintain that Israel’s neighbors threatened Israel’s existence – except in their dreams.
Militarily, Palestinians were even less up to snuff; there has never been much they could do that the Israeli juggernaut could not easily withstand.
Nor is there much they can do diplomatically to challenge the Occupation regime under which they suffer; not with the United States backing Israel a thousand percent.
Palestinian resistance – in Israel, they call it “terrorism” — can be a nuisance. It can also be a pretext. But there is no way to sell it as a threat to the state itself.
Palestinian birthrates are another matter. Zionists worry that they are too high, and that Jewish birthrates are too low. Jewish Israelis, secular ones especially, also have high emigration rates.
Members of Israel’s several large and growing extreme Orthodox sects do heed the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” But for many – still, probably, most – Jewish Israelis, this is small consolation. Even those who welcome the addition of any and all Chosen people, no matter how benighted, still have cause for concern: the godly folk living in the Promised Land are not nearly fruitful enough.
And so, despite relentless ethnic cleansing and despite aggressive efforts to attract Jewish immigrants from countries where there are no Israel lobbies that could be helpful to the Israeli state, Palestinians “threaten” to outnumber Jewish Israelis throughout Mandate Palestine and, conceivably some day, even within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
It is instructive to reflect on the kind of threat this is. I’ll return to this question presently.
Since neighboring Arab states no longer pass muster, and since the kind of existential threat Israelis say Palestinians pose doesn’t do much to keep external support flowing in, the next move was all but inevitable: turn Iran into “existential threat” Number One.
Under the Shah, Iran had been Israel’s best friend in the region. This changed after the 1979 Revolution, though not nearly as quickly as is widely assumed. Old habits die hard.
In time, though, thanks to Iran’s unwitting cooperation, the strategy worked. To the relief of Zionists everywhere, Israel had an existential threat adequate for its needs.
The Iranian nuclear program was icing on the cake. It was a godsend. So was Iran’s former President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He could even be cast – not quite correctly, but convincingly enough – as a Holocaust denier.
Too bad for Israel that what the Lord giveth, the Lord doth also take away. Unlike Ahmadinejad, Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, is eminently reasonable in both senses of the term: his views, insofar as they bear on world politics, are well-grounded and evidence-based; and he is disposed to cooperate, even with the United States, for mutual advantage.
This is good news everywhere outside official Tel Aviv.
With the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement on the rise, and with the entire region in turmoil, Israel needs an existential threat now more than ever.
But it is losing the best one it has had since its salad days, when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his confederates were always at the ready.
Poor Benjamin Netanyahu – first Eric Cantor, and now this.
* * *
I have not been able to track down when “existential threat” first entered the political lexicon. I am fairly sure, though, that it was not long ago, and I suspect that Israeli propagandists had a lot to do with it.
They may even have concocted the expression. They had been deploying the concept for decades; why not also name it? With a name, it would be more useful.
The downside, though, is that naming the concept also exposes its problematic nature – by calling attention to the gap between what the words say and the reality that Israeli propagandists use them to describe. Fortunately for the propagandists, hardly anyone notices.
When the words are taken literally, as is plainly the intention, then to say that there is an existential threat is to assert that the existence of something is in jeopardy. What might that something be?
In principle, it could be anything that could fail to exist. In practice, the expression is used more restrictively.
In view of how the expression is used, one might almost think that it applies only to Israel — or only to the kinds of things that concern Israel’s defenders.
Of course, one it was out there, it was inevitable that it would spill over into a broader universe of discourse. Remarkably, it has not spilled far.
For instance, no one says that people dealing with fatal diseases face existential threats, though they literally are. Similarly, species face extinction, not existential threats; and it would be odd, to say the least, to use the expression in reference to buildings or neighborhoods about to be demolished.
It is noteworthy too that people seldom use the expression even in reference to countries, especially countries far from the Near East. When they do, it is almost always “regimes,” not countries, that are said to confront existential threats. Israel is the one salient exception.
Thus the demonstrations in 2011 in Tahrir Square and elsewhere throughout Egypt were said to pose an existential threat to “the Mubarak regime,” not to Egypt itself. It was the same with the demonstrations that led to the coup against the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The expression is sometimes also applied to institutions and organizations. This usage is revealing.
It can be said, for example, that public sector unions in the United States face an existential threat from legislation proposed by right-wing financiers, pro-business foundations and opportunistic politicians. But this is only a colorful way of saying that these forces are leading a charge aimed at weakening or destroying public sector unions.
Merely adding dramatic flair, which is all the expression does, can be rhetorically – and therefore politically — useful. Nevertheless, the expression is seldom used in contexts where it might actually do good. It is still too linked to its origins for that.
This is why it sounds odd to say, for example, that the world faces an existential threat from nuclear war or from nuclear accidents, though this is literally true, and the danger is certainly grave enough to merit emphasis by any and all means.
In a similar vein, capitalist firms court ecological disasters that threaten a vast array of living things with annihilation. But, again, the expression is seldom used to refer to impending catastrophes of this kind.
More in line with current uses, one could honestly say that political projects that are genocidal in nature pose existential threats to targeted populations.
For example, it would have been appropriate to maintain that the rise of Nazism and cognate political movements in Europe before and during World War II posed an existential threat to European Jewry. Saying that then might have done some good.
Similarly, it would be fair to say – both factually and rhetorically — that European settlers in the Americas posed existential threats both to indigenous peoples and to their cultures.
The expression could also be used appropriately to describe aspects of the Atlantic slave trade, to cite just one more obvious example.
But “existential threat” is seldom used in salutary ways.
Instead, a smooth talker with an American accent, and a state sponsored hasbara (public diplomacy/propaganda) campaign led by deceivers skilled in the dark arts of public relations, popularized the concept and the term.
One result is that words that could be helpful, when used without meretricious intent, are now tainted, perhaps irreversibly so.
* * *
The idea that Israeli Jews today – or the Hebrew culture of modern Israel — face a threat that rises to a level that could properly be called “existential” is more than just far-fetched.
To be sure, were the state of Israel to put its own legitimacy in jeopardy domestically or internationally – say, by overreaching egregiously – the regime it superintends might find itself facing a bona fide existential threat.
Then, in that sense, so would Israel itself – but only insofar as “Israel” is understood to designate the ethnocratic regime in place there.
When Communism imploded and the Soviet Union became undone, Russia underwent a very radical transformation. But the country survived along with its people and its culture because, however closely connected they had been, the regime, Communism, and the country, its people, and its culture were not one and the same.
It would be the same for Israel if, like all states based on Enlightenment principles – and from traditions established during the French and American Revolutions — it became a state of its citizens, regardless of their religious or ethnic identities.
This is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future because, at this point, too few Jewish Israelis are willing to give up on the idea of a Jewish state – and they hold a strong enough hand to guarantee that they will get their way. A “two state solution” is more feasible. Though less satisfactory, it probably is the only way forward, at the present time, to advance justice and peace.
But even were the more radical solution on the agenda – in other words, even if the regime in place now in Israel really did face an existential threat – the Jewish citizens of Israel would be facing nothing of the sort.
Blowback from Israeli depredations in the Occupied Territories puts individual Israelis at risk; changing the regime responsible for blowback would not.
It is the same with the all but inexorable, “demographic bomb.” Palestinian majorities in mandate Palestine – or even behind the so-called Green Line – do not put the lives or fortunes of Jewish Israelis at risk, much less in mortal danger. And neither would they spell the end of the Hebrew culture Zionism brought to life.
All that is safe, as long as the world itself does not become unhinged.
This was a sure thing back when Israel and its existential threats were running true to course. But circumstances sometimes change – abruptly and without warning.
* * *
The problem is not that Israel’s luck in finding existential threats is running out. It is the opposite; instead of no luck at all, Israel now seems to have too much.
Events are now unfolding, so it is too soon to be sure; but it appears that Israel may soon find that it has a genuine existential threat on its hands.
It would be the first time. And it does not bode well – not for Israel, not for the region, and not for the world.
Indeed, the existential threat facing Israel is not even directed at it. The threat to Israel is just one of many possible by-products of a far broader peril that could indeed unhinge our world.
For this, as for so much else, Israel, and all the other affected parties, has America – or rather the ill-led national security state America has become — to thank.
When Barack Obama won in 2008, there was a chance that the worst excesses of the Bush-Cheney era would finally be ended. Instead, we have just gotten more of the same, and worse.
Even the old malefactors are still at it. Some six years into the Age of Obama, they are finally recovering their stride.
Witness, for example, the unreconstructed neoconservatives who are still around causing trouble. Our media give them a platform, and so they keep at it. Remarkably, members of the Bush and Cheney families – reprobates all – are still at it too, and still drawing media attention.
But, by now, everyone else who gives the matter a moment’s thought realizes that starting the Iraq War was a colossal mistake.
Almost every decision the United States made in waging it was wrong-headed too; and it only got worse when the Obama administration took up where its predecessor left off.
In time, Obama did wind down overt combat operations; after seven years, there was little point in keeping them going.
But, by outsourcing most of the killing, his administration only continued the war and occupation in a different, less conspicuous, guise.
The ploy worked for a while because the United States was able to buy off most (evidently, not all) opposition, and because Obama kept the Iraqi government afloat with American taxpayers’ dollars.
And, on the home front, Obama was able to fool most of the people most of the time because, as per usual, the media didn’t do its job. Having been notoriously gung-ho since even before the Iraq War began, the media lost interest as soon as the murder and mayhem began to subside.
Because they couldn’t just ignore what was going on, they therefore took the lazy way out: repeating what the State and Defense Departments told them.
But now, thanks mainly to American ineptitude, the situation on the ground is changing. Suddenly, the occupation structure America contrived over the past decade is crumbling – along with the Iraqi regime itself. Sunni jihadists are on the march, and Shia militias are reconstituting. Civil war is brewing. Arguably, it has already begun.
How ironic that what the Americans put in place is now being replaced by what George Bush and Dick Cheney told the world the U.S. invaded Iraq to prevent: the establishment of a terrorist safe haven in the heartland of the Middle East!
Iraq is not the only country in peril. The Syrian civil war has already spilled over to its neighbor, and vice versa – putting the regional state system established after World War I in jeopardy.
For all this and more, American bungling is largely at fault. Bush and Cheney hadn’t a clue what they were getting into and neither they nor their successor were any better prepared to deal with the situation their machinations had conjured into being.
The question now is how to keep the instability they created in bounds.
Will it spill over into the entire region – into Lebanon, for example? Will it destabilize Jordan? Egypt is already deeply in turmoil. What will be the effect on it?
The one sure thing is that Israel will finally be facing a genuine existential threat.
Even if the threat can be confined just to its Syrian border, that will be more than enough; an out of control regional war waged by bitterly opposed parties who agree only on their hostility to the Israeli state comes as close as one can imagine to putting the seemingly impregnable security Israel provides its Jewish citizens in peril.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been crying wolf for so long that it has become his nature. Now he is about to get what he has been bleating about; and neither he, nor those who think like him, are going to like it one bit.
The consequences of the Bush-Obama Iraq War are coming due. One of those consequences – not the most dire, but certainly the most ironic – is that Israeli panic mongering will soon be overcome by events, putting Israel itself at more risk than it has ever been.
Be careful what you wish for – indeed!
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).