Bill Maher’s bigoted atheism

His showdown with Fareed Zakaria shows how far he’s fallen

Bill Maher's bigoted atheism: His arrogant shtick is just as ugly as religious intolerance
Bill Maher (Credit: HBO/Janet Van Ham)

You know what you call someone who makes sweeping generalizations on billions of people based on the extreme actions of a few? A bigot. Bill Maher, for example, is a bigot. And if you’re a fan of his smug, dismissive shtick, you’re a bigot too.

On Friday’s “Real Time,” Maher, who has been openly atheist his whole career but has been increasingly vocal against organized religion in recent years, squared off against Fareed Zakaria, who gave a powerful rebuttal to Maher’s reiteration of the “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” assertion. “My problem with the way you approach it,” Zakaria said, “is I don’t think you’re going to reform a religion by telling 1.6 billion people — most of whom are just devout people who get some inspiration from that religion and go about their daily lives — I don’t think you’re going to change religion by saying your religion is the motherlode of bad ideas, it’s a terrible thing. Frankly, you’re going to make a lot of news for yourself and you’re going to get a lot of applause lines and joke lines.” Instead, he urged, “Push for reform with some sense of respect for the spiritual values.”And on behalf of Muslims, Christians, Jews and anybody else who prays to somebody sometimes, let me just say, thank you.

As the threats of terrorism and right-wing Christianity have risen in the past few years, Maher’s aggressive brand of atheism — also popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — has gained a strong following among a certain type of self-professed intellectual. Maher has famously said, “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do” — which is pretty funny, given the know-it-all arrogance of the anti-religion big leaguers like Maher himself. As Zakaria very eloquently pointed out, that stance has given Maher more power and reach than he’s ever had in his long career. But whatever you believe or don’t, if you’re selling blanket intolerance, you don’t get to call yourself one of the good guys. You shouldn’t even get to call yourself one of the smart ones.

I’m a Christian, which in my urban, media-centric world is basically equivalent to self-identifying as a hillbilly. It also means that I have to accept that I apply the same word to myself that a lot of hateful morons do. But on Sunday at my little neighborhood church, our priest delivered a sermon in which he said, “I can’t understand how in places like Indiana, people are using Christianity as an excuse to close their doors, when we should be welcoming to everyone.” Guess what? That’s faith too. I am also keenly aware that in other parts of the world, people are being murdered for a faith that I am privileged to practice openly and without fear. And anyone, anywhere, who is openly hateful to others for their religion is part of a culture that permits that kind of persecution to endure.

Here’s what I would like Bill Maher and his smug, self-righteous acolytes to understand. There are literally billions of individuals in this world who are not murderous, ignorant, superstitious, hatemongers, who also happen to practice a religion. Billions of people who I swear — to God — have no investment in forcing their beliefs on Bill Maher. Right here in the U.S., there are millions of my fellow Christians who are strongly committed to the ideals of the Constitution, and who don’t want to live in a theocracy any more than they do.

I recently had a conversation with an atheist friend who asked why, knowing all I do of the wrongs committed by the Catholic Church, disagreeing as strongly as I do with many of its positions on women’s rights, LGBT equality and reproductive justice, I continue to stay within it. And my reply was that this is where I feel I can do the most good. I am not a disinterested party. I’m a citizen of my church and I’m going to continue to demand better of it. I don’t, however, want to sell it to anybody else. You don’t have to believe in God — or however else you may define the concept of something else out there. I don’t have all the answers to life, the universe and everything; I’m just trying to get through this plane of existence in a manner that’s philosophically satisfying and guides me in the direction of not being a selfish jerk. That’s it. All I ask — all that many, many, many of us who practice their respective religions ask — is that you conduct yourself with respect and compassion and a spirit of coexistence, and we’ll do the same. I ask that you not make assumptions about the vast majority of the world’s population based on your own need to feel good about yourself and how smart you are. Like Zakaria says, you’re not going to bring about reform that way. And as Maher and his ilk prove, you don’t need a religion to be in the business of spreading hate.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

Is our republic coming to an end? History may not be on America’s side

8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire

8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost documents the corrosive effect of money on our political process. Lessig persuasively makes the case that we are witnessing the loss of our republican form of government, as politicians increasingly represent those who fund their campaigns, rather than our citizens.

Anthony Everitt’s Rise of Rome is fascinating history and a great read. It tells the story of ancient Rome, from its founding (circa 750 BCE) to the fall of the Roman Republic (circa 45 BCE).

When read together, striking parallels emerge — between our failings and the failings that destroyed the Roman Republic. As with Rome just before the Republic’s fall, America has seen:

1 — Staggering Increase in the Cost of Elections, with Dubious Campaign Funding Sources: Our 2012 election reportedly cost $3 billion. All of it was raised from private sources – often creating the appearance, or the reality, that our leaders are beholden to special interest groups. During the late Roman Republic, elections became staggeringly expensive, with equally deplorable results. Caesar reportedly borrowed so heavily for one political campaign, he feared he would be ruined, if not elected.

2 — Politics as the Road to Personal Wealth: During the late Roman Republic period, one of the main roads to wealth was holding public office, and exploiting such positions to accumulate personal wealth. As Lessig notes: Congressman, Senators and their staffs leverage their government service to move to private sector positions – that pay three to ten times their government compensation. Given this financial arrangement, “Their focus is therefore not so much on the people who sent them to Washington. Their focus is instead on those who will make them rich.” (Republic Lost)

3 — Continuous War: A national state of security arises, distracting attention from domestic challenges with foreign wars. Similar to the late Roman Republic, the US – for the past 100 years — has either been fighting a war, recovering from a war, or preparing for a new war: WW I (1917-18), WW II (1941-1945), Cold War (1947-1991), Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam (1953-1975), Gulf War (1990-1991), Afghanistan (2001-ongoing), and Iraq (2003-2011). And, this list is far from complete.

4 — Foreign Powers Lavish Money/Attention on the Republic’s Leaders: Foreign wars lead to growing influence, by foreign powers and interests, on the Republic’s political leaders — true for Rome and true for us. In the past century, foreign embassies, agents and lobbyists have proliferated in our nation’s capital. As one specific example: A foreign businessman donated $100 million to Bill Clinton‘s various activities. Clinton “opened doors” for him, and sometimes acted in ways contrary to stated American interests and foreign policy.

5 — Profits Made Overseas Shape the Republic’s Internal Policies: As the fortunes of Rome’s aristocracy increasingly derived from foreign lands, Roman policy was shaped to facilitate these fortunes. American billionaires and corporations increasingly influence our elections. In many cases, they are only nominally American – with interests not aligned with those of the American public. For example, Fox News is part of international media group News Corp., with over $30 billion in revenues worldwide. Is Fox News’ jingoism a product of News Corp.’s non-U.S. interests?

6 — Collapse of the Middle Class: In the period just before the Roman Republic’s fall, the Roman middle class was crushed — destroyed by cheap overseas slave labor. In our own day, we’ve witnessed rising income inequality, a stagnating middle class, and the loss of American jobs to overseas workers who are paid less and have fewer rights.

7 — Gerrymandering: Rome’s late Republic used various methods to reduce the power of common citizens. The GOP has so effectively gerrymandered Congressional districts that, even though House Republican candidates received only about 48 percent of the popular vote in the 2012 election — they ended up with the majority (53 percent) of the seats.

8 — Loss of the Spirit of Compromise: The Roman Republic, like ours, relied on a system of checks and balances. Compromise is needed for this type of system to function. In the end, the Roman Republic lost that spirit of compromise, with politics increasingly polarized between Optimates (the rich, entrenched elites) and Populares (the common people). Sound familiar? Compromise is in noticeably short supply in our own time also. For example, “There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined.”

As Benjamin Franklin observed, we have a Republic — but only if we can keep it.


‘We love being Lakota’: native autonomy in Pine Ridge

By Peterson Rasamny On April 12, 2015

Post image for ‘We love being Lakota’: native autonomy in Pine Ridge

‘The Native and the Refugee’ documentary project explores the similarities between the struggles and experiences of Native Americans and Palestinians.

By Matt Peterson & Malek Rasamny, photo by Chris Huber for Rapid City Journal.

In December 2014, we visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in what is now South Dakota. We chose to begin our project at the archetypal site of struggle for land, sovereignty and autonomy among natives in the United States. It was the Lakota people, including warriors Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who put up some of the most historic fights against the US military forces in the nation’s expansion westward.

In the 1876-1877 Black Hills War, the US intervened militarily on behalf of settlers searching for gold in the Lakota’s most sacred site, now known as the Wind Cave National Park. It was in this context that the Battle of Little Bighorn took place, when the Lakota famously defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. Pine Ridge was later the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which that same 7th Cavalry killed hundreds of Lakota in its struggle to disarm and forcibly relocate them to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

In 1973, Wounded Knee was the site of a 4-month standoff and occupation organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) against both the federal government and local tribal council. In 1975, two federal agents were killed in a shootout at Pine Ridge, for which AIM member Leonard Peltier remains held as a prisoner at the US Penitentiary Coleman in Florida. To add insult to injury, the presidential monument Mount Rushmore currently stands within what’s called the Black Hills National Forest.

The traditional Lakota territory includes parts of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming. The Lakota historically were a semi-nomadic tribe that would follow herds of buffalo for food. In order to force them onto reservations, the US military encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo in the Great Plains, resulting in their almost complete extinction.

It was through the destruction of their food supply — and not through any victories in battle — that the United States was able to force the Lakota into a position of economic subservience and dependence. Through a series of treaty violations, the borders of “Great Sioux Reservation” declared by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty were reduced to the present situation in which the Lakota are now spread out over a number of non-contiguous reservations including Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock and Crow Creek.*

The current unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is between 80-90%, and life expectancy is 50 years. Despite being one of the poorest areas on the continent, the Lakota refuse to accept a 1980 government settlement now totalling $1.3 billion in compensation for the theft of the Black Hills. They insist that no amount of money can be exchanged for the return of their sacred land to its rightful inhabitants. They are currently leading the resistance against TransCanada’s proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would be built directly through Lakota territory.

The histories and particularities of the Native American and Palestinian struggles are indeed quite different, but what they share is the experience of settlers moving to take over and control their traditional lands, later assisted by a military force which facilitated and justified the resulting displacement. The reservation and the refugee camp then become the essential sites to locate this history, identity, and struggle for land and sovereignty.

We met with veteran members of the American Indian Movement, and Owe Aku,Bring Back the Way to hear about the present situation on Pine Ridge, and to discuss their horizon for autonomy.


We Love Being Lakota is the first in a series of videos and texts from the documentary project ‘The Native and the Refugee’, which connects the struggles taking place on Indian reservations in the United States with those in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East.

In February and March, this video was presented at T Marbouta in Beirut, Lebanon; at the Jordanian Women’s Union in Amman, Jordan; and at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank. It was produced in collaboration with Adam Khalil.

We Love Being Lakota
from The Native and the Refugee on Vimeo.

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny will return to Akwesasne, Pine Ridge and the Navajo Nation this Spring to continue working on The Native and the Refugee. They are based in Ridgewood, New York.

* For an in-depth account of the Lakota’s struggles to maintain control of its land over the last 200 years, read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014, pp. 186-191).

Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This’

AP / Hussein Malla

By Chris Hedges

Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite and the myths they perpetrate. Chomsky has done this despite being blacklisted by the commercial media, turned into a pariah by the academy and, by his own admission, being a pedantic and at times slightly boring speaker. He combines moral autonomy with rigorous scholarship, a remarkable grasp of detail and a searing intellect. He curtly dismisses our two-party system as a mirage orchestrated by the corporate state, excoriates the liberal intelligentsia for being fops and courtiers and describes the drivel of the commercial media as a form of “brainwashing.” And as our nation’s most prescient critic of unregulated capitalism, globalization and the poison of empire, he enters his 81st year warning us that we have little time left to save our anemic democracy.

“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen,” Chomsky went on. “Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.”

“I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Chomsky added. “I am old enough to remember the 1930s. My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope. The CIO was organizing. No one wants to say it anymore but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labor and civil rights organizing. Even things like giving my unemployed seamstress aunt a week in the country. It was a life. There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies.”

“I listen to talk radio,” Chomsky said. “I don’t want to hear Rush Limbaugh. I want to hear the people calling in. They are like [suicide pilot] Joe Stack. What is happening to me? I have done all the right things. I am a God-fearing Christian. I work hard for my family. I have a gun. I believe in the values of the country and my life is collapsing.”

Chomsky has, more than any other American intellectual, charted the downward spiral of the American political and economic system, in works such as “On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures,” “Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture,” “A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West,” “Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky,” “Manufacturing Consent” and “Letters From Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda.” He reminds us that genuine intellectual inquiry is always subversive. It challenges cultural and political assumptions. It critiques structures. It is relentlessly self-critical. It implodes the self-indulgent myths and stereotypes we use to elevate ourselves and ignore our complicity in acts of violence and oppression. And it makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.

Chomsky reserves his fiercest venom for the liberal elite in the press, the universities and the political system who serve as a smoke screen for the cruelty of unchecked capitalism and imperial war. He exposes their moral and intellectual posturing as a fraud. And this is why Chomsky is hated, and perhaps feared, more among liberal elites than among the right wing he also excoriates. When Christopher Hitchens decided to become a windup doll for the Bush administration after the attacks of 9/11, one of the first things he did was write a vicious article attacking Chomsky. Hitchens, unlike most of those he served, knew which intellectual in America mattered. [Editor’s note: To see some of the articles in the 2001 exchanges between Hitchens and Chomsky, click here, here, here and here.]

“I don’t bother writing about Fox News,” Chomsky said. “It is too easy. What I talk about are the liberal intellectuals, the ones who portray themselves and perceive themselves as challenging power, as courageous, as standing up for truth and justice. They are basically the guardians of the faith. They set the limits. They tell us how far we can go. They say, ‘Look how courageous I am.’ But do not go one millimeter beyond that. At least for the educated sectors, they are the most dangerous in supporting power.”


The Wanted 18: depoliticizing the intifada?

By Rayya El Zein On April 9, 2015

Post image for The Wanted 18: depoliticizing the intifada?
A new film on the Palestinian intifada provides an interesting perspective — that of a group of Israeli cows (!) — but fails to tell the real story.
Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan’s film about how one Palestinian town hid eighteen cows from Israeli authorities during the first intifada won the Abu Dhabi film festival’s “Best Documentary in the Arab World” in late 2014. The film, after five years in production, is generating a buzz for its light-hearted, feel-good take on this critical period in Palestinian history. But a closer look reveals a missed opportunity in telling an important piece of the history of the intifada.The 75-minute documentary combines Shomali’s illustrations with interviews and re-enactments. The story begins with Shomali hiking in the desert. He tells us how, growing up in exile in Syria, he came across a comic strip about eighteen cows sold to the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour.

The story of the cows begins with their sale from a kibbutz outside Haifa to the residents of Beit Sahour. We follow their perilous journey by truck, their difficult birthing ordeals, their trials with the novice Palestinian dairy farmers who don’t know how to milk them, their pursuit by the Israeli authorities who deemed them a threat, and finally their second and final sale to the butcher, soon after the Oslo Accords.

The intifada in Beit Sahour, or this recounting of its history, thus begins with the sale of the bovines and their forced departure from the land of their birth, the kibbutz. Significantly, we understand this inciting moment through the fears and anxieties of the cows: Goldie, Ruth, Lola, and Rivka. Humanized via voice-over in Shomali’s illustrations, the cows internalize this selling off as a great trauma.

Before we meet the residents of Beit Sahour in any substantive way, we identify with these four female cows as the real victims of the story, sold off against their will to this strange and scary place called Palestine, under the tutelage of the equally scary Palestinians. That the real subjects of the film are the cows and not the Palestinians is indeed a peculiar take on this piece of Palestinian history, especially considering their anthropomorphization as Israeli cows.

“We deserve to have cows!”

Practically, Shomali and Cowan’s story is about a town’s struggle for self-sufficiency in the face of considerable military, economic and socio-cultural oppression. But the weight of this reality is never fully communicated — or at least, it is not sustained. The very real (and still very current) political question about how to counter Israeli repression with Palestinian self-sufficiency is replaced by a comicality induced by the use of cows as the story’s protagonists, their funny sounds, and the absurdity of dealing with one when you have no training to do so.

The music score contributes to this, the editing of the interviews contributes to this, and the animation itself contributes to this. At one point, the town physician is edited into a sound bite saying, “We are Palestinians. We deserve a home, we deserve our land, we deserve our freedom — and we deserve to have cows!” The subtext here is “We have the right to be self-sufficient. We deserve not to pay taxes to an occupying power. We deserve to be able to feed our own children.” But the framing put forth in the initial sequences of the film trivializes all of this into a rather absurd declaration of the right to a cow.

Which is to say that the film is seriously lacking a proper contextualization of the situation in which residents of Beit Sahour found themselves that led them to buy the cows in the first place. This history is summed up in a few minutes which point to the existence at the time (1988) of popular “neighborhood committees.” This historical reality is then inexplicably sidelined throughout the rest of the film. Instead, we are encouraged to identify with the cows and their fears and aspirations. After an initial tempted escape on the way to Beit Sahour, the cows rally themselves and submit to the oppression they face at the hands of the Palestinians. The oddity of this opening framework needs to be emphasized.

Turning names into things

One could forgive the filmmakers if it were simply that: an easy opening into Palestinian history. Indeed, one could almost write it off as necessary, given the dehumanizing and demonizing depictions of Palestinians in the mass media over the past several decades. We need the cows in order to approach the Palestinians: a necessary detour. But it is through the cows that we continue to see their new Palestinian shepherds. And absurdly enough, one of them is even outwardly racist, delivering a steady stream of jabs like “tiny terrorist,” “towel head,” etc., at her human overlords, declaring they are “lazy” and that they “don’t want to work.”

Besides needlessly embedding and normalizing racism against Palestinians (as cute), this imaginative mindset of the cows also essentializes Israelis and Palestinians. The viewer is to understand that even cows can feel a difference between Palestinians and Israelis, between the scary West Bank and the calm and peaceful kibbutz. This sense of irreconcilable difference is finally summed up in an exasperated wish. During a raid in which Israelis are looking for the cows, one cow asks tiredly, “Can’t you all just get along?” The cows never learn, as we might hope an audience might, that the story of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is political, not cultural or ethnic.

Essentialized difference is enforced in other aesthetic choices. For example, all Palestinians in the film are interviewed, at one point or another, against a black background, usually with two sources of offset light. This gives the impression of shadow around the Palestinian interlocutors. In contrast, the Israelis interviewed in the film, all of them military or ex-military personnel, are interviewed against a bright white background, in very tight close-up.

Without pretending to know the production reasons behind these choices, the stark contrast between the two is striking. The most immediate effect is that it is the Israeli speaker that seems to carry with him truth. We meet Palestinian after Palestinian who explains why it is that they were refusing to pay taxes to Israel. But the point is finally hit home when an Israeli interlocutor, enshrined in white, laughs and concurs, ‘If I were them, I wouldn’t want to pay either!’

Cultural essentialism continues further still. Viewers of the film in Ramallah during its premiere as part of the Qalandia International Festival found the reenactment episode where three Beit Sahouri men turned a kind of daily administrative detention at the hands of the Israelis into a barbecue, funny. They also laughed heartily at a gaggle of older men, each wearing a kaffiyeh, sitting in a sidewalk café and watching calmly as some action or other played out in the street.

It is not that we cannot or should not recognize cultural features and celebrate them when appropriate (here the observation that Arabs seemingly fix everything with food; or that older men sit in sidewalk cafes). It is that the representation of cultural artifacts, or cultural behavior, in the absence of a recounting or contextualization of political activities, reduces the agents involved to stereotypes, and the resistance involved to cultural essence.

Leftist politics and Arab identities

This is a debilitating way to recount the history of a period of intensely collaborative, imaginatively furtive, and actually effective community organizing.This was a political organizing, moreover, that had at least as much to do with overtly leftist political strategizing as it did with the Arab identity of its agents. And it is after all this leftist political activity which is the primary thing we are talking about when we talk about these cows in Beit Sahour.

It is true that without a consideration of how this town deliberated its political strategies and its powerful political stance, the directors show us a united community. They succeed in completely overstepping the difficult and painful history of friction, faction, divide, and ultimately fatigue that beset not only the denizens of Beit Sahour but much of Palestine, and which in fact readied it to accept what would be the debilitating framework of the Oslo Accords.

It is to the film’s credit that, even without carefully exploring the political buildup to Oslo, it does give voice to disappointment with it. Here, in fact, the recollections of the Palestinians in the film resonate powerfully. “Oslo fucked us,” one man remembers. His testimony about how he and his friends ran away to the desert caves outside of Beit Sahour in the days after the announcement of the Oslo Accords, in order to avoid the celebratory car honking of a political resolution they felt even then would not serve them, is perhaps the most revealing moment in the film.

Similarly Shomali’s recounting of the funeral of his cousin Anton, a prominent youth organizer, after being shot by Israeli soldiers, is an equally powerful and necessary part of the story. This latter chapter rescues a film largely celebrating “non-violence” from the trap of failing to consider the human costs of the violence of the Occupation.

Abstracted, diluted, and de-toothed

In the end of the film, the Palestinians sign the Oslo Accords and residents of Beit Sahour sell off the remaining four cows, the smallest of which is a calf named Yara. In the truck on the way to their imminent slaughter, Yara’s mother pushes the youngest off the truck and tells her to run. The young cow escapes into the desert. The depoliticization of violence and of political strategy culminates in these closing sequences of the film. Shomali’s narration tells us nobody knows what happened to the calf, though rumor has it, she lives in a cave nearby.

In a return to the opening sequences of the film, we again see Shomali hiking in the desert. His voiceover tries to sum up the dreams and aspirations of the struggling Palestinians post-Oslo. Some people believe in this; some people believe in that; for his part, he says, “I believe in a white cow.” And with this, he stumbles upon a cave that looks inhabited. Any possible metaphorical tie between the cows of Beit Sahour and Palestinian self-sufficiency or “resilience” is by this point so abstracted, diluted, and de-toothed as to lose any political significance.

It is worth being clear. It is not that a film about the intifada has to be serious. It is not that Palestinian political history needs to be dry. It is not that we have to see Palestinians always in a posture of heart-broken romantic longing, trying to reach across the impossible, inhuman, separation wall. On the contrary, we need stories to shake these orthodoxies, as human histories are not as trite, melancholy, or even as militant as representations of Palestinians in films and in the media would have us believe.

But a film about the intifada, in fact, about one of the most interesting and radical parts of Palestinian history — that is, about how a town came to collectively sustain itself for years via collaborative community organization and the establishment and participation in agricultural, educational, and other committees; via the deliberations and disagreements over divisions of labor, of shared space, and of collective safety, and the difficulties that ultimately led to its unraveling — this should not be reduced to a joke, to a cute but unfortunate ordeal of four scared cows.

“Intifada” in this light loses its very real political history. The phrase “third intifada” has been repeated with sporadic frequency over the past year. What can we hope this intifada will look like? One would have hoped a documentary on this significant period of historical activity would have provided more threads to tug on, as we deliberate its contours, moving forward.

Rayya El Zein is a PhD candidate in Theatre at the City University of New York. Her research explores understandings of “resistance” in contemporary Arab cultural production. She lives in Amman.

What the Bankers Did to the Greeks

Someone Crunched the Numbers

They show that the poor and the public servants were hurt the worst, while rich tax evaders were mostly spared.

If there’s one country in the Western World that is a poster child for what austerity can do to an entire society, it’s Greece. The country has been subject to strict austerity programs imposed on it by the rest of Europe, at the behest of finance kingpins who caused the financial crisis in the first place.

The blog Keep Talking Greece looks at a report put out by the Germany Institute for Macroeconomic Research that tallies up the damage from the austerity regime between 2008 and 2012. Here are some of the key findings:

  • Greek Poor Lost Almost All Of Their Income, The Rich Fared Better:Although sloganeering for austerity often invokes the need to tighten belts, not everyone in Greece had to tighten quite so much. The poor lost 86 percent of their income, but the richest Greek households lost closer to 17 to 20 percent.
  • The Poor Were Hit With A Huge Tax Hike, The Rich Only A Tiny One:The poorest Greeks were hit with a 337 percent increase in taxes, while the richest saw their taxes increase by only nine percent.
  • Public Employees Were Hit Particularly Hard: Private sector employees saw a wage and salary decrease of around 19 percent, but public employees were hit the hardest, losing about a quarter of their income. Early retirement in the private sector increased by 14 percent, while early retirement in the public sector increased by 48 percent.

These findings and others seem to show what activists have been pointing to for years: that the supposedly shared sacrifice of austerity isn’t shared at all – the poor and the public servants were hurt the worst, while rich tax evaders were mostly spared.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet contributing writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

A rogue reporter takes on the masters of the universe

By Matt Kennard On April 8, 2015

Post image for A rogue reporter takes on the masters of the universeThe media would have you believe that it’s simply an accident that 85 people now own more than half the world’s wealth. It’s time to blow their cover.

This essay is excerpted from Matt Kennard’s new book, The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs. the Masters of the Universe, just out from Zed Books.

I started working as a reporter at the Financial Times soon after the financial crisis began and at the height of the so-called “War on Terror”. I was a young, ambitious reporter assigned to one of the world’s most respected broadsheets, ready to speak the truth. I learnt soon enough that this was not the place to do it. Maybe I should have guessed. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, I had had a partial awakening. As the war drums sounded in 2003, I learnt that the United States and the United Kingdom, despite now pushing for a war with him, had, in the 1980s, been supporting Saddam Hussein.

The man we were presenting as the devil incarnate had only years earlier been our buddy. Soon after, I saw that my government thought nothing of rewriting intelligence to trick its own citizens into a totally illegal war. I thought, maybe naively, that working at the FT would allow me to continue learning, and in some senses I was right, though not the lessons they intended. There I was exposed to the other side of this war-industry coin — the world of high finance. These wars were not the vanity project of deluded leaders; they were merely the latest stage in a global elite’s prolonged war on the people of our world with the sole aim of pumping up their bottom line. I saw the real rulers of the world up close now — they were not the politicians but the big money men behind them, the puppeteers who made everything move. I was stationed at their house organ, so raising the alarm did not, to put it politely, go well.

Over the following years, I witnessed first-hand how powerful the propaganda system that covers for these racketeers really is. It is almost impossible to go up against it as an individual on the inside (I tried). I was based at the FT in Washington, DC and New York, but I also traveled extensively during this period, reporting from four continents, more than a dozen countries and the same number of cities within the US itself. Everything I saw contradicted what I had been told about how the world works. But as I wrestled with what I was doing, I knew in the back of my mind that, as a journalist, speaking out against this contradiction is a bad idea: doing so will instantly, and adversely, affect your career, which I suppose is why so few do it. If you speak out against the racketeers, well, you are instantly anti-American, you hate freedom, you love terrorists and so on.

Ideological “training” of this kind is at its most potent in the racket-supporting media of the western world where I once worked (and it usually works to dispel independent thinking). I was actually taught this eyes-wide-shut philosophy first when I went to do a Masters at Columbia University’s Journalism School in New York, apparently the best of its kind in the world, but in thrall to the racket and its lies, like the rest of the American elite. And the attempt to beat these critical thoughts out of my head continued as I progressed further up the hierarchy of the ideological system. On the day I left the Financial Times, for example, my boss told me simply: “Go away and do your ‘save the world’ stuff and maybe you can come back when you’re a bit older.” I took his advice, but I won’t be back. Instead I present, eyes open still, the report they wouldn’t send to press.

The racketeers

The United States emerged from World War II in a position of peerless global power. Western Europe and the Soviet Union were in ruins after six years of devastating warfare, and the imperial structures that had previously ruled most of the world were falling apart. The Americans meanwhile had made a miraculous recovery from the economic depression that had consumed the nation since the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and its place as No. 1 had been planned for quite consciously throughout the war. When it was realized in 1945, attention switched to extending the American elite’s customer base, and so, at the close of World War II, the racket was set in place.

The Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker once told me that power itself perverts human notions of morality and justice: “Dominance, fairness, and communality are three very different modes of thinking about social relationships. Someone in power will tend not to think of his relations to his or other peons in terms of fairness,” he said. The American elite, its powerful big business players and allied governments (regardless of political party) are motivated by dominance, not fairness. The people in power know this — it is the population that is lied to. Of course, the need to pierce the propaganda bubble is not new. Every emperor, fat cat and superpower from time immemorial has willingly entertained myths about their actions so as to utilize the good-will of their people to pursue their own criminal enterprises.

The historian Cornelius Tacitus said it best at the height of Roman dominion. “The Romans create a desert,” he wrote, “and call it peace.” These myths that Americans are treated to from a young age — and this ideological training reaches out beyond US borders — still present the US as an impressive discontinuity in the world of power politics. Unlike all previous superpowers, the United States is a “moral” power, driven by principles and values, as opposed to domination and greed. America is “exceptional” we are told — not exceptionally violent, which is the truth, but exceptional to the extent that it has a “higher calling”; it is a “shining city upon a hill”. A brief foray into the world with eyes open teaches you quickly that this is the opposite of the truth. But keeping your eyes open will always be harder than seeking solace in your own divine moral superiority and the turpitude of your enemies. And so the myth takes hold. Repeat after me: when the US does it, Terror is Peaceseeking; Domination is Partnership; Fear is Stability. It’s easy.

The believers

A couple of years after my initiation at the Financial Times a few things started to become clearer. I came to realize a difference between myself and the rest of the people staffing the racket — the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) workers, the economists in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and so on. While I was coming to understand how the racket really worked, I started to see them as willing dupes. There was no doubt they seemed to believe in the virtue of the mission; they imbibed all the theories that were meant to dress up global exploitation in the language of “development” and “progress”. I saw this with American ambassadors in Bolivia and Haiti, and with countless other functionaries I interviewed. They genuinely believe the myths, and of course are paid handsomely to do so.

To help these agents of the racket get up in the morning there also exists, throughout the West, a well-stocked army of intellectuals whose sole purpose is to make theft and brutality acceptable to the general population of the US and its racketeering allies. And this system of indoctrination is so ingrained in the media and university system that it is near impossible to even divine it. I remember writing an article for the Financial Times about former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was backed by over a billion dollars of US aid; the editors got rid of the factual prefix “US-backed” before Mubarak’s name without without even thinking. When I submitted another article using the prefix “Iranian-backed” for the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, it sailed through. That is how thought control operates and that is how the racket survives with its moral sheen intact. Power has completely corrupted the minds of these people.

When Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, was closing down Manta, the US military base in his country, he told the Americans that they could keep it as long as they allowed Ecuador to put a military base in Miami. This was preposterous to Washington and its lackeys in the media — for them it is apparently a natural law that the US should be allowed the hundreds of military bases that disfigure sovereign states all around the world. That is the imperial mindset and it infects the entire American elite.

What will become clear as you read my new book is that the patterns and modus operandi of the racket are repeated all over the world, over and over again. So, for example, the manner in which I saw American “aid agencies” and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) subvert groups organizing independently in Bolivia is repeated in Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, all over Latin America, and in the rest of the world. The names of the individuals involved in each case are different but the dynamic is similar; the racket’s method of control, so clever and hidden, is the same, and the names of the oppressors are interchangeable with any of the racketeers of the “American era”. All have served the institutions that work to undermine individual or group sovereignty and increase the racketeers’ control, whether the individuals staffing the racket be nice or horrible, good or bad, well-meaning or psychopathic — the institutions they serve continue to extinguish the yearning for independence of people the world over.

There is another, more insidious, part of this global control that I discuss in my book as well. In addition to the dominance of the US elite, the succor given to American corporations by the racket has made the proliferation of US “culture” inevitable, creating a new dimension of so-called soft power. But, as you will see later, the racketeers are genuinely afraid of the creative arts. There exists the potential within our culture, and the arts, not just to expose the racket for what it is, but to help dismantle it. For this reason the racketeers continue to co-opt the arts and culture as much as possible: the CIA was supporting US arts throughout the Cold War, and no doubt continues to do so.

For your own good

The racket is bigger than the US elite, of course, and by now you may be thinking that it may have something to do with the capitalist system writ large. Yes, institutions like the World Bank represent a broad global capitalist class, but the US is the overwhelming power within these arrangements and the US military is the enforcer of capitalistic forces throughout our world. The mechanics of the racket have actually been pretty constant; the institutional structure erected to maintain a pretense of altruism while practicing savage domination has been replicated across the world for quite some time now.

I witnessed not long ago, for example, US support for the military coup in Honduras in 2009, which threw out a democratically elected president so the racketeers could prop up the business community and their political puppets. But like I said before, you can be sure that a similar dynamic was in place when the US helped take out democratically elected presidents Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 and Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973,  unleashing decades of hell on the people of those countries. The needs of this rapacious racket remain the needs of every dominant imperial class, communist or capitalist — more markets for their products, and complete subjugation of popular forces in their satellites.

But there is a twist to this story.

The American elite that has grown fat from looting abroad is also fighting a war at home. From the 1970s onwards, the same white-collar mobsters have been winning a war against the people of the US, in the form of a massive, underhand con. They have slowly but surely managed to sell off much of what the American people used to own under the guise of various fraudulent ideologies such as the “free market”. This is the “American way”, a giant swindle, a grand hustle. In this sense, the victims of the racket are not just in Port-au-Prince and Baghdad; they are also in Chicago and New York City. The same people that devise the myths about what we do abroad have also built up a similar ideological system that legitimizes theft at home; theft from the poorest, by the richest. The poor and working people of Harlem have more in common with the poor and working people of Haiti than they do with their elites, but this has to be obscured for the racket to work.

Many actions taken by the US government, in fact, habitually harm the poorest and most destitute of its citizens. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a good example. It came into force in January 1994 and was a fantastic opportunity for US business interests, because markets were opened up for an investment and export bonanza. Simultaneously, thousands of US workers lost their jobs to workers in Mexico where their wages could be beaten down by even poorer people.

The inevitable conclusion is that our entire world is at the mercy of an elite business community who run it in secret. The economic imperatives of this racket trump even the safety of working Americans. During the Iraq conflict in 2003, large parts of the Pentagon and the British “intelligence” community did not want to attack Iraq because they believed it would increase the threat of terrorism. But the ideological zeal within the racket to maintain a grip over a region with immense oil production was a higher priority than decreasing the threat to American lives. The racket, then, is a disaster for those poor countries submissive to it, but also for the majority of Americans. The American elite is not in the business of helping out its fellow citizens.

Perhaps for many the extent of US domination is unknown, or perhaps people half suspect it, in which case the pages that follow will provide indisputable evidence. For those readers who feel they already know the damage done by US foreign policy, the revelation will come from evidence of the damage done at home where the war against poor and ordinary working Americans is just as fierce. A vast ideological edifice has been built which presents brutal violence against the poor at home and abroad as altruism. It must be targeted at its foundations. As Harold Pinter wrote in his Nobel Prize-winning speech in 2005, when it comes to the US “it never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.” He continued: “The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

The media would have you believe that there is no racket, that it’s purely an accident that we live in a world where 85 people — 85 people! — own half the world’s wealth while more children die of starvation every year than died in the Holocaust. Of course it’s not an accident, a mere quirk of history — it is the result of a huge injustice, the policies of a giant mob. To help our species and planet survive it is necessary to shake off the hypnosis and see the racket for what it is.

They know who they are; it’s time to blow their cover.

Matt Kennard is a Fellow at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Irregular Army (2012) and has worked as a staff writer for the Financial Times in London, New York and Washington, DC. He has written for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Guardian. He graduated as a Stabile Investigative Fellow from the Columbia Journalism School.

Excerpted from Matt Kennard’s new book, The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs. the Masters of the Universe, now out from Zed Books.