The Comcast/TWC Merger Is About Controlling Information

“Comcast and proposed merger partner Time Warner Cable claim they don’t compete because their service areas don’t overlap, and that a combined company would happily divest itself of a few million customers to keeps its pay-TV market share below 30%, allowing other companies that don’t currently compete with Comcast to keep not competing with Comcast. This narrow, shortsighted view fails to take into account the full breadth of what’s involved in this merger — broadcast TV, cable TV, network technology, in-home technology, access to the Internet, and much more. In addition to asking whether or not regulators should permit Comcast to add 10-12 million customers, there is a more important question at the core of this deal: Should Comcast be allowed to control both what content you consume and how you get to consume it?”

~Slashdot~

U.S. Coup in Preparation in Venezuela?

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Alternative Visions Radio Show host, Green Shadow Cabinet Fed Reserve Chair, Dr. Jack Rasmus, and longtime union activist, Alan Benjamin, discuss the buildup toward a coup being prepared by US and its business-right wing friends in Venezuela today.

Listen to the show on Alternative Vision Radio – Here.

Alan Benjamin works in the International Labor Office in Geneva, Switzerland, and has access to information globally on the Venezuela situation. Benjamin provides an eye-witness view of contemporary events in Venezuela, based on his frequent direct contact with unionists on the ground in Venezuela in recent weeks and days. The discussion looks at current relationship of political forces today in Venezuela, including the various alignments of classes there, political parties, union organizations, students, US sponsored and funded NGOs, small business v. large businesses, small farmers and peasants, and splits within the military.

Benjamin explains the history of US coup attempts in Venezuela and Latin America in recent decades and parallels with recent events in the Ukraine coup. Who is behind the recent killings in the streets? What are the splits within the anti government right wing forces, as well as within the government itself? What are some of the USA’s current various plans (‘A, B, and C’) to destabilize Venezuela along multiple fronts? These and other related topics are addressed—in this ‘fact-based’ exploration of what’s happening in Venezuela today.

~ Jack Rasmus serves as Shadow Chair of the Federal Reserve on the Economy Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet.

~ Alan Benjamin is a long time member of the Office & Professional Employees Union in the U.S. and its delegate for a number of years to the San Francisco Central Labor Council, AFLCIO. He is a member of the coordinating committee of the ‘Labor Fightback Network’ in the USA, and has been involved in numerous undocumented US workers’ organizations defending US immigrant workers rights, as well as active in organizations defending US students from government education spending cutbacks.

Fast Fortunes on the Diamond and Beyond

Too Much
THIS WEEK
Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz had some interesting comments to make about inequality at a U.S. Senate hearing last Tuesday. But his week’s wisest observation may have come in an interview with a Chinese journalist.

China’s richest 50 lawmakers, the journalist noted, hold a combined $15.3 billion in personal wealth. In the United States, the richest 50 lawmakers only hold $1.6 billion. Does this mean, the interviewer asked, that the U.S. Congress “represents the people” while China’s “represents rich capitalism”? 

Stiglitz didn’t laugh. America’s lawmakers, he patiently explained, may not have billions. But they need billions to get elected. They get those billions from the rich. These rich see their contributions as an investment. And, Stiglitz added, “when they make an investment, they expect a return.”

A simple point. Why can’t the Supremes get it? The McCutcheon ruling last week from America’s highest court basically leaves our rich perfectly positioned to maximize their political investment return. But all’s not lost. We do still have baseball. This week in Too Much: an inequality take on our national pastime.

GREED AT A GLANCE
Sometimes “reality TV” actually offers a window into reality. That may be the case with the truTV’s Bait Car series. The show’s set-up: Real police leave nice cars in impoverished neighborhoods, with keys in the ignition, and wait for a local to “take the bait.” Then viewers get to see the local panic when the police lock the car down and make the arrest. So what does the perverse humor of this bait-the-poor reality show tell us about our actual reality? In today’s deeply unequal America, notes Bait Car critic Jake Weissbourd, TV producers would never subject rich people to such humiliation, say with a set-up that offers a power suit an insider stock tip or clever tax evasion scheme. A show like that, points out Weissbourd, simply wouldn’t survive: “The full weight of the wealthy — the cries of entrapment, the libel suits — would crush it.”

Brian MoynihanCEO pay consultant Graef Crystal’s landmark 1991 book on soaring executive pay, In Search of Excess, wittily dissected the “almost infinite number of scenarios” that top execs had evolved to enrich themselves. Crystal seems to have lost his sense of outrage. His latest study rates Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan as underpaid because he’s making less than the “going rate” for similar execs elsewhere. Moynihan made $13.1 million in 2013. He should have made, holds Crystal, $18.8 million. AFL-CIO pay watcher Vineeta Anand’s reaction last week to Crystal’s Moynihan analysis: “Underpaid? Seriously?” Anand points to the share value Bank of America destroyed during the financial crisis. B of A, the Financial Times added Friday, will shortly pay out $800 million to settle charges the bank “misled customers” on credit card services.

Please don’t call the folks who work at London’s Benedict and Company “concierges.” They prefer to be known as “procurement specialists” — for the global “ultra high net worth” crowd. The firm’s specialists don’t do dinner reservations. They concentrate, notes spokesman Benedict Wormald, on “property and aircraft and yachts.” For one client, the firm came up with a classic 1940s Jaguar convertible painted in bright yellow, “a color they didn’t even do in the original.” Another client had the firm retrieve a set of beloved Louis Vuitton soft luggage that had sunk with her yacht and turn the water-logged pieces into a coffee table. The firm also arranges miniature versions of luxury cars for client children — at $27,000 a pop. Observes Wormald: “Until I got into this business, I never could have realized the level of wealth that is actually out there.”

Quote of the Week

“Since the 1960s, the richest one-thousandth of U.S. households, with a minimum net worth today above $20 million, have more than doubled their share of U.S. wealth, from around 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Take a moment to process that. One-thousandth of the country owns one-fifth of the wealth.”
Jordan Weissmann, The Shocking Rise of Wealth Inequality: Is it Worse Than We Thought? April 2, 2014

PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK
Reed HastingsReed Hastings, the Netflix billionaire, has discovered the rot that’s eating away at America’s future: locally elected school boards. In a California speech last month, Hastings called the nation’s schools “prisoners” of democratic governance and called instead for networks of charter schools run by “self-perpetuating” boards “not elected by the general public.” Hastings currently sits on the board of two major charter chains working to expand their student “market share.” Local school boards pose an obstacle to that expansion. They often don’t take kindly to for-profit chains grabbing public tax dollars to run schools that never have to answer to the public. The danger in the Hastings vision? Notes education historian Diane Ravitch: “No high-performing nation in the world has handed its schools over to private management.”

IMAGES OF INEQUALITY

Retired Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill is now offering this Connecticut manse he owns for just $14 million. Why is Weill selling? Maybe because he owns a manse just as impressive as this one right next door. Weill also owns abodes in California’s Sonoma County, the Adirondacks, Manhattan, and the Bahamas. Weill made his first billion off the deregulation of the late 1990s that let commercial bankers make risky investments with the cash of their depositors.

Web Gem

Money Out/Voters In. A broad array of public interest, environmental, and labor groups are using this site to raise the alarm over the growing influence of big money on American politics. Last week’s Supreme Court decision to remove limits on total direct donations to political candidates and parties only makes this Web presence even more essential.

PROGRESS AND PROMISE
American workers today have a much higher level of education and work more productively than American workers four decades ago. Yet real wages have essentially not increased at all. What can the nation do to raise worker wages? The American Prospect has just advanced eight concrete proposals. The most original: Congress should link corporate tax rates to each company’s CEO-worker pay ratio. Corporations that pay CEOs 350 times what they pay their workers, about the current typical gap, would pay much more tax than corporations with only a 15-times gap, the ratio that management guru Peter Drucker first suggested in a 1977 Wall Street Journal analysis. A ratio-linked tax, adds American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson, would give corporate boards an incentive to finally start sharing the gains from rising productivity.

Take Action
on Inequality

Tell Congress to mandate disclosure, within 48 hours, of all political contributions of $1,000 or more to candidates, a first step in the fightback against last week’s Supreme Court McCutcheon decision.

inequality by the numbers
U.S. wealth distribution

Stat of the Week

CEO pay for 2013, USA Today reports, “could be one for the record books.” Compensation for the typical top exec jumped 13 percent for the year, says the paper’s annual executive pay report, and 15 execs realized over $100 million. Some perspective: Median full-time worker wages increased 1.4 percent in 2013 to $40,872.

IN FOCUS

Fast Fortunes: On the Diamond and Beyond

Baseball’s top hitter and Wall Street power suits both ply their trades in a high-speed world. That hitter will make over a quarter-billion in the next decade. The top suits stand to ‘earn’ astonishingly more.

Detroit Tigers infielder Miguel Cabrera may or may not turn out to be, by the time he retires, the best hitter in baseball history. But Cabrera already holds a historic distinction. Last month, just before baseball’s 2014 opening day, the 31-year-old slugger became America’s highest-paid professional ballplayer ever.

Miguel CabreraCabrera’s newly signed contract runs 10 years. Over that span he’ll receive paychecks totaling a record $292 million, a tidy sum that comes to a near $30 million annual average.

An even more compelling stat: Every time Cabrera steps up to the plate over the course of the next decade, he’ll pull in an average $43,195. For a five at-bat game, Cabrera will clear over $215,000.

How much revulsion should these numbers make us feel? On the one hand, Cabrera can do what only a relative handful of humankind can ever dream of doing. He can hit — with astounding regularity and power — a baseball coming at him at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.

On the other hand, Cabrera plays half his games in the city of Detroit, a bankrupt metropolis that can’t afford to fix its roads, police its streets, or meet its promises to retired teachers. Cabrera will make more in a week this season than current Detroit teachers will earn over their entire careers.

But these Detroit comparisons only take us so far. To truly appreciate the revolting significance of Cabrera’s new contract, we need to look up, not down. The rewards Miguel Cabrera will pull down pale against the windfalls now cascading into the pockets of America’s truly super rich, a fraternity that most definitely does not include Cabrera — or any other professional ballplayer.

In 2012, America’s top 25 hedge fund managers — the elite of the financial services industry — averaged $565.6 million each. That average for a single year nearly doubles what Cabrera will take home over the next 10 years.

And how do the kingpins of high finance hit their incredibly generous jackpots? What exceptional skills do they demonstrate? They have no exceptional skills. They have only exceptional power, the economic and political capacity to bend the rules and rig the games they play — to our disadvantage.

Last week a new book focused some long overdue public attention on one piece of that rigging. Miguel Cabrera hits high-speed fastballs. Our financial elite profit off high-speed trades.

The best-selling author Michael Lewis vividly describes this world of high-speed trading in his just-published book Flash Boys. The wonders of high tech, Lewis explains, are letting Wall Street’s shiftiest see the shares other investors are buying and selling milliseconds before the overall market finds out.

Armed with this inside info, high-speed traders can then make what essentially amount to sure bets. How sure? One high-speed trading hub, Virtu Financial, last month boasted that over the previous 1,278 Wall Street trading days, the firm had made money buying and selling shares of stock on exactly 1,277.

High-speed trading may now account, the New York Times notes, for half of all shares traded. This enormous volume translates into huge windfalls for players like Virtu and the big banks, hedge funds, and stock exchanges that enable their high-speed trading. The losers amid this rigging? Average Americans with their pension fund savings invested in the stock market.

Miguel Cabrera may be outrageously overpaid, but he at least comes by his rewards honestly. Cabrera never knows whether the baseballs that pitchers hurl at him will come in straight or curved, high or low, inside or outside. He has to make all these tricky distinctions in just a fraction of a second.

High-speed traders have their fractions of a second, too. But they don’t use their fractions to fashion skilled and honest decisions. They use their fractions to manipulate markets and make themselves fabulously rich.

We could curb this manipulating in a flash, points out economist Dean Baker, simply by putting in place a tiny tax on each and every Wall Street financial transaction.

Such a financial transaction tax may soon be in place in Europe. Legislation that would establish a similar levy stateside is currently pending before Congress — and going nowhere. Republicans across the board oppose the tax, and so do lawmakers in the Democratic Party’s hefty Wall Street-friendly wing.

So what can and should we do? Let’s leave our uneasiness over Miguel Cabrera’s paycheck on the back burner. We have bigger fish to fry. We have, for starters, a financial transaction tax to win.

New Wisdom
on Wealth

Matthew O’Brien, Why Don’t the 1 Percent Feel Rich? Atlantic, April 2, 2014. The merely rich are making more, but only the top 0.01 percent are creating our new Gilded Age.

Calvin Exoo and Christian Exoo, A Supreme Court out of control! How McCutcheon will spur corruption and inequality, Salon, April 2, 2014. Plutocracy’s moment has arrived.

Hamilton Nolan, The Myth of the CEO, Gawker, April 3, 2014. How CEO pay excess contributes to corporate disasters like GM’s years-long failure to fix known safety defects.

Robert Reich, McCutcheon and the Vicious Cycle of Concentrated Wealth and Political Power, April 3, 2014. Have we reached another tipping point?

Gawain Kripke, Five reasons to fight inequality: Pick one, The Politics of Poverty, April 4, 2014. An Oxfam analyst explains the choices.

Ruth Walker, Of ‘oligarchs’ and ‘plutocrats,’ Gulf News, April 5, 2014. Should we start teaching our children that they’re growing up in a plutocracy?

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover

Read the full Intro to Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati’s new history of the triumph over America’s original plutocracy. More details.

NEW AND notable

How Differently Do the Rich See Our World?

Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright, Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans, Perspective on Politics, American Political Science Association, March 2014.

The Supreme Court’s ruling last week that wiped away limits on how much overall the wealthy can contribute to political candidates has generated all sorts of headlines and hand-wringing. But do average citizens really need to worry about how much political influence the wealthy are wielding?

That depends, say political scientists. If the wealthy have “policy preferences” more or less in line with the general public, scholars point out, then more influence for the wealthy won’t have much of an impact one way or another.

But if the wealthy have “distinctive preferences that conflict with the interests of other citizens,” as Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright note in this insightful new paper, any “disproportionate influence” they can bring to bear “would seem to create a serious problem for the working of democracy.”

In other words, how differently the wealthy and the rest of us think about our political options really matters. But you wouldn’t know that from the existing scholarly literature. We have, observe Page, Bartels and Seawright, precious little research “about the political attitudes and behavior of wealthy citizens.”

Thanks to the new work of these three investigators, we now know a good bit more. The three have given us a rather unique window into the world of America’s wealthiest 1 percent, based on a sophisticated polling project that has queried deep pockets in the Chicago metro area.

And what do we see when peer through this window? Do the attitudes of our richest differ markedly from attitudes in the general public? They most certainly do. Examples abound in this new Page, Bartels and Seawright paper.

Should the minimum wage be high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line? Some 40 percent of top 1 percenters think so. In the general public, by contrast, a whopping 78 percent feel that way.

Should the government in Washington see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job? Only 19 percent of our wealthiest 1 percent say yes, this new polling informs us, compared to 68 percent of the general public.

Should the federal government spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools? Yes, say 35 percent of the rich. Yes, say 87 percent of everyone else.

The wealthy, this fascinating research goes on to show, lean much more favorably toward cutting Social Security. And they lean much more against increasing government regulation of Wall Street and big corporations.

All these huge attitudinal differences, the authors sum up with more than a tad of academic understatement, “could be troubling for democratic policy making.”

Yeah, we’ve noticed.

Why No One Trusts Facebook To Power The Future

Facebook has a perception problem—consumers just don’t trust it.

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April 03, 2014

In the coming years, one billion more people will gain access to the Internet thanks to drones and satellites hovering in the stratosphere.

And soon, we’ll be able to sit down with friends in foreign countries and immerse ourselves in experiences never previously thought possible, simply by slipping on a pair of virtual reality goggles.

These aren’t just gaseous hypotheticals touted by Silicon Valley startups, but efforts led by one company, whose mission is to make the world more open and connected. If one company actually pulled off all of these accomplishments, it might seem like people would fall in love with it—but once you know it’s Facebook, you might feel differently. And you’re not alone.

Facebook has a perception problem, which is largely driven by the fact it controls huge amounts of data and uses people as fodder for advertising. Facebook has been embroiled in numerous privacy controversies over the years, and was built from the ground up by a kid who basically double-crossed his Harvard colleagues to pull it off in the first place.

These days, Facebook appears to be growing up by taking billion-dollar bets on future technology hits like WhatsApp and Oculus in order to expedite its own puberty.

Its billion-dollar moves in recent weeks point to a new Facebook, one that takes risks investing in technologies that have not yet borne fruit, but could easily be the “next big thing” in tech. One such investment, the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, left many people scratching their heads as to why a social network would pick up a technology that arguably makes people less social, since Oculus is all about immersive gaming. At least the WhatsApp purchase makes a little more sense strategy-wise, even if the $19 billion deal was bad for users.

So begins Facebook’s transition from a simple social network to a full-fledged technology company that rivals Google, moonshot for moonshot.

Companies need to keep things fresh in order to make us want them, but Facebook, like Barney Stintson from How I Met Your Mother, just can’t shake its ultimately flawed nature and gain the trust of consumers.

The Ultimate Data Hoard

If you think you’re in control of your personal information, think again.

Perhaps the largest driver of skepticism towards Facebook is the level of control it gives users—which is arguably limited. Sure, you can edit your profile so other people can’t see your personal information, but Facebook can, and it uses your data to serve advertisers.

Keep in mind: This is information you provided just once in the last 10 years—for instance, when you first registered your account and offered up your favorite movies, TV shows and books—is now given tangentially to advertisers or companies wanting a piece of your pocketbook.

Not even your Likes can control what you see in your news feed anymore. Page updates from brands, celebrities, or small businesses that you subscribed to with a “Like” are omitted from your News Feed when page owners refuse to pay. Your Like was once good enough to keep an update on your News Feed, but now the company is cutting the flow of traffic and limiting status views by updating its algorithms—a move many people think is unfair, if not shiesty.

It’s not just Page posts taking a hit, audience-wise—even your own posts could be seen by fewer people if Facebook deems them “low-quality.”

To help eliminate links it doesn’t consider “news” like Upworthy or ViralNova, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to show fewer low-quality posts in favor of more newsworthy material, like stories from The New York Times. Of course, most people appreciate this move since click-bait links can get truly annoying, but it’s concerning that Facebook has so much control over the firehose of information you put in front of your eyes every single day.

Facebook owns virtually all the aspects of the social experience—photos (Instagram), status updates (Facebook), location services (Places)—but it has also become your social identity thanks to Facebook Login, which allows it to integrate with almost everything else on the Internet. This means if you’re not spending time on Facebook, you’re using Facebook to spend time online elsewhere.

It’s this corporate control of traffic that leads to frustration from those that believe Facebook owns too much, and that working with Facebook is like smacking the indie community hard across the face.

In a sense, people are stuck. They initially trusted a company with their data and information, and in return, those people feel—often justifiably—that they’re being taken advantage of. When the time comes for someone to abandon Facebook, whether over privacy concerns or frustration with the company, Facebook intentionally makes it hard to leave.

Even if you delete your account, your ghost remains. Your email address is still tied to a Facebook account and your face is still recognizably tagged as you, even if the account it’s associated with has vanished. In this way, Facebook is almost like any other cable company—even when you die, Facebook can still make money off you. And that’s not behavior fit for a company that’s poised to take over the future.

Leveling Up

Facebook missed the boat on mobile, and its much-maligned Android application interface Facebook Home was a major failure. Though Home was a small step into hardware, it was one users clearly didn’t want.

Now Facebook is dreaming bigger. With recent acquisitions like Oculus and drone maker Titan Aerospace, the company is looking to expand outside of its social shell and be taken seriously as a technology company and moonshot manufacturer.

Facebook’s well-known slogan “move fast and break things” is regularly applied to new products and features—undoubtedly a large part of Home’s initial failure. The company is ready to try again, this time with technologies and applications that consumers aren’t yet familiar with. But this has created more questions than answers in the eyes of users and investors. And that’s not good for a company with an existing perception problem like Facebook.

People see Facebook moving fast and breaking things to serve its own purposes, not for the benefit of the Internet, or in the case of Oculus, the benefit of dedicated fans.

Facebook isn’t leaving the social realm, at least not yet. It’s still relying on the flagship website to power its larger plans, particularly Internet.org, which aims to bring the next billion people online.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants a Facebook that connects the world, becoming a convenient way for people to find one another, and a gateway for Internet connectivity in developing countries.

Zuckerberg announced last week how he plans to bring the Internet.org initiative into fruition—and it sounds like a plan straight out of a sci-fi novel. The company is putting its newly-acquired drones to work, powering the Internet in communities that don’t yet have it, which is being accompanied by other technologies like lasers and satellites to distribute the connectivity in largely-populated areas.

When Zuckerberg first announced Internet.org, he initially threw shade at Google’s similar Project Loon, which attempts to connect the world via Wi-Fi balloons.

“Drones have more endurance than balloons while also being able to have their location precisely controlled,” he wrote in a white paper explaining the project. Of course regardless of the method, with more people online, Facebook will control more data and information, and have a larger pool of people to use for advertising.

To gain more users—and keep the ones it has—Facebook needs to change. But when Facebook’s CEO starts talking about drones and lasers powering the Internet, despite the company’s history of reckless privacy policies, it immediately sets off red flags for users.

Facebook Is Growing Up

Last October, when Facebook finally admitted teenagers were abandoning the network for other hot services like Snapchat and Tumblr, the Internet heaved a collective, “Told you so!” 

But teens aren’t the future for Facebook. Zuckerberg’s company has ambitions that go beyond selfies. It can’t remain the same forever, especially if it wants to stay relevant in the ever-changing technological landscape.

Facebook wants to build the Internet’s future infrastructure. It wants to be a part of the technology of that power the next billion people’s online experiences ten more years down the road. Zuckerberg has personally tried to bolster his raw perception with his $1 salary—a symbolic gesture, sure, but nothing Steve Jobs or Bill Gates hadn’t done before.

To build and control the future it wants, it will have to “be more cool” and ease up on its control of users. Facebook has many exciting projects, but it won’t have an audience left unless it addresses its perception problem. Trust is paramount, especially on the Internet, and people need to know that Facebook is making things to improve the human experience, not just spending billions to make even more billions off our personal information.

Facebook has a great opportunity to improve its image with its exciting multi-billion dollar acquisitions. Prove to us you don’t just care about money, Facebook, and perhaps we’ll all realize how much you really have grown in the last 10 years.

Lead image by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite; Oculus Rift photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite; drone photo courtesy of Titan Aerospace

http://readwrite.com/2014/04/03/facebook-whatsapp-oculus-drones-lasers#awesm=~oAHsnDifdw62lz

A Hard Rain: Noah, Revised

by LOUIS PROYECT

More Tolkien than Torah, Darin Arinovsky’s “Noah” is a cinematic tour de force that combines breathtaking CGI-based imaginary landscapes with a film score by Clint Mansell that hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Even without a single minute of dialog, the film achieves the mesmerizing quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, especially the last installment Naqoyqatsi, the Hopi word for “Life at War”.

Like other films that view the bible as a theme to riff on in the manner of Miles Davis improvising on a banal tune like “Billy Boy”, Aronovsky takes the material of Genesis 5:32-10:1 and shapes it according to his own aesthetic and philosophical prerogatives. As might be expected, the Christian fundamentalists are not happy with the film since it turns Noah into something of a serial killer on an unprecedented scale, acting on what he conceives of as “the Creator’s” instructions, namely to bring the human race to an end. Religious Jews who have a literalist interpretation of the bible have been far less vocal, no doubt a function of the Hasidic sects viewing all movies as diversions from Torah studies. (For those with unfamiliarity with Jewish dogma, the Torah encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament that are replete with fables such as the Great Flood, many of which have inspired some classic cinematography, such as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea.)

Unlike the fable it is based on, Aronovsky’s Noah never received instructions about being fruitful and multiplying. His intention is to leave the planet to the animals and wind down the human race’s participation in the tree of life, to use the title of Terrence Malick’s overrated 2011 film. In my view, Aronovsky has much deeper thoughts and more sure-handed cinematic instincts than Malick could ever hope for. To pick only one scene, the massive moving carpet of animals headed toward the Ark is a CGI tour de force. Instead of a stately procession in circus parade fashion, it is more like a zoological tsunami that anticipates the great tsunami soon to follow.

Clint Mansell, whose orchestral accompaniment to this and other key scenes is so effective, has an interesting background. He was the lead singer and guitarist for the band Pop Will Eat Itself, a group that originated in 1981 and whose style incorporated hip-hop and industrial rock at one point or another. Mansell made the transition to film score composer in 1998, working on Aronovsky’s first film “Pi”, a surrealist thriller about a character named Maximillian Cohen who believed that everything in nature could be understood through numbers.

Speaking of numbers, Russell Crowe was cast perfectly as Noah given his past leading roles. As mathematician John Nash in A Perfect Mind, who suffered from schizophrenia, he played a man hearing voices after the fashion of Noah. The voices in Nash’s head told him that he had to save the world from the Commies, while those in Noah’s assured him that “the Creator” needed to kill everybody on earth except Noah and his immediate family. Which character was more insane? That’s the real question.

Another role that prepared Crowe for his latest was as Captain of the HMS Surprise, a British warship led on an Ahab-like pursuit of a French rival during the Napoleonic wars. As Captain Jack Aubrey, Crowe was ready to sacrifice his crew and himself for the greater glory of the British monarchy just as Noah was ready to do for “the Creator”, an entity that never makes much of an appearance in Aronovsky’s film, unlike the typical Biblical epic.

One of the two revisionist elements of Aronovsky’s film that have merited the most controversy is his inclusion of a character named Tubal-Cain who is a descendant of Adam’s bad son just as Noah is a descendant of the good son Seth. Played by Ray Winstone, Tubal-Cain is the warlord ruling over all those wicked people the Creator is bent on destroying, just like an artist who burns a painting from earlier in his career that he deems inferior to his latest. Unlike a movie based on the tale of “Sodom and Gomorrah”, it is not quite clear what got enraged God. After all, there are no sadomasochistic orgies going on in Tubal-Cain’s camp as he lays siege to Noah’s Ark (not that there is really anything wrong with sadomasochistic orgies). All we know from the Torah is that “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth.” If you read the bible carefully, you’ll understand that the deity gets much more pissed off at worshipping false idols than he does over murder, theft, rape, and other acts normal people consider far more wicked. Indeed, Tubal-Cain is convinced that Noah is a mad man since his fundamentally “deep ecology” views on the need to rid the planet of the pestilent homo sapiens is at odds with God making man in his own image and giving him ”dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” What’s wrong with that? Animal rights lovers and vegetarians need not apply.

The other element is “the watchers”, who are Ent-like creatures that help Noah and his family ward off Tubal-Cain’s warriors while serving as carpenters on the Ark. Instead of being tree-like monsters, they are giants made of stone who happen to be “fallen angels” trying to get on the Creator’s good side after their past transgressions. Unlike the characters in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, these angels seem perfectly reasonable and no threat to the established order. As is persistent throughout the film and the Old Testament itself, the Creator’s moral compass often seems more broken than those he holds dominion over.

That fundamentally strikes me as the underlying philosophical issue of Aronovsky’s film, namely the impossibility of living a “good life” on the basis of biblical myths, legends, and fables. The moral relativism of “Noah” was likely to have angered those who believe that the bible was literally written by God, even if it was close to the mark.

The film also resonates with current-day concerns over a new threat to the continued existence of humanity, namely the climate change that is capable of a new Great Flood that will unfortunately only kill the innocent rather than the wicked. What the bible never makes clear is that god is merciful to those who have capital rather than pure hearts.

Unlike the past five extinctions, the sixth that is posed by climate change and other looming environmental disasters will be as a result of human intervention rather than a deus ex machina like a meteor.

Interestingly enough, there is some scholarly support for the idea that a great flood occurred in the distant past, one that is evoked not only in the Torah but in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and Plato’s Timaeus as well.

In an article titled “Noah’s Flood Reconsidered” for the autumn 1964 issue of Iraq, a scholarly journal, E.I. Mallowan concluded that the flood depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh—the obvious inspiration for Noah—occurred some time prior to 2650 BC.

Indeed, archaeologists working in the ancient city of Ur in 1928-29 found evidence of two deep pits that exposed a stratum of “clean water-laid clay”, proving in their eyes that a Noachian-type flood had occurred. However, neither the Epic of Gilgamesh nor the archaeologists viewed the flood as impacting all of humanity, only a great city and civilization that existed at the dawn of history. Despite Iraq’s reputation as desert-like, it is also subject to powerful storms that wash away everything in its path—a natural catastrophe rivaling the man-made catastrophe of George W. Bush.

It has been many years since I looked at Plato’s Timaeus—48 in fact, when I was avoiding the draft in the New School Graduate Philosophy program—but I took a quick look in preparing this article.

Like the rest of his work, this is a Socratic dialog in which the principals are sounding boards for Plato’s idealism. One of them, an Athenian named Timaeus, describes a Creator who is a lot more human than the cruel and capricious figure of the Old Testament: “Why did the Creator make the world?…He was good, and therefore not jealous, and being free from jealousy he desired that all things should be like himself.” And, like the hero of Darin Aronovsky’s “Pi”, Plato’s creator sees the natural world as one based on numbers. After creating three major entities of the existing world—body, soul, and essence—god proceeded to divide the entire mass into portions related to one another in the ratios of 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 8, and 27.

Once Timaeus establishes the ratios that govern the known universe, he drills down into the less than perfect reality that govern our daily lives, such as those inflicted on our bodies: “When on the other hand the body, though wasted, still holds out, then the bile is expelled, like an exile from a factious state, causing associating diarrhoeas and dysenteries and similar disorders.”

Critias, another Athenian, weighs in on the ever-present danger of natural catastrophes including the one that befell Atlantis:

Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia….But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.

Perhaps someday archaeologists will discover evidence of a great flood that destroyed Atlantis just as they have found evidence of the flood depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In late January divers discovered perfectly preserved stone-age tools that were between 10 and 11,000 years old in the Swedish bay of Hanö. Södertörn University’s Björn Nilsson, the leader of the research team, was annoyed (by comparisons in the popular press made to Atlantis:

Nilsson admitted that “lousy Swedish tabloids” had blown the story out of the water by labelling the find “Sweden’s Atlantis”, even though the remnants never belonged to an actual village. The people were all nomadic at the time, he explained, so there was no village. He trumpeted, however, that the finds so far were “world-class” and “one-of-a-kind”. He added that was extremely rare to find evidence from the Stone Age so unspoiled.

We’ll probably never know what caused these nomads to be swept away by floods but we will know what might cover Manhattan under the Atlantic in the not too distant future. We cannot go back in history to change the circumstances that led to such disasters but we can control our own fate in order to save both animals and the human race. For that effort we need to rely on science and radical politics, not the Creator.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/04/a-hard-rain-2/

 

The conscience and courage of Chelsea Manning

by Nozomi Hayase on April 4, 2014

Post image for The conscience and courage of Chelsea Manning

Four years after WikiLeaks’ release of the Collateral Murder video, Manning’s contagious courage continues to reveal the dehumanized colonizer within.

Four years have passed since WikiLeaks’ sensational release of the classified US military video titled Collateral MurderOn April 5, 2010, the raw footage was published depicting airstrikes by a US Army helicopter gunship in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad. The soldiers attacked Iraqis, killing about a dozen men wandering down a street, including two Reuters staffers, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh in the first of three reckless attacks involving civilians.

The video opened with a quote from George Orwell: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It gained global attention, with viewers reaching millions, shattering the euphemism of ‘collateral damage’ and revealing the true state of modern warfare behind the warping shield of propaganda.

Much focus in the media at the time was given to analyzing whether some of the Iraqi people in the video were carrying rocket propelled grenades or AK-47s and arguments ensued about the rules of engagement. The unfolding of these scenes calls for recognition, for us to take a look at these wars from a wider perspective than the narrow view offered by the establishment media lens.

Before anyone talks about the laws of armed conflict and whether the rules of engagement were broken or not, we need to ask why these armed crews were even there in the first place. We should be examining the legality of the Iraq War itself. Speaking in defense of the disclosure of classified US military documents on the Iraq War, Assange pointed out how “most wars that are started by democracies involve lying,” and noted how “the start of the Iraq war involved very serious lies that were repeated and amplified by some parts of the press.”

Iraq has never been shown to have threatened the United States and it is common knowledge that the premise of this war was based on blatant lies. Colin Powell’s fabrications at the UN Security Council about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction were a particular low point for the US in its base war propaganda. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg designated the term ‘war of aggression’ as an attack on another nation or people without any justification of self-defense and listed it as a major international war crime.

In a report given at a New York Commission Hearing in May 11, 1991, attorney and President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights Michael Ratner seriously questioned the conduct of United States against Iraq:

As people living in the United States we have an obligation not to close our eyes, cover our ears and remain silent. We must not and cannot be ‘good Germans.’ We must be, as Bertrand Russell said about the crimes committed by the U.S. in Vietnam, ‘Against the Crime of Silence.’ We must bear witness to the tens of thousands of deaths for whom our government and its leaders bear responsibility and ask the question, ‘Has the United States committed war crimes with regard to its initiation and conduct of the war against Iraq?’

The questions raised by the graphic video-game turkey-shoot nature of this video needs to be placed within its larger context, along with examining the justification or potential war crimes of each incident in the video.

The moving imagery in the video revealed a particular mindset displayed by these US military-trained soldiers. It is the consciousness behind the gun-sight. The mind is generally blind to biases behind a perception that is trained to look at the world through the crosshairs of a gun-sight. From a broader historical perspective, one could say it is a colonial mind that controls an inception point, setting its own rules of engagement and defining the course of events and destiny of those caught in it.

“Lets shoot. Light ‘em all up. Come on, fire!” In a series of air-to-ground attacks, a helicopter crew excitedly found a target. One man can be heard saying, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards,” and another responds saying “Nice.” When they find a wounded individual trying to crawl away, another man simply says: “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” expressing his wish to shoot him.

After finding that there were kids in the minivan that they had engaged, simply on their way to school, one man can clearly be heard blaming the victims: “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” These civilians are no longer seen as victims and the permission to engage is manufactured by the aggressors attacking “targets” who are just trying to get away.

In the original 38-minute video recording the scenes in New Baghdad on July 12, 2007, the past century has lingered to haunt our global society. The dark shadow of colonization is carried over into the military-industrial age of the 20th century with its outward-thrusting brutality. The cynical naming of the ‘Apache’ helicopter evokes a memory of the genocide of American natives long ago. Native American activist Winona LaDuke once spoke of how it is common military-speak when you leave a base in a foreign country to say that you are heading ‘out into Indian Country.’ The brutal projection of US power into the oil-rich Middle East contains echos of these historical ‘Indian Wars’. The unfolding scenes appear as if the US is almost glorifying and continuing these crimes against humanity from the past.

This colonial mentality and injustice, never atoned for, is now expanding into a global web of military forces that more and more serve hidden corporate goals and agendas. In Discourse on Colonialism, the French poet and author Aimé Césaire wrote how colonization brutalizes and de-civilizes even the colonizer himself:

[C]olonization … dehumanizes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal.

The real scenes of modern war on the ground stand like a mirror. Reflected in the graphic WikiLeaks video, we begin to see something about each one of us that has long escaped consciousness. In the raw image of this cruel scene, we can see a part of our culture’s collective shadow, as the barbarian degraded in the effort of ‘civilizing’ those ‘others’. Descending into torture, drone attacks on wedding parties and other acts of collateral murder, this barbarism is clothed in the rhetoric of civility and self-defense, yet reveals the unredeemed colonizer within.

What is it that is shattering the armament around the hearts of so many? The conscience of Chelsea Manning, the source behind the leak of Collateral Murder, was the spark for a worldwide awakening. Her act of conscience shattered the abstraction and opened the gate that guarded this inception point, allowing the public to bear witness to uncensored images of modern warfare and decide for themselves how to see it. In the unfolding images, we were able to see what Chelsea Manning saw.

At the pretrial hearing in her prosecution for leaking the largest trove of secret documents in US history, Manning read out a personal statement to the court in Fort Meade, Maryland, describing how she came to download hundreds of thousands of classified documents and videos from military databases and submit them to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. She spoke about facts regarding the 12 July 2007 aerial weapons team — the video depicting the incident in New Baghdad.

Manning began her statement by saying how at first, having already seen countless similar combat scenes, she didn’t think the video was very special. Yet she came to be troubled by “the recording of audio comments by the aerial weapons team crew and the second engagement in the video of an unarmed bongo truck.” Then she spoke of the attitudes of the soldiers in the helicopter: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me … was the seemly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have.” She continued:

They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as “dead bastards” and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seems similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

Manning furthermore spoke about the specific moment where the father driving his kids to school in a van stopped and attempted to assist the wounded:

While saddened by the aerial weapons team crew’s lack of concern about human life, I was disturbed by the response of the discovery of injured children at the scene. In the video, you can see that the bongo truck [was] driving up to assist the wounded individual. In response the aerial weapons team crew — as soon as the individuals are a threat, they repeatedly request for authorization to fire on the bongo truck and once granted they engage the vehicle at least six times.

She further pointed to the attitude of the aerial weapons team when they learned about the injured children in the van, noting how their actions showed no remorse or sympathy for those they killed or injured, even exhibiting pleasure when a vehicle drove over one of the bodies.

Manning had come to see this everyday reality in Iraq from the perspective of those who have been conjured into the designation of ‘enemy’. From that moment, she began to see these unfolding human tragedies increasingly from the point of view of those she was trained to see as others; those who have been methodically demonized throughout this war of terror.

How should we understand this sudden awakening of conscience? In elucidating the etymology of the word conscience, the Jungian psychoanalyst Edward Edinger related it to the concept of consciousness:

Conscious derives from con or cum, meaning ‘with’ or ‘together,’ and scire, ‘to know’ or ‘to see’. It has the same derivation as conscience. Thus the root meaning of both consciousness and conscience is ‘knowing with’ or ‘seeing with’ an ‘other’. In contrast, the word science, which also derives from scire, means simply knowing, i.e., knowing without ‘withness.’ … The experience of knowing with can be understood to mean the ability to participate in a knowing process simultaneously as subject and object, as knower and known. This is only possible within a relationship to an object that can also be a subject.

Conscience first engages the empathic imagination, breaking down walls of separation. One can begin to feel another person’s pain as if it were one’s own. The moment Manning saw other human beings who she had been trained to see as ‘enemy combatants’ in the gunsight, she freed them from a perception enslaved by the subject position of US supremacy; a perception that had made these human beings into lifeless objects. Here, the other perspective that had long been denied was brought back to consciousness. Manning saw another human being whose life was as precious as hers; not an enemy, but a victim of an unjust war waged by an imperialist military-industrial complex.

In the famous chat log with hacker Adrian Lamo that led to her arrest, Manning recounted how she wanted “people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public… We’re human… and we’re killing ourselves…”

Manning saw what people too often fail to see: she saw those who had been branded ‘enemy combatants’ as human beings like herself. This happened also to US soldier Ethan McCord, who rescued the little girl from the bongo truck in the Collateral Murder video, and who realized she was no different from his own daughter:

Manning’s deed of whistleblowing was an act of conscience: knowledge gained by placing herself in a relationship with others; putting herself in the other’s shoes. She was willing to sacrifice her safety to restore a lost image; an inception point and authentic act of courage from a place of our common humanity.

Manning’s courage to act out of her conscience interrupted a trajectory of history that had been moving in a particular direction. The memory started to flow, reaching back before the invasion of Iraq, before 9/11 and even before the nation’s addiction to oil began — to the genocide of the natives; the moment when those who are made enemies became dehumanized in eyes.

Before anyone even starts talking about justification for acts of war, we should all be asking: who are these Iraqis and Afghans, these Libyans or Syrians who are so often portrayed as “putting America in danger”? In that iconic leaked footage from a fateful day in New Baghdad, who did we see or fail to see? Unfolding images of the decimated Reuters reporters shot from the Apache helicopter confront us with a question: are we truly civilized? Who are the people who have been dehumanized, turned into enemies and made into inferior beings?

One ordinary person with extraordinary courage offered the possibility to restart a genuine conversation about the legitimacy of Western “civilization” that has until now been operating as a monologue. Manning created a possibility for real dialogue, one that is long overdue. Her courage, and the tireless work of those at WikiLeaks, calls us to truly see these events beyond the political language that makes lies sound truthful and murder respectable.

Are we able to witness what is really happening — ongoing collateral murder carried out in our name — even right in this very moment? Manning’s conscience awakened her heart. We, too, can awaken our hearts, for courage is contagious.

Cable news is living in an alternate universe!

Obsessed with missing planes and a “new Cold War,” TV news people are missing the stories right under their noses

 

Cable news is living in an alternate universe!
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Isn’t there something strangely reassuring when your eyeballs are gripped by a “mystery” on the news that has no greater meaning and yet sweeps all else away?  This, of course, is the essence of the ongoing tale of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  Except to the relatives of those on board, it never really mattered what happened in the cockpit that day.  To the extent that the plane’s disappearance was solvable, the mystery could only end in one of two ways: it landed somewhere (somehow unnoticed, a deep unlikelihood) or it crashed somewhere, probably in an ocean.  End of story.  It was, however, a tale with thrilling upsides when it came to filling airtime, especially on cable news.  The fact that there was no there there allowed for the raising of every possible disappearance trope – from Star Trekkian black holes to the Bermuda Triangle to Muslim terrorists — and it had the added benefit of instantly evoking a popular TV show.  It was a formula too good to waste, and wasted it wasn’t.

The same has been true of the story that, in the U.S., came to vie with it for the top news spot: the devastating mudslide in Washington State.  An act of nature, sweeping out of nowhere, buries part of a tiny community, leaving an unknown but possibly large number of people dead.  Was anyone still alive under all that mud?  (Such potential “miracles” are like manna from heaven for the TV news.)  How many died?  These questions mattered locally and to desperate relatives of those who had disappeared, but otherwise had little import.  Yes, unbridled growth, lack of attention to expected disasters, and even possibly climate change were topics that might have been attached to the mudslide horror.  As a gruesome incident, it could have stood in for a lot, but in the end it stood in for nothing except itself and that was undoubtedly its abiding appeal.



Both stories had the added benefit (for TV) of an endless stream of distraught relatives: teary or weeping or stoic or angry faces in desperately tight close-ups making heartfelt pleas for more information.  For the media, it was like the weather before climate change came along.

In response, just about anything else that could pass for news was swept aside.  Given a media that normally rushes heedlessly from one potential 24/7 story to another, this was striking.  In the case of Flight 370, for instance, on the 21st day after its disappearance, it still led NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams (with the mudslide, one week after it happened, the number two story).

In those weeks, only one other story broke their stranglehold on the news.  It was the seemingly critical question of what in the world was going on in Ukraine.  There was the Russian military move into the Crimea, the referendum on that peninsula, its annexation, the alarm of the U.S. and the European Union, the imposition of (modest) sanctions, and various warnings of a Russian military build-up and possible invasion of eastern Ukraine.  Unlike the other two stories, it seemed consequential enough.  And yet in some eerie way, it, too, came to resemble them.  It was as if with the news on Ukraine we were being sucked back into another era — that of the superpower-run twentieth century.

The question that seemed to loom was this: Are we in a new (i.e., the old) Cold War?  It was so front and center that it sent opinion pollsters scrambling and they promptly discovered that half of all Americans thought we were — itself less a testament to American opinion than to the overwhelming media narrative that we were indeed living through the Cold War redux.

Was the Soviet Union being raised from the dead?  Think of this as the Flight 370 of global political coverage.  It had everything a story needed: people in the square; a foreign leader who glowered just like a movie villain should and, for once in the twenty-first century, wasn’t a U.S. president or vice president; and fears of Russian troops entering the rest of Ukraine, with Lithuania, Estonia, or some other former satellite of the Soviet Union next in line.  Where would it end?  How could Vladimir Putin’s juggernaut be stopped?

As a story, it was a time warp miracle all its own.  After so many years, an American president was denouncing not al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or the Iraqis, or the Iranians, but the Russians.  Once again, as in the good old bad old days, U.S. officials could decry the tyranny of a major state and its dangers to the globe with a straight face.  There was finally a black-and-white tale of international morality in which Americans could denounce an invasion.  It had the comfy familiarity of an old-fashioned script, one whose ending everybody already knew.  It implied that the world was once again easy to grasp, that everything was finally back in order — the good guys and the bad guys, East and West, freedom and tyranny.

As an old script, it had all the fearsome charms of familiarity.  While signaling danger, it actually helped tame a world that otherwise looked unsettling indeed.

As it happens, however, Soviet armies will never again threaten to plunge through the Fulda Gap.  The Warsaw Pact is long gone, never to be revived, and Germany will remain a united powerhouse, not a divided land.  Argue as you will about whether the Russians or Putin are “evil,” one thing is certain, there is no “empire” to go with it.  President Obama was on the mark recently when he referred to Putin’s Russia as a “regional power” and not a superpower at all.  Not even close.  If anything, it’s a country that, thanks to NATO, the U.S., and the European Union, already had its back to the wall, with its former “satellites” long ago stripped away, and Ukraine looking like it was about to go, too.  (After all, an American diplomat,talking tough, was secretly recorded seemingly sorting out a future Ukrainian government with the local American ambassador!)

Russia may not even quite be a regional powerhouse.  Its economy is shaky and, unlike the Soviet Union, it is now largely an oil and gas state and, worse yet, its energy reserves are expected to be in decline in future decades.

A Planet for the Taking

So, no, Virginia, Flight 370 was not commandeered by aliens and Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin’s younger brother.  The U.S. is not in a new Cold War, its troops do not stand in any danger of going toe-to-toe with Russian invaders, and a two-superpower world is dead and buried, but so, it seems, is a one superpower world.  History is a powerful tool, but sometimes when lost stories and old scripts dominate the headlines, it’s worth asking whether, behind the scrim of the familiar and the empty, there might not lurk an unnerving world, a new age that no one cares to focus on.

As with a magician, sometimes you have to look where he isn’t pointing to catch sight of reality.  With that in mind, I’d like to nominate British journalist Patrick Cockburn for a prize.  In the midst of the recent headlines, in the most important article no one noticed, he pointed out something genuinely unnerving about our world.

Yes, we’re all aware that the U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t exactly work out as planned and that Afghanistan has been a nearly 13-year disaster, even though the U.S. faced the most ragtag of minority insurgencies in both places.  What, however, about the monumental struggle that used to be called the Global War on Terror?  After all, we got Osama bin Laden.  It took a while, but SEAL Team 6 shot him down in his hideout in Pakistan.  And for years, thanks to the CIA’s drone assassination campaigns in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Yemen, and Somalia (as well as a full scale hunter-killer operation in Iraq while we were still occupying that country), we’ve been told that endless key al-Qaeda “lieutenants” have been sent to their deaths and that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been reduced to 50-100 members.

Yet Cockburn concludes: “Twelve years after the ‘war on terror’ was launched it has visibly failed and al-Qaeda-type jihadis, once confined to a few camps in Afghanistan, today rule whole provinces in the heart of the Middle East.”  Look across that region today and from Pakistan to Libya, you see the rise, not the fall, of jihadis of every type.  In Syria and parts of Iraq, groups that have associated themselves with al-Qaeda now have a controlling military presence in territories the size of, as Cockburn points out, Great Britain.  He calls al-Qaeda’s recent rise as the jihadi brand name of choice and the failure of the U.S. campaign against it “perhaps the most extraordinary development of the 21st century.”  And that, unlike the claims we’ve been hearing at the top of the news for weeks now, might not be an exaggeration.

Looked at another way, despite what had just happened to the Pentagon and those towers in New York, on September 12, 2001, the globe’s “sole superpower” had remarkably few enemies.  Small numbers of jihadis scattered mostly in the backlands of the planet and centered in an impoverished, decimated country — Afghanistan — with the most retro regime on Earth.  There were, in addition, three rickety “rogue states” (North Korea, Iraq, and Iran) singled out for enemy status but incapable of harming the U.S., and that was that.

The world, as Dick Cheney & Co. took for granted, looked ready to be dominated by the only (angry) hyperpower left after centuries of imperial rivalry.  The U.S. military, its technological capability unrivaled by any state or possible grouping of states, was to be let loose to bring the Greater Middle East to heel in a decisive way.  Between that regular military and para-militarizing intelligence agencies, the planet was to be scoured of enemies, the “swamp drained” in up to 60 countries.  The result would be a Pax Americana in the Middle East, and perhaps even globally, into the distant future.  It was to be legendary.  And no method — not torture, abuse, kidnapping, the creation of “black sites,” detention without charges, assassination, the creation of secret law, or surveillance on a previously unimaginable scale — was to be left out of the toolkit used to birth this new all-American planet.  The “gloves” were to be taken off in a big way.

Thirteen years later, those plans, those dreams are down the drain.  The Greater Middle East is in chaos.  The U.S. seems incapable of intervening in a meaningful way just about anywhere on Earth despite the fact that its military remains unchallenged on a global level.  It’s little short of mind-blowing.  And it couldn’t have been more unexpected for those in power in Washington and perhaps for Americans generally.  This is perhaps why, despite changing American attitudes on interventions and future involvement abroad, it’s been so hard to take in, so little focused upon here — even in the bogus, politicized discussions of American “strength” and “weakness” which circle around the latest Russian events, as they had previously around the crises in Iran and Syria.

Somehow, with what in any age would have seemed like a classic winning hand, Washington never put a card on that “table” (on which all “options” were always being kept open) that wasn’t trumped.  Events in Ukraine and the Crimea seem to be part of this.

The Chinese had an evocative phrase for times of dynastic collapse: “chaos under heaven.”  Moments when it seems as if the planet itself is shifting on its axis don’t come often, but they may indeed feel like chaos under heaven — an increasingly apt phrase for a world in which no country seems to exert much control, tensions are rising in hard to identify ways, and the very climate, the very habitability of the planet is increasingly at risk.

When The Losers Are The Winners

Even in a losing game, there are usually winners.  One of the conundrums of this particular moment, however, is that the winners in our American world are exactly those who have repeatedly been playing the losing hands.  Their reward for one self-defined disaster after another has been yet more money, yet wider areas of everyday life to control, and yet more power.  No matter how inept they may prove as imperial players on a world stage, they can essentially do no wrong domestically when it comes to embedding themselves ever more deeply in our lives in the name of our “security” and our “safety.”  It’s a remarkable tale.  Legendary, one might almost say.  As the power of American power to accomplish seemingly anything fades, the power of the national security state only grows.

It’s true that, in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the managers of our secret state have had to pull back in a few areas — especially the gathering and holding of phone metadata for the complete U.S. population.  But the significance of this is easy to exaggerate.  It’s worth remembering that in the wake of the Watergate era, the last time we went through a round of “reforms” of an out-of-control secret world, the national security state somehow ended up with its own secret court system and secret body of law to which all citizens became accountable even though they could know nothing about it.  Four decades later, in a situation in which that secret state is so much stronger, such reforms may once again turn out only to enhance its power.

It’s true as well that the CIA has had to pull back on some of the methods it used to such disastrous effect after 9/11, in particular closing those “black sites” it set up (though some may still exist, possibly in Somalia and perhaps on U.S. naval ships) and on the use of torture.  Nonetheless, the recent spectacle of the Agency’s attack on Senator Dianne Feinstein and the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee over a still-secret 6,300 page critical report on its Bush-era torture and black site programs should be instructive.  After all, Feinstein has made her reputation, in part, as the senator from the national security state.  She has typicallysupported the NSA’s secret programs as well as those of other intelligence outfits, straight down the line.  There has perhaps been no one more sympathetic among Democratic representatives in Congress.

On a single issue, a single set of programs by a single agency, however, she chose to differ and offer genuine criticism.  You might think that, under the circumstances, she would still be handled by the secret state with kid gloves.  Instead, the CIA referred her committee staff to the Justice Department for possible crimes, while she was attacked as if she were the Great Satan and finally driven to the Senate floor to denounce the CIA for potential criminal acts and infringing the Constitution.  Even the president didn’t come to her aid.

Think of this as a reasonable yardstick for measuring the real power relations between Washington’s official overseers and those who are supposed to be overseen.

Think of the overseen as now negotiating from a position of significant strength the details of their future benefits package.  And we can count on one thing: whatever changes are made, they will be largely cosmetic.  The many parts of America’s growing shadow government – secret law, secret surveillance, secret power, and the secret state — are here to stay.

From the 9/11 attacks on, that secret state and the militarized world of Washington that goes with it have shown themselves, even by their own standards, woefully incapable of handling a new and puzzling world.  Their actions have repeatedly undermined the usual sort of imperial control, instead facilitating spreading chaos.  Post-9/11, they have had a remarkable knack for creating not just blowback — the CIA term of tradecraft that scholar Chalmers Johnson put intoour vocabulary — but something for which we have no word.  Think of it perhaps as just the “blow” part of that term.

The orderliness of secret power in Washington and chaos under heaven, the growth of a police state and a planet run riot, turn out to be two sides of the same coin.  If you want a news story that will glue eyes, then think of it this way: on September 12, 2001, the national security state entered the cockpit of (to modernize a phrase) the plane of state, hijacked it, and steered it directly for the Bermuda Triangle — and here was the strangest thing of all: no one even noticed.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, “The United States of Fear” (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/04/cable_news_is_living_in_an_alternate_universe_partner/?source=newsletter

Popular discontent grows with German media lies in Ukraine crisis

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By Anna Rombach
4 April 2014

An unprecedented wave of anti-Russian propaganda has dominated the German media in the wake of the US- and German-backed coup in Kiev. Leading publications such as Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung  and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, but also so-called “alternative” media outlets such as the taz (which has close links to the Greens) are loudly demanding military action against Russia, outdoing one another with menacing attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin who they describe as a new Hitler and aggressor.

This propaganda campaign, reminiscent of the conformist press of totalitarian dictatorships, has so far had a limited effect. Many readers are repulsed by the campaign and have responded angrily. This is reflected in the letters pages of newspaper and online comment pages.

On 19 March the editorial office of the Berliner Zeitung was forced to admit: “German newspapers and radio stations have received bags of letters and readers’ comments complaining about one-sided reporting. Russia’s intervention in the Crimea has been met with a great deal of understanding. The German media, on the other hand, is accused of conducting an anti-Russian campaign.”

Even the conservative Berliner Tagesspiegel noted that 80 percent of the 12,000 readers who took part in an on-line survey regarded official criticism of Moscow as “hypocritical”. A mere 4 percent favored “military intervention by NATO,” or Russia’s exclusion from the G8.

A poll by the ARD television channel, released in early March, found that 82 percent of respondents were against the use of military force against Russia. Two-thirds rejected economic sanctions against Russia.

In letters and comments to editorial offices, many readers and radio listeners refer to the active role played by the US, EU and Berlin on Independence Square, which led to the coup against the elected government in Kiev.

A reader of the Münchener Merkur comments: “In my opinion, the demonstrations in Kiev, with Klitschko to the fore, are controlled logistically and financially by the West (i.e. US and Europe) – the former Treasury Secretary of US President Reagan referred to $5 billion. Since the reintroduction of capitalism in Eastern Europe the US has sought to weaken and isolate Russia, and eliminate it as a superpower.”

The comment continues: “The US and EU have now brought the Baltic States and almost all of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc into NATO and the EU. Now they are going to move ahead with the proposed admission of Ukraine, up to the western border of Russia, and provoke the Russian Black Sea Fleet.”

Many readers are disgusted with the trivialisation of the role of the fascist Svoboda party, and the assertion that the events in Kiev’s Independence Square had something to do with democracy. A number of reports and YouTube videos available on the Internet clearly reveal the role played by ultra-violent fascist forces.

On 10 March the Münchener Merkur published a comment by Dr. K.H.B. who wrote: “The first casualty of war is the truth. It is war, and therefore I believe neither the Russian mainstream press, including state television, nor ours.”

Another reader is outraged by an article in the Thüringer Allgemeine of 18 March; “The annexation of Crimea is reminiscent of [Hilter’s invasion of] Sudetenland” and writes, “Once again the attempt is being made to shamelessly equate Putin and Hitler.”

An angry listener wrote to Radio Germany: “I must tell you that I’m tired of listening to the half-truths and biased reports on everything to do with Russia transmitted by your station. If I am correctly informed Radio Germany is the direct successor to the RIAS radio station, which had a reputation for agitational propaganda. It seems to me you have remained true to your heritage.”

E. P. from Erfurt referred to allegations that Russia is an “aggressor using methods from the 18th Century” as “deliberate slander”.

Concerns over the escalating danger of war are universally felt. H.M., who still hopes that NATO countries will limit themselves to verbal threats, writes that no one is interested in “dying on behalf of the interests of the Kiev extremists. An economic war with the resource-rich Russia would also have fatal consequences for all sides.”

In his letter to the Braunschweiger Zeitung H.S. warns: “Is a war on the horizon? This must be avoided at all costs!”

In response to the article “Merkel warns Putin” in the Badische Zeitung, UK writes: “Attention! Especially in Germany it should be clear: humiliation in bilateral and multilateral policy can have terrible consequences! The humiliating Treaty of Versailles in 1919 were the cause of the Second World War …”

Several listeners of Radio Germany drew direct parallels to the fascist propaganda of the World War II era: “I have the impression that your transmitter is once again calling for a war against Russia. Your station is replicating the megalomania of the Greater German Reich.”

Another comment added, “Whoever listens to the ‘Stahlhelm [i.e. Nazi] station on a daily basis, i.e. the campaign by Radio Germany against Russia, aimed at keeping the public fixated on NATO’s course, then one fears for our security and peace in Europe.”

A Program to Control Internet Communications?

The Drones of Facebook (and the NSA)

by ALFREDO LOPEZ

“Connectivity,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a CNN interview last year, “is a human right.”

If it surprises you that one of the kings of the corporate Internet would repeat a slogan used by Internet activists to mobilize against companies like his, examine the context. Zuckerberg made his remark to support and explain a new set of Facebook strategies that will, if successful, put the world’s Internet connectivity under his company’s control.

It’s called internet.org which is not only a real website but a consortium of companies and government agencies Facebook is leading. The very name — “internet.org” — also provides a glimpse of Facebook’s intentions.

Using a combination of drones, satellites and other technologies, Facebook seeks to bring connectivity to the entire world. The picture is remarkable: Facebook satellites and drones with six month life cycles will bounce every connection signals (like Wify) to people in every corner of the earth. Every human being will now have access to the Internet.

On its face, it’s a wonderful idea until you realize that this would put all the world’s connectivity in the hands of one company and a coalition of partners it’s brought on to realize the project. Those partners, by the way, include — are you ready? — the National Security Agency of the United States.

Zuckerberg reminds us that this isn’t imminent; it’s a project for what he calls “the far-off future”. But he doesn’t explain how far off “far-off” is. Connectivity projects are a process and portions of the world would be progressively “hooked up”. In fact, his company has already invested $1 billion in the project and, he says, will continuously invest a lot more.

The people of the world are, Zuckerman says, “… going to use it to decide what kind of government they want, get access to healthcare for the first time ever, connect with family hundreds of miles away that they haven’t seen in decades.”

The Facebook announcements followed by a year an announcement by Google that it’s researching how to use huge balloons to bring the Internet to the world or at least to remote locations in it. Google calls it “Project Loon”.

The obscene irony in using drone technology (used, among many other things, to kill thousands of people a year) to bring the human race together is offensive, but the very real threat posed by putting most people’s communications in the hands of one company is deeply disturbing. To grasp that threat and the reason behind these initiatives, one must understand that this is a corporate response to a very real problem.

If you live in the United States (or one of what are commonly called “developed countries), most people you know are probably connected in some way to the Internet. In fact, over 70 percent of the households in this country are Internet- capable. The same is roughly true of Canada, much of Europe, Japan and the People’s Republic of China. But Africa is a different story: only 7 percent are connected there. Latin America varies with about 30 percent of Mexico connected, 60 percent in Brazil (one of the leading Internet countries) and about 55 percent in Venezuela, but less than 20 percent in most of the other countries. Besides China and Japan, Asia , at under 20 percent connected, is almost as unconnected as Africa.

(Here’s an interactive map with the precise numbers by country.)

The implications of the problem are obvious: people can’t communicate in those places like they can here and that frustrates the very purpose of the Internet, curtailing the possibilities it provides for collaboration and social change.

The reasons for the problem are just as obvious. For one thing, technology is hampered by under-developed infrastructure — the absence of the electricity and telephone wires we take for granted and that the Internet thrives on. Additionally, governments in many of these countries are reluctant to prioritize communications — often for obvious reasons, since a communicating population often overthrows bad governments. Finally, there are tight and restrictive controls placed on these regions by the communications companies that serve them. Nobody is looking to expand the Internet very aggressively in much of the world.

That’s a problem for most us but it’s a different kind of problem for Facebook. While activists and organizers see the problem as an impediment to organizing, Facebook sees the problem in terms of market. Right now, the ubiquitous social networking giant has about a billion people signed up. If you don’t think that’s marketing gold, consider the fact that Zuckerman’s stock in Facebook is now worth about $3 billion. But capitalists don’t sit around counting their money like Mafia chieftans; they look for ways to make more of it. If Facebook is going to expand its user-base, and to cash in on the advertising revenues those numbers generate, it has to look to the rest of the world. To do that, it has to put the rest of the world on-line.

While the intent is the same, the reasons underscore the divergence in potential outcomes. If you connect a population to the Internet, and it depends on that connection, your ability to turn it off gives you virtually dictatorial powers. Governments in some countries have, in the recent past, shut off portions of the Internet to their populations — a means of political control or for the quashing of growing social movements. Activists can get around those restrictions using other lines of communication or other systems…provided they can access them. But it one company can stop all access, that option for free communication is gone.

But the more pressing problem is in terms of content delivery. With the recent court decision on Net Neutrality, a providing company has power to provide fuller access to some sites and to slow access to others. It can now, under the law, simply deny access to certain content to its users. When a company controls access for 10 million users (like Comcast, for instance), the outcome is horrible. But when a company controls access for several billion, it’s devastating.

What’s even more disturbing is who Facebook is partnering with. What in the world is the NSA doing as part of this “connect the world” coalition? Facebook will only say the NSA is working on research to use its satellite system to expand connectivity. But if the agency is handling that chunk of connectivity, what will that mean for people’s privacy and rights?

The NSA spies on everyone it can. It collects all the data it can. It has shown no respect for people’s rights or for constitutional restrictions. It is a criminal organization and, under this plan, it would control Internet access for large parts of the world.

Are all these horrors coming to fruition?

Many “experts” and pundits would caution us against being paranoid. The project is far off from completion although the technology for it is actually feasible and could be put in place in a couple of years. You have to negotiate with countries and other companies and all that takes time, as several technology columnists have pointed out.

But if you have that kind of power, negotiations can be scaled down to a matter of money — a fee paid to any specific government and, in this technology world, money talks. How may cash-starved developing country governments, offered usage fees and basic “authority” over their people’s connectivity, are going to turn down an offer to put their population on line? All Facebook would have to do is assure a government some basic “control”.

Besides, since the program can be incrementally realized, Facebook can prioritize certain sections of the world over others. One can only imagine the problems that would produce.

In the end, though, whether the company would do any or all of this or not isn’t the issue. We structure our rights to make sure that decisions about them are never in the hands of one person or one institution. If connectivity is, as Zuckerberg says, “a human right”, then it should never be up to him or his company to decide who among us has it, how and when.

Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/03/the-drones-of-facebook-and-the-nsa/

 

Hijacking the American Plane of State

Tomgram: Engelhardt, The Bermuda Triangle of National Security
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Posted by Tom Engelhardt at 8:00am, April 3, 2014.
Old Scripts and Empty Stories Signal a New Age

 
By Tom Engelhardt

Isn’t there something strangely reassuring when your eyeballs are gripped by a “mystery” on the news that has no greater meaning and yet sweeps all else away?  This, of course, is the essence of the ongoing tale of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  Except to the relatives of those on board, it never really mattered what happened in the cockpit that day.  To the extent that the plane’s disappearance was solvable, the mystery could only end in one of two ways: it landed somewhere (somehow unnoticed, a deep unlikelihood) or it crashed somewhere, probably in an ocean.  End of story.  It was, however, a tale with thrilling upsides when it came to filling airtime, especially on cable news.  The fact that there was no there there allowed for the raising of every possible disappearance trope – from Star Trekkian black holes to the Bermuda Triangle to Muslim terrorists — and it had the added benefit of instantly evoking a popular TV show.  It was a formula too good to waste, and wasted it wasn’t.

The same has been true of the story that, in the U.S., came to vie with it for the top news spot: the devastating mudslide in Washington State.  An act of nature, sweeping out of nowhere, buries part of a tiny community, leaving an unknown but possibly large number of people dead.  Was anyone still alive under all that mud?  (Such potential “miracles” are like manna from heaven for the TV news.)  How many died?  These questions mattered locally and to desperate relatives of those who had disappeared, but otherwise had little import.  Yes, unbridled growth, lack of attention to expected disasters, and even possibly climate change were topics that might have been attached to the mudslide horror.  As a gruesome incident, it could have stood in for a lot, but in the end it stood in for nothing except itself and that was undoubtedly its abiding appeal.

Both stories had the added benefit (for TV) of an endless stream of distraught relatives: teary or weeping or stoic or angry faces in desperately tight close-ups making heartfelt pleas for more information.  For the media, it was like the weather before climate change came along.

In response, just about anything else that could pass for news was swept aside.  Given a media that normally rushes heedlessly from one potential 24/7 story to another, this was striking.  In the case of Flight 370, for instance, on the 21st day after its disappearance, it still led NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams (with the mudslide, one week after it happened, the number two story).

In those weeks, only one other story broke their stranglehold on the news.  It was the seemingly critical question of what in the world was going on in Ukraine.  There was the Russian military move into the Crimea, the referendum on that peninsula, its annexation, the alarm of the U.S. and the European Union, the imposition of (modest) sanctions, and various warnings of a Russian military build-up and possible invasion of eastern Ukraine.  Unlike the other two stories, it seemed consequential enough.  And yet in some eerie way, it, too, came to resemble them.  It was as if with the news on Ukraine we were being sucked back into another era — that of the superpower-run twentieth century.

The question that seemed to loom was this: Are we in a new (i.e., the old) Cold War?  It was so front and center that it sent opinion pollsters scrambling and they promptly discovered that half of all Americans thought we were — itself less a testament to American opinion than to the overwhelming media narrative that we were indeed living through the Cold War redux.

Was the Soviet Union being raised from the dead?  Think of this as the Flight 370 of global political coverage.  It had everything a story needed: people in the square; a foreign leader who glowered just like a movie villain should and, for once in the twenty-first century, wasn’t a U.S. president or vice president; and fears of Russian troops entering the rest of Ukraine, with Lithuania, Estonia, or some other former satellite of the Soviet Union next in line.  Where would it end?  How could Vladimir Putin’s juggernaut be stopped?

As a story, it was a time warp miracle all its own.  After so many years, an American president was denouncing not al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or the Iraqis, or the Iranians, but the Russians.  Once again, as in the good old bad old days, U.S. officials could decry the tyranny of a major state and its dangers to the globe with a straight face.  There was finally a black-and-white tale of international morality in which Americans could denounce an invasion.  It had the comfy familiarity of an old-fashioned script, one whose ending everybody already knew.  It implied that the world was once again easy to grasp, that everything was finally back in order — the good guys and the bad guys, East and West, freedom and tyranny.

As an old script, it had all the fearsome charms of familiarity.  While signaling danger, it actually helped tame a world that otherwise looked unsettling indeed.

As it happens, however, Soviet armies will never again threaten to plunge through the Fulda Gap.  The Warsaw Pact is long gone, never to be revived, and Germany will remain a united powerhouse, not a divided land.  Argue as you will about whether the Russians or Putin are “evil,” one thing is certain, there is no “empire” to go with it.  President Obama was on the mark recently when he referred to Putin’s Russia as a “regional power” and not a superpower at all.  Not even close.  If anything, it’s a country that, thanks to NATO, the U.S., and the European Union, already had its back to the wall, with its former “satellites” long ago stripped away, and Ukraine looking like it was about to go, too.  (After all, an American diplomat, talking tough, was secretly recorded seemingly sorting out a future Ukrainian government with the local American ambassador!)

Russia may not even quite be a regional powerhouse.  Its economy is shaky and, unlike the Soviet Union, it is now largely an oil and gas state and, worse yet, its energy reserves are expected to be in decline in future decades.

A Planet for the Taking

So, no, Virginia, Flight 370 was not commandeered by aliens and Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin’s younger brother.  The U.S. is not in a new Cold War, its troops do not stand in any danger of going toe-to-toe with Russian invaders, and a two-superpower world is dead and buried, but so, it seems, is a one superpower world.  History is a powerful tool, but sometimes when lost stories and old scripts dominate the headlines, it’s worth asking whether, behind the scrim of the familiar and the empty, there might not lurk an unnerving world, a new age that no one cares to focus on.

As with a magician, sometimes you have to look where he isn’t pointing to catch sight of reality.  With that in mind, I’d like to nominate British journalist Patrick Cockburn for a prize.  In the midst of the recent headlines, in the most important article no one noticed, he pointed out something genuinely unnerving about our world.

Yes, we’re all aware that the U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t exactly work out as planned and that Afghanistan has been a nearly 13-year disaster, even though the U.S. faced the most ragtag of minority insurgencies in both places.  What, however, about the monumental struggle that used to be called the Global War on Terror?  After all, we got Osama bin Laden.  It took a while, but SEAL Team 6 shot him down in his hideout in Pakistan.  And for years, thanks to the CIA’s drone assassination campaigns in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Yemen, and Somalia (as well as a full scale hunter-killer operation in Iraq while we were still occupying that country), we’ve been told that endless key al-Qaeda “lieutenants” have been sent to their deaths and that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been reduced to 50-100 members.

Yet Cockburn concludes: “Twelve years after the ‘war on terror’ was launched it has visibly failed and al-Qaeda-type jihadis, once confined to a few camps in Afghanistan, today rule whole provinces in the heart of the Middle East.”  Look across that region today and from Pakistan to Libya, you see the rise, not the fall, of jihadis of every type.  In Syria and parts of Iraq, groups that have associated themselves with al-Qaeda now have a controlling military presence in territories the size of, as Cockburn points out, Great Britain.  He calls al-Qaeda’s recent rise as the jihadi brand name of choice and the failure of the U.S. campaign against it “perhaps the most extraordinary development of the 21st century.”  And that, unlike the claims we’ve been hearing at the top of the news for weeks now, might not be an exaggeration.

Looked at another way, despite what had just happened to the Pentagon and those towers in New York, on September 12, 2001, the globe’s “sole superpower” had remarkably few enemies.  Small numbers of jihadis scattered mostly in the backlands of the planet and centered in an impoverished, decimated country — Afghanistan — with the most retro regime on Earth.  There were, in addition, three rickety “rogue states” (North Korea, Iraq, and Iran) singled out for enemy status but incapable of harming the U.S., and that was that.

The world, as Dick Cheney & Co. took for granted, looked ready to be dominated by the only (angry) hyperpower left after centuries of imperial rivalry.  The U.S. military, its technological capability unrivaled by any state or possible grouping of states, was to be let loose to bring the Greater Middle East to heel in a decisive way.  Between that regular military and para-militarizing intelligence agencies, the planet was to be scoured of enemies, the “swamp drained” in up to 60 countries.  The result would be a Pax Americana in the Middle East, and perhaps even globally, into the distant future.  It was to be legendary.  And no method — not torture, abuse, kidnapping, the creation of “black sites,” detention without charges, assassination, the creation of secret law, or surveillance on a previously unimaginable scale — was to be left out of the toolkit used to birth this new all-American planet.  The “gloves” were to be taken off in a big way.

Thirteen years later, those plans, those dreams are down the drain.  The Greater Middle East is in chaos.  The U.S. seems incapable of intervening in a meaningful way just about anywhere on Earth despite the fact that its military remains unchallenged on a global level.  It’s little short of mind-blowing.  And it couldn’t have been more unexpected for those in power in Washington and perhaps for Americans generally.  This is perhaps why, despite changing American attitudes on interventions and future involvement abroad, it’s been so hard to take in, so little focused upon here — even in the bogus, politicized discussions of American “strength” and “weakness” which circle around the latest Russian events, as they had previously around the crises in Iran and Syria.

Somehow, with what in any age would have seemed like a classic winning hand, Washington never put a card on that “table” (on which all “options” were always being kept open) that wasn’t trumped.  Events in Ukraine and the Crimea seem to be part of this.

The Chinese had an evocative phrase for times of dynastic collapse: “chaos under heaven.”  Moments when it seems as if the planet itself is shifting on its axis don’t come often, but they may indeed feel like chaos under heaven — an increasingly apt phrase for a world in which no country seems to exert much control, tensions are rising in hard to identify ways, and the very climate, the very habitability of the planet is increasingly at risk.

When The Losers Are The Winners

Even in a losing game, there are usually winners.  One of the conundrums of this particular moment, however, is that the winners in our American world are exactly those who have repeatedly been playing the losing hands.  Their reward for one self-defined disaster after another has been yet more money, yet wider areas of everyday life to control, and yet more power.  No matter how inept they may prove as imperial players on a world stage, they can essentially do no wrong domestically when it comes to embedding themselves ever more deeply in our lives in the name of our “security” and our “safety.”  It’s a remarkable tale.  Legendary, one might almost say.  As the power of American power to accomplish seemingly anything fades, the power of the national security state only grows.

It’s true that, in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the managers of our secret state have had to pull back in a few areas — especially the gathering and holding of phone metadata for the complete U.S. population.  But the significance of this is easy to exaggerate.  It’s worth remembering that in the wake of the Watergate era, the last time we went through a round of “reforms” of an out-of-control secret world, the national security state somehow ended up with its own secret court system and secret body of law to which all citizens became accountable even though they could know nothing about it.  Four decades later, in a situation in which that secret state is so much stronger, such reforms may once again turn out only to enhance its power.

It’s true as well that the CIA has had to pull back on some of the methods it used to such disastrous effect after 9/11, in particular closing those “black sites” it set up (though some may still exist, possibly in Somalia and perhaps on U.S. naval ships) and on the use of torture.  Nonetheless, the recent spectacle of the Agency’s attack on Senator Dianne Feinstein and the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee over a still-secret 6,300 page critical report on its Bush-era torture and black site programs should be instructive.  After all, Feinstein has made her reputation, in part, as the senator from the national security state.  She has typically supported the NSA’s secret programs as well as those of other intelligence outfits, straight down the line.  There has perhaps been no one more sympathetic among Democratic representatives in Congress.

On a single issue, a single set of programs by a single agency, however, she chose to differ and offer genuine criticism.  You might think that, under the circumstances, she would still be handled by the secret state with kid gloves.  Instead, the CIA referred her committee staff to the Justice Department for possible crimes, while she was attacked as if she were the Great Satan and finally driven to the Senate floor to denounce the CIA for potential criminal acts and infringing the Constitution.  Even the president didn’t come to her aid.

Think of this as a reasonable yardstick for measuring the real power relations between Washington’s official overseers and those who are supposed to be overseen.

Think of the overseen as now negotiating from a position of significant strength the details of their future benefits package.  And we can count on one thing: whatever changes are made, they will be largely cosmetic.  The many parts of America’s growing shadow government — secret law, secret surveillance, secret power, and the secret state — are here to stay.

From the 9/11 attacks on, that secret state and the militarized world of Washington that goes with it have shown themselves, even by their own standards, woefully incapable of handling a new and puzzling world.  Their actions have repeatedly undermined the usual sort of imperial control, instead facilitating spreading chaos.  Post-9/11, they have had a remarkable knack for creating not just blowback — the CIA term of tradecraft that scholar Chalmers Johnson put into our vocabulary — but something for which we have no word.  Think of it perhaps as just the “blow” part of that term.

The orderliness of secret power in Washington and chaos under heaven, the growth of a police state and a planet run riot, turn out to be two sides of the same coin.  If you want a news story that will glue eyes, then think of it this way: on September 12, 2001, the national security state entered the cockpit of (to modernize a phrase) the plane of state, hijacked it, and steered it directly for the Bermuda Triangle — and here was the strangest thing of all: no one even noticed.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

 

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

 

http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175826/tomgram%3A_engelhardt%2C_the_bermuda_triangle_of_national_security/#more