If we truly absorb this new story, we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves.
I learned it from an extraordinary mixture of people I met on my travels. From the surviving friends of Billie Holiday, who helped me to learn how the founder of the war on drugs stalked and helped to kill her. From a Jewish doctor who was smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto as a baby, only to unlock the secrets of addiction as a grown man. From a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn who was conceived when his mother, a crack-addict, was raped by his father, an NYPD officer. From a man who was kept at the bottom of a well for two years by a torturing dictatorship, only to emerge to be elected President of Uruguay and to begin the last days of the war on drugs.
I had a quite personal reason to set out for these answers. One of my earliest memories as a kid is trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to. Ever since then, I have been turning over the essential mystery of addiction in my mind — what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? How do we help those people to come back to us? As I got older, another of my close relatives developed a cocaine addiction, and I fell into a relationship with a heroin addict. I guess addiction felt like home to me.
If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: “Drugs. Duh.” It’s not difficult to grasp. I thought I had seen it in my own life. We can all explain it. Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days. There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.
One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexandernoticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.
At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about the head home when the war ended.
But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.
Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.
After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for fifty-seven days — if anything can hook you, it’s that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them. (The full references to all the studies I am discussing are in the book.)
When I first learned about this, I was puzzled. How can this be? This new theory is such a radical assault on what we have been told that it felt like it could not be true. But the more scientists I interviewed, and the more I looked at their studies, the more I discovered things that don’t seem to make sense — unless you take account of this new approach.
Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day. If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.
But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.
If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.
This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.
So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
When I learned all this, I found it slowly persuading me, but I still couldn’t shake off a nagging doubt. Are these scientists saying chemical hooks make no difference? It was explained to me — you can become addicted to gambling, and nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins. You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks. I went to a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting in Las Vegas (with the permission of everyone present, who knew I was there to observe) and they were as plainly addicted as the cocaine and heroin addicts I have known in my life. Yet there are no chemical hooks on a craps table.
But still, surely, I asked, there is some role for the chemicals? It turns out there is an experiment which gives us the answer to this in quite precise terms, which I learned about in Richard DeGrandpre’s book The Cult of Pharmacology.
Everyone agrees cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism — cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy (and deadly) effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed.
But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That’s not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that’s still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.
This has huge implications for the one-hundred-year-old war on drugs. This massive war — which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool — is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction — if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction — then this makes no sense.
Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction. For example, I went to a prison in Arizona — ‘Tent City’ — where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (‘The Hole’) for weeks and weeks on end to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record — guaranteeing they with be cut off ever more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.
There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world — and so leave behind their addictions.
This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them — to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.
One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.
The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass — and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.
This isn’t only relevant to the addicts I love. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s — “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.
The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander — the creator of Rat Park — told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery — how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.
But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.
Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention — tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. It’s the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives. But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction — and you may lose them altogether. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever — to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can’t.
When I returned from my long journey, I looked at my ex-boyfriend, in withdrawal, trembling on my spare bed, and I thought about him differently. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along.
The full story of Johann Hari’s journey — told through the stories of the people he met — can be read in Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, published by Bloomsbury. The book has been praised by everyone from Elton John to Glenn Greenwald to Naomi Klein. You can buy it at all good bookstores and read more at www.chasingthescream.com.
Johann Hari will be talking about his book at 7pm at Politics and Prose in Washington DC on the 29th of January, at lunchtime at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on the 30th January, and in the evening at Red Emma’s in Baltimore on the 4th February.
The full references and sources for all the information cited in this article can be found in the book’s extensive end-notes.
Follow Johann Hari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johannhari101
20 January 2015
The international campaign to legitimize the fascistic politics of the French National Front (FN) reached a new stage Monday with the publication in theNew York Times of an op-ed piece on the Charlie Hebdo shootings by the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen.
By opening its pages to Le Pen, the Times, the crumbling pillar of American liberalism, is signaling that powerful sections of the American ruling class consider her ideas to be a critical part of the public debate. The Times took the added step of including a simultaneous translation in French, ensuring that the column would receive the widest possible distribution in France itself.
Le Pen is being elevated as part of a broader effort by the ruling elites to play the anti-Muslim race card in the face of entrenched opposition to imperialist operations in the Middle East and social reaction at home. The anti-Muslim cartoons in Charlie Hebdo have been proclaimed symbols of democracy, and now Le Pen is presented as its savior.
Le Pen’s chauvinist arguments in the Times (under the headline “To Call this Threat by Its Name”) are largely drawn from the political arsenal of the US “war on terror.” France, “land of human rights and freedoms, was attacked on its own soil by a totalitarian ideology: Islamic fundamentalism,” she writes.
She then calls for effectively scrapping freedom and human rights in order to wage political war on France’s five-million-strong Muslim population, proposing “a policy restricting immigration,” new policies to strip people of citizenship, and a fight against “communalism and ways of life at odds” with French traditions.
While providing a political platform for Le Pen, the Times does not bother to inform its readers of her political pedigree. The FN was formed in 1972 by former supporters of the World War II Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime and defenders of French colonial rule in Algeria. It is notorious for its anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic racism, its virulent nationalism, and its thuggish attacks on political opponents.
In justifying their decision to publish Le Pen’s column, the editors of the Timesmay argue that whether one likes it or not, Le Pen cannot be ignored. TheTimes and its apologists will probably claim that by providing her with a platform, she is being given the opportunity to expose herself.
This is nonsense. Le Pen is being deliberately legitimized by the Times, just as French President François Hollande increased her stature and that of the FN by inviting Le Pen to the Elysée Palace shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
The promotion of Le Pen is part of a broader elevation of fascistic and extreme right-wing organizations internationally. Last year, the United States and Germany worked with the Right Sector and Svoboda—organizations that celebrate the Nazi collaborators in Ukraine during World War II—to overthrow the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, an operation that was presented across the political establishment as a movement for democracy.
In Germany, as the ruling class moves to cast off all restraints imposed on German militarism following World War II, it is working to downplay and justify the crimes of its past. Jorg Baberowski, a leading historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University, recently argued that “Hitler was not cruel,” comparing his actions favorably to those of Stalin and the Soviet leadership.
In a recent speech, Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the need for Christians to “strengthen their identity” and “speak even more and with self-confidence about their Christian values”—an encouragement of anti-Muslim sentiment calculated to bolster and legitimize the racist agitation of the right-wing Pegida movement in Germany.
As far as growing sections of the corporate-financial aristocracy are concerned, the voices of neo-fascists must be heard. At the same time that herTimes column appeared, Le Pen was featured in a glowing interview with theWall Street Journal. Pointing to the calculations of the ruling class, the Journalargued, “Once a political outlier, Ms. Le Pen has been gaining prominence as France’s problems—a moribund economy and its un-assimilated Muslim population—have become more acute and seemingly beyond cure by the traditional political class.”
Here the Journal refers to the fact that, under conditions of protracted economic crisis, the political establishment is deeply discredited in France and internationally. In an effort to create support for its rule, the financial elite is seeking to mobilize sections of the petty-bourgeoisie on the basis of extreme nationalism. At the same time, right-wing forces are exploiting the bankruptcy of the “left” to present themselves as an oppositional force.
The logic of developments is following channels traced previously. Contemporary politics assumes more and more the character of the 1930s, when the ruling elites of Europe turned to fascist parties and forces to defend their rule. Today, the promotion of the likes of Le Pen is part of a broader effort to use anti-Muslim racism as a central plank for imperialist operations abroad and a far-reaching assault on democratic rights at home. The ruling classes in France, the United States, Germany, Britain and the other major imperialist powers are plotting and launching new wars in the Middle East and northern Africa.
Domestically, the ruling class is increasingly concerned about the growth of social opposition in the working class. This week, as billionaires gather in Davos for their annual economic forum, a report has come out showing that by 2016, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population will own more than the bottom 99 percent. The richest 80 individuals own as much wealth as the poorest half of the earth’s inhabitants (about 3.5 billion people). Such conditions are unsustainable. Mass social opposition is inevitable.
Together with a vicious campaign against the immigrant population, the ruling class is promoting and legitimizing fascistic and chauvinist movements in order to direct them against the working class as a whole. The basic lesson of the experiences of the 1930s is that the fight against fascism must be waged as a struggle against the capitalist system and all of its political representatives.
Joseph Kishore and Alex Lantier
Scott Timberg argues that we’ve lost the scaffolding of middle-class jobs—record-store clerk, critic, roadie—that made creative scenes thrive. Record store clerks—like Barry (Jack Black) in High Fidelity—are going the way of the dodo. (Getty Images)
Though Scott Timberg’s impassioned Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class focuses on the struggles of musicians, writers and designers, it’s not just a story about (the impossibility of) making a living making art in modern America. More urgently, it’s another chapter in America’s central economic story today, of plutocracy versus penury and the evisceration of the middle class.
Timberg lost his job as an arts reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 2008 after real-estate mogul Sam Zell purchased the paper and gutted its staff. But newspapers are experiencing a natural dieoff, right? Wrong, says Timberg. He cites statistics showing that newspaper profits remained fat into the 21st century—peaking at an average of 22.3 percent in 2002—as the industry began slashing staff. The problem isn’t profitability but shareholder greed, and the fact that we’ve ceded so much authority to the gurus of economic efficiency that we’ve failed to check their math.
The story of print journalism’s demise is hardly new, but Timberg’s LA-based perspective brings architecture, film and music into the conversation, exposing the fallacy of the East Coast conviction that Hollywood is the place where all the money is hiding. Movie studios today are as risk-averse and profit-minded as the big New York publishing houses, throwing their muscle behind one or two stars and proven projects (sequels and remakes) rather than nurturing a deep bench of talent.
For aspiring stars to believe that they may yet become the next Kanye or Kardashian is as unrealistic as treating a casino as a viable path to wealth. Not only that, but when all the money and attention cluster around a handful of stars, there’s less variation, less invention, less risk-taking. Timberg notes that the common understanding of the “creative class,” coined by Richard Florida in 2002, encompasses “anyone who works with their mind at a high level,” including doctors, lawyers and software engineers.
But Timberg looks more narrowly at those whose living, both financially and philosophically, depends on creativity, whether or not they are highly educated or technically “white collar.” He includes a host of support staff: technicians and roadies, promoters and bartenders, critics and publishers, and record-store and bookstore autodidacts (he devotes a whole chapter to these passionate, vanishing “clerks.”) People in this class could once survive, not lavishly but respectably, leading a decent middle-class life, with even some upward mobility.
Timberg describes the career of a record-store clerk whose passion eventually led him to jobs as a radio DJ and a music consultant for TV. His retail job offered a “ladder into the industry” that no longer exists. Today, in almost all creative industries, the rungs of that ladder have been replaced with unpaid internships, typically out of reach to all but the children of the bourgeoisie. We were told the Internet would render physical locations unimportant and destroy hierarchies, flinging open the gates to a wider range of players. To an extent that Timberg doesn’t really acknowledge, that has proven somewhat true: Every scene in the world now has numerous points of access, and any misfit can find her tribe online. But it’s one thing to find fellow fans; it’s another to find paying work. It turns out that working as unfettered freelancers—one-man brands with laptops for offices—doesn’t pay the rent, even if we forgo health insurance.
Timberg points to stats on today’s music business, for instance, which show that even those who are succeeding, with millions of Twitter followers and Spotify plays, can scrape together just a few thousand dollars for months of work. (Timberg is cautiously optimistic about the arrival of Obamacare, which at least might protect people from the kinds of bankrupting medical emergencies that several of his subjects have suffered.).
In addition, Timberg argues that physical institutions help creativity thrive. His opening chapter documents three successful artistic scenes—Boston’s postwar poetry world, LA’s 1960s boom in contemporary art, and Austin’s vibrant 1970s alternative to the Nashville country-music machine. In analyzing what makes them work, he owes much to urban planner Jane Jacobs: It was livable, affordable, close-knit cities, with plenty of universities and plenty of cheap gathering places that allowed art to flourish in 20th-century America. In Austin, the university and the legislature provided day jobs or other support to the freewheeling artists, Timberg notes: “For all its protests of its maverick status, outlaw country was made possible by public funding.”
Today, affordability has gone out the window. As one freelance writer, Chris Ketcham, puts it, “rent is the basis of everything”—and New York and San Francisco, gouging relentlessly away at their middle class, are driving out the very people who built their unique cultures.
Take live music, for example. Without a robust support structure of people working for money, not just love—local writers who chronicle a scene, talented designers and promoters, bars and clubs that can pay the rent—live music is withering. Our minimum wage economy isn’t helping: For the venue and the band to cover their costs, they need curious music-lovers who have the time and money to come out, pay a cover charge, buy a beer or two and maybe an album. That’s a night out that fewer and fewer people can afford. Wealthy gentrifiers, meanwhile, would rather spend their evenings at a hot new restaurant than a grungy rock club. Foodie culture, Timberg suggests, has pushed out what used to nourish us.
Timberg is not a historian but a journalist, and his book is strongest when he allows creative people to speak for themselves. We hear how the struggles of a hip LA architect echo those of music professors and art critics. However, the fact that most of Timberg’s sources are men (and from roughly the same generation as the author), undercuts the book’s claim to universality. Those successful artistic scenes he cites at the beginning, in Boston, LA and Austin, and the mid-century heyday of American culture in general, were hardly welcoming to women and people of color.
It’s much harder to get upset about the decline of an industry that wasn’t going to let you join in the first place. Although Timberg admits this in passing, he doesn’t explore the way that the chipping away of institutional power might in fact have helped to liberate marginalized artists.
But all the liberation in the world counts for little if you can’t get paid, and Timberg’s central claim—that the number of people making a living by making art is rapidly decreasing—is timely and important, as is his argument that unemployed architects deserve our sympathetic attention just as much as unemployed auto workers.
The challenge is to find a way to talk about the essential role of art and creativity that doesn’t fall back on economic value, celebrity endorsement or vague mysticism. It’s far too important for that.
Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.
The speech came on the heels of a series of embarrassments for the United States, as clumsy covert programs aimed at promoting ‘civil society’ in Cuba were revealed and WikiLeaks cables acknowledged that US-supported ‘dissidents’ had little importance to Cuban society. Obama reiterated the US goal to change Cuba’s domestic and foreign policies, but explained that 50 years of hostility had not achieved the goal, and it was time for a new approach. Nevertheless, “we will continue to support civil society there,” he reassured doubters. “I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy.”
The US media sought reactions on the streets in Miami and Havana, and among a few chosen “dissidents” in Cuba. It generally ignored Cuban scholars and academics who have been laying the groundwork for better relations over several decades, visiting the United States (when the State Department has agreed to let them), collaborating with US counterparts in research, presentations, and publishing, while also opposing US policies and insisting on Cuba’s right to change in its own way and at its own pace, not as mandated by its northern neighbor.
The progressive Cuban journal Temas has brought together critical Cuban intellectuals since the early 1990s. These are not the “dissidents” supported and promoted by the U.S. State Department to bring about regime change. They are progressive Cubans who are engaged nationally and internationally in debating the changes, forced and desired, that have been unfolding in Cuba since the fall of the Soviet bloc.
Temas responded to Obama’s announcement by asking researchers in both countries to comment on a series of questions, and published the responses in the journal’s blog, Catalejo. Those on the US side included well-known academics like political scientists Jorge Domínguez (Harvard University) and William LeoGrande (American University), and historian Margaret Crahan (Columbia). But while Cuban readers had access to these voices, American readers had little access to their Cuban counterparts.
The Cuban scholars, like the Americans, overwhelmingly lauded the lessening of hostilities. Economist Pedro Monreal cautioned, though, that “the new policies between the two countries have the potential to positively influence Cuba’s development, but we must be clear that in and of themselves, these policies will not be sufficient to make Cuba more economically prosperous or bring about popular democracy or social justice.” Every word is important here. While the United States generally, and Obama explicitly in his speech, claim to promote “democracy” in Cuba, Monreal emphasizes that US-style democracy is not the only option. “Popular democracy” with “social justice,” Cuban style, suggests a revolutionary goal with very different implications.
One of the questions Temas asked was very little addressed in the US media: to what extent did hemispheric developments affect the US-Cuba rapprochement? “Any advance in Cuba-US relations is compatible with the framework of hemispheric relations that is perhaps most distinctively characterized by political heterogeneity,” according to Monreal. “For several years now it has been clear that the United States has not been able to ‘align’ inter-hemispheric frameworks for negotiation and cooperation according to its will. Thus in addition to frequent disagreements in the heart of the traditional organizations, new organizations have been formed that have excluded the United States.”
The new US-Cuba relations “will have an impact in inter-hemispheric relations in at least three areas: the possible reconfiguration of the dynamics that the relatively more ‘radical’ governments (e.g. Ecuador, Venezuela, or Bolivia) can push for in the traditional hemispheric entities like the OAS [Organization of American States] and the IADB [Inter-American Development Bank]; the eventual change in the relations between these entities (OAS and IADB) and others that the United States does not belong to (like CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States]); and a greater capacity for Cuba to contribute to inter-hemispheric cooperation, including working with the United States, building on the successful recent cooperation in the fight against Ebola.”
Monreal credited “the resistance of the Cuban people” with pushing Obama towards the new political opening. He insisted that “The so-called ‘normalization’ of relations between Cuba and the United States certainly includes aspects that are potentially positive for the Cuban people, like the growth in exports and jobs, and an eventual ‘peace dividend.’ But it also contains some latent elements that would not be considered ‘normal’ by the majority of Cubans, like the possible ‘Tijuanization’ of the labor market. It could be disastrous for Cuban society if we allow the normalization process to be governed by market values (like ‘efficiency’ or ‘economic rationality’) … The road to national wellbeing in a new context of relations with the United States should be decided on by the Cuban people in accordance with their own values and interests and not as the result of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. The ‘normalization,’ however we understand it, should be managed by deliberate policies.”
Monreal concludes that “A favorable context that ensures a real political empowerment for the majority of citizens — especially by preventing inequality from distorting the political process — would be the best guarantee that Cuban society’s re-encounter with the most imposing capitalist society that has ever existed does not lead to a ‘normalization’ of relations like what existed during the ‘republican’ period in Cuba, nor reproduce here the ‘model’ that characterizes US capital in many Latin American and Caribbean countries.”
Political analyst and Temas editorial board member Carlos Alzugaray noted that stereotypes dominated in each country’s impressions of the other. “For the majority of Cubans, the United States is an imperialist power that has traditionally been opposed to our national independence, and therefore everything that comes from our northern neighbor should be viewed with mistrust. For most North Americans, the Cuban government is a horrible communist dictatorship that constitutes a threat to the United States. These stereotypes create mistrust and have impeded movement towards civilized relations.”
Alzugaray insisted that the change ought to be seen in the context of inter-American relations. He acknowledged that some in the Latin American left and even in Cuba reacted by suggesting that “nothing has changed, the same struggle continues, just in new forms.” However, “an alternative analysis, which I am sympathetic to, argues that what happened is a signal that the United States is changing. We should take advantage of this change according to our interests … The United States is in a clear process of imperial over-extension … Faced with its loss of power, one sector of the elite is pushing to change its international behavior.” University of Havana professor of International Relations Jesús Arboleya argued in even stronger terms that “the reestablishment of relations with Cuba responded to an urgent need by the United States to preserve the pan-American system” in response to its waning power.
Like Monreal, Alzugaray emphasizes that maintaining Cuban independence during the process of warming relations is essential. “Citizens and institutions must think deeply and act with agility to promote whatever is in our national interest. This could mean taking advantage of the economic, commercial, and financial circumstances without making any concessions regarding our independence, self-determination, and security.”
Political scientist Rafael Hernández criticized the “eruption of neo-Cubanology” in the United States that “has confused the peace pipe with an act of political prostration and with the end of socialism. They attribute the change not to Washington, but to Havana (‘the Castros’ age’; ‘the coming end of the alliance with Venezuela’) and claim that the main result will be ‘opening a transition’ (‘after the Castros’) in which ‘the United States will be the most trusted actor’.”
Like the others cited, Hernández emphasizes the hemispheric context as a key factor pressuring the United States to relax hostilities. “Even though there are no other communist parties in government, and the Cuban political system is not necessarily admired by many governments, the hemisphere is a much more comfortable place for the island than it is for the United States. Clearly, Cuba’s presence at the [OAS] Summit [of the Americas] in Panama in three months will be a result of this hemispheric shift, not a decision nor a concession by the United States. For the United States, the option of boycotting the Summit because of the Cuban presence would have been a cure worse than the disease. This issue surely played a role in Obama’s decision to put all of his Cuban cards on the table on December 17th.”
Hernández offered a nuanced critique of US imperial policy. “Probably not only President Obama, but the individual Barack, really believes in the benefit of ‘promoting [US] values’ (as he said in his speech) in Cuba and elsewhere, because for him, they are universal. And where they aren’t accepted (Africa, the Middle East, China, Afghanistan, Russia, et al), there is a deficit that must be corrected. We Cubans should understand that this stance reflects cultural ethnocentrism more than ideology. If we want to connect and coexist with this northern society, we must rely on certain virtues (patience, perseverance, prudence), and distinguish between its imperialist impulse (which does exist) and this ethnocentrism, even though the two are connected.”
The long history of US-Cuban relations, for Hernández, brings particular challenges as well as hopes for the future. On one hand, the United States demands to exert greater control on Cuba than on other countries. “Even though Obama referred to the logic of US policy towards China and Vietnam to justify the change in policy towards Cuba, the United States sees Asians as strange inhabitants of the Antipodes, not small islands ‘under the US’ that until recently were its ‘possessions.’ For the culture of Big Brother, the Chinese government is permitted to prevent an organized group from approaching Tiananmen Square for whatever reason; and the Vietnamese can imprison its anti-government bloggers, without harming relations with the United States. In fact, bilateral relations for the past twenty years have included annual meetings to discuss their differences regarding human rights and democracy.”
“Still, there are also comparative advantages in the cultural relationship between the United States and Cuba. Cubans are more culturally North American than the majority of the hemisphere. North Americans generally feel less foreign in Havana than in other capitals, not to mention safer. If they come, they can see for themselves that the Cubans don’t so much need the United States to ‘help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century’ (as Obama said in his speech). Rather, they need the United States to stop impeding their access to technology. It would be better for the two societies to encounter each other, without trying to interfere in each others’ business, as neighbors who share a passion for baseball, Studebakers, Latin Jazz, home appliances, hip hop, modernity, taste in movies, and common sites of history like New York and Havana, among many other things.”
Avi Chomsky is an American historian and professor at Salem State University. She is the author of, amongst others, They Take Our Jobs! And Twenty Other Myths about Immigration, A History of the Cuban Revolution, and Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal.
“To read the Koran is a revolting experience. After Islam is born, it distinguishes itself by its will to subjugate the world. Its nature – it is subjugation.”
— Michel Houellebecq, reported 31 August 2001.
Nothing justifies an assassination, all the more a mass murder committed in cold blood. What has happened in Paris, the beginning of January, constitutes an absolutely inexcusable crime.
To say that involves nothing original: millions of people think and feel likewise on this account. However, in the light of this appalling tragedy, one of the first questions that occurrs to me is the following: in spite of the profound disgust experienced by the murders, is it obligatory to identify oneself with the victims’ actions? Must I be Charlie because the victims were the supreme incarnation of the ‘liberty of expression’, as the President of the Republic has declared? Am I Charlie, not only because I am a secular atheist, but also because of my fundamental antipathy towards the oppressive roots of the three principal Western monotheistic religions?
Certain caricatures published in Charlie Hebdo, that I’ve seen ages ago, appeared to me to be in bad taste; only a minority amongst them made me laugh. But isn’t the problem to be found there! In the majority of the caricatures on Islam published by the weekly, in the course of the last decade, I have discerned a manipulative aggro intended to further seduce the readership, obviously non-Muslim.
The reproduction by Charlie of the caricatures published in the Danish magazine seemed to me appalling. Already, in 2006, I had perceived as pure provocation the drawing of Mohammed decked in a turban in the form of a bomb. This is not so much a caricature against Islamists as a stupid conflation of Islam with Terror; it’s on a par with identifying Judaism with money!
It has been affirmed that Charlie, impartially, lays into all religions, but this is a lie. Certainly, it mocks Christians, and, sometimes, Jews. However, neither the Danish magazine, nor Charlie would permit themselves (fortunately) to publish a caricature presenting the prophet Moses, with kippah and ritual fringes, in the guise of a wily money-lender, hovering on a street corner. It is good that in the society these days called ‘Judeo-Christian’ (sic), it should no longer be possible to publically disseminate anti-Jewish hatred, as was the case in the not-too-distant past. I am for the liberty of expression while being at the same time opposed to racist incitement.
I admit to, gladly, tolerating the restrictions imposed on Dieudonné from expressing too far and wide his ‘criticism’ and his ‘jokes’ against Jews. On the other hand, I am positively opposed to attempts to restrain him physically. And if, by chance, some idiot attacks him, I will not be very shocked … albeit I will not go so far as to brandish a placard with the inscription: ‘je suis Dieudonné’.
In 1886, there was published in Paris La France juive of Edouard Drumont. And in 2014, the day of the assassinations committed by the three idiot criminals, there appears, under the title: Soumission[Submission], effectively Muslim France, of Michel Houellebecq. The pamphlet La France juive was a genuine bestseller by the end of the 19thCentury. Even before its appearance in the bookstores, Soumission was already a bestseller!
These two books, each in its own time, have benefited from sizeable and heated media coverage. There are, certainly, differences between them. Amongst other things, Houellebecq knows that, at the beginning of the 21st Century, it is no longer acceptable to generate fear-mongering of a Jewish threat, but that it remains readily acceptable to sell books implying a Muslim threat. Alain Soral, less adept, has not understood the ‘rules’ and, for this fact, he is marginalized in the media – and so much the better! Houellebecq, on the other hand, has been invited, with much fanfare, to appear on the coveted 8 o’clock program (journal de 20 heures) of French public television, while his book is simultaneously responsible for the dissemination of the fear of Islam.
A bad wind, a fetid wind of dangerous racism, hovers over Europe: there exists a fundamental difference between challenging a religion or a dominant belief in a society, and that of attacking or inciting against the religion of a dominated minority. If, in the breast of ‘Judeo-Muslim’ [no less ridiculous than the Judeo-Christian label] society – in Saudi Arabia, in the Gulf Emirates – there is a groundswell of protests and warnings against the dominant religion that oppresses workers in their thousands, and millions of women, we have the responsibility to support the persecuted protestors. Now, as one well knows, Western leaders, far from encouraging the would-be disciples of Voltaire and Rousseau in the Middle East, maintain their total support to the religious regimes the most repressive.
On the other hand, in France or in Denmark, in Germany or in Spain populated by millions of Muslim workers, more often forced into the worst jobs, at the bottom of the social scale, it is necessary to show the greatest prudence before criticizing Islam, and above all to not crudely ridicule it.
At the moment, and particularly after this terrible massacre, my sympathy goes to the Muslims who reside in ghettos adjacent to the metropolises, who are at considerable risk of becoming the second victims of the murders perpetrated at Charlie Hebdo and at the Hyper Casher supermarket. I continue to take as a reference point the ‘original Charlie’: the great Charlie Chaplin who never mocked the poor and the little-educated.
Moreover, and knowing that one’s writings always occur in context, how to not raise the fact that, for more than a year, so many French troops are present in Africa to ‘combat the jihadists’, when no serious debate has taken place in France on the usefulness or the damage of these military interventions? The colonial gendarme of yesteryear, who carries an incontestable responsibility in the chaotic heritage of [arbitrary] borders and regimes, is today ‘recalled’ to reinstall ‘law and order’ by means of its latterday neo-colonial gendarmerie.
France joins the military coalition in Iraq, beside the US military, firefighting pyromaniac, responsible for the chaos created in the region, and notably in the rise to power of the frightful ‘Daesh’. Allied with the ‘enlightened’ Saudi leadership, and other ardent partisans of the ‘liberty of expression’ in the Middle East, [France] shores up the illogical border carve-up that it had imposed a century ago according to its imperialist interests. It is summoned to bombard those who threaten the precious oil reserves whose product it consumes, without understanding that, in doing so, it invites the risk of terror attacks in the heart of the metropolis.
But, in fact, it is possible that this process is well understood. The enlightened West can’t possibly be the naive and innocent victim as it loves to present itself. Of course, for an assassin to kill in cold blood innocent and unarmed people it is necessary to be cruel and perverse. But it is necessary to be hypocritical or stupid to close one’s eyes on the particulars that have provided the foundations of this tragedy.
This is also proof of a blindness that we had better understand: this conflict will further escalate if we don’t all work together, atheists and believers, to open true ways of living together without hating each other.
Shlomo Sand is the author of How I Stopped Being a Jew, Verso, 2014.
In November 2014 Sand was denied the opportunity to talk at a University in France (seat of the liberty of expression). The UJFP summarises the affair here.
An earlier version of this article was published on the site of the Union Juive Française pour la Paix, and reproduced on Mediapart. Translated from the Hebrew by Michel Bilis; translated from Bilis’ French by Evan Jones.
Observers warn that government reaction in wake of Charlie Hebdo killings reminiscent of post-9/11 fear campaign
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre last week and just days since the historic Parisunity rally when world leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder and declared their support for freedom of speech, French authorities have arrested 54 people on charges of “glorifying” or “defending” terrorism.
The French Justice Ministry said that of those arrested, four are minors and several had already been convicted under special measures for immediate sentencing, AP reports. Individuals charged with “inciting terrorism” face a possible 5-year prison term, or up to 7 years for inciting terrorism online. None of those arrested have been linked to the attacks.
Why is one view permissible and the other criminally barred—other than because the force of law is being used to control political discourse and one form of terrorism (violence in the Muslim world) is done by, rather than to, the west?
Controversial comic Dieudonné was one of those taken into custody Wednesday morning for a Facebook post in which he declared: “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly”—merging the names of the satire magazine and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four hostages at a kosher market on Friday.
Since last week’s multiple terrorism attacks that left 17 people dead, “France ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism,” AP reports.
The irony that the west was rallying to defend a magazine that was attacked for its alleged slander of Islam, while at the same persecuting individuals for voicing their views was not lost on many.
“As pernicious as this arrest and related ‘crackdown’ on some speech obviously is, it provides a critical value: namely, it underscores the utter scam that was this week’s celebration of free speech in the west,” journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote on Wednesday.
Greenwald went on to question the charge of “defending terrorism” brought against Dieudonné and others. Greenwald continued:
If you want “terrorism defenses” like that to be criminally prosecuted (as opposed to societally shunned), how about those who justify, cheer for and glorify the invasion and destruction of Iraq, with its “Shock and Awe” slogansignifying an intent to terrorize the civilian population into submission and itsmonstrous tactics in Fallujah? Or how about the psychotic calls from a Fox News host, when discussing Muslims radicals, to “kill them ALL.” Why is one view permissible and the other criminally barred – other than because the force of law is being used to control political discourse and one form of terrorism (violence in the Muslim world) is done by, rather than to, the west?
Also Wednesday, Ines Pohl, who runs the German satire magazine die tageszeitung,published an op-ed in Politico warning against the exploitation by political leaders in the wake of such an attack or crisis, which in this case is the European right pushing an agenda of closed borders and general ethnocentrism.
“The blood in Paris wasn’t even dry when the first German politician, Alexander Gauland, one of the top candidates from the Alternative für Deutschland party, claimed this killing as a proof that Germany has the right to fear the influence of Muslim culture and that Germans have the right, and the obligation, to defend their Christian heritage,” Pohl writes.
Drawing a line between the current climate since the Paris attacks and the post-9/11 crackdown, Pohl goes on to note that next week the CIA torture reports are to be released in German and adds: “This report is the proof of how a country can be misled when it becomes ruled by fear.”
Torture victim Maher Arar and others shared their reactions to the French crackdown online.