Has the Banksy Approach Run its Course?

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(Or how to think of images as tools for public argument)

by Christa Olson


Recently, students in my graduate class have wondered whether “image events” staged by social movements — Greenpeace, Earth First!, the Civil Rights Movement — have lost some of their oomph in the post-social media world. Now that anything can go viral and anyone can stage a spectacle, they asked, do dramatic, image-based interventions like tree-sits, lunch counter sit-ins, and confrontations with whalers even register?

I find myself reading — and nodding along with — Joel Golby’s snarky take-down of a piece of political graffiti (above) whose critique of racism in the Academy Awards falls absurdly far off the mark. Golby’s article takes that one, sad stencil to task but, in the process, ponders whether the whole idea of the Banksy-esque critique has run its course.

By way of the dedicated actions of some of the twentieth-century’s most profound social movements and by way of the lazy activism of an east London graffiti artist, I find myself wondering about the possibilities for visual politics today. Are we, ultimately, so fully saturated with images that they’ve lost the power to move us toward anything but cynicism?

I often play the cynic, but for once I’ll eschew pessimism and offer three quick takes on the enduring power of images as tools for making marginal arguments visible in public. I would also welcome a conversation on this question with other picture people.


Appropriating visuality: Political theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff suggests that the “right to look” has long belonged to the powerful. Visuality, he argues, originates with surveillance by an oppressive state and its representatives. But cell phone videos of police brutality, of teachers harassing students, and of politicians speaking frankly when they think no one is listening quickly remind us that there is a visual politics of surveillance emerging from the ground-up as well. Visuality is a powerful tool for those asserting their own right to look.

Valuing accumulation: Too often lately, justice has been denied even in the face of overwhelming visual evidence and our right to look seems impotent. So, it’s not enough to see that grassroots surveillance is happening or that more traditional forms of image-based politics continue. On their own, singly, pictures are as unlikely to change minds as are any other sort of communication. But the accumulation of images does have force over time. Who can deny, for example, that repeated images of police violence against people of color have begun to shift national conversations? And the whole idea behind #OscarsSoWhite is that the accumulation of images — absurdly white-washed or complexly diverse — matters and makes a difference for good or for bad.

Acknowledging Small Triumphs: It’s easy to look nostalgically at Charles Moore’s photographs of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign or Greenpeace’s encounter with whalers and imagine a by-gone era of powerful images that changed the world. The truth is, though, that even those famous photographic moments of resistance were, ultimately, small moves in a much longer arc. Sometimes, even those of us who know better attribute a quasi-magical power to pictures. We’re better off, I’d argue, letting pictures do their incremental work, celebrating the small victories that come fromrecalibrating how film is developed in order to better capture the diversity of skin-tone or — to contradict myself — re-making a pin-up calendar into a celebration of strong women. It’s not that pictures can’t ever spark massive change; it’s just that we shouldn’t assume that the absence of revolution indicates a failure of visual politics.


So, now I return to the Oscar-wielding starving child so aptly critiqued in Golby’s Vice post. Without discounting the critique or offering any defense of the artwork itself, it does seem fair to say that the graffiti in question, despite its hackneyed symbolism, its strange conflation of starving children and actors of color, and its terrible ‘caption’ is, in fact, evidence of an on-going visual politics.

This piece of graffiti suggests that the surveillance of the Academy extends even to a random street corner in London (whether or not the Academy notices that surveillance); the stencil gives evidence of a horizontally accumulating argument (from #OscarsSoWhite to celebrity boycotts to Banksy imitators); and it gets the message out (even if in an entirely ham-fisted manner). Heck, it was enough to get Vice and now Reading the Pictures to take notice. That’s not nothing.


Originally published at Reading The Pictures, the only site dedicated to the daily review of news and documentary photography. Sign up for the Reading The Pictures Week in Re-View email. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Whose lives matter? The limitations of Bernie Sanders

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  • February 7, 2016

Our only hope for a radical internationalist movement lies in the self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

As the next US presidential election creeps closer, a significant segment of the American left — including the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, and the socialist publication Jacobin — has thrown its support behind the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. While perhaps predictable, these stances are symptoms of an American left that is both devoid of a practical strategy for radical change and ethically bankrupt with regard to the principles of solidarity.

The principles at stake are not fringe concerns. If anything, they are basic litmus tests of any individual’s commitment to socialism and human dignity. The fact that Sanders fails these tests raises an important question: Why is a large swathe of the left promoting a candidate who is neither anti-imperialist, nor anti-border, nor even socialist?

REASONS TO REMAIN SKEPTICAL

In terms of his actual policy proposals, Bernie Sanders is a milquetoast social democrat at best. He is not an anti-capitalist; he believes in the private ownership of the means of production and production for profit. In a socialist system, the means of production are owned and controlled by the working class. Sanders more-or-less explicitly rejects this vision, arguing instead for a US version of Scandinavian social democracy: a single-payer healthcare system, free higher education, a decent minimum wage, and Keynesian economic stimulus to support employment.

These policy issues are the basic positive proposals put forth by the Sanders campaign, and they have earned him the support of many US socialists. There are good reasons to remain extremely skeptical of Sanders’ candidacy, however.

First, Sanders is an imperialist whose foreign policy is more akin to that of Barack Obama than any anti-interventionist leftist. In his platform-defining speech, Sanders calls for a new “organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century.” In Congress, Sanders has been a vocal supporter of the appallingly wasteful F-35 program, opting to designate even more funding for the US military despite an ostensible commitment to cut defense spending.

Sanders is also a long-time supporter of Israel, even going so far as to approve of Israel’s unprovoked 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 1,600 Palestinian civilians. In October, the Sanders campaign ejected a group of activists from a campaign event for holding up a vague pro-Palestinian sign. If this were not enough, Sanders clearly states that he approves of and would continue Obama’s drone targeted assassination program, which has killed over 3,300 people in Pakistan alone since 2004.

Even beyond the question of imperialism, Sanders demonstrates an almost complete lack of internationalist principle. Sanders described open borders as “a Koch brothers proposal …which says essentially there is no United States,” contending that open borders would flood the country with immigrants who would wreck the job market and take ‘American’ jobs. This sort of rhetoric should be familiar to any leftist — it is exactly the same as that used by right-wing nativists to justify violence and discrimination against migrants.

The fact that Sanders buys into such nativist fantasies is particularly appalling. In doing so, he lends credence to a narrative that displaces working class anger from capitalism, which is actually responsible for poverty and unemployment, onto working people from other countries. In effect, Sanders implies that he would be more than happy to continue the disastrous immigration policies of the Obama administration, which has broken previous records by deporting over two million people.

A WIDER POLITICAL SHIFT

More than anything, Sanders’ success is symptomatic of an ongoing political shift in the United States. Popular support for “Third Way” neoliberal politics, as exemplified by the Clintons, is crumbling. The Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have begun to reintroduce radical thought into the American political consciousness. In particular, young people are starting to recognize that capitalism is a deeply flawed system, and they are looking for alternatives.

Now is the time to articulate a coherent vision for radical change and organize in working-class communities so that we stand a chance of actualizing that vision. Organizing for Sanders, however, is not a realistic way to build a radical movement in the United States.

The arguments in support of the Sanders campaign remain remarkably unconvincing. In a recent Jacobin article, Nivedita Majumdar argues that the Sanders campaign can be used as a tool for organizing around the idea of socialism. She chides Bernie’s critics on the left for being “insular” and “apolitical,” seemingly more concerned with the social pressures of work within small activist groups than becoming politically relevant. However, as Lance Selfa points out, the strategy of organizing within the Democratic Party in hopes of building a larger movement has never been successful, despite repeated attempts by left reformists to that end.

Majumdar’s stance is based on an analysis of the American left that presumes an almost crippling weakness. She argues that revolutionary transformation is simply “not on the table,” which leads her to endorse Sanders despite his many flaws. The problem with this analysis is that it accepts defeat before the struggle has even begun. If the American left is so weak that we must be content with supporting any left-liberal candidate, how exactly do we plan to build support for the radical changes we actually need? We cannot build support for a socialist future by misleading the public about what socialism is. We cannot hope to win if we accept the premise that revolutionary change is impossible.

The American socialist left seems to be aware of many of Sanders’ limitations: his lack of genuine socialist politics, his imperialism, and his unjustifiable stances on immigration. The question, then, is why so many socialists choose to support his campaign anyway. If one’s stance on the means of production, NATO, the Israeli occupation, drone strikes and border controls are all negotiable, what positions are non-negotiable?

It is hard to believe that these shortcomings should be ignored simply because Sanders has social democratic convictions. By choosing to support Sanders, the reformist left suggests that it is acceptable to advocate for policies that seriously harm people of color, from undocumented migrants in the United States to innocent civilians in the Middle East.

A QUESTION OF LEFT STRATEGY

As much as it poses an ethical dilemma, the Sanders campaign presents the American left with a question of strategy. Reformist participation in electoral politics is appealing because the route to power appears to be a question of running a successful election campaign. If Sanders can succeed, the argument goes, why not a real socialist party in the near future?

The problem with this line of thought is that the United States is constitutionally undemocratic — its political system was explicitly designed to thwart radical change. Through the Senate, representatives of just 11 percent of the nation’s population — concentrated in some of the country’s most rural, conservative states — can veto any national legislation. Any meaningful reforms would face immediate constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, which is made up of lifetime legacy appointees whose politics are liberal at best and reactionary at worst.

Participation in US electoral politics is therefore not a realistic strategy to bring about radical social change. It is easy to believe that we can gradually transition to socialism by winning a series of elections. It is much harder to realize that this route will never deliver the change we desire, because that realization requires us to pursue strategies beyond the ballot box.

Rather than channeling popular anger into institutionalized politics, we need to articulate a vision for the radical reconstruction of the political and economic structures of society. We have to devote ourselves to the hard work of organizing in working-class communities, building power in the streets and in workplaces rather than the halls of Congress. More than anything, we have to recognize that the radical left is at its strongest as a grassroots movement and at its weakest when it tries to bargain with institutional powers.

We cannot succumb to an opportunistic streak that is more than willing to sacrifice vital principles for legal expediency and electoral fantasies. It is painful to see this tendency in today’s left, despite the myriad lessons offered by Syriza’s recent failures. A left that values minor economic gains over humanity is not worthy of the name — it is a left that has defeated itself before even beginning to struggle.

What we need now is a movement that is both rigorously internationalist and capable of victory. Our only hope for such a movement lies in the collective self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

 

Ben Reynolds is a writer and activist based in New York. His commentary has appeared in CounterPunch and other forums.

 

https://roarmag.org/essays/whose-lives-matter-bernie-sanders/

Stop the persecution of Julian Assange!

UN panel condemns detention of WikiLeaks founder

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5 February 2016

More than five years after first being detained under a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) issued by Sweden in relation to fabricated allegations of sexual misconduct, and after more than three and a half years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been vindicated by a United Nations human right panel. This body has ruled that his persecution by the Swedish and British governments amounts to “arbitrary detention” and constitutes a violation of international law.

Assange’s sole “crime” is making public secret documents detailing the real and murderous war crimes carried out by the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the conspiracies hatched by the US State Department and the CIA in countries around the world.

For exposing its criminal operations, Washington is determined to silence and punish Assange, using the lies concocted by Swedish prosecutors and the complicity of the British government to achieve its aims.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry Thursday acknowledged that the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) will today issue its findings that Assange has been “deprived of his liberty in an arbitrary manner for an unacceptable length of time.”

The UN panel could only have reached such a decision based on overwhelming evidence that the charges against Assange constitute a legal frame-up mounted for political purposes.

Even before the findings of the UN working group were made known, Assange issued a statement from the Ecuadorian embassy accepting the decision as the culmination of his final legal appeal. He declared that, were the panel to rule against him, he would leave the embassy on Friday “to accept arrest by British police.” He went on to insist that if it found that the Swedish and British governments were acting in violation of international law, “I expect the immediate return of my passport and the termination of further attempts to arrest me.”

Neither London nor Stockholm, however, have shown any similar inclination to allow international law and the human rights treaties to which both are signatories to guide their actions.

A spokesman for the government of Prime Minister David Cameron issued a cynical statement insisting that Julian Assange “has never been arbitrarily detained by the UK but is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorian embassy.” Only last October did British police end a round-the-clock siege of the embassy, announcing that they were pursuing “covert” methods in seeking Assange’s capture. At one point, the British government indicated that it would ignore international law protecting embassies and send security forces to storm the building.

As for the Swedish government, the foreign ministry in Stockholm issued a brief note asserting that the UN’s ruling “differs from that of the Swedish authorities” and would not alter its legal vendetta against the WikiLeaks founder.

The British and the US governments have regularly invoked the findings of the UN panel on arbitrary detentions when they could be used to lend a “human rights” pretext to imperialist operations against countries like China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba. That the actions taken by London and Washington themselves should be subject to international law, however, is rejected out of hand.

What they find impermissible is the exposure of their crimes, which have killed and wounded millions, while turning many millions more into homeless refugees. This is why they have not only hounded Assange, but placed Private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning in prison for 35 years.

Manning was convicted by a drumhead military tribunal in 2013 on charges of “aiding the enemy” for providing WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of classified documents, including the “collateral murder” video showing an Apache helicopter’s gun sight view of the 2007 massacre of 12 Iraqi civilians. Also leaked were the “Afghan war diary” and the “Iraq war logs,” exposing multiple war crimes committed by the US military, and over 250,000 secret US diplomatic cables revealing Washington’s counterrevolutionary intrigues around the globe.

Meanwhile, Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed the NSA’s wholesale collection of every form of data on the planet, from US and non-US citizens alike, in open violation of the US Bill of Rights and international law, has been turned into a man without a country, living in forced exile in Moscow.

There are a number of other such cases, including that of ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, the only person punished in connection with the CIA’s torture of detainees—sent to prison for publicly exposing it. The Obama administration has prosecuted more individuals under the Espionage Act for leaking secret information to the media than all other US presidents combined.

Assange can expect even worse if he falls into the clutches of the British police and the Swedish authorities, who are acting as the agents of the US military and intelligence apparatus. He has been the subject of a secret grand jury investigation for over five years and is undoubtedly charged in a sealed indictment with espionage and other crimes against the state that could bring him life in prison or even the death penalty. Meanwhile, leading political figures in the US have openly called for his assassination.

Assange, Manning, Snowden and others have faced relentless persecution for daring to lift the lid on the secret operations of the US government.

This witch hunt is driven by the deepest needs of the American state, which functions as the instrument of a financial oligarchy. It defends this ruling layer’s vast wealth and monopoly on political power against the masses of working people in the US and around the world, while seeking to offset the economic decline of American capitalism by waging ever-more dangerous wars of aggression. Given the criminal character of these operations, a regime of secrecy and increasingly dictatorial methods is indispensable.

The only genuine constituency for the defense of democratic rights is the working class. Working people must come to the defense of Assange, Snowden, Manning and other victims of state conspiracies and repression.

Any attempt to arrest or extradite Assange must be answered with mass demonstrations and work actions in the UK, the US and all over the world.

This campaign in defense of Assange and the other victims of state repression can go forward only as part of the struggle of the international working class against the capitalist system, whose historic crisis threatens humanity with both world war and police state dictatorship.

Bill Van Auken

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/05/pers-f05.html

White America’s ‘Broken Heart’

On Sunday, at the Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines, former President Bill Clinton, looking frail and sounding faint, stumped for his wife, working through her qualifications with a husband’s devotion and a Svengali’s facility.

But one thing he said stood out to me for its clear rhetorical framing.

He attributed much of the anger that’s present in the electorate to anxiety over a changing demographic profile of the country, but then said: We are going to share the future. The only question is: What will be the terms of the sharing?

This idea of negotiating the terms of sharing the future is an expansive one, on both ends of the ideological spectrum, but it also seems to me to be an internal debate white America is having with itself.

Much of the energy on both the left and the right this cycle is coming from white Americans who are rejecting the direction of America and its institutions. There is a profound disappointment. On one hand, it’s about fear of dislocation of supremacy, and the surrendering of power and the security it provides. On the other hand, it’s about disillusionment that the game is rigged and the turf is tilted. It is about defining who created this country’s bounty and who has most benefited from it.

White America is wrestling with itself, torn between two increasingly distant visions and philosophies, trying to figure out if the country should retreat from its present course or be remade.

The results from the Iowa caucuses revealed that Republican caucusgoers gave roughly even support to the top three finishers — Ted Cruz, a much-loathed anti-institutional who has shown a pyromaniac’s predilection for wanting to torch Washington rather than make it work; the real estate developer spouting nativist and even fascist policies with the fervor of a prosperity preacher; and Marco Rubio, a too-slick-to-be-trusted stripling who oozes ambition with every obviously rehearsed response.

On the left, the white vote was nearly evenly split in Iowa between Hillary Clinton, a pragmatist who believes that the system can be fixed, and Bernie Sanders, a revolutionary who believes that system must be dismantled. At least on the Democratic side, age, income and liberalism seemed to be the fault lines — older, wealthier, more moderate people preferred Clinton and younger, less wealthy and “very liberal” people preferred Sanders.

Clinton won the support of nonwhites in Iowa 58 percent to Sanders’s 34 percent. This gap also exists — and has remained stubbornly persistent — in national polls, and in some polls is even wider. For instance, according to a January Monmouth University Poll, nationwide black and Latino support for Clinton was 71 percent as opposed to 21 percent for Sanders. At this point, this is a settled issue for nonwhite voters, and those voters are likely to be Democratic primary king- or queen-makers.

During Bill Clinton’s speech on Sunday, he brought up the recent report about the rising death rate among some white people in America.

As Gina Kolata reported in November in The New York Times:

“Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.”

He rattled off the reasons for this rise — suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses — and then concluded that these white Americans were dying of “a broken heart.”

It was, again, an interesting framing: that these people dying of sadness and vice were simply the leading edge of a tragic, morbid expression of a disappointment and fear shadowing much of white America.

America has a gauzy, romanticized version of its history that is largely fiction. According to that mythology, America rose to greatness by sheer ruggedness, ingenuity and hard work. It ignores or sidelines the tremendous human suffering of African slaves that fueled that financial growth, and the blood spilled and dubious treaties signed with Native Americans that fueled its geographic growth. It ignores that the prosperity of some Americans always hinged on the oppression of other Americans.

Much of America’s past is the story of white people benefiting from a system that white people designed and maintained, which increased their chances of success as it suppressed those same chances in other groups. Those systems persist to this day in some disturbing ways, but the current, vociferous naming and challenging of those systems, the placing of the lamp of truth near the seesaw of privilege and oppression, has provoked a profound sense of discomfort and even anger.

In Sanders’s speech following the Iowa caucuses, he veered from his position that this country “in many ways was created” on “racist principles,” and instead said: “What the American people understand is this country was based and is based on fairness.” Nonwhite people in this country understand that as a matter of history and heritage this simply isn’t true, but it is a hallowed ideal for white America and one that centers the America ethos.

Indeed, the current urgency about inequality as an issue is really about how some white Americans are coming to live an experience that many minorities in this country have long lived — structural inequity has leapt the racial barrier — and that the legacy to which they fully assumed they were heirs is increasingly beyond their grasp.

Inequality has been a feature of the African-American condition in this country since the first black feet touched this ground.

Last month, the MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes tweeted: “This campaign is starting to feel more and more like a long, national nervous breakdown.” For white America, I believe this is true.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/04/opinion/white-americas-broken-heart.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1

America’s New Vietnam Is the Middle East

WORLD

Rather than a rush to yet more war, it’s time to have a real national debate on the subject.

Close up of the flag of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on silky fabric.
Photo Credit: Ronnie Chua

Who even remembers the moment in mid-February 2003, almost 13 years ago, when millions of people across this country and the planet turned out in an antiwar moment unique in history? It was aimed at stopping a conflict that had yet to begin. Those demonstrators, myself included, were trying to put pressure on the administration of George W. Bush not to do what its top officials so visibly, desperately wanted to do: invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, garrison it for decades to come, and turn that country into an American gas station. None of us were seers. We didn’t fully grasp what that invasion would set off, nor did we imagine a future terror caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but we did know that, if it was launched, some set of disasters was guaranteed; we knew beyond a doubt that this would not end well.

We had an analysis of the disaster to come and you could glimpse it on the handmade signs we carried to those vast demonstrations (some of which Irecorded at the time): “Remember when presidents were smart and bombs were dumb?”; “Contain Saddam — and Bush”; “Use our might to persuade, not invade”; “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?”; “Pre-emptive war is terrorism”; “We don’t buy it, liberate Florida”; and so on. We felt in our bones that it was no business of Washington’s to decide what Iraq should be by force of arms and that American imperial desires in the Greater Middle East were suspect indeed. And we turned out to make that point so impressively that, on the front page of the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler referred to us as the planet’s second superpower. (“The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”)

Of course, this vast upsurge of global opposition would prove to be right on the mark, while all the brilliant policymakers and pundits in Washington who beat the drums loudly for war were desperately wrong. And yet the invasion did happen and, in its disastrous wake, we, not they, were wiped out of history. None of us would be consulted when the retrospectives began. No one would want to hear from those who had been right about the invasion (only officials and “experts” who had been dismally wrong). In the process that pre-war movement of ours would essentially be erased from history.

Mind you, we knew that, whatever we did, George W. Bush was bound and determined to invade Iraq. As I put it that February, “I’m not a total fool. I know — as I’ve long been writing in these dispatches — that this administration is hell-bent for a war. The build-up in the Gulf during these days of demonstrations has been unceasing. I still expect that war to come, and soon. Nonetheless, I find myself amazed by the variegated mass of humanity that turned out yesterday… The world has actually spoken and largely in words of its own. It has issued a warning to our leaders, which, given the history of ‘the people’ and the countless demonstrations of the people’s many (sometimes frightening) powers from 1776 on, is to be ignored at the administration’s peril.”

On that, unfortunately, I was wrong. We were indeed ignored and it didn’t prove to be “at the administration’s peril” (not in the normal sense anyway). The large-scale antiwar movement barely made it into the war years. There were a couple of massive demonstrations still to come, but as time went on, as things got worse, as the situation in Iraq devolved and those millions of demonstrators were proven to have been unbearably on the right side of history, the antiwar movement itself essentially disappeared, except for scattered veterans’ groups and heroic protesters like the members of Code Pink.

At a time when Americans should have been in the streets saying hell no, we better not go, the Bush administration and then the Obama administration were repeating the same militarized mistakes endlessly, while turning the Greater Middle East into a charnel house of failure. Today, as Pentagon officials prepare for their next set of forays, interventions, drone assassination campaigns, and special ops raids in, among other places, Libya — and what could possibly go wrong there? — next to no one is pressuring or opposing them, next to nothing is in their way. As a result, TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus’s latest post on what’s missing from the missing antiwar movement in America couldn’t be more timely. Tom Engelhardt

America’s New Vietnam in the Middle East: A Civil War Story About the Islamic State Might Spark a Peace Movement

by Ira Chernus

It was half a century ago, but I still remember it vividly. “We have to help South Vietnam,” I explained. “It’s a sovereign nation being invaded by another nation, North Vietnam.”

“No, no,” my friend protested. “There’s just one Vietnam, from north to south, divided artificially. It’s a civil war. And we have no business getting involved. We’re just making things worse for everyone.”

At the time, I hadn’t heard anyone describe the Vietnam War that way. Looking back, I see it as my first lesson in a basic truth of political life — that politics is always a contest between competing narratives. Accept a different story and you’re going to see the issue differently, which might leave you open to supporting a very different policy. Those who control the narrative, that is, are likely to control what’s done, which is why governments so regularly muster their resources — call it propaganda or call it something else — to keep that story in their possession.

Right now, as Americans keep a wary eye on the Islamic State (IS), there are only two competing stories out there about the devolving situation in the Middle East: think of them as the mission-creep and the make-the-desert-glow stories. The Obama administration suggests that we have to “defend” America by gradually ratcheting up our efforts, from air strikes to advisers to special operations raids against the Islamic State. Administration critics, especially the Republican candidates for president, urge us to “defend” ourselves by bombing IS to smithereens, sending in sizeable contingents of American troops, and rapidly upping the military ante. Despite the fact that the Obama administrationand Congress continue to dance around the word “war,” both versions are obviously war stories. There’s no genuine peace story in sight.

To be sure, peace activists have been busy poking holes in the two war narratives. It’s not hard. As they point out, U.S. military action against IS is obviously self-defeating. It clearly gives the Islamic State exactly what it wants. For all its fantasies of an apocalyptic final battle with unbelievers, that movement is not in any normal sense either planning to attack the United States or capable of doing so. Its practical, real-world goal is to win over more Muslims to its side everywhere. Few things serve that purpose better than American strikes on Muslims in the Middle East.

If IS launches occasional attacks in Europe and tries to inspire them here in the U.S., it’s mainly to provoke retaliation. It wants to be Washington’s constant target, which gives it cachet, elevating its struggle. Every time we take the bait, we hand the Islamic State another victory, helping it grow and launch new “franchises” in other predominantly Muslim nations.

That’s a reasonable analysis, which effectively debunks the justifications for more war. It’s never enough, however, just to show that the prevailing narrative doesn’t fit the facts. If you want to change policy, you need a new story, one that fits the facts far better because it’s built on a new premise.

For centuries, scientists found all sorts of flaws in the old notion that the sun revolves around the Earth, but it held sway until Copernicus came up with a brand-new one. The same holds true in politics. What’s needed is not just a negative narrative that says, “Here’s why your ideas and actions are wrong,” but a positive one that fits the facts better. Because it’s built on a new premise, it can point to new ways to act in the world, and so rally an effective movement to demand change.

At their best, peace movements in the past always went beyond critique to offer stories that described conflicts in genuinely new ways. At present, however, the U.S. peace movement has yet to find the alternative narrative it needs to talk about the Islamic State, which leaves it little more than a silent shadow on the American political scene.

Vietnam Redux

That’s not to say that the peace movement is stuck story-less. One potentially effective narrative that might bring it back to life is sitting in plain view, right there in the peace activists’ most common critique of the U.S. war against the Islamic State.

IS is not making war on the U.S., the critique explains, nor on Europe. Its sporadic attacks on those “infidel” lands aim primarily to radicalize Muslims living there in hopes of recruiting them. Indeed, all IS strategies are geared toward winning Muslims to its side and gaining more traction in predominantly Muslim lands. That’s where the vast majority of IS-directed or inspired violence happens, all over what Muslims call dar al-Islam, “the home of Islam,” fromNigeriato Syria to Indonesia.

The problem for the Islamic State: the vast majority of Muslims are just not buying its story. In fact, IS is making enemiesas well as friends everywhere it goes. In other words, it is involved in a civil war within dar al-Islam.

Every step we take deeper into that civil war is a misstep that only makes us more vulnerable. The stronger our stand against the Islamic State, the more excuses and incentives we give it to try to attack us, and the easier it is for IS to recruit fighters to do the job. The best way to protect American lives is to transcend our fears and refuse to take sides in someone else’s civil war.

That’s the positive narrative waiting to be extracted from the peace movement’s analysis. One big reason the movement has had such a paltry influence in these years: it’s never spelled out this “Muslim civil war” narrative explicitly, even though it fits the facts so much better than either of the war stories on offer. It radically shifts our perception of the situation by denying the basic premise of the dominant narrative — that IS is making war on America so we must make war in return. It points to a new policy of disengagement.

And it’s a simple, powerful story for Americans because it’s so familiar. It sends us back half a century and half a world away — to Vietnam. At that time, my friend and (a bit later) I, too, embraced the narrative that Vietnam was indeed gripped by a civil war. That explanation would play a major role in boosting the success of the Sixties peace movement. Within a few years, many millions of Americans, citizens and soldiers alike, saw the conflict that way — and not so many years after, all U.S. troops were gone from Vietnam.

The peace movement’s story then was both simple and accurate. No, it said, we’re not the good guys protecting one independent nation from invasion by another nation. Nor are we fighting an enemy intent on doing us harm. Boxing champion Muhammad Ali got it right when he said: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”

Intervening in Vietnam’s civil war cost us more than 58,000 American lives anddid untold damageto the vets who survived, not to speak of what it didto millions of Vietnamese. It showed us that, no matter how superior our technology, we could not swoop in and win someone else’s civil war. Our intervention was bound to do more harm than good.

Fifty years later, we are repeating the same self-defeating mistake. Military action against the Islamic State is leading us into another Vietnam-like “quagmire,” this time in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East. Once again, we have enmeshed ourselves in a complex civil war abroad with no strategy that can lead to victory. It was wrong then. It’s wrong now.

To put it mildly, the U.S. has a less than stellar track record when it comes to intervening in other people’s civil wars. We’ve also interfered quite selectively.  In the last two decades, we stayed out of brutal conflicts in places like theCongo and Sri Lanka. So a decision not to intervene militarily in a foreign civil war should be familiar enough to Americans.

To become neutral is not to condone the grim brutality and reactionary values of the Islamic State. It’s hardly likely that twenty-first-century peace activists will give the IS anything like the sympathy many Vietnam-era protesters offered the insurgents of that moment. In this case, becoming neutral merely means suggesting that it’s not Washington’s job to fight evil everywhere. Its job is to adopt the strategies most likely to keep Americans safe.

That’s a view most Americans already hold to quite firmly. So the “Muslim civil war” story just might get a sympathetic hearing in the public arena.

The Bewildering Maze Of Muslim Civil War

Of course, the Islamic State is not involved in what we conventionally think of as a civil war, in which two sides fight for control of a single nation. Even inside Syria, the number of factions involved in the struggle, including the oppressive government of Bashar al-Assad and rebels of every stripe from al-Qaeda-linked to Saudi-linked to U.S.-linked ones, is bewildering. Since IS is fighting for control not just of Syria but of all dar al-Islam, many other movements, factions, and forces are involved in this Muslim civil war as well.

Some observers are too quick to simplify it into a battle of “traditionalists versus modernizers.” In the U.S. mainstream media that usually translates into a desire for us to intervene on behalf of the modernizers. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is probably the best-known advocate of this view. Others simplify it into a battle between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Since Iran is the leading Shi’ite power, those in the media tend to favor the Sunnis.

All these simple pictures are painted to build support for one side or another. The only kind of peace they aim at is one that leaves their favored side victorious.

In fact, no simple dichotomy can capture the tangled maze of struggles in dar al-Islam. Sunni traditionalists battle other Sunni traditionalists (for example, al-Qaeda versus IS). Modernizers join traditionalists to fight other traditionalists (for example, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in an uneasy alliance to weaken IS). Sunnis and Shi’ites become allies too (for example, Kurdish Sunnis and Iraqi Shi’ite militias allied againstIS). The U.S. supports both Shi’ites (like the government of Iraq) and Sunnis (like the oil-rich Gulf States), while it resists the growing power of both Shi’ites (like Iran) and Sunnis (like IS).

By emphasizing the true complexity of the Muslim civil war, a peace movement narrative can cast that war in a different light. Precisely because there are not two clearly demarcated sides, it makes no sense to cast one side as the good guys and launch our planes and drones to obliterate the bad guys. It’s bound to lead to incoherence and disaster, especially in this situation, where the Islamic State, however repugnant to most Americans, is arguably no worsethan our staunch allies, the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

Given the confusing, some might say chaotic, maze of intra-Muslim conflict, it is equally senseless to go on promoting the American fantasy of imposing order. (“Without order,” Friedman has written, “nothing good can happen.”) Taking this road so far has, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, actually meant unleashing chaos in significant parts of the Greater Middle East. There’s no reason to think the same road will lead anywhere else in the future.

Bring the Boys, Girls, and Drones Home

The Muslim civil war story leads directly to a radical change in policy: stop trying to impose a made-in-America order on dar al-Islam. Give up the dubious gratification of yet another war against “the evildoers.” Instead, offer genuinely humanitarian aid, with no hidden political agenda, to the victims of the civil war, especially those fleeing a stunning level of violence in Syria that the U.S. has helped to sustain. But cease all military action, all economic pressures, and all diplomatic maneuvering against any one side in the Muslim civil war. Become, as we have in other civil wars, a genuine neutral.

To call this change of narrative and policy a tall order is an understatement. There would be massive forces arrayed against it, given the steady stream of verbal assaults the Islamic State levels against Washington, which have already inspired one terrible mass killing on American soil. We don’t know when, or if, other attacks will succeed in the future, whether organized by IS or carried out by “lone wolves” energized by that outfit.

The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that none of this is evidence of a war directed against America. It’s mainly tactical maneuvering in a Muslim civil war. For the Islamic State, American lives and fears are merely pawns in the game. And yet this reality in the Middle East runs against something lodged deep in our history. For centuries, most Americans have believed that our nation is the center of world history, that whatever happens anywhere must somehow be aimed directly at us — and we continue to see ourselves as the star of the global show.

Most Americans have also been conditioned for decades to believe that what’s at stake is a life-or-death drama in which some enemy, somewhere, is always intent on destroying our nation. IS is at present the only candidate in sight for that role and it’s hard to imagine the public giving up the firmly entrenched story that it is out to destroy us. But half a century ago, it was difficult to imagine that the story of Vietnam would be just as radically transformed within a few years. So it’s a stretch, but not an inconceivable one, to picture America, a few years from now, ringing with cries that echo those of the Vietnam era: “U.S. out of dar al-Islam.” “Bring the boys — and girls and bombers and drones — home.”

And if anyone says the analogy between Vietnam and the current conflict is debatable, that’s just the point. Rather than a rush to yet more war, it’s time to have a real national debate on the subject. It’s time to give the American people a chance to choose between two fundamentally different narratives. The task of the peace movement, now as always, is to provide a genuine alternative.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.

 

http://www.alternet.org/world/americas-new-vietnam-middle-east?akid=13941.265072.3QB7qD&rd=1&src=newsletter1050050&t=10

The Sanders vote in Iowa

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3 February 2016

Iowa Democratic Party officials declared Hillary Clinton the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses Tuesday afternoon by the narrowest of margins. The former secretary of state edged Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by 699 to 695 in delegates to the state convention, with two state delegate equivalents still to be determined.

More significant was the announcement of the total turnout of 171,109, divided nearly equally between the two candidates. Approximately 85,000 people—a third of them young people under 30—cast votes for Sanders, a candidate who identifies himself as a “democratic socialist.” This is 30,000 more than the number of people who voted for Senator Ted Cruz, the ultra-right winner of the Republican caucuses, and nearly double the vote for the massively hyped campaign of billionaire Donald Trump.

Sanders rolled up a huge margin among younger voters: those 17-29 supported him over Clinton by 86 percent to 11 percent; Democratic voters in the 30-44 age bracket also gave him a majority. Lower-income voters, those making under $30,000 a year, backed Sanders heavily, as did those in the $30,000-$50,000 a year range. Clinton’s support was concentrated among upper-income and older voters, particularly those over the age of 65, who turned out in large numbers.

Entrance/exit polls found that the Vermont senator’s claim to be a socialist was one of the main attractions of his candidacy, as far as his supporters were concerned. Sixty-eight percent of Democratic caucus-goers regarded having a socialist president as a good idea, with 31 percent strongly in favor.

The mass support for Sanders explodes the myth, peddled endlessly by the American media, that the American people are unalterably wedded to capitalism. In his speech to campaign aides and volunteers Monday night in Des Moines, Sanders reiterated the condemnations of economic inequality, the criminality of Wall Street and the corruption of the US political system by big money that have been the basis of his campaign.

Hillary Clinton sought, however awkwardly, to strike a populist pose as well, telling her supporters Monday night that she too was a “progressive” who shared her opponent’s goals of universal healthcare, good jobs and rising wages, only differing on the best methods to achieve them.

The broad support for Sanders’ campaign has taken the corporate-controlled media by complete surprise, an expression of the vast chasm that separates the entire establishment and the mass of the American people. Now the commentators and pundits express bemusement over the hatred of Wall Street and the corporate elite—expressed in a left-wing form in the Sanders campaign and in a right-wing form in the campaign of billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump—when, according to the media, American society is doing well, particularly compared to its European and Asian rivals.

This bewilderment is combined with fear. Longtime political adviser to presidents of both parties and virtually omnipresent media pundit David Gergen told the New York Times after the Iowa vote: “It’s striking that the winner of the Republican side represents the far right and the moral winner for the Democrats comes from the far left. It’s a clear vote of no confidence in the economic order.”

The WSWS has made clear its political differences with Sanders in many commentaries published since the presidential campaign began last year. His “democratic socialism” is far less radical than the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt, and it is combined with open support for the militarist foreign policy of American imperialism.

Nonetheless, the large vote for a self-proclaimed socialist candidate has enormous historical significance, particularly in the United States, where socialist ideas have been virtually criminalized for more than 60 years. Socialists were driven out of the unions and victimized in Hollywood in the course of the witch hunts of the 1950s McCarthy era, and public discussion of any alternative to the capitalist system has been effectively banned in official politics and the corporate-controlled media ever since.

For nearly half a century, basic class issues have been suppressed in America through a combination of virulent political reaction and militarism and an obsessive focus on issues of race, gender and sexual orientation on the official “left.” This has coincided with an ever-greater shift to the right by both major parties, a relentless assault on the social conditions and living standards of the working class, and the suppression of strikes and workers’ struggles by trade unions that have been transformed into corporatist adjuncts of the corporations and the government.

This period is coming to an end. The indignation of the working class has steadily mounted, especially since Wall Street threw the US and world economy into the abyss in 2008 and then used the crisis to further enrich itself at the expense of the working population. The bitter experience of the Obama administration, which came to power by promising progressive “change” and instead has overseen a further and unprecedented transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, along with an expansion of militarism and war, has only intensified the anger and combativeness of working people and youth.

Sanders has evoked a powerful response because he has raised social issues that transcend race, ethnicity, gender, etc. The Iowa vote has highlighted the fact that it is class issues of economic security and equality that animate the broad masses, not the narrow and exclusivist concerns of identity politics, which reflect the preoccupations of privileged layers of the middle class.

There are growing signs of a revival of the class struggle, including the mass opposition of autoworkers to the sellout contracts imposed by the United Auto Workers union last year, the eruption of mass protests and sickouts by Detroit teachers carried out independently of the unions, and ongoing protests against the poisoning of the water supply in nearby Flint, Michigan.

At the same time, the two-party system through which the American ruling class has monopolized political power for more than a century-and-a-half is facing an unprecedented crisis of political legitimacy. It is losing its grip on a population that is profoundly alienated from the entire political system.

The mass vote in Iowa for the Sanders campaign is an expression of deep social discontent that is bringing the working class into political conflict with the capitalist system. The candidate himself may conceive of “political revolution” as merely a larger turnout at the polls and an effort to increase support for the Democratic Party, one of the two parties of big business. However, there is little doubt that many in his audience have something more ambitious in mind.

The reality is that world capitalism is plunging deeper into economic slump and there are harbingers of a new round of financial shocks on a scale that could well surpass those of 2007-2008. The Sanders phenomenon must be placed in this global context. There are increasing signs of the working class all over the world seeking to break with its old, outlived organizations—trade unions, labor parties, social-democratic parties—that have become nothing more than instruments of the capitalist ruling elite to suppress and sabotage workers’ struggles.

The initial stages of this process involve the emergence of pseudo-left elements like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party, which appeal to this leftward movement of the working class in order to divert it back into new forms of accommodation with the crisis-ridden capitalist system. Sanders is an American counterpart to such tendencies, deliberately working to corral growing working-class opposition within the confines of the Democratic Party, one of the oldest capitalist parties in the world.

The movement of the working class to the left will inevitably go well beyond the bounds envisioned by Sanders. The objective logic of its struggles will propel it into a conflict with both parties of big business and the capitalist system that they defend.

Patrick Martin

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/03/pers-f03.html

On eve of first presidential contest: US two-party system in crisis

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1 February 2016

The Democratic and Republican caucuses in Iowa tonight mark the first actual contest of the 2016 US presidential election campaign, but they will involve only a tiny fraction of the population of one of the smaller American states. The US electoral system is the least democratic and the most subject to manipulation of any major capitalist country purporting to be a democracy. Just two parties, both of them right-wing and controlled by corporate interests, have an effective monopoly.

There is an acute and intensifying contradiction between the vast and diverse population of the United States, a country of 330 million people, and a political structure controlled by the top one-tenth of one percent.

The two-party system, controlled by this elite, is confronted with an unprecedented crisis of political legitimacy. Both the Democratic and Republican parties – political institutions that are more than 160 years old – are losing their hold on a population that is deeply and profoundly alienated from the political establishment.

The media has been taken by surprise by the emergence of candidates in both political parties whose sudden rise and popularity was unforeseen: Donald Trump on the Republican side and Senator Bernie Sanders on the Democratic.

At the start of the campaign, the candidacy of Trump, the thuggish real-estate mogul and reality-television celebrity, was viewed as a entertaining sideshow that would soon lose its audience. As for Sanders, the media largely ignored the announcement of his candidacy, assuming that the campaign of a septuagenarian who described himself as a democratic socialist would attract only negligible support.

Contrary to all expectations, both Trump and Sanders have acquired mass support and emerged as the dominant figures in the primary process. There is a growing realization within the political establishment that the Trump campaign is a deadly serious matter, and that Trump may emerge as the nominee of the Republican Party. And while the corporate-financial interests that control the Democratic Party still expect the badly-battered Clinton to win the nomination, the Sanders candidacy is seen as a harbinger of a continuing and uncontrollable left-wing political movement.

What accounts for this unfolding crisis of the two-party system? Like all significant political developments, it has deep political and social roots. The contradictions that are now blowing the two-party system apart — developing out of the protracted decline of US capitalism — have been accumulating for decades. But the massive economic collapse of 2008, on the very eve of the election of Barack Obama, marked a qualitative turning point in the crisis of American society.

The disastrous impact of the economic crisis upon the lives of tens of millions of people is reflected in the growing rejection of a political system that is seen to be controlled by the elite which first caused and then profited off the 2008 collapse.

On the extreme right, Trump’s barrage of insults against his Republican opponents and the media resonates with a section of the electorate that feels it has been betrayed and bamboozled. Moreover, his candidacy is the end-product of a degraded political environment that has relentlessly promoted and legitimized the sort of reactionary backwardness that Trump skillfully exploits.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the growth of working class militancy and anti-capitalist sentiment, expressed in strikes and contract rejections by autoworkers, steelworkers and teachers, as well as in opposition to police killings and outrage over lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, demonstrates that the working class is moving to the left, towards an open struggle against corporate America.

This is the primary factor behind the crisis of the two-party system. The leftward movement among broad masses of the population has found expression in the growth of support for Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist” and has placed economic inequality and Wall Street criminality at the center of his campaign. Sanders has moved into a virtual tie with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in pre-caucus polls in Iowa, as well as opening a significant lead in polls in New Hampshire, where the next primary contest takes place on February 9.

The Des Moines Register poll published Saturday, the last before the Iowa caucuses, found that Sanders had opened up a lead of more than 30 points over Clinton among potential voters under the age of 35. The poll found that 68 percent of likely Democratic voters thought a socialist president was a good idea, a remarkable figure in a country where socialism has been subjected to endless vilification by the media and the political elites.

The WSWS has explained that Sanders is not a socialist, but rather a moderate liberal whose views would have been considered middle-of-the-road in the Democratic Party of the 1960s. While criticizing the stranglehold of the billionaires over the US political system, Sanders defends the foreign policy of American imperialism: i.e., the use of military force, assassination, espionage and political subversion to defend the interests of these same billionaires around the world.

The main function of the Sanders campaign is to appeal to the increasingly radical sentiments among youth and working people in order to divert them back into the political confines of the Democratic Party. Despite this political service, however, there is growing nervousness in the Democratic Party establishment, and more widely in ruling circles, that Sanders’ attacks on Wall Street could encourage a movement going well beyond the intentions of the senator from Vermont.

This explains the concerted attack on Sanders this weekend by the principal organ of the Democratic Party, the New York Times. The Times published a lead editorial Sunday endorsing Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, while dismissing Sanders as a candidate who has raised useful ideas but could not possibly put them into practice. It singles out Clinton’s role as a paragon of identity politics—she would be the first female president and an advocate of black women, gays, etc.

More extensively elaborated is the argument of Times columnist Paul Krugman in a commentary headlined, “Plutocrats and Prejudice.” He claims that Sanders and Clinton represent competing diagnoses of what is wrong with America, with Sanders focusing on economic inequality and “the corrupting influence of big money,” while Clinton (and Krugman himself) maintain that “money is the root of some evil, maybe a lot of evil, but it isn’t the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right.”

The conclusion is that issues of race and gender are just as important, or even more important, than issues of class. As a result of the prevalence of racism and sexism among white workers, Krugman argues, “visions of radical change are naïve” and “political revolution from the left is off the table.”

This analysis of American society is a political libel against the working class. Krugman cites no evidence of the supposed dominance of racism in a country that elected an African-American president in 2008. On the contrary, issues of race and gender are being deliberately injected into the political arena in order to divide the working class and head off the growth of class consciousness.

Much of the press coverage of the Iowa caucuses and the broader election campaign concedes that the overwhelming sentiment among millions of people is anger at the existing political system and both parties. But there is no explanation of why there is so much anger, when, according to the media, the US economy is in the sixth year of recovery.

The official media are either oblivious to the reality of declining living standards and deteriorating social conditions or are deliberately covering it up. Their America is the rising stock exchange—at least until January—and the increasing wealth of the super-rich and a privileged upper-middle-class layer.

America is a deeply class-polarized society, with a vast and unbridgeable gulf between the wealthy and the rest of the population. It is this social reality that underlies the mounting crisis of both the Democratic and Republican parties. As the class issues come to the fore, shaking the sclerotic and unrepresentative political system, there will undoubtedly be more political shocks and surprises in the course of the 2016 election campaign.

Patrick Martin

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/01/pers-f01.html