Street art in Concepción VIII, Chile,
Photo by ConceGraff.
Street art in Concepción VIII, Chile,
Photo by ConceGraff.
The controversy continues over the failure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to nominate any African-American or other minority actors or directors for an award this year.
According to innumerable media commentators, the lack of Academy recognition for several films directed by or featuring African-Americans—including Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Beasts of No Nation and Concussion—is proof of the 6,200 Academy voters’ prejudice; and, still further, that race constitutes the essential foundation of society and its cognition. Therefore, how any given individual understands the world is determined, at the most fundamental level, by his/her racial identity.
The New York Times and its various critics and columnists have been particularly active in advancing a racial-gender perspective in art that has sinister implications.
As to the supposedly snubbed films, both F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton and Ryan Coogler’s Creed are relatively formulaic, individualist “success stories,” with nothing terribly distinctive about them except their immediate settings. The first is a shallow, self-serving work about the rise of “gangster rap,” the second, which has a few modest charms, centers on the training of a young boxer (Michael B. Jordan) for a big match by the aging, ailing Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, about child soldiers in an unnamed West African country, eventually turns into, in the words of the WSWS review, “a virtually unwatchable catalog of crimes.” Idris Elba, a gifted actor, here plays a conventional psychopathic warlord (Charles Taylor, Joseph Kony, etc.), the sort of figure useful to the proponents of great power intervention. Peter Landesman’s Concussion is a well-meaning, limited film about the severe risks of playing professional football, with Will Smith in the lead role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American pathologist.
Would nominations of Creed, Straight Outta Compton or Beasts of No Nationfor best picture, Gray or Coogler for best director, or Smith, Elba or Jordan for best actor have been merited?
It is difficult to answer this in the abstract. On the whole, this group of “African-American” films and acting jobs belong to a thick middle stratum of mediocrity, with no special respect for skin color, gender or sexual orientation, that emerges from the American film assembly line each year. These three or four films are neither better nor worse than many of the other 300 or so eligible for Academy Awards. None of them investigates deeply, or even indicates strong opinions about, existing realities for the mass of the African-American population, or anyone else for that matter.
In any event, there is no evidence that racial prejudice had anything to do with the fact that these films and actors were not nominated. A number of Academy members have made their opinions known on this issue, with some feeling. In an open letter published in the Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter Stephen Geller addressed the proposal of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy, to “diversify” the membership and weed out “inactive members.”
Geller, who wrote the script for the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), challenged the Academy chief’s assumption that those who have not had jobs in the industry for a decade were “responsible for the lack of diversity in the Academy, as well as in the film industry.” He wrote, “There are as many reasons why one doesn’t get an assignment or a film deal as there are reasons why a performer doesn’t get a nomination by the Academy.” He termed the plan to revise the rules concerning diversity “nothing more than a ‘false flag’ issue,” and asked, “What Academy, historically, ever has dealt with contemporary realities? For better and for worse, that has never been its role.”
Documentary producer and director Milton Justice (Down and Out in America, 1986), also in the Hollywood Reporter, referred to the failure of David Oyelowo to win a best actor nomination last year for Selma, writing, “Maybe there weren’t enough actors in the actors’ branch who thought he was good enough to be nominated. I’m not in the actors’ branch, but I certainly didn’t think he was very good in the part.”
Referring to Isaacs’ plan to add more minority and women members to the Academy, Justice asked rhetorically, “If there were more black actors in the Academy, would that have assured David Oyelowo’s nomination? Would it have assured more black nominees this year? Do black people only vote for black people? Did I vote for Sean Penn in Milk because I’m gay?! The whole idea is both insulting to blacks and to the Academy members, who presumably vote on artistic merit.”
Indeed, Isaacs’ plan, praised by virtually every media outlet, is based on a thoroughly reactionary premise, that female or black voters will obediently nominate female or black films, filmmakers and actors. With this move, the Academy is moving in the direction of racial quotas, official or de facto.
The New York Times, as noted above, is at the forefront of the effort to promote the arguments of figures like director Spike Lee and actors Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, who have declared their intention not to participate in this year’s awards ceremony February 28, and to push racial politics in general.
In a January 15 piece, “Oscars So White? Or Oscars So Dumb? Discuss,” theTimes introduces excerpts from a conversation among its chief film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis and critic at large Wesley Morris with this comment: “Are these the whitest Oscar nominations ever? Or just the most recent Academy Award whiteout?”
In the discussion that follows, Scott refers to the “shocking—or maybe not so shocking—whiteness of this year’s field of nominees.” After noting that the Academy has “done a reasonably good job of recognizing black talent” in recent years, Scott observes, “Spike Lee’s lifetime achievement award feels like belated and inadequate compensation for a career’s worth of slights. At the movies, we may be in the age of Chi-Raq and Straight Outta Compton, but the Academy is still setting the table for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
The gravitational pull of his politics—and the fear of offending Lee’s supporters—is decisive here, because if Scott were objective in his artistic assessment, he would recognize that Lee has made a series of incompetently written and directed films, malicious, selfish and backward in their point of view.
Scott later comments, “The Academy’s blunder reflects the structural biases of the movie industry, which in turn reflects deeply embedded racism in the society at large. And no institution is immune.” Dargis chimes in, “My point being that the lived, embodied experiences of the membership greatly matter and that sometimes even the most well-intentioned white people just don’t seethe racism and sexism in front of them.”
It is foul to argue that “whiteness” is the chief difficulty with this or any year’s Academy Awards, and, in fact, to address art and culture in such terms.
The Times ran a piece January 22 headlined “The Oscars and Hollywood’s Race Problem,” by Roxane Gray, which returned to the theme, and another column January 27, “The Oscars and Race: A Stir Over Rules to Change the Academy,” by Cara Buckley.
In the latter, after noting that the number of black acting nominees in recent decades has reflected the percentage of blacks in the general population, Buckley writes, “But the representational proportionality of black nominees applies only to the acting categories. Let’s look at all of the awards the academy doles out, across all categories, and see how they break down by ethnicity. Let’s look at all the films Hollywood churns out and do the same: Few of the roughly 300 features eligible for best picture last year told stories from the points of view of women or minorities. Besides, we’ve been fed narratives from an overwhelmingly white male perspective since Hollywood began.”
Is Buckley, swept away by the self-involved, exclusivist ideas that dominate her milieu and conformist to the core, even aware of what she is saying? That artwork should be categorized and presumably appreciated according to whether it represents a male or female, black or white perspective? Whether she likes it or not, Buckley is setting up this basic standard: women gain more from art produced by women, Jews from work created by Jews, African-Americans from “African-American art,” etc.
The Times columnist categorizes the world in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. She assumes that perspective is framed by race and proceeds to elevate that to the level of a worldview. It is no exaggeration to point out that, in ideological terms, Buckley and others, in their obsession with race, are spouting a conception of society and art identified historically with the extreme right.
The Nazis asserted the existence of distinct “Aryan” and “Jewish [Bolshevik, liberal, degenerate]” cultures, separated out “Aryan music” from “Jewish music,” and so forth. They classified human beings collectively as “races,” with inherited characteristics, as one commentator notes, “related not only to outward appearance and physical structure, but also shaped internal mental life, ways of thinking, creative and organizational abilities, intelligence, taste and appreciation of culture, physical strength, and military prowess.”
Whether they like it or not, those who view art and culture in racial (or gender) terms and make race (or gender) the basis for a theory of aesthetics give credence to and encourage this type of filth.
Serious artwork has an objectively truthful, relatively universal character. None of the great works of art from which men and women, of every national or ethnic origin, learn and gain were created on the basis of racial or gender exclusivism. Such a vile, self-obsessed outlook, shared by the New York Times critics and the upper-middle class advocates of identity politics, is antithetical to genuine artistic creation. Racial, gender and sexual politics have done immeasurable damage to filmmaking and art generally over the past 40 years. Not a single major work or figure has emerged from this subjective, self-centered crowd.
A truly great film performance involves powerfully expressing—through an individual characterization—something profound and concrete about the reality of the times and the nature of the social relationships that shape human psychology. Such a work or performance raises feelings and moods beyond the limitations of the circumstances under which the work was created.
This gives rise to the viewer’s heightened sense of the universal and intensely meaningful quality of a work. It entails an aesthetic-intellectual process on the part of both the artist and the viewer, “reading the secret code inherent in things, people and events” (Voronsky), that is the opposite of self-centeredness and racial or gender restrictiveness.
One can think of many such performances in global cinema, from Anna Magnani in Open City, Jean Gabin in Grand Illusion and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, to performances in the work of Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Welles, Chaplin, Ray, Fassbinder, Hitchcock, Hawks, Murnau, Keaton, Pasolini and many others.
American filmmaking at present does a generally miserable job of portraying American life. The well-heeled African-American petty-bourgeoisie in Hollywood does not speak for or artistically represent African-American working class life, the life of the overwhelming majority of the black population. The black nouveau riche elements are consumed with hostility and contempt for the “great unwashed.” Nothing would compel such people, who have “made it big,” to direct their attention to conditions of exploitation and social misery.
As we argued in a previous article, the solution to American filmmaking’s “diversity problem” will not come from the entry of directors who differ from the current crop only in their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. That would simply represent more of the same—more complacency, more self-absorption, more trivia.
To “diversify,” in fact, to revolutionize film and art in our day means, first and foremost, the introduction of great historical and social themes.
To understand why we see so few genuine alternatives to US technology giants, it’s instructive to compare the fate of a company like Uber – valued at more than $62.5bn (£44bn) – and that of Kutsuplus, an innovative Finnish startup forced to shut down late last year.
Kutsuplus’s aspiration was to be the Uber of public transport: it operated a network of minibuses that would pick up and drop passengers anywhere in Helsinki, with smartphones, algorithms and the cloud deployed to maximise efficiency, cut costs and provide a slick public service. Being a spinoff of a local university that operated on a shoestring budget, Kutsuplus did not have rich venture capitalists behind it. This, perhaps, is what contributed to its demise: the local transport authority found it too expensive, despite impressive year-on-year growth of 60%.
On the other hand, “expensive” is everything that Uber is not. While you might be tempted to ascribe the low costs of the service to its ingenuity and global scale – is it the Walmart of transport? – its affordability has a more banal provenance: sitting on tons of investor cash, Uber can afford to burn billions in order to knock out any competitors, be they old-school taxi companies or startups like Kutsuplus.
A recent article in The Information, a tech news site, suggests that during the first three quarters of 2015 Uber lost $1.7bn while booking $1.2bn in revenue. The company has so much money that, in at least some North American locations, it has been offering rides at rates so low that they didn’t even cover the combined cost of fuel and vehicle depreciation.
Uber’s game plan is simple: it wants to drive the rates so low as to increase demand – by luring some of the customers who would otherwise have used their own car or public transport. And to do that, it is willing to burn a lot of cash, while rapidly expanding into adjacent industries, from food to package delivery.
An obvious but rarely asked question is: whose cash is Uber burning? With investors like Google, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Goldman Sachs behind it, Uber is a perfect example of a company whose global expansion has been facilitated by the inability of governments to tax profits made by hi-tech and financial giants.
To put it bluntly: the reason why Uber has so much cash is because, well, governments no longer do. Instead, this money is parked in the offshore accounts of Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms. Look at Apple, which has recently announced that it sits on $200bn of potentially taxable overseas cash, or Facebook, which has just posted record profits of $3.69bn for 2015.
Some of these firms do choose to share their largesse with governments – both Apple and Google have agreed to pay tax bills far smaller than what they owe, in Italy and the UK respectively – but such moves aim at legitimising the questionable tax arrangements they have been using rather than paying their fair share.
Compare this with the dire state of affairs in which most governments and city administrations find themselves today. Starved of tax revenue, they often make things worse by committing themselves to the worst of austerity politics, shrinking the budgets dedicated to infrastructure, innovation, or creating alternatives to the rapacious “platform capitalism” of Silicon Valley.
Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that promising services like Kutsuplus have to shut down: cut from the seemingly endless cash supply of Google and Goldman Sachs, Uber would have gone under as well. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Finland is one of the more religious advocates of austerity in Europe; having let Nokia go under, the country has now missed another chance.
Let us not be naive: Wall Street and Silicon Valley won’t subsidise transport for ever. While the prospect of using advertising to underwrite the costs of an Uber trip is still very remote, the only way for these firms to recoup their investments is by squeezing even more cash or productivity out of Uber drivers or by eventually – once all their competitors are out – raising the costs of the trip.
Both of these options spell trouble. Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).
The only choice here is between more precarity for drivers and more precarity for passengers, who will have to accept higher rates, with or without controversial practices like surge pricing (prices go up when demand is high).
Moreover, the company is actively trying to solidify its status as a default platform for transport. During the recent squabbles in France – where taxi drivers have been rioting to get the government to notice their plight – Uber has offered to open up its platforms to any professional taxi drivers who would like a second job.
Needless to say, such platforms – with properly administered and transparent payment, reputation and pricing systems – ought to have been established by cities a long time ago. This, along with the encouragement and support of startups like Kutsuplus, would have been the right regulatory response to Uber.
Unfortunately, there’s very little policy innovation in this space and the main response to Uber so far has come from other Uber-like companies unhappy with its dominance. Thus, India’s Ola, China’s Didi Kuaidi, US-based Lyft and Malaysia’s GrabTaxi have formed an alliance, allowing customers to book cabs from each other’s apps in countries where they operate. This falls short of creating a viable support system where innovators like Kutsuplus can flourish; replacing Uber with Lyft won’t solve the problem, as it pursues the same aggressive model.
The broader lesson here is that a country’s technology policy is directly dependent on its economic policy; one cannot flourish without the active support of the other. Decades of a rather lax attitude on taxation combined with strict adherence to the austerity agenda have eaten up the public resources available for experimenting with different modes of providing services like transport.
This has left tax-shrinking companies and venture capitalists – who view everyday life as an ideal playing ground for predatory entrepreneurship – as the only viable sources of support for such projects. Not surprisingly, so many of them start like Kutsuplus only to end up like Uber: such are the structural constraints of working with investors who expect exorbitant returns on their investments.
Finding and funding projects that would not have such constraints would not in itself be so hard; what will be hard, especially given the current economic climate, is finding the cash to invest in them.
Taxation seems the only way forward – alas, many governments do not have the courage to ask what is due to them; the compromise between Google and HM Treasury is a case in point.
Street art in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria,
by artists Gery, Lora and MOUSE.
Photo by Street Art in V.Tarnovo.
SATURDAY, JAN 30, 2016 05:00 AM PST
“At the parliament of animals, the rabbits demanded equal rights, and the lions replied, ‘But where are your claws?’”
We often hear it reported that in some benighted countries the people believe that “Democracy is a nice idea, but it’s not for us. We need a strong guiding hand.” So convinced of this are these people that, given the opportunity, they will in fact vote for this strong hand and all that comes with it, making democracy an oxymoron.
We tend to think that these foreign skeptics just don’t understand, and so some of us think that we ought to help them to understand. As my representative, freshman Republican Darin LaHood, said during a recent visit to a local high school, “The goal of our foreign policies is to try to make the world more like us.” (LaHood, son of Ray LaHood, was elected to the seat vacated by disgraced Republican Aaron Schock, he of the Downton-red office walls.)
A default neocon, LaHood wants to bring democracy to the heathens, an even worse idea than trying to convert them to Christianity. The appeal to democracy, coming from the lips of politicians like LaHood, is a paternalistic fraud—at the best! At the worst, it is no more than what it was in the colonial Middle East after World War I: the preparation for a “great looting.”
There are also times when I think that the U.S. is one of these benighted countries, especially when we decide that we need a president who will “stand up” to the nemesis of the hour, i.e. will without hesitation use military force in order to—high irony if not comedy—“make the world safe for democracy.” As David Gergen said of Donald Trump, “There is this extra dimension working in Trump’s favor: Americans are looking beyond particular policy for the personality that looks like somebody strong enough, tough enough, big enough to provide security.”
This is worse than an oxymoron, it is a tale told by an idiot.
What politicians like LaHood are incapable of contemplating is the idea that democracy is fractured by fateful ironies that tend toward its own failure. The first of these ironies is the idea that democracy is the expression of a “we”—the demos, “the American people,” as politicians like to say. If the American people that Barack Obama refers to are the same American people that Ted Cruz refers to, then the American people have a personality disorder. Among the conspicuous realities of social life in the United States, this reality should be the most conspicuous: we are not one and never have been. There is no We. There are no Americans.
Not only are we divided by those things that divide most regions of the world—tribe, sect, class/caste, race, sex—we are also divided by something that feels unique to us, almost genetic. It is our founding psychopathology, first animated by the mutual dislike of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Historians refer to it as our first national crisis, the conflict between Republican and Federalist, and it more than once led Jefferson to contemplate secession for Virginia and likeminded states.
Perhaps we inherited our psychopathology from ancient Rome and its division of senatorial oligarchs from republican populares (led by the brothers Gracchus and Julius Caesar), but there is a uniquely American cast to our everlasting dilemma. This dilemma currently expresses itself as urban liberalism versus the evangelism, guns, and hatred for all things federal that presently enlivens those gathered inside the Tea Party’s sanctimonious Tiny Tent. If there is a word for a country permanently divided against itself, we should use it, because the truth is that for the last 150 years we have lived in a Cold War continuation of the Civil War.
What hath Jefferson wrought?
In spite of this, we hear from all parts of the political spectrum the passionate appeal to “we.” This appeal is especially loud when it comes from social conservatives, although it is perplexing to consider who it is outside of their own tawdry numbers that they can be thinking of. We “real Americans,” one assumes, the usual ad hoc moral majority. Even Cliven Bundy and his 15 or 20 patriot soldiers claim that they level rifles at federal agents in the name of “the American people.”
But we also hear this rallying of “we” coming from democratic socialism, whether Bernie Sanders or the pages of “In These Times” (disclosure: I have written for “In These Times”). Socialists say, “Inequality, climate change, and racism can be corrected if ‘we’ have the will. It’s ‘up to us!’” The bumper-sticker-ready slogan “US means all of us” is the high-water mark for political naiveté.
Whether left or right, the idea that we are one is a delusion at best, and a perilous dishonesty at worst. It is perilous because it hides the fact that what is really being appealed to are the ideas of an impassioned faction. To say “we Americans” is to indulge in what Nietzsche called “civic narcissism.” This narcissism says, “Everyone should live through our ideals because our ideals are self-evidently the best. We’re bewildered that others don’t share our ideals, and we’re indignant that these others are not persuaded when we loudly explain them. As a consequence, we would impose our ideals by main force if the opportunity presented itself. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest.”
This is why appeals to “the people” are so dangerous. Beneath the call to communist solidarity and the reign of the people’s Party Congress, Stalin understood that there is no “we,” no “people,” no “everyone” and got on with the execution of “right-Trotskyite” plotters, and generally on with egg breaking for his invidious omelet. What Stalin understood that we try to keep hidden from sight is the certainty that the bedrock of every form of mass social organization—including democracy, including our democracy—is force.
The second of democracy’s fateful ironies is the “fooled again” syndrome (as The Who expressed it some time back). Let’s say that some scattered fragment of a deeply committed “we” struggles at great cost through an antagonistic election, or a revolution, or a civil war to put “our man,” the people’s champion, in a place of power, but then the friend of the little guy betrays his people and becomes “just like the old boss.” Consider the disappointment of Greek workers with the conduct of their anti-austerity prime minister Alexis Tsipras. He now enforces austerity measures and attends military exercises wearing a military jacket—he might as well be George W. Bush. And I would hope that there’s no need to mention Mr. Putin, a World Historical Figure of ever-larger betrayals of Russian democracy.
Oddly, Tea Party advocates feel more or less like the Greek Left. Their disappointment is the reason that they send one version or another of their own private Attila to congress: the conservatives they’d previously elected turned out to be establishment clones, merely members of the “Washington cartel.” They earnestly believe that Eric Cantor and John Boehner betrayed them.
Unfortunately, in order to find someone of sufficient ideological purity, they must support candidates who in any other context would be considered sociopaths (I give you the Republican party’s roster of presidential nominees). And if they’re not really crazy, they have to pretend to be if they want to be nominated, or at least I hopethat’s what Jeb Bush is up to. The point would seem to be that in order to find someone who won’t betray them, conservatives must find someone who has little respect for reality (I’m lookin’ at you Mr. Trump, Mr. Carson, Mr. Cruz). But even the purest of these candidates will end by betraying their deranged base because… they have little respect for reality. So what gets said in Iowa stays in Iowa. Then it’s on to New Hampshire, where new things will be said.
The poet William Carlos Williams wrote that, “The pure products of America go crazy.” That perception would seem to apply here. But think of it in these more sympathetic terms: Rural conservatives sent people to congress not only to fight against abortion, gay marriage and immigration, they also intended that they should fight the banks, the Fed, Wall Street and, in a word, the oligarchs, the oft-cursed “elites.” But, once elected, instead of fighting the oligarchs, these representatives joined them. Perhaps a more discerning electorate might have realized this from the first, given that business interests and billionaire overlords like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson were paying for the campaigns. However that may be, any Leftist should be able to understand the Tea Party’s grievance. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Roger Hodge seemed to capture a similar disappointment among liberals with his book “The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism.”
I won’t belabor the point because the examples are many. The more difficult task is to think of a leader who hasn’t betrayed his first constituency (Vaclav Havel?). Of course, there’s nothing new about political betrayal. As Cicero wrote of Julius Caesar, “He surrounds himself with an armed guard, and emerges as a tyrant over the very people who elected him to office.” It’s difficult not to feel that nothing much has changed since the Romans: the oligarchs get money and power, while the plebes find no satisfaction beyond a weekly sack of corn, courtesy of the largesse of the Empire. (Perhaps that has changed: I believe that Paul Ryan’s budget eliminates the sack of corn.)
Democracy’s third fateful irony is that it promises that if change is needed, it will come through a plebiscite. But the reality is that any social agenda accomplished by the left (socialists to one degree or another) or the right (the Tea Party, evangelicals, white supremacists) will necessarily be bloody. The right gets that, eagerly gets that, and is locked and loaded. The Bundy clan demonstrated this once again in eastern Oregon, seizing a federal building in a wilderness area. There were few other human beings for hundreds of miles in all directions, but the watchtower was manned, the windows bloomed with rifles and choruses of “Amazing Grace,” and Ammon Bundy said they were in it for the long haul. None of this makes much sense to me, but I think the remaining diehards can be taken down through their own boredom, or when they realize they might miss the Super Bowl.
More seriously, Texas is as close as a state can come to living in permanent preparedness for war with its own government, both in principle and in fact, as we saw in 2015 when Governor Greg Abbott activated the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. Army’s Jade Helm 15 exercises in southwest Texas. Of course, Abbott’s actions were redundant. Virtually the whole of rural Texas is one vast citizen’s militia, one great posse comitatus. (Was Abbott perhaps hoping to protect the Army from the Texans?)
The left, on the other hand, God knows what it’s thinking. If it is to have anything remotely like what it says it wants, it will have to fight, something it seems very much disinclined to do. You can hardly blame them (and by them I mean me). We think that in a democracy issues should be decided in the favor of whoever offers the best reasons. Good luck with that. When the New York Times ran a front-page editorial articulating the reasons why it supports gun control, right-wing commentator Erick Erickson forsook rebuttal and shot the page full of holes.
Still, you can’t fault the sense of urgency that rouses Bernie Sanders and his admirers. They see all too clearly that the Progressive dream of ever-larger egalitarianism is dead. The United States has returned to its oligarchic roots, and with a vengeance. Sure, gays can get married and pot is more or less legal; isn’t that progress? But the oligarchs don’t care about that stuff. Smoke pot and fuck yourself silly, they say. In the meantime, well over 50 percent of the population lives on an annual income of $30,000 or less. Making matters a lot worse, this sobering statistic does not include those who went on Social Security early because they couldn’t find work after the recession, those even younger workers who committed disability fraud after their unemployment benefits stopped, those in prison, or those vague and pitiable souls called the “permanently discouraged.” Meanwhile, wealth concentrates at the top, ever denser, as if the sad mass of the rest of the country were being used to make a diamond.
The oligarchs are hated by both left and right, as is right and proper, but democracy’s fateful ironies make it unlikely that there will be any positive consequences for this hatred. As for the oligarchs, they don’t have to live through democracy’s ironies because they don’t live in a democracy. They live in a plutocracy. When they say “we,” they know just who they are talking about. Their “we” is what they call the “rightful owners.” As the saying goes, “Money always returns to its rightful owners.” (And boy hasn’t it steadily flowed back for 35 years now.) When newly elected leaders betray the people who elected them, the oligarchs say, “Welcome! You’ll fit right in!” As for irony number three, the oligarchy is not much concerned about blood because along with everything else it owns, it owns force. As in every nasty, tin-pot dictatorship, the goons are ready to apply a beat-down when necessary. As always, the goons will apply this beat-down to their own communities, their own people. The oligarchs outsource all of the bleeding to their victims.
That irony is jaw dropping: the traitorous “new boss” has no need to repent to those who placed him in power because he has a police apparatus at his beck and call ready and willing to confront his erstwhile supporters. The occasional scene of mothers facing off with their own sons dressed in riot gear—as in the Kiev protests in 2014—testifies to this irony. (During the Chechen wars in the late ’90s, there was actually an organization working against the war called the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.) We’re more familiar with this phenomenon from images of black police officers on the front line of demonstrations in black communities, most recently in Baltimore, New York and Chicago.
I say these things because they seem to me to be obvious. And yet they are rarely said. We live in a society that makes no sense, but that we are not allowed to criticize. That makes delusion a requirement of citizenship: first a brainwashing, then freedom of speech.
Where does all of this leave us? It leaves us with the laughable democracy of the oligarchs, the best democracy money can buy.
Just two weeks after the lifting of punitive international sanctions on Iran, a scramble is underway to take advantage of trade and investment possibilities. A two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Tehran last week was followed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s trip this week to Italy and France, leading to a series of multi-billion dollar deals.
The international sanctions were lifted on January 16 only after Tehran implemented the onerous demands of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) reached last July with the P-6 group—the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany—over its nuclear programs. Iran, which has repeatedly denied allegations that it planned to build a nuclear weapon, was compelled to ship out its low-enriched uranium, dismantle thousands of gas centrifuges and incapacitate its heavy-water reactor.
For the European powers, the opening up of Iran provides opportunities to boost their own depressed economies and to make up ground lost to China as a result of the US-led sanctions. For Iran, investment and trade is a dire necessity to boost its crippled economy as the government confronts mounting social tensions. As a result of falling oil prices, the economy grew last year by just 0.8 percent, compared to 4.3 percent in 2014. Iran is hoping to attract up to $50 billion in foreign investment annually.
Rouhani’s European tour was the first by an Iranian president in well over a decade. He was accompanied by a 100-strong trade delegation of ministers, senior officials and business representatives. He received red carpet treatment and met with top leaders in Italy and France, including both prime ministers, and French President Francois Hollande, as well as Pope Francis in the Vatican.
In Rome, Rouhani declared that the nuclear agreement had been a “win-win” for both sides. “We invite you to invest and we will provide stability and ensure that you can make adequate returns,” he promised. In Italy, agreements were signed worth an estimate $18 billion in industries ranging from natural gas to high-speed rail.
In Paris, Rouhani told business leaders that he wanted to “turn the page” on the old “bitterness” between Iran and France and “open a new relationship.” Pierre Gattaz, president of the French employer federation Medef, urged French companies to “rush” to Iran and “not waste any time.”
At Rouhani’s meeting with Hollande, a range of deals were formally signed, including the purchase of 118 Airbus aircraft and an oil contract with Total to buy 150,000–200,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran. PSA Peugeot Citroen sealed a joint venture with Iran Khodro to produce 200,000 cars a year and invest more than $280 million over the next five years.
Other major European powers are also lining up. On January 16, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond commented: “I hope British businesses seize the opportunities available to them through the phased lifting of sanctions on Iran.” Just days earlier, former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was part of a large German trade delegation to Iran, seeking to revive longstanding economic ties that were hard hit by sanctions.
Even before the lifting of sanctions, Tehran had become a magnet for business delegations. The New Yorker commented: “The Great Race—for what a Western ambassador in Tehran described as ‘the last gold mine on Earth’—has begun. With 80 million people, Iran is the largest economy to return to the global marketplace since the Soviet Union’s demise, a quarter century ago. It urgently needs to refurbish its crumbling infrastructure. Unlike Eastern Europe, however, Iran is flush with cash, after gaining access to $100 billion in oil revenues that had been locked away in foreign banks during sanctions.”
Moreover, Rouhani’s pledge to “provide stability” and ensure profits is a guarantee to foreign investors that the reactionary clerical regime in Tehran will implement its pro-market agenda and use police-state measures to suppress any opposition in the working class. Last May, the government hiked up fuel prices by a massive 40 percent and ended the rationing system that provided cheap subsidised petrol.
Rouhani is part of a faction of the ruling elite that has repeatedly sought to establish a rapprochement with the US as a means of opening up the country to Western investment. The government is hoping for a much-needed economic boost to stem mounting social tensions. Some 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and the official youth unemployment rate is 25 percent.
The European “rush” to Iran has left the United States on the economic sidelines. While most international sanctions have been lifted, the US trade embargo will not be lifted for another eight years, with a few exceptions, including passenger aircraft. Having lost out in the initial round to Airbus, Boeing will no doubt be keen to bid for the next round of sales. Iran has indicated it wants to purchase a total of 400 aircraft.
Washington has previously used threats and provocations against Iran as a means of disrupting the plans of its rivals to secure close relations with the energy-rich state. In 2004–05, the so-called EU Three—France, Germany and Britain—attempted to negotiate an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programs, only to have the talks effectively sabotaged by the US. Having frozen its uranium enrichment program, Tehran reacted angrily to a US-EU deal, which, in the words of one Iranian negotiator, was “too ridiculous to be called an offer.”
The breakdown of talks led to escalating tensions as the US ratcheted up its threats of war against Iran. After Obama came to office, Washington pressured its allies and the UN to impose draconian sanctions that cut Iran off from the international financial system and dramatically reduced its exports of oil.
Last year’s nuclear deal is often hailed as a triumph for peace and stability. In reality, the US agreed to the JCPA in part because it feared a breakdown of the sanctions coalition. More fundamentally, however, it was a tactical shift aimed at preparing for confrontation and conflict with larger adversaries, China and Russia.
The United States cannot simply stand by and allow its European and Asian rivals to consolidate an economic base and political ties with Iran. The country is the second largest economy in the Middle East and has the fourth largest reserves of oil, and second largest of gas, in the world. US imperialism will either have to join in the scramble, or, as it has done before, use sanctions and military threats to undermine its rivals, and thus bring the region to the brink of another new war.
Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei
Drone, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, about the illegal CIA drone program, has been screened at various documentary film festivals and played in certain theaters in North America.
The use of drones by the United States for purposes of assassinations has greatly increased over the past decade. Hessen Schei’s movie brings together opponents of this specialized killing tool, including authors, commentators, human rights attorneys and investigative journalists.
The real heart and strength of Drone lies in its interviews with two former drone operators from the US Air Force, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, both young men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bryant and Haas served in time periods that straddled the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. One of Bryant’s entries in his diary: “On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.”
Hessen Schei presents images and stories focusing on the northwestern Pakistani province of Waziristan, a region that has been a particular target of homicidal American drone bombing.
Reprieve, the British human rights organization whose founder, Clive Stafford Smith, is interviewed in the film, points out: “To date, the United States has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia—all countries against whom it has not declared war. The US’ drones programme is a covert war being carried out by the CIA.”
In the documentary, Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice, further observes that “nowhere has been more bombed by the CIA than Waziristan. The first recorded CIA done strike in Pakistan took place in 2004. The number of those strikes has accelerated.” He calls it “an industrialized killing program.”
In Waziristan, a young drone strike survivor, Zubair Ur Rehman, shyly tells the camera that “the drones circulate 24 hours a day. Two or three at a time. Always two, but often three or four. When we hear the sound of the drones, we get scared. We can’t work, play or go to school. It is only when it’s cloudy that we don’t hear the drones.”
The barbaric strikes, which have increased sharply under the Obama administration, are illegal under international and US law and amount to war crimes. In the Hessen Schei film, Pakistani photojournalist Noor Behram displays his dossier of devastating photographs of child victims of drone attacks: “Every time I sleep, I hear the cries of the children.”
Drone also deals with the attacks on the would-be rescuers of the victims of the drone strikes. This is what the American military refers to as a “double tap.” Missiles are launched, killing and injuring people. Moments later, when nearby residents race to the scene to help the wounded, another round of missiles is fired. As one analyst points out, the US government, in many cases, has no idea whom they are killing.
Imran Khan, Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, affirms that “when people gather round to save the injured [from a drone strike], there’s another drone attack! … You can hear the cries of the injured for hours because no one goes to help them.”
Another of the movie’s commentators emphasizes, “It’s never been easier for an American president to carry out killing operations at the ends of the earth … and when you define the world as a battlefield, it’s a very broad range of operations you can carry out.”
According to Woods: “You’ve got the president signing off on particular death lists; you have the US Air Force flying the drones; the Central Intelligence Agency responsible for the strikes; CENTCOM [United States Central Command] involved in launching and targeting of strikes; NSA [National Security Agency] providing intelligence for strikes … the entire apparatus of the United States government has been bent towards the process of targeted killings over the past decade.”
As a means of recruiting drone pilots, the military has developed “militainment”—war presented as entertainment. In the warped minds of the armed forces’ top brass, video gamers have skill sets that it values.
Former drone operator Bryant, who served as a sensor operator for the Predator program from 2007 to 2011, movingly explains that “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. … We sat in a box for nearly 12-hour shifts. … We’re the ultimate voyeurs. The ultimate Peeping Toms. No one is going to catch us. We’re getting orders to take these peoples’ lives. It was just a point and click.”
One of Drone’s interviewed experts argues the more distant the perpetrator is from the victim, the crueler the act of killing. The separation in space creates and encourages indifference. He refers to “the psychology of distance.”
Haas, who served in the US military from 2005 to 2011, participated in targeted killing runs from his computer at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada that ended the lives of insurgents and others in Afghanistan some 8,000 miles away: “I joined when I was barely 20 years old. I did not know what I was in for. I thought it was the coolest damn thing in the world. Play video games all day and then the reality hits you that you may have to kill somebody.
“In our control room, they had a picture of the September 11  plane hitting the second [World Trade Center] building. They make you pissed off all over again just before you go do your job. ‘These guys have to die. These guys deserve to die.’ And you’ve got to make it happen.”
As opposed to the remorse felt by the former airmen, Andy Von Flotow, chairman of Insitu, which builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the state of Washington, was in on the ground floor in the development of drones. He boasts that “we started this unmanned aircraft business in the early 1990s, shortly after GPS made it possible.” His company built a small airplane with a camera on it in 1999 to help tuna fisherman. While the fishermen did not buy the planes, “George Bush took us into his adventures.” Flotow claims that “we have 25 percent of unmanned flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. … War is an opportunity to do business.”
One of the most intense moments in the film occurs when Bryant opens up to the filmmakers: “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. It was horrible. The first time was horrible. The second time was horrible. The third time was numbing. The fourth time was numbing. But of course the first time sticks with you the longest [he describes the procedure]. … Then I watched this man bleed out … and I imagined his last moments. I knew I had ended something I had no right to end. I swore an oath, I did what I was supposed to do. I followed through with it. … It was like an image of myself was cracking up and breaking apart.”
Earlier in the film, he says: “Over the last five and one half years, 1,626 people were killed in the operations I took part in. … When I looked at that number, I was ready to put a bullet in my brain.”
Fellow drone operator Haas discloses that “you never knew who you were killing because you never actually see a face—just silhouettes and it’s easy to have that detachment and that lack of sympathy for human life. And it’s easy just to think of them as something else. They’re not really people, they’re just terrorists.” His military superiors, he remarks, “don’t have to take that shot or bear the burden—I’m the one who has to bear that burden. They don’t have to do the actions or live with the repercussions … and we just made orphans out of all these children. They don’t have to live with that. I do.”
The CIA drones program is global assassination without trial. The operations of this state-run murder machine are kept shrouded in secrecy by the Obama administration. While the outlook of the creators of Drone is not strong—essentially consisting of appeals to the United Nations and the Pakistani government—the movie provides further insight into the lawless and ruthless character of US foreign policy.