Election 2016 Snapshot

Did you hear about what that awful Rethuglican turkey Marco Rubio said this week? In a speech laying out a future foreign policy vision for the Rubio administration, the senator claimed that

We must recognize that our nation is a global leader not just because it has superior arms, but because it has superior aims. America is the first power in history motivated by a desire to expand freedom rather than its own territory.

According to the straight-shooters at Democratic party astroturf factory Crooks & Liars, this statement is “the big lie” undergirding his foreign policy approach, “which also will disqualify him from the White House for ignorance if not warmongering.”

Hear, hear! As far as historical whitewashes go, this kind of exceptionalist garbage is as ahistorical as it is evil. “And it’s a line that helps explain why this would-be president is campaigning with a truly extremist foreign policy ‘doctrine,'” according to reliable liberal click-miner Elias Isquith, “and it is utterly insane.” These two articles set the tone for a slew of pieces currently populating the Proggy corners of the internet, which differ only in varying amounts of sub-Colbert riffing leading up to the same capitulation of the US’s bloody settler-colonial, imperialist history.

If Rubio’s “utterly insane” words, animating a “truly extremist” set of quote-unquote ideas sound familiar, it’s probably because they’re almost identical to similar comments from the current occupant of the Oval Office. In the blessed Erewhon called the days before the current presidential election cycle, a.k.a. March 2014, Barack Obama defended the Iraq war by claiming that

it is true that the Iraq war was a subject of vigorous debate, not just around the world but in the United States, as well. I participated in that debate, and I opposed our military intervention there. But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.

Rubio probably would’ve played better to the Daily Kos crowd if he’d referenced “vigorous debate” like Obama did, since those code-words invoke hand-wringing, parliamentary procedure, and Aaron Sorkin-esque speechifying in a trifecta of self-regard that leaves liberal chumps at half-mast.

That’s how Obama’s comments went over last year, anyway. Obama “struggled” to adequately make his case. At worse, Obama “inflamed…accusations of hypocrisy,” which really isn’t as bad as being insane. Digby was “embarrassed for him,” the poor guy. Liberal responses didn’t disqualify Obama from the presidency, nor did they explicate how his whitewash was well in keeping with the imperialist political core which he’d articulated dating back to his days as an Illinois state senator. It’s high on excuse-making for powerful individuals and context-free outrage, low on analysis and anything resembling the journalism that liberals love to wail and keen about. Given that establishment wisdom is morally vile, at least when voiced by someone from Team Red, there should be much-needed bullshit-calling on the whole rotten enterprise.

Anyone who ends up reading this blog probably isn’t too keen on America’s endless election spectacle, either. I know I’m definitely not intending to write about the election again in any capacity; 2008 felt like living through a creepy year-and-a-half long Twilight Zone episode, 2012 was more discipline- than hope-oriented. I have little doubt this one will be more like the latter. Avoiding another presidential election was a sizable motivator for finally expatriating: I’d genuinely rather be strapped down, Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to watch every single Eurovision contest than hear the words Hillary Clinton again, unless that name is followed immediately by the words “…is a walking profanity.”

Because in between the starry-eyed marketing operations and vicious power-serving smear campaigns, elections are a nearly endless stream of moments in which propaganda blows up a micron of difference into the fantasy called democracy. Or worse, moments like this one–in which ruling-class unanimity is remade as something else. Here’s how the sacred experiment really works, as the differences are wholly manufactured and a bipartisan cast of ruthless moral cretins is turned into tableau of good vs. evil.

On the plus side, though, at least there are only 18 more months of this shit. Enjoy, everyone! It’s going to fucking suck.

No wonder it made $100m last weekend: “American Sniper” is a unique hybrid of right-wing and liberal pro-war movies

if Zero Dark Thirty (a film I really love a lot) had been anything like the flag-waving, jingoistic, torture-endorsing film its detractors claim it to be, it probably would have made twice as much money. –Film website comment

The past week, Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper made $120 million over its 4-day opening weekend. Not only is Sniper the highest-grossing January release ever, it’s the biggest opening weekend of any film not part of a franchise—Warner Bros. pictures was expecting an opening-weekend gross of between $40 and $50 million. Not only was Sniper a huge commercial success, it’s been lauded by critics. The film’s huge success with both the “real America” contingent and coastal élites would indicate that the film is something unique—“a bona fide cultural phenomenon,” in the breathless words of CNN’s Brandon Griggs. Despite the protestations of critics like Griggs that Sniper is “a human story, not a political one,” though, there’s been a political controversy.

However, one of the first misconceptions is that American Sniper has prompted a controversy—rather, there are two. One dispute is between the left and right, over the valorization of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with cryptofascist politics and a gargantuan body count. This is sometimes diminishingly lumped in with a discussion about Selma and tepidly called an issue with historical accuracy—as though making a hero of a cruel mass-murderer is analogous to a PR headache for the estate of Lyndon Johnson. The second controversy is between liberal film critics and American Sniper’s detractors. These critics, bolstering the film’s reputation against the ugly facts about the late Chris Kyle, are arguing for the film to be appreciated as a liberal war movie, rather than a right-wing one.

Against claims that Kyle was a vile individual, the film’s liberal supporters argue that it’s not an overtly jingoistic work, but a “morally ambiguous” one. Both sides are correct, in their respective, separate discussions—Chris Kyle was a reprehensible human being, but Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is informed by liberal conceptions of warmaking. The film’s tremendous huge box-office and critical success is due to Eastwood’s accomplishing a unique hybrid—the story of the ultimate right-wing war hero, with the themes and narrative signals of liberal pro-war films. The resulting intervention on the part of supportive film critics, arguing for an ahistorical and apolitical reception of American Sniper, is about shoring up liberal imperialism versus its more distasteful, unsophisticated sibling.

American Sniper’s subject, along with its mass appeal and huge box office success, might indicate that it’s a right-wing war movie—something overtly bellicose, jingoistic, and “flag-waving.” The film has definitely been a success with right-wing audiences, who’ve both turned out in droves and targeted what Sarah Palin called “Hollywood leftist” critics. Directed by a filmmaker whose last prominent work starred an empty chair at the RNC, Sniper isn’t just about any hero, but the epitome of reactionary heroism. The actual Kyle, in his own words, was an unrepentant mass-killer—someone who “loved” killing the “damn savages” that he “hated,” even finding it “fun,” and whose only wish was that he “had killed more.” Kyle saw himself as a Christian warrior in a civilizational battle against Islam, adorning himself with a tattoo of the red Crusader’s cross popular among other identitarian Christian fascists like Anders Breivik. However, not only was Kyle an enthusiastic racist murderer in reality, but in the legend he cultivated about himself. Kyle was an unrepentant bullshit artist, building himself up as the embodiment of a violent right-wing archetype—a Free Republic comment come to life.

Amongst his many lies, Kyle repeated a popular authoritarian myth about liberal treachery, claiming to have been called a baby-killer in the highly right-wing area of San Diego where the SEALs are based. He claimed to have found WMDs in Iraq. He also claimed to have acted out the sort of racialized vengeance fantasies that fuel the right-wing id: inventing stories about shooting two carjackers, and gunning down “looters” in post-Katrina New Orleans with impunity. The last point is particularly ironic since Kyle described looting Iraqi homes during the war, making him the sort of thieving petty criminal that private property-loving “stand your ground” types see as the lowest form of scum. It’s actually surprising that Kyle never claimed to have taught a lesson to an avowed atheist and ACLU-member college professor, who one day challenged God to knock him off his platform.

This is the Chris Kyle in the public record leading up the release of Eastwood’s film. He is firmly associated with the American right—and one controversy has played out along these lines. Americans of the cryptofascist political persuasion send those who denigrate him death threats. Some liberal celebrities, like Seth Rogen and Michael Moore, have made mild critical comments, which they immediately walked back under pressure from the right. However, Seth Rogen provides a valuable object lesson in what division is manifesting itself here. Among many critics with principled stands against warmongering are liberals like Rogen. Famously, Rogen propagandized on Israel’s behalf during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, so he obviously doesn’t have a substantive issue with slaughtering Arabs. However, people like Rogen, who support warfare in the name of democratic pluralism, are actually one of the film’s natural constituencies. Continue reading

Checking Chickenhawks: the limited leverage of enlisting the elites

For a term deployed so often on the left, chickenhawk has a conservative core. The accusation—that someone is agitating for war only because they’re not affected—implies that someone should be fighting in a war, rather than war should be opposed, point blank. Maz Hussain has a piece at The Intercept on the latest generation of Americans to serve in what was once called the Global War on Terror, which he concludes with a bellicose call to “finish the job,” preferably using the children of the Bush administration and their supporters.

Millions of moviegoers might remember this idea from the highest-grossing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. In the film, Michael Moore, a Marine, and his crew cruise Capitol Hill, trying to convince Congresspeople to enlist their kids for the war in Iraq. In Rachel Maddow’s 2012 book Drift, she connects the “unmooring of American military power” to a constellation of factors, one of which is the perceived disconnect between America’s leaders and the families who fight “our” wars for us. Conservative historian Andrew Bacevich makes a similar point in his 2013 book Breach of Trust.

The idea is that if the elites bore a greater brunt of the suffering, there would be less war. Again, there’s a conservative idea at the core, and it’s an appeal to an imagined time when such a relationship restrained American warmaking. In their critiques of American power, conservatives like Bacevich or Garry Wills harken back to a pre-Cold War golden age, when Edna and Mabel happily forewent their nylon stockings for our boys Over There. A liberal may point to Vietnam as a high-water mark—Maddow’s book begins with this period. In the ’70s, the draft caused such opposition to the war that President Nixon felt compelled to sneak out of the White House for 4am parlays with anti-war demonstrators.

The narrative goes that these links created leaders who were circumspect about the use of American power—like Colin Powell, the “most popular man in America” circa 2000. The “Powell doctrine” provided a template for a war that even liberals can love, and sure enough, Powell enumerated it on the Rachel Maddow Show in April 2009. The archetypal divide between the “reluctant warrior” produced by a holistic elite-military connection and irresponsible, trigger-happy politician is best illustrated in an anecdote from the Clinton administration. Powell, with his knowledge of the realities of combat and son in the Army, sagely reined in American military power, leading an exasperated Madeleine Albright to scream “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

American imperialism would like to align itself with the image of the “reluctant warrior”: reasoned and mature, strong but justified. However, the Empire isn’t Colin Powell, it’s Madeline Albright—nakedly, murderously amoral in the calculus of its own interests. Though the Bush administration obliterated Iraq, it was Clinton’s “genocidal” sanctions regime that murdered more than half a million Iraqi children. In 1996, Albright famously remarked it was “worth it.” War is a racket, but traditional wars are just one tool of opening up markets. More often, as with sanctions, Empire exploits, immiserates, and kills without firing a shot.

The idea that war would be “better” with a more ideal alignment of the elites and the armed forces sacrifices this wider critique for a criticism riddled with conservative tropes: it’s rhetorically tepid, substantively empty, and strategically counterproductive.

As Nathan Fuller points out, the accusation of chickenhawk-ism is weak. It can’t be leveraged because it’s not remotely actionable. Is it a call for a 1% draft? Does it attend a proposal for a ratio of elites, which the armed services must meet before war can be waged? If a hawkish Senator supports war and has military-age male children at Georgetown instead of Forward Operating Base Lightning, what then, exactly? Continue reading

The Continuing Appeal of the “Artificial Borders” Theory

The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, 1916.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, 1916.

There’s a popular idea that global strife is caused by the “artificial borders” of “man-made” countries, moreso than the economic designs of oligarchs and the imperial wars that enforce them. The narrative holds that ethnic groups prone to internecine conflict were thrown into a temporary coexistence by the whims of (usually Victorian) cartographers. This trope is deployed most often in the Middle East, but it can be applied anywhere there’s an operation underway to bend that country to the Washington consensus.

Undoubtedly, this theory is only treated as plausible, serious, and self-evident only when used for Washington’s benefit. Compare the conventional wisdom on Syria and Iraq with the way Russian claims that Ukraine’s borders are artificial are dismissed as irredentist propaganda.

Now, during a long-term American campaign to militarize Africa, the Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram has fueled calls for the US to “do something.” When there’s a country in the global south and the US military is involved, odds are you’ll hear about the country’s “artificiality.” Sure enough, a long piece on PolicyMic breaks finds Nigeria’s woes more rooted in 19th century politics than contemporary ones. With another “man-made” country in the headlines, it’s worth examining why the “artificial borders” theory is so popular.

1. It blames a harmless, bygone empire and absolves the world’s existing one.
This, more than Western economic interests, is responsible for corruption.

This, more than Western economic interests, is responsible for corruption.

“To understand Boko Haram,” PolicyMic explains, “the West must look more closely at itself than Nigeria.” So far so good; if anyone’s an advocate of looking more closely at the West, it’s me. However, as in the Middle East, the West’s culpability is limited to the late British Empire. “The history of colonialism” is behind “a century of destabilization, poor infrastructure, and corrupt leaders.” Continue reading

Why the surprise over Obama’s comments on Crimea? The President has been whitewashing the Iraq War since before it began.

Many liberals were shocked this past week when Barack Obama dismissed accusations of American hypocrisy on Crimea by defending the war in Iraq. Responding to accusations that the 2003 invasion has robbed the US of moral authority when it comes to condemning violations of international law, the President declared that Russia’s actions in Crimea are worse than the War in Iraq. The liberal reaction to Obama’s whitewashing of recent history was swift. CommonDreams cited “Anger [and] Disbelief as Obama Defends US Invasion of Iraq.” Huffington Post said “Obama’s Iraq War defense [was] met with surprise.” Slate.com asked “Why did Obama just defend the Iraq War?”

Surprise! Disbelief! Why?  Many liberals are stunned that Obama would undertake what amounts to a whitewash of the Iraq War, given that the President was elected largely on a platform of opposition to the invasion.  It’s a testament to the President’s rhetorical prowess and charisma that, six years into his term, he can still manage to “surprise” his liberal base like this. On the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion, Obama has been remarkably consistent. Obama’s 2014 defense of the Iraq War should be no surprise, because he has been whitewashing the War since before it even started. Continue reading

The Middle East’s “artificial borders” and America’s history of unleashing chaos

On a recent road trip from the Bay Area to northern Washington, I noticed a strange phenomenon: the borders between US states, and even the border between America and Canada, were only indicated via man-made cues like signs and checkpoints. It was strange because I keep hearing about violence in the Middle East, chiefly in Syria and Iraq, and how the region’s problem is its “artificial” borders. Conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that the original sin that’s lead to the Syrian Civil War and the resurgence of violence in Iraq is that those countries are “invented,” with illegitimate borders decided upon by the whims of mere humans. What I saw on my road trip made me think that all borders are invented, and maybe every country is man-made, not just Middle East regimes outside the Washington consensus. But who am I to argue with this kind of establishment consensus! Talking about the resurgence of Al Qaeda, journalist Dexter Filkins explained:

“What’s developing in front of our eyes is this very terrifying kind of regional, sectarian war that is basically stretching from the Iranian border all the way to the Mediterranean. The longer this war goes on in Syria, the greater the impact in the region, whether it’s Lebanon, or Iraq, or Jordan. These countries are artificial countries, most of them were drawn on a map in 1919 after World War One.”

The current Middle East conflicts, as Filkins explains, are due to the “artificial” nature of the countries in question. As opposed, one presumes, to the countries of North America and Europe, whose shapes were ordained by Providence. Filkins isn’t alone in ascribing the current violence in the Middle East to the arrogant whims of Sykes and Picot. The idea that century-old cartographic laziness is at the root of today’s Mideast violence is a popular one, repeated in the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and by Fareed Zakaria, one of the theory’s early adopters. In a segment on The Daily Show, a personification of the British Empire named Sir Archibald Mapsalot explains the “bad borders” theory as the unfortunate result of British imperialism and the ignorance of its administrators. America’s wisest pundits have found the culprit behind the current bloodshed in the Middle East, and it is the 19th Century British Empire. How convenient, and by sheer coincidence, exculpatory for the Middle East’s current imperial master, the United States. Continue reading