In Defense of Civilization

tumblr_mqq956AbRv1qjleemo1_500Bill Maher is in the news again, as a result of his long-time campaign against Islam. I didn’t really have anything to add, given that I’ve already said everything I think about Islamophobia in the past, and people like Roqayah Chamseddine have good summaries and dissemblings of his recent statements. Anyone who’s familiar with colonialism generally and anti-Muslim bigotry specifically can already imagine what was said. The comments by Maher and Sam Harris are merely the latest in a centuries-long line of colonialist discourse, positioning the Empire as the civilizing force that brings Enlightenment values to the subjugated.

However, Maher situates his hatred of Islam on a defense of liberal values, so let’s talk about these. This happens to be a very opportune moment to take stock of where democratic ideals stand in the Western civilization of which Maher is such an ardent defender, because it’s clear that they are genuinely under attack.

In defense of his comments, Maher made a vindicating observation:

“When I used to talk about it, it was just either stony silence or outright booing and now I notice quite a shift…When I talked about it at the end of last week’s show, they stood up at the end—they cheered during it and they stood up at the end.”

I don’t doubt that people are increasingly receptive to Maher’s message, because these are reactionary times. Islamophobia is a bipartisan project in the States, but it’s not unique to the US. Islamophobia is “the premier form of racism in Europe today,” or at least the fastest-growing (since Europe’s treatment of the Roma borders on genocidal). India has elected an ultra-right wing president, whose complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms and Hindu nationalist platform make him no friend to the Muslims within India or its neighbors.

However, despite the fact that North America, Europe, and India are becoming more hostile to Muslims, democratic values are in something of an open retreat. Under terrorism charges, secret trials have been conducted by the United States, Canada, and soon, the UK. The US imprisons people over YouTube videos, Spain imprisons people for tweets. The pretense of Magna Carta protections being abandoned should be cause for concern to someone interested in defending liberal values

While the democracies of North America and Europe legally regress back to the age of feudalism, the biggest gains have been made by the world’s most reactionary forces. In the US, the Tea Party advances a right-wing neoliberal agenda while venerating guns in an open threat display. Every election cycle in the EU empowers more fascists and neo-Nazis. The pro-Russian government in Ukraine was overthrown last February with the help of neo-Nazi Ultras partially bankrolled by Washington. The world media was turgid over the election of Narendra Modi in India, ignoring that his party and its allies are neo-fascist and focusing more on his awesome campaign holograms.

To a proponent of Western liberalism and its virtues, these should be grim developments. Where is this far-right resurgence coming from? Is it Islam, which noted civilization-defender Harris recently called “the mother lode of bad ideas?” Continue reading

Yasiin Bey’s travel ban wasn’t true, but it was plausible

Hey, did you hear about Yasiin Bey? In late May, a music festival in Boston announced that Bey’s upcoming shows would be cancelled due to problems re-entering the US. Turns out it’s false: a newspaper in South Africa, where Bey is living, has reported that the story was untrue.

All’s well that ends well! Since the artist formerly known as Mos Def is an American citizen, a travel ban would be an incredibly disturbing development. Especially since the rapper, who is Muslim, was most recently known for bringing attention to the legalized torture currently going on in Guantánamo Bay. In a video for The Guardian, Bey undergoes the excruciating force-feeding procedure to which over a hundred hunger-striking detainees have been subjected. As of now, the video has been viewed over 6 million times.

But it turns out there’s nothing to see here! For some reason, people believed that an American citizen would be subjected to some sort of unequal treatment, just because he’s a black Muslim-American whose political activism sheds light on American government torture. Maybe those credulous people had heard something about Saadiq Long, the Muslim American citizen from Oklahoma who was stuck in de facto exile for more than a decade. Long, an Air Force veteran, was forced to live in Qatar due to placement on the No-Fly list for unknown reasons. Maybe they had heard about Gulet Mohamed, a naturalized American citizen who was beaten by Kuwaiti authorities on behalf of the US, intimidated by the FBI, and then told he was on the No-Fly list when he tried to return home.

If they hadn’t heard either of these specific stories, maybe they had some idea of the tens of thousands of other Americans on the No-Fly list. Or maybe they think that being an American citizen just doesn’t go as far as it used to. The British are publicly stripping terrorism suspects of citizenship, and there is evidence that the US is already holding American citizens in secret, lawless captivity under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. There are Americans for whom citizenship couldn’t protect even from murder, much less exile.

Centering around a hip-hop artist, pieces debunking the travel ban story also have the aspect of playing into gaslight-y tropes about conspiracism in the African-American community. Serious, savvy types sneer at beliefs amongst some black Americans that the government played a role in the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics. Of course, if you’re a member of a group who’s historically fucked-over by the powerful, it creates a strong incentive–even a self-preservation imperative–to know how power really works. As with Muslims receiving a different tier of citizenship, these theories dismissed as conspiracism have aspects of truth, from the long history of American medical experimentation on people of color to the CIA’s documented collusion with Contra drug smugglers.

Rather than being self-evidently ridiculous, the original story of Bey’s travel ban is actually pretty credible. The only unrealistic aspect is it happening to a famous person.

The only criticism that’s Left

How did “hypocrisy” become the worst accusation leveled against the powerful?

When looking at a recent Daily Show segment that amounted to a whitewash of American assassination policies, I was struck by the focus on “hypocrisy.” To hear America’s most-trusted liberal satirist tell it, President Obama was mostly guilty of the crime of saying one thing and doing another. The focus on hypocrisy elided the fact that the thing in question, which he said he wouldn’t do, was murdering people. From my humble perspective, that seems like a worse sin than duplicity. Once I had “hypocrisy” on my mind, though, I noticed that the accusation seemed to be everywhere. It seems like the worst thing left-aligned people say about the powerful anymore is that they’re hypocrites.

Last month, the new left-most boundary of acceptable criticism, First Look’s The Intercept, wrote about an in-house NSA advice column named “Ask Zelda.” Why was this “Dear Abby for spies” worth writing about? An NSA employee had written in to ask Zelda how they could set boundaries with an intrusive boss. It turns out NSA employees value their own privacy, even as they violate our privacy. We, the American people, charge the national security state—with the grave crime of hypocrisy!

J’accuse!

Actually, no, I meant a different French phrase—no shit. To say that our elites and their spies, enforcers, and state apparatchiks see themselves as subject to different laws and standards as the rest of us should be so obvious as to be totally banal at this point. In fact, I remember reading a book about that years ago.

In addition to the accusation of hypocrisy being obvious, it’s also largely exculpatory. The accusation is embedded with the idea that there’s a high-minded ideal being betrayed. We need only to get the hypocrites to see the wisdom of their core beliefs, then get their actions to mirror these deeply held convictions. It’s the same idea at the heart of the hoary, vomit-inducing tall tale about how Obama just needs his liberal base to “make him” enact the progressive agenda that he really desires.

What seems more likely is that hypocrisy is a feature, not a bug, of the exercise of power. The state and our plutocratic class do what they want, and then they tell us whatever they want, regardless of that statement’s relationship to reality. Otherwise, why would we consent to being ruled by the venal mediocrities who are our elites, unless they made overtures towards democratic pluralism, transparency, and the common good? Continue reading

Stephen Colbert & Jon Stewart sell millennials military industry propaganda

On the November 13, 2013 episode of The Colbert Report, there was a segment about the Colorado man on a quixotic crusade to institute a “drone bounty” in his town of Deer Trail, CO. Philip Steele, the “brains” behind the proposed ordinance, is an easy target for ridicule. He shows up to a town council meeting in a cowboy hat and duster, demanding that Ennio Morricone play as he entered. As the segment’s straight-person, Colbert has on MIT professor Missy Cummings. While Steele prints up drone-hunting permits from his desktop printer and makes racist comments about Obama’s ancestry, Cummings paints a rosy picture in which domestic UAVs do everything but tuck our kids in at night. To demonstrate Steele’s unfounded paranoia, the show quotes him saying:

There are many reasons to conduct surveillance. Let’s take smokers, how many people have smoke breaks, okay, fly a drone. ‘Oh, did you check nonsmoker on your health insurance form? Oh I’m sorry, we’re going to have to penalize you now.’”

The audience laughs at this, but isn’t it obvious that this is exactly the sort of thing that domestic drones will be used for in the future? Steele sounds like an eccentric reactionary for most of the interview, so consequently the young, liberal audience is laughing even as he says something plausible, if not likely. This is the problem with the tepid liberalism at the core of The Daily Show and Colbert, and how both shows  filter everything into the insipid “Democrat vs. Republican” partisan framework. By choosing a right-wing drone opponent, Colbert primes its audience to laugh at what he’s saying, even when it’s realistic; and trust his opposite, even when they’re a shill for the military industry. Continue reading

The Good and Evil of Left-Libertarian Transpartisanship

On October 26, in Washington, DC, thousands gathered as part of the “Stop Watching Us” rally to demonstrate against the American surveillance state. Describing itself as a coalition of “over 100 public advocacy organizations and companies from across the US,” the protest featured attendees, speakers, and sponsors from both the anti-authoritarian Left and the Libertarian right.

The nature of an entrenched, bipartisan national security state means that the most powerful members of both parties have an interest in perpetuating government power. The Obama administration carried on the previous administration’s spying programs, and today a Democratic president finds vociferous defenders amongst the most authoritarian members of the “opposing” party.

Consequently, opposition to excessive government intrusion takes on a transpartisan nature. At the Stop Watching Us rally, Dennis Kucinich and Naomi Wolf shared the stage with Tea Party Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. The roster of backers included Code Pink, the ACLU, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (whom I’d not heard of, but come on, “Competitive Enterprise?” Going to go ahead and put that on the Libertarian side).

The Left-Libertarian crowd that showed up on Saturday mirrors the one in Congress that came 12 votes short of defunding the NSA’s mass telephone surveillance last July. The July 24th House bill was co-sponsored by fellow Michiganders Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican, and John Conyers, a Democrat who co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. The Amendment would’ve “limit[ed] the government’s collection of records…to those records that pertain to a person who is subject to an investigation.” No more blanket collection.

More importantly, the bill managed to accumulate such significant, bipartisan support despite the fact that the nation’s most powerful lawmakers vehemently opposed its passage. The leadership of both parties was arrayed against Amash-Conyers, and as often happens in matters of national security, the Obama administration found a staunch supporter in Michelle Bachmann. Given bills like the Amash-Conyers Amendment, it looks like a Left-Libertarian alliance is the sort of transpartisan project that can finally rein in the surveillance state. Continue reading