The Work of Revelations: Snowden, the Torture Report, and the Diminishing Returns of Info-Spectacles

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo. Isn’t that ultimately the message of Les Misérables? In contrast to the revolutionaries hopelessly slaughtered en masse at the barricades, it’s Jean Valjean’s unimpeachable righteousness alone that ultimately drives his longtime tormentor to suicide. I dreamed a dream…

Rather than just being the domain of French Romantics and office motivational posters, the notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress. This coincides happily with the preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of mainstream human rights and civil liberties groups, for whom information is the sine qua non of preparing briefs and mounting cases.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

For its part, progressive e-magazine TruthDig doesn’t want people messing with this line of thinking in the case of the Senate Torture report: “When the truth is spoken by politicians…skeptics are right to suspect it’s not merely the truth. It is always tailored to redound to some benefit to the speaker. But there are moments in history when that doesn’t matter.”

We’re being told it’s one such moment now. The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a heavily redacted, heavily abridged “Executive Summary” of its 6,000 page report on CIA torture. Adding to the report’s mystique is the fact that the White House and CIA wanted to suppress the information contained within, with the CIA even hacking the computers of Senate staffers compiling the report. The torture report seems like the most illicit kind of revelatory information, so it’s created an enormous amount of commentary and condemnation.

However, with the exceptions of some specific ghoulish details, most of the information was already known. The most horrific facts—that the CIA raped prisoners, that torture was used to fabricate justifications for the War in Iraq, that human beings were tortured to death, that almost a quarter of torture cases were the result of mistaken identity—had all been reported on within the last decade.

There’s a disconnect between the content of the torture report and the narrative that now surrounds the event itself. When TruthDig called for putting skepticism aside, it was in a piece hailing Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain as their progressive heroes of the week. Feinstein’s fingerprints are on many of the US’s worst abuses of this century, and McCain is one of the most bloodthirsty figures in the US government, and by extension the planet. Given that these newly minted progressive heroes are some of the worst imperialists, and the torture report’s aura doesn’t reflect reality, this seems like exactly the right moment for those meddlesome skeptics to be asking questions.

The journalists and public figures who promote the torture report present it as transformative information, but it’s shaping up to be a spectacle that sets the left back yet again. The report has followed many parallels with the last time this happened, the spectacle surrounding Ed Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald et al. The Snowden drama provided a useful template for how dissent is going to be managed, channeled, and moderated going forward. The way the NSA leaks were handled has provided the elites a scalable model for taking the release of even revelatory information and using it to come out on top and consolidate their power.

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Fortunately, last October Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media had an acrimonious public divorce with once-hire Matt Taibbi. If Taibbi had been someone with less social capital, then the failure of Racket might’ve just been a momentary hiccup for the internet’s hottest journalistic “insurgency.” As it stands, the fact that people want to be in Taibbi’s orbit has opened up a lot of space for analysis of Omidyar’s would-be media empire, where the establishment consensus was once airtight. It’s certainly vindicated what Taibbi said about journalists being akin to an easily spooked herd of deer, who only get around to asking the right questions “eventually. But far after the fact.”

When the leaks began, they painted a complete picture of a monster whose contours had only previously been hinted at. Stories about warrantless wiretapping and the size of “Top Secret America” had won their authors Pulitzers and hinted that the US government was spying on all of us. There were reports of a secret government data-storage facility of gargantuan proportions being built in Utah. Stories had periodically cropped up in unexpected places about the government’s ability to record and store all our communications. However, now the public knew the truth definitively. There was excitement, talk of change, reform, maybe even something more drastic. Soon, the whistleblower went public. More stories came out, about more countries. 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

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.

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

Stewart Sanitizes Barry’s Bombs

A recent popular Daily Show segment exemplifies the worst aspects of the show’s tepid centrism

Though Jon Stewart is quick to tell people that he’s “just a comedian,” The Daily Show has a unique ability to frame politics in the public consciousness. As a comedy show, it’s able to reach viewers who would otherwise be politically disengaged. Large numbers of people who get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and these people tend to be better informed than consumers of other media sources—belying the idea that it’s “just a comedy show.” The fact that the show appeals to both an audience who considers themselves politically left-leaning and a wider audience that’s more apolitical gives it the ability to shape the popular discourse that a lot of traditional news shows would envy.

However, though the show is a liberal pop-culture institution, the show is profoundly respectful of the status quo. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert skewer the most obvious hypocrisies of our political system, they show respect and deference to a political system that exports tremendous violence abroad and increasing repression and inequality at home. A widely shared Daily Show segment from February 19th illustrates how pernicious show can be. Reflecting the show’s broad appeal, the opening segment received praise and exposure in both mainstream outlets like Yahoo! TV and leftist news sites like TruthDig.  TruthDig called the video “hilarious and scathing,” but it’s anything but.

The opening segment, with the headline “Jon Stewart calls Obama the ‘Barry Bombs’ of drone strikes,” dealt with the Obama administration’s extrajudicial killing policy, specifically the issue of targeting Americans for assassination without due process. When discussing a state claiming an Imperial prerogative to kill its own citizens, Stewart offers only a mild reproach of individual foibles. Worse than insufficient criticism, though, the segment is an active whitewashing of Obama’s assassination policies and his administration’s theories of limitless executive power. The piece is embedded with multiple misleading claims, actually flattering Obama in the guise of a critique. The segment encapsulates all the worst aspects of The Daily Show’s tepid, establishment-serving centrism. 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