Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Empire

Imperial Culture and Moral Absurdity in the Age of Obama: From Teheran and Bala Boluk to New York, Bagua, and Tegucigalpa

By Paul Street

During a concert at Chicago's United Center last May 12th, Bruce Springsteen observed that "sometimes it seems like the more things change the more they stay the same." He was talking about the persistence and indeed the deepening of poverty and inequality in the United States, where financial parasites and perpetrators receive untold billions of taxpayer dollars while millions are pushed further into destitution, their fate worsened by a regressive welfare "reform" (elimination) that "progressive" President Barack Obama has repeatedly praised as a great bipartisan policy triumph.


Among numerous other examples of "things stay[ing] the same," the Boss (Springsteen, that is) might also have mentioned the deeply ingrained tendency of top U.S. politicians and dominant U.S. media to make unstated but easily discernible distinctions between "worthy" and "unworthy victims" in world affairs.

"Worthy victims" are killed by officially designated enemies of the inherently virtuous United States. Their deaths are reported in ways meant to elicit sympathy and to encourage outrage against their murderers. Some of them can become martyrs.

"Unworthy victims" perish at the hands of the intrinsically honorable United States and/or its officially designated allies and clients. They die anonymously and without fanfare, passing down the memory hole devoid of sympathy in dominant U.S. media and political culture, where their deaths often register little more than those of ants crushed beneath the wheels of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle or (to mention another great weapon of empire) a CNN camera truck.

Pop quiz question #1, fellow American: who is Neda Soltan? Who killed her?

Yes, that's right. She's the beautiful 26 year-old woman who was murdered on June 20th by (the story goes) a government sniper engaged in the repression of protests against a rigged election in Iran.

You knew that right away. Of course you did. Neda was all over U.S. television as a global democracy symbol for days - a ubiquitous and potent media image until she was knocked off center stage by the ongoing death drama of the mysterious American pop icon Michael Jackson (the coverage of which most Americans find "excessive"). Neda was murdered by an officially designated U.S. enemy state.

No less an American than President Obama said he had watched the graphic Internet video of Neda's death. "While this loss is raw and extraordinarily painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history," Obama said. The president called the video "heartbreaking."

"I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that," he claimed.

"No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness," Obama added.

Pop quiz question # 2: name a single person among the more than ten dozen who died in the western Afghanistan village of Grani in Bala Boluk district in the province of Farah in the first week of last May. Ninety-three of the people killed were children, many blown literally to bits. Angry and grieving villagers put some of the victims' body parts in pickup trucks and wagons and hauled them for public viewing to provincial headquarters. On May 4th, Dr Atiqullah, a Grani resident, told Pajhwok Afghan News that "bombardment destroyed the whole village and some of the mutilated bodies were beyond recognition. He said they had so far retrieved 123 dead bodies from beneath the debris of the destroyed homes by using tractors."

Can't come up with a name? Of course you can't. The civilians in question were slaughtered from the sky by the world's only Superpower - the United States. They did not merit meaningful identification and personalization by U.S. communication authorities.


They and the many thousands of Afghans (and Iraqis and Pakistanis) that "we") have butchered in recent years are unworthy victims. They died tragically - "regrettably" but inescapably - as "collateral damage" in the military campaigns of a morally splendid nation that seeks to do noble things - to spread freedom, peace, prosperity, and democracy - in the world. As President Barack Obama told CNN's Candy Crowley last July, the U.S. should never apologize for any its actions - even for its sporadic "mistakes" (Obama has always refused to apply the word "crime" to any of Uncle Sam's many past transgressions) - on the global stage. This, he explained, is because America is "a force for good" in the world.

As Barack Obama's "loved" philosopher, the establishment theologian Reinhold Niebhur, told the U.S. imperial class after World War Two: "the paradox of grace" means that U.S. policymakers cannot fulfill their sacred purpose of advancing goodness on Earth if they shirk from their intimately related duty to commit sin. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.

If America's overflowing uprightness leads its benevolent tanks, helicopters, bombers, unmanned aerial vehicles to "occasionally" squash civilian insects abroad, that's a shame. But "collateral damage" is unavoidable when you are a Superpower working for peace, freedom, and the material and spiritual betterment of humanity. As War Democrat Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained in the fall of 1999, seven months after the U.S. initiated deadly bombing runs over Belgrade, "The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere." When asked about the death of more than half a million Iraqi children due to U.S.-led "economic sanctions," Albright told CBS television that "we think the price is worth paying" to advance the United States' fundamentally honorable policy goals.

Consistent with his repeatedly stated "American exceptionalist" faith in the unmatched moral purity of U.S. foreign policy and national character, Barack Obama has consistently (as candidate and as president) proclaimed the United States' criminal assault on Afghanistan (October 2001 to ????) to be a "good," "just" and "proper" war. The dominant U.S. corporate war and entertainment media has not seen fit to question this judgment even as hundreds of innocent civilian Afghans and Pakistanis perish in the face of Obama's expanded and re-branded "global war on terror," replete with a stepping up of "targeted assassinations," the appointment of a notorious death squad ("special ops") leader (Stanley A. McChrystal) to the head of the newly merged "Af-Pak" war theater, and the escalation of provocative drone attacks (executed by distant technicians in air-conditioned command centers in California) in South Asia

Neither Obama nor his "mainstream" media allies were about to "bear witness" to the "unfortunate" massacre of civilian creatures in remote Afghan villages.

Shit" like the aerial dismemberment of dozens of Pashtun children "Happens" when you are on a global mission from God and/or History.

Such is the "paradox of grace."

Meanwhile, Obama's Pentagon tried to pin the unspeakable carnage from the heavens in Bala Boluk on..."Taliban grenades."


Around the same time that Grani's villagers collected the remains of their U.S.-pulverized children, Obama and his Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apologized to the American people and fired a White House official. They did this because a late-April presidential photo shoot above Manhattan went terribly bad. The president's plane, "Air Force One," had flown far too low over the island with a fighter jet in tow, terrifying New York City residents and office-workers by reminding them of 9/11.

Scaring New Yorkers and stirring up the ghosts of 9/11 elicited an executive branch apology and the discharge of a staffer. Actually killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require public contrition or a single firing. The imperial gendarmes even got to make up childish tales about how so many civilians died in Grani ("the Taliban did it") - stories that were taken seriously by "mainstream" media.

Such are the ironies and burdens of imperial culture!

Of course, 9/11's U.S. dead are the ultimate worthy victims in reigning U.S. political/media culture. The New York Times ran a touching series of photos and biographies of every 9/11 victim they could over many months in 2002. No such personalization and respect has ever been or ever will be granted by U.S. media to any of the much larger number of Arabs and Pashtuns and others who have died prematurely because of U.S. actions, including more than 1 million Iraqis (killed by another illegal invasion Obama and his many fellow War Democrats are sustaining in the name of peace and "withdrawal") who have perished since March of 2003.

The unworthy victims of Superpower's rogue behavior die in mass anonymity, unlike Neda, whose name Obama knows. Apparently some kind of iron fist and/or velvet glove is powerful enough to "shut off" most U.S. citizens and the U.S. president from "bearing witness" to the huge number of Southwest and South Asians that "good" America has seen fit to liberate from existence since and before 9/11. There's "something fundamentally unjust about that" (to use Obama's words on the murder of Neda).

Such nationally narcissistic absence of concern is no small part of the richly bipartisan imperial-cultural matrix that did so much to cause the jetliner attacks of 2001. Until the perverse dichotomy between "worthy" and "unworthy victims" - along with much else in the imperial mindset and structure - is overcome, we can expect more and perhaps bigger attacks on the "homeland."


Let us turn now to some recent events in Superpower's hemispheric "backyard." Pop Quiz # 3: Name any among the dozens of indigenous citizens and activists massacred by police while protesting oil and mining projects in the northern Peruvian Amazonian province of Bagua in the first week of June 2009. Find a Neda among the forty people, including three children, who died at the hands of police on June 6 and June 7. The indigenous Peruvians were trying to protect Amazonian ecology and their social and physical health from multinational corporations seeking to "move forward" under a series of Peruvian government decrees passed to implement a "Free Trade Agreement" with the U.S. The incident was only weakly covered in dominant U.S. media, which failed to report the predominantly state-inflicted nature of the violence and left out the underlying corporate-globalizationist and eco-cidal context behind the conflict. Also left out: presidential candidate Barack Obama's support for the anti-labor/anti-environment/anti-indigenous US-Peru Free Trade Agreement - the extension of the global investors' rights bill, the North American Free Trade Agreement to Peru - in the fall and winter of 2007. Candidate Obama falsely claimed that the bill contained important labor and environmental protections - a deception for which he was strongly criticized by the tragic John Edwards.

You'll have to do some research to get any names of the Bagua dead, fellow American. They died in the usual scornful anonymity conferred upon the unworthy victims who are liquidated by U.S. clients and on the wrong side of U.S. global policy.


Last week Obama got another chance to reject the childish notion that righteous Uncle Sam might express some contrition for the murder and mayhem he causes across the world. During a White House visit by Chile's president Michele Bachelet, a Chilean reporter asked Obama if he might tender a U.S. state apology for the American Empire's critical role in the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew that country's elected government and installed the murderous right-wing dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Obama refused, explaining that "I'm interested in going forward, not looking backward" (sound familiar?). The president added that "the United States has been an enormous force for good in the world" even if "there have been times where we've made mistakes." The reporter did not follow up to press the president on the "enormous [U.S.] good[ness]" involved in (to mention a few key past and ongoing "mistakes" like murdering 3 million Indochinese during the 1960s and 1970s, killing a million Iraqis with "economic sanctions" during the 1990s, making a grossly outsized contribution to global warming and other forms of planetary pollution, incarcerating more then 2 million of its own citizens, sustaining dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, accounting for nearly half the world's military spending, and sustaining an empire that includes more than 760 bases located across more than 130 countries in a planet where more than 2 billion people live and die on less than a dollar a day, thanks to a world capitalist system that the U.S. government has long sought to protect and expand with, well, an iron fist when "necessary."

Just this last week, events in Honduras have offered Obama a shining opportunity to "go forward" as "an enormous force for good in the world" by acting decisively against the military officials who executed a coup against Honduras' democratically elected, left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya. The coup was (quite naturally) carried out by U.S.-trained and U.S.-funded military forces and conducted with U.S.-supplied military equipment. Obama possesses the power to restore Zelaya to his rightful office in Honduras, a nation whose government and economy has long been exceedingly dependent on the U.S. More than that, there are disturbing questions about Washington's role leading up to the coup. As the incisive left journalist and author Jeremy Scahill noted Monday morning:

"It is impossible to imagine that the US was not aware that the coup was in the works. In fact, this was basically confirmed by The New York Times in Monday's paper...While the US has issued heavily-qualified statements critical of the coup—in the aftermath of the events in Honduras—the US could have flexed its tremendous economic muscle before the coup and told the military coup plotters to stand down. The US ties to the Honduran military and political establishment run far too deep for all of this to have gone down without at least tacit support or the turning of a blind eye by some US political or military official(s)."

"Here are some facts to consider: the US is the top trading partner for Honduras. The coup plotters/supporters in the Honduran Congress are supporters of the ‘free trade agreements' Washington has imposed on the region. The coup leaders view their actions, in part, as a rejection of Hugo Chavez's influence in Honduras and with Zelaya and an embrace of the United States and Washington's ‘vision' for the region. Obama and the US military could likely have halted this coup with a simple series of phone calls."

According to the noted Latin American historian Greg Gandin one day after the coup, "The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government. Honduras, as a whole, if any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it's Honduras. Its economy is wholly based on trade, foreign aid and remittances. So if the US is opposed to this coup going forward, it won't go forward. Zelaya will return, if the United States—if Obama and Hillary Clinton are sincere in their statements about returning Zelaya to power."

On Sunday, Obama expressed "deep concern" regarding "the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya" and called on "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms" and the "the rule of law" so as to resolve "existing tensions and disputes... through dialogue free from any outside interference."

Still, the White House, which keeps more than 500 troops and a number of planes and helicopters at a Honduran base, has refused to officially/legally declare the removal of Zelaya "a coup." Making such a declaration would trigger (under the Foreign Assistance Act) a cutoff of tens of millions of dollars of U.S. aid to the Central American nation. According to Reuters, "The [U.S.] State Department has requested $68.2 million in aid for fiscal year 2010 [for Honduras], which begins on October 1, up from $43.2 million in the current fiscal year and $40.5 million a year earlier."

John Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras and a leading, blood-soaked figure in U.S. coordination of mass-murderous right-wing state terror across Central America under Ronald Reagan, told the Washington Post that the Obama administration's disinclination to fully acknowledge the reality of recent events "appeared to reflect reluctance to see Zelaya returned unconditionally to power."

Will the U.S. work seriously for Zelaya's return? Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We haven't laid out any demands that we're insisting on, because we're working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives." In a Monday briefing with reporters, U.S. Statement spokesman Ian Kelly had an interesting exchange with the press:

MR. KELLY: I believe that [the coup] is illegal, yes. I mean, I don't think that there was - look.....As I say, I am not an international lawyer. But this was not a democratic solution to some of the conflicts that we saw leading up to yesterday's events. And I think that's - that's our real issue with this, and I think that's the issue with all of our colleagues in the Organization of American States

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that the Secretary said, look, as a practical matter, this is a coup, but we're not yet making that formal legal determination, which would, of course, then trigger the cutoff of most aid.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: That you were essentially trying to create some space to try to reach a negotiated outcome?

MR. KELLY: I think that we - right now, we're calling on all parties to come to a negotiated solution

Superpower could have prevented the coup in advance with some phone calls and well-placed threats. With just a tiny portion of the military and political force it pours into sustaining illegal invasions and occupations (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine) and dictatorships in oil-rich Southwest Asia, it could (in line with majority Latin American and global opinion)quickly restore the democratically elected president to power in Honduras.


Expect some sort of "negotiated solution." Confronting a changed, left-leaning balance of forces and opinion in Latin America, the White House will probably bring Zelaya back on a conditional basis (think Bill Clinton and Haiti's Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1994), re-installing him on more disciplined, U.S.-friendly terms. The intermediate resolution the White House is seeking certainly falls short of what would be expected from an actual "enormous force for good in the world" and fits nicely with the imperial mindset articulated in Obama's aforementioned (and deeply conservative) Audacity of Hope:

"Of course there are those who would argue with my starting premise - that any global system built in America's image can alleviate misery in poorer countries...Rather than conform to America's rules, the argument goes, other countries should resist America's efforts to expand its hegemony; instead, they should follow their own path to development, taking their lead from left-leaning populists like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or turning to more traditional principles of social organization, like Islamic law...I believe [Chavez and other] critics [of the U.S. and neoliberalism] are wrong...The system of [so-called - P.S.] free markets and [so-called -P.S. ] liberal democracy... offer[s] people around the world their best chance at a better life" (Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 315).

Global capitalism does no such thing, of course. Candidate Obama's reflections ended on a profoundly false judgment, properly rejected by Mel Zelaya, who came into office in early 2006 as a center-right politician but who subsequently moved left and shifted his desperately impoverished and U.S.-controlled nation into Hugo Chavez's socialist "Bolivarian Alternative for the America's" (ALBA).

Truth be told, the not-so "free market" and "liberal-democratic" system of state capitalism and corporate-managed democracy is ever-more obviously opposed to ordinary peoples' "chance at better life" inside the United States itself. But that's another if intimately related topic in the saga of American Empire and Inequality Incorporated.

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