Sunday, 15 February 2015

Living in the glasshouse

 I haven't published a post on this blog for three months. I've written loads of stuff but none of it has made it out of the bulging Drafts file on my computer. Some might argue that I should leave everything I write in there and maybe they’re right - but sometimes pieces demand that I publish them. So it was with this and the linked post which will follow it.

This article was inspired by a letter to The Press written by a compulsive correspondent who is well-known for his trenchant rightwing and pro-American views.  He counterposed what he sees as the West's rational, enlightened, civilised values against the irrational, brutal and reactionary values of Islamic militants like ISIS. 

In this he's leaping aboard a very crowded bandwagon whose complement of rowdily aggressive passengers has been significantly increased by the brutal murder of Jordanian pilot, Lieutenant Muath al-Kaseasbeh. 

The killers' crude justification for this viciously cruel act was that it was a reprisal in kind for what people like al-Kaseasbeh have done and are doing to them – a practical application of the Old Testament dogma of an ‘eye for an eye’.

Like so many bloody sadists before them, they are demonstrating their ability to devise horrible deaths for their victims whilst justifying their actions as reprisals for what was done to them; or, as is more common with such sadists, what was done to those whose suffering they have appropriated for their own political ends.

The West's response has been to throw up its own blood-stained hands in horror at the ‘barbarism’ of the act and to add copious amounts of accelerant to an already strongly burning fire of anti-Muslim feeling that will be further fanned by the reported beheadings of Egyptian Coptic Christians and the claims that ISIS plans to burn alive 17 captured Kurdish fighters.

On each side of the increasingly polarized debate, horrific stories of atrocities abound. Recent events in the USA and in Europe - indicating an upsurge in hate crimes against Muslims – demonstrate both the complexity and the volatility of the situation. 

The Right is heaving with fury at what it labels the 'mediaeval savagery' of ISIS - which, in terms of hands-on, blood up to elbows killings makes Al Qaeda look benign - while calling for an even more bloody, albeit more technological, hands-off response.

The Left - despite being riven with sectarianism and lacking a coherent ideology or strategy – provides the most intelligent, humane and politically nuanced analyses but it also throws up the viewpoints of those who confuse the pressing need for cogent explanations for the actions of militant Islamists, with excusing them. In the rapidly flowing and muddy torrent of information and disinformation about the Muslim Question, sifting the truth from the lies requires a greater knowledge of history and politics than many of the internet’s self-appointed 'citizen journalists' possess. 

I was shocked when a person on Twitter who is very focussed on what is happening in the Middle East, posted a link to ‘evidence’ of Jewish-led Bolshevik and Allied atrocities against Germans in WW2.  The link was to a Neo-Nazi website and the material was aimed at those who Neo-Nazis hate and fear most -  Jews and Communists.  I can only assume that he thought he was doing Muslims a favour by  retweeting anything that is anti-Jewish and/or anti-Communist. Or he's a mud-stirrer.

It is apparent - and it would be self serving or naïve to claim otherwise – that, hiding amongst those who support Palestinian rights and oppose Islamophobia, are virulent rightwing anti-Semites whose hatred of Muslims is surpassed only by their prior and greater hatred of Jews and Communists.

What angers a lot of people and results in them closing one and sometimes both eyes, is the fact that, among many other dreadful things, the West in general and the USA in particular, are capable of the most extreme double standards and canting hypocrisy. And nowhere is that more apparent in the simplistic juxtaposition of a mediaeval, culture-bound Islamic world and a modern, civilised Western one.

In November 2013 I wrote an article for The Press about the widespread sale of golliwogs in NZ.  In response to the article, several people wrote into the paper and to The Press website bemoaning the sort of 'PC madness' that tries to stop people buying and enjoying what, they argued, is 'just a toy'.

In the article I suggested that all those white people who manufacture and collect 'gollies' stop for a moment to consider the origins and meaning of what, for many people, is part of a racist iconography that played a key role in the creation and perpetuation of negative racial stereotypes in the Jim Crow era in the USA.

I asked them to put these collectibles into the social and historical context in which postcards, like the one of a photo of black toddlers on a river bank with the caption, “Gator bait”, were manufactured and collected.   I also suggested people read about the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington because I wanted them to consider the role that racist icons like the golliwog played in stereotyping and dehumanising black people, and why black people and a lot of progressive white people cannot see it as ‘just a toy’.

I wanted them to consider what drove a large mob of white people to drag an illiterate 17 year-old farmhand from the court where he had pled guilty to murdering his white employer, to beat and castrate him, to hang him over a fire, to lower and raise his body to prolong his suffering, to cut off his fingers to prevent him trying to haul himself out of the fire, to cut and break off pieces of his charred body to keep as souvenirs, to drag his body across town behind a horse and hang it up for public view - and to take photos of the whole monstrous business  and turn them into postcards?  

Those white American men - and the women who colluded with them - who carried out that monstrous act would have seen themselves as civilised and as good Christians, possessors and upholders of the sort of Western values that are being lauded by some people today in contrast to the 'mediaeval savagery' of Islamic extremists.

Behind that white mob's acts of unspeakable cruelty lay a complex web of historical, economic, religious, racial and sexual factors - which help explain how otherwise seemingly normal people could behave with such sadistic ferocity – and not once, but over and over.

What was moving in the hearts and minds of those white Americans who committed that most extreme of extremist acts? Who spread the rumour that the murder victim had also been raped and why did a claim that a black man had raped a white woman always intensify the ferocity of lynchings?  Did law enforcement officers cynically pressure Washington to confess by telling him if he did they would protect him from the lynch mob? Why did the police not intervene, and why was not one single person  ever held to account despite all the photographic and witness evidence?

Only by seeking to explain and to understand an atrocity such as this (or any of those being committed by extremists today) may we be able to begin to create the conditions in which it never happens again. 

A start point is to accept that the behaviour of that lynch mob was a product of our much vaunted Western civilisation  - just as the Holocaust,  the terror bombing of German, Japanese civilian targets in WW2 and rural Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s, the aerial spraying of millions of litres of hyper-toxic defoliants in Vietnam, the use of napalm, white phosphorous and depleted uranium in weapons, the support of noxious regimes with appalling human rights records when there's money to be made or national interests to protect, and the uncontrolled plundering of the natural word that threatens all life on the planet, were and are products of our civilisation.

There is so much to respect and to treasure about our history and our way of life but we DO NOT have a monopoly on rationality, reason, common sense or decency and we need to acknowledge that a great deal of our history and our current practice is characterised by the very opposite of those qualities.

If our ‘leaders’ were indeed the rational, reasonable, decent, fair minded and far sighted human beings they claim to be they would know that they will NOT stop religious extremism with more of what gave rise to it - i.e. by inflicting more violence and injustice. 

To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, the answer to religious extremism is secular justice – not more extremism.

I struggle to find words to express my horror of and opposition to people who commit casual acts of cruelty and destruction in the name of Islam, who display their own brand of callous indifference to life and their own brand of hypocrisy- claiming to reject the West while actually replicating many of its worst excesses - but I am no less horrified by or opposed to any other brand of proselytising, patriarchal religious fundamentalism - or the economic fundamentalism the West has such an irrational attachment to.

When the CIA master-minded the military coup that ousted Sukarno in Indonesia as part of its drive to derail the growing Non-Aligned Movement, militant Muslims did much of the killing of between 500,000 and 1 million Communists but Hindus also joined in, egged on by their religious leaders and rich land owners.

Events in the USA make it easy to imagine extremist Christian fundamentalists and angry Rightwing Athiests behaving in the same way towards Muslims and / or Left-wingers if the circumstances dictate or permit.

Militant Islam was born in and nourished by violence and injustice, some of it, it must be said, of its own making.  However, the most consequential role has been the West's cynical use of Islamic sectarianism and extremism to help it scorch the soil in which the seeds of socialist and progressive nationalist movements were growing.  Then, when the fundamentalists' ranks were swelled by the dispossessed, the angry, the humiliated, the marginalised and the grief stricken, the West demonised them and made them the replacement for defeated Communism as the justification for its perpetual war economy.

All over the world over the last century or so, the actions of the West and its allies have had specific local objectives that sit within the broad global objective of destroying socialism and progressive, non-aligned nationalism. In every country in which the USA and its allies have overtly or covertly undermined progressive forces, the situation of the mass of the population has worsened and as always, the American's literal and ideological scorched earth policy has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable.

When the CIA funded and armed the Mujaheddin to fight Afghani socialists and to suck the USSR into an unwinnable war, they did so to destroy socialism.  In so doing they set the stage for the emergence of the pathologically puritanical Taliban, which curtailed the corruption and the heroin trade but imposed a different set of oppressions. Women who may have been safer from rape were at risk of stoning, whipping or acid attacks if they tried to break free from the shadows of that potent symbol of patriarchy, the burqa.

When the CIA used militant Islam to oust an Iranian leader who wanted to nationalise oil, and replaced him with the corrupt, despotic tyrant, they set the stage for the subsequent Islamisation (and demonisation) of the country. They also deepened the sectarian divisions in the region – in keeping with their key guiding principle – divide and rule.

Militant, sectarian Islam has been a very useful weapon in the West's specific and broader objectives.  When it is helping to destroy progressive movements in a given country or region it is branded as fighting for freedom; then, having served its purpose it is rebranded as terrorism and becomes the substitute for Communism as the enemy within and without.

An enemy that threatens us both at home and abroad justifies and legitimates both a perpetual and aggressive militarism internationally and the erosion of domestic democracy alongside the growth of mass surveillance and the other coercive machinery of the state.

Stripped of all its hype, the global and domestic strategy of those states which have become the openly wielded tools of corporate capitalism is to dumb down, divert, distract and divide - in order to rule. 

So far that strategy has been devastatingly effective. 


  1. Great article.

    It articulates and navigates the tangle of moral dilemmas that supposedly arise with these issues. That tangle so often hobbles those on the left.

    You show that it is perfectly possible to be utterly opposed to the actions of brutally violent extremists while also being unstintingly critical of those who throw stones from within their comfortable and apparently civilised 'conservatories' (glass houses).

    A really worthwhile read.

    1. Thank you Kevin. These are complex and difficult issues and hard to do justice to in a relatively brief article.