Fahrenheit 9/11, continued

I just read Robert Jensen’s review of Fahrenheit 9/11, which he calls a Stupid White Movie. I have to be honest. It is hard to argue with any of the points he raises.

-The Saudi stuff is sketchy and racist.
-The invasion of Afghanistan stuff does sort of imply that the US should have done the whole thing on a bigger scale (which would have been a bigger disaster).
-The coalition of the willing stuff is insulting.
-The idea that the real mission of the US military was subverted by the Iraq war is preposterous

And then there is all the omission — Israel, Clinton, and a hell of a lot more — all of which Michael Moore, who criticized Clinton plenty when he was in power and who dedicated one of his books to Rachel Corrie — can’t exactly argue that he didn’t know about.

It’s also the case that Moore could easily have fixed plenty of the politics of the film and not reduced the visibility or popularity (in other cases, like Israel, there would have been tradeoffs, where the right thing to do would have carried a cost, and I believe Moore chose deliberately not to pay that cost, whereas I think some of the subtle racism Jensen points out was just unexamined and unintentional, part of his adoption of a basically mainstream framework).

I do, however, have some disagreements with Robert.

The main one is when Robert says: “the real problem is that many left/liberal/progressive people are singing the film’s praises, which should tell us something about the impoverished nature of the left in this country,” and his admonition that “Rallying around the film can too easily lead to rallying around bad analysis” strikes me as a bit of a non-sequitur.

Who does he mean when he says that the left is ‘rallying’ around the film? There isn’t any such rallying going on at ZNet, although Paul Street gave it some qualified praise and I said I was glad it was as popular as it was (I’ll elaborate more on why I still think that below). But the other piece ZNet ran echoed Robert’s criticisms. If you look at Counterpunch, there is a deluge of anti-F911 commentary. Douglas Valentine sees it as Democrat apologetics. A piece on Tom Paine asks if Moore is blind or a coward. Not a lot of rallying going on over there.

How about the liberal/progressives? Some liberals (like Richard Cohen) hate the film, but if you look at Commondreams, there’s probably some ‘rallying’ going on around F911. But isn’t it mixing up cause and effect? I would say that CommonDreams has a lot of the same mainstream biases and flaws that Moore does: it counts Howard Dean (who was about as able at counting Iraqi deaths as Moore was, except a little less), Ariana Huffington, and other mainstream types among its writers. For Commondreams to ‘rally’ around F911 wouldn’t be taking it in a dangerous new direction of bad analysis. It’s where Commondreams is already at. Michael Moore’s own website has a prominent link to Commondreams — it has no such link to ZNet. Nor would I expect one.

The reason I am very happy to see the film getting the response that it does isn’t because it reflects my politics. It doesn’t. But, agreeing with all of Robert Jensen’s criticisms, I found it to be far less of an assault on my dignity than the nightly news with Lou Dobbs on CNN (we don’t get Fox News in Canada), and I found it outright refreshing in parts.

I don’t think of Michael Moore as part of the ‘left’. He is part of the mainstream, and, to my mind, the healthiest part, the part that is genuinely trying to be decent. That’s why I think of him as becoming the ‘official opposition’ in the United States. Of course we need to go well beyond ‘official opposition’ and Michael Moore’s movie. But on the spectrum of developments in mainstream, white America, I think the massive popularity and visibility of this film is a positive development. Of course I would much rather it was the ‘left’ reaching all those millions of people than the film, but that we aren’t isn’t Moore’s fault, but our own.

The response might well be that I don’t understand mainstream America or the ‘left’ very well, that my expectations of Moore or the ‘left’ or the US are far too low. It could be that I watch too many bad movies and too much bad television and have developed too calloused a skin for the racism and sexism in all of it that I just filter it out and look for what’s good. But really, what I like best about the movie is that Michael Moore doesn’t need the left to rally around him (he doesn’t deserve it either — the part where I agree with Jensen — but that’s a different issue). He will do just fine without any such rallying. And so, while I wouldn’t even think to lift a finger to rally around the film or Moore, I do wish both well.

Using the Killing Train just got easier

If you look to your left, you will see that there are some new categories. This is to make research easier for people using this blog for that purpose. Going over the blog entries over the past few months, I realized that much of my blogging falls into a number of categories finer than I had been using. So, I added the following self-explanatory categories:


If you visit any of these links, you’ll see that I’ve gone through the database and linked up each previous blog entry relating to these places in terms of the categories.

I realize there is a proportion problem here — the idea of having a category for ‘Canada’ and a category for ‘Africa’ seems a bit preposterous, given that one is a massive tortured continent and the other is a small privileged country. But blogs are only as comprehensive as their bloggers, and I can’t help but blog using sources to which I have access. I’m in Canada right now, so I might as well try to do something for Canadian readers and activists. I try to pay some attention to Africa, but Mandisi Majavu’s blog will consistently do a better job than mine. Still, I might have something to offer from time to time.

The previous set of categories still exist:

Americas (South & North): has all the entries it used to have, and will continue to have entries on places that don’t quite fit (I’ve had a few entries on Bolivia, for example, quite a few on Venezuela, some on Mexico, and so on. If I find myself covering something a lot, I’ll create a new category for it). Of course United States coverage falls here as well.

Asia (West & South): Also has all the previous entries, but will continue to have things on places like Iraq (which I will cover when I have to or when I can say something dozens of others aren’t saying), Saudi Arabia and South Asian issues — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka…

and of course,

Corporate World: will still continue to have CP Pandya’s insightful blogging on corporate villainy.

Why we must be doing something right…

First, a personal note. I just published a major essay on Canadian Foreign Policy — I hope Canadian readers (and others) find it useful.

Now to Latin America issues. Some time ago, Justin Delacour prepared a good article on Venezuela’s pollsters, published for Narconews but republished on ZNet. He has revisited the issue now, with good reason — the Venezuelan referendum is coming up and polls will be important. He discusses some replies from his critics from the Venezuelan ‘opposition’ (really the Venezuelan elite), one of whom discusses how unworried he is that sites like ours are publishing such critiques:

Thankfully, the 20,000 people who read ZMag [note: the article also ran on the progressive U.S. webzine ZNet, at http://www.zmag.org/] are all equally blinded by ideology and unreasonable, and such writing is most unlikely to reach or influence people who matter, who know anything at all, or who have anything like an open mind. So I really wouldn’t worry about it.

Nice, huh? I got some hate mail myself recently that I thought I’d share as well. It speaks so eloquently for itself that I feel no comment is necessary, though I have to admit I did take some guilty pleasure in replying to this fellow in kind, attempting to ape his highly eloquent style.

Date: Fri, 2 Jul 2004 10:18:11 -0500
From: Sebastián Arboleda Palacios
Subject: Your little website, Sir.

Mr. Podur,

As a Colombian that actually lives in his country and studies in Canada, I must confess that your little website is not only a sack of lies and deceit, but it suffers from a chronical disease typical of first-world left-wing fools that can’t see past their noses – naivety and misinformation.

Human rights workers in this country have, time after time, shown a politicised approach to the defense of human rights. From Amnesty International to the smallest NGO, they all, in one way or another, show their political orientation in every condemning report that ingenues like yourself value so much.

Your lack of condemnation for the Chavez regime is truly remarkable. You sit idly while a madman rapes his country and hands it to his supporters while denying more and more freedoms to his people every day. The Venezuelan armed forces have shown their reluctance to act against the guerrillas, so much that there have been several reports issued by the Dept. of State regarding the use of Venezuelan territory as a safe haven for FARC narco-terrorists. Mr. Chavez is not a man to be commended but a dictator in the making, a nationalist that believes in a “greater”, “Bolivarian” Venezuela and that is more a threat to the stability of the region than the three illegal armed groups that operate in my country.

I personally applaud the U.S. for its aid to my country and myself, like 75% of the Colombian electorate, approve of Mr. Uribe’s effort to restore security to the Nation. As a Canadian that lives a very comfortable and tranquil life, you are in no position to understand what it is to live in fear of being robbed, kidnapped, blackmailed or blown up when going to the mall or the supermarket. I strongly suggest that you read the (independent and unbiased, unlike your darling NGOs) polls before you pretend to be the voice of the Colombian people when clearly you are not.

I do suggest that you dedicate yourself to your country’s politics before writing a misleading and ridiculously biased website about other people’s affairs. It’s not like you’re void of corruption, single-party politics and rampant misuse of taxpayer funds. And by the way, you should try to read something other than ‘Adbusters’. Anti-american and left-wing may be chic these days, but that doesn’t make it right.

Most sincerely,

-Sebastian Arboleda Palacios

You know something’s up…

You know something is up when even Rahul Mahajan is asking his readers whether he should spend some time on vision and strategy:

So here’s a question, especially for readers who have been with me for a while. Do any of you feel as if further analysis of the occupation is beating a dead horse and that you want and need something different? Do you want to see more about vision for how to change the world, instead of an exclusive focus on what’s wrong with it? Thoughtful, reasoned answers are welcome; so are straightforward votes. Drop me a line.

I guess readers who have been with me for a while know that I named this blog after an essay by Michael Albert, called ‘Stop the Killing Train’. In his work, he emphasizes the stopping part. Readers who follow this blog know that I seem to be emphasizing the killing train part. I’m a lot more tentative in what I offer in the way of strategy or vision, probably just because I’m just not as sure about things as he is, though I do try to offer experiences that are positive, like the Northern Cauca process or even local things like OCAP.

But I have been feeling some of what Rahul describes — a sameness to the news. A sameness to the non-news, which is what I report here. We report these things out of a sense of duty, sometimes.

Fernando Garavito is a Colombian journalist in exile, who lost his job with a major Colombian newspaper for doing it too well, and fled under threat from paramilitaries. He does an internet column called ‘the Lord of the Flies’ (I translated just one of his articles). About a month ago, Garavito wrote what he announced as his last column. The world was on fire, going insane all around him, and there was just no point in putting these silly writings out over email. It’s the proportion problem I described a couple of days ago.

Garavito was convinced to keep writing, in part at least by another Colombian friend who wrote him a very moving note, which I got to read as well. That friend wrote: “I have been speaking in empty and full rooms all over the place over these past years and all of it only does a tiny bit to release the voices in my head that cry out to be heard, the voices of people who have taught me and people who have died.” That’s a sense of responsibility that I feel on me as well. That’s why I keep repeating things like “Israel killed 17 Palestinians last week” despite the “sameness” of it to the week before — those 17 people deserve better.

But the question, of course, is what we can do to see that they get the justice we owe them.

In his ‘Stop the Killing Train’ essay, Michael asks, and answers (as he is wont to do) my problem about proportion too:

“At first, becoming attuned to our country’s responsibility for the corpses stacked behind transparent cattle-car walls makes handing out leaflets, or arguing for peace with a co-worker, or urging a relative to think twice about paying taxes, or going to a demonstration, or sitting in, or even doing civil disobedience or building the movements to do all these things collectively seem insignificant. But the fact is, these are the acts that the hypothetical God, tired of our behavior, would be calling for if she were to actually parade the “free world’s” corpses down our main streets in killing trains. These are the acts that can accumulate into a firestorm of informed protest that then raises the cost of profiteering and dominating so high that the institutions breeding such behavior start to buckle.”

So, readers, whether I was influenced by Rahul’s note or whether I am responding to the same wider phenomena, I’ll meet you over in the vision blog, for a couple of posts I could have done months ago.

Gaza destruction

Israelis murdered a Palestinian child in Gaza today. The kid was apparently playing soccer. The Israeli army is doing a lot of shooting, shelling, and destruction in Gaza, wounding children in Rafah, families in Gaza city, destroying homes and shelling in Beit Hanoun, assassinating residents in refugee camps in special forces raids — and all this saying nothing about ongoing killings and ‘operations’ in the West Bank, particularly in Jenin and Nablus. See the IMEMC news section for more…

The 5-point plan for the Colombian paras

The farce of negotiation between the Colombian paramilitaries and the state is underway in force. Another irony, I suppose, that it’s happening at around the same time as the trial of Saddam Hussein gets underway. One mass murderer gets a theatrical trial for crimes against humanity. Another group of mass murderers get to present their government with a platform for negotiation. The paramilitary demands are even more farcical.

They want 1) human rights (try not to die laughing) 2) implementation of Uribe’s ‘democratic security’ (but of course there’s no connection) 3) their own zones of control (making their control official) 4) eradication of ‘illicit cultivation’ in their areas (making the Americans happy) and 5) guarantees of reincorporation into civilian life.

For readers who don’t know, the paramilitaries are the state-backed, narco-trafficker funded, army-trained and backed, mass killers who do the dirty work of the state in killing campesinos, indigenous people, unionists, and anyone who opposes the social or political goals or project of the regime. The ‘negotiations’ are being presented as if they were rebels against the government, when in fact this is the state negotiating with itself.

The negotiation itself can only strengthen the insurgency, since joining the guerrillas is one of the only ways people can think of to try to protect themselves or fight back against the paramilitaries.

The US ambassador has declared American support for the negotiations. An indigenous senator in Colombia has asked that the demand that the paramilitaries stop massacring indigenous people be raised at the negotiations.

It’s definitely a time of low expectations.

On action and disproportion

About a year ago I was meeting with a very very exemplary local organizer. There had been some international day of action against the Apartheid Wall in Occupied Palestine and he had pulled together a little information picket at a Starbucks, whose CEO is a major supporter of Israel.

Our meeting had finished, and we were heading our separate ways. He cracked a joke at my expense, about how writing articles for the internet wasn’t going to lead to social change. I came right back with my own crack about how I guessed that meant what we all needed to do was picket coffee shops. I guess at root we were both lamenting our inability to respond to the problems of the world with anything approaching proportion. They bomb: we talk to our neighbours. They cause starvation: we pass out leaflets. They engage in coups: we march on the street. The disproportionality is glaring and can lead one down very dangerous roads.

Yesterday there was a march in my city, Toronto, protesting the sham ‘handover of sovereignty’ on June 30th. Accepting the disproportionality as a given, I thought the march was a very good one and a success. Here is a description of the event.

In the afternoon, there were pickets at the Canadian Commercial Corporation and Interhealth, both Canadian companies that are profiting from the occupation of Iraq: CCC by arranging arms deals to the US, Interhealth by trying to get into private health care markets in West Asia. Next, a high school student group called ‘Stir It Up’ made an attempt to take a major intersection of the city, but there were around a hundred young people at that point and the City Police was taking the whole thing rather badly, and had at least 100 riot police of their own. So there was a kind of rally on the street corner, followed by a march to the US consulate and another rally.

Outside the US consulate, something strange was happening. All of the events of the day were conceived and planned by the “June 30th Coalition”, a coalition that includes the high school student group, members of OCAP, and many others. The more ‘mainstream’ ‘Stop the War Coalition’ (which, for US readers, is somewhere between United for Peace with Justice and ANSWER) planned an event for the same day and a rally at the same place. After the rally ended (at 6pm) the J30 Coalition had planned a march into Toronto’s financial district to confront other war profiteers. Stop the War Coalition had decided to march half a block in the opposite direction and disperse. Stop the War had obtained a permit for this half-a-block march and police clearly saw them as the ‘legitimate’ protesters and the J30 Coalition as the dangerous radicals who were trying to cause mischief.

Things got strange just before 6pm. Stop the War being the better-funded coalition, they made sure they had a large sound system for their speakers, while J30 had only typical megaphones. J30 had hoped that there would be a moment when organizers could explain to the crowd, giving them the option of marching south (into the financial district) or marching north (half a block to dispersal). But as 6 o clock approached, the Stop the War speaker on their podium announced the march north and then would not pause for one second to allow the J30 organizers to announce the march south. Indeed, the Stop the War was clearly attempting to filibuster the whole thing, preventing the J30 people from talking at all. Two frustrated J30 organizers stepped up (one onto a post box, the other on to a ledge) and yelled at the top of their lungs, quite hopelessly against the sound system, what the plan was. One of them pointed out that we had been limited to protests outside the US consulate for the past 3 years, while Canadian corporations and US corporations with offices in Toronto were not even being exposed. J30 people went to Stop the War’s podium and pointed out the impropriety of trying to filibuster a potentially good march, to which the speaker replied: “Oh come on, you have your own megaphones…”

The J30 people started chanting, “south, south, south”, and marching, and in the end nearly the whole crowd, which had grown to several hundred (under 1000 to my eyes, though it’s hard to know), joined the J30 march. The police tried to contain it at various points, but it became a ‘snake march’ and kept turning off in different directions. There was a real energy, and the march visited such illustrious sites as General Electric (a major weapons manufacturer and owner of MSNBC), and GlobeRisk (a company that trains the kinds of ‘private contractors’ we’ve seen in Iraq). I saw the educational effect myself: both marchers and passersby were intrigued to learn about the Canadian role in war and plunder. There was no trashing, and the police seemed largely to refrain from provocation or attacks on the protesters.

It was a good street protest, a good feeling to be on the streets, and something that has the possibility to grow.