I talk to friend and Kurdish Edition podcaster Sardar Saadi about the Turkish invasion of Syrian Kurdistan in October 2019, the brutality of Erdogan’s assault on the Kurds, the impossible dilemmas faced by the Kurds in the complex Syrian and regional war(s), and the role of the Empire in all of it.
I talk to Shiri Pasternak, Research Director at the Yellowhead Institute and author of Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State. We cover Indigenous authority, jurisdiction, sovereignty, solidarity, and Canada’s coups d’etat in Indian Country.
Tarantino’s mastery seems to be in reading the mood and making a movie for it. His latest movie is perfect for the Trump era, based as it is in nostalgia for a racially homogeneous Hollywood.
The genre for Once Upon a Time… forces some choices on both the storyteller and the audience. The movie treats the day that actor Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson, but it reverses that murder and ends with Sharon and friends having a nice drink in her house after the would-be murderers have been eaten by a dog, bashed in on various surfaces of a house, and incinerated by flamethrowers. But the whole hook of the movie is its ability to evoke the Hollywood of 1969, which Tarantino clearly wants us to think was a good time. So, which parts of it were real and which were changed? These were the decisions Tarantino made, the consequences of which moviegoers have to suffer.
Here’s one decision I was wondering about. Since all the protagonists were white, did they not use casual racial slurs in their conversations with one another back then? They certainly are vitriolic towards the “f#@in hippies”. But I didn’t hear them use the n-word even once. No anti-Semitism among these paragons either. At Manson’s ranch, one of the villains, “Squeaky”, or “the red-head” tells Brad Pitt’s character that she “doesn’t want to be gypped” of her time watching TV with George, the ranch’s mostly incapacitated owner. “Gypped” is a racist term that implies that gypsies, or Roma, are thieves. Like the Jews, the Roma were targeted for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust, and indeed, the term “gypped” is used interchangeably with “jewed” by racists. Tarantino inserted the word “gypped”, presumably to add some verisimilitude about the casual racism with which people talked back then. So why no casual anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, which was also the coin of the realm at the time? Tarantino used to do that, with anti-Black racism at least: Reservoir Dogs is full of n-bombs dropped by the white cast, in all kinds of shameful ways, with deniability for the storyteller to say, hey, I’m not racist, my characters are.
Aside from the protagonists’ hatred of the “f#@in hippies”, the film is all about not showing you anything of the 1960s social movements against the Vietnam War, the effects of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers — or even the East L.A. Walkouts of 1968 or the Watts riots of 1965. The only mention of that context is when one of the Manson-following villains (played by Margaret Qualley), trying to seduce Pitt’s character (a Vietnam veteran), says that “real people are dying in Vietnam”. One of the would-be killers, who gets incinerated by Leonardo Di Caprio, delivers a critique of media violence before her attempted murder and elaborate death. 1969 Hollywood was a better, cleaner place, Tarantino is saying, with the only encroachments on this purity coming via a death cult of “f#@in hippies” (not via any real Black people or people with genuinely held anti-racist values).
On the theme of purity, Tarantino’s camera worships Margot Robbie’s angelic character, Sharon Tate, lingering on her golden hair, her pristine white boots and her beautiful smile as she dances and enjoys the audience reaction to her acting (a significant amount of the movie’s runtime is of Sharon Tate watching her own movie — which means a significant amount of the audience’s time is actually spent watching someone watch a movie). The camera follows Robbie (and Qualley in a different way, since she’s a bad) the way you’d see in a Michael Bay movie or a James Bond film, with Robbie as the good Bond girl and Qualley as the bad one.
And on Bond films: if Once Upon a Time… were a Bond film, the superspy role would go to Brad Pitt’s character, Vietnam veteran and possible wife-murderer Cliff Booth. And the main way we know of Cliff’s superpowers is by way of an encounter with Bruce Lee — for me, the most insulting part of this insulting film.
Bruce Lee is portrayed as a fan of Muhammad Ali, which of course he was. Bruce’s philosophy was to learn about fighting from every possible source. At that time, Muhammad Ali was displaying attributes and skills to astound anyone, but even more so a student of martial arts like Bruce. A story known by every Bruce Lee fan:
Another time Yeung, aka [Bolo] went to see Bruce at Golden Harvest Studios. Bruce was screening a Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] documentary. Ali was world heavyweight champion at the time and Bruce saw him as the greatest fighter of them all. The documentary showed Ali in several of his fights. Bruce set up a wide full-length mirror to reflect Ali’s image from the screen. Bruce was looking into the mirror, moving along with Ali.
Bruce’s right hand followed Ali’s right hand, Ali’s left foot followed Bruce’s left foot. Bruce was fighting in Ali’s shoes. “Everybody says I must fight Ali some day.” Bruce said, “I’m studying every move he makes. I’m getting to know how he thinks and moves.” Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali. “Look at my hand,” he said. “That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”
Bruce was a keen teacher, and a great showman (see the videos of his martial arts demonstrations), but he was no braggart and he spent all his time picking apart and analyzing fighting methods, practicing them, and teaching them to others. So, of course, Tarantino portrays him exactly as a loudmouth braggart and a bully, who picks a fight with Brad Pitt’s strong, silent character on a set. The fight starts when this cartoon Bruce (in direct defiance of what the real Bruce believed and said) tells someone that he would turn Muhammad Ali “into a cripple” if they fought — this, Brad Pitt’s character cannot abide. So Bruce — who in real life reluctantly accepted challenges on-set from blowhards (ie., who was much more like Pitt’s character was portrayed) — fights Cliff, who gives the foreign braggart a good old-fashioned American beating.
In the real world, Bruce Lee faced a glass ceiling in the racist Hollywood of the time, despite his extraordinary gifts. Playing Kato in the Green Hornet, the story goes that Bruce refused the plan in a crossover episode to have his character defeated by Batman’s sidekick, Robin. No one would have believed it. Screenwriters changed the fight to a draw.
So, how would Brad Pitt’s character, a stuntman and Vietnam veteran, have approached a fight with Bruce? Presumably he would have been trained in the Army Combatives system at the time — a system Bruce knew and studied. Maybe Cliff also even knew American boxing and wrestling — which would have been no surprise to Bruce, who taught American students with these backgrounds. So, would Bruce have opened with a lot of fancy movement and kiai sounds and a flying sidekick, like he does in the movie? Would he have done that same kick after challenged by Cliff to do it again? What we know of how Bruce behaved in sparring situations says no (look at this YouTube MMA analyst’s breakdown of a sparring session). Nor would Bruce have reacted to Cliff’s attacks with stunned surprise: he was an experienced fighter who would have seen it all before.
It gets worse. Because in the fight choreography Tarantino chose for the scene, Pitt’s character actually uses wing-chun style close-quarters hand-fighting for a portion of the fight (this was the first style Bruce studied before developing his own). Pitt’s stance and movement incorporate moves that were introduced to North America by (the real) Bruce Lee, who did a lot to change and improve both real martial arts training and fight choreography. While disparaging the real Bruce, Tarantino freely uses his martial arts to make his movie look cool.
In the end, Bruce is just a stepping stone, a foreigner whose fancy moves are no match for the all-American hero, a foil to show the invincibility of the white protagonist. The very role the real Bruce chafed against his entire career.
There’s more to say about the class dynamics of the movie, the way in which Pitt’s working class character knows his place and is uncritically loyal and ever-grateful to Di Caprio’s upper class character. But I’ll leave that for someone else. I’ll just say that while this movie rewrites a gruesome murder and spares the actual victims, it is also an attempted murder on, among other historical realities, the real Bruce Lee.
The ICC provides no legal counterbalance to the arrogance of an empire’s power. It is the empire’s court.
In June, a group of international lawyers sued the European Union for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The lawyers claim that when the EU switched to a policy of deterring refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014, in particular trying to prevent Libyan refugees from fleeing their destroyed state, they killed thousands of refugees and sent tens of thousands more back to Libya to be enslaved, tortured, raped, and killed.
As a symbolic gesture, the lawsuit is powerful. But the possibility of getting justice for Libyan refugees from the ICC is practically nonexistent.
In fact, the ICC bears some responsibility for the destruction of the Libyan state that led to the refugee crisis in the first place. When the United States decided to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011, it had the UN Security Council make a “referral” of the Libyan situation to the ICC. There were some peculiarities in the details of the referral as well: the ICC was directed to investigate the situation in Libya, exempting non-state actors, since February 15, 2011. “It would appear,” scholar Mark Kersten writes in a chapter in the 2015 book “Contested Justice” (pg. 462), “that the restriction to events after 15 February 2011 was included in order to shield key Western states… In the years preceding the intervention, many of the same Western states that ultimately intervened in Libya and helped overturn the regime had maintained close economic, political and intelligence connections with the Libyan government.” The African Union, led by the South African president, tried to broker a peace deal between Gaddafi and the rebels: Gaddafi accepted, but the rebels refused. For them, Gaddafi had to go. And the ICC investigation strengthened their hand. In Libya, the ICC was harmful to a negotiated solution.
In general, the ICC prefers war to negotiated peace. As scholar Phil Clark pointed out in his 2018 book “Distant Justice” (pg. 91): “… the ICC has expressed immense skepticism toward peace negotiations involving Ugandan and Congolese suspects whom it has charged — especially when those talks involve the offer of amnesty — but has strongly supported militarized responses to these suspects and their respective rebel movements. In short, the ICC has viewed ongoing armed conflict rather than peace talks as more useful for its own purposes.” The president of the DR Congo’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission told Clark in an interview (pg. 223): “The ICC came up forcefully in our discussions with several rebel leaders… We would start talking to them, make good progress, then the conversation would stop. They didn’t want to incriminate themselves, even when we stressed that the amnesty was in place.” In the DR Congo, the ICC made offers of amnesty less credible. Rebel leader Mathieu Ngudjolo was pardoned in 2006, integrated into the army, promoted to the rank of colonel, and then arrested on an ICC warrant 18 months later: the government’s “duplicity toward an amnesty recipient undermined the broader use of amnesty as an incentive for members of rebel groups to disarm” (pg. 203).
The ICC’s careful selection of when it investigates crimes (like limiting its Libya investigation to crimes after February 15, 2011, or its predecessor the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda limiting its investigation to crimes committed after the assassination of the Rwandan president on April 6, 1994) is mirrored in its careful selection of where it investigates and where it ignores. Take the DR Congo again: the ICC limited its mandate to the province of Ituri. Horrific violence took place in Ituri, but there was less violence overall than in the Kivu provinces (especially North Kivu). Why didn’t the ICC investigate in the Kivus? Because in the Kivus, the worst crimes were committed by armed groups supported by Rwanda and Uganda, favored U.S. allies in the region. When Sri Lanka’s government killed tens of thousands of people at the end of its counterinsurgency war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, the ICC wrung its hands: Sri Lanka wasn’t a signatory to the Rome Statute that empowered the ICC.
The ICC gets even twistier when it comes time to prevent accountability for Israel. After the Goldstone report on Israel’s massacres in Gaza in 2008/9, Palestinians tried to bring a suit to the ICC against the Israeli generals and politicians who organized them. David Bosco reports in his book Rough Justice(pg. 162) that the Israelis met with Ocampo and “pressed Moreno-Ocampo to determine quickly that Palestine was not a state and that the court could therefore not accept its grant of jurisdiction.” The Americans told Ocampo “that they saw little value in ‘criminalizing the world’s longest running and most intractable regional dispute.’” Moreno saw the light: “The prosecutor’s long-awaited decision on Palestine — released in April 2012… more than three years after Palestine asked the court to investigate, the prosecutor decided that it was not his role to determine Palestine’s legal status.” The massacred Palestinians were colonized, and therefore stateless. Only states can sign the Rome Statute and bring the ICC in. Therefore, the ICC had no jurisdiction over the 2008/9 massacres of the Palestinians.
When the U.S. and UK saw no benefit to having the ICC involved in Afghanistan, the ICC prosecutor (Bosco, pg. 163): “limited himself to occasional private requests and put no pressure on involved states. That approach contrasted sharply with his willingness to sharply chastise states for their failure to enforce existing arrest warrants.”
Given the proclivity of the Western coalition in Afghanistan for bombing weddings and operating death squads (sometimes euphemistically called “kill teams”), their squeamishness in the face of potential legal probes is understandable. The ICC, like its predecessor tribunals on Rwanda and Yugoslavia, fully understands that the U.S. and UK are exempt from its brand of justice. Bosco (pg. 66) quotes British Foreign Minister Robin Cook speaking about the international tribunal after the Kosovo war in 1999: “If I may say so, this is not a court set up to bring to book Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom or Presidents of the United States.” Legal scholar Hans Kochler, writing in 2003 (pg. 178), quoted NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, who responded, when asked if he would accept the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY)’s jurisdiction over NATO officials: “… I think we have to distinguish between the theoretical and the practical. I believe when Justice [Louise] Arbour starts her investigation, she will because we will allow her to. It’s not [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic that has allowed Justice Arbour her visa to go to Kosovo to carry out her investigations. If her court, as we want, is to be allowed access, it will be because of NATO… So NATO is the friend of the Tribunal, NATO are the people who have been detaining indicted war criminals for the Tribunal in Bosnia.”
NATO’s spokesman reminded the world that as a “practical” matter, since it was Western militaries and police services that provide the law enforcement services to the ICC, these Western militaries wouldn’t subject themselves to the ICC’s justice. The second ICTY prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, admitted her dependence on NATO forces and the partiality of justice that ensued (quoted in Bosco pg. 66): “if I went forward with an investigation of NATO, I would not only fail in this investigative effort, I would render my office incapable of continuing to investigate and prosecute the crimes committed by the local forces during the wars of the 1990s.”
The ICC’s prosecutors depend on Western forces to make arrests and renditions. The ICC also recycles intelligence material from these Western countries into evidence against ICC suspects. This should be a legal problem: intelligence material is not evidence. There are many people trapped in Kafkaesque situations precisely because courts used intelligence materials — which are best guesses and probabilities used to inform police and military actions usually before events occur — as evidence, which should consist of provable facts intended to hold people accountable after the fact. Canadian academic Hassan Diab — imprisoned in France based on a similar-sounding name in a notebook from an intelligence agency interrogation — is just one example.
There was a time, decades ago, when the ICC was forming, when American and Israeli officials were actually worried about the prospect of a court that had universal jurisdiction. Suddenly, U.S. officials talked about national sovereignty. At that time you could hear John Bolton arguing that it was a bad idea “assert the primacy of international institutions over nation-states.” Bolton was very explicit about his problems with the U.S. being a party to the ICC, as quoted by Mahmood Mamdani in 2008:
“‘Our main concern should be for our country’s top civilian and military leaders, those responsible for our defense and foreign policy.’ Bolton went on to ask ‘whether the United States was guilty of war crimes for its aerial bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan in World War II’ and answered in the affirmative: ‘Indeed, if anything, a straightforward reading of the language probably indicates that the court would find the United States guilty. A fortiori, these provisions seem to imply that the United States would have been guilty of a war crime for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is intolerable and unacceptable.’ He also aired the concerns of America’s principal ally in the Middle East, Israel: ‘Thus, Israel justifiably feared in Rome that its pre-emptive strike in the Six-Day War almost certainly would have provoked a proceeding against top Israeli officials. Moreover, there is no doubt that Israel will be the target of a complaint concerning conditions and practices by the Israeli military in the West Bank and Gaza.’”
Near the end of his term, Clinton signed the Rome Statute. At the beginning of his term, George W. Bush had Bolton “unsign” it, and negotiate bilateral agreements with the countries of the world that they would never hand Americans over to any international courts. The U.S. went even further, passing in 2002 the Armed Service-Members Protection Act, which includes the line: “The United States is not a party to the Rome Statute and will not be bound by any of its terms. The United States will not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over United States nationals.” Then the U.S. got the Security Council to pass resolutions enshrining U.S. immunity.
The powerful are exempt from the ICC’s justice. But the U.S. does believe in a kind of universal jurisdiction: its own. Kochler (2003, pg. 106) cites an internal Department of Justice memorandum from the George H.W. Bush era stating the opinion that the FBI has the power “to apprehend and abduct a fugitive residing in a foreign state when those actions would be contrary to customary international law.” That memo was from 1989, and it was about arresting Manuel Noriega, the president of Panama who fell afoul of the U.S., whose country was bombed and invaded, and who was taken away to jail.
The ICC won’t be doing anything for Libyan refugees or the victims of Israel’s massacres, but it continues to make strong statements about Sudan’s now ousted president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes committed as part of a counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur. The trial of an African leader from an enemy state, more than a decade after the crimes took place: now this is where the ICC shines.
In 2008, writing about the ICC’s arrest warrant for al-Bashir, Uganda-based scholar Mahmood Mamdani warned that the ICC was becoming a tool of neocolonial domination. The theory implicit in the ICC’s interventions, he wrote, “…turns citizens into wards. The language of humanitarian intervention has cut its ties with the language of citizen rights. To the extent the global humanitarian order claims to stand for rights, these are residual rights of the human and not the full range of rights of the citizen. If the rights of the citizen are pointedly political, the rights of the human pertain to sheer survival… Humanitarianism does not claim to reinforce agency, only to sustain bare life. If anything, its tendency is to promote dependence. Humanitarianism heralds a system of trusteeship.” And what is an empire if not a system of trusteeship?
The ICC provides no legal counterbalance to the arrogance of an empire’s power. It is the empire’s court.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Far from precision-guided munitions, sanctions are weapons of starvation, which target the most vulnerable civilians for slow and painful death by deprivation of food and medicine
After withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran last year and resuming sanctions last November, the White House in April announced that its goal was to “drive Iranian exports to zero.” To make this drive happen, the White House stopped allowing (my emphasis) countries like India, China, Japan, Turkey, and South Korea to import Iranian oil: dictating to sovereign countries whom they can trade with.
The dictating doesn’t stop there. Last December the United States had Canadian authorities detain and imprison a Chinese executive, the chief financial officer of telecom company Huawei. Meng Wanzhou is currently on trial in Canada, on the allegation that her company violated U.S. sanctions against Iran. Not content with having told China that it cannot trade with Iran, the United States has gotten a third country, Canada, to take a Chinese corporate executive captive in what Trump suggested was leverage for a trade deal: “If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made, which is a very important thing—what’s good for national security—I would certainly intervene, if I thought it was necessary,” he told Reuters in December.
The trade deal with China didn’t come through, and a “trade war” has begun. Meng Wanzhou is still stuck in Canada. And the blockade against Iran is still tightening. Economist Mark Weisbrot assessed some of the damage to the Iranian economy in a recent segment on the Real News Network, noting that when sanctions were imposed in 2012, oil production dropped by 832,000 barrels per day and GDP by 7.7 percent; when they were lifted in 2016 in the nuclear deal, production increased by 972,000 barrels per day and GDP increased by 12 percent that year. In 2018 when sanctions were imposed, oil production fell dramatically again and inflation rose by 51 percent; shortages of dozens of essential medicines, according to a study at the University of California, have followed.
Some basic economics are in order here. A country that does not need to import or export is called an autarky, and in today’s global economy there are no autarkies. All national economies depend on trade: they export, earn foreign currency, and use that to import what they cannot produce. Driving a country’s exports to zero means destroying the country’s economy, and depriving the country’s people of necessities.
Sometimes billed as an alternative to war, sanctions are in fact a weapon of war. Far from precision-guided munitions, sanctions are weapons of starvation, which target the most vulnerable civilians for slow and painful death by deprivation of food and medicine. They are an alternative to war in the sense that unlike the invasion of ground troops or even the dropping of bombs, they pose little risk to the aggressor. This is their appeal to someone like Trump, who revealed the genocidal intent behind the Iran sanctions when he threatened (on Twitter) “the official end of Iran.”
In the 1990s, one focus of the antiwar movement was the impact of the genocidal sanctions against Iraq, which killed 500,000 children (a “price” that Madeleine Albright famously said was “worth it”). Antiwar activists feared that the sanctions were part of a military strategy that would end in even more devastating shooting war. Those fears proved true. Today’s sanctions seem to draw from the same playbook.
International law recognizes that sanctions are a form of warfare, and places the use of the sanctions weapon in the hands of the United Nations Security Council. And so it happened that between the 1990 and 2003 U.S. wars on Iraq, the UN played the shameful role of administering the Iraq sanctions. But today’s unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. circumvent any UN legalities. In the same Real News segment, UN Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures Idriss Jazairy noted that about one-quarter of the world’s population is under some form of unilateral sanctions. Iran, Venezuela, Syria, Cuba, Sudan and others are under various U.S. sanctions regimes. Yemen is fully blockaded by the U.S., UK, and Saudi Arabia; Gaza and the West Bank are completely sealed in by Israel; Qatar is blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the list goes on.
U.S. sanctions against Venezuela have already killed 40,000 people between 2017 and 2018, according to a report by Mark Weisbrot and Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs. The more intense sanctions imposed in 2019 will kill still more. Venezuela’s electrical grid is damaged, most likely because of sabotage. Maintenance of potable water pumps has become impossible without imported spare parts, leaving millions without water. A Venezuelan professor of economics, Pasqualina Curcio, told a delegation of the End Venezuela Sanctions coalition that sanctions have cost the country $114 billion, “which is nearly equal to one year’s worth of Venezuelan GDP at a typical oil price, or 26 years’ worth of medical imports.”
One of the tactical arguments anti-sanctions campaigners sometimes make is that sanctions “don’t work.” And for their declared purpose of “regime change,” indeed they do not. But when a policy is so widespread, such a first resort, perhaps the declared purpose is not the real purpose. If the purpose is to destroy economies, isolate countries, coerce allies, keep tensions near boiling and maintain a constant threat of war, sanctions are successful. It has been shown time and again that torture “doesn’t work” for obtaining information. But torture is not a technique for obtaining information. It is a technique for breaking a person and, when practiced on a mass scale by an apartheid state or dictatorship, for breaking a society. Sanctions are similar: the point is to break the society, not “regime change.”
Sanctions are Trump’s favorite weapon, but good Democrats are no different. Obama oversaw the destruction of Syria, Clinton laughed about the murder of Gaddafi and the destruction of Libya, and Albright said that 500,000 Iraqi children’s deaths were “worth it.” For the empire, genocide, like aggression, is a normal part of politics. Nuclear planners plan how to commit it. Sanctions officials administer it. And for the most part, human rights organizations take no position on it.
It is possible that at some point sanctions could become self-limiting. If enough countries are sanctioned, they might of course decide to trade with one another. In attempting to isolate so many big countries, the United States could isolate itself, creating a kind of “coalition of the sanctioned.” But from the U.S. perspective, with Brazil, India, and Egypt (the biggest countries in Latin America, South Asia, and the Arab world) all utterly subservient, perhaps this looks like a good moment to try to pressure China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. Trump’s planners can rest assured that it is not them, but millions of innocents in those countries who will pay for their power plays.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
I talk to Max Blumenthal, author of The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State fueled the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump. We begin with the latest coup attempt in Venezuela and go from there to talk about anti-imperialist politics, the need to rebuild an antiwar and anti-imperialist mentality, and the hunger for such a perspective – as evidenced by the positive reaction to Max’s book – despite it being pushed away from the mainstream.
Source: Independent Media Institute This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
can we believe? Political parties and partisan organizations now
present not only their own opinions but, as the old joke goes, their own
facts as well. Are the Palestinians being shot at the Gaza fence trying
to invade Israel, as the Israeli Army shooting them claims, or are they
trying to protest their confinement in the open-air prison in which
they are being slowly starved, as their spokespeople argue? Is
Venezuela’s president Maduro a dictator, as Trump says, or did he win a
fair election, as the country’s electoral council states?
news reader faces diametrically opposed versions of truth, and on
matters of life and death. A natural instinct would be to look for
neutral, non-partisan voices—to find arbiters of truth that are not on
one side or another, but seek only to adhere to matters of high
principle. And what principle is higher than that of human rights, the
idea that we all have rights solely because of our common humanity?
Surely in the fog created by self-seeking politicians, armed groups that
use deception as a weapon of war, and careerist journalists who climb
the ladder by serving the powerful, organizations dedicated to human
rights—like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—can serve as beacons of light.
they cannot. The very authority that human rights organizations own,
their appearance of principle and neutrality, has become a commodity too
valuable for the powerful to pass up. The result? Human rights
organizations have sacrificed their credibility and become a
sophisticated part of the U.S. foreign policy machine—or, to put it more
bluntly, a part of the U.S. empire. Things have been this way for
longer than most “people of conscience,” to use a human rights word,
In his 2010 book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights,
author James Peck describes how Cold War U.S. officials searched for an
ideological slogan that could rival the appeals to equality and
anti-imperialism that were offered to the world’s downtrodden by
communist revolutionaries. Anti-communism worked well enough at home,
but it was a negative slogan—against communism, sure, but what would the
U.S. be for? U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor
Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in a letter to Carter that a U.S.-based,
quasi-governmental human rights foundation could promote “a worldwide
constituency for human rights,” while being “insulated from direct
dependence” on the United States, providing a voice “independent from,
and in some cases more credible than, the U.S. government.” A broad
definition of human rights, Brzezinski argued, would “retain for us the
desirable identification with a human cause whose time has come.”
Human Rights Watch
(called Helsinki Watch at its founding) came to serve exactly this
purpose. Peck writes that in the 1970s “as Helsinki Watch worked closely
with dissidents in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it found itself
emulating long-standing American government practices.”
took a more independent path, focusing on specific practices like
torture, political prisoners, and genocide. In doing so, one of its
founders argued, Amnesty appealed to those “tired of the polarized
thinking which is the result of the Cold War… but who are deeply
concerned with those who are suffering simply because they are
suffering.” But despite this beginning of trying to find and appeal to
universals and avoid contentious and partisan issues, Amnesty quickly
found itself in the middle of just such a controversy: according to
Amnesty’s definition, prisoners of conscience could not be advocates of
violence; Nelson Mandela hadn’t renounced violence;
therefore Mandela wasn’t a prisoner of conscience. In this way, Amnesty
ended up on the wrong side of one of the most historic struggles of the
practice, these human rights organizations consistently find themselves
on the side of the empire, despite the contradictions and contortions
that such a stance requires.
Amnesty failed to give Chelsea Manning the “prisoner of conscience” designation. Amnesty representatives told journalist Joe Emersberger in 2013
that its investigation was ongoing, and that it wasn’t sure if Manning
had “released information in a ‘responsible manner,’” and wasn’t sure if
the government was punishing her “in order to prevent public knowledge
of human rights abuses.” By contrast, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez,
who led multiple violent coup attempts against the government, was
quickly given prisoner of conscience status by Amnesty. Were Lopez’s
violent coup attempts less violent than Mandela’s refusal to condemn
anti-apartheid violence? Were his coup attempts conducted in a more
“responsible manner” than Manning’s whistleblowing?
In 2006, Jonathan Cook pointed out how Human Rights Watch
researcher Peter Bouckaert told the New York Times that “it’s perfectly
clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their
aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don’t accuse the Israeli army of
deliberately trying to kill civilians… so there is a difference in
intent between the two sides.” Cook pointed out that “just as Bouckaert
is apparently sure that he can divine Israel’s intentions in the war,
and that they were essentially benign, he is equally convinced that he
knows Hizbullah’s intentions, and that they were malign. Whatever the
evidence suggests—in a war in which Israel overwhelmingly killed
Lebanese civilians and is still doing so, and in which Hizbullah
overwhelmingly killed Israeli soldiers—Bouckaert knows better.”
is an amazing two-step process: First, the human rights organization
suggests that effects (vastly disproportionate civilian deaths) matter
less than intent. Second, the human rights organization assigns bad
intent to the weaker side and good intent to the stronger, claiming in
essence the ability to read minds. The emphasis is on (presumably
telepathically discovered) intent—which for the U.S. or its allies is
always good and for its enemies is always bad. The emphasis is away from
disproportion, since the casualty ratios of U.S. wars are monstrously
disproportionate (that is, the United States and its allies kill many
more civilians than their enemies).
an argument, Cook goes on to point out, “legitimises the use of
military might by the stronger party, thereby making a nonsense of
international law and the human rights standards HRW is supposed to
also legitimizes the stronger party to focus on individual cases and
avoid discussing the numbers. When human rights organizations argue that
every individual case of torture or violation of human rights is a
crime, they are completely right. But by failing to note that one side
is killing 10, 100, or 1,000 times more than the other, they fail to
bring their readers to any conception of who is responsible for these
conflicts and where to apply pressure that could save lives.
There are more biases in practice. As the U.S.-led coup against Venezuela continues to unfold, recall HRW’s
performance last month when the organization endorsed the U.S. attempt
to force entry into Venezuela with “humanitarian aid” (Venezuela has
been accepting humanitarian aid from other countries the whole time,
while refusing aid from the U.S., citing the coup attempt). Adam Johnson
from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted on Twitter
that HRW “never technically endorse regime change but pass along every
misleading, distorted shred of propaganda required for regime change
then, when pressed on this, insist they’re just calling balls &
strikes.” HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth justified the coup
attempt directly, calling it,
“sad testament to… Maduro’s destruction of Venezuelan democracy that
the opposition leader must resort to appeals to the military.” Roth’s
obsession with Venezuela has gone on for years, during which serious
violations of human rights and democracy in other Latin American
countries, notably Honduras, were neglected by HRW.
The U.S. campaign against Venezuela today echoes the campaign to overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973, when Nixon ordered the CIA director to “bring the Chilean economy under Allende to its knees,” and when the U.S. ambassador to Chile told Henry Kissinger, “Not a nut or bolt will be allowed to reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to the utmost deprivation and poverty, a policy designed for a long time to come to accelerate the hard features of a Communist society” (quoted on Peck p. 57).
in practice are matched by problems of human rights theory, as Amnesty
and HRW are not against aggressive war on principle. The post–World War
II international legal framework defined aggressive war as the supreme
crime from which all other crimes of the Nazi regime followed; the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared social and economic
rights to be human rights. But past executive director Aryeh Neier of
HRW argued that “the concept of economic and social rights is profoundly
undemocratic” and that HRW “has never labeled any party to any conflict
as an aggressor, holding that the concept of aggression is poorly
defined. As Israel and the United States
argued at the Rome conference in 1998… it is impossible to come up with
a definition of aggression that is not politically controversial”
(quoted on Peck pp. 95 and 227, emphasis mine). But aggression is no
more poorly defined (and no more disputed) than other human rights
concepts—genocide, democracy, dictatorship, political prisoner, even
torture. The refusal of human rights organizations to oppose aggression
leaves them in a demeaning position of begging aggressors to try to
conduct their bombing campaigns in a way that minimizes harm to
civilians—as any reader who grimaced their way through HRW or Amnesty
reports about the Saudi/U.S./UK war on Yemen, or Israel’s bombings of
is no way to take a stand on principle. But what to do? Discovering the
bias of human rights organizations is even more demoralizing than
discovering the propaganda power of social media.
It is impossible to find a democracy and critical-thinking nourishing
set of globally connected social media, and it is impossible for a
person of conscience to find an unbiased comprehensive global database
of human rights violations. On the other hand, the solutions may be
similar: the creation of real-world connections, contacts, and
In Ideal Illusions,
Peck contrasts the legalistic, bureaucratized, and ultimately co-opted
human rights organizations to the peace movements that rose and fell
over the same decades. The alternative to these captured organizations is just such a
peace movement: one that’s against war on principle, against aggression,
wants to dismantle the war economy, understands the difference between
the powerful and those resisting, and uses people power and not legal
arguments and pleas to the powerful.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.
In their book Manufacturing Consent,
the late Ed Herman and professor Noam Chomsky described how a privately
owned free press could function as a propaganda system that deceived
its readers quite as efficiently as a heavy-handed government censor.
In their propaganda model, information about the world had to pass through a series of filters before reaching the media’s audiences. These filters prevented dangerous ideas—like democracy, equality, and peace—from reaching the readers of mass media. They identified five of those filters: Concentrated media ownership helped ensure that media reflected the will of its wealthy, corporate owners; reliance on official sources forced journalists and editors to make compromises with the powerful to ensure continued access; shared ideological premises, including the hatred of official enemies, biased coverage toward the support of war; the advertising business model filtered out information that advertisers didn’t like; and an organized “flak” machine punished journalists who stepped out of line, threatening their careers.
When Herman and Chomsky created the
propaganda model in the 1980s, they wrote about newspapers—what we now
patronizingly call “legacy media.” The “legacy media” still wield
influence, but things have evolved far beyond the five “filters” they
identified: ownership, official sources, ideology, advertising revenue,
and flak. In our media environment, these five filters have become
supercharged. And new filters have refined propaganda into something
more like mind control.
The Supercharging of Existing Media Filters
Ownership of media outlets is now
supercharged and superconcentrated. It’s not the four or five media
companies, but Big Tech that determines what you see. And Big Tech is
even more concentrated: it’s Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook
(which owns WhatsApp and Instagram). The generous can give honorable
mention to Twitter, with its few hundred million users (which dwarf the
reach the “legacy media” had). In recent years tech billionaires have
bought media companies too, such as the Washington Post (owned by Jeff
Bezos of Amazon), the Intercept (Pierre Omidyar of eBay), Time magazine
(Marc Benioff of Salesforce), and the Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs of
Official Sources: Relying on official sources and the compromises needed to maintain access to those has long been a force behind media self-censorship. Media companies like Fox News have staked their fortunes on Trump’s ability to draw audiences to their networks. They have made Trump the ultimate official source and the ultimate news story. This has reduced the range of issues down to those that cross Trump’s limited attention span and narrowed the spectrum of debate (for and against Trump’s often absurd positions on the topics of the moment).
Ideology: Herman and Chomsky wrote
about Cold War and War on Terror ideologies, but today’s ideological
filter is worse than ever. Anticommunism might not have the force it had
in the 1980s, but the New Cold War means that associations with Russia
can be made to the same political effect as they had then. We also
continue to have to hear about the importance of endless war, the
endless generosity of police, the undeserving poor, and most of the
other key premises that undergirded the media in the 1980s.
Advertising Revenue: The tech
giants are advertising companies at their heart, and so all of the
problems that came with the legacy media being driven by advertisers
remain in the new environment. Two years ago a report out of Columbia University described the new business model of media, “the platform press,” in which technology platforms are the publishers of note, and these platforms “incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.”
Beyond the boost to the propaganda system
provided by the transition to a “platform press,” the new advertising
ecosystem has led to an explosion of what could be called the fake internet:
advertising companies can pay other companies for clicks; the
production of content can be automated. Much of the internet, as writer Max Read puts it,
is now “fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts,
fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites.” This
provides the powerful with two distinct opportunities to mislead
audiences: first, they can take advantage of the fake internet directly.
Second, by posing as uniquely credible on an internet full of fakery,
they can sell more sophisticated or subtle falsehoods.
Flak has become supercharged to
the point where organized hate machines can be created and deployed
against anyone at the drop of a hat, creating immense psychological
pressure to silence independent voices. In November 2018, Indian student
activist Shehla Rashid wrote devastatingly about both the organization of hate on Twitter and the effect it has on her:
“The hate that I get from pro-BJP
accounts is organised. No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of
abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12
seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren’t scary. Also,
there seems to be no way to avoid this. There is no method to the
madness. Regardless of what I tweet, there is ‘instant abuse.’ It is not
based on the content of what I write.”
This affects not just Rashid, but her
followers on the social media platform: “If you want to genuinely engage
with my post, you’ll think twice before replying to me, as it means
that your day will be ruined by abusive trolls who will keep tagging you
for hours or even days. You will find no support for me in the direct
replies (except in the forms of retweets or favourites) and you’ll take
whatever I say with a pinch of salt.”
Rashid feels stuck, as in an abusive
relationship: “In times when electronic media has turned into a show of
competitive bigotry, Twitter does provide activists like me with a
platform to air our views. I have 427,400 followers on Twitter. This
means that the trade-off between leaving Twitter and having a voice is
too high. This points to a deeply abusive relationship that we have with
Twitter. We have virtually been held hostage to its benefits.”
The New Media Filters
But the new environment has some powerful filters the old one didn’t. Here are three:
It’s Brought to You by a Cult: Earlier this year employees at Facebook described the ways in which
the company’s performance review system, in which numerical ratings
from colleagues are gathered by managers, leads to “cult-like” practices
within the company. To get ahead in the company, employees must “act as
though everything is fine and that we love working here,” even when
they don’t. In authoritarian political systems, people must do what
they’re told; in totalitarian systems, people must pretend to love the
authority. Most corporations could be described as internally
totalitarian, and so this may not be a “new” filter. But by recent
reports, the most powerful social media corporation in the world is,
internally, more totalitarian than most.
An Opaque Algorithm Controls What You See: Many researchers have pointed out how social media algorithms work to boost conspiracy theories, move users to more extreme content and positions, confirm the biases of the searcher, and incentivize the outrageous and offensive.
These proprietary algorithms, which determine what you see, cannot be
viewed, reverse-engineered, or understood. The media platforms that use
them do so without any accountability. On the other hand, savvy
political operators with resources can game the algorithm by creating ecosystems of links and platforming one another. This has been done so effectively on YouTube that, as the report Alternative Influence notes, the top 10 results for the phrase “social justice” are “criticisms of social justice from reactionary channels.”
They Have Hacked Your Social Brain:
When you receive news on Facebook, even though it comes from a small
number of corporate sources or advertisers, you are receiving it from
your friends, and so it comes with additional trust that you never had
in “legacy media.”
One of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, said that Facebook’s goal
was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as
possible,” and that it did so by giving users “a little dopamine hit
every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a
post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more
content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” The
point was to create “a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the
kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because
you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
In the face of the propaganda system,
Chomsky once famously advocated for a course of “intellectual
self-defense,” which of necessity would involve working with others to
develop an independent mind. Because the new propaganda system uses your
social instincts and your social ties against you, “intellectual
self-defense” today will require some measures of “social self-defense”
as well. If Big Tech executives can unplug themselves and develop their
“real-world” selves, those of us who hope to resist should probably do
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.
Brazil’s president Bolsonaro salutes the American flag
Why is it so difficult even for huge countries with large, diversified economies to maintain independence from the West?
If anyone could have done it, it was Brazil. In the 19th century it was imagined that Brazil could be a Colossus of the South to match the U.S., the Colossus of the North. It never panned out that way.
And 100 years later, it still hasn’t happened. With a $2 trillion GDP (a respectable $9,800 per capita), nearly 200 million people, and a strong manufacturing base (the second largest in the Americas and 28.5 percent of its GDP), Brazil is far from a tiny, weak island or peninsula dependent on a patron state to keep it afloat.
When Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva won a historic election to become president of Brazil in 2003, it seemed like an irreversible change in the country’s politics. Even though Lula’s Workers’ Party was accused of being communists who wanted to redistribute all of the country’s concentrated wealth, the party’s redistributive politics were in fact modest—a program to eradicate hunger in Brazil called Zero Hunger, a family-based welfare program called the Family Allowance, and an infrastructure spending program to try to create jobs. But its politics of national sovereignty were ambitious.
It was under Workers’ Party rule (under Lula and his successor, president Dilma Rousseff, who won the 2010 election to become president at the beginning of 2011) that the idea surged of a powerful BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance that could challenge the ambitions of the U.S.-led West. Brazil took steps to strengthen its manufacturing, and held its ground on preventing pharmaceutical patent monopolies. Lula’s Brazil accused Western countries of hypocrisy for insisting both on “free trade” with poor countries and farm subsidies for themselves. Brazil even moved in the direction of building an independent arms industry.
Contradictions remained: The Workers’ Party government sent Brazilian troops to command the UN force that enacted the U.S.-impelled occupation of Haiti—treating the world to the spectacle of the biggest, wealthiest country in the region helping the U.S. destroy the sovereignty of the poorest as part of its foreign policy. But in those years Brazil refused to renounce its alliance with Venezuela’s even more independent-minded government under Hugo Chavez; it defended ideas of South-South cooperation, especially within Latin America, and it made space for movements like the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST).
But after more than a decade of Workers’ Party rule, what happened? President Rousseff was overthrown in a coup in 2016. When polls showed that Lula would have won the post-coup election, he was imprisoned to prevent him from running. And so with the Workers’ Party neutralized, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, a man who famously saluted the American flag and chanted “USA” while on campaign (imagine an American leader saluting the Brazilian flag during a presidential campaign). No doubt the coup and the imprisonment of Lula were the key to Bolsonaro’s rise, and failings like supporting the coup in Haiti played a role in weakening the pro-independence coalition.
But what about the economy? Are Brazil’s leaders now dragging the economy into the U.S. fold? Or did the Brazilian economy drag the country back into the fold?
Brazil’s economic history and geography have made independence a challenge. Colonial-era elites were interested in using slave labor to produce sugar and export as much of it as possible: The infrastructure of the country was built for commodity extraction. Internal connections, including roads between Brazil’s major cities, have been built only slowly and recently. The various schemes of the left-wing governments of the last decade for South-South economic integration were attempting to turn this huge ship around (not for the first time—there have been previous attempts and previous U.S.-backed coups in Brazil), and to develop the internal market and nurture domestic industries (and those of Brazil’s Latin neighbors).
Yesterday’s dependent economy was based on sugar export—today’s is based on mining extraction. When Bolsonaro was elected, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation quickly posted a story speculating on how the new government would be good for Canadian mining companies. The new Brazilian president plans to cut down huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil is to return to its traditional role of providing natural resources to the U.S. and to the other rich countries.
A smaller country with a stronger pro-independence leadership, Venezuela faced similar structural economic problems that have imperiled and nearly derailed the independent-minded late president Hugo Chavez’s dream that Venezuelans would learn to eat arepas instead of hamburgers and play with Simon Bolivar dolls instead of Superman ones. There, too, the pro-independence project had a long-term goal of overcoming the country’s dependence on a single finite commodity (oil), diversifying its agricultural base and internal markets. And there, too, the challenge of doing so proved too great for the moment, especially in the face of an elite at least as ruthless as Brazil’s and nearly two decades of vindictive, pro regime-change U.S. policy. Today Venezuela’s “Bolivarian project” is in crisis, along with its economy and political system.
There are other sleeping giants that remain asleep, perhaps for economic reasons. In the face of relentless insults by Trump, the Mexican electorate chose a left-wing government (Mexicans have elected left-wing governments many times in the past few decades, but elections have been stolen). But locked into NAFTA, dependent on the U.S. market, Mexico also would seem to have little option but to swallow Trump’s malevolence.
Egypt is the Brazil of the Middle East. With 100 million people and a GDP of $1.4 trillion, the country that was for a few thousand years the center of civilization attempted in the 20th century to claim what is arguably its rightful place at the center of the Arab world. But today, this giant and former leader of the nonaligned movement is helping Israel and the U.S. starve and besiege the Palestinians in Gaza and helping Saudi Arabia and the U.S. starve and blockade the people of Yemen.
Egypt stopped challenging the U.S. in the 1970s after a peace deal brought it into the fold for good. Exhaustion from two wars with Israel were cited as the main cause—though a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and several domestic factors also played a role. But here, too, is there a hidden economic story?
Egypt has oil, but its production is small—on the order of 650,000 barrels a day compared to Saudi Arabia’s 10 million barrels, or the UAE’s 2.9 million. It has a big tourist industry that brings in important foreign exchange. But for those who might dream of an independent Egypt, the country’s biggest problem is its agricultural sector: It produces millions of tons of wheat and corn, but less than half of what it needs. As told in the classic book Merchants of Grain, the politics of U.S. grain companies have quietly helped feed its power politics all over the world. Most of Egypt’s imported grain comes from the U.S. As climate change and desertification wreak havoc on the dry agricultural ecosystems of the planet, Egypt’s grain dependence is likely to get worse.
The structures of the global economy present challenges to any country or political party that wants to try to break out of U.S. hegemony. Even for countries as big and with as much potential as Brazil or Egypt, countries that have experienced waves of relative independence, the inertia of these economic structures helps send them back into old patterns of extraction and debt. In this moment of right-wing resurgence it is hard to imagine political movements arising with plans to push off the weight of the economic past. But that weight cannot be ignored.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.