this is what fascism looks like

It has been one month since Trump became president. We have all been asking ourselves: “what is Donald Trump?” A populist? A fascist? Just what we need to shake things up? We as a society have not settled on what he is, what he really represents. And this might be his greatest strength; that potential of ‘normalisation’ already well under way.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is what fascism looks like. All the “fascism” alarms bells, klaxons, sirens, calendar event reminders and tocsins are going off right now. All of them. Every damn single last one.

Let’s be clear on what fascism is and what it is not. Because a part of the problem is that we have used the word “fascism” for so long as a catchall word meaning “very bad, angry/strict.”

Fascism is revolution in favour of authoritarianism. The strange marriage of angry populism and cynical conservative powers, this is a revolt against the idea of the public good, public reason and messy secular humanism. Fascism always makes use of the emotional appeal of a misunderstood, mythical past, even as it is itself something new and has nothing to do with the actual history of the nation. Fascism simultaneously captures the language of revolt and of change; it thus has a way of outflanking traditional political parties on both the right and the left.

This logically incoherent, internally contradictory appeal is the keynote sign of facscism. It “works” because, remember, fascism is revolt against civil society: it is an explosion of greed and selfishness, the triumph of the id, so to speak. As the saying going: “there is no contradiction in self interest.” Fascism is what happens when corporate greed hollows out a society, its individuals and institutions in the name of profit, and when things come to a breaking point where the path of the political body either points towards a move towards public good at the expense of corporate profit, or the destruction of civil society for the benefit of corporate profit. The resulting destruction of civil society and government based on public reason creates the appearance – in the case of Nazisim at least – of explosive growth and expansion. Because the resources of society are no longer being directed to the well-being of its individuals, it’s being completely directed into military expansion, corporate profit, and the gain of the handful of sychophants at the top. Fascism in this sense is extreme corporate cronyism with an expansive ideological cover.

All of these signs are present in Trump’s nascent regime. It all fits. Let me repeat that: it all fits the pattern. “Populism,” the tortured ideological term conservatives would prefer you to use for Trump, is drafted every time a demagogue sweeps onto the scene to take advantage of people’s anger. Don’t call it mob rule. At it’s best, populism expresses an almost marxist sense of lower class identity. Explain to me how Trump’s cabinet of billionaires is “populist” again?

Fascism is not true populism. Nor is it pure autocracy. It obviously contains huge doses of these things, but fascism is not about common people overthrowing some sort of oppressive regime, nor is fascism particularly strong at the top. It is not so much characterised by extreme centralised authority as competing factions of cronies and sycophants, who compete for the attention of the Leader. Fascism isn’t so much centralised and autocratic as a handful of powerful interests – in Nazi Germany’s case, the army, the bureaucracy, the SS and the major corporations – vying to expand their own power. The German government had ceased to exist in a de facto sense. Remember, Hitler wasn’t brilliant and his cronies and henchmen were even worse. They where crackpots, ranters, fanatics and madmen that political elites thought they could control and mould. Fascism is a wrecking; that turns a vibrant society into a barracks.

Recently, I have been reading the traditional Republican/conservative pushback on Donald Trump being as fascist: here are the best two articles. Barton Swaim’s “Trump’s populism isn’t fascism. So what is it?” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-populism-isnt-fascism-so-what-is-it/2017/02/16/d871df78-f20f-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.5db0621deea1&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1 Swaim suggests that America exceptionalism – that our character as a nation renders us immune to fascism – and that if we where going to have gone fascist, it would have been in the ’30s and ’40s. Embracing the idea of American Exceptionalism, Swaim smugly announces that our society intrinsically resists the “centralisation of authority” that would happen under fascism. Further, fascism is “for elites, not mavericks or crackpots” and German society, including their version of liberal professors fell into line behind Hitler because German thought of itself as monolithic and was OK with being ruled by an aristocracy from Berlin. Again curious when your election is made possible by billionaires, the oil and coal industry, and FBI Director Comey. Fascism is when the “elites” and crackpots join forces.

Any complains liberals might have – like Bannon saying that the media should shut up – say more about delicate liberal sensitivities than about Trump’s ideology. Swains suggests that because he is able to disagree with Trump on anything (he airs slight disapproval of the Muslim Ban here) that means Trump is not a fascist. Swain then gets to his main course: Trump is a populist. A return to roots and basics. He’s the Salt of the Earth of American Democracy. Again, Trump lost the popular vote and “did not vote” was the winner of the election. After providing no evidence or explanation, merely a vague quote from Irving Kristol that echoes the Jefferson quote about the Tree of Liberty needing the blood of patriots except in this case populists, Swaim closes by saying the real problem is the conformism and complacency of America’s liberal elites.

Adopting the arm-chair-general superciliousness I’ve come to strongly associate with conservatives delivering an oversimplified, strangely convenient/cherry-picked version of history, Swaim claims that American ‘frontier spirit’ and general resistance to conformity means that authoritarianism of any stripe would be instantly halted before it even began. The funny thing about Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Swaim says, is that it fascism never took place in ’30s America. I cannot tell if Swaim makes his arguments out of cynicism and hypocrisy or naive ignorance, but he clearly has not read It Can’t Happen Here. The entire point of the book is to illustrate how easily it could “happen here” i.e., how easily “American exceptionalism” could be turned into a fascist program. If I was Swaim, I wouldn’t have even mentioned the book at all.

Further, Swaim seems blind that he is on the side of the forces of racial/religious conformism. America was explicitly founded on the idea of public reason and the separation of church and state: the Founding Fathers refused to choose. Swaim implicitly thinks that American means “white and christian.” What this means in the modern age is fascism. Nor does he have any conception of how the ‘frontier spirit’ might work. When does it “kick in?” Swaim is also ignoring the realty of what the decades of the Cold War have done to our democratic society (talk about centralisation of power and conformity); his statement that “Americans have never gone for socialism” seems strange given FDR’s New Deal programs and the fact that American politics is currently heading off a cliff into right wing extremism. It implies Americans are immune to extremist politics just when that is exactly what is happening.

Ultimately for Swaim, nothing Donald Trump could ever do would count as fascist. And that is the real weakness in what he’s saying. Swaim’s rationale here indicates that that, hypothetically, Mike Pence’s “Patriotic Bible Camp for American Greatness” cannot be a  concentration camp because, well, it reflects our frontier spirit, and it chastises bleeding heart liberals (who are also secret totalitarians) and if it was fascist – which it definitely isn’t – Americans wouldn’t have it. “Frontier spirit” is great, but does Swaim realise that there is no frontier anymore?

Swaim’s basic argument rests on myths and  misconceptions about the American past and the actual nut-and-bolts of how are society functions today. Worse, he has no idea what fascism actually is. For him, the sum of the liberal argument is that Trump is a fascist because he is a bully, and Benito Mussolini was also a blustering bully. Swaim dismisses the comparison as facile. Fine. But he misses how Trump’s bullying fits a pattern that is repeating itself  here and now.

The second pattern of response is quite a lot more subtle and complicated. A great example is John McNeill’s “How fascist is Donald Trump? There’s a formula for that.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/21/how-fascist-is-donald-trump-theres-actually-a-formula-for-that/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.e23796649cd4.

McNeill, a historian, grades Trump on his similarities with historical fascism in eleven categories, each category getting a possible four “benitos.” This is an interesting and charming read (on the category of ‘fetishisation of masculinity,’ four benitos are awarded) that dismisses Trump as a crude semi-fascist, a baby fascist (Trump scores a total of 22 benitos out of a possible 44). Fine. McNeill is clearly no friend of Trump, but his perspective tends to play down or even dismiss concerns about what is taking place now. Instead of indicating that we are serious danger of history repeating itself, and that our society and democracy are in dire peril, McNeill more or less leaves the impression that, like Swaim, Trump is like commercials during a movie: you don’t like them, but you sit through it anyway. McNeill contributes, in a small way, to the normalisation of Trump.

But what does it mean that a third of Americans slobber a semi-fascist and many more tolerate him? It strikes me that even a baby fascist should still trigger the “frontier spirit.” And even then, I would argue that the basic mechanics of fascism – populist rage allied with corporate and military interests destroying the basic tenets of the public good/civil society – clearly do not require a “high benito scoring” fascist dictator to be fascism. Remember we are talking about destruction here; you don’t have to be competent. 

Obviously Trump isn’t Hitler. Trump obviously isn’t Mussolini. But he does not have to be, and  American fascism – Trumpism – was never going to resemble the historical fascists. Really – just think about it. This is root-and-branch the essential reasoning behind the conservative mind-block on what’s happening to this country. Trump can’t be a fascist – the reasoning goes – because of the dazzling array of superficial differences between Trumpism and Nazism, Germany/Italy and America. For example, McNeill awards zero benitos in the categories of ‘fetishisation of youth’ and ‘hierarchical party structure/purging the disloyal,’ making much of the fact that his followers are not dressed up in ersatz military outfits and some Republicans dislike Trump and are not afraid to say so in public. So Republicans aren’t goose stepping around Washington DC in Davy Crockett outfits. Great. McNeill is blind to how militarised are society has become; requiring that fascism march in the street with matching outfits is laughable. Also, what about those little red hats?

NcNeill’s categories have nothing to do with what fascism actually is and how it actually operates. McNeill is implicitly assuming that Trumpism must fit snuggly into a mould that it simply doesn’t need in order to be fascist. McNeill is like the generals who “prepare for the last war” instead of looking to fight the next one. Again, neither McNeill nor Swaim look below the surface and look at what has happened to this country since WWII and the underlying economics, not to mention the state of our democracy (effectively gone). They are afraid to check underneath the hood: Trump doesn’t represent “frontier spirit” nor does Trumpism need to fit a blueprint of 1930’s European fascism for Trumpism to be fascism.

How long will these ostensibly reasonable, hard headed Republicans – fond of Winston Churchill and Edmund Burke – keep up their sham debate? How bad will it have to get? Look at their words and actions. Bannon’s statements about the media culminate to a calculated attempt to subvert democracy; Trump is moving full bore destroy any sort of function public system.

What exactly do you need to be more clear?

 

 

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The City and the Castle

2500 years ago, at the birth of western civilisation as we know it, there where two political nodes from which the ancient Greek world organised itself. One one side you had The City: a vibrant, messy republic.  And on the other, the Castle: an austere militaristic society. I am referring to the classical match up of Athens and Sparta. Ultimately, the idea of the City and the Castle refer to bedrock notions of what the idea political body should be: one based on civil duty, and the other, righteous hierarchy.

These rivals created the bedrock of western political thinking; I would argue that each society has, since ancient times, wrestled with a political spectrum with Athens at one end  and Sparta on the other. This political spectrum is both more realistic and even more practical than the clunky, outdated and ideologically motivated American conception of the political spectrum, i.e., Communism on the far left and extreme libertarianism/ anarchy and or fascism on the right (depending on who you ask), with American society perfectly balanced distinctly on the right in the realm of laissez-faire capitalism.

The political spectrum of the City and the Castle is also more complex and nuanced then a clunky authoritarianism vs freedom sense of the political spectrum. This means that the Castle does not mean “authoritarianism” and the City does not mean “freedom,” though these concepts are definitely integral to both respectively.

Athens and Sparta represent the two poles, or ideals of the western political landscape. Every society and government primarily appeals to one or the other; and while every society will have both impulses, a given government or ruler will appeal to one ideal or the other. For example, I would like the 20th century totalitarianisms of Stalinism and Nazisim with a radical shift towards the Castle. While the French Revolution could be seen as a bringing-into-line of the French political system with a socio-economic system which had already shifted along the lines of the City.

The Castle – the fundamental sense that there is a righteous, received hierarchy and order to society – is best seen in Sparta, but other examples might be feudal Europe and various authoritarian units throughout western history, ranging from the likes of Oliver Cromwell to Pinochet. There are numerous advantages: military strength and high social cohesion between the two big ones. But the idea of the Castle is as much psychological and social as it is political. As Herbert Marcuse said: “people do not want to be free.” The strength of the Castle is it’s clearly delineated social hierarchy closely linked to an ideology with religious overtones, i.e., “One God in Heaven, One King on Earth.” The Castle provides its people with simple, unquestioned answers to life’s vexing questions.

static, oppressive, brittle, ignorant

The City – exemplified originally by Athens – rests on a conception of shared humanity. Thus the human individual is a citizen – with rights and duties – rather than a subject or member of a folk. The City doesn’t equate to democracy, or even a republic necessarily. It’s about the fundamental conception of how the political body should function: how it is envisioned. The City is where the idea of the public good is primary. The strength of the City is it’s vibrancy. By this I mean more than simply “freedom.” The idea of the polis – a rational, human-oriented political unit – assists human individuals with pursuing their own well being. It is this social framework of the public good which enables tremendous social energies to be released.

The drawback with the Castle is its static conception society and life in an ever changing world. The Castle is oppressive: the result a psychological and emotional stunting of it’s people. It is a narrow conception of society and life which some psychological profiles crave, but few thrive in. Strong leaders of the Castle are almost unstoppable, but wise, great men are always in short supply and one wise man is not enough to rule an entire society. Ask any autocrat ever.

The weakness of the City is it’s trouble with social and political cohesion. Implicitly based on ideas of equality and moral relativism, it lacks a sense of divine sanction. It is hard to ask people to sacrifice themselves – either their lives or their sense of profit and gain – for an indistinct and abstract ‘public good.’ The City is more complicated psychologically, intellectually and emotionally. It’s much harder to sustain; it requires much more privileged circumstances to  function properly.  The most successful republics – Athens, Venice, Holland, England, and America are at once the most dynamic societies but also incredibly rare and fragile. The Venetian Republic, for example, was a totally unique production of geographic location (islands in lagoon which both protected the Venetians and inhibited the rise of the feudal system), historical confluence (the Hunnic invasions, the fall of the Roman Empire), and cultural factors (the intellectual and cultural heritage of  Athens and Rome. These factors combined to create a unique sense of civic pride and duty amongst the citizens of Venice.

The Peloponnesian War – the WWII of ancient Greece – was eventually won by Sparta. Plato’s Republic is in many ways inspired by Sparta, and since then the lovers-of-all-things Spartan have only gained ground. Sparta resonates with many people, where as nobody makes movies about Athenians.

But there is a problem. There are no actual Spartan accounts of being Spartan. Everything we know about the ancient Spartans was written by other Greeks: Athenians, Thebans, Corinthians. When we refer to the birth of western civilisation, we are referring to Athens at the height of its glory. Yes, the entire ancient Greek world played its part here, but it is Athens that produced the great philosophers and the artists that created a lasting civilisation. Sparta won the War because it remained defensive; Sparta merely survived. It never conquored. Sparta rode high until they where defeated by the Thebans. And then they where gone. And we are all Athenians now.

America was founded upon the ideas of The City: secular humanism, civic duty an the public good. These values are at the root of what makes America great. These ideas are under attack, to the point of being destroyed. Make no mistake: patriotism and people shouting about loving freedom do not guarantee freedom, nor will it matter when it comes to maintaining a republic in this country. It’s the idea of the public good, linked with secular humanism which is the essence of American democracy, not guns and bibles. Corporate greed – the profit maximisation principle – and the religious right are two principles which seek to destroy the idea of the public good, which both limits profits and stands in implicit contradiction to the fundamentalist mindset.

It’s now or never.

 

Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy

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Probably one of the most important influential books you have never heard of. It’s fascinating because it’s very much of its time, and yet very much of our time as well. Here’s what I mean. The meat of the book was written, or at least intellectually developed before WWII (published during) in the late ’30s. However, this is also one of the key texts of the triumph of neoliberalism. This book never seemed more prophetic then in the ’90s with the technology explosion and corresponding economic growth.

Of course, of our vantage point here in 2016, that pendulum has swung completely in the other direction. I would love (love love love) to bring Joseph Schumpeter to our present day and show him around the global poverty, environmental destruction, and insane inequality explained away in moralistic tones. Because it’s all kinda his child.

How should I say this? Schumpeter is never wrong – on the contrary, he is highly logical and rigourous. He’s cosmopolitan. He loves Latin phraseology. But it’s what he leaves out. It’s in what he brushes aside or discounts due to “space considerations”. I’ll come back to this.

Schumpeter is one of the large exodus of German intellectuals driven out by Hitler in the 30’s, who came to settle in America and became profoundly influential, in deep, long lasting ways. It’s one of the more interesting and unpredictable effects of WII. Schumpeter, along side von Hayek and Richard Strauss represent the more traditionally conservative political perspectives. While the Frankfurt School of Marxists were going around inventing postmodernism and influencing the counterculture of the ’60s, these handful of thinkers were busy building their own intellectual dynasties which would come back with a vengeance in the 80’s; their peak being the Bush/Cheney/Rove Administration.

In a nutshell, it is these three German intellectuals who provide the intellectual fodder (eyewash?) for the modern American conservative movement. When a conservative attacks a liberal for being either a Bleeding Heart or a Secret Stalinist, it is the work of Sumpter, Von Hayek and Strauss which provide the intellectual justification for this view.

I think that if Schumpeter was alive today and looking out over our economic and cultural landscape, he would probably vote Democrat. I doubt he would go for Bernie Sanders, but he would definitely feel comfortable with Hilary Clinton. And this is why his book is so very much of it’s time in the late ’30s. It’s not of ours; his views have been superseded (and yet they still form the rational basis for pretty much any sort of neoliberal economic view).

Between National Socialist Germany and Marxist-Leninist Russia, and the decline of the traditional capitalist democracies (England and France), it seemed in the 1930s, that socialism was pretty much bound to triumph all over the world. Intellectuals ranging from serious academics to cafe dilettantes all espoused some kind of socialism. In a nutshell, socialism and the phraseology of socialism was IN in a big way. Hardly anyone could make any sort of pronouncement without making certain comments of a socialist shade.

Joseph Schumpeter thus feels like the “lone voice crying in the wilderness” in support of capitalism. He’s very annoyed by people who make irrational arguments or silly assumptions. And this book is his massive rant against both socialism and the “cafe socialists” which he has had to tolerate. He writes like a man who assumes that his cause is lost. He attributes the unpopularity and failures of capitalism to essentially the fact that it gets bad press.

But here his brilliance – and I do not say that sarcastically – emerges. He writes for a public which he assumes is to a man in some bent pro-socialist. To keep people reading – instead of throwing down the book in disgust – he maintains a rather impressive tongue-in-cheek tone that lasts for a solid half of the work.

He opens with a discussion of Marx and the theoretical underpinnings of socialism. Even as he rips apart Marx and his ideas, he maintains a tone and certain sentences which make it seem that he is actually in support of Marx and or socialism, but is just making fine-tuning remarks or reworking some of Marx’s ideas to make them better. It’s actually really  well done and definitely worth a read.

This book is also famous for the idea of “creative destruction”; the idea that growth is takes place over the bodies of outdated industries or techniques, IE, vinyl being replaced by CDs, etc. He also makes a strong pitch for capitalism being in the long run more compatible with democracy than socialism (which he points out is not necessarily a democratic form of government.

Fine.

But here is my actual problem with Schumpeter’s reasoning (and again it’s more of what he leaves out or ignores). In one of the opening chapters he defines the best economy as the one that maximises production/output. It’s literally just a sentence that he’s thrown in. And that’s really the whole trick. Once he has made that assumption, he can easily prove that capitalism is the system that maximises production, and is therefore the best.

He seemingly remains oblivious to the massive flaws in this assumption. I won’t ding him for not being concerned with the environment because I suppose nobody was at this time. But he ignores the true complexity of our individual lives and our societies and saves his argument be hiding behind “maximum production”. He fails to see the great contours of capitalism – a system of exploration that feeds off of population growth and environmental destruction. He categorically refuses to recognise the massive aid that governments have to lend to “capitalism” to keep it going.

Schumpeter, borrowing and building off of Max Weber, subscribes to the moralistic Predestination view of capitalism, i.e., those that are successful have done something to deserve it. They have saved or invested wisely or worked hard or been more smart than the next guy. He waxes poetically about the virtues and mindset of the businessman or the “bourgeoisie” which he finds to be hard working and sober and sensible.

He savours describing capitalism as an unceasing maelstrom of competition that even the biggest companies must weather. And this is the big secret of capitalism – it’s superiority. He’s blind to how far governments have to bend to keep the damn thing going. He’s blind to how rare it is for the system to work in the moralistic and efficient way that he suggests that it does.

And I think that if he were alive today I think we would see a Peter Schumpeter much less enthusiastic about laissez-faire economics and centre-right politics. With the threat of global Communism being definitely gone for a while now, with Marxist phraseology being well out of style, with an economy that depends on government propping up most of the major industries in one way or an other, with systematic global poverty, with environmental destruction and massive inequality, and with the link between war and Big Business definitely established, he would have to yield on a few points. For sure.

It’s a fascinating book and a monument to it’s time and place. That being said, unless you want to understand neoliberal rationalisations, it’s probably not worth your time.

The Torture Report: Part II

So what’s the argument for torture? What is the temptation?

Dick Cheney, which I feel like I can safely say is the biggest proponent of torture in US history, has argued essentially this: the CIA torture program produced intelligence that saved American lives and directly led to the foiling of terrorist attacks. It was necessary, it worked, and this information could not have been got any other way.

Further, Cheney appeals to our sense of revenge by saying that it is 9/11 which is torture, and that nothing the CIA is doing can compare to what happened to America on that day. He would then point out that the techniques used in the “enhanced interrogation” are drawn from the Air Force’s SERE School, and each technique was carefully vetted to ensure that no actual harm would come to the “detainees”.

As it stands, this is a compelling argument. It works. It’s saved lives. It’s not torture, but a sort of simulated torture that does no real harm. It’s about breaking down a prisoner psychologically to a state of “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit nasty, but this is a nasty war. The terrorists aren’t playing by the rules, so neither should we. What we are doing to them is nothing compared to what they did to us.

But what if every single one of these statements, which by the way the CIA, Cheney et al made over and over again for years, is a lie? And not just a lack of evidence, but a systematic campaign to convince both the American public and Congressional oversight that torture works and is necessary.

The Senate Committee Report on Torture is more than simply a catalogue of the criminal stupidities of the CIA. Even though there are many things this Report does not say, and many issues in which the Report skirts around and avoids quite assiduously, what this report does do is that it 1) refutes the CIA’s torture program’s efficacy, 2) documents and refutes the CIA’s systematic lies to Congress, Media, and Public, and 3) documents the horrors of the program in operation; illustrates that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” are indeed torture.

Literally, this Report enumerates every single instance of the use of the “EITs” as well as every instance of the CIA’s “representations” about torture to other agencies, other governmental departments, and the media. And here is where it is great: it refutes them all. Not only is the argument for torture now officially left in tatters as a proven nonsensical lie, the system of lies around it has been documented and refuted.

First things first. The CIA’s “EITs” are torture. Any attempt to describe them as harmless is wrong, factually and morally. Torture does not need a medieval man wearing a hood with a hot branding iron, nor does it require a totalitarian, communistic terror apparatus intent on weeding out all “saboteurs”.

As a society we need to come to this realisation. The CIA’s “EIT’s” where degrading, inhumane, strange, and unusual. They went beyond the procedures described to the media and say, the Department of Justice. Water boarding quickly turned into a relentless “series of near drownings”. Weeks – months even – of solitary confinement. White noise, total darkness, loud music played twenty-four hours a day. It goes on and on. Some interrogators would play the same song before an “interrogation” session began. Now that’s creepy and Kafkaesqe for you. Worst of all…is the anal incursions the CIA went in for. Things like “rectal feeding” and enemas.

Yes. This is torture. It has every hallmark of torture, down to the weird sense of anger and guilt exhibited by the torturers. It’s strange and unusual. Modern torture has a history and a pattern. A pattern that we can recognise in our own government. I am referring to the legacy of the French in Algeria, the Soviets, especially in the ’30s, and North Korea. The thread that links these together is a government chasing an impossible geo-political goal. Exactly like waging an impossible war like the “War on Terror”. Many of the techniques used by the CIA seem copied right out right of Soviet techniques. Go read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon if you doubt me.

I get the sense that these governments and spooks and military men are trapped in a philosophical quandary. How can you be sure you have the truth? You never can. There could always be another terrorist plot, or western saboteur, or seemingly westernised Algerian out to plant a bomb in downtown Algiers. Stopping these (largely imaginary) enemies constitutes something new; the enemy is as much in your head as anything else. I am not saying that Islamic terrorism is not real, I am saying that the US response to it, the role range of government activity from the Patriot Act to invading Iraq has been in response to an imaginary enemy that says more about us than the reality of Islamic extremism.

So it’s one part frustration, one part fear, one part revenge, and one part a reflection of the political winds that are blowing (neo-conservativism) that results in these government torture programs, which continue, as ours did, even though it is clear that it does not work. There is something at work beyond mere utilitarian “means justifying ends” rationales. The CIA’s track record, so incompetent and criminally stupid (Bay of Pigs, Iran, the Contras and dealing cocaine, the coup against Salvadore Allende, the coup in Guatemala, consistently being outwitted by the Soviets, and now strait up torture) that I could almost believe the CIA is simply a dummy organization meant to take flak for other screw-ups. 9/11 was another major failure for them, one that they where unprepared to explain or respond to. The CIA went to war and they where out for revenge and the politicians gave them the green light to “take the gloves off” and that is the kindest thing I can think to say about them and their actions.

Torture does not work. First of all you can never be sure. The record shows that people who are tortured just say what ever they think their tortures want to hear. Not only do transcripts of the torture sessions read like scenes strait out of 24, where there is an immune terrorist attack on American soil. The weird thing is that clearly the “detainee” cannot fathom his tortures. The reality is that al-Qaida et al simply lack the capability to mount attacks in the US, or even Europe for that matter. Yes, it could happen, but in terms of plots, they have no real ability to strike anywhere outside of the Middle East. Hence things happened where one detainee made up a plot in Montana. Second there is a huge social cost with torture, one that American society will be paying for for decades. Not to mention loss of prestige internationally.

Lastly there is the torture program as it was “represented” to the public and Congressional oversight. The CIA lied to everyone. A click in “Headquarters” insisted to both the actual interrogators and congress, and maybe even the White House that torture was necessary, was saving lives and was providing intelligence that could not be got anywhere else. Again, ALL this was false as an analysis of the CIA’s own records CLEARLY show. The CIA basically copy and pasted its arguments for torture for years in reports to the media, congress, and even the public. They use the exact same phrasing and words over and over.

And in The Report, over and over, it goes through and systematically and fully disproves the claims of the CIA. They where totally wrong on all their claims. In the odd langue of the Report, the CIA’s statements either “misrepresented” or “left out significant facts”. There are many crimes here: a horrendous failure of our political system.

The big question is: why aren’t we angry about this?

Part III coming soon.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (Part1)

 

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Heavily redacted, tersely written and a brutal marathon of odd euphemisms and acronyms, this is our political system in action. It’s the War on Terror, as well as a front row seat to the spectacle of our personal freedoms eroded in the name of “national security”.

It’s not very pretty. In fact, it’s quite ugly. But it is truly fascinating.

I am planning to make this a three part salvo on the Torture Report. In this first section, I want to explore the idea of federal surrealism, and identify the larger context of the Report. I will also list a series of observations, ideas, and questions which swirl around the CIA, torture, the Report, and government in general. In Part II, I will discuss the actual actions of the CIA and debate the efficacy and logic of torture. In Part III, will be a final review of the book, and I will explore the larger implications, discuss what should be done, and probably recommend that every honest citizen read it.

Borrowing from Grayson Clary’s article on the Report in the LA Review of Books (http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/guide-federal-surrealism-fiction-american-intelligence-community), I approached reading the Torture Report as a work of “federal surrealism”. Federal Surrealism captures the paradox of governmental investigations and reports, especially of the goings-on of the “Intelligence Community” (a great example of the odd euphemisms that pour like water from Washington DC). What makes it surreal is that 1) the sheer detail and length serve to distract and hide from the main conclusions, 2) the redaction of nearly all nouns make sure that the people most responsible for torture will escape unpunished and unknown, 3) a lack of “big picture” thinking, wether moral or otherwise lead to a failure to actually understand what happened and why, and 4) the result is a utter lack to really condemn torture and the failures in our government and the Bush Administration that allowed torture to happen.

Federal Surrealism thus implies the weird philosophical quandary that these reports find themselves in. Ostensibly seeking to find and reveal the truth; they serve to mask individuals and governmental processes and instead signal the current way the political winds are blowing. Most telling is the simple fact that the Report never calls it “torture”, referring instead to “EITs”.

The other ‘great’ governmental reports: The 9/11 Commission Report and The Warren Commission Report into the Kennedy assassination, hopelessly associated with conspiracy theory and cover ups, are the other examples of “federal surrealism”, which comes complete with its own style guide and list of great writers of the genre (you’ve never heard of them).

Here is my list of ideas, which I assembled during and after reading The Report.

1. We need to keep in mind here the tension and ultimate philosophical chasm between the “spirit” of the law and the “letter of the law”. The CIA and DOJ and White House lawyers dream up arguments of necessity to find that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” are constitutional. Yet, while the US constitution does not literally prohibit “EITs”, clearly, CLEARLY, the spirit of the document prohibits such acts.

2. The power of the prevailing “political wind” or “political climate”. This is partly another term for peer pressure and peer group dynamics, but it also refers to the notion that there is a seething ocean of tacit understandings and permissions-granted given certain precedents and larger social signals

3. The sense of guilt and awareness exhibited by the CIA and the various individuals within the system.

4. To what extent is the how torture program motivated by a sense of revenge? A sense of “taking the gloves off”? A quest to expunge the very public failure of the CIA?

5. To what extent is the torture program an expression of futility and fear?

6. The curious interagency and inter-governmental fighting.  The culture and power clashes between the FBI and CIA, the office politics within the CIA illustrated by the role of the Office of the Inspector General and its clashes with, say ALEC station (the part of the CIA tasked with Islamic extremism/terrorism/Osama binLaden).

7. The importance of “plausible deniability”. This plays out in multiple ways, from the role played by individuals in the Administration (how much did Bush actually know? I sense that he and his administration is shielded quite well in this report; it seems to be a very CIA only initiative).

8. The relationship between the Bush Administration and the CIA. Where does the torture program originate? Is this the CIA on its own? Or is the Administration the driving force behind it?

9. The philosophical paradox generated by a report that ostensibly attempts to report the truth, and yet, between the redactions, and the larger obsession with precision over any awareness of larger issues?

10. Relatedly, the idea that if you want to hide something terrible, you bury it in this day and age in a huge heap of boring detail, acronyms, and euphemisms. Distracting detail and just sheer boring.

11. To what extent does this report damn the CIA, and to what extent does this report shield the CIA?

12. What role does our culture play? What does 24 tell us about ourselves? Consistently, the CIA officers and “interrogators” speak, act and write literally like characters in a Tom Clancy novel. I do not think that this is a coincidence.

13. The role of private contractors, notably “the psychiatrists” who develop and advocate for torture. What does it mean when you have a company with 100% of its revenue from the government?

14. The historical reality that the torturers and the genocidests have a way of slipping away…these people are either shielded, or slip away. I cannot help but conclude that torture preforms some sort of social role beyond that of merely that of an “intelligence gather tactic”. It’s about revenge and power and fear and this is ultimately why the torturers are “excused”.

15. What are the rhetorical chains of logic which authorize torture? Are they true? For example: do I only feel comfortable condemning torture because I know that the CIA is there and doing its best, analogous to: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” – George Orwell

16. The simple ethics and morality of it all…and the weird notion that you can be sure to get the truth our of a prisoner, if only you can use the right (read: all) techniques on him; the conviction that the prisoner is holding back. But you never can; you can never be sure. Torture almost seems to be more about the torturer than the tortured.

17. The sheer incompetence of it all. Competence is always fine; it’s the criminal stupidity of torture that makes absolutely a catastrophe for this nation. Incompetence to the point where I almost think the CIA is a simple front and scape goat agency, so blank is my mind when I try to think of CIA successes.

Part II in the next few days….

Retail!

It is time that we all come clean here with each other about retail. Strip malls and minimum wage have pretty much swallowed our entire society and our entire planet. I know that this sounds a bit bombastic, but when you are in the mood to drop some Truth Bombs, this is what happens. We have been so busy rolling up our sleeves and getting down to the dirty details that we have forgotten to think and reflect on our actions, on our very way of going about things.

We all know the phrase associated with retail and low paying jobs on being asked a question: “Hey, I only work here”. It reeks of lazy ignorance; a slovenly teenager slouching through life, dying just to get home, smoke some pot and watch Adult Swim. Or whatever. I’m just trying to nail down the stereotype to illustrate it. Because it is false. I have worked a variety of minimum wage jobs in a variety of circumstances in a number states over a number of years. Thus, I think that my experience is valid and forceful, if not comprehensive and exhaustive.

This stereotype of the “I don’t know; I only work here” employee is a product not of lazy idiots, but of the system of minimum wage/retail/profit maximisation economic system that we have embraced since the Reagan years. For all of you out there who shop a lot, but still seem to misunderstand the way our economy works today, let me enlighten you. Retail leans heavy on the managers and supervisors, who effective are the store in question. The basic employee shows up to a repetitive, cog-like job, like checking out customers or straitening cloths or what have you.

Employees receive no real training; if they do, it is largely a “drink the cool-aide” sort of training that is closer to propaganda than anything else. All the real training happens “on the job”, i. e. when a customer asks a question. My point is that it is the retail system itself (which yearns to get rid of all employees entirely) that generates the the alienated, lazy, ignorant employee.

Too many part-time minimum wage workers are college educated, responsible, hard-working, dedicated and motivated to account for the extreme paranoia that both Corporate offices and customers show towards these employees. I know that it takes to qualifications or real skills to become a retail sales clerk; I know that it requires no experience and requires hardly any intelligence at all; yet retail jobs are remarkable taxing psychically and emotionally. To be blunt: retail jobs are soul crushing.

Retail means “fancy shopping warehouse”. It means profit-maximisation for the Corporate Office; this means minimising wages and employees as much as possible. Retail is efficiency towards profit and profit only. And all I want you to realise is that this is a system and this is system has strengths (profit maximisation for the shareholders) and weaknesses (its soul crushing, its employees are paid little). A different system would have different strengths and weaknesses (say a system where wages where maximised somehow).

I would like to suggest that there is a subtle collision between the Corporate Office and the Customer against the Employee. Employees are the face of the legal fiction that is the corporation; thus when the corporate retail system generates mistakes, errors, and general shoddy-ness, and the customer quickly becomes frustrated or angry (they feel like they are getting the run-around), this is taken out on the Employee. This is implicitly encouraged by the retail system as the actual individuals that are capable of making a change in the policy are totally isolated from the Customer in question.

TV adds constantly refer to customer service, hospitality. They insinuate that here, unlike all the other minimum wage paying places, there is real customer service: “Our employees actually do care!” They don’t. Not because they are lazy, but because they are under-trained, under-paid, see no opportunity for advancement, and are simply running the clock to go home. The system engulfs people in contexts that are emotionally, mentally, and economic that, on a basic level, cause the “Bad Behaviour”.

There is a huge gap between leadership and simple ‘management’. I have personal experience of truly awesome management; they understood that their job was in large part to keep their employees happy. Each employee was personally valued and even had a profound sense of personal development. However, these high quality managers are few and far between. Most feel and seem to sincerely think that there job is simply to designate tasks, make sure the rules get followed and the work, done. They play a parent to the employee’s child.

Obviously, individual personality makes a big difference here. I do not deny that there are a lot of factors that go into management (not to mention the challenges; I know from personal experience), but I have had some truly surreal experiences. But I have had too many examples of “rules for rules sake” thinking, with all the implicit distrust that comes with it. There is often a total lack of perspective; a certain disconnect from what might be called the immediate context.

For example, I was told off (after being observed from CCTV) for reading a book behind the cash register in a bookstore that was totally empty of customers. “It’s our rule,” I was told. I wanted to respond: “No, this is your rule. You have chosen to enforce it despite the fact that we are alone in this cavernous warehouse of a store with no one in it.”

I still have trouble imagining what was going through this General Manager’s head, going so far as to spy on me, then take the book from me and return it to the shelf himself. A control freak? Anal retentive? A good, old-fashioned sociopath? Does he spend his evenings flossing his teeth and remaking his bed over and over again, chasing the perfect fold? Maybe he finds it simpler and easier to simply all the rules all the time instead of pondering and/or arguing about exceptions and contingencies. Either way, it represents a pretty astounding dedication to rules, rules which have very little value or reason for being. Who is harmed if I read a book? What exactly is the problem? Is reading a book in a bookstore with no one in it bad customer service? What exactly is customer service, then, and how was my reading a book – with legitimately nothing to do  – a violation of customer service, even if there are some people in the store?

The fact that nobody is harmed (certainly not the company’s profit margin) should alert us to the fact that “rules for rules sake” is symptom of larger things in our society. It reveals something about our automatic assumptions and our train of thought. I have met and worked for too many managers exactly like the one mentioned above for this to be a one-off encounter. So why the obsession with rules and a fear of breaking them due to context and circumstance?

There is a lot of subtle things going on here: distrust of the employee in a moral sense, the need to eliminate any reason for people to complain (a whole other blog post in and of itself), the need for the employee to be a station in a Fordist assembly line (and therefore my need to be mentally engaged is a problem), the ease of enforcing rules instead of reflecting on them (The Good German Syndrome),  and a heavy does of traditional Calvinist assumptions about work simply expressed in their contemporary American/business form (which does not make them any less Calvinist). It is exactly the same problem as to why American sales clerks cannot have stools to sit on; and why they need basically a doctor’s slip if they want to wear tennis shoes or have a bottle of water, coffee or tea to sip on.

I have been to too many other countries where the clerk gets to sit on a stool (and where everything works just fine) for you to tell me that the stool would result in poor customer service. I can respect rules, and respectfully break them and bend them without Things Falling Apart. The fact that we need to control our low-level employees speaks volumes about our rather prison/punishment-oriented mindset about things. Work needs to be work; and corporate America is only too happy to oblige us in our strict moral assumptions to their own massive benefit. I am reminded of a recent news story where a ski company dynamited little huts associated with people smoking pot in them; this in Colorado where pot is legal. To me, this is a striking example of a company enforcing a certain set of moral values and assumptions for the sake of brand image. Note the lack of perspective; the whole thing was quickly carried to its logical extreme: dynamite. All in the name of someone’s morality which is questionable at best. Hard-ass-ness just doesn’t work.

In many retail situations, such as an angry, unreasonable yelling customer, or a rule-crazed manager, the correct response, we are all told is to “not take it personally”, and “be like teflon” and to “move on”. That’s fine. I understand that; I have followed that logic many times myself. But our lives our made up of our instances. It is what we choose to do at these instances which to a very large extent dictate our lives. Are we sure that “being like teflon” is not being a push-over? A sheeple? What about CCTV, ostensibly meant to deter shoplifting, which in practical, everyday reality is used by management to spy on its employees, and their potential moral laxity. The logic of “teflon” allows the system, the unconscious assumptions of people, in other words, to continue unchanged. The same logic goes on and on and perpetuates itself because it encounters no resistance.

This has run rather long, for that I apologise. I have only one more point which I want to ram home. It is the customer’s mindset: the “why” we shop retail at shopping malls. As the clerk manning the till, I have come to see customers as simply a long procession of self-helpers (“Thin Thighs in Thirty Days”, “How to Get Rich in Three Easy Steps”, “How to be More Happy Everyday!”, “How to Be a Business Executive and Conqueror the Universe”, “How to Be a Good Husband/Wife” and “Get Organised and More Productive”) haplessly tortured by social expectations of perfection they don’t understand and oddly don’t question.

There is – forgive the rhetorical bombast here – a certain implicit savagery to the whole retail proceedings. I’ll just say it: we like retail because we can annonymously abuse the staff. We are always right; we can criticise without fear of being criticised in return. We feel superior. Self-righteousness in its true social expression. Far too often – to a crazy extent, it is the customer which has generated the problem. You, the customer: your mindset is a much the problem, if not more so than mine as the employee. The customer gets to display a odd mix of arrogance and ignorance, which always going hand in hand, and come out the other side with an apology, a discount and ten minuets of being the centre of attention.

The bizarre psychology of the impulse buy: junk on display, which aims to prompt the ejaculation: “cute” by the shopper. only out of its context of ‘glamourous suggestion’ do we realise that it is junk (like in the bargain bin or once you put it in your house); a cliche. It is dehumanising for everyone.

The longer I work at these bottom of the barrel jobs, the more people tell me the typical Horatio Alger line: I have to “work hard” too get ahead; that it will teach me humility, that I need a “real job”.  Its a mindset which has little to do with economic reality.  It is really about protecting identity and personal comfort zones, not about me getting a job or there being a healthy economy or society or individuals. The eerie circular logic that repeats over and over and only points to itself, kept because it satisfies emotionally. It sounds very tone-deaf to me anymore.

Do we really want our society to be like this? Endless parking lots and strip malls? Anonymous employees and customers; implicit hostility and misunderstanding? We are headed full-steam towards a Wal-Mart society. Do we actually think that this is a good thing?