Are machetes more humane than drones?

Is the Islamic State’s violence more moral than the West’s?

The use of machetes to chop down one’s enemy has a particular effect when broadcast over social media. There is a certain visceral response to watching someone slowly executed with medieval weaponry that seems somehow more shocking than seeing photos of bombing victims’ body parts. The Islamic State’s use of the machete appears to be a retreat to a certain level of barbarism that is virtually unheard of these days (that is, if you completely ignore what’s been going on in Mexico for the last decade.) My question, though, is whether it is more barbaric to chop someone’s head off with a machete, someone who has been identified as an enemy of the state, than it is to shoot missiles or drop bombs on enemies, even if those bombs and missiles might kill innocents who just happened to be nearby?

Collateral damage is something that we claim to want to avoid when going to war, yet so many of the thousands of people killed by the United States, Britain and other allies in the War on Terror and its sister wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were not enemy combatants and posed no risk to Western Countries. It’s hard to find someone less deserving to die than an Iraqi child that just happened to be in the wrong place when the bombs started dropping. Yet, the technology we have developed for committing acts of violence is now so disconnected from the people whose lives it ruins, it is very easy for most people in the Western World to completely ignore the consequences of such technology. Especially when we have “smart” bombs and unmanned drones, we can pretend that acts of murder carried out on our behalf are not all that bad, because we didn’t really intend to harm people. (Although, I don’t really see how war can have any other intention besides that, but we don’t want to believe our wars themselves are unjustified.)

I’ve trolled Sam Harris a lot lately, but that’s because his ideas are so bad, I feel like they keep needing rebuttals. He has written and spoken about how he believes collateral damage is immoral and one of the biggest questions facing leaders who “have” to go to war. Of course, the premises are skewed in this assumption, because WWII is arguably the only time the United States really had to go to war, but revenge for September 11th or whatever reason we’ve been lighting up the Middle East for the last 14 years, seems enough of a justification for most folks.

Well, for Mr. Harris and other phony humanitarians, my challenge is whether you would support scaling back on drone strikes and missiles, which are very imperfect in their targeting, and use a more perfect weapon: the machete. If American soldiers were only armed with machetes, there would be no collateral damage when we went to war. Only guilty people would be killed, because a machete can only kill one person at a time, and it takes some effort.

Everyone the Islamic State kills is someone they believe deserves to die. Now, I don’t agree with them about whom they think should die and who should live, but if they sincerely believe they are doing the right thing then they are very effective in killing (almost) only those who they have found, through their particularly bleak logic, are guilty. When we invade, wage war, or just remotely bomb other nations, all sorts of people we never “meant” to kill end up dying anyway. We don’t even have to convince ourselves that those people deserve to die, just that whatever warmongering we’ve been up to is justified in and of itself.

Is more high-tech, but less precise, technology really what separates the “barbarians” from the “rational politicians”? Is the fact that we continue to kill more people with our warmongering than anyone else worth pointing out? Would the Islamic State even exist if we hadn’t bombed Iraq back to the stone-age and then done nothing to clean it up? Is using our more “advanced” technology to target and kill Islamic State members (while likely blowing up a lot of innocent people nearby) going to do anything more than create an even more extreme, un-fightable reactionary group?

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Charlie Hebdo should share their PEN award with Anwar al-Awlaki and his son

It was a tragic event when, a few months back, some cartoonists and editors were shot in Paris by angry young gunmen. The general consensus is that these valiant defenders of freedom of speech were gunned down by Muslim extremists hell-bent on forcing everyone to live under sharia law. I wrote about this topic before: https://wavesandmeans.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/satire-vs-reinforcing-heirarchy-or-charlie-hebdo-gets-charlie-hebdoed/

 

Well, now PEN has decided to give these crusaders an award, which has generated some controversy:

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/05/books/charlie-hebdo-award-at-pen-gala-sparks-more-debate.html

 

I posit that if Charlie Hebdo is being honored with an award because its writers and editors are supposedly martyrs to the cause of free speech, then the award should be shared with Anwar al-Awlaki, who was also hunted down and killed in cold blood, simply for exercising free speech. (We took out his son, too, just to show how cold blood can run, apparently.)

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/opinion/the-drone-that-killed-my-grandson.html

 

Charlie Hebdo’s lazy racism and Islamophobia should not have resulted in anyone’s deaths. The idea that they were engaged in a valiant struggle against oppressive censorship is, however, ludicrous. Some say that their offensively anti-Muslim cartoons are misunderstood by Americans who are too simple-minded to grasp the intricacies of French humor. If that is true, why were so many French-speaking Muslims offended by the cartoons? Surely their French is good enough, many of them having grown up in France. The thing with the Hebdo massacre and the unrelated proclamations of the sanctity of “free speech” is that government censors did not kill the Charlie Hebdo staff. Angry young men that were likely looking for a target for their rage, chose Charlie Hebdo, most likely because they made themselves targets. No, they did not deserve to be killed, and no one is arguing that. The thing is, sometimes people snap and shoot a bunch of people. When Muslims do it, suddenly we are to assume that they are part of a global movement trying to violently force us into living under sharia law, despite how little evidence there is that most Muslims would prefer honor killings and mandated head scarves to watching Saturday Night Live and eating French Fries. When Americans snap and shoot a bunch of people, we don’t read a litany of analyses claiming Christianity led the gunman to become radicalized, even when it clearly did: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/06/us/shooting-reported-at-temple-in-wisconsin.html?_r=0

 

School shootings are not framed as a struggle for free speech on the part of bullies in a high school. Did bullying push a student with easy access to firearms so far over the edge that he shot some classmates? Wait! What about the bully’s free speech? Shouldn’t he be allowed to torment and belittle other students that are weaker than him without fear of reprisal? He’s just a crusader fighting for freedom of speech, after all.

 

The reason we don’t pretend that school shooters are a threat to free speech is because they are not sponsored by the government. That’s also the reason that freedom of speech was not the issue with the Charlie Hebdo shooting. No apparatus of the French government was attempting to prevent the writers and editors there from publishing violently anti-Muslim cartoons. To anyone not trying to take the event out of context in a backhanded attempt to justify our continued slaughter of people in Arab countries, the magazine covers seem to celebrate and even encourage violence against Muslims. Attacking minorities may be within the paper’s rights, but it’s a very irresponsible use of speech. It’s especially irresponsible when the country has problems absorbing its growing immigrant population http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8197895/Marine-Le-Pen-Muslims-in-France-like-Nazi-occupation.html

A Hebdo cartoon celebrating atrocities committed against Muslims in Egypt by a US-backed military dictatorship:

Anwar al-Awlaki (and his son, and some bystanders) were killed by state-sponsored violence for exercising their freedom of speech. Because the things al-Awlaki said were considered “dangerous” by our government, he was executed without trial, and so was his son, apparently just in case his progeny might attempt to seek justice for his father in the future. Now, maybe the things that al-Awlaki said were disgusting and could be construed as encouraging violence. Does that mean he deserved to be blown up by a robot? Our government literally declared his free speech a crime and killed him for it. No government tried to take the lives of the Charlie Hebdo staff because they used free speech to celebrate and encourage violence.

 

And here lies the primary difference: who the target of the speech was.

 

When French cartoonists encourage violence against Muslims, it’s OK, because we’re supposed to hate and fear Muslims while accepting our government’s continued butchering of them. If some random lunatics attack those people, it’s problematic, because you’re not supposed to get hurt if you tow the party line of the military-industrial complex and its endless war mentality. Now we have to create all this clash-of-civilizations nonsense to justify the thousands of people we are about to murder in the home countries of the Hebdo shooters, thousands more people than were killed in the Hebdo offices, if proportion matters in cases like this. The anti-Muslim sentiment that Western media glommed onto after the attack certainly served its purpose domestically, as anti-Muslim violence in France spiked following the attack: http://rt.com/news/221995-france-anti-muslim-incidents/

 

When American-born Muslim clerics preach violence against a nation that has consistently terrorized their people with war, torture, support of dictators, sanctions, and a host of other unpleasantries, those clerics deserve to be murdered because they targeted someone bigger and more powerful than they are. The controversy around al-Awlaki’s killing, though, has mostly focused on whether due-process was followed, whether it was fair to execute him without a trial, not on whether it is OK to blow people up in other parts of the world for saying things we disagree with.

 

Al-Awlaki was killed by a government obsessed with preventing people like him from expressing their freedom of speech. The Charlie Hebdo writers were killed by angry young men that were unlikely part of any broader movement, but that were looking for a target for their anger, much the same way countless mass shooters in the United States have found targets for their rage, regardless of religious affiliation. If Charlie Hebdo is going to receive a posthumous free speech award for dying after encouraging violence, then so should Anwar al-Awlaki and his son.

Sam Harris is dumber than bin Laden (Chomsky was right not to waste his breath)

Some sectors of the Leftist portions of the internet have been buzzing the last few days about an appallingly uninteresting email exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. Sam Harris, for those not privy, is known as one of the intellectual leaders of the “new atheist movement,” which is basically a group of a few authors who write teenage-rebellion styled “takedowns” on religious belief and encourage humanity to evolve past religion. Noam Chomsky revolutionized the study of linguistics, is one of the foremost critics of US foreign policy and happens to be the most-quoted living intellectual. Harris, in an incredible act of hubris, decided he wanted a public debate with Chomsky about something…he never specifies what, exactly, he wants to debate. If you want to be bored to tears, the entire pointless exchange is here:

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/05/05/noam_chomsky_undresses_sam_harris_stop_pretending_to_have_a_rational_discussion_partner/

The more you read on, it becomes clear that the motive here was for Harris to have his name attached to Chomsky’s. The irony, of course, is that purity of motive is Harris’ main argument for why Muslims are backward and deserve to be murdered, an unsettlingly jingoistic viewpoint that bleeds through all his attempts to appear calm and collected and to make Chomsky look like a mean bully. (Chomsky is clearly irritated, and rightfully so, with Harris’ long-winded BS, and also clearly uninterested in a public conversation with someone so clueless, while Harris’ consistent references to Chomsky’s “attitude” betray the fact that Harris was hoping to publish the email correspondence from the get-go, so that even if the debate never happened, he could still attach his name to Chomsky’s.)

 

Much of Chomsky’s replies are just to clarify facts that Harris seems both oblivious to and too lazy to research. Chomsky doesn’t actually take the time to break down exactly how bankrupt Harris’ racist, xenophobic, nationalist worldview is, and he shouldn’t have to waste his time on someone as stupid as Harris, anyway. He’s busy working on real issues and advocating for real change, as opposed to supporting the party line while trying to make money off regurgitating Randian philosophies of the unexamined self. I’ll handle Harris for now.

 

Let’s start with his suggestion that the September 11th attacks are uniquely evil and display a unique penchant for barbarism that is the exclusive domain of Muslim Arabs. Chomsky suggests that Bill Clinton’s bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan is just as horrific, because it most likely ruined more peoples’ lives, and the cold, calculated way it was carried out displayed a lack of emotion that is possibly scarier than outright hatred and anger. Harris contends that the acts are different, because Clinton’s likely served a strategic goal: taking out a chemical weapons factory, and the terrorists involved in “bad” things, who were probably over there. Therefore, all the deaths he caused were accidental, proving moral superiority in Clinton’s decision. Osama bin Laden, however, is evil, because he only intended to murder Americans with his attack on the World Trade Centers, because that’s what crazy, backwards people from countries that refuse to modernize act like. Barbarians. Plain and simple.

 

Now, as Chomsky points out, how in the world can we know what Bill Clinton’s “intentions” were, unless we could read his mind? As an American, though, Harris assumes benign, intrinsically “good” motives on Clinton’s behalf, despite the trail of bodies. The problem here is that nearly everyone acts out of their own personal perception of what “good” means, and what it takes to make the world a “better” place. This is why Chomsky mentions Hitler, the Japanese during WWII and other mass murderers of the 20th Century: they believed their intentions were right and their acts of murder were justified. That does make them similar to President Bush and his War on Terror and all the apologists for it, even if it doesn’t make them the same. I’m sure Harris would be flattered with a Heidegger comparison, but it only goes so far as being similarly blinded to his own participation in, and acceptance of, atrocities committed by the “good” guys.

 

911 was a strategic attack, an act of war, with a specific purpose. It was not a random act of barbarism. It was barbaric, but so is every act of war. There’s no way to justify the attack, but there’s also no way to justify violence that we commit, either. September 11th was not exclusively meant to kill a bunch of Americans in a blaze of hatred because we live in a post-Cold War world going through an existential crisis and now bad people who live in the “middle ages” want to ruin our consumption-obsessed, post-modern picnic. It was a trap that people like George Bush and Sam Harris led us right into. Bin Laden knew that the United States would overreact to the attack and commit ourselves to an endless war in the Middle East that would drain our economy and ruin our international standing. He said as much. He wanted to bankrupt us, to let us blow up the world while we imploded from the inside out, and warmongers like Harris led the battle charge. Just like Clinton’s bombing of the medicine factory in Sudan was supposedly part of a strategic plan for the “greater good,” bin Laden’s attack was part of his strategy to push the world toward his view of the “greater good.” The really pathetic part is that bin Laden’s plan worked, probably even better than he had hoped. Meanwhile, the barbaric foreign policy that the Bushes, Cheneys and Harrises have shoved down our throats for the last decade-and-a-half has ranged from embarrassment to atrocity, while little of it could be considered “successful,” at least according to stated goals. (Stated goals and intentions are not necessarily always the same thing, which is a point Chomsky stressed, to apparently deaf ears.) Chomsky also makes another point about September 11th, which is clearly lost on Harris. Clinton bombed Sudan in reaction to the recent Egypt bombing. Bin Laden stated that September 11th was partially a reaction to the Sudan bombing. Why is Clinton’s revenge attack morally justified while bin Laden’s is pure evil? Al-Qaeda’s claims of wanting to kill as many Americans as possible should also considered in terms of strategic propaganda. That’s exactly what someone would say if they wanted us to overreact. Bin Laden also already used this plan on the Russians: get them to overcommit to an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and let it devastate their economy. It played out great 20 years ago with a different enemy; why not just assume that the US is eager to forget history when it comes to making decisions about the present? It was a rational assumption, which proved to be eerily predictive. He understood us better than we do. The philosophical problem with an historical event like the World Trade Center attack is that it did not occur in an ideological vacuum, it occurred within a complex context that cannot be ignored by anyone attempting any sort of rational debate.

 

In true Sam Harris style, I’m not taking the time to cite most of my sources, but if this post gets picked up in any significant way, I’ll stick some more links in here. Here’s a Conservative magazine, however, helping make my point:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/benzingainsights/2011/05/03/even-in-death-did-osama-bin-laden-win/

 

After a decade and a half of the War on Terror, we have proven ourselves to be much more effective at barbarism than our “enemies.” The casualty count is always higher with the people we attack than with our own troops (not to mention that our civilians are almost never harmed, which is why September 11th is still such a shock to our mental state), while the majority of the people we kill are civilians, not combatants. That’s just supposed to be an accepted fact. Collateral damage and all that (which Sam Harris pretends to rage against, while also promoting ideologies of cultural superiority that negate the humanity of the victims of the resulting policies, while reinforcing the policies’ neo-colonial vigor).

 

Readily avilable information, like you can find here, https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/168/37151.html#_edn4 and here https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/168/37151.html suggests that the brutality exhibited by American troops in Mai Lai was not a product solely of the distant past, but something that remains with us today. The problem with someone like Harris is that he can only digest a horror of this magnitude when it’s handed down as a piece of history that already fits into a narrative he is comfortable with, like that of the benevolent Americans disgusted with their forefathers’ crimes, not the reality that is being an active participant in the crimes that tomorrow’s generations will admonish us for.

 

Another one of the many reasons Harris’ almost-argument is bunk is that he relies on all these silly mind games that have no basis in reality and ignore crucial, underlying questions. He proposes that if we had a “perfect weapon” that only killed guilty terrorists and spared civilian lives, we would use that to solve all the world’s problems and “good” people like us Americans would never use that weapon on anybody who didn’t completely deserve it. The problem is determining who deserves it. Do Iraqi or Afghani soldiers protecting their countries from invading forces “deserve” it? Wouldn’t our army attack Iraqi soldiers if they invaded American soil? Wouldn’t our citizens rise up and become “insurgents” against the occupying forces? Can you imagine Americans not rising up in arms over a foreign occupier? Why is it only “evil” when Arabs protect their homeland? Harris ignores the really important questions, like, “Why are we invading and destroying their countries? Is it really up to us to take over their government and economy through force? Is it even the right thing to do? Is violence the best way to solve international conflicts? Do “these people” sometimes have a valid point when they suggest that the West’s centuries-long obsession with dominating them has resulted in some uncontrollable blowback? Are we negating their very humanity by not even attempting to understand their perspectives?

 

Here’s a stupid thought exercise of my own: let’s say, in order to “free” Middle Eastern women from wearing the hijab, it’s determined that we must pursue a series of policies that will end up killing half of the women in the Middle East. The remaining women will experience all the “benefits” of Western Society’s extreme feminism (like worshiping publicly-acknowledged rapists http://www.vanityfair.com/unchanged/2014/12/bill-cosby-beverly-johnson-story and wife-beaters http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/01/opinions/reyes-mayweather-fight/ and forcing young women to pursue higher education while doing nothing to make them safe from sexual assault on campus); however, most of them will have lost a cousin, sister, mother, best friend, etc, in the war of liberation. Does that make us right, because our intentions were so “pure”? The death of half the women wasn’t the goal, the liberation of the remaining women was, so the murder of other women doesn’t count, right?

 

When it comes to real-life foreign policy questions, there is no “perfect weapon.” Drones and smart bombs are attempts at that sort of technology, but in reality all they do is disconnect us even further from the atrocities we are committing, without diminishing civilian casualties by any significant degree.

 

A topic largely left out of the conversation is Harris’ support of torture in “certain circumstances.” He has taken pains to clear up the fact that he only thinks it’s allowable sometimes, but still tries to argue that it is sometimes “ethically necessary.” (His actual words.) The problem is, after decades of research that mostly predate the War on Terror, torture has been proven time and again to be a worthless strategy for gaining useful information from a prisoner and no “ticking time-bomb scenario” has ever materialized, outside of Hollywood. We have, however, all got blood on our hands because our government, the one we pay taxes to and vote for, used torture anyway. Despite the lack of strategic value in torturing enemy combatants, Harris still supports limited use of it, which leads me to question how “pure” and “moral” his intentions really are? If there’s no strategic value, then does using torture accomplish anything besides simple revenge?

 

Harris calls himself an “atheist,” yet eagerly subscribes to racist, xenophobic and nationalist ideologies that create groups just as violent and cultish as any religion, (see Stalinism) despite these ideologies’ lack of rational thought or logic, and complete lack of historical grounding.

 

Before Harris and his slow-minded readers jump out and claim I’m just using ad hominem attacks to obscure the truth, let me explain. Harris may not consider himself a racist or a xenophobe, most people don’t consider themselves those things. That does not, in any way, exclude him from internalizing and promoting popularly-held racist and xenophobic views. The idea that the Middle East has been living in the Middle Ages since the Middle Ages, is one perfect example. He posits, as do many warhawks, that the less-developed countries in the Middle East chose, because of their religious fervor and just plain backwardness, to live in the stone age. No mention of the fact that Afghanistan tried having a liberal democracy way back in the 1950s–yes, back even before the Mai Lai massacre, before the Civil Rights Act, when America was preparing to butcher Asian kids for fun and gearing up to shoot all of our most important Civil Rights leaders, but before we had even progressed that far, Afghanistan wanted to promote women’s rights and become a modern nation. The thing is, bigger countries from the West prevented (through coups, violence, all the usual) functional democracy in Afghanistan, and instead supported religious zealots and dictators. Pretty similar situation with Iran, who we are also supposed to believe is composed of a homogenous mass of psychopaths trying to turn our women into sexual slaves. Oh, and then, for 30 years Russia and the United States took turns bombing Afghanistan into the stone age. Being bombed into the stone age is a little bit different than voting to live in it. I have a feeling that if other countries spent decades bombing us, we’d have trouble with “developing infrastructure” and “political stability,” as well. Not to mention, we armed and supported the founding members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while stoking the flames of jihad in Afghanistan in the 80s under Reagan, because we wanted them to ruin the economy of the USSR. They didn’t come to power because they were on the side of the Afghan people and all “those people” want to live under some crazy interpretation of sharia law, but rather because our policies gave rise to the power of lunatics. This isn’t a thought exercise, this is history. Ignoring the facts and assuming a failing in the character of “those people” is a racist approach to the world. And its implications have proven to be horrific.

 

One question I have for Harris is where his morality comes from? If he thinks religious people are bad for just accepting traditional ideas that make themselves comfortable, even when those beliefs have harmful consequences, what has he done to free his own mind of these dangerous tendencies? The fact that he ranks religions in terms of which are craziest, based on little more than his own American Christian upbringing, propagandist news headlines and episodes of 24, is pretty revealing. I’m curious what makes his concept of morality so much more evolved and mature than everyone else’s? I used to consider myself an atheist, before people like Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins started making us all look like pompous assholes. I do believe that organized religion does more harm than good and that faith can lead people to commit awful acts that they might not have done otherwise. The problem with Harris’s stance is that faith is not always exclusively religious. Harris’ faith in the overall “goodness” of America, despite our track of record of being the number one purveyor of violence in the world for decades running, is just as dangerous as (if not more so than) the faith of some some Muslim cleric who declares “death to America!” without any recourse towards actually accomplishing that goal. Nowadays I consider myself agnostic, because I question anything people tell me, including semi-famous authors who don’t deserve the title of “intellectual.”

 

I would like to return to the topic of intention, because for Harris, this is the holiest of all indicators of who is or isn’t a “moral” actor. But, how do you determine “intention”? What if there are various, overlapping reasons why someone acted a certain way? Maybe people lie? Most murderers, when on trial, are not going to admit to wanting to kill someone for vicious, selfish reasons. It would hurt their case. Why would a president, whose job is always carried in front of the court of public opinion, act differently when attempting to justify a barbaric act?  Consider also, when they have a large propaganda apparatus to help spread the lie, it’s that much easier to make intention appear to be whatever they want it to appear to be.

 

A too-perfect example of murky intentions is the Iraq War: did we invade because of WMDs, or did we want to depose a dictatorship, or did we want to spread democracy, or did we want to open up the Middle East to “free trade”, or was it because of 911, or was it because we were civilizing stone-age savages (which didn’t make sense in a developed country like Iraq, but most Americans wouldn’t know that, or bother to find out), did we invade to give Halliburton contracts, did we invade for oil well control, did we invade to exact revenge for Dubya’s daddy? Is it possible that all of these motives (and maybe others) were present in the invasion? How easy is it, really, to determine intention and declare who is moral and who isn’t, especially when it comes to politics? Does anyone act out of a single, unified intention, or are there often multiple reasons that come together to drive an individual’s, or a nation’s, actions? Maybe religious affiliation isn’t the only thing at play when people from different cultures than ours act violently, considering our own decisions towards using violence are often so complicated and decided under such blurry circumstances?

 

Everyone believes his intentions are good. That’s how a lot of the worst atrocities have been committed throughout history. But will we ever pause from our war orgy to wash the blood off our hands and see where all our “moral” intentions have led us?:

 

Hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan; hundreds detained without trial in Guantanamo and secret prisons around the world; an unknown number tortured by our very own “moral” government and mercenaries it hired; the rise of ISIS due to the power vacuum left by Saddam’s death and the barbaric, retributive government we replaced it with; the Syrian civil war, which Cheney predicted would result from the toppling of Saddam way back in the early 90s, but decided to lead us into the quagmire 10 years later, anyway; a devastated economy; loss of respect internationally; drone killings of families and wedding parties; future health problems for soldiers and civilians exposed to depleted uranium; and no end in sight to any of it. Bin Laden set the trap and asked us to walk in, and we did it. He was rational enough, and knew his history well enough, to predict, accurately, how we would overreact and, in the end, prove, at least to many around the world, who the real monster is. We have proven who the real threat is to many citizens of foreign nations: the well-intentioned (at least on the surface), historically-ignorant, self-interested nation with way more weapons than common sense.

 

Harris clearly wanted his name attached to Chomsky’s publicly, that’s why he feigned “politeness” during the whole exchange, so he could publish it and try to make himself look good. How’s that for intention? Hey, remember, Ayn Rand was an atheist, too, and people still think she’s an intellectual. And, also like Heidegger, Harris appears completely unable to look himself in the mirror or put himself in anyone else’s shoes. His type of self-satisfied ignorance is both morally outrageous and demonstrably dangerous.

Satire vs reinforcing hierarchy, or Charlie Hebdo gets ‘Charlie Hebdoed’?

charlie hebdo 2 charlie original

To explain the comic: It is my impression of the comic Charlie Hebdo might have run, had they not been the office targeted in the recent attack. It is itself a parody of a comic that Charlie Hebdo actually did run, immediately after over 1,000 Egyptian Muslims were murdered by their military, in a coup backed by Western governments. The original cartoon, which ran as a cover of Charlie Hebdo, shows an extremely stereotyped Muslim being shot to death while holding a Koran. It says, roughly, “The Koran isn’t worth shit, it can’t stop bullets.” My version says (I hope), “Universal platitudes aren’t worth shit, they can’t stop bullets.” I might not be the first person to satirize the Charlie Hebdo cover in this fashion, but I still felt the need to write this essay, because I feel like the debate that we are hearing, including the nonsense coming from the Left,” is extremely divorced from reality and nauseatingly supportive of the violent, colonialist approach to the Middle East that we’ve become so accustomed to from our own governments and media.

 

People shouldn’t shoot each other. It is a totally fucked up thing to do. Killing somebody is not OK, probably in any circumstance. Is that really something I needed to type? So far, I haven’t read or heard anyone attempting to excuse this barbaric attack, and I certainly am not about to. I obviously don’t justify violence on the part of some lunatics in France that felt like killing cartoonists would somehow accomplish something, but I’m also not comfortable with allowing small, disconnected acts of violence perpetuated by people who happen to be persecuted minorities to become a justification for further oppression of that entire group of humans.

 

First off, the shooting had nothing to do with “free speech” being infringed upon. The French government is not going to adopt Sharia law because of this attack. It won’t limit the rights of French citizens to criticize a foreign religion; I doubt the shooters ever thought it would. It wasn’t the French government that murdered the people in that building. Rights are things that come from the government, and government censorship did not kill these cartoonists, nor the other people in the room. The idea that speech uttered by disconnected, privileged individuals, no matter how insipid, should have no consequence, is not the same thing as championing free speech. The government can guarantee you the right to say what you want without imprisoning or killing you, but it can’t guarantee that an angry lunatic won’t hunt you down when you piss off him and his friends. That is, technically, a risk you take with everything you say.

 

When Gabby Giffords was shot, we didn’t say it was a crisis of free speech vs. “censorship”, despite the fact that the gunman thought the things she said and stood for were things worth killing over. He has the luxury of being white and American, therefore, he must have a legitimate psychology problem. He wasn’t the product of an extreme culture, a silly religion, or anything else that might make the powerful look bad. We see him as a crazy individual acting alone, whereas, every violent outburst by an Arab or Persian suddenly represents the will of millions of separate people, residing in a number of varied, diverse countries.

The idea that violent outbursts are culture-specific is extremely problematic. The media has never waged a campaign suggesting that Christianity leads to school shootings in America’s high schools, despite the fact that the majority of school shooters are raised by Christian parents. Some of these school shootings have killed more people than were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo office, and they were primarily targeting the most innocent kind of person: children. These victims hadn’t even had the chance to live successful lives as famous cartoonists who focused their time lampooning people they had already received death threats from. However, none of these kids got marches in their honor, or even legitimate policy discussions about cutting down on gun violence or limiting access to weapons of mass murder. The 2011 attacks in Norway could be connected to Right-wing rhetoric coming from America, but we don’t see any large groupings of national leaders unified under the idea that Fox News shows promote a violent ideology that leads to murder. A lot more innocent children were killed in those attacks than were killed in France at the cartoonists’ office, if any perspective is needed. Why are we so much quicker to rally against a menace that is already largely being dominated both militarily and culturally, than one that consistently kills far more people? (Seriously, there is no way you can argue that more Westerners are killed by Arabs and/or Persians yearly than vice versa.)

Unfortunately, these days, mass shootings aren’t really that uncommon. When white people do it, they have a disorder.” When people of color do it, they have a culture of violence.” The powerful are always given the privilege of having an individual identity, while the powerless are relegated to being part of an amorphous mob. The thing is, similar power dynamics also exist among white people. Charlie Hebdo is a relatively famous publication, so the murder of some of its employees is considered a great loss that needs to be discussed endlessly and remembered as some sort of 9-11, while the victims of the endless stream of school, theater and mall shootings in the US are just written off as an externality in our cost/benefit analysis of having a strong gun lobby. They weren’t famous, so their deaths are lower on the totem poll of things that are newsworthy, even though they’re all mostly white. Hierarchies exist both within and among races.

The one point I have seen brought up intelligently in other pieces is the idea of satire aiming up instead of down. The reason I made the most horrifically insensitive comic that I’ve drawn (so far) in my life, is because of how racist some of Charlie Hebdo’s content has been. “Satirizing all groups equally” is not a thing, when all groups do not have equal footing in society. Making fun of a powerful politician (which actually did get Charlie Hebdo censored by the government back in the day) is a way of aiming up, poking fun at the powerful, actually taking risks as a social commentator by challenging authority and giving a voice to the frustrations in the average person’s spirit, when he or she feels powerless. Creating racist propaganda in order to humiliate and ostracize a minority of citizens that already feel alienated and neglected, if not outright targeted, is not what makes satire subversive. Reinforcing the leading paradigm of power in society is not a challenge to authority, it’s just a cowardly way of bowing down to it, while still pretending to be a rebel. France has a horrific history of colonialism in the Muslim world, including an extremely violent war in Algeria in which France’s primary claim to fame was its overuse of torture as a war tactic. (Being France, of course, they still lost the war in the end.)

The use of propaganda against Muslims in France has a long, violent history, and is nothing new. France was even messing around in Mali again, recently. I don’t remember Mali or Algeria ever invading France, if we’re wondering who the aggressor is here. Cartoonists didn’t personally conduct airstrikes in Mali, but how do we know that every Malian killed was a militant? When you’re at war, innocent people die, and our governments seem intent on waging war forever. We’ve never been at war this long before, and it just keeps going…

 

The Western, mostly Christian world, wages constant violence against Muslim countries. We invade them, bomb them, prop up dictators that support our interests over their citizens’, send drones to kill their people, kidnap and torture their citizens and profit off of appropriating their resources. None of these things is really debatable, even, at least not the fact that we do it. The reason we do it is another thing entirely. That’s the “debate” we get to have here, in the heart of empire. The fact that we will commit violence against the Muslim world for the foreseeable future is a given, the justifications for doing so are where the “debate” supposedly lies. Maybe they live in the “stone age”, which means we should keep bombing them back to it; maybe their religion is “barbaric”, so we should constantly barbarize them; maybe their culture is “backwards”, so we need to civilize them; maybe we need their resources, so we’ll declare war when the trade deals don’t work out; maybe they’re a threat to “our way of life”, because once and a while a couple of Muslims actually fight back; and the list goes on and on. Is this violence that our military and our allies’ militaries consistently visit upon these people because we live in a Christian country? Maybe. Maybe not. Is it because people that speak English, eat fast food and tend to have white skin are backwards and violent? From the evidence, it seems just as likely as the notion that people who speak Arabic or Farsi, eat hummus and have olive skin, are all part and parcel to terrorism. Religions are problematic, but it is hard to make the case that, out of the major religions, Islam is somehow more violent than the others. Politics and history can explain a lot more than reductive views of foreign cultures and attempts to categorize people with simplistic narratives that just so happen to serve the interests of the powerful.

***Not to appear insensitive, but here’s a version of the comic that incorporates British/American xenophobia against the French for added comedic affect.***

charlie hebdo 1

What Ben Affleck should have said to Bill Maher

The video is being passed around the internet and written about everywhere. Everyone seems to have an opinion and a side to take about Ben Affleck’s emotional response to Bill Maher’s casual xenophobia on Maher’s show last Friday. Affleck was trying to make a nuanced point that was difficult to accurately discuss on a TV show that’s more about Maher producing smug soundbites than it really is about delving into issues in any amount of depth. (I’m a fan of the show and watch it weekly. Maher delivers great monologues, offers a much-needed liberal perspective that’s more combative than Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow, and assembles solid guests for his roundtables. But when it comes to discussing Islam, Maher tends to veer towards a view that accepts and even encourages stereotyping and bigotry.) Unfortunately, Affleck let his emotions dictate how he approached the conversation, and did not appear to offer a solid, well-thought-out theoretical analysis of the situation, instead becoming accusatory and acting kind of rude; meanwhile, Maher and Sam Harris, who often come across as gruff and blunt, were able to maintain the appearance of calm and collected.

Harris and Maher consider themselves crusaders against all religions, so their characterization of Muslims as violent primitives is justified, because they think Christians and Hindus are full of shit, too. However, their description of the “Muslim World” is not only disrespectful and xenophobic, it is also dangerous. We are once again engaged in military operations in the Middle East and the willingness of public intellectuals like Harris and Maher to categorize and belittle the people we are bombing helps the public accept the idea that “these people” deserve to be bombed. And invaded. And bombed. And invaded. Ad infinitum.

Here is the argument Affleck should have made:

The Middle East tried having liberal democracy. 50-60 years ago, in fact. But the West prevented it from succeeding. From Britain colonizing much of the Middle East in the first part of the last century, after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in WWI, to their meddling in Iran, to the CIA overthrowing progressive leaders in Afghanistan and propping up dictators in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East hasn’t been able to bring itself out of the stone age, because we literally keep bombing them back into it. Afghanistan isn’t a bunch of people living in caves and disrespecting women because that’s what the people’s religion dictates. It’s because whenever third world countries attempt to progress and do anything to support their own people above the interests of neocolonial states (in this case, primarily the US, Russia and Britain), they are violently punished, whether by a coup, a civil war funded by foreign powers, an economic embargo, or a variety of other tools that are meant to keep parts of the world chaotic, so that their resources are easier to plunder. Theocracies are all the rage across the Middle East because they are often the only form of government Washington will support in that region. A liberal democracy is likely to vote to control their own resources, especially oil. That’s dangerous to US interests. A dictatorship, however, can funnel resources out of the country effectively, without much bureaucracy, and gladly skim the majority of the profits from that transaction, while allowing their people to starve. Like Saudi Arabia. Not a country where the majority of the Muslim population even necessarily supports their psychotic leadership, but where Washington money and weapons have kept them in power for decades. These guys are easily as bad as ISIS, but since they play by the correct economic rules, we aren’t invading them.

People will kill and die for their God, and often do. When it comes to things like war, though, religion is rarely, if ever, the deciding factor. Economics is almost always the driving force behind invasions, religion is just a convenient way to rally the public around the idea, once economic elites of one country decide it is imperative that they invade another country. The average soldier may, personally, be fighting for his God and his way of life, but that isn’t why he was sent to fight.

And that’s just it. The bottom line is always economics, and the politics involved there. Religions are complicated things, and I, myself, am not a religious person. I liked Religulus a lot, and do think that an evolution past organized religion would do the world good. This game of playing “my culture is better than yours,” however, is childish and simple-minded. Christians have, indeed, killed a lot more Muslims than vice versa, many times in fact, since the Crusades (which were instigated by Catholics.) That should settle the question of which religion “encourages violence” more, if that were even a valid question in the first place. (And if you’re still not sure which religion encourages more violence, ask yourself which religion committed the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and so much more?)

Politics are why people identify so strongly with Islam in much of the Middle East.

Britain, the United States, and to some degree, France, have all spent the last century engaged in colonial and neocolonial endeavors in the Middle East. The sense that foreign powers with foreign cultures want to destroy their culture is why so many people in this region identify so strongly with Islam. As the world is foisted, mostly unwillingly, into global capitalism and Americanization, Islam is one of the few things people feel they can hold onto. Part of what makes them who they are. Our constant incursions into these countries only strengthens the idea that we are trying to destroy the culture there, which means people are only going to cling to their religion and traditions even more strongly. The mega-churches in the United States and all the born-agains that gave us eight years of Bush are part of the same worldwide trend of people seeing their traditional ways of life evaporate into thin air, as the market consumes everything around us, communication advances put us all into instant contact with each other, and advertising finds ever-more perverse ways to invade our private lives and mental space.

The Middle East is a volatile part of the world that has literally been at war since the Ottoman Empire collapsed a hundred years ago, largely due to foreign intervention. The only hope for that region is for us to leave it alone. If the threat of Climate Change isn’t enough on its own, this is a perfectly good reason for us to be working toward kicking our dependency on fossil fuels. Then we will have less stake in keeping that part of the world unstable. If we want democracy and liberal thought to take a foothold in the Middle East, then we need to step back and allow those things to develop. Supplying weapons to the military dictatorship in Egypt is another example of our government’s policies insuring that North Africa and the Middle East won’t be able to advance politically and economically. Turning Israel into a regional nuclear power while supplying them with weapons to continue their varied human rights abuses, so that a country full of European Jews can continue living in a desert stolen from Palestinians, when London and Washington decided they needed a strong military ally in the Middle East after WWII, is yet another example of political and economic problems caused by the United States and Europe keeping that region unstable. (Maher tends to gloss over Israel’s atrocities, supporting their apartheid state, despite the fact that they are a government founded on a particular religion, that actively oppresses dissent and free speech within their own borders, and operates on a religious caste system.)

Dictatorships often use religion as a form of PR, regardless of the religion. Maher likes to hammer the “Muslim World” for supporting “theocracy.” Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Franco’s Spain were all notorious dictatorships that used Catholic rhetoric to gain the support of the population, just like many of the genocidal (and US-supported) dictatorships in Latin America during the 70s and 80s. Was this because the people in these countries were Catholic, or was it because dictators will use whatever they can to maintain power, and religion happens to be an effective tool for doing just that?

Finally, only 20% of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East. That’s right, way less than half. When people like Maher talk about the “Muslim World,” they tend to omit this fact. Most Muslims are not Arab or Persian. Equating a volatile political situation with a religion is bigoted and stupid, as Reza Aslan points out in the video below. The ignorance of the people interviewing him is astounding and, unfortunately, represents the way a lot of Americans see the Middle East and the larger “Muslim World.” You hear the interviewers suggest that violence against women in Pakistan is somehow related to Islam, when violence against women in India is just as much of an epidemic, yet they are a largely Hindu country. Maybe there’s a cultural issue that those two countries (which used to be the same country) have to solve, but it is unlikely that Pakistanis do it because of Islam, because then what would lead Indian Hindus to do the same things?

Putting people into categories, and declaring that certain groups are more “evolved” than others, is risky territory and it allows us to continue to kill thousands upon thousands of people without a second thought. Because all those people we are bombing are just lunatics anyway, since they’re Muslim, and not cool-minded Christians, Jews and atheists, like us. Maher likes to talk about polls of the Muslim world, where people supposedly support violence against the West. Well, how often do our polls show us perfectly willing to bomb their countries? And the difference is, we actually do it. All the time. It is rare for a Muslim to actually go through with attacking Westerners, but the West murders Muslims with a frightening consistency.

Let’s over-analyze our way to another mass shooting.

Let’s over-analyze our way to another mass shooting.

 

That way, in a week or two, we’ll have something new to over-analyze, once we’ve made it clear, yet again, that this is a quick road to fame.

 

Everyone who is anyone will write, or talk, about the psychology of the killer, and how someone with a seemingly-“normal,” decent life could “snap.” Almost always it’s these average-looking white guys who feel the world has somehow not lived up to their expectations, and instead of working harder or waiting a little longer to see if things get better, they decide to go out in a blaze of glory. And glory is what we give them.

 

The killers’ names and faces pour into every American household, through TV and the internet, for days on end. The killer becomes a celebrity.

 

In all the coverage of the killer, however, there is almost never any focus on the victims. What about their stories? Weren’t they living full, interesting lives that were suddenly ended, violently and prematurely, by this “representation of culture”?

 

I wish they would start covering the lives of the victims instead of always glorifying the loser that killed them. What about the lives these people were living just the other day? What about their fears and insecurities? What potential was lost in each young person whose time line was cut short? What trials and traumas had these people lived through, and what made them strong enough to deal with their problems and not go on some childish, attention-grabbing shooting spree instead?

 

Maybe if we humanized the victims instead of glorifying the perpetrators, mass shootings wouldn’t seem so appealing to weird outcasts. The victims’ stories, and what their families go through, are always relegated to background noise against the real story of interest: the life of the killer. The victims are just numbers. The news media likes to question the influence of violent video games on murderers, while they chock up death tolls with just as much cold, disaffected numbness. Why not focus on the lives that were lost and how real and horrific that is? Maybe the next Einstein was just taken from us. We focus on feeding into the cult of personality around the killer, but don’t really discuss the consequences of their actions.

 

These needy outcasts, who feel they are going to die as “nobodies”, have found a way to be immortalized by the media, and even looked-up to, by plenty of would-be serial killers. Maybe some of them will go all the way and take the step to guarantee their names and faces are known. What do I mean, “maybe”? We all know some will, and then we can debate political issues like gun control, or mental health access, or misogyny and privilege, to try and get our own names, as writers, attached to the famous image and narrative of our latest outcast-cum-murderer-cum-celebrity.

 

This is why I’m not attaching any photos of murderers or including their names. You can find that stuff everywhere else, pretty easily. I’d like to learn about the fascinating, exciting people who we lost, and what the world might be like if they were still around.  

Bigoted Free Speech and Imagined Oppression

It’s unfortunate enough that I share the name Brendan with Mr. Eich, both for the fact that he’s a one percenter, and that he likes to use his immense wealth (which will only grow, now that he is Mozilla’s CEO) to actively oppress people who are less fortunate than him. Yes, in this case, gay people are less fortunate than Mr. Eich, because he has full rights as an American citizen, and gay Americans are still being denied theirs, in various ways, across the country. The firestorm that has erupted over the last few days, employees resigning, campaigns to get Eich fired, have resulted in a very familiar argument:

 

Do bigots get to have free speech?

 

The answer, of course, is yes. Ironically, Eich isn’t actually on a podium ranting about gay people going to Hell (we’ve got enough Bachmanns and Robertsons for that, and take note that no one has stopped them), but since the Supreme Court declared that speech is money, Eich’s use of money to promote a political cause (in this case, denying equal rights to other people) is being construed as a question of his freedom of speech.

 

This is always the argument bigots (and their defenders) make, that people reacting to their bigotry is equivalent to them being persecuted. I don’t, however, remember the government coming in and arresting Eich for making that campaign contribution. I haven’t heard any talk of police harassment, and there is no widespread movement to get him arrested, or, in any way, to deny him of his Constitutional rights under law. People have suggested he be fired, or that he resign. Well, aren’t those people just exercising their own freedom of speech by expressing these opinions? Personally, I think homophobes like him should be cock-slapped in the face so hard it leaves welts. That is not me oppressing Mr. Eich, that’s just me using my free speech.

 

Free speech means the government won’t arrest you for your opinions, that you won’t face penalty under the law for saying something that is unpopular, not that everyone else has to be silent when you act like an asshole. If Eich is allowed to target any particular group of people with his speech, then any other group of people gets to target him with theirs. Being “called-out” is not the same as being “persecuted.” Gay people are actively being denied rights. That’s persecution. Eich probably won’t lose his job, the worst penalty he will probably face is having to deal with Twitter trolls, and having trouble logging onto his OK Cupid account. (I don’t remember access to OK Cupid being a Constitutional right, either.)

 

Free speech means you are also responsible for what you say, and you have to deal with the consequences.

 

Bigots love to play this game where they turn themselves into the victims. Over and over again. Constantly. It’s always the same game. First, they choose a target that is actually being oppressed, and that has been throughout American history, and then when someone disagrees with them, they and all their supporters come out of the woodwork screaming “Oppression! Persecution! Where is my First Amendment?”

 

When Don Imus got fired for racist speech, was it because the government intervened and told him what to say and think? NO. He said stupid things until his boss decided to fire him.

The same thing with Glenn Beck and Justine Sacco. The list goes on. No Stalinist secret police came and arrested these fools and forced them into labor camps. There was never any threat of any serious legal action. Their employers decided that keeping them employed was no longer a sound business decision, and they were let go. The same choirs that sing the praises of these economically-martyred bigots also love to praise CEO’s who lay off thousands of employees in order to “stay competitive,” or that up and decide to move their manufacturing overseas, or inside prisons, where there are no workers’ unions to deal with. Imagine an employee calling his boss a “fat fucking racist plutocrat,” and then getting fired for doing so. Is that impinging the employee’s freedom of speech, or is the employer at-will to make such decisions? What if an employee at Subway offends all the customers in the restaurant for drawing swastikas on people’s sandwiches with mustard and mayonnaise, and as a result, that Subway franchise loses half of their customer base. Can the employer fire him for losing the company business, or is he stomping all over the Bill of Rights if he does?

The beauty of true free speech is that it allows bigots and assholes a stage on which to prove to the world that they are bigots and assholes. If it is the bigot’s free choice to say awful things, then everyone else has the free choice not to do business or associate themselves with someone who is such a dick. That’s not Stalinism, or Thought Police, that’s just dealing with the consequences of being a jerk. You have the right to be a jerk, and we have the right to call you out on it.

 

Now, there is real oppression in this society. Gay people have been denied equal rights and recognition for years, and in the past couple decades, there have been huge campaigns aimed at making sure these rights are denied for as long as possible. That is oppression. That is persecution. That is an example of people using the government and its laws for the sole purpose of keeping someone they don’t like from having equality.

 

Sometimes I wonder what, deep down, is actually is the logic of the bigot? Maybe, since gay people are already used to being oppressed, they should be able to deal with the fact that Eich spent money to try and continue their oppression. I mean, they get denied rights, beat-up, dragged behind cars, taunted into committing suicide, all on a fairly regular basis. Therefore, saying or doing something that helps perpetuate that oppression, while also reminding these people that many still view them as second-class citizens, is just normal. Just free speech. But when a straight, white, wealthy man, like Mr. Eich, is suddenly targeted for something (maybe for the first time in his life), it’s a travesty, because he isn’t used to being oppressed. That means it hurts way more when it happens to him! Thought Police! They’re burning the Bill of Rights! Pretty soon we won’t be able to say anything anyone disagrees with, unless we want Chairman Obama’s stormtroopers busting down our door! See, people who are used to being persecuted by society should be able to handle the constant reminders of that oppression, because they’ve grown a thick skin by this point, while lucky, privileged assholes like Mr. Eich aren’t used to being called-out on their bullshit, so we just shouldn’t do it.

 

This raises the other question of, who, exactly, are acting like the Thought Police here? Who is actually impeding freedom of speech? Is it the people who react to a bigot’s bigotry, by using their own free speech to criticize him? Or is it the bigots who turn the language around to try and make themselves look like victims, when what they are really saying is, “we should be free from criticism.” That sounds like they’re trying to deny my free ability to call a spade a spade, or in this case, an asshole and asshole.

 

The result of all this hullabaloo is that Eich will continue being a homophobe if he wants to, a fabulously wealthy and successful one at that, and because of words and actions by people like him, another American minority will face more struggle and have to fight harder to be recognized as full-fledged citizens. You bigots, and bigot sympathizers, will continue to have the right to spew your hate speech, and the rest of us will continue to have the right to shame you for being such pricks. That’s how free speech and public debate works. So, fuck you.