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Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Your Brain Of Mud Or President Obama’s Magic Show In Cairo

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Our Wars on May 19, 2011 at 8:26 am
(Originally written in response to Obama’s first condescending speech to the A-rabs back in 2009. Reposted to reflect that nothing really has changed.)
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“It is well”, I said carelessly “…beware! Play us no tricks, make us no snares, for before your brains of mud have thought of them, we shall know them and avenge them. The light from the transparent eye of him with the bare legs and half haired face [the white man with his magnifying glass] shall destroy you and go through your land: his vanishing teeth shall fix themselves fast on to you and eat you up, you and your wives and children; the magic tubes shall talk with you loudly, and make you as sieves. Beware!”

Qautermain confronts the African Kukuana tribe, from the book King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Ruth Mayer, in her work Artificial Africas, points us to Mary Pratt’s book  Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing & Transculturation, in which Ms Pratt:

…differentiates two main stances in colonial self-stylizations, an imperial ‘rhetoric of conquest’ suffusing the absolutist era and an ensuing rhetoric of ‘anti-conquest’ demarcating the split consciousness of Western travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries, their paradoxical desire ‘to secure their innocence’ in the same moment as they assert European hegemony

she further points out that:

To contain an imperialist system within a rhetoric of anti-conquest calls for confusion … and indeed a highly contradictory symbolic system resulted from the efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable. What I call ‘trick translation’ is perhaps one of the most persistent troupes for casting colonial contact in terms of mutual understanding without abandoning the idea of a clear-cut hierarchy of communication and an European [today American] monopoly of meaning production.

It was an act of ‘trick translation’ that Barack Obama had actually come to perform on June 4th 2009 in Cairo, Egypt.  To offer a language of ‘anti-conquest’, and should we add ‘anti-involvement’, in a region with the most deeply entrenched American political, economic, and military involvement since WW II.

On June 4th 2009, President Barack Obama (a man I voted for!) took the stage on the soil of one of the region’s most despotic and repressive regimes. But more than that, he was standing in the center of the geography of American imperial projections that has been the Middle East since the British, Germans, French and other smaller European nations were forced to leave it in the 1940s.

The Middle East is home to some of America’s most important client states – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates and of course, the unbreakable, Israel. It is also the site of some of her largest military bases and home to tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of American military and undercover operations personnel. It is the site of her most extensive energy resources and investments. It is the site where she has repeatedly engaged in covert and overt political and military operations to ensure access and control to these energy resources. It is the region where her operatives, military, covert and political, keep a close hand on political and economic developments and work to ensure that the nations of the region remain in the realm of American influence.

But, we are here to weave a rhetoric of ‘anti-conquest’, and I focus on those specific areas of his speech that I felt were particularly obfuscatory and Huxlian (Aldous Huxley being one of the original genius’ to describe a modernity where language becomes the most powerful weapon of war and conquest).

Like a great white hunter confronting a group of cannibals about the eat his friend alive, President Obama arrived with a few rhetorical tricks up his sleeves meant to appease the torridly infantile minds of his audience and hosts by offering them trinkets and hoping to dazzle them with his erudition and ‘respect’ for their histories.

We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate

The determination to see something called ‘the Muslim world’ as one large homogeneous entity is the hallmark of a classic Orientalist mind who fails or refuses to recognize that the polity of ‘Islam’ covers a remarkable diversity of people, cultures, ethnicity’s, and most importantly histories and heritages. To say nothing about the horribly embarrassing fact that the largest number of Muslims in fact live outside of the Middle East (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India contain the largest number of officially defined Muslims), and where many practice regional varieties of Islam that many in the Middle East consider blasphemous!

More importantly, it is an act of the most egregious arrogance and even ignorance to suggest that if there are ‘tensions’ between a people who may be Muslim, and a nation that is in fact imperialistic and colonizing in the lands inhabited by Muslims than it is because of ‘historical forces’ and not because of  immediate military, political and economic realities.

Perhaps I am being naive in believing that it is less the crusades that concern the Palestinians, or their slaughter by Richard the Lionheart, and more the ongoing and brutal military occupation of their lands being carried out by one of America’s favorite client states, Israel!

The hubris of a statement the attempts to erase the entire post-WWII history and engagement of the United States of America in the region of the Middle East, and replaces it with imagined ‘historical forces’ that point to events and imagined acts from hundreds if not thousands of years in the past is staggering! Perhaps President Obama, this self-claimed student of history, needs to return to his college library and pick up a few books on the American entanglements in the region. He could not do badly by starting with Robert Fisk’s  The Great War For Civilization, or Michael B Oren’s Power, Faith & Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 – Present . I could suggest many others.

And to say nothing about the fact that the issues that cripple the Middle East are the least likely to be understood if seen as emerging from the region’s ‘Islamic’ character. They would in fact be better acknowledged if seen, as we see most every other region of the globe, with a careful and rigorous examination of the local and regional political, economic, social and strategic issues that infect the region. The crisis in Lebanon and the crisis in Kuwait have separate, if only tangentially related if that, issues and require a local focus.

It is this refusal to engage the region in its specificity that allows a number of American intellectual, commentators, politicians, journalists and other opinion makers to repeatedly conflate entities like Hamas with others like Hezbollah, the Islamic Brotherhood with Al -Qaeda. In a tribute to the most obscurantist and simplistic ideas perpetuated by classical Orientalists, the American administration and her providers of thought (think tanks, hired intellectuals, lobby and media organizations) continue to aggregate largely diverse and political complex matters that should in fact be examined within their local and regional social, political and regional contexts.


Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Perhaps the only thing more embarrassing than this statement – a classic Orientalist construction that cleverly claims modernity for ‘the white man’ while falsely praising the natives for their ‘traditions’  (read: backward, anti-modern, unchanging, out-dated, medieval), was that probably none of the luminaries in the audience, representing the worst and most illiterate of their nations, understood what had just been said to them!

And ironically, it was a statement that would have appealed to the most obscurantist and fundamentalists of reactionaries in the audience; the people who in fact work day and night through state control of media, culture, society and speech to ensure that their people remain in the shackles of ‘traditions’ and avoid such modern day comforts such as full and enforceable rights as citizens of a functioning democracy with the rule of law and equality for all. In that room full of hereditary leaders or despots, there could not have been a mind not nodding in quiet agreement at the American presidents endorsement of Islam’s ‘traditional’ values and the threat it faces from the ‘foreigner’s’ modernity, for after all, these same people use this very argument, with the help of their obscurantist mullahs and TV celebrity preachers, to demand that their citizens not ask for such modern innovations such as equal justice under the law, juridical accountability for elected representatives, legal and social ad human rights,  and a representative polity.

But the presence of this orientalist canard was certainly a surprise. Recent works by the historian Jack Good (The Theft of History) and Marcel Detienne (The Greeks And Us have challenged Europe’s belief in her modernity and certainly her assumptions that she was uniquely equipped to facilitate it. As John B Hobson states in his work Eastern Origins of Western Civilization:

“Eurocentrism errs by asking wrong questions at the outset. All Eurocentric scholars (either explicitly or implicitly) begin by asking two interrelated questions: ‘What was it about the West that enabled its breakthrough to capitalist modernity?’ and ‘What was it about the East that prevented it from making the breakthrough?’” But these questions assume that western dominance was inevitable, and lead historians to scour the past for the factors that explain it. “The rise of the West is understood through a logic of immanence: that it can only be accounted for by factors that are strictly endogenous to Europe.”


His words were frequently met with applause. President Obama threw them some crumbs, and they gobbled them up like hungry natives. Condescension were accepted as genuine respect and appreciation by people so devoid of dignity and honor that they will accept false pearls to disguise their being real swine. (I hope people get the colonial reference here!)

They applauded when he spoke to them in the only Arabic phrase he could be bothered to remember; the greeting of Assalaamu alaykum. How touching. Taking a note right out of an off-the-shelf travel guide to sites remote and exotic, Mr Obama did not forget that even ‘attempting’ the local lingo will result in smiles and graciousness!

They applauded when he appeared to respect something called ‘Islam’s’ contributions to European civilization.

Perhaps most had failed to realize that he was referring to contributions that were some 500 years or more old while retaining, subtly of course, the right to all other innovations since then for the more civilized and ‘modern’ Europe. Or the fact that, once again, it was not ‘Islam’ that made these contributions but individuals of questionable Muslim, Jewish, and other uncertain origins who were given deeply to issues of intellectual inquiry and study and open to influences all the way from China and India, who just happened to be living under a Muslim dynasty made these contributions.

Algebra is not a religious achievement – it is a human achievement, produced by men for man and with the effort of man. Religion has had no influence on the creation of this, or the arch or the compass or the other items Mr. Obama seemed to think ‘Islam’ contributed to. To attribute the discover of vaccine to a spiritual, religious, and some would argue, mythical philosphy is ignorant and anti-intellectual. It would be the equivalent of suggesting that Penicillin was a Christian discover, or the splitting of the atom a Jewish one! But apparently such inanities go down well in the Middle East!

(Rather than applaud, they should have hung their heads in shame; there is not a library of note, nor a university of even mediocre repute in all the lands across all the sands in all of the oil drenched nations in this region! That Arabs (and Obama was speaking to Arabs, not Muslims or even a nebulous ‘Islam’) continue to contribute to modernity, science, culture, arts, literature and the future, but must often flee their homelands and do so elsewhere!)

They applauded again when he spoke about Islam’s traditions of tolerance and racial equality. It was bizarre to say the least to offer this conventional sop to a room filled with representatives of intolerant and at times rascist regimes, applauding a philosophical concept alien to the very societies they have created and rule. They applauded when told that Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the Koran in his personal library – did they imagine that he consulted it for his political and personal affairs, or was influenced by it?

They applauded when Mr. Obama claimed that the 7 million American Muslims enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average. What that says about the deprivations of the average American, particularly the African-American community I am not so sure about. Who are these extremely successful and wealthy Muslims we do not quite know. But to make a claim to suggest that in fact in America the Muslims even do better than the Americans is sheer nonsense!

Their success or failure, as that of any immigrant in the USA is independent of their status as ‘Muslims. The Asian American, the West Indian and most recently the South Asian Indian community are highly successful immigrant communities and there is no way to claim that their religious choices are a determinant or a measure of their success. Furthermore, given that America allows only the ‘best and the brightest’  or the very wealthy from ‘other’ nations to come to the country, particularly when they are from Asia and/or the Middle East, it should not surprise us that these immigrant communities in fact do rather well.

But this obfuscation was essential to hide America’s ridiculous and immoral detainment, harassment, incarceration, deportation, and torture of hundreds of ‘Muslims’ either living in America or abroad. It was necessary to say to hide the rendition programs targeting of Muslims, the ‘black’ sites and their exclusively Muslim inhabitants, and the air and environment of overtly racist anti-Muslim sentiment that pervades American print, radio and television, particularly if you are of the conservative kind. And I will not even mention what the Evangelical fanatics and retards have been saying and encouraging amongst their congregations! By the way, I doubt that the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis festering in hovels in Jamaica Plains, scrambling from apartment to apartment to avoid the prying and ‘black’ eyes of the Homeland Security Department, quite fit into this fabulous President Obama statistic.

They applauded when Mr. Obama claimed that
the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. Which left me perplexed because I was sure that I was told that we had invaded Afghanistan to liberate that nation’s women from ‘oppression’ symbolized by the burqa! And yet as devastation and horror now marks that country, with the arguments for the liberation of their women center stage, I wonder if it is not time to bring the daisy-cutters and pilot-less drones back to the USA where apparently women are being given constitution protection for a practice that elsewhere is considered by the Americans to be a sign of their backwardness and oppression!

And is this the same government that did not go to court to protect the rights of men and women being held at Guantanamo? As men continue to die in American ‘black’ site custody, I find it shocking that legal and judicial resources are available for women’s right to cover themselves where as they have been argued away for men we are torturing, murdering and discarding at unknown locations around the world!

And the inanities continued.


President Obama called the war in Iraq – this most brutal, hideous, illegal and greed based invasion of a nation in recent memory, as a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Quite the soft way to describe an event that was and is in fact nothing less than an illegal, unprovoked, premeditated invasion of a sovereign nation (to say nothing about the genocidal 12 year sanctions regime instituted against the civilian population of a de-armed state!)  led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands, the deaths of nearly a million, the torturing of thousands (pictures of which President Obama recently decided to censor to protect our delicate sensibilities – we are so civilized) and frankly remains a hell hole for those outside the centrally air-conditioned ‘green zone’ and should in fact be a crime prosecutable in the International Court of Justice.

Oh but wait, as President quickly added,  he believes that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

Ah, then its ok. For now at least we have a ‘democracy’ that requires private/corporate armed militia to protect politicians, businessmen, journalists and anyone not sanctioned by the many crooks and criminal organizations that now actually control the country while  masquerading behind banners of religions and sects. And for added measure the under cover assassination teams/death squads, massive torture centers, prisons, 24×7 hour private security, walls/dividers, daily 24×7 military patrols, towns like Falujah that remain under marshal law, kidnappings, criminality, a dysfunctional social and civil service, and the entire government under the guidance of our American generals and politicians necessary just to keep this duct-tape kleptocracy together for a little while longer.

Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.

What then are the consequences, Mr. Obama, of the fear and trauma of the Iraqis and the Afghanis who are in fact at this very moment confronted as they are by American tanks and pilot-less drones trying to understand how they will act contrary to their traditions and ideals? Or perhaps we will just blame their actions on ‘Islam’.


Speaking of America’s intolerance of extremism and violence, Mr Obama went out of his way to celebrate Israel. Walking in the footsteps of his predecessor, he proclaimed with great stress America’s ‘unbreakable’ relationship with the country. He even manufactured completely fictitious ‘cultural and historical’ ties. I can’t imagine what ties a group of European religious fanatics determined to create an ethnically exclusive state by intentionally and violently colonizing and driving out its original inhabitants would have with the United States of America? Oh yes, I forgot, it would be the penchant for violent European colonization of native lands, institutionalized and military cleansing of them from these lands, and the celebration of the now completed fact as liberty, modernity, progress and civility, with a neat set of ‘reservations’ for the unfortunately who survived. How silly of me!

It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.

No Mr President, they have not suffered in the pursuit of a homeland. They have suffered in the dispossession of it.

They are waiting not for gifts from America, but for their rights, rights for which we have gone to war for other nations (Bosnia, Kuwait and now would love to for Chad) but remain silent on their behalf.

And in what can only be described as the most contorted reading of history, Mr Obama laid claim to the entire process of decolonization as one of a long heritage of non-violent resistance

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed…from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered.

I wonder if Mr Obama is reading the same books of history.. I also wonder as President Obama escalates the now senselessly immoral and unjust conflict in Afghanistan if he listening to himself!

The history of colonial Africa, Middle East, South and South East Asia is marked by repeated and consistent armed insurrections and resistance to the colonial enterprise. The colonialists often painted this resistance as ‘minor’ or ‘marginal’ but none of the occupied people, even the Africans who were so savagely raped and enslaved, did not ‘go quietly into the night’. To say nothing about the intellectual, artistic, cultural and political resistance to occupying and colonizing regimes across the globe. Edward Said’s Culture And Imperialism would be a decent place for him to begin to start to understand regimes of resistance to colonial oppression that existed from the very moment the colonialists arrived on the shores of Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Or if Said is too politically sensitive for him, then perhaps he would like to read a fellow African; C.L.R. James’ masterful The Black Jacobins will remind our President of the power of violent resistance in breaking the back of a rapacious and brutal colonizer and usurper.

And if these nations and peoples of the far South and Africa are too complex for him to understand, then perhaps he would do well to remember if nothing else then the American Revolution and the great American war of independence, celebrated every year with great fanfare on July 4th. I believe that General George Washington would take umbrage to the suggestion that violence is a dead end. Or perhaps he would remember the American Civil War, a war that liberated the ancestors of his black citizens and moved America towards the path of modernity. Perhaps if they had followed a non-violent approach…… But then again, the oppressors and users of violence always love to lecture the oppressed about their ‘barbaric’ violent resistance and their need to demonstrate ‘civility’ by adopting a softer and more nuanced tone to the occupiers continued and increasingly military and violent responses!

Notice how the occupier is never told to adopt a non-violent occupation!

And the sheer arrogance to lecture to an unarmed and hopelessly repressed and dehumanized people, while their lands are under brutal military occupation from the only nation in the region that has in fact repeatedly attacked, occupied, summarily killed and displaced lands and peoples across the entire region is sheer mind boggling. The Palestinians are being asked to renounce violence, while the Israelis are being funded with more arms, more jets, more tanks, more training, more excuses for their illegal nuclear weapons program, and more aid packages – all of which continue to go towards and fund the creation of more settlements and more dispossessions and more brutality and more killings and more strangulations.

Continuing what has now become an almost too-boring-to-repeat cliche’s, President Obama placed all the blame for the violence, the intransigence of the conflict in Palestine on the Palestinians. There, in the world he was weaving on that stage in Cairo, where there is no Iraq and no Afghanistan, and no oil and interests, and business connections and shady deals and under handed greed, there was also no nuclear-armed, American funded, religiously fundamentalist, military controlled, ethnically discriminatory pseudo-democracy only for Jews with its American funded M16s and jackboots across the throats of a helpless and desperate people.

Yes, we are told that it is not the military bases, the settlements, the Wall, the check points, the gates, the farm lands, the murdering settlers, the curfews, the summary arrests, the targeted assassinations, the random detentions, the expropriations, the home demolitions, the expulsions, the incarcerations, the discrimination, the humiliations, the bombings, the phosphorous, the slow and daily grinding away at human dignity that are all part and parcel of a highly sophisticated military, architectural, social, political and economic settlement regime. Its the Palestinians with their handful of AK-47s and their donkey carts!

Calling the democratically elected Hamas Government as having ‘some support’ amongst the Palestinians, while calling upon the corrupt and discredited Palestinian Authority to develop a capacity to govern President Obama continued the insistent, anti-democratic approach of supporting the very people the citizenry rejected, while rejecting the very people the citizenry selected.

The only democratically elected official government in the very Middle East Mr. Obama claims to be talking to, and it is just not the one that we want.

Israel is in illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It has permanently constructed roads, settlements, military camps and emplacements, check points and gates, a massive Wall, security fences and cameras, farms and industrial estates all across the West Bank and done so with the absolute and complete support of the United States of America who funds these activities through a myriad and complex set of private, corporate and governmental institutions.

It is not there because the Palestinians are ‘violent’ or have ‘rockets’. It has been there because it wants these lands. It has done everything in its power to destroy the prospects of an independent Palestinian state, and only the beltway in Washington D.C. are a handful of people who think otherwise.

Israel’s obligations are not just what President Obama claimed: to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society but in fact to withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza to the 1967 green lines, to compensate financially the victims of the 1948 displacements, and to offer restitution both verbal, financial, legal and other to the millions who now suffer thanks to its intransigence, occupations, wars and religiously sanctioned hysteria and radicalism. The settlements don’t just need to be stopped, they need to be destroyed, dismantled, reversed, erased, and along with it the entire occupation machinery of men, tanks, gates, check points, walls, soldiers, settlers, goons, fanatics, businessmen and of course Palestinian collaborators.


And far from distancing himself from the pathologies of religious mysticism and mumbo-jumbo, President Obama sadly chose to pander to it further. Continuing yet another grand orientalist tradition of speaking to ‘the natives’ through the use of what the orientalist imagines is their particular world formulations – they are too stupid to understand our modernity, so we must use our ‘trick translation’ and speak to them about reality in their barbaric tongue – Mr. Obama like a modern day Quatermain decided to end his speech in a ‘one for the road’ chorus of quotations from the 3 religious texts and this shocking and rather insulting statement:

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.

President Obama may have pulled off the greatest Evangelical mind tricks in history when he may have convinced a room full of ‘Muslim’ despots and criminal national leaders to join him in the support of a vision fantastically and naively created on the basis of a religious text that has been variously used to different degrees to also justified the inquisition, the crusades, the holocaust and possibly even the recent slaughter of the people of Iraq by an Evangelical, fanatic and religiously drunk American administration.

America engages the Middle East through conquest, investments, manipulations, espionage, education, extraction of resources, training of the military, politics and geo-political entanglements. For some odd reason President Obama can’t see that it can also be communicated with in simple, worldly, adult language without resorting to false and frankly cynical and hypocritical exploitation of religious texts and quotes, like a high school kid desperate to decorate a poor term paper that lacks content but may sound interesting if a few ‘notable’ quotes are thrown in!

As President Obama walked off that Cairo stage to go and bask in the glow of the glory that was being orchestrated for him by his obsequious hosts and minders, a General McChrystal was being appointed to head the operations in Obama’s favorite war in Afghanistan. As Tom Engelhart explained in a recent post on the fabulous Tom’s Dispatch blog site:

General McChrystal comes from a world where killing by any means is the norm and a blanket of secrecy provides the necessary protection. For five years he commanded the Pentagon’s super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)…McChrystal gained a certain renown when President Bush outed him as the man responsible for tracking down and eliminating al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The secret force of “manhunters” he commanded had its own secret detention and interrogation center near Baghdad, Camp Nama, where bad things happened regularly, and the unit there, Task Force 6-26, had its own slogan: “If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.” Since some of the task force’s men were, in the end, prosecuted, the bleeding evidently wasn’t avoided.

Tomorrow we will explain the war in Afghanistan as that between the liberal values of the United States of America and obscurantist, mysoginist and barbaric values of ‘radical Islam’. General McChrystal, with his legacy of broken souls and bodies, his torture centers and assassination teams, his professionally executed operations of terror and mayhem, will be left to the sidelines and forgotten. Some old orientalists, or obfuscators (perhaps a newer version of a Ahmed Rashid!) will be trotted out to explain why ‘they hate us’.

President Obama stood in Cairo and wove a fantasy. A fantasy that claimed that there is something called ‘Islam’ that he could speak to as if he was speaking to a homogeneous entity. A fantasy that claimed that America does not in fact have interests and protects interests with military and other means in the Middle East. A fantasy that denies the roots of the violence that does in fact plague that region and emanates from within regimes whose despotic and irrational leaders are amongst America’s closest allies. A fantasy where the tiresome, outdated, discredited and artificial construct of ‘the clash of civilizations’ is trotted out to obfuscate the hard political and economic factors that in fact create alliances and foster the conflicts.

The speech on June 4th 2009 will sadly not go down in history as a great moment in diplomacy. There is an air of desperation about the writings that are trying to claim it so. Much like the photo-op in the White House Lawn the day the Oslo Accords were signed, we will drown our fears under misguided hopes and self-imposed delusions while the relentless machinery of imperial power and politics will continue to cut its merciless path through a region cursed with oil and men of supreme venality.

A few hours after this speech President Obama headed to Buchenwald where he said:

I have no patience for people who would deny history

Indeed Mr. President.

Indeed.

ADDENDUM: I was reminded by a friend that in fact there could be religious motivations for the explorations of algebra e.g. man’s need to measure time more precisely, or to work out the geometries and structures of complex domes, mosques or even the decorative patterns that decorated it. A similar argument has in fact been made by Kim Plofker in his new book Mathematics in India – that Indian innovations in mathematics may have been driven by a need for temple designs or astrology. Regardless, as has already been argued, these remain worldly requirements to serve worldly needs and for universal relevance and application must apply consistently across man’s known world. Their measure of innovation comes from their universality, their non-specificity to any one set of beliefs of religious values.


Sticking Our Head In The Sand Or We Just Liked Afghanistan Better When The Soviet’s Were Raping It

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on December 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Larry Towell is looking for money for a new project in Afghanistan and has placed his request on Kickstarter. This would all have been fine had it not been for the fact that he is doing the wrong project.

Larry Towell has been an inspiration, one of the first photographers whose works compelled me to come to photography. So it is with great disappointment that I read his description of what he intends to do in Afghanistan.

The opening sentence from his project description, a project called Crisis In Afghanistan, left me stunned:

For 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.

No it has not. For the last ten years at least it has known a brutal, violent, devastating, and illegal American military occupation and war. For the last ten years it has known torture, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the installation of a corrupt and illegal political administration, torture centers and sites, drone warfare, a flourishing drug trade, a venal political and international aid agency class and a dismemberment of any and all civil administration that may have once existed.

This is not a crisis it is an American war and an American military occupation, one that is using an unpopular, illegitimate and corrupt local elite to maintain a facade of a ‘political administration’.

For the last ten years Afghanistan has known American violence and venality. If we were outraged at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan then it is sheer hypocrisy to accept our pillaging and occupation of Afghanistan today. It is unbelievable the ease with which we, citizens of a democratic republic, have adopted the lies and obfuscations of our governments, and the obsequiousness with which we have become collaborators and apologists for its misguided military adventures and violence.

I find it shocking that we cannot admit or accept that we are occupiers and collaborators in a hideous military and political adventure in the country and today principally responsible for the daily horrors, violence, bloodshed, brutality, criminality and venality that infests it. I find it laughable that we will not accept that today we are ‘the Evil Empire’, a place that once the Soviet’s held. I am dismayed, angered even, that photographers of Larry Towell’s intelligence and courage must resort to an outdated language, to bygone military adventures and histories and skip past the most current and pressing pathology plaguing the nation of Afghanistan.

How long are we going to pretend that we do not have anything to do with Afghanistan’s current devastation, mutilation, corruption, and mass dispossession? How many more embedded perspective do we need to keep ourselves from accepting what we are doing there, and how we are seen there?

Here is Larry telling us what he will cover in his project;

…landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.

My goodness, what temerity to ask for funds for a project that offers nothing new, and for subjects that have been done to death. To say nothing about the fact that they say nothing of the current reality and horrors plaguing the country.

Russian soldiers? Pul-i-Charki prison?

Larry, what about drone attack victims, illegal detainees at Bagram, those tortured and left mentally deranged, what about the millions living in refugee camps displaced by American and NATO military operations, or the families whose men have disappeared into prisons and never heard from again, what about the families of those killed by the dozens each month because of our bombs and our indiscriminate aerial strikes?

I feel that such projects and their associated language are selling us a time machine, one that takes us to an Afghanistan horror story more palatable, more acceptable to our gentle American sensibilities. We want to hear about the errors from another period, when our participation in Afghanistan was heroic, moral and based on a rhetoric of freedom and liberation. Yes, the days back when the Islamic fundamentalists were labeled ‘freedom fighters’, invited to dine at the White House, and we could not stop having ourselves photographed with. The same people who today we have had to re-cast as ‘the bad guys’, but were once our allies, and the recipients of billions of dollars of American tax-payers money. All for an imagined great war of liberation, the one we all rushed to cover and then to garland ourselves with later.

This need to fly past our modern-day pathologies and back towards a period of imagined righteousness was also on display during the recent International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award ceremony where the photographer Reza was handed ICP’s highest award for his work in Afghnistan covering the Soviet invasion and its aftermath.

Did any in that room full of luminaries and glitterati feel any irony when Reza opened his acceptance speech with the following words:

“Once upon a time there was an unequal battle; that of a giant and murderous Empire, which was trying all the way to subdue a defenceless but rebellious people who had repelled all foreign invasions.

Once upon a time there was the Russian Empire against Afghanistan. It was thirty years ago. As a young photojournalist, I was covering that unequal conflict and the resistance of a handful of men led by Commander Massoud. Russian fire was heavy, with helicopters, tanks, bombers, leaving no relief and little chance of escaping certain death. The massacred people was suffering. The resistance Afghan fought for the freedom of their country.

Did anyone in that grand ballroom feel a tinge of anxiety when Reza said:

Empires, tyrants and their desire of conquest are but little things in front of passing Time and the will of a people marching towards freedom.

Did anyone notice the irony and the hypocrisy of an American institution handing out awards to a photographer who once covered an illegal military occupation of Afghanistan when at that very moment America’s own military is mired in an illegal military occupation of that very same country? I doubt it. We prefer not to be bothered by such niceties for it ruins the flavor of the champagne.

(Aside: I take nothing away from Reza who has also been an inspiration to me. His work from Afghanistan remains unique and reflects his passion and dedication to the story and the situation back in the 1970s and 1980s. My comments reflect my disappointment with ICP and an American cultural space that wants to contribute towards obfuscations to help hide the fact that we are and remain at war and as oppressors of another people.)

I have written extensively about the situation in Afghanistan in a number of earlier posts. Most recently in response to the cynical and hypocritical exploitation of Afghani women by Time Magazine (and later by National Geographic Magazine as well). But you can ignore my blather if you wish and at least listen to those doing independent i.e un-embedded work in the country and understand what is going on there.

There is Jeremy Scahill who has been featured on this blog a few times, most recently in a piece called What It Looks Like When  You Leave The Embed Or Thank Goodness Some Remember The Basics. You can listen to Scahill here:

Jeremy Scahill Talks About Afghanistan

There is also Nir Rosen, a freelance journalist and scholar, who had done some remarkable reporting from the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Aftermath By Nir Rosen

You can listen to Rosen talk with Amy Goodman about the situation in Afghanistan here

Nir Rosen On Democracy Now

In an interview with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald Rosen makes specific reference to the issue of how our elites (cultural, creative, artistic, intellectual, political etc.) represent our wars. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

…there is between how American elites talk about our wars and the reality of those wars and the things that you actually see by being there and in an unembedded function, and there’s this interesting speech that I’ve written about a few times by Ashleigh Banfield, who at the time was an MSNBC war reporter who was sort of the rising star of the MSNBC and NBC news and she was relatively new to covering wars, and she had come back from Iraq and she gave this speech at Kansas State University and she talked about the huge disparity between how television conveys wars to the American people and the reality of wars and all the things that embedding does in terms of distortions and this sliver of reality that ends up being conveyed.

The attitude, the distance we have maintained from those we today oppress are clearly discussed by Rosen as well when he points out that:

And I too often also found that Americans keep on going back to the same books, the same orientalist books which are used to justify empire, that Arabs only understand force, they are tribal, they are Bedouin. I’ve seen very little progress actually in the Americans’ ability to grasp the cultures in the Muslim world and they refer to a handful of academics who are far outside the mainstream of academics trying to understand the Middle East of Afghanistan, but who have been used to justify various wars and occupations.

So they still will talk about tribal societies and Bedouin societies as if they are some kind of cultural secrets, and if you just unlock these secrets, if it’s Pashtunwali in Afghanistan or Islamic code or Bedouin code, or Koranic society—you heard these weird terms often—if you just unlock these codes, you can understand the people and manipulate them and control them…you often hear American soldiers talking about if you, as if it’s the Sopranos…as if the primary motivator for people fighting occupation is money and not what it really is, issues of dignity, of freedom, of nationalism, of ideology. It’s almost as if Americans aren’t able to understand those concepts and they think that Taliban are fighting for $10 a day.

But I guess if the Americans were able to understand that, then that would make us seem like we were the bad guys, and we don’t want to feel like we’re the bad guys, we don’t want to feel like we’re the British in Braveheart fighting locals who are nationalists and freedom fighters. So I guess we have to try to understand their motives as being more financial whereas in reality I think they’re much more deeply ideological and nationalistic.

Indeed, it is perhaps impossible to raise funds on Kickstarter if you simple argue that you want to produce a project that explores and documents the horrors of the American occupation and a people’s resistance to it. I suppose it’s not palatable to present your work as documenting the new Empire and its oppressions. And herein lies another issue with these ‘alternative’ models of funding.

There has been a rather naive celebration of crowd sourced journalism projects and how it may be the solution to journalism and photojournalism’s woes. Perhaps another round of desperate attempts to avoid facing the economic realities of mainstream journalism, driven as they are by profit over reporting. When I hear a new crowd sourcing venture argue that the allure and sexiness of photojournalism will be a major selling angle, something pointed out in a piece called Photojournalism Site Emphas.is Wants To Leverage The Crowd Through The Romanticism Of Its Craft, I begin to wonder where we are heading. I quote from the piece above:

Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one Ben Khelifa hopes is the basis for a business model. “We have a romanticism around our profession,” he says. “We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.”

Are you serious? Do photojournalists really think like this? Not only is a very specious argument for a business model but it is a terrible place to arrive as a person and a professional.

However, there is a larger concern as demonstrated by Larry Towell’s proposal where, a photographer who I am sure knows well what is really going on in Afghanistan, has chosen to ‘soften’ his words to appeal to ‘the market’. Perhaps, though I will never know. Crowd sourcing requires that we adopt a populist angle to a project, it may force reporters and photographers to avoid self-critical and uncomfortable subjects and demand that we pitch our stories for the widest sell rather than for the deepest truths. It’s not inevitable, but it is likely. I will add that outlets like Kickstarter and Emphas.is may in fact be best suited for highly controversial, critical projects as audiences look to find photographers and reporters taking risks to tell the stories our mainstream media is too constrained to tell. It could be that Larry Towell is missing an opportunity here!

I want to support Larry’s work. His has been a very important career for my own. But I find myself unable to do so as the project stands at the moment. For no other reason than the fact that such obfuscations and veils continue to eat away at the body politic and society of my country. America is weaker for not confronting her government and its pathologically misguided adventures. Our wars are weakening us, and making us more insecure. They are also destroying the liberties that we enjoy as citizens and increasing the intrusive and oppressive presence of the intelligence and security apparatus into our lives. As an American citizen of Muslim background – the only facet about my identity that seems to matter to people these days and the one that colors and overwhelms whatever else I am and have worked to become as an individual, I am already completely vulnerable to powers of the state with little or no recourse to her avenues of justice and rights.

The greatest danger of a military occupation is that inevitably the paranoia fueled security-oriented political and administrative decision-making procedures required to sustain an occupation eventually come home and undermine and weaken the occupier’s political system. Andif that political system is a participatory democracy, the consequences are even more devastating. You can’t claim liberty at home and repression abroad because the decisions to maintain the repression abroad are eventually made and sanctioned by the same political and bureaucratic individuals and institutions that sanction the horizons of liberty at home. The values that inform the occupation inevitably begin to inform the liberties as the divide between the ‘there’ and the ‘here’ become blurred and danger lurk all around and every thing becomes a source of fear and worry. The French have seen this from their experience in Algeria, the Israelis from their occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the Indians fromin Kashmir and now in the Eastern provinces and there are many more examples.

If not for the Afghanis, then for ourselves we have to adopt an honest and clear language about what is happening in our wars, and what we are doing out ‘there’. A project to tell the story of what we have done in Afghanistan, and the devastation and inhumanity we are facilitating, is a must and I would support it with all that I can afford to.

What It Looks Like When You Leave The Embed Or Thank Goodness Some Remember The Basics

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on October 30, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Jeremy Scahill has written a fascinating piece for The Nation called Killing Reconciliation. He and film maker Rick Rowley (of Big Noise Films – see a recent one called The Return Of The Warlords on Afghanistan) traveled in Afghanistan outside the predictability and suffocating inanity of the ‘embedded’ war and bring back some fascinating insights into the situation.

He was also interviewed on Democracy Now! which you can see here:

Jeremy Scahill On DemocracyNow! (Click Image To Go To Interview)

Jeremy Scahill On DemocracyNow! (Click Image To Go To Interview)

In case you don’t bother to listen to the interview, here is a summary of what he had to say:

So, to give you a sense of what’s happening, what the United States is doing through its night raids, where they’re going into people’s homes, they’re corralling women, which is just anathema to the culture there, into one room, hooding men, zip-tying their arms, helicoptering them to secret prisons—what they’re doing is they’re enraging populations throughout Afghanistan that wouldn’t necessarily support the Taliban. So what you see happening is that the United States says, “We’re here to win hearts and minds,” their targeted killing campaign, the reliance on bad information from individuals in Afghanistan who are accusing their neighbors of being Taliban to settle personal grudges. The perception is that the United States government is just on a killing spree there, that they rarely get the right people. The Karzai government is utterly corrupt to the bone and exists only for the purpose of facilitating corruption. When you combine those things and then you look at the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration and the military, that we’re there to win hearts and minds, you realize that the single greatest blows being dealt to the stated US strategy in Afghanistan are being dealt by the US itself through this targeted killing campaign.

Let me repeat:

…the single greatest blows being dealt to the stated US strategy in Afghanistan are being dealt by the US itself through this targeted killing campaign.

The entire interview is essential reading/listening.

(Thanks to Osman Ahmed.)

Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on July 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Trevor Paglen is a man on a mission and it is one that reminds us that what makes any work of photography relevant, interesting, important or even significant, are the ideas and intentions that inform it. Anything else is merely gazing at pretty pictures.

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Paglen has spent the greater part of the last decade photographing, tracking, highlighting and revealing the dark, illegal, horror-ridden underbelly of the great American ‘Global War Against Terror’ (GWAT). Paglen is a 35-year-old artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who holds both a B.A. (religious studies, 1998) and a Ph.D. (geography, 2008) from Cal, as well as an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s currently a researcher at Berkeley.

A review of his work tells us that:

…his work traces the seam line between the government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Besides the spy satellites, which he captures arcing across the night sky in lush art prints, Paglen has photographed classified air bases; tracked down CIA cover names and displayed them on gallery walls; and compiled a book full of patches from Pentagon black-ops units. It’s called I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me. The patches—in some cases, the only evidence that the programs even exist—feature an absurd gallery of aliens, reapers, and wizards along with perverse accompanying mottos. One from the stealth bomber wing reads Gustatus Similis Pullus, Latin for “tastes like chicken.”

His most recent work, Invisible, (thanks to Conscientious) recently released by Aperture books, is based on his eight year documentation of secret CIA flights and ‘black sites’ that the government does not want us to know about. It reveals the secret military sites, but also, and perhaps most importantly, his works reveal the many who have been ‘disappeared’ in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘our liberties’. In an installation project called ‘Missing Persons’, Paglen lays out the names of the missing. As the exhibition description points out:

Since the mid 1990s, the CIA has spearheaded a covert program to kidnap suspected terrorists from all over the world. These people are then brought to a network of secret CIA-operated prisons, called “black sites,” where they are routinely tortured. The CIA calls this the “extraordinary rendition” program.

People taken to these secret prisons are effectively “disappeared”: there are no public records of their captivity, their identities are kept secret, and they are prohibited from communicating with the outside world. Among CIA operatives, they are called “ghost detainees.”

The locations of these black sites, known by code-names such as “Salt Pit” and “Bright Light,” are some of the CIA’s deepest secrets.

To capture and subsequently transport these ghost detainees, the CIA uses a fleet of unmarked airplanes. These airplanes are owned by intricate networks of front companies whose boards of directors are non-existent people. Missing Persons is a collection of their signatures culled from business records, aircraft registrations, and corporate filings.

He has also documented our ‘black site’ – prisons and torture centers in Afghanistan for example, CIA’s secret flights and also co-authored a book called Torture Taxi: On The Trial Of CIA’s Rendition Flights


You can even track his most recent investigations on his blog.
This is critical work, and it is the work of a man who understands the fundamentals of democratic engagement and dissent. He understands that there are forces that claim to ‘defend’ our republic but are in fact engaged in activities that undermine it. It draws our eyes and mind towards basic structures of power and repression that underpin modern ‘democracies’ and the ‘background noise’ of control and violence that is believed essential for sustaining it.

For me personally, such works do something else very important - they highlight the shallowness of what passes for ‘photojournalism’ in our modern world. They remind us how most photojournalists prefer to pander in the simple, the obvious and the conventional, while never engaging in the complex and crucual. Our newspapers and photographers have, either out of convenience, laziness or sheer careerism, chosen to veil the GWAT behind beautifully rendered and largely distracting projects produced from the confines of embedded positions on the front line.

Conventional photojournalism – with its insistent focus on combat and consequences – has gone a long way towards allowing us to forget that we, the United States of America, is in an illegal and brutal military occupation of two nations whose inhabitants continue to fight and resist our presence there through guns, politics and a large-scale, popular rejection of our legitimacy and relevance. The hundreds of thousands of troops that are needed to maintain these post-occupation pathologies called Iraq and Afghanistan reflect our failure, and the vast chasm that exists between the region’s population and our imagined ideas of our role and impact in the region. These projects bring us to ‘the combat’ – the fireworks, and stun our minds into unthinking simplicities while distracting us from the general un-sustainability, and injustice of the wars themselves. They ensure that the hard political questions, the difficult presumptions and prejudices that assume that we have a right to be there, are not seen or heard. They avoid the ugly realities as they have manifest themselves at home (renditions, tortures, illegal detentions, immigrant sweeps, racial discrimination, xenophobia, impoverishment etc.) and abroad (mass killings, torture, the administration of the occupation, civilian displacement, dispossession, destruction of societies and culture, corruption, drugs, NGO culture of excess etc.)

Our embedded photographers and journalists – many celebrated with awards and celebrity screenings at major film festivals, keep coming back to convince us that they have ‘seen’ the war, and that it has been ‘reported’ it. Some seem so determined to convince us the that the ‘embedded’ program is without constraints that their protests are starting to sound a bit too desperate, a bit too defensive and frankly a bit too insulting. These photographer – award winners, movie makers and celebrities, are working too hard to hide from us the fact that ‘embedding’ no matter how ‘free’ and ‘friendly’ hides the truth, obfuscates the horrors and does not allow you to call yourself a ‘reporter. I don’t care how many Sundance Awards they bring back, they are merely propagandist because they challenge nothing, question nothing, confront nothing and resist nothing. It is not physical courage the defines journalism, but moral and intellectual courage.

And the real measure of the ‘propaganda’ nature of such works is the fact that the Afghan and the Iraqi has been completely erased from our minds and eye. What is worse, they have been erased from our moral equation. They do not exist. The injustices inflicted on them are not worthy of consideration. Their dead are not counted. Their humiliations irrelevant. Their blood does not run. They are merely objects upon which we act and not humans struggling to regain control of their own lives and futures. And resisting. We obfuscate their motives and humanity behind words like ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ so as to make it easier for us to justify indiscriminate killings and murder. Front page stories about the ‘liberation of their women’ act as justifications for acts of mass murder, bombing of civilians, pre-emptive killings, summary arrests, terrorizing of civilian populations in order to control them, construction of barriers/walls, torture and injustice that we carry out with impunity. Our righteousness needs to be fed, and our photographers and journalists have been happily doing that. We are constantly being shown as ‘saving’, ‘helping’, ‘aiding’, ‘educating’, ‘liberating’  the Afghan or the Iraqi and its all done with the same desperation with which the dark side is erased. Its not as if they are not confronting, resisting, speaking, challenging, rejecting, fighting, demanding, and defending. It is we who are not listening, or simply not allowing their voices and acts to be represented to others like us.

But it’s not just the embedded works. Another set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts. Most all the projects concentrate on American soldiers, – with parallel works being produced in the UK, Germany, Sweden or elsewhere from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries, and assiduously avoid any revelation of anything called an Iraqi or an Afghani.

The fact remains that hundreds if not thousands of Afghani civilians are dying each year in our war. Hundreds of thousands died as a direct result of our invasion of Iraq. To say nothing of the near million who may have died as a result of our sanctions against the country. The erasures of these people are reflected in the ridiculous ‘outrage’ that has been unleashed because of the leaking of CIA Afghan logs. The Afghan War Logs reveal the thousands of civilians that have been killed in our war there but rather than be outraged by this horror, we are outraged that people now know! We are outraged at the leak, not the realities and brutalities the leaks reveal.

The same misguided outrage has been targeted against WikiLeaks that has been quietly revealing the realities we so wish to forget. Few things were amusing (facetious comment, people!) than Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad (they have one!) and current CIA counter-terror director, writing for Al-Jazeera a piece called “US Needs Lesson in ‘Secret-Keeping’”. I can ask what a CIA director is doing writing for this network, but I will ask why he felt he had to make such an effort to suggest that the logs reveal nothing. He is wrong; they reveal the incompetence and sheer callous disregard for the civilians that is the base idea of this military operation in Afghanistan, and it reveals the failure of the American military machine to make any real progress anywhere within the country. They reveal a military occupation over a resistant population in progress. They reveal us as jackboot occupiers and in cohort with those who are considered corrupt, unjust, illegitimate and venal. It reveals how we have reduced our finest to acts of low repression and military violence. They reveal how after nine years we are still struggling, fighting, retreating, and blaming each other while the nation remains mired in corruption, violence and a movement that may be retrograde and violent but has been allowed to position itself as nationalist and anti-occupation. Yes, the appeal of the resistance comes not from any particular message of ‘Islam’ or ‘Global Jihad’, but from simply pointing out the inequities and injustices prevalent in the country under our watch.

But all this is entirely missing from the works being produced at the moment. The wars that exist in the documents of the CIA is nothing like the war that is offered to us by our reporters and photographers. The latter is a vision from Dante’s Inferno, the former a cleansed Hollywood production complete with acceptable rending of ‘violence’ so that can are not ‘disturbed’ from our morning coffee.

In fact, there is nothing that one can turn to and understand the broader consequences of our wars. And yet we continue to produce a whole host of works that concentrate on the trauma of our ‘boys and girls’. I do not mean to dismiss the suffering of the American soldiers injured or those of the American families suffering from loss. Far from it. But I am in fact dismayed that as Americans at war we can be so ignorant, dismissive and blind to the vast sufferings that are being inflicted on others who are also human, but happen not to be American (or British, or Swedish etc.). I am ashamed at the silence in the face of the murders being committed, the horrors being inflicted, the injustices raining upon the heads of a poor, impoverished nation whose people are today rising up in revolt against our presence there and the hideous, murderous, greedy and callous ‘democrats’ we have foisted on the people. The sheer shame of the illegal and illegitimate Karzai government – supported purely and only because of our money, is perhaps just too much to take!

They, the ‘other’, is completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept. The attention is absolutely and exclusively on ‘us’ and ‘ourselves’, which is what these projects are about in the end. What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or Ashly Gilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real innocent victims, and the real crimes committed here. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have failed defending the faith, in innocence and purity.  They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects to garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims. And this is particularly obvious when there is little or scant attention being paid to those who are suffering, dying, being tortured, detained, displaced, deprived and devastated by our actions in their lands.

 Victims' families tell their stories following Nato airstrike in Afghanistan  'I took some flesh home and called it my son.' The Guardian interviews 11 villagers      * Reddit     * Buzz up     * Share on facebook (361)     * Tweet this (48)      * Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Kunduz     * The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009     * Article history  Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Of course, we have a long history of turning our acts of brutality and genocide into comforting victimhood. The Vietnam conflict still awaits a memorial to the millions of Vietnamese who died under our bombs, the millions maimed and scarred for life, and the tens of thousands who continue to suffer the consequences of Agent Orange and other chemicals. To say nothing about war crimes tribunals and criminal indictments.

The Afghanistan War Logs, much like Paglen’s work, reveals the shocking shallowness of our photojournalistic coverage. They lift the covers over the very things we wish not to see or confront – the darker aspects of ourselves and our actions in the world. They remind us how much, how most of it, has just been left unsaid. It reminds us how redundant, and limited, our photographic works are and how desperately most photographers just seem to want to copy and imitate. Not think and challenge.  The surface distracts while the depth confuses.

The entire corpus of mainstream photojournalism pales in comparison to the efforts of real reporters and individuals confronting the complex set of administrative, military, covert, civic and political shenanigans and injustices required to maintain our posture in the GWAT.

It is in moments like this that I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s challenge to us:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

David was trying to remind us to hold on the things that matter, and to not get distracted by the ‘fire and glory’, the empty rhetoric, the debilitating and restrictive legal and judicial measures that will only reduce us as citizens while doing little to confront our enemies. Tim Paglen reminds me that at least some have heard his call.

As citizens of this nation, as Americans, perhaps our greatest challenge today, perhaps one of our most important acts of freedom, is to question what we see, hear and read. To look and hear past the slickly produced photo essays, reportage, movies and documentaries, and explore their methods of creation, their sponsors, their producers, their restrictions and their prejudices.

In a world increasingly obsessed with ‘packaging’ and ‘presentation’, in a world where an iPad application is being suggested as something ‘interesting’, it is becoming crucial to examine the underlying ‘method’. Trevor Paglen has a method – individual, determined and dissenting, which informs his works and productions. And the truths that he reveals. It is ‘method’ that most scares our mainstream press and it is ‘method’ that will determine and define meaningful journalism vs. simply slick business news production. As bureaus close, as the media markets consolidate, as wires take over foreign reporting, as ‘collaborations’ with NGOs are sought as substitute for independent investigative, questioning journalism, as we ‘cut corners’ and ‘make efficient’, it is ‘method’ that becomes the key differentiator. All else will simply be ‘production’.

Cornel West Speaks And He Speaks With The Voice Of A Righteous Man!

In The Daily Discussion on March 13, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Tariq Ali On The Mess In Afghanistan And Why Its Only About To Get Worse

In Our Wars on December 11, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Getting The Pakistanis To Sing Our Songs But Sending Them Villains And Not Violins

In Journalism, Our Wars on November 26, 2009 at 11:52 am

A few weeks ago another typically obtuse and brain dead New York Times journalist lamented the said state of affairs of the country of Pakistan where apparently her pop singers were not entertaining him sufficiently with songs against the Taliban. Adam B. Ellick was confused and upset about this and pointed out, in a piece called Pakistan Rock Rails Against The West, Not The Taliban that there is..

…a surge of bubble-gum stars who have become increasingly politicized. Some are churning out ambiguous, cheery lyrics urging their young fans to act against the nation’s woes. Others simply vilify the United States.

But while Mr. Ellick is writing pointless and frankly infantile pieces about the country and her pop stars, we can be grateful that other American journalists are stepping out to in fact conduct actual journalism.

So here comes a shocking, if not altogether surprising, report by Jeremy Scahill for The Nation that reveals the extensive involvement of Blackwater Security in military and security operations inside the country. All of this with the full collaboration and support of the Pakistani Government and military of course.

Posted on The Nation website, the extensive and detailed investigation was published in a piece called Blackwater’s Secret War In Pakistan and it is explicit in the shenanigans taking place there, and the lives that are being lost there:

A former senior executive at Blackwater confirmed the military intelligence source’s claim that the company is working in Pakistan for the CIA and JSOC, the premier counterterrorism and covert operations force within the military. He said that Blackwater is also working for the Pakistani government on a subcontract with an Islamabad-based security firm that puts US Blackwater operatives on the ground with Pakistani forces in counter-terrorism operations, including house raids and border interdictions, in the North-West Frontier Province and elsewhere in Pakistan. This arrangement, the former executive said, allows the Pakistani government to utilize former US Special Operations forces who now work for Blackwater while denying an official US military presence in the country. He also confirmed that Blackwater has a facility in Karachi and has personnel deployed elsewhere in Pakistan. The former executive spoke on condition of anonymity.

Scahill makes clear the extent to which this private security and mercenary firm has made inroads into Pakistani’s government and security establishments, and the deep collaborations between the Pakistanis and Blackwater in carrying out a second series o drone attacks, independent of the predator campaigns being run by the US military. They are also involved in planning targeted assassinations, “snatch and grabs” and other sensitive actions inside and outside the country of Pakistan. Oh, and they may be posing as USAID workers!

There is an interview with Jeremy Scahill on Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow station – America’s last bastion of independent, non-corporate, take-it-to-the-throat-of-power journalism. You can listen to Scahill here:

As the New York Times and Mr. Ellick sit inside their comfortable Islamabad villas and listen to the radio, getting upset that the stupid Pakistanis don’t seem to understand that the only way to actually ‘understand’ or ‘see’ their own country is through the myopic and policy eyes of the United States, The Nation has revealed facts and goings ons that only confirm the fears and paranoia’s of the nation’s people.

It will only further convince them that it is not the Taliban that is a serious or even a real threat to Pakistan, but in fact the rapacious (hundreds are being killed each month in this drone campaign) and covert operations that will undermine and tear apart the fabric of the country just so we Americans, for just a little bit longer, do not have to confront the colossal failure of our policies and strategies in Afghanistan.

Sing away boy!!

Whats Happening In Pakistan? Its Not What The New York Times Will Tell You

In Journalism, Our Wars on November 5, 2009 at 12:49 pm

A couple of insightful pieces appeared recently. Both, in different ways, challenge the mainstream narrative being bandied about in Washington D.C. and being stenographed by individuals pretending to be reporters but in fact are really acting as government/official stenographers out of Pakistan and the USA.

The first piece is by Mohammad Ahmad Idress, founder of Pulse Media, and appeared in the recent issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. Title Pakistan Creates Its Own Enemies, if offers us some valuable background and some excellent insights. I will quote a few here, but I recommend that you read the entire piece to help cut past what can only be described as willful lies and obfuscations (these editors and journalists are not stupid, just cowards or ‘professionals’, which these days means the same thing really!) being sold to us by our press here in the USA.

Helping us understand how we got ourselves into this mess, Idress reminds us (and we do need to be reminded that):

This war began in 2002 under intense US pressure, with piecemeal military action in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region of seven agencies along Pakistan’s north-western border. The Afghan Taliban were using the region to regroup after their earlier rout: veteran anti-Soviet commander Jalaluddin Haqqani headquartered his network in North Waziristan; Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami had a presence in Bajaur. However, the military, reluctant to take on pro-Pakistan Afghans, whom the government sees as assets against growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, instead marched into South Waziristan to apprehend “foreigners” (mainly Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs). Following the regional code of honour, the tribes refused to surrender the guests and were subjected to collective punishment that soon united them against the government.

This was a situation that I had been able to document during my work in Waziristan in 2004. See (Mother Jones Magazine: Frontier Justice, October 2004). I recommend that you read the entire piece.

Another piece that caught my eye was by Manan Ahmad called Start A War where he too reminds us of some ground realities:

The 3.5 million or more inhabitants of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, of which Waziristan is a component, only received the adult franchise in 1997 – 50 years after the creation of Pakistan. This area, with the highest poverty and lowest literacy rates in Pakistan, is still governed according to the brutal British colonial legal code: a family or even a village can be punished for the crime of a single individual, there is no protection from multiple sentences for the same offence, and most damnably, the state has no obligation to show cause for imprisonment. Most damaging is the utter lack of a judicial system that can adjudicate civil disputes – one reason for the persistent calls to impose Sharia within the region. The Pakistani state has yet to resolve these issues and, in the meantime, segments of the discontented population have resorted to armed aggression against the centre – which has taken both secular and religious forms. Decades of frustration allowed the Taliban a foothold in Swat, and the same conditions exist in Baluchistan.

and as if to shake us out of our intellectual stupor, he ends with this warning:

The true crisis facing Pakistan is not the Taliban: it is the rupture between the federal state and its constituent parts, and Islamabad’s refusal to accede to the legitimate needs and demands of its citizens in places like Swat and Baluchistan. It is a rupture, indeed, that is written into the very fabric of the state, and the reason why Bangladesh seceded from West Pakistan in 1971, after it was denied political legitimacy by the military regime and then brutalised by an oppressive army operation aimed at quashing any opposition.
But the Pakistan Army learnt exactly the wrong lesson from Bangladesh: since 1971 it has been determined to move as rapidly and violently as possible against any sub-nationalist movement elsewhere in Pakistan. The spectre of Taliban conquering Islamabad and the state’s American-backed resolve to press on in a series of wars against its own people have effectively ended any chance for political consideration of the Baluchistan issue. Instead Baluchistan will be, once again, merely an empty badland where Taliban are hiding, waiting, plotting. It awaits yet another military operation. And we await another declaration of success.

For those of you interested in Ahmed Rashid, Tariq Ali has recently penned a strong criticism of Mr. Rashid’s fear-mongering, in a piece called Ahmed Rashid’s War , pointing out that:

The main people who consult Rashid, apart from Robert Silvers at the New York Review of Books, are US policy-makers in favor of a continuous occupation of Afghanistan. Rashid provides them with many a spurious argument to send more troops and wipe out the Pashtuns opposing the occupation. Within Afghanistan, Rashid’s principal backer and friend is Hamid Karzai who has now managed to antagonize even the tamest US liberals such as Peter Galbraith, recently sacked as a UN honcho in Kabul because he suggested that Karzai had rigged the elections. Rashid the journalist has no time for people who suggest that Karzai is a corrupt rogue, whose family is now the richest in the country, or that he manipulates US public opinion with the aid of PR companies, friends in Washington and, of course, Ahmed Rashid himself.

As more and more Pakistani’s are killed to appease American domestic policy needs, and the insatiable greed of the venal individuals who have grabbed hold of Pakistan’s government, we would do well to at least understand how this situation has emerged. Perhaps we care not for some poor Pushtun and his pointless family being cut to pieces by tax-payer funded, but oh-so-sexy pilot-less drones, but maybe we can speak honestly about it and go to bed at night without fear or guilt. After all, international human rights laws, the Geneva Conventions, and even Pakistan’s own constitutional laws to protect the lives and rights of its citizens, were not really written for a bunch of baggy pant barbarians living in barren hills? Or were they, in fact, actually written for precisely such dehumanized, ignored, and invisibly erased people?


The Wars On Our Frontiers Or Haven’t We Been Here Before?

In Journalism, Our Wars on October 20, 2009 at 12:56 pm

From Mother Jones magazine, October 2004, written by Malcolm Garcia

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Kalooshah, South Waziristan, April 2004: Mir Abbas Khan sits outside the remains of his family home, destroyed by pakistan army bulldozers. The army has destroyed dozens of homes in this area of people it claims were harboring Al Qaeda fighters and collaborators. Many innocent civilians have been displaced and others have lost their homes, belongings and means of livelihood as a consequence. 2004 Copyright Asim Rafiqui Do Not Reproduce

Mir Abbas Khan stares into the camera. Behind him the ruins of his home lay strewn across the dry, hard ground. Since March, when Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Pakistan and promised President General Pervez Musharraf billions of dollars in aid, the Pakistani army has been scouring the semiautonomous tribal regions of South Waziristan for Al Qaeda fighters—bombing, burning, and bulldozing the homes and belongings of those deemed collaborators, or merely uncooperative.

Over the centuries, no one has exercised much authority over South Waziristan, a stark, mountainous area of southwestern Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. But in the wake of two assassination attempts, and in pursuit of continued U.S. largesse, Musharraf seems determined to try. At the start of the campaign, he announced that a senior Al Qaeda leader was surrounded, and hinted it might be Osama bin Laden. Days later, after the army met surprisingly stiff resistance, the top Al Qaeda operative was down-graded to a Chechen commander, and then to a local criminal. Eventually, senior government officials admitted they never had proof that a key terrorist was in the area. Though it boasts of killing hundreds of militants—claims that cannot be substantiated—the government is tight-lipped about casualties among innocent villagers.

Journalists and human rights workers are effectively barred from entering the region. But in April, photographer Asim Rafiqui managed to sneak in by posing as a local businessman. With no base of support in the area, the Pakistani army (mostly ethnically distinct from the Pashtuns of Waziristan) has been attempting to enlist the support of local tribes and battling those who don’t cooperate. Tribal jirgas, or councils, that comply with the army are rewarded with development aid and spared from bombardment. Other tribal leaders see the conflict as a means to turn the wrath of the army on rival tribes. In any case, lashkars—tribal posses—have ransacked scores of villages, vowing to capture or kill those suspected of cooperating with Al Qaeda. Tradition, however, forbids a host to turn over a guest to an enemy without a fight. And Waziris are even being asked to betray blood relations, although family ties extend far deeper than national loyalty.

In pitting his army against his people, Musharraf risks losing his tenuous hold on power by energizing the very Islamic fundamentalists he seeks to crush. Muslims consider soldiers killed in combat to be martyrs. But many of the tribesmen battling the army are former mujahideen, who, in the 1980s, were actively recruited by Pakistan and the United States to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and support the Taliban. They came from all over Central Asia and settled in the tribal regions. They married, had children, and became woven into the local culture. To many Pakistanis, who don’t understand the about-face of the Musharraf government, it is not the soldiers who are martyrs, but the Waziris fighting them. “America is a wolf at our door,” said retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a fundamentalist Muslim. “Pakistan throws it crumbs so it does not attack our house. South Waziristan is a crumb. But the people know defenders of the tribal areas are defending their country. Are they terrorists, and the attackers good boys? No. The people don’t believe this.”

Pakistanis are all too cognizant that it is at America’s bidding that Musharraf, his army, and the lashkars of Waziristan carry out this campaign. Any resentment it causes will inevitably flow back up that chain. Consider again Mir Abbas Khan, in the photo on the opposite page. Look at his eyes, his ruined home, and back to his eyes—full of fear and hurt, but mostly rage.

Accuser, Judge and Jury. We now are seeing the beginnings of such scenes

And there will be more, and far worse. Our parrots in the military and the political administration are not only repeating the language and obfuscations of the Americans, but the equally stupid and ‘blow-back-ready’ tactics as well. By the way, you would never know it, that there has been a sustained military occupation/presence and war against the people of the region of FATA since 2002. Our drone attacks in 2009 alone are interesting to observe, rising to levels of indiscriminate slaughter based on the statements of ‘officials’, all of whom seem to have direct telephone lines to the international media hungry for easy quotes and thought-closing statements.

The Pakistanis look on and wonder why bombs are going off in their cities. They rarely if ever wondered why bombs were falling indiscriminately on our citizens in FATA, how many were dying, who was being killed, and why. Our silences as they screamed are now being answered by our screams. These days of dishonor, these moments of dark horror, will yield only more pain, only more confusion, and only more suffering. And if they are not convinced, maybe what Asif Ali Zardari said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph:

“My position is that I have always asked for possession of the drone; I want the Pakistani flag on it.”

How much cash was needed to agree to slaughter civilians and Pakistani citizens for that bravado? I suppose there is no point in reminding him that they are citizens with rights, and that he is the representative of his citizens. Oh well, such niceties sound so naive.

The paymaster celebrate our ‘actions‘, the military leader grins and gloats as he receives American toys for the holiday season days before this latest ‘war’, and the nation’s sovereignty is offered up for a pocket full of change most of which will of course end up in the hands of the crooks now apparently sitting as ‘democrats’.

It has been our strategy to always replace a mess with an even larger one. President Obama, choosing only the finest and most intelligent people in his administration, is proceeding to repeat the same mistake. In a wonderfully amusing, but insightful, piece called Wall Street Smarts in the New York Times the poet Calvin Trillin argued that:

“The financial system nearly collapsed,” he said, “because smart guys had started working on Wall Street.”

In Errol Morris’ fear-inducing film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara he reminds us that the men who orchestrated, managed, administered and planned the Vietnam fiasco where the ‘smartest guys in the room’.  Robert S. McNamara “… graduated in 1937 from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Bachelor of Arts in economics with minors in mathematics and philosophy. He was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity,[10] was elected to Phi Beta Kappa his sophomore year and earned a varsity letter in crew. He was also a member of the UC Berkeley Golden Bear Battalion, Army ROTC. He then earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939. After earning his MBA McNamara worked a year for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse in San Francisco. In August 1940 he returned to Harvard to teach in the Business School and became the highest paid and youngest Assistant Professor at that time.” (from Wikipedia)

In an earlier argument, Chris Hedges pointed out in an essay called The Best And The Brightest Led American Off The Cliff that:

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Princeton and New Haven to the financial and political centers of power.

And President Obama now sits, like a god-king, asking his ‘best and the brightest’ to oversee an unfolding fiasco that is going to be Afghanistan and Pakistan. Enough with the intelligent, lets try the moronic. Could they do worse? I doubt it.

Guantanamo Detainee Fouad Mahmoud Al Rabiah’s Petition for Habeus Corpus Is Granted!

In Journalism, Our Wars on October 13, 2009 at 10:28 am

In a remarkable, courageous and honest ruling, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, found that the government could not credibly support its allegation that Fouad Mahmoud Al Rabiah was part of the Taliban or al-Qaida, and that the evidence against him wasn’t sufficient to justify his continued detention. She ordered the government to release Al Rabiah “forthwith [1].” The actual statement read as follows:

Because the Government has not met its burden by a preponderance of evidence, the Court shall GRANT Al Rabiah’s petition for habeas corpus. The Court shall issue an Order requiring the Government to take all necessary and appropriate steps to facilitate Al Rabiah’s release forthwith. Dated: September 17, 2009

That there are institutions, procedures and individuals that still respect the rule of law, and the necessity of upholding our most cherished legal, judicial and moral precepts particularly in moments of crisis and fear should give us hope for our increasingly decimated republic.

But whereas we can argue for the rights of illegal detainees held in the USA few if any for that matter have raised a voice in outrage at the wholesale slaughter of imagined ‘terrorists’, ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al Qaeda’ operatives in the tribal areas of Pakistan. I say imagined because they are labeled ‘Taliban’ and/or ‘Al Qaeda’ to ensure that we never ask for evidence or proof and that we can kill them at will.

There the Pushtuns, a people dehumanized so completely that we do not even register their deaths, are being killed and maimed with impunity, thanks to the venal machinations of the Pakistani elite and toy-hungry military in bed with an American imperialist juggernaut that knows nothing other than the inspirations of its own greed and power.

The people of Pakistan’s tribal areas deserve their day in court if they are being accused of specific crimes and misdemeanors. Though I do not know what these would be other than that dastardly crime of not bending to the will of specious power and elite greed. I have argued in an earlier piece called Fear The Pushtun Bogeyman Or Scaring Children As An Imperialist Habit for the necessity of protecting the lives, and access to procedures of law and justice for all citizens of Pakistan particularly the criminalized Pushtun tribes of the frontier.

The Pakistan Army, and its establishment civilian leaders, have carried out an unjust, illegal, immoral and inhumane war against its own people. The bombs that capture our attention are a consequence of a belief that disproportionate force can erase memory and sorrow. The United States of America has provided the funds and the armaments and the quiet pat on the back. The war on the frontier serves political interests both in the USA and in Pakistan, ensuring that fear of this bogeyman never leaves us, that we believe that our manicured front lawns are in fact under direct threat of crazed, wide-eyed, bearded men in loose pants with designs to subjugate all that we love and cherish (Wall Mart? 24-cable TV? Unlimited internet porn?) and control the world.

Illegal detainees are being given a chance to argue their case, to defend themselves, and a Government that illegally tortured and incarcerated them is being taken to task. Here in the USA. But in Pakistan, where our surrogates are happy to dance to any tune we play, the deaths continue, the horror unfolds. There are few voices in opposition. So I suppose they will only come in the form of bomb blasts and more ‘terror’ attacks. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.