Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire’

Guy Debord’s Cat: Violence to Fascists Is Justified

September 9, 2017

Following the violent clashes between the White supremacists, neo-Confederates and outright Nazis and the counter-protesters in Charlottesville the week before last, there have been a series of articles and denunciations of the Anti-Fascists for their physical attacks on the marching hordes of the extreme Right. One of those criticizing them is the veteran critic of capitalism, racism and imperialism, Noam Chomsky, who stated that by using violence, Antifa handed them a ‘propaganda coup’. Others have gone further, and complained that Antifa are against free speech, and so are as bad, or worse, as the Nazis they attacked.

The French philosophical feline strongly rejects this attitude, and has written a blog post explaining just why he supports violence against Fascism. This includes two videos, both of which are well worth watching. One is about the 43 Group, a band of Jewish ex-servicemen, who had seen for themselves the horrific results of Nazi anti-Semitism when they were among the troops, who liberated Auschwitz. After the War, they were disgusted to find the kind of people, who had committed such monstrous atrocities were not only at large, but preaching their murderous doctrines and hatred. They resolved to treat them as they deserved, and hit them time and again force them off the streets.

The second video is presented by Mensi Mensforth, a member of the eighties band Angelic Upstarts. He also talks about the long history of anti-Fascists using physical violence, from struggles in the 1930s against Mosley’s BUF, to today’s battles with the NF and related Nazi gangs. Mensforth and the others speaking on the programme make the point that the people the Antifa are fighting are themselves extremely violent. They talk about Asians in the poorer parts of Britain being firebombed out of their homes. Mensforth himself describes how his stance against the NF so infuriated them, that they tried to silence him by attacking him at one of the Upstart’s gigs. He was saved by Antifa, who were there to defend him.

The Cat starts off by making the point that Antifa is a position, not an organization. The word stands for Anti-Fascist Action, and while later in the article he states that Anti-Fascist Action was set up in 1985 by Red Action and other anti-Fascist groups, he makes the point that if you are opposed to Fascism, then you are Antifa. He also makes the point that Nazis and related organisations in the US have been allowed to march by claiming free speech as their defence, and supported by the local law enforcement agencies and Libertarian organisations, some of whom have their own, very dubious agendas.

Buddy Hell is particularly annoyed by the middle class liberals, who are defending the Nazis’ right to say the unspeakable. He makes the point that Fascists are capitalism’s shock troops. Their leaders come from the middle and upper classes, and they and their vile doctrine emerge when capitalism is in crisis. And they don’t march through White, middle class areas. Their purpose is to divide the working class, and they march through working class and immigrant neighbourhoods as a display of triumphalism and a provocation.

He also makes the point that Fascists are also supported by the petite bourgeoisie and sections of the free press. The free world has tolerated the seizure of power by innumerable right-wing dictatorial groups, but the moment a left-wing government appears the supposed free world immediately tries to destabilize it.

And Fascists themselves are extremely violent. He states very graphically that if you turn the other cheek to a Fascist, they’ll slash it with a razor, and says

I support the activities of militant anti-fascists because I think their use of force is a necessary tactic to counter the violence of the far-right on the streets. If you think allowing neo-fascists a platform to say whatever they like is necessary because you believe everyone has a right to free speech, just imagine what would happen if the far-right ever came to power. The free speech, that you cherish so dearly, would be taken away and you’d be carted off to prison or worse. Now you can accuse me of histrionics if you like, but you’ll have to name a country in which the far-right have gained power and have allowed people to criticize them. I can’t think of one.

See: https://buddyhell.wordpress.com/2017/09/05/militant-anti-fascism-why-i-support-it/

Now I don’t support violence against anyone, and don’t wish to encourage any more of it, even against the Far Right. Real violence is anything but fun, and people have been seriously hurt and killed in the battles between Fascists and anti-Fascists.

But the Cat is right on several points. Fascists are and have always been extremely violent. They’ve been so every since George Sorel wrote his ‘Reflexions sur la Violence’ as a militant 19th century anarcho-syndicalist. Sorel later rejected syndicalism in favour of extreme right-wing nationalist and monarchist groups, but his book remained popular and influential amongst right-wing intellectuals like Mussolini. The kernel of Fascism in Italy were the Fasci di Combattimenti, bands of demobilized ex-servicemen, who went around beating up Socialists, Communists and anyone they thought that was insufficiently patriotic, or just didn’t like. One of their symbols, was the fasces – the bundle of rods with an axe sticking out, which symbolized the power of the lictor, the Roman official, who could have citizens beaten and beheaded. The other, rather less official, but very widely used, was the manganello. This was the club with which Fascist gangs used to beat their opponents in street battles, after which the victims were dosed with castor oil to humiliate them by making them soil themselves.

Before the Nazis seized power in Germany, they also used to go round fighting street battles and beating up Jews and leftists. One of their songs in Berlin was all about how they were going to carry on beating people up, ‘until the Jew lies bleeding at our feet’.

And they weren’t any better in Britain. Mosley’s BUF lost its support partly because it was notorious for its violence, particularly after the infamous Olympia rally, where the BUF’s stewards savagely beat a number of left-wing protestors. And after the war, the BNP, NF and related groups deliberately recruited ‘bovver boys’ and football hooligans. Or as one of their leaders themselves said at the time, ‘robust young men to defend Britain against Communism’. And the evidence for their extreme violence is extremely plentiful. If you go on YouTube, there are a number of videos from World In Action and other documentaries showing just how brutally violent they are. And more often than not, their victims are the weak and defenceless. One of the speakers in one of these documentaries is a female teacher, who describes how she and her colleagues were attacked without provocation by a group of NF thugs when they were having a meeting in a pub. Matthew Collins in his book, Hate, describes how he participated in an attack on an anti-Nazi meeting in one of the rooms above the local library. Those they attacked were mostly women, including a pregnant Asian lady, who was so terrified she tried to barricade herself in the toilets. These are not thugs attacking other thugs. They’re bullies. And when they do meet concerted, violent resistance, as one of the speakers in one of the videos says, they run away.

The decision of the ’43 group to give a dam’ good hiding to the Fascists is entirely understandable. One of the speakers in the video describes how he and the other old comrades put their hands together with Rabbi Hardman, the Jewish army chaplain, and swore ‘Never again’ when they saw the sheer carnage and barbarity at Auschwitz. Rabbi Hardman states he saw bodies piled as high as the surrounding buildings. Another squaddies tells how he met one woman, one of the death camp’s inmates, who had been driven mad because the Nazis had snatched her baby away from her, thrown it up into the air, and then shot it. This treatment wasn’t unique to the Jews. The Beeb a little while ago screened a programme about the Nazi occupation of Poland. One of the incidents that occurred there was when Polish mothers were required to take their children to be examined by the reich authorities. One woman’s child was deemed biologically unfit. It was snatched out of its mother’s arms, thrown onto the floor, and shot.

Most normal people would have felt horror and anger if they had witnessed what these servicemen had seen. And when it is done to one’s own ethnic or religious group, when one thinks how it could have been one’s own spouse, parents, children, or other relatives and friends lying down there among the bodies, those feelings are naturally going to turn into an intense rage, or in this case, a steely determination to do everything they could to stop it ever occurring again.

The speakers in the video make the point that they didn’t reject non-violent persuasion. They tried it, and found that it didn’t work. They state that it was a case of ‘both…and…’ rather than ‘either…or…’. But it didn’t work on the convinced Fascists. And so they resolved to disrupt their meetings and force them off the streets.

At the time there were 40 or so Fascist meetings every month in London, and the BUF, or Mosley’s successor organisations, were not opposed, and indeed supported, by the London police. This has been corroborated by other historians. Larry O’Hara wrote an article in Lobster back in the 1990s about how the metropolitan police turned a blind eye to Fascist meetings, even when they openly broke the law. Such as drinking a toast to the destruction of the Jews. Indeed, it was quite often anti-Fascist protesters, who were arrested, rather than the stormtroopers.

Not all police forces were as tolerant as London’s, however. One of the speakers describes how they heard that the Blackshirts were planning to go down and hold a rally in Brighton. So the ’43 Group let the Brighton fuzz know they would also be down there to disrupt the meeting. The rozzers duly replied that the Fascists were quite within their rights, and the police would allow them to go ahead following the principle of free speech. But in practice, they only sent one officer. He was obviously just a token presence, and the former servicemen were able to give their opponents a sound beating.

They describe how, when they attacked a Fascist gathering, their intention was to seize and overturn the podium. Among those, who got what they deserved was Hamm, Mosley’s second in command. They also reveal that they had considerable information given to them about the location of meetings and so on from informers within the Fascists’ own ranks. These were people, who had joined the party, and found out it wasn’t what they thought it was. Ultimately, the ’43 group were successful. They point out that due to their attacks Mosley couldn’t appear in public, and they talk about their pride as Jews and citizens in closing him down.

Mensforth’s video also begins with people from the East End describing the antics of Mosley’s Blackshirts in their day, and their role in the Battle of Cable Street. This was when the BUF tried to march through the East End, but were beaten off by a group of trade unionists, Communists and Jews. The speakers describe how they also fought the police, who were protecting the Fascists.

Describing the activities of contemporary Nazis, they point out that they want to keep the working class divided, and encourage racial hatred to that end. When there are no ethnic minorities available for them to whip up hate against, as in Glasgow, they find another outsider group to serve the same purpose, like Roman Catholics. One of the speakers is a Glaswegian, who was a former member of one of the Fascist groups in Scotland, as well as a Protestant supporter of one of the very Unionist football clubs. One of the songs their supporters sing is ‘Billy’s Boys’. He states most of the supporters think it’s about William of Orange, but in fact it’s about one of Mosley’s lieutenants in that part of Scotland in the 1930s. This particular speaker was drawn into it through the sectarian politics of Scots football clubs. He left when he started getting leaflets from the organization telling him to support their policies against Israel, and supporting South American dictators and death squads.

Watching these videos, it struck me that some, at least, of the violent antifa, aren’t thugs using violence for the sheer pleasure of it. They’re just people, who actually take Fascism seriously. Very seriously. To many people, the Fascist fringe are so grotesque that they’re a joke, and the numbers involved in their marches are so trivial that there’s absolutely no danger of these morons gaining power. They’re figures of fun, like the American National Socialist White People’s Party in the Blues Brothers. And it’s because they aren’t taken as a serious threat, that they and their wretched marches are tolerated. Despite considerable, and very vocal opposition, I hasten to add.

And indeed there is a certain amount of grim humour to be found there. They are so twisted, that they can be unintentionally hilarious, and mocking them does have the right effect. Hope Not Hate a few days ago put up a piece about how one of the squadristi was upset with the organization, because it was taking the mick out of him. And Private Eye also reported how members were leaving the BNP after it had been mocked in the pages of Ian Hislop’s mighty organ. The Third Reich was long ago, and so were the various Fascist dictatorships in Central and South America, as well as all the other brutal right-wing regimes that have seized power around the world.

But if you’ve seen what Fascism has done, and your family and friends have been attacked or worse by its supporters over here, your attitude might be very different. The Klan and the neo-Confederates really aren’t a joke to Blacks, Jews and other minority groups, because of the lynchings and the use of terror and extreme violence. Over in Britain, the British Fascist groups supported not only the Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, but they also gave sanctuary to a group of Italian Fascists in the 1980s following the Bologna railway bombing, which killed more than a hundred people. And given the horrific atrocities the death squads committed in Latin America – things so revolting that they cannot be decently described in a family blog, it becomes a very good question why the members of various Conservative and Libertarian societies weren’t attacked or beaten when they decided to invite these scum to their annual dinners.

I don’t support violence, let alone vigilanteeism, but the Cat has done a good job in explaining why violent resistance against Fascism may be justified. As he points out, this is violence against those, who are absolutely serious in their intention to imprison, torture and kill millions, if they came to power. Their tolerated at the moment because they aren’t a significant threat. But that can change. Free speech is not an absolute, and there have to be limits to toleration. It’s why we have laws against hate speech, no matter how they right may decry them as ‘political correctness’.

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Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

The Ancient Near East’s Influence on Roman and Ancient Greek Law

June 3, 2017

I’ve written several pieces about the possible origins of western democracy, not in ancient Greece and Rome, but in the ancient Near East. Early civilisations like Sumeria and Mari had popular assemblies and councils of elders, which voted on issues, while the karem, or chamber of commerce, also influenced royal decisions. Apart from being of interest in itself, the existence of these institutions in the political systems of the ancient Middle East, is something of a challenge to people like Boris Johnson. Johnson’s a public schoolboy, and so is steeped in the Classics. As shown in his TV series a few years ago about the splendour of the Roman Empire, he seems to believe that everything great and noble in the world came about through ancient Rome and its predecessor, Greece.

Looking through the Oxbow Book Catalogue for Autumn 2015, I found this entry for Raymond Westbrook’s Ex Oriente Lex: Near Eastern Influences on Ancient Greek and Roman Law (Johns Hopkins University Press, HB £38.50). This says

Throughout the twelve essays that appear in Ex Oriente Lex, Raymond Westbrook convincingly argues that the influence of Mesopotamian legal traditions and thought did not stop at the shores of the Mediterranean, but rather had a profound impact and the early laws and legal developments of Greece and Rome as well. A preface by editors Deborah Lyons and Kurt Raaflaub details the importance of Westbrook’s work for the field of classics, while Sophie Demare-Lafont’s incisive introduction places Westbrook’s ideas within the wider context of ancient law.

As I said before, perhaps if there was great appreciation of the achievements of the ancient Near Eastern world, and the debt that the modern West owes to its civilisations, there would be greater reluctance amongst the political and military class to invading and destroying these countries.

The Iraq invasion created the chaos that spawned ISIS, which, along with al-Qaeda and the other Islamist groups in the Middle East and Africa, have destroyed millennia of culture and history, as well as butchering those regions’ people.

But the Americans and British have also done their share of cultural vandalism. Nicholas Wood and Annabelle Pellens in their book The Case Against Blair, describe how the Americans levelled the ancient city of Babylon in order to use it as military base.

Now imagine the sheer outrage from Classicists like BoJo if the same thing was done to the ruins of Athens. Not that Greece isn’t seeing it’s ancient heritage destroyed by Neoliberalism, as museums are closed, archaeological sites looted and antiquities sold off due to the EU’s austerity programme. And for all his avowed enthusiasm for the Classical world, I haven’t heard BoJo speak out against that, either.

It’s long past time that a halt was called to imperialism, neoliberalism, and the destruction of the world’s cultures, and the massacre and exploitation of its peoples.

Trump and the Republicans’ Attack on Transgender Rights

February 25, 2017

On Thursday Mike also posted a short piece about another minority that is now under by Donald Trump – transgender people. After trying to ban people from seven majority Muslim countries, Trump has decided to revoke Barack Obama’s legislation about the use of toilets by transgender students. Obama ruled that students should be allowed to use the bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity, rather than biological sex. This has been too much for Trump and the Republicans. In his article commenting on Trump’s repeal of the ruling, he makes the point that transgender people don’t pose any threat to the people of the US, as far as he could see. But Trump’s discrimination against them does make him a threat to the transgender community.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/02/23/transgender-students-are-targeted-for-hate-by-trump/

Milo Yiannopolis, one of the Alt-Right Breitbart squadristi, turned up on the Bill Maher Show on American TV. Yiannopolis is a strange, contradictory figure – a half-Jewish, self-hating gay with a Black boyfriend, who is bitterly anti-feminist and also very racist. Yiannopolis tried to claim that the ruling was quite correct, because there was a dangerous of transvestites entering female toilets to abuse women and girls. He claimed that there was a far greater rate of sex offences amongst transgendered people than amongst ordinary, straight individuals.

Where did he get this statistics? Where do you think! He made it up. And while Maher apparently did little but fawn over Yiannopolis, according to some viewers, one of the guests, Larry Wilmore, solidly refuted Yinnopolis comments again and again. See this video below.

For some reason, the Republicans have had a bee in their collective bonnets about transgender people for some time now. In fairness, not all of this concern is fear-mongering based on prejudice. Right-wing critics of the current medical attitudes towards those, who have problems with their gender identity, have pointed to a paper by a doctor, which has questioned whether many of those undergoing gender realignment surgery really want to be women. According to the paper, those undergoing the transition have a higher rate of suicide than those who remain in their biological gender. Now, there have been instances where people, who have made the transition, have regretted it and taken their own lives. There was a case in the British papers a few years ago about a transwoman, who drowned herself in a river. She left a note stating that she now wished she could return to being a man.

Such cases are tragic, and should be a cause of legitimate concern. But I don’t think this is really what’s driving the issue.

This is really all about cultural decline and the politics of masculinity. The Right has a very traditional attitude towards gender roles. I’ve blogged before about the various right-wing politicians in America, like the highly obnoxious Anne Coulter, who don’t even believe women should vote. The idea that gender roles, and gender identity itself, can be fluid and subject to change is bitterly rejected. Hence this attack on the toilet rights of transgender students.

One of those, who has weighed into this debate is the anti-feminist philosopher, Camille Paglia. Paglia had been a feminist, I gather, before she did a complete reversal some time in the 1990s, and decided that feminism was damaging men and having a generally destructive effect on society as a whole. I think she still considers herself some kind of feminist, but, as Mel Smith’s blokeish character on his and Griff Rhys Jones’ spoof of the BBC talk show, After Dark, she seems to be ‘the kind of feminist, who is not a feminist at all’.

There’s a video on YouTube of her arguing in an interview that transgenderism is responsible for the fall of all civilisations, from ancient Rome to the European empires of the 19th century. This can be seen in the way Greek art moved from depicting muscular hunks to a more androgynous style of masculine figure.

I don’t know enough of Greek art to refute this, but I know enough history to say that it’s twaddle. Despite the comments by Roman moralists, like Tacitus, about the decadence of late Roman society, what actually brought the Empire down were a mixture of severe economic, political and military problems that have precious little to do with gender identity. If at all. The late Roman empire was beset by galloping inflation, massively disproportionate taxation falling on the poor as the senatorial elite sought to evade the tax burden, depopulation caused by plague as well as economic decline, and, of course, the barbarian invasions.

In the east, the late Roman and Persian Empires were overrun by the Muslim Arabs basically because they had fought each other to exhaustion, and simply no longer possessed the military power to fight off the invading Arabs. In the case of Egypt and some of the other eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs offered religious tolerance to Christian denominations persecuted by the official Greek church. The politics of gender identity simply weren’t involved.

As for the European empires, these fell, retreated or transformed themselves due to the rise of nationalist movements in their colonies and the decline of the metropolitan centres. Much of this was hastened by the Second World War. Britain and France emerged exhausted from the conflict, and global power passed to America and the Soviet Union. Again, gender politics weren’t involved.

Paglia, however, draws on the literature of late Victorian writers, including the French Decadents, for her views. These did see the decline of gender identity and roles as a sign of cultural and racial decline. The French Decadents, who saw madness and genius as inextricably linked, celebrated androgyny, while at the same time holding very strong misogynist views. They felt that, like ancient Rome, the fall of the new French empire was also inevitable, and were going to enjoy being Decadent as much as possible during it.

Paglia’s fears about the social damage created by the decline in traditional notions of gender and sexuality are also really a symptom of more general fears of American social and imperial decline. Martin Pugh in his book on the rise of British Fascism between the First and Second World Wars, comments on the role played in its rise by the moral panic created by Pemberton Billing about homosexuality. Billing was a right-wing Tory MP, who believed that the British war effort during World War I was being undermined by gays working for the Germans. He claimed to have a black book with the names of 50,000 ‘devotees of Sodom and Lesbia’. He was sued for libel by at least one of the people he smeared, but the trail collapsed when he accused the judge of being gay.

Pugh also points out that this period also saw the rise in fears about lesbianism for the first time. He states very clearly that the reason why the British government had not legislated against female homosexuality in the 19th century was because they simply didn’t see it as a threat. It was not because that they, or Queen Victoria, depending on the version of the myth you’ve heard, didn’t think it exist, or because Victoria herself didn’t think it was physically possible for two women to have sex. She and they knew it happened, but weren’t bothered about it. It wasn’t considered to be a threat to society like male homosexuality.

This all changed after the First World War. Pugh makes the point that it was widely believed that the War had killed the flower of British manhood – all the really intelligent, brave and capable men. The guys, who were left, were the second raters. As a result, British society was in crisis, a crisis which only aggressively masculine parties like the NSDAP in Germany and the Fascists in Italy could hope to correct.

And something similar has also occurred in America. It’s been argued that the rapid expansion of Communism after the War was a profound shock to America, not just to the self-confidence of capitalism, but also to notions of American masculinity. This can be seen in depictions of Jesus. For a period after WW2 the traditional depictions of Christ with rather soft features disappeared in favour of more ruggedly masculine representations of the Saviour.

America is a very masculine society, and the link between capitalism and masculinity is very strong in the parties and ideologies of the Right, the Republicans and Libertarians. The Left, and its egalitarianism, is seen as anti-masculine and unpatriotic. It is not accident that Richard Spencer in one of his wretched speeches tried to appeal to American women by saying that his movement offered them ‘pregnancy and strong government’. With the involvement of the gun lobby, we are very much back in the realm of Mussolini’s Fascist slogan ‘Fighting is to man what motherhood is to woman.’ The American Right also strongly opposes women entering the workplace, feeling that they should stay at home instead to raise children to counteract White demographic decline.

This is the real ideological background to Trump and the Republicans’ attack on transgender people. The actual number of transgender people, as a percentage of the population, is probably very small. They’re not really a threat to anyone. Instead, this all about the politics of gender as part of the wider issue of racial decay and American imperial decline.

Jesus in the Food Bank Queue

December 9, 2016

I’ve been attending the Advent course run by one of the ministers at our local church. The theme is hospitality in the Bible and the early church, and the obligation this lays upon modern Christians to live and work for the poor, the marginalised and strangers. Last night one of the texts studied was Christ’s words ‘For as you do to the least of them, you do to me’. Christ made clear that the people, who will be saved at the Last Judgement, will be those who fed, clothed and tended Him when He was in need. By which He meant the poor, the hungry, the sick and the outcast.

He talked about how he had visited a church in Washington D.C. He pointed out that not all of the city is like the White House and the government buildings. Beyond this well-kept, affluent area is are districts of the most desperate poverty. The church he’d visited had maintained a food line for the area’s poor. He stated that these were people, who were forced to use it to make ends meet until their next paycheque came. He was particularly impressed by one of the women serving at this food bank. Every morning she prayed to serve Jesus when she saw him again in the queue that day. She didn’t mean she literally saw Him, but as He was present in the poor peeps, who turned up for their food. It was a powerful, modern application of Christ’s teaching.

He also produced quotations from the Early Church Fathers about the Christian duty to work for the poor, even when personal charity was being undermined somewhat by the institutional charity – hospitals, hostels, orphanages and monasteries of the late Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion. Hippolytus, for example, advised that every citizen, who was able should build a guest chamber on to their house. And one of the other Church Fathers described one of the hospitals as a city for the poor, by which they could meet the rich as equals.

These are very strong, challenging demands for Christians to practise the charity taught in the Bible, and to seek out, identify with and support ‘the fatherless, the widow and the foreigner’, and bring to their feasts ‘the poor, the lame and the blind’.

Unfortunately, Contemporary neoliberal politics since Thatcher and Reagan has demanded that the institutional care provided by the state should be cut back, with disastrous results. They believed that this would strengthen the Church by forcing people to fall back on private charity. Hence we now have the spectacle of various charities actively seeking out government contracts, and fully supporting the hideous policies of sanctioning and marginalisation that are forcing more people into poverty, misery, starvation and, in extreme cases, death. And the charities themselves are under threat. The figures provided by the Trussell Trust of the numbers of people using their food banks have been attacked by the Tories for the simply reason that they give the lie to their propaganda that austerity – meaning benefit cuts and wage freezes – have somehow made people better off.

I fully support the charities and their workers, who do genuinely work for the poor. One of the most acute accounts of what it is like to work at the sharp end trying to aid those pushed into need by the government’s policies comes from the blogs and vlogs of people working in food banks. I’ve reblogged some of these. But private charity isn’t enough. We need the support of the state, and active welfare policies to empower the poor, disabled and marginalised, including the working class.

As for Theresa May, and her claims to be guided by her Christian faith, before she does so, she should meditate very much on how Our Lord is present in the poor. She may well do so. But I’ve seen no evidence of her doing anything genuinely to alleviate poverty.

Reichwing Watch: Trump Spokesman Cites Japanese Internment to Justify Muslim Registry

November 18, 2016

This is terrifying. It’s another clip from Reichwing Watch, from a news programme in which a spokesman for Trump tells Megan Kelly, the news anchor, to her face that Japanese internment during World War II has set a precedent for Trump’s proposal to have all Muslims entered in an official register. To her credit, Kelly tells him that he cannot use this as a precedent, and reproaches him for using it to get people frightened. The Trump surrogate laughs this off, but says that the president still needs to protect America. She argues back that the protection extends the moment you enter America.

This should terrify everyone, who is sincerely worried about the march of Fascism, including anyone with a knowledge of Roman civilisation. Firstly, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II as enemy aliens led to horrendous suffering and deprivation, and is still naturally resented by Americans of Japanese heritage decades later. George Takei, I understand, the actor who played Mr Sulu in Star Trek, was particularly active in Japanese-American civil rights organisations. American politicos have denounced the internment, and I think the government has paid the victims reparations. And it certainly was deeply unjust that when many Japanese-American servicemen were giving their lives for America, their families, friends and other members of their community were being herded into camps. It is repulsive that Trump’s spokesman should cite this as a precedent, and it does raise the issue of what Trump will do next. If he’s prepared to cite Japanese-American internment as a precedent, is he also considering interning Muslims as well, despite his mouthpiece’s smiling denials?

The American Constitution famously promises Americans freedom of religion. And religious freedom has been at the heart of American democracy, ever since Richard Baxter argued for it, including not just Christians, but also Jews, during the British Civil War. Baxter afterwards emigrated to the nascent US, and the proud, American tradition of religious toleration begins with him in the 17th century. Now Trump’s threatening to reverse this.

Trump’s proposal for Muslims to be officially registered reminds me very strongly of the ancient Roman attitude to religion. The Roman Empire was religious pluralistic, but retained a system of religious suppression. Because the Romans were afraid of the threat of insurrection and rebellion from clubs and other associations, including religious gatherings, they operated a system in which only those religions, which were not considered dangerous to the state, were officially tolerated. The Romans persecuted Christianity because it was not one of the religio licitas – permitted religions. Christians were seen as subversive, because they worshipped Christ as God, instead of the Roman Emperor. Hence the determination to make Christians sacrifice to the Emperor’s numen, his divine spirit, and the statements in the early Christian apologists that, although Christians didn’t worship the emperor, they nevertheless were good citizens, who prayed for him and the other authorities in their services.

Trump is threatening to inflict on American Muslims the type of system that led to the terrible persecution of Christians in ancient Rome.

And where America goes today, Britain and other nations follow tomorrow. I’m not a secularist, but this threatens religious tolerance and freedom right across the modern, democratic West.

And apart from the real danger it poses to Muslims, it also threatens to give the radicals a weapon to use against us. The Islamist bigots, going all the way back to the radicals demanding the suppression of the Satanic Verses and Rushdie’s death, whipped up opposition and hatred towards non-Muslims and the secular state by telling them that they were in danger from White and non-Muslim persecution. Way back in the 1990s the Beeb filmed one of these preachers of hate, Kalim Siddiqui, in his mosque, telling his congregation that ‘British society is a monstrous killing machine, and killing Muslims comes very easily to them’. When the team questioned Siddiqui about his words, he started ranting about how the Satanic Verses was the first step towards a ‘holocaust of Muslims.’ This is sheer, poisonous bilge. The book wasn’t blasphemous, and it certainly wasn’t published in preparation for such an monstrous atrocity.

But accusations like this were used to motivate British Muslims, or some British Muslims, into political involvement and opposition to British secularism. And you can bet that ISIS and al-Qaeda will use Trump’s wretched registry to whip up support amongst Muslims by citing it as proof that western society really is intolerant and that we really do have a genocidal hatred of Muslims.

We don’t. Regardless of individual religious affiliation or lack thereof, we need to stand united against this. We can’t let Trump divide us and make the denial of our collective freedoms seem respectable policies. Because it won’t just be Muslims. After them, it’ll be other groups. No-one will be safe from this type of intolerance.

Vox Political on the Government’s Plan to Waste Money Writing on Vellum

February 15, 2016

Earlier today Mike posted up on his website a piece from the Guardian, reporting that the government had blocked proposals from the House of Lords, which would hav seen the official copies of acts of parliament switched from being written on vellum, to printed on archival paper. The change would save about £80,000 a year. However, Matt Hancock, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office, stated that some traditions were too important to change.

Now I actually do believe in tradition, always depending, of course, on what the tradition is. But this is just nonsensical. I’ve used vellum myself – it’s a very tough, very durable material. There are documents written on vellum that have survived for more than a thousand years, like the Domesday Book, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. But the archival paper they wish to use to replace vellum sounds almost as tough, if not as. This will last 500 hundred years. I can believe it, because as an historian and archaeologist, I’ve examined documents written on early paper. By and large, the paper used in Britain from the 16th to the mid-19th century is extremely tough and durable. Of course it depends on how it’s treated, but it doesn’t degrade easily and some of the documents from the 19th century are better preserved than modern printed material.

And if we’re talking about the long-term survival of paper documents, just think about the Oxyrhinchus Papyri. These are Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian documents on papyrus from ancient Egypt, which date from the 3-4th centuries AD. Scholars are still going through them and discovering new, and often previously lost texts illuminating the life of people in Egypt and generally in the Roman Empire from well over a millennium and a half ago. And this is despite the fact that the stuff was thrown out on the fields and used as fertiliser.

Really, when ordinary citizens are suffering serious cuts to their benefits, cuts that threaten their very lives, it’s ridiculous for parliament to waste such amounts of money on tradition. This just shows the Cabinet to be obstinate, bloody-minded and indifferent to the suffering of ordinary people, but indulgent when it comes to their own petty tastes. Traditions change and evolve. So must this.

Tolstoy’s The Law of Violence and the Law of Love

January 24, 2016

Tolstoy Law Love

(Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, no date)

As well as being one of the great titans of world literature, Leo Tolstoy was a convinced anarchist and pacifist. The British philosopher and writer, Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his book, Russian Thinkers, states that Tolstoy’s anarchist beliefs even informed his great work, War and Peace. Instead of portraying world history as being shaped by the ideas and actions of great men, Tolstoy’s epic of the Napoleonic Wars shows instead how it is formed by the actions of millions of individuals.

The writer himself attempted to put his own ideas into practise. He was horrified by the poverty and squalor, both physical and moral, of the new, urban Russia which was arising as the country industrialised, and the degradation of its working and peasant peoples. After serving in the army he retreated to his estate, where he concentrated on writing. He also tried to live out his beliefs, dressing in peasant clothes and teaching himself their skills and crafts, like boot-making, in order to identify with them as the oppressed against the oppressive upper classes.

Tolstoy took his pacifism from a Chechen Sufi nationalist leader, who was finally captured and exiled from his native land by the Russians after a career resisting the Russian invasion. This Islamic mystic realised that military resistance was useless against the greater Russian armed forces. So instead, he preached a message of non-violent resistance and peaceful protest against the Russian imperial regime. Tolstoy had been an officer during the invasion of Chechnya, and had been impressed by its people and their leader’s doctrine of peaceful resistance. Tolstoy turned it into one of the central doctrines of his own evolving anarchist ideology. And he, in turn, influenced Gandhi in his stance of ahimsa – Hindu non-violence – and peaceful campaign against the British occupation of India. Among the book’s appendices is 1910 letter from Tolstoy to Gandhi. I also believe Tolstoy’s doctrine of peaceful resistance also influence Martin Luther King in his confrontation with the American authorities for civil rights for Black Americans.

Tolstoy considered himself a Christian, though his views are extremely heretical and were officially condemned as such by the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrote a number of books expounding his religious views, of which The Law of Violence and the Law of Love is one. One other is The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Tolstoy’s Christianity was basically the rationalised Christianity, formed during the 19th century by writers like David Strauss in Germany and Ernest Renan in France. In their view, Christ was a moral preacher, teaching devotion to a transcendent but non-interfering God, but did not perform any miracles or claim He was divine. It’s similar to the Deist forms of Christianity that appeared in the 18th century in works such as Christianity Not Mysterious. While there are still many Biblical scholars, who believe that Christ Himself did not claim to be divine, such as Geza Vermes, this view has come under increasing attack. Not least because it presents an ahistorical view of Jesus. The Deist conception of Christ was influenced by the classicising rationalism of the 18th century. It’s essentially Jesus recast as a Greek philosopher, like Plato or Socrates. More recent scholarship by Sandmel and Sanders from the 1970’s onwards, in works like the latter’s Jesus the Jew, have shown how much Christ’s life and teaching reflected the Judaism of the First Century, in which miracles and the supernatural were a fundamental part.

In The Law of Violence and the Law of Love, Tolstoy sets out his anarchist, pacifist Christian views. He sees the law of love as very core of Christianity, in much the same way the French Utopian Socialist Saint-Simon saw universal brotherhood as the fundamental teaching of Christianity. Tolstoy attacks the established church for what he sees as their distortion of this original, rational, non-miraculous Christianity, stating that it’s the reason so many working people are losing their faith. Like other religious reformers, he recommends his theological views, arguing that it will lead to a revival of genuine Christianity. At the same time, this renewed, reformed Christianity and the universal love it promotes, will overturn the corrupt and oppressive rule of governments, which are built on violence and the use of force.

Among the other arguments against state violence, Tolstoy discusses those, who have refused or condemned military service. These not only include modern conscientious objectors, such as 19th century radicals and Socialists, but also the Early Church itself. He quotes Christian saints and the Church Fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, who firmly condemned war and military service. For example, Tertullian wrote

It is not fitting to serve the emblem of Christ and the emblem of the devil, the fortress of light and the fortress of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters. And besides, how can one fight without the sword, which the Lord himself has taken away? Is it possible to do sword exercises, when the Lord says that everyone who takes the sword shall perish by the sword? And how can a son of peace take part in a battle.

Some scholars of the Early Church have argued that its opposition to military service was based on opposition to the pagan ceremonies the soldiers would have to attend and perform as part of their duties. As believers in the only God, these were forbidden to Christians. Nevertheless, despite his condemnation, Tertullian admits elsewhere that there were Christians serving in the Roman army.

Other quotations from the Church Fathers make it clear that it was opposition to the bloodshed in war, which caused them to reject military service. Tolstoy cites Cyprian, who stated that

The world goes mad with the mutual shedding of blood, and murder, considered a crime when committed singly, is called a virtue when it is done in the mas. The multiplication of violence secures impunity for the criminals.

Tolstoy also cites a decree of the First Ecumenical Council of 325 proscribing a penance to Christians returning to the Roman army, after they had left it. He states that those, who remained in the army, had to vow never to kill an enemy. If they violated this, then Basil the Great declared that they could not receive communion for three years.

This pacifism was viable when the Church was a small, persecuted minority in the pagan Roman Empire. After Constantine’s conversion, Christians and the Christian church entered government as Christianity became the official religion. The Church’s pacifist stance was rejected as Christians became responsible for the defence of the empire and its peoples, as well as their spiritual wellbeing and secular administration. And as the centuries progressed, Christians became all too used to using force and violence against their enemies, as shown in the countless religious wars fought down through history. It’s a legacy which still understandably colours many people’s views of Christianity, and religion as a whole.

This edition of Tolstoy’s book is published by the Institute of World Culture, whose symbol appears on the front of the book. This appears from the list of other books they publish in the back to be devoted to promoting mysticism. This is mostly Hindu, but also contains some Zoroastrian and Gnostic Christian works, as well as the Zohar, one of the main texts of the Jewish Qabbala.

Pacifism is very much an issue for your personal conscience, though it is, of course, very much a part of the Quaker spirituality. Against this pacifist tradition there’s the ‘Just War’ doctrine articulated and developed over the centuries by St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other theologians and Christian philosophers. This examines and defines under which circumstances and for which reasons a war can be fought, and what moral restrictions should be imposed on the way it is fought. For example, combatants should not attack women, children and non-combatants. Despite this, the book is an interesting response to the muscular Christianity preached during the days of the British Empire, and which still survives in the American Right. Many Republicans, particularly the Tea Party, really do see Christianity as not only entirely compatible with gun rights, but as a vital part of it. Bill O’Reilly, one of the anchors on Fox News, has stated that Christ would fully approve of the shooting of violent criminals, even in circumstances others find highly dubious. These include some of the incidents where teh police have shot unarmed Blacks, or where such resistance from the suspect may have been the result of mental illness and the cops themselves were in no danger. In the Law of Violence and the Law of Love, you can read Tolstoy’s opinion of the official use of lethal force, and his condemnation of the capitalist statism O’Reilly and Fox stand for.

Secular Talk on Alex Jones Rant about Elite Marrying Horses and Sacrificing their Children

January 20, 2016

Okay, I’ve put up several pieces tonight discussing just how nasty and rapacious the rich are. They are deeply selfish, and seem to have a profound psychological needs to inflict harm, degrade and impoverish those lower down the social hierarchy. And all while declaring that it’s all for the public good, and to encourage people to strive harder to better themselves. Or some other such rubbish that should have gone out with the 19th century.

On the other hand, some of the expressions of the increasing alienation between rich and poor have become extremely bizarre, like the growth of the Conspiracy counterculture and its belief that the rich are truly Satanists, or have made a malign pact with evil space aliens. Or both. One of the main figures on the conspiracy fringe is Alex Jones, who is prone to making some really bizarre rants about the depravity of the elite and super rich. In this piece from Secular Talk, Kyle Kulinski discusses one of the great man’s rants which truly scales the heights of high weirdness. I offer for your entertainment this piece in which Jones states that everyone knows that the elites marry horses, dress up in werewolf costumes, demand to be worshipped, sacrifice their babies and finally nuke themselves.(!?)

Some of this seems to be a mangled memory of the worse traits of the Roman emperors. Caligula made his horse a senator. The ‘Great Beast’ in the book of Revelations may well refer to the emperor Nero. Nero when he was a young man, used to wander around the streets of Rome with other dissolute aristos, dressed up as an animal. He would then pick fights, wounding and killing, and raping women. It’s memories of the bizarre and depraved acts of the ancient world, which colour Jones’ views of the Bohemian Grove ceremony, where they symbolically slay ‘Dull Care’, as a real, human sacrifice. I don’t think it is, and when the ceremony was shown on Jon Ronson’s programme, Secret Rulers of the World, in which he examined the Conspiracy culture in the US, it seemed to be very obviously a mannequin, no more sinister than your average Guy Fawkes figure.

But it does prompt Jones to spectacular rants like these.

The problem is that although Jones is something of a buffoon, who goes way over the top, sometimes he’s exactly right. He hates war and the way the globalists have impoverished his country. He just thinks it’s all the fault of liberals, while the truth is, it’s all being done by Conservatives, following the logic of the free market, which he so vigorously defends.

Chris Hedges on Erosion of Civil Liberties, Journalism, the Military-Industrial Complex and the American Empire

January 18, 2016

On Saturday I posted up a piece from The Empire Files about the long history of oppression, exploitation and brutality in Saudi Arabia. This is another video from the Files. Here the presenter, Abby Martin, talks to the veteran journalist Chris Hedges about the Empire and its machine of domination, including his experiences as a reporter in Iraq and El Salvador. Hedges is a Socialist, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and the host of Days of Revolt on TeleSur English.

The programme begins with a discussion of how the American state cracked down on anti-War agitators, such as the Socialists Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Berkman and others for their opposition to World War I. This conflict saw the beginnings of the military-corporatist machine and the rise of modern state propaganda, pioneered by the Creel Committee and the use of the Sedition Act to crush dissent and peace protests.

After the War, the object of hatred turned from ‘the Hun’ to Communism and what has been described as ‘the psychosis of war’. This psychosis became institutionalised as total war after World War II. After World War I, the factories, that had turned to munitions production, changed back to their peace-time produces. This did not occur after the Second World War. The factories simply carried on producing arms, supported by a government financial network. This created the modern fusion of military and corporatist power.

Hedges and Martin also explore the way the American Empire differs from other, previous imperia. Hedges states that America, unlike other empires, colonised itself. The US army, for example, acted on behalf of the mining corporations, the loggers and so on during the expansion of the American West and the genocide of the Native Americans. After the colonisation of America was complete, America expanded overseas with the annexation of the Philippines and gun boat diplomacy in the Caribbean. Previous empires, like the British, occupied the countries they conquered. American doesn’t. Instead, America trains willing indigenous elites to act on its behalf. These included dictators like Mobutu in Zaire, Samosa in El Salvador and the Shah of Iran. They also overthrow foreign rulers, who threaten American corporate interests. Allende in Chile was overthrown because he threatened to nationalise the copper industry. Arbenz was ousted in Guatemala, because he was going to nationalise the property of United Fruit. America does not directly occupy these countries, but trains their indigenous rulers troops and supplies them with arms to govern for them.

The 1979 victory of Sandinistas in Nicaragua provoked a strong response from America, as they showed that they were not going to protect American corporate interests. And so Reagan pumped massive resources into the resistance movement and in supporting the dictator in El Salvador. The Salvadorean regime were given a fleet of 70 Huey helicopter gunships. They also recruited ‘black’ armies, that did not officially existed, using troops from outside the country. And CIA operatives were also brought in to aid the operations against the Salvadorean rebels. Half the population of El Salvador were landless peasants, while the land was owned by only ten families. The mass of the population were kept in dire poverty Hedges describes as worse than serfdom. When they tried to protest, or resist by forming labour unions and other organisations, they were gunned down in the street. At one point the death squads were killing a thousand people a month.

When America invaded Iraq, the same people, who organised the death squads in Latin America were brought in and used in the same strategy there. One of the officers, who was part of the American forces in the Iraq, had organised and led the death squads in El Salvador. In Iraq he created the Shi’a death squads to murder and terrorise the Sunni Muslims. The result of this was the creation of ISIS.

Hedges also describes the difficulties journalists faced reporting these facts from Iraq. Those reporters, who did cover these abuses were under constant attack from the American government, and particularly the state department. They were vilified as ‘fifth columnists’ and collaborators with America’s enemies. They also faced opposition from their own Washington bureaux. They could also be targeted for execution. In El Salvador, 22 journalists were killed during the war. He also states that the press themselves were quite willing to be used to support the American state’s propaganda in El Salvador. In the First Gulf War, the press was subject to very harsh restrictions. Dick Cheney wanted to deport Hedges, but was unable to find him. Very few war reporters – only 10 – 15% – actually go anywhere near the war. Instead, they stayed away from the front to listen to Cheney and the generals give lectures. The pool system of trustworthy reporters used to control the press in Iraq was actually administered by the journalists themselves. Hedges refers to these journalists as ‘Judenraten’, the Nazi term for the councils the Nazis set up in Jewish communities to administer them, and which chose the members of the population, who were to be sent to the gas chambers. And those journalists, who did join the troops, received great rewards for producing stories about how heroic the soldiers were. For his efforts in covering the dark side of the Iraq War, Hedges was booed off the stage when he gave a speech at Rockford College. The New York Times, for which he was writing, even accused him of damaging their reputation for impartiality. Its columnists were selected by the establishment to report the war as they wanted it. He states that it destroyed his career, but he would not have been able to live with himself if he had not spoken out. He stated he knew people, who had been killed, and describes the destruction of the country. 1 million people have been killed, 4 million displaced; and it has been irreparably destroyed as a unified nation state. It had some of the most modern infrastructure in the Middle East. This has also been destroyed.

Hedges makes it clear that the war is about natural resources, despite the verbiage about bringing democracy. He also states that you can’t be a Socialist without being an anti-imperialist and anti-militarist. It’s important to break the back of the Empire, because the methods it uses to control the subject peoples are then brought back into the heartland to use against the American people. The result of this is that Americans are under greater surveillance, the police has been militarised, civil liberties eroded and removed and so on. All of which could be seen from where they talking in Baltimore. It was the classic disease of empire, which the Greek historian Thucydides had documented when he examined the way ancient Athens similarly destroyed its democracy when it began its imperialist expansion.

Hedges and Martin criticise Bernie Sanders, the left-wing Democratic candidate for the American presidency. Sanders, they state, has not tried to tackle the military-industrial complex. Part of this is that the defence industry and its contractors are able to provide jobs to workers. Hedges quotes one writer as describing the emergence of the military-industrial complex during the Second World War as ‘a coup d’état in slow motion’. At the moment defence officially accounts for 52% of American state expenditure, but this is almost certainly far too low. It doesn’t count veteran affairs, the nuclear arsenal or research and development. The real figure is probably around $1.6 trillion. He states that you can’t really talk about reform when so much is spent on the military. Martin Luther King mentioned this, and that was the moment when, as far as the news was concerned, he was obsolete. It was also the moment Lyndon B. Johnson removed FBI protection, leaving him exposed to assassination. Hedges quotes Engels to the point that it really is a case of ‘barbarism or Socialism’. The world is facing the crisis of climate change, while America is facing the severe problems all empires ultimately face of expanding beyond their ability to maintain themselves. This was the cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Martin and Hedges also discuss the potential for revolution in America. Hedges states that when the system becomes so corrupt, that the elites only rule for themselves, there is always blowback. This can take malign forms, such as the Nazis in Germany. In America, blowback came in the form of FDR. He told the elites that either they gave up some of their power, there would be a revolution. This was when America still had the Communist and Progressive Parties. He states that America is now faced with the problem of challenging the dominant ideology, which has become so deeply ingrained. He describes going through the cemeteries in the American South with a civil rights lawyer. And in all of them there were row upon row of Confederate flags. The lawyer informed him that these had all gone up in the past ten years. Hedges states that what is happening in America is the same that happened in Yugoslavia just before it broke up. When people are made so desperate, they retreat into myth. Hedges finds the current rhetoric against Muslims particularly frightening, as it follows the pattern of violence he found in the wars he covered. Minority groups are first subject to verbal attack, followed by real, physical violence. He describes the American state as hostage to corporate and military power. This has become sacralised in the Christian religion, and part of the American gun cult. It will ignite into Fascism. It’s a symptom of a declining civilisation, the only solution for which is to re-integrate people into the economic system.

It’s a deep discussion, offering profound insights into the emergence of America as the modern imperial power, and the role played in this expansion by the corporate and military interests for whom the American state acts. This military-industrial complex dominates an empire abroad, and is stripping liberties and rights from its own people. The result is violent extremism abroad and at home, as alienated right-wing Americans become even more radicalised.