January 13, 2015

The Propaganda War: The Horror of the Paris Rally

To amuse myself for a brief moment -- and perhaps you, too, dear reader, for I assuredly shall do my best not to lose sight of your concerns in what follows -- I might invoke the spirit of Master Dickens, as revealed in his work celebrating the holiday just recently passed. I therefore state:

Any significant intellectual culture, especially any aspect of that always exceedingly fragile enterprise that rises to challenge established authority and its numerous, labyrinthine dictates of shoulds and should nots, what is permitted and what is not, the limits of correct thought and professed belief, and uncountable and often incomprehensible related matters, is dead: to begin with. Any significant intellectual culture is as dead as a door-nail.

I state this proposition in Master Dickens' manner: emphatically.

I do this not only to amuse myself, if only momentarily, but to keep from going mad. As I further consider the Charlie Hebdo spectacle, its significance and implications grow ever more ominous and threatening. I watch this spectacle, and I want to scream: What is wrong with everyone? Don't you understand what is going on here?

A few people do, and I am always deeply grateful to encounter them. But for the most part, everyone -- and here, I speak of everyone in the West, which is where I reside, most unhappily at present, and where you probably read this -- has enthusiastically rallied to the cause of "freedom," and "freedom of the press" and "freedom of speech" more specifically. Almost everyone screams: Je suis Charlie!

So many damned liars. Allowing for the extremely rare exception, not one of the throng shouting "Je suis Charlie" is at any kind of risk at all, nor do they ever intend to be, not if they can help it. I see a crowd of millions, every single goddamned person holding aloft a sign emblazoned with big, bold lettering:


The message loses its charm around the fifty-thousandth repetition, roughly speaking. As I noted a few days ago, uniqueness, as well as courage, abhors a mob. We might be so bold as to say that seeking the comfort of the mob vitiates the message.

So. Goddamned liars, a lot of them. Before proceeding to far graver matters, let us consider a ridiculous incident that reveals just how transparently dishonest the Hebdo spectacle is. At the Golden Globe Awards this past Sunday night, Margaret Cho appeared in a running comic bit as a North Korean general, Cho Young-ja. (It was very labored and not notably clever or original. Perhaps you expected Oscar Wilde? This is Hollywood, my dear.) Without missing a beat, numerous critics pounced on this offensively "racist" attempt at humor.

Even Deadline Hollywood made the connection in its opening paragraph:
Comedian Margaret Cho has responded to critics who deemed her North Korea-skewering Golden Globes appearance racist – ironically enough, in an evening filled with achievements for diverse voices and cries of “Je Suis Charlie” in the name of freedom of expression.
Aside from the fact that "freedom of expression" allows some racist or otherwise offensive statements but not others -- hardly an unimportant point, and one which will become worryingly significant as we proceed -- doesn't Cho get some kind of special dispensation here? As she pointed out in one of her responses: "I'm of mixed North/South Korean descent - you imprison, starve and brainwash my people you get made fun of by me" Since Cho is of of mixed North/South Korean descent, doesn't she have the right to engage in this sort of humor, in the same way that blacks can use the word "nigger"? I'm just asking; there are lots and lots of rules about all this, and it's easy to get confused.

But any confusion dissipates when we consider the Paris rally. Let's begin with the description in The New York Times:
More than a million people joined over 40 presidents and prime ministers on the streets of Paris on Sunday in the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Responding to terrorist strikes that killed 17 people in France and riveted worldwide attention, Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists and people of all races, ages and political stripes swarmed central Paris beneath a bright blue sky, calling for peace and an end to violent extremism.

The Interior Ministry described the demonstration as the largest in modern French history, with as many as 1.6 million people. ...

The world leaders — including President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain — joined the march in a solemn line. They moved slowly, clasping arms to show solidarity with the victims. The crowd roared in approval.
Two facts of paramount importance must be noted. First, the target of this massive demonstration was Islamic extremism. The Times (as well as various commentators) tries to camouflage this a bit, with the reference to "violent extremism" -- but, c'mon. When a million and a half Charlies gather together -- each one as unique as a fucking snowflake, don't you know -- they do so in response to the Hebdo murders. The world's view is that those murders are a horrifying instance of barbaric Islamic extremism.

The second fact is painfully obvious, and that obviousness is an essential part of its camouflage. Most of the coverage of the Paris rally focuses on the size of the crowd -- over a million and a half people, all marching in support of freedom of expression! -- and adds as a kind of postscript that over 40 "world leaders" "joined" the demonstration. This is completely backwards. When over 40 "world leaders" enthusiastically take part in an event of this kind, that fact alone establishes a single incontrovertible, irrefutable fact: whatever is happening, whatever views are being expressed, none of it is any threat whatsoever to power and authority. More specifically, it is no threat whatsoever to State power. No wonder all those world leaders were eager to take part: the largest demonstration "in modern French history" was nothing less than a glorification of State power.

This truth becomes still more obvious when we remember the actual records of the world leaders in question. Of course, almost no one chose to remember these particular facts. But Daniel Wickham did (via Chris Floyd) in a series of tweets. Here are a few examples of, as Wickham puts it, "the staunch defenders of the free press attending the solidarity rally in Paris today":
Prime Minister of Davutoglu of Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world
Prime Minister Jomaa of Tunisia, which recently jailed blogger Yassine Ayan for 3 years for "defaming the army"
Sec-Gen of NATO, who are yet to be held to account for deliberately bombing and killing 16 Serbian journos in '99
Prime Minister Kopacz of Poland, which raided a magazine to seize recordings embarrassing for the ruling party
Perhaps it would be unkind to say that all those Charlies in Paris (and the millions of additional Charlies around the world) are fools, but the characterization is not inaccurate. But it is more to the point to state that all these Charlies are pawns in a spectacle that served to strengthen the foundations of State power. Moreover, and in an especially hideous twist, the demonstration -- with all those world leaders greeted by a crowd that "roared in approval" -- served to bestow specifically moral approval and encouragement to State power.

Given the growing swaths of destruction, brutality and murder that are the product of State power in recent years, and of Western State power in particular, one might have thought that moral approval and encouragement is the last thing one would choose to gift to the monsters who lead those States, at least if one seeks a better world that is significantly more compassionate and caring than the world in which we now live. And note how cheaply the States in question purchased this gift: their leaders offer a few grunts indicating their supposed approval of "freedom of expression" and "free speech," and the crowd happily accedes to their power. No one troubles to recall the chasm that separates what these States claim to support and what they actually do. The leaders of these States now have still further confirmation that as long as they mumble the right words and slogans at critical moments, they can act in the most oppressive and brutal ways -- and they will never be called to account.

And, my friends, we must add still one more element to appreciate more fully the horror of the Paris rally. Here I turn to an article by Rafia Zakaria, "Let's talk about the other dead journalists" (via The Angry Arab News Service). I encourage you to read Zakaria's article in full. Here are some key excerpts (the highlights are mine):
In France, as elsewhere in the Western world, the attack on Charlie Hebdo is being lamented, and the dead journalists are being celebrated as heroes whose work exemplifies a fearless and defiant pursuit of freedom of expression. However, this fight for freedom of speech is not always seen as a Muslim struggle. Yet the number of Muslim journalists killed defending journalism tells a different story. More than half of 61 journalists killed in 2014 were Muslims, many working in conflict-affected countries such as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Somalia. But few have received the recognition or commemoration accorded to Western journalists or a handful who worked for Western media outlets. ...

[T]he evident double standard and selective outrage illuminates the hierarchy of privilege in our moral reckoning in response to acts of terrorism. It is a dynamic that becomes visible only when Western journalists are targeted. ...

[The] invisibility [of the deaths of Muslim journalists] is part of the routine eliding over terrorism’s brown, Muslim victims that allows the extremists’ unexamined xenophobia and divisive narrative of us versus them to prevail and persist. Failure to mourn and recognize the sacrifices of terrorism victims equally carries enormous risk. The aversion to terrorism only when it reaches the West or kills Westerners suggests our ease with the banishment of terrorism to some distant terrains.

Muslims are more likely to experience war and displacement than any other religious group. Swaths of predominantly Muslim countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan are in the throes of civil strife. Millions of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans have become refugees in already taxed neighboring countries such as Jordan and Pakistan. Not a single person in these countries remains unaffected by the ravages of violence, by grisly massacres at schools and mosques and restaurants and markets. Yet there are some in the West who insist on turning to these beleaguered, injured and maimed populations to demand collective apology for the acts of any and every killer with a Muslim background.
Perhaps the most profoundly disturbing part of Zakaria's argument comes toward the conclusion of her article:
While our selective outrage ignores the pain and sacrifices of Muslims, the generalization imagines all Muslims as perpetrators of terrorism. ...

The horror of terrorism is meant to eviscerate context. It incites the desire for protection and revenge. The collective blame placed on Muslims, the thoughtless investment of blame and suspicion and the highlighting of freedom of expression as a solely Western value is a victory for extremists. Our selective indignation also gives credence to the idea that all the world’s Muslims are already terrorists or potential terrorists. Muslims should not be recognized only when a few of them kill for terrorism and be ignored when thousands of them die at its hands.
For over a decade, the West, led by the bloodthirsty and barbaric government of the United States, has made war on Muslims. The West has invaded and bombed Muslim countries, and tortured, imprisoned and murdered Muslims in a procession of horrors that continue today, and that stretch into a limitless future of pain and suffering. Western leaders have sometimes been at pains to insist that the West is not at war with Islam, but only with Islamic extremism. More and more, the mask slips. More and more, we hear people say, occasionally with regret, but usually with barely concealed glee, "Oh, yes, the real problem is Islam itself." The record amassed to date establishes that the West's enemy is indeed Islam, and Muslims: not only does the West ignore the deaths of Muslim journalists, but the deaths of Muslims in general. The number of murdered Muslims who are "innocent" even by Western standards is beyond reckoning, although Western leaders and opinionmakers steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the fact.

In that connection, consider the difference in scale involved. Twelve people were murdered at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Yes, that is a terrible crime. Some years ago, in September 2007, I attempted to capture the difference in scale by addressing Western narcissism, and the narcissism of Americans in particular. Because Western lives, and Western deaths, are of special significance, and unquestionably of far greater importance than the deaths of assorted brown people in other parts of the world, I made some calculations:
Since Americans' narcissism is so all-encompassing, and because the superior value of American lives and goals as compared to those of all other peoples is regarded as an axiom never to be questioned, let's put these horrors in terms that Americans might understand. Let's make it about you.

For ease of computation, we'll use approximate figures. Assume the U.S.'s war crimes have resulted in one million deaths. That is roughly 1/26 of the total Iraqi population. An equivalent number of American deaths would be 11.5 million people. 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11. In terms of casualties, 11.5 million deaths represent 3,800 9/11s -- or a 9/11 every day for ten and a half years.

Let me repeat that: a 9/11 every day for ten and a half years.

Perhaps you think these casualty figures are highly inflated. Fine. Cut them in half. That's a 9/11 every day for a little over five years.

Every day.

Do you begin to understand now?
The United States Government was so pleased with its work that it has done its best to replicate this notable achievement in a series of other countries -- Libya, Syria, in Asia, in Africa, anywhere the United States has "vital national interests," which is everywhere in the world. The primary target never alters: it is Islam, and Muslims.

With regard to these issues, what most people take away from the Hebdo story is that some cartoonists were making fun of Islam and they were murdered because of it. They were making Islam an object of ridicule. You may rest assured that the millions of instant Charlies in the West have no deeper understanding of the subtleties to be found in the cartoons, if subtleties there in fact be. As these events have demonstrated, capped by the "historic" rally in Paris, to make Islam an object of ridicule is fine with tens of millions of Westerners. It is certainly fine with Western political leaders. For those leaders, making Islam and Muslims objects of ridicule is an invaluable aid to their plans for ongoing, perpetual war. Ridicule is an indispensable element in the demonization of the "other." As just one of innumerable examples from history (as noted by Thomas Fleming, excerpted here):
Everyone from journalists to President Roosevelt routinely used the dehumanizing slang term "Jap," and regularly compared Japanese soldiers and civilians to monkeys, baboons, and gorillas. Admiral Halsey was especially fond of the monkey metaphor, invariably attaching "yellow" to it. At one point Halsey said he could hardly wait to put to sea "to get some more monkey meat." ...

New Dealers and others around the president made no attempt to alter this dehumanizing war against the Japanese. In September 1942, Admiral William Leahy, Roosevelt's White House chief of staff, told Vice President Henry Wallace that Japan was "our Carthage" and "we should go ahead and destroy her utterly." Wallace noted this sentiment without objection in his diary. Elliott Roosevelt, the president's son, told Wallace some months later that he thought Americans should kill "about half the Japanese civilian population." New Dealer Paul McNutt, chairman of the War Manpower Commission, went him one better, recommending "the extermination of the Japanese in toto."
Yes, there were many, many cartoons portraying these themes, replete with "Jap monkeys." The Hebdo cartoonists would have felt right at home.

It is a tragically common historic pattern: ridicule, demonization, extermination. The consolidation of the United States in its current form and its spread across the North American continent were founded on just such a program. Today, we have a program that, in Zakaria's words, "imagines all Muslims as perpetrators of terrorism," and "gives credence to the idea that all the world’s Muslims are already terrorists or potential terrorists."

Despite all the lip service to "freedom of expression," we know that indiscriminate ridicule remains definitely off-limits. The heated, instantaneous criticism of Margaret Cho is but one of numerous proofs. If you're a white comedian, incorporate an offensive joke about "nigger monkeys" (also a common historical trope) -- and wait to see how many of the newly-minted Charlies noisily clamor to defend you. But Islam and Muslims as objects of ridicule have now been officially put on the "approved" list.

To all of this, the huge crowd in Paris has given its enthusiastic blessing, along with its roars of approval. In so doing, they also blessed the States that are so intent on continuing this program into the future. All those Western leaders must be pleased beyond measure. They procured an enormous propaganda victory with no effort or cost on their own part whatsoever.

I genuinely do not mean to be presumptuous in offering the following thought. It is impossible for someone who is not a member of a persecuted group to understand or feel fully what that persecution is like, although I do have some experience of this kind as a gay man (and as a gay man who is now 66 and was a teenager, with a growing awareness of his sexuality, during the 1960s, which was a terrifying experience in many ways). But if I were Muslim and I contemplated these recent events, and if I further considered the implications and possible ramifications of what has transpired, I would probably be very, very anxious.

In fact, I might be scared shitless.