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The Prime Minister has outlined the Government’s plan for an early troop withdrawal from Afghanistan which could see the majority of Australian soldiers return by the end of 2013.
The Government had been working towards bringing Australian soldiers home by the end of 2014, the date set down by the NATO-led international forces.
But Julia Gillard says security has improved in Afghanistan and it is likely the majority of Australian troops will leave next year.
“This is a war with a purpose, this is a war with an end. We have a strategy, a mission and a timeframe for achieving it,” she said in an address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“PM confirms expedited Afghan exit,” ABC News, 17 April 2012
The national discourse surrounding this announcement – surrounding this whole war – pisses me off. First is the assumption that anybody in Washington or London or Berlin or Kabul gives a flying fuck whether Australia’s meagre token force is there or not. The Taliban will see it as a symbolic victory, the ISAF as a symbolic loss. Australians should be questioning the fact that their contribution is considered merely ‘symbolic.’
Second is the Prime Minister’s rhetoric-laden speech about how this isn’t a defeat or a withdrawal, but rather a transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces, who will maintain the current status quo of peace, prosperity and stability for which Afghanistan is renowned across the globe. (Imagine what it will be like if they lose any further control.) But nah, I’m sure it’s fine, we’ve been training these guys for nearly a decade. They must be nearly ready now, right?
Third is the ludicrous notion that this is all according to plan, all going swimmingly, a perfectly reasonable and logical step in the itinerary. A five-year-old child born years after 9/11 could point out to our Prime Minister that this is actually a frustrated and hasty political manoeuvre, part of a grander tapestry of hubristic defeat for Western forces. Put quite simply: we are losing this war. Our aims are vague, our forces huddle inside fortified compounds, and our mission has gone from rooting out al-Qaeda to creating a stable democracy to withdrawal by 2014 no matter what the cost. Since Australia’s stake extends no further than supporting US foreign policy as part of the ANZUS alliance – no matter how fucking stupid, badly-planned and frankly naive American wars might be – it’s in our political interest to be the first to leave the party. I mean, hey, we did stick around for eleven years, which is pretty late. But, you know, we’ve got work in the morning, so we’d better get going. Nice seeing you, though!
Countless left-wing commentators will talk about how the military-industrial complex controls this (and every) war, and how it’s not supposed to have clear goals or resolutions, but exists merely to make money for certain sections of Western society. I have no doubt that the relationship between military manufacturers and the interior of the Beltway has been a prominent geopolitical force over the last decade, but right here, right now, in Afghanistan? Their calls are clearly no longer a priority. Our mission in that country has morphed into nothing more sophisticated than a frantic dash for the exit. There is no more damning indictment against our alleged noble purpose than hearing Julia Gillard, David Cameron and Barack Obama talk over and over and over again about how we will be sticking to our scheduled departure date of 2014, apparently with the iron-clad certainty that the security situation will improve by then. How do you think it makes Afghans feel to know that we’re bailing in two years, no matter what? How do you think it makes the Taliban feel?
Here is the plain truth. The public has grown weary of this war, the military has grown weary of this war, politicians have grown weary of this war, and it’s evident to everyone that if we stick around in this static misery we will be in precisely the same situation in 2022 – an endless baton relay, the Afghan runner sprinting ever further ahead of us, never willing or able to take the flame. We went into a foreign country with zero understanding of its culture, background or context, and we are paying the price of our own arrogance. Or, rather, the Afghans are paying the price, and will continue to pay the price. Western leaders never once cared about the people of Afghanistan. For John Howard, Tony Blair and George Bush, Afghanistan was an irritating nest of terrorists to be exterminated; for Julia Gillard, David Cameron and Barack Obama it’s an irritating geopolitical swamp to extricate our armies from. There’s a common viewpoint which says that national leaders care about nothing but getting re-elected, but even the most altruistic of national leaders observe the world through the prism of their own nation’s interests. Never ever forget that when you’re watching Gillard or Cameron or Obama banging on about “the people of Afghanistan.”
So, here’s what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. We’re going to hang out for two more years, get a bunch of Afghans killed, get a lot of our own soldiers killed, waste a lot of money, and leave with the
South Vietnamese Army Afghan National Army being judged capable of handling its own security. Within the next 1-3 years, the government will be overthrown and the Taliban will be in control again, which will be an appropriate amount of time for the West to save face and argue that it was the Afghans’ fault. For however long the fall of the government goes on – likely no more than two or three weeks – it will feature between page 5 and page 10 of the newspapers, and receive third billing in the 6pm news bulletins.
Every soldier who died in Afghanistan – American, Australian, Dutch, Canadian, any of them – died for nothing. Don’t get on my case about that. Don’t accuse me of disrespecting the troops, who sacrifice their lives for our countries. It’s exactly because the troops sacrifice their lives for our countries that they deserve honesty. They deserve to know precisely why they’re sacrificing their lives, and what that sacrifice will accomplish. They deserve to know why we’re going to war, whether we’ve thought it through properly, and what difference it’s going to make. They don’t deserve to be treated like chess pawns, maneuvered throughout Central Asia in a 21st century reboot of the Great Game, paid off with the sickeningly childish refrain of “this is a war with a purpose, and a war with an end.”
Julia Gillard is making the right decision for the wrong reason. Whatever. We lost this war a long time ago. Bring our troops home, because they sure as fuck aren’t making a difference there. And if you really want to help Afghans, and save Afghan women from the brutal rule of the Taliban? Increase the refugee intake.
The U.S. President recently visited Australia and was greeted with gushing adulation from almost every part of our society. This came not just from the people one expects it from, like our lapdog politicians or lazy media, but also from ordinary people, even those who are generally quite politically aware. I was particularly disappointed by Senator Bob Brown, who rightly heckled George Bush in 2003, but who shook Barack Obama’s hand and gushed about it on Twitter later. Australians apparently don’t pay enough attention to foreign politics to realise that it isn’t November 2008 anymore, and rather than being the reincarnation of Martin Luther King, the anti-Bush, the answer to the evil of the last decade, Obama has instead turned out to be a disgrace to his office and a traitor to his country – for all the same reasons Bush was.
A quick recap of why Obama is a terrible President and a bad person:
1. Failure to prosecute Bush Administration officials for what were clearly war crimes. (The usual cop-out argument appears to be “it would tear the country apart/it was a time of war and bad decisions were made/it’s an outrageous Radical Left-Wing idea. Apparently the President is above the law. I see why America went to the trouble of deposing the monarchy.)
2. Engaging in his own war crimes, such as kidnapping people and throwing them into prison for years on end without trial. (Astute readers will note that this is a continued
Mao Stalin Bush policy.)
3. Slaughtering Pakistani civilians by the bucketload with flying robots, which will breed a new generation of terrorists more efficiently than anything else I can think of. (This was a policy that began under Bush and was honed and cultivated to successful new levels under Obama.)
5. An unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers who expose government waste, wrongdoing or criminal acts.
6. Total subserviance to the reckless plutocrats who obliterated the U.S. economy and ruined millions of lives.
I was genuinely excited in November 2008, when Obama was elected President. I have long since accepted his betrayal, and come to the realisation that no matter who sits in the White House, the U.S. government will always be the U.S. government. What I now have to accept is that intelligent, progressive, left-wing politicians like Bob Brown are either too ignorant to realise or to shallow to care that Obama is just as much of a murderer, bully and tyrant as George Bush.
The Road To Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937) 232 p.
After returning from Burma in 1927, George Orwell found that his beliefs and prejudices had been completely upturned after witnessing the evil brutality of the British imperial system. He decided he wanted “to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.”
He ended up spending much time amongst the working class, and the result of that was his excellent book Down And Out In Paris And London, which I read last year and greatly enjoyed. The Road To Wigan Pier continues in this vein, but was written several years later after Orwell had established himself as a writer and distilled his outrage into a coherent socialist philosophy. He was commisioned by an organisation called the Left Book Club to carry out a report on the living conditions of the unemployed in England’s industrial North. This investigation comprises the first half of the book; the second comprises Orwell’s reflections upon that situation, and what must be done about it.
I preferred the first half of the book to the second, as Orwell throws himself into the atrocious hovels and slums of Wigan and Sheffield, making his usual wry and witty observations. (“There are also houses of what is called the ‘blind back’ type, which are single houses, but in which the builder has omitted to put in a back door – from pure spite, apparently.”) Orwell’s famous dedication to clear, concise writing makes him endlessly entertaining and readable, and he comes up with some marvellous similes.
The second half of the book was less entertaining; it is largely a political essay, which I don’t mind, but like many essays in Shooting An Elephant it is quite dated. Orwell wrote this book in the late 30s when socialism was still considered a feasible possibility in many parts of society, and while fascism was running rampant across Europe. He very clearly thought the next major struggle in the world would be between Fascism and Socialism, not Capitalism and Communism. Reading through it, I was mostly struck by how wrong Orwell turned out to be. He spends much of his time arguing why socialism had failed to gain many adherents, and one of his points is that many people disliked industrialism and mentally associated it with socialism. Orwell himself, while believing it to be “here to stay,” is also quite critical of what he calls “the machine-society.” He then later says:
There is no chance of righting the conditions I described in the earlier chapters of this book, or of saving England from Fascism, unless we can bring an effective Socialist party into existence. It will have to be a party with genuinely revolutionary intentions, and it will have to be numerically strong enough to act. We can only get it if we offer an objective which fairly ordinary people will recognise as desirable. Beyond all else, therefore, we need intelligent propaganda. Less about ‘class consciousness,’ ‘expropriation of the expropriators,’ bourgeois ideology,’ and ‘proletarian solidarity,’ not to mention the sacred sisters, thesis, antithesis and synthesis; and more about justice, liberty and the plight of the unemployed. And less about mechanical progress, tractors, the Dneiper dam and the latest salmon-canning factory in Moscow; that kind of thing is not an integral part of Socialist doctrine, and it drives away many people whom the Socialist cause needs, including most of those who can hold a pen.
No such Socialist party came about, yet England was not consumed by Fascism. And how were the conditions in northern England righted? Through technological advances and the progress of the machine-society which Orwell so disapproved of. There is clearly still an imbalance of wealth in England today, but to compare the houses of the working class now with the houses of the working class of eighty years ago is to compare modern luxury with medieval squalor. Television, broadband Internet, mass-produced clothing, central heating, affordable white goods, hot water, subsidised medical care and unfailing electricity combine to create what the miners and labourers of Orwell’s day would regard as paradise.
Curiously enough, Orwell actually touched upon in the first half of the book:
And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.
The difference, of course, is that the modern British welfare state (which I am not particularly familiar with the history of, but which appears to exist in a limited form in The Road To Wigan Pier) ensures that nobody is actually starving, even if they have been unemployed their entire lives. Whether or not the “cheap luxuries” of today seem superior to those of Orwell’s time because of my own modern vantage point, or because they actually are, is hard to say. Perhaps eighty years from now we will all have robot butlers and want for nothing, and consider having to work forty hours a week to have been a cruel and terrible fate.
Then, however, there’s the fact that our own cheap luxuries are not a result of the industrial process having been perfected, but rather because the Western world simply bucked its “working” class status onto East Asia. Now the same thing is happening in China, as hundreds of millions are lifted out of poverty and expect higher living standards, and manufacturers look to Vietnam or Indonesia or somewhere else where people are still poor and will work for a dollar a day. What happens when everybody on Earth is rich and prosperous? I can’t find the exact quote, but somewhere in The Road To Wigan Pier Orwell mentions that the whole world is a raft flying through space, which contains more than enough for everybody to live comfortably. This may have been true at the time, but it certainly isn’t today; the one or two billion OECD citizens are living well beyond their means, let alone the five billion in the developing world. Either we will exhaust the planet’s resources and collapse into a prolonged Dark Age of death, misery and poverty, or we will expand space travel and harvest the resources of other planets to provide for the billions of new TV-watching, Coke-drinking people who will be created once the developing world finishes developing, which will certainly happen within the next fifty years. And, ironically enough, the most likely push for that more optimistic outcome will be capitalist thirst for raw materials.
As you can see, Orwell gets me thinking. I didn’t enjoy The Road To Wigan Pier quite as much as Down And Out In Paris And London, but it’s still an excellent book and a valuable historical document.
Terry Lane has an article in the recent Australian Book Review about freedom of speech in this country, which is something I’ve been thinking about lately.
There is no guarantee of freedom of speech in our constitution. In some cases the High Court has found an implied protection, ruling that as the constitution envisages the nation as a democracy, and as democracy cannot function if political argument is impeded, then the drafters of the constitution must have taken freedom of speech for granted. This is convenient eyewash.
The Australian constitution is derived, in part, from that of the United States. The American constitution says, in its first amendment, adopted in 1791, that: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ Our constitution includes the prohibition of the establishment of a religion, so why did the drafting convention not take the first amendment in its entirety? Clearly they thought it was a revolutionary concept best left out.
Australia is, I am fairly certain, alone amongst Western nations in not having a bill of rights that outlines basic rights such as freedom of speech. Explaining this to foreigners is not just embarassing, like explaining why the Union Jack is on our flag – it’s downright dangerous. Lane outlines several minor but disturbing incidents:
Zanny Begg, an artist, had her outdoor exhibition Checkpoint for Weapons of Mass Distraction (2004), hosted by the University of Western Sydney and the Blacktown Arts Centre, shut down because some zealous minor council official, backed by the mayor, took exception to her anti-war message. This was much like the removal of the burned and tattered flag created by Melbourne artist Azlan McLennan, which he exhibited with the label Proudly UnAustralian (2006). When an unknown person complained, the police removed the offending item from the gallery.
And the most frustrating part is the attitude of most Australians about the issue. On the subject of flag-burning:
Jennifer says: ‘They should be stopped from doing it in a public place with children around … and have their own little flag-burning ceremonies [in] backyards. If it was to happen in a public place then they should be charged and made to apologise to the people they have offended … ’ There is something profoundly, obsequiously, stupidly Australian in that single sentence. You can say whatever you like about anything you like as long as no one can hear you and you don’t block the traffic. I am grateful to Gelber for confirming what I have long suspected.
Beyond that is the idea held by many Australians that it really doesn’t matter – that as long as the government isn’t hauling you off the street in a black van, that as long as we’re better than China or North Korea, then you shouldn’t be whining about having your art installation removed from a gallery. This is related to a wider apathy about all things political (“why should I care if it doesn’t affect me?”) which annoys me immensely. The same people who say this would be outraged if it did affect them, and even more outraged if nobody else cared. Freedom is generally an abstract concept to people until they are deprived of it, no matter how minor that deprivation may be.
Glenn Greenwald explains why freedom of speech is important better than I can:
The whole point of the First Amendment is that one is free to express the most marginalized, repellent, provocative and offensive ideas. Those are the views that are always targeted for suppression. Mainstream orthodoxies, harmless ideas, and inoffensive platitudes require no protection as they are not, by definition, vulnerable to censorship. But as has been repeatedly seen in history, ideas that are despised and marginalized are often proven right, while ideas that enjoy the status of orthodoxy prove to be deeply erroneous or even evil. That’s why no rational person trusts the state — or even themselves — to create lists of Prohibited Ideas. And those who endorse the notion that ideas they hate should be forcibly suppressed inevitably — and deservedly — will have their own ideas eventually targeted by the same repressive instruments.
If you don’t believe in freedom of speech – if you believe that the government should be permitted and even encouraged to stifle views that you find offensive – then you don’t believe in freedom at all. Criminalising the expression of viewpoints is, morally, equivalent to criminalising thoughts and ideas. And the reason that many Australians don’t particularly care is reason enough to have this right encoded in law, rather than relying upon convention.
Australians are quite notoriously stupid and selfish people. I make a habit of reading the letters in The West Australian, to angry up the blood, and over the last few weeks many of them have been harping on about how we should cancel foreign aid to assist the Queensland floods. This is not uncommon for the typical West letter writer, who is usually an octogenerian Pom who fled the United Kingdom when they started letting darkies in, so I was unsurprised.
What has surprised me is the rabid vitriol with which Australians have met the government’s proposed tax levy. Apparently people are quite happy to feel sorry for Queenslanders as long as they don’t have to do anything, but are absolutely unwilling to part with a miniscule fragment of their annual income to help rebuild. Tony Abbott, the leering populist religious zealot who will no doubt be our next prime minister, is going on and on and on about how it’s yet another “great big tax” that will “hurt Australian families.”
I challenge anyone to show me one family – literally one – that will be “hurt” by the levy. Shit, show me one person.
If you are earning under $55,000 a year, you don’t pay the levy at all. If you earn between $55,000 and $65,000, you pay 48 cents a week – or 6 cents per day. If you earn between $65,000 and $80,000, you pay $1.44 a week – or 20 cents per day. If you earn between $80,000 and $150,000, you pay $2.88 a week – or 41 cents per day. If you earn over $150,000 you pay $14.42 a week, roughly the amount you tip your Filipino maid.
I know maths is boring, but you need to stop and think about or you’ll look like a fucking nong – like, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald did when it published a whiny story about the poor Aussie battler family that will now be doing it tough because of the minimal contribution required to help families further north who have lost everything they own (including, sometimes, their loved ones).
Mr Matias works in IT and Mrs Matias has a home business making personalised luggage tags. Their combined income means the levy will cost them about $600.
This is because they are in the highest tax bracket, i.e. they are among the wealthiest 0.1% of people in the world. And yet the Herald would have us crying sweet salty tears over their terrible plight, perhaps enough to drown out the tears of those Queenslanders who returned to their homes to find them still knee-deep in mud, their possessions destroyed or washed away.
This bears clarification: people are complaining about a tax to help their countrymen who have lost everything – a tax that will, for the average income earner, add up to less than two fucking dollars a week. If that’s enough to obliterate your finances and drive your family over the brink into miserable poverty, then your razor-thin income margins likely should have been addressed earlier.
Abbott’s declaration that “mates help each other – they don’t tax each other” beggared belief, as though he thought the funds raised would be going towards a few extra bottles of cognac at the Lodge, but he quickly amended it to: “Mates choose to help each other. They aren’t forced to help each other.” Many people say they have already donated to the flood relief effort and resent being forced to donate on top of it. This is bizarre to me, particularly in light of the calculations above (again: less than two fucking dollars a week). This is why it seems, to me, to be a facade argument along the lines of “we don’t want boat people coming here because they jump the queue/leaky boats put their lives in danger.” I suspect that the grim reality is that most Australians are happy to give lip service to flood victims, but with squeal like stuck pigs if expected to make any kind of actual, tangible donation, no matter how negligible and unnoticeable it is – like, say, LESS THAN TWO FUCKING DOLLARS A WEEK. FUCK YOU AUSTRALIA, YOU NATION OF WHINY SELF-ENTITLED SHITHEADS.
I love Wikileaks. I love everything about it, not just the delicious caches of secret information it releases; I love the fascinating international man of mystery who controls it, I love the way it regularly sends the U.S. government into an explosive panic, and I love the way it represents the digital age being used for freedom of speech and the press, exposing all of our governments’ shameful secrets. Some of the best revelations from the cable leaks:
When Afghanistan’s vice president visited the United Arab Emirates last year, local authorities working with the Drug Enforcement Administration discovered that he was carrying $52 million in cash. With wry understatement, a cable from the American Embassy in Kabul called the money “a significant amount” that the official, Ahmed Zia Massoud, “was ultimately allowed to keep without revealing the money’s origin or destination.”
Aside from the implications of that (i.e. that the government we have established in Afghanistan is hopelessly corrupt), how does one actually carry $52 million in cash? $2 million alone fills up a briefcase, doesn’t it?
Counselor of the Department of State Eliot Cohen and CSIS Director Jim Judd in Ottawa on July 2 discussed threats posed by violent Islamist groups in Canada, and recent developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (CSIS is Canada’s lead agency for national security intelligence.) Director Judd ascribed an “Alice in Wonderland” worldview to Canadians and their courts, whose judges have tied CSIS “in knots,” making it ever more difficult to detect and prevent terror attacks in Canada and abroad.
Urggh, God, how dare the courts try to maintain the rule of law?
In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.
This is a huge deal. The question of whether China’s desire to maintain a buffer state between itself and a country with a permanent US troop presence would translate into actual combat support in the event of a war has now been answered, with a resounding no. North Korea now has zero chance of winning a war against the South. That still makes a war undesirable for all concerned (except Northern citizens languishing under a barbaric regime), but now that Southerners are aware of this, it could make a huge difference in the level of public support if push ever comes to shove.
4. (C//NF) Grinda stated that he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual “mafia states” and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC groups.
//Identifying The Scope of The Threat the Russian Mafia Poses//
5. (C) Grinda suggested that there are two reasons to worry about the Russian mafia. First, it exercises “tremendous control” over certain strategic sectors of the global economy, such as aluminum. He made a passing remark that the USG has a strategic problem in that the Russian mafia is suspected of having a sizable investment in XXXXXXXXXXXX 6. (S//NF) The second reason is the unanswered question regarding the extent to which Russian PM Putin is implicated in the Russian mafia and whether he controls the mafia’s actions. Grinda cited a “thesis” by Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence official who worked on OC issues before he died in late 2006 in London from poisoning under mysterious circumstances, that the Russian intelligence and security services – Grinda cited the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and military intelligence (GRU) – control OC in Russia. Grinda stated that he believes this thesis is accurate.
An intriguing alliance: American diplomats in Rome reported in 2009 on what their Italian contacts described as an extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and business magnate, including “lavish gifts,” lucrative energy contracts and a “shadowy” Russian-speaking Italian go-between. They wrote that Mr. Berlusconi “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin” in Europe.
You know how you watch those old movies set in medieval times, like, say, Robin Hood or Braveheart or whatever, where the upper class lives in insane luxury and malevolently rules over the populace with unrestrained power? That’s basically still how the modern world works.
Speaking of the monarchy:
9. (C) Addressing the Ambassador directly, Prince Andrew then turned to regional politics. He stated baldly that “the United Kingdom, Western Europe (and by extension you Americans too”) were now back in the thick of playing the Great Game. More animated than ever, he stated cockily: “And this time we aim to win!” Without contradicting him, the Ambassador gently reminded him that the United States does not see its presence in the region as a continuation of the Great Game.
This entire cable is worth reading, written as it is by a wearily cynical American diplomat. A privileged jackass runs his mouth while surrounded by people who are better educated and more hard-working than he is, but they smile and nod throughout because he’s part of the royal family. Ah, the delights of monarchy!
On a final note, while many of the leaks themselves are highly entertaining, none can live up to the reaction of the U.S. government, which has again accused Wikileaks of “[putting] people’s lives in danger.” You can see a list of the people who have died as a result of Wikileaks’ various disclosures here; meanwhile, you can see a list of the people who have died as a result of the U.S. government’s actions here.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (2003) 688 p.
A People’s History of the United States is a revisionist history text that attempts to document U.S. history as it appeared from the eyes of “the people” – the poor, the black, the American Indian, and the female; in other words, all the people who until recently had no say in how the United States was governed. It attacks the elementary-level view of American history as one full of heroes fighting for liberty, and instead paints a particularly bleak picture of oppression and control. This is a book that reminds us that Christopher Columbus personally engaged in genocide, that Lincoln did not particularly care about freeing slaves, and that the Founding Fathers created a government of, for and by rich white slaveowners.
The ultimate impression the book leaves one with is that the United States is controlled by a slim percentage of extremely rich people, that domestic and foreign policy is entirely revolved around protecting “the national interest” (i.e. corporate interest), that the government, judiciary and media all work diligently to maintain this status quo, and that this state of affairs dates all the way back to the Revolution. Most people already know this, but to see it so thoroughly and articulately documented and summarised is quite shocking.
The book is, obviously, quite biased. Zinn openly admits this, and declares that he is “not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the opposite direction – so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements – that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”
I’m not sure to what level I agree with that; I certainly thought he was stretching it at some points in the book, such as his portrayal of Native American society as a perfect harmonious utopia, or his steadfast opposition to all wars, even World War II and Korea. I do not subscribe to the belief that when arguing a point you should misrepresent, or entirely omit, the viewpoint of your opponent. If you are in the right, their arguments will ultimately be defeated; if not, perhaps you should rethink your opinion.
When describing the SS Mayaguez incident, for example, Zinn makes passing reference to “a revolutionary regime” that had recently seized power in Cambodia. That regime was, of course, the Khmer Rouge, one of the 20th century’s most incomprehensibly evil governments. Perhaps the Mayaguez incident really was all about propaganda – and Zinn makes a compelling case for that – so why avoid mentioning the Khmer Rouge? Because Zinn knows the connections a well-educated reader will draw? Because it brings up the fact that regadless of motive, rescuing the captured crew was the correct course of action? Zinn details how the crew were well-treated by their captors, as though that made it okay, despite previously discussing how the relatively happy lives of many American slaves did not make their slavery one jot less cruel.
This is just one example of many small incidents throughout the book where I found myself disapproving of Zinn’s technique. I hesitate to draw comparison to Michael Moore, because Moore is much less elegant and refined and serious than Zinn, but he’s the only comparable figure I can think of: somebody presenting a one-sided argument that might even be called propaganda, and which should not be tolerated simply because it’s propaganda for what is good and right and just.
Of couse Zinn, as mentioned above, openly acknowledges his bias and the motive behind it, and I would greatly prefer for people to read something that admits its bias rather than falsely claiming objectivity. The other important factor is, of course, that I am not the intended target for this book. A People’s History of the United States was written by an American, for Americans, in an effort to undermine the false assumptions and accepted wisdom prevalent in American culture, and particularly in American schools. As an Australian, I come from a culture where the United States is generally regarded quite poorly. Yet I could still draw parallels; although Australia is a far more egalitarian society, with a political system less corrupted by lobbyists and business interests, we too have classes, and politicans here also exploit our fears of foreigners as a convenient boogeyman. Here, too, the lower and middle classes are often bizarrely opposed to trade unions. Huge swathes of A People’s History of the United States, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, revolve around the labor movement: the strikes, the protests, the sit-ins and the struggles. Although I also found these sections to be the most tedious, it was quite eye-opening to see a vision of the United States during a time when the poor were not held in Stockholm Syndrome with the rich.
Clearly I’m not the best person to judge the value of this book. I certainly don’t think it’s a book you should read uncritically, nor without reading other books on American history. But it certainly has a valuable place in American political and historical discourse, and the purpose Zinn wrote it for is a noble one. Apparently he copped a lot of flak because the outlook of the book was so depressing, but I actually found his personal opinion to be quite positive, particularly in chapters towards the end where he describes his vision of the future, where the military-industrial complex has been overthrown and the American government concerns itself with all of its people, not just the wealthiest. This is not a belief I share; I look at Americans protesting Obama, a man no different from any of his predecessors except in the colour of his skin, chanting about how he is a socialist and a Marxist and a communist. I look at them and I wonder how they can possibly be so oblivious, how they can possibly not realise that all their beliefs and values have been shaped by think-tanks and politicians with the delibarate intent of keeping theem in check; no different, except in volume, from working class Australians who vote for the Liberal Party because they’re frightened of boat people. I could wish that every American would read A People’s History of the United States, but a good chunk of them would throw it aside as “communist rubbish,” and another good chunk would lap up every thing Zinn says without thinking laterally, and would then go spraypaint a local council chamber while listening to Muse. I think what I’m saying is that most people are idiots and deserve what they get from the government.
Um, I mean, it was a bit boring sometimes but a really thought-provoking book. Recommended.
I’ve learned some valuable lessons reading the news in the last few days. If you are a Muslim and you use violence for ideological purposes, you are a TERRORIST. If you are a white Texan with an Anglo-Saxon name, and you use the exact same kind of violence for ideological purposes, you are not. This is good to know!
American Journeys by Don Watson (2008) 326 p.
America holds a fascinating sway for Australians – for foreigners in general, certainly, but more so for an English-speaking nation with little history and a feeble culture. I grew up watching the Simpsons, eating at McDonalds, reading Calvin and Hobbes, going to see Hollywood blockbusters and playing Grand Theft Auto. For me, names like “California” and “New York” are on par with “Narnia” and “Oz,” equally fantastic and unreachable.
And yet there is a vehement anti-American streak running through Australian society; perhaps a kneejerk reaction against our children being bred as quasi-Americans, or a way to compensate for our own inferiority complex, or simply the fact that most of the world, by and large, dislikes America. This creates a paradox, one which Australian journalist Don Watson tasked himself with exploring:
On The United States of America my senses swing like a door with no latch. They are moved by fierce gusts and imperceptible zephyrs. Love and loathing come and go in about the same proportion. But then, one rages about one’s own siblings from time to time, and one’s own country: it is not rational, in the main. Yet there had been a time when anti-Americanism took on a gleam of reason. As earnest student radicals in the late 1960s, we saw the thread that joined the vicious white mobs of the South to the very foundations of the republic – because we learned that such founders of American democracy as Washington and Jefferson took slaves. We learned what we took to be the real truth about the Indian Wars, the Mexican Wars and the Monroe Doctrine, and it persuaded us that Vietnam was part of a pattern which, when you looked at it hard, revealed IMPERIALISM.
But just as we were thinking it was in the “nature’ of America to be brutal, racist and imperialistic, a paradox appeared. The Freedom Marchers had been American. Martin Luther King was American. Sidney Perelmen was American. Mark Twain was American. Portnoy was American. Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, William Appleman Williams, Herbert Marcuse and Robert Crumb were all American. Our jeans were American. The most articulate critics of America – the most articulate people on earth, and the most liberal – were American. The America of my most avid anti-American phase was the America of my first rational adult heroes. The paradox, greatly modified though it is, animates me still.
America itself is a paradox. It is a country responsible for the lion’s share of the great technological and scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, yet a country where evolution is widely disbelieved and the vast majority of the population is religious. It is a country that, in spite of its Christian values, executes convicts by the truckload and craves a war every twenty years or so. It is a country full of people who call for “smaller government” while supporting the erosion of civil liberties. None of this is this a new phenomenon; the phrase “all men are born equal” was coined by slaveowners.
It is on this paradox that Watson bases his book, part travelogue and part social commentary. His journey took place in 2005 and 2006, beginning in Katrina-devastated New Orleans and spanning a very respectable chunk of the country, crossing back and forth almost as much as Jack Kerouac in On The Road. There are several recurring themes – race relations, the plight of America’s underclass, the pervasive influence of Christianity, the political polarity. Watson is a fine writer and an intelligent scholar, and while American Journeys can be tedious at times, one is never short of food for thought.
For a book supposedly about the Great American Paradox, however – which would mean both the good and the bad – American Journeys paints a very bleak picture. Black Americans continue to occupy a low socio-economic rung. The prison-industrial complex leaves penitentiaries overflowing with inmates. Violence seems ingrained in the history and the culture. There is no universal healthcare, the state values the rights of employers over employees, and the minimum wage is appallingly low – many people live day-to-day, dollar-to-dollar, teetering above the poverty line. The political sphere is rife with slander, pettiness, and unebelievable ignorance.
Watson mentions only two arguments in favour of America. The first (and minor) one is the kindness and friendliness of its individual citizens, which I’ll come back to in a moment. The second – a major theme which he bases his entire conclusion around – is American freedom.
Freedom is such an old chestnut of American rhetoric that it does not impress outsiders as perhaps it should. The more the president speaks of it, the less meaning it registers… And yet, when one travels in America, the chestnut sheds at least some of its shell. You come to see that, to Americans, freedom means something that we incurable collectivists do not quite understand; and that they know freedom in ways that we do not. Freedom is the country’s sacred state. Freedom is what must be protected. All over, they will tell you what is wrong with America, but freedom is the one thing they think right. And whatever the insults to my social democratic senses, that is what I find irresistable about the place – the almost guilty, adolescent feeling that in this place a person can do what he wants. He can grow absurdly rich; he can hunt a mountain lion; he can harbour the most fantastic ideas; he can shoot someone. He can commune with God and nature, buy anything he wants, pay anyone for any service and at any fee. He can be a social outcast or even a prisoner and yet, being American, believe that he is free.
If I am American, I am as free as a person can be. If I am free, I can do – or dream of doing – all the things it is in my nature to do or to dream; no other place on Earth need interest me. So long as I am guaranteed this freedom, I will forgive the things my country does that are not in my nature or my dreams. I will be “spared all the care of thinking about them.” This is, of course, unless my country or some other place threatens freedom.
This comes completely out of the left field in the afterword, as though Watson suddenly realised he’d written a comprehensive tome detailing every one of America’s flaws and felt compelled to balance it out somehow. It feels quite hollow when he has been told numerous times throughout the book, by taxi drivers and barmen and retirees and countless others, that America is a unique stronghold of freedom – and which he counters every time with the plain and simple fact that dozens of other countries are equally free. More free, perhaps, given the current American penchant for trading in civil liberties for security.
The lasting impression I got from the book (one which I mostly already held) was that America is, among Western countries, an extremely dysfunctional nation. A fascinating place, yes, when held at arm’s length and viewed through the lens of movies and video games, and a place which I already have plans to visit. But not a place where I would like to permanently live, or raise a family. Not a healthy society.
I probably shouldn’t cast judgement on a country I’ve never been to, only experienced (a lot, mind you) through popular culture. But I’ll do it anyway. I think that, under my personal definition of “great,” America is far from being the greatest nation on earth. I think it is nonetheless the most interesting nation on Earth, by a long shot. I think it’s important to separate people from their governments; I’ve met many Americans in my time, and found, as Watson did, that they’re quite friendly and likeable. I have nothing but disdain for Australians (invariably, Australians who’ve never actually met an American) who accuse American citizens of being arrogant and rude and stupid – without a shred of self-awareness. It’s one thing to criticise the sweeping history of the American nation/government’s brutality; quite another thing to generalise 300 million people.
I think that while America has many flaws, there are plenty of great things about it… but that none of those great things are absent in the other nations of the Western world.
I think that while these other Western nations may not seem to have as many severe flaws as America does, that may just be because we are smaller and quieter and less populous. I think that Australia or Europe or Canada would be equally liable to sabre-rattling and imperialism, were any one of us the most powerful nation in the world.
I think that, while my beliefs about America may be naive or uninformed, at leas I’m fucking consistent and lucid with them, unlike Don Watson.
American Journeys makes a lot of interesting arguments about aspects of America, but ultimately fails to make any kind of cohesive statement on the country as a whole, other than the bizarrely uncharacteristic afterword that suggests Watson felt a book about America would be incomplete without a big stirring speech about trademarked American Freedom – a myth he has previously debunked. (A myth that is self-evidently debunked, for that matter.)
That’s okay, I suppose. America has been the defining cultural, political and economic juggernaut all over the world for nearly a century, and will remain so in the English-speaking world for a long time to come. You can’t wrap your head around it by taking a few train rides and writing a book, let alone by reading that book from your distant home in suburban Australia. I doubt I’ll ever understand a place as powerful, dynamic, intense and loud as America, but if my life goes to plan I’ll be arriving there sometime next year, and I’ll see things for myself.
It’s Remembrance Day, which marks the biannual ritual of the media going through the usual hollow, jingoistic motions and patching together new editorials and opinion pieces from previous years, the same old talk about sacrifice and freedom and courage and blah blah blah. I don’t mean to belittle the experiences of soldiers serving in any war, but I’m getting pretty fucking tired of watching commentators attempt to wrangle WWI combatants into the paddock marked “died for our freedom.”
Australian troops weren’t dying for our freedom, they were dying for the British Empire, they would have gladly said as much, at the time they considered themselves British subjects, and the entire retarded myth was created retrospectively. I’ve ranted about this before, so I won’t bother doing it again, but I did want to comment on something I found particularly stupid. In a column by Rod Moran (who resembles a cartoonish circus ringmaster) in today’s West Australian 8-page liftout to COMMEMORATE THE TROOPS, LEST WE FORGET, HOO-RAH, he makes the completely empty assertion that “much was at stake for Australia” (literally nothing was at stake for Australia and I challenge anybody to prove otherwise), and he quotes the Australian journalist and historian C.E.W. Bean, who spent much of the war embedded with Australian troops:
“Nearly every symptom that marks the Nazi return towards international chaos and permanent war was observable in the methods of the German leaders in 1914-1918… There can be no question which side then, as today, offered most hope for humanity, of which the mass of humanity favoured.”
What a load of shit. Apparently it was as fashionable in the early 40′s as it is today to assume that Germany was the evil bad guy in World War I as well as in World War II. It was not. The German state at the time was a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government and an overseas empire; essentially a Continental counterpart to the British Empire, with both parties responsible for their fair share of reprehensible atrocities in the name of imperialism. Germany did not initiate World War I; Austria-Hungary did, and Germany was dragged along as its ally. The entire war was the result of a regional squabble that escalated due to a complex web of military alliances. This is common knowledge to anybody with a high-school level of education.
Germany fell into a whirpool of fascism and military expansionism as a direct result of its loss in World War I, with the Nazi Party exploiting the bitter sense of wounded national pride that would have instead existed in Great Britain had fortunes been reversed. Bean argued that the German people were naturally more inclined to violence, aggression and the support of a totalitarian state because he was as influenced as anybody else by the Allied propaganda and jingoism of the time. Rod Moran quotes him because it provides neat support to the DEFEND FREEEEEEEDOM theme of the West’s Remembrance Day liftout. I don’t chalk this up to mere journalistic laziness; Moran has also dabbled his toes in denying Aboriginal genocide in articles for Quadrant Magazine, the white blindfold publication edited by racist shitbag Keith Windschuttle, and I have no doubt that he truly believes this ludicrous caricature of the Hun.
Both men are peddling a view that is not only stupid but dangerous. To believe that one particular nation or race is more susceptible to becoming a fascist state, to surrendering its freedom and unleashing a hellish war, is naive in the extreme. To provide a much milder example, I have watched with dismay over the last ten years as my fellow Australians have, under the administration of John Howard, grown increasingly racist, nationalist and belligerent. It is the height of arrogance to assume that good ol’ Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking subjects of the Crown are exempt from the power of our leaders to shape our opinions and sway us towards their own goals and desires, to gently lead us down a road that culminates in war crimes or other horrific acts of barbarity. There was nothing remarkable about the German people or any other race of Europe that resulted in the foundation of Nazi Germany. Given enough time, and the right circumstances, any nation in the world can morph into a totalitarian state, and it is our duty – especially the media’s duty – to be forever vigilant against it.
Now that is something that we should never forget.