APR
05
2009
The Democracy of Racism

Later this month in Geneva, the United Nations will be holding what it calls the Durban Review Conference (a.k.a. “Durban II”) to “evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.” Part of the agenda at Durban II will be the recently passed resolution entitled “Combating Defamation of Religions.” The resolution, among other things, “[s]tresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular.” In practical terms, it calls upon Western countries to pass laws prohibiting ‘insults’ to Islam (and other religions, theoretically) as part of a larger struggle against racism. But hardly anyone in the West seems to think this is a good idea. The opposition to the resolution is making some strange bedfellows, uniting opposition from Christian activists to secular humanists, from Lou Dobbs to the Obama administration.

Every year or so, a resolution Combating Defamation of Religion is floated by a member of the OIC; the first incarnation was Pakistan’s “Defamation of Islam” draft resolution in 1999, which passed through the Commission of Human Rights. Since 2005, the resolution has been passed by the general assembly three times, and each time, the language becomes a little more inclusive. But the goal remains the same—to pressure Western governments to pass the kind of blasphemy laws which would outlaw insults to Islam typified by the Danish Muhammad cartoons or the Islamophobia of the right-wing media. In this sense, it’s not surprising that free-speech advocates are against this alongside reactionary elements who claim that this resolution is the beginning of a Muslim conspiracy to impose sharia law in the United States.

The latest draft resolution, which is non-binding (not that the more hysterical Westerners care), is the culmination of a two-decade campaign by a group of majority-Muslim governments called the Organization of the Islamic Conference, founded in 1969 in Morocco. The OIC is a permanent observer at the UN and has a parallel structure to the UN itself; the OIC has a secretary-general and forms committees and programs to foster ties and development among its memeber states. But the most striking parallel to the UN is that the OIC has issued its own universal declaration of human rights—the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), intended as a response to the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As one might expect, Cairo outlines a different spin on which human rights are actually universal from those liberal internationalists who founded the United Nations.

Right off the bat, the differences between the two human rights declarations become clear. THE UNDHR’s first article says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The CDHRI’s first article says, “All human beings form one family whose members are united by their subordination to Allah and descent from Adam. All men are equal in terms of basic human dignity and basic obligations and responsibilities, without any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, belief, sex, religion, political affiliation, social status or other considerations. The true religion is the guarantee for enhancing such dignity along the path to human integrity.” It goes on to say, “All human beings are Allah’s subjects… no one has superiority over another except on the basis of piety and good deeds.”

There is a direct line between the CDHRI and the resolutions Combating Religious Defamation (CDoR). After the OIC and the UN’s Commission on Human Rights organized a seminar entitled “Enriching the Universality of Human Rights: Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in 1998, the first CDoR was passed in the Commission without a vote. (This first resolution also celebrates, with tragic irony, “the year 2001 as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.”)

The problem with the UDHR is that it posits that individuals have civil liberties, but it doesn’t explain why we should. Similarly, the US Declaration of Independence says it holds truths to be self-evident and that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, which has the effect of rooting those rights in theology. Likewise, the Cairo declaration says, “fundamental rights and freedoms according to Islam are an integral part of the Islamic religion and that no one shall have the right as a matter of principle to abolish them either in whole or in part or to violate or ignore them in as much as they are binding divine commands.” If we base our liberties on our religious tradition, it seems hypocritical for us not to let others base their liberties on theirs.

In truth, most Westerners don’t have a fully realized conception of why we have civil liberties in the first place, save that it’s the law. I know I didn’t until I got to college and read the works of John Stuart Mill. Mill, who wrote in mid-nineteenth century England, recognized that merely having a democracy was no guarantee of freedom, particularly for minorities. As the saying goes, democracy is three wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner. Mill’s writings on civil liberties have everything to do with the protection of minorities and the preservation of the right to express unpopular or even blasphemous opinions. In fact, Mill (who was deeply religious) spends a good deal of his argument for civil liberties arguing that even atheists, who could not be more opposed to his conception of the ‘Truth’, deserved freedom from prosecution. And the reason was not that God granted them the liberty to speak—rather, the whole point of free discourse is to allow Truth to be tested and proven. He brings up the example of the 1857 jailing of a professed atheist as an example of the failings of the government to protect both liberty and free discourse.

The impulse that declares an idea needs more protection than a human being lays bare the implicit weakness of that idea. The tragedy of this is that the preamble to the CDoR is absolutely correct; there is a growing wave of Islamophobia in the West that is intimately connected to racism and xenophobia. The rising fear and intolerance of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries and the invasions and occupations of several Islamic lands such as Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kashmir, and Chechnya by non-Muslim powers all contribute to a sort of siege mentality evidenced not only by the resolutions sponsored by the OIC but in their citizenry. Although the original resolution Combating Defamation of Religions was proposed in 1999, the rise in discrimination and general Islamophobia after 9/11 lent a certain creedence to the OIC’s claims of a worldwide hostility towards Islam. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s 2005 printing of a collection of cartoons featuring Islam’s holiest figure beside Allah himself, the prophet Muhammad, seemed to be a breaking point on the Arab street. Worldwide riots erupted—dozens of people were killed, embassies were burned to the ground, and Denmark lost 30% of its export market to a boycott of its products in the Muslim world.

One of the problems with blasphemy laws is that they don’t work in multicultural democracies, because the optimal government structure for enforcing these laws is a hegemonic theocracy. How does a government draws the line between criticism and defamation of a religion without becoming a religious authority itself? More importantly, how can exclusive religions coexist in a legal framework that outlaws blasphemy? All the inclusive, liberal-style language of the CDoR could become awfully dangerous in the hands of lawyers. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that any Muslim ought to be charged with defamation having published or publicly affirmed that there is no god but Allah. Similarly, denying the divinity or even the trinity of the Christian god was an eminently punishable offense during the Inquisition, as the descendants of Spanish Jews and Muslims well recall. As author Ethan David Miller once said, “once you stop the inquiry, you start the Inquisition.”

Western liberal democracies say they hold freedom of expression sacrosanct, but our history of free speech is rather complex. To begin with, the idea that people should not be randomly murdered or otherwise punished for blaspheming is ahistorical at best. Massachussetts, home of the Salem witch trials, famously keeps its anti-blasphemy law on the books. It wasn’t until 1952 that the Supreme Court declared New York’s blasphemy laws unconstitutional in Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, which concerned the censorship of a Roberto Rosselini film on the grounds that it was sacreligious. There are still plenty of Americans who believe that flag desecration should be made illegal—including New York’s former Senator Hillary Clinton, who made a point of co-sponsoring such legislation 53 years after her adpoted state’s blasphemy laws were struck down. Denamrk, home of the Muhammad cartoon controversy, investigated the offending newspaper under its own laws prohibiting the defamation of religion (no charges were brought). America doesn’t have a state religion like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, but when it comes to the secular religion of patriotism, the flag evidently arouses the same passions as the prophet Muhammad does for Muslims. (That’s why the word ‘desecration’ is used.) Hillary Clinton’s Senate bill sought the protection of Old Glory from anti-American demonstrators in the same way the OIC seeks to protect Muhammad from cartoonists. Now that’s she’s the Secretary of State, you’d think she’d be able to identify some common ground with the OIC here, but the US is boycotting the Durban II Conference until the CDoR and the general anti-Israel tone of the proceedings is eliminated.

So, what should the role of the United States be? After all, we withdrew even from observer status on the Commission on Human Rights. We are boycotting the upcoming Durban II conference. No one know how the conference will turn out without the United States, but we do know what happened in Durban in the summer of 2001. The conference focused its attention almost exclusively on the military actions of Israel in the Occupied Territories, in the words of former Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier, “degenerated into open and divisive expressions of intolerance,” which included several participating organizations selling copies of “Mein Kampf” and “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” outside the convention halls. The OIC operates as a bloc intent on castigating Israel (whose record on human rights during the occupation is certainly deplorable) to the exclusion of any other human rights agenda. Though Israel’s occupation may be brutal, the nations of the OIC have successfully evaded discussion of racism or religious intolerance within their own borders. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have extensive documentation of the imprisonment and/or execution of a great many citizens whose actions were judged an insult to Islam in almost every OIC member state. Many human rights activists feel that the ultimate purpose of the CDoR is not to impose restrictions on free speech in the West (it seems virtually impossible for the Security Council to pass a binding resolution along those lines) but to provide cover for the blasphemy laws and prosecutions within OIC countries.

With all this in mind, there is a certain hope that Muslim nations have begun a long journey towards a more liberal democracy, the same way America did. First you recognize some very difficult principles to live up to (like mandating equality while condoning slavery) and then you work on fulfilling those great promises over the course of generations. The fact that the Cairo Declaration condemns torture is of as little comfort to today’s generation of prisoners as the promises of the Declaration of Independence were to Thomas Jefferson’s slaves. The democracies of revolutionary France and America, for all their present glory, weren’t that much better than the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran today when they were that age.

But the attendees of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance won’t be hearing any of that from us. Instead, they will likely be focusing on a narrow agenda that has increasingly less to do with actual human rights and more to do with institutionalized intolerance and politically-minded finger-pointing. By giving up our voice, even in the face of all the procedural and structural flaws in the system, we give up the means to make any of this better. The latest resolution passed in the General Assembly by 86-53, with 42 abstentions. It was literally the inaction of those abstaining UN members that allowed this resolution to continue on the path to being a binding resolution, which is the stated goal of the OIC. Our opposition may be strong (no binding resolution can pass without the support of the U.S. in the Security Council) but it’s intellectually toothless. The fact that we refuse to engage in the process is, in a certain sense, undemocratic. If the history of democracy shows us anything, it’s that only through participation in dialogue is there any hope for making democracy safe for minorities in particular, or the world a better place in general.

JUN
01
2008
I Don’t Believe In Bullshit

In 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther, began a new era in Christianity by declaring his independence from what he saw as the excesses and iniquities of the Roman Catholic Church. Having kicked off the Reformation by nailing an itemized list of complaints to a church door, Luther challenged not only the orthodoxy of the Church but the political structures of Christian Europe.

In the early years of Luther’s new religion—Protestantism—he became known as a defender of the Jews, whose treatment at the hands of Catholics horrified him. “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian,” he once wrote. As his theological revolution had purged what he saw as the impurities of Catholic dogma, Luther thought that now the Jews would finally be able to be converted to Christ.

Of course, the problem Jews had with Christianity wasn’t with the selling of indulgences, but with the divinity of Christ. When Europe’s Jews failed to join Luther’s new church, he turned on them most viciously. By 1536, he presaged the Final Solution in his book, “Of The Jews And Their Lies,” calling for Jews to be put into bondage, killed, or expelled from Europe if they did not convert to the gentle message of the Gospels (he put his money where his mouth was by driving them out of many a German principality.) In the introduction to this seminal work of anti-Semitism, Luther writes,

“I have received a treatise in which a Jew engages in dialog with a Christian. He dares to pervert the scriptural passages which we cite in testimony to our faith, concerning our Lord Christ and Mary his mother, and to interpret them quite differently. With this argument he thinks he can destroy the basis of our faith.”

Chris Hedges, author, journalist, and himself a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and son of a Protestant minister, has written his own 21st-century version of “Of The Jews And Their Lies,” entitled I Don’t Believe in Atheists. Anti-Semitism is a bit passe for today’s Christians (a bit tacky after Hitler, wouldn’t you say?), but bigotry against the godless remains relatively safe to express in public. Many a reviewer and interviewer have called the title “cute” (cuter than Von Der Juden und Ihren Lugen?), and Hedges’ bigorty seems to be getting a pass from folks on the left for who probably would have reacted differently had it been anyone else writing the same words.

I feel the same about Hedges as I do about Christopher Hitchens, after he came out so forcefully behind the Bush’s invasion of Iraq; a deep admiration now gone sour. Hedges says the book was born of his debates with what he calls ‘the new atheists,’ writers such as Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and E. O. Wilson. He calls today’s atheist writers religious fundamentalists, assigning them to “the cult of science” and decrying their intolerance and bigotry while doling out plenty of his own.

In foreign policy terms, an atheist like myself has much more in common with Hedges—we both oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (unlike Hitchens and Harris). In searching for a larger framework to contest what he sees as Hitchens’ and Harris’ support of imperialist war, however, he decides to tar even war opponents like Dawkins and Dennett with guilt by association and lumps us all together as evil and a danger to the Republic. But while atheism might be said to have a political philosophy (the separation of church and state), it certainly doesn’t have a foreign policy.

Within the 224 pages of I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Hedges winds his way through a dense thicket of strawmen. Not only has Hedges created a new Christianity for himself (one without heaven, hell, religious institutions, or an interventionalist god), but he’s created another one for his enemies. “To turn away from God is harmless,” Hedges grants, magnanimously, but “to turn away from sin is catastrophic.” You can have your Model-T in any color you want, as long as it’s black as religiously-defined sin.

Works like I Don’t Believe in Atheists reinforce the fact that nonbelievers are one of the most hated minorities in America. Hedges’ liberal bigotry is writ small, at least in the physical sense—the book is a pocket-friendly 5″ by 7″. The sprawling (and often repetitive) critique of today’s out-of-the-closet atheists finds Hedges equating us with Nazis, all the while calling on the reader to heed the wisdom of, say, Christian Realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who helped shore up support for the atomic bomb and is considered by many to the first neoconservative. Niebuhr’s “just war” theory is often invoked by Iraq war supporters, because it frames mass murder as the necessity to confront evil.

I Don’t Believe In Atheists is a gentle, liberal incitement to an American pogrom against nonbelievers, based on his very own version of a blood libel:

“while the new atheists do not have the power of the Christian Right and are not a threat to the democratic state as the Christian Right is, they do engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism. They sell this under secular banners. They believe, like the Christian Right, that we are moving forward to a paradise, a state of human perfection, this time made possible by science and reason.”

Do atheists believe in a ‘state of perfection?’ Do atheists belong to what Hedges calls the ‘cult of science?’ Must we all have gods, as Martin Luther once said?

A thoroughly modern believer, Hedges declares he can pick and choose truths and falsehoods from science with the same ease as he does from Bible (parts of which he calls ‘morally indefensible’). As with other intelligent design advocates, a faulty understanding of science buttresses a foregone conclusion—that the divine inhabits the gaps in human scientific understanding and the pursuit of further understanding is hazardous to the soul. Richard Dawkins, a target of Hedges’ self-righteous indignation, calls this belief the ‘god of the gaps,’ and Hedges tries mightily to sacralize the mysteries of the universe in order to warn scientists against the hubris of discovering truths about reality instead of waiting for revelation about the mystic.

Intelligent design, a modern descendant of creationism, is the same impulse which lead ancient mapmakers to draw sea serpents in unexplored parts of the oceans and declare: “thar be monsters.” Hedges’ book amounts to nothing less than the intelligent design argument applied beyond biology to all realms of human endeavor, from physics to philosophy. And the monsters are the so-called “new atheists.”

“Religious thought is a guide to morality. It points humans toward inquiry,” announces Hedges, but his dogma leads him toward an inquisition instead. The main thrust of the book is the idea that today’s atheists are trying to ‘perfect’ humanity, which is at the top of Hedges’ list of cardinal sins:

“[t]he belief in human perfection, that we can advance morally, is itself an evil. It provides cover for criminality and abuse, a justification for murder. It sanctifies war, murder, and torture, for an unattainable purpose. It denies our own moral pollution.”

One could substitute “the divine” for “human perfection” in the above sentence, but that’s the easy way out. Even if the new atheist authors really believe in human perfection, is that the same thing as a belief in moral progress? “There is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere,” protests Hedges. Well, it all depends on your metric for progress, of course—not to mention your definitions of ‘moving’ and ‘anywhere.’ If nothing in nature or history supported the idea of progress, Hedges’ wouldn’t have to repeatedly and weakly dismiss the notion. For Hedges, the fact that there is still murder and hatred and all manner of iniquity and inequality proves that there is no progress ever past or present, QED.

But really, is there anything in human nature to say we, as a species, I suppose, are moving anywhere? There’s a whole science of genetics which is helping to explain how we got here in the way we did, from helping us trace the movement of early humans out of Africa to developing cures for birth defects which were never possible before. Did morality work differently for our pre-human ancestors as it does for homo sapiens? Does the evolution of and within hominid society qualify as moral progress? I would venture to say so, if only because I don’t think animals are capable of the kind of abstract reasoning ethics require. Evolutionary biology shows us that change is slow, and its smallest increment is generational.

Hedges’ idea that naturalists believe we are the culmination of a process leading towards perfection shows the limits of his understanding. “The belief in human perfectibility, in history as a march toward a glorious culmination, is malformed theology.” Actually, it’s malformed science; biologists understand that evolution is a continuing phenomenon, and we are not the end of it. Only under the weight of eschatology (the study of the end of time) does evolution have an ‘end.’ For scientists, Darwin only described a ‘means.’ What Darwin showed was that evolution was random, as opposed to competing evolutionary scientists of his day—like Lamarck, who theorized that giraffes grew long necks in order to feed from tall trees.

Hedges is just getting started mischaracterizing science for his own ends: “[p]luralism has no place in science. Neither does the principle (so familiar from the arts, humanities and human sciences) of competing truths. Scientific ideas, because they an be demonstrated or disproved, are embraced or rejected on the basis of quantifiable evidence.”

Pluralism certainly has a place in science, and it’s called the cutting edge, where such ideas are called theorems. (Just look at the panoply of string theories, which are themselves intended to resolve the competition between quantum field and general relativity theories.) Hedges’ rants remind me of an English major drunkenly explaining that Science majors have no soul. And not only that, adds Hedges, but neuroscientist Sam Harris “does not engage in the laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding… He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship.” (One presumes Hedges had compelled Harris to debate him against his will in San Francisco in 2007). Or, “[Sam Harris'] assertion that Muslim parents welcome the death of children as suicide bombers could only have been written by someone who never sat in the home of a grieving mother and father in Gaza who have just lost their child.” Now, I have never been to Gaza, but one such parent, known as ‘Umm Nidal‘ (who famously encouraged her sons to become martyrs and handed out chocolate and halvah upon hearing her son was killed attacking an Israeli settlement) was, in fact, elected to Palestinian parliament on the Hamas ticket in 2006. Similarly, Hedges protests that somehow religion had nothing to do with the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Christians. The book is full of such hollow falsehoods, Jesuit-level equivocations and semantic boondoggles.

The tone of the book is reminiscient of a sermon—long, tedious, repetitive, and full of earnestly resolute pomposity:

“The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction. [...] God—and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes—is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe. [...] God is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence.”

Reverence of what, exactly? It isn’t clear, but it seems that if anything should be exalted, it is human limitation and our irredeemable shortcomings, whatever those might be. Hedges not only constructs a strawman (the belief that atheists and scientists are trying to perfect humanity) but a new religion—the worship of human flaws. There is no greater sin for Hedges than to turn away from the concept of Sin, and those who do are embracing an evil so profound that Hedges’ doesn’t talk about much else. Hedges’ speaks of the “wisdom of original Sin” and exalts, at length, human evil:

“Human evil is not a problem. It is a mystery. It cannot be solved. It is a bitter, constant paradox that is part of human nature.”

Hedges goes on to accuse the new atheists of ‘externalizing evil’ — but the truth is that Hedges is guilty of internalizing ‘good.’ English doesn’t have a distinction between religious and secular definitions of ‘good’ the way it separates ‘evil’ from ‘bad,’ so let me clarify that as an atheist, I believe in ‘bad’ but not ‘evil.’ Because contrary to what religion wants you to think, the relevant parties to telling right from wrong are your fellow beings, rather than any imaginary ones. Yes, there is bad and good, but we must always ask—bad for whom? Good for what?

In a summary of his book published by the Free Press, Hedges writes,

“Religious institutions, however, should be separated from the religious values imparted to me by religious figures, including my father [who was a liberal minister]. Most of these men and women frequently ran afoul of their own religious authorities. Religion, real religion, was about fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, finding empathy and defying the powerful.”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of how Hedges gets to cleave ‘real religion’ from the kind most people practice, we must ask—what exactly are religious values? Are there such things regardless of the religion in question?

The truth is, there’s only one universal religious value: orthodoxy in the service of power. The world’s faiths share a vast-ranging disagreement on everything else, even the number of gods to be worshiped—from zero in Theravada Buddhism to the Trinity of Catholicism to the countless loa of Voodoo. Everything about the temporal world is up for spiritual grabs, from the threshold for justifiable homicide to the divinely inspired way to wipe your ass.

Much as science is morally neutral, religion is merely a tool for the powerful to control the masses. And yet, there is a process by which religions themselves evolve. Within my own lifetime, for example, Bob Jones University, which went from defending their ban on interracial dating and marriage on God’s ipse dixit 1983 before the Supreme Court to revoking the policy in 2000—not because George W. Bush was about to make a speech there and they didn’t want to offend the heathens for political purposes, but because the sacred words of God must have changed, mysteriously acquiring a new meaning.

Whether there’s a text or an oral tradition, every religious person picks and chooses, interprets and reinterprets the tenets of their faith and applies them to the real world. Those choices are temporal, secular—because religion is all in your head. Interaction with your fellow humans is real, and therefore will never live up to Hedges’ idealized ‘good.’

Morals are personal, ethics are interpersonal. The zeitgeist (as described by Dawkins) describes the movement of social mores—the definitions not only of evil, but of ‘good’ as well.

When Hedges admits that some parts of the Bible are ‘morally indefensible,’ it is the reader’s duty to ask how they got that way. So when Hedges writes, “All ethics begin with religion. We must determine what moral laws to accept or reject. We must distinguish between real and false prophets,” while enjoining us from using reason and science to do so, on what basis does Hedges make these distinctions? It would appear that there is no rational distinction between true and false prophets.

The truth is that all of us, Hedges included, create a personal moral code using real-life, secular ethics—the realm of human interaction which Hedges finds so spiritually devoid: “Those who focus only on human communication, who are unable to step out of the realm of prosaic knowledge, sever themselves from the sacred. They remain trapped in a deadening self-awareness. They lose the capacity to honor and protect that which makes life possible.”

A band of prophets known as the Firesign Theatre once said, “when you clock the human race with the stopwatch of history, it’s a new record every time.” Things we view as “evil” or immoral by today’s standards were moral yesterday, and we gauge our progress by comparing these standards. For example: would Jesus buy an SUV? Has burning gasoline always been sin, or just bad for the environment? And how could we possibly answer such a question (much less ask it) without the advances of science? Moral ‘progress’ is inevitable, if only because morality has to address new problems every day.

Hedges goes on at length about how the new atheists want to ‘perfect’ humanity, but suspiciously, he doesn’t use any direct quotes. So, I decided to read Harris and Dawkins in search of this ideology of perfection, but I couldn’t find any. Dawkins definitely speaks of the Zeitgeist and of “evolving complexity,” but nowhere does he say that ‘perfection’ (whatever that is) is attainable or that he has set his sights upon it. Harris hardly speaks in absolutes, and certainly doesn’t say that atheists seek to achieve perfection. So, where is this murderous ideology of perfection?

Seek and ye shall find, says the Bible, and Hedges’ uses his denseness as his guide: “Wilson and Dawkins build their vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection. They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves. Those who, in the name of science, claim that we can overcome our imperfect human nature create a belief system that functions like religion… there is nothing, when you cut through their scientific jargon, to support their absurd proposition.”

Leaving aside whether Hedges is truly capable of understanding scientific jargon—as opposed to simply cutting through it—you have to wonder (as with his claim that “Dawkins, like Christian zealots, reduces the world to a binary formula of good and evil”) where he’s getting this stuff. As Hedges writes, “these are not questions atheists answer. They attack a religious belief of their own creation.” Atheists don’t believe in eschatology, and neither do we seek to negate ourselves by becoming gods. Atheism merely seeks to turn the pyramid scheme of religion upside-down.

“Because there is no clear, objective definition of God,” writes Hedges, “the new atheists must choose what God it is that they attack.” Actually, that’s not true, but like all good debaters, Hedges needs to reframe the debate on his terms in order to claim rhetorical victory. What Hedges fails to understand is that atheism is a rejection of the whole notion of a top-down universe, no matter whom your particular creation myth places at the top. A universe without gods is one which is eternal and works from the bottom up, without meaning or intent. Hedges characterizes the universe as “morally neutral,” but at the same time posits an objective ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and that God is the good in each of us. One wonders why, if there is only one god, why it can’t be the morally neutral in each of us? If animals have a moral value, what is it, and do they share the same god as humanity or the rest of the universe?

For most of the book, Hedges’ seems hell-bent on conflating atheists with Raëlians, an extropian UFO cult who send out press releases claiming to have cloned a human being every so often. For all his Western-centric chauvinism, Hedges’ concept of the universe, with its personally uninvolved deity in an amoral universe who works through us, sounds a lot more like some Yoruba-derived syncretic religion, such as Candomblé or Santería: Oludumare, the creator, doesn’t deal with people, and so requests are made of orishas (‘the owners of heads’) who possess and work through their followers. But Hedges’ Christian prejudices against atheism and polytheism are merely precursors to the real weakness in his arguments.

When Hedges writes, for example, that “[w]e progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression and economic exploitation, and to accelerate environmental degradation,” is he saying that the pursuit of any scientific knowledge (for example, genetics, which can certainly be said to “change human nature”) is an evil because it attempts to improve the human condition? And if some science is OK, where is the boundary between good and evil science, the border line where Hedges and the Unabomber stand, wagging their fingers at humanity?

“There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere,” he proclaims. It seems by definition that if there there is human progress that we are moving somewhere (if not towards some glorious utopia). Hedges lives in a world of absolutes, as much as he protests otherwise; since the imaginary end (utopia) is deemed impossible, he seems to say there cannot be any movement altogether, failing to make the distinction between ‘perfect’ as a verb and as an adjective. When, for example, America’s founding Deists employed the phrase ‘a more perfect Union,’ it didn’t suggest (to me, anyway) that they thought there was going to be a perfectly perfect Union.

I Don’t Believe In Atheists plumbs the depths of Hedges’ unwillingness to engage with atheism, or atheists—encapsulated by the way he laughs off Christopher Hitchens’ lack of theological training with regard to his question of who created the Creator:

“This is the declaration of an illiterate. Aquinas, along with many other theologians, addressed at length the issue of who created the creator. God, Aquinas argues, is not an entity. God is not a thing or a being. Creation is an act of handicraft. Creation is the condition of there being something rather than nothing. Creation didn’t happen long ago. Creation is a constant in human existence. It is part of life.”

This is what’s known as “conversion by definition” (or “the bear hug”) where extremely lazy evangelists posit that the fact one is alive is proof that at least one god exists. (For the sun, or your electronic devices, which operate on the principle that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, it’s a different story.) “God is a human concept,” admits Hedges, but that’s about as far as he’s willing to go in understanding the subjects of his monograph. Because Hedges’ doesn’t understand atheism, his critique is understandably flawed. Worse still, he is unwilling to subject himself to his own critique:

“They see the “other” as equal only when the other is identical to themselves. They project their own values on the rest of the human race. …Those who are different do not need to be investigated, understood or tolerated, for they are intellectually and morally inferior. Those who are different are imperfect versions of themselves.”



MAR
09
2008
Any Minute Now, Amos ‘n’ Andy Broadcasts Will Reach Planet X!

Dear readers, exciting things are happening. Here’s a quick review of the past few months.

That Book I’m Always Talking About

For the last two years, I’ve been writing a non-fiction book—it’s what I’m doing when I’m not posting here. When people ask me what the book is about, I usualy say something like, “it’s about killer robots and globalization.” While this is true in some sense, the book is actually about a lot more than just those things, but when you work on something for two years (or longer) the ability to faithfully summarize it kind of falls away.

This book, entitled Why Can’t Money Grow On Trees?, is about the open-source movement, the global economy, and the connection between, for example, Adam Smith, Jean-Pierre Proudhon, Howard Scott, and the Unabomber. It is subtitled “A Practical Guide to Building Your Own Utopia.”

Now, because the book is about open source and contains a lengthy section about how lethal intellectual property rights can be, I decided to make the book into a wiki. This way, you can actually watch me write the thing in real time (at this stage it is a lengthy proposal and not too much more) in a format meant for your computer monitor, unlike the 50+ page PDF file I have been sending people.

If you are confused about all this, just go visit whycant.org and you will probably become slightly more or less clear about what I’m trying to say.

Catch me on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Indie Talk March 13th at 5pm EST

I’ve had this blog for almost five years now, and sometimes I wonder if anyone is even listening anymore. But occasionally, I will get some random confirmation that I have, in some small way, had an impact in the media universe. Sometimes, I’ll get questions from college students asking me to elucidate a point they’re writing a paper on; sometimes publishers offer to send me advance copies of suitably “progressive” books to review. Sadly, I no longer get hate mail, which I used to enjoy immensely.

But I found something even more fun than hate mail—free media ops! Sirius, which just launched their new “Indie Talk” channel, asked me to come down to “The Blog Bunker” this Thursday and chat about politics for half-an-hour, after which I will spend the rest of the week trying to figure out how I can leverage this appearance into one on the O’Reilly Factor.

But D. J., I hear you cry, “I don’t have Sirius Satellite Radio!” Don’t worry. You can sign up for a free 3-day Internet radio trial on their web site. It’ll be just like when the whole family used to gather around their gigantic vacuum-tube powered radio cabinet after dinner to listen to Fibber McGee & Molly or Suspense!, only without the family, or the radio.

Free Xenu! Shirts!

The other way I found out that people actually do read this blog is that someone ordered a “Free Xenu” T-shirt from my lonely and neglected T-shirt shop. So I actually had to make one, and now that I spent all the revenue on the first shirt, I implore you, dear readers, to buy one, too.

For those of you who don’t know the story, Xenu is the deposed alien overlord who is currently being held in intergalactic superjail by the Church of Scientology, according to court documents. As far as I can tell, Xenu is being held without bail or formal charges, with no method of redress or habeas corpus. I don’t even think there was a trial. If any of you give a damn about civil rights, I implore you to wear this shirt so that the CoS knows you will no longer abide by their illegal detainment of what, for all we know, is just a sweet, harmless, 75 million year-old man.

It’s Her Party, She’ll Cry If She Wants To

I’m less of a Barack Obama supporter than an ABC voter—anybody but Hillary. What’s my beef with Hillary, you ask?

Is it that she’s a carpetbagger? I do resent the fact that my state is apparently so welcoming we’ll let anybody in the President’s family who wants to run for the White House represent us. Tempting, but not sufficient.

Is it because she’s a hawk? Her stance on Iran is basically the same as McCain’s, which is that they would really rather prefer to go to war Iran than not. Both of them have been agitating for this for years, although Hillary’s anti-Iran record is long and storied and includes her potential running mate, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana. As a matter of fact, Hillary’s foreign policy is remarkably similar to McCain’s in many respects. That’s getting closer to why I can’t stand her, but there’s more.

Perhaps it’s Hillary’s right-wing pandering like her clearly unconstitutional throw-flag-burners-in-Federal prison law, which was fortunately rejected; perhaps its her authoritarian top-down style, presaged by her Wellesely senior thesis dismissing the whole idea of bottom-up community organizing.

Yes, these were all fine reasons to dislike Hillary, and I have made full use of them in the past. But what burns me about Hillary the most right now is her gargantuan sense of entitlement, a thing so huge it was pretty much her platform—before that young upstart upstaged her “get-out-of-my-way” campaign style with—you guessed it—bottom up grassroots organizing.

Barack Obama may be well-spoken (somebody check Lexis-Nexis to see if Hillary’s camp has ever slipped up and said it in those terms), but he clearly hasn’t suffered enough to win the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Medal for overcoming adversity. As Aristotle said in Poetics, tragedy works best when the sufferers fall from privilege and fortune, and Hillary’s story is characterized by the most fortunate of circumstances.

As I’ve said before (maybe not in these exact words), when you challenge white people’s privilege, watch the fuck out. Hillary’s whiteness isn’t her sole privilege, but it’s clearly working to her advantage. For example—let’s look at Ohio, the “firewall” which helped Clinton turn her campaign around:

Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International— respected polling firms — surveyed 1,612 Democratic primary voters in 40 precincts across Ohio on Tuesday. Among other things, the pollsters asked if the race of the candidate was important to them. Twenty percent of those surveyed said yes, and three out of five of those voters said they cast ballots for Clinton.

As a pundit once said on CNN a while ago, this is the first time identity politics-based attacks have been trained on the identity groups themselves as opposed to, shall we say, hegemonic power. And it’s threatening to rend the Democratic party.

It is in this light that we must examine the comments of Geraldine Ferraro, Clinton supporter and former VP candidate:

When the subject turned to Obama, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Ferraro’s comments took on a decidedly bitter edge. “I think what America feels about a woman becoming president takes a very secondary place to Obama’s campaign – to a kind of campaign that it would be hard for anyone to run against,” she said. “For one thing, you have the press, which has been uniquely hard on her. It’s been a very sexist media. Some just don’t like her. The others have gotten caught up in the Obama campaign.

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she continued. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” Ferraro does not buy the notion of Obama as the great reconciler.

How refreshingly reprehensible! It always strikes me, whenever this meme is floated, that the name “Carol Moseley-Braun” seldom crosses the lips of these Clinton supporters. Moseley-Braun, whose Senate seat was won by Obama when she stepped down, ran for president in 2004, the second black woman to do so after my old Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.

While Moseley-Braun did receive a modicum of support from NOW and some other feminist groups, I guess it wasn’t too important, because seldom did you see a Gloria Steinem-penned op-ed calling women gender traitors if they didn’t support a female candidate based purely on chauvinism.

The forgotten campaign of Moseley-Braun, who dropped out just before the Iowa caucuses, is an embarrassment to the Clinton campaign, and that’s why she never talks about it.

When I meet people who hand me that ‘if Barack was a woman line,” I always counter with, “If Barack Obama was a woman, he’d be Carol Moseley-Braun. And do you know who she was married to?” I ask.

“No…” they say.

“Who the fuck cares?” I reply. (Of course, the answer is “Mr. Braun.” They are now divorced, and she founded Ambassador Organics) And that’s really the crux of the issue—the only reason Barack Obama is black is because the laws in this country won’t let him marry Bill Clinton. Hillary’s only doing this well because she is now the most corrupt woman in America. Don’t think for a minute that her experience as intern to a few Senate subcommittees was what propelled her to the Senate seat of a state she in which had never resided. It was because she was so inside the Democratic machine, she was married to the president, and so the DLC told all other Dem Senate contenders to get out of her way.

And yet, if this is anyone’s party, it’s Hillary’s party. She is the most invested in the machine, the backroom deals, the money-fueled corruption, the chickenhawk foreign policy. Not only does the Democratic party owe her the nomination, but the audacity of Obama’s candidacy is inappropriately inopportune. That’s why she’s intent on destroying the party.

Take a look at CNN’s delegate counter. After one of the dirtiest primary challenege the party has seen in decades, she managed to work her way up to ‘spoiler’ in the delegate count, but there is no way she will be able to catch up with her opponent without a significant helping hand from the superdelegates. But now, neither will Obama, unless the party spends even more of their war chest redoing the Michigan and Florida primaries.

Is it because, as she has implied on the campaign trail, she’d rather have McCain in office than Obama? The scorched earth, kitchen sink approach Hillary has adopted constitutes a pyrrhic victory, but what does she care? It’s this supreme arrogance, the way she offers Obama a VP slot shen she’s trailing in delegates, the way she pretends that sleeping in the White House is a qualification for being commander-in-chief, the indignance at being challenged for what she seems to believe is some kind of birthright—that’s why I’m an anybody but Clinton voter. Because a victory for Clinton has become, through her machinations and speechifying, a victory for corruption and against hope.

More on this in a few days.

AUG
20
2007
Everyone But Thee And Me

Welcome to another edition of actual casual asides, seasoned as usual with gotchas and I-told-you-sos.

Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls…

The United States and our allies have no rational interest in disclosing how many people we’ve killed in Iraq and Afghanistan if that number is inclusive of civilians. “We don’t do body counts,” said General Franks. We may publish figures of enemy killed and captured (we actually don’t take prisoners anymore for the most part), in order to show how effective and accurate our troops are in combat.

But every once in a while, some secondary evidence turns up. According to the latest reports from all around the country:

Troops training for and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are firing more than 1 billion bullets a year, contributing to ammunition shortages at police departments nationwide and preventing some officers from training with the weapons they carry on patrol.

More than 1,000,000,000 bullets a year, to the point where it literally puts the squeeze on so-called “homeland security.”

How many people can you kill with a billion bullets a year? Let’s run some projections:

The Jack Bauer all-time low (2.57 shots per death): 389 million (more than the populations of the U.S. and Canada combined)

The Amadou Diallo standard (41 shots per death): 24.4 million (comparable to the whole Iraqi population)

The A-Team standard (infinite shots fired with no casualties): 0 deaths, billions of fools pitied.

The practical upshot of all this analysis is that B. A. Baracus may well have been the latest incarnation of the Buddha.

Who Would Jesus Go Down On?

The essential friction of theocracy is that nobody can live up to all that bullshit all the time. Theocracies are, in fact, the ultimate expression of religion’s desire to normalize its social conventions and taboos. We’d like tot hink that there are some concepts which are universal, but in reality, each religion and ideology merely has different standards for who is allowed to break that taboo and when.

Murder is taboo unless you’re killing an unbeliever or for revenge; homosexuality is inexcusable for laity but tolerated among priests; it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eyes of a needle than for a rich man to pass through the gates of heaven, unless that man is a televangelist.

So another bunch of Christian Patriots are caught same-sex canoodling, which isn’t so shocking, but in these two cases, the public found out because Florida GOP congressman Bob Allen and Indiana Young Republican Glenn Murphy managed to involve the police in the debacle.

Bob Allen’s arrest for solicitation is one thing, because it allegedly involved what he thought were two consenting adults… and a $20 payment from Allen so that he might perform oral sex on an undercover cop. But Glenn Murphy allegedly raped a guy in his sleep after a YR party where the victim’s sister bade the Murphy to stay over after drinking too much.

The best part of these scandals is the inevitable excuse proffered by the newly fallen Republican angels:

Allen: Those strapping buck negroes made me do it out of fear!
Glenn Murphy: It was totally consensual. The dude begged me to suck his dick in his sleep!
Pastor Ted Haggard: I like meth, massages, and male prostitutes, but not gay sex with male prostitutes on meth after massages!
Paul Barnes: I prayed to God to cure me and he never answered my prayers!
Mark Foley: I was molested by a priest! Years later, I got drunk!
Ed Schrock: I work out religiously, can assure you. I’m just looking to get together with a guy, we could play with one another, go down on one another, just to have some fun with, nothing hardcore.
Abraham Lincoln: I’m dead and you’ll never prove a thing!

Now Karl Rove resigns ‘to spend more time with his family.’ The whole country is wondering why he’s leaving now, and nobody can figure it out… or can we?

The Fighting 69th

The ever-despicable Mark Noonan of Blogs for Bush on gay pride marches:

Proud of being gay? Am I supposed to have a Guys Under 5’8″ Pride Parade? How can one be proud of one’s genetics? We’re firmly assured that gay people are born that way – being proud of it is as silly as being proud of your hair color. So, what gives? What, exactly, are they being proud of? Their ability to engage in lewd behaviour without being arrested? Their ability to strong arm the political establishment into helping them seem mainstream? Pride goeth before the fall, good people – you might want to think on that a bit between now and the next pride parade – especially as things like this are going to turn more and more people hostile to public displays of homosexuality.

I submitted the following comment under the pseudonym “Martin Luther” which I was surprised to see approved by the blog’s moderator:

Exactly! It's like those damn Irish with their so-called St. Patrick's Day Parades. You didn't choose to be Irish, so stop blocking traffic! Who do they think they are? Honestly, the Irish weren't even considered 'white' until a few dozen years ago. These palefaced Papists' pathetic attempt to convince mainstream Protestant America that they're the same as everybody else is so transparent it makes me want to vomit green.

Have you seen these parades? I've seen them in New York and Boston. Talk about lewd displays of public indecency! Drunkenness, lasciviousness, brawling, and public urination! And the worst part is, since the Irish seem to have infiltrated the police and firehouses, they just stand idly by while Europe's red-headed step-children run amok!

Selfless Act of the Year

When it comes to Darfur, I don’t think any American can top this. I hope we try, though.

US actress Mia Farrow has offered her freedom in exchange for that of a respected rebel figure in Sudan. Suleiman Jamous, a co-ordinator for Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), has been confined to a UN peacekeeping base near Darfur for more than 13 months.

Although he needs urgent surgery, the 62-year-old faces arrest if he leaves.

In a letter to Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Ms Farrow has offered to take his place, saying his continued absence was an “impediment” to peace.

“Before his seizure, Mr Jamous played a crucial role in bringing the SLA to the negotiating table and in seeking reconciliation between its divided rival factions,” she said.

“I am therefore offering to take Mr Jamous’s place, to exchange my freedom for his in the knowledge of his importance to the civilians of Darfur and in the conviction that he will apply his energies toward creating the just and lasting peace.”

War is a game cowards play with other people’s lives. Making peace is truly courageous.

JUL
12
2007
A Rose By Any Other Name

Sometimes I wonder how many times I can restate essentially the same points about Iraq. I’ve been doing it for over four years now. I suppose I should derive some satisfaction from the fact that the majority of Americans are now against the war. Unfortunately, that’s like the majority of Americans being against the Big Bang—which they are. It’s way, way too late. All we can do now is try for a strategic withdrawal and hope the last helicopter out of Baghdad gets out safely.

Since I’ve started this Vietnam analogy, let’s keep going, shall we? And all the while, we must ask: does Bush really see the “War on Terror” as the new Cold War?

The Reverse Domino Effect

The second law of thermodynamics tell us that chaos spreads more easily than order. During the Cold War, we were afraid that relatively disordered states would reorganize under Communism because of influence by their neighbors, the so-called Domino theory.

We all know, however, that disorder and destabilization, or in other words, societal breakdowns, are easier to export than political reorganizations, or construction. Consider the problem of refugee camps—millions of people living in poverty, much of it somewhat abruptly imposed. Refugee camps are natural hotbeds of foment, be it criminal, political, or both.

Damascus now has an Iraqi quarter, and Iraqi refugees have also started taking up residence in the Palestinian refugee camps. Why is this important? Because in May, a harbinger event occurred in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. A new terrorist group calling itself Fatah-al-Islam (variously spelled ‘Fateh-el-Islam”) or “Army of Islam,” got into a major firefight with Lebanese military forces, after police tried to apprehend a gang of bank robbers who turned out to be ‘terrorists’ retreated to the Palestinian refugee camps, where Lebanese armed forces are prohibited from entering.

Now, what’s significant about Fatah-al-Islam isn’t that they’ve turned to bank robbing; terrorist groups have been financing their activities by robbing banks for a very long time. What’s significant is that Fatah-al-Islam is robbing Lebanese banks in 2007. I predict that this is the beginning of a bold new age of free-for-all terrorism reminiscent of the 1970s, when you had what Wallerstein would call “anti-systemic” gangs—Baader-Meinhof, the Red Brigades, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization. The days when someone like Carlos the Jackal might have had contacts with Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna and the Front de Libération du Québec and the Irish Republican Army. Back when people thought terrorism was sexy. (By the way, is anyone else upset those Matt Damon adaptations of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series have nothing to do with Carlos or Vietnam?)

If you haven’t seen the amazing documentary The Weather Underground, you never got to hear actual former members explain why white middle-class kids turned to terrorism in the 1960s (the same way middle-class Arabs turned to terrorism in the last few years). Brian Flanagan, former Weatherman, said something like (I’m quoting from memory) “The only way I can explain it is that the Vietnam war made us crazy… When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.”

What Bush II has done, as I have been warning since the invasion of Afghanistan, is to reboot the cycle of displacement, violence and frustration which transformed the Mekhtab-e-Khidamat (a support organization for mujahideen from around the world who wanted to fight in Afghanistan) into Al-Qaeda.

I’ve written before about the tragic stupidity of the ‘flypaper’ theory, where war-mongers informed us that the war in Iraq was actually making America safer by drawing the world’s jihadists to Iraq instead of the United States. I countered that we were running the world’s largest, most advanced terrorist training camp, the way the Soviets had ‘trained’ the ‘Afghan Arabs’ like Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri who would eventually become the first generation of global jihadists.

Al-Qaeda started with the private contributions of middle- and upper-class Muslims, buttressed by what was essentially protection money from the Saudi royal family. But as all terrorist groups did, they migrated to more conventional crime (drug smuggling, kidnapping, and financial fraud).

But bank robbery just isn’t Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi; outright armed theft is a bit harder to reconcile with sharia than declaring it OK to sell intoxicants (like heroin) exclusively to infidels, which is how they managed the opium problem in Afghanistan. Bin Laden may be a lot of things, but he used to carry himself a bit differently.

The ranks of terrorist organizations are more likely full of ordinary street criminals than ideologues. At this point, though, there’s a more serious problem: Gangs of criminals are being given ideological ‘cover’ by the rising sentiment of ‘al-Qaedaism,’ or at least that incredible decrease in America’s standing across the globe.

And how lucky for these glorified thugs that the Bush administration is now tarring all opposition to our armed forces as ‘al-Qaeda,’ because now a whole new class of criminals have been given a political agenda, at least in public. Now there is a whole new generation of ‘Afghan Arabs,’ young men who feel like now is the time to take up arms in defense of Islam and/or to do some killing, looting, raping, what-have-you.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how the U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are ‘force multipliers’ for terrorists in a literal, rather than figurative sense. The flypaper theory turned out to have caught more flies with vinegar than with honey—and they’re breeding.

So, who is behind this new wave of terrorism? Let’s look at the history of Fatah al-Islam. From a profile in a Turkish paper:

Fatah al-Islam announced its creation last November after breaking away from Fatah Al-Intifada, a splinter group of the mainstream Fatah movement. In its foundation statement, it introduced itself as an Islamic group seeking to liberate Palestine and restore Muslim sanctities captured by Israel. …Experts believe the group is ideologically but not operationally linked to Al-Qaeda and is played by Lebanese and Arab parties to achieve political gains.

Its leader Shaker Abssi, a Palestinian born in Areha in 1955, is a former colonel pilot.

Syrian authorities arrested Abssi in 2000 and sentenced him to three years in prison on charges of smuggling weapons, ammunition to Jordan and vice versa. No sooner had he been released than he went to Iraq following the US-led invasion. In Iraq, Abssi fought along with groups loyal to Al-Qaeda and made friends with a number of Al-Qaeda leaders there.

…Abssi went to Lebanon in 2005 with a group of youths he met in Iraq and stayed there around a year before getting into trouble with the Lebanese army in May 2006.

There is speculation that various governments (Lebanon, syria, Iran, Israel, the United States) are supporting or otherwise manipulating Fatah al-Islam because it represents a counter-balance to the now more mainstream groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. (Hamas itself was started with support from Golda Meir’s Israeli government who thought that its radical Islamism would be a good counterbalance to the secular PLO.)

Hamastan and Fatahstan

Divide and conquer—it’s the foundation of many a colonial empire. It isn’t even 20th-century thinking, it’s more like 19th-century thinking. The British were masters of this craft; consider Iraq, which is a fairly good (if late) example. By using the minority Sunnis the brokers between the two larger ethnic groups (Kurdish and Shiite) and forcing Iraq to accept the Hashemite (a Sunni) as its new King, they were able to ‘balance out’ factional movements.

I’ve been writing here that Americans really need to wise up about he fact that we’ve been trying to provoke a Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq since the invasion of Kuwait, and that we really have to stop acting so surprised that it finally happened.

Well, not only have we achieved our goal, but our cup runneth over; the huge Iraqi refugee population and our strengthening of Iran have paid off in spades, recently in a set of violent incidents around the Middle East.

Now we have Hamastan and Fatahstan, Hamas taking over the Gaza strip and the successor to the PLO, Fatah, taking the West Bank. The civil wars we have been trying to provoke for decades are just getting started. Sunni vs. Shia, Religious vs. Secular, Old Guard vs. Young Turks.

Now, even for those who are s cynical as to belive that the inevitable deaths of civilians in the crossfire is a good thing, why don’t we rework the equation in our favor by depriving these groups of a common enemy to unite against? when Israel bombed Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon, they got even the Sunni and Christian Arabs, their traditional enemies, to start chanting ‘we are all Hezbollah” in the streets all over the world.

Again, what America needs is strategic withdrawal. we are way , way overcommitted here, and our obnoxious presence is just about the only bargaining chip we have left. (Elephant once said we’re just going to end up trading Israel for Taiwan as part of a global retreat over the next century.)

The Dark Side of the Net

I was looking through my stats today, and I noticed that someone had come here from the United Kingdom looking for the phrase “fuck the soldiers.” Now, I knew I’d never written those words in that sequence, so I was curious enough to do the same search myself. It turned out I had written “fuck with the soldiers” at some point, which got me in the top ten results.

The other results had to do mostly with the petition by MySpace users to have the group “Fuck the soldiers” removed from the social networking site.

But there was one item which caught my eye, entitled “SOLDIER IN IRAQ FINDS POT PLANT, GRACES COVER OF HIGH TIMES’ GROW AMERICA.

JUNE 2, 2004 – Specialist Carlos Arellano was on patrol in Baghdad’s Green Zone on April 23 when he discovered a pot plant growing innocently on the street. He asked one of his fellow soldiers to snap a photo of him kneeling next to the plant. The photo was forwarded to High Times’ Grow America by a friend of Arellano’s via email. … Bloom quickly learned that Arellano was not only a soldier, but he was also a rapper named “Singe,” who’s first CD, The Epidemic, was released on StashBox Records several months before Arellano, in the Army Reserves, was called up to active duty and sent to Iraq. “Coded in the photo was a message that we couldn’t ignore,” Bloom says. “While Carlos is a hero defending his country in Iraq, when he comes home and smokes a joint, he’ll be a criminal.”

Whenever I see a story about a soldier that’s more than a month old, I immediately check to see if that soldier had been killed in action.

Robert Arellano said Wednesday his brother Carlos may have known he wouldn’t return home from Iraq. Carlos Arellano, a Marine corporal, had survived two previous tours of duty in Iraq, although he was wounded on the second. But Carlos seemed different before he left his family’s Rosemead home for his third tour, his brother said. “I think Carlos knew he was going to die this time,” said Robert Arellano, 27, a Marine of nine years.

Cpl. Carlos Arellano died Friday when a suicide bomber in a car set off a blast in Haqlaniyah, Iraq, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Also killed in the blast was Lance Cpl. Brandon Dewey, 20, of San Joaquin.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the people dying on both sides are my generation, and that people in the military aren’t politically or ideologically or culturally homogeneous. If you get a chance to see Soundtrack To War, the 2005 documentary about the music soldiers listen to in Iraq, you should. they run it on VH1 every once in a while.

Anyway, while I was searching for Carlos Arellano, I found his MySpace page. Someday, it will be in a museum, and I don’t mean that facetiously at all. It’s a perfectly preserved artifact, a life frozen in time.

www.myspace.com/singeofdankmobb

UPDATES:

A $282 million bank heist in Baghdad carried out by the bank’s guards:

Guards staged one of the largest bank robberies in Iraqi history, making off with a stunning $282 million dollars in cash from a private bank in central Baghdad, Aswat al-Iraq reports in Arabic. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Interior Ministry source told Aswat al-Iraq that, “Three guards working for the Dar al-Salam Bank located on Sa’adoun Street in central Baghdad were able to attack the bank . . . stealing a sum of up to $282 million dollars, and fled in an unknown direction after implementing the operation.”

…The New York Times confirms that the stolen money was denomiated in US dollars, not Iraqi dinars.

…and speculated that the perpetrators of the robbery may have been linked to militias, citing the ease of the getaway in a city thick with checkpoints.

While the sum of $282 million is massive, especially by Iraqi standards, it would fund less than one day of US expenses for operations in Iraq.

And it looks like the fighting between the Lebanese military and Fatah al-Islam has just started up again:

Four Lebanese soldiers have been killed after the army resumed heavy shelling of a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli where fighters from the Fatah al-Islam group have been holed up for weeks. The bombardment on Thursday came a day after more than 150 people left the Nahr al-Bared camp amid fears that the army was preparing an assault.

“Today’s bombardment is a first step in the final battle against the terrorist group whose fighters have refused to surrender to the army,” an army officer told the AFP news agency.

But a military statement denied that the bombardment was part of a final assault on the camp.





telegrams lost
 
ASTOR PL OPERA HOUSE RIOTS MARK FIRST TIME ARMY CALLED TO CULL CITY\'S WHEAT FROM LOW-BRED DRUNKEN FILTHY IGNORANT SHAKESPEARE-LOVING CHAFF

NOTICED @DalaiLama HAS OVER ONE MILLION TWITTER FOLLOWERS BUT DOESN\'T FOLLOW ANYBODY BACK STOP HEY EVER HEARD OF A LITTLE THING CALLED KARMA

@KeithOlbermann IDEA: RETURN TO AIR WITH HEARTFELT APOLOGY INDICTING @FoxNews AND HAVE BEN AFFLECK DELIVER IT AS YOU

WHEN WE FOUND GRANDPA MISSING WE FEARED WORST STOP THEN FOUND SILVERWARE AND LIQUOR MISSING STOP AT LEAST HE\'S COMPOS MENTIS

@MoRocca: HIPSTERS ON A PLANE STOP THE HORROR STOP THE HORROR

♺ @MoRocca: So many identical MacBooks on airpt sec conveyer belt. Waiting 4 Mac mix-up romantic comedy w/ Justin Long. Title?

@ZODIAC_MF SON SON SON SON SON SON SON SON SON SON SON

RT @ZODIAC_MF: POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP

@EmilyEDickinson WHY CAN EVERYTHING YOU WRITE BE SUNG TO THE TUNE OF GILLIGAN\'S ISLAND STOP WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL US

DADDY WENT AND LOST HIS LEG STOP THE POOR INVALID IS A TERRIBLE POKER PLAYER


 
AUG
22
2012
Something That’s Been Bothering Me For a Few Years Now…

Christine O’Donnell went on TV with her usual claptrap about how Obama is a Marxist and Soledad O’Brien (who is on a huge streak of calling Republicans out in exasperation lately) rolled her eyes. In the clip, we don’t see the subject get pressed too much further, but this has been annoying me for a [...]

SEP
30
2011
The Revenge of Icarus

In the summer of 2008, I wrote a short story that was intended to be a comment on what I thought was a coming depression, where overvalued assets would ruin the wealthy and force all those paper millionaires into destitution. I got some positive feedback from a literary agent, who thought I could turn it [...]

JUL
18
2011
Are Marginal Academics Going Crazy?

The Wall Street Journal’s most popular article today was an editorial by one Professor Michael J. Boskin entitled, “Get Ready for a 70% Marginal Tax Rate,” and it was a doozy. It hearkened back to bygone days at university, when we carelessly tossed haphazardly written bullshit under the professor’s door a minute after the deadline, [...]

MAY
12
2011
Protected: ZKY Teaser

There is no excerpt because this is a protected post.

MAY
06
2011
Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

I’ve decided to resurrect my dear old blog, now a rambunctious and neglected eight-year old–today! On May 6th in 2003, I decided to start a blog instead of sending my friends links to stuff via Instant Messenger. Back, then, I had to carry these posts uphill both ways; I built my own blog software and [...]

SEP
22
2009
This Ought To Be A Healthy Debate

So the President unveiled his health plan(s) to what I thought was an incredible display of bravery on the Republicans’ part, and I’m jealous. I remember what it felt like to torture the substitute teacher from the back of class, yelling out “you lie!” and holding up signs and so forth. These people are really [...]

AUG
20
2009
According To My Careful Prosthesis

Like you, I was very concerned about the well-being of crazy right-wingers this summer. Their favorite party out of office, a Democratic super-majority in the Senate, the stock market dragging its feet—how were we, as a nation, going to keep these people off the streets? By staging a gigantic nation-wide debate about healthcare, that’s how. [...]

MAY
06
2009
Web 2.1

Usually I talk about politics here, with slight detours into science or arts or things like that, but on the sixth anniversary of Casual Asides, I’ve decided to turn to the foundational element of this blog: technology—specifically, the World Wide Web. Six years is a long time on the Internet, and even longer in the [...]

MAY
04
2009
Why Doesn’t Somebody Pull Out A .45 And–Bang!–Settle It?

A modest proposal for extreme and Constitutional gun control: The right is losing a considerable amount of ground in the culture wars—every poll released in the last year shows America lurching to the left on traditional issues for conservatives from gay marriage to economic regulation to opening relations with Cuba. But there is one issue [...]

APR
05
2009
The Democracy of Racism

Later this month in Geneva, the United Nations will be holding what it calls the Durban Review Conference (a.k.a. “Durban II”) to “evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.” Part of the agenda at Durban II will be [...]

OCT
27
2008
How Can America Break Free Of The Two-Party System?

The economic turmoil of the past year hasn’t just thrown Wall Street into disarray—it’s causing ideological havoc in Washington. The two major parties are just as confused by the crisis as the rest of America, and party lines are becoming blurred just at the point where the Democrats seem poised to steamroll the Republicans on [...]

OCT
08
2008
If You Plant Ice, You’re Gonna Harvest Wind

A few years ago, I bet a friend that the Dow Jones Industrial Average, an index of the leading American companies’ stock prices and one of the most celebrated economic indicators on Wall Street, would dip below 10,000 ‘points’ as a result of the oncoming credit crisis. Today I called him at work and said, [...]

SEP
16
2008
Drill Up, Stupid

The component of the price of oil due to speculation was always kind of an unknown quantity. At the height of the oil bubble this summer, with prices at $150, someone suggested to Congress that up to a third of the price was actually due to market manipulation (a.k.a. “speculation”) by financial institutions, many of [...]

JUN
21
2008
Top Ten Myths About Ecology

Since I spent most of my last appearance on Sirius’ Blog Bunker and all of the previous post talking about oil without too much emphasis on the greenhouse gas part of the equation, I think it behooves us all on the left side of the political spectrum to deal with the fallacies of global warming [...]

JUN
20
2008
Driving Like Jehu

What drives oil prices? Everyone has a theory that suits their ideological niche—Democrats blame lack of regulation, Republicans blame too much regulation, and the rest of us wonder why prices aren’t higher than they are already. Earlier this month, Congress got an earful from a variety of oil experts on both sides of the ideological [...]

JUN
01
2008
I Don’t Believe In Bullshit

In 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther, began a new era in Christianity by declaring his independence from what he saw as the excesses and iniquities of the Roman Catholic Church. Having kicked off the Reformation by nailing an itemized list of complaints to a church door, Luther challenged not only the orthodoxy of [...]

MAY
06
2008
Knock On Wood

It’s Casual Asides’ 5th anniversary. Consider (with the new word count feature at the bottom of each post) that at this point, I’ve written about 260-odd posts and hundreds of thousands of words, enough to fill a decent sized book. That’s gotta be worth something, right? I pause here to consider that although I like [...]

MAY
03
2008
Bulls in the China Shop

It’s hard to watch the news lately, because it’s just an interminable vivisection and slow broil of the Democratic candidates, thanks to Hillary’s stalwart refusal to do the math. C’mon, folks, it’s all on CNN’s delegate counter game, which has helpfully added a feature which lets you see exactly why Clinton needs a 66% margin [...]

MAR
09
2008
Any Minute Now, Amos ‘n’ Andy Broadcasts Will Reach Planet X!

Dear readers, exciting things are happening. Here’s a quick review of the past few months. That Book I’m Always Talking About For the last two years, I’ve been writing a non-fiction book—it’s what I’m doing when I’m not posting here. When people ask me what the book is about, I usualy say something like, “it’s [...]

DEC
05
2007
Casual Policy Suggestions

It’s time for me to tell you what’s good for you, besides the obvious—cod liver oil, plenty of sunshine, and switching to a ‘light’ cigarette. Start Snitching The greatest thing about the immigration debate today is that everyone involved in debating it in the media is totally full of shit. You have your Lou Dobbses, [...]

NOV
06
2007
Why I Am A Pacifist

I missed the anti-war rally last weekend. I’d call it a peace rally, but nobody’s really for ‘peace’ anymore; the majority of the country still thinks the war in Afghanistan was justified, and they’re even receptive to bombing Iran. Even the majority of the country who is now against the Iraq war isn’t really against [...]

OCT
13
2007
Fall Behind

Dear readers, you may be wondering what I’ve been up to, since lately dispatches are few and I never call anymore. Well, I’ve been working on a book. If you want a copy of the proposal, e-mail me and I’ll send it to you. For the purposes of this website, the proposal is to be [...]

AUG
29
2007
The Rotting Corpse of King Croesus

Now that News Corp has all purchased the Wall Street Journal and late capitalism is experiencing yet another paroxysm—er, market correction—I think it behooves us all to consider the fate of the lowly Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. You see, way back in the 1920′s the market was booming—everybody was getting rich speculating in the market [...]

AUG
20
2007
Everyone But Thee And Me

Welcome to another edition of actual casual asides, seasoned as usual with gotchas and I-told-you-sos. Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls… The United States and our allies have no rational interest in disclosing how many people we’ve killed in Iraq and Afghanistan if that number is inclusive of civilians. “We don’t do body counts,” [...]

JUL
31
2007
The World Would Swing, If I Were King

The foreign policy spat between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton couldn’t have been scripted better for the mainstream media. It’s also the reason why watching politics in America drives me crazy. The great triangulation has begun. Lyndon Johnson had the Texas two-step, and the Clintons have the Sister Souljah moment. It’s one of their ways [...]

JUL
17
2007
Is Virginia As Lost As Anbar?

Sometimes, it’s too easy. What kind of idiot protests that the surge is working? “AJStrata,” for one, who wrote this charming piece of tripe which I cannot help but “fisk.” So, let’s get into it: The signs abound that Iraq is stabilizing. The massacres of Muslims that al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Malitia [sic] inflict are [...]

JUL
12
2007
A Rose By Any Other Name

Sometimes I wonder how many times I can restate essentially the same points about Iraq. I’ve been doing it for over four years now. I suppose I should derive some satisfaction from the fact that the majority of Americans are now against the war. Unfortunately, that’s like the majority of Americans being against the Big [...]

JUL
05
2007
Oh, Pobrecito!

When will Americans learn that prison just isn’t fit for rich people? Apparently, it was these last few weeks. First there’s the Paris Hilton in-and-out again with the overcrowded California correctional system. When asked why Hilton was being released a second time before her setnece had been served, an official mumbled somehing about ‘health concerns’ [...]

JUN
29
2007
Homework Over Summer Vacation

There’s been so much stuff going on in the past month, both in the world and my own life, that I feel like I fell behind in the news somewhere around the beginning of June. Hence, no posts; I’ve been working on some other things. But There are some things I’d like to address, briefly: [...]

MAY
28
2007
They’ve Plucked, They’ve Sown, They’ve Hollowed Him In

The thrashing of Iraq continues. Today is Memorial Day, when America traditionally celebrates the deaths of its military men and women by going to the beach and wearing funereal shades of white and so forth. Speaking of symbolic dates, I propose a new slogan for the anti-war marchers for the summer season: “Out By September [...]

MAY
18
2007
Change A Light Bulb, Save Darfur

I can’t quite put my finger on why I’ve singled Republican Presidential candidate Duncan Hunter out as my bête noire, but I have, so deal with it. Hunter isn’t as dangerous to civil rights as, say, Sam Brownback, or as connivingly amoral as Rudy Giuliani, but there’s something about him that just rubs me the [...]

MAY
10
2007
If The Hoods Don’t Get You, The Monoxide Will

As I mentioned earlier, the Democrats don’t have enough backbone to do.. well, nothing, and let the Iraq war end in 180 days. So, they’re going to continue to fund the war in some fashion, likely by insisting on “benchmarks,” which is now the catchphrase du jour . As with everything else about the American [...]

MAY
06
2007
Four More Years

Today is this blog’s fourth birthday, and as you can see, I’ve done a bit of a redesign. The old design was intentionally cluttered, because that’s how my desk looks. But I figured that, as I say at the bottom of all my e-mails, “non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitam,” which means not to multiply [...]

MAY
03
2007
Ask the Cop in The Woodpile

Yesterday as I was watching Fox News, I heard a small but sharp explosion and the clatter of plastic shrapnel. The batteries in my VCR remote, which I last remember replacing sometime in college, decided that they’d had enough. A cursory examination of the debris showed the batteries were supposed to expire in 2012, with [...]

APR
26
2007
Cannon Fodder

C-SPAN is getting better and better with the Democrats putting the investigations front and center. I have to say it’s thrilling to watch Republicans squirm after years of this bullshit going the other way. Kucinich, bless him, is even going after Dick Cheney with articles of impeachment. I am a big fan of this approach, [...]

APR
14
2007
Gender Divides

There are a few topics I try to avoid on this blog; Israel, monetary policy, cats. But I suppose the most glaring omissions are feminist concerns (closely followed by Darfur, a topic about which I have long struggled to write without much success). I’m not going to offer some lame excuse like “I just don’t [...]

APR
11
2007
Barbarians at the Logic Gates

Let me state at the outset that I am a huge, huge fan of both Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales. I own several O’Reilly books, and obviously I use wikipedia all the time. I respect them immensely, and we should all bow before their superior technological wisdom. Except in this case: A widely forwarded New [...]

APR
10
2007
Ultimately, The Buck Stops Nowhere

Four years into the occupation in Iraq and it's still going on, despite the mounting frustrations of all involved. My writing on the subject has begun to resemble a post-mortem on a still-living body. I felt like I was beating a dead horse in 2005

APR
10
2007
Round and Round

Being philosophically-self aware is a very special kind of hell. The simpler your thinking, the more complicated your life becomes. While other people have no problems with the inherently self-contradictory, people like me get stuck on little details like how the entire world has obviously gone totally batshit. I had this problem with the war [...]

APR
08
2007
Start The Selective Outrage Machine

I know I’ve ragged on Pope Benedict before for being a Nazi, but I do feel compelled to quote his Easter speech yesterday morning: How many wounds, how much suffering there is in the world! Natural calamities and human tragedies that cause innumerable victims and enormous material destruction are not lacking. … I am thinking [...]

APR
05
2007
Kill Your Idols

Oh, Christopher Hitchens. I used to be your biggest fan. I hate Mother Theresa and Bill Clinton just like you. I even forgave your support of the war in the early days of the invasion, because I knew you sympathize with the plight of Kurdistan. But you don’t return my e-mails or call. And then [...]

MAR
30
2007
An Unpublished Hermit's Letters, Vol. 4

I'm in the middle of this really long, drawn out criticism of Christopher Hitchens' "I wasn't right, but I wasn't wrong" piece on Slate from last week, but it's taking way too long to pen and you, dear readers, are probably wondering what the hell is going on. So, I substitute a letter I wrote [...]

MAR
15
2007
When You Hit 18, Stick to Civilian Life

I'm back from the valley of the shadow of blog death with an old favorite

JAN
16
2007
The Way To Win At Gambling Is To Leave When You're Ahead

Right off the bat, I'm going to make an embarrassing admission–several, actually. Earlier, I quoted Clausewitz as saying block|Clausewitz also said, the best way to attack a powerful enemy is to attack the weakness in their greatest strength.|block Clausewitz did not say this. Al Ries and Jack Trout said it. "Who?" I hear you cry. [...]

JAN
09
2007
Dashing The Troops Against Iraq With Surging Tides

So the President is planning a surge, is he? All the warning signs are there–Dad’s friends on the Iraq Study Group embarrassed him, and he knows he has to announce some kind of change, so why not go for broke and double down on America’s military future? So The SurgeTM gets floated in some neoconservative [...]

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