Monthly Archives: November 2015

La Folie Almayer (2011)

Even though the Anglo-Polish writer Conrad was 38 years old when he left the British merchant marine to devote himself to literature, his first novel Almayer’s Folly is a young man’s book. A bitterly ironic story about a Dutch businessman in Borneo who sends his biracial daughter to a Catholic boarding school in the the hope of eventually passing her off as white, it is saved from being overly downbeat by its anti-colonial message, and rich, poetic language. While Almayer’s Folly is not quite as much of a masterpiece as Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, the “young” Joseph Conrad was so far ahead of his time that today’s “social justice warriors” on social media might even call him a “white ally,” if of course a highly “problematic” one.

No social justice warrior would ever dismiss Chantal Akerman as “problematic,” partly because she’s arguably the greatest female filmmaker who ever lived, but mostly because so few people in the United States have ever heard her name. La Folie Almayer, her penultimate film, which she made 4 years before committing suicide in 2015 at the age of 65, has only three reviews at the Internet Movie Database. Sadly, it’s easy to understand why it’s not likely to find a popular audience. A faithful adaptation, and yet a radical deconstruction of Conrad’s novel, it comes at the end, not the beginning, the deep cold Winter, not the enthusiastic Spring of a long, distinguished artistic career. Akerman strips all the poetry off Conrad’s somber yet romantic anti-colonial meditation, and reveals, not only the delusional thinking of the white imperialist mindset, but her own despair. If Conrad’s novel is pessimistic, Akerman’s film is dark like clinical depression.

Like the young Joseph Conrad, the late Chantal Akerman deserves more attention, if only because her dramatization of the spiritually corrosive effects of white supremacy is so clear thinking and uncompromising. After a surreal, David Lynch-like opening,  we meet Almayer, played by longtime Akerman collaborator Stanislas Merhar. Almayer, who lives in a ramshackle house deep in the jungle — the film was made in Cambodia — is French, not Dutch, as he is in Conrad’s novel, but the basic outlines of his character are the same. He is a white man separated from his own people. Come to the far-East to make his fortune, he has ended up a prisoner in the jungle. A client of a shadowy entrepreneur named Captain Lingard, he has enough money to survive, but not enough to get back to Europe.

A few years before, in exchange for being let in on the ground floor of a gold mine deep in the jungle, Almayer had reluctantly agreed to marry a Malaysian woman named Zahira. Lingard has now returned for Nina, Almayer’s biracial daughter, in whom Almayer had invested most his of his hopes for the future after the gold mine failed. Why Lingard had wanted a European husband for Zahira is not entirely clear, either in the novel or the film, but the marriage has been a disaster. Zahira and Almayer hate each other. Now that Lingard wants a French, Catholic education for Nina the way he wanted a white husband for her mother, Zahira rebels. She grabs Nina and takes her into the jungle, trying to save her from the kind of forced assimilation to European ways Lingard and Almayer had attempted, and failed, to impose on her. But it’s no use. Almayer and Lingard chase them down like wild animals and ship Nina off to the city.

A decade later, Nina, now a young woman in her late teens, returns to Almayer’s compound. Almayer has not seen her since she was a little girl, his submissive relationship with Lingard  evident by the way he had not been able to get his boss to tell him the address of his daughter’s boarding school. Along the way back, she meets a young Asian man in his 20s named Dain Maroola. It is here where the differences between the “young” Conrad and the elderly Chantal Akerman become most evident. For Joseph Conrad, Dain Maroola becomes Romeo to Almayer’s Capulet, the vital young man who rescues the young girl from her imprisonment by the patriarchy. For Chantal Akerman, no man can rescue a woman from European imperialism and from the patriarchy, even if he is a young man of color who kills two white men, and escapes the police with the help of her mother.

Chantal Akerman may have had pale skin and blue eyes, but as the daughter of Polish Holocaust Survivors, strictly speaking, she would not have been considered white. In a long sequence, where Nina attempts to express to Dain just how miserable she was in Lingard’s Catholic boarding school, we begin to see the ambiguous feelings Akerman had towards being brought up as a French woman, raised in a country that collaborated with the Nazis. What makes La Folie Almayer a great film, both in spite of and because of its difficulty, is how it dramatizes a young woman who, at 17-years-old, is already dead, spiritually murdered by European imperialism and patriarchy. Unlike Conrad’s Nina, who declares that she’s in love with Dain and willing to die for him, Akerman’s Nina can’t return to the jungle, can’t be brought back to life by sex or romance. She doesn’t love Dain, she said, “maybe not yet, maybe not ever.” Just like Chantal Akerman, who achieved success as a filmmaker in her 20s, yet still committed suicide 40 years later, Nina’s body may survive for another 50 years, but she may never be able to feel genuinely alive.

Chantal Akerman became a casualty of the Holocaust in 2015. Nina, the daughter of Almayer, a submissive white dupe of empire and racism, has been condemned to walk the earth as a zombie. It’s interesting to think about what Conrad, who attempted suicide in his 20s, would have thought of Akerman’s adaptation of his first novel. My guess is he would have approved.

The Big Lie Americans Tell Themselves

On October 17, 2014, a 17-year-old black man named Laquan McDonald died after being shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer named Jason Van Dyke. Laquan, who was armed with a 3-inch folding knife, and who alleged to have tried to break into a car, was undoubtedly “no angel.” Neither is Jason Van Dyke, who, on On November 24, 2015, was indicted on the charge of First Degree Murder. Whether or not Van Dyke will spend any time in prison remains to be seen.

And yes, you need to watch the video.

The issue is not so much the massive overkill Van Dyke used, although it was indeed massive. I’ve had a pocket-knife pulled on me, and I found that getting a chair between me and my attacker was much more effective than ventilating his body with a 9mm. The devil is in the dates, and the cover-up. Not only did Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez wait over a year to bring Jason Van Dyke up on charges, the Chicago police had refused to release a dash cam video that eventually proved that, contrary to Van Dyke’s statements, McDonald did not “lunge at police” when he was gunned down. While the dash cam video is horrifying enough, since it shows Van Dyke repeatedly shooting McDonald after he fell to the ground, it eventually came to light that the Chicago Police confiscated, and subsequently destroyed the tapes from a security camera in a nearby Burger King.

The problem isn’t merely that Jason Van Dyke is “a bad apple,” even though he certainly is that, having had over 20 citizen complaints lodged against him since 2001. It’s that the Chicago Police Department is a criminal organization. Laquan McDonald, who at 17 would have been better described as a “child” than a “man,” was murdered by Van Dyke, a racist thug armed with state power, and then murdered a second time by a criminal conspiracy involving the Chicago Police, the Cook County District Attorney, and most of the local newspapers. Indeed, the dash cam video would not have been released at all had it not been for a lawsuit filed by freelance journalist Brandon Smith.

Over the coming months, the usual scenario will be played out. The newspapers will dig up dirt on Laquan McDonald. We will be shown photos of Chicago Police officers rescuing kittens and feeding homeless people. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley will make tepid, non-committal statements. Even if Anita Alvarez, who is reputed to have a pro-police bias, doesn’t deliberately tank the case, as so often happens, she will limit the prosecution to Van Dyke, and make no attempts to punish the officers responsible for bullying a Burger King manager and destroying the store security tape. If Jason Van Dyke is convicted and sent to prison, the American people will pat themselves on the back and say “you see. The system works.” If he isn’t, we’ll forget about it.

The problem isn’t so much that white Americans are racists, although, as evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump, many of us are. It’s that, when confronted with the undeniable fact that every big city in the United States is occupied by a heavily armed military force passing themselves off as a “police department,” we refuse to believe it. White Americans want to believe the world is basically a good place. The more outrageous the action of a big city police force like the NYPD, LAPD, or the Chicago Police Department, the more we try to convince ourselves that it must, somehow, have a rational explanation, that there must be a good reason. There isn’t. It doesn’t. Our refusal to confront reality is the “big lie” in action.

The Devil Finds Work (1976): James Baldwin and American Cinema

James Baldwin’s book-length essay on American cinema is not the kind of film criticism Roger Ebert or Janet Maslin writes. Baldwin doesn’t particularly care which movies should be rated four stars and which movies should be rated two. Unlike Ray Carney, François Truffaut, or Pauline Kael, he’s not a partisan for any one particular kind of cinematic tradition. He doesn’t even particularly like movies. Yet The Devil Finds Work is a penetrating examination of the place of cinema within the larger American reality.

The Devil Finds Work begins with Baldwin reminiscing about the effect film had on his developing consciousness as a child. He talks about Joan Crawford. For my generation, Crawford is most commonly thought of as the abusive mother in the film based on her step-daughter Christina’s book Mommie Dearest. For Baldwin, she is simply the first face he remembers seeing on the big screen. Yet, almost as soon as he leaves the movie theater, he sees a black woman in a story who, he imagines, looks exactly like Joan Crawford, a testament to the power of the image movies, and, more importantly, the dominant white culture, can project.

Baldwin then goes on to talk about the 1936 version of Last of the Mohicans with Randolph Scott. Like the 1992 version with Daniel Day Lewis, it ends with a white woman leaping to her death rather than let herself be “defiled” by an Indian. He echoes my own opinion that John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath is the greatest American film, not necessarily because it’s his favorite movie, but because he believes that Henry Fonda and the Joad family almost manage, through their dramatization of the poverty of the Great Depression, to become black. “In a way,” he writes, “during the 1930s we were all niggers.” He talks about Betty Davis, how her facial features, especially her bulging eyes, reminded him of his own, about the power cinema has to validate the emerging, yet still narcissistic, imagination of a little boy. He goes on an extended meditation about the great 1935 Tale of Two Cites, and the relationship between Sydney Carton and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

If James Baldwin spends his long essay on the American cinema talking almost as much about books as he does about film, then it’s largely because another title for The Devil Finds Work could easily be “On the Failure of American Cinema to Adequately Express the America Reality.” Baldwin is not a true movie lover. He was never the kind of lonely young man who liked nothing better than to sit inside a dark movie theater watching the camera project images onto a screen. On the contrary, for James Baldwin, cinema takes a back seat to literature, the church, and, above all, live theater and music. Although one of the most important cultural event in the young Baldwin’s life was staged by a filmmaker, it wasn’t a movie, but a play, Orson Welles’ all black Macbeth. It’s not only that Welles’ visionary production of Shakespeare’s tragedy gave the young Baldwin his first look at characters from canonical British literature with black faces — “It was the first time I ever really saw black actors at work.” — but the way his fellow audience members helped enrich his own experience of what they were all watching together. A play, Baldwin argues, is a living, constantly evolving medium of expression, a communal experience that allows the audience to share a small piece of history. Film, by contrast, like the images projected on the wall of Plato’s cave, alienates the viewer not only from the reality he’s trying to picture through the pictures, but from his fellow movie goers.

“The tension in the theater is a very different, and very particular tension: this tension between the real and the imaginary is the theater, and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood: in the theater, we are recreating each other.”

The Devil Finds Work closes with a long, detailed analysis of Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 biographical drama about Billie Holiday that starred Richard Pryor and Diana Ross, followed by a much shorter, but devastating take down of William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist. While Baldwin does concede that Ross and Pryor attempt to convey the reality of Holiday’s life in a way that largely white film studios try to make as difficult as possible, he clearly thinks it’s a bad movie, only worth his time because it allows him to to talk about the failure of Sidney J. Furie — the same director, interestingly enough, who made the great Vietnam War film The Boys in Company C — to capture Holiday’s long confrontation with pain, depravity, poverty, and, most importantly, evil. Film cannot capture the key events in Holiday’s life, drug addiction, childhood sexual abuse, witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, the way words, Holiday’s own autobiography, can. The film Lady Sings the Blues is an extended exercise in avoiding reality. Holiday’s memoir is the real thing.

If Lady Sings the Blues is an inadequate film, The Exorcist is a banal, contemptible film. The most terrifying thing about Friedkin’s movie, Baldwin argues, is the evidence of the enormous gap between the nature of evil and white perception of evil. Lady Sings the Blues may not have been able to dramatize the history of lynching, but at the very least it alluded to the history of lynching. Evil, in William Friedkin’s imagination, centers on the fear of a white mother that her daughter might not grow up to be as successful or well-adjusted as she is. Baldwin is aghast. Is that all white people really fear? As a black man, who understands the devil, not only from his teenage experiences in the church, but from his later experiences with the “dark” side of white America, he fears that The Exorcist is representative of the mindset capable of lynching. It’s as damning an indictment of that wretched movie as I’ve ever seen.

“The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks — many, many others, including white children — can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”

Death Wish (1974)

Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes you may get it. While the Hays Code, which was instituted in 1930, was designed to censor the radical left, its repeal in 1968 did not lead to a new age of socialist realism or risque, but sophisticated romantic comedies. On the contrary, it was the radical right that took advantage of the new opportunity to make films that were both hyper-violent and sexually explicit. From Sam Peckinpah’s pro-rape abomination Straw Dogs to the quasi-fascist Dirty Harry to violent horror films like The Exorcist, nihilistic conservatives hammered away at what remained of the cinematic humanism of John Ford and Preston Sturges.

One of the most representative examples of the new Hollywood fascism was Death Wish, a 1974 film based on the novel by Brian Garfield, and directed by the British Thatcherite Michael Winner. Paul Kersey, Charles Bronson, is a successful Manhattan architect and civil engineer. Like most upper-middle-class Americans in the northeast, he’s mostly apolitical, but more liberal than conservative when pushed to take a position. When a colleague suggests building concentration camps as a way to fight the relentless New York City crime wave, he dismisses him with a shrug of his shoulders. Soon, disaster hits. Joanna, his wife, and Carol, his 20-something daughter, are followed to their apartment from a local D’Agostino’s by a trio of young punks led by a 21-year-old Jeff Goldblum. What follows is 10 minutes of violent, soft-core pornography, where Joanna has her brains bashed is, and Carol is stripped naked and gang-raped. Winner, like most conservatives, has a tabloid sensibility. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, to get off on the images of two women being raped and savagely beaten, and yet paint the three”’freaks” as depraved monsters (which indeed they are) who deserve a quick summary execution (which indeed they do).

That Joanna Kersey’s murderers are white is a clever narrative trick by Michael Winner. The menace to Manhattan’s bourgeoisie, he initially suggests, does not come from blacks or Hispanics, but from the youth culture. Death Wish, like the Exorcist or Dirty Harry, is a straightforward attack on the counterculture of the 1960s. Hippies have turned New York City into a war zone, where going back and forth to the subway or the supermarket is more dangerous than walking point in Vietnam. Paul Kersey goes on a business trip to Arizona, where his client, an open carry ideologue who thinks that no real American should leave the house without packing a hand gun, gives him the present of a 38 caliber revolver. Soon after he returns, the “mild-mannered” Paul Kersey is walking the streets of Manhattan, looking for muggers, which are never in short supply, to gun down in revenge for what happened to his wife.

When applied to Paul Kersey, the term “mild-mannered” should be taken with a grain of salt. Death Wish, like the current generation of Dark Knight films, is a superhero origin story. Charles Bronson may have been 53-years old in 1974, but he also had a cut, weightlifter’s body that would have put men half his age to shame, and a quick draw with a pistol that makes Dirty Harry look like an amateur. Again and again, Kersey manages to gun down would-be muggers in broad daylight, often on the subway, and escape as easily as if he had a cloaking device. Eventually, he comes to the attention of the NYPD, who begin a round the clock surveillance operation of the man the newspapers have dubbed “the Vigilante” and turned into a hero. After the police manage to gather enough evidence to convict Kersey, however, they decide they don’t want him. His murder spree, and by this time he’s more serial killer than crime fighter, has provoked an uprising of the people of New York against the criminals who, up until then, had maintained a reign of terror over their city. Instead of arresting him, they tell him to leave town, to request a transfer to another city. In the final scene we seem him arrive in Chicago, getting ready, no doubt, to begin another killing spree, and setting up the inevitable sequel. In New York, the legend of the vigilante lives on.

So why watch Death Wish?

While Death Wish is a vicious, pornographic, quasi-fascist movie, it’s also well-paced, and crisply written. To view Death Wish 40 years after is release it to realize just how stuck in the post-1960s right-wing backlash American cinema remains. Made for only 3 million dollars, Death Wish says exactly the same thing as the 200 million dollar Dark Knight Rises, and in a far more entertaining manner. To watch Death With is to realize that the 197 million dollar difference between it and Dark Knight Rises is spent, not only telling a story, but on cloaking a story underneath a deluge of hype and high-tech wizardry. Charles Bronson is far more convincing as a “dark avenger” with a subway token and a 38 caliber revolver than Christian Bale is with a million dollar car and a multi-million dollar bat cave. Michael Winner may have been a vicious right-wing supporter of Margaret Thatcher but, unlike Chris Nolan, he makes his intentions clear. If dreams came true, every American movie would look like Grapes of Wrath or Sullivan’s Travels. But if the choice is between honest, in your face fascism, and muddled, poorly-written fascism, I’ll take the former every time. Let’s strip the layers of obfuscation off the current generation of ponderous, hundred million dollar duds, and contemplate their real meaning.

Terrorism: The Memetics of Guerilla Warfare

Since beginning this blog together, Stan and I have continued a running discussion on what distinguishes terrorism from other forms of military siege or action. To isolate a single specific cogent meaning that fits every popular usage would likely be impossible. Stan at one point suspected the major difference in usage stemmed from the weapon used. We went through a pile of different definitions and I at least don’t feel any closer to a single word I could graft over the entirety of usages or even a three or four entry definition that could cover most usages.

The coordinated attacks on Paris last week add another wrinkle to this and give me the sense that the defining element of the phenomena hinted toward in the increased cultural fixation on the word in the last 15-20 years has been defined more frequently by the narrative implied by the target than the manner or strategy of attack. What’s called “peacekeeping” or “intervention” tends toward the striking of strategic targets, while what’s labeled “terrorism” tends toward symbolic targets. There is little traditional military strategic value in the Bataclan Theater, and it seems difficult to think the attackers, whoever they were, wanted to or thought they could take over Paris or France as a whole through a couple coordinated strikes. Formal seizure of territory is no longer a common goal of military actions. Satellite power and puppet governments make more sense than taking over the actual governance and ownership of a territory. Why buy the cow etc.

The idea of France being under fundamentalist religious law for any sustained period of time seems similarly ridiculous, at least with the current population, even if the military power of ISIS were expanded to the point of being comparable to the major UN powers. The cultural differences are too great and especially now as ISIS doesn’t have military power anywhere even remotely comparable to the UN powers. The significant aftershock of a large attack like the one in France or even smaller ones therefore would be pitched in two directions, mirror images of the same morale problem.

What is the tactical effect the terrorist desires from the terrorist act? It’s not seizure of territory clearly. It can’t be the actual installation of religious fundamentalism in the territory struck. There are only two actual end gains I can think of from the perspective of the terrorist organization.

The first is the more obvious. Every press release or statement by a terrorist organization “claiming” an attack has two broad points which are stated each time. The first statement is “This is in retaliation for (insert western military intervention),” the (relatively) logical strategic impetus toward attack then the second “…and because of Western  decadence (many roughly equivalent phrasings exist.)” This first reason stated, the one that anything could be done about, is categorically ignored by the attacked state  and the corresponding government, at least in the US. reliably since the beginning of the W. regime. The first reason isn’t stated as a communication to  peoples attacked but as a recruitment megaphone; by aligning themselves with the counter-cultural capital inherent in broad civilian misgiving in the middle east (or in immigrant populations elsewhere), ISIS or similar organizations legitimize themselves with domestic populations. The elements in propaganda intended to be broadcast to the people inside an organization/country are usually quite different from the ones intended to be focused on from without. In an internationally broadcast message, the elements meant to draw the eyes of the foreign and domestic populations need to be pitched in ways where the likeliness of hearing one decreases the likeliness of hearing the other.

The second reason, “western decadence” is pitched at the attacked population. It’s intentionally far more vague, as vagaries make for more dynamic political capital after the fact. The western decadence is pitched in the most broad terms possible to incense the widest range of people. Paranoias of vagueness run on the fuel of victims’ collective energies to imagine the worst; paranoias of the specific have no such engine to propagate themselves. Specifics isolate, vagueness spreads. A wide net.

The aesthetic progression of terrorism from the 1970s to the present has centered around the creation of a symbolic malignant other in the form of the terrorist, a branding campaign supported equally by the terrorist and the governments of the terrorized territory. The terroristic/international memetic guerrilla militia meanwhile attempts to move toward a less coherent display of violence to weaken the sense of control in the attacked population. The shared antagonism between the two groups needs to be legitimated by continued violent flare-ups in order to sustain its strategic benefits as a means of molding public opinion. If you have a territory with multiple non-state actors vying for power that aren’t larger enough to control the entirety of the state, foreign invasion by a power like the US can be advantageous to a specific faction in their organization against the others even if the supposed endgame of taking on the US isn’t intended seriously. The mutual antagonisms so convenient for both sides in propping up national identities during the Cold War are extended into a changed paradigm. In the manner of a reality contest show, different antagonists within a limited spectrum are rolled out before the public to be judged as a sufficiently stirring dramatic foil.

By mobilizing as a relatively amorphous idea, waging “memetic warfare” as Howard Bloom might call it, the terrorist movement gains the decided advantage of being able to harness the publics’ incredible capacity for self-centered misreading in both directions. Terrorism works on the principle that if a thing manages to not effectively or coherently be about anything, the outside observers will consider it to be directly bearing them in some correlative measure. The insults against “western living” are meant, of course, as taunts. To try to isolate specific tangible targets we could call strongholds of “western living” would yield about as much stuff of use as looking at a person’s actual mother to understand a “your mom” joke. In asymmetrical warfare that isn’t centered on a traditional linear notion of victory, engagement inherently favors the smaller entity.

The US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the wake of 9/11 were not, as they were initially pitched to the public and discussed in mainstream venues at the time of the initial strikes and for a while afterward, wars of ideas or based around the adoption by one side or the other of a national or religious identity. The wars themselves were a way of creating oppositional identity to cover for a lack of shared identity that likely sits at the center of the US and in the disaffect that drives people to join ISIS. In a time of widespread discontent the most valuable branding a thing can have is an image of not being the other thing.

The US In Syria and the Rationalization that Ate the Sober Web

There’s been much debate over how to understand a 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document describing efforts by the US coalition and conditions on the ground in Syria. The document showed startling prescience about the emergence of ISIS in Syria out of AQI support and its intention to claim historic territory in Iraq. Indeed, the events in the Syrian War have unfolded almost exactly as the document analyzes.

(For a full transcription of the document courtesy of US Middle East intelligence analyst Juan Cole, scroll to the bottom of the page. A link to the document.)

The document, from 2012, stated “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China and Iran support the regime” and described the likely “development of the current events into a proxy war” in Syria.

Headlines today read Obama says he won’t be drawn into ‘proxy war’ with Russia over Syria, implicating Russia as the aggressor.

When the document was published, several news outlets ran stories about the US coalition’s support for opposition fighters in Syria, implying that the coalition in fact had been supporting the elements that became ISIS.

DailyBeast ran a story called “America’s Allies are Funding ISIS“. Details came to light concerning the covert funding and arming of Syrian extremists including al-Fatah and al-Nusra by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and the training, funding and transport of arms to ISIS from Turkey in pursuit of strategic objectives, and the support of ISIS by Saudi Arabia, with anonymous Washington officials indicating support from independent Qatari and Saudi donors.

Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq, wrote The Guardian as Michael Flynn, former head of the DIA, indicated on al-Jazeera that policies for the support of Salafist factions to isolate the Assad regime came down from Mr. President Obama himself out of the White House. Moreover, the illegal international running of arms out of Benghazi was dropped as it’s own scandal and officials and journalists began to link the Benghazi arms running operation to US support of weapons ISIS and AQI in Syria. The Medium reported The US Government’s Not-So-Secret Support for al-Qaeda and ISIS. Jeffrey Kuhner at the Washington Times deserves credit for pre-empting this coverage by reporting in 2013 How Obama arms al Qaeda.

DailyBeast quickly ran a counterstory: The ISIS Conspiracy that Ate the Web. In the story, former intelligence analyst turned writer for domestic media Jacob Seigel provided a counter-narrative interpretation of the document. Seigel quotes the important parts of the document indicating coalition support for terrorism. Siegel even links to Joe Biden’s account, where Biden expressed regret that coalition allies supported extremist elements in Syria – also indicating that no anti-Assad moderate forces ever really existed.

Yet Seigel cast aspersion on the idea that the Obama administration itself supported ISIS, AQI, or Salafism in Syria. Seigel makes the following counterarguments to the US-support-of-extremism analysis:

  1. The report isn’t a policy decision – just an analysis of facts on the ground. Despite it’s indication that the coalition found the prospect of supporting terrorists in Syria strategically valuable – it did not indicate that this was a policy decision enshrined by the White House.
  2. The report has no indication of being special or otherwise a turnkey piece of analysis. He quotes an official who suggests the document is routine and unremarkable. He notes that the document itself is half redacted.
  3. Seigel notes that the document does not list the United States as a backer of the opposition – only that Turkey and the Gulf States and “The West” are. He motions with an appeal to absurdity that the US wouldn’t support terrorism – that this is reason to believe that “The West” doesn’t intend include the US. Seigel then suggests that, if you take that point, you can understand the document as describing unruly partners in the Middle East and a conspiratorial Europe bucking the the nobler intentions of the United States.
  4. The report references ‘the opposition’ and ‘salafists’ but does not go on to specify which opposition and which salafists.
  5. He notes that the document predicts ISIS fighters would claim territory in Iraq in addition to Syria. And that the US wouldn’t have wanted this to happen and so would never have endorsed such a policy.

Let’s go through those one by one. Seigel very rightly points out that the document is not a policy directive – that it merely describes the situation on the ground. Unfortunately he overstates his case. He closes his essay with a variation of this argument: “The Obama administration, whatever the faults of its policies towards Syria and ISIS, wasn’t weighing any decisions based on a single seven-page document. Or six pages, if you count the cover sheet.”

Seigel’s argument marginalizes the material and information inside the document about the strategic value of bolstering terrorism to take down Assad – in favor of downplaying the size of the document and noting that only one document was received by the lawsuit, compared to the thousand other intelligence community documents that would have assuredly been informative to policy.

Seigel’s first argument is inconsistent with his second. He magnifies the voice of John Schindler who he quotes as saying about the document “nothing special here, not one bit.” Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that this document was the only one with information about the actors on the ground, about the opportunity to support those actors, and the implications of doing so. This is precisely what the intelligence community is in charge of providing for policy makers. Of the dozen or so documents that would have been produced by the DIA on Syria at this time, it’s very likely that most of the reports rhymed with the contents of this one.

To understand what policy was in effect, and whether the analysis made available by this document and others played into policy decisions, we need not speculate as Seigel tries to do. The former director of the Department of Defense’s intelligence agency agreed to an interview with Mehdi Hasan of al-Jazeera where he stated that not only did he remember this specific document, but that policy decisions to pursue the support of terrorist cells in Syria were not his but belonged to those at the top of the executive branch. Of course, the article also fails to address the journalism enumerating the coalition’s support for terrorism in Syria – it merely argues that the DIA document alone doesn’t establish it. Drawing from from the DIA report, statements made by the head of DoD intelligence, the journalism enumerating coalition funding, arming and training inform us of the policy decisions without needing to theorize and speculate the way Seigel encourages us to do.

Those familiar with the United States’ history of support of terrorism, recently in related events in Libya, Yemen and Somalia, but also through its entire imperial history in the Middle East, Central Asia and South America will find no surprise that this document is unremarkable intelligence. The intelligence report is a (redacted) sample of the everyday workings of what the document itself describes as a developing proxy war.

The third argument is difficult to take seriously. Its premise is that the US isn’t enumerated when the document specifies that the proxy war is divided by “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia. China, and Iran support the regime.” Very clearly the United States supports the opposition to the Syrian regime and is allied against Iran and Russia and has been voting almost exclusively in the UN Security Council against China. The US allegiance to Turkey, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates is clear: these are precisely the major allies of the coalition. Could the document have meant that Europe, but not the US, wanted to isolate Assad by magnifying terrorist activity in its shores?

Let’s pretend that we can grant Seigel this one. That the support of terrorism, in fact ISIS, was a policy pursued by everyone in the coalition with the exception of America. Wouldn’t that mean that the coalition betrayed the US – given how its stated mission is to “degrade and defeat ISIS”? And shouldn’t that mean that the US needs to sanction the West, Turkey and the Gulf Countries – as it is required to do by international law (and indeed by Federal law)? The argument that the United States was blissfully unaware of or helpless to stop its allies export terrorism and then failed to uphold the law is a nice sentiment if you believe that the world’s most powerful country could somehow be victim to such a thing, but otherwise the word parsing required to exclude the US from “the West” is pure fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The argument is also concerned with how to understand the term ‘Salafist’ and ‘opposition’. It’s author rightly points out that there are many Salafist factions that could have been intended by the document. Put aside for now the fact that no real moderate opposition has ever existed in Syria in any significant number with various initiatives to build or sustain them fail as a rule of thumb; put aside for now that there is even an inside joke at the Pentagon that goes “Q: Where are the moderate forces? A: In another country“. We can infer quite easy from the content of the document, based on its details and its timeline, who the opposition and the Salafists being discussed are.

The document clearly states:

AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) SUPPORTED THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION FROM THE BEGINNING

THE REGIME DECREASED ITS CONCENTRATION IN AREAS ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDERS (AL HASAKA AND DER ZOR).

OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS

The one sentence that indicated a specific group (Syrian Free Army) made explicit motions to do so.

Those following the Syrian war know that the battle of Hasaka was between Syrian Regime forces, which had indeed decreased its concentration there, with ISIS trying to take and control the territory. The result of the battle was a defeat of Syrian Regime forces and a successive oust of ISIS by the Kurdish YPG.

Clashes continued for the third consecutive day between pro-Assad army forces –backed by militias of the National Defense– and militants of the radical group of Islamic State (ISIS) in the eastern countryside of Hasakah, northeastern Syria, local sources reported on Saturday.

Speaking to ARA News in Hasakah, media activist Muwaffaq Aziz reported that ISIS militants have been striving for days to break into the regime-held military base of Mount Kawkab, in eastern Hasakah.

Kawkab is the largest military camp held by pro-Assad forces in Hasakah province.

– Ahmed Shiwesh of Aranews reports

But what of the opposition fighters in Der Zor? They too were, and are, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In April of 2014, ISIS invaded al-Bukamal, fighting with al-Nusra (AQI-affiliated) rebels to establish territory. In May, ISIS captured Western Der Zor and in June not only East Der Zor, but also absorbed the Western backed al-Qaeda affiliated rebels and Syria’s largest oil field.

In December 2014 ISIS attempted to take the military airfields in Der Zor, but were repelled by Syrian government forces – but not after causing a large number of casualties. ISIS’s reign of Der Zor has been weakening, and in March of this year US special forces assassinated a local military leader and detained his wife for torture and interrogation.

Why is it that ISIS’s movements to control the Eastern areas of Hasaka and Der Zor, along adjacent to the Western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar)? Why is it that ISIS has established control of these cities and neighboring Turkish borders?

Here’s a map of Free Syrian Army territory drawn by the same Juan Cole who provided a transcription of the document PDF.

Seigel suggests the document may refer to Ahrar al-Sham. Let’s pretend for a minute that they were present in the territories previously mentioned, Hasaka and Der Zor and Mosul and Anbar and the border regions in Iraq, as is actually the case for the Islamic State. Ahrar al-Sham is sister organization of al-Qaeda and has been involved in chemical weapons and who aims to install Sharia law. Yes Ahrar al-Sham has recieved military support from Turkey and the Gulf countries. Seigel’s offering that it could have been Suqoor al-Sham meet similar ends quickly.

Even if we were to invoke the necessary suspension of disbelief necessary to buy that some other factional force was being referred to by the report, the immediate implication seems to be that the document isn’t talking about the coalition supporting ISIS, but instead al-Qaeda.

But if we take Salafists to mean ISIS, the report describes more or less what happened with the Islamic State establishing itself in eastern Syria before expanding over the border from eastern Syria into Iraq. It provides, as right-wingers incensed by the government’s failure to heed it have noted, an accurate if limited prediction of what was in store for the region as ISIS began consolidating its power in 2012. But it’s the second part—“this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want— that’s been grist for conspiracy theorists who think they’ve finally found proof that ISIS is essentially a U.S. plot.

– Seigel

The author himself acknowledges that the report is not only consistent with ISIS, but eerily predictive. This is where he suggests that “the West” probably didn’t mean the US.

And so we come to the final argument: since US led coalition support for Sunni terrorism would have exacerbated the Sunni situation in Iraq, the US would never have signed off to destabilize Syria and Iran, even if eliminating an Russian Alawite Shia client state would strengthen Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, weaken Iran and Russia, eliminate Russian access to the Mediterranean, allow the blocked Saudi-Turkey oil pipeline to provide Europe with energy security, and open Europe and the West up to a globalizing Eurasia, while eliminating seeds of Arab Nationalism that has sought independence from superpower poles.

The American strategy, described as a success by the Obama administration, has involved operations against ISIS almost exclusively in Iraq until very recently, keeping the Islamic State from moving Eastward outside of tribal Sunni areas where they are able to recruit in Syria but not post an immediate direct thread to Baghdad. The recent, and relatively small, airstrikes in Syria have overall been ineffective at defeating – indeed degrading – ISIL. Iraq’s US-installed government has not been able to fend off ISIS on its own (it recently had its military and defense regime obliterated) and has needed to become a US protectorate, under which Iraq agrees to conditions imposed by the US including sphere of influence ultimatums reminiscent of the Cold War.

That hasn’t left Obama without critics. Foreign policy analysts, military officials, and members of both sides of the aisle in Washington have questioned both whether Obama’s Syria strategy would be effective or whether there exists a strategy at all. The administration had thought that it could recreate Libya – fund and arm terrorism or accidentally hand military gear to rebel hands along with revolution to get the regime to impose some form of martial law – use the resulting human rights violations to justify a military intervention – find local factions to ‘hand’ victories won with special forces – and engineer with this new ‘freedom fighter government’ a positive security and political relationship.

But Syria isn’t Libya. In Libya, most factional forces were united. There was a greater international consensus, and the US arranged a deal with Russia to vote for regime change. In Syria, infighting among the groups, while it may allow the US to oust Assad through a diplomatic track, has left it without a group to fill the vacuum. The groups remaining are the Kurds and Islamists – the former of which won’t fly with Turkey and the latter can’t meet the definition of moderate the way Washington uses extremist as a synonym for nationalist.

Seigel’s attempted refutations, while honorable in duty and faith in the US as the rightful leader of the world and champion of all things good and beautiful, just don’t hold water. Some of them, like the suggestion the West doesn’t include the US, could even be called silly. The United States support of rebel fighters to overthrow governments for strategic purposes is well known. To other countries and powers our rebels who seek their overthrow from power, who in the amoral fervor and abyss of war behead and dismember and cannibalize bodies of enemies, are terrorists. We don’t even have to boo it, if the officials are afraid of what the reputation would mean for soft power. Think of how quickly the American people have forgotten about the illegal war in Iraq, the CIA torture program, global mass surveillance and the global financial crisis.


The full document:

DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE – CLASSIFICATION: SECRET.
INFORMATION REPORT, NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE.
COUNTRY: (U) IRAQ (IRQ). DOI: (U) 20120730.
1. {REDACTED}
2. {REDACTED}
THE GENERAL SITUATION:

A. INTERNALLY, EVENTS ARE TAKING A CLEAR SECTARIAN DIRECTION.

B. THE SALAFIST,- THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA.

C. THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY SUPPORT THE OPPOSITION; WHILE RUSSIA. CHINA, AND IRAN SUPPORT THE REGIME.

D. {REDACTED}

E. THE REGIME’S PRIORITY IS TO CONCENTRATE ITS PRESENCE IN AREAS ALONG THE COAST (TARTUS, AND LATAKIA); HOWEVER, IT HAS NOT ABANDONED HOMS BECAUSE IT CONTROLS THE MAJOR TRANSPORTATION ROUTES IN SYRIA. THE REGIME DECREASED ITS CONCENTRATION IN AREAS ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDERS (AL HASAKA AND DER ZOR).
3. AL QAEDA – IRAQ (AQI):

A. AQI IS FAMILIAR WITH SYRIA. AQI TRAINED IN SYRIA AND THEN INFILTRATED INTO IRAQ.

B. AQI SUPPORTED THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION FROM THE BEGINNING, BOTH IDEOLOGICALLY AND THROUGH THE MEDIA. AQI DECLARED ITS OPPOSITION OF ASSAD’S GOVERNMENT BECAUSE IT CONSIDERED IT A SECTARIAN REGIME TARGETING SUNNIS.

C. AQI CONDUCTED A NUMBER OF OPERATIONS IN SEVERAL SYRIAN CITIES UNDER THE NAME OF JAISH AL NUSRA (VICTORIOUS ARMY), ONE OF ITS AFFILIATES.

D. AQI, THROUGH THE SPOKESMAN OF THE ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ (ISI), ABU MUHAMMAD AL ADNANI, DECLARED THE SYRIAN REGIME AS THE SPEARHEAD OF WHAT HE IS NAMING JIBHA AL RUWAFDH (FOREFRONT OF THE SHIITES) BECAUSE OF ITS {THE SYRIAN REGIME) DECLARATION OF WAR ON THE SUNNIS.

ADDITIONALLY. HE IS CALLING ON THE SUNNIS IN IRAQ, ESPECIALLY THE TRIBES IN THE BORDER REGIONS (BETWEEN IRAQ AND SYRIA), TO WAGE WAR AGAINST THE SYRIAN REGIME, REGARDING SYRIA AS AN INFIDEL REGIME FOR ITS SUPPORT TO THE INFIDEL PARTY HEZBOLLAH, AND OTHER REGIMES HE CONSIDERS DISSENTERS LIKE IRAN AND IRAQ.

E. AQI CONSIDERS THE SUNNI ISSUE IN IRAQ TO BE FATEFULLY CONNECTED TO THE SUNNI ARABS AND MUSLIMS.

4. THE BORDERS:

A. THE BORDERS BETWEEN SYRIA AND IRAQ STRETCH APPROXIMATELY 600KM WITH COMPLEX TERRAIN CONSISTING OF A VAST DESERT, MOUNTAIN RANGES (SINJAR MOUNTAINS). JOINT RIVERS (FLOWING ON BOTH SIDES), AND AGRICULTURAL LANDS.

B. IRAQ DIRECTLY NEIGHBORS THE SYRIAN PROVINCES OF HASAKA AND DER ZOR, AS WELL AS (SYRIAN) CITIES ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDER.

C. THE LAND ON BOTH SIDES BETWEEN IRAQ AND SYRIA IS A VAST DESERT PUNCTUATED BY VALLEYS, AND IT LACKS TRANSPORTATION ROUTES, WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE INTERNATIONAL HIGHWAY AND SOME MAJOR CITIES.

5. THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER:

A. THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER HAS A SOCIAL-TRIBAL STYLE, WHICH IS BOUND BY STRONG TRIBAL AND FAMILIAL MARITAL TIES.

B. THEIR SECTARIAN AFFILIATION UNITES THE TWO SIDES WHEN EVENTS HAPPEN IN THE REGION.

C. AQI HAD MAJOR POCKETS AND BASES ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER TO FACILITATE THE FLOW OF MATERIAL AND RECRUITS.

D. THERE WAS A REGRESSION OF AQI JN THE WESTERN PROVINCES OF IRAQ DURING TI-IE YEARS OF 2009 AND 2010; HOWEVER, AFTER THE RISE OF THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA, THE RELIGIOUS AND TRIBAL POWERS IN THE REGIONS BEGAN TO SYMPATHIZE WITH THE SECTARIAN UPRISING. THIS (SYMPATHY) APPEARED IN FRIDAY PRAYER SERMONS, WHICH CALLED FOR VOLUNTEERS TO SUPPORT THE SUNNI’S IN SYRIA.

6. THE SITUATION ON THE IRAQI AND SYRIAN BORDER:

A. THREE BORDER BDES ARE SUFFICIENT TO CONTROL THE BORDERS DURING PEACE TIME FOR OBSERVATION DUTIES AND TO PREVENT SMUGGLING AND INFILTRATION.

B. {REDACTED}

C. IN PREVIOUS YEARS A MAJORITY OF AQI FIGHTERS ENTERED IRAQ PRIMARILY VIA THE SYRIAN BORDER.

7. THE FUTURE ASSUMPTIONS OF THE CRISIS:

A. THE REGIME WILL SURVIVE AND HAVE CONTROL OVER SYRIAN TERRITORY.

B. DEVELOPMENT OF THE CURRENT EVENTS INTO PROXY WAR: WITH SUPPORT FROM RUSSIA, CHINA, AND IRAN, THE REGIME IS CONTROLLING THE AREAS OF INFLUENCE ALONG COASTAL TERRITORIES (TARTUS AND LATAKIA), AND IS FIERCELY DEFENDING HOMS, WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE PRIMARY TRANSPORTATION ROUTE IN SYRIA. ON THE OTHER HAND, OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS. THIS HYPOTHESIS IS MOST LIKELY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE DATA FROM RECENT EVENTS, WHICH WILL HELP PREPARE SAFE HAVENS UNDER INTERNATIONAL SHELTERING, SIMILAR TO WHAT TRANSPIRED IN LIBYA WHEN BENGHAZI WAS CHOSEN AS THE COMMAND CENTER OF THE TEMPORARY GOVERNMENT.

8. THE EFFECTS ON IRAQ:

A. {REDACTED} SYRIAN REGIME BORDER FORCES RETREATED FROM THE BORDER AND THE OPPOSITION FORCES (SYRIAN FREE ARMY) TOOK OVER THE POSTS AND RAISED THEIR FLAG. THE IRAQI BORDER GUARD FORCES ARE FACING A BORDER WITH SYRIA THAT IS NOT GUARDED BY OFFICIAL ELEMENTS WHICH PRESENTS A DANGEROUS AND SERIOUS THREAT.

B. THE OPPOSITION FORCES WILL TRY TO USE THE IRAQI TERRITORY AS A SAFE HAVEN FOR ITS FORCES TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE SYMPATHY OF THE IRAQI BORDER POPULATION, MEANWHILE TRYING TO RECRUIT FIGHTERS AND TRAIN THEM ON THE IRAQI SIDE, IN ADDITION TO HARBORING REFUGEES (SYRIA).

C. IF THE SITUATION UNRAVELS THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME, WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE STRATEGIC DEPTH OF THE SHiA EXPANSION (IRAQ AND IRAN).

D. THE DETERIORATION OF THE SITUATION HAS DIRE CONSEQUENCES ON THE IRAQI SITUATION AND ARE AS FOLLOWS:

1. THIS CREATES THE IDEAL ATMOSPHERE FOR AQI TO RETURN TO ITS OLD POCKETS IN MOSUL AND RAMADI, AND WILL PROVIDE A RENEWED MOMENTUM UNDER THE PRESUMPTION OF UNIFYING THE JIHAD AMONG SUNNI IRAQ AND SYRIA, AND THE REST OF THE SUNNIS IN THE ARAB WORLD AGAINST WHAT IT CONSIDERS ONE ENEMY, THE DISSENTERS. ISI COULD ALSO DECLARE AN ISLAMIC STATE THROUGH ITS UNION WITH OTHER TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA, WHICH WILL CREATE GRAVE DANGER IN REGARDS TO UNIFYING IRAQ AND THE PROTECTION OF ITS TERRITORY.

2. {REDACTED}

3. THE RENEWING FACILITATION OF TERRORIST ELEMENTS FROM ALL OVER THE ARAB WORLD ENTERING INTO THE IRAQ AREA.

Pretty Princess

(This is a story I wrote for my spoken word album. Check out the full album here.)

PRETTY PRINCESS, HER LIFE, HER MANY LOVES, THE COLONY OF THOSE BLINDED, THOSE MAIMED BY HER DAINTINESS

This is a story. The story of the continuing adventures of Pretty Princess, her many tragic loves, meals she ate, and her preferences in consumer cosmetics.

In the morning she, scoffing at the cowardly preferences of the plebs, preferences like orange juice, oatmeal, steak, and eggs, insisted on a tuna salad sandwich on two toasted pieces of rye bread, and she would follow each bite with a small sip from an eight ounce paper cup of Sanka. For digestion, she said. Many in the kingdom experienced self-doubt in the customs they’d long held, their pale mockery of the potentials held in the breakfast meal, and started eating tuna sandwiches every morning. Those young maidens who didn’t were stigmatized from ever finding suitable suitors.

In the afternoon she took three Fruit By the Foot rolls and, after removing them from the paper, would, for a good deal of time, knead them in her hands until they were perfectly round like the pearl earrings she wore to bed. On their roundness reaching a quality acceptable to her understandable perfectionism, she would dip them in slightly moistened Sanka powder and wash down each bite with a small sip from an eight ounce paper cup of Sanka. They were small bites, almost nibbles. You might imagine her bobbing her head quickly and nervously at them like a squirrel. But this is because your crude regrettable mind was never meant to comprehend the true daintiness possessed by her majesty, Pretty Princess.

Some wondered if Sanka was the secret of her curious and sanctified luminosity. Many sad lost souls, hoping hopelessly they might derive the path to her beauty, who thought wrongly her beauty was the result of a rational process susceptible to reverse-engineering, experimented with Sanka in a variety of delivery systems. Systems that bordered at times on the alchemical. None discovered the secret. There were accidents. Horrific accidents.

Some wondered if in fact there was no possible way to match her daintiness; if God had simply smiled only once, on her and her alone, that God left her here to float among us out of the understandable spite he held for all who were not Pretty Princess, spite understandable. Because they were not Pretty Princess.

Reports came of large rocks inexplicably falling from the sky on the humble shacks of the peasants, and in each story, on each rock, were purportedly scrawled the words “Tough Shit” or “God Don’t Like Ugly”. The town mystics could do little but speculate whether the hand-writing matched that found on the earlier rocks handed down at Sinai.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to hate her, we couldn’t even bring ourselves not to admire her; when we were told taxes were raised her image sat atop the letterhead; we couldn’t revolt. Not against that face. We could muster little beyond “daw” and hopeful glances at our daughters, knowing such a phenomena as Pretty Princess was verifiable, she was real despite the playful titles we threw in her direction, titles that she hardly needed to deflect; she was protected in a sort of force field that filtered without fail such aspersions. So we glanced at our daughters, eyes cast in slight optimism. We thought, somehow, they might someday, though chances were slim, be like her. That they might seem when they walked to be forever in mid-skip, that they could make the most trivial of trinkets seem the most precious of jewels by the force of their presence, that they mightn’t age but ripen perpetually without the attendant signs of spoilage, that their metabolism might render the special alchemy when fed the Sanka.

When she attracted men, the most fair and eligible, they would be reduced not by her haughtiness or disdain, for she was incapable of either, but rather the magnificence of her totality, to the most pitiful groveling wretches. And in the ways these men were diminished we did not empathize or feel pity with them, but felt more thankful and warm for the enchantment she exerted on us all. Her magnanimity in not casting them aside like insects touched us deeply.

She had a soul of untold beauty. But of course she did. She was Pretty Princess. Our memories of lost relations, fond acquaintances, over time they all came to sour, but our recollections of Pretty Princess would never curdle; they never could. They didn’t work in the way living memories did; they sat with calm confidence waiting to be admired or coveted the way gold bars do in vaults.

And like gold, many were maimed, several killed, for seemingly no better cause than that they had the audacity to look at Pretty Princess. No greater cause was necessary. She was Pretty Princess. She was the momentum and inertia and beauty in all things. She was cause. She was effect. She was her own justification and the justification for that that happened round her. Many had been blinded on having seen some crude approximation of her visage in a dream. We cast them out; we regarded them as we did lepers; rightly so, for it was clear in their blindness they’d failed the crucial test. They were summarily unworthy. A pestilence on our civilization, weeds in the garden. Christ might’ve asked us to cast our lot with them. But Christ knew not of Pretty Princess. And this, finally, was why he had to die.

And some might ask me, the humble narrator, how I know such things. On what authority I might claim them. And to them I reveal without fear, devoid of interest, beyond the crudity of “intent”, that I, yes I, am Pretty Princess. And hope fervently that I, in my prettiness, find it in myself, in my embodiment of all that men, in their weakness, call “adorable”, to take pity on your souls.

How Are We Hating on People?

Journalistic articles are heavily schematic; of all the prose styles they’re the closest analogue to pop music. They use a very simple rhythmic pattern aggressively to get into your ear above all other considerations in a manner perhaps only surpassed by the prose advertisement, which in the print magazine works as the refrain between the verses of the supposed primary content. Sentimental and nostalgic reflections are shot back on its history; it gives grand retrospectives and revues of its greatest hits and it trains you how to passively consume it from about the first time you’re dragged out in public in a stroller. A news story catches and you hear bits of it every time you go to the supermarket or the drug store. It can’t be helped.

This tells you a bit, though not much more than the blanket statement that the majority of the songs on the radio work on a verse-chorus-verse structure. Other schematics are at play that change in their texture and attack over time much as the pop sound of today feels different than 40s big band sounds did.

The major difference that marks contemporary opinion pieces’ more specific coordinates and positioning in the circle jerk is the gerrymandering of where the locus of power lies and therefore the target our collective amorphous misgivings ought to be directed toward on any given day. Like cell phone contracts, a lot of crap is packaged together in ways it doesn’t need to be but in a manner meant to confuse the reader. The “ideological purity” of certain political stances is questioned for what are likely opportunistic reasons. Many of the misgivings about the practical applications of identity politics are put to these ideological “purity tests” in order to ironically obscure the valid part of the complaint.

When an article is shared on social media it tends to be simply as a triangulation of an earlier opinion. Often times the person sharing has not read the article. The news exists in large part at present as an external signifier of self; its a way of outsourcing the speaking of the mind so it appears our personal gripes are legitimized by the presence of an article the way that things become “real” for their having been presented on TV and not vice versa.

Part of this is media overload; there’s so much stuff out there. In the spirit of that great question “Is the chicken just an egg’s way of making more eggs?”, I must ask if the event itself and the specifics are simply now the rough draft for the eventual summary; I must ask whether the great novels will reach their truest purest form as Cliff’s Notes, whether the Cliff’s Notes will eventually be eclipsed by quick introductions and meta-meta-highlight reels, the “best” and “important” parts of things meant to represent the “best” and “important” parts of what were considered the “best” and “important” milestones of human culture? What was in an earlier age presumed to be the actual thing’s claims toward being the actual thing seem more and more tinged with the whiny taste of sour grapes. Who has the time to keep their ear to ground AND hold a job? No one whose job isn’t specifically keeping their ear to the ground. To be informed at this stage in history is not to be close to what’s happening but to be exceptionally fluent in spotting tells in the sleight of hand of summaries. We’ve all realized history is cobbled together from the surviving documents, not the events. This has always been true. Perhaps nothing more than a winking gentleman’s agreement sustained the perceived primacy of the event until now.

The journalist is not put in a position of having much or any particular easy recourse to self-respect at this point; the wages are low, the institutions hiring are almost all primarily expecting a person who can write PR bullshit. Whatever ridiculous claims to objectivity or public service…well, the claim of “public service” in an employment context at this point is essentially an excuse to pay people less than they’re worth. “But what you’re doing is important!” means about as much in this economy as if they put a shiny sticker shaped like a star on your paychecks.

The position of the young or old journalist at present would seem to be, especially on the most trafficked sites, the creation not of guided propaganda as may have been the case in an earlier time period, but simply the scouting out of persons already possessed of the desired worldview of the political body needing propaganda. The journalists themselves might still have silly pipe dreams of objectivity but the people with the money have no such concerns. There’s a large enough labor surplus at the moment where the lines between the serious journalism ideals of the 20th century and the internet induced Frankenstein of public relations and mild reporting are pretty much foregone conclusions; when a company puts at least the doublespeak of “innovation” or that they’re “looking for strong original minds”, it’s a formality and shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than such invocations would be if they were spotted in a dating profile.

Only the possibilities of panic or novelty can imbue the news with any sort of claim to our attention; while the pressure to be “informed” still exists, the suspicion that most of what goes on in the papers doesn’t actually have much bearing on our lives, for reasons of the pettiness of the content or simply the recognition that most of the population is firmly disempowered to make meaningful political change until the current oligarchy is collapsed. The current media giants mostly work to confuse and disenfranchise. They know that the popular narrative of the present is going to involve finger pointing and the fingers are all waving around anything and everything like the profession caught an advanced case of Parkinsons. Thomas Pynchon’s 3rd proverb for paranoids: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

People are pissed off. That’s easy enough to see. So the cases being made on sites like Salon, Slate and so on are revolving more and more around how define the demographic to go after when the pitchforks come out. Tellingly this demographic seems to be gerrymandered in these articles increasingly to avoid pointing out the simple and nearly universal target: the rich. The bankers. Their collaborators. The people who fucked shit up and keep fucking us.

Am I saying that the patriarchy hasn’t done awful shit? No. Am I saying that white people haven’t done awful shit? No. But any time that these lines are invoked without also calling out the heads of the large banks, the corporate heads, the administrators and middle men, the bought off legislators and careerists who’ve perpetuated the current corporate seizure of sovereignty in this country, I’m calling bullshit. We can advance the positions of women and the general disenfranchised in this country without becoming collaborators with the reactionary bourgeois.

I’d make some appeal to the better nature of these columnists here but I have little faith in them or that they’re reading this, so I’ll make an appeal to the better nature of the reader-don’t be timid about calling bullshit when there’s bullshit in the offing.

The Calling Card of Posterity, or: We’ve Tried Nothing (And We’re All Out of Ideas)

Night after night they sat in restless repose, watching beer commercial after beer commercial and car commercial after car commercial, not necessarily in that order, ten and thirty feet respectively from where a 24-pack of clearance-sale Budweiser resided in an ice box and from where a Cavalier resided in a carport, doors and skirts rusted out courtesy of design flaws and thirty years of being parked in that pointless structure. Some commercials beckoned them to rise while others intimidated them to remain in repose, or coaxed them deeper into their slouched reclination with sweet songs and elegant whispers. All the commercials served the same ends, of that they were certain, but in time they grew less certain and forgot entirely what the ends themselves were, only that all of the commercials were serving those ends. Then they became uncertain as to whether the ends were their allies or their enemies.

When they did rise, it was on command, at the beckoning of the television. The programming congealed into a continuous shrift of the intellect, but It was welcome, they’d said, We had the right to turn our brains off after a hard day of work, they’d said. There would sometimes be stirring programming snuck in-between the commercials: a noted athlete on a political tirade, or an allegory snuck past the censors in artful fiction, or a program that found humor in social discord, or a protest on the news. On rare occasions, the protest on the news would sometimes cease to be narrated and for but a moment, in the wild chorus of voices heard between the end of a news reader’s spiel and the first of the next commercials, some truth they knew to be incontrovertibly true would be heard and, just as quickly, washed away by a commercial for a 39-gem luxury watch, with all the finest movements and impeccable timing provided for by the large number of gems incorporated. They were not watchmakers and so did not understand why the gems made for such impeccable timing and movements, but the glints of light on them and the gold that housed them, the silver and gilded gears that surrounded them, made them salivate for water and their minds could not shake them of this association, even as they failed to comprehend it superficially.

Their most prominent source for the time, the display upon the cable box, glowed proudly with the hour.

The children, as expected, proved more responsible than the adults. Sometime toward twelve, after giggling their way through the Tonight monologue with hands clamped over their mouths, they would pull blankets over the unconscious adults up to their shoulders, and then slink quietly away to their beds. The adults would wake in the mornings, mouths dry with the pungent vapors of hops and ethanol, heads foggy with a night’s dreams of fantastic products inserted and infomercial scenarios throughout. Then, as expected, the children proved more wily than the adults, soon catching on to this trend and selectively turning to stations before they went to bed, ones which would be advertising items of interest to the children toward the morning and the more-remembered portion of the dreams in the adults’ slumber.

Though the adults disregarded any stray thoughts they had of obvious children’s toys, an affinity for the more technological of wonders permeated through, and soon the rusty Cavalier was outfitted with a GPS and a satellite radio, the Budweiser came to be housed in a refrigerator with a screen in the door that you could look up recipes on and order groceries through. Soon the cathode ray tube television that occupied the place in the family room that a throne occupies in a throne room came to be usurped by a smart t.v., the sort that records shows for you and goes on the internet and can use your cell phone as a remote control, slipped surreptitiously onto the wall with its scandalously-small footprint. With all of these changes the intellectual capital of the children rose, and in response to the customary cries of the adults of illiteracy with the new technology they would come and make the technology do what the adults could not make the technology do, and would increasingly chastise those of majority age for adopting the newest technologies and then still remaining the loyal base of media consistently informing them of their own powerlessness and lack of worth. They were convinced of their immobility even as the GPS in their car beckoned to take them on a three-state tour in the space of two hours.

The children came together in frequent meetings to discuss these developments, wondering with one another whether to smash all of the devices as they’d once considered doing with the television, or to continue attempting to usurp the influences upon their progenitors with positive ones. In the end, as the children became adults themselves, it was decided that the existing adults’ ignorant tendency to vote, validating fixed elections, would be permitted until the day the children had come to replace the fixed elections with true ones. They pushed the adults to exercise this civic tic through voting for American Idol contestants and new M&M colors, tried with futility to compel them to at least vote Democrat or third-party if they had to vote at all. When the children were still too young to seize upon the day for actions of their own, Election Day would be occupied by a ceremonial banging of their heads against one another. They began to understand and appreciate why the athletes did it, and soon ascribed a cultural warrior status to those who engaged in university sports for no immediate reward and at great risk to themselves. They were personally indifferent on the matter, but doing so pushed the adults from their fascination with gladiatorial athletics: the young had seized, had ruined it for them by injecting their politics into the adults’ sports. They had learned the trick when adults once dissuaded them from an interest in anime by pretending to think anime was cool too. With the television occupied all day Saturday and Sunday with college and professional sports, the adults found themselves uncertain what to do.

They took the three-state tour their car’s GPS had promised. They met people of the sort they never would have met before. They went on the internet and argued futilely and made friends with people who thought differently. They grew as individuals under the guide of their children and their own usurping technologies, the machinations that had pushed them down, from their careers and any belief in their own triumph, into their repose. The children finally went to them after this development, hoping their conversation to end with the return of the adults into the intelligentsia.

“Fathers and mothers, now have you found the source of your restlessness? Now have you found why your repose has been so uneasy all of this time?”

“We have. And we miss the targeted advertising. We hate shopping, but love buying. We miss the gladiatorial combat. We hate pain, but love seeing it inflicted. We miss social warfare. We love to be respected, but hate respecting others. We miss class warfare. We hate being poor, but love being richer than others. We wish we had never produced the lot of you, for we did not need to be awakened, or reminded of the forces which move against us. We knew these things once and we discarded them willingly, and had we known you would wrest us from our slumber we would have discarded your lot willingly as well.”

The children mulled this revelation over for a brief time, before deciding wordlessly, with glances amongst them, that the adults’ time was running out anyhow and as their successors knew now to shift from re-education to marginalization. Such it was that they came to sit the adults back before the televisions, disabling the “smart” functions that allowed them to convene with the outside world and urging them again to take in the algorithmically-manicured advertising as the t.v. had before beckoned them to do.

In the end, it was decided that the adults would be tolerated but disregarded.

The University of Missouri Protests: What Happens Now?

The University of Missouri’s black students have used hunger strikes, protests, and walk-outs to try and reach the ears of the university’s administration. The last straw was a swastika drawn on one of the dorm buildings in excrement, which might have been the first and only straw for some, in what the Washington Post called “a flurry of racist incidents” – which essentially can be boiled down to black men and women being harassed, confronted, and threatened for the crime of being in public while black. Now the Mizzou president has answered the calls of the students and stepped down. Correlation would seem to imply causation, but the facts of the case are not so simple.

Tim Wolfe, now former president of the University of Missouri, was a business hire for an educational institution. Wolfe was chosen, as the trustees said in a vapid defense of the hire, because he could bring his tech company know-how and revolutionize the university. As it turns out, he was sent to revolutionize the university through his tech company know-how, but in the only way a tech company CEO could: cutting overhead, amassing capital, and building with a tunnel vision for what he saw as the only marketable project on campus: the football team.

Wolfe raised tuition 3% and tried to kill the university press to save costs while pushing for $72 million expansion to the football stadium. Most odiously, he tried to nix insurance subsidies mere hours before the deadline to get new insurance which would have left grad students – the people who make universities run due to their wage slavery – uninsured and vulnerable. The move could have made people sick, thus threatening the quality of the labor grad students are required to give, but that did not matter as long as the university saved money for the football team.

Compared to these moves, Wolfe’s ignoring the the complaints of minority students might seem almost benignly evil as opposed to actively, wantonly evil. When people are afraid and ask you to help them be unafraid, when they organize their small numbers and try to speak with one voice, it is easy, when you’re the president of the university and you choose who has your ear, to consider a number so small as to fit into the palm of your mighty university-ruling fist unimportant. But the fears of minority students who were increasingly subject to racist intimidation and discrimination on campus grew, and the president stepped down.

But what finally brought attention to his destruction of a state institution? What finally ended his free market approach to higher ed?

Football players threatening not to play football, and thus costing the university money.

It had absolutely nothing to do with a completely anti-education agenda. It had nothing to do, really, with not lifting a finger to assuage racial tensions on campus, thereby facilitating the the entrenchment of the constant threat of racial violence. It ultimately came down to endangering their football standing and having to pay money for breaking a contract, $1 million and some change over not being able to force the school’s young men to bash their brains out on the gridiron.

So now the trustees of the university will search for a clone of this guy who has the same policies and ignores the same issues, and Mizzou students will do this all over again. They’ll likely fight over the press, the grad student insurance, the racial issues that now have been tacitly sanctioned by major administration officials. Next time, Mizzou students will probably be emboldened to fight because finally they got the barest, minimal change for which they could ask and expect a response. They did not ask for a revolution. They asked for one head of the hydra to be chopped off – enough to send a message, but not enough to kill the monster – to temporarily scatter opposition and give students’ allies time to prepare for the two heads that will pop up in its place.

Except next time, they’ll probably lose.

Capitalism may be perpetuated mindlessly, but it was not designed mindlessly. CEOs – the “businessmen” colleges around the country believe will fix institutions that largely weren’t broken – are not idiots. They know how to adapt to markets and take particular pride and joy in infiltrating hostile spaces. The administration will be smarter, having learned from the first go-round. They will hobble the opposition by trying to get ahead of the news cycle, by rolling out diversion tactics in the guise of new plans for racial sensitivity programs on campus that the administration has no desire to support (which, coincidentally, Wolfe tried to do with a program planned for 2016, but he waited too long to deploy it). Administrators will have their statements prepared and vetted by people whose job it is to be sensitive to concerns without any power to address them. They will find a way to undercut support from sources with disproportionate power to the average student – such as football players – by working clauses into their scholarships that will nullify them if they refuse to play on anything but grounds of injury. The businessmen who have infiltrated higher ed will do that at which they excel: bending reality to accept their agendas, destroying opposition to a market takeover, quelling dissent in the ranks, making marketable properties out of educational institutions that can be sold at a profit and enrich a bunch of somebodies who aren’t students.

Higher education and the ideas and philosophy and aspirations that created it – the very idea that the undeveloped mind is a tragedy and that the ability to think, critique, and enjoy the fruits of humankind and the universe around us are noble enough pursuits in their own right – are being whittled away. Death by a thousand CEOs-turned-university presidents.

It is an unnecessary, terrible, irredeemable waste of minds and money. But as long as black men put on helmets and commit entertaining acts of violence that people can watch at home and buy whatever comes on during the commercials, as long as young black men who are paid nothing and at times go to bed hungry while their coach makes millions of dollars and the university reaps the benefits of licensed sales of football paraphernalia, as long as the system runs smoothly and the right important people are making the money they were promised they’d make, then no protest about the fear of violence, of sickness, of the degradation of education will ever matter.

Football is business, and business is good.


This is a guest post by historian, writer and editor Whit Barringer. She was recently published in Fresh Meat Journal. She can found on twitter @adamantfire or on her official website, onedivinemachine.com.