Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, February 29, 2008

"Lord, when did we see you?"


Noam Chomsky, recently:

One of the most dedicated and informed journalists who has been immersed in the ongoing tragedy, Nir Rosen, has just written an epitaph entitled “The Death of Iraq” in the very mainstream and quite important journal Current History. He writes that “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols, who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century,” which has been the perception of many Iraqis, as well. “Only fools talk of ‘solutions’ now,” he went on. “There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained.”

But Iraq is, in fact, the marginal issue, and the reasons are the traditional ones, the traditional reasoning and attitudes of the liberal doves who all pray now, as they did forty years ago, that the hawks will be right and that the US will win a victory in this land of wreck and ruin. And they’re either encouraged or silenced by the good news about Iraq.

And there is good news. The US occupying army in Iraq—euphemistically it’s called the Multi-National Force–Iraq, because they have, I think, three polls there somewhere—that the occupying army carries out extensive studies of popular attitudes. It’s an important part of counterinsurgency or any form of domination. You want to know what your subjects are thinking. And it released a report last December. It was a study of focus groups, and it was uncharacteristically upbeat. The report concluded—I’ll quote it—that the survey of focus groups “provides very strong evidence” that national reconciliation is possible and anticipated, contrary to what’s being claimed. The survey found that a sense of “optimistic possibility permeated all focus groups…and far more commonalities than differences are found among these seemingly diverse groups of Iraqis” from all over the country and all walks of life. This discovery of “shared beliefs” among Iraqis throughout the country is “good news, according to a military analysis of the results," Karen de Young reported in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago.

Well, the “shared beliefs” are identified in the report. I’ll quote de Young: "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the US military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of [what they call] ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.” So those are the “shared beliefs.” According to the Iraqis then, there’s hope of national reconciliation if the invaders, who are responsible for the internal violence and the other atrocities, if they withdraw and leave Iraq to Iraqis. That’s pretty much the same as what’s been found in earlier polls, so it’s not all that surprising. Well, that’s the good news: “shared beliefs.”

The report didn’t mention some other good news, so I’ll add it. Iraqis, it appears, accept the highest values of Americans. That ought to be good news. Specifically, they accept the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal that sentenced Nazi war criminals to hanging for such crimes as supporting aggression and preemptive war. It was the main charge against von Ribbentrop, for example, whose position was—in the Nazi regime was that of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The Tribunal defined aggression very straightforwardly: aggression, in its words, is the “invasion of its armed forces” by one state “of the territory of another state.” That’s simple. Obviously, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan are textbook examples of aggression. And the Tribunal, as I’m sure you know, went on to characterize aggression as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole.” So everything that follows from the aggression is part of the evil of the aggression.

Well, the good news from the US military survey of focus groups is that Iraqis do accept the Nuremberg principles. They understand that sectarian violence and the other postwar horrors are contained within the supreme international crime committed by the invaders. I think they were not asked whether their acceptance of American values extends to the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor for the United States at Nuremberg. He forcefully insisted that the Tribunal would be mere farce if we do not apply the principles to ourselves.

Well, needless to say, US opinion, shared with the West generally, flatly rejects the lofty American values that were professed at Nuremberg, indeed regards them as bordering on obscene, as you could quickly discover if you try experimenting by suggesting that these values should be observed, as Iraqis insist. It’s an interesting illustration of the reality, some of the reality, that lies behind the famous “clash of civilizations.” Maybe not exactly the way we like to look at it.

There was a poll a few days ago, a really major poll, just released, which found that 75 percent of Americans believe that US foreign policy is driving the dissatisfaction with America abroad, and more than 60 percent believe that dislike of American values and of the American people are also to blame. Dissatisfaction is a kind of an understatement. The United States has become increasingly the most feared and often hated country in the world. Well, that perception is in fact incorrect. It’s fed by propaganda. There’s very little dislike of Americans in the world, shown by repeated polls, and the dissatisfaction—that is, the hatred and the anger—they come from acceptance of American values, not a rejection of them, and recognition that they’re rejected by the US government and by US elites, which does lead to hatred and anger.

There’s other “good news” that’s been reported by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker that was during the extravaganza that was staged last September 11th. September 11th, you might ask why the timing? Well, a cynic might imagine that the timing was intended to insinuate the Bush-Cheney claims of links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. They can’t come out and say it straight out, so therefore you sort of insinuate it by devices like this. It’s intended to indicate, as they used to say outright but are now too embarrassed to say, except maybe Cheney, that by committing the supreme international crime, they were defending the world against terror, which, in fact, increased sevenfold as a result of the invasion, according to a recent analysis by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank.

Petraeus and Crocker provided figures to explain the good news. The figures they provided on September 11th showed that the Iraqi government was greatly accelerating spending on reconstruction, which is good news indeed and remained so until it was investigated by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the actual figure was one-sixth of what Petraeus and Crocker reported and, in fact, a 50 percent decline from the previous year.

Well, more good news is the decline in sectarian violence, that’s attributable in part to the murderous ethnic cleansing that Iraqis blame on the invasion. The result of it is there are simply fewer people to kill, so sectarian violence declines. It’s also attributable to the new counterinsurgency doctrine, Washington’s decision to support the tribal groups that had already organized to drive out Iraqi al-Qaeda, to an increase in US troops, and to the decision of the Sadr’s Mahdi army to consolidate its gains to stop direct fighting. And politically, that’s what the press calls “halting aggression” by the Mahdi army. Notice that only Iraqis can commit aggression in Iraq, or Iranians, of course, but no one else.

Well, it’s possible that Petraeus’s strategy may approach the success of the Russians in Chechnya, where—I’ll quote the New York Times a couple of weeks ago—Chechnya, the fighting is now “limited and sporadic, and Grozny is in the midst of a building boom” after having been reduced to rubble by the Russian attack. Well, maybe some day Baghdad and Fallujah also will enjoy, to continue the quote, “electricity restored in many neighborhoods, new businesses opening and the city’s main streets repaved,” as in booming Grozny. Possible, but dubious, in the light of the likely consequence of creating warlord armies that may be the seeds of even greater sectarian violence, adding to the “accumulated evil” of the aggression. Well, if Russians share the beliefs and attitudes of elite liberal intellectuals in the West, then they must be praising Putin’s “wisdom and statesmanship” for his achievements in Chechnya, formerly that they had turned into a land of wreck and ruin and are now rebuilding. Great achievement.

A few days ago, the New York Times—the military and Iraq expert of the New York Times, Michael Gordon, wrote a comprehensive review, first-page comprehensive review, of the options for Iraq that are being faced by the candidates. And he went through them in detail, described the pluses and minuses and so on, interviewing political leaders, the candidates, experts, etc. There was one voice missing: Iraqis. Their preference is not rejected; rather, it’s not mentioned. And it seems that there was no notice of that fact, which makes sense, because it’s typical. It makes sense on the tacit assumption that underlies almost all discourse on international affairs. The tacit assumption, without which none of it makes any sense, is that we own the world. So, what does it matter what others think? They’re “unpeople,” nice term invented by British diplomatic historian [Mark] Curtis, based on a series of outstanding volumes on Britain’s crimes of empire—outstanding work, therefore deeply hidden. So there are the “unpeople” out there, and then there are the owners—that’s us—and we don’t have to listen to the “unpeople.”
It's easy to read this from a religious perspective. The fruit of the evil of aggression is: aggression. The very failure to apply the rules to ourselves is the evil Jesus denounced:

You load people down with crushing burdens, but you yourselves won't lift a finger to help carry them. Damn you!--Luke 11:46-47a, SV.
That was Jesus' comment on the powerful over the "unpeople." He said more, of course, and it applies to us as well:

Damn you, Pharisees! You pay tithes on mint and rue and every herb, but neglect justice and the love of God. You should have attended to the last without neglecting the first.

Damn you, Pharisees! You're so fond of the prominent seat in the synagogues and respectful greetings in marketplaces. Damn you! You are like unmarked graves which people walk on without realizing it!--Luke 11:42-44, SV
I don't quote these passages to oppress anyone, but to remind us of our need for humility. These are harsh words, but not so harsh we cannot recognize the truth in them and our responsibility for correcting our actions.

One could quibble with Chomsky's assertion in that last paragraph. It isn't a necessary conclusion to the valid observation that the Iraqis are never considered when we discuss the future of "their" country. It was widely reported recently that the Iraqi Parliament had rejected a political benchmark that was supposed to be one of the results of the "surge." This rejection, of course, changed nothing in D.C., or in the calculus of: "What do we do about Iraq?" It is just as easy to be less sweeping in one's conclusion by noting that Iraq still doesn't have a government, even though our government continues to say it does. If so, there is one question: what does it govern? Surely the fundamental purpose of government is to govern. So, what does the Iraqi Parliament govern? What, indeed, does the US military govern in Iraq? Anything at all? And by popular support of the people, or by sheer force of arms? And if the latter, isn't that the generally accepted definition of a military dictator? So if the Iraqi government doesn't provide governance in Iraq, and the only governance provided is, as John McCain and George Bush assure us, is by the US military, doesn't that make the US...a military dictator in Iraq? Aren't we now the "Strong man" we deposed?

If we aren't then, pray tell: what are we?

One last bit because this, too, touches on religious questions:

Well, of course, these four proposals—again, Iran should have nuclear energy, but not nuclear weapons; there should be a weapons-free zone throughout the region; the US should accept the Non-Proliferation Treaty; there should be a turn to diplomacy and an end to threats—these are almost unmentionable in the United States. Not a single candidate would endorse any part of them, and they’re never discussed, and so on.

However, the proposals are not original. They happen to be the position of the overwhelming majority of the American population. And interestingly, that’s also true in Iran; roughly the same overwhelming majority accepts all of these proposals. But that’s—the results come from the world’s most prestigious polling agency, but not reported, as far as I could discover, and certainly not considered. If they were ever mentioned, they would be dismissed with the phrase “politically impossible,” which is probably correct. It’s only the position of the large majority of the population, kind of like national healthcare, but not of the people that count. So there are plenty of “unpeople” here, too—in fact, the large majority. Americans share this property of being “unpeople” with most of the rest of the world. In fact, if the United States and Iran were functioning, not merely formal, democracies, then this dangerous crisis might be readily resolved by a functioning democracy—I mean, one in which public opinion plays some role in determining policy, rather than being excluded—in fact, unmentioned, because, after all, they’re “unpeople.”
Religious questions? Yes. When Jesus stopped to talk to beggars, his disciples usually tried to shoo them away. When Jesus turned to the woman in Simon's house, everyone else in the room was trying desperately to ignore her. Much of Jesus' ministry was to the "unpeople" of Palestine: the beggars, the prostitutes, the fishermen and carpenters who eked out a living at the bottom of the social/economic ladder. When he said "Blessed are the ptochoi, he was speaking precisely of the "unpeople" Chomsky means.

Except, of course, Chomsky means people made "unpeople" by government action and American neglect. Precisely the people Jesus was born to, lived among, wandered among, and was taken from, by the Roman Empire under whose shadow he lived, in a society created as much by human traditions as by Roman ambitions.

The only difference is whether or not we recognize them today; and recognize the Christ who is in them.

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