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The Permutations of Assadism

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The history of the past century is littered with episodes of anthropogenic evil: Armenia, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. In their aftermaths, reverberated the collective riposte of “never again.” Only to be followed by Syria, awaiting its eventual transcription into modernity’s catalog of barbarism.
Seven years in the making, the internecine conflict has mutated into nothing short of a global catastrophe: culminating in the worst humanitarian tragedy of the postwar period, spawning a refugee crisis of unparalleled proportions, and fermenting a belligerent sectarianism where ‘disaster Islamism’ wound up thriving. As the world looked on in horror and outrage, it simultaneously resigned itself to the conclusion that the Syrian byzantine precluded any objective extrapolation; that it is far too “complicated” to acquire neutral information is invoked with almost chronic exhortation.
A sub-thread to this sophism of withdrawal is a rancid Assadist discourse that has colonized debate in radical circles…

the rest of the article here

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Russia Today and the post-truth virus

P U L S E

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one

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A video is circulating of a woman revealing “the truth” on Syria that is being withheld from us by “the mainstream media”. The woman is introduced as an “independent Canadian journalist”. She is said to be speaking  “at the UN”. The date is December 9, 2016. The video has become viral.

Eva Bartlett, the woman in the video, writes for various conspiracy sites including SOTT.net, The Duran, MintPress and Globalresearch.ca. But more recently she has emerged as a contributor to Russia Today. And though her wordpress blog is called “In Gaza”, and though she has a past in Palestine solidarity work, unlike the people of Gaza, she is a strong supporter of Assad and she uses language to describe Assad’s opponents that is a virtual echo of the language Israeli propagandists use against Gazans.

Bartlett was recently a guest of the Assad regime, attending a regime sponsored PR conference and going on a tour of regime-controlled areas herded no doubt by the ubiquitous minders (the regime only issues visas to trusted journalists and no visitor is allowed to travel without a regime minder). On her return, the regime mission at the UN organised a press conference for her and three members of the pro-regime US “Peace Council” (The organisation has the same relationship to peace as Kentucky Fried Chicken has to chicken). In the press conference they all repeated the claims usually made by the regime’s official media SANA and by Russia Today: all rebels are terrorists; there is no siege; civilians are being held hostage; the regime is a “liberator” etc.

So a conspiracy theorist with a blog who briefly visited Syria as a guest of the regime is declaring that everything you know about Syria is wrong. That you have been misled by everyone in the “MSM” from the New York Times to Der Spiegel, from the Guardian to the Telegraph, from CNN to Channel 4, from ABC to BBC, from CBS to CBC; that human rights organisations like Physicians for Human Rights, Medicins Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch; that international agencies like the UN and ICRC—they are all part of a vast conspiracy to malign Bashar al Assad. And the truth is only revealed on “alternative” media like the Kremlin’s own Russia Today! (watched by 70 million people a week according to its own claims)

In normal times something like this would provoke derision and dismay—or at least the person would be asked to provide verifiable facts instead of anecdotes (virtually everything she said is verifiably false). But these are not normal times. Supporters of the regime, admirers of Putin, and sectarian propagandists have latched on to this video. Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today has promoted the video heavily. And, in the game of Chinese whispers, the story has morphed into “a UN press conference”.

There is of course a deep racism at play here. Besides great international journalists like Christoph Reuter, Janine di Giovanni, and Martin Chulov, there are also many excellent Syrian reporters on the ground. But we are supposed to dismiss them because the truths that eluded all of them were vouchsafed to a Canadian blogger with a column on Russia Today!

What is happening in Syria is not a mystery. The facts are crystal clear. They are corroborated by multiple independent organisations. People who deny these facts only do so because of a will to disbelieve. It’s willed ignorance in the service of an ideology. This ignorance has been reinforced by Kremlin’s premier disinformation service: Russia Today. The broadcaster has rebranded itself “RT” to conceal its provenance and agenda. It has even spawned neutral-sounding viral video outlets like “In the Now”. Their aim is to sow doubt, feed cynicism, and confound knowledge. They are pressing a narrative—Kremlin’s narrative. And as the major perpetrator of violence in Syria, Kremlin has every intention to muddy the waters. (And no Russia Today is not “just like the BBC”. Have you ever seen a Russian government official questioned the way British government ministers are by a Jeremy Paxman or a James O’Brien?)

So next time someone shares a stupid video like this, hit them with facts. If they want to challenge them, then they should bring something more substantial than rambling nonsense from a conspiracy nut.

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There is an old joke. A wife returns home to find her husband in bed with another woman.

“What are you doing in bed with another woman?” she screams.

“What woman?” the husband replies.

“The woman I just saw in bed with you,” says the wife.

“Who are you going to believe,” the husband replies, “Me or your lying eyes?”

There is no doubt that the Western media has often failed in its coverage. Its reporting on Gaza and the journalism leading up to the Iraq war was abysmal. But western media isn’t devoted to obfuscating truth with the kind of single-minded determination that Russia Today is. It is deeply ironic that many people’s often justified disdain for western journalists has led the into the embrace of a channel that has no commitment to truth at all. And it becomes most pernicious when pro-Kremlin propaganda is dressed up as criticism of “the mainstream media”, “the establishment”, or “Washington”. As I wrote elsewhere:

There are few things more commonplace than an Oedipal disdain for one’s own government. In this solipsistic worldview, one need not have to understand the dynamics of a foreign crisis; they can be deduced remotely. If you hate your own government then, by virtue of being in its bad books, a Putin or an Assad becomes an ally.

Conversely, if people elsewhere are rising up against their far more repressive states, their cause is tainted because of a sympathetic word they might have received from your government. And all the images of agony do not add up to a tear of sorrow as long as they are relayed by a hated “mainstream media”. Indeed, victims are reproached for eroding ideological certainties by intruding into our consciousness through their spectacular suffering.

Notes towards a theory of Max Blumenthal

As half a million souls have evaporated into smoke, largely at the hands of the Assad regime, Max Blumenthal instructs his readers to be suspicious of the organizations dedicated to putting a lid on the suffering.

He performs this by making a few salient points about the problematic nature of NGOization, funding channels and influence of big powers which tend to haunt aid organizations everywhere, particularly those operating in desperate situations. He goes on to point out that those organizations are toeing the line of Washington’s foreign policy elites who are calling for an NFZ in order to overthrow the regime.  Of course, one needn’t wonder if maybe, just maybe, the countless barrel bombs, cluster bombs, chlorine bombs, thermite bombs and bunker busters may have anything to do with compelling one to calling for an NFZ.

I don’t have to rehearse the criticism made but you can read Scott Lucas’ forceful rebuttal to his piece here and others’ here.

What I’m interested in what went on in his head before he sharpened his pencils. What is the purpose of transforming aid organizations during the time of war and genocide into objects of scrutiny and suspicion? Who does that serve?

The task is made difficult once one recalls that Blumenthal, after all, used to be one of us—that is, on the side of Syria’s democrats and revolutionaries. In 2012, he resigned from al-Akhbar over what he called the “newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency”, pointing out that:

Yet the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a “frontline resisting state,” as Ghorayeb has sought to paint him. Nor does it offer any legitimate grounds for nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, blaming the victims of his regime, or hyping the Muslim Threat Factor to delegitimize the internal opposition . . . Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria . . .In joining the Assad regime’s campaign to delegitimize the Syrian opposition by casting it as a bunch of irrational jihadis (ironically, they seem to have little problem with Hezbollah’s core Islamist values), Assad’s apologists have unwittingly adopted the “war on terror” lexicon introduced by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the neocon cabal after 9-11. Not only have they invoked the scary specter of The Terrorists (gasp!) to justify morally indefensible acts of violent repression . . . “

What bothers Blumenthal today isn’t the somewhat common silence or apologia for Assad and Putin in alt-journalism and left-wing circles, nor is it the ongoing intervention of Russia, Iran and sectarian militias on behalf of a brutal regime. What bothers him is a hypothetical regime change operation undertaken by the United States. These are classic, even caricatural, tropes that he railed against not too long ago.

Enquiring minds wish to know: how can someone who has stood on the side of justice consistently suddenly barbarize themselves this quickly?

“The great Indian disaster of 1947 has barely entered the public consciousness. Distance, and a sense of helplessness, presumably account nowadays for this seeming indifference, just as they account for the relative calm that greets the news from Nigeria. What can one do about it, and who cares about dead African babies anyway? Certainly not the New Left: its leaders have not uttered a sound on the subject. But then there is no political mileage to be got out of a conflict which opposes Africans (with some foreign backing) to each other. As for morality, we all know by now what the Realpolitiker of the New Left (not to mention the Old Right) think of such sickly bourgeois sentiments.”—George Lichtheim

If it has been said that the institution of slavery is war and can only be defeated by war, the same can be said about the Assad regime. No serious observer thinks that Assad will cede an inch of power to the opposition without military defeat or threat. The regime has made up its mind about a Final Solution a long time ago. “Assad or we burn the country” as a pro-regime graffiti encapsulates the logic.

Blumenthal is forcefully aware of all of this. In fact, he’s written about it and has likely concluded that the war of extermination will continue unabated unless there’s some limited form of foreign intervention.

But he’s grown torn between maintaining an internationalist commitment to Syrian democrats and the fear of being in the bad company of neocons. It’s clear that Blumenthal simply sees no other way—or lacks the confidence to do so—to appear to be in such bad company without compromising himself morally.

Knowing this, he inserts his head and hands into the pillory. Thinking to himself that only by earning the scorn of neoconseratives—whom he could represent as the spear of the backlash—can he turn himself into a victim deserving commiseration and, in his mind, self-exoneration from the guilt of silence. And here’s something he could really believe in. But what he doesn’t know is that in the process he has doubly compromised himself by turning the figure of the neocon into a straw man that can be hung over the head of the defenceless and their advocates in the West.

Hence why I don’t think what he wrote is journalism. It’s an exercise in a sort of secularized Catholic penance for the white man’s burden. In other words, he has contrived an all-too solipsistic performance of self-flaeggelation that has effectively shut Syrians’ voices out, hence why he didn’t interview a single Syrian for his piece. The issue isn’t what Syrians think, the issue is that John McCain happens to agree with some of their demands.

Blumenthal wants to have it both ways. He, and his contemporaries, think they can sustain a politics of Realpolitik while avoiding the impression that they are callous. He wants to maintain the commitment of refusing a compromise with U.S. imperialism in a world far from ideal (such virtue! such courage!) while avoiding an uneasy conscience. Why call for some form of limited intervention when it can fail and perhaps haunt your career forever? After all, it’s only dead Syrians.

“I was right to be wrong, while you and your kind were wrong to be right”—Pierre Coutrade

But he sees a bigger payoff with what he’s written. He’s banking on the likelihood that sooner or later the United States and its European allies will intervene to put a halt to the carnage that is tearing not just the Middle-East apart, but at the very fabric of European democracy. In other words, he wants the United States to intervene.

That is the only way he can be redeemed for what he wrote. And when that happens, he’d like to be there to tell us that despite his Machiavellian cynicism that was fiercely criticized, he was right all along. He has crucified himself on the cross, and like the Christ’s body, he carries within him the prospect of redemption. In his mind, he may be wrong but he’s wrong for the right reasons.

Cynical, right?

It is worth noting that Christopher Hitchens took such a gamble too when he decided to support the invasion of Iraq—betraying his own principles and friends in the process. Like Hitchens, he carries a violently contemptuous attitude towards his former comrades whom he derides for their naïveté, principle and “idealism.” Despite adopting the symbols of liberation and inverting the signs, Hitchens after all still considered himself a leftist, even a Marxist, as late as 2010. Because isn’t that an effective prophylactic against an uneasy conscience?

By attacking the only groups and individuals who are committed to the protection of civilians in Syria, Blumenthal has found a target to sublimate and project what he called his “anguish” at the carnival of apologia and conspicuous silence from those on the Left After all, we—those who stress political and arms support for Syria’s democrats—have been fighting a lost battle for the hearts and minds of progressives in the West. Not knowing how to help without committing the Great Apostasy of demanding that the liberal democracies pull their weight around Syria’s democrats, Blumenthal has come to be tired of the despair and discomfort of calling for help from the imperium—who wouldn’t? What he wants instead is to make sense of it all. He wants to give his life and its place in History meaning.

That’s why he thinks it’s 2003. Those were simpler times, when the world was divided between the Good and the Neocon. When opposing your government’s war assured you immunity from moral conundrums. And if you buy the thesis that history does indeed repeat itself, you can avoid ruminating on the constantly terrifying novelty of the present.

Such farce.

Shorn of all substance, all that remains is the affect and optics of interrogating imperialism. But if you look past the optics, you realize that the ontology at play remains deeply entrenched in a colonial unconscious. “We are the prime movers of History” is a fairly therapeutic thought amidst the chaos.

 

Aleppo in a Time of Monsters

“Alepponica” by Vasco Gargalo

During the Siege of Sarajevo in 1994, when a Bosnian Serb mortar shell landed in a marketplace, killing 68 and wounding 144, US president Bill Clinton, who had campaigned on a promise of “never again” to genocide, threw up his arms. “Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen,” he said.

Two decades later, confronted with indiscriminate bombings in Aleppo and a starvation siege in Madaya, Barack Obama waxed similarly fatalistic. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation”; this, he said, was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

There are no conflicts in the Middle East that date back millennia. The conflict in Syria is just over five years old. Nothing about it is fixed. In its scope and its intensity, in its balance of forces and its cast of characters, the conflict has constantly evolved. The only thing that has remained static, however, is the international response.

In speaking of the horrors unfolding in Syria, it is hard not to get a sense of déjà vu. Everything that can be said about Aleppo has already been said about Homs, Houla, Daraya, Douma. But with each new execration comes a growing sense that, for all the obtrusive violence, for all the pleas and revelations, we are plunging into the deep, smothered by apathy, abandoned by hope.

Syria today is a free fire zone with no check on criminality. The red line that Barack Obama set was blithely crossed. It proved to be a Pavolvian exercise in reverse. In having his bluff called, the constitutionally weak president was himself zapped. Never eager for action in Syria, he has become fearful of setting new limits lest their violation further expose his pusillanimity.

Obama betrayed the people of Syria twice over. First by drawing a line on chemical weapons, at a time when most Syrians were being killed by conventional means; and then by failing to enforce it, giving Assad an unconditional license to kill by all means, including chemical weapons.

For the US, there is no categorical imperative against genocide. “Never again” is retrospective grandstanding. It is easy to take unequivocal positions when the political questions have been settled and there is no price to pay. The US has rarely acted to prevent atrocities in the present and, to the extent that it has, it has been guided entirely by political imperatives.

No one has ever suffered for denouncing the Nazi holocaust. But at the time of the holocaust, few acted to stop it. Leaders then were speaking about political interests, resource limits, and military priorities—same as today. “Never again” they said only afterwards.

Then came Rwanda. “Never again!” Then Srebrenica. “Never again!”

In 1995, when the US finally acted in Bosnia, the conflict was no worse than it had been a year before. But it was an election year and by flexing military muscle, Bill Clinton was able to erase the impression of weakness. Cynical motives notwithstanding, the action put an end to four years of “bad things” even though “those folks…over there” hadn’t yet “tired of killing each other”.

Barack Obama is on his way out. He has nothing to gain politically from confronting Assad. And morally—well, he is “proud of this moment” when he abandoned Syrians to Assad’s inexhaustible appetite for killing. Nearly three times as many people were killed in the two years after Obama’s embarrassing climb-down than had died in the two years before—by “ancient hatreds,” he might say.

Obama has meanwhile taken to encouraging “negotiations” and proclaiming that there is “no military solution” to the conflict. Assad, Putin, and Qassem Soleimani disagree. For them the negotiations are a temporising measures while proceeding with their conquest. But when the Syrian opposition protests against this farce, it is they who get painted as intransigents.

The US is no mere bystander. As in Bosnia, it has actively blocked the transfer of much needed anti-aircraft capacity to Syrian rebels, allowing the regime and Russia to bomb with impunity. And by accepting Russia’s “war on terror” rationale, it has made itself complicit in its crimes. Indeed, the US legitimized Russia and the regime’s ferocious aerial assault when its military spokesman alleged that “It’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities.” (Nusra has a small presence in the city but it certainly doesn’t “hold Aleppo”).

But if the US hasn’t fared well in Syria, neither has the UN.

In 2005, with much fanfare, the UN had introduced the doctrine of “right to protect” (R2P), codifying “never again” into a norm of international conduct. Its timely application in Syria might have saved hundreds of thousand lives. But even as the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon was acknowledging the “shame” of its failure in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the UN was giving cover to the regime’s starvation sieges across Syria, censoring its documents, and obfuscating responsibility with the anodyne language of “both sides”.

But as the Italian writer Primo Levi, a holocaust survivor, noted: “to confuse [perpetrators] with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.”

The negators of truth are myriad. Not just governments, but also people—and above all media institutions (especially the London Review of Books and Democracy Now!, two institutions that have tried to systematically subvert truth).

Levi had observed in 1974 that “every age has its own fascism” and they are enforced “not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned.”

Where once “no justice, no peace” was considered a truism, demands for justice are now deemed a threat to “stability”. Peace without justice is the nostalgia the negators of truth hanker after. Preserving truth is therefore the first step toward confronting fascism. But truth alone will not change the imbalance of forces.

In international politics, the power of knowledge is trumped by the knowledge of power. Negotiations without leverage are doomed to fail.

It is by now clear that no power will intervene to aid the Syrian people. But regional powers, unlike the US, will not be shielded from the consequences of a regime victory. In the form of the “refugee crisis”, Europe is already feeling the repercussions. It is time for regional powers to step up and provide vetted rebel groups with MANPADS. Only by revoking the regime’s aerial capacity can it be induced to negotiate in good faith.

R2P and “never again” were false hopes. The new moral order that was struggling to come forth is now dead. But that is no reason to let the monsters reign. People have a right to defend themselves; let’s give them the means.

– A version of this article first appeared at The New Arab.

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Toward a People’s History of the Syrian Uprising—A Conversation with Wendy Pearlman

October 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

In the increasingly disfigured debate about Syria, it is scarcely even remembered that it all began as a popular uprising—indeed, as a nonviolent and non-sectarian one whose goals were dignity, justice, and freedom from a one-family mafia torture state in power for more than four decades.

Wendy Pearlman is out to set that record straight and explain why the Syrian uprising happened in the first place.

Pearlman, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in Chicago who serves on the faculty of the university’s Middle East and North African Studies Program, is the author of Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada and Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement.

For the last two years Pearlman has been working on a book that she conceives as something of a people’s history of the Syrian uprising. She has interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey about their experiences in the uprising and war. Along the way, she has published a series of powerful articles, among them “Love in the Syrian Revolution”, “Fathers of Revolution” and “On the Third Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising”.

In September, our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver had the pleasure of co-hosting Pearlman (along with the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy) for a pair of presentations about her book-in-progress. While she was in Denver, I conducted this interview with her for our Middle East Dialogues video series:

A Leftist Syrian Point of View

“I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analyses. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate … We, rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners … do not exist … But honestly I’ve failed to discern who is right and who is left in the West from a leftist Syrian point of view … Before helping Syrians or showing solidarity with Syrians, the mainstream Western left needs to help themselves. Their views are totally misguided, and the Syrian cause was only a litmus test of their reactionary and decadent perspectives.”  – Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Read the full interview here.

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Lord Robert Skidelsky – “The Future of Work”

Lord Robert Skidelksy’s keynote presentation – “The Future of Work.” Presented at the 12th International Post Keynesian Conference. Recorded Saturday, September 27, 2014. More details at pkconference.com

The Super-Rich and Us BBC Documentary 2015

Part two

Ukraine: From Propaganda to Reality

November 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Timothy Snyder explains the crisis in Ukraine.

Since February, the world’s eyes have been on Ukraine as Ukrainians rebelled against rising authoritarianism in their own country and were met in return with a Russian invasion of Ukraine’s southern and eastern provinces. Yale University’s Timothy Snyder is the world’s leading historian of Eastern Europe. His series of articles in the New York Review of Books has been hailed as the definitive analysis of this crisis. Join him as he clarifies the stakes.

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