Sunday, September 25, 2016

Why Are We So Magnanimous About War Crimes?


Images of First Lady Michelle Obama snuggling with George W. Bush at this weekend's opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture  are being widely shared on various social media. The image is, to be fair, somewhat misleading: the encounter, seen on video, is very brief and not as warm as the still image suggests; it is, however, the still image that has defined the encounter.

Comments on these images praise this convergence of political actors as showing "class" (true, but not in the sense they mean). Even the Reverend Ed Bacon, with whom I worked on the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace following 9/11 and in resistance to Bush's criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003, called the image "magnanimous."

And Ed isn't wrong. It is highly magnanimous for the First Lady of the United States to embrace George W. Bush, and not place him under arrest so that he can answer to war crimes. This sounds like hyperbole, but it isn't. As President, he authorized a policy that explicitly ignored international laws of war and established torture as policy, and this was on top of the invasion of Iraq itself, a violation of Nuremberg as an aggressive invasion based on falsified evidence, with disastrous international consequences continuing to unfold.

It was inexplicably magnanimous for newly inaugurated President Barack Obama to push the Justice Department to avoid formal investigation or any prosecution for war crimes by the Bush government. The Convention Against Torture requires us to prosecute war crimes committed by our own officials. Obama simply ignored the treaty and hardly anyone protested.

Obama has participated in war crimes himself. Again, this is not hyperbole. Americans are simply accustomed to ignoring our government's war crimes. There is very little public uproar about the drone strike program and the high number of civilians it has killed in a broadly defined "war on terrorism" inherited from the Bush administration. Public opinion was barely phased when the President unilaterally targeted and ordered the assassination of an American living abroad who was involved with al-Qaeda, and there was mostly silence when, two weeks later, Obama ordered the man's 16 year old son killed. Targeting family members like that is a war crime. Under Obama's command, American forces have been involved in the bombing of hospitals, schools, and civilian factories in Afghanistan and Yemen. Despite the evidence that Saudi Arabian forces are involved in war crimes, President Obama has authorized extensive sales of military equipment to the regime. There is no indication the President will ever be called to account for these things - not by the Department of Justice, not by any international body, and not in the mainstream press. My friends who identify as liberal generally express admiration and personal affection for Obama, and regard objection to his human rights record as distasteful.

After eight years of Bush and nearly eight years of Obama, war crimes have been normalized as U.S. policy. We have seen one administration pre-emptively exonerate its predecessor, across party lines. We are not even feinting at compliance with the Convention Against Torture.

But that's not all. Culturally, we have this peculiar affection for war criminals.

Exhibit A, Michelle Obama's public physical affection for the older, avuncular George W. Bush, a man who limits his public appearances and presents himself as a cheerful, retired statesman devoted to painting.

Exhibit B, a marble bust of Vice-President Richard Cheney, architect and staunch defender of Bush-era torture programs, unveiled in the House of Representatives last year to bi-partisan acclaim. Press accounts celebrated the jovial tone of the gathering, the jokes and bipartisan unity. Why intrude matters of international law and human decency on a happy gathering? This was portrayed as classy and magnanimous in the press.

One might say, "Okay, but that's how politicians are. Popular culture and everyday folks don't love war criminals." I give you Exhibit C: comedian Stephen Colbert, a liberal-aligned satirist, yokking it up with triumphant and unrepentant war criminal Henry Kissinger in a 2014 video that invites us to laugh along as Colbert dances around Kissinger's office while the bemused Kissinger himself mugs for the camera.


I don't recall any uproar about that. Colbert came close enough to a man implicated in numerous illegal coups and mass slaughter of non-combatants - and made no attempt to place him under citizen's arrest. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration bestowed upon Kissinger a "Distinguished Public Service" medal, one of many public honors he has received.

And the Bush administration war criminals are invited on to television programs and to speak to universities as if they were honorable public officials, where it is considered distasteful to bring up the apparent war crimes (and admitted war crimes) or suggest they should be questioned about them - much less, tried in a formal proceeding. Sometimes there are student protests, but by and large these figures travel untroubled throughout the country.

What's our deal? Why are we so forgiving of war crimes? For starters, the public does not pay close attention to our wars - they take place far away, are funded without debate, and there is no draft. Popular media doesn't have a narrative about war crimes - it likes to rehabilitate and humanize controversial figures, but it is rather indifferent to the idea that some actions are not okay even in wartime, that you don't target civilians or pillage, you don't rape and/or torture prisoners, you don't send children into battle, you don't inflict unnecessary suffering. These are peculiar distinctions to make if one thinks war itself is a crime, but in a world where warfare is accepted as normal, we have at least some international conventions drawing some limits to what states may do to human beings.

The United States does not consider itself bound to any of these limits.

There is little evidence suggesting this bothers the American people.

So yes, the photo of Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush is making the rounds, and it is consistent with our national character that we smile, applaud, and speak of such moments as hallmarks of reconciliation - rather than a tacit agreement to cover up our leaders' crimes.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Cant of "Can't"



One needn't live in Seattle to enjoy Charles Mudede's writing at The Stranger.

Nonetheless, a post dated September 22 was a bit disappointing, not merely for stating something imprecise, but because the lack of precision matters so much.

The statement appears in his response to Kshama Sawant's endorsement of the Green Party's Jill Stein in the upcoming presidential election. Sawant is a member of Seattle's city council who has won office twice as an avowed socialist, a rarity in American politics post-Cold War. Follow the link in this paragraph to read Sawant's argument in The Nation.

Mudede wrote:

Sawant recommends that progressive Americans vote for a person, Jill Stein, who has no chance of winning instead of one, Hillary Clinton, who does.

He goes on to argue that progressives will be better positioned under a Hillary Clinton presidency than a Trump presidency. He also insists "there can be no doubt about this" with the peculiar certainty that characterizes anti-Trump hysteria, a way of pre-empting further discussion or thought.

Herewith, my stubborn insistence on thinking.

First, the statement that Jill Stein has no chance of winning is not actually correct. She can win: she is on enough ballots to win the 270 electoral votes required to be elected president. What we can predict with reasonable certainty is that she won't win. She would have to run the table, winning nearly all of the states where she is an option. There are a few reasons we can predict this will not happen, and some of these reasons have to do with her campaign, her own flaws as a candidate, and the electorate's receptivity to a Green Party platform. There are also institutional reasons. The system is set up to prevent her from competing effectively for those electoral votes. As a candidate outside the two dominant parties, it is more difficult for her campaign to gain ballot access, harder to raise money, and even after surmounting these obstacles she is prevented from inclusion in presidential debates despite having a numerical possibility of winning the election. These factors serve to portray her as not "real" and tilt the playing field against her, such that she is not even likely to win enough of the popular vote to qualify for federal matching  funds, lowering some of the financial barriers to her participation.

Thus it is more accurate to say she won't win. When we state that she can't, and leave it at that, we are not only being imprecise: we are concealing a reality about "democratic" elections in the United States. The system is set up to protect the traditional parties from competition.

This is why I am dubious about Mudede's argument that the American left will fare any better under a Hillary Clinton presidency. A Hillary Clinton presidency is more appealing than a Trump presidency for a number of valid reasons, but this particular idea is dubious to me because I have yet to see a compelling case for left politics faring better under a President Clinton. It is stated as a self-evident fact. Yet the American left's challenges stand independently of whom we elect President. The American left's challenge is to organize resistance movements, articulate a liberation movement (from, I would hope, capitalist organization and culture), and carry the struggle in electoral and non-electoral work. Not just the ballot box, not just in legislatures, but in the workplace and the marketplace, at our dinner tables and front yards.

We know what we can anticipate from a Democratic administration: support for the TPP, fracking (which intensifies the ecological catastrophe already underway), further privatization, continued surveillance and over-policing in the name of "terrorism," and war, war, war. To say this is preferable to a Trump presidency is not really saying much. It also conceals another important truth: this isn't getting any better as long as we protect the Democratic Party from competition from the left.

So, under the current system, where we still don't have proportional representation, where electoral votes are mostly "winner take all," a system arranged to protect the dominant two parties from competition, we can vote strategically. In votes that are securely "blue" or "red," one can and should vote for Jill Stein if one supports competition from the left. If Stein achieves an impressive share of the popular vote, it can open up matching funds as well as make a compelling case for the Green Party's inclusion in future debates. In "swing" states where the outcome is less certain, where one is worried about Trump carrying the state and winning those electoral votes, by all means think strategically. It is the best we can do in an American election, until we change the system.

Whichever way we cast that vote, our work is not done. The system must be changed and it's not going to happen by wishing or asking politely or posting things on social media. And it's still less likely to happen if we refuse to make clear, truthful statements about the way power is distributed - and protected.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Statement on Performing "Killing Buddha" on September 11

It is September 11 and I will perform my play Killing Buddha with Randy Granger in a special, very low-priced matinee in Hillsboro, New Mexico. This is a statement I made from my home in Deming about why we are offering this ancient story on this day in particular.