Various matters

Causes of Yemeni terrorism, Obama and marriage equality, lawlessness in Libya, and the 2012 election


(1) On Wednesday, I was on Cenk Uygur’s Current TV show with Michael Hastings discussing the Yemen bomb plot, and the video of that seven-minute segment is below. The discussion focused on the way in which U.S. “counter-Terrorism” policy in Yemen causes the very Terrorism it ostensibly seeks to battle. Yesterday, The Washington Post reported on several U.S. attacks in Yemen from this week alone and noted: “The latest strikes, aimed at al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen, bring the total this year to at least 15, about as many as in the previous 10 years combined“; just this morning, 17 more people were killed by U.S. airstrikes in Southern Yemen. The Obama administration recently leaked that it was escalating its attacks in Yemen to target those who names it does not know — not only with drones but also from the sea — and The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill wrote this week that still more escalation is likely: “It seems there’s going to be a pretty serious, widespread bombing campaign with ground support in southern Yemen very soon.”

As I did this segment, I actually thought about how complete is the media suppression of the question of what causes Yemenis to want to attack the U.S. Extensive establishment media coverage has been devoted over the last few weeks to Yemen, and almost nobody in those discussions ever raises the question of why some people in Yemen might support such attacks. If you think about it, it’s really quite an impressive propaganda feat. It’s just natural for people who are targeted with violence to wonder what is motivating the attackers — recall the “Why-Do-They-Hate-Us?” bafflement in the wake of 9/11 — and yet that question has been almost entirely disappeared from establishment media discourse:


(2) For those of you who weren’t sufficiently angry at me for my praise of Obama’s support for same-sex marriage, I now have an Op-Ed in The Guardian elaborating on one discrete point: why this is an event of historical significance. I was actually motivated to write it by this excellent comment in response to my post on Wednesday; the commenter explained that what mattered here isn’t how this does or does not reflect on Obama but rather the impact of the act itself:

I’m generally no fan of Obama, and many of the reasons why are reported regularly in Glenn’s blog. . . .

On this issue, Obama’s statement today will be remembered 20 years from now, while his motives, and the North Carolina vote yesterday, and Biden’s carefully calibrated statement last week, and Obama’s previous dithering on this issue, will be long forgotten. A sitting President of the United States is willing, for the first time, to personally back basic civil rights for people who love others of the same sex. That is an action. It’s mostly symbolic, sure, but it will mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people.

I’m old enough to remember eight years of Ronald Reagan not once mentioning the AIDS pandemic while it raged. Any queer or queer ally who lived through that era will instantly recognize today’s significance. That was less than 25 years ago. To get from there to this is remarkable.

No, today’s statement doesn’t get any legislation passed (at least, not directly), and the states’ rights hedge is a copout. But the important takeaway is that marriage equality opponents, and homophobes in general, can no longer dismiss gay civil rights as a fringe concern, and the notion that we can be separated from the fabric of American life and be shunned, buried, and forgotten is officially dead.

Eventually, marriage equality and all those other civil and social rights straight people take for granted will become the law of the land and the norm for everyone. Today helps get us there. That’s worth celebrating no matter how many odious other things Obama’s done.

As he suggests, people who have lived through and were personally affected by that history probably have an instinctive understanding of the significance of this week’s events, so I wanted to place this issue in an historical context and used the Guardian Op-Ed to do that.


(3) In The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Robert Worth has a long and superbly reported article on the rampant torture, lawlessness, arbitrary detentions, vengeance “justice”, and militia rule plaguing Libya — more than six months after the killing of Moammar Ghadaffi (he also notes some isolated flashes of human decency in the midst of the horrors). A couple of days ago, the NYT reported on an attack on the prime minister’s headquarters and said this:

Truckloads of armed men attacked the Tripoli headquarters of Libya’s interim prime minister on Tuesday, in a new demonstration of the lawlessness pervading the capital just weeks before a scheduled national election. . . . Security in the capital is negligible, and gunfights between armed groups from rival neighborhoods or towns are a frequent occurrence in its streets. . . .

“You know that security here is a big joke,” Fathi Baja, a council member, said at the time. With an antiaircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck, he said, “you can do whatever you want — nobody can stop you.”

Obviously, one of the lessons from the attack on Iraq was that if foreign nations use military force to remove a long-standing despot and then fail to stabilize the country, it will be followed by extreme levels of violence, lawlessness, chaos, brutality and militia rule. That is precisely what is happening in Libya, and has been happening there for almost a year now.

As I wrote from the start of the proposed intervention, one cannot say that things have improved for Libyans by the mere killing of Gadaffi without knowing what replaces his rule (those who declared victory based solely on Gadaffi’s death were guilty of succumbing to the adolescent, Hollywood-manufactured tendency to view the supreme foreign goal as killing the “bad guys”; Chris Hayes wrote about that mentality a year ago). It’s still possible, of course, that the situation in Libya can improve, but it’s been fairly infuriating to watch the loudest advocates of the intervention, who flamboyantly claimed vindication upon Gadaffi’s death, simply ignore the aftermath. For obvious reasons, that conspicuous indifference seriously calls into question the role that “humanitarianism” actually played here.


(4) Matt Taibbi has an excellent post on the 2012 presidential election, focusing on how boring and apathy-producing it is, particularly compared to the 2008 election, and how this threatens to undermine one of the prime purposes of American elections — distracting citizens’ attention from what is actually being done:

Meanwhile, Obama has turned out to represent continuity with the Bush administration on a range of key issues, from torture to rendition to economic deregulation. Obama is doing things with extralegal drone strikes that would have liberals marching in the streets if they’d been done by Bush. . . .

In other words, Obama versus McCain actually felt like a clash of ideological opposites. But Obama and Romney feels like a contest between two calculating centrists, fighting for the right to serve as figurehead atop a bloated state apparatus that will operate according to the same demented imperial logic irrespective of who wins the White House.

Then there’s one more thing – Obama versus Romney is the worst reality show on TV since the Tila Tequila days. The characters are terrible, there’s no suspense, and the biggest thing is, it lacks both spontaneity and a gross-out factor. In Reality TV, if you don’t have really sexy half-naked young people scheming against each other over campfires in the Cook Islands, you need to have grown men eating millipedes or chicks in bikinis drinking donkey semen. And if you don’t have that, you really need Sarah Palin.

This race has none of that. . . . The presidential race is always a great illusion, designed to distract people from the more hardcore politics in this country, the minutiae of trade and tax and monetary policy that’s too boring to cover. When the presidential race is a bad show, people might not have any choice but to pay attention to those other things. And this year’s version is the worst show in memory. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Digby dissents from that last point on the ground that political strategists and media mavens are adept at keeping interest levels high by manufacturing the appearance of meaningful conflicts: “It’s like one of those Housewife reality shows where everyone is obscenely wealthy and they create phony feuds and stage screaming fights and then magically become bffs the next season. It’s kind of a trainwreck that you can’t keep your eyes off of at first, but then you just end up falling asleep in front of the TV.”

I think I side more with Digby on this specific question. No matter how trivial are most of the differences between the two candidates and no matter how much each of them is a banal, status-quo-perpetuating imperial manager, the power of political manipulation is potent indeed. Recall that the Obama campaign was named Advertising Age‘s Marketer of the Year for 2008 for its excellence in brand management (the brand being Obama), and the campaign also “claimed two top awards at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Awards.”

To see how vulnerable people are to this advertising manipulation, one need look only a few posts down from the one by Digby which I just quoted, to one on her blog written by Democratic Party door-to-door canvasser David Atkins. He posted a super-trite one-minute video from the Obama campaign that begins by blaming Bush for America’s woes while sad villain music plays in the background. Then, when 2009 arrives, the ad suddenly shifts to happy, majestic, uplifting muzak — the kind played on an ABC after-school special when a boy and his lost dog are finally re-united – as we see images of the Democratic Commander-in-Chief boldly exiting his presidential helicopter as he stiffly salutes Marines, followed by a grainy-green video feed of U.S. military helicopters dispatched on a dangerous mission under his strong command. We are told that, under Obama, “our greatest enemy [cue bin Laden's face] was brought to justice by our greatest heroes [U.S. soldiers using night-cam helmets and automatic rifles]” and that “He believed in us, fought for us,” and that the American middle class is returning to its greatness, and that “you don’t quit, and neither does he.”

After viewing this mundane, vapid jingoistic tripe, Atkins gushed:

It’s beautiful. Brilliant. . . . It’s hopeful. Inspiring. . . . As a political observer, watching the ad gives me a rush of endorphins, not least because I know that the team that puts out ads like this is probably going to defeat Mitt Romney’s more hapless crew.

Watching that ad literally causes a chemical change to his brain: it triggers “a rush of endorphins.” It makes him feel pleasure, and powerful, and purposeful. And remember, this is someone who writes on (and thus presumably reads) the blog of a very astute political commentator, one who on a virtually daily basis documents the cynicism, deceit and deficiencies at the heart of the Obama presidency (and was also one of the earliest and most vocal skeptics of the notion that Obama the Candidate was some sort of grand, transformational figure), so just imagine how ads like this affect someone less exposed to those facts than he. Indeed, Atkins himself expressly acknowledges that the imagery injected into his brain bears little resemblance to reality, but that rational awareness is no match for the emotional and psychological manipulation. He stands helpless before it, and is grateful for that (just as those who feel thrills “running up their legs” or “starbursts” in their groins when watching their favorite political leader are grateful for those chemical sensations).

That’s what effective political oratory accomplishes: it overrides rational thought and imposes a false reality from the outside. Recall what Ezra Klein wrote in 2008 after listening to Obama, in an article appropriately entitled “Obama’s Gift”:

Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. His speeches are so big as to expose the smallness of the pretty prejudices and mundane considerations that might interrupt the march of his words, so big that they inspire his listeners to rise to meet their challenge. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our best selves, to the place where America exists as a ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.

That’s virtually biblical in its praise. And while Klein himself, after watching Obama up close for several years, has become more measured and grounded, Obama is still a highly effective politician capable of this level of exploitation: exploiting people’s hopes and desires. When you combine that with the desire to believe — to feel once again that he will uplift people’s lives and that the hope one placed in him was justified and not misguided: nobody wants to feel like they were successfully defrauded — it’s an easy trick to repeat. There will probably be lowered levels of enthusiasm this time around. There will be some 2008 supporters who refuse to vote for him at all. But political operatives on each side will spend the next six months using every available form of brand management and advertising manipulation to continuously impart the message that Everything is At Stake — that it’s a grand Manichean battle between Our Great Leader and Their Evil Villain — and there will be plenty of endorphins pumping through people’s brains. There will be enough to drown a large country.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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