It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

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Do any of you remember those repetitive cartoon ads for one of the Philadelphia newspapers? They used to fascinate me as a kid. They always featured a gangly man in a perilous situation — hanging, say, from a building ledge by his fingernails — and screaming for help. Crowds of people were invariably nearby but never noticed his plight. Why? Because they were too engrossed in reading the Philadelphia paper to look up.

These days, it seems to me less an ad than an essential image for our times. We’re enmeshed in something almost beyond definition, and given the FCC decision yesterday, whatever it is, it will soon be more so. We call it the media, but it’s really an immensely complex owned environment where, as I’ve written before, increasingly even the wallpaper is screaming. News, entertainment, seduction, commerce, distraction, you name it, name anything and that’s likely to be part of it, but it’s distinctly greater and more mysterious than the sum of its parts. We have the impression that we control it because we can (though we seldom do) turn off its most prominent envoy in the home, the television set. But that in itself is, I suspect, an illusion. When you turn the TV “off,” the screen admittedly goes blank but we’re all half aware that it’s not really off, that just behind the blankness, the images flow on and on and on, beckoning us at all hours to reconnect.

The overall environment is a kind of profitable madness, an endless spectacle and, to coin a couple of words, audical and sensical, even a newsical. It’s remarkably second nature to us and probably comforting as well. The spectacle is interspersed with interruptions, often spectacles in their own right like the recent Iraq War, and those interruptions of interruptions claim to offer us the world as it is. Of course, I’m somewhere in here too and so hardly have words to describe all this.

In pure news terms, we seem these days to be inside a mega-propaganda machine, all the more efficient and effective for the fact that none of its players consider themselves propagandists. It’s hard, in such a context, to remember that we’re in the midst of madness right now, and that elsewhere on earth that madness looks like ever more like madness and not like the norm we take it for.

Someday the real world, seen quite differently, will simply crash through — and that, I’m afraid, may not be a pleasant moment, nor, I fear, will its immediate results be pleasant at all. In the meantime, we need to treasure those people who, undoubtedly hanging onto the ledge of reality by their fingernails, insistently remind us that it isn’t necessarily so, who try to let us know that there are other (dare I say saner) ways of considering our world. Paul Krugman of the New York Times has done that over the last year or more; James Carroll of the Boston Globe has been one of our more eloquent defenders of reality. (For his latest, on American views of Palestinians, see The Palestinians’ pain and hopes); Jim Lobe of Inter Press News Service, whose pieces I usually find at the Asia Times on-line, has been admirable in reporting week after week on the reality that few in our media care to, or are evidently capable of, seeing; George Monbiot, columnist for the British Guardian regularly considers the global consequences of our acts; the scholar Immanuel Wallerstein in his bi-monthly commentaries has been a voice reminding us that we may not be heading in exactly the direction we think we’re going; and the remarkable, eloquent Arundhati Roy has a way of stopping us short and making us look. Tom

Standard Operating Procedure
By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
June 3, 2003

The mystery of Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction has become a lot less mysterious. Recent reports in major British newspapers and three major American news magazines, based on leaks from angry intelligence officials, back up the sources who told my colleague Nicholas Kristof that the Bush administration “grossly manipulated intelligence” about W.M.D.’s.

The mystery of Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction has become a lot less mysterious. Recent reports in major British newspapers and three major American news magazines, based on leaks from angry intelligence officials, back up the sources who told my colleague Nicholas Kristof that the Bush administration “grossly manipulated intelligence” about W.M.D.’s.

And anyone who talks about an “intelligence failure” is missing the point. The problem lay not with intelligence professionals, but with the Bush and Blair administrations. They wanted a war, so they demanded reports supporting their case, while dismissing contrary evidence.

In Britain, the news media have not been shy about drawing the obvious implications, and the outrage has not been limited to war opponents. The Times of London was ardently pro-war; nonetheless, it ran an analysis under the headline “Lie Another Day.” The paper drew parallels between the selling of the war and other misleading claims.

To read more Krugman click here

A threadbare emperor tours the world
By Jim Lobe
Asia Times
June 3, 2003

WASHINGTON – With US President George W Bush on his first tour of major world capitals since the war in Iraq, his handlers are predictably depicting his stature as something akin to William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar “bestrid[ing] the world like a Colossus”.

After all, the notion that the new world order most closely resembles Caesar’s Pax Romana has become commonplace. History, so its advocates argue, is now witnessing a Pax Americana.

Like Caesar, Bush expects others to show due respect for the global hegemon, suggesting, for example, that he is ready to forgive if not quite forget those, such as French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who doubted his wisdom and determination. Provided that they recognize who is in charge.

To read more Lobe click here

“Lunacy, or Policy?”
By Immanuel Wallerstein
Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University
Commentary No. 114
June 1, 2003

When the very Establishment, very responsible Financial Times, the representative newspaper of big capital, runs an editorial whose title is “Tax Lunacy” and whose subtitle is “The US administration throws prudence out of the window,” you know that they must be very upset. The editorial concludes on this somber note: “For [the more extreme Republicans], undermining the multilateral international order is not enough, long-held views on income redistribution also require radical revision. In response to this onslaught, there is not much the rational majority can do: reason cuts no ice; economic theory is dismissed; and contrary evidence is ignored. But watching the world’s economic superpower slowly destroy perhaps the world’s most enviable fiscal position is something to behold.”

So while Bush and company are crowing about their victories in Iraq and in the U.S. Congress, and much of the world left writes in a tone of desperate dismay about these successes, perhaps we should look at the deep fissures within all those forces that might be termed “right of center” – worldwide, in the United States, and among the capitalist strata.

First the signs of the fissure. Henry C.K. Liu, chair of a New York-based investment group, writes in Asia Times an article entitled “US dollar hegemony has got to go.” The director of investment research for Citigroup Private Bank notes that the ASEAN + 3 countries (Southeast Asia, Japan, China, and South Korea) are in the process of developing so-called “cross-border debt instruments” (which means debts denoted in their own currencies rather than in U.S. dollars), and calls this a “massive hammer poised above the U.S. economy.” He foresees that creating an Asian Currency Unit could force the United States into a “major debt workout,” and actually lead the U.S. Treasury eventually to issue bonds not in U.S. dollars, but in Asian currencies.
On the European front, Christoph Bertram, the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and a previously strong Atlanticist, writes an article, again in the Financial Times, entitled “Germany will not become America’s vassal.” He charges George Bush with full responsibility for this shift in German opinion, and foresees that the European Union will have to “[tie] members together irreversibly in defence, as the euro has done in monetary policy.”

And in the United States, James Carroll, writing in the Boston Globe, talks of the weather change in America, “a nation so adrift that it dares not look twice at its real condition.” The latest peroration of Senator Byrd (who up to two years ago was never considered a radical or even a liberal Democrat) ends with: “And mark my words. The calculated intimidation which we see so often of late by the ‘powers that be’ will only keep the loyal opposition quiet for so long. Because eventually, like it always does, the truth will emerge. And when it does, the house of cards, built of deceit, will fall.”

Senator Byrd made his speech on May 21. Just six days later, Secretary Rumsfeld, in his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, made his now widely-noted observation that Iraq’s alleged stock of weapons of mass destruction “may never be found.” Rumsfeld said that perhaps the Iraqis destroyed them “prior to the conflict.” Since the U.S. and the U.K. predicated their entire case for speedy and unilateral action on the menace these weapons posed, this is quite an admission, forced no doubt by the reality that the weapons simply have not been found so far. It may take a while for U.S. public opinion to absorb this admission and react to it. But Tony Blair found himself immediately in trouble. In the British system, it is a cardinal sin to “mislead” Parliament, and he is currently under fire (and perhaps more than that) for just this as a result of Rumsfeld’s speech. His response thus far is, wait some more. Blair needs to find those weapons far more than Rumsfeld.

The question is then whether this is really lunacy, or deliberate policy. I believe it is deliberate and intended, although I agree it is lunacy. To understand how the U.S. hawks and their allies think, we have to go back two centuries. The French Revolution really shook up the world cultural scene. For here was a group which came to power dedicated to the proposition that the government had the right to, and should, impose radical change on the social system, in the name of the “people” who were “sovereign.” Furthermore, these two ideas – that political change was a “normal” phenomenon and that it was the “people” who were sovereign, caught on rapidly throughout the world, and indeed have never gone away since.

There was an immediate reaction to these disturbing concepts (and linked actions). This is where we get the term “reactionaries.” Edmund Burke in England and Joseph de Maistre in France wrote books fundamentally challenging the whole doctrine, and asserting the enduring social and moral value of “traditional” authorities. The Jacobins were ousted after a few years, but Napoleon continued the Jacobin thrust, albeit in a very distorted form. At last, in 1815, the Counterrevolution had definitively won. It was the time to restore order in Europe and the world. Prince Metternich constructed a Holy Alliance whose policy was to meet all disorder with massive repression.
Not all the forces of order agreed with Metternich. In England, slowly but effectively, Sir Robert Peel led the Tories down the path of timely and limited concessions, notably the Reform Act of 1832. And there were similar attempts in France, notably the Revolution of 1830 which ousted Charles X and brought Louis-Philippe, the “citizen-king,” to power.

The decisive turning-point was the world revolution of 1848, which came as an enormous shock to the “reactionaries.” The now elderly Metternich was turned out of office. A “social” revolution occurred in France, seeking to assert the rights of the “workers.” And throughout central, eastern, and southern Europe, it was the “springtime of the nations.” Of course, as we know, these many revolutions all failed within a short time, and were then met with renewed and very strong repression. But the forces right of center had learned their lesson. They decided to go down the path of Peel, and accept the necessity of “concessions” in order to forestall worse. The following decades saw the rise of what historians call the “enlightened conservatives” – Disraeli in Great Britain, Napoleon III in France, Bismarck in Germany.

From then on, conservatives became merely a somewhat more prudent version of centrist liberalism. In fact, in order to head off the growing strength of “radical” left movements, conservatives were often more ready to use the state to enact changes than the centrist liberals: the extension of the suffrage by Disraeli, the restoration of trade-union rights by Napoleon III, the beginnings of the welfare state by Bismarck. These policies prevailed among conservative political groups until the world revolution of 1968, which dethroned the dominant centrist liberals, and “liberated” those who considered themselves the “true” right from the heavy hand of the “enlightened conservatives.” The rise of the “true” right may be found in the very partial Thatcher takeover of the British Conservative Party and the very partial Reagan takeover of the U.S. Republican Party. The current Bush regime has transformed this partial takeover into a total takeover.

The U.S. hawks are the revival of Metternich and his unabashedly reactionary policies: their macho unilateralism on the world scene, and their truly serious attempt to dismantle the welfare state in the United States. This is why the Financial Times says that “reason cuts no ice” with them. And this is why the heirs of Sir Robert Peel worldwide are so very upset. For just as Metternich’s policies led to the disaster for the world’s conservative forces that occurred in 1848, so Peel’s heirs fear (and expect) that Bush’s policies will do the same, and worse. And that the disaster is on the horizon.

Maybe one day in the future, there will be an Armageddon between left and right. But in the immediate present, look for a showdown between the Metternich faction and the Peel faction of the forces right of center. The Metternich faction think that the stake is world order. The Peel faction think that the stake is the survival of a capitalist system.

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author at [email protected]; fax: 1-607-777-4315.

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

To read Wallerstein at his site click here

Africa’s scar gets angrier
By George Monbiot
The Guardian
June 3, 2003

Perhaps the defining moment of Tony Blair’s premiership was the speech that he gave to the Labour party conference in October 2001. In June, his party had returned to office with a monumental majority. In September, two planes were flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. The speech appeared to mark his transition from the insecure, focus-group junkie of Labour’s first term to a visionary and a statesman, determined to change the world.

The most memorable passage was his declaration on Africa. “The state of Africa,” he told us, “is a scar on the conscience of the world. But if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it. And if we don’t, it will become deeper and angrier.” This being so, I would respectfully ask our visionary prime minister to explain what the hell he thinks he is doing in France.

To read more Monbiot click here

The Day of the Jackals
By Arundhati Roy
June 2, 2003

Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates. How many children, in how many classrooms, over how many centuries, have hang-glided through the past, transported on the wings of these words?

And now the bombs have fallen, incinerating and humiliating that ancient civilization. On the steel torsos of their missiles, adolescent American soldiers scrawled colorful messages in childish handwriting: For Saddam, from the Fat Boy Posse.

A building went down. A marketplace. A home. A girl who loved a boy. A child who only ever wanted to play with his older brother’s marbles.

On March 21 – the day after American and British troops began their illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq – an “embedded” CNN correspondent interviewed an American soldier. “I wanna get in there and get my nose dirty,” Private A.J. said. “I wanna take revenge for 9/11.”

Arundhati Roy lives in New Delhi. She is the author of “The God of Small Things” and “Power Politics” (South End Press).

To read more Roy click here