Monday, February 25, 2008

A brief moment of sanity followed by more insanity

Apparently, one of Oklahoma's esteemed US Senators, Tom Coburn, managed to say something suggesting he'd stopped drinking the Kool-Aid:
"I will tell you personally that I think it was probably a mistake going to Iraq."
A little late to the party, but better late than never, right?

Not so fast.

Coburn's apparent epiphany is alas short-lived. While has transitioned from the usual Bushista happy talk (e.g., about what a great idea it was, how Iraq was on the verge of becoming a veritable 21st century democratic paradise, etc.), regrettably, his transition appears to be along the lines of "we broke it, we bought it":
Last weekend, Coburn said "we are on a glide path in the Muslim world" to creating a sustainable democracy and warned that withdrawing would "expose 570,000 people to genocide."

"How we got there is (the) past," he said.
In other words, "Our bad. So what. Things will be even more fucked up if we leave." How the US government got there is not to be dismissed, as an enormous propaganda campaign replete with shameless lies was a primary means of persuading not only fellow elites from around the globe, but our own populace that such a conflict was necessary. That said, it would be useful to clear up a misconception that Coburn seems to have about a US military presence in Iraq "preventing" genocide there. Quite the contrary, there is ample reason to believe that the US invasion, and for all intents and purposes colonization of Iraq has caused genocide, rather than prevented it. Once one gets past the million-plus death toll, there is also the matter of urbicide, mass displacement of Iraqis (some as exiles, many trapped in refugee camps or in a state of homelessness in what was once their own country), and even the wholesale elimination of once-thriving cultures unique to Iraq to consider.

In discussing the nature of the US occupation of Iraq, I tend to prefer Rafael Lemkin's definition of genocide:
By "genocide" we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus corresponding in its formation to such words as tyrannicide, homocide, infanticide, etc.(1) Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.


Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor's own nationals.
In other words, whole patterns of existence are destroyed. That, of course, is precisely what has happened and continues to happen in Iraq since at least 2003 (more properly I'd place the beginning in early 1991, as Bush 1 and Clinton certainly exacted their own damage against Iraqi civilians via air raids and economic blockades). Central to any discussion of genocide is the concept of social death - a concept derived from Orlando Patterson's research, as Claudia Card notes in the following passage:
Specific to genocide is the harm inflicted on its victims' social vitality. It is not just that one's group membership is the occasion for harms that are definable independently of one's identity as a member of the group. When a group with its own cultural identity is destroyed, its survivors lose their cultural heritage and may even lose their intergenerational connections. To use Orlando Patterson's terminology, in that event, they may become "socially dead" and their descendants "natally alienated," no longer able to pass along and build upon traditions, cultural developments (including languages) and projects of earlier generations (1982, 5-9). The harm of social death is not necessarily less extreme than that of physical death. Social death can even aggravate physical death by making it indecent, removing all respectful and caring ritual, social connections, and social contexts that are capable of making dying bearable and even of making one's death meaningful. In my view, the special evil in genocide lies in its infliction not just of physical death (when it does that) but of social death, producing a consequent meaninglessness of one's life and even of its termination.
Again, when we consider not only the physical decimation of the nation's infrastructure, but also the ensuing displacement occurring as a consequence, it becomes pretty obvious that some sort of social death is being perpetrated that is no less startling than the sheer number of physical deaths. Regrettably, far too little is mentioned of the plight of the Mandaeans, an indigenous Gnostic people who existed in Iraq for a couple millennia prior to the March 2003 invasion. Since 2003, almost the entirety of the Mandaean population has been displaced, primarily in exile, and probably doomed to extinction as a culture as traditional social patterns are proving difficult if not impossible to maintain as part of the Iraqi diaspora. We could also look at the looting of artifacts dating back to Mesopotamia as yet another perpetration of social death. Back about four years ago I noted:
...the artifacts of an ancient civilization are not merely showpieces but a critical part of the history of humanity. They are data points that help us to understand ourselves. They also are most vulnerable to loss and destruction during times of war and chaos.

To put the loss of our collective intellectual data in perspective, here's a few excerpts from Carl Sagan's book, Cosmos:
The glory of the Alexandrian Library is but a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia's death. It as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors. We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter's Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.

Of the physical contents of that glorious Library not a single scroll remains. In modern Alexandria few people have a keen appreciation, much less a detailed knowledge, of the Alexandrian Library or of the great Egyptian civilization that preceded it for thousands of years...There are a million threads from the past intertwined to make the ropes and cables of the modern world.

Our achievements rest on the accomplishments of 40,000 generations of our human predecessors, all but a tiny fraction of whom are nameless and forgotten. Every now and then we stumble on a major civilization, such as the ancient culture of Ebla, which flourished only a few millennia ago and about which we knew nothing. How ignorant we are of our past! Inscriptions, papyruses, books time-bind the human species and permit us to hear those few voices and faint cries of our brothers and sisters, our ancestors. And what a joy to realize how like us they were!
The Library of Alexandria, to which Dr. Sagan referred, was a major center for research and a major data base during the height of the Roman Empire. But it was certainly vulnerable and during periodic wars was damaged along with some of its contents. During the long decay of the Roman Empire, the Library was looted and ultimately destroyed under the approval of Alexandria's bishop who viewed whatever contents remaining as the work of those evil Satanic Pagans.

When I took an undergraduate course on Greek Philosophy, the loss of the writings of the great thinkers came into the foreground. Of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, only fragments survive, and in some cases, such as Thales (arguably the first genuine philosopher), all we have is second-hand information with regard to their thoughts and their lives. We know of Zeno's famous paradox, but very little of his work survives. Of the post-Socratic era, Aristotle is reputed to have written some beautiful Socratic dialogues that would rival those of his mentor, Plato. None of those survived.
It wouldn't occur to me until later that destruction of nearly all trappings of "paganism" during the late Roman Empire and into the Medieval era in Europe was a sort of ancient version of what today's neoliberals would call "shock therapy." Getting back to Iraq, the loss of its ancient artifacts (the majority probably lost forever) amounts to a collective equivalent to massive brain trauma. In Naomi Klein's book, The Shock Doctrine, which I have recommended and will continue to recommend, the destruction of these cultural and historical artifacts in Iraq (many dating back thousands of years) is compared to the destruction of a lifetime's worth of memories experienced by Ewen Cameron's psychiatric patients. Cameron's patients were unwitting human subjects who underwent (without their consent) excessive amounts of electroconvulsive "therapy" along with massive dosages of major tranquilizers and other psychoactive drugs (such as LSD) that served to induce comas lasting from days to weeks. That loss of a whole personal histories proved devastating for Cameron's victims; the loss of a culture's history is equally devastating to its members. At this juncture, it is too early to assess the long-term effects, but one thing that becomes clear if one reads through Klein's narrative and reflects on the various news items on Iraq over the years, is that it is highly likely that the looting and destruction of so much of Iraq's rich cultural history was no accident, but rather was by design. Much like Cameron, the social engineers who occupied Iraq expected, by destroying Iraq as it had once existed, a blank slate upon which to fashion something more conducive to the currently dominant predatory capitalist dogma.

Earlier in this essay I mentioned that I found Coburn's dismissiveness with regard to how the US got into Iraq to be disingenous. We need to know how "we got there" as a means of prevention of future genocides. Along those lines, I've mentioned before at least one resource that would be helpful:
Genocide Watch has a taxonomy of eight stages of genocide that should be useful to those trying to determine what some early warning signs might look like. If we notice a tendency to classify, symbolize, and dehumanize other groups either within a particular nation or in the process of colonial conquest, that's the time to stand up and be counted. Once the killing starts (both in the physical and social senses), there's not much left to do but to try to bring the perps to justice after the fact.
The stages of genocide are to be viewed as dynamic, and at times occurring in parallel. In the case of the US, the time to prevent the current genocidal war in Iraq passed about five years ago. The classification, symbolization, and dehumanization stages were passed through during the run-up to that war. At this point, the US is not only in the extermination stage, but the denial stage as well. That denialism, as I suggested last November, is manifest by:
a tendency to minimize the Iraqi death toll, to come up with euphemisms for the mass slaughter and for the torture in order to sanitize these atrocities, and so on, and have particularly noted that such efforts read eerily like Holocaust denialism as practiced by folks that we would rightly consider Neo-Nazis, kooks, and crackpots. I also think it's worth noting that the sort of Iraq holocaust denialism that seems to be the norm is not merely the purview of right-wing authoritarians, but is also evident among the "respectable" moderate and liberal wings of American political discourse. Our distinct brand of denialism is likely tied to American Exceptionalist mythology, which of course is pervasive throughout the culture and arguably most strictly adhered to among the most educated and elite among us.
Coburn seems to have a bit of the denialist streak in his remarks on the Iraq war as well, and among our ruling elites and their court jesters (the pundits making the rounds on the morning talk shows) that denialism is epidemic. If history is an indicator, in all likelihood, the denial stage will not be let go of voluntarily, but rather will be imposed upon its perps from outside if at all.

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