Arthur Silber continues to reel from crisis to crisis in his long battle with deteriorating health. Every few months, a new front opens, or else lingering ailments flair up with malevolent force. Right now, he is facing hundreds of dollars (at least) in bills to treat a serious eye ailment, while struggling to meet basic expenses for survival.
Silber, one of America's finest writers and political analysts, lives solely on contributions from readers of his blog. That he continues to write at all, through incessant physical pain and the many crushing burdens of life on the financial margins, is remarkable; that he writes at the level of excellence he constantly achieves, over and over, is genuinely mind-boggling. In a world drowning in tidal waves of falsehood pouring in from every side, we can ill afford to lose such a rare voice of living, human truth.
No oligarchs are paying his way, no parties, factions or foundations; Silber is sustained only by those who read and appreciate his work. If you are among that number -- and you certainly should be -- then please got to his site and give what you can, if you can.
The "Global War on Terror" may have been semantically erased by the propagandists of the Obama Administration, but on the ground, it is still going on -- and still spawning a multititude of malevolent consequences, as Patrick Cockburn details in a powerful series of articles. Cockburn's look at the historical record doesn't begin with 9/11, of course; the fatal alliance between Washington and the most retrograde and repressive forms of Islam -- which gave rise to the Terror War and its present reality -- go back several decades. [The first three parts of the series are here, here and here.]
But as Cockburn rightly points out, the ostensible enemy that America's national security state is ostensibly fighting -- violent, hidebound, Sunni extremism -- is now more powerful and deadly than ever ... and has been made so at every turn by the actions of America's national security state.
Cockburn's series is a shattering read. Not much of it is new to anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to reality in the past 10 to 20 years, but it is still a very useful reiteration of what is really going on behind the torrent of blather and bullshit that constitutes our "public debate". Reading it, one can't help but think of those chilling lines from T.S. Eliot, which have echoed in my head for years as I've watched our bipartisan political (and imperial) elite lead us from disaster to disaster:
I think we are in rat's alley, where dead men lost their bones.
Read it and weep -- if you have any tears left in you.
(This is an expanded version of my most recent column in CounterPunch’s print magazine.)
O the horror, the horror. To see the "shameless descent" of the "one-time countercultural figurehead" -- who had made his name as a bold stylistic innovator and powerful voice of authenticity -- now reduced to a corporate shill, parading himself, hussy-like, in a national advertisement.
How it had it happened? He had been a rawboned kid from the Midwest, a seeker and searcher who burst out of the stifling confines of bourgeois life and made his way to the very heart of the revolutionary artistic ferment raging in one of the world's great centers of countercultural bohemia. He had thrived there, magpie-like, picking up tricks of the trade, learning from mentors, stealing riffs from rivals; a little seedy, a little needy, passionate, faithless, bursting with talent. In the end, he forged an original voice that made him a towering figure in American culture and one of the most famous people on the planet, influencing generations of artists who came after him. Every year, there was serious talk of him winning the Nobel Prize -- and now this.
There he was -- posturing for the camera, an aging, taxidermy caricature of his dynamic younger self. There were his words -- his own words! -- once regarded as blazons of truth, now gummed into dim banality just to push some product to the rubes.
Sad, surreal, shameless -- yes, who can forget that awful moment when they first opened their new copy of Life magazine and saw Ernest Hemingway's ad for Ballantine Ale?
Surely, all right-thinking people condemned this act of crass hucksterism, an ugly spectacle that cast a tainted shadow over all his earlier achievements -- which could now be seen merely as sly ploys on the way to the inevitable sell-out …
In fact, literary history does not record any such reaction to the 1951 ad. Or indeed, any reaction at all. (Except perhaps from John Steinbeck, who obviously thought, "How can I land me one of them Ballantine ads?" -- and did so a couple of years later.) But such has been the blowback in many quarters to Bob Dylan’s recent Super Bowl ad for Chrysler. In some ways, it’s sort of sweet; who knew Dylan could still touch such a nerve? But mostly the imbroglio has itself been a “surreal tableau,” as one of its more scathing respondents called the ad. It’s as if an historical moment frozen in amber – the “Dylan/Judas sell-out to pop music” scandal of 1965 – has suddenly been melted by the Super Bowl klieg lights, releasing its undiluted fury into the present day.
Of course, people are free to despise Dylan for doing an ad, on whatever grounds they please: moral, political, philosophical, aesthetic. But reading the fresh shock and angry surprise of the denouncers, one has to wonder: where have they been for the past 50 years? For a full half a century, Dylan has been insisting that he is not a protest singer or a ‘countercultural figurehead’ or anything of the sort. And he has behaved accordingly. Where was the rage when he did a Cadillac commercial a couple of years ago? Or the lingerie ad before that? Or the Fender guitar ads he did at the height of his countercultural figureheadom in the mid-60s?
As a “Columbia recording artist” (which is how he is always introduced in concert), Dylan has been taking money from – and making money for – corporate interests since 1962. He is no more or less a “sell-out” in 2014 than he has been throughout his entire career, including his days as a folk singer. Again, dismiss him for that if you like. But why rage at his “betrayal” of a media-hyped, fantasized “countercultural figurehead role” that he has spent a long lifetime refusing? You’re not angry with Bob Dylan; you’re mad at an imaginary friend you’ve created in his image.
Dylan’s “shameful sell-out” has been contrasted with the moral integrity of Pete Seeger, who died just before the Chrysler commercial aired. Fair enough -- although Seeger himself didn’t mind appearing with Harry Belafonte last year after the latter’s “shameful descent” into corporate ads for Gap. Nor did Seeger scruple to sing for many years with Woody Guthrie, who lent his name and voice to many an advertisement – and once even let a tobacco company adapt one of his hard-travelin’ songs for a perky jingle. Nor did Seeger blanch at singing a song by Dylan – long after the little weasel had been hawking underwear and Cadillacs – in the only music video the folk patriarch ever made: a rendition of “Forever Young” for Amnesty International in 2012.
Maybe Seeger, in his wisdom, took a broader view of such matters than the angry Amberists. Perhaps he didn’t dismiss an artist’s output or idealism or authenticity just because they did the occasional spot for commercial sponsors – the way Dylan hero Hank Williams did throughout his career: for Mother’s Best biscuit flour, for Haldacol (a snake-oil “health” tonic he pitched in a traveling commercial “caravan” that also featured Milton Berle, Jack Dempsey, Chico Marx and James Cagney), and many other concerns. At one point, Hank even styled himself “the Ol’ Syrup Sopper” in a campaign for a Shreveport syrup company.
In 2008, yet another Dylan TV ad appeared across Europe, although it apparently escaped the notice of the Amberists. This time the shameless huckster was shilling for … an international mission to “make water safe and clean for every human being living in this world” and head off the looming conflicts over resource scarcity due to climate change. Then the next year saw ads for his much-hooted Christmas album, with all proceeds, in perpetuity, going to food banks in the US and Europe; in the first year alone, Dylan’s contribution fed an estimated 1.4 million people in the U.S, according to the American charity involved.
And of course, long after he abandoned the progressive purity of “protest” music, for decades the tainted figurehead has kept popping up to sing for (or give his music to or donate concert profits to) a plethora of causes: in aid of Salvador Allende in his struggle against CIA subversion; for Bangladeshi flood victims; against apartheid; for Hurricane Carter; for inner city children in California; for handicapped children; for nuclear disarmament; for starving people at Live Aid; for ruined farmers at Farm Aid (inspired by a remark he made at Live Aid); for Amnesty International; for gun victims in Scotland; for typhoon victims in the Philippines; for tsunami victims in Japan; for earthquake victims in Haiti; for cancer research in the US; for cancer research in the UK; for literacy in Canada; for skate-board parks in low-income communities; for children in war zones … and perhaps more out there beyond a 10-minute Google search.
But all of this is obliterated by a two-minute commercial focused almost entirely on factory workers in America’s most economically ravaged city. Yes, how the mighty have fallen. Thank god we don’t have to listen to this sullied ol’ syrup sopper anymore. We can stay pure in our amber ... while the old man keeps rolling on, neither a figurehead or a spearhead or paragon or a hero, but nothing more or less than what he's always claimed to be: a singer of songs.
Has it only been 10 months since Edward Snowden's NSA revelations changed the world? Can you even remember what the world was like, before he gave 50,000 -- no, 200,000 -- no, wait, 2 million-- secret documents to Glenn Greenwald: smoking guns that exposed Washington's global surveillance state, which far outstripped the wildest, wettest dreams of the Stasi, of Stalin, yea of Orwell himself?
Try to recall those dark days -- now long since banished, thank God! -- when the American imperium thrust its grubby hands and greedy eyes into every single digital pie available, scarfing up emails, URLs, locations, even webcam shots, of anybody and everybody, then storing them all in gargantuan data silos, to sift through and fondle for years on end. Remember that? Remember how this surveillance state, this über-Stasi, was put to the service of a regime that was actually going all over the world and murdering people -- without charges, without due process, without defense, without warning. Just circling the world, blowing up a wedding party here, a couple of teenagers there, a village, a funeral, a farm, an apartment block, day after day, week after week, year after year? Innocent people, "guilty" people; guilty of something or other, that is -- maybe just behaving in a "suspicious manner" in the eyes of unaccountable officials acting arbitrarily in secret, on the basis of screenshots sent by back by robots, and rumors and vendettas gathered, for pay, by secret agents.
Do you remember how this brutal, barbaric, ugly, inhuman regime would then go around the world condemning other nations for not being moral, holy, freedom-loving and strictly adherent to international law? Do you remember the base, sickening hypocrisy of it all? State murderers -- proud state murderers, murderers who would go before legislators and under oath to God Almighty swear how proud they were to be murdering people -- telling other nations how to order their affairs according to the principles of law and justice and human rights?
Isn't it wonderful how much has changed since those days, when we discovered the spine and musculature of the surveillance regime that undergirded this ghastly system of murder and corruption and domination?
What? What do you mean nothing's changed? What do you mean that this barbaric system is still firing on all cylinders? What do you mean that the surveillance state has not been crippled or even slowed for a single instant by all these world-changing revelations? What are you saying? That those who facilitated the exposure of the NSA documents, like Greenwald, are now working for techno-oligarchs who fund rapacious, elite-enriching, regime-changing "philanthropic" enterprises all over the world? Whose companies actually helped strangulate Wikileaks in its greatest hour of need by cutting off its venues of funding?
Are you trying to tell me that even Snowden himself -- who risked so much to bring these crimes to light -- now declares forthrightly "that spying serves a vital purpose and must continue"? That he has taken great pains to declare that his incendiary material should only be "safely disclosed to responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders," as Arthur Silber pointedly points out? In coordination with "government stakeholders?" The same "government stakeholders" who are murdering people around the world and sticking their webcams into our underwear? Is that what you're trying to tell me?
What next? Are you going to tell me that even Jeremy Scahill, Greenwald's partner in the oligarch-funded venture, First Look, which is going to transform journalism as we know it for all time to come, has also declared that their transformative operation will dutifully submit its work to government scrutiny -- with the caveat, of course, that they may not follow the government's advice on how 'dangerous' it might be to publish the dutifully submitted material? (Which is, of course, the same way that every other non-transformed journalistic entity in the Western world operates.)
Is that what you're trying to say? That the murder goes on, the surveillance goes on, the crime goes on, and that even our most cutting-edge, transformative, dangerous and subversive journalists and whistleblowers are committed to acting "responsibly" in "coordination with government stakeholders."
Well, if I may once again quote the great Mel Brooks quoting the great Joe Schrank: "I can hardly believe my hearing aid!"
Maybe I need new batteries for this thing. Everywhere I hear unstinting -- and unquestioning -- praise for these developments; but nowhere do I see any genuine effect. I mean, yes, of course, it's good to see "progressive" hero Rachel Maddow expressing umbrage at the revelations that Barack Obama's Stasi-State is now brazenly spying on their own putative Congressional overseers. Maddow even goes so far as to call this "End of the Republic stuff." But is this followed by a call for the impeachment of a president that is "ending the Republic" with a security apparat run amok? Of course not. The main progressive goal, as always, is to express a bit of marginal outrage while devoting one's main energies to ensuring that whatever "centrist" suit of clothes the bought-and-sold Democratic establishment puts up as a candidate is elected. (Next up: Hilary "Annihilate the Iranians" Clinton in 2016.)
But what of these 2 million documents that Snowden has bequeathed to a few chosen journalists who maintain their iron grip on the revelations, doling them out as they alone see fit - after, of course, submitting them to the scrutiny of "government stakeholders"? Let us return to a salient fact that Arthur Silber keeps pointing out: that only 1% to 2% of this vast trove has ever been seen:
Given all the publicly available evidence, when reporting on the Snowden documents is completed, the general public will have seen only 1% to 2% of all the documents involved. I've analyzed in detail how deeply problematic this is. That's putting it mildly, and with excessive politeness. In fact, this highly selective publishing of leaks is insulting, disgusting, and profoundly offensive ...
In short, the methodology adopted by Snowden and the favored journalists is leading straight to complete and utter disaster.
It is also necessary to mention that many of the published documents are offered only with redactions, which are sometimes substantial. Not only that but, as a rule, no explanation is offered as to why particular information has been redacted. Similarly, we are offered only the most general of explanations, if that, for why roughly 98% of the documents will never see the light of day. This presents the general public -- for whose benefit all this heroic work is allegedly undertaken -- with an insurmountable problem of evaluation and understanding.
Well, hold on there a minute, Arthur, you incorrigible skeptic you. What about the latest revelation from The Intercept, the flagship enterprise of First Look? Just last weekend, the Interceptors dug into this vast trove of criminality to inform us that ... the NSA's newsletter has its own Dear Abby column (or "agony aunt," as the Brits would say). Now how about that! The NSA has an internal advice column offering tidbits on personnel issues. Now that's transformative journalism with a vengeance! Just think how many innocent lives now doomed to die from Washington's surveillance state-supported death squads will now be saved because of this revelation!
Back to Silber:
Snowden has always been at pains to assure everyone -- and most particularly, to assure the State -- that he doesn't want to threaten the State in any serious way. And even though his major concern is with mass surveillance, that, too, would be acceptable to him in general terms, provided it is sanctioned by "informed public consent," and even though he himself would choose differently.
But look again at those concluding remarks to the EU. "[T]here are many other undisclosed programs that would impact EU citizens' rights..." Many other undisclosed programs that affect tens of millions of people. Maybe they'll find out about them, maybe they won't. And Snowden himself won't make that decision. "Responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders" will decide. We've witnessed this game for nine months; we know how it's played. The "responsible journalists" and "government stakeholders" will allow us to see perhaps 2% of all the documents Snowden gathered up. With redactions, and without explanations of the redactions or explanations, even in general terms, of what we will never be told.
But honestly, it's more than slightly ridiculous to parse these statements further. Snowden's formulation, and the adoption of his methodology by the "responsible journalists" involved, mean only one thing: these are, ultimately, State-sanctioned leaks. This is State-sanctioned whistleblowing. Whatever dangers much wider, and much more rapid, disclosure might have carried have been entirely obliterated. What remains constitutes no threat of any remotely serious kind to the States implicated. Yes, there will be hearings, some "reforms," and life for the States will go almost exactly as before. Your life, on the other hand ... well, who gives a damn about your life.
Of course, we are glad to have any little fragment of truth we can get our hands on in these dystopian times. As T.S. Eliot said: "these fragments I have shored against my ruins." And most assuredly, we are in ruins. But I continue to be amazed at the nugatory effect of the Snowden revelations. I continue to be shocked at the way these revelations are being handled -- kept tightly under the control of a handful of responsible figures who happily submit them to "government stakeholders," while effectively repressing 98 percent of the evidence of criminality and moral turpitude on the part of those same "government stakeholders." So I agree with Silber's conclusion, with which I'll conclude here:
I have one request, in the nature of truth in advertising. I want to see all future stories relying on the Snowden documents accompanied by a stamp in which appear the following words. We are provided similar guarantees in connection with food and drugs, for example, and I see no reason not to adapt the practice to "journalism," given what that term now appears to mean. Each such story should carry this ironclad assurance:
This story contains those facts, and only those facts, that we and the State have determined it is safe for you to know. We will never tell you anything else, and we will most certainly never tell you anything more.
American Special Forces troops … scaled his walls with ladders on Thursday, arresting [Qazi Nasir] Mudassir and two other employees of [his] Radio Paighame Milli. … They were apparently unaware, he said, that his radio station is supported in large part by pro-government, pro-coalition propaganda advertisements paid for by the American military.
Mr. Mudassir said a force of more than two dozen Americans carried out the raid, ransacking his premises and damaging much of the broadcasting equipment, as well as seizing computers, phones and recording gear. “They even put that black hood over my head and slapped me and beat me,” he said.
“They treated us inhumanely even though we were very pro their presence, and pro-government,” Mr. Mudassir said. He said that he had been taken to the United States Army’s Special Forces base in Logar and held overnight, and that interrogators had tried to get him to identify photographs of people suspected of being insurgents. “They said, ‘You better tell the truth because you know if we want to kill you we can.’ “
And there you have it, American foreign policy stripped down to its quintessential core: "If we want to kill you we can."
We now return you to our regularly scheduled 24/7 coverage of Russian atrocities in Crimea.
1. The Western intervention in Ukraine has now led the region to the brink of war. Political opposition to government of President Viktor Yanukovych -- a corrupt and thuggish regime, but as with so many corrupt and thuggish regimes one sees these days, a democratically elected one -- was funded in substantial part by organizations of or affiliated with the U.S. government, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (a longtime vehicle for Washington-friendly coups), and USAID. It also received substantial financial backing from Western oligarchs, such as billionaire Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and sole bankroller of the new venue for "adversarial" journalism, First Look, as Pandodaily reports.
Yanukovych sparked massive protests late last year when he turned down a financial deal from the European Union and chose a $15 billion aid package from Russia instead. The EU deal would have put cash-strapped Ukraine in a financial straitjacket, much like Greece, without actually promising any path for eventually joining the EU. There was one other stipulation in the EU's proffered agreement that was almost never reported: it would have also forbidden Ukraine to "accept further assistance from the Russians," as Patrick Smith notes in an important piece in Salon.com. It was a ruthless take-it-or-leave-it deal, and would have left Ukraine without any leverage, unable to parlay its unique position between East and West to its own advantage in the future, or conduct its foreign and economic policies as it saw fit. Yanukovych took the Russian deal, which would have given Ukraine cash in hand immediately and did not come with the same draconian restrictions.
It was a policy decision. It might have been the wrong policy decision; millions of Ukrainians thought so. Yanukovych, already unpopular before the deal, would have almost certainly been ousted from office by democratic means in national elections scheduled for 2015. But the outpouring of displeasure at this policy decision grew into a call for the removal of the government. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Washington was maneuvering to put their preferred candidate, Arseniy Yatseniuk, in charge of the Ukrainian government, as a leaked tape of a conversation between Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, and Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, clearly showed. It is worth noting that when Yanukovych was finally ousted from power -- after the opposition reneged on an EU-brokered deal for an interim unity government and new elections in December -- Arseniy Yatseniuk duly took charge of the Ukrainian government, as planned.
By all accounts, Viktor Yanukovych was an unsavoury character running an unsavoury government, backed by unsavoury oligarchs exploiting the country for their own benefit, and leaving it unnecessarily impoverished and chaotic. In this, he was not so different from his predecessors, or from many of those who have supplanted him, who also have oligarchic backing and dubious connections (see addendum below). But in any case, the idea of supporting an unconstitutional overthrow of a freely elected Ukrainian government in an uprising based squarely on the volatile linguistic and cultural fault-lines that divide the country seems an obvious recipe for chaos and strife. It was also certain to provoke a severe response from Russia. It was, in other words, a monumentally stupid line of policy (as Mike Whitney outlines here). Smith adds:
[U.S.] foreign policy cliques remain wholly committed to the spread of the neo-liberal order on a global scale, admitting of no exceptions. This is American policy in the 21st century. No one can entertain any illusion (as this columnist confesses to have done) that America’s conduct abroad stands any chance of changing of its own in response to an intelligent reading of the emerging post–Cold War order. Imposing “democracy,” the American kind, was the American story from the start, of course, and has been the mission since Wilson codified it even before he entered the White House. When the Cold War ended we began a decade of triumphalist bullying — economic warfare waged as “the Washington Consensus” — which came to the same thing.
American policy is based upon -- dependent upon -- a raging, willful, arrogant ignorance of other peoples, other cultures, history in general, and even the recent history of U.S. policy itself. The historical and cultural relationships between Ukraine and Russia are highly complex. Russia takes its national identity from the culture that grew up around what is now Kyiv; indeed, in many respects, Kyiv is where "Russia" was born. Yet one of the first acts of the Western-backed revolutionaries was to pass a law declaring Ukrainian as the sole state language, although most of the country speaks Russian or Surzhyk, "a motley mix of Ukrainian and Russian (sometimes with bits of Hungarian, Romanian and Polish)," as the LRB's Peter Pomerantsev details in an excellent piece on Ukraine's rich cultural and linguistic complexity. This is not to say that Ukrainians are not justified in being wary of Russia's embrace. Millions of Ukrainians died in the 1930s from the famine caused by inhuman policies imposed by a Moscow government (although that government was itself headed by a Georgian, in the name of a trans-national ideology). The complexity and volatility is always there. Today, as Smith puts it, "many Ukrainians see room for closer relations with the West; the more sensible seem to favor a variant of “third way” thinking, no either/or frame. Many fewer desire a decisive break with Russia."
Yet at every turn, the new Western-backed government in Kyiv has stomped hard on these volatile fault-lines, pushing stringent anti-Russian policies, with Western governments pretending that this would have no consequences, no reverberations in Moscow. What's more, the neo-fascist factions that played a leading role in the uprising are now calling for Ukraine to become a nuclear power again, having given up the Soviet nuclear weaponry on its territory in 1994. Indeed, hard-right leader Oleh Tyahnybok made nuclear re-armament one of the planks of his presidential race a few years ago. Now the party is sharing power in the Western-brokered government; will we soon see Ukraine added to the ranks of nuclear nations? With a bristling nuclearized frontier with Russia -- like the hair-trigger holocaust flashpoint between India and Pakistan?
Again we see the blind stupidity of arrogance, of entitlement, as the "Washington consensus" of elitist neo-liberalism continues its blundering away around the world.
2. Now we stand on the brink of war over Crimea. Here too there are historical complexities entirely ignored by the media narrative. The Crimea was not considered part of Ukraine until it was simply tranferred by administrative edict in 1954 by the Soviet government, removing it from the Russian "socialist republic" to the jurisdiction of the Ukranian "socialist republic." When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Crimea became an autonomous republic operating under the constitution of Ukraine. Its population is about 60 percent Russian, yet this majority has had its language stripped of official status by the government in Kyiv which took power outside of constitutional means.
None of this justifies the heavy-handed muscle-flexing that Putin has been engaging in. But Russia, in post-Soviet times, with no trans-national ideology, has become a highly nationalist state. Putin is an authoritarian leader who now bases his threadbare claims to "legitimacy" -- and the dominance of his brutal clique -- on his championing of Russian nationalism and "traditional values". It is inconceivable that he would not consider the West's blatant interference in Ukraine to be an act of provocation and brinkmanship aimed at him and his regime, and that he would react accordingly.
So here we are. Chaos, strife, the threat of war -- and the heavy smoke of ignorance covering it all. Sleepwalking once more toward disaster. Deliberately setting tumultuous events in motion without the slightest concern for their ultimate consequences, or the suffering they will cause, now and perhaps for generations to come. (Think of Iraq, for example, or the spread of violence and chaos that has already flowed to many countries from the intervention in Libya's internal affairs.)
But why are we here? Greed. Greed and the lust for dominance. Let's not say "power," for that word carries positive connotations, and can also include an element of responsibility. But the oligarchs and ideologues, the militarists and ministers involved in this episode of Great Gamesmanship don't want power in any broader, deeper sense. What they want is dominance, to lord it over others -- physically, financially, psychologically. Among those at the top in this situation, on every side, there is not the slightest regard for the common good of their fellow human beings -- not even for those with whom they share some association by the accident of history or geography: language, nationality, ethnicity. The lust for loot and dominance outweighs all the rest, regardless of the heavy piety oozing from the rhetoric on all sides.
And if war is avoided, what is the likely outcome for Ukraine (aside from living in eternal tension with an enraged, threatened, authoritarian neighbor to the North)? Smith tells us: betrayal.
Instantly after Yanukovych was hounded from Kiev, seduction began its turn to betrayal. The Americans and Europeans started shuffling their feet as to what they would do for Ukrainians now that Russia has shut off the $15 billion tap. Nobody wants to pick up the bill, it turns out. Washington and the E.U. are now pushing the International Monetary Fund forward as the leader of a Western bailout.If the past is any guide, Ukrainians are now likely to get the "shock therapy" the economist Jeffrey Sachs urged in Russia, Poland and elsewhere after the Soviet Union's collapse. Sachs subsequently (and dishonestly) denied he played any such role -- understandable given the calamitous results, notably in Russia -- but the prescription called for off-the-shelf neoliberalism, applied without reference to any local realities, and Ukrainians are about to get their dosage.
It is wrong, as ahistorical thinking always is. Formerly communist societies, especially in the Eastern context, should logically advance first to some form of social democracy and then decide if they want to take things further rightward. Washington;s fear, evident throughout the Cold War, was that social democracies would demonstrate that they work -- so presenting a greater threat, paradoxically, than the Soviet model. Ukrainians favoring the Westward tilt, having idealized the E.U., appear to assume they are to evolve into some system roughly between the Scandinavians and Germany, as East Europeans earlier anticipated. They will thus find the I.M.F.'s deal shocking indeed. It will be bitter, after all the treacherous, carefully couched promises.
Whatever happens, it seems certain that oligarchs -- Western, Ukrainian, European or Russian, will continue to exercise dominance -- although some who backed the losing side too prominently may be cast down. Then again, most oligarchs, in every nation, are usually expert at playing both sides, or changing sides as necessary.
One is tempted to see this principle at work in the case of Pierre Omidyar, a prominent private backer of American efforts to fund and guide the Ukrainian opposition to power, as Pandodaily reported. Omidyar, who founded eBay and now owns PayPal, has recently become widely known -- and universally lauded -- for committing $250 million to fund First Look, a publishing group dedicated to adversarial journalism. He has assembled an all-star team for his venture, including Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Jeremy Scahill, Marcy Wheeler and others of similar reputation. It is no exaggeration to say that he has become a bonafide hero of the left, which has tended to dismiss all criticism or questioning of his new enterprise, or his wider operations, as the grumbling of jealous losers -- or even as covert actions of the State, trying to derail this dangerous new threat to elite rule.
Yet the fact remains that Omidyar's wider operations -- including those in Ukraine -- sit uneasily with the image of an adversarial paragon and danger to the system. Putting aside the troubling circumstance of adversarial activism being dependent on the personal whims of a billionaire, there is the fact that Omidyar's philanthropic vision lies largely in the monetizing of poverty relief efforts -- of turning them from charitable or government-based programs into money-making enterprises which reward investors with high returns while often leaving the recipients worse off than before. As nsfwcorp.com reports, these include micro-financing initiatives in India that have led to mass suicides among the debt-ridden poor, and "entrepreneurial" programs which bestow property rights on the small plots of slum-dwellers -- who, still in dire straits, sell them, for a pittance, to large-scale operators who then clear the ghettos for profitable developments, leaving the poor to find another shanty-town elsewhere. In this, Omidyar has partnered with Hernando de Soto, a right-wing "shock doctrinaire" and one-time advisor to former Peruvian dictator, Alberto Fujimori; de Soto is also an ally of the Koch Brothers. Omidyar has also poured millions of dollars into efforts to privatize, and profitize, public education in the United States and elsewhere, forcing children in some of the poorest parts of the world to pay for basic education -- or go without.
Thus Omidyar seems very much a part of the "neo-liberal order" which, as Patrick Smith noted above, the United States has been pushing "on a global scale, admitting of no exceptions." So it is not surprising to see him playing a role in trying to spread this order to Ukraine, in tandem with the overt efforts and backroom machinations of the U.S. government. Omidyar is, openly, a firm adherent of the neo-liberal order -- privitazing public assets for individual profit, converting charity and state aid to profitable enterprises for select investors, and working to elect or install governments that support these policies.
None of these activities are illegal. None of them necessarily preclude him also funding independent journalism. But I can't see that it is unreasonable to bring up these facts and point them out. I don't think it's unreasonable to apply the same kind of considered skepticism toward this billionaire oligarch that you would apply to any other. For instance, if one of First Look's websites publishes some blistering expose on the nasty machinations of some other oligarch or corporate figure, I don't think it will be unreasonable for people to look and see if the target happens to be a rival of Omidyar's in some way, or if his or her removal or humbling would benefit Omidyar's own business or political interests. One does the same with the New York Times and its obvious pro-Establishment agenda, or with Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, and so on; the wider context helps the reader put articles in perspective, and weigh them accordingly. It doesn't mean the facts of this or that particular story are untrue; it does mean they aren't swallowed whole, uncritically, without awareness of other agendas that might be in play.
This seems so elementary that it's almost embarrassing to point it out. Yet for the most part, anyone who raises these kinds of questions about Omidyar's media enterprise has been immediately shouted down, sometimes vociferously, by those who otherwise evince a savvy skepticism toward Big Money and its agendas. Many of those assailing the Pandodaily report about Omidyar and Ukraine pointed out that "this is the world we live in" -- a world dominated by Big Money -- and you have to make the best of a bad lot. And anyway, news outlets have always been owned by rich and powerful interests, and First Look is no different.
Well yes, exactly. And thus First Look -- owned solely by a neo-liberal billionaire, who, as Jeremy Scahill has pointed out, takes a very active interest in the daily workings of his news organization -- should be subject to the same standards of scrutiny as any other news outlet owned by the rich and powerful. But this doesn't seem to be happening; quite the opposite, in fact.
I think perhaps there might be a category mistake at work here. Because of the reputations of those who have signed up with Omidyar, the idea has taken hold that Omidyar is dedicated to throwing a broad light on the secret machinations of the national security state and its imperialist rampages around the world. But Scahill's statement intimates that Omidyar's "vision" is actually much more limited. The interview that Scahill gave to the Daily Beast, quoted by Pandodaily, is quite revealing. Below is an excerpt, somewhat longer than the Pando quote:
The whole venture will have a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media. Omidyar, he says, wanted to do the project because he was interested in Fourth Amendment issues, and they are hiring teams of lawyers, not just to keep the staff from getting sued, but to actively push courts on the First Amendment, to “force confrontation with the state on these issues.”
“[Omidyar] strikes me as always sort of political, but I think that the NSA story and the expanding wars put politics for him into a much more prominent place in his existence. This is not a side project that he is doing. Pierre writes more on our internal messaging than anyone else. And he is not micromanaging. This guy has a vision. And his vision is to confront what he sees as an assault on the privacy of Americans.”
Omidyar is passionately concerned about government encroachments on privacy, Scahill says, while noting -- somewhat ominously -- that the enterprise will have "a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media." You might think this would set off alarm bells in a longtime adversarial journalist like Scahill, but apparently not. In any case, Omidyar's entire neo-liberal ideology is based on the ability of wealthy individuals to operate free from government control as they circle the world in search of profit. (And also, if it happens, some social benefits by the way; but if one's profit-making initiatives turn out to drive hundreds of people to suicide, well, c'est la vie, eh?) Naturally, wealthy individuals also want to be free from government spying as they go about their business. They are happy to cooperate with the National Security State when there is mutual benefit to be had, as with Omidyar and his government partners in Ukraine -- but they want it to be on their terms. They want their own information to remain within their control. The overthrow of foreign governments, the invasion of foreign lands, the extrajudicial murder of people around the world, the militarization of American policy and society -- this does not really concern them. In fact, it helps them expand the parameters of their business and extend their neoliberal ideology. But the idea that the government might also be spying on them -- well, this is intolerable. This must be resisted, there must be a "confrontation" about such behavior.
I'm sure the writers hired by Omidyar's quarter of a billion dollars will produce work of value, dig up some useful facts. So does the Times, so does the now oligarch-owned Washington Post, so do Murdoch's papers on occasion. But I don't think Omidyar's enterprise has been set up to challenge the status quo or pose the "threat" to the system that its hero-worshippers are looking for. Indeed, even Greenwald calls only for "reforms" of the system, for "real oversight" of the National Security State by legislators -- the same legislators bought, sold, cowed and dominated by Big Money. I honestly don't think that the powers-that-be feel threatened by an enterprise set up by one of their number that confines itself to calls for "reform" from "within" -- especially when its sole owner continues to cooperate with the Koch Brothers, hard-right ideologues like Hernando de Soto and indeed with the National Security State itself in subversive adventures overseas.
Omidyar's goals are limited: to protect the privacy of the individual from government. This is a noble, worthy aim. But based on his own actions, he is perfectly content for that privacy-protected individual to advance a punishing neo-liberal agenda on the rest of the world, and at home, in collusion with the National Security State if need be. Whether Greenwald, Scahill, Taibbi, Wheeler and the rest are equally content with this agenda is something we will find out in the months to come.
*** Addendum. Below is a passage cut out of the original text above, giving more detail on the opposition forces that the intervention by Omidyar and the U.S. government helped bring to power.
The occupation movement -- now the government -- is led by three main factions, one of which contains openly neo-fascist groups who -- while the protests were going on -- mounted a torchlight procession through the city of Lviv in honor of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian fascist leader who joined with Nazi invaders in World War II and took part in mass murders of Jews. As Max Blumenthal reports:
After participating in a campaign to assassinate Ukrainians who supported accommodation with the Polish during the 1930’s, Bandera’s forces set themselves to ethnically cleanse western Ukraine of Poles in 1943 and 1944. In the process, they killed over 90,000 Poles and many Jews, whom Bandera’s top deputy and acting “Prime Minister,” Yaroslav Stetsko, were determined to exterminate. ... Lviv has become the epicenter of neo-fascist activity in Ukraine, with elected Svoboda officials waging a campaign to rename its airport after Bandera and successfully changing the name of Peace Street to the name of the Nachtigall Battalion, an OUN-B wing that participated directly in the Holocaust. “’Peace’ is a holdover from Soviet stereotypes,” a Svoboda deputy explained. ...
After participating in a campaign to assassinate Ukrainians who supported accommodation with the Polish during the 1930’s, Bandera’s forces set themselves to ethnically cleanse western Ukraine of Poles in 1943 and 1944. In the process, they killed over 90,000 Poles and many Jews, whom Bandera’s top deputy and acting “Prime Minister,” Yaroslav Stetsko, were determined to exterminate.
Svoboda is the name of the top nationalist party. As Blumenthal notes:
Svoboda's leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has called for the liberation of his country from the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” After the 2010 conviction of the Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk for his supporting role in the death of nearly 30,000 people at the Sobibor camp, Tyahnybok rushed to Germany to declare him a hero who was “fighting for truth.” In the Ukrainian parliament, where Svoboda holds an unprecedented 37 seats, Tyahnybok’s deputy Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn is fond of quoting Joseph Goebbels – he has even founded a think tank originally called “the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center.” .... Svoboda’s openly pro-Nazi politics have not deterred Senator John McCain from addressing a EuroMaidan rally alongside Tyahnybok, nor did it prevent Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland from enjoying a friendly meeting with the Svoboda leader this February.
In a leaked phone conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine, Nuland revealed her wish for Tyahnybok to remain “on the outside,” but to consult with the US’s replacement for Yanukovich, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “four times a week.” At a December 5, 2013 US-Ukraine Foundation Conference, Nuland boasted that the US had invested $5 billion to "build democratic skills and institutions" in Ukraine ...
As Smith puts it, the "the Nuland tape is the Rosetta Stone of the Ukrainian riddle. It was an early advisory that we were about to watch Washington at work corrupting the affairs of another nation, exactly as it has for the past 60–odd years elsewhere. Nothing new under the American sun, even as the afternoon light starts to fade."
Blumenthal has much more on the history of Ukrainian fascism, including the extensive and highly connected network established in American politics after WWII, when many of Bandera's party members -- Nazi collaborators and killers of Jews and Poles -- were funneled to the US, often with the CIA's help. He also notes that former Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, the Western-hailed hero of the "Orange Revolution" that brought regime change to Ukraine 10 years ago, had named Bandera "National Hero of Ukraine" in 2010.
The title of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story came to mind when I read of the death of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust. She was 110, and grown up in Prague, where both Kafka and Mahler had been friends of her family. Herz-Sommer had gained some fame in her last years for her remarkable spirit, and her dedication to the music of Chopin, which helped sustain her during her time in a Nazi camp -- and probably saved her and her son from death.
She was in the "model" camp at Theresienstadt, used by the Nazis as a showcase for the Red Cross, to show their 'humane' treatment of prisoners. (Although the very fact of imprisoning, say, a young woman and her young child simply because they were Jewish perverts the very notion of "humane," however the prisoners might have been treated.) And of course,in reality, the regimen in Theresienstadt was harsh -- tens of thousands died there -- although it was lightened from time to time in preparation of a Red Cross visit.
Herz-Sommer was part of the camp orchestra. The New York Times recounts her experience with the orchestra, and how it saved her from the fate of many others in the camp, including her husband:
“These concerts, the people are sitting there — old people, desolated and ill — and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food,” she later said. “Through making music, we were kept alive.”
Terezin was a transit camp. From there, Jews were deported to forced-labor and death camps; of some 140,000 Jews who passed through Terezin, nearly 90,000 were deported to “almost certain death” at such camps, according to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 33,000 died in Terezin itself.
One of the prisoners transported from Terezin was Leopold Sommer, who in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz, and on to Dachau. He died there, probably of typhus, in 1945, a month before liberation.
Music spared Mrs. Herz-Sommer a similar fate. One night, after she had been in Terezin for more than a year, she was stopped by a young Nazi officer, as Ms. Stoessinger’s book recounts. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “I only want to thank you for your concerts. They have meant much to me.” He turned to leave before adding: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.”
Thus she survived, due to the sentimental caprice of a Nazi officer, who had doubtless facilitated (or even directed) the transport of thousands of others to death camps. This is always the face of power, of dominance and control: we give, or we take away, we spare, or kill, at our own whim; there is nothing you can do about it.
By a bitter irony, the story about Herz-Sommers' death appeared on the NYT website alongside a story about the Obama Administration wrestling with the "thorny question" of whether they should murder an American citizen in cold blood or not. It was the usual fluffy "process piece," where White House insiders relay the thoughtfulness and moral struggle of the noble president and his death advisers as they pore over their "kill lists" each week. The Times has become the primary 'normalizer" of this unbelievably hideous, barbaric and inhumane practice, which of course extends not only to named, specific targets like the American in question here, but to unnamed, unknown individuals who are murdered by the president and his agents in "signature strikes," attacks based on certain ill-defined "behaviors" recorded by robot drones.
The president and his agents kill people -- or spare them -- without any due process of law, any oversight, without giving their victims a chance to defend themselves or even prepare themselves for death. They decide, they strike -- out of the blue, with drone missiles, inhuman, implacable, and very often killing other people in the vicinity of the impact. They kill in perfect safety, without the slightest threat to their own person, inviolable, completely dominant, striking down defenseless victims who have no power to strike back. In this they are no different from the officers in the Nazi camps.
It may be that on occasion President Obama is moved by a sentimental whim to spare some potential victim. Perhaps he's had a touching moment with one of his daughters at breakfast, or seen a photo that called up a piercing memory of his mother -- or perhaps he's just been listening to a piece of music that moved him. And so, on that particular "Terror Tuesday," when he sits down with advisers to go over the list of "extrajudicial killings" they should authorize that week, Obama hears the intelligence report on a target -- a young man, say, who had (allegedly) joined a jihadi group after his mother had died -- and, still under the influence of his sentimental mood, says, "Let's hold off on this one, fellas. Let's get a little more data on this." Thus the young man is spared, and they move on to other targets, most of whom are not so lucky, and are marked for death.
Obama and his advisors don't see themselves as monsters, any more than the Nazi officer who saved Herz-Sommer did. They see themselves, as he did, as moral men, carrying out difficult but necessary duties yet still retaining their humanity, their compassion, their capacity for kindness and empathy. But of course none of that matters. What matters is not how we regard ourselves, for good or ill, but how we actually treat others, the actuality of what we do.
History records saints of many religions who spent their entire lives in a paroxysm of self-hatred -- for their unseemly lusts, murderous rages, sickening thoughts and urges, their inner madness -- yet acted toward others with love and self-sacrifice, humility and service. If they acted with love, what did it matter what they might have felt or thought in the always-churning, flowing, passing mental and emotional streams that pass through our minds? And similarly, what does it matter how righteous and self-regarding we feel, how deeply we might be touched by some affecting situation or work of art, if our actions lead to evil?
The sentimentality of brutal power spared Herz-Sommer, but the life of deep meaning she made in the aftermath stands as a stark rebuke to the very notion of domination.
*** While writing this, I thought of another piece I did a while back that touched briefly on some of these themes -- the dichotomy between inner life and outward action, malevolent currents and ordinary goodness, etc. It even mentioned a 'grand lady' of ancient age. Of course this wasn't a reference to Herz-Sommer, but the piece did seem somewhat apt in this context, so here's a link.
It is no secret that Barack Obama is one of the supreme illusionists of modern times. The disconnect between his words and his deeds is so profound as to be almost sublime, far surpassing the crude obfuscations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Their projections of unreality were more transparent, and in any case were merely designed to put a little lipstick on the pig of policies they were openly pushing. For example, they openly wanted to conquer Iraq and expand the militarist state, they openly wanted to redistribute national wealth to the elite, so they just gussied up this unhidden agenda with some fantasies about WMD and the occult magic of "tax cuts," whereby enriching the rich and degrading all notion of the common good would somehow create a utopia of prosperity (for deserving white folk, at least).
There was a disconnect between their rhetoric and reality, to be sure, but it was easily seen through (except, of course, by the highly-paid credulous cretins of our national media). Indeed, the Bushists seemed unconcerned by how threadbare their lies were; they delivered their lines like bored performers at the end of a long stage run, not caring whether they were believed or not -- just as long as they got to do what they wanted.
But Obama has taken all this to another level. He is a consummate performer, and strives to "inhabit" the role and mouth his lines as if they make sense and convey some sort of emotional truth. Also, most of the time his rhetoric, his role, his emotional stance are in stark opposition to his actual policies. He is not just gilding his open agenda with some slap-dash lies; he is masking a hidden agenda with a vast array of artifice, expending enormous effort not to prettify an ugly reality but to create an entire counter-reality, an alternate world that does not exist. Again, no one one was in any doubt about the Bushists' militarism, their dedication to the financial elite or their disdain for anyone who was not, in their view, a "normal American" (white, traditionalist, bellicose, greedy). In fact, that's exactly why millions of "normal Americans" voted for them. But Obama's image -- cool, compassionate, progressive, peace-seeking, non-traditionalist, anti-elitist -- is so far at odds with his actual policies, and with the world as it actually exists, that you can get severe whiplash turning from his rhetoric to reality.
Take his astonishing attack on Vladimir Putin for "interfering" in Ukraine. That Obama could make this charge with a straight face -- days after his own agents had been exposed (in the infamous "Fuck the EU" tape) nakedly interfering in Ukraine, trying to overthrow a democratically elected government and place their own favorites in charge -- was brazen enough. But in charging Putin with doing exactly what the Americans have been doing in Ukraine, Obama also fabricated yet another alternate world, turning reality on its head.
Speaking at a summit in Mexico, Obama unilaterally declared that Ukraine should overturn the results of its democratic election in 2010 (which most observers said was generally "fair and free" -- perhaps more "fair and free" than national elections in, say, the United States, where losing candidates are sometimes wont to take power anyway, and where whole states dispossess or actively discourage millions of free citizens from voting). Instead, the Ukrainians should install an unelected "transitional government" in Kiev. Why should they do this? Because, says Obama, now channeling all Ukrainians in his own person, "the people obviously have a very different view and vision for their country" from the government they democratically elected. All of the people of Ukraine have a different vision, you understand; every last one of them. And what is their vision, according to Obama the Ukrainian Avatar? To enjoy "freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, fair and free elections." Something you might think they had enjoyed by having fair and free elections in 2010, and exercising freedom of speech and assembly to such a degree that a vast opposition force had occupied much of the central government district for months. But the Avatar knows better, of course.
Now, this is not a defense of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's government. It is, by all accounts, a highly corrupt enterprise given to insider deals for well-connected elites who influence government policy for their own benefit. I guess this might be a reason for overthrowing a democratically elected government with an armed uprising supported by foreign countries, but I would be careful about espousing this as a general rule if I were an American president. The old saw about stones and glass houses comes to mind.
The reality (if anyone cares about such a thing) is that the situation in Ukraine is complex. Opposition forces have a legitimate beef against a corrupt and heavy-handed government. The Kremlin is obviously trying to manipulate events and policies in Ukraine, just the United States is doing. (Obama's remarks on this topic are comedy gold: "Our approach in the United States is not to see [this] as some cold war chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future." Yes, as long as they make the right decisions, unlike in 2010, when they voted for the wrong person.) Ukraine is polarized along several different lines -- political, ethnic, historical, religious, linguistic -- but these lines are not clear-cut, and often intersect, intermingle, are in flux. The pull away from Russia's orbit is strong in many people; the desire to retain close relations to Russia is equally strong in others. (Although any attempt by Russia to quash Ukraine's independence would likely unite all factions in resistance.) Many people look to the West as a model, even a saviour, although the EU deal that Yanukovych turned down, precipitating the outpouring of opposition, actually offered Ukraine very little other than Greek-style financial servitude, while the Kremlin, at least, proffered cash on the barrelhead. The opposition itself is not a monolith of moral rectitude; one of its driving forces is an ultra-nationalist faction that happily harks back to Ukraine's fascist collaborators with Nazi invaders and spouts vile anti-Semitic rhetoric. It is likely that the ultra-nationalists are chiefly behind the opposition's turn toward violent resistance, overshadowing the young, moderate, West-yearning, anti-corruption factions that have been the face of the uprising thus far.
And the fact is, not a single one of the Western governments now denouncing Ukraine for its repression would have tolerated a similar situation. Try to imagine thousands of, say, Tea Partiers, having declared that the elected government of Barack Obama was too corrupt and illegitimate to stand, setting up an armed camp in the middle of Washington, occupying the Treasury Building and Justice Department for months on end, while meeting with Chinese and Russian leaders, who then begin demanding a 'transitional government' be installed in the White House. What would be the government's reaction? There is no doubt that it would make even Yanukovych's brutal assault this week look like a Sunday School picnic.
So the situation in Ukraine is many-sided, complex, filled with ambiguity, change, nuance and chaos. Protest against a specific unpopular government policy first turned into a broader opposition to the government in general and is now threatening to turn into civil war. Such things do happen in the world, and yes, great powers do seek to influence and direct these events to their own advantage. It would be good if Ukraine could be rid of rule by corrupt elites; it is not all clear that a civil war led, at least in part, by racist nationalists, would lead to this happy outcome. But one thing that is not happening in Ukraine is Barack Obama's fantasy that the entire Ukrainian people is rising to rid themselves of a tyrant so they can hold fair and free elections. They had such elections in 2010; and if the entire Ukrainian people now wants to get rid of their president, there are free elections scheduled for 2015. It is highly likely that Yanukovych's corrupt and maladroit performance in office -- not least his reaction to the protest movement itself -- would have guaranteed his peaceful defeat at the ballot box next year. But it is also likely that these elections will not be held now. One way or another, Yanukovych will be forced out of office by the violent chaos that he, and sections of the opposition, and the machinations of Moscow and Washington have together produced. In any case, there is almost certainly more needless suffering in store for ordinary Ukrainians.
This is the reality, and tragedy, of the situation. But in the artfully hallucinated world of Barack Obama – a fantasy-land in which the entire American political and media elite also live – none of this matters. All that matters is the real agenda (which was also the agenda of George W. Bush, and Vladimir Putin for that matter): advancing the dominance of a brutal ruling class through manipulation, militarism, and deception, whenever the opportunity arises.
A little late with this, but I meant to mark Boris Pasternak's birthday this week (Feb. 10, 1890). It would be hard to express how much his work meant to me when I was first finding my way into the world. In later years, I had three brief, indirect contacts with Pasternak, beyond his work. In the mid-1990s, I went to his house in Peredelkino, remarkably preserved since his death in 1960, and got to spend a few minutes in his upstairs study, where he'd written his late verse and much of Doctor Zhivago. That same day, after a long, convoluted search, I found his grave nearby. Then a few years after that, in the downstairs den of a well-appointed house in Oxford, I came face to face with Pasternak's oldest son, Yevgeny -- by then an old man. He had come to Oxford for the opening of an exhibition of paintings and drawings by his grandfather, Leonid, Boris's father. They were to be shown at the Ashmolean Museum, but for now, before the opening, many of them had been hung throughout this private house, the home of the poet Craig Raine, who is married to Boris Pasternak's niece, Anne Pasternak Slater. It was some sort of open house for the paintings, I suppose; I don't remember how I heard about it, but I lived a couple of blocks away at that time, so I went over. I didn't expect to see Pasternak's son there. He was standing just across from me, chatting with someone; I thought I saw something of his father's face in him. I wanted to say something to him, shake his hand, but I hung back. I didn't know if he spoke English, and I knew my own poor Russian couldn't sustain even a light conversation very far; I was afraid of embarrassing myself, I suppose. I wouldn't hang back today, but it's too late. The moment has passed. (And Yevgeny Borisovich died in 2012, at the age 89.) But I was glad I saw him, glad for the other fleeting contacts.
Below are a couple of previously posted pieces on Pasternak, just to mark (belatedly) the occasion.
From February 2010:
From April 2008: Immortal Communion: One Lowly Word and the Subversion of Power
1. Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, is best remembered for its star-crossed love story and its sweeping panorama of the Russian Revolution – themes amplified in David Lean's 1965 film version, a beautiful travesty which has largely supplanted the book in the public mind. But within his conventional narrative of shattering passions and historic upheavals, Pasternak subtly diffuses a deeply subversive philosophy that overthrows power structures and modes of thought that have dominated human life for thousands of years. Yet remarkably, this far-reaching, radical notion is based on one of the most humble concepts and lowly words in the Russian language: byt.
The word has no precise equivalent in English, but in general it means the ordinary "stuff" of life: the daily round, the chores, the cares and duties, the business and busyness that drives existence forward. The connotations of byt are not always positive; it is frequently associated with another Russian word, poshlost', a more pejorative term for the miserable muck of daily life that can trap a noble soul yearning for transcendent heights – for shattering passions and historic upheavals, perhaps. Benjamin Sutcliffe has described this association well in his extensive analysis of the notion of byt in Russian literature by women:
"The 'everyday' is a problematic concept that Russian culture consistently links with women. Byt is not only povsednevnaia zhizn' (daily life), but also a corrosive banality threatening higher, often intellectual aspirations…. Vladimir Nabokov connects byt to poshlost', the soul-killing realm of the crass and insensitive. In an even more sepulchral metaphor, Andrei Siniavskii compares Soviet culture to a pyramid: the grandiose grave of a hollow society whose time has passed. Byt is the sum of both those constituent parts, often seen as 'women’s work' (care for the self, care for others, maintaining a household) and the negative adjectives ascribed to them: petty, small-scale, mundane, exhausting, repetitive, and ultimately deadening."
In contrast to this mundane and deadening level stands the realm of the transcendent: the "great questions" of life, the grand abstractions – nation, faith, ideology, honor, prosperity, family, security, righteousness, glory – for which millions fight and die. It's the world of power, fuelled by the dynamic of dominance and servitude – a dialectic that governs relationships in every realm: political, economic, religious, artistic, personal. Everywhere, hierarchies abound, even among the most professedly egalitarian groups, from monasteries to movie sets, from ashrams to activist collectives. Everywhere we find, in Leonard Cohen's witty take, "the homicidal bitchin'/That goes down in every kitchen/To determine who will serve and who will eat."
This, we are given to understand, is the real world, the important world, far above the tawdry, tedious humdrum that fills the dead hours between epiphanies and exaltations. The Russian Revolution is of course one of history's great manifestations of this dynamic, where the "transcendent," world-shaking abstractions of ideology and high politics (imperialism, capitalism, revolution, Bolshevism) uprooted whole nations and produced suffering and dehumanization on an almost unimaginable scale. The modern era's "War on Terror" bids fair to surpass the Revolution in this regard, with its wildly inflated rhetoric and grand abstractions, its epiphanies of violence and exaltations of terror – on both sides – inflaming a conflict that has already devoured nations and destabilized the entire globe. The dominance paradigm – so thoroughly worked into our consciousness, so ever-present in our interactions, large and small, public and private – is the engine driving this vast machinery of death and ruin.
But below this "higher plane" lies the reality of byt. Far from the soul-killing muck that Nabokov found so distasteful, in Pasternak's hands the true nature of byt is revealed: creative, sustaining, nurturing, an infinite source of meaning. For the most part, the novel conveys this indirectly, in passages where Pasternak shows us byt in action – people going about their work, having quiet conversations, preparing food, fixing stoves, tending gardens, washing floors – or in the richly detailed backgrounds and descriptions given for minor characters who pop up briefly in the narrative then are rarely, perhaps never, seen again.
Over the years, some critics have decried these passages as the clumsy strokes of a fictional amateur, a poet gamely trying and failing to match the rich plenitude of Tolstoy's novels. (And to be fair, the English translations of the novel, though serviceable, are hobbled by clunky prose that ill-serves the original Russian.) But surely Pasternak, a writer of immense talent and intelligence, knew exactly what he was doing with these portions of the novel. The "clumsy" strokes that brake and complicate the grand narrative are central to the book's meaning. "Zhivago" means "the living," its root word is "life." And life is immense, comprising every aspect, every atom of reality. "Life, always one and the same, always incomprehensibly keeping its identity, fills the universe and is renewed in every moment in innumerable combinations and metamorphoses," as Zhivago says at one point. It is in the careful observation and deeply felt experiencing of the details of daily life that the meaning of existence can be found – or rather, consciously created.
Elsewhere in the novel, Pasternak deals with more openly with this theme, especially in one of the book's central chapters, made up of a diary that Zhivago keeps when his family have been driven from Moscow by the privations of the Revolution – and by Zhivago's own political unreliability, which stems from his refusal to hew to any party line and its grand, impersonal abstractions, its distorted caricatures of the infinite complexities of human reality. They are living off the land, deep in the countryside, their whole life taken up by the struggle to survive: byt in its starkest terms. Only at night, their work done, can they turn to their books, the handful of Russian classics they've taken with them into exile.
The whole chapter is like a marvelous concerto, blending and concentrating all of the novel's themes and variations in what appears to be the most artless of forms: the ramblings of a private journal. Among the many passages that illustrate the relation of byt to the "overworld," the realm of dominance and hierarchy, this one stands out:
"What I have come to like best in the whole of Russian literature is the childlike Russian quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their shy unconcern with such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation. It isn't that they didn't think about these things, and to good effect, but they always felt that such important matters were not for them. While Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky worried and looked for the meaning of life and prepared for death and drew up balance-sheets, these two were distracted, right up to the end of their lives, by the current individual tasks imposed on them by their vocation as writers, and in the course of fulfilling these tasks they lived their lives quietly, treating both their lives and their work as private, individual matters, of no concern to anyone else. And these individual things have since become of concern to all; their work has ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness."
2. Of course, the supreme irony of the relation between the humble, private, "pointless" world of byt and the "real world" of power and exaltation is that the former is actually where any genuine "transcendence" can be found, while the latter is the merely the outgrowth of our most primitive and meaningless urges.
For what is the desire to "project dominance," to erect hierarchies, but the elaboration of the same unconsidered instinctual drives that underlie the social structures of the animal world? You can see it in any colony of apes (although they too have their forms of sustaining, nurturing byt). I've written of this elsewhere, but I think it has some application in this context as well:
Is it not time to be done with lies at last? Especially the chief lie now running through the world like a plague, putrescent and vile: that we kill each other and hate each other and drive each other into desperation and fear for any other reason but that we are animals, forms of apes, driven by blind impulses to project our dominance, to strut and bellow and hoard the best goods for ourselves. Or else to lash back at the dominant beast in convulsions of humiliated rage. Or else cravenly to serve the dominant ones, to scurry about them like slaves, picking fleas from their fur, in hopes of procuring a few crumbs for ourselves.
That's the world of power – the "real world," as its flea-picking slaves and strutting dominants like to call it. It's the ape-world, driven by hormonal secretions and chemical mechanics, the endless replication of protein reactions, the unsifted agitations of nerve tissue, issuing their ignorant commands. There's no sense or reason or higher order of thought in it – except for that perversion of consciousness called justification, self-righteousness, which gussies up the breast-beating ape with fine words and grand abstractions…
Beyond the thunder and spectacle of this ape-roaring world is another state of reality, emerging from the murk of our baser functions. There is power here, too, but not the heavy, blood-sodden bulk of dominance. Instead, it's a power of radiance, of awareness, connection, breaking through in snaps of heightened perception, moments of encounter and illumination that lift us from the slime.
It takes ten million forms, could be in anything – a rustle of leaves, the tang of salt, a bending blues note, the sweep of shadows on a tin roof, the catch in a voice, the touch of a hand. Any particular, specific combination of ever-shifting elements, always unrepeatable in its exact effect and always momentary. Because that's all there is, that's all we have – the moments.
The moments, and their momentary power – a power without the power of resistance, defenseless, provisional, imperfect, bold. The ape-world's cycle of war and retribution stands as the image of the world of power; but what can serve as the emblem of this other reality? A kiss, perhaps: given to a lover, offered to a friend, bestowed on an enemy – or pressed to the brow of a child murdered by war.
Both worlds are within us, of course, like two quantum states of reality, awaiting our choice to determine which will be actuated, which will define the very nature of being – individually and in the aggregate, moment by moment. This is our constant task, for as long as the universe exists in the electrics of our brains: to redeem each moment or let it fall. Some moments will be won, many more lost; there is no final victory. There is only the task.
And of course, that's what byt entails, in both its literal sense and in the heightened, deepened understanding of Pasternak's art: the task, the work, the busyness of sustaining life.
One last passage from Zhivago provides a striking encapsulation of this, although a word should be said about the Christian symbolism it employs – a symbolism worked deeply into the plan and language of the entire novel. As Pasternak told one interviewer, the religious symbols were "put into the book the way stoves go into a house – to warm it up. Now they would like me to commit myself and climb into the stove." Later he added: "The novel must not be judged on theological lines. Nothing is further removed from my understanding of the world. One must live and write restlessly, with the help of new reserves that life offers. I am weary of this notion of faithfulness to a point of view at all cost. The great heroic devotion to one point of view is very alien to me – it's a lack of humility."
Here Pasternak, like his Zhivago, resists adherence to any party line, even one that he finds enormously congenial, like Christianity. It is not in pious certainties but in the humble, shifting, temporary coalescences of everyday existence, in byt, that some measure of always-imperfect, always-provisional meaning can be found.
But the languages of faith – structures that for centuries were the chief embodiment and expression of the human yearning for illumination, encounter and escape from the brutalities of dominance and servitude – can still serve as vehicles to convey a deeper reality, as Pasternak shows here, in the voice of one of his characters, the philosopher Nikolai Vendenyapin:
"I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats – any kind of threat, whether of jail or retribution after death – then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion-tamer with his whip, not the preacher who sacrificed himself. But don't you see, this is just the point – what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the attraction of its example. It has always been assumed that the most important things in the Gospels are the ethical teaching and commandments. But for me the most important thing is the fact that Christ speaks in parables taken from daily life, that he explains the truth in terms of everyday reality. The idea that underlies this is that communion between mortals is immortal, and that the whole of life is symbolic because the whole of it has meaning."
Immortal communion, in the transient, private, churning flow of byt: this is what Pasternak offers as an alternative to the violent estrangement of the "overworld," to its violence and fear, its bombast and lies. This lowly word could bring down empires, and stands in defiance of death itself.
Arthur Silber is in dire straits again. Another bout of bad health has laid him low, bills are coming due, and now a computer breakdown threatens to silence him completely. At the moment, he is working with an antiquated back-up, not likely to last long. If it goes, then his voice will be lost to us -- and he will lose his lifeline to the world. If you are able to help at all, or know someone who can, I urge you to go to his website here, and get more information.
Silber has long been one of the most insightful, intelligent -- and indispensable -- analysts of our dismal and despairing age. But he is no mere compiler of crimes and outrages; he also offers thoughtful and practical ideas for genuine change, different approaches, new understandings of our political and personal realities. To resort to what has become a thoroughly degraded vernacular, what Silber offers is simply (and complexly) this: hope.
Are we so surfeited with hope and wisdom these days that we can afford to let a light like this go out? I think not. So please, if you can, do what you can to give Silber some assistance. We will all reap the benefit.
On Monday, the New York Times featured, on the front page of its website, a long piece of giddy gush about the latest trend in luxury hoteling: super-suites for the super-rich, costing up to $28,000 a night.
For more than 1,100 words, the Times gives us an uncritical (indeed, adoring) panorama of the new high-swankery expected by our owners as they perambulate around the global plantation. There's the $25,000-per-night room in the New York Palace, a three-story "penthouse Versailles," the Times, all atremble with excitement, tells us, which comes complete with a million dollars' worth of designer jewellery on display to refresh the weary eyes of the travelling titan. Or New York's Mandarin Oriental, 3,300 square feet of even greater opulence -- a steal at $28,000 a night.
Such elite enclaves are springing up all over the country, say the many industry insiders and financiers quoted in the piece. (Despite the vast acreage of news-hole available, the 'paper of record' could not find any space for comments voicing even the slightest hint of unease at these developments. Of course, it would be very hard to find anyone within the ambit of a NY Times business reporter who would object to such brutal ostentation; still, you'd think the paper could drag out some wheezing moderate-liberal-centrist type academic who could offer up a bromide on how this trend is, potentially, something that could possibly be somewhat troubling. I mean, the paper's rolodex is crammed with such worthies. But apparently not even the mildest moderate's most gentle murmur was to be allowed to besmirch the story's sweet, glossy bussing of oligarchical posteriors.)
However, you shouldn't think the frenzied construction of these gilded hog pens is simply a matter of Heep-like toadying to every whim of super-rich (although it is that). No, it's also a question of 'brand-building,' of luring in envious middle-class patrons who want to catch a faint whiff of elite effluent as it wafts down from on high. As the Times notes:
Hotel industry professionals say these over-the-top suites serve a dual purpose. “A large part of what we do is creating an image,” Mr. Tisch said. Super-suites cater to the needs of billionaire travelers as well as the imaginations of middle-class tourists.
“This hotel already had a fantastic flow of high-net-worth people using our suites,” Mr. Chase said, listing Saudi diplomats and royalty, as well as Hollywood and sports stars, as regular guests.
They also indirectly attract a middle-class, aspirational traveler, Mr. Chase said. “It is the attention — the halo effect — doing a suite like this brings,” he said. Even if they’ll never be able to drop the cost of a new compact car on a night’s stay at a hotel, some travelers want to brush elbows with that level of wealth.
Yes, work really, really hard, and you too might one day be able to afford one night on the bottom floor of a hotel where a Saudi prince or a movie star once actually took a dump hundreds of feet above you. Now there's something to fire up your pathetic little middle-class imagination!
The story is summed up with a piercingly accurate phrase from one of the chief quotees in the piece, Pam Danziger, the "president of the luxury marketing firm Unity Marketing and author of 'Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury.'" (Follow-up volumes will include Putting the Use Back in Usury: From Payday Loan-Sharking to the Penthouse, and Putting the Pen Back in Penury: Parking the Poor Where We Don't Have to See Them.) Eschewing the gauzy rhetoric of a "halo effect" and other euphemisms for protecting the power and privilege of the rich by exciting envy in everyone else, Danziger cuts right to the heart of the matter:
Ms. Danziger described it as a “shock and awe” campaign that would help drive bookings of regular rooms.
Shock and awe, baby: that's right, it's war -- class war. And guess who won?
But it's not enough just to win; you must be seen to have won, you must have your conqueror's status confirmed for you, at every turn, in the most ostentatious way, so that your victims know they have been crushed and dare not rise again.
2. On the same day -- the same day -- that the NYT's grovel-and-gush piece appeared, Oxfam released a report on the astonishing, well-nigh incomprehensible level of inequality between the Times' celebrated super-rich and the rest of the human race.
The Oxfam study showed that the richest 85 individuals on earth have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet. 85 people control as much wealth as 3.5 billion.
This is not the natural fruit of the market's mythical "invisible hand." It is the result of carefully crafted, deliberate policies put in place over the past 40 years by elected leaders who have been bought, like chattel, by the rich, and have used the power of the state to skew the political, economic and social structure of nation after nation toward the ever-increasing domination of an ever-smaller circle of elites. As Larry Elliot points out in the Guardian:
For much of the 20th century, the more far-sighted business leaders … understood that their workers needed reasonable wages so that they could buy the goods and services they were making. They grasped the idea that a market system in its rawest form was incompatible with democracy and so acquiesced while some of the rough edges were knocked off via progressive taxation, welfare states and curbs on capital. Deep down, they feared that the Russian revolution would provide a template for disaffected workers in the west.
Attitudes have changed in the past 30 years. The so-called Great Compression of incomes seen from the 1930s to the 1970s went into reverse, with the top 1% grabbing the fruits of growth. The rich used their money and their influence to ensure that governments did their bidding. After the Berlin Wall came down, there was no rival model and less need to show restraint. With the arrival of a unipolar world came a return to a more aggressive form of market economics that had not been seen since the early days of industrialisation.
Elliot then quotes the Oxfam report:
"When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favour the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all. Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich."
Anyone see any sign of one of these fatcat-curbing "bold political solutions" coming down the pike anytime soon? In most countries -- including most emphatically the US and UK -- even the so-called "progressive" or "liberal" factions who one might wistfully expect to wanly offer such solutions long ago sold themselves, happily, giddily, to Big Money. Who dismantled most of the (few) "curbs on capital" that had been instituted during those 40 years of growing income equality (and more widespread prosperity)? Why, Democrat Bill Clinton and Labour's Tony Blair, who else? Both of these cool, young, swinging liberal-type guys did more to destroy the restraints and unleash the elite dogs of domination than their conservative predecessors such as Reagan and Thatcher.
And the beat goes on under the even cooler, younger, hipper more liberal progressive-type guy in the White House today. As Elliot notes, one of "the most striking findings of the Oxfam report is this little nugget:
"…In the US, the wealthiest 1% have captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth since 2009 while the bottom 90% have got poorer."
Yes, this is the real truth of the much-vaunted "recovery" of the U.S. economy under the leadership of Barack Obama: 95 percent of the tepid growth since he took office has gone to the 1 percent. A full 90 percent of the American people have grown poorer. This is because Obama's carefully crafted, deliberately chosen economic policies have been designed to use the power of the state to skew the nation's economic, social and political structures toward the super-rich, in some of the most brazen ways imaginable. From the very beginning, the focus has been almost exclusively on "saving" the financial sector that caused the crisis, bailing it out, protecting its privileges, extending its reach and -- as the statistics clearly show -- enriching it at the expense of every other sector of American society.
Obama's defenders will point to the intransigence of the Republicans as the reason why the rich are getting obscenely richer under Obama while the rest get poorer and the 'safety net' and social structures (and infrastructure) of American life are relentlessly degraded. But of course, it is only this intransigence that has saved us so far from the even greater degradation that Obama has been seeking since his first days in office: the "Grand Bargain" that will slash the remaining threads of the safety net and gut most non-military spending in order to "balance the budget" (while maintaining a world-encircling military machine and all-pervasive "security" apparatus).
Over and over, Obama has offered the Republicans savage budget cuts and safety-net gutting that were beyond the wildest dreams of the arch-conservatives of yore -- or even, say, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, or George W. Bush's administration. But the GOP is now dominated electorally by theocratic extremists who believe any tax rise (even the minuscule bumping Obama meekly suggests as part of his "bargain') is of the devil, while the corporate interests who let these theocrats front for them have decided to vanquish even the pretense of any restraint on their power once and for all. Their scorched-earth campaign and the zero-cooperation stance of the zealots have blocked Obama's frantic efforts to destroy the remnants of the New Deal, but one day, they may take the bait -- and then you can tell Granny to go dumpster-diving, because the state ain't gonna feed no useless eaters no more.
And let's not forget that it was Obama's choice not to spend the enormous political capital of his first election triumph to rescue the millions of workers and homeowners going under, but to instead put all his energy into "saving" the perpetrators of the global collapse -- and pushing a "health reform" plan created by a right-wing think tank in the 1990s: a wretched piece of corporate profiteering that cleverly, and completely, co-opted the "left" into defending an elitist boondoggle and effectively killing genuine health care reform for years, perhaps for generations.
No; we are where we are because our elected officials, of both parties, on both sides of the ocean, have long been and still are the prostituted servants of a rarefied, ravening, bellicose elite. The elite have won the war; they've imposed a brutal occupation on the vanquished -- and now they are withdrawing beyond the clouds, to golden citadels and 'specialist suites,' where they can disport themselves in luxury and safety, while looking down, with a satisfied smile, on the billions and billions of worthless suckers they've left behind.