Tuesday, June 24, 2008

strange times

The launch of a new blog, strange times, and some email discussion with the old friends involved led me to think about the question: Do we live in strange times?

Through the media I hear about strange and usually horrifying events around the world, things that make my normal day to day activities pale into insignificance:

that Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe has withdrawn from the presidential race - amongst all the violence in that country the one that stuck with me was of a woman having her limbs and breasts cut off for supporting the MDC

images of jobless South Africans setting fire to and / or beating refugees from surrounding countries, including Zimbabwe

an american ship laden with relief supplies for people devastated by the cyclone in Myanmar (Burma) waiting for a week and then sailing away because the military junta wouldn't give them permission to enter

ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan

Yes, the times are strange, you might even say, insane. Insane Times.

There is lots of talk and endless hand wringing on the media about what to do about these situations. Someone should intervene it is sometimes said. Morgan Tsvangirai has called for intervention in Zimbabwe but will it happen? Almost certainly not. Maybe there will be more sanction which often end up hurting the poor more. The United Nations is too weak and divided. And it's "not allowed" these days for an imperialist power to intervene against a former anti-imperialist freedom fighter, Mugabe, who has turned into a fascist.

The United States intervened in Iraq and that country is slowly, at great cost, transforming from a fascist dictatorship under Saddam into a purple fingered democracy. Last time I checked the surge was working. So, I do still support the Iraq war.

But people on the whole, in my day to day normal world, do not demand intervention against fascism or genocide. On the whole, they prefer to say "terrible thing" and go about their affairs - be it teaching, shopping, watching the footy, playing with the kids, paying off the mortage, planning their retirement etc. The "civilised world" is insulated from the oppressed world, often hard working and anxious about its issues but also, in the main, comfortable and complacent about the real issues of suffering humanity.

Some donate to World Vision (a band aid) or like me support more developmental approaches like the OLPC. But it's all changing far too slowly for my liking. I don't want to stand by and watch on TV while women have their breasts and legs cut off for supporting democracy. Something more urgent is required.

I think we need a political leadership that will stand up to fascism and genocide both locally and internationally. Whatever it takes. Otherwise, we are not even civilised, we still live in an age of barbarism. We have not got the leadership we need and we seem to be moving in that direction at a glacial pace while large parts of humanity suffer terribly. My basic contention is that we have the resources to solve all of the world's basic problems - genocide, fascism, energy, poverty. But we lack the political know how or will to achieve that. So, for these reasons, I also believe we live in Strange Times.


Anonymous said...

How quickly you forget of the numerous times the United States has supported dictatorships for its own selfish goals. And it is not my own fantasy --- the very Congressional Records state at least 13 times in which this has happened in the past.

One such example: supporting Saddam Hussein, and selling him WMD so he could go and gas people from other countries.

Please stop drinking Kool Aid.

Ken said...

Hi Bill -- I read your posts via the Planet Smalltalk feed and appreciate them very much. This post struck me in particular and I wanted to say "thank you". This is a dose of the kind of realism that we (who live in wealthy, comfortable societies) are typically too insulated from.

In democratic societies, our government tends to reflect all of the virtues and vices that we have attained as individuals. While some of the solution is political, I think more of it is personal. Look at the immense difference that one nun in Calcutta made during her lifetime -- all because she recognized suffering all around her and was willing to do something about it.

If through our actions we can change our culture into one of selfless giving instead of self-centered acquisition, our governments will soon show forth those same values.

Bill Kerr said...

hi anonymous,

your kool aid comment suggests me you don't really want to discuss this issue

for the record --> "I belong to the generation of Vietnam War activists who learnt to despise the many crimes of US Imperialism"

things change, some of us move on; US policy towards the Middle East did a backflip after 9/11, without the US there would be no democracy in Iraq and the Kurds would have been crushed by Saddam (previous to that)

my earlier blog on this issue: the irony of september 11th

Bill Kerr said...

hi Ken,

Thanks and I respect your views. But what you suggest I think will take too long, from my perspective. I want to see the fascist generals in Myanmar and the new fascist on the block, Mugabe, removed asap and democratic elections held in those countries. The people of those countries want that too not in the distant future, but now.

Bill Kerr said...

for a more long term strategic analysis of the changes in US policy particularly in the Middle East following 9/11, read this 2006 article by keza at the lastSuperpower site -> Spelling out the "draining the swamps theory"

I do agree that this long term strategic analysis is essential to understand the current world situation and the confusing and seemingly internally contradictory role of the Bush administration (eg. supporting democracy in Iraq but sometimes encroaching on democracy in the USA) -- and that the lastSuperpower site which has now morphed into StrangeTimes has played pretty much a lone hand in developing this analysis (read the above article by keza for more detail)

Mark Miller said...

Hi Bill. Really liked your post. There has been talk among some Republicans about intervening in Burma on humanitarian grounds, but I've heard nothing from the Bush Administration about this.

As to anonymous's rant: Yes, there have been times when the U.S. in the past has supported dictatorships. This was once our policy in the Middle East. We thought supporting dictators there would create stability. 9/11 taught us that this conclusion was wrong. You are wrong about us selling WMDs to Iraq. That is an oft-repeated myth. We supplied intelligence support to the Saddam regime in a classic "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" move when Iraq engaged in a war with Iran during the 1980s. We in no way supported the gassing of the Kurds. In fact this act by Saddam's regime caused the U.S. to distance itself from him.

Addressing your comments, Bill, regarding the complacency we see today, it brings to mind the lesson I was taught we learned from the Holocaust, "Never again!" Well, how quickly we forgot that lesson. First there was Rwanda, where the U.S. did not respond, and the U.N. sat back as ethnic cleansing took place. The Clinton Administration even publicly denied that genocide was occurring.

For the past couple years there's been some political support for an intervention in the Sudan/Darfur region, but there are several factors working against this. The political opposition to our involvement in Iraq, plus the stress that involvement has placed on our military, have made it politically and militarily unwise for us to get heavily involved in anyplace else at this point. Admittedly the Bush Administration has made a "deal with the devil" with the government in Khartoum. They have supplied invaluable information to us on Al Qaeda, and they will only continue to do so if we do not interfere with their atrocities. Lastly, both Russia and China have been blocking U.N. action on Darfur because they have oil interests in Sudan. Interestingly the U.S. does not. As a policy matter it has chosen not to do any oil dealing with Sudan, nor do we with Iran, incidentally.

What some of us have been wondering is "Where is the rest of the world?" Is no one besides the United States willing to stand up to these atrocities? As far as I'm concerned the U.S. is doing its part, but it can't address the whole world's ills on its own. There is much talk here that "We can't be the world's policeman." So intervention for its own sake is not supported, apparently even for humanitarian reasons.

We learned that lesson in Somalia. We intervened there to provide protection and food/medical aid for some people who were being massacred and deliberately starved to death by an opposing warlord. In their eyes they were just conducting a civil war. The moment 6 U.S. soldiers were killed we decided to pull out. That same impulse has been driving the domestic opposition to the Iraq war.

I was watching a bit of the movie The Killing Fields the other night, and a feeling came over me that I hadn't felt before when I used to see it. It was a real sense of sadness and dread as I watched the dramatization of Cambodians desparately trying to get out of the country. What followed, once the mandatory U.S. pullout was finished, was the massacre of millions of people by the Khmer Rouge. Depending on how this election goes, presidential and congressional, we could see the same thing happen in Iraq. I shudder at the thought. If there's one lesson we should've taken from that tragedy is that while some will say "war is not the answer", disengagement isn't the answer either.

The political opposition to intervention is driven by a myopic sense of the body politic. If one asks the anti-war folks why they do what they do they'll say they oppose "imperialism" (on the part of the U.S.), both foreign and domestic. In the Vietnam War they felt they had accomplished a victory on this front. Nevermind the millions who perished in Cambodia and Vietnam as a result. One account I heard suggested that when anti-war activists were confronted with the massacre, they acted like they were in denial. They would blame the U.S. for it, or claim that the reports of a massacre were CIA propaganda. They took no responsibility for it, and opposed the idea of going back in to stop it. As far as they were concerned it was a victory, not because millions were getting killed. That was a side show to them. What mattered was they had stopped the "fascist" U.S. Military Industrial Complex. In a broader sense they hoped to stop opposition to communist expansion. Today, the opposition has more to do with opposing global capitalism--globalization--than with helping the expansion of a particular ideology on the world stage.