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Friday, October 31

A Shared Schadenfreude? 

One of the characteristics of Roman culture that strikes most people today as alien and unpleasant, is the obvious pleasure they derived from watching bloody spectacles. Human misery was entertainment. Watching humans be thrown to wild animals and disemboweled does not seem like wholesome family entertainment now. And while modern critics constantly decry the increased appetite for violence in video games and films, it is the very unreality of the violence that worries them. It is a violence without consequences, in which the people who are shot do not die slowly before you, crying and suffering.  Today many people obviously enjoy watching apparent violence, but we hold ourselves apart from the Romans. We imagine that it is merely the thrill of danger that excites us, not the human misery that we have carefully excised from our movies and games.

But is it?

I've been following the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian who was deported from the US and held in Syria for a year.  Like most people, I assume that he was probably tortured while in custody since Syria has a bad record for human rights violations and Amnesty International claimed:
Maher Arar was reportedly been beaten with sticks and cables, had electric shocks applied to him, been painfully suspended in the "dulab" or tire, and deprived of sleep.
Nevertheless I was surprised to see that as soon as he returned, obviously worn and exhausted, reporters wanted him to discuss the details of whether he had been tortured.  In the days that followed, every reference I heard to his case added the speculation about what may have been done to him.  

Finally the CBC triumphantly announced "Arar says he was tortured in Syria."  Their source?  Undisclosed.  If you actually read the article (or listen to the report on the radio as I did) you learn that what actually happened was that Mr. Arar met with the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bill Graham, and had a confidential conversation.  Moreover,
Graham refused to talk about Wednesday's meeting, saying that he had promised to keep their conversation confidential. But the minister did condemn the "unsubstantiated statements" about Arar.

"I totally, utterly, absolutely condemn all forms of these speculative statements about a person's life because it's not fair to them, it's not fair to the process," Graham said outside the House of Commons Thursday.
In other words, the headline announced something that Mr. Arar did not want to publicly disclose.  And why should he?  Just being held in prison for a year without torture would be a terrible enough experience.  Why one earth should we expect him to share the horrors he endured with us?  And why should we want to hear the details?

There is a salaciousness to the news these days that reminds me of (what else?) the blood-lust of Roman society.  It goes beyond reporting that terrible things have happened, which is after all part of what the news is meant to do.  What I'm referring to here is the way the media tends to linger on sound bytes of human misery.  This struck me forcefully the other day, while listening to the CBC's coverage of the Cecilia Zhang case.  (For those who don't know, she is a 9 year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Toronto and has not yet been found)  

Here is a truly terrible situation, an adored daughter stolen in the night.  And when the media first started its blitz coverage I was torn.  On the one hand it smacked of scare-mongering, but on the other there was an obvious value in alerting the population at large to be on the lookout for anything that might lead to the girl's rescue.  

Yet as I listened to the CBC replay, over and over, selected sound-bytes of Cecilia's parents' heartbreaking pleas (and finding myself moved to tears every time I heard them), I had to ask myself why they played the small clips they did so heavily.  I would like to think it was so Cecilia or her abductors might have a better chance of hearing them.  Yet the way in which the media emphasized the moments where Cecilia's mother broke down in tears, rather than her words of encouragement to her daughter, makes me fear that is not entirely true.  Although we are loathe to admit it, it may just be that we find the suffering of other people just as interesting, as entertaining, as our Roman predecessors.  We just package it differently.


Monday, October 27

Understanding Iraq 


As you probably have heard, there has been an upsurge in the violence in Iraq. This is distressing, if not wholly surprising, but what moved me to post was hearing Bush explain the causes for these attacks on the radio:
[T]he more progress we make on the ground, the more free the Iraqis become, the more electricity is available, the more jobs are available, the more kids that are going to school, the more desperate these killers become, because they can't stand the thought of a free society. They hate freedom. They love terror.

Isn't it comforting to know that the Emperor understands the situation? I am really at a loss for words at the inadequacy of this analysis.

Thursday, October 23

In Response to a Reader 

A propos of my last post, a reader writes:
I read your blog, and agree with your views about the CBC, and also about the dominance of the American corporate media. BUT, the usa is an empire in the geographic sense. Just ask a Sioux Indian. Not to mention the hundreds of military bases it has around the world. In my view, one of the great paradoxes of the American empire is that it doesn't believe that it an empire (until perhaps recently). Another paradox is that it is one of the most culturally insular empires in history, pace, the amazing lack of knowledge most Americans have about other countries. This is partly to do with the media, but has its roots in decades of teaching cirricula, the idea of manifest destiny, and the puritans idea of a city on a hill, a New Jerusalem. But the reality is that the USA is one of the most impressive territorial empires in history.
I thought I should clarify my view.

I do not disagree that the US has military bases all over the world, including Canada.  I do not disagree that the US itself physically grew in response to an ideology of expansion and manifest destiny, which have also been used to justify its (often successful) attempts to control political affairs in Latin America.

Yes, the military presence of the US is one of the signs of its empire.  I wanted to clarify, however, that the American Empire is not primarily an empire based upon military conquest.  In the popular imagination empires come and gobble up smaller countries, annexing them.  In reality, both today and in Roman times, the signs of empire are more subtle.  The US does not, for example, control the legal systems, the currencies, or even the foreign policies of the countries where it has military bases.  It influences them, to be sure, but that is not the same thing as wholly conquering a place and absorbing it.  

"Empire" is not a legal definition, nor can it be clearly mapped geographically (despite what all those textbook maps of the Roman Empire might suggest), because it is an attempt to describe power -- and power shifts constantly, ebbing and flowing like the sea.  

My reader's secondary point, about the paradoxical insularity of the US empire, is a good one.  Yet while it is indeed paradoxical, and thereby striking, I am not so sure that this is a characteristic wholly limited to the US empire.  The Roman Empire was also quite insular, at least if you look at the ruling classes in Rome.  It is true that they did acknowledge Greek civilization and culture to be worth studying, but accusations of being excessively Graecophilic were standard political slurs (used most effectively against Nero, for example).  And Greece was unique in that respect.  Romans showed almost no interest in the cultures of the other lands they dominated, and reading Roman sources reveals very very little about them.  They renamed local divinities and places with Latin names, yet there is considerable evidence that the people who lived in those provinces did not themselves do so (for example, the re-emergence of the older name Paris instead of the Roman Lutecia after the "fall" of Rome).  In short, the image that Roman sources give us of life in the provinces is both limited and misleading in many respects.  Romans were interested in Rome, and perhaps Italy.  They were forced to deal with provincials, as they streamed into Rome, but you would be hard pressed to find any Roman author celebrating the diversity that resulted.  One has only to look at Juvenal (the Roman Satirist who wrote in the late 1st and early 2nd century).

If the Romans understood the lands they dominated better than the Americans, and I am not sure they did, I would attribute their knowledge less to their interest in those cultures than in the higher esteem in which they held education in general.  But that, I think, is a blog for another day.

Tuesday, October 14

Valuing the CBC 

The recent surge of books bashing Bush, as well as the growing interest in the democratic race in the US, might lead one to imagine that the Empire is about to fall.  Most left-wing blogs in the US encourage their readers with the hope that Bush will be kicked out of office next year.  Personally, I hope Bush is replaced but Sontag's recent comments should remind us all that the American Empire is not synonmous with the Republican party.  Indeed, the underlying nature of the Empire is not really a political distinction.

The American Empire is an Empire not because it has conquered many foreign lands and imposed its own government upon them, it is an Empire because its particular vision of what the world should be like, how it should be run, and who should hold power, has come to dominate politics and society all over the world.  It is true that the US has worked to further this process through political and economic pressure but equal blame (or credit) must go to all those foreign nations that have lauded the "American way of life" and emulated them freely.

Perhaps the most insidious characteristic of the American Empire is the strength of corporate interests over those of the common good.  The current president is very much a representative of the wealthy few, whose companies have lobbied hard, and who have found their efforts amply repaid.  The governing wisdom claims that what is good for them is somehow good for everybody.  Hence the need to give them massive tax cuts.  Hence the desire to strip back environmental regulations that would limit their profits.  Hence the desire to privatize the reconstruction of Iraq.  (And some would argue hence the invasion itself, although that is a tad too monocausal for my taste).

Here in Canada, and I imagine in many other provinces of the Empire, it is easy and popular to decry our southern neighbor.  Canadians tend to look askance at many of the realities of life in the US -- the crime rates, the lack of public health care, the poor educational standards...  We can stick out our chests with pride and think that it is much better here.  Yet it is the parties who espouse more "American" models of society who appear to be winning the votes.  The left wing NDP just lost official party status in Ontario, and the heir apparent to the ruling Liberal party, Paul Martin, is more of a centrist than the current Prime Minister, advocating closer relations with the US and possessing stronger ties to the business community.  Although the Tories who initiated limited privatization of hospitals in Ontario were voted out, their replacements have not indicated that they would stop the process from moving ahead.  Canada has not adopted the Empire's ways, but flirts with them.

But we possess an important bulwark against assimilation.  The CBC.  No, I'm not referring to the insulating qualities of back to back reruns of Anne of Avonlea.  It is not the Can-con requirements, forcing broadcasters to show some Canadian shows (although I do, on the whole, think they are a good thing).  The CBC's winning characteristic is that it is a non-profit enterprise.  The CBC has a mandate, and that mandate is not to make as much money as possible.  This is a crucial difference.  (And one that applies to other national television/radio organizations like the BBC)

Although the CBC does worry about audience share, and periodically tries to make its shows sexier, ultimately the job of its news reporters is to communicate the news.  It does not need to worry about alienating advertisers by presenting material that is depressing, graphic, or disturbing.  It does not need to hold the audience by filling the broadcast with teasers about what is to come, rather than in depth analysis of the topic at hand.  It is not selling a product, but providing a public service.

The distinction between public and commercial news sources was laid bare by a recent study.  It asked how it was that 60% of Americans believed at least one of these misconceptions:
  • U.S. forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
  • There's clear evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein worked closely with the Sept. 11 terrorists.
  • People in foreign countries generally either backed the U.S.-led war or were evenly split between supporting and opposing
  • They looked at what people believed, and then examined how they received their news.  The conclusion?
    The more commercial television news you watch, the more wrong you are likely to be about key elements of the Iraq War and its aftermath
    More specifically, the study shows what percentage of people held to at least one of these misconceptions according to the source they used for news:
    Fox 80%
    CBS 71%
    ABC 61%
    NBC 55%
    CNN 55%
    print media 47%
    PBS or NPR 23%
    In other words, those who relied upon Public Television or Public Radio were profoundly better informed about what was going on in the world than those who watched or read commercial news.  If there was any doubt about why this might be a bad thing, consider another of the study's conclusions:
    Before and after the war, those who have held misperceptions have been far more supportive of the decision to go to war with Iraq. In the postwar period, those with none of the key misperceptions oppose the decision, while the presence of each additional misperception is accompanied by sharply higher support for the war.
    The study was interested to see to what extent political loyalties shaped the perception of people, if Republicans were more likely to believe the misconceptions that were used in justifying the war.  This is an important question (and the answer is a qualified and nuanced yes) but so too is the conclusion that the nature of the media shapes what people believe (with apologies to MacLuan).  The right-wing station Fox comes off particularly badly, but there is no escaping that all the commercial stations appear to be doing a really poor job.  Those who depend upon public stations, PBS and NPR, are much less likely to believe falsehoods, regardless of their own particular political leanings.

    And this is why I celebrate the CBC in Canada.  It has its faults but its status as a public station, created to serve the public good and not merely make money for its owners, makes it an inherently better source of information.  The result, since far more Canadians rely upon it for their news than American do upon NPR or PBS, is a better informed population.  That is a cultural difference with profound reverberations, and it may be this province's best defense against the blind assumption that American values are the best ones to adopt.  

    Assuming, of course, that Canadians do not lose sight of the CBC's great value, and continue to slash its budget and limit its programming...

    Monday, October 13

    Does Sontag read Cassandra's View? 

    Well, Susan Sontag agrees with me,
    Susan Sontag on Saturday condemned President Bush's policies as imperialistic... Sontag spoke to reporters Saturday, a day before she is to receive the German book trade's prestigious $17,700 Peace Prize.

    “I think as long as the U.S.A. has only one political party — the Republican party, a branch of which calls itself the Democratic party — we aren't going to see a change of the current policy,” she said...

    “It's really the end of the republic and the beginning of the empire,” she said, likening former President Bill Clinton to Julius Caesar and Bush to Augustus.

    Friday, October 10

    Maher Arar Update 

    As you may know, the Canadian Maher Arar (about whom I've already written) has been freed. Syria has sent him back to Canada. He arrived on October 6th, leaving many questions unanswered. Why was he suddenly freed? And why was he sent off in the first place?

    The Star has alleged that the US initially deported Arar because Canadian security did not believe that they possessed adequate information to justify charging him.
    When it was noted that Arar was a Canadian, Canadian security was contacted. "They asked, 'Do you have anything on him,''' an official closely involved in the case said, on condition that he not be quoted by name.

    "'Yes indeed,' they were told. 'He is watched because he has been to Afghanistan several times.'"On the basis of that, the official said, Arar was arrested when the plane landed in New York."  

    Then they said to the Canadians 'If we transfer that man to you, can you give us the assurance that you will lay charges against him?'" the official said. "And the Canadian police told them `No, we don't have anything to lay charges against him. We can't bring any charges.'

    And the Americans said `If you aren't going to do anything, if you are going to let him go free ...'" According to the official, Canadian officials replied, "Wait a minute, he has already worked for two years in Boston and you never bothered to do anything about him. "And now he's back in Canada ... all we can say is that he has previously been in Afghanistan. That's not enough, given our Charter of Rights."
    Why was he freed? There are various theories. One retired Canadian diplomat has speculated that Jean Chretien made a direct appeal to the Syrian president. Others have argued that it was the intervention of the Secretary-General of the Arab League, who was in Canada last week.  Amnesty International admits it is a mystery, and the US government has not been forthcoming.  

    Given that no one has claimed responsibility, I'd offer two alternate explanations.  One, there is the unpleasant possibility that Mr. Arar might actually have had ties to terrorism organizations.  If so he could have agreed to name names for release, in which case it would be in no one's interest to broadcast the news.  

    On the other hand, if we assume that Maher Arar was indeed innocent (which I would like to believe) then something must indeed have changed.  True, there was external pressure to free him, and it is reasonable to imagine that some new person could have added his voice to the demands for Arar's release.  Nevertheless, recent events in Syria suggest a different kind of change.  Mr. Arar was sent back to Canada immediately following the Israeli attack upon Syria -- an attack which signals not only a deterioration in the already terrible relations between those two countries, but also between the US and Syria.  

    Despite denunciations by the EU, the US Senate has passed sanctions against Syria, and the bill is expected to pass the house next week.  It would appear that Washington is again listening to the neocons who wanted to invade Syria after the seizure of Baghdad, claiming that Syria is harboring terrorists.  

    Given that Mr. Arar was sent to Syria by the US (after a period in Jordan, where it is suspected the CIA questioned him), one could read his subsequent Syrian detention as a favour to the US.  A form of "subcontracting" that the American Empire has increasingly used to sidestep its own human rights laws.  Yet if the relation between the two countries has soured why should Syria bother keeping him?  Why should Syria do the US's dirty work?

    As I have mentioned before, the Roman Empire included "independent" kingdoms that were allowed to possess their own kings, their own governments, laws, money, et cetera.  One example was the kingdom of Commagene, whose monarchs were successively supported and deposed by the Romans until the emperor Vespasian finally annexed it to the Roman province of Syria.  Could it be that modern Syria fears that it will be annexed to the US province of Iraq?

    Thursday, October 2

    Voices from Iraq 

    What with the provincial elections here in Ontario, the anticipation and speculation over the democratic contenders in the States, and the latest Washington scandal, it is easy to forget about the situation overseas.  Frankly, it would be nice to forget about it.  

    The situation in Iraq is so incredibly bleak that my mind shies away from giving it the attention it deserves.  And it does deserve attention.
    The numbers are bleak, and the reality even more gruesome.  Two documentaries that I recently heard on the CBC radio bring it home.  Listen to this report from the Baghdad morgue, (you may need to download RealPlayer, but it is worth it).  Then listen to this one, "The Killing Goes On."  Then listen to either Bush or Blair defend their invasion of Iraq and tell me that you don't feel physically ill.  

    The idea that the Iraqis are somehow better off now belies all the evidence from people in Iraq.  And the endless rhetoric about how their suffering, while regrettable, was necessary to preserve the West against terrorism is an affront against those in Iraq who are dying every day, and also those in the Empire who are expected to swallow such balderdash.  Among thinking people, it is growing increasingly obvious that the only ones to benefit from the deaths and suffering of all these thousands of people will be the corporate cronies who are already profiting from their governmental connections.  

    So why bother ranting?  In part because the realities of the situation need to be restated, over and over, until ordinary Americans take note.  Many of them still believe that Iraq was a direct threat to their nation, that the terrorists of 9-11 were Iraqi, that Weapons of Mass Destruction have been uncovered...  And it is easy for people in the West, under the protective umbrella of the Pax Americana, to forget the ugly consequences of their government's policies in foreign lands.  The irony, of course, is that that very peace can only be threatened by the destabilization of Iraq, who will be more inclined to turn against the Empire with desperate terrorist acts now that the Empire has turned their home into a war zone.