Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Waiting Game.

With the celebrations at the weekend of the 60th year since the end of the Korean War, if one considers it over, the West has forgotten that the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South the day after nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan. It was intended to be a temporary scenario, Kim Il-sung was installed in the North by the Soviet Union and the United States put Syngman Rhee in charge of the South (the first many military dictators). There were frequent border skirmishes from the start, but it would go all the way in 1950. It would have huge implications for the Cold War and for the world today.

The cause of a united and independent Korea had huge support on the peninsula for obvious reasons. From 1910 to 1945 Korea had been the private play toy of the Japanese Empire. Although the Japanese generals worked to abolish the caste system in Korea they were eager to suppress Korea’s linguistic, cultural and religious heritage. Korea would be plundered to fuel the Japanese war machine, everything from its natural resources to its inhabitants were utilised. In their thousands Koreans found themselves subjected to forced labour and sexual slavery. Koreans were among the victims of Unit 73 where the Japanese Fascists carried out experiments on human beings. Some 20,000 Koreans were killed in the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was against this backdrop that the Korean peninsula was held apart by foreign powers.

A few years later came the end of Chiang Kai-Shek’s scandalously corrupt reign in China. Mao Zedong soon cut a deal with Stalin while the Kuomintang was driven to running its opium ring out of Taiwan. It was perceived as an enormous loss for the fledgling hegemon. As Oliver Stone noted in his book, The New York Times called it a “vast tragedy of unforeseeable consequences for the Western World.”[1] When Kim Il-sung sent his troops down into the southern half of the peninsula The New York Times would urge Truman to act now or risk “los[ing] half the world.”[2] The Times, in many respects the voice of history in US media, had set the Korean War in comparison to the loss of China a year earlier. The implications should be clear for anyone to see. As Chomsky notes “The tacit assumption was that the U.S. owned China, by right, along with most of the rest of the world, much as post-war planners assumed.”[3]

It’s often described as though the Russians carried out a proxy-invasion which required a counteraction. Actually the Soviet Union was barely involved, aside from the green light that Stalin gave to Kim Il-sung who was eager for war and had promised a swift victory. Stalin had refused Kim permission in 1949 fearing a protracted war with the Americans, who had been beefing up Japan as a military outpost. By 1950 the Soviet Union had the atomic bomb and a new ally in China, so Stalin could give his blessing under the understanding that Russian forces would have a very limited role. In the whole conflict only 26,000 Russians died, a figure dwarfed by the piles and piles of Koreans and Chinese slain. Chairman Mao had agreed to support the invasion to appease the Soviet Union, but also wanted to keep China out of the war.

Upon the US intervention Truman said "A return to the rule of force in international affairs would have far-reaching effects. The United States will continue to uphold the rule of law."[4] The US intervened through the UN in what Truman described, in typical cynicism, as a ‘police action’ rather than call it what it was – an undeclared war – where the UN played a nominal role with half the ground troops composed of Americans.  The US went far beyond what the UN resolution stipulated, going as far as to push deep into North Korea eventually reaching the Chinese border and provoking a Chinese intervention. As Howard Zinn notes, the UN had only sanctioned actions to repel the North’s forces and to restore peace and security within the area.[5] The American intervention would not be shy of war crimes in its bombing campaign to level the Korean peninsula. Zinn refers us to the words of a BBC journalist on the effects of napalm:

In front of us a curious figure was standing, a little crouched, legs straddled, arms held out from his sides. He had no eyes, and the whole of his body, nearly all of which was visible through tatters of burnt rags, was covered with a hard black crust speckled with yellow pus. . . . He had to stand because he was no longer covered with a skin, but with a crust-like crackling which broke easily. . . . I thought of the hundreds of villages reduced to ash which I personally had seen and realized the sort of casualty list which must be mounting up along the Korean front.[6]

Although, Stalin saw the war partly as an opportunity to get back at the United States for its decision to form NATO after the war had been under way for a year Stalin pushed for negotiations. The table-talks would drag on for two years while the US continued in its firebombing campaign and ultimately forcing Koreans to seek refuge in caves. The campaign’s reach was not limited to the Communist forces in the North. Around this time the British armed forces yearbook observed “The war was fought without regard for the South Koreans, and their unfortunate country was regarded as an arena rather than a country to be liberated. As a consequence, fighting was quite ruthless, and it is no exaggeration to state that South Korea no longer exists as a country.”[7]

The war was a disaster for Harry Truman, who enjoyed an approval rating low of 22% as support for the war dipped to 39% in 1951.[8] Once Eisenhower had succeeded Truman and Stalin had died the US proceeded to bomb the dams near Pyongyang – having ran out of other targets – killing thousands of peasants and destroying crops for a population facing starvation. It was a crime with precedence in Nazi-occupied Holland, as Chomsky notes.[9] The war would end at an armistice which upheld the partition on the 38th Parallel where the war had begun three years earlier. It was the first of America’s wars to be backed by establishment liberals. Not just The New York Times, but The Nation and even Henry Wallace capitulated to social chauvinism. It would not be the last time a progressive coalition would emerge on the side of US intervention.
We would see this re-emerge for Kennedy’s shameless aggression towards Cuba and Vietnam, let alone the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan decades later. The herd of independent minds has included such venerated creatures as Isaiah Berlin and most recently journalists like Christopher Hitchens. The few voices of dissent will continue to be vilified for their non-conformism. Like many later adventures the war was not a perceived victory because 37,000 Americans lay dead and the outcome had not established any significant gains for the South. Even though 3 million Koreans and 1 million Chinese had died in the war it wasn’t enough. It was total victory, or nothing. The original cold warrior Winston Churchill had the foresight to comprehend the significance of the Korean War when he said “Korea does not really matter now… Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the re-arming of America.”[10]

Gore Vidal estimates the full price of the national security state at $7.1 trillion from 1949 to 1999.[11] The peninsula remains divided to this day, in a permanent stand-off of hundreds of thousands of troops at the ‘demilitarized zone’: a strange name for a place where there are nuclear mines in the ground. The war may have ended in a stalemate at the 38th Parallel where it had begun, but it was a victory for the military-industrial complex. The prevailing interests seem to convergence with this stalemate being continued for years to come. China doesn’t want the immigration fallout, nor does the US want to shell-out any cash for a reunification. Yet war remains a possibility. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson has speculated that the South would win out in any outbreak of war, but it’s likely that there would be 100,000 dead (a low estimate) in the first week and Seoul may be devastated by North Korean artillery.[12]
Korea is still waiting for reunification and now it seems more unlikely than ever. Perhaps if the US had stayed out of the war Korea might have been reunited – albeit under the red flag – and this perpetual stand-off could have been averted. Likely such a Korea would have given into the same forces as its neighbours and opened up its economy. It’s possible that the military-party state would have saved itself in this way, as seen in China and elsewhere. The militarisation of the economy and society may not have arose had it not been for the six decades of deadlocked posturing. The prospect of a less gentle re-run of the first war may have been avoided completely. Indeed, it remains to be demonstrated whether or not this possibility would have been worse than the outcomes we face today.

This article was also posted on the Third Estate.

[1] Stone, O; Kuznick, P; The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Press, 2013) pg.222-223
[2] Ibid. pg.236
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Stone, O; Kuznick, P; The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Press, 2013) pg.245
[8] Ibid. pg.245-246
[10] Stone, O; Kuznick, P; The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Press, 2013) pg.251
[11] Vidal, G; Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (Clairview Books, 2002) pg.152

Saturday, 27 July 2013

A Picture of Settler-Colonialism.

A White Problem.

One of the major flaws of political correctness and multiculturalism has been the way in which it has subsumed questions of 'race' under the euphemistic umbrella of 'culture'. This shift in language correlates with the disavowal of the race problem. Culturalisation of discourse has amounted to depoliticisation. With good intentions of inhibiting prejudice and furthering sensitivity, we find ourselves all too complacent in attestation to racial oppression and injustice. You'll know what I mean if you've ever had that conversation about Malcolm X with your liberal friend, who accuses the man of being as bad as the white racists he fought against. It's the presupposition of equal standards which trips over the unevenness of history's contours, where we find the grievances of black people conveniently tucked away from prying eyes.

As if standards have ever been levelled between white and black. The continued relevance of these categories of race are evidence of the inequality already present before we begin to talk. The categories remain with us in spite of the civilising consequences of the abolition of slavery, the struggle for human rights, the emergence of affirmative action and political-correctness. In the avoidance of these primitive forms of classification we only affirm them as categories, in that we hold them at arm's length because they seem too real. This isn't to say that we should revert back to the language of scientific racism. Rather I would suggest we have to first acknowledge the problem of race and engage with its emanations and its poisonous legacy. I would not discard politically-correct and multiculturalist tolerance for I value hybridity, equality, freedom and solidarity. It's that these innovations are reformist rather than revolutionary for which I reproach them.
What was so interesting about the trial of George Zimmerman was the way in which Zimmerman's own ethnic background became a subject of discourse. The question of whether or not Zimmerman counts as 'white', or if 'white Hispanic' is a more appropriate term, became an early fixture of the media spectacle. This is interesting for a number of reasons. For starters 'white' isn't even a colour and the classification of 'Caucasian' has been discredited as a product of a discredited ethnology. Yet the history of 'whiteness' reveals it is not a wholly natural factor. There was a time when signs saying "No dogs or Irish" could be acceptably left in shop windows. Benjamin Franklin considered German immigrants to be too dark. By the 19th Century the American settlers laid claim to a mythic Anglo-Saxon heritage to distinguish themselves from the fresh influxes from the Old World. Traditionally racists have viewed any tainted form of whiteness to constitute its opposite.
Last year John Derbyshire was dumped by National Review for a racist article in which he refers not to 'white' people but to 'non-black' people. Revealingly we find 'white' to be socially constructed and necessarily distinguished from the Other. How else are we to understand the tones of voice in which coloured and half-caste were once said? This is how we are to properly understand George Zimmerman and the media fascination with his background. It is not whiteness but his status as a non-black person. Incidentally we find that the signifiers used to designate blackness are just as slippery, if not more so, than in the case of white privilege. During the American imperial adventure to the Philippines, the racial classifications of the period were far from absent. Sergeant Howard McFarland of the 43rd Infantry described the situation "At the best, this is a very rich country; and we want it. My way of getting it would be to put a regiment into a skirmish line, and blow every nigger into a nigger heaven." In these examples we find that there can even be a disconnect between pigmentation and racial constructs.
We can't get away from these tropes even if we have moved away from the acceptance of scientific racial classifications. The constructs have to be understood partly in accordance with the historic situations from whence they came and the consequences they continue to have in society today. It is on these lines that Noel Ignatiev talks of the need to abolish the 'white race', e.g. the category of 'whiteness' as a privileged social strata. This is no simple task and cannot be achieved by liberal colour-blindness. The hopes of resuscitating Black liberalism in the wake of the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict are highly flawed. The radical strain of the Black Civil Rights movement has to be resuscitated. Though we also need to engage with the historical process behind the identities of white and black. The very contours of the debate have to be explored before Americans, let alone the rest of us, can move to a post-racial society.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

American Progress.

The painting by John Gast of American Progress should be looked at with the advantage of hindsight and situated in its historical context. Note the way in which the barbarity of civilisation is externalised onto the Native Americans. You can see Winthrop's Protestant claim of America as a 'shining beacon' converging with the technological innovations of nascent capitalist society. The white settlers laid claim to both faith and reason in their colonisation of the New World. Significantly, when Native Americans first encountered white settlers they regarded them as just another rival tribe to be bartered with. There was no recognition of the encroachments into the New World that the process of settler-colonialism would necessitate. The tribal pluralism of Native Americans may have held them back from seeing the threat for what it was. It was easy for the settlers and backers in Britain to divide and conquer the indigenous population and expand ever westward. The push for independence only came in the Thirteen Colonies after King George III had tried to slam the breaks on expansion in 1763.

The millions of Africans kidnapped and transported were members of a variety of tribes. As David Roediger has noted the slave ships were incubators for black identity in that the people imprisoned aboard them were wrenched, brutally, from the context of tribal life. Paradoxically, it was the inhuman conditions of slavery which created the basis for Black nationalism and pan-Africanism to emerge. This is not to defend slavery or settler colonialism, but to acknowledge the immense contradictions in the anfractuous passages of history. Since it first was an outpost of British power,
America has seen not just one but two revolutionary ruptures. The most obvious one was against the British Empire and the second came in the form of the Civil War between industrial capitalism and slaveocracy. The Civil War brought a period of primitive accumulation to an end in the South, furthered capitalism and significantly centralised the state. Then came the first imperial adventures (to cross saltwater) in the late 19th Century.

In coming decades there will be much more scepticism shed on America's founding point as its imperial hegemony begins to go into decline. The growing criticism may well be further facilitated by the technological advantages that we enjoy today. Unlike the British Empire the first cracks of scepticism are already visible in the American ideology, almost pre-emptive of the breakdown.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Condell's Chauvinism.

The YouTube anti-theist Pat Condell has come out as a sympathiser, if not a supporter, of the English Defence League. You can watch the video above and decide that for yourself. I first encountered Condell's online videos in 2007 after I googled the word 'Islam' and I immediately found 'The Trouble with Islam' video which kicked up a fuss in Berkeley and has since racked up about a million hits. That was when Pat Condell really exploded onto the internet scene. He has faced challenge and accusations of racism. I remember when his video 'Welcome to Saudi Britain' was banned from YouTube and the ban was reversed after many people uploaded the video again and again in protest. That's not the only triumph Condell has enjoyed. He has brought out a DVD with a quote from Dawkins on the front, as well as a compilation of transcripts and racked up millions of hits.
After clicking on Condell's profile I found the video 'Hello America' in which Pat railed against the Christian Right, George Bush and Tony Blair, the unforgivable wars they had started and the subsequent abuses of civil liberties. He was even critical of Israel, or rather those on "both sides" stubbornly refusing to compromise for peace - but he insisted that Jerusalem should not belong to Israel. He described the Patriot act as a charter for fascism. These points differentiated Condell from the right-wing strain of anti-Muslim sentiment, which we find on the right-wing of American, British, French and Israeli politics. It appeared as though Condell stood outside the neoconservative narrative in his insistence that Bush and Blair were 'evil evil' cunningly disguised as 'good evil'. He described the 'War on Terror' as a war on freedom, and pointed out that Osama bin Laden's activities fed into this very same poisonous narrative.
For a while Condell stuck to his guns, consistently committed to individual liberty, humanism and secularism. All the while the former comedian lacked the cuttingly posh accent and mannerisms of fellow anti-theists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He was scathing about scientology, the Saudi regime, the GOP and televangelism; but it was always clear (as with the 'New Atheists' in general) that Pat had a special place for Islam on his hit list. He has issued calls for the burka and halal meat to be banned. When talk of 'Islamization' first emerged Condell was quick to join in with the Muslim-bashing. He came out in opposition to the so-called 'Ground Zero Mosque', which was actually a religious centre funded by Sharif el-Gamal - himself a realty developer who probably votes Republican. It was in 2009 that Condell came out to distinguish himself from the liberal Left, which he dubbed the multicultural appeasement lobby.
At the time Condell struck back at accusations of racism by insisting that the human species constitutes one race, but it still holds a variety of religions and cultures within that scope. He then went on to claim that we are being 'invaded' by the cultural values of a religion which is inherently fascist. It's standard for rightists to use 'culture' as a convenient synonym for 'race' in its opposition to immigration, particularly Muslim immigration. The line between criticism of Islamism, Islam and Muslims is repeatedly and deliberately blurred to this end. All the while political correctness and multiculturalism provide easy targets for people like Pat Condell. One would think that this freedom-lover might welcome new citizens to join his free society and get away from the dictatorships of West Asia. But these people aren't fit for freedom in Pat's mind. The welcome reaction on the radical Right to Condell should surprise few outside of the bubble of post-political 'New Atheism'.
Just in time for the 2010 General Election the online face of 'New Atheism' came out in favour of UKIP. It was a surprise for many of his subscribers. He was soon thundering about the Guardianista Left, repeatedly accusing the liberal newspaper of anti-Semitism and of supporting Hamas; as well as slamming the BBC for being apart of the 'progressive consensus'. It's not clear whether Condell changed, or if this is how he always felt. It's plausible that he was always a reactionary hiding behind the tenets of bourgeois liberalism. By now Pat had developed a much less enlightened line on the Palestinians and had ranted about the London riots with ferocious reactionist bile. He pinned it on a culture of welfare dependency conducive to "mental disablement" and going on to compare the rioters to vermin and parasites. He fell in line with the gutter press in calling for stripping the rioters of their benefits and arming the police with guns.
There is an obvious nexus binding together a variety of forces with anti-Muslim prejudice. It's the hatred of Islam that forms the common ground between certain clumps of nationalists, conservatives and liberals. It's a cultural chauvinism with underlying orientalist assumptions about Arab and Muslim culture. It is no coincidence that there has been a resurgence of anti-Muslim bigotry since the attacks of September 11th 2001. For the neoconservatives and other assorted hawks the attacks on the World Trade Centre provided the pretext to declaring war on Iraq. The new obsession became Muslims and their way of life, almost succeeding the traditional place of the Jews in the far-right imagination - as a force that the Left is using to destroy Christendom. Then there are the liberal guardians of tolerance and freedom, who were so unsettled by the events of 9/11 that they found themselves unable to resist taking the side of civilisation.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Year of the 'Aggressive' Homosexual.

Last week the US Supreme Court has overturned the Defence Of Marriage Act (1996) which effectively blocked the recognition of same-sex marriage. As a result California has swiftly restored same-sex marriage and it is the thirteenth state to do so. Many more states could follow the Californian example and remove the obstacles to marriage equality.

The UK has made the steps of introducing civil partnerships, as well as gay adoption and now the full legalisation of same-sex marriage. The Belgians, Danish and French have legalised same-sex marriage and it looks as though the Germans may well follow the lead. Even outside the reach of liberal democratic Europe we find Vietnam has opened a debate on its restrictions on marriage. It appears almost as though the specter of gay marriage is stalking much of the world.

Of course, these events were not without an unfair share of hysterical and down-right-mad reactions from the usual quarters of civilisation. In the UK debate stirred Conservative MP Gerald Howarth to come out (no pun intended) with the memorable line that the reform will be seen by the ‘aggressive homosexual community’ as a stepping stone to “something further”. It shouldn’t have been taken seriously, and it was rightly mocked by many. 

Howarth has a consistent record for voting against gay rights in Parliament, as well as a similarly impressive record for supporting authoritarian regimes (whether it’s Apartheid South Africa, Pinochet’s Chile or present-day Bahrain). I can’t remember if Howarth spluttered these words before or after Jeremy Irons intervened in his own special way. Still, we didn’t stand witness to far-right demonstrations at the whiff of equality and freedom.

Across the channel the French reactionary Catholic and nationalist historian Dominique Venner shot himself dead in Notre Dame. It was a protest against the establishment of marriage equality in France. This self-styled martyr for heteronormativity no doubt saw his own suicide as the first of “new, spectacular and symbolic actions to shake us out of our sleep, to jolt anaesthetised minds and to reawaken memory of our origins”. The gesture did not have the impact Mr Venner had foresaw.

The Femen organisation was soon on the scene to mock Venner’s last stand against marriage equality. The Femen activist appeared at Notre Dame topless brandishing a toy gun with the words “May Fascism rest in hell” painted onto her torso. Femen leader Inna Schevchenko told journalists “It is a message addressed to all those who support Fascism and those who have expressed sympathy for the extreme-right militant who killed himself at Notre Dame – namely Marine Le Pen.”

The radical litterateur Gore Vidal opposed gay marriage precisely because he opposed marriage as an institution and model of relationships. He once remarked “Since heterosexual marriage is such a disaster, why on earth would anybody want to imitate it?” There is some truth in the anti-assimilationist position that the normalising cause of marriage equality will not solve all problems that the gay community faces. The right to marry may not matter so much to the gay, lesbian and transgender people disenfranchised by gentrification in San Francisco, which was ironically started by gay renovators in the 1970s.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that the LGBT community has been free from divorce proceedings and the expenses incurred by them (not just legal fees, but alimony and child support). It may be the only non-homophobic line to take in opposition to marriage equality. It is compatibility with any conception of ‘natural sexual relations’ and shifts the debate away from the preservation of marriage as a pillar of a non-existent organic society.

The conservative writer Phillip Blond has argued in anti-assimilationist vein for the preservation of homosexuality as distinct from heterosexual relations and norms. To level the playing field would really be demolishing the unique aspects of the gay scene and absorbing the gay community into a hotchpotch society. The point seems befitting of conservatism as we find when John Gray writes “[Christian] Morality has hardly made us better people; but it has certainly enriched our vices.” In this way we find the queer scene can be contained as a kind of hedonic reservoir where a particular lifestyle remains enclosed to its proper place.

The push towards equality only subsumes the gay community into heterosexual society and subjects homosexuals to the norms of heterosexual relationships and nuclear families. In this line of argument, the move towards ‘sameness’ reduces the importance of the heterosexual union – and its standing as procreative – while at the same time limiting the possibility of recognising and celebrating what’s unique about homosexual couples.

It’s nothing new to point out that the establishment of formal equality leaves a whole series of other questions unanswered. Equality of this kind can be neglectful of diversity and ignorant of unevenness. The opening up for a space of married gay couples and gay families would be a step forward towards a properly liberal society. It doesn’t pose a fundamental change to the power structure of class society.

It is reformist in its offer of a more perfect liberalism where same-sex couples can marry and adopt children, thereby possibly leveling the playing field in terms of property rights, inheritance, tax incentives and may well provide stability for generations of children. The conservatives of this world should welcome the spread of marriage across a new section of society, as well as the widening of the possibilities for the family unit. And yet so many of them can’t see this, no doubt because of their deep-seated homophobia.

As the development of a liberal society is conducive for laying the groundwork for the advent of socialism we should see these reforms as necessarily improving life under capitalism. It would take more than liberal reform to achieve a fully emancipatory break with the current order. We have to keep all of this in mind if we are going to be serious. If the future will emerge from the womb of the present system then reform is not futile. Through the circumvention of liberalism’s flaws can lead to a unity of its finest elements.

Rights are certainly achievable under capitalism, but liberation doesn’t end at equality in unfree conditions. Sweeping away the old obstacles to the equality of all individuals might just hasten confrontation on the class front. And it’s not as though the issues that gay people face can be met until this hurdle has been passed. Once the playing field has been levelled to the bounds of rights then we can move to the more important matters of immiseration, dispossession and exploitation.

This article was originally posted on The Third Estate on July 2nd 2013.