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Shamless in America

May 30, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian newspaper writes what some may consider a virtuous and urgent charge. In his newspaper’s May 12th edition 

Opining that the US president is shameless, Freedland may be correct. But I disagree with his suggestion that Donald Trump’s behavior is particularly unique and that this shamelessness is immoral. While Trump is acting and speaking in a shocking manner, he is, in fact, giving voice to (a hitherto whispered, backroom) an American tradition.

When will Americans who enjoy huge benefits of citizenship in the world’s strongest economy and in the globe’s pre-eminent cultural, political, and military power realize that its glorious ‘empire’ is itself a shameless beast? Empire is largely effectively above morality. Moreover, isn’t this an integral part of what is called exceptionalism?  

Whether we like (to admit) it or not USA is an empire. As such it can be shameless. Just as it can be arrogant; just as it can police the whole world; just as it demands others adhere to its declared standard of human rights; just as its military cannot be criminally responsible for excesses and atrocities abroad; just as its negotiators can coerce weaker nations to follow its dictate.

Several American presidents in living memory (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Carter, Clinton, and Obama) provided a veneer of morality with their grace and political intelligence. Trump does not follow that script. In his bumbling, ungracious way, he is the ugly face of empire, exhibiting all the righteousness of what Americans --only Americans-- boast is the ‘most powerful person on earth’. The president, like the empire, is almost above law: he can disregard convention; he can fire the head of intelligence; he can sign edicts to wipe out years of development and progress; he can refuse to submit his tax returns; he can retain his businesses while serving in office; and his flippant tweets can hurl personal insults and instigate political chaos.

American foreign policy flaunts norms in the international arena; why not the head of state in regards to domestic issues? Not unreasonably, if a nation is shameless, its leader too can behave without shame. Donald Trump is shameless enough to challenge the norm. (Although in his arrogance he may inadvertently overstep some solid and sacred law, and be assured that hoards of opposition lawyers are closely following his every step to clutch a tangible legal breach.)

                Perhaps what so disturbs our distraught liberal class who Freedland speaks for is that Trump is directing this arrogance onto domestic issues and the privileges of Americans. As long as US bullying is focused outside, whether towards friends or enemies, it’s ignored or tolerated. Take the spurious principle of ‘mutual respect’ and the verbiage about members’ ‘equality’ within the United Nations. In its embargo wars against Cuba, Iran, Iraq and Vietnam, Washington successfully coerces and threatens others to comply. Even the U.N. cannot withstand US intimidation. A cursory review of reports emerging from infinite U.N. committee meetings around the globe would either shock you or make you ask if anything noble is ever accomplished there, anything except what’s determined by Washington.

(One recent climate change meeting offers an example of what can be accessed by Third World Network.) These daily displays of American prowess are buried in hard-to-comprehend reports laden with mysterious acronyms and a maze of subcommittee reviews. Their itineraries are so imponderable; easier to browse multi-pages of our esteemed press with their doctrines on Kurdish factions, sectarian strife in Muslim lands, or the drama of a dismissed FBI chief than to study how America bullies and obstructs the agendas of others, whether powers like India, or weak or impoverished nations, or respectable European friends.  

                True, not every American leader acts as boldly or as oafishly as Donald Trump does. Certainly his immediate predecessor behaved differently…most of the time. But recall one of President Obama’s foreign speeches—in Havana a year ago— and the former Cuba leader’s knowing response. Fidel Castro’s reply notwithstanding, the American’s imperial message, albeit proffered in a handsome velvet cloak, is clear. Barack Obama, like many American leaders (whether trade negotiators, press aides, human rights advocates, or military officers) may speak and act more discreetly than his successor. It’s just that Trump openly exhibits his nation’s arrogance. Combined with his personal tactlessness, mixed with a degree of bald ignorance, it’s, well, embarrassing.

But Freedland and doubtless many others in our liberal class, symbolized by the self righteous New York Times, do not dare admit America’s own long history of shamelessness and how Mr. Trump merely epitomizes this.

In today’s comments by US historians on how the 45th president compares so unfavorably with past occupants of the White House, there is a highly selective process underway. Since the November election and US intellectual’s misjudgment of its outcome, liberals have jumped onto the moral high ground with their remaking of Mr. Obama’s tenure. As if the last administration were free of responsibility for destabilizing other nations, of gross, illegal surveillance, of unlawful bombings and runaway profiteering by banks.   

Trump’s behavior is ‘difficult’ no doubt. Perhaps it’s because when a leader lies, he reminds us all of the national lies, of the shame (or sham) that American democracy has become, at least of its weaknesses. How can US negotiators and diplomats force human rights standards on others; how can the US insist on democratic principles in countries whose polities are at odds with Washington?

Today Mr. Trump is bullying the hallowed institutions of America. That’s what is insufferable. This is where we recognize shame.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ Shamless in America ]

Americans Should Be Embarrassed, But Not About President Trump

May 04, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A month before the US presidential election, my sister from Canada called asking: “Aren’t Americans embarrassed?” She was referring in particular to the character of the leading Republican candidate, now living in Washington-- in the White House.

Even today few Americans actually say they’re embarrassed by Trump, whether it’s his tweets or his declarations of policy or his interactions with foreign leaders. Many dismayed Americans express anger; others moderate their feelings with ridicule, recounting his missteps and inelegance, surrounding themselves with likeminded associates to stoke their spirits. Certainly the president’s cabinet appointments and threats of policy changes create fear which in turn has motivated the widespread but calm and calculated street protests. Journalists have never been so busy muckraking over presidential appointees, tracking the leader’s ramblings, and fact checking the deluge of data on all sides.

Meanwhile, we (on the left) are indeed embarrassed, very embarrassed. Here’s what I mean.

It’s not the president’s amateurish utterances and his threats that embarrass. It’s about us: we’re embarrassed for ourselves. We—that is, the liberal American community who have such high regard for our sophistication, our grasp of issues, our education, our trendiness, and our facility with social media—couldn’t read our own country. We could not control the democratic process; we could not speak for the country; we could not use our multi-media savvy to effectively inform and communicate; we relied on barely two print sources and no more than two TV news channels who are, we now realize, biased.

There’s the feminists’ embarrassment too. Not only were we-- this land of dynamic, daring, accomplished women-- incapable of lifting a woman candidate over the top. We could not ‘read’ the whole of America’s women, (nor its youth, nor all its minorities). How embarrassing to admit to ourselves that not only does the U.S. lag behind African, Asian and South American nations in our inability to find a acceptable woman president. Fifty-three percent of white American women voted for what appeared to be a grossly misogynist Republican candidate! Hard to admit, but we, the knock-down-barriers know-it-alls, failed. Moreover, however many popular votes went to Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic Party—our self-declared champion of women and minorities-- also failed to read and to touch the pulse of the country. Not only was that boorish fellow installed the White House; 32 state legislatures went to the Republicans and 33 state governors are Republican.

It’s this embarrassment that’s now driving the weekly marches, the protests outside congressmembers’ offices, the plethora of new local committees and get-to-know-our-neighbors gatherings across the country. It’s this embarrassment that is sending reporters and camera crews into towns in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Louisiana and Kansas. Forget about Alabama, the Inner City and the metropolitan suburb. National Public Radio and BBC correspondents are descending on farms, mom-and-pop stores, and hamlets across the county to reveal the ‘real’ marginalized American:-- the less educated, the poorer, the underemployed, and the chronic opioid user.

We are newly interested in rural American wisdom. Today’s journalists are like anthropologists sent out to the dark corners of the hostile empire to study the natives for future conquest. University courses will be created to read newly written monographs on this forgotten, discovered America.

If embarrassment has a positive side, it’s self discovery. Although this doesn’t guarantee an easy overthrow of the current regime.  END

[ Americans Should Be Embarrassed, But Not About President Trump ]

The Legacy of Lynne Stewart: The People's Lawyer

April 26, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Well, sometimes the impossible takes a little longer”, remarked Lynne Stewart, December 31, 2014, on her arrival in New York, released from federal prison in Texas, after a vigorous family and internationally driven campaign on her behalf. (She was suffering from advanced cancer.)

Stewart lived three more years, nearby her family, always with a smile for visitors. This was the woman who dared this mild rebuke to her sentencing judge: “I do not intend to go gentle into that good night” she told him. 

Last Saturday, almost 500 friends and admirers of the brave lawyer who had the courage to challenge U.S. Homeland’s chief John Ashcroft fifteen years ago, gathered to celebrate a remarkable and honorable life.

April 22nd, the same day when tens of thousands were gathering in cities across the country to support our scientific community under threat by Trump administration budget cuts, one is struck by the contrast with those memorializing this “people’s lawyer”.

That modest assembly in a quiet corner of New York, the city where she grew up and where Stewart worked all her life, represented a revolutionary era whose very place in U.S. history is dangerously marginal. Moreover, that history is barely recognized by the rather belated post-November 8th arousal—the new liberal movement-- now gathering with its multitude of committees, mass parades and lefty celebrity speeches: part of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution. Fine. But a far cry from what Lynne Stewart’s celebrants represent.

                Unarguably America needs organized massive resistance to threats posed by the current administration; push back is essential on all fronts: healthcare, the arts, environmental protections, bank regulation, civic rights, and on and on. One hopes that the thousands of communities mobilizing nationwide, from villages to city centers and suburbs will-- after the committees are settled, the speeches made, the funds raised, the petitions signed-- act. They have organizing tools unavailable in past revolutions. Digital platforms flowing into every hand can inform with virtual velocity; Google maps assure you that your small effort is fed into a nationwide net of tens of thousands; you are not alone. Leaders can materialize in weeks with Twitter and Facebook skills at their command, cameras everywhere recording their emergence. Film celebrities join in, drawing even greater numbers to the effort. These are essentially what we have, and they may indeed be what are appropriate at a time when representatives of our police state are more numerous and more heavily armed, endowed with more authority and less tolerance.

                Those gathered to remember Lynne Stewart last week were authentic, tried revolutionaries: poets Nat Turner and Amina Baraka; former political prisoners, attorneys who had stepped forward to defend unpopular characters, teachers, organizers in solidarity with Cuba and Palestinian statehood from the 1960s to today; Vietnam war veterans and the unjustly imprisoned; defiant elected representatives from New Jersey and Brooklyn; the journalist and theologian Chris Hedges who refuses to join the liberal voice that claims it is the rightful alternative to the Republican party.

Each woman and man reminded us what makes a revolution. Each invoked the grass roots experience of Stewart, a librarian and teacher who turned to law in order to fight injustices she witnessed in the lives of her students. Eventually she took on the case of Muslims wrongly accused in the early 1990s when the government was using secret evidence to illegally charge and convict. Where other attorneys shied away from representing terror suspects, Lynne Stewart remained committed. There was some success when the government was eventually prevented from further use of secret evidence.

Then came the 9/11 attacks, and everything changed. Stewart insisted on defending attorney-client privilege (a right the government suspended). She had to be stopped. And they put Stewart, at the age of 73, in jail to do so.

As Brooklyn assemblyman Charles Barron reminded us on Saturday, “Lynne was a sweet person.” Even as she presented her cases and spoke to the media, she was always mild and respectful, always witty and bright-eyed. It’s not simply that she’s missed. We need to believe others as courageous and well equipped as Stewart was can come to our aid today.  END

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and radio producer in New York. She is a longtime associate of Lynne Stewart, interviewing her during her fight against government use of secret evidence against her clients during the 1990s, then during Stewart’s fight against the department of justice attack on lawyer-client privacy rights, and finally in the campaign led by her husband and comrade, Ralph Poynter, for Stewart’s release from prison on health grounds.

[ The Legacy of Lynne Stewart: The People's Lawyer ]

Veteran Killers in Our American Streets

April 14, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Why do we allow veterans of recent wars to keep their weapons at home? Sometimes I think I’m alone in noticing a troubling American social pattern. When I mention how it keeps coming up again, others admit that they too noticed it. That’s all. It’s not the sort of thing one can easily follow.

Because media ignores it, the aggravation seems to disappear. Then it returns, as it did with the latest school killings—this time at the school in San Bernardino, California, this week.

I expect mine will be a highly unpopular opinion---it’s a hard one for Americans to swallow. But it has to be pointed out that when our military teaches our men and women to kill, legally, there is a terrifying and common spillover here at home, namely: they go on killing.

I have never been privy to the way military authorities pump up soldiers to kill, to revenge their fallen comrades, to hunt what are presented as savage animals who would take away ‘our freedoms’. But I‘ve heard enough to know that military training really hardens men, subjecting them racist and violent language to motivate them on the battlefield. Soldiers also learn to feel comfortable with weapons; they become highly attached to their guns.

We have to own up to it. As much as our presidents celebrate “these gallant men and women who put themselves in harms way”, U.S. veterans are increasingly among the killers in our own neighborhoods. They are among the gun-lovers and gun owners killing us and our children-- in our streets, in airports, in their homes and in our schools. When will we disarm these men who we celebrate for killing Iraqis, Afghanis, Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis?

In the case of Marine Chris Kyle of “Sniper” fame, the six dead in the baggage hall of Ft. Lauderdale airport, and this week’s San Bernardino’s North Park Elementary School killings, focus is on the victims. Yes, teacher Karen Elaine Smith deserves to be known and mourned nationally. So too, 8-year old Jonathan Martinez. That this teacher was dedicated to working with special-needs children, and the dead child himself suffered from an illness, makes the violence against them all the more despicable.

But news reports in this massacre’s aftermath, and likely in the weeks ahead will, according to common practice, fail to adequately investigate implications of the killer being a U.S. veteran who served in American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

                In the case of the famous Iraq ‘war hero’ Chris Kyle, films and memorials celebrated this soldier’s killing power—160 kills, was it?—his victims may also have been teachers, perhaps among them, fathers, and brothers of boys like Jonathan Martinez. When Kyle was later murdered, it was by a fellow Iraq veteran. Eddie Routh was invited by Kyle and his colleague Chad Littlefield for an afternoon’s entertainment at a local shooting range. In the course of their sport, Routh shot dead both of his colleagues.

That event received wide press coverage because of the celebrity of Kyle, where again his prowess as a killer of Iraqis was applauded. Coverage included some history of Kyle’s killer with the spotlight on his mental problems.

There were others—too many. Remember Esteban Santiago-Ruiz? He is the mass murderer of 5 (with 8 injured) at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport last January. He too was a soldier, noted for receiving 10 awards during his time in the military.

Now we have Cedric Anderson, this month’s San Bernardino school killer. While investigations of his background highlight violence against women, he was also held (charges were dropped) for acts involving weapons. (There’s only cursory reference to Anderson’s 8 years in the U.S. navy.)

I recall reading about a man who murdered himself and his two daughters in their home-- a nice home on a nice American street—about a year ago. He too, I recall, was a military veteran. News of that massacre focused on his two unfortunate girls.

                Yes, we know about PTSD. We know these boys have seen their buddies killed and wounded. We know the Department of Veterans Affairs could do better. But what about these men holding on to weapons when back in civilian life? What about the way they are trained in violence and hatred?

What about gathering data countrywide on how many killers in the U.S. over the past 25 years are veterans of recent wars? And how do U.S veterans who kill and maim, once discharged, compare with others across the globe, and in earlier U.S. wars? This epidemic needs urgent attention because we have more than two million of these young men among us. END

 

[ Veteran Killers in Our American Streets ]

Back in Government Hands!, or "Dying to Get Back to School"

April 06, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Back in government hands”; the journalist repeated it twice in the same account of her report from Homs, Syria. Lyse Doucet had returned to the former rebel-occupied (and we know the reputation of those rebel jihadis, don’t we?) Syrian city of Homs last week.

With apparent sympathy, Doucet sought out Bara’aa, now 12, to learn how the girl was managing. It had been three years after their first encounter, following the death of the child’s mother in a bombing.

Doucet, considered an outstanding, fearless and compassionate war journalist working across the region today, seemed touched that the child was doing well, especially pleased to be back in school. Doucet omitted any reference to the high value Syrians, like Iraqis and Palestinians among others, place on education. These are nations where every child since the 1960s was educated, where gender parity in school was standard decades ago.

Apart from the silliness of asking an Arab child, any child, if she likes school, and remarking “You don’t have bad memories, do you?”, Doucet seemed incapable of uttering the word ‘liberate’ at any point in her report. Palmyra was not liberated, nor Aleppo, nor Homs. No, they were simply (maybe regrettably, to some) “back in government hands”.

I don’t know if the BBC instructs its journalists never to use the word ‘liberate’ when an enemy army (in this case the Syrian government) regains territory from rebels and terrorist occupiers. Or if Doucet herself simply cannot conceive that ‘liberation’ is what may allow the child’s return to school, indeed the reporter’s own ability to enter Homs at all.

This attitude to Homs is more ironic when not far to the east, American forces are desperately trying to help Iraqis bring Mosul “back into government hands”. In the course of this assault, we are learning, many hundreds of Iraqis—probably including girls and boys like our Homs’ schoolchild—died… to get back to school. When that happens, and everyone prays it will be soon, there will doubtless be celebrations over the ‘liberation’ of Mosul.

Remember all the fanfare surrounding American forces’ attempt to liberate Falluja (in restless Anbar province) in west Iraq in 2004? Many details of the battle, which not only failed but resulted in huge losses of life, were leaked—the US troops used phosphorous gas, and besieged the city trapping many thousands of residents. The event is also remembered because dozens of American troops were killed in that effort, a major battle marking the first American encounter with Al-Qaeda/ISIS insurgents. (The second battle of Fallujah nine months later is descried as a “coalition victory”; never mind what remains of the city.)

There have been a series of military confrontations in Afghanistan and in Iraq over the years where territory held by U.S. and U.K. troops or their surrogates—were reoccupied by opposing forces. Just days ago a district where 100 British troops had lost their lives “fell to rebels”.

Given the considerable number of failures by Americans and their allies to permanently restore rebel-held regions to government hands, one can only admire a government that achieves this. (Although there is no certainty that Homs is really secure. We saw Palmyra in east Syria retaken by ISIS, then again liberated by Syrian forces.)

Consider, if American and British deaths to liberate territory in those distant places are so well remembered, can we not begin to imagine the cost in Syrian military lives? Why, when we heap applause on U.S. veterans, wounded or not, do we have no concept for their Syrian counterparts. How many Syrian mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces, grandsons and sons mourn their lost fighters, pray daily for their safety, and may occasionally even celebrate their ability, somehow, to liberate Syrian territory from jihadists?

Anyone in touch with a household in Syria will know the anxiety of family worrying when their son or brother will be called. Any young man, who for one reason or another hasn’t yet been recruited, waits in fear. He has friends who’ve been called up, others who’ve fallen on the battle field. Many refugees are youths who managed to escape the country and military service. Others still enrolled in school, are not exempt.

With every “back in government hands”, or “retaken by rebels”, there is unarguably a heavy toll involved in sending one little girl back to school. We owe her the right to feel her home has been liberated.

[ Back in Government Hands!, or "Dying to Get Back to School" ]


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