Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Blood of the Earth

"We have the obligation to stand up when other human beings suffer" - Dr. Denis Mukwege

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the second largest nation in Africa with a population of 75 million. Today it is home to the deadliest conflict since the Chinese Civil War, killing over 5.4 million people. More than 90% of the deaths have come about not in combat but from preventable causes like malaria, malnutrition, pneumonia and diarrhea, a direct result of communities displaced and forced to live in overcrowded conditions without access to water, food or medicine. 47% of the deaths are children under five years old, despite them making up only 19% of the overall population.

As is so often the case with tragedies like this, colonial factors and interference by the major Western powers in addition to massive corruption within the national government have played an enormous role. A summary from a 2003 Amnesty International report explains:

From the time of Belgian colonial rule, the inhabitants of the region have derived little if any benefit from its natural wealth. Instead, they have suffered an unbroken succession of abusive political administrations, military authorities and armed political groups that have looted the region and committed human rights abuses with impunity. King Leopold II accrued vast personal wealth without ever setting foot on Congolese soil. The Belgian rulers of the then Belgian Congo, from 1905 to 1960 used slave labour to plunder its rubber, ivory and timber.

After independence in 1960, the long presidency of Mobutu Sese Seko made the newly named Zaire notorious for cronyism and corruption. When President Mobutu came into office in 1965, a sustained period of institutionalised corruption and misappropriation of state resources began. Large proportions of the revenues from state-owned companies, such as the copper and cobalt company Gécamines, went not to the state treasury but straight into the pockets of President Mobutu and his closest allies.

A detailed summary of the conflict (including the above excerpt) can be found at the website.

From the summary:

[]...there have been many internal conflicts where all sides have been supported from various neighbors. The conflict has also been fueled by weapons sales and by military training. The weapons have come from the former Soviet bloc countries as well as the United States, who have also provided military training.

The United States military has been covertly involved in the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a US parliamentary subcommittee has been told. Intelligence specialist Wayne Madsen, appearing before the US House subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, also said American companies, including one linked to former President George Bush Snr., [] are stoking the Congo conflict for monetary gains.

When Congolese President Laurent Kabila came to power in May 1997, toppling Marshall Mobutu, with the aid of Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Eritrea, it was hoped that a revival would be seen in the region. Instead, the situation deteriorated. Kabila, also backed by the US, had been accused by rebels (made up of Congolese soldiers, Congolese Tutsi Banyamulenge, Rwandan, Ugandan and some Burundian government troops) of turning into a dictator, of mismanagement, corruption and supporting various paramilitary groups who oppose his former allies. As the conflict had raged on, rebels controlled about a third of the entire country (the eastern parts). Laurent Kabila had received support from Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian troops.

Up to the assassination of Laurent Kabila in January 2001, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia supported the Congolese government, while the rebels were backed by the governments of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

The reasons for different regions getting involved are all murky. Rwanda is one example, summarizing a Daily Telegraph news report (31 August 2002): The role of Rwanda, though small, has had a number of forces in large areas of the country. This has been in the backdrop of the genocide when more than 800,000 mainly Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered. Hutu interahamwe militia carried out most of the massacres and fled to neighboring Congo in the eastern region of the DRC after the genocide. From there, they often launched attacks into their home country, prompting a Rwandan invasion. As a result, Rwanda has justified its role in the four-year war by saying it wanted to secure its border, while critics accused it of using the interahamwe attacks as an excuse to deploy 20,000 troops to take control of Congolese diamond mines and other mineral resources.

As stated, the conflict is indeed in large part a battle for control of the DRC's vast mineral wealth, with both external and internal groups taking part in a bloody free-for-all for treasure, which includes diamonds and coltan. Coltan in particular is in huge demand as it is used for the production of tantalum capacitors, which are found in almost every kind of electronic device; not only smartphones as is commonly cited. With the massive surge in global demand for such products over the last decade, coltan is now much sought after. A very high percentage of young men in the DRC now work mining this material, even for just $1 a day, as a means of steady and quick income far preferable to farming.

The human cost of this conflict is obviously harrowing, but perhaps the most devastating element is the strategic use of rape as a weapon of war. In this 15-minute video, Dr. Denis Mukwege details atrocities of mind-numbing cruelty and savagery.

An estimated 2 million women are victims of rape and many are raped again, sometimes more than once, after returning home from what little treatment is available. 48 Congolese women are raped every hour (almost one every minute). Dr. Mukwege explains in his speech that women are raped, enslaved and tortured by soldiers of both rebel groups and government forces. Children born of rape often become victims of rape themselves, while victims are in many cases infected with HIV, as are any babies that are conceived.

In explaining why rape is used as a strategic weapon, Dr. Mukwege explains that as rapes are often committed publicly, in many cases in front of husbands and family members (who are then killed in front of the rape victim), unimaginably deep psychological trauma results which terrorizes communities and undermines traditional authority structures, which are proven ineffective as they cannot protect the women of the community. Rape is an 'inexpensive and efficient weapon', in that it can be used to drive communities out of certain areas, and dominate those who remain.

As if there was not enough horror in this nation, the more than 600,000 Mbuti pygmies living in the forests of the DRC have faced a campaign of extermination. A representative of the pygmies told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum in 2003 that his people were 'hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals'. In North Kivu province there have been reports of cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs (the Erasers) who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation.

There was once a brief ray of hope for this stricken nation: Patrice Lumumba was a Congolese independence leader and the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the then Republic of the Congo after he helped win independence from Belgium in 1960. He was deposed after twelve weeks in a coup during the Congo Crisis, imprisoned and later executed by firing squad, becoming a key martyr in the African independence struggle. Lumumba had opposed the secession (backed by Belgium) of mineral-rich Katanga province.

Declassified documents have implicated the Belgian government (which has since apologized), MI6 and the CIA via a plan known as Project Wizard, authorized personally by President Dwight Eisenhower. It is an object lesson for all those who reflexively believe that government officials always speak the truth that all parties for decades steadfastly denied any involvement.

It is tempting for many commentators to appeal to a sense of guilt on the part of Western consumers, whose voracious demand for the latest electronic gadgets fuels this tragedy, perhaps in the hope that some will boycott such devices and hence in some manner aid the people of the DRC (while helping to assuage any residual feelings of guilt). This misses the point. The true causes of this conflict, like so many around the world, lie in colonialism and the unquenchable greed of multinational corporations, acting under cover of the professed interests of powerful nations; usually the need to confront communism or terrorism or whatever the enemy du jour happens to be.

The issue is systemic, meaning it can never be resolved by piecemeal measures or gradual reform from within, and at the root, the nations and corporations responsible are led by human beings, a very special subset of our species motivated only by profit and power, helpfully equipped with utter disregard for the gargantuan trail of human carnage they leave behind; in psychological terms: 'sociopaths'.

The struggle now is as it has always been and the enemy is within. Until corporate power is confronted en masse and decapitated forever, the world will simply never be rid of genocide and all the other horrors witnessed within the borders of the DRC, in West Papua, in Burma and elsewhere.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Global Corporate Coup D'Etat

"The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is the velocities with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door. That's the only difference." - Ralph Nader

The Guardian's George Monbiot this week wrote an informative piece on the potentially monstrous consequences of embracing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a 'trade agreement' between the world's two largest economies, those of the US and the EU.

From the article:

The purpose of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to remove the regulatory differences between the US and European nations. I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. But I left out the most important issue: the remarkable ability it would grant big business to sue the living daylights out of governments which try to defend their citizens. It would allow a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections. Yet the defenders of our sovereignty say nothing.

The mechanism through which this is achieved is known as investor-state dispute settlement. It's already being used in many parts of the world to kill regulations protecting people and the living planet.

Monbiot supplies some examples:

The Australian government, after massive debates in and out of parliament, decided that cigarettes should be sold in plain packets, marked only with shocking health warnings. The decision was validated by the Australian supreme court. But, using a trade agreement Australia struck with Hong Kong, the tobacco company Philip Morris has asked an offshore tribunal to award it a vast sum in compensation for the loss of what it calls its intellectual property.

During its financial crisis, and in response to public anger over rocketing charges, Argentina imposed a freeze on people's energy and water bills (does this sound familiar?). It was sued by the international utility companies whose vast bills had prompted the government to act. For this and other such crimes, it has been forced to pay out over a billion dollars in compensation. In El Salvador, local communities managed at great cost (three campaigners were murdered) to persuade the government to refuse permission for a vast gold mine which threatened to contaminate their water supplies. A victory for democracy? Not for long, perhaps. The Canadian company which sought to dig the mine is now suing El Salvador for $315m – for the loss of its anticipated future profits.

In Canada, the courts revoked two patents owned by the American drugs firm Eli Lilly, on the grounds that the company had not produced enough evidence that they had the beneficial effects it claimed. Eli Lilly is now suing the Canadian government for $500m, and demanding that Canada's patent laws are changed.

He goes on to explain how these rules have been embedded in other trade treaties, and enforced by unaccountable secret panels.

These companies (along with hundreds of others) are using the investor-state dispute rules embedded in trade treaties signed by the countries they are suing. The rules are enforced by panels which have none of the safeguards we expect in our own courts. The hearings are held in secret. The judges are corporate lawyers, many of whom work for companies of the kind whose cases they hear. Citizens and communities affected by their decisions have no legal standing. There is no right of appeal on the merits of the case. Yet they can overthrow the sovereignty of parliaments and the rulings of supreme courts.

You don't believe it? Here's what one of the judges on these tribunals says about his work. "When I wake up at night and think about arbitration, it never ceases to amaze me that sovereign states have agreed to investment arbitration at all ... Three private individuals are entrusted with the power to review, without any restriction or appeal procedure, all actions of the government, all decisions of the courts, and all laws and regulations emanating from parliament."


Investor-state rules could be used to smash any attempt to save the NHS from corporate control, to re-regulate the banks, to curb the greed of the energy companies, to renationalise the railways, to leave fossil fuels in the ground. These rules shut down democratic alternatives. They outlaw leftwing politics.

This 'agreement' brings to mind the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a similar effort formulated and negotiated in secret. An article from Alternet makes it clear that the TPP, like the TTIP, is a 'corporate coup in disguise'.

From the article:

Twenty years later, the gang that gave us NAFTA is back with the TPP, a "trade deal" that mostly does not deal with trade. Of the 29 chapters in this document, only five cover traditional trade matters! The other chapters amount to a devilish "partnership" for corporate protectionism:

—Food safety. Any of our government's food safety regulations (on pesticide levels, bacterial contamination, fecal exposure, toxic additives, etc.) and food labeling laws (organic, country-of-origin, animal-welfare approved, GMO-free, etc.) that are stricter than "international standards" could be ruled as "illegal trade barriers." Our government would then have to revise our consumer protections to comply with weaker standards.

—Fracking. Our Department of Energy would lose its authority to regulate exports of natural gas to any TPP nation. This would create an explosion of the destructive fracking process across our land, for both foreign and U.S. corporations could export fracked gas from America to member nations without any DOE review of the environmental and economic impacts on local communities -- or on our national interests.

—Jobs. US corporations would get special foreign-investor protections to limit the cost and risk of relocating their factories to low-wage nations that sign onto this agreement. So, an American corporation thinking about moving a factory would know it is guaranteed a sweetheart deal if it moves operations to a TPP nation like Vietnam. This would be an incentive for corporate chieftains to export more of our middle-class jobs.

—Drug prices. Big Pharma would be given more years of monopoly pricing on each of their patents and be empowered to block distribution of cheaper generic drugs. Besides artificially keeping everyone's prices high, this would be a death sentence to many people suffering from cancer, HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis and other treatable diseases in impoverished lands.

—Banksters. Wall Street and the financial giants in other TPP countries would make out like bandits. The deal explicitly prohibits transaction taxes (such as the proposed Robin Hood Tax here) that would shut down speculators who have repeatedly triggered financial crises and economic crashes around the world. It restricts "firewall" reforms that separate consumer banking from risky investment banking. It could roll back reforms that governments adopted to fix the extreme bank-deregulation regimen that caused Wall Street's 2007 crash. And it provides an escape from national rules that would limit the size of "too-big-to-fail" behemoths.

—Internet freedom. Corporations hoping to lock up and monopolize the Internet failed in Congress last year to pass their repressive "Stop Online Piracy Act." However, they've slipped SOPA's most pernicious provisions into TPP. The deal would also transform Internet service providers into a private, Big Brother police force, empowered to monitor our "user activity," arbitrarily take down our content and cut off our access to the Internet. To top that off, consumers could be assessed mandatory fines for something as benign as sending your mom a recipe you got off of a paid site.

This superb graphic demonstrates that ten corporations control almost everything you buy. It also shows how six corporations own 90% of the US media (as of 2011) compared to fifty in 1983 and how thirty-seven banks have merged to become just four in a little over two decades.

With virtually none of those responsible for the 2008 financial crash and other major transgressions ever having faced criminal charges, it is now clear that big business and major banks can act above the law and with impunity, can literally do almost anything they want. This immunity from the law is kept fresh with a steady stream of pet elected officials, themselves amply rewarded with large financial 'donations' and all the other attractions and rewards of power. These officials push through legislation lobbied for by corporations to ensure a tighter grip on the system and more profits, such as - to cite just one example of hundreds - mandatory prison time for victimless crimes like possession of drugs in order to fill the cells of private prisons.

The world is suffering an ongoing global coup d'etat, effected in stealth and dressed up in cozy, positive language like 'partnership'. This is not conspiracy theory; indeed, what is happening is entirely logical and predictable.

Consider: you are the head of a large corporation. The overriding concern of any corporation is ever increasing profits, to satisfy shareholders and attract further investment. You know that democracy is antithetical to what your corporation needs to flourish further because it contains protections for workers and citizens in terms of wages and safety standards etc. and legal requirements regarding monopolies and so on. Therefore, with the almost infinite resources at your disposal, it is perfectly natural for any corporate head to go about gaming the system as far as you can in order to sustain the undemocratic and commercial environment you require.

With most of the world's elected officials, often power-hungry individuals themselves, firmly in your pocket, 'as far as you can' can become very far indeed. All that is required is to ensure control of the world's strategic institutions like the IMF and the World Bank [check]; to render impotent organizations charged with ensuring peace and human rights like the UN or Amnesty International [check]; to lobby officials for change in legislation to ensure that private citizens have no legal recourse when they feel their rights have been infringed, and to require significant monetary compensation from nation states if losses are incurred due to laws that actually protect people. These last two requirements will be fulfilled by the TPP and TTIP.

Vital also to maintaining the status quo is an ignorant public (please do watch this link...jaw-dropping ignorance on display) and toxic media designed for distraction and misinformation. Rote-style education systems ensure the former, corporate-owned media the latter (and indeed the former). The coup is almost complete. With TPP and TTIP in the bag, the corporations won't lose even when they 'lose', and the green blood that sustains them will continue to flow into their veins. Boycotts will be ineffective with almost every product available controlled by big business. Massive violent uprisings will fail, put down by militarized police forces and the army when necessary, and even if they succeed, these uprisings will be aimed primarily at state governments, and so will be unable to cut out this cancer that has metastasized throughout the globe.

I happened to see an English Premier League football match on television this weekend, and was taken aback at the raw, almost out-of-control passion on the faces of the tens of thousands of fans when their team scored a vital goal. While many would consider this sight quite normal, I found it not only profoundly disturbing but also dangerous, as it brought home the reality that the passions of millions are staggeringly easy to deflect into harmless channels. Along with the garnering of profits, this is indeed the intention of the corporations (with the grateful backing of state governments) that spend billions for the rights to the games. It also highlights just how difficult it will be for the paltry forces fighting against the corporate coup to channel those passions into useful and beneficial directions.

As George Monbiot points out at the end of his article, we are all indeed being 'shafted'. These are not just words...a real coup is taking place in the real world as we speak. Those who say they value democracy, freedom, equality, justice and human rights...wake up and spread the word...we really are being shafted.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Russell Reflex

"The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall" - Che Guevara

The reactions to Russell Brand's passionate exchange with Jeremy Paxman have been tellingly predictable throughout the establishment media. Most of the smug complacency and dismissive derision on offer can be found distilled into this feature in the corporate-owned Independent. It started badly with the patronizing, trivializing headline: 'Would you join Russell's revolution'? We were then offered an attempt at balance with a for/against format. The 'for' section, however, consisted of praise only for his comic delivery; his 'swagger' and 'charm'. With that out of the way, we then came to what the Independent (via assistant editor Memphis Barker) actually wanted to get out of its system:

From the article:

Case against: Trivial

Yesterday evening, if you were fortunate enough to tune into Newsnight, you would have been privy to the ultimate expression of Slackerism, a political theory with roots in teenage angst, mild rebelliousness, and a pie-in-the-sky leftism that wants to pull down the walls of the politics then sit around smoking pot in the ruins. Russell Brand was being interviewed by Paxman. It was a car crash.

Britain’s most charming man – that’s Russell – sounded all too much like an undergraduate who hadn’t done their homework, grabbing wildly at big terms (“prescriptive parameter” this, “paradigm” that) and regurgitating some vague sense of global injustice (“this system just doesn’t address these ideas”). In the Brandian mode of Slackerism “profit” is, of course, a “filthy word” – because bankers are bad. That capitalism has also lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty is purely by-the-by. The sad thing is, he’s right about a lot of things too. Yet the way Brand went at it last night instantly discredited everything that came out of his mouth.

Apathetic cynicism about the political class is all the rage. But, much like Will Self on Question Time not long ago, these armchair idealists ignore the fact that democracy is a difficult process that involves compromise, and that the vast majority of politicians are simply the only people dull enough and public-spirited enough to stick around in politics.

If Brand had his way, and was king of the UK anarchists, he’d creep off to L.A. the moment he heard a good ashram was opening. At least with ‘boring snoring’ Rachel Reeves, you know she’s here for the long run. Brand is a searingly eloquent and brilliant commentator when on song. Yesterday night was a low point. To borrow Paxman’s put-down, what we saw was not a leader of the “despondent underclass”, but Britain’s most trivial revolutionary at work.

Here we have it all. Ad hominem attacks, smears, misrepresentation, and a patronizing tone suggesting that Mr Brand - who has on numerous occasions demonstrated his impressive intelligence and awareness - is an embarrassment for using 'big terms'. We are also informed that there is a 'vague sense' of global injustice, implying that we are mistaken about the millions of furious people in Spain, Italy, Greece and multiple other nations around the world and that in fact they just like joining protests for a laugh. We learn that capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty; sadly with no mention of the billions now suffering inequality, poverty and exploitation in almost every corner of the globe while a tiny group of already insanely wealthy people take almost all the pie. We discover that it is 'sad' that Russell is 'right about a lot of things too' because of the 'way' he 'went at it', meaning presumably that citizens who make jokes and have unruly hair really don't have any business demanding change to how their society is run.

The former Guardian journalist Jonathon Cook provides the perfect riposte on his excellent blog:

What indicates to me that Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Russell Brand, whatever their personal or political differences, are part of an important social and ethical trend is the huge irritation they cause to the media class who have spent decades making very good livings being paid by the media corporations to limit our intellectual horizons.

Brand and co are an enormous threat to the cosy political-security-media elite that for years colonised our minds as effectively as – maybe more effectively than – Pravda once did in the Soviet Union.

The first responses of a few of Britain’s elite journalists in Twitterland this morning after the Brand interview aired on Newsnight last night illustrated the general rancour they feel towards those who threaten to expose them as the charlatans they are.

Twitter is useful in this regard because its short form forces these journalists’ prejudices out into the open, depriving them of the cover provided by their usual-length columns.


For these power-friendly journalists, just as for Paxman, no one should possibly be taken seriously unless they participate in the political system designed to keep us oppressed, or consume the liberal media designed to persuade us that our vote counts.

The interview itself was genuinely gripping and contains many gems. One reason Brand touched a nerve with so many people is the human ability we all have to recognize honest passion when we see it, and here it was on display with abundance. Brand was genuinely angry with Paxman's establishment-friendly, world-weary, condescending, fatherly tone - not to mention his inability to comprehend what was actually being said - and this led to a memorable and revealing exchange after Brand admitted he had never voted in his life:

Paxman: If you can't be arsed to vote, why should we be arsed to listen to your political point of view?

Brand: It's not that I'm not voting out of apathy; I'm not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached fever pitch where we have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system so voting for it is tacit complicité.

Paxman: Why don't you try to change it then?

Brand: I'm trying to.

Paxman: Well why don't you start by voting?

Face hits palm.

Here Paxman acts as a perfect defender of the establishment. Firstly, he offensively suggests that a person choosing not to vote abrogates their right to demand change in their society, ignoring the reality that there might actually be another entirely logical reason not to vote. Secondly he ignores Brand's own undeniably true words: that the 'underclass' Brand speaks of is indeed disenfranchised in that all members of it know they have no true representative in the existing major political parties. Paxman reinforces the false conventional wisdom that voting actually changes the system in any meaningful way and ignores what is blatantly obvious to everyone: that the differences between the major parties are cosmetic, with policies decided not for socially beneficial reasons, but chosen instead for maximization of votes and approval rating gains based on up-to-date data on social attitudes, not to mention for the benefit of their corporate donors. In other words, if the Bedroom Tax is unpopular enough under the Tories, you can be certain that the Labour Party will pledge to end it. Do such actions solve the underlying problems in society? They do not. Brand merely points out what is obvious to all existing outside establishment dogma.

However, it fell to Nick Cohen writing in the Observer to really allow us a rich insight into the mentality of establishment journalism and how it deals with outsider threats.

Excerpts from the article:

Wild emotions are all very well, Russell Brand, but then what?

We begin with misrepresentation in the headline. Russell Brand said very clearly in the interview that he is using his platform as a popular celebrity merely to bring attention to the issue of radical social change. He stated emphatically that he is not intending to lead any kind of revolution and that he himself will not propose any detailed societal system, pointing out that there are people far more qualified to do so. By asking this question, Cohen implies to the reader that Brand went on TV and demanded change as a revolution organizer or leader but was stumped when asked for specifics, thus implying that he is some kind of attention-seeking buffoon.

Here are two quotes. The first is from the Fascist Decalogue, written by Benito Mussolini in 1938. The second is from an article,"We no longer have the luxury of tradition", written by Russell Brand in 2013.

"Service can be rendered at all times, in all places, and by every means. It can be paid with toil and also with blood," said the one.

"Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster," said the other.

Only the contemporary references to suicidal murderers and rioting Londoners reveal that the second call to violence came from the comedian/actor and the first from the dictator.

Misrepresentation: Brand did not call for violence. He merely suggested spontaneity, certainty, willingness to die, or twinkling mischief. All of these things are possible without actual violence.

It is too easy to dismiss the enormous audience for Brand by saying: "They're just enjoying the show." True, artists have always made a show of being drawn towards fanaticism. Extremism is more exciting and dramatic, more artistic perhaps, than the shabby compromises and small changes of democratic societies. You suspect that half the great writers of the 1920s and 1930s supported fascism or communism just for the thrill of it.

Today, the need to strike a pose is all the greater. Television controllers manufacture celebrities like Volkswagen manufactures cars, and insert them into every niche in their schedules. When I have complained that the actor fronting a documentary knows nothing about African poverty, say, or the comedian on the political panel knows nothing about politics, they reply that the viewers want celebs. If they don't put them in front of a camera, the viewers won't watch. In a saturated media market the ambitious celebrity has to go further than the competition to stand out from the crowd.


Political comedy has followed the same path. Ben Elton's attacks on the Conservatives of the 1980s seemed daring at the time. But in truth he was just a mainstream Labour supporter who wanted Britain to be a slightly better place. No one would be excited by that modest statement of intent now. So Brand escalates: "Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites."

Translation: Brand is an ambitious, attention-seeking celebrity, trying to stand out from the vacuous showbiz crowd by...erm...pointing out obvious truths about our vicious, corrupted society and calling for radical social change and revolution. That Brand already stands out by being one of the most famous and recognizable celebrities in the world (7.1 million Twitter followers) on actual wit and talent and has all the money and fame he could ever need is inconvenient for Cohen's twisted version of reality.

The democratic left is no better than the democratic right. Ed Miliband is as great a menace as David Cameron. Obama is the same as the Tea Party.Instead of corrupt democratic leaders, Brand wants a "total revolution of consciousness and [of] our entire social, political and economic system" to stop the despoliation of the planet and allow the redistribution of wealth.

When Jeremy Paxman on the BBC tried to tell him that it would take a government to redistribute wealth and protect the environment, Brand could not say what type of government he wanted. How could he? If it were democratic it would be filled with his "frauds and liars". And if it weren't democratic, it would be a dictatorship.

First, as Brand never claimed to be the architect of the revolution, merely someone trying to point out the need for one, why would he be expected to answer such a question? Second, these comments by Cohen display an embarrassing level of ignorance from someone claiming to be a journalist. In fact, there are viable alternatives to representative democracy that do not require dictatorship.

From a recent article on this blog:

Possibilities include relatively new concepts such as collaborative e-democracy and delegative ('liquid') democracy, forms of direct democracy that are now possible due to the deep reach of the internet into almost every home. [Note: for a simple and short video explanation of liquid democracy, go here.]

I don't doubt that Russell Brand is as sincere as Miley Cyrus. I don't doubt either that to call his thought "adolescent" is to insult teenagers everywhere. He writes as if he is a precocious prepubescent rather than an adolescent: a child, born after the millennium, who can behave as if we never lived through the 20th century. He does not know what happened when men, burning with zealous outrage, created states with total control of "consciousness and the entire social, political and economic system" – and does not want to know either.

Cohen has been nice (by his standards) so far, but his contempt burns through the veneer at last as the gloves come off with childish smears and name calling. How does Cohen know that Russell Brand is unaware of the evils of the 20th century? Did he ask him? This also slips in the suggestion that Brand's call for revolution will in fact lead to the worst kind of control, while anyone honest is fully aware that Brand is not only demanding the precise opposite, but is perfectly well aware of the dangers Cohen cites.

Which is not to say that Brand is just a fool or that people who watch him in their millions are just enjoying a celebrity tantrum. Now, as in the 1920s and 1930s, many inhabitants of most European countries agree with Brand's slogans that all politicians are crooks and democracy is a sham. Today's crisis has left Europe in a pre-revolutionary situation. Or, if that is going too far, you can at least say that Europe looks ready for radical political change. Unfortunately for Brand, who sees himself a radical leftist of some sort, apparently, the greatest beneficiary of the nihilism he promotes is the radical right.

Misrepresentation. The assertion that 'politicians are crooks and democracy is a sham' is not a slogan; it is a demonstrable fact and everyone knows it. New outrages committed by public and corporate officials hit our newspapers literally daily. And how is demanding social change 'nihilism'? Were all revolutionaries throughout history nihilists? Or were some of them people who saw that the system was bad and wanted better?

Today Marine le Pen can say that the Front National has downplayed its racism and homophobia, is the enemy of unregulated markets and a supporter of state intervention to protect French interests. As important as its cross-class appeal is that the far right has a programme. It may be a wicked and illusory programme but proposals to stop immigration and tackle the disastrous euro experiment make sense too in hard times. The far left, by contrast, has nothing. It cannot say what alternative it has to mainstream social democracy – as Brand's slack-jawed inability to answer simple questions showed.

Outrageous misrepresentation. Linking Brand to extremism for simply demanding change to a system that is already one of corporate and commercial extremism is ludicrous. Did Cohen ask Brand if he has an extremist political ideology? Asking for equality and justice is something only the 'hard left' do? Further, it is an outright lie, as stated earlier, that there are no alternatives to what Cohen calls 'mainstream social democracy' (actually global corporate oligarchy).

In any case, the similarities between far left and far right are more striking than their differences. Brand made this point for me too when he held up the death cults of ultra-reactionary religious fundamentalists as examples to emulate rather than the enemies to fight.

Cohen clearly felt this was an effective method to smear Brand, as linking him to suicide bombers could be found twice in this single piece.

Cohen encapsulates the reflexive defense mechanisms of the establishment with this irresponsible and dishonest cascade of smears, ad hominem attacks and name calling. Anyone who suggests any kind of alternative is an 'upstart', 'juvenile', 'adolescent' and 'attention seeking'. That Brand is a comedian makes it all the easier to bring out the classics from the propaganda playbook: focus on personality and delivery and thereby distract from the very real and true substance of what Brand was saying.

[Aside: It also raises the question of the credibility of the Observer itself, allowing a journalist who cheered on the greatest war crime of this century and still believes it was 'valid' to write regularly within its pages (along in the Guardian with an instigator of that very war crime, Tony Blair, shockingly permitted to lecture us last week on the issue of making peace).]

Russell Brand gave voice in his interview to millions of the disenfranchised people he cited. He made an impression because while there was no virtually no hope for them before, there is now someone with a massive global following fighting their corner. We can therefore expect more smears and ridicule of Brand, but the good news is that he is not the kind of person to let it stop him. With Brand's high-profile aid, the question of revolution in the UK has now become a mainstream topic of discussion, and with the social and economic situation in freefall, there really can only be one way this eventually turns out.

Written by Simon Wood

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Malala Syndrome

"She is an extraordinary case. She is a very courageous young woman. I am proud of the fact that we have been able to treat her in Britain. It shows how serious we are about our supporting education for young people, Malala's presence in the UK is a demonstration of that." - David Cameron on Malala Yousafzai

'Malala' - the easiest element of her full name for Western ears and tongues - is now a household name around the world. The horrific experience she suffered and subsequent recovery is perhaps what she is most famous for, but she must be praised and admired not only for her remarkable fortitude and poise after such a traumatic event, but also the deep wisdom she has displayed. This is how she responded to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show when he asked her how she felt when she discovered she was a Taliban target:

"I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, 'If he comes, what would you do Malala?' then I would reply to myself, 'Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.' But then I said, 'If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.' Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that 'I even want education for your children as well.' And I will tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'"

With these words and despite her few years she transcends the levels of enlightenment reached by most humans in their entire lifetimes, demonstrating her deep (and correct) conviction that violence begets violence - that it is never the right answer - and also that it is pointless to focus on negatives: that one should eschew hatred and blame, focusing instead on positive solutions that include even the welfare of your 'enemy'.

However, Malala's grace, positivity and enthusiasm mask the bottomless cynicism of the corporate-owned media, which - with its heavy coverage of her - has very clearly demonstrated its true objectives: 'Brand Malala'.

By treating a Muslim girl with such reverence, the media can more plausibly deny claims of prejudice against Muslims, while - simultaneously - Western objectives in the phony 'War on Terror' can be met with ease simply by painting any target group (read: justification for other attacks that aid the true objectives of the West - resources and control) as similarly evil and barbaric as the Taliban. Western public opinion, unanimously in favor of Malala, will be far easier to sway with such a powerful weapon.

This well-meaning person is being (and will continue to be) mercilessly used as a means of enabling and advancing Western hypocrisy over atrocities and war crimes.

Ask yourself if you have heard the name of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, a 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was gang-raped and murdered by US marines after her family (34-year-old mother Fakhriyah Taha Muhsin, 45-year-old father Qasim Hamza Raheem, and six-year-old sister Hadeel Qasim Hamza) were killed.

[Note: The Washington Post link incorrectly states she was 15 years old when she died. Wikipedia link here.]

How about Safa Younis Salim, a 13-year old girl who amazingly survived the Haditha Massacre, in which 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed including seven children, a 1-year-old girl staying with the family and a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair?

How did she survive?

"I pretended that I was dead when my brother's body fell on me and he was bleeding like a faucet."

A six-year US military prosecution ended with none of the eight Marines sentenced to jail, despite one of the men - Sgt. Sanick De La Cruz - testifying (in return for immunity) that he had urinated on the skull of one of the dead Iraqis. This outcome outraged the Iraqi people (as the attack on Malala outraged the West) but the name of Safa Younis Salim remains practically unknown...

...because this young girl (an unlikely survivor like Malala) was a victim of Western (US) crimes, while Malala was attacked by a current official enemy of the West: the Taliban.

Peruse this list of children killed in drone attacks personally authorized by Nobel Peace laureate Barack Obama (or one of his top officials) - recently described by Noam Chomsky as 'the biggest terrorist campaign in the world' - and see if you recognize any of them:

Noor Aziz | 8 | male

Abdul Wasit | 17 | male

Noor Syed | 8 | male

Wajid Noor | 9 | male

Syed Wali Shah | 7 | male

Ayeesha | 3 | female

Qari Alamzeb | 14| male

Shoaib | 8 | male

Hayatullah KhaMohammad | 16 | male

Tariq Aziz | 16 | male

Sanaullah Jan | 17 | male

Maezol Khan | 8 | female

Nasir Khan | male

Naeem Khan | male

Naeemullah | male

Mohammad Tahir | 16 | male

Azizul Wahab | 15 | male

Fazal Wahab | 16 | male

Ziauddin | 16 | male

Mohammad Yunus | 16 | male

Fazal Hakim | 19 | male

Ilyas | 13 | male

Sohail | 7 | male

Asadullah | 9 | male

Khalilullah | 9 | male

Noor Mohammad | 8 | male

And many, many more.

The name Tariq Aziz at least is known to me as I have written about him on this blog before, conveying the words of Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the charity Reprieve:

During the day I shook the hand of a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. One of his cousins had died in a missile strike, and he wanted to know what he could do to bring the truth to the west. At the Reprieve charity, we have a transparency project: importing cameras to the region to try to export the truth back out. Tariq wanted to take part, but I thought him too young.

Then, three days later, the CIA announced that it had eliminated "four militants". In truth there were only two victims: Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt's house when the Hellfire missile killed them both. This came just 24 hours after the CIA boasted of eliminating six other "militants" – actually, four chromite workers driving home from work. In both cases a local informant apparently tagged the car with a GPS monitor and lied to earn his fee.

When a current official enemy of the West commits an atrocity, it is relentlessly covered by our media, but Western atrocities with far more victims and scope are ignored. This is nothing new: in an obvious example, the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia - a Western ally - in 1975 was ignored while at exactly the same time, atrocities on a comparable scale carried out by the communist Khmer Rouge - an official enemy of the West - in Cambodia received massive attention throughout all media.

Every time Malala's name comes up, the message to Western readers is clear: she was shot by the Taliban, who are therefore very bad boys indeed, and she was nursed back to health in the UK, meaning the West is very good. Her recovery in the UK is an enormous bonus because it adds to the already powerful impression of readers that because the Taliban is bad, and because the West is an enemy of the Taliban, the West must therefore be good.

No one is arguing that the Taliban is not bad - they are obviously an extremely nasty, murderous and evil group of men, brainwashed as they are by vicious religious dogma (familiar?), and clearly using this dogma (in part) as an excuse to control women - as men have done everywhere since time immemorial. The problem is that Western crimes go practically unreported - and even when they are, use of the terms 'militants' or 'insurgents' mitigates the pressure for honest moral appraisal, thereby soothing the practically nonexistent scraps of guilty conscience remaining in the average Western news consumer.

And there is another, more insidious, strategy in play: the media has long known that focusing heavily on extremely unlikely outcomes is far more engaging for the average news consumer than reporting humdrum reality. The Malala story is an example of this: relentless coverage of a girl who amazingly survived a gunshot wound while the thousands of gunshot victims who are not so lucky are mentioned almost as an afterthought (unless, of course, there is a racial issue involved).

This phenomenon is common because not only does it provide readers already inured to massive violence and death with a new and interesting angle on well-worn topics, it drives sales and clicks - and therefore advertising - for the 'WTF' value and also gives the media an opportunity to focus on the 'human side' of the story, with interviews, close-ups, high emotion and the obligatory tears.

Watch ABC News demonstrate this with its coverage of the Copiapó mining accident in Chile in 2010, when 33 men were trapped underground in a 121-year-old copper mine for 69 days. All other major Cable news channels and newspapers were equally guilty. Meanwhile, ignored against this incredible tale of human endurance and rescue was the reality of life for Chile's mines and miners, as pointed out by John Pilger:

The accident that trapped the miners is not unusual in Chile, but the inevitable consequence of a ruthless economic system that has barely changed since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Copper is Chile's gold, and the frequency of mining disasters keeps pace with prices and profits. There are, on average, 39 fatal accidents every year in Chile's privatised mines. The San José mine, where the men work, became so unsafe in 2007 that it had to be closed - but not for long. On 30 July last, a labour department report warned again of "serious safety deficiencies", but no action was taken. Six days later, the men were entombed.

For all the media circus at the rescue site, contemporary Chile is a country of the unspoken. At Villa Grimaldi, in the suburbs of the capital, Santiago, a sign says: "The forgotten past is full of memory." This was the torture centre where hundreds of people were murdered and disappeared for opposing the fascism that Pinochet and his business allies brought to Chile. Its ghostly presence is overseen by the beautiful Andes, and the man who unlocks the gate used to live nearby and remembers the screams.

Remember 'miracle baby' Azra, who survived for two days under rubble after a 2010 earthquake in Turkey? While it was obviously fantastic news that she survived, the massive focus on her rescue served to play down the reality that almost everyone else under there - including other babies - was killed.

This focus on amazing escapes and extremely unlikely stories paints a false picture of reality, creating a fantasy world where such positive things happen with regularity, when in fact the outcome is almost always random and negative. This perspective, reflected widely also in Hollywood movies - where maverick, rule-breaking heroes defy incredible odds to win the day - presents a skewed reality that is far more dramatic and marketable.

Judge for yourself: which story will garner the most attention? The dramatic rescue of a baby who survives alone for two days after an earthquake and reunion with the obviously emotional mother, or the simple, neutral reporting of the number of deaths and injuries?

Until the profit motive is removed - until the news is no longer treated as a glossily-packaged product - this 'Malala Syndrome', along with the myriad other ills in our media that arise from the same poisoned spring, will continue to confuse and mislead viewers/readers, making it more likely that they will come to false conclusions about the world, thereby greatly harming democracy, which depends on a well-informed populace for its survival.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Secret Diary of Tony Blair, Aged 60¼

"The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes" - Tony Blair

"I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear" - Tony Blair

"Whatever the dangers of the action we take, the dangers of inaction are far, far greater" - Tony Blair

"Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war" - Tony Blair

What are we to make of the anomaly known as Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the UK who once enjoyed enormous popularity? According to a 2013 YouGov poll, 22% of his own countrymen and women want him tried as a war criminal for allegedly misleading the public and Parliament and then taking the nation into the Iraq War. Despite these extremely serious allegations, Mr. Blair - who was appointed a Middle East peace envoy (official Envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East) on the day he resigned as prime minister - regularly pops up in the media with strong opinions on the pressing foreign policy issues of the day.

On the possible 'intervention' in Syria:

"It is an issue to do with the difficulty we encounter afterwards, and that is a really really important lesson. The truth is, the reason why Iraq makes us hesitant is because Iraq showed that when you intervene in the circumstances, where you have this radical Islamist issue, both on the Shia side and the Sunni side, you are going to face a very difficult, tough conflict."

Mr. Blair's high profile as a former national leader guarantees him a platform in any and all media organs and his words reach millions of news consumers. Under corporate media rules for objectivity, his words are likely to be reported uncritically and readers unfamiliar with the details of Mr. Blair's actions while in office may take him seriously.

In order to take someone's views seriously, credibility is a must. An examination of the credibility of Tony Blair is therefore appropriate. This analysis - a brief timeline of events before, during and after the Iraq War - is doubly instructive as it will aid in understanding the methods of officials (with media collusion) in selling war to a skeptical public, as is currently occurring with regard to Syria. [Note: emphasis on similarities to ongoing Syria rhetoric in bold].


1999: Bush advisers 'clearly wanted to go after Iraq':

From a 2004 Guardian interview with former White House insider Richard Clarke:

Julian Borger: And after the February meeting any more on Iraq?

Richard Clarke: Yes there were many more, it was central. The buzz in national security staff administration wanted to go after Iraq.

JB: Do you think they came into office with that as a plan?

RC: If you look at the so-called Vulcans group [Bush's pre-election foreign policy advisors] talked about publicly in seminars in Washington. They clearly wanted to go after Iraq and they clearly wanted to do this reshaping of the middle east and they used the tragedy of 9/11 as an excuse to test their theories.

JB: Do you think President Bush was already on board when he came to office.

RC: I think he was. He got his international education from the Vulcans group the previous year. They were people like Richard Perle, Jim Woolsey, Paul Wolfowitz. They were all espousing this stuff. So he probably had been persuaded. He certainly wasn't hearing any contrary view during this education process.

1999 (Dec 2): Candidate Bush in a Republican Presidential debate:

BUSH: I wouldn't ease the sanctions, and I wouldn't try to negotiate with him. I'd make darn sure that he lived up to the agreements that he signed back in the early '90s. I'd be helping the opposition groups. And if I found in any way, shape or form that he was developing weapons of mass destruction, I'd take 'em out. I'm surprised he's still there. I think a lot of other people are as well.

MR. HUME: Take him out?

BUSH: To out the weapons of mass destruction.

2001 (Jan 2): Niger Embassy in Rome broken into, letterheads stolen:

Did it start with a break-in? On the morning of Jan. 2, 2001, Italian police discovered that the Niger Embassy in Rome had been ransacked. Not much was reported missing-only a watch and two bottles of perfume-but someone had apparently rifled through embassy papers, leaving them strewn about the floor.

Some months after the break-in, the Italian intelligence service-the SISME-obtained a stack of official-looking documents from an African diplomat. Signed by officials of the government of Niger, the papers revealed what purported to be a deal with the Devil. Agents of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, it appeared, were angling to purchase from the cash-starved, mineral-rich African nation some 500 tons of yellowcake, the pure uranium that can be used to build nuclear bombs. Excited by their intelligence coup, the Italians quickly notified the CIA and British intelligence.

A bombshell in the war on terrorism? More like an exploding cigar. The documents, a series of letters dated from July to October 2000, were actually crude forgeries. They referred to Niger agencies that no longer existed and bore the signature of a foreign minister who had not served in the post for more than a decade. Italian investigators, who only last week reopened the case, have theorized that the thieves who broke into the Niger Embassy had come looking for letterhead stationery and official seals that could be copied to create bogus documents.

It was the sort of flimsy scam that could have been exposed by a two-hour Google search (and eventually was). Somewhat implausibly, however, the break-in at a small African embassy in Rome has set off a chain reaction that has erupted into a full-fledged Washington summer scandal, serious enough to shake President George W. Bush's poll ratings. Democrats and much of the press are in full cry, accusing the White House of hyping, if not outright fabricating, intelligence in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. With American soldiers dying at the rate of about one a day in Iraq, a growing number of Americans are beginning to wonder if the war was worth the cost.

2001 (June): John Bolton not told what he wanted to hear by intelligence liaison:

A few months after George Bush took office, Greg Thielmann, an expert on disarmament with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR, was assigned to be the daily intelligence liaison to John Bolton, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control, who is a prominent conservative. Thielmann understood that his posting had been mandated by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who thought that every important State Department bureau should be assigned a daily intelligence officer. “Bolton was the guy with whom I had to do business,” Thielmann said. “We were going to provide him with all the information he was entitled to see. That’s what being a professional intelligence officer is all about.”

But, Thielmann told me, “Bolton seemed to be troubled because INR was not telling him what he wanted to hear.” Thielmann soon found himself shut out of Bolton’s early-morning staff meetings. “I was intercepted at the door of his office and told, 'The Under-Secretary doesn’t need you to attend this meeting anymore.'" When Thielmann protested that he was there to provide intelligence input, the aide said, "The Under-Secretary wants to keep this in the family."

Enter Blair Stage Right:

2002 (Feb 28): Blair hints at Iraq action:

"Saddam Hussein's regime is a regime that is deeply repressive to its people and is a real danger to the region.

"Heavens above, he used chemical weapons against his own people, so it is an issue and we have got to look at it, but we will look at it in a rational and calm way, as we have for the other issues.

"The accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq poses a threat, not just to the region but to the wider world.

"And I think George Bush was absolutely right to raise it.

"Now what action we take in respect of that, that is an open matter for discussion."

"When we're ready to take action then we'll announce it. It is a real issue. It is a real threat. How we deal with it is an open matter."

2002 (Apr 9): Documents seen by the Independent on Sunday indicate Blair committed the UK to an assault on Iraq, just after a two-day meeting with Bush at his Texas ranch:

The Independent on Sunday has discovered further information indicating that when Mr Blair met Mr Bush at his Texas ranch on 7 and 8 April 2002, he committed Britain to an assault on Iraq. The clue, contained in an obscure row over the Government's refusal to answer an apparently straightforward parliamentary question, shows that both at the beginning and the end of the process which culminated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the issue of legality was very much in the air.

2002 (July 23rd): Secret meeting of senior British government, military and intelligence figures, described three years later in the contents of the leaked Downing Street Memo:

C (Sir Richard Dearlove) reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.

This memo, also known as the 'smoking gun memo', proves that Mr. Blair knew that the decision to invade Iraq had already been made, and that the 'intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy'. Further, it is clear to those present at the meeting that authorization from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would be required for legality.

2003 (Mar 1): Bush: "We're taking him out":

Two months ago, a group of Republican and Democratic Senators went to the White House to meet with Condoleezza Rice, the President's National Security Adviser. Bush was not scheduled to attend but poked his head in anyway — and soon turned the discussion to Iraq. The President has strong feelings about Saddam Hussein (you might too if the man had tried to assassinate your father, which Saddam attempted to do when former President George Bush visited Kuwait in 1993) and did not try to hide them. He showed little interest in debating what to do about Saddam. Instead, he became notably animated, according to one person in the room, used a vulgar epithet to refer to Saddam and concluded with four words that left no one in doubt about Bush's intentions: "We're taking him out."

2013 (July): Sir John Chilcot confirms that officials, likely including Tony Blair, will be criticized in the upcoming Chilcot Inquiry report:

Mr Blair, who has repeatedly denied misleading Parliament and the public over the case for war in 2003, is likely to make strong representations to Sir John in an attempt to stop any criticism. He is likely to be wary of potential comparisons with Anthony Eden who lied to Parliament over the invasion of Suez.

Sir John has said he wishes to highlight private handwritten letters from Mr Blair to President George W Bush in 2002, in which Mr Blair gave assurances that Britain would support an invasion of Iraq.

The letters gave assurances to the US before the Cabinet had established the case for war against Saddam Hussein’s regime, so may call into question the official explanations given for the invasion.

Sir John also wishes to highlight previously unknown correspondence between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown and other communications with US presidents. The Prime Minister said Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, was aiding the inquiry on releasing this information.

As appears to be the case now with Syria, the attack on Iraq was decided long before any official announcement. From this timeline we see that Tony Blair made it clear to his US allies that he would support the US plan, fully aware that the 'evidence' was being fixed in order to sell the war. He also had aid: the shameful role of the corporate-owned media is now all too apparent. The contrition expressed by many of these state-serving stenographers after the lies they aggressively reported on Iraq were brought to light is now exposed as fake, as demonstrated by their behavior now, with similar unproven claims mindlessly repeated with regard to Syria.

Any views expressed by Mr. Blair - and indeed anyone responsible for the Iraq disaster - must be rejected out of hand as the words of a man with zero credibility, a man who significant numbers of people believe committed - along with George W Bush - the supreme war crime: aggressive war, the illegal invasion of a sovereign nation, in this case using fake evidence as justification.

Justice Robert H Jackson, Chief Prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Trials stated three principles with regard to this supreme crime:

The power of sovereign states to make war, except in self-defense, should be restricted by law. ("It is high time that we act on the juridical principle that aggressive war-making is illegal and criminal")

This law must apply equally to all nations. ("I am not willing to charge as a crime against a German official acts which would not be crimes if committed by officials of the United States")

Nations can act only through their leaders and thus the individuals responsible for initiation of an aggressive war are accountable for acts of violence against others committed in the name of the state. ("The guilt we should reach is not that of numberless little people, but of those who planned and whipped up the war.")

Noble words. But just words.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Pernicious War on the Poor

"Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens" - William Beveridge

"Scratch a pessimist and you find often a defender of privilege" - William Beveridge

In an article worthy of inclusion in the Daily Mail, the UK's Guardian newspaper on Saturday informed its readership of a 'litany of bizarre and audacious' fraudulent benefit claims including tales of an 'evil twin' and a 'woman whose skin color changed'.

In the article, David Freud, minister for welfare reform, is quoted as saying:

"Hardworking taxpayers lost an outrageous £1.2bn in benefit fraud last year. Our investigators are stepping up and taking advantage of the latest technology so fraudsters can be identified, traced and caught. The minority of claimants attempting to siphon off benefit cash need to know our teams are cracking down on them and bare-faced lies are frankly transparent in the face of the evidence."


A claimant in West Lothian tried to explain her false claim by saying: "I needed the money to pay for [a] TV in each of the five bedrooms, as the kids have ADHT (sic) and I have to keep them in." She failed to mention that the children no longer lived with her.

In Liverpool, a claimant insisted that she did not have a relationship with a man who stayed at her home most nights of the week. When it was pointed out that they had three children together in a five-year period, she said: "We're all entitled to a one night stand aren't we?" When reminded that she had three children, she said: "Well a three-night stand then".

Liverpool, eh? Nice touch.

The relentless demonization of benefits claimants - smeared by association with the tiny minority who commit this kind of fraud - is pernicious in the extreme. Six of the UK's largest disability charities (Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the National Autistic Society, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), and Disability Alliance) report that they are regularly contacted by people who say they are taunted on the street about faking disabilities in order to receive payments and are concerned that this could lead to hate crimes and violence. They blame ministers and civil servants for endlessly highlighting abuse in the system, just as David Freud did. Such statements are dutifully reported in a biased and incendiary fashion throughout the UK's media, with dangerous consequences:

Scope's regular polling of people with disabilities shows that in September two-thirds said they had experienced recent hostility or taunts, up from 41% four months before. In the last poll almost half said attitudes towards them had deteriorated in the past year.

David Gillon from Chatham in Kent, said: "I think we've lost all the progress we made in the last 30 years in terms of acceptance." Gillon, whose chronic back condition forced him to give up a job with British Aerospace, recounts walking on crutches past a pub in the middle of the day and receiving shouts of: "We're going to report you to the DWP." He said: "When there's a bad article in the press, the next day you think, 'Do I really need to go out of the house?' We're being forced back into the attic, locked away from society."

A survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London that serves as a damning indictment of the UK media shows that the British public is woefully misinformed on almost every society issue, particularly those which provide regular fodder for the tabloids: immigration, foreign aid, teen pregnancy and...of course...benefits:

The public think[s] that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent - so the public conception is out by a factor of 34.

Reality presents a very different picture, and it is this reality that exposes the agenda of the UK's media and coalition government to focus disproportionately on one tiny aspect of overall fraud. A glance at the contents of the National Fraud Authority's 'Annual Fraud Indicator'(pdf) shows dozens of types of fraud - take a deep breath: council tax fraud, electricity scams, grant fraud, housing tenancy fraud, insurance fraud, staged motor vehicle accidents, mass marketing fraud, mortgage fraud, motor finance fraud, National Savings and Investments fraud, online ticket fraud, patient charges fraud, payroll fraud, pension fraud, private rental property fraud, procurement fraud, recruitment fraud, retail banking fraud, check fraud, online banking fraud, plastic card fraud, telephone banking fraud, student finance fraud, tax credits fraud, tax fraud, telecommunications fraud, television license fee evasion, transport fare evasion and others.

How many of these types of fraud are mentioned daily throughout the UK mass media, often with in-depth exposes of extreme cases presented as mainstream?

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) provides a short but useful myth-busting page:

The UK government estimates that total fraud across the whole of the economy amounts to £73 billion a year. UK government figures for 2012 estimate benefits overpaid due to fraud is £1.2 billion and tax credit fraud is £380 million. So just under £1.6 billion in total; less than 1% of the overall benefits and tax credits expenditure and less than benefits underpaid and overpaid due to error.

It's a lot of money, and it’s never right, but unfortunately fraud happens in many walks of life. Sometimes it helps to compare the figures with other fraud or error. More than this amount was overpaid in benefits due to claimant and official error. That was £2.2 billion in 2011/12 and is recovered by the UK Government. Equally claimant and official error led to £1.3 billion benefits being underpaid.

So to get some perspective, benefit fraud represents 2% of the estimated total annual fraud in the UK. Public sector fraud, which includes benefit fraud, is £20.3 billion a year, so within this category it accounts for just under 8%. The majority of this £20 billion is tax fraud which costs the economy £14 billion annually, or 69%. So we can see that both in absolute and percentage terms tax fraud is a much bigger issue than benefit fraud. In fact, out of all the categories of fraud calculated by the UK Government, benefit fraud is the second lowest. Only identity fraud which costs individuals £1.4 billion a year comes below it.

As CAS points out, more than the amount obtained by fraud is actually overpaid due to error on the part of both officials and claimants, while the same mistakes led to £1.3 billion in benefits being underpaid.

How often are these facts relentlessly hammered into the average news consumer's brain?

In a 2011 piece for the Observer, Ian Birrell wrote a thoughtful piece on the issue that expands on some of the consequences of this government and media irresponsibility. More emphasis, however must be put on why this demonization is so useful to the financial and political elites. For instance, by smearing those on benefits as 'scroungers' by association with the small percentage of those who commit fraud, the poor become a useful scapegoat for the deficit and other serious problems with the economy when issues like too-big-to-fail bank bailouts and tax avoidance by the wealthy are in fact culpable:

From an earlier article on this blog:

The reality is that the government could save a great deal more by dealing with tax evasion and avoidance. In this very informative article, we can see that the tax gap, namely the amount of tax evaded, avoided and not collected, is estimated to be over 120 billion pounds.

Tax avoidance is overwhelmingly carried out by the wealthy, aided by clever and very well-paid accountants who take advantage of loopholes in the law.


It is not only the tax gap that can be worked on; huge sums of money are wasted on private consultants in the armed services or in education and multiple other areas, fields that could be easily staffed by the armies of unemployed with proper training.

Even more money is thrown into the totally unnecessary Trident program, not to mention the bottomless hole also known as the Afghanistan War, and let's not forget our proud military adventures in Libya, where we saw costs like 183,000 pounds for a Brimstone missile and 50,000 pounds per Paveway guided bomb (see article for the full scandalous list).

[Note: the previous article on this blog discussed the issue of costs of war or 'intervention' in depth.]

If there really were no agenda in the media to demonize the poor, it would follow that since the size of the tax gap is a hundred times that of benefits fraud, there should be many more articles condemning this intentional subterfuge of the wealthy. That we rarely see such articles, while every other day seems to bring new 'immigrants-living-in-2-million-pound-mansion' stories is smoking-gun proof of a cynical smear campaign against those exercising their legal right to benefit payments.

The pattern of media dialogue is clear: demonization and conflict in every possible arena. Politician A attacks politician B; football manager A has a grudge against football manager B; the establishment condemns 'immoral' celebrity behavior (while simultaneously exploiting it); Jews against Muslims; Republicans versus Democrats; the list is endless - phony conflicts which serve to keep outrage levels high, drive sales and advertizing, and - most importantly - divert the unruly passions of the masses away from banks, corporations and corrupt officials - the entities outrage actually should be directed at.

Wars: the war on the poor along with the 'official' ones - the war on terror and the war on drugs - serve as a smokescreen for a far larger conflict, the only one that matters: that of profit over human well-being. The amoral, unsustainable machine known as consumer capitalism knows no altruism, working only for profit and more profit in order to attract yet more investment and to please shareholders. Until the world comes to regain awareness of this fact and puts people before capital without exception, as it attempted to briefly in the years after World War II with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and - in the UK - the welfare state, inequality, injustice and lawlessness will continue to proliferate, exponentially escalating existential threats like global warming and nuclear war.

The recent victory of the people in the UK against the warmongering establishment with regard to Syria was a promising sign. Social media has made civil organization as well as the dissemination of information feasible on an enormous scale, while more and more high-profile celebrities are beginning to speak up on human rights and corporate criminality, spreading awareness to vast numbers of previously unreachable people - many of whom will begin to investigate these claims for themselves. The real war - the battle for awareness - is well underway.

Written by Simon Wood


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Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Costs of 'Intervention' in Syria

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends" - Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Syria braces itself for a barrage of cruise missiles based on assertions of guilt by proven liars and dubious evidence provided by Israel, a nation with a clear vested interest in the removal of Bashar al-Assad, how are we to rate the performance of the world's media?

Even the UK's Guardian, which - given its fearless NSA reporting - one would expect to hold leaders to strict account has proved weak, negligent even. John Hilley at his Zenpolitics blog writes:

Instead of outright denunciation of Cameron and his war-salivating ministers, rather than explicit exposure of their mendacious motives, we're asked to indulge this set of political psychotics, ruminate on Blair's prior 'mistakes' and kowtow to the great charade of 'parliamentary accountability'.

True to form, it's all here in the Guardian, with its noble postures, tempered admonitions and guiding advice to Cameron on the need to persuade and carry the public. This is what passes for a serious, 'radical' response to scheming warmongers.

The Guardian could have led with an unambiguous rejection of Cameron, Hague and the whole R2P deceit they and their transatlantic masters are foisting on the public. Instead, we have this safe introspection, all serving to whitewash their crimes and legitimise the fiction of 'measured liberal intervention'.

When those cruise missiles start falling on Damascus, the Guardian will stand back and say 'we did our vanguard best'. It won't be remotely good enough. Such cowardly editorials are nothing but liberal bleating for war.

And Media Lens highlights media double standards with regard to the 'massacres that matter' and the use of 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P) as a tool for Western imperialism.

With a few honorable exceptions, the corporate-owned media has engaged in caveat-laden reporting obviously designed for cover just in case the 'evidence' is once again proved to be 'faulty' after the fact.

A good start would be high-profile journalists pointing out the stunning hypocrisy of Western leaders:

"The use of chemical weapons on men, women and children is a flagrant abuse of international law and if we stand idly by we set a very dangerous precedent." - Nick Clegg

"Almost a hundred years ago the whole world came together and said that the use of chemical weapons was morally indefensible and completely wrong...[]...and I don't believe we can let that (alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad government) stand." - David Cameron

"Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny." - John Kerry

It beggars belief that these words can be spoken with straight faces by representatives of governments which have themselves used chemical weapons (and worse). Will David Cameron also not 'let stand' American use of white phosphorus in Iraq or the herbicides and defoliants used for Agent Orange in Vietnam? What accountability does John Kerry expect with regard to US use of napalm in WWII, in the Korean War and the Vietnam War?

[Quick question for pro-interventionists. As John Kerry believes there 'must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people', and that a missile strike would be an apt response in order to teach Syria not to use these weapons again, do you believe that the US should also have been punished in the same fashion by an international coalition for, say, using white phosphorus against Iraqi civilians in Fallujah?]

The media has framed Syria in simplistic terms: a ruthless dictator crushing any and all opposition to his brutal rule. The reality is far more complex, making any attack on Syria extremely risky. The need for evidence and the legality of intervention has already been discussed on this blog, but an authoritative examination of the consequences of intervention is sorely missing in the media.

For authority we must turn to an expert on the region. Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in a debate in the Economist:

Military intervention in Syria is ill-conceived, short-sighted, counter-productive, and likely to generate more killings and massacres rather than stop them. Unlike any other Arab nation, Syria is home to varied and numerous assortments of religious sects, tribes, ethnicities and historic rivalries. In contrast to the uprisings in Yemen, Egypt and Libya, we have not witnessed high-level political and military defections inside Syria. And the largest cities in Syria — Damascus and Aleppo — have so far been relatively calm. Whatever the reasons—fear of, or support for, Bashar Assad—the opposition has thus failed to mobilise key constituencies inside Syria that would indicate to us that the regime is losing control.

Mr Assad retains a tight grip on the Ba’ath party. Its control of mosques, schools, businesses, police and local government means that it can still marshal large crowds of supporters in Damascus and Aleppo. Prominent Sunni Muslim clerics with regional weight, including Ramadan al-Bouti, have come out in support of the regime. At Friday prayers across the country they still pray for the strength of the government and call for “the destruction of its enemies”— Islamic reinforcement of Mr Assad’s government in a deeply religious country should not be underestimated.

Just as Mr Assad’s supporters use religion in Syria, so do his opponents. The footage coming out of Syria showing opposition forces killing soldiers and publicly torturing any who are accused of “spying” for the regime is deeply troubling; these are not the actions of democracy activists. In Tunisia and Egypt we heard cries for freedom, democracy and human rights. Sadly, in Syria, we are hearing shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and “jihad”. Al-Qaeda has now officially entered this conflict. Military intervention assumes that we will support one side. Granted, Mr Assad is an Iranian stooge. But at least we know the nature of that enemy. The debilitating differences among the opposition, the lack of leadership, the taking up of arms, the torture and killing of opponents, and the co-ordination with al-Qaeda and jihadists from Iraq and the Gulf should force us to stop and take stock. Who are we being asked to support, much less arm? And with what consequences?

Moral impulse and outrage alone cannot shape foreign policy. Strategic calculations, national interests and geopolitical implications are paramount. In an attempt to stop the killing of thousands in Syria, military intervention and then toppling the regime risk unleashing forces that could kill millions. Mr Assad’s supporters are just as brutal and vicious as the opposition. With Christians and other minorities fleeing across the Middle East, how wise is it to put in power a dysfunctional Sunni opposition? The premature removal of the Assad regime by force would not only result in a sectarian bloodbath inside Syria, but also encourage Iraqi Sunnis to violently agitate against Shia rule in Iraq. Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere would see their historic moment to create a homeland by forcing these countries to give territory, or face political violence. The fragile political balance in Lebanon would be threatened by greater Sunni-Shia clashes, led by Hizbullah.

In private, senior Israeli officials are aghast at the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Syria and are demanding that the all-important Golan Heights be returned. For all Mr Assad’s confrontational rhetoric, Israel and Syria have enjoyed relative calm on the border. With terrorist threats from the Sinai in Egypt, and the Camp David accords regularly being tested by Egypt’s new authorities, is this really the juncture at which to further threaten Israel’s security?

The immediate priority is to stop the loss of life on both sides in the conflict in Syria. The best guarantee of that is to allow Russian, French and British diplomats to work together to broker a ceasefire with immediate effect. The British connection with Syria is unique: Mr Assad’s wife is British, and her father is Syria’s de facto ambassador-at-large in Europe. British and French ties to Syrian opposition factions are also strong. Without Russian involvement, the Syrian regime will not budge. A combined effort, with America at arm’s length, is still the best way forward. Agreement from the Syrian and Russian governments can pave the way for peace. Without this, even peacekeeping missions would be seen as a declaration of war by China, Russia, Iran and Syria. With al-Qaeda on the ground, and Russia and China prepared to defend the regime, it is deeply imprudent to launch air strikes or missiles or even arm the rebels. The Free Syrian Army’s several thousand fighters are no match for Mr Assad’s forces of around 320,000 soldiers.

Cooler heads must prevail in Western governments. Diplomatic options have not yet been fully exhausted. After the Iraq debacle, we cannot choose military options over diplomacy so readily. In the great game to bring down Iran, and to strengthen Israel, do not go through Syria. Syria will prove to be yet another deadly, expensive detour for the West. Think Iraq, but compounded by sectarianism and regional contagion.

Mr. Husain warns of a sectarian bloodbath that could easily spread throughout the entire region, and we don't need to look very far to see how likely a scenario this is. Dozens are killed daily in Iraq and violence and lawlessness is widespread in Libya, two nations previously installed with democracy and freedom thanks to Western 'intervention'.

Then there is the financial cost. With both the US and UK with their enormous debts and deficits insisting that they must curb spending, and with savage cuts to benefits in the UK causing widespread outrage, selling a deeply unpopular intervention that is supported only by 25% in the UK and an incredibly low 9% in the US is likely to stir serious opposition from the public in both nations.

This infographic shows some of the costs of military hardware. [Note: this information is around two years old so we can expect the costs to be higher now.] A single cruise missile is shown to cost at least $830,000 and a BBC report from 2011 says that a cruise missile costs 500,000 pounds, with one trip by a Tornado aircraft costing tens of thousands of pounds in fuel alone. The Huffington Post reported in 2011 even higher costs:

In the opening days of the assault on Libya, the United States and the United Kingdom launched a barrage of at least 161 Tomahawk cruise missiles to flatten Moammar Gadhafi's air defenses and pave the way for coalition aircraft.

In fiscal terms, at a time when Congress is fighting over every dollar, the cruise missile show of military might was an expenditure of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Each missile cost $1.41 million, close to three times the cost listed on the Navy's website.

Given that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of possible targets (interactive) in Syria, and that around 7,700 bombs or missiles were dropped/launched in Libya, we can expect costs to become very high, and even higher still if a Tornado or two is downed by any of the hundreds of SAM sites shown on the linked interactive map: one Tornado costs around 50 million pounds to replace.

To put these figures into perspective, almost 5,000 nurses left the NHS between May 2010 and August 2012, a loss blamed by unions and Labour on UK Coalition cuts. Starting salaries for nurses are from 14,294 pounds at band 2 (clinical support workers) and 21,388 pounds at band 5 (fully qualified nurses). One cruise missile (at 500,000 pounds) would pay the annual salary for 35 clinical support workers or 23 fully qualified nurses. The cost of 142 cruise missiles would replace every single one of those lost 5,000 staff.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military, General Martin Dempsey, told Congress last month that even limited strikes against Syria would require hundreds of aircraft, ships and submarines, costing billions of dollars. He also warned of the risk of retaliatory attacks and 'collateral damage impacting civilians', as well as 'unintended consequences'.

Finally there's the human cost. The New York Times found credible evidence for dozens upon dozens of civilian deaths in the 'surgical' Libya air strikes, implying there were many more for which credible evidence could not be found in the chaos. Bereaved families will greatly suffer due to loss of wage-earners along with grief, depression, PTSD and other mental disorders. Ensuing sectarian violence will lead inevitably to increased incidence of torture, rape and killing as well as property damage. Infrastructure will be damaged or destroyed, meaning unsafe water and power cuts. Another Iraq and Libya in the making.

Despite massive public opposition (remarkable in itself given the insipid response by the press); despite the illegality of any strike without UN Security Council approval; despite the likelihood of a strike causing heightened sectarian violence that may spread throughout the Middle East; and despite the moral indefensibility of spending huge sums on destruction and killing while massive cuts are deeply hurting the poor, sick and disabled at home...despite all these factors, President Obama and his loyal Western subordinates are determined to press ahead nonetheless. This is not only undemocratic, it is insane. Unsurprising, then, that Nobel laureate President Obama dared not utter the word 'peace' even once in yesterday's speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of celebrated pacifist Martin Luther King's March on Washington.

There are no good reasons to strike Syria and countless ones not to. Pressure from all quarters must be put on belligerent Western leaders to cool down and return to the negotiating table. That's what the diplomats are paid for.

Twitter: @simonwood11

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