The Ugly Tribalism of American Politics

Early in May 2011, Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi billionaire criminal and religious fanatic, was murdered by US Navy SEAL troops in Pakistan. Bin Laden was a reactionary political figure, who promoted obscurantist, fundamentalist prejudices in the service of criminal wars and terrorism. He was a long-term ally and asset of the United States, whose repugnant views and activities were cultivated throughout the 1980s during Washington’s Cold War campaign against the secular, socialist government of Afghanistan.

His killing has been greeted with applause and tribalistic flag-waving in the United States. Australian politicians across the political spectrum parroted the position of the Obama regime – the killing of Bin Laden was a cause of celebration, an expression of righteous chest-thumping. I think that this tribalistic gloating is nauseating, and while I am not sorry that another fundamentalist is dead, the display of gushing applause for the US empire is sickening. This is not patriotism, but an ugly, malicious tribalism where we are invited to cheer over the corpses created by American military forces. Antony Loewenstein calls it a “violence-obsessed culture”.

Robert Fisk, the perceptive veteran war correspondent, wrote that Bin Laden was a nonentity rendered obsolete by recent history. His role as a useful mercenary reached its end a long time ago, and he was shunted aside by his former paymasters. The former paymasters being the United States, that welcomed his brand of antisocialist backward fundamentalism in the 1980s. Celebrated by former President Reagan as ‘freedom fighters’, Bin Laden was one of thousands of anticommunist Islamist guerrillas who responded to US efforts to fight the atheistic communist regime of Afghanistan, drawing in Soviet troops. The Afghan government had committed such serious atrocities, like providing women with health care and education, you see. Such actions could not go unpunished during the Cold War, so the US and its regional allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia organised the largest pan-Islamic anticommunist uprising of the twentieth century. Bin Laden was one of ‘our guys’.

Gilles Kepel, a professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris, documented the rise of the Afghan crusade in his fascinating book “Jihad: The trail of political Islam”. The US and Saudi promoters of the Afghan jihad against the atheistic communist regime assembled a heterogeneous group of Islamist mujahideen united by their rejection of secularism and humanism. One of the holy warriors trained and financed during this time was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who expressed his disagreement with atheism by throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women.

But in the early 1990s, the Afghan crusade ended, the Islamist guerrillas took power and promptly began a fratricidal civil war. Bin Laden, along with the thousands of ex-mujahideen, were abandoned by the United States. Bin Laden, a monster of our own creation as Robert Scheer suggests, became a useful demon, a bogeyman to scare the population into supporting US wars abroad.

The gloating over Bin Laden’s killing is calculated to increase support for a swaggering US war machine. As the US Socialist Worker points out, the world is a more dangerous place since Bin Laden’s death by adding domestic support for reckless and aggressive US military operations around the world. Which leads me to a disturbing question – why was it necessary to kill Bin Laden; why not capture him and put him on trial?

After World War Two, the top Nazis who were captured were put on trial for their crimes against humanity. The case against them was solid, the evidence of their guilt overwhelming. In 1942, while the war was raging in Europe and the Pacific, the Allied powers made a joint declaration stating their intention to prosecute the top officials of the Axis states for their mass atrocities. The US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, stated that “We must establish incredible events with credible evidence”. The Nuremberg trials have an enormously important legacy – that heads of state and their officials can be held to account for their criminal actions, that human rights transcend national boundaries, and providing a major impetus for setting up an international criminal court.

You would think that for the professional US soldiers, capturing Bin Laden and his associates would have been relatively easy – and putting him on trial for his numerous crimes would have demonstrated to the world the US regime’s commitment to human rights and justice, as established by the Nuremberg precedent and the Tokyo war crimes trials for Japanese war criminals. The Al Qaeda operatives were responsible for the September 11 atrocities, so putting the commander-in-chief of that terrorist group on trial and exposing their crimes in open court would have boosted the credibility and standing of the US government around the world – wouldn’t you think?

Killing Bin Laden means that he has taken his secrets to his grave. The embarrassing details of his criminal service with US intelligence agencies, his relations with Pakistani and Saudi Arabian officials, and the incestuous relationship that the US has with Pakistani and Saudi financial-military elites is now buried with Bin Laden’s corpse.

Torture was one of the many crimes for which the Nazi and Japanese war criminals were tried and prosecuted after World War Two. Waterboarding is a form of torture for which perpetrators have been hanged. So why did the New York Times and other American newspapers feature the ludicrous claims that torturing suspects in Guantanamo bay led to the killing of Bin Laden? Surely any person undergoing torture would say anything to make the mistreatment stop? John Brennan, the counter-terrorism adviser to President Obama, tried to distance himself from assertions that torturing detainees led to the Bin Laden killing, even though he never actually used the word ‘torture’.

If the torture of people detained in Guantanamo bay revealed the location of Bin Laden, then we could also state that the information extracted from detainees under duress led the US to invade Iraq, a terrible debacle for US foreign policy and the destruction and sectarian fragmentation of that society.

Obama has stated on numerous occasions that justice has been done with the murder of Bin Laden. But there was no trial, no judge and jury – just the state-sponsored execution team and the subsequent lies and distortions to justify a cold-blooded murder. The details of this episode are lost amid the fog of jingoistic, flag-waving tribalism, a fabricated euphoria designed to distract us from the underlying motivations of US imperial power.

Killing one irrelevant fanatic will make no difference to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conditions that created thousands of Bin Ladens remain – the open-ended ‘war on terror’, the continuing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US regime’s uncritical support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. These political problems provide an impetus for reactionary religious figures to exploit legitimate grievances, building up support for their obscurantist agendas. As Farooq Tariq, spokesperson of the Labour Party Pakistan wrote; “religious fanatics and the imperialist powers provide each other with justification for escalating violence. This is a never-ending cycle”. While the weakening of socialist parties in the region has provided an opening for religious fundamentalism to grow, it should never be forgotten that, as Tariq states “The rise of religious fundamentalism is a direct result of government policies of a ruling elite and its dependence on US and other imperialist forces”.

As the May 3 editorial of the American publication Socialist Worker stated, the war on terror is being renovated. Bin Laden is dead, and Bin Ladenism is a thoroughly repugnant, vicious ideology that hindered the cause of working people. Bin Ladenism is the deadly spawn of the US-organised anticommunist Islamist rebellion in Afghanistan, a brutal warlord among many mujahideen fighting against a secular, progressive government that turned Afghanistan into a cold war battlefield.

This killing is being used by the mouthpieces of the US empire to cheer on unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to continue its programme of ‘rendition’ which involves throwing suspects into torture chambers with no recourse or appeal, and distracting us from the crumbling US economy, plagued with problems even though we are told that the 2008 global financial crisis is over. While Obama proclaims that the good times are back, the living standards and conditions of working people are still falling, and anger is simmering beneath the surface. We must stand up against the macabre celebrations and flag-waving over corpses – chanting “USA!” repeatedly will not help us while the economy is disintegrating.

The best response to the Al Qaeda types has been provided by the Arab masses. The Arab spring, consisting of mass insurrections by the dispossessed and poverty-stricken people of the Arab world against dictatorial regimes, not only rendered Al Qaeda and Bin Laden obsolete, they gave new hope and inspiration to millions around the world and made the US policy-makers tremble.

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When skateboards do not matter

Louis Proyect is an interesting and engaging writer, whose blog the Unrepentant Marxist I read every second or third day. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes disagree, but his contributions are always thought-provoking and informative. I came across a particular entry some time ago called “Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free” where Proyect reviews the memoirs of a certain Said Sayrafiezadeh, a forty-something writer who grew up with parents who were ardent members of a socialist party in the US, the Socialist Workers Party. I do not know much about that party, except from the writings of its members, and the entries of Proyect, so I cannot comment directly on the activities and political culture of the American SWP. What I do want to comment on is the memoir of Sayrafiezadeh.

Normally when I review a book, I read it carefully from cover to cover, making a concerted effort to understand its contents, the author’s background and motivations, the importance and value of reading the book, and why others should take an interest in it. Proyect has reviewed the book here. But I am going to make an exception in this case – based on what Proyect has said about this memoir, it is disgraceful trash that should not even have made it to the printing press. Sayrafiezadeh devotes his book to angrily denouncing his parents and the party to which they belonged. It is basically an antisocialist rant by a child still harbouring resentments against his communist activist parents. Disagree with your parents – fine. Have the political arguments out with them; but to hold them and their beliefs responsible for your purportedly ‘deprived’ childhood is just a detestable, vile, hurtful, malicious thing to do. Speaking in such a venomous way about one’s own parents reveals something sleazy and vicious about Sayrafiezadeh’s character.

The title of the memoir is derived from a story where the young Said is denied a skateboard, being an expensive toy. The parents rationalise their decision by stating that after the revolution, all skateboards will be free. Get it? The evil commie parents, being ideologically too rigid and brainwashed by the socialist party, refuse to buy a toy, readily available to other kids, that would bring joy to the young Said’s life. The child misses out because of the rigidity of his parents’ convictions. So you see, the story is emblematic of how the poor Said misses out on a normal happy childhood surrounded by the finer mod-cons provided by a capitalist system.

In a New Yorker magazine interview, linked to by Proyect on his blog, our hero, having denounced his traitorous parents and remaining loyal to the consumerist dream, has this to say:

“Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.”

You see, isn’t capitalism wonderful? We can enjoy 32-inch TV sets – as long as we do not pay too much attention to minor details such as wars overseas, millions of Iraqis and Afghanis dead, increasing erosion of civil liberties, torturing people in secret detention camps after they have been ‘rendered’ (don’t you love that euphemism?), the decline of the health care and public transport systems, the established media spewing racist diatribes against migrants, refugees and anyone it deems the ‘other’, the increasingly tenuous and casualised nature of employment, the rise of religious fundamentalism – but hey, the purpose of life is to accumulate possessions, such as TV sets, isn’t it?

From the New York Times review of his book, Sayrafiezadeh had this to say;

“We were poor, my mother and I,” the author writes, “living in a world of doom and gloom, pessimism and bitterness, where storms raged and wolves scratched at the door.”

How depressing it must be growing up in a socialist household! Gee, what terrible suffering, where the parents naively sacrificed everything for the revolution. If Sayrafiezadeh is nostalgic about his childhood, as the NYTimes reviewer suggests, then why does he spend so much time rubbishing his parents and portraying them in the most loathsome terms? Not only is Sayrafiezadeh deprived of a skateboard, but is not allowed to watch television by his mother when she is away at party meetings.

A Humanitarian Socialist and Loving Father

I am proud to have grown up in a socialist household. My father was a life-long socialist and committed activist. My mother has always been a supporter of social justice and committed to righting the injustices inflicted by an inhumane system. Being of Armenian background, we have had numerous Armenian friends who would visit but were of the opposite political point-of-view, just like Sayrafiezadeh. Now those Armenians in Sydney who fled from the Soviet homeland, were appalled by the experience of a bureaucratised, degenerated workers’ state. However, that experience does not fully account for the xenophobic hatred they express for everything on the Left of the political spectrum.

Most of my father’s Armenian friends were sociable, but always had a nasty underside. Many came to our place, making pointed, malicious jibes at my father, the underlying ridicule and contempt always simmering beneath the surface. “What are you, a Bolshevik? Why don’t you go and live in Soviet Armenia?”, they would sneer at my father. Surely the point was to fight the injustices of the capitalist system, and think about your fellow human beings, not just pack up and leave at the first sign of trouble.

In 1990, as US forces began their buildup in preparation for war against Iraq, my father, an Egyptian-born Armenian, joined with his fellow Arabs and campaigned against the war, outraged at the death and destruction of a society that would surely result from such an imperial war. “The whole world is against the Arabs, aren’t they?” was a typical sneering comment directed at my father by some of the anti-immigrant, reactionary Armenians. “If you mean the white-skinned world, the US, Britain and Australia, then yes they are. But around the rest of the world, India, China, South America, Malaysia etc the American war drive is opposed.”

The same xenophobic crowed and sneered as the USSR dissolved in the early 1990s. “You see, capitalism has won!” they stated, echoing the feeble ‘end-of-history’ thesis propounded by the literary lightweight Francis Fukuyama. “Well, all these years you told me that if the communists win, they will take your house, car, private property, everything you own – right? Well, since the restoration of capitalism in Armenia, people have lost their health care, education system, guaranteed housing, employment, cultural achievements – so what system has created more poverty?” But these logical arguments of my father’s were to no avail against the ingrained ignorance of the tribalist Armenians. The purpose of such people was not dialogue or debate, but contemptuous sneering and rhetorical one-upmanship.

They are representative of what I call cruise missile cowards, cheering the death and destruction rained down by American cruise missiles while acting as cheerleaders for US imperial wars. Do they analyse politics like my father did? No. They are victims of their own Islamophobic hatred, detesting everything Arab while cravenly submitting to the power of US imperial interests. They are seduced by the seeming might of the US empire, impressed by its superficial lustre, and have become blinded to the violence purveyed by US imperialism.

The title of my contribution derives from my point of view – skateboards and material possessions do not matter. My father never gave me a skateboard – actually he did, and while that was great when I was a kid, it became irrelevant to me as I grew up. The skateboard gathered dust. What he gave me was much more significant, something that I use until today – an education in the way the world works, how to analyse global politics, and to always stand up against the mighty and powerful when they abuse their power. He was a loving father, a compassionate, humanitarian socialist. He taught me well – may he rest in peace, secure in the knowledge that I will never stoop so low and become a scumbag like Sayrafiezadeh.

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