Send in the Clown: Trump and American Credibility

With all the knicker-twisting going on about how the big baby with the brain of a reptile and his own transplanted anus for a mouth is dribbling the world toward the brink of a possibly nuclear exchange with North Korea, it might be wise to try to remember at least one previous American approach to war even though it’s not really a part of anyone’s Twitter stream or the all-revealing/all-disappearing news cycle.

According to David Halberstam, in his monumental pre-Twitter takedown of the notion of meritocracy, the ironically titled “The Best and The Brightest”, the sainted John F Kennedy remarked to James Reston, apropos of having had his ass taken to the woodshed over American imperialism by Nikita Kruschev, that he needed to beat up on some little 3rd world country that couldn’t be expected to fight back because

“…now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.”

look ma no hands

Let that sink in while others of our kind are reveling in Ken Burns proto-fascist contention that the Vietnam War was entered into in “good faith”. One does not normally associate the brutal slaughter of millions and the near-total destruction of 3 small countries in order to make a nation’s power “credible” with anything like “good faith” but, you know, American.

Halberstam’s book makes a hash of the currently popular notion that intelligence and an Ivy League education make for better political decisions than knuckle-dragging racist morons like Trump are capable of making. And given that Kennedy and his circle of really smart white men were also profoundly racist, a lot of what passes for “insight” in the era of Trump versus all the smart people is obviously profoundly a-historical and as dumb as the proverbial sackful of hammers.

But I digress.

The bottom line is this: American Presidents and their co-conspirators in the security and defense establishments go to war on a regular basis. And those wars are pretty much always aimed at killing lots of people who aren’t white and not part of “The West”.

It is also the case they they are often entered into to establish the “credibility of American power”, an ever-shifting notion that is, apparently, regularly in need of reconfirmation. And nothing confirms power better than images of little mountains of dead men, women and children of a colour other than American white or black.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would question the observation that American power is perceived to be at a very low ebb at the moment; the wailing and the gnashing of teeth over the end of the “liberal global order” can even be heard over the sounds of the record-breaking seven wars that Obama-the-Intelligent conducted during his graceful and educated sojourn in the White House.

It is not so commonly noted but equally clear that yet another invasion of yet another military non-entity like Iraq is not likely to impress anyone the American establishment thinks needs to be impressed with “the credibility of American power”. Now that Russia is back on the military intervention circuit and China is transmitting images of its ultra-modern hi-tech weaponry and building military bases in the South China Sea, establishing the “credibility” of American power might take something more along the lines of a limited nuclear exchange with a feisty little rabbit like North Korea.

And who better to establish the innocence of Ken Burns and all those American tax-payers who can’t stand being held responsible for the actions of their democratically-elected leaders than Donald “Not My President” Trump, “progressive” America’s very own Hitler?

I mean, think about it, once the smoke clears (not the radiation mind you or the global fear and trembling), all Good Americans will be able to blame the war on Evil Clown Trump and most of the dead will be non-white foreigners anyway.

Just the way they like it in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Just the way they blame Bush-Cheney for Iraq and Johnson-Nixon for Vietnam. And hell, they’ve already forgotten what they did to Korea last time around.

As George Carlin once sagely noted:

What did we do wrong in Vietnam? We pulled out! Huh? Not a very manly thing to do is it? When you’re fucking people, you gotta stay in there and fuck ’em good. Fuck ‘em all the way, fuck ‘em ‘til the end, stay in there and keep fucking ’em until they’re all dead. We left a few women and children alive in Vietnam and we haven’t felt good about ourselves since!

 

 

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Suu Kyi of Burma: Khaleesi Gives Them All The Finger

Suu Kyi’s performance yesterday in her first address to the international community in the wake of her government’s recent ethnic cleansing in Rakhine was nothing less than breathtaking.

A more dignified “fuck you” has likely never been delivered to so many by someone so small.

Not only did she not admit to any sin of omission on her part for not speaking out against the flagrant human rights abuses being committed by soldiers and local people (very likely as she spoke), but neither did she offer any criticism of any aspect of the way the military has conducted itself.

On the contrary, she had nothing but praise for the way her government has improved things in Myanmar.

She managed to find a way to use a 50% decrease in AIDS deaths (a figure reported last year related to the period 2010-2016 and therefore having nothing to do with her administration) as a metaphorical illustration of how ignoring specific problems– like hundreds of thousands of her people fleeing rape, arson and murder– while attending to general improvements in social programs like health care and education is a more efficient and rational approach to such problems as ethnic cleansing.

Like I said, breathtaking.

She doubled down on every bit of political doublespeak she has resorted to since crowning herself Khaleesi to avoid saying directly that she either supports the ethnic cleansing of “Muslims residing in Rakhine” or is utterly indifferent to the suffering being visited daily on hundreds of thousands of Rohingya:

  1. Rakhine Muslims are not the only ethnic minority in the state whose needs the government must attend to.
  2. Terrorism must be dealt with.
  3. Everyone has problems. Everybody hurts. We should all care about the pain and suffering of all, not just those “Muslims residing in Rakhine”.
  4. There is false news out there and we need evidence. Foreign journalists must be wary of spreading misinformation.

And on and on. The bottom line: “I have heard your criticisms and I reject them.”

In a number of instances, Suu Kyi simply lied.

She claimed there had been no clearances or fighting since September 5th. Journalists taken on a tour of the area after that date reported fresh fires and the sounds of guns near to where they were.

She claimed that all ethnicities had equal access to health care and education in Rakhine. The Rohingya are denied not only access to health care and education but many are living in what some have described as concentration camps, and have limited travel rights even when living “off the reservation”.

Somewhere in that grand flatfooted rhetorical gesture that she performed in front of a global audience yesterday, she made a claim about rule of law and equality before the law that would have been hilarious if it weren’t for the mountain of corpses and charred remains of villages smoldering in the wake of soldiers and citizens whose impunity has been established and reiterated many times over the past 5 years and which is essentially an element of Myanmar culture at this point.

It will be interesting to see how this firmly delivered “giving of the finger” to the media and the NGOs that created “The Lady” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “Democracy Icon” is spun by her international enablers, given the audacity of her performance.

Repressive laws that discourage free speech in Myanmar plus a tendency on the part of journalists in SE Asia to temper their own speech in order to retain access and keep their jobs may have the predictable effect of softening Suu Kyi’s blunt rejection of liberal internationalism in the eyes of the international audience. We will have to see.

One problem, of course, is that as long as a country like Thailand continues to present an easy target like a “Junta” for SE Asia pundits to take aim at, it won’t matter how many Rohingya die or how many lives are devastated, the simple fact of Myanmar having held an election to put Khaleesi on her throne will be used as a handy screen for all the investment pouring into what has been called Asia’s “last frontier”.

“Democracy”, as Suu Kyi and the generals well know, works as well as Dragons when it comes to legitimizing and sanitizing all sorts of things that liberals might otherwise find beyond the pale.

ASSK

Yanki, Go Home and Just Stay There… Please?

Whatever else an American may or may not be, an American is an American first and foremost: socialist, Nazi, Radiohead or Beyonce fan, liberal or paleoconservative, each and every one is an American.

What this means for people outside America is that there is no effective internal or domestic resistance to American cultural imperialism, to American economic imperialism or, and most obviously, to American militarist imperialism (which is arguably little more than a wing of the economic variety but kills a lot faster).

Americans go to work and pay their taxes,  and no matter what sort of personal “branding” they engage in on social media, in the pages of mid-to-main-stream media or simply over a glass of merlot with like-minded friends, they support the national project. Dead bodies lined up after an airstrike in Iraq or farmers lives and livelihoods destroyed by Monsanto in India and beyond are not brought back to life by sarky Tweets about what an evil clown Trump is or whether a presidential candidate believes America is in decline or is doing just fine as the globally indispensable nation.

It should probably go without saying that white people in America are all racists, but you do hear it a lot these days. “Is that a pistol in your pocket or just a Swiss Army folding swastika dildo you intend to pleasure me with?” is no longer just a question du jour on Tinder.   It’s everywhere, and because a white racist (is there any other kind?) is by default a white supremacist which is nothing more than a convenient way of avoiding saying fascist or Nazi, white people are all Nazis.

By default that is.

But there are ways a white American can wriggle out from under the fascist label: by wearing a Chavista t-shirt unironically or calling other white people racist on Twitter or by liking everything Beyonce does and never mentioning black-on-black crime.

In reality, the number of ways Americans can shop and preen on social media to deny their default Hitler-clonism is literally limitless. What we would all  just love to see of course will almost surely never happen: hundreds of thousands of video clips of white Americans proclaiming their racial/genetic guilt and then punching themselves in the face until they bleed profusely then faint, or applying booster cables to their own genitals and really really screaming their heads off, just like countless folks around the globe have done when their American-trained and -funded security forces have defended  CocaCola and Pizza Hut so that young Americans can continue to buy their Chinese-made iPhones in peace.

American socialists, to give them their due, are of course opposed to all this, and some are even aware of the joke involved in invoking international solidarity using a phone made by a worker making $6 a day while also calling for a fight for 15 on the same phone. Unlike many of their compatriots, some socialist Americans can actually find Myanmar on a map and are pretty certain the war in Vietnam was a “bad take”.

So while they will no doubt be out there bravely tearing down statues of racist slave-holding white assholes from 150+  years ago, not one of the whining bitches will have the nerve to go and smear shit all over the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. They are Americans after all and, you know, support the troops. Or excuse the troops. Or turn the troops into the good guys by invoking victim status for the troops. Some of them were, after all, black, so any suggestion that Vietnam was a racist imperialist war that the racist imperialists have yet to acknowledge or apologize for is just silly.

African-Americans are quite rightly up in arms about police abuse and systematic murder of black citizens in America, but they are also up in arms as members of the military whose primary purpose (besides deploying expensive weaponry so the American arms industry can keep on keeping on) is the calculated murder of people of colour outside the American homeland. The American ideology doesn’t really have a handy term to describe what is made manifest when a black American jarhead calls Arabs “camel-jockeys” and takes a few bucks from Uncle Sam for kicking in their doors and killing them since racists is what white people are. By default.

It’s painful to think that it might have been the black son or daughter of parents who marched in Selma that operated the drone that killed Anwar Awlaki,  or either his 16-year-old son or his 5-year-old daughter. Black soldiers helping a black president to normalize the extrajudicial execution of American citizens of whatever ethnic or racial heritage has just got to be a major victory for diversity and surely a harbinger of the day when white Americans will be able to stop bashing themselves in the name of equality because Americans of all colours and creeds are out there killing the shit out of people of color in really poor countries.

Here endeth the Rant.

Trump(ets) of Doom: The Rifles Next Time

Without question, the death of IWW member Heather Heyer at the hands of a Nazi-sympathizer while she protested Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia has put an end to the most recent phase of the far right’s struggle to gain traction in the mainstream of American discourse.

As Angela Nagle put it at Baffler recently, referring to the online horde of alt-right ironists that make up what was heretofore the most visible face of the movement, “But how many of these racist trolls are committed to the real-life violence and potential state repression that the movement’s goals will now summon forth? ”

I imagine “very few” would be the most likely answer to that rhetorical question. The ever-popular metaphorical “mom’s basement” may be a lonely place but it beats the hell out of bending over to pick up the metaphorical soap just dropped by that shaven-headed thug with the swastika tattoo in a federal prison.

But there are elements of the vast and scattered racist right that may come to see this as their moment to shine.

There was something both ominous and bizarre about the performance of the heavily armed and uniformed militia that showed up at Charlottesville, paraded before a number of cameras, then seemed to disappear from view while antifa scrapped with good ol’ boys in the streets in very much the same fashion as we became accustomed to a few months ago when the alt-right was holding “free speech” rallies as incitement for the antifa to come out and play.

Where did they go? inquiring minds want to know.

As has been pointed out by some of the less romantic pundits on the American left, if it comes to real violence between antifa and all those AR-15 packing 2nd Amendment lads, the left can kiss its skinny ass goodbye. Not that anyone is listening.

The present momentary frenzy of jouissance that has overtaken much of the online discourse of the American left as it casts off all doubt about the moral quandary involved in the “punching a Nazi” question, with some even proposing a call to arms, highlights one often overlooked feature of the American left that threatens any kind of success for the movement itself.

Before they are either socialist-materialist-class struggle leftists or the more numerous and broadly appealing left-identitarians, American leftists are Americans first and foremost.

This explains why one dead white girl in Virginia evokes an exaltation of rage while hundreds of dead children in North Africa and the Greater Middle East barely elicit a grunt from great swaths of “the left”. It explains why airports get thronged by protesters opposing Trump’s Muslim bans but airbases from which lethal American machinery and manpower depart daily to kill those banned immigrants before they leave their homes are not disrupted at all.

And it explains why a few days or weeks from now it will be as if none of this ever happened or will only be remembered as a few memes and bumper-sticker style slogans useful for putting an end to a discussion that threatens to demand a little thought.

Because without a doubt, something will happen that will utterly erase the morbid excitement of praising a dead colleague and invoking The Battle of Lewisham as if every keyboard warrior on the American left had just returned from a turn with the POUM in Catalonia. And knowing Americans, it will involve guns. Or bombs. Or cruise missiles. Or drones.

It is, after all, the American way. If it weren’t, those militiamen would be in prison right now.

 

Are We Not Men We Are DEVO.jpg

 

Whataboutism: In Defense of Defensive Propaganda

whataboutism

Inevitably, as the horror stories, some possibly true, many probably not, emerge from the “liberation” of Aleppo, there are sporadic outbreaks of “whataboutism” on Twitter and other social media.

When someone points to reports of a hospital deliberately bombed in Aleppo as part of the Assad-Putin strategy to make life hell for civilians in the city, someone mentions the American bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan last year. (Notice it won’t be referred to as the Obama strategy.)

Almost immediately someone will say “two wrongs don’t make a right”, thus doing the almost miraculous merely by admitting that Americans destroying a civilian hospital is “wrong”. More often it will be pointed out that the Kunduz horror was a “mistake” and that American soldiers and officers have been “disciplined” for it, thus removing the stink of immorality from that particular war crime.

But more commonly the response is to point to the old Russian and fellow-traveler technique of “whataboutism”, which Wikipedia will inform you falls under the logical fallacy of “tu quoque” and which schoolchildren in the 50s and 60s referred to as “I know you are, what am I?”

And while it may be true that there is a logical fallacy at work if what one is suggesting is that the Russian bombing was not immoral or a war crime because the Americans have done the same, that is not the point at all. The point is something altogether different and more relevant than constructing a piece of spurious “logic”.

Consider this. You are at a small gathering at a friend’s house when you are approached by an acquaintance who points out someone you don’t know and whispers, “Disgusting. Why would ‘A’ invite her I wonder.”

When you ask what the problem is, your interlocutor continues in a low hiss, “She has a small hole just below the base of her spine. Fetid gasses occasionally seep out of it, and almost daily, sometimes more often, foul messes ooze out that require immediate treatment, treatment that actually costs the taxpayer massive amounts of money to avoid contamination of public space. She’s utterly, disgustingly filthy.”

If you don’t immediately recognize that your new friend is talking about the other person’s rectum and therefore that there is nothing especially disgusting or filthy about her in the least, you may feel revulsion and wonder why such a creature was invited to your friend’s house at all.

Focusing on some particular bit of information that suggests that someone or some nation is prone to immorality or criminality while simultaneously ignoring the context of a world in which the particular behavior is common or at least shared by others is one very salient element of propaganda.

Half a million civilians may have died in war-related incidents in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. Three to four million Vietnamese, Lao and Khmer people died during the so-called Vietnam War, or more accurately, three to four million people were slaughtered by US military involvement in Southeast Asia in the 60s and early 70s.

Those are not “logical fallacies”. They are dead bodies: men, women, children. They were killed by Americans or as the result of American military adventurism. No one  since 1945 comes even close to the record of war crimes and international immorality that America has racked up.

And that is not a fallacy of any kind whatsoever. It is, however, a context. And it is in relation to that reality that our judgments of other governments and other militaries need to be made, never forgetting that when we want to accuse someone of war crimes or human rights abuses and actually get the “international community” to do something about it, we should begin with the biggest perpetrator and work our way down.

Otherwise it would just be another case of sweeping up the little guys and letting the ringleaders go free.

Islamic Exceptionalism: Challenging Liberal Universalism

I

Living in Thailand for the past decade has changed me or, if not ‘me’ exactly, my view of the world, human nature, and the role and relevance of history and culture in shaping both.

To be more precise, theses changes started when I first became interested in reading Japanese history some 25 years ago, which led to an exploration of Chinese history and then Korean history, and on and on. A visit to in-laws in Japan combined with a rock climbing holiday in Thailand in 1998 introduced me to the Asia I had only read about in history books and online forums like Dead Fukuzawa Society and soc.cult.japan. Eight years later I decided to move to Asia, choosing Thailand as a base.

An interest in Thai politics has led me to question the universality of liberal values. Not that my belief in individual rights, human rights, equality before the law, or democracy and the rule of law have wavered even a little. I have simply come to accept that not all people who do not share my liberal faith are either evil or tragically mistaken, brainwashed or otherwise abusively coerced into denying the tenets of contemporary liberalism. It’s a difficult thing to communicate to liberals, this questioning of the universality of our values, not least because one of those values appears to involve the celebration of diversity and tolerance.

II

One of the recurring obsessions in the expat community in Thailand is a question regarding “real Buddhism”. The commercialism, materialism and nakedly hierarchical class divisions that are on display in daily life here apparently give the lie to Thailand’s claim to being a Buddhist society and culture for many foreign observers of Thai life.

Only ever half-seriously, I sometimes point out that looking at the origin stories of Buddhism and Christianity should be sufficient to explain why so many of the children of liberalism, itself, arguably, a child of Christianity, are shocked by the venality and illiberalism of Buddhists and Buddhist societies, preferring instead to privilege the version of Buddhism that they have absorbed through books written for westerners, often by westerners, that have become recognized as forming a distinct school; i.e., Western Buddhism.

Each of these two very different religions, like Islam, has one primary founding figure:

Jesus of Nazareth, in the most common telling, was born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals, to parents scurrying to register for the first ever imperial census, ordered by Augustus Caesar. After a few years working as a carpenter and debating theology and law in the public square, he took up life as a wandering prophet followed closely by a number of fishermen and at least one former tax collector. He taught the value of every individual life, emphasized the moral superiority of poverty, and performed miracles: healing the sick, feeding the masses, and even bringing the dead back to life. Ultimately seen as a threat to the imperium,  Jesus was put to death by local authorities. The most prominent symbol of Christianity is the image of the body of Jesus hung on the Roman cross, dead or dying. His teachings slowly spread out among mainly poor people in the eastern regions of the Roman sphere, eventually becoming the state religion of the Roman empire.

Siddhartha Gautama, on the other hand, is usually presented as having been born a prince in a minor kingdom in what is now Nepal. Due to a prophecy that his son would become either a great spiritual leader or a great king and soldier, his father the king surrounded young Siddhartha with luxuries and prevented him from having contact with religious notions or with the realities of death and suffering through illness and poverty that might incline him to think about humanity in spiritual terms. On escaping this sheltered life, Siddhartha was so shocked by aging and illness and death that he ran off and lived in the woods as an ascetic till one day he discovered the middle way and started preaching his wisdom. Not long after, various wealthy merchants and kings and other notables wished to be associated with his teachings and granted him tracts of land on which to build a shelter for his monks to remain apart from the world. The usual symbol of Buddhism is Gautama himself, sitting cross-legged with a smile on his face, apparently removed from all human concern through meditation.

So, a poor working-class lad grows up to lead a small band of potentially subversive fishermen and others and is put to death by the oppressive Roman state versus a coddled princeling who grows up to abandon his wife and child in order to gather followers from the upper classes who grant him land and domicile and a long comfortable life. Where Jesus preached the value of human individuals, emphasizing the equality of all, Buddha denied the existence of individuals and taught that we are born into situations determined by our actions in past lives.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, in their beginning is their end, just as in their end is their beginning.

III

Shadi Hamid, author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World, in a much more serious vein, points to the “founding moment” of Islam as a significant determinant of the problematic nature of Islamic societies and their relationship to the modern nation state. It is what makes Islam “exceptional”:

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Islam is different. This difference has profound implications for the future of the Middle East and, by extension, for the world in which we all live. This admittedly is a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and Europe. “Islamic exceptionalism,” however, is neither good nor bad. It just is, and we need to understand it and respect it, even if it runs counter to our own hopes and preferences. Second, because the relationship between Islam and politics is distinctive, a replay of the Western model— Protestant Reformation followed by an enlightenment in which religion is gradually pushed into the private realm— is unlikely. That Islam— a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution— should follow a similar course as Christianity is itself an odd presumption. We aren’t all the same, but, more important, why should we be?

Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 5). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

Hamid traces this difference to two aspects of Islam’s founding: one, the fact that Mohammed was, besides a prophet through whom god spoke directly, a military leader and, most significantly, a head of state. It follows from this that Islam was necessarily concerned with rules and laws and other elements of the state that Christianity obviously was not. And secondly, Muslims tend to emphasize the inerrancy of the text of the Koran in a way that Christians do not and have not. This is because, unlike Christian scriptures which are acknowledged to have been written by men, albeit inspired by god, the Koran is believed to be the actual words of god as spoken through Mohammed.

Hamid is at pains to emphasize that this “founding moment” does not mean that Islamic political society could never take on the lineaments we associate with liberal modernism, but that it is highly unlikely to do so within any reasonable time frame.

This part of the book, while carefully argued and presented with due circumspection, is open to serious criticism and will not likely find many adherents in any of the communities where this sort of theorizing might be relevant. In many ways, it is a more sophisticated version of the kind of “Just So” story that I presented above.

To begin, there is very little hard evidence that the “founding moment” of Islam as presented here is anything more than a carefully crafted fiction developed over the decades and centuries following the initial surge of Islam out of the deserts of the Arabian peninsula.  Once that has been taken on board, much of what Hamid suggests is a cause may in fact be viewed as a post facto justification that has continued to be useful to authoritarian governments and individuals down to today.

The suggestion that theocratic governments have not characterized Christian history because Jesus himself was not a head of state and was therefore not concerned in his teachings with rules and laws that could be taken directly into a state’s institutional structures ignores the theocratic leanings of the Byzantine Empire and the long intermittent struggle between Rome and western European secular authorities during the middle ages.

IV

Be that as it may, the question of the continuing influence of the founding moment of Islam is not really central to Hamid’s book. It is in his refreshingly personal and anecdotal presentation of contemporary Islamism and Islamists that this book offers its most accessible insights. “Islamic Exceptionalism” provides a number of necessary correctives to our generally blinkered view of political Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, Islamists are, almost by definition, in favor of democratic governance, if by democratic we refer only to the practice of determining governing bodies through the process of elections. As Hamid points out, Islamists are and have long been in a constant state of negotiation with liberals and other secular groups as they develop strategies for involvement in democratic processes of varying degrees within their political communities.

Equally against the grain of common misunderstanding is Hamid’s insistence that rather than being representatives of some atavistic 7th century feudal ideology Islamists are in fact uniquely modern. Given the intrinsic interweaving of religion and governance that characterized centuries of Islamic history, it is only in the modern context that Islamism could stand as one ideological strand among others in competition for power over the problematic nation-states of contemporary Muslim-majority countries.

It is impossible to come away from an honest reading of this book with stereotypes intact and for that alone Hamid is deserving of respect and thanks. But the most substantial sections of the book are those presenting detailed examinations of the recent political histories of three Sunni-majority nations that embody the inherent conflict between Islam and liberalism.

V

Hamid’s choice of Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia as “case studies” in the problematic clash of Islamism with the nation-state and the implicit “liberal” assumptions that underpin much of its structure is telling in more ways than one, that is to say as much for what it deliberately excludes as for what it so astutely analyses.

The utter failure of Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood to hold onto power once elected in the wake of the ouster of Mubarak makes the perfect contrast for the equivocal “success” of Ennahda in Tunisia. Unlike Morsi, who once in power began to renege on promises of moderation, Ennahda actually stepped down after vaulting into the Prime Ministership of a coalition government as a result of the country’s first-ever democratic elections.

In neither of these cases does “democracy” triumph of course. The return of military dictatorship and a harsh, repressive, murderous regime in Egypt is blatantly a failure of democracy to take hold after the ebullience of Tahrir Square. Less obvious but perhaps even more pernicious is the perceived necessity for Ennahda to step down, adopt western dress and, arguably, deliberately “lose” the elections of 2014 in order not to destabilize the country as it struggles to transition to a more democratic model.

As Hamid has made clear in this as well as his earlier work Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, deliberately avoiding victory in democratic elections has long been a survival tactic for Islamist parties well aware of the violent reactions their winning would likely provoke. Anyone who doubts that “liberals” could possibly constitute such a threat would do well to consider Hamid’s description of those who cheered the massacre of Brotherhood supporters on August 14, 2013.

Turkey and the virtually uninterrupted 14-year reign of Erdogan and the AKP is the case most intimately bound up with the West and its liberal ideological pressures. Ostensibly a “secular state” since the Kemalist revolution of 1923, the Turkish state has nevertheless had to walk a tightrope between the people’s undeniable Muslim identity and  the strictures of Kemalism since day one.

In spite of winning election after election, the AKP has always had to recognize limits to its mandate. “Turkey wasn’t a normal democracy. Every day, AKP officials woke up wondering if the army or the courts would move against them.” The constant threat of military or judicial coup goes beyond what liberals normally refer to as “checks and balances”, so regardless of the electorate’s choice of an Islamist party to govern them, Turkey’s democracy is even more severely limited than the usual western liberal democracy with its in-built protections for individuals and minorities against the potentially hostile intentions of the majority.

The way the long drawn-out period of the EU accession process has impacted both Turkish democracy and the AKP is instructive and perfectly illustrative of the ironies that abound when illiberal democratic impulses get filtered through a relationship with powerful liberal states like the EU.

In order for the AKP to confidently govern as an Islamist party, and thus as a less liberal but more democratic one, it had to be assured that the military would no longer function outside civilian control as a sword hanging over the heads of any government mandated to move away from strict Kemalist secularism. At the same time, in order for the Turkish state to meet the demand for liberal reforms that were part and parcel of the move toward EU accession, “the military would have to respect the elected civilian authorities.” As Hamid succinctly puts it, “EU membership, then, became AKP’s most important cudgel against the Kemalist “deep state.””

VI

What is left out in “Islamic Exceptionalism” of course is any treatment of Iran and the decidedly Islamist theocratic state with democratic characteristics that has been in place there for the past 37 years. It is, admittedly, outside the scope of Hamid’s study, partially due to Iran’s “outsider” status (as part of the “Axis of Evil”?) but primarily due to intractable theological differences between the Islamist strains within Sunni Islam and the Shiite “heresy”. As justifiable as this exclusion may be for the purposes of making the study manageable, it nevertheless leaves out a major element of modern Islamic history in regard to attempts to integrate the religion with governance in a modern state.

And while not ignored completely, the vast difference between the development of democracy in other nations outside the Arabic world, like Pakistan and more particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, and how things have worked out in the Greater Middle East is not given anything like its due.

It is hard to ignore the rather obvious reality that how these very different Muslim-majority democracies have interacted with the west, primarily the US, since WWII, goes a long way toward explaining their very different experiences with democratization.

As Hamid points out, both Malaysia and Indonesia display more “Islamist” features, such as sharia ordinances, than most middle eastern nations outside the Wahhabist core of close American allies like Saudi Arabia. Indonesia is recently being hailed as the outstanding democratic success story of the whole of Southeast Asia, in spite of the fact that both Islamist and “secular” administrations at the local level throughout Indonesia institute and enforce a wide variety of Islamist-style legislation.

And this brings us to the most glaring absence in the book, which is simply the role played by American and other western involvement in “problematizing” the relationship between democracy and Islam in the oil-rich region of the Greater Middle East. As I write this review, American arms and American permission have been given to the Saudis and Qataris to reek havoc in Yemen. Neither the Americans nor the Saudi autocrats are comfortable with Islamist democracy in the region, threatening as it does to destabilize western hegemony there.

Regardless of Obama’s snap decision to pull American support from Mubarak at a crucial moment, the residual inertial tendency in American policy was to support a dictatorial regime and avoid any possibility of the chaos of democracy in Egypt, hence the instant recognition of the al-Sisi junta and the hesitation to call a coup a coup.

And although American law demands the suspension of all support for a military that undertakes a coup, within ten months both cash and weapons systems that were initially held back were flowing as usual to the murderous junta. So much for American support for democracy.

VII

I have to admit that my enjoyment of Hamid’s book rests primarily on his careful presentation of an argument that convincingly undermines the assumed universality of liberalism implicit in almost every word spoken or written by westerners when discussing governance and politics anywhere outside the tightly drawn limits of “the west”. Like him, I hold firmly to my faith in the tenets of liberal democracy and cannot imagine ever letting go.

But I no longer believe that my faith is a universal one.

It’s just mine.

But neither do I accept the claim that Islam is exceptional in its resistance to liberalism. I think it is more the case that the “post-reformation west” is exceptional in its affinity for liberalism.

China is not and has never been a liberal state. Japanese “liberal democracy” has many features that are neither liberal nor democratic. India’s oft-celebrated “world’s biggest democracy” would likely not come even close to satisfying the expectations of the children of European or North American liberal democracies no matter how often and how many elections are held. Any suggestion that liberal democracy is about to take hold in any nation in Southeast Asia is a pipe-dream.

That is not to say that many governments around the world are not motivated to put up a facade that satisfies the demand of giant markets like the EU and even more gargantuan militaries like the US for an appearance of liberal democracy before access to the riches of the west will be granted.

It is, however, to suggest that this condition is being eroded in the present time. And if liberal democracies do not begin to tend to their own institutions and procedures, not only will the rest of the world stop pretending to struggle to achieve liberal democracy in order to access their markets, there won’t be any liberal democracies left for them to simulate.

White Talking Heads: Media Punditry and the Case of Thailand

Television news, as everyone knows, is essentially idiotic.

It is idiotic partly because the simplification required to say anything meaningful about current events–Syria, say, or Putin or Trump or the recent coup in Brazil– in the time allotted by the format makes intelligent commentary or analysis utterly impossible.

So what television news deals in is better described as little snippets of ideology which act as “sentences”, if you will, to the morphemes of “soundbites”and “lexical” imagery: video clips of war-torn cities, pictures of dead children and weeping parents, maps with arrows showing advance and retreat.

A pre-existing frame of ideology is invoked and confirmed, a commercial is shown, and the viewer goes back to Orange is the New Black feeling edified and responsible.

One element in the standard western ideology of course is free speech. Democratic societies encourage freedom of thought and speech, and the media, especially television news, provides a platform for debate and discussion.

Quite often we get a panel or a pair of pundits, usually described as “experts” or former officials or journalists with extensive experience covering A, B or C, who perform “disagreements” that are also already inscribed in the basic ideology.

The standard “disagreement” of course is that of “right versus left” and everyone is familiar with how that plays out depending on the orientation of the network presenting the “disagreement”.

Big news items get the “pundit debate” presentation that provides a simulacrum of “free speech” and “freedom of thought and opinion” but the pundits are always or almost always “experts” at one important unspoken skill: their opinions and arguments are circumscribed by an acceptance of the fundamental elements of the western ideology.

This is why experts like Noam Chomsky rarely show up in mainstream media, and slightly less offensive but still outside the dominant paradigm pundits, like Glenn Greenwald who do, are often ridiculed or at least questioned more harshly than is normally the case.

With the election of Donald Trump, a phenomenon not yet successfully incorporated into the media’s ideological apparatus, there is a possibility that something will have to change and a space for real discussion may be opened up, in print and online media at least, but television will still have to find a way to fit the new “disagreements” into the time-limited formats that were more than capacious enough to handle the previous standard “disagreements” within the ideological frame.

This, however, is decidedly not the case with “smaller” news items: anything concerned with politics in a medium-sized Asian country like Thailand, for example.

In these cases, we get a pure, one-sided affirmation of the western ideology and nothing more. There is almost never a debate, although Al Jazeera may have once or twice had a token representative of something other than the dominant ideology on to be made to look foolish by the other “experts” on the panel.

This tends to be true of all of Southeast Asia as it is presented in the mainstream media. We learn that all of these societies are less democratic, more corrupt and plagued with more official violence than the gold standards upheld by the west.

The junta in Thailand, for example, is usually presented as both violent and unjust, using examples of torture claims and excessive sentences for ridiculously petty instances of violation of the lese majeste law. We are expected, of course, to understand these criticisms in the frame of the ideology of the west regardless of the rather glaring fact that Thailand is not and never has been a part of the west.

The effect of  “experts” placing the reality of a country like Thailand into the frame of pure ideology is to reinforce the essential rightness of that ideology.

It allows the pundit to present himself (for they are invariably male) as an advocate for better things for the people of Thailand  (better here meaning more inline with the ideological fantasy he weaves with his “critique”), and as such come across as an “oppositional” figure, thus creating the simulacrum of “disagreement” without actually presenting any other viewpoint.

In short, we are in the realm of neo-imperialism, with white male talking heads taking up “the White Man’s burden” and playing the role of “the best [we] breed”. (It might be relevant in this context to look at a work like Owen Jones “The Establishment” and see how many of the white male Thai “experts” attended either Oxford or Cambridge.)

A more interesting and enlightening approach to presenting the situation in Thailand might be to compare the reality of, say, US torture, imprisonment and corruption with the comparable realities in Thailand.

Rather than invoking the glories of “free speech” as an ideology and lamenting the capacity of Thai citizens to think freely due to the rigid controls on free expression in Thailand, it might be more informative to compare the Thai case with how corporate media and its funneling of all information through the ideological filter has influenced the capacity for Americans and American “talking heads” to think and speak freely.

But of course if anyone were to attempt to do so in the soundbite format and by attempting to step outside the ideologically correct syntax of allowable discussion, they would wind up like Chomsky, silenced by mainstream media.

It must be just so much more personally satisfying to follow Kipling’s advice to journalists covering these “sullen peoples, half devil and half child”:

By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain.

Of course, any attempt to measure how anyone other than the pundit himself “gains” from the simulacrum of “open speech and simple” will run up against the rather simple fact that no one does. No one, that is, among the people singled out for their usefulness in confirming the ideology that provides the context for their presentation to the world.