Liberalism versus Democracy: Round 1

A lot has been written recently about the decline of democracy and the the crumbling of the liberal world order.

It has indeed become something of a commonplace to set the election of Donald Trump beside the success of the Leave campaign leading to Brexit, then go on to point to the electoral shock of the AfD entering the Reichstag in Germany and the steady rise of Marine LePen and the National Front in France, and conclude that if the sky isn’t precisely falling, it certainly is clouding up.

Add a dash of Hungary and Orban, the Poles and PiS, and even the plucky Czechs leaning to the right, and we are forced to recognize that a hard shift to the right is threatening the status quo of the Pax Americana, that  understated version of imperialism that has soothed the world’s liberals into a profound sense of righteousness and absolute certainty in the justice of the overweening power they have wielded ever since WWII ended.

The hierarchy of significance of these offenses against the world order is clear: liberalism is the hallmark of the Anglosphere and for right-wing illiberal populism to gain such power as to elect a goon like Trump in the imperial metropole and to have the sidekick Brits kick against the pricks of the European Union is almost unbelievable. These two nations have after all been running the world on the “liberal imperialism” plan for centuries now.

Next in order of importance are the two continental champions, the erstwhile co-leaders of the EU, who have struggled so long to pretend that the Bundesbank (aka Germany) has not actually taken control of the European project, even to the extent of ignoring directives issued by Washington. France and Germany, whose rivalry was central to the most murderous wars of the 20th Century and possibly all human history, are drifting to the right and that is almost as scary as having l’Orange in the Oval and the UK mounting one long racist rally and calling it Brexit.

Almost as an afterthought come the former Warsaw Pact nations and their ugly fascist-leaning governments that seem to be inexorably pushing their peoples back to the authoritarian past, apparently just because they really really don’t like Muslims. And as was the case when the Balkans exploded less than a decade after the death of Tito, many western commentators point to the history of these former East Block nations as an explanation for this descent into nationalist xenophobia. They are, after all, not part of “the West”, not really.

It is usually the case that very little time is spent on laying out what is meant by ‘democracy’ or what the ‘liberal’ in the “liberal world order” really signifies in these articles. We are assumed to know and, sure enough, most people in the west are quite willing to throw around the term ‘democracy’ without ever giving a moment’s thought to what it is, outside occasionally quoting Churchill’s reluctant approval.

One way to think about the ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ that are usually mashed up into our beloved liberal-democracy is to recognize that each plays the role of limiting the possible excesses of the other in a modern state. Democracy is rooted in the notions of consent of the governed and majorities as the measure of what might be called the will of the electorate. Liberalism, as the ultimate expression of individualism, acts to limit the tendency of majorities to ride roughshod over the rights and freedoms of minorities and individuals who deviate from the norm.

Many of the institutional hallmarks of liberal democracy are more liberal than democratic per se. Rule of law, equality before the law, the full panoply of human rights, civil rights and individual rights: any or all of these might be dismissed as irrelevant or contrary to custom and belief by a majority of citizens in a modern state. Conservative polities in Muslim-majority countries may not accept the equality of women in certain legal contexts or the right of gays to engage in either sexual congress or marital union. Nationalist majorities in Europe may cling to a preference for “nation-states” as they were originally created in the bygone 19th century as “imagined communities” of people sharing a language, a culture, and a historical tradition, thereby rejecting immigrants and immigration, and denying them the liberal rights and privilege that are assumed to belong to citizens.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

     “… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking.  In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld'”

Put another way, for most westerners liberalism is the air we breathe, the ground we walk on and the lingua franca of all our conversations about values. Or at least it has been up until relatively recently. Keats caught the overwhelming power of the liberal worldview when he said

            ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –- that is all                                                                         Ye know on earth, and all ye need to  know.’

A slightly less respectful expression of what liberalism means to the vast majority of people in  western countries would be something along the lines of “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarden”. Hence we have the poignant irony of a thought leader like Ben Affleck defending the Islamic world from the Islamophobia of bigots everywhere by declaiming that a billion Muslims just “want to go to the store and have some sandwiches”, to which Egyptian-American Muslim scholar Shadi Hamid replies:

This is why the well-intentioned discourse of “they bleed just like us; they want to eat sandwiches and raise their children just like we do” is a red herring.* After all, one can like sandwiches and want peace, or whatever else, while also supporting the death penalty for apostasy, as 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 83 percent of Jordanian Muslims did in a 2011 Pew poll.13 In the same survey, 80 percent of Egyptian respondents said they favored stoning adulterers, while 70 percent supported cutting off the hands of thieves.                     *

And that is without asking the obvious question. “How popular are sandwiches among the world’s Muslims, especially among those living outside the sandwich-eating west?”

For a democracy to be democratic there needs to be some mechanism for majorities to choose those who will govern in their names. The usual mechanism for this is to hold elections to send representatives of specific groups to a parliament or congress where laws will be made and national initiatives debated and approved. Corollary to this requirement is a politically aware, preferably active, electorate.

At this point in the defining of what constitutes a democracy, a western liberal will almost always add something about either human rights or rule of law or both. That is, westerners usually reflexively define democracy as liberal-democracy and find it near-impossible to understand how that undermines the very basis of democracy if democracy is understood to involve the expression of the values and beliefs of the people who make up the demos.

In Indonesia, the nation presently wearing the crown for SE Asian “beacon of democracy” now that Suu Kyi and Myanmar have lost that title after such a short reign, there are politicians and Islamist civil society representatives who label “liberalism” a foreign ideology along with communism, socialism and religious radicalism. According to Pew, something like 93% of Indonesians reject homosexuality, more than in one-party authoritarian Malaysia or even Pakistan with its revolving door democratic and military dictatorships. And yet, unlike those two nations, Indonesia has no law criminalizing homosexual behaviour or relationships between consenting adults. Only in Aceh does a sharia-based regional law applying only to Muslims criminalize homosexuality.

When politicians and civil society spokespersons call for a rejection of LGBTQ++ rights and for laws to criminalize homosexual acts, they are speaking for a very large majority of Indonesians. Nevertheless, it is a journalistic and academic commonplace to see these politicians and these groups as “threats to democracy”. That is, to represent the values and beliefs of the majority of an electorate that does not share liberal values as they have evolved over the past 2 or 3 decades in that tiny region of the planet known as “the west” is to be “anti-democratic”, whereas to uphold the values of, among others, the former colonial powers in the region, is to safeguard “democracy”.

It really doesn’t take much imagination to understand why it is that electorates around the globe are turning away in droves from this conception of “democracy”, seeing how it is little more than a version of the kind of liberal cultural imperialism that Kipling celebrated and that Winston Churchill was willing to defend with war crimes and genocide, those markers of the liberal-democrat venturing outside her own democratic backyard.

When Madeleine Albright suggested that the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children were “worth it” and Hillary Clinton crowed “We came. We saw. He died.” in celebration of the death by ritual sodomization of Gaddafi, they were speaking for liberal internationalists everywhere. Unfortunately for those who would see liberal-democracy spread to the vast tracts of the globe that are yet to come under its sway, the great majority of people outside the liberal-democratic west find it much easier to imagine themselves in the place of those Iraqi children and a man like Gadaffi than they can see themselves reflected in plutocratic psycho-killers like Albright and Clinton, neither of whom is easily imagined sitting down and having a sandwich with the world’s billion Muslims.

*Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 13). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

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Bouquets and Brickbats for the Blessed

The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine State in Myanmar is a still-unfolding horror for the victims of the Tatmadaw and Rakhine militias who have deliberately, and with wide-ranging support from almost all sectors of Myanmar society, driven more than 600,000 stateless people into squalid makeshift camps in Bangladesh.

The effects of this latest round of forced displacement have rippled out beyond the sufferings of the Rohingya people to include the destruction of Aung Suu Kyi’s carefully cultivated image as an icon of human rights advocacy. Her brazen denials that anything untoward has taken place, even going so far as to offer praise for the military’s success at maintaining “stability” in difficult circumstances, almost deserve some sort of reward for obstinacy in the face of massive international disapproval.

In reality she has been stripped of a few meaningless awards from virtue-signalling institutions like St. Hugh’s college (who have gone so far as to remove her portrait from the main entrance)  and the City of Oxford. Her honorary membership in a UK trade union will also be suspended.

One might be tempted to wonder how Unison feels about her Ministry of Labour offering a $3.50/day minimum wage law in the face of Myanmar union insistence that even $5.00/day is barely enough to cover daily expenses for most workers. But what has that to do with union membership, really?

Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar
Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Also caught in the harsh light that such brutality brings to bear on the difference between media imagery and real-world behaviour is Pope Francis, whose moral cowardice in refusing to utter the word Rohingya while calling for “peace” with all the grace and aplomb of a Miss World contestant deserves far more scorn than media outlets are apparently willing to express.

Rather than castigating him for what is by any measure a failure of moral responsibility, media outlets have been almost unanimous in excusing his silence as “tactical” and subsequently praising him for finally uttering the taboo-in-Burma term on his last day in Bangladesh. Emotionally charged photographs of a Rohingya man shedding tears of joy over Francis’ concession to decency accompanied the articles praising Francis for what is in reality nothing at all.

Such “icons” of humanistic values are thin on the ground these days and wise editors don’t want to toss yet another hot clickbait item into the dustbin of history.

Suu Kyi in Rakhine: A Job Well Done

It has been 6 weeks since State Councillor Aun Suu Kyi gave her stellar performance of Myanmar’s defiance of the international community regarding the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine State.

In that time, the media complex that frames and colors and highlights “news” emerging from SE Asia has shifted from a tendency to blame Suu Kyi for not speaking out and attempting to stop the unfolding tragedy to focus instead almost exclusively on the perpetrators, the conveniently named Tatmadaw.

Precisely how these ethical calculations are undertaken isn’t clear, but the difficulty of rebranding Suu Kyi from “democracy and human rights icon” to “Hitler-clone monster” after the fashion of Sadam or Gaddafi or Kim is obviously a major consideration, even if it is an “unconscious” one.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi visited the afflicted area of Rakhine for the the first time ever. She made stops in Rakhine during her election campaign but not in the north where the ethnic cleansing has been undertaken.

While there, aside from posing for photos, State Councillor Suu Kyi met with a group of Muslim religious leaders and told them three things: “they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other”, as reported by one of the religious leaders who attended the meeting.

And with yet another defiantly flung finger in the face of the UN and all the various human rights organizations currently vilifying the Tatmadaw and other security forces in the region, she congratulated the police and soldiers for a job well done under difficult circumstances.

suu kyi in rakhine

As I said in an earlier post, breathtaking.

 

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

February 3 2017

These two tweets are a perfect distillation of one of the many things ailing “the left” these days:

It’s possible that Murtaza isn’t old enough to know what the “decades of struggle” he is talking about were actually about. They were not about getting racist speech out of the public sphere. They were about voting rights and discrimination in housing and employment.

One of the side effects was to make public expression of racism impolite and extremely unattractive and uncool.

People like Murtaza apparently think it’s the side effects that matter. And that politics can be conducted as a class in deportment and etiquette, and so long as saying racist things is uncool, all is right with the world.

Question: What if they instituted a new Jim Crow and no one ever said the n-word?

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.