Saturday, March 17, 2012

There's A Right Way To Do Things

A couple days ago, I got around to posting some thoughts on the whole Kony2012 video and campaign. I have to admit, I was reluctant to do so. There are many, many people who support Invisible Children, and find in the video something laudable. I couldn't refrain from saying something out of fear either of being misunderstood or being told I was missing the point (which is a claim I never quite understand) or . . . I don't know, maybe supporting or even enabling Kony and the LRA because I was making clear my feelings about the many inadequacies of the Kony2012 video and campaign.

The last, of course, is so much fun. Being told that I support a psychopath makes my day.

On Facebook, one person in particular defended the video and campaign with that marvelous stand-by that it at least served the purpose of educating an until-then ignorant public about the activities of the LRA, so it had achieved something laudable, right?

That's the kind of counter-question I find difficult to counter. Yet, it seems a kind of special pleading, as if all the other criticisms have merit, but, hey, people know a name now, right?

Than I came across this, thanks to Rachel Rosenfelt on Facebook.
It is the campaign’s insistence on the exceptional nature of Kony’s crimes that produce both Kony and his victims as Outside, exceptional to our everyday. Indeed, as political philosopher Sayres Rudy pointed out to me, anti-Kony and knee-jerk anti-anti-Kony may “contribute to a broader pattern of accepting the systemic instrumentalization and massacre of innocents, by rendering Kony/Invisible Children as exceptional instead of typical, allowing their offenses to constitute similar systemic actions as normal, legitimate, or acceptable.” His further insight is that American soldiers who are often neither old enough to drink or vote are sent to kill, but we don’t think of these as child soldiers slaughtering innocents.

If the discussion around #Kony2012 stops without exploring these connections, we are left not with politics but with elite-liberal mutual masturbation over the way to address the exceptional rather than the systemic
This New Inquiry article was a treasure trove of links, leading the way down an alternative path toward answering the questions posed by those who find in the Invisible Children video any little scrap of virtue worth saving. One of those is TMS Ruge who addresses the whole matter of "awareness-raising" head on:
“Raising awareness” (as vapid an exercise as it is) on the level that IC does, costs money. Loads and loads of money. Someone has to pay for the executive staff, fancy offices, and well, that 30-minute grand-savior, self-crowning exercise in ego stroking—in HD—wasn’t free. In all this kerfuffle, I am afraid everyone is missing the true aim of IC’s brilliant marketing strategy. They are not selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem.

Cause, you know, that works so well in the first world.
Further down, Ruge writes the following about The Women of Kireka:
The Women of Kireka are the most resilient group of individuals that I know. Spend a day with them and you will wonder how they manage to so calmly describe to you watching their entire families burned alive, their husbands and children hacked to death, in front of them. They do it so calmly, methodically, with such articulate prose that it leaves your soul victimized for it’s privilege. Yet they don’t pause from rolling a perfectly crafted paper bead for a beautiful necklace. They don’t waste their time lamenting the lack of justice for the fallen or the abducted. Why? Because it doesn’t bring back the dead, it doesn’t dissolve the horrific images of their huts burning, or ease the scars borne of running scared into the night.

Instead, they want work and respect and business to be able to make decisions that move their lives along. They want desperately to forget and rebuild anew; thankful for their lives. They want radios and cell phones and grasp at any semblance of normalcy. They cuddle and nurse their newborns like delicate, cherished gifts. What they don’t talk about is justice. They talk about how to forgive and move on.

But I can’t tell you their story. Why? Someone else has taken over their part in this complex saga, simplified it, branded it, packaged it and is reselling it as an Action Kit.
Another great commentary comes from political scientist Adam Branch, who writes in Dissent:
My frustration with the group has largely reflected the concerns expressed so eloquently by those individuals who have been willing to bring the fury of Invisible Children’s true believers down upon themselves in order to point out what is wrong with this group’s approach: the warmongering, the self-indulgence, the commercialization, the reductive and one-sided story it tells, its portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans, and the fact that civilians in Uganda and Central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money. This, of course, is sickening, and I think that Kony 2012 is a case of Invisible Children having finally gone too far.
First, because Invisible Children is a symptom, not a cause. It is an excuse that the U.S. government has gladly adopted in order to help justify the expansion of its military presence in Central Africa. Invisible Children are “useful idiots,” being used by those in the U.S. government who seek to militarize Africa, to send more and more weapons and military aid, and to build the power of military rulers who are U.S. allies. The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy—how often does the U.S. government find millions of young Americans pleading for it to intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The U.S. government would be pursuing this militarization with or without Invisible Children—Kony 2012 just makes it a bit easier. Therefore, it is the militarization we need to worry about, not Invisible Children.

Second, because in northern Uganda, people’s lives will be left untouched by this campaign, even if it were to achieve its stated objectives. This is not because things have entirely improved in the years since open fighting ended, but because the very serious problems people face today have little to do with Kony. The most significant one they face is over land. Land speculators and so-called investors, many foreign, in collaboration with the Ugandan government and military, are trying to grab the land of the Acholi people, land that they were forced off of a decade ago when they were herded into camps. Another prominent problem is nodding disease—a deadly illness that has broken out among thousands of children who grew up in the government’s internment camps, subsisting on relief aid. Indeed, the problems people face today are the legacy of these camps, where over a million Acholi were forced to live, and die, for years by their own government. This is the legacy of the government’s counterinsurgency, which received full support from the U.S. government and international aid agencies.
One of the threads running through the pieces from Prasse-Freeman, Ruge, and Branch can be summed up in one word: learn. None of the people mentioned here (and so many more) are arguing that the Lord's Resistance Army was something to be ignored. None of them support Kony, or are enabling Kony, or do not want the American people to be aware of the situation in Uganda.

What they want is for people to learn what's really going on. Kony2012 fails so utterly and completely at this that, at the end of the day, even the tattered virtue of "awareness-raising" crumbles under the relentless reality that the picture it paints of Uganda, the Ugandan people, and their current situation bares no relationship to the realities on the ground.

What are these realities? Writing in Review of International Political Economy in August, 2002, William Reno details the interlocking structures, from an international legal regime that demands respects for sovereign borders, legal frameworks from semi-supranational organizations such as The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that demand structural adjustments from states to meet debt obligations, and the predatory habits they encourage that create conditions for on-going war, in particular in central Africa which is rich in multiple mineral resources. Far from creating conditions for development, the many actors including the governments of states across the continent - not only Uganda is mentioned, but also Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe - exist in conditions where the multiple cross-pressures create conditions for the perpetuation of war as a structural tactic for maintaining stability and order without necessarily creating conditions for the development of internal infrastructure for local sustainability. When people talk about "neo-colonialism" and the structural impediments for development and political and civil cohesion, Reno's piece goes a long way toward defining it and limning its many threads.

In the years since Reno's piece has appeared, new factors have arisen that have exacerbated the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The explosion in demand for the variety of electronic devices has created a demand in particular for rare earth metals, in which both DRC and CAR are quite rich. Keeping both countries weak and unstable, various outside actors, including Uganda, keep a military presence in these countries, in particular in the northeastern parts of the DRC, where senior military officials have created networks of resource extraction and trading for personal gain. Allowing Uganda to skim some off the top to help their balance of payments and fiscal situations, these entrepreneurial military officers create long-running issues that, with the introduction of American military forces, have only been made worse. The Chinese, in particular, have a large presence across the continent, so it should surprise no one that the United States is developing a policy of military presence to protect its own interests, not the least of them keeping various trade relations (including with various military entrepreneurs, not only from Uganda) on a sure footing. Combined with the already-existing interlocking structural deterrents to stability, our current policy, using Kony as an excuse, is perpetuating the misery, in particular in DRC, which suffered international neo-colonial attention when it was known as Zaire.

As I was contemplating how to continue what I believe is a real discussion about these matters, I learned on the news that Jason Russell, who is the singular auteur behind Kony2012, was detained yesterday for public intoxication and masturbation.
Danica Russell, in a family statement obtained by NBC News, suggested sudden attention and criticism of the film about African warlord Joseph Kony, may have led to her husband's behavior.

"We thought a few thousand people would see the film, but in less than a week, millions of people around the world saw it," Danica Russell said. "While that attention was great for raising awareness about Joseph Kony, it also brought a lot of attention to Jason -- and, because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.


In an earlier statement Friday, Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children, said:
"Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason's passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time."
So the narcissism of Kony2012 continues.

There is a right way to do things. It includes getting your facts straight, listening to people who actually know what they're talking about, hearing more than a single voice weep and moan about lost loved ones, and first and foremost not making oneself both subject and object of concern. One could make a professional video about current conditions in Uganda (not "Africa") that was informative. Kony2012 is not.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

We Don't Know Even More

On Tuesday, I wrote a post regarding the murder of Afghan civilians by an Army Staff Sergeant. The conclusion to which I came was simple enough to understand, I think:
There are just too many questions with no answers here. There just doesn't seem to be enough information to make any judgments regarding the sergeant's mental and emotional state; all this discussion, while on one level refreshing for its candor, just doesn't feel right. Accountability for this crime may well rest not only with the person who committed it; it might just implicate policy makers, military health-care providers, and - dare I say it - we the people who have not worked hard enough to end this conflict, follow through on our commitment to care for our military personnel who have volunteered to sacrifice so much on our behalf. We need to be sure we don't end up covering our own asses even as we try to untangle the many knotted questions that surround this case.
Some of the things "we don't know" include the situation on the ground in Afghanistan as our troops experience it. With a report of an Afghan man on fire as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul raising the subject of so-called "green-on-blue" attacks - attacks on US and coalition forces by members of the Afghan Police or Security forces - I thought it important to make clear the even-deeper gulf of ignorance we at home need to cross before making hasty judgments regarding what, precisely, was the seed-bed of the murder rampage.

On March 9, NPR ran a story profiling Army Capt. Joe Fritze, whose job it is to train Afghan police and security forces. In the midst of situation already volatile for any number of reasons, Capt. Fritze's job is made all the more difficult by the mutual lack of trust between American and coalition forces on the one hand and the Afghans on the other. With the recent revelations that American forces burned copies of the Holy Q'uran (I picture a high ranking officer hanging up the phone when he received the news, putting his face in his hands, and wondering if it isn't too late to try his hand at being a golf pro somewhere soon), the ensuing violence (it was called "rioting" in the press; it was far more like a series of coordinated attacks on US and other military installations that left many on both sides dead and wounded; the battle over the burned Q'uran, as it were), and now these murders, questions need to be asked about the conditions under which our military personnel serve in Afghanistan, the nature of the mission in which many are involved, and the nearly insurmountable obstacles in the way of securing their objectives.

Which is not to mitigate the gravity of the crime itself. It is rather, to wonder about the wisdom of a policy - the pacification and modernization of Afghan law enforcement under the tutelage of American and coalition forces - and ask whether or not it might not be far better for all involved if getting the hell out of there weren't the better option for everyone. In one of the LA Times articles linked above, Defense Secretary Panetta and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, insist that everything is going along just as it should:
"[They] believe we have achieved significant progress in reversing the Taliban's momentum and in developing the Afghan security forces, and they believe that the fundamentals of our strategy remain sound," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
What else are they going to say? That our strategy is ridiculous, the goals unachievable, and the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly?

Whether or not the Taliban is or is not a viable political force within Afghanistan is, it seems to me, not a matter for US military personnel to handle. Whether or not the Afghan government is capable of sustaining its policing infrastructure is not something with which the US should concern itself. Preventing Afghanistan from becoming "a safe haven for terrorists" is an impossible task for any individual or group.

None of this is to slight the Afghan people, their traditions and history, or their current feelings regarding US and coalition forces. They are who they are, and the US for far too long has sought to impose upon Afghan society a foreign model of self-governance that disregards their own traditions and histories. This isn't the fault of the US military; it is, rather, the fault of US policy-makers who entered Afghanistan without any serious study or consideration of the realities a foreign occupier would face. Our troops have been given a nearly impossible task, and with each passing day, week, month, and year, achieving results recede ever further. Future American-Afghan relations are already questionable; we have outstayed our welcome, and the mutual animosities that threaten both Afghans and American troops will only get worse.

All this, not discussed or even considered relevant in the case of the Army sergeant and his murderous shooting spree, adds necessary depth, light on the darkest corners of the current difficulties our soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen face. While it is important, even necessary, for us to talk seriously about the event in question, it is always important to understand how little we know or understand about the conditions our troops face. While it may well be the case the individual in question was not in full mental health, it seems irresponsible to the point of negligent not to consider the fullness of a context in which our troops do not - and probably cannot if they are to stay alive - trust those with whom they work. The entire situation is a recipe for many disasters. Many have already happened, and the body count on both sides rises.

If we surrendered our illusions regarding nation-building in Afghanistan and brought our troops home, we might yet do right by those who serve us under conditions none of us who haven't served can imagine.

Yet Again, The Point Is Simple - It's Not About Us

To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep.
Guy Debord

Thanks to social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, the biggest hit on the internet is a video produced by a group called Invisible Children about the Lords Resistance Army of northern Uganda and its fugitive leader, Joseph Kony.

Professionally done to the point of slickness, the video is also patronizing, narcissistic, overflowing with that patented American sense of optimism that disregards the complexities and histories and conflicting narratives about those histories that, in the end, leave me both fascinated and worried. I'm fascinated that a film that purports to be about bringing to justice an international fugitive seems far more about the film-maker's self-righteousness and smug sense of superiority than about the LRA, Kony, the war between the Ugandan military and the LRA, and the victims caught in the middle. For a film that is supposed to be about Kony, his name isn't mentioned until nearly nine minutes in, almost a third of the way through this 30-minute video presentation.

Did I mention there isn't a face of color in the first four or five minutes of the film, in which the film maker "sets the stage" with home movies of himself, his family, and in particular his son (at one point, this same son is shown using a camera to "blow up" a woman in line at a grocery store, and isn't that ironic for multiple reasons, considering Kony's use of child soldiers). It is clear to me, at least, this film has little to do with the LRA and everything to do with "making a difference" for a bunch of wealthy, disconnected, white Americans. I laughed out loud at one point, as the clip showed a car moving through a camp where teenage refugees and escapees, caught between the Ugandan military and the LRA's "recruiters", were shown occupying abandoned buildings, open fields, anywhere they could grab a space to sleep; a voice in the background says that, if there were such a scene in the US for even one night, it would be on the cover of Newsweek. Because, obviously, there is no problem of homelessness among children and teenagers in the United States, now, is there, young people trapped between the police on the one hand and gangs that use violent intimidation to recruit new members?

The many layers of ignorance are astounding.

Three pieces on the website for the English language edition of Al Jazeera make clear the many ways #Kony2012, for all it may have raised awareness in some general sense, is actually counterproductive. Adam Branch, a professor of political science at San Diego State University, as well as a researcher at the Makarere Institute in Uganda, writes:
Kony 2012 and the debate around it are not about Uganda, but about America. Uganda is largely just the stage for a debate over the meaning of political activism in the US today. Likewise, in my view, the Kony 2012 campaign itself is basically irrelevant here in Uganda, and perhaps the best approach might be to just ignore it. This is for a couple reasons.

First, because Invisible Children's campaign is a symptom, not a cause. It is an excuse that the US government has gladly adopted in order to help justify the expansion of their military presence in central Africa. Invisible Children are "useful idiots", being used by those in the US government who seek to militarise Africa, to send more and more weapons and military aid, and to bolster the power of states who are US allies.

The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy - how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The US government would be pursuing this militarisation with or without Invisible Children - Kony 2012 just makes it a little easier. Therefore, it is the militarisation we need to worry about, not Invisible Children.
Mahmood Mamdami, director of the Makarere Institute for Social Research, writes:
Young adults recall the time from the mid-1990s when most rural residents of the three Acholi districts were forcibly interned in camps. The Ugandan government claimed it was to "protect" them from the LRA. But there were allegations of murder, bombings, and the burnings of entire villages: first to force people into the camps, and then to force them to stay put. By 2005, the camp population grew from a few hundred thousand to over 1.8 million in the entire region - which included Teso and Lango - of which over a million were from the three Acholi districts. Comprising practically the entire rural population of the three Acholi districts, they were expected to live on handouts from relief agencies. According to the government's own Ministry of Health, the excess mortality rate in these camps was approximately 1,000 persons per week - inviting comparisons with the numbers killed by the LRA even in the worst year.
Critics asked why the ICC was indicting only the leadership of the LRA, and not government forces as well. Ocampo said only one step at a time could be taken. In his words: "The criteria for selection of the first case was gravity. We analysed the gravity of all crimes in northern Uganda committed by the LRA and the Ugandan forces. Crimes committed by the LRA were much more numerous and of much higher gravity than alleged crimes committed by the UPDF (Uganda Peoples Defense Force). We therefore started with an investigation of the LRA." That "first case" was in 2004. There have been no others involving Uganda in the eight years that have followed.
Finally, for all the sincerity expressed by the filmmakers that #Kony2012 is "for" the people of Uganda who have lived through the terrors of the Lord's Resistance Army, the video was only recently screened in northern Uganda, due to limited access to the internet. Al Jazeera reporter Malcolm Webb reports from the town of Lira, where a riot, sparked by anger at the film, erupted, cutting the viewing short as rocks started raining on the screen.

The point of this discussion should be clear enough. Reacting to the arresting and moving scenes and stories from northern Uganda, well-intentioned but ignorant outsiders arrive on the scene and announce both their authority and the means to solve the problems they suddenly declare to be of profound importance to the world's only superpower. Thus did Pres. Obama send one hundred military advisers, along with an unspecified number of UAV's to assist the government of Pres. Museveni of Uganda. Uganda had already invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was preparing to mount an invasion of the Central African Republic (CAR) in search of Kony. This was done because Museveni, for all he came to power in the late 1980's as a beacon of hope after years under dictators including Idi Amin and refused to surrender power, has refused to participate in any mediated political solution. Much of the current misery in the northern areas of Uganda is the result of the Ugandan Army's campaign against the LRA. The African Union, along with the Government of South Sudan, has been working for years on a political settlement that would bring home the members of the LRA; Museveni has refused to sign any legislation offering amnesty to LRA members because those bills have always included amnesty for Kony. Kony's indictment by the ICC, rather than a moral victory for the jurisdiction of the court, has only complicated and thwarted possible political solutions. With the entrance of the United States military, the possibility for a peaceful settlement retreated further; the US is not even a signatory to the convention creating the International Criminal Court. Should Kony fall in to the hands of the US military, who's to say if he will be bound over for trial in The Hague, turned over to the Ugandan military, or returned to Uganda and turned over to their legal authorities.

Standing off from a distance, it is easy enough, I suppose, to become overwhelmed by the situation in Uganda. Kony is an easy enough target for hatred and disgust. Hatred and disgust at an easy target is not a substitute for careful thought, for educating oneself on the facts of the matter, and for constructing possible responses out of a sense both of how much as well as how little one knows about a particular situation. The American response, I maintain, is rooted as much in guilt over our inaction - and, according to a report from the Organization for African Unity released in 2000, its complicity - during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990's as our concern for the specifics of the struggle between the LRA and the Ugandan military. That the Uganda of today has far different concerns and problems stemming from the heavy hand of the dictator we are currently supporting would, if we were a bit more aware, mock our good intentions.

It is all well and good, I think, to desire to do something to alleviate suffering. It is all well and good to believe and work on the principle that individuals can make a difference in the world. Done without regard to the realities on the ground, rooted in an unreflective, patronizing racism that is all the worse for going unrecognized, the #Kony2012 video is a travesty, a mockery of the very ideals from which it purports to come. As the epigram from Guy Debord makes clear, however, it is easier for us to rely on the spectacle of the video and the equally engrossing possible spectacle that shows us riding to the rescue of the Ugandans; these nightmares have the singular virtue of being those of other people. We can sleep at night knowing that, watching a video, we have done something. The consolations of our detachment keep us from the far more difficult work of actually learning things and doing things.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Going From Worse To Horrible

As if it weren't bad enough for the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church that its representatives in the persons of its bishops were insisting that women should just shut up and not behave like people, the Church itself is now targeting an advocacy group for victims of clerical abuse.
Turning the tables on an advocacy group that has long supported victims of pedophile priests, lawyers for the Roman Catholic Church and priests accused of sexual abuse in two Missouri cases have gone to court to compel the group to disclose more than two decades of e-mails that could include correspondence with victims, lawyers, whistle-blowers, witnesses, the police, prosecutors and journalists.
Adding disgusting to the creepiness, Bill Donohue has sidled up to the bishops and adds his two-cents to the mix.
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a church advocacy group in New York, said targeting the network was justified because “SNAP is a menace to the Catholic Church.”

Mr. Donohue said leading bishops he knew had resolved to fight back more aggressively against the group: “The bishops have come together collectively. I can’t give you the names, but there’s a growing consensus on the part of the bishops that they had better toughen up and go out and buy some good lawyers to get tough. We don’t need altar boys.”
That last line is particularly gruesome in light of a decade of revelations from around the world that Roman prelates considered altar boys little more than a buffet line for their predatory habits (I know, nuns wear habits). One would think that (a) hundreds of priests in countries all over the world being serial rapists was a menace to the Catholic Church; (b) the hierarchy, up to and including the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter, covering up the abuse, shuffling the pedophilic predators from parish to parish like deck chairs on the Titanic is a menace to the Catholic Church; (c) having a public advocate who says things like this were a menace to the Roman Catholic Church:
The overwhelming majority of those abused are postpubescent males—they are not children. Breaking the seal of the confessional could not have saved any of them; nor will it protect anyone in the future.
As we move through this next phase of the Holy Mother Church's public defenestration, let us remember that, while it is true enough both those accused of abuse and the Church as an institution have every legal right to defend themselves against the accusations made against them.

When it became clear, a decade or so ago, that the various cases of clerical abuse were revealing both a network of priests in contact with one another, as well as an effort by the hierarchy to hide evidence of the abuse, the Bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church released a statement that I recall in detail. Bishop Joe Sprauge said that the on-going cases in the Roman Catholic Church effected all clergy, all denominations, all persons involved in the work of the Christian Church. He called upon all United Methodists in northern Illinois to pray for forgiveness, to reach out and advocate for victims of abuse by clergy. Instead of whining about how horrible it is that everyone is saying mean things about the Christian Church because its clergy were revealed around the world as predatory pedophiles, he came out squarely on the side of the victims.

Would that we all took a lesson from that. Especially Bill Donohue.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It's A Conspiracy!

It's funny. I got to thinking a few weeks back that I wanted to do a post on conspiracy theories. I've put it off for a variety of reasons, when I ran across a bunch of information at Rolling Stone magazine, due in large part to an investigative report published by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay.

Then, I went back just to make sure I hadn't written about my love for conspiracy theories. Turns out I had, back in September, 2007. Part of the problem with having a long-running blog like this without any tags is I have to be thorough in checking to make sure what I have and have not said in the past. I'm glad I did in this case because my main interest, for the present post at least, is my fascination with the death by investigative journalist Danny Casolaro. He was found dead in a motel room in Martinsburg, WV in August, 1991. His death was ruled a suicide.

Casolaro was a part of a network of conspiracy investigators. Claiming to be hot on the trail of what he called "The Octopus", the reaction to his death among what one writer has called "conspiracy culture" - that his death was "obviously [a] faked" suicide - without any mainstream research in to his life and death begs for serious re-examination.

Journalist and author Dave Cullen spent ten years researching everything about the mass murder at Columbine High School, publishing a book that destroyed every long-held myth the public had not only about the events themselves, but the students who carried it out, as well as the victims. I think nothing less is called for in the case of Danny Casolaro.

Not because I believe his was a faked suicide, the alleged perpetrators stealing his many research notes and papers (none of the research Casolaro claimed to carry with him at all times was found either at the motel or at his home; an alternative conclusion to that promulgated in "conspiracy culture" is he had no research materials). On the contrary, I'm guessing that an investigation in to the death of Casolaro's life and death would go a long way toward undermining the glamour and mystery that surrounds so much conspiracy-mongering. Of course, folks who insist on the reality of multiple conspiracies would only insist this shows how insidious such conspiracies are; the lack of evidence for their existence is definitive evidence for their existence.

One point I made in that post from '07 is still valid, I think. The fact that there are a whole lot of people who believe all sorts of silly conspiracy theories does not mean that conspiracies do not exist. Indeed, as I wrote then, conspiracies are abundant, plentiful, and by-and-large easy to find and detail. Conspiracy-mongers, on the other hand, give folks who detail the collusion among various groups toward specific ends that might either be contrary to the public interest or violate the law a bad name. Noam Chomsky is a good example of this. Derided and dismissed, at least among much "respectable" opinion in the United States, as a conspiracy-monger, it would be difficult, despite the millions of words he's published over the decades, to find any mention of "conspiracy" in his work. He is not a conspiracy theorist in the way, say, folks believe the Freemasons are planning on taking over the world through their lackeys in the Rhodes Scholarship program, Skull & Bones at Yale, and Opus Dei in the Roman Catholic Church are conspiracy theorists. The latter such are marvelous creatures with great entertainment value. Chomsky, on the other hand, notes the reality that certain expressed interests of powerful industrial, financial, and other corporate actors seem to wind up being expressed as American foreign policy, too often contrary to the interests of people in other countries (as well as an alternative foreign policy, sometimes even the expressed policy of a given Administration). This is not "conspiracy" mongering; it is, rather, little more than the description of what should be, to even a casual observer of politics, the unsurprising alignment of interest, power, money, and action.

Polling ahead of today's Republican Presidential primaries in Mississippi and Alabama showed that a plurality of Republican voters in those states believe Pres. Obama is a Muslim. One man, interviewed by NPR after a candidate's forum expressed typical "birther" views. These should trouble anyone who cherishes this country and our history as well as hopes for our future.

Conspiracy theories are good fun; from aliens both at Area 51 and Wright-Patterson AFB (Hangar 18, remember . . .) to the Council on Foreign Relations plans for world domination, they make marvelous fodder both in real life and as the source for rousing good yarns and stories. When they become the subject of serious inquiry by a "conspiracy culture", however, we have many reasons to worry.

We Don't Know

So I was just listening to The Diane Rehm Show where she and her guests are discussing the mass murder of Afghan civilians by a 38 year old Army Staff Sargeant, tying it to questions regarding recruiting, training, and the treatment of people who have a variety of psychological problems. The first person to whom Diane spoke mentioned that current military policy requires two years between deployments; the person in question had less than a year between his deployment in Iraq, where he apparently suffered an unspecified Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and his current deployment to Afghanistan.

Swirling around these questions, as a former RAND analyst on the panel looking at military recruiters noted, are questions of the pressures put on recruiters to meet quotas. This led to many recruiters overlooking various problems that may well have led, in peacetime, to these persons not being let in to the service.

Of course, there have also been questions raised regarding the status of the treatment of mental health issues, post-deployment, particularly with regards to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and specifically questions regarding the level and quality of care at this particular soldiers home base, Joint Base Lewis McChord, in Washington.

All of these are questions that need to be discussed, and should have been discussed, all along. All of these are matters that impact all of us, as these soldiers place themselves in our care, with the promise that for their service to our country, we will take care of them. All of these questions float around the broader policy questions of the status of our current mission in Afghanistan, and how that policy has continued to be implemented after ten years.

All the same, the specifics of the case seem to mitigate any kind of attention to these questions. A soldier walks off base, killing sixteen Afghan civilians, most of the victims being women and children, then calmly walks back to base and turns himself in. With emotions already riding high, thanks to the thoughtless burning of the Muslim holy book, the murders seem to show a certain callousness on the part of American military personnel for the life and well-being of the very people we claim to be serving (secondarily).

There is more than a whiff of CYA in all this talk of TBI, non-treated PTSD, questions regarding the status of the sergeant's mental health prior to his enlistment, etc. I'm guessing if the Army can convince the world this person had multiple issues of which it was not aware, or were only flowering under the pressure of his current deployment, they are in no way responsible through their policies and procedures, for the man being in a place and time where he would suddenly decide that indiscriminate mass murder seemed a good idea.

Since the beginning of our far-too-long military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been persistent, nagging questions regarding the treatment of military personnel with mental and physical health issues. Suicide rates among veterans are enormous, as are rates of domestic violence, divorce, alcoholism, and other indicators of psychological dysfunction. No matter how often these matters are raised, they never seem to be resolved. The people who pay the price are our currently-serving military personnel who are not receiving adequate treatment (let alone standard down time between deployments, at least in this case, which proved to be one case too many for sixteen dead Afghan civilians) and our veterans, who have routinely had their requests for treatment denied. Recently, under court order the military is reviewing thousands of applications for re-evaluation of their diagnoses for PTSD and other psychological problems precisely because the trend has been to deny its presence.

There are just too many questions with no answers here. There just doesn't seem to be enough information to make any judgments regarding the sergeant's mental and emotional state; all this discussion, while on one level refreshing for its candor, just doesn't feel right. Accountability for this crime may well rest not only with the person who committed it; it might just implicate policy makers, military health-care providers, and - dare I say it - we the people who have not worked hard enough to end this conflict, follow through on our commitment to care for our military personnel who have volunteered to sacrifice so much on our behalf. We need to be sure we don't end up covering our own asses even as we try to untangle the many knotted questions that surround this case.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Living Dead

There's a scene in Stephen King's It that, when I first read it, struck me almost immediately. The first chapter tells of the brutal murder of George Denbrough. Later, George's older brother, Bill, enter's Ralph's bedroom, in an effort to connect with his brother. His parents, grieving separately and silently, do not speak of George. Trudging through a silent house, Bill is left to deal with his pain and loss on his own. Standing in George's room, cleaned and made each week by Bill's distraught mother, Bill opens the closet door and is confronted by the ghastly, one-armed corpse of his dead brother, who pronounces Bill's guilt for his own death.

I'm guessing something similar happened to my father.

In 1928, while out for a family drive on a Sunday, a doctor who was well known as a drunk, came zooming out of his driveway, striking the car in which my father's family was riding. Sitting up front on his mother's lap, my father's older brother, Everett, who was known as "Ikey" to the nicknaming bunch in the car, was thrown violently against the metal dashboard. My father, sitting in the back bench seat next to his older sister on the side of the car struck by the on-rushing vehicle, broke his arm. Two weeks later, having never left the hospital, Ikey died from pneumonia. Having lost her only brother to the slaughter bench of World War I, my grandmother descended in to a grief from which she would never recover. Ikey's was a name never uttered in her presence. The silence was so total, even as an adult, my father rarely speaks of his older brother. I can count on the fingers of one hand the references to Everett Safford even having lived. I have no idea what kind of boy he way; I know he was good with his hands, with tools, like my grandfather. I don't know if he liked baseball, though, or if he had a sense of humor. In his death he became what the accident rendered him - a corpse standing and staring out at my father's family, a revenant whose sole purpose was to remind them all that he had died.

As with families, so, too, with nations. Death not confronted leaves us only with ghastly corpses, mute witnesses to our collective brutality and unwillingness to confront who we have been. One of the functions of history is the confrontation with our worst selves, our failures and collective responsibility for injustice, cruelty, and evil. If not dealt with, we remain surrounded by the living dead, zombies who demand to feed on our lives and souls. We kill these voracious monsters of our own creation, in the end, by looking them square in the eye and, with some luck and skill and honesty, seeing who we are that gave us these horrid gifts.

I read a short review of James Cone's new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Despite some problems with the review - "societally" is not a word; diagnosis is not a verb; Billie Holliday, as far as I know, never ever shouted in her songs, and she was a jazz singer, not a blues singer - it offers up a good introduction to what should be a seminal work in theological confrontation. Cone's early work held a mirror up to white American smugness and self-satisfaction and demanded answers to questions we just weren't willing to hear. Now, after may years of relative silence, he has returned in full prophetic style, demanding answers to more questions we don't want to hear. I look forward to reading this book precisely because the juxtaposition of the cross and the lynching tree seems so obvious, I hate myself for missing it as a point of serious theological reflection and concern.

The review author in the linked post reminds readers of William Faulkner's quip, "The past is never dead. The past isn’t even past." That's only true if we refuse to confront it. I'm variously amused and concerned when people, discussing questions of the history of race relations in America, deny any responsibility for our current state of affairs. Since they have never owned an African-American slave or murdered an African-American in that ritual of communal cleansing known as lynching, they share none of the guilt and shame those institutions carry. Since I've yet to hear anyone say participation in these social institutions is a necessary prerequisite for recognizing the burden they place on us as a nation, I'm never quite sure what such statements mean.

Except now, I think I do. I think these people, like Bill Denbrough, peer in to the dark closets of our history, and see the horrible image of all the mutilated men and women staring back at them. Fearful of confronting the walking dead whose accusations are felt too keenly, they would rather we sweep it all under the rug, not talk about it, and blame the victims of our ongoing collective refusal to look the dead square in the eye for their problems.

Cone's work is, I would think, a good place to start a recovery of the reality of our violent past for a full and proper reckoning. We cannot be a just society if the dead are unquiet due to our refusal to see them for whose they are - our own. While we have started down the long road of understanding who we are through images such as the one above, by linking the reality of lynching in America to the claims of faith from the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, we may yet make our way a bit further toward claiming our on-going responsibility for these crimes because of our ongoing refusal to see them.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Nothing Matters And What If It Did?

When I was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America, I took what I thought would be a seminar on Aristotle's Politics. The professor was one of the most popular, well-respected scholars teaching in the School of Philosophy. I'd taken a course on moral philosophy from him and the seminar was to be the first of two parts, the second being a seminar on Hobbes' Leviathan. The problem, however, was that there were almost thirty people signed up for a graduate seminar. It turned from an intimate discussion of issues within a classic text to a long, tedious line-by-line exegesis. About half way through the semester, a student interrupted the monotone presentation of yet another ridiculously boring read-through with a simple question: "Who was Aristotle writing for?"

The professor paused and said, "Why, he was writing for the ages."

At that point, I realized I would get nothing out of the rest of the class.

No one, certainly not Aristotle, ever does anything for the ages. Aristotle didn't because the very concept would have been unintelligible to him. The Greeks had no such concept. We, who supposedly have some kind of historical consciousness, are led to believe that if our lives are to have meaning, we are to make a mark that lasts. Even an ahistorical hyper-romantic like Richard Rorty wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that the best any of us can do is add a line or two to the poem of the world.

Neil Strauss's Everyone Loves You When You're Dead: Journeys Into Fame And Madness has an "Epilogue" that, if anyone had been paying attention, was redundant. Setting out eleven "lessons" that shaped the structure and narrative framework of the sprawling set of interviews - bits and pieces that span two decades, 228 in all - they all return to what Strauss says was the impetus behind the formation of the book: Does what we do have any meaning?

A long-time rock journalist and critic, working with publications as various as The New York Times, Spin, Esquire, Maxim, and The Village Voice, Strauss has also published works written in co-operation with Motley Crue and Marilyn Manson, Dave Navarro, and porn/pop phenom Jenna Jameson. The subjects span from Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley through Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Eric Clapton, and Bruce Sprinsteen to Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan, The Backstreet Boys, Lady Gaga, and The White Stripes. Some of the subjects, like Trent Reznor, Clapton, Springsteen, and Snoop Dogg, and Marilyn Manson, seem held-together (except, of course, Reznor was in the midst of a years-long heroin addiction; even for that, the parts of his interview seem the most honest even if self-deprecating). Others, such as Jonathan Davis from Korn, Julian Casblancas from The Strokes, Twiggy Ramirez from Marilyn Manson, Question Mark from Question Mark and the Mysterians, rapper The Game, and Christina Aguilera are, variously, neurotic, drunk, coked up, schizophrenic, and too self-absorbed to comprehend how much of a flash-in-the-pan he is. The end result is not so much an exploration of the single meta-question that drove this work as a series of quick-cut presentations that, while interesting in and for themselves, accumulate weight over time. The question of meaning, makes itself clear from page one, where a drunken Julian Casablancas dodges an interview by getting so stupidly drunk, the interview becomes a lesson in and of itself of the dangers and threat posed by fame.

In our capitalist society, the question of meaning is usually relegated to an interesting non-sequitur. For the people whose interviews are within the pages of this book, however, the question of the meaning of their work is paramount. One story Strauss catalogs, the loss and recovery of a set of costumes from a Country Music Wax Museum that closed in the 1980's; the costumes were all original sets of clothing donated by various figures from Jimmie Rogers and Johnny Cash to Barbara Mandrell and Minnie Pearl. Quite apart from the monetary value, the historical significance of sets of clothing can be debated.

Or can it?

Reading the back story to the search and discovery of the clothing, I couldn't help but think, "Wow, all those old costumes. First they were gone, now they're back." I think most anyone, even someone not particularly interested in country music, or pop culture more broadly, would agree this is an issue of significant importance. It's a connection, a very real connection, between people. The black shirts Johnny Cash would wear; the hair and bell-bottoms Barbara Mandrell was famous for; Minnie Pearl's hats - these are symbols that tell us who these people were as performers. They signify what they meant to us and for us.

Some of the people whose interviews Strauss includes got lost somewhere along the way. Either through drugs or fragile psyches or chronic, untreated mental illness or (as in the case, say, of Brian Wilson) some combination of all three, what made them who they once were is destroyed. Like everything else in our capitalist society, the producers of our popular culture have become disposable commodities; planned obsolescence isn't just about a new car model every year. No one expected Chuck Berry to continue performing in to the first decade of the 21st century. No one thought The Beach Boys were creating a template for pop music writing and production that would continue even as the technology for music production exploded. No one thought Trent Reznor would make it through his years of rage and heroin to win multiple Academy Awards for soundtrack composition.

No one thought an illiterate share-cropper from Mississippi named Otha Turner would, at the age of 91, be one of the last in a legacy of fife-and-drum performers who would be able to continue his legacy of a dying, marginal musical form that has roots to African fife-and-drum rituals because a few enterprising, interested journalists and musical ethnographers would insist listening to him was important.

Yet all these things, and so much more, are indeed important. They have meaning because, despite the totalitarian insistence of capitalism that meaning is irrelevant, a question best left to drunk college students or stoned-out bohemians who have nothing of substance to contribute, all these - and so much more - tell us who we are.

Nothing makes that more clear than the chapter entitled "Cannibalism Is The Answer". Holding a mirror up to America over the past couple decades, we see an ugliness of racism, idiotic superficiality, and triumphant over-coming that boggles the mind. Whether its the Skullbones Amphitheater in Tennessee, with its booths selling racist paraphernalia, Paris Hilton being Paris Hilton, or the failing and triumphal national tour of Iceland's only indigenous country western band, we see the many contradictory realities of who and what we are shining back at us. Perhaps Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat shows this most clearly. Crossing the many lines of performance art, entertainment, and social commentary, we see and hear who we are and the result is both hilariously funny and incredibly sad. In a rare interview as himself (until that time, Cohen only interviewed as his characters Ali G and Borat; Strauss got a glimpse at the man behind the curtain and discovered, as he did with Stephen Colbert, the sanity behind the madness) Cohen shows Strauss that the keys to unlocking the many doors we would prefer remain closed lie in being able to make us laugh even as we are disgusted at what we are seeing. In a short snippet of an interview with Hanson, we see a rare moment when a group of teenagers display more wisdom than far too many adults; rather than discuss their personal religious beliefs as a way of labeling and pigeon-holing themselves, they only want to talk about the music they make (the fact they had both more musical merit and talent, and displayed this singular maturity also tells us something about who we are; we would far rather label a group of musicians as a way of restricting them, even dismissing them, than hearing what they have to say as musicians).

Strauss's book is a monument, despite its pedantic epilogue, to the importance of popular culture even as it quickly becomes more historical product than lasting statement of historical significance. Whether it's a lost free-jazz artist living on the streets of New York City, Britney Spears being astounded at a con-job, or the nine-year saga of the writing and production of Cher's last number one song, it's all important because we see who we are in the midst of what is both best and worst about ourselves. The things that will last, the things that are popular, the things that define us at any given time become touchstones, signifiers of the panorama of American (and, more broadly, western) culture.

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