The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare

Photo by Mike Maguire | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Mike Maguire | CC BY 2.0


“The view that Syria is under attack because it isn’t a western puppet state, and that Washington wants Assad to step down to make it one, cannot be so easily dismissed. There’s plenty of evidence that states that seek to remain independent of US prescriptions on how they ought to organize their economies and foreign policies are uniquely targeted for sub-critical warfare (sanctions, sabotage, demonization, diplomatic isolation), or—where a military victory can be secured with impunity for the aggressor—by outright military intervention.

The Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who NATO forces worked tirelessly to depose, told Canadian lawyer Christopher Black that Washington sought his ouster for two reasons: Because he was a communist. And because he told the Americans to go fuck themselves. Which is to say, Milosevic refused to turn Yugoslavia into a western puppet state.

Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi was overthrown because he insisted that foreign investment in Libya work to the benefit of Libyans, an attitude that threatened to cut into the profit margins of Western investors. The US State Department complained that Gaddafi was practicing “resource nationalism,” while oil companies reacted bitterly to the tough bargains he was driving. This was hardly behavior befitting a western puppet state (which Libya wasn’t.) For telling Western oil companies that they could go fuck themselves if they thought they were going to get rich on Libyan oil while leaving Libya with nothing, Gaddafi, in the view of the Western foreign policy elite, had to go.

Stephen Gowans, 2014

The last Presidential non-debate is mercifully over and the Clinton regime can rest comfortable it is about to assume power. Questions remain as to just how committed (if at all) the Donald was to winning this election, but whatever the case, whatever mechanisms were employed to put him at the top of the Republican ticket, the one clear thing is that the Republican Party is dead. Or maybe it has simply merged with the Democratic Party. The Republicans could offer no alternative save the fanatic Christian Ted Cruz or the squirrelly Paul Ryan as an alternative. Oh, and poor Marco Rubio. Remember that the previous election featured a wealthy Mormon and the laughable figure of John McCain.

A leaked DNC memo in fact listed Cruz and Trump as potential *pied piper* candidates who would help erode credibility in the Republican Party (not hard, that) and lead the children (to keep to the metaphor) back to the Democratic Party, regardless how awful its own candidate. In any event, Trump can return to his new media empire (with new money and new partners such as Steve Bannon). Meanwhile the spectacle of U.S. electoral discourse has been reduced to a barrage of anti-Putin propaganda and a cartoon level public dialogue that treats the election as if it is a schoolyard fight where the tough girl gets to kick ass over the rapey rich kid. Richy Rich is punked by war hungry Imperialist and a lifetime criminal who happens to be a woman. This was the week that saw an endless series of memes featuring Hillary as a triumphant feminist heroine. The *competency* theme seemed to have picked up momentum, no doubt due to Trump’s history of archaic sexist treatment of women in his employ and even not in his employ. You’d almost think he WANTED this stuff to get out there. To get out there right at this moment, right before the election.

But then I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being handled. That every wikileak and email and revelation of groping was being calculated and served up to direct attention away from the fact that the U.S. military is now actively involved in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen and that Clinton (who seems more in control of foreign policy than Obama at the moment) is ratcheting up the provocations with Russia and Putin. And the arena for this new cold-soon-to-be-hot war is Syria.

And that brings me back to the cultural perception of Syria and the Arab (and Persian) world in general. Syria was both a product of colonialism in the sense its borders were drawn up by the French and English and the shadows that cast, but from which came (again) an anti Imperialism and Arab nationalism that featured a hybrid socialism and a fierce independence. The U.S. has never tolerated those leaders of small and even not so small countries that refused to “liberalize the economy”. That is short hand for becoming a client state. Chavez embraced Assad because he recognized an ally in the fight against global capital. The road to socialism is not easy. Ask the Sandinistas.

As Roger Harris wrote in July of this year…

“But even more important for Venezuela, as for any other capitalist country, is that the commanding heights of the national economy are controlled by an owning class whose antipathy of social change is immense. This includes not only the manufacturing, service, and major agricultural sectors, but a privately owned and rabidly hostile mass media.
In addition, the Venezuelan economy is integrated with the world economy, which is dominated by institutions with a neo-liberal agenda of all power to capital. And over-arching all of this is the US government organizing, funding, and directing the domestic and international opposition to the Chávista project.”

Assad rejected the Qatar oil pipeline deal in 2009. From there on out there was never going to be but one conclusion to the story. And Hillary Clinton has openly said this. Assad must go. And yet the U.S. public seems far more interested and worried about Trump and his theoretical broship with Putin. Or the supposed hacking of the DNC by Putin, except any cyber expert will tell you its impossible to determine attribution. But people believe it anyway. Qaddafi cancelled that billion dollar deal with Bechtel and found himself tortured and murdered courtesy of Madame Clinton. Assad faces a similar fate.

Chavez is dead, in circumstances not so different from Milosevic. On the other hand look at U.S. allies, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where gay men are beheaded and women still can’t drive. Or Israel, where a many decades long ethnic cleansing is being carried out while proudly remaining a racist apartheid state. This is just fine. The narrative is always the same for the U.S. If you want to stay in power remember to create a climate friendly to western Capital, and buy U.S. weapons, privatize your resources in some fashion that allows western companies to make a huge profit, and then, hell, do what you want. And this is where I am reminded of what Cornell West said not so long ago…“…the crimes of the occupier always outstrip the crimes of the occupied”. I may be paraphrasing a bit. The point is that leaders like Assad face enormous pressure to obey. Look what happens when you don’t. Milosevic, Qadaffi, Lumumba, Arbenz, Allende, or Brazil in 64 where the U.S. feared (in the words of ambassador Lincoln Gordon) that Goulart would make the country ‘the China of South America’. Or Iran in 53, or Guatamala, or Greece or Haiti. The list is very long. Or Vietnam. Remember Vietnam? It seems many Americans no longer do remember Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Diem is another disobedient foreign leader. Assassinated in 1963 with the CIA fingerprints all over the hit.

“Some very complicated discussions are not being had about the nature of agents of change. I am suspecting that, at least for many of those who fancy themselves as leftists in North America and Europe, they prefer to wait for a messiah: a pure, saintly figure, beyond all reproach, without the complicated past of a real human being who lived a real human life. The architect of utopia must be perfect. This is a new puritanism.”

Maximillian Forte

Many on the left (and god knows many on the right) like to refer to Assad’s government as a *regime*. This is an orientalist code for expendable. Chavez was elected three times but was labeled a dictator. Milosevic was the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’. Qadaffi went in and out of favour with the U.S. (and France) a number of times, but his economic reforms were just a step too far. And he served as the perfect object lesson in disobedience. If you don’t do as you are told, you will be driven into a hole and beaten to death. Saddam could gas his own people and get trade breaks, as long as he flew U.S. made helicopters to do it. Eventually it was expedient to lose him, too. Clinton has now famously boasted of the Qadaffi hit. We came, we saw, he died. Those words and her cackle afterwords will linger in the western imagination for decades. And the handling of these narratives always employs a certain very specific Orwellian vocabulary. And there are always lurid tales of chemical weapons or rape and there are always poor dark skinned suffering children used to gain sympathy. Remember the babies torn from incubators in Kuwait story? Or the rape camps in football stadiums in the former Yugoslavia. And now the western funded fraud that is the White Helmets and the ash covered boy in the orange seat. Fictions, created by Madison Ave firms; but you know what was real? Abu Ghraib. A story that has mostly faded from media memory. At what point does the U.S. public decide to remember any of this? To remember that the media lies. I guess never. And even on the left there is often a curious adherence to U.S. state department storylines. Whatever Assad has done, remember the situation. Assad is called out because Syria had torture sites (allegedly) in service to the U.S. You know who else did? Poland. But Poland is not a regime. As for repression and the litany of western accusations against Syria, I would only say remember the position of those countries looking up at the Imperialist boot heel of the U.S., AFRICOM and NATO.

A side bar note here on Qadaffi, who Reagan once called ‘the mad dog of the middle east’ and who made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. Muammar Qadaffi in hindsight looms as a figure of some importance. A defiant Arab leader, a Bedouin pan Africanist and pan Arabist and Nasserite who planned to create the Gold Dinar, a single currency for the entire African continent, and a highly pragmatic leader who survived four decades.

As SMubashir Noor writes (in the Daily Times of Pakistan)…

“He subsequently helped the US gather intelligence on Islamic radicals, gave up his nuclear programme and paid reparations to the victims of Lockerbie. The White House, (Pete) Hoekstra rues, “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” when it decided to dislodge Gaddafi because he was “doing everything we had asked him to do and had been doing it for eight or nine years”.”

But for Obama, Clinton, and the Pentagon..and the defense industry in the U.S., the symbolic and literal sodomizing and murder of Qadaffi was more important. Lest other uppity Arab leaders get any ideas. Send a message.

And then we have ISIS. or Al Nusra or whateverthefuckever they are called, or whatever the sub phylum of the sub set wants to be called. The Islamic radicals sure seem to spend a lot of time rebranding. But then they are very good at videos. They are media savy, as they say. And shit, someone tell me where that caravan of brand new Toyota trucks came from? And someone might ask Toyota come to think of it. I know I can’t afford a new Toyota pick up. The so called moderate rebels seem to turn up at inopportune times (like at the beheading party….where a young Palestinian boy was murdered, on the back of a pick up come to think of it). Where does the funding come from? One certainty is Saudi Arabia — chief donor to the Clinton Foundation. An ally of the U.S. And yet, remarkably enough not a single question in these debates addressed this fact. The U.S. is theoretically fighting *terrorists* who are holding U.S. manufactured weapons. ISIS supply lines have been photographed back in 2012 even, travelling through Turkey to Syria, with hundreds of trucks per day loaded with supplies. But clearly ammunition and grenade launchers as well as the truck of choice, Toyota, are gifts from the CIA and its proxies. But none of this sticks. Here in Norway, Loretta Napoleoni appeared on a nighttime news show to discuss terrorist funding and over the course of 20 minutes managed not to mention the possibility that CIA or Mossad might have, you know, played a part in this. No, we are to believe its all kidnapping and human trafficking. Such are the fairy tales of mainstream media.

The U.S. public would rather spend time on hash tags about Kick Ass Bad Ass Nasty Ass Hillary humbling the Donald (as the awful Ezra Klein put it in the paper of record) that deal with questions of who creates the simplified narratives they read. The White Helmets are the Syrian intervention version of incubator babies or Fikret Alic. Hill & Knowlton, Rudder-Finn, PURPOSE. But this should be no surprise, really. Look at the sentimentalism of Hollywood TV and film these days. And look at the stenographers for Empire, like Klein, or Kristoff or Brooks, but also look at the writers of VICE and SALON and then look at what passes for entertainment criticism. And I say that because those who write for pop culture have, perhaps, surprising amounts of influence. Not in what people watch or don’t, but in the *way* things are presented. The framing, as media scholars like to put it. The tacit assumptions, the omissions, the fawning tone or bitchy snarky attack. All of it is written at about a 4th or 5th grade level. The gatekeepers of corporate driven populism look to see if the right message is sent. Be cheerful, and funny if possible, and elevate the military to the status of heroic at all times, and the police, and manufacture domestic threats in the person of inner city black youth, or Chicano, and if possible Russian. Do not tarnish the integrity of the White House.

Michelle Obama delivers an unctuous speech about Trump’s sexism. And the liberal press and public fall over themselves in adulation. I twice heard the word *goddess* in social media. The white liberal loves Michelle. She is well behaved and perfectly nice. The way black people SHOULD be. Obama over his eight years has now been revealed as a malleable and opportunistic reader of the winds of political power. He adjusts his position in a heartbeat. In a hundred years, if anyone is still around, history will look back at Obama as the most gifted consigliere for corporate power in U.S. political history. The 21st century version of Warren Harding. Go along to get along. The only difference is the degree of calculation. Obama is a slippery back room lawyer. The reliable black man the establishment can count on. After all, Obama has actually weakened and outright rejected more environmental regulations than Bush. He has escalated all military interventions and established the precedent for extra legal assassination. And Hillary promises to be even worse. She actually does promise this. The support of fracking is one part (she lobbied globally for fracking while secretary of state), but her overall environmental policy is completely in line with the corporate interests that fund her. She often sounds like Ronald Reagan in fact.

The current War on Terror is so generalized, perceptually, that it seems to shape-change at a moment’s notice. Is anyone surprised the public can’t track the threat beyond the signifiers (beard, black flag, Toyotas, AK47s and videos). And this is what Hollywood reinforces. Count the network and cable shows that feature Islamic terror threats. And the advanced high tech espionage that helps keep America safe. This theme is repeated so consistently that it has reached a level of religion. A ritualized incantatory mantra that is repeated so often that it serves in the minds of much of the public as a sort of proto reality.

And yet. And yet as Carol Dansereau wrote:

“Far more people now identify as Independent than Democrat or Republican. Sixty-nine percent of 18 to 29 year olds and 50 percent of 30 to 49 year olds in the U.S. would now vote for a socialist. We are actually very close to being able to build the movement for economic and political democracy that we need, including but not limited to a political party of the 99%. That’s why we’re being subjected to the charade that characterizes this election season. Only through intense manipulation, and only by pitting an outrageous bigot against a right wing militaristic corporate hack like Hillary Clinton, can those who have been pushing humanity towards the brink of disaster maintain control.” (The Greanville Post, Oct 20th 2016)

And this is again a part of the mainstream media’s effect on consciousness. Those rejecting this electoral circus are invisible in the media. The majority of people, and certainly younger people, have no trust in the system. And while that visible educated {sic} 30% Chomsky once identified as the demographic target of Madison Avenue are growing in hysteria, there are many, very many, who sense they are being consistently lied to and cheated and exploited. The white liberal is now as big an impediment to social change as the far right followers of Trump. Bigger, in fact. One of the reasons so many people ignored the sexism and xenophobia of Trump was that they just wanted to express their anger. And their trauma. Vast numbers of Americans have almost no savings and live month to month. Many live week to week. But they are invisible in media. Meanwhile the attacks on Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka continue as if on auto-pilot. The corporate media found a framing that worked and they doubled down. Stein is a kook, an anti science fringe whacko. That none of this is true seems utterly beside the point.

Trump never wanted to win. And while, yes, many of his core base are bigoted misogynistic white men, there are others who simply wanted to voice their rage. The U.S. now affords a highly militarized police apparatus almost complete immunity. Poor black neighborhoods are occupied and terrorized. But Hollywood never tells that story. I mean never. There are a few bad apple stories, but nothing addressing a systemic racism of domestic police departments or the growing gulag that is mass incarceration. There are a few documentaries made on such subjects, but they are rarely widely viewed and rarely have a political critique. Nobody in corporate media says Capitalism sucks the life from the working poor, Capitalism breeds inequality and poverty. Capitalism is intensifying the polarization of income.

I mean, this TV season featured a fairy tale story of Queen Victoria on the ITV in the U.K. (produced by Rebecca Eaton, who was awarded an Officer, Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth). You know Victoria, the Empress of India, the sovereign of colonial plunder and suffering. A monarch who over sixty some years on the throne controlled over thirty percent of the worlds industry and something like fourteen million square miles of territory. But you see none of that. This is a, well, a *love* story. Why does anyone want to see this white washed fairy tale? I see no U.S. or U.K. projects about the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the revolt on Hispaniola? Curious that. The selling of narratives on the aristocracy is a long standing tradition in English speaking entertainments. And we are not talking Shakespeare, here. These are the normalizing narratives of inequality. Like Downtown Abbey, a show about how some are born to be servants and are glad of it. A quick glance at this seasons shows and films from Hollywood feature mostly police and military themes, or soap operas of the rich and stupid. The Donald Trumps of the world. And the Hillary Clintons. Or, fairy tales about princes and queens. Why is this so acceptable to so many?

And while I suspect more and more are, in fact, rejecting this obviously rotted system, the single biggest obstacle is the bourgeois white liberal. These are the Clinton bots, the ersatz feminists who seem to forget woman have no rights in the Kingdom paying the most into Hillary’s bank account. And these are people with scant knowledge of foreign policy. Now, it is also possible that not too far down the line the Kingdom itself might prove expendable. But not just yet. The liberals, both men and women are entranced with Barry and Michelle. Still. And it seems there is a complex set of repressed guilt and resentments involved, and barely repressed validation of their own liberalness and post race-ness. But I’m not at all sure. Justice Ginsburg, a Clinton appointee, derides Colin Kaepernick’s protest as stupid and disrespectful. She later walked that back a bit, which only made it worse. Justices are presumably not supposed to be careless with their public remarks. And this institution, the supreme court, is a reason often given for the essential importance of voting Democratic.

Do those applauding the defeat of Trump realize at all the coming conflagrations? Do they stop to reflect on the seven hundred military bases around the world housing US soldiers and weapons? Seems not. Or that Russia has only ten, and all of them in former Soviet countries. Do they know or care at all what Clinton means to the people of the Arab world, Central America and Asia? Seems unlikely. Perhaps they so actively adore Michelle and Barry as a psychological defense mechanism to keep guilt at bay for the millions of dead Africans and Arabs murdered by the U.S. state. And their guilt for not waking to the two million people in prison in the U.S. Most of them people of color. All of them poor. But let the coronation begin. It is, in fact, a tad like Victoria. An unpleasant widely disliked and distrusted monarch married to a womanizing louche political operator of sorts (well, ok, Bill WAS president). Remember too, that Victoria’s marriage to Albert was brokered by King Leopold of Belgium. Remember him? The man who murdered a third of the Congo and stole its resources, mutilated and tortured tens of thousands of Congolese slaves. How romantic this story. The media is the most powerful entity in the political landscape of the 21st century. And it remains a display of white privilege and jingoistic authoritarianism. The world view is a reduced story of good guys (us) and bad guys (Islam, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran in particular, and black and brown youth). One would not know anything of community organizing and grass roots resistance because the media erases it. It is simply omitted from discussions. The Clinton dynasty is a remarkable feat in many ways. That so unlikable and dishonest a figure as Hillary Clinton can reach the Presidency speaks volumes about the state of American culture. But look at Europe, from the odious ruling party of the U.K. (with their own version of Trump in Boris Johnson), a former neo Nazi party is in power in Sweden, and fascist parties are part of government in Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland, and France. The European/American axis of evil, as it were. Tell Americans that the sole remaining Imperialist nation is the U.S. and you get vociferous argument. But then ask most Americans to define *imperialism* and you will find mostly blank stares.

But as I say, I don’t trust anything anymore. I’m not in Syria, and I don’t know, really, what is happening. I can guess, of course. I can make educated guesses based on history. I have no idea the conversations in private between …well, anyone in the political realm. I don’t trust what I hear about Putin but I also don’t trust what I haven’t heard. I don’t even trust what I hear about the environment. So awash in alarmist narratives that one would think the world is ending as I type this. Or that WW3 is coming. That is possible, given the sociopathy of the American ruling class. But I don’t know. Do I trust Assange? Snowden? Not really.I don’t know what was said at Bilderburg this year. I wasn’t invited. This is maybe the real truth of the contemporary world. Or two truths that are coupled. For real revolutionary change the media telecom giants must be taken over or just done away with. And the second truth; we are being handled. For what and by whom is less clear. But again, we can guess. We can make educated guesses if we want. Or, we can sleepwalk into the coming nightmare. For that is something I feel relatively certain about. The coming nightmare.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published by Mimesis International in 2016.