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The Sleep of Civilization

Photo by James N. Mattis | CC BY 2.0

“Wealth maketh many friends; but the poor is separated from his neighbour.”

— Proverbs 19:4

“The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization”.

— Sigmund Freud

James “Mad Dog” Mattis spoke this week, at a pentagon press briefing, saying, among other things, that it was a time for all civilized nations to unite. The use of this trope ‘civilized’ echoes colonial sensibility. It is part of general shifting of meaning in the rhetoric of Empire over the last, say, 80 years.

Never mind that the occasion of this speech, as seems increasingly the norm, was based on mostly propaganda. No evidence for a chemical attack was actually provided. Just as the evidence in the Skripal (attempted) murder (sic) is conspicuously lacking.

This is a time when war criminals (unprosecuted of course) can simply count on the utter amnesia of both the public and the quisling western press.

So lets go back and check a few boxes on Mattis. This is the man who oversaw the war crimes of Fallujah and then helped cover them up. One can read about it here.

So how is it that Mattis can so confidently count on the silence and complicity of the corporate press? Mattis is no doubt sociopathic. He is a lizard eyed lisping sadist and yet he is fawned over and described as the ‘the most revered Marine in a generation’ by the same prostrate press. The adoration of the military in western media is at an all time high. And entertainment today is laden with the most jingoistic and nativist rhetoric imaginable. Hollywood today produces fiction that is uniform in its opinions and values. Watch this season of Designated Survivor. I know that is asking a lot, but do it anyway. Kiefer Sutherland is one of those actors who in middle age has begun to take on the tight lipped appearance of an aggrieved or constipated Quaker. The show is so stunningly reactionary that one finds some difficulty in arriving at the right words. But it is not an anomaly. Half of network prime time drama is military based in theme. And today Hollywood staff writers can count on CIA or Pentagon “advisors” taking an active part in the creation of scripts. The blurring of fiction and Imperial fiction, as it were. There are ongoing themes in this Sutherland show about Russian interference in US democracy and most recently a story built around a tiny Asian nation with an insane dictatorial leader who wants nuclear weapons. The depictions of the Asian characters is only slightly less cartoon like than Charlie Chan. And always there are the requisite evil Muslim terrorist.

But back to the disturbing figure of Jim Mattis. His call sign is “chaos”. He is reported to be worth in the neighborhood of five million dollars. This is an absurd low ball figure, but whatever. He is a graduate of Central Washington U. and something called the National Defense University. A quick iinternet search reveals this is a special educational institution on the grounds of Fort Leslie in DC and chartered by the Joint Chiefs. One does wonder what a typical class at NDU looks like?

As for the “pacification” of Fallajuh. Brett Wilkins wrote….

“According to witnesses and survivors of the assault, Marines indiscriminately killed men, women, children, the elderly and disabled alike. Civilians waving white flags of surrender were cut down by snipers, who also targeted ambulances carrying the wounded and dying to the few functioning clinics not destroyed by US bombs. “I see people carrying a white flag and yelling at us, saying, ‘We are here, just try to save us,’ but we could not save them because whenever we opened the ambulance door, the Americans would shoot at us,” Dr. Salam Ismael, head of Iraq’s young doctors association, told American investigative reporter Aaron Glantz, who covered the battle as an unembedded journalist. “We tried to carry food or water; the snipers shoot the containers of food.”

No civilizational norms violated there. Nope. Mattis also was the man who had all charged dropped against the soldiers that took part in the rampage at Haditha. Civilians shot point blank, often women and children, and the elderly — in their homes.

Callsign “Chaos”.

Gary Kohis, MD, writing at Veterans Today….

“Several of the PEOTUS’ cabinet appointees are high-ranking “lifer” military officers who have an innate disdain for democratic values (as would be expected for anybody whose career has been lived in the bubble of a hierarchical culture whose main junk values are 1) shoot first/ask questions later and 2) the use of dominative power over “enemies” via military violence.”

Kohis was primarily writing about Jim Mattis. But honestly, even a cursory examination of ANY four star General will yield similar biographical facts and similar personality disorders. You dont rise through military ranks without a core ruthlessness, and an innate sadism.

After the bombing of a wedding party in the Iraq desert, Mattis is quoted as saying…

“Ten miles from the Syrian border and 80 miles from the nearest city and a wedding party? Don’t be naïve. Plus they had 30 males of military age with them. How many people go to the middle of the desert to have a wedding party?”

The rank Orientalism of this comment, the arrogant indifference to the history and culture of Islam, to the Arab world in general, is also the hallmark of the successful military commander. Kill em all and let God sort it out. Of course at the time of his nomination the NY Times published an op ed whose headline identified Mattis as a “pontential force for restraint”. That crazy old paper of record. And Mattis is routinely described as an intellectual, a ‘warrior monk’, and yet he doesnt know anything of nomadic desert socities and culture. He didn’t even consider there might be a cultural gap here, or consider he might need to alternative readings of the Muslim world, ones not provided for by that steller education at National Defense U. Mattis is not an intellectual, not even by the standards of that warped sub phylum of humanity that is the military.

The media coverage of Syria, in the UK and US, is blatantly biased and pro intervention. The fact that FOX news reactionary Tucker Carlson is the sanest voice in mainstream media is very telling. Carlson hasnt “woke”…. he just saw a niche demographic that might boost his ratings. Still…he was in fact correct.

Danny Haiphong wrote…

“Tucker Carlson understands that he must appeal primarily to Republican voters weary of US interventions they see as products of Democratic Party-led wars even if establishment Republicans are no less hawkish than Democrats. Meanwhile, Goodman and her funders have subtly aligned with the Democrats as the new leaders of the War Party. War is the only tool at the disposal of imperialism, and there isn’t a single voice in Washington or the “liberal” media unwilling to use it.

Under these conditions, infantile leftists and faux socialists in the Democratic Party camp have felt compelled to choose a side in the imperial madhouse. They claim that Democrats are “Presidential” while Putin and Assad are villains of humanity. No criticism is thrown at the Democratic Party, which sent a delegation led by Nancy Pelosi to Israel just days prior to the planned gun down of Palestinian resistance forces in Gaza. It doesn’t seem to matter how many Syrians or Palestinians are killed by the forces of imperialism when the so-called left is under the swoon of the CIA. So-called US leftists have caught anti-Putin fever at the expense of all other political questions.

This includes the murder of Black people by the police in the US. Barely any attention was paid in the US to the murders of Stephon Clark and Saheed Vassell over the last few weeks. Only community members and the usual left organizations made any noise about these state-sanctioned murders. The same goes for Israel’s wonton massacre of participants in Gaza’s Great March for Return. In the absence of a mass movement, people in the US and West are becoming mere onlookers in a changing a world.”

This last few months has revealed as never before both the callous cruelty of the ruling class in the U.S. and UK, but also the degrading of education …for lack of a better description. At the UN, British envoy Karen Pierce, mistakenly thought Karl Marx was a Russian. In a prank phone call Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, thought there was a country called Binimo. And Trump himself noted something or other about an imaginary African country called Nambia. Boris Johnson began an extemporaneous recitation of a Kipling poem (Road to Mandalay) in a temple in Myanmar. And then was told it was inappropriate by an aid, trying to save him further embarrassment, and STILL Johnson didn’t understand. All of these examples are not mere gaffes, amusing mistakes, but rather a general indifference to the cultures of the world, in fact an indifference to the world beyond their own small corner it. Indifferent and hostile. Remember when George Bush, now in full rehabilitation mode by his media handlers, mocked Karla Faye Tucker, on death row, who was begging for her life. That is exactly the cruelty one sees across the board in the leaders of the West today. One wonders does Mattis or Bush or Bolton think the use of Agent Orange transgressed civilizational norms? Did Hiroshima?

What strikes me most acutely, these last few months, is the extraordinary cultural chauvinism of the U.S., or rather mostly of white U.S., as well as an institutionalized orientalism. Most White Americans, as a general statement, think they are better than the rest of the world. And most Americans have scant knowledge about the rest of the world. So the belief in cultural (and moral ) superiority is based on what? The answer is not simple, but as a general sort of response, this trust in “our” superiority is built on violence. On an ability to be effectively violent. Most British, too, think they are superior to those ‘wogs’ south of their emerald isle. But since the setting of the sun on Empire, ‘officially’, the British hold to both a sense of superiority and a deep panic inducing sense of inferiority — at least to their American cousins. They are still better than those fucking cheese eating frogs or the krauts or whoever, but they accept that the U.S. is the sort of heavyweight champ of the moment. Meanwhile, the tragic and criminal fire at Grenfell Towers in London elicited a public discourse that perfectly reflected the class inequality of the UK, but also reflected, again, the colonialist mentality of the ruling party and their constituency.

Stephen Brenner wrote of the fire and the government response to it:

“There is Sir Martin Moore-Bick,** the former High Court Judge, who has been appointed by May to head a board of inquiry. Fears of a protracted inquiry producing an anodyne report were aroused when Moore-Bick went out of his way to declare that the scope of the investigation would be severely limited to determining the immediate cause of the fire and why it spread so rapidly. Answers to both questions already are known. ( ) The Sir Inquisitor-to-be has given the game away in adding that “I do not expect everyone to be pleased by the conclusion of the inquiry” – yet to begin. Moore-Bick’s unprompted utterance shows just how pervasive is the Americanization of British political culture. Unnecessary, embarrassing ejaculations like this have become impulsive – defying the dictates of prudent restraint.No one is confused as to who the “everyone” he has in mind refers to. An impression reinforced by the denial of the residents’ right to ask questions in person as to the scope and form of the inquiry. The only open question is the exact tint that the whitewash will take (stitch-up in British dialect).The first testimony will not be heard until mid-September when panel members, as yet unnamed, get back from their holidays.”

Graham Peebles adds…

“Grenfell Tower forms part of the Lancaster Road West Estate in Notting Hill Gate. An area that, like many other parts of the capital, has been subjected to a gentrification assault accompanied by systematic social cleansing that goes back decades and has intensified over the last 10 –15 years. ( ) In addition, the Grenfell affair demonstrates that the United States is not alone in its tolerance for actions that should be a national disgrace but are slighted by a political class incapable of feeling shame. The callous, off-hand treatment given the Grenfell victims is reminiscent of how colonial administrators dealt with expendable natives. If a proper criminal process were undertaken, a reasonable verdict would be Involuntary Manslaughter.”

But that is exactly it. The colonial template is one etched in acid in the collective imagination of the West. At least the English speaking West. Expendable natives…which is what Jim Mattis sees everywhere that he dumps depleted Unranium and Willy Pete. It is what Madelaine Albright saw in Iraq or Hillary Clinton in Libya or Barack Obama in Sudan, Yemen, and…well… four or five other countries. It is what most U.S. police departments see in neighborhoods ravaged by poverty. As in those old Tarzan films, when the sound of drums is heard, the pith helmeted white man notes…”the natives are restless tonight”. When one discusses Syria, the most acute topic this week, remember that for Mad Dog and Boss Trump, or for the loopy John Bolton, these are just natives in need of pacification. Giving money to ISIS or Daesh, or whoever, as a cynical expression of colonial real politik, is nothing out of the ordinary. It is what the UK and US have done for a long while. It’s Ramar of Jungle handing out beads to the *natives*.

Domestically, take the example of Flint, Michigan. At the drinking water. When the unelected state appointed emergency manager switched from the Detroit River to the Flint River to supply water to the residents of Flint, the result was a spike in all diseases of insanitation. Everyone knew this was going to happen. The General Motors plant had stopped using Flint River water because it was corrosive to the auto parts they were manufacturing. But poor black kids, who cares. The U.S. has a long history of such stuff, from Love Canal, New York, to the chemical dump in the Elk River in West Virginia. You will notice a theme here. It is class. You don’t find ash spills like what happened near the Emery River in Tennessee occurring in Mill Valley or Scarsdale or Bel Air. Inflicting suffering on the poor is perfectly acceptable to the ruling class. To them, privilege is a sign of superiority. And the less deserving are only there to serve.

The problem with the current wave of propaganda from western sources is that very little, if any, evidence is given. The term ‘very likely’ is much in vogue, probably because it leaves such a huge ‘walk it back’ escape route. Except there is less and less effort to even bother. In one sense the solidification of class power came out of neoliberal policies in the 1970s. The top 1% (really, the top half of one percent) increased their wealth dramatically, with the same occurring in the UK. Clinton pushed these principles even further and then Bush and Blair further still. We are now living the dream of the Washington Consensus economists. And it worth noting the founding statement of Hayak’s Mt. Pelerin Society, in 1947. For Hayak was the godfather of neoliberalism and Milton Freidman his heir.

“The central values of civilization are in danger. Over large stretches of the earth’s surface the essential conditions of human dignity and freedom have already disappeared.”

There is that word again. Of course this was really only justification for the 1% to expand the reach of Western capital. To exploit labor and extract resources. And when recalcitrant countries did not submit quickly enough, the CIA was always available (ask Iran, or Chile, or Angola. The latter more of a symbolic lesson for those uppity nations even thinking about not following orders. It also marked open U.S. cooperation with apartheid South Africa. And in opposition to the troops Castro sent to assist the MPLA opposition to the ruthless US supported Jonas Savimbi). This restoration of ruling class power, though, was and is always looking over its shoulder. For the reality is that such profound inequality means life becomes unsustainable, even for the top 0.1% is repressed. And such repression takes effort. And that effort is giving birth to the madness one sees today. From Grenfell Tower to Flint Michigan, to Gaza or Libya or Syria — the principles driving the violence are the same. And it matters not if the urbane and articulate Obama is President, or if the troglodyte Trump, if it is Blair or May, for they are only reciting from a small financial Catechism of financial laws, and these laws are breaking down in the face of environmental degradation and an inequality so extreme that its almost impervious to calculation. They are only the voice of their class. This idea of civilized man has come to be an almost code-word for class hierarchy. The violence against Palestinians is simply inseparable from the violence that killed Stephon Clark. The violence that makes children sick in Michigan is the same one that causes oil spills or disasters such as the Lac-Mégantic train crash near Quebec, Canada. And, it is the same bigoted smug confidence of bourgeoise identity political thinking. The one that demands Islam rid itself of veils, or that ridicules ANY thinking or practice divergent from Western norms. You cannot expect the system to produce change if the system is based on punishing change. The status quo must be protected. For the ownership class world poverty is mostly the fault of the poor.

“The admission that neoliberalism has failed in terms of its announced goals has forced its proponents to a tactical retreat—defending the broad thrust of the neoliberal policy agenda under cover of “reform.” The result is an augmented Washington Consensus that blames client states and not international institutions or transnational capital for the failures of neoliberalism. It is the poor who are expected to make still further adjustments along neoliberal lines. From this point of view, what comes after neoliberalism must be more neoliberalism.”

William K. Tabb

This idea of civilizational norms is connected to a deeply rooted assumption about the virtue of Democracy. Israel is described as Democratic but Cuba is not, for example. The reality, of course, is that the CIA and US ruling class spend most of their energy in deterring democracy (to quote Chomsky).

“Any real discussion of democracy needs to be extended beyond the undemocratic nature of the global economic institutions to a larger discussion of democracy, one that goes beyond whether votes are counted fairly, opposition candidates allowed to participate on an equal basis, and the voices of ordinary people heard by their elected leaders. Democracy needs finally to be discussed in relation to class rule in capitalist societies.”

William T. Kabb

As Samir Amin pointed out, the “international community” (the G7 plus that bastion of democracy, Saudi Arabia) is utterly unconcerned with the opinions of 85% of the world’s population. So, both on a political/economic level, and on a cultural level, the Imperialist U.S. sees it as an innate right to decide the policies of the global south. It is anti democratic. The ruling class sees the right to enforce inequality as something of a Natural law. The anti Russian propaganda was born when Putin refused to sign off on the Nazi putsch in Ukraine. The US/Japan/NATO alliance is one that demands both economic submission and increasingly a cultural submission as well. And any rejection of this means a military forced submission. Democracy has come to be a shorthand for submission to neo-liberal economic policy dictated by Washington. Freedom is what happens after *we* destroy your country.

That Mattis or May or various other servants of Empire can talk of civilzational norms with a straight face is actually pretty remarkable. The list of crimes is so extensive that one barely knows where to begin. We could ask about Gary Webb and cocaine and the CIA. Or about the School of the Americas, or My Lai or the siege at Waco. Or….but I feel this stuff really should be well known by now. I am more concerned in a sense with the small cultural appropriations and the gestures of an Orientalist sensibility that I see almost daily in western media. And the growing anti-semitism which one find even on the left. And the seemingly intractable racism of white America. I just stop having the ability to keep track of it all. How can the white bourgeoisie demand adherence to their values with such tenacity? Do they really see themselves as somehow representative of some ideal? Tolerance means only adherence to their worldview. To their values. It is this nattering about ecological issues while never questioning the US military machine. But these refrains seem to stick in the collective consciousness of the west…”gas your own people” is one. As if gassing someone else were less objectionable. It is a media universe of entrenched meaningless slogans. It always reminds me of the outcry about steroid abuse. Maybe ask why big Pharma manufacture so many steroids. The medical uses for which are very limited. But no, it is easier to punish this or that athlete who in their desperation is looking for an edge, a way to reach that economic pinnacle so few reach. But question Eli Lilly? Never.

The ruling class have always made money, always been ruthless, but again, the 1970s marked the solidification of systematic plunder, a cohesive and seamless river of money upwards. And enforced by the CIA. One should not forget that the CIA was founded by rich white ruling class scions of banking and finance. Allan Dullus, straight out of Wall Street, William Simon, Richard Mellon Scaife, Frank Shakespeare, and Bill Donovan. I mean the CIA calls itself “the Company”…bit a tip off, that. If one struggles to grasp foreign policy decisions, always look at US business interests in the region. Remember these are ruthless people (MK ULTRA, Operation Mockingbird, etc). And the media was always part of this. The Graham family of Washington Post fame were directly linked to the CIA. William Paley, Henry Luce, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and hundreds other are all intimate with the CIA. And it is no different now. It was the Clinton cartel that spent inordinate energy and time infiltrating Hollywood. The result is House of Cards, Homeland, Designated Survivor, and all the countless rest. Uniformity of message. Uniformity of values.

I do wonder at times the role of Evangelical Christianity as it runs smack into the Catholic stake outs in the corridors of power. Perhaps they cooperate, I don’t know. Religion is second to money, anyway. And then there is the role of Israel, that anti democratic neo colonial apartheid state in the Middle East. The ascension of the settler fanatic mirrors the ascension of Dominionists in the current US government. Fanatical zealots. Intolerant and profoundly ignorant of most things outside of their narrow set of concerns. And again, anti democratic. Israel serves the U.S. ruling class, not the other way round. There is no global Jewish plot as I keep reading in social media. The feeding of this bit of classic antisemitism is probably sourced by Israel itself. Nothing serves their PR better than spikes in antisemitism. But Israel is, for sure, more powerful than ever before. More influential.

There is, best case scenario, a new Cold War in place. Worst case scenario, well, doesn’t matter. The real danger is the generalized ignorance now on display. Ruthless and sadistic one can predict, but irrational zealotry and stupidity…that is harder to deal with. And this is for certain the Age of Stupid. As for civilization, I’m coming to think we might well do fine without it.

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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 this year by Mimesis International.

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