Category Archives: Reviews

Empire’s Ally: The U.S. & Canada

Book Review

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 30, 2014

Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan

Edited by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo

University of Toronto Press

Toronto Buffalo London

2013

Americans tend to think of Canadians as politer and more sensible than their southern neighbors, thus the joke: “Why does the Canadian chicken cross the road? To get to the middle.” Oh, yes, bit of a muddle there in Afghanistan, but like Dudley Do Right, the Canadians were only trying to develop and tidy up the place.

Not in the opinion of Jerome Klassen and a formidable stable of academics, researchers, journalists, and peace activists who see Canada’s role in Central Asia less as a series of policy blunders than a coldly calculated strategy of international capital. “Simply put,” writes Klassen, “the war in Afghanistan was always linked to the aspirations of empire on a much broader scale.”

“Empire’s Ally” asks the question, “Why did the Canadian government go to war in Afghanistan in 2001?” and then carefully dissects the popular rationales: fighting terrorism; coming to the aid of the United States; helping the Afghans to develop their country. Oh, and to free women. What the book’s autopsy of those arguments reveals is disturbing.

Calling Canada’s Afghan adventure a “revolution,” Klassen argues, “the new direction of Canadian foreign policy cannot be explained simply by policy mistakes, U.S. demands, military adventurism, security threats, or abstract notions of liberal idealism. More accurately, it is best explained by structural tendencies in the Canadian political economy—in particular, by the internationalization of Canadian capital and the realignment of the state as a secondary power in the U.S.-led system of empire.”

In short, the war in Afghanistan is not about people failing to read Kipling, but is rather part of a worldwide economic and political offensive by the U.S. and its allies to dominate sources of energy and weaken any upstart competitors like China, and India. Nor is that “broader scale” limited to any particular region.

Indeed, the U.S. and its allies have transformed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from a European alliance to contain the Soviet Union, to an international military force with a global agenda. Afghanistan was the alliance’s coming out party, its first deployment outside of Europe. The new “goals” are, as one planner put it, to try to “re-establish the West at the centre of global security,” to guarantee access to cheap energy, to police the world’s sea lanes, to “project stability beyond its borders,” and even concern itself with “Chinese military modernization.”

If this all sounds very 19th century—as if someone should strike up a chorus of “Britannia Rules the Waves”—the authors would agree, but point out that global capital is far more powerful and all embracing than the likes of Charles “Chinese” Gordon and Lord Herbert Kitchener ever envisioned. One of the book’s strong points is its updating of capitalism, so to speak, and its careful analysis of what has changed since the end of the Cold War.

Klassen is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, and Greg Albo is an associate professor of political science at York University in Toronto. The two authors gather together 13 other academics, journalists, researchers and peace activists to produce a detailed analysis of Canada’s role in the Afghan war.

The book is divided into four major parts dealing with the history of the involvement, its political and economic underpinnings, and the actual Canadian experiences in Afghanistan, which had more to with condoning war crimes like torture than digging wells, educating people, and improving their health. Indeed, Canada’s Senate Standing Committee on National Security concluded that, in Ottawa’s major area of concentration in Afghanistan, Kandahar, “Life is clearly more perilous because we are there.”

After almost $1 trillion dollars poured into Afghanistan—Canada’s contribution runs to about $18 billion—some 70 percent of the Afghan population lives in poverty, and malnutrition has recently increased. Over 30,000 Afghan children die each year from hunger and disease. And as for liberating women, according to a study by TrustLaw Women, the “conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combined” make Afghanistan the “most dangerous country for women” in the world.

The last section of the book deals with Canada’s anti-war movement.

While the focus of “Empire’s Ally” is Canada, the book is really a sort of historical materialist blueprint for analyzing how and why capitalist countries involve themselves in foreign wars. Readers will certainly learn a lot about Canada, but they will also discover how political economics works and what the goals of the new imperialism are for Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin.

Klassen argues that Canadians have not only paid in blood and gold for their Afghanistan adventure, they have created a multi-headed monster, a “network of corporate, state, military, intellectual, and civil social actors who profit from or direct Canada’s new international policies.”

This meticulously researched book should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the how’s and why’s of western foreign policy. “Empire’s Ally” is a model of how to do an in-depth analysis of 21st century international capital and a handy guide on how to cut through the various narratives about “democracy,” “freedom,” and “security” to see the naked violence and greed that lays at the heart of the Afghan War.

The authors do more than reveal, however, they propose a roadmap for peace in Afghanistan. It is the kind of thinking that could easily be applied to other “hot spots” on the globe.

For this book is a warning about the future, when the battlegrounds may shift from the Hindu Kush to the East China Sea, Central Africa, or Kashmir, where, under the guise of fighting “terrorism,” establishing “stability,” or “showing resolve,” the U.S. and its allies will unleash their armies of the night.

 

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Boiling a Frog

July 26, 2013

The 15% Solution-

How the Republican Religious Right took Control of the U.S. 1981-2022: A Futuristic Novel

By Steve Jonas

Katz Impact Books, New York, 2013

Amazon $14.50

The “15% Solution” might well be subtitled, “How to boil a frog:” slowly, so he doesn’t notice.

Jonas, a Harvard-trained MD, a professor of preventive medicine in the Department of Preventive Medicine Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, has conjured up a book that is less fiction than contemporary politics wrapped in the form of a novel. Indeed, time after time, the “fiction” precisely parallels real life developments. While the book was originally written in 1996, a disturbing number of events—like systematic voter disenfranchisement—are now the rule in places like Texas and North Carolina.

In a sense, the “fiction” is a fiction. While the book does examine a supposed 40-year period, during which conservative forces and rightwing Christians take over the United States, many of the speeches, quotes, and statistical materials are real (and meticulously footnoted at the end of each chapter). In short, the only thing made up is the overthrow of the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of four “republics” based on race, and a “new” civil war.

The title comes from a real-life strategy developed by the former Christian Coalition in the late 1980s to take over the country by locking down 15% of the vote. The idea is that many Americans never register to vote and, if they do, don’t turn out on Election Day. Hence, if you can control 15% of the national vote, you can elect presidents and the congress. And in low voter turnout elections, like state and local races, as few as 6% or 7% can end up determining an election outcome. State legislatures, in turn, draw electoral districts, which means that a dedicated minority can end up dominating the majority.

If this sounds familiar it’s because that is exactly that has happened over the past several election cycles, Mitt Romney got swamped in the general election, but Republican hold power in the House of Representatives and in a majority of state houses. There is nothing “fictional” about the 15% solution as an electoral strategy.

The form for the novel is a chronicle of the events that lead up to the establishment of fascism in the U.S., some of which are established history, others of which are projections from 1996 into the future. One of the devices Jonas uses are fictional interviews, speeches and letters from key characters in the novel. Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to separate out what is real and what is invented, which, one suspects, is exactly what the author wants the reader to struggle with.

While using “grim” to describe “The 15% Solution” is probably an understatement, some of the book is good fun. Like when the New American Republic allies itself with the Republic of Quebec to dismantle Canada (that’ll learn ‘em to be so polite up there). Some of it may appear silly, like abolishing the national forests and parks, until the author reminds the reader that in 1995 U.S. Rep. James Hansen (R-Ut) led a campaign to do exactly that.

What’s the old line about truth and fiction?

The book examines race, class, gender, ethnicity, and inequality, and none of the disturbing trends concerning these issues are made up. In some ways, Jonas’s book feels a little like some of the writings of the sociologist C. Northcote Parkinson, who writes fiction in a way that reads like history.

The 15% Solution is enjoyable and instructive, a good read, if a tad depressing on occasion. But Jonas is hardly a gloom and doom sort. He is an activist author, writing for Buzzflash, Truthout, and innumerable media outlets, and he is the editorial director of The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy. He has also authored, co-authored and edited more than 30 books and hundreds of articles.

In his conclusion, Jonas examines how to avoid the road to perdition and, while measured and realistic, is also upbeat. Bad things happen, but people are hardly helpless in the face of history. And if the frog knows the burner is on he can get the damn hell out of the pot.

—30—

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Cultures of Resistance review

Cultures Of Resistance Review

Dispatches From The Edge

July 23, 2012

Cultures Of Resistance

Directed by Iara Lee

73-minute documentary

Caipirinha Productions

When we think of “resistance,” what mostly comes to mind is guerrilla warfare: Vietnamese closing in on the besieged French at Dien Bien Phu; Angolans ambushing Portuguese troops outside of Luanda; Salvadorans waging a war of attrition against their military oligarchy. But resistance doesn’t always involve roadside bombs or military operations. Sometimes it is sprayed on a Teheran wall, or rapped in a hip-hop song in Gaza. It can be a poem in Medellin, Colombia—arguably one of the most dangerous cities in the world—or come from a guitar shaped like an AK-47. In short, there are few boundaries or strictures when it comes to the imagination and creativity that people bring to the act of defiance.

That art can be powerful stuff is the central message that Brazilian filmmaker Iara Lee brings to her award-winning documentary “Cultures of Resistance.” Her previous films include  “Synthetic Pleasures,” about the impact of technology on mass culture, and “Modulations,” on the evolution of electronic music. Her most recent film is “The Suffering Grasses,” about the civil war in Syria.

Lee began “Cultures” in 2003, just before the Bush administration invaded Iraq, and her six-year odyssey takes her through five continents and 35 cities: Burma, Brazil, Rwanda, Iran, Burundi, Israel, Nigeria, the Congo, and Liberia, to name a few. In each case she profiles a grassroots movement that embodies the philosophy of non-violent resistance to everything from political oppression to occupation.

Lee, a co-founder of the Cultures of Resistance Network, is a social activist in her own country, where she has aided Amazonian Indians resisting the destruction of their lands and organized against the reign of violence—from both criminals and the police—in Brazil’s slums or Favelas. She is also a member of the Greenpeace Foundation, a member of the advisory board of the National Geographic Society, and a part of the world-wide campaign to ban cluster munitions.

She was also on the MV Mavi Marmara in 2010, the Gaza-bound Turkish ship boarded by Israeli commandos. Nine human rights campaigners were killed in the confrontation, and Lee managed to smuggle out video footage of the incident. However, U.S. media outlets refused to air it. Lee’s view of the world is not the sometimes distant lens of many documentarians, but the prism of an activist.

“Cultures” is a surprising film. Lee is a strong supporter of non-violence, but “Cultures of Resistance” is hardly about how hugs will free us all. She recognizes that resistance in the face of oppression—or indifference—can spark anger. The film begins with a remarkable segment on the Amazon’s Kayapo tribe resisting the construction of the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River. At one point the Indians’ frustration boils over and they attack an Eletrobras official—the company is the largest utility company in Latin America—with clubs and fists, tearing off some of his clothes and sending him off in bloody retreat. The unspoken point of the segment is that if non-violent resistance is ignored, things can turn ugly.

This is a lovely film, but there is darkness in it as well, some of it quite disturbing. Racks of skulls line a hut in Rwanda, where some 800,000 people were massacred in 1994, and a deserted church in that country is filled with piles of clothes, invoking the memory of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But the message of the segment is not death, but life, and how post-genocide communities are coming together to rebuild.

Many of the profiles come from Africa: Nigeria, where local people are up against international oil cartels and their own corrupt government; The Congo, where a civil war over minerals has killed more than five million people; Liberia, where former child soldiers are being integrated back into post-civil war society.

But Lee casts her nets widely. The “Teheran Rats” are graffiti artists who wage clandestine war with spray cans in Iran. Hip-hop artists in Israel say they “sing rap for people who don’t listen to rap.” Poets from around the world gather in Colombia: “Poetry does not overthrow governments, but it does open consciousness and hearts,” one poet says.

Lee has an eye for beauty and drama. “Cultures” has a clear point of view, but it is not overly didactic, preferring to use juxtaposition and interviews—and lots and lots of good music—to make its points. A simple black and white shot of a very young child holding a semi-automatic pistol does a much better job of highlighting the problems of violence in the favelas than would some expert pumping out numbers. Not that the numbers are not there, just that Lee first gets the viewers attention through the art: information follows.

One of the films messages is that cultures of resistance—those that have the audacity to say “no”—have things in common. Leadership is not something that resides in one group of people or in a given country, but is everywhere that people dig their heels in and fight back. The Buddhist monks that challenged the military dictatorship in Burma share common ground with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Israelis opposed to the occupation of Palestinian lands, and Palestinians resisting the spread of Israeli settlements, meet in the medium of rap.

“We don’t have planes, missiles or white phosphorous” Lee told journalist Lisa Mullenneaux, “but we have our freedom to resist oppression. To sing, dance, and express how we feel about world politics. Global solidarity is the only thing that can promote real change.”

In a sense, Lee turns Emma Goldman’s slogan “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution” into “dancing can be revolution.”

—30—

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