The Poet of Light Passes

Somehow I missed the passing of Stan Brakhage on March 9th. He seems to have slipped away as quietly as his films often entered our lives…without sound. Or maybe the sound of his passing was overwhelmed by the war drums.

I think of Brakhage as a poet (rather than a painter) in light who put his body between the "flesh of the world" and his mind. Merleau-Ponty once said, "It is by lending his body to the world that the painter changes the world into paintings." Something similar may be said about Brakhage. He made film the embodiment of his subjective experience, memory, and perception; a body of work that looks slowly and carefully at the world (and in doing so demands "slow viewers"), cinematic lento, a characteristic that links him to other modern "poets" from Nietzsche to Tarkovsky. He left us nearly 400 films. Now is the time to savor them.

Israel Considers Extending Its Barrier

There’s high-level planning taking place in the Sharon administration that’s raising concerns among Palestinians and those who are working for peace in the Middle East. "In a move that could claim more land for Israel and muddy progress on a U.S.-backed plan for Palestinian statehood, two proposals are on the table to extend a barrier separating Israel from the Palestinians," writes Paisley Dodds in a recent story for the AP. "The proposals revealed Sunday increased the amount of land the Palestinians would lose compared to previous plans, although an exact figure was not available. Israeli officials said the barriers could be demolished and moved if and when a permanent border is set for a Palestinian state. Skeptical Palestinians and human rights groups called it an illegal land grab, and said that in its new route the snaking fence would in effect dislocate more than 200,000 Palestinians, leaving them on the ‘Israeli’ side of an imposed border."

On a related front, there were a number of members of the British House of Commons yesterday who urged British Prime Minister Tony Blair to press President Bush on the issue of the Middle East peace process when the two meet later this week. "The foreign secretary [Jack Straw] promised that the ‘road map’ to a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians would be published as soon as the Palestinian authority’s new administration is in place. He revealed, however, that its first phase is a halt to the building of new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories", according to today’s Guardian.

Ignatieff’s Non-Case for the War in Iraq

Michael Ignatieff, Director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard, has offered a surprisingly weak justification for the war on Iraq. In today’s Guardian he writes: "The problem is not that overthrowing Saddam by force is ‘morally unjustified’. Who seriously believes that 25 million Iraqis would not be better off if Saddam were overthrown? […The issue is whether the] risks are worth running, when our safety depends on the answer, and when the freedom of 25 million people hangs in the balance." The problem with Ignatieff’s argument is that he doesn’t offer any reason to believe the risks are, in fact, worth running. Instead he opines that we must support one side or the other in such matters without knowing for certain what the consequences will be.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. Certainty is too high a standard for moral decisionmaking. But that does not excuse our responsibility for the consequences of actions that can reasonably be predicted. And that’s precisely why further rational deliberation about the facts and the possible outcomes — from political, environmental, and humanitarian perspectives — was warranted before rushing to war. The machinations, deceptions (on both sides), posturing, and manoeuvering we saw in the weeks leading up to this war were anything but that.

U.S. Imperialism in the Making

The battle to stop the war against Iraq has been lost. It’s important now to look ahead by examining carefully the conditions that led the U.S. to engage in this war despite widespread opposition and to consider how best to respond.

There’s been a lot of attention in the past week given to the evolution of the Bush administration policy of military superiority and global domination. The policy has been traced back to a Defense Department document drafted in 1992 by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who, at the time, was Pentagon Under Secretary for Policy. The document was leaked to the press and featured in an article by Patrick E. Tyler in the New York Times on 8 March 1992. A number of recent articles in the Observer, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and this weekend in the New York Times discuss the implications of American unilateralism and express concern about the course taken by the Bush administration.

Elsewhere in the Middle East

While focusing on the war in Iraq, it’s important not to lose sight of events taking place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Palestine Monitor reports that limited resources and humanitarian aid make the population especially vulnerable during the war. "[W]hile Israel is ensuring that its own citizens are provided with gas masks and other equipment in the event of an attack on the region, no such provisions have been made for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories — in contravention of Israel’s clear obligations under the Geneva Conventions [Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War]."

There are also reports from the PM (not yet on the website but sent to me by a colleague in the area) that as of Friday, March 21, "Israeli soldiers…invaded the Old City of Nablus and are currently holding several men, women and children hostage. The Israeli army has also destroyed several houses in the area. In another development, an Israeli soldier shot a US activist and member of GIPP (Grassroots International Protection for Palestinians) in Nablus — the second Israeli attack against a US citizen this week. Eric Hawanith, 21, from Chicago, was shot in the chest and leg by three rubber-coated steel bullets."

The Case for Colonialism

“Daniel Kruger [The Spectator]says that we should not be frightened of being ‘imperialist’. It is the job of the West to plant the seed of liberty in lands now ruled by despots.” Kruger spins his argument from the black and white threads of unilateralism (power) and multilateralism (collaboration and negotiation). Defending the “moral superiority” of the unilateralists (lead by the U.S. and U.K.) and their manifest destiny, i.e. “protecting the poor natives and advanced civilization” (Queen Victoria). The argument is for colonialism as humanitarian intervention.

And how is the moral high-ground seized? By claiming that for 19th century Britain, colonialism was a tool for the unilateral abolition of slavery. “The task today for Britain’s imperial heir [the U.S.] is to reverse the debilitating effects of socialism and tyranny in the developing world” and to “plant the seeds of liberty”. [emphases added]

It looks as if the “seeds” will be planted in the bombed-out terrain of Iraq largely by U.S. corporations. As Elizabeth Becker reported in the NYTimes yesterday, “Bush administration plans for the rebuilding of Iraq call for private American corporations to undertake much of the work, with the United Nations development agencies and other multilateral organizations sidelined, according to administration officials who have seen confidential documents outlining the plans. With the administration offering $1.5 billion in work to private companies and just $50 million to American aid groups like Save the Children, the plan will leave out many large international organizations.” And one of the companies from which bids are being privately solicited is Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton Company, which Vice President Dick Cheney once led.

But, of course, all of this is “morally justified” once you’ve reaffirmed your commitment to colonialism.

Daniel Kruger, in case you don’t know, is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a British think-tank founded by Margaret Thatcher in 1974.

From Realism to Evangelism

George Soros has written an op-ed piece called "The Bubble of American Supremacy" in which he claims that the Bush administration is driven by the ideology of political realism — that might makes right. "The Bush administration believes that international relations are relations of power; legality and legitimacy are mere decorations." But it has been argued, by James Chace of the World Policy Institute and others, that the administration has moved from political realism to political evangelism. (See, for example, "How a War Became a Crusade," by Jackson Lears, NYTimes, Op-Ed, March 11, 2003) This reminds one of the 19th century belief in "manifest destiny" and casts current U.S. policy in a somewhat different and even more troubling light.

U.S. Dirty Tricks

Here’s a story the Observer broke last week that’s getting no attention in the U.S:
"The United States is conducting a secret ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against UN Security Council delegations in New York as part of its battle to win votes in favour of war against Iraq. Details of the aggressive surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the emails of UN delegates in New York, are revealed in a document leaked to The Observer."

Living in Dark Times

Here’s the way this blog starts…on a cold sunny day in New York City in a country on the brink of war. Or perhaps "brink" is the wrong way to think about the current situation. When an embargo is imposed on a foreign country, its leaders characterized as evil while its civilians suffer the consequences, and bombing raids are conducted on a regular basis while troops monitor borders and maintain artillery on the ground in strategic positions, I think we have good reason to conclude that we’re at war.

All the while the government "promotes" democracy but doesn’t practice it. Its (former?) allies are opposed to its policies, but the government is undeterred and inflexible. "We don’t need anyone’s permission to go to war." The empire will be extended with or without their help. And while millions of citizens around the world organize in opposition to the war, their voices don’t seem to matter…at least for now.

"…where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on." — Samuel Beckett