All posts by Shane

The New Iron Fist A View of the United States from the Middle East

It must be at least weekly, as I’m sitting around with friends in Yemen, that we launch into rants about what situations our governments have put us in; that gigantic American imperial force of wanton destruction and those corrupt, cowardly Arab dictators. Our sessions of socializing turn into rounds of lambasting the situation in the region that seems to only be getting worse.

These conversations are often overshadowed by flurries of “whys.” “Why is it that I, as an Arab, can’t travel outside my country because people are afraid of me?” “Why do the Israelis kill Palestinian children?” “Why does America support Israeli Zionism?” “Why does America kill Iraqis and occupy their land in the name of their liberation?” “Why do the American people let this happen?” “Why don’t our ‘leaders’ stand up to US imperialism and the occupation of Palestine?” “Why is everyone else always telling us how to run our nations?” “What makes Arab leaders think they have the right to stay in power for twenty or thirty years?” “Why are regular people like you and I stuck in the middle of this? We didn’t ask for it!”

As the conversations heat up, we ask each other questions and answer them at the same time, but we are all arguing from the same side, as if against some invisible or unpresent forces far beyond our reach. Hours fly by without our noticing, the fiery passion-fueled-by-injustice tapers off, and in the end silence slowly overwhelms the room. Everyone contemplatively tucks into their arm cushion with the quiet realization that, once more, we haven’t come to a solution.

And it’s not just with close friends that these discussions come up; it happens nearly every time I meet someone in the Middle East — when I buy something from a shop, when I have a fleeting chat with a street vendor. Still, amazingly, people rarely direct their hostility toward me, an American. They are comforted, however slightly, when I explain to them that many united statians realize ( and care ) about what the American government is doing to destroy their region, sovereignty, and humanity. They are encouraged when I tell them that in San Francisco we virtually shut down the city, if only for a day, when the war started. They are saddened, but grateful, when I tell them stories of people that left the Oakland docks with welts on their backs and faces from being shot by wooden dowels as they attempted to stop weapons from being sent to Iraq. They are amazed to hear about the instances when people in our country wake up, however briefly, and take charge. It helps to know that while tens die in Iraq daily resisting the US occupation and the American government is trying to spread its reign over the region, there are some Americans making some effort, somehow.

Most people that I tell these things to had no previous knowledge of any of it. Some have a faint memory of hearing about demonstrations when the war started, but almost everything else they hear about the United States is the daily, seemingly endless reports of killings and destruction in occupied Iraq (which far exceed the random car bombings reported in Western media). On top of that are the constant reports about what new conditions George Bush has placed on Syria or Iran, assertions that he is bringing democracy to the Lebanese people, and how he will liberate Palestine through the “Road Map to Peace.” Every day, every hour.

And it enrages people. The simplistic rhetoric about freedom and democracy stands next to report after bloody report of devastation in Iraq and Palestine. The same crap that the government and media shove down Americans’ throats reaches people in the Middle East too, but the main difference is that in the Middle East people see the blatant idiocy of what is being said. While many Americans sit back and contemplate whether, however much they may not like it, American intervention actually is better for the region, Arabs living in the Middle East see things falling apart before their eyes at the hands of that same world power that keeps talking about freedom and democracy.

For centuries, the situation in the Middle East has been a boiling pot — ready to spill over — of religious tension, totalitarian dictators, tribal conflicts, and struggles for power. This existed before the US ever entered the region, but when they came in, they not only caused the pot to overflow, they kicked the whole thing over with a big, black leather military boot. While Bush talks about the successes achieved in Iraq and the democracy and freedom of opinion that Iraqis now enjoy, people in the Middle East see the complete chaos that has overwhelmed the country and the absolute deterioration of peoples lives.

A recent report by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) entitled “Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004,” has shown how the situation has deteriorated at an alarming rate since the US-led invasion in 2003, with huge numbers of people lacking adequate access to basic services and resources such as clean water, health care, water food, electricity, jobs, and sanitation. Rates of child malnutrition have nearly doubled since the 2003 invasion, with 23 percent of children between six months and five years suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to the report.

The death toll of Iraqi citizens now sits somewhere between foreign estimates of around 15,000 and local estimates up to 194,000. The report’s list of “current major problems” includes “lack of health personnel, lack of medicines, non-functioning medical equipment and destroyed hospitals and health centers.” Pediatrician Tala Al-Awqati told the Christian Science Monitor that, despite the ever-increasing number of wounded in attacks by rebels, foreign occupation troops, or Iraqi security forces, “The Health Ministry does not have [enough] money to spend until July. A lot of things have stopped. People are not getting what they need from the health services. Money for disinfectants is not there anymore; sometimes we must buy it ourselves.” Meanwhile, the report states that nation-wide, only 54% have access to safe drinking water and in rural areas 80% of the people are drinking unsafe water. With the unemployment rate now at 70%, and the infrastructure that the US promised to rebuild still sitting in shambles, the talk of Bush and his cronies about their success of bringing democracy to the country is like a slap in the face, not only to Iraqis, but to every person living in the Middle East.

At the same time, people hear Bush talk about how he has also recently brought long-awaited democracy to Lebanon and rid it of the Syrian “occupiers.” (In an interview with the Lebanese TV station LBC before Syria’s withdrawal, Bush justified American orders for Syria to evacuate Lebanon by saying, “I think everybody wants to be free. I think people long to be free and I think people are tired of living under a government which, in essence, is a foreign occupation. (Sounds about right. So how about start with Iraq!) Syria has evacuated and Lebanon is no longer under its thumb, which is what many, and it’s probably safe to say the majority, in Lebanon wanted. Instead of the Lebanese themselves ousting Syria though, Syria was forced out by the United States (with the support of France) which pragmatically means that instead of being under Syrian rule, Lebanon now answers to “international monitors,” i.e. the United States and France. This means that Lebanon is still at the whim of foreign powers, this time a much more powerful one with less at stake regarding the state of the country.

The vacuum left with the sudden Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has created grounds ripe for Lebanon’s old civil war leaders to take the stage again and has left Lebanon’s religious sects racing for power. Michel Aoun, a right wing Christian Maronite that once cooperated with Saddam against Syria, returned from fourteen years of exile as soon as Syrian troops left Lebanon and is doing his best to try to take over. Meanwhile, many right-wing Christians in Lebanon are calling for the release of the old warlord Samir Gaegae, who was once a commander of the Phalangist militia, a far-right Christian group whose founder, Pierre Gamayel, created the militia with the “discipline and order” that he saw in his 1936 visit to Nazi Germany. At the rate that things have developed in Lebanon since the US forced Syrian withdrawal, it’s not unlikely that fragile Lebanon, which has hung together despite still simmering tensions, could slip back into civil war.

In Syria, the US seems to have tried everything to justify “cracking down” on the country. Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton’s claims of weapons of mass destruction having been smuggled from Iraq into Syria and random allegations that Al-Qaeda is in the country were never justified and quietly disappeared from Washington’s rhetoric. The focus then switched to Syria’s “occupation” of Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which the US all but directly blamed on Syria. Practically the entire Arab world however, accused the US and Israel of plotting the assassination, using it as an excuse to put the heat on Syria. To the surprise of the US government, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon on April 26th, negating yet another attempt by the US to clamp down on the sovereign country. Still, they have not given up and are now justifying the continued pressure against Syria under the guise of overturning authoritarian regimes, triggering democracy, and good old anti-terrorism.

Much like the situation was in Iraq before the invasion; it seems that the US is forever moving the goal post that it had no right to set in the first place. True to the style of American foreign policy, they find a wound, a local crisis, and play the doctor that will come and offer a remedy, but end up exploiting the situation to further their own motives. In the end, they rip the wound wide open. Much like the situation was in Iraq, many Syrians secretly despise the dictatorship that they live under.

Several times, while in a private home or a place out of range of Big Brother President Al-Assad’s ears, people have told me under their breath how much they despise their country’s regime, which has been smothering them for decades and how they dream of its demise. I’ve heard countless stories about people that have spent years in political prison for ripping the president’s picture off the wall, appearing too religious, not voting, or just not showing their love for the Assad family enough. They’ve had enough injustice, and aren’t willing to change out one heavy handed regime for a heavy handed foreign power that is going to use them as a pawn for taking control of the region — setting up bases on their land, bringing in foreign companies to take their work, and installing a government that not only doesn’t answer to its people, but it answers to the United States empire. The situation is already bad enough and nobody wants to make it worse.

While sitting in overcrowded cafés in Damascus amidst the sweet apple flavored scent of nargille smoke or in guest rooms looming over cups of thick Arabic coffee, those same, mostly soft spoken friends, have tiraded about the injustice of the American occupation and destruction of Iraq, US funding and support of the Israeli occupation, the rottenness of the capitalism it is smearing across the world, and the way that it is targeting Muslims around the globe. They say that, as much as they may hate it, their government is their own problem, and that if the US military ever set foot in their country, they would immediately pick up arms and defend their land.

One thing that is for certain is if individual people ever did have qualms about going to war against the strongest military in the world, the United States has succeeded in making such an enemy out of itself through unnecessary war, occupation, and military support of corrupt regimes that for most people that hesitation is now gone. For most, it’s no longer even a question of whether or not it’s worth risking their lives; it’s a matter of necessity. The Middle East, like most of the world, has already been subject to colonial powers, and subsequently overthrew them. Like those powers, American presence in the Middle East is not just an unfortunate inconvenience that people need to deal with and is by no stretch of the imagination seen as a welcomed humanitarian mission; it is viewed as a destructive cancer that needs to be purged and resistance will only grow, spread, and utilize any means necessary until that is accomplished.

Battling Your Inner Capitalist

As we struggle against capitalism and the ways that it stifles our livelihood and crushes our human potential, we overlook the ways that it is ingrained in us and how we have made it a part of counter culture. Not only are we victims of capitalism, but without even realizing it, we are perpetrators of it. Capitalism is rooted in competition and views everything that facilitates profit as an asset and everything else as opposition. The whole idea of profit has been ingrained in our psyche. Within our everyday interactions we are constantly asking ourselves, “What’s in it for me?”

The conditioning starts as soon as we’re brought into this world. In our first year of life most of us are forced to sleep separately from our parents and we are weaned off our mother’s breast before we’re even a year old (if that). Our parents are convinced that they are doing what is best by preparing us to “fend for ourselves” out there. Society conveys the idea that if we rely too much on our family (or anyone else for that matter), we will grow up to be weak and unable to climb to the top of the consumer pyramid. We cry out for love, safety, and comfort from the isolation of our crib, but we learn that unless we are hurt physically, our cries will be ignored. A whole culture of capitalism surrounds us, sterilizing almost every form of self-expression and interaction. It plants a backwards version of individualism inside of us, teaching us that everything is competition. Trust nothing and no one.

We go through life feeling an unplaceable sense of loneliness and isolation around or disconnection from everyone and everything. As we get older it gets harder to express ourselves, listen, and understand each other within the rigid limitations of consumer culture. But everyone around us seems to be finding the key to fulfillment with their new cars, video games, television, and computers…. then it hits us. “No! It’s all wrong! I need more than this putrid, uninspiring, detached existence!” We start to understand that there is something very shallow about the whole cycle of competition, consumption, alienation, winners, and losers. We decide that we need something much more engaging so we reject society altogether.

But we need to take it a step further than just rejecting the crooked strategies of a capitalist society. Many of us get caught up in making ourselves victims of capitalism, using it as a way to explain away the dissatisfaction that we might still have with our lives. We make capitalism into some kind of scapegoat that exists “out there,” and deny that it exists inside of us. To call capitalism some kind of economic institution is to simplify the complexity of what is really going on in our society; the economic institution is an outcome of it, but its creator is far more wretched.

When we as punks rejected “society,” many of us pulled its evils even closer and immersed ourselves further in The Competition. How often do we put labels on others who are not a part of “our community” or tighten up when some stranger approaches us to offer kind words? Does that voice that says “what do they want from me” still speak in our heads? We make moralistic judgements about people we know nothing about, those who we feel we can’t “profit” from, and we perpetuate the abyss of alienation that we rejected in the first place. As we try so hard to climb out of it, we don’t even stop to notice that the beast we’re escaping from is clinging to our backs and pulling us further into the pit of judgement, competition, and isolation.

In order to break down this system we need to challenge that capitalist variety of individualism-based-on-competition within ourselves. While embracing our autonomy and self-direction, let’s learn how to trust each other, open up to others, and build deeper connections with all of our interactions . . . with everyone. When we deconstruct our own judgements and stereotypes we can see people as they really are, with feelings and needs much like our own, and this is a huge step toward making the fear-based, cold-hearted system crumble.

But our inner capitalist destroys much more than our relations with others; it is far more knifing than that. In society, we are constantly told that we are under qualified; we need to work more before we can get that position that we want, we need to get a degree before we can have the right career. Our personal capitalist takes this demoralization to a whole other level. It tells us that we are too under qualified to actualize our aspirations and dreams, we won’t be good enough, and that we will FAIL. It tells us we need to have more experience, be older, more educated, less stupid, etc.. To protect ourselves from potential failure as well as the dissatisfaction of not realizing our dreams, we tell ourselves that we will do it someday…and when that day comes we will be happy, but not just yet.

We put off joy constantly. Then we die.

I’m writing this as a sort of call to action. I have a very profound need to obliterate capitalism and its destruction of the human spirit and the only way that I see that happening is by starting from the deepest level. Once we embrace life and all of the possibilities that it offers us, the Revolution will be easy. The realization of our dreams is a political act, an insurrection from the soul. Go! Travel around the world, move out into the woods, go back to school for the simple purpose of learning, drop out of school, stop paying rent, write that article or book that you’ve always wanted to, quit your career, start a career, bike across the country, move to Antarctica, strive for the end of all capitalist wars, do what works for you, just look inside yourself and ask: “What are my deepest desires?” and take action! Do it with the passion of knowing that you’re not a victim of the demoralizing machine anymore. Don’t wait, because your little capitalist will jump into your head whenever it gets a chance and soon you could be dreaming of tomorrow again, living from your armchair, and denying your incredible potential and life’s endless possibilities.