Mandela and Morons

Growing up in the political hotbed of 1980s Cold War London, I found myself among interesting people. The African National Congress, after being banned in the 1950s, had set up a leadership-in-exile, based in London and Amsterdam. One of my teenage friends was the son of senior ANC exiles, a couple who had fled South Africa when the clampdown on the ANC began – including the jailing of the activist lawyer Nelson Mandela.

My friend, and other children of the ANC leadership, tried to be normal teenagers, but that must have been hard. I was warned to keep phone conversations with him minimal and to the point: their phone was almost certainly bugged by British intelligence which, despite our nation’s professed love of “freedom”, was working to monitor and help the South African government suppress the ANC. These children of the ANC had been raised in London, but groomed for political leadership when they one day returned to a country they had never visited. They also had to endure their parents leaving on long, secret trips to southern African countries, from which they might never return.

When Mandela walked free, my friend’s parents returned to South Africa, his father becoming a government minister in the first ANC government. My friend moved to Johannesburg shortly afterwards, was offered a diplomatic career, but decided to follow other paths.

Mandela, like many leaders of oppressed people, showed immense bravery and self-sacrifice. He famously spent 27 years in prison for his “seditious” activities, and refused to leave until a transition to democracy was assured. But Mandela differed from other revolutionary heroes: he tamed his people’s justifiable thirst for revenge, and instead crafted a new, multiracial South Africa; he taught a love of democracy and racial tolerance; he stood down from power rather than try to cling on to the bitter end, like so many other African revolutionary heroes had done. He refused to repeat the mistakes of earlier African independence movements which had angrily expelled the white and Asian elites, only to lose their most educated people and wealthiest investors.

Racists and white supremacists hate Mandela more than any other black leader because he didn’t just outperform other black leaders: he has a valid claim to be named as the greatest national leader of the 20th century. Neither of the great Western “heroes” of the 1980s, Reagan and Thatcher can remotely compare.

Yes, the ANC’s acts of resistance included acts of terrorism. But ANC atrocities are tiny compared to the real terrorism of that era. South African forces repeatedly gunned down civilians, including school children. The South African, US and UK governments supported far greater acts of terrorism in Mozambique and Angola, as they tried to stamp out the ANC’s fighters. How ironic that Mandela, a creator of democracy, was labelled a terrorist by the terrorists – Thatcher and Reagan – who crushed democracy and free speech in the name of freedom.

Mandela rose above all the world leaders of his generation. It is testament to his greatness that the people and newspapers that labelled him a menace in the 1980s are today lining up to praise him.

“But Mandela wasn’t a saint”, people are saying. So what? Both right and left revel in the simplistic idea that the world divides easily into good and bad people. His early activism, his time in prison, his ascent to the Presidency, his founding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his creation of a stable nation where most others would have created war and misery; all these things mark him out as far greater than his peers. He wasn’t a superman. He was a human being. But he was a remarkable human being.

“But look at South Africa now”. It’s easy to cherry-pick bad things in the country today. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, was easily convinced that AIDS was not caused by the HIV virus, and effectively killed hundreds of thousands of people by suspending treatment programmes. Corruption is rife. The ANC leadership now stuffs its pockets, gorging itself on countless millions of dollars. President Zuma lives in enormous luxury, and boasts an impressive collection of wives. South Africa is a violent country – but then that’s nothing new. Only generational change, coupled with free speech, housing, education and healthcare, can address the violence. South Africa is a deeply racist place too, as attacks on immigrants (mostly other Africans) demonstrate.

Mandela understood his country and his continent. He must have realised much of this was inevitable. Just as in the rest of Africa, the liberation struggle was just the first of a series of struggles. Colonialism and Apartheid put a racial mask on inequality, but now in South Africa, as in the rest of Africa, inequality, corruption and brutality can no longer be conveniently blamed on a foreign devil: it is home grown. Mandela and his ANC comrades, sowed the seed of democracy, human rights and free speech, allowing future generations to renew the struggle – this time a class struggle, not a racial or tribal one.

Nelson Mandela died in a very different world to the one he was born in. His death prompted an inevitable barrage of abuse from morons, but this just served to highlight how much organised racism has declined worldwide. The racist American right settled for complaining that America’s black President was attending Mandela’s funeral but hadn’t attended Thatcher’s (ignoring the facts that Thatcher was not a head of state, and that her greatly-contested achievements were tiny compared to Mandela’s).

I finally visited my old friend in Johannesburg last year. A local celebrity, he mixes in a wide multiracial circle. His black friends are internationally educated and well travelled, unlike their parents’ generation. They are part of a confident and rising Africa that is just starting to be noticed internationally. This Africa is the creation of generations of leaders who shook their people awake and harnessed their resentment; but one man stood head and shoulders above the others.

RIP Madiba.

Syria: We’re Not the good Guys

It’s too easy to be cynical about politics and politicians, and so when something out of the ordinary happens, we often dismiss it. This week’s British parliamentary vote against joining an American attack on Syria was historic, and to be celebrated. It established both that Britain can be independent of the US, and that we can step back from a war that seemed inevitable.

Until the vote, the whole situation stank of the 2002-2003 period during which Bush and Blair concocted their illegal attack on Iraq. Back then, we could see that the war was unnecessary. We could see the lies being created before our very eyes (Brits at least – Americans took several more years to realise they had been scammed). We knew, at least six months before the war that the decision had already been made. We marched in record numbers, but it was futile: Blair dragged us into the war against our will. He destroyed his political career as a result, but earned himself millions in “consultancy” fees from those who had benefited from the war.

Now, for the moment, our democracy has proven it can stand up against war-greedy corporations, the demands of the US Empire, and the need for military and intelligence “communities” to justify their own dubious and expensive existences. However cynical we may be about our democratic representatives, we should applaud and support them at this moment. The vote against war was a brave moment for Parliament.

“But”, comes the response, “what about the people of Syria”? It’s an important question, and a hard one to answer, but while considering the answer, we should remind ourselves of some important facts.

1. We’re Not The Good Guys

This is hard for Europeans to recognise, and even harder for Americans, who live in a propaganda bubble that North Korea would be proud of. It’s a mantra we need to remember. We (the West) are the bad guys. In the past few centuries, we have committed crimes and atrocities beyond count.

The three biggest warmongers today – UK, France, USA – are the worst of the worst, and have been for decades (in America’s case) or centuries (in the case of Britain and France). At the very least, tens of millions of people have been slaughtered by these three nations in their self-serving grabs for power and resources. We shouldn’t be distracted by the fact that the centre of Western power has moved from Paris and London to Washington. It’s the same imperialistic drive, the same European tribal instincts and allegiances at work.

These three powers between them have chewed up the rest of the planet. From India to Algeria, Colombia to Lebanon, Vietnam to Indonesia, Guatemala to Iraq, we have directly or indirectly caused misery on a global scale. There is only one significant moment in modern history where we have been on the right side: World War II. That was the exception, not the rule – and even then, we were hardly squeaky-clean. WWII set the stage for American imperialism. Better perhaps than German imperialism, but not to its millions of victims.

One more time: we’re not the good guys. Whoever should be leading an intervention to help the Syrian people, it should not be us. Sending Britain, France and America into Syria is like sending child rapists to run a nursery.

2. We Don’t Do Humanitarian Intervention

A brief look at modern history will kill the idea that we are prepared to spend billions of dollars in warfare for the good of foreign civilian populations. There are minor exceptions: interventions in African conflicts are cheap in dollars and lives, and these are easy to win because any opposition will be poorly trained and armed. The UK’s intervention in Sierra Leone was against a few thousand hungry gangsters holed up outside Freetown. France’s interventions in Ivory Coast and Mali were quick and easy. All three of these interventions were designed to support existing leaders against rebels, not to change regimes; and they were self-serving too, preserving old colonial ties.

Besides these, our behaviour speaks for itself. The biggest war since WWII has been in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we have left the UN to deal with that, despite slaughters and reports of 50 rapes per hour taking place at times. Ditto in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands were killed. Our “allies” in Sri Lanka are reported to have slaughtered 40,000 Tamils in 2009, and herded hundreds of thousands more into camps. Mass rape is reported. We tut-tut and keep trading with them. Our new friends in Burma are averting their gaze while nationalists slaughter and rape members of the Rohingya Muslim minority. And we line up to sign oil deals there.

While we invaded Iraq to “deal with the evil dictator Saddam”, we continued to partner with leaders who were as bad, or even worse. While Saddam was torturing and killing his own people, the British ambassador Craig Murray was warning that in Uzbekistan, the leader Islam Karimov was boiling dissidents to death. Murray was fired for criticising a friend of the war on terror.

3. Syria Is Next To Iran and Israel

Amidst all the Syria noise, you might have forgotten that for the past decade or so, Iran has been “months away from developing a nuclear weapon”. The war party has been trying to justify an attack on Iran (one of the world’s biggest oil producers) for many years. Even world-class neo-con liars have found it hard to persuade anybody that a war on Iran might be necessary. In 2008, as he was leaving office, Bush was still trying to persuade the public that Iran was a threat. An attack on Syria would at the very least destabilise Iran, which is already suffering from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on its doorstep. A friendly regime in Syria would provide another good launch point for a future attack on Iran.

Meanwhile, Israel would love to see its Middle Eastern enemies weakened and broken. Israel is still occupying the Golan Heights, Syrian land that was taken and occupied during the 1967 war. Israel appears to have no intention of letting the land return to Syria, and a weakened Syria would allow Israel to finalise its land grab. In reality, this is already happening: in February this year, Israel granted an oil-drilling license in the Golan Heights to a US company with links to Dick Cheney, one of the chief gangsters involved in the Iraq war. This is an illegal move: international law does not recognise the land, or the oil, as belonging to Israel.

4. What’s The Big Deal With Chemical Weapons Anyway?

Obama’s stipulation that use of chemical weapons in Syria would be the last straw is weird and arbitrary, and reminds me of nothing more than Bill Hicks’ “pick up the gun” sketch. The line appears to have been drawn solely for the purpose of claiming it had been crossed. I don’t know whether Assad has used chemical weapons or not: the man seems perfectly capable of doing so. But likewise, the US is perfectly capable of telling massive lies in order to justify new wars, as demonstrated in both Vietnam and Iraq.

To use chemical weapons would be horrendous, but far less so than many acts of the US, British and French empires. Assad would also have to excel in evil to beat the murderous behaviour of the US in Iraq and so many other places. America is now known to have supported Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, and used vast amounts of depleted uranium (and perhaps other substances) which have led to many birth defects in Iraq. In other words: even if Assad is a murderous bastard, several recent US presidents have been far worse. Whatever Assad has done, to allow a US attack could only make things worse at every level.

So What Now?

The Syrian civil war is a reality. Mankind only has one tool to deal with such situations: the United Nations. It may not be perfect, but we have nothing else. The UN must be empowered and trusted to do whatever it can to help refugees, protect civilians and try to end the conflict. The American, British and French should stay as far away as possible – except, possibly, to supply resources to a UN peacekeeping operation. There is no quick and easy answer to Syria, and a US attack is not even an answer at all – it would be fuel added to the fire. Bullying the UN Security Council into backing yet another US war is not the same as allowing the UN to deal with the situation.

And if the West truly has billions of dollars to burn, peace can be bought far more cheaply than a war which can only increase instability in the Middle East, and lead to more terrorist attacks both there and here.

The US is trying to broaden and continue its endless, pointless war on terror. We can be proud that the British Parliament has just made that task a little more difficult. Obama wars are no better than Bush, Reagan or Nixon wars. At least if America goes to war against Syria, this time we can try to ensure they go alone, and are exposed as the gangsters they are, and have been since the 1950s.

Election 2012: America’s Tipping Point?

Fox News team looking sad
Why the long faces?

America has two broad histories: what happened, and what Americans think happened. America’s brutal history is hard to square with its talk of liberty and equality, but the schizophrenic nation somehow manages to blend reality with fiction almost seamlessly. The fairy tales start from the nation’s very beginning. The Enlightenment in Europe was proposing radical new ideas: that science and reason should triumph over religion and superstition; that tolerance and fairness should triumph over persecution. Americans are sold a story in which the early settlers were chased out of a barbaric Europe that refused to tolerate their religious beliefs; in reality, the Enlightenment was challenging the most intolerant religious factions. Those Christian zealots who fled to America weren’t running from intolerance, but fleeing because their right to be intolerant was under threat.

These origins created a contradictory, fractured nation: a constitution based on the Enlightenment, but a population that was strongly opposed to Enlightenment values. As a result, America has always been an outlier when measured against other continents. More religious, more violent, less tolerant than other countries of similar levels of wealth; clinging on to slavery long after the Atlantic slave trade had been outlawed by the British; creating racial segregation laws unlike anything seen in post-medieval Europe (with the exception of Nazi-era antisemitic laws).

For most of its history, the US white majority has been strongly racist and deeply religious. The civil-rights era laid the groundwork for true equality in some future time, but it frightened and enraged the white majority. The Republican Party, once the party of abolition, embraced its infamous Southern Strategy to mop up the white racist vote that had once belonged to the Democrats.

For decades, this strategy worked. From 1972 until 2008, there were six Republican presidential terms and only three Democratic ones. But predictable changes were happening. America’s social values were inevitably becoming more progressive, for several reasons: in post-civil rights America, young people of different races were – slowly at first – beginning to mix with each other; immigrants from around the world were bringing new ideas; the population was urbanising; and, thanks to the Internet, Americans were becoming exposed to a global market of ideas from which most had been previously excluded. Republicans were dominant, but their dominance was reliant on a shrinking base.

The tipping point arrived quietly at some point in the past decade. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, it seemed America had passed a point of no return. The symbol of a black President gave an unmistakable message of change. The Republicans needed to accept and embrace the changes in society, and many attempted to. But they were tangled in their own past. A huge segment of Republican support was right-wing, racist and religious. With some help from Fox News and cash from corporate backers, the so-called Tea Party movement emerged; an enraged backlash against inevitable change. They successfully seized the Republican agenda, removing moderates from office and shifting the party to the extreme right. Their calls to “take back our country” failed to mask the unmistakable screams of a lynch mob.

The Republicans became perfect moron-watching material. Every week would produce a new story so outrageous, I would have to check multiple sources before tweeting or blogging about it; attacks on women’s reproductive rights, rejections of mainstream science, attempts to include religious orthodoxy in mainstream education, witch-hunts against Muslims.

The life of a Republican presidential candidate was made impossible – how to present yourself as far-right to the angry, white, religious Republican base while simultaneously as centrist to the wider electorate?

I believe Obama’s 2012 victory is more significant even than his 2008 win. This time, he was an incumbent with a varying record in office. This time, the novelty factor of a black candidate was no longer in play. The US economy is not in great shape. He has faced relentless campaigns trying to prove that he was born outside the US or labelling him a Muslim. Yet he won. The screams of rage from the right this time are louder than before. Because this time, his victory can’t be blamed on some kind of black sympathy vote, or on John McCain’s suitability as a candidate. The 2012 victory demonstrates the existence – for the first time ever – of a narrow progressive (or at least centrist) majority in America.

Obama’s win wasn’t the only sign of this. Two states voted to legalise recreational use of marijuana, and four voted in favour of gay marriage. The screams of rage are in mourning, not just for an election defeat, but for an America where white, Christian, racist males dominated. This was best summed up by the right-wing Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly on election night when he glumly stated: “the white establishment is now in the minority“.

The Republicans need to embrace the new reality, but that’s easier said than done. A constituency of white, Christian racists still exists, and it numbers in the tens of millions. In a multi-party democracy, the Tea Party could form its own political party, but in America’s enforced duopoly, they have nowhere else to go, and so the chance that the Republicans can move towards the centre is remote.

Unfortunately, the Republican swing to the right has taken the most important issues off the US agenda. Climate change, inequality and the corporate threat to democracy were barely mentioned in the election campaign. Big oil and corporate power were the winners.

One thing is certain – the US religious right is still huge, is angrier than ever, and still controls the House of Representatives. Now cornered, expect its last stand to be spectacular.

US Elections For Dummies

That tricky choice: more drone strikes and torture or more drone strikes and torture?

As we approach another US Presidential election, increasing numbers of non-Americans are watching proceedings with great interest; however, the US electoral system is a strange thing, and many foreigners fail to understand its subtleties. As a non-Yank who takes a great interest in US politics, I felt I should explain US elections to those foreigners who would like to follow events in the run-up to November 6. So here is the MoronWatch quick guide to American elections.

Only Two Parties?

That’s right, the American system is carefully engineered to ensure only Democrats and Republicans have any chance of winning. To outside observers, used to multi-party democracy, this seems a little strange. America, in its usual efficient way, has optimised democracy to the bare minimum. Cuba, of course, has a one-party state. America has TWICE the number of parties that Cuba does, and is therefore twice as democratic. And what better measure of democracy could there possibly be?

To ensure no other parties have a chance, the Ds and the Rs have things sown up. For example, in the current run of presidential debates, the parties signed a legal contract promising not to debate with any other candidate, thus creating an unbreakable duopoly and excluding any possible third-party candidate from gaining any publicity. The media plays along with the game, ensuring that alternative candidates are seen as little more than cranks. And when force is needed, it’s freely used; indeed, when Green Party candidate Jill Stein tried to attend this year’s debate, she was arrested and held by New York police. Smell the democracy!

No Spending Limits?

Outsiders have a quaint idea that elections should reflect the will of the people. America is smarter than this (as are other advanced democracies such as Cuba, Zimbabwe, etc). The People, as everyone knows, are idiots and shouldn’t be allowed to make any serious decisions. Presidents should instead be chosen by the nation’s cleverest people: CEOs. Unlike many democracies, America imposes no spending restrictions, and even allows third-parties (such as corporate front groups) to run political advertising. The election result is thus a simple matter of money.

So corporations fund the campaigns and the campaign that spends the most money wins. Simple! Which party do the corporations prefer? Both of them! Since both parties represent corporate interests, it doesn’t really matter to corporations which one is elected. They fund both parties to make sure that they, rather than any accountable body, control the system. If one of the parties suddenly questioned the rights of corporations to own and run US society, that party would lose its funding and the other one would win. The system is balanced and fair (unless you’re some kind of commie who believes in “one person, one vote” type stuff).

No Progressive Party?

Real democracies represent all parts of the political spectrum, but that can be messy, and result in the people actually choosing their government; so the enlightened system in America (like that in Cuba) ensures this doesn’t happen. Most societies split into two parts – conservatives (those who think the past was great) and progressives (those who aren’t so sure about that). So the main political parties tend to represent various flavours of these strands. America has evolved beyond this crude system; since progressives tend to be uneasy about corporate power threatening democracy, they had to be excluded from the electoral process.

Instead, Americans are offered a simpler choice: pro-corporate sane people vs pro-corporate insane people. This means that a knowledge of politics isn’t necessary for voting in America, since the parties disagree on very little anyway. Just decide whether you think raped pregnant women should be forced to carry their babies to term or not, and your choice is simple.

Make Up The Rules As You Go Along

Here’s the best thing about US elections: if the vote doesn’t go your way, it doesn’t even matter! You simply ensure the voting machines will give the right answer, people have trouble voting, and the supreme court is packed with your friends.

Why bother with elections at all? Why not just allow CEOs to nominate the next President at a secret meeting? Americans are proud of their semi-democratic past, and voting reminds them of the days when they actually used to have some control over national policy. Besides, the corporations who make rigged voting machines would be very upset to lose all that business. As with many African nations, which have so carefully copied America’s version of democracy, the US enjoys going through the motions of voting, secure in the knowledge that the rich people who own everything will still be in power after election day.

So Does Voting Make Any Difference?

Yes. Despite the fact that both parties are largely funded by the same interests, small changes of direction can make a big difference. The Republican party has been taken over by people who will happily start a nuclear war, since they believe God’s on their side and they’re guaranteed a spot in heaven whatever happens. And the difference between “nuclear war” and “no nuclear war” is pretty significant. Romney has signalled a more aggressive attitude towards Russia, China and Iran if he’s elected, which is bad news for global stability and the economy, but good news for the oil and weapons companies that back him.

So here we go again: through some joke of history, the entire future of global humanity rests on the whims of a handful of badly-informed morons in a handful of swing states. If there is a god, he has a wicked sense of humour.