Saturday, October 2, 2010

Ranting Like Rand Paul or Proving Godwin's Law?

Xenophobia. Sweden. Two words you probably wouldn't put together in normal conversation. How about these two: Intolerance. Holland. Probably not. Let's try again: Atheism. Nazism. Hmmm, getting warmer I suppose if you listened to the pope in England last month. Last one: Uncertainty. Extremism. Yeah, I know, both terms are a little more vague and therefore easier to associate, but what are you gonna do? Random thoughts while I ease into post-vacation life back here in Poland where holocaust deniers take people on their vacations. As I get caught up on the happenings around the world those last two words, uncertainty and extremism that is, seem to pretty much sum up what's been going on as we sit around waiting for something bad to happen.

It seems the UK elections in May, resulting in a hung parliament with no party taking half the vote, foreshadowed the ballot counting to be done for the rest of the summer. People just don't seem to know what to do or who to blame. They have an inkling deep down that the neoliberal, free market movement spearheaded by Reagan and Thatcher 30 years ago is responsible for many of the problems facing the world today but at the same time don't trust the left wing to fix things after watching their governments around the world throw good money after bad into a bottomless pit of technocratic waste. The extreme right UKIP may have siphoned off just enough of the Conservative vote to force them to seek a coalition with the Lib Dems. Pity Nick Clegg as he's forced to apologize for all the coming cuts after betraying his base by joining Cameron's party in government, not. A twisted good cop-bad cop routine. The Polish presidential election had a resurrected duck almost snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat as the eastern rural vote almost swept another Kaczynski into power after he had already conceded defeat. The left of centre label on President Komorowski's forehead (like a Washington state apple with a Kiwi sticker?) means he'll smile for the cameras with Merkel while supporting bailouts to pay back banks who enabled Greece's profligacy that we can just blame on the unions.

In Australia, where there is a compulsory Alternative Vote system to deliver decisive results(?!), voters were forced to choose who they disliked the least: a  power hungry, unmarried, atheist living with her boyfriend without plans to have a family or a Jesus saves budget creationist. Both were anathema to voters as Julia Gillard's Labor party and Tony Abbot's Liberal/National coalition failed to secure half the seats, each getting 72 seats out of a possible 150. The biggest ballot winner was the informal vote - being forced to vote, this is the best way not to do it down under - doodling and blanking one in twenty ballots . Not even tasty pork promises were enough to help the right as the green and independents joined Labor to form a government for awhile. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats both suffered ringing defeats in recent local elections. Um, yeah, who wants to keep the Euro afloat forever? The Democratic Party of Japan won an historic election victory in September last year but promptly lost its majority in Japan’s upper house of Parliament and barely avoided naming their third prime minister in the past year as perpetual deflation sparked the non-shooting currency war. The world is still in an economic rut that will get worse before getting better and voters are throwing darts trying to pin the blame.

You can't really blame folks for being so unsure of what to do in the current economic climate but really, Sweden? The Netherlands? It can't be a good thing when two of the countries that first come to my mind when thinking of paradigms of coexistence and tolerance have the election results they did. No, I'm not despairing over the fact that the Social Democrats, the party most responsible for building Sweden's society having governed for 65 of the last 78 years, suffered their worst electoral defeat in 90 years thus handing the conservative alliance their first consecutive electoral victory. No, it gets worse as the parliamentary door has been opened to the extreme right. The Sweden Democrats (SD), a far-right, anti-immigrant party that emerged from neo-Nazi groupings in the 1980s, overcame the minimum electoral barrier of 4% to gain access to the governing process. They received 5.7% of the vote, meaning they will occupy 20 of the 349 seats in Parliament. Oh, the uncertainty? Well, the alliance failed to secure a majority and though they along with all the major parties ruled out working with the SDs, to form a government, they seem to be the alliances only 'natural' ally.

Perhaps this wouldn't seem so bad in isolation but one has to look no further than neighbouring Denmark to see the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party has virtually dictated immigration policy since 2001. April elections in Hungary, where the crisis hit so hard the IMF had to step in (cue evil Darth Vader music) the ultranationalist, explicitly anti-Semitic Jobbik party took 17% of the vote, capturing a quarter of the 18 to 29 vote. Things are even worse in Holland. I'm not talking about the red light district closing or the smoking ban's effect on coffee houses, no, unfortunately it's even worse - another whack job taking advantage of people's fears. The June 9th national election results saw no party attain a majority like everywhere else. No party received over 2 million votes yet 7 parties got over half a million each. The Christian Democrats tumbled from power to fourth, the Muslim vote propelled a party led by a Jew into second picking up one less seat than a party committed to repeating all the same free market economic liberalization mistakes of the past 30 years. That People's Party for Freedom and Democracy 'won' taking 31 of a possible 150 seats simply by recycling the neoliberal economic policies of the past 30 years. Meanwhile a one-issue candidate devoted to hate managed to garner the third highest total of seats. That one-issue candidate's name is Geert Wilders.

Wilders Freedom Party (what a great propaganda name!) grew from nine seats to 24 of the 150 possible. While this amazing growth is due in part to the neglect of the traditional parties towards the issues of immigration and the future of the welfare state, the true roots of the appeal of his racist hate lie with Pim Fortuyn. A proud, openly gay politician, he had energized Dutch politics by convincing a significant portion of the electorate that the conservative values brought by Islamic immigrants weren't compatible with traditional Dutch values. Well, after turning tolerance into intolerance by 'unmasking' the others hate of their society's openness, he was killed in 2002 by a radical leftist animal-rights activist. While we'll never know if he would have become the first openly gay prime minister, he was voted greatest Dutchman of all-time two years later. His death was followed by the murder of film maker Theo Van Gogh after making Submission, a film critical of the treatment of women in Islam. Not only did the Dutch-Moroccan Mohammed Bouyeri shoot Van Gogh in the head eight times as he cycled to work, he also tried to decapitate him, leaving the blade along with another stuck into the body with a five page Jihad manifesto attached. These kinds of things tend to leave a mark on society.

There is a lot wrong with the immigration systems everywhere, not just Europe and Holland. Canada is grappling with Australia's 'boat people' dilemma by hoping that everyone forgets there have been 500 Tamils sitting in a dock for a month and a half; scream 'terrorists' while mothers give birth in custody. Never mind they were victims on the losing side of a genocidal civil war; it's more important to brand losers terrorists than condemn the victors, even if their president decides to give himself dictatorial powers. In Arizona you better be carrying your papers if your foreign looking, 70% of voters had had enough of Mexicans and supported the bill that forces law enforcement officers to check ID if they sense foreign blood. Racial profiling isn't a good thing when a Gallup poll revealed that 39 percent of Americans supported requiring Muslims in the country, including US citizens, to carry special identification. Maybe a green crescent moon instead of a yellow star?

Switzerland voted in a national referendum to ban the construction of minarets due to the obvious threat posed by the four found in the whole country. Belgium has passed a law banning the burqa, a garment estimated to be worn there by at least a hundred women. In Italy a woman was fined €500 for wearing a veil on her way to a mosque. The European backlash is almost understandable as newly arriving immigrants are simply herded through friend or family connections into established neighbourhoods, breeding pockets of life where non-Muslim women feel intimidated walking next to burka clad Fatima on her way home to be beaten. Classrooms where 3/4 of the students are from immigrant families, often without command of the language of instruction and going home to a world where forced marriages and honour killings are part of life. Neighborhoods such as Berlin's Kreuzberg are run by Arab and Albanian family clans that control crime syndicates and receive welfare benefits. Populism and xenophobic backlash is to be expected in times of economic uncertainty and blaming the other is the easiest and quickest way to win a vote. Here in Poland the first presidential election campaign following the IMF takeover from communism was influenced by a "secret Jew" whispering campaign against Prime Minister Mazowiecki that played along next to Lech Walesa's promises to "sweep the Jewish cabal out of the Warsaw Government". The uncertainty of the time allowed a populist movement to power an unknown 42-year-old Polish emigre holding Peruvian and Canadian citizenship into second place. With Polish troops having taken part in Iraq and now stationed in Afghanistan it's more in vogue to scream in protest against mosques than whisper about Jews.

I just wish there was some way to tie the events in Europe with those happening in the US of A. If only there were a group of people looking to exploit the current environment of uncertainty for some kind of political gain. Well, I guess this clip of the above mentioned Geert Wilders speaking at a 9/11 remembrance event organized by Ayn Rand disciple (motto: the only good poor person/Muslim/liberal is a dead one) Pamela Geller in New York to protest the building of an Islamic cultural centre will just have to do:

You see, America also has its own tradition of intolerance and hate to build on. While it's Muslims today who are the main target due to their inability to integrate and accept democracy, the same arguments were leveled in the 19th century by the Know Nothing movement who spread lies of  “the Catholic menace”. There's always been Glenn Becks to stir up hatred against the Irish, Germans, Italians or Chinese. Fear of the other seems to be a genetic legacy from caveman days which may make it easier to understand but doesn't lessen the danger that led folks to burn witches, intern Japanese-Americans, and turn away Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

A perpetual war on terror, the economic crisis, Faux News and the Internet have combined in a perfect storm to incite racism and hatred of the other to greater levels than those in the immediate aftermath of the horrific events of September 11th, 2001. Amazingly, Dubya was more level-headed then than Joe six-pack is today declaring, "The Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion". Seems George just wanted to love them to death through invasion and occupation to even the score and grab their oil. Yet, here we are nearly a decade into invasions and occupations and we're still being bombarded almost daily with stories of pending terrorist attacks. A once proud and confident superpower sits around and watches as their country crumbles around them while resources needed to cover the cracks are siphoned overseas. Sending troops to die in faraway lands to kill or be killed creates pressure to believe that the lives of brown people in those lands are somehow less valued. See General William Westmoreland's infamous statement in the 1974 documentary "Hearts and Minds" that "the oriental doesn't put the same high price on human life as does the westerner." (It's at about 1:35 in the video.) After eight years of fighting a war without a frame of reference to judge victory it becomes ever more difficult to justify killing if you think the others' lives are as valuable as our own. In order to resolve any doubts we may have about the value of human life it's almost natural to want to degrade the value of that other.

After a 30 year binge celebrating the individualistic consumer spirit we woke with a vicious hangover in 2008 that made the millenium headache seem quaint. An economic crisis that seemed to require a collective response coming when it did, after a generation had been drilled to believe that less government equaled greater opportunities for growth, created cognitive dissonance. It seems incongruous to put our well being in the hands of a government that had seen every president since Carter run an election campaign against Washington, only to watch over as committees grew more numerous, more specialized and less reflective of the public. Seeing as successive governments proved to be increasingly incompetent at fixing problems while corporations flourished, we decided to hitch our carts to the express train to riches by electing those officials who could get us there quicker. Economic shocks may have been coming at shorter and more powerful intervals but who cared? Then, an economic catastrophe that no one yet fully understands forced governments that we no longer trust to intervene and prevent a worldwide collapse. But after 30 years of being told we could deal with things better as individuals, from health care to retirement savings and our children's education, this isn't what people wanted to hear. It must be someone's fault. The Mexicans picking vegetables in Arizona for way less than American citizens would was fine when everyone was on the gravy train of the real estate bubble. Now they're under attack, right-wingnut TV impersonators are forced to defend them in Congress because no one else will, which is a problem apparently as it takes time away from more important things, like Lindsey Lohan. A joke many sadly don't seem to get. Economic uncertainty may be even stronger than fear of attack. Super Sarkozy suddenly has to bribe Roma to get on planes to go home (so they can come back a month later) to appease the clamouring of the far right elements of society. Um, yeah, those communities are burning because there's no jobs for dark-skinned people with an accent.

Faux News has been the bullhorn of hate. The most watched news channel in America is a round-the-clock loudspeaker to deliver the wacky stuff dreamed up in the proliferation of "research institutes" that feed the press their trial balloons. The 24/7 consistency of both ideology and story selection more than amplifies the conservative message; it builds momentum for a story by hammering it over and over for days or weeks until the mainstream media finally feels compelled to discuss it, from birthers to truthers and all points in between. In a world where getting information has become part of a contest between iPads and Blackberries to deliver it faster and sleeker along with Facebook updates, it's no wonder our 140 character attention spans don't even notice the slander and revisionism. It slides by mostly unnoticed that Harvard gives awards to magazine editors who write "frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims". Evangelical ministers tell us the seed of Islam was passed to Obama through his father while once respected magazines run front page stories claiming Obama is fulfilling the dream of his Muslim, socialist, anti-colonial drunken Kenyan father. The scary part is that 52 percent of Republicans believe that it is “definitely true” or “probably true” that “Barack Obama sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world”. Bill O'Reilly is considered calm and moderate now that we have Glenn Beck.

It's no coincidence that all those Tea Party types have a thing for dressing up in retro garb screaming about socialism, authoritarian movements often pretend to be grassroots movements. Their words would have a lot more meaning if they had voiced them while the Bush administration launched two wars and a new entitlement, Medicare prescription drugs, while cutting taxes on the economic side all the while allowing Osama bin Laden to really win by destroying America's civil liberties. Now, suddenly, they're mad as hell about the deficit and won’t take it anymore from what they see as a foreign born capitalist hating Muslim? By the time Obama ran for president, "Muslim" was a slur, an accusation about his faith he felt compelled to deny. Racism is the only way to understand many of the attacks that have come out of the right-wingnut fear factory.

The public being fed so much garbage masks the real problems. Note that the Obama administration has undone not one of the powers that Bush arrogated to himself and is adding more all the while. The fact that Guantanamo is still open, US troops are still running Iraq and Afghanistan continues to spin further out of control costs more than just lives. State secret claims are being invoked to cover up plans to hunt and kill citizens. The magnet of hate that gave us Abu Ghraib and messed with people's ethical compass on the subject of torture, now has some questioning if Muslims even deserve First Amendment protection. Oh, Heretz isn't the only one spewing this hate and if you try to defend their freedom of religion you'll be attacked for being an apologist. Governors can invent stories about decapitated bodies in the desert to justify racist laws while others invent new racial epithets like "anchor babies" to justify repealing the 14th amendment, birthright citizenship. Could bin Laden, in his wildest imaginings, have hoped to provoke greater chaos?

None of these political movements represent a danger in isolation, but when taken together with the global economic situation and the meh attitude of the populace it strikes fear into the heart that once we notice how far we've fallen, it's usually too late. Rand Paul, he of the Kentucky primary Tea Party win, likes to whip up fear of the coming rise of the next Hitler with stories of people carrying money in wheelbarrows. He's right, there are parallels, but it's not wheelbarrows that scare me so much as, say, a Glenn Beck joking about poisoning the speaker of the house or talking about choking the life out of a filmmaker or fantasizing about beating a congressman “to death with a shovel” (Nancy Pelosi, Michael Moore and Charles Rangel, respectively). Chanting about death panels while spitting on and intimidating legislators doesn't bode well either. Mandatory vaccinations, anyone? Or a new war of aggression (after a false flag attack of some sort, c'mon Iran!). More government intrusions of the most intimate and controlling nature, internet, hello. Or arresting people without warrants. In America the best way to control the people is to get on the TeeVee and the best way to get on the TeeVee is to threaten to burn the Koran to protest a community center being built a few blocks from ground zero.

Mussolini said that "Fascism should rightly be called corporatism as it is a merger of state and corporate power". Smoot-Hawley was no more of a beggar-thy-neigbbour policy than today's currency war that will pull any recovery chances into a protectionist pit. Privately owned militias such as Blackwater, or should I say Xe, may not wear brownshirts but they are bringing the same freedom that the 1920s Freedom Party brought Germany. Setting off club in hand in search of scapegoats may soothe our caveman urges but it keeps us occupied when we could be trying to solve the problems facing us. Once promising progressive presidents seem to be expanding wars, trying to assassinate American citizens, targeting peace activists, spying on Americans, dismantling public education; it almost makes one long for the good old days of George W. Bush. In some mosques, imams are encouraging the faithful to engage in Islamist terror while praising past attacks. Fanatics try to decapitate filmmakers fanning the flames of hatred in a perverse merry-go-round of one upmanship while banks are bailed out with taxpayer money which forces governments to cut back while people are thrown out of homes and jobs as they're not as important to the economy as those banks. It's no surprise we don't know who to vote for anymore. If only this were 19th century Salem and all we had to worry about were angry mobs burning witches.