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A once-in-a-lifetime selfie opportunity presented itself at a March 10 State Department luncheon in Washington, D.C., when Justin Trudeau and his team were being feted by one of the worst comedians on the touring circuit, Secretary of State John Kerry, whose stabs at humour could only be considered capital punishment.
After the polite laughter died down, Rufus Wainwright serenaded the room as guests dug into a feast courtesy of a Montreal-born chef. Meanwhile, it seems that Canadian cabinet ministers Navdeep Bains and Mélanie Joly were busily scanning the room for famous people. As members of the Canadian delegation, one would think that they had been chosen for their ability to exercise judgment and good taste while on the international stage, rather than their skill with a smartphone.
But neither Bains nor Joly had the wisdom, the foresight, the dignity, or the courage to recognize that what they were about to do was so wrong, so insulting, so hurtful to so many, and so contemptuous of all the rhetoric about democracy and human rights that they spout back at home.
They just couldn't say "no" to the narcissistic voices in their heads. And so, like rats chasing after a particularly malodorous hunk of rotting cheese, Joly and Bains rushed to have snapshots taken with two men whose legacy of mass murder, illegal invasions and occupations, torture, carpet bombing, assassination, coups and unimaginable amounts of state violence numbers in the millions of victims. Thousands who survived such atrocities came to Canada as refugees, yet Bains and Joly managed to thoughtlessly dismiss their pain, their scars, and their survival.
Selfies with war criminals
When Bains tweeted about the "honour" of cuddling up to Henry Kissinger and Joly squeezed in to include her mug with Kissinger and Colin Powell, they raised a virtual middle finger to those millions of victims. Would Joly and Bains have rushed to snap selfies with the brutal dictators Kissinger helped install and support, the heads of torture states and death squad dictatorships? Name like Pinochet of Chile, Suharto of Indonesia, Argentina's General Videla, Paraguay's Stroessner, Iran's Shah Pahlavi, the colonels in Greece and the generals in Brazil, Iraq's Hussein, among many, many others, can still curdle the blood.
For those with short memories, Colin Powell was the diplomatic architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a defining moment of criminality that resulted in the killing of almost 1 million people and also gave birth to ISIS. Powell's propaganda blitz was akin to the incitement charges that have led to war crimes prosecution for numerous Rwandans. Instead, he does book tours, high-paid speeches, and selfies with clueless Canadians.
Kissinger has a far lengthier history of criminality, including but in no way limited to: helping implement Richard Nixon's orders to carpet bomb Cambodia (famously ordering "anything that flies over anything that moves"); prolonging the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam (U.S. troops executed regular massacres at places like My Lai, where the Americal Division -- of which Powell was a member of the brass -- murdered over 500 seniors, women and children before lunch one morning); engineering the 1973 coup that overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, opening the floodgates to decades of death squad torture, executions and exile; supporting the brutal military juntas of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and other Latin American dictatorships; and other crimes well documented in Christopher Hitchens' The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which he states Kissinger should face prosecution "for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap and torture."
Could Bains and Joly have said "no" to selfies with war criminals? If a major candidate for the U.S. presidency can say he wants nothing to do with Kissinger -- Bernie Sanders -- why not two representatives of the mythical "peaceable kingdom"?
The Disneyland of War Crimes
But Bains and Joly couldn't resist because, along with Trudeau and six other cabinet ministers, they were on a playcation in the Disneyland of War Crimes, where nothing is real except the selfie you can tweet to show how important you are because you are in the control centre, the belly of the beast, the heart of the empire. This is a place where the line between Hollywood and reality is so blurred because a revolving door of your favourite film stars constantly shows up to pay tribute to Caesar, here in the form of Obama, a man who, in blunt honesty, confesses: "I am really good at killing people." Those same stars are often featured in Pentagon-approved films that glorify American snipers and demonize brown-skinned "terrorists" who have the gall to defend themselves against illegal invasions.
The Hollywoodization of politics is not a new phenomenon. It is part of a lengthy process long aimed to invite all interested performers into the tent of power because it provides such a good-looking cover for what lies underneath. The star of the big show, Barack Obama, is, like most people who rise to become U.S. president, a loathsome sort. The office requires it of you because of the entities it ultimately serves and the people whose lives you must sacrifice in the name of "national interests." For Obama and the minions who serve the presidency -- like the Powells and Kissingers -- those on the global sacrifice list have no names, no hopes, no dreams. All they have is the easily dismissed label of "collateral damage" who make the mistake of being born and living in the countries we choose to invade and occupy or hit with drone strikes.
But the world of Hollywood is about mythmaking and illusion, and most people would far prefer to think of their leaders, their governments, and their militaries as good guys for whom it is an honour to perform a concert, read some poetry or receive an award. For Americans, it helps to gloss over the fact that Obama is a self-professed constitutional lawyer who has thrown more whisetleblowers behind bars than all other presidents combined while refusing to take the action necessary -- even when he had a Democrat-controlled Senate and House -- to close the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay. He holds a weekly kill list session every Tuesday at the White House before ordering drone strikes that have killed countless thousands. Then he jokes at social gatherings of correspondents and entertainers about his threat to use a drone to murder his daughters' potential boyfriends. Murder is funny when there's no consequences for ordering the hit. And so few seem to think twice of visiting the Oval office for a few yucks, much to the delight of lefty Facebook users who repost Jerry Seinfeld driving around with this man who has just committed to a $1 trillion investment in nuclear weapons while cutting programs for America's most vulnerable.
Lack of a public morality
In such a world, the development and sustainability of a baseline public morality -- a refusal to accept, normalize and celebrate the globalized violence inflicted on people and the environment both by militarism and an economic system designed to exploit the many for the benefit of the few -- is dismissed by power brokers, pundits and backroom boys as a political risk, a sign of unelectability, a utopian ideal in a world of "difficult choices" and "tough decisions." Bains, Joly and Trudeau are a product of that cynical worldview, albeit a smiling face that covers the brutality of the exercise of power, a brutality Canadians will increasingly see when the Liberals are faced with the either/or choice of pipelines or respect for Indigenous sovereignty, housing the homeless or feeding the War Department, respecting civil liberties or allowing the repressive C-51 to continue expanding powers of the state security apparatus.
Thankfully, there are those who place personal integrity above the opportunity to take their picture with the prime minister or the president. Take, for example, Black Lives Matter activist Aislinn Pulley, who rejected a White House invite last month to discuss civil rights when she discovered it would in fact by a 90-second photo-op. She eloquently wrote that she "could not, with any integrity, participate in such a sham that would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it."
Similarly, Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai took advantage of a White House invite to confront Obama about the drone strikes terrorizing Pakistan.
When the invasion of Iraq was being prepared in 2003, then "First Lady" Laura Bush invited a bunch of poets to the White House to reflect on Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes. Poet Sam Hamill wrote that he "was overcome by a kind of nausea" when he got his invite, and called on fellow poets to submit anti-war work which would be presented to Mrs. Bush. When word of those plans got around, the event was cancelled, but Hamill was able to help re-energize Poets Against the War, which collected thousands of poems for the group's website.
A few years earlier, when the amazing, courageous, late poet Adrienne Rich got her invitation to receive the National Medal for the Arts from Bill Clinton in 1997, she refused to accept, writing that:
"[T]he very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration….I believe in art's social presence -- as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded…[it] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honour certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonoured."
Then there's the case of Canadian Carole Addesso, who risked all when she accepted an invitation to sing at the White House only because she saw it as an opportunity to confront President Nixon over the ongoing war against the people of Vietnam. She looked Nixon in the eye while holding a "Stop the Killing" banner and forcefully declared: "Mr. President, stop the bombing of human beings, animals and vegetation. You go to church on Sunday and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were in this room tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb."
Nonviolent enemies of the state
Legendary beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti articulated well the public role of arists when he wrote: "the poet by definition, as the bearer of Eros and love and freedom, is the natural-born nonviolent enemy of the state. Militant poetry as the agent of truth is the best arm against home-grown fascism. "
Speaking such truth lays bare the reality that governments and corporations spend hundreds of billions trying to cover up with artistic receptions, photo-ops and feel-good niceties. Hence, the intense push for the co-optation of poetic, truthful voices, as well as dangerous symbols and legacies. No finer example is in the sad, sad picture of the heroic John Lewis, who as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s risked his life time and again in an effort to end American apartheid. Lewis declared in January that he cried with joy when he heard the news that one of the world's most violent institutions, the U.S. Navy, is naming a ship after him as part of a campaign to rename other gunboats after civil rights heroes.
Jimmy Carter, everyone's favourite ex-president (despite his very bloody hands in supporting dictators from Marcos and the Shah to the junta in El Salvador and the invading forces committing genocide in East Timor), was similarly honoured to have a nuclear-armed attack submarine named after him.
It's a sad reality that would have perplexed Martin Luther King, Jr., who recognized in 1967 that "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" was his own government. Needless to say, that quote is not included in the naming ceremonies for ML King Boulevards and Expressways. King would also have been perplexed at how the annual celebrations in his name each January so water down and diminish his truly radical, revolutionary message. We witnessed this once more in January when an Ottawa group that allegedly promotes King's legacy, the Dreamkeepers, gave a lifetime achievement award to former foreign affairs minister Joe Clark, despite the latter's abominable record in promoting the first Gulf War (1990-91) and defending what he called the "right" of South-African apartheid weapons-buyers to attend Canada's annual arms bazaar in 1989.
Countless other examples can be cited of how the power of love has been traded in for love of power. Such acts degrade memory and condemn us to repeating the very atrocities about which we always proclaim, "never again."
With the climate on a precipice and planetary survival at stake, will we see more individuals refusing the reflective glow of power in favour of resistance to a deadly agenda? In 1985, then NDP MP Svend Robinson and other members of the caucus heckled Ronald Reagan during a Parliamentary address. They called him out for his funding and promoting a terrorist group called the contras, then committing horrific atrocities against the people of Nicaragua; for sustaining apartheid in South Africa; and for praising the star wars first-strike nuclear warfare program.
A call to heckle Obama
It was a truly moral moment in the best sense of the word. But Robinson was called on the carpet by Ed Broadbent and some commentators for poor protocol. One can barely imagine members of the 2016 NDP calling out Obama for his enjoyment of killing people with drones when the U.S. president arrives in June to address Parliament. Some of those same MPs no doubt celebrate people who heckle Donald Trump, but will they mimic those they praise when presented with Obama, a man whose policies have effectively reinforced the racist, violent social structures off of which Trump so cynically plays?
All of this brings us back to the selfies with war criminals issue. Those who wonder why atrocities continue to plague the globe can point to Bains and Joly as classic examples of how such fawning obeisance disappears the victims of power while celebrating the brutal violence individuals such as Kissinger and Powell have exercised. Perhaps soon, the ghosts of coups and carpet bombings past will visit both Bains and Joly and haunt them with the cries of Chile's dungeons as electricity blasts prisoners' tongues, ears and genitals, or the screams of peasants under the B-52s eradicating the Cambodian countryside.
It's never to late to demand accountability. It is unclear if any members of the NDP will ask Bains and Joly to apologize for their insulting behavior. But readers of this column certainly can do so by signing this petition.
In the big picture, such a demand for apology may seem rather minor, especially to those who have never been victimized by the policies of Kissinger and Powell. But it's a piece of a much bigger puzzle that needs to be solved if we are to move on and progress as a species. It's an exercise in solidarity, a positive action that refuses to be complicit in the disappearance of the uncomfortable truths which we ignore at our peril.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.
Photo: Elvert Barnes/flickr
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