March 19th, 2011 – Did you see the TV news? Did you see the pundits describing the air attacks over Libya, the smoke, the flames, the first accounts of the dead? Did it remind you of the first night of attacks over Baghdad eight years ago? Precisely eight years ago? Coincidence? Be serious…
We now have yet another opportunity to observe the process of “othering” on an international scale. But first, let’s review a few thoughts from Chapter Eight of my book:
“The Human Face of Evil: After seventy years and trillions wasted, the U.S.S.R. collapsed. The result was worldwide euphoria. Sixty percent of Americans favored huge cuts in defense and a “peace dividend” that would eliminate poverty. But visions of infinite wealth drove the opportunists, who demanded further deregulation and increased military spending…neither greed nor guilt could generate support for new aggressive policies. Fear could do that, and this required a new external Other.
Over the years, the image of the external Other had shifted…However, there was always a problem with othering the grey-suited and anonymous Russians: despite their slightly exotic, Slavic features, they were white.
Around 1985, the Other became more personal when television identified many charismatic Third World villains. After the first generation (Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro) came Moammar Khadaffy, Idi Amin, Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Manuel Noriega, Kim Il Sung, Slobodan Milosevic, Hugo Chavez, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and the greatest of all, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was too good to be true: a Holocaust denier who sought to possess nuclear weapons.
Note three themes here. First, U.S. propaganda attacks were often timed to impact (or obscure)domestic issues. Second, only Milosevic was white (but Slavic). Third, several of these men had previously worked for the U.S. Back in 1932, Roosevelt had said of Nicaragua’s Anastacio Somoza, “He’s an S.O.B., but he’s ourS.O.B.!” It is as if the U.S. keeps them on ice, allowing them to quietly do their work until it needs to reveal them as the Devil’s latest incarnation. Then they become expendable, or, as with Bin Laden, even more valuable as fugitives, hiding in caves and bazaars, plotting more evil.”
Now, just when we need him, Khadaffy resurfaces as our external (read: Third World, read: nonwhite) Other. And ask yourself: prior to about six weeks ago, when was the last time you’d heard his name in the media? Not, I would bet, for a long time. That is because in 2006 the U.S. “rehabilitated” him and restored official relations. Indeed, in 2008, Condoleezza Rice visited him in Libya.
Prior to these changes, Khadaffy, the voice of Mid-East radicalism, had served as one of America’s favorite boogiemen for 35 years. Now that he has, quite suddenly, become the symbol of entrenched conservatism, he allows Barack Obama to say (as he did yesterday): “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy.”
When an American President speaks those words, my bullshit meter goes off the charts.
But what about those courageous Libyan revolutionaries? Is it not our responsibility to intervene? To save them (even if, according to some reports, they were trained by the CIA)? This is clearly an intractable moral dilemma. However, in the context of American mythology and imperialism – and the purposes of othering – our media debates easily slide from America’s responsibility to intervene, to the right to intervene, to any excuse to intervene.
Once again, the American crusading impulse to help others will become an excuse to grab their resources. Do you remember that “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was originally named “Operation Iraqi Liberation?”
My point is this: Every U.S. administration, (including this one) and its media surrogates have manipulated Khadaffy’s image (and that of every other leader in the Third World – don’t forget how they demonized Nelson Mandela for years) to suit the purposes of empire, regardless of the countless lives wasted. Please don’t tell me that this administration has the slightest concern for the safety of Libyan civilians.
These efforts have three purposes. The first, of course, is the continuing project of securing energy supplies. The second is to terrorize other nationalist and revolutionary movements. Hence the importance of yesterday’s date. Every thinking person in the Third World has received the message that the U.S. can attack their countries whenever it wants to, and if it does, it will utilize the same hackneyed but effective mythological images of the nation chosen by God to spread democracy.
The third purpose is to distract Americans from domestic issues (read: issues pertaining to the President’s re-election) of which there are so many we’d need a calculator to count them. But I’ll offer one: consider that as our planes bomb their civilians in order to support the “movement for democracy,” Vice President Biden has been specifically forbidden by the White House to go to Madison, Wisconsin to support the resurgence of labor solidarity and democratic decision-making.
These are America’s options with the Libyan situation (again, thinking in terms of othering):
1 – Really support the revolution – Bad. Won’t happen.
2 – Allow Khadaffy to crush the revolution – Better. This retains him as the Other for future purposes.
3 – Destroy his air force, leaving a stalemate on the ground – Much better. This keeps our military involved and argues against cuts in its budget. Furthermore, to these predators, social anxiety is always good; it keeps oil prices up and stimulates more othering at home. The crazier the emotional weather gets, the more our home-grown crazies will demonize Muslim-Americans.
4 – Eliminate Khadaffy with much fanfare, but install a puppet regime that also crushes the revolution –Best. American corporations grab the oil, Obama’s ratings soar, and the myth of American Innocence is, once again (if temporarily) re-invigorated.
One more point to ponder. I mentioned that the date was the eighth anniversary of Bush’s speech. Did I also mention that the year of this event marks almost exactly 100 years since an Italian marked the beginning of air warfare by dropping bombs from a plane in November, 1911 — onto Libyans?