Sunday, March 23, 2008

American support of Tibet: Too little too late

Tibet was taken over by the Chinese in 1951. In 1959 Tibetan protests led to repressive measures by the Chinese that resulted in thousands of Tibetans fleeing their homeland and taking up residence in India, Switzerland, Canada and various other countries. The brutal treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese has been taking place for fifty years. And now the United States half opens one eye and takes a little notice. Why now?

I have nothing to offer but speculation as to why the United States now pays some attention to the suffering of the Tibetans, and speculation is of no use to anyone. I'll therefore keep it to myself. Instead of offering that, let me make a few observations about why it is too late for the United States to play a significant role in helping Tibetans find justice in their homeland.

From the Chinese perspective, the Han treatment of Tibetans, Uigurs and Mongols has been far more beneficial to those minority peoples than American treatment of the Cherokee, Lakota, Apache, Navajo, Ute, Shoshone, Crow, Cree, Iroquois and Ojibway peoples. The native American peoples were subjected to genocidal treatment, and their cultures were in many cases almost entirely obliterated and their traditional lifestyles made impossible by the forceful occupation of their lands. In past years I have been involved in several conversations with people from the People's Republic of China, and this point is always brought up. American treatment of ethnic minorities has been shameful from beginning to end. Americans enslaved Africans and forcibly brought them to America to do labor. Americans conducted an illegal war against Mexico and took parts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona from the Mexicans before buying even more land from them at unreasonable prices, and Americans have never treated the descendants of those Mexicans who now find themselves in America particularly well. In the process of settling the West, Americans repeatedly betrayed native peoples, took their land from them, rounded them up and shot their women and children even when they had peacefully surrendered. The picture of Geronimo, Chappo, Perico and Chihuahua with the caption “Homeland Security–Fighting Terrorism Since 1492” is not just an amusing joke. The Chinese know that well and find it sufficient grounds to dismiss Americans now who try to take the moral high road.

In more recent times, the American government has engaged in yet more illegal invasions of sovereign nations, this time not a neighboring country but two countries halfway around the world. The pretext for invading both Afghanistan and Iraq was quite similar to that of invading Mexico in 1846; in all cases, the sovereign nations invaded were portrayed as a threat to America's safety and an enemy of American freedom. How can a country that has repeatedly behaved in this way object to the Chinese invasion of Tibet?

Unlike any other war in American history, the American occupation of Iraq has not been financed by taxation of American citizens. It has been financed by borrowed money. Estimates vary, but an estimate published today in the New York Times is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq will have cost every man, woman and child in the United States about $10,000. None of that cost has come through ordinary budgeting, which, during the Bush presidency has already been deficit financing every year. The national debt has grown out of control. About 40% of that debt is owned by foreign nations, most of it by the Chinese. If the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are being waged by borrowed money, and if each citizen of the USA bears $10,000 of the burden, and if China owns around 35% of the American debt, then this means that each American is about $3500 in debt to China. And this does not include the massive trade deficit that America has to China as a result of buying goods produced in that country. It also does not include the credit card debts and home mortgages and automobile loans that most Americans carry, a significant amount of which is also owned by Chinese investors. Being deeply in debt to someone does not put one in a strong position to make demands on the way they behave. The protests of a debtor are easy to shrug off. Ask anyone who has been in debt to the IRS.

As outrageous as Chinese policies in Tibet (and toward the Uigurs and Mongols in their homelands) have been, this may be a situation in which we must listen to Jesus and let him who is free of sin cast the first stone. Unfortunately, the candidate for throwing the first stone at the Chinese for their imperialistic sins is not going to be anyone who has had an empire in the past several centuries. The English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Dutch, Austrians, Hungarians, Israelis, Arabs and Turks will have to be sidelined along with the Americans, and of course the Japanese will have to sit on the bench with the rest of us. So who is left? Is there a David able and willing to sling a rock at the Chinese Goliath?

Unfortunately, any David preparing a sling to hurl a rock at the Chinese Goliath is likely to be just as ready to hurl a stone at the American Goliath, too. Thanks to our past conduct (or what Asians are inclined to call karma) as a people, most of us who belong to the human race (or to some subset thereof) have no option but to hold Tibetans in the light, as the Quakers say. That is, we have little option but to let the best of ourselves feel compassion for all those who are suffering injustice everywhere, beginning with those in our own homes, neighborhoods, countries, and continents and extending it to all living beings, animate and inanimate on this entire planet. That is the very least we can do to begin the healing of the world. Unfortunately, the very least we can do is probably considerably more than most of us will manage to do.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Will the real fascists please stand up?

In a squib called The Danger of Misidentified Dangers I criticized the neologism “Islamofascism” that is used in some circles these days. There is no need to repeat here what was written there, except to say that the word misuses the word “fascism”. Properly used, that word refers to a cluster of characteristics, especially, authoritarian government, patriotism/nationalism, militarism, corporatism and opposition to political liberalism. Some of those terms require futher discussion.

This term is used to refer to a political system in which power is given to corporations. Corporations are hierarchical structures made up of unelected officials that are formed with the purpose of controlling or strongly influencing people's behavior. Typically corporations foster more of a collectivist than an individualistic approach to what kind of conduct is acceptable. Corporations can be of any kind, but a familiar type is the kind formed for the purpose of conducting business and maximizing profit. A fascist form of government tends favor the efficient operation of corporations considerably more than it favors the well-being of individuals.

Political liberalism is a policy that favors the freedom and well-being of individuals over the collective interests of collectives such as the nation, religious organizations or economic corporations.

Given these understandings, it is not difficult to see that Fascism—a form of government that promotes the interests of the state and its economic corporations over the interests of individuals—would be diametrically opposed to liberalism and might even see any kind of liberalism as dangerous. (Who cannot have noticed how the word “liberal” has become in American political discussions a label that no one can wear without suffering automatic disapproval in many quarters?)

When certain politicians and political commentators pin the label “Islamofascism” on real or imagined enemies of democracy who are also often called “terrorists”, it is not difficult to suppose that at least part of their plan is to deflect attention from the genuinely fascist forces that truly are undermining democratic governments and terrorizing all those who have liberal leanings. The people called Islamofascists, in other words, could well be a smokescreen behind which the true enemies of the United States and other constitutional democracies are hiding. The most dangerous enemies of democracy may not be those hiding in caves halfway around the world, but those people, both unelected and elected (or at least supposedly elected), who are wielding power in our own governments and waging a war of attrition against the governed citizens.

In an informative and insightful article in the March 16, 2008 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen writes in “Supreme Court Inc: How the nation's highest court has come to side with business” how all but one of the supreme court justices appointed by George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George Bush are strongly pro-business and have consistently made decisions that have limited the degree to which major corporations can be sued for damages by private citizens or have their enterprises regulated by state and federal regulations. David Souter (appointed by G.H.W Bush), Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer (appointed by Clinton) and John Roberts and Samuel Alito (appointed by G.W. Bush) have consistently made pro-corporate decisions that have limited their accountability to consumers. Many of the most important legislation protecting consumers passed as a result of the efforts of Ralph Nader and his colleagues have been overtuned or severely muted by the Supreme Court during the past two presidencies. The Supreme Court has joined the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush II presidencies in championing the interests of the economically powerful over the interests of relatively powerless private citizens. Since 1980, when Reagan was elected, Americans have conspired with the major corporations and the government to erode many of the important protections of individual rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Fascism is alive and well, with no help at all from Islamic forces.

Aaron Russo, in a film entitled America: Freedom to Fascism produced in 2006, offers interesting food for thought. While most people will probably agree with me that the film goes over the top in drawing many far-fetched conclusions and uncritically endorses a libertarian ideology, it also offers sobering chonicles of many of the successful tactics carried out by the Bush administration to expand presidential powers, diminish congressional powers, expand corporate and military powers, and dramatically shrink the powers of ordinary citizens. It is worth watching with an open mind and a critical eye.

If the idea of living in a fascist nation with undisguised imperialistic aspirations is no more appealing to Americans than it is to those who are portrayed as enemies of freedom, it may be time for those who love the liberty of individuals as protected by the American Constitution to consider what we all—whether we are Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Unitarians or Quakers—have to offer one another in our common spiritual resistance to systems of government that consistently favor the wealthy, the powerful and the oppressive over the poor, the weak and the oppressed.