Obama's drone program, journalism and ideology, and 'the role of the half-assed political poet.'
May 23rd, 2013 reset - +
I DIDN'T VOTE for Barack Obama, either time. It’s been a long time since I voted for anyone for anything, and I don’t expect to ever vote in a presidential election again. Almost everyone I know voted for Obama, both times. The first time around, I was like the cynical reporter in The Ides of March, telling Ryan Gosling that George Clooney was just another politician who would disappoint him eventually. In 2012, I was Rorschach at the end of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, bitterly refusing to compromise, telling Dr. Manhattan, “Evil must be punished. People must be told.”
I know these figures are ridiculous. I know all the arguments. Mitt Romney is a snake and Paul Ryan is a used-car salesman. I know.
In Mythologies, Roland Barthes provides a wonderful image of dialectical thinking, in a description of the unity of what he calls the “meaning” and “form” of mythical speech:
There never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never at the same place. In the same way, if I am in a car and I look at the scenery through the window, I can at will focus on the scenery or on the windowpane. At one moment I grasp the presence of the glass and the distance of the landscape; at another, on the contrary, the transparence of the glass and the depth of the landscape; but the result of this alternation is constant: the glass is at once present and empty to me, and the landscape unreal and full.
Barthes’s example of mythical signifier is a phrase in a Latin primer that means “my name is lion.” As meaning, it is full of history: “I am an animal, a lion, I live in a certain country, I have just been hunting.” As form, none of this matters: any sentence would do, as long as it illustrated the rule about the agreement of the predicate. What it says, as form, is “I am a grammatical example.” A grammar student alternates between the meaning and the form, thinking about lions but understanding that it is predicates that are really at issue. She can focus on one thing (the windowpane) or the other (the scenery). But the two elements form a unity. Their contradiction is what sustains them as a whole.
This is how I think of Obama. As form, Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster says, “Vote for this man, Barack Obama, with his particular policy proposals.” As meaning, it says, “See how far the United States has come? A black man can become president. Things really are getting better.” But the unity of these elements proclaims: “Capitalism is pleased to allow certain cosmetic changes so long as they don’t interfere with profit.” (Have you checked the Dow Jones industrial average lately?) This is why the liberal reading of right-wing opposition to Obama as simply racist is inadequate. The real problem is that, among certain sectors of the nation, the concrete situation of human subjects has degraded to the point where they are unable to read the myths correctly. We see the truth of this in Republican leaders’ growing fear of their own base.
Focusing on the windowpane, you would have to be soulless not to be cheered by what it says about this country that it elected a man whose father was born in East Africa to its highest office. Focusing on the scenery, you would have to be ignorant not to notice that his African ancestry is pretty much all that differentiates Obama from his predecessors. The man graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. On economic issues, he is, for the most part, to the right of Richard Nixon.
I watched him, our president, on television after the Newtown shooting. He shed a tear for the slaughtered children. For some reason this was newsworthy. Was there anyone who wouldn’t have been moved to tears, addressing the nation on such a matter at such a time? My editor reminds me that this essay will appear months after Newtown. This reminder depresses me. It says: we both know how it is. A man gunned down 20 children, but he did it a few news cycles ago, so, you know. Twenty children and six adults. I imagine that somewhere in Sandy Hook Elementary School there was one of those banners with the 26 letters of the alphabet marching above a blackboard. You could arrange each dead body into the shape of one letter. They could spell anything.
This is the grisly tableau that occurs to me as I watch Obama wipe away his tears on television. Because I’m already thinking of writing about this, I’m already thinking of selling out those dead children. I’m already pissed off at Obama’s gall. I’m already thinking about the drones.
Not one American newspaper, to my knowledge (aside from one letter to the editor published in the Baltimore Sun), pointed out the incongruity of Obama’s tears. It was left to the British press to state the obvious. In a Guardian article headlined “In the US, mass child killings are tragedies. In Pakistan, mere bug splats,” with the lede “Barack Obama’s tears for the children of Newtown are in stark contrast to his silence over the children murdered by his drones,” George Monbiot wrote:
If the victims of Mr Obama’s drone strikes are mentioned by the state at all, they are discussed in terms which suggest that they are less than human. The people who operate the drones, Rolling Stone magazine reports, describe their casualties as “bug splats”, “since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed”. Or they are reduced to vegetation: justifying the drone war, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser Bruce Riedel explained that “you’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back”.
Like George Bush’s government in Iraq, Obama’s administration neither documents nor acknowledges the civilian casualties of the CIA’s drone strikes in north-west Pakistan. But a report by the law schools at Stanford and New York universities suggests that during the first three years of his time in office, the 259 strikes for which he is ultimately responsible killed between 297 and 569 civilians, of whom at least 64 were children. These are figures extracted from credible reports: there may be more which have not been fully documented.
This, along with similar critiques by Glenn Greenwald and others, drew a predictable response, which basically boils down to: It’s not the same. A blogger for the Telegraph put it bluntly:
It is the height of infantile Leftish posturing to ask why people seem “disproportionately” shocked by the Sandy Hook attack. It’s because, quite rightly, those who live in generally non-violent, democratic communities expect adherence to a certain standard of moral behaviour, and when their expectations are brutally mown down, they reel back in horror. It isn’t that Americans don’t care about Pakistanis, but rather that they believe, quite legitimately, that war situations are morally different to non-war normality.
Because violent civilian deaths are all too common in Mideast war zones like Pakistan, and uncommon in suburban American communities like Newtown, Connecticut, it makes perfect sense that a person would get more exercised about the latter. This could well be true, but it misses the point. I, for one, am not bewildered by people being more upset about the Newtown victims than they are about the children their taxes help to murder in Pakistan and Yemen. I simply believe that they should be as upset about the latter. Or more so.
Leaving aside the absolutely relevant fact that the United States is not currently at war with Pakistan or Yemen, is there a “moral difference” between the cases at issue? Of course there is: you and I bear no responsibility for the Newtown shootings. (I suppose one could argue that we bear a slight responsibility, insofar as we have not been active enough in the fight for sane gun legislation, but let that go.) But we are indeed complicit in the deaths of those 64 Pakistani children. It is our government that is killing them, after all. The drones and their operators are bought and paid for with our money. And there is a remarkable venality in the suggestion that, because children live in a war zone, their deaths matter less. The more trenchant question is whether our attacks on Pakistani citizens are immoral. I believe they are. And I believe that our president is a war criminal with the blood of innocent children on his hands. No doubt that makes me an infantile leftist. There are worse fates.
“I’m a poet” is a sentence I try not to say too often, since it usually elicits either a smirk or a deadpan “Oh how nice” — or, much worse, a “Me too,” followed by an offer to send me an entire self-published oeuvre. But I am, for richer or poorer, a poet, and I strive to maintain a certain reasonable level of artistic dignity. So when Yahoo! News approached me in 2012 about writing an alternative inaugural poem, my first impulse was to delete the email. My second impulse was to read the part about the $300 fee again. Also, Paul Muldoon and James Franco had already signed on. Paul Muldoon is one of my favorite poets, and James Franco is James Franco, and I am a terribly vain person, so what the hell. I told the Yahoo! editor, with whom I yet enjoyed cordial relations, that if I were going to write a poem it would be a poetical critique of Obama’s drone program. He thought that was fine; nothing attracts page views like a mild tropical storm in a teapot, I guess.
This is the poem I wrote for Yahoo! News:
To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward
This is a poem for President Drone.
It was written by a camel.
Can I borrow your phone?
This is for President Mark Hamill.
Newtown sounds a red alert.
Mark Hamill asks is Ernie burnt?
Every camel’s a first-person shooter.
The Prez’s fez is haute couture.
It seems strange that he should be offended.
The same orders are given by him.
Paging Pakistan and Yemen.
Calling all the drone-dead children.
The camel can’t come to the phone.
This is for the drone-in-chief.
Mumbai used to be Bombay.
The bomb bay opens with a queef.
At this point, it’s easiest just to reproduce my notes for this essay:
I have finished my drone poem. Its last word is “queef.” Yahoo! is informed, because I am nothing if not conscientious. I am assured “queef” is pretty cool for a drone poem.
Interlude: The OED. Entry for “queef” mildly hilarious.
Yahoo! emails back with bad Yahoo! news. “Queef” actually a pretty big problem for the “standards desk.” I withdraw poem in predictable huff, place it on my tumblr, telling all. Righteous indignation on my behalf resounds throughout the blogosphere (need better word for “blogosphere”).
Yahoo! is embarrassed. Will I accept a call from Virginia Heffernan [Yahoo!’s national correspondent] herself? I will. Virginia, too, is cool. “Queef,” such a silly thing to cause such an uproar. Alas, the Puritans. The prigs. The prudes. Request I replace it w/ “keef.” Pressed to explain, Virginia admits “keef” is not a word. I stand my ground. Alternative routes for publication are suggested. The drama of these negotiations.
Scene: Virginia Heffernan’s phone. I have decided my best course of action is to flirt aggressively w/ Virginia Heffernan.
Negotiations w/ Yahoo! break down. Relations between me & Yahoo! at an all-time low. Poem goes back up on my tumblr. I remember I am doing this for the murdered children. I remember to feel guilty that I am using murdered children as a pretext to stir up queef controversy. People like the poem. Other people do not like the poem.
How many civilians have been killed by drone strikes while I was embroiled in queef drama? The role of the political poet. The role of the half-assed political poet.
What an interesting country, where you’re free to call the president a criminal or walk down a crowded street with a loaded gun, but a word for vaginal farting is dangerous, like a tube of toothpaste of a certain size on an airplane.
According to Omar Shakir, of Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, co-author of the Stanford/NYU report “Living Under Drones” (you can read it at livingunderdrones.org), “The US government has been using armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to carry out hundreds of covert missile strikes in northwest Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries since at least 2002.” To reiterate: for over 10 years, the United States has been regularly bombing countries with which it is not at war. As Shakir put it in an email to me:
While civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians. In public statements, the US states that there have been “no” or “single digit” civilian casualties. It is difficult to obtain data on strike casualties because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by the obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan. The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562–3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474–881 were civilians, including 176 children. TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228–1,362 individuals.
President Obama has now ordered six times as many drone strikes as did his predecessor. The drone program has received more scrutiny of late, thanks to Obama’s nomination of John Brennan, his counterterrorism advisor, to head the CIA. But the narrative remains somewhat obtuse. Rand Paul’s anti-drone filibuster was based primarily on opposition to Obama’s targeting of U.S. citizens. This is a fine thing to oppose, of course. (Perhaps Obama’s supporters would like to take a moment to reflect that this president has, in violation of the Fifth Amendment, assassinated American citizens; that his Department of Justice has assured him that he has the right to assassinate American citizens; that he refuses to answer the question whether he has the authority to order hits on American citizens on American soil. As this article was going to press, the White House announced that it was restricting the scope of the drone program, even as it finally admitted that it had killed American citizens in drone strikes.) But ultimately such focus merely reinforces the assumption that American lives count more.
Indeed, reading the media coverage of the drone campaign is a lesson in ideology. Dexter Filkins, who can hardly be accused of cheerleading for America, begins his New Yorker blog entry on drone strikes by recounting a meeting he had in 2011 with Yemeni villagers. The United States had bombed their village, which apparently harbored an al-Qaeda training camp, killing 14 al-Qaeda fighters and 41 civilians, including 23 children. Filkins met a teenage girl who had suffered horrific burns in the attack, and another whose mother had been killed. This is some bad mojo, right? But Filkins — or his editor at The New Yorker — is very careful not to condemn anyone too harshly:
Later, when I spoke to American officials, they seemed genuinely perplexed. They didn’t deny that a large number of civilians had been killed. They felt bad about it. But the aerial surveillance, they said, had clearly showed that a training camp for militants was operating there. “It was a terrible outcome,” an American official told me. “Nobody wanted that.”
None of the above is intended as an attack on Brennan, who has spent the past four years as President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor. He has a hard job.
I am trying not to be shrill. I am trying not to write things like “Filkins’s evenhandedness here makes me want to fucking puke” or “Poor Brennan, whose job, especially the child-murdering part, is so goddamned hard.” I am a veritable monument to objectivity. Brennan felt bad about it. He has a hard job. None of the above is intended as an attack. And it’s true: the missile strike on the training camp was not intended as an attack on the 23 children whose deaths the officials felt bad about. Intentions matter, don’t they?
I don’t believe that Barack Obama is evil. I believe that he is probably a decent person. He certainly seems vastly more intelligent than any other American president in my lifetime, and I agree with a number of his positions. But so what? Does that mean that we have to pretend, as Filkins does, that there are, after all, two sides to every story, and that America’s secret wars, for instance, are very complex affairs that must be judged dispassionately, and with the tacit assumption that their aims are, while perhaps flawed in execution, noble in intent? Isn’t this exactly how ideology works? There are certain propositions that must not be formulated — or, more accurately, that literally cannot be formulated, that lie beyond the horizon of what it is possible to think.
For instance, almost any public discussion of these matters takes for granted that “terrorist” is a real category, and that the United States has the right to pursue and kill all those who belong to it. Filkins is direct: Brennan’s “hard job” is “to keep Americans safe, and he’s done that. Al Qaeda’s leadership, particularly in the tribal areas of Pakistan, has been decimated.” Note that the extrajudicial killing of “terrorists” is presumed to be a righteous goal, and that it is self-evident that such killing “keeps Americans safe.” To frame the drone strike program in any other way is taken as a sign of perversity or fanaticism. Recently, the Financial Times interviewed Noam Chomsky. Asked his opinion of Obama, Chomsky says, “He’s carrying out a global assassination campaign.” The reporter calls this “vintage Chomsky, a provocative idea in a matter-of-fact tone, daring the interlocutor to respond.” But isn’t it just the literal truth? I mean, in what sense is the Obama administration not carrying out a global assassination campaign?
I confess that I was surprised by one response that my drone poem elicited, from an astute fellow who informed me that Mumbai is not located in Pakistan. This objection roused my onomamania, for I had been thinking of the name change as a metonym for shifting political signifiers in general. Pakistan used to be India. It’s not a war, it’s a police action. Funding millionaires’ bonuses with public subsidies is socialism. What would we call those who decided they could bomb our country at will, targeting, say, Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney, but occasionally blowing up an elementary school as well? Would it help if they said they felt bad about it? A queef by any other name …
As I type this, a headline on the website of The New York Times reads “Afghan Children Reported Among Dead in Air Strike.” I click on it, hit refresh, then stop, until I get past the paywall. Ten children have been killed, apparently not by a drone this time. I am not a utilitarian. I do not believe, for instance, that we should kill one person so that five may live, even though that would maximize utility. I believe our common moral intuitions are often correct. But consequentialism, the idea that action should be judged by its outcome and not by its motives, is hard to refute when you’re looking at pictures of dead children (not that American media tend to run them). We do our best to avoid “civilian casualties” — but our noble motives are so much Monopoly money to 13-year-old Roya, discussed in Medea Benjamin’s recent Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, whose house on the outskirts of Kabul was destroyed by an American bomb that killed her mother and two brothers. Her father collected as many of his wife’s and sons’ body parts as he could find and buried them in accordance with Islamic rites. His house, it seems, had been too near a Taliban housing compound. Presumably the bombers felt bad about it.
Little noted by American journalists was a Reuters article published in November 2012 headlined “Obama victory infuriates Pakistani drone victims.” “The same person who attacked my home has gotten re-elected,” said 28-year-old Mohammad Rehman Khan, whose father, three brothers, and nephew were killed by an American drone strike a month after Obama took office. The article continues:
“Any American, whether Obama or Mitt Romney, is cruel,” Warshameen Jaan Haji, whose neighborhood was struck by a drone last week, told Reuters on the eve of the election. “I lost my wife in the drone attack and my children are injured. Whatever happens, it will be bad for Muslims.”
This is surely infantile leftism at its purest.
No one is responsible. Obama doesn’t have the blood of innocent children on his hands. Brennan has a hard job. “Like Fascism,” Adorno wrote of “Hitler’s robot-bombs,” “the robots career without a Subject.” The drone strikes are just a videogame played by CIA operatives thousands of miles from their targets. The postmodern critique of bourgeois subjectivity finds its apotheosis in Roya’s mother’s scattered limbs.
I don’t pretend my poem is of any consequence whatsoever. All I have is my No, and that’s not enough. I’m not brave enough to throw my body on the gears. I’m skinny and nearsighted anyway. So I go on saying No, no, no, and write my little poems, and wait for my kill fee from Yahoo! to arrive in the mail.
Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere.
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