Friday 3 May 2013

…and a Weeding

2.    Achievement Unlocked

Americans, they know how to do a revolution properly. Well, almost. Even theirs wouldn’t have taken without considerable help from the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys (how soon we forget). Still, given the choice between national origin myths – the British desire for secret privilege granted by right of birth and the American kicking against authority and repression – and I know which I would choose.
But of course even that’s not quite right. The tea chucking does rather lose some of its ‘fighting against oppression’ grandeur in the face of the less morally laudable aspects of Manifest Destiny, slavery and all the further, westward, downward oppression of people whose skins weren’t/aren’t the correct shade of pale. However, the image America projects of itself, or allows to be projected, is still very strongly influenced by that myth. The Wild West and Manly Men, God-fearing Manly Men unafraid of violence and willing to pursue frontier justice when pushed.

And so they killed Osama bin Laden. I’m not interested here in the morality or ethics of the killing itself (hence killing as opposed to execution, murder, or any more ideologically charged words), what I’m specifically interested in now is the American reaction to it. More specifically still, how that reaction was broadcast around the world (or, again, was allowed to be broadcast) and how it might have been interpreted from afar.

I obviously wasn’t sad to see Osama go, and it’s very easy to make a convincing argument that the world is a better place without him in it. I’m certainly not saying I expected a period of mourning. Relief I could have understood; even a certain grim satisfaction at a job well done and the closing of one of the more traumatic chapters in a nation’s history (for all that it actually changed very little beyond the symbolic aspects). But the triumphal jubilation that was apparently the overriding theme in the immediate aftermath? Nope. It wasn’t right for Thatcher and it wasn’t right here. Downright ugly, in fact.

When even supposed bastions of the liberal establishment resort to fist-pumping exaltations over the extra-judicial killing of a foreign national during an unauthorized incursion into a third country’s sovereign territory, then eyebrows will get raised. It’s not the World Series or NBA Finals. It’s not Call of Duty, y’know?

This is why America isn’t universally adored around the world. They don’t “hate [y]our freedom.” They distrust a society that would appear to view the killing of a human being as legitimate cause for a nationwide festival of whooping and street parties. In my first draft of this post I wandered off here into the various hypocrisies of this, culminating in the inevitable comparison of death tolls on 9-11 and since the occupation of Iraq. But that’s not really what I want to say, and has already been covered far better and more eloquently by smarter people than me.

No, what I really want to focus on is, again, the immediate reaction as disseminated by the media. It really was like the aftermath of a sporting victory, not the death of an actual human being. It didn’t feel real either for me or, I strongly suspect, those doing the celebrating.

I wasn’t in New York or America when the Twin Towers came down. I don’t have firsthand experience of what it was like to be an American either then or after. Everything I say on the matter is secondhand supposition based on the images I’ve absorbed through screens of various sorts, and this obviously undermines any commentary I may offer on the emotions or thoughts of the people I saw hooting madly in their joy of death. I have to remember that these were – are – real people with all the complexities and flaws of the real people I do know and have actually met. It’s not a movie. It’s not a computer game. It’s not a spectator sport.

Except that it clearly is. That’s exactly how these people seemed to view Osama’s death. Another bunch of sprites collapses to the floor on a screen and America is entitled to celebrate a Flawless Victory for the first time since, well, WWII. Which also happened Far Away and Over There (cf. Kuwait, Vietnam, Afghanistan Mark I, Korea, The Barbary Wars…).

For all that I’m removed from the actuality of American experience, the people whooping it up in Times Square were even more removed from Bagdad, Kabul, and Abbottabad. Those events were just as secondhand for them as their celebrations were for me, and if they feel justified in cracking open a keg on international television I can certainly write a confused and rambling blogpost about it.

Because this is what happens when you try to maintain an empire. You try to keep the nasty unpleasant business as far away from your own doorstep as possible, and the result is that for those at home it comes to resemble nothing more than a fiction, of whatever sort is most prevalent at the time. At the height of the Raj and the Scramble for Africa we in Britain had Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard sketching culturally palatable fictions enabling the homeland to digest the more unpleasant aspects of colonialism. Nowadays in America it’s Activision and Electronic Arts who’ve taken up that mantle.

You can’t keep it out forever though. Trade balances are about more than currency and commodities. The West, and America especially, have made a habit of exporting less tangible negatives as well: the inequalities, the environmental degradation, the human rights abuses. Those huge great clouds of yellow smog over China? The clear-felling in the Amazon and SE Asia? The strip-mining in Africa? Who d’you think are the ultimate beneficiaries of that? In whose homes do you think the products thus derived ultimately end up?

And to that list of undesirable negative exports we can add death, in the clearest, most unarguable manner possible. America is exporting death and celebrating it.

That celebration more than anything gives lie to the Wild West, “don’t mess with us”, U!S!A! U!S!A! aura. It wasn’t the mute satisfaction of the Man With No Name, it was the hysterically inappropriate overcompensatory posturing of a nation a little too unwilling to face the ultimate implications of its collective choices, a nation seemingly incapable of distinguishing between the real world and a fiction it created for its own ends. I know, I’m English. We really have been through all that and look at us now; wailing at the death of a princess and cavorting upon the demise of a politician.

You don’t celebrate death unless you have a very shaky conception of what it really means. You don’t get to talk the talk unless you can walk the walk as well. When you end up being condescended by the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys for viewing the nitty-gritty of real life merely as a scaled-up computer game than you maybe want to think about how exactly you’re conducting yourself.

“Who are these soldiers who are ready to kill and not ready to die?”
General Phillipe Morillion, UNPROFOR, on the
American military’s reliance on technological warfare.


  1. It was right for Thatcher though. And it was wrong for Bin Laden. This has nothing to do with who harmed more: it is hard to compare an immediate killing of a couple thousand and the slow throttling of a significant proportion of a population. It has little to do with the fact that what Thatcher did is a matter of public record, whereas what Bin Laden was actually responsible for... I hope I can read the truth of that from a non-American source, before I pass. It has everything to do with that Thatcher died in old age, whereas Bin Laden was executed extra-judicially.

    Likewise the cheering in Boston after the 19y old kid was taken in. First, there were plenty of people still in hospital who may not have felt like cheering. Next, maybe he and his brother were uniquely guilty, but cheering on the streets in a country with a long history of rogue agencies, false-flag operations, a few foreign wars going on, no more civil-liberties or habeas corpus should it be inconvenient for the State? Yeah, maybe you'd better cheer and smile for the cameras...

    1. Well, obviously I disagree about the 'rightness', but otherwise you make a very valid distinction and draw it well. Makes me wish I'd gone down that path with this post a bit more, to be honest. It started with Maggie and rambled down the Famous Deaths I Have Known path fairly randomly, plus I've been meaning to get this Osama stuff off my chest for a while.

      Did you watch that opening clip? You should, especially from about 1.30 onwards. The comment from Tom Wilkinson's character is especially telling. I found it when I'd already written everything, so I'm a little annoyed I didn't work that in more too. Ah well.

    2. Watched it now. Yeah, you don't become an empire by fighting many pitched battles: that's how you lose one.

    3. I've since found out that Wilkinson was playing Cornwallis. It's his line at 2.30 that I really like. A colonial commander of a better equipped, better trained fighting force getting overconfident about the result of an early victory over an opposition he has no qualms about tagging as uncivilised 'rustics'. Stop me if this seems relevant...

  2. I'm still trying to think of a comment here. Gotta defend American honor and all that.
    For now - keep in mind that Phillies fans are the ones who booed Santa Claus. (It might have been Eagles fans, but same city...)

    1. Ah, now if I was on my game I'd make the point that by the stage they were being booed both Santa and Osama were equally fictitious constructs. Well, I guess I just did make it, but if I were on my game I'd have been funny.

      FWIW, I'm fully aware that the reactions I describe weren't universal. Some of my best friends are American (*cough*), and from talking to them at the time I know some were just as uneasy about it as I was. They didn't get any airtime though, which is also my point.

    2. Eh, I'm not offended in the least. There's 300 million of us, so bound to be at least 200 million stupid people. And you had me with the Surrender Monkeys bit, because if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's mocking the French.
      I'll leave the red meat to the posters below. Not a Thatcher fan myself, btw, but was mostly surprised to find out that she was still alive. Aren't you supposed to wait until people die before having Meryl Streep star in biopics about them?

    3. No worries. I just enjoy using the phrase, "Some of my best friends are American," is all ;)

  3. Thatcher and Bin Laden in the same post? What would England look like now if Thatcher hadn't made those moves?
    Honest question. How does that play out?
    Reagan and Thatcher. Hate em' all ya like but it appears that liberal policies before them are what put them in a position to have to make very very unpopular choices. America was miserable and lethargic with gas stations with no gas, grain embargoes people spitting on Vietnam war vets (as if they wanted to be there) and airlines grounded by striking ATC's who were all fucking fired. Thank God.
    I think all the folks who turned their back to her coffin should have a medal pinned to their fucking eyeball.
    People don't have to show respect but using any energy to show disrespect to a person is pathetic.
    I DO think she was Britain's longest serving PM and I DON'T think it was because she rubbed everyone the right way by shitting gold and riding unicorns across rainbow filled skies.
    I might be wrong though?..about the Unicorns I mean.

    I woulda been fine if Bin Laden were cut into pieces and fed to monkeys who feces would later be used to fertilize trees at ground zero.

    He was hiding in a shit hole because they were blowing up tons and tons of MUSLIMS in Iraq...women children and elderly. They shat upon their holy book and it's teachings and went from a Jihad to a bloodbath killing 4 Muslims for every 1 infidel.

    Way to go spoiled child of millionaire parents.

    I hear one bullet cleaved his head and really fucked his head up bad. I hope it hurt for just as long as his nerves could deliver the pain.

    Great post btw!!

    1. Thanks. The bones have been kicking around for a while now, just needed a catalyst.

      As to your questions, I honestly have no firm answers, and for once have no real interest (here at least) in pursuing that particular tangent. I mentioned my view on her legacy merely as a deceleration of interest, but am more immediately interested in the fact that for good or ill her legacy divided a country in a way that Osama's clearly didn't, and how that's been played out in reactions to their deaths.

      I instinctively feel that turning your back on her coffin is a legitimate reaction. Certainly in a way that a 'spontaneous' street party or buying a fucking novelty record isn't. Both the latter seem to be tainted by a real 'Let's go along with the crowd, it's all a bit of a laugh,' vibe, whereas the very effort you mention at least demonstrates a real engagement with things. If I ever amass enough influence to piss off a significant number of people I know which I'd prefer.

      Likewise, your more visceral reaction to Osama's death. It displays a genuine connection to the real world and it's consequences in a way that "Woohoo! Jagerbombs!" doesn't. Again, I know which reaction I'd rather provoke upon my death.

      These are all fairly half-formed gut instincts though, so I'm open to correction.

  4. Two things...

    Americans tend to get way too caught up in right vs wrong, justice and injustice, good and bad. And, they eat up anything about so-called 'real heroes'...

    However, I can't think of anything worse than people who stand for nothing. They're cool as long they can keep on keepin' on. The problem with Americans is that they either deny or ignore hypocrisy when it's right in front of them. I wish our policies would change and we would stop showing our stupid-face to the rest of the world, but it's a good thing in my opinion to have a backbone...

    1. "They're cool as long they can keep on keepin' on."

      Is that not just another way of phrasing "the pursuit of happiness" though? ;)

      Y'know, I'd be fine with seeing that as cause worth fighting for. Ensuring that right for everyone is a worthy goal, it's just being satisfied with it only for yourself that sucks. Could we agree that 'standing for nothing' is just another way of saying 'self-obsessed arsehole'?

      While we're on the subject -

  5. Consequences...the death of ObL was not without consequence in a way that touches me personally. There are people who sit in boxes hacking and cracking anything connected to the screens we spend so much of our time thinking into. One of those persons I remember as a little sister. After something like four years of service, she retired. Shortly after, she was with us no more. Intensity of stress can do that. Just how intense I will never know...the results of which now are scattered in the wind.. Even if I live with my back turned on the media, there are bits and pieces of it all that I find I'm connected to. So, when you ask about celebration of death, I haven't seen any. Not recently.

    Thatcher...she was portrayed via the analog as a hero, much like Ronald, despite harsh realities people were facing. Which, if you were a citizen, weren't that bad. Maybe not exactly fair...something life has never been. No, not fair, not as the media would've had people believe.


    1. "There are people who sit in boxes hacking and cracking anything connected to the screens we spend so much of our time thinking into."

      In terms of both sentiment and construction this sentence is unimprovable. And as I can think of nothing to say regarding your friend that doesn't sound immediately crass and self-serving I'll simply say sorry for your loss.

      Thatcher's portrayal on your analog [sic, significantly] may have been as a hero, but distance (time and space) has a tendency to dull the edges and smooth the fuzzy to only leave the binary. Much as we'd like to reduce the world to zeros and ones people just don't work like that. But I'm sure I'm preaching to the converted in that regard.