Smoke and Mirrors – The war in Ukraine

Smoke and Mirrors

The war in Ukraine

March 16th, 2022

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

I’ve been fairly quiet the past few weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. One reason for that is “the fog of war”–I have no idea of what the actual situation is beyond the blatantly obvious that you can see for yourself just by tuning into any non-fascist news network. For me, that would be the BBC, the CBC, and the Guardian. The US commercial networks (and again, I am limiting myself to the non-fascist ones, which means I’m not wasting time watching Fox or Newsmax or OAN) are, in the confusion and uncertainty, substituting speculation and wishful thinking for actual factual reporting.

Non-factual reporting, no matter how well-intentioned and sincere, is only one step removed from propaganda, and when there is evident bias, then it IS propaganda.

Since none of us know what is going on in Putin’s head, or in the Kremlin at large, take reports that he is desperate, on the ropes, facing a possible coup, etc., with a large grain of salt. Some of it may prove to be true, but at this time consider it on the same level of defamation of the foe that we see in all wars.

Back when the Germans captured Paris, a video circulated showing Hitler doing an absurd little “dance of joy.” The video was fake, just an snippet of Hitler looped to make it appear he was dancing. The intent was to make him look absurd and petty, and while he in many ways was, it actually backfired in some ways in that it humanized him and made him look like he had a sense of humor, neither of which were particularly accurate.

The pictures of Putin at his absurdly long table also needs to be deprecated, even though the image is accurate. Pundits say it shows a dictator who is paranoid, estranged from everyone except a few sycophants, isolated, and out of touch. It may be true, but it’s also exactly what you might expect to hear of a adversarial leader in time of war. Nor does it prove weakness on Putin’s part: Russia has a long history of leaders, strong-arm dictators who were widely hated but who nonetheless held power for decades. Much as I would like to see Putin fall, I interpret the media analyses of his isolation and weakness as being wishful thinking. Kremlin watching has been a major US government pastime since 1920, but nearly every major development over that century has taken American strategists by surprise. Little has changed.

As to the military situation in Ukraine, some generalities can be made. It isn’t going well for the Russians, they have taken significant losses in personnel and materiel. All these are also standard wartime claims, made by both sides, but there is a wealth of evidence to support the three items mentioned. As for anything more specific, the military leaders on either side generally understand the tactical and strategic maps little more than the armchair generals watching CNN. There’s an old saying “All plans die at the start of battle,” and leaders on both sides are tearing their hair out trying to figure out the true situation on the ground. It’s almost always going to be chaotic.

Claims of losses are also good reason for skepticism. Both sides will inflate enemy losses and minimize own casualties. Remember Vietnam, when you might hears that half a dozen Marines were injured, one by a misfiring beer can opener, while killing 12,500 Viet Cong? And that was from a country that had a free press at the time.

Claims about morale should be weighed carefully. That the Ukrainians are courageous, determined, and largely united in defense of their homeland is almost a given. Anyone raised in post-war London knows nothing stiffens the backbone of the resident population than lobbing bombs at them. Claims of Russian morale are backed by the mass arrests for protest (including one case where a silent “protester” was arrested for waving A BLANK PROTEST sign. It’s also a fact that Putin has mandated 15 years in prison for calling his “special operation” a war. Claims about the state of morale in the Russian military are harder to evaluate. Few Russian soldiers are willing to grant ‘man in the street’ interviews, it seems. I think it’s safe to say they aren’t exuberant about the way this situation is developing, though.

Russians do seem to be targeting cities and the civilian population, a curious approach for a country that is simply trying to bring lost children back into the fold of Mother Russia, but it’s hard to get a sense of the true scale when the cable news is showing the same dozen over and over, either because they can’t or won’t show more. There’s little doubt that the maternity hospital in Mariupol was hit by a large rocket shell, and while the Russians deny it, Occam’s Razor says it was them, although intent is less clear. In the instance of the Mariupol Drama Theatre, where hundreds of civilians, half of them children, had sheltered, intent seems more obvious. The theater had the word “children” written in large letters in the grounds surrounding the theater, and even after reporting began of the atrocity, Russian air strikes continued. That’s why, over 24 hours later, we still have no idea of the death toll.

It is safe to say the Russian economy has taken massive damage. Their stock market has remained closed for over three weeks now, and the ruble is quite literally worth less than a square of American toilet paper. This won’t translate to a popular uprising—Russian history makes that fairly self-evident. Nor is a revolt by the oligarchs likely. Like Putin’s pet American oligarch, Trump, most are bound to Putin because he maintains control over their reputations, their families, and their ability to enjoy their wealth. If they couldn’t overthrow Putin when they had money, what are they going to do now?

Yes, Putin has bitten off more than he can chew, and yes, what he is doing is a crime against humanity. And it is costing Russia and the Russian people almost as dearly as it’s costing the Ukrainians.

But beyond that, it’s all smoke and mirror, wishful thinking, and propaganda. If you think you know how it ends, you are delusional.

But to quote a line I’m known for using, “Don’t lose hope. Never lose hope.”

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale — History bleeds us, too

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

History bleeds us, too

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

February 1st, 2022

There was a huge uproar over the past week over the removal of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale from the shelves of the McMinn County Schools in Tennessee. I doubt the action of the board, which voted 10-0 to ban the graphic novel, was antisemitic, let alone pro-Nazi, but rather reflected the urge toward authoritarian control disguised as concern for the children that is currently sweeping the right. But, coming as it did the day before Holocaust Memorial Day, it was incredibly tone-deaf and showed the basic moral and intellectual cowardice of so called “critical race theory,” or the Bowdlerizing of history to suit a narrative that erases the errors and crimes of authoritarian regimes.

It prompted me to pull out my own copy of Maus and reread it. I first read it about 15 years ago, and thought that the first reading might diminish the impact of a second reading years later. It didn’t. It’s still magnificent, angry, grim, human and utterly brilliant. Using cartoon animals, it humanizes the Holocaust experience in a way that none of the thousands of works about the Holocaust can quite manage.

As a child in London, I heard of the Holocaust, but it was in general terms. “Hitler murdered Jews, Hitler was evil, they used gas.” I don’t think I grasped how uniquely awful it was, but equated it to the other horrible things Hitler did, such as the Blitz, or Dunkirk.

It wasn’t until I was 12 when I learned, in Social Studies in Ottawa, about Auschwitz and Treblinka and what happened there. I remember those particular classes because of the images and the graphic descriptions of victims trying to claw their way out of the gas showers and the hopeless hunch in the shoulders of the inmates in the camps as the Germans raused them hither and yon. We learned about propaganda, and the ability of a society to make an entire segment non-human and remove from them all the protections and benefits of society. (In the same class we learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and read horrific tales of children staggering around with half their skin hanging off their bodies. The kids didn’t die of guilt.)

This was in peaceful, sedate Ottawa, where the worst torment we could imagine was having our books knocked out of our arms by a school bully. Should we have had to imagine the hiss of the gas, the screams of the dying, the despair of the not-yet-dead? Did it make me ashamed?

Well, yes. It made me ashamed to be human. But it also made me aware that I didn’t have to be that way, and should strive never to be that way.

Was it a lesson I needed to learn when I was twelve?

Absolutely.

In subsequent years I learned that what Nazi Germany did, while horrifying in its deliberate approach, wasn’t unique or even special. England has had dozens of Holocausts in the past, including a 13th century attempt to flat-out exterminate the Jews. Canada is only now coming to grips with 300 years of genocide against the First Nations, and lurking in the shadows are the “reform schools” and orphanages that systematically turned children into hamburger. Japan had monstrous war crimes prior to the atomic bombings, and Germany suffered destruction of many cities, including Dresden and Berlin. Even Israel rising from the ashes of the camps, has amassed its own catalogue of war crimes. Nobody is pure, nobody was only a victim. We are all human, and a mixture of these things. That’s why its so important to fight against the warmongers and propagandists and bigots. We may not attain purity, but we should at least try.

Spiegelman’s characters reflect this. His father Vladek (the survivor of the camps) proves to be as bigoted and dismissive of the humanity of African-Americans (Schvartzes) as the Germans and Poles were of his humanity 40 years earlier. Art Spiegelman himself is mildly contemptuous of the history of the Holocaust, equating it to his own feelings of inadequacy and guilt. If it weren’t for those pesky Germans, his older brother, who died at age 6 in the camps some 10 years before his was born, wouldn’t be the unattainable ideal with which he had to compete.

I remember when I first read this, I felt a certain amount of depression. After all he had been through, and Vladek learned nothing of what becomes of dehumanizing others? And Art trivializes the Holocaust over a petty and actually non-existent sibling rivalry?

Well, perhaps I’ve grown since that first read. I understand now that Vladek was heavily damaged by what he went through, and not all of his humanity returned. Further, he was sick and clearly suffering from early-onset dementia. And Art wanted us to see the facile and trivial approach he initially had to his father over the Holocaust as part of showing how he slowly came to grips with it. It’s not exactly something you can process in one sitting like a homily from a calendar page.

In short, the reread helped me to humanize the Spiegelmans. Failing to humanize is, after all, a first step toward dehumanization.

One side note (sort of): A common refrain among right wingers is that the gay pride flag is just like the swastica flag. It’s about like saying having the Star of David on the front of a synagogue is exactly the same as having a swastica on the front of a building. Hitler murdered six million Jews, but that was only half the people he targeted, and homosexuals were probably the second largest group to get shot, gassed, and starved. To equate gays to Hitler is every bit a big a disgrace as equating Jews to Hitler. In their ignorance, the right skip along in the footsteps of Hitler, unaware of where their ideology will lead them. If you feel that way, read Maus and ask yourself where the similarities lie.

Maus, along with about 250 other books targeted by the authoritarian right should be on the shelves of all school libraries. They teach the kids in GERMANY about the Holocaust and it doesn’t destroy them. American kids should be able to handle it. Stephen King has the right idea: kids should flock to read any book the authoritarians want to hide “to protect the kids.”

And let’s get rid of the notion kids need to be protected from the horrors and errors of the past because they might somehow take it personally. Instead, that just leaves them ignorant, and fertile ground to repeat those horrors and errors. And that’s what the authoritarians actually want.

Creator Art Spiegelman

Date 1991

Page count 296 pages

Publisher Pantheon Books

Original publication

Published in Raw

Issues Vol. 1 No. 2 – Vol. 2 No. 3

Date of publication 1980–1991

Gods and Governments — Religious and Secular mixed rule is always toxic

Gods and Governments

Religious and Secular mixed rule is always toxic

October 10th 2021

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

One sentiment you hear from religious fundamentalists in the United States is something along the lines of “God should be the government” It’s nothing new; religions have always sought to gain political and economic power and influence, and there are hundreds of examples throughout history where they have succeeded in doing that. These political cultures are broadly referred to as theocracies.

Usually in such a regime there is a religious hierarchy that interprets divine will (which is always most obliging to their wants and needs) and then passes edicts on to a secular authority who do the dirty work—mostly in the form of executing, banning, or enslaving.

Ancient Egypt is an example that is well known, as is China. The Byzantine Empire was an uneasy and often bloody power-sharing arrangement between the government of Rome and the Catholic Church. Most European countries had similar arrangements, leading to civil wars, pogroms, and the occasional genocide.

Edward the Second threw the Jews out of England, and those slow to leave learned to their regret that England was on an island.

King Henry VIII had 983 senior clerics killed as part of his drive to replace the Catholic Church with his own brand.

Elizabeth 1 killed thousands of Catholics in England, and in Ireland a million and a half Catholics died from cruel English policies based in large measure on the idea that idolaters should not be countenanced.

Adolph Hitler had Catholic support during his rise to power, but the relationship went sour and Hitler, too, sought to replace Catholicism with his own peculiar blend of Nordic mysticism, Christianity, and “racial science.”

The Test Acts codified prejudice against all non-Protestants in England. It’s still against the law in England for a Catholic to be Prime Minister, although since Tony Blair that law only gets lip service.

Pure theocracies in Europe are fairly rare: Münster and Zurich are the only well-known examples, and both rapidly turned into cults and collapsed.

Modern theocracies are mostly limited to the middle east these days: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and to an extent, Israel.

America was founded on the notion that keeping religious and secular power separate was the key to avoiding religious strife (nearly all the Founders had ancestors who, within the past 300 years, had been imprisoned or executed for religious reasons) and to a certain degree, that has been successful.

The first Christian-based religious strife in North America came when Protestants came to America seeking freedom of religion. No, not the Puritans—the French Huguenot, who settled in Florida, then a Spanish colony. The Spanish were unamused by the infestation of heretics, and proceeded to wipe the colony out.

While the founders wanted to end religious persecution (the Constitution explicitly bans Test Acts), the Protestant majority brought with them the attitudes and prejudices of the mother lands. Despite the noble intentions of the Constitution, many states actually had Test Acts in their laws, forbidding Catholics, Jews, or other unbelievers from holding office, or even owning property. I’m told that in six states, atheists legally cannot hold office to this day. Some communities mandated church attendance for all well into the 19th century.

Much of the genocide of native peoples was met with anything ranging from indifference to beaming approval by church authorities. “Godless heathen” very nearly became one word.

However, the anti-Catholic practices of England and other lands ironically made it harder to discriminate against Catholics in America because of the huge influx of refugees seeking freedom in America. By the twentieth century Catholicism was the biggest single Christian sect in America.

But it would be a mistake to think religious oppression—both oppressor and oppressed—ended there.

Catholics in Boston had to violently riot for the right to have their own schools—and were met by rioting Protestants who didn’t want to allow such a thing. Their Lord’s Prayer was the one true Lord’s Prayer, and people who didn’t accept that should not be allowed to teach their children.

But compared to Europe, America got off lightly (except for the aforementioned Godless Heathens, of course). Even as Churches in Europe lost direct control of secular governments—a long bloody process in itself—most European conflicts remained thinly disguised religious disputations.

The only way a society can be free is by holding religion at at least arm’s length from the centers of power. The Founders understood this all too well. They knew something about governments “run by God”–such governments are cruel, repressive, and deeply antipathetic to the notions of independent thought and individual freedom. One only need read the Bible, or the Talmud, or the Q’uran to see how deep this antipathy goes. How long can dissent last in a form of government where the Law says dissent should be punished by death? Well, you can find an answer for that with Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

All theocracies are viciously repressive. All require a steady stream of executions and terror to force compliance from the flock, formerly known as the electorate. Holy Books don’t discuss liberty, or freedom to disagree. They instead give lessons on disemboweling non-believers or forcing abortions on unfaithful women (Numbers 11, look it up). There has never been a theocracy that was multicultural, enlightened, or particularly literate. Ever. And it won’t start with the Christians Dominionists and Falangists of present day America.

The last thing anyone wants, or needs is ‘government under God.’ If someone could figure out a way to ask God, they would probably find he was pretty much against the idea himself. He has enough smiting to do as it is.

Evil Arrives — The crisis point is here

Evil Arrives

The crisis point is here

January 19th 2020

Robert Harrington, an Ex-Pat living in London, wrote an absolutely searing column for the Palmer Report last night, “The Face of Evil.” https://www.palmerreport.com/analysis/the-new-face-of-evil/24527/ In it, he tells of how he came to realize that the Holocaust was far from a unique event, that roughly a third of humanity is evil, and that they have coalesced into the monster known as the Republican party under the malign rule of Trump.

The Holocaust, of course, is far from unique. Since the vow was made in the ashes of 1945 to Never Forget, there have been at least a half dozen genocides in which more than twelve million people died. Here in the states, such atrocities were largely brushed off. “Oh, it was the communists. Communists are evil.” It was Africa. It was Asia. They were brown. They were black. They were the wrong religion. Some Americans considered it to be the actions of lesser people with poisonous ideologies, saying so without irony and without realizing by the mere fact of the dismissal, they had placed themselves in groups of lesser people with poisonous ideologies. The belief the Holocaust was unique was just one of the comforting lies with with we cocoon ourselves.

Genocide is well within the range of human social behavior. Voltaire had us pegged two hundred and fifty years ago when he wrote, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Which brings us to the role of religion. Religion informs nearly all holocausts (yes, including communism, which was a godless religion, but a religion nevertheless, in which adherents had to subscribe to a creed, no matter how absurd). In some instances, religion instigates the mass murder in the name of some deity or leader. Religion never worships gods; it worships power. The ability to kill at will is the ultimate power. God is for the peasants. God’s power is for the Church.

There was one thing about the Holocaust that made it stand out. It was strange and horrifying how the Germans went about it in a cruel and methodical manner, using the modern tools of western civilization. The face of the Holocaust wasn’t the screaming mercenary with the blood-dripping machete; it was the meek, mild accountant who carefully tabulated the number of shoes taken off the feet of dead Jewish children. All very modern, quite civilized, leaving the accountant to go home at night and be a good Christian with his wife and children. Perhaps he told the children he processed shoes for the Fatherland, leaving out mention of where the shoes came from. Perhaps he assured himself he didn’t know where the shoes came from, and told himself comforting lies about the long trains of human cattle, and all the missing neighbors. He was, after all, a Good German.

Without an evil leader able to lead an entire culture in to an abyss, he might just have been another accountant in a shoe factory, leading an essentially blameless life. Germany, sophisticated, devout, educated, and religious, needed only a charismatic monster to fall into the ultimate darkness.

Voltaire understood the mechanism for genocide: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

Robert Harrington believes America is at the cusp of a Hitlerian nightmare. He’s right because America, self-assured, lacking introspection, historically illiterate, and ridden by racial and political fear, is a genocide waiting to happen. Harrington has identified the factor that will make the American abyss like the one Germany experienced nearly a century earlier—the rise of a monster.

Trump is vicious, vindictive, petty and above all, cruel. He is like Hitler, only Hitler at least was able to form relationships with other individuals and pets, something Trump seems incapable of. Trump appeals to the most base of people with a series of “am-i-right” political sketches disguised as a philosophy and the endless flagging of grievances, and there is no bottom to his pettiness and his willingness to destroy or hurt those who have crossed him in any way. Case in point: This past week, facing impeachment, he took time to utterly gut the school lunch program that Michelle Obama had made an effective instrument for improving kid’s lives and their ability to learn. Trump’s action will needlessly condemn millions of kids to hungry afternoons in school, trying to read and listen over the demands of their bodies. Why did he do such a horrible and pointless thing? It was Michelle’s birthday. He wanted to hurt her.

There seems to be no doubt in Harrington’s mind that Trump will trigger an American moral and ethical apocalypse. There’s no doubt in my mind that he stands to be the next Hitler, and that with unlimited power, he is capable of unlimited cruelty, and he has the mindless, hateful, evil following to attack and destroy lives in the tens of millions. He rides the wings of the next Holocaust.

The Senate will have their trial this coming week. The punditry agree that it will be a sham trial and Trump will be acquitted. Trump is openly demanding he be acquitted before he gives his State of the Union speech in early February, and craven and morally vacant senators are queueing up to oblige him.

It’s easy to imagine the crows of angry triumph he will shout to a shivering world. Will he speak of final solutions and a new order that will last a thousand years? Will he list the people who will pay bigly for impeaching him and testifying against him? It’s unlikely the remaining members of his administration will be able to contain the raw fury and hatred pent up in the man.

At that point, his power will be consolidated. A Senate acquittal will like be the moment in German history when the Enabling Act was passed, allowing Hitler to supercede and suspend all laws basically at will.

The Senators could save America if they weren’t moral and ethical vacuums, wedded to power and willing to appease monsters and scum in order to cling to it.

They can stand as human beings, do their job, and save America from a looming nightmare, or they can create a future in which the best hope they have is that history will quickly forget their names, so their children will not have to share their disgrace.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how they will vote. They are cowards and nihilists. Expect little.

Voltaire had the perfect epitaph for these sad remnants of humanity: “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”

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