Let the reader be aware By William Bowles

8 October 2003

Location and photographer unknown

‘Repeat a lie often enough and it eventually becomes the truth.’

Oh what an irony that the ‘responsible’ press is so prone to quoting Goebbels’ famous line as if by saying it somehow cancels out the lies they tell us. It’s as if they’re telling us, ‘If, by some chance you should be on to us, this is our caveat emptor that lets us off the hook.’

It’s both naïve and sophisticated all at the same time. There’s something deeply obscene about the process and the more ‘reasonable’ the presentation, the more obscene it becomes. Wheels within wheels as they say.

The young man above is no doubt an ‘unreconstructed Ba’athist’, a ‘remnant of the old regime’ who stripped of his privileges, vents his spleen on the ‘liberators’. Aside from whatever reasons he may have for hurling a pebble at whatever it is he’s aiming at, it can be assumed he’s not a happy camper. It’s our reactions to images like this and how they shape our perceptions of the world that are really important.

Stripped of context and history, he is no longer a human being, he becomes a cipher. This could be any city, anywhere, it could even be Los Angeles. Indeed, I don’t even know what city this photo was taken in but the assumption is that it’s Baghdad. But no matter, he’s the ‘right’ colour, the obligatory vehicle burns in the background. The street is sprinkled with debris and barbed wire marks the spot, all the signifiers are present that let us know this is not ‘our’ world but out there, where it’s a jungle and ‘our’ rules fall away.

The words I’ve presented here quite a few times before are worth repeating yet again, as if by presenting the truth often enough, I can cancel out the lies in some kind of parody of the oppressor?

“[W]hen dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.” — Robert Cooper, The new liberal imperialism

In an even deeper irony, Cooper becomes both observer and observed as he rationalises the reality of power, power that alters its character as he moves from his ‘post-modern’ world to the ‘jungle’ (Cooper is now Blah’s pro-consul in Afghanistan). He too becomes a thrower of stones except his stones are more sophisticated, made in a factory somewhere, with official markings on them that let the world know where the real power lies. Not for him the costume of an anonymous ‘terrorist’ whose stone is merely symbolic of the unequal nature of the struggle.

Moreover, Cooper’s jungle travels with him, it’s what you might call an export model, not for domestic use at least under ‘normal’ conditions.

It’s not so long ago (1993-94) that my world was full of similar images, many in the flesh so to speak, as I found myself in downtown Joberg, Soweto or Khayalitsha with young men, AKs hidden under blankets as helicopters hovered overhead and ‘hippos’ lumbered along dusty streets, as the young men vented their spleen on a parallel oppressor. I might add that I was there not as an ‘observer’ but as one of the ‘actors’, but minus the AK. But the same lie was told with different words – ‘black on black violence’ – or whatever, it makes no difference. It’s not the words but the meaning that counts.

All good copy of course, but those young men in Joberg or wherever, are actually presented to us as interchangeable actors with walk-on parts, ready to be displayed, with minor changes of costume (a turban here or a baseball cap there), wheeled out of ‘central casting’ as and when needed.

Even our ‘liberal’ commentators become supporting actors in the play, all with good intentions of course. Their outrage is real if impotent in the face of the oft-repeated lie. Indeed the outrage becomes the caveat emptor, that let’s us know that they are aware of the reality and even admit to its existence but rarely is it allowed to be the lead player. And in any case, the play moves on and the reality an aside, which lies waiting to be rediscovered by some future observer when it is assumed that it no longer matters.

But Cooper’s words – that never make the headlines – belie the lie that the past lives in the past. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” as Karl Marx so succinctly put it.

In our reality, they are exhumations dressed up in ‘post-modern’ parlance of ideas that have been with us for a century or more as we civilised the ‘savage’. Is Cooper aware that he plagarises the past? Can he be sued for a breach of copyright on how to rebuild an empire?

And what it tells us goes to the very heart of the situation, that the headlines of today are recycled from the struggles of the past as the past catches up with us at an increasing rate of knots. The young man on the Baghdad street is our day of reckoning that no amount of lying can avoid.

But perhaps I should let Robert Cooper have the last word, as his words will never feature on page one of any newspaper I know of. Written no doubt in some anonymous office in Whitehall (and no doubt at taxpayer expense too), they reveal the reality of our friend the stone thrower and what he is up against. Know thy enemy and let the reader be aware.

“How should we deal with the pre-modern chaos? To become involved in a zone of chaos is risky; if the intervention is prolonged it may become unsustainable in public opinion; if the intervention is unsuccessful it may be damaging to the government that ordered it. But the risks of letting countries rot, as the West did Afghanistan, may be even greater.

“What form should intervention take? The most logical way to deal with chaos, and the one most employed in the past is colonisation. But colonisation is unacceptable to postmodern states (and, as it happens, to some modern states too). It is precisely because of the death of imperialism that we are seeing the emergence of the pre-modern world. Empire and imperialism are words that have become a form of abuse in the postmodern world. Today, there are no colonial powers willing to take on the job, though the opportunities, perhaps even the need for colonisation is as great as it ever was in the nineteenth century. Those left out of the global economy risk falling into a vicious circle. Weak government means disorder and that means falling investment. In the 1950s, South Korea had a lower GNP per head than Zambia: the one has achieved membership of the global economy, the other has not.

“All the conditions for imperialism are there, but both the supply and demand for imperialism have dried up. And yet the weak still need the strong and the strong still need an orderly world. A world in which the efficient and well governed export stability and liberty, and which is open for investment and growth – all of this seems eminently desirable.”

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