The Real Problem with the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi

Nov 4, 2018

A Question of Style

The current events in Istanbul say nothing at all about the medieval regime in Saudi Arabia we didn’t already know. That would be hard to guess, given the uproar in media and government about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a furore that tells us a lot more about our western media, our politicians and us than it does about Saudi Arabia.

It must have taken considerable depth of perception for anyone to discern Mohammed bin Salman's passion for reform of more than his fiefdom’s image, though there seems to be not a few such sharp characters around, including the inevitable Thomas Friedman, New York Times’ Middle East Expert, who observes a “significant reform process” and even a Saudi “Arab Spring”; and a notable slim customer called Emmanuel Macron who defended his Altitude bin Salman last April while securing deals for French companies worth $18 billion. It has to be admitted they have something of a point as bin Salman has been taking progressive strides towards the 22nd century, in permitting the building of cinemas and in allowing women to drive (while understandably imprisoning miscreant women's rights activists who made the mistake of demanding the privilege before he pioneered it).

However, something more important has now happened – a death that matters – and there’s a big fuss about Khashoggi, hyped in the western media as a critical journalist and democracy lover, but in reality a propagandist for a repressive regime with a few polite reservations about how to keep the dynasty going.

In the eyes of the “International Community” Saudi Arabia seems to have crossed some kind of line in murdering a ‘regime critic’ in broad daylight. Just where the moral line is for that chimerical adjudicator and for western pundits and politicians in general is hard to discern, given its shifting, or better, shifty nature, its whereabouts depending on business rather than on any outlandish ethical imperatives. Or on perceived affronts to western supremacy: Khashoggi wrote for the Washington Post, never failing to suck up to US foreign policy.

Beyond the line for ordinary human beings still in touch with their moral sense is the act of murder and the aiding and abetting thereof, meaning anybody who murders anybody is guilty of murder. That crime does include hiring a pathologist to cut up somebody who gets on your nerves, even if they’ve caused your paranoia to escalate out of its comfort zone, so on that point the International Community have got it spot on.

Nevertheless it’s a pity that Khashoggi forced bin Salman’s hand. Now all the Prince’s efforts to drag the Saudi Arabian Royal Family out of the eleventh century to join western leaders in the twelfth may have been brought into disrepute.

It's embarrassing too, notably for the US senators who voted 71-27 against blocking Obama’s offer of a $115 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia in 2016, the biggest in the decades-long US-Saudi alliance; though seemingly not for the current president who doesn’t do embarrassment and continues to defend the alliance. At least he says openly it’s about the money (having claimed the credit himself for Obama’s deal). It’s also disappointing for the UK Conservative party which hosted the 2017 Arms Fair in London, Saudi Arabia being the UK’s biggest arms customer; and particularly for Theresa May who visited Saudi Arabia in November 2017, declaring her visit to be part of a “bold, confident future” for the UK after Brexit.

A footnote to the really important matters has been the slaughter of Yemeni civilians by our Saudi friends which has taken three years to get serious media attention, now after reports by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on what Amnesty called the “forgotten war”. For the western media these have been insignificant deaths crossing no moral line. Thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed in indiscriminate bombing and their lives threatened by famine resulting from the war and the bombing of food supplies by Saudi forces in a coalition of nine countries, backed and actively assisted by the US and UK.  Obama authorized 37 drone attacks on Yemenis in 2016. Taking a leaf out of his predecessor’s book Trump had added 105 more by October 2017.

Equally non-newsworthy has been western complicity in the slaughter through weapons supplied by Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and others, and the continuing effects of the endearingly named ‘bomblets’ scattered by US and UK-supplied cluster munitions. In 2016 the UK government blocked an inquiry into the war in Yemen.

In western capitals the question of aiding and abetting war crimes has been an issue lost in a fog. The best explanation for US direct military involvement in Yemen that can be fathomed out of the murk seems to be that - when Obama started it he wanted to reassure the Saudis that they needn’t worry about his deal with Iran, that they (the Saudis) were still his friends and he was willing to prove it by supporting them in a war against the Houthis in Yemen who the Saudis believed wrongly to be fighting a proxy war on behalf of Iran against the Yemeni government it being in reality a more or less purely local affair and Saudi involvement would actually strengthen Iran’s influence, the opposite of what Saudi Arabia wanted, which Obama being a lawyer could or may have thought through but probably hadn’t.

This kind of mental fog can hide anything and certainly has been successful in helping to hide US war crimes. What the eye doesn’t see can’t be a problem. It has also helped to hide US government intentions in Yemen from the media (not difficult), from nearly everyone else, and (only slightly more difficult) from itself…unless we take the one consistent strand in all this: the continuing sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis was likely to strengthen the (small) Iranian presence there, that might prolong the war and make the Saudis more persistent thus making their acceptance of the $115 billion arms deal offer more likely.

The real problems start to arise when the trompe l’oeil  ceases to work and there’s too much clarity. They did arise with the Khashoggi murder and they seem to be twofold.

First, Khashoggi was a member of the western establishment, an accepted hobnobber. You can’t just go and so obviously bump somebody off who frequents the best restaurants in Washington and is seen with some of the finest people.

The emergence of the second problem reveals how essential questions of taste or style really are; there are  kinds of things one doesn’t do, stylistic lines one really doesn’t cross. We don’t hire a pathologist to saw people up almost in full public view and we can’t be seen to associate with people who do that kind of thing. Bin Salman has really gone too far and has made it very difficult to find a solution that might save face all round.

As Thomas Friedman put it in the New York Times it’s “an unfathomable violation of norms of human decency, worse not in numbers but in principle than even the Yemen war”. Friedman always did have a knack for capturing nuance, an intuitive sensibility for stylistic niceties.

If only Saudi Arabia had a Thomas Friedman.

June 30, 2020

Matt Taibbi on 'white fragility'

“DiAngelo isn’t the first person to make a buck pushing tricked-up pseudo-intellectual horseshit as corporate wisdom, but she might be the first to do it selling Hitlerian race theory. White Fragility has a simple message: there is no such thing as a universal human experience, and we are defined not by our individual personalities or moral choices, but only by our racial category.

For corporate America the calculation is simple. What’s easier, giving up business models based on war, slave labor, and regulatory arbitrage, or benching Aunt Jemima? There’s a deal to be made here, greased by the fact that the “antiracism” prophets promoted in books like White Fragility share corporate Americas instinctive hostility to privacy, individual rights, freedom of speech, etc.” (Matt Taibbi)

Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility”, says she grew up poor and white (with a capital “w” which I’m leaving out because I’m not going along with the current revival of 19th century race theory implied by the nailing of immutable categories to “B” and “W”). Hard to believe her. If she had she would know that growing up poor and white in a western country means standing pale-faced at the local metro station begging for a few cents to get your next fix. You want the fix because when you wake up in the morning you can’t stand the unbearable pain of your own existence, but you can’t quite bring yourself to jump in front of a train. That’s one example of white and, for the most part, male privilege among the lower orders. No doubt at all that a young guy in that situation is fully aware of the privilege that has accrued to him for being white and male. The psychopathic corporate system we live under is colour blind, it doesn't care who it kills as long as it doesn't affect its image. Embedded as she is in that system, Ms DiAngelo’s class privilege permits her to blank out compassion that doesn’t fit into her race studies department intellectual categories. The system's claim to colour blindness doesn't extend to refraining from hiring Ms DiAngelo for race awareness training for its executives, thus scoring a triple whammy by helping to reify the concept of race, a welcome step back to the nineteenth century, polishing its image as a non racist system, and distracting from the serious racist business of plundering the land and destroying the lives of indigenous people in parts of the world that don't count.

DiAngelo provides a pretty exhaustive list of possible reactions to her description of white privilege, all of which she takes as evidence of a desire on the part of white people to defend their privilege. If you make an argument that precludes all possibility of contradiction then you haven’t made an argument at all, you’ve made a declaration of faith. “I believe in God”. “I don’t and I think you’re mistaken.” “Well that’s evidence of your lack of faith, maybe you’ll see the light someday.”

I’m not arguing against white privilege, which as a sub category and enabler of class privilege clearly exists and has a pernicious effect on the world we live in, or even fragility, but against the absoluteness of DiAngelo’s position and her evident desire to stifle debate.

One of the items on her list is actually “class”: according to DiAngelo some people want to avoid the issue by saying it’s all about class, thus defending white privilege by refusing to engage with it. No doubt sometimes true, but the intellectual leap from “sometimes true” to “anyone saying the real issue is class is dodging the issue”, is unsustainable and simply wrong.

The trouble with class is that class got there first. Race is an invention devised to protect class privilege. Those who hold power can be extremely inventive when it comes to keeping it. For centuries colonists have nurtured class elites and hierarchies among the lower orders in conquered lands to keep populaces divided. German colonists in 19th century Rwanda corrupted the (at that time) fluid and harmonious coexistence of Hutus and Tutsis, inculcating the idea of race; later to be expanded by Belgian eugenicists who began measuring people’s skulls and issuing racial identity cards. Some of the colonized were considered to be more intelligent, therefore better suited for the administrative class. The aim of course was to use race as a means to keep the ruling colonists in control of the new class system.

One of Diangelo’s points is that racist attitudes are institutionlaized in western societies. That’s so obvious as to be almost a platitude. Might still be worth discussing with a few Daily Telegraph readers, or with Donald Trump. But the big question we all wanted to ask but never dared to:…what about institutionalized racism in ME?

That’s important (though it’s arrogant to assume that millions of people haven’t been answering that question for decades). But changing that will never change the world. What it will do is make us more polite. Godda be a good thing. The English aristocracy are and were polite, so it’s said at least, while they were plundering the world and committing serial genocide.

There’s a more serious side to anti-racism that seems to escape many anti-racists. Just leaving the +most+ serious one, world poverty, driven by racism, aside…think western wars. I rarely see them mentioned in academic articles dealing with race and racism. Does Robin DiAngelo know how many civilians died as a result of the western invasion of Iraq? Is she aware that these wars are driven by racist disregard for lives that don’t count? Is she aware that some people who share her views, like Hillary Clinton, an underprivileged woman, glory in these wars? Would she be prepared to call Barack Obama who bombed 7 Muslim countries and terrorized thousands of dark-skinned people with hovering drones a murdering scumbag?

Well, probably not. It wouldn’t be polite to call a black person a murdering scumbag even if he is one. Not even Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell…must be some mistake there. After all they’re educated, they went to university, they belong to our class and they’ll make us feel good if we’re polite to them. Why look at causes if you can sound impressive playing around with symptoms?

Race, the white race, was invented by supremacists, imperialists, whose skin colour was white as it happened, to divide their underlings by declaring some of them more valuable, more privileged. Many imperialists believe their own propaganda; it’s been around for a long time. Churchill did. He hated Indians and used his conviction of their inferiority to justify their murder. But he was motivated by power and his belief in the British Empire.

It’s not a coincidence that the upper echelons of the Democratic party in the US and the Labour party in the UK are playing the “white privilege”, “white fragility” card…anti-black racists who love black people. President Bill Clinton loved black people. He listened to the right music, played the saxophone, back-slapped his way to the title of 'America's first black president', while approving the 100-1 sentencing disparity between the use of cocaine by the affluent and crack cocaine used by the poor, mostly black. To improve his image as a strong man he bombed one of Sudan's two pharmaceuticals factories, a dirt poor country. If you can get citizens pre-occupied with the politeness of their manners at home, get them back-slapping, guilt-trip them, double-bind them, get them even more obsessed with themselves, there’s a good chance they won’t notice while in far away places you carry on with the Great Game, on the Grand Chessboard; power, manipulation and business as usual, Churchill’s game – just incidentally murdering millions of people of colour whose lives neither matter nor even exist.

Di Angelo's "white fragility" narrative by reifying race as a concept regresses to 19th century race theory and is for that reason itself racist. By personalizing and side-tracking racism it minimalizes and even trivializes the concept and is thereby an effective enabler of the worst kinds of racism to which bourgeois self-obsession is virtually blind, racist wars conducted by western societies in our name for corporate profit.

'White Fragility'

Patriotism, Boris Johnson and Brexit

Patriotism, everyone’s heard of that. Proud to be Irish, French, American? Comedian George Carlin: “Being Irish isn’t a skill. It’s a fuckin’ genetic accident.”
Dammit, try another one: let’s say, anti-patriotism.
Anyone like that one? Not so popular I think, but a guy called Gustav Hervé wrote a pamphlet in Paris with that title about 100 years ago, while sitting in jail for inciting soldiers not to go to war. Unfortunately in later life he became a patriot himself; succumbed to metastases from the childhood infection I guess.

Why make an issue of this right now? Well, Donald Trump recently gave a speech to the UN in praise of patriotism. He says the US has embarked on “an exciting program of self-renewal” because “the future belongs to patriots”. In the UK, Boris Johnson considers himself a patriot too, as do a flock of other toe-rag politicians in European capitals.

I have a lot of questions about this, but here’s just two for Brexit-or-bust Brits who work hard for not enough money; or whose unemployed status is being used to scare those in work with a fate they could share if they step out of line… What the fuck do you have in  common with this overfed public schoolboy who’s never done a day’s work in his life? What can he offer you that makes it worth abandoning the chance to work together with Polish or French or Spanish people in similar jobs…to get rid of the Borises and Rees-Moggses and the rest of the ponces we permit to run the show and our lives, for their own benefit?

Patriotism is a tool of divide and rule. It’s also over. Nations are over. They’re over because when people realize what’s happening across the border and they connect up the dots, there are no borders anymore. Mobile phones…the internet? That’s what they do, end borders. They globalize. You can put walls around Europe, or between Mexico and the US, or between bits of Ireland. But you can’t stop globalization any more than you can tell the tide not to come in. Ask King Canute.
Banks, corporations, multinationals, of course, never miss a thing. They’ve been globalizing for decades, actually a couple of centuries, snapping up everything they can regardless of the consequences for the rest of humanity.

We can leave it to them to expand their power even more, buy up whole cities and squeeze us for more rent, claim ownership of water, put locks on local wells and even charge for collecting rainwater as they’ve done in some places. All in the name of fundamentalist religion masquerading as a rational choice: The Market. Or, more modestly, One Market Under God. There is no limit to their greed if we don’t make them stop…

Or we can stop believing in the fraud of “Our Common Heritage”, our “British Culture”, and see that we have nothing in common with the people who own corporations, the banks, the City of London and who believe they’re entitled to own everything else including our lives. There is no Britain, there is no England uniting “ordinary” people with someone like Boris Johnson who’s no more than an empty suit, a privileged hole in the air; or with the “Duke” of Westminster or billionaire Jim Ratcliffe the richest man in the UK who moved to Monaco because he doesn’t like paying taxes.  If you want to know the meaning of shared heritage, otherwise known as class warfare waged from above, just try gatecrashing the next cocktail party down Reeves Mews W1 or try to get into Annabel’s club in Mayfair, London, where black people serve the rich, enabling a fine nostalgia for the days of Empire. Forget class at your peril; it’s sucking the air from your lungs and the Duke of Devonshire is pissing in your soup while you’re singing “God Save the Queen”.

The EU is run by corporations too but it has a population of over 500 million people. That’s a lot of people and a lot of real power. Real international solidarity is possible in place of a belief in solidarity with a phoney band of cheats. Patriotism is the catchword of those who never have and never will return solidarity with the rest of the population, who they despise and above all, fear. Trump didn’t quite put it rightly, got his words mixed up again. He must have meant to say – an exciting program of self-renewal…patriots have a great future behind them.