Bullying constitutes the whole being of the current US president. The group of 20 is meeting in Japan today and none of the chiefs of state is ready to go public and take on a paper tiger who would collapse immediately if unanimously or near unanimously confronted. He doesn’t attack Putin or other dictators, understandably, as they are also calculating bullies who have no moral status fit to be brought down. The whole exercise is about seeing how low heads of state and US representatives can stoop. We the reality-show viewers and media readers are playing the frantic or phallically-fascinated crowd. This red-tie or fascinus doesn’t protect against envy or evil eye, it multiplies it. It might not be enough in 2020 or 2024 to ban the memory of this era with some form of damnatio memoriae because our capacity to exercise moral judgment will have already sunk so low.
The US administration pulled back from direct confrontation with Iran three evenings ago and decided not to retaliate directly against what was claimed to be the destruction by Iran of a surveillance drone over international waters. Iran counterclaims to have destroyed the drone when it was flying over its coastal waters (within the twelve nautical miles considered national territory by international treatises). The US seems to have painted itself into a corner. It did so by unilaterally pulling back from the 2015 nuclear agreement signed by the US under Obama (not Congress, however), GB, France, Germany, Russia, and China. It compounded the problem by issuing crushing sanctions and forcing other nations, including the co-signatories above, to follow along. The goal(s) of these sanctions is (are) not clear: regime change, return to the negotiating table for a more radical denuclearization of Iran, defanging of Iran’s support for war parties in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, or simply chaos? The third aspect, little discussed in the media—at least those I read—is that the Persian Gulf and especially the Strait of Hormuz are a vital sea passage. According to my readings again, a third of sea-transported oil and gas—from the UAE, Iraq, Qatar, Iran—goes through that region, Given the economic blockade of Iran, which is a war, the pusillanimity of the Europeans, and the separate fight between the US and China over economic matters, it would not be surprising that Iran began to test both the responses of the pact’s signatories to US pressure, and especially the willingness of the US to respond militarily. No one in top political positions, in the US at least, seems to have the courage to propose a solution in which the enmity of Iran would be recognized as well earned by the USA and GB since 1953 and especially 1978–79. Of course, this would demand that the US rejoin the 2015 agreement, which is impossible now, given the weight of the far right in shaping the war mongering. House Speaker Pelosi and many other Democrats are so scared to look weak that they only offered anemic answers and effectively accepted the administration’s framing of Iran as the aggressor. The subtext is the coming elections of 2020 and the perceived need to look strong and decisive.
The above paragraph, I feel, only scratches the surface of things and simply adds to the burden felt by the vast majority of people. We need to analyze and confront structures that are not all that hidden but do look now like monstrous forces imbued with a logic of their own. To change them and move towards a peaceful resolution requires skill, clarity of mind, courage, and a lot of patience. The first ominous force is the huge development of the military in the US, including the industrial and engineering aspects of defense that are entrusted to profit-driven private companies and contractors. This part of the US economy is simply overwhelming and to switch this destructive enterprise from its advertised objective (“defense” rather than “war”) by transforming the goals of most of the human energies developed to it—education, health, care of the young and the aged, new technologies, climate challenges—will require a fundamental political change, not simply the election of Democrats to the House, the Senate, and the White House. The second structure is related to the first. It is the control of vast natural resources that are necessary to the lives of the world population: energy sources, ores (including uranium), water, forests and lands, etc. The history of hydrocarbon extraction is closely linked to the imperial and colonial rise of a few European nations and the US, all of it hardened after WW II and since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political means, financial structure, and war, have been systematically and thoughtlessly used to impose the will of advanced industrial nations, a will that reflects to some degree the expanding desires for comfort and for expansion of the self of modern people.
By political means, I understand the design of artificial nations on the nineteenth century mode in an area where the separation of state and religion, though wished by a minority (often Christian), could only be done by terror, as in Iraq, Syria, or even Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich kingdoms. I’m also thinking of war as an extension of politics: the assassination of Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, the war against the Houthis in Yemen—clearly supported by the US today, pace the Senate’s tepid efforts to hold sales of arms to Saudi Arabia—, or the present attempt to force Iran to do the chaotic will of the US and its followers or de facto allies (including France or GB that sell weaponry to Saudi Arabia, while wishing to get market shares in Teheran). In regard to this extended will-by-default, one wonders on what side Russia really is. It seems to be an ally of Iran, probably by default rather than choice, as the religious leadership of Iran is probably not fond of Russian ways and culture. But yesterday’s visit by Bolton to Israel and his meeting there with Israeli and Russian leadership, purportedly to prepare possible strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, points to the complex role Russia plays in the area. Russia’s interests are not firmly anchored in the capitalist world and its oligarchy presumably would like to see an increase in the prize of oil—even thanks to tensions in the Persian Gulf—but not to the point of threatening the “world order.”
As for financial aspects, the main one is the denomination of energy contracts (including insurance?) in US dollars, especially since 1973. Instead of a basket of currencies, the trading of oil is done in dollars. But as the sanctions against Iran show time and again, it’s not the denomination in dollars that only counts but more importantly the chokehold that the US treasury, bolstered by US military power, has on the world’s financial settlement system, via SWIFT arrangements and the structuring of securities and investments by foreigh sovereign funds.
Finally the war capability of the US and its allies—even though the latter now are rather weakened and not in a position to try significant moves of their own—means that decisions on the distribution network of energy that should obey the logic of markets and engineering, in practice follow the logic of war and narrow financial advantage. Perhaps it was understandable, even years after the end of the Cold War, that oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea and its region would go through northern Turkey and compete with the Russian project north of the Black Sea. But it was rather surprising a few years ago to read that a project of gas pipeline from Iran to India was nixed by the US, when it seemed to make complete engineering, financial, and geographical sense. The events of 1979 in Iran turned it into an enemy that was to be destroyed.
In a NYT opinion piece today, Susan Rice, who was the national security adviser under Obama from 2013 to 2017, invites the WH to do a climb down, which is unlikely to happen. More chaos is to be expected, inasmuch as the five interlocking steps she advises the WH to take require dexterity and firm control of administrative and military matters, not to mention self-control. The five steps that she recommends are first to fire Pompeo and Bolton (translation of her phrase, “to sideline”). Second, to define a few red lines: no attacks on US personnel by Iran, no highly refined fissile material for bombs, no direct attacks on Israel, and in counterpart no assimilation of Iran to Al Qaeda, a move that allows war without Congressional authorization. Third, open channel(s) with Iran regarding these red lines, through experienced diplomatic personnel. Fourth, lay out a list of reciprocal steps, for instance allow Iranians to export low-enriched uranium, stop the US military buildup in the Gulf, and in counterpart stop the targetting of international shipping or foreign aircraft. Fifth, “suspend” the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and also suspend sanctions temporarily if US prisoners are released, and the principle of direct talks is accepted. Then, expand relief from sanctions if the initial talks are promising.
Rice is playing good cop versus the unhinged bad cop. The latter behaves like an alcoholic abusive parent who threatens violence and occasionally backs off though not without threatening delayed punishment later. The sadistic pleasure of making millions of people anxious in the spreading chaos may be its own reward. Iran’s position has been clear all along. It has little to lose in confronting the agression. Its demands are that the US reintegrate the nuclear pact and that sanctions be lifted. At the other extreme, the “maximal pressure” that the present US government imposed and that effectively forces the whole world to follow looks like a recepe for self-defeating chaos.
A strong sea breeze blows,
the poplars rustle and sway
while circles of redwoods
anchored on ancient ledges
immobile cool students
who stream and find their way
to the pillared library and its rows.
The United States government has been provoking Iran and the Shi‘a world since last year. War is becoming a distinct possibility, and US authorities are taking steps to make sure it happens. Bolton et al have unfinished business. Their destruction of Iraq propped up Iran as the default regional power. Iraq didn’t become a miraculous democracy that could keep Iran in check again. So, bombs away is the cry, once more. The saber rattling began a year ago with the withdrawal from the treaty signed by Obama and European powers over the development of nuclear fuel in Iran. It continued with the US blacklisting over a month ago of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. Worse, economic war has been resumed regarding oil and any industrial contract by threatening financial retaliation against any nation continuing to trade with Iran. This was mostly directed at China, in practice, as China has been signing large contracts with Iran. But it seems that the US—and this is another provocation against Iran—has arranged for a thirty-year prospection and development contract in southern Iraq oil fields by Exxon and Petrochina. Smaller provocations followed this week: sending of a naval group into the Gulf; declarations that 120,000 troups could be sent to the area, a so-called impromptu visit last week (Monday) by Secretary of State Pompeo to Iraq (a mostly shi`a government) probably wielding carrot (see above) and stick; visit yesterday to Russia, which is a temporary ally of Iran… There are also indirect provocations, such as the deliberate shameless support of the Saudi Arabia leadership in their repression of alternative voices and especially support of their war against the Houthi in Yemen. And no recognition of course that the fight against ISIS (DAESH) was led in great part by Iraqi Shiites supported by Iran, as well as no recognition that Iranian leaders are no friends of the Talibans in Afghanistan.
It is difficult not to feel despondent when thinking of the unfathomable power that presently blooms across the world in thinking, inventing, making, striving for dignity, giving meaning, while living in the leading capitalist, repressive, greedy, most militarized nation in the world. Sadness is part of the trick one needs to be aware of, as Deleuze says in his course on Spinoza (1978) on the use of that affect:
How is it that people who have power, in any field, need to affect us in a sad way? Sad passions would be necessary. To inspire sad passions is necessary for the exercise of power. And Spinoza says, in the theological-political treatise, that this is the deep connection between the despot and the priest, they need the sadness of their subjects. There, you understand that he does not take sadness in a vague sense, he takes sadness in the rigorous sense that he was able to give it […] According to Spinoza, we are manufactured into spiritual automats.
Pompeo is in Europe but manages to skip pre-arranged meetings with German foreign ministers and Chancellor to fly to Iraq for four hours of meetings with Iraqi leadership. It was supposedly to warn them about any kind of coziness with Iran. Of course, it happened just hours after Iran informally announced it would withdraw from some parts of the nuclear agreement done under Obama. Iran might announce this withdrawal formally tomorrow on the anniversary of the US decision to pull out from it. It looks like Pompeo and Bolton want to make sure that Iran does withdraw from the agreement. Pompeo’s hastily arranged trip was a provocation in other words. The US White House seems bent on war with Iran and containing an enemy whose regional power rose in the vacuum created by annihilation of Iraq. Neocons’ unfinished business. One learns at the same time that Exxon and Petro-China are associated in a large oil field exploration in southern Iraq. Is that a quid pro quo to get China on the US side? The US hand looks strong at the moment, given the huge infusion of tax-free capital still playing out in the US and bolstering the consuming economy, financial deals, and real estate… Château de cartes?
The fire at Notre Dame in Paris last Monday was not the only raging fire that claims attention. Friday, an opinion piece talked about the promises of money for restoration of this relic, while so many across the rich nations of the world are becoming impoverished. It was stunning to see how fast philanthropic money valves could be turned on for rebuilding Notre Dame. Some of it could flow back from fiscal paradises—money made not only on perfumes, shoes, or tshirts, but also the sale of armaments, technology, power sources, banking…. The money of great fortunes is safely squirreled away, but some of it is proclaimed readily available for the reconstruction of a place visited by 13 million people annually. Notre Dame’s magic reverberates more broadly than ever as everyone confusedly grasps after some consistence, some congruence of heart and mind, but is left only with the touch and feel of relics. What can it still possibly mean today to restart a fire in the middle of the night, light the Paschal candle from it, affix the five incense cones that figure Christ’s five wounds to this candle, and light from it all the candles brought by believers while singing lumen Christi? Last Friday, bells went silent and statues of the messiah and saints were hidden behind purple cloth that contrasted with the gloomy interiors of most churches. What can it mean to read Isaiah (“He was despised, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”) or the passion story according to John?
ND de Paris: I keep thinking about a number of visits to the cathedral and how moving they were, especially when I didn’t believe any more, like most of the modern world, in the theologies that accompanied the history of such a site—from abbot Suger and kings to today’s global neoliberalism. I could think of the power plays of a Louis IX, a Louis XIV, the goddess Reason at the revolution, a Napoleon at his self-coronation, the Te Deum-s sung after major catastrophes, things that crowds could admire and even die for, but nothing that readers of the gospel could love or be faithful to. But at a free organ concert—Sunday at 18h00—, with Pierre Cochereau at the grandes orgues, there were moments of great emotion—Bach rather than Vierne would be the trigger—moments that would take the form of a loss or regret and make me think of previous generations of trusting people bent on giving meaning to their lives and transcending them, no matter the base politics of power and greed. It came as a call to my generation, a call that I still find difficult to answer, yet easy to decipher. It’s sad that the great forêt of early mediaeval wood beams that supported the roof and the spire above the nave is gone, but fortunately the stone vaults held up, firemen were quick and brave, and the inside of the cathedral or much of it survived. A monument to the ingenuity of mediaeval thinkers, architects, masons, and woodworkers who came from many nations can be rebuilt. Viollet le Duc’s nineteenth-century heritage can be reconciled to modern taste and revised with the restorations to come. More difficult to do, but as clear a decision to take as that of the reconstruction of this iconic stone vessel is the universal question of meaning of our lives. Can we respond to the faith and beauty ideals of these mediaeval ancestors in our own way? Can we steer away from systemic greed and respond to poverty, violence, solitude, and meaninglessness by taking the high road—by committing to share present global technical and economic achievements with all inhabitants of our blue planet?
Here is a view of the spire that collapsed with two thirds of the roof in today’s fire at Notre-Dame de Paris. The spire had been rebuilt in oak and lead under Viollet-le-Duc in mid-nineteenth century, with new statuary at its foot.
The western intrance to the cathedral often served as meeting point with family or friends, until crowds of tourists made it more difficult. One would enter through the western porch, walk along the nave toward the southern rosace, continue around the choir where some mass might be offered, and back through the northern part of the nave to exit under the buffet d’orgue rebuilt by Cavailhé-Coll in the nineteenth century. I was moved by the mystery of the place, the penumbra, the northern rose, no matter the hundreds and thousands of visitors from all over the world and the many languages spoken by people around me. And that is perhaps what was most striking: that in a world enthralled by economic success and moving fast away from the grasp of theologies, for the last two centuries, this place that had seen so many power plays could still sit like a question for tourists like me at the center of one of the great kingdoms and colonial powers of recent times. Notre-Dame de Paris can’t be separated in my mind from the much humbler sanctuaries scattered through the whole of Christendom. So, it has long been part and parcel of the development of the joined political powers of the church and monarchy. Yet, even as a ruin at the center of gleaming self-advertising modern structures, it still rises and invites reflection. Perhaps one day again, one will be able to go and listen to the great organ programs and improvisations offered every Sunday evening….