Friday, September 15, 2006

Safety First

For years I had assumed that the furthermost limits of humanly conceivable gibberish had been mapped out definitively by the musician’s pay scale sketch in the Marx brothers’ Animal Crackers:

Spaulding: What do you fellas get an hour?
Ravelli: For playing, we get-a ten dollars an hour.
Spaulding: I see. What do you get for not playing?
Ravelli: Twelve dollars an hour.
Spaulding: Well, clip me off a piece of that.
Ravelli: Now for rehearsing, we make special rate. That's-a fifteen dollars an hour...That's-a for rehearsing.
Spaulding: And what do you get for not rehearsing?
Ravelli: You couldn't afford it. You see, if we don't rehearse, we a-don't play, and if we don't play (he snaps his finger)—that runs into money.

Yet to my table-thumping, tear-mopping hilarity I discovered today a rival sketch where I least expected it: It was prominent among today’s corporate news offerings. Under the thoroughly witless Associated Press (AP) headline “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs” we learn that

Nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should be used on American citizens in crowd-control situations before being used on the battlefield, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday.

Quoth the Air Force chief further down:

"If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation..., [because] ...if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."

Fans of competitive international absurdism will appreciate the achievement of our corporate media’s authoritarian liberal bias. Instead of the spluttering ridicule that would issue from any liberal worthy of the name, we are given AP’s savvy insider take, plus an uncritical re-espousal of the Air Force chief’s opinion:

The object is basically public relations. Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations, said Secretary Michael Wynne.

Now, when AP speaks on public relations, it does so with considerable expertise, and being one of several de facto official organs of the US military establishment, the thought lies near that its military pronouncements generally serve some form of public relations purpose (outright war propaganda being but a more ham-fisted form of PR). But the precise objects of military public relations messages are rarely explicitly given, and the above nonsense is no exception.

With the avuncular calm of the professional propagandist anonymous AP makes the preposterous insinuation that the sanitary concerns of unspecified “others” would be put at ease, if they only had some certainty that the methods used on the battlefields against our enemies in foreign lands are the very same safe US army and police force methods used against domestic rioters, criminals and victims of state brutality. By the same token we should not be alarmed at the contemporary use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq, since military authorities considered it safe enough for their own minions in 1991.

Are We Feeling Safe Yet?

Although the Air Force secretary’s statements are obviously taken out of context in this insubstantial offering, and the lack of exegesis makes them appear a lot more absurd than the spirit in which they were doubtless offered, that article is nonetheless to be faulted for both the general fallacy of what it asserts and the confusing manner in which this “news” is presented. For one thing “such as high-power microwave devices” does not constitute any definitional basis for understanding the press release. The AP and the Military are perfectly capable of specifics, but the brevity and vagueness of the item in conjunction with the reader’s imagination serve to communicate a broad spectrum of ideas, rather than a narrow issue. Further down I discuss the ideas I believe to define this spectrum. For now, since “such as high-power microwave devices” is all we are given, we must understand the “such as” as meaning that other non-lethal weapons are to be employed in this manner. If only microwave emitters were meant, the AP would have had no trouble in formulating the phrase “nonlethal weapons involving high-power microwaves.” Therefore in seeking to understand the above-cited communication we could do worse than to turn to the Department of Defense’s own definition of these weapons:

Weapons that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or materiel, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment. Unlike conventional lethal weapons that destroy their targets principally through blast, penetration and fragmentation, non- lethal weapons employ means other than gross physical destruction to prevent the target from functioning. Non-lethal weapons are intended to have one, or both, of the following characteristics: a. they have relatively reversible effects on personnel or materiel, b. they affect objects differently within their area of influence.

The last link is to a paper that provides a comprehensive list of weapons falling under that definition (some of them definitive, others, "mere suggestions"). It includes hundreds upon hundreds of different inventions and techniques from every imaginable branch of the sciences, in every medium, and applied to every membrane and muscle in the human body. So exhaustive (and exhausting) is this directory that, rather than attempt a half baked summary, I urge the reader to click on the link and sample the true extent of the non-lethal martial arts.

With this in mind, then, fundamentally speaking,

· Domestic use of non-lethal weapons will not “make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations.” If anything it will make it harder to avoid whatever the fuck these questions might be.

· There is neither any logical basis nor military precedent for the assertion that "If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation.” The lack of context here is bewildering: we don’t know which non-lethal weapon is being referred to, yet it is impossible to presume that Wynne is making a sweeping generalization about warfare in general.

· The "[because]" inserted by AP into Wynne's World sets up neither a valid causal relationship, nor a justification, though, presumably the latter is intended.

· It does not follow that “safety” will have justly been “considered,” merely because the instrument or substance used on the battlefield is the same as that used, say, at a Republican Convention protest. The question of degree, level, extent and dosage has been completely omitted, rendering the comparison meaningless.

· (Since tear gas is generally included under non-lethal weapons, their use is not necessarily in compliance with the Geneva Protocol even, since the latter states “Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.” In 1969, eighty countries voted to include tear gas agents among chemical weapons banned under the Geneva Protocol. In any event, every now and then the use of non-lethal weapons in war is advocated as a means of compliance with the treaty. As for high-power microwave devices, it is too soon to tell whether these are internationally considered proscribed by the treaty, but given the equivalence of poisonous photons and gas particles, the phrasing “all analogous liquids, materials or devices” certainly seems to suggest so.)

· The enemy’s supposed safety has something of the token about it, since many other things will continue to be used on battlefields besides the officially sanctioned non-lethal weapons used domestically. Like lethal weapons, for example. (Unless AP and Wynne are in all seriousness proposing that the wars of the future will be fought” exclusively with rubber bullets, stun guns and the suchlike. I doubt it, somehow.)

· Regular steel-and-bullets firearms are sometimes used domestically to disperse unruly crowds by means of non-lethal shots to demonstrators’ posteriors.

· The proposition “If I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, [. . .] that would be vilified in the world press.” is not only false, but displays a willful ignorance of the realities of, say, Afro America: My victim’s complaint need not make it to the “free” press at all.

· The same proposition is not only willfully ignorant, but twice false: How would my victim know or be able to claim what my intentions were? Non-lethal weapons are generally understood to be ones not intended for killing people with, but beyond that, depending on degree, level, and extent, any intent or outcome is possible. As illustrated above, Rodney King’s beaters seem to have acknowledged in court their intent was more or less to injure him in the precise way they did—by beating the feces out of him with non-lethal weapons—thus depriving him of the claim of being injured “in a way that was not intended.” In which way is this absurdity relevant?

· The same proposition is really on a roll now: Not merely twice false and willfully ignorant, it is grotesquely deficient in its sense of proportion and entirely irrelevant to the subject under discussion. The US military establishment at this precise moment in history is so awash in bile from the four corners of the Earth, as to call for the creation of some kind of special award. (How about the Napalme d’Or?) I am puzzled as to what pains me more here: pointing this out or the fact that a top-level military commander can carry on like that. In any event the vilification question has no bearing whatsoever on whether non-lethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should or will be used domestically before they are used in warfare. Here Wynne comes across like an official who, tarred and feathered by angry mobs on a daily basis, tells us in a moment of confidence that he is considering purchasing a humidifier, because the dust in his living room might be what’s irritating his sinuses.

* * * * *

The reader in his astucity will have long recognized the common vein running through the leaves of this blog, One Hundred Years of Servitude: My general concern at this web address is something which, were I a historian or were the blog to carry a subtitle, I would call “The Rise of the Public Relations State” (and its daily impact on our beetle-like existence here at the bottom of the information forest bed.) That said, rather than proceeding to pull the chain on this sorry little pail of AP hogwash, and at the risk of committing an originality, I think the specific point of this post could be better pressed by instead tearing Ken Gourd’s ten-bullet critique above to shreds.

More botched drive-by assassination attempt than anything resembling a serious critique, Gourd, as usual, willfully misses the point of this perfectly reasonable AP press release, which is perfectly understandable to anyone who doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder and takes the two minutes needed to actually read what it says. If Gourd had done even some elementary homework for the twenty-first century, he would know that the present day nonlethal weapons debate revolves around high-power microwave devices.

Now listen up, Ken, no one is talking about fighting wars against al Qaeda with rubber bullets or any such drivel. By “nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices” Wynne is referring to microwave devices and similar items, not poisonous gases. Yes, if you want to split hairs, the “such as” could be taken to mean they are talking about other types of nonlethal weapons, but, come on Ken, like the US Government is going to use mustard gas on L.A. rioters. Give me a break!

It is not “the brevity and vagueness of the item in conjunction with the reader’s imagination,” but Gourd’s alarmist fantasy alone that gets off on invoking the Geneva Protocol like some kind of Nazi atrocity is afoot. The government is thinking about using these weapons in war and, apparently, in law enforcement, too. Now some people, not knowing much about them, because they are so new, are concerned that they might be more harmful than they actually are. And because our government is not like Saddam Hussein, who we did not depose before he had managed to gas thousands of his own people, it too is concerned that the world might think we’re using weapons of mass destruction or something. So Michael Wynne is simply pointing out in plain language that if by using these new law enforcement tools against people who think it’s all right to create a public disturbance, just because they can’t accept that they didn’t get their way in our democracy, we can show people that nothing evil is going on, and the new weapons cause no permanent damage to people. That way people can get over their misconceptions about nonlethal weapons. Now what is so hard to understand here?

Nothing, it’s just that Gourd doesn’t have the time for making the effort to understand people when they’re speaking in public; he’s too busy sniggering at his keyboard, splitting hairs, and superciliously pointing at tiny inconsistencies, more grammatical than semantic, in their words. Gourd can jump through all sorts of colorful hoops with his garbled rhetorical exercises, but he can’t stop to consider that this news item is too short and de-contextualized to be subjected to a word by word dissection. He can’t admit to himself that, unlike himself, it is unpretentious in character and only meant as a news brief, and that as such it does a perfectly adequate job of informing us on the current state of the nonlethal weapons debate. If he faced this fact, that any fool can understand what Wynne was trying to say, he wouldn’t be able to masquerade as a sophisticate before the weaker intellects out there that mistake his demented nitpicking for time well spent. Most of all he would have no one to hate from the safety of his keyboard for expressing themselves imperfectly in speech. For Gourd to go in there with his sophist’s toolbox and come out with a great trumpeting “Aha!” as he asks “How would my victim know or be able to claim what my intentions were?” is just a sad confirmation of a deluded prankster at work. I’d prefer a foolish wit.

Before I get carried away (and bested by fantasies of a career in contemporary journalism after all), let me say for the record that I couldn’t have written anything more stupid myself, even if I were willfully trying not to understand the rise of the public relations state and its intellectual implications.

The reason I felt the need to have the reader suffer through that painful exercise in neo-fascist discourse, is because a) on account of my humorous compulsions, there is a very real danger that my analysis will be mistaken for mere nitpicking, wiffeling and clowning around of a random nature, and b) the exercise also illustrates a few easily mastered techniques used by minions of the modern public relations state in its defense.

The point is this: The central concept put across by the anonymously cobbled “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs” is of course all too easy to grasp, but it is false. It is, moreover, in all likelihood cynically false. That is to say its creators do not believe what they are declaring. Nobody at the policy level believes that if non-lethal weapons are to be used in warfare they should be used domestically as well. The people who implement these weapons into the defense system do not have any qualms about hurting the enemy with them.

The reason I went to such ridiculous lengths disassembling the components of the article was to show its fundamental non-sense, non-coherence, and non-truth. In this AP missive not one phoneme sits coherently with another. More than a press release in the traditional sense we are looking at a few asinine sound bites scribbled on the back of a napkin.

So, then, why is it there? Here lies the centermost point of this post: The posing and answering of this Why is it there? is fundamental to our intellectual survival in the information age. The piece is there because, like Ronald Reagan before it, it is such a great communicator. We do, however, need to qualify by adding that the greatness of these communicators lies in the fact that they communicate concepts other than what they purport to communicate. Barring all-out end-of-war unconditional final victory, military PR rarely communicates what it purports to communicate.

What “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs” purports to communicate is, of course, summarized in the italicized diatribe against Ken Gourd above. What it was actually designed to communicate is something beyond the definitive ken of a Gourd, or anyone else not privy to its inception, but we can cite a number of immediate concepts that are very effectively transmitted here:

  • The “right of the people peaceably to assemble” is not something to be taken literally. In fact, where war and the US government are concerned, it is a custom more observed in the breach than in the observance. The non-lethal-weapons-against-domestic-citizens issue also came up in the context of Vietnam War protests. (Before then, i.e. before the technological refinements of rubber bullets and tear gas arrived, crowds were simply dispersed with guns, bayonets, and if they were lucky, truncheons.) In American Power and the New Mandarins (p.312, Pelican Books, 1969) Noam Chomsky quotes a New York Times article from March 22nd, 1968, the title of which bears no small kinship with the object presently under scrutiny: “Army Helps Police ‘Get Hip’ On Riots.” Titles are important: The word testy is generally taken to mean irascible and impatient. Its use in the title of “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs” suggests that the firing line is no longer being drawn at riotous behavior, but at crowds’ stubborn refusal to disperse. In other words, the people have no right peaceably or otherwise to assemble.
  • Military authorities expect enough civil disturbances in the near future to use them to try out new techniques.
  • Military authorities expect plenty of armed conflict with or in foreign nations where non-lethal weapons might afford them advantage. The point is that the wars are now taken for granted, something that was not the case in the pre 9/11 world. This is being very strongly communicated all the time on the AP wire.
  • Military authorities are at all times deeply concerned with human rights issues. A standard doublethink projection in which the vast proliferation of US foreign torture resources and their official sanction is debated in the same breath that voices “concern” that “others” might not consider the way we treat our combatant enemies “safe.”
  • Human rights issues and public opinion shape the broad strokes of military policy. War being what it is, this is generally not true in the least, but on some rare occasions, for whatever reason including coincidence, human rights issues might actually sway policy onto a more merciful course. It is extremely important, however, to get this type of communication in there often, since the risks of public resistance are much more manageable, if the public believes in the fair-mindedness of the war being fought with its money.
  • More government funds are being directed to towards furnishing peace-keeping authorities with the latest technologies. I.e. whether they like it or not, the public has already made greater economic contributions towards weapons that will be used against it. Conspicuously absent in the organs of the public relations state is any debate over the ethics of this arrangement. This is because the public relations state as we know it is by nature and necessity also a police state.
  • Military authorities wish to warn demonstrators and activists that they will be treated to the same techniques of restraint as enemies on the battlefield. A good place to start looking for the central point being communicated in a message of this type is the exact opposite of what is being said.

Perhaps my Orwellian apprehension cannot be entirely justified as regards this last sinister point. A standard advertising technique, at any rate, is to simply make the nasty things about your product into its virtues (e.g. “contains 0.0g fat” being a good way to advertise sugar). Such an approach to political communication has the incalculable advantage of making things perfectly clear without engendering the kind of criticism saying them outright would entail. It was used to great effect in the “debate” (actually a fait accompli) on the official institutionalization of torture, which saw its apotheosis in the spectacular Abu Ghraib promotion. Who was not scared by the implications of those rather professionally crafted photos? (Nothing to get alarmed about, though: Shock electrodes are non-lethal weapons.)

Lest I be accused of misusing valuable server space to promote my favorite comedy sketches under the guise of haphazard connections to current events, the reader is alerted to the EXACT parallel between the Marx brothers sketch above and the words of Michael Wynne above. The Animal Crackers item essentially revolves around the witty absurdity of the old “heads I win—tails, you lose.” The musicians get paid to work, but they get paid more to do what they really want to do, which is goof off. And the goofier they get, the more they get paid. The joke is on the guy who hires them. The parallel lies in the fact that the military planners behind this latest non-lethal weapons proposal grow more powerful as society is further militarized and the industrial output and cultural life of the nation is geared towards wars of foreign conquest. But they really do what they want to do when they grow even more powerful by holding central positions in a police state:

“War on Terror? You couldn’t afford it. You see, if we don’t fight our own citizens, we don’t fight al Qaeda. And if we don’t fight al Qaeda, we’re gonna need a hellava lot more microwave guns.”

Since the military is supposed to be fighting al Qaeda on the people’s behalf, the joke is on us. After all folks, if it's safe for democracy, it’s safe enough for the world. Permit me to conclude in the Marxian spirit by pointing to my favorite flaw in a press statement not sparing of defects:

If there isn't any domestic civil unrest soon, the US won't be properly prepared for the next war. And then what?


Blogger Mike said...

Nice, concise post. You put your finger on what many feel, but far too few would even believe.

3:03 PM  
Blogger hafpastdeepdo said...

Great post.
I'd like to have been able to put into words--even in my head--the elegant job you've done dissembling that latest Orwellian news from SecArF. The most I could muster up--after only reading the initial four sentences--was to telephone the office of my U.S. Rep to ask that he use his influence to have the SecArf arrested (under the PatRiot Act) for threatening harm to people. Yeah, I've got a life-size vision of that request getting as far as the circular file in his office. But seriously, folks, we really, genuinely, positively ARE deep inside the theatre-of-the-absurd in our "body politic"--which is why bringing the Marx Brothers into our Class Act of 2006 is so adequately captures the over-the-edge absurdity of virtually everything coming at us from practically everywhere every day. Small wonder that We-tha-Peapull can't wrap our neurons around it all. There's just plain too much for "ordinary people" to wrap it all around. But that, too, is all part of the plan of those who are bringing us "non-lethal" weapons in the first place. That A.P. press release was "just" another among the innumerable "press releases" and "news" stories about this lastest over-the-edge absurdity and that latest over-the-edge absurdity. That A.P. piece was "just" another in their arsenal of "non-lethal" weaponry in a "psy-ops" "info-war" against--well, against humanity. The nature of that type of non-lethal weaponry is to shoot "situation" at us. The objective is to fatigue our critical thinking faculties so often, so frequently, and so greatly, that the masses of us out here just plain become "casualties" of "information warfare". The info-war technique is simple and is modeled on martial arts technique: OVERLAPING TECHNIQUE AND OVERWHELMING FORCE. If you can wrap your neurons around THAT, then thank your Creator that you are not yet a casualty.
My favorite Marx-Bros.-type moment in film art which, for me, describes the age we now live in is the Courtroom Scene from Woody Allen's "Banana's". Actually, the entire movie is laugh-riot commentary on the times--that is--if you're into all that. Other people in my life on whom I inflicted that movie haven't found it funny at all. Woody, as Felix Melisch, cross examines a witness. He is tied in a chair and his mouth is duct-taped. He mutters loudly and incoherently through the duct tape in his cross examination of the witness--who breaks down uncontrollably on the stand. He is then admonished from the bench about badgering the witness. In his summation he says something to the effect that the trial was, "A sham and a mockery; and a sham of a mockery and a mockery of a sham." To me, that just about sums up where we are today. Those of us left with more than a half-dozen neurons still synapsing are left to mutter coherently through the metaphoric duct tape on the collective mouthpieces of We-the-People as the Powers-that-Be admonish us from the metaphoric bench that we're either with them or we're for "tha' tearwrists".
But happily for Felix Melisch--in the end he gets the girl. Unhappily for us, what we're going to get in the end is going to look more like something from YOUR favorite futuristic sci-fi flick.
Again, thanks for the great job of dissembling the A.P. article. It's comforting to know that there are some in the country who brains haven't been fogged. But it IS a continuing struggle. We are surrounded by fog. It comes through our television set; it comes through the newsprint on our morning paper; it rolls in on radio airwaves; you can almost see it come out of the pours of unaware next-door neighbors, friends, and relatives. The first piece of free advice I have for others out there who have read this far down in the post and comments is the free advice given me by my late great grandfather, who admonished me, "There are casualties in life.... Don't be one of them." The second piece is like unto that: follow the still silent voice inside yourself which leads to "Yah is salvation". That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
But to end in the same spirit as the great post (above), I'm reminded of a famous quip of Groucho Marx: I've got my principles. But if ya' don't like 'em I've got some others ya' might like better.

12:28 AM  

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