Number 561 September 19, 2014

This Week: Systalectics Finale, and More

"Quote" of the Week: "Governments Prefer the Fantasy Picture"
Bias and the Intifadas
Systems and Responsibility: Drones
Systems and Responsibility: Bangladesh
Why Do Drones Kill? Why Do Factories Collapse?


A number of people told me that the last issue was "an awful lot to absorb in one sitting," and that it "takes a while to carefully read it, understand it, and digest what you are saying." I confess, I was aware that the last issue was quite "academic," which is something I usually try to avoid. So, my apologies for being so dense. On the other hand, several people told me that they really liked the examples of a Systalectics approach to current news stories.

So, this week I offer a couple more examples. They articles I cite actually appeared in the news almost a year ago, but they illustrate the Systalectics point so well that I pulled them out of my clippings file to use in the current series.

I have at least one more article ready in the "Systalectics Series." But I think that will be the end of it. We'll see what happens next week. For those of you who still find this too dense, my apologies. For those of you who thrive on this kind of thing, you're welcome!

Densely yours,



"Quote" of the Week: "Governments Prefer the Fantasy Picture"

One of the best Western journalists working today is the Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn. His newest book, just out a few months, is called "The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising." I saw an excerpt on the website TomDispatch entitled Why Washington's War on Terror Failed: The Underrated Saudi Connection. From that article comes this week's "Quote" of the Week:

"It has always been in the interest of the U.S. and other governments that al-Qa'ida be viewed as having a command-and-control structure like a mini-Pentagon, or like the mafia in America. This is a comforting image for the public because organized groups, however demonic, can be tracked down and eliminated through imprisonment or death. More alarming is the reality of a movement whose adherents are self-recruited and can spring up anywhere..."

"Unsurprisingly, governments prefer the fantasy picture of al-Qa'ida because it enables them to claim victories when it succeeds in killing its better known members and allies. Often, those eliminated are given quasi-military ranks, such as "head of operations," to enhance the significance of their demise. The culmination of this heavily publicized but largely irrelevant aspect of the "war on terror" was the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011. This enabled President Obama to grandstand before the American public as the man who had presided over the hunting down of al-Qa'ida's leader. In practical terms, however, his death had little impact on al-Qa'ida-type jihadi groups, whose greatest expansion has occurred subsequently."


Bias and the Intifadas

Long-time readers know that I am far more interested in the unconscious transmission of Propaganda that is present in virtually every news story than I am in cases of overt bias. Still, overt bias is a problem, and sometimes it's so obvious it induces a cringe. And so it was with a September 18th article in the New York Times, filed from Jerusalem by the Times' Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Jodi Rudoren.

Rudoren was one of the main Times reporters from Israel/Palestine during the recent Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip that left roughly 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis dead—a grisly ratio of 30-1. The Palestinian and pro-government Israeli versions of just about everything having to do with the 50-day massacre are radically different. (Pro-government Israelis would never call it a "massacre," for example.)

Given this divergence in interpretation, reporters writing for a U.S. audience have a special responsibility to present both perspectives when reporting on events in the region. But it doesn't always happen, as we see in a September 18th New York Times article by Ms. Rudoren on the ongoing tension in Jerusalem in the wake of the bloody summer in Gaza.

Rudoren remarked on several long-standing "issues" between Palestinians and Israelis, and how they "seem to be boiling over [in Jerusalem]: The authorities counted 42 'riots'—participants call them protests—on a single night in July." She never specifies which "authorities" she's talking about, but at least she acknowledges that one person's riot is another person's protest.

But the real "your slip is showing" bias appears in the fourth paragraph. After Rudoren gives a highly-contested version of what "led to" the summer's violence, she refers to unrest in Jerusalem, saying that "things have begun to calm down, [but] 26 Palestinians were arrested just this week. 'I see the third intifada started already,' said Jawad Siyam, director of the Wadi Eilweh Information Center, which tracks demonstrations and arrests, using the Arabic shorthand for the waves of violence that plagued Israel in the late 1980s and early 2000s."

Oh? The two Intifadas were "waves of violence that plagued Israel"? Well, that may be the way a pro-government Israeli—or the NYT bureau chief—sees it.

In contrast, here is how the Institute for Middle East Understanding defines "Intifada": "Intifada is an Arabic word derived from a verb meaning 'to shake off,' and is the term used to describe the two major uprisings against Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

That is, pro-government Israelis see the Intifadas as "plagues of violence," while Palestinians see them as "uprisings." That's a big difference to ignore, as it touches on the heart of the relationship between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people. And all of this ignores the fact—and this is a fact—that both Intifadas included significant nonviolent elements.

The Institute for Middle East Understanding is "an independent non-profit organization that provides journalists with quick access to information about Palestine and the Palestinians." The Institute is based in New York, so perhaps Ms. Rudoren should pay a visit next time she visits headquarters. Or maybe her editors could stop by. Or, there's always the telephone...


Systems and Responsibility: Drones

The November 23rd edition of the New York Times supplies a great opportunity to illustrate this somewhat difficult-to-explain point.

On the front page of that day's Times was an article headlined "Questions on Drone Strike Find Only Silence," and it told the story of a Yemeni man named Faisal bin Ali Jaber. Jaber had come to Washington "to tell his story: how he watched in horror last year as drone-fired missiles incinerated his nephew and brother-in-law in a remote Yemeni village." Neither were guilty of anything, and Jaber made the 7,000-mile trip to ask official Washington for "acknowledgment and an apology." But, as the Times put it, "He did not have much luck." The idea that was promoted in the article (no doubt unconsciously) was the idea that the horrible and unfair deaths caused by U.S. drones—in this case and in every case—are the result of "mistakes" or "accidents." As we see, this point was repeated several times in the article, using various terms:

1. "No one has been able to explain why his relatives were killed, or why the administration is not willing to acknowledge its mistake."

2. "It was an error with unusual resonance."

3. "The strike, in August 2012, drew widespread indignation in Yemen, and was documented in The New York Times and later by human rights groups, along with a number of other strikes that accidentally killed innocent people."

4. "A Yemeni counterterrorism official called Mr. Jaber hours after the strike to apologize for the mistake."

5. "The president [Obama] promised greater transparency, but the administration still refuses to discuss specific strikes or to apologize or pay compensation for strikes that went wrong."

OK, let's move on to NY Times Story #2.


Systems and Responsibility: Bangladesh

On the front page of the Business Section of the same day's New York Times (November 23rd), appeared another story that seems unrelated at first glance, but that is actually part of an ideological one-two punch. Headlined "U.S. Retailers Decline to Aid Factory Victims in Bangladesh," the article begins, "One year after the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh, many retailers that sold garments produced there or inside the Rana Plaza building that collapsed last spring are refusing to join an effort to compensate the families of the more than 1,200 workers who died in those disasters." (It's interesting that the reporter used the word "refused," while the headline writer softened it to "declined." Another reason to be suspicious of headlines.)

Says the Times, "The International Labor Organization is working with Bangladeshi officials, labor groups and several retailers to create ambitious compensation funds to assist not just the families of the dead, but also more than 1,800 workers who were injured, some of them still hospitalized."

The Times tells us that "A handful of retailers" based in Europe "are deeply involved in getting long-term compensation funds off the ground." But, in contrast, "so far none of the U.S. retailers have agreed to pay a single penny for compensation."

The Times quotes an executive from one of the European companies as saying that "his company recognized its responsibility" for the suffering, adding that "We knew we were having clothes made in Rana Plaza." The executive explained that "When you know where your clothes are made, then you take responsibility for the results of where your clothes are being made."

Across the Atlantic the response was different. Deep into the Times article we hear from Walmart, for example, which says that the clothes it was buying were being made at the factory by "unauthorized contractors" working "without the company's knowledge." Walmart's "vice president for ethical sourcing" told the Times "there was no production for Walmart in Rana Plaza at the time of the tragedy," repeating that "the Walmart-related production at Tazreen was unauthorized."

Sears likewise "said an unauthorized contractor had been producing on its behalf at Tazreen."

U.S.-based clothing retailer The Children's Place "said that factory was not supplying it when the building collapsed."

How are these two stories, about drones and about working conditions in Bangladesh, connected? How do they form an ideological one-two punch? Read on...


Why Do Drones Kill? Why Do Factories Collapse?

I've just summarized two news stories, one about drones and one about sweatshops in Bangladesh, and described them as "an ideological one-two punch." The "punch" didn't have to do so much with the information in the articles, which was quite useful and no doubt accurate. The ideology comes to us in the form of the reinforcement of a certain way of thinking. Bear with me as I try to bring into view some things that are typically held out of view—in our unconscious minds.

Notice that both the drone story and the Bangladesh compensation story are about legal liability and moral responsibility. The way we think about liability and responsibility is never stated in the articles, at least not directly. But there are difficult-to-detect assumptions made here that depend on a particular, widely-shared Thought Style.

Implicit in the both the retailers' arguments about Bangladeshi suffering and the Obama administration's arguments about drone victims' suffering is the idea that people are not responsible for things about which they are ignorant. As the European executive says, one is only responsible "When you know where your clothes are made." The obvious implication is that the ignorant are exempt from responsibility. This would appear to fly in the face of the familiar legal convention, "Ignorantia legis neminem excusat," or "Ignorance of the law excuses no one."

Despite that, the Bangladesh article indicates that U.S. institutions back up the corporate/government way of thinking, at least in the legal sense. The Times refers to "some industry analysts" who "say Walmart, Sears and other American retailers are reluctant to join the compensation efforts because they fear it could be seen as an admission of wrongdoing, perhaps leading to legal liability." We are to understand here that legal liability kicks in after an "admission of wrongdoing," which is a way of saying that the legal defense relies on ignorance. And the implication here—this is the difficult-to-detect part—is that legal liability depends on one's intent. That is, if you didn't know that your actions were causing harm, then no one can say that you intended to cause harm. And if you didn't intend to cause harm, you are less guilty, or not guilty at all.

To summarize a rather complex legal process, it goes like this: Defendant: "I didn't mean to do it!" And the jury (if they buy that argument) says: "Innocent!"

A word on ignorance: Several decades ago the term "plausible deniability" was coined. It refers to a particular practice of public officials who have authorized covert activities that are either illegal or politically unpopular. (Which is, after all, a big part of why they are covert.) Just in case such activities become public, it is standard practice for the people actually doing the job to withhold the details of their activities from their superiors. This allows the superiors—up to and including the President of the United States—to plausibly claim ignorance of any illegal activities, thus escaping legal culpability. This same dynamic is likely at work in this Bangladesh legal battle. "Deliver the goods, on time and at the price we demand, but don't tell me how you do it," is the operative dynamic.

All of this talk of legal responsibility fails to address moral responsibility. The closest we get to that idea is when the article states, "Some [of the analysts] also say the Americans fear they will look hypocritical if they contribute to a compensation fund after they asserted that any production done for them in those factories was unauthorized." It's hard to tell what these "analysts" mean to say here, but when the concern is with how they "look" then we seem to be straying into the realm of Public Relations, since morality doesn't depend on looks.

In the case of drones killing innocent people, the mistake/error/accident defense is overt. The thinking? Lack of intent = lack of guilt.

Try Systalectics

But what if we look at these two stories from a Systalectics point of view? That is, what if we forget about trying to find out what is in the hearts and minds of the clothing company executives or the U.S. government officials who are all claiming ignorance? What if, instead of focusing on their intentions, we were to focus on something else? What if we were to focus our attention on the predictable outcomes of the globalized clothing system and the predictable outcomes of a militarized Global War on Terror (or whatever it's called now)? Then what happens?

What happens is that everything about the analysis changes, and changes dramatically.

First of all, when the focus is on predictable outcomes, then "responsibility" takes on a different meaning. For one thing, we understand that there is no single "cause" for the outcomes, so there cannot be one single culprit, or even a small identifiable number of culprits. In fact, since system outcomes depend on a large number of factors interacting and coming together in a certain way, there really are no "culprits" at all.

This is not to say that nobody is responsible for anything! Rather, it's to say that we are ALL responsible. That is, we all play a part in making the system work, and we all have a chance to change the workings of the system by changing our behavior.

It's much easier, and certainly more comfortable, for most people to say "It's his fault!" But it's not that simple.

The second thing that changes when we think Systalectically is that we bring into focus all of the expected outcomes when deciding on a course of action. So, in the case of drones, we have to consider not only the success of the intended outcome (allegedly the killing of "bad guys"), but also the other outcomes, intended or not. Such outcomes include the killing of innocent people, the moral corrosion that results from the attempts to justify such killings, and the likelihood that such attacks will actually endanger people in the U.S. by increasing the perception of the U.S. as a rogue state that kills whenever and wherever it wants (making it a legitimate target in the minds of the victims).

Looked at from a Systalectics point of view, the question is not, "Did the drone attacks do what was intended?" The question is, "What did the drone attacks do, whether intended or not?" Taking into account ALL of the expected consequences is necessary to assess the validity of a drone strategy.

Thinking Systalectically, participants in the drone war would be held responsible for all significant outcomes that could be predicted, not only the outcomes they were aiming at. Those who give the orders to attack would thus be responsible for any results of that attack that a reasonable person could predict. So, the attack of a drone that destroys a residential building—unless it can be proven that those launching the attack knew that no innocents were in the building—would be a crime.

In the case of the Bangladesh factory collapse, a Systalectics view would change our news reports dramatically. Instead of focusing on legal responsibility and which retailers are going to pay damages, and so forth, we would get more reporting on the workings of the system that produces such tragedies.

As I've said before in these pages, the systems involved in producing such horrible working conditions in Bangladesh are many. They include the global clothing system, the globalized "supply chain," the global marketing system, the fashion industry, the ever-less-unionized global labor market, and more. "The world is spending half a trillion dollars on fossil fuel subsidies every year," according to a recent study by the Overseas Development Institute, which makes it possible to ship shirts from Bangladesh and still charge U.S. consumers less than the cost of a domestically-made shirt. And, of course, as William Blum points out in his latest "Anti-Empire Report," since the end of World War 2, the United States has "Attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically-elected... Attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries..." and "Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries." Most often, the targets of the U.S. empire have been nations that threatened to withdraw from the U.S.-dominated globalized economy. Which leaves us with desperate, and thus super-exploitable, workforces in places like Bangladesh.

Working to change any of those systems helps move us towards a transformation of the global capitalist economy.

So, back to the New York Times stories we're discussing. In the case of the killing of the Yemeni man's family, the stories suggest that someone is guilty (of murder) if they intentionally killed innocent people, or not guilty if it was not intentional. But Systalectics throws all that out, because we know the issue is a murderous system, and "intentions" have nothing to do with the crime. Systems are neither moral nor immoral. They are amoral, and can be changed only by changing a variety of inputs. Putting people in jail could be a part of a system change that stops the killing, but it can never be the solution, as personal guilt is not the problem.

And the same with the Bangladesh factory collapse. Corrupt and uncaring landlords are not the problem. Without a global clothing system that demands inhumanly cheap and fast production of clothing, those landlords would not exist. Or, rather, they would exist but would not be in a position to endanger thousands of people; they would be petty criminals, and probably in jail. In order to elevate the behavior of such people from petty crime to human rights violations, we need an amoral system that produces both the opportunity and the motive to exploit and kill. And to stop it we need to change the system, not compensate the victims or punish whatever "bad guys" are in place at the moment. Although, again, compensation and punishment may be a part of system change. It just won't cause system change.