For Decades the U.S. Hated Nelson Mandela

NelsonMandela_Terrorist

Nelson Mandela was buried yesterday. The entire world is in mourning. President Obama joined others in eulogizing the 95 year old hero with words of deep admiration and praise.

All the adulation was richly deserved.

However, in our present context of anti-terrorist hysteria, it is important to note that Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) party were on the U.S. terrorist Watch List until quite recently. In fact, after spending more than a quarter century in South Africa’s Robben Island, and despite Mandela’s stature as President of South Africa, it wasn’t until 2008 that Mandela and his ANC were removed from that role of infamy.

That fact coupled with Mandela’s now-heroic status shows how the term “terrorist” can be misapplied for decades to genuine freedom fighters while the U.S. opposes them in its de facto support of oppression. Martin Luther King teaches the same lesson.

The Reagan administration was largely responsible for attempting to ruin Mandela’s reputation. It called him “subversive” and “communist” all during the 1980s. Mr. Reagan insisted that Mandela and the ANC were Cuban backed enemies of the United States and its interests in South Africa. Such charges were behind the administration’s refusal to support UN and international trade sanctions and an arms embargo against the racist South African apartheid system.

Even after “Madiba” (his affectionate tribal name) received the Nobel Peace Prize (1993), the U.S. continued to treat Mandela as a pariah. However, after 9/11, it changed its reason for doing so. The State Department then stopped referring to him as a communist and called him a “terrorist” instead. In fact as late as 2005, he was required to get a special State Department waiver in order to enter the U.S. in order to visit George W. Bush.

Finally in 2008, with a big prod from the Congressional Black Caucus, Congress at last voted to remove the by then 90 year old Mandela and ANC from the U.S. government’s official list of terrorists.

All of this has been consigned to George Orwell’s Memory Hole in the upsurge of universal acclaim for South Africa’s safely dead Madiba.

The same thing happened, of course, to Martin Luther King whom the State Department, CIA, and others had labeled “communist” and “subversive” before finally honoring the martyr’s memory with a national holiday and with innumerable “Martin Luther King Boulevards” throughout the country.

In the light of such history, can our grandchildren look forward to misty eyes, holidays and street renamings after the passing of Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz, and Assata Shakur?

Stay tuned.

Going to the Movies in Bangalore: “Elysium,” Snowden, Manning and Assange

Elysium

“Elysium,” the film starring Matt Damon and Jody Foster showed up in India this past weekend. My wife, Peggy, and I happened to be in Bangalore to celebrate her birthday. So we went to see the film – our first time at the movies since arriving in India about three weeks ago. (We intend to stay here another three months as Peggy’s Fulbright at Mysore University takes its course.)

“Elysium” has been panned by some as convoluted in plot, over-the-top in its acting, and filled with typically Hollywood violence as indestructible and robotic adversaries clash in hackneyed, interminable and highly unlikely fight scenes.

I however found “Elysium” strangely intriguing when viewed from our setting in India and in the context of our government’s furor over information leaks. From that perspective, “Elysium” was evocative of the Bhagavad Gita in pitting its protagonist against overwhelming odds in a fight to the finish for human liberation.

More specifically, “Elysium” played out in comic book fashion the battle of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and other information “criminals” against the overpowering state apparatus of a militarized, out-of-control and venal federal government.

To begin with, take the film’s setting – Los Angeles in 2054. The streets of Bangalore were a good prep for the film. Like L.A. in the film, they are polluted, over-crowded, and dirty. However, unlike the imagined L.A. of the future, Bangalore finds itself going in two directions at once, not simply downhill.

Bangalore is situated somewhere between decay and an undisciplined version of globalized commercialization. It features “branded stores” like The Gap, Nike, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Dominos alongside stalls and shops overflowing with goods of all description. The treatment of workers on this sub-continent (as exemplified in the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh), is not unlike workers take-it-or-leave-it dilemma in the film.

Then consider the film’s plot. It’s about Max, a factory employee (played by Matt Damon) who is injured on the job as he’s exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. With five days to live, he must find his way to “Elysium,” a human-fabricated planet floating above the earth. There the rich live in idyllic conditions, where life-saving medical care is readily available. “Elysium’s” story is about Max’s quest to reach for that star. Damon does so by stealing government secrets.

Meanwhile the government responds with extreme violence. It pursues Max in ways reminiscent of the U.S. pursuit of Snowden, Manning and Assange. Its security apparatus hunts him down relentlessly. He is pursued by an implacable, incredibly powerful mercenary agency. He is threatened by drones. Finally, he sacrifices his life so that the information he divulged might set others free.

All of this happens in an oppressive culture characterized by:

• Dominance of the military-industrial complex that completely subordinates politicians to business moguls.
• A high unemployment rate that makes it a privilege for workers to be exploited in the workplace as opposed to remaining jobless.
• A medical system that provides healthcare only to those who can pay for it.
• Total surveillance of everyone involved.
• Fail-safe border patrol that entirely eliminates refugees by killing those attempting to cross borders illegally.
• A highly brutal police force that acts with robot brutality, absolute lack of compassion, and over-all impunity.
• The use of drones to hunt down and eliminate dissenters.
• Women (personified in the Jodie Foster secretary of defense) who despite finally holding high office prove to be more heartless than their male counterparts.

So in the end, “Elysium” is about the fate of a low-level corporate employee like Edward Snowden. The secrets Max reveals show the Department of Defense violating Elysium’s own constitution that supposedly governs a highly polarized society and keeps the reins of power in the hands of a rich minority. While protecting and empowering the minority, the rules in place deprive the majority of the rights of citizenship.

The disclosure of the planet’s governing secrets not only exposes abuse of power, but ends up dethroning the elite, while enabling ordinary people to claim the rights that belong to them in virtue of their humanity. “Elysium” is about information as the key to revolution.

Very little of this is perceived by movie critics. A movie review in The Indian Times saw “Elysium” as just another Hollywood action flick. Without explanation, it remarked that “conspiracy theorists” might find it interesting, and that the film said something about immigration and health care.

I’m suggesting that “Elysium” says much more than that. It perfectly describes the direction in which our culture is traveling. It represents a story of hope. It’s about the triumph of the working class against overwhelming odds. “Elysium” is about the power of information and the heroism of people like Snowden, Manning, and Assange. As a cautionary tale, the film is a call to support whistle-blowers against our own corrupt “leadership.”

Too bad all that de rigueur Hollywood overlay of violence, chases and predictability obscures “Elysium’s” valuable message.

On Not Returning to Daddy: Heretical Reflections on the Prodigal Son (Sunday Homily)

Chelsea Manning

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 32: 7-11, 13-14; PS 51: 3-4, 12-13, 19; ITM 1: 12-17; LK 15: 1-32. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091513.cfm

A few weeks ago, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for blowing the whistle on the U.S. military and the officials who run it. In her job in Military Intelligence, Ms. Manning came across thousands of documents and videos exposing war crimes routinely committed by U.S. troops and their superiors. She released more than 700,000 of those documents in the hope that they would start a national dialog about the morality of the War on Terror. For her trouble, Ms. Manning was tortured for months. Following a court martial, she has been imprisoned instead of the criminals she reported.
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Last May, Edward Snowden, a data analyst working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the National Security Agency and the CIA, released a trove of documents revealing that the U.S. government has been spying on all U.S. citizens. Those spying on us have been secretly reading our e-mails and recording our phone conversations.

Such intrusion stands in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Mr. Snowden released the documents to start a national conversation about the justification for secretly suspending such constitutional guarantees. For his trouble, he was threatened with arrest and imprisonment by the very agents whose alleged crimes he was exposing. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia where he has been given temporary political asylum. His asylum has largely been justified by the fear that if returned to the U.S. he would suffer the torture and mistreatment inflicted on Chelsea Manning.
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Please keep the Manning and Snowden cases in mind as we reflect on today’s gospel selection.
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Didn’t we just recently read the Parable of the Prodigal Son at Mass?

I checked.

Well, yes, if you count the 4th Sunday of Lent less than six months ago. In fact, this famous story repeats so many times in our Liturgies of the Word that most of us know it nearly by heart.

Personally, I must confess a bit of boredom with the tale. It even crossed my mind to skip a homily this week, and simply refer my readers back to last Lent’s reflections.

But on second thought, allow me to take another shot at it with the Manning and Snowden cases as background. This time I’ll take my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. There Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

But what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and never looking back?

The French intellectual Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there.

For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him. (Doesn’t that sound a lot like the male hierarchy’s claims within the church in relation to the Bible? It’s also reminiscent of our government’s position regarding the Constitution. Our president’s interpretation is the only valid one.)

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable makes me think of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and how in these pivotal times they have followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable as he goes over the wall into the unfamiliar realm of uncertainty, danger, and creative possibility.

In both cases, making that move required great courage. It meant escaping the safety and comfort that the confines of the patriarchy provide. Today Chelsea Manning sits in Leavenworth Prison in a far different “America” than the one she was trying to save. Snowden lives in exile in Russia without any hope of return to the country he too was attempting to help. In Manning’s case, leaving the father’s estate even meant transcending the patriarchy’s strict boundaries around sexual identity.

Because of the courage of Manning and Snowden we’re all better off and the patriarchy is weakened.

What does all of this mean for us as we reconsider Jesus’ overly-familiar parable in the light of Gide’s retelling? I think it might mean that we must:

• Be courageous and think for ourselves even about values seemingly endorsed by Jesus.
• See that patriarchy and male values of power, prestige, profit, individualism, competition, violence and war represent the roots of our world’s problems.
• Recognize that comfort in “our father’s house” is not good for us, our children or the planet.
• Do all we can to reject the patriarchy and its values and never look back
• Value people like Mr. Snowden and Ms. Manning as exemplary heroes showing us that it is indeed possible to leave “Our Father’s House” and its values for the sake of God’s Kingdom or however Snowden and Manning might understand the new reality to which they summon us.
• Appreciate the symbolic importance of Chelsea Manning’s rejection of military machismo in favor of the feminine world and its values of inclusion, community, and cooperation.
• Admit that our male-dominated church is a central part of the reigning system of patriarchal dominance along with its exclusively male understandings of God as Father. Act accordingly.
• Always be careful on the steps.

Syria: The Snowden, Manning (and Godfather) Connections

Godfather

Well, we’re coming up for another vote about attacking a far off country over weapons of mass destruction. This time the target is not Iraq, but Syria. This time the “new Hitler” is not Saddam Hussein but Bashar al-Assad. This time it’s not Colin Powell, but John Kerry who assures the world that it can “trust us” and the secret evidence that can’t be fully shared for reasons of National Security.

Remember the last time a vote like this was taken? It was three days after 9/11. Then Congress passed a resolution for the Authorization for Use of Military Force. It sailed through with only one dissenting vote – that of Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Before registering her brave dissent, the Congresswoman spoke on the House floor. “As we act,” she said, “let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

President Obama would do well to heed those words this time around. However I’m not merely referring to the fact that we already are the evil we ostensibly deplore. After all, we supported Saddam Hussein in his deployment of chemical weapons against Iran in 1988. We have repeatedly used chemical weapons ourselves – for example, Agent Orange in Vietnam and white phosphorus in Fallujah. (I’m not sure how to classify depleted uranium.)

Instead, I’m referring to the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden cases and the Obama administration’s position that the former Army, CIA and NSA employees deplorably (1) revealed state secrets, (2) violated their constitutional oaths, (3) failed to go through the proper channels, (4) aided the enemy, (5) endangered American lives, and (6) did all of this for reasons of personal advancement.

Ironically, these are the very “crimes” the Obama administration is committing relative to Syria. In effect, Obama is a more deplorable whistle-blower than he considers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning to be. That is, by confirming the Manning and Snowden revelations, he’s unwittingly blowing the whistle on himself.

Consider the Manning and Snowden parallels one-by-one. In the run-up to the Syria bombing:

• Obama has revealed state secrets: The big “state secret” in question is the most devastating one disclosed by Manning and Snowden. It is that the U.S. is a completely out-of-control rogue state. Its army is not only routinely guilty of “collateral murder.” Its CIA and NSA act like a world police force spying on and attempting to control not only designated enemies but even “friends.” The embarrassment caused by Manning and Snowden’s irrefutable revelations on those scores is what has so enraged the Nobel Peace laureate who resides in the White House. Nevertheless, Obama’s own posturing as World Policeman and Mad Bomber relative to Syria confirm what Manning and Snowden have told us so clearly. Our president and Congress are completely out-of-control.

• Obama is violating his constitutional oath: The State Department has repeatedly accused Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden of violating their constitutional oaths to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. But the president, of course, and his congressional enablers are doing the same. According to the Constitution, treaties have the same force as domestic law. As a signatory of the United Nations treaty, the U.S. is bound to get Security Council approval before attacking another nation. Yet it refuses to go that route, because it knows that Russia and China will support world opinion which stands overwhelmingly against U.S. intervention in Syria (as does U.S. opinion).

• President Obama declines to “go through the proper channels”: In prosecuting Chelsea Manning and going after Edward Snowden, a constant accusation of the Obama administration has been that the two have failed to go through the proper channels and procedures which the administration claims are adequate and necessary to avoid catastrophe. Yet nowhere is international law clearer than in defining the proper channels that must honored before launching acts of war. Once again, those channels centralize the United Nations and its Security Council. The Obama administration ignores U.N. procedures because they would inevitably determine U.S. intentions to be criminal.

• President Obama is aiding the enemy: In its prosecution of Chelsea Manning and pursuit of Edward Snowden, the State Department has insisted that the two have “aided the enemy.” Even people giving donations to charitable causes perhaps tangentially connected to al-Qaeda run the risk of having similar accusations (and prosecutions). Yet, by all accounts the opposition to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad includes forces tightly allied with al-Qaeda. So by siding with the rebels, President Obama is directly aiding the enemy in ways that absolutely dwarf anything Manning and Snowden (and charitable donors) could even think of doing.

• President Obama is endangering American lives: Iran and Syria correctly claim the right to self-defense recognized by the U.N. Charter. As allies, they promise retaliation against the United States and its principal regional ally, Israel. Will Israel or the U.S. stand aside in the case of such retaliation? Of course not. As Obama himself has said, once the bombs start flying all bets are off. Events simply take on a life of their own. Will Israel itself retaliate using its atomic weapons? How irresponsible can our “leaders” be?

• President Obama is pursuing this insanity for reasons of personal gain: Obama clearly made a mistake in drawing a “red line” and promising “action” in the case of using chemical weapons in Syria. He made another mistake by jumping to the conclusion that the al-Assad government was responsible for their use before all the data was in. Now it fears appearing weak should it follow the lead of British Prime Minister David Cameron who in effect admitted his mistake in not honoring the will of the British people and its Parliament. So like a Mafia Don, in order to maintain “credibility” and save face, Obama feels compelled to break some legs and spray some restaurants with machine gun fire. Otherwise who knows how many congressional seats might be lost next year? Make no mistake: this round of blood-letting will be done for political gain and to save the president’s reputation as a credible “Godfather.”

So the substance of the Manning and Snowden revelations has been confirmed from the highest possible source. The U.S. is indeed a rogue state. It not only spies on the world, it has set itself up as its lone judge, jury, and executioner. It is a supporter of al-Qaeda. It cares not a bit for American lives or anyone else’s for that matter. In fact it is willing to risk a World War to avoid losing face. As such “America” is an outlaw state with “leaders” who routinely violate not only their oaths of office, but the U.N. Charter, world opinion, and the most elementary moral principles.

Not only that, but the procedures used by Manning and Snowden have been validated by Obama’s intentions towards Syria. Evidently he agrees with the whistle-blowers he deplores that the channels and protocols the world has established to avoid catastrophe are not adequate or workable. Like Bush before him, his will alone determines what is right and wrong.

The only thing left to do is award Manning and Snowden the Nobel Peace Prize – not as worthy successors of Barack Obama, but to atone for the mistake of previously giving it to a Mafia Don.