Perspectives: A Review of 2013
by Peter Byrne
(Swans - December 16, 2013) If for a year you want to escape the brutality of the contemporary world, don't hole up in a southern Italian city of a hundred thousand souls. I tried it in 2013 and it didn't work. The bodies kept washing up in the surf on the nearby beaches upsetting me and the tourist operators. People out of Africa kept gambling with death to get away from continual war and permanent poverty. They made a desperate grab at the austerity-whipped hind end of Europe.
You couldn't blame the locals for trying to ignore the interlopers. It was no good telling them that they, the townsfolk, were rich and the migrants poor. Rich, them? Their jobs and benefits, if they had either, were not safe. In planetary terms it was true all the same. Just as it's true that, though we can help an individual in trouble or bury him decently, the migration of the poor will not stop before war and poverty do.
So the local population followed the normal practice of the human race and concealed the greater problems of others behind their own lesser ones. You couldn't convince them that twenty-some percent unemployment or a town full of empty store windows was in some way negligible as misfortunes go. They told themselves that they were caught in an economic cycle like previous ones. A corner would be turned, that light appear at the end of the tunnel, things -- for everyone -- would look up again.
Clinging to such clichés, the owners of business property best exemplified this nervous optimism. They kept their premises empty rather than lower the rent. Once you lowered it, demeaning property's sacred prestige, raising it again would be too hard when happy days returned. So they passed fairly quiet nights. Only their sons and daughters had bad dreams. Unemployment between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five reached forty-five percent in parts of the South. The young knew they would have even fewer jobs, no more adequate pensions, and often become migrants themselves, though better dressed, to less straitened parts of the European Union and places beyond.
The most effective way Italians had of ignoring the rest of the universe was absorption in their own political circus. For a year on national television the high-volume bickering of their political class drove what happened in the larger world to a minute or so before the commercials. No one seemed to mind that Italy had become a non-player for Europe and America. The tail-end of center-right domination left the country a laughingstock. The coalition of the so-called left with what they had been claiming were their mortal enemies made the new prime minister a simple international yes-man. When Germany, France, and Spain objected to Washington's invasion of their privacy -- Britain, co-culprit, kept mum -- Prime Minister Enrico Letta was careful not to offend Big Brother. No word from him either, except another yes-please, on the massive build-up of American bases going on in Italy just now. It's as if Italians miss being Washington's favorite client state of Cold War days and are looking for another chance to sell out.
In a year when violence and death took possession of the Mediterranean's shores, Italy was a parochial talk show. The assault on the inimitable Berlusconi came mainly via humor. Italians continued sending him up with brilliant jokes while, with their consent, he continued to take them from behind. Nothing new, as they had regaled themselves by making fun of Benito Mussolini, while he remained their Duce for twenty years. Stagnation nurtured by a shower of words never ceased. The political class knew that most Italians fit a petty bourgeois pattern. No matter how bad things were going for them they feared that genuine change would take what they had. Better the limping status quo they knew than some devilish unknown.
However, Silvio Berlusconi escaped the blazing hatred leveled at international figures that marked 2013. He was only a comedian Italians could not seem to do without. Let's consider a few of the detested: bogeymen, scarecrows, and one worthy of contempt but getting it for the wrong reasons.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Though the Colonel was murdered in 2011 in the NATO intervention in the Libyan Civil War, hate for him again flared up in 2013 in those who wanted a similar taking of sides in the Syrian Civil War. They did not savor the balance Gaddafi had maintained as dictator and the prosperity he spread by nationalizing the oil industry. His pan-Africanism frightened them and his refusal of total alignment with the West infuriated them. They preferred the new Libya of want, war between militias, collapse of oil production, and a slide toward fragmentation. To understand the haters of Gaddafi, we must think of those, often the same, who hated Saddam Hussein. They too prefer the present Iraq -- they don't live there -- where the population is worse off than it was under its dictator and where a civil war in all but name rages on.
President Bashar al-Assad. The hate-mongers accused Bashar of being a ruthless dictator as if he were the only one of those in the region. For them the Saudi monarch or the top men of Bahrain or Yemen are not ruthless. Why not? Because they are part of a Sunni coalition that is engaged in a war against Shia powers of which Syria in its present form is one. The haters of Bashar, therefore, wanted a NATO-type intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Their goal remains a fragmentation of the country and ultimately a neutering of Iran, the largest Shia power in the area and potentially the dominant regional player. The Israelis, it should be noted, are latecomers to the hate brigade against Bashar. They worked with him for years to stifle Palestinian rebellion. But they have come to see Iran as a threat to their regional predominance and have allied themselves with the Sunni warriors, namely the Gulf Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the military regime in Egypt.
President Mohammed Morsi. Hatred for Morsi amounted to hatred for a Muslim political party that proposed a nonviolent and democratic program in a country that was ninety-five percent Muslim. Over half of Egypt's voters elected him in June 2012 when he defeated Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister in a fair election. A year later he was deposed by an army coup backed by elements of the former Mubarak regime. The pretext was that he had been highhanded in his months in office and, moreover, hadn't solved the economic problems of Egypt that were half as old as history. The new military dictatorship set about murdering and imprisoning Morsi's partisans and invoking measures infinitely more drastic than any highhandedness he could be accused of. Washington, at war in the Middle East since 1990, allegedly to bring it democracy, didn't seriously object to the military coup. The dictatorship of the new strong man, general Fatah al-Sisi, would make Egypt a client state again and an ally of the US main proxy in the area, Israel.
President Barack Hussein Obama. A good number of his fellow citizens poured hate on Obama in 2013. They objected to his middle name, that he was black, a socialist, and anti-American. But he deserved obloquy for very different reasons. Because Hussein bin Ali was the grandson of Muhammad, the Arabic name is common in Islamic countries. Obama, however, has proven that he has no bias in favor of Muslims by killing a great number of them. He continues doing so with overt and covert wars, drone flights, targeted murders, and the operations at Guantánamo Bay prison that in an election promise he swore he would close. As for black Americans, they were worse off this year than they were in 2009 when he took office. Far from being socialist, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare was a sellout to the insurance industry. To challenge the president's Americanism is absurd as well as unpatriotic--patriot, as in the Patriot Act. It is one hundred percent pure in the vein of his predecessor at the White House, George W. Bush, whose policies he largely continues. Despite Obama's pre-election ballyhoo of raising money from ordinary people, he has been financed by Wall Street and corporate donors whose interests he has scrupulously furthered. He has let the Pentagon lead him by the nose and holds as firmly as any Arkansas redneck to the idea of American exceptionalism. Anti-American? Haven't they seen the photos of him biting into a burger beside his prettily attired wife, cute children, well brought up dog, Christmas tree, and bouncing basketball?
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