Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Mad Men’s Hidden Beats: Don Draper, the virus power and the destruction of love

keywords: advertising, Mad Men, Don Draper, beat writers, beatniks, Matthew Weiner, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, capitalism, socialism

          Matthew Weiner’s famous cable television creation Mad Men debuted ten years ago (2007) and became an instant hit. It was the perfect nostalgia piece for its time, as it struck a chord with people of a certain age who could relate to the cast living through the peak Cold War years of 1960s America. This novel for television also managed to be about much more than a nostalgia trip. It served as a gateway to a solid education in social history and psychology, and it served up some wicked critiques of capitalism, but this went mostly unnoticed by a large part of the audience.
As the popularity of the show grew, much of the public attention was focused the superficial aspects of the story, on the sex appeal of the actors and the details of the technology, fashion and interior design of the period. The male characters were all recognizable as sexist rogues, but the more outrageously they trolled the audience, the larger the female fan base grew. The audience found them sympathetic and complex rather than black-hat villains. In fact, this seems to be the formula for success in this genre. One critic wrote that the pillars of the television drama, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, all indicted America “but refused to condemn the complex, emotionally crippled men” at the center of the stories.[i]
In contrast to the popular conception of Mad Men as a high-quality period soap opera, it seemed to me that Matthew Weiner always had a darker view of the world, one in which the ad men of Madison Avenue were on the same level as the gangsters in The Sopranos, which Weiner helped write before his success with Mad Men. After all, it is obvious that he chose to heighten reality by depicting a degree of loutish behavior that wouldn’t have been found in most offices in 1960. He seemed to be working on a theme that many filmmakers have mined since The Godfather: capitalism is gangsterism writ large. Behind their fashions and the pretty faces, the cast of Mad Men can be seen as both the victims and vectors of a malicious plague on society. In Mad Men one can often see an indictment of mid-century America that is as strong as what came out of the counter-cultural movement of the time, which was dismissively labelled “beatnik” so that the Russian suffix would lend an inference of anti-Americanism.
Don Draper actually bears a striking resemblance to Jack Kerouac, author of the 1957 counter-culture classic On the Road. They both fit the image of the 1950s archetypical man. One could wonder whether the writers consciously or unconsciously cast the role for this resemblance so that Don would look like Jack’s evil twin. One took God’s command to go forth in rags to moan and roll his bones for man, while the other decided to “make something out of himself” by selling dreams on Madison Avenue.

Jack Kerouac                                     Don Draper (Jon Hamm)

In one episode (The Hobo Code, S1E8) Don encounters his lover unannounced and finds himself sharing the evening with a rival who is a stereotyped 1950s beatnik. They clash in predictable ways, with the beatnik telling Don he “sells the lie,” and Don telling him to quit blaming the non-existent “system” and go “make something out of himself.”
Another hint of the cultural influence of the beats is a minor character is named “Ginsberg,” a name which is an obvious allusion to the poet Allen Ginsberg, who worked briefly on Madison Avenue. The Ginsberg character is portrayed cartoonishly as a gifted creative talent but too mad to fit in with his colleagues. Allen Ginsberg remained remarkably sane and grounded throughout his life, but the Ginsberg in Mad Men goes truly mad when he decries the evil forces he perceives to be devouring souls in the agency where he works.
In the final season (Lost Horizon, S7E12) Kerouac’s On the Road finally makes an appearance, as if the writers had decided to make a belated essential mention of one of great cultural influences of the late 1950s. At the peak of his success, after he has made it as an assured millionaire partner in a large firm, Don finally hits the road to go discover America. The ghost of Bert Cooper, his mentor, appears beside him in the passenger seat. He’s the man who once gave Don a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Saying he never read On the Road, he nonetheless quotes a line from it: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
For Don the road trip will ring hollow. He is devoid of the innocence, naiveté, poverty and love for America with which Kerouac journeyed in his late twenties. All he finds at the end of the road is the inspiration for the next ad campaign that will sweep the nation as the new decade begins, and that was, after all, the reason he hit the road. He was stuck for an idea for the Coca Cola account, just as he had been stuck for an idea for Lucky Strike in episode one. Some viewers believe Don went through a spiritual transformation at a meditation retreat, but there is no way to know whether it was authentic or faked. It’s easy to forget you’re watching Jon Hamm act, so what you see is by definition contrived. There is no way to know it is not a performance of Don Draper faking satori.
In making the comparison to The Sopranos, one must recall that even Tony’s band of sociopathic gangsters charmed American audiences. David Chase, Matthew Weiner and the other writers must have found it darkly amusing that no matter how hard they tried to make their characters reprehensible, the audience still forgave them and rooted for them. They must have shrugged as they asked themselves, “What do we have to do to make you hate these guys? You want it darker?”[ii]
The audience cheered for Tony right to the end, even after they saw his psychologist finally wake up to the fact that she had been manipulated for years by a sociopath. The audience felt cheated when his survival could not be confirmed in the finale. This is why the blank-screen ambiguous ending of the show was brilliant. It forced the viewers to finally confront their own wish to see Tony and his family escape the punishment that awaited them.
There are many acts of violence and betrayal in Mad Men that equal those of The Sopranos for their chilling horror. They are more psychological and don’t involve the same finality and “wetness” of gangland murders, but they are equal in their odiousness. Murder is done through killing someone’s career or driving a person to suicide or prostitution. A colleague loses his foot in an accident with a riding lawn mower, on company property, and he is quickly tossed out of the firm because it wouldn’t look right to have a partner hobbling around with a cane. In another episode, a woman is finally allowed to become a partner, but only if she submits, under pressure from her male colleagues, to a client’s demand for a sexual favor. She agrees. I found all of this just as horrific as Tony Soprano’s conspiracy to send his nephew’s fiancée to “long-term parking.”
What was Matthew Weiner trying to say with all this? Was it his intent to engage in a serious critique of capitalism hidden in a light soap opera, loaded up, ironically, with product placement for dozens of top American corporations? If he had wanted to say something generous about advertising, he could have referred to the standard defense of advertising that states it enables innovation and creates intangible value which is a “... fine substitute for using up labor or limited resources in the creation of things.” The advertising business and the desires it creates are ways of keeping otherwise useless people occupied while minimizing consumption of resources.[iii] However, Mad Men makes no attempt at such an argument. It never misses an opportunity to show characters being harassed, insulted, abused, seduced and betrayed, and the American public being sold Nixon, agent orange, alcohol, and tobacco. The cast remains committed to the pursuit of wealth and acceptance of money from these toxic causes.
In the Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar, a group of communist Hollywood writers abduct and blackmail a Hollywood star and explain their motives to him thus:

We concentrated on getting communist content into motion pictures. Always in a sub rosa way, of course. And we were pretty darn successful... Our understanding of the true workings of history gives us access to the levers of power. Your studio, for instance, is a pure instrument of capitalism. As such, it expresses the contradictions of capitalism and can be enlisted to finance its own destruction. Which is exciting. It can be made to help the little guy... even though its purpose is to exploit the little guy.[iv]

The authors seem to want to ridicule these communists for their hypocrisy, but at the same time the Coen Brothers are saying something serious about the seeds of subversion always being present in art that is owned and sponsored by the powerful. It would be difficult to imagine another way artists could insert a lesson about Marxism in a modern film without it needing to be masked with irony as a quaint historical throwback. It is a very meta technique that simultaneously treats the topic with seriousness and ridicule.
It is well known that Hollywood was infiltrated by communists in the mid-20th century, but what about now? Are the Coen Brothers subversives, or are they just kidding here? Hail, Caesar is, in fact, loaded with scathing commentary on the contradictions of capitalism, communism, empire and religion, and it is centered on a protagonist who must find his way through them while he finds a Joseph for a Mary, leads a flock of lost simpletons, and fathoms the implications of the secret he has been told and tempted to work for--America’s recent deployment of the hydrogen bomb. But don’t worry. It means nothing. It’s just another wacky comedy from the Coen Brothers.
They say that the secret of a television series is that the characters never change. A well-conceived pilot episode lays out everything that will follow for as long as the show may run. A look back at episode one of Mad Men shows that Matthew Weiner demonstrated this rule perfectly. If you want to understand what Don Draper was in the finale, just look at what he was in the pilot: an adult survivor of a lonely traumatic childhood, a shell-shocked war veteran, living as an imposter with a dead man’s name. He has consciously made himself a new identity. He is a walking advertisement for and embodiment of the great Gatsbyesque American notion of self-re-invention, that you can repeat the past and create a new you, even though doing so involves total alienation from self and others.
We could “refuse to condemn complex, emotionally crippled men,” but then we miss the point that Don Draper represents a pure, malevolent force. He is the dark angel. In one episode he mockingly accuses an IBM computer salesman of bringing the evil of automation to the office. "You are not my friend," he says, "I know who you are. You go by many names." Yet it is Don who goes by many names, who knows this biblical reference and is ready to deflect the accusation onto someone else. He ruins everything he touches, from the first episode to the last, betraying everyone he brings into his life. He accidentally kills the real Don Draper on the battlefield in Korea. He rejects his step brother's attempt to re-establish a bond, which pushes him to suicide. Lane, his business partner hung himself partly because of Don's betrayal. His wife Betty, his platonic friend Anna Draper, and lover Rachel Katz all die in middle age of cancer, and his lover Midge becomes a heroin addict. Most of the people who get emotionally embroiled with him are destroyed in some way. Even Megan, his second wife, went terribly neurotic at the end. He is basically a vampire, and youre watching Twilight for grownups. 
          Don Draper starts off selling cigarettes and ends by selling high-fructose corn syrup. In the finale, his “enlightenment” at a meditation retreat at the end of his road trip consists of no more than the realization that the peace and love scene of the 60s will be mainstream in the 70s. He is then written into reality as creator of the non-fictitious famous treacle to world peace and racial tolerance: I’d like to buy the world a Coke—a reassuring bromide of a “balming campaign” that was dropped on the world at the height of President Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia.
In episode one we see him spend a night with his lover, a fellow traveler in the advertising business who appears later as the friend of the beatniks, then much later as a destitute heroin addict. Don tells her he is struggling to find a way to market cigarettes now that it is illegal to make health claims about them. He rejects the idea proposed by a colleague that they should develop a campaign on the notion that people smoke because of a Freudian death wish. His rude dismissal of the colleague is a comical demonstration of the sort of denial Freud would love to observe. Every character in the story is hell-bent on reckless, self-destructive behavior, but a death wish? Naaah.
Instead of focusing on the death wish, which couldn’t be consciously acknowledged in an advertisement, Don finally hits on the idea of gaslighting the consumer, a propaganda technique used in marketing and politics for all manner of nefarious deception. If no one can tell the truth about tobacco, it is better to focus attention on anything else. He tells his clients that everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous, but “yours is toasted.” All that is necessary is to reassure the consumer and make him or her feel good. The technique is familiar in President GW Bush, in 2001 after the terror attacks, telling Americans to resume shopping, or in Japan’s prime minister wanting to host the Olympics to take the nation’s eyes off tsunami devastation and radioactive fallout northeast of Tokyo. Don pitches to his clients:

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s OK. You are OK.

Yet who is not OK here? In the next scene he has drinks with a female client, Rachel, whom he needs to apologize to, but he manages to insult her further by asking why she is not married. She answers frankly that she has never been in love, and Don responds, “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” Repeating the alienated, dead-in-the-midst-of-life misery of Tony Soprano’s mother, he adds, “You live alone and you die alone.” Rachel reacts with a subdued dismay, and this is a turn which reveals the subversive heart and power of Matthew Weiner’s tale. She is reacting with proper horror against Madison Avenue’s “destruction of love in social reality,” a notion which is straight out of textbooks on socialism, as elaborated in this passage by Eric Fromm:

Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man. It is to create a form of production and an organization of society in which man can overcome alienation from his product, from his work, from his fellow man, from himself and from nature; in which he can return to himself and grasp the world with his own powers, thus becoming one with the world. Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, “a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.”[v]

Rachel’s determined defense of love allows her to see through Don. She unmasks him by saying:

“I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you, the way other people live it. There is something about you that tells me you know it, too.”

She’s got him. All he can do is avert his eyes nervously and reply, “I don’t know if that’s true.” She has taken down that billboard at the side of the road telling him he’s OK. After this meeting he goes home to his wife and family in the suburbs, and before he can sleep he goes to his children’s room to watch them sleeping. He just said love doesn’t exist, so what is he feeling here, or what is he trying to feel or fake here, with his wife standing behind him?
Mad Men and the other pillars of television drama are much easier to understand if we get over being charmed by their sociopathic anti-heroes. If we are going to indict America, then we must also condemn those who eagerly participate in what is indictable. One of the writers of Don Draper’s generation, William Burroughs, described the problem of the age as the “virus power”:

The virus power manifests itself in many ways: in the construction of nuclear weapons, in practically all existing political systems which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom, that is, at control. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in Western countries. It manifests itself in the ugliness and vulgarity we see on every hand, and of course, it manifests itself in the actual virus illnesses. On the other hand, the partisans are everywhere, of all races and nations. A partisan may simply be defined as any individual who is aware of the enemy, of their methods of operations, and who is actively engaged in combating the enemy. You must learn who and what the enemy is, their weapons and methods of operation. The enemy is in you.[vi]

We don’t condemn the partisan because, although he is infected and participates in the manifestations of ugliness which inevitably entrap him, he knows the enemy and is trying to mount a resistance. Don Draper is not a partisan. He is the unapologetic purveyor of the enemy’s weapons and methods of operation. The audience could move beyond fetishizing the gadgets, fashions and seductive charms of such entertainment and learn who and what the enemy is.


[ii] The title track on Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want it Darker (it’s a declaration, not a question) seems to be making this same point about our culture’s tolerance of evil: A million candles burning for the love that never came. You want it darker.

[iv] Joel and Ethan Coen (Directors), Hail, Caesar (Universal Pictures, 2016).

[v] Eric Fromm, Marx’s Concept Of Socialism (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961), chapter six, https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/index.htm

[vi] Allen Hibbard (Editor), Conversations with William S. Burroughs (University of Mississippi Press, 2000), 12.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ten years on, the inconvenient truths about the neoliberal response to global warming

Marlon Brando in Gillo Pontecorvo's Quiemada

-Ten years is a long time.
-It can be a very long time. Even so, it’s still only 10 years.
-No, I only want to explain, gentlemen, that very often, between one historical period and another ten years certainly might be enough to reveal the contradictions of a whole century. And so, often we have to realize that our judgments and our interpretations and even our hopes may have been wrong. [i]

In 2006, with his speaking tour and famous film An Inconvenient Truth, former American vice president Al Gore gained fame and praise for his commitment to alerting the world about the need to take drastic actions to curb global warming. The clear message of his film was that big changes were necessary, a radical paradigm shift in the way we use energy. He stated emphatically that “a moral imperative to make big changes is inescapable.” He called on Americans to take on global warming as if it were among the greatest challenges that America has dealt with in its history, such as the revolution and war of independence and the abolition of slavery. He asked:

Are we, as Americans, capable of doing great things even though they are difficult?...We formed a nation, we fought a revolution and brought something new to this earth, a free nation guaranteeing individual liberty. America made a moral decision. Its slavery was wrong, and that we could not be half free and half slave. We, as Americans, decided that of course women should have the right to vote. We defeated totalitarianism and won a war in the Pacific and the Atlantic simultaneously. We desegregated our schools... We worked together in a completely bipartisan way to bring down communism... So now we have to use our political processes in our democracy, and then decide to act together to solve those problems. But we have to have a different perspective on this one. It’s different from any problem we have ever faced before... [Earth] is our only home. And that is what is at stake. Our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilization...[ii]

The reason Mr. Gore’s campaign didn’t change the world can perhaps be found in the contradictions and nonsense expressed in the above passage.
He mentioned the American Revolution that overthrew the existing political order and created a completely new one, but he never followed through to the logical implication that a revolution would be needed now. He merely advocated for local change, innovation, altering personal behavior, and getting the Washington establishment to adopt better energy policies.
He referred to the abolition of slavery, but not to the inconvenient fact that a civil war had to happen to bring about that change. Similarly, we might wonder if a civil war will be necessary now to overcome a government controlled by corporate interests. It would be wrong to assume they are going to give up their advantages without a fight.
Next he stated America “won a war in the Pacific and the Atlantic simultaneously,” neglecting to mention that in Europe the allies did all the heavy lifting until 1944 and suffered the great majority of casualties and ruined cities.
Finally, he insulted the ally that sacrificed the most to win that war against totalitarianism by saying, “We worked together in a completely bipartisan way to bring down communism.” The leaders of today’s Communist Party of China would be amused and confused by this statement, having upheld a communist system and won a thirty-year trade war with America, but in any case, such boasting about “bringing down communism” is meaningless. It is only a crude display of ignorance and arrogance about what has happened to the world in the last thirty years.
Convergence theory emerged in the 1940s among some political scientists as a way of describing how both the US and Soviet systems had come to resemble each other.[iii] Roosevelt’s New Deal showed the importance of government in controlling the commanding heights of the economy, then the war made defense spending the major factor in the economy. The Cold War race to build thousands of nuclear weapons further entrenched the role of government. By the 1970s, both the Soviet Union and the United States were highly bureaucratized techno-military complexes that had managed to deliver a decent standard of living to a majority of its citizens. A significant difference was that the Soviet Union lacked a stock exchange in which private entities could profit from government programs. It was a one-party state, but it had institutions that involved the participation of citizens in the party and civic life in ways that didn’t exist in America. America had two political parties with little ideological difference between them, and policy and leadership was largely set by corporate influence and elite managers of government institutions.
Whenever progressive politicians emerged in American politics, they went to the Democratic Party to change it from within, but always ended up being the sheepdogs that herded progressives into the mainstream while the party bosses decided the candidates and the policy. The Democratic Party became known as the place where radical ideas go to die. All in all, the Soviet and American systems had converged enough to make it difficult to say which was more democratic. By the time of the Soviet collapse, it was a matter of America having more power and control of more of the earth’s resources, and the Soviet Union being in a state of internal disarray. If anyone “brought down communism” it was Gorbachev, who did it willfully through the sort of radical reform that America is incapable of. But it’s nice of Al Gore to try to take credit for destroying another nation’s political system and way of life, as if that were America’s moral duty to perform for the world.
Convergence theory remained relevant after 1991 as the US and the EU continued to become more bureaucratic and governments became more deeply embedded in the private market, and vice versa. Today, it can be said that American global capitalism has been “sovietized,” a term meant to awaken those who believe the market is still free. The term indicates that the political, bureaucratic and corporate entities have fused together in such a way that there is no longer a distinction between the private and government sectors. Since 2008, central banks have been printing money and buying stocks to prop up private banks and corporations. One needs to be on the inside, among the fortunate nomenklatura, to avoid being on the losing side of the arrangement. In an interview on the Keiser Report, financial analyst Chris Whalen described it thus:

Chris Whalen: It’s like the pre-Reformation. They’re selling dispensation. You [corporations] come to Washington. You’re buying forgiveness, even before the fact. It’s like Minority Report. You haven’t committed the crime yet, but you have to go to Washington and pay them off so that they don’t prosecute you.

Max Keiser: This is no big secret. Why does the average American, the CNBC watcher, seem oblivious that this is a very corrupt cesspool?

Chris Whalen: They want to cling to the notion that there is a private market out there where they can invest and make money. The reality is that politics has largely subsumed the markets to the extent that the regulators call all the shots. Private companies are now subordinate to this whole process, much like in Europe. It’s the same attitude. The political figures, their companions in the regulatory world, they call all the shots. Much that drives stocks has to do with the decisions they make or do not make. Look at financials. Financials are overwhelmed by the regulatory state. And I think that is very important for people to understand: We don’t have a free market. The feds put us all into an induced coma.[iv]

We should also keep all this in mind when an American speaks of “bringing down communism,” and we should recall what that destructive effort looked like to people on the receiving end of the stick. During Al Gore’s term as vice president it involved boxes of US dollars flown into the American Embassy in Moscow in 1996 in order to help the unpopular and despised Boris Yeltsin and his oligarchs. Before this time, the Clinton administration had supported Yeltsin in 1993 when he shred the constitution and launched an artillery assault on parliament. These desperate measures were taken to stop the communist party from coming back to power. Winning this game meant propping up the oligarchs and tolerating killing of journalists and dissidents, associations that are now deemed to be such a threat to the United States simply because Donald Trump’s connections to some Russians are alleged to have contaminated the precious bodily fluids of American democracy.
Another dark episode of the 1990s has been well hidden behind the false narrative of the Rwandan genocide. As vice president, Al Gore must surely have had the security access to know that as the war in Southern Africa wound down and the USSR and Cuba backed out of supporting foreign wars, there was an American plan to manage the new Africa in rivalry with France’s traditional neo-colonial interests there. Africa’s unrecognized continental war of 1990 to 2003 led to some seven million excess deaths, so one of the ironies of “bringing down communism” is the fact that the bloodiest conflict of the late 20th century occurred when the Cold War was over, enabled by a low-level proxy rivalry between two NATO allies, the two nations that gave the world their examples of democratic republics in the late 18th century. Some scholars believe that the intensity and intentions of the France-US proxy war has been greatly exaggerated, but if it wasn't war then, it certainly was afterwards in the form of the bitter accusations that flowed about which side had provoked and enabled the genocide, then later protected parties that were guilty of crimes against humanity. That war rages still.

The carnage might have been less if the US and France and the rest of the “international community” had perceived Africa as a priority, learned about what they were getting into, and stayed focused on it. However, they were only interested enough to get involved out of institutional momentum or the belief that they must take responsibility for managing the new world order, but they were not interested enough to pay attention for long and understand what their "support" would lead to. America was asserting itself as the sole superpower in the early 1990s, and that meant asserting itself everywhere, even in regions that weren’t the most vital interests. The lack of full commitment was obvious in the failure to halt the war on Rwanda launched from Uganda, and the subsequent failure to stop the conflict widening into the continental war that lasted from 1996 until 2003. Ironically, it was the Bush administration, famous for launching two wars elsewhere, that was the first to signal to Rwanda that the game was up and they could no longer play upon Western "genocide guilt" to obtain unconditional aid. 
     If one wants to look for a root cause of the genocide, it can be found in the US support of Tutsi exiles to invade from Uganda, to start what was wrongly referred to in the early 1990s as a "civil war." The violation of the UN Charter (sponsoring aggression against a sovereign nation) never seemed to be a concern. One could look for causes further back in the earlier expulsion of Tutsi from Rwanda, but it should have been obvious that that problem was never going to be resolved by a foreign-sponsored invasion. 
Paul Kagame was chosen as the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the army of Tutsi exiles living in Uganda since 1959. He was sent to the US to be trained for his future role. The genocide was not foreseen and not part of the American plan, but it should have been obvious that the invasion would escalate the conflict and cause chaos to spread to neighboring countries. It is not clear how much America plotted with the RPF in the takeover that came about, but it is clear that America refused to intervene in the 1990-94 war and in the genocide until the RPF had finished its invasion and seized power. Perhaps the tail wagged the dog and the Americans and the French never understood what they were getting into. The theory that it was all an imperialist plot planned far in advance is actually a racist presumption that Africans had no agency in what was happening. One must give credit to the African leaders for their Machiavellian skills as they exploited their foreign sponsors at every turn. The Western powers never seemed to have imagined a genocide was possible, and after it occurred they didn't see the next chapter caused by the Hutu regime and armed forces living in exile in the refugee camps in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo).
The Arusha Accords of 1993 were supposed to have brought a peaceful resolution to the "civil war," but the side which had the most to lose in this deal was the RPF because they would always be a political minority. They had more to gain from a full invasion to bring down the French-backed regime in a short war, then set up a power base for the Anglo-American sphere of influence. It didn’t go so smoothly. Some specialists believe that Western access to African resources was never much of a factor. International mining companies, or buyers abroad, would have got the resources regardless. The resources were much more significant to all local military factions because controlling them was essential for financing war. With states weakening after the Cold War and the genocide, no national or sub-national group in the region could afford to not fight for a claim on diamonds, oil, coltan, cobalt etc.
The well-known narrative of the 1990s is that Bill Clinton was discouraged by the failed intervention in Somalia, or distracted by his dalliance with an intern during this time and tragically failed to respond to the urgent need for a large peacekeeping force at the time when tensions were brewing. However, this narrative doesn’t explain why nothing was done after the genocide started, or after the conflict continued in Congo. The atrocities were known, but a large UN force was never sent during the three months of April-June, 1994. It seems clear that the Americans were waiting for the RPF to finish with their invasion, and a UN force would have got in the way of that. Toward the end, France guided Hutu militia and civilians into refuge in Congo, where the Hutu government and army basically lived in exile by siphoning off aid money for refugees, who became their hostages in the ongoing conflict along the Rwanda-Congo border. The UN never intervened effectively in solving this problem, either.
The RPF was recognized as the new government of Rwanda and tasked with “reconciliation” in a country where they had been foreign invaders for the last four years. The Tutsi refugees took over a country they had never really known, as most of them had left in 1959 or been born outside the country. Their second language was English whereas the second official language of Rwanda had been French until the RPF took over and changed it to English as a way of pushing the Hutu out of the education system and other elite functions of state.[v]
Hutu militias living among the civilian refugees in Congo launched raids into Rwanda, which forced the RPF to “clear out” the reluctant refugees who were afraid to go home--for good reason. RPF revenge killings occurred, and there was a large scale slaughter at Kibeho in February 1995, witnessed by UN troops. By this time Mobuto, president of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and America's Cold War anti-communist ally, had become a depraved embarrassment to his American supporters, so Rwanda had American support when it invaded to deal with the Hutu army in exile--one which might in some distant future do exactly what the Tutsis in exile in Uganda did in the early 1990s.[vi]
The war eventually involved eight African nations and twenty armed groups that financed themselves with Congolese resources.
The common denial of this history told here claims that Kagame’s training by the CIA was insignificant and that because Rwanda has no natural resources, America has no interests there. This disingenuous argument glosses over the fact that sometimes having obvious interests is not a factor. Resource-poor places can still have a great strategic value for establishing regional control. Rwanda became a stable base of operations from which the well-supplied and well-trained RPF and were able to become the most formidable force on the continent. Once the war with Congo started, Rwanda mysteriously became endowed with natural resource exports. It became a large "exporter" of gold thanks to what was being taken out of Congo. Such factors as these were well concealed under the “genocide credit” which allowed the Rwandan government to focus the world’s attention on Tutsi victimhood and deflect all criticism as "genocide denial."
One is automatically called a genocide denier for writing such accounts as this. It usually goes unreported that critics of Paul Kagame's regime do not deny any of the established facts of the genocide perpetrated by the Hutu in the spring of 1994. A good clarification of the issue was written by a Tutsi exile (writing under a pseudonym, out of fear for his life) who suffered under both regimes, before and after 1994:

I faced death not once but three times under the Hutu regime. I went into exile and faced the same under the rule of the ruthless killers of the RPF... When I went back to Kigali, I witnessed the grave cruelty of the RPF rule under Kagame... The genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda is a reality none can ignore, and it is inscribed in the history of this world. In addition, massacres of innocent Hutus in Rwanda and Congo, the pogroms of millions of Congolese killed on their own land by Kagame’s troops, is a reality political interests cannot erase in the history of this world. None can ignore these realities and call Kagame a “visionary” or “one of the greatest leaders of our time” [as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton do].[vii]

In contrast to the popular narrative that the tragedy of the genocide came to a conclusion in 1994, Africa specialist Gérard Prunier had a different assessment:

There was no political treatment of the genocide in Rwanda by the international community. No efforts were made to prevent it. No efforts were made to stop it, and no efforts were made to remonstrate with those who spoke in the name of the victims when they started to abuse their role. Mature political treatment was replaced by humanitarian condescension and diplomatic bickering... As a result, more than two million refugees poured over the borders of Rwanda, complete with the trappings of quasi-sovereignty, including an army, a treasury and a complete set of corrupt politicians. Because the treatment of the crisis, or should I say non-treatment, was purely humanitarian, the situation was allowed to fester.[viii]

     I wrote about Rwanda here because it is one of the less-frequently discussed chapters of the Clinton presidency and Al Gore vice presidency. Their record Serbia and in domestic politics on such regressive policies as welfare reform and de-regulating the financial industry have been written about elsewhere, so I leave those topics aside. The American false narrative of recent African history may seem unconnected to policy on global warming, but it is a corollary of other false solutions like the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. If the international community couldn't react to the immediate threat to millions of lives in Africa, and had to make up a false, comforting narrative about what happened there, what are the chances that its narrative about its global warming solution consists of a serious plan to deal with this distant, abstract threat? The Paris Agreement was decried at the time of its announcement as an insufficient con job that would allow for capitalism as usual, although some critics, curiously, changed their opinion of it when President Trump took America out of the deal.
Returning to Al Gore’s global warming crusade, there is one more thing to note on his remark about “bringing down communism.” It was uttered without any awareness that socialism argues for the preservation of nature and critiques how capitalism destroys it. Marx’s critique of capitalism included observations of what it did to the public commons and nature. Thus bringing down communism, or at least ignoring Marx’s critique of capitalism, might have worsened the problem that Al Gore sought to solve.
It is well understood that Donald Trump is too poorly educated in history and international relations to hold political office, but Al Gore’s views here illustrate that the problem can be found throughout the intellectually barren political establishment. It should be clear that any possible solution to global warming, and other environmental problems, is going to smell dangerously socialist to those who want to maintain the rights of corporations to plunder the earth. We have waited a few decades now for people in Western nations to voluntarily recycle, re-use and reduce, but it hasn’t happened in any significant way. It is complete insanity to continue to advocate the same solution and expect different results.
The inescapable conclusion might be that the only thing that could work is government imposing restraint from above. Living with less and downsizing lifestyles is never going gain popular support. America is a country where SUV sales go up as soon as the price of oil goes down. The only solution may be a revolutionary vanguard that could impose environmental protection on an reluctant populace. Who knows what another socialist revolution could achieve toward this goal, if it didn’t have to fight constant wars to defend itself from reactionary backlash? Would Al Gore be ready to “bring down” capitalism this time around? After eight years of the Obama administration, the destruction of Bernie Sander’s popular and progressive campaign, and Hillary Clinton’s policy-free lesser evil presidential campaign, it is obvious that the solutions will never come from “our political processes in our democracy,” as Gore suggested in 2006.

What is really needed is proper planning of available resources globally, plus a drive, through public investment, to develop new technologies that could work... and, of course, a shift out of fossil fuels into renewables. Also, it is not just a problem of carbon and other gas emissions, but of cleaning up the environment, which is already damaged. All these tasks require public control and ownership of the energy and transport industries and public investment in the environment for the public good.
Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), 267-268.

The truly telling gesture by Al Gore was his reluctant endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2016, which he waited to give until after she had won the nomination.[ix] His reluctance showed that he knew in his heart that the status quo in Washington was not going to achieve anything, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything radical during the election campaign, or to support Bernie Sanders. What happened to all that talk about bold solutions and rising to the challenges, as if it were a fight to end energy slavery? The obvious thing for him to do was to endorse and vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party, the only candidate on the ballot with a platform that demanded the kind of change he was calling for in 2006-07, but of course doing that would have been a stinging reminder of Ralph Nader’s third-party candidacy in the year 2000 election campaign which he lost to George Bush. Thus his personal issues trumped the call to boldly leap into the unknown and take on the big challenges of the day. “Are we, as Americans, capable of doing great things even though they are difficult?” he asked in 2006. The answer ten years later was a big, pathetic “no.” All he could find courage for was an endorsement of the lesser-evilism that paved the way to the Trump presidency. In the end, we have to ask whether An Inconvenient Truth achieved anything, and whether the carbon footprint of Al Gore’s lecture tour was offset by any meaningful effect on energy policy. There was some progress in terms of renewable energy expansion, but this probably would have happened regardless of the film.
The director of An Inconvenient Truth went on to promote the charter school movement with his next film Waiting for Superman (2010). It too has not aged well, as it was identified quickly as a vehicle promoting the privatization of public education; that is “bringing down” socialism from another sphere of American life.[x] The past decade of American life spans the time from the 2007-08 collapse of the financial system to the election of Donald Trump as president. It also includes many such neoliberal false-hope campaigns to save the environment, or the education system, or whatever. These events do indeed “... reveal the contradictions of a whole century. And so, often we have to realize that our judgments and our interpretations and even our hopes may have been wrong.”

More on this theme: Green Capitalism: The God that Failed


[i] Gillo Pontecorvo (Director), Queimada (Burn!) United Artists, 1969. Dialog from the film, 00:59:50~.

[ii] Davis Guggenheim (Director), Al Gore (Writer), An Inconvenient Truth, Paramount Classics, 2006.

[iii] Wilfried Loth and George Soutou, The Making of Détente: Eastern Europe and Western Europe in the Cold War, 1965-75 (Routledge, 2010), 25.

[iv] The Keiser Report Episode 1072, May 17, 2017.

[v] Filip Reyntjens, Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 1-7.

[vi] Howard W. French, “The Case Against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame,” Newsweek, January 1, 2013.

[vii] Jessie McBride, U.S. Made (Christian Faith Publishing Inc., 2015). The cover of the book credits a "J.E. Murphy" as the apparent author, while the credits inside the book list the author as "Jesse McBride." This unusual self-published book is written in broken English by an unidentified Tutsi who claims to have been persecuted by both the pre and post-genocide regimes, and known many of the key players due to his work as a journalist and government advisor.

[viii] Gérard Prunier, Africa’s World War (Oxford University Press, 2009), 47.

[ix] Nick Gass, “Al Gore Endorses Clinton,” Politico, July 25, 2016.

[x] Diane Ravitch, “Michelle Rhee's Cheating Scandal: Diane Ravitch Blasts Education Reform Star,” Daily Beast, March 29, 2011.