The Celebrity Left is Still the Enemy

It seems the electoral spectacle of 2016 is never going to fucking end. This interminable state of affairs has long been dragging this country even deeper into a reactionary abyss, but since the Washington Post reported the CIA claim that Russia hacked the DNC/John’s Podesta’s emails to help Trump spoil Clinton’s coronation, the liberal meltdown has really reached a fever pitch. This video of Sorkin caricature Keith Olbermann channeling all this reactionary outrage into one of the most absurd rants I’ve seen all year is a pretty perfect illustration of the liberal transition to an open embrace of their latent fascism:


Since the initial story broke, the Post also reported the FBI has signed onto this assessment as well and NBC reported Putin is personally responsible for all of it. Naturally no evidence has been presented for any of this (good analysis of that here), but the response has nonetheless been intense.

Regardless of the veracity of these claims, there’s clearly a multifaceted propaganda push (fake news, Aleppo etc) to make sure Americans see Russia as the Evil Empire once again. The reckless chauvinism dominating liberal discourse at the moment makes their repulsive apologia for Clinton during election season look almost reasonable by comparison. Now that they’ve lost to a candidate that wasn’t even really running, liberals are fully embracing their delusions of being the vanguard in an effort to protect the republic from a Russian-backed fascist coup, allying with other progressive forces like the CIA.

Crucially all this inflamed jingoism is being fanned and directed at an official enemy that happens to be a heavily armed nuclear power active in the proxy war the US and its allies are waging on Syria. And of course all this is emerging on a foundation of deep hostility towards Russia that was built up over generations during the cold war, the lasting impact of which has made this messaging very easy to deliver to people whose critical faculties have long since been eroded by the relentless propaganda assault otherwise known as “news” and “pop culture.” Things are so fucked right now that space has opened up for professional opinion havers to applaud the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey and for so-called anti-racists and Russia experts to tweet openly xenophobic shit like this:

But I think the award for most grotesque Russia comment of 2016 goes to CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush:


All this anti-Russian sentiment is being induced at the same time as the US makes policy decisions that increase the possibility of nuclear war. Liberals are obviously up in arms about Trump’s latest outrage calling for an expansion of the US nuclear capacity which he immediately doubled down on by welcoming the prospect of an arms race with other unnamed countries. But #TheResistance couldn’t be bothered to mention Obama’s decision “to rebuild the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the warheads, and the missiles, planes and submarines that carry them” to the tune of approximately 1 trillion dollars over a thirty year period. Obama also signed a defense bill with contents likely to further escalate existing tensions:

President Obama has signed legislation that, by striking a single word from longstanding U.S. nuclear defense policy, could heighten tensions with Russia and China and launch the country on an expensive effort to build space-based defense systems.

The National Defense Authorization Act, a year-end policy bill encompassing virtually every aspect of the U.S. military, contained two provisions with potentially momentous consequences.

One struck the word “limited” from language describing the mission of the country’s homeland missile defense system. The system is designed to thwart a small-scale attack by a non-superpower such as North Korea or Iran.

A related provision calls for the Pentagon to start “research, development, test and evaluation” of space-based systems for missile defense.

Together, the provisions signal that the U.S. will seek to use advanced technology to defeat both small-scale and large-scale nuclear attacks. That could unsettle the decades-old balance of power among the major nuclear states.

Man am I going to miss that guy. As always, the liberal performative outrage has no real content other than a reflexive allegiance to power which will only work to facilitate whatever nightmares the ruling class has planned for whatever future we have left.

These developments and the mainstream response to them have been alarming, but as a radical focused on propaganda, I’m more interested in the way the imposed representatives of the margins some of us call the Celebrity Left are responding to all this. And I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find it’s not just the transparent charlatans like Olbermann who are wrapping themselves in the flag while issuing patriotic defenses of the republic. Jeremy Scahill and his colleague at The Intercept, Jon Schwartz, recently published this deeply chauvinistic plea to the state to release evidence of Russian interference in the election. The whole thing should be savored by any fellow haters of the adversarial crew, but here are some excerpts:

Here are two of political history’s great constants: first, countries meddling in the internal affairs of others (both enemies and “friends”); and, second, bogus charges from a faction in one country that foreigners are meddling in its internal affairs to help another faction.

Both are poison for any country that wishes to rule itself.

So if we’re serious about being a self-governing republic, we have to demand that President Obama declassify as much intelligence as possible that Russia may have intervened in the 2016 presidential election…

… In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington wrote, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it.” That was good advice then, and it’s good advice now. We have to force our politicians to take it seriously.

And if it comes to pass that the U.S. government refuses to back up these serious claims with evidence, then perhaps a patriotic whistleblower will do the public an important service…

The politics expressed here should immediately disqualify anyone from maintaining a dissident reputation, much less a leadership role on “the left.” But since there are no fucking standards anymore, and “left” means whatever they say it does, this shit passes almost entirely without comment. I think the piece is interesting because it’s a window into the biases of this segment of the media class that generally works to obscure their power-serving politics in order to maintain their adversarial brands. These are clearly the words of a patriot trying to do his bit to save his country from itself or those insidious foreigners who would do it harm. For all its flaws, these people still believe in the American project. The fascist state is something to be appealed to and reformed, not abandoned or destroyed.

Scahill also argues that “our” (assume every following use of “our” quoted in the same way) elections are important and it would be a serious blow to our sovereignty if what was alleged were true. When framed this way, these calls for evidence make the case that maintaining the integrity of our elections should be a primary left concern, lest we lose our standing as a self-governing republic.

Well, as should be obvious to anyone with half a brain, we don’t live in a country with fair elections. It’s never been more obvious we really live in a dictatorship of capital managed by the most depraved people on the planet who use the spectacle of our fake election to kill the prospect of anything actually progressive from happening in this country. If we’re going to identify foreign influence or obstructions to the expression of the popular will, we can begin and end with the existence of capital, owned and wielded by the ruling class.

Regardless of this alleged Russian interference, the election has absolutely no legitimacy. Even accepting the premise here, I don’t see the problem with Russia’s ostensible transgressions. @RancidSassy puts it well here:

Now I do want to remind you that the alleged rig was done via hacking, liberation and dissemination of actual, true information about the clownishly disingenuous, war criminal Hillary Clinton. Nobody serious is actually talking about the direct hacking by Russia of the actual voting machines, just of unjust influence via enlightenment upon the lowly scum we allow into a small, usually meaningless part of our political process.

Left journalists opposing leaks on ruling class planning and strategy because it interferes with their bullshit principles and crypto-partisan politics should tell you all you need to know about whose interests they really serve. As Glenn Greenwald and Naomi Klein made clear before the election, hacking powerful political actors like John Podesta is a threat to privacy in the same way NSA spying on the rest of us is. Likewise, Scahill’s framing here implies the alleged attack on the empire’s sovereignty is comparable to its endless subversion of democracy throughout the periphery.

This tendency to completely erase power differentials while seizing victimhood from real victims perhaps reached its peak in this farcical op-ed published in the New York Times that compares the supposed attack on the integrity of our elections with the CIA coup in Chile.

I guess you can call out American hypocrisy and even offer some critical words about the CIA’s murderous history as long you favorably compare Hillary Clinton to Salvador Allende.

As a radical actually interested in radical political change, I don’t give a shit about the privacy rights of fascists, nor do I care about our election being manipulated by any other state. The intelligence agencies are almost certainly lying, but even if they aren’t, people in this country should welcome the intrusion. Not because it would be hypocritical of us as Americans to cry about interference in our elections given our history, but because disruptions of the regular operations of the ruling class is a small win for humanity.

I think it’s worth pointing out that none of this is an expression of a new politics for Scahill, it’s simply that conditions are defining what was always there (as is the case for many others). His highly visible critiques of US foreign policy have always been grounded in decidedly conservative principles that make him an ideal voice of dissent. For example, his emphasis when analyzing Obama’s assassination program is on the policies violation of the constitution, especially the rights of American victims like Anwar al-Awlaki and his son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who were both murdered by drone within the span of a few weeks in Yemen in 2011.

When it comes to imperial aggression in general, whatever weak opposition he can muster is grounded in concerns about blowback, or fear of destabilizing the region “we’re” ostensibly trying to stabilize by lighting country after country on fire over and over again. The reality is that he’s not standing against the most reactionary force in human history, he’s trying to reform it and shepherd other people down a path of similarly compromised politics based on handwringing, not principled anti-imperialism. At the end of the day, his arguments are directed at the state and effectively function as a form of imperial strategy. He’s just trying to help.

Since the election, Greenwald has been on the same grind as Scahill, as seen here on MSNBC calling for evidence of Russian interference in the election, while also attacking the neo-McCarthyism of hysterical Democrats. Howard Dean actually called The Intercept a Russian propaganda machine, which is the kind of rhetoric from the mainstream that works to reinforce the manufactured image that a news organization backed by Pierre Omidyar is comprised of dangerous outsiders speaking truth to power. But the most revealing part of the segment comes at the end when Greenwald says the following in response to the question posed by host Ari Melber:

Where do you think the Democratic party and liberals go from here?

I’m really hoping that the Democrats find their footing because there are a lot of very serious dangers that a Trump presidency poses to a lot of vulnerable populations and we need an opposition that is focused and reasoned and unified and serious about how to impede certain policy proposals that Donald Trump has suggested he will pursue that can run roughshod over basic civil liberties and the interests of lots of people. And that’s the reason why I’m hoping that Democrats stop calling everybody a Putin stooge and stop obsessing on these Russia conspiracy theories and focus on the much more proximate and immediate dangers that a Trump presidency poses.

As Michael Parenti would say, this is a liberal complaint, not a radical analysis. Like Scahill, Greenwald’s biases are completely exposed here along with the poverty of his analysis and the hollow core of his opposition. He completely erases class, pining for a moment where half of the business party starts acting like the resistance they’re now pretending to be. He doesn’t want to see the Democrats destroyed, in fact, he wants to see a Democratic party resurgence so this radical Republican insurgency doesn’t go unchallenged. He’s simply reinforcing the baseless notion that a Trump presidency represents a departure from the polices Obama has quietly pursued and institutionalized these past 8 years under the guise of progressive critique.

Any hope for a decent future thru the Democratic party is an ahistorical fantasy peddled by the vast majority of those with a left platform from The Intercept to Jacobin.

But these are the politics you get when the left is colonized by billionaire-vetted clerks and irretrievably dumb liberals who like to imagine themselves socialists.

Even before the election I had been noticing shifts to a more openly reactionary politics from many of the left’s leading lights. It seemed like they were interacting with the forms of intense reaction in the mainstream by leading a mirror shift in the margins, effectively consolidating the ground they’ve gained in their war on the left imagination.

For example, I caught Scahill’s appearance on the insufferable irony bro podcast Chapo Trap House which contained an hour plus of mostly sincere and deeply conformist political discussion with the occasional Casino/Sopranos reference to help their audience make sense of it all. Scahill was in rare form with multiple cases of gross revisionism and power-serving framing by equating North Korea with Saudi Arabia, smearing FARC and Milosevich, and in many cases minimizing the role imperialism plays in the myriad crises it’s initiated all over the world.

This particular discussion was taking place while the war on Yemen was in the news for once and Scahill spent a lot of time explaining his interpretation of the country’s recent history and present condition that amounted to a whitewash of the role the US has played in Yemen’s current straits. He framed the latest assault as a Saudi war, assisted by US diplomatic cover and weaponry, but not an expression of US imperialism directly (he did the same with Israel elsewhere).

The Chapos mostly nodded along in agreement and played comic relief by ridiculing the lowest possible hanging fruit like Max Boot, often showing their half-assed politics amount to little more than empty references and signals that somehow pass for radicalism in these parts. When they attempted any kind of analysis, the weak foundations of their politics were clearly on display as they constantly referred to the empire as “we.”

But the moment that really stood out to me was a segment on Iran where Scahill speculated that there’s a “serious possibility of the US doing some insane military action in Iran” if Trump were to win the election, while he couldn’t imagine Clinton so much as contemplating the idea, even though she has a long history of supporting aggression against the country (and pretty much everybody else). As a senator and presidential candidate in 2007, she voted for an amendment that “asked U.S. forces to ‘combat, contain, and roll back’ the Iranian menace within Iraq,” opening the door to yet another war in MENA.

Oh and she also threatened to obliterate the whole country if they attacked Israel:

I know Hillary lost so this brazen omission that whitewashes the Democrats seems kinda irrelevant now, but I think it’s worth noting how far these people can push the line without drawing any critical attention.

Another memorable example of election year partisan framing is embedded in this faux critique of lesser evilism by Sam Kriss which contains one of the most outrageous arguments by a radically branded voice I read all year. When speculating on the number of excess deaths under both a Clinton and a Trump administration, Kriss came out with this:

Still it’s not impossible, we can quantify anything. Say two million excess deaths under President Clinton – from financial predation, from disease, from war – and ten million excess deaths under President Trump – all those plus racist violence, malfeasance, and incompetence – and there’s your moral case for voting for Clinton…

…I won’t tell you how to vote (I’ll just hint) because that’s not the point. Vote for Clinton to stop Trump; save the eight million, nobody will blame you…

Obviously he pulled these numbers straight out of his ass, and no matter the intent, this is apologia for a mass murderer who openly supported a no-fly zone in Syria during her campaign, which more so than any other policy proposed by either candidate is likely to start another world war. If you write a critique of lesser evil politics that concedes there is a lesser evil to the tune of 8 million less dead, you’re just reinforcing the logic of the argument you’re ostensibly combating. But these power-serving rhetorical maneuvers are an essential part of what makes people like Kriss so attractive to mainstream propaganda organs like Vice.

I think it should be sufficient to simply point out where these people are being published in order to destroy their radical street cred, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Today’s left sees no contradiction between people claiming to be communists while getting space in Vice and Slate or “socialist” podcasts that get profiled in the New Yorker. In large part we can thank people like Greenwald and Scahill for standardizing this kind of media illiteracy.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Noam Chomsky’s final step into respectability with his shameless shilling for the Democrats all year, capped off by this short discussion published in Truth Out just before the election. His comments on Clinton follow the interviewers prompt in bold:

So it’s the old Cold War doctrine: when the Russians move one step forward, American policy must be prepared to move one step back, and vice versa. There is a great deal of concern among progressive writers that this doctrine will lead to a confrontation with the Russians.

There is, but I think it’s misplaced. I mean, I don’t like Clinton at all, but I think she’s really being demonized. She’s no worse than the European leaders, for example. So, for example, in Libya she was terrible, but [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and [former UK Prime Minister David] Cameron were worse. And on some things, she’s surprisingly dovish…. There’s a leak of a private discussion that she had with a couple of anti-nuke people, national security specialists who were critical of the nuclear buildup — not [defense secretary for President Bill Clinton] William Perry, but [former Defense Department official] Andrew C. Weber — and she was probably accommodating to them, but the statements that she made were not bad — if you hold her feet to the fire and make her pursue that, it would make sense.

Attaching words like “dovish” to a war criminal like Clinton by pointing out some tepid stances she took on the campaign trail while omitting the long list of atrocities she’s personally responsible for is just openly partisan propaganda. Arguing someone with that much blood on her hands is being demonized in any way is beyond the pale.

And speaking of demons, this is what Chomsky had to say about Assad’s “barrel bombs:”

There’s strong evidence for that. He’s pretty horrible. In this case, I don’t think he’s really being demonized. It’s pretty awful.

I don’t think I could tell the difference between Chomsky and Ken Roth or any other hopeless Democrat at this point.

At the end of the interview, Chomsky completely erases Obama’s role in the war on Syria:

And it’s just very hard to think of any recommendations. I mean, I don’t know what Obama could’ve done that’s better [than] what he did do.

In framing the Obama administration’s covert aggression against Syria as a kind of passive prudence in the face of a country committing suicide, Chomsky echoes the president himself. With this atrocious line on Syria, Chomsky joins a slew of others on the State Dept Left in framing the horror there as a product of western non-intervention, while delivering the same propaganda messages to the margins that are used to drum up support for escalation in the mainstream. Chomsky won’t go so far as to call for things like a no-fly zone, but there’s nothing about his analysis here that distinguishes him from those who will.

None of the Celebrity Left have put themselves in a position to actually explain the war in clear terms to people in the west who are being bombarded from every direction by the most manipulative and cynical propaganda campaign in recent memory. Instead, they do the same ideological work they claim to resist by inverting the reality in Syria, making it nearly impossible for concerned spectators to understand what’s really going on unless they devote all of their free time to researching the war independently.

Other Celeb Lefts like Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton and Rania Khalek have moved in the opposite direction, now claiming to be opposed to the “revolution” they backed for years without apology or explanation. These shifts are one part savvy brand realignment and another part a push to reestablish control over the coordinates of critical discourse now that more people are seeing the “revolution” for what it is. Positioning themselves as the lone critics of American power and the fake revolution in Syria is obviously intended to erase useful and consistent anti-imperialists who also happen to be relentless critics of these ridiculous opportunists.

All this shows once again that Celeb Lefts don’t amplify our concerns to a larger audience, they co-opt radical analysis and deform it, while ensuring that no space can exist outside the media spectacle they’re tasked with perpetuating.

It remains the point of this blog to delegitimize the false idols of the American left and to point out that lines of demarcation need to be formed, not just between the ruling class and those of us who want to see it destroyed, but also between their representatives in the margins who are placed there to completely erase radical content from left politics.

As the liberal disorientation metastasizes, there’s going to be pressure on radicals to compromise and make common cause with other so-called leftists for the sake of a unified opposition in this new age of reaction. But we’ve been down this road before. It ends with liberal opportunists and worse claiming all existing radical spaces for themselves, replacing what used to be there with the resistance theater that’s been all the rage since the Clinton collapse. Not only does this degrade our politics in the present, it robs people with a class interest in radical change of the language and historical example they need to see their role isn’t to observe history but to make it. That connection to the past needs to be reestablished if there’s going to be a future at all.

Accommodating fake radicals like the DSA-shilling Chapo gang/Jacobin crew who police the margins and impose their shitty politics/forms of interaction on people seeking out an alternative is to concede everything. These people sold Bernie fucking Sanders as the vanguard of the socialist movement in this country. Resisting their claim to radical spaces is not infighting, it’s the assertion of a real radical alternative that is needed now more than ever. Accepting the sincerity, authority and leadership of these parasites is suicide.

Big thanks to Lorenzo for making contributions and helping to edit this post.

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The Limits of Chomsky’s Anti-Imperialism

In my last post, I argued the lesser-evil advocacy forced on Americans during election season helps to obstruct any significant moves towards the construction of a strong socialist movement in the United States. I specifically highlight the influence of Noam Chomsky who uses his singular intellectual and moral reputation to deliver this message to skeptics who may not accept the same argument from a more obviously compromised source.

While I believe this kind of advocacy is of particular significance during this stage of the election, Chomsky’s enduring influence on left politics in general is hard to overstate. I imagine the vast majority of those who find themselves to the left of mainstream liberal opinion have had at least some kind of interaction with Chomsky’s political philosophy.

These days, my interest in his work is mostly geared toward his critiques of US foreign policy, which has earned him a worldwide reputation on the left as the conscience of America. I think the image of Hugo Chavez holding Chomsky’s book Hegemony or Survival as he mocked Bush during an address to the UN General Assembly clearly shows his unique reach.

Like many others, my exposure to radical ideas began with Chomsky. Certainly a lot of what attracted me to him was his lucid presentation of new historical narratives backed up by mountains of concrete evidence. It was like being introduced to a living compendium of hidden imperial crimes. And while the details of his analysis are often dense, the fundamental principle that guides his opposition is remarkably simple:

My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.

On its surface, I think this is a useful guide for people working to emerge from the kind of chauvinism Americans are deeply steeped in their entire lives. But I also think it contains subtle ideological content that has made it more difficult for many people to develop what I would consider actually principled anti-imperialist politics.

Chomsky’s principle is commonly expressed on the “progressive” side of what remains of the anti-war left in the US. I find this cluster amorphous enough to avoid a detailed accounting of their politics, but it’s clear to me that this idea certainly has influence in sectors of the left not even nominally anti-capitalist, and may even be influential to a lot of libertarians.

If I hadn’t already gone through Chomsky, I’m certain my introduction to this idea would have come from Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the most influential of the celebrity left, largely due to his central role in the Snowden spectacle. As is standard for celebrity lefts, Greenwald keeps his politics obscure enough to maintain his adversarial street cred, while also refusing to take a hard-line on anything but free speech rights, which keeps him well within permissible boundaries. Still, his opinions are relatively antagonistic by mainstream standards, and Greenwald can often be seen linking to this quotation on twitter in order to explain his posture towards American foreign policy whenever challenged:

The commitment to this kind of opposition is also shared by Greenwald’s colleague at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill, as seen here while casually engaging the most toxic of the celebrity left, Molly Crabapple:

Setting aside any kind of guilt by association, my issue with Chomsky’s principle is that it helps instill a weak understanding of imperialism and the nature of power in general in the minds of people seeking out a new perspective. Chomsky believes he is primarily responsible for the crimes of his own state, not necessarily because he lives in the imperial core of the most gangster state in history, but because he’s in a unique position to do something about it. Given the enormous democratic deficit, alongside the most complex surveillance and propaganda systems ever devised (not to mention the more overt forms of fascism directed at a significant portion of the population, including the police murdering black people at a staggering rate, and the internationally exceptional carceral state we’re living in), it’s hard for me to see how the left is currently in any position to force concessions from the masters of mankind.

The reasoning for Chomsky’s emphasis on the crimes of his own state brings to mind the use of the word “we” as it pertains to collective guilt and responsibility, which is particularly prevalent in Western liberal discourse. I’m not prepared to trace its entire history here, but I will attempt to show how deeply rooted this idea is in Chomsky’s thinking, which is really to say the thinking of a significant bloc of the Western left.

As far as I’m aware, Chomsky’s usage of “we” first dates back to his seminal essay ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals,’ where he demonstrates the way intellectuals serve an important role in justifying and selling the violence of their own states. In this particular case, Chomsky focuses on the war being waged on Vietnam by the US up to 1967. Here are his opening remarks:

TWENTY-YEARS AGO, Dwight Macdonald published a series of articles in Politics on the responsibility of peoples and, specifically, the responsibility of intellectuals. I read them as an undergraduate, in the years just after the war, and had occasion to read them again a few months ago. They seem to me to have lost none of their power or persuasiveness. Macdonald is concerned with the question of war guilt. He asks the question: To what extent were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? And, quite properly, he turns the question back to us: To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history. To an undergraduate in 1945-46—to anyone whose political and moral consciousness had been formed by the horrors of the 1930s, by the war in Ethiopia, the Russian purge, the “China Incident,” the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi atrocities, the Western reaction to these events and, in part, complicity in them—these questions had particular significance and poignancy.

With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.

The issues that Macdonald raised are as pertinent today as they were twenty years ago. We can hardly avoid asking ourselves to what extent the American people bear responsibility for the savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam, still another atrocity in what Asians see as the “Vasco da Gama era” of world history. As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions. I want to return to them, later on, after a few scattered remarks about the responsibility of intellectuals and how, in practice, they go about meeting this responsibility in the mid-1960s.

And he concludes with the following:

In no small measure, it is attitudes like this that lie behind the butchery in Vietnam, and we had better face up to them with candor, or we will find our government leading us towards a “final solution” in Vietnam, and in the many Vietnams that inevitably lie ahead.

Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam—as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.

A couple of years later, in 1969, Chomsky appeared on a show William F. Buckley hosted called Firing Line as something of a representative of the New Left.  At the beginning of the debate, Chomsky clearly laid out how he views the collective burden the American people share deep into the war of aggression on Vietnam (I copied the transcript from Democracy Now):

Buckley: You say the war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men.

Chomsky: Including all of us, including myself.

Buckley: Well, then -—

Chomsky: Including every —- that’s the next sentence.

Buckley: Yeah.

Chomsky: The same sentence.

Buckley: Oh, sure, sure, sure. Sure, because you count everybody in the company of the guilty.

Chomsky: I think that’s true in this case.

Buckley: Yeah, but then -—

Chomsky: You see, one of the points I was trying —-

Buckley: This is, in a sense, a theological observation, isn’t it?

Chomsky: No, I don’t think so.

Buckley: Because if someone points out if everyone is guilty of everything, then nobody is guilty of anything.

Chomsky: No, I don’t -— well, no, I don’t — I don’t believe that. See, I think that — I think the point that I’m trying to make and I think ought to be made is that the real, at least to me — I say this elsewhere in the book [American Power and the New Mandarins] — what seems to me a very, in a sense, terrifying aspect of our society and other societies is the equanimity and the detachment with which sane, reasonable, sensible people can observe such events. I think that’s more terrifying than the occasional Hitler or LeMay or other that crops up. These people would not be able to operate were it not for this apathy and equanimity, and therefore I think that it’s in some sense the sane and reasonable and tolerant people who should — who share a very serious burden of guilt that they very easily throw on the shoulders of others who seem more extreme and more violent.

In my opinion, Chomsky’s most memorable use of “we” was articulated during the very early stages of the latest US war on Afghanistan that is somehow still going on. The following is the end of his response to a series of hostile questions from an audience member not on board with Chomsky’s supposed blame America first compulsion:

When The New York Times tell us that food shipments have been cut back to the point where the number of people now at risk of starvation since September 11th has increased by 50% to 7.5 million, that’s another 2.5 million people at risk of starvation since September 11th, as a result, as they point out correctly of the threat of US bombing and the terror its caused and so on, and the withdrawal of aid, and of international workers. Well, those people are not defending bin Laden. Those are perfectly innocent civilians who have nothing to do with it, except that they’re victims of the Taliban, who we, meaning you and I, not some abstract entity, are consciously acting to murder. Okay, if we can’t face that, we have no right talking about this problem.

There are a few objections I have to this kind of framing, but the most central one is the idea that imperial violence forced by ruling class interests are really the collective crimes of the American people. Imposing this kind of guilt on the classes that have nothing to do with designing or implementing imperial policy functions in a similar way as his lesser-evil advocacy. In the case of Trump, Chomsky is isolating a figure from his long-held position within the confines of the ruling class to warn of the unique danger he poses, and in the case of war guilt, he’s doing the opposite by merging all of the classes together in order to share the burden of responsibility for the empire’s shameful legacy of global destruction, plunder and immiseration.

This use of “we” functions as a rebuke of internationalism as I’ve always understood the term. Since Americans ostensibly live in some kind of democracy, with a state in some way accountable to the popular will, then “we” is not meant to represent the global masses enduring life under capitalism. Instead, it’s used as a national identification that removes class barriers in effect linking ordinary people with the capitalists who rule them. The erasure of the clear differences in political, social and economic status within a society does a lot of damage to people’s ability to see how the interests of the ruling class are necessarily in conflict with their own class interests. It also makes it difficult to see how people all over the world are linked in a common struggle against capitalism and all those dedicated to its survival.

No matter how sustained, aggressive and well-sourced Chomsky’s criticism of imperialism is, when he filters all this information through this lens, seemingly designed to obscure the true nature of ruling class hegemony, he’s making it harder for workers to separate themselves and their interests from those of the reactionary core of their own society.

There is another feature of Chomsky’s politics that plays a significant role in the way he practices anti-imperialism. In this strong essay, Michael Parenti looks at the anticommunist tendency on the left, specifically referencing Chomsky multiple times. It’s perhaps a slightly broad designation in Chomsky’s case, because he does at times offer support to actually existing socialist movements, particularly in Latin America. But there is no question that he was staunchly opposed to the Soviet Union.

Parenti uses the occasion to put forth a convincing defense of the Soviet Union. He concedes that there were of course many problems with the USSR (as is the case of every other society forging a path of independent development), but he also points out that it’s very easy to criticize any political experiment by placing it in a vacuum. Parenti argues that any serious analysis of a revolutionary movement must first center the role of imperialism before analyzing any internal problems.

In the case of the Soviet Union, the imperial menace was relentlessly dedicated to sabotaging it because it stood as a successful model of revolution put into practice. I’m sure Chomsky would concede that point, but he also regarded the Soviet Union as a major barrier to the creation of real socialism because the word had become identified with the authoritarian organization of that society. Chomsky actually went as far as to call the collapse of the USSR “a small victory for socialism.” Parenti addresses this position at the end of his piece:

The overthrow of Eastern European and Soviet communist governments was cheered by many left intellectuals. Now democracy would have its day. The people would be free from the yoke of communism and the U.S. Left would be free from the albatross of existing communism, or as left theorist Richard Lichtman put it, “liberated from the incubus of the Soviet Union and the succubus of Communist China.”

In fact, the capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe seriously weakened the numerous Third World liberation struggles that had received aid from the Soviet Union and brought a whole new crop of right-wing governments into existence, ones that now worked hand-in-glove with U.S. global counterrevolutionaries around the globe.

In addition, the overthrow of communism gave the green light to the unbridled exploitative impulses of Western corporate interests. No longer needing to convince workers that they live better than their counterparts in Russia, no longer restrained by a competing system, the corporate class is rolling back the many gains that working people have won over the years. Now that the free market, in its meanest form, is emerging triumphant in the East, so will it prevail in the West. “Capitalism with a human face” is being replaced by “capitalism in your face.” As Richard Levins put it, “So in the new exuberant aggressiveness of world capitalism we see what communists and their allies had held at bay” (Monthly Review, 9/96).

Like Chomsky, I consider myself an anarchist, so actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union hardly corresponds to my imagined ideal either. But I think anti-imperialism in practice should be far less concerned with the internal structure of any given society, and far more concerned with its right to self-determination. If one is, for whatever reason, specifically concerned with the authoritarian nature of a state, I still think the focus should be on highlighting and opposing the role of imperialism. Threats to sovereignty of course force less powerful states into defensive postures, which has all sorts of consequences internally. Opposing the existence of an empire at all should be the obvious task of radicals everywhere, no matter how different people’s visions of a decent society are.

A couple of posts I’ve read recently that I think practice anti-imperialism in a principled and approachable way include this piece from twitter user @RancidSassy comparing the conditions in Iraq under Saddam Hussein to its current straits, and this one on the history of North Korea by Stephen Gowans.

Gowans offers an illuminating history of the DPRK that challenges the images we’re fed of an isolated, authoritarian dystopia filled with a brainwashed population led by a series of deeply corrupt eccentrics. Even a lot of radicals (myself included) reflexively accept some of these premises in the process of opposing imperial machinations on the peninsula. It’s obviously important to stand with targeted states against imperialism, but the way you do so is also important. Reinforcing imperial propaganda while you’re attempting to resist imperialism obviously blunts any opposition you’re prepared to offer.

@RancidSassy makes the case that Iraq was far better off under Saddam than it is now after being bludgeoned by the empire for at least a quarter century. He does so in a way that concedes nothing to imperial bogeyman tropes common even on the anti-war left, showing that alongside all the repression and state violence, Saddam’s government “presided over massive development and social equality gains” that were erased by US imperial aggression.

The point of this kind of analysis isn’t to offer an unqualified defense of whatever these targeted states do. Instead, it’s to put their organization and behavior into its proper historical context so we can attempt to understand the world outside the imposed limits of imperial propaganda intended to destroy solidarity and the prospect of learning from existing forms of resistance.

Another issue I have with Chomsky’s foreign policy analysis is that he doesn’t always see American power as a reactionary force in world affairs. He exposes a lot of his weaknesses in a recent exchange with Mehdi Hasan for Al Jazeera. In part one of the interview, when asked if he takes a principled stand against all use of military force by Western powers Chomsky says, “I’m not an absolute pacifist.” And while discussing the US campaign against ISIS, Chomsky says this of American bombing inside Syria: “Defending the Kurds against the ISIL attacks, yes, that’s legitimate.”

The difference between his position and a hard-line anti-imperialist position isn’t tactical. What he’s arguing is simply a violation of anti-imperialist principles based on a fundamentally different understanding of what can drive the empire to act in the world.

In part two, Chomsky argues that Islamophobia not only harms Muslims all over the world, but it also harms the West itself:

Just take a look at what its led to in the last 15 years. There’s been what’s called a global war on terror. When it began – there’s been one device to deal with it: sledgehammer. Smash ’em up, don’t find out what’s going on, smash ’em up. What’s happened? 15 years ago it was confined to a tiny tribal area in Afghanistan. Now it’s all over the world. Every time you hit it with a sledgehammer, you expand it. Every single time. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, everywhere. Can you learn something from that?

I’d like to pose the same question to Chomsky because it’s obvious to me that he hasn’t learned anything from American foreign policy since 9/11. This is a deeply ideological presentation of the interests driving the war on terror that accepts the empire at its word that it’s committed to ending the threat terrorism poses to the world. Apparently US policies for the last 15 years have been a series of disastrous blunders, destroying state after state to everyone’s detriment. But there go the imperialists again, acting against “our” interests because of short-sighted racism. When will they learn?

It’s frustrating to see Chomsky making this kind of argument when he has correctly pointed out in the past that you can determine intention by looking at the predictable  consequences of one’s behavior. The following quote is excerpted from some comments he made on what lies behind the seemingly failed strategy of the war on drugs:

When people carry out a so-called war for years and years when they know what the consequences are going to be and they have plenty of evidence that’s exactly what the consequences are, and it has no effect on drugs, a rational person will begin to ask themselves, is this a war on drugs?

He goes on to answer that question by correctly pointing out that it’s really a war on the underclass domestically and cover to conduct operations like chemical warfare on farms in Columbia in order to force peasants off the land, opening up space for profitable exploitation.

One of the clear lessons to take away from the post 9/11 period is that ruling class interests in MENA have little to do with ending terrorism. Their interests are maintaining their hegemony, crushing any moves towards independent development, and exploiting the region’s resources for their own benefit. Nothing has changed but Chomsky’s ability to point out the obvious.

His blind spot when it comes to the war on terror is hard to comprehend given his history of mostly solid analysis of American imperialism. Assuming good faith, I guess weak fundamentals eventually have consequences. People who take Chomsky seriously should pay close attention to the ideological foundations of his arguments if they want to avoid the dead ends he’s supposed to help you out of.

Chomsky will remain the most important radical voice in American politics until the day he dies. As he passes the torch to figures like Greenwald with far more compromised politics, I continue to think it’s important for radicals to work in the opposite direction by practicing principled, confrontational politics, especially when they have little mainstream resonance. The seeds of resistance have to be planted somewhere.

Related Reading:

I recommend Tarzie’s series ‘Passing Noam on My Out,’ where he analyzes (among other things) Chomsky’s tendency to whitewash domestic repression:

I also want to recommend another stand-out piece from Tarzie called ‘White Supremacy and Magic Paper’ that critiques other elements of Chomsky’s politics like free speech absolutism and the idea of won freedoms:

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The Responsibility of Radicals

As the electoral spectacle kicks into full gear and forces itself into every sector of American political discourse, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most celebrated dissident intellectuals, continues his longstanding tradition of reminding us that the looming apocalypse must be delayed by any means necessary, which really means voting for the certain Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Chomsky is always at his most visible during election season, which may lead people who have read his important contributions to media criticism to wonder why. It’s certainly not because he has anything new to offer. His recent interview with progressive outlet Truthout is all too familiar. Here are his closing comments:

With all its flaws, America is still a very free and open society, by comparative standards. Elections surely matter. It would, in my opinion, be an utter disaster for the country, the world and future generations if any of the viable Republican candidates were to reach the White House, and if they continue to control Congress. Consideration of the overwhelmingly important questions we discussed earlier suffices to reach that conclusion, and it’s not all. For such reasons as those I alluded to earlier, American democracy, always limited, has been drifting substantially toward plutocracy. But these tendencies are not graven in stone. We enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom and rights left to us by predecessors who did not give up, often under far harsher conditions than we face now. And it provides ample opportunities for work that is badly needed, in many ways, in direct activism and pressures in support of significant policy choices, in building viable and effective community organizations, revitalizing the labor movement, and also in the political arena, from school boards to state legislatures and much more.

There’s a lot of Chomsky doctrine packed in there that I think is worth looking at closely, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the idea that “elections surely mater.”

The kind of lesser-evil advocacy Chomsky tirelessly promotes during this stage of the election has now become standardized on the left. With so many others spitting the same line, his relentless commitment seems like a waste of time at first glance. But this kind of advocacy is a core function of the celebrity left: Use the language of dissidence to sell compliance. Clearly the vast majority of “progressive” platforms love this content, and have found in Chomsky a most useful orator of their fundamentally compromised politics.

There’s simply no one more effective at delivering this message to the margins than Chomsky, perhaps because he presents himself as some kind of exception to the limits other permissible voices must internalize in order to receive and maintain their platforms. I think his unique aptitude and commitment to this kind of advocacy contributes a great deal to his unprecedented status as the preeminent American radical for decades now.

Still, there are always seeds of dissent. But those of us who have trouble swallowing this shit are told to grow up and look at what’s at stake. And because this farce is in rare form these days, we’re told that this is all the more reason to take it seriously. The more mind-numbingly stupid and reactionary things get, the more crucial it is for us to accept the spectacle’s most fundamental premise: A complete rejection of bourgeois politics will not be tolerated.

As Chomsky has often said, those who refuse to exercise their right to vote (at least in swing states) are in practice moving us all closer to the self-destructive cataclysm we dangerously flirted with in the 20th century. It would be an “utter disaster” if Donald Trump were to win the presidency, as opposed to Hillary Clinton. Some people will of course point to Trump’s open fascism throughout the campaign to support this contention, but their assumptions about his rhetoric translating into actual material differences is pure speculation. In fact, the history of the American empire shows a remarkable consistency in the behavior of the state, regardless of which faction of the business party happens to be in power.

While I’ll concede Trump’s campaign of incitement serves the purpose of further terrorizing already marginalized communities, which is certainly no trivial matter, I also think it has been very efficient at delivering some important propaganda messages, most significantly that his fascist politics are a one-off, in no way connected to existing ruling class ideology and structure. During a Q and A session from last year, Chomsky said that he agreed with political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, calling Trump and the rest of the viable Republican candidates “a radical insurgency.”

Instead of expanding on this myself, I’ll direct you to the eloquent analysis of twitter user @cordeliers in response to the cancellation of Trump’s rally in Chicago this past Friday and the flood of opinions it generated on social media. For clarity, I’ll quote his threaded tweets in order:

Evidently Twitter’s soft left now embraces the same idea of fascism that is retailed by the bourgeoisie – that it is not a manifestation of capitalism in crisis, engineered and controlled by the ruling class, but a phenomenon somehow *outside of* capitalism that arises magically via a serendipitous conjunction of reactionaries with a charismatic supervillain. This view of fascism lets the ruling class – to which both Trump and Hillary belong – entirely off the hook. HRC’s State Dept set in motion an actual Nazi coup in Ukraine, which she enthusiastically endorsed. Yet “at least she’s not the fascist.” HRC giggled at the horrifically brutal murder of Gaddafi. She threatened to nuke 75 million Iranians. Yet “at least she’s not the fascist.” Here’s Hillary in a lovefest with plainly fascist Narendra Modi. Yet “at least she’s not the fascist one.”

Absolutely we must confront fascism. What I am rejecting is an expedient election-year definition of fascism that includes Trump but not HRC

I also believe the kind of anti-fascist actions we’ve been seeing lately are crucially important, and I’d like to encourage as much of it as possible. However, where it’s currently being directed, and where it isn’t, should tell us something about how this kind of messaging is being received deep into the margins.

I’d also like to add that in addition to Libya, Ukraine, Iran and India, Clinton’s role in a variety of imperial projects with devastating consequences on the targeted countries can be seen all over the world from Honduras to Haiti to Iraq. All of this “foreign policy experience” has worked to destroy the lives of millions of people, so perhaps take a minute to consider who you’re standing with the next time you try to isolate Trump’s fascism from the rest of his class, while they continue to destroy all existing threats to their hegemony.

Other so-called leftists play their own respective roles in selling the election and disciplining those who refuse to participate. One of the most amusing takes I’ve seen recently was Jacobin editor Connor Kilpatrick arguing his crew’s support for Bernie Sanders’ hopeless campaign is somehow redeemed by the word “socialism” now being seen as a trusted brand to millennials:

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of thing, after all, selling deeply compromised electoral projects to the left by associating them with socialism is Jacobin’s bread and butter. And to be fair, the idea that we should sell people socialism by identifying the word with an imperialist Democrat is pretty widely accepted by a lot of American “socialists” who see Sanders as a historically exceptional figure. The understanding of power on display here is beyond depressing and unfortunately I think it’s having a real impact. The word “socialism” can now be comfortably used in the mainstream again because it’s being actively defanged. Calling Sanders’ attempts to save capitalism “socialism” is surely a win for power. As is his inevitable endorsement of Clinton, but as always, we need to set aside our ultra-left posture of having any expectations whatsoever, and vote to keep this radical Republican insurgency at bay.

Those of us who warned of the inevitable “failure” of the Sanders campaign are really not all that insightful. The Democratic party is transparently a void that swallows the dissent meant to fuel our movements. All it really takes is a few minutes to look at the consistent history of this charade in order to wise up.

In another case of pompous election year stupidity, here is Pando’s John Dolan, aka The War Nerd, taking a much less creative line, punching down at the pitiable “anti-Sanders Left,” echoed on twitter by his colleague Mark Ames:

The existence of principles that you then chose to follow through on with actions is often confusing to liberals who imagine themselves socialists. It will forever remain a mystery why people committed to anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist politics can’t bring themselves to get behind an imperialist Democrat like Sanders. What can I say, us purity cultists just can’t help but self-marginalize.

There are other figures on the left with something of a platform that have chosen to take a very different approach. The brilliant radical scholar Michael Parenti, who actually has personal ties to Sanders, has decided to withhold his support because of Sanders history of supporting US imperial violence:

Glen Ford of the excellent Black Agenda Report takes an even stronger stand. His focus is primarily on the black community, but what he articulates here is, in my view, the right prescription for all American radicals:

Democratic Party politics kills Black politics. The two cannot coexist. If you want a real Black grassroots movement, you have to fight the Democratic Party, tooth and claw.

Bernie Sanders’ supporters think they can transform the Democratic Party “from below.” They are wrong.

Black people ARE the “below” in America, and we make up a quarter of the Democratic Party. But, Blacks haven’t transformed the Democratic Party by our overwhelming presence. Instead, the Party has transformed us – and overwhelmed our radical politics.

The solution is to throw off the dead weight of that party.

Bernie Sanders, the Democrat, does not represent some kind of turning point in history, although his supporters seem to think so. The turning point in history comes with masses of people in the streets, fighting BOTH Rich Man’s Parties.

Power to the People!

As opposed to these consistently radical voices, the role figures like Chomsky play during election season is spectacle reinforcement. Whether that’s his intention or not doesn’t really matter to me. He’s put forth in the progressive media as the definitive radical with a lifetime of achievement and wisdom, his authority nearly unassailable on a wide range of topics. These interviews seem designed to scold radicals who insist on taking seriously the idea that the election is indeed the farce Chomsky has at times said it is. Ultimately my concern here is less with the act of voting itself than the advocacy that once again forces the spectacle into left spaces that should be fundamentally working to extricate themselves from establishment politics altogether.

I think it’s safe to say the American empire, in all its blood-soaked glory, will carry on its destructive imperatives regardless of which ruling class vetted fascist takes the reins. The lessons of the Obama legacy should clearly demonstrate to those inclined to be swept up in campaign rhetoric that there is no such thing as an exception in the American electoral process. The winner is never an accident or a fluke and is almost always hand-picked by ruling class investors once they decide who will be most capable of leading the empire into its next nightmarish phase.

In the face of all this reactionary pressure, the importance of maintaining actual socialist principles can’t be overstated. The reason why things like lesser-evil advocacy need to be resisted so strongly is because of its pernicious effect on many people’s ability to reject the spectacle and see how their class interests are being sabotaged by people who present themselves as allies of progress. Ceding ourselves to a Democrat that signals towards our politics or public intellectuals who constantly use their platforms to counsel the tactical wisdom of compromise instead of the urgent necessity of revolution will continue to lead us exactly where we are. The sooner we remove these influences and start building something based on our own principles the better.

h/t to @RancidTarzie and former twitter user @CelebrityLeft for helping to edit this post.

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A Brief Look at the Politics of David Simon

The events in Baltimore have been the focus of the national news for the past few days, so naturally David Simon, the creator of the celebrated HBO series The Wire, and former Baltimore Sun police reporter has opinions that everyone is supposed to take seriously. His short blog post in response to the protests on Monday night calling on people in the streets to “go home” unless they plan on expressing their outrage in a manner everyone is comfortable with has been making the rounds since. But, as is often the case with his blog, one can learn more about him by observing how he responds to the objections of his readers. For example, when pressed on his own tactics in response to state repression of the people he claims to advocate for, Simon offered this as a potentially effective alternative:

I just attended a bipartisan conference on reforming sentencing culture so as to reduce the federal prison population by 50 percent. I met with President Obama who addressed the group, arguing for the agenda. On the left at my table was Newt Gingrich, who was one sponsor of the bipartisan effort, on my right was a vice president of Koch Industries. The keynote speaker was the Governor of the Great Red State of Georgia, who has undertaken exactly this agenda of abandoning mass incarceration. In that state, it has already happened without a corresponding rise in crime. The general sense in Washington is that sentencing reform on the federal level might actually be an achieveable reform because of the new sensibilities of libertarians, conservatives and liberals to the costs and brutalities of doing what we have been doing.

Not as much fun as burning down a North Avenue liquor store, I know. But we all do what we think might help, I suppose.

Another lesson in tactical alliances and the virtue of petitioning the state from a handwringing, declinist liberal? Who could have seen that coming? I suppose Simon will be relieved to hear that Hillary Clinton has announced a new commitment to criminal justice reform this morning. (For those who need it here’s, in part, a reminder of some of Obama’s record, which obviously contradicts many of the things he campaigned on, lest you take anything Hillary Clinton now says at face value.)

Elsewhere in the comments, the issue of Israel/Palestine came up, and Simon put his politics on full display:

The Israelis do indeed need to own their intransigence and their unwillingness to empower the Palestinean [sic] authority. But the critique of the Palestinean cause for much of the last sixty years is straight-up true: If the Palestinean cause had manufactured some version of a Mandela, a King, a Gandhi or even a Michael Collins — someone capable of using non-violence, compromise and moral suasion to truly challenge the Israeli policies where they are most vulnerable, there would by now be a Palestinean state on the West Bank.

You hear that Palestinians? Put down your arms, find a great man among you capable of compromise, and you’ll get your state. And who knows where we’d be in this country if the ensuing generations were able to produce another MLK…

Simon doesn’t stop there, but I’ll spare you the rest. I will, however, mention a few other things, just in case you think I’m lashing out randomly. Here’s a reminder of his notorious response to the initial Snowden disclosures that ended up being an early indication of the authoritarian stupidity that would dominate our national discourse even more than usual. More recently, he had a conversation with late-blooming critic of the drug war, President Barack Obama:

It should be self-evident by now, but in case it isn’t: You don’t get an audience with the president, much less receive praise for creating “one of the greatest, not just television shows, but pieces of art in the last couple decades,” without being compromised in all the right ways. And of course, Simon plays ball and speaks of the damage done to “the other America” without addressing the possibility that the guy sitting across from him may be slightly more responsible for these problems than the rest of us. But why would he press it? As we saw recently with the attack on Cornel West, if you cross the line, you’re out, no matter who you are.

And now this morning, Simon is on the record once again weaving his declinist narrative in an interview with Bill Keller (yes, that one) for a non-profit called The Marshall Project. Simon spends most of it bemoaning the way “real policing” has largely disappeared since the inception of the drug war, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with his work. But here’s a sample for the uninitiated:

For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in that list in THAT STORY THE SUN PUBLISHED LAST YEAR2 about municipal payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernable or coherent pattern. There’s no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees – and you aren’t even managing to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you’ve lost all professional ethos.

The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was MARTIN O’MALLEY3. He destroyed police work in some real respects. Whatever was left of it when he took over the police department, if there were two bricks together that were the suggestion of an edifice that you could have called meaningful police work, he found a way to pull them apart. Everyone thinks I’ve got a hard-on for Marty because we battled over “The Wire,” whether it was bad for the city, whether we’d be filming it in Baltimore. But it’s been years, and I mean, that’s over. I shook hands with him on the train last year and we buried it. And, hey, if he’s the Democratic nominee, I’m going to end up voting for him. It’s not personal and I admire some of his other stances on the death penalty and gay rights. But to be honest, what happened under his watch as Baltimore’s mayor was that he wanted to be governor. And at a certain point, with the crime rate high and with his promises of a reduced crime rate on the line, he put no faith in real policing.

And he concludes with the following:

I mean, I know there are still a good many Baltimore cops who know their jobs and do their jobs some real integrity and even precision. But if you look at why the city of Baltimore paid that $5.7 million for beating down people over the last few years, it’s clear that there are way too many others for whom no code exists. Anyone and everyone was a potential ass-whipping – even people that were never otherwise charged with any real crimes. It’s astonishing.

By the standard of that long list, Freddie Gray becomes almost plausible as a victim. He was a street guy. And before he came along, there were actual working people — citizens, taxpayers — who were indistinguishable from criminal suspects in the eyes of the police who were beating them down. Again, that’s a department that has a diminished capacity to actually respond to crime or investigate crime, or to even distinguish innocence or guilt. And that comes from too many officers who came up in a culture that taught them not the hard job of policing, but simply how to roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the wagon.

Here are some similar sentiments from The Wire:

One can cite statistics as evidence of a deviation from a “protect and serve” standard that used to define American police work, but I think the logic of our institutions hasn’t changed at all in this country. Progressive forces may have shifted some things over the years, but I think the assault on the underclass, as evidenced by the dystopian carceral state we’re living in, is not the result of a mistake, or an overreach, or a new institutional cynicism, instead, it’s the same power structure with the same imperatives responding to new conditions and seizing an opportunity that may not have been there before. But perhaps that’s an argument for another time.

People like Simon continue to attract attention in the mainstream by presenting what can seem like a uniquely aggressive and sophisticated critique of power, while maintaining their permissible status by directing anger and dissent into dead ends that serve the status quo. I’m not sure if these flare-ups in Baltimore and elsewhere are an indication of a larger, more radical response to unaccountable state violence, but I continue to think it’s important that everyone that cares about these things learns how to think and act outside the parameters laid down for us by the anointed members of the media class.

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Inept Empire

During Obama’s latest address to the nation in which he reminds us that he’s going to keep bombing MENA no matter what we think about it, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill was busy firing off a flurry of tweets noting some of the omissions and outright lies in the speech. Some of it is worth reading, but this was the tweet that really caught my attention:

Before Scahill really got started, he offered this increasingly popular vision of the ruling class in the form of Sideshow Bob continually stepping on a rake, seemingly unable to grasp the basic relation of cause and effect. The implication is, of course, that the ruling elite are a bunch of fucking morons. They cause problems with their right hand that they try (and often fail) to solve with their left. They endlessly pursue their most immediate goals without considering the long-term consequences. Given this image, it’s a wonder these people can even get themselves to work in the morning, much less sustain an empire.

But Scahill is hardly alone on the left in making this kind of argument. His colleague at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain, even offered policy suggestions to our foolish imperial overlords, lest they start another fire they can’t put out:

Rather than reflexively satisfying an emotional need to “do something” in the face of atrocities committed by ISIS against American citizens, a policy of coalition-building across ideological lines could potentially eliminate the group and perhaps begin to heal sectarian divisions in the region. Obama’s speech tonight offers a prime opportunity to articulate a pragmatic, effective strategy. If ISIS is really the apocalyptic threat that U.S. politicians have made it out to be, such pragmatism is absolutely necessary. American policy on this issue has so far been both incomprehensible and counterproductive. But by bringing all major parties to one side against ISIS, something positive may be salvaged from it yet.


These tendencies are further explored in exhaustive detail in this brilliant essay by Patrick Higgins that I suggest you read in full. But, to put it simply, the notion that the ruling elite are so stupid they don’t even know their interests, much less how to go about securing them, is ahistorical, power-serving nonsense. If we just look at recent history in the region, we can see that the US has intervened in and destroyed a number of countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya to name a few), seen the results, and carried on doing it as though all had gone according to plan. I suppose it’s possible they are completely insane, but if we are going to think seriously about the logic of American power and how it gets applied to existing conditions, we should be using the results of previous interventions to inform our thinking in the present. Imperial aggression predictably disrupts all existing order, increases sectarianism, and often fractures the potential of independent development.  If the ruling class knows these are predictable consequences of military intervention, and keeps on intervening, we can reasonably assume they are desired outcomes.

Now, of course, the imperialists can’t predict every consequence of their meddling, but I think we can be pretty sure they think military intervention is likely to lead to favorable conditions for penetrating markets and generating profit or they wouldn’t be doing it. American policy is only “incomprehensible” and “counterproductive” if you assume their interests in Iraq and Syria are what they say they are. And how is it possible to view the recent history of Iraq and assume America has any interest whatsoever in making things better there? It’s a commentary on the health of left discourse that these assertions can pass without much protest.

This tendency to assume the world we live in is largely a product of mistakes, instead of conscious state policy is now pretty standard in certain parts of the left. It reminds me of some opponents of the drug war who insist our policies simply aren’t working. Sure, these policies have had catastrophic impacts on communities throughout this country, not to mention the plague of violence it has initiated south of the border, but what exactly makes them mistakes? If you have a power structure that enforces laws for decades that have very little effect on the production, availability, and use of drugs, but has successfully increased the rate of incarceration of nonviolent “offenders” astronomically, perhaps we should be thinking about this problem a bit differently. Is it possible that this is a conscious war being waged on the underclass using drugs as a pretext? A war that the ruling class is winning handily, in no small measure because of this fundamental confusion about what we’re actually facing?

Other people have also pointed out the ideological trap of assuming the history of American power is one of destructive mistakes.  This Arthur Silber piece quotes some very insightful thoughts from Robert Higgs on the subject:

 As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent “failed” policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money. When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars. So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the “peace process” never gets far from square one, etc., etc. – none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not borne by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.

Silber himself adds:

The ruling class has not “lost,” not in Gaza, not in Iraq, not in most of the other many wars of aggression throughout history. To claim that they have is to misapprehend what their interests are, and how those interests are fulfilled. The prospect or, very infrequently, the actuality of large scale public unrest and protest may cause the ruling class to make concessions now and then, concessions specifically designed to ensure future compliance. But except for extraordinarily rare moments of profound historical shift, the ruling class continues in its enjoyment of untold wealth and power, all of which is fed with the blood and suffering of the “ordinary” people.

Maybe I’m overreacting to an offhand tweet, but it was articulated at a time when there’s a lot of acrimonious “infighting” going on, some of it arising from the different ways people act in relation to and think about celebrity lefts. Instead of setting the table myself, I’ll just recommend you read Tarzie’s post here (don’t neglect the comments).

The reason I highlight Scahill’s tweet specifically is that I find it to be a power-serving argument coming from a person who I believe wields a great deal of influence on left politics. It seems to me that most people reading Scahill’s timeline during Obama’s speech would see the majority of his arguments as fierce, well-considered, and principled. I actually agree with some of what he had to say, and generally think he’s as serious a celebrity left as you’re likely to find. But that’s what makes the underlying assumptions about power so toxic: Many people on the left comfortably defer to him on issues of US foreign policy because they’re generally inclined to accept his judgment. In doing so, there’s a danger of not only giving a pass to reactionary ideas, but allowing them to become standardized without much attention.

Others have criticized Scahill for different reasons. Once again, Patrick Higgins offers a wide-ranging essay that, in part, addresses an incident where Scahill threatened to back out of a peace conference if another speaker he vehemently disagreed with about the reality of the war in Syria was to appear as well. Higgins also breaks down the way Scahill responded to his critics on twitter in the wake of that controversy. In another case, Douglas Valentine reviewed the Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars that Scahill co-wrote, co-produced and is featured in as the dominant subject. Valentine has a lot to say about what is and is not in the film, some of which I don’t agree with, but his point regarding the general omission of historical context and the critical role the CIA has played, and continues to play in these shadow wars is hard to ignore. Related: As Tarzie notes here, a feature of the Snowden disclosures, now being published at The Intercept, has been to narrow the focus from the vast, unaccountable surveillance state to one rogue, lawless agency. It’s possible there are good journalistic reasons for narrowing the frame, but people should at least be noticing these tendencies and thinking about them.

I largely came to my own politics through people like Chomsky, Greenwald and Scahill, but I typically don’t think people shed the influence of surrogate thinkers once they’ve become attached. I’ve been told that I spend too much time thinking about celebrity lefts, and often overestimate the influence they have on the way people think. “After all, aren’t there worse people to take aim at? You know, people who are even more prominent, and clearly siding with power in support of further aggression in the region?” I may have made this argument myself a couple of years ago, but I’ve since found a lot of significant ideological differences between myself and team “adversarial,” and given the influence I believe they have on the profile of left politics, I think it’s important for people to identify the weak foundational politics that make them desirable to someone like Omidyar, and point out how those politics function in specific cases.

I have come to find the position occupied by celebrity lefts as simply a fundamental obstruction to more radical thought. The space they occupy doesn’t seem to make room for different ideas, and it serves power by setting the limits of permissible opinion, which is then policed with a great deal of intensity by those who attach themselves to these left luminaries. Seeing the way Glenn Greenwald and his followers responded to legitimate criticism throughout the Snowden spectacle was a good lesson in the way power disciplines those who ask unwelcome questions and refuse to accept imposed narratives.

If we’re going to assume left analysis has any value at all, we should be able to agree that criticism of those who set the coordinates of our discourse, effectively deciding what ideas are privileged and what ideas are marginalized, should be made a priority. These people should be met with a great deal of skepticism, if only for their prominence. Additionally, I think an honest analysis of their propaganda function is crucial in order to develop the strong intellectual self-defenses we need to interpret the world as it actually is. We simply can’t reach sound conclusions otherwise.


It has been pointed out to me on twitter that I never specifically mentioned Israel in this post:

While that’s true, my analysis includes Israel in my condemnations of the empire. Israel is a client state that is crucial to securing the empire’s interests. I also quote two other writers that mention the suffering of the Palestinians and how the conditions in Gaza do not represent a loss for the ruling class. I guess I assumed people would make the connection, but just to clear things up, I’m in no way denying Israel’s role in all this.

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