Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 10, 2020

Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic

Filed under: Counterpunch,cruise missile left,repression — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm


Cary Nelson, who signed Harper’s letter against cancel culture, also canceled Steven Salaita

You can imagine my chagrin when I discovered that Harper’s, a magazine that I have subscribed to since the early 80s, provided a platform for “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The open letter was a denunciation of “cancel culture” in the name of liberal values as if angry Tweets by mostly powerless young people had anything to do with state-sponsored censorship. Although I will say more about how and why this letter materialized, it is worth pointing out that one of its signatories is Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus at the U. of Illinois. In 2013, the board of trustees sent Steven Salaita a letter stating they were hiring him for a job teaching American Indian studies. Behind the scenes, Nelson and major donors connected to the Israel lobby had already begun a campaign to persuade the board to rescind the offer because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. He had already resigned a tenured position when the board caved into Zionist pressures. That left Salaita unemployed. Today he drives a school bus and will likely never teach again.

Continue reading

January 23, 2011

David Gibbs replies to Marko Attila Hoare

Filed under: cruise missile left,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

David N. Gibbs Replies to Marko Atilla Hoare

This posting is a follow-up on an extended debate that I have been having with Marko Atilla Hoare, on the breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1990s. For those interested in the full set of comments, you can find them here https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/david-gibbs-answers-marko-atilla-hoare/. This debate actually began on Modernityblog, but I have decided that Louis Proyect’s website is a much better venue for my comments. I thank Louis for allowing me to post on his website.

Let me begin by noting that Hoare seems to have an obsessive interest in my 2009 book, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009). Over the past two months, Hoare has written three lengthy attack reviews of my book on his own website, which (when printed out) run to some eighteen single-spaced pages; in addition to several dozen postings to Modernityblog, in debates that directly address my book. And he promises that there will be yet more attack reviews, to add to all this. One wonders if the man actually has a job, or if attacking me has become a full time endeavor. Either way, I am impressed by the sheer volume of his output.

In what follows, I will make no pretense that I answer all of Hoare’s allegations, which I find impossible, given the huge quantity of his charges. What I will show however is that Hoare’s writings contain major and systematic errors of fact that would, in any normal situation, discredit him.

One of Hoare’s most persistent charges is that my book whitewashes Serb atrocities, notably the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. In reality, this is nothing but a smear, based on an extended series of factual errors. Several examples follow. In Modernityblog (29/12/10), Hoare writes:

“in your sections on Srebrenica (pp. 153-154, 161-162), you falsely portray the Srebrenica Muslims as the ones principally guilty of the violence in the Srebrenica region, and of ‘creating the hatred’ there – despite the fact that most of the killing in the region was the work of the Serb forces.”

Wrong. This is what my book actually states (p. 161):

“the capture of Srebrenica led to atrocities that were far larger in scale than anything that had occurred during three years of fighting… the Serb armies began by expelling the town’s women and children, producing yet another act of ethnic cleansing. And then the Serbs proceeded to murder some eight thousand military age Muslim males. According to the Dutch investigation of the massacre: ‘Muslims were slaughtered like beasts.’”

Later in the debate (5/1/11), Hoare changes tack and makes the following statement — which contains new factual errors:

“Your account of the background to the Srebrenica massacre presents the Muslims/Bosnian army as the ones principally guilty of the atrocities in the region, and of having ‘created the hatred’ there (pp. 153-154).

You then claim ‘The origin of the Srebrenica massacre lay in a series of Muslim attacks that began in the spring of 1995.’ (p. 160)

So while you do not deny that the massacre occurred, you a) deny that it was genocide, and b) blame the victims for it.” [emphasis added]

The key point here is the claim that I supposedly “blame the victims” for the Srebrenica massacre. This is a straightforward factual error. In reality, my position is the following:

“Without question, the Bosnian Serb army and their political and military leaders must bear the overwhelming burden of guilt for having orchestrated this calamity. However, the Muslim leader Alija Izetbegović must bear some of the blame as well. Contrary to popular belief, Bosnia’s Muslim-led government was in fact quite ruthless and some of its actions helped lay the groundwork for the massacre. Specifically, the Izetbegović government followed a clear policy that aimed to maximize casualties of its own civilians, a strategy adopted to elicit the outrage of international public opinion, and thus leading to Western military intervention against the Serbs and in favor of the Muslim.” [emphasis added]

This quote was taken from the following article, which was posted twice to Modernityblog:  D. Gibbs, “The Srebrenica Massacre After Fifteen Years,” Foreign Policy in Focus, July 30, 2010, (www.fpif.org/articles/the_srebrenica_massacre_after_fifteen_years).

In short, I never state that the 8,000 Muslim victims were responsible for the Srebrenica massacre. On the contrary, I put primary blame on the Serb forces, and secondary blame on the Muslim government (which is not the same as the Muslim massacre victims). Hoare’s inflammatory claim that I blame the victims is a factual error.

Hoare’s above statement contains yet another error, attributing to me the quote “created the hatred” – which implies that I believe the Muslims not the Serbs had created the hatred in the Srebrenica area. In reality, the phrase “created the hatred” appears nowhere in my book or in any of my writings.

A central claim by Hoare is that I engage in “genocide denial.” Indeed, his first review of my book was given the unsubtle title, “The Bizarre World of Genocide Denial” (Greater Surbiton, 6/12/10).  The origin of Hoare’s charge is an endnote in my book (p. 281), in which I presented an extended quote from an article by Katherine Southwick, in the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal. The quote criticizes the Krstić decision by the international tribunal at The Hague, which had originally defined the Srebrenica massacre as a case of genocide. The cited article strongly implies that the court had erred in defining that massacre as genocide. Based on the evidence in the Southwick article, my endnote concluded that Srebrenica was closer to a war crime than to a genocide. This endnote became the initial basis of Hoare’s entire claim that I am a supposed genocide denier.

If I cannot cite and agree with an article in a Yale law review without being attacked like this, then there obviously is something wrong with the way this discussion is taking place.

When the above was pointed out on Modernityblog, Hoare responded (29/12/10):

“The Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal article by Katherine G. Southwick that you cite, unlike you, does not blame the genocide on the victims.” [emphasis added]

This is another factual error since, as noted above, I never blame the victims for the Srebrenica massacre.

Another point of contention concerns the lead-up to the Srebrenica massacre. Hoare claims my book “suppresses the history of Serb mass killings of Bosniaks in east Bosnia in 1992” (7/12/10). Wrong. Here is what my book actually says (122):

“As war began [in1992], Serb forces launched a major offensive in northeast Bosnia, talking over a series of villages of mixed ethnicity, and then expelling most of the non-Serb inhabitants by force. By the end of 1992, Serb forces had overrun large portions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they controlled approximately 70 percent of the whole area of the country. The process of ethnic cleansing, for which the war became famous, had begun… The Bosnia conflict quickly became notorious for the scale of atrocities, especially those perpetrated by Serb forces against Muslim civilians. The widespread practice of ethnic cleansing was often associated with the killing of noncombatants, and also the raping of women and girls.”

In short: With regard to the issue of Serb atrocities, Hoare’s claims are an extended misrepresentation of my position, based on a long string of factual errors.

And there are still more errors. With regard to my sources, Hoare claims that Gibbs “hasn’t bothered to engage with the existing literature, but simply ignored all the existing works that undermine his thesis” (Greater Surbiton, 6/12/10). He then lists five specific authors that I supposedly failed to cite (Michael Libal, Richard Caplan, Daniele Corversi, Brendan Simms, and Hoare himself). Wrong again. In fact I cited four of these authors, each several times, and also included them in the bibliography. Hoare’s own writings were cited (and criticized) in four separate endnotes. His claim that I have ignored these authors is in error.

And in a later posting to Greater Surbiton (24/12/10), Hoare discusses at great length my book’s criticisms of his own work – thus contradicting his previous claim that my book had ignored his work. And he also discusses a quote from my book that discusses Serb atrocities in northeast Bosnia in 1992 (see my block quote above). This contradicts his previous statement that my book “suppresses the history of Serb mass killings of Bosniaks in east Bosnia in 1992.” Finally, I will note that Hoare’s third long review of my book contains a factual error in its very title of the review: “First Check their Sources 2: The Myth that Most of Bosnia was Owned by the Serbs before the War.’” In reality, the quoted phrase (“Most of Bosnia…”) appears nowhere in my book or in any of my writings.

The above should give the reader a sense of Hoare’s “style” of argumentation. No doubt this posting will be followed by yet another blistering attack on my work, penned by the ever-eager Mr. Hoare — presenting yet more factual errors. I wonder if his cumulative attacks will eventually exceed several hundred pages.  Perhaps Hoare should consider publishing all of his attacks of my work as a separate book; or even an encyclopedia.

August 9, 2010

Tony Judt: an appreciation

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left,middle east,swans — louisproyect @ 1:07 pm

(Swans – August 9, 2010)   Tony Judt, a courageous and principled social democratic intellectual, died on August 6th after a two year struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Despite being almost totally paralyzed in his last few months of life, he continued to write about his illness and political beliefs, which had been growing more and more critical of American capitalism and the Zionism of his youth.

In his next to last essay that appeared in the New York Review, Judt referred to the final stages of his paralysis that would effectively rob him of his ability to communicate with the world — his voice:

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts — the view from inside is as rich as ever — but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing.

Now that he is gone it is appropriate to assess the legacy of “the view from inside” that Judt externalized over a lifetime of writing.

Judt came of age intellectually as a Cold War intellectual after the fashion of Albert Camus, a natural outcome of his scholarly concentration on French radical politics. As has often been the case, identification with Albert Camus has gone hand in hand with “humanitarian interventions” of the kind supported by other self-styled Camus disciples such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens. In a New York Review piece on Ronald Steel’s Temptations of a Superpower, Judt made the case for war in the Balkans, comparing the Serbs to pre-WWII fascists:

In the Thirties this was preceded by the effective end of the League of Nations on the occasion of its inability to punish or even inhibit Mussolini from his brutal occupation of Abyssinia; today the death toll of the United Nations has perhaps already been rung in Srebrenica and Zepa, where the UN forces first promised security to thousands of refugees, then betrayed them to the Serb forces.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy63.html

May 3, 2010

The Paul Berman-Ian Buruma feud

Filed under: cruise missile left,Islam,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Paul Berman

Ian Buruma

Today’s NY Times has a review of The Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman’s latest Islamophobic tirade:

Paul Berman’s new book, “The Flight of the Intellectuals,” plural, might as easily have been titled “The Flight of the Intellectual,” singular. It is essentially a booklong polemic against one magazine article: a profile of the Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan, written by Ian Buruma, the Dutch academic and journalist, and published in The New York Times Magazine in 2007.

While I doubt any of my readers would waste $26 dollars on Paul Berman’s trash, you can read the short version of the book, an article titled Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan? that appeared in the June 4, 2007 The New Republic (TNR).  For those who are unfamiliar with the TNR, this is a magazine whose editor Martin Peretz defended the war in Iraq this way recently:

There were moments–long moments–during the Iraq war when I had my doubts. Even deep doubts. Frankly, I couldn’t quite imagine any venture like this in the Arab world turning out especially well. This is, you will say, my prejudice. But some prejudices are built on real facts, and history generally proves me right. Go ahead, prove me wrong.

The review of Berman’s book was quite sympathetic and situated it in the kind of debates that used to take place on the Old Left:

Mr. Berman’s book has already made some noise. Writing in Slate, Ron Rosenbaum compared its stinging ambience, nostalgic to some, to one of “those old Partisan Review smackdowns,” in which Dwight Macdonald or Mary McCarthy cracked some unsuspecting frenemy over the head with a bookcase and a tinkling highball glass. And for sure, everything about “The Flight of the Intellectuals” feels old school, from Mr. Berman’s tone (controlled, almost tantric, high dudgeon) to the spectacle of one respected man of the left pummeling another while the blood flows freely, and no one calls the police.

Of course, the idea that Berman or Buruma have anything to do with “the left” is nonsense. As should be obvious, Berman is a neoconservative like Christopher Hitchens who invokes “liberalism” in his Islamophobic rants. Their main goal—obvious to anybody operating outside of the rather narrow political framework of the NYT—is to attack the left.

But what about Buruma? From the violence of Berman’s attack, you’d think that he was another George Galloway and a prime candidate for MRZine. But nothing can be further from the truth. Ian Buruma, a Bard College professor, only appears soft on political Islam from the perspective of a full-bore racist like Berman.

On February 25, 2006 Buruma wrote a piece in the Guardian raising the question Can sexual inadequacy or deprivation turn angry young men into killers? It attempted, believe it or not, to explain Muslim violence in terms of not getting laid:

Sexual deprivation may be a factor in the current wave of suicidal violence, unleashed by the Palestinian cause as well as revolutionary Islamism. The tantalising prospect of having one’s pick of the loveliest virgins in paradise is deliberately dangled in front of young men trained for violent death.

I personally think it has more to do with IDF brutality and the theft of Palestinian land but what do I know. I’m no Bard College professor.

Only two years earlier, Buruma had teamed up with Princeton professor Avishai Margalit (I dealt with his argument that Stalin was much worse than Hitler here) to produce Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism, a book that consciously seeks to undermine the arguments made by Edward Said in Orientalism. (I wrote a letter to Buruma about this analysis.) They see the Arab and Muslim world as seething with the kind of irrational attitudes that lead to jihadi violence. There’s little here, it would seem, to distinguish Buruma from Berman, whose Terror and Liberalism covers the same territory.

Indeed, writing about Berman’s book in the May 2003 New York Review, Buruma was generally positive:

There is, however, much to admire in Berman’s book too. As a general analysis of the various enemies of liberalism, and what ties them together, it is superb. All—Nazis, Islamists, Bolsheviks, Fascists, and so on—are linked by Berman to the “ur-myth” of the fall of Babylon. The decadent city-dwellers of Babylon, corrupted by luxury and poisoned by greed, infect the people of God with their wicked ways, even as the forces of Satan threaten the good people from afar. The people of God will only be freed from these abominations after a massive war of Armageddon, in which the city slickers and Satanic forces will be exterminated. A pure new world will rise from the burning ruins and “the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God.”

It would seem that this is just another case of cruise missile leftists having some kind of turf battle. George Packer, another cheerleader for Bush’s wars, wrote a nasty attack on Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War, a book written by Mark Danner, another Bard College professor noted for his gung-ho support for bombing the Serbs to oblivion. I discussed their feud here. All of these characters—Danner, Berman, Buruma, Hitchens, Packer—share a belief that the U.S. has the right to police the world and would regard anti-imperialism as an evil to be avoided at all costs.

Berman’s TNR article is filled with outrageous Islamophobic observations such as the following:

The Muslim emigration has turned out to be one of history’s largest events, and in scattered regions across the whole of Western Europe, old-stock populations nowadays wake up to discover that people from the Muslim world have suddenly come to dominate this or that neighborhood or town, and Arabic or Turkish has begun to outpace some of the smaller European languages, and here and there Islamist groups are demanding censorship of one thing or another, or are demanding gender-segregated beaches, or the curricular demise of Voltaire or Darwin, or an end to history instruction on the crimes of Nazism. And there are always sermons by one or another exotically costumed Islamic scholar fantasizing about a Muslim conquest of Europe and the world, which therefore can be cited as evidence of a giant conspiracy.

I should state to begin with that Berman does not document the charge about demanding an end to history instruction on the crimes of Nazism. The article is filled with such inflammatory and unsubstantiated allegations. With respect to exotically costumed Islamic scholars fantasizing about a Muslim conquest of Europe, you’d have to search far and wide for more offensive and racist prose.

The article also singles out “Trotskyists”, including the British SWP and the French LCR, for marching in antiwar demonstrations with Islamic radicals. Considering his support for a war that has cost the lives of nearly 2.5 percent of the Iraqi population according to Lancet (equivalent to 7.5 million American deaths), it is shocking to see him passing judgments on those who agreed mostly on the need for peace rather than how to interpret the Quran.

A January 2004 symposium in Slate Magazine invited Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria to revisit their support for the war in Iraq. Berman was as fanatical as he was at the outset, stating:

Sept. 11 did not come from a single Bad Guy—it was a product of the larger totalitarian wave, and the only proper response was to comprehend the size and depth of that larger wave, and find ways to begin rolling it back, militarily and otherwise—mostly otherwise. To roll it back for our own sake, and everyone else’s sake, Muslims’ especially. Iraq, with its somewhat antique variation of the Muslim totalitarian idea, was merely a place to begin, after Afghanistan, with its more modern variation.

Somewhere along the line, liberals began to step back from this kind of blood-curdling militarism. Packer and Friedman, for example, did a feeble mea culpa. Understanding that his credibility as a liberal pundit was at stake, Buruma began to retreat from the arguments made in Occidentalism. While not explicitly confessing that they were garbage, he began to distinguish himself from the kind of mouth-breathing racism that people like Hitchens and Berman typify.

He had the temerity to describe Tariq Ramadan in the following terms in the New York Times Magazine on February 4, 2007:

Ramadan’s favorite Muslim philosophers are the late-19th-century reformists Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who tried to revive Islam under Western colonial rule by rational interpretation of the holy texts. They were skeptical of religious tradition, accumulated over time, and looked for core principles in the Koran that spoke to reason. For them there was no contradiction between scientific reasoning and their Muslim faith. And female emancipation or democratic government could be reconciled with the original principles of Islam. Both had lived in Europe. Both were harsh critics of colonialism and Western materialism. In Ramadan’s words, “They saw the need to resist the West, through Islam, while taking what was useful from it.”

Berman’s answer to this is to connect Ramadan to al-Qaeda through a kind of “six degrees of separation” logic:

Here, on page 26, is Hassan al-Banna; and Abul Ala Mawdudi from the South Asian subcontinent, whose activities Tariq’s father, Said Ramadan, coordinated with the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ali Shariati, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fellow thinker in Iran. And here is Sayyid Qutb, one more influential reformist among the others, listed without comment—even if Qutb’s legacy, in one of its offshoots, did lead to Al Qaeda.

I myself have little patience for this kind of amalgam-building, having seen the low-rent version from Michael Pugliese when he was on Marxmail briefly a decade ago.

But the proximate cause of Berman’s new book was Buruma’s treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian émigré now ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute. In a review of Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism that appeared in the September 27, 2007 New York Review, Buruma knocked Ali off her pedestal, although rather daintily:

Since she renounced her Muslim beliefs to become an atheist and a defender of “Enlightenment values” against Islam, she has been taken up by neocons and neoleftists as an iconic figure, described in The New Republic Online as “the most courageous and remarkable woman of our time.”

She is indeed a courageous and remarkable woman, whose skillfully ghostwritten memoir, Infidel, has attracted a great deal of attention. Her views on the oppression of women in the name of Islam are admirable, and I share her conviction that liberal democracy should be defended against violent intimidation. But atheists, especially after conversion from religious orthodoxy, tend to retain some of their old zeal. This rather limits Hirsi Ali’s influence over Muslims who are trying to find a place for their faith in a modern democracy. Dogmatism also leads to errors of judgment, for example when she recommends backing the Turkish military against the democratically elected Turkish government, just because it is led by an Islamic party. To point this out is not the same as placing her on the same moral or political level as the violent zealots she opposes. And it should not be a reason to denounce the critic as an implacable foe not only of Hirsi Ali herself, but of free speech, democracy, the Enlightenment, and so forth. Like Podhoretz’s description of the US press as pro-Islamic, such a conclusion can only be drawn by fanatics.

Buruma also took a swipe at Berman and his creepy co-thinkers:

Such tub-thumpers for Bush’s war as Christopher Hitchens, the Parisian writer Pascal Bruckner, and the American journalist Paul Berman would not describe themselves as neocons. On the contrary, in their view, they are just where the true left should be, the neoleft as it were. The revolution has moved on. In the words of Hitchens: “The United States has placed itself on the right side of history.” Or, as Dick Cheney once said about Bush to a neocon friend of mine: “Yup, he’s a revolutionary president.”

This prompted a letter to the NYR from Berman that included the following:

He mentions in his review Christopher Hitchens and Pascal Bruckner, and he links their names to mine, as if in further expression of his all-purpose loathing for Bush. Yet he might have shed a clarifying light on his own article by acknowledging that, among the many writers in the United States and especially in Europe who have uttered a few indignant words in Hirsi Ali’s defense, Hitchens and Bruckner have made themselves especially prominent. Pascal Bruckner’s name appears in The New York Review for one reason only, which is to punish him for having become the single most scathing and influential of Buruma’s European detractors.

Allow me to add that, regardless of his journalism, which I have not been reluctant to criticize, I continue to admire the book that Buruma wrote with Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism, the first sketch of which appeared in The New York Review [“Seeds of Revolution,” March 11, 2004]. Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism is a classic of the antitotalitarian left—an outstanding study of totalitarian and fascist ideas of the past and their enduring influence today.

Buruma answered Berman thusly:

What I wrote was not that Berman likes or admires George W. Bush. My point was that on the question whether it was right to go to war in Iraq to fight “Islamofacism,” in the name of Abraham Lincoln, I see no difference between the neocons and the neo-left. Indeed, Berman appears to agree with this, at least partly. He said in an on-line interview in March 2003:

I admire the neocons in one regard: their political ideas are very ambitious. I think the neocons are correct in supposing that something fundamental has gone wrong in the political culture of the Middle East, and that radical measures are required to set the wrong aright.

The question is what radical measures he had in mind. Here, too, there is no mystery. Arguing in Dissent magazine with an imaginary leftist opponent of the Iraq war, he wrote: “If only people like you would wake up, you would see that war against the radical Islamist and Baathist movements, in Afghanistan exactly as in Iraq, is war against fascism.”

There was, of course, in the case of Iraq, the matter of international law, something liberals, unlike neocons, have always taken seriously. But Berman wrote in the same article:

We have had to choose between supporting the war, or opposing it—supporting the war in the name of antifascism, or opposing it in the name of some kind of concept of international law. Antifascism without international law; or international law without antifascism. A miserable choice—but one does have to choose, unfortunately.

Yes, one does, unfortunately. And Berman’s choice was precisely the choice of President Bush and his neocon supporters. “On principle” it is easy to agree with Berman. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein is a fine thing. But how responsible is it to promote a war that is waged by a president who is as hopeless as Berman says he is? Berman proudly relates that he resisted telling the world “I told you so.” Told us what exactly? That this reckless war should never have been attempted?

Between Buruma and Berman, I’d have to give critical support to the former since he certainly qualifies as a “lesser evil”. Our business, of course, as leftists is to stick to our anti-imperialist principles and leave such feuding to the Upper West Side of Manhattan salons where it belongs.

April 27, 2010

Fred Halliday

Fred Halliday, who has died of cancer aged 64, was an Irish academic whose main interest was the Middle East and its place in international politics. His first major book, Arabia Without Sultans, was published in 1974. The culmination of adventurous field research in the region, including Oman, it was a study of Arabian regimes, their support from the west and Iran, and the revolutionary forces fighting against them. “The Arab Middle East is the one with the longest history of contact with the west; yet it is probably the one least understood,” Fred believed. “Part of the misunderstanding is due to the romantic mythology that has long appeared to shroud the deserts of the peninsula. Where old myths have broken down, new ones have absorbed them or taken their place.”

read full obituary

* * * *

The bilious Fred Halliday

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 1, 2005

One thing that a number of high-profile self-described leftist enemies of “Islamofascism” have in common is that they were all once members of the editorial board of the New Left Review. What they also had in common was support for NATO’s war in the Balkans, which implied a much different attitude toward imperialism than that found in classical Marxism.

Ex-editors Quentin Hoare and his wife Branka Magas spent most of the late 1990s writing article after article demonizing the Serbs and demanding that they be bombed into submission.

In October 2000, the NLR asked Marko Attila Hoare, the progeny of Quentin and Branka, to write an article on the anti-Milosevic revolt. However, editor Susan Watkins nixed the article since it implied political support for the forced absorption of Yugoslavia into Western European economic and political institutions. (Watkins is married to Tariq Ali and appears to be one of the more radical-minded of the editors there. Apparently–despite her husband–she hates the idea of the left voting for John Kerry.)

While not as visible on the frontlines as the Hoare and Magas, Norman Geras and Chris Bertram were also being seduced by the notion of Cruise missiles as agencies of Yugoslav democracy. For reasons that remain somewhat murky, Hoare, Magas, Geras and Bertram all resigned from the NLR in 1993. What is clear, however, is that they are for Woodrow Wilson style imperialist interventions as the need arises–a variant on the bastardized socialism that compelled Lenin to draft the Zimmerwald manifesto at the start of WWI.

Although I don’t know if ex-NLR editor Fred Halliday left with this crowd back in 1993 and am not aware of any pronounced hostility toward the Serbs on his part, he certainly has emerged as a prominent supporter of military efforts to tame the unruly Moslem. Halliday’s earlier work, like “The Making of the Second Cold War” in 1983, is written from a fairly conventional academic leftist standpoint but more recent work reflects a kind of creeping Thomas Friedman sensibility about the need to punish “bad” Islamists and reward good ones. So, this means supporting the war in Afghanistan while at the same time pressing for Turkey’s admission to the European Union. You find a certain convergence between Halliday and the batty ex-radical and current Sufi neo-conservative Stephen Schwartz, whose latest book also makes the case for sorting out good Islam from bad. Needless to say, the bad Moslems are those who tend to attack Israeli or US interests.

Like others who have traveled this route, Halliday is developing a rather bilious personality that is rapidly encroaching on Christopher Hitchens’ turf. I refer you in particular to an item in last Sunday’s Observer penned by Halliday and titled It’s time to bin the past. It rather shamelessly appropriates Leon Trotsky’s verdict on the Mensheviks being consigned to the dustbin of history, since Halliday–an ex-Trotskyist–must surely be aware that Trotsky was attacking reformists just like him.

Halliday discusses three “dustbins” of history in his screed. The first two relate to the former Soviet Union and Washington and make rather obvious points about Putin and Bush. It is the third dustbin that gets Halliday into a proper lather:

The Third Dustbin is that of the contemporary global protest movement, to a considerable degree a children’s crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators, of the old and new lefts, whose claim to moral and analytic superiority too often masks a set of unexamined, and themselves often recycled, platitudes from the Cold War period and, indeed, from the ideology of the communist world.

Which intellectual demagogues would Halliday be railing against here? Naomi Klein, the most prominent spokesperson of this global protest movement? Is she recycling ideology from the communist world? Sigh, if only this were the case. Halliday lurches ahead:

Indeed the contents of this Third Dustbin are familiar enough: a ritual incantantion of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism that blithely ignores the misuses to which that term was put in the 20th century (for example by Stalin or Mao); a complacent attitude, innocent when not indulgent, towards political violence (witness the cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man, and the invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran, to name but three at the London Social Summit in October).

One has to wonder if the editor assigned to Halliday’s piece was drunk when he worked on it, since the above citation can barely stand on its own feet. Not only is it a 129 word sentence in clear violation of the Gunning fog factor, it also spells ‘incantation’ wrong.

With respect to the “cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man,” one can only wonder if Halliday must be upset by the hit film “Motorcycle Diaries,” which inspired an over-the-top verbal assault from Christopher Hitchens on Slate. One supposes that Che gets people like Halliday and Hitchens all upset because he reminds them of their long frozen-over youthful idealism. And those invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran. They should have known better than to be born in such places. Far better for them to have been born elsewhere or at least to have forsaken radical politics as Halliday did long ago. Our angry professor concludes:

We can assess the outcome of discussions in Davos and Porto Alegre to see if thinking on the current crises of the world has moved on. Here ideas and policies should meet what I term the ‘Vilanova Test’, named after the flinty Spanish writer Pere Vilanova, who, on the basis of years of political engagement and debate in Spain and the Arab world, has argued consistently for pensamiento duro, ‘tough thinking’, in the contemporary world. We certainly have, and may again be treated to, plenty of the other.

What can I say, when I hear business about “tough thinking”, Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik comes to mind. This, after all, is what Halliday and his co-thinkers are about–reshaping the planet in pursuit of geopolitical goals. I don’t mind if that’s their agenda. The least they can do is can the leftish rhetoric.

April 25, 2010

Q: What is a Platypus? A: an American Eustonite

Filed under: Academia,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

Chris Cutrone: Platypus éminence grise

Originally I had no idea that Platypus was some kind of organized group on the left. I regarded it as an electronic magazine after the fashion of Metamute, another oddly named left outlet that favored heterodox Marxist analysis written by young professors and graduate students. I suppose that if I paid closer attention to their url (platypus1917.org) I might have figured out that their ambitions were somewhat larger. Ah, 1917, the year that amounts to the birth of Christ for a rival sect.

It was only after I began following a dust-up between Platypus editor Chris Cutrone and just about every other subscriber on Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer mailing list that I figured out that Platypus was a tendency on the left trying to save us from ourselves through “education” rather than by example through action. The debate was prompted by an interview conducted with Platypusers Chris Mansour and Ian Morrison by WBAI board member Mitchell Cohen, a bearded 60s conspiracy-mongering radical who could not be more unlike than these brash Young Turks. The two young men have cultivated the art of sounding outrageous, so necessary in raising one’s profile on a left filled with ambitious attempts at carving out a market niche. They say, for example, that Naomi Klein has mounted a “rightwing critique of Milton Friedman”. I have my own problems with Klein, but this analysis is frankly stupid.

The discussion about the Platypus interview began appropriately enough on April Fool’s Day, but Chris Cutrone did not enter the fray until 5 days later when he offered up an introduction to Platypus that includes the following account of its origins:

We started as a reading group in Chicago in 2006 and formally constituted ourselves as an organization, starting to hold our fora and publish our paper in 2007. We’ve had the following panelists or published writings by: Ernesto Laclau, Moishe Postone, T. J. Clark, Hal Foster, David Harvey, Stephen Duncombe, Danny Postel, Michael Lowy, Peter Hudis, Kevin Anderson, Andrew Kliman, James Heartfield, David Black, Michael Albert, Paul Street, Ervand Abrahamian, Hamid Dabashi, Leo Panitch, members of the ISO, Solidarity and the RCP, and worked closely with the new SDS, the (various) Marxist-Humanists, the immigration rights movement, and others. We have included various student activists on our public forum panels, and have the plurality of our published writings have been by undergraduate students.

With respect to “theory”, Cutrone supplied the following:

A few of us are current or former students of Moishe Postone; a couple of us have also been mentored by Adolph Reed. These are our two single most influential living figures for our thinking, but a couple of us are also former members of the Spartacist Youth Club when we were in college almost 20 years ago. My personal academic specialization is Frankfurt School Critical Theory, Adorno and Benjamin in particular. The group started with several of my students asking for an extra-curricular reading group on the contemporary relevance of F.S. critical theory for politics. One of our very first readings was Featherstone/Henwood/Parenti’s “Action Will Be Taken” critique of the “anti-war” movement (2002).

Having never read Moishe Postone, I can’t comment on his value but I have to wonder whether Adolph Reed’s reputation is well served by this. Reed, an African-American political science professor, was a member of the Trotskyist movement around the same time as me and has evolved a workerism hostile to “Black identity” politics with some affinities to Walter Benn Michaels, as well as to the batty Spartacist League but with considerably more intelligence. With respect to “Action will be taken”, this is a very useful article, but I doubt that the authors would be happy with the placing of scare quotes around anti-war movement. More about this anon.

Finally, they claim responsibility for developing a new brand of Marxism that will differentiate them from other groups on the left, namely a synthesis of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky with the Frankfurt School, a rather unlikely combination:

We’ve offered, for our own self-understanding, what we call a “synthesis” of the “2nd International radicals” Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky with F.S. critical theory, especially by Benjamin and Adorno, but also by the early Lukacs and Korsch, considering all of these to be the most interesting developments of Marx’s work in theory and practice. We think that what Korsch termed the “crisis of Marxism” 1914-23, was never adequately resolved but rather Marxism disintegrated and degenerated, with negative consequences for the Left, “Marxist” or otherwise.

When I read this, I could not help but think of Perry Anderson’s reflections on Karl Korsch in his 1976 “Considerations of Western Marxism”. Korsch and other Marxist academics were appalled by the failure of socialist revolutions to triumph after 1917 and retreated into the ivory tower in order to mount philosophical investigations largely disconnected from the class struggle. It was an ideological current that reflected disappointment and pessimism, understandable given the horrors of Stalinism and fascism. Since the Platypus group is following very much in the footsteps of Western Marxism (but without its intellectual prowess), one can only surmise that something traumatic must have occurred in their lifetime. What could be their version of Stalin’s rise and the failure of Communist Parties to resist Hitler?

Apparently, the anti-globalization protests up to and including Seattle left a very bad taste in their mouth:

Reenacting not only the defeat but the defeatism of the 1960s Left, the Seattle protesters no longer even bother with the old talk about students or youth as a new “revolutionary force.” Nor do these new would-be radicals require elaborate rationalizations of their failure. Theirs is a disarmingly frank acting-out of a discontented middle-class youth, for whom the schedule of international trade meetings takes the place of rock concert tours as the site for a peripatetic anti-authoritarian subculture.

And speaking of the 1960s left, the Platypus people take a dim view of the SDS protests that radicalized so many college students and shook American society to its foundations. In a chastened and rueful mood, they find much to support in the elderly Adorno’s disgust with Columbia University’s protestors:

Borrowing from Freudian psychoanalysis, Adorno and his colleagues (Marcuse and Reich) interpreted the constitution of the “authoritarian personality,” characterized by “narcissism” and sadomasochism, as evincing a regressive “fear of freedom.” Thus, faced with “political hysteria” Adorno observed, “Those who protest most vehemently are similar to authoritarian personalities in their aversion to introspection.”

Having lived through this period, I can state that many journalists shared Adorno’s critique but without his anti-capitalist cachet. A week did not go by without some pundit blaming the Oedipal Complex for SDS misbehavior. Silly me always blamed street protests and “trashing” on outrage over napalming peasant villages rather than a desire to have intercourse with one’s mother.

If you’re starting to get the picture that these Platypus people are a bunch of stuffed shirts with a kind of visceral distrust of anything too militant, you haven’t seen the worst of it. Unfortunately, their journal is filled with musings on foreign policy that reek of the Euston Manifesto. After a leisurely walk through all 17 issues, I am appalled by what I found there.

Ian Morrison, one of Mitchell Cohen’s interviewees, wrote an article dated March 1, 2008 titled Ba’athism and the history of the Left in Iraq: Violence and politics that chided Ramsey Clark for acting as Saddam Hussein’s lawyer. Hadn’t Clark read Kenan Makiya, the ex-Trotskyist whose Republic of Fear had the last word on how dastardly Saddam was? Implicitly someone as wicked as Saddam did not warrant Clark’s services, a view widely held by liberals at the time. Platypus somehow feels the need to remind us of Saddam’s wickedness as if we were all members of the Workers World Party:

Kanan Makiya’s groundbreaking study of Iraqi Ba’athism, Republic of Fear, documents instances of institutionalized violence used to terrorize Iraqi society. In the 1998 introduction, Makiya recounts a law passed in the chaotic aftermath of the first Gulf War mandating that the state brand the mark of an X on the forehead of repeat offenders of crimes such as theft and desertion; the first offense of such crimes was punished by amputation of the hand.

The article does not mention that Makiya was one of the major “left” voices urging war on Iraq in 2003 and it is surprising that given all the opprobrium Makiya has earned in the past 7 years that Platypus still takes him seriously. Edward Said, among others, had his number in 2002:

In and of himself, Makiya is a passing phenomenon. He is, however, a symptom of several things at once. He represents the intellectual who serves power unquestioningly; the greater the power, the fewer doubts he has. He is a man of vanity who has no compassion, no demonstrable awareness of human suffering. With no stable principles or values, he is typical of the cynical anti-Arab hawks (like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld) who dot the Bush administration like flies on a cake. British imperialism, Israel’s brutal occupation policies, or American arrogance do not detain him for a moment. Worst of all, he is a man of pretension and superficiality, flattering himself on his reasonableness even as he condemns his own people to more travail and more dislocation. Woe to Iraq!

Written somewhat ostentatiously in the name of the Platypus Historians Group (as if they could be seen in the same light as the storied Communist Historians Group that included Hobsbawm et al), there is an article titled Catastrophe, historical memory and the Left: 60 years of Israel-Palestine that unconscionably puts Palestinan and Israeli violence on the same plane:

Neither the endless “peace process” nor Katyusha rockets shot by Islamic fundamentalists at working-class Israeli towns point towards an emancipatory politics.

It should me mentioned at this point that the call for “emancipatory politics” serves as a kind of mantra on the Platypus website although I have never been able to figure out what it means. In Marxist terms, emancipation means ending class rule and producing for human need rather than private profit. For these upstarts, it strikes me as having much more of the libertarian esprit that typified Frank Furedi’s group in Britain. It should therefore come as no surprise that James Heartfield, the last Furedite claiming allegiance to Marxism, contributed once to Platypus. Despite my overall hostility to Spiked online politics, I’d have to say that Heartfield took a step down when he became associated with these characters. Even if he agrees with Cutrone and company that the “left is dead”, Heartfield would never offer up their kind of Eustonite droppings.

As mentioned above, Cutrone employs scare quotes when it comes to the antiwar movement. Once again, in 2008, he had recourse to this device in an article titled Iraq and the election: The fog of “anti-war” politics. In it he finds it useful to put scare quotes around the word imperialism as well. In the world of the Platypus, all attempts to describe Bush’s war as imperialist are wrong. Indeed, the cause of the war was not a grab at resources and any other geopolitical assets but Saddam’s recklessness:

At base, the U.S. did not invade and occupy Iraq to steal its oil, or for any other venal or nefarious reason, but rather because the U.N.’s 12-year-old sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, which meant the compromise and undermining of effective Iraqi sovereignty (for instance in the carving of an autonomous Kurdish zone under U.N. and NATO military protection) was unraveling in the oil-for-food scandal etc., and Saddam, after the first grave mistake of invading Kuwait, made the further fateful errors of spiting the U.N. arms inspectors and counting on being able to balance the interests of the European and other powers in the U.N. against the U.S. threat of invasion and occupation.

Let’s not beat around the bush, dear reader. The notion that Saddam’s “spited” the U.N. arms inspectors belongs on Fox News rather than a self-described Marxist website professing “emancipatory politics”. Quite frankly, I have to wonder if some of the good people who have taken part in panel discussions with Platypus people have an idea that such raw sewage is floating in their canals.

Finally, it has to be mentioned that Platypus interviewed two people who symbolize Eustonite politics to a tee. The first is an interview with the Canadian blogger Terry Glavin who is described as “an outspoken critic of the anti-war movement’s call to withdrawal [sic] foreign troops from Afghanistan”. I would have described Glavin as a toxic Islamophobe but that’s just me.

Here’s one of the questions that Platypusite Andony Melathopoulos asks Glavin:

In your Democratiya [a Eustonite publication now absorbed by the awful Dissent Magazine] piece you describe the forthcoming Obama presidency as articulating the words that Afghans want to hear most: “We will not leave you. We will not betray you. We will not abandon you”. What is it about Obama’s approach that makes you think that the U.S. will finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan?

When I read the business about a “serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan”, I felt that I had wandered into the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS.

And even more outrageously, they still find it useful to regard Christopher Hitchens as part of the left in a 2009 article (Going it Alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left) long after anybody–including Hitchens—would have put him in such company. It flatters Hitchens in practically every paragraph:

With the familiarity he possessed of its prevailing intellectual habits and dispositions and also of the actual composition of the various popular front organizations that sprung up to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hitchens possessed unique resources to undertake a thoroughgoing critique of the contemporary Left.

In the weeks and months following 9/11, Hitchens’s criticism of what passes for the Left resounded loudly on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether in left-leaning organs such as The Nation and the Guardian or in more mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and The Independent, in article after article Hitchens drove the point home that the issue of “imperialism,” as understood for decades on the Left, had ceased to be relevant.

Once again we see scare quotes around imperialism. In my view, this kind of denialism says much more about these latter day Mensheviks than anything. What we are dealing with is a section of the academic left that has become profoundly disoriented and succumbed to the pressure of living inside the U.S., the world’s largest and most dangerous hegemon in history. The purpose of this article is to put a skull-and-bones sign next to the poisoned well they drink from so as to warn any young graduate student to not drink the water at the risk of political death.

January 24, 2010

Guest post on Haiti

Filed under: bard college,cruise missile left,Haiti — louisproyect @ 10:36 pm

Mark Danner

John Halle

Mark Danner’s Choice

By John Halle

(John Halle is a music professor at Bard College and the only leftist teaching there, now that Joel Kovel is gone. Mark Danner is a faculty member there as well, epitomizing the prevailing George Soros/New York Review of Books ideology.)

A long standing staple of Fox News discourse claims that liberalism in the academy holds sway as a kind of semi-official ideology.  This view is largely correct, though it should be kept in mind that it is the liberalism targeted in recent denunciations by Adolph Reed and Chris Hedges, not the “radical leftism” of teabaggers and other fantasists of the right.

A more or less paradigmatic example of the former can be found in Mark Danner’s recent NY Times Op-Ed “To Heal Haiti, Look to History” which would be quickly picked up at commondreams.org, Democracy Now! and grit.tv among other sites.

That the piece would be promoted by web organs of the authentic-as opposed to liberal- left was, at least superficially reasonable in that Danner’s (or for that matter anyone’s) minimally accurate thumb nail sketch of Haitian history could not fail but to deliver a stridently anti-imperialist message: Haiti has functioned as “a state built for predation and plunder”, starting with the complete eradication of its native population, to its establishment as the most brutal of slave states, to its functioning in the 20th century as a paradigmatic kleptocracy presided over by a string of vicious dictators serving themselves and the interests of foreign capital.

Danner’s bill of particulars, many of these laid on our doorstep, is of course regrettable, disturbing, and even damning and as such provides an opportunity for the displays of teeth gnashing and garment rending which liberals can be relied on to engage in.  Their doing so requires, however, that one condition is met: that these instances are all safely in the past.

Thus, what is predictably missing in Danner’s discussion is anything other than the vaguest allusion to the recent history of Haiti. And it is this history which is largely responsible for the almost inconceivable scale of the devastation caused by what would otherwise be a major, but by no means unprecedented disaster.

The relevant cause, as is described in the works of Robert Fatton, is demographic: for the past three decades the city of Port au Prince has grown from approximately 300,000 to over 2.5 million inhabitants.  Lacking the infrastructure required to support this population and the financial wherewithal to develop it, most residents of the capital lived in slums lacking the most basic sanitation facilities, with only sporadic access to safe drinking water and frequently subjected to protracted encounters with what NGO’s somewhat euphemistically refer to as “food insecurity”.  Moreover, it hardly needs to be mentioned, building codes were non existent.

It was eminently predictable from these initial conditions that a 7.0 Richter Scale seismic event would materialize as it did with countless thousands buried under rubble, those able to extract themselves doing so in a weakened condition sometimes literally dying of thirst or through opportunistic infections.

If we want to understand as opposed to merely wring our hands about this epic tragedy, we need to inquire into why these conditions obtained.  What accounted for the massive influx into Port au Prince from the rural, agricultural areas?  Danner indirectly alludes to the crucial in his proposal to “America (to) throw open its markets to Haitian agricultural produce and manufactured goods, broadening and making permanent the provisions of a promising trade bill negotiated in 2008.”

Danner has this exactly backward.  As Fatton and others have noted, it is not the failure of the U.S. to open its markets, but rather the converse which is directly implicated in the catastrophe- which is to say two decades of extortionate neo-liberal trade pacts which required Haiti to open its markets to U.S. goods.  Chief among these are heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural products, most notably rice.  These were dumped on Haiti with similar results to that in much of the third world:  Farmers unable to compete with cheap imports were driven off their land, selling out to multinational agribusiness and developers, initiating an exodus to the cities offering the prospect of employment in manufacturing sector albeit at near starvation wages.

This is now an old story applying to much of the third world and told in numerous places, most comprehensively in Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. And so it is reasonable to ask why does Danner fail to mention it?

The answer is necessarily a matter of speculation though it is probably not too cynical to assume that Danner is well aware that his reputation as a “serious” thinker on these and related matters in establishment circles requires that these obvious truths be passed over unacknowledged.

A parade examples of a fall from grace occasioned by failing to respect the boundaries of acceptable discourse is provided by former Times Middle East bureau chief Hedges whose rigorous, informed and brilliant recent works, or “rants”-as they are described when insiders even bother to recognize them, are now relegated to wilds of the internet.

Danner’s perches at the Council on Foreign Relation, the Century Foundation and the Pacific Council for World Affairs and his access to mainstream “print” media (not to mention the substantial fees which accompany these) will remain secure so long as he respects the limits which Hedges transgressed-as will his ultimate legacy as one more apologist for imperial plunder, albeit of the kinder and gentler neo-liberal variety.

If it is to be otherwise, he will need to join Hedges on “the dark side” as it were, by developing the capacity to name those individuals as well as the system (namely capitalism) which is responsible for the conditions which made widespread death and destruction, in Haiti and much of the rest of the third world, inevitable.

November 27, 2009

Michael Berube’s war on the left

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Michael Berube

Skimming through Michael Berube’s newly published Eustonesque manifesto “The Left at War“, I stumbled across a reference to yours truly in chapter one. The good professor grouped me with 9/11 truthers and Bob Avakian, as people not worth his while to attack. The book, you see, was going after bigger game, like Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and other enemies of humane, liberal values. It appears that I didn’t rate, because I was just an Internet phenomenon:

Likewise, if I wanted to engage with the divagations [a fancy word for ramblings] of the radical left online, I would include figures like Louis Proyect, a Columbia University computer programmer whose name is well known to far-left listservs and blogs, and who is capable of writing things like, “To the credit of the late Slobodan Milosevic and to Saddam Hussein, who now is on trial for his life in another kangaroo court, they never bowed down. In life and in death, these imperfect men will always remind us of the need to resist the injustice perpetrated by states acting out of perfect evil. “

The words were my conclusion to an article in Swans titled The Demonization And Death Of Slobodan Milosevic that I certainly stand by.  In keeping with this put-down and subsequent railings against Chomsky, Edward Herman and Diana Johnstone, you will not find any substance to Berube’s complaint, which usually takes the form of a sputtering “how dare they!” Since so much of the book is a diatribe against positions the left took on Yugoslavia, one would hope that the good professor might have taken the trouble to explain how critics of NATO’s war were wrong either on the facts or logic. But such matters do not interest him. He is much more at home in the ethereal realm of morality and global governance pirouetting with the angels.

I once posed the question to Berube on his blog as to what scholarly literature he had read on Yugoslavia. It drew a blank. His main interest is not in history, economics, or anything remotely related to a class analysis. He is a cultural studies professor by trade and heavily invested in theory, not the mundane world of facts and data. So much so that the book is largely devoted to praising Stuart Hall as the answer to all the wicked leftists who disagree with him on Yugoslavia. Yes, I know the connection is tenuous at best but I will do my best to explain how the good professor thinks, an onerous task I must admit.

I am not sure when I first stumbled across Berube’s writings, but my first response to him was in an article titled “Noam Chomsky and his Critics“, written on August 15, 2002. It was at a time when Chomsky was a lightning rod for the Eric Altermans and Christopher Hitchens of the world. They were outraged that he was not ready to jump on George W. Bush’s bandwagon, having the temerity to characterize American foreign policy as criminally brutal. In those days, people like Todd Gitlin were writing articles about the need to fly the American flag so you can imagine how angry he made the cruise missile left.

This is how I summed up Berube in that article:

For some on the postmodernist left, Chomsky has also become objectionable. Michael Berube, a commentator on the arts and society, feels that “the Chomskian left has consigned itself to the dustbin of history.” In accounting for the split between the “Chomskian left” and “the Hitchens left,” Berube surmises that “the simple fact that bombs were dropping” might have something to do with it. He writes:

For U.S. leftists schooled in the lessons of Cambodia, Libya, and the School of the Americas, all U.S. bombing actions are suspect: they are announced by cadaverous white guys with bad hair, they are covered by seven cable channels competing with one another for the catchiest “New War” slogan and Emmy awards for creative flag display, and they invariably kill civilians, the poor, the wretched, the disabled. Surely, there is much to hate about any bombing campaign.

Dispensing with the relativism and playful irony that characterizes the postmodernist left, Berube reminds his readers that war is a serious business:

Yet who would deny that a nation, once attacked, has the right to respond with military force, and who seriously believes that anyone could undertake any “nation-building” enterprise in Afghanistan without driving the Taliban from power first?

While most of Berube’s book is a sustained if rather flaccid attack on what he calls the “Manichean left”, he does try to distinguish himself from Hitchens, George Packer, Kenan Makiya, Paul Berman and other supporters of the war in Iraq. Berube is aggravated that they couldn’t figure out the difference between Serbia and Afghanistan on one hand and Iraq on the other. It was okay, if not essential, to bomb the former countries into submission while only using economic sanctions and flyovers against the latter.

You can read chapter 3 of Berube’s book, titled “Iraq: the Hard Road to Debacle”, in its entirety on Scribd.com.  It is replete with Berube’s trademark casuistry. He supported the war in Afghanistan but only if it was restricted to an assault on the al-Qaeda’s base in Tora Bora but not if would become what it actually became, an 8-year humanitarian disaster for the Afghan people. By analogy, he describes WWII as a good war, even if it involved bad decisions such as the bombing of Dresden. He wants to distinguish himself from the Pentagon generals even if they are the only conceivable agency to rid the world of evils such as al-Qaeda and Slobodan Milosevic. Perhaps the world would be better off if the military was run by cultural studies professors like Berube, but then again his role is not to actually kill people but to dream up sophisticated rationales for such acts.

In the section of chapter 3 titled “The Balkanized Left”, Berube cites Ian Williams in favor of NATO intervention without showing the slightest evidence that he has considered arguments and facts to the contrary. For example, Williams asserts that the U.S. was “dragged unwillingly” into the war by Europeans.

David Gibbs, the author of “First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia” sees things differently:

Deliberate Force was technically a multinational NATO campaign, but it was conceived and conducted largely by the United States.  Shortly before the strikes were launched, US officials met with their European counterparts and, in essence, demanded their support.  According to Chollet, who interviewed many key figures: “The Americans would go to explain what they were doing, not ask for permission.  The message would be ‘part invitation, part ultimatum.'”  Though European leaders resented this US diktat, they reluctantly went along with the plan.  After the Srebrenica massacre, the Europeans were under pressure to take action, and they did not wish to appear obstructionist.  NATO member states thus supported Operation Deliberate Force.

Now this is the only way to develop an analysis of Yugoslavia, namely through a painstaking examination of scholarly material. Gibbs, a political science professor at the U. of Arizona, has a bibliography that includes hundreds of articles and dozens of books. This is how serious policy analysts do their work. Berube, a flyweight when it comes to Balkans scholarship, is content to cite Williams, a journalist whose last book was on rum.

After favoring his reader with heavy doses of Ian Williams, Berube follows up with additional swatches lifted from a hostile review of Chomsky’s “The New Military Humanism” by Adrian Hastings, a Catholic theologian and long-time advocate of war on the dastardly Serbs.

One imagines that if Berube was charged with the assignment to write his own critique of Chomsky, Herman or Diana Johnstone without relying on such massive quote-mongering, his poor head might explode.

After he has exhausted all the quotes on Yugoslavia he can muster, Berube turns his attention to Iraq, a war that he opposed but with far less fervor than his opposition to the movement that emerged against it. He spends 12 pages in chapter 3 fulminating against the Workers World Party and the ANSWER coalition in a section titled “Dirty Fucking Hippies”. His prose takes on an almost hallucinatory quality as he pulls out all the stops: “ultraleftist thugs”, “neo-Stalinist sectarian group”, “support of Kim Jong-Il” and all the rest of the epithets that you might have read in the Washington Post or other newspapers catering to the anti-Communist prejudices of its inside-the-beltway readers.

Berube is spitting mad that the ANSWER coalition made so much headway, at least in the early days, when everybody knows that his own ideas and that of other liberal professors like Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin are just so much smarter. You’ll never find someone like Michael Berube finding a kind word to say about North Korea, to be sure.

But you will never find someone like Michael Berube actually doing the dirty work that is required to get tens or hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate in Washington. In a way, he reminds me of a virgin writing a sex advice column. He has all sorts of ideas what a good position might be, but has never gotten around to actually trying it out.

He would not have time in his busy schedule to roll up his sleeves and organize like-minded people to build a coalition conforming to his own ideals. If you read his blog, you will learn that when he is not writing articles on cultural theory or redbaiting the left, he is playing hockey or the drums. In other words, he is not actually sufficiently motivated to put his crappy politics into action, the way that a serious political person might. Fundamentally, we are dealing with a dilettante who enjoys shitting on people whose views he disagrees with. Like Walter Mitty, he must have fantasies about leading people into a more just world but like most liberal intellectuals he does not bother since the Democratic Party does all the work that is necessary to rout the Taliban and al-Qaeda. After all, the Obama administration that Berube genuflects to has all the guns and money it needs to kill Afghans. Why would they require any kind of volunteer activism from a college professor who has better things to do with his spare time?

November 9, 2009

George Packer-Mark Danner pissing contest

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

George Packer

Mark Danner

Before getting into the details of this feud between two very unsavory characters taking place in the Sunday NY Times Book Review, it would be useful to put that section of the paper into some kind of context. For years now, it has been the practice of the Sunday review to assign right-leaning characters to write hostile reviews of left-leaning authors, while at the same time it will never, for example, invite a Noam Chomsky to review a Paul Berman book.

The book review section exists as a kind of rightist enclave at the Times, drawing inspiration ideologically from the neoliberal New Republic and neoconservative National Review in roughly equal parts. The current editor is Sam Tannenhaus, who wrote an admiring biography of the McCarthyite stool pigeon Whittaker Chambers. He is now at work on a new biography of the reptilian William F. Buckley. Before Tannenhaus, the review was edited by Mitchel Levitas, the son of Sol Levitas who was editor of the New Leader, a magazine that accepted funding from the CIA.

Levitas, a Russian emigrant and Menshevik, apparently had a big influence on his son who accepted a post on the board of directors of the Tamiment Library at NYU, a first-rate repository of socialist and labor publications. Ostensibly, his tepid social democratic beliefs had recommended him to NYU. But when the Tamiment displayed some sympathy and support for the reputation of Alger Hiss, Levitas blew a gasket, stating: “To have the Hiss banner flown from the Tamiment flagstaff was just an insult.” It was of course a logical transition from bashing Hiss to writing valentines to Whittaker Chambers.

Packer’s review of Danner’s 626 page “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War” appeared in the October 18th Book Review. Here are a few paragraphs that went for the jugular:

Untethering his essayistic ambitions from ground-level journalism does not serve Danner well. A tendency toward inflated writing and overstatement starts to appear: there are too many self­dramatizing turns of phrase, like “The first time I was killed, or nearly so”; too many moments when the writer, confronted with a destroyed city or a bloody mess of dismembered bodies, finds George F. Kennan or Henry James coming to mind.

These literary affectations are heightened by an air of seeing through everything, conveyed in a heavy reliance on scare quotes and knowing titles like “The Real Election” and “Abu Ghraib: Hidden in Plain Sight.” When Haitians lined up to vote amid violence in 1987, Danner interviewed their political leaders and admired their courage; when Iraqis did the same in 2005, he went looking for “the desired symbolic justifications, the capstone in the narrative building already under construction that day.” Danner watches human struggle and misery at such a remove that he can’t resist taking issue with a young Kosovar woman who is quoted in a news article comparing her family’s expulsion from Pristina with the experiences of the Jews in World War II. “Such drawing of half-century-old parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory,” Danner intones. “How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.” Not as comfortable as condescending to a refugee.

This superior stance doesn’t flag even when Danner contradicts himself. He switches, without explanation or loss of confidence, from criticizing to endorsing the first President Bush’s refusal to remove Saddam Hussein at the end of the gulf war; he sounds just as assured deploring the Powell doctrine as enshrining it. Still, when a Red Cross report on torture by the Bush administration falls into Danner’s hands, the result is one of the book’s best essays. A reporter again, with a great find, he can stop pumping up his prose, and the article achieves a powerful equilibrium between fact and voice.

Keep in mind that George Packer was one of a group of high-profile journalists and pseudo-intellectuals of the “left” who beat the war drums to invade Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. In 2005, Packer wrote “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq”, a book that signaled his departure from the pro-war crowd, like a rat deserting a sinking ship. Even as it drew the ineluctable conclusion that the war had been a disaster, it still reserved plenty of venom toward the antiwar movement that Packer had described in the NY Times in December 2002 as follows:

On Oct. 26, tens of thousands of people turned out in San Francisco, Washington and other cities to protest against a war. Other demonstrations are planned for Jan. 18 and 19. By then an invasion could be under way, and if it gets bogged down around Baghdad with heavy American and Iraqi civilian casualties, or if it sets off a chain reaction of regional conflicts, antiwar protests could grow. But this movement has a serious liability, one that will just about guarantee its impotence: it’s controlled by the furthest reaches of the American left. Speakers at the demonstrations voice unnuanced slogans like ”No Sanctions, No Bombing” and ”No Blood for Oil.” As for what should be done to keep this mass murderer and his weapons in check, they have nothing to say at all. This is not a constructive liberal antiwar movement.

It is difficult to figure out why Packer worked himself into such a venomous state, like a Black Mamba snake on steroids, over Danner’s journalism. Since both are establishment figures of the liberal left, Packer on its right extreme and Danner angling to maintain his position on its left flank, you wonder why Packer is given the Noam Chomsky treatment. My guess is that these kinds of big-shot journalists are in some kind of turf battle over who is the most authentic reporter from the hot spots of the world. Keep in mind that Packer spent a fair amount of time in Iraq stalking about in his safari cap, combat vest and cargo pants. How dare Danner usurp his place as interpreter of native grievances?

Danner’s reply to Packer’s review appeared in yesterday’s book review. It breaks all records for length, as far as I can tell. It begins by calling attention to Packer’s hawkish ways:

Controversies flicker past so quickly in our voracious culture that we assume once the shouting has died away the disputes have been put to rest — while beneath the surface, the worst live on. The debate over whether to launch a war against Iraq was one such, and I am afraid the bitterness lingering from it hovers like an invisible toxic cloud over George Packer’s review of my book, “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War” (Oct. 18).

I strongly believed — as I first argued to George, my old New Yorker colleague and friend, in a discussion he and I had at a meeting of a small reading group to which we both belonged in January 2003, shortly before the war — that the invasion would be a catastrophic mistake that would bring in its wake a great deal of sectarian violence and score-­settling. Packer, an ardent supporter of going to war in Iraq, argued that the United States should invade and occupy the country for humanitarian reasons. As the war ground on, he and I rejoined the debate intermittently in a number of forums.

Danner is particularly pained since—after all—he and Packer do see eye to eye on the number one litmus test for NY Review of Books type liberals: the Balkan wars. Danner remonstrates with Packer:

All this is a pity, for Packer and I have a disagreement about America’s war in Iraq that is real and that might have been honestly disclosed and fairly discussed. He comes closest to doing this in his final paragraph, where he begins: “What about Bosnia? This is the war that leads Danner into unacknowledged tangles and reveals the disconnection at the heart of his work.” A more direct way to put this is that George and I both thought the United States should intervene in Bosnia but that I disagreed with him when he argued that our country should invade and occupy Iraq.

There is no “unacknowledged tangle” here. In Bosnia, the United States should have acted to stop genocide, which I witnessed and reported on and which was going on, and on, even while American warplanes patrolled overhead and United States intelligence agencies recorded the “number liquidated” in Serb concentration camps. In Iraq in 2003, there was an autocratic government but no genocide. Indeed, when Saddam Hussein’s army had engaged in mass killing — against the Kurds in 1989 and against the Shiites in 1991 — American officials, who had been supplying Saddam with critical intelligence in 1989 and who commanded a United States Army in Iraq in 1991, had stood aside and done and said nothing.

This is really rich. Mark Danner, Mr. Peace Advocate who goes on Democracy Now and publishes in various leftwing forums like the very worthy Tomdispatch.com, is not opposed to American imperialism in principle but only where it is misplaced. In Bosnia, the U.S. should have “acted”, which meant that it had the right to unleash its bombers on a wicked enemy, just as is taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

Today’s Counterpunch has a terrific article on how Bard College victimized Joel Kovel for his anti-Zionist views. Written by John Halle, who teaches music theory there, it sizes up the faculty most accurately, including Mark Danner who is the Henry Luce Professor of Human Rights, along with fellow NY Review of Books contributor Ian Buruma who once wrote an article explaining suicide bombing in Israel as an act of sexual frustration (no, I am not joking.)

Now it should be understood that before Kovel was given the boot, he was removed as Alger Hiss Professor. His replacement was Jonathan Brent, who Halle describes as a “historian whose work provides a defense of, and has been celebrated by those embracing, the most strident varieties of cold war anti-communism.” This is like Reagan putting an energy industry hack like James A. Watt in charge of the Department of the Interior. Who ever said that college President Botstein lacked imagination and a sense of mischief?

But one has to admit that Danner is a perfect choice for an endowed chair in the name of Henry Luce. Luce founded Time Magazine in 1923 and was one of the Republican Party’s most influential leaders. Later on he launched Fortune and Life magazines.

He was also a principal player in the China Lobby that sought to overthrow Communist rule either through subversion or all-out war. His wife Clare Booth Luce was even more reactionary than him and was a major influence on Margaret Thatcher and all the dingbats of today, from Ann Coulter to Laura Ingraham.

He penned an article in 1941 titled “The American Century”, which David Harvey once described as referring to power being global and universal rather than territorially specific. In other words, Luce preferred to talk of an American century rather than an empire even though they amounted to the same thing.

It would be fitting to conclude this piece with an excerpt from CLR James’s 1948 article “Henry Luce and Karl Marx”, something that should demarcate us from the George Packers and Mark Danners of the world. You will note that many of the same anxieties being felt today were around back then, as should be expected from a social system in perpetual crisis:

The Luce publications, Life in particular, constantly betray a dangerous irritation with the American people for refusing to recognize the benefits which capitalism is showering upon them. On Feb, 3, 1947 Life published an editorial on Joshua L. Liebman’s Peace of Mind. Why, it asks, does this book continue in the list of best-sellers? We won the war,the boys are mostly home, everybody has a job. “Yet at one end of the scale citizens are moaning the blues, while at the other end they are reclining on the psychoanalyst’s couch recounting their lives and their loves.”

Life is angry and comes to the conclusion “that what this country really wants is a good kick in the pants.” The people, you see, cannot understand how wrong Marx is Life recommends as an antidote the power of God and the gospels of Jesus. The cure is not interesting – but the diagnosis of the United States is: “A nation so rich in blessings yet gripped with a psychic unhappiness…” Marx wrote many brilliant pages on the “psychic unhappiness” of modern nations. Only he rooted this unhappiness very firmly in the class conflicts and bankruptcy of capitalist society.

But who teaches the American people to doubt capitalism? High on the list are the Luce publications themselves. A March 18, 1948 Life editorial on the Marshall Plan ends: “Let us remember that this is a capitalistic country, that capitalism is neither doomed nor a thing to be ashamed of …”

It appears that the millions who read Life have to be continually reinsured about capitalism and its blessings. Is there then some connection between capitalism and their “psychic unhappiness”? Let us see.

On June 2, 1947 the subtitle of an editorial on the State of the Nation says: “It is Generally OK Don’t let Anybody tell you differently.” But the editorial itself belies the polemical confidence of the title. Life repeats the story of the waitress who plastered the face of her boss with a chocolate pie. It notes that domestic servants, garage mechanics, telephone operators, bell-hops seem to dislike their jobs more obviously than they used to. Is this perhaps “a general sense of frustration” which stems from the high cost of living and expresses itself in lower standards of courtesy? The lightness of tone stops as the editorial ends.

It is fitting and proper for Americans to have a certain amount of uncertainty as they take the stage as protagonists in one of the world’s most crucial epochs. But a people which dreams up more things, makes more things and gives away more things, than any other in history … need not overburden itself with worry and self-doubt.

February 23, 2009

The Liberal Defence of Murder

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 2:37 pm

Richard Seymour’s The Liberal Defence Of Murder

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Seymour, Richard: The Liberal Defence of Murder, Verso Press, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-240-0, 358 pages.

(Swans – February 23, 2009)   To get straight to the point, Richard Seymour’s The Liberal Defence of Murder is a masterpiece of intellectual history and political agitation that is to the early 21st century what Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs was to the post-WWI period. One supposes that as long as capitalist war continues to plague humanity, there will be a need for such a book every generation. Richard Seymour’s astonishing accomplishment is to rise to the occasion on his debut literary undertaking. Making a seamless transition from the blogosphere to the printed page, the young man associated with the popular Lenin’s Tomb blog proves that an old-fashioned book still has its uses.

In a sense, I am the ideal reader for such a book since I have had many of the same concerns as Seymour going back to the outbreak of war in Kosovo a decade ago. Some of the doubts I had about liberal opinion in the first Balkans war in Bosnia now came to a head as I saw one prominent intellectual after another cheering for the NATO bombing of the Serb republic. Many of them had come of age politically during the Vietnam War, including Michael Ignatieff. Despite having ostensibly learned to dig beneath their government’s justification for war after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, many an ex-peacenik was now ready to join the bandwagon for war in the Balkans. They were now ready to believe that the Serbs had slaughtered Kosovar civilians in Racak, just as some intellectuals took LBJ at his word when he blamed the Vietnamese for attacking American destroyers without provocation.

As it turns out, the Michael Ignatieffs of this world were simply reverting to form as Richard Seymour ably demonstrates in a tour de force of intellectual history. As accustomed as I was to this sordid history after doing some of my own research over the past 10 years, I was not prepared for the examination of more than 200 years of imperialist apologetics of the kind we now associate with Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Norm Geras, et al. The most startling revelation for me was how widespread this tendency was, even among writers I had always considered unblemished.

Take, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville who I knew only as a sharp commentator on American society in the 19th century who defended French colonialism’s right to impose its will on Algeria on the basis of its Arab citizens being “half-savage.” Tocqueville also dismissed American Indians and African slaves as being incapable of participating in a democracy for the same reasons.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy52.html

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