Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 9, 2015

In response to a Pentagon official (and Bard College graduate)

Filed under: bard college,war — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

Malia Du Mont

Recently a spate of comments showed up on my blog in response to an article I wrote last year calling attention to Bard College’s increasing ties to the American military. There is the matter of joint academic conferences held with West Point, the military academy about a half-hour’s drive from Bard. I was also intrigued by the role played by Malia Du Mont, a Bard graduate who was leading a tour of the Pentagon. I quoted from the Bard website:

Malia Du Mont ’95 is special assistant to the chief of staff in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs. Malia majored in Chinese at Bard, and after graduation moved to China, where she spent a year teaching English and a year doing graduate studies. In 1997 she moved to Beijing to serve as a Defense Intelligence Agency intern and bilingual research assistant at the United States embassy. “At Bard, joining the military never entered my mind,” she says. “But I was interested in service to my country, and living in China, I gained an appreciation of American freedoms.”

I can only conclude that a spike in readership of the article prompted the comments. Usually I can track this down from a link to the article that is documented in my WordPress dashboard but in this case there was none. A bit of a mystery all in all but welcomed since there’s nothing I love better than tweaking the nose of Leon Botstein and the sort of students he has cultivated during his presidency-for-life. In the old days it was beatnik poets and religious mystics. Now it is Pentagon officials. Sigh.

I post the comments below and will follow up with my reply:

Malia Du Mont

So you think the military should be secretive and off limits? It is your right (and your responsibility) as an American to understand all the instruments of our democracy. Pentagon tours are open to the public, just as are tours of the White House or the Smithsonian Museum of Art. Apply at the link here. http://pentagontours.osd.mil/ You are keeping yourself deliberately misinformed and ignorant, and are accusing people of guilt by association. That does not strike me as keeping with the best of Bard. “Parents, don’t let your kids grow up to be close-minded cynics.”

From an FoM (Friend of Malia)

Malia Du Mont is a Kennedy School classmate and a friend of mine. It’s one thing to take issue with DoD (and yes, there is plenty to take issue with) but your slanderous mischaracterization of her is as insulting as it is without merit. But hey, you have a problem with the Pentagon, so why not just denigrate a smart, thoughtful, and decent person who decided to serve her country in a military uniform? Thanks for nothing.

Bill Hornbostel

As someone who both went to Bard and actually knows Malia Du Mont, I have to say that I am saddened by your rather casual character assassination of her. It appears to be founded in your rigid adherence to a black-and-white ideology, and also utterly unmoored to either knowledge of her personally, or of knowledge of the world beyond the cloisters of academia. Indeed, my perusal of your writings shows you to be merely the equal and opposite to the propagandists at the likes of Fox News. Frankly, I would expect a better, more critical, and more nuanced quality of thought from a Bard graduate. There is more in the world than is dreamt of your you [sic] limited philosophy, lad.

To Ms. Du Mont:

Look, a tour of the Pentagon is not a blow on behalf of transparency. Our problem today is that an imperial presidency is making decisions that are being kept secret from the American people. The use of drone warfare is not subject to democratic decision-making as should be obvious at this point. A tour of the Pentagon is not going to reveal how and why innocent people keep getting killed. Today’s NY Times had an article that is a chilling reminder of how Obama’s Star Chamber is operating without accountability:

WASHINGTON — The families of an anti-Qaeda cleric and a police officer killed in an American drone strike in Yemen filed suit in federal court in Washington on Sunday night, asking the court to declare that the strike was unlawful.

The lawsuit, which seeks no monetary damages, is described by the complainants as an attempt to break through the secrecy surrounding drone strikes and to have the court impose some public accountability for mistakes made in the program.

It cites President Obama’s decision in April to publicly disclose that a separate American strike, on a Qaeda compound in Pakistan, had inadvertently killed two Western hostages, an American and an Italian.

The lawsuit notes that Mr. Obama said at the time that the hostages’ “families deserve to know the truth” and that the United States was willing “to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

The lawsuit asks for the same consideration for the families of Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, the cleric, and Waleed bin Ali Jaber, his cousin, the sole traffic police officer in their village of Khashamir. Both men were Yemeni citizens.

“There is a simple question at the heart of this claim,” the suit says. “The president has now admitted to killing innocent Americans and Italians with drones; why are the bereaved families of innocent Yemenis less entitled to the truth?”

To a “Friend of Malia”:

I am not sure how I am “denigrating” Ms. Du Mont. I said that she reminded me of the CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty”. I thought that she would have regarded that as a compliment even though I have little use for killers myself, in or out of uniform.

To Bill Hornbostel

You believe that my writings demonstrate that I am “the equal and opposite to the propagandists at the likes of Fox News.” I am not sure what to make of that. I have always regarded Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz as the liberal counterparts of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. My orientation is Marxist, an outlook that might be unfamiliar to you since Leon Botstein booted Joel Kovel, one of the few Marxists in the faculty. In terms of my “limited philosophy”, I guess that opposing drone warfare—the number one strategy of Ms. Du Mont’s superiors today—puts me in good company even if that makes me an outlier to other Bard graduates.

Drone Warfare

A project of the Peace Action Education Fund
In cooperation with the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare          

The Release below was sent and published in Religion News Service

Press Release sent: June 1, 2015 

Interfaith Letter Expressing Grave Concerns on Drone Warfare Sent to President Obama and Congress

 Twenty-nine faith leaders from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh traditions have sent an Interfaith Letter on Drone Warfare to President Barak Obama and the U.S. Congress.

 The signers say it is morally unacceptable that thousands of innocent people have been killed by US lethal drone strikes. The letter also raises concerns that targeted killings by drones lack transparency and accountability. Finally the letter argues that drone strikes do not make Americans safer, but rather aid recruitment by extremist groups.

 Elizabeth Beavers, Co-Convener of the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare, noted that many human rights groups and journalists have tried to tally the casualties from drone strikes[1]. A recent study by the Open Society Foundation found that in nine case studies in Yemen, innocent civilians were documented to have been killed in all nine drone strikes[2].

 In their letter, the interfaith leaders point to more effective methods of combating extremism through nonviolent-creative strategies, including sustainable humanitarian and development assistance, and programs that address the political, economic and social exclusion that fuel radicalization.

About Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare

The Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare is a project of the Princeton-based Peace Action Education Fund, and works in cooperation with the DC-based Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare. The Interfaith Network was formed following an Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare held January 23-25, 2015, attended by some 150 diverse faith leaders from across the country at Princeton Theological Seminary. Details of the Interfaith Conference, including the statement adopted by the attendees, can be found at peacecoalition.org/dronesconference.

March 17, 2015

On John Gray’s critique of Steven Pinker

Filed under: sociobiology,war — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

John Gray

John Gray doesn’t care for Steven Pinker’s 2011 “The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes” at all. Who can blame him? It is a sociobiological defense of the state against “primitive” peoples who are made out to be much more violent than the Third Reich.

His first swipe at the book appeared in the September 11, 2011 edition of Prospect Magazine. He took another whack at him in the Guardian on October 15, 2011. The first paragraph was delightfully malicious:

Steven Pinker is one of those wunderkinder that elite US universities seem to specialise in producing. Born in Canada in 1954, he’s currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, but ever since he arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976 he’s been bouncing like a high-IQ tennis ball between Harvard and its prestigious neighbour, MIT (he has professorial chairs at both institutions). By profession he’s an experimental psychologist who began doing research on visual cognition but eventually moved into studying language, especially language acquisition in children. He probably knows more about mankind’s use of verbs, and particularly the distinction between irregular and regular ones, than any other man, living or dead.

I love the “high-IQ tennis ball” bit, don’t you?

But the latest installment has probably gotten more exposure than the first two on the Internet. It appeared once again in the Guardian four days ago and is longer than the first two put together. Since he really has Pinker’s number, I hope it is not the last go-round.

I was intrigued by Gray’s reference to Pinker as a defender of Enlightenment values:

Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment thinking. Reviewing Pinker, Singer writes: “During the Enlightenment, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, an important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, duelling and extreme forms of punishment … Pinker refers to this as ‘the humanitarian revolution’.” Here too Pinker and Singer belong in a contemporary orthodoxy. With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what they piously describe as “Enlightenment values”. But these values were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed. John Locke denied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes”; Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance. None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker.

Come to think of it, Vivek Chibber didn’t pay much attention to these views either. I always considered Marx to be a critic of the Enlightenment even though that in stating this I might come across as an unreconstructed subalternist. Those are the breaks, I guess.

Although I have never read Pinker’s book, I am familiar with his arguments, which are closely related to those made by Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon, another couple of sociobiologists who view hunting-and-gathering societies as deeply criminal and homicidal. My own take on Pinker is here: http://louisproyect.org/2011/10/04/steven-pinker-hobbes-pangloss/. And on Jared Diamond here: http://louisproyect.org/2008/11/03/jared-diamond-on-tribal-warfare-in-new-guinea/. And finally on Chagnon there is this: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/22/chagnons-war/.

My emphasis is more on correcting the record on the so-called “savages” than it is on pointing out how barbaric modern civilization really is. Most of Gray’s latest article discusses the monumental scale of modern warfare including the prospect of an all-out nuclear war that will make the notion of steady progress toward peaceful relations among states altogether moot. If an H-bomb is dropped on Harvard, I doubt that Pinker will be in much shape to defend his arguments. Along those lines I did find this historical reference by Gray intriguing:

Discussing the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in which nuclear war was narrowly averted, Pinker dismisses the view that “the de-escalation was purely a stroke of uncanny good luck”. Instead, he explains the fact that nuclear war was avoided by reference to the superior judgment of Kennedy and Khrushchev, who had “an intuitive grasp of game theory” – an example of increasing rationality in history, Pinker believes. But a disastrous escalation in the crisis may in fact have been prevented only by a Soviet submariner, Vasili Arkhipov, who refused to obey orders from his captain to launch a nuclear torpedo. Had it not been for the accidental presence of a single courageous human being, a nuclear conflagration could have occurred causing fatalities on a vast scale.

Could this be true? I remember being at Bard College in 1962 when the crisis was going on. Students were very worried about nuclear war while I shrugged the whole thing off, largely a function of the existentialist nihilism I picked up after watching Godard films uncritically. Well, I’m glad that Arkhipov kept us all alive, although I do wonder what really happened. From what I know of the USSR, nuclear gamesmanship was not its calling card. Maybe if J. Posadas were in charge, things would have turned out differently. The Trotskyist genius put it this way: “Nuclear war [equals] revolutionary war. It will damage humanity but it will not – it cannot – destroy the level of consciousness reached by it… Humanity will pass quickly through a nuclear war into a new human society – Socialism.”

Toward the end of his article, Gray appears to cast doubt on the prospect of achieving peace (and justice, one surmises) either through the agency of the modern capitalist state as Pinker believes is possible or any other socio-political changes:

Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible.

This sounds a bit like warmed-over Oswald Spengler, a philosopher of history who argued in “The Decline of the West” that the 20th century was headed toward collapse. In the 1950s he was quite trendy. As a high school student and a hardened anti-Communist, Spengler’s doom-and-gloom resonated with my own weltschmerz. Boy, I’m glad I got over that.

Thirteen years ago Gray wrote a book titled “Straw Dogs” where his Spenglerian bent was allowed to fully blossom. The book derives its title from Sam Peckingpah’s 1971 film that pitted a “civilized” Dustin Huffman going medieval on the British working class guys who had raped his wife.

In a review for the Guardian Terry Eagleton showed him no mercy:

John Gray’s political vision has been steadily darkening. Once a swashbuckling free-marketeer, he has, in his recent studies, become increasingly despondent about the state of the world. With the crankish, unbalanced Straw Dogs, he emerges as a full-blooded apocalyptic nihilist. He has passed from Thatcherite zest to virulent misanthropy.

Not that nihilism is a term he would endorse. His book is so remorselessly, monotonously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope. Nihilism for Gray suggests the world needs to be redeemed from meaninglessness, a claim he regards as meaningless. Instead, we must just accept that progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition. Technology cannot be controlled, and human beings are entirely helpless. Political tyrannies will be the norm for the future, if we have any future at all. It isn’t the best motivation for getting out of bed.

Like all tunnel vision, Gray’s extravagant pessimism is lugubriously amusing. As with his great mentor Arthur Schopenhauer, the gloomiest philosopher who ever lived, it takes a degree of heroic perversity to overlook every apparent flicker of human value. Straw Dogs is based on a keen, crucial insight – the fact that if men and women really did behave like wild animals, their existence would be a lot less bloody and precarious than it is. Indeed, one might go further and claim that ethics are an animal affair – a matter of our fleshy, compassionate bodies, not of some high-minded moral law. In believing itself infinitely superior to its fellow creatures, humanity overreaches itself and risks bringing itself to nothing. What the ancient Greeks knew as hubris is shaping up at this moment to maim the people of Iraq.

If Marx was no Enlightenment thinker, at least he had a vision of how war could be ended, namely through the establishment of communism, a system that through the elimination of the profit motive could set the stage for peaceful relations among different peoples.

Gray does not see things that way. In a survey on “Bourgeois pundits consider Marx” written in September 2011, I gave Gray props for acknowledging that Marx was correct in pointing out “how capitalism destroys its own social base” but like everyone else I considered ruled out an alternative to the capitalist system. For Gray, Marx was wrong in his belief that “a popular revolution would occur and bring a communist system into being that would be more productive and far more humane.”

Actually Marx was right. The problem, however, is that these popular revolutions were strangled in their crib almost universally. The contradiction was one that Marx did not fully anticipate, namely that revolutions would occur in countries where the immiseration was deepest and as such would lack the economic power to fend for themselves.

Gray is definitely on the side of the angel as opposed to Pinker’s specious “better angels of our nature” but like most people philosophically disinclined to consider proletarian revolution is almost incapable of seeing an alternative to the present system. It is up to us—the modern day sans culottes—to fight for such alternative.

 

February 5, 2015

Thistle and the Drone

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,Islam,Islamophobia,war — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

This review appeared originally in Critical Muslim #10 under the title “Tribal Islam”, which is useful as a way of explaining what is largely missing from the analysis of the Taliban, Boko Haram, and other Islamist armed groups, namely their tribal origins. Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is required reading for anybody trying to understand the deeper roots of such groups, particularly those who trying to develop a Marxist analysis. Akbar Ahmed is a mainstream social scientist but his research is first-rate.

We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.

The drone in the title needs no explanation except for Ahmed’s pointed reference to Obama wisecracking at a press conference. If the Jonas Brothers, a pop music sensation, got too close to his daughters at a White House visit, he had two words for them: “predator drone”.

The thistle required more explanation. We learn that this is a reference to a passage in Tolstoy’s neglected novel “Hadji Murad” that takes the side of a Muslim tribal leader against the Czarist military campaign to stamp out resistance to Great Russian domination. Considering Putin’s genocidal war on the Chechens and his support for Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against his own countrymen, not much has changed since the 19th century. The narrator in Tolstoy’s novel attempted to pluck a thistle for its beauty but was ultimately thwarted by its prickly stalk, a perfect metaphor for the experience of trying to subdue proud and independent peoples living in inhospitable desert or mountainous regions.

Although some anthropologists consider the word “tribal” retrograde and/or imprecise, one would never confuse Ahmed with the colonial-minded social scientist that used it as a way of denigrating “backward” peoples. For Ahmed, the qualities of tribal peoples are to be admired even if some of their behavior is negative. Most of all, they are paragons of true democracy resting on the “consent of the governed”. Their love of freedom inevitably leads them to conflict with state-based powers anxious to assimilate everybody living within their borders to a model of obedience to approved social norms.

While tribal peoples everywhere come into conflict with those trying to impose their will on them, it is only with Islamic tribal peoples that global geopolitics gets drawn into the equation. “The Thistle in the Drone” consists of case studies in which the goal is to disaggregate Islam from tribal norms. For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.

In chapter three, titled “Bin Laden’s Dilemma: Balancing Tribal and Islamic Identity”, we learn that the al-Qaeda leader admitted to an interviewer that the 9/11 attacks were not sanctioned by the Quran but based on a need to “get even”: ”We treat others like they treat us. Those who kill our women and our innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they stop from doing so.” As someone who has studied Native American tribes for some two decades, this has a very familiar ring. The Comanches, the Sioux, and the Apache lived by this credo. While they were always loyal to their own clans and treated outsiders with hospitality if they came in good faith, woe betide the aggressor who took the life of a fellow tribesman.

Ahmed elaborates on the connection between American Indians and Muslim tribal peoples in chapter six titled “How to Win the War on Terror”, citing Benjamin Franklin who saw the tribes of the Northeast as paragons of democracy and freedom:

The Indian Men, when young, are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counselors; for all their Government is by Counsel, or Advice, of the sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study Oratory; the best speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, and preserve and hand down to posterity the Memory of Public Transactions. These Employments of Men and Women are accounted natural and honorable. Having few Artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless.

Unfortunately, this is where I have to part company with Akbar Ahmed’s analysis since he gives far too much credit to the founders of the American republic whose treatment of the tribal peoples might ostensibly serve as a guide to Pakistan’s relations with the Pakhtun in Waziristan. Despite the respect that Franklin held for native peoples, the behavior of the American industrialists and plantation owners that followed him were governed by the need to safeguard private property. The American Indian was simply not allowed to live as hunters in the Great Plains as they had in the past since cattle generated far more profit than the free roaming Bison.

Even on the basis of words, there were problems indicated early on. Ahmed cites Thomas Jefferson favorably as arguing against “an augmentation of military force proportioned to our extension of frontier.” However, this is the same Thomas Jefferson who proposed removal of the Cherokee Indians from the Southeast to west of the Mississippi, a policy finally carried by Andrew Jackson in the “trail of tears”. To show that he meant business, Jefferson told Secretary of War General Henry Dearborn “if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”

To a large extent, Ahmed’s hope that the White House can be persuaded of the counter-productiveness of drone attacks rests on a view of American history much more in accord with its rulers’ self-portrait than Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ahmed details his meetings with both the Bush administration and Obama’s on how to deal with terrorism, an invitation that would only be extended to someone who tends toward an “inside the beltway” perspective. No matter the limitations of such an outlook, the world would certainly be better off if the Obama administration adopted his proposals on a wholesale basis. For that matter, it would also be far better off if Obama’s campaign promises going back to 2008 had been adopted, promises that convinced some that the Islamophobia of years past would be abandoned. Those hopes now seem vain, especially with the White House’s indifference to the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing murderous attacks on Syrian neighborhoods in the name of defeating “extremists”.

“The Thistle and the Drone” is not only a stunning analysis that will allow you to see the “war on terror” in a new way; it will also have lasting value as a reference book that can be drawn upon for its scholarly citations and baseline for considering “trouble spots” like Somalia, Mali, and Libya. As someone who has more than a glancing familiarity with these nations, Ahmed’s book went a long way to clearing away the lingering fog.

My interest in Somalia and Mali was heightened by the need to provide some historical background on two films (I am a long-time critic whose reviews appear on Rotten Tomatoes website). The first was “Captain Phillips”, a narrative film based on Somali pirates seizing a cargo ship. My research persuaded me that the stiffest resistance to the pirates came from the Islamic Sharia Courts that saw such crimes as “haram”, or against Islam. It was this Islamic coalition that America and its Ethiopian and Kenyan allies were determined to crush as part of the war on terror. The second film was “Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary on the Tuareg who have been in a struggle with the Malian state. They are regarded as a jihadist threat rather than a proud people asserting tribal claims for sovereignty and demanding social and economic justice.

Despite Ahmed’s admiration for tribal values, he is no romantic when it comes to Somalia’s clans that he blames for most of the country’s recent troubles. Under Siad Barre’s “socialist” dictatorship, all expressions of tribal identity were suppressed. As was the case with Libya’s Gaddafi, the centralizing state was for all practical purposes the instrument of clan rule in and of itself. Siad Barre ruled on behalf of the Darod Marehand subclan and Gaddafi on behalf of the Gadafa, a Western tribe that tried to bring the Benghazi-based Cyrenaica tribe under its thumb.

The implosion of clan-based warlordism led Islamists to seize power in Somalia in a manner reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. After the Sharia Court government was toppled by the West and its African allies, the struggle took an even sharper Islamist turn under the auspices of Al Shabab (“the youth”), a group that was responsible for the terrorist attack on a Kenya shopping mall in September 2013.

Since Washington regards Al Shabab as an al-Qaeda affiliate, it has deployed drone attacks at them, often victimizing innocent herdsmen. Like Afghanistan, Somalia seems destined to be part of a senseless “war on terrorism” when the only real solution to its problems—a Sharia based government willing and able to resolve contradictions between its rival clans—had been eliminated.

Mali threatens to become another example of unceasing warfare against a jihadist threat with the Tuareg serving as victims of an American crusade incapable of making critical distinctions between genuine enemies and those unfortunate enough to be wrongly perceived as such. No other people are less deserving of this treatment than the Tuareg, who, like the Kurds, were victims of circumstances far too frequent in Sub-Saharan Africa. French and English colonialism left behind states that did not map to the traditional tribal structures. Furthermore, if you belonged to a tribe that straddled multiple state entities, you were powerless to defend your interests as a people. Regarded by the state of Mali as bothersome nomads, the Tuareg were forced to rely on themselves and their heterodox Islamic beliefs in which the men wore the veils and the women bright and colorful garments.

The French were determined to assimilate the Tuaregs as farmers, something that was as inimical to their values as it was to the Sioux and the Comanches. When Mali gained independence, the drive to assimilate kept apace. The military rulers banned the Tuareg language just as the Kemalists would ban the Kurdish language. In all of these postcolonial states, there was a tragic and unnecessary urge to follow in the footsteps of the colonizer. If you were Islamic in your beliefs and lived according to thousand-year-old tribal norms, your suffering was magnified when you were unfortunate enough to live within the borders of a “modernizing” non-Islamic state like the USSR. Stalinist oppression of its Caucasian Islamic citizens went to genocidal extremes.

The government of Mali was determined to bring the nomads under control, from poisoning their wells to killing their herds. After many years of suffering and neglect, the Tuaregs rose up against their oppressor. In early 2012 the Tuaregs took control of a vast region of northern Mali the size of France. Viewing the Malian state as a firm defender of “law and order”, the U.S. attempted to aid its troops with C-130 transports of arms and supplies. There are two main Tuareg rebel forces in the area, one carrying the banner of tribalism and the other al-Qaeda’s Black Flag. There are worrisome signs that Washington lacks the capability to distinguish between the two. It has called upon the Algerian government to provide military aid to Mali in the name of fighting al-Qaeda but it is likely that the bullets will be fired at Tuaregs whatever banner they carry. The Algerians have been merciless against the Berbers, the Tuareg’s northern cousins, so one must regard any alliance between Mali and Algeria as inimical to the rights of Islamic tribesmen once again.

Let me conclude with some thoughts on Libya, which should not be construed as a criticism of Ahmed’s research. Since I lack his expertise and those of the research team that worked under his direction, I only offer this in the same way that I would pose a question to a speaker at a conference who has just delivered a powerful and informative lecture.

“The Thistle and the Drone” treats Libya almost as an example of a clan-divided society after the fashion of Somalia. But I have been under the impression that such tribalism has always been exaggerated. In an interview I conducted with a young Libyan who took part in the rebellion, I was assured that there are no real tribes in Libya now. He claims that he has no idea what tribe he belongs to and that population flows from one city to another has largely eroded tribal society, mostly through unforced assimilation.

However, there are still centripetal tendencies in Libya that threaten the country’s future. Are they tribal? Can a modernizing state based on the will of all its citizens be created in a timely enough fashion to preempt a Somalia type evolution? A lot rests on such an outcome and one can only hope that scholars like Akbar Ahmed can help provide the insights necessary to help move the struggle forward.

June 6, 2014

Enough already with the fucking Normandy landing

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,war — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

This morning as I grew increasingly weary of the wall-to-wall coverage of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landing, including on Al-Jazeera, I longed for an alternative take. Just at that moment, I remembered that I had James Heartfield’s “Unpatriotic History of the Second World War” on the bookshelf behind me. A while back I had read up through page 345 with a review in mind but got sidetracked as happens so often with an intellectual dilettante like myself. I was sure that James had a good take on things. As you can see below, a section from the chapter “The Second Invasion of Europe”, I was not to be disappointed. James’s book is not the only “revisionist” history of the war (I have also read versions written by Ernest Mandel, Mickey Z. as well as the chapter in Zinn numerous times) but it is certainly the best.

France

In the planning of the invasion of France, the Allies saw no role for the Resistance. France was to come under the Allied Military Government of the Occupied Territories. For the Resistance, though, Overlord was universally welcomed as a blow against the occupiers, and they rallied to support it.

On the evening of D-Day, de Gaulle broadcast to France warning against any ‘premature insurrection’, fearful that the Resistance would take the initiative but they ignored him. When Overlord began, the entire French railway network was closed down by more than 1000 acts of sabotage — at a time when nine tenths of the German Army were transported by rail or horse. At the same time the miners of Toulouse struck, and declared the Republic from the Town Hall of the town of Annonay.85

Emboldened, Resistance fighters of the Francs Tireurs et Partisans under Jean-Jacques Chapou attacked German and Milice forces in the town of Tulle in Limoges. Fifty Germans were killed in the liberation. Shocked at the blow to German prestige the SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ of 15,000 men took the town back. Twenty six maquisards and seventy Germans were killed in the fighting, but overwhelming force won out. The following day 3000 were brought out into the town square, and 99 were executed, hung from balconies and telegraph poles. Three hundred were taken away, and 149 of them deported to Dachau. Shortly afterwards the ‘Das Reich’ division attacked Oradour-sur-Glane where 649 were killed.86

The savagery of the German reaction gave some weight to the demands of the Allies to stop the uprising. On 10 June General Koenig of the Free French set the message ‘put maximum brake on all guerrilla action’. The aim though was not to save lives, but to stop the Resistance from liberating France before the Allies arrived.

On 8 June Colonel Marcel Descour, leader of a large Maquis group in the mountain plateau of Vercors ordered that the plateau be defended — making it the first liberated French territory. Four thousand fighters set up their own republic, with its own newspaper and courts. Soon, though, the Vercors liberated zone was surrounded. Political leader Eugene Chavant sent a desperate message to the Free French leadership in Algiers. ‘If no aid we and population will consider Algiers criminal and cowardly’. The Germans, understanding who their real enemy was, sent 10,000 troops to attack. On 22 July 200 SS troops landed in gliders and the struggle to take back Vercors began. In the fighting German atrocities were shocking, with 326 maquisards slaughtered after being hunted down, and 130 civilians also killed.87

While they counselled caution militarily, the Free French had been very active recruiting civil servants to take over when the Vichy officials left. New local leaders, Commisaires de la Republique were appointed for every region, backed up by Comites Departmentaux de la Liberation, to control the local Resistance groups. Though Roosevelt had cold-shouldered de Gaulle throughout the war, fearing that he was too close to the Communists, once the Allied troops were on French soil Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery realised they needed the Free French to rein in the Resistance. In thirty major cities there were insurrections that pitted Resistance lighters against the German occupiers.88

Initially Eisenhower had no plans to liberate Paris ‘until a spontaneous rising in the capital forced his hand’.89 US General Omar Bradley explained that the Allies were afraid the demands of the starving Parisians would derail the conquest of Europe

Logistically, it could cause untold trouble, for behind its handsome facades there lived four million hungry Frenchmen. The diversion of so much tonnage to Paris would only strain further our already taut lines of supply. Food for the people of Paris meant less gasoline for the front.

Once again the Parisians were to be abandoned to the logic of war — except that they took matters into their own hands. Comites de Liberation were formed in town halls across the capital and barricades put up in the north and east of the City. The Resistance had 20,000 fighters ranged against an equal number, though much more heavily armed, German army. On 20 August a group led by Leo Ramon entered the Hotel de Ville and declared a provisional republic, and arrested the Vichy prefect. With revolution in the air, the Free French brokered an agreement to give the Germans 24 hours to leave the city. The Communist leader of the Resistance in Paris, Henri Rol-Tanguy saved the honour of the Allies and the Free French, by inviting them into the city as liberators: ‘open the road to Paris for the victorious allied armies and welcome them here’.90

Not everything went well with the ‘liberators’. General de Gaulle’s Military Cabinet discusses the problem of sexual attacks after the Normandy landing:

In the regions occupied by the Americans, women no longer dare to go to milk cows without being accompanied by a man. Even the presence of a man does not protect them. In the Manche a priest has been killed trying to protect two young girls attacked by American soldiers. These young girls were raped. In the Seine Inferieur a woman was raped and killed after her husband had been assassinated.

Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) stopped French newspapers reporting a number of rapes at the hands of US servicemen. In December 1944, a directive to all US Army and Air Force Commanders said that rapes and burglar should be punished promptly and with ‘appropriate severity’.91

In Paris, the surrender of German Commander von Cholitz — who had the foresight not to carry out Hitler’s orders to raze Paris —signed by von Cholitz, the US General Leclerc and the Resistance leaders Rol-Tanguy and Maurice Kriegel-Valmiront. De Gaulle, who arrived two hours later complained that Rol-Tanguy had been allowed to sign. The following day de Gaulle was urged to announce the re-establishment of the Republic, replied ‘the Republic has never ceased to exist’. His provisional government was recognised by thi Allies in October 1944.92

Within days of the liberation of Paris de Gaulle set about to disarming the Resistance. After some protest the Resistance leaders in the Comite d’Action Militaire accepted the proposal that the resistance fighters be fused with the Army —l’amalgame — though in the process the officers of 1940 were allowed to keep their rank whatever they had done during the occupation, while the Resistance men were carefully selected. The whole process put the traditionaI order back in charge. The activist workplace committees that had sprung up to organise factories were suspended after an agreement to include two communist ministers in de Gaulle’s government, George Bidault and the communist FTP leader Charles Tillon. The self-organised police forces of the Milices Patriotiques that took over day-to-day organisation of localities between the fall of the occupation and the establishment of the new state were disarmed, and later disbanded. The communist leader Thorez, who had been amnestied by de Gaulle allowing him to return from Moscow, promised his support for ‘one army, one police, one administration’ ‘We want the revolution, tomorrow’, he promised his supporters, and promised de Gaulle that ‘meanwhile today we want the capitalist regime to function according to its own laws, which must be left intact.

De Gaulle’s victory over the militant Resistance was helped along by the Parti Communist Francais. Also, de Gaulle spoke clearly to that large constituency that feared the social change that the Resistance threatened. After all, many more people did not join the Resistance than did. De Gaulle’s great advantage was that he could count on the support both of Vichy France, and also of the Resistance. De Gaulle’s appeal to La France Profonde, the enduring France that lay beneath the hurly-burly of everyday political squabbles was quite similar to Petain’s traditionalist outlook. Where Petain had promised order, he had in the end delivered more conflict. Only de Gaulle had the authority to rein in the runaway militancy of the Resistance, and for that La France Profonde was deeply grateful. De Gaulle faced down the left’s ambitions for a Sovereign Constituent Assembly, and got the country to vote instead for an authoritarian presidency in a referendum on a new constitution. Even then, he balked at the prospect of ruling alongside the different political parties, and left the stage.

Conflict between the Allies and the Resistance happened in every country. In 1944, the allies opposed strikes planned by Central Dutch Resistance Council – this time to coincide with the invasion. In retrospect, British commander at Arnhem R.E. Urquhart admitted that an unwillingness to cooperate with the Resistance contributed to major setbacks in the winter of 1944-5.94 In Belgium Max Nokin, an official of the Societe Generale de Belgique, had written in 1942 that ‘we would certainly compromise the success of our economic recovery if we turn to a regime of economic and industrial liberty after the war’. Repression, though had provoked resistance, and the Belgian jurist Rene Marq described the mood of the final months of the occupation as one of ‘virtual civil war’. The German Military Administrator’s report of June 1944 noted that ‘the national-conservative opposition movement is … trying to unite all forces to preserve order, in hopes of providing a counterweight to the communist effort, which, because of the difficult economic situation is finding ever more support among the workers’. The Belgian Government-in-exile was hostile to the Front d’Independence which they feared was ‘perhaps entirely communist’.95 With the Allied invasion, the exile Government had the solution to the problem of a people in revolt. In November 1944 armed members of the wartime resistance were given two weeks to hand over their weapons. On 25 November there was a protest rally in Brussels. The police opened fire injuring 45 people.96

 

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig

by LOUIS PROYECT

When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

January 19, 2013

So what the fuck was Humphrey Bogart doing in North Africa anyhow?

Filed under: Africa,Film,war — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Back in the late 50s the only way you could see a movie on television was to turn on the CBS network. With the Early Show, the Late Show, and the Late Late Show, you got to see just the kinds of films that are the staple of the Turner Classic Movie cable station today. Today I stumbled across a TCM screening of the 1943 “Sahara”, one my favorite movies from way back when. Written by CP’er John Howard Lawson and starring Humphrey Bogart as a tank commander in Libya during WWII, I always felt like standing up and cheering when the dirty Nazis surrendered to the outnumbered allies, a small band of men assembled from the “united nations” fending off Nazism. There was a Brit, a Frenchie, some Yanks, a North African, and an Italian prisoner who eventually gave up his life to help his captors. Like most CP’ers in Hollywood, Lawson really knew how to spin a tale that would get people rallying around the stars and stripes.

The only problem was figuring out what the hell Humphrey Bogart was doing in North Africa. After reading chapter seventeen of James Heartfield’s “Unpatriotic History of World War Two”, a book that I would nominate for Isaac Deutscher Prize of 2013 if I were on the jury, I will never be able to see “Sahara” in the same light.

Bogart plays Sergeant Joe Gunn (sounds like a Tarantino character?), whose tank crew has been attached to the British army to gain experience in desert fighting. The film opens with the British in general retreat after Rommel’s forces overran Tobruk, a seaside city on Libya’s eastern border to Egypt.

At a bombed out field hospital, Gunn picks up a motley crew of soldiers from other countries including a Sudanese with an Italian prisoner named Giuseppe played by J. Carrol Nash, an Irish actor who had perfected an Italian accent. We used to watch Nash in “Life with Luigi” back in the 1950s, a show that might be described as the Italian version of “The Goldbergs”. Nash’s role in “Sahara” is to personify the inept Italian army that had no heart in fighting. Made in 1943, the film reflected the state of Italian fascist politics. Mussolini was tossed aside that year and a new Italian government took up the fight against the Nazis, but eventually showed more grit in suppressing the local CP partisans who had dealt the deathblow to Mussolini.

Rex Ingram, an African-American who was the first to receive a Phi Beta Kappa Key from Northwestern University, plays the Sudanese soldier. As might be expected, his first acting role was in “Tarzan of the Apes”. Wikipedia comments drily: “He made his (uncredited) screen debut in that film and had many other small roles, usually as a generic black native, such as in the Tarzan films.”

Apparently Ingram’s notions of Black theater clashed with those of the Communist Party, as related in Mark Naison’s “Communists in Harlem During the Depression”:

Shortly after the performance, the company announced plans to stage additional full-length dramas based on a “program of social realism.” The movement toward a black theatre of protest posed difficulties for black artists. “Social realist” drama had numerous cliches and conventions: e.g. the conversion, the crisis and the obligatory concluding strike —that made it difficult to portray human relationships that were not explicitly political. Such difficulties increased in a black setting where writers and their left-wing critics often felt compelled to emphasize the theme of black-white unity and to counteract popular stereotypes of black behavior. When an artist portrayed blacks as criminals, religious enthusiasts, or hedonists, no matter how accurate that might be in a particular setting, s/he risked the displeasure of Communist critics. Such a fate befell Rex Ingram. At a theatrical benefit for the ILD [International Labor Defense], Ingram’s company put on a play called Drums Along the Bayou, which portrayed the radicalization of black workers in Louisiana and their rejection of voodoo for Communism. The final scene, in which the “previously superstitious” workers began “shouting Communist slogans” and the voodoo drums beat a new “supposedly Communist rhythm,” horrified Daily Worker writer Alice Evans:

The treatment, presenting Communism for the Negro as a sort of sublimated voodooism, full of hysteria and drum beats, is very dangerous, in that it confirms the vicious capitalist myth about the Negro as a jungle creature instead of a human being. Thinking of the fine self-control, remarkable discipline, and quiet reasoning power of Negro workers, proved in hundreds of struggles it becomes extremely regrettable that Rex Ingram should have given us so frenzied a picture of Negro conversion to Communism.

The CP’s arrogance toward Rex Ingram should give you an idea of what a mixed blessing their hegemony represented. While far more capable of reaching workers and Black people than their Trotskyist rivals, they took such advantage of their power that they eventually turned their friends into enemies. No better example can be found than Richard Wright.

Despite the ability of Lawson to craft a movie that was made to order for the CP’s wartime needs, it was not so long ago when he was going through the same kind of travails as Ingram. Wikipedia reports:

During the 1930s, leftists accused Lawson of having a lack of ideological and political commitment. New Playwrights Theatre associate Mike Gold attacked him in The New Masses on April 10, 1934, calling him a “A Bourgeois Hamlet of Our Time” who wrote adolescent works that lacked moral fiber or clear ideas. Lawson responded a week later in The New Masses in the article “‘Inner Conflict’ and Proletarian Art” he cited his middle-class childhood as the reason why he could fully understand the working people. He also recognized that his prosperity and Hollywood connections were suspect in the fight for workers’ rights. Due to the criticism, he joined the Communist Party and began a program of educating himself about the proletarian cause. He would soon travel throughout the poverty-stricken South to study bloody labor conflicts in Alabama and Georgia.

In “Sahara”, Bogart’s small group of democracy-loving fighters stand off a much larger Nazi force who have become weakened due to a lack of water. When Bogart offers to exchange guns for water from the oasis he commands, they refuse. Ultimately the elements get the better of them just as it did in the invasion of Soviet Russia and they surrender en masse to the good guys.

But what the fuck were the Brits doing in North Africa to begin with? Let me turn the microphone over to James Heartfield:

In Western Europe, neither Britain nor Germany were willing to cross the channel – bombing each other’s cities, and attacking ship the Axis and the Allies’ respective armies did not meet on their own soil, but in North Africa. Italy’s bid for African Empire ended in ruins. Germany’s overtures to Arab nationalists added to the Empire’s troubles. Once the British Army had regained control over the Middle East, they could face the threat of Rommel’s Desert Army. Europeans would vent their hatreds in other people’s countries.

Britain had assembled an army of 630,000 British and colonial troops under Auchinleck, outnumbering Rommel’s men by three to two. Auchinleck had 900 tanks to Rommel’s 560 but were still being out-foxed. Pressed to take on the German, Auchinleck in February of1942 threw the War Cabinet into despair when he said he needed four months to get ready. In the end he was told to strike before 15 July or be relieved of command, which he did. But still Rommel fought back, taking Tobruk after intense fighting on 20 June. The next day, wrote Ribbentrop’s press officer,

Rommel entered the city of Tobruk at the head of his combat group. He found a pile of ruins. Hardly a house remained intact … the harbour installations and the streets had been transformed into a maze of rubble.

Thirty three thousand prisoners were taken, among whom were fully one third of all of South Africa’s armed forces.

Once Italy entered the war in 1940, trade in the Mediterranean was called to a halt by attacks on shipping, which undermined Middle Eastern economies. A Middle East Supply Council under E.M.H. Lloyd struggled with shortages of tea, coffee, spices, sugar and grain. In June 1941 Lebanon’s rich cereal harvest was broken up by the Allied invasion of Syria, so that by the winter the Middle East was without grain and close to famine. There were riots in Damascus. Allied authorities ordered all grain be sold to a control board for distribution, closing – in some cases burning – local mills. The Allies taxed the Middle East heavily and put a freeze on wages and salaries, just as prices were rocketing.

In October and November of 1942 the British Eighth Army – now under the command of General Bernard Montgomery – and Rommel’s Afrika Korps fought their decisive battle at El Alamein. At the same time American and British forces landed to the west, catching the Axis forces in a pincer movement. The Axis surrendered on 14 May 1943, with 275,000 taken prisoner. For nearly three years the Axis and the Allies had been avoiding a direct confrontation over their own territory, by hitting at each other in North Africa, but the surrender brought that phase of the war to an end. In September 1945 Sir Edward Grigg, Minister Resident in the Middle East summed up the British position:

the Middle East is no less vital to Britain than Central and South America to the United States, or than the eastern and western glacis of the Russian land mass to the Soviet Union … It was not for nothing that we sent to Egypt in 1940, when this island was in imminent jeopardy of invasion, the only armoured division of which we stood possessed. It was no mere accident that the whole face of the war began to change after our victory, two years later, at Alamein.

November 30, 2012

Columbia University President: opposition to WWI is treason

Filed under: Columbia University,war — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

I have begun reading Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s “The Untold History of the United States” upon which the Showtime series is based. I can’t recommend it highly enough and will be posting a longer piece on Counterpunch the first chance I get. In the meantime I want to share this June 7, 1917 article with you that is excerpted on page 6 of the book, in a chapter dealing with Wilson and WWI. Simply jaw-dropping stuff.

http://t3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRDGsqNI80f9A4IvMDgidxCFbP01uVbQIP1pKFoK7jg2hR65EtONndXOB3ABQ

Nicholas Murray Butler

New York Times June 17, 1917
OUST TRAITORS SAYS BUTLER
Tells Alumni Columbia Rejects All Who Resist Government

President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University, in an address at a luncheon of alumni held in the university gymnasium at the close of the commencement exercises yesterday, denounced members of the university who resist the Government in time of war.

“Virtue and valor are so general among American youth,” he said, “as to be in danger of becoming commonplace, while vice and cowardice shriek out their horrid heads in ways that, at least for the moment, attract and often enchain public attention. For every instance of failure to rise to the high plane of patriotic duty and loyal service there_ have been here a hundred, yes, a thousand, instances of a splendid and a contrary sort.”

“So long as national policies were in debate we gave, as is our wont, complete liberty of assembly, of speech and of publication to all members of the university who, in lawful ways, might wish to influence and guide public policy. Wrongheadedness and folly we might deplore but were bound to tolerate. So soon, however, as the nation spoke by the Congress and by the President declaring that it would volunteer as one man for the protection and defense of civil liberty and self-government, conditions sharply changed. What had been tolerated before became intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason.

“I speak by authority for the whole university—for my colleagues of the Trustees and for my colleagues of the Faculties—when I say, with all possible emphasis; that there is and will be no place in Columbia University, either on the rolls of its Faculties or on the rolls of its students, for any person who opposes or who counsels opposition to the effective enforcement of the laws of the United States, or who acts, speaks, or writes treason. The separation of any such person from Columbia University will be as speedy as the discovery of his offense. This is the university’s last and only word of warning to any among us, if such there be, who are not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the world safe for democracy.”

Ambassador James W. Gerard of the class of 1890 also made an address at the luncheon in which be brought the alumni to their feet with applause as he said: “Nothing this country has in life, property or honor will, be worth while if the German Empire wins this war.”

February 1, 2012

Is Iran conspiring to terrorize American citizens?

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iran,war — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

James R. Clapper: liar and war profiteer

Today’s Washington Post has an article alarmingly titled “Iran, perceiving threat from West, willing to attack on U.S. soil, U.S. intelligence report finds“.  My first reaction was to say to myself, “Uh-oh, here we go again.”

The article has a link to testimony before Congress by one James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence who states:

The 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States shows that some Iranian officials—probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime. We are also concerned about Iranian plotting against US or allied interests overseas.

This, of course, is just one more example of what Malcolm X called turning the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim. With the assassination of one Iranian scientist after another carried out by America’s cat’s paw in the Middle East—the Mossad—one must appreciate Iran’s willingness not to retaliate in kind, despite the allegation about the “2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador”.

The N.Y. Times was a bit more skeptical than the Washington Post when it came to this plot, describing its architect as follows:

But Mansour J. Arbabsiar, 56, the man at the center of an alleged Iranian plot to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington, seems to have been more a stumbling opportunist than a calculating killer. Over the 30-odd years he lived in Texas, he left a string of failed businesses and angry creditors in his wake, and an embittered ex-wife who sought a protective order against him. He was perennially disheveled, friends and acquaintances said, and hopelessly disorganized.

Mr. Arbabsiar, now in custody in New York, stands accused by federal prosecutors of running a global terrorist plot that stretched from Mexico to Tehran, and that was directed by the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Many of his old friends and associates in Texas seemed stunned at the news, not merely because he was not a zealot, but because he seemed too incompetent to pull it off.

“His socks would not match,” said Tom Hosseini, a former college roommate and friend. “He was always losing his keys and his cellphone. He was not capable of carrying out this plan.”

Reminiscent of Judith Miller’s articles in the N.Y. Times, it is shocking that the Washington Post can ignore the obvious improbability of such a plot when it writes:

As described by U.S. officials in October, the convoluted scheme was to rely on assassins from a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the killing at a restaurant in Washington.

U.S. officials said the plot was devised by an Iranian American with ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. But the plan was foiled when the would-be operative mistakenly hired a paid informant of the Drug Enforcement Administration to carry it out. Iranian officials have denied any role in the plot.

It was “so unusual and amateurish that many initially doubted that Iran was responsible,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in Tuesday’s hearing. “Well, let me state for the record, I have no such a doubt.”

One of course would understand why Dianne Feinstein would “have no such a doubt” since she supported Bush’s war in Iraq back in 2002 based on the same kind of trumped up “intelligence”. As the 9th wealthiest member of the Senate, it might be expected that she would be gung-ho for wars in the Middle East. Her husband Richard Blum is the CEO of the Perini Corporation that is a prime military contractor as investigative reporter Peter Byrne revealed in an article titled “Senator Warbucks“:

As chairperson and ranking member of the Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee (MILCON) from 2001 through the end of 2005, Feinstein supervised the appropriation of billions of dollars a year for specific military construction projects. Two defense contractors whose interests were largely controlled by her husband, financier Richard C. Blum, benefited from decisions made by Feinstein as leader of this powerful subcommittee.

Each year, MILCON’s members decide which military construction projects will be funded from a roster proposed by the Department of Defense. Contracts to build these specific projects are subsequently awarded to such major defense contractors as Halliburton, Fluor, Parsons, Louis Berger, URS Corporation and Perini Corporation. From 1997 through the end of 2005, with Feinstein’s knowledge, Blum was a majority owner of both URS Corp. and Perini Corp.

While setting MILCON agendas for many years, Feinstein, 73, supervised her own staff of military construction experts as they carefully examined the details of each proposal. She lobbied Pentagon officials in public hearings to support defense projects that she favored, some of which already were or subsequently became URS or Perini contracts. From 2001 to 2005, URS earned $792 million from military construction and environmental cleanup projects approved by MILCON; Perini earned $759 million from such MILCON projects.

Obama’s Director of National Intelligence has the same cozy relationship to the military industry as reported by McClatchy, a publisher that stands hand and shoulders over the newspapers of the big bourgeoisie as indicated by their receiving an I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence in 2008. Their reporter filed a report on July 26, 2010 titled ” Clapper’s ties to contractors now loom large” that describes the same sort of incestuous relationship:

Four months after James R. Clapper left his federal job as head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in June 2006, he joined the boards of three government contractors, two of which had been doing business with his agency while he was there.

It was not the only revolving door entered by Clapper, who is now President Obama’s nominee to be director of national intelligence.

In October 2006 he was hired full time by DFI International, which was trying to boost its consulting with intelligence agencies. In April 2007, when he returned to public service as the chief of the Pentagon’s intelligence programs, DFI paid him a $50,000 bonus on his way out the door, according to his financial disclosure statement. Five months later, DFI landed a contract to advise Clapper’s Pentagon office, though company officials say they do not recall collecting any revenue from the deal.

There was nothing illegal or unusual about any of those moves in Washington, where former officials frequently land jobs with private contractors.

Now, however, Clapper is poised to become intelligence chief at a time when Congress is asking questions about the explosive growth of private contracting in the $75 billion U.S. intelligence operation. With lawmakers calling on the Obama administration to reduce the outsourcing, a logical question is whether a veteran of the close alliance between government and contractors — Clapper strongly defended the practice in response to a Washington Post series last week — is best-suited to bring that system to heel.

Not only is Clapper someone with a vested interest in war profiteering, he is also an old card at fabricating “intelligence”. In 2003, Clapper ran something called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. In that capacity, he assured the world that the weapons of mass destruction that were not found in Iraq because they had been spirited out of the country before the inspectors could locate them as the NY Times reported on October 29, 2003:

The director of a top American spy agency said Tuesday that he believed that material from Iraq’s illicit weapons program had been transported into Syria and perhaps other countries as part of an effort by the Iraqis to disperse and destroy evidence immediately before the recent war.

The official, James R. Clapper Jr., a retired lieutenant general, said satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria, just before the American invasion in March, led him to believe that illicit weapons material “unquestionably” had been moved out of Iraq.

“I think people below the Saddam Hussein-and-his-sons level saw what was coming and decided the best thing to do was to destroy and disperse,” General Clapper, who leads the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, said at a breakfast with reporters.

This was even too much for agency spokesman David Burpee, who said “he could not provide further evidence to support the general’s statement.”

One of the things I have stressed over and over is that President Obama is essentially carrying serving as Bush’s third term. I should add that if Mitt Romney replaces Obama next year, he will be carrying out Obama’s second term. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in “Slaughterhouse Five”: “And so it goes”.

In 2007, Clapper was nominated by President George W. Bush to be Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and approved without objections by Democratic Party legislators. So it is no wonder that he was Obama’s choice to run National Intelligence this year. He really knows how to pick ’em.

October 11, 2011

Another Depression, another Occupation

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,war — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

In 1932, three years after the stock market crashed and when the U.S. was in the throes of the worst depression in history, WWI veterans occupied a parcel of land not far from the White House to demand payment on the bonuses that were owed them. They were supposed to get paid for the difference between their military pay and their civilian wages according to legislation passed in 1924 but would have to wait until 1945. Since many were unemployed and destitute they demanded immediate payment.

Like today’s OWS, this occupation captured the country’s imagination and led to a political polarization. With Herbert Hoover still in the White House, there was little to expect in the way of justice but probably few of the veterans expected what eventually took place, a full-scale military assault led by General Douglas MacArthur that included six tanks. Under MacArthur’s command were Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. This was obviously a major offensive.

After an initial foray with fixed bayonets and adamsite, a vomit-inducing gas, Hoover called for a halt to the assault that MacArthur ignored, stating that he was trying to put down a Communist insurgency. At this point in his career, MacArthur showed the kind of defiance of civilian authority that would lead to his firing by Harry Truman years later.

In the video clip below, pay close attention to the orator in white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and suspenders. That is none other than General Smedley Butler!

The Bonus Army movement raised some of the same themes now being heard at OWS rallies. On June tenth, just a month before the men were attacked, their leader Walter W. Waters wrote an article in the NY Times (the paper was reasonably favorable toward the movement) using language that might sound familiar to you. He wrote:

We realize that the hue and cry is being raised by our opponents that payment of the bonus would be “class” legislation. But is not Federal assistance to broken-down railroads and defunct banks “class” legislation of a sort? Of course, the point is raised that assistance to industry is assistance to the working man.

Then, as now, there were certain problems that the occupiers had with the “Marxist-Leninist” left. Today that left is generally sympathetic to the movement but has no clue how to engage with it, a function unfortunately of seeing every mass movement as something to “intervene” in rather than become integrated with organically.

Back in 1932, the left was pretty much synonymous with the Communist Party which was deep into its “left turn”. A June 18 NYT article titled “Reds Urge Mutiny in the Bonus Army” that was not far from the truth. The CP urged the men to go back home and join with the working class in a fight for unemployment insurance. While the party’s call was cloaked in ultraleft rhetoric, it was clearly missing the point of the action, which was to implicitly put the rulers in Washington and their Wall Street funders on the defensive.

A week after the Bonus Army had been driven from its encampment, the CP held a press conference where its leaders demonstrated unbelievable stupidity. The lead paragraph of a July 31 1932 NYT article states: “The Communist Party, at its headquarters here accepted responsibility yesterday for the demonstration that resulted in the Bonus Army riots in Washington.” Speaking for the party leadership, William Z. Foster said:

Under the banner of the world Communist party, fight imperialist war, defend the Soviet Union, make Aug. 1 the beginning of a gigantic struggle for the defense of the right of workers.

Rally behind the election fight of the Communist Party. Oust the Hoover-Wall Street government. Forward to the workers’ and farmers’ government.

Can you imagine that this was the largest party on the left? Using rhetoric that evoked the “social fascism” mindset of the German CP, the CP labeled Walter Waters as a “stoolpigeon” who was following Mussolini and Hitler.

In the same way that Obama’s election in 2008 brought hope that social justice would be served, so did FDR’s election in 1932 raise the country’s spirits. Surely, someone who would become famous for his New Deal achievements—at least in the hagiography of American liberalism—would see a way to meet the request of the Bonus Army. As it turns out, FDR was as opposed to granting the veterans’ demand as Hoover. The only difference between the two was in the rhetoric they used. Hoover opposed it for obvious plutocratic motives while FDR opposed it because it would divert resources from the New Deal. In other words, the two presidents were playing the same game that Bush and Obama would play 76 years later in tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum fashion.

As part of “the Hundred Days” that marks the onset of the New Deal shortly after taking office, Roosevelt pushed through the Bill to Maintain the Credit of the United States Government. Better known as the Economy Act, the bill drastically cut federal expenditures through a 400-million-dollar reduction in veteran pensions and benefits. If Obama had taken the advice of the Nation Magazine and Salon.com to create a new New Deal, this is a piece of legislation he surely would have embraced.

In an odd role reversal, the Veterans of Foreign Wars—nowadays a bastion of reaction—took FDR to task from the left. The Economy Act in their eyes demonstrated the continuing influence of “Big Business” and “Wall Street”.

With its ranks dominated by men who were suffering from the impact of the Depression, the VFW’s magazine Foreign Service did not mince words. In an April 1933 editorial titled “Blood Money”, they wrote:

It is apparent that the veteran has been forced to bear the burden of a depression that was caused by his enemies—the predatory interests that have their hands in the public till. The money that will be withheld from the disabled veteran…can only be regarded as blood money.





This is the same mood that can be seen among the veterans participating in OWS today even if in this instance the anger is directed more at Sean Hannity than the president.

By April 1933, the VFW had FDR pegged in pretty much the same terms as Paul Street had Obama pegged early on. While some pundits viewed FDR has having been duped into supporting the Economy Act, the VFW saw him siding openly with big business and nothing but a continuation of Hoover. Since the Economy Act had removed 501,777 veterans and their dependents from the pension rolls, the pain must have been excruciating. In the VFW magazine, the reference was from that point on to “the new deal” rather than the New Deal.

While the VFW has gone through an evolution obviously, the American Legion was not much different in 1933 than it is today. It supported the Economy Act and its leader Louis A. Johnson spent as much time at the White House as some labor fakers do today.

The VFW published Smedley Butler’s speech to the Bonus Army seen in the Youtube clip above under the title “You Got to Get Mad”. Butler agreed to go on a speaking tour to promote the veterans’ demands that year. A Roosevelt supporter in 1932, Butler was now angry at the administration’s cozy alliance with “Big Business”.

Under the impact of such activism, FDR was forced to back down but not without resistance. Congress, where Democrats held majorities in both houses, passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act in 1936 authorizing the immediate payment of the $2 billion in WWI bonuses over the President’s veto.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from the original occupiers, it is that you have to rely on your own power in the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s words: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Even if such demands are still pending!

Source:

Stephen R. Ortiz, The “New Deal” for Veterans: The Economy Act, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the origins of New Deal Dissent, The Journal of Military History, April 2006, Vol. 70, no. 2

October 4, 2011

Steven Pinker = Hobbes + Pangloss

Filed under: evolutionary psychology,war — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Steven Pinker: bad hairdo, worse ideas

Whenever a prominent sociobiologist (I prefer this term to the more nebulous “evolutionary psychology”) like E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond or Steven Pinker comes out with a new book, you can expect it to arrive with a big splash—getting a front-page review in the Sunday Times Book Review, interviews with Charlie Rose, and all the rest. The reception will be overwhelmingly favorable because the message of such thinkers is deeply conservative, namely that biology is destiny. What is the point of struggling for a classless society if greed and aggression are hard-wired in our genes?

Get set for a barrage of fawning reviews of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that is basically an expansion of the chapter in his “The Blank Slate” that deals with violence. Pinker adheres to a Hobbesian view of society, one in which the state is necessary to curb the kind of wanton violence that apparently was much worse in primitive societies than it is under capitalism.

You don’t have to waste your money on this book in order to get a handle on Pinker’s views. John Brockman (described once by Wired Magazine as a onetime hippie, Warhol groupie, and feminine-hygiene marketing guru) is a literary agent whose clients include some of the most prominent sociobiologists, including Daniel Goleman, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. He also publishes Edge Magazine, in the latest edition of which you can find a lecture by Steven Pinker that is a short-form version of the new book.

This doctrine, “the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”),” he writes. “But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”

Pinker’s lecture begins with a glance at how bad things used to be:

In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, “[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world.

But after the fashion of Voltaire’s Pangloss, Pinker discovers that we are living in—or rapidly approaching—a time of the best of all possible worlds:

Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

He also takes exception to notions of a “noble savage”:

The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.

As opposed to such foolish notions, Pinker asserts that Hobbes got it right:

The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation.

I was first exposed to Pinker’s dubious ideas in The Nation Magazine, of all places. In a November 18, 2002 review of “The Blank Slate”, Steven Johnson takes heart in Pinker’s curious mixture of Hobbes and Pangloss:

Contrary to what its critics say, evolutionary psychology does not threaten our ability to assess and transform our social and cultural landscapes. Quite the opposite–understanding the particular channels that we’re prepared to learn can throw into sharper relief the achievements of culture. Knowing something about our reproductive drives and our tendencies toward violence makes the extraordinary drop in murder and birthrates experienced by many Western countries over the past few centuries all the more impressive.

At the time I questioned the wisdom of such a review:

For all of Pinker’s animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular, there is very little evidence that he understands how historical materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace its development through the years, suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship dialectically.

It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and freedom in a materialist context. In other words, revolutionary socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge, Pinker’s “Blank Slate,” with its discussions about the difference between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker, they are “nearly as distinct as their bodies”) seems little more than “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” geared to readers of the New York Review of Books.

The next time Pinker showed up on my radar screen was in the course of a commentary on the Yanomami science wars. Like Jared Diamond, who hailed colonialism “pacification” of the Papua New Guineans, and Napoleon Chagnon, the sociobiologist who viewed the Yanomami as “fierce” based on cherry-picked evidence, Pinker was committed to the view that hunting-and-gathering peoples were even more violent than they were depicted in Tarzan movies. About such characters, I had this to say:

Jared Diamond makes an identical argument to Pinker’s in his book “The Third Chimpanzee”, even going as so far as to accuse the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall as prototypical Nazis. In the infamous New Yorker article, he states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.” So violent were the PNG tribesmen that when the British colonizers arrived, they supposedly were grateful for being delivered finally from bloody Hatfield-McCoy feuding that never came to end. At least that’s Diamond’s argument.

When people like Pinker or Diamond write about the brutal hunting-and-gathering societies, they do so very selectively. Our ancestors came into existence two million years ago. Since the evidence for how early ancestors lived is quite scanty, there is a tendency for sociobiologists to project their own schemas backwards into a period with little regard for archaeological evidence. Trying to explain warfare in terms of Darwinian adaptation (what people like Pinker call environment of evolutionary adaptation or EEA) is very problematic as Gould pointed out in a NY Review article:

But how can we possibly know in detail what small bands of hunter-gatherers did in Africa two million years ago? These ancestors left some tools and bones, and paleoanthropologists can make some ingenious inferences from such evidence. But how can we possibly obtain the key information that would be required to show the validity of adaptive tales about an EEA: relations of kinship, social structures and sizes of groups, different activities of males and females, the roles of religion, symbolizing, storytelling, and a hundred other central aspects of human life that cannot be traced in fossils? We do not even know the original environment of our ancestors—did ancestral humans stay in one region or move about? How did environments vary through years and centuries?

For my money, there is no better antidote to Pinker’s Hobbesian/Panglossian worldview than the articles of Rutgers sociology professor Brian Ferguson, who is one of the leading critics of Napoleon Chagnon. Particularly useful is “The Birth of War” (Ferguson’s articles are archived at http://dga.rutgers.edu/~socant/ferguson.html#articles), an article that is clearly informed by a historical materialist viewpoint. He writes:

Over the millennia, tribal warfare became more the rule than the exception. As the preconditions for warfare (permanent settlements, population growth, greater social hierarchy, increased trade, and climatic crises) became more common, more tribal peoples in more areas adopted the practice. That development in itself spread warmaking to other groups. Once ancient states arose, they employed “barbarians” on their peripheries to expand their empires and secure their extensive trade networks. Finally, the European expansion after 1492 set native against native to capture territory and slaves and to fight imperial rivalries. Refugee groups were forced into others’ lands, manufactured goods were introduced and fought over (as with the Yanomami), and the spread of European weapons made fighting ever more lethal.

When I began studying war in the mid-1970s, I was trained in an approach called cultural ecology, which argued along the lines that Steven LeBlanc does today. Population pressure on food resources-land, game, herd animals-was seen as the usual cause of indigenous warfare. In some cases the theory did work. Among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast prior to the depopulation of the nineteenth century, groups fought to gain access to prime resource locations, such as estuaries with good salmon streams. But in far more cases around the world, such as that of the Yanomami, warfare could not be linked to food competition.

Today, under the rubric “environmental security,” many nonanthropologists who work on issues of international security embrace that ecological view. Recent outbreaks of violence, they argue, may be rooted in scarcities of subsistence goods, fueled by growing populations and degraded resources (such as too little and eroded cropland). But when you examine the cases for which that interpretation seems superficially plausible-the conflicts of the past several years in Chiapas, Mexico, for instance, or in Rwanda-they fail to confirm the “ecological” theory.

We anthropologists are just beginning to bring our experience to bear in the environmental security debate. What we find is that if a peasant population is suffering for lack of basic resources, the main cause of that scarcity is an unequal distribution of resources within the society, a matter of politics and economics, rather than the twin bugbears of too many people and not enough to go around.

Anthropology can offer an alternative view on such terrible disasters as the Rwandan genocide or the civil wars in the Balkans. case studies of modern-day conflicts show that a broad range of factors may be interacting, including subsistence needs and local ecological relations, but also political struggles over the government, trends in globalization, and culturally specific beliefs and symbols. Moreover, when hard times come, they are experienced differently by different kinds of people. Who you are usually determines how you’re doing and where your interests lie: identity and interest are fused. Once a conflict gets boiling and the killing starts, all middle grounds get swept away, and a person’s fate can depend on such simple labels as ethnic, religious, or tribal identity. The slaughter of Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is only one of the latest examples of that horrific effect. But such differences are not the cause of the conflict.

My view is that in most cases-not every single one-the decision to wage war involves the pursuit of practical self-interest by those who actually make the decision. The struggle can be joined over basic subsistence resources, but it can just as easily erupt over goods available only to elites. The decision involves weighing the costs of war against other potential hazards to life and well-being. And most definitely, it depends on one’s position in the internal political hierarchy: from New Guinean “big men” to kings and presidents, leaders often favor war because war favors leaders.

The question of subsistence resources is key. When primitive people fought each other, it is not because they are aggressive by nature but because of a need to gain access to the means of reproduction like water, food and land. The irony is that while capitalism made such struggles outmoded through its technological breakthroughs, but only raised them to a higher level since a fraction of society—the bourgeoisie—became bellicose in its need to monopolize the very means of production that allowed a peaceful and abundant society to prevail. Instead of fighting over water, food and land (ironically, the environmental crisis placed this on the front burned once again), the fight became one over natural resources need for manufacturing (especially oil) and markets for manufactured products.

Pinker’s belief that peace is becoming universal also does not take into account that violence is only partially a function of what happens on the battlefield. The fact that we have not endured anything like WWI or WWII in the past 65 years or so has to be weighed against the continuing violence of daily life in the Third World, which is not that visited so much by a bayonet but by hunger.

Two years ago U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told those gathered at a three-day summit on world food security: “Today, more than 1 billion people are hungry. Six million children die of hunger every year — 17,000 every day, he said.” (http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/11/17/italy.food.summit/) Just add up the number of dead children since the end of WWII and you arrive at 390 million casualties of the war on the poor. You might not have trench warfare, but the quiet death of a child in Peru is just as brutal. The guns that prevent Peru from descending into Hobbesian anarchy might be regarded as a necessary evil by Pinker, but to the mothers and fathers of those children that is of little consolation. When the Shining Path, by no means a perfect liberation force, decided to take up arms and challenge a system that condemned so many of its citizens to an early death, the voices of “peace” and “civilization” urged its destruction. Fujimori brought peace but it was the peace of the graveyard.

Like Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker is a public intellectual serving the interests of big capital. His targeted readers are suburbanites and the urban middle class that has somehow avoided the biggest blows of the Great Recession, the PBS contributors whose worldview is shaped by the News Hour and who will probably stick with Obama in 2012.

They like the idea that World History is moving toward a better place despite those evening reports about bad things happening in Zaire or Somalia. They are reassured by knowing that no matter how bad these things are, they were much worse 500 years ago than they are today—at least based on what Pinker reports. Of course, it matters little that others like Basil Davidson found an entirely different continent before colonialism, one that was a lot more livable despite the obvious small-scale battles over land, water and hunting grounds. And if the restive natives ever decide that they can do better by themselves than the enlightened colonist or neo-colonist, there is always the UN Blue Hats to sort things out in Hobbesian fashion.

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