Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 9, 2014

Steven Salaita statement

Filed under: Steven Salaita,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Statement of Steven Salaita September 9, 2014 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

My name is Steven Salaita. I am a professor with an accomplished scholarly record; I have been a fair and devoted teacher to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students; I have been a valued and open-minded colleague to numerous faculty across disciplines and universities. My ideas and my identity are far more substantive and complex than the recent characterizations based on a selected handful of my Twitter posts.

I am here today at the University of Illinois to speak against my termination by the Administration from a tenured faculty position because of the University Administration’s objections to my speech that was critical of recent Israeli human rights violations. The Administration’s actions have caused me and my family great hardship. Even worse, the Administration’s actions threaten principles of free speech, academic freedom, and critical thought that should be the foundation of any university.

Since 2006, I have been a faculty member of the English Department at Virginia Tech, where I earned lifetime tenure. On the basis of my scholarship and teaching record, and after substantial vetting, in 2013 I was enthusiastically recruited to join the faculty in the American Indian Studies program of UIUC. In October 2013, I accepted an offer from the interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to join the University as a professor with lifetime tenure, which I accepted. The offer letter specifically referenced the University’s adherence to the 1940 Principles of Academic Freedom codified by the AAUP.

In preparation for my new position, I resigned my tenured position at Virginia Tech; my wife resigned her professional position at the University as well. We got rid of our Virginia home and took on considerable expense in preparation for our move here. Two weeks before my start date, and without any warning, I received a summary letter from University Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing me that my position was terminated, but with no explanation or opportunity to challenge her unilateral decision. As a result, my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career – lifetime tenure, with its promised protections of academic freedom.

As hard as this situation is on me personally, the danger of the University’s decision has farther reaching implications. Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking; they are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic, or social orthodoxy. “Tenure – a concept that is well over a hundred years old – is supposed to be an ironclad guarantee that University officials respect these ideals and do not succumb to financial pressure or political expediency by silencing controversial or unpopular views. I have devoted my entire life to challenging prevailing orthodoxies, critiquing architectures of power and violence in the US and abroad and surfacing narratives of people – including Palestinians and Native Americans – who are subject to occupation, marginalization, and violence.

The Chancellor and Board of Trustees are apparently displeased by messages I posted on my personal Twitter account that were critical of recent atrocities committed by the Israeli government, which the United Nations referred to as “criminal.” My Twitter messages are no doubt passionate and unfiltered; they reflect my deep dismay at the deaths of more than 2,000 innocent Palestinians, over 500 of them children.

In recent statements, Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees said that the University Administration found the tone of my tweets “uncivil” and raised questions about my ability to inhabit the University environment. This is a perilous standard that risks eviscerating the principle of academic freedom. My comments were not made in a classroom or on campus; they were made through my personal Twitter account. The University’s policing and judgment of those messages places any faculty member at risk of termination if University administrators deem the tone or content of his or her speech “uncivil” without regard to the forum or medium in which the speech is made. This is a highly subjective and sprawling standard that can be used to attack faculty who espouse unpopular or unconventional ideas.

Even more troubling are the documented revelations that the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors – individuals who expressly dislike my political views. As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom. The ability of wealthy donors and the politically powerful to create exceptions to bedrock principles should be worrying to all scholars and teachers.

Finally, my scholarship and strong student evaluations over the course of many years, along with the University’s enthusiastic recruitment of me as a faculty member, thoroughly belie Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s only recently-stated concern about my civility and respectfulness. As my colleagues and students will attest, I am a passionate advocate for equality, a fair and open- minded instructor, and highly collegial. No legitimate evidence exists for any claims or insinuations to the contrary, which have severely damaged my reputation and my prospects for future employment.

During this challenging time, I am deeply grateful to the many hundreds of people and prominent organizations who have raised their voices in defense of the principles of academic freedom, including the nearly 18,000 individuals who have signed a petition demanding corrective action and the numerous faculty around the world who are boycotting the University until I am reinstated. The students and instructors gathered here have shown themselves to be exemplars of everything to which a university should aspire.

I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. I reiterate the demand that the University recognize the importance of respecting the faculty’s hiring decision and reinstate me. It is my sincere hope that I can – as a member of this academic institution – engage with the entire University community in a constructive conversation about the substance of my viewpoints on Palestinian human rights and about the values of academic freedom. This is, as we say in my profession, a “teaching moment.” We must all strive together to make the most of it.

Gerald Wilson dies at 96; multifaceted jazz musician

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:27 pm

Don Heckman, the author of the obit below, has had a distinguished career as a jazz musician and jazz historian and journalist. I organized a jazz festival at Bard College in 1965 that included the Don Heckman-Ed Summerlin band. I am glad to see that Don is still going strong.

Gerald Wilson dies at 96; multifaceted jazz musician

Obituary: Grammy-nominated jazz musician Gerald Wilson was 96
Gerald Wilson, who died Monday, shaped jazz with dynamic movements and the elegant grace of a modern dancer
‘I’m a musician, but first and foremost, a jazz musician,’ said trumpeter Gerald Wilson, who died Monday

Gerald Wilson, a bandleader, trumpeter, composer, arranger and educator whose multifaceted career reached from the swing era of the 1930s to the diverse jazz sounds of the 21st century, has died. He was 96.

Wilson, who had been in declining health, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles, two weeks after contracting pneumonia, said his son, jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson.

In a lifetime that spanned a substantial portion of the history of jazz, Wilson’s combination of articulate composition skills with a far-reaching creative vision carried him successfully through each of the music’s successive new evolutions.

He led his own Gerald Wilson Orchestras — initially for a few years in the mid-1940s, then intermittently in every succeeding decade — recording with stellar assemblages of players, continuing to perform live, well after big jazz bands had been largely eclipsed by small jazz groups and the ascendancy of rock music.

Seeing and hearing Wilson lead his ensembles — especially in his later years — was a memorable experience for jazz fans. Garbed in well tailored suits, his long white hair flowing, Wilson shaped the music with dynamic movements and the elegant grace of a modern dancer.

Asked about his unique style of conducting by Terry Gross on the NPR show “Fresh Air” in 2006, he replied: It’s “different from any style you’ve ever seen before. I move. I choreograph the music as I conduct. You see, I point it out, everything you’re to listen to.”

That approach to conducting, combined with the dynamic quality of his music, had a significant impact on the players in his ensembles.

Wilson’s mastery of the rich potential in big jazz band instrumentation was evident from the beginning. Although he was not pleased with his first arrangement — a version of the standard “Sometimes I’m Happy” written in 1939, when he was playing trumpet in the Jimmie Lunceford band — he was encouraged by Lunceford and his fellow players to write more. “Hi Spook,” his first original composition for big band, followed and was quickly added to the Lunceford repertoire. Soon after, Wilson wrote a brightly swinging number titled “Yard Dog Mazurka” — a popular piece that eventually became the inspiration for the Stan Kenton hit “Intermission Riff.” It was the beginning of an imaginative flow of music that would continue well into the 21st century.

“His pieces are all extended, with long solos and long backgrounds,” musician/jazz historian Loren Schoenberg told the New York Times in 1988. “They’re almost hypnotic. Most are seven to 10 minutes long. Only a master can keep the interest going that long, and he does.”

In addition to his compositions, Wilson was an arranger with the ability to craft songs to the styles of individual performers, as well as the musical characteristics of other orchestras. It was a skill that kept him busy during the periods when he was not concentrating on leading his own groups.

“I may have done more numbers and orchestrations than any other black jazz artist in the world,” he told the Los Angeles Sentinel. “I did 60-something for Ray Charles. I did his first and second country-western album. I wrote a lot of music for Count Basie, eight numbers for his first Carnegie Hall concert,” he said.

He also provided arrangements and compositions for such major jazz artists as Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and others, as well as — from various genres — Bobby Darin, Harry Belafonte, B.B. King and Les McCann.

Wilson’s longstanding desire to compose for symphony orchestra came to fruition with “Debut: 5/21/72,” commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1972 by the Philharmonic’s musical director, Zubin Mehta. His “Theme for Monterey,” composed as a commission by the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1997, received two Grammy nominations. In 2009, on his 91st birthday, he conducted the premiere of his six-movement work, “Detroit Suite,” a tribute to the city in which his music career began, commissioned by the Detroit International Jazz Festival.

Gerald Stanley Wilson was born Sept. 4, 1918, in Shelby, Miss. He began to take piano lessons with his mother, a schoolteacher, when he was 6. After purchasing an instrument from the Sears Roebuck catalog for $9.95, he took up the trumpet at age 11. The absence of a high school for African Americans in segregated Shelby made it necessary for him to begin his secondary school studies in Memphis. But a trip with his mother to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 stimulated a desire to move north, and he was sent to live with friends in Detroit, where he attended and graduated from the highly regarded Cass Technical High School.

An adept trumpeter while still in his teens, Wilson played at Detroit’s Plantation Club before joining the Chic Carter Band touring band. In 1939 he replaced trumpeter-arranger Sy Oliver in the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, then one of the nation’s most prominent swing bands.

Wilson served in the U.S. Navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center during World War II, then moved to Los Angeles, forming his own big band in 1944. Despite the band’s almost immediate success, with nearly 50 recorded pieces and a string of national bookings in its first years of existence, Wilson was not satisfied with his own personal level of craftsmanship. He disbanded the ensemble to spend a few years filling in what he believed were gaps in his music education. He also went on the road with the Count Basie Band and Dizzy Gillespie’s group.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Wilson was an established participant in L.A.’s busy music scene, arranging, composing for jazz and pop singers, big bands, films and television, while continuing to be active with his own orchestra. Eager to pass on his knowledge and experience, he taught jazz courses at what is now Cal State Northridge, Cal State L.A. and UCLA, and had a radio program on KBCA-FM (105.1) from 1969 to 1976.

As he moved into his 60s, Wilson viewed the commercial activity of his earlier years as the foundation that allowed him to concentrate on his creative efforts.

He had worked hard, he told the Boston Globe, so that in his later years he would no longer “have to go hustling any jobs. I have written for the symphony. I have written for the movies, and I have written for television. I arrange anything. I wanted to do all these things. I’ve done that. Now I’m doing exactly what I want, musically, and I do it when I please. I’m a musician, but first and foremost, a jazz musician.”

Besides his wife and his son, Wilson is survived by daughters Jeri and Nancy Jo, and four grandchildren.

news.obits@latimes.com

September 8, 2014

FSA is coming back into power very soon to liberate Syria from Assad & ISIS

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:55 pm

How Stieg Larsson exposed Swedish Nazis

Filed under: Fascism,Sweden — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm

From “Stieg Larsson: the Real Story of the Man Who Played With Fire” by Jan-Erik Petterson. Petterson devotes most of the book to showing how Larsson took considerable risks to uncover such developments as these:

One feature of the extreme Right in Sweden is that, despite the weakness of its popular support, it is remarkably well represented among the elite and ruling classes: among scientists, academics and high-ranking military officers. It was not just theorists like Kjellen and Molin who were in the vanguard in formulating ideas which then became prevalent in the Third Reich. Herman Lundborg, the world’s first professor of eugenics, was part of the trend as early as 1910, and founded the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene. A decade later he managed to get more or less the entire Establishment behind him when he set up a Swedish racial research institute.

The National Eugenics Institute opened in 1921, with Lundborg at its head, and became well known for its large-scale field-research projects on the Swedish people. He and his colleagues travelled all over the country, photographing, measuring and making notes. The subjects of this research, seeing no harm in it, were allocated to racial groups on the basis of their physical constitution, skin colour, hair colour, shape of cranium, cranial circumference and so on. And there were few who doubted its scientific validity. On the strength of his findings, Lundborg pursued a vigorous campaign for an active population policy, including compulsory sterilization of undesirables, such as Lapps, Gypsies and vagrants. If this were not implemented, the fusion of the races would escalate and culture would fall into decline: `Sexual urges would intensify, immorality, hedonism, vice and crime break out and leave their mark on society. Sooner or later it would lead to discord, dissent, riot and revolution’ (according to an article in Svensk Tidskrift in 1921).

One reason for the rapid and widespread support for Lundborg’s theories was that there had been a deep-seated belief since the mid-nineteenth century that the Germanic peoples of northern Europe were related and that Sweden was their original home. So when the Nazis stepped forward and began talking of restoring the honour of the German nation and defending the Nordic race, many Swedes were willing to listen. And these were not so much Swedish Nazi party members as influential individuals in politics, the civil service, the business world, the military, the police, even the royal family. Some of the greatest admirers of Germany before and during the Second World War were to be found in the Swedish military. When Hitler celebrated his fiftieth birthday in the spring of 1939, he was congratulated by a Swedish delegation of high-ranking officers led by the future supreme commander Olof Thornell. They were accompanied by the openly Nazi Carl Ernfrid Carlberg and Henri de Champs as representatives of the Manhem Society (a patriotic Scandinavian association named after Olaus Rudbeck’s seventeenth-century book of Gothicist speculations) and the Swedish-German Association, who also presented Hitler with a gift, a statuette of Charles XII, which he is said to have much appreciated.

In the initial phase of the war the Swedish coalition government adopted a far-reaching policy of acceding to German demands, with increased exports of iron ore, the transit of troops by rail and sea, and censorship of any Swedish newspapers which criticized Germany.

Things did not go so well, however, for the official Nazi parties. Generals and colonels would never dream of subordinating themselves to Warrant Officer Lindholm, not even under a German occupation. And the nation it was the intention to unite was not very interested in the constant bickering among the Nazi parties themselves. But there was a common pool of historical ideas and attitudes from which groups and individuals drew their inspiration and which made some hold fast to their fundamental credo — aggressive nationalism, racism, the belief that elites should rule — while other friends of Germany took down their portraits of Hitler and enrolled for correspondence courses in English.

Steven Salaita to speak out tomorrow

Filed under: Steven Salaita — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

(From Facebook)

I will speak publicly about my termination tomorrow

**MEDIA ADVISORY**
Press Conference: Professor Salaita to Speak for First Time About Losing Tenured Position Over Gaza Tweets

Urbana-Champaign, IL –Professor Steven Salaita, faculty and students of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC), and legal experts will hold a press conference at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 9 at the University YMCA (located at Wright & Chalmers). Salaita had accepted a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program at UIUC, but the university’s Chancellor terminated his appointment in early August over tweets regarding Israel’s latest attacks in Gaza. Salaita and other speakers will discuss his termination in the larger context of organized attacks on free speech on campuses and concerns about academic freedom and the First Amendment raised by the incident.

Many groups have come out strongly against the university’s actions, including the Modern Language Association, the American Association of University Professors, and the American Studies Association. Several departments at UIUC have cast votes of no confidence in the Chancellor, and many are boycotting the university – several scholars have already cancelled lectures at UIUC, and a national conference to be hosted there was cancelled. The press conference will be held following a student walkout.

This is the first time Prof. Salaita will be speaking about the situation in public. He is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago.

For those unable to attend the press conference in person, a copy of Prof. Salaita’s comments will be sent around afterwards and the speakers will be available for interview by phone beginning at 2 p.m. CDT.

For more information and documents on the case, visit CCR’s website here.

Who:
Professor Steven Salaita
Professor Robert Warrior, director of American Indian Studies at UIUC
Maria LaHood, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights
Michael Rothberg, head of the English Department at UIUC, on behalf of the Modern Language Association (MLA)
Eman Ghanayem and Rico Kleinstein, students at UIUC

When:
Tuesday, September 9, 2014, 12:30 p.m. CDT

Where:
University YMCA
1001 S Wright St., Urbana, IL 61820

Why there will be no new Cold War

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 2.25.11 PM

Photo

Forte dei Marmi, a seaside resort town in Italy, is a popular spot with wealthy Russians. Credit: Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

FORTE DEI MARMI, Italy — In this seaside resort town that is Italy’s version of a Russian Riviera, where furs dangle in shop windows in August and beach clubs keep chilled bottles of vodka, a temblor of anxiety unnerved hoteliers and restaurateurs in March. Usually, the phones would ring with Russians booking rooms, villas, even helicopters. But the phones suddenly went quiet.

It was the silence of sanctions. When the United States and Europe announced the first round of sanctions early this year in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, the intent was to cripple individuals and institutions close to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. But Russian money is on conspicuous and regular display on this stretch of the Tuscan coast, and the possibility that it might dry up alarmed the town’s business leaders.

Not to worry.

“For a few days, there was a pause, and business looked like it was slowing down,” said Paolo Corchia, owner of the Hotel President, one of the town’s most elegant hotels, and president of the regional hotel association. “But then business went back to normal.”

If normal can be defined as one shop selling violet-colored crocodile-skin loafers for 1,690 euros, or about $2,200. Or simple beach canopies that rent for up to €250 a day just to reserve 10 square feet of shaded sand. Or aviation companies that rent helicopters to take Russian shoppers on day trips to Monte Carlo for €4,450.

READ FULL ARTICLE

Separated at birth

Filed under: Academia,separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 2:13 pm

m-kennedyChris Kennedy, chairman of the board of trustees at U. of Illinois

ratsarticleLouisiana swamp rat

 

After Gaza War, One-Third of Israelis Consider Emigrating

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 12:20 pm

(And those who don’t end up in Berlin probably end up in New York, the true homeland of the Jews. And among them, I sometimes get the feeling that most of them end up in my building on the Upper East Side. The language you hear most in the lobby and elevators after English and Spanish is Hebrew.)

Hat tip to http://www.richardsilverstein.com/

After Gaza War, One-Third of Israelis Consider Emigrating

Israel’s Channel 2 published a poll which found that in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, one-third of Israelis are considering emigration.  56% would not emigrate were they given the opportunity.  Unlike in the past, only 36% would think badly of anyone who did emigrate.

In some ways, this is nothing new.  The great national poet of Israel’s post-independence era, Natan Alterman, decried Israeli emigration to West Germany as early as 1953!  Pollsters too have produced similar numbers in the past.  But it’s interesting that in the aftermath of this particular war, the numbers of those considering abandoning Israel have risen.  This may be considered a massive vote of no confidence in the leadership of the nation, and the nation itself.

A major pop hit these days is this song, Berlin, which treats the notion of yeridah (a pejorative reference to emigration) as jolly, fun, hip and cool.  This jarring, ironic treatment of emigration is something that is new to Israel, which traditionally views leaving as a traitorous act of abandonment.  I don’t particularly like the song musically.  It has a robotic rhythm and circus-like melody which I suppose is precisely the intent of the performers, who’ve devised an alienating musical format to convey an alienating social phenomenon.

But in this case, I think the song offers telling commentary on an important development in Israeli society.  The truth is that a huge number of young, well-educated, professional Israelis have already decamped, or are making plans to do so, to more hospitable climes in Europe or elsewhere.  They do so for many reasons: some are economic, seeking greater financial, professional or educational opportunities.  Some are security-related: they simply don’t want their own children facing the same burden of war and danger that they’ve faced.  And some find the climate in Israel to be stifling either culturally or politically.

The lyrics of the song savage a number of sacred national institutions from Ha-Tikvah to Naomi Shemer’s Jerusalem of Gold.  Even Berlin, the city from which the Holocaust emanated and home of the exterminators of European Jewry, becomes a more desirable refuge (“Reichstag of Peace”) than the “Jewish homeland.”  Here are the lyrics translated (I’ve amended Emily Hauser’s translation slightly):

BERLIN

Why stay here
Everybody’s asking
When you can catch a plane and begin to breath.
Even the newly Orthodox are leaving
And getting far away from me
How long can family be an excuse?
The neighbor’s lived in LA for 15 years already
She says we need to shut that watchful eye,
And everyone who comes back from abroad
Tells me how good it is there.

Berlin, Berlin
Even if I forget my right hand
You’ll wait forever
For us to return to you.
Reichstag of Peace
And of the Euro and of light
For all your songs
I don’t have a passport.

Let’s be honest.
Grandpa and Grandma didn’t come here [Israel] because of Zionism,
They fled because they didn’t want to die.
And now they understand that here there’s no life [possible],
They’d rather we be far away than poor.
No, it’s not a fleeing for convenience’s sake
It’s fleeing flat out
To keep your head above the water.
Even our forefather Jacob went down [emigrated] to Egypt
Because rent there was a third
And salaries double.

Understand:
The whole world migrates everywhere
Only here is it considered betrayal of the [Jewish] people
By leaders who want us to remain alone
To remain afraid
Because everybody hates Jews.
And every time they open their mouths
They pin the yellow star on me again
Like a medal of honor
Like it’s a boutonniere.
They degrade all of us
Without a scrap of pride.
Liberate the Ghetto already
Let us live like a normal people.

I don’t really want anywhere else.
It’s cold there
Strange there
And Hebrew is the only language I love speaking.
Give me a bit of the Kinneret
If there’s any left, I’ll be happy.
But how long can we ignore tomorrow?
How can I raise kids in a place that
Chased away Dudu Zar ?

Israel will increasingly become a poorer, more ultra-Orthodox, more settler, Mizrahi society (though of course Mizrahim will be emigrating as well).  With this will come a rising tide of hatred, intolerance, ethnic division, and religious extremism.  The IDF, already dominated by Orthodox-settler commanders, will become more so.  If you think present-day Israel is extreme, the future promises even worse.

Young people with ambition, and their lives and families ahead of them, understand that there is little hope that things can change for the better.  Foreign cities beckon and offer the pluralism, opportunity, freedom, tolerance and democracy that Israel lacks.  A more reasoned, rhetorically articulate defense of emigration is offered in this Haaretz op-ed by Rogel Alpher.

To be clear, I’m not celebrating this development. I don’t want to see Israel become a backwater, a dysfunctional state. In fact, I’d prefer to see Israel as a thriving, vibrant multi-cultural oasis with opportunities for all and welcoming to all. But I must describe what I see, not what I wished I’d see. That’s the difference between me and liberal Zionists. They see what they think is there or what should be there. Not what is.

September 7, 2014

Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers

Filed under: comedy — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers.

So yeah, I think Joan Rivers was pretty great. But I also think she was a monster. She was a mass of unresolvable contradictions, someone who does not fit easily into neat little categories. The misogyny that was so essential to her act makes it difficult to claim her for feminism. But, in spite of efforts such as Peggy Noonan’s, it’s not any easier to claim her for conservatism. The way this loud-mouthed broad reveled in obscene language and sexually explicit humor — hell, the way her entire public persona transgressed every notion of proper female decorum — make it impossible to reconcile her with traditional values.

In the end, it’s precisely Joan Rivers’ darkness and her unparalleled gift for making everyone feel squirmingly uncomfortable that I find so fascinating. The woman never lost her edge. Yes, Joan Rivers deserves to be honored and remembered. But let’s be honest about the very mixed legacy she leaves. Rivers herself, who was capable of assessing her career with admirable objectivity (at gigs, she was introduced as “the best act in her price range”), and who tended to viewed ass kissers with contempt, would probably agree.

A rejoinder to Vijay Prashad on the Islamic State

Filed under: Iraq,Jihadists,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Vijay Prashad

I have no trouble understanding why so much of the left supported Bashar al-Assad from the very beginning of the Syrian revolt that began in March of 2011. It was a no-brainer. On one side you had the Venezuelan and Cuban governments throwing their full support behind the Baathists and on the other side there was Samantha Power and John McCain calling for “regime change”.

The analysis went something like this. The CIA was behind the Syrian protests and no matter how many times the protesters said they were for human rights and democracy, there was always lurking behind the scenes Saudi and Qatari money and Wahhabi politics. Furthermore, the real target of the Syrian insurgency was not just the Baathist government. Once a beachhead was established, the next targets would be Hizbollah in Lebanon and Iran. Using “moderates” in the FSA and the more obvious jihadists like those affiliated with al-Qaeda, US foreign policy would achieve its ultimate goal—to weaken Soviet (sorry, I meant Russian) influence in the Middle East—the last barrier to NATO and American hegemony.

Now, as it turns out, none of this was true. In a sense, it was a “no brainer” but only understood that such an analysis did not require a brain but rather some nimble fingers that could navigate Global Research, WSWS.org et al on a daily basis. Despite the hysteria that arose last September about Obama’s plan to make war on Syria in order to achieve Samantha Power type “regime change”, the net result has been a coalescing of Syria, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and the USA against ISIS, arguably the only genuine jihadist group operating in the region. To try to explain or explain away ISIS does require a nimble brain and nimble fingers. Some on the “anti-imperialist” left continue to view ISIS as a CIA tool. For them there is no medication that is powerful enough to cure such delusions.

When I received email from Vijay Prashad announcing a series of articles on ISIS for the The Hindu, I was very curious to see what he had to say. I hadn’t been following Vijay all that closely since he had made some serious analytical mistakes, at least in my opinion (who else?). He had written a number of articles predicting a regional settlement of the war in Syria, the best hope for an intractable situation. No such luck, needless to say. Following him on Twitter, I was dismayed to see him give credit to the report that there had been a landslide victory for Bashar al-Assad in the last “election”. I don’t tend to pay much attention to tweets, but conveyed my displeasure to Vijay (I am sure he did not lose any sleep over this.)

After reading the first article (The Pendulum of the Islamic State), one cannot help but conclude that ISIS and the al-Nusra front are operating in concert against the Syrian army:

Intense fighting along the belt that links Mhardeh and Houla suggests that IS and its allies (including its fractious cousin, Jabhat al-Nusra) have the ability to threaten the western coastal towns of Tartous and Latakia. The Syrian Army was able to block an al-Nusra and IS advance toward the largely Christian town of Mhardeh. Tension remains high as morale in the IS soars.

I am not quite sure what the adjective “fractious” indicates. It is a synonym for grumpy, something that would describe me but in political terms—I have no idea. More to the point, isn’t it the case that al-Nusra is aligned with al-Qaeda that expelled ISIS? And isn’t the case that ISIS has drawn many of al-Nusra’s fighters if for no other reason that it has ample arms and money?

For those who stick with al-Nusra, a group that at least has the merit of having fought against the Baathists if nothing else, the costs are significant. When al-Qaeda leader Abu Khaled al-Suri came to Syria to make peace between ISIS and other rebels, he was killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in Aleppo. Something tells me that given such a background, the term “allies” does not apply to al-Nusra and ISIS. Since Vijay is based in the region, maybe he is privy to information we have no access to. Let’s hope he can shed some light.

Chugging along with this article, I was struck by Vijay’s assertion that the US was “egging on” the rebels’ Southern Front to seize Damascus. And what would be the leverage they need to accomplish such a task? Vijay observes: “The U.S. trains Syrian rebels in the deserts of eastern Jordan.” I don’t know what use any kind of training would be to foot soldiers facing an air force that can launch missiles filled with 400 pounds of TNT. Maybe the training involves reading some Maoist tracts about the importance of a fighting spirit. Who knows?

And finally there’s this. Vijay feels that as long as there is economic inequality, the threat of jihadism will arise. He writes:

Political reforms need to be on the cards. So too must an alternative to the economic agenda pursued in both Iraq and Syria since the mid-2000s. Under U.S. pressure, the Assad and al-Maliki governments pursued neo-liberal policies that increased inequality and despair. 

Well, look, I don’t think that any kind of pressure had to be applied to Bashar al-Assad. That would be like breaking down an open door. The Baathists adopted neo-liberal policies for the same reason that Mubarak did. The Syrian bourgeoisie existed on the basis of the classic “crony capitalism” that made the poor suffer so that both the Sunni and non-Sunni elite in Damascus could continue to live high on the hog. They didn’t need any pressure from the USA to screw the plebian masses of the provincial capitals and the countryside. They did it all by themselves.

Moving right along to the next article, Metastasis of the Islamic State, I was struck by this explanation of how ISIS gained such battlefield prowess: “The Syrian war allowed the IS fighters great battlefield experience, and helped them draw in jihadis from around the world (including India, according to a July 23 report to the U.N. Security Council).” Battlefield experience? Really? With who? Surely not the Syrian army.

In fact ISIS’s main battles were with the FSA that had been battered for well over two years before ISIS emerged as a fighting force. If you had been the target of barrel bombs and 400 pounds of TNT missiles for that length of time and starved of weapons and other material aid, it is unlikely that you would be able to put up much of a fight especially when the Syrian army and ISIS were involved in a two-front pincer attack. If there were any significant battles between the Syrian army and ISIS until very recently, I don’t know of them. Maybe Vijay has information that would shed light on this question or maybe he was simply saying that ISIS became a formidable force operating against the FSA. I hope not.

Finally, there’s The geopolitics of the Islamic state. Since the whole question of geopolitics intrigues me, sort of the same way that an ingrown toenail does, I wondered where he would be going with this. After reading it, I am afraid that the wheels spun off the old Prashad wagon.

To start with, Vijay states that “ISIS entered the Syrian war in 2012 as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front).” Is that so? That would indicate one of two things, either that it split from al-Nusra Front or that al-Nusra transformed itself into ISIS, which is obviously not the case. The origins are a bit more complex. At one time the al-Nusra Front was receiving funding from ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) but on April 8, 2013 Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced that the only authorized fighting group (in a manner of speaking) would be ISIL. Al-Nusra was now persona non grata. Furthermore, getting funding from ISI does not indicate that it was a branch of ISI. I know that some of this can seem quite arcane but it really has to do with the need for clearer lines of demarcation, which are badly needed when writing about jihadists.

Vijay puts a lot of the blame for the viral outbreak of jihadism in Syria at Turkey’s doorstop:

The West’s backing of the rebellion provided cover for Turkey’s more enthusiastic approach to it. Intoxicated by the possibility of what Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu favoured as “neo-Ottomanism,” the Turkish government called for the removal of Assad and the emergence of a pro-Istanbul government in Damascus.

As someone who has followed Turkish politics rather carefully over the years, I find this analysis dubious. I think that the more likely explanation is AKP sympathy for their co-religionists. For example, when Turkey backs flotillas to Gaza, is that an expression of “neo-Ottomanism”? The more likely explanation is that the Anatolian elites have much in common ideologically and in class terms with formations like the Muslim Brotherhood. It would most certainly want to see its member parties prevail in Gaza and Egypt but why drag the Ottoman Empire into the equation?

Showing that he has been keeping up with Seymour Hersh, Vijay writes: “Turkey opened its borders to the ‘rat-line’ of international jihad, with planeloads of fighters from Libya and Chechnya flying into Turkey to cross into Syria to fight for ISIS and its offshoots.” Wow, pretty exciting. This would make for a good episode on Showtime’s “Homeland” but I think it would work more as fiction than fact.

What source would Vijay recommend for verifying that “planeloads” of jihadists poured into Turkey en route to Syria other than the sad and discredited Seymour Hersh? Would it be the English-language version of Al Akhbar in Lebanon where Vijay reports from occasionally? A Turkish newspaper reported:

According to English edition of Lebanese al Akhbar newspaper, thousands of jihadists are coming from Jordan to Turkey by through the air. The terrorists who come to the Yayladağ region of Hatay province of Turkey are being transferred to the Latakia region of Syria. It’s reported that thousands of jihadists transferred to Turkey during the non-stop transportation operations for weeks.

Syrian sources speaking to Aydınlık confirmed the transportation of the terrorists through the mentioned routes. They also stated that according to their sources, there is a huge discomfort in the Turkish state regarding the related issue.

Wikipedia describes al-Akhbar as “pro-Hezbollah”. If that is the case, I would take its reporting with a grain of salt especially in light of what transpired with one of its most well-known reporters. Once again from Wikipedia:

[Max] Blumenthal left Al Akhbar in June 2012 in protest at Al Akhbar’s coverage of the Syrian civil war. In an interview with The Real News he said that “It was too much to have my name and reputation associated with open Assad apologists when the scale of atrocities had become so extreme and when the editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar was offering friendly advice to Bashar al-Assad on the website of Al-Akhbar, you know, painting him as this kind of genuine, earnest reformer who just needed to get rid of the bad men around him and cut out some of the rich oligarchs who happened to be his cousins, and then everything would be fine. That was ridiculous.”

I would only hope that Vijay Prashad take some inspiration from Max Blumenthal in future reporting from the region, especially since he too has written for Al Akhbar.

 

 

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