Steven Avery, accused serial murderer reported on in the New Yorker
Tariq Ali, propagandist for Bashar al-Assad, serial killer of countless Syrians
Steven Avery, accused serial murderer reported on in the New Yorker
Tariq Ali, propagandist for Bashar al-Assad, serial killer of countless Syrians
Adam Johnson, a staff member of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has an editorial in the latest Nation Magazine titled “Pundits, Decrying the Horrors of War in Aleppo, Demand Expanded War” that warns about the possibility of the Omran Daqneesh photo being exploited by people such as Nicholas Kristof and Joe Scarborough to persuade Obama to create a no-fly zone that might lead to a confrontation with Russia, as if Obama had any interest at this point in removing Assad. As the Rand Corporation advised the Pentagon early on, the worst possible outcome for American interests in Syria would be the removal of Assad.
Johnson also brings up Libya as an example of what would happen to Syria if a NATO intervention was repeated. Considering the fact that Libya’s homicide rate was 902 up to this point in 2016, one imagines that people living in Darayya and East Aleppo might welcome such an intervention. If you read the article carefully, you will get the real message, however. For Johnson the worst consequence of a Libyan-type intervention is that it would produce a “failed state” under jihadist control. It would be much better to have someone like Assad in power, even if he has killed seven times as many of his countrymen as ISIS. After all, it is much better to be die from a secular-minded barrel bomb than a religious fanatic’s sword.
Furthermore, for all of his baleful warnings about the need to stop American intervention, there is not a single word in the article about the intervention that is taking place right now against ISIS and one that would be escalated against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the rebranded al-Nusra. The USA has already bombed al-Nusra using the excuse that a group called Khorasan has been conspiring to launch 9/11 type attacks in the USA, even though such a group likely does not even exist. If and when the Syrian rebels took their marching orders from John Kerry to physically separate themselves from al-Nusra, that would give the F-16s free rein to blow the group to smithereens, even if involved massive collateral damage to civilians as is happening now in ISIS-controlled areas.
This is not the first time that Adam Johnson has written an article about how the USA might exploit the image of a Syrian boy to launch a George W. Bush style “regime change” operation. On September 5, 2015, he penned an article titled “The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the ‘Do Something’ Lie” that was essentially the same as the latest except focused on the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, one of many drowning victims trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of escaping the Baathist hell. And like the latest article, it is mainly written to make the case for Assad as a lesser evil: “If the West removes Assad, then what? Will the tens of thousands of radical, medieval wahabbists that have flooded in simply go away?” Has Adam Johnson ever noticed that these wahabbists had a de facto non-aggression pact with Assad? He probably did but like all Baathist propagandists, he chose not to acknowledge it. I suppose that’s what you might expect from someone like Rick Sterling or Mike Whitney but when it comes from a member of FAIR that was created to offer an alternate to the mainstream media, it is quite disappointing. One must conclude that Johnson is okay with mainstream reporting as long as the provenance is Russian.
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see Johnson’s Islamophobic drivel in The Nation, considering the tilt toward the Kremlin engineered by the husband-and-wife tandem of Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen. Cohen has been a regular guest on the John Bachelor radio show on WABC for quite some time, where he offers up RT.com talking points that the ultraright host seems to lap up. Given the fondness for Putin in a wide swath of the ultraright, including Donald Trump, such a pairing is not that atypical. Stanley Heller, a peace activist, must have taken plenty of Dramamine before listening to the latest Cohen-Bachelor tête-à-tête so we must tip our hat to him for reproducing some of the more eye-opening quotes from the Sovietologist professor emeritus. Cohen told Bachelor:
Who do you think will come to power in Damascus? The best scenario is the chaos in Libya that came after Mrs. Clinton thought it was a great idea to assassinate Qaddafi. This is the worst scenario, and this is what the Russians believe: it’s either Assad in Damascus or the Islamic State in Damascus.
In other words, Cohen said in two sentences exactly what Adam Johnson was trying to say in thousands of words. Less is better, especially when it is bullshit.
Cohen followed up with this gem of political analysis: “I can tell you that Israel accepts that alternative and they are supporting Russia. They don’t want the Islamic State in Damascus, Israel doesn’t.” That must have closed the deal with John Bachelor whose most frequent guest besides Cohen is Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations who makes Alan Dershowitz sound like Norman Finkelstein by comparison.
Proceeding now from the ridiculous to the ridiculouser, we are confronted once again by the “false flag” analysis that has cropped up repeatedly on the left every time the Assad dictatorship is charged with one atrocity or another. It got started very early on when Baathist snipers began firing on peaceful protests. Some on the left, speaking liberally, claimed that it was actually Mossad or CIA operatives on the rooftop who were doing the killing as a way of creating bad publicity that would legitimize a “humanitarian intervention” triggered by a Nicholas Kristof op-ed piece. For example, Webster Tarpley, a certifiably psychotic ex-member of Lyndon Larouche’s fascist cult, wrote an article about the sniper attacks for RT.com titled ‘CIA, MI6 and Mossad: Together against Syria’ that might serve as a template for everything that has followed.
The latest examples revolve around the photo of Omran Daqneesh, which the further reaches of the Baathist amen corner believe is staged. Simon Wood wrote about this in a CounterPunch article that basically reprised an article on the Off-Guardian website that was created to counter what they see as the Guardian’s bad journalism. Instead of doing their own reporting, Off-Guardian functions mostly as an aggregator of RT.com reporting and other outlets tapped in to the conspiracy theory veins of Global Research, Moon of Alabama, et al.
Titled “MSM using pro-al Nusra ‘media center’ as source for war-propaganda”, the unsigned Off-Guardian article starts off by referring to Omran and his family “allegedly” sustaining minor cuts and bruises when their building was “allegedly” bombed by pro-Assad forces. It notes that an AP report that was picked up by the Guardian and other “pro-intervention” newspapers admitted that “neither he nor the rest of his family sustained anything but superficial cuts and bruises.”
Unsurprisingly, the Off-Guardian missed the point of the photo entirely. There are thousands of photos of maimed corpses from places like Homs, Darayya and East Aleppo that I have seen over the past five years but only this one went viral in the bourgeois press. It became iconic because the boy has a lost and forlorn expression on his face, not because he was missing a limb. For reasons that would be lost on someone as crass as the Off-Guardian author, it resonated with people in the media business because they have children. He was a “stunned and weary-looking boy” as the AP put it, not the victim of major injuries. People reacted to the photo because of its poignancy. In a way, the photo was widely disseminated for the same reason that the African-American woman in a long, flowing dress facing the cops in Baton Rouge was. It captured the imagination of the public. Since I doubt that the people associated with Off-Guardian have an clue about the power of imagery, it follows that they would try to use the fact that the boy only had minor injuries as proof of a “false flag”. These people are predictable, if nothing else.
We must add, however, that Off-Guardian did not bother to correct the lead paragraph that referred to Omran and his family sustaining nothing but “superficial cuts and bruises.” In fact, the boy’s 10-year-old brother Ali died the next day from injuries received from the Russian bombing attack but why would they want to update their article whose sole intention was to serve up Baathist propaganda? And they have the chutzpah to set themselves up as superior to the Guardian.
Things go downhill rapidly in the article. It condemns the Aleppo Media Center for taking the photo as it wrote favorably about al-Nusra killing some Baathist soldiers. I suppose if I lived in a city that had been reduced to rubble through barrel bombs and missile attacks, I might celebrate the killing of soldiers on the side of those responsible for the death of so many children like Ali Daqneesh.
Without actually coming out and calling the incident staged, Off-Guardian finds something fishy going on:
We’re also a bit curious about why the AP report claim the video was made Wednesday night, when it was uploaded to Twitter at 13:52 BST Wednesday afternoon, which would equate with 15:52 in Aleppo. Is this a time-zone anomaly? But then there’s the added confusion of the Tweet itself, which seems to say pretty clearly that the vid was made on Sunday evening.
For others even more shameless than Off-Guardian, that’s exactly the charge. The Moon of Alabama, which is about as ghoulish as any Baathist website out there, not only fixates on the time discrepancy but offers up other evidence of a conspiracy: “The amount of red colored substance on the boy and the man do not correspond to the amount one would expect from even a minor head wound. There are also no bandages applied or anything else that could have been used to stop an actual head wound from bleeding.” Where in god’s name do these people come from? No matter what problems Bertolt Brecht had ideologically, I am sure he would be disgusted to see how a song from “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”, a sardonic musical about the rise of Hitler, would end up as the title of a website that makes excuses for the genocidal regime in Damascus.
Finally, there is a desperate attempt to smear the Aleppo Media Center as somehow being connected with the beheading of a Palestinian youth named Abdullah Issa because one of its members Mahmoud Raslan had been identified as the photographer. Since Raslan had been photographed with Nour al-Din al-Zenki, some of whose members committed the war crime, the Baathist amen corner was anxious to tarnish anybody involved with the photograph.
However, there was a bit of a problem. According to the Guardian it was not Raslan who was responsible for the viral photo but another member of the Aleppo Media Center, a videographer named Mustafa al-Sarout. Indeed, the “photo” was not a photo at all but a screen shot of the video as the Guardian article makes clear.
Even though Raslan was not necessarily the photographer, Off-Guardian made the amalgam between the Aleppo Media Center and Nour al-Din al-Zenki the following day in an article titled “An ID for ‘Mahmoud Raslan’”, who is portrayed as a member of Nour al-Din al-Zenki. Leaving aside the uncertainty as to who took the photo, is it really necessary to discredit the photo because of who took it?
We don’t know what Raslan’s connection is to Nour al-Din al-Zenki, other than that he appears in the same photo with some of its fighters–in all likelihood before the beheading. Maybe he should have been able to predict the war crime taking place in the future as depicted in the movie “Minority Report”.
More likely, given the tight quarters of East Aleppo where activists and fighters and civilians live in constrained spaces under continuous air attacks from Syrian and Russian jets and are forced to rely on each other for survival, does it come as any big surprise that Raslan might have been seen in such a photo?
Basically Off-Guardian, Moon of Alabama, Simon Cross, Adam Johnson and every other person writing Baathist propaganda made up their mind in 2011 that Bashar al-Assad was “one of us”, a progressive nationalist standing up for democracy, secularism and economic development against hordes of what Johnson called “radical, medieval wahabbists”. Anything that goes against that ideological agenda has to be swept under the rug whether it is the death of Omran Daqneesh’s brother or the de facto alliance between Assad and the “radical, medieval wahabbists” against Syrians seeking nothing more than the right to express themselves freely and to not be victimized by a mafia bourgeoisie that had the same relationship to the Assad dynasty as the Nicaraguan rich had to Somoza.
Missing from the conspiracy-minded bullshit from Adam Johnson et al is any acknowledgement of the class relations that led to the uprising, a dynamic that owed much more to economic inequality than how to interpret the Quran. Let me conclude with an article I keep coming back to and which helped shape my thinking on Syria early on:
After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.
Successive years of scant rainfall and drought after 2003 produced massive rural in-migration to the cities — more than 1 million people had moved by 2009 — widening the social and regional gaps still further. Major cities, such as Damascus and Aleppo, absorbed that migration more easily than smaller ones, which were increasingly starved of infrastructural investment. Provincial cities like Dir‘a, Idlib, Homs and Hama, along with their hinterlands, are now the main battlegrounds of the rebellion. Those living in rural areas have seen their livelihoods gutted by reduction of subsidies, disinvestment and the effects of urbanization, as well as decades of corrupt authoritarian rule. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings motivated them to express their discontent openly and together.
There have been no significant defections, however, from the ranks of big business, at least not in Damascus and Aleppo. It is not just presidential blood relatives like Makhlouf who have remained loyal. Other major players hailing from the above families have stood firm by the regime, financing its orchestrated mass rallies and public relations campaigns, as well as helping to float the Syrian currency. Most malcontents limit themselves to spiriting capital out of the country and expressing private wishes for regime change. Those who do back the uprising do it quietly and extremely carefully, highlighting the fealty of their counterparts.
The moguls know very well that their fate is bound up with that of the regime by virtue of intertwined investments and also their years of self-enrichment at regime behest. To switch sides would thus be an enormous gamble on the opposition’s forbearance. Big business’ support is not solely responsible for the regime’s resilience, but it would have been difficult for the regime to hold out in Damascus and Aleppo had these monied interests explicitly thrown their lot in with the protesters. The regime-business alliance took shape over decades, and it is unlikely to snap until the very last moment. Public defections by big businessmen would be a fair indicator that the regime’s days are numbered. Until then, all eyes are on the battlefield.
What Darayya looks like now
The surrender and evacuation of the Damascus suburb after a brutal four-year siege is a devastating blow to opposition morale and a long-sought prize for Assad. Weeks of intense bombardment, which activists claim included napalm attacks, has finally overwhelmed rebels.
“They make a desert and call it peace”.
Opening tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center is a French film titled “Fatima” that is a subdued and sensitive study of an immigrant Algerian cleaning woman trying desperately to provide both material and spiritual support for her two daughters. Unlike most narrative films, the plot does not revolve around some sensational incident such as a crime that drives the action forward. Instead, it consists of the quotidian but gripping crises that the family confronts with the mother Fatima (Soria Zeroual) soldiering on.
One daughter has just entered medical school and is deeply stressed by the workload. Like the children of many struggling Arab-speaking immigrants in France, Nesrine (Zita Hanrot) is the family’s hope for success even though the odds are against her. When she and her mother show up to see an apartment near medical school that Nesrine hopes to rent, the landlady takes one look at the mother’s hijab and tells them that her son forgot to give her the key–an obvious excuse for refusing to rent to Muslims. As evidenced by the racist attacks taking place over the “burkini”, France is a hostile environment for such immigrants.
Nesrine’s younger sister is a rebellious fifteen-year-old named Souad (Kenza Noah Aïche) who hates school, her teachers and authority in general. She resents her mother for her traditional ways and is ashamed of her lowly status as a cleaning lady. Above all, she seeks normalcy—something that is out of reach for most working class North Africans.
As the film’s title would indicate, it is mostly a portrait of Fatima who is played by Soria Zeroual with such a degree of naturalism that you might be tempted to believe that she is really a cleaning lady. Just after writing this sentence, I googled the actress’s name and discovered that this is actually what she was. Her amazing performance comes partly from her lived experience and partly from the obvious skills of director Philippe Fauchon, the son of a French soldier who had married an Algerian pied noir woman.
The screenplay for “Fatima” is based on “Prayer to the Moon”, a collection of poems, thoughts and other pieces of writing by Fatima Elayoubi, who came to France and worked as a cleaning lady. Her experience was so close to that of the actress who portrayed her that the net effect is seeing them as the same person, a universal symbol of people caught between two worlds, oppressed by economic circumstances, and seeking nothing more than a decent life for their children. As such, the film is about as moving an evocation of immigrant life as you can see this or any other year.
“In Order of Disappearance” is a Norwegian film that opens tomorrow at the Sunshine Cinema 5 in New York that is utterly without social or political significance but vastly entertaining. Directed by Hans Petter Moland, it stars veteran Swedish actor Stellan John Skarsgård as Nils, the owner of a fleet of snow plows in the far north of the country that is essential to removing what looks like the blizzard of the century on practically a daily basis.
In the first few minutes of the film, his son who works as a baggage clerk at a local airport gets abducted by drug dealers who mistakenly believe that he is in cahoots with another worker who has been a cog in their cocaine smuggling machine. After they learn that he has stolen a large part of their latest shipment, they force the two into their car and kill Nils’s son while the other man escapes. In order to throw the cops off their trail, they overdose Nils’s son with heroin in order to make it seem that he was only a junkie. When Nils shows up at the morgue to identify the body, he is told that his son accidentally killed himself through an overdose. He tells them, “My son was not a drug addict”, thus setting into motion a story that is nominally a somber tale about revenge.
Defying expectations, this is not a typical tale of a father taking on killers heroically after the fashion of Charles Bronson. It is instead a black comedy of the sort that Quentin Tarantino was once capable of making. It has Nils executing one gangster after another but often played for laughs. If you’ve seen “Pulp Fiction” and remember how Bruce Willis blasted a surprised John Travolta with his own gun as he came out of the toilet after taking a dump, you’ll get an idea of what “In Order of Disappearance” is like but ten times funnier, at times evoking a Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoon.
Performances are top-notch, especially from Bruno Ganz, another very fine veteran actor from Germany who played Hitler in “Downfall”. He is the godfather of a rival Albanian drug gang that gets into a turf war with the men Nils is after. The showdown between the two gangs will remind you of the climax of “Yojimbo” or “A Fistful of Dollars” that was based on Kurosawa’s masterpiece.
Highly recommended to get your mind off the Trump and Clinton campaigns and all the other disasters afflicting the human race.
THE SYRIAN Revolution has tested the left internationally by posing a blunt question: Which side are you on? Do you support the popular struggle against dictatorship and for democracy? Or are you with Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, his imperial backer Russia, his regional ally Iran and Iran’s proxies like Hezbollah from Lebanon?
Tragically, too many have failed this test.
That first Olympic marathon caught the public’s imagination to a startling degree, especially in Greece itself. Incentives included clothing, wine, a vast amount of chocolate and free haircuts for life at local barbers.
–David Arscott, “The Olympics”
What you read above is the solution to last Sunday’s NY Times acrostic, something that echoes what David Wallechinsky said in the must-see documentary “The Business of Amateurs” that opens as VOD, including ITunes, on Friday, August 26th. Wallechinsky, the president of The International Society of Olympic Historians, points out that even the original Olympics were hardly an amateur affair. The participants were supported substantially by patrons and lived a life of comfort.
Amateurism, to put it bluntly, was an innovation of the British upper crust that sought to keep the working class riffraff out of sports in the late 1800s. It included many different incentives to the wealthy boys who took part in sports, especially crew. A typical award might be a silver cup that was equivalent to a year’s wage for a factory worker.
“The Business of Amateurs” addresses all of the major crises facing collegiate sports today, including the corporate greed of the NCAA, the hardships faced by football and basketball players—the big ticket gladiators—whose scholarships are mere crumbs compared to the profits they generate, and most critically the risks that football players take in a violent sport that can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the damage to the brain that can lead to early onset of dementia, Lew Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), Parkinson’s, and depression so deep that it can force men to kill themselves as linebacker Junior Seau did.
Among the athletes interviewed by director and narrator Bob DeMars is Scott Ross, who played linebacker alongside Seau for the University of Southern California. Throughout the film, we hear from Ross who is battling the same kind of depression that Seau faced and for the same reasons. The only relief he can get from his symptoms is alcohol that can temporarily quiet the demons that plague him. Before the onset of the symptoms, he was making a good life as a businessman with a wife and kids. Toward the end of the film, we hear the message from Ross’s current girlfriend (his alcoholism had destroyed his marriage) that she had left on DeMars’s answering machine. He was found dead in a car next to a church, the result of a toxic mixture of alcohol and pain killers.
DeMars was uniquely qualified to make such a film since he was a defensive lineman at USC from 1997 to 2001. Not only has he the insider’s knowledge of how the NCAA exploits football players; he is concerned about the possibility that he too might be experiencing the consequences of one concussion too many. We see him talking to his psychiatrist about the panic attacks he had begun to experience. She replies that this could definitely be connected to brain damage.
DeMars is a big blonde bear of a man whose presence in the film has a Michael Moore quality. If Moore found it nearly impossible to meet with Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors, DeMars has the same problem setting up an appointment with Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA. A phone call does not get through after repeated tries and when DeMars goes into the lobby of their headquarters, they throw him out.
Compared to the NCAA, the NFL is practically saintly. Or maybe, it is just that it is more honest since it openly operates as a profit-making enterprise. If you get injured in a football game at the pro level, you will still be paid. If you get an injury playing for a big-time athletic program on the Division One level, you just might lose your scholarship. The football players are at the total mercy of the administration that despite all the blather about student-athletes considers them to be virtual slaves of the university. You get room and board and the adulation of fans but that hardly pays the bills. When one student tells a radio interviewer that he can’t pay for groceries, some good Samaritan leaves a bundle on his doorstop. That picayune gift got him thrown off the team.
Another athlete, a Black wrestler from Minnesota, puts up a rap video on Youtube complaining about exploitation. He is told to take it down by the school because his name belongs to them, not him. Years after a UCLA basketball player has retired from the game, he learns that the NCAA sold his image to a video game manufacturer without his permission. He files suit against the game maker and wins. Although everybody hates Johnny Manziel for obvious reasons, the documentary points out that he was outspokenly against the NCAA’s cartel control over his labor. Texas A&M made millions off of his stardom but he got in trouble for earning small change selling memorabilia with his signature.
Probably the most disgusting aspect of this big business pretending that it was a nonprofit is how it short shrifts poor black men from getting a decent education when they are at a place like the University of North Carolina that set up classes in African-American studies exclusively for their mainly Black athletes, some of whom were reading at a 3rd grade reading level. Through the connivance of various professors, they always got passing grades even though they were meaningless. One U. of North Carolina professor named Mary Willingham got fed up with the charade and went public. Needless to say, the school initially denied her charges just as they would deny any responsibility for CTE. In essence, the top administrators only cared about raking in the dough. Although the film did not get into the problem of athletes and sex crimes, Baylor University is a prime example of how administrators look the other way when athletes are guilty of crimes. As long as they are generating revenue, who cares if a coed gets raped. Ken Starr, who went after Bill Clinton for getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky, was the president of Baylor college when the football team was acting practically like ISIS in a Yazidi village. Starr tried to keep the sex assaults a secret to protect the school’s revenue generating machine. The hypocrisy reaches biblical proportions.
Towards the end of the documentary, there’s a hopeful note about athletes forming a union that can stand up for their rights, something that got started at Northwestern University, which ironically has the highest graduation rate of any major school. In March 2014 the NLRB decided that the athletes were really employees of the university and gave them the green light. Unfortunately, the board reversed itself a year later. This was a unanimous overruling that included the members of the board appointed by Democratic presidents.
As it happens, I saw “The Business of Amateurs” the very day this same NLRB decided that Columbia graduate students had the right to unionize. Let’s hope they don’t change their mind a year from now. Not only is this a good thing for grad students. It might have ramifications for football players. Columbia might have a crappy football program but the initiatives taken by student activists might have the beneficial side-effect of helping our modern day gladiators.
If you’ve seen “Hoop Dreams”, “At All Costs” will seem familiar at first since it is focused on African-American high school basketball players competing to get an athletic scholarship. But unlike “Hoop Dreams”, the subjects of this worthy documentary that opens as VOD on September 20th are relatively middle-class. If the “Hoop Dream” players are desperately trying to find a way out of poverty, those in “At All Costs” are much more trying to achieve a dream that they have nourished since the age of six in some cases. Like trying to win “The American Idol” contest, landing a starting position as a point guard for the aforementioned University of North Carolina might lead to a multimillion dollar contract with an NBA team right after freshman year if the athlete takes his team to the NCAA final four.
In this instance, the players are competing in the AAU, which has become the primary audition spot for top players. Have you heard of the AAU? I hadn’t and I say that as someone who has sports talk radio on at least two hours a day. It stands for the Amateur Athletic Union that was formed in 1888 and that is much of a fiction when it comes to amateurism as the NCAA. Under the auspices of the AAU, companies like Nike and Adidas organize tournaments during the summer when stand-out players compete before the watchful eyes of people like Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who coached the American professionals who trampled over the competition in the Brazil Olympics.
The film is focused on one AAU team called the Compton Magic that is coached by Etop Udo-Ema, a former Division One basketball player and quite open about his involvement in the AAU. It is all about the money. He gets all sorts of perks from Nike and Adidas and preaches to his players about doing well in the summer games in the AAU circuit. It is their big chance to get rich and famous. At least you can give Udo-Ema credit for being honest, as opposed to the bullshit artists running big-time basketball programs.
Among the players profiled in the film is Parker Jackson-Cartright, a soft-spoken and appealing personality whose father treats him in the same way someone might treat a racing thoroughbred. It is his ticket to success as well as his son’s.
The Jackson-Cartright family’s life revolves around the basketball programs in high school and the AAU. The dad attends all the games and is philosophical about his son continuing to compete after a bad foot injury. He muses, “We have to put it all on the line” even if putting it all on the line might mean a permanent injury.
For athletes like Parket Jackson-Cartright, school is simply a place where he can ply his trade. With every waking hour devoted to shooting hoops, there is not much time to spend on enjoying his youth or getting deep into his studies. If the injury to his foot would have kept him out of a top sports program, he would likely end up in a state school and in an uncompetitive position academically.
Even worse is that focusing every fiber of his being on basketball makes such players one-dimensional as Michael Connor, an African-American psychology professor at Cal State, Long Beach, points out in the film. Upon hearing this, I wondered if this was why Michael Jordan is so apolitical. If your body and soul are consumed by basketball, maybe you lose track of what they once called keeping your eyes on the prize.
It also made me wonder if Connor was referring to Herbert Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional-Man”, a book that was popular in the 1960s and influenced many young radicals including Angela Davis who was Marcuse’s student at Brandeis.
Have you read “One-Dimensional Man” that was written in 1964 and that can be read online? It holds up rather well.
The society of total mobilization, which takes shape in the most advanced areas of industrial civilization, combines in productive union the features of the Welfare State and the Warfare State. Compared with its predecessors, it is indeed a “new society.” Traditional trouble spots are being cleaned out or isolated, disrupting elements taken in hand. The main trends are familiar: concentration of the national economy on the needs of the big corporations, with the government as a stimulating, supporting, and sometimes even controlling force; hitching of this economy to a world-wide system of military alliances, monetary arrangements, technical assistance and development schemes; gradual assimilation of blue-collar and white-collar population, of leadership types in business and labor, of leisure activities and aspirations in different social classes; fostering of a pre-established harmony between scholarship and the national purpose; invasion of the private household by the togetherness of public opinion; opening of the bedroom to the media of mass communication.
Tobey Maguire, in performance as Spiderman
Ben Norton, master of political metamorphosis, in performance as Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”
1988: Bernie Sanders and the man whose footsteps he followed
In 1984 Jesse Jackson gave a speech to the Democratic Party convention that called for a Rainbow Coalition:
Twenty years later, we cannot be satisfied by just restoring the old coalition. Old wine skins must make room for new wine. We must heal and expand. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Arab Americans. They, too, know the pain and hurt of racial and religious rejection. They must not continue to be made pariahs. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Hispanic Americans who this very night are living under the threat of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill; and farm workers from Ohio who are fighting the Campbell Soup Company with a boycott to achieve legitimate workers’ rights.
The Rainbow is making room for the Native American, the most exploited people of all, a people with the greatest moral claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of their ancient land and claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of land and water rights, as they seek to preserve their ancestral homeland and the beauty of a land that was once all theirs. They can never receive a fair share for all they have given us. They must finally have a fair chance to develop their great resources and to preserve their people and their culture.
The Rainbow Coalition includes Asian Americans, now being killed in our streets — scapegoats for the failures of corporate, industrial, and economic policies.
As it happens, the original call for a Rainbow Coalition came from a Black leader who had little use for the Democrats, namely Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, a martyr to a Chicago Death Squad in blue uniforms. Hampton had reached out to the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist group inspired by the Panthers, and the Young Patriots, a group made up white former SDS’ers also adopting Panther politics even though they wore Confederate flags on their berets. Well, that’s the sixties for you.
After Hampton was killed, this Rainbow dissolved.
If violence snuffed Hampton’s coalition, Jackson’s was done in by his own reformist appetites. He merged it with Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1996, a group committed to getting Black people a larger share of the American pie rather than replacing it with something much healthier—like socialism.
For much of the left, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was like a flame to a moth—completely irresistible. At the time I was a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and still—as before and afterwards—totally hostile to the idea of voting for Democrats. A lot of that had to do with the feeling of being betrayed by LBJ in 1965 when I had voted for him because he had said in a speech at Akron University on October 21st, 1964 that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
The NY chapter of CISPES and the national leadership were gung-ho. At the CISPES convention around that time, a proposal was adopted to support the Jackson campaign and to make CISPES a part of the Rainbow Coalition. Peter Camejo, upon whose advice I joined CISPES, wrote an article for the North Star Network on October 1, 1984 that reflected this trend: “A great deal of rethinking has been going on in the left in the United States in recent years. One of the most promising developments has been the growth of solidarity with Central America as well as the massive impact of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition electoral campaign.”
In the NY chapter of CISPES, one of the most ardent supporters of the Rainbow Coalition was Ron Ashford, an African-American member of the Communist Workers Party, a Maoist group that dissolved a year after Jackson’s speech. (This was the group whose members were gunned down by the KKK in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979.) Another contingent in CISPES that backed this orientation was called Line of March, also a Maoist group. They too dissolved themselves not long afterwards. For Ashford, the work in the DP produced results even if it did not produce socialism, let alone a reversal of the neoliberalism associated with Carter and subsequent DP Presidents. Today he is a HUD official in Washington, DC, a position he has held since 1995.
Frankly, I never bothered to ask Ashford or the LoM people whether they thought the Rainbow Coalition could become a third party with radical politics. I suspect that for most of them, anything that could stop Reagan, the Donald Trump of his day, was worth supporting. When Jackson lost the primaries in 1984 to Walter Mondale, you could be sure that the Maoists saw the need to back him as a lesser evil in the same way that Noam Chomsky and others are voting for Hillary Clinton today. It is worth mentioning that Camejo also backed Mondale in 1984, probably the last time he made such a mistake. After reflecting on the futility of voting for Democrats, he wrote a resolution for the Committees of Correspondence, a Eurocommunist split from the CP, urging it to break with the Democrats—a proposal even more futile than a Mondale vote. Camejo moved on to build the Green Party, an action much more consistent with his entire political career.
Jackson ran again in 1988 in a way that foreshadowed Sanders bid this year. Jackson referred to his candidacy as an “endless campaign” that would serve to pressure the DP to the left. One politician liked what he saw, according to Mother Jones:
Jackson’s presidential bid was a transformative political development for the Vermont senator, then in his fourth term as mayor of Burlington. Never before had Sanders actively participated in a Democratic Party nominating contest. And until this year, he hadn’t done so since. But Sanders threw himself into the task of getting Jackson elected with the zeal of a convert, and in the process demonstrated a political dexterity that would later pave the way for his own unorthodox presidential campaign.
Even if it meant getting slapped in the face.
Initially, Sanders and his progressive allies in Burlington wrestled with the idea of whether to back Jackson’s candidacy. On the one hand, they considered Jackson’s organization, the Rainbow Coalition, a model for what they were trying to accomplish in Vermont—a lefty group that changed the political system from outside the party structure. Jackson, for his part, was an unabashed liberal who had no problem taking positions his more seasoned opponents wouldn’t touch. His platform even resembled the one Sanders would roll out during his own presidential run more than a quarter-century later—especially on such issues as income inequality, universal health care, education funding, and cracking down on big corporations.
On the other hand, Jackson was a Democrat. Sanders, a lifelong critic of the two-party system, had started off as a member of the third-party Liberty Union before becoming an independent. In 1986, he summed up his disdain for the Democratic Party: “The main difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in this city is that the Democrats are in insurance…and the Republicans are in banking.” He had endorsed Vice President Walter Mondale for president in 1984 in the least enthusiastic way possible, telling reporters that “if you go around saying that Mondale would be a great president, you would be a liar and a hypocrite.”
Ultimately, Sanders decided that Jackson’s candidacy was just too revolutionary to ignore. He invited the reverend to Burlington, where they toured a child care center together, and Sanders endorsed him in front of a raucous crowd in Montpelier. As the campaign progressed and Jackson picked up steam, Sanders became more active. One month before Vermonters were set to cast their primary votes, he held a press conference to announce that he and his fellow Burlington progressives would be doing the previously unthinkable: attending the Democratic Party caucus.
“It is awkward—I freely admit it,” Sanders told the assembled reporters. “It is awkward for me to walk into a Democratic caucus. Believe me, it is awkward.”
So in many respects Our Revolution, the new organization launched by Sanders, is simply a continuation of the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 and will amount to the same thing. In an epoch of capitalist decline, the notion of piecemeal reform produced by the election of progressive Democrats—the declared intention of the Sanders machine—is far more utopian than any program put forward by the Spartacist League.
In the 1930s, the New Deal and the Swedish Social Democracy were able to produce substantial reforms that benefited workers because capitalism was still rooted in the national soil and because the capitalist class had to deal with a workforce that was necessary to produce cars, steel, and all the rest. Those days are long gone.
Capitalism today has no need to placate the working class. With the disappearance of the USSR, there is no pressure on the bourgeoisie to prove that its system works better than one based on planning, even on an inefficient basis. With Bernie Sanders organizing young people to ring doorbells for liberal candidates in the hope that it can transform the DP into an instrument of change, you can be sure that his operation will have about the same shelf life as the Rainbow Coalition.
In fact, fissures have already appeared, according to Politico. It seems that younger, more grass roots oriented Sanderistas are unhappy with Jeff Weaver’s fundraising strategy:
Weaver said he had a vision that included more traditional — not just grassroots — fundraising, the person familiar with the situation said.
“It’s about both the fundraising and the spending: Jeff would like to take big money from rich people including billionaires and spend it on ads,” said Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organizing director of the campaign and the organizing director of Our Revolution (whose entire department of four left) before quitting. “That’s the opposite of what this campaign and this movement are supposed to be about and after being very firm and raising alarm the staff felt that we had no choice but to quit.”
There’s really no point in me taking sides in this quarrel. I have no dog in this fight. If Sandberg had prevailed, it would still be the sorry, time-wasting, demoralizing slog through the sewer of DP electoral politics. If this is supposed to be a “revolution”, then the word has about as much meaning as it has in TV commercials for some brand-new detergent, car or any other commodity. No thanks, I’m not buying.
Tony McKenna is a bona fide public intellectual who contributes to Marxist journals without having any connections to academia or to the disorganized left. This gives his writing a freshness both in terms of political insight and literary panache. I first encountered his work in a collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective” that reflected a familiarity with culture high and low and an ability to put works such as “The Walking Dead” into a broader political and social context. Was the popular AMC zombie show a good preparation for “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin”, his latest book forthcoming from Sussex press? I’d like to think so.
Although I think that McKenna would be capable of turning a Unix instruction manual into compelling prose, the dead tyrant has spurred him to reach a higher level—one that is in inverse proportion to the degraded subject matter. At 186 pages, his study is both an excellent introduction to Stalin and Stalinism as well as one that gives any veteran radical well-acquainted with Soviet history some food for thought on the quandaries facing the left today. Drawing upon fifty or so books, including a number that leftist veterans would likely not be familiar with such as leading Soviet military leader Gregory Zhukov’s memoir, McKenna synthesizes it all into a highly readable and often dramatic whole with his own unique voice. It is a model of historiography and one that might be read for no other reason except learning how to write well. (McKenna is an editor and an aspiring novelist.)
Among the motivations given for writing such a book in the preface, McKenna refers to an interview featuring “a cultural commentator of the left.” (I am pretty sure you can guess who this is.) Since an image of Stalin accompanied the interview, McKenna was prompted to consider the implications: “Now, if this same person had been snapped before a picture of Adolph Hitler – Stalin’s contemporary and fellow student of mass murder – there would have been, I suspect, a universal clamour of outrage, and quite rightly so. But the fact that he was posing before a picture of Stalin went rather unremarked upon, at least on the part of the left.”
While reminding young activists, especially those with misplaced USSR nostalgia, about how Stalin’s record violated the fundamental principles of socialism, the overarching need for such a book is to help us understand why class exploitation is deeper now than it has been since the Great Depression. In the movement that developed against the “one percent”, it is useful to understand how the capitalist class got a free hand in pushing the economic program of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to the hilt and that held sway in 2011. When “state socialism” became discredited and so dysfunctional in the 1980s that working people rose up to dismantle it, often under the leadership of former Soviet officials who hoped to impose Milton Friedman’s economics on an unsuspecting nation, there is a need to get to the roots of how this turn of events was possible. As McKenna makes abundantly clear, this was a function of the infant Soviet republic’s weaknesses that were deepened by an imperialist invasion and Stalin’s adroit ability to exploit them to his own bureaucratic advantage. A degenerated bureaucratic system simply lacked the leadership to inspire and guide revolutionary movements in Spain, Germany and elsewhere. It is a depressing tale but one utterly necessary to absorb.
Using that part of his brain that feeds off of his novel-writing ambitions, McKenna hones in on Stalin’s character development. If you are going to write about a villain, you need to render his or her psychological complexity. That is the difference between Melville’s portrait of Captain Ahab and 98 percent of the novels on display in airport bookstores except, of course, for Stephen King.
Joseph Stalin was a product of Georgian peasant culture, a proud and ancient civilization that has been dominated by Russia for centuries both under Czars and the Kremlin, including both under Stalin and under the capitalist “reformers” who have prevailed since 1990. A product of extremely repressive seminaries, Stalin rebelled against his background and searched for any trends in opposition to the stifling status quo. For youths over the past 150 years, this has often led to Marxism.
In Stalin’s case, the materialist strain in Marxism was most welcome since it was the dialectical opposite of the Christian theology being forced down his throat. But without a broader cultural leavening, such materialism can often devolve into a vulgar Marxism in which the entire world is reduced to base economic motives and self-interest. McKenna writes:
In Stalin, then, an intransigent, faithless materialism was first translated into the ideological contours of a Marxism which preserved the flavour of a religious scholasticism albeit one voided of God; such a political education was then crowned by a first-hand masterclass delivered by the authorities on the mechanics of repression. How to exert pressure when required or how to maintain a secretive and implacable demeanour, to cajole and flatter, while seeking to undermine – all in the pursuit of a brutal naked control.
Most of us who have a modicum of familiarity with Stalin’s career know that he was involved with bank robberies to help fund the Bolsheviks. But the facts are that he never participated in the robberies themselves; he only orchestrated them. This was consistent with his tendency to remain in the background where he was more comfortable. When debates were taking place about revolutionary perspectives following the 1905 revolutionary dress rehearsal, Stalin not only became restless but felt alienated from the working class movement itself. It was too disorderly and unpredictable. Stalin always had a preference for order, even if it was to be imposed from above.
The disdain for the mass movement was a hallmark of Stalin’s career in the Bolshevik party. Never a leader of the working class after the fashion of Zinoviev or Kamenev, his preference was managing internal party affairs, a role that would prepare him ideally for the retreat of the mass movement in the aftermath of the Russian civil war.
When he became Commissar of Nationalities in 1918, he took the steps that alienated Ukrainians and that led to the smoldering resistance that both sapped the Soviet Union’s defense as well as thwarting the possibility of a revolutionary Ukraine that would stand shoulder to shoulder with other Soviet republics. Although Lenin’s policy was not without its flaws, they were far better than those of Stalin who remarked dismissively of Ukrainian aspirations: “Enough playing at a government and a republic. It’s time to stop that game; enough is enough.”
Within seven years, the growing strength of the bureaucracy, the failure of socialist revolutions to triumph in Western Europe, and the general exhaustion of the most conscious ranks of the working class created a framework for the triumph of Stalinism and the adoption of “socialism in one country”. In describing this process, McKenna uses an analogy that both describes its inner logic and displays his literary imagination:
In the natural world there are several species of wasp that have happened upon a unique incubation system for their young. The adult insect waits until it finds another creature – a fat, healthy caterpillar, for example – before stinging its target, and secreting its egg inside the caterpillar’s body. The egg, over time, hatches, and the larva begins to develop, gorging itself on the healthy, pliant flesh of its host; effectively consuming the creature from the inside out. First the non- essential organs are nuzzled upon, and then, eventually, the larva works its way through the caterpillar’s fundaments, until what is left is merely the husk of the former creature, barely clinging to life, before the fledgling wasp bursts out through the shell of its body destroying it once and for all. The bureaucratic tendency within the Bolshevik Party was so powerful, was so resilient, for it developed in much this way – incubated in the life forces of the party itself, emerging from the inside out, enfeebling its host, draining it of its resources.
In the conclusion to “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine” there is an analysis that to my knowledge has never been advanced before. While most writing on Stalin and Stalinism are focused on the USSR and its retrograde impact on the world revolutionary movement, McKenna takes a step back and puts into the context of the challenges standing in the way of making a socialist revolution. In essence, the analysis evokes Gramsci’s observation that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
In the conclusion McKenna grapples with the disappointment the left experienced when Syriza capitulated to European bankers and when Jeremy Corbyn failed to use his power as Labour Party leader to force his MP’s to vote against the Conservative Party’s motion to take military action against ISIS in Syria. These defaults of leadership prompted him to summarize that “In both cases the decisions that were finally enacted favoured the proclivities of a small elite; the modes and forms of democracy, then, had proved to be profoundly undemocratic.”
Why was the will of the majority thwarted in each case? Why do politicians continuously disregard the wishes of those who elect them? For McKenna, the key to understanding this is within the nature of representative democracy, a form of government that we tend to forget as a legacy of the bourgeois revolutions.
We are, through the very forms and structures of social existence, acculturated into the belief that the essence of democracy – the only possible kind of democracy – consists in voting for a selection of besuited, immaculate wealthy figures whose discussions about our future take place in vast regal buildings fortified by every level of security. Such individuals and groups are elected every four or so years to act as our political guardians, but their lives and their interests seem so remote from our own. And yet, it seems to us this is what democracy truly is.
This was a departure from the original understanding of democracy that existed in Athens under Pericles. Even if there was slavery and many other abuses, there was rule by the people (demos) that prefigured Marx’s largely misunderstood or outright misrepresented dictatorship of the proletariat.
By effectively destroying Soviet democracy, Stalin made it possible for bourgeois democracy to get a new lease on life. Without mentioning Gramsci, McKenna virtually quotes him at the end of this passage that occurs close to the end of his book:
The single, underlying motivation of this book has been the attempt to show that Stalinism was the product of the clash between the forms of an old world and the possibilities of a new one. The workers’ democracy carried the form of a new society latent within the womb of the old order, and for this reason, those classes whose social power was predicated on the exploitation of labour by capital, both nationally and internationally, recognized in it the germ of their own dissolution. Thus they hastened to perform the most bloody, back alley abortion; they sought to mutilate the developing democracy in utero so to speak, and like the titan Cronus hungrily devouring his son, they hoped to put off in perpetuity the historical moment of their own usurpation. It was a critical juncture indeed; the old world was, in a fundamental sense, dying – but the new one was not yet developed enough to fully force its way into the light.
Of course all this leads to the inevitable question of what is to be done. Familiar with the Trotskyist movement that made rejection of Stalinism the centerpiece of its program, McKenna finds it wanting even though much of his analysis is based on Trotsky’s writings, as well as that of Isaac Deutscher, the most respected defender of his ideas outside the ranks of the Fourth International.
What kind of party do we need? What are the parameters of its program? Who are its allies? What is the kind of global framework that will advance the cause of worldwide revolution, the perspective advanced by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that Stalin rejected?
If I may be permitted to offer my own views, I would argue that a new approach to revolutionary struggle must be adopted, one that is much more in sync with that understood by the movement’s founders. While often seen as a second fiddle to Marx, I think that Engels summed up the need perfectly in an 1847 article titled “The Principles of Communism” that was structured as replies to various questions, including “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” Engels’s reply:
No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.
Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.
It will develop in each of these countries more or less rapidly, according as one country or the other has a more developed industry, greater wealth, a more significant mass of productive forces. Hence, it will go slowest and will meet most obstacles in Germany, most rapidly and with the fewest difficulties in England. It will have a powerful impact on the other countries of the world, and will radically alter the course of development which they have followed up to now, while greatly stepping up its pace.
It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.
While it is unlikely that the final struggle will take place in my lifetime, I am positive that capitalism has entered a critical phase when those nations that Engels refers to as “civilized” will be reaching such a barbaric stage that working people will be forced into collective action spanning borders for the simple reason that the existing social system will have become an existential threat. The constant harping on borders, the rise of fascist-like movements from the USA to Hungary, the growing assaults on the environment, the threat of nuclear war, nihilistic terrorist attacks fed by desperation, and a thousand other threats to humanity and the natural world lead to a call for action. Under such conditions, we must build a movement that is hostile to the “organization men” like Stalin and that attracts the best of the class-conscious working class fighters. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Lenin advocated in “What is to be Done”.
Nikil Saval, N+1 co-editor
Although not so nearly as well-known as Jacobin, N+1 has been mentioned in tandem with it as the voice of millennial hipster Marxism. For example, Columbia PhD student Timothy Shenk, who is intimately familiar with the terrain, wrote an article in the Nation Magazine titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that states:
Cloaked in the moral authority of Occupy and connected by networks stitched together during those hectic days in 2011, a contingent of young journalists speaking through venues both new and old, all of them based in New York City—Jacobin, n+1, Dissent and occasionally this magazine, among others—have begun to make careers as Marxist intellectuals.
Well, who wouldn’t want a career as a Marxist intellectual unless you were someone like the young Max Horkheimer who wrote: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief”? The older Horkheimer, of course, discovered that banquets and honorary titles were not so bad after all.
While the Nation and Dissent could not be possibly be mistaken as millennial, they certainly have provided a roost for that contingent of young journalists trying to make careers as Marxist intellectuals. Furthermore, as should be obvious by the time you finish reading this article, young and old Marxist intellectual careerists making the rounds in the four magazines are in total agreement over Syria and the Democratic Party.
As readers of my blog will certainly know, Jacobin has been a primary venue of Assadist propaganda. In numerous articles, there are warnings about “regime change” in Syria that would have you believe that Barack Obama was getting ready to intervene in Bush-like fashion to put the rebels in power. Does it matter that it only took three months after Bush and his gang began talking about the need to invade Iraq in January 2003 for the invasion to take place while a war in Syria now goes on for more than five years and no such action has occurred under Obama? Probably not.
Unlike Jacobin, N+1 has been pretty good on Syria with a 2011 article making the case that a genuine revolution was unfolding and one four years later that put the blame on the Baathists for the suffering of Palestinians in Yarmouk. They are both very much worth reading and did not prepare me for an article that appeared in the Spring 2016 edition titled “Bernie’s World”. Stung by what struck me as the kind of material that would appear in Jacobin, I wrote a blog post and cc’d the editors who asked if they could print an edited version as a letter in the Fall 2016 edition with their reply. I am now reproducing excerpts from “Bernie’s World”, my edited reply, their rejoinder and concluding with my rejoinder to theirs.
(The full version of the N+1 piece can be read at https://nplusonemag.com/issue-25/the-intellectual-situation/bernies-world/. Emphasis added throughout).
But on one significant topic — American foreign policy — Sanders has remained flat-footed. In December, after the shootings in San Bernardino by self-declared supporters of the Islamic State returned the war on terror to the center of the campaign, Sanders refused to answer questions about ISIS and seemed annoyed that reporters had raised the issue at all. On the Syrian conflict he has been at sea. At that month’s Democratic debate he bizarrely referred to Jordan’s King Abdullah as a “hero,” and in January he called Abdullah “one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place.” One doesn’t often hear democratic socialists go out of their way to praise hereditary dictators. Sanders has gone further out of his way, repeatedly suggesting that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “They have got to start putting some skin in the game,” he said in one debate, the theory being that these countries will put up the money and the troops needed to combat extremism in the Middle East, diminishing the American role and thus the opportunity for American malfeasance. Of course the problem is the opposite: both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two of the US’s strongest and least salubrious allies, are already putting lots of money into the Syrian conflict, much of it going to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.
What’s missing isn’t the anti-imperialist Sanders. It’s the antiwar movement he was once part of, and which no longer exists.
ONE REASON WHY the Sixties antiwar movement continues to be a source of both nostalgia and inspiration for the left is that it had genuine radical potential. Having begun as a movement to stop a war, it nearly became a wholesale revolution that reshaped American politics and foreign policy. It was John Kerry, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, who best summed up the movement’s aims: “So when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.” That turning never took place: thirty years after Kerry’s speech, the war on terror commenced in earnest. Kerry voted in 2001 along with his colleagues Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to invade Afghanistan, and in 2002 with Clinton again to invade Iraq. Just as Kerry abjured his antiwar past as the 2004 presidential candidate — he ran as a war hero, not an antiwar hero — the movement, in the long run, fell far short of its hopes.
But as Daniel Schlozman details in When Movements Anchor Parties, the antiwar movement failed both to anchor itself within the party structure and to create a lasting alternative coalition. No national elected official came out of the movement. On its own, the movement fragmented and radicalized, beset by Nixon’s repression on the one hand and by faltering strategies on the other. The distinction from the labor movement in the 1930s is enormous. At that time, organized labor, gaining in strength and numbers, weighed working outside the Democratic Party against negotiating with the party for legislative gains and legitimacy. Labor chose the latter strategy. The result was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the election of officials who declined to send in troops when workers occupied factories. (This is not to diminish the costs, over time, of being so close to the Democratic Party and blandishments of power, but the benefits were significant.) Nothing comparable occurred with the antiwar movement. By the time its electoral reforms delivered a candidate — George McGovern of McGovern-Fraser — it was too spent a force to work with the candidate. In 1972, McGovern suffered what was then the worst electoral defeat of the postwar era, until Mondale outdid him in 1984.
(I should start off by saying that N+1 butchered my original blog piece to such an extent that it was practically robbed of its meaning. I suppose that they did this to save space and admittedly it was my mistake to give them permission to run the letter but I urge you to read the original here.)
I was rather disappointed with your editorial statement on foreign policy (“Bernie’s World”), which repeated many of the talking points of the “anti-imperialist” left about Syria. One can certainly understand why the editors would fall short on Syria. With so many other smart magazines publishing articles that could have been lifted from RT.com, it is difficult to swim against the stream. After all, who would want to be associated with a struggle against Bashar al-Assad, who in his genial clean-shaven and well-groomed manner seems to be much more like us than the unfathomable, bearded Allahu akbar–yelling men in fatigues who would surely launch an attack on the American homeland if given half a chance? If Vogue was willing to run a profile on the Syrian president and his lovely wife a while back, who are we to quibble? After all, being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals.
The editors are generally OK with Sanders except on foreign policy. They fret over his suggestion that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the two countries are major donors to “the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.” In fact, Qatar insisted that it would only give money to al-Nusra if the group severed its ties to al Qaeda. When negotiations broke down in 2015, the group continued to finance its own militias in Syria the way it always has, through donations by sympathizers in various Sunni countries, including Qatar. Does this mean that Qatar backs al-Nusra? Only in the sense that the US backed the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s when most of its funding came from US citizens, living especially in Boston’s South End. Nor does the US support al-Nusra. The country has bombed the group repeatedly, always making the excuse that it was after the Khorasan — a nonexistent group that supposedly had plans to launch September 11–type attacks in America.
The editors also criticize the Vietnam antiwar movement for failing to “anchor itself within the party structure,” a clear reference to becoming a wing of the Democratic party. In 1937, when Chicago steelworkers went on strike, Mayor Edward Kelly — a Democratic “friend of labor” who was backed by the Communist party and as such would ostensibly be loath to attack workers — ordered an attack by the cops that left ten people dead. The antiwar movement kept the Democratic party at arm’s length because it was led by the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers party, who had a much more class-based understanding of the Democrats than the CPUSA. The CP, which worked with the SWP and the pacifists in a kind of tripartite coalition, was always trying to get the coalition to follow the Democrats’ lead. If it had been successful, there never would have been a Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam or any other mass demonstration. You can take my word on that.
Louis Proyect writes that we and others on the left are insufficiently willing to confront Bashar al-Assad because we have been duped by his haircut and a Vogue puff piece that described the dictator and his wife as “wildly democratic.” Not only do we not think that “being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals” — we don’t think this of Obama, either — we can’t find any liberal or left-wing writer who thinks of Assad as “genial.” With their profile, Vogue’s editors executed a flawless caricature of themselves as clueless fashionistas, and that is how the profile was received everywhere. The reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that the piece was taken down from the magazine’s website.
Is the idea that we are “appeasing” Assad? That was the idea the last time the US foreign policy establishment began to dream of ousting a Middle Eastern dictator. In a kind of ritual humiliation, liberals and leftists were required, like kids reciting the Bill of Rights in class, to demonstrate that they understood Saddam’s crimes against humanity before they could voice any objection to America’s military involvement in the region. That we might still be subject to this ritual isn’t surprising, but it is a bummer.
That the US has bombed al Nusra Front groups in Syria on occasion does not mean the US hasn’t also supported al Nusra on occasion. Alternately supporting and attacking various groups and figures (among them, Saddam Hussein) is a recurring motif in the history of US’s military involvement in the Middle East. And while Qatar may also have had a falling-out with the group in 2015, a report from last December described a prisoner swap between al Nusra and Lebanon that Qatari officials encouraged by giving al Nusra $25 million. The US has also tracked shipments of Qatari arms directed to the Islamist groups that further destabilized Libya in the wake of the Western intervention there. Qatar’s relationship with al Nusra has had its ups and downs, but the country has long served as a key source of funds and materials for extremists in the region.
With respect to Bernie Sanders, Proyect does not voice an objection to our claim that for all the candidate’s galvanizing rhetoric on domestic policy, there remains too little distance between his foreign policy views and those of the Democratic party mainstream, especially with respect to the use of force. His efforts to make the party platform use the word occupation when discussing Palestine are welcome, but in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting, his campaign tweeted, “From what is now known, this was a terrorist act by an ISIS sympathizer. That despicable and barbaric organization must be destroyed.” But Omar Mateen had no real connection to ISIS — he sympathized with the group like Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker,” sympathized with Satan. To watch Sanders fall back on this bogus war-on-terror logic is to see the full impoverishment of the Democratic party’s foreign policy thought. Proyect says that the Vietnam-era antiwar movement had good reasons to keep its distance from the party, that to engage more fully would have prevented even a single mass demonstration from taking place. That may be true, and yet the movement’s failure to make a more permanent place for itself in the country’s party politics during the postwar years is a failure — one we hope can be remedied soon.
Perhaps as a result of being fatigued from having made the same arguments dozens of times over the past five years, I did not develop them this go round to the extent where the N+1 editor understood what I was driving at. So let me try again.
The Vogue article was scheduled to appear in the March 2011 issue, the very month when the protests began taking place and when Hillary Clinton was disposed to call Assad a “reformer”. As it happens, the only place where it can be read now is on Gawker, reason enough to hate Peter Thiel for destroying such a fearless website.
It was unfortunate that I focused on the appearance of the Assads when the article was much more about their supposed political assets:
Neither of them believes in charity for the sake of charity. “We have the Iraqi refugees,” says the president. “Everybody is talking about it as a political problem or as welfare, charity. I say it’s neither—it’s about cultural philosophy. We have to help them. That’s why the first thing I did is to allow the Iraqis to go into schools. If they don’t have an education, they will go back as a bomb, in every way: terrorism, extremism, drug dealers, crime. If I have a secular and balanced neighbor, I will be safe.”
When Angelina Jolie came with Brad Pitt for the United Nations in 2009, she was impressed by the first lady’s efforts to encourage empowerment among Iraqi and Palestinian refugees but alarmed by the Assads’ idea of safety.
“My husband was driving us all to lunch,” says Asma al-Assad, “and out of the corner of my eye I could see Brad Pitt was fidgeting. I turned around and asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’ ”
“Where’s your security?” asked Pitt.
“So I started teasing him—‘See that old woman on the street? That’s one of them! And that old guy crossing the road?
That’s the other one!’ ” They both laugh.
The president joins in the punch line: “Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!”
In fact, Vogue was simply expressing the dominant viewpoint of the mainstream media in the years just prior to 2011 when Assad unleashed the dogs of war. For example, on March 6, 2009, the Guardian reported:
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has good reason to be pleased. Barely a day goes by without a western politician or envoy knocking on his palace door. Europeans, led by the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy, have been doing it for months. News that two high-level representatives of the Obama administration are heading for Damascus means that Assad’s visitors are getting steadily more important.
Hillary Clinton’s announcement of the impending arrival of officials from the state department and national security council (message: they’re on the same side under this president) was the moment the Syrians have been waiting for – more than the secretary of state’s carefully choreographed public handshake with the influential foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, at the Gaza donors conference in Egypt this week.
In terms of N+1 being unable to find any liberal or left-wing writer who thinks of Assad as “genial”, maybe it is better to analogize the Syrian civil war with the 2016 American elections, one in which the choice is between a “lesser evil” and the dreaded alternative. It is doubtful that anybody on the left, at least that part of it occupied by N+1 and Jacobin is concerned, would consider Hillary Clinton as the second coming of FDR as Obama was mistakenly heralded in 2008 but she is accepted as the lesser evil to Donald Trump unless you are like some CounterPunch contributors such as Andre Vltchek or Paul Craig Roberts.
Essentially, this is how Assad is regarded, as a lesser evil to the Syrian rebels who are reduced to a homogenous glob of Sharia-law supporting head choppers. If Stephen Kinzer would likely never apply the adjective “genial” to Assad, he is still capable of writing articles with the title “On Syria, Thank You Russia” on February 12, 2016. Charles Glass has a particular skill at articulating the lesser evil perspective and even verges on accepting Assad as the greater good in the NY Review of Books, a journal that caters to elite liberal opinion:
The only forces fighting with success against the Assad regime are Sunni Muslim holy warriors who are destroying all that was best in Syria: its mosaic of different sects and ethnic communities—including Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Yazidis, and Kurds, along with Alawites and Sunni Arabs—its heritage of ancient monuments, its ancient manuscripts and Sumerian tablets, its industrial and social infrastructure, and its tolerance of different social customs. “The worst thing is not the violence,” the Armenian Orthodox primate of Syria, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, told me. “It is this new hatred.”
You get the same sort of thing from Jeffrey Sachs and David Bromwich but there’s no point in citing them since I don’t want to induce the same sort of fatigue that I experience writing about Syria.
The N+1 editors feel that I am subjecting them to some sort of ritual in which they are required to denounce Assad, like a “moment of hate” scene from Orwell’s “1984”. If they got that impression, I must apologize since that was not my intention. I only wanted to take exception to their notion that Turkey and Saudi Arabia were backing al-Nusra and ISIS.
I don’t want to waste any bandwidth in exploring this topic at any length and would simply refer you once again to Sam Charles Hamad’s article that I cited in my blog article and repeat what I wrote:
I recommend two new books on Syria that will clarify the role of such jihadist groups in Syria. One is titled “Burning Country” co-authored by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. The other is “Khiyana”, a collection of articles including one by me but the more relevant one is titled “The Rise of Daesh”, written by Sam Charles Hamad. His research is thoroughgoing and essential for getting past the stereotypes of Saudi Arabia being Dr. Frankenstein to the monster of ISIS:
One of the forces that received generous Saudi funding was the secular nationalist FSA-affiliate Liwa Shuhada Suriya (Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade) led by Jamal Maarouf. Far from Saudi’s funding Daesh when the FSA and Qatar and the Turkish funded Islamic Front launched an offensive against Daesh it was led by a FSA coalition called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front led by Jamal Maarouf. The weapons they used against Daesh on the frontlines were paid for by Saudi Arabia.
The only hard line Salafist group that Saudi has funded is Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) which was a merger of several different Salafi forces initiated by Saudi’s to attempt to deflect both Syrian and foreign Salafi recruits away from the growing threat of Jabhat an-Nusra (which at that time was still what Daesh called itself in Syria before its split). The reason for this was that Jabhat al-Nusra, as with all al-Qaeda ‘franchises’, espouses a virulent and violent anti-Saudi theology and politics.
By snipping this material, N+1 lets itself off the hook with a breezy reassurance that “That the US has bombed al Nusra Front groups in Syria on occasion does not mean the US hasn’t also supported al Nusra on occasion.” Whatever. Just tell that to the people of East Aleppo who are now being bombed by F-16s according to some reports because they are harboring the rebranded al-Nusra in the same way that Israeli F-16s bombed Gaza’s schools because they were a haven for Hamas.
Finally, let me turn to the question of the Democratic Party. I have no idea who wrote the reply to my letter but there is a good chance that it was co-editor Nikil Saval, who wrote a book titled “Office Space: The Cubicle Dweller’s History of the American Workplace”.
It seems that Saval was a big-time Sanderista, reporting on his volunteer work for the campaign in the same issue where my letter appeared. Dated April 5th, it is a 7000 word (!) journal titled “Canvassing” about his experiences going door-to-door for Sanders in Philadelphia, where he makes his home.
Saval writes that Sanders is “the first candidate in two generations who is not a neoliberal, the first in decades to call himself a socialist, running as a Democrat but, bless him, not one”. In fact, Sanders registered as a Democrat in 2015 but why quibble. With respect to him calling himself a socialist, so did François Hollande who runs France in the same way that Hillary Clinton will run the USA. It was pretty much precluded that Sanders would ever get the opportunity Hollande got to impose a neoliberal agenda but at least he has the distinction of endorsing Clinton’s right to do so. Everybody knows that allowing Goldman Sachs to have its way beats the gas chambers Donald Trump has in store for Marxist intellectual careerists.
Saval also admits to canvassing for Obama but can’t remember what he said in his favor. Hmm. Repressed memories?
Saval seems to have a thing about the appearance of the people he is canvassing. Is that why he was so insistent on clearing the air on the Vogue article? I hope not. He refers to an elderly woman sucking “from a limp cigarette”, her “open mouth revealing a stretch of missing teeth.” He also meets a “75-year-old toothless Italian American with a buzz cut.” Jeez, I am glad I got a dental implant before going out to Brooklyn for an N+1 cocktail party. The buzz cut, however, I’ll stick with.
After putting up with some frustrating experiences, Saval hits pay dirt:
A 75-year-old white woman who arrives at the door with her two East Asian grandchildren, whom she asks to let me know who she voted for. “BERNIE SANDERS!” they cry in unison, and mawkishly enough I choke back tears. I suddenly feel as if an era of my life were passing. I leave half my packet unfinished and head back to the house.
Well, not being in a position to know the publication schedule of N+1, I wonder if Saval would be as thrilled today as he was when he wrote this article. The Sanderistas gave their hero a hard time at the Democratic Party convention last month for kowtowing to the Clinton campaign. I won’t begrudge Saval for sticking with the Sanders “political revolution” to the bitter end. If it brought him tears of joy, god bless him. It is hard enough being a revolutionary socialist so I can empathize with someone seeking change through the Democratic Party, a fool’s errand if there ever was one.