Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2009

Jared Diamond and Chevron

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

Chevron refuses to pay for damages like this in Ecuador

NY Times, May 15, 2009
In Ecuador, Resentment of an Oil Company Oozes

SHUSHUFINDI, Ecuador — Mention to Anita Ruíz the name of the giant oil company Chevron, and she trembles with rage. At her wooden hut here in the Amazon forest, where oil-project flares illuminate the night sky, she points to a portrait of her youngest son, who died seven years ago of leukemia at age 16.

“We believe the American oilmen created the pollution that killed my son,” said Ms. Ruíz, 58, who lives in a clearing where Texaco, the American oil company that Chevron acquired in 2001, once poured oil waste into pits used decades ago for drilling wells.

Texaco’s roughnecks are long gone, but black gunk from the pits seeps to the topsoil here and in dozens of other spots in Ecuador’s northeastern jungle. These days the only Chevron employees who visit the former oil fields, in a region where resentment against the company runs high, do so escorted by bodyguards toting guns.

They represent one side in a bitter fight that is developing into the world’s largest environmental lawsuit, with $27 billion in potential damages.

Chevron is preparing for a ruling by a lone judge in a tiny courtroom on the top floor of a shopping center in Lago Agrio, a town rife with slums that Texaco founded in the 1960s as its base camp in the Amazon.

Chevron faces claims for an era when oil companies were less purposeful about protecting the environment than they are today. It also faces potentially huge damages in a country where American corporations once wielded strong influence but are now treated with discourtesy, if not contempt.

The sympathies of the judge, a former military officer named Juan Nuñez, are not hard to discern, and he appears likely to rule against Chevron this year. “This is a fight between a Goliath and people who cannot even pay their bills,” Mr. Nuñez, 57, said in an interview in his office, where more than 100,000 pages of evidence were stacked to the ceiling.

Read full article


From an interview with Jared Diamond in Strategy and Business, a publication of Booz & Company, a consulting company:

S+B: The hottest hot button right now in political economics is globalization. If you were called in to a company that was in the throes of concentrating globally, making acquisitions, trying to find ways to be more effective in global organization and global management, what would you tell it to watch out for?

DIAMOND: The potential advantages of globalization include the greatly increased flow of ideas between parts of the world. That’s a great potential advantage for the parts of the world receiving ideas. It can be an advantage for the global company — if the company is capable of learning from the parts of the world to which it expands. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

S+B: Have you seen examples of beneficial impact?

DIAMOND: I have seen it at Chevron, which I have had the chance to observe for the last several years. Because I am concerned with environmental problems, I’ve been on the board of directors of the U.S. affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is the largest international environmental organization. About 10 years ago, oil and natural gas were found in the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. That discovery posed acute environmental problems, because the oil fields also are the wettest place in the world, with rain up to 800 inches per year. It’s also in an area with unique biology. The CEO of Chevron happened to be someone who realized that it was in Chevron’s interest to solve the environmental issues and not try to sweep them under the rug. So Chevron entered into a partnership with World Wildlife Fund to deal with those issues. The WWF has offices at two of the Chevron camps and monitors the environment and provides input. I’ve gone out there now three times, most recently last January and February, sponsored by WWF but working out of the Chevron camps.


From an article I wrote in 2005:

Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” is best understood as the environmentalist cousin to recent books and articles by Joseph Stiglitz, George Soros and Jeffrey Sachs that warn about the dangers of globalization. For the economists, the present world economic system is a ticking time-bomb that might destroy rich and poor alike. For Diamond the environmentalist, the refusal to husband resources such as forests, fish and clean water will lead to the collapse of modern-day societies just as surely as they led to Mayan or Easter Island collapse. Since Diamond and the economists all believe in the inviolability of the capitalist system, there is a certain cognitive dissonance at work in their writings. They harp on the symptoms, but stop short at identifying the root cause. It is what psychologists call denial.

But hope for the future arrives like a man on horseback in the concluding section of “Collapse.” Our survival depends on corporations like Chevron who have proved that capitalism and sustainable development can co-exist. During an ornithological expedition in Papua New Guinea, Diamond discovered that the corporation had created a “bird-watcher’s dream.” Descending toward the local airport, he saw virginal rain-forest and scant evidence of the devastation typical of oil exploration and drilling.

What is more, Chevron demonstrated that it really cared about him. After stepping several feet onto a company road shortly after his arrival to inspect local birds, he was chastised by company officials that this was a hazard not only to himself but to the environment. A truck could smack into him or a pipeline next to the road, causing a spill of blood or oil. So his conversion took place on a road just like Paul’s on the way to Damascus. The chastened ornithologist and prophet of doom promised company officials that henceforth he would wear a hardhat and stay on the side of the road.

Not only was oil company property home to far more birds than found in Papua New Guinea as a whole, it was also a place where indigenous peoples could be “better off with us there than if we were gone,” according to a Chevron executive. For Chevron, having Jared Diamond and the World Wildlife Fund (on whose board he sits) on their side amounts to a public relations coup. In a massive ad campaign throughout the 1990s, they exploited their partnership with the WWF and other mainstream environmentalist groups.

Chevron officials are very clever, certainly much cleverer than Jared Diamond. In 1992, Chevron’s contributions counsel David McMurray admitted, “Because of the type of business we are in we need to prove that we are responsible corporate citizens. Environmental pollutions are at the forefront in our company, so we are following this up with contributions.” That year Chevron dished out $1.6 million to environmentalist causes. This practice is called “greenwashing.” In “Divided Planet,” Tom Athanasiou explained that “the key to greenwashing is manufactured optimism, which comes in many forms­as images, articles and books, technologies, and even institutions. Anything will do, as long as it can be made to carry the message that, though the world may be seen to be going to hell, everything is good hands.”

Read full article

Science Magazine article on Jared Diamond/New Yorker scandal

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 1:58 pm

Fierce advocate. Media critic Rhonda Roland Shearer (above) charges that Jared Diamond’s article included errors about Daniel Wemp (left).


Science Magazine
May 15, 2009:
Vol. 324. no. 5929, pp. 872 – 874

Science and the Media: ‘Vengeance’ Bites Back At Jared Diamond

by Michael Balter

Two tribesmen from Papua New Guinea are suing the prominent biologist over a popular magazine article about the human thirst for retribution.

In April 2008, well-known biologist and author Jared Diamond penned a dramatic story in The New Yorker magazine, a violent tale of revenge and warfare in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Titled “Vengeance is Ours” and published under the banner “Annals of Anthropology,” the 8000-word article tells the story of a clan war organized by a young Papua New Guinean named Daniel Wemp to avenge the death of Wemp’s uncle, Soll. In Diamond’s telling, the war started in the 1990s over a pig digging up someone’s garden, went on for 3 years, and resulted in the deaths of 29 people. In the end, Diamond wrote, Wemp won: His primary target, a man Diamond referred to as “Isum,” had his spine cut by an arrow and was confined to a wheelchair. Diamond juxtaposed Wemp’s story with that of his own father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who never exacted retribution for the loss of his family, to draw an overall lesson about the human need for vengeance.

Read full article

May 14, 2009


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

The thematic and stylistic similarities between “Jerichow”, the new film directed by German director Christian Petzold opening at the Film Forum in N.Y. tomorrow, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys” are striking. Both use the MacGuffin of automobile mishaps to set plots about marital infidelity into motion, and both embrace the minimalism becoming more and more pervasive as an international style—regrettably.

Jerichow is a small town in northeastern Germany, where we first meet Thomas, a dishonorably discharged soldier who had served in Afghanistan and who has come home to live in the house of his recently deceased mother. Like many East Germans, he is without a steady job and forced to seek temporary and highly menial work harvesting cucumbers.

While walking home one day from the fields, he notices a car skidding off the road and getting stuck on a river bank. The driver, a Turkish businessman named Ali, asks him for help getting the car back on the road. Since Ali has been drinking, a cause no doubt of the accident, he also pleads with Thomas to tell the cops who have just arrived that it was Thomas driving the car, not him. Sensing an opportunity, Thomas agrees to both requests. In “Three Monkeys”, the automobile accident was much more serious with a Turkish politician falling asleep at the wheel and killing a female pedestrian. He then asks his day-time driver to take the rap for him.

A day later Ali comes to Thomas’s home and informs him that the cops arrested him anyhow for drunk driving and that his license has been suspended. Impressed by Thomas’s cool-headed manner at the accident scene, he offers him a job as a driver. Ali owns a string of snack shops and needs someone to help him dropping off supplies and picking up cash receipts.

On his first day on the job, Thomas meets Laura, Ali’s beautiful German wife. The two are drawn to each other from the moment they meet. It is understandable why Laura would be open to an affair since Ali is middle-aged, overweight and homely. Thomas, by contrast, is young and handsome. We eventually learn that she had a shady past and agreed to marry Ali only after he promised to pay off a large debt she owed.

At this point, we have high expectations of the movie unfolding like “Blood Simple” with Ali the counterpart of the jealous Greek husband played by Dan Hedaya. But those expectations are not met. As was the case in “Three Monkeys”, the director flirts with noir conventions but steps back in favor of a minimalist approach that fails to fully exploit the dramatic possibilities. In both movies, the characters express themselves more through gesture and facial expression than language. Both Ceylan and Petzold are far more interested in atmospheric scenes of trees rustling in the wind or ocean waves flopping in on the beach rather than lovers and a jilted husband raising Cain with each other.

It is difficult to say whether the screenwriters in both movies, who happen to be the directors themselves, are even capable of writing the kind of crackling dialog found in a Coen brothers movie or the earlier classics they are based on, from “The Postman Always Rings Twice” to “Double Indemnity”, both based on novels by James M. Caine, the master of hardboiled pulp fiction that both Ceylan and Petzold appear to admire but are incapable of representing on the big screen.

A Summer 2008 interview with Cineaste reveals Petzold’s chief influence:

When I was eighteen I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). That was a major filmic event for me, which left its mark on me to this day. It’s a film with mental, subjective images, as well as objective ones; their alternation creates the sensation of horror. You never really know whether what is on screen is objective or subjective. And sometimes the possessor of the gaze suddenly steps into what appears as a point of view shot, thus appearing as an object, not subject, in front of the camera. This comes as a shock every time anew. I think this really formed me.

Without giving away too much, Thomas and Laura plot to kill Ali and make it appear as if he drove off a cliff in a drunken driving accident, which is exactly how the cuckolded husband is disposed of in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Unfortunately, Christian Petzold is no James M. Caine.

In fact, to his credit to some extent, Petzold appears far more interested in the social and economic circumstances of eastern Germany than he does in the lives of his characters. They serve as convenient symbols for a region that he describes as follows in the press notes for “Jerichow”:

When we were shooting my last film, Yella, in the Prignitz region of Germany, there was a report in the local newspaper that the police had arrested a Vietnamese man. He was found on the highway standing next to his car which had a broken rear axle. The trunk was full of coins, and that was good enough reason to arrest him. It turned out that the man owned 45 snack bars in the region, and the money in the trunk was change and daily receipts. He had built up his business and bought a house on the outskirts of town, deep in the forest away from the other homes, for himself and his family.

Prignitz County is a region in former East Germany dying a slow death. Nothing is produced, there is hardly any work. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese man had managed to start a business, buy a house, and find a “home” here. Finding a home is something that interests me, as well as people who manage to get their way against all odds. Everywhere they turn, they are confronted with defeat and bankruptcy, but nevertheless they forge on.

Now this sounds interesting. If only Petzold made a documentary about people such as this, he would have been more successful.

If I had the job of writing a screenplay for “Jerichow”, I would have made the Thomas character a proud and angry Turkish immigrant, the wife a long-suffering East German and the husband an imperious and hateful West German. Yes, I know, this is much more conventional in political terms but what can you expect from an unrepentant Marxist. Speaking of which, although Petzold clearly has sympathies for the left, I do have problems with his treatment of Ali, who is something of a stereotype. His macho behavior at home and his unethical treatment of the snack shop operators in his petty empire would reinforce German prejudices against the Turks, but this is probably mitigated by the fact that the target audience for such a self-conscious art film would exclude all but the cognoscenti, who are presumably more enlightened than the average bigot.

May 13, 2009

Obama really knows how to pick ’em

Filed under: Afghanistan,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

NY Times, May 13, 2009
Man in the News
A General Steps From the Shadows


WASHINGTON — Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the ascetic who is set to become the new top American commander in Afghanistan, usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness.

He is known for operating on a few hours’ sleep and for running to and from work while listening to audio books on an iPod. In Iraq, where he oversaw secret commando operations for five years, former intelligence officials say that he had an encyclopedic, even obsessive, knowledge about the lives of terrorists, and that he pushed his ranks aggressively to kill as many of them as possible.

But General McChrystal has also moved easily from the dark world to the light. Fellow officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he is director, and former colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations describe him as a warrior-scholar, comfortable with diplomats, politicians and the military man who would help promote him to his new job.

“He’s lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier,” said Maj. Gen. William Nash, a retired officer. “He’s got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.”

If General McChrystal is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, he will take over the post held by Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was forced out on Monday. Obama administration officials have described the shakeup as a way to bring a bolder and more creative approach to the faltering war in Afghanistan.

Most of what General McChrystal has done over a 33-year career remains classified, including service between 2003 and 2008 as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite unit so clandestine that the Pentagon for years refused to acknowledge its existence. But former C.I.A. officials say that General McChrystal was among those who, with the C.I.A., pushed hard for a secret joint operation in the tribal region of Pakistan in 2005 aimed at capturing or killing Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld canceled the operation at the last minute, saying it was too risky and was based on what he considered questionable intelligence, a move that former intelligence officials say General McChrystal found maddening.

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/13/world/asia/13commander.html

The Daily Telegraph (Australia), March 28, 2007
Friendly fire death cover-up
By Richard Sisk

WASHINGTON: Four generals and five other officers were involved in a plan to cover up the friendly-fire death of football star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, the US Army has admitted.

Their actions ”brought discredit on the army” — and let the Tillman family go to his nationally televised funeral believing their son had died charging an enemy position, acting Army Secretary Pete Geren said…

Former army Special Operations Command head Lieutenant General Philip Kensinger met the Tillman family at the funeral but said he believed ”it was not the right time” to disclose details of the death.

Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal allowed false information to be entered in the citation, posthumously awarding the Silver Star to Corporal Tillman, investigators said.

NY Times, March 19, 2006
Task Force 6-26
In Secret Unit’s ‘Black Room,’ a Grim Portrait of U.S. Abuse
By Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall

As the Iraqi insurgency intensified in early 2004, an elite Special Operations forces unit converted one of Saddam Hussein’s former military bases near Baghdad into a top-secret detention center. There, American soldiers made one of the former Iraqi government’s torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the Black Room.

In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball. Their intention was to extract information to help hunt down Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to Defense Department personnel who served with the unit or were briefed on its operations.

The Black Room was part of a temporary detention site at Camp Nama, the secret headquarters of a shadowy military unit known as Task Force 6-26. Located at Baghdad International Airport, the camp was the first stop for many insurgents on their way to the Abu Ghraib prison a few miles away.

Placards posted by soldiers at the detention area advised, “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL.” The slogan, as one Defense Department official explained, reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: “If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.” According to Pentagon specialists who worked with the unit, prisoners at Camp Nama often disappeared into a detention black hole, barred from access to lawyers or relatives, and confined for weeks without charges. “The reality is, there were no rules there,” another Pentagon official said…

Some detainees may have been injured resisting capture. A spokesman for the Special Operations Command, Kenneth S. McGraw, said there was sufficient evidence to prove misconduct in only 5 of 29 abuse allegations against task force members since 2003. As a result of those five incidents, 34 people were disciplined.

“We take all those allegations seriously,” Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the commander of the Special Operations Command, said in a brief hallway exchange on Capitol Hill on March 8. “Any kind of abuse is not consistent with the values of the Special Operations Command.”

The secrecy surrounding the highly classified unit has helped to shield its conduct from public scrutiny. The Pentagon will not disclose the unit’s precise size, the names of its commanders, its operating bases or specific missions. Even the task force’s name changes regularly to confuse adversaries, and the courts-martial and other disciplinary proceedings have not identified the soldiers in public announcements as task force members.

General Brown’s command declined requests for interviews with several former task force members and with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who leads the Joint Special Operations Command, the headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C., that supplies the unit’s most elite troops.

Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/19/international/middleeast/19abuse.htm

The difference between Bush and Obama

Filed under: Latin America,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

by Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist.

(Hat tip to http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine)

Foul Play at Bard College

Filed under: Academia,bard college,middle east,repression — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Ordinarily, I don’t crosspost articles that appear elsewhere but this is must-reading on the victimization of Joel Kovel.


Foul Play at Bard? Controversy Ensues After College Terminates Kovel

by John Boy

As contingent workers in the CUNY system, many members of the Graduate Center community have become inured to the constant threat of losing their teaching positions at short notice. Following Governor Patterson’s budget cuts last summer, many long-serving adjuncts found themselves out of a job as department chairs balanced budgets on their backs. So it may not be surprising to hear that Bard College, a private liberal-arts school in Dutchess County, New York, recently terminated the teaching appointment of one of its untenured faculty members.

Unless that faculty member is Joel Kovel, a long-time professor of social studies, internationally renowned lecturer, and erstwhile holder of the presidentially appointed Alger Hiss chair at Bard College. According to the Graduate Center’s own Stanley Aronowitz, distinguished professor of sociology, “Joel Kovel is one of America’s major social, ecological and psychological theorists. His White Racism remains a classic in the analysis of the psychology of racism; Enemy of Nature is one of the major contributions to radical ecology.” An author of ten books and numerous peer-reviewed articles, Kovel is a familiar name across a wide array of academic departments, including psychology, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, and environmental studies. Joel Kovel is also a public intellectual in the truest sense of the word. Not content to merely write op-eds for newspapers, serve as president of a professional association, or lend his name to petitions and causes, Kovel consistently grounded his intellectual agenda in political and moral concerns. Following decades of antiapartheid and ecological activism, one of his chief engagements in recent years has been with the question of Israel/Palestine. What he has had to say on the issue is controversial–so controversial that it cost him his job at Bard earlier this year, he claims.

He is not alone. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) have taken Kovel’s allegations of academic oppression seriously, along with dozens of blogs and academic email discussion lists that have posted his statement. A Facebook group of the radical professor’s supporters has grown to over 670 members.

The story as Kovel tells it is fairly straightforward. It portrays his recent termination as the result of a series of escalating responses to his anti-Zionist activism. These punitive responses were made possible by quietism and a lack of principle that has come to pervade Bard’s campus community and now renders open discussion of Zionism impossible. At the center of the allegations is long-time Bard College president Leon Botstein, who also serves as the musical director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Company. He rejects Kovel’s allegations as “patently ludicrous.”

First, the allegations: In the fall of 2002, Kovel published an article in Tikkun Magazine, the progressive publication edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, arguing as a morally concerned Jew for the need to acknowledge the nefarious underbelly of “Jewish exceptionalism.” In the piece, Kovel pinpointed Zionism as the source of the moral failures manifest in Israel/Palestine. Within a few weeks President Botstein summoned him to his office and informed him that his presidential appointment as Alger Hiss professor would be terminated in 2004. Following another Tikkun article a few months later, a college dean, Michele Dominy, suggested at executive vice president Dimitri Papadimitrou’s behest that Kovel, then sixty-six years old, should consider retirement. Kovel refused. Subsequently the administration decided to keep him on faculty on a five-year, halftime contract as “distinguished professor,” cutting his pay and teaching load by 50 percent while continuing to grant him full benefits. This is the contract the university is refusing to renew when it expires later this year.

Over the course of the next three years, Kovel worked on the manuscript of his most recent book, Overcoming Zionism, which argues in favor of a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine. It extends his earlier line of argument, namely, that Jewish exceptionalism is at the root of the violence and unrest in the region and has to be overcome as a precondition for lasting peace and justice in the Middle East. During campus talks this argument was construed by some of his detractors as a call for “the destruction of Israel.” When the book was published by British publishing house Pluto Press in 2007, the Michigan chapter of a Zionist group founded by neocon Daniel Pipes successfully pressured University of Michigan Press to halt its distribution of the title in the United States for several weeks. Eventually 650 letters of support persuaded Michigan to resume sales, but Kovel was disturbed to find that none of his tenured Bard colleagues joined in protesting the press’s self-censorship. The only support from Bard came from two non-tenure-track faculty. Kovel cites this as one among numerous occasions that forced him to recognize the degree to which critical debate on campus was stifled despite Bard’s image as the college that puts the “liberal” into liberal arts. (After all, they have a chair in honor of Alger Hiss, the McCarthy-era State Department bureaucrat accused of being a Soviet spy that anticommunists love to hate.) As a scholar who asks uncomfortable questions he was marginalized on campus.

Kovel argues that the 2008 evaluation of his work, which cited declining quantitative and qualitative indicators of student satisfaction with Kovel’s teaching, must be seen in this context and that the decision not to rehire him in the fall was not simply based on practical, pedagogical or financial considerations. The evaluation was produced by a committee that included Bruce Chilton, a New Testament scholar characterized by Kovel as a Christian Zionist activist. His involvement in “Zionist circles” places Chilton “on the other side of the divide from myself,” Kovel writes in his statement. The fact that Chilton served on the evaluation committee is “highly dubious” and made it impossible for the committee to produce fair, good-faith results. In light of this, Kovel argues, his termination should be considered invalid.

So much for the allegations. In an interview, Botstein stated that Kovel’s claims were “trumped up” and lacking a credible evidentiary base. In response to the implication that Botstein decided to remove Kovel from the Hiss chair after he went public with his anti-Zionist views, he cited the donors’ intent that the chair should be a revolving chair in the humanities. They decided it should be passed on to somebody else. In an email, Tony Hiss, Alger’s son, confirms this. To fulfill the aim of exposing students to a wide variety of ideas and insights, “it was arranged from the start that it would be a ‘rotating’ chair, one that would be handed on periodically from one discipline to another, in order to celebrate all the humanities.” This is also the reason why the chair is outside the tenure system. “We all admired Joel Kovel, but felt that after his fifteen years in the chair, the purposes of the endowment suggested that it might be time for other voices and disciplines to have a chance to step forward.” While Botstein had no direct say in deciding that the chair should be given to someone else, he did make a proposal for a successor that the donors accepted. The new Alger Hiss professor is Jonathan Brent, a scholar of literature and history, ardent anticommunist and editor of Yale University Press’s Annals of Communism series who comes just short of being an apologist for McCarthyism. Needless to say, he believes Alger Hiss actually was guilty of espionage. “Why he would have been offered such a position–or accepted it–is beyond me,” Kovel told the Advocate.

Regarding Kovel’s allegation that he was pressured to retire after losing the Hiss chair, Dean Dominy told a student forum in March: “I’ve never said to Professor Kovel that it’s time to retire. He was never asked by his colleagues to retire.” Providing a somewhat different perspective, Botstein said he “had the clear indication that [Kovel] was going into semi-retirement” when they sealed the deal of keeping him on as halftime distinguished professor: “The five-year contract was understood as a closing contract.” He claims Kovel requested part-time status to make time for traveling and writing, and that the administration explicitly said “it was discretionary whether we would renew him or not” at the end of the five years, though they offered the prospect of yearly extensions of the contract after its expiration. Kovel refutes this characterization. The part-time agreement was not reached in the understanding of being “transitional to retirement.” The letter of appointment to the half-time position states that, aside from going to half-time, “[t]he other conditions of your current contract will remain in place.”

According to Botstein the decision not to renew Kovel’s contract was based on two main considerations: financial constraints and increasingly negative student evaluations. Like many colleges around the country, Bard College has seen a drop of philanthropic income, making it difficult to cover the 20 percent of the college budget covered by nontuition sources. Botstein, an oft-quoted expert in the art of fundraising, called the approximately three million dollars recently lost in board member Ezra Merkin’s Ponzi scheme “trivial” compared to the budget shortfall caused by decreased philanthropy. The only way to close the gap was to cut personnel cost. Ten administrators were dismissed and all senior administrators, Botstein included, have taken a 10 percent pay cut. On the faculty side, the goal was to cut “at the margins of the faculty.” This means that “re-arranging” has concentrated on adjuncts teaching less than half time and who do not advise students–an integral part of the Bard curriculum, according to the college president. He mentioned, however, that Kovel, though teaching half-time, did some advising as well. Botstein specified that most of part-time positions were eliminated–and at times replaced by full-timers–in the dance, general education, and language departments. In Kovel’s division, international relations and politics were most effected, but that reflects a reduction in the number of visitors the college hosts in these disciplines. The nonrenewal of Kovel’s contract thus does not fit the college-wide pattern of dismissals.

Matthew Deady, professor of physics at Bard and president of the local AAUP chapter, followed up on Kovel’s charges that the evaluation process was riddled with irregularities. In an email excerpting key passages from the report on the inquiry into his allegations, Deady writes: “This investigation found no procedural or contractual improprieties which contributed to the decision to not renew Prof. Kovel’s contract.” The report adds that all representatives of Kovel’s division were properly consulted, and concludes, “no evidence was found to support a claim that any member of the Bard community acted out of a political disagreement with Prof. Kovel, nor was any evidence found that his political positions weighed into his [College Evaluation Committee] evaluation or the non-renewal decision.” Kovel responded to the report in an email to the faculty list which so far has gone uncontested. In it, Kovel pointed out five flaws in Deady’s report that call into question its conclusions, among which a failure to “consider strong evidence from students that their own evaluations of [Kovel’s] teaching had been manipulated” stands out.

This leaves the final contention raised in the ousted professor’s statement: that Bard grants Israel impunity, stifles meaningful debate, and exhibits a lack of principle. Botstein rejected this assertion forcefully: “Joel Kovel is a liar. It’s completely a delusional, narcissistic form of lying which has no credibility.” He enumerated several reasons. Kovel himself was allowed to teach a course on “expounding his views on the question of Israel and Zionism.” In March, Noam Chomsky spoke on his views on Israel at Bard. “The discussion of Israel has been an open and constant debate on this campus.” Bard also has hosted the Palestinian intellectual Mustafa Abu Sway, an outspoken critic of the state of Israel, as visiting professor of Islamic studies. The college recently announced its partnership with Abu Sway’s employer, Al Quds University, a Palestinian institution located in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The George Soros-funded venture will enable Palestinian students to attain joint degrees with Bard College and is the first of its kind to be initiated by an American university.

Kovel is doubtful these examples suffice to establish that critical discourse has a place on the Bard campus. In an email, he wrote that “what constitutes critical discourse is not to be measured like the blood level of hemoglobin. Its determination is subtle and qualitative; nor is it a function of who shows up to teach or lecture, but rather of the circumstances and power relations according to which things happen.” That a faculty member of two decades would be permitted to teach a course on Zionism is not surprising, though he adds that approval was granted grudgingly and with the proviso that he not admit naïve freshmen. Chomsky was invited by students and naturally the administration could not intervene without causing an uproar. Abu Sway acted as a liaison for Bard’s Palestinian partner institution, so naturally he was allowed to teach as well. Regarding Bard’s engagement in Palestine, Botstein told a New York Times reporter in February, “It is clear that being a Zionist and favoring the security and healthy future for the State of Israel is absolutely compatible with creating a Palestinian state. That’s why we’re very proud of what we’re doing.” Given this attitude, it is debatable to what extent Zionism is really being put into question. Writes Kovel: “Critical discourse is to cast a cold eye on the program and not to just assume it is an unqualified good, like food shipments to a famine. A critical eye would see the various factions within Palestinian society and reflect on the fact that Israel would have a special interest in strengthening those factions that favored accommodation with the Zionist state, thereby weakening Palestinian resistance.”

Botstein explained the lack of an official response to University of Michigan Press’s self-censorship as follows: “We were completely out of the loop of the publication of his book. We did nothing to advance or suppress it.” Had Kovel informed the college administration of his difficulties, “we would have been in favor of the book being published.” Then, Botstein blustered about “Joel Kovel’s so-called controversial views,” claiming that nothing he writes on the subject of Zionism is truly controversial. If that was the case, Kovel responded, would Overcoming Zionism have been banned in the United States after being decried as “hate speech”? Would University of Michigan Press have terminated its lucrative distribution contract with Pluto Press over Kovel’s book if there was nothing controversial about it? Asked about his other critical works and their reception by the Bard community, Kovel mentioned that his book on ecosocialism, The Enemy of Nature, while widely debated, never got any attention from his own college’s environmental studies department. “This may have something to do with the fact that its thesis is that global capitalism must be brought down if civilization is to survive,” the author wrote. While President Botstein attempts to explain away the controversy and attribute it to a paranoiac “delusion” on the part of the ejected professor, there are enough indications of a conflict.

Deady, the AAUP chapter president, pointed out that Bard at present has “a system that has too much potential for terminations that leave no one satisfied.” The fact that Botstein can have academics like Kovel serve at his convenience reflects what many have called his grandiose leadership style, but also the erosion of the tenure system in the United States and academia more widely. While the last word on the Bard controversy is yet to be spoken, discrimination cannot be ruled out due to a lack of transparency or paper trail in the hiring and firing process.


* 1988: Joel Kovel is appointed Alger Hiss professor of social studies at Bard College by President Botstein with a five-year contract. He replaces the inaugural holder of the chair, the anthropologist Stanley Diamond. This endowed chair is outside the tenure system. * 1994: Kovel is reappointed.

* 1999: Kovel is reappointed.

* 2004: After fifteen years, the Alger Hiss chair goes to Jonathan Brent, a scholar of literature and history. Kovel is moved to a five-year, halftime distinguished professor contract.

* 2009: Kovel is told his contract as distinguished professor will not be renewed and he will be moved to emeritus status at the end of the academic year. Subsequently, he publishes a statement that alleges the noncontinuation of his contract was politically motivated and invalid due to procedural irregularities.

Correspondence with a Zionist

Filed under: Academia,Jewish question,middle east — louisproyect @ 3:46 pm


Dr. Edward S. Beck: I get underneath his skin

Yes, I admit it. I am a crank. When I read something on the Internet that irks me particularly, I make an attempt to track down the email address of the author and give him a piece of my mind. The goal is not so much to have a dialog but to prevent my head from exploding like in one of those Monty Python cartoons.

Yesterday I spotted an item in Inside Higher Education about the free speech struggle taking place at UC Santa Barbara that described the role of one of those pro-Israel groups that are poisoning the atmosphere at college campuses everywhere:

Meanwhile, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a group that has criticized some of the anti-Israeli rhetoric on American campuses, issued a statement backing the inquiry into Robinson. “An important issue is the distinction between legitimate criticism of policies and practices of the State of Israel, and commentary that assumes an anti-Semitic character. The demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through Comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue,” the statement says. “Contrary to what a number of academics who should know better have asserted, academic freedom does not mean that material that is introduced to a curriculum, class, or academic forum should be protected from collegial and peer review and discussion, conducted in a civil and constructive manner. Where peers find scholarship or pedagogy to be substandard, they are entitled, indeed obligated, to say so.”

So of course the first thing I did was google “Scholars for Peace in the Middle East” and track down the website, and more importantly, the board members to see if I could find an email address to launch a torpedo or two against. Usually, the recipients ignore me understanding full well that I don’t have both oars in the water, especially when it comes to Israel, but this time I managed to get under the skin of Edward S. Beck the Co-Founder and President- Emeritus, USA. You can write him yourself at ScholarsforPeace@aol.com

An article that appeared in the November 10th 2005 Cleveland Jewish News gives some background on Beck:

“There is an academic battleground on campus,” warned Dr. Edward Beck, a psychology professor and Israel activist.

But he adds that the fight between pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel groups and their pro-Israel opponents is one-sided.

At universities like Columbia in New York City and DePaul in Chicago, professors have been let go or denied tenure for espousing pro-Israel or Zionist viewpoints. Theories put forth by Noam Chomksy and others calling Israel a colonial power have captivated academicians.

“We have to take the offensive. We have to initiate,” said Beck, who spoke Nov. 9 at the Jewish Community Center at a talk sponsored by the Alvin, Lottie and Rachel Gray Center for Jewish Life and Learning.

So the correspondence kicked off with me writing Beck with “Correction” in the subject heading:

You are not for peace. You are for ethnic cleansing and murder.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect (a bar mitzvahed Jew)


Beck responded:

You certainly are entitled to your opinion and you are certainly entitled to be dead wrong. I am not sure what we could say to convince you we are for peace and justice. As the son of Holocaust survivors and a member of the healing arts profession, I very much resent your accusation that the organization I founded and head is for ethnic cleansing and murder. That would be a slanderous misrepresentation. When you are more open minded and less accusatory, perhaps we can discuss some things. However if you are going to maintain this position without substantive and evidence, it is clear you are bound up in your own prejudice with ad hominems and name calling.

Have a love Lag BeOmer… [LP: This is a Jewish holiday connected to Passover, the grizzly myth about Yahweh spilling the blood of Egyptian children to pressure Yul Brynner to free the Jews.]



I wrote back:

Wake up. Israel is not perceived the way it was in the 1950s when my mother was president of Hadassah in her Catskill Mountains village. Its foreign minister has been openly promoting “population transfer” of the kind that the Turks used against Armenians and Andrew Jackson used against the Cherokees.

And stop using the holocaust as an excuse to promote ethnic cleansing.

It is quite frankly disgusting.


Beck responded:

This is not a discussion. You clearly have issues and quite frankly your tone is abusive.

Work out your own issue with you mother, not me.

Good luck


I wrote back:

According to a study funded by the American Jewish Congress, 44 percent of young American Jews would not feel sorry if Israel disappeared as a state. With your clumsy intervention into schools like UCSB, where young progressive Jews study, that number can only increase. For that I thank you.


Beck responded:

And you talk about genocide and murder and not being for peace and you don’t care if Israel fell off the earth.

Study your history, learn about Jews before Israel even about life in America with quotas etc here and you will learn that life has gotten good for Jews in America since the establishment of the state of Israel.

Again, your tone is abusive and lacks any integrity. Come to me when you know something, not when you think you know everything.

Good luck.


I wrote back:

> And you talk about genocide and murder and not being for peace and you
> don’t care if Israel fell off the earth.

Oh please. Israel will not fall off the earth if its racist basis was terminated. South Africa did not disappear when apartheid ended. Algeria did not disappear when the FLN came to power. My position is identical to that of the American Council for Judaism in 1942-1948, which is discussed in Thomas Kolsky’s “Jews Against Zionism”. For years, that position has been a distinct minority among American Jews but thanks to the brutality and the racism of people like Netanyahu and Lieberman, it will be making a comeback. If you think that the “Sixty Minutes” segment comparing Israel to South Africa was bad, you have seen nothing yet. If you want people to stop comparing Israel to fascists, then stop acting like fascists.

> Study your history, learn about Jews before Israel even about life in
> America with quotas etc here and you will learn that life has gotten
> good for Jews in America since the establishment of the state of Israel.

I don’t care if life is “good” for Jews if it is bad for the people it victimizes. Israel trained and armed the Guatemalan army in the 1980s, which has the blood of poor Indian peasants on its hands. Disgusting.

> Again, your tone is abusive and lacks any integrity. Come to me when
> you know something, not when you think you know everything.
> Good luck.

I actually know quite a bit. I have read Heinrich Graetz’s history of the Jews and, more to the point, was a Zionist in the early 1960s. It was Israeli barbarism that turned me into an anti-Zionist.


Beck responded:

OK, so you’re a Jewish anti-Zionist with a poisonous attitude and a big mouth. It is your vitriol that is poisoning the waters, not SPME’s. [Scholars for Peace in the Middle East] I think this conversation is pretty much over.



My final reply:

I have not uttered a word of vitriol. Anyhow, good luck trying to get American Jews to tolerate the sort of thing that comes out the mouth of Israel’s foreign minister:

“The vision I would like to see here is the entrenching of the Jewish and the Zionist state. I very much favor democracy, but when there is a contradiction between democratic and Jewish values, the Jewish and Zionist values are more important.”

May 12, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: conclusion

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

For Diamond, the male bower bird makes art in order to pass on his genes

Meanwhile, we smoke cigarettes for the same reason the bird of paradise hangs upside down: to attract the opposite sex

Jared Diamond as sociobiologist

As alluded to in my previous post in this series, 19th century anthropology was deeply imbued with social Darwinist conceptions that in its crudest forms explained colonialism in terms of the racial superiority of the white man. If history moved from lower stages like hunting-and-gathering to successively higher stages like feudalism and capitalism, then the persistence of lower stages could only be explained in terms of brain size, etc.

In the late 20th century this kind of crude racism is no longer tolerated, except perhaps for the Bell Curve theory that achieved much more respectability than it actually deserved, a function no doubt of the racist reaction against the Black liberation movement of the 1960s.

However, just as the need existed in the 19th century to explain European domination over Africans et al, there is still a need today to make sense of how Europe and now the Americans and Japan enjoy a much higher standard of living than the rest of the world. Since it is simply not acceptable to refer to innate racial differences, a more sophisticated analysis is required. That is where Jared Diamond fits in. He caters to the better side of liberals by insisting on the innate equality of all men and women while absolving them for any responsibility for their government killing and stealing from the Third World in order to maintain their lifestyle. A PBS donor can sit in his Connecticut estate feeling no guilt since it was, after all, only an accident of geography that made him rich and the Bolivian poor. If the Incan had the same geographical advantages as the Briton, then things would have turned out differently.

If social Darwinism in its cruder forms has disappeared, there is a case to be made that it continues in a less offensive form today in the discipline known as sociobiology, a term coined by its founder E.O. Wilson and related closely to evolutionary psychology–another field heavily dependent on a mechanical adaptation of Charles Darwin’s writings. As the wiki on sociobiology states, “The discipline seeks to explain behavior as a product of natural selection; thus behavior is seen as an effort to preserve one’s genes in the population.” In keeping with its social Darwinist predecessors, sociobiology agrees that society moves from lower to higher forms. The earlier forms of society, like hunting and gathering, are closer to animal behavior and social evolution consists of moving away from instinctual needs toward more civilized behavior, despite the tendency of civilized man to engage in barbaric behavior, such as on the battlefield.

With this in mind, one cannot but help noticing what appears to be sociobiological themes in Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article, especially the idea that hunting and gathering societies were more genocidal on average than state-based societies such as the kind that were imposed on them by outsiders like the British and the Americans. According to Diamond, the natives of Papua New Guinea were relieved when colonial “pacification” involving an “absurdly few” armed Europeans was imposed on them, since finally they would be spared the “constant fear” of being killed by fellow tribesmen. In other words, the same excuse that the British made for themselves in colonizing India—they needed to curtail barbarisms such as sati, etc.—was made by Jared Diamond. The natives had to be civilized, even at the point of a bayonet.

Is it possible that Diamond’s sociobiological sounding arguments are just a coincidence? I would argue that they are not. Although not as well known as “Guns, Germs and Steel” or “Collapse”, his earlier work “The Third Chimpanzee” put him in that camp, at least partially. While the book does not harp on “selfish genes” or the other trademark elements of the discipline, there is plenty there to demonstrate Diamond’s affinity with Dawkins, Wilson, Pinker and company.

Some of it is unintentionally funny. For example, we learn in the chapter “The Animal Origins of Art” that people make art in order to attract the opposite sex and hence pass their genes on to the next generation. Diamond starts off by a reference to the bower bird, a creature he has studied as part of his day job as a biologist. It turns out that the male bird constructs elaborate and beautiful nests, a kind of art work in their own way, in order to attract females. Guess what. We make art for about the same reason:

Art is a quick indicator of status, which—in human as in animal societies—is a key to acquiring food, land, and sex partners. Yes, bowerbirds get the credit for discovering the principle that ornaments separate from one’s body are more flexible status symbols than ornaments that one has to grow. But we still get credit for running away with that principle. Cro-Magnons decorated their bodies with bracelets, pendants, and ocher; New Guinea villagers today decorate theirs with shells, fur, and bird-of-paradise plumes… In a world where art is a coin of sex, it’s only a small further step for some artists to be able to convert art into food. There are whole societies that support themselves by making art for trade to food-producing groups. For example, the Siassi islanders, who lived on tiny islets with little room for gardens, survived by carving beautiful bowls that other tribes coveted for bride payments and paid for in food.

The same principles hold even more strongly in the modern world. Where we once signaled our status with bird feathers on our bodies and giant clam shells in our huts, we now do it with diamonds on our bodies and Picassos on our walls. Where Siassi islanders sold a carved bowl for the equivalent of twenty dollars, Richard Strauss built himself a villa with the proceeds from his opera Salome and earned a fortune from Der Rosenkavalier. Nowadays we read increasingly often of art sold at auction for tens of millions of dollars, and of art theft. In short, precisely because it serves as a signal of good genes and ample resources, art can be cashed in for still more genes and resources.

With this kind of utilitarian vulgarity, it is of course no surprise that Diamond is a favorite over at PBS with its chronic fund appeals based on cheesy opera recitals and doo-wop.

In a chapter on smoking, drinking and drugs, Diamond once again draws on his experience as a bird naturalist, likening such dangerous behavior to male birds of paradise that grow long plumes out of their eyebrows and hang upside down during mating rituals. Despite their need to attract females, the males also risk attracting the attention of hawks. This risky behavior, according to Diamond, makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint because the suitors will have demonstrated to their female targets that they “have balls”. So what does this “theory” have to do with tobacco, drugs and booze? Diamond explains:

Especially in adolescence and early adulthood, the age when drug abuse is most likely to begin, we are devoting much energy to asserting our status. I suggest that we share the same unconscious instinct that leads birds to indulge in dangerous displays. Ten thousand years ago, we “displayed” by challenging a lion or a tribal enemy. Today, we do it in other ways, such as by fast driving or by consuming dangerous drugs.

Missing entirely from Diamond’s analysis is the social and economic importance of a substance like tobacco in the early stages of the capitalist system, nor its value today to investors like Warren Buffett who once observed: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.”

Turning to the far more serious matter of genocide, Diamond tries to explain what the Nazis did in terms of Chimpanzee behavior, referring to attacks by one band on another witnessed by the famed naturalist Jane Goodall in the 1970s. He concludes: “In short, of all our human hallmarks—art, spoken language, drugs, and the others—the one that has been derived most straightforwardly from animal precursors is genocide.”

With that in mind, it is now easy to understand why Jared Diamond was so intent on finding patterns of mass killings in Papua New Guinea where none existed. He was  so determined to make the case that he even fabricated words and events to suit his conclusion. One supposes that 8 years of George W. Bush will have its consequences on academia unfortunately.

Against this sociobiological nonsense, we can turn to the voices of reason in the sciences that recognized it for what it was after E.O. Wilson made his initial appearance. An open letter to the New York Review of Books titled “Against Sociobiology” appeared in the August 7, 1975 issue. Co-signed by Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and other university faculty and scientists, high school teachers, doctors, and students who worked in the Boston area, it rejected the “primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior”. It concluded:

What we are left with then is a particular theory about human nature, which has no scientific support, and which upholds the concept of a world with social arrangements remarkably similar to the world which E. O. Wilson inhabits. We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange. What Wilson’s book illustrates to us is the enormous difficulty in separating out not only the effects of environment (e.g., cultural transmission) but also the personal and social class prejudice of the researcher. Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

From what we have seen of the social and political impact of such theories in the past, we feel strongly that we should speak out against them. We must take “Sociobiology” seriously, then, not because we feel that it provides a scientific basis for its discussion of human behavior, but because it appears to signal a new wave of biological determinist theories.

Judging from the gushing reception that Jared Diamond’s implicitly sociobiological works such as “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse” have received, it is clear that biological determinist theories must be struggled against on all fronts including where their roots are relatively hidden. That is why Rhonda Shearer’s exposé of Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article is so important. It tears away the fig leaf and reveals that the ideological emperor is not wearing clothes.

May 11, 2009

Yali’s Question

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,racism — louisproyect @ 10:44 pm

In “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Diamond tells of a PNG native who asks why people from the West have so much “cargo”, in other words consumer goods. Diamond tries to answer this question through his patented mixture of environmental determinism and sociobiology. It amounts to saying that global inequality is based on the luck of the draw.  Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz wrote “Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History” as a study of PNG class relations and a refutation of Jared Diamond’s theory. This is from their introduction:

In outline, this is the answer, the history, that Diamond sets out in response to Yali’s question: Human beings evolved and eventually dispersed themselves throughout the earth. There were some who lived in geographical areas conducive to the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals, complex processes that were in no way beyond the intellectual capacities of any human group. All people everywhere were equally intelligent, and members of any group, living in appropriate areas, would have developed agriculture and domesticated animals. However, once certain people did develop agriculture and domesticate animals, they had distinct evolutionary advantages deriving from the population expansion these new forms of food production allowed: the more food available, the more people who could be supported, and the greater the number of specialists (including soldiers) who could be maintained. And significantly, the more people there were, the more necessary arable land became and the more likely people were to go to war to get it. Warfare, in turn, brought about the need for effective weaponry. Therefore, over time, those with certain mineral resources and with skilled craft specialists fashioned and employed superior weapons (eventually made of steel) to vanquish their neighbors. Moreover, those who could utilize metal and support craft specialists had other advantages as well. First, as agriculturalists with high population densities, they had developed hierarchically organized social organizations. Second, as people living around others and around animals, they had developed immunities to certain germs. Superior weapons and organizational skills (technologies and techniques), along with immunological resistances, enabled such groups, or apparently impelled them, to em-hark on ambitious programs of expansion, leading, repeatedly, to the conquest anc[ exploitation of others. Especially vulnerable were those geographically cut off from such centers of innovation. Thus, eventually and inevitably, the native peoples of the New World (and elsewhere) were easily subjugated by a combination of guns, germs, and steel.

As Diamond brings this argument back to Yali and Yali’s question, he stresses—and, of course, we agree—that Yali’s circumstances did not reflect any lack either in his intelligence or in that of other Papua New Guineans. Rather, we learn that Yali was poor and relatively powerless in his own domain because his ancestors lacked access to the mineral resources, domesticable animals, and the other advantages that allowed some to conquer others. He was born, in terms of the luck-of-the-environmental draw, on the wrong side of the great geographical divide. Yet neither Yali nor most of the other Papua New Guineans we have known over our years at RSL and elsewhere in the country would be satisfied with the inexorability of Diamond’s luck-of-the-draw answer, with the implications of his that’s-just-the-way-things-were-and-hence-must-be response. Such an answer would strike them as a perverse justification of colonial forms of inequality, part of a narrative that denied them moral worth in the past, to say nothing of the future. Indeed, as we shall soon see, the founding and development of RSL became part of a pressing narrative for reclaiming rightful worth in Papua New Guinea.

However, it is just Diamond’s sort of answer, just this sort of invocation of historical inevitability, that tends to satisfy those who are already the haves. In this regard, the ideology inherent in Diamond’s reasoning goes well beyond the particulars of the history he presents. This ideology supports the status quo, the interests of the already powerful. In fact, as we shall see in chapter 9, it is just this ideology that RSL [Ramu Sugar Limited] has to confront in dealing with the interests of such haves as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and Coca-Cola Amatil in Papua New Guinea: organizations, it so happens, that express imperatives concerning free trade and comparative advantage in language remarkably akin to Diamond’s. For all of them, in other words, the inevitable and the inexorable are handily synonymous with the interests of the haves over the have-nots.

More broadly, the ideology inherent in Diamond’s reasoning is one we confront as teachers and scholars dealing primarily with the haves. Students tell us that their parents encourage them to read Diamond’s book, finding it invigorating. The former president of Fred’s college urged his faculty to read it. In fact, he sent copies of Guns, Germs, and Steel to members of the faculty as a model of the kind of book he admired. All over the United States, we learned, deans and presidents of other pricey institutions applaud the book. At Cornell, it became assigned reading for all freshmen. Moreover, many institutions pay Diamond generously to summarize his views in person, generally in packed lecture halls.

We think educated haves like the book so well because it resonates deeply with their own concerns—in effect, because it so readily sustains them. They come away from the book or lecture feeling pretty good about themselves—both enlightened and open-minded. They come away seeing the world without racial prejudice and having learned some important new facts and connections. Furthermore, and significantly, they come away comfortably convinced that they have their cargo (unlike Yali and his people) for inevitable and impersonal geographic reasons. No one is to blame for the fact that some people are, and no doubt will continue to be, the haves and that others are, and will continue to be, the have-nots. Thus, Diamond’s history is not only the delineation of an inexorable and inevitable trajectory. It is, as well, both retrospective and prospective. His depiction of the past provides a far from disinterested model for understanding the present and for shaping the future. This is to say, he presents the world as one in which the have-nots, whether in Papua New Guinea or elsewhere, must (seemingly) forever deal with the haves under conditions of fundamental disadvantage.

But what exactly is wrong with this history? Didn’t the events Diamond relates really happen? Must a history necessarily be disqualified because it conveys the perspectives and interests of the victors, of the haves? Isn’t Diamond’s view simply informed by hardheaded realism about the way the world works?

We certainly do not deny that certain forms of power had a significant role in effecting the kinds of historical events that Diamond delineates. Diamond’s depiction of the role that guns, germs, and steel played is plausible—indeed, as we said, it is compelling and sophisticated. What we do challenge is his conflation of the necessary with the sufficient. This is to say, just because guns, germs, and steel were necessary to make certain historical outcomes possible, including those so upsetting to Yali, we do not have to assume that their possession was sufficient to explain these outcomes, lust because sources of power are available, we cannot conclude that the power will be used for certain ends, or even that it will be used at all. And simply because European colonists had the power to pursue their interests at the expense of Yali and other Papua New Guineans, we cannot automatically understand the nature and consequences of their varied encounters in terms of inevitable universal patterns.

This conflation of the necessary and the sufficient grows out of the link between Diamond’s interest in “history’s broadest pattern” and his determination to develop “human history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology” (1997: 420, 408). As he says, his book “attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years” and searches for “ultimate explanations” that push back “the chain of historical causation as far as possible” (9). Crucial to this search for lawlike explanations that will generate long chains of causation back to first causes (chains of causation that even link mountain range formation to Yali’s quandary) is Diamond’s distinction between ultimate and proximate causes. Ultimate causes are those broadly applicable and pervasive forces, which led to the possession of such advantages as guns, germs, and steel. Diamond is interested in these causes because he thinks they are the ones that really drive history. These ultimate causes shape derivative and more immediate occurrences, such as particular battles, conquests, economic systems. The effects of these more immediate occurrences, in turn, become proximate causes of yet other events.

Diamond’s view of the relentless course of human history, driven by the operation of ultimate causes over its thirteen-thousand-year span, seems to rest on an implicit view of human nature as aggressive, acquisitive, and selfish. It is this nature that, in Diamond’s vision, keeps ultimate causes consequential throughout history. In short, human beings necessarily lead their lives so as to extract maximum advantage over others: give a guy—any guy—half a chance and he will conquer the world; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a sword to cut you down or a chain to enslave you within the hold of a ship bound for a New World sugar plantation. In a way that we in the contemporary West appear to find self-evident—once again, in a way that does not problematize our understanding of how the world works— Diamond suggests that people everywhere and at all times, if they had sufficient power, would use it to maximize their own advantage through the domination of others. This implicit view of a transhistorical and trans-cultural human nature is consistent with Diamond’s explicit rendering of both historical context and cultural perspective as irrelevant. In fact, Diamond works hard to exclude such perspective and context from his scientific history.

Žižek, Lenin and firing squads

Filed under: ussr — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

The latest New Left Review has an article by the Lacanian theorist Slavoj Žižek that returns to one of his favorite topics, Lenin. Frankly, I think he should stick to Lacan since his enthusiasms over the Russian revolutionary can only confuse the young radical deciding to check out Lenin after he received an imprimatur from the celebrated Lacanian.

Since the article titled “How to Begin from the Beginning” is behind a subscriber’s firewall, I would be happy to send it along to those who are curious to see what Žižek has to say about the early Soviet Union. It incorporates his by now familiar embrace of Lenin’s supposed ruthlessness, a stance that is calculated to annoy liberals in the academy rather than appeal to auto workers angry over getting screwed by the Obama administration. They call it épater le bourgeois, or shock the bourgeoisie. The term originated among French ‘decadent’ poets like Baudelaire who used hashish and absinthe. Žižek seeks the same effect by justifying Lenin’s “tough” policy toward Mensheviks and SR’s:

In answer to ‘the sermons’ on the NEP preached by Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries—‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again’—he told the Eleventh Party Congress:

We say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white-guard elements.’

This ‘red terror’ should nonetheless be distinguished from Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’. In his memoirs, Sándor Márai provided a precise definition of the difference. Even in the most violent phases of the Leninist dictatorship, when those who opposed the revolution were brutally deprived of their right to (public free) speech, they were not deprived of their right to silence: they were allowed to withdraw into inner exile. An episode from the autumn of 1922 when, on Lenin’s instigation, the Bolsheviks were organizing the infamous ‘Philosophers’ Steamer’, is indicative here. When he learned that an old Menshevik historian on the list of those intellectuals to be expelled had withdrawn into private life to await death due to heavy illness, Lenin not only took him off the list, but ordered that he be given additional food coupons. Once the enemy resigned from political struggle, Lenin’s animosity stopped.

The ‘Philosopher’s Steamer’ referenced above is the subject of “Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia”, a book about the exile of 50 of Russia’s intelligentsia, including Nikolai Berdyaev, a philosopher whose writings were popular at Bard College when I was young. I have not read the book and have no plans to do so, but it does seem odd to consider this exile as a sign of rampant totalitarianism in the USSR, when the country was just about to pull back from the Spartan social and ideological norms of War Communism. Whatever one might believe about the NEP, it hardly seems consistent with the “totalitarian dungeon” image its enemies live by.

Of more interest is Žižek’s reference once again to Lenin’s statement to his opponents in 1922: “Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that.” That’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

As it turns out, this is the second time that Žižek has pulled this chestnut out of the fire in an effort to portray Lenin as the “tough guy” who would not put up with the weak-kneed liberals of today, with their tofu and their recyclables:

Corporations such as Whole Foods and Starbucks continue to enjoy favour among liberals even though they both engage in anti-union activities; the trick is that they sell products with a progressive spin: coffee made with beans bought at ‘fair-trade’ prices, expensive hybrid vehicles, etc. In short, without the antagonism between the included and the excluded, we may find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian, fighting poverty and disease, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist, mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.

Boy, if we only had somebody like Lenin around today, he’d show those Starbucks patrons what’s what. He’d throw them out on the street with their stupid Macbooks and make the tables available for paying customers like me.

I want to conclude by reposting my January 31, 2004 response to Žižek’s initial misuse of the Lenin firing squad quote that I had run into in the pages of “In these Times”, a magazine famous far and wide for its fire-breathing revolutionary ruthlessness.


An “In These Times” article by cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek titled “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” has been circulating on the Internet. Today, a link to it popped up on neoconservative Denis Dutton’s “Arts and Letters website, obviously a sign that Zizek was doing the left no favors when he wrote this article. Dutton is like a vacuum cleaner sweeping up every hostile reference to Marxism that can be found in the major media and academic journals. Despite his obligatory genuflection to Lenin, Zizek’s Lenin serves more as a token of ‘epater le bourgeois’ rebelliousness rather than a serious attempt to make him relevant in the year 2004.

Zizek’s article is a discourse on freedom, having more to do with Philosophy 101 than historical materialism. In defending the idea of relative freedom versus absolute freedom, he cites some remarks by Lenin in 1922:

Indeed, the sermons which…the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: ‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.’ But we say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.’

These rather blood-curdling words are interpreted by Zizek as a willingness on the part of the Soviet government to suppress criticisms that would undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counterrevolution. In other words, Zizek’s Lenin favors shooting people who have ideological differences over how to build socialism, or so it would seem.

Without skipping a beat, Zizek amalgamates the execution of Mensheviks and SR’s found guilty of thought-crimes with the tendency in liberal societies to be offered meaningless choices between Coke and Pepsi or “Close Door” buttons in elevators that are not connected to anything. He concludes by saying:

This is why we tend to avoid Lenin today: not because he was an “enemy of freedom,” but because he reminds us of the fatal limitation of our freedoms; not because he offers us no choice, but because he reminds us that our “society of choices” precludes any true choice.

Although it seems implausible at best that Soviet firing squads in 1922 have anything remotely to do with choosing soft drinks, it might be useful to review exactly what Lenin was talking about in his speech–even though it might subvert the postmodernist exercise that Zizek is engaged in.

To begin with, it took a little bit of digging to find out where Lenin said these words. In poking around in Google (the MIA archives used a different translation so an exact match could not be found), I discovered that Zizek was not the only one lending credence to this version of Lenin as the High Executioner. The super-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party dotes on these words as well. In a book on their website titled “Another view of Stalin” by Ludo Martens, we discover that Lenin’s threats against his opponents demonstrate that he “vehemently dealt with counter-revolutionaries attacking the so-called `bureaucracy’ to overthrow the socialist régime.” In other words, Zizek’s Lenin and that of the PLP is a precursor to Stalin, implicitly and explicitly respectively.

At least I did learn from the PLP article the source of Lenin’s words, which was a Political Report of The Central Committee of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Congress on March 27, 1922. It can be read in its entirety at:


If you do, you will discover nothing in Lenin’s speech to support such the interpretation of Zizek or the Progressive Labor Party. To begin with, the report is a defense of the turn away from War Communism toward the New Economic Policy, which most historians view as an end to economic, political and legal regimentation–including the use of the death penalty. Immediately upon taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks did away with the death penalty. It was only restored during the civil war when White terror was unleashed on the civilian population. As soon as the White armies were defeated, there was no use for the firing squad. A January 17, 1920 decree of the Soviet government stated that since the counter-revolution had been defeated, there was no need for executions. Since this occurred more than two years before Lenin’s speech, it is a little difficult to figure out what Lenin was talking about.

As it turns out, Lenin was referring not to an actual firing-squad, but a figurative one as should be obvious from the paragraphs that immediately precede Zizek’s citation:

When a whole army (I speak in the FIGURATIVE sense)  [emphasis added] is in retreat, it cannot have the same morale as when it is advancing. At every step you find a certain mood of depression. We even had poets who wrote that people were cold and starving in Moscow, that “everything before was bright and beautiful, but now trade and profiteering abound”. We have had quite a number of poetic effusions of this sort.

Of course, retreat breeds all this. That is where the serious danger lies; it is terribly difficult to retreat after a great victorious advance, for the relations are entirely different. During a victorious advance, even if discipline is relaxed, everybody presses forward on his own accord. During a retreat, however, discipline must be more conscious and is a hundred times more necessary, because, when the entire army is in retreat, it does not know or see where it should halt. It sees only retreat; under such circumstances a few panic-stricken voices are, at times, enough to cause a stampede. The danger here is enormous. When a real army is in retreat, machine-guns are kept ready, and when an orderly retreat degenerates into a disorderly one, the command to fire is given, and quite rightly, too.

If, during an incredibly difficult retreat, when everything depends on preserving proper order, anyone spreads panic-even from the best of motives-the slightest breach of discipline must be punished severely, sternly, ruthlessly; and this applies not only to certain of our internal Party affairs, but also, and to a greater extent, to such gentry as the Mensheviks, and to all the gentry of the Two-and-a-Half International.

So Lenin’s words, taken literally by Zizek and the PLP, were specifically regarded by him as a figurative exercise. Lenin was talking about figurative armies, figurative retreats, figurative machine guns and figurative firing squads.

More to the point, there were no SR’s or Mensheviks in the USSR to brandish such threats against by 1922. They were no longer part of the political equation inside Russia and were left to issuing condemnations of the revolution from afar. Of course, the question would certainly arise as to why they were no longer inside the country. Had the Bolsheviks exiled their political adversaries in the same fashion that Lincoln arrested and deported a sitting Congressman to Canada who opposed the Civil War? Or in the fashion that FDR had imprisoned the leaders of the Trotskyist movement for criticizing the motives of the war with Germany and Japan?

In reality, repression of the SR’s and the Mensheviks had little to do with ideas about building socialism. In John Rees’s valuable “In Defense of October”, we learn that the infant Soviet republic faced the same kinds of threats as Cuba has faced since 1959. At the very time the White Army was slaughtering Soviet citizens and torching villages, foreign diplomats were organizing the nominally socialist opposition. R H Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomatic representative in Moscow, was instrumental in ensuring that Kerensky escaped from Russia after his unsuccessful military attempt to unseat the Bolsheviks. Rees writes:

Sidney Reilly, a British intelligence agent, was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Lockhart that he ‘might be able to stage a counter-revolution in Moscow. But, according to Reilly, one part of his plan was prematurely put into effect in August 1918: Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin twice at point blank range, bringing him close to death. Earlier Reilly had managed to establish himself as a Soviet official with access to documents from Trotsky’s Foreign Ministry. And another British agent, George Hill, became a military adviser to Trotsky.

So the concrete application of the death penalty during the civil war has more to do with preventing assassination attempts by people like Fanny Kaplan rather than preventing alternative ideas about constructing socialism from reaching the Soviet people, just as the execution of hijackers in Cuba recently had more to do with preventing innocent lives being taken by desperate criminals than enforcing monolithism. Of course, in the early 1920s such defensive measures were interpreted by liberals as exercises in thought control and social repression just as they are today in the case of Cuba. It is singularly depressing, however, to see Zizek–a self-proclaimed fan of Lenin (in the same sense really as a fan of David Lynch movies)–giving credence to such an interpretation while nominally defending Lenin.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.