Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 22, 2013

Remembering JFK

Filed under: JFK — louisproyect @ 2:25 pm

We thank that whole generation for making America strong, for winning WWII, winning the Cold War, and for the great gift of service which brought America 50 years of peace and prosperity. My parents inspired me to serve, and when I was a high school junior, Kennedy called my generation to service. It was the beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights, for the environment, for women, and for peace. We believed we could change the world. You know what? We did.

–John Kerry, Acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention Jul 29, 2004

When discussing the poor, the blacks, the Jews, “he used to say, ‘Poor bastards.’ That was it. There were a lot of poor bastards in this world. There were people who either didn’t get jobs they wanted or they didn’t get programs they wanted. That phrase covered so many times when he would have turned someone down for a job, or would have turned down some legislation that was being pressed on him. You know, ‘Poor bastard, they’re going to feel terrible.’” Kennedy seemed to believe that “people who are different have different responses. The pain of poor people is different from ‘our’ pain.”

–An unnamed former lover of JFK, quoted in Seymour Hersh’s “Dark Side of Camelot”

On January 8, 2005, obituaries for JFK’s 86 year old retarded sister Rosemary appeared in all the major media. Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of this American dynasty, treated her like a character out of a 19th century Gothic Tale. Associated Press reported that “In 1941, Joseph Kennedy was worried that Rosemary’s mild mental retardation would lead her into situations that could damage the family’s reputation, and he arranged for her to have a lobotomy. She was 23.” The AP obituary quotes Laurence Leamer’s “The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family”: “Rosemary was a woman, and there was a dread fear of pregnancy, disease and disgrace.”

If the criterion were social propriety, then the one person who probably should have suffered a lobotomy was Joseph Kennedy himself, rather than his unfortunate daughter. (Nor would it have occurred to the patriarch to control his son Jack’s philandering in this fashion, who suffered from a chronic venereal disease.)

In keeping with Balzac’s epigraph to “Pere Goriot” that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” the Kennedy dynasty owed its place in history to the ongoing criminal activities of Joseph Kennedy.

In “The Outfit,” Gus Russo’s definitive study of the Chicago mob, we learn that Joseph Kennedy made his millions through a combination of white-collar crime and bootlegging. Using the same kinds of illegal insider trading that people like Michael Milken made infamous, Kennedy sold short just before the 1929 crash and walked away richer than ever. As a banker-investor, Kennedy plundered the stock of Pathé Films in the 1920s, giving insiders like himself stock worth $80 per share, while leaving common stockholders $1.50 per share. When Kennedy attempted a hostile takeover of the California-based Pantages Theater chain in 1929, he paid a 17 year old girl $10,000 to falsely claim that she had been raped by the chain’s owner, who then served part of a fifty-year prison sentence that was ultimately reversed. Kennedy got control of Pantages at a bargain basement price.

With respect to bootlegging, Russo reports:

Kennedy was up to his eyes in illegal alcohol. Leading underworld bootleggers from Frank Costello to Doc Stacher to Owney Madden to Joe Bonanno to Meyer Lansky to Lucky Luciano have all recalled for their biographers or for news journalists how they had bought booze that had been shipped into the country by Joseph Kennedy. On the receiving side of the booze business, everyone from Joe’s Hyannis Port chums to the eastern Long Island townsfolk who survived the Depression by uncrating booze off the bootleggers’ boats tells tales of Joe Kennedy’s involvement in the illegal trade.

Connections made in this period would prove useful during JFK’s 1960 Presidential bid. Murray “Curley” Humphreys, the brains behind Al Capone, and his chief executioner Sam Giancana (nicknamed “Moony” because of his psychopathic reputation) had inherited control of the Chicago mob after Capone’s death and built up powerful alliances in the trade union bureaucracy all around the country that helped to tip the balance in Kennedy’s favor in the 1960 primaries race.

Using mob lawyer and ex-state attorney general Robert J. McDonnell as a liaison, the Kennedys met with Giancana in Chicago in 1960. According to Russo, a quid pro quo was worked out at this meeting. In exchange for the mob’s help, a Kennedy Justice Department would go easy on them. According to Humphreys’ widow, the mobster was leery of making a deal: “Murray was against it. He remembered Joe Kennedy from the bootlegging days–called him an untrustworthy ‘four flusher’ and a ‘potato eater.’ Something to do with a booze delivery that Joe had stolen. He said that Joe Kennedy could be trusted as far as he, Murray, could throw a piano.”

The gangsters focused their efforts on West Virginia, a key swing state. Mob-controlled jukeboxes all across the state began featuring Jack Kennedy’s campaign song, while a Kennedy aide paid tavern owners $20 each day to play it over and over. Meanwhile, a Giancana associate doled out $50,000 across the state to cash-starved local politicians. These bribes paid off handsomely, as Kennedy beat Senator Hubert Humphrey by a 60-40 margin.

In the general election, the same pattern could be seen. Trade union bureaucrats poured into Curley Humphreys’ office to receive their marching orders. According to Russo, “Among the regular visitors were Murray Olf, the powerful Washington lobbyist, Teamster official John O’Brien, and East St. Louis boss of the Steamfitters Union, Buster Wortman.”

Sam “Moony” Giancana would turn up again in another capacity. After John Kennedy became President, he would call on Mafia figures to assassinate Fidel Castro. Apparently, the Kennedys had as much respect for Cuban democracy as they did for their own. What could not be won through bribes on the revolutionary island would have to be taken through outright violence.

Connections between the CIA and such hired assassins had already been made during the Eisenhower presidency. Top Howard Hughes aide Robert Maheu, who had freelanced for the CIA over the years, was asked to assemble a hit squad to kill Castro. Maheu then contacted Giancana and Santo Trafficante, a top figure in the New Orleans Mafia. Both men had a vested interest in toppling the new Cuban government, since they owned substantial assets in Havana through partnerships with Meyer Lansky.

Just as Robert J. McDonnell served as a go-between in the earlier contact with the Chicago mob, Kennedy’s mistress Judith Exner would play the same role now. Since Exner was having an affair with Sam Giancana at the very same time she was sleeping with JFK, she was made to order. Exner became a bagwoman for Kennedy during the 1960 campaign, taking up to $250,000 in cash to Giancana on trips to Chicago. These payments were intended as bribes for trade union bureaucrats that Giancana and Humphreys had lined up. Eventually Exner would split up with Kennedy when he showed up at one of their trysts with another woman for a threesome.

If none of the mobsters had any success in getting rid of Fidel Castro, neither would the counter-revolutionary army assembled and supported by the Kennedy White House at the Bay of Pigs. Although Kennedy has been portrayed as a dove in comparison to Richard Nixon, the truth is that Kennedy positioned himself as a hawk on Cuba, blaming the Republican incumbents for inaction on Communist subversion in the Western Hemisphere. Since Nixon was forced to keep the impending invasion a secret, he could not defend himself from JFK’s hawkish attack. Kennedy himself had learned of the plans from Richard Bissell, a CIA official who was friendly with his father. He hammered away at Nixon cynically, knowing full well that the Republican candidate could not reveal the secret plan. Appalled by Kennedy’s bellicosity, some liberals actually kept their distance from him, while falling short of supporting Nixon. Liberal icon Murray Kempton wrote in the New York Post that “I really don’t know what further demagoguery is possible form Kennedy on this subject, short of announcing that, if elected, he will send Bobby and Teddy and Eunice to Oriente Province to clean Castro out.”

After the counter-revolutionary guerrilla force was smashed, the Kennedy White House continued to threaten Cuba verbally and to provide clandestine support for smaller guerrilla bands. American subversion cost the island at least $1 billion in the year following the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban revolutionary leadership understood that it was only a matter of time when a new invasion was mounted, this time involving the US marines rather than an ineffective surrogate force.

This prompted Castro to seek a powerful shield against an invasion that took the form of Russian nuclear missiles. When Kennedy learned about this, he provoked one of the most dangerous confrontations of the entire Cold War. It did not matter to him that Cuba was a sovereign nation or that the USA had already supplied atomic missiles on the Soviet border in Turkey. In foreign policy, some countries were clearly more equal than others.

Although former NY Times editor Max Frankel’s recently published “High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis” is intended to flatter the foreign policy sagacity of the Kennedy White House, any impartial reader will not be reassured by the following excerpt:

McNamara’s blockade idea was gaining favor, but there was as yet no limit on the kind of action the Kennedy brothers were willing to examine. If the choice was to attack, the president still preferred a surgical strike at the missiles alone, but he told the chiefs to plan also for a full-scale invasion. Robert Kennedy even strained to find a pretext for invasion. He toyed with the thought of staging a fake attack on the American naval base at Guantanamo or staging another ship disaster in Havana–”sink the Maine again, or something.” He remarked with satisfaction that an invasion would get rid of Castro as well as the missiles.

These were attitudes brought over from a separate high-level meeting that day in which Robert Kennedy had complained about the slow pace of sabotage and subversion against Cuba under Operation Mongoose. But his wild mood shifts were surely confusing to the conferees as they tried to discern the direction of the president’s thinking. Only that morning, at the first ExCom meeting, Bobby had scribbled a note to Ted Sorensen saying, “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.”

Eventually, Kennedy and Khrushchev struck a deal. In exchange for the removal of Russian missiles, the USA would promise to not invade Cuba and to remove its own missiles from Turkey. In keeping with the general refusal of the Kennedy White House to tell the truth to its citizenry, this deal was not made public. Instead, Kennedy was portrayed as a fearless gunfighter who forced the Russians to back down.

Based on his reading of this period, Nation Magazine editor and staunch John Kerry supporter Eric Alterman decided to include Kennedy in his 2004 “When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.” In his NY Times Book Review of Alterman’s book, one-time Presidential candidate Gary Hart tried to salvage Kennedy’s reputation:

It is unclear how the disclosure of the implicit trade of Jupiter missiles in Turkey for intermediate-range Soviet strategic missiles in Cuba was crucial to undermining the public trust, particularly since the Jupiters were to be replaced soon anyway by sea-based Polaris submarine missiles. Let’s assume the worst — that Kennedy was trying to fend off a right-wing backlash for bargaining with the Soviets. That seems much more like political self-preservation, which in any case did not result in loss of American lives and in fact may have saved millions of them.

In a November 14, 2004 letter to the NY Times, Alterman tears Hart’s defense to pieces. He quotes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in reply to the question of whether such a deal had been struck that: ”Absolutely not . . . the Soviet government did raise the issue . . . [but the] president absolutely refused even to discuss it. He wouldn’t even reply other than that he would not discuss the issue at all.” The same sort of lie was heard from Dean Rusk. It is no accident that both men would become associated with the Vietnam War, as both architects and dissemblers.

For many radicals, especially those who believe that the Democratic Party is not a “lesser evil,” it is difficult to grasp why John Kennedy has any kind of progressive reputation. Differences over how to assess the Kennedy White House, especially in the context of his role in the emerging Vietnam War, came to a head around the release of Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”

Based heavily on lawyer James Garrison’s version of the Kennedy assassination, the film argues that Kennedy had to be removed in order to pave the way for an escalation of the war. Lyndon Johnson is seen as a tool of the defense industry and rightwing military officers. By contrast, John Kennedy is a reasonable man who had the good sense to make plans to begin de-escalation and eventual withdrawal from Indochina.

It is no accident that left journalist and scholar Michael Parenti agrees with this perspective, given his support for John Kerry. Despite its obvious futility, the search for enlightened bourgeois leadership seems never-ending.

In his probing study of the Kennedy administration titled “Rethinking Camelot,” Noam Chomsky takes up the arguments of Oliver Stone, Michael Parenti and historian John Newman, author of “JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power,” another book which tries to prove that Kennedy intended to abandon Vietnam. In his scrupulously documented style, Chomsky hoists Kennedy on his own petard:

In Fort Worth, a few hours before the assassination, Kennedy made his last statement about Vietnam: “Without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.” In the speech he was to give in Dallas, he intended to say that “Our successful defense of freedom” in Cuba, Laos, the Congo, and Berlin can be attributed “not to the words we used, but to the strength we stood ready to use”; fair enough, with regard to his selection of Third World illustrations of his “defense of freedom.” Kennedy extolled his huge military buildup, undertaken to blunt the “ambitions of international Communism.” As the “watchman on the walls of world freedom” the US had to undertake tasks that were “painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task.”

In internal discussion, Kennedy’s consistent position was that everyone must “focus on winning the war.” There can be no withdrawal without victory; the stakes are far too high. One can accuse the President of no duplicity. His public rhetoric accords closely with his stand in internal discussion.

Although one obviously prefers Chomsky’s take on Kennedy to that of Parenti, one might feel a sense of lingering disappointment that Chomsky refused to apply the same stringent criteria to John Kerry, who was just as bellicose as Bush, if not more so. One might attribute that to the kind of immense pressure applied to the left by the ABB campaign. With the abject failure of the Kerry campaign to deliver on its promises, one hopes that intellectuals such as Chomsky can return to the position of public critic of war and imperialism that they have served so well in the past.

What about Kerry’s claim that 1960 “was the beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights?”

Certainly there was a struggle for black liberation in this period, but the Kennedys could hardly be represented as being in the vanguard. In “Nixon’s Piano: a study of Presidents and racial politics from George Washington to Bill Clinton,” historian Kenneth O’Reilly’s chapter on the Kennedy White House is most instructive and can be described as an exercise at damning with faint praise.

Kennedy came into the White House with a goal to hire as many token black faces as he could. This combined with New Deal social spending would keep black America mollified. Kennedy’s only true civil rights initiative was a voter-registration campaign modeled after the modest efforts of the Eisenhower administration’s final six months in office. He hoped that the largely judicial axis of such an initiative would help to short-circuit the more confrontational boycotts and sit-ins being pushed by CORE and other militant groups. He also hoped that increased black electoral numbers would strengthen the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Kennedy saw the Justice Department as the main instrument of his civil rights agenda, not the Civil Rights Commission that had been established in 1957 under Eisenhower as part of the Civil Rights Act. Several degrees to the left of Kennedy, the Commission was seen as something akin to Reconstruction and, therefore, unwelcome. In his best-selling “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy referred to Reconstruction as a “black nightmare…nourished by Federal bayonets.” When the Civil Rights Commission announced its attention to investigate racist violence in Mississippi, Robert F. Kennedy likened it to HUAC “investigating Communism.”

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

Even in their selection of voter registration as the least confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.

One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with the state of Mississippi!

The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA “look bad for us in the world.” His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors had no idea what they were demonstrating about.

Despite Robert F. Kennedy’s specious comparison of the Civil Rights Commission to HUAC, he had no problem directing a witch-hunt against Martin Luther King Jr. When the FBI told the President that King’s advisors included a couple of Communists (Sanford Levison and Jack O’Dell), he directed the attorney general to put wiretaps on the civil rights movements most important leader’s telephone. He even met with King at the White House and told him, “They’re communists. You’ve got to get rid of them.” To his everlasting credit, King refused to kowtow to the red-baiters. Robert F. Kennedy would complain, “He sort of laughs about these things, makes fun of it.”

Relying on J. Edgar Hoover’s snitches says volumes about the character of the Kennedy White House. Feeling no constraints from its master, the FBI would eventually send letters to King’s wife accusing him of infidelity. It would also fail to protect civil rights demonstrators, who were obviously seen as Communist subversives.

If the Kennedy White House was about managing image, perhaps nothing succeeded on their own terms better than the Peace Corps. Embodying the President’s rhetoric about “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” this nominally volunteer program would benefit the world’s poor without asking for anything in return.

Beneath the rhetoric, the Peace Corps was a variation on a very old theme, namely the tendency for colonial powers to use civil administration as a means to co-opt hostile populations. Great Britain had perfected these techniques in India. Marshall Windmiller, a professor at San Francisco State who had participated in Peace Corps training programs in the early 1960s, spells out his disillusionment in “The Peace Corps and Pax Americana.” Referring to Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), he characterizes the Peace Corps as an exercise in “Macaulayism.” As a functionary in India, Macaulay argued that “To trade with civilized men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.”

Of course, key to bringing civilization to the savages was a properly functioning civil service and an educational system that could inculcate the values of the colonizers. Seen in this light, the Peace Corps’s main function, according to Windmiller, is “to develop pro-American, English-speaking elites, and to make America’s role in world affairs, whatever it may be, more palatable.”

Windmiller focuses on the example of Rhoda and Earl Brooks, a husband-and-wife team who served in Ecuador from 1962 to 1964. They did the usual things that Peace Corps volunteers did, from teaching English to clearing streets of garbage.

When the USA intruded into Ecuadorian fishing waters during their sting, Communists organized protests against the “pirates.” Naturally, the Brooks felt compelled to present the American case. In their English conversation classes and at their homes, they tried to convince the Ecuadorian youth of the benefits of “democratic capitalism,” for whom many the word “capitalist” was synonymous for murderer. Because the Brooks were seen as modest and idealistic, their ideas were more easily accepted than if they came straight from the American consulate. That, of course, was the whole idea.

Kennedy himself occasionally spoke more candidly about the goal of initiatives like the Peace Corps. In National Security Action Memorandum No.132 directed to the Agency for International Development, that was cc’d to the Peace Corps director as well as the CIA, the President declares his intentions:

As you know, I desire the appropriate agencies of this Government to give utmost attention and emphasis to programs designed to counter Communist indirect aggression, which I regard as a grave threat during the 1960s. I have already written the Secretary of Defense ‘to move to a new level of increased activity across the board” in the counter-insurgency field.

Police assistance programs, including those under the aegis of your agency, are also a crucial element in our response to this challenge. I understand that there has been some tendency toward de-emphasizing them under the new aid criteria developed by your agency. I recognize that such programs may seem marginal in terms of focusing our energies on those key sectors which will contribute most to sustained economic growth. But I regard them as justified on a different though related basis, i.e., that of contributing to internal security and resisting Communist-supported insurgency.

Eventually, some returned Peace Corps volunteers saw through the imperialist aims of their higher-ups and joined the Vietnam antiwar movement. Indeed, their number and the numbers of civil rights activists disgusted and radicalized by White House inaction probably numbered in the tens of thousands at the peak. One might conclude by saying that the main benefit of the Kennedy White House is that it spurred idealistic young people to transcend the limitations of an administration that was guided more by image than by substance.


1. Eric Alterman response to Gary Hart’s review: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/14/books/review/letters-final.html

2. Noam Chomsky, “Rethinking Camelot”: http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/rc/rc-contents.html

3. Gary Hart review of Eric Alterman’s “When Presidents Lie”: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9507E1D61538F933A25753C1A9629C8B63

4. Seymour Hersh, “Dark Side of Camelot”, Little Brown, 1997

5. Kenneth O’Reilly, “Nixon’s Piano”, The Free Press, 1995

6. Gus Russo, “The Outfit”, Bloomsbury Press, 2001

7. Marshall Windmiller, “The Peace Corps and Pax Americana”, Public Affairs Press, 1970

Zombies on the High Seas

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition November 22-24, 2013

Whatever Happened to the Somali Pirate Threat?

Zombies on the High Seas


In 2013 there were no less than two films about Somali hijackings of merchant ships. “Captain Phillips”, the better-known one, is now playing at Cineplexes everywhere. The other is a Danish film called “A Hijacking” that played at art houses in June. In both the Somali pirates are like zombies in a George Romero film—symbols of unrelenting violence who crave money rather than flesh. I saw the two to stay abreast with the kind of films being considered by my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online for the December 2013 awards meeting, but with the added incentive of getting up to speed on what has been happening in Somalia. This was the push I needed to do a little research on the country’s recent history even if it meant being forced to look at Tom Hanks’s earnest puss for two hours—not to speak of the predictable Western civilization under siege message.

Read full

November 21, 2013

Bashar Al-Assad Introduces Syrian Bike-Sharing Program

Filed under: humor,Syria — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm
News in BriefSyriaWorldpoliticiansNews ISSUE 49•31 • Jul 31, 2013

DAMASCUS—Saying that the initiative will reduce vehicle traffic, improve local air quality, and foster a strong sense of community, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced Tuesday that city transportation authorities across the nation will soon launch SyriaCycles, a new bike-sharing program allowing urban residents to access bicycles for short-term trips without worrying about storage or maintenance. “Transportation is a key factor in the quality of life for any urbanite, and SyriaCycles ensures that city-dwellers all over the country can travel conveniently and efficiently; it’s fast, easy, and fun,” Assad said of the new transportation system, explaining that commuters can pay daily or yearly subscription fees to access a fleet of one-size-fits-all bicycles stationed at hundreds of rental hubs across numerous Syrian cities. “All you have to do is look for the row of orange-and-gray bicycles, unlock your ride with your unique CitiKey, and you’re on your way! And of course, in the interest of safety, we would like to remind all SyriaCycles members to always wear their bike helmets.” Assad added that he hopes 2013 in Syria will be remembered as the Year of the Bicycle.

Damascus at the beginning of the revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:12 pm

In response to Jonathan Cook

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:47 pm

Jonathan Cook

Like many other people on the left, Jonathan Cook is a very well-meaning and dedicated activist/author who has a blind spot when it comes to Syria. With his long time commitment to the Palestinian cause, he seems to have trouble understanding that those under attack in Homs or Aleppo have much in common with those living in Gaza. While he is obviously trained enough to understand and communicate the plight of one group of Arabs, another group gets short shrift because it is perceived as inimical to the interests of peace. A lot of this, of course, has to do with being unable to distinguish between Iraq and Syria, and between George W. Bush and Barack Obama—a difference certainly capable of being grasped by the American ruling class that has been steadfastly indifferent to Syrian suffering.

I first caught wind of this when I came across an article of Cook on September 22nd titled “More doubts over Syrian role in gas attack”. It quoted Robert Fisk (the first warning sign) to the effect that the missile that landed on Ghouta a month earlier could not have come from the Syrian military via Russia. Says who? Well, the Russians of course:

According to Fisk, Russia has identified the markings on the missile used to deliver the sarin gas – and concluded both that it is one of its munitions and that it was never delivered to Syria.

If you look at Fisk’s article, however, you will see this disclaimer: “These details cannot be verified in documents.” Well, who needs to see any stinking documents as the bandit said to Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” when the cause of “peace” is uppermost.

Surely, there is no need to see any documents when the word of the Kremlin is so trustworthy and since it has no vested interest in the outcome in Syria. Any fool can see that to question the sincerity of Vladimir Putin automatically lines you up with Rush Limbaugh. Did I say Rush Limbaugh? Oh, excuse me. I forgot that he has touted the famous pacifist website Global Research that also denies any Baathist involvement with the attack on Ghouta, the very same website that Jonathan Cook’s peevish article on Mother Agnes’s withdrawal from the Stop the War Coalition conference appears. Speaking for myself, I’d rather wash my hands in a Grand Central toilet bowl than write for Global Research but—hey—that’s just me.

Turning to Cook’s latest (Bowing before the Inquisitors), he states: “Mother Agnes is supposedly a supporter of Bashar Assad, though no one seems to be able to offer any definitive proof.” I suppose this is true insofar as she has never quite said something like “I support President Bashar” but, on the other hand, she has written a 50 page dossier on the Ghouta massacre that tries to obfuscate who is responsible. Say, isn’t that what Robert Fisk and Cook are up to as well?

Well, the least you can say is that neither Fisk nor Cook reach the dizzying heights of the mad nun who concluded that the dead children in East Ghouta were actually not those of local residents but Alawite children from Latakia, the victims of jihadists, who were trucked in to fool the world. This is the kind of Big Lie that Goebbels specialized in and it is really quite sad that a trained journalist did not take the trouble to investigate the nun’s trail of slime, as Galloway once referred to Hitchens, before sticking his nose into this controversy.

In an update, there are signs that Cook might be coming to his senses. He writes: “If there is clear evidence that Mother Agnes is a malign influence in Syria, then the duty was on Scahill and Jones to marshall [sic] that evidence and set it out to the conference organisers.” Actually, the burden would seem to rest on Cook who having taken the trouble to comment on these issues should at least spend a half-hour getting up to speed on the satanic nun. That’s all it takes, really.

There’s another update in which Cook refers to my write-up on the Mother Agnes controversy. I am not quite sure what his point is but will allow you to puzzle over it and make of it what you will:

Helpfully someone has sent me a post just up from Louis Proyect, a Pulse ally, that rather makes my point about Scahill and Jones’s behaviour. Proyect claims that Mother Agnes’ role “as a liar and a warmonger is so well known” that the conference organisers must have been aware of what they were doing in inviting her. (This, as I point out in my earlier update, is the implication of Scahill and Jones’ act of bolting the conference.)

Then Proyect subverts his own argument by explaining how Scahill came to withdraw from the conference. A Syria blogger “tweeted Jeremy Scahill, urging him to look closer at Mother Agnes’s record, which he did.” The blogger’s posts “I am sure helped Scahill make up his mind.”

So Scahill and Jones – like many others of us – obviously didn’t know much about Mother Agnes. Which brings me back to my repeated point: responsible leftists don’t tweet their concerns and then bolt. They engage, explain and try to persuade. If they fail, then they are entitled to act.

Frankly, I have no idea about Jones’s motivations. My guess is that he is much closer to Cook and the organizer’s way of thinking than mine. Indeed, he has stated in the past that jihadists have hijacked the revolution for all practical purposes, the party line of the Independent upheld by Jones, Robert Fisk, and Patrick Cockburn. Jones would likely have never threatened to back out from this conference if Mother Agnes had not been invited in the first place. I find this rather problematic in light of the dodgy statements by STWC on Ghouta that are in line with Fisk/Cook and all the rest.

You can read Jones’s latest thinking here: http://owenjonesramblings.tumblr.com/post/67573116704/mother-agnes-syria-and-free-speech. It marks real progress on his part, sadly something that we have no reason to expect from Cook. Jones writes:

Mother Agnes is perhaps most infamous for publishing a 50-page report claiming that the video footage of the Ghoutta massacre was faked, that the children suffocating to death had been kidnapped by rebels and were actually sleeping or “under anaesthesia”. This was the most striking, crank-like example of Mother Agnes blaming what were widely accepted atrocities on the rebels, and therefore her detractors regard here as a mere mouthpiece for the Assad dictatorship.

One of the gravest side effects of the war in Syria for those living outside its borders has been a decline in journalistic standards. For people like Fisk and Cook, who would certainly count Judith Miller as a symbol of everything that is rotten about the mainstream media, there is absolutely no recognition that a dry rot has penetrated their own prose, most visible in their “analysis” of the chemical attack in Ghouta but beyond that a failure to come to terms with the fact that the Syrian revolution is part and parcel of the revolution taking place across the Middle East and North Africa. If they can’t rise to the occasion and write truthfully about Syria, then you can be damned sure that people with more intellectual and moral integrity will do the job for them.

It’s not an Alawi versus Sunni fight

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

The Syrian Tragedy: Global Designs, Regional Maps, and an Invisible Revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

November 20, 2013

Budour Hassan: Palestine and the Syrian Revolution

Filed under: Palestine,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

Kshama Sawant at protest of machinists of Boeing, 18 November 2013

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 12:15 am

November 18, 2013

A tale of two conferences

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

This is a tale of two conferences, one billed as a teach-in on Syria that occurred yesterday at New York University; the other to be held in London on November 30th on Syria as well. They could not be more unalike even though Trotskyists (loosely defined) were in the driver’s seat of both events. As is the case in my write-ups of many movies that I walk out of in disgust after 15 minutes, I will rake the London event over the coals though I will not be attending it, even if someone paid for the airfare.

The London event is organized by the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) that played a key role in opposing George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. To put it as succinctly as possible, they see Syria as a new Iraq war in the making and their mission revolves around the need to oppose Obama’s war plans—something that amounts to busting down an open door. It does not matter to them that Obama never had any intention of invading Syria and imposing “regime change”; nor does it matter that there has been a revolutionary struggle in Syria. Their analysis is based on the struggle between nations and not between classes. In the case of Syria, people like John Rees and Seamus Milne back the neoliberal family dynasty that is bombing working-class tenements simply because the USA opposes it even if that opposition is only verbal. As long as there is a single op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof taking the Baathists to task or a single speech by Obama filled with crocodile tears about the “Syrian tragedy”, they will remain on Bashar al-Assad’s team.

With almost no interest in what is taking place inside Syria, the STWC conference naturally included only a single Syrian citizen, one Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a diehard supporter of the Baathist dictatorship. When a hue and cry arose over her participation, Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill told the organizers that they were dropping out. To the great pleasure of those who were protesting her presence, she withdrew. But they are still raising hell over the initial invitation. What would compel “peace” activists like John Rees and Lindsay German to extend an invitation to someone whose reputation as a liar and a warmonger is so well known? I invite you to look at Not George Sabra’s post on Mother Agnes that I am sure helped Scahill make up his mind.

Although the conference has not yet been held, I imagine that it might have a session in which this satire might not be far from the truth:

Jonathan Steele: Many thanks to all of you for coming to what I hope will be our most enlightening panel, on what is perhaps the most important and dangerous conflict facing the world today. Of course, we all know the mainstream media has been totally one-sided on the so-called Syrian “uprising,” and what’s needed more than ever is to put this war in its proper context, free from nefarious state-sponsored propaganda.

Mother Agnes-Mariam: You have to understand, all Free Syrian Army fighters are terrorists.

Steele: That’s a great place to start, thank you Mother Agnes. It’s a great irony that, while one of the most perfidious lies of the War on Terror propagated by Orientalist imperialism is that all Muslims carrying guns are “terrorists,” this has in fact turned out to be entirely accurate in Syria.

Tariq Ali: Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.

Steele: Indeed.

Seumas Milne: If I could just jump in here, on that point, what’s been especially depressing for me to watch is the decline of al-Qaeda in Iraq from a resistance force, as I described them in 2011, to a reactionary, counter-revolutionary one in Syria.

Ali: Hamas, too. Don’t forget they’ve become terrorists now as well.

Milne: Right, yes. The very Palestinian cause itself is threatened as never before by imperialism.

Steele: Is anti-Zionism the new Zionism?

Milne: We should have called one of our sessions that. Next year.

Steele: We could invite Galloway.

Milne: Definitely. But back to the point, obviously propaganda-wise what we’ve seen in Syria fits a familiar pattern. Just as the number of Stalin’s victims has long been inflated by capitalist agitprop, so the alleged crimes of President Assad have been hugely exaggerated, if not outright fabricated. And this is something I know Mother Agnes has often spoken very courageously about.

Agnes: Yes. Whether it’s the Houla massacre, or the chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta, there’s never been any evidence of Syrian government responsibility.

Owen Jones: I’ve said that too.

Milne: Me too.

Steele: We’ve all said that. It’s disgraceful how so-called journalists rely on YouTube videos for their reporting nowadays.

But I think more broadly the problem is a fundamental refusal to understand that Assad is not the problem in Syria. As I’ve often written, it’s the rebels themselves who are responsible for the continued violence.

Agnes: Assad is a merciful man. Let me give you a personal example. When I negotiated the handover of hungry civilians from Moadamiyah to government forces last month, not all of them were arrested.

Milne: Remarkable. Even though they were Sunnis.

Agnes: Yes.

Milne: And people have the gall to say Assad’s government is sectarian.

Steele: They use the same smear on Hezbollah, even though Sayyid Nasrallah has made it very clear that his fighters are in Syria to save Sunnis as much as Shiites.

Milne: And what do they get in return? Human hearts eaten out of corpses. I mean we’ve all seen that YouTube video.

Agnes: Can I just say, it’s so nice to be here in Britain. I deeply regret that, during his recent visit to Syria, I wasn’t able to meet with the head of your National Party, Nick Griffin.

Steele: [Coughs] Coffee break! Anyone fancy a coffee break?

A new group called the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Solidarity Network-US that includes the ISO and a number of smaller left groups organized the NYU event. Billed as a teach-in, it was a great success with a hundred people in attendance on a Sunday afternoon. One hopes that other such events can be held at campuses around the country on weekdays, just as was the case during the Vietnam era teach-ins. As Gilbert Achcar stated in his presentation, the objective conditions that gave rise to the Arab Spring have not gone away. One can expect that Egypt, Syria, Libya et al will remain convulsed by class struggle and that imperialism will continue to maintain a presence in the region for the foreseeable future. While the organizers of this event share the British coalition’s opposition to American intervention, they go one step further and seek to support revolutionary forces in MENA even if goes against the prevailing “wisdom” that the Syrian rebels are no different than the Nicaraguan contras or UNITA in Angola. Indeed, it was the main goal of this teach-in to take these lies and wash them down the toilet where they belong.

Since the sessions will eventually make it to Youtube, I will only cover the high points. To start with, it is important to note that 6 out of the 9 featured speakers were Syrian and that of the three who weren’t, one was Lebanese (Achcar), one was Palestinian (Bodour Hassan), and the other was a graduate student whose dissertation is focused on Syrian politics and who reads and writes in Arabic. What a contrast to the London event where a number of people will essentially be giving the same speech (is there any real difference between Milne, Ali, and Steele? I couldn’t tell the difference between their columns.)

The first panel on Roots and Grassroots of the Syrian Uprising brought together four women: Leila Shrooms, Ella Wind (the American grad student), Mohja Kahf, and Razan Ghazzawi.

Leila Shrooms blogs at Tahrir International Collective http://tahriricn.wordpress.com/, that describes itself fighting for “a free and self-governed society based on tolerance, equality and openness, the society in which the social side is placed above the mercantile.” Shrooms focused on the myth of Baathist “socialism”, putting forward hard facts such as the unemployment rate rising from 11 percent under the early period of Baathist rule to the 34 percent that existed in the Spring of 2011 (the rural unemployment rate was 62 percent.) My impression is that the Tahrir International Collective is anarchist. Seeing what I see put forward by someone like John Rees in the name of Marxism, I am almost ready to hoist the Bakunin banner (well, maybe not Bakunin, but Kropotkin for sure.)

Ella Wind talked about the supposed rural/city divide that allows some commentators to describe the revolution as happening outside of Damascus, where she was conducting her research. She explains that it was too dangerous to protest there and that many opposed to the Baathists went back home to the countryside where it was safer to hold demonstrations. Damascus, like many cities in the region including Istanbul, include many people only one generation removed from their rural roots.

Mohja Kahf spoke about the women’s movements against Bashar al-Assad, including the Stop the Killing protests sparked by Rima Dali and the Brides of Freedom marches. She used Youtube clips of these activities to drive home the point that the nonviolent protests were more frightening to the dictator than any jihadist, thus the necessity for al-Assad to provoke an armed resistance as soon as possible. Kahf teaches at Rutgers and blogs at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I urge you to look at her latest post titled Syria: It’s Still a Revolution, My Friends that is addressed to the kind of people who are organizing the London event:

Try to remember to have some compassion for a Syrian who might be in the vicinity, before you mouth off in the abstract on the issue; we face news every day of our friends and our relatives being killed and imprisoned. Take time to get to know about a few of them, the Syrian rev youth activists who started it all, in hundreds of towns across Syria, before you speak about Syria based on what happened in Iraq or Lebanon or Country X.

Razan Ghazzawi Skyped in from rural Syria, where she lives in a liberated and very traditional village where she is accepted on her own terms as an unveiled and single woman. In 2011 she began blogging in support of the mass movement against the Baathists, for which she was arrested. The charge? Spreading false information and weakening national sentiment. It continues to amaze me how people like John Rees and Tariq Ali can get worked up over what happens to Edward Snowden or a Julian Assange but remain utterly indifferent if not hostile to someone like Ghazzawi. She blogs at http://razanghazzawi.org/. Bookmark it!

The second session was titled Myths and Realities of the Syrian Uprising that featured Sara Ajlyakin, Nader Atassi, and Budour Hassan.

Sara Ajlyakin is a member of the International Workers League in Brazil, a Morenoite group that has a good position on Syria. Unfortunately she spent far too much time in her talk offering a “Bolshevik” attack on the late Hugo Chavez who deserves blame for backing Bashar al-Assad. But her remarks were mostly about “betrayal” of the workers in Venezuela, a topic that really was off-topic. She is also quite strident, an understandable tendency given her training. From what I can gather, the Morenoites have a branch office in NYC that is working with the MENA Solidarity network. I hope that they are behaving themselves.

Nader Atassi is a Facebook friend who I met through Pham Binh. He is now working on the arts page for Jadaliyya and blogs at Darth Nader (http://darthnader.net/). He gave a brilliant presentation on the problems of demonization and oversimplification that pervade the Baathist left. Instead of trying to recapitulate his analysis, I urge you to read his interview with Truthout titled Syrian Anarchist Challenges the Rebel/Regime Binary View of Resistance that once again makes anarchism look much more attractive when compared to the “Marxism” dispensed by John Rees.

Bodour Hassan spoke about the affinities between the Palestinian and Syrian struggle and challenged the opportunism of the Palestinian leaders who are aligned with the Baathists. She blogs in both Arabic and English at http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/ and I urge you to look at her article Portrait of a Revolution: The Journey of Faiek al-Meer that opens with the question:

“Where are the secular rebels?” wonders one apprehensive Western “leftist”, whose main task has become to emulate his Islamophobic counterpart on the right by counting the number of beards he sees in a YouTube video and the “Allahu Akbars” the fighters and demonstrators shout out.

The Faiek al-Meer in her title is a revolutionary whose career should give you some idea of the sort of people who are now risking their lives to oppose Bashar al-Assad, the bloodsoaked dictator beloved by Vogue Magazine and invited to meet Queen Elizabeth. What a contrast:

Al-Meer’s first arrest came in April 1979 when he was detained for a month by the military intelligence for distributing pamphlets. That brief stint in jail would prove to be only but a first step in a journey crammed with persecution and arrests. In March of 1983, al-Meer was fired from his job at the Euphrates Dam at the request of the political security branch due to his political activism. In 1987, he was indicted for participating in a banned party. The indictment forced him into hiding when his daughter Farah was only two months old. Al-Meer was eventually arrested in 1989 and was sentenced to ten years in jail for the crime of being a communist striving for democracy. He could not see his daughter until 1992 in Saidnaya prison; those rocky five years changed his complexion so much that Farah failed to recognise that he was her father.

How tragic that a John Rees or a Tariq Ali should be part of a conference designed implicitly to make the repression of people like al-Meer more effective.

The final session was titled Syria in the Context of the Arab Uprisings that featured Yasser Munif and Gilbert Achcar.

Yasser Munif teaches at Emerson College and was the butt of an Angry Arab spitball titled “leftists for Qatar and Saudi Arabia”. When Angry learned the identify of the “leftist” he slandered, he issued an apology. Maybe Angry would not get himself in trouble if he stopped writing bullshit about Syria. His talk was focused on the real revolution taking place in Syria that is invisible to much of the left and that this teach-in was designed to correct. Instead of recapitulating his remarks, I will direct you to the interview he did recently. One of the important points he makes is that the revolutionaries are fighting against two different counter-revolutions, one from the state and the other from the jihadists. When enemies of the Syrian revolution conflate the FSA with al-Qaeda, they do so in complete defiance of this reality:

The revolutionaries are actually fighting on two fronts. On the one hand there is the regime, on the other hand there is the Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda-created groups, the jihadists. And the jihadists are actually arresting, torturing, killing many activists — people who have been resisting since day one. Most of the Al-Qaeda-created groups are not really fighting the regime. They are staying in those northern parts. They are letting the Free Syrian Army and other factions to fight the regime and they come behind them and take over whatever liberated cities or villages there are. So they’re very vicious. As I said, they’re arresting activists. Anyone who criticizes them is arrested, tortured, sometimes killed. Right now they have more than 1,500 activists in their prisons.

I also strongly urge you to read Munif’s report on Manjib, a liberated city that he visited recently that encapsulates the challenges and the hopes of the new Syria.

Manbij is a poor and rural town of some 200,000 people in north eastern Syria. The city is half an hour’s drive from the border with Turkey and the vital Tishrin Dam. It sits in the agricultural hinterland of Aleppo with one of the largest mills in the region, grinding some 500 tonnes of flour a day. Control over Manbij is a strategic prize for the Syrian revolution.

The town was one of the first to free itself from the control of Bashar Assad’s regime. Its poverty, and economic marginalisation, became an advantage when the peaceful revolution turned into an armed uprising. Unlike other cities, the regime did not surround Manbij with military bases.

The story of the Syrian Revolution is written into the town’s tumultuous events that began before the outbreak of the Arab Spring. It is a story about the struggle to drive out Assad’s forces, to put in place effective popular control, and what has become a new struggle between the revolutionary forces and Al Qaeda affiliated Islamist organisations.

Finally, there is Gilbert Achcar who I had the very great pleasure to meet for the first time and to chat with. He made the case that the Syrian revolution was for real and that activists have to be prepared for a long struggle just like people on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa. That is why the formation of the MENA network is so auspicious.

Gilbert is speaking again tonight at 31 Washington Place, room 405 from 7 to 9pm. I plan to be there and suggest you come by as well.

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