Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 25, 2017

CUNY Struggle

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

In the two decades I spent working as a programmer at Columbia University, I used to read the Chronicle of Higher Education to keep up with trends in information technology but also consulted this trade publication for its coverage of issues relevant to my Marxist politics such as the “culture wars” on campus and more recently the status of adjunct professors. I had more than a passing interest in the latter since I have become familiar with their plight through my own close connection to someone who started out as an adjunct and now is a tenure-track professor.

Every time I hear about adjuncts getting shafted, I feel like getting my hands on a rocket launcher as that old Bruce Cockburn song goes. Can you imagine what it is like to spend 8 years getting a PhD and only to become what amounts to contingent labor with zero benefits? In 2013, an 83-year old adjunct professor named Margaret Mary Vojtko died of a heart attack. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette written by a United Steelworkers lawyer read like something Victor Hugo might have written:

Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, passed away at the age of 83. She died as the result of a massive heart attack she suffered two weeks before. As it turned out, I may have been the last person she talked to.

On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.

As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.

Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

My interest in the plight of adjuncts motivated me to attend a panel discussion at last weekend’s Historical Materialism conference titled “CUNY at the Crossroads: A Discussion of Campus Organizing”. It was truly an eye-opener.

Andy Battle, who is an adjunct at Hunter College, spoke first on “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Austerity’?” He put CUNY’s various problems, including its fiscal difficulties, into the context of a capitalist economy in decline. At one time NYC was a virtual Scandinavian type social democracy with subsidized or public housing (much of it upscale like the Ruppert-Yorkville Towers I live in), rent control, powerful trade unions and—most of all—a City University system that was not only on a par with elite private institutions but totally free.

All that changed as NYC’s tax base eroded and a series of presidents, including Democrats, abandoned New Deal principles in favor of neoliberalism. The crowning moment was when Gerald Ford told New York to “drop dead”.

Despite attempts to marginalize CUNY, it remains integral to the social and economic fabric of the city and is particularly attuned to the needs of the city’s working class, minorities (majorities perhaps?) and immigrants. Battle cited some highly revealing statistics. 77% of the 250,000 undergraduates were people of color, 36% were immigrants and 60% came from families in which the household income was less than $30,000.

Just as such working class people face ruling class attacks on the job and on the streets from the cops, so do they face cutbacks and rising tuition at CUNY. Ideally, the students and the professors, especially the adjuncts, should share a common class outlook. It is unfortunate that the CUNY union—the Professional Staff Congress—has not fought to unite these various sectors despite having union officials and tenured professor supporters writing papers on austerity and even giving talks at the HM conference.

Next was Erin Cully speaking on “Teaching in a Gig Economy”. Cully is a PhD student in the Graduate Center and teaches American History at Brooklyn College. Her focus was on the unwillingness and the inability of the PSC to fight for the rights of adjuncts. This is related to the class prejudices of tenured professors who denigrate adjuncts and who can’t see past their own narrow professional interests even though CUNY’s decline is a threat to their own well-being. In a very real sense, the PSC has evolved into a business union despite the radical backgrounds of some of the top officials and the union’s founders such as Stanley Aronowitz.

Her talk was a kind of prelude to the talk on “Challenging Business Unionism in the CUNY System” given by Jarrod Shanahan, who is a PhD student and part-time instructor like Erin Cully. Like her and Andy Battle, he is a member of the CUNY Struggle caucus that ran against the New Caucus in the recent PSC election. The New Caucus has been entrenched in the PSC for a long time and functions like any business union officialdom. While the CUNY professors are better off with a union than without one, it has failed to act as unions did in the 1930s when they were a social movement.

I was startled to learn that the left was divided over the PSC election that takes place in 3 days. ISO’ers and others on the left formed a caucus called the New Caucus and Fusion Independents (NCFI) that tried to straddle the fence between the New Caucus and CUNY Struggle. Penny Lewis, a NCFI candidate and author of “Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory”, wrote about why NCFI was competing for votes with CUNY Struggle. Apparently, NCFI had more “accomplishments”:

Where we’re different from CUNY Struggle is that we are successfully accomplishing what we stand for. We’ve been pursuing an effective strategy of rank-and-file engagement both within the chapter and in joint action with other chapters and groups in the union that has been making a real difference: starting the chapter here, bringing GAs [Graduate Assistants] into it, creating real alliances across titles and chapters who share our vision.

I thought that Andy Battle did the right thing by emphasizing the class differences between CUNY Struggle and NCFI:

Another difference between the two slates is reflected in their endorsements. It is telling that those who have formally endorsed the CUNY Struggle caucus—including Sonam Singh, a key player in the recently-concluded Barnard struggle that won $10,000 a course for adjuncts—are connected to the grassroots and identified with the most contemporary trends in fighting for academic workers, whereas those who endorse NCFI are professors perched at the absolute highest tier of academic labor at CUNY, who make between eight and ten times what I do as an adjunct, and as far as I can tell are uninvolved in union politics or the academic labor movement at large in any sense beyond the rhetorical. This says a lot about the priorities of the respective caucuses.

You can get an idea of who supports NCFI from the endorsement of Frances Fox Piven, who has given 10,000 talks about the need for militant working class struggles but not when it comes to the PSC.

People like Frances Fox Piven and Stanley Aronowitz are just too materially detached from the lives of adjuncts to relate to them politically. Aronowitz, who like Piven fancies himself as a tribune of the working class, wrote an article for Social Text in the Summer of 1997 that would give you an idea of the class differences between him and the people of CUNY Struggle. Titled “The Last Good Job in America”, it detailed the cushy existence that Aronowitz (a former steelworker) enjoyed as a full professor:

It’s Wednesday, one of my writing days. Today, I’m writing this piece for which George Yudice and Andrew Ross have been nudging me for a couple of days. Our daughter, Nona, will return home about 3 P.M. and it’s my turn to get her off for her after-school music class and prepare dinner. As it turned out, she brought a friend home so I have a little extension on my writing time. I couldn’t begin working on the piece yesterday because I go to CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center on Tuesdays. Even so, after making her breakfast and sending Nona of to school every other day, reading the Times and selected articles from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and checking my e-mail, I usually spend the morning editing my Monday writing. But yesterday our Nona was home with a stomach bug and because Ellen, her mother, had umpteen student advisements at NYU, it fell to me to make her tea, minister the puking, get some videotapes, and commiserate. Anyway, Monday morning after my usual reading routine, I finished an op-ed for The Nation on the future of the Left. Otherwise, I would have started this article a day earlier.

What do they call this? The aristocracy of labor?

Although I try to keep up with political divisions on the left, including those that impinge on the PSC election, I had hardly any clue that it was having major ramifications such as those between CUNY Struggle and the New Caucus, with NCFI functioning as a divisive centrist bloc . Jarrod Shanahan spoke about how polarized the divisions had become with PSC President Barbara Bowen using Jacobin as a platform for the New Caucus. No big surprise there.

I invite you to visit the CUNY Struggle website and particularly see the statement “Toward a Renewed CUNY Movement” that encapsulates the spirit of the IWW and the CIO of the 1930s. If there was ever a need for a renewed trade union movement, this is a good place to start:

A CUNY movement capable of fighting back cannot be built on the basis of subordinating one group’s demands to those of another, or telling the most exploited members of the community to just wait their turn, as the PSC has done with adjuncts and students. Instead, we must be honest about what divides us and what unites us as a means of building a concrete collective power, not just empty statements of solidarity. We must ask ourselves hard questions about how and why it came to be that imposing austerity on CUNY is like taking candy from a baby for free-marketeers like our governor, who will slash public spending wherever it is easiest, and for our Board of Trustees, who are accountable to nobody so long as they do not fear a CUNY movement that could oust them altogether. We must ask why so many PSC members we talk to see no reason to authorize or support a strike believing it will have no bearing on their material situation. And we must ask why there is not broader support in NYC for a university system on which so many New Yorkers have relied for education and employment. And we must also ask why there is not more meaningful, material solidarity with other public sector employees, or other public educators waging similar battles. To the point, we must inquire, in theory and practice, how can we reverse this tide, and put ourselves in a position to not simply wage defensive campaigns in isolation, but go on the offensive for free public education and secure well-paying jobs for all in the CUNY system.


April 24, 2017

Tony Wood on Russia

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Tony Wood

This weekend I went to the Historical Materialism conference in NY held at NYU that is basically an academic conference with presentations by graduate students and professors. Unlike the Left Forum that meets in early June, you won’t find any 9/11 Truther or Assadist panel discussions. That’s the upside. The downside is that you are likely to hear someone read a jargon-filled paper on their brand-new interpretation of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony for 15 to 20 minutes until your eyelids feel like they have been tied to anvils.

I went to hear Lars Lih and Eric Blanc defend Stalin and Kamenev as closer to Lenin on theorizing the Bolshevik revolution than Trotsky but was far more interested in hearing what Todd Chretien had to say in response. Todd was very good but far too civil. I would have thrown a pie in Lih’s face myself.

I only wish I had been able to hear George Ciccariello-Maher speak at a “Roundtable on Training Political Cadre: Historical Lessons and Currents [sic] Methods”. His insights on turning over garbage bins as a currents methods to stop fascism must have really wowed all the sociology students.

Instead of running down every panel discussion I attended, I want to touch on a couple of high points in this post and a follow-up tomorrow. The first today will recap Tony Wood’s presentation on Putin’s Russia that was included in a panel titled “Critical Geopolitics Today” and the one tomorrow will be about how CUNY adjuncts are pressing for their demands in the Professional Staff Congress (PSC).

I am not sure about Wood’s background but right now he is working on a PhD in Latin American History at NYU, which might explain how he ended up speaking at the conference. Wood is best known as a Russia specialist and has been around for a while. Since he would likely be close to 50 after getting a PhD in Latin American History and qualified at that point for getting a position as an adjunct like the people I will be talking about tomorrow, I am not sure why he is bothering. But good luck to him anyhow since he is fucking brilliant.

If you want to know how I became a CIA agent pushing for regime change in Syria, you can blame it all on Wood. You have to understand that during the war in Kosovo, I opposed the KLA that I considered a tool of NATO in the same way that many people today regard the FSA in Syria. Someday I might revisit the debates I had with Michael Karadjis but as is the case today with respect to Syria, I would have opposed NATO intervention back then whatever the merits of the KLA.

Not long after the Kosovans won their independence, Putin launched the second war on Chechnya. Most people on Marxmail used the same arguments they used about Kosovo that sounded a lot like mine, except they didn’t seem to notice that the Chechens not only had received no aid from the West but were likened to the American secessionists in our Civil War by President Clinton who said:

You say that there are some who say we should have been more openly critical. I think it depends upon your first premise; do you believe that Chechnya is a part of Russia or not? I would remind you that we once had a Civil War in our country in which we lost on a percapita basis far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the 20th century over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.

Clinton, I should add, did view Chechnya as part of Russia.

As Putin began the bombing campaign in Grozny that had all the criminal aspects of his blitzkrieg in East Aleppo, I began to become increasingly put off by the enthusiasm for Putin on Marxmail, including some who went further than Clinton. They likened Putin to Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, a position that I found just as psychotic as the Assadist crap I put up with every day, at least not on Marxmail.

As I began looking for alternative views on Chechnya, I stumbled across Tony Wood’s article in the November-December 2004 NLR that was presented in the name of the editorial board (too bad we never saw anything like that from Tariq Ali et al when it came to Syria.) Wood’s command of the facts and his logic persuaded me that Putin was a counter-revolutionary. Not only that, his methodology primed me to look critically at other struggles that defy the neo-Cold War thinking of people like Mike Whitney, Roger Annis and ten thousand other numbskulls. This excerpt should motivate you to read the entire article:

There can be no greater indictment of Putin’s rule than the present condition of Chechnya. Grozny’s population has been reduced to around 200,000—half its size in 1989—who now eke out an existence amid the moonscape of bomb craters and ruins their city has become. According to UNHCR figures, some 160,000 displaced Chechens remained within the warzone by 2002, while another 160,000 were living in refugee camps in Ingushetia. The latter figure has declined somewhat since—a Médecins Sans Frontières report of August 2004 estimated that around 50,000 Chechen refugees remained in Ingushetia—thanks to the Kremlin’s policy of closing down camps and prohibiting the construction of housing for refugees there. Those forced back to Chechnya live on the brink of starvation, moving from one bombed-out cellar to another, avoiding the routine terror of zachistki and the checkpoints manned by hooded soldiers, where women have to pay bribes of $10 to avoid their daughters being raped, and men aged 15–65 are taken away to ‘filtration camps’ or simply made to disappear. The Russian human rights organization Memorial, which covers only a third of Chechnya, reported that between January 2002 and August 2004, some 1,254 people were abducted by federal forces, of whom 757 are still missing.

Obviously the same game plan that Assad and Putin are using in Syria.

Wood’s talk on Saturday was mostly focused on demonstrating Russia’s weakness. Despite the obsession that many liberals have about Russia as a super-power, the reality is quite different. Except for its nuclear weapons, it is quite weak—especially economically. When it comes to per capita GDP, Russia now ($18,100) ranks lower than Greece ($23,600). This is not just a function of falling oil prices. 10 years ago the comparison was $9,753.30 to $28,899.90—an even greater gap.

In reviewing Russia’s place in the world, Wood asserted that the big change is Putin’s shift away from partnership with the West. Although we tend to think of Putin as the ultimate anti-Yeltsin, there were signs that he hoped to continue Yeltin’s foreign policy but with a greater emphasis on Russia’s rights. Wood startled me by mentioning Putin’s hope during the Clinton administration that Russia would be able to join NATO. This morning, I found a reference to this obscure passage of history fleshed out in a Michael Weiss article titled “When Donald Trump Was More Anti-NATO Than Vladimir Putin”.

“Even before being elected president,” Mikhail Zygar writes in his recent history of the Russian president’s longtime cabal, All the Kremlin’s Men, “Putin asked NATO Secretary General George Robertson at their first meeting, in February 2000, when Russia would be able to join the alliance.” Robertson was not prepared for the question and answered routinely that every country that wanted to join should apply according to the established procedure. “Putin was irked,” writes Zygar. “He was convinced that Russia should not have to wait in line like other countries; on the contrary, it should be invited to join.”

Unlike most on the left, Wood regards Putin’s intervention into Ukraine as a disaster. It has only resulted in sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Demographically, Russia is suffering as well. The population is receding and the percentage of older people increases each year. The only solution to this problem is opening the doors to immigration but that would mean from the Caucasian countries abutting Russia to the south, which is made impossible by the official Islamophobia today.

Much of Wood’s talk was reflected in an LRB article from March 2, 2017 titled “Eat Your Spinach” that is a review of new books on Russia and fortunately not behind a paywall. This excerpt will give you an idea of the weakness of the Russian state that no amount of military adventurism can overcome:

Part of the reason there has been no place for Russia inside the Euro-Atlantic order is that, despite its weakness in the post-Soviet period, it nonetheless remained too large to be absorbed comfortably – especially in a system that revolved around a single, superordinate power. The paradox of Russia’s recent resurgence is that, for all its refusals to fall into line with Washington’s priorities, it is still in no position to mount a frontal challenge to the West. In terms of military might, economic weight and ideological reach, Russia is no match for any of the larger NATO member states, let alone the whole alliance combined. The collapse of the planned economy sent all of the former USSR – already lagging behind the West on any number of indicators – into an economic depression that lasted a decade. In 1999, Putin said that it would take 15 years of rapid growth for Russia to draw level with Portugal’s current level of per capita GDP. It reached that milestone in 2011; but by then Portugal was further ahead, and even amid the deep recession sparked by the Eurozone crisis, its GDP per capita was still more than one and a half times that of Russia. In 2015 Russia devoted around a tenth as much money to its armed forces in absolute terms as the US did, and slightly more than the UK; in per capita terms, it spent somewhat less than Germany or Greece. All told, its 2015 military spending came to around 8 per cent of the total for NATO as a whole; the US accounted for almost 70 per cent of that total.

To be sure, Russia still has one of the largest armies in the world in terms of personnel, though many of them are teenage conscripts. But the 2008 war with Georgia among other things revealed how far behind Russia was in terms of technology and military organisation, prompting a major overhaul and upgrading of weapons; Syria has been the testing ground for some of these new-look forces. Yet what allows Moscow to pose a military threat to its neighbours is not so much the scale or strength of its armies as its readiness to use force in pursuit of its policy goals. This was what enabled it effectively to call NATO’s bluff by invading Georgia in 2008 – causing alarm in Central and Eastern European capitals about the solidity of the alliance’s security guarantees, especially the commitment to ‘collective defence’ in Article 5 of its charter. But the rapid resort to force is in itself an indication of the much cruder means at Russia’s disposal, a sign of its inability to secure the outcomes it wants either through diplomatic persuasion or through economic pressures or inducements. As Trenin observes, ‘the obvious asymmetry in power and status between Russia and the United States leads Moscow to elect the field which it finds more comfortable – military action.’


April 22, 2017

Counterpunch – Diana Johnstone – Defends Marine Le Pen Against “Racism” charge and Rallies to the Cause of National Sovereignty.

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:16 am

Tendance Coatesy

Johnstone: Cannot “reduce” Marine Le Pen’s anti-Immigrant stand to “racism”. 

Diana Johnstone is a columnist for the American left site, Counterpunch.

She has, to put it mildly, ‘form’ on French Politics saying that the Front National is “basically on the left”. And indeed on British Politics, where she warmed to UKIP’s views on European immigration (Diana Johnstone’s poisonous nativism) (1)

In her most recent contribution (21st of April)  to the favourite journal of ‘wise-guys’ who want the ‘low down’ on politics, this is her view on tomorrow’s French Presidential election.

The Main Issue in the French Presidential Election: National Sovereignty 

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April 21, 2017

Citizen Jane; The Activists

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

Counterpunch, April 21, 2017

Documentaries That Punch

As a rule of thumb, political documentaries work best when they have a hero and a villain just like in narrative films. One of the most memorable examples is Michael Moore squaring off against Roger Smith in “Roger and Me”. Granted, the richer and more entrenched in the Democratic Party Moore has become, the more the likability factor has worn off. But back in 1989 who could not love the shambling son of an auto worker trying to track down and confront the corporate boss responsible for shutting down the GM plant in Moore’s home-town and other rust belt cities?

You can see the same sort of human drama in “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” that opens on April 21 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and on VOD platforms. Citizen Jane is Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that was published in 1961 and was in its way as important as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” that was published a year later. If Carson’s book was a clarion call for preserving the integrity of the natural world, so was Jacobs’s book a call for preserving the integrity of the urban world, specifically New York City.

Jane Jacobs’s Roger Smith was Robert Moses, the “power broker” profiled in Robert Caro’s 1975 classic who was a symbol of the corporate-driven agenda of “urban renewal” that ran counter to Jacobs’s vision of urban spaces that grew organically from the bottom up, just like the flora and fauna of “Silent Spring”.

There were ties between Smith and Moses that might not be obvious at first glance but ultimately the “power broker” and the GM CEO shared a vision of American cities that privileged the automobile and saw the expressway connecting suburbs to the heart of the city as a kind of economic bloodstream that could make America great. Alfred Sloan, who was the CEO of GM in its early years, was deeply hostile to FDR and joined the American Liberty League, which was 1930s equivalent of the David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.

But as WWII broke out, GM’s new CEO William Knudsen became Secretary of Defense just as his successor Charles E. Wilson would become under Eisenhower. The internecine ties between GM, the national-security state and the post-WWII economic recovery helped crystallize a “golden age” that both Michael Moore and Donald Trump in their own way seek to resurrect: the Chevrolet and the suburban tract home as the divine right of workers.

Continue reading

April 19, 2017

The Lost City of Z

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

“Lost City of Z” is a biopic about Percival Fawcett, a British military cartographer who became obsessed with the notion that a highly advanced civilization existed in the Amazon on the scale of the great empires to the North–the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans. The film starts in 1906 when he is sent by his commanders to the Royal Geographical Society to get his marching orders for a map-making project. In a border dispute between Brazil and Bolivia over access to rubber trees, a third party would be tasked to define the exact borders between the two nations and Fawcett would lead that expedition.

Probably the best thing about the film is a stunning performance by Charlie Hunnam, a 37-year old British actor best known for his portrayal of a gangster biker in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”. When Brad Pitt decided not to play Fawcett, it opened the door to a much more qualified actor in every sense. Growing up in England, Hunnam embodies the stiff upper-lip demeanor of Captain Fawcett, an artillery officer and to the manor born. When he is being interviewed by the Royal Geographical Society’s top men, he is told that doing this job would redeem his family’s honor. His father had been a member of the society but died in shame as a squanderer of his family’s fortune.

Writer-director James Gray claims that class distinctions between Fawcett and the RGS’s establishment was paramount in his mind when he began developing the project. If so, he didn’t really succeed since Fawcett comes across just as Colonel Blimpish as all the rest of the men who were an integral part of the imperial mission of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Indeed, as Brian Hudson argued in “The New Geography and the New Imperialism 1870-1918” (Antipode, September 1977), exploring and mapmaking–the mission of the RGS–was at the heart of the late stage of capitalism examined by Hobson and Lenin:

In Britain officers of the armed forces, acting through the Royal Geographical Society, were amongst the most energetic champions of advanced geographical education The strength of military and naval influence in the society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is indicated by the fact that during that period normally between a third and a half of the thirty four council members were officers of the army and navy. Through the society these men helped to establish the teaching of geography in British universities. The Royal Geographical Society delegation to Oxford which made arrangements for the first British school of geography there, included representatives of both the army and navy. Holdich [RGS chief] himself, was amongst those who gave advice and assisted in the preliminary negotiations for the Oxford School of Geography which was established in 1899.

Gray also misses his target to some extent by overplaying the conflict between Fawcett and James Murray, an RGS fellow who accompanied him on an expedition to find the lost city in 1911. Murray, who oozes privilege from every pore, turned out to be ill-prepared for the grueling trek through the jungle, became seriously ill, and was sent home by Fawcett to save his life and allow the mission to plow ahead. Since Fawcett’s antagonists for the better part of 20 years were snakes, mosquitos, spiders, hunger, thirst, and hostile indigenous people rather than fellow Englishmen, Gray hoped to jazz up his screenplay with a subplot that does not mesh with the truly riveting central theme, namely the all-consuming drive to discover the lost city that Fawcett thought might have been covered in gold.

Gray makes no attempt to develop indigenous people of the rainforest as three-dimensional characters. Mostly they are stick figures to help advance the plot, often by drawing sharp contrasts between the Civilized and the Savage. In a key scene, as Fawcett and his crew are heading down a river, arrows and spears come raining down on them from a hostile tribe on the banks. He urges his not to use firearms against their attackers but to instead charm them by playing instruments they had brought along for entertainment and singing “Soldiers of the Queen”–almost like a snake-charmer and a cobra. This incident actually occurred on one of Fawcett’s expeditions as related by David Grann’s 2005 New Yorker magazine article titled “The Lost City of Z” that was expanded into a book and served as the foundation of Gray’s screenplay.

In order to understand why indigenous peoples were so hostile, one statistic might suffice. In 1540, there were about 100,000 native peoples living in the northeast region of Brazil. A hundred years later there were 9,000. Most had died because of a lack of immunity to European diseases just as was the case when another white explorer named Napoleon Chagnon came into their lives.

Unlike Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Percival Fawcett was a complex figure. Despite his colonizing mentality, he considered the indigenous peoples to be of superior ability, especially considering how they mastered their environment. Gray was faithful to Grann’s description of Fawcett’s contradictory attitudes toward the natives. From the New Yorker article:

As Fawcett completed his maps of the Amazon, he became fascinated by the tribes populating the region. Like many Victorians, he held views of indigenous Americans that were often blinded by racism. “There are three kinds of Indians,” he wrote. “The first are docile and miserable people. . . . The second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third a robust and fair people who must have a civilized origin.” He shared the widely held notion that any advanced civilization in South America, if it had ever existed, must have had a European origin—in Phoenicia, say, or even Atlantis. John Hemming, a distinguished historian of Brazilian Indians, has called Fawcett a “Nietzschean explorer” who spouted “eugenic gibberish.”

Yet some anthropologists have also found in Fawcett’s writings a sensibility that was more enlightened than that of many of his contemporaries. He was an outspoken opponent of the destruction of Indian culture through colonization. “My experience is that few of these savages are naturally ‘bad,’ unless contact with ‘savages’ from the outside world has made them so,” Fawcett wrote. He studied many Amazonian dialects, and immersed himself in the rich legends and artistic traditions of the local tribes. He was amazed by shards of delicate ancient pottery that he had seen along the mouth of the Amazon, and by mysterious raised mounds of earth that were scattered through the rain forest. And he read early histories of South America, which revealed that the first Spaniards who visited the Amazon had described “numerous and very large settlements” and “many roads and fine highways inland.” All this suggested to Fawcett that there had once been a large, complex civilization in the Amazon which had been decimated over the centuries. Moreover, he theorized, remnants of that civilization might have survived in areas that had remained isolated from Westerners.

The epilogue to “Lost City of Z” states that Fawcett was vindicated even if he never found his El Dorado. In a groundbreaking article in the March 2002 Atlantic Monthly titled “1491”, Charles Mann describes an Amazon rainforest that had as complex a society as those in Mexico or Peru even if they did not produce immense pyramids or any other institutions we associate with class society including a priesthood. Mann described Beni, a Bolivian province as large as Illinois and Indiana combined. Referring to Clark Erickson, a U. of Pennsylvania archaeologist and specialist in pre-Columbian native society, Mann describes a world that was revealed in part in “Lost City of Z” even if there were no massive stone edifices (the rainforest has plenty of vegetation but hardly any stone.)

The Beni is a case in point. In addition to building up the Beni mounds for houses and gardens, Erickson says, the Indians trapped fish in the seasonally flooded grassland. Indeed, he says, they fashioned dense zigzagging networks of earthen fish weirs between the causeways. To keep the habitat clear of unwanted trees and undergrowth, they regularly set huge areas on fire. Over the centuries the burning created an intricate ecosystem of fire-adapted plant species dependent on native pyrophilia.

In 1925 Fawcett led his last expedition to find the lost city of Z with his son Jack and a small well-equipped group. Deep in the forest, they came upon a group of natives who were not charmed by British military anthems or any other enticement. They were certainly killed and their remains were never found. This gives the story of Percival Fawcett an Amelia Earhart quality that leaves the audience wondering what happened exactly.

I thought Gray lost a big opportunity to depict a possible fatal encounter that might have grown out of the colonizing arrogance that was always close to the surface despite Fawcett’s admiration for the region’s indigenous peoples.

In 2010, an unnamed contributor to “Murder Everywhere”, a group blog made up of “ten renowned crime writers from different corners of the world”, wrote a piece titled “The Death of Percy Fawcett” that relied on the word of Orlando Villas-Bôas, Brazil’s leading expert on indigenous peoples and a Fawcett-like explorer (but without the arrogance) who David Gann relied on as well.

He states that Gann chose not to include an account given to Villas-Bôas by an elder of the Kalapalos tribe who have admitted killing Fawcett and his party:

Grann, however, does not relate, and perhaps never discovered, three additional precipitating incidents. And those incidents, for Orlando Villas-Bôas, were of more moment than sickness and/or the absence of gifts. According to Orlando:

–Jack Fawcett, Percy’s son, urinated in the river upstream of the village, upstream of where the Kalapalos drew their drinking water. It was an affront to the entire tribe to do so.

–One of the members of Fawcett’s expedition shot a small animal. They brought it into the village and hung it up by a cord to preserve the meat from insects and small scavengers. One of the Indians came along and tried to remove a piece of the meat. An expedition member pushed him away. Another affront. The Kalapalos share food. Not to do is unacceptable behavior.

–A small child approached the white men and started playing with their goods. They pushed the child away. The child came back and did it again. One of the white men, in the European custom of the time, struck the child. And that was the greatest affront of all. The Kalapalos never strike their children.

That final incident, according to Orlando, sealed the fate of Fawcett and his men. The Indians waited until the next morning, allowed the expedition to get some distance down the trail and then ambushed and killed them all.

That, of course, would have required Gray to unearth the Mr. Hyde aspect of Percival Fawcett that might have made him appear much more like Aguirre than would have been desirable for a film with a generally likable lead character.

My advice is to see the film and think about a possible ending. Despite its thematic flaws, “The Lost City of Z” will stimulate your thinking, plus it is one of the most cinematically arresting films I have seen since “The Revenant”.

April 17, 2017

Going Postol: how an MIT professor ended up in Bashar al-Assad’s camp

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

Theodore Postol

As I predicted in an April 5th article, Paul Antonopoulos’s “false flag” account of the Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas incident would serve as the shock troop assault on truth that would open up a breach for more reputable figures.

For example, blogging at the NY Review of Books, David Bromwich, a Yale professor with more awards than Glenlivet scotch, chastised the Western press for not considering the possibility that ISIS might have been the culprit since according to Reuters reporter Andrew Deutsch the group has been “using chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria.” If you take the trouble to read Deutch’s article, you will see that ISIS has indeed been using chemical weapons, including chlorine gas, but not sarin. In fact, if you Google “ISIS used sarin”, you will not find a single article making such a claim—not even from RT.com or Sputnik. Try the same thing with “al-Nusra used sarin” and you’ll come up with the same results. Even Infowars referred to “the less than incontrovertible proof the al-Nusra used sarin gas in Syria.”

None of that seems to matter to those like Antonopoulos who suggest that jihadis had been stockpiling sarin gas in Khan Sheikhoun. How do such devils who are willing to fly jets into the WTC manage to avoid using sarin gas except on their own supporters? Don’t expect answers from Paul Antonopoulos or David Bromwich.

Unlike David Bromwich, whose day job is analyzing sonnets, the 71-year old Theodore Postol is a specialist in weaponry, having both experience in the Pentagon and various universities writing scholarly articles, including some that helped to put a kibosh on Reagan’s Star Wars program.  Like Seymour Hersh and many other people carrying Assad’s water today, he has an illustrious past. That being said, he has no background writing about chemical weapons.

On April 14th, an article by Postol appeared on Truthdig, a publication generally not associated with making the case for Assad’s innocence. Naturally, it appeared as well on a host of conspiracist websites like Veterans Today and Global Research but it is cause for alarm when it ends up on Truthdig as well. This was the third offering by Postol on Khan Sheikhoun (the prior two are linked in his Truthdig article) and makes a big issue about the first responders not wearing protective clothing. Since sarin gas loses its toxicity rapidly and since the earliest responders were stricken after touching the victims, there’s not much else worth mentioning on this except that Antonopoulos and many other “false flag” propagandists have made the same point. And more alarmingly, you can interpret Postol’s article as pointing to the whole incident being staged like a movie, which is in line with everything that people like Max Blumenthal have been writing about the White Helmets.

If you turn to the first article in the series, you will note that it is written from the same angle as Postol’s articles from three years ago after the sarin gas attack on East Ghouta in August 2013. Then, as now, he tried to get Assad off the hook. Essentially, Postol hones in on the physical evidence of a crater in Khan Sheikhoun and concludes that whatever made it had to be “placed” on the ground rather than dropped from an Su-22 jet as most analysts conclude. This was the same tack he took on the East Ghouta sarin gas attack except that in that incident his central argument was that Assad’s artillery was out-of-range from East Ghouta and therefore could not be responsible for the attack that cost the lives of more than a thousand Syrian noncombatants.

Since it would help to test Postol’s latest hypotheses by reviewing his past efforts, I will start with the debate that took place between Postol and Hersh on one side and Elliot Higgins and Dan Kaszeta on the other. Much of the debate entails some rather arcane discussion of weaponry engineering and chemistry, so I will do my best to simplify matters in the interest of sustaining your attention. It is necessary to interrogate the political agenda of an MIT scientist whose pretensions to neutrality are as believable as climate change denialists. If it is important to be familiar with the science of climate change at least on a layperson’s level, it is just as important to be up to speed on the claims made about sarin gas by Assad’s supporters.

In 2013 and 2014, Postol was partnered with a weapons technology consultant named Richard Lloyd who was employed by Tesla Laboratories, Inc., a consulting company that had no connection to Elon Musk. Their names first surfaced in a study in early September written just weeks after the East Ghouta attack that had the incriminating photo just below even if it was posed as a question.

On January 14, 2014, they argued in a new report that Assad was in the clear since his troops were more than 2km (1.24 miles) from East Ghouta, putting the area beyond the range of his rocket launchers. They relied on American-government issued maps that supposedly supported their conclusions and claimed that the spent missiles found on the ground in East Ghouta could been “manufactured by anyone who has access to a machine shop with modest capabilities”. Could sarin gas be manufactured just as easily?

Since this was a question they apparently preferred to sidestep, it was left to Seymour Hersh to answer it for them in an LRB article titled “The Red Line and the Rat Line” that fingered Turkey as the supplier of sarin gas to al-Nusra. Had it ever been used? Hersh said yes, specifically on March 19, 2013 in the town of Khan Al-Assal that led to the death of 19 civilians and 1 Baathist soldier.

There’s a couple of problems with his reporting as is so often the case when it comes to Syria. To start with, the FSA was named as the perpetrator of the attack, not al-Nusra. Furthermore, Åke Sellström, the chief investigator of the UN/OPCW mission stated that it “was difficult to see” how the opposition could have weaponized sarin gas, and added that Assad had repeatedly denied that the rebels had gotten their hands on any of his chemical weapons. In the entire six years of the war in Syria, this is the only incident in which rebels have even been accused of using sarin gas against the Baathist military. If they had access to such weaponry, why haven’t they used it routinely?

According to Hersh, this was in their power since the sarin gas used in Khan Al-Assal was nothing but “kitchen sarin” made “very easily with a couple of inert chemicals”. He came up with this in a Democracy Now interview, allowing listeners to visualize it as if it was something that could be whipped up by a Food Network chef with a Cuisinart food processor and a microwave. While it was not as potent as the sarin gas cooked up by Assad’s professionals, it was toxic enough to kill 20 people in Khan Al-Assal—that is if you believe in “kitchen sarin”.

Elliot Higgins dealt with the 2km question in a number of articles, including a Business Insider item dated January 14, 2015. Using videos from Russia’s ANNA news service, he established that the Syrian military was within 2km on the day of the East Ghouta attack. To my knowledge, Postol has never responded to Higgins’s findings on the distance question. In terms of the sarin-laced missiles being “manufactured by anyone who has access to a machine shop with modest capabilities”, this could only mean that rebels went through the trouble to create facsimiles of the Volcano rockets whose remains were strewn across the streets of East Ghouta on the day of the attack.

They were identical to those that had been used in Adra just weeks before the East Ghouta attack but without the chemical warhead. To take Postol and Lloyd’s lawyerly defense of Assad seriously, you’d have to believe the following:

  1. The images found on ANNA were falsified (original copies of the video have been archived).
  2. Rebels took the trouble to manufacture rockets that were exact duplicates of those that Assad used routinely.
  3. Rebels staked out positions in the no-man’s land between East Ghouta and Damascus in order to fire sarin gas rockets at their family members, risking being seen by eyewitnesses in such a “false flag” operation and in sheer indifference to the loss of loved ones. (As they said during the Vietnam War, Orientals don’t cherish life the way we Westerners do.)
  4. Having such weapons in their armory, they have never used them up until August 2013 when they decided to kill over a thousand of their supporters just to provoke Obama into going to war.

On the question of “kitchen sarin”, we can thank weapons expert Dan Kaszeta for some clarity on this. In addition to Higgins’s analysis of Volcano rocket remnants at East Ghouta, he examined the physical evidence of hexamine, a substance that covered the earth after the sarin gas attack. In a report dated December 13, 2013, Kaszeta described the importance of hexamine in weaponizing sarin gas.

Binary Sarin weapon systems combine methylphosphonic difluoride, also known as DF, with isopropyl alcohol to form Sarin. The resulting mixture has a lot of residual acid in it, in the form of hydrogen fluoride (HF), which is highly destructive, possibly to the point of ruining the weapon system. The US Army’s cold war era Sarin  program used isopropylamine to reduce this excess HF. Several chemists and engineers knowledgeable in the matter have confirmed to me that hexamine is useful as a Sarin additive for the same reason. One hexamine molecule can bind to as many as four HF molecules. This would explain the declared Syrian stockpile of 80 tons of hexamine. Interestingly, the same stockpile contains 40 tons of isopropylamine as well.

I consider the presence of hexamine both in the field samples and in the official stockpile of the Syrian government to be very damning evidence of government culpability in the Ghouta attacks. 7 weeks of research on this subject reveal no public domain evidence of hexamine being used in this way in other Sarin programs. The likelihood of both a Syrian government research and development program AND a non-state actor both coming up with the same innovation seems negligible to me. It seems improbable that some other actor wanting to plant evidence would know to freely spread hexamine around the target areas.

The use of hexamine in this fashion is described as an “acid scavenger” by experts.

After preparing this report, Kaszeta was contacted out of the blue by Theodore Postol about hexamine. He wrote that he could find no reference to it in the technical literature having such a function, naming 9 articles. Kaszeta referred him to one article but more importantly reminded him that hexamine was found in the same location as the degraded by-products of sarin in East Ghouta. Additionally, the OPCW head Åke Sellström stated that it was included in the Syrian government’s formula by its own admission. Plus, why would Assad have surrendered 80 tons of the stuff after a deal had been worked out between Putin and Obama?

After several more exchanges, Postol informed Kaszeta that he has a heavy hitter on his side:

On the separate matter of the solubility of hexamine in isopropanol, we have finally gotten a solid scientific source. This technical information was provided to us with full scientific references by Syrian Sister, an organic chemist who we conferred with when we were unable to get this basic information from you.

As some of you may know, the Syrian Sister is one Maram Susli who is a long-time and notorious supporter of Bashar al-Assad. Her interviews with David Duke and Alex Jones have been too much even for a strong Assad supporter named Sukant Chandan, who she assailed for his leftist views obviously influenced by Maoism and Black nationalism.

Left wing individuals like Sukant Chandan who has lived his whole life as an immigrant in Europe would feel a lot better if I identified as “Arab” rather than the privileged “whites”. But where i come from it was the Arabs that were the slavers and the imperialists (apologies to my Arab friends but its history). They’re the ones who raided and took over our cities hundreds of years ago. They are the ones that enslaved the blacks of horn africa after taking over their cities and forcing the Arab language down on them. They are the ones who invaded Morocco and took white blonde Berber women of the sharmoot tribe as sex slaves.

Any surprise that this woman would feel at home doing interviews with David Duke? I think not. She even did one just a few days ago. Now none of this indicates that she is not qualified to offer opinions on hexamine. It seems that it was the late Richard Lloyd who first reached out to her on Twitter.

Why Lloyd looked her up is anybody’s guess but it was obvious that by May 2014, he had begun to move decisively into the Assadist camp based on his retweeting a Gareth Porter article with his usual excuses for the dictatorship. Once you start sniffing around websites featuring Gareth Porter, you are bound to run into Maram Susli before long.

Before long, Postol was turned on to PartisanGirl (as she is also known) and began “watching her” on Twitter, as he put it in an interview with conspiracy theorist and anti-Semite Ryan Dawson.

Kaszeta complained to Postol about him cc’ing Susli without his permission and reminded him that “that having discussions about nerve agent technology with unidentified Syrian nationals can cause me serious legal issues, particularly legal/regulatory matters and my various NDAs [nondisclosure agreements].”

The email exchanges between Kaszeta and Postol end at this point on Postol’s insistence even though Kaszeta promised him a thorough explanation of the use of hexamine in sarin gas production. I suspect that it would have been similar to the article he wrote on August 5, 2014 titled “Amines and Sarin – Hexamine, Isopropylamine, and the Rest…” that would be impossible for me to summarize since it is so technical. Suffice it to say that Postol found it convenient to ignore, just as he found Elliot Higgins’s articles on the geolocation of Assad’s military. Apparently the MIT professor enjoys picking fights even though he prefers to walk away from them when he is losing.

In addition, it would be useful to read what Jean Pascal Zanders had to say about hexamine. As  the Project Leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) from October 1996 until August 2003 and Director of the Geneva-based BioWeapons Prevention Project (BWPP) between April 2003 and May 2008, his credentials would appear to be impeccable. In an August 2014 blog article, he stated:

However, recent discussions with officials from some Western states who are involved in the analysis of Syria’s declarations indicate two other roles of hexamine, namely as catalyst and stabiliser. The catalyst function is probably closely tied to the acid scrubber role. In an e-mail exchange today, Ralf Trapp, a chemist and consultant to the OPCW, confirmed that hexamine increases the yield of the chemical reaction by pulling the equilibrium between the precursors and reaction product (sarin) in favour of the latter. As a result, the sarin concentration receives a significant boost, possibly up to 60%. This degree of purity is considerably higher than the yields achieved by Iraq in the 1980s.

As a stabiliser, hexamine probably allowed the Syrians to store freshly produced sarin for days, if not several weeks. This understanding is more compatible with views before the civil war that Syria’s CW served strategic deterrence. Munitions declared to the OPCW last autumn also seem to validate those views. Initiating the final reaction shortly before use, as was the case in Iraq, would have undermined this doctrinal role.

One also must wonder why Postol turned to Susli for advice on hexamine when MIT has a world-class chemistry department filled with experts, who we must assume know more about such matters than someone whose knowledge of Ebola is—in a word— laughable:

Turning now to Postol’s three articles on the Khan Sheikhoun incident, they hinge on the impossibility of the remains of a 122 mm pipe found in a crater being fired from the sky. It had to be “placed” on the ground. His proof of it being the handiwork of somebody on the ground is a bit confusing:

The explosive acted on the pipe as a blunt crushing mallet. It drove the pipe into the ground while at the same time creating the crater. Since the pipe was filled with sarin, which is an incompressible fluid, as the pipe was flattened the sarin acted on the walls and ends of the pipe causing a crack along the length of the pipe and also the failure of the cap on the back end. This mechanism of dispersal is essentially the same as hitting a toothpaste tube with a large mallet, which then results in the tube failing and the toothpaste being blown in many directions depending on the exact way the toothpaste skin ruptures.

If this is in fact the mechanism used to disperse the sarin, this indicates that the sarin tube was placed on the ground by individuals on the ground and not dropped from an airplane.

Maybe it is just me but I have trouble visualizing what Postol is describing. Was this 122 mm pipe like a big pipe bomb to which a fuse was attached? Did jihadi rebels who supposedly control the town light the fuse in full view of the villagers like at a July 4th picnic? What about the fact that the village was attacked by Su-22 jet bombers within minutes of people falling to the ground unable to breathe? Just a coincidence? Also, how does an weapons expert MIT professor, even if emeritus, manage to write so much about sarin gas attacks in Syria without ever writing a single word about the feasibility of any rebel groups manufacturing, storing and weaponizing it?

Damned if I know.


April 14, 2017


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,former Soviet Union — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

Corruption and Poverty in Bulgaria

Bykov has described his film as a treatment of the central dilemma facing his country: conscience versus survival. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York is a Bulgarian film titled “Glory” that is closely related to Bykov’s film thematically. Like Nima, Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a humble worker—a railway lineman who we first see setting his watch meticulously to a radio announcement before going off to work. This is important because linemen must be aware of the exact time to the second to avert oncoming trains.

After synchronizing his watch, Petkov meets up with his co-workers on the railroad tracks they are assigned to maintain. Walking a few dozen or so yards ahead of them, he stumbles across a most remarkable find: millions of dollars in Bulgarian currency strewn across the tracks—its origin unknown. Unlike the rest of his crew or most Bulgarians for that matter, Petkov thought the natural thing to do was contact the police.

His altruistic act turned him into an instant celebrity, something that the state railway corporation—the Bulgarian Amtrak in effect—decided to turn to its advantage. The head of its PR department is a woman named Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) who is the quintessential post-Communist hustler. Her main interest is to make an amalgam of this most unusual worker’s idealistic behavior with that of the crooked top executives she serves.

Continue reading

April 11, 2017

“Experts” coming to Bashar al-Assad’s rescue

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

On April 5th, I wrote an article just as the Assadists had begun circling the wagons over the sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun. The very first article written in Assad’s defense appeared in Information Clearing House establishing the “false flag” tone that would be repeated endlessly. I predicted that the relatively obscure author of this initial piece would be followed up by people with more authority.

Indeed, if you Google Syria and “false flag”, you will get 556,000 results—most of them linking to conspiracist outlets like 21st Century Wire, The Duran and Zero Hedge. As I have seen in propaganda offensives like these, you can count on such explicitly over-the-top, pro-Assad websites to act as the shock troops in a propaganda offensive, to be followed within months by Seymour Hersh articles in the LRB and other high-toned purveyors of mass murder apologetics.

As surely as night follows day, several high-profile “experts” have come forward to get Assad off the hook and as might be expected, their opinions are getting wide circulation in the Assadist propaganda network.

Patrick Lang

The first one I ran into was a former Defense Intelligence Agency Colonel named Patrick Lang whose “proof” of Assad’s innocence appeared on a blog titled Intel Today. Lang makes assertions without bothering to provide evidence. For example, he claims that there was no sarin gas attack, only the accidental release of toxic chemicals after a Russian jet bombed an al-Nusra arms depot. They included organic phosphates and chlorine that were spread by the wind, killing civilians. You must ask yourself how he knows that this was the case. Who told him that? A little birdie?

Using the mantle of authority, he winds up his spiel:

We know it was not sarin. How? Very simple. The so-called “first responders” handled the victims without gloves. If this had been sarin they would have died. Sarin on the skin will kill you. How do I know? I went through “Live Agent” training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.

This, of course, was the same claim made by Paul Antonopoulos in his Information Clearing House Article. How could it be sarin when first responders treated the victims without wearing protective clothing? In fact, the NY Times reported on first responders becoming ill in the early minutes following the attack but more critically sarin gas quickly loses its toxicity. I understand that Assadists agree with Donald Trump that the NY Times is a purveyor of “fake news” but surely the Center for Disease Control can be trusted: “Because it evaporates so quickly, sarin presents an immediate but short-lived threat.”

Lang’s conversion to the anti-imperialist cause is recent. Only 10 years ago, he was advocating a strike at Iran to end its nuclear program. He told the NY Times:

“You are talking about something in the neighborhood of a thousand strike sorties,” said Mr. Lang. “And it would take all kinds of stuff — air, cruise missiles, multiple restrikes — to make sure you’ve got it all.” Other former officials say fewer bombing runs would be needed.

When he isn’t writing Assadist propaganda, Lang writes fiction (I guess there’s not much difference) about the Civil War. Guess what. His hero is a confederate spy.

Lawrence Wilkerson

Moving right along, we meet Lawrence Wilkerson, another former government official who was Colin Powell’s chief aide during the war on Iraq. Wilkerson was interviewed by Abby Martin on Empire Files, a Telesur program that is in line with Venezuela’s tawdry support for the Assad dictatorship. This interview appeared on the Kremlin-supporting 21st Century Wire as vindicating Assad even though it was conducted in 2015. It has also appeared on Veterans Today, another Assadist outlet.

Oddly enough, Wilkerson describes himself both as a Republican and a firm supporter of Thomas Piketty’s ideas. The first 6 minutes of the interview consists of him reeling off the standard denunciations of US foreign policy and plutocracy that makes him sound like a Green Party candidate but afterwards goes off the rails wehen Martin asks him how he could have written Powell’s infamous WMD speech to the UN.

At 15:00 in the Youtube clip, he directly addresses claims against Assad for using sarin gas. He says that he spoke to everybody he knew in the “intelligence community” if they could confirm Assad had ever used chemical weapons and they all said no. You think maybe Patrick Lang was the first guy he phoned?

While he is speaking, a still image of a Global Research article headlined Syria UN Mission Report Confirms that “Opposition” Rebels Used Chemical Weapons against Civilians and Government Forces appears during Wilkerson’s voice-over. This article claims that the UN documented rebel use of sarin gas just before the East Ghouta attack, which supposedly proves that they used it in there as well but this is falsified by a December 2013 UN report: “However, in the absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody, the United Nations Mission could not establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site.” [emphasis added]

It never fails to amaze me that Assadists can advance such easily falsifiable claims. Do they think that everybody operates within their Islamophobic comfort zone?

Scott Ritter

Finally we come to the guy who would seem most trustworthy—Scott Ritter, whose claim to fame was debunking WMD hysteria in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The Huffington Post, a magazine generally free of conspiracy theorizing, allows Ritter to hold forth on Assad’s innocence in an article titled “Wag The Dog — How Al Qaeda Played Donald Trump And The American Media”.

Showing utter indifference to documenting his findings, Ritter states:

International investigations of these attacks produced mixed results, with some being attributed to the Syrian government (something the Syrian government vehemently denies), and the majority being attributed to anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

For a thorough dismantling of Ritter’s crude conspiracism, I recommend Stanley Heller’s New Politics article.

In journalism school, you supposedly learn that reporting involves answering: who, when, where, why and how. So “who” are the groups conducting international investigations? RT.com? Press TV? Abby Martin? Alex Jones? Paul Antonopoulos? Fuck if I know.

But I would recommend the Wikipedia article on chemical attacks in Syria. A chart indicates that most of them take place in rebel-controlled (or formerly rebel-controlled) areas like Idlib or Homs. The only ones taking place in government-controlled areas are in Jobar, the very locale the UN admits could not be verified.

Ritter offers up the Russian narrative, namely that the jihadists controlling the town were involved in making crude land-mines laced with a mixture of chlorine and white phosphorus that were used in Aleppo. I invite my readers to find a reference to such a weapon ever being used in Aleppo or anywhere else on the planet. Other than Mintpress, RT.com and Sputnik News of course.

Ritter takes aim at the White Helmets, who he claims exploited the sarin gas fatalities to depict Assad as a war criminal. When you are writing this sort of propaganda, smearing these first responders as al-Qaeda operatives is de rigueur.

Moving right along, he refers to townspeople reports of “pungent odors” at the time of the attack. Since sarin gas is odorless, this falsifies the claim that it was used. However, speaking of falsehoods, there is no reference anywhere to odors except in a Wikipedia article that cited a Syria Deeply article to that effect. Apparently, Ritter did not bother to check the Syria Deeply article since it makes zero references to odors. Wikipedia evidently screwed up and Ritter failed to notice that.

Doubling down on his false reporting, Ritter claims that White Helmet first responders also referred to a pungent odor. Good luck trying to find a reference to this anywhere.

Lang, Wilkerson and Ritter loom large on the Assadist “left” because this is a milieu that has little interest in or background in Marxism. For them, everything is a conspiracy. History does not take place because of the class struggle but because secret agents plot to make things happen. If you want to read an article that encapsulates the mindset of these three nitwits, just go to Infowars and you’ll see them beaten by their own game. How we ended up in 2017 with a left mired in conspiracy theories about Syria is up to future historians to unravel. All I can say is that anybody with a functioning brain must break with this shit for the sake of their sanity and for the sake of revolutionary change.


April 8, 2017

The Sarin gas attack in context

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

(A guest post by Amith Gupta.)

After the Syrian dictatorship fired chemical weapons at babies, villagers, and other people who were busy being completely innocent in Idlib last week, I began writing a much longer piece on what I think the role of people who are against imperialism should make of American involvement in that country.

But in the meantime, something else happened. Donald Trump ordered the launch of 60 cruise missiles at the Shayrat Airbase in Homs, ostensibly as a “response” to the killings of over 100 villagers by the Syrian regime. Before I even had the chance to think about it, virtually every antiwar activist I knew was ready to rush to the streets, treating this as an emergency, or even suggesting that this attack was in some way comparable to the US invasion of Iraq. Here is why I think they are wrong on multiple levels.

The Norm Against Chemical Weapons

First and foremost, we should be clear about what Donald Trump and the US regime are actually doing: they are continuing an already-existing campaign of bombing Syria, that has gone on since at least 2014. That bombing campaign has been driven primarily by drones, and has primarily targeted Syrian rebels and rebel-held areas, or ISIS. The strikes have killed numerous innocent people, including the dozens of innocent Muslims praying in a mosque in Aleppo when a single drone strike incinerated them on March 17th. So what changed last night?

There has been an existing norm of international relations since World War I, possibly going back before it, not to use chemical agents. Some argue it was an elitist norm, growing out of a gentlemen’s agreement between European rulers not to use poison, out of their fear of their own assassination. But whatever the reasoning, it took on new meaning after World War I, with the widespread use of mustard gas and the literal fumigation of millions of people. Nor was it limited to combat between the European powers. While Saddam Hussein is often remembered for his use of chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians, it was Winston Churchill who first dropped such weapons on people in Iraq in 1920.

The norm is in some ways comparable to the norm against the use of nuclear weapons. And for that reason, a number of third world states have historically refused to sign the Chemical Weapons ban: chemical weapons are a poor man’s (or poor country’s) nuke. They can be used for deterrence and they can be used by untrained, poorly equipped regimes to kill large numbers of innocents.

That is why, regardless of what one thinks of the weapons, there is a sudden spike in outrage when such weapons are used in the quarters of the strategic planning rooms of countries that normally do not care when innocents die in Syria or Iraq. Nonetheless, the fact that there is an elitist and Western-state-centric strategic norm against the weapons hardly legitimates the sheer depravity of their use. In the furtherance of maintaining this norm, Trump carried out a strike on a Syrian airbase as direct retaliation for the use of chemical weapons.

While Trump cites Obama’s “failure” to do the same thing in 2013, the truth is that previous US strikes have been rationalized on similar grounds. The most analogous strike that comes to mind is the campaign by Bill Clinton to bomb “suspected” chemical weapons production sites in Iraq in 1998. The attack, in my view, was unjustified and was not based on any actual concerns about chemical weapons. Indeed, the weapons inspection program at the time was compromised because it was sharing sensitive intelligence with the US government. Nonetheless, that was how it was rationalized. To the extent there is a comparison between what Trump has just done and US policy in Iraq, it would be that series of strikes.

And like that operation in 1998, it has little to do with “regime change”. At the time, neoconservative voices who had been pressuring Clinton (and Bush before him) to remove Saddam Hussein from power were treated as unhinged extremists. While Clinton may have made concessions to them, neither he nor George H.W. Bush before him did what they wanted: taking out Saddam Hussein.

In 2017, Donald Trump has staked out a similar position. He has rejected outright the possibility of regime change in Syria, with his aides explicitly telling the rest of the world to “accept the political reality” in Syria, a message that may have been interpreted by Assad as license to use chemical weapons, believing the United States would either not attempt to enforce the norm, or that the response to its use would not be significant, as in 1998 in Iraq. Assad, thusfar, has been correct: while Trump struck a military base and continues dangling other options, there is no indication that Donald Trump wants to unseat Bashar Al-Assad, or that the price the latter will pay for the message he sent to the rebels living in Idlib will be anything significant for him.

“Regime Change” and Empty Comparisons to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq

Let’s discuss how, if at all, this strike is comparable to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. That’s an easy one: it isn’t.

In 2002, a President — surrounded by neoconservative advisors who had come into his administration with Cold War-era delusions about the role of American military power — had spent two years discussing with his confidantes how he would take out Saddam Hussein. Emboldened by the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration cherry-picked and fabricated evidence, some extracted from torture, to argue that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to the United States, Israel, and the rest of the world.

He and his neocon lawyers manipulatively interpreted the existing legal machinery from the first Gulf War, namely multiple UN Security Council resolutions, to justify sending 140,000 American soldiers into Iraq with the explicitly stated purpose of deposing Saddam Hussein. In doing so, he escalated American involvement from US sanctions, which had already killed hundreds of thousands of people, to an outright invasion.

Once Saddam Hussein was deposed, the soldiers occupied Iraq for a decade, leaving behind special forces and military bases, and continuing to supply their corrupt allies with millions of dollars in training and weapons aid. While occupying Iraq, US soldiers and private mercenaries protected and maintained a racist, ethnocratic, sectarian system closely resembling the one used by French colonial powers in Lebanon to keep the Iraqi body politic weak while foreign corporations raked in billions — not only from weapons contracts themselves, but by awarding themselves control over the rebuilding process of nearly everything in Iraq and billing themselves exorbitant prices from the Iraqi treasury.

And to maintain this purposely-broken system of foreign domination, the US military carried out a brutal campaign of counter-insurgency encompassing the exploitation of ethnic tensions, the use of white phosphorous bombs, mass expulsions, torture and rape, mass detentions, and other remnants of colonial-era rule.

Over 4 million people have been thusfar displaced from Iraq (it is hard to count because they have been displaced again, and again, and again); over one million people have been killed (so far); and the country is now split between the corrupt and inhuman Iranian-allied militiamen-turned-politicians that the US left in power and a revanchist Sunni extremist death cult known as ISIS. The former grew out of the sectarian system and the decisive blow to Sunni power in 2007 by Shi’ite-aligned militias, and the latter grew out of the systematic disenfranchisement of Sunnis along with a more extreme wing of Al Qaeda that had begun operating in some parts of Iraq only after the US invasion.

In sum, an otherwise functioning third-world dictatorship that was mostly stable was turned into a fractured country in which the norm is large-scale weekly massacres carried out by ethnic militias competing for power within a US-built sectarian state, where civil war and instability has essentially been institutionalized. Nearly 2 decades later, Iraqis are still applying to become refugees from the war, and they continue languishing in refugee camps in Iraq, in Jordan, and elsewhere throughout the region.

Trump’s strike on the Syrian airbase is not even remotely comparable.

As a preliminary distinction: He didn’t lie about the use of weapons of mass destruction. Bashar Al-Assad undeniably sprayed sarin gas at Syrians. The attempts to argue it was someone else strike me as a stomach-turning example of how far people will go to force reality to fit into a Manichean worldview. Virtually all weapons experts from all backgrounds, civilian and military, agreed that the symptoms exhibited by the children in the videos coming from Idlib were the symptoms of sarin. The alternative explanation given by apologists for Assad — that the weapons leaked out of a rebel weapons factory after it was bombed by the Syrian army — have been rejected by all of them, as they point out that sarin would not “leak” but simply burn up in such a scenario. In contrast, Saddam Hussein complied with weapons inspectors and had not used those weapons since the 1980s. There wasn’t any evidence that Saddam Hussein even had any such weapons.

Second: The US isn’t invading Syria. The comparison between a single airstrike and a 140,000-man army is absurd. Likewise, the US was already attacking Syria before this strike: using drones and special forces. Almost all of these strikes have hit rebel groups, signifying that to the extent that the US was already involved in Syria, it was effectively backing up the regime. So unlike the 2003 invasion, which was a dramatic escalation, the US bombing of the Syrian airbase isn’t even an escalation. It is the same level of involvement that the US already had, with the sole difference being that the target was the Syrian government rather than the Syrian government’s opponents — or, as is plenty common with US airstrikes, completely innocent people in Syria. Indeed, a Trump airstrike had struck a mosque in Aleppo only several weeks ago, in which 57 people died. There was no “emergency,” no angry statements, no reaffirmations of our opposition to imperialism. Generally, nobody really cared. They didn’t support it by any means, but the Left also did not rally around it.

So the suggestion that this is an escalation of any kind — let alone an outright invasion or even the precursor to an invasion — does not make any sense. If anything, it is simply a continuation of what the United States was already doing — firing bombs at Syria — with the slight change that instead of hitting worshippers in Aleppo, it hit regime storm troopers at a military base.

Of course, things can always change. Perhaps tonight Donald Trump will order sending 11 billion US soldiers into Syria, and while he is at it, maybe he’ll throw Hillary Clinton in jail. When that happens, call me.

Third, and most importantly: Syria isn’t an already stable country. When the US invaded Iraq, Iraq had an economy roughly the size of Greece — an impressive feat given the character of US sanctions and the war with Iran. Multiple ethnic groups in Iraq lived in relative peace, with Christians and Muslims celebrating each other’s holidays. Mixed-sect marriages and families were not only accepted, but common. The idea that one could be beaten or murdered in the streets of a major Iraqi city for religious/sectarian reasons, or the idea that entire families would be broken up and separated because married partners were from different sects, was so unheard of that the concern was laughed off by apologists for the Iraq invasion when it was brought up by critics in 2002/03.

All of that came crashing down with the US occupation and invasion of Iraq. Can that be said for US airstrikes on the Syrian military? Is it even remotely believable that the people of Syria, suffering on camera for 5 straight years, watching their friends and family die (or kill), disappear, drown, evaporate — that *this* is the point at which there is some sort of emergency for them? The reaction of sudden protests around the US strike on the airbase exposes a schism of disconnect between the actual suffering in Syria and the position of Western anti-war activists. Somehow, their sensors of what is or isn’t an emergency situation prompting statements, walkouts, protests, diplomatic intervention, and outrage, are not actually geared to what is happening in Syria. They are geared to what the US is doing to its dictatorship, its primary tormentor. So let’s talk about that.

The Role of Western Anti-War Activists

It is understandable that people on the Left in Western countries want to primarily focus their efforts on matters for which their own governments are directly responsible. That is laudable: We do not have meaningful control or effect on foreign governments, but we often have direct control over the role of our own, even if it is through something as simple as protesting. The purpose of all forms of activism, lest they be empty humanitarian posturing, are to be directed at those who govern.

And yet, the story that Western leftists have told themselves about Syria and their relationship to that country has not been consistent with this goal. According to the dominant western left narrative, Syrian opposition groups are “contras” that are co-opted or entirely controlled by the West, and the US is backing them as part of a campaign to overthrow the Syrian regime. Under these assumptions, one can see how strikes on the airbase fall into a much larger narrative that the Western left has constructed, in which at any time, the US is about to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad and unleash havoc on the people of Syria.

Of course, the narrative is flawed in numerous ways, the most obvious being that the US hardly needs to do more to unleash havoc (see point 3 in the previous section). But on top of this, to the extent that the US has backed various opposition groups, the support has been partial. Nor did it come with air support or NATO no fly zones. Indeed, even the one politician who had any real intention of imposing such a measure — Hillary Clinton — has backed off the idea. Moreover, the US aid to rebel groups has often come with the intention of splitting those rebel groups against each other — ensuring that none of them have a monopolized power over the rebellion while continuing to weaken ISIS and other jihadist groups that are undermining the US-manufactured ethnocracy in Iraq.

And most importantly, the existing campaign of airstrikes have been almost entirely aimed at the opposition and opposition-held areas, or ISIS. This is, objectively speaking, a manner of *supporting* the Assad regime. Even the introduction of US troops into Syria matches this policy objective of stabilizing Assad’s rule by attacking opposition groups — not the regime.

Some have interpreted our criticisms and drudging up these prior US airstrikes as an allegation of purity: “Why weren’t you out here protesting earlier!? Where have you been!? I’m clearly more principled than you!”

Not quite. The point is not that the US has been striking Syria for years, so there is no reason to get upset now. The point is that the Western Left has chosen exactly the wrong target for its “sympathy”. There is no way to deny the blatant nature of silence when the US struck rebel-held areas and killed hundreds of innocent people. While the Syrian regime continues to have the monopoly on murdering innocent Syrians, US airplanes have been responsible for thousands of innocent deaths in Syria as it is.

The point is that the Western Left did not see an “emergency” until one of those strikes intentionally hit the Syrian army. It is not a question of arriving late to the party. It is a question of which party the Western Left is arriving to. The idea that it constitutes some sort of “emergency” or even something warranting concern that the US has struck not civilians but a legitimate military target belonging to a regime that has gassed innocent people within the prior week sends a very strong message about who “counts” for our sympathy — and who doesn’t.

To give an analogy, many of us on the Left have mobilized around police brutality and state repression carried out by the FBI. But few took to the streets when the FBI killed a member of the right-wing extremist militia that had taken over a wildlife preserve in Oregon during a shoot-out. Likewise, most on the Left would likely mobilize against the NYPD’s policies of Stop-and-Frisk and the numerous police shootings that have taken place in New York. But how many would mobilize in a protest against the NYPD’s policy of deterring child abuse? That is, criticizing the US government is one thing; *why* we criticize it and *what things we mobilize around* are crucial and risk sending exactly the wrong message.

In the last month, no protests took place around the US campaign of drone strikes against Syrian villagers. The drone strikes almost gain greater criticism because of the Brave-New-World-character of the weapon in question, rather than the fact that they are being used to achieve the policy goal of stabilizing Syria by keeping Assad in power. Indeed, the drone wars are often just bunched together based on weapon type (drone) rather than where they are being used and for what purpose (such as in Syria, where they are used against the Opposition). And that is to the extent that there has been any attention to them at all.

In contrast, the mobilization around “US Intervention” against an airstrike retaliating for the use of chemical weapons, combined with the (relative) silence about the ongoing drone war against Syria, sends a fairly strong message about who or what constitutes a “red line” for the Western Left. The red line is not the deaths of Syrians, or even US intervention. It is US intervention targeting the regime, even if it is to maintain the norm against chemical weapons use. Within the 2 years of US war on Syria, why is *this* the point to emphasize? Why are we using the campaign against US intervention to carry water for the regime? Such bombings are, if anything, the silver lining of American overreach in the world. Like the fact that the FBI occassionally stops right-wing extremists, or the Police occasionally stop domestic abuse, or the fact that the NSA occassionally cracks down on a kiddy porn ring, they are an example in which the “bad guys” in power crack down on, well, another “bad guy”. This hardly warrants sympathy, let alone to be the banner of opposition to US involvement in Syria.

More importantly, the narrative around which this line is built ignores the actuality of US involvement in Syria — the actual policy that Western leftists should oppose. That policy has not been one of driving the opposition to overthrow Assad. Rather, that policy has been to use imperial hubris and fancy new air equipment to *prevent* the opposition from doing precisely that, knowing that US interests are better off in the hands of a known tyrant whose capacities are weakened than an unknown and unpredictable one that replaces him.

Indeed, the risks of Syrians overthrowing Assad are immense. What if the Syrian people decide to not only stop, but declassify all the evidence of Syrian regime collaboration with the US government’s international torture campaign? What if the Syrian people elect a government that actively risks liberating the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation? What if the Syrians set up a government that is interested in Arab unity rather than Ba’athism? What if they elect a regime that wants independence for the Kurdish minority? What if they begin spreading these dangerous ideas of democracy, unity, and anti-imperialism into Iraq, Iran, and Palestine? Such risks are those that the United States cannot afford. Hence, the United States must do whatever it can to control the opposition and ensure that a manageable tyrant who spends most of his time killing Syrians rather than Israeli soldiers stays in place, albeit too weak to scuttle regional policy initiatives.

And that is why an anti-interventionist, anti-imperialist movement in the United States should start, first and foremost, by questioning why the United States believes it has the authority to bomb the Syrian opposition and undermine their struggle. Such a movement should not be distracted when, on occassion, the United States needs to discipline its favorite bad option to prevent the use of chemical weapons.


Neo-Nazi leader hails Bashar al-Assad

Filed under: Fascism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:48 am

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