Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 11, 2017

Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass and the fake news from Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

Patrick Cockburn

When Patrick Cockburn sets himself up as a critic of “fake news” from Syria, you are reminded of Donald Trump castigating CNN or the New York Times. In a February 2nd LRB article titled “Who supplies the news? Patrick Cockburn on misreporting in Syria and Iraq”, you can expect the worst as the LRB has been a prime purveyor of Assadist propaganda as I pointed out in an article submitted to Critical Muslim that was not published because it risked violating Britain’s draconian libel laws. In the first paragraph of Cockburn’s article we read:

NBC news reported that more than forty civilians had been burned alive by government troops, vaguely sourcing the story to ‘the Arab media’. Another widely publicised story – it made headlines everywhere from the Daily Express to the New York Times – was that twenty women had committed suicide on the same morning to avoid being raped by the arriving soldiers, the source in this case being a well-known insurgent, Abdullah Othman, in a one-sentence quote given to the Daily Beast.

It would be helpful if Cockburn supplied the date for the NBC news article that appears to be the one cited by the regrettable Rania Khalek in her FAIR article making the same points as his. Anybody who has spent much time reading such people will recognize that the same talking points get circulated like a sexually transmitted disease. Her article “In Syria, Western Media Cheer Al Qaeda” written for the pro-Assad FAIR alluded to this:

NBC News (12/13/16) reported that “scores of civilians were burned alive by regime forces.” The source for this accusation was unspecified “reports from Arab media.”

If you go to the actual NBC News article, you will find this caveat:

Arab media reported that scores of civilians were burned alive by regime forces, although this was not confirmed by observers at the Aleppo Media Center or the U.K.-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights.

Do yourself a favor and Google “Aleppo Media Center” and you will discover that Khalek’s co-thinkers at 21st Century Wire, the Off-Guardian, Global Research and Moon of Alabama all consider it to be strictly al-Nusra. So, if you are inclined to put a minus where al-Nusra puts a plus, couldn’t you say that it was confirmed that scores of civilians were burned alive? After all, that’s the way these people think. As far as the Syria Observatory for Human Rights is concerned, this is supposedly another pro-jihadist outfit so you get the picture by now. If it didn’t pass muster with these two sources, why would Cockburn and Khalek even bother to refer to this unsubstantiated report? I think I know. It is meant to deflect attention from the much easier to verify reports about East Aleppo being bombed into oblivion.

In terms of the NY Times report on twenty women committing suicide to avoid being raped by the arriving soldiers, you must wonder once again why Cockburn did not bother to supply a link or even a date. I can’t blame him. If he did, you would find out that the item was not in the newspaper of record but in a blog post of something called Women in the World that has a rather tenuous connection to the Times. It is a LLC corporation founded in 2010 whose main purpose is to hold yearly conferences on women’s empowerment. The women who write for it are not on the NY Times payroll and do not speak in the paper’s name.

Cockburn obviously sought to convey the idea that this unsubstantiated tale of women killing themselves was written by a Times reporter to buttress his argument that there was a shit storm of “fake news” about East Aleppo. The only shit I see flying around is his own.

Cockburn admits that 85 civilians were executed by forces loyal to Assad but derides a comparison with real atrocities:

But it remains a gross exaggeration to compare the events in East Aleppo – as journalists and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic did in December – with the mass slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994 or more than 7000 in Srebrenica in 1995.

I am not sure who is going around making such a comparison but the facts speak for themselves. A half-million have been killed in Syria and more than half the country has been forced to flee their homes. If there is a more brutal regime in this century than Assad’s, I would be hard put to name it.

Cockburn does admit that East Aleppo has been the target of indiscriminate Russian and Syrian air strikes but tries to balance that devastation with the fact that there were between 8000 and 10,000 rebel fighters in East Aleppo. Sure, everybody knows that when terrorists are immersed in a civilian population, there is no reason to turn pacifist. The proper comparison is with the IDF that resorts to the same kind of aerial bombardment of Gaza to destroy Hamas, which had the temerity to hide out in apartment buildings. It would have been best for the fighters in East Aleppo to assemble in some open field far from East Aleppo and wave their jihadist flags so that the MIGs would have a much easier job of exterminating them without collateral damage.

He points out that when the residents of East Aleppo were offered a choice over where they would go after the Baathists took over, most decided to go to government controlled territory. This was proof in his eyes that they were afraid of the jihadists in rebel-controlled territory like Idlib that would behead them for smoking cigarettes and the like. How silly of some people to conclude that Idlib was avoided because it was being bombed back into the stone age as well. A few weeks ago, I got a FB message from a law student who had been driven out of East Aleppo and had relocated to Idlib—probably because he was a known enemy of the dictatorship (why else would he have sent me a FB friend request?) and would have been murdered by Assad’s goons in Damascus. Not long after he got there, he broke a leg fleeing from a Russian bombing attack rather than a jihadist intent on beheading him for a failure to follow sharia law.

Charles Glass

Turning to another high-toned purveyor of Assadist propaganda that was included in my Critical Muslim article, there’s the NY Review of Books that has had the reputation of being in line with Samantha Power who has written many “humanitarian intervention” articles for them over the years. When it comes to Syria, however, the friends of Obama who run the magazine were much more inclined to feature pro-Assad hacks like Charles Glass who has a piece in the latest issue titled “How Assad is Winning”.

Glass was a reporter for such outlets as ABC News, where he was the Mideast correspondent between 1983 and 1993, and Newsweek. So where does he get the balls to lecture about guerrilla warfare as if he were John Reed who rode with Pancho Villa? He pontificates:

In both cases, opposition fighters failed to shield people from the regime’s sieges and assaults as well as the misbehavior of their own “rogue elements.” Rather than wage a mobile guerrilla war and build a solid coalition within the population, they occupied land they could not hold.

Right, as if you could ward off MIGs with an AK-47 or an RPG. The only way that the people could have been shielded was if the CIA had not intervened to block MANPADs from entering Syria.

Glass’s fundamental premise in this article is that “The government, with its known record of harsh human rights abuses including torture, demonstrated more flexibility than its opponents.” By flexibility, he means that it could act as both soft cop and hard cop. If rebels and their civilian supporters accepted a “deal” (ie. surrender), they’d be spared; otherwise the barrel bombs would keep falling. You wonder how the liberal editors could read Glass’s manure and not see right through it. The soft cop and the hard cop were the same person. You keep dropping barrel bombs until the obstinate rebels cried uncle. It was the same strategy Reagan used against the Sandinistas, after all.

The remainder of the article is a report from what Glass is honest enough to describe as a “Potemkin Village” where the rebels and civilians who have cried uncle can be spared from future torment:

The camp, which the regime must regard as a “Potemkin village” to attract other rebels to accept amnesties, was achieving a kind of normality in an abnormal environment. The children attend school in Harjallah, and they receive remedial lessons in mathematics, Arabic, and English to make up for four years of lost education. “Fifteen women are giving birth,” Dib said. “There will be a wedding for five couples in two days.”

I left Dib’s office to walk through the camp. Four women sitting on the doorstep of a house invited me inside for coffee, as they would have done with a stranger in any Syrian village. My hostess was Ghousoum al-Ghazi, the thirty-three-year-old wife of a farmer whose two children followed us in. Her friend, fifty-four-year-old Ruweida Abdel Majid Naccache, came as well and asked me to sit on a cushion. The house had one bedroom, a bathroom, and a modest front room with a kitchen built into the far wall. Paper-thin mats marked “UNHCR” for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees covered the freshly washed floor. Mrs. al-Ghazi told me she had moved into the house on August 26, weeks before the final surrender, when civilians were fleeing Daraya. “We were very hungry,” she said. “There was fighting every day. The children were afraid at first. Then they got used to it.”

Mrs. Naccache recalled life in Daraya: “When there was an airplane, we fled to a shelter. It was just a hole in the ground. We stayed like that for five years. I was there when they besieged the town. I lost a lot of weight. There was no food. Here we are living in heaven.”

So this is how Assad is winning the war. You bomb, starve and terrorize an obdurate anti-Assad population until they agree to surrender their arms and move to a pacified refugee camp where they live like they are “in heaven”. (You can bet that an Assadist handler was watching over the interview to make sure that this is the sort of thing Glass would hear.)

Glass called it a Potemkin Village. There’s another word for them: strategic hamlets. The USA herded Vietnamese peasants into them to deprive the NLF of its base of support. Despite this, the American puppets lost in the long run in the same way that Assad will fall as well. No matter the “freshly washed floor” and the remedial lessons in mathematics. Syrians will never forget how they suffered under Assad. As long as the penalty for opposing the regime is torture or death, there will be an unquenchable desire for freedom by any means necessary. This is obviously something a reporter for ABC and Newsweek will never understand.

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.

July 23, 2012

Libya, Syria, and left Islamophobia

Filed under: Islamophobia,Libya,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Pepe Escobar’s inspiration

In his brilliant analysis of leftist hostility to the revolutions in Libya and Syria titled Blanket Thinkers, Robin Yassin-Kassab described the way that the Syrian rebels are viewed in those quarters:

They are also depicted as wild Muslims, bearded and hijabbed, who do not deserve democracy or rights because they are too backward to use them properly. Give them democracy and they’ll vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, and slaughter the Alawis and drive the Christians to Beirut.

Exactly.

This has been on my radar screen ever since the struggle against Qaddafi got off the ground, but Yassin-Kassab’s article persuaded me to investigate a bit further. Basically what seems to be taking place is a hatred for Islamism that is reminiscent of what we heard from Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman during the heights of the war in Iraq, but deployed on behalf of an “anti-imperialist” narrative.

Perhaps the most prominent exponent of left Islamophobia is Asia Times’s Pepe Escobar. In an article on Libya titled How al-Qaeda got to rule in Tripoli,  Abdelhakim Belhaj became an object of hate:

Abdelhakim Belhaj, aka Abu Abdallah al-Sadek, is a Libyan jihadi. Born in May 1966, he honed his skills with the mujahideen in the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

He’s the founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and its de facto emir – with Khaled Chrif and Sami Saadi as his deputies. After the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996, the LIFG kept two training camps in Afghanistan; one of them, 30 kilometers north of Kabul – run by Abu Yahya – was strictly for al-Qaeda-linked jihadis.

After 9/11, Belhaj moved to Pakistan and also to Iraq, where he befriended none other than ultra-nasty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – all this before al-Qaeda in Iraq pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and turbo-charged its gruesome practices.

(For what it is worth, Escobar’s article contains an ad for the Central Intelligence Agency. Talk about crowning ironies.)

Escobar adds that “In Iraq, Libyans happened to be the largest foreign Sunni jihadi contingent, only losing to the Saudis.” Well, how despicable, Libyans going to Iraq to fight against the American occupation. He also considers Belhaj a rather shifty sort, “not remotely interested in relinquishing control just to please NATO’s whims.” What an ingrate.

Not long after the overthrow of Qaddafi, left Islamophobes held up a magnifying glass to detect any evidence of Jihadist influence in the new Libya. Last November word went out that the al-Qaeda flag was flying over the Benghazi courthouse. Not surprisingly, this became a cause celebre for the rightwing but the vanguard of the “anti-imperialist” left got just as worked up. Voltairenet.org, a website devoted to 9/11 conspiracy-mongering and the defense of Qaddafi and al-Assad, alerted its readers through an article that included a graphic of the flag:

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the former Justice Minister of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya who became chairman of the National Transitional Council, announced the rebels’ intention to turn Libya  into an Islamic state and implement Sharia as the only law.

For some odd reason, the Libyan people were never clued in that they were about to willingly accept such a state of affairs. As it turned out, the vote for the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was a paltry 130,000 nationally, just 21.3%. Today’s Australian  explained the low total:

But another reason for the strong “liberal” turnout is the “blood” factor. “I am not giving my family’s votes to the MB. Two of my cousins died because of them,” Mohamed Abdul Hakim, a voter from Benghazi, told me. He agrees that Islam should be the source for legislation, and his wife wears a niqab. Nonetheless, he voted liberal: his cousins were killed in a confrontation in the 1990s, most likely between the Martyrs Movement (a small jihadist group operating in his neighborhood at the time) and Gaddafi’s forces.

But many average Libyans, including Hakim, do not distinguish between Islamist organisations and their histories. For them, all Islamists are “Ikhwan” (MB). The “stain” of direct involvement in armed action, coupled with fear of Taliban-like laws or a civil war like Algeria’s in the 1990’s harmed Islamists of all brands.

A third reason for the Islamists’ defeat had to do with their campaign rhetoric. “It is offensive to tell me that I have to vote for an Islamic party,” Jamila Marzouki, an Islamic studies graduate, told me. Marzouki voted liberal, despite believing that Islam should be the ultimate reference for Libyan laws. “In Libya, we are Muslims. They can’t take away my identity and claim that it’s only theirs.”

So much for Libya turning into a Taliban state.

Without skipping a beat, the dreadful Pepe Escobar now has Syria in his sights, using the same hackneyed analysis:

Syria, the new Libya

A Kalashnikov in Iraq, until recently, sold for US$100. Now it’s at least $1,000, and most probably $1,500 (those were the days when Sunnis joining the resistance in 2003 could buy a fake Kalashnikov made in Romenia [sic] for $20).

Destination of choice of the $1,500 Kalashnikov in 2012: Syria. Network: al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, also known as AQI. Recipients: infiltrated jihadis operating side-by-side with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Also shuttling between Syria and Iraq is car bombing and suicide bombing, as in two recent bombings in the suburbs of Damascus and the suicide bombing last Friday in Aleppo.

Who would have thought that what the House of Saud wants in Syria – an Islamist regime – is exactly what al-Qaeda wants in Syria?

Christopher Hitchens couldn’t have put it better.

For left Islamophobes, the idea of a secular, nationalistic and populist Syria serves as a kind of rallying point in the same way that “existing socialism” in the USSR once was for a gullible left, whether or not either proposition was true.

Syria Freedom Forever, an antidote to the stupidity found in Escobar’s columns, Global Research, MRZine, Voltairenet.com et al (Counterpunch fortunately never bought into this junk for the most part), had an article titled Understand the Syrian regime and the dialectics of the Syrian revolutionary process  that is most useful for separating the truth from bullshit.

It explains that al-Assad, just like Saddam Hussein, was not above catering to the needs of the Islamic clergy in the interests of wielding power Machiavelli-style:

The last important base of support for the Syrian regime is the high religious establishment of all sects, which has benefited the regime for the past twenty years and supported it since the beginning of the revolution. The Syrian regime and its security services established political and economic links with the religious establishment, especially from the Sunni community following the repression of the 1980s. The high religious establishments of all the sects have increasingly been presented by the regime as actors of the “Syrian civil society” in the past as soon as a foreign delegation would visit the country.

The State’s behavior these past years has been in total contradiction with the official picture of a secular country. A religious vocabulary appeared more often in political discourse, along with a massive increase in the building of religious sites from the eighties until now. These government measures were also accompanied by censorship of literary and artistic works, while promoting a religious literature filling more and more the shelves of libraries and Islamizing the field of higher education. This is true particularly in the humanities and expressed itself in the rather systematic referral to religious references of any scientific, social and cultural phenomenon. Around 10,000 mosques and hundreds of religious schools were built. More than 200 conferences headed by clerics were held in cultural centres of important towns during 2007.

Of course you wouldn’t know any of this if your reading material was limited to the Islamophobic left.

When you are dealing with a phobia, facts do little to change the mind of the stricken. No matter how many times you might have told Howard Hughes that washing one’s hands 2 or 3 times a day was sufficient, only 25 times would suffice. No matter how many times you tell the Islamophobic left that the purpose of the struggle in places like Libya and Syria is to get rid of an oppressive regime, it will not overcome the deep belief that the real purpose is to reestablish the Caliphate, sharia law and the cult of the suicide bomber.

Speaking for myself (and who else matters in the long run), this is what I think of when Islamic resistance to Bashar al-Assad is cited. I don’t find it threatening at all. In fact I am inspired by it:

July 26, 2017

The Forest Brothers and the holocaust

Filed under: Fascism,genocide,Stalinism,war — louisproyect @ 5:06 pm

For many on the left, the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—are the epitomes of Cold War villainy. Belonging to NATO, they are poised like daggers on the edge of Russia just as they were when it was the USSR. We are constantly being told that they were Adolf Hitler’s allies during WWII and that the CIA continued to back them during the Cold War as counter-revolutionary bastions. Like Ukraine and Poland, they have no redeeming qualities with some leftists probably considering the possibility that they are congenitally reactionary after the fashion of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”.

Needless to say, those on the left who are either unreconstructed Stalinists or are rapidly moving in that direction like Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton view their role as fighting the good fight against jihadists, Baltic fascists and anybody else who would deter Vladimir Putin from his mission of saving the world from Western imperialism. In a nutshell, they are to journalism what Oliver Stone’s interviews with Putin are to film.

Since there will obviously be a smaller market for their Pamela Geller-style articles denouncing the Wahhabi/Salafi/ISIS/al Qaeda threats to Enlightenment values now that Trump has backed Russian goals to the hilt and cut off all support to Syrian rebels, they will likely swerve in the direction of finding new enemies of the Kremlin to denounce.

Evidence of that is an Alternet Grayzone article by Norton titled In Flashy New Film, NATO Celebrates Nazi Collaborators Who Murdered Jews in the Holocaust that reads as if it were written for Sputnik or RT.com. It is aimed at an 8-minute documentary about the Forest Brothers produced by NATO.

The Forest Brothers were a guerrilla army made up of volunteers from all three Baltic states that fought against the Red Army and even alongside Nazi troops at times. The brunt of Norton’s article is to categorize them as murderers of Jews even though this charge is not based so much on what the guerrillas did but on supposedly the past history of “many” of its members. Citing Dovid Katz, an American professor based in Lithuania endorsed by Norton, you might wonder whether there was anything they could have done to be found innocent of these charges except to join forces with the Red Army:

Many of the members of the Forest Brothers “were fascists, including some recycled killers from the 1941 genocide phase of the Latvian Holocaust,” Katz explained. The group “served to delay the Soviet advance (in alliance with the United States, Great Britain and the Allies) that would liberate the death camps further west.”

Based on Norton’s time-tunnel, it is absolutely impossible to figure out why Baltic men and women would want to deter the Red Army since it destroyed Nazism, something that people like Oliver Stone remind us of every chance they get. Did Baltic youth read Mein Kampf in grade school? What made them so evil? Since for people like Stone and Norton, history begins at the point when the Forest Brothers took up their fight, you really have no idea what made them tick.

As I pointed out in my review of “The Fencer”, a Finnish film that reviews some of this history, Estonia was a piece of real estate ceded to Stalin as part of the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact as was Lithuania, Latvia and the eastern half of Poland. If you’ve learned from the history of Stalin’s rule—as Norton did before he prostituted himself—you’ll know that millions died in Ukraine and the USSR during the 1930s before a single Jew died in a Nazi concentration camp. Comparing Nazi Germany in the 1930s to Stalin’s Russia in the same period might have even led some people in the Baltic states to see Nazism as a lesser evil especially in light of Stalin’s brutal transformation of these nations into Soviet satellites in 1940. While not genocidal, it had the same character as his rape of the Ukraine. Indeed, in his “Why the Heavens did not Darken”, distinguished historian Arno Mayer described Nazi treatment of the Jews before the Wannsee conference as comparable to the treatment of Blacks in the Deep South.

As I pointed out in my review of “The Fencer”, Estonia lost 8,000 people in the year following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, victimized as “enemies of the people” in the Soviet occupation’s wide net. If this nation had the same population in 1940 as the USA today, that would have represented the loss of 2.4 million of its citizens.

What about Lithuania? On July 1, 1940 the country became a single-party state absorbed into the USSR. The 1,500 member Communist Party was the only one permitted to run in elections. Like Bashar al-Assad, they won a resounding victory. Prior to the election, 2,000 political activists were arrested. Another 12,000 individuals were imprisoned as “enemies of the people” soon afterwards. According to Wikipedia, “between June 14 and June 18, 1941, less than a week before the Nazi invasion, some 17,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia, where many perished due to inhumane living conditions”. Around this time, Lithuania had a population of 2.4 million. So once again using today’s population in the USA as a benchmark, this would have meant that the equivalent of 4.5 million people were victimized by Stalinist repression.

Not even Jews were spared. Eliyana Adler, an orthodox Jew who is Associate Professor in History and Jewish Studies at Penn State, wrote an article titled “Exile and Survival: Lithuanian Jewish Deportees in the Soviet Union” that began by describing Lithuania as having “established a unique and relatively tolerant relationship with what had been a fairly small Jewish community of about 150,000 people” in the intra-war period. Although Stalin was anti-Semitic, the main motivation for sending Lithuanian Jews to Siberia was their class origins. Adler writes:

On June 14, 1941, the Soviet security forces (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, hereafter NKVD) arrested about 30,000 Lithuanians, including 7,000 Jews, as ‘enemies of the people’. The action was well-planned. Two to three agents arrived at each home simultaneously, leaving no time for friends, neighbors, or relatives to contact and warn one another. Each family was given twenty minutes to pack their luggage and loaded into waiting trucks that brought them to the train station. They were then crammed into cattle cars, unable to say goodbyes, and with no knowledge of what awaited them.

What awaited them was what awaited most people who were exiled to Siberia and it took these Lithuanian Jews living in exile sixteen years to finally get the right to leave the USSR.

Latvia got the same treatment. Nearly 2 percent of the population was sent to Soviet gulags, including thousands of Jews.

Norton has the distinctly odd idea that none of this had any connection to anti-Communist armed struggles. He is so feckless as to make a stink about the Lithuanian organizers of collective farms being killed by anti-Soviet partisans. Is this guy for real? One imagines that at this point in his sorry career, he would endorse the forced collectivization of agriculture in both Ukraine and in Lithuania as the same way as Grover Furr or Roland Boer. In both cases, they were a total disaster. Farmers who resisted collectivization in Lithuania were deported to the USSR. Furthermore, as was the case in the USSR, agriculture suffered setbacks that it never fully recovered from.

Turning now to the question of Lithuania and the holocaust that is the main focus of Norton’s article, it is important to get the facts straight. The murders were carried out by a combined force of the Nazi Einsatzgruppe and Lithuanian auxiliaries who volunteered to be part of the killing machine. You can read Dina Porat’s account of all this in a chapter titled “The Holocaust in Lithuania: some unique aspects” that is included in David Cesarani’s “The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation” and can be read on Dovid Katz’s website.

The Lithuanian killers were organized as the Labour National Guard that was so extreme that even the Nazis sought to differentiate themselves from it. The Labour National Guard consisted of 8,400 men who also worked with the Lithuanian cops to systematically exterminate Jews in areas they policed. Porat cites a Nazi memorandum referring to how “the local population” was appalled by their bloodlust.

She speculates that a lot of the animus directed against the Jews had to do with widespread sympathies for the USSR:

One issue that lies outside the scope of this chapter concerns the explanations for the Lithuanians extreme conduct. In short, it was a combination of a complex of factors such as national traditions and values, religion (Orthodox Catholic, in this case), severe economic problems and tragically opposed political orientations. Lithuanian Jews supported the Soviet regime in Lithuania during 1940-1, being partly of socialist inclination, and in the full knowledge that life imprisonment [Soviet regime] is better than life sentence [Nazi rule], as in the Yiddish saying. By contrast, the Lithuanians fostered hopes of regaining, with German support, the national independence that the Soviets extinguished, as a reward for anti-Jewish and anti-Bolshevik stances. During the Soviet rule of Lithuania these feelings heightened and burst out following the German invasion. One might say that the Germans provided the framework and. the legitimation for the killing of Lithuania’s Jews„ while the national aspirations and the hatred for communism provided the fuel. Still, this is not a full explanation for such brutality, especially as there was no tradition of pogroms in Lithuania. Not all Lithuanians took part in the killings, and one cannot depict all of them as murderers. At least one thousand Lithuanians sheltered Jews, thereby risking their own and their lives. A few tens of thousands took active part in the mass murders while the rest were either apathetic or aggravated the misery of the Jews in lesser ways than actual killing. [emphasis added]

In my view, the blame for such inhumanity was WWII. You might as well ask what motivated well-meaning American citizens in uniform who under ordinary circumstances would not kill a fly to become enthusiastic participants in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Dresden, and other atrocities. Total war is an incubator of atrocities.

Finally, the origins of the Forest Brothers has to be addressed. They had no connection to the Labour National Guard although you can assume that some of its members joined the Forest Brothers at some point. It is, of course, impossible to pin down how many.

But the Forest Brothers in Lithuania emerged from a totally different dynamic. Its members were formerly part of the Territorial Defense Force who had disbanded with their weapons and uniforms and the Lithuanian Freedom Army, established in 1941. (Wikipedia). More importantly, the Forest Brothers did not take up arms against the Red Army until 1944, long after 95 percent of the Lithuanian Jews had been exterminated.

The Territorial Defense Force was hardly the sort of militia the Nazis considered trustworthy. In an article titled “Lithuanian Resistance To German Mobilization Attempts 1941-1944” written for a Lithuanian scholarly journal, Mečislovas Mackevičius describes the clash between Nazi goals and legitimate Lithuanian national aspirations [emphasis added]:

Since the brutality of the Germans was unpredictable, a special Lithuanian conference was convoked May 5, 1943 to ease the tensions. The Germans did not oppose the conference, especially since it was in favor of mobilizing against the eminent communist threat. The Red Army was gaining on the German Eastern front while the Eastern region of Lithuania was routinely harassed by communist partisans, supported and supplied from the Soviet Union. The Germans disagreed only with the conference’s references to Lithuanian independence. November 24, 1943, the first councilor (Pirmasis Tarėjas) convened a meeting of 45 select prominent Lithuanian figures. At the meeting, it was stated that a Lithuanian SS legion or any SS unit would be unacceptable in Lithuania as such groups are contrary to the Lithuanian spirit. Lithuanians can only accept and support a national armed force, the purpose of which would be Lithuanian national defense. The use of the term “Lithuanian Armed Forces” was completely unacceptable to the Germans. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that an SS legion would not be formed in Lithuania. Instead, simple armed Lithuanian forces would be established with the name Litauische Streitkrafte (Lithuanian Troops), acceptable to the Germans.

After long discussions and conferences, Gen. Povilas Plechavičius, Jackeln and SS Police Chief for Lithuania Maj. Gen. Harm signed a written agreement February 13,1944 for forming a local Lithuanian detachment (Lietuvos Vietinė Rinktinė).

The stipulations were as follows: Only Lithuanian officers would be in charge of the detachment, thereby preventing any German intervention. Such intervention was also specifically prohibited by the agreement. Lithuanian commands were to be formed all over the country, their work being limited to the territory of Lithuania proper. This ensured the detachment from assignment to foreign locations. Twenty battalions were planned with possible additions later. The soldiers would wear Lithuanian insignia on their uniforms. The detachment was to be formed only from volunteers. Additionally, the Germans agreed not to deport any more Lithuanians to forced labor as soon as the detachment was started.

February 16, 1944, Lithuanian Independence Day, Gen. Plechavičius, commander of the Lithuanian detachment, made a radio appeal to the nation for volunteers. It is noteworthy that all Lithuanian political underground organizations supported this solution. This was achieved through constant communication between Lithuanian commanders and resistance leaders. The February 16th appeal was enormously successful: More volunteers came forward than was expected. The Germans were very surprised and deeply shocked by the number of volunteers since their own appeals went unheeded, as described.

The Germans, worried by the success of the detachment, started to interfere, breaking the signed agreement. March 22, 1944, Jackein called for 70-80 thousand men for the German army as subsidiary assistants. Chief-of-Staff of the Northern Front Field Marshal Model pressed for 15 battalions of men to protect the German military airports. Plechavičius rejected the demand April 5, 1944. Renteln himself demanded workers for Germany proper. Other German officials also voiced their demands.

Finally, April 6, 1944, the Germans ordered Plechavičius to mobilize the country. Plechavičius responded that the mobilization could not take place until the formation of the detachment was complete. This greatly displeased the Germans since it was clear the detachment did not serve their immediate needs and interests.

The Germans decided to end the resistance of the Lithuanians and the formation of the detachment. Provocation seemed to be the best method to escalate the situation. Jackein demanded the detachment troops to take an oath to Hitler, the text of which was provided. Plechavičius rejected the demand. May 9, 1944, Jackein ordered the detachment units in Vilnius to revert to his direct authority. All other units of the detachment were to come under the command of the regional German commissars. Furthermore, the detachment was to don SS uniforms and use the “Heil Hitler” greeting.

The Lithuanian headquarters directed the detachment units in the field to obey only the orders of the Lithuanian detachment. It also ordered the Detachment Officer School in the city of Marijampolė to send the cadets home. May 15, Plechavičius, the commander of the detachment, and Col. Oskaras Urbonas, chief-of-staff of the detachment, were arrested together with the other staff members. They were deported to the Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia. Subsequently, 40 more officers of the detachment were arrested and deported.

The Germans acted ferociously in liquidating the detachment. For example, they publicly executed 12 randomly selected soldiers in a Vilnius line-up which consisted of some 800 men. En route to the city of Kaunas, while transporting some arrested members, one of the prisoners escaped. In retaliation, the Germans then selected non-commissioned officer Ruseckas for execution on the spot. Since the German regular army guards were stalling the execution, a German SS commissioned officer did the actual shooting.

The cities of Vilnius, Panevėžys, Marijampolė, and others were deeply affected by the dismantlement of the Lithuanian detachment. Any resistance resulted only in suffering and greater sacrifice: 3,500 were arrested. A part of those resisting were sent to forced labor camps in Germany. Some of the armed soldiers inevitably reached the forests and undoubtedly joined the newly formed armed Lithuanian underground to fight the second Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

These were kind of men who joined the Forest Brothers, not the cops and thugs who took part in the mass murder of Jews. In its attempt to turn the criminal into the victim and the victim into the criminal, the Russian state press is sweeping this history under the rug. Why someone who was educated in Marxist politics like Ben Norton would pick up a broom on their behalf is a mystery. That is, unless the pay is really, really good.

July 10, 2017

Risk

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:42 pm

On July 22nd, Showtime will be premiering Laurie Poitras’s “Risk”, a deeply flawed and controversial film about Julian Assange that he has described as a “severe threat” to his freedom. Despite Assange’s words, the best way to describe the film is as a study in ambivalence. As the director of a documentary on Edward Snowden (“Citizenfour”), Poitras and Glenn Greenwald made clear that their sympathies were with the whistle-blower. In making what amounted to a companion-piece to that film, Poitras adopted a cinéma vérité style that was punctuated by her own commentary in very small but highly critical doses. The problem is that her negative feelings toward Assange are not exactly supported by the footage, which cover familiar territory. Most importantly, you are left wondering whether she agreed with James Comey and the Hillary Clinton camp that Wikileaks acted as a “cutout” for the Russians who provided hacked emails from the candidate’s campaign that supposedly elected Donald J. Trump.

As highly useful background to the film, a June 29, 2017 Guardian article  hints at why this might have been the case:

While Poitras is no fan of Hillary Clinton, she does question the timing of the Podesta emails (John Podesta was chairman of Clinton’s election campaign), thought to have been hacked by the Russians and published by WikiLeaks in October/November 2016 just before the election.

But the major cause of her disaffection was the charges brought against Assange for sex crimes in Sweden. In one of the more disturbing scenes in the film where Assange was hung on his own petard, he is discussing a PR campaign to help his cause with a Labour Party politician named Helena Kennedy who warns him against referring to a “feminist conspiracy” for his own sake. He shrugs this off and alludes to a “tawdry, radical feminist” plot instigated by a woman who launched a lesbian nightclub. Like Bill Maher and Donald Trump, Assange seems to lack what Freud called the super-ego, a mechanism responsible for conscience. Or it could equally be the case that as Assange built up a cult around himself, he lost the capacity for self-criticism. Considering how the British SWP shot itself in the foot over a leading member’s Assange-like behavior, it appears to be a communicable disease.

Stupid enough to say these things on camera, Assange continued on his bumbling ways throughout. In one of the more grotesque scenes, we see Lady Gaga making a pilgrimage to the cult figure in the Ecuadorian Consulate where she seems a bit put off by his appearance in a suit and white shirt. Pointing to a closet with his piled up laundry, she says he should wear a “dirty, fucking T-shirt” so he’ll look like a rebel. She follows up with questions like “what’s your favorite kind of food”. It’s enough to inoculate you against Gaga, if her awful music wasn’t reason enough.

It seems that Assange has a preference for healthy food since another female sex symbol (erstwhile, admittedly) made another pilgrimage in December 2010 to bring him a vegan meal and words of support. That was Pamela Anderson, the 49-year old former star of “Baywatch” who condemned the “made up sexual allegations” against him.

Another sexual predator who has second billing to Assange in the film is one Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker who was a key lieutenant to Assange and a highly placed technician in the Tor Project that was designed to build a secure communications channel for activists. In June 2016, he was accused of sexual abuse by women working in the Tor Project. Like Assange, he has denied all the charges. Poitras mentions casually in passing that she had been “involved” with Appelbaum.

As might be expected, Assange still has his supporters, especially those who see him as a man on horseback in the geopolitical chess game that pits the West against Russia and its allies. Thomas S. Harrington, a professor of Iberian Studies in Trinity College in Connecticut, wrote a piece for CounterPunch titled “Risk”: a Sad Comedown for Laura Poitras that he described as “self-involved, reachingly [sic] melodramatic and filled with unfounded innuendo.” Harrington concludes that Gandhi was also a pretty awful guy in his own way but steers clear of assessing Assange politically. Since fools rush in where angels fear to tread, we might have expected WSWS.org to take up the fight against “Risk” on political grounds. They opine:

The various critics, wealthy and conservative, hardly make a secret of the fact they perceive Assange to be a disrupter of the social order and political system they hold dear. The most hostile of all are those remnants of the old protest generation, who still perhaps expressed opposition to the Iraq invasion in 2003. What they can never forgive Assange is that, for all his political limitations, he did not fold his tent, like they shamefully did in the mid-2000s, and join the pro-war, pro-imperialist camp.

Did I mention that they describe the sexual charges against Assange as “voiced by a noxious alliance of feminists, pseudo-leftists, establishment media figures, right-wing tabloid scum and various mouthpieces, acknowledged or unacknowledged, for the US State Department and CIA”? Well, at least they are consistent, having written profusely in defense of Roman Polanski when fled the USA to avoid arrest for having sex with a 13-year old girl.

Unlike Poitras, I have no problems with the Russians hacking Democratic Party emails and using Wikileaks as a cutout. If American politicians don’t want to be embarrassed by things they say privately, they’d better think about what they were saying in the first place.

The USA does this sort of thing on a scale that dwarfs Putin. It unleashed the Stuxnet worm on the Iranian computers used in atomic energy research that led to infections of computers in other countries as collateral damage. After the NSA developed malware to be used against its “enemies”, hackers got a copy and used it for a ransomware attack that infected computers used in critical care applications in hospitals around the world. This is not to speak of how it interferes in elections around the world, including Nicaragua when it was governed by the Sandinistas. The NED pumped millions of dollars into their opponents’ election campaigns without even bothering to cover it up. This takes the kind of brass that not even Putin would display.

Poitras’s documentary is very much worth seeing but it doesn’t begin to penetrate into the inner contradictions of Wikileaks that would have been present even if Assange had not been such a flaming asshole and sexual predator. A documentary should be made but not in the cinéma vérité style that suited Poitras’s someone subjective needs.

That documentary should cover matters such as how Wikileaks promoted a dump of hacked emails from Turkey that supposedly exposed wrongdoing by the ruling AKP. It turned out that no such information was present in the emails. Instead, as former Marxism list subscriber Zeynep Tukfeci pointed out, it contained “spreadsheets of private, sensitive information of what appears to be every female voter in 79 out of 81 provinces in Turkey, including their home addresses and other private information, sometimes including their cellphone numbers.”

It would also address Assange’s questionable personnel decisions such as designating Israel Shamir as its spokesman in Russia. Shamir is a disgusting pig who fits neatly into the emerging Red-Brown alliance being consolidated across Europe with generous support from the Kremlin. You have to ask yourself why Wikileaks would want to be associated with someone like Shamir who wrote an article on immigration and race that is filled with nativist trash like this: “In order to defend their policy of destroying society by influx of strangers, they invented and propagated a new blood libel, that of ‘racism’. People who resist the imposition of mass immigration are deemed ‘racists’ and precluded from participation in the scripted television discourse.”

Shamir urges immigrants to defer to the sensibilities of those whose turf they have penetrated: “Admittedly, I never tried to annoy the native inhabitants by playing loud foreign music, practicing strange customs in public, or purposely behaving in offensive ways.” When Shamir wrote a CounterPunch article 5 years ago supporting the Kremlin for cracking down on Pussy Riot for its “offensive” behavior, I answered him in my very first article on CounterPunch. As someone who first discovered himself culturally by reading William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, reading Shamir makes me wonder how such people can ever think of themselves as rebels. For me, the attitudes of people like Shamir remind me nothing more than the ignorant and racist garbage I heard from people in my very backward village that was accurately described once by Karl Marx as “rural idiocy”.

If you really want to understand Assange in political terms, the best place to look is not in the batshit crazy WSWS.org but in his first attempt to participate directly in electoral politics in the name of the Wikileaks Party that ran him for Senate in Australia in 2013. The party had a six-member executive committee that included Assange.

Another member was John Shipton who gave an interview to Sputnik News that sounded very much in line with Israel Shamir. When asked about Russia’s role in Syria, Shipton replied:

The Russian diplomatic skills are a triumph, and with the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, the BRICs last year in Far East and this year Syria and the Ukraine. There is diplomatic triumph second to none, and in our view the Russian President and Foreign Ministry people wish to bring peace to allow development.

But for me the biggest problem with Wikileaks is how it has fostered the growth of conspiracist thinking on the left ever since its inception in 2010. In November, 2006 Alexander Cockburn wrote an article titled “The 9/11 Conspiracists and the Decline of the American Left” that accurately sized up a malaise on the left attributable to the decline of Marxism:

These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatetic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.

What Cockburn neglected to mention, and what has been unfortunately reflected in CounterPunch all too often both under his editorial direction and Jeff St. Clair who succeeded him, is a reliance on the “smoking gun”, which is more often than not a Wikileaks cable from a US policy analyst or diplomat that supposedly proves that the Syrian revolution was hatched in Washington. You don’t need to learn political economy from Marx if you can find a cable that says something to the effect that Assad “has to go” or some such formulation. Also, how much difference is there between the “inside job” analysis on 9/11 and the “false flag” explanations of the two major sarin gas attacks in Syria? Is there that much difference between the WTC controlled demolition nonsense and Seymour Hersh blaming a bomb dropped on fertilizer for the death of 80 people and the wounding of 600 in Khan Sheikhoun?

Even a publishing house that is virtually synonymous with Marxist political economy eroded its own credentials by publishing a book like “The Wikileaks Files: The World According to US Empire” with an introduction by Assange himself. Verso sent me an advance copy of the book that I found totally useless for understanding the US Empire since I tend to prefer the sort of class analysis found in David Harvey or the late Peter Gowan, who was a veteran of a Trotskyist groupuscule when he joined the New Left Review editorial board just like Tariq Ali, who unfortunately has succumbed to conspiracy theory himself.

You can get a flavor of this book by reading professional liberal Robert Naiman’s chapter on Syria that was reproduced on Truth-out in 2015 as “WikiLeaks Reveals How the US Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria, Igniting a Bloodbath”.

Showing much less interest in class relations in Syria than in US State Department cables, Naiman cites one dated December 13, 2006 that was written by William Roebuck, the chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Damascus. Roebuck alluded to “actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send” that will bolster the opposition to Assad, including the Saudis providing media openings to Abdul Halim Khaddam, leader of the opposition-in-exile National Salvation Front.

This and other such Wikileaks material leads Naiman to conclude:

We are told in the West that the current efforts to topple the Syrian government by force were a reaction to the Syrian government’s repression of dissent in 2011, but now we know that “regime change” was the policy of the US and its allies five years earlier.

What’s missing from Naiman’s chronology is the period immediately preceding 2011, when American policy had reversed itself from Bush’s much more aggressive policies. If you look at the two years just before the Arab Spring, there is every indication that Syria had come in from the cold.

On March 26, 2009, Robert Worth wrote an article for the NY Times titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” that was about as far from the spirit of Roebuck’s cable as can be imagined.

Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Today, Syria seems to be coming in from the cold. A flurry of diplomatic openings with the West and Arab neighbors has raised hopes of a chastened and newly flexible Syrian leadership that could help stabilize the region. But Syria has its own priorities, and a series of upheavals here — including Israel’s recent war in Gaza — make it difficult to say where this new dialogue will lead.

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

At the root of these changes is Syria’s alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other major Sunni Arab nations once hoped to push Syria away from Iran through isolation, and now — like President Obama — they appear to be trying sweeter tactics. For the Syrians, the turnabout is proof that their ties with Iran are in fact useful, and accord them an indispensable role as a regional broker. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries “have great stakes in maintaining good relations between Syria and Iran, because at difficult times they will find Syria helping them,” said Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s vice minister of foreign affairs, during an interview here.

The picture accompanying the article speaks louder than a thousand words, including all of those that appeared in Naiman’s stupid article.

Finally, let me conclude with a nod to Chase Madar’s review of “Risk” that appeared in the London Times, which although behind a paywall can be read on Madar’s FB page. Madar is the author of the “The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower” and would never be confused politically with someone like me. Here is a telling excerpt:

Poitras has been filming Assange for more than six years, from his press conferences to his (elective) confinement in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, after Interpol put out a warrant to question him on sexual assault charges in Sweden. She has turned from in-house video­grapher to critical journalist who has fallen out with Assange (though as she tells it in her voiceover, he asks her not to say that they have fallen out). Poitras has now been attacked by Assange’s lawyers for not allowing their client to review the final cut and for putting him at additional risk by bringing the raw footage to the United States where it might be subpoenaed.

The main narrative arc is how Assange went from being an icon of the global Left to becoming – temporarily, and surreally – the saviour of the American Right. “I love WikiLeaks!”, candidate Donald J. Trump grinned at a campaign rally last October when reading from the emails that some hacker had stolen from the Democratic National Committee and passed on to the website. (Trump mentioned or quoted Wikileaks’s Clinton leaks some 160 times in the last month of his campaign.) Assange, once the scourge of the American nationalist Right for publishing classified logs from the Afghan and Iraq wars as well as a quarter of a million classified State Department cables, suddenly became, in eye-rubbingly oneiric scenes, the bosom ally of Fox News media figures such as Sean Hannity.

Assange’s flirtation with the American Right didn’t stop there. His Twitter feed passed on the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a paedophilia ring in the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria and he oxygenated rumours that Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee intern who was murdered in an apparent botched robbery, had been the source of the DNC leaks – and paid for it with his life. This was eagerly taken up and, despite explicit entreaties to stop spreading the rumour from Rich’s grieving family who had to fend off the vigilante “help” of conspiracy loons, the “story” continued. The story of Julian Assange is in some ways a depressing study in how quickly Enlightenment heroes can turn into conspiracy-freak sideshow acts.

October 22, 2016

Before the Flood; The Ivory Game

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,Film,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio

Two documentaries with the imprimatur of Leonardo DiCaprio can be seen in New York City and likely in theaters around the country given his clout as one of Hollywood’s superstars. Both of the documentaries are timely and excellent. They also raise questions about the role of tinseltown progressives. With DiCaprio, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Angela Jolie, John Cusack and others not so well known picking up where Jane Fonda left off years ago, it is a good time to consider their role in social change. Since there is a natural and even reasonable tendency on the left to regard such personalities as superficial phonies, a close look at DiCaprio’s trajectory would be useful.

“Before the Flood” opened yesterday at the Village East Cinema in New York and features DiCaprio in a kind of Michael Moore narrator/main character role. (The film will also be shown on the National Geographic channel on October 30th.) As the title implies, this is about climate change and certainly a follow-up to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that helped to draw attention to arguably the most important environmental question we face today even as Gore’s film failed to provide adequate answers. Whether DiCaprio’s film succeeds in answering them is open to question although it is undeniable that the average audience member will come out the theater with a much better idea of the problems we face.

The film is a kind of odyssey with DiCaprio meeting with people all across the planet who are on the front lines of climate change. Mostly he is content to allow people to speak freely even when they come close to denouncing him as part of the problem. When he meets with Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, he allows her to excoriate the West for demanding sharp cutbacks in fossil fuel usage across the board when her country and others like it are mired in poverty. After we see an Indian peasant turning cow dung into a patty that is used almost universally in the countryside as a primitive stove fuel, Narain remonstrates with DiCaprio:

Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future. We have 700m household using biomass to cook. If those households move to coal, there’ll be that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone tells you that the world’s poor should move to solar and why do they have to make the mistakes we have made…I hear this from American NGOs all the time. I’m like, wow. I mean, if it was that easy, I would really have liked the US to move to solar. But you haven’t. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.

There was nothing like this in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and as such makes this new film far more credible.

One of the things you will learn from “Before the Flood” is that Western Europe is making great strides in developing alternative energy sources. Not only that, so is China which is far Greener at least on climate change than the USA. To some extent, this is likely the result of China’s need to reduce air pollution from coal-burning plants even if it had nothing to do with the coastal flooding that can put cities under water everywhere, including China. Since protests against unclear air have roiled China, the Communist Party must have felt a need to defuse the situation. Furthermore, since lung cancer does not discriminate between rich and poor, the elite obviously would prefer to enjoy its wealth in good health.

If advances are being made in alternative energy sources, there continues to be profit-driven assaults on the world’s great rainforests that serve to absorb carbon dioxide and hence slow down climate change. One of the more shocking examples is the deliberately set forest fires in Borneo, a first step in clearing land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a key ingredient of junk food. When DiCaprio visits a shelter for orphaned orangutans, you really have to wonder what kind of mad world we are living in when a bag of Lays potato chips can fuel the extinction of such a gentle and intelligent beast.

There are three interviews that epitomize the shortcomings of a Green outlook that is not rooted in a critique of the capitalist system. DiCaprio gives Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw a platform to advocate for a carbon tax that he feels will reduce its use just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking. We assume that the inclusion of Mankiw, a life-long Republican who served in George W. Bush’s economic advisor, is meant to illustrate the possibility of uniting all sides of the political spectrum in a battle against extinction.

The carbon tax is based on the idea that markets can be the solution to climate change after the fashion of Obama’s cap-and-trade that provides incentives for reducing carbon emissions. But as long as the market system prevails, there will be enormous pressures to be cost-effective. This might entail allowing big corporations to offset the expense of a carbon tax by drilling in areas of the world where labor costs are minimal, like South Sudan for example. Indeed, even as China is converting to alternative energy sources within its borders, it is stepping up drilling in the South Sudan.

As it happens, Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax but this might have something to do with the fact that it would likely benefit more than its competitors from a carbon tax that favors cleaner-burning natural gas over coal. Guess what. ExxonMobil has the largest natural gas reserves of any U.S. company.

As another example of progress in the fight against climate change, DiCaprio talks to Elon Musk in his “gigafactory” in the Nevadan desert. Upon its completion in 2020, it will produce 500,000 electric vehicles per year and batteries/cells equal to 85 GWh/yr. Musk is also a proponent of the carbon tax as this exchange reveals:

Elon Musk: What would it take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy? What kind of throughput would you actually need? You need a hundred gigafactories.

Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?

Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…

Elon Musk: No, the whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!

Elon Musk: The whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That’s it?! That sounds manageable.

Elon Musk: If all the big companies do this then we can accelerate the transition and if governments can set the rules in favour of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly. But it’s really fundamental: unless they put a price on carbon…

Leonardo DiCaprio: …then we are never going to be able to make the transition in time, right?

Elon Musk: Only way to do that is through a carbon tax.

It is too bad that DiCaprio did not follow up with a question about lithium mining since this is the primary ingredient of the batteries he will be producing. I first became aware of its environmental impact in a film titled “Salero” that examined the life of a salt extractor in Bolivia whose way of life was threatened by the transformation of the salt flats into a huge lithium mine. Friends of the Earth details the possible outcome, which amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul:

Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. Holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface, leaving it to evaporate in ponds. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.

The salt flats where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities. The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, local communities claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used for humans, livestock and crop irrigation.

Finally, there is the interview with Barack Obama in which the chief executive worries about scarce resources becoming subject to competition between populations. This amounts to a national security issue according to the Pentagon. In a way, this has already taken place if you consider the possibility that the revolt in Syria was fueled to some extent by climate change. You can read about this in the December 17, 2015 Scientific American:

Kemal Ali ran a successful well-digging business for farmers in northern Syria for 30 years. He had everything he needed for the job: a heavy driver to pound pipe into the ground, a battered but reliable truck to carry his machinery, a willing crew of young men to do the grunt work. More than that, he had a sharp sense of where to dig, as well as trusted contacts in local government on whom he could count to look the other way if he bent the rules. Then things changed. In the winter of 2006–2007, the water table began sinking like never before.

Ali had a problem. “Before the drought I would have to dig 60 or 70 meters to find water,” he recalls. “Then I had to dig 100 to 200 meters. Then, when the drought hit very strongly, I had to dig 500 meters. The deepest I ever had to dig was 700 meters. The water kept dropping and dropping.” From that winter through 2010, Syria suffered its most devastating drought on record. Ali’s business disappeared. He tried to find work but could not. Social uprisings in the country began to escalate. He was almost killed by cross fire. Now Ali sits in a wheelchair at a camp for wounded and ill refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

If there is anything that casts doubt on the ability or willingness of American imperialism to preempt “national security” issues stemming from climate change, it is the situation in Syria that has deteriorated to hellish levels. The USA had zero interest in reducing conflict in the entire Middle East and North Africa, which to one extent or another is suffering from extreme weather conditions. Its general strategy is to support the status quo with one or another dictatorship keeping men such as Kemal Ali from getting out of hand. Oil will be sent from Saudi Arabia while men like al-Sisi and Assad keep the rabble in line. This is the shape of things to come in the 21st century and nothing will stop it except the revolutionary action of working people and farmers who have nothing to lose but their chains. This is a showdown that will force men and women in Leonardo DiCaprio’s social position to choose sides. I’d like to think on the basis of the convictions displayed in “Before the Flood” that he can be won to our side.

In the early moments of “Before the Flood”, DiCaprio recollects how as a young boy he began thinking about environmental questions. He became preoccupied with animal extinctions and wondered how they happened and how they could be prevented. Since we are part of the animal kingdom ourselves, we have an obvious interest in eliminating any environmental threats to our own existence.

Moving from those early musings to the current day, we see him in conversation with Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of “The Revenant”, a very fine film about one man’s struggle to reach civilization after being mauled in the wilderness by a grizzly bear. In a way, this was nature’s revenge since the man was a hunter who like thousands of others in the early 1800s helped to bring many creatures to the edge of extinction. We see director and actor looking in horror at a photograph of one of these hunters before a small mountain of pelts. DiCaprio shakes his head at this gruesome spectacle and asks why such men could not see the impact that they would have on nature.

That kind of irrational, cruel and ultimately self-destructive behavior is the subject of the documentary “The Ivory Game” that opens in theaters everywhere on November 4th as well as on Netflix. DiCaprio served as executive producer for the film that is directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson.

As the title implies, this is about the wholesale destruction of African elephants through poaching. The main market for their tusks is China, where the nouveau riche value artwork made of ivory. Like the rhinoceros tusks that end up in useless cures for a variety of ailments ranging from impotence to cancer, China is a primary cause of the enormous loss of living natural resources that cannot easily be replaced.

The film follows some of the men and women involved in eliminating the black market for ivory in both Africa and China. We meet the cops who are in pursuit of Shetani, a kingpin in the poaching business whose name is Swahili for Satan—appropriately enough. We also meet a young Chinese man who after being horrified as a boy by the slaughter of small animals in an outdoor market decided to take up their cause. He became an investigative journalist covering the ivory game as well as an undercover operative who secretly filmed the Chinese and Africans who take part in this sordid business.

As a further illustration of the insanity of the capitalist system, we learn that the men in the poaching trade and the shopkeepers in China who sell the handicrafts made of ivory want the elephant population to decline since that will drive up the price of their goods. Supply and demand, don’t you know? This becomes a vicious cycle that will eventually lead to their extinction.

As it happens, my earliest inklings into the conflict between capitalism and mother nature was a 1958 film titled “Roots of Heaven” directed by John Huston that I wrote about in July 2014:

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

So what do we make of Leonardo DiCaprio? To start with, it is good that he is involved with projects such as these. His name might help to fill seats in theaters that are outside the arthouse ghetto. It also helps that the two films have production values not ordinarily seen in documentaries.

Plus, the man puts his money on the line. He recently donated $1 million to an anti-poaching campaign. While he certainly can afford to make that kind of contribution, we can at least respect him for making it. I also invited you to visit his website where you can see other initiatives that he is funding. I am not sure if there is anybody doing more than him to protect wildlife and the ecosphere, at least in Hollywood.

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-4-01-09-pm

There were some autobiographical details in “Before the Flood” that I found interesting. It turns out that DiCaprio’s father was both a creator and marketer of underground comics and evidently part of the counter-culture. For some reason that only the father could explain, he put a poster of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” on his young child’s bedroom wall. DiCaprio became obsessed with the images, especially the one to the right that depicts hell. It is that image that evokes what our planet will look like unless the forces of destruction are not confronted and defeated.

Like most people in his milieu, DiCaprio is a Democrat as Wikipedia notes:

During the 2004 presidential election, DiCaprio campaigned and donated to John Kerry’s presidential bid. The FEC showed that DiCaprio gave $2,300 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the 2008 election, the maximum contribution an individual could give in that election cycle, and $5,000 to Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Well, the $5000 shelled out to Obama might have been wasted but the million dollars to save the elephants was much better spent.

On balance, we are better off with DiCaprio as a spokesman for causes we believe in rather than him standing on the sidelines doing cocaine and navel-gazing. In the final analysis, it is the working class and its allies that will transform the economic system that hastens climate change and the extinction of African elephants but we should be looking for all the help we can get in a monumental struggle upon which everything rests, including the survival of life on earth.

This is the speech he gave to the UN on April 22nd, 2016. I’d like to think he wrote it himself:

Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, for the honor to address this body once more. And thanks to the distinguished climate leaders assembled here today who are ready to take action.

President Abraham Lincoln was also thinking of bold action 150 years ago when he said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

He was speaking before the US Congress to confront the defining issue of his time – slavery.

Everyone knew it had to end but no one had the political will to stop it. Remarkably, his words ring as true today when applied to the defining crisis of our time – Climate Change.

As a UN Messenger of Peace, I have been travelling all over the world for the last two years documenting how this crisis is changing the natural balance of our planet. I have seen cities like Beijing choked by industrial pollution. Ancient Boreal forests in Canada that have been clear cut and rainforests in Indonesia that have been incinerated. In India I met farmers whose crops have literally been washed away by historic flooding. In America I have witnessed unprecedented droughts in California and sea level rise flooding the streets of Miami. In Greenland and in the Arctic I was astonished to see that ancient glaciers are rapidly disappearing well ahead of scientific predictions. All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me.

There is no doubt in the world’s scientific community that this a direct result of human activity and that the effects of climate change will become astronomically worse in the future.

I do not need to throw statistics at you. You know them better than I do, and more importantly, you know what will happen if this scourge is left unchecked. You know that climate change is happening faster than even the most pessimistic of scientists warned us decades ago. It has become a runaway freight train bringing with it an impending disaster for all living things.

Now think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we had the means of stopping this devastation, but simply lacked the political will to do so.

Yes, we have achieved the Paris Agreement. More countries have come together to sign this agreement today than for any other cause in the history of humankind – and that is a reason for hope – but unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough.

Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. An upheaval and massive change is required, now. One that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race, inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you.

We all know that reversing the course of climate change will not be easy, but the tools are in our hands – if we apply them before it is too late.

Renewable energy, clean fuels, and putting a price on carbon pollution are beginning to turn the tide. This transition is not only the right thing for our world, but it also makes clear economic sense, and is possible within our lifetime.

But it is now upon you to do what great leaders have always done: to lead, inspire, and empower as President Lincoln did in his time.

We can congratulate each other today, but it will mean nothing if you return to your countries and fail to push beyond the promises of this historic agreement. Now is the time for bold unprecedented action.

My friends, look at the delegates around you. It is time to ask each other – which side of history will you be on?

As a citizen of our planet who has witnessed so much on this journey I thank you for all you have done to lay the foundation of a solution to this crisis, but after 21 years of debates and conferences it is time to declare no more talk. No more excuses. No more ten-year studies. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that effect our future. This is the only body that can do what is needed. You, sitting in this very hall.

The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them.

Lincoln’s words still resonate to all of us here today:

“We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

That is our charge now – you are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it. Or we – and all living things we cherish – are history.

Thank you.

June 18, 2016

Putting Ben Norton under a microscope

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

When I visited the Verso office in Brooklyn for a panel discussion on Rosa Luxemburg last August, I ran into someone named Ben Norton who I knew vaguely as a critic of the crude “anti-imperialism” that had swept across the left like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We chatted briefly about our shared political values and his latest career move, which was joining Salon.com as a staff member. I thought this was a welcome addition to a magazine that featured Patrick L. Smith, one of the worst propagandists for the Assad dictatorship to be found anywhere.

I never would have expected that within six months Norton would end up in the Smith/Cockburn/Fisk camp writing articles reinforcing the dominant narrative on the left that the USA was bent on “regime change” and that the Syrian rebels were reactionary jihadists engaged in a proxy war launched by the West against its perceived enemies in the region.

I want to review his journalism since early 2016 as a way of showing how taking the wrong position on Syria inevitably leads to bending the truth, which for a serious-minded journalist is a cardinal sin. Writing for Salon, at least until it remains in business, might pay the rent but what good is that if you lose your soul in the process?

On January 18th, 2016 Norton advised Salon’s readers that “Sieges by Western enemies get big headlines, while larger U.S.-backed blockades are ignored”. It made the somewhat obvious point that the USA has a double standard but it is questionable whether Madaya got “big headlines”. As is the case with most instances of Baathist depravity, it hardly earns top billing in the NY Times or elsewhere.

What made Norton’s article fail the smell test was his allegation that if the Syrian army was besieging Madaya, so were the rebels besieging government-held cities like Idlib: “Before capturing the city, extremist Syrian militants had imposed a siege on Idlib for two years.”

So the rebels were starving the citizens of Idlib into submission? I was curious to get the facts on that so I checked his link to find out more. The very first sentence in the linked article demonstrated that Norton had set up a false equivalence: “A Syrian government garrison at Abu al-Duhur airbase has been overrun by fighters from Al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra front affiliate after a two-year siege.” Why would Norton consider the siege of an airbase to be on the same level as starving out the people of Madaya who made the mistake of rebelling against Assad especially when they and other people had to endure years of MIG attacks originating from places like Abu al-Duhur?

In Syria you are dealing with asymmetric warfare and Norton decides to drop the first letter of asymmetric? What a sleazy trick he must have learned as an apprentice to Patrick L. Smith who recently described reports of barrel bomb attacks as unfounded.

From that point on, I decided to monitor Norton’s journalism on Syria just as I do with Smith, Hersh, Cockburn, Fisk, Whitney, Escobar, Draitser and a score of other scoundrels. It is dirty work but someone has to do it.

About a month later, Norton filed one of his many pro-Sanders articles that was all aglow over Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard becoming part of the “political revolution”. In contrast to the warmongering Hillary Clinton, Gabbard was against intervention:

Gabbard, who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has condemned U.S. policy in Syria. In late 2015, she introduced a bipartisan bill that called for “an immediate end to the illegal, counter-productive war to overthrow” Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

“The war to overthrow Assad is illegal because Congress never authorized it,” she said, calling the U.S. policy of arming and training rebels “counter-productive because it actually helps ISIS and other Islamic extremists achieve their goal of overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad and taking control of all of Syria — which will simply increase human suffering in the region, exacerbate the refugee crisis, and pose a greater threat to the world.”

Somehow Norton failed to mention other aspects of the Gabbard record that might have made her appear less savory. Zaid Jilani, a journalist whose work appears in the same kind of liberal online magazines that have published Norton’s work over the years, lifted up the rock and showed what was crawling around in a well-researched article for Alternet: “To Gabbard, the fact that Syria and Iraq have been through years of brutal civil war, wrecked economies and massive displacement is irrelevant; the only reason they have an extremism problem is because of Islamic theology.”

Basically Gabbard is a Bill Maher style Islamophobe who supports the fascist-like BJP in India and who has received substantial donations from its members-at-large in the USA. Even more incriminating, Gabbard is close to Christian Zionists and even spoke at one of their conferences. You can get a good idea on where she stands on Israel from her sponsorship of a resolution claiming that Israeli attacks in Gaza were “focused on terrorist targets” and that Israel “goes to extraordinary lengths to target only terrorist actors.” Co-sponsors included other hard-core Zionists like Alan Grayson (FL), Elliot Engel (NY), and Debbie Wasserman-Schulz (FL). But none of this was reflected in Norton’s breathless paean to the wretched Islamophobe.

On May 4, 2016 Norton wrote an article titled “Doctors Without Borders condemns ‘epidemic’ of hospital attacks as ‘acts of terror’” in chilling U.N. address” that ostensibly departed from the Patrick L. Smith School of Newspeak Journalism. How could one possibly find a way to tarnish the Syrian rebels when it seemed like a different hospital was being bombed by Syrian or Russian jets on practically a daily basis? Like this apparently:

On Tuesday, rebels attacked another hospital  as part of shelling that killed at least 19 Syrians in government-controlled areas of the city, according to a pro-rebel group. The Syrian government accused al-Nusra and allied Islamist groups of being behind the attacks.

Once again Norton was trying to draw an equivalence between the Baathist dictatorship and those who oppose it. But also once again if you go to the article that is linked by Norton, it tells a somewhat different story:

Zouhir Al Shimale, a local journalist, cast doubt on the veracity of the Syrian government’s claims about the shelling of al-Dabbit Hospital.

“The hospital is 6km away from the rebel held area,” he told Al Jazeera via the messenger service Whatsapp. “Rebels’ guns or simple weapons couldn’t have shelled the facility.

“Syrian state media is trying to put the blame on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to deflect attention from Assad’s campaign in Aleppo city.”

One might also question why Norton referred to “another hospital”, which gives the impression that there have been multiple attacks. It would have been more accurate to write “a hospital”. This kind of slipperiness is the sort of thing you’d expect from someone writing for the Murdoch press, not a “radical” who might have at one time in his life dreamed of being another John Reed. I guess Norton decided to settle for less—a lot less.

Five days later, Norton dipped into the Baathist amen corner’s bag of tricks and interviewed one Max Abrahms, a “terrorism expert” who shares Norton’s obsession with al-Nusra. The article paints the group as far more threatening than ISIS and—who knows?—one capable of another 9/11.

So who is this Max Abrahms exactly? You might want to look at Joel Beinin’s article “US: the pro-Sharon thinktank” from the July 2003 Le Monde diplomatique where he identifies Abrahms as a specialist in Israeli security affairs and a columnist for the National Review Online. Just the sort of authority someone like Norton would want to cozy up with after his earlier smooching with Tulsi Gabbard. I invite you to check out Abrahms’s articles at National Review. Maybe Norton could take a peek at them as well to get inspirations for future contributions to Salon. Like this one:

How does one explain this marked improvement in Israeli security? The “cycle of violence” theory would posit that such a reduction in terror derives from Israeli softness. Again, this logic was proven false. To staunch the bleeding from Israel’s July 2000 openhandedness, the Israel Defense Forces used an iron fist. Operation Defensive Shield, initiated in March 2002, brought the fight to the terrorists by deploying massive numbers of troops to the West Bank. This was language terrorists could understand. Evidently, it worked.

Finally, there’s the latest that appeared the day before yesterday and that prompted me to prepare this article. In an item on Jo Cox, the British MP who was assassinated by a neo-Nazi, there is not a single word about her support for the Syrian rebels. When asked by Oz Katerji why he covered this up, Norton responded that he did not want to mention her “infantile” right to protect liberal imperialism since he didn’t want to insult her on the day of her horrific death. So amusing to see Norton hurl the epithet “infantile” but let’s leave it at that.

What really stuck in my craw was Norton’s assertion that “Most refugees are fleeing Western-backed wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and more.” Was there a Western-backed war in Syria? Of course, Norton would say yes even though there have been reports on Obama’s indifference to the rebel cause on an almost daily basis for years now. Why let the truth get in the way of propaganda? But even if there was American backing for such a war, what exactly drove so many people to flee their homeland and risk death on the open seas in rickety boats? Was it al-Nusra or ISIS terrorism? You can actually check the results of a poll that appeared in the Independent last October.

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That is worth thinking about, if I were Ben Norton and tempted to write another piece of dodgy propaganda for Salon.com. One might expect a serious journalist to get the facts on what is driving Syrians from leaving their homeland even if it gets in the way of his political agenda based on calculations that it will serve his career path in a world where Islamophobia rules.

 

June 15, 2016

Debates within ecosocialism: John Bellamy Foster, Jason Moore and CNS

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

John Bellamy Foster

Jason E. Moore

It has been well over 15 years since I paid much attention to John Bellamy Foster’s writings on Marx and the metabolic rift or his 1999 quarrel with James O’Connor, the editor of the journal “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” whose Frankfurt School leanings became a bone of contention between the two big-time academic Marxists. At the time I had much more interest in getting involved in these debates than I do now. When O’Connor invited me to write an attack on David Harvey for his journal, I relished the opportunity. After submitting it, however, O’Connor changed his mind since I erred too much in the direction of the kind of historical materialism that Foster promoted. Around the same time, I got the same invitation from Immanuel Wallerstein who had his own beef with Harvey. Once again, after submitting something to the ganzer macher of World Systems, I got a runaround with Wallerstein requesting changes that I had no patience to work on. After all, I wasn’t trying to get tenure somewhere.

Without much enthusiasm I return to controversies that will have very little impact outside of the world of journals and academic conferences. This time it is round two of Foster versus the Frankfurt School and a new dust up between him and Jason Moore, the author of the well-received “Capitalism in the Web of Life”. I was particularly interested to read the critique of Foster in Moore’s book that Foster responded to on Ian Angus’s blog. I consider myself to be strongly influenced by Foster’s ecosocialist theories even though I’d like to wring his neck for allowing MRZine to function as an extension of RT.com, PressTV and SANA—a toxic dump whose editor Yoshie Furuhashi once advised her readers: “Moreover, the president of Syria has a weapon in the obligatory media war accompanying any protest in a geopolitical hotspot these days, which neither any other Arab regime nor the Islamic Republic of Iran can claim: his undeniably charming wife Asma.” Disgusting.

In John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark’s 11,700-word article “Marx’s Ecology and the Left” that is accompanied by 121 footnotes, there is almost no possibility of the layperson understanding much of it unless you are familiar with Foster’s “metabolic rift” writings, the Frankfurt School and Neil Smith, who was influenced by the Frankfurt School. Although I am pretty familiar with Foster and the Frankfurt School, I found the discussion of Smith difficult to follow. For example, I have read this paragraph several times and still do not understand what Foster and Clark are driving at:

Hence, in Smith’s inverted Frankfurt School perspective on the domination of nature, nature as a whole was envisioned in almost Baconian terms as increasingly produced by human beings for their own ends. It was possible, he argued, to speak of “the real subsumption of nature” in its entirety within human production. The late twentieth century, he proclaimed, marked the infiltration of society into the last “remnant[s] of a recognizably external nature.” Indeed, there was no longer any meaningful nature anywhere apart from human beings: “Nature is nothing if it is not social.” “The production of nature,” in Smith’s words, was “capitalized ‘all the way down.’” From this perspective, the historical production of nature represented “the unity of nature toward which capitalism drives.”

I had some of the same difficulties with Moore’s critique of Foster that revolved around his supposed embrace of Cartesian dualism. By positing the “metabolic rift” as a result of the estrangement of society from nature (specifically through the growth of cities and the depletion of soil nutrients that attends capitalist farming), Foster is charged with failing to conceive of the dialectical unity of the social and the natural.

In Ian Angus’s interview with Foster, he defends himself from this charge:

The constant references to Cartesian dualism, or what Moore calls the Cartesian binary, are extremely misleading. In his seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy, Descartes distinguished between mind/spirit on one hand, and matter/mechanism on the other. Human beings were generally associated with mind, and animals with machines. This was quite different from the distinction between society and nature that Moore calls a “Cartesian binary.”

I have to agree with Foster. For Descartes, dualism was all about the mind-body dichotomy, having little to do with social relations. He was dealing with an epistemological quandary that had vexed philosophers going back to Plato. Ultimately, Descartes’s purpose, even if he didn’t fully grasp it, was to break the hold of organized religion on the Enlightenment that reflected the class interests of the emerging bourgeoisie.

In order to diminish the role of the Church and the feudal aristocracy, a totally new view of the universe had to be constructed. Instrumental to this was a new view of nature, which was seen as transcendent and outside of humanity, but not sacred. Scientists would replace priests in this new world-view, since they alone had the ability to explain the natural order. Newton becomes a key figure in the general assault on the old order.

If nature is conscripted on behalf of the rising bourgeoisie, the natural tendency is toward a kind of bourgeois materialism. Against this generally progressive philosophical current, he posits historical materialism. The difference between bourgeois and historical materialism is that the latter mode of thought does not see nature as transcendent but as something that society interacts with dialectically. Nature is always being transformed through labor. Furthermore, science in bourgeois society is always qualified by its social role, as Thomas Kuhn argues. The purpose of socialism is to liberate science from its class ties and make it available for the transformation of society.

In a very real sense, Descartes’s philosophy was the foundation stone of the French Revolution.

I will hold off saying anything more about Moore’s ideas until I get a chance to read his book from cover to cover but can say this much now. His main contribution to ecological thought has been his ability to weave together the origins of capitalism with Europe’s ability to displace its environmental contradictions through colonialism. In an article titled “The Capitalocene”, Moore presents an analysis that should serve as a lantern for young scholars hoping to integrate history, politics and environmental thought:

The rise of capitalism after 1450 was accompanied, and made possible, by an epochal shift in the scale, speed, and scope of landscape transformation across the geographical expanse of early capitalism. The long 17th century forest clearances of the Vistula Basin and Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest occurred on a scale, and at a speed, between five and ten times greater than anything seen in medieval Europe. Feudal Europe had taken centuries to deforest large expanses of western and central Europe; after 1450, comparable deforestation occurred in decades, not centuries. To take but one example, in medieval Picardy (northeastern France), it took 200 years to clear 12,000 hectares of forest, beginning in the 12th century. Four centuries later, in northeastern Brazil at the height of the sugar boom in the 1650s, 12,000 hectares of forest would be cleared in a single year. These are precious clues to an epochal transition in the relations of power, wealth, and nature that occurred over the course of the long medieval crisis and the expansion that commenced after 1450.

It is the same kind of rigor displayed in Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule” and just one more indication that Marxist scholarship is finally returning to the principles enunciated in Chapter 27 of V. 1 of “Capital”–“The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”. While Marx identified slavery and colonialism as key, he did not (and probably could not) document the  the devastating impact of colonialism on the natural world (does that sound like I am lapsing into Cartesianism?)

Turning to Foster and Clark’s very long article criticizing a wide range of thinkers mostly associated with James O’Connor’s journal, it would probably be useful to provide some background.

In February 1999 Monthly Review published an attack on James O’Connor by Foster’s close associate Paul Burkett. Titled “Fusing Red and Green”, it was a pretty sharp take-down of O’Connor’s new book “Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism”.  In keeping with Foster and Clark’s article, it defended Marx against charges that he was indifferent to capitalism’s assault on nature as described in Moore’s citation above:

Surprisingly, O’Connor does not systematically address the extent to which Marxism’s historical neglect of the conditions of production is rooted in partial and/or distorted interpretations of the work of Marx and Engels. Instead, Natural Causes merely recites the standard accusations of ecologically incorrect thinking against the founders of Marxism, with no real consideration of the evidence for and against these charges or of alternative interpretations, in which Marx and Engels assign a central role to natural conditions and ecological themes.

As is the case in all of these debates in the academy over theoretical questions (Kliman versus the URPE editorial board, etc.), it can get pretty nasty. Two years after Burkett’s article appeared, O’Connor organized a symposium on Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” that amounted to revenge—a dish served cold in this instance. All the contributors dumped on him in the same fashion that Burkett dumped on O’Connor. When Foster requested space in CNS for a 3000 word rebuttal, O’Connor turned him down. Paul Burkett did reply, however.

As you can probably gather, the CNS issue is behind a paywall. When I read it fifteen years ago, I was a lot closer to Foster and even considered him a friend. So when I wrote about it (this was long before I began blogging—actually there was no such thing as a blog back then), I held the Foster banner aloft. Ironically the first article I trash was co-authored by Salvatore Engel-DiMauro who somehow got me to write for CNS two years ago after convincing me that the bad old days of O’Connor runarounds were over.)

The first article in the June symposium is so banal that one wonders why O’Connor bothered to include it. Titled “Failed Promise” and co-authored by Maarten de Kadt and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, it makes the startling revelation that Marx’s ecological analysis revolved around the problem of soil fertility and failed to address such problems as nuclear weapons or PCB’s. One wonders why de Kadt and Engel_Di Mauro did not fault Marx for not living into the 1980s. Too much red meat, cheap wine and cigars, one supposes.

Alan Rudy’s “Marx’s Ecology and Rift Analysis” gets to the heart of Foster’s study. For Foster, the question of a “metabolic rift” is key not only to understanding Marx, but in developing ecosocialist solutions for today’s world. Basically, the metabolic rift was created as a result of the development of cities under capitalism, when the source of organic nutrients in the form of animal or human waste was separated from the soil. It led to “guano wars” in the 19th century, open sewers in the streets of London and a host of other social problems. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx proposed the abolition of the distinction between town and country as a first step toward mending the metabolic rift. Moreover, in the absence of a socialist transformation of the world, every chemical advance to compensate for the loss of soil fertility has led to further contradictions, including the seepage of fertilizers into bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico, cancer epidemics due to pesticides, etc.

For Rudy, “[T]he concept of metabolic rift…has a far greater affinity for natural resource economics than the dialectics of ecological Marxism.” In contrast, Rudy would shift the discussion away from scientific considerations of natural resource usage altogether–either Marxist or bourgeois. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, he is committed to the kind of anti-scientific prejudices that characterized the Frankfurt School. Foster supposedly subscribes to the “the Baconian conception of an atomized nature.” Such a conception “undergirds the assumption that there is one scientific method because, at root, all of nature is comprised of discrete piles of differently arranged, hierarchically organized, though fundamentally similar things.” That’s odd. In my reading of “Marx’s Ecology,” I found a steadfast defense of the kind of dialectical understanding of science that you find in Lewontin and Levins.

After having declared his affinity for the kind of science spoofed by Alan Sokal in “Social Text,” Rudy attempts to refute the concept of metabolic rift by referring to England at the time of the Enclosure Acts. He writes, “The metabolic rift argument suggests that the movement of human and animal waste from the country to the city leads to the accelerated depletion of agricultural soils. However, the increase in rural livestock suggests that the problem may have been as much related to the maldistribution of rural wastes as the separation of rural from urban wastes. The scientific or cultural or infrastructural incapacity to engage in this redistribution of animal waste then would need to be explained.”

This distinction is next to useless. Marx’s concern was not just with the separation of town and city, but the failure of capitalist farming in general, which tended to put short-term profits over long-term social considerations. Maldistribution of rural wastes simply suggests that the English gentry’s verbal commitment to “improvement” was at odds with the mode of production. What else is new?

Perhaps Rudy’s biggest problem is his tendency to assume that the concept of metabolic rift rests upon some kind of binary opposition that was not present in 19th century Europe at all. He writes:

“The imagery of rift suggests a chasm between country and city, nature and society, and agriculture and industry. Yet the 19th century is the era of massive road, canal and railroad construction; of extraordinary scientific and technological innovation (only exceeded by the following century); and of phenomenal introductions and migrations of non-native crops, peoples, diseases, and invasive species all multi-directionally across the increasingly accessible globe.”

What can one say? Rudy simply doesn’t get Marx’s argument, nor Foster’s very effective presentation of that argument. All of the sweeping changes described by Rudy, and which constitute the first part of the Communist Manifesto as well, are simply mechanisms to facilitate the development of the modern urban-based capitalist economy that is the root of our problem. Railroad construction made and makes it possible to separate livestock from their feed sources. The consequences are pig feces filling the rivers and lakes of North Carolina and monoculture production of corn in the Midwest with all the attendant problems. The idea is to reorganize society, not stand breathless in the face of capitalist transportation “miracles.” (Unfortunately, Foster has not explored the connections between metabolic rift and the consequences of farming based on nonrenewable energy. More about that anon.)

Nothing has occurred in the past fifteen years to make me want to take back a single word. In the ideological battle between Foster/Clark and a variety of Frankfurt-inspired thinkers, I continue to identify with the Monthly Review authors even though I find the magazine’s failure to understand the nature of the conflict in Syria a tragic mistake.

May 6, 2016

Left Forum 2016: The Truth is Out There

Filed under: Left Forum,conspiracism — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

Ever since I left the SWP in late 1978, I have been attending the yearly Left Forums in NY that were known as the Socialist Scholars Conference prior to a split in the leading bodies in 2004 over Yugoslavia. Veteran social democrat Bogdan Denitch, who died a few months ago, was viewed as a Serbophobe by the faction that would go on to form the Left Forum in 2005. That year there were two conferences, one in the name of the Socialist Scholars Conference and the other as the Left Forum. Next year there was only the Left Forum as many of the figures aligned with Denitch reconciled with their erstwhile ideological opponents.

From 2005 until 2015 (excluding 2007 for some reason I can’t recall), I have written reports on the Left Forum and more recently produced videos of the sessions I attended. This year I have decided not to attend since it has reached the point where quantity has turned into quality as Plekhanov might have put it. Or more accurately, it has reached the point where quantity has turned into excrement. In a nutshell, the same sort of idiocy that has taken over the left on Syria has become so pervasive this year that I cannot justify spending $70 to attend. Are there panel discussions that would be worth my while? I suppose so but that is almost like someone trying to convince me to tune into WBAI. The station exudes such a stench that my hand refuses to obey my brain’s order to dial up 99.5FM.

In a very real sense, the Left Forum has been transformed into something resembling WBAI—leading to the pun that it has been subject to Pacification. The other night the hand got the upper hand over the brain and I listened to WBAI for a couple of minutes. I was not surprised to see that they were in the midst of one of their biweekly fund-drives. Nor was I surprised to see that they were offering premiums for a 5 DVD documentary titled “The Great Lies of History”. One, of course, is about 9/11. Another is: “Cancer: The Forbidden Cures”. It claims that the “drug-dominated medical profession” has suppressed cures including Mistletoe and Bicarbonate of Soda. I suppose they are geared to oral and stomach cancer respectively. I don’t think that Lew Hill had this in mind when he launched Pacifica in 1946.

While WBAI is much more fixated on such quackery from the likes of Gary Null, it too traffics in the sort of “anti-imperialism” that has swamped the Left Forum. Amy Goodman, the station’s star for what that’s worth, has allowed Seymour Hersh to babble on about Syria in the very week that Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami were in NY on a book tour for “Burning Country”. When Goodman was approached about doing an interview with them, she said no.

Meanwhile, Goodman and Slavoj Zizek are doing the closing plenary on Sunday night. At this stage of the game, inviting Zizek to speak to a left audience is almost as much of an insult as inviting Donald Trump. I have heard through the grapevine that Verso Press has cut its ties to the Elvis Superstar of Marxism over his filthy insistence that Syrian refugees adapt to Western norms but he is good enough for the Left Forum apparently.

I have to give credit to Amber A’lee Frost who sized up the 2015 Left Forum conference accurately in The Baffler.

That’s right: If you pay your registration fee and fill out the proper forms, you get a room and a table and a spot on the schedule. So in addition to all those experienced and intelligent rabble-rousers, Left Forum is a home for 9/11 Truthers, those who would save us from the terrors of “mandatory fluoridation,” and the generally batshit and/or pathologically anti-social. No one is required to observe their lectures, but they wander into other people’s and there is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing.

Frost singled out a panel from 2014 as a “wackjob nadir”, the infamous “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”).

The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.

What’s odd about their obsession with Zizek is a failure to see how close he is to them ideologically. With his disparagement of the Syrian rebels as “a mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups”, you’d think he’d be hoisted on their shoulders. Of course, on the far left some of the bitterest quarrels take place among sects that were born from the same womb. Just look at the Trotskyists.

It must be said at the outset that the people who run the Left Forum are not identified with this kind of conspiracism. It just so happens that it is a Big Tent that allows virtually anybody to schedule a panel discussion. The fact that this year’s conference is flooded with “Žižek Delenda Est” type barking dogs only reflects the siren’s call of conspiracism on the left, one in which a Marxist class analysis is so sorely lacking.

Let me walk you through a few of the panels to give you an idea of what you can get for your $70, starting with Deep State: The Fabricated Global War on Terrorism — Why the Left Should Unite to Expose and Rebel Against It that pretty much epitomized the malaise that afflicts the Left Forum. The organizers breathlessly announce:

The yellow-journalism press rarely reports that ISIS was 100% planned, created and controlled by US/NATO/Israel/Turkey/Saudi forces. Publicly this newest bogeyman is reviled and used to whip up fear and bellicosity. Behind the scenes, ISIS is our shock troops, the go-to mercenaries to effect regime change in places like Libya and Syria, and ensure wavering countries like France tow the line.

One of the speakers is Wayne Madsen, an “investigative reporter” and author of “Unmasking ISIS”. He is a 9/11 Truther, as are many in this neck of the woods. As part of his investigative reporting, he came up with the startling revelation that Barack Obama is a homosexual who belonged to the same Chicago gay bath house as Rahm Emmanuel. Madsen was able to provide about the same amount of proof as those who allege that Obama was born in Kenya. Madsen’s articles have appeared in  CounterPunch, In These Times, The Progressive and The Village Voice. Don’t ask me why.

For more of the same, you can attend How Universal U.S. Sovereignty Threatens World Peace. It features Sarah Flounders of the Workers World Party and Michael Perino, who once told CounterPunch readers that about 50,000 Blacks were “massacred” in Libya. Since the highest estimate for all casualties in the Libyan civil war was half of that, who knows where Perino got his number.

Want to know about The Situation in Ukraine? Then haul your ass over to a panel organized by UNAC, the “coalition” made up of Socialist Action members and other like-minded leftists who have succumbed totally to the “axis of resistance” disease now an epidemic on the left. The SA members were educated in the Socialist Workers Party, a group that was distinguished by its embrace of Ukrainian opponents of Soviet domination in the 1960s. One of the speakers is Bruce Gagnon, who like many in this milieu blames Kiev for starting the civil war in Ukraine when it threatened to remove Russian as one of the official languages as if the people in Donetsk and Luhansk would suffer the same kind of fate as Kurds in Turkey. This was essentially a Goebbels type of big lie. The truth is that Russian would continue as a regional language along with 17 other languages including Yiddish but Ukrainian would be the sole official language, which only meant that it would be used in driver license applications, etc. Was that a reason for Putin to dispatch thousands of special forces into Eastern Ukraine? Obviously not. His real intention was the same as Catherine the Great’s—to keep Ukraine under Russia’s thumb.

You can guess from the title The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and War in the “Middle East” (I have no idea what the scare quotes in the title indicate) what this one is about. Organized by the pro-Assad International Action Center, it includes Kazem Azin as one of the speakers, a contributor to Workers World newspaper and an ardent supporter of the Islamic Republic who once claimed that “Imam Khomeini was able for the first time to unite all religious groups and the majority of the people under the banner of Islam.” Of course, if you were stiff-necked enough to refuse being so united, you might end up being tortured in Evin prison.

If you miss the X-Files, as I certainly do, you might want to check in on Deep State: False Flags — How a United Left Could Defeat a “Global Gladio” Agenda since it features Richard Dolan as a panelist. Dolan is the author of “A History of False Flag Operations” but he is probably best known for his books on UFO’s and the National Security State. This leftist version of Fox Mulder once met with a CIA agent referred to as “Anonymous” who on his death bed revealed that The Truth Is Out There:

Facing impending kidney failure, this individual felt compelled to disclose secret information he feels is too important to keep secret. In the video, he claims to have served in the U.S. Army, worked for the CIA, and worked on the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book–one of the USAF’s official studies of UFOs. And he refers to the project as “partially a fraud.” Asking for clarification, Dolan states, “You’re saying some of the Blue Book cases were completely fictitious?” The anonymous man responds, “Yes.”

“Anonymous” alleges that, after an invasion threat from President Dwight Eisenhower, he and his superior at the CIA were allowed inside the secretive Area 51 in Nevada to gather intel and report back to the president. There, “Anonymous” describes seeing several alien spacecraft, including the craft that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Then, he and his superior were taken to the S-4 facility southwest of Area 51 where they observed live extraterrestrials.

On Sunday there’s more from UNAC at The Fight to End US Wars as well as two 9/11 Truther panels, one titled Time to Take Down the Wall Between the Left and the Truth Movement and the other Exposing 28 Pages of 9/11 Evidence, Legislating Transparency. Don’t forget to bring the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in case your mind begins to wander. Also, for vintage conspiracy theory navel-gazing, you can’t top The JFK Murder Cover-up: Your Rosetta Stone to Today’s News, Elections, Policy. I suppose that one of the speakers will argue that Al Qaeda was on the grassy knoll at the rate things are going.

Just to be clear, 90 percent of the workshops are more conventional in nature. I wish I could say that this would be sufficient for me to shell out $70 but I am afraid that far too many are empty theorizing that I have little use for. For example, something titled Marx, Hegel, and the Current Situation  is a non-starter. Apparently the participants have been studying Hegel for years at the Brecht Forum and at the Marxist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons. With all due respect to the speakers, I studied Hegel fifty years ago at the New School mostly to maintain a student deferment and don’t want to go back there now. But if Hegel works for you, don’t let me get in the way. That’s a helluva lot better than nattering about Area 51 but then again just about anything else is–especially for $70 that can be better spent on dinner for two at a Thai restaurant.

 

August 31, 2014

Ukraine, NATO and imperialism

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,NATO,Russia,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

A Google search on “Ukraine”, “NATO” and “imperialism” results in 493,000 hits. Right off the top, there’s a Youtube clip of Rick Rozoff who runs the “Stop NATO” Yahoo mailing list and is an old hand at this, followed by other old hands such as Eric Draitser, Global Research, the Spartacist League, and the World Socialist Website. Most of the nearly half-million articles make the same talking points. WSWS.org is typical:

Can anyone seriously believe that Washington did not expect that Russia, at the very minimum, would deploy military forces to secure control of Crimea—a part of Russia until 1954, the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and its sole access point into the Mediterranean? Or that Washington knew Russia would not simply turn the other cheek as the installation of an extreme rightwing government in Ukraine, in which xenophobic nationalists exert immense influence, transformed the country into the new forward base for NATO forces, armed with missiles, on the very border of Russia?

Nobody could ever mistake Rozoff, Draitser or Global Research for Marxists, but one does have to wonder how self-described Trotskyists as the Spartacist League and WSWS.org would have so little interest in understanding why Eastern European nations would gravitate toward NATO. If you were the head of state in a country that had been invaded by Russian tanks in the past, your options are rather limited in terms of alliances after you’ve left the Kremlin’s orbit. One doubts that the Martians can be relied upon, no matter the prowess on display in “War of the Worlds”.

In 1999, three new nations were added to NATO, the first additions since 1982. They were Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. For those whose historical memory goes back further than EuroMaidan, it is not so difficult to figure out why they would hook up with NATO. All had been invaded by Russian tanks “defending socialism” against imperialist aggression.

Under the serene and wise leadership of Mátyás Rákosi, Hungary was proceeding rapidly toward communism in the 1950s, occasionally having to rein in agents of imperialism. According to Wikipedia, they were a motley crew:

Under Rákosi’s reign, the Security Police (ÁVH) began a series of purges, first within the Communist Party to end opposition to Rákosi’s reign. The victims were labeled as “Titoists,” “western agents,” or “Trotskyists” for as little a crime as spending time in the west to participate in the Spanish Civil War or for being Jewish (labeled as “Zionist agents”). In total, about half of all the middle and lower level party officials-at least 7,000 people-were purged.

When the revolution of 1956 broke out, the British Communist Party sent a trusted reporter to Hungary expecting articles of the Rick Rozoff and Eric Draitser variety. Imagine their disappointment when Peter Fryer joined the counter-revolution:

There were Gestapo-like torture chambers with whips and gallows and instruments for crushing people’s limbs. There were tiny punishment cells. There were piles of letters from abroad, intercepted for censorship. There were batteries of tape recorders to take down telephone conversations. There were prostitutes retained as police spies and agents provocateurs. And the young brutes who made up this strong arm of the people’s democratic State were paid – according to documents found on their dead bodies – 3,000 to 4,000 forints a month as men, 9,000 to 12,000 as officers: three to twelve times the average wage. Plus luxurious flats while thousands in Budapest lived cramped in slums and cellars.

Surely Dryer should have understood that stern measures were required against Spanish Civil War veterans and rootless cosmopolitans.

Largely decided at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, the USSR won the right to create “buffer states” that would protect it against another imperialist invasion, or more specifically another German invasion. Like Daniel Goldhagen, the Soviet tyrant considered Nazism to be a kind of essential expression of the German Geist. Feelings of hatred directed against all things German filtered down to the Red Army grunt who thought himself justified in raping German women on a massive scale. In a book on this blot on Soviet history, Anthony Beevor quoted a Russian fighter: “Our soldiers’ behaviour towards Germans, particularly German women, is absolutely correct!.”

In exchange for the buffer states, Stalin agreed to rein in the Communist Parties in places where they had considerable strength: Italy, France and Greece. In Greece the consequences of this policy were particularly harmful. After Stalin tossed the Greek CP overboard, the Greek bourgeoisie was rewarded with 25 years of stability. When the workers got uppity, they got the back of the hand just like the Hungarian workers. While Greece and Hungary rested on rival social systems, they both knew how to keep the rabble at bay.

If not for Stalinism, the world would look a lot different today. A socialist Italy, France or Greece would have had much more importance than a socialist Hungary since the pre-existing democratic rights would have militated against Stalinist ambitions. As Fryer points out, Hungary was a dictatorship except for a brief period: “Hungary has never known democracy, except for four and a half quite abnormal months at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, under the bourgeois-democratic government of Károlyi.”

From the day that the buffer states were created, the citizens suffered under dictatorship and economic privation. While the Warsaw Pact was not about extracting profits, Eastern Europe economies had to put up with bureaucratic inefficiencies that were both unnecessary and pain-inducing, particularly in Czechoslovakia, a country that was relatively advanced. When Dubcek proposed a series of economic changes that might be described as technocratic but that remained consistent with socialist principles, the pro-Kremlin wing of the CP attacked him as an agent of imperialism. When Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and re-imposed hardline Stalinist political and economic rules, a layer of the intelligentsia decided that if socialism with a human face was not possible, then you might as well opt for liberal capitalism. The most notable example was Vaclav Havel, who became president after the country left the Soviet fold. In other words, the primary driving force behind Czechoslovakia’s lining up with imperialism and NATO was Stalinist obduracy.

It might have been expected that Boris Yeltsin would have little problem with the former buffer states joining NATO since he was as willing to satisfy Western imperialism’s interests as a member of Congress. So much so in fact that he wrote a letter in December 1991 raising the possibility that Russia join NATO.

The letter stated: “This will contribute to creating a climate of mutual understanding and trust, strengthening stability and cooperation on the European continent. We consider these relations to be very serious and wish to develop this dialogue in each and every direction, both on the political and military levels. Today we are raising a question of Russia’s membership in NATO, however regarding it as a long-term political aim.”

Now our “anti-imperialist” friends might write this off as to be expected from a tool of Western interests. But not so fast. He changed his tune just four years later, sounding positively Putinesque. In 1996 he complained that the expansion of NATO as “an attempt to keep the foreign policy mechanisms and the mentality of ‘Cold War’ times.”

Whether or not Yeltsin would have been up to the kind of stiff resistance to NATO expansion as his successor Vladimir Putin is difficult to determine. However, when it came to Chechnya both leaders showed that they were ready to shove the country back into the Stone Age to protect Russian interests.

In contrast to Eastern Europe, the Kremlin has been far more willing to both wage open warfare and to ally with the West in the former Soviet Republics of the southern Caucasus, with Chechnya being the most extreme example. The Party of Socialism and Liberation went the furthest in linking the Chechen revolt to NATO’s expansion, writing in 2004:

If it were to succeed in separation from Russia, Chechnya would join the league of former Soviet lands that are now “hosts” to U.S. and NATO occupation, and whose wealth is exploited for foreign profiteers.

Few could have imagined in the 1980s that today U.S. and NATO would occupy former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kirgizistan, and Georgia, which borders Chechnya and whose pro-U.S. government is playing a key role in the struggles taking place.

One doubts that the PSL ever took the trouble to follow up on this analysis, but the presence of American troops in Uzbekistan did not exactly generate the kind of response from Putin one might expect given this gloomy prognosis. Uzbekistan has an enormous NATO base that has been key for the war in Afghanistan. Furthermore, as long as these former Soviet republics were part of the “war on terror”, Putin had no problem with a NATO presence as the NY Times reported a month after the 9/11 attacks:

Today, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, Mr. Putin seemed to signal a far more flexible approach to enlargement. ”If NATO takes on a different shape and is becoming a political organization, of course, we would reconsider our position with regard to such expansion, if we are to feel involved in the processes,” Mr. Putin said.

”They keep saying that NATO is becoming more political than military,” Mr. Putin added. ”We are looking at this (and) watching this process. If this is to be so, it would change things considerably,” he said.

Mr. Putin has moved swiftly since the terror attacks to lend his support to the West. Most strikingly, he dropped Russian objections to the deployment of American and other NATO counterterrorism forces in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Russia’s Central Asian sphere of influence.

He has already extracted a price for his help. Within days, the United States and Germany lined up behind a Kremlin demand that rebels in Chechnya lay down their arms, notably omitting criticism of human rights abuses there by Russians.

You will note that the West had little problem with the Russians solving the “Chechen problem” in the way that it saw fit. For those who are still expecting the USA to go to war in Syria for “regime change” as pursuant to Samantha Power type “human rights” ideology, it would be useful to review what happened to Chechnya. With both the White House and the Kremlin acting on pragmatic grounds, there’s little reason to expect a penny to be wasted on reversing the biggest humanitarian crisis in decades.

Unless you are one of those people who still take Russian press conferences seriously, there’s little reason to believe that the Kremlin is intervening in Ukraine for fear of NATO encirclement.

Long after Yeltsin had departed from the scene (leaving aside how he eventually put some distance between himself and the West, arguably under pressure from his military), the Kremlin continued to see NATO in terms far less apocalyptic than the “anti-imperialist” left as the EUObserver reported on January 4, 2009:

Russia does not rule out NATO membership at some point in the future, but for the moment it prefers to keep co-operation on a practical, limited level, Moscow’s envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told EUobserver.

“There is no such necessity at this moment, but we cannot rule out this opportunity in the future,” Mr Rogozin said in a phone interview on Tuesday (31 March), one day after Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Russia should join the military alliance, if it meets the membership criteria.

Ironically, the obstacle to joining NATO was not primarily over the occasional flare-ups of the sort that took place in Yugoslavia or Georgia but whether or not NATO was the appropriate place for a Great Power:

“Great powers don’t join coalitions, they create coalitions. Russia considers itself a great power,” the Russian ambassador stressed.

He said Russia wanted to be NATO’s “partner,” provided the alliance took into account Moscow’s “interest” – a catchphrase alluding to NATO enlargement to its neighbouring Ukraine and Georgia, which it fiercely opposes.

Well, who can blame Rogozin? Interests are paramount when it comes to Great Powers. Kissinger said it best: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

For reasons we can only guess at, Russia sees the carve-up of Ukraine in its interests. It now seems bent on either annexing Donbas in the way that Crimea was annexed or keeping Kyiv in a constant state of turmoil so that it will eventually accede to a state of affairs that allows de facto separation of Donbas.

Anton Shekhovtsov, a PhD student at the UCL in London, has a very useful blog for keeping track of what is happening in Ukraine if you are looking for an alternative to WSWS.org, Global Research et al. Of course, I imagine that if you prefer being spoon-fed from RT.com, you’d probably not be here in the first place. Here’s from his latest post, titled “The ‘Ukraine crisis’ is a long-planned operation” that should make clear that fearing encirclement was not what drove Kremlin policy:

For the Russian authorities, the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine that brought to power pro-Western governments in 2003-2004 was a sign that these countries were willing to leave the Russian sphere of influence choosing liberal democracy over semi-authoritarian kleptocracy. President Vladimir Putin perceived these revolutions as a direct threat to his rule: if Russian citizens see that post-Soviet countries such as Georgia and Ukraine can successfully modernize and democratize, then they may want the same for Russia – and this would dramatically undermine the authoritarian regime that Putin and his elites have built. Hence, Putin’s task was to subvert democratic governments in the neighbouring countries to prevent them from successful modernization.

In the past one could possibly understand why the Western left would have a tough time making up its mind what was the lesser evil, Stalinist authoritarianism that at least provided a social safety net or liberal capitalist democracy that at least opened up the possibility for a genuine socialist movement to develop and eventually take power. But how does one explain a left that seems so anxious to see the Ukraine return to the state of affairs that prevailed under Yanukovych and the Party of Regions?

Under Yanukovych, you had police repression and economic insecurity. For all of the blather about how bad life in Ukraine would become if it became tied to the EU, there’s plenty of evidence that for the average Ukrainian things couldn’t be much worse than they were in 2011, as the Kyiv Post reported:

Ukraine is on the verge of another wave of labor and intellectual potential losses, expert from the Razumkov Center and former First Deputy Labor and Social Policy Minister Pavlo Rozenko has said. During a press conference on Nov. 14, the expert said that employment does not protect a person from poverty in Ukraine nowadays.

Rozenko also said that, according to recent data, 23% of families in which all members have jobs, and 37% of families in which only one member is employed, are below the poverty line.

The poverty risk is even higher for families with children. According to the expert, 26% of families with one child, 39% of families with two children, and over 70% of families with four and more children are living in poverty.

Meanwhile, while this state of affairs existed, Yanukovych—Putin’s golden boy—lived like this. No wonder the country rose up.

 

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