Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 29, 2019

Steven Salaita on academic freedom

Filed under: Academia,Palestine — louisproyect @ 12:54 pm

(Rescued from behind a paywall)

Chronicle of Higher Education Review

My Life As a Cautionary Tale

Probing the limits of academic freedom.

By Steven Salaita

Photographs by Greg Kahn for The Chronicle

August 28, 2019

Academic freedom is inhumane. Its inhumanity isn’t of the physical, legal, or intellectual variety. It is inhumane because it cannot provide the very thing it promises: freedom.

Why? Because academic freedom can do little to alter the fine-tuned cultures of obedience that govern nearly every campus. I cannot venture a comprehensive theory of freedom or know for certain in what spaces freedom may be possible, but it won’t be in selective institutions possessed of wealthy donors, legislative overseers, defense contracts, and opulent endowments.

I know this from experience. In the summer of 2014, during a war between Israel and Gaza, I took to Twitter to express my outrage. “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” I wrote. In another tweet, I wrote, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” By August, I’d been fired from my tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After my lawsuit with the university had been settled but before I left academe, I visited another American campus to speak about academic freedom. The itinerary included a meeting with the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which opposes academic boycotts of Israeli universities but had intervened strongly on my side after I was fired. Rather than a discussion or even an argument about what academic freedom means for critics of Israel, the gathering ended up being a kind of inquest. The professor who had convened the roundtable read several of my tweets — without mentioning the horrors to which they responded — and then compared them against relevant sections of the AAUP manual. I confess to having been annoyed.

By that point I no longer thought about the tweets. I couldn’t recall my state of mind when I wrote them. More important, dozens of scholarly associations, various committees at the University of Illinois, labor unions, a federal judge, individual theorists of free speech, and the AAUP itself had already declared my case a clear-cut violation of academic freedom.

Listening to my words interspersed with itemized bylaws was jarring, but it helped clarify an ethic that’s normally implicit: When I make a public comment, I don’t care if it conforms to the etiquette of a speech manual. I’m instead concerned with the needs and aspirations of the dispossessed. Conditioning critique on the conventions of bourgeois civil liberties, and in deference to specters of recrimination, abrogates any meaningful notion of political independence. To ignore those conventions, to engage the world based on a set of fugitive values, will necessarily frustrate those in power in ways that require protection beyond the scope of academic freedom. The damnable comment is precisely what academic freedom attempts to protect, but it is incapable of preventing unsanctioned forms of punishment, regulation of the job market according to docility, or the increasing contingency of labor, which stands today as the greatest threat to academic freedom. Human beings are too complicated for rule books. Problem is, we’re also too unruly for freedom. In institutions like universities that reproduce social order, rule books will always win.

Academic freedom preserves democracy; academic freedom emboldens research; academic freedom facilitates faculty governance. These by now are truisms.

But academic freedom is no simple matter. We have distinct ways of understanding it, often according to class, discipline, race, gender, and ideology. At base, academic freedom entitles us, as both faculty and students, to say or investigate things that might upset others without fear of retaliation. As with any condition of speech, limits exist. And as always, complexity begins at the imposition of limits.

Many people, for example, are unwilling to protect a Nazi’s right to teach undergraduates. Others believe that the principle of free speech overrides the harm attending the Nazi’s presence. Let’s grant the argument that the Nazi has to go; we don’t want racism on campus, right? But what happens if a Jewish student says criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, or if a white student considers affirmation of blackness a form of racial hostility? We’ve been warned again and again that limiting reactionary speech will inevitably lead to the repression of all speech, including from the left. This is the absolutist view of academic freedom — the belief that protection ought to be evenly applied across the ideological spectrum. It’s a solid view. I have no fundamental problem with it. But I do question the wisdom of allowing a civil liberty to dominate notions of freedom. 

I’m not attempting to convince you to dispose of academic freedom. But it shouldn’t be the limit of your devotion.

In the end, we have to apply value judgments to balance speech rights with public safety. In a society like America, steeped in the legacy of racism, this task is remarkably difficult. No agreement exists about what comprises appropriate speech. As a result, there’s no way to prioritize a set of beliefs without accusations of hypocrisy (or without actual hypocrisy). The easy answer is to protect speech equally and let a marketplace of ideas sort the winners and losers.

There’s a catch, though. Value judgments don’t arise in a vacuum, and discourses don’t exist in a free market. Structural forces, often unseen, always beneficial to the elite, determine which ideas get a hearing. It’s a lopsided competition. Those who humor the ruling class will always enjoy a strong advantage, something aspiring academics are happy to exploit. Sure, academic freedom is meant to protect insurgent politics, and often does, but the milieu in which it operates has plenty of ways to neutralize or quash insurgency.

I focus on radical ideas because Palestine, one of my interests and the source of my persecution, belongs to the set of issues considered dangerous by polite society. Others include Black liberation, Indigenous nationalism, open borders, decolonization, trans-inclusivity, labor militancy, communism, radical ecology, and anti-imperialism. Certain forms of speech reliably cause people trouble: condemning the police, questioning patriotism, disparaging whiteness, promoting economic redistribution, impeaching the military — anything, really, that conceptualizes racism or inequality as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing.

Academic freedom doesn’t prevent sexual violence. It doesn’t disrupt racial capitalism. It doesn’t hinder obscene inequality. Academic freedom isn’t a capable deterrent to genocide. The devotee of academic freedom will say that it’s not meant to do any of those things. This is correct. Academic freedom has humbler ambitions. The fact that academic freedom has a specific mandate doesn’t detract from its importance. I’m not attempting to convince you to dispose of academic freedom. I’m suggesting that it shouldn’t be the limit of your devotion.

So what does freedom mean in an academic economy structured to reward obedience? No thinking person buys the myth of merit. Academe is filled with mediocrities who achieved stardom by flattering the ruling class. Already, then, freedom is tenuous because livelihood is contingent on respectability, itself contingent on pleasing the ruling elite. Cultures of online exchange promise a kind of freedom, but more than anything they illuminate the preponderance of coercion. Nobody who covets white-collar stability will make a comment on social media without considering the possible fallout. Every hiring committee you’ll ever encounter staffs Twitter’s electronic panopticon.

Once a narrative about an academic’s offensive social media profile takes hold, it becomes a permanent demerit. I can’t find a single university president who will affirm my right to extramural speech. I can’t get an office job with any campus or corporation that has access to Google. I now drive a school bus.  Civil liberties can offer recourse against governmental repression, but they’re helpless against the capitalist impulse to eliminate disruptors.

Tell me, then. What opportunity? What autonomy? What freedom?

The primary muscle behind academic freedom, at least in America, are the courts and labor unions. The AAUP, for example, functions as a union on various campuses, including the American University of Beirut, where I worked for two years. Unions have a mandate to do more than observe and document violations of academic freedom. They attempt to strengthen faculty governance, which is obliged to serve the interests of underrepresented students and instructors, along with fighting the growing tide of precarity. It’s not at all clear, then, that concern with justice is beyond the purview of academic freedom.

As to the courts, they can sometimes provide recourse, but we should consider the timing of litigation and the nature of the restitution it offers. Administrators certainly consider these things. When a professor generates controversy, university leaders will undertake a cost-benefit analysis wherein they measure the damage from a broken contract or violation of academic freedom against the losses they might incur from unhappy donors and politicians.

I sued, and the courts, as the university’s leadership expected (saying so in private emails), took my side. Academic freedom provided recourse. Case closed, right? Not quite.

The fallout for me was permanent. I think about it when I’m inspecting my school bus on a 20-degree morning.

No amount of money, no legal recognition that I was wronged, will replace the loss of my academic career, to which I devoted the majority of my life. Academic freedom can’t make any university hire me, no matter how strong my CV. Everybody involved in the imbroglio at Illinois got to pick up the pieces of their vocation and move on to different pastures. I didn’t. The fallout for me was permanent. They can put the ugly situation behind them. It’s always right in front of me. I think about these things when I’m inspecting my school bus in the dark of a 20-degree morning.

It’s important, then, to avoid treating academic freedom as sacrosanct and view it instead as a participant in material politics. Academic freedom cannot function without tenure, worker solidarity, and an adequate job market, which are all in decline. “Can academic freedom be saved?” is a less pertinent question than, “Is there any longer a marketplace for academic freedom?” The corporate university is disarming academic freedom by diminishing the circumstances in which it can be effective.

Let’s not shy away from the complicity of the tenured professoriate in this sorry state of affairs. Tenured positions are down. Government funding has decreased. The managerial class is a bloated monstrosity. Some instructors work multiple jobs without adequate benefits. Sexual violence is common. Racism appears poised for another golden age. The humanities are barely surviving. Student debt is outrageous. And those with job security did little to prevent any of it.

This is the kind of comment that gets me into trouble. “What evidence is there for the claim?” tenured faculty will want to know. Well, my evidence is simple: Everything occurred while you were on the clock. This fact creates a paradox for anybody who would disavow responsibility. You either claim helplessness, in which case academic freedom is unnecessary, or you acknowledge that academic freedom is a limited commodity available to those who enjoy some level of institutional power.

I was a tenured faculty member for 12 years and count myself among the complicit. I didn’t do nearly enough to support my contingent comrades — because I didn’t properly see them as comrades, something my position informally demanded.  We all know, in personal moments of brutal honesty, that radical devotion to lesser classes is almost always just professional branding — that deep down we’re scared of the punishment that awaits if we offend the wrong people. Academic freedom doesn’t take away the fear because we know that management can always find ways around it. 

The problem ultimately isn’t only individual. Professional associations talk a lot about this crisis or that emergency but do little to organize their members. Departments and colleges consent to divide and conquer strategies rather than uniting across disciplinary boundaries. Prestige triumphs over solidarity. The damage may be irreversible.

I can be accused of speaking from a sense of pessimism cultivated by ostracization. I accept that criticism. I’d respond by pointing out that useful critique often comes from people who suffer the worst tendencies of a culture or profession. I can’t feign objectivity or claim to speak for any collective. Academe is a large profession, with thousands of disciplines and subcultures. Its inhabitants have vastly different experiences and impressions.

But this much I know: My ouster from academe brought into focus problems I scarcely noticed when I was still on the inside. College students often talk of unlearning the dogmas they internalized from their homes, secondary schools, and places of worship. I’m constantly unlearning the strictures of being learned, exorcising the finely tuned customs of obedience into which I was so carefully socialized. Now I instantly recognize when putatively radical scholars reproduce the imperatives of power through a compulsion to find nuance where old-fashioned outrage is more appropriate.

I didn’t do nearly enough to support my contingent comrades — because I didn’t properly see them as comrades.

Academic freedom is critical to a functional university. But it shouldn’t be an end in itself. It is only one instrument among many that can help us realize a world unlimited by the stagnant doctrines of pragmatism.

Let us then imagine what a truly free campus in a free society would look like. Let us not wait for institutions to authorize our imagination. Let us redefine disrepute. Let us harbor intellectual fugitives.

Let us, above all, embrace the painful but liberating recognition that optimizing our humanity depends upon the obsolescence of civil rights, for they are necessary only in societies that profit from repression.

For five years, I’ve had to consider whether my sharp criticism of Israel and subsequent recalcitrance — my unwillingness to grovel my way back into academe’s good graces — were worth it. I wouldn’t change anything, nor do I entertain regret. I endure the punishment not because I’m a sucker or a martyr — I have no illusions about the ruthlessness of capital, and I despise the lionization of public figures — but because I want the vision of freedom ubiquitous among the dispossessed to survive. 

That’s how we win. That’s how the downtrodden have always won. By defying the logic of recrimination. By depleting its power through unapologetic defiance. We have to be willing to drive buses, sweep floors, stock groceries, wait tables, whatever allows us to feel intellectual freedom.

They took my career. They took my health insurance. They forced me into hourly labor. What do I have left? The one thing they can’t extinguish: a fixation on equality, recorded in steady rhythms with an uncapped pen. In other words: freedom.

Steven Salaita is the author of Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books, 2015). This essay is adapted from his 2019 TD Davie Memorial Lecture, delivered in August at the University of Cape Town.

August 20, 2019

Quentin Tarantino, Eileen Jones, and the perils of film school theorizing

Filed under: Academia,Film — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Eileen Jones

The first inkling I got that Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was grist for the university film department mill was a comment by FB friend Greg Burris:

So I was thinking about the film. DiCaprio’s character is the linchpin. He’s a mess, full of doubt and loathing and insecurity. But he has two doubles full of confidence and alpha-white male security. The first double is his screen persona, and we clearly see the difference between his pathetic self and his macho alter-ego in the scene where he keeps forgetting his lines. When he is in character, he is bold and strong, but when he breaks character, his nervous stutter returns. DiCaprio’s second double is Brad Pitt’s character–the working class hero. Nothing fazes him. Not even Bruce Lee! Pitt is like a 1969 version of his character from FIGHT CLUB. He is the macho, suave, uncomplicated, masculine ideal–a mythic image required by both films’ neurotic protagonists (Norton in one, DiCaprio in the other).

It continues in this vein, top-heavy with interpretation but very little effort made in judging the film as either art or entertainment. When I read his post four days ago, I made a mental note to myself that he must be either a film student or a film professor. Going back just now to retrieve his post, I discovered that I guessed right. He teaches at the American University in Lebanon, with his web page stating that he “a film and cultural theorist whose work focuses on race, media, and emancipatory politics, particularly in the context of the U.S. Black freedom movement and the Palestinian liberation struggle.”

I had no plans to mention him in this post but when I spotted a FB link to Eileen Jones’s article on Tarantino’s film on Jacobin in the same vein, I decided to offer some thoughts on the kind of approach both film professors take (she is a lecturer at UC Berkeley) especially when some potshots I took at her this morning aggravated Ron Cox, a political science professor who must have felt defensive about my admittedly rude remark about academic film theory:

Another reason to hate Jacobin. What its resident film critic Eileen Jones has to say about the Sharon Tate character in Tarantino’s latest. The ecstatic representation of utopian possibility? You can only write such bullshit when you have a job as a lecturer on film at UC Berkeley:

She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Ron remonstrated with me:

A lot of people I know, who live and work far away from the university, love this film, for many of the same reasons expressed by the critic. I tend to agree with her, though I liked David Edelstein’s review better. With all due respect to you, Louis, not every one who disagrees with you is a shill or tool of institutional conformity. I like a lot of what you write, but disagree with just about everything you said about this film. I judge a film based on how I feel when I watch it. That means: am I “into it” or not, and then I try to strip out everything else, including what other people said about it. I was “into this” all the way through. Loved it.

I told Ron that he is entitled to be “into” Tarantino’s film. As I tried to make clear in my review, I was “into” “Inglourious Bastards” and every other film he made up to that point. My reviews are not intended to warn people off from Hollywood films, for that matter. I usually go the entire year ignoring them until November when I get a batch of screeners from publicists to influence my vote in the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Up until that point, my reviews are heavily focused on documentaries, foreign-language films and American indie films that tend to be neglected.

Let me now turn to Jones’s article that will allow me to make some basic points about film journalism. To start with, it has to be said that Jacobin is an academic journal in many ways even though it is not behind a JSTOR paywall. Like Jones, most of its contributors are either professors or grad students. Of the five featured articles on the Jacobin website right now, four have been written by academics and the fifth is by Meagan Day, a Jacobin staff writer. (That does not included Jones’s article that appeared on August 6th.)

Titled “Go Ahead, Take the Adventure of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”, Jones’s article is a defense of Tarantino’s film against the attack made by people on the left, including The New Yorker Magazine’s Richard Brody who Jones quotes: “If only the old-line Hollywood people of the fifties and sixties had maintained their pride of place — if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties—-then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place.”

In my own review, I did not try to judge the film’s politics since that is a fool’s errand when it comes to Tarantino. Brody’s review was not nearly as vitriolic as that of the unnamed critic cited at the beginning of her review who reviled it as “just another white man’s nostalgia film.” As it happens, that’s just a made-up quote by Jones. You can’t find any review with such a formulation. In fact, of the 15 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who deemed the film “rotten”, not a single one attacked it from the left, including mine. For example, Gary Kramer of the left-leaning Salon (even if slightly) complained mostly about the violent ending that was “more graphic and over-the-top than it needs to be.”

One can understand why Burris and Jones would find so much grist to chew over in this film since the subject matter is film itself. It draws a distinction between the classic Hollywood westerns and a new era that is marked by the arrival of Roman Polanski, who lives next door to the has-been actor Rick Dalton, played by Leo DiCaprio. Here’s Jones sinking her teeth into the film metanarrative:

The same turmoil that’s diminishing Rick’s fame is creating opportunities for upcoming stars like his next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and European new wave talent like her husband, Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), whose hit film Rosemary’s Baby has taken Hollywood by storm. There’s a certain controversy about the way Tarantino conceived the third lead role of Sharon Tate, with its relative lack of dialogue. But the character of Sharon is key to the impact of the film. She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Since Tarantino was six years old in 1969, I am not sure he understood the period well enough to represent his Sharon Tate character as “the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility…opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval.” That sounds much more like Jones’s projection of her own analysis on a inkblot test of a movie that most critics regard as more ambiguous than Tarantino’s usual fare. As for Jones, who was probably born after 1969, you have to wonder what gave her the idea that “social upheaval” had anything to do with Sharon Tate. I am reasonably confident in describing Tate as the typical Hollywood starlet who would end up seated next to Johnny Carson talking about her next film as opposed, for example, to Jane Fonda or Jean Seberg who took courageous stands in favor of peace and Black liberation that very year.

For that matter, Tarantino has a squirm-inducing scene in which Tate shows up at a theater showing her latest film and inveigling free admission from the ticket clerk and manager since she is in the film. She sits in the audience enthralled with her scene in the movie. If you extracted this 10 minute portion of the film and showed it to people who knew nothing about Tarantino, they’d probably conclude that they were watching a complete airhead.

It is difficult to pin down what Tarantino was trying to say about American society or film, a function of his knack for writing screenplays that come from the gut rather than the brain. Given the ambiguity of this latest film and its filmic subject matter, it will likely be discussed in film departments all across the country when the fall term begins.

Ambiguity is made to order for film theorists. In 1930, William Empson wrote a book titled “Seven Types of Ambiguity” that became a handbook of New Criticism. Poems were not studied to see what made them work as art but what hidden message they concealed. New Criticism was made to order for modernist poetry with TS Eliot, WB Yeats and Ezra Pound offering up works that defied easy explanations of the sort offered for Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Even if New Criticism no longer enjoys the hegemony it once had in the literary world, its precepts seem to have been adopted wholesale by film theorists.

Pop Culture is especially made to order for the leftwing film theorist since its hidden meanings might be excavated in order to raise social consciousness about the class struggle dagger concealed in the velvet glove. With millions eventually going to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, just imagine the impact the film will have on the uninitiated if the buried meaning Jones mines from it is true:

Such lively film history do-overs have had a pop kinship with left-wing cinema since the 1920s, when Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov sought to demonstrate as kinetically as possible how films could imaginatively manipulate representations of contemporary as well as historical reality, in part to show its malleability and embolden a revolutionary vision of the world. This new take on 1969 in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, which emphasizes the opening up of radical possibilities instead of closing them down, helps us reflect on the way we’ve received that landmark bit of history through media up to now. And it evokes our own discouraging state of affairs in 2019, also a time of stubborn stasis resisting immense turmoil in the culture, as well as what looks like bad prospects for the survival of the movie industry.

Grouping Tarantino with revolutionary Russian filmmakers of the 1920s is utter nonsense. Eisenstein and Vertov made films that championed socialism. They never would have worked for someone like Harvey Weinstein. Jones says that “this new take on 1969” opened up radical possibilities rather than closing them down. Really? In the final scene, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) takes a woman in Manson’s gang and bashes her head against a brick wall until her brains spill out while Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) uses a flame-thrower on another. Is this supposed to represent “radical possibilities”?

In Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto”, the radical movement of the 1960s is covered in a single page out of 400. The idea that a contributor to Jacobin can extract some sort of radicalism out of a Tarantino film that is a mixture of nostalgia and hyper-violence is another sign of the magazine’s myopia. I can’t imagine what these people think about 1969. At least when I was their age, I was fortunate enough to listen carefully to what people like Farrell Dobbs and George Novack said about the 30s. They, after all, lived through it.

All I was expecting out of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was a good time. Judging by the 90 percent empty seats in the Cineplex I attended, I suspect the word-of-mouth is not that great.

Let me be brief about my own approach to film journalism. For me, the screenplay is essential. I hearken back to Aristotle’s “Poetics”: “The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place.” What is the plot in Tarantino’s film? For the better part of two hours, a couple of Hollywood professionals sit around reminiscing about the good old days. Afterward, one of them runs into a member of Manson’s cult who takes him out to the ranch where they are based. Suspicious of the “hippies”, he checks in on the old man who it belongs to that he knows from the days when he worked as a stunt man on films made there. In the final fifteen minutes of the film, he smokes an LSD-laced joint and gets stoned. In such a state, he still manages to get the best of 3 Mansonites who have barged into Rick Dalton’s house rather than Polanski’s next door. That’s about it.

As for Aristotle’s emphasis on character, there’s virtually none of it outside his two leading men. Maybe there was more of it in the offing in the original script. According to the actor who played Charles Manson, “He did cut quite a lot out of the film. The stuff I got to do in that was lighter and more of a fun tone…” Manson? Fun tone? Maybe it was just as well it was left out.

As I said in my CounterPunch review, not a single character other than the two male leads has any kind of substance. The Manson cult is lacking in character development, except for the under-age nymphet that the stunt man drives out to the ranch. Even in her case, she is monotonically offering up her body to him like a sex robot they use in Japan.

Jones is not bothered by the insubstantiality of Manson’s character: “Tarantino’s Manson makes only the briefest appearance early on near the Tate-Polanski house, looking for Terry Melcher, but he haunts the film via the periodic reappearances of his followers acting on his instructions as they thread their own dark way through the narrative.” This is deeply problematic. In “Inglourious Basterds”, the counterpart to Manson is a Nazi officer played by Christof Waltz who is essential to the film. His sneering, self-justifying but always captivating manner is the perfect foil for the band of heroes who, unlike Cliff Booth, know exactly what their goal is—to save humanity, not just drive off hippie home invaders.

Once Tarantino decided on this plot, he might have found himself out of his depth. To turn the Manson cult into flesh-and-blood human beings rather than grotesque monsters would be a real challenge. If I had written the screenplay, I would have spent a lot less time with the camera trained on the nearly homoerotic bonding between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The film would have gained a lot from showing exactly how Manson was able to turn women into his willing slaves through his warped charisma. By elevating him into a more significant figure, the final showdown might have had more power. But that’s just me. I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter, only a blogger. I prefer it that way since I would never want to make the kind of films The Weinstein Company produced, no matter the pay.

November 5, 2018

Round two in the Robert Brenner-Vivek Chibber fight

Filed under: Academia,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

A magazine with an editorial board made up of Vivek Chibber sycophants?

Last June I posted about the feud between Robert Brenner and his one-time disciple Vivek Chibber that had erupted over Brenner’s dismissal as co-editor of Catalyst Magazine. At the time, 15 well-known leftist academics protested Chibber’s power grab in an open letter. Soon afterward, Bhaskar Sunkara, the publisher of Jacobin and Catalyst, defended the move as necessary since it seemed that Robert Brenner not been keeping up with his editorial duties. Since Brenner is a professor emeritus, I wonder what he had been up to that interfered with his job with all that time on his hands. Going to the race track like Charles Bukowski, another elderly Angeleno?

In any case, Sunkara generously decided to keep him on as an associate editor, alongside fellow associate editor Mike Davis. Brenner said nothing doing and Davis quit the magazine as well. Sunkara was just as magnanimous in victory as he was with the ingrates from the Tribune magazine in England, the latest addition to the Jacobin publishing empire, who also felt like they had been cast aside like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”. When I was in a high school production of Miller’s classic, I played his boss Howard who gave him the bad news that he was no longer needed. Willy’s response: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit!”

A new statement decrying Catalyst has just appeared but taking a different tack. The first one simply called for Brenner to have his old post back but this time the call is for a new journal of the left that will fulfill the original mandate of Catalyst:

We had hoped Catalyst would offer an arena where the complex strategic and theoretical issues arising from the strange new world of 21st century capitalism could be debated at length. The journal took important steps in this direction, yet still needed to expand its circle of editors and writers in order to involve a wider variety of anti-capitalist theoretical and political currents, as a well as a more diverse array of voices. Instead, it moved in the opposite direction, making it necessary to envision an alternative project.

Chibber forced the issue by explicitly refusing to work with Brenner unless he was granted full editorial authority over Catalyst’s direction and content. He has now created an editorial board of five to give the appearance of dispersing authority. But in view of the fact that three of the new members are his former students and one a close friend, it is evident that his purpose was only to tighten his stranglehold. We have been left with no choice but to see to the creation of a new publication ourselves.

So Chibber has named three of his former students and a close friend to rubber-stamp his decisions at Catalyst. Why would anybody expect anything different? Chibber is a product of the kind of authoritarian culture that prevails in academia. To succeed in academia, it helps to be a sycophant. Chibber was once the sycophant to Brenner and has now assembled his own bunch of yes men. You’d expect someone teaching at NYU like Chibber to follow in the norms that prevail there. Just look at one former student of the disgraced NYU professor Avital Ronell reported:

Last year I worked as a teaching assistant for Avital Ronell. I hadn’t sought out the appointment; I am a doctoral student in comparative literature at NYU, and that semester I was, per the handbook, guaranteed a teaching job. A few months before the position began, I received an email from one of my professors informing me that Ronell’s other teaching assistants were “all taking her class and working hard to familiarize themselves with her particular methodologies, texts, style, and so on.” I was “encouraged” to do the same. I was told this was “an important part of the process with Prof. Ronell.” After all, there were other students eager to replace me.

You get more or less the same thing from Andrew Marzoni, who told Washington Post readers that “Academia is a cult”  a few days ago:

Academics may cast themselves as hardened opponents of dominant norms and constituted power, but their rituals of entitlement and fiendish loyalty to established networks of caste and privilege undermine that critical pose. No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track. Follow the leader, or prepare to teach high school.

Can you imagine what would happen to one of Chibber’s dissertation students who had discovered in the course of his research that Political Marxism was a load of crap and had decided to write a thesis that said so? Fucking Chibber wouldn’t allow me to use the 3 minutes allotted to me at an HM conference at NYU a few years ago to make such criticisms so why would he put up with a dissertation student, who unlike a computer programmer like me, needed his support to move ahead professionally.

Most of the 180 people who signed the statement are academics like Chibber. Maybe Catalyst will surge ahead despite them but I wouldn’t count on that given the broad spectrum of opposition embodied in the statement that includes a number of Political Marxism devotees like George Comninel, David McNally, Charles Post, Benno Teschke, and Michael Andrew Žmolek.

The statement outlines a number of pressing issues facing the left such as “How and whether movements can engage in electoral politics in ways that amplify (rather than weaken) working class power built in workplaces and the streets, and that avoid falling back into social democratic and other reformist frameworks, which have, under various guises, been complicit in administering austerity worldwide for decades.” As a new subscriber to Catalyst, I am wondering how long it will take for the magazine to defend the perspective Chibber put forward in Jacobin that called revolutionary struggles against capitalism as passé as a Nehru jacket. So far, there hasn’t been an indication of that.

What makes this ongoing drama so comical in my view is the utter refusal to understand that beneath all the leftist rhetoric, Sunkara is a businessman. He hires and fires at will just like any other businessman. Even Monthly Review, an institution that still breathes fire for all its faults, decided to can Ellen Meiksins Wood over some dispute that was never made public. All of these magazines, including New Left Review, Historical Materialism, Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, et al, are a curious hybrid of socialist politics and petty capitalist production.

Given the state of the left today, such journals fill a vacuum that was left by the demise of the “Leninist” parties of the 1960s. Except for the ISO in the USA, Solidarity, and the British SWP, I can’t think of a single magazine worth reading that has an editorial board responsible to the people who pay dues to a party organized along democratic centralist norms. Moreover, Against the Current, Solidarity’s magazine that includes Robert Brenner on its editorial board, can be read in full online, a feather in their cap. Frankly, this should be the standard for all magazines speaking in the name of socialism. Producing print publications necessitates chopping down trees, after all. And if you are going to sell print publications, at least make them affordable to the average worker.

The statement concludes with a preview of coming attractions:

The signers of this statement look forward to the launching of a new journal committed to openness, experimentation, and a spirit of wide-ranging debate that can seriously take up the questions of the transformed character of capitalism, as well as class power and strategy. It should go without saying that these must include vibrant debates about gender, race, and sexuality as distinctive features of capitalist class relations. Just such a project is currently in the works.

Well, good. I’ll take out a sub to that as well. I need something to fill up my days as a retiree. Between a run in Central Park in the afternoon and catching some movie sent to me by a publicist, there’s nothing that gets the digestive juices flowing more than some academic journal putting forward policy recommendations that reflect the vast distance between those who offer them and the actual lives of working people who will never pay attention to Jacobin or Catalyst even if it snuck up to them on the street and bit them on the ass.

October 19, 2018

Lost Village; Fail State

Filed under: Academia,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

Just by coincidence, two new documentaries drive a stake into the heart of very different forms of higher-educational chicanery. Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, Roger Paradiso’s “Lost Village” is a no-holds-barred assault on NYU for its role in turning Greenwich Village into a wasteland of empty stores, CVS’s, banks, and fast food emporiums while simultaneously making its student body pay for its excesses, driving female students to turn to prostitution to keep their studies going. Also opening today in Los Angeles’s Laemmle theatre and at the Maysles theater in New York next Friday is “Fail State”, an investigative report on for-profit colleges. Of keen interest to CounterPunch readers, neither film leaves the Democratic Party unscathed. Despite his liberal pretensions, Mayor Di Blasio bestows his blessings on NYU’s scorched earth tactics in the Village while Democrats show little interest in putting the kibosh on for-profit colleges that both Obama and Trump sanctioned, the first commander-in-chief in typically triangulation mode and the second with the same kind of cynical boosterism that characterizes his criminal regime.

Continue reading

August 28, 2018

Radical professors and the hazards of social media

Filed under: Academia,repression — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

James Livingston

James Livingstone is now the fourth professor and FB friend who has been victimized by something they wrote on social media. It is too soon to tell what kind of punishment Rutgers will mete out but if the protests from FIRE and PEN have their intended effect, the school will just drop the charges.

Although I obviously support James’s free speech rights, I feel an obligation to say something about why these victimizations keep taking place. There is a definite pattern here that I will identify after reviewing the four cases.

(1) Steven Salaita:

This was the first and best-known case. After being hired by the University of Illinois in 2013, the school rescinded the offer after Israeli lobby activists brought some of his Tweets to the attention of the administration, especially this one that was smeared as a “blood libel”: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” It should have been obvious that this was Swiftian satire but the board preferred to placate wealthy Jewish donors rather than uphold academic freedom.

(2) George Ciccariello-Maher:

His case was almost as widely publicized as Salaita’s, to a large extent fueled by his appearances on Fox News. George was a big-time Twitter user, firing off “edgy” tweets that he probably understood would get under the alt-right’s skin. On Christmas Eve in 2016, he tweeted “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide”, prompted by the racist backlash against State Farm Insurance for purportedly advancing “white genocide” through a commercial featuring an interracial couple. This trope of “white genocide” is ubiquitous to the alt-right, including the business about white farmers in South Africa being killed off. After the fuckwit Tucker Carlson claimed that this was taking place, Trump followed up with a tweet even though it had no factual basis. Unlike the University of Illinois, Drexel University defended his free speech rights but George resigned eventually because the death threats and other forms of harassment became intolerable. Like Salaita, he was guilty of nothing except using Swiftian satire that might have been acceptable among leftists but not to Fox News’s audience. Indeed, if George had used Swiftian satire on Zionists, he might have suffered the same fate as Salaita.

(3) Johnny Eric Williams:

He is a tenured African-American professor at Trinity College in Connecticut who posted a link to a Medium article in June 2017 just after a gunman opened fire on Republican Congressmen playing baseball in Washington. The article, titled “Let Them Fucking Die”, advocated:

If they are choking in a restaurant.

If they are bleeding out in an emergency room.

If the ground is crumbling beneath them.

If they are in a park and they turn their weapons on each other:

Do nothing.

After rightwing outlets targeted Williams as well as the university, the school was closed down for a day in the hope that the furor would die down. Eventually, the administration stuck by Williams even though he was forced to take a leave of absence.

Essentially, Williams was accused of sponsoring “white genocide” just like George C-M even though all he did was link to an article that used inflammatory rhetoric to make a point. Understanding that this was a punitive leave, the AAUP issued a statement taking issue with the school’s president Joanne Berger-Sweeney, an African-American like Williams. From a Chronicle of Higher Education article:

Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said Monday that putting Williams on punitive leave amounted to a “clear violation of the professor’s academic freedom.” The association considers involuntary leaves of absence as severe sanctions that should only be imposed absent a faculty review when the professor in question poses an immediate safety threat.

Calling Berger-Sweeney’s announcement “one of the most mealymouthed statements I’ve ever read,” Reichman in an email said he wondered, “What on earth does ‘we must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues’ mean? Conversations about race, like the one in which [Williams] was participating on social media (and not in his capacity as a Trinity faculty member)? Or the conversations about academic freedom and freedom of speech to which Berger-Sweeney refers? These freedoms are not simply topics to ‘discuss’ and ‘converse’ about; they are first and foremost principles to defend.”

Sadly, he added, “there is nothing in this statement suggesting that Trinity will come to their defense.”

(4) James Livingston:

James is a tenured professor of history at Rutgers whose FB posts tend to be more personal than those of the three above. And often there is a mixture of the personal and the political as with this May post:

In exactly the same fashion as the others, his rather angst-ridden, semi-literary, and rather politically useless rant was denounced by Fox News and company as racial hatred against whites. (In Salaita’s case, it was white Jews who enjoy state power in Israel.)

For each and every one of these interventions in social media, there is no question that perhaps 80 percent of the motivation was to ventilate rather than educate. There is a “shock jock” element that reminds me of what I used to hear all the time before Howard Stern moved to Sirius. “Did you hear what Howard said yesterday morning?”

Let’s face it. Social media is the realm of one liners. And for Twitter, it was 140 characters until recently. Is anybody surprised that both Salaita and George C-M ended up trying to explain what they really meant after the tweet appeared? If the meaning is not crystal clear at the first iteration, it probably didn’t really serve the purpose of consciousness-raising.

Can’t people make the connection between the victimization of these four important professors and the overall crisis of social media, where standards such as fact-checking go by the wayside? In the few times I got involved in Twitter debates, I was astonished by the amount of pure, unadulterated lying that goes on. Since the issue was Syria, I have no doubts that I was dealing with people paid to write lies.

In a very perceptive article that appeared in the April 20, 2015 Huffington Post, a human resources professional named Carla Poertner wrote:

I do recall a time before Facebook and mass immersion into short bites of information associated with chaotic and inattentive thinking that is rewiring the very synapses of our brains, that we actually read books, for learning and for fun.

In university we debated arguments based on research from stacks of these relics. Books with pages to turn, corners to fold, words to underline and paragraphs that we would flip back and forwards to in an attempt to find that one thought we wanted to quote for a paper.

It didn’t seem unusual, then, to focus our attention on an issue long enough to see past the headline. The whole point was to try to understand the complexity of what was in front of us.

Contrast this with our newsfeed, full of short bites and quips. Post anything too long and we lose our audience’s shortened attention spans.

Ironically, all of these people—Salaita, George Ciccariello-Maher, Johnny Eric Williams and James Livingston—have written wheelbarrows full of books as well as dumpster-sized collections of articles in JSTOR type refereed journals. After all, that’s what they do for a living. But when it comes to social media, there is a tendency to forgo scholarly standards and to write stuff off the top of your head, which is no problem in and of itself. It only becomes a problem when it becomes fodder for FOX News.

So, comrade professors, think before you tweet or post to FB. We don’t want to see you victimized because you have a responsibility to the broader movement. In an age when tenure is more difficult than ever, especially for radicals, preserving the cadre is essential—as we used to put it in the Trotskyist movement.

 

June 25, 2018

Robert Brenner, Vivek Chibber, and the “organization question”

Filed under: Academia,Political Marxism — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

Robert Brenner

Vivek Chibber

On Saturday, I received a communication that threw me for a loop:

Dear Friends,

Catalyst has stood out as a bright spot in a dark time for radical politics. I have served from the outset as co-editor of the journal along with Vivek Chibber. Nevertheless, Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, has seen fit to remove me from my position — without any warning, pretense of consultation, or plausible justification. A number of contributors to Catalyst are now stepping in to try to limit the damage that this coup will inflict. Their statement below represents the first step in the campaign.

Robert Brenner

https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/…/editorial-robert-brenner

Catalyst Contributors’ Protest Robert Brenner’s Dismissal from the Catalyst Co-editorship and Demand for his Reinstatement

We, the undersigned, are contributors to Catalyst, who have published or have been commissioned to publish articles in the journal. We are writing to protest the removal of Robert Brenner from his position as co-editor of the journal and to demand his reinstatement.

Co-editor Vivek Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, who is also publisher of Jacobin, made this move unilaterally, without warning, and without any pretense of consultation. Chibber has refused to discuss it with Brenner or to consider Brenner’s proposals for re-configuring Catalyst’s editorial procedures to meet Chibber’s concerns. Nor has Chibber been willing to talk with several of the signers of this statement who contacted him to work out a resolution.

Catalyst is produced by Jacobin, which has provided indispensable support for the journal across the board in terms of finance, production, design, and circulation, while granting its editors total autonomy in terms of its content, especially politics. Jacobin has established itself as one as of the left’s more important institutions. We want to make it abundantly clear that that this letter is in no way an attack on Jacobin and that we have no desire to harm it in any manner. Just the opposite.

So far, Catalyst has been a striking success. It has defined itself as a radical political journal devoted to further developing Marxist theory as an essential guide for political intervention. It has insisted that this development requires dialogue with non-Marxist radical traditions, as well as dissident strains of Marxism typically excluded from major socialist journals, and it has placed a high priority on seeing to it that they are represented in its pages.

Catalyst’s point of departure is that the fundamental goal of working class emancipation has not changed. But it recognizes that continuing transformations in capitalism, the working class, and society/culture have raised different problems than those posed in the last great period of mass mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s.

The journal has thus tried to nurture and publish new theoretical and empirical work to address these changes. Especially due to the globalized nature of the economy and its crisis, which has fueled austerity, neoliberalism, and a growing rightwing populism virtually everywhere, the working class and the left across the world now confront the same challenges simultaneously. Catalyst therefore sees building a coordinated, international political response as an immediate priority.

Catalyst has clearly struck a chord on the left, attracting a remarkable level of interest and rapid growth of subscriptions in a relatively short period of time. Robert Brenner, who co-edited the journal along with Vivek Chibber, was the journal’s founder and has been its central motivating force. Taking take nothing away from Chibber, who has made indispensable contributions in every respect. Brenner was uniquely responsible for enabling the journal to establish itself and flourish, contributing more than his share in every aspect of Catalyst’s work. Given the journal’s success, his dismissal from the position of co-editor makes no sense and is self-destructive for the journal. He must be reinstated.

Chibber, backed by Sunkara, has justified the change in editorship by claiming serious shortcomings in Brenner’s performance as co-editor. According to them, he did not shoulder his proper share of the editing, tended to be late with the editing he did do, and failed to find replacements when he failed to complete jobs on time, compelling Chibber to swoop in to save the day. The burden of Chibber’s case is that he essentially functioned as editor-in-chief, taking the main responsibility for the journal, and that Brenner assumed a lesser and subordinate role but refused to acknowledge it.

This claim has no validity. Quite the contrary. Brenner did a disproportionate share of the editing, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and did most of the substantial editing jobs, as can easily be demonstrated and directly documented. Many of us can personally attest to the high quality of Brenner’s editing, which resulted in making our articles significantly better.

Brenner forwarded to Sunkara and Chibber a systematic and comprehensive response, in which he refuted their arguments point by point, with accompanying evidence.(See Appendix on Distribution of Editing, with detailed documentation, in email accompanying this statement.) But they refused to reply, and, up to this point, have failed to counter any of his assertions. We can only conclude that their case against him was no more than window dressing to provide a cover for what they intended to do in any case.

Even if, for argument’s sake, Chibber had done much more work for the journal than Brenner, we would still have to condemn this takeover as unprincipled and unproductive. What the journal needs now to build most effectively on its success is to broaden its editorial capacity, not narrow it further. A larger editorial board reflecting a greater range of left political perspectives would surely enhance the journal.

It gives us no pleasure to write this letter, but we feel we have no choice. The left, yet again, is digging its own grave, undermining its own achievements. No sooner did Catalyst establish itself as a useful institution, than it was dismantled from within via a Chibber-initiated coup. Given that the expulsion is so plainly self-destructive, it is actually quite difficult to figure out what really motivated it. A single individual’s grab for power and recognition? An unstated political agenda?

Whatever was behind it, the move must be reversed. We therefore call on Sunkara, who as publisher has final authority, and Chibber to re-instate Brenner. We ourselves hereby announce that we will not contribute to Catalyst unless and until Brenner is brought back as co-editor. We call on all others to similarly refuse to cooperate with the journal, as authors or in other capacities, until Chibber and Sunkara make that happen. We encourage those who support this effort to let Chibber and Sunkara know your opinion by emailing them directly.

Signers:

Mike Davis
Aijaz Ahmad
Sam Ashman
Sam Farber
Mike Goldfield
Costas Lapavitsas
CK Lee
Zach Levenson
Isidro Lopez
Kim Moody
Trevor Ngwane
Mike Parker
Charlie Post
Suzi Weissman
Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos

The link above directed one to Brenner’s page at Catalyst, where the above statement appeared. You can still get to the page but the statement is gone. All you get is a blank page. Nice.

Mike Davis minced no words:

The Millennial generation’s enthusiasm for ‘socialism,’ however vaguely defined, is truly the horizon of hope in this otherwise darkening age. But, frankly speaking, Marxists have done a poor job of arming radical passions with deep analyses of the world crisis, its class actors, and emergent social movements. Catalyst – published by Jacobin and co-edited by Bob Brenner and Vivek Chibber- was launched last year precisely to provide a quality forum for such debates and explorations. It has surpassed all expectations in attracting exciting articles from a rapidly-growing and diverse community of contributors.

So why kill this vital force in its crib? For reasons which he disdains to explain to contributors and readers, Chibber has ‘fired’ Brenner with the complicity of Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who controls the means of production. Rumor from the New York side insinuates that Brenner failed to fulfill his share of editorial work, but as the erstwhile ‘associate editor’ I can assure you that this is completely untrue. If anything, Brenner assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for editing articles, commissioning pieces and giving direction to the journal. He also lent it an intellectual prestige and political seriousness which I very much doubt Chibber, even with Sunkara’s support, can sustain.

Brenner has made desperate and sincere efforts to save the collaboration but they have been dismissed with a wave of Sunkara’s hand. Should the rest of us, who so enthusiastically rallied to Catalyst, simply acquiesce and eat cake? Certainly not – the project – the collective property of the contributors, must go on. Please stay tuned.

Today, Sunkara defended himself and Chibber on FB, likely pissing off even more those who wrote the statement:

There has not been a “coup” of any kind at Catalyst. We did not kick Robert Brenner off the journal. Rather, we asked him to move to being “Founding and Associate Editor,” which would still give him substantial influence in the journal’s direction, but would enable us to overcome the problems we were facing owing to his difficulties in meeting deadlines and carrying through on his commitments.

From the very inception of the journal it had led to serious problems with production. We did, in fact, try different solutions to make it work and had extensive conversations with Bob and others about this. But by late 2017 it reached a breaking point, when the journal was delayed for two consecutive issues – the second one being two months. And at the end of it, the material he had committed to acquiring and editing was not delivered at all, or was of a quality unsuitable for publication. Problems like this were now not only paralyzing Catalyst but also started to bleed over into the production of other projects. No quarterly journal can survive delays of this length and this frequency.

This is why we decided to suggest a change in responsibilities. It would be highly irrational for us to have taken this step if Brenner had indeed been shouldering most of the responsibility, as he claims. Why would I agree to “fire” him if this was the case? We have a long history with Brenner and respect him greatly. But not everyone can do everything, and shouldering the day-to-day responsibilities of a journal turned out not to be one of his strengths. We hoped that as Founding & Associate Editor he would still be able to lend his considerable talents to the project, without being a bottleneck in its production. We regret that we had to take this step, but there seemed little choice.

The campaign he is waging is self-indulgent and destructive. He cannot force himself onto a journal, if the people there feel that they can’t rely on him. Obviously, it’s unfortunate, but the old arrangement just wasn’t working.

On the bright side, we’ve managed to finalize three issues over the last six months that are of really great quality and Catalyst is still growing at the rate of around 75-100 subscribers a week.

This is the last thing we’ll have to say on this matter – though if you have any questions you can contact Vivek or myself personally.

The controversy has generated comments from NYU professors where Chibber is based. Nikil Singh, who is a critic of the Brenner thesis—at least as applied to American slavery after the fashion of Charles Post, tweeted this:

It’s Ironic that Jacobin, which prides itself on being an engaged alternative to insular campus left politics has chosen as its in-house intellectual someone whose politics is defined by seminar room victories and the worst kinds of petty, internecine intra-academic warfare.

Not long after the tweet appeared, he deleted it. I suppose he didn’t want to antagonize Chibber or fellow Political Marxist don in the sociology department Jeff Goodwin, who defended him and Sunkara on FB:

This statement rings true to me. Vivek Chibber has been a leading proponent of the work of Robert Brenner, who was central to his very formation as a Marxist. Chibber recently worked hard to secure a teaching position for Brenner at NYU, an effort scuttled by people hostile to Marxism. I know Chibber extremely well — we have been colleagues for many years — and I have never heard him express the slightest ill will toward Brenner. Quite the contrary. The idea that Chibber would try to drive Brenner off the journal Catalyst, which the two of them co-founded, for some unspecified but nefarious purpose doesn’t make sense to me.

Of course, it was true that Chibber was a leading proponent of Brenner’s work, a disciple actually. He was also very tight with Charles Post, another Brennerite, who got on his wrong side after criticizing an idiotic article that Chibber wrote for Jacobin ruling out socialist revolution for the foreseeable future. For Chibber, the “strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.” His article is standard issue social democratic reformism, hardly distinct from what you might read in Dissent magazine as I pointed out here: https://louisproyect.org/2018/02/26/vivek-chibbers-apolitical-marxism/

Many years ago, when I was being trained in the Trotskyist movement, James P. Cannon’s “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” was required reading. This was his account of the fight with Max Shachtman and James Burnham in 1939 over the class character of the USSR. The term “organization question” is referenced heavily throughout. For Cannon, this was the Achilles Heel of the “petty-bourgeois” opposition that harped on things like his top-heavy leadership (true, I’m sure) rather than the underlying theoretical questions. Cannon wrote:

What is the significance of the organisation question as such in a political party? Does it have an independent significance of its own on the same plane with political differences, or even standing above them? Very rarely. And then only transiently, for the political line breaks through and dominates the organisation question every time. This is one of the first ABC lessons of party politics, confirmed by all experience.

In his notorious document entitled “Science and Style”, Burnham writes: “The second central issue is the question of the regime in the Socialist Workers Party.” In reality the opposition tried from the beginning of the dispute to make the question of the “regime” the first issue; the basic cadres of the opposition were recruited precisely on this issue before the fundamental theoretical and political differences were fully revealed and developed.

This method of struggle is not new. The history of the revolutionary labour movement since the days of the First International is an uninterrupted chronicle of the attempts of petty-bourgeois groupings and tendencies of all kinds to recompense themselves for their theoretical and political weakness by furious attacks against the “organisational methods” of the Marxists. And under the heading of organisational methods, they included everything from the concept of revolutionary centralism up to routine matters of administration; and beyond that to the personal manners and methods of their principled opponents, which they invariably describe as “bad”, “harsh”, “tyrannical”, and—of course, of course, of course—“bureaucratic”. To this day any little group of anarchists will explain to you how the “authoritarian” Marx mistreated Bakunin.

As it happens, both Brenner and Chibber are susceptible to prioritizing the “organization question”. I say this because someone privy to the feud informed me:

As I understand it, Brenner gave a ten or so page critique of an article Chibber had for the magazine (Catalyst) the long and short of which was that Chibber’s piece was fatally flawed. All said in the best academese of course.

So political differences will likely be papered over in order turn this into a Human Resources grievance. Who really believes that Brenner and one of his best known and most obsequious disciples were butting heads over whether he was keeping up with his editorial duties?

I don’t.

My advice is to look for the next issue of the Catalyst to read Chibber’s article. You can only guess what Brenner thought of it but are not likely to see any critique since he is not really in the habit of duking it out publicly with the exception of his NLR article about the 1997 financial crisis. Of course, that was easier to take part in since it involved rather cut-and-dry questions of how to understand the declining rate of profit and other key indicators. Having it out with one of his erstwhile devotees is probably not something Brenner has a stomach for although the sharp-elbowed Chibber would probably like to bring it on.

What lessons can we draw from all this? Brenner became the high priest of Political Marxism forty-one years ago after attacking Paul Sweezy in the NLR as a neo-Smithian Marxist. Hinging on your agreement that capitalism originated in the British countryside because of historical contingencies that gave birth to tenant farming, you were qualified to become a Marxist mandarin. He concluded his lengthy article with this:

The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.

Well, yeah. Who wouldn’t want to be lined up with the “leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution.” 1977. Those were the days. Within a couple of years, Jack Barnes would be speaking in the same terms about developing a flawless revolutionary movement except in his case it was abandoning Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution rather than upholding arcane arguments about tenant farming.

Oddly enough as the left breaks with this kind of dogmatism that leads to needless splits, it is the cult of Political Marxism that is now embroiled in the same kind of feuds we used to see in the heyday of Trotskyism and Maoism. In our days, the prize was to become a Leninist vanguard. Today, it is being an editor of a quasi-academic journal like Catalyst.

Sigh.

UPDATE.

Statement by David McNally on FB:

On the Uproar about Catalyst

These are trying times for the emerging New Left. While the old is dying, to paraphrase Gramsci, the new cannot yet be born. Thus, alongside, intimations of hope and new waves of resistance, we encounter a proliferation of “morbid symptoms.” It is difficult not to worry that the uproar at Catalyst, the journal associated with Jacobin magazine, is another case in point.

The uproar seems to originate in efforts to demote or fire Bob Brenner from his position as co-editor of Catalyst, in which role he served with Vivek Chibber. I am not privy to the internal machinations involved in Brenner’s removal/demotion, but when Mike Davis (the journal’s associate editor) says the rationale used is “completely untrue” I am inclined to pay close attention. Even more significant is what this direction would seem to signal for the project of building a new radical left.

From the start, many of us recognized the need for a serious U.S.-based journal of rigorously socialist analysis that could speak to a new generation of leftward-moving radicals. At the same time, many of us also felt that the Catalyst project would need to be expanded and opened up—to activists and theorists leading struggles against racism and police violence, organizing for migrant justice, fighting for gender and LGBTQ liberation, doing grassroots organizing in union, campus, and environmental justice campaigns, and so on. Ultimately, a journal of a real socialist movement has to be rooted in and accountable to a network of thousands of contributors, subscribers, readers, and activists who identify with and support its political project. And it can only achieve this by demonstrating that, notwithstanding who owns it, in practice it is a collective project “owned” by the movement that sustains it.

After Catalyst was launched, I had the opportunity to raise these points with Bob Brenner, and found him to be highly supportive of this perspective. Instead, however, Catalyst is shrinking its editors (to one)—and losing, it would seem, its associate editor, Mike Davis—at the very time it should be moving in the opposite direction.

Nearly twenty years ago, Ellen Meiksins Wood was purged from her editorship at Monthly Review. Hundreds of us wrote to MR, imploring it to reverse this disastrous decision. We had been thrilled by the new voices and perspectives Ellen had brought to MR, and we asked the Board that owned the review to reinstate her as an editor. They refused. MR severely damaged its standing on the wider left, and has never again played the role that it did in the mid- to late-1990s when Ellen was on board. The decision to turn their backs on hundreds of us who contributed to and subscribed to its journal, and who were spokespersons for it within a broad left, irreparably damaged MR’s political project, while also associating it with purges and bureaucratic edicts.

One would like to think that those who own and control Catalyst have the capacity to step back, regroup, and rethink. When a large layer of a journal’s contributors denounces an organizational maneuver (as they have in the case of Brenner’s removal/demotion), the warning signs are blinking brightly. Catalyst may well continue in spite of such maneuvers, but it will be very difficult for it to fulfill its initial promise. One can only hope that morbid symptoms will not prevail. We have been down that road before, and it is not a good one.

June 17, 2018

Harvard University, bias against Asian-Americans, affirmative action and “life itself”

Filed under: Academia,affirmative action,bard college,Education — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Edward Blum, using Asian-American student grievances to destroy affirmative action

Towards the end of the very fine documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on Friday, May Ngai, the radical history professor at Columbia University, weighs in on the new forms of discrimination that Chinese face even as the vicious racism directed against coolie labor has ended:

So in the late ’60s and early ’70s you have a disproportionate number of highly educated Asians who came in under the 1965 Act. This is a period of an expanding economy in the United States, with more and more R&D work; technical work. Now, a curious consequence of the Hart-Celler Act is that we’re still left with the idea that Chinese are other. They may not be the Yellow Peril of the 19th century and early 20th century. But now they’re the super-achieving students who keep your kids out of college – right? So they’re either evil or super-achievers.

So when I saw the headline on a NY Times article from two days ago titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says”, my immediate reaction was to side with the legal action that forced Harvard to turn over admission records in compliance with a suit being filed against the school for discrimination, especially since this was just a variation on what Jews faced once upon a time. A court document prepared by the Students for Fair Admissions stated: “It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along. Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

It turns out that the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, who is not a lawyer, is a Jew named Edward Blum whose purpose it is to connect aggrieved students, who see themselves as victims of affirmative action, with attorneys all too happy to turn back the clock. He helped get the gears in motion in a suit against the University of Texas at Austin two years ago on behalf of two white women–Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz—who were angry that Black and Latino students with lower grades than theirs were admitted to the school under affirmative action. The Supreme Court rejected their claims. What will happen as Trump nominates more racists in this term and the one likely to follow in 2020 is predictable.

Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act”. What’s that you ask? It stipulates that states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices are not permitted to change the rules for elections without first persuading the Justice Department (or a court) that their new policies will improve, or at least not harm, minority representation. So when Mississippi or Alabama decide to screw Black people out of the right to vote, people like Blum are on the side of the racists. Blum got his way in 2013, when the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 in a suit he helped initiate. Without Section 4, Section 5 is toothless.

In fact, Blum’s last big assault on racial equality took place last year when he heard about a proposed state law that would require had forced Poway, California to redo its voting districts so Latinos would have a better chance of winning elections.

How does Blum get funding for the work he does? It turns out that most of it comes from the Searle Freedom Trust, a rightwing foundation founded by Daniel Searle, the deceased pharmaceutical billionaire who stated its goals on its website as “creating an environment that promotes individual freedom and economic liberties, while encouraging personal responsibilities and a respect for traditional American values.”

In a follow-up article in today’s NY Times, you get a feel for the wariness some Asian-Americans about what Blum is up to. Titled “Asian-Americans Face Multiple Fronts in Battle Over Affirmative Action”, it identifies Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos in the USA as suffering higher degrees of poverty than Chinese or Japanese-Americans and being sympathetic to affirmative action.

In 2010, T.K. Park, who blogs as Ask a Korean, replied to a query about whether practices such as Harvard follows was an injustice since it limited the numbers of Asian-American admissions:

You might be surprised, because the Korean actually does think it is a good thing.

First of all, allow the Korean to first state his preferred end result: meritocracy must be an important element in college admissions. The meritocracy must involve clearly stated criteria such as test scores, quality of extracurricular activities, quality of letters of recommendation, and so on. And the Korean is not advocating that college campuses mirror exactly the local or national racial mix. There must be some sort of middle ground. The Korean does not know where the proper middle ground is. But the middle ground is probably not the 55 percent Asian American campus as it is in University of California, Irvine.

To explain why the Korean thinks so, allow the Korean to quote John Dewey: “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” Because the Korean experienced two drastically different educational systems (Korean and American,) the truth of Dewey’s quote resonates even stronger with him. In fact, many of Korean educational system’s flaws (despite its numerous strengths) can be traced to this: Korea treats its schools as a place where students prepare for the real world, as opposed to treating it as the real world in and of itself. Thus, learning knowledge is emphasized, while learning social skills gets a short shrift.

The same principle must apply to colleges. College is not a meal ticket given for a certain set of “good behaviors”. It is a place where one receives education. And if colleges do not adequately reflect the “life itself” as Dewey said, they cannot provide adequate education.

What is missing from the discussion about “reverse discrimination” is any engagement with the broader question of competition among different ethnic groups to succeed in the high stakes game of musical chairs, where admission to an Ivy college will open doors to professional success after graduation.

Last year, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia revealed to me that there were four suicides between September and January, 2017. This was not just Columbia’s problems. In 2013, there were three suicides at Harvard. While not an Ivy, NYU is certainly a place that is on any A-List. I remember when George Rupp met with us in Columbia’s IT department to tell us that the competition between his school and NYU was intense. I got a chuckle out of him telling us that the appointment of some high-profile Marxists like Jon Elster had helped our reputation.

So, what do you expect when schools become pressure cookers in such competition? For NYU students, something had to give. After two students jumped from the upper floors walkway to their death inside the Eleanor Bobst Library, the administration enclosed the 12-story atrium with perforated aluminum screens in an effort to prevent suicides, just like they have done at the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges.

The most poignant story, however, was MIT’s. On April 10, 2002, Elizabeth Shin, a Korean-American student, self-immolated in her dormitory room. Even though she sent multiple emails to faculty members threatening suicide, the school ignored the warning signs. The night before she had burned herself to death, she even tried to plunge a knife into her chest but had a failure of nerve. A NY Times article dated April 28, 2002 conveys the hopes her parents placed in her:

For the Shins, M.I.T., whose undergraduate population is 30 percent Asian-American, was the gold standard. Elizabeth was accepted at Yale too. It is possible, her mother says wistfully, that Elizabeth would have been happier there. She was an artistic soul, and if her SAT’s were any measure, she was stronger in English — she got 799 out of 800 on her SAT verbal and her SAT II writing test — than in math and science. But Elizabeth wanted to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases, as she put it. If that is your goal, her father says, and you get into M.I.T., ”you don’t think twice about it.”

”As far as M.I.T., to me, it’s the best institution on earth,” Cho Shin says.

Back in 1961, I was a junior in high school and well on my way to admission to Columbia University since I had no competition for the valedictorian award. But since my mother worried so much about my alienation and unhappiness from high school, she and the principal agreed that the best thing for me was to skip my senior year and go to Bard College on an early admission plan. Who knows? That might have saved me from jumping out a window. I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be a freshman at a male-only college where every other valedictorian was competing with me and themselves to stand out.

Bard College, as Ask a Korean cited John Dewey, was a place that reflected “life itself”. Armed with a Bard degree, it was likely that Merrill Lynch would have hired a Harvard graduate rather than me but to Bard’s credit it was a place where you would be inculcated against the values that Merrill Lynch represented.

Although I am a bit skeptical about the claim that John Dewey was experiment with democratic socialism (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/john-dewey-democratic-socialism-liberalism), I do give him credit for helping places like Bard College to create an environment where students don’t kill themselves over the stresses associated with Ivy schools.

In the 1930s, Bard and Sarah Lawrence became models of Deweyite precepts about higher education. His followers at Columbia University transformed an Episcopalian-oriented training ground for the clergy into Bard that some called the “Hudson Valley experimental school.”

An August 5, 1934 NY Times article titled “CURRICULUM IS REVERSED; New Plan at Bard College Is Designed to Give the Student’s Interest Freer Play” indicated how revolutionary the approach would be:

Second, the particular abilities, interests and purposes of the student himself [it became co-ed in 1944] will be the centre around which he will be permitted, under guidance, to build his own course of study. He will not be looked upon as so much material to be run into a mold but as an individual whose growth is to be stimulated and nourished. The student, as soon as he enters, will select one general field of study in which he will try his powers. The field be selects as his own will presumably be the one in which he has been most interested and has demonstrated most ability before coming to college.

That’s what we need, schools in which students are not “material to be run into a mold”. Ironically, it is just such schools that have become historically superseded by the corporatization of higher education and forced into bankruptcy. Ultimately, the goal should be to destroy corporatization in all its forms and allow students to prepare themselves for jobs in a socialist society that are not “bullshit”, as David Graeber puts it. Just as we have entered a new Gilded Age, history is crying out for a new Progressive movement that counted John Dewey among its leading lights. But given the class realities of a decaying capitalist system, the only progressivism that has a chance of succeeding today is one that is based on the need for working people to take power in their own name.

April 15, 2018

London Times articles about Assadist university professors

Filed under: Academia,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:42 pm

(Since these articles are behind a paywall, I am posting them in full here since they would be of interest to my readers.)

London Times, April 14, 2018
Professors ‘shut down debate’ over Assad’s chemical attacks
by Georgie Keate

When Idrees Ahmad read the letter of complaint against him, he was baffled to see it written on University of Sheffield headed paper.

The authors were members of a recently formed organisation called the Syria, Propaganda and Media (SPM) group, whose stated aim was to “facilitate research with respect to the 2011-present war in Syria”.

They objected to Dr Ahmad, a lecturer in digital journalism at Stirling University, criticising an article written by Tim Hayward, an Edinburgh professor of political theory and one of their key members. Professor Hayward had argued on his blog that “independent investigators” such as Vanessa Beeley, a pro-Assad journalist in Syria, should be given a “fair hearing”.

Among Ms Beeley’s beliefs are that the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group in Syria, are terrorists and that President Assad has not carried out chemical attacks.

Some members of SPM have regularly promoted such views, an investigation has found, including Professor Hayward, who has used hashtags such as #syriahoax on Twitter to disseminate claims that Assad had not carried out a chemical attack that the White Helmets had filmed.

After reading Professor Hayward’s article, Dr Ahmad used Twitter to call it “illiterate Islamaphobic drivel”, describing him as “an eccentric best known for his disgraceful conspiracy theories aimed at exonerating Syria’s murderous regime”.

His comments provoked Piers Robinson, another key SPM member and a professor of politics, society and political journalism at Sheffield, to write to Sterling accusing Dr Ahmad of bringing the university into disrepute. Other signatories include Paul McKeigue, professor of genetic epidemiology and statistics genetics at Edinburgh, and Professor Hayward.

Last night Professor Hayward strongly denied claims that he was seeking to shut down academic debate, saying: “The last thing I would ever attempt to do is shut down public debate. I have never intimidated anyone.” He said he agreed to the letter after Dr Ahmad “started intimidating a group which included some younger academics”. Regarding his use of the hashtag, he said: “I understood a hashtag to indicate a topic rather than a creed.” Dr Ahmad and other academics accuse SPM, a British-based group, of spreading online disinformation promoting views shared by Assad and Russia while failing to use verifiable evidence to back up their arguments.

Much of their concern is based on SPM’s apparent reliance on blogs and activists, such as Ms Beeley, who purport to report the truth from the ground in Syria.

Data analysis carried out on behalf of the White Helmets shows that Ms Beeley’s claims that chemical attacks in Syria were staged have been repeated and promoted by Russian networks to spread disinformation about the group. Indeed, her tweets on the White Helmets make her one of the most influential online figures circulating content about the group, according to two data analyst outfits, Graphika and Hoaxy.

Graphika found that Twitter bots linked to Russia had promoted anti-White Helmet tweets to as many as 56 million people worldwide. Members of SPM, which include ten British academics at universities such as Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bath and SOAS University of London, have retweeted such content numerous times.

Dr Ahmad accuses activists such as Ms Beeley of having used footage of the group to twist their actions. One example was when footage of the White Helmets taking part in the “mannequin challenge” – an online trend in which people filmed themselves frozen in action – was said to be evidence that they “staged” attacks.

Yesterday, Professor Hayward retweeted a post from Ms Beeley which claimed that the “White Helmets and terrorist factions staged false flag events and ‘kidnapped, drugged’ children to use as props in events”.

Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at Birmingham University who often opposes the views of SPM members online, said their contribution to Russian and pro-Assad propaganda was dangerous for debate. “Where this gets serious is that not only are this group pushing the [same line as the Russians] but they are also trying to intimidate academics,” he said.

“It’s fine to have your own opinion …

but evidence for their views is weakly sourced and often disinformation.” Professor Lucas said their approach was “so dangerous. If you devalue facts and the basics of an investigation, you create a morass of uncertainty. Clearly we can all disagree about the war in Syria, but to deny an event like a chemical attack even occurred, by claiming they were ‘staged’, is to fall into an Orwellian world.”

Dr Ahmad said the group was failing in its “intellectual and moral commitment” to stay well informed with credible material. “Their output does not include evidence that deals with material that has been processed legitimately, either from peer review or an article going through an editorial process.”

Professor Hayward, in response to criticisms that he was aiding a Russian campaign to put out propaganda, said: “I do not accept that I am spreading any ‘disinformation’. If you read my blogs you will see that they are largely about insisting on the importance of asking questions. However, if you do find anything at all I have written that you think is disinformation, please do alert me. I am always ready – and eager – to be corrected, if I ever misunderstand anything or make any mistake. The very last thing I would wish to do is spread disinformation so I really would be grateful if you could point to anything that appears to be doing so.”

Neither he nor Professor Robinson nor Professor McKeigue commented on the letter.

Professor Robinson said of Ms Beeley’s work: “She produces information that is worthy of consideration and certainly her work on the White Helmets, along with work produced by others, raises extremely important questions for academics to research, the public to know about, and is rightly worthy of consideration.” He said the charge of spreading misinformation was incorrect. “There is ample information in the public domain which does raise serious questions regarding the chemical weapons attacks in Syria and the White Helmets. This information is available and verifiable and provides reasonable grounds to raise such questions.” Additional reporting by Krystina Shveda and Sam Blanchard Leading article, page 25

Talking heads

Piers Robinson

Professor of politics, society and political journalism at Sheffield University. His biography states he “has been cited in publications such as The Responsibility to Protect, published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)”, and has lectured on the topic at the “Nato Defence College in Rome, at Oxford (UK senior military commanders) and by the Stop the War Coalition”. Research interests include focusing on “organised persuasive communication and contemporary propaganda”.

Tim Hayward

Professor of environmental political theory and director of the Just World Institute, a body set up to “foster interdisciplinary research into the global challenges facing the international order, with particular attention to issues of ethics and justice”. He has written four books on human rights, ecological values and political theory, published between 1995 and 2017.

Tara McCormack

Lecturer in international relations. She taught European and comparative politics and international relations at the universities of Westminster and Brunel before Leicester University. She has contributed to the BBC, LBC, Sky, Al Jazeera, Russia Today, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Spiked-online and others.

Adam Larson

According to a blog post, Mr Larson is an “independent investigator in Spokane, Washington”. “He studied history at Eastern Washington University,” the biography states. “He has since 2011, on a volunteer basis, studied events in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine following western-backed regime-change operations, often under the screen name Caustic Logic. Using open sources, with an emphasis on video analysis, Mr Larson and research associates have often deconstructed or disproved alleged ‘regime’ crimes from shooting protesters to sectarian massacres.”

Vanessa Beeley

The daughter of the British diplomat and historian Sir Harold Beeley is a self-styled “investigative journalist”. She described meeting Assad in October 2017 as part of a “US peace delegation” her “proudest moment”. Her Twitter page reads: “The pursuit of peace … can never be relaxed and never abandoned.”

Conspiracy theorists hold court on social media

Tweets posted by members of the Syria, Propaganda and Media group

Undermining the White Helmets

Tim Hayward: White Helmets’ mission: “To save one headscarf is to save all?” #SyriaHoax – April 11 2017

Tara McCormack:

It is also an established fact that a) the White Helmets are basically Al Q (they provide most of the reporting from Jihadi-held areas) and b) that hospitals are used as bases by these groups. – February 5 2018 Tara McCormack: Yep White Helmets, Free Syrian Police all paid for by US and UK (as BBC Panorama piece showed) and run by Jihadis. Good grief even the BBC is showing this.- December 20 2017

Sami Ramadani:

Like all imperialist wars on defiant nations, the war on #Syria has been based on lies and fabrications. The White Helmets are the soft face of genocidal terrorism. – January 7 2018 Louis Allday: After all the revelations, for Amnesty to still boost the White Helmets is obscene, if not a surprise. – October 6 2017 Assad is innocent Tim Hayward: All the talk of proof that Assad did it and none at all produced!

– June 30 2017 Piers Robinson: Deconstructing the war propaganda … Alleged Sarin Gas Attack by President Assad is Fake News.

– April 12 2017 Louis Allday: I believe Ghouta was a false-flag incident with planted sarin and gassed hostages. Saraqeb, same. Same sarin in KS and many other clues. – August 5 2017 The West is a lying aggressor Tim Hayward: Critical questions about CNN complicity in misleading “chemical weapons” reporting – from @VanessaBeeley on the ground with them in Ghouta.

– April 8 2018 Tim Hayward: #SyriaHoax is an episode in a long running strategy of serious bullshit. “Human Rights” groups promote unjust war. – April 7 2017 Adam Larson: #Douma alleged CW attack: Info and maybe the bodies, provided by an Islamist terrorist affiliate, proponent of holding and using “infidel” hostages. – April 13 2018 Adam Larson: The lack of subtlety in their staging reeks of desperation … And yet, who is it that’s desperate in the area these days? – April 8 2018 Sami Ramadani: One basic fact never gets reported by mainstream media on #Syria: The terrorist gangs are in possession of chlorine gas & other chemical weapons. They have threatened using them & posted films of using them on rabbits – April 9 2018 Sami Ramadani: Is the bloody conflict in #Syria civil-war among Syrians or is it a US-led proxy war to destroy Syria? – June 20 2016 Louis Allday: Amnesty have been openly war-mongering on Syria. – January 16 2018 Louis Allday: Disgusting, warmongering nonsense that perpetuates the myth of a virtuous and benevolent West. Typical Guardian. – April 10 2018 Vanessa Beeley has described her meeting with President Assad last October as her “proudest moment”


London Times, April 14, 2018
Apologists for Assad hold senior positions in British universities
by Georgie Keate ; Dominic Kennedy

Senior British academics are spreading pro-Assad disinformation and conspiracy theories promoted by Russia, The Times can reveal.

They are founders of a self-styled Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (SPM) and hold posts at universities including Edinburgh, Sheffield and Leicester.

Members of the group, which includes four professors, have been spreading the slur, repeated by the Russian ambassador to Britain yesterday, that the White Helmets civilian volunteer force has fabricated video evidence of attacks by President Assad, who is backed by the Kremlin.

SPM’s advisers include an American who has challenged the US version of 9/11 as a conspiracy theory and an Australian who suggested that the CIA was behind last weekend’s chemical attack in Syria.

The White Helmets have attracted Russia’s ire for documenting the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April last year, which killed 83 people, a third of them children. Last September a UN unit found that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian forces dropped a bomb dispersing sarin” on Khan Sheikhoun.

Yesterday an SPM member, Tim Hayward, professor of environmental political theory at the University of Edinburgh, retweeted a claim about an attack on eastern Ghouta that the “White Helmets and terrorist factions staged false flag events and ‘kidnapped, drugged’ children to use as props”. He added: “Witness statements from civilians and officials in Ghouta raise very disturbing questions.”

Professor Hayward has published a blog article by his colleague Paul McKeigue, a professor of genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics, which claimed that there was almost “zero likelihood” that Assad carried out chemical attacks. He used “probability calculus” to assess the evidence.

Professor Hayward has used the hashtag #Syriahoax when discussing chemical attacks in the country. The hashtag went viral after being used by alt-right figures in the US, including Mike Cernovich, a main proponent of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which alleged that Hillary Clinton supporters were involved with a child-abuse ring. The hashtag was said to have been promoted by a Russian cyberoperation. The professor also linked to a video that appeared to show chemical attack victims that, it was suggested, was staged. A rescuer removed a headscarf from an apparent victim. Professor Hayward wrote: “White Helmets’ mission: ‘To save one headscarf is to save all’ #SyriaHoax”. After being contacted by The Times, he deleted the tweet.

The American academic Mark Crispin Miller, who was said to have called the US government’s account of the 9/11 attacks a “conspiracy theory”, is on the SPM’s advisory board. Another board member is David Blackall, an Australian academic who tweeted “CIA stages gas attack pretext for Syria escalation” with a link to a blog article. Professor Hayward has written for the alternative news website 21st Century Wire, whose associate editor is Vanessa Beeley, daughter of the late British diplomat Sir Harold Beeley. She claims that the White Helmets are al-Qaeda-affiliated and, as “terrorists”, are a “legit target” for Assad’s forces.

Another member of the group, Piers Robinson, professor of politics, society and political journalism at the University of Sheffield, posted a clip in which Ms Beeley repeated the argument that the group should be a target with the note “interesting interview”.

Another SPM academic, Tara McCormack, a lecturer in international relations at Leicester University, has tweeted that it is “an established fact that a) the White Helmets are basically Al [Qaeda]”. Dr McCormack has also argued that the death of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic while being prosecuted for war crimes in the Hague “brought an end to the farce” of his trial.

The first briefing note published by SPM, titled “Doubts about ‘Novichoks’ “, questioned whether Russia’s secret nerve agent programme ever existed. Britain has blamed Moscow for the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury last month.

Professor Robinson, a member of SPM, told The Times: “Everything I say and write I can defend as based on good faith research and due consideration of available evidence. Vanessa Beeley produces information that is worthy of consideration and certainly her work on the White Helmets, along with work produced by others, raises extremely important questions for academics to research [and] the public to know about.”

The University of Sheffield declined to comment, saying that it needed more time to consider the matters raised.

Professor Hayward said, regarding his use of #Syriahoax: “I understood a hashtag to indicate a topic rather than a creed. I do not accept that I am spreading any ‘disinformation’. ” The University of Edinburgh said: “We recognise and uphold the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, and seek to foster a culture that enables it to take place within a framework of mutual respect.”

Adam Larson, an independent researcher with SPM, last night denied that it would promote disinformation. Such content would be “strategically designed to mislead” and wrong, he said.

Leading article, page 25 Talking heads Piers Robinson Professor of politics, society and political journalism at Sheffield University. His biography states he “has been cited in publications such as The Responsibility to Protect, published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)”, and has lectured on the topic at the “Nato Defence College in Rome, at Oxford (UK senior military commanders) and by the Stop the War Coalition”. Research interests include focusing on “organised persuasive communication and contemporary propaganda”.

Tim Hayward Professor of environmental political theory and director of the Just World Institute, a body set up to “foster interdisciplinary research into the global challenges facing the international order, with particular attention to issues of ethics and justice”. He has written four books on human rights, ecological values and political theory, published between 1995 and 2017.

Tara McCormack Lecturer in international relations. She taught European and comparative politics and international relations at the universities of Westminster and Brunel before Leicester University. She has contributed to the BBC, LBC, Sky, Al Jazeera, Russia Today, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Spiked-online and others.

Adam Larson According to a blog post, Mr Larson is an “independent investigator in Spokane, Washington”. “He studied history at Eastern Washington University,” the biography states. “He has since 2011, on a volunteer basis, studied events in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine following western-backed regime-change operations, often under the screen name Caustic Logic. Using open sources, with an emphasis on video analysis, Mr Larson and research associates have often deconstructed or disproved alleged ‘regime’ crimes from shooting protesters to sectarian massacres.”

Vanessa Beeley The daughter of the British diplomat and historian Sir Harold Beeley is a self-styled “investigative journalist”. She described meeting Assad in October 2017 as part of a “US peace delegation” her “proudest moment”. Her Twitter page reads: “The pursuit of peace … can never be relaxed and never abandoned.”

Conspiracy theorists hold court on social media Tweets posted by members of the Syria, Propaganda and Media group Undermining the White Helmets Tim Hayward: White Helmets’ mission: “To save one headscarf is to save all?” #SyriaHoax – April 11 2017 Tara McCormack: It is also an established fact that a) the White Helmets are basically Al Q (they provide most of the reporting from Jihadi-held areas) and b) that hospitals are used as bases by these groups. – February 5 2018 Tara McCormack: Yep White Helmets, Free Syrian Police all paid for by US and UK (as BBC Panorama piece showed) and run by Jihadis. Good grief even the BBC is showing this.

– December 20 2017 Sami Ramadani: Like all imperialist wars on defiant nations, the war on #Syria has been based on lies and fabrications. The White Helmets are the soft face of genocidal terrorism. – January 7 2018 Louis Allday: After all the revelations, for Amnesty to still boost the White Helmets is obscene, if not a surprise. – October 6 2017 Assad is innocent Tim Hayward: All the talk of proof that Assad did it and none at all produced!

– June 30 2017 Piers Robinson: Deconstructing the war propaganda … Alleged Sarin Gas Attack by President Assad is Fake News.

– April 12 2017 Louis Allday: I believe Ghouta was a false-flag incident with planted sarin and gassed hostages. Saraqeb, same. Same sarin in KS and many other clues. – August 5 2017 The West is a lying aggressor Tim Hayward: Critical questions about CNN complicity in misleading “chemical weapons” reporting – from @VanessaBeeley on the ground with them in Ghouta.

– April 8 2018 Tim Hayward: #SyriaHoax is an episode in a long running strategy of serious bullshit. “Human Rights” groups promote unjust war. – April 7 2017 Adam Larson: #Douma alleged CW attack: Info and maybe the bodies, provided by an Islamist terrorist affiliate, proponent of holding and using “infidel” hostages. – April 13 2018 Adam Larson: The lack of subtlety in their staging reeks of desperation … And yet, who is it that’s desperate in the area these days? – April 8 2018 Sami Ramadani: One basic fact never gets reported by mainstream media on #Syria: The terrorist gangs are in possession of chlorine gas & other chemical weapons. They have threatened using them & posted films of using them on rabbits – April 9 2018 Sami Ramadani: Is the bloody conflict in #Syria civil-war among Syrians or is it a US-led proxy war to destroy Syria? – June 20 2016 Louis Allday: Amnesty have been openly war-mongering on Syria. – January 16 2018 Louis Allday: Disgusting, warmongering nonsense that perpetuates the myth of a virtuous and benevolent West. Typical Guardian. – April 10 2018

 

March 19, 2018

The political economy of a bridge collapse

Filed under: Academia,capitalist pig,corruption,disaster — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Like many urban-based universities, Miami’s Florida International University had a tendency to expand. With more than 50,000 enrolled undergraduate students—many of whom are Cuban-American—it is the fourth largest in the USA. In recent years, expansion took place geographically as well. After more than 4,000 students found housing on the other side of an 7-lane highway to the north of the main campus, the school decided to build a bridge across it. Since the highway was a major artery in Miami, the school decided to use Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) that avoided the detours that would have blocked the flow of the city’s commercial lifeblood. In ABC, the first step is to build the bridge on a remote construction site and then transport it to the destination where it will be installed in a day or two at most.

Here is the breathless come-on to investors about the benefits the bridge will bring:

Here is the celebratory inauguration of the installed bridge on March 10th:

And here is its collapse on March 15th that left 6 people in the cars beneath the 950 tons of concrete dead:

As it happens, FIU was not only enthusiastic about this particular application of Accelerated Bridge Construction but also about ABC in general, so much so that it created a department devoted to the technology (https://abc-utc.fiu.edu/) in 2010 missioned to “reduce the societal costs of bridge construction by reducing the duration of work zones, focusing special attention on preservation, service life, construction costs, education of the profession, and development of a next-generation workforce fully equipped with ABC knowledge.”

Two days before it collapsed, the lead engineer with the Figg Bridge Group, one of the two principal construction companies on the project left a voice mail indicating that he saw a crack in the bridge with an employee of the Florida Department of Transportation, who was out of the office  and did not hear the voice mail until after the bridge had collapsed. It is not clear that anything would have been done had he been in the office since the voice mail did not sound a particularly urgent note.

While the Florida Department of Transportation was out of the loop, FIU itself was not. At a meeting at 9am on March 15th between Figg employees, including the lead engineer, and school administrators, they were told that “that there were no safety concerns and the crack did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge.” A couple of hours later the bridge would come crashing down.

This was not the first time Figg had supervised the construction of a collapsing bridge. In 2012, there was an accident that fortunately did not involve motorists or pedestrians beneath even though four workers suffered minor injuries. The company paid a miniscule fine and moved on.

Required by state law to undergo an independent review of the project, Figg selected the Louis Berger Group, an engineering firm that lacked pre-qualification credentials from the Florida Department of Transportation. A November 5th 2010 NY Times article by James Risen, however, suggested that this firm was especially pre-qualified to scam the people that hired it:

A New Jersey-based construction and engineering company has been hit with the largest fines ever imposed on a contractor working in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, after a whistle-blower revealed that the company had been overbilling the government.

The company, the Louis Berger Group, based in Morristown, N.J., will pay $18.7 million in criminal penalties and $50.6 million in civil penalties for overbilling the United States Agency for International Development for work in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. As part of the civil agreement, the company will pay $14.2 million of the civil penalty in the next 30 days and the balance over the next four years.

Figg’s partner on the project was Munilla Construction Management, a firm whose vice-president Pedro Munilla is a former attorney who was disbarred in 2001 for violating trust accounts, which conceivably might have meant conning his clients in the same way the Louis Berger Group conned tax-payers (not to say that the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was not a con job to begin with.)

Pedro Munilla is a typical construction company wheeler-and-dealer. Last year he met with a a Chinese investor looking for U.S. acquisitions. Guess who was advising the investor: Paul Manafort. It’s a small world when corruption is involved. Munilla runs the firm with his four brothers who as might be expected were enthusiastic about Donald Trump.  Representing the brothers, Pedro Munilla had a meeting last June with Vice President Mike Pence to review the administration’s Cuba policies. The five brothers have ponied up more than $100,000 to the anti-Castro U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, whose chief Mauricio Claver-Carone blogs at Huffington Post for what that’s worth.

The Munillas have also contributed heavily to Republican Party politicians both in Florida and in Congress. This kind of influence-peddling must have opened doors for a a lucrative $63.5 million contract from the Defense Department in 2016 to build a school on the U.S.-controlled Guantánamo Naval Base in eastern Cuba.

Locally, their payoffs to politicians has been worth it as well. In 2012 Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro voted to award a $25 million contract to Munilla for a test track for Metrorail cars while renting office space from the firm’s owners, county records show. Four of the brothers contributed the maximum campaign donation of $500 each to Barreiro, who was won his commission seat for a fifth time.

All of the brothers are FIU graduates so everything came together from a military-industrial-academic complex standpoint.

The Miami Herald, which has provided outstanding reporting on the bridge collapse, ran down the Munilla brothers’ record, which is as shoddy as Pedro Munilla’s legal career:

MCM construction sites, meanwhile, have been inspected eight times by the federal government since 2013 and fined on four occasions for violations worth more than $50,000. The company has also faced a slew of standard negligence and personal liability cases — typical in the industry. A contractual dispute with a subcontractor that walked off the job resulted in a $143,000 judgment against MCM; the subcontractor cited safety issues with the project, a $13.5 million bridge reconstructing project on Red Road.

Court documents from the lawsuit show that Southeastern Engineering Contractors left the job, citing structural problems and “arguable collapse” at the worksite because of the “failure of temporary sheet piles on the south bend of the site.” Attempts to reach attorneys representing both sides in that case were unsuccessful, as were efforts to reach principal Pedro Munilla by cellphone.

This entire incident manages to touch all bases of the rotting capitalist system in the USA, both economically and politically.

To start with, what kind of university establishes a department with a single focus on Accelerated Bridge Construction? Isn’t a university supposed to provide general engineering courses that prepare a student for a career? The department chair is Atorod Azizinamini, who was honored by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change in 2015. Given the need to construct new bridges across the USA using a time-saving technology, including the replacement of the Tappan Zee bridge recently, you can understand why the big bourgeoisie would be thrilled by his innovation even if it just killed six people “accidentally”. After all, that’s the price of progress. Btw, remind me to not use the NY State Thruway the next time I go up to the Catskills since it crosses the Tappan Zee.

It also illustrates how influence-peddling can undermine the economic fabric of capitalist society itself even if benefits a particular corporation. Hasn’t this been the Achilles Heel of capitalism all along? Despite the libertarian, free market precepts shared by Republicans and Democrats alike (except for an outlier like Bernie Sanders), everybody knows that politicians are bought and sold. In a review of the Democrats who voted for a relaxation of the Dodd-Frank rules, it turned out that According to the Financial Times, the 12 Democrats behind the Crapo bill (aptly named after Mike Crapo, the Republican Senator who introduced it) receive a substantial percentage of their campaign donations from banks with just under $50 billion in assets—those, in other words, who will benefit from this deregulation.

Finally, it demonstrates that profits come before people. When shady construction companies collaborate with a university that serves as a vocational school for the technology they are utilizing and ignore obvious signs that peoples’ lives are endangered, that’s about as clear a sign as you will get about the decadence of this crumbling system.

Update from a Florida comrade:

From a union worker, explaining how “right to work” results in incompetent workmanship; in the recent tragic case in Florida, it got people killed:

For 30 plus years. I worked as a Concrete Form Carpenter. The media keeps saying they were doing a stress test when the bridge went down . The bridge deck was a cable stay deck instead of using Rebar, they used cables. So after the concrete is poured the cables are pulled tight. So these Idiots waited till the concrete was rock hard. When they pulled the cables they busted through the bottom deck. So down she goes.

The cables should been tightened before the rock turned hard but when the concrete was wet right after it was poured. I have worked in Florida, the companies hire anyone to work construction . The super down to the laborer. Unskilled people doing skilled labor. This is a right to work state.

Union Busting. Florida is a right to work state. No training. Crane Operators are not required have proof of any experience. It is a mess here. That is why I moved back to NY.

I have done bridge decks in the past. In Connecticut and New York state. I have never heard of a stress test. The media should inform them selves before issuing statements like that. They fucked up the cables should have been tightened before the concrete set up. When it is wet, a subcontractor should have been on site right after the pour and pulled the cables.

Before every concrete pour, the concrete is tested for water content and temp is taken. And core samples are taken to a lab. Were they are put in a press to test for strength. These idiots should have known better but here in Florida it is a right to work state. No Unions so the work force is unskilled. The contractors will hire anyone with a pulse.

I was trained by The United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Florida is a right to work state. No Unions, zero trained workforce. Idiots running these job sites all to save a dollar.

March 5, 2018

Millionaire leftist Bard professors removed from Alexis Tsipras’s cabinet

Filed under: Academia,bard college,economics,Greece — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

Dimitris Papadimitriou

Rania Antonopoulos

Husband and wife Dimitris Papadimitriou and Rania Antonopoulos are big-time post-Keynesian economists at Bard College who just resigned from Alexis Tsipras’s cabinet. It seems that Antonopoulos was receiving a 1000 euro per month housing subsidy for her rental apartment in the swanky Kolonaki neighborhood in Athens even though the couple were multimillionaires. Apparently this did not sit well with ordinary working people suffering through a terrible austerity.

The right-wing press in Greece dug up the dirt on the couple and used it to scandalize Syriza since it is perceived as not serving the bourgeoisie adequately. Think of Fox News going after Obama and you’ll get what has been taking place. Neos Kosmos, a newspaper based in Melbourne, Australian with no discernible ties to the right-wing as far as I can tell, supplied the economic data on the two economists:

According to their tax records, the couple declare an annual income of more than half a million dollars, while their assets and property portfolios are valued in the millions. The Greek media report that the couple owns a luxury villa of 300 sq.m. plus 180 sq.m. supplementary space, 80 sq.m. swimming pool on the island of Syros; a 110-square-meter apartment in New York; a 31.6 sqm apartment in Glyfada, Athens; assets in stocks and bank deposits worth of more than 3,000,000 euros.

The last time I saw such opulence married to “socialist” pretensions was back in 2007 when Jared Kushner’s newspaper—the NY Observer—reported that Trotskyist chieftain Jack Barnes had just sold his West Village condo for a cool $1.87 million.

Interestingly enough, despite her wealth, Antonopoulos went out of her way to file for the housing subsidy as she indicated in a statement to the press:

According to Law 4366/2015 which entitles non-parliamentary members of the government to receive a residence subsidy, since they do not own a home in Athens, I have requested and received a significant amount as a rent subsidy. This provision of the legislator has been enjoyed since 1994 by all non-Athens deputies without any other income conditions.

Many months after its institutionalization I was informed that as a non-parliamentary member of the government I am entitled to a subsidy, and indeed by my colleagues. So I filed an application and since then I have received a total of 23,000 euros for two years.

What a little piggy. She and her husband have a joint income of $520,000 per year and still she applies for a housing subsidy as if she were a single mom working at Walmarts with 3 kids to support. Even after she got caught with her grubby fingers in the till, she  refused at first to resign as the Greek Reporter indicated on February 26th.

Dimitris Papadimitriou and Rania Antonopoulos came to Greece with ambitious plans to rescue the country from the hole that German bankers had dug. He ran the Jerome Levy Institute at Bard, a think-tank devoted to post-Keynesian wisdom, and was a Hyman Minsky scholar. Minsky is a big favorite with “progressive” economists, especially after the 2007 mortgage-backed securities meltdown. He writes all about the instability that plagues the capitalist system through chronic boom and bust cycles.

For Minskyian theory to work, it has to focus almost exclusively on the financial sector, which of course economists like Paul Krugman tended to do. Ooh, those dirty, rotten banks. However, it misses out on the real problem facing American capitalism, namely the declining rate of profit that is a function of the system’s need to replace people with machinery—and hence reduce the amount of surplus value that can be wrung from their muscles. Anwar Shaikh, who happened to have been on the staff of Jerome Levy Institute at one point, just came out with a massive study of this process. Papadimitriou’s dissertation at the New School was about the measurement of the rate of surplus value in Greece. I guess studying it helped him to extract it later on in life.

Needless to say, bourgeois economists, like the inner cadre at Jerome Levy Institute, step gingerly around the question of capitalism itself since they are far too wedded to the system on a material basis and understand as well that Keynesianism still has plenty of purchase in elite circles. Who wants to hear from an annoying Marxist, especially when his or her ideas clash with owning mansions, yachts, and million-dollar paintings. In other words, like all of the people serving on the Bard College Board of Trustees.

Bard College and its president-for-life Leon Botstein embody a culture in which people like Dimitris Papadimitriou and Rania Antonopoulos can flourish. Back in 1995, I came into contact with a union organizer from Local 100 of the Restaurant Workers Union named Brook Bitterman who was trying to apply pressure on Jerome Levy to come to terms with the workers Bitterman represented at Smith and Wollensky, one of Levy’s businesses. I gave Bitterman a copy of the Bard College alumni directory that he used for a direct mail campaign to get the mostly pinko graduates to demand justice for the workers as enunciated in a letter the union sent to Dimitris Papadimitriou:

Dear Dr. Papadimitriou

We are writing to express our concern about what we perceive to be a striking contradiction between the goals and work of the Jerome Levy Institute of Economics and the private business affairs of its founder and chief supporter, Leon Levy, who also serves as a Trustee of Bard College.

Over the past several years, the Jerome Levy Institute – Bard College’s first post-graduate institution – has become a respected outlet for academics and policy analysts concerned with growing income inequality and crisis-prone financial markets. As a union of low wage, mostly immigrant and minority restaurant workers, Local 100 is very familiar with the growing inequality in the American labor market. Many of our members and their families have also seen firsthand how financial market developments, such as the leveraged buyout frenzy of the 1980s, can have a profoundly negative impact on the quality of their lives.

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Not long after this campaign began, I received a letter from the president of the Board of Governors of the Bard Alumni Association taking great umbrage at Local 100’s campaign. It stated: “Many of our trustees, overseers, advisory board members, donors, alumni/ae, faculty, administrators, parents of students and students, have business relationships — some of which may be deemed by you or others as ‘controversial’ — unrelated to their relationship with the College. It would hardly be appropriate for us to inject ourselves into those relationships. Such is the case with the alleged relationship between Leon Levy and Smith & Wollensky.”

Yeah, who the hell would want a Bard College alumnus like me poking around in the private affairs of Leon Levy or Rania Antonopoulos? Maybe that’s the reason I’ve been removed from the Bard College alumni database and no longer receive communications from the school, either in the mail or electronically.

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