Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 14, 2011

Me, my mom, and Lazlo Toth

Filed under: antiwar,humor,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

About ten years before my mother’s death at the age of 87, a friend of hers told me on a visit to mom in upstate NY, while she was out of the room, that she was “slipping”. When I asked her to give me some examples, she said that her driving had deteriorated—a function largely of cataracts. She had also begun to lose her temper more and more easily. And the biggest problem apparently was her obsession with Israel, writing letters to the local newspapers on practically a daily basis with the latest hasbara talking points she discovered on the Internet using the Macintosh computer I bought her. The bad driving and the hair-trigger temper I could discount but the Zionism surely was a sign that she was losing it.

As I march inexorably toward my own “slipping” moments, I wonder when people will begin to take notice of me. My eyes are considerably worse than hers were when she was my age. I just got my driver’s license renewed—a stroke of luck—but I will not drive after dark. On losing one’s temper, I am probably even crazier than her considering my inability to tolerate a lot of the bullshit I read on the Internet or hear on television or radio. With the age of email upon us, I can’t resist giving some jerk a piece of my mind. Mostly the recipient is smart enough to ignore me, since I am obviously a bit “off”. Frankly, if someone like me wrote me a hostile email, I’d ignore it. I guess I often get a reply because I don’t write the conventional “you are such an asshole” thing but tend to be more sarcastic than anything else. I also use my Columbia email address to get attention. For some reason, big muck-a-mucks take my email address seriously even though there are lots of idiots at the university, starting with President Lee Bollinger and the dean of the business school Glenn Hubbard.

Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci

About ten years ago I reported on some exchange I had with some politician or academic “expert” who got on my wrong side to the PEN-L mailing list which prompted economist Max Sawicky to compare me to Lazlo Toth, a persona adopted by Don Novello, to goad big shots into replying to his goofy letters. Novello was better known for his Father Guido Sarducci character on Saturday Night Live back when it—like Woody Allen movies–was funny. A typical Toth exchange looks like this:

Air Canada

From: Lazlo Toth …… November 19, 1977

To: Commanding Officer, AIR CANADA

Dear Sir: I recently flew on your airline and I must say I was more than somewhat disappointed! First of all, the stewardess asked me if I wanted to see the movie. I said, “No, thank you.” Later, when I asked for some earphones, she said, “I thought you didn’t want the movie?” She thought right, I didn’t want the movie, I just wanted to listen to some music, I told her. She said the music was only for people who paid for the movie! “Otherwise, how would we know you weren’t listening to the movie,” she said. How about the honor system? In my country they don’t go around accusing paying customers of cheating! I could afford to fly to Canada, do you think I couldn’t afford $2.50 for a lousy movie? Besides, that’s $2.50 in Canadian dollars — cheaper still! I saw a lot of people watching the movie who didn’t pay for it! Why don’t you charge to watch the movie instead of to listen to it? Why can you watch a movie for nothing but have to pay to listen to some records? It’s just not fair! Next thing you know, you’ll probably be charging people to look at record albums! Also, my tomato soup was ice cold! I thought it was because I was the only one polite enough to wait until everybody got served before I started eating, but when I told the stewardess my soup was cold, she said it wasn’t tomato soup, that it was tomato juice! How was I suppose to know it was tomato juice? What was the soup spoon there for then? I wasted two or three minutes eating it like that! Why don’t you label those things? If you can label “salad dressing,” why not juice and soup? I knew the salad dressing was salad dressing — what else could it have been — jello? Come on! Why do you label something that doesn’t need a label and not label the thing I mistook for something else? I think that by labeling the soup and the juice and starting free music you can make a giant step towards better understandings between both of our countries. Things are unstable enough without these things getting in the way, too. Your neighbor,

To: Lazlo Toth …… December 29, 1977

From: A.R. Godbold, Manager, Customer Relations, Air Canada

Dear Mr. Toth: We were very sorry to learn of your disappointment in some aspects of our service during your travel with us in November, but appreciate your giving us your observations. Recorded music is available on some of our flights at no charge; however, on flights where music is provided in conjunction with a movie, it is felt that, in fairness to all passengers, the charge for the movie must be levied on all passengers making use of the earphones. Soup is very seldom served by the airlines, because of the difficulties inherent in its provision, and it is regretted that this was not clarified with you. Thank you for your interest in writing. Yours very truly,

When I got up yesterday morning I spent my customary 30 minutes or so listening to AM radio. If WBAI was half as good as it was in the 1980s, that’s what I would listen to. No such luck, I’m afraid. So I listen to a few minutes of Boomer and Carton, a sports talk show, until I get tired of discussion about Alex Rodriguez’s contract. Then I’ll give the aging, crapulent shock jock Don Imus a few minutes until the right-wing guest he is schmoozing with becomes too much to bear. After Imus got fired by WFAN (he was replaced by Boomer and Carton), he moved over to WABC and became oriented to the reactionary pigs there. Ornery as ever, Imus will call Rush Limbaugh a fat, drug-taking idiot but will bend over backwards to be courteous to Sean Hannity.

Last stop on the AM express is the Mark Riley show on WWRL a black-owned and black-oriented station that used to be devoted to Air America programming until that liberal garbage dump went under. Riley is an African-American and in Obama’s back pocket just like Al Sharpton who has a show on the same station at 9pm. Mostly I listen to the show for the men and women calling in from the Black community, about half of whom are disgusted with Obama.

Barry Blechman

That day I turned to Riley’s show when he was in the middle of an interview with Barry Blechman, the director of the Stimson Center. Blechman was making the case that Iran was guilty of conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador. Feeling some pressure to maintain a progressive veneer, Riley asked Blechman to explain some of the obvious inconsistencies—like why Iran would want to deal with a used car salesman who was in no position to line up Mexican drug cartel gunmen, let alone his next month’s rent.

Blechman assured him that there was hard proof of Iran’s involvement, starting with the wire transfer of money to said used car salesman. That was enough to set my hair on fire.

When I got to work an hour or so later, I dashed off this email to Blechman:

You said that the wire transfer of money proved that Iran was behind the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador. Aren’t you aware that wire transfers from Iran to American banks are prohibited? How in the world did you get into the position of speaking as an expert? Or is your role the same as Judith Miller’s?

I had a feeling that this would get under his skin, as would later be borne out:

Dear Mr. Proyest, [sic]

        Thanks for your comment; it’s nice to know that someone was listening.   According to the sworn affidavit of the FBI official submitted in support of the indictment, two transfers of $49,960 each were made from Iran to an unnamed US bank.  Now you may believe that FBI officials will swear to information they know is false in legal proceedings, but I don’t.  One explanation might be that knowing of the plot, the government permitted the transfers to be made, even though they are prohibited by sanctions legislation.

The actual 21-page indictment can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/10/11/us/Iran-Plot-Indictment-Doc-Viewer.html?ref=us. It may answer some of your questions of fact.    Barry Blechman

My reply will surely irritate him further, hopefully enough to prompt another email:

“Now you may believe that FBI officials will swear to information they know is false in legal proceedings”

Well, I for one am not shocked that gambling is going on at Rick’s place either.

As far as the wire transfer is concerned, this is absurd on the face of it—leaving aside the question of the sanctions legislation. Haven’t you ever seen a good spy movie? Payments are not made by wire transfers. They are made in cash transported around in a good, solid aluminum briefcase by a character named Abu Hassan. You know the kind of dirty Arab or Iranian I am talking about—they get killed by Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the bloody finale.

Btw, have to chuckle about your credentials as a nuclear disarmament expert running something called the Stimson Center. That’s like an environmentalist running the James G. Watt Center.

“…in [July] 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.

“During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude…”

– Dwight Eisenhower, Mandate For Change, pg. 380

In a Newsweek interview, Eisenhower again recalled the meeting with Stimson:

“…the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

– Ike on Ike, Newsweek, 11/11/63

Look to this space for updates to the great Lazlo Toth/Unrepentant Marxist-Barry Blechman debate.

December 18, 2010

December 16th antiwar protest

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

December 11, 2010

A left establishment member reacts to the open letter

Filed under: antiwar,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:05 pm

John

So I started reading this letter which sounded pretty good and it looked like I signed it, so I read further and discovered that it was to as a member of a group I didn’t know I belonged to called the “Left Establishment.” As I kept reading, it was a vile, toxic diatribe ending with a demand that I, along with the rest of the “Left Establishment”, endorse a demonstration this week in Washington featuring civil disobedience at the White House fence.

To whomever sent the letter, I have to say I’m sorry that I just don’t respond positively to nasty invitations. I hope you can understand. Calm down and tell me who you are before the conspiracy theories mushroom.

Actually, I thought the Dec. 16 action seemed somewhat justifiable in light of current events – the WikiLeaks releases and erupting divisions within the Democratic Party. And I love the people who plan to get arrested. Maybe a big crowd will show up, but not because it was a smart idea to begin with. Mid-December is not the best time to turn out masses of people. But stuff happens, and now many people are boiling.

My personal best to those who are being arrested. They include a former Pentagon official, former CIA agent, a former New York Times reporter, and a mother who lost a son to war and was radicalized as a result. The lesson for me is that people can change from hawks to doves, from spies to whistleblowers, if organizers organize and events reshape their perceptions. That’s the lesson of WikiLeaks, that folk on the inside sometimes come find their situation intolerable and break away from old thinking.

Civil disobedience is a moral expression, and can be a personal healing. Sometimes it ignites a larger movement, or inspires other individuals to step up. We need more of it.

But I also think we need an outside/inside strategy that shifts public opinion more and more against the war. We need to persuade the undecided, not simply to create images of dissent. The peace movement will grow steadily in the months ahead, on its own, but also in its relation to other compelling causes, among them: Wall Street regulation, clean energy/green jobs, and the steady shift towards an unfettered market philosophy over our lives. Civil disobedience can light a flame, but the case for thoroughgoing radical reform must be made on our streets, our workplaces, our religious institutions, and yes, within the Democratic Party – whose overwhelming majority support progressive objectives. Members of the Progressive Democrats of America, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, are vital elements of our movement.

I would like every person who signed this letter to read it again, and be kind enough to retract their signatures or explain why.

This is not the time to inflict internal damage on a community which is already weak enough. It’s important to get a grip.

The peace and justice community is a fragile form of social ecology, with diversity being an essential quality. Everyone is entitled to a different approach, but there also is an essential unity that can be achieved, unless a malign force is introduced.

I have been working every day since 2002 to end these wars. I will never stop. I supported Barack Obama for president in 2008, and am glad I did so. At the time I also said progressives should disagree with him on Afghanistan, NAFTA, global warming and Wall Street, and I have pursued progressive alternatives every day. I have been so busy on the WikiLeaks crisis since August that I just haven’t had time to drop by the White House and pick up my marching orders.

TOM HAYDEN
Director
Peace and Justice Resource Center

* * * *

Dear Mr. Hayden,

You refer to our letter urging you to strongly support militant protest against the Obama administration as “vile” and “toxic”.

These words are misapplied.

Rather these are adjectives appropriately directed at the policies of the Obama administration, those which we mentioned, and provide documenting links to, along with others which we don’t. (For many of us, the omission the Obama administration’s disgraceful policies with respect to Israel and Palestine was regrettable.)

We note that you do not attempt to defend any of these noting merely that you remain “glad . . . that you supported Barack Obama for President.”

Rather, the main focus of your response is protest directed against Obama’s expansion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, the civil disobedience action on Dec. 16 which you refer to as “somewhat justified.”

This action, and other protests to come, are not “somewhat” but absolutely justified on any reasonable moral, practical and political grounds.  They need strong unqualified support, from you and the others who claim to speak for the left,  not the provisional, weak endorsement you provide here.

You then accuse us of undermining the “fragile social ecology” required for growth of the peace movement.

Again, this is a charge which is not appropriately directed at us but at you.

For citizens do not protest only when they feel their protests are “somewhat” justifiable.  They do so when they are aware of the fact of the matter: that protest against this and numerous other Obama administration policies is now, and has been for some time, an urgent necessity.

We hope that you reconsider your continuing failure to come to terms with not only with the catastrophe which is the Obama administration but also for the damage which your insufficiently critical support has inflicted on the only force which has the capacity oppose it:  mass, organized, and militant expressions of popular protest.

We therefore thank you for this response which demonstrates far better than we could why you are a deserving recipient of our letter.

Best Regards,

John Halle

 

October 5, 2010

Long live Harry Belafonte!

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 1:41 pm

August 27, 2010

Restrepo

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm

(A guest post by Dan DiMaggio)

The War in Afghanistan Hits Home: Michael Enright, Restrepo, and the Heart of Darkness

By Dan DiMaggio

On Tuesday, 21-year old Michael Enright stabbed a New York City cab driver because he was Muslim. Enright grew up in upstate Brewster, New York, the town next to mine, in an overwhelmingly white and conservative county that was the only one east of the Hudson River won by John McCain in 2008. He just recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with a group of soldiers who he was making a film about for his senior thesis.

There has been a concerted attempt to distance Enright’s crime from the Islamophobia being whipped up by the right wing. James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s online editorial page, actually claimed it’s “a plausible theory” that Enright really stabbed the cab driver as part of his own personal left-wing conspiracy to “advance the narrative that America is filled with anti-Muslim bigots whose hatred is behind the opposition to the Ground Zero mosque.” Yet the Daily News reports a police source divulged they found a journal belonging to Enright calling Muslims “killers, ungrateful for the help they were being offered, filthy murderers without a conscience.” Presumably this was all part of his master plan, according to Taranto.

It seems more likely, though, that whatever Enright saw in Afghanistan had a severe impact on him. He said he was making his film, titled “Home of the Brave” (see trailer at: ), because he “realized there’s never been an introspective look into what it’s like being an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old soldier … They grow up really fast, and also they’re still young and youthful. I thought that could be a really interesting story”.

It does make for an interesting story – but Enright was not alone in seeking to document it. Restrepo, a 2010 documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, does what Enright claims he hoped to do. Their film provides an insightful glimpse of the transformation of U.S. soldiers over the course of the war – a transformation that at times resembles scenes from the Heart of Darkness. Enright himself was clearly not immune to this process.

Junger and Hetherington say they aimed to make “a documentary that does not contain political commentary and is purely experiential … We wanted to give people the experience of what it’s really like [in Afghanistan].” Because Restrepo lacks the usual devices found in Hollywood glamorizations of war, Junger says, “We’ve been told our movie has no commercial value”. Yet it is of major value in helping to understand a war little understood by most Americans, despite the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops there and growing media attention, Afghanistan, and the war there, remain little understood by most Americans. WikiLeaks’ recent release of 92,000 pages of documents should help, but for those looking for a more concise accounting of the futility of this war (and its possible impact on people like Enright), Restrepo is highly recommended.

Junger and Hetherington “embedded” themselves with a single company during their tour in the Korengal Valley, one of the areas which has seen the most fighting, in 2007. While there is much that is unique about the Korengal, it also serves as a microcosm of the entire war effort in Afghanistan, in particular the experience of U.S. soldiers there.

Although this is now the longest war in U.S. history, Afghanistan is still a far-off locale of which almost all Americans are ignorant. One soldier recounts how he heard monkeys howling the first night, and could not sleep because he thought it was the Taliban, pressing close. While the troops eventually become more accustomed to this environment, the people of Afghanistan, in whose interests this war is supposedly being fought, remain a seemingly impenetrable mystery. One of the film’s shortcomings is its limited portrayal of the experience of ordinary Afghans, but their sparse appearance serves to highlight the soldiers’ alienation from Afghan society.

Most of the Afghans we see are village elders who arrive for weekly “shuras” (councils) with U.S. military officers. These appear to routinely descend into farces, with U.S. officers treating the elders like children, a characteristic behavior of more “civilized” colonial occupiers. The officers promise the elders that “we will make you richer” by flooding the Korengal with roads, jobs, and health care if they cooperate in rooting out “the bad guys” (the Taliban). The Afghans respond, “You kill the enemy, that’s okay – but our concern is that you’re killing ordinary people on their land.”

In an astounding display of imperial arrogance, the leading U.S. officer, who took over from an apparently even more brutal commander named McKnight (whose watch resulted in many prisoners in Bagram and scores of civilians dead), asks that they “wipe the slate clean” and give the U.S. a fresh start. Can you imagine the Afghan elders – or the Taliban, for that matter – asking the U.S. to “wipe the slate clean” for 9/11, for which they were not even responsible? It also baffles the mind to see U.S. officers assume that the best way to win over Afghans is through bribery, which might help explain why they have found their best allies among the warlords who have made immense profits off the occupation (mirroring the American warlords running Halliburton and Blackwater), while the Taliban at times gains support for at least having some sort of moral code.

Afghans have seen more than enough over the past 9 years to know that no change in command will result in any meaningful differences in the war or their lives. Indeed, one of the first operations carried out under the new command in the Korengal results in 5 “enemy” dead, along with 10 women and children. More recently, at the national level, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has even appeared on national TV in Afghanistan to apologize for the deaths of civilians – yet all the while, the death toll continues to increase under his watch, with the official count of civilian casualties up 31 percent over the past year. Military officials profess shock when Afghans blame the occupying forces as much, if not more, than the Taliban for these casualties – as if the Afghans had asked U.S. and NATO forces to come occupy their country, or as if grief and outrage followed the simple laws of arithmetic. Somehow, by the twisted logic of the U.S. military, the Taliban – and now WikiLeaks – are to blame for the violence in Afghanistan, rather than the U.S. government.

These are necessary imperial fantasies, to go along with the idea that U.S. can somehow manage to win over Afghan hearts and minds, at the same time as bombing wedding parties and conducting nighttime raids on homes. The cynical wisdom of the soldiers in Restrepo at times bursts through this charade. Reminiscing about home, one soldier tells another about his family’s ranch, the charm of which he struggles to describe, ultimately settling on defining it as a place with a lot of land where you can go hunting. “Just like here [in the Korengal],” the other responds. “Yeah, but we’re not hunting animals, we’re hunting people here,” sighs the soldier with the ranch. “Hearts and minds!” concludes the other.

It’s chilling to watch the process of dehumanization at work among the troops. As they see their friends killed or severely wounded, as they are continually shot at, as any hopes of winning over the support of the local population seem to disappear, the frustration and anger grows, along with a desire to avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers. In a Heart of Darkness moment, some of the soldiers report that they get excited when Taliban forces come close, because they yearn to see the faces of those they are killing.

This takes a toll psychologically, as the filmmakers chronicle through post-combat interviews at a military base in Italy. It hurts to see Cortez, a good, light-hearted soldier, always smiling, explain, through an awkward grin, how he is incapable of sleeping, preferring to stay awake rather than see his friends die again in his nightmares. The soldiers in Restrepo suffer an understandable pessimism about being able to re-integrate into society. The film helps provide a glimpse into why a record 245 Army members killed themselves in 2009 (and a monthly record of 32 committed suicide in June 2010). One wonders whether similar psychological processes occurred for Michael Enright, leading him to stab the Muslim New York City cabbie. No one emerges from these wars the same, and for all the talk about winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world, the war has done much to continue to fan the flames of Islamophobia in the U.S.

What is all this for? Why does the U.S. have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan? Restrepo does not deal with this question. The single point it does drive home is the absolute futility of the war in Afghanistan. As the film ends, the screen reports that for all the efforts of these soldiers, the U.S. was forced to withdraw from the Korengal in April 2010. As the Washington Post reported, “A new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.” Eventually, no matter how many troops are sent to Afghanistan, no matter how many drones are flown, and no matter how many billions are spent, the U.S. will be forced to draw the same conclusion on a national scale.

Why, then, does this war continue, if it’s doomed to failure? Because the U.S. cannot just admit defeat without doing major damage to its military prestige and its ability to boss around the rest of the world. Because the U.S. political system is dominated by cowards who are more than willing to sacrifice lives for votes – the leaders of the Democratic Party must not allow themselves to be outhawked by the Republicans, must pose as vigorous and responsible defenders of the empire, in order to continue to reel in big money donations and the fawning praise of the corporate media. Because Afghanistan, for all its remoteness, is located in a strategic area of the globe – not only does it border Pakistan, it also borders China, Iran, and the resource-rich former Soviet republics. The Bush administration launched the war initially not just as a display of U.S. power, but also as a brazen attempt to establish a foothold in areas formerly securely locked in the Russian sphere of influence.

The mainstream media continues its claims that the war is really about helping the Afghan people, or about eliminating Al-Qaeda. Time Magazine recently featured a front-cover picture of a woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban, with the title “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” The NY Times, in its latest editorial on “The State of the War in Afghanistan,” repeats the fantasy that this war is going to stop Al-Qaeda, and says the U.S. would also do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it now simply abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban’s brutalities.” Yet as the South Asia Solidarity Initiative writes, “In its nine long years, the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan has done nothing to improve the conditions for people in Afghanistan, especially for women… There has been a general increase in violence and civilian deaths because of occupation. By 2009, the U.N. human development index ranked Afghanistan 181 out of 182 countries. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan reveals the highest ever documented.. .The United States has consistently chosen the side of fundamentalist allies at the expense of Afghan women, and has always sought its own gains in the region.” You can imagine the Taliban’s counter to the NY Times – “The Taliban would do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it simply abandoned the country to U.S. brutalities.”

What then, is to be done? Unfortunately, the anti-war movement has all but disappeared. Even the WikiLeaks revelations have generated almost no response, aside from some important but small demonstrations in defense of Private Bradley Manning. In response to the Obama administration’s recent attacks on the “professional left,” the most prominent anti-war politician, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, just pledged not to run against the president in the 2012 presidential primaries, because, he said, “What we have to do is focus on coming together for the purposes of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” As if pledging unconditional support to Obama, the man responsible for escalating the war in Afghanistan, instead of threatening to run against him for his pro-war policies, is a good strategy for ending the wars. It feels as if the anti-war left has never been in more of a state of demoralization and disarray. And yet opposition to the war is at an all-time high, at 43 percent in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll (8/3/10).

There is really no shortcut to ending the wars other than rebuilding a powerful anti-war movement, from the bottom-up. This means starting or revitalizing anti-war organizations (such as Bradley Manning defense committees), organizing speaking tours of anti-war vets or prominent anti-war journalists, writing letters to the editor, passing out leaflets, developing websites, writing songs and poems and organizing fundraising concerts, collecting petition signatures to demand politicians stop funding the war, running independent, anti-war candidates for office (who will not get sucked into the quagmire of the two-party system), taking a stand against Islamophobia like the campaign against the Ground Zero mosque, and linking up with other social movements, from immigrant rights to the movement to defend education.

But it can start with something as simple as going to see Restrepo, and telling your friends about it.

August 9, 2010

Tony Judt: an appreciation

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left,middle east,swans — louisproyect @ 1:07 pm

(Swans – August 9, 2010)   Tony Judt, a courageous and principled social democratic intellectual, died on August 6th after a two year struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Despite being almost totally paralyzed in his last few months of life, he continued to write about his illness and political beliefs, which had been growing more and more critical of American capitalism and the Zionism of his youth.

In his next to last essay that appeared in the New York Review, Judt referred to the final stages of his paralysis that would effectively rob him of his ability to communicate with the world — his voice:

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts — the view from inside is as rich as ever — but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing.

Now that he is gone it is appropriate to assess the legacy of “the view from inside” that Judt externalized over a lifetime of writing.

Judt came of age intellectually as a Cold War intellectual after the fashion of Albert Camus, a natural outcome of his scholarly concentration on French radical politics. As has often been the case, identification with Albert Camus has gone hand in hand with “humanitarian interventions” of the kind supported by other self-styled Camus disciples such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens. In a New York Review piece on Ronald Steel’s Temptations of a Superpower, Judt made the case for war in the Balkans, comparing the Serbs to pre-WWII fascists:

In the Thirties this was preceded by the effective end of the League of Nations on the occasion of its inability to punish or even inhibit Mussolini from his brutal occupation of Abyssinia; today the death toll of the United Nations has perhaps already been rung in Srebrenica and Zepa, where the UN forces first promised security to thousands of refugees, then betrayed them to the Serb forces.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy63.html

July 30, 2010

Glen Ford: breaking the Obama spell

Filed under: antiwar,Obama — louisproyect @ 2:39 pm

July 29, 2010

Justin Raimondo, the America First Committee and the antiwar left

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

Justin Raimondo

I think most people who read my blog are aware of a website called antiwar.com that is run by someone named Justin Raimondo. It was launched during Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans and has promoted the same non-intervention principles with respect to the military adventures that appear like clockwork during a period of declining capitalist fortunes.

Unlike such groups as Workers World Party and the CPUSA that have played a role in one antiwar coalition or another since the “war on terror” began, Raimondo identifies with the old right, the isolationist current in American society that found expression in the America First Committee at the beginning of WWII. Raimondo is a libertarian as well and obviously has a strong affinity with the positions taken by Congressman Ron Paul who has been opposed to foreign interventions despite his pro-capitalist politics. For that matter, it is also the orientation of the comedian Bill Maher who wears his libertarian politics proudly.

On the “about us” page at antiwar.com, there’s a tribute to Murray Rothbard, an interesting character who I ran across doing some research on a study of the New Deal that like so many of my projects never came to fruition. One of the books I looked at in conjunction with this project was “A new history of Leviathan; essays on the rise of the American corporate state”, co-edited by Rothbard and Ronald Radosh. At the time (1972) Radosh was still a leftist while Rothbard was at pretty much the same place as Raimondo today. Fortunately this book is downloadable from Scribd and I recommend it strongly as an antidote to the kind of mush-headed liberalism that puts people like Woodrow Wilson and FDR on a pedestal, especially Radosh’s “The Myth of the New Deal”. Rothbard has a couple of essays, including one that makes the case that FDR simply expanded on Herbert Hoover’s own “corporate liberalism”. One wonders if Barack Obama might have been inspired by Rothbard’s essay, but putting the emphasis more on Hoover than FDR after taking office.

Like Radosh, Rothbard grew up as a Red Diaper baby. In the 1950s, he took classes with von Mises at NYU and became a convert to the Austrian school of economics, while politically calling himself an anarcho-capitalist. The wiki on Rothbard establishes the link between him and Raimondo:

During the 1970s and 1980s, Rothbard was active in the Libertarian Party. He was frequently involved in the party’s internal politics. From 1978 to 1983, he was associated with the Libertarian Party Radical Caucus, allying himself with Justin Raimondo, Eric Garris and Williamson Evers.

Rothbard died in 1995 and I guess it is safe to say that Raimondo is carrying a torch for him. It is worth mentioning that he is also openly gay but has derided gay marriage as being “based on a heterosexual model of sexual and emotional relationships, one that just doesn’t fit the gay lifestyle.”

Yesterday Raimondo published an article on antiwar.com that took issue with a small Trotskyist group called Socialist Action that had played a key role in organizing a conference in Connecticut that sought to revivify the antiwar movement. His main objection is that some of the speakers attacked the Tea Party movement and other rightist forces. Since Ron Paul has garnered a great deal of support from the Tea Party, Raimondo was naturally offended. He writes:

Now, I did not attend this conference, and have no idea what the upshot of the discussion was; however, Benjamin and Zeese have expressed their support for such a coalition (the former somewhat tentatively, and the latter with more conviction). [This is a reference to a workshop titled “The Rise of Right Wing Populism & the Tea Party: Do We Need a Right-Left Coalition?”] On the other hand, one can easily imagine that [Glen] Ford, who has called the Ron Paul movement and the tea partiers “racists,” and advocates of “white nationalism,” and Gauvreau, a leftist who spent much of this speech mouthing all the expected slogans, see a left-right coalition as a deadly threat to “their” movement.

Kevin Zeese has advocated building an antiwar coalition with conservative groups in—surprise, surprise—antiwar.com. There is some logic to this since he ran as a Libertarian candidate in 2006, despite his close ties to Ralph Nader. Of course, this makes some sense since Nader’s Jeffersonian embrace of small-town shopkeeper American values overlaps to some extent with far right populism. At times, it would be difficult to distinguish between passages in a Pat Buchanan and a Ralph Nader speech when it comes to “globalization”.

For her part, Medea Benjamin raised the possibility of building an alliance with the Tea Party as reported on Huffington Post last April:

Perhaps the Tea Party and peace folks–unlikely allies–can agree that one way to shrink big government is to rein in military spending. Here are some questions to get the conversation going:

* At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on April 10, Congressman Ron Paul — who has a great following within the Tea Party — chided both conservatives and liberals for their profligate spending on foreign military bases, occupations and maintaining an empire. “We’re running out of money,” he warned. “All empires end for financials [sic] reasons, and that is what the markets are telling us today….We can do better with peace than with war.” Do you agree with Congressman Paul on this?

Now I might be missing something, but I have seen no evidence of Tea Party opposition to the war in Afghanistan, despite Ron Paul’s laudable opposition to that war. Furthermore, it is his son Rand Paul who is much more of the darling of the Tea Party than his dad. You also have to consider that Rand Paul is on record:

Washington Wire: Your father opposed the war in Iraq.

Paul: I would have voted no on the Iraq war and yes to Afghanistan. The main thing I say on war is that we need to obey the law and formally declare war.

This does not seem very promising in terms of coalition building, does it?

Of some interest to me as an amateur historian of American imperialist wars was Justin Raimondo’s praise of America First, a group I knew only by reputation—and not a very good one, I’m afraid. Raimondo writes:

Their [Socialist Action] account of the America First movement repeats all the old Stalinist canards about the biggest peace movement in American history: it was run by big businessmen, it was “anti-Semitic,” it wasn’t really for peace, just pro-Hitler. The article cites the considered opinion of James P. Cannon, the Trotskyist leader at the time, as saying “the ‘isolationists’ in elite circles merely held a tactical difference with those of their peers who were for sending U.S. armaments to Britain.” Their real goal, he thought, was to consolidate their control over the Western hemisphere in preparation for intervening in Europe.

Cannon’s view is nonsensical, as anyone who has read the writings of America First leader and top activist John T. Flynn would readily understand: Flynn was a principled opponent of US intervention abroad, because he understood what turn of the century liberal Randolph Bourne meant when he said “War is the health of the State.” Flynn and his co-thinkers wanted to limit the power of the American state – a goal not shared by Trotsky’s disciples.

In any case, what the Socialist Actioneers fail to note, in their endless polemic, is that the America First Committee mobilized millions against the war: it had 800,000 members (dues-paying members, I might add), and a Washington lobby that very nearly sunk Roosevelt’s ever-accelerating drive to drag us into war in Europe. Massive rallies conducted on a nationwide scale kept the Roosevelt administration in check, right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The War Party had to take the “back door to war,” as one historian put it, in order to get us in.

In a way, all of this is moot for a couple of reasons. Raimondo fails to point out that America First was opposed to building any kind of coalition with the left, including the CP when it was dovetailing politically with isolationists during the short-lived Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact. If, by the way, you want to get a good idea about CP thinking during this period, you should watch the movie “Woman of the Year” that starred Spencer Tracy as a left-leaning isolationist and Katherine Hepburn as an ardent interventionist, evoking women like the awful Samantha Power. Or you can listen to the Woody Guthrie song “Washington Breakdown” that included this lyric:

Franklin D., listen to me, You ain’t gonna send me across the sea, ‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea. You may say it’s for defense, It’s that kind of talk I’m against…

But even more importantly, America First fell apart almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. In an article titled “The America First Committee”, written by Wayne Cole for the Winter 1951 edition of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, we learn:

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the death blow for America First. The Committee statement on December 7 urged its followers “to give their support to the effort of this country until the conflict with Japan is brought to a successful conclusion.” On December 11, 1941, the national committee voted to dissolve the America First Committee, and its followers were again urged to support the war effort. All that remained was the dreary task of dissolution.

Apparently the America First Committee was just as capable of turning on a dime politically as the Communist Party. Whether that turn is based on the exigencies facing the Kremlin or America’s corporate brass—an element of which that largely comprised the America First Committee—hardly matters when it comes to the all-important question of war and peace.

July 4, 2010

The Tillman Story

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

After having seen countless fictional and documentary movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11—some good (The Men who Stare at Goats, The Ground Truth) and some not good at all (Redacted, No End in Sight)—there is one that soars above all the rest: a documentary called The Tillman Story that incorporates the kind of investigative journalism associated with the genre as well as the searing drama that fiction delivers.

I suppose that most people are familiar with the bare bones narrative of Pat Tillman, a professional football player earning millions who enlisted in the army along with his younger brother in the months following 9/11.  On April 22, 2004, when he was on patrol in Afghanistan, he was killed by “friendly fire”, a euphemism that the film eschews in favor of the more accurate fratricide. But this was not the story that the Pentagon released to the media. They said that he died in combat even though they knew the truth. He became a convenient propaganda tool for a “war on terror” that was starting to unravel.

While Pat Tillman was obviously gung-ho when he joined, he had pretty much become disillusioned with the war long before he was killed. We learn that when he was in Iraq, just over a year before he was killed in Afghanistan, he was part of a squad providing tactical support for the “rescue” of Jessica Lynch from a Baghdad hospital supposedly swarming with insurgents, where she was being treated for wounds suffered during combat with the same enemy. Little did he suspect that he would be exploited by the propaganda machine himself one day. The Pentagon reported that she emptied her gun during a terrible firefight when in reality her M-16 had jammed before she took a single shot. Furthermore, when she was in the hospital, she was in no danger since there were no insurgents there at all. The high command in Baghdad staged a film shoot of her being “rescued” from a non-existent enemy.

Tillman not only took all this in with apparent disgust. He had also made up his mind that the occupation of Iraq was unjust. He was reading Chomsky around this time and thinking things through. Whatever he was, he was not the gung-ho yahoo that Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone played in their movies.

Finding out about the real Pat Tillman is, as the title of the movie implies, one of its creator’s main aims. Through interviews with his family and the men who fought alongside him, we discover that he was an exceedingly complex and interesting figure. To begin with, he was an outspoken atheist as were apparently the members of his family.

During one of the most poignant moments of the film that brought tears to my eyes, his younger brother Richard tells the attendees at Pat’s memorial meeting to forget about his brother being with god because he didn’t believe that bullshit. He was dead and in the ground—that was all.

By this time, the family had already begun their fight to get out the word on how he died. The army did everything it could to make their task more difficult. For example, they supplied an over 3000-page file on his death which amounted to a case of information overload. Someone without a military background would be hard put to make sense of a lot of the technical detail and the jargon, especially when many of the names and places were blacked out for “security” purposes. But unless the Tillmans could get in touch with the people who were named in the files, they would be at a loss.

Fortunately, Stan Goff who had served in the Army Rangers just like Pat Tillman was able to assist them. He knew the army bureaucracy inside and out and helped them develop a coherent narrative out of the massive file. Stan is interviewed throughout the film and is a key element of its success on political and artistic terms. Some day an enterprising film maker will do something on Stan Goff himself, who joined the military with the same kind of enthusiasm as Pat Tillman but became an opponent of militarism and imperialism through his exposure to Third World realities, especially when on a detail in Haiti. Stan is a latter day Smedley Butler, the highly decorated Marine general who said in 1933:

I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

Nobody knows if Pat Tillman would have become an open opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although there is plenty of evidence that he might have. He comes across as someone who would not budge an inch on his principles, moving him at one point to give up millions as a professional football player to become a grunt in Afghanistan. One can easily see him defying the military-football-Fox News consensus and giving speeches laced with quotes from Noam Chomsky.

But the intention of the film makers is not to speculate on what would have become of him, but to tell the story of a certain kind of American who believes in the sort of things you are taught in a high school civics class. As such, he will remind you very much of another victim of senseless wars, Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran and author of Born on the Fourth of July.

The Tillman Story and Born on the Fourth of July are similar tales in many ways. They describe epic struggles to challenge the mythology of the war-making machinery. Ron Kovic survived long enough to take part in some of the most momentous antiwar demonstrations, while Pat Tillman’s family conducted a struggle against lies and deceit in their own way. Their tale is not so much one of repudiating war, but repudiating the cynical and degraded propaganda machine that makes such wars possible.

In the climax of the film, we see the Tillmans at a Congressional hearing with a bunch of generals and Donald Rumsfeld secreting a snail’s trail of evasions and “I can’t recall’s”. All in all, you will be reminded of the testimony of Goldman Sachs executives and BP’s Tony Hayward. The movie is a stunning reminder that during the awful and dangerous times of capitalism in its dotage, the rulers will be forced to lie and lie and lie once again. In such circumstances, the truth will be a stick of dynamite against a dying system. The Tillman Story will be an especially explosive part of this arsenal for change.

The film opens on a limited distribution basis on August 20th. It is not to be missed.

April 27, 2010

Fred Halliday

Fred Halliday, who has died of cancer aged 64, was an Irish academic whose main interest was the Middle East and its place in international politics. His first major book, Arabia Without Sultans, was published in 1974. The culmination of adventurous field research in the region, including Oman, it was a study of Arabian regimes, their support from the west and Iran, and the revolutionary forces fighting against them. “The Arab Middle East is the one with the longest history of contact with the west; yet it is probably the one least understood,” Fred believed. “Part of the misunderstanding is due to the romantic mythology that has long appeared to shroud the deserts of the peninsula. Where old myths have broken down, new ones have absorbed them or taken their place.”

read full obituary

* * * *

The bilious Fred Halliday

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 1, 2005

One thing that a number of high-profile self-described leftist enemies of “Islamofascism” have in common is that they were all once members of the editorial board of the New Left Review. What they also had in common was support for NATO’s war in the Balkans, which implied a much different attitude toward imperialism than that found in classical Marxism.

Ex-editors Quentin Hoare and his wife Branka Magas spent most of the late 1990s writing article after article demonizing the Serbs and demanding that they be bombed into submission.

In October 2000, the NLR asked Marko Attila Hoare, the progeny of Quentin and Branka, to write an article on the anti-Milosevic revolt. However, editor Susan Watkins nixed the article since it implied political support for the forced absorption of Yugoslavia into Western European economic and political institutions. (Watkins is married to Tariq Ali and appears to be one of the more radical-minded of the editors there. Apparently–despite her husband–she hates the idea of the left voting for John Kerry.)

While not as visible on the frontlines as the Hoare and Magas, Norman Geras and Chris Bertram were also being seduced by the notion of Cruise missiles as agencies of Yugoslav democracy. For reasons that remain somewhat murky, Hoare, Magas, Geras and Bertram all resigned from the NLR in 1993. What is clear, however, is that they are for Woodrow Wilson style imperialist interventions as the need arises–a variant on the bastardized socialism that compelled Lenin to draft the Zimmerwald manifesto at the start of WWI.

Although I don’t know if ex-NLR editor Fred Halliday left with this crowd back in 1993 and am not aware of any pronounced hostility toward the Serbs on his part, he certainly has emerged as a prominent supporter of military efforts to tame the unruly Moslem. Halliday’s earlier work, like “The Making of the Second Cold War” in 1983, is written from a fairly conventional academic leftist standpoint but more recent work reflects a kind of creeping Thomas Friedman sensibility about the need to punish “bad” Islamists and reward good ones. So, this means supporting the war in Afghanistan while at the same time pressing for Turkey’s admission to the European Union. You find a certain convergence between Halliday and the batty ex-radical and current Sufi neo-conservative Stephen Schwartz, whose latest book also makes the case for sorting out good Islam from bad. Needless to say, the bad Moslems are those who tend to attack Israeli or US interests.

Like others who have traveled this route, Halliday is developing a rather bilious personality that is rapidly encroaching on Christopher Hitchens’ turf. I refer you in particular to an item in last Sunday’s Observer penned by Halliday and titled It’s time to bin the past. It rather shamelessly appropriates Leon Trotsky’s verdict on the Mensheviks being consigned to the dustbin of history, since Halliday–an ex-Trotskyist–must surely be aware that Trotsky was attacking reformists just like him.

Halliday discusses three “dustbins” of history in his screed. The first two relate to the former Soviet Union and Washington and make rather obvious points about Putin and Bush. It is the third dustbin that gets Halliday into a proper lather:

The Third Dustbin is that of the contemporary global protest movement, to a considerable degree a children’s crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators, of the old and new lefts, whose claim to moral and analytic superiority too often masks a set of unexamined, and themselves often recycled, platitudes from the Cold War period and, indeed, from the ideology of the communist world.

Which intellectual demagogues would Halliday be railing against here? Naomi Klein, the most prominent spokesperson of this global protest movement? Is she recycling ideology from the communist world? Sigh, if only this were the case. Halliday lurches ahead:

Indeed the contents of this Third Dustbin are familiar enough: a ritual incantantion of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism that blithely ignores the misuses to which that term was put in the 20th century (for example by Stalin or Mao); a complacent attitude, innocent when not indulgent, towards political violence (witness the cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man, and the invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran, to name but three at the London Social Summit in October).

One has to wonder if the editor assigned to Halliday’s piece was drunk when he worked on it, since the above citation can barely stand on its own feet. Not only is it a 129 word sentence in clear violation of the Gunning fog factor, it also spells ‘incantation’ wrong.

With respect to the “cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man,” one can only wonder if Halliday must be upset by the hit film “Motorcycle Diaries,” which inspired an over-the-top verbal assault from Christopher Hitchens on Slate. One supposes that Che gets people like Halliday and Hitchens all upset because he reminds them of their long frozen-over youthful idealism. And those invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran. They should have known better than to be born in such places. Far better for them to have been born elsewhere or at least to have forsaken radical politics as Halliday did long ago. Our angry professor concludes:

We can assess the outcome of discussions in Davos and Porto Alegre to see if thinking on the current crises of the world has moved on. Here ideas and policies should meet what I term the ‘Vilanova Test’, named after the flinty Spanish writer Pere Vilanova, who, on the basis of years of political engagement and debate in Spain and the Arab world, has argued consistently for pensamiento duro, ‘tough thinking’, in the contemporary world. We certainly have, and may again be treated to, plenty of the other.

What can I say, when I hear business about “tough thinking”, Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik comes to mind. This, after all, is what Halliday and his co-thinkers are about–reshaping the planet in pursuit of geopolitical goals. I don’t mind if that’s their agenda. The least they can do is can the leftish rhetoric.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.