Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 4, 2020

Robert Fisk’s wrong turn

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

Robert Fisk, 1946-2020

Like most people on the left, I relied heavily on five journalists after George W. Bush unleashed his war on terror: Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Seymour Hersh, Patrick Cockburn, and Robert Fisk. After 2011, I was dismayed to see that all of them—to one degree or another—had begun to serve the war aims of the Assad dictatorship. To a large degree, this was a function of their tendency to superimpose the experience of Iraq on Syria. The West was bent on “regime change”, just as it was in 2002. You also had WMD type propaganda that justified intervention. In Iraq, the claim was that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. Correspondingly, every time Assad was accused of launching a chemical weapons attack, they insisted that was another attempt by the USA to provide an excuse for a full-scale intervention. Finally, just as you had American reporters embedded with the military in Iraq, you also had reporters embedded with the military in Syria. Unfortunately, in this instance some were embedded inside Assad’s military.

Like Judith Miller, Robert Fisk, who died last Friday at the age of 74, never saw the parallel between his own fearless defiance of imperialism in covering Iraq and Judith Miller’s obsequious service to George W. Bush. As is the case with all five reporters, they made a terrible mistake in failing to see Syria on its own terms.

The first dispatch by Fisk from Syria in the Independent is dated March 31, 2011 and can hardly be regarded as regime propaganda, especially indicated by the last paragraph: “Syria needs to be renewed. It does need an end to emergency laws, a free media and a fair judiciary and the release of political prisoners and – herewith let it be said – an end to meddling in Lebanon. That figure of 60 dead, a Human Rights Watch estimate, may in fact be much higher. Tomorrow, President Bashar al-Assad will supposedly tell us his future for Syria. It had better be good.”

Just about a year later, Fisk showed the first signs of disaffection from the rebels. On March 9, 2012, he writes a column comparing Homs to Srebrenica. He edges toward a both sides are bad narrative: “In Srebrenica, more than 8000. In Homs? Well, if all Syria has lost 8,000 souls in a year, Homs’s sacrifice must be far smaller. But then the UN statistics do not appear to include the thousands of Syrian army casualties. Government soldiers were also killed in Homs.”

On July 22nd, he writes an article that begins to drift away from the evidentiary. A young Syrian shows up in Beirut and tells another Syrian that women have been raped outside the city of Homs – one estimate puts the number of victims as high as 200 – and the rapists are on both sides. An anonymous source… On both sides… You get the picture? He is veering toward unsubstantiated anecdotal material, not what you’d expect from a top reporter.

A month later, on August 23, 2012, he begins to rely on the Syrian army for what’s going on in Aleppo.

Many of the soldiers, who were encouraged to speak to me even as they knelt at the ends of narrow streets with bullets spattering off the walls, spoke of their amazement that so many “foreign fighters” should have been in Aleppo. “Aleppo has five million people,” one said to me. “If the enemy are so sure that they are going to win the battle, then surely there’s no need to bring these foreigners to participate; they will lose.”

Three days later, he follows up with another article titled “Those trying to topple Assad have surprised the army with their firepower and brutal tactics”. It refers to rebels capturing a member of the shabiha, Assad’s paramilitary death squad, who is stripped naked and hanged. Then his corpse was pelted with shoes and decapitated. His source for this atrocity tale? Syrian army files.

It should be said that throughout 2011 and 2012, he continues to report on the savagery of the dictatorship so it is understandable why many on the left would regard Robert Fisk as a reliable source of news at the time, including me as I recall.

But by the middle of 2013, the tune changes radically. In an article titled “As the US wants to arm ‘nice Syrian rebels’ we must remind ourselves that weapons are not just guns. They are about money; Hardware will end up in the hands of al-Qa’ida”, we end up with the dominant theme of the pro-Assad propaganda network, namely that Assad was dealing with a terrorist Salafist menace.

The US doesn’t plan to send weapons to the horrid rebels, mark you – not to the al-Qa’ida-inspired al-Nusra Front whose chaps film themselves eating Alawites for YouTube videos, barbecue the heads of captured Syrian troops and murder 14-year-old schoolboys for blasphemy. Only to the nice rebels, the Free Syrian Army deserters who are battling the forces of Assad darkness in the interests of freedom, liberty, women’s rights and democracy.

Anyone who believes this knows nothing about war, killing, barbarity and, especially, greed. Because weapons are not just guns. They are currency. They are money. They are saleable commodities the moment you send them across any border. Their value in US dollars, pounds sterling, Syrian pounds or Qatari dinars is infinitely more important than their use in battle.

What can you say? This lurid opening is designed to alienate Fisk’s civilized British readers that any weapons ending up to defend Syrians from Assad’s killing machine will end up willy-nilly in the hands of al-Qaeda. This crosses the border into Vanessa Beeley-land. In August, Assad launches a sarin gas attack on East Ghouta, which prompts Obama to threaten a retaliation for him crossing the red-line. What’s Fisk’s response? To warn that an intervention would mean that the US is fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side. I too would have been opposed to intervention but I would not have made an amalgam between the revolutionary forces and al-Qa’ida.

A month later, Fisk writes the first of his “false flag” articles, this time finding reasons why Assad could not have been involved with the sarin gas attack. Using the same dubious reporting methods of fellow reporter laureate Seymour Hersh, he tries to impress readers with his insider access. If your source is a spook or a government official, how can you not be telling the truth? He writes:

Nevertheless, it also has to be said that grave doubts are being expressed by the UN and other international organisations in Damascus that the sarin gas missiles were fired by Assad’s army. While these international employees cannot be identified, some of them were in Damascus on 21 August and asked a series of questions to which no one has yet supplied an answer. Why, for example, would Syria wait until the UN inspectors were ensconced in Damascus on 18 August before using sarin gas little more than two days later – and only four miles from the hotel in which the UN had just checked in? Having thus presented the UN with evidence of the use of sarin – which the inspectors quickly acquired at the scene – the Assad regime, if guilty, would surely have realised that a military attack would be staged by Western nations.

This meme has been seen a hundred thousand times in reporting on chemical attacks in Syria. Why would Assad provoke the USA? The answer should be obvious. It never did anything worse than bomb an air field but only after warning a Russian officer that the attack was pending. The next day all its warplanes were involved in new bombing runs. Then, another time pissing off Trump to the extent that he fired some Tomahawk missiles into government buildings that had no effect whatsoever on Assad’s war-making capabilities.

I can’t exactly remember why but a year or so ago, I got so annoyed with something Fisk wrote about Douma that I sent snail-mail to the Independent c/o Fisk, giving him a piece of my mind. To my surprise, he wrote back in a tone reminding me of a professor chastising a student who cheated on a final. It’s really too bad that these people with inflated reputations like Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh, Noam Chomsky, and Stephen F. Cohen received such adulation. What happens is that your ego gets so inflated that you can’t take criticisms to heart. To be a radical journalist like John Reed, you need to have much more ties to the mass movement. For people like Fisk, I’m afraid that after 2011, his only connections were to the Syrian military and the bars in Damascus’s four-star hotels.

July 24, 2020

Matt Taibbi, the Harper’s Open Letter, and the Intellectual Dark Web

Filed under: Counterpunch,Harper's Open Letter,journalism — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 24, 2020

Just a day before the Harper’s Open Letter appeared on July 7th, Osita Nwanevu wrote an article for The New Republic on “The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism” that made Matt Taibbi sound as if his name would show up there the next day. Indeed, in a convivial Rolling Stone podcast that Taibbi and his partner Katie Halper did with Thomas Chatterton Williams, the godfather of the letter regretted that he didn’t have Taibbi’s email address otherwise he would have been invited.

Nwenevu’s article addressed the widespread assault on identity politics that makes it sound like the greatest threat to American democracy is diversity training seminars by Robin Diangelo, the author of “White Fragility.” Indeed, Matt Taibbi described the philosophy behind her book as positively “Hitlerian.”

This furor over “cancel culture” or what used to be called “political correctness” is not exactly new. I saw it as early as 1991 when Nat Hentoff was on the warpath against efforts to reduce racism at universities and the media, just as is happening today:

For 2 1/2 years, I have been interviewing students and professors across the country for a book I’m writing on assaults by orthodoxies — right and left — on freedom of expression. Many specific incidents of political correctness — with names — have been printed in this column from those interviews.

One very bright young man at Brown, for example, told me he finally gave up offering his questions on affirmative action — like “What has it done for poor blacks?” — in class. He got tired of being called a racist, in and out of the room.

Continue reading

January 5, 2020

Fisking Douma

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Robert Fisk

All of Robert Fisk’s bad habits come into play in a recent Independent op-ed piece titled “The Syrian conflict is awash with propaganda – chemical warfare bodies should not be caught up in it” that is part of the aggressive propaganda campaign trying to absolve Bashar al-Assad from the chlorine gas attack in Douma last year. Along with Fisk, two other British journalists have been making a huge stink over alleged OPCW cover-ups. One is Jonathan Steele, who works for the liberal Guardian newspaper and the other is Christopher Hitchens’s brother Peter, who works for the rightwing Mail on Sunday. Their articles on Douma rely heavily on two OPCW whistle-blowers, Ian Henderson and “Alex”, who spoke at a conference sponsored by Courage Foundation, which is closely tied to Wikileaks. Since Julian Assange has been a long-time supporter of Assad, it is no surprise that his allies are doing everything possible to prove that jihadis organized a “false flag” in Douma in order to give the USA an excuse to bomb Syria.

Fisk starts off with an anecdote about a conversation he had with a NATO officer after giving a talk on the Middle East to European military officials in the Spring of 2019. After his talk, one of the officers cornered and then told him, “The OPCW are not going to admit all they know. They’ve already censored their own documents.” This kind of insider-knowledge should be familiar to anybody who has read Seymour Hersh for the past 8 years, until he became damaged goods to the LRB or any other reputable periodical. Just refer to some spook or General on the QT and you’ll wow your readers even if what they tell you cannot be verified. Unlike Hersh, Fisk couldn’t even get his informant to provide the usual “false flag” story. He writes, “I could not extract any more from him. He smiled and walked away, leaving me to guess what he was talking about.”

Luckily for Fisk, the NATO officer phoned him a few months later and said that he was not talking about the Henderson report. But, you might ask, what then was he talking about. Well, who knows since his informer then “immediately terminated” their conversation?

Apparently, it was Alex who once and for all established that the OPCW was in cahoots with the CIA in trying to make the unblemished Bashar al-Assad look like a war criminal. (Perhaps Fisk wasn’t aware that Douma had been attacked with chlorine gas three times already in 2018. He evidently saw no need to report about it since so few people died. So what if they were sick enough to be hospitalized? That’s what you deserve for living in a city that stubbornly resisted the dictatorship.)

The most damaging item in Fisk’s article turns once again to the chlorine tanks that were found in the upper floors of the apartment building where more than 40 dwellers were found dead on the lower floors:

Alex also said that a British diplomat who was OPCW’s chef de cabinet invited several members of the drafting team to his office, where they found three US officials who told them that the Syrian regime had conducted a gas attack and that two cylinders found in one building contained 170 kilograms of chlorine. The inspectors, Alex remarked, regarded this as unacceptable pressure and a violation of the OPCW’s principles of “independence and impartiality”.

I have no idea how informing the OPCW that two chlorine gas cylinders had been found amounted to “unacceptable pressure.” They had been widely acknowledged by the OPCW leadership on one side and the whistle-blowers on the other. They only differed on where they came from. The leadership said they came from a helicopter and the whistle-blowers said that jihadis carried these five-hundred pound tanks from some undisclosed location into the building and then up six stories in full view of the Douma population. You’d think that if this was the case, the dictatorship would have found someone from Douma to verify that a false flag did take place. Keep in mind that Assadists are making the case that these devilish jihadis released the gas in order to provide the necessary victims that Donald Trump needed to justify bombing some buildings in Damascus. Of course, if Trump was truly trying to punish Assad, he wouldn’t have cut off all aid to the rebels long before the Douma attack.

Ironically, the Independent article contained a video that had nothing to do with Fisk’s false flag bullshit. It was captioned “Syria war: At least 16 killed in ‘beyond sadistic’ missile attack on camp for displaced people” and depicted a slaughter in Idlib. For all we know, some of the dead might have come there from Douma. The day after the chlorine gas attack, those who were still living boarded buses and went to Idlib, a Gaza-like hellhole that was home to all the poor people who Assad wanted to quarantine from his religiously tolerant, state-socialist paradise.

Civilians gather next to a fragment of a ground-to-ground missile fired by Syrian regime forces (AFP via Getty Images)

The Independent covered the displaced people tragedy on November 21, 2019. Headlined with the same caption found beneath the video clip in Fisk’s article, it was the sort of reporting that the cynical and degraded reporter is no longer capable of:

The Syrian regime bombarded a camp hosting displaced people and a maternity hospital in the country’s northwest on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people, the vast majority of whom were women and children.

Dozens were injured and at least eight children and two women were thought to have been among those killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

Large parts of the camp were burnt and several fire brigades were called to the scene, with rescuers warning on Thursday that the death toll was expected to rise as more people succumbed to severe burn injuries.

The regime fired at least two ground-to-ground missiles, which caused “significant damage to the camp as well as the burning of tents of displaced people”, SOHR reported.

Fisk is no longer capable of such reporting because he became embedded in the dictatorship’s army in the same way that people like Judith Miller became embedded back in 2002. What a disgrace.

July 26, 2019

Max Blumenthal’s “The Management of Savagery”: a review

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

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Not long after George W. Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of leftists signed up with his “war on terror”. Many added their names to the 2006 Euston Manifesto that proclaimed: “Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today. It threatens democratic values and the lives and freedoms of people in many countries.” Among the most prominent supporters of Bush’s wars was Christopher Hitchens who wrote an article for Slate in 2007 not only defending the use of the term Islamofascism but endorsed ultra-rightist David Horowitz’s attempt to organize “Islamofascism Awareness Week” on American campuses. Most on the left disowned Hitchens and company because the USA was making war, as it does in most cases.

But occasionally, the “war on terror” is prosecuted by another super-power. When the Arab Spring came to Syria in March 2011, you found the same kind of Eustonian willingness to support military intervention against Islamic fanatics but this time it was on behalf of Vladimir Putin who was supposedly defending a sovereign government under attack from bearded, sharia-law supporting Salafists. Hitchens defended all sorts of war crimes against such people, writing “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.” Meanwhile, latter-day versions of Hitchens make the same kinds of excuses for barrel bombs and absolve Bashar al-Assad of all chemical attacks. When it comes to “defeating al-Qaeda”, anything goes.

While Max Blumenthal is certainly not Christopher Hitchens’s equal either as a writer or an intellectual, he certainly aspires to be Christopher Hitchens of today. When Hitchens made up his mind to back Bush’s wars, he took great pains to explain his evolution. By contrast, Blumenthal has never said a single word about his own mutation. For example, in July 2012, he wrote a resignation letter to Al-Akhbar because he was fed up with the pro-Assad newspaper:

I was forced to conclude that unless I was prepared to spend endless stores of energy jousting with Assad apologists, I was merely providing them cover by keeping my name and reputation associated with Al Akhbar. More importantly, I decided that if I kept quiet any longer, I would be betraying my principles and those of the people who have encouraged and inspired me over the years. There is simply no excuse for me to remain involved for another day with such a morally compromised outlet.

Not long after Blumenthal went to a banquet to celebrate RT.com’s anniversary, all such articles went into a memory hole. Instead, he became one of Assad’s biggest supporters on the left, joined by Ben Norton who, while a mutant himself, at least offered a lame explanation. Can such conversions be explained by Kremlin gold? I think such speculation is unwise, especially since it doesn’t account for genuine reconsiderations of one’s political views. Assuming that Blumenthal’s were genuine, you only wonder why he never bothered to account for them unless he worried that they would sound as lame as Norton’s.

This year Verso published Blumenthal’s “The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump”. While the first half of the book covers the obvious horrors of American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the underlying goal is to demonstrate that Syria is just another “regime change” operation that the author hopes to forestall. You’d think that after 8 years with the regime still intact, it might be obvious that this was never the goal but let’s leave that aside. Since there is no reason for this review to question the chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan upon which we are in agreement, I will focus on the second half of the book that basically reprises what Blumenthal has written after his “road to Damascus” conversion.

One of the more dramatic examples of Blumenthal I versus Blumenthal II can be found in the beginning of Chapter 9, titled “Collateral Damage, Indirect Benefits” in which he recounts a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in 2013. After a few words describing the miserable conditions, he concludes this passage with a leitmotif found throughout his book, namely that Assad’s opponents were jihadists:

Among the few able to leave were two young men I witnessed walking past a Jordanian intelligence station toward the Syrian border. When my guide asked them where they were going, one responded simply, “To make jihad.”

The article he wrote for Nation Magazine in 2013 after his visit to Zaatari had the opposite intention, namely to help his readers understand why refugees call for American intervention. Titled “We Just Wish for the Hit to Put an End to the Massacres”, there’s not a single word about jihadists. Instead, there is this:

None of the dozens of adults I interviewed in the camp would allow me to report their full names or photograph their faces. If they return to Syria with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still intact, they fear brutal recriminations. Many have already survived torture, escaped from prisons or defected from Assad’s army. “With all the bloodshed, the killing of people who did not even join the resistance, Bashar only wanted to teach us one lesson: That we are completely weak and he is our god,” a woman from Dara’a in her early 60s told me.

The next step after portraying Zaatari as a viper’s nest of jihadists is to cite a Northeastern professor named Max Abrahms who led a polling team to discover why Syrians became refugees. It revealed that most were fleeing Islamic terrorists rather than the dictatorship. In 2015 and 2016, Abrahms interviewed 130 refugees and discovered that a mere 16 percent blamed Assad for their flight.

Abrahms is a member of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy that cheered on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq as well as Israel’s nonstop war on the Palestinians. Writing for National Review, Abrahms defended the IDF’s brutal crackdown on the West Bank in 2002, calling it language that the terrorists could understand.

In 2010, Blumenthal blasted the very same Washington Institute for Near East Policy for helping to launch an Islamophobic crusade. Apparently, it is acceptable to take Abrahms at his word when it is the Kremlin rather than Washington dropping the bombs. It also helps that this former West Point lecturer on terrorism concurs with Blumenthal’s demonization of Syrian rebels. When Abrahms wrote in Foreign Affairs that “Assad’s main enemies in Syria have been dangerous extremists, no matter how many governments fund them, train them, or arm them,” he was on Blumenthal’s side even if his politics were indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s.

Perhaps the only hint that Blumenthal was ever opposed to Assad comes in the beginning of Chapter 6 (The Next Dirty War) where the first paragraph alludes to Assad’s “repression and cronyism”, as well as the neoliberal policies associated with Assad’s first cousin, the billionaire Rami Makhlouf. Once that paragraph is out of the way, he can concentrate on the main purpose of the chapter which is to demonstrate that early on the revolt used sectarian violence against the well-meaning President, who despite all these sins, was supported by 55 percent of the population according to a Qatar poll taken in 2012. The poll was exploited in a broad propaganda offensive that year to legitimize Assad. While his 88.7 vote totals in 2014 might raise eyebrows, how can you question the findings of a Qatari poll? After all, Qatar was widely regarded as an Islamist state.

There was a sleight-of-hand in Blumenthal’s reference to 55 percent of Syrians backing Assad. Fifty-five percent of Syrians would be about 11 million people but it turns out that only 97 took part in the poll since it was limited to those who had Internet access and a deliberately small sampling at that. With 53 among the 97 Syrians reached saying they did not want him to resign (not exactly a ringing endorsement), it hardly buttresses Blumenthal’s case for Assad. Perhaps the best opinion poll would have been free elections but that would have risked the family dynasty being ousted and thus strictly out of the question. As his supporters’ graffiti made clear, the choice was either Assad or burning down the country. It turned out that they got both.

To make the connection between the Taliban and Syrian rebels, Blumenthal wastes no time. Immediately after the perfunctory reference to class divisions in Syria, he introduces us to a Salafist bogeyman who is supposed to symbolize everybody opposed to the regime, namely Anas al-Ayrout, a cleric in the seaport town of Baniyas who was opposed to mixed-gender classes and called for ending the ban on niqab, the full-face veil.

For a more balanced treatment of Baniyas, I recommend “Cities in Revolution: Baniyas”, a 34-page report that presents an entirely different portrait of al-Ayrout. Despite the fact that he held conservative religious views, he was not a sectarian. In one of the first protests in Baniyas, this was his role:

The demonstration was unorganized at first, and within a few moments, Maher al Masri, climbed on the shoulders of his freedom and began chanting as well, with people falling in behind him. The protesters moved unbothered until they reached the bus depot of the city. At that point, a number of protesters attacked an Alawite bus worker and damaged his truck. Ayrout, however, intervened immediately and ensured reparations were paid to the bus owner. Ayrout then emerged chanting, “Sunni, Alawi, we all want freedom” and the protesters repeated after him until they reached the intelligence security headquarters in the city.

What was the response of the dictatorship’s supporters? A few days later, a pro-Assad militia stormed into the town and carried out mass arrests. The last mass protest took place on May 5, 2011. Led by women, they were confronted by the military and intelligence forces who shot many peaceful protestors. Dozens were arrested, many of whom are still detained if they were fortunate enough not to be murdered in prison. The town remained restive. In the next round of protests in 2013, the dictatorship went even further. According to the UN, between 300 to 450 people were killed. None of this is reflected in Blumenthal’s chapter. Instead, he reports on how a single Alawite fruit vendor was killed in Baniyas—a sad but not unexpected reaction to the bloodbath Sunnis suffered. Blumenthal was simply repackaging what Syrian media was saying at the time, namely that the military was on a mission to clear out “the terrorists”.

After repeated slaughters such as this, the opposition to Assad finally saw the need to take up arms to defend the mass movement. Once weaponry became available from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Pentagon, a “proxy war” erupted that, according to Blumenthal, “began to look more and more like Afghanistan in the 1980s.” This is the central argument of “Management of Savagery”. Washington supposedly sought to replace Assad with a “pliant, pro-Western Sunni government, like the kind that ruled Jordan.”

Since it is clear that Blumenthal is unfamiliar with Marxism, the failure to identify the class alignments in Syria should be expected. Contrary to his analogy with Jordan (or Iraq for that matter), there was no significant social support for “regime change” among the country’s elite. The Sunni bourgeoisie was one of the mainstays of an economic and political elite that was united in its hostility toward the rural and the young urban opposition whatever their religious beliefs.

Joseph Daher, a Syrian Marxist, wrote an article titled “Assad Regime Still Reliant on Fractions of the Sunni Bourgeoisie” that explains why the division in Syria was more about class than faith:

The Asad-Makhluf cartel could include external actors into their ‘asabiyya[ii] (group solidarity or social bond) such as Mohammad Saber Hamsho, who is still a prominent Syrian Sunni businessman in the country. A few years prior to the uprising in 2011, he became a powerful political and economic figure as a result of his association with Maher Al-Asad, the brother of Bashar, following his marriage with Maher’s sister in law. He was ‘elected’ as deputy in Parliament in 2003 and 2007 (Donati 2013: 40). Before the uprising, many other examples of old fashioned Sunni state bourgeoisie turned into private entrepreneurs existed, such as former Minister of Defense Mustapha Tlass and sons (owners of MAS Group, a chain of different commercial and semi-industrial companies) and the sons of former Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam (owners of Afia, one of the country’s largest food firms, which produces food conserves, olive oil and bakery products) (Matar 2015: 110). These new businessmen became prominent in the economic life of Syria, increasingly taking over the positions occupied by traditional bourgeoisie.

They had class interests in common with the family dynasty that ruled Syria. Those who were gunned down in Baniyas, Homs, Aleppo, and Ghouta suffered from the “neoliberalism” Blumenthal referred to in a single sentence at the start of Chapter six. Their class interests were the same as those who protested throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. In some cases, the elite was Sunni and the underclass was Shi’a. In other cases, the non-Sunnis were on top. In all cases, the only way to make sense of the conflict was to examine class relations, something that is of little interest to a conspiracist-minded journalist.

In her chapter in Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl’s “Syria: from Reform to Revolt”, Syrian scholar Myriam Ababsa describes the desperation of the underclass that is never mentioned once in “Management of Savagery”. In the agricultural heartland of Syria, drought had left the peasantry in ruins. In 2009, 42 percent of Raqqa governorate suffered from anemia because of inadequate nutrition. Deepening the distress, farmers were forced to use polluted river water to irrigate their crops, which led to widespread food poisoning.

Poverty forced small-scale farmers, herders and landless peasants to stop sending their children to school. According to the UN, school enrollment decreased in eastern Syria by 70 percent after April 2008, leaving illiteracy rates at much higher levels than the well-off urban neighborhoods that backed Assad. Up to 220 villages were abandoned in the rural Hassaka governorate.

These modern-day versions of the Joad family ended up in the outskirts of Aleppo, Damascus and other major cities. They either entered the informal economy or scraped by in low-paying jobs just like Latino immigrants to the USA. When the Arab Spring came to Syria, they rose up alongside the young urban activists who simply wanted freedom. None of them cared about whether women should be able to wear full-face veils or not. They wanted food on their tables, school for their children, and the right to speak out without being tortured or killed by snipers. Blumenthal certainly understood this when he wrote about the Zaatari refugee camp in 2012 but calculated that his career was more important than telling the truth. Ironically, it has been his unseemly propaganda work for Assad that has lost him writing gigs now that much more of the left is aware of the dictatorship’s depravity. Why Verso would find it in their interest to publish this book is another story altogether, except to consider the possibility that Tariq Ali’s own pro-Assad loyalties might have mattered more than book sales.

While most victims of Assad’s scorched earth tactics died because of bombs or bullets, the chemical attacks tend to get the biggest headlines although they only account for less than 1 percent of the fatalities. Those who try to absolve Assad of these attacks always repeat the same defense, namely the illogic of using such weapons when he has such a one-sided battlefield advantage. What’s missing from this calculation is the psychological effect of chemical weapons that terrorize everybody opposed to Assad into submission whether they are the target or not. If he is willing to defy public opinion and risk empty threats of reprisals from the West, such attacks are as key to his strategy as bombing hospitals or any other measure meant to punish civilians in rebel-controlled areas.

Like all other defenders of the dictatorship, Blumenthal regards such attacks as “false flags” intended to justify “regime change”. In reviewing the aftermath of the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta six years ago, he credits the OPCW for preempting Obama’s empty “red line” threats:

The Syrian opposition had banked everything on American intervention, but to their dismay, diplomacy wound up winning the day. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov rescued Obama from the interventionists, arranging a last-minute deal that required the Syrian government to dispose of its entire stock of chemical weapons under the supervision of the OPCW. The agreement was a rare example of de-escalation in an era of permanent war. For its successful destruction of the Syrian chemical stocks, the OPCW was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Among the four people serving on the OPCW committee overseeing investigations is one José Bustani, a Brazilian diplomat who was at one time the director general of OPCW, the highest position in the organization until he was forced out. The circumstances of his removal buttress Blumenthal’s characterization of it as a trustworthy UN Agency. In 2002, Bustani was negotiating with Iraq join the OPCW, thus allowing its inspectors full access to Iraq’s purported “chemical weapons arsenal”. If Bustani had succeeded, this would have impeded the Bush administration’s war plans, by removing one of their “weapons of mass destruction” pretexts. When John Bolton got wind of Bustani’s efforts, he demanded his resignation. In a phone conversation between the two men reported in The Intercept, Bolton is quoted:

“You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with this decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you.” After a moment’s pause, Bolton specified the consequences of not resigning: “We know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York.”

Given the OPCW’s integrity and independence, it should be the ultimate judge on whether Assad was responsible for using sarin gas in East Ghouta in 2013 and a chlorine attack in Douma last year that left 43 dead. While it is out of the OPCW’s purview to assign blame, the report on East Ghouta implicitly held the dictatorship responsible. The Russians deputy foreign minister Sergei A. Ryabkov stated: “We think that the report was distorted. It was one-sided. The basis of information upon which it is built is insufficient.” There was the same response to the chlorine gas attack in Douma. Not guilty.

Blumenthal goes so far as to say that the only traces of chlorine found in Douma were the same as those that could have originated from household cleaners or swimming pools. He even credits Robert Fisk’s version of what took place, based on what a doctor told him. The truth was that no chemical attack had taken place at all and that jihadis had manufactured evidence to create the illusion of one, just as some conspiracy theorists view the Apollo Moon landing as a staged event.

Despite the fact that the “good” OPCW helped to avert American intervention after East Ghouta, it became “bad” after a leaked report from a former OPCW employee claimed that the weaponized chlorine tanks were placed in the building where 43 people died as a “false flag” rather than dropped from a helicopter. Recently, Blumenthal’s Gray Zone endorsed the leaked document, thus rendering the account found in “Management of Savagery” of a faked massacre as fraudulent. This is consistent with the journalistic tendency of the Assadist left to throw stuff against a wall to see what sticks.

If the purpose of “Management of Savagery” is to educate the world about the need to resist Salafist proxy wars against a secular government with broad support, it would behoove the author to take account of the state of the Middle East following the almost total victory of the Baathists in Syria.

If the acid test is only whether American interests were thwarted, such a balance sheet will be so narrowly circumscribed that it will be next to useless. Much of Blumenthal’s analysis of Syria is based on the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood that he lumps together with ISIS, al-Qaeda, the FSA and any other armed group that opposed Assad. To be consistent, he’d have to support General al-Sisi’s “war on terror” in Egypt that took the form of a bloodbath coup against President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who died of a heart attack during a kangaroo court hearing last month. Under al-Sisi, Egypt has put the military in charge in the same way it was under Mubarak. Political rights are non-existent and subsidies to the poor have been slashed.

In 2016, al-Sisi stated that “Our priority is to support national armies, for example in Libya to assert control over Libyan territories and deal with extremist elements. The same with Syria and Iraq.” Given both dictator’s resistance to Salafist elements, their affinity makes perfect sense. Given Assad’s close ties to Russia, there is another basis for shared diplomatic and political interests. Last year, Putin signed a Strategic Partnership Treaty with Egypt that should have gratified Max Blumenthal even if its benefits were lost on the Egyptian working class.

Finally, there is Saudi Arabia, the arch-demon in Max Blumenthal’s worldview. What is the current relationship between the main sponsor of jihadi terrorists worldwide and the Baathist dictator that it was supposedly bent on overthrowing? It has joined other Middle Eastern monarchies and dictatorships in re-establishing ties to Syria. After Assad regained control of 90 percent of his country, the Sunni states decided to mend their fences with the Alawite President in the interest of stability. This should not come as any great surprise since the Sunni rich in Syria never had a problem with Assad in the first place, so why should they?

March 1, 2019

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People

Filed under: Film,journalism — louisproyect @ 10:31 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in NY and at the Laemmle a week from now is the documentary “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People” that despite being made before 2016 (based on the typical schedule of film productions) could not be more relevant to the current crisis. With the battle between Donald Trump and the “mainstream media” over “fake news”, a look at the life and career of Joseph Pulitzer will give us the perspective we need on how newspapers functioned in the broader fabric of American society during the Gilded Age. He symbolized the ultimate contradictions of the capitalist press. Determined to boost circulation, he tailed after William Randolph Hearst’s “fake news” during the Spanish-American War and lived to regret it. If “click bait” is the bête noire of electronic media, so was the circulation wars between Pulitzer’s The World and Hearst’s The Journal. For those who are nostalgic for the good old days of responsible reporting, seeing this excellent documentary will remind you how much they have in common with the bad new days we are living through now.

Born in 1847, Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian Jew who grew up in dire poverty. Of his 8 siblings, only one other grew into adulthood. His father died when he was 11, leaving the family to its own devices. At the age of 17, he took advantage of a recruitment offer from the Union army. Since Lincoln had a shortage of troops as a result of rich northerners paying bribes to keep their kids from serving, immigrants would get tickets to America to replenish the ranks.

Managing to stay alive, Pulitzer found himself unemployed at the end of the war but resourceful enough to “Go West, Young Man” as Horace Greeley put it. He ended up in St. Louis and found himself playing chess with Carl Schurz, the German revolutionary who was a “Forty-Eighter” just like Pulitzer’s uncles. That in itself might have recommended him to Schurz but the older and highly successful man was far more impressed with the beating he took at the chessboard from the youth. Seeing him as a gifted individual, he hired him to work at his newspaper. Rising rapidly to the top, Pulitzer amassed enough money to buy what would become the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper that the family owned until 2005.

As ambitious as he was shrewd, Pulitzer decided that New York was the place to go if you wanted to be in the media “big leagues”. Leveraging the money he made in St. Louis, Pulitzer bought The World and turned into the kind of newspaper that he pioneered, namely a tabloid-style voice that took up the cause of poor people and that held the feet of the rich to the fire.

I say “tabloid-style” because it was a full-page newspaper like the NY Times rather than the NY Post or the NY Daily News. However, the emphasis was on attention-getting stories about corruption, Gilded Age plutocracy of the sort symbolized by Stephen Schwarzman today, and “human interest” stories about the kinds of people who paid a penny each day to read The World.

A typical circulation ploy by Pulitzer was to publicize the need for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was being put together during the paper’s rise to the top. He called on New Yorkers to contribute to a fund to pay for the pedestal and who would be recognized for their contribution by being named in an Honor Roll in the paper. He made sure to update the Honor Roll only several days after the contribution was made (usually between a penny and a dime) in order to encourage those making a donation to buy the paper each day until their name showed up.

In 1895, Harvard graduate and rich kid William Randolph Hearst came to New York from California and launched the Journal. Showing the kind of mercilessness depicted in his fictional version in “Citizen Kane”, he began poaching reporters and editors from the World. In addition, he adopted the tabloid style of the World that was expressed above all by Hogan’s Alley, a comic strip that featured a bald kid in a yellow nightshirt nicknamed The Yellow Kid. After Hearst lured the author to the Journal, he escalated the sensationalism to the point of caricature, so much so that the term “yellow journalism” encompassed both newspaper.

When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, Hearst featured the same kinds of articles that led up to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and LBJ’s war in Vietnam before that. “Fake news” would be an understatement. Under pressure to sell newspapers, Pulitzer began publishing the same kind of “yellow journalism” but would live to regret it. Close to his death, he featured investigative reporting on President Theodore Roosevelt’s virtual colonization of Panama that was calculated to enrich investors in the new canal. Roosevelt was so incensed that he sued Pulitzer for libel but the Supreme Court ruled in Pulitzer’s favor in the interest of freedom of the press.

The film benefits from interviews with academic historians and media professors but above all one interviewee stands out, namely Nicholson Baker, the author of the WII revisionist (after the fashion of Howard Zinn) “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization”. In 1999, Baker discovered that the British Library had plans to junk more than 2,000 bound volumes of American newspapers, including hundreds of editions of Joseph Pulitzer’s ground-breaking color pages of the New York World. Baker spent $26,000 of his own money to rescue the archives and the film would not be nearly so brilliant without their images.

Most of us know the name Pulitzer through the annual prizes bestowed in his name. He funded the awards and the Columbia Journalism School as well. He was a complex man who deserved the complex treatment he received in this film. If newspapers are in bad shape today, we can at least be grateful that documentary film is in its golden age.

December 15, 2018

A reply to Ben Norton and Ajit Singh’s hatchet job on the Uyghurs

Filed under: journalism,Uyghur — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

Ben Norton

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Ajit Singh

An August, 2018 article by Ben Norton and Ajit Singh on the Grayzone Project defended the Chinese government against charges that it had put a million Uyghurs into detention camps. If this suggests that these people had plummeted to new depths, it can at least be stated that they didn’t fall too far. In Dantean terms, they were about 3 inches above the Ninth Circle.

Norton, of course, is familiar to one and all as the journalist who scrubbed his website of all anti-Assad articles once he made a Road to Damascus conversion lubricated by jobs with Salon and then Alternet that were peddling the standard pro-Assad propaganda found on the liberal left.

Ajit Singh was a new name to me. A brief look at an article he wrote for Telesur should give you an idea of his perspective on China:

While capitalists exist in China today, unlike in capitalist societies, they are isolated and not organized in pursuit of their collective interests. Instead, they exist under the rule of the socialist state to aid national economic development. Capitalists transgressing their boundaries are swiftly dealt with by the Communist Party and the Chinese people. An annual list of China’s richest citizens is commonly called the “death list” or “kill pigs list” because those named often are later imprisoned. Capitalists also regularly get taken hostage by workers to win labor victories with police actively assisting workers.

When I read this, I laughed so hard that the ginger ale I was drinking squirted out of my nose. The only people who write such nonsense tend to occupy the netherworld of old-school Stalinism, like the theologian Roland Boer in Australia. Most people on the left tend to identify with the young Maoist students who are facing repression for standing up for the working class in China while Singh and Norton would have you believe that the country’s government is wisely and benignly committed to the construction of socialism even though Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba, is a member of the CP and worth a cool $40 billion.

The net worth of China’s Parliament’s members is $650 billion. Although the Parliament has very little political power, it is good place for the rich to join. In combination with their party membership, rich businessmen are offered protection against arbitrary measures on their property—not that Xi Jingping is interested in clipping the wings of the bourgeoisie.

In an effort to debunk the notion that Uyghurs are being interned, the Grayzone authors “correct” the impression that the U.N. has taken such a position when it was only that of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination whose members are independent researchers rather than UN officials, a distinction without a difference in my view. An August report by the committee provided the basis for numerous media articles, including one from Reuters that Norton and Singh singled out:

Gay McDougall, a member of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, cited estimates that 2 million Uyghurs and Muslim minorities were forced into “political camps for indoctrination” in the western Xinjiang autonomous region.

Ah-ha, Norton and Singh exclaim like detectives finding a smoking gun, Gay McDougall is not even a member of the U.N., as is the case with all other members of the committee who are only identified as independent experts. In addition, she is the only American serving on the committee, which in their eyes should make her a liar on a prima facie basis. Finally, a look at the official news release about the report showed that the only mention of alleged re-education “camps” was from Gay McDougall. So if an American raises a stink about internment, it must be false, right?

In a sleight-of-hand maneuver, the Grayzone boys do not provide a link to the committee’s reaction to the Chinese government’s report that cleared itself, only to a press release that reflects a range of views. So let’s go to what the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had to say about that self-serving report rather than the press release. This comprehensive 12-page rebuttal was not written by Gay McDougall. Instead, it represented a consensus by the membership that hardly conforms to the cheesy pro-Beijing propaganda served up by Grayzone:

The Committee notes the delegation’s statements concerning the non-discriminatory enjoyment of freedoms and rights in XUAR. However, the Committee is alarmed by:

(a) Numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism. The Committee regrets that there is no official data on how many people are in long-term detention or who have been forced to spend varying periods in political “re-education camps” for even nonthreatening expressions of Muslim ethno-religious culture like daily greetings. Estimates about them range from tens of thousands to upwards of a million. The Committee also notes that the delegation stated that vocational training centres exist for people who committed minor offences without qualifying what this means;

(b) Reports of mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs, including through frequent baseless police stops and the scanning of mobile phones at police checkpoint stations. Additional reports of mandatory collection of extensive biometric data in XUAR, including DNA samples and iris scans, of large groups of Uyghur residents

(c) Reports that all XUAR residents are required to hand in their travel documents to police and apply for permission to leave the country, and that permission may not come for years. This restriction impacts most heavily on those who wish to travel for religious purposes;

(d) Reports that many Uyghurs abroad who left China have allegedly been returned to the country against their will. There are fears about the current safety of those involuntarily returned to China.

(e) While acknowledging the State party’s denials, the Committee takes note of reports that Uyghur language education has been banned in schools in XUAR’s Hotan (Hetian) prefecture(arts. 2 and 5).

One assumes that if the Committee describes itself as being “upset” about such reports, that’s enough to discount the claims in Norton and Singh’s eyes. After all, with all those reports being “fake news” as Donald Trump would put it, who would believe them except those in cahoots with the CIA, the State Department and the NY Times op-ed page?

To drive this point home, they discredit pro-Uyghur NGO’s because they are funded by the West. This, needless to say, is the same stance they take with the White Helmets and obviously a function of Grayzone’s toxic mixture of Stalinism and Islamophobia. The first group they “expose” is the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), which by virtue being located in Washington is all the proof you need to dismiss its findings. Would it have made any difference if the group was based in London, Paris or Bonn? Probably not. The only legitimate locales would be Tehran, Damascus, Moscow and Beijing. Obviously.

If that wasn’t proof enough, the circumstantial evidence of being funded by the National Endowment for Democracy should have cinched it. Everybody knows that the NED is a big-time supporter of regime change.

Things get a bit messy, however, when you visit the NED website and discover that it is funding “civil society” groups in Myanmar and the Philippines. Among its beneficiaries is the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), which has been in the frontlines opposing the authoritarian ruler’s extrajudicial war on drugs that has left hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent civilians murdered by the cops. Is opposing Duterte serving the imperialist agenda of Washington? Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Norton and Singh making the case for Duterte since he has cozied up to the wise and benign socialist leadership in China. Rappler.com, a Philippine website that has been threatened by Duterte and defended by the PCIJ, posted an article about the growing ties:

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping decided to “elevate” their countries’ ties into a “comprehensive strategic cooperation” even as they “continue to manage contentious issues” in the West Philippine Sea.

In a joint press conference, Xi said, “The President and I both agreed to elevate our relationship into one of comprehensive strategic cooperation. This vision charts a clear course for China-Philippines relations and sends a strong message to the world that our two countries are partners in seeking common development.”

Xi also agreed with Duterte that “every country has the right to choose its path.”

So, surely this must mean that Duterte is on the side of the angels and certainly eligible for an investigative report by Grayzone clearing his name. In fact, Norton has been in a discussion with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about doing a Grayzone interview with the creep who invited David Duke to Tehran for a holocaust revisionism conference, as well as jailing and torturing bus drivers for the offense of trying to start a union.

This reprehensible CHRD is in cahoots not only with the NED but with Radio Free Asia. However, these warmongering ne’er-do-wells are in turn heavily reliant on the World Uyghur Congress, which also receives NED funding.

At an NED conference in Washington, intrepid Grayzone leader Max Blumenthal cornered Omer Kanat, the Uyghur Congress chairman, to challenge him on the claim of Uyghurs being held in detention camps. Kanat told him that “The Chinese authorities have put more than one million Uyghurs in re-education camps, it is very similar to concentration camps.” Using the standard operating procedure of Grayzone, Blumenthal dismissed this claim because it emanates exclusively from pro-Western media.

So, who to believe? I would tend to believe David Brophy, a University of Sydney lecturer in Chinese history who is fluent in Chinese, Russian and Uyghur, a Turkic language that I can decipher very haltingly . I strongly recommend his “Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier” for its findings that establish the Uyghurs as enthusiastic supporters of the Russian Revolution in 1917, who got short shrift by both the Russian and Chinese Stalinists who replicated the colonialism of the pre-revolutionary regimes.

In an article for Jacobin, Brophy referred to a NY Times Op-Ed piece that sought to establish the existence of detention camps on hard evidence. From the op-ed:

A new study by Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology, in Korntal, Germany, analyzed government ads inviting tenders for various contracts concerning re-education facilities in more than 40 localities across Xinjiang, offering a glimpse of the vast bureaucratic, human and financial resources the state dedicates to this detention network. The report reveals the state’s push to build camps in every corner of the region since 2016, at a cost so far of more than 680 million yuan (over $107 million).

A bid invitation appears to have been posted on April 27 — a sign that more camps are being built. These calls for tenders refer to compounds of up to 880,000 square feet, some with quarters for People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary security force. Local governments are also placing ads to recruit camp staff with expertise in criminal psychology or a background in the military or the police force.

Brophy adds his own observations drawn from visits to Xinjiang:

The camps are only the culmination of a series of repressive policy innovationsintroduced by party secretary Chen Quanguo since his arrival in Xinjiang in 2016. Many of these were already evident on a trip I made to Xinjiang last year: police stations at every major intersection, ubiquitous checkpoints where Chinese sail through as Uyghurs line up for humiliating inspections, elderly men and women trudging through the streets on anti-terror drills, television and radio broadcasts haranguing the Uyghurs to love the party and blame themselves for their second-class status.

I saw machine gun-toting police stop young Uyghur men on the street to check their phones for mandatory government spyware. Some have simply ditched their smartphones, lest an “extremist” video clip or text message land them in prison. On a weekday in the Uyghur center of Kashgar, I stood and watched as the city went into lockdown, making way for divisions of PLA soldiers to march by, chanting out their determination to maintain “stability.”

One might wait in vain for Norton, Singh or Blumenthal to visit China and do an investigate report clearing the “socialist” government. However, I doubt this would be of much interest to them since most of their reporting consists of researching ties between the Uyghurs and Washington that they assemble from various websites. In the old days, radical reporting is what John Reed did or what Anand Gopal does today. These jerks have more in common with Vanessa Beeley. If they ever made it over to China, their time would be spent in 3-star hotels and being led around by the nose as embedded reporters.

 

 

November 27, 2018

Dark Money; The Panama Papers

Filed under: Film,journalism,taxation — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

Two documentaries under consideration here fall with within the general rubric of investigative journalism and as such should be of interest to those who trying to get a handle on how the superrich are screwing the vast majority of the human race. “Dark Money”, which can be seen on Amazon and iTunes, describes the resistance Montanans mounted to the Koch brothers and their hired hands bid to buy the state government through their ultraright, bogus, and opaque tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups. “The Panama Papers”, an Epix film, tells the story of how a network of investigative reporters broke the story of Mossack-Fonseca. A trove of documents was furnished by a whistle-blower known only as “John Doe”. (Epix is a premium cable station site like HBO that allows you to take out a fifteen-day trial subscription. I’d take advantage of this if you want to see “The Panama Papers” that premiered yesterday.)

The idea of a typically red state like Montana with its gun-toting ranchers and farmers resisting corporate campaign contributions made legal by Citizens United might strike you as an anomaly. However, a look at the state’s history would reveal a deep-seated hostility to the copper mining industry that had poisoned the waters of Montana to such a degree that even the ranchers and farmers would not put up with it.

Anaconda Copper was the worst of them. In its open pit excavations in Butte, the company allowed copper-infused soil and rocks to seep into the Berkeley Pit, a lake formed by underground water. The combination of mineral waste and water produced an acid pool so toxic that when a flock of 3,000 Snow Geese touched down during a migration, every bird died. In the early 1900s, Anaconda did not just rule over a company town. It was more accurate to call Montana a company state under its thumb.

As part of the progressivist and socialist movements sweeping the country back then, Montana’s legislators passed a bill in 1912 that made corporate funding of election campaigns illegal. However, when the Supreme Court decided in 2010 that corporations were permitted to make campaign contributions without limits, Montana’s law was superseded to the dismay of Democrats and Republicans alike. The documentary points out that Republican state legislators were by no means happy about Koch’s network of shadowy 501(c)(4) tax-exempt groups like Americans for Prosperity and Western Tradition Partnership meddling in the electoral process.

In Montana, the battleground shifted. Instead of being able to ban the Koch brothers outright, the state election commission shifted to monitoring whether disclosure laws were being broken. If one could not prevent Koch, Inc. from dumping a million dollars into Montana, at least you could make sure to monitor the candidates they supported were not benefiting from unreported “dark money”.

In the first election campaign in Montana following the Citizens United ruling, the Koch-funded Republicans came together as an electoral bloc totally committed to their agenda. This meant first and foremost allowing corporate polluters to enjoy the kind of free rein that led to the death of 3,000 Snow Geese. If you’ve ever been to Montana, as I have to visit the Blackfoot reservation, you’ll understand how the despoliation of some of the most beautiful nature in America can move people into struggle.

The villain in this story is one Art Wittich who was elected to the state legislature after defeating a long-time Republican legislator in the primary. He and a number of other Koch loyalists mounted a coup against the old guard that, while not likely to be endorsed by the DSA, was ready to resist both “dark money” and polluted water. It was up to the state election commission to investigate how Wittich’s campaign was funded. Led by commission head Jon Motl, the campaign secured the pro bono assistance of a retired attorney named Michael Cotter, who after laboriously poring through email communications between Wittich and Koch’s hired guns as well as other incriminating documents, argued in court that Wittich never paid for a lot of the services he was receiving, including expensive direct mail campaigns, etc. But the case was ultimately decided in Cotter’s favor when a young woman who worked in the Koch-funded Right to Work Committee in Colorado stepped forward as a witness against Wittich. In the film, she states that she is into Koch brothers ideology but not when it is promoted through illegal means. Needless to say, she has not reached the point of understanding how the two go hand in hand but still to be commended for stepping forward knowing that her career in Koch-funded organizations has come to an end.

In addition to Motl and Cotter, another hero in the film is an investigative reporter named John S. Adams whose persistent reporting about the “dark money” flows helped to raise awareness in the state. When Adams and a group of other independent-minded reporters began raising money to put out a new state-wide paper reflecting their editorial principles, he was fired by The Great Falls Tribune, a Gannett newspaper. Virtually homeless, he continued covering the “dark money” story and was eventually successful in launching an online newspaper called, appropriately enough, the Montana Free Press. Bookmark it to stay informed on the future of red state politics especially in articles like “Where the jobs are: Montana’s economic landscape, visualized“.

In late 2014, a German reporter named Bastian Obermeyer was emailed by a “John Doe” who informed him that he had a massive archive of documents from the computers at Mossack-Fonseca in Panama City. This was a law firm that helped rich people all across the planet avoid paying taxes. As middle men, Mossack-Fonseca lined up banks in places like Panama, the Cayman Islands, and other Caribbean islands willing to shelter their clients’ deposits from tax collectors. In some cases, the tax shelter was legitimate. For example, someone like soccer great Lionel Messi made no effort to hide what he was doing. Star athletes are notoriously protective of their wealth even though it generally does not come exploiting labor except their own.

In other cases, those avoiding taxes might not be making dealings with Mossack-Fonseca a secret but heads of state like David Cameron in England, Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson in Iceland, Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Assad in Syria wouldn’t advertiseit either. As it happens, Cameron and Johannsson resigned under pressure after the Mossck-Fonseca news broke as did Sharif who was additionally sentenced to 10 years in prison. It should come as no surprise that nothing happened to Putin and Assad. They have learned to make transparency, accountability and respect of the popular will a crime punishable by death.

The connection between the two films should be obvious. Both expose how the rich use every means at their disposal to hold on to their wealth, while government treasuries are starved. In England, Cameron’s greed, as well as those of other rich people, meant that hiding money in banks that were part of Mossack-Fonseca’s portfolio came at the expense of the national health system, the upkeep of council housing like Grenfell Towers where a fire cost the lives of 72 residents, and other services in the public realm. This is just another tactic in the ruling class’s arsenal that serves the same ends as Americans for Prosperity et al in the USA. They spend millions to support candidates favoring tax cuts and privatization of social security, the schools, and an end to the minimalist Obamacare.

While I am sure my readers understand these things in broad brushstrokes, seeing these two films will make you an even better defender of badly needed changes in the tax laws and in how elections are funded that will at least level the playing field between the vast majority of humanity and a predatory bourgeoisie. Men like the Koch brothers, Robert Mercer, Sheldon Adelson, the Trumps, et al will destroy the planet just as long as they can buy 100-feet yachts and 10,000 square foot mansions. If the only defense against them is a party led by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, something more radical is obviously needed. The two documentaries are useful contributions to raising awareness about how to build a stiffere resistance.

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.

November 2, 2018

A Private War; Under the Wire

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 2, 2018

On February 22, 2012, London Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin and her photographer Paul Conroy were in the ground floor of a multi-story building in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs, Syria, that was being used as a press center when a shell scored a direct hit that left her dead and Conroy badly wounded. Two new films are focused on their experience as the last foreign journalists reporting from Homs that was the first of the liberated areas to be reconquered by the regime mostly as a result of the asymmetric warfare that has drowned the revolution in blood. “A Private War” that opens in NY, Washington, and Los Angeles theaters today (screening information: https://www.aprivatewarfilm.com/) is a narrative film with biopic elements hoping to explain how a 56-year old woman with bad knees could have ended up in such a precarious situation. “Under the Wire”, a documentary that opens at Village East Cinema on November 16th, is much more Paul Conroy’s story and serves as a complement to the narrative film. Watching the two in tandem will remind you of the need for an independent press that is committed to telling the story of people under siege, particularly the women and children who Colvin made it her life’s mission to defend through her journalism.

Continue reading

September 11, 2018

Was Joseph Hansen a GPU agent? A reply to WSWS.org

Filed under: cults,journalism,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Joseph Hansen

Last month on Leftist trainspotters, someone referred to a 4-part series of articles that appeared on WSWS.org making the case that Sylvia Callen, James P. Cannon’s secretary, and Joe Hansen, one of the long-time leaders of the SWP and Trotsky’s bodyguard in Coyoacan, were GPU agents. I wrote a brief rejoinder but did not bother to read the articles. More recently, a troll showed up on my blog to use my article on UNZ Review to bring up the same charges. He thought I had a lot of nerve “policing” Norman Finkelstein’s affiliation with the neo-Nazi website when I was a veteran of a group that was filled with agent provocateurs and finks. When I asked him to substantiate this accusation, he too brought up the WSWS.org articles.

After giving it some thought, I decided to have a look at the articles. Although many veterans of the left understand that the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) is a toxic cult, many less knowledgeable—including Chris Hedges—give it respect that it does not deserve.

This is not the first time I have examined these charges since I was in the SWP in the mid-70s when they were first raised. Before getting into the particulars, a bit of background is necessary, particularly for people like Hedges unfamiliar with the internecine squabbles of the Trotskyist movement.

In the 1950s, the Fourth International was divided into two factions. The International Committee (IC) included the SWP (prevented from formal membership by reactionary laws aimed mostly at the CPUSA) and Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labor League in England. The International Secretariat (IS) was led by a man named Michel Pablo who believed that the Cold War would force the CP’s to move in a revolutionary direction.

Essentially, the Cuban revolution laid the groundwork for reunifying most parties in the IC and the IS even though Healy remained adamantly opposed to the “petty bourgeois” adaption to Fidel Castro who they considered a nationalist defending capitalist property relations. After joining the SWP in 1967, I remember members of the Worker’s League, Healy’s satellite in the USA, showing up at Militant Labor Forums in New York to denounce the “Pabloite revisionists” during the Q&A. They looked rather like Diane Arbus photos.

Before delving into the articles, I should say a few words about Hansen. While generally considering my time in the SWP as mistake, I count Hansen as a major political influence alongside Peter Camejo. He was a master theoretician and polemicist whose critique of Guevarism was a major contribution to Marxism. In the mid-70s, just around the time Healy began explaining Hansen’s alleged Pabloite revisionism as a function of his secret ties to the Soviet Union, Hansen began his defense of mass action against guerrilla foquismo strategy, including a devastating summary of how Che’s failure to understand Stalinism led to his betrayal by the CP of Bolivia. If proof that Hansen was a GPU agent rested in his defending Cuba uncritically, then he should have been found not guilty.

Meanwhile, the Workers League was going through its own turmoil about secret agents at this time. Party leader Tim Wohlforth was married to a comrade named Nancy Field whose uncle was in the OSS, a precursor to the CIA, something that had never been revealed to their comrades. This led to the two of them being grilled by Healy in intimidating circumstances of the sort endured by Soviet dissidents and members of Larouche’s cult. As it happens, a radical being the relative of an CIA officer or any other high-ranking government official was typical of what was going on the 60s. For example, Robert McNamara’s son was an antiwar activist as were many other children of officials in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations as detailed in Tom Wells’s “The War Within”.

To some extent, searching for spies was to be expected in the Trotskyist movement since Stalin had every intention of destroying what he saw rightfully as his mortal enemy. Trotsky’s assassination was just one example of this campaign that forced his followers to fend off Stalinists at the same time they were dealing with FBI harassment and infiltration.

As for the FBI, the Socialist Equality Party claims that the leadership that evolved in the early 60s around Jack Barnes is made up of FBI agents because they all attended Carleton College in Minnesota. An obvious Healyite plant in the SWP, the lawyer Alan Gelfand was expelled as a provocateur in the mid-90s. Gelfand then sued the SWP for damages on the basis that his right to political expression had been denied. So, as you can see, this stuff about agents and spies has a long and tortured history on the fringes of the Trotskyist movement. However, it is odd that WSWS.org would bother in a new assault on the SWP since for all practical purposes it is a moribund sect that is not an obstacle to the growth of the SEP. The real obstacle to their becoming number one on the far left is their own crazy sectarian politics. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

The bulk of the WSWS.org articles, which are written by Eric London, are focused on Cannon’s secretary who was known to the party as Sylvia Caldwell. After Max Shachtman and Albert Glotzer, two former leaders of the SWP who had left to form the Workers Party, heard rumors that Callen was a CP agent, they dropped in on Cannon in 1947 to urge him to conduct an investigation. One did take place that year, clearing her of all charges. One suspects that it was Cannon’s insistence that she was innocent that made the difference. Of course, this would implicate Cannon himself as an agent, a bridge too far even for conspiracy-minded sectarians. As soon as the investigation was completed, Callen resigned from the SWP and abandoned left politics altogether, either Stalinist or Trotskyist.

In 1950, ex-Communist and now McCarthyite tool Louis Budenz wrote a book titled “Men Without Faces” that was typical of the time. Like Whittaker Chambers, Budenz wrote about the CP as if it were indistinguishable from the GPU. This fed the paranoia of the witch hunt that made victimization of CP’ers so easy. Since Budenz identified Callen as a CP asset in the book, the SWP had no other recourse but to follow up and effectively re-open the investigation of 1947 even though she was no longer in the party. Cannon sent Farrell Dobbs out to speak to Callen who insisted that she was not guilty. This was enough for Cannon who wrote an article clearing her of Budenz’s charges.

The SWP continued to insist on Caldwell’s innocence even though she was named as a member of Jack Soble’s spy ring in a 1960 NY Times article. However, the Times refers to her as Sylvia Callen. That leaves open the question whether Cannon, Dobbs et al made the connection to Caldwell, Cannon’s secretary. The other curiosity is that despite being indicted, Callen never spent a day in jail. Considering the political climate 58 years ago, that is something of a mystery.

The first indication that the SWP might consider the possibility that Caldwell was a Stalinist agent occurred in 1976 when Healy’s accusations were roiling the left. In an article that appeared in Intercontinental Press defending Hansen by Betty Hamilton and Pierre Lambert, leaders of another Fourth International franchise,  the authors accepted the possibility that she might have been an agent and thought it appropriate for a new investigation to proceed. Looking back at this period, I doubt that the SWP would have found much use in establishing her guilt since Healy’s accusations only had the effect of deepening the isolation of his cult-sect. They hoped that he would hang himself on his own petard.

image

Sylvia Callen: interrogated by David North’s deputies

In 1976, the Workers League tracked down Callen to conduct their own investigation. At the time she was probably in her late 70s and appeared to have cognitive issues as this excerpt from the interview outside her trailer home would indicate:

Question: Do you have a memory block which begins after all these events supposedly took place?

Franklin: I don’t know. I wish you wouldn’t try to make me remember because I’ll have a breakdown. I can’t remember. It’s been many years, and I’ve put it out of my mind.

Question: Is it possible that you were in the Communist Party and simply have forgotten all about it?

Franklin: I don’t know. I don’t know. It could be one way. It could be the other. I can’t believe that person was me. I can’t believe that I worked in that office. That I was his secretary. I can’t believe anything.

In the view of the SEP, the SWP never held a new investigation of Caldwell because evidence about her GPU/CP connections would point in Joe Hansen’s direction. In the view of this batty sect-cult, it might have brought to light the letter that Hansen’s close friend Vaughn T. “Irish” O’Brien wrote in 1976:

In this letter, dated June 8, 1976, O’Brien recalled an encounter in the late 1940s or early 1950s—the general time frame of the control commission and the publication of Budenz’s books—with Pearl Kluger, a former member of A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party who knew Budenz personally. O’Brien wrote, “I had not seen Pearl for a considerable period of time, but she immediately said, ‘Budenz says your friend Joe Hansen worked with the GPU.’”

Wow, that’s the smoking gun, isn’t it? If Budenz said it, it must be true. For those curious about Budenz, you can find a bunch of his articles archived at the neo-Nazi UNZ Review—that should give you an idea of their provenance. As it happens, you can find O’Brien’s letter on Google books. It is exactly the opposite of what Eric London purports. O’Brien wrote the letter in order to assure Hansen that the charges against him were preposterous.

Indeed, immediately after the sentence above quoting Pearl about Joe working with the GPU, O’Brien follows up with: “I replied, with great earnestness, that while I was aware of circumstances which might lead Budenz to make such a charge, it was not true.” In fact, despite Pearl’s reference to Budenz charge, Hansen is not mentioned once in his writings. Imagine that. With such a potentially juicy expose about Trotsky’s bodyguard being in cahoots with the Kremlin, why wouldn’t Budenz have mentioned it somewhere in his books or articles? Probably because it wasn’t true and didn’t want to risk being sued for libel.

O’Brien clarifies Hansen’s contact with the GPU in 1938 that features so prominently in Healy’s demagogic attacks. What Healy leaves out is that Hansen made this contact with the full knowledge of Trotsky. The only other party members who knew what was really going on were Cannon and Shachtman, the two top leaders of the SWP. All of them were privy to a money-raising scam that Hansen was going to carry out. He would tell the GPU that he had become disillusioned with the movement and would be willing to sell the only manuscript of Trotsky’s biography of Stalin for $25,000 so that he could buy himself a “nice little ranch” in Utah and retire from politics. As it happened, the GPU was not interested in the manuscript but was much more interested in the layout of Trotsky’s house in Coyoacan for obvious reasons.

Does this story sound far-fetched? To me it does but if you are going to cite O’Brien, you need to do it in a way that follows elementary journalistic standards. He was not endorsing Budenz, or at least what he was purported to have said. Just the opposite. As for journalistic standards, they went by the wayside on the very day WSWS.org was launched.

 

 

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