Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 22, 2013

The Past; Wadjda

Filed under: Film,Iran,Islam,middle east — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

In many ways, the biggest impacts made by Iran and Saudi Arabia this year were not on the battlefield or at the diplomatic roundtable but in film. “The Past”, made by Asghar Farhadi, was Iran’s official selection for the 86th Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. I always have had problems with the designation “foreign” when it comes to film since it smacks of Hollywood corporate narcissism, more so in this instance since I nominated “The Past” for the N.Y. Film Critics Online best picture of 2013. Period. “Wadjda” was the first film ever directed by Haifaa al Mansour, who grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia and now lives in Bahrain. The film depicts the struggle of an 11-year-old Saudi girl to own a bicycle in violation of patriarchal religious norms. It is a tale reminiscent of “Offside”, the 2006 Iranian film about young women trying to sneak into a football stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying match. Ironically, despite all the bitter rivalries over whether Sunni or Shias represent Muslim orthodoxy, the two authoritarian states have much in common when it comes to women’s rights or the lack thereof.

Let me make a bold statement. On the basis of only two films, the 2011 “A Separation”, and “The Past” that opened at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, I would regard Asghar Farhadi as the finest film director today. “A Separation” won an Oscar for the best foreign film of the year in 2011, and like “The Past” was the best film period. Unlike another brilliant Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who directed “Offside” and was arrested for opposing the government in 2009, Farhadi’s films are much more personal and less likely to give offense to the authorities. That being said, he is still very much a political filmmaker even if his message is more subtle. “A Separation” dramatized the class and cultural differences between a middle-class, secular-minded family and the pious housekeeper they hire.

Set entirely in Paris, “The Past” is even less about Iranian society. While focused on domestic conflicts like “A Separation”, it is still a politically engaged film. This is one instance where I would not dream of giving away a surprise ending but suffice it to say that the film is very much about the experience of the “foreigner” in a racist society.

In the opening scene, Marie (Berenice Bejo) is picking up her estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport, where he has just arrived from Tehran. Separated from her for some time, he has come to Paris to sign some papers for their divorce and to appear in court with her to finalize matters.

Despite the obvious tension that still exists, she convinces him to stay at her house instead of a hotel. Upon arriving there, he is puzzled by the hostility of Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the 8-year-old son of Samir (Tahar Rahim), the man she plans to marry. Marie’s daughter Lea, who is the same age as Fouad, is happy to see her dad. Another daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a product of another marriage prior to the one with Ahmad, is in her late teens and just as troubled as Fouad in her own way. Marie alludes to the problems she is having with Lucie that become clearer as the film unfolds.

Within a half hour of Ahmad’s arrival, Fouad throws a violent temper tantrum and locks himself in his room. He cries out that he wants to go back to his dad’s apartment. (Samir has only partially moved in with Marie.) As is the case with “A Separation”, this is a family setting all sorts of records for dysfunctionality and a reminder of Tolstoy’s epigraph to “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Eventually we learn of the source of the disquiet. Samir’s wife lies in a coma, the victim of a failed suicide attempt after discovering that he has been having an affair with Marie. Like a late 19th century Gothic tale updated for the current epoch, “The Past” is a drama about the most evil spirits imaginable—those summoned up by our own psyche.

While this is a film that is remarkable on all accounts, it was a stroke of genius for Asghar Farhadi to make a highly melodramatic story about the lives of ordinary people. Marie is a pharmacist and Samir is a dry cleaner, just the sort of people you meet everyday when you are out shopping. As any smart writer understands ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the best tragedy comes out of the lives of ordinary people, not kings and queens. When Ali Mosaffa was asked in a press notes interview whether the film was a French or an Iranian story, his answer was very much on point: “I think the strength of the script is that it’s neither French nor Iranian. It’s a human story.”

Like “The Past”, “Wajda” is about ordinary people. Wajda is a 10-year-old girl who lives in the suburbs of Riyadh with her mother, who is trying to convince her husband not to take a second wife.

Wadjda is the quintessential “tomboy”, the sort of girl I went to elementary school with and found much more interesting than those preoccupied with Barbie dolls. Wadjda wears high-top sneakers that look like Converses and enjoys listening to pop music cassettes. All in all, she will remind you very much of Marjane Satrapi, the spunky Iranian girl who turned her battles with the clerics into the comic book “Persepolis”.

Wadjda wants more than anything to ride a bike. I know what it feels like for a 10-year-old to be determined to own a bike. When I was exactly that age, I threw such a tantrum that my parents drove through a hurricane to go to a Sears 25 miles from our home to pick me up a Huffy two-wheeler. In Wadjda’s case, the adversary is not a storm but the backward authorities that consider bikes for boys only. In essence, Wadjda’s lonely and stubborn battle is the same as women two and three times her age fighting for the right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia.

It is also, unsurprisingly, the same sort of challenge that the director faced as a woman making a movie in Saudi Arabia, where there is not a single movie theater because of Wahhabist backwardness.

Every step was difficult and it was quite an adventure. I occasionally had to run and hide in the production van in some of the more conservative areas where people would have disapproved of a woman director mixing professionally with all the men on set. Sometimes I tried to direct via walkie-talkie from the van, but I always got frustrated and came out to do it in person. We had a few instances of people voicing their displeasure with what we were doing, but nothing too disruptive. We had all of the proper permits and permissions so overall it went relatively smoothly.

“Wadjda” played at various theaters in the middle of 2013. Look for it soon on Netflix or Amazon streaming.

June 22, 2013

Arab Idol

Filed under: middle east,music — louisproyect @ 10:28 pm

NY Times June 22, 2013

Palestinian ‘Arab Idol’ Victory Unleashes Rare Outburst of Joy


GAZA/RAMALLAH — Palestinian cities erupted in joy after Gazan singer Mohammed Assaf won the “Arab Idol” song contest final held in Beirut on Saturday night, providing a welcome break from the grinding conflict with Israel.

The fresh-faced 22-year-old from humble roots in a refugee camp endeared millions of voting television viewers with his Palestinian patriotic anthems and folk songs.

After watching Assaf’s victory from giant screens in the Gaza Strip and Israeli-occupied West Bank, tens of thousands of Palestinians set off fireworks, danced in the streets and blasted his music from cars idling in frantic traffic jams.

“This shows that Palestinians don’t just fight and struggle, but we rejoice and make great art,” beamed Awad Najib, a government employee, after a mass viewing outside the Ramallah presidential palace in the West Bank.

Some Muslim clerics in Friday sermons had dismissed the pageant, saying its title encouraged idolatry and that people’s energies would be better spent confronting Israel’s occupation.

Political activists, too, complained that the glitzy spectacle had little to do with the Palestinian plight.

But most Palestinians would have none of this, and Saturday’s revelry was like the end-of-Ramadan holiday combined with the World Cup Final.

The scale of the celebrations easily outstripped most political or protest rallies of recent years, and far exceeded those held after Palestinians gained non-member statehood in a vote at the United Nations General assembly last November.

Many political leaders, who have increasingly alienated Palestinians with their bickering, have sought to try to hitch a ride from Assaf’s galloping popularity.

Some greying officials had changed their Facebook profile pictures to his smiling face and spiked hair, urged people to text him their votes and praised his nationalist credentials.

“This win is a source of pride and a victory for our people on the road to achieving its dream of establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement.

Abbas was jolted this week by his prime minister’s surprise offer to resign and faces pressure by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to jump-start stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But for locals, Assaf was all, and politics took a back seat.

“In the middle of the political failures, Assaf achieved something that made Palestinians everywhere feel hope was still possible,” said Imad Ahmed, a teacher from Gaza watching the show with his family at a beachfront restaurant.

After the victory, Assaf was named by the U.N. as its first youth ambassador to Palestinian refugee camps in the territories and in neighboring countries. He is expected to visit the West Bank to perform.

(Reporting by Noah Browning and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Eric Walsh)

February 7, 2013

Marxist Idealism and the Arab Spring

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

by Pham Binh on February 7, 2013

in analysis


The bourgeois-democratic revolutions known as the Arab Spring have ruthlessly exposed the methodological and analytical deficiencies of many Marxists. Evidence-based, detailed, rigorous, and critical evaluation of the social, political, and human contradictions driving these revolutions is rare (rarer still is any sense of what is to be done to aid these struggles) while lazy thinking, abstractly correct positions, and we’ll-have-to-wait-and-see-how-things-turn-out passivity are common.

These deficiencies became painfully obvious once the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Syria. The revolutions that swept Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from power were “clean” and “pure” for Marxists because they were against U.S.-backed dictators and vindicated our bias towards general strikes and working-class action.

This was the good Arab Spring.

The revolutions in Libya and Syria, on the other hand, were unclean and impure, tainted by U.S. imperialism, backed by reactionary powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and quickly devolved into armed struggle, with little or no role played by the working class acting as a class. These revolutions were not nice, worker-based, and peaceful but vicious, militarized, and complicated by foreign powers and Islamic extremists who played a prominent role.

This was the bad Arab Spring.

Missing from both the good and bad Arab Spring narratives are the complex layers of interlocking contradictions between and within classes, parties, governments, and peoples as well as any appreciation of the intangible, non-material factors that revolutions involve (the moods of the masses, the feeling in the streets). Instead, Marxists have used each revolution as fodder for pre-set political morals – “strikes are more effective than arms” (Syria), “no to U.S. intervention” (Libya), “the need for a revolutionary Marxist workers’ vanguard party” (Egypt) – without any regard for the actual political, social, or historical terrains or even the wishes and aspirations of the people making these revolutions.

read full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=5759

November 21, 2012

Bard College, Israel and the Palestinians

Filed under: bard college,middle east — louisproyect @ 12:12 am

Peter Beinart

Walter Russell Mead

The Fall issue of the Bard College alumni magazine came with its regular New Republic type propaganda, this time taking the form of an article by Peter Beinart titled “Israel’s Challenge: Can Democracy and Zionism Coexist?” Sigh, all I ever wanted to find out from an alumni magazine is whatever happened to Shoshana Rosenberg, the art major who liked to listen to Olatunji records when we were having sex. Why do I have to put up with sermons from the right wing of the Democratic Party? I want my tuition money back, all $8000 of it.

Beinart’s article was actually a speech he delivered at Bard last spring on his new book “The Crisis of Zionism” at the invitation of the campus chapter of J Street, a liberal Zionist group that is viewed in AIPAC circles as little different from Hizbollah. To show you how unhinged groups like AIPAC are, J Street is a group that now states:

Israel’s current military operation is a response to the hundreds of rockets that have rained down on Israel from the Gaza Strip over the past year. Every day, Israel’s southern residents carry with them the fear that a sudden Qassam rocket could change their world forever.

It should be said that Beinart has been the target of the American Likudniks as well. When he was invited to speak at the annual Jewish Book Fair in Atlanta, the powers-that-be disinvited him. In my view, this is not so much a sign that Beinart’s views are progressive but that official Judaism is veering ever more sharply to the right. Given time, they will be ostracizing Alan Dershowitz. (Well, maybe not.)

The talk was sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, one in a host of liberal think-tanks largely paid for by George Soros. It is useful to remember what Hannah Arendt once said about the kind of people who run Israel today and the well-funded lobby that speaks on its behalf. This was an open letter to the N.Y. Times on December 4th, 1948 signed by her, Albert Einstein, and other Jewish notables:


Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party” (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.

The current visit of Menachem Begin, leader of this party, to the United States is obviously calculated to give the impression of American support for his party in the coming Israeli elections, and to cement political ties with conservative Zionist elements in the United States. Several Americans of national repute have lent their names to welcome his visit. It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin”s political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents.

Read in full

Breinart’s speech was filled with all the old bromides. I found this one particularly nauseating:

Most of Zionism’s founders were people who originally wanted to live in the countries of their birth in Europe, and who desperately hoped that Europe would live up to the Enlightenment liberal ideals that they believed in fervently. They reluctantly came to the conclusion that they could not live safe, full lives in Europe, and that the Jewish state could be more true to Enlightenment principles than the countries they came from.

Talk about denial. Let’s look at one of these champions of “liberal ideals”, a fellow named Israel Zangwill who was born in London in 1864. At one time he was an advocate of colonizing Palestine but later on favored settling in any territory deemed ripe for a takeover. This was a guy who championed Jewish emancipation, woman’s suffrage, and peace among nations—just the sort of high-minded person Beinart was referring to.

But from Wikipedia we learn:

In 1901 in the New Liberal Review, Israel Zangwill wrote that “Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country”.

In a debate at the Article Club in November of that year, Zangwill said, “Palestine has but a small population of Arabs and fellahin and wandering, lawless, blackmailing Bedouin tribes.” Then, in the dramatic voice of the Wandering Jew, “restore the country without a people to the people without a country. (Hear, hear.) For we have something to give as well as to get. We can sweep away the blackmailer—be he Pasha or Bedouin—we can make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and build up in the heart of the world a civilisation that may be a mediator and interpreter between the East and the West.”

In other words, the “democracy” that Beinart blathers on about was democracy for the Chosen People, not the dirty fellahin. If there is any real difference between the original aspirations of the Zionist movement and that of the French in Algeria, it is lost on me. At least the pied-noir spared us liberal, democratic pretensions.

Apparently some students at Bard were not taken in by Beinart’s nonsense. In a profile on Peter Beinart that appeared in New York Magazine a couple of months after his appearance there, we learn:

In late April, Beinart takes an Amtrak train out of Penn Station and heads two hours north, up the Hudson Valley. Like any author flogging a book, Beinart has become a familiar presence on the speaking circuit—although, given his book’s subject, his particular circuit largely consists of synagogues, Jewish community centers, and Hillel houses. Oftentimes, he faces a hostile audience. At the Columbia Hillel, he debated Daniel Gordis—the event was promoted as a “Heavyweight Fight on Zionism”—and was heckled. “I feel like from the clapping I have about a quarter of the room,” Beinart said during a rare moment of applause, “which is better than I expected.”

On this April evening, Beinart’s schedule calls for him to be at Bard College. It is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, and he has been invited by the school’s J Street student chapter. The mood, however, is anything but festive—although this time he is facing anger from his left. As he walks into the lecture hall, he is handed a flyer by a student protester that reads celebrate ­israeli ethnic cleansing “independence.” He then spends most of his 90 minutes insisting to those in attendance that Zionism is not racism and that Tel Aviv is not the center of all the evil on Earth. When it is over, Beinart looks whipped. “I wish Jeff could have seen that,” he says.

(The “Jeff” referred to immediately above is Jeff Goldberg, another “liberal Zionist” who shares Beinart’s early support for the war in Iraq and tepid criticisms of Israeli policies.)

My guess is that Leon Botstein has probably evolved toward a J Street type of Zionism. He is smart enough to show his new clothing by advising (I’m sure) the alumni magazine to include Beinart’s speech. He has also attempted to burnish his reputation among progressive Jews by defending the right of the International Solidarity Movement to have official status on campus.

Over the past several weeks, Bard College and I as its President have been the object of unsubstantiated, exaggerated, and often vitriolic accusations regarding a student group on campus that has chosen to affiliate itself with an organization called the International Solidarity Movement. Some of those who have posted on blogs and written emails claim that ISM is a “terrorist” organization committed to the destruction of the State of Israel and its people. The information on the Bard ISM student website is being misrepresented to suggest that the college and its students are involved with illicit activities, encouraging and training terrorism.


One can only welcome the president’s stance on this issue. Anything else of course would have been a sign of gross capitulation to the Israel lobby and clearly an unwise course of action.

The latest IDF blitzkrieg on Gaza has elicited a “think piece” by Bard professor Walter Russell Mead, who I have described once as the school’s Thomas Friedman. Titled “America, Israel, Gaza, and the World”, the article attempts to answer the question “Why aren’t the Americans hating on Israel more?”

Mead cleverly tries to make his position more tenable by reducing ostensibly radical positions to a caricature: “Others allege that a sinister Jewish lobby controls the media and the political system through vast power of Jewish money; the poor ignorant Americans are the helpless pawns of clever Jews.” Well, the fact is that the major media is careful to omit any analysis that is to the left of Peter Beinart, but few of us blame this on “Jewish money”—starting with me. Israel gets kid gloves treatment because it is a reliable protector of American imperialist interests in the Middle East. Once upon a time Walter Russell Mead, before he became fat and sloppy at the trough of academic privilege, understood how this worked—at least to some degree.

This is the Publishers Weekly blurb on Mead’s “Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition”, written in 1988, when Mead apparently still had some dim memory of a leaflet he wrote 20 years earlier:

Since the end of World War II, Mead asserts, the United States has maintained the largest empire in history. This neoimperialism, he argues, is built on intervention in the domestic affairs of Third World countries and coercive political efforts to block those countries’ sustained economic growth. Both Nixon and Carter tried to regulate change in underdeveloped nations in ways that would be acceptable to U.S. corporate interests.

Nowadays, Mead enjoys a perch at the American Interest, a magazine with an editorial board including the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Niall Ferguson, Bernard-Henri Levy. What the hell. If you are going to sell out your youthful beliefs, you might as well do it in grand style.

Assuming a kind of professorial neutrality, Mead draws a contrast between most people on earth who are appalled by Israeli barbarism and the “Jacksonian” American people who do not believe in proportionality. This is a reference to Andrew Jackson who did not believe in fighting by the rules. I would say that the fate of the Palestinians and the Cherokees—seen side-by-side—gives some credence to that.

Mead tries to explain the average American’s response:

Thus when television cameras show the bodies of children killed in an Israeli air raid, Jacksonian Americans are sorry about the loss of life, but it inspires them to hate and loathe Hamas more, rather than to be mad at Israel. They blame the irresponsible dolts who started the war for all the consequences of the war and they admire Israel’s strength and its resolve for dealing with the appalling blood lust of the unhinged loons who start a war they can’t win, and then cower behind the corpses of the children their foolishness has killed.

Key to Mead’s presentation of the American mindset is this analogy:

Certainly if some kind of terrorist organization were to set up missile factories across the frontier in Canada and Mexico and start attacking targets in the United States, the American people would demand that their President use all necessary force without stint or limit until the resistance had been completely, utterly and pitilessly crushed.

But that’s where Mead drops all pretensions of being a James Chase Professor entrusted with the hard-earned $50,000 dollar a year education of Bard students and becomes what he really is beneath the pretensions: a crude propagandist of the sort that pops up regularly in the op-ed pages of the N.Y. Post.

While Mexicans certainly had grievances against American imperialism (the reference to Canada of course was absurd–almost as absurd as Ali G. advising  Brent Scowcroft to bomb Canada), imagine if the American Southern slavocracy had defeated the North and colonized Mexico in order to reproduce the plantation system. To make it work, it would find it necessary to expel the native peasant population into El Salvador and Honduras. At that point, it would be logical for the expelled Mexicans to fight for the right to return to their homeland.

Once upon a time Mead might have understood this. Nowadays he is an addled old sot drunk on his own propaganda.

September 20, 2012

Tears of Gaza; In My Mother’s Arms

Filed under: Film,Iraq,middle east,Palestine — louisproyect @ 9:47 pm

Two powerful documentaries from the Middle East should be put on the must-see list for New Yorkers with a passion for justice. Sharing the theme of the impact of war on children and a partnership between Arab filmmakers and Europeans of conscience, they should definitively answer the question so much in the news today: why do they hate us?

“Tears of Gaza”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village, is an unstinting, Guernica-like look at the horror visited on the Palestinian people by the Israeli Wehrmacht (called the IDF) that is focused on three children who lost their parents and other family members in the winter of 2008-2009.

While watching the television news, veteran Norwegian director/writer/actress Vibeke Løkkeberg saw a story about a boy crying over his father who was killed during an Israeli bombing. Upset over the failure of the world media to cover the ongoing brutality that reminded her of the US invasion of Iraq, she wrote a script for the film based on three orphaned children.

Teaming up with her husband and producer Terje Kristiansen, the two were prevented by both Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza. As was the case with Libya before Qaddafi’s overthrow and Syria today, the international press was blocked from Gaza. Unlike Libya and Syria, which were and are ruled by “villains” (excepting of course when they were brokering deals with Western multinationals or torturing victims of the CIA on behalf of the “war on terror”), Israel’s blitzkrieg received the endorsement of American and European elites and was not likely to inspire newspapers or television networks to risk their reporters’ lives over a war against “Hamas terrorists trying to destroy Israel”.

As necessity is the mother of invention, Løkkeberg and Kristiansen ended up with footage shot by Palestinian photojournalists Yosuf Abu Shreah, Mwafaq al Khateeb, and Saed al Sabaa who were in Gaza at the time. Editing and postproduction was done in Norway.

The film starts on a wistful note showing Palestinians at the beach and celebrating a young couple’s marriage. And then all hell breaks loose. In unrelenting detail, you see Israeli jets and helicopters destroying civilian homes and leaving dead bodies strewn everywhere as ambulances speed here and there collecting the still-living. When you see the obvious defenselessness of the Gaza slums and the aerial terror being rained down on them, you feel a rising sense of anger at the Zionist entity. If you were for the Palestinians before you saw the movie, your solidarity will increase. If you were sitting on the fence (and those sorts of people should be dragooned into seeing it), you will find reason enough to oppose Israel. And for those who know how to connect the dotted lines, there is every reason to understand why al-Assad—up to now—has been getting away with Gaza-style slaughter of his own people and why you should demonstrate on Saturday against him.

The press notes for “Tears of Gaza” includes an epigraph from Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Opening at Maysles Cinema on October 8th, “In My Mother’s Arms” is focused on three war orphans just like “Tears of Gaza”. Filmed during the final days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq (excluding the remaining mercenary forces of course), it tells the story of Husham Al Thabe, a young, handsome, and chain-smoking Iraqi man who runs an orphanage for 32 children in a two-story house in the Al-Sadr neighborhood, Baghdad’s poorest slum and a frequent target of senseless bombings by Sunni terrorists. Although the film, like “The Tears of Gaza”, lacks any didactic narration of the sort found in more explicitly political films, Husham’s mission speaks for a break with the sectarian strife that has marked Iraq since the early 2000s, intentionally fostered by American imperialism. The orphans are Sunni, Shia, Turkman and Kurd, a cross-section of the country’s population and obviously representing Husham’s intention to heal the nation’s wounds.

The film begins with Husham stopping his car beneath a bridge and approaching two homeless boys. Do they have families, he asks? No, they were killed. How do you survive? The answer: begging.  He invites them to come with him and they do. He provides a warm and supportive environment for all the kids, even if he is one step ahead of the landlord who seeks to evict him. Unlike the state orphanages, which are notorious for their mistreatment of children, Husham’s relies totally on private donations, mostly from humble bazaar merchants who give hundreds rather than millions of dollars.

The most poignant of the children is 7-year old Saif, a Kurd who barely remembers his mother who was killed by a terrorist bomb along with his father. When other children taunt him by calling out his mother’s name—Mujada—he attacks them in a blind rage.

The name of the film derives from a play that Husham mounts with the help of a theater director based in the Al-Sadr slum. “In my mother’s arms” is a kind of oratorio devoted to the vision of mother and child reunion, even if only in the realm of the imagination. It stars Saif who sings a lament about life’s cruelties. Despite the sadness of the play, Saif achieves a kind of psychological breakthrough by finding a reason to live: the chance that others can appreciate his performance.

The film is co-directed by two Iraqis: Atia and Mohammad Al-Daraji. Atia founded Iraq Al-Rafidan, a full-service film and video production company with a mission to give a voice to the Iraqi people. The Al-Daraji’s partnered with Humam Film, a UK/Dutch company established in 2006 “to seek and explore individual creativity while producing films with a social conscience and impact.” This of course is the kind of partnership between NATO countries and the Arab world that should serve as an example.

The film begins with some shocking statistics about the number of orphans the war has left. You get some sense of the depth of the problem by reading an Alternet article dated December 18, 2007:

Iraq’s anti-corruption board revealed on Saturday that there were five million Iraqi orphans as reported by official government statistics, urging the government, parliament, and NGOs to be in constant contact with Iraq’s parentless children.

That’s about 1/6th of the country. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. has just over 2 million orphans even though it is nearly ten times the size of Iraq.

Meanwhile, the government of Iraq has demonstrated hostility toward private aid even when its own institutions are worse than useless. Alternet reported:

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of the parliament’s Civil Society Organizations Committee, slammed a recent government decision that closed down all private orphanages. “Instead of helping private institutions improve their performance and remove all obstacles hindering their work, the Iraqi government decided to close them down, adding to the complexity of the situation in the state-run institutions.

This is one instance in which an exception to the drive toward privatization hastened by the invasion and occupation of Iraq works would benefit the people. Or perhaps the more important lesson to be drawn is that the clash between state-ownership and privately-owned institutions is secondary to the more important criterion, namely whether a government serves the people or the people serve the government—the struggle that virtually defined the Arab Spring that is ongoing.

July 30, 2012

The Arab Revolt and the conspiracist left

Filed under: conspiracism,middle east — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

After reading Charlie Skelton’s 5000-word article in the July 12th Guardian titled The Syrian opposition: who’s doing the talking?, I was reminded of the difference between Marxism and what I call conspiracism. Marxism is based on a class analysis but the conspiracists essentially subscribe to a Great Man theory of history in which the CIA and parastatal institutions pull the strings in a global puppet show.

They think that the left’s main purpose is to pull back the curtain like Toto in The Wizard of Oz and expose the puppeteers, as if such knowledge will put a stop to capitalist intervention in the Middle East or elsewhere. And more problematically, the conspiracists see CIA support for an insurgent movement as prima facie evidence that it must be opposed. For most of the conspiracist left, Libya and Syria are poster children for their peculiar worldview. But at least for one high-profile member of this current—Michel Chossudovsky of Globalresearch.org—the net is cast wider. The Egyptian revolution is tainted as well since some of its leaders had the backing of the West.

Skelton’s article consists of an effort to connect the dotted lines between the anti-Assad movement and Western imperialism through numerous “revelations” such as the Bilderberg links of an SNC leader:

Here is Bassma Kodmani, seen leaving this year’s Bilderberg conference in Chantilly, Virginia.

Kodmani is a member of the executive bureau and head of foreign affairs, Syrian National Council. Kodmani is close to the centre of the SNC power structure, and one of the council’s most vocal spokespeople. “No dialogue with the ruling regime is possible. We can only discuss how to move on to a different political system,” she declared this week. And here she is, quoted by the newswire AFP: “The next step needs to be a resolution under Chapter VII, which allows for the use of all legitimate means, coercive means, embargo on arms, as well as the use of force to oblige the regime to comply.”

This year was Kodmani’s second Bilderberg. At the 2008 conference, Kodmani was listed as French; by 2012, her Frenchness had fallen away and she was listed simply as “international” – her homeland had become the world of international relations.

Skelton is some kind of special correspondent on Bilderberg for the Guardian, filing his first article in 2009. I am not quite sure how he got this gig since his prior jobs were writing comedy and reviewing porn films for the Erotic Review. Well, maybe that was just the right preparation.

Bilderberg is a kind of Holy Grail for the conspiracy-minded. This is supposedly where the ruling class gets together once a year to map out plans on how to dominate the world. For a leftist Ian Fleming, this is a collection of super-villains just waiting for a leftist James Bond to take on. Maybe someone like Charlie Skelton:

I arrived last night, under cover of darkness. I told the cab driver to stop 50 metres from the hotel. He asked why. I couldn’t tell him that it was so I could case the entrance for FBI lenses. I simply muttered that I couldn’t explain. His eyes lit up. “Aha! I see! I know!” What did he know? And who is that following us? A man in a BMW. Definite spook.

In Skelton’s entire 5000-word article, there was not a single reference to the ordinary Syrians who have risked their lives to oppose Bashar al-Assad either through peaceful protests or through armed struggle. 20,000 people have lost their lives in this conflict so far, the overwhelming majority of whom it is safe to say are opposed to the dictatorship. If Syria had the same population as the USA, this would have represented 300,000 deaths, a staggering figure.

What would cause so many people to risk their lives in such a one-sided battle? For an answer to this, you must look elsewhere than comedian-conspiracists like Charlie Skelton. For all of the preoccupation with the Western corporate elite and the CIA, the real answer lies within Syria itself and the wrenching social changes that Marxist scholar Bassam Haddad has identified in the article The Syrian Regime’s Business Backbone:

By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.

Successive years of scant rainfall and drought after 2003 produced massive rural in-migration to the cities — more than 1 million people had moved by 2009 — widening the social and regional gaps still further. Major cities, such as Damascus and Aleppo, absorbed that migration more easily than smaller ones, which were increasingly starved of infrastructural investment. Provincial cities like Dir‘a, Idlib, Homs and Hama, along with their hinterlands, are now the main battlegrounds of the rebellion. Those living in rural areas have seen their livelihoods gutted by reduction of subsidies, disinvestment and the effects of urbanization, as well as decades of corrupt authoritarian rule. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings motivated them to express their discontent openly and together.

The other thing that you will never find in conspiracist literature—such as it is—is an examination of one of the most telling connections between the CIA and the Arab world, namely the service that Qaddafi and al-Assad performed for President Bush’s extraordinary rendition program. Compared to them, Bassma Kodmani’s attendance at Bilderberg meetings is small peanuts.

One of the victims was Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen and telecommunications engineer who spent a year in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons being beaten with shredded cables.

Accused of being a member of al-Qaeda, Arar’s politics are anything but Islamist. He recently founded an online publication called Prism that is radical and secularist. There you can find an article by Arar titled Syria: Foreign Interference Between Myth and Reality that is a welcome corrective to Charlie Skelton’s maunderings. Arar writes:

Exaggeration of ‘outside influence’

Now to claim that there is no outside, foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs is to deny the obvious. But in my opinion this “interference” has been exaggerated (the analyses I’ve read with respect to this issue are based on speculations that are not supported by facts on the ground). Yes, there are countries who have always had a strong desire to see the Syrian-Iranian marriage fall apart. But to what extent these countries are influencing events on the ground is far from certain. For instance, the efforts reportedly led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to equip the rebels with heavy arms have not yet borne fruits, and it seems the FSA is mostly using light to medium weapons.

Most of these weapons have either been bought from corrupt army officers, or have been acquired by raiding weapons caches. Qatar and Saudi Arabia reportedly would want to make sure that weaponry would only be distributed to those groups that would pledge allegiance to them. While some groups may accept the deal, it is far from certain that all groups would accept any preconditions – as recently reported by Time magazine.

While the CIA may be present near the Syrian-Turkish border, all evidence points to the fact that the US is not very keen to arm the rebels, out of fear the arms would eventually fall in the hands of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. In fact, Washington, despite the anti-Assad rhetoric we read about in media headlines, is not very keen on replacing the Assad regime with one whose allegiance to the US would be uncertain.

The two reasons just mentioned explain why the US has so far refused to supply weapons to Syria’s armed opposition. The latest discussions that took place in Geneva demonstrate that the US still prefers “a political solution” (whatever that means).

In light of Arar’s reference to CIA fears that arms would fall into the hands of Islamists, it should be noted that the bourgeois press has stepped up its warnings about the threat of Jihadism in Syria in a manner that suggests compliance with Obama’s foreign policy agenda. Despite all the talk about the U.S. pulling strings in Syria, there is every reason to believe that Washington has about as much use for the FSA as it does for Hamas or Hizbollah.

For some conspiracists, the Jihadist angle is paramount. Al-Qaeda is underneath every bed in the Middle East, a fear that originates with the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001. For people like Global Research’s Michel Chossudovsky and Voltairenet’s Thierry Meyssan, the revolts in Libya and Syria are just the latest evidence of CIA plots drawing upon willing Islamist assets.

Meyssan is the author of two “truther” books: 9/11: The Big Lie and Pentagate, a book that argues that a missile rather than a jet hit the Pentagon. Ordinarily, I would discount Meyssan as a typical nutcase but apparently he does have some traction with self-avowed Marxists like the PSL’s Diana Barahona who advised North Star readers:

For a good explanation of who the armed Syrian opposition really is, read “Who is fighting in Syria” by Thierry Meyssan, reporting from Damascus. http://www.voltairenet.org/Who-is-fighting-in-Syria

Brian Slocums, the author of the article On the Ground with the Syrian Opposition that Barahona was commenting on, took a look at Meyssan’s piece and found it lacking:

However lets look at the rest of the claims in this article. Conroy’s companions in the photo are described as “al Qaeda” leaders”. Abdulhakim Belhadj (who is correctly identified) was certainly nothing to do with al Qaeda when the photo was taken, but its true he did have a jihadist past 10 years ago, so that’s a half-truth (a good score for Meyssan). The guy who I think is mis-identified as al-Harati,probably had a similar past. But the real al-Harati has neither any al Qaeda connnection nor a jihadist past: he was living quietly in Dublin from his teenage years until the outbreak of the Libyan revolution in 2011. The article claims “According to former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Mahdi al-Harati is still wanted in Spain for his involvement in the Madrid bombings “. This piece of Meyssan arithmetic is a slander within a slander: the accusation that Aznar made was directed against Belhadj , not al-Harati, and that had no foundation in fact – no named persons are “wanted in Spain” for the Madrid bombings.

It has always struck me odd that sections of the left, either Marxist like Barahona or conspiracist like Meyssan, can be so credulous when it comes to matters such as this. When their enemies are writing something that goes against their ideological grain, they will use every last ounce of intellectual energy to debunk a Judith Miller or a Christopher Hitchens. But when they are promoting their own agenda, critical faculties go down the drain.

For his part, Michel Chossudovsky blames the 9/11 attacks on a CIA/ISI cabal:

The 9-11 terrorists did not act on their own volition. The suicide hijackers were instruments in a carefully planned intelligence operation. The evidence confirms that Al Qaeda is supported by Pakistan’s military intelligence, the Inter-services Intelligence (ISI). Amply documented, the ISI owes its existence to the CIA.

So no wonder he views the Syrian revolt as more of the same:

Since the middle of March 2011, Islamist armed groups –covertly supported by Western and Israeli intelligence– have conducted terrorist attacks directed against government buildings including acts of arson. Amply documented, trained gunmen and snipers including mercenaries have targeted the police, armed forces as well as innocent civilians. There is ample evidence, as outlined in the Arab League Observer Mission report, that these armed groups of mercenaries are responsible for killing civilians.

To give credit where credit is due, Chossudovsky is at least consistent in applying the conspiracist template to Middle East politics. It is not just Libya and Syria that are victims of a CIA conspiracy. You can find it virtually everywhere, including Egypt and Tunisia:

The cooptation of the leaders of major opposition parties and civil society organizations in anticipation of the collapse of an authoritarian puppet government is part of Washington’s design, applied in different regions of the World.

The process of cooptation is implemented and financed by US based foundations including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and  Freedom House (FH). Both FH and the NED have links to the US Congress. the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the US business establishment. Both the NED and FH are known to have ties to the CIA.

The NED is actively involved in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria. Freedom House supports several civil society organizations in Egypt.

But the plot thickens. It is not just the Middle East that is the victim of such a massive conspiracy. Guess what? Remember those protests on Wall Street that offered its solidarity with revolts in the Middle East? Those too were tainted by the Masters of the Universe whose headquarters are in places like Langley and Foggy Bottom:

In the course of the last decade, “colored revolutions” have emerged in several countries. The “colored revolutions” are US intelligence ops which consist in covertly supporting protest movements with a view to triggering “regime change” under the banner of a pro-democracy movement.

“Colored revolutions” are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, among others. The objective of a “colored revolution” is to foment social unrest and use the protest movement to topple the existing government. The ultimate foreign policy goal is to instate a compliant pro-US government (or “puppet regime”).

“The Arab Spring”

In Egypt’s “Arab Spring”, the main civil society organizations including  Kifaya (Enough) and The April 6 Youth Movement were not only supported by US based foundations, they also had the endorsement of the US State Department. (For details see Michel Chossudovsky, The Protest Movement in Egypt: “Dictators” do not Dictate, They Obey Orders, Global Research, January 29, 2011)

Several key organizations currently involved in The Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) movement played a significant role in “The Arab Spring”. Of significance, “Anonymous”, the social media “hacktivist” group, was involved in waging cyber-attacks on Egyptian government websites at the height of “The Arab Spring”.(http://anonops.blogspot.com, see also http://anonnews.org/)

In May 2011, “Anonymous” waged cyberattacks on Iran and last August, it waged similar cyber-attacks directed against the Syrian Ministry Defense. These cyber-attacks were waged in support of the Syrian “opposition” in exile, which is largely integrated by Islamists. (See  Syrian Ministry Of Defense Website Hacked By ‘Anonymous’, Huffington Post, August 8, 2011).

The actions of “Anonymous” in Syria and Iran are consistent with the framework of the “Colored Revolutions”. They seek to demonize the political regime and create political instability. (For analysis on Syria’s Opposition, see Michel Chossudovsky, SYRIA: Who is Behind The Protest Movement? Fabricating a Pretext for a US-NATO “Humanitarian Intervention” Global Research, May 3, 2011)

Ah, what a mind-boggling conspiracy! So deep that it is capable of turning the most powerful anti-capitalist movement in recent memory into a cats paw serving the interest of multinational corporations.

Most of the people whose articles appear on Global Research are outright cranks like Chossudovsky or Marxists with conspiracist deviations like Richard Becker, a leader of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Unfortunately you also see pieces by people like John Pilger and Eva Golinger who should know better.

It is difficult to determine in advance how the conspiracist current will fare in a period of deepening class confrontation. With its obvious hostility to grass roots movements in the Middle East and willingness to write off even the Occupy Wall Street movement as an imperialist plot, you are dealing with people who can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. Once upon a time such an inability could serve as an insanity defense in a murder trial. Let’s hope that things don’t reach such a state that the left has to confront sometime in the future the criminally insane among us.

May 25, 2011

Existential Threat

Filed under: language,middle east — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm

There are 2244 articles in LexisNexis that contain both “existential threat” and “Israel”. The first time that this combination occurred was not surprisingly in a Jerusalem Post article dated March 7, 1989 with reporter Jay Rothman stating:

LET US IMAGINE, instead, that an adequate definition about the underlying causes of the Taba conflict had been derived, privately and beyond the fray of high politics (perhaps in a hidden “peace suite” at the Taba Sonesta). During such pre-negotiations, a diagnosis would be made of the existential threat a dishonourable “retreat” from Taba represented to Israelis.

So what was this “Taba conflict” that posed an existential threat to Israel? Was Taba a PLO-controlled city in the West Bank that was launching missiles at Tel Aviv? Actually it had something to do with a topless beach that had become a problem between Israel and Egypt according to Time Magazine:

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat promised his countrymen that “every inch” of Egyptian territory seized by the Israelis in 1967 would eventually be recovered, but when the Israelis withdrew from the rest of the Sinai in April 1982 under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, they held on to Taba. The coastal strip, five miles southwest of the Israeli town of Eilat, already boasted a Tahitian-style resort village, complete with topless beach, which had been built by a businessman with a 98-year lease from the Israeli government. Seven months later, in November 1982, another entrepreneur completed a 326-room, $20 million hotel at Taba. The builder, Eli Papouchado, knew that ownership of the land was disputed, but says he went ahead with government approval. Israel bases its claim to Taba on a 1906 Turkish map that delineated the border between Egypt and Palestine, which was then a province of the Ottoman empire. According to that document, the line ran close to three palm trees that still exist. The Egyptian counterclaim hinges on a 1915 map drawn up by British military surveyors, including T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. This map places the border on a hilltop more than half a mile east of the 1906 line — and, as it turns out, in or near the present hotel.

So if Israel could view this squalid dispute over real estate in terms of an “existential threat”, you can imagine how it would view Hamas’s empty bombast.

All in all, this business about an “existential threat” is just a new formulation for what I used to hear all the time when I joined the SWP in 1967. Back then it was stated in terms of the Arabs wanting to “drive Israel into the sea”.

One of the earliest references to driving Israel into the sea was a NY Times op-ed piece dated September 8, 1957 where Syria is described as having such a goal. By the mid-60s, it had become such a stock phrase that Nixon decided to use it in a September 9, 1968 speech. Not surprisingly, he joined it to an appeal to supply Israel with Phantom jets in a pattern that has been repeated for the past 50 years at least.

If Nixon was capable of such bald-faced demagogy, it is not surprising that the current occupant of the White House who shares many of his predecessor’s worst traits (a desire for secrecy, lawlessness, deference to corporate America) takes pretty much the same tack using the buzzwords “existential threat”:

In a 2009 interview with Newsweek occasioned by the last visit of Netanyahu to Washington, the president opined:

I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They’re right there in range and I don’t think it’s my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.

I find the use of the term “existential” quite troubling. Perhaps I would feel less revulsion if the bourgeois media used the term “threat to Israel’s existence”. By putting it this way, more people would realize how absurd such a claim was. Here is Israel raining phosphorus bombs on Gaza while claiming that the occasional rocket attack on Israel that usually lands harmlessly is the real threat to its existence. One wonders if Israel has been studying the propaganda system of Nazi Germany. In trying to justify his brutal expansion into the Sudetenland, Hitler claimed that he was simply defending Germany from an “existential threat”. Unless the Sudetenland came under Nazi control, the Germans were in danger of being driven into the sea.

Beyond the politics, I cringe every time I hear the term “existential” which for me—a philosophy major who took his Sartre quite seriously—has a completely different meaning from the one that Zionist apologists intend. Existential referred to the living reality of humanity that defied categorization or essentializing. It was a term that overlapped to some extent with Marxism in so far as it understood that being preceded ideas. It was not surprising that some of the principal exponents of existentialism were leftists, such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.

Coming out of the mouths of an AIPAC official, the term “existential threat” has a particularly sleazy character. Not only does it mask the reality of Middle East politics, it also robs the word of its benign meaning.

I will leave you with a Boston Globe article that sees this verbal sleight-of-hand in comical terms. (It found the use of “existential threat” five years prior to its combination with “Israel”, for what it is worth.) I get the joke but that doesn’t assuage my feelings of disgust with how it came about:

Existentially speaking

By Jan Freeman  |  February 4, 2007

“THIS IS AN existential conflict,” Dick Cheney told Fox News on Jan. 14, describing the war on terror as a fight the West must win. The following week, in an interview with Newsweek, the vice president used the phrase again: “It’s an existential conflict.” And his daughter Liz spread the word in a Washington Post op-ed: “America faces an existential threat.”

Existential isn’t just a Cheney buzzword, though. Bill Frist, then Senate majority leader, called bioterrorism “the greatest existential threat we have in the world” in a 2005 commencement address. Tony Blair assured Britons in 2004 that “the global threat…is real and existential.” Condoleezza Rice warned of the “existential threat” in 2002.

And what is this existential of which they speak? “They’re using the word in a straightforward way to mean ‘our existence is at stake,”‘ e-mailed Christopher Shea, my fellow Ideas writer, last week. “But is that what you think of when you hear existential?” No, it’s not. Like him, I think of Sartre in a Left Bank cafe or Woody Allen on a psychiatrist’s couch, pondering (or suffering) the struggle to create an authentic self in an indifferent and purposeless universe. But that can’t be what the Bush people mean by existential, even if the president did read Camus on his summer vacation.

No, they’re harking back to the existential coined centuries ago — an adjective meaning merely “pertaining to existence” — and putting it to use in what looks like shorthand for “a threat to our very existence.”

This existential formulation doesn’t show up in the Nexis news database till 1984. But once it’s launched, there are “existential threats” all over the place: to Palestinians, Jordan, the Soviet empire, all humankind, and most of all to Israel.

These are generally just “threats to the existence of,” as William Safire’s gloss in a 2001 commentary, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, makes clear: “Suicide hijackers and bombers do not pose what is coolly called an existential threat to — that is, a danger to the very existence of — the United States….Terror-sponsoring states use these human missiles to implant that debilitating dread in individual American minds.”

It’s possible, of course, that the current deployers of existential believe the word can be made to imply more than those earlier uses — and Safire’s translation — suggest. Maybe they’re hoping that “existential conflict” sounds more profound and meaningful, given its philosophical associations, than “death struggle” or “fight for survival.”

But will the American people buy it? I’m doubtful. Phrases like existential conflict and existential threat may sound grave and gloomy when our leaders wield them, but nothing can protect them, in this land of free speech, from casual or jokey or ironic use. “Being born is an existential threat, because it means you’re gonna die,” noted one blogger, in response to the doomsday rhetoric. “Did existential just become a fancy word for big?” demanded another.

Our version of “existential crisis” was long ago downscaled and domesticated. Hollywood makes “existential comedies” and “existential Westerns” (aren’t they all?). Google coughs up references to “existential dance music,” an “existential Stephen King nightmare,” and an “existential opinion on why people don’t have friends.”

And in California, where a dry winter has left the famously fogbound San Joaquin Valley in the clear, the Stockton Record recently assured readers that the annual fog festival would go on nonetheless: “The absence of fog doesn’t pose an existential threat.”

April 8, 2011

Yemen protesters carry Che Guevara banners

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm

March 4, 2011

Yemeni youth carries picture of Che

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

Read accompanying article

February 11, 2011

Bard College luminaries: enemies of democracy in the Middle East

Filed under: bard college,middle east — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Jonathan Cristol

Sari Nusseibeh

Despite Bard College’s admittedly fading radical reputation, the school has made it its business to hire professors with conventional State Department outlooks for key social science positions. They all fit neatly into the New York Review of Books/New Republic/Atlantic Monthly constellation of received wisdom. Those who stray outside this framework of liberal pieties, like Joel Kovel, are likely to incur the wrath of President-for-life Leon Botstein, the school’s dear leader.

A friend alerted me yesterday to a blog article on the American Interest website written by Jonathan Cristol, the director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs (BGIA) Program. A careful study of Cristol’s writings will lead you to the conclusion that the department is dedicated to promoting globalization, or what we Marxists call imperialism. On January 29th, Cristol offered this opinion on developments in Tunisia and Egypt:

Am I really arguing that these states should brutally suppress the protestors and that the United States should encourage them to do so? Not really. The optics of America supporting brutal suppression would not be good for Washington. However, if these governments wish to stay in power, the best means of doing so is to scare the people sufficiently enough to stop them from marching through the street.

Cristol puts forward the same arguments heard from John Bolton, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and all of the other cruddy right-wing pinheads who pollute the airwaves from their roost at Fox-TV or the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal:

Maybe liberty and justice are indeed for all, but these particular protests are not necessarily good for the United States. America’s love of democracy sometimes blinds us to the potential results of the democratic process (re: Gaza) and to the fact that liberty and democracy do not always go hand in hand.

What a pig.

It should be noted that Cristol got his B.A. at Bard College, proof that the school is turning out clones of board member Martin Peretz under the Botstein regime. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s, most students aspired to be beat poets or advertising copy writers—at worst. Now it turns out open enemies of democracy.

Cristol first came to my attention last May during the course of some research on the school in conjunction with a movie I made about going to an alumni weekend. I discovered that he was responsible for a joint studies program with the U.S. Military Academy:

In the program’s first year, Bard and West Point students took joint seminars each semester on international relations theory taught by Jonathan Cristol, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, and Scott Silverstone, Associate Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy. The classes met jointly several times during term, with Bard students visiting West Point and cadets traveling to Annandale-on-Hudson. In the fall, Silverstone gave a well-attended public lecture at Bard entitled ‘Preventive War, American Democracy, and the Challenge of a Shifting Threat Environment.’ In May, six Bard seniors attended West Point’s Project’s Day, and presented the findings of their senior theses to West Point faculty and cadets.

Frankly, I have a different idea about what constitutes a “Threat Environment” than Cristol or Silverstone. For me, it is the Pentagon, where Silverstone once worked in the department of Naval Operations, and the ideological apparatus run by warhawk intellectuals like Jonathan Cristol or Paul Wolfowitz.

Cristol has a most interesting CV. Before coming to Bard in 2003, he was an analyst of Middle Eastern politics for the Intellibridge Corporation. I bet you can guess what kind of outfit Intellibridge is. It was founded in 1998 by David Rothkopf, formerly the managing director of Kissinger Associates and co-run by Anthony Lake, the U.S. Vice Consul in Vietnam from 1963 to 1965 and Clinton’s National Security Advisor.

Back in 2002, our friends at Counterpunch wrote about Intellibridge’s work with Enron:

In the wake of the California electricity “crisis” last year, Enron hired a Washington, D.C., consultancy, headed by a former Clinton administration official, to improve the public image of the giant energy trader. From early last summer until Enron filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 2, 2001, Intellibridge Corp. essentially served as an independent “propaganda” arm for Enron, developing a news Web site and organizing conferences, which brought regulatory, political, media and business leaders together to discuss the merits of Enron’s vision for restructuring the electric power industry across the United States.

Prior to the revelations of its off-balance-sheet partnerships last October, Enron’s biggest concern had been fallout from California and how other states may become scared to enact their own forms of electric and gas restructuring programs that possibly would benefit Enron and other non-utility energy marketing companies. Through its connections in D.C.’s closely tied political and international business world, Intellibridge landed the multi-million dollar contract with Enron.

Is there any doubt that Enron picked out exactly the right firm to advance its interests in Washington?

When Al-Quds University in Jerusalem formed a partnership with Bard College in 2008, this became a convenient defense against charges that the school was hostile to the Palestinian cause. Those who were upset with Joel Kovel’s termination were told that the ties with Al-Quds proved that Kovel’s pro-Palestinian writings were beside the point.

A deeper reading of the Al-Quds partnership will reveal that it was actually consistent with what happened to Kovel since there is ample evidence that Sari Nusseibeh, the school’s president, is a willing partner in denying the rights of the Palestinian people.

In the latest New York Review of Books, David Shulman reviews Nusseibeh’s What Is a Palestinian State Worth? The book defends a one-state solution that would leave Palestinian with civil rights, but forgo anything resembling self-determination. Shulman comments:

What this means is that Palestinians would renounce political rights—such as voting for the Knesset and serving in high government office and in the army—but receive basic civil rights: health insurance, social security, freedom of speech and movement, education, legal self-defense, and so on. They would be subjects but not citizens of the joint Israeli-Palestinian entity, which would be owned and run by the Jews. As Nusseibeh notes, there is already in place a precedent for some such arrangement: the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem have lived like this for the past forty-three years.

How remarkable that a Palestinian notable would look to the situation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem as a model for anything except second-class citizenship. Shulman, by no means a Kovel type commentator, notes:

Nusseibeh’s proposal is clearly meant to challenge the political elites on both sides to think seriously about what lies around the next turn in the road or after the next terrible explosion. Even so, it seems not a little disingenuous. Booker T. Washington famously proposed something rather like it for African-Americans—the so-called Atlanta compromise—in 1895; it was, of course, almost immediately superseded. Can one really separate political from civil rights? Is that what most Palestinians want or need?

So that’s what a Bard College globalization professor and a Palestinian hireling of the school amount to: apologists for dictatorship and dispossession. What a sad state of affairs for a school that once had a very good reputation but poor finances. It is to Leon Botstein’s everlasting shame that he has turned this upside down. With every new million dollars he raises, the school’s good name goes deeper and deeper into the sewer.

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