Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2016

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Filed under: feminism,Film — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

Opening today at the Village East theater in NY and the Arclight in Los Angeles, “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is as the title indicates a documentary that consists entirely of interviews with women from Missouri who have been forced to get an abortion in Illinois because of restrictions in their own state. Under the impact of conservative legislators, Missouri only has one abortion clinic now and forces women to go through a 72-hour waiting period before undergoing the procedure and does not even make an exception for rape or incest.

Although Republican Party legislators justified passing the law in September 2011 on the basis that it would facilitate reflection on the part of the pregnant woman about going through with an abortion, the real impact is economic coercion. Such laws, which exist also in Utah and South Dakota, force women to travel long distances and take time off from work to reach a clinic. Right now the only one is in St. Louis. Since economic hardship is one of the main driving forces behind getting an abortion, the loss of a couple of day’s work can create havoc for women, especially those without a partner. The anti-abortion movement cynically calculates that some women will decide to have the baby and give it up for adoption, a hollow victory except if your belief system rests on the idea that heaven and hell exist, with angels, devils and all the rest.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, who hails from Missouri but lives now in California, filmed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Illinois. Her interviews were not only with women from Missouri who have made the trek but with a wide range of women connected to the clinic in various capacities. That includes not only the medical staff but the security guard, an African-American female who can barely contain her disgust with the protestors who haunt the clinic, including a Black pastor who she gives hell to. As is the case with most of these clinics outside of sinfully enlightened metropolitan centers like Manhattan, the fetus fetishists, who get equal time in Tragos’s film, are a permanent fixture like a chronic disease such as herpes. The Illinois clinic relies on a volunteer group of escorts who help the anxious women make it past the screaming, beady-eyed zealots.

Tragos’s emphasis is on the “stories” as she makes clear in the press notes:

I have met women contemplating abortion who have tremendous potential and who deserve dignity and respect: a student who wants to stay in school; a mother who is doing the best she can to care for the children she already has; a woman who is carrying a fetus that she very much wants, but would never live outside the womb; a young mother who believes abortion is wrong, but whose life is in danger if she carries her pregnancy to term. I have met a woman who stands on a street corner and prays, who believes that “God is amassing an army” to save babies in utero. As sharp as her rhetoric is, she is lonely and welcomes conversation and companionship on a cold winter day. I have met a woman frustrated by the lack of unity in the reproductive rights movement, who desperately wants to change the conversation but feels powerless to have an impact. I have met the pregnant doctor who performs abortions, despite danger and threats.

My only regret is that the film lacked commentary from experts who have been tracking the origins and goals of anti-abortion movement. It is understandable that Tragos’s had a specific focus but the viewer is left wondering what forces are assembling nationally to ensure that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land.

For example, the structure of the film excluded a discussion of the campaign against Planned Parenthood that became front page news a year ago when secretly made videos supposedly proved that fetal tissues were being sold for profit. So outrageous was the right wing intervention that even Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, said that Planned Parenthood was innocent of the charges being made against it.

To give you an idea of the bogus credentials of Rand Paul, who is beloved by some “anti-imperialists”, he had legislation prepared in advance to defund Planned Parenthood. Who knows? Maybe he has been inspired by Putin’s Russia that has banned all abortions after 12 weeks.

As might be expected, Hillary Clinton was a staunch defender of Planned Parenthood but given the steady erosion of abortion rights over the past eight years, one wonders how much confidence we can have in an administration correctly understood by both her and her critics on the left as a continuation of the status quo.

Clinton’s VP candidate is the first concern. Timothy Kaine, a Catholic, is anti-abortion but supposedly respects the Roe V. Wade decision. That is a bit hard to square with his past support for the Hyde amendment that bans federal funding for abortions. On July 27th he changed his mind and said he would support its repeal. For those concerned about how politicians change positions in the way some people change a hairdo, keep in mind that in 2012 Hillary Clinton, who has somehow earned the reputation of being for regime change in Syria, stated that the rebels were basically al-Qaeda.

Like Clinton, Barack Obama makes all sorts of statements about a woman’s right to choose but somehow that didn’t inspire him to issue an executive order that would have made it possible for federally funded humanitarian aid agencies to provide abortions to women raped in zones of conflict. The Helms amendment of 1987 excluded such a possibility but Obama could have easily superseded it. Sierra Sippel of CHANGE issued this statement: “As long as President Obama continues to walk away from women raped in conflict, his legacy on gender equality is incomplete. To remain silent and fail to act is unconscionable, deadly and damages his legacy.” I would quibble with this. As far as I am concerned, it is entirely consistent with his legacy.

Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 11:13 am

Tyrell Wellick, evil corporate character from E Corp on the USA Network series “Mr. Robot”

 

Donald Trump Jr., evil corporate character

 

August 10, 2016

Jill Stein, the South Front and the lesser evil

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:58 pm

For the past month or so, I have seen vitriolic attacks on Jill Stein from people I am close to on the question of Syria. I have already dealt with the question of whether Syria should be a litmus test for the Green Party but want to look at the question from a different angle now, namely how it is that she came to embrace a position that my pro-Syrian revolution friends label as “pro-fascist”. Like the friends of the Hillary Clinton campaign pouring over every Jill Stein speech looking for “anti-science” pandering, there is now a concerted effort by Syrian solidarity activists to discover evidence of this “pro-fascism” in her every utterance. The latest discoveries are that she attended an RT.com conference in Moscow in December, had dinner with Putin when she was there, and that her VP candidate has been writing some truly awful stuff about Syria.

With respect to RT.com, it has published 105 articles in praise of Jill Stein so naturally she might have accepted an invitation to their conference. Since she has given no evidence that she has a mastery of the Syrian struggle and only reflects the left consensus, it is probably unrealistic to think that she would have turned down the invitation.

As for Ajamu Baraka, my guess is that he will be speaking mostly about domestic politics rather than Syria in his various speaking engagements but that can’t be guaranteed. However, it is quite likely that if he says anything about “regime change” and the jihadist threat, he will be preaching to the choir. Is there any reason to think that there will be people in the audience who have somehow learned to think outside the box when it comes to Syria, especially when their understanding of the country is likely drawn from The Nation, ZNet, Salon, CounterPunch, Consortium News, WBAI news, and countless other zines and print publications that have been making the same points as Baraka for the past five years? It baffles me that anybody could think otherwise.

I was reminded of how left opinion is shaped when I stumbled across a website called South Front this morning when trying to find out the latest news about the battle for Aleppo.

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 10.42.39 AM

In a nutshell, this is just one more website that is pushing the Kremlin/Baathist agenda. The first thing I did was look up the domain. Unsurprisingly, it is registered in Russia.

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But what is somewhat surprising is how a website based in Russia can put out a product that is so professional looking and whose articles are obviously written by people whose first language is English. And if it is not the case, it written by Russians who have been trained to write exactly like they were.

For most people unfamiliar with the logistics and economics of websites, it might be easy to take South Front for granted but I can tell you that this is an expensive proposition both in financial and human resources terms. The website would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to maintain, if not more. Meanwhile, pro-Syrian revolution websites are run on a shoestring and count on people like me to supply content. If some rich bastard in the USA had given me that kind of money back in 2011, I could have put together a website that might have not only competed with the Baathist amen corner but crushed it. But what is the likelihood that a hedge fund billionaire would have funded a website that took up the cause of scruffy, bearded, Quran-citing, poverty-stricken rural folk who fight alongside al-Qaeda militias when it suits them? This is not to speak of the American government whose main goal was to keep the rebels on a tight leash so that a neoliberal government sans Assad could be cobbled together in Syria as Michael Karadjis pointed out in an essential article in the New Arab.

I am afraid that those who are so ready to dismiss Jill Stein as “pro-fascist” have delusions that Hillary Clinton would step into the breach and come to the aid of the Syrian rebels. People somehow have forgotten that Clinton is a cynical politician who counts Henry Kissinger as a major source of wisdom on foreign policy. She does not act on principle but on the dictates of the billionaires who run the country who paid her handsomely for her tawdry speaking engagements. She will say and do things for their benefits, not for those of the Syrian people. To get an idea of how “flexible” she is, all you need to do is pay attention to what she said in a February 26, 2012 interview with CBS’s Wyatt Andrews:

WYATT ANDREWS, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With the violence continuing in Syria and Assad refusing to allow medicine to reach the injured, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an interview with CBS News argues the United States is doing what it can, but within limits.

CLINTON: I am incredibly sympathetic to the calls that somebody do something, but it is also important to stop and ask what that is and who`s going to do it.

ANDREWS: What to do about Assad was supposed to be answered last Friday when a global conference called “Friends of Syria” again demanded that Assad step aside. But several Arab countries starting with the Saudis argued for action to arm the Syrian resistance. The Obama administration is resisting that.

ANDREWS: The U.S. has repeatedly said that it`s reluctant to support the direct army of the dissidents, why?

CLINTON: Well, first of all, we really don`t know who it is that would be armed.

ANDREWS: Specifically, the administration fears that arms will wind up in the hands of terrorists including al Qaeda.

CLINTON: We know al Qaeda, Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition, are we supporting Hamas in Syria?

So I think, Wyatt, you know despite the great pleas that we hear from those people who are being ruthlessly assaulted by Assad. If you are a military planner or if you are a secretary of state and you`re trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, we don`t see that.

In contrast to Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein stakes out positions on the basis of principle even if unfortunately the position is based on an incomplete understanding of history and politics. If you spent five years reading Salon, Counterpunch and The Nation and had never heard of Robin Yassin-Kassab or Idrees Ahmad let alone read them, what are the chances that you would have developed an analysis that favored a rebel victory over Assad?

Back in 1965, when I first faced the draft, my thinking on the Vietnam war was foggy at best. I hated Communism, or at least what I had been told about it, but never considered the possibility that the NLF’s cause was just. It took a full year of debate and discussion with an SWP member at the New School in New York to convince me that the USA had violated the Vietnamese right to self-determination and that the NLF were patriots fighting an occupying power.

And then it took another year for him to convince me that socialism was a more rational and just system than capitalism. What if I had not run into him? There was a good chance that my ideas about Vietnam and socialism would have remained as they were, even if my mind would have never been changed on the existential question of staying out of the army. My main goal in life was to read novels, smoke marijuana and listen to jazz. Politics? No thanks.

I really wonder whether most of my pro-Syrian revolution comrades have given much thought to how their thinking evolved about Syria. It is obvious that someone like Robin Yassin-Kassab, who is Syrian, would have come to the right outlook since he knows people from his homeland who were being brutalized by the dictatorship and could read authoritative analyses in the original Arabic.

Speaking for myself, it took a while to wrap my head around this question since I had, like most CounterPunch readers, seen American intervention in the Middle East after 2011 in the same way I saw Iraq in 2003—just another case of meddling that had to be resisted. I should add that I remain anti-intervention but along a different axis, namely opposed to CIA efforts to keep MANPAD’s out of the hands of the rebels.

Accepting the self-evident bankruptcy of the Green Party’s official position on Syria raises the question of its relevancy to the ongoing struggle to create a party of the left in the USA. For some of the British comrades who are outspokenly against Jill Stein, there seems to be little interest in the key question facing the left in the USA, namely how to build a party of the left. If Syria is a litmus test, then we have to wait until the Greens adopt a new position that is unlikely to happen given the ideological balance of forces in the USA, to a large extent one that has the Kremlin’s fingers on the scale. For all of the uproar over a “new McCarthyism” about Trump and Putin, there is plenty of evidence that the Kremlin does use RT.com, South Front, and other outlets to shape American public opinion.

In the long run, the only way to combat these ideas is to build a left that is predicated on the idea of working class internationalism and solidarity with the oppressed. Unfortunately, the left has been afflicted by a tendency to consider the nation-state as an instrument of struggle rather than the working class and its allies. Someone like Jill Stein’s vision of peace and global progress is based on the idea that Russia is a lesser evil to the USA. How ironic that a politician who has so effectively rebutted the idea that we need to choose a lesser evil on election day can turn around and apply in effect the same discredited logic to vote for Vladimir Putin.

August 9, 2016

Homage to Abbas Kiarostami, part one

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Introduction

Abbas Kiarostami

Jean-Luc Godard has said: “Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” According to Martin Scorsese, “Kiarostami represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” When these words are quoted at Kiarostami, he winces most charmingly. “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead,” he says.

That’s from the April 16, 2005 Guardian. Since Kiarostami died on the fourth of July this year, it seems appropriate to now state one’s admiration—not that I would put myself in the same league as Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese.

For reasons I can’t quite pin down, my discovery of Kiarostami came fairly late in life. I have been a cinephile since 1961 and began writing film reviews as a member of New York Film Critics Online about 20 years ago but saw my first film by the Iranian director and screenwriter only two years ago when I reviewed “The Wind Will Carry Us” for CounterPunch. Jeff St. Clair titled the review “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” and the answer to that rhetorical question was answered positively in my article.

“The Wind Will Carry Us” had been shown in a revival of the 1999 film and I had attended a press screening. In my review I wrote:

The sense of wonderment does not come from characters and objects defying the natural order but from their own unique relationship to the natural order so at odds from the film’s major character, a sophisticated documentary filmmaker from Tehran who has come to a tiny mountainside village populated by Kurds. They live as they have lived for hundreds of years, tending their herds of cattle and goats, while he is tuned into the latest technologies including a cell phone. The running gag of this bone-dry comedy is his need to get into his Land Rover to scale a nearby hilltop to receive an in-coming call whenever his cell phone rings. By contrast, communications in the village are strictly from one windowsill to the next.

If most of my readers live outside of New York where such revivals are commonplace, I can reassure you that while the “latest technologies” might have thwarted the character in Kiarostami’s film, who was arguably a stand-in for himself, they fortunately make it possible for you to see “The Wind Will Carry Us” and just about every major work by the World’s Most Talented Film-maker as I have done over the past week. They can be seen either on commercial venues like Hulu and Amazon or on free outlets like Youtube and Daily Motion. The goal of the series of articles that follow this introduction will be to acquaint you with the art films of a deservedly acclaimed artist as if you were in a cyberspace equivalent of the art theaters that flourished in New York in the early 1960s when each week a new film by Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray, Buñuel, Antonioni, Visconti or Truffaut premiered.

Part of the explanation for so much of Kiarostami’s work being available as VOD is his existence in a kind of limbo for most of his career. While never persecuted like his colleague Jafar Panahi, the Islamic Republic did not allow his films to be screened for a ten-year period. With no apparent interest in exploiting them commercially, Iran never stepped in to demand that the films be removed from Youtube.

Despite the restrictions he had to put up with in Iran, Kiarostami always felt rooted in the country and never made polemical films like Panahi. That being said, he was deeply concerned about social inequality and the clerical authoritarianism that helped to sustain it despite the “anti-imperialist” image the mullahs tried to cultivate.

This side of Kiarostami might not have been obvious in the films he directed but it was so in the screenplay he wrote for “Crimson Gold”, a film directed by Panahi. In my 2004 review, I referred to the main character Hussein, a pizza deliveryman who was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war suffering from poverty and PTSD:

Although Hussein never articulates his feelings, we can see Teheran through his sorrowful eyes. One night on his way to a pizza delivery, he is accosted by cops and soldiers at the front door, who tell him to wait there until their operation is finished. They are lying in wait for affluent people going to a party on the third floor where alcohol is being served and where unmarried couples are dancing. This is against the law in the Islamic republic. The cops have no regard for Hussein, who will not be paid and who will have to wait until the early hours of the morning to leave the scene. He strikes up a conversation with a fifteen-year-old soldier from the countryside who has lied about his age in order to find a job in the army. The entire scene is a paradigm of the brutal class realities of contemporary Iran and practically a cry for sweeping change.

Like other directors operating outside the commercial dictates of Hollywood, Kiarostami can be seen as a link to the golden age of the art film on a number of levels. To start with, his works are imbued with a humanism that has virtually disappeared over the past 25 years. This is not just true of Hollywood but Western Europe as well, which has tended to compete with it on its own terms. For example, French directors have become enamored of Tarantino type violence even though its origins were in Hong Kong gangster films that he was recycling. By the time the gunplay conventions reached France, they had lost their initial impact and grown stale. In the 44 films made by Kiarostami, there is not a single act of violence and the closest we come to seeing one is a rock thrown through the window of an elderly professor by a young man who suspects him of sleeping with his fiancée, a call girl. It is so unexpected that you almost feel inclined to duck and cover like the professor.

For the most part, a Kiarostami film consists of people talking to each other, and frequently inside a car. By daring to keep a conversation going on for ten minutes or longer, he defies the conventions of Hollywood and most independent films as well where dialog is limited to two or three minutes and functions mainly as exposition. A classic example would be a scene from a Scorsese film in which the characters argue with each other about one thing or another. The tension of the dialog is designed to set up the physical confrontation that is almost inevitable.

In a Kiarostami film, the conversations are often about the universal questions of life and death and that have no other purpose except to get us thinking about how they relate to our own existence. In “A Taste of Cherry”, a depressed Tehran upper-class man drives around the outskirts of the city trying to find a man willing to help him kill himself—or more exactly to throw dirt in the hole in the ground where he will take an overdose of tranquilizers the night before. The film consists nearly entirely of conversations in the main character’s car as he tries to persuade various men he picks up to serve as his assistant with a sizable payment. One, a clerical student from Afghanistan, refuses insistently even though he is impoverished. They argue about how the Quran views suicide and fail to agree.

The humanism of Kiarostami’s films can obviously be traced to the work of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray who had compassion for the lives of ordinary people like the peasants in “Seven Samurai” or in the Apu trilogy. Kiarostami preferred to work with nonprofessional actors who he claimed kept him honest, especially when they were cast as the kind of characters they were in real life. He stated that they would stubbornly resist saying things that were not likely to come out of their mouths. In “Through the Olive Trees”, a film within a film, a character based on Kiarostami himself is making a film about the impact of the 1990 earthquake on the lives of rural Iranians. He has a bit actor named Hossein (actually a rural Iranian working class man) being filmed repeatedly in one take after another because he keeps screwing up. He is supposed to say that he lost 65 relatives in the earthquake but it always comes out as 25. The director, driven to distraction, asks him why keeps refusing to say 65. The answer: “Sir, I only lost 25 relatives.”

As I watched one Kiarostami film after another this week, it became clear to me that not only was he the greatest director of our generation but a major influence on other important directors in the region, including one who I consider as on the same level—Turkey’s Bilge Nuri Ceylan. Ceylan and Kiarostami’s films tend to have the same venues, the various film festivals in places like Cannes or New York and the art houses with their limited distribution. Like Kiarostami, Ceylan has uncompromising artistic integrity and an affinity for the common people of his country. The influence can also be seen in the work of Jano Rosebiani, a Kurdish director whose “Jiyan” (Life) echoes “The Wind Will Carry Us” through its interaction between an educated and urbane Kurd (like the director) who visits Halabja with the intention of building an orphanage. Is there a common thread that unites Iranian, Turkish and Kurdish films such as these? I would argue that it has a lot to do with the dislocations of traditional societies under the impact of globalization that is common to the three nations.

I must introduce a note of caution in watching a Kiarostami film. If you are expecting a plot that has a logical ending that conveys some eternal verity, you will be disappointed. As a screenwriter who directs his own work, he avoids pat narratives that operate off audience reflexes built up by a lifetime of watching genre films. He even shuns film scores since they are meant to stroke one’s emotions during the course of a film in a manipulative fashion. He will have none of that. For Kiarostami, watching a film is a kind of interactive process in which you are practically challenged to supply your own conclusion.

For example, in the conclusion to “Through the Olive Trees”, when the aforementioned Hossein is trailing after the woman of his dreams through a grove of olive trees to persuade her to marry him, we watch them becoming smaller and smaller as they move out of the range of the camera toward the horizon. At the last minute, Hossein bolts away from the object of his affection and begins running toward the camera at full tilt. Is he running away from her because he is crushed by her refusal or is he ecstatic because she has said yes? That is up to you to figure out.

It is not just the conclusion to his films that is open to interrogation. There is an ambiguity that prevails through almost his entire work that prevents you from settling into preconceived ideas about how the characters are expected to act. It is often the case that the characters are not clear themselves about their innermost feelings. This gives the films a kind of contradictory momentum that keeps you off-balance and unsure about what will happen next.

The complexity of a Kiarostami film is related to the modernist sensibility that was general throughout the New Wave of the 1950s and 60s that came relatively late to Iran. It is akin to Godard but filtered through the sensibility of Iran’s religious and artistic environment. Over the next few weeks, I will expand on this in an attempt to pay homage to one of the greatest filmmakers of the past half-century.

August 8, 2016

From an interview with Abbas Kiarostami

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:13 pm

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 4.12.00 PM

BC: It seems difficult for many artists today to treat individual psychological truth, sociopolitical reality, and artistic form with equal seriousness, with equal commitment. Is that a reasonable statement?

AK: I completely agree. As I have implied, moviemakers are always being pushed to focus on the excitation and manipulation of the audience. The question to which I don’t know the answer is whether or not the viewer wants to be manipulated. I don’t know anyone who says, “Instead of letting me see reality, manipulate me. I would prefer it.” This is an illness that comes from somewhere in society—maybe from escapist movies themselves.

BC: You yourself are choosing to make films about ordinary people, poor people. That itself is quite rare today.

AK: I get my material from all around me. When I leave my house in the morning, those ordinary people are the ones I come into contact with. In my entire life I have never met a star—somebody I have seen on the screen. And I believe that any artist finds his material in what’s around him. Human beings and their problems are the most important raw material for any film.

BC: How can film art in general contribute to the lives of ordinary people?

AK: The biggest impact of cinema on the viewer is that it allows his imagination to take flight. There are two possible results of this. Perhaps it will make his ordinary, day-to-day life more bearable. On the other hand, it may result in his day-to-day life seeming so bad to him that, as a result of his newfound awareness, he may decide to change his life.

BC: A related question. Humanity has suffered a great deal in the past and continues to suffer. How do artists treat such a situation honestly without surrendering to fatalism or pessimism?

AK: It’s a difficult question and I cannot answer precisely how artists do that, but the ones who do are the artists, the ones who accomplish the task of turning that painful experience of humanity into art Without becoming cynical. Making it possible for everyone to get some pleasure out of pain, making beauty out of ugliness or desolation. And the painful experience of human-ity, be it in Iran, Africa, or the United States, isn’t going to change any time soon. In my relatively short lifetime, I haven’t experienced a reduction of injustice anywhere, let alone in my own country. And never mind a solution to the problem of injustice. People keep referring to the “global village,” but in Africa, in Uganda, I watched as parents put the corpses of their children in boxes, tied them to the backs of bicycles, and pedaled away—barefoot. I’m quoting an author 1 don’t know who said that, by the twenty-first century, humanity will only be four years old. I think that applies. Humanity today, in 2005, is just about at the stage of a four-year-old. So we’ll have to wait a long time before humanity even reaches the maturity of an adolescent.

BC: Doesn’t the future of cinema also depend on an improvement in the social and political atmosphere?

AK: 1 don’t think so. I actually sometimes think that, at least in my country, art has grown the most when the social situation has been the worst. It seems to me that artists are a compensatory mechanism, a defense mechanism in those kinds of unfavorable circumstances.

August 7, 2016

The Battle of Aleppo

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

In my review of Gilbert Achcar’s “Morbid States”, I referred to the imminent fall of East Aleppo—an event that would likely mean that the war would end on terms favorable to the Baathist dictatorship. Just three days after posting the article, I was quite surprised and elated to discover that the battle had turned against the Baathists. In a surprise attack on the Ramosa military base, an alliance of rebel groups gained control of its weaponry and opened up a corridor that will allow food and medical supplies to be shipped in to the besieged slums.

Essentially Assad and Putin were carrying out the same strategy that was used in 1999 against the people of Grozny in Chechnya, almost to the last detail. Putin had leaflets dropped on the city announcing a safe corridor for civilians just as was the case in East Aleppo. And as they began leaving in trucks, the Russian air force bombed them. That is probably one of the reasons the people in East Aleppo decided to take their chances on staying put.

And those that stayed put had to face the same kind of criminal attacks that the Chechens faced in 1999:

At least 10 explosions devastated a downtown market and maternity hospital in Grozny, Chechnya, on Thursday evening, according to accounts from the breakaway Russian republic.

The explosions reportedly killed scores of people and injured hundreds more in a scene of panic and horror. Chechen officials told The Associated Press that at least 118 people died and more than 400 were injured, although the number could not be confirmed.

Ultimately, the Chechens could not withstand such attacks and a puppet government was installed that rules in mafia style to this day.

Aleppo has been a microcosm of the war in Syria with seemingly unresolvable contradictions. In 2012, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the legendary communist opponent of Baathist misrule who was imprisoned for 16 years for the crime of writing critiques of the regime, touched upon some of these contradictions in an article titled “Aleppo: a tale of three cities”.

The first two Aleppos were in the regime controlled western part of the city and the third was in the east that has proven indomitable up to this point, about which Saleh noted:

The third Aleppo, the one now in open revolt, started from the rural parts and from the most marginalized slums: Salahuddin, Alsakhur, Alklaseh, Bab Alhadid, Al Shaar, Al Zabadieh…. As if these neighborhoods had retained their spirit and personality while the major districts had become devoid of them, with the state having sizable presence, capital and domesticated religiosity.

When it comes to the spirit and personality of a city, the regime exhausts itself trying to eliminate them and pursue their ghosts. When it feels endangered, it kills. It has already killed Homs, Deir ez-Zor, and nothing will deter it from killing Aleppo if it could. If left alive, this wild monster will kill all of Syria.

I remember when the better-off parts of Aleppo were reported to be disturbed by what they saw as revolutionary invaders from the “rural parts”. Edward Dark, who washed his hands of the revolution when it proved too crude and unruly, could barely contain his disgust with the riffraff. In a 2013 article titled “How We Lost the Syrian Revolution”, he accused them of betraying the original goals of the revolution:

They were the underprivileged rural class who took up arms and stormed the city, and they were out for revenge against the perceived injustices of years past. Their motivation wasn’t like ours, it was not to seek freedom, democracy or justice for the entire nation, it was simply unbridled hatred and vengeance for themselves.

Extremist and sectarian in nature, they made no secret that they thought us city folk in Aleppo, all of us, regime stooges and sympathizers, and that our lives and property were forfeit as far as they were concerned.

Using a pseudonym, a young educated Aleppoite who left Syria, echoed Dark’s complaints in a Vanity Fair article from July 2015 :

But most of Aleppo regarded the Arab Spring with indifference. When the revolution broke out in earnest later that year, much of the city distanced itself from the turbulence. Demonstrations remained confined mostly to slums like Al-Saladin, Bustan Al-Qasr, and Al-Marijah. Protests were brief, with demonstrators chanting before running from the security forces.

In Aleppo, the revolution gives the impression that it is a revolt of the poor. When rebel groups from the northern countryside pushed towards the city, these slums were the first that welcomed them, unlike the richer neighborhoods, which, instead, remained in the hands of the regime.

Despite this, the author captures the spirit of solidarity that exists in the slums:

The Syrian air force has a habit of following their first barrel bomb with a second. People say this is to kill first responders. (The government still denies that it uses barrel bombs.)

Despite this, the crowd did not run away. They dug in the rubble with their bare hands—old men, Civil Defense volunteers, and militants alike—all except the media activists shooting video. When they found a victim, they gathered to help snatch them out, screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they did. Once they laid the victim in an ambulance, they began to dig again.

“If you see a body lying down, are you going to hesitate? Even when you know that if you stop to move it away, the sniper is going to make them two?,” a shopkeeper in the Al-Qasr neighborhood once asked me. “No! Your conscience wouldn’t let you walk away.”

Steps away from the scene, neighbors thanked God for safety.

In the best of all possible worlds, Bashar al-Assad might have been less savage and less determined to turn the country into a sectarian battleground. He would have actually protected his own class interests by stepping down and allowing some rich Sunni to take his place in the same way that the English-speaking ruling class of South Africa persuaded or coerced the Afrikaners to allow Nelson Mandela to become president.

This would have allowed the democratic opposition to organize itself into an effective movement capable of convincing people like the better-off Aleppoites to make common cause with the rural poor. Clearly, the university students were in the vanguard of the protests and most educated and professional Syrians would have preferred to live in a country where you didn’t have to worry if a loved one was going to be tortured or killed just for demanding change.

But Assad was a master strategist understood in narrow terms. He polarized the country along Sunni and non-Sunni lines and militarized the conflict so that those that had access to money and arms could dominate the opposition. If you had co-thinkers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, you could rely on them for support even if they had no interest whatsoever in democracy or socialism—god forbid.

The net effect of all this was to give added weight to Islamist militias in East Aleppo, including al-Nusra that was critical to the breaking of the siege. It was their suicide bombers that were critical in storming the Ramosa military base. Speaking of al-Nusra suicide bombing, it is worth mentioning that it bears little resemblance to ISIS terrorism. The targets are always military as a search in Google would reveal:

Aleppo: Jabhat Al-Nusra Suicide Bombing Leads to Fierce Clashes in the North (March 2015)

A Turkish suicide bomber from the Syrian Al-Qaeda group “Jabhat Al-Nusra” attempted to drive his vehicle into a National Defense Forces barricade at the village of Deir Zeitoun in northern Aleppo; however, the vehicle was allegedly destroyed before it could reach its destination, according to a military source.

The suicide bomber was identified by Jabhat Al-Nusra social media pages as “’Usama Al-Turki” – a Turkish “Mujahid” carrying out his “martyrdom” operation for the militant group’s offensive that directly followed his death on Monday night.

Syria’s Nusra Front stages deadly suicide bombing in Aleppo (July 2015)

A suicide bomber from Syria’s al Qaeda offshoot the Nusra Front blew himself up in a Syrian army outpost in a contested neighborhood in the divided northern city of Aleppo and killed at least 25 soldiers and allied militia and injured scores, a monitor said.

For the past year or so, there has been a rapprochement between the USA and Russia over the need to prioritize attacks on ISIS in Syria even to the point of the Pentagon having demanded that rebels sign a contract agreeing that any arms they receive will only be used against ISIS and not the Baathist military.

Over the past few months, Russia has escalated its demands. It insists that the rebels separate themselves physically from al-Nusra so that its bombers can destroy the group and presumably any civilian that backs it. In other words, Grozny deux. Consider what this would have meant for East Aleppo. To start with, if it was risky for civilians to exit the slums, what would have happened to anybody considered a fighter? Which for all practical purposes would have meant men between the ages of 16 and 60. And those that remained behind? If you consider what has happened in Aleppo over the past 5 years, the results would have been horrific.

It is difficult to predict what will happen next in Syria. Without a doubt, al-Nusra and probably most of the militias that defended East Aleppo over the past five years would seek to impose their vision of an Islamic society. But  we can all agree that it would be a step forward if it allowed the population relief from barrel bombs, Russian missiles and the various militias intent on killing anybody who dares to oppose Bashar al-Assad. Well, maybe not Patrick Cockburn or Seymour Hersh who must be wearing sackcloth and ashes since the recent turn of events.

When asked for what he saw as a solution to the Syrian misery, Yassin al-Haj Saleh offered the following. Needless to say, a precondition for it taking place is an end to the war and the sectarian impasse that the demon of Damascus created:

One could think of a historical compromise that ends the war, guarantees full withdrawal of foreign forces, and is the basis of a wholly different political landscape in the country. A sustainable solution can only be built on a new political majority. This cannot be achieved through facing Da’esh alone or the regime alone. A new Syrian majority requires a substantial political change that is impossible to envisage without putting a full-stop to the rule of the Assad dynasty that has been in power for 45 years, a dynasty responsible for two big wars in the country: 1979-1982 and 2011-…

This change is the political and ethical precondition for a war against Da’esh with the broad participation of Syrians. The global powers have so far been putting the cart before the horse by targeting Da’esh only, ignoring the root cause of the militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation that has occurred over the past five years, namely the Assad regime. This is a short-sighted and failing policy, not to mention unethical. It is a prescription for an endless war.

The new Syria could be built on a number of essential principles: decentralisation; thinking of different ethnic, religious and confessional communities as equal constituent communities; full equality among individual citizens (Arabs, Kurds and others; Muslims, Christians and others; Sunnis, Alawites and others; religious, secular and others). It is not acceptable to talk about Syria as a secular state, as the Vienna document of 30 October 2015 states, when the same document says nothing about justice and accountability, and avoids the word democracy. Lecturing about secularism reminds one of the worst traits of the colonial discourse.

What a terrible shame that so many on the left, including Jill Stein I am sad to admit, were indoctrinated by the writings of Patrick Cockburn and Seymour Hersh, et al without ever having the opportunity or the desire to track down the writings of a Syrian revolutionary anti-capitalist.

August 5, 2016

Should Syria be a litmus test for the left in the 2016 elections?

Filed under: Green Party,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

At the risk of alienating people who I have strong affinities with, it is necessary for me to explain why I support Jill Stein even though her VP candidate Ajamu Baraka is someone I have described as a “pro-Baathist hack”. I can honestly say that if Baraka had been the presidential candidate, I probably would have endorsed another left candidate even though my support for the Greens over the long haul would have persisted. As I have made clear for the past two decades or so, there is an urgent need for the American left to form a party to the left of the Democrats. This party might not be the one that leads a socialist revolution but as Trotskyist James P. Cannon once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

In fact, if in the unlikely event that Bernie Sanders had declared that he was launching such a party, I would have switched my allegiance to it for the simple reason that quantity turns into quality as Plekhanov would have put it. With the millions of dollars and tens of thousands of passionate supporters he could count on, Sanders would have raised the ante considerably in the long and arduous fight against the two-party system.

As it happens, the same complaints about Stein were made against Sanders by my comrades in the pro-Syrian revolution camp, which is to be expected if Syria is a litmus test. I have my own litmus test obviously, which is the need to oppose the Democrats on a principled basis in the same way that the Bolsheviks opposed the Cadets, the Russian version of the Democratic Party.

For example, Jett Goldsmith, who works with Elliot Higgins’s Bellingcat project, wrote an article for the Middle East Eye about Sanders’s failings on Syria:

The Syrian regime – which Sanders opposes intervening against – is so corporatist, corrupt, and non-democratic that its basic structure shatters Sanders’ entire “getting money out of big politics and restoring democracy” platform. The Assad regime was born and bred from the special interests-laden corruption of the Baath Party in post-Mandate Syria, and functions as a government that controls society through a patronage system paid for by the Assads’ inner circle, which Hafez worked for decades to foster, while suppressing civil society and essentially all political dissent.

Jett Goldsmith is entirely correct, of course, but the creation of a left party in the USA would have had been a major step forward in confronting capitalist rule. It might not be obvious at first blush but Sanders’s accommodation to Assad and his unwillingness to run as an independent go hand in hand. That is the consensus of the American ruling class that Sanders was willing to challenge but only up to a point. Liberal opinion in elite circles is consistent with Obama’s willingness to see the Syrian revolution be drowned in blood and Sanders is definitely at one with it.

You could have seen the same hostility to Jeremy Corbyn who had the crowning bad judgement to make Seumas Milne his press secretary. Seumas, like Baraka, is a pro-Assad propagandist of the worst kind as I pointed out in a September 2015 article where I took issue with his reliance on the Judicial Watch document that “proved” the USA backed the Islamic State—this despite the fact that the document warned that such an eventuality would be a disaster. What? You were expecting Milne to write truthfully?

James Bloodworth is an outspoken British opponent of the Baathist dictatorship who blasted Corbyn in a December 2015 article titled “The bizarre world of Jeremy Corbyn and Stop the War”. As much as I sympathize with any article that details the sordid record of the STWC on Syria, I have to part ways with Bloodworth on the broader questions of capitalist politics. He has a neo-Eustonian outlook that shares Tony Blair’s opposition to Corbyn, even to the point of condemning STWC for showing solidarity with the Sunni resistance to the American occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. Given the inconsistencies of the “anti-imperialist” left, it makes perfect sense that John Rees and company would now adopt a kind of inverse Eustonian outlook with respect to Syria since Russian imperialism is kosher in their calculations. I know, I know. It is difficult to keep track of such gyrations.

Returning to the Jill Stein campaign, there are a number of things worth pointing out.

To start with, as I have pointed out before, a search in Nexis for “Jill Stein”, “Green Party” and “Syria” returns zero articles while for “Jill Stein”, “Green Party” and “fracking” returns 18 and “Jill Stein”, “Green Party” and “global warming” returns 21. So this will give you an idea of where her priorities are.

I hate to say it but when I see my Syrian solidarity comrades looking for incriminating quotes from her on Syria, I can’t help but be reminded of the “anti-science” critiques. My general impression is that her opinions on Syria are about the same as Bernie Sanders and hardly ones that she would emphasize in her public talks.

If you go to her official website and look at her platform, there is not a single word about Syria. I should add that the website does not have anything about Ajamu Baraka, which might be a function of it not having been updated yet or—as I suspect—the secondary character of all vice presidential candidates.

Essentially the only way to understand Green Party problems with Syria (and there are some as this misinformed article would indicate) is to see it in context. The likelihood of Jill Stein or any other leading Green adopting positions on Syria that resemble my own or my comrades is almost zero. People don’t evolve political positions in a vacuum. They tend to rely on the word of the leftist universe in which they dwell. If you get your ideas from The Nation, Salon, CounterPunch, ZNet, Truthout, Consortium News, the LRB, Mondoweiss, CommonDreams, Alternet et al, you will simply find very few articles defending the Syrian rebels. You need to consult websites that are generally not on the radar screen of a Jill Stein such as Pulse Media, magazines like New Politics or books such as “Burning Country” or “Khiyana”. Studies in the sociology of knowledge would probably explain how certain ideas remain beyond the pale but I suspect that to a large extent it can be explained by Islamophobia. With literally thousands of articles describing Syrian rebels as either al-Qaeda or collaborating with its fighters, you end up going along with the crowd. It is also a major problem with some truly retrograde characters taking up the cause of the Syrian rebels, starting with Hillary Clinton who some Syrian solidarity activists regretfully urge a vote for.

There are historical precedents for the tendency of good people (the best actually given the horrors of the Baathist tyranny) to make Syria a litmus test. In 1948 Henry Wallace, a member of FDR’s cabinet, broke with the Democrats and ran as a candidate of the Progressive Party. In my view, this third party bid was the most significant of 20th century history as I tried to point out in an article on the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000.

The Wallace campaign has served as a whipping boy for dogmatic Marxist electoral theorizing, much of which I took seriously when I was in the Trotskyist movement. It was supposed to prove what a dead end middle class electoral politics was, in contrast to the insurmountable power and logic of a Labor Party. Unfortunately, the Labor Party existed only in the realm of propaganda while the Wallace campaign, with all its flaws, existed in the realm of reality.

While most people are aware of Wallace’s resistance to the Cold War and to some of the more egregious anti-union policies of the Democrats and Republicans, it is important to stress the degree to which his campaign embraced the nascent civil rights movement.

 Early in the campaign Wallace went on a tour of the south. True to his party’s principles, he announced in advance that he would neither address segregated audiences nor stay in segregated hotels. This was virtually an unprecedented measure to be taken at the time by a major politician. Wallace paid for it dearly. In a generally hostile study of Henry Wallace, the authors begrudgingly pay their respects to the courage and militancy of the candidate:

 The southern tour had begun peacefully enough in Virginia, despite the existence in that state of a law banning racially mixed public assemblies. In Norfolk, Suffolk, and Richmond, Wallace spoke to unsegregated and largely receptive audiences. But when the party went on into supposedly more liberal North Carolina, where there was no law against unsegregated meetings, the violence started. A near riot preceded his first address, and a supporter, James D. Harris of Charlotte, was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back. The next day there was no bloodshed, but Wallace was subjected to a barrage of eggs and fruit, and the crowd of about five hundred got so completely out of control that he had to abandon his speech. At Hickory, North Carolina, the barrage of eggs and tomatoes and the shouting were so furious that Wallace was prevented from speaking, but he tried to deliver a parting thrust over the public address system: ‘As Jesus Christ told his disciples, when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere.’ If they closed their minds against his message, he would, like Jesus Christ, abandon them to their iniquity.  (Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, Graham White and John Maze)

When I wrote this, I wasn’t thinking much about anti-Stalinist opposition to Henry Wallace but it was not just about rejecting the “bourgeois” character of the Progressive Party along the lines of the World Socialist Website’s vituperative attacks on the Green Party. It was more than that. You have to keep in mind that Henry Wallace’s campaign was influenced to a large extent by the CPUSA’s leading role as well as Wallace’s friendliness to the Kremlin that was a legacy of FDR’s New Deal. By 1948, many people on the left had woken up to the depravities of Stalinism even if not to the extent of the post-Khrushchev revelations. But as is the case today, the consensus was that the USSR was a “socialist country” even if it was authoritarian—in other words given the same kind of leeway as Gaddafi’s Libya or Assad’s Syria.

And Henry Wallace was exactly the kind of person who bought into these lies as indicated in a New Yorker article titled “Uncommon Man” dated October 14, 2013.

Wallace was hardly the only politician of the period to form an unduly rosy picture of Stalin’s regime, but he went further than most. In May, 1944, he embarked on a good-will mission to Soviet Asia and China, and during a tour of Siberia he fell for an elaborate Potemkin-village presentation. In his 1946 travelogue, “Soviet Asia Mission,” he wrote admiringly of Red Army choruses, needlepoint artwork, and enlightened farming methods. “The larch were just putting out their first leaves, and Nikishov gamboled about, enjoying the wonderful air immensely,” Wallace wrote. He was referring to General Ivan Nikishov, the master of the Kolyma Gulag system. In China, Wallace showed himself more alert to the shortcomings of Chiang Kai-shek. (He did not favor the Communists, though, as he was later accused of doing.) A diplomatic amateur, he was too easily impressed by whichever host responded to his interests or appreciated his gifts, which included a shipment of fifty baby chicks and a glow-in-the-dark portrait of Stalin executed in radioactive paint.

If I had been around in 1948, I would have urged the left to back Henry Wallace despite all this. Whatever flaws he exhibited on Stalin, there was an urgent need back then to create a party to the left of the Democrats that was in favor of civil rights, the CIO, and against the looming Cold War and witch-hunt. When such a party came into existence, there would be other fights necessary to make it an instrument of the rank-and-file rather than the Stalinist hacks but it had to be born first. Instead it was strangled in the cradle just as the Clintonites are trying to do to the Green Party. Make no mistake about it. The fight to defend Jill Stein as a legitimate candidate of the left is necessary, warts and all.

 

 

August 3, 2016

Morbid Symptoms

Filed under: Egypt,political Islam,Syria — louisproyect @ 3:25 pm

Gilbert Achcar’s aptly titled Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising arrives at the very moment when Bashar al-Assad’s military and his assorted foreign legions are on the brink of final victory over the rebels according to some analysts. As the killing machine advances on East Aleppo in order to impose a siege that will likely cost the lives of thousands of civilians through a combination of bombing and starvation, it is a supreme irony that al-Assad will be following essentially the same strategy that Adolf Hitler used against Leningrad in WWII but with Putin’s air force standing in for the Luftwaffe.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported that Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) is abducting, torturing and assassinating activists in unprecedented numbers in order to intimidate the entire population into accepting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s neoliberal regime. While the title of Achcar’s book is a reference to such reversals in Syria and Egypt, it also might remind one of the ideological morass of large sections of the left that cannot make the connection between al-Assad and al-Sisi. Al-Assad manages to enjoy the support of a wide spectrum of leftist intellectuals and journalists even if it is accompanied by the disclaimer that he is not very nice. Meanwhile al-Sisi is universally condemned. Morbid indeed.

But if you put aside geopolitical bias, you cannot help but recognize the similarities between the two despots since they both claim to be defending secularism and democracy against Islamists. With the Muslim Brotherhood serving as al-Sisi’s bogeyman and a wide variety of Islamist militias in Syria functioning as al-Assad’s scapegoat, one might expect both dictators to be equally blessed by the pro-Baathist left. What prevents al-Sisi from getting such support is that he never was an ally of the Kremlin either during the Cold War or afterwards.

It is the singular merit of Gilbert Achcar’s scholarship to transcend Cold War mythologies and to examine class relations in Middle East and North African society to arrive at an assessment of the current conjuncture. He rejects the Scylla of “secular” dictators on one hand and the Charybdis of Islamists on the other, urging the left to adopt a principled, class-based orientation that while difficult to maintain in a hostile political environment remains necessary.

Morbid Symptoms is divided into three parts. A chapter on Syria is titled The Clash of Barbarisms, which despite evoking Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, is distinctly Achcarian and solidly within the Marxist tradition. Unlike Huntington and Ali, who follow geopolitical compasses of either the right or the left, the unit of analysis for Achcar is class, not the nation-state. If there is anything that has disoriented the left ever since the spring of 2011, it the failure to think in class terms.

The chapter titled The “23 July” of Abdul al-Sisi examines Egyptian politics in the aftermath of General al-Sisi’s coup within the framework of the Egyptian left’s failure to develop an independent class orientation against two equally reactionary forces. The political lessons to be drawn from this debacle are not only necessary for moving forward in Egypt but for an entire region that is now polarized between Islamists on one side and self-appointed military saviors on the other.

The conclusion, subtitled “Arab Winter” and Hope, is a brief survey of developments in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen that despite its brevity is essential for understanding the region’s difficulties and possibilities.

Despite the “anti-intervention” posturing of the pro-Baathist left, the most significant imperialist intervention in Syria was to block the shipment of MANPAD’s to the Syrian rebels from non-USA sources. The net result of this imperialist intervention has been to foster a devastating asymmetric warfare. With regime jets and helicopters, augmented eventually by Russia air power, al-Assad has levelled entire urban centers such as East Aleppo and Homs. Homes have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands killed, and survivors forced to seek refuge in Europe even if it meant taking perilous voyages across the Mediterranean to destinations where nativism reigned supreme.

Despite the reputation that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have as fierce enemies of the Baathist regime, they cooperated with the USA to keep MANPAD’s out of the hands of the rebels. Achcar cites an October 17, 2012 Wall Street Journal article that details the efforts of a task force consisting of these supposedly “regime change” states working with the CIA to block MANPAD’s from reaching Aleppo even though the rebels “pleaded” for an effective defense against aerial bombardment. Some on the left might argue that such weapons can fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or ISIS and thus lead to the downing of civilian aircraft. Achcar answers these concerns by referring to an article by military affairs analyst Anthony Cordesman that reveals how they can be modified to be disabled if they fall into the wrong hands just as easily as a stolen laptop.

The principal motivation for keeping the rebels on the losing end was political. The Obama administration had little interest in seeing the plebian rank and file of the armed opposition taking power in Syria. Since the Rand Corporation is a think tank launched by the Douglas Aircraft Company to provide analysis to the Pentagon, you’d think that they would be an accurate barometer of elite opinion. As such, the findings of a workshop they convened in 2014 should be given due weight:

Key Findings

Workshop participants felt that prolonged conflict was the best descriptor for the situation in Syria as of December 2013, but momentum seemed to be leaning toward regime victory.

Negotiated settlement was deemed the least likely of the possible scenarios.

Regime collapse, while not considered a likely outcome, was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests [emphasis added].

Was the CIA’s decision to block the shipment of MANPAD’s consistent with the strategic planning at one of the Pentagon’s primary R&D resources? It would appear to be so.

If the Free Syrian Army had been able to secure the weapons it needed to neutralize the Syrian air force, it is likely that the war would have come to an end long ago. Syria would have been forced to tackle a new set of problems but at least the wholesale murder of civilians in working-class neighborhoods would have come to an end.

Instead the war dragged on and Islamic rivals to the FSA were able to usurp the leading military role largely because of their ready access to money and weapons from likeminded benefactors in the region. There was an inherent contradiction between the aspirations of the Syrian masses and the conditions brought on by militarization. Warfare is a costly business and the deep pockets of states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey could be helpful in material terms but only with strings attached, namely adherence to a political program that was inimical to the goals of the Arab Spring. Turkey was determined to be rid of al-Assad but only as part of a broader campaign to deny the Kurds the right of self-determination. After the birth of grass roots democracy, the Turkish government felt threatened by it in the same way that al-Assad feared the democratically-minded opposition based in civil society. Basically, Erdogan and al-Assad had common class interests despite their geopolitical rivalries. Indeed, recent news that Turkey was ready to realign its relationship to Syria indicates that class trumps religion as the support of the Sunni bourgeoisie for al-Assad should have indicated all along.

Gilbert Achcar’s prognosis is guarded at best. After five years of brutal warfare and the emergence of Islamist militias with no interest in the democratic aspirations of the masses who poured into the streets of Homs, Aleppo and smaller towns in the impoverished rural areas five years ago, the temporary solution is to stop the bloodshed and allow civil society to reemerge:

In order for any progressive potential to materialise in an organised political form among the Syrian people at large, the precondition at this stage is for the war to stop. In that regard and given the abysmal situation that has arisen in Syria after four years of war, the appalling level of killing and destruction, and the immense human tragedy represented by the refugees and displaced persons (about one half of Syria’s population), one can only wish for the success of the international efforts presently being deployed to reach a compromise between the Syrian regime and the mainstream opposition.

In the immediate aftermath of the al-Sisi coup in Egypt, there were bitter recriminations over the role of the left with some making analogies between the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi and Alexander Kerensky. For example, John Rees wrote:

But when the threat of Kerensky being overthrown by a counter-revolutionary coup led by General Kornilov became real, the Bolsheviks defended Kerensky’s government from the threat from the right. Trotsky helped organise the defence of Kerensky from the prison cell in which the very same Kerensky had put him.

Considering John Rees’s regrettable tendency to demonize Syrian rebels as threats to secularism and democracy, one might accuse him of using a double standard. Perhaps if al-Sisi had a background as an “anti-imperialist” in the Gaddafi and al-Assad mold, there would have been greater readiness to back the coup. That being said, it is entirely conceivable that before very long, he will be seen as part of the anti-imperialist camp given the reports from as early as mid-2015 that Egypt and Russia would be strengthening their ties through the creation of a free trade zone and Egypt becoming part of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Kremlin’s competition to the EU.

In my view, the Kerensky analogy has limited value. The Russian Social Democracy always considered the Social Revolutionary Party as part of the democratic revolution against Czarism even though it vacillated toward the Cadets. Lenin thought that a vote for SR’s was tactically permissible but never for the Cadets. In 1909 he wrote an article titled “How the Socialist-Revolutionaries Sum Up the Revolution and How the Revolution has Summed Them Up” that defended the Bolsheviks against Menshevik charges that they were adapting to the SR’s:

Now that is where your mistake begins, we say to the Mensheviks. True, the Socialist-Revolutionary doctrine is pernicious, fallacious, reactionary, adventurist and petty-bourgeois. But these vices do not prevent this quasi-socialist doctrine from being the ideological vestments of a really revolutionary—and not compromising—bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie in Russia.

Based on this criterion, the Muslim Brotherhood could hardly be put in the same category as the SR’s. Their commitment to democracy was always on a tactical basis, namely whether it could advance their own goal of creating an Islamic state. That being said, the best approach to Egyptian politics is not through the prism of Russian history but class relations within the most populous Arab nation that has historically played a key role in setting a pattern for other nations. To understand what political options the left was forced to make three years ago requires an analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood itself. For this, citations from either Lenin or Trotsky have limited value except as a reminder that the SR’s emerged out of the Russian revolutionary experience. After all, Lenin’s brother was a Narodnik.

To understand what al-Sisi stood for, it is better to look at Egyptian history and particularly the Nasserist model that figured heavily in the events of July 2013. He exploited the reputation of the nationalist leader to conceal an economic program that differed radically from Colonel Nasser’s nationalism, crowned by the bold seizure of the Suez Canal.

For many Egyptians, Nasser is the Father of the Country in the same way that George Washington and Mustafa Kemal were for the USA and Turkey. When Mohammed Morsi became president of Egypt in the summer of 2012, the liberal and left opposition were seduced by Nasserist rhetoric that camouflaged counter-revolutionary goals. Since the Morsi administration was accommodating itself to the military immediately after taking power, it was not difficult to understand why the left was unable to think outside the box. It might be likened ironically enough to Erdogan’s recent bid to refashion himself as a neo-Kemalist.

For its part, the USA was prepared to live with if not prosper by the rule of either Morsi or al-Sisi. Despite its willingness to take part in the mobilizations against Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood never sought the transformation of Egyptian society. Its model was Erdogan’s Turkey, a model whose viability was already eroding rapidly on the eve of Morsi’s taking power. If in Turkey, the model could be married to an expanding manufacturing sector led by a pious Anatolian bourgeoisie, what applicability would it have to Egypt, a country that was suffering from a deep economic crisis that had spread across the entire Middle East and North Africa and that was a key factor in the Arab Spring?

If the Morsi administration wanted to assure Washington that it was trustworthy, what would be more effective than continuing Egypt’s friendly relations with Israel? Citing the Arab-language press, Achcar, is able to provide the depth that non-Arab reading commentators cannot—not that this ever inhibited them from freely offering their opinion:

On 17 October, the new Egyptian ambassador to Israel handed then-Israeli president Shimon Peres a letter from Morsi in which the Egyptian president addressed his counterpart as “my great and dear friend”, expressed his “strong desire to develop the affectionate relations that fortunately bind our two countries”, and wished Israel “prosperity”.

Such moves earned Hillary Clinton’s praise, who stated: “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.” (Washington Post, November 21, 2012)

Confident that Washington had his back, Morsi issued a new constitutional decree one day later that gave him unprecedented power. If he saw himself as following in the footsteps of Erdogan, he neglected to polish the shrewd tactical skills of the Turkish authoritarian.

From that point on, the opposition would congeal around a program that while opposing authoritarianism was all too ready to cede power to al-Sisi. In a way, it was presenting the Egyptian people with the same kind of Scylla and Charybdis choice as offered to Syrians: authoritarianism either in a beard or in a necktie (or strictly speaking, a uniform).

In class terms, the Morsi government had the same disregard for working class rights as the AKP. Workers had their own class interests that would not be mollified by parliamentary democracy. They clashed with the government repeatedly in 2013, emboldened by the spirit of defiance that had arisen ever since the occupation of Tahrir Square. That year there were nearly as many working class protests as in the decade that concluded in 2010. This was something the Muslim Brotherhood would not tolerate. In April 2013, the army was used to suppress a strike of 70,000 railroad workers—evidence that the military and the Islamists shared class interests.

Unfortunately, the workers’ movement lacked the power to determine the outcome of the conflict between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. That task fell on the shoulders of the Tamarrod Movement (the Arabic word for rebellion) that cobbled together the pro-democracy sentiments of Tahrir Square with Nasserism. The young people who rallied in Tahrir Square mistook the military’s decision to remove Mubarak from office. This was not a sign that it was on the side of the people, only that it sought to defuse a highly volatile situation that could have gone much further if the working class’s big battalions became a factor. It is a symptom of the calcification of Syrian politics that such a maneuver was rejected by the Baathists in favor of a genocidal war that has ruined the country economically and socially. Assadism without Assad was never a viable option.

As opposed to John Rees, his former comrades from the SWP-led international movement aligned itself with Tamarrod. The Revolutionary Socialists party in Egypt saw this as an opportunity to push for a radical program within the context of a mass movement whose goals were a mixture of progressive and reactionary elements.

Showing his ability to distinguish between Islamist opportunism and genuine solidarity, Achcar refuses to grant any legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood based on its orientation to Syria:

Most importantly, the very backbone of the old regime, the army, played a pivotal role in the success of the gigantic anti-Morsi mobilisation on 30 June 2013. The closer the deadline of Tamarrod’s petition campaign approached, the more open the military’s support for the mobilisation became. One week prior to the long-planned climax, Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi proclaimed loudly and clearly that the military would protect the nationwide demonstrations and rallies — this a few days after the Muslim Brotherhood, on 15 June, had ominously flexed its muscles by staging a massive rally in Cairo in solidarity with the Syrian uprising, on an openly Sunni-sectarian and jihadist platform. Morsi addressed the rally in person, announcing the severance of diplomatic ties with Damascus and calling for a no-fly zone over Syria.

In summarizing the Scylla and Charybdis choices that faces the people of the Middle East and North Africa, Gilbert Achcar urges us—like Odysseus—to steer clear of movements even if we can seek tactical alliances as the need arises:

It can on occasion and for purely tactical reasons strike together with “unlikely bedfellows” — whether with Islamic forces against old-regime forces, or vice-versa — but it should always be marching separately, clearing its own fundamental path at equal distance from the two reactionary camps. Tactical short-term alliances can be concluded with the devil if need be; but the devil should never be portrayed as an angel on such occasions — such as by calling the Muslim Brotherhood “reformist” or the old regime forces “secular”, thus trying to prettify their deeply reactionary nature.

While it is beyond the scope of Gilbert Achcar’s book, and in many ways beyond the scope of any living human being, there is an overarching question that this reviewer has been grappling with since the early 1980s when he witnessed the early stages of the implosion of the Socialist Workers Party, a group that Leon Trotsky held in the highest esteem. As might be obvious from Achcar’s words cited above, the idea of “marching separately” and implicitly “striking together” are the hallmarks of the Trotskyist movement’s United Front strategy. Sharing the fate of the Communist and Maoist parties of the sixties and seventies, the Trotskyist movement is now significantly weaker.

There was a period when someone like Ernest Mandel could have spoken to large audiences in Syria or Lebanon and sowed the seeds of a revolutionary organization capable of carrying out the United Front alluded to above. In the absence of such a movement and even those with far more imperfect programs, a vacuum came into existence that the Islamists were all too eager to fill.

When the Arab Spring arose, the well-organized and well-funded groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were able to prevail over inexperienced youth whose understanding of class politics was underdeveloped. In other parts of the world, when mass movements lacked the experience and acumen to take a fight to its conclusion, there was always the possibility of recovery and preparation for a new round in the class struggle.

In Syria, Egypt and the other countries analyzed by Gilbert Achcar, the possibilities for renewed struggle on a higher level are much more constrained. The ferocity of the ruling classes, the absence of a powerful working class (except in Egypt), and the entrenchment of political Islam makes the left’s task more daunting. Perhaps the most important task in this period is to bring to bear the political clarity that can help a new generation of activists become grounded in Marxism. As such, a book like “Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising” will have the power of a well-aimed artillery shell.

August 1, 2016

Is Jill Stein anti-science?

Filed under: Green Party — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

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In addition to the charge that a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Donald Trump, the “lesser evil” contingent in various liberal and left outlets maintain that she is “anti-science”.  We of course understand that if her views on mercury in vaccines were in conformity with “science”, this would matter little to the vote-for-Hillary brigades that would go digging up some other dirt on her.

A lot of the “anti-science” stuff has been posted on the Patheos website, one that describes itself as devoted to the subject of religion and that was founded in 2008 by Leo and Cathie Brunnick–two web developers in Denver, Colorado. It is not exactly clear why a website investigating spirituality and the like would become a forum for anti-GP attacks but a search on “GMO” reveals numerous articles there making the case for genetically modified crops, all by self-avowed atheists who are the same people bashing Jill Stein. One has to wonder if the real beef with Stein is less about her views on mercury but on Green Party concerns about GMO’s.

Articles about Jill Stein being “anti-science” have been written by Dan Arel, a leftist who has written for CounterPunch, Michael Stone, a self-described progressive secular humanist, Matthew Facciani, a neuroscience PhD student and activist, and Bo Gardiner, an environmental scientist. Gardiner is probably the most obvious example of the sort of understanding that these people have of science since she is gung-ho not only on GMO but nuclear power. In a July 27 article titled “Dr. Jill Stein Is Anti-Science, Bad for the Environment, and Deserves Her Anti-Vax Label”, Gardiner writes:

Perhaps the most obvious point anti-GMO activists leave out is that banning GMOs would mean the conversion of thousands more square miles of land to agriculture, creating more pesticides, more waterway-killing fertilizers, and more carbon emissions. And, of course, the story of the mass farmer suicides in India due to GMOs has been thoroughly debunked. In other words, Stein is willing to sacrifice biodiversity on the altar of bourgeois, pseudoscientific food purity.

The link for “thoroughly debunked” takes you to a website titled Neurologica: Your Daily Fix of neuroscience, skepticism and critical thinking. I wonder if there is some connection between neuroscience and this sort of “scientific” thinking that more often than not is funded by Monsanto. I do know, however, that the organized Skepticism movement is very much pro-capitalist and pro-GMO as this would indicate. You can find out more about how rancid these skeptics are in my article on Michael Shermer who is one of its leading lights. Although I haven’t done any deep investigation of the matter, my guess is that atheist and skeptic associations have overlapping memberships.

Gardiner’s position on nuclear power is clearly in the same vein:

Then there’s her party’s inflexible stand opposing nuclear power, which almost certainly will have to be part of the solution in accelerating the weaning off of fossil fuels before we do further irreparable planet-wide damage. The climate and oceans can’t afford to wait until better solutions are widely available.

I haven’t seen Gardiner cited by my FB anti-Stein friends (isn’t there a better word for such people you have never met or spoke to on the phone even, like maybe acquaintances, which is really what they are). They tend to post articles by Dan Arel, who has a bit more credibility on the left. Why you can even find an article by Arel on CounterPunch titled “The Socialist Revolution Beyond Sanders and the Democratic Party” so naturally one might conclude that he is no ordinary “lesser evil” talking head. He even declaims, “if Sanders stands on the podium at the Democratic National Convention and asks supporters to rally behind Secretary Clinton he will be betraying his revolution but that does not mean the revolution must come to an end.” Whoa, big fellow. Make sure when you write stuff like this you don’t get the FBI breathing down your neck.

For those leftists arguing for the “lesser evil”, Dan Arel is a rather double-edged sword. Despite his fulminations about Jill Stein’s views on mercury and GMO’s, he still supports her. If anything, he is critical of her from the left stating that the Greens have to catch up with his bold call for socialist revolution.

There was a time when such a position on GMOs was more widespread on the left when Frank Furedi’s group in England was publishing Living Marxism and had some credibility in leftist circles. If there is any barometer of leftist opinion on GMO’s, a search for articles in support of the technology on Counterpunch would be a good place to start. There are none.

Although I can’t be sure that Arel has still decided to vote for Stein, his reaction to a Washington Post interview with her suggests someone at a breaking point—sort of like Leon Trotsky trying to decide in the late 1920s whether Stalin had degenerated to the point where a new International would be necessary. The video interview only lasts 2 minutes and 38 seconds and contains these two statements:

I think there’s no question that vaccines have been absolutely critical in ridding us of the scourge of many diseases — smallpox, polio, etc. So vaccines are an invaluable medication,” Stein said. “Like any medication, they also should be — what shall we say? — approved by a regulatory board that people can trust. And I think right now, that is the problem. That people do not trust a Food and Drug Administration, or even the CDC for that matter, where corporate influence and the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence.

Monsanto lobbyists help run the day in those agencies and are in charge of approving what food isn’t safe. There is rampant distrust of our institutions of government right now. The trust level for the presidency is somewhere around 15 percent. The strong confidence in Congress is somewhere around 4 percent, and the same is true of our regulatory agencies.

Let’s take up the GMO question first. With all due respect to Stein, I don’t think the question is whether GMO foods are safe or not. It is more about the possibility that they will allow corporations like Monsanto to use their intellectual property rights to bring farmers under their thumb and also lead to the development of superweeds that develop a resistance to Monsanto’s glyphosate in the same way that pests developed a resistance to pesticides. When such a resistance develops, there is a tendency to increase the amount of chemicals that get poured into the air, water and soil in a vicious cycle. This is the real problem, not whether eating a GMO tomato will give you cancer. I searched in vain for any article written by Arel that mentions glyphosate. If you can find one, your researching skills are better than mine and mine are pretty good.

After reading what Stein had to say about vaccines, it would be difficult to maintain that she is an anti-vaxxer so Arel takes a somewhat different tack. He refers once again to the Washington Post interview:

As a medical doctor, there was a time where I looked very closely at those issues, and not all those issues were completely resolved. There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.

For Arel, this is pandering to those parents who believe that there is a connection between autism and the mercury that was used in vaccinations to kill bacteria and fungus. In reality those concerns came from within the establishment itself as the NY Times reported in a November 10, 2002 article titled “The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory” that profiled Neal Halsey, the director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins. He was also the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases between 1995 and 1999 and often quoted in places like the NY Times saying things like: “Many of the allegations against vaccines are based on unproven hypotheses and causal associations with little evidence.”

Reacting to parents’ concerns about mercury, a Congressman from New Jersey directed the FDA in 1997 to take inventory on the amount of mercury (called thimerosal) that was being included in vaccinations. The NY Times reported on Halsey’s reaction to the findings:

The F.D.A. team’s conclusions were frightening. Vaccines added under Halsey’s watch had tripled the dose of mercury that infants got in their first few months of life. As many as 30 million American children may have been exposed to mercury in excess of Environmental Protection Agency guidelines — levels of mercury that, in theory, could have killed enough brain cells to scramble thinking or hex behavior.

”My first reaction was simply disbelief, which was the reaction of almost everybody involved in vaccines,” Halsey says. ”In most vaccine containers, thimerosal is listed as a mercury derivative, a hundredth of a percent. And what I believed, and what everybody else believed, was that it was truly a trace, a biologically insignificant amount. My honest belief is that if the labels had had the mercury content in micrograms, this would have been uncovered years ago. But the fact is, no one did the calculation.”

Making matters worse, the latest science on mercury damage suggested that even small amounts of organic mercury could do harm to the fetal brain. Some of the federal safety guidelines on mercury were relaxed in the 90’s, even as the amount of mercury that children received in vaccines increased. The more Halsey learned about these mercury studies, the more he worried.

”My first concern was that it would harm the credibility of the immunization program,” he says. ”But gradually it came home to me that maybe there was some real risk to the children.” Mercury was turning out to be like lead, which had been studied extensively in the homes of the Baltimore poor during Halsey’s tenure at Hopkins. ”As they got more sophisticated at testing for lead, the safe level marched down and down, and they continued to find subtle neurological impairment,” Halsey says. ”And that’s almost exactly what happened with mercury.”

The only thing I would add to this reporting is to link it to the lead poisoning that has afflicted the people of Flint, Michigan who were victims of the state’s regulatory bodies failure to do their job. Arel should really take heart at Stein’s statement that it is “really important that the American public have confidence in our regulatory boards so that all of our medical treatments and medications actually are approved by people who do not have a vested interest in their promotion.” If anything, that is a sign that she sees the real need to make sure corporations and capitalist politicians don’t put a muzzle on regulatory bodies. One would think that someone in favor of socialist revolution would understand that.

 

July 30, 2016

Stranger Things

Filed under: popular culture,television — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

About a month ago when Netflix announced a price hike, I came this close to dropping it especially since it has become much more of a streaming service for crappy TV shows and B-Movies. I’m glad now that I decided to stick it out since the Netflix-produced series “Stranger Things” is the best damned entertainment I have run into in a long time. Season one consists of 8 episodes that can now be seen in their entirety. If you have Netflix, put it on your must-see list if you like me are fond of pop culture icons such as the X-Files, Stephen King’s “It” and “Carrie”, Spielberg’s “ET” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Poltergeist”, “Let the Right One In” and “Silent Hill”.

“Stranger Things” borrows liberally from all of these in a delirious mash-up that is both a tribute to the originals and an entirely new contribution to the supernatural/horror/fantasy/deep state paranoia they all incorporate to one degree or another. If Hollywood is committed to sequels and knock-offs from the standpoint of the accountant’s ledger, the Duffer brothers who produced the series come at it more from the standpoint of passionate fans.

The premise of “Stranger Things”, which is set in the 1980s, is that MK Ultra experiments with LSD on an unsuspecting guinea pig woman has led to the birth of a daughter called Eleven by her handlers who has telekinetic powers that a top-secret government agency wants to harness for military purposes against the Soviet Union.

In the course of experimenting with the girl, who has been seized from her mother, the agency inadvertently opens up a backdoor into a parallel dimension in Hawkins, Indiana, the village next to agency laboratories. The parallel dimension is a dark, dank, fetid, monster-ridden sinkhole that bears a resemblance to the normal world but only in the way that Mr. Hyde resembles Dr. Jekyll.

In the first episode we meet four boys, who are about Eleven’s age, playing Dungeons and Dragons in the finished basement of a house that will be familiar to you out of the Stephen Spielberg oeuvre or those films that emulate Spielberg like Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” (the screenplay was actually written by Spielberg.) As Spielberg has mentioned in interviews, this was the kind of neighborhood where he grew up in Arizona and that he likes to evoke in many of his films. Their mundaneness is the perfect backdrop for the otherworldly happenings in his films.

In the first episode we also meet Eleven who has fled from the laboratories whose experiments on her have been physically and psychically damaging. She is also weary of the isolation that is imposed on her as a top-secret asset. Kept in virtual imprisonment, she lacks family and friendship.

As one of the four friends rides his bike home after the Dungeons and Dragons game has ended, he is pursued by a monster who has crossed over into his world from the parallel dimension and then hurled into that netherworld himself. Like the little girl in “Poltergeist”, he becomes the object of a desperate search by his three friends and his mother who has been nearly driven mad by his disappearance. When she discovers that he is in a parallel universe occupying the same space as her house, she begins to break down walls in an effort to penetrate into the dark space that has imprisoned him. In her bizarre efforts to weaponize her home, break down the walls between the two dimensions and rescue him, those closest to her begin to view her as having lost her mind in the same way that Richard Dreyfuss was deemed insane by his wife, children and neighbors for building a replica of the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

Also in the first episode Eleven crosses paths with the boys and is given shelter in the home of Mike Wheeler, one of the three, who keeps her a secret just like ET was kept secret. When Mike and his pals are being bullied at their school, Eleven steps in and teaches the bullies a lesson just like the vampire sweetheart of a young boy does in “Let the Right One In”. In fact, “Stranger Things” would be a great final exam for a film school class. Identify the borrowed material and get an A.

 

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