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Indian Country Israel The Political Animal

Academic Boycotts and Re-Colonization by Theory

(The full text of the following essay was published by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.)

from “Academic Boycotts and Recolonization by Theory” 

As a matter of international justice, however, conceptually distinguishing and crucial in consideration of what constitutes an indigenous people have been the following characteristics, developed for the Working Paper on the Concept of “Indigenous People” prepared for the U.N.’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations:

  • Priority in time, with respect to the occupation and use of a specific territory;
  • The voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness, which may include the aspects of language, social organization, religion and spiritual values, modes of production, laws and institutions;
  • An experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist; and
  • Self-identification, as well as recognition by other groups, or by State authorities, as a distinct collectivity.

It is obvious that Jews wholly match the distinguishing characteristics.  They do so no less or more so in any one respect than another, yet one may say that in the historically outstanding nature of Jewish survival during an unparalleled, near two-millennium Diaspora, “voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness” and “self-identification” have played especially important roles. I note this to emphasize the self-identification component offered by the international community in thoughtful respect to the self-determination of indigenous peoples.

It is the case, given the politics of indigeneity among host nations, that nations will often challenge the indigenous claims of their internal populations. Most notable in recent times, four nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States – did not originally vote in favor of adopting the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The reasons for this reluctance were not difficult to fathom. All four nations had profound histories of conquest and significant indigenous populations whose claims – original, political, and economic – are supported by the Declaration. Ratification might also entail a difficult social and political coming-to-terms with disturbing historical truths, a process still not advanced in the United States. (Australia, by contrast, in 2008 issued a public apology to its indigenous population, delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a nationally televised address before the Australian parliament, with all but one living former prime minister present.) In the United States, Native American claims of territorial and sovereign rights are regularly resisted. The Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia, for instance, of such history as to be famed for Pocahantas and its contact with John Smith and the Jamestown colony, and occupying, still, the oldest reservation in the country, predating the country, does not enjoy the benefits of federally recognized status. The Lakota actually won a 1980, 8-1 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court over the theft, in violation of two Fort Laramie treaties, of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Still, while the Court offered the Lakota financial compensation – which the tribe did not want and has refused – it did not offer the Lakota what it is they do want and still demand,  the return of their sacred Hills.

In contrast to these national challenges to indigenous claims, what one will not find is the international community – that is to say, the international legal regime and the left social justice movements that are so much that regime’s support – challenging those indigenous claims by aboriginal populations.

One will not find challenges to these claims, that is, except in the case of Jews.

Anti-Semitism and the Denial of Jewish Indigeneity

Fundamental now to the radical left assault on Israel’s legitimacy are fierce anti-historical falsehoods denying the indigeneity of Jews to the ancient land of Israel. Palestinians and their left Western supporters, as part of the campaign to delegitimize Israel, regularly challenge and even deny the historical origin of Jews in Israel. This is their challenge to the distinguishing criterion of “priority in time.”

The variations on these delegitimizing tactics are many, from genetic denial (Ashkenazi Jews are really converted Khazars) and misidentification (Jews are Europeans), to differing counterfactual claims: ignoring the unbroken presence of Jews in Palestine (the Old Yeshuv) and ignoring in the European claim that the majority of current Israeli Jews are actually Mizrahi and Sepharidic Jews.

Only for Jews, then, is the sensitive and respectful “fundamental criterion” of self-identification attacked by every kind of scientific, historical, and rhetorical fraudulence. With respect to Jews only does the ideological left challenge the integral identity in difference of an indigenous people. Whereas, according to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, “in almost all indigenous languages, the name of a group simply refers to ‘people,’ ‘man’ or ‘us,’” often with some indicator of place, such as “here” – thus distinguishing “the people” from those who are outsiders, those who are not “the people” – only with respect to Jews is the otherwise respected self-separation in “cultural distinctiveness” and difference misrepresented and traduced by some who would call themselves “progressive” as an ideology of racist superiority. In this gesture of disdain and, indeed, cultural superiority, does a so-called progressive dominant world view mimic the condescension with which European peoples conducted a genocidal assault on the resistant cultural and religious otherness of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and Oceania.

Only now it is against Jews that such a campaign of cultural genocide is waged, not this time on the basis of a Christian slander of deicide or of Nazi physical extermination, but of a selectively post-nationalist secular religion and by a blind progressivism that begins to mirror its opposite.

It is now “theory,” the most highfalutin conceptualizing and rhetoricizing of the intellectual left, that moves this third great movement of Western anti-Semitism. It is NAISA’s own purported professionalism in indigenous studies that constructs the irony of this campaign against the Jewish state, and, as an exploitative by-product, the re-colonization by theory of other indigenous peoples.

Re-Colonization by Theory

The ILO’s and U.N. Working Group’s criteria include as one of those distinguishing characteristics of indigeneity the “experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist.” Of course, now, for Jews, in the establishment of, and in a Jewish state, those conditions do not primarily any longer persist. Yet in this qualifier – offered, clearly, against any distinction – postcolonial and culture theorists working from counter-constructs of power and the ethical standing of powerlessness nonetheless find  excuse to recast Jews as oppressors based on their recovery from powerlessness.

Still, we might pause to wonder, as any clear thinker would be driven by obvious questioning to wonder – but why, for NAISA, Israel and Jews?

Where are the NAISA resolutions in support of boycotting Brazilian universities, in protest of the destruction of the Amazon homelands of the smallest and most powerless of all indigenous tribes? Where is the resolution against Indonesia for the 1963 conquest and subjugation of the 250 indigenous tribes of West Papua, New Guinea, which those people still resist today? Where was the resolution, closer to home, to boycott Yale University prior to 2010, during the near century that it reneged on the deal with Peru to return the Quechua artifacts of Machu Picchu? Closer still, where were the resolutions against American universities in protest of the fourteen-year Individual Indian Trust Fund lawsuit, and of the Tribal Trust Fund suit, litigations against the U.S. Department of the Interior over the misappropriation of hundreds of billions of dollars held in trust for scores of tribes and hundreds of thousands of individual American Indians since 1887? Where are the resolutions in protest of the inadequacies of the Indian Health Service, of state and local violations of the tribal sovereignty offered by the federal government? Where is the resolution to boycott any law school that does not call for the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh, the 1823 decision by which the Court legally enshrined the conquest of Native America by right of European discovery?

We will not find them.

What we find instead, driven by the fashions of academia, the prevailing winds of cultural theory, and the shape shifting of anti-Semitism is the exploitation of the indigenous cause, and one more time, of indigenous peoples, only for the purpose of expropriating the terms of those peoples’ histories to be used not in the interests of the indigenous, but as rhetorical weapons against Jews. The political fashionistas of the Middle East and Orientalist theorizing – in support of Palestinian rejectionism, which is in order to oppose Jewish empowerment in Israel –  do not care about indigenous peoples. They merely use them, adopting the modern history of indigenous victimization as a banner to fly in the campaign against Israel. Worse, in this abuse, they attempt, in ideological solidarity, to draw in to a conflict not their own the very indigenous peoples these progressives pretend to champion as allies. Think of the French and Indian War in North America. How the British made promises to the Iroquois to protect the Ohio River Valley from European settlement. How the French must have whispered the music of mutual alliance into Algonquian  ears. How Omar Barghouti and some Americanist from a state university protesting settler-colonialism in Palestine play, by the mere utterance of a verbal truth-to-power badge, as if they stand in solidarity with West Papuans.

In 1988, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published a landmark essay in postcolonial studies entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Its status was established by the nature of its insights, variously welcome and unwelcome by its intended audience, and by the extent of its influence on the field. That influence has been, all depending on one’s perspective, both profoundly positive and negative. Among Spivak’s important insights and warnings (Spivak’s Marxist and deconstructionist theorizing is the kind that seeks to problematize a field, to interrupt a discourse) was the caution against first-world political radicals producing “essentialist” conceptions of the third-world subaltern powerless, i.e. conceiving of them as if they are all, from their varied cultures and histories, the same in their difference – representing them as possessing an essential, common otherness from those Western Subjects who make objects of them through study. This might mean, very simply, constructing homogenous postcolonial others out of Cherokees and Palestinians.

Another of Spivak’s warnings, significantly unheeded in practice, was against perpetuating in the radical postcolonial critique of imperialism the same Western power structures – the hegemony of Western modes of knowledge and discourse – that upheld imperialism. That is to say that Western theorists and radicals speaking on behalf of the subaltern is not the subaltern speaking. Rather it is a substitution of the same dominating institutional and historical discourse for – and here Spivak quotes Foucault – “a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity.”

What is the history of Western colonialism for indigenous peoples, beyond the physical onslaught, if not a history of the West’s disqualifying as inadequate “naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity”? How do we not see, even more than in the theory and its jargon, in the postcolonial activism itself – by exploiting the jargon in an effort to refashion reality from it, through vague verbal posturings in boycott resolutions by professional intellectuals – Western radicals this time, imposing, again, their own, alien historical discourse and conceptions, their own positive and negative self-regard, their own agenda on indigenous peoples?

Read more at: http://spme.org/spme-research/academic-boycotts-re-colonization-theory/16769/ | SPME

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Israel

Wrong on Both Counts: Academic Boycotts and Israel

boycott(An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the Algemeiner on December 30, 2013.)

Now that the American Studies Association has passed its resolution calling for an  academic boycott of Israel, universities and fellow academics all over the country are denouncing it. These and other critics of an academic boycott of Israel generally resort fully only to one of the two arguments that can and should be made in response to these calls. The first argument is principled, the second substantive, and one argument offered in the absence of the other deprives Israel of the ethical force of the full condemnation that those who traduce Israel in this way deserve.

There are those who restrict the anti academic boycott argument to addressing, in Stanley Fish’s words, “a limited, guild notion of academic freedom … the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry, not the freedom to advance justice and equality on university time.” Fish begins in the right place, in citing “the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry.” That freedom, like so many in so free a nation as the United States, is often taken for granted, its significance and origins lost, in this case, to the non-scholarly, the unscientific, or the anti-intellectual. Yet history’s most famous attack on intellectual freedom – the conviction by the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo Galilei for heresy, for propounding heliocentrism – should serve for all time as the sole necessary reminder of the importance of the principal. The freedom of scholarly and all intellectual inquiry is instrumental to the advance of civilization and was critical to the advent of the Enlightenment. It is basic to the intellectual activity that developed into academic guild work, into that merely, it might seem, professional work of the academic.

But Fish’s “limited guild notion” is just the workaday action of a more profound and, indeed, political idea.

Fish observed that his own critics, often in defense of academic boycott, were emphasizing the element of “freedom” over that of the “academic.” The latter does name the professional parameter, and that is where Fish wants to contain the argument. “Freedom” accentuated, on the other hand, is the leverage boycotters and activists use to bring the weight of their academic work to bear, as through a boycott, on political matters external to their actual scholarly fields. However, it is academic freedom, the two words emphasized equally together, that names neither the professional nor a possibly shifting political interest, but the greater political ideal instead, of individual freedom exemplified by mental freedom, of freedom of speech at the intellectual apex of thought and speech, and of independence from authority and authoritarianism.

To claim, then, that academic freedom is best conceived as a non-political freedom is fundamentally wrong. No advocacy of freedom can be non-political. To advocate freedom, as liberty, is to promote a political idea. The question is what are those politics? What do they fully stand for? What ends do they pursue? What methods do they use? With whom are they aligned, against whom opposed?

Conceiving academic freedom in this way, it will be difficult ever to defend an academic boycott. In the most closed and repressive conditions, the free mind, in sight of an opening, will seek its freedom. As no body is freed by imprisonment, no mind can be opened separated from other minds. Yet the American Studies Association has argued in its statement proclaiming the boycott that it “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” That is to say, as a political tactic to achieve a social end, the ASA advocates the restriction of a right (now, among some people) in advancement of the ideal goal of its greater enlargement (among others in the future). Restricting the academic freedom of some will expand the academic freedom of others.

This represents, of course, as a belief and a methodology, the purifying utopianism of twentieth century totalitarianism, in which dictatorships of the proletariat now would lead to human liberation later, terror in the present would found the stateless, classless society of the future. Such a concordance of practice is not surprising, as many of those driving the ASA’s activism, both from without and within the association, do think out of just that tradition of theoretical critique elevated above actuality, and of restrictive tactics in the name of a liberating ideal. Advocates of boycotts and the more general BDS effort have consistently manipulated the process and limited access during organizational efforts to pass anti-Israeli resolutions, they limit the notice of and the time for debate and voting, and they make available to potential voters information promoting only anti-Israel, pro-boycott arguments. These practices were pursued in the ASA effort, too. They are practices themselves that violate the spirit of intellectual freedom inherent in the idea of academic freedom.

Academic freedom thus understood, like all intellectual freedom, is not narrowly apolitical – it is the essence of the political. It is not a mere procedural norm, stripped of the history of intellectual striving that produced it; it is the representation in practice of that striving and of the history and values that gave rise to the principle.

The question, thus, as always, is not whether those values are political in nature, but whether they are the right politics – free thinking, egalitarian, just, and socially progressive politics. It was, indeed, the desire to promote just such values that directed the one boycott now raised regularly as our ethical exemplar, that against apartheid South Africa.

In truth, however, the boycott of South Africa, both economic and academic, was always controversial, if not, among most people and nations, regarding the justness of its intent, then for its effectiveness and potential for greater harm. We have the example of Cuba for how futile even the longest-term economic sanctions can be in opening a society to the free intercourse of people and ideas. We have the example of North Korea for how a nation may turn itself into a virtual prison for its own population and survive for decades as a closed society.

Still, not every act, we may sometimes feel, need be productive of an end. Some acts are properly symbolic. We stand for and against some things, and we will be known to do so, even if we see no reason to hope we can soon change them. So many people came to feel this way about South Africa.

We may usefully ask, though, why – why South Africa and not, for instance, the Soviet Union or China?

Certainly both nations oppressed and destroyed the lives of many more people. In sheer numbers of deaths and the magnitude of the inhumanity, those two nations far exceeded South Africa. Why were they not the objects of a now historic organized and global demonstration of worldwide opprobrium? The explanation is clear. Whatever their true tyrannical and totalitarian natures, both the Soviet Union and China professed principles of social equality and justness. They claimed to seek a new, greater human freedom of mind and body. They lied, of course, (as do lie all the decades-long Arab foes of Israel, including the Palestinian Authority, in invoking the vocabulary of human and civil rights in their political campaigning against Israel) but in the manner observed by Oscar Wilde, their hypocrisy was  the homage vice paid to virtue. The difference in South Africa’s was that its white, Afrikaner regime was avowedly racist. Institutionalized apartheid professed and enacted a belief and a policy of dehumanization against a discrete group within its population. By doing so, it openly declared South Africa a moral outlier among nations, fit thereby to be outcast.

For this reason, South Africa became the target of the contemporary world’s one great global boycott. While the USSR and China long had their allies, and defenders of their communist vision, no one defended South African apartheid.

In all these considerations we find the grounds for opposition in principle – with one clear and circumscribed exception – to academic boycotts. If one has no great interest in Israel, is even highly critical of Israel as a political actor, but retains a clear understanding of what academic freedom most profoundly means, then the argument in principle will serve and satisfy. But from the perspective of all who recognize the historicity of the Jewish people in Israel, who know the full history of Jewish willingness to compromise and accommodate competing claims to the land, and who know, too, the contrary history of Arab rejectionism and rank anti-Semitism, who are not blinded by animus to Israel’s vibrant democracy, in contrast to the utter illiberalism surrounding it – for all such people, an argument in principle cannot be sufficient, and is even a dereliction.

A boycott against Israeli academics and institutions is wrong not just because academic boycotts are very nearly always wrong, but because the argument for such a boycott applied to Israel is a moral outrage. While none actually argued in defense of South African apartheid – supported the philosophy or policy and upheld the moral character of the regime – free, good, and honest peoples all over the world recognize the free and democratic nature of the Israeli state. The know the historical background of its creation, and they offer moral support against its foes.

It is in the nature now of those swept along by the kinds of political currents that so often rush over the intellectually fashionable not to recognize what it must mean that Israel, even beleaguered, and so far from a South Africa or any of the true repressive states of the world, has its true defenders among the democratic and free.

It is no matter of happenstance that Israel’s traducers have adopted, among a variety of slanderously false epithets, that of  “apartheid state.” They seek with characteristic dishonesty to tie Israel linguistically to that sole justifying historical precedent. Among the many deceptions embedded in the lie is the analogously false suggestion of any institutional nature to the separate treatment of Palestinians that boycott advocates claim. It is, to the contrary, otherwise well known that the twenty percent minority Arab population of Israel is the freest Arab population in the Middle East, as free as any people in the world – free, too, to emigrate were it truly so that they find themselves persecuted.  In contrast, in the years after Israel’s recreation, nearly eight hundred thousand Jews fled Arab lands, leaving them now nearly absent of Jews; on the other hand, it is the expressed intention of Palestinian Authority leadership – in contradistinction to another great lie, demographically refutable, of ethnic cleansing by Israel – that a Palestinian state would be, as the Nazi’s called it, Judenfrei.

The boldness of these lies, the magnitude of their deception, stuns the imagination not only of Israelis and Jews, but of all honest and informed people, and what follows are only more lies and deceptions, without limit. The deception, for instance, that where Palestinians do confront impediments to full autonomy, it is not within Israel, as an institutionally separated and oppressed population as was present in South Africa, but on disputed territories captured in war, as a belligerent foreign population that has refused, amid a near century of massacres, wars, and campaigns of terror, ever to make peace. The deception aht the organized campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with whose U.S. arm the ASA now allies in mutual support, has as its most well known founder Omar Barghouti, who is equally well known, in full academic freedom, to have earned a masters degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.

That Barghouti, far from seeking resolution to conflict, opposes any negotiated settlement to it and supports the elimination of Israel as a state.

The campaign of lies to which the American Studies Association has now allied itself only begins with these examples. As the world’s current prevailing example of the infamous “big lie,” this iteration’s provenance is the same, and now three American academic associations, of which the ASA is the largest, serve as purveyors of it. Influenced, in part, by theoretical constructs that have become, in application, completely untethered from reality, these academics add now not their scholarly contributions, but their measure of ill to the world. To counter this foolish contribution, this signal misguidance, it is no longer adequate to argue only from principle, however great we think that principle to be, that academic boycotts are wrong. It is necessary to argue firmly and clearly that an academic boycott of Israel is wrong. It is important to know and to state, without faltering, why it is wrong.

AJA

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Culture Clash

Do You Give to the Ones Who Are Drunk?

RecipesGood friend Rivvy Neshama has written a book, Recipes For a Sacred Life: True Stories and a Few Miraclesthat is the accumulation of a life’s gained wisdom. Panning through the grains of the sad red earth, we see the fool’s-gold sparkle, often, of the oh-so-smart, not so much the glimmer of the precious stone that is genuine wisdom. Recipes has been chosen by Redbook as it January Book of the Month and offers an interview with Rivvy, too. As it happens, one of the many nuggets to be found in the book contains a very brief tale of this blog’s own shining jewel, Julia Dean.

Do You Give to the Ones Who Are Drunk?

from Recipes For a Sacred LifeTrue Stories and a Few Miracles, by Rivvy Neshama

My son, Tony, who lives in Manhattan, keeps some change in his pocket when he goes out walking. That way, he has something to give to the people he passes who ask him for help.

“Do you give to the ones who are drunk, who may use it to buy more beer?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s not for me to judge them or how they’ll use it. You give from compassion to people in need.”

So now, when I remember, I keep change in my pocket too. It helps me look forward to outstretched hands that I sometimes used to resent.

In Judaism, giving to the needy is considered by some sages to be the most important commandment of all. It’s called tzedakah — which often translates as “charity” but truly means “righteousness.” It’s simply doing what is right and just.

Maimonides, a medieval rabbi and philosopher, wrote that there are eight levels of tzedakah, and one of the highest is to “give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives and without the recipient knowing from whom he received.”

But something special happens when you’re face-to- face on the street. It’s a chance to really see each other and your shared humanity, and both giver and receiver end up feeling good. I feel especially good if I give with a smile and wish them good luck.

Maimonides also wrote, “Even a poor person who lives entirely on tzedakah must give tzedakah to another.” Which reminds me of our friend Julia Dean.

Julia teaches photography around the world, but this story happened when she was a struggling artist in New York. It was a snowy winter day with a biting wind. Julia still remembers it because she walked home forty blocks in the cold, not having enough money for a bus.

“I was ten blocks from my apartment,” she says, “when a man huddled in a doorway held out a can filled with change and said, ‘Lady, you got any money?’ It hit me that I didn’t, I didn’t have any money, and I started to cry. He looked at me and then held out the can again and said, ‘Lady, you need some money?’”

***

You can buy Rivvy’s book at your local bookstore or online, here, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Indie Bound. Just click on the circle that says “Buy the Book.”

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Israel The Political Animal

A Second Look: Thinking Through the Iranian Dilemma

I posted the following on March 19 of last year. Nothing that has transpired since, not even the recently achieved, yet still not implemented short-term deal – which I think a basis for justified future military action just as it is, more hopefully, a foundation for peaceful resolution – has changed the balance of views contained within.

Thinking Through the Iranian Dilemma

Attempting to think through a dilemma like the threat of a nuclear Iran is like trying to make one’s way through a windstorm. For most people, who have none of the inside information of those in various official roles, or the view from the doorway of the analysts with access, all of the details that leak, and the incidental events – the assassinations, the computer viruses, the IAEA visits – are like gusts kicked up by the local geography and spiraling across the street. Not much they can tell the casual observer about stormy origins or where things are blowing. And then there are, behind the gusts, the true, prevailing winds. Each aims to sweep you away. Each blows with the intent to catch you up in its forward motion, kick up and blind you with dust as it rushes to its predestination. But the prevailing winds, with a little meteorology, are identifiable. They can be measured and accounted for.

The most notable wind is the concern of Israel and the threat it feels. A countercurrent is the suspicion of those ideologically committed to construe Israeli interests and military affairs as malevolent. A third current comes from the U.S. right. There we have those, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for whom every U.S. opportunity for significance in the world is best expressed through military action; valor, for them, has never met its better part.

Closely aligned are those on the right for whom American Exceptionalism is a bluster in adversarial relations that will huff and puff and blow your house down. More generally, there is the right’s determination to cast any approach but bombs away by Barack Obama – the most militarily adroit and successful President in a generation, surpassing in those terms any Democratic president since Truman – as weak-willed appeasement.

There are other winds still. There are those, for instance, who warn against the catastrophe of war. There are always those who warn against the catastrophe of war. They are always right. War is a catastrophe. The greatest war ever fought, in size and greatness of purpose – the Second World War – is also the greatest catastrophe the world has ever known. But to warn against war because one wisely foresees the special catastrophe of a coming war, against the conditions that would prevail in the absence of it, is a wisdom different in kind from the unvarying warning against war because what it will bring is always more easily foreseen than what will come in its absence. There will always be the Neville Chamberlains. There will always be a Cyrus Vance, not just warning with caution, but actually resigning, regardless of success or failure, because of a constitutional opposition to acting forcefully in defense of one’s interests.

There are those for whom caution is a cover for Iranian apologetics. As blustery conservatives will label Obama a naïve appeaser for having sought negotiations and not committing to war, the apologists for theocratic tyranny will claim Obama never really tried negotiations. This is a crosswind that has to smell crisp and clean, whatever the fury.

How to stand amid all these winds? How to think with a little clarity within the howling? Let’s direct an instrument.

One confusion is that of American interests and Israeli interests. Let it be reasonable to argue that they need not be identical or contrary, even while similar. Both the U.S. and Israel have reasons to oppose a nuclear Iran. How much imagination does it take to assess the concerns of Israel – so much smaller, so much closer to Iran, already set sail amid a sea of enemies – as more pressing and critical than those of the U.S.? There are many vital reasons – among them the chances of ultimate success – to wish the course and final actions of the two to be completely aligned. This reasonably leads Israel to prod the U.S. to a greater sense of urgency. Just as reasonably, the U.S. seeks to calm Israel and slow it to an American pace. Neither is wrong to do so. Their interests are similar, not identical, and this is not mathematics. If Israel, in its own assessment of its security needs, were to act unilaterally, it would not be a betrayal of U.S. alliance and support, but an independent state’s independent act in defense of its interests. Whatever the results, the U.S. would rightfully assess and respond to them in its own interests, and among those interests is the U.S.’s natural alliance with Israel and the varied reasons for it. One response is predicted by retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, a specialst in war-gaming at the National War College and elsewhere, who agrees with everyone else that despite Israel’s military mastery, it does not have the capability for a truly devastating attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

I don’t believe it possible for the US not to be pulled into finishing the job even if Iran does not choose to respond immediately.  I’ve also written a paper on the logic.

No nation is likely to be pleased to be pulled into a course of action because of the actions of another state, and it would be natural to expect a wide range of responses and for those responses to align with those prevailing winds.

What of the U.S. acting on its own, or in consort, finally, with Israel? One war gamer, the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour, reported on this exchange with an Iranian dissident.

I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” — in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.

This observation is telling in an unexpected way. Why an Israeli strike would be “10 times worse” is not just an estimation of the consequences of a strike; it is significantly an expression of the conditions of the potential cause of it. Other than a few presumed recent assassinations, Israel has no historical record comparable to that of the U.S. as an adversary and imperial power that that has harmfully interfered in Iranian life and politics. That Israel might nonetheless, in one person’s judgment, produce so much greater present enmity than even the “Great Satan” itself is an expression of just the virulent religious and cultural hatred that leads Israel to fear the threat of a nuclear Iran to begin.

But this presupposes an American willingness to perform a military strike. There are the currents that oppose it. If we leave aside Israel’s ideological and racial enemies and the Iran apologists, and we focus only on the warnings against war itself and its potential consequences, what is the meaning – what is the consequence – of accepting a nuclear Iran? It is as imaginable yet unpredictable as the course of a war that might follow from a strike. One argument is, in reality, to work from just that condition of imaginable consequences – the full range of complication, multilateral involvement, and material and economic harm – yet unpredictability: how much worse and uncontrollable the consequences could be than we can even imagine.

This is a fascinating ground for thought. The fiasco of Iraq and the long misdirection of Afghanistan after initial success fully support it. But it is always so. We never know what will come. That sounds banal. But imagine, since we are imagining, that we could have foreseen all the ends of the Second World War – the tens of millions dead, the incomparable physical destruction, with many fates only transferred from one tyranny, Nazi Germany’s, to another, that of Soviet communism. Were we able to foresee that awful price, how forcefully might so many more than just the Chamberlains have argued against the Churchills that an accommodation to circumstance – the implacability of a malevolent force – was the wiser, less awful choice. Unlike the unvarying knowledge of war’s dreadful cost, the course of accommodation, with the future always, in our imaginations, holding the possibility of better choices, is invariably less vivid and awful to that imagination.

Some argue from the example of the Cold War for the success of containment. But what is that example, truly? First, that one does not know the true meaning of unimaginable if one posits the U.S. fighting a war  – after the long second world one – against the Soviet Union, and after the Chinese entry into Korea, against China too, as MacArthur pursued. We contained the Soviet Union and China because we had no genuine choice under the circumstances to do otherwise.

Second, and in practice, that for roughly forty years only, two great adversaries held each other in a terror of mutually assured destruction, and managed by that terror not to destroy each other. For only forty years. How often might the balance of that terror easily have been thrown off? We know of instances – Cuba most notably – when this example might well have become less exemplary. Is the Cold War, a single instance only of this strategy, a lesson in the reliability of containment or the world having managed four decades of good luck – a reason to sigh in relief? How likely it all might have gone another way.

So the idea of containment rests, perhaps, on no great bedrock. More, what will the choice of it assert in practice? There is no denying what it will say, more, proclaim: that the idea of nonproliferation is dead. Of the four nations known or believed to be nuclear non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two, India and Israel, may be viewed as special, democratic cases, and Pakistan and North Korea as two nations the world has good reason to wish without the weapons, but that for strategic reasons went unopposed. All four pose a threat to the NPT regime. Now Iran stands, and has stood for some time as the prime strategic and highly publicized challenge to non-proliferation.

Iran is also not a new challenge, as some now state, regularly remarking on a “rush to war.” Undoubtedly there are older discussions, than this one – also of war gaming – by James Fallows in the Atlantic, back in December, 2004.

 Throughout this summer and fall, barely mentioned in America’s presidential campaign, Iran moved steadily closer to a showdown with the United States (and other countries) over its nuclear plans.

In June the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had not been forthcoming about the extent of its nuclear programs. In July, Iran indicated that it would not ratify a protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty giving inspectors greater liberty within its borders. In August the Iranian Defense Minister warned that if Iran suspected a foreign power—specifically the United States or Israel—of preparing to strike its emerging nuclear facilities, it might launch a pre-emptive strike of its own, of which one target could be the U.S. forces next door in Iraq. In September, Iran announced that it was preparing thirty-seven tons of uranium for enrichment, supposedly for power plants, and it took an even tougher line against the IAEA. In October it announced that it had missiles capable of hitting targets 1,250 miles away—as far as southeastern Europe to the west and India to the east. Also, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected a proposal by Senator John Kerry that if the United States promised to supply all the nuclear fuel Iran needed for peaceful power-generating purposes, Iran would stop developing enrichment facilities (which could also help it build weapons). Meanwhile, the government of Israel kept sending subtle and not-so-subtle warnings that if Iran went too far with its plans, Israel would act first to protect itself, as it had in 1981 by bombing the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak.

That’s over seven years ago.

What might be the effects of speaking openly of containment, of a policy that openly acknowledges an unwillingness to bear the burden of enforcing nonproliferation? One well publicized Iranian war game exercise was conducted at Harvard in December 2009. Well publicized was how bad the outcomes were. Less publicized was the policy pursued by the war gamers who played the U.S. roles. Wrote David Ignatius,

My scorecard had Team Iran as the winner and Team America as the loser. The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence.

From another perspective,

“We started out thinking we were playing a weak hand, but by the end, everyone was negotiating for us,” said the leader of the Iranian team, Columbia University professor Gary Sick. By the December 2010 hypothetical endpoint, Iran had doubled its supply of low-enriched uranium and was pushing ahead with weaponization.

Reports Sadjadpour of his war game,

We didn’t limit our reaction to just the Middle East. Via proxy, we hit European civilian and military outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that if past is precedent, Europe would take the high road and not retaliate. We also activated terrorist cells in Europe — bombing public transportation and killing several civilians — in the belief that European citizens and governments would likely come down hard on Israel for destabilizing the region.

He offers this further account of calculation based on perception.

But, appreciating the logic of power, we stopped just short of provoking the United States. Before the simulation, I’d often heard it said that it wouldn’t make much difference whether Israel actually got a green light from the United States to strike Iran, for Tehran would never believe otherwise.

This assessment wasn’t borne out in the simulation. The U.S. secretary of state sent us a private note telling us that the Americans did not approve the Israeli strike, and vowed to restrain Israel from attacking further — if we also exercised restraint. They tried on multiple occasions to meet with us or speak by phone, but we refused. While Washington believed that its overtures would have a calming effect on us, we interpreted them to mean that we could strike back hard against Israel — not to mention European targets — without risking U.S. retaliation, at least not immediately.

A Tel Aviv war simulation around the same time, also based on threats and sanctions, achieved similar negative results. A third war game, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, had Israel conduct a strike.

[O]ne of the Brookings war game’s major conclusions is that Israel could pay dearly for an attack on Iran.

Still,

Some members of the “Israeli” team nonetheless felt that setting back Iran’s nuclear program “was worth it, even given what was a pretty robust response,” said one participant.

Sadjadpour makes the same point.

Not unlike wars themselves, different actors drew different lessons. Those, like myself, who thought that the costs of an Israeli attack significantly outweighed the benefits, felt the results of the simulation validated their position. In the span of just a few days, our simulation had the Middle East aflame. But those who, prior to the exercise, believed that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities was a necessary risk weren’t convinced otherwise.

President Obama has well argued that the only way to ensure a lasting end to an Iranian nuclear weapons program is if the Iranians choose to give it up themselves. Regime change could increase that likelihood, but that is not foreseeable. If we accept that the Israelis are the eighty pound gorilla in this debate, they clearly accept that there is still some unspecified amount of time left to see if that end can be achieved. Every effort should be made. Suzanne Maloney of Brookings offers a complex calculus in consideration of this end. But if it fails?

Amid all the arguments pro and con, the weakest by far are any individual’s assertions, however ostensibly expert the source, of what is “unbelievable” or “irrational” as prospective action by any party or of how any party is, on the contrary, a rational actor despite supposed caricatures otherwise. The history of civilization is littered with the debris of national acts and policies no rational and moral person would have anticipated before they were committed and pursued, and the world and some peoples the loser for them. To argue, from such casual and personally held inductions about how Israel’s enemies might rationally behave, that Israeli leaders and the Jewish people, in light of both their long and recent history, should risk their very existence – again – before the nuclear power of a religiously inspired and anti-Semitic enemy is to make an argument careless of history and without moral seriousness.

Who dares cry not seventy years later of the Jew’s hysteria, and what scent is it on that wind?

That is the Israeli view. From the U.S. perspective, to commit to a nuclear Iran by confessing an unwillingness to prevent it will be to offer the most toothless face ever to grin submissively at the post-war nuclear world. The advocate of this position needs to simulate across the world the outcome of widespread nuclear proliferation at the end of any credible regime to prevent it. Or offer a credible argument for why that would not be the outcome.

AJA

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Indian Country

The Trope Dope: “Check Your Privilege”

In the final analysis, Madame Bovary is just another trope.
Unknown academic wag.

dope:
an illicit, habit-forming, or narcotic drug;
a stupid person;
[slang] the inside scoop, the poop, the skinny, the lowdown

Cant kills ideas. Leaves them dead in the field, their tongues swollen and hanging. Flies buzzing.

(They fell in love too easily. He took her for granted, abused her. Then he beat her.

She shot him.)

You know what they say, it’s chickens coming home to roost, because both sides do it when a conservative is a liberal who got mugged for the American Exceptionalism of the Founding Fathers, whose shining city on a hill where that government is best which governs the least makes it possible to raise yourself up by your bootstraps, so check your privilege.

By way of cant, tropes are made trite. When you’re finished retching from the sound of an idea stretched on the rack, words being tortured beyond all bearable value, something more than one’s aesthetic tolerance is sacrificed. There was once an idea living in that body of syllables.

The politically antagonistic are, of course, uncorrectable by a cant phrase like “check your privilege.” Thrown at them, its intent is to shut down debate by enclosing a complex notion in a hard shell. With needles. It is meant as a shaming prick. For the ideologically sympathetic, the smug ethical superiority of the injunction is intended to cow. It’s a political reeducation camp in a figure of speech, a dressing down and a slap in the face before the neighbors rousted from their homes.

The greater shame is the opportunity such cant provides the enemies of the greater idea to mock it. It is like the way postcolonial excess has granted the retrograde the meaningful space in which to attack the anti-colonial: Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich attacking Barack Obama for his supposed Kenyan anti-colonialist roots – as if to be anti-colonial were, you know, a bad thing.

So, now, “check your privilege” gets to play a little Mao in a jacket, and the reality of actual privilege escapes another instance of important recognition. While hardly all white people get to enjoy much benefit of white privilege, there are genuine manifestations of it. So, too, benefits that qualify as male privilege – as the privilege of any dominant cultural group.

They are all easy enough to miss, like thinking space is empty because it contains no visible matter. That the earth doesn’t move because you can’t sense its motion. That air is nothing, unseen. Earlier historians of the American West could write of the North American continent before conquest that it was a vacant wilderness, even though settlers as early as the New England colonists saw and encountered Natives regularly, both bought and stole that “vacant land.”

We are the ether that surrounds us, in which we live. We can know ourselves, but not deeply enough and truly until we see the ties that bind, the barriers that distance us, the ether of relation through which we move.

No ether is less visible to Americans, no web of relation less recognized, than that to Native America. Recently, amid renewed and growing attention to the issue of American Indian sports team names, David Freedlander wrote about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s legislative encounter with the issue. We are not so much concerned here with Walker as we are with the issue, which has been addressed on the sad red earth more than once before. There are no better examples of privilege unrecognized than the arguments in defense of naming sports teams after American Indians. Usually, the first and foremost is that it is done to “honor” either Native Americans in general or the local Tribe.

“One has to wonder,” I wrote,

if the Native population had managed to hold off and limit the European advance on the continent in any significant way, had achieved any measure of victory – at far greater cost to non-Native life, as is the nature of war – would the present-day fans of Redskin “courage” and “dignity” be nonetheless similarly enamored? One tends not to ennoble one’s conqueror. The defeated don’t make pets of the victorious.

Let’s look around the world. Let’s note the instances in which subordinated groups of have named their soccer teams affectionately in honor of the people who conquered them. Were there on the dirt fields of the townships of apartheid South Africa, or in organized play, teams of black players named the Afrikaners or the Boers? All in praise of their fierceness and courage, let’s say?

Then there is this from Freedlander’s report.

“When we look back at the history of these communities, we find that Native Americans often had a significant role in the development and prosperity of these communities, and that is why the high schools decided to name their schools after them,” [Sam Hall, a lawyer who represented Mukwonago in a lawsuit] said. “It is source of pride for these communities, a way to talk about the history and heritage of the area” at a time when “the Native American people that live on the reservation are far removed from the land that their ancestors were on, but you can still educate the kids who are 30 miles away from where the reservation is currently located.”

Now, elsewhere, Freedlander informs us that the current Native population of Wisconsin is now only about 1% of the general populace. How exactly did that come about?  From the Wisconsin Department of Health Services:

In 1804, the government forced the Sauk and Fox tribes to cede their land claims in Southern Wisconsin in a treaty they had not agreed to9. These actions lead to the Black Hawk War of 1832. The largest American Indian population in Wisconsin, the Menominee, was pressured to sell away 11,600 square miles along the lower Fox River10. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien of 1825 was significant in the history of American Indians in Wisconsin, post-European settlement. The treaty was facilitated by the United States government to end the inter-tribal warfare that was disrupting the fur trade and creating tensions between settlers and the tribes11. The tension between tribes was created because the United States government had used them against each other to gain more lands12. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien established a treaty of peace among the tribes and demarcated boundaries between settlers and American Indians13.

By 1971, most of the American Indians had been placed on reservations and the government discontinued their use of treaties14. The government moved their focus to de-indianizing this population, creating schools that attempted to rid this population of their cultural traditions and way of life by breaking tribal ties and molding them into the image of white settlers15. However, before this time, between 1887 and 1934, the federal government aimed to mainstream Native Americans through the policies of assimilation and allotment16.

Is this what Hall means when he says, “Native Americans often had a significant role in the development and prosperity of these communities”? Yeah, that’s some role worth “honoring.” Is this the “source of pride for these communities”? Really? Yes, “the Native American people that live on the reservation are far removed from the land that their ancestors were on.” The history of how that came to be does not exactly, ethically, lead to the making of mascots.

This kind of defense of the naming of athletic teams after citizens who are fellow by fact, but not by choice, and in so many ways not fully, this is an example of privilege – the privilege, at the very least, to remain blind to forms of diminishment and disadvantage not a part of one’s own life.

We should check it out.

AJA

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The Political Animal

A Second Look: Abraham Lincoln on the “Mud-Sill” Theory of Labor

The movement to increase the minimum wage, and to tie it legislatively to the cost of living, is growing. The obscenity of low-wage employment among adults – full-time employment that does not offer a living wage – is increasingly apparent. As Arindrajit Dube pointed out in The New York Times:

the evidence suggests that around half of the increase in inequality in the bottom half of the wage distribution since 1979 was a result of falling real minimum wages. And unlike inequality that stems from factors like technological change, this growth in inequality was clearly avoidable. All we had to do to prevent it was index the minimum wage to the cost of living.

The other day on FOX News, Megyn Kelly, another rising voice in the chorus of American conservatism that is clueless and callous about the real lives of people, replied dismissively of Wal-Mart workers protesting their low wages: “Get another job.”

The simple moral-economic calculus in that throw away wisdom is this. If you have the ability, the preparation, and, of course, the gumption to raise yourself up in life, you can get that other job. You will be what America enables you to be, and all you can ask of it. If you not have those qualities (established only by your inability to get that other job, but even if – this is crucial – you do not, in fact, have those qualities), well, then, you deserve no more than that job that does not pay a living wage. And do not, too, look to food stamps for help, or nationally provided healthcare.

What that latter scenario amounts to is the “mud-sill” theory of labor. Here is what Abraham Lincoln had to say about it, last offered here on the sad red earth on March 7, 2011.

“Free Labor,” from Abraham Lincoln – in Wisconsin

Abraham Lincoln, in his so far unending prescience and wisdom, actually offered some thoughts on the nature of labor and capital in of all places Wisconsin – at the annual meting of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, in Milwaukee, on September 30, 1859. A brief passage from it, bolded below, is quoted often and can be found in the most unexpected places (about which, tomorrow). Lincoln later reused this passage in in his first State of the Union Address, of December 3, 1861, where, as in 1859, he very much had slave labor in mind in contrast to free labor. Relevant to today, nonetheless, is how Lincoln conceived the nature of free labor, in itself and in relation to capital. It impressed Teddy Roosevelt (another “Republican” today’s GOP can only cite in fellowship as an act of desperate grasping for forebears of greatness) that he, too, cited Lincoln on the subject.

The world is agreed that labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied. There is no dispute upon this point. From this point, however, men immediately diverge. Much disputation is maintained as to the best way of applying and controlling the labor element. By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital, that nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it….

But another class of reasoners hold the opinion that there is no such relation between capital and labor, as assumed; and that there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer, that both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them groundless. They hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

We know that current Republicans do not believe this, that contemporary conservatives openly consider workers (who, if organized, are maggots) to be “tools” of capital and those who direct their labor. Lincoln goes on to include in his consideration what is perhaps the essential American conservative ideal of the nation – the prospect of individuals freely, from their labors and their own faculties, rising above their station in life.

They do not deny that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital. The error, as they hold, is in assuming that the whole labor of the world exists within that relation. A few men own capital; and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital, hire, or buy, another few to labor for them….Again, as has already been said, the opponents of the “mud-sill” theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

In the “mud-sill” theory, individuals are destined to play an unchanging role, hold a fixed status, in the nation’s economic and social life – no “anyone can join the ranks of the wealthy.” That is not the America ideal, the defining individualism of the country, so, as Lincoln characterized the attitude then, as conservatives will still claim it, the deserving advance in life; those who don’t are not deserving.

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.

That there continues to be opportunity in the United States for some of talent, initiative, hard work, and good fortune to advance far from where they began in life is indisputable. Many people will know of someone who has, and that knowledge, that case, helps maintain the ideal. But is it possible to say of the United States created by Reagan and the Bushes and the conservative and “trickle down” ascendancy of the past thirty years, and in the decline of organized labor, as Lincoln said, that

Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

Anyone who knows the economic facts of the the past three decades cannot say so in honesty or without shame. Lincoln framed his observations in detached exposition of the ideas of others, but he found a clever way to make his position known.

I have so far stated the opposite theories of “Mud-Sill” and “Free Labor” without declaring any preference of my own between them. On an occasion like this I ought not to declare any. I suppose, however, I shall not be mistaken, in assuming as a fact, that the people of Wisconsin prefer free labor, with its natural companion, education.

We need to recognize that for Lincoln here, “free labor” is not just in contrast to slave labor – it is labor by which people can express and advance their freedom through labor, and not be trapped and used always as “tools” and “mudsil,” what Republicans today would make of all but the very few who can still overcome the increasing obstacles set before them.

It being Lincoln, he managed to end a prosaic address on a loftier level.

And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations and mortifications of them, are but temporary; that the victor shall soon be the vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition.

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

AJA

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Ideas

Objectivity and Neutrality

From Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric Vs. Practice In Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream

I regard Nietzsche‘s attack on asceticism as a cultural calamity, all the more regrettable because of his high seriousness and the brilliance of the assault. Had he directed his wrath merely against Victorian passionlessness there would be no room for complaint, but his ridicule of ascetic values and practices became reckless and indiscriminate, reaching far beyond the foibles of a generation to renunciation itself. Morality is what suffers most from the devaluation of ascetic practices, but such practices are also indispensable to the pursuit of truth. The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers. All of these mental acts – especially coming to grips with a rival’s perspective – require detachment, an undeniably ascetic capacity to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes, to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally – in the last analysis, to develop, as Thomas Nagel would say, a view of the world in which one’s own self stands not at the center, but appears merely as one object among many.” To be dissatisfied with the view of the world as it initially appears to us, and to struggle to formulate a superior, more inclusive, less self-centered alternative, is to strive for detachment and aim at objectivity. And to turn thus against one’s most natural self- to engage in “this uncanny, dreadfully joyous labor of a soul voluntarily at odds with itself” – is to commit that very sin against the will to power that Nietzsche so irresponsibly comdemned.” Detachment does not promise access to any transcendental realm and always remains, as Nagel says, “under the shadow” of skepticism.” Although it is an ideal and holds out a standard higher than any of us routinely achieve, acceptable performance under its regulative influence does not require superhuman effort. It is that frail and limited but perfectly real power which, for example, permits conscientious scholars to referee one another’s work fairly, to acknowledge merit even in the writings of one’s critics, and successfully to “bend over backwards” when grading students so as not to penalize those holding antagonistic political convictions. We try to exercise this capacity every day; sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, and we assign praise and blame to ourselves and others accordingly. It is of course true that we sometimes delude ourselves, developing a pseudo-objective standpoint that functions mainly to obscure choice, shifting responsibility for what we want to do to a seemingly impersonal state of affairs. But to shrug off the capacity for detachment as entirely illusory – to claim that since none of the standpoints the self is capable of imagining are really that of “the other,” but are self-produced (as is certainly the case), and to argue that all viewpoints therefore are indistinguishably contaminated by selfishness or group interest or the omnipresent Nietzschean will- is to turn a blind eye to distinctions that all of us routinely make and confidently act upon, and thereby to blur all that distinguishes villainy from decency, veracity from mendacity, in everyday affairs. Not to mince words, it is to defame the  species. Fairness and honesty are qualities we can rightfully demand of human beings, and those qualities require a very substantial measure of self-overcoming – more than could exist if Nietzsche’s hyperbolic and indiscriminate war on asceticism were permitted to triumph. Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues.’

If I am correct in thinking that these virtues of self-overcoming already rank high in historians’ practice, that should suffice to show that my strategy of keeping alive the term “objectivity” while ridding it of unwanted connotations is not a matter of appropriating a traditional name as a dignified cover for new practices. The tendency of past generations to associate objectivity with “selflessness,” and to think of truth-seeking as a matter of emptying oneself of passion and preconception, so as to become a perfectly passive and receptive mirror of external reality, has, for good reason, become notorious.” But in valuing (as even Nietzsche did, in his calmer moments) the elementary capacity for self-overcoming, we need not aspire to the unrealistic and undesirable extreme of extinguishing the self or denying that its situation in time and space limits the perspectives available to it.” Likewise, in making detachment a vital criterion of objective thinking, we need not make the still greater error of confusing objectivity with neutrality.

I see nothing to admire in neutrality. My conception of objectivity (which I believe is widely, if tacitly, shared by historians today) is compatible with strong political commitment. It pays no premium for standing in the middle of the road and it recognizes that scholars are as passionate and as likely to be driven by interest as those they write about. It does not value even detachment as an end in itself, but only as an indispensable prelude or preparation for the achievement of higher levels of understanding – higher not in the sense of ascending to a more spiritual plane, where the concerns of the soul displace those of the body, as an earlier generation might have understood it, but higher in Nagel’s sense of being more complete, more cognizant of that most powerful of all the world’s illusory appearances, which is that the world centers on me (or those with whom I choose to identify) and that what matters to me (or us) is paramount.

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Ideas

The Rhetorical Element: Not only where you’re coming from, but where you’re going.

From Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream”

That two people sharing the same position should say different things about it need not be surprising. One obvious reason is the difficulty of forecasting audience response. We all occasionally polemicize on behalf of our own version of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the posture we assume in public is shaped by our estimate of where our audience already stands on these issues and which way it needs to be moved in order to strengthen the position we admire. Two authors may say very different, even opposite, things in defense of the same position, simply because they have different estimates of where their audience currently stands, or what its members need to hear in order to be moved in the desired direction. For the same reason a single person may, without any inconsistency, adopt different rhetorical postures on different occasions. If, for example, a proponent of the welfare state were to deliver exactly the same speech to the National Association of Manufacturers and the Young Socialist League, we would not applaud the speaker’s consistency, but lament the insensitivity of the performance, the failure to anticipate objections coming from different directions. Estimating the composition and likely reaction of the audience for a book is notoriously difficult, so it is easy to see how Novick and I might share much the same position on substantive issues, and yet adopt opposing postures and appear for all the world as if we were completely at loggerheads.

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The Political Animal

A Second Look: the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

My recent posts on Syria were argued against a more global backdrop: considerations of war and how it is entered into, with what achievable (or other) ends in mind, and, more specifically again, how the United States engages in it. In focus were questions of American empire and the nature of victory and whether it can be achieved. Syria, like all the Middle East, offering up so much tyranny, appealing to so much humanitarian feeling, calling on so many instincts toward real politique – and with the ever present wild card Joker of Israel in the deck – seems to roil all settled understanding of right and left in politics.

The following post from 2010, in response to an essay by Andrew Bacevich, addresses all these issues, with the addition of the always fundamental matter of definition: in addition to wonder about the effects of our (warring) actions, there is the question of how we define victory, a pivot around which we assess past and plan future policy. There are, too, the distinct elements of the quality of our analysis and the quality of our inferences from it. From July 30, 2010:

This Is the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

Andrew Bacevich is appropriately critical of the American impetus to hegemonic empire that grew out of its post World War Two ascendency and the commitment to communist containment. That was the subject of his 2008 The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Essential to any continuing practicability of this American role, he argues in yesterday’s HuffPo was a belief in the possibility of definitive victory in war. His post is entitled “The End of (Military) History? The United States, Israel, and the Failure of the Western Way of War.” The ostensible reasoning behind the connection of Israel to the U.S.in this regard is the shared belief, still, in the possibility of military victories. The differences – American hegemony versus Israeli existential concern – make the connection more problematic, but the meaning of the making of connections, real and imagined, between the U.S. and Israel, while a continuing interest of this blog, is not the subject today.

Bacevich begins,

“In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.”  This sentiment, introducing the essay that made Francis Fukuyama a household name, commands renewed attention today, albeit from a different perspective.

Developments during the 1980s, above all the winding down of the Cold War, had convinced Fukuyama that the “end of history” was at hand.  “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” he wrote in 1989, “is evident… in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Today the West no longer looks quite so triumphant.  Yet events during the first decade of the present century have delivered history to another endpoint of sorts.  Although Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal, the Western way of war has run its course.

Now, we want a critique that has correctly identified its problem to successfully analyze it, but the introduction is a curiously self-refuting start. Although the communist era ended, socialist critiques of Western capital domination continue in various forms, Islam has reemerged as a starkly countervailing force to the Western idea, and the liberal idea, in relation to the first two forces, is strikingly challenged by among some of its own product. Notice that Bacevich himself felt reason to write “Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal.” Fukuyama was clearly wrong. It is on this parallel foundation then that Bacevich wishes to rhetorically support the claim that the curiously attributed “Western way of war has run its course”?

Certainly, the Second World War left many with the idea that military conflicts, even grandly scaled wars, can be fought to definitive and just conclusions. I think Bacevich is right to attribute to this consequent overconfidence the American military misadventures in the post war period, but he seems, in his critique, similarly shortsighted as well as selective in his vision. There were in this period American military actions, however relatively small in scale, that achieved their clear aims: Panama, the Dominican Republic, the Gulf War – and one rightly hesitates to add Granada. And however emblematic of indeterminacy Korea has been for nearly sixty years, it did achieve its original aim.

More significantly, though, if one excludes World War Two, from what historical evidence does Bacevich draw his claim of a particular way of war and the running of its course, upon which to predicate an accurate vision of the future? He confines himself to the twentieth century.

All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Russia or Germany, Japan or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory.

Victory may have been the common belief, but what was ever the historical justification for it? And how was and is victory defined? In total conquest? That surrenders were offered? An armistice signed? An immediate pressure released? An international tension long or forever resolved? Bacevich isn’t clear beyond suggesting the Second World War model.

Campaigns of terror – e.g. nineteenth century anarchist movements – are not new, though possible now on a scale that requires strategic consideration and developed doctrine, not dismissal in simplistic oppositions of war and peace. History is replete with successful guerilla wars, depending, of course, on how success is defined and the duration of the achieved goal – wars in which great powers were perpetually harassed by smaller or insurgent armies. Wars badly fought or that ended in apparent victories only to set up over decades or even centuries the conditions of future war – the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian war, almost the whole history of European warfare – are not a new development in war, only a departure from the dominant U.S. expectation. There is, too, if the subject is going to be explored meaningfully, no reason to limit the historical and developmental review to the West.

If the U.S. had withdrawn from Afghanistan after routing the Taliban, and if, rather than embarking on nation-building, it had pursued the kind of counter-terror strategy it will probably pursue after a now likely withdrawal without a nation built, could the U.S. have rightly claimed victory – not the end of all Islamic terror, but the thwarting of Al-Qaeda’s access to a national base? Had Saddam Hussein actually possessed WMD, they would have been found and destroyed, his regime toppled, as it was, and with a relatively quick withdrawal after, the purported goal of the war – a Victory – achieved. These are complex and to some degree hypothetical considerations, but my point is that there does not seem anything structural in the historical development of war that precludes the possibility of victory, as long as one does not define victory so far up that one makes it almost by definition unachievable.

Alter these factors, and the narrative of a stumbling, crumbling U.S. giant is not as easily written. Writes Bacevich,

Politically motivated violence will persist and may in specific instances even retain marginal utility.  Yet the prospect of Big Wars solving Big Problems is probably gone for good

This qualifier is significant. Is Afghanistan a big war? By what measure? Are Israel’s wars big wars? Is it accurate to say that Israel these days perceives itself as fighting to solve big problems, or does it fight to maintain a safe power balance in a developmental holding action?

Bacevich observes,

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?

It’s a neat antithesis, but weakly and unnecessarily argued. American leaders and commanders do not have the luxury to argumentatively pretend that the Taliban-supported Al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan could have been left to function. Israeli leaders lack a similar luxury to ignore the ideological and military threats of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. That the expansive hegemonic reach of the U.S., an outgrowth of the Cold War, is now destructive of U.S. interests can be well argued. The claim does not require an overreaching corollary that is actually a bit suspect in its formation and application. It isn’t that humans have developmentally overcome their inclinations toward war – war has ceased, essentially, to work, and it has ceased to do so, when, according to Bacevich, only the United States and Israel, as he defines it, still engage in it.

Hmn.

AJA

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Culture Clash

Invisible Cities

Tonight the The Industry and LA Dance Project production of Invisible Cities completes its extended one month run at Los Angeles’s Union Station.

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A 75-minute opera based on the Italo Calvino novel, with music and libretto by Christopher Cerrone, choreography by Danielle Agami, directed by Yuval Sharon and conducted by Marc Lowenstein, the production has been staged twice each performance evening in the active train station. Each performance began with the overture, in the separate hall that contained the small orchestra.

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Ticket holders were issued headphones through which to hear the music as, the overture completed, they set out to walk the halls and outdoor patios of the station, throughout which all the opera unfolded

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As the patrons wandered in search of theater, they created their own small dramas, mixing among the travelers on the way to catch trains and the many homeless and sleeping travelers waiting for departure. At every turn of the head, some figure presumed to be part, merely, of the everyday human drama emerged as part of the theatrical.

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Lines from the libretto were projected onto the station wall. Movement erupted seemingly from nowhere.

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Action erupted. Ordinary occupants of the station, passing the action, turning to look at it…

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…transformed into players in the drama, turning themselves to sing to a passing dancer.

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Everyday life is the springboard for sublime actions.

In one sense there is nothing more simple and more obvious than everyday
life. How do people live? The question may be difficult to answer, but that does
not make it any the less clear. In another sense nothing could be more
superficial: it is banality, triviality, repetitiveness. And in yet another sense
nothing could be more profound. It is existence and the ‘lived’, revealed as they
are before speculative thought has transcribed them.

Henri Levebvre, Critique of Everyday Life

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What emerged and gradually mesmerized was not drama in any expected sense, but spectacle, the spectacle of the ordinary, and what arises out of it, without form or direction, at every moment.

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It converged everywhere.

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Until it was over. And the convergence continued.

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***

AJA (photography by AJA)

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The Political Animal

Syria, the Limits of Interventionism, and the International Order

Geschichte / Deutschland / 19. Jh. / Friedrich Wilhelm III.  / Regierungszeit / Vormärz / Wiener Kongreß 1814-15Noted in the comments to the previous post, “A Plague: Contesting Syria, in Context,” is the posting of a reply to it at his blog from my ever wry blogging compadre, Snoopy the Goon. Please do  read it here. Below is my response to, ahem, the Goon.

Dear Snoopy,

How do we go on after that John Lennon crack? I believe forgiveness is all. (Well, something, anyway.) And then there is your introduction. Okay.

I think there is not that much disagreement between us, some points needing just some clarification and refinement.

I note your eloquent and just paean to the “warriors of the cold war,” and what their sacrifice meant to those on the other side of the “curtain.” I agree, too, that the dollars of that war were well, if not all necessarily, spent, but the strategic purpose of my overview of the arms race was not to address the justness of the mission or overspending on it, rather the pattern of hyperbolic fear mongering often to be found in it. That purpose was a foundation to arguing that a variation on such heightened stirring of the passions toward war can be found in much commentary and journalism on Syria, including that compassionate solidarity journalism you reference.

I happily take your point that most Americans on the left and right are opposed to a Syrian intervention, however different the foundations for their feelings. My criticism, though, was of those on the far left who oppose it for thoroughly dishonorable reasons and those on the right – the “superpower imperialists” – who promote it so disingenuously.

Joined with superpower imperialists are those of the left not defined here by anti-imperialism, but internationalism, and a belief in humane interventionism – the “responsibility to protect.” I share this philosophical attachment and you echo its humane considerations. I claim, too, that this heightened attention to the lives of others, across national boundaries and cultures, is a product of already existent achievements in the “slow-developing international order” that challenges your credibility. But there is an irony in this.

I often call attention to the expanding web our affective associations woven by technology. It brings us, for instance, more completely and immediately, and with more vivid reality, news of the horrors of Syria. However, what informs your (and my own) skepticism of that international order is that other human abilities – the capacity, for instance, to act in concert and successfully against the horrors in Syria – have not advanced in conjunction with technology. Because our access to the reality of war is greater than ever before, that does not mean we have learned to end any and all wars whenever our best selves simply feel they cannot bear it anymore. We learn, we witness, we think we should act – our best selves cry out for our action – but we do not know in many cases, including Syria, I argue, how to act in ways that will not make matters generally worse.

When you say that you already perceive, awfully, that Assad has won, I respond, first, that by all appearances, whatever the ultimate varieties of outcome long down the road, what was Syria before will not be again. In that sense, Assad will certainly not have won. Beyond that, as I already argued, it was not previously American or Western policy militarily to overthrow Assad or any of the other tyrants who afflict the world; we need not have been made committed to that end by the outbreak of a civil war. To the degree that Obama’s earlier rhetoric seemed to make that commitment, it was an error of which his general critics regularly remind us and for which he should be criticized. Why, now, should he be criticized for failing to live up to a mistaken promise?

Round-the-clock cable news and Twitter cannot now by their mere existence have morally enjoined us to rush foolishly to intervene in all conflicts. You put it well about Iraq; I argue it to an nth degree about Syria, that

people who commanded the invasion, which was truly a work of inspiration and meticulous planning as far as military part of it was concerned, didn’t have a smidgen of an idea what to do with the hot potato, which was post-war Iraq. Still don’t, which sad fact costs so many lives and will continue to do so for a long time.

On the other hand, about the chemical weapons disarmament program in progress in Syria, the political rather than tactical nature of the response to this development is quite remarkable.

Unless one is already predisposed against Obama, which of course many are, or wishes, in part for that reason, to harp on one’s perception of the messy way the program came about, or harp on all of the things that the program is not, as would those promoters of intervention – who are bound to be profoundly disappointed by it – there is simply no downside to the program at all. Among the many previous fears attendant with the conflict (you can look it up) was the fear that chemical weapons, beyond their possible use by Assad, would fall into the hands of Islamist terror groups. Even if, unsurprisingly, and as is already suspected, Assad is trying to cheat, the volume of dangerous chemical weapons will have been dramatically reduced in a war torn region. Our knowledge of the presence and location of any smaller, still hidden stockpiles will have been enhanced, along with the capacity to strike and destroy or capture them whenever that decision might be made. All in all, the dangers those weapons pose – from Assad or Islamist warriors – will have been dramatically reduced from what it was. Other than providing a political stick with which to club Obama, the current disarmament program, had it been offered at any time outside of Obama’s threat of a military strike, would have been received by all as an opportunity to be grasped without doubt. Nothing changes that.

Finally, I assert again, withdrawal from an imperial expanse and posture in the world does not require the sacrifice of natural and sufficient economic, cultural, and political power or of necessary unilateral military power. These are an appropriate objective for one of the world’s great democracies already the most powerful nation in the world. However, the specific mission of the Cold War is not the same as a mission to ensure unchallengeable domination of the international sphere as a de facto, but by no means formally assented to, nation among nations. The political philosophy that the world shall henceforth be uni rather than multi-polar, and that it shall be so only by the dominating will and power of the existing unipolar power to keep it so, believing unwaveringly in its own justness and exceptionalism, is inherently undemocratic, even, ultimately, tyrannical in nature, if not in purpose. I do not believe the American people, unlike its militarists and supporters of an imperial presidency, would choose to purpose the future of their nation in this way. If they would, it would not be the nation they wish to think it.

The United Nations as an organization can serve as a convenient shorthand for two centuries of evolving Western and international order in various organizational and legal regimes. The deficiencies of that order are those of the humans creating it and can be likewise conveniently highlighted by such failures as the UNHRC or UNRWA. But however slow the progress, and tragic the continuing failures, I do not think many will make the argument that the world would be better were we to return to it to a time before the Congress of Vienna or the creation of the U.N.

It is slow and creeping, it is often inadequate, it is ready for mockery, but beyond a line on a map, a pistol shot in the face, and a drone strike from above, it is what we have.

AJA

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The Political Animal

A Plague: Contesting Syria, in Context

Context

american_empire_1_aThey are always there, sitting on both shoulders, sounding into your ears. On either side, they buzz insistently their ceaseless drone. Now, they speak of Syria, whisper and wheedle action or inaction as they wish. They have been singing their songs of superpower or imperial America since the end of World War II.

In the mid 1950s it was the “bomber gap.” Misconstrued numbers of Soviet M-4 Bison bombers, estimated at near a thousand and amplified by the device of policy by press release, set the United States on a frantic construction binge of almost 2,750 B-47 and B-52 bombers in response. President Eisenhower was doubtful, but even he did not face down the fervor of Air Force General Curtis Lemay and cries from congressional Democrats that Eisenhower – the former Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Western Europe during World War II – was “weak on defense.”

“It is clear that the United States and its allies,” said Senator Stuart Symington sounding what would become perpetual alarm, “may have lost control of the air.”

But there was no gap. It was later established that the Soviets had only 20 B-4 Bisons.

By the late 1950s, it had become the “missile gap.” A 1957 National Intelligence Estimate predicted a Soviet capability of 10 prototype ICBMs by 1959. By January of 1959, Albert Wohlstetter of the Rand Corporation published in Foreign AffairsThe Delicate Balance of Terror,” in which he argued that the “the thermonuclear balance” hung precariously against the U.S. and that current American efforts at deterrence were inadequate. Soon enough, influential journalist Joseph Alsop was citing classified intelligence that the Soviet Union would have 1500 ICBMs by 1963, compared to only 130 for the U.S.  John F. Kennedy and other Democrats consequently again charged Eisenhower with weakness on defense.

In fact, by 1960 the Soviet ICBM force was only 2, compared to a U.S. force of 12. By Alsop’s target year, the Soviet missile level rose to 99 rather than the prognosticated 1500, while the U.S. ICBM count was a six-fold greater 597.

There was, indeed, a missile gap – in favor of the United States.

Dwight Eisenhower departed office warning of a “military-industrial complex.”

Often, policy by press release has been masked as pure reportage.

“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression”, announced a Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964.

That same day, the front page of the New York Times reported: “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and ‘certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam’ after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.”

But there was no “second attack” by North Vietnam — no “renewed attacks against American destroyers.” By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.

The country would face the manipulation of “reporting official claims as absolute truths” again in the future.

In the 1970s, forces in the GOP foreign policy establishment began to argue again that the U.S. was underestimating Soviet nuclear capabilities and misunderstanding its strategic nuclear intentions. Once more the call to arms was made by Albert Wohlstetter, this time in Foreign Policy, in “Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” During a period of post-Watergate weakness and diminished morale, Wohlstetter and a bevy of defense hawks who opposed détente charged that the “intensity, scope, and implicit threat” of Soviet offensive intentions were being consistently underestimated by the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimates. While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued in speeches that the Soviet Union was acting against the spirit of détente, figures such as Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze and board members of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), with the aid of Rumsfeld protégé Paul Wolfowitz, made the case for an alternative, extra-agency assessment of the Soviet threat.

The focus of attention was the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), which new CIA director George H.W. Bush authorized to conduct the external review. Participants in the review were divided into three teams, with different areas of attention. The now notable “Team B,” chaired by Pipes and including William Van Cleave of the CPD, was advised by Nitze and Wolfowitz, among others. Over the course of 1976, in various venues and reports from other sources with which team members were associated, and in a Sunday, December 26, New York Times story, Team B’s classified conclusions were repeatedly leaked. They “identified a strong shift in the quantitative military balance toward the Soviet Union over the past 10 years.” Under pressure, the “CIA itself revised its estimate of Soviet military spending to 10-15 percent of Soviet gross national product (GNP), as compared to 6-8 percent in previous NIEs.”

The work of Team B, along with that of the CPD successfully scuttled the era of détente and led to the Reagan-era American arms buildup.

Among the many “Team B” assessments of a growing Soviet buildup and emerging strategic superiority was the prediction – like those in the 1950s about bombers and ICBMs – that by 1984 the Soviets would possess 500 Backfire bombers. In fact, and much as in those earlier instances, by 1984 the actual number of Backfire bombers in the Soviet arsenal was 235. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, it became known that the apparently dramatic increase in defense spending was, by the time of the Team B warning, already declining, with increased expenditures not the product of growing production, but economic inefficiency that would help spell the end of the Soviet Union – in the face of military competition that preceded the Reagan buildup.

The contours of Team B’s efforts were the same as previous militarist campaigns: expert warnings in conjunction with politics by press release, along with emergency organization (Committee on the Present Danger) to spread alarm. The alarm is twofold: the nation’s enemies are achieving a dangerous level of military advantage while responsible parties in the U.S. government are systematically failing in their response and weakening national security.

Attendant with the 1980s military buildup that Team B’s work successfully enabled were the Reagan administration’s anti-Communist counter insurgency efforts in Central America, which form a bridge between earlier Cold War preventive destabilizations and the George W. Bush administration “freedom agenda.” One instructive effort is that in Guatemala.

U.S. Cold War involvement in Guatemala dated back, infamously, to the 1954 CIA-sponsored overthrow of democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The coup was not just a betrayal of America’s liberal and democratic principles. It had long-term after effects: a thirty-six year civil war between a succession of oligarchic governments and leftist groups, primarily supported by the vast, impoverished indigenous Mayan and the Ladino populations, that was not brought to a close until 1996, forty-two years after the coup.

It was estimated by Guatemala’s 1999 Historical Clarification Commission (HCC) that as many as 200,000 mostly Mayan Guatemalans had been killed over the course of the civil war, 93% of the deaths attributable to government forces. Most of these deaths occurred during the 1980s, when Guatemalan regimes were receiving full-throated and significant military support from the Reagan White House. After Gen. Efrain Rios Montt overthrew his predecessor in 1982, Reagan endorsed him as “a man of great personal integrity” who was “totally dedicated to democracy” and who was “getting a bum rap” in reports of his human rights abuses. History – and contemporaneous reports known to the Reagan administration – reveals a different story.

[I]n the 1980s, the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. “The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages … are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala’s history,” the commission concluded.

The army “completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,” the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter “genocide.” [Washington Post, Feb. 26, 1999]

Besides carrying out murder and “disappearances,” the army routinely engaged in torture and rape. “The rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice” by the military and paramilitary forces, the report found.

Just this year, in historic national proceedings, the 87 year old Rios Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan court of genocide. (The conviction was overturned on appeal and Rios Montt awaits retrial.)

In just and proper defense of its own and international security, the United States opposed totalitarian communist expansion, and in so doing, in numerous instances, was led by the most extreme elements of its own defense and security establishments to act, not just in the 80s in Guatemala, but in the 1950s and 60s, too, in direct opposition to its own national ideals and governing principles. In cases such as Guatemala, the unforeseen consequences linger now for more than half a century, tallied in numbers of lives lost attributable not to Marxist foes, but to the U.S. itself. And in a perverse rhetorical sally worth remembering as a model for today’s arguments, The Washington Post editorial board on March 1, 1999, while acknowledging the truths revealed by the HCC, sought to lay some of the blame for the crimes of the Guatemalan generals not at the feet of their rightwing U.S. supporters, but on the Carter administration in the 1970s –  for having cut aid to the Guatemalan government and thus helped foster the insurgent successes that led to the government war crimes in response.

At just the same time during the 1980s as genocide was being committed in Guatemala, another kind of aftermath, with different signification, was still unfolding in Southeast Asia. While the Marxist, Maoist, Trotskyite, and New Left were decrying U.S. Vietnam War deception and violence, they were also championing the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. As long as the United States remained a combatant, the lives, deaths, and “liberation” of Vietnamese were a precious subject of political debate and humanitarian concern. Once the U.S. left Vietnam, the far left fell out of compassion with the Vietnamese, soon enough turning its attention to Central America, where the single determining factor of interest and concern had now become part of the equation: U.S. involvement.

Yet according to the Aurora Foundation’s 1983 Violations of Human Rights in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as many as one million non-communist former South Vietnamese were imprisoned in the infamous post-unification “reeducation” camps. Foundation reports indicated that the mortality rate in the camps averaged ten percent a year. During the same period, according to the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 1.6 million fled Vietnam as “boat people,” including the more than 260,000 ethnic Chinese who either took flight or were forced across the border by the Vietnamese government. Forty-eight years after American withdrawal from Vietnam – a withdrawal including that of the compassionate interest of the West’s far left – Vietnam continues to be ruled by an authoritarian government guilty of “administrative detention, religious repression, crackdowns on human rights defenders, stifling of press freedom, widespread use of the death penalty… [and] abuses of women’s rights, including sex trafficking and coercive birth control policies.’ And in what should serve as remonstrative symbol to right and left, the sign atop one of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings reads Citibank.

This use of national populations and nationalist causes to advance a Western anti-imperialist agenda of course had pre-Vietnam antecedents. Even as there arose good cause to know of Stalinist crimes, apologists on the far left were content to offer just opposition to 1950’s McCarthyism while tendering no acknowledgment of their own Soviet misalignment. So it was with Mao and with Ho Chi Minh, until the Vietnamese, having served their purpose, were abandoned for the Sandinistas. Ever since, far left political allegiance, antipathetically rather than sympathetically motivated, has wandered ever farther from class analysis, internationalist bonds, and any grounding in universal human rights. Actual anti-imperialism itself need play no role in focusing far left anti-Western attention, and the cry of colonialism, using and abusing the Indigenous cause, can be heard even in the desert.

Thus, by way of Iraq, we arrive at Syria in 2013.

Contest

When President Obama threatened to strike Syria in response to the Ghouta Sarin massacre, both shoulder sprites began to sound off. The level of deception and hypocrisy was enough to fork tongues, but that, as they say, is a feature, not a bug.

On the right, Obama was criticized, even as he threatened to strike, for not having taken action at least half a year earlier, after previous, smaller chemical weapons deployments – as if wise policy for the world’s sole superpower is to be conned into war by any small force element able to obtain a modicum of chemical agent for purposes of just that manipulation. He was criticized simultaneously from the same quarter for planning only a punitive or preventive action and not plotting a course that could determine the course of the war – that is, more fully entering into the conflict in support of rebel forces.

Entrance into the war, in fact, is what the imperial right wishes, and nothing short of it will satisfy, so when Obama grabbed at the opportunity not to strike militarily to deter the Assad regime from further chemical attack, but to join with the Russians in fully chemically disarming a suddenly compliant Assad, the right mocked him. It still does, though its voices sound a little less assuredly, now, about the preposterousness of chemically disarming Syria, as the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria meets the deadlines of its various stages. Let the mission fall behind at any point – as it not unlikely will given the complexity and difficulty of the task – and listen for the crowing choruses of “told you so.” They are being practiced as you read. One ugly secret is that the right does not truly wish for the mission to succeed – for the interim success of a chemically disarmed Syria is not what the right desires: that would ratify the possibilities of measured security gains without actual military engagement. What the right wants is Obama’s failure in pursuit of any kind of variant course. What the right wants is the United States in Syria.

In order to achieve the end of American involvement in the Syrian civil war, policy by press release has been deep and far ranging. The most notorious instance so far has been Elizabeth O’Bagy’s op-ed by in the Wall Street Journal, titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” seeking to counter the most oft-repeated concern regarding support for Syrian rebels – that they are constituted significantly of Islamist jihadists. O’Bagy confidently informed us otherwise, attempting to sell an uncritical readership on the presence of a larger “moderate” element among the rebels, who are significantly Salafist, and in whose behalf O’Bagy, unidentified in the op-ed as political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SEFT), could muster as her most ringing endorsement only that they are a “force with some shared U.S. interests.” SEFT has as its political director Mouaz Moustafa, who appears to be making a current career working for similar organization attempting to draw the U.S. into Arab “Spring” conflicts such as, previously, Libya. O’Bagy was also a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which has, undisclosed at its website, Bill Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney as board members. Kristol, as the reigning editorial voice of the post World War II militarist tradition, and Cheney as daughter and vocal advocate of her father’s militarism, provide only the most prominent link to the vein that runs back to Team B. I offered a fuller account of O’Bagy’s argument in “Masters of War,” but she has since been fired by both SEFT and ISW for lying about her academic credentials. Wrote Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor’s Security Watch,

But what’s most troubling is that despite the history of lies fed to the US government by exiles seeking US involvement in foreign wars (Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress’ role in stovepiping claims of Iraqi WMD programs ahead of the 2003 invasion of that country should be top of mind) [O’Bagy] was listened to in the first place.

In Washington circles her work with SETF was known – and she herself relied on one particular wing of Syria’s complex rebellion, a wing that she relied on to arrange her travel and meetings inside Syria, to arrive at her conclusions. The SETF’s leadership is largely composed of Syrian exiles, much as the Iraqi National Congress’s leadership was composed of Iraqi exiles. Should such people be taken at their word when they seek US assistance?

Since Obama’s decision to seek opportunistically and peacefully what he would far less certainly have accomplished with even a series of strikes, efforts at policy by press release have shifted in their message. Less often now is heard O’Bagy-brand assurance of rebel “moderation,” since almost daily accounts of the conflict offer an increasingly contrary report. Now the militarist narrative begins – in shades of  assigning responsibility for Reagan’s material support of Guatemalan genocide to Jimmy Carter, for his not having armed the oligarchs earlier – in blaming Islamic radicalization of the Syrian rebels on Obama, for not having armed the opposition earlier. Apparently, for America’s war adventurers, both Islamism and oligarchic genocide grow out of the barrel of an undelivered gun. That the presence of as many as 160,000 U.S. troops themselves on the ground actually provoked the Islamization of the Iraqi insurgency rather than forestalled it is effortlessly overlooked by the peddlers of perpetual war. It is a hallmark of contemporary American militarism, however, to disregard any lessons from the past twelve years of war other than to believe that their failures – much as in Vietnam – were the product only of inadequate force levels, insufficient tactical aggression, and the unwillingness to pacify foreign lands on the time-scale of Roman legions.

The most pervasive meme in the current policy by press release is Obama’s “dithering” or “uncertainty,” even “disinterest” in Syria. Against all the pervasive evidence that Obama is, in reality, quite certain what policy he wishes to pursue in the face of general Arab upheaval – decidedly not the policy of the militarists – rightwing efforts are purposely to misrepresent this certainty as its opposite. While the second most dysfunctional region in the world erupts in political chaos the after effects of which may play out for decades, interested parties scream out to the American president to “do something!” when the wisest course for some time to come may well be not to do anything too definitive at all. But purposeful caution will always be caricatured by the rash and aggressive as weakness and cowardice. The proper response to that cartoon, though, is to recall one benefit of the Iraq War: that in its aftermath few any longer criticize George Bush the elder for not, after driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait during the Gulf War, having marched on to Baghdad.

Still, what we regularly read in the press is that U.S. allies in “the region” – that is, the monumentally despotic, oppressive and theocratic Middle East – are unhappy with U.S. policy toward Syria. This is the emerging militarist version of the “bomber gap,” missile gap,” and the analysis-and-war-head gap of Team B – a new confidence and trust gap.

Significantly, what this primarily means is Saudi Arabian displeasure. American militarists and superpower imperialists now actually openly offer as criticism of American foreign policy its misalignment with the wishes of the greatest sponsor of Islamist radicalism in the world. The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith was refreshingly candid about this in conversation with Michael J. Totten.

I can make an argument for backing the Syrian rebels, but it can’t be for humanitarian reasons alone. I can make the argument that we should do it for strategic reasons.

And yes, a lot of people are making that kind of argument about the Saudis, saying a pox on them, how dare they complain. The Saudis from time to time make an awful lot of noise and at other times they cross us. And of course there were fifteen Saudi nationals on the planes on 9/11. And yet Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States for more than sixty years. The reason for that isn’t because we share cultural or political values—although some of the elites really are pro-American.

The reason we’re allied with Saudi Arabia is because they have the world’s largest known reserves of oil. This is a vital American interest, perhaps the most vital American interest after the security of our fifty states.

Lee Smith believes the world’s sole remaining “superpower” should express the meaning of superpowerness by pleasing the Saudis and going to war in Syria in order to preserve our access to cheap oil. “Peace and justice” minions all over the West are whispering “thank you.”

More subtle by far, and easily so, is the likes of “Obama’s Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed” by Mark Mazzetti, Robert F. Worth and Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times purporting to offer an inside account of Obama administration deliberations on Syria over the course of the year. Note the “uncertain” in the title.

A close examination of how the Obama administration finds itself at this point — based on interviews with dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials — starts with a deeply ambivalent president who has presided over a far more contentious debate among his advisers than previously known. Those advisers reflected Mr. Obama’s own conflicting impulses on how to respond to the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring: whether to side with those battling authoritarian governments or to avoid the risk of becoming enmeshed in another messy war in the Middle East.

Note that sources of this account include former members of the administration, including those whose advice will not have been accepted. So when one reads critical words like “paralysis,” understand that a critic’s choice of that word is a funhouse mirror of a proponent’s chosen “inaction.” When “one former senior White House official” critiques that “[w]e spent so much damn time navel gazing,” consider how much advice you want from that source on matters of whether to arm and even enter yet another war – a war far from critical to U.S interests, yet one that could be deeply destructive of them.

Under the shadow of the report’s titled uncertainty, we are nonetheless told that

from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.

In response to contentious debate among his advisors and a CIA plan “to begin arming and training small groups of rebel forces at secret bases in Jordan,”

Mr. Obama, who had said at the beginning of the meeting that he would make no immediate decisions, appeared skeptical. He cautioned against a “haphazard” plan to arm the rebels, and asked about tactics — who would get the weapons, how to keep them out of the hands of jihadists.

The president’s view, according to one administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing debates about classified operations, seemed to be that “we’d be taking a lot of risk without a clear plan.”

Far from “uncertain” or “navel-gazing,” Obama appears to be the wisest person in the room, and the only one among the major voices to have learned any lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan other than more, more, more, longer, longer, longer.

There is in the account one brief, yet remarkable passage – how often we have seen its like in the attempt to denigrate a leader. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we read,

Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

Despite all the obvious reasons that some discordant voices might wish to offer this image of Obama, what are the reasons for reporting it? How many ways might we account for it, if we were to credit it at all? That at given moments the president was rightfully bored with repeated, discordant arguments among his advisors, offering nothing new? That he received a text message from a daughter, an email from an aide on Capitol Hill about budget negotiations? How often do you think, during these many hours of debate and policy consideration – in contrast to slouching and chewing gum (Nicorette or just a pacifier for the challenged smoker?) – Obama leaned in with interest, questioned, even challenged his advisors while keeping his own counsel, supremely interested in determining the right course in a critical foreign policy situation for which, of course, he will be scrutinized by history? Who knows?

Yet only this one image is offered of Obama’s bearing by the reporters. Who are the targeted readers for this reported slack comportment of a generally dignified and elegant Harvard law grad and constitutional law professor, first black president of the United States? The readers of National Review? Supporters of Louis Gohmert?

Who are the reporters, in fact? Gordon is the Times’ military correspondent, who has written extensively on the Iraq War and who, with Judith Miller – Bush administration house reporter at The New York Times – authored the September 08, 2002 “THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE IRAQIS; U.S. SAYS HUSSEIN INTENSIFIES QUEST FOR A-BOMB PARTS,” in which it was reported, among multiple other anonymously sourced and false claims about an ongoing Iraqi nuclear program,

In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Mazzetti is the Times’ national security and intelligence reporter who has often repeated the Bush administration line in war-against-terror coverage, including, as well, adoption of the “brutal interrogation” euphemism in place of the legally accurate torture. It was also Mazzetti who secretly provided without his colleague’s knowledge, before publication, a copy of a Maureen Dowd piece on “Zero Dark Thirty” to CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf, in order to calm concerns about what Dowd might have written.

Of course, in the contest over Syria many who believe in humanitarian intervention, in the principle of “responsibility to protect,” have been moved by the death toll and human suffering in Syria to offer a common call with proponents of superpower imperialism – which is the idea that now that the Cold War is over and the U.S. has emerged from it as the sole superpower, it must, to protect the  interests it accumulated in the course of its ascension, continue to bestride the world as that unchallenged and dominating force, acting, as if it always were possible, at all times to shape outcomes.

A Western guilt-inducing analogy commonly offered in the attempt to spur action has been to the precedents of Rwanda and Bosnia: how fallen are we that we would allow it to happen again?

But what is “it”?

What we refer to as Rwanda was exclusively a fast-moving genocide of enormous barbarity, in stupendous numbers. What we call Bosnia in this context, much smaller in scope, contained discrete acts of genocide. In either case, quick and decisive military action could have halted and reduced specific acts and patterns of violence.

Whatever the ethnic and religious components, whatever the magnitude of the death toll, Syria is not genocide, but  a civil war, one that began as a rebellion against a tyrant. Intervention of the kind contemplated would be aimed at producing a victory in a conflict between two sides battling each other with strategic objectives. However, we might wish it ended, the killing stopped, and the tyrant gone genocidal acts and civil warfare are not the same phenomenon. Perhaps it should not be left to the Institute for the Study of War to determine that the ideal responsibility to protect (R2P) be now transformed into the responsibility to intervene in civil wars when the side you wish to lose appears as if it may not lose.

When advocates of U.S. intervention attempt to shame those who resist it with declarations of their moral decadence, one has to wonder why there remains any Western moral fiber left to decay after its failure to intervene in the Congo Wars – also post Rwanda and Kosovo – from 1996-2003, that may have left in excess of six million people dead? Where were Bill Kristol, John McCain, and the Institute for the Study of War then?

Maybe we should look to Lee Smith for an answer.

Is it a consummation devoutly to be wished that the world might one day assemble via the U.N. the righteous unity, force, and will to referee and part all remaining combatants? To dream. And the United States would rightly be called upon to play its part. But the world is not yet there, and the United States for countless apparent reasons of human and political understanding cannot assume that role by itself as if there were no difference in effect. There is. There are multiple reasons why the U.S. should not hazard on its own a significant stake in Syria.

  • However the superpower imperialists will color it otherwise, there is no natural ally of the U.S. in Syria and little reason to expect one even in defeat of the Assad regime. Oil discounted, and the course of current Arab-world upheavals completely unpredictable, there is no clear strategic advantage to Syrian involvement.
  • It was not previously the policy of the United States to seek directly or by proxy the military overthrow of the Assad regime. There is no reason under current circumstances why the U.S. should be impelled into war by elements of the Syrian populace tht felt the need to take up arms. Would a like uprising in any unfree nation in the world similarly require American military support? Is that the destiny of the American nation, to be yoked to the chain of every national rebellion in the world?
  • After twelve years of war in two distant countries, all but one of those years, in one country, Afghanistan, mistaken – and at real cost to the nation’s economic and social health – another misguided militaristic venture could inflict determinative damage on the American polity.
  • There may be greater challenges ahead with Iran and against Islamic terrorism. To become embroiled in Syria to no clear purpose could be a major historical error, greater even than, and certainly compounding, that of Iraq.
  • Despite militarist’s consistent and typically disingenuous claims to the contrary, there is every reason to expect that what they urge as mere training and material support would gradually – even, in likely battlefield crisis, dramatically – transform into direct U.S. engagement. Not only would this transformation occur, but at every creeping step militarists would just as disingenuously urge that it occur, for we would by then have invested, committed and in every possible way offered up our sacred national burly world-power honor to the cause and to abandon it then, blah, blah, blah, blah.
  • Not even in Iraq in 2003 did the U.S. face ensnarement in distant, multi-party internecine conflicts profound and complex enough to lie so far beyond American military resolution, and with less of any idea how to cope with just one of a multitude of fissures and possible expansions of the conflict among the parties and surrounding nations. To wit:

There is the role of Hezbollah and Assad’s possible fall back into Lebanon, further pulling that country into the mix. There are the sectarian divides of Syria, just as in Iraq, that will not disappear during a civil war and even once Assad may be ousted from power. There are the Kurds, angling across four nations – Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – for a nation of their own. Now, in addition to Iraq, they have their foothold in Syria. There is an incipient reconciliation process afoot in Turkey between its government and Turkish Kurds that, given history, could collapse at any time, particularly under the effects on Turkey of emboldened Syrian Kurds on its border. Now, too, Turkey has come to think Syria’s jihadist Jabhat al Nusra a threat as well.  The possibilities for spiraling and expanding conflict are deep and many. Should they grow, the effects on more surrounding nations, like Jordan, with its currently quiescent Muslim Brotherhood, may grow.

 The masters of war want to drag the United States into this.

  • The militarists, playing on the compassion and ideals of humanitarians, and the humanitarians themselves, repeat the mounting toll of the dead in Syria – a horror, as were horrific the deaths in the Congo. The current estimate is 115,000 dead. But it is to be recalled in this world of horrors that just this month – regarding a conflict in which the U.S. was actively engaged, indeed, the initiator – “a new study led by the [University of Washington]’s Department of Global Health estimates that nearly half a million people in Iraq died from causes attributable to the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011” (emphasis added). There is every reason to believe that increased U.S. military involvement, rather than acting to diminish the suffering in Syria, would only intensify it, as it did in Iraq. And Iraq, though the U.S. left two years ago, is not over yet: “Iraqi Leader Calls on U.S. to Help Fight Terror Threat.” The October death toll from renewed insurgency and al-Qaeda activity neared 1,000, bringing the 2013 total to over 6000 so far. Were the militarists not distracted by Syria, they would be calling for a return to Iraq, which they never wished the U.S. to leave.

It is folly to pretend the United States can manage the volatile historic, which is not to say necessarily beneficial, upheaval sweeping the Arab and Muslim worlds in the Levant and North Africa. Absent joint-force humanitarian campaigns, the wisest course is to stand back and remain ready to respond to low-cost opportunities to protect interests and serve ideals, such as the entirely unpredictable, yet comprehensible chance at Syrian chemical weapons disarmament, diminishing one fear of an Islamist victory. Another is an appropriate arms-length engagement with an Egyptian emergency government representing the still inchoate wishes of a populace that learned from experience that one future it does not want is that of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In opposition to the incessant and contrary militarist drive to expand U.S. interests and forcefully control them, there remain on the left the simultaneously slack and malign anti-imperial apologists for authoritarianism and illiberalism. A U.S. strike on Syria averted, we see now no further “stop the war” and “end the killing” crisis marches in the major cities of Western nations. The salt of the Syrian earth is quickly cleared from the table.

The contest over Syria in the West, especially in the United States, is not simply a debate over a regional crisis. It is a contest for the future course of American foreign policy, whether there will be now, two decades later, a reset of America’s role in the world with the end of the Cold War. The only other Democratic presidency since, Bill Clinton’s, was too soon after, and without the geopolitical circumstances in which opportunistically to chart the new course. Obama, compelled to end two wars, with the opportunity to reject entry immediately into another even more misguided, has the chance – and, rather than uncertain, is determined to take it.

The vortex of even benign empire is thus: a breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement. Imperial behavior, conceived only as protection of interests, expands and then is justified, in what is now the expression of an imperial character, as a necessary advancement of interests. As I wrote in “Obama in Oslo: Power without Empire” about the imperial nation’s ever expanding interests,

Ironically, this makes the superpower a supplicant, always needing to negotiate with other nations over those nations’ natural interests and spheres of power, and far from the natural sphere of the superpower’s interests, because now the world has become its sphere. World security concerns become the superpower’s security concerns, and multiple nations, pursuing their own interests to some degree of variance with the interests of the superpower now become problematic concerns.

The current conservative formula is that any reconsideration of this cycle is a disengagement bespeaking weakness. In order to avoid this appearance – indeed, reality – of (relative) weakness, the cycle must be maintained perpetually. The United States, now that it is the sole superpower, must ensure that it remains the sole superpower. If it is not the conquering, occupying power of imperial epochs past, it must now be and remain the imperial power of enforceable influence wherever its interests and security are perceived to reside, and increasingly they reside everywhere.

Such, however, is part of the historic pattern in the decline of empires. Yet this is the imperative that serves as the basis for misconceiving and rejecting the Obama international vision. It offers a choice not between a weak America and a strong America willing and able to meet genuine security threats. It presents a choice between an imperial America, however internally democratic, attuned to the brute expression and imposition of its will across all reaches, and a strong America integrated, reasonably and with proper regard to its interests, within a slow-developing international order.

Americans will be both the audience and the object of play between both sides on this field of contest, addressed, subject to performance, and bandied about like ball or puck – thoroughly used and abused if they if they are not wise to the game. There are two contestants at play here, neither to be trusted, neither offering time out from the match. Each needs to be resisted if the U.S. is to find its way, finally, into the twenty-first century, and out of and beyond empire. Each needs to be recognized for what it is, with neither the best national self Americans imagine for their country.

Both their houses. Now and forever. No blood on the doorposts.

AJA

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Creative The Political Animal

Norm of the Norm

I didn’t think I would write anything. I was not friend or family to Norm Geras, and so could speak nothing of the private man that those to whom he truly belonged had known. And how many were there who could say at least as much as I – that though I had never met Norm Geras, I felt somehow that I knew him, that he had made an addition to my life, that I cared for him? I knew there was nothing I could say that many others would not say as well and more personally. I knew this even before I checked the blogosphere and social media, and when I did, it was as I knew it would be, the outpouring, from so many quarters, of so many admirers who had been encouraged, inspired, and affected.

I thought, then, that I would confine myself to a tweet or two of my own and to tweeting links to the expressions of others.

It took, what – a day? – for Normfest to arise?

But the weekend passed, and Monday came, and I was still thinking about Norm. I was missing him. I felt, from all he had offered of his sharp, lucid, and rigorous intellect, and of his enthusiasms and his moral being, that I had actually a sense of the man – though I did not know him personally – and that I could hear his voice. The absence of his voice to come.

I recalled younger years, before I had ever lost anyone for whom I truly cared, when I would sometimes morbidly imagine what it would be like, what the finality of the death of another meant. I imagined how when the time came that my mother or father died, for instance, it would not be like a long, even very long, absence from them, which I had experienced and suffered well enough. It meant, I vivified for myself, that I might search the world wide over, in every corner of the earth, and never find them. They would be gone not just from me, but from everywhere, never to be found again in some apartment, even in some far place, sitting beside each other on the sofa.

This was what I kept thinking about Norm’s voice – his wry, reasoned and humane voice. After ten years of its sounding daily in the minds of those who wanted it through his blog – beyond the illustrious scholarly and pedagogical contribution that came before – it was now silenced. What almost immediately became a common cry of longing from so many, answered before on so many subjects of these and former days – what does Norm think? – was now never to be satisfied again.

This is what I have been feeling – loss, and the missing that comes with it. I have been feeling it about someone I didn’t “really” know, someone I never met, someone I knew only through the internet: in the blogosphere, on Twitter and Facebook, via some email exchanges.

I have had something like this experience once before.

In my early days on those various media, encountered via Twitter and then in some email exchanges, a young man named Christopher Al-Aswad offered gracious guidance about how to use them all. Operating in very different, artistic circles from those of Norm’s UK-based and international political ones, Chris founded the wondrously titled internet arts magazine, Escape Into Life. When Chris was lost to his demons at far, far too young an age, the outpouring of affection and grief across social media was a revelation. So admired was Chris, by so many who never “really” knew him, that the mantle of EIL was taken up by others and continued in his memory. My good blogging, Twitter and Facebook friend, poet and art connoisseur Maureen Doallas, for instance, (whom I have never met) now serves as EIL’s Artist Watch Editor.

How did it happen? What is it in the nature of human relation that enables it to form so profoundly in the absence of any physical presence, in a transmission through what develops before our eyes as an expanding social ethernet? Is it even, as we think it, something technological and new, or merely an old contact of being to being facilitated in new forms? In thinking about my own relation to Norm, I found my answer.

Like so many others who blog, I took my Normblog profile as a badge of recognition. (Mine was number 359, August 6, 2010, not so very long ago. The last was 386, just this September.) I felt earlier honored when Norm invited me to contribute to his Writer’s Choice series (number 237). I wrote about Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, but what work I chose is less important here than why I chose it. I chose it because it saved my life. Amid “the dark mental forces that oppressed me” in my very young manhood – not unlike, perhaps, Chris Al-Aswad – it “gave me a way to live.” Through writing, the contact only of mind and mind, across cultures, oceans and years – how often is it across continents and centuries – one human being (here, a French Algerian) entered into a most private kind of communication with another (a New York Jew) and influenced his life.

The power, the relational element of ideas and language, and what they carry in them, an intrinsic cargo, of a person. To a person. All those who mourn the loss of Norm Geras mourn the end of that carriage in words, of ideas about the world, and through their expression, an example of how to be and speak in the world.

When Norm co-authored the Euston Manifesto, right-thinking people of the left everywhere – people who felt abandoned on a progressive path that had, in reality, abandoned them almost from the start – spied a tall marker for the way forward, and a post around which to rally. In smaller increments, day by day for his ten-year blogging career, Norm offered more of the same: finely tuned, clearly and carefully constructed arguments of reason and insight that never lost their concern for the human in their vision of humanity. There are thousands of examples over the years. Here, among his very last posts, just nineteen days before he died, is some of just one among those many.

It’s not that, being a Marxist myself, I begrudge Howard [Jacobson] the judgement that no one of feeling should be a Marxist. He’s perfectly entitled to it, given how many Marxists, past and present, have used Marxist categories for precisely the kind of excuse-making on behalf of the killing of the innocent that he laments. For my own part, I happen to think that this isn’t the only kind of Marxism possible, since like any other tradition of ideas Marxism is capable of change. There are Marxists who understand the necessity of embodying human rights norms at the heart of any morally acceptable political outlook today and who reject absolutely the violations of civilized constraints in the interests of some highly speculative future good. Still, as I’ve argued at some length before, there are different meanings of being a Marxist, and Howard won’t be short of material in finding ways to justify his own expressed preference.

What surprises me in the above-quoted judgement of his is how lightly, by implication, it lets off other doctrines and their adherents. Allah and Jesus would not forgive. As if that ever stopped anyone from adapting religious belief to suit their murderous or oppressive purposes. Fanatical commitment, or what Howard himself identifies as ‘an unswerving conviction of rectitude’, finds many different homes.

And as if the purveyors of excuses for modern terrorism were confined to ever-smaller groups of Marxists, rather than coming – as they do – from practically every shade of so-called progressive opinion and beyond: liberals, greens, anarchists, Guardianistas of every stripe, anti-imperialists, anti-Zionists, and plain fools by the cartload.

Add to this his passions for cricket, jazz, country music (Emmylou Harris division), Jane Austen and Anne Tyler and fiction of all kinds, new technologies, New York City, and old-fashioned decency and you got what seems deserving of a name. Regular readers of Normblog will have gotten the title above right way. Much in the world of Normblog was puckishly “of the Norm.” Adele Geras, Norm’s wife, was WotN – “Wife of the Norm.”

All I wrote of here, all the virtues, all the smaller and greater humanities, the ideas that touched and influenced the lives of so many, they were and will remain the norm of the Norm.

AJA

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The Political Animal

Edward Snowden and the Question of Authority (a Surveillance of Terms)

Edward Snowden received the Integrity Award from the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence this week, and WikiLeaks has posted several videos of the rarely-seen whistleblower during the event.

The Huffington Post

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As opinions about Edward Snowden have flown wildly back and forth, the vocabulary of public debate has suffered woefully. The sorry truth is that well beyond striving politicians, those who pretend to a journalist’s precision of detail or an analyst’s wise counsel in policy have no less the tendency than the politicians to throw words around like jalopies in a demolition derby. Last one still moving its lips wins.

Much of the debate over Snowden, supporting the leanings of whole ideologies, has resorted to the use of four terms: leaker, whistle blower, spy, and civil disobedience. There are variant terms, such as “traitor” and “illegal,” but those four words have formed the parameters of the debate. Find your point on the grid among the coordinates of those four terms, and your position on Edward Snowden is significantly revealed. Yet few people who have publically discussed Snowden’s act and sometimes used those words have troubled themselves to clarify for themselves and others what precisely they mean by the words and how the words relate to each other. Common slapdash efforts have tended to comfort the comfortably certain, and afflict those afflicted  with uncertainty, with the continuing sense that the matter is all one great subjective political confusion: you know, one person’s spy is another person’s whistleblower.

Shall we cry, “Not”? Let’s.

To begin, three of the terms are conceptually separable from the fourth, all of them not, truly, equal end points on a grid. Civil disobedience stands apart. To leak, to whistle blow, to spy are all categorically related, each a distinguishable, individuated subclass of the more general notion of leaking. If we think of that general notion as one of porous escape from an area of containment, then we manage to separate, to start, the various political actions and moral charges that later attach to types of leaking. We might also think of the concrete barrier of containment that inhibits leakage in the physical world, whatever its material form, as akin to authority in the world of human interaction, especially, here, of government. They are the ideal institutions and the operating protocols of government that seek to erect the authority which, put into practice and respected, establish the containment – the concealment of sensitive information – to prevent leakage.

To leak, in its specific use, is part of the vocabulary of the political classes. As the term is commonly used, people leak information as practical political acts. Sometimes, oddly, contradictorily, a leak is authorized. That is to say that someone who exercises authority over the keeping and containment of the information is the one who creates the leak – releases the information – in order to achieve, by subterfuge, some political effect.  We presume, generally, when we allege such an act, that it is performed, though outside of protocols, with the knowledge or tacit acquiescence of the very highest level of authority, the President or other top executive figure. Thus we see created a fissure in the wall of authoritative containment. To break the rules is to defy authority. Yet we probably most believe that presidents and other leaders must in the exercise of leadership have freedom of movement at the boundaries of action, in order to contend with the contingencies of the real world. Many people clearly, to offer an extreme instance, have made their peace with presidential authorization of torture at the height of the post 9/11 era. What contends in these cases is the authority of law and protocol with the authority of executive leadership. We all have some sense of how the two should balance or one should predominate, but the more marginal we imagine the infraction to be, the less clarity we are likely to have in the matter, and the less many of us will care about attempting to establish a wavy line of demarcation.

When we believe that the leaker is high in the chain of authority, but is acting without some belief in Presidential support, even knowingly against what the President would wish, then we approach the distinguishing boundary of the whistle blower, but we are still not at it. Just as with “authorized” leaks, the person who operates at a high level of government, but who acts surreptitiously to release information in some way counter to the desires of presidential or other executive administration is committing a practical political act. Such a person is not challenging the legitimacy or moral authority of the nation or its government. Such a person is not necessarily challenging the legality of a government policy or act, as the whistle blower tends to do. The “non-authorized” leaker does, however, seek to influence policy by force of public reaction to the leaked information. One might say that the non-authorized leaker accepts the system as it is, in its ideal and real-world constructions, and willingly works within it. Depending on one’s beliefs about an array of matters, one might think the acts of both kinds of leakers to be either dishonorable or the wily operation of the shrewd political player.

As good an example of the “non-authorized” leaker as can be offered, if current suspicions are confirmed as correct, would be  retired Gen. James E. Cartwright of the Marines. Cartwright, reportedly while in service a favorite of President Obama, served before his retirement as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second highest military position in the land. Yet according to multiple sources back in June, Cartwright is suspected of being the source of a leak to The New York Times revealing United States involvement in the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program computers. In response to these reports, according to National Public Radio, the general’s attorney released a statement using language strikingly relevant to matters in question in the Snowden debate.

General Jim Cartwright is an American hero who served his country with distinction for four decades. Any suggestion that he could have betrayed the country he loves is preposterous.

Whistle blowers will tend to be individuals of far lesser authority than Cartwright, often more functionary than authority, though in government and intelligence work the gradients between the two might seem infinitely to recede into the horizon. The young Edward Snowden may serve as a prime example of that perception. Whistle blowers, properly speaking, see an ideal or operational wrong and believe themselves to be functionally powerless to alter practice or policy in order to right the wrong. They do not have sufficient authority. They are not even, as Cartwright may have been, active participants in the shaping of policy or procedure who lost out in debate. They have no power to formulate, only to execute. As we imagine whistle blowers to be, they are people of conscience who, otherwise voiceless and powerless – thus whistle blower protection laws – blow the whistle on wrongdoing.

This is certainly how Edward Snowden and his supporters portray him. Even many people not fully supportive of Snowden perceive him as someone acting on conscience, however they might judge a range of his actions to be misguided. The individual acting on conscience may be motivated only by moral qualms, but just as likely, when it regards matters about which to blow the whistle, the moral compunction is attached to what is perceived to be illegality. That seems at best a muddy area in Snowden’s revelations. Certainly, many think the programs and procedures Snowden revealed, beginning with their secrecy, to run counter to a spirit of civil liberty and appropriate legal procedure. We find not secret FISA court orders, for instance, but undemocratic, secret interpretations of law. Few legal minds have argued that any of the NSA programs – authorized by legislation and clarified in scope by those court findings – are themselves illegal.

The question of illegality and the matter of how one blows the whistle – whether in report to superiors, along special protective avenues, or by going public directly through the media and thus bypassing protocols – all complicate evaluation of the whistle blower’s act. For many, Snowden and his outright supporters argue very credibly that the last course was the only one effectively open to him, as Daniel Ellsberg similarly felt about the Pentagon Papers.

There is, however, an additional consideration involved in attempting to classify, in order to properly regard, however complexly, Edward Snowden’s actions. Back on June 25, the South China Morning Post reported,

For the first time, Snowden has admitted he sought a position at Booz Allen Hamilton so he could collect proof about the US National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programmes ahead of planned leaks to the media.

“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” he told the Post on June 12. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”

During a live global online chat last week, Snowden also stated he took pay cuts “in the course of pursuing specific work”. He said: “Booz was not the most I’ve been paid.”

….

Asked if he specifically went to Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence of surveillance, he replied: “Correct on Booz.”

Ellsberg, perhaps the most famous whistle blower in U.S. history and a supporter of Snowden, nonetheless serves as a marked contrast to Snowden in several ways. Ellsberg, working for the Rand Corporation after service at the Department of Defense, contributed to the study of the Vietnam War commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that later became known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was one of the few people who had access to the entire study. He was, on these terms, the classic whistle blower: a government or government-affiliated employee who becomes disillusioned by the mission in which he is a participant, but on which he is powerless to effect change. However, Ellsberg did not seek a job at the Rand Corporation with the specific purpose to obtain information to which he otherwise lacked access and then to leak it.

While Edward Snowden and supporters consider him a whistle blower, and he does in some respects fit the description, in others he does not. The United States government has, in fact, charged Snowden with espionage. Is that charge simply institutional vindictiveness, bureaucratic anger at the unauthorized disclosure of information, as Snowden and his Wikileaks and other supporters charge? There are the intricacies of law on which most people are not expert to comment, but there are definitions in the common language. Merriam Webster tells us that a spy is “one that spies; one who keeps secret watch on a person or thing to obtain information.” Wiktionary identifies espionage as the “act or process of learning secret information through clandestine means.” Whereas Daniel Ellsberg leaked information to which he had access as part of work in which he was already authorized to be engaged, Edward Snowden by his own admission sought employment with access to classified information purposefully in order to seek out that information, remove it, and publically disclose it without authorization.

More detailed encyclopedic and intelligence-service definitions of espionage accord with the fuller conception most people have of espionage commonly applying to corporate and nation-against-nation spying. There is no evidence of any such intent on Snowden’s part, nor is there any reason to suspect him of seeking personal gain. We tend also to think of spies as working for enemies, but that is not required. Friendly nations spy on one another all the time. Jonathan Pollard spied on the U.S. for Israel. The U.S., it just so happens Snowden has revealed, spies on its own European allies. Though Snowden seems to conceive of himself as a patriot, as General Cartwright’s lawyer reasonably casts him, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of that belief, he has, first, cast his lot with parties who present themselves quite antagonistically toward the U.S., and he has begun to make such comments himself.

As political contestants become more heatedly embroiled in deepening convolutions of motivation and act, and charge and counter charge about the motivations and acts of others, all may find idealized cause to elevate their own higher love of country or freedom above the cravenness of their adversary: nearly everyone is a patriot in his own mind, when he hasn’t spied for money or out of personal grievance. Sometimes, for some ballast against the upending waves of political agonism, we need to return to some existing standards: definitions, precedents, and law. Certainly, by some clear, existent standards, what Edward Snowden set out to engage in at Booz Allen, and against the U.S. government, regardless of his motivation, was espionage.

We have political leakers, we have whistle blowers of conscience, we have spies. Edward Snowden is not the first. There are arguments to be made for the second and third. Let us consider Snowden further on his own terms, as the whistle blower motivated by conscience.

The civil disobedient – what some have carelessly called Snowden – also acts from conscience, though it need not be against illegality. In some sense, civil disobedience based on conscience alone is even more admirable than exposing illegality, which is a great and perhaps even risky enough act itself. In a free and democratic society, we hope – but justice is always an uncertain destination – exposing illegality will receive its ideal and proper reward.  It is on the books. That a personal sense of justice will come commonly to prevail is a still riskier bet to make. When Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, it was not to oppose illegality. The injustice he went to fight was legal. He broke the law to oppose it. There are, he wrote,

two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

These high sounding words might be in practice quite capricious and self-serving, but for one highly salient fact – King wrote them from jail. They are found, after all, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

King was not the first to espouse this standard. Wrote Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience,

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her.

For all Thoreau’s sense of the tyranny of the state qua state, neither he, then, nor we now need be foolish enough to confuse that tyranny with the greater human tyranny effected by the state. We know the systems and societies where such noble figures as Thoreau imagines, upholding their personal measure of justness in prison, may sink into dark holes of history never to emerge from those prisons free or living again. It is, then, easier to justify flight from the system whose wrong one exposes, whose law one breaks, if one can cast it in such dire terms as those. If one can acknowledge no determinative difference between the United States and North Korea or Russia or Iran, one can tell oneself and the world that no obligation is owed to the country and system of laws one challenges.

Like King in the American South, Mohandas Gandhi faced levels of discriminatory oppression from the British Rule of India far greater than the generic tyranny Thoreau faced in the United States. King respected the American system as Gandhi did not the British in India, yet Gandhi, through the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience he fashioned as Satyagraha, nonetheless submitted to British law. In 1922, Gandhi was tried for “bringing or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government established by law in British India.”  He concluded his statement to the court with these words:

I am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is deliberate crime, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the Judge and the assessors, is either to resign your posts and thus dissociate yourselves from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil, and that in reality I am innocent, or to inflict on me the severest penalty, if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country, and that my activity is, therefore, injurious to the common weal.

All three men, Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, staked their principles of civil disobedience in the ground marked off before them by Socrates. Like Edward Snowden, Socrates believed that truths were being withheld from the citizenry, in his case, of Athens. Socrates had endeavored throughout his life to shine the light of reality on the minds of all those with whom he conversed. Late in his life, it became the claim of the rulers of Athens that its citizens, like those of the United States, needed to be protected, in this case from Socrates himself, who was charged with “ refusing to acknowledge the gods recognized by the State and of introducing new and different gods” and with “corrupting the youth” of Athens.

Socrates did not flee his trial, but stood it. It was after he was unjustly convicted – and not before, in what might be deemed by some a convenient anticipation of injustice – that Socrates was urged by his friend Crito to flee. All necessary arrangements had been made by Crito for that flight to safety. In Plato’s dialogue called Crito, Socrates offers the many reasons why he believed it would be wrong for him to escape. He questions what commitment to justice he might rightly claim, and to a regulated system of laws aimed at establishing justice, were he to flee a judgment that might go against him. Argues Socrates, in the voice of the Law, personified as all whom it represents,

“Tell us, Socrates,” they say; “what are you

about? Are you going by an act of yours to overturn us — the

50b      laws and the whole State, as far as in you lies? Do you

imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in

which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside

and overthrown by individuals?” What will be our answer,

Crito, to these and the like words? Anyone, and especially

a clever rhetorician, will have a good deal to urge about the

evil of setting aside the law which requires a sentence to be

carried out; and we might reply, “Yes; but the State has

50c      injured us and given an unjust sentence.” Suppose I say that?

Socrates defied what he thought unjust law, law that required he acknowledge the existence of gods in which he did not believe. But he accepted his punishment for that defiance and declared his respect for law itself. A foundation for that respect was laid in the argument Socrates made of implied consent.

                 But he who has experience of the manner in which we

order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has

entered into an implied contract that he will do as we

command him. And he who disobeys us is, as we maintain,

thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying

his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his

education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us

that he will duly obey our commands; and he neither obeys

them nor convinces us that our commands are wrong; and we

do not rudely impose them, but give him the alternative of

obeying or convincing us; that is what we offer, and he does

52a      neither.

Though he appears, in his defense of Snowden, no longer to recognize this standard today. Ellsberg did recognize if for himself.

I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.

Of course, one may take a radically subversive or revolutionary stance, by which state institutions and the system of laws are challenged in their very legitimacy. Some of those who have become associated with Snowden – Julian Assange and Wikileaks, for instance – frequently make characterizations of the United States in this spirit, though they have yet to outright declare themselves subversive or revolutionary enemies of the state. Edward Snowden has made no such declaration, and if he did he would then reasonably lose any basis for complaint of his treatment by an avowed enemy. If, rather, he claims to be acting from conscience, morally committed to a higher enactment of the idea of America, then he has an existing standard of civil disobedience against which to measure himself and be measured by others. That standard is

Refusal to obey government demands or commands and nonresistance to consequent arrest and punishment. … Civil disobedience is a symbolic or ritualistic violation of the law, rather than a rejection of the system as a whole. The civil disobedient, finding legitimate avenues of change blocked or nonexistent, sees himself as obligated by a higher, extralegal principle to break some specific law. By submitting to punishment, the civil disobedient hopes to set a moral example that will provoke the majority or the government into effecting meaningful political, social, or economic change.

If Edward Snowden and those who encourage him in his present course think themselves able to marshal not just the impassioned recalcitrance of critics, but compelling arguments fit to contend with the ancient and continuing legacy before them, and the intellectual authority of that legacy, they should make them. For it is not only what they oppose for which they will be remembered, but also what they promote, and whatever clear, coherent, and compelling case they make, or do not make, for how to act rightly in the face of wrong.

AJA

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Indian Country

A Second Look: The Honor of the Mascot, or A Team by Any Other Name

washington-redskins-helmet-logoThe latest publicity over the very name of the Washington Redskins is only the most recent eruption in a longtime simmer. As recently as 2009, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case dating back to 1992. This should not surprise given that the Supreme Court has never overturned Johnson v. McIntosh, its 1823 decision in which it justified the European conquest of Native American lands by right of the Doctrine of Discovery and asserted the United States’s assumption by inheritance of this right. The decision remains the law of the land. It is as if Dred Scott v. Sandford‎  were still accepted law. Fittingly, too, the 2009 decision was over the matter of trademark – an economic interest such as those that fueled all the conquest and abuse of Native America.

The latest effort against the Redskins denigration also began with a challenge to trademark. Now President Obama has weighed in, and for certain kind of American for whom neither the conquest, nor Johnson, nor the legacy of both is problematic, the very fact of Obama’s judgment belittles the case. That Lanny Davis, of all legal counsel, has been retained as Redskins representation offers its own ready commentary on the quality of the quarters to which adherents now retreat. All this foolishness about identity politics. (Crie those, generally, whose identity was never the reason for social difficulty.)

I wrote about this specific subject at length once before, on June 8, 2009.

From “The Honor of the Mascot, or A Team by Any Other Name”

Periodically, because of such suits – and actions on a more local level, against school athletic teams – the subject gains a degree of national attention. Some non-Natives are automatically sympathetic: of course, there shouldn’t be such team names. No Washington Redskins anymore than a Los Angeles Kikes, Washington Niggers, New York Spics, or Cleveland Bohunks.

Those less sympathetic generally argue from two positions. One is that of an apparently deep fatigue (so arduous has been the burden) with what is sometimes referred to (for instance, now, in the conservative opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor) as “identity atlanta-braves-logopolitics.” This is a fatigue generally ironically experienced mostly by those who have never been the victims of the original identity politics, namely racial or ethnic discrimination. (Ah, but give them credit; they are born again.) And there is no group identity that has been longer both under attack and disregarded on this continent than that, collectively, of the various Native nations.

The other position – less explicitly presented but quite apparent – is that of the sports fans who don’t want their hallowed traditions messed with. Team names, statistical records, stadium rituals are all part of the mythic regalia of an athletic Valhalla. You want to disrupt all that for – the Indians? Of course, few would say exactly that, so one defense of current practice with regard to the Washington Redskins is that “Redskin” is not a derogatory term like those others I used. Sports Illustrated, of all publications (how curious) conducted a poll in 2002 that offered results indicating that an overwhelming majority of Native Americans did not object to the term. In 2004, the Annenberg Public Policy Center produced a similar poll.

cleveland-indians-race-cure

Setting aside any consideration of the particularly problematic nature of polling what is, at this point, a very demographically complex Native population, one has first to note that there still, nonetheless, appear not to be athletic teams named the Los Angeles Semites, Washington Negroes, New York Hispanics, or Cleveland Slavs. And we might point out as a reasonable and parallel historical argument that, hey, the Indians signed all those treaties, didn’t they? It was all on the up and up. They agreed to it!

Besides (goes the further argument), we’re paying them a compliment. We’re honoring them (but not those Semites, Negroes, and, well, you get the point) for their courage and dignity and similar such encomiums. One has to wonder, if the Native population had managed to hold off and limit the European advance on the continent in any significant way, had achieved any measure of victory – at far greater cost to non-Native life, as is the nature of war – would the present-day fans of Redskin “courage” and “dignity” be nonetheless similarly enamored? One tends not to ennoble one’s conqueror. The defeated don’t make pets of the victorious.

multi-logo

Check the major American dictionaries: “Redskin” is defined as a derogatory term. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the American Counseling Association, and the American Psychological Association have all adopted resolutions opposing the use of Native American images as athletic symbols and mascots. Yet there remains something essential that most Americans do not get.

A few weeks ago, we spoke with Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma:

For generations now, what is the language or frame of reference we’ve accepted? Because of American history, it is based upon color. It’s very simplistic. Those are fairly shallow criteria…. There are a lot of other barriers that the United States and the American people don’t even recognize as a barrier. A very clear one is the Washington Redskins…. If we look in D.C. today, here is the capitol, here is the class of people who really should understand American history…but have so little understanding that the Washington Redskins – half the congress goes to those games, and you can go to their offices and see those derogatory caricatures.

The dominating mentality of the conqueror persists, little altered by time. The ownership of the Washington Redskins and its executive leadership condescend to praise Native Americans as they belittle them, by exercising a power that only the dominant can wield over those subject to that power – in this case, the force of an arrogant cultural disregard masking unremitting greed. So it was in previous centuries; so it is now. Twice in the nineteenth century the Cherokee had their Tribal lands removed from them because, beneath all the subterfuge, the government and whites simply wanted them for their own economic interests. An underlying truth in the case of the Washington Redskins is that a change in the team’s name, affecting branding and team identification, would have significant economic consequences for what is currently the second most valuable team in the National Football League.

Until now arguments in court have centered on trademark law and the timeliness of the plaintiff’s applications. This is how it has always been. But if there were a Los Angeles Kikes or a Washington Niggers, all quaintly dressed up in their most becoming cultural stereotypes, how long ago would growing popular outrage have forced the issue beyond the bounds of the blind technicalities of law?

A fine compendium on the issue.

AJA

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The Political Animal

A Second Look: James Madison & the Tea Party

The current government shut down over the Affordable Healthcare Act speaks directly to issues found in the nation’s beginnings. Among the many ironies of Tea Party foolishness is that while its adherents are enemies of federalism and shape minor deities of the nation’s founders, the nation’s founders very purposefully opted for federalism. This post from February 2011, about Federalist paper No. 10 considers James Madison’s clear and famous thoughts about political “factions,” the “aggregate interests of the community,” and the “rights of large bodies of citizens.”

James Madison and Madison, Wisconsin

300px-FederalistConservative deification of the Founders regularly overlooks their choice – in a constitutional, federal government over the prior confederation – of stronger, more centralized national government. In argumentative recourse to the Federalist Papers, conservatives neglect, as history does, the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Federalists won the day. It was their constitution, with the addition of a Bill of Rights, that was passed.

James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 is famous for its consideration of factions, or as we call them today, “special interests.”  Of course any interest not universally held is a special (in the sense of having a limited constituency) interest. Any interest one does not like is termed a special interest.

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. (Emphasis added)

When Madison refers to “public…liberty” he is citing a concept traceable to Spinoza and more immediately to Hume. Constant would later distinguish public from personal liberty as “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns.” The latter is what we think of as individual civil liberties, the former as systematic political liberty, in the American case, as Madison saw it, republicanism. The distinction is often overlooked, and the two are not inseparable. A benevolent monarch or philosopher-king could grant personal liberty in the absence of public liberty.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (Emphasis added)

How can we ensure public liberty if some faction “whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole,” or more clearly “by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority” act “adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community’? Observer that in Madison’s concern for public liberty he includes the “aggregate interests of the community” – a phrase that would elicit from contemporary conservatives and Republicans cries of “socialist” or worse.

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. (Emphasis added)

Madison acknowledges natural disparities in the faculties (not innate worth) of men in acquiring property (wealth) and upholds the purpose of government to protect this individuality. He also attributes to these disparities what can be seen as the equally natural “division of the society into different interests and parties.”

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government. (Emphasis added)

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...
James Madison, Hamilton’s major collaborator, later President of the United States and “Father of the Constitution” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Contemporary conservatism hails inequality of outcome. It is the hard dictate of nature. The American dream, sold wholesale, retail, and on street corners is that since anyone may raise himself by his natural faculties and character to a favored position on that scale of inequality, any moderation of it is a limitation placed on his or his offspring’s prospects. If one has not the faculties, well, such is life, and people are encouraged in principle and at the pulpit to be kind. But Madison – that Founding Father, giant of the Federalist Papers –  rather than sanguine about the unequal distribution of wealth, tells us that “[t]he regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation.” That’s legislation that regulates the “interfering interests” that flow from the unequal distribution of wealth.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. (Emphasis added)

Almost all Americans are workers, their labor determined and directed by owners or managers (the latter of whom, too, are mostly workers subject to a comparable subordination in a hierarchy), and their subsistence, employment security, health, pursuit of happiness, and last years subject in quality not only to the gains of their own abilities but the will of employers and the employment market. The rights, the benefits – in personal and economic wellbeing – of these workers represent the “aggregate interests of the community.” The element of public liberty, that mechanism of the republican system, that can regulate the interfering interests produced by inequalities of property, wealth, and economic power in society is the labor union. James Madison could not have anticipated on November 22, 1787 that these inequalities of wealth and power in a nation two hundred years into the future could reach such staggering proportions – that what he conceived as majority factions of number could be replaced by a stupendous majority in dollars.

For they are the economic interests of the nation’s wealthy – with the Koch brothers in the forefront – and their political centurions, like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, that for three decades have steadily sought the destruction of organized labor and stalled the economic progress of the multitude of Americans, while the inequalities of wealth Madison wrote of have grown. Now these interests set “taxpayers” against “government workers,” but what are the overwhelming number of taxpayers but workers of any kind, and what are government workers but taxpayers? But many worker/taxpayers have been led to see that illusory dichotomy as a critical factional divide: when they should be seeking the advantages of government workers and resenting the greed of the wealthy, they have been lured into fantasizing about wealth and resenting the advantages of fellow workers. Those who do not have pensions and healthcare are divided in enmity from those who do, and those who have almost everything play the two against each other like cocks in a ring. One is left done on the ground while the other gets to peck and claw another day. And the oligarchic power of Wall Street and big business only grows.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

AJA

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The Political Animal

Homer (Dean Adler)

September 1, 1999 – September 27, 2013

Homer was a 21st century dog, so he took the last names of both his parents…

On the Road_03

In his tenth month, he met his adoptive older sister, Penelope (Anne Dean – third and most diminutive in the line of Anne Deans)…

Homer and Penelope

It was instant love, and through the rest of Homer’s life, they barely spent a day apart…

On the Road_09

They traveled these United States together…

Downtown_03

They followed many paths…

On the Road_04

Took many tracks…

On the Road_02

In different climes…

On the Road_05

Wherever Homer traveled…

On the Road_07

He left his mark…

On the Road_01

He saw the world…

RV Dogs

And cast his shadow on it…

Downtown_05

But like us all, he grew old…

Downtown_04

And he grew weary…

We held him to us as long as we could. On Friday, we let him go.

When we adopted Homer at six months from the two women who had rescued his litter from the side of the road, they said, there is only one thing you need to know about him – he lives to please you.

He pleased us.

Very much.

On the Road_06

AJA

All photos by Julia Dean

Categories
Culture Clash

Photography, Fathers, and Mayors

Photo by Gil Garcetti
Photo by Gil Garcetti

When Gil Garcetti was voted out as Los Angeles District Attorney in 2000 after two terms, he turned his dedication in life to another love besides the law – photography. In the years since, he has become a respected figure in the L.A. and broader photo community. He is especially known for what has become his signature project: his photo documentary record of the construction of the city’s now iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry.

When he began, Garcetti did not have three books and exhibits in mind, nor quite the physical challenge. But he responded to another challenge, that of an iron worker one day while Garcetti was shooting the building in progress. The challenge was not to allow what all knew would be a great building to be identified solely with its architect, but to permanently recall the men, and a woman – the iron workers – who walked and assembled the beams of its skeletal body. Garcetti took on the challenge, and he has never forgotten his charge. While some of his

Photo book by Gil Carcetti
Photo book by Gil Garcetti

Disney Hall images capture the extraordinary architectural whole, many more carve geometric abstractions out of the building’s oblique and curving planes set against the sky. Others – the first third of the latest book – document the skills and daring of the iron workers.

Yesterday, the latest exhibit of Garcetti’s Disney Hall work opened at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles, just a block from the hall. Since Gil Garcetti has just agreed to join the board of advisers of the soon to be transformed Julia Dean Photo Workshops into the nonprofit Los Angeles Center of Photography (about which, more at a later date), and Julia Dean being a special inhabitant of the sad red earth, we had

Photo by Julia Dean
Gil Garcetti, right, with iron worker who helped build the Disney Concert Hall.
Photo by Julia Dean

the opportunity to be present at the opening.

A few things stood out, besides the photographs. One was Garcetti’s humility and lack of self-centeredness. When he spoke after his introduction, it was all about neither his photography nor the famous architect, but about the iron workers. Two of them, captured in Garcetti’s images, were present, at his invitation. They spoke, too, and it was obvious the regard in which they all held each other in their continuing relationship.

Photo by Gil Garcetti
Photo by Gil Garcetti

Another stand out observation was of the photographer’s son. Gil Garcetti is, of course, the father of Los Angeles’s new mayor, Eric Garcetti, who was present, along with the rest of the extended family. If there were handlers, they were not obviously visible. Nor did the mayor draw any attention to himself, though everyone knew he was there. For the afternoon, he was a man’s son, proud of his father, deferring the center of attention to him, and like any tech habituated 42-year old, capturing the occasion on his smart phone by by doing a 360 degree video pan.

Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti. Photo by Julia Dean
Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti.
Photo by Julia Dean
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The Political Animal

Masters of War

masters “Masters of War,” compellingly titled, fortuitously timed in its creation, ranks among Bob Dylan’s most jejune songs. The apparent good fortune of its historic timing emerged out of a natural uprising from circumstance. Given that circumstance, and the song’s generalized complaint, how, it almost seems, could the United States not have become fully drawn into a Vietnam War? The song’s lyrics are commonplace at best, its ideas simplistic, its attitude simple minded – much of what is spoken about war is. But the song did not arise out of nowhere, was not merely the febrile complaint of a barely post-adolescent artist. There are, however much more complexly than the song suggests, masters of war.

The masters of war want an American war in Syria. They do not, as Barack Obama does, want a punitive or preventive strike against Syria in response to Syria’s chemical weapons use, in order to uphold international prohibition. They mock such an action. They mock it in itself and they mock it because it is, or was, the plan of Barack Obama. They refuse, still, to acknowledge that Obama early on made the clear choice not in any way to enter the Syrian civil war, because he believed there was little the United States could do and that it would only replicate an error of war the country has made already too many times. But whatever Obama does, if it is not in accordance with the aggressive Bush-era “freedom agenda,” has been, is, and will be called by his usual foreign policy critics “feckless” and “dithering.” They mean weak and cowardly. That is the way masters of war speak when you do not give them what they want. What they want, this time, is an American war in Syria.

My last post, “Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon,” attempted to limn the follies and even bad faith often to be found at far ends of the war question and now, particularly, a Syrian “war” question. I enclose “war” in those challenging marks because what I endorsed at the end of “Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon” is, as President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have presented it, a limited military action with two aims. The first is to deter the Bashar al-Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons. The second, collaterally, is to degrade the regime’s ability to further use those weapons and even, perhaps, its prospects of prevailing in the civil war. That last outcome could hasten – appears the only thing that might hasten – a move toward a political settlement and thus the end of the current bloodletting. Every other idea at “intervention” seems likely only to increase the death toll and draw the United States into actual, protracted war.

To be clear, however, the second goal is subsidiary and opportunistic in light of the first. Without the chemical weapons use, there has been no policy to pursue that second goal.

We should always be concerned about the uncertain consequences of military action, even when we think ourselves compelled by moral imperative as much or more than by the calculus of security and interests. We should be more concerned then, as we may act too rashly, driven by the values that impel us and not with sufficient focus on the effects of our actions. The best intentions may have the worst consequences.

With those concerns as pretense and cover, the usual political elements fashioning themselves as “antiwar” have reflexively appeared. In their opposition, they organize not against war in most places in the world, but against any action by the U.S. or the West in armed conflict. They contort even the most moral of purposes, in support of even their own highest ideals, into perversions of imperial power to be opposed. After organizing not at all for two years to “stop” the Syrian civil war, now they gather in spiritual enclaves to “stop” a war that for them began only as the U.S. might become attached to it and will escape their attention whenever the U.S. might move on. One death by Western bombs is an imperial outrage, 100,000 by tyrants are not theorizable for politicking. These protesters of war cannot lose the moral authority they lost long ago.

Preening “antiwar” protesters are not a fixed political block, however. Their numbers can swell and recede as people are led by their understanding to see the world. Doesn’t that make them ripe for manipulation. Are not we all, always.

The masters of war seek now again to manipulate public opinion, just as they did as proponents of the Iraq War, in just the same ways.

The single most cited account of the situation in Syria over the past two weeks was an Op-Ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy in the Wall Street Journal. Titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” the column sought to counter one of the greatest concerns regarding support for Syrian rebels – that they are constituted significantly of Islamist jihadists. O’Bagy, who has spent much time in Syria, informed us otherwise.

According to O’Bagy, jihadists like Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq are not at the front lines leading the fight against Assad, but busy consolidating territorial gains in the North of the country, where they hope to establish an Islamist state. It is unclear whether that detail is meant to reassure about intervention or provoke Americans to prevention.

O’Bagy characterizes the other rebel forces, collectively, as “moderates.” Never does she explain that descriptor. She does not, for instance, say what it is they moderate between:  jihadists and what the West would call “liberals”? She advises at the end that the “U.S. must make a choice. It can address the problem now, while there is still a large moderate force with some shared U.S. interests, or ….” O’Bagy concludes with her best description of the “moderates” as a “force with some shared U.S. interests.” What a curiously tepid and vague endorsement. Could it be because what counts among “moderates” are Salafists, who while not jihadists seeking a universal caliphate, do wish to create a state existing under Sharia law? You will have to ask O’Bagy, so let’s.

According to a O’Bagy, in a 2012 report for the Institute for the Study of War,

  • Moderate political Islam is not incompatible with democratic governance. However, ultraconservative Sunni Islamists, known as Salafists, envision a new world order modeled on early Islam that poses a significant threat to both democracy and the notion of statehood. Salafi-jihadists are those who commit to violent means to bring about the Salafi vision.

  • It is difficult to distinguish between moderate Islamists and Salafi-jihadists in the context of the Syrian civil war.

  • The vast majority of Syrians opposing the regime are local revolutionaries still fighting against autocracy; while they are not Islamists, in the sense that their political visions do not depend upon Islamic principles, they espouse varying degrees of personal religious fervor.

In this context, but absent the same clear, specific, but uncertain account, O’Bagy now advocates support by the U.S, including “a major bombing campaign by the U.S., sophisticated weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapon systems,” with the “ultimate goal of destroying Assad’s military capability while simultaneously empowering the moderate opposition.”

O’Bagy was identified in the August 30th op-ed as “a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.”  A full week later, the Wall Street Journal was led to offer a correction beneath her article.

In addition to her role at the Institute for the Study of War, Ms. O’Bagy is affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit operating as a 501(c)(3) pending IRS approval that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition.

Even in its correction the Journal was not completely forthcoming. O’Bagy is not merely “affiliated with” SETF; she is identified at its website as its political director. SETF is a Syrian-led organization, via its board of directors and advisors, dedicated to enlisting U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. It has sponsored John McCain in his trips to Syria. Its executive director, Palestinian-born Mouaz Moustafa, has a LinkedIn profile that still identifies him also as the Executive Director at the Libyan Council of North America, where he played the same role advocating for American intervention in Libya.

Even the Institute for the Study of War holds nuggets of information to be uncovered. Its website lists at the highest level of management Dr. Kimberly Kagan as its president. Of course, the institute does have a board of directors, discoverable through Guidestar. It includes Bill Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney.

The deceptions and manipulations of the masters of war are broader even than these examples. The very framing of the issue to be clarified – whether the Syrian opposition is forbiddingly jihadist or “moderate” enough to comfort Americans in a military engagement – is a deception. The complexity of Syria, the reasons for the United States to avoid entanglement in its civil war, the reasons why President Obama has avoided it, are far greater than the one issue of who the opposition may truly be.

There is the role of Hezbollah and Assad’s possible fall back into Lebanon, further pulling that country into the mix. There are the sectarian divides of Syria, just as in Iraq, that will not disappear during a civil war and even once Assad may be ousted from power. There are the Kurds, angling across four nations – Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – for a nation of their own. Now, in addition to Iraq, they have their foothold in Syria. There is an incipient reconciliation process afoot in Turkey between its government and Turkish Kurds that, given history, could collapse at any time, particularly under the effects on Turkey of emboldened Syrian Kurds on its border. Now, too, Turkey has come to think Syria’s jihadist Jabhat al Nusra a threat as well.  The possibilities for spiraling and expanding conflict are deep and many. Should they grow, the effects on more surrounding nations, like Jordan, with its currently quiescent Muslim Brotherhood, may grow.

The masters of war want to drag the United States into this. After Iraq and Afghanistan, following the toppling of the Taliban, with that record, they want more. They will tell us, too, that the failure of Afghanistan is that we did not commit well enough and long enough – Obama’s fault, of course. Think they will not say that about Syria, too – more, more, longer, longer – when all does not go as swimmingly as they suggest?

They scorned Obama for seeking only to stop Syria’s chemical weapons use – too little, too little, too little. They scorn him now that he pauses to pursue a diplomatic possibility of ensuring that end without a military strike. Now, suddenly, after two years of protracted civil war, if Obama does not launch a strike immediately (which is inadequate anyway), then he has thrown away all trust and respect and the future of the West. He has achieved so far, without launching a missile yet, Syrian admission of its chemical weapons program, Syria’s public acceptance of a proposal that they relinquish it, and Russia’s public agreement to the same principle. Who, a week ago, conceived that those accomplishments were even to be considered as a goal?

Are the masters of war happy? Do they credit these advances at all? Do they do anything but ridicule and degrade? No. They do not. They do only one thing.

Only one thing satisfies the masters of war.

AJA

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The Political Animal

Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon

Something fails to fire. Across the synaptic gap, neurotransmission falls short. For only a moment or forever, we cease to remember – “as if,” Billy Collins writes,

… one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Or there is one phone, in an old inn, and you reach somebody there, the keeper, who was a once a Captain in the British Navy, though he’s old and fuzzy now, and while you keep raising your voice as if louder means clearer, he persists in bellowing, “Hello? Hello?”

There are many agents of forgetfulness. They abound. They are in the water, in the air, in the waves of the air, in the words we read and hear. And they are invisible, like all the silent killers, not just of people, but of memory. To survive them is an act of will and determined focus, for to know one thing, one must remember many, and the agents never cease their attack. They work together, too, in admixtures, compounds, concentrates aiming to wreak havoc on our limbic systems.

About Syria, one agent group has told us all this before, and before, and before, that our decency depends upon it, that good men and women, Syrian Tom Paines all, are just waiting for us – our so little to give all that they need to prevail, storified in paeans to freedom and dignity. They are destined to prevail (the force is with them), yet, oddly, if we do not make their cause our cause, all will be lost, for now it will be our cause, and our failure if it is lost. Come, join in. We must engage them to win their hearts, for Tom Paines are fickle and Iraq was Iraq, Afghanistan Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia so twentieth century, what have you done for us lately, oh, you torpid and craven.

Forget Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the renowned Madisons and Monroes of Vietnam, forget the Sunni-Shia divide, the Alawite hatred, the streams of Kurdish aspiration seeking to conjoin across national borders, the scores of contending forces, the maniacally Muslim among them, and Hezbollah, and crumpled Lebanon, Turkey’s increasingly illiberal leanings, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and, oh, yes. Iran. Forget.

Fouad Ajami, he of the gravelly-wise empathetic voice, white beard and wild brows, beautifully unattractive like an old blind seer, he should play Homer – sing-o-muse – will wax again America toward war, uttering to Anderson Cooper the most foolish professional advice ever uttered by expert lips, that we, America “have to have faith in the Syrian people.”

Bring your American goodness – forged from American degeneracy if you don’t.

But memory is worn away in many directions. Ajami has his responders. We see them every time, they return every time, the End and Stop the War Coalitions that only work to end and stop the wars that the United States or the United Kingdom thinks about entering, otherwise not so much the banners and the burning outrage. War is cruel, but any war that America might join is most cruel, and it doesn’t matter what a president, or a secretary-of, might say, what party from, what history of belief and profession – the exercise of American power is at issue so everything everyone says is now a lie, a conspiracy, and a murderous plan to make a buck. “International law” floats in the air a utopian god-head, until it is a law of war over which the United States might flex a muscle, and then it is time for the hems and the haws, the  hundred indecisions, the visions and revisions, though the world might be more lawless after. They would have you forget that whatever the world’s corruptions and ills, not one pillar of the palace of human safety wrested from the jungle of human horrors was greased with their blood or erected by them.

It is time, instead, for, as Katrina Vanden Heuvel, put it “tough diplomacy,” which is diplomacy with a scrunched up face and a stern reproach. Alternatively, U.N. Security Council resolution can be sought, and if Syria ignores it, well, we don’t actually enforce international laws, though we righteously regret their violation.

Even the sense of violation can be forgotten. There are agents for that, too. They say that to die is to die. The agony of shrapnel in the stomach no less than the eruptions of the organs and the asphyxiated lungs. They offer arguments like this:

It’s not obvious that high explosives are inherently less evil than chemical weapons. People vividly recall the horrifying gassing of soldiers in the trenches of World War I. But it was artillery shelling that killed in hugely greater numbers.

Strip away the moralistic opposition to chemical weapons and you often find strategic self-interest lying underneath. Powerful countries like the United States cultivate a taboo against using WMD partly because they have a vast advantage in conventional arms. We want to draw stark lines around acceptable and unacceptable kinds of warfare because the terrain that we carve out is strategically favorable. Washington can defeat most enemy states in a few days–unless the adversary uses WMD to level the playing field.

“It was artillery shelling that killed in hugely greater numbers.” Apparently Dominic Tierney forgets that artillery shelling was used in hugely greater numbers. Yet it was chemical weapons that the perpetrators and victims of chemical warfare during World War I acted to ban. Tierney forgets that the original, 1925 Geneva Convention ban on chemical weapons was sought after the war not when today’s powerful nations might be seeking to enforce a tactical advantage, but when those nations who had used and suffered sought to limit themselves. Because they had the memories. They had not yet forgotten.

What greater crime of international, of institutional memory can there be than to dismiss the experience of those no longer living as unreal, to wave our hands in ideological reconstruction of their experience and cry it was not true. They did what they could. They left us this record of their reasons and their wrongs. And now, to excuse a score of other motives, we will say that the remnant of their wrongs, the extract of our lessons from them is nothing?

Those who forget the reality of chemical weapons are those who only see things in themselves. To reverse Plato, they see only things and not the shadows of things, the extra life of the world. The extra evil of the chemical weapon, like the biological weapon is that it is more than what it is. In the symbolic world, a thing is not only itself, but something else. It represents. What does the chemical weapon represent? Maybe if we remember another weapon.

Remember the neutron bomb? Few will. They were abandoned. It shocked not the conscience, but the imagination, that pathway to the symbolic world. Samuel T. Cohen, the physicist who invented the neutron bomb, insisted all his life that he had invented a saner and more moral weapon – a weapon that limited physical destruction and only killed people.

But many military planners scoffed at the idea of a nuclear bomb that limited killing and destruction, and insisted that deployment would escalate the arms race and make nuclear war more likely. The device was anathema to military contractors and armed services with vested interests in nuclear arsenals. Even peace activists denounced it as “a capitalist weapon” because it killed people but spared the real estate.

We are not just dreams and thoughts, but flesh, too. We live a life of the body. We live in the physical world, in relation to it. To destroy any of it is an abomination, yet what does it mean to separate ourselves in destruction from our worldly shell? Does it raise no specter? Why might it seem, saner, more moral, cleaner, easier to kill only ourselves and spare the world? We are disappearing all the time – this person, here, there, those people, everywhere, always. The life of the world is the loss of people from it. But the world is still there, right? And there are always more people.

Gas the people of Ghouta. People die in war all the time. But Ghouta still stands, and people will return. We will hardly know what was done.

The tragic, melancholy final shots of On the Beach, Stanley Kramer’s film version of the Nevil Shute novel, draw their bottomless sorrow from a single vision: the world still standing and the people gone. The nuclear war had physically destroyed very little, but the radiation – in the manner of the neutron bomb –  had wafted over atmospheric currents to kill all still living, finally those in Australia. What a loss. What a symbol of loss. If the world was not created mechanistically for sentient beings, does anyone have the least notion what value there is in all there is without sentient beings to know it, be in it and of it?

The physical world is destroyed every moment in natural decay: the world was born to end. That we were born to end in it, to end ourselves in it, must seem less natural. Streets without people, an empty city, a vacant world should always appear the essential crime.

Chemical weapons, we are told, we can see, produce agony. They encourage use directed at civilians, to clear populations, to terrify in their silence and their stealth, the invisible attack, which was the special horror of Ghouta. They are not weapons of war, they are weapons of inhumanity. Those who used and suffered them before, those who banned them, knew that. To fail to see that is our own inhumanity. To fail to act in response, a crime past forgetting.

AJA

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Indian Country

Seeking Submissions: Wiyoĥpeyata, a New Journal of Native American Literature

Our friends at Alternating Current press, who are behind so many fine projects and publications, have yet one more, Wiyoĥpeyata: a Literary Journal for the Pine Ridge Reservation. The title, in Lakota, means Westward, and the journal is open to Oglala Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as well as members of neighboring Great Plains tribes. For a nominal fee, non-residents who have had experiences on Pine Ridge or among the Great Plains Indians may also contribute. State the editors, their plans are to donate

100% of the proceeds (after at-cost expenses are met) to several organizations working to better the lives and cultures of the people of Pine Ridge, especially the youth. While we are still in talking-mode with these organizations, we will update you on where your money is going as soon as we have the final details.

The journal is accepting visual art as well. Here is more about Wiyoĥpeyata, followed by a link to the AC site, where electronic submissions are accepted.

What is Wiyoĥpeyata? It is a journal of writing by Pine Ridge residents. It ranges anywhere from children telling their stories, to teens coping with suicide, to adults reliving their cultural memories. For many on the Pine Ridge Reservation, life can be bleak; writing is a therapeutic way of reaching out, feeling connected, and more importantly, sharing one’s knowledge, hopes, dreams, and stories with others who have never heard them. For some, it can be life-saving just to know that someone is listening. For us, we want to show you that the Oglala Lakota Sioux are not perpetuators of some strange, foreign culture to which you can’t relate—they are the same as you and me. They play football and basketball, participate in rodeos and youth groups, make beautiful art, jam out to rock music, and spraypaint graffiti on overpasses. They farm and work with animals, play soccer, read J. D. Salinger, take photographs, attend universities. They are mechanics and engineers and farmers and leatherworkers. They ride horses with saddles, wear blue jeans, speak English, and have libraries. We want to show you, in their own words, that there is more to this vibrant people than a worn-out stereotype. We are currently beginning issue #1, and it is in its infancy, so please pass the word around and submit. The book will go to press when it has at least thirty pieces of prose and/or poetry and/or experimental hybrid writing. Sign up on our mailing list to be notified of its release.

Visit Alternating Current and Wiyoĥpeyata here.

 

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