The Political Animal

Iraq and “Last Days in Vietnam”

At the Los Angeles Film Festival I caught Rory Kennedy’s powerful and moving Last Days in Vietnam. If you think you are familiar with the story of the botched and frantic – and heroic – American evacuation of Vietnam, with the fall of Saigon, including some many tens of thousands of lucky Vietnamese, this film will set you straight. There is an iconic photo from that time of desperate Vietnamese climbing a spindly ladder to the narrow roof top of the American Embassy and the last helicopter out. In truth, it was not the American Embassy (rather the home of the assistant CIA station chief) and there were many more helicopters. There is much, much more to the story. It is a tragic story, and near its close, ex CIA operative Frank Snep, one of a host of American and Vietnamese who recount their experiences of the evacuation, offers the sadness with which he recalls the end of the United States experience in Vietnam and how it represents for him the nature of the whole experience.

The North Vietnamese committed their massive violation of the Paris Peace Accords, by invading the South, in February of 1975, twenty five months after the accords were signed, and the subsequent withdrawal of American combat forces. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. The American evacuation, because U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin until then refused to even consider planning one, was effected in a single day, April 29, 1975, into the dark morning of the thirtieth.

The consequences for the South Vietnamese, especially those known to be allied with or sympathetic to the U.S. were great. Up to one million Vietnamese were subsequently interned in the infamous reeducation camps, where mortality rates have been estimated at 10% per year. “Boat people” refugees numbered 1.6 million. What followed were decades of economic stagnation, and for those of the South, the loss of political freedom that persists today.

As the North’s rapid advance southward progressed, President Gerald Ford appeared before Congress with a request for over $700 million to fund an American response, including the possibility of the reintroduction of American military forces. The American people and their representatives were in no mood. As the end credits rolled, carrying with them the enormous sense of the loss, the folly, and the betrayals worked into the very start of that American endeavor, the thought occurred to me: who would argue now, after that long war, fought at such price, with no gain, that the United States should have returned to Vietnam in 1975, in the baseless belief it could have achieved in the end any of what it had failed to achieve the last time around?

Instantly, the answer occurred: the same people now arguing for a return to Iraq, who wish we had never left, who never learn from history. For these people the sum total of political wisdom in international affairs is Hobbes, Machiavelli, and von Clausewitz, Munich and the historical anomaly of total victory in the Second World War, and an American Exceptionalism perverted from an empirical historical achievement into a moral inherency that paves an imperial road not only to folly but to ruin.

If one were to draw out the implications of the judgment these voices make on American military dominance in the post-War era, the seeds of national decadence were planted almost at the reaping of the nation’s greatest harvest: from Korea to Cuba to Vietnam, Taiwan, Iran, Afghanistan and beyond, nothing but lack of national will, a weakness of backbone to fight the ultimate fight, the failed moral courage to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” Kennedy completed the thought, “in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He neglected to add in foreign lands, and even when one needs to construct the friend out of grass or clay. The only truly morally sufficient, which is to say total, military achievements were the pathetic accomplishment of invading Granada and the discretely achievable goal of capturing Manuel Noriega in Panama. Even the resounding military success of the Gulf War was compromised, to these foreign policy hands, by George H.W. Bush’s careful decision not to move on Baghdad, a decision ratified in its own resounding fashion by the Iraq War. That is to say the judgment not to advance on Baghdad was confirmed for all but those for whom it was a moral as much as a strategic failure, and who hawked a whole new ward to achieve that end.

Who in 1975 would have been led by McNamara, Rusk, or Westmoreland back into the paddies of Vietnam? Who would not have cried out in repugnance at the shameless reappearance of any of them on the national stage in order to pretend to strategic wisdom, never mind moral suasion, while hawking further military misguidance? These are people who would have reduced the Thirty Years’ War to the bromide of “staying the course.”

While the Arab world continues to struggle in its political development, related, profound strains of Islamic culture reject modernity and illiberally, even barbarically erupt against it. Influences go back a century and far longer. The program and the pitch for external imposition of liberal democratic structures over these conditions has been already an intellectual scandal with mortal consequences and of historic proportion. Those who once again make the pitch – the Cheney’s, McCains, Kristols, Wolfowitz’s, et al – deserve the censure of history, not the spotlight of lazy broadcast journalism and the assembly line of op-ed pages.

As tragic were the consequences of South Vietnam’s fall, there is no reason at all to believe a reengagement there would have produced a lesser tragedy to substitute, or a lesser failure than the first engagement. When the mission is mistaken, no amount of backbone, bombast, or bombing will extract success from it.

The arrogant misreading of history is that missionary liberal democracy can redirect world historical and long-term regional social developments through force of imperial might and inherent moral superiority. This arrogance is, in fact, a signature of post-Columbian imperialism. And when the folly has ended, imperial democracy leaves the Sykes–Picot Agreement or the patchwork of African nation-states and comforts itself in mad, blind delusion that it left the places it tarried better off for the visit. The greater and tragic truth is that we are guided through history by the vaguest sense of a destination while wearing a blindfold. Just ask the people unlucky enough to host the imperial visits.

From the fallout of the Arab upheavals, so sadly and natively labeled the Arab Spring, to the theocratic insanity and barbarism that has come to possess too broad a strain of Islam, the Middle East and North Africa will host dangers for the liberal democracies and the United States for an immeasurable time to come. There may well be times, soon and later, when the United States will need to carry out smaller and larger military operations to destroy enemies and counter threats there. It has not been called by some the Long War unknowingly. But such purposeful actions in self-defense and in careful protection of the national interest are a categorical remove from nation building, and from committing the nation’s human and other resources on behalf of nations and governments that offer no manifest political and cultural alliance. Such military miscalculations – such as the Iraq War in the first place, and any return there to bolster the Iraqi government – actually have, and would, work counter to American self-defense and the protection of American interests, by draining will and resources from what must be accomplished in the attempt achieve what cannot.

James Madison, on a very different domestic topic, warned in Federalist No. 10 that

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.

He understood that the times, as the leaders, would not always be so great. They were not great or enlightened in 2003. The same figures, unreconstructed and unconscionable, are no greater now, their cause and argument no more supported by the short or longer history of events. They are a danger to the republic. The doors need be barred against them.


The Political Animal

9/11/11: Home


(The last in a thirteen-part series.)

What was the response to 9/11 on the political left, the direction from which was quickly drawn the historical cover of the “squandered sympathies” meme? There is no single answer. The “left” is not a unitary political tendency. It is stalwart, mainstream Democrats in the U.S. and the liberal “scoundrels” Slavjo Zizek scorns. It is readers of The Nation who vote for Democrats and others who still rationalize the Weathermen and will ever defend the Rosenbergs. It is those who sit at the feet of the Chomsky-Buddha, to the romancer of totalitarian Marxism, Zizek himself. To recognize the extremes of antipathy that emanated from the farther reaches of that spectrum, one can examine the historical record, as I have briefly done. One can also seek lineal relation.

The extremes of anti-Americanism of the Oughts find their focal point surrounding the Iraq War. By the launch of that war, the squandered sympathies meme was well established, and little that followed could do other than amplify it. It was the policies – the misguided reaction – that Iraq represented that produced the antipathy, the loss of sympathy; it was not present already on 9/11. So the misdirection leads us. However, now that we have some representative examples of the antipathetic response to 9/11, let’s briefly examine a too little known example of the worst of Iraq War anti-Americanism.

On August 18, 2004, by which time the American action in Iraq had descended into all out murderous chaos, Arundhati Roy delivered a speech in San Francisco before the American Sociological Association subtitled “Public Power in the Age of Empire.” (The title itself is quite silly.) The reader should recall the venue and the audience when I say that I happened by chance to hear a recording of the speech on radio station KPFK (Pacifica Radio) in Los Angeles, and that the speech was frequently interrupted by cheers. (Video here.) The speech in many respects could have been delivered by Chomsky, though Roy, a far better writer than Chomsky, offered moving, if unoriginal, flourishes that highlight the dangers of eloquence. Roy advocated violence, however, in a manner that goes beyond Chomsky.

To understand the import of the speech, and its central proclamation, we need only recall, regardless of one’s considerations of the Iraq fiasco, that the nature of the insurgent forces opposing the U.S. was without doubt – even for Roy.  Nonetheless:

The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle.

Did not Roy herself find this alliance just a little problematic? Indeed, she did. But she dealt with the problem handily.

Of course, [the Iraqi resistance] is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery, and criminality. But if we are only going to support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity.

Of course, too, this is precisely the reasoning that American cold warriors themselves used to rationalize cooperation with oppressive regimes in opposition to Marxist expansion, and that U.S. has used in maintenance of its geopolitical interests the Middle East – and which the likes of Roy have used for decades as the demonstration par excellence of America’s moral corruptness.

Roy (and, from the cheers, too many in the American Sociological Association) posits here an ethical system that turns upon one fundament only: power and one’s relation to it. Only this kind of ethics – whether it be the power-based value system of a Saddam Hussein or its inverse, as we find it in the kind of monistic, post-colonial, ideologically world-rectifying system propounded by Arundhati Roy – could lead to a call for missionary alliance with the “Iraqi resistance.” In light of this, references in Roy’s speech to democracy and to non-violence are incoherent absurdities.

Although the kind of allegiance Roy claimed in her speech provides sufficient evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the thinking behind it, we should not overlook the analytical and emotional distortions that guide it as well. It was such distortions that enabled the left’s response to 9/11. Though Roy offered mock regret over the apparent necessity of violence in resisting “empire,” her warped characterizations of history and events, in fact, encouraged violence. She claims,

Whenever civil resistance has shown the slightest signs of evolving from symbolic action into anything remotely threatening, the crack down is merciless. We’ve seen what happened in the [anti-globalization, WTO, etc.] demonstrations in Seattle, in Miami, in Göthenberg, in Genoa.

We saw what happened, indeed. It was merciless. The demonstrators were rounded up in Gulags, not to be seen for decades. Many were shot in dank prison cells in the dead of night, and their names erased from official records. Others merely had the tongues cut out or were given acid baths. The mayors of Seattle and Genoa entertained themselves with videotapes of the torture. Some were gassed to death. Others were blown up by police who had turned themselves into human bombs. A few who had managed to escape were lured back by vows of forgiveness and then murdered. Merciless. And it is only the intellectual fools at their zenith, the privileged products of relatively free societies, who can characterize as merciless – against the backdrop of true historical and contemporary state brutality – such policing as occurred in those cities.

So, again, hear the inheritor of Herman Goering: a victor’s justice, which is to say a victor’s and a relative morality.

Terrorism is vicious, ugly, and dehumanizing for its perpetrators, as well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war. They are people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

Accordingly, all violence is the same, indistinguishable: the cold and brutal, the defensive, the protective. War. Terrorism. All the same. Just violence. No need to think by whom, against whom, for what reason – after what other efforts for how long to achieve what. No. The single principle of reality – power, the power of “empire” and the aspiration to invert it – determines everything, so we may assume the terrible face of moral blankness while we vocalize justice, upend Martin Luther King in his heaven, and perorate:

Then, from the ruins of Afghanistan, from the rubble of Iraq and Chechnya, from the streets of occupied Palestine and the mountains of Kashmir, from the hills and plains of Colombia and the forests of Andhra Pradesh and Assam comes the chilling reply: ‘There’s no alternative but terrorism.’ Terrorism. Armed struggle. Insurgency. Call it what you want.

In Roy’s swooning raptures over the impulse to armed struggle (yes, she calls the impulse “chilling,” but we see she wears a heavy overcoat) can be found the implosive contradiction and the corrosive hypocrisy in much of the Marxist and Marxist-infused postcolonial critique. The sources are varied and deeply theoretical, but the practical political criticism that is applied from this theorizing is always invested with a supreme moral outrage and condescension. Whence springs this value laden indignation? From dialectical materialism? From the study of discourses and grammatology? No. There is no basis for it there. There is – to choose a word – no foundation for indignation in historical and economic analysis only. There is no should in matter. Materialism, philosophies of language, and archaeologies of power can point the way to efficiencies in human relations and exchange that have moral effects, but they cannot found an ethics, and the fierce moralizing of those who oppose Western power and who reviled the U.S. on 9/11 has its springs in the religious ethical systems that for good and ill helped to found the modern world of Western liberal democracy, and in the enlightened humanism that emerged and departed from those systems.

Such are the politics of the moral imagination, however, that this historical accordance is ignored. And scorn is heaped upon the civilization that provides the measure by which to revile it.

*          *          *

And so to Adler, above the Atlantic. Or is it Chomsky? Or Adsky? Call him Adler. What is identity anyway? It is Adler who wings his way home aboard US Air, unmolested, to live another day, to teach, to write. And it was someone else who died in the towers. Or was it his brother?

We had crossed the Atlantic. I had gazed from my window at the grids of American cities and towns below. Now Julia and I stood in the baggage area of Pittsburgh’s international airport waiting to collect our baggage and pass through immigration and customs before boarding our flight to Los Angeles. We were home.


I had been in Pittsburgh only once before, for a weekend, more than ten years earlier. The place where I was born and had lived most of my life was hundreds of miles behind me, the place I lived now, over two thousand miles ahead. If I had walked out the doors into the October air to make my way, I’d have known not a body or soul. Home?

However senselessly, though very much a matter of sense, I felt it. I would rather live in Paris than Pittsburgh. But I felt it. We looked around, understood every scrap of conversation, read every face, understood the interactions around us. We gathered up our bags.

Standing in line to pass through immigration, we awaited readmittance. A formality. Yet it is not a vacant doorway. Someone is there to judge, to assess the terms. Of reentry as well as entry. One has rights, of course. But rights are the entailment of a system that affords or recognizes them; rights are not the absence of governance, a free passage. Rights are conduct exercised, not ignored. For the right to be recognized, the system must operate. So even if for no other, concrete purpose, someone stands at the door. Someone stands at the door to say that there are distinctions, borders, lines of demarcation. Once, between what we now call nations, these were only ideas, made real by the assertion of power and control. Then there were markers, on land or paper. And laws that encoded these marks, rendered ideas once again. Whence we come to the transcendence of those borders, which is an idea too. But like the laws that codify the borders, their transcendence – their elimination – must be agreed to, as well as the terms of the elimination, the new reality, the new idea. One cannot surrender one’s difference in the name of unity – either out of love or guilt, for that is not a synthesis, but a submission, a form of slavery. Justice among people is negotiated; it is not given as a gift. So someone stands at the door, and one is reminded, as one rarely is without going abroad, that residence is the source and product of dualities: citizen and non, part and apart, legal and illegal, in and out, here and there, home and away.

It was our turn now.

Julia and I handed the immigration officer our passports, along with the forms that listed the countries we had visited. The officer glanced up at us, expressionless. He looked back down at the documents. Julia asked me what countries we had visited, when she realized she had forgotten to list a couple. Like the good Nebraskan she is, she said so. The immigration officer, with his best official poker face, continued to peruse our passports, never looking up.

“Well,” he said, “we’ll let you back in anyway.”

He flipped the pages of the passports. There was nothing more for him to see, to consider. It was just the process, a reminder of the process. It is not a vacant door.

The officer exchanged a word or two with Julia. She softens everyone, even if only a little. And then from Julia – I no longer remember what made her say it:

“It’s good to be back home.”

The officer handed us back our passports.

“It’s good to have you back home,” he said.


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The Political Animal

9/11/11: The Stylus Avenger


(Twelfth in a series)

It had been possible in the countryside of so many nations, on another continent, always in transit, to leave the palpable sense of 9/11, if not our emotions, behind. The last day, at Charles de Gaulle Airport amid intense security, and three weeks after the attack, Julia and I rejoined the larger world.

The night before, though, in bed, I had done some thinking. I anticipated the security to come – what turned out to be three body and bag checks just between the gate and the plane – and knew it would be very hard to get a weapon on board. And the likelihood, at that point, of another plane hijacking was surely small. But the bad guys, as we say, can always figure a way, and streetwise New Yorker that I am, I like to be prepared. The trouble was, as much I may say I grew up on the streets of New York, the reality is that I’m a writer and an intellectual, not a Hell’s Kitchen tough or even McGyver. I wasn’t going to be stomping ass or fashioning impromptu weapons out of the pasta container from dinner. I needed something, though. I might be scared if anything happened on the plane, and I might die (in fact, I told myself if anything did happen, in order to free myself for action, I was going to consider myself dead already) but I wasn’t going to be terrorized, and I sure the fuck was going to take someone with me.

And then it came to me. In the computer bag I would carry, in one of the many pockets, would be a Palm Pilot. In the Palm Pilot, tucked unnoticeably into a slender hole at a back corner, was a stylus. It wasn’t sharp, but it had a point. It wouldn’t cut paper. But thrust with fury and fear at the rear, soft underside of the jaw, it would go in. It would do damage.

I would be armed.

Julia and I took our seats on the U.S. Airways jet. The subdued tension during the slow crawl along the corridor from the gate to the plane, through all three checks, had been evident in the silent appearance of normalcy sought by everyone around me. Now, in our seats, and in the early minutes of flight, what went through the passengers’ minds? How many thought as I did? Would something happen? What would it be? How would I react? (Though I had decided that, what would be my opportunity?) And the calming thought in surely every mind, at some point, was that it had already happened. It was done. It was not going to happen again three weeks later. Richard Reid and his shoe bomb were still two months away. We could ease our minds with that reasonable consideration, and three, four, five hours into the flight, it might seem as if it were still August or June or March. Until in an instant something did happen, and the world would be changed again, and all our reassurance an illusion.

How might it happen? How might I first come to know of it, and think myself dead? A sudden stir, a gasp, a cry? More cries. Shouts of intimidation to silence us, and I turn. A man, probably twenty-five or thirty, dark skinned and clean shaven, a Semite, like me, looking in all respects, perhaps, like a graduate student in engineering at some American university, pushing before him down the aisle a passenger, a knife at his throat, whom the hijacker had grabbed as a shield and to threaten us. All so fast. He would pass me before I had the chance to reach for the stylus, which in any event I must do carefully, not to draw attention, or I would die early and ineffectually. A meager weapon, too, the stylus would need total surprise at just the right moment, with just the right force at just the right angle, were it not to be a waste. So I would miss that chance. I would need time to arm myself; I would need time to provide another – the right – opportunity. Would it come? In the confusion and the unexpected developments, would I get the chance, or would it have been only a useless fantasy? Would I, indeed, determined not to die merely a victim, rush the moment? For who am I, writer, thinker, dreamer, no man of arms except in dreams, who am I, outside of a righteous dream, to think I could pull off such a thing? Would I rush the moment and miss my thrust? Then I’d be in it for sure, if I didn’t die at once.

I don’t – die at once. We struggle. Somehow – who knows how – I make my attempt, I miss, I parry a deadly blow, and we struggle. And now something more is amiss on the plane. There is more struggle. Bodies colliding. A blade seeking my throat, my chest, any part of me, if just to make me cry out and lose my grip. I fight with a younger, stronger man, hold him off.

Do I hold him off? For how long? Empowered by –? By what? And why me? Why am I the one who struggles for his life thirty-five thousand feet above theAtlantic Ocean? This is my fantasy. I can make the combatant anyone I choose.

What is to be gained, what is to be learned, by making the combatant me? I know what it would all be about for me. Why not – why not make it – why not make it Noam Chomsky – Noam Chomsky who struggles for his life so far from heaven or earth? He was ready to say, a mere two months after 9/11, in the The Monthly Review of November 2001:

We should not forget that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.

A leading terrorist state, no different – at least for the moment, in methodological principle – from those who struck the towers.

And what does it mean, really, in the end, to separate the method from the motive? To distinguish the effective action from the essential actor? Critics of the supposedly misnamed “war on terror” like to instruct that terror is merely the method; it does not identify in any useful way the political issue, the motivation for the terror.

But if it does not identify the specific political motivation, does it not name perhaps a greater political practice? The institutions championed by the left – the U.N., the International Criminal Court, the NGOs that express its humanistic ideals – what do they express in their very nature but the idea that process, that method, matters. What political goal do they all pursue if not an elimination of all forms of terror, including state terror, as acceptable or tolerated methods for wielding political power and pursing political ends? Indeed, the elimination of terror as a rationalized practice of power, either by states against individuals or by political movements against the people who populate states, would be a culminating political – indeed, human – achievement in the history of civilization. Whether on the left or the right, whether Salvadoran death squads or Chechnyan guerillas murdering children, the methods are ultimately expressions of the nature of those who use them, and to rationalize one just a little more than the other because it has the political élan of a national struggle of liberation of the justification of national security is a moral cheat. It is the left that preaches, but practices no more than the right, the idea not only that the ends don’t justify the means, but that the means ultimately negate and replace the ends. So there is no way to call the U.S. a “leading terrorist state” and not claim it is essentially indistinguishable from the theocratic fundamentalists who attacked it.

So maybe there is something to be learned from making Chomsky the man who fights for his life in a jet now a world of its own. And for making the man me, too. Jay Adler. Noam Chomsky. But how? Jay. Noam. Which? How? It’s not Jay, not Noam, it’s – Joam. Joam… Adsky.

Joam Adsky grapples with the hate given human form that it might commit such acts.

Joam Adsky slips, topples onto his back against the aisle armrest – uhh! the pain – and now the man who dreams of paradise, a paradise devoid of the vacant odium that flows in him like a cold blood – the man holds his blade above Joam Adsky, straining with all his sense of purpose to bring it down. Adsky resists with all the vital force he has. The plane, in a commotion of resistance and strife, dips right, dips left. It is daylight above the Atlantic, and the sun catches the blade through the window, a sharp, piercing glint of light in Adsky’s eyes, gone, then back again. Gone. Then back.

The light. The point of light. It is all there, in the brilliant flicker of light, in that moment, disappearing and returning, that might be the last.

For what does Adsky fight?

We know he fights for his life. The fly in the web. The gazelle in the lion’s mouth. The vilest criminal. We all fight for our lives. To save our insubstantial, all-important lives. But is that it? Egoism and survival? Nothing more. Does the hijacker, attempting now to slit Joam Adsky’s throat – does he fight for ego and himself? We know that he does not. He doesn’t fight for his life at all. We know he believes. He believes. Does he doubt? I don’t think so. He might. But I think not. He would be human if he did, and he would still believe. Did Mohammed Atta doubt? As the North Towerloomed so enormously, a moment from his obliteration, did he cry out in fear, shield his eyes, look away? I guess that he did not. And in that is the apparent conundrum.

To be full of passionate intensity proves nothing, makes us neither best nor worst, though to lack conviction leaves us lost. At the very moment, Adsky and his foe may be concentrated on the blade: force and resistance, action and reaction. Zlavoj Zizek would have us think that most likely in Adsky’s will there is nothing more than mere survival. But if not, if Adsky believes – in something – how to measure it against the icy passion of his enemy? Whoever wins this struggle – who survives, who dies – proves nothing. The odds don’t favor Adsky – far older, weaker – though a loosened arm rest, ripped from the seat, slammed with all its hard metallic hinges into the face of God’s servant – that could make all the difference.

But we are not at that moment yet.

How to judge the convictions of the hijacker against those of Adsky, whatever they may be – beyond his post-industrial, bourgeois comfort, his willingness to enjoy a single day of life though others do not, even – as some will claim – in consequence that  they do not. We cannot measure what the two stand on in the midst of a fight – even by what they feel, for emotions can be the very flicker of a Platonic shadow on the only walls our eyes have ever seen. On the plane, there is only their competing and indistinguishable wills (for Adsky is fighting like the devil) but not what forms their wills. So we must take them off the plane, God, or what passes for God in this drama, yanking them by their collars, high out of the troubled jet, far beyond the spinning earth, to set them some place where the cheap and common garb of intense conviction can be discarded.

Let us consider.

A jet seven miles into the troposphere, over, in fact, empty ocean, with nothing human above or below it, a jet out of control, climbing and descending erratically, banking left, banking right – how very like a postmodern world: unstable, to say the least, with every referent disconnected from its signifier, and the debate over signifieds a blood sport. What means anything? Civilization, whatever its meaning, is just a dream beneath the clouds. And God, if you’re a believer at such a frenzied moment, and even if you’re not, is a Will being worked through you. You have to decide, or in this case, Adsky, so the irony – the very great irony – is that while conviction is the falsest of Gods, found in this universe also among self-justifying egoists and the greatest of mass murderers, Adsky needs it too, if he is to live. It will serve him not at all to believe the man with the blade has a case against him, and I do not mean that it wouldn’t serve him just in the matter of saving his skin, because then we might as well stop right now. Close your reading light and go watch TV. We are all just animals pawing the ground and sniffing the air.

No, to save his life in any meaningful way, Adsky needs to believe his foe is wrong to want to kill him, and not just as a matter of principle – as a matter of ethical form. Adsky needs to believe, genuinely believe, that he is superior to what tries to annihilate him. He needs to believe not simply as an expression of ego, not merely as a matter of procedure; he must believe that his very matter – his very body and intellectual self – has value because it produced those ethical forms, those principles of justice and humanity toward which his civilization strives. As they were abstracted from him, they returned by that very process to him, suffusing the being who produced them with their value. Adsky is better than his foe for the very reason that he believes it is wrong for his enemy to wish so cold-bloodedly to take his life.

Adsky, and all those flailing about with him high up in the seemingly meaningless air, does not deserve to die, and not just as a matter of principle.

As a matter of principle, the postcolonial and Marxian critiques of the United States in the post World War II era frequently confuse substance with form, reducing political and moral ideas to legalistic procedure. But the theorized and codified human and civil rights that the U.S. and the rest of the West sometimes violate, and that much of the remainder of the world violates more, and more often, are the evolutionary product of the West’s own intellectual and social history, of its own long and continuing struggle to emerge from a political state of nature. The United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and the whole complex of evolving international law and legal bodies are direct products, intellectually and materially, of this history. In the case of the U.N., the very institution would not have come into existence without the political, moral, and financial force of the U.S.behind it. This history and these institutions are part of the intellectual and moral achievement of the West, no less than imperialism, colonialism and slavery are elements of its degraded past. These achievements are not mere forms to be abstracted from the integral historical processes and living values that substantiated them. They are not simply procedural norms with which the authors of these achievements  may be demopathically manipulated – by fascists, autocrats, Marxist-Leninists, totalitarians and neo-totalitarians, tribalists and theocrats, or bien pensant critics of liberalism – while their enemies are merely rhetorically slapped on the wrist for attacking the nations that continue to build on these accomplishments.

The record shows that the vocal reaction of prominent segments of the left to 9/11 was, significantly, mere rhetorical acknowledgement of the procedural impropriety of the violence. Lip service to principle invariably gave way immediately, as in the second sentence of Chomsky’s September 12, 2001 statement, to political and moral sympathy with the projected inciting moral and political origins of the attack. Thus, while the remainder of the nation justly roused itself to action and to its self-defense, the left, when it wasn’t explicitly blaming the U.S. itself for the assault it suffered, was implicitly doing so by engaging in the kind of effort to “understand” that functions as a covert exercise in excusing. One year later, in the pages of The Nation – with a barbaric regime toppled, and a training ground for as regressive a force for terror as the world has ever seen destroyed – voices of the left were still, without embarrassment, working their worry beads about how appropriately to think and feel about 9/11, never mind act in response to it.

But Adsky hasn’t such time to consider whether he is worth defending.

If Adsky, on the plane, fights only for his life – a cornered animal baring primeval canines – then no argument he makes off the plane, for or againstAmerica, is meaningful. It is, then, mere rationalization, the construction of a world to fit the lie of one’s desires. He rolls this way, you roll that. If Adsky can believe, though, as much as does his enemy, then he can survive – not necessarily on this day, at thirty five thousand feet, where the battle may go to the younger, the stronger, and the better prepared, but on other days, when with equal conviction, and the greater strength of a better idea, the human race may continue its slow advance.

Can Adsky believe, though?

One part of Adsky has written Year 501. The thesis of that work, published just after the five hundred year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere, is that the past five hundred years, up until this day, are best understood as an unbroken period of imperial conquest on behalf of elite driven markets.

While modalities have changed, the fundamental themes of the conquest retain their vitality and resilience….

A five hundred year human historical epoch, especially one that continues through your morning breakfast, is not unlike a geological period on a timeline: one may sweepingly observe that this was the period of invertebrate development, and neglect to note the obvious, conclusive entailment that at the beginning of the period there were no invertebrates and at the end there were. Life had developed.

The other part of Adsky considers that even today, after so much progress has been made, the history of nations continues as a cesspool of mass murder, of megalomaniacal tyrants and instigators of slaughter, of endless hypocrisies to cover unending greed, power struggles, and human and ecological callousness, and of ideological tendentiousness. Even the best of nations, confronted with such a world and the imperative to protect their interests and their people, will sully themselves in action. No nation steps out of this gutter clean.

Given such a universe, Adsky believes he deserves to live; he rejects the soul destroying totalitarian impulse masquerading as a representation of God, and the deracinated voices that rationalize it, and, there being, in reality, no dues ex machina to pluck him from the plane for any hypothetical and passionate tête-à-tête

– and Adsky being, frankly, under the circumstances, more than a little pissed and pumped –

he plunges the stylus into the hijacker’s neck and gasps righteously and greedily for the air of his own salvation.


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The Political Animal

9/11/11: Chomsky Nation


(Eleventh in a series)

Noam Chomsky at the World Social Forum in 2003...
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On October 18, 2001, five weeks after the 9/11 attack, Noam Chomsky gave a talk at MIT, still available on the web in video and transcript form, entitled “The New War against Terror.” He employed the same slippery rhetorical constructs and argumentative ploys as were on display in his half-hearted but always fully dishonest Nation exchange with Christopher Hitchens. Stringing together several reports from The New York Times (both jokingly relied upon and faulted in the same argument, as it suited Chomsky’s purpose), loose references to the World Food Program, and The London Financial Times, as well as both refugees and aid workers cited by the above, Chomsky sought to establish, as an easily accepted premise by his audience, that American plans for action in Afghanistan were resulting in a “genocide” through starvation (though Chomsky actually used the word “slaughter,” not starvation) of perhaps three to four million people.

It was not sufficient, however, for Chomsky to make wanton accusations of genocide; what the U.S. was doing somehow qualified as a “silent” genocide. Chomsky did not elaborate on the modifier. Did Chomsky mean the lack of news coverage? But he was, in fact, relying on reports from various sources, including a major world newspaper. Also, genocides, while they generally produce, ultimately, abundant evidence, are rarely publicized – made visible and audible – by their perpetrators. That is the nature of the crime; relative silence and invisibility to the outside world are the conditions of their occurrence. Given these characteristic circumstances, what could it possibly mean for genocide to be silent? Nothing, as we see, but there is no question that the added “silent” conveys some deeper level of wicked stealth. Since accusations of genocide – like Chomsky’s cry of “racist contempt” at Hitchens – are so freely made by some, the word may appear to have lost some force. Clearly, for Chomsky genocide alone was no longer enough; now he needed need (really, really) bad genocide– it’s secret.  Of course, another reason genocide might be “silent” is that it is not, in fact, occurring. Still, Chomsky will stand thin premises on spindly legs, attach them to threads of supposition and tenuous prediction, based on sketchy evidence, and try to make them all fit on the head of an imaginary needle his animus insists is real.

What did Chomsky have to say about this supposed silent genocide nearly two years later? He emailed one correspondent, reporter and culture critic Jesse Fox Mayshark, that

thankfully, the dire warnings of the NY Times, the aid agencies, Harvard U specialists on Afghanistan, and others were realized only partially — how much, of course, we do not know, with no investigations.

Note the levels of disingenuousness here. It was the Times, the aid agencies, Harvard “specialists,” and “others” who were mistaken in their “dire warnings,” not Chomsky for confidently and maliciously attributing to the United States an act of genocide through starvation (“slaughter”) that never took place. Or, according to Chomsky, the – what? genocide? starvation? – did “partially” take place? To what degree? Ninety-five percent? Fifty percent? One percent? And, of course, in Chomsky’s Logic, failure to prove a negative is only – ah, recall this from yesterday and his accusation about Sudan? – failure to investigate. Or, rather, it is to posit an unsubstantiated claim and assert it not disproved by virtue of its being uninvestigated. “With no investigations,” implies something to be investigated, which something should be perhaps Chomsky’s own claim of partially realized – genocide? slaughter? starvation?

There were voices to the contrary. In response to Baudrillard and Zizek and Chomsky, as well as Susan Sontag (who simply refrained from using the precise words “chickens coming home to roost”) and the countless others, Marc Cooper, long of The Nation, decried in the October 14, 2001 Los Angeles Times “the odious whiff” of those nesting fowl. Christopher Hitchens was, by then, completing his Nation debate with Chomsky. The embarrassment grew, and the thoughtful left response to the bloodless left response continued throughout 2002.

Dissent published in its fall 2002 issue Michael Kazin’s “A Patriotic Left.” Kazin pointed out the sadly necessary, that “[w]ithout empathy for one’s neighbors, politics becomes a cold, censorious enterprise indeed.” Of course, American left critics without sympathy to squander had been declaring for months that one could simultaneously regret the loss of life and criticize American policy. The reassuring character of empathy, however, is in its fifty percent perfect bullshit detector: one can be emotionally conned into believing it present, but there is no mistaking its absence when there are only verbal protests to the contrary. In Dissent’s earlier, spring 2002 issue, Michael Walzer had put the questions more directly in “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Wisely, he asked, “Why can’t we accept an ambivalent relation to American power, acknowledging that it has had good and bad effects in the world?” Walzer hopefully claimed,

Many people on the left recovered their moral balance in the weeks that followed [9/11]; there is at least the beginning of what should be a long process of self-examination. But many more have still not brought themselves to think about what really happened.

Nine years after Walzer’s article, the latter observation remains regretfully true, and the former demonstrably false of those who lacked the balance to begin. There has been no examination and no change. The nature of much of the opposition to the Iraq War – mind you, not the opposition itself, or the reasonable arguments for the opposition, but the nature of it, in its rhetoric, its skewed moral considerations, its continuing anti-Americanism – demonstrated yet again that the broad left learned nothing from 9/11 or its continuing governing sojourn in the American wilderness. As Todd Gitlin wrote in the winter 2003 Dissent (of the eminently deserving Gore Vidal),

Anti-Americanism is an emotion masquerading as an analysis, a morality, an ideal, even an idea about what to do. When hatred of foreign policies ignites into hatred of an entire people and their civilization, then thinking is dead and demonology lives. When complexity of thought devolves into caricature, intellect is close to reconciling itself to mass murder.

By September 23, 2002, just over a year later, even The Nation was attempting some analysis of the difficulties the left had encountered over the previous year. By this time, Christopher Hitchens no longer felt at home at The Nation, and Adam Shatz, The Nation’s literary editor, essayed, in the “The Left and 9/11,” a first overview of the ideological and moral disarray. Given that Shatz grouped the Soviets and the African National Congress in the same emblematic ideological category, and notably “never saw [the Soviets] as enemies,” he did a fair job of attempting to consider reasonably the left’s post 9/11 intellectual conflicts. In the end, however, he could not escape the absurdities of his own position on the spectrum. He observed that the left has demonstrated

a highly selective solicitude for the oppressed: “Muslim grievances” are to be heeded when they emanate from Palestine, but ignored or even repudiated when they arise in Bosnia or Kosovo. This has damaged the left’s moral standing ….

Well, yeah, sure, it certainly has, but it isn’t as if decades of rationalizing Soviet and Maoist abuses hadn’t already sullied, just a bit, something that might be referred to as the “moral standing” of one identifiable segment of the left.

Then Shatz gave us Richard Falk reflecting, on Chomsky’s weaknesses, that he is

so preoccupied with the evils of US imperialism that it completely occupies all the political and moral space, and therefore it’s not possible for him to acknowledge that even without intending to do so some US military interventions may actually have a beneficial effect. [Emphasis added]

One can’t quite know for sure here whether the inability to imagine the U.S. intending to do good is Falk’s or only Chomsky’s, ascribed by Falk, but in any event, the comment speaks for itself. We also got Katha Pollitt musing,

This war is a real crisis for the left…in that finally there is an enemy who has attacked us, as opposed to any enemy that’s in our heads, and one that’s completely unsympathetic to the goals of the left.

It apparently took a year, but Pollitt came to acknowledge a crisis, though one can’t help but wonder what her reaction to the attack might have been – given what it was – had the perpetrators actually been sympathetic to the goals of the left. And then there was Tony Kushner, of recent controversy, stating,

I don’t believe that we’re ideologically committed to do evil.

Ah, yes. Well, thanks for that. What can one call an examination of a crisis in which even the supposed dissents from misguided orthodoxy are obtuse?

As it happens, to bring the divergent threads of The Nation and Dissent together in closing, the latter in its Winter 2010 issue presented a symposium on “Intellectuals and their America,” and of varied interesting voices among them, Katha Pollitt was not one. She did author one of the entries, but only to disappoint that hopeful sentiment of Kazin’s back in 2002 about those on the left who had lost their moral balance recovering it. Oh, sure, she heard the critics of her post 9/11 column.

I’m sure I could have written more carefully and sensitively. The tone of that column was unnecessarily prickly, and I went too far when I identified the flag with racism and jingoism, because of course it has many meanings, including anti-racism and rejection of ignorant chauvinism.

Is it possible for Pollitt to be more clueless even in her attempt to articulate more positive meanings for the American flag? But this is the best Pollitt can offer:

It may be natural to love one’s country, but it’s less a noble virtue than a habit, the way people tend to like the food they grew up with, even if it’s haggis or lutefisk or roasted rats on a stick.

Believing as I do that poets cannot by nature be such unreflective, superficial beings as this thinking suggests, I understand such writing to reflect instead how psychologically and affectively disabling the pronounced ideologizing of human experience can be. It leads one to conclude an essay, after ten years opportunity to reconsider, like this:

I realize that criticizing patriotism generally doesn’t go over very well, let alone telling people they’re not so great and even a bit greedy. But what has all our flag-waving done for us in the end?

If one were to answer that it created, and in crisis preserved, the nation, and saved a good portion of the world from tyranny and death as well, there is reason to believe that these to Pollitt are gifts, like a horse, the opposing ends of which she knows far better than the precious animal between them.


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The Political Animal

Little Sympathy to Squander: the American Left & 9/11

. (Tenth in a series)

A subdued-color version of the flag of the Uni...
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The antipathy to the U.S. voiced in the Guardian, on Question Time, from Baudrillard and Zizek – not merely despite 9/11, but in political sympathy with it, if not advocacy of it – found voice in the U.S. too. No small amount of it emanated from The Nation, perhaps the hallmark publication of the American beyond-liberal left. One of the more publicized commentaries was by Katha Pollitt on October 8, 2001. Pollitt reported on her refusal to let her daughter hang an American flag from their window as a sign of American solidarity in the days following the attack. The account was frequently misrepresented in reports, which omitted Pollitt’s willingness to let her daughter fly the flag from her own bedroom window since that was hers. It simply would not fly from the living room window. Pollitt explained her adamancy to her daughter by asserting, “The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.” Her daughter averred, “[T]he flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism.” Pollitt argued in the article, “In a way we’re both right,” and appeared, at first, by this conciliatory statement, to have been instructed by her daughter, until she revealed that this was near agreement only by default: “The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now.”

So Pollitt never agreed that the American flag means anything other than “jingoism, vengeance, and war,” and seems, for a poet, oddly limited in her understanding of the nature and status of symbols. They are, as literary theorists like to say, “overdetermined.” They may mean many things, at a minimum whatever they may objectively refer to, and whatever other concept might be signified, which further signification is what makes them, to begin with, symbols, not to mention symbols worth discussing, and this other thing is open to some interpretation – for all but Pollitt. In this case, too, we have the additional element that the signifier belongs to that class of objects known as flags, a class that has its own symbolic cargo to deliver. The American flag, like almost any national flag, first signifies the ideals and formative mythos of the culture adopting it. That any national ideal has inevitably faced degrading confrontations in reality with the limitations of human beings to live up to it has been true for every nation. Exceptions are those flags, such as the Nazi or Confederate flags, that represented debased ideas in their origin. Certainly, history adds to the symbolic weight of any flag, and a penumbra of symbolic meanings, varyingly public and private, ensue. But Pollitt’s attempt to deny the American flag any other associations but her own scornful ones – including the original and, for many, the sustaining ideal – is as intellectually incompetent and morally dishonest, in the reverse, as attempts by recalcitrant or revivalist Southern boobs to argue that the Stars and Bars did not, in part, originally, and thus unavoidably, stand for white supremacy and slavery. For the flag of the Confederacy, the weight of its historically degraded signification is too great for it to be persuasively used to mean anything else. Claim that theU.S.flag stands for “jingoism and vengeance and war” and through the weight of a similar degradation, one denies that flag, too, any other sustainable meaning.

The problem for Pollitt, as for far too many on the left, is that any thought about the nature of patriotism ended when they learned – and thus were able to reduce all thinking on the subject to – Samuel Johnson’s justly famous dictum that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It seems not to occur to them that Johnson’s observation is more an insight into the nature of scoundrels than it is a condemnation of patriotism (that the vile often pretend to virtue is reason to oppose the former, not cause to forsake the latter), or that it is less than the last word on the subject of group affinity, a subject that Pollitt seems to understand only more narrowly in her feminism. The right, thinking human nature immutable, diminishes our potential by resisting any ideal aspiration beyond the dream of God and the hunkering down with a socially-contracted group of like-minded families for self-preservation and the protection of their stash. The left, to our fairly universal sorrow, is forever denying human nature.

Elsewhere in the pages of The Nation, the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky was an early revelation of the left’s division over 9/11. Hitchens, neither soft nor softheaded, saw 9/11, saw its perpetrators, saw their grievances and their goal, and decided we are not the enemy. His position has been vociferously clear ever since. Chomsky, far beyond any such conclusion, began his reaction to 9/11, the very next day in Counterpunch, as follows:

The September 11 attacks were major atrocities. In terms of number of victims they do not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and probably killing tens of thousands of people (no one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no one cares to pursue it).

The coldness of the response is a personal trait. After the pro forma “atrocities,” the script flipping to the U.S. as quickly as the second sentence was an ideological imperative. The unsubstantiated accusation disingenuously delivered with the rhetorical escape-hatch of “probably,” and the further world-wide and phantasmagoric net of accusation of “no one knows”-because-of-no-inquiry, are both calling card distractions while your good judgment is pickpocketed. Watch for that last because we’ll encounter it again. Hitchens responded in The Nation, then responded again, then Chomsky retorted, then Hitchens, then Chomsky one last time. That Chomskyan penchant for rhetorical disingenuousness was on full display in the exchange. Chomsky parried with Hitchens right and left through such slyly facetious rhetorical gestures as “Hitchens cannot mean what he writes” and he “must be unaware,” all toward the end of suggesting Hitchens’, wouldn’t you know it, “racist contempt.” When Hitchens called Chomsky on the charge, Chomsky preposterously claimed, “I explicitly and unambiguously said the opposite,” i.e. he did, after all, say that “Hitchens cannot mean what he writes….” This is disingenuousness of a very high order. The air becomes thin at such altitude. This went on until Chomsky dismissively ran from the debate.

But there would be more from him soon in a talk at MIT, and The Nation would continue its foolish grappling with the sympathies it could not gather to squander.


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The Political Animal

9/11/11: a “Good Terror”


(Ninth in a series)

When it came to 9/11 sympathies too absent to squander, Slavo Zizek actually beat Baudrillard to the text. On September 14, 2001, only three days after 9/11, he first posted to the internet “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” which he revised and extended several times. Later, like Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism, it was published in book form by Verso. Zizek’s provocative considerations of a wide swath of popular culture make him an unusually accessible and fun theorist, and Zizek is well aware of this surface appeal, which he terms, in his preface to the” The Zizek Reader, “a proper symbolic lure.” Lure to what?

In contrast to the cliché of the academic writer beneath whose impassive style the reader can catch an occasional glimpse of a so-called lively personality, I always perceived myself as the author of books whose excessively and compulsively “witty” texture serves as the envelope of a fundamental coldness [Zizek’s emphasis], of a “machinic” deployment of the line of thought which follows its path with utter indifference [Zizek’s emphasis again] toward the pathology of so-called human considerations [my emphasis].”

Will I state the obvious by calling this is a deeply telling statement? Great intellects of both a philosophic and artistic nature have often considered themselves this way. It is the obeisance they pay to what they deem the totemic purity of their intellectual or artistic gift. It is James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Joyce, though, was profoundly indifferent to politics, and to influencing human life in any structural or material way. Once politically interested intellectuals begin to talk this way, however, the refining fire that destroys one humanity in the dream of forging a new one may be a mere historical opportunity and ideological “error” away. When you see them reach for their spectacles and utter expressions like “so-called human considerations,” you may someday yourself, in the worst case, need to reach for your gun, war being “not the answer” or whatever.

Zizek, a Lacanian Marxist, daringly attempts the reinvigoration and resurrection of an idea at its nadir. What more daring tack to take, then, when one finds oneself under attack and in retreat, than to turn and charge the assaulting force? Thus, Zizek’s guerilla sortie of attempting to render empty and harmless the concept of “totalitarianism,” which, in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? he calls a mental “stopgap” inhibiting thought. It is a device used by “conformist liberal scoundrels” (“running dogs” was presumably just too retro) for the purpose of “blackmailing us into renouncing all serious radical engagement.” By legitimizing the word’s use, according to Zizek, one is refusing to engage in specific, contextual historical analysis and succumbing to the intellectual precepts of liberal democracy, the same liberalism that the Guardian’s Madeline Bunting would decry as “intolerant” about three weeks later.

The Left has accepted the basic coordinates of liberal democracy (“democracy” versus “totalitarianism“) and is now trying to define its (op)position within this space. The first thing to do, therefore, is fearlessly to violate these liberal taboos: So what if one is accused of being “anti-democratic,” “totalitarian…“

So what, indeed.  Zizek does nothing if not openly reveal himself:

[W]hat I find theoretically and politically engaging in the religious legacy is not the abstract messianic promise of some redemptive Otherness, but, on the contrary, religion in its properly dogmatic and institutional aspect (preface to the Zizek Reader, emphasis added).

For Zizek in “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” (“the real” being a fundamental concept in Lacanian theory) the real is death, violent and destructive death – the apocalyptic reality behind the Matrix, whose movie Morpheus speaks the phrase, or of the non-cinematic Sarajevo a decade before 9/11. It is not any transcendent or metaphysical sphere, or ineffably primordial as in Lacan; no, it is death, deprivation, and desolation – while the commercial prosperity of the first world is a form of simulation, a social Potemkin village that masks the dispossession of others.

But on 9/11, Americans

just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Ruanda and Congo to Sierra Leone.

Welcome to the desert of the real.

We will remind millions of American veterans, and the families of hundreds of thousands of war dead, from four major wars in the twentieth century, as well as some lesser wars, (wars that those individual Americans did not, mostly, have to fight in their own self-defense and which as individuals they believed they were in large degree fighting in the service of others) that they have heretofore been protected from it. We will, as well, remind the families of the thousands of American dead and tens of thousands wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hundreds of thousands who have served there

that we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life.

It astonishes, or perhaps it doesn’t, that an intellectually elevated advocate for the fundamental reality of human misery, committed to the idea that Americans live in a contrastingly vacant consumerist simulation of reality, could so overlook this persistent, selfless individual American engagement with the reality of war and death. Even granting how much of that burden falls on so small a segment of American society, there is in that society something that produces this nobility, found, as it is now, nowhere else in the world, certainly not in the Europe of which Zizek is more the product than he recognizes.

It is in the nature, though, of theorists like Zizek to postulate reality as a form of poverty, here a poverty of experience – existence at its lowest manifestation. In so doing, Zizek reveals himself to be more in thrall to violence than those he believes the endemic perpetrators of it. He represents, further, how leftist postmodern theorists, and the Marxists who cleverly stroke those theorists anti-imperial tool while spitting on them, come to fetishize violent tropes. So Baudrillard, in writing of a catastrophic act of real violence, can write of the “pathetic violence” of the “discourses” that oppose it without feeling squeamish about producing drivel. But Zizek will play even more dangerously:

[T]he horrible experience of the Stalinist terror should in no way inhibit us in our search for a ‘good terror’ as the key ingredient of any truly radical politics: there is no effective freedom without ‘terror’ – that is, without some form of the unconditional pressure that threatens the very core of our being. [preface to the Zizek Reader]

That last distinctio is seemingly intended to deactualize the implications of what has just been said – to theorize it, so as not to, in effect, too actually terrorize by it. But since Zizek, we know, feels unconstrained by “so-called human considerations,” he may be less concerned with the sensibilities of his readers than he is compelled to convert the actual into the conceptual, the human figure into the figure of speech. Which would be true to historical form.

Such was the unsquandered non-sympathy of the leading light of left academic theorizing, an even greater star in the intellectual firmament today than he was on 9/11.

Tomorrow: Coming to America


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The Political Animal

9/11/11: Goering’s Defense


(Eighth in a series)

Hermann Goering - Nuremberg2
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In the matter of “squandered sympathies,” let history not lose the record that as early as November 2, 2001, fewer than two months after 9/11, Jean Baudrillard notoriously produced in Le Monde, under the title “The Spirit of Terrorism,” a logically homeless piece of postmodern theory-talk that evinced the equally postmodern irony of mistaking language for reality no less than might have any long-ago and innocent philologist. (The essay was later expanded and issued in book form, by, of course, Verso.) As Baudrillard explored, with clear conceptual relish, the nature of the “jubilation” some felt at the 9/11 attack, he added at one brief point the, by then, obligatory moral condemnation of it – and one can almost hear, in its requisite declamation, Richard Nixon, who lived in his own tortured, verbally constructed universe, talking about how it would be no problem to get the million dollars for the hush money and then adding unnaturally, “It would be wrong.” So Baudrillard seemed more comfortably true to his purpose when he stated that it is the U.S. that “through its unbearable power, engendered all that violence brewing around the world, and therefore this terrorist imagination which – unknowingly – inhabits us all.” In this way we are told that the forces of theocratic tyranny are somehow become a deviant Jean Genet staring at us from the balcony and declaring, “I am you.” Wrote Baudrillard,

That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, – this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

This is unusually passionate theorizing restating a rather fundamental truism – about the natural resentment of the less powerful toward the more – but it is a restatement that seeks to construct a moral safety zone around any actions that might follow from that resentment, based on, one might ironically put it, the hegemonic nature of the resentment: any feeling that inherent in the relation to power is like a structural feature of reality – one can condemn it as a sop to the petty moral concerns of petty people in the petit world, but all the likes of Baudrillard can really do is analyze it. Well, not quite, because – there’s that passion – “we have dreamed of this event.” And in the world of that structural dream, it is “those discourses which attempt to erase it” (like this one, presumably) that are measured by their “pathetic violence,” not the wanton murder of thousands. This is followed by the rapturously rendered twin suicide of the towers.

On the way from Baudrillard to Slavo Zizek, that is, from Western to Eastern Europe, Julia and I stopped in Nuremberg. Germany was not a focus of our trip, though I did look forward to driving through it. The only notable and easy destination along our route from Paris to Prague was the city that played both an early, celebratory and a culminating role in the Nazi saga. I was intrigued by the history, in any event, but I could not help but be drawn personally. It seems to me unlikely that a historically conscious Jew can pay a first visit to Germany without experiencing a kind of reverse and uncanny homecoming, as if to the sight of a calamity one missed by chance or to the habitation of the bogeyman who once occupied one’s dreams, now rendered harmless. Inevitably, this will be less so for those of future generations, not born as I was in that epic aftermath. My own father, who was oddly fortunate enough to be effectively abandoned by his parents in infancy, felt compelled at age ten, when his grandfather died during the first great Ukrainian famine, to seek to follow his mother and father to the United States. He and his older sister were rowed at night across the Zbruch River from Ukraine into Poland and began their multi-year journey. They arrived at Ellis Island in 1927, and so missed what was to follow in Europe. All but one of my father’s uncles and aunts, and their families, disappeared in the maelstrom of history that sucked at the southern Ukraine during the Second World War.

So I sat in the famous courtroom and tried to feel the force of all that history, which is as generally insensible to us in our daily lives as the felt duration of time. Remarkably, the courtroom is still a functioning seat of justice, so tours are offered only on weekends. The “tour” is really just a half hour lecture, followed by a fifteen minute video and Q&A, all in the courtroom itself, and all in German, which I do not speak, so I had nothing to do but look and think. The room is about forty-five by ninety feet, and very much as it appeared sixty-six years ago. The dock in which the twenty-one prisoners sat remains. For the showing of the video, the television stood just in front of where the witness stand had been during the trials. When Hermann Goering appeared on the stand – speak of “hyper-reality” – it was as if I could see him sitting before me in the courtroom just as he had sat then. I am subject, perhaps, to odd and inexplicable experiences of fulfillment, but to be in the room where once and finally Goering and Hess and Speer and Von Ribbentrop and so many of the others available received, one way or another, their too meager and non-compensatory justice was to move from a connection merely hypothetical between them and me to one supernaturally real. Fifty-five years later, in some strange nexus of time and space, they and I had shared the same space, the bogeymen made to face me, and the disturbance of my existence in their absence.

“Everybody knows this is not a trial,” Goering said before the court. “This is just an arrangement where the victors will take revenge on the defeated.”

Such was Goering’s argument. As true as was the fact that Germany was, to the great good fortune of the world’s peoples, the defeated, and the allies the victors – and by that fortune of might in the position to judge and not be judged – Goering acknowledged no other basis upon which to differentiate among them. Reason and morality, however diminished by human imperfection and muddied by reality, could form no basis by which to distinguish between the seekers of the humane and just and the enactors of barbarous inhumanity. This was Herman Goering’s analysis of human and political affairs on this earth, and those who have argued so smugly in the ten years since 9/11 that one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist are either foully or ignorantly his inheritors.


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The Political Animal

9/11/11: Squandered Sympathies

(The seventh in a series)

The squandered sympathies meme states that the United States, as a consequence of 9/11, was the recipient of widespread international sympathy and good will. The meme was born as soon after 9/11 as some people began to anticipate U.S. action in Afghanistan, which is to say as early as those segments of the left ideologically predisposed to condemn as imperial and brutal any form of U.S. military action, even in self-defense, could characterize any non-passive reaction by the U.S. to 9/11 as exactly, by definition, imperial and brutal. That is to say, further, that the squandered sympathies meme was created by those from whom, ideologically, the United States, as a world military, economic, political, and cultural power received already little or any sympathy. The squandered sympathies meme is thus largely and significantly a polemical con propagated not truly to lament a singular error in American ways, but to reinforce an ideological case and to suck into sympathy with it the unsuspecting.

For those so inclined, the intense controversy and international dissension over the impending war in Iraq served to fully substantiate the meme.

The meme still thrives today. Just four days ago, Simon Critchley, chair of the philosophy department at New York’s New School, offered for The Stone, a New York Times forum for contemporary philosophers moderated by Critchley himself, “The Cycle of Revenge,” a strikingly simplistic and naïve reduction of the nature of the U.S. military response to 9/11. Wrote Critchley,

Think back 10 years, if you will. In the days and weeks that followed 9/11 the people of New York City, Washington and indeed the entire United States were the recipients of an unquantifiable wave of empathy from across the world. The initial effect of 9/11 (I was still living in England at the time) was the confirmation in the minds of many millions of people that New York was an extraordinary place that rightly engendered huge affection, indeed love.

Note with me that Critchley offers that he was then living in England. As it happens, it was when I arrived back in Paris nearly three weeks after the attack that I had the opportunity for my first sustained exposure to the English language press, and that was, in fact, the English press. I quickly learned in the British papers about the debacle during an airing of the BBC’s Question Time, a television program in which a studio audience poses questions of selected guests. Only forty-eight hours after the attacks, a largely anti-American audience spewed hateful accusations against the U.S. and its policies at former U.S. Ambassador to Britain Philip Lader. The BBC received hundreds of phone calls protesting the studio audience’s behavior. In a rare occurrence, Greg Dyke, then the BBC’s director general, apologized to Lader. In an occurrence of cosmically apt coincidence, just this past September 8 – the very day Critchley’s commentary appeared in the Times – the BBC repeated its Question Time display of sympathy, as part of a ten-year anniversary consideration, in the very same venue.

Once again however, the BBC allowed the programme to go off the rails into Israel and America bashing, with scenes reminiscent of ten years ago, when as the dust was still settling around Manhattan, the BBC were forced to offer an apology for their role in the BBC Question Time that followed 9/11.

However, the Question Time incident was just one of many. No less than it is now, the Guardian was home to multiple rhetorical attacks offering up what are now representative neo-Stalinist attacks not just on the U.S., but on political liberalism. Seumas Milne, then the paper’s comment editor wrote, in a column just two days after the attack titled “The Can’t See Why They’re Hated,”

Nearly two days after the horrific suicide attacks on civilian workers in New York and Washington, it has become painfully clear that most Americans simply don’t get it. From the president to passersby on the streets, the message seems to be the same: this is an inexplicable assault on freedom and democracy, which must be answered with overwhelming force – just as soon as someone can construct a credible account of who was actually responsible.

Shock, rage and grief there has been aplenty. But any glimmer of recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process – or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world – seems almost entirely absent.

No sympathy squandered here, and how quickly does Milne turn to the companion meme delivered up by my colleague’s email, swamping in imagination the actual violence with the ideologically necessary, if only in conjecture. One week ago, Milne, now an associate editor with the Guardian, penned a ten-year anniversary column justifying his 2001 commentary against the “savage response” to his earlier heartfelt condolence.

Five days later, September 18, Charlotte Raven in the same pages, authored “A Bully with a Bloody Nose Is Still a Bully.” Railing not against the perpetrators of the attack, but the U.S. for its “crazed” agenda, Raven unsympathetically reduces three thousand lives to a “bloody nose.” One would be challenged to find any American military announcement of “collateral” civilian deaths in war as callous. Raven was also ashamed of the BBC’s Dyke for apologizing to U.S. Ambassador Lader for the BBC fiasco. This is the more humane alternative to the American imperial state.

For comprehensive, unsquandered anti-Americanism and Western self-loathing, however, Raven could not match Madeleine Bunting’s October 8, 2001 column titled “Intolerant Liberalism.”

Both Bin Laden and the Taliban are being demonised … while halos are hung over our heads by throwing the moral net wide: we are not just fighting to protect ourselves out of narrow self-interest, but for a new moral order.


What is incredible is not just the belief that you can end terrorism by taking on the Taliban, but that doing so can be elevated into a grand moral purpose.

We see here that what many believe developed over the years since 9/11 was already present as of that date – a far left identification with America’s and the West’s enemies, whatever their stripe, not through the humane empathy denied, then, to the American nation, but out of an ideologically constructed compassion, in this instance, for the proponents of theocratic totalitarianism. But why would any expect sympathy from any who cannot conceive the opposition between the West and Islamism in moral terms? Bunting, too, did not merely disagree with such a notion; she found it “incredible.” Then, in a stunning inversion of the terms – the actors – under consideration, Bunting, projects the nature of Islamism onto the West, which, she argued, “is tolerant towards other cultures only to the extent that they reflect its own values – so it is frequently fiercely intolerant of religious belief.” This is, of course, a preposterous claim arguable only by someone who has said all that came before it; it also completely contradicts the more common and more accurate critique of the Western powers that they tolerate, do business with, and even support regimes that themselves – in addition, sometimes, to their cultures – reflect little of Western values. One strain of radical left critique faults the West for – in the practice of realpolitik and its self-interest – not being true to its values, and now Bunting offers the claim of the contradictory, multi-cultural strain that the West arrogantly tries to impose its values on the rest of the world. Bunting offered not a coherent vision, but a unitary animus that will reach for any available stick, in this instance the perversely proffered claim of intolerance against liberalism just a month after 9/11.

As morally obtuse as was Bunting’s consideration of events, she was sharp enough to spy the essential issue even as she turned it upside down. She knew the definition of liberalism even if she could not truly conceptualize it or concretely recognize it. She proceeded to consider how every system of thought has contradictions and that for liberalism it is that between the claim of tolerance and the claim of universality in its values. Western liberalism, that is, arrogantly believes it values are better than totalitarian, exclusionary, misogynistic, and undemocratic theocracy.

Within the first month, the first days after 9/11, the crux of the conflict had been identified by those who had no sympathy to squander for the United States. It is, indeed, part of the integral nature of cultures to prefer themselves over others: it is how they maintain themselves coherently, in unity, as identifiable cultures – except, of course, when some elements in a society are so overwhelmed by ideologically informed guilt that cultural self-debasement masquerading as intellectual liberation becomes the substitute for a natural and healthy self-regard. But this only makes all cultures the same. They all look in the mirror and preen and primp. If there is any difference in comeliness, we recognize it only through reason, a faculty Bunting tortures even as she disbelieves in it, for she believes, even as she makes judgmental distinctions, that none are possible.

This was just some English high tea of squandered sympathies, there is rhapsody and theory and America itself yet to come.


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The Political Animal

Left Bereft: September 11, 2001 and the Politics of the Moral Imagination

(9/11/11: the sixth in a series)

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

W.B. Yeats, Easter 1916

For some, the first image is that of the planes, stark apparitions of a cold reality in the instant before the strike. For others, it is the buildings’ linear collapse and retreat to the earth that bore them.

For me, it is hands.

The hands of our waiter at the outdoor café on Prague’s Old Town Square deliver our latté and Coke, then hover in front of him, nearly joining as if to begin an appeal. Where do we come from, he asks. We tell him. And he tells us. With his hands. One hand barrels down from the right, the other tears in from the left, two planes filled with people, descending from the sky at shuddering speeds like the lightning strikes of a fierce and terrible God. Then the hands make a sweep of the air.

“The World Trade Center,” says our waiter, “is no more.”

Our waiter’s hands. The hand that rose to my mouth as it never had before. The hands that held the wheels to steer. The hands that slit the throats. Hands that steer a true course, hands that steer you wrong. Hands that clutch at armrests, clutch at seats. Hands that cross and meet to pray, or hold another’s tight. The waiter’s hands. My hands. Their hands. Dialing numbers. Shielding eyes as unexpected buildings loomed. Hands wrestling wheels from hands. Hands that write. Human hands.

Homo habilis – dexterous man – lives on: Homo sapiens – man the wise – loiters still in the evolutionary brain.

Within hours of the attack, while Julia and I sat slumped in long distance despair before the television in our hotel apartment, emails were already reaching us – long and short notes of sorrow and fear, concern for our safety, wonder what it was like so far from home. Home. We sent our own emails, including one to my nephew in New York. Among the emails I later received were those from a teaching colleague and from a fellow writer. The colleague, an ex host on L.A.’s Pacifica Radio outlet KPFK,  had copied me on a submission to a Marxist discussion group, his email a bombastic rant and prediction of the barbarous and indiscriminate American retaliation certain to come within days. The writer offered up explicitly the very words that would quickly become the hallmark response to the attacks from a segment of the political left, and a first line of division within the left – the sentiment that the attack had been “chickens coming home to roost.” That suggestion was the source of much public shaming to come, shame that was never acknowledged as such, but which took the form (vice donning the cloak of virtue yet again) of de rigueur animadversions, in response to any criticism, that it went without saying (literally, as it was) that such attacks on “innocent civilians” were awful or horrendous or unacceptable or some such strongly worded thing. The – in truth – unashamed animadverters then returned to counting chickens and expanding upon the zoology of why they roost.

Old Town Square, Prague

Moments after our Czech waiter delivered the truly incredible news – I needed to see for myself to grant it credibility – I rushed off to another café on the square I had pressed our waiter to direct me to. There I joined one other American and some Germans in front of a large television. My credulity continued to be strained even as I saw the tape of the second tower’s collapse. Outside the huge storefront window, thousands busily touristed the square. The other American, an attractive, confident man of about forty, had already assumed the role of hometown expert for the Germans. He lived, he said, not far from the Pentagon. For some reason, his proximity to the developing drama – though he sat now so many thousands of miles away – the fact that he was from there, where the death and destruction had occurred, conferred upon him in his own mind and that of the Germans some special status. Indeed, he seemed to need it, to need to draw the horror closer to him, as if he were a kind of survivor, which in a way he was. The Germans seemed to want it, too. They stood beside a potential victim. None of them (but for the very bad luck of being a foreign worker or visitor at one of the Trade Center towers) might have been victims: they were not the targets. They were not Americans. He, however, was, and might have been killed for it; it was a part of his identity now – the locale of our habitation, sheer geographical contiguity, and conscious association all being parts of who we are – and he claimed it.

Similarly, more than a week later, in Verona, Italy, Julia mentioned to a saleswoman during our inevitable exchange that I am a native New Yorker. I think the fact that I was not then living there was lost between the languages. As the saleswoman walked us to the front of the store in friendly conversation, she shared with several coworkers the poignant fact of my nativity. The coworkers gazed at me with a mixture of horror and sorrow, as if my lungs, too, might now be choked with the dust of human flesh and buildings. Were they wrong? I’d been further from the disaster than they had been, yet I had walked those floors, eaten in those restaurants, gazed out at the world from the observation deck, worked, at times, in the shadows. My entire adult life had included in its skyline those two buildings, which before I left the Rockaway beaches to move to “the city,” I could see across Jamaica Bay and the New York harbors from twenty miles away. I do not now live in New York, but I have only to open my mouth for many Americans to know I am a New Yorker. In the service of what ideas might the constituents of a self be denied? In acknowledgement of what experiences might they be assented to?

The American Embassy in Prague

Back, still, inPrague, we attended a vigil atWenceslas Square, where before the statue of St. Wenceslas, crowds had been gathering to light candles, leave flowers, and hang banners opposing terrorism. While Julia worked the angles with her camera, I looked on with Isabella, a Czech friend who now lives in Los Angeles and whom we had, to our astonishment, run into on the street the morning of 9/11. Now, we talked about the depth of the feelings around us. A slightly disheveled and agitated Czech man suddenly appeared and interrupted our conversation. MyNew York instincts made me wary, but as Isabella translated, I learned that the man had heard our English and had wondered if I were American. I told him I was. He had been searching the streets for an American, he said. He was very emotional. He looked at me intently and told me, through Isabella, that on that day he, too, felt like an American. That was all. I thanked him. (Who was I to thank him? For what, that had anything to do with me?)  He walked on. But what, really, had he meant by that?

Back in time yet again, the night before, the night of the attack, after long hours of watching CNN, Julia and I finally surrendered to our hunger and sought food at nearly midnight. Prague is a late night town to make a New Yorker happy. Julia and I were somber and drained, but glad for the fresh air. We found a crowded restaurant with a jazz band. Old Town Square buzzed with activity. Beneath the music, conversation crackled at the tables. And I thought, suddenly, of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
its human position.

In Breughel’s Icarus, as Auden notes, the ploughman may have heard Icarus’s falling cry, but it was not important to him. The sun was still shining, and the ship that must have seen something “amazing” had somewhere to go:

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster.

And elsewhere, no doubt, someone with knowledge of the boy’s soaring and careless ambition said it served him right for his hubris.

For the first few days, it was hard to figure how the month-long drive through Europe we had planned for a year could be anything but ruined. It was hard not to feel guilty for even thinking about that. Julia was glad not to be home; the hours we spent watching the coverage were overwhelming to her as it was. I did wish we were home – wished even that I were in New York. I wanted to be among my countrymen and women at a threatening time, for the comfort of solidarity, and because I thought us vulnerable in Europe, separated as we were from our fellow Americans, which was probably just another desire for solidarity since we were surely safer where we were than back in the States. It wasn’t that anyone had been unfriendly or threatening – not at all. But most of the people who had been killed had been targeted because they were Americans. Europeans and others were no doubt quite sensibly glad at the moment not to be Americans. Americans would feel the same relief were the circumstances reversed.

Now, though, my instincts were fundamental. I wanted to be among people who would “have my back,” as I would have theirs, simply because we came from the same place. The back I had the instinct to watch might not be one I liked – it might be a Republican, worse, some obnoxious fundamentalist; I could hope not some racist. I wouldn’t know, though, before coming to anyone’s aid, just as any fanatic who tried to kill me would not have bothered to ask my politics or even my religion – wouldn’t know whether I oppose American dependence on Mid-East oil and want to develop alternative energy sources (and thus want to stop doing business with Arab despots) or whether, indeed, I were a Muslim, instead of – ah, what a lucky strike – a Jew.

These are basic instincts. Are they always too basic? These days, for some – many – they are, but only when Americans and – ah, yes – Jews feel them.

It can be difficult to distinguish among simultaneous and general pains, but I soon realized that as much or more than the attacks, what had been digging into me were those two emails I had received. The pain of the loss of life, and of the horror, was real, but the horrors of the world are hardly a revelation. How can anyone who knows of the Holocaust and the countless other brutal and barbaric degradations humans have visited upon each other just in the past century feel shocked by what happened? Surprised, yes – we hope each new moment may deliver us to a higher plane – but shocked? All that easy, journalistic drivel that flowed for months about some American loss of innocence, the same innocence that was lost when Nixon resigned and Kennedy was shot and during the Second World War and which apparently managed to survive slavery and the near extermination of the American Indian. What educated person on this planet beyond the age of, say, twenty-two – college done – should ever be permitted to speak of innocence?

But to know, of course, is one thing, to experience another, and while I was not in the towers or the Pentagon, I did receive those emails. It seemed the pain that I and so many others felt –

so many people dead, and how they died –

was not felt by everyone, even other Americans. These people are not themselves monsters. They are not murderers. They slay no one and order no one’s death. And they do feel, just as any of us – though what they feel, in the realm of the political , is in the name of ideas only, and some bad ones at that.

As for their neighbors, how awful, such a shame – but you know, (sotto voce) they really had it coming.

For there were politics to consider. Ideological bones to be picked. Even beneath the rubble. Even among the ashes. Even as fires burned.


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The Political Animal

9/10/01: “Ere the sun Swings his noonday sword”*


(9/11/11: fifth in a series)

Photo by Andy Levin+

That much I can give you of these hours. 
That much only, 
fists and blossom forged by salt,
trellising your wounded helixes against our days. 
Tell us how to live for we are shades,
facing, caged, the chastening sun. 
Our eyes are scorched and lidless.
 We cannot bear your light.

David Wojahn, “ “Written on the Due Date of a Son Never Born”

On September 10, 2001, Julia and I arrived in Prague as it seemed we had driven into every city on our travels – about 10 p.m. at night, in the rain, searching for a new hotel on dimly lit streets we didn’t know. In the morning, we would begin to explore the old city, the bridges, and Prague Castle. I would relish all the more the pleasures of our journey, the treasures of the word still open to me, for the life I might have lost eight days earlier in Paris.

“The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of the razor, so say the wise.”

the Katha Upanishads 1.3.14

September 10

== > [•X] After being ignored for weeks, California Senator Feinstein contacts Vice President Cheney’s office to check on the status of urgent proposals for counterterrorism reforms that she submitted on July 20 (Cheney heads the administration’s counterterrorism efforts).  An aide tells her that it could take Cheney another six months to get around to reviewing the material.      [nwwk.May.27.2002 / feinst]

== > [•X] The Congressional Research Service releases the report ‘Terrorism: Near Eastern Groups and State Sponsors.’  The paper describes al-Qaeda as a “global threat” and rates its terrorist activity level as ‘Extremely High,’ the highest of any terrorist group on the list.      [crs.Sep.10.2001]

== > [•XX] The NSA intercepts several conversations between al-Qaeda members indicating that a terrorist attack is imminent, including “tomorrow is zero hour” and “the match begins tomorrow.” The messages aren’t translated until September 12.      [ust.Jun.20.2002]

== > [X] Neil Levin – executive director of the New York Port Authority, operator of the city’s airports, port facilities, bridges, and tunnels, and landlord of the World Trade Center – tells a reporter what he thinks of his job: “It’s just fabulous.  I wake up each morning having no idea what challenges the day will bring.”  Levin works out of the North Tower of the WTC, and next morning he is having breakfast at Windows on the World on the 107th floor when the first plane hits.      [nyt.Sep.15.2001]

== > [X] John O’Neill enjoys an evening at Elaine’s Restaurant in New York City.  Formerly the FBI’s leading counterterrorism expert, O’Neill was recently forced out by bureaucratic infighting, and began his new job as head of security for the World Trade Center on August 23.  At Elaine’s he discusses the possibility of a terrorist attack: “We’re due. And we’re due for something big. Some things have happened in Afghanistan (evidently referring to the al-Qaeda assassination of Massoud the day before).  I don’t like the way things are lining up in Afghanistan… I just — I sense a shift, and I think things are going to happen.” When asked when, he says, “I don’t know, but soon.”  Next morning, O’Neill is in the South Tower when it collapses.      [nykr.Jan.14.2002 / pbsf.Oct.03.2002]

== > [X] On the afternoon of September 10, hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi wires $5,400 in unused funds back to the United Arab Emirates from Boston.     [mcder]
=In the late afternoon, Atta and fellow hijacker al-Omari drive from Boston to Portland, Maine, for undetermined reasons.  They eat their last dinner at a Pizza Hut, buy a pair of box cutters at Wal-Mart, and spend their last night in a Comfort Inn.      [inside / prsac.Dec.01.2001]

=The hijackers have apparently been issued a five-page set of instructions that includes a section meant to console them during their final night.  They are advised to pray and to “be optimistic,” and are assured that they are about to enter “the infinite paradise.”      [wap.Sep.29.2001]

=Hijacker Ziad Jarrah has concealed the extent of his extremist beliefs from his family and from his wife, with whom he has only sporadic contact. On the last night of his life, Jarrah writes her a farewell letter: “You should be very proud, because it is an honor and in the end you will see that everyone will be happy.”      [mcder / bbc.Nov.19.2001]

(from A Road through 9/11: a Chronology.)


* “Before Action,” Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, written on the eve of his death in the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

+Andy Levin’s “View” appears in The New York Times Lens blog . “Showcase: The World, as of 9/10/01.” You can find more of his work at
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The Political Animal

Nine Hundred and Thirty-Five Years before 9/11 (and Fifty-Seven, too)


(9/11/11: third in a series)

The Landing at Normandy

When, after a brief return to Paris, I arrived in Normandy – a couple of days after leaving Julia behind in Provence – it was with the expressed purpose of making a first visit to the landing beaches, and to some of the countless fields where allied soldiers had inched their way among the hedge rows in the night. That had been my plan before 9/11. Now it meant even more to me. What struck me, even as the experience moved me, was how incommunicable it could be. Many, of course, have felt and do feel the same as I about that historical moment. Others – not quite so powerfully. For some, it is an idea, with various permutations, and not much of a feeling at all. Even after 9/11, there could be no reliable agreement about any meaning the great invasion might hold for the present or the future. If lessons are to be drawn from history, can there be any greater than those of the Second World War? Yet only sixty years later, there are good people, well-meaning people, who feel the parallels have been drawn too often and too illegitimately. They are even, perhaps, just a little tired of hearing them. Ah, yes, there are lessons to be learned, but first we have to agree upon what they are, and when to apply them, and who should presume to teach, requiring whom to learn.

As I made the two and a half hour drive from Paris to Normandy, the closer I approached, the more I imagined an historical progress in the other direction. In childhood, I had studied with fascination, in books and school and in popular movies more or less simplistically patriotic, an event I soon came to understand as epic in proportion and which had occurred in all its horror and tragic grandeur in the years not long before my birth, almost a creation myth for the world in which I lived. It is not a myth, however. The extraordinary human stories behind the liberating invasion that was the European theater’s terrible and heroic crescendo were real – are real for those who choose to do honor through memory. But memory fades, or calcifies; it is as human to turn the gaze from where it is directed as it is to let it rest there, and some prefer the subjunctive to the celebratory mood. So the lessons of felt experience become the less gripping instruction of the explained idea, and some – even those who bore the brunt of its destruction – believe they learn from the Second World War that calamity comes from the rush of free nations to war, instead of the reluctance of good people to join it. Of course, one must believe in those people’s goodness, and in the value of liberty, whatever its failings.

I drove the country roads, got lost in the little seaside hamlets, and made my way to Pointe du Hoc. I walked among the decades old bomb craters and stood near the cliff. I looked down at the rocks and the surf, and as a man who has never been to war, I tried to imagine the unimaginable. When, later, I arrived at the western end of Omaha Beach, where the monument stands to the National Guardsmen who died in such great numbers, I walked down to the water’s edge. There are homes along the road that runs beside the beach, but not many. Unlike Pointe du Hoc, there are no bunkers or trenches remaining to remind the unwitting that the sand had ever seen more than angry waves, or that the cliffs above had ever offered to those below more than a dramatic view. I scanned the waterline and tried to conjure the landing craft, the soldiers spilling into the water. I turned and faced the cliffs.

Up off the beach, at that western end, on a little rise at the end of the road that takes you down, there was, of all things, a snack bar. Imagine. I sat on an empty patio in the grey autumn and ate an onion tart. I felt both profane and proper.

The Landing of the Normans

The next morning, I went to see the Bayeux Tapestry, preserved in glass in the cathedral of that town, which was the first liberated after the allied landing. Over a length of 230 feet of coarse linen, twenty inches high, the tapestry tells the story in embroidered tableaux of another great invasion, one that crossed the channel in the other direction, in 1066. The long, traditional belief was that the tapestry had been woven by the handmaidens of Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife. It is now commonly thought, instead, to have been commissioned by Odon de Conteville, William’s half brother and Bishop of Bayeux. The style of the handicraft has also led scholars to conclude that the tapestry was woven, not by Normans, but by Anglo-Saxon embroiderers. So not only is the tapestry a dramatic and notable instance of the victors writing history, but also of the vanquished having been cruelly compelled to play the victor’s scribes. And though, of course, motivations are always murky, though two panels may be missing from the tapestry, and independent, written chronicles of the conquest don’t always agree, though the tapestry shows William leading Harold on a campaign through Brittany before Harold pledged his fealty, while other sources place the events in reverse, though some say Edward engaged in his own, deathbed reversal, and bequeathed his crown to Harold in place of William – though all of this be so – in this the tapestry remains uncontradicted: that Edward did send Harold across the channel to William to tell him the crown would be his, that Harold did, indeed, swear an oath to William, and that he betrayed it.


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The Political Animal

Two and a Half Centuries before 9/11


(9/11/11: the first in a series)

Long ago loosed from popular memory, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was not only a natural catastrophe but a crisis of the enlightenment mind as well. The quake is estimated to have lasted ten minutes, with three distinct jolts. Modern seismological estimates, based on recorded observations of the temblor’s effects, are that the quake was a 9.0 on the Richter scale, the same as the 2004 Indian Ocean quake off Sumatra. It was felt in North Africa and Central Europe and was quickly followed by the three tsunamis, with waves of perhaps fifty feet, sweeping out to sea not only thousands from shaky ground, but many who had sought refuge from the disaster in boats. Then came the fires. Much of Lisbonwas destroyed. Varied estimates are that up to sixty thousand people lost their lives. And it happened the morning of All Soul’s Day.

A common sentiment at the time, among those both more and less Christian, was that the disaster was God’s punishment on a sinful world. Even among those of less apocalyptic bent, there was a crisis of faith. Why would God unleash such punishment so indiscriminately upon even the innocent? Voltaire, among other thinkers and artists across Europe, was profoundly influenced by the historic calamity, and he went to intellectual war, in Candide and elsewhere, with Leibniz’s optimism that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Artists depicted the event well into the next century. Yet the Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the development of natural science and the rationalist response to life on earth. Vast efforts were made to understand the quake as a natural phenomenon. Modern seismology may be said to have been born from the event. The prime minister of Portugal, Sebastião de Melo, amid much political infighting and contestation, organized probably the first modern governmental disaster relief and reconstruction program. Lisbon was rebuilt.

There is a comparison to be drawn between the Lisbon earthquake, over two hundred and fifty years ago, and the 9/11 attack on the United States. Though an obvious dissimilarity is that the quake was a natural disaster, and 9/11 decidedly not, that distinction was not so clear to mid-eighteenth century Europeans, and there were far too many, those who are religious (including, obviously, the perpetrators of the attack) and even those who are not, who considered 9/11 to be, if not God’s, at least some form of ideologically righteous judgment upon the United States. Another argument against the comparison is the number of monstrous and very inhuman human catastrophes that came between. What is 9/11 compared to the Holocaust, to choose an easy example? Yet for many, 9/11 still seems hugely significant, its dramatically visual and its symbolic character not to be overlooked.

A crucial consideration in the making of analogies, however, is whether one intends them to elucidate or in actuality delimit. In the former instance, the analogist seeks to understand the unavoidably new and different in the light of the old and suggestively prototypical. In the latter instance, the thing compared is captured in the net of what it is compared to, the analogist’s purpose to deny the thing the freedom to be more and other than its predecessor, even though everything in this world, for all the haunting similarities, is irreversibly other than everything else. The analogies of political argumentation are usually of the latter kind. To use a popular set of political terms, while they pretend to liberate the imagination, their intent is to occupy the reason. For that reason, metaphor, like a lepidopterist releasing his catch from the net, will always be superior to analogy. Of course, with the literary it is never necessary to decide; one may remain delightedly undecided – in no place exactly at all – inhaling the ambiguous breeze. In politics there is a different reason not to make decisions – one may comfortably believe what one is determined to believe, analogies be dammed, or used.

One reason, then, that I invoke the Lisbon earthquake is that it so profoundly influenced even those who did not directly experience it. Those who were neither in New York City nor Virginia nor Pennsylvania were terrified, distraught, grief-stricken, sleepless, angry, confused, disillusioned. People all have their own stories, including me – a New Yorker living in Los Angeles – thousands of miles away at the time, in Prague. And if the historical is not personal in the end, it is purposeless. If the personal is not situated somewhere in time, in history, then it is aimlessly, absurdly adrift – which may well be….

But history will make its claim on us nonetheless, most unexpectedly, like a 350,000 pound jet flying at over 500 miles per hour into a 110 story building containing 87,000 tons of steel, even if you are merely some tourist in from Japan hoping for an early start to the day and a chance at the unparalleled view.

Now it is ten years since 9/11 and the Afghan war that followed, and it has become a commonplace, in the period since the lead up to the Iraq war that followed later still, to say that America squandered the goodwill directed toward it in the aftermath of 9/11. This facile commentary is both demonstrably true and false. It is true that large numbers of ordinary people around the world felt sympathy for Americans in the manner that most people are touched by the vividly knowable ill fortune of others. The implicit proposition in references to these squandered sympathies, though, is that such feelings had significant political implications, specifically regarding people’s understanding of, and relation to, America’s role and power in the world. I think such a proposition arguable at best. The “squandered goodwill” truism is demonstrably false because of the extensive public record documenting a widespread lack of goodwill at the time of 9/11, from various quarters, both predictable and unexpected. In fact, outright hostility emanated not just from Islamic extremists and confusedly aggrieved segments of the Arab populace, but, very prominently, from the political left, including the American left – that very quarter (which would widely oppose action in Afghanistan too) from which, after Iraq, the squandered goodwill truism later emerged like a carefully cultivated hothouse flower, humid and flushed with forgetfulness.

In truth, whatever goodwill we find absent among many, it was not squandered but already long withheld, before George W. Bush, the easy and obvious scapegoat, became President. September 11, 2011 revealed – should really have only reminded – that despite the fall of the Soviet bloc and the death throes of state communism, the ideology, the historical analysis, and the political sentiments that bore, supported, and rationalized them live on in all the usual quarters. The labels are different – scholarly and theoretical – or the same Marxian as before, but sewn on an inseam instead of a breast pocket. New developments in cultural and political contest have been clarified – Islamism and a new reactionary Republicanism – to skew perceptions and fundamental judgments about where to stand between them. But the contention is the same: the plutocratic and militaristic only confirm the Marxist-inspired, postcolonial challenge; the latter only justifies the imperialistic reaction. Liberals, not uncommonly, remain toothless, and often nominally in charge, until they are not.

And now we are two-hundred and fifty-six years since the Lisbon Earthquake, already ten from 9/11.



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The Political Animal

Islamist Terrorism: The British Connection

The Henry Jackson Society, the British-based think tank, is dedicated to “fostering a strong British and European commitment towards freedom, liberty, constitutional democracy, human rights, governmental and institutional reform and a robust foreign, security and defence policy and transatlantic alliance.” Its recent report, Islamist Terrorism: The British Connection , produced some striking findings and statistics. From the report, emphasis and bracketed comment mine:

1)      64% of offences [during the Oughts] were committed during the period between 2005 and 2007

2)      Two thirds of offences were perpetrated by British nationals

3)      46% resided in London

4)      28% attended terrorist training camps [which means, conversely, that 72% had no such outstanding marker in their history of travel or organizational ties]

5)      66% had no direct links to any organisations proscribed by the UK government

6)      18% were linked to al-Muhajiroun and 13% to al-Qaeda

7)      50% were of South-central Asian ancestry [a preponderance in numbers unavoidably noted, as is the reality that 50% were NOT of South-central Asian ancestry]

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The Political Animal

Citizen Wald: Islamism, the Betrayal of the Left, and Prospects for Real Coalition-Building and Peace-Work

From Citizen Wald at To Find the Principles:

One of the peculiarities of the contemporary Middle East conflict has been the historically unprecedented willingness of the putative “left” or “progressive” community to make common cause with or condone the behavior of extremist—notably: reactionary, clerical-obscurantist, even terrorist—organizations with whom they have nothing in common and would under any other circumstances have no truck.  Indeed, only the shared visceral opposition to Israel seems capable of generating this sort of cognitive dissonance.

Almost half a decade ago now, the late, brilliant independent leftist Fred Halliday (1, 2, 3, 4warned his erstwhile comrades against the naive belief that radical Islamism represented “a new form of international anti-imperialism that matches – even completes – their own historic project.” To see in it only “a movement aimed against ‘the West’,” he insisted, is inadvertently to recapitulate the argument of “the imperialist right” and willfully or otherwise ignore that “long before the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadis and other Islamic militants were attacking ‘imperialism,’ they were attacking and killing the left – and acting across Asia and Africa as the accomplices of the west.” (Not the kind of argument you will hear in the “mainstream media”—or even in most leftist discourse, for that matter.)

Read more


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The Political Animal

Greenwald-Goldberg II: This Time It’s Personal

There have been some more posts by both Glen Greenwald and Jeffrey Goldberg, with Joe Klein rousing himself from supine beach slumber (or whatever, on vacation) to throw a few punches in what has turned into a web free for all. And I should stay out of it? One can only imagine what Dave Weigel, whose firing begat all this, is thinking. I have offered my own thoughts already on the quality of Greenwald’s contribution. There has been more since, and one reader dug into my critique with some effort and offered his thoughts in the comments, deserving of response. I started to reply there, but the reply got lengthy enough for a post, so now it is that.

My further thoughts on Greenwald, in reply to a reader. The format is first, the reader’s quote of a passage from me, the reader’s commentary in italics, and then, in bold, my latest thoughts in response.


Your criticism of Greenwald:

“the tendency to characterise those who differed on Iraq not simply, if one believes it, as wrong, but as dishonest. ”

Here, you seem to imply that his belief in the dishonesty of many journalists who wrote pro-Iraq War coverage disqualifies him from making arguments that many journalists who wrote pro-Iraq War coverage were dishonest, by introducing a “tendency.” It seems like an attempt to poison the well and to create assumptions about his arguments without acknowledging their actual content.

The point is that Greenwald’s tendency is to characterize people as dishonest rather than provide evidence that they are dishonest. It is easy argumentatively to disagree with people, harder to prove them mistaken, and harder still to prove them dishonest. In fact, Greenwald in his original post makes not a single effort to establish dishonesty. He uses words like “error” and “false,” which apply to correspondence with fact, and once in his furious assault uses the slippery “falsehood,” which can denote the simply mistaken or a lie. He doesn’t even attempt to establish the lie, but the word has its connotation among the unsubstantiated charges of dishonesty.

“What loses, or should lose, trust is the overwhelming animus that motivates it. […]There is a difference, though, between having a point of view and even passions (and succumbing, as anyone will, to some ill-advised invective) and forming one’s arguments out of the passionate point of view, rather than the passion from the argument.”

This passage seems to confirm that your interest is in raising doubts about his arguments by citing that he has strong beliefs in the positions that he argues for, and that should make us suspicious of his arguments because bad arguments are often made by people in order to convince other people to support positions that they believe in. Of course most arguments, bad or good, are made by people who believe in the positions that they are arguing for.

Yes, of course, but if that were the end of it, one could never revise one’s thinking. The reader used the word “beliefs.” I used “passions.” My point applies in either case, though the skepticism should be most raised by passions such as Greenwald’s. My phrase “forming one’s arguments out of the passionate point of view, rather than the passion from the argument” refers to constituting and shaping the argument to suit the passion or belief, rather than developing the conviction according to where the evidence and reason take one – what, for instance, the Bush administration clearly did in repeatedly reshaping its justifications for the Iraq war, even retroactively, when former rationales began to fail. I don’t seek to raise doubts in Greenwald’s arguments simply because he has strong feelings, but because the strong feelings lead him regularly to slant and to overreach, by making claims, of dishonesty, he does not substantiate. Further, his clear suggestion that Goldberg was effectively functioning as an Israeli agent – “aimed at scaring Americans into targeting the full panoply of Israel’s enemies” – is even defamatory in nature if not legally establishable as such.

“There may be establishment journalists who flatter and protect, but that is no one’s argumentative position. And is it, rather, the job description of journalist to expose and embarrass?”

To characterise the position of a person arguing against a press that “flatters and protects” powerful interests as a belief that the sole job description of a journalist is to “expose and embarrass” is to set up a straw man by creating a clearly false dichotomy.

On the contrary, here is Greenwald:

He apparently committed the gravest sin:  he exposed and embarrassed rather than flattered and protected a powerful government official, and in our upside-down media culture, doing that is a sign of irresponsibility rather than fulfillment of the basic journalistic function. [Emphasis added]

It is, indeed, a false dichotomy, created by Greenwald, not by me, and it is Greenwald in the emphasized language who claims that “to expose and embarrass” is “the basic journalistic function.”

“Greenwald (expose and embarrass) cannot hear Logan’s arguments[…]”

And you immediately assign that straw man as the central belief that motivates Greenwald in order to psychoanalyse Greenwald’s reaction to Logan, without even being considerate enough to hide the assigning of an irrational motivation to him within a rhetorical question (e.g. “Could an ‘expose and embarrass’ journalistic philosophy on Greenwald’s part have closed his mind to the actual arguments that Logan made?”)

Well, I established above that there was no straw man set up by me, though there was a false dichotomy presented by Greenwald. And if I became however clinical in my consideration of Greenwald, at least it was behaviorally so – I characterized his observable behavior in argument. He, on the other hands, makes scurrilous charges as to people’s motivations and even moral natures.

While you may not find many people who think that the only function of the press is to “expose and embarrass,” you will also not find many who think that to “flatter and protect” powerful people should be any part of the function of the press. Most agree that to “expose and embarrass” is one, very important, function of the press.

The reader here is adopting Greenwald’s own straw man, established via the false dichotomy. To repeat and extend a bit the quote offered earlier from my post:

There may be establishment journalists who flatter and protect, but that is no one’s argumentative position. And is it, rather, the job description of journalist to expose and embarrass? What if the subject does not warrant exposure?

I go on to state of Lara Logan’s argument:

that the reporter is in a human relationship, which for Hastings permits developing the pretense of a trust the subject should not be fooled into placing, and for Logan includes the possibility of actually respecting the subject and what he does. Subjects can, in fact, warrant either treatment.

The reader is here arguing with a position I do not hold.

“Notice I used the words ‘fighting’ and ‘enemy.’ Greenwald is amongst those who insist on conceiving widespread and organized Islamic terrorism as a law enforcement problem. Other people claim the nature of war in the contemporary era – access to massive amounts of conventional weaponry and potentially WMD, and ease of organization across national boundaries of non-state actors – has necessarily altered. This raises a host of complex issues, including that of how to confront citizens who side with the enemy. Were they advancing on a battlefield with weapon in hand, there would be no question. But since Greenwald will not acknowledge these complex new developments, these complexities are not represented in the discussion and so cannot be considered. Further, he loads his presentation with prejudicial terms such as ‘assassination.'”

In this passage, you use “complex issues” as a substitute for an argument. Greenwald believes that these “complex issues” do not keep considering terrorism as a law enforcement problem from being better than other options. You do not. Greenwald explains why he thinks that it would be better to consider terrorism as a law enforcement problem. You explain that Greenwald’s prejudice (as embodied in his insistence on referring to the tracking down and killing of individuals who are not on a battlefield and haven’t been convicted of any crimes by the word “assassination.”) prevents him from considering “complex issues” raised by “other people.” This is not good.

Actually, in the post I cite, Greenwald explains nothing of the kind. He may well have at some point in the past. I do not know. I would guess so. I do not call his position on combating/policing (even the verb is in question) terrorism a prejudice. It is a judgment he has made. That’s fine. What I say is that he slants his presentation of the issue. The reader’s use of the word “battlefield,” as in “individuals who are not on a battlefield” does the same. This is the very issue that is in question, whether an evolution has occurred in the nature of warfare that alters the conception of what a battlefield is. Will we say of someone who is a member of an adversarial organization to the U.S. and who is sitting at a computer in a suburban apartment in Uzbekistan, in plain clothes, attempting to crash the U.S. energy grid, while compatriots are attacking the DoD and financial systems networks, that he is not on a “battlefield”? Yes, this is an idea that is fraught with “complex” and worrisome considerations. My claim is that Greenwald simplifies these issues to his own ideological ends by evading them. That is not good.

But this raises the issue of for whom it is Greenwald writes. Though he not inappropriately trades on his legal and constitutional credentials, and loads his posts with links, so that the well-considered intellectual quality of his offerings is clearly meant to make its impression, Greenwald writes in these instances, particularly of Goldberg and Iraq, in highly charged emotive terms, and with the deficiencies I have already reasserted. Here is a phrase he uses in variations, in this case of Goldberg,

who relentlessly pounded the drums for war from his keyboard, which helped to bring about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. [Emphasis added]

Now, this is an awful, lamentable truth, but it is a truth applicable to almost any war, be the war just or not. Human warfare is an awful, lamentable truth. It is a phrase, though, in the context of all the slanted argumentation and accusation and character condemnation, that serves as nothing more than a final, condescending screech at those fashioned by the cry to be one’s insensate moral inferiors. Surely, the fan base is pleased, but is this meant as genuine intellectual engagement with the issues? Are these arguments intended to influence anyone not swept up in their emotional current or who can conceive the dissents? I think not.

“it would take little effort to quickly concede ‘is not comparable’ if that is what he thinks, though this would lead Greenwald into that gray world he prefers to live beyond.”

I may not be understanding your metaphor correctly, but I read this as saying that by not explicitly characterising the Iraq invasion as not comparable to the Nazi invasion of Poland, he has chosen to stay in a world “beyond” a world of greys? My assumption is that this world “beyond” is a black and white one, though this comparison is a bit underwritten.

My question is: how would characterising the Iraq invasion as not at all comparable to a Nazi invasion avoid a black and white world, rather than the opposite?

It reads as if this is just a kludgy way of reinforcing the theme of some suspicious passion on Greenwald’s part, and combining it with a spatial metaphor which paints black and white beliefs as being “beyond” the “grey world” of pragmatism. It just sounds anti-intellectual to me, as if Greenwald is floating above the world that we live in, with its absolute and complete disimularity between the reaction of Sudeten Polish-Germans to the Nazis and Kurds to the Iraqi invasion forces, and choosing to fly around passionately and full of animus in his artificial black and white world created by his “closed, monovision of absolute [belief],” where people are held to what they have said and “complex issues” from the grey world are ignored. I don’t get it.

Let me see if I can clarify. Black and white is symbolic of simplicity, like the false dichotomy or dilemma of journalism that either “protects and flatters” or “exposes and embarrasses.” Gray represents complexity, the shades between black and white that contain exception, variation, permutation, multiplicity. Greenwald tends to reduce the latter to the former, for instance, in the follow-up post responding to Goldberg, when he countered Goldberg’s claim about the welcome response of the Kurds to the American invasion. Yes, Greenwald’s fundamental point is correct – this welcome response in itself is not dispositive of the justness or, at a minimum, defensible character of the war. But is that really the whole matter? Is it really as simple as that? This is when context matters.  Greenwald sought to give himself a “get out of jail free card”:

It should go without saying, but doesn’t: the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions. It may or may not be, but that’s irrelevant.  The point is that every nation which launches even the most brutal, destructive and unprovoked wars of aggression employs moralizing propaganda to claim that their aggression engenders magnanimous and noble ends, and specifically often points to segments of the invaded population which welcome the violence and invaders.

Implied is that Greenwald is making a one-point comparison only – implied, but not actually stated, because Greenwald says the Iraq War “may or may not be” comparable to Nazi and other invasions. I stated that it would have taken little effort – no more than the “may or may not be” – to say that Iraq isn’t otherwise comparable, yet Greenwald very precisely chose not to make that effort. Is this a niggling point? Not if you are familiar with Greenwald’s politics and positions. Not if you read the conclusion to his post, when he writes,

The Jeffrey Goldberg Media continues to exert substantial influence and wreak real havoc, but as is true for most of America’s once-respected institutions — and, indeed, as is true for America itselfit’s inexorably weakening and crumbling, and the merit-free elites (like Goldberg) who cast themselves as the unfair victims are, in fact, the prime authors of their own demise. [Emphasis added]

This is one of those times at which Greenwald seems to run the circle to the meeting point on the Right. Any Tea Partier could have written that. To someone not in step with Greenwald, someone not convinced of the “depravity of Goldberg’s Iraq war justifications” [emphasis added], as Greenwald put it in his third update to the original Goldberg post, it may not “go without saying” that Greenwald doesn’t actually think there is a reasonable Nazi comparison, especially when he pointedly declines to say there is not, and then goes on to make another not-comparison comparison.

Finally, even when Greenwald adds, regarding any comparison or non-comparison, that “that’s irrelevant” – he’s wrong. It is relevant, not in and of itself, as I have already acknowledged, but in conjunction with other factors. It’s that complexity issue again. Who is not going to pay attention to how the nationals respond to an invading force, as some indication of the nature of things? How would the histories of the Second World War differ from what they are if the French and Italians had run from the Allied forces, if they had shot at them from the roof tops and waged insurgencies? And even then, insurgencies need to be scrutinized as to their membership, program, and ultimate purpose. Greenwald’s argument regarding the reception of invading forces is essentially a variation on “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” – probably the most ill-considered, unprincipled, and relativistic excuse for political wisdom circulating in the world today. As in all matters, the truth is arrived at through the hard intellectual work of sifting through the evidentiary sands of reality and learning to distinguish the fool’s gold from the real thing. T’aint easy. But if you can’t tell the Iraqi insurgency from the French Resistance, if you can’t see the difference between the Nazi invasion of Poland and the American invasion of Iraq, even if you opposed it, or it sticks in your craw to state it, you’re one of them 49’ers who’s goin’ home broke.

Update: Some further consideration on the character of the argument taking place, mostly by Greenwald. Yaacov Lozowick, one might think, caviled with Greenwald over the applicability of the term “invasion” to German advances into the the Sudetenland, Slovakia, Austria, and Bohemia. It’ s pretty clear that Lozowick was focused on the combative element of invasion. Still, it appears from various posts – Brad DeLong and Kevin John Heller, for instance – that as the word cavil suggests, this was semantic distinction not worth making in this argument: historical reference to these advances as invasions are apparently rather common. What is clear, though, in all the back and forth, is how much personalized antipathy is involved – Brad Delong, whom I like intellectually, doesn’t, intellectually, like Goldberg, so DeLong is pleased to take that side of the argument – and how much the antipathy influences the argumentation, for no one more than Greenwald. It doesn’t take great insight to see that Lozowick was trying to score a quick hit on Greenwald (a temptation I quite understand), but what does Greenwald make of it? It is for him the

ironic attempt by Lozowick and Goldberg to minimize Hitler’s crimes by insisting that he never “invaded” Czechoslovakia and Austria.

Really. The author of one of the more prominent blogs in defense of Israel, of Right to Exist, A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars and of Hitler’s Bureaucrats, and former Director of Archives at Yad Vashem was trying “to minimize Hitler’s crimes.” This is serious, honest argumentation? In the very midst of complaining that others are distorting your own arguments? To quote Greenwald in that very regard, “It’s almost parody.”

Now, today, Greenwald has a post defending arguing against the invocation of Godwin’s law – the injunction against the common and trivial use of Nazi analogies. Except no one invoked it. People drew implications from it the Nazi analogy, and I have tried to show above why they were not engaging in distortion by doing so – let Greenwald attempt the same work regarding the preposterous claim of Goldberg’s and Lozowick’s attempt “to minimize Hitler’s crimes” – but no one invoked Godwin. And the advice against the too facile resort to Nazi analogies is not simply mistaken for Greenwald, but, in his typical hysterical overkill, odious. One can understand why he might feel this way, however – in order to leave them more readily employable, perhaps, for use against Israel?

Update II: Lozowick provides further support for his claim regarding “invasion” in the comments section of his original post.



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