This Bourdain Thing is the Spawn of Obamania and #JeSuisCharlie

I said everything I need to say about Anthony Bourdain’s career as an American chauvinist and NATO propagandist already, but his canonization as a secular saint for credulous lefties is its own beast and deserves commentary.

Like the title says, this spectacle is the mutant bastard of Obamania and #Jesuicharlie. Like Obamania, we have a full-court-press campaign to remake a deeply conservative imperialist into a transformative progressive hero, and plenty of people who should know better signing up. As with the Illinois Senator who promised to ramp up drone strikes and voted for more illegal surveillance, what the great celebrity actually says and does is less important than the warm-fuzzies we’re supposed to feel upon seeing his face and hearing his voice.

Here’s a very brief illustration of how the scam works; it’s a quick overview because it’s really not that complicated: Continue reading

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Anthony Bourdain’s State Department Smorgasbord

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in June 2018 will cement his reputation as a progressive celebrity with a unique acumen for explaining the world to his fans.

CNN’s obituary says that the most common sentiment in response to his death is “I feel like I’ve lost a friend.” You’d have to go back to the death of Steve Jobs to find a celebrity who provoked this kind of personal investment on the part of his fans.

Bourdain’s reputation was built for this, because the chef could be relied on to impart a very specific view of the world, and more importantly, to not look like he was doing it. This was the most consequential part of his work—why he was hired by CNN—and it’s the part that will get discussed the least as the adulation pours in. The following was written a few months ago but it is offered today with minor changes.


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Yes, Throw the Celebrity Clowns Away

Regular readers will know that one of the most unfair and purist things I do on this blog is to quote people like John Oliver and Jon Stewart accurately when they say transparently power-serving things. It might be because I have a bad habit of waking up on the wrong side of the bed, or it may be because:

  • Their progressive reputations are entirely the result of savvy marketing, and these people are actually centrist or right-wing liberals, or worse (and this isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a fact evidenced by the power-serving and reactionary things that they say).
  • Everything they tell their viewers about the world comes from their moderate-conservative politics, and their tepid, incrementalist “solutions” aren’t little stepping-stones on the path to progress, but are distractions that lead people towards elite-approved dead-ends (and it could only ever be this way because, as basic media literacy would dictate, they are the employees of corporations for whom more profits are the sole and paramount goal).
  • Whatever one wants to say about their calls for superficial domestic reforms, when it comes to American foreign policy they hew closely to the US State Department line (and again, it could only ever be this way, since both they and the State Department serve the same owners).
  • That by virtue of their progressive reputations, liberals are more likely to believe the reactionary trash that these celebrities will inevitably say than they would if it came from a different salesperson (for example, progressives are more inclined to believe a vile “be pro-black and pro-cop” equivocation coming from Daily Show host Trevor Noah than they are a substantively identical message coming from his fellow TV host, Tea Party-Republican and Trump-supporter Mike Rowe).

Maybe it’s because I’m attached to the idea that radical actually means something, so when a high-status liberal designates another doctrinaire liberal as a “radical” voice, I feel a vested interest in making sure that “radical” doesn’t get redefined to mean “popular.” Either way, I document these things not only because I enjoy trashing these people (although I do), but because they are utter frauds who need to be torn down.

This is a hard enough job because even a couple months ago, the most extreme critique that someone could level at these celebrities before being dismissed as a deranged Stalinist was this:

One could accuse comedy TV of indulging in tedious gatekeeper liberalism—if one wanted to be barraged with accusations of unfairness, projection, misinterpretation, and ultra-leftism from the nitwit fans of these insipid mediocrities.

What one could usually do, and could easily get paid and published for doing, was celebrate these figures for not only being funny, but for being progressive and even vital to democracy. Up until last month, you could only criticize these highly political celebrity commentators in vague and attenuated terms, while there was literally no glowing superlative that was too ridiculous for them to receive. Case in point: this NBC News piece calling Trevor Noah’s material “politically radical” and invoking Malcolm X (!) for The Daily Show’s use of a bestselling Kanye West single during an episode. A May 2015 Atlantic piece declaring comedians as “the new public intellectuals” captures the tenor:

[T]here are two broad things happening right now—comedy with moral messaging, and comedy with mass attention—and their combined effect is this: Comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals. They’re exploring and wrestling with important ideas. They’re sharing their conclusions with the rest of us. They’re providing fodder for discussion, not just of the minutiae of everyday experience, but of the biggest questions of the day… these are bits intended not just to help us escape from the realities of the world, but also, and more so, to help us understand them. Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers—as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment.

What all the celebrities mentioned in the Atlantic piece have in common is that for the last 18 months, they acted as spokespeople for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Some even provided Clinton bit-parts on their shows to help her remove some of the stigma that she had justly accumulated during decades of laying waste to large swathes of the global South.

But something interesting happened after Clinton became a failed presidential candidate for the second time. In the deluge of imbecilic and childish cultural texts designed to flatter liberals (including letters from popular fictional characters exhorting their fans to stay the course), a small space has opened up for pointing out that these celebrated celebrity clowns are actually a hindrance to combating a reactionary tide. Continue reading

Selling Obama and Softening Socialism: a Lesson in Staying Within Bounds

With things as bad as they are, it’s valuable to have an academic and commentator like Professor Gerald Horne. In contrast to the vacuous talking-points that generally pass as critical commentary, Horne provides radical scholarship. For instance, where liberal pundits discuss Donald Trump as an inexplicable aberration, or someone cooked up by Vladimir Putin, Horne explains how chauvinistic appeals to “make America great again” are expressions of racism immanent to America’s foundation. The contrast is probably clearest when comparing Horne’s scholarship and commentary to those individuals and groups elevated as figureheads of the Black Lives Matter movement—who anyone with a modicum of media literacy could’ve predicted would be people that don’t pose any fundamental threat to the status quo. While liberals might curse the police for “misunderstanding” their role as protectors of the community, Horne points out that the police are doing what could be expected from an institution that evolved from slave patrols, as he tells radical audiences. Where a high-profile group like Campaign Zero offers “reforms” that one person called a mixture of liberal compromise, neoliberal opportunism and reactionary conservatism, Horne points out that “obviously radical surgery is called for, and unless radical surgery takes place, we’re always going to have the snuff film-of-the-week.” Where liberals celebrate improvements for an exceptional few, Horne calls this “reformation without transformation,” and stresses that it’s absolutely essential to keep anti-racism wedded to an analysis of class. With the retreat of the Jim Crow apartheid system, “you were allowed to enter these restaurants and hotels, but because of the battering of unions and radical movements, we didn’t have the income to pay the bills.”

Prominent Black Lives Matter figurehead DeRay McKesson argues that white supremacy doesn’t have economic roots, but has existed for almost half a millennium mostly motivated by irrational ill-will. In his most famous book The Counter-Revolution of 1776 Horne points out that there is a long history of African-Americans avoiding some of the strictures of Jim Crow by adopting certain foreign affectations, and that during the Cold War, the US State Department mulled giving African diplomats special badges that would exempt them from discrimination: “so the point that I’m trying to make is that if racism is a necessary explanatory factor in explaining what has befallen people of African descent in North America…it’s not a sufficient explanation, because if it was wholly sufficient then being able to speak French in Birmingham, Alabama during the Jim Crow era would not have been able to help you at all.” Thus, Horne argues, any discussion of race and racism shouldn’t be situated in biological or anthropological terms, but in political and economic ones. And economics are of primary import: where a new movement gatekeeper like McKesson argues that slavery would’ve existed even if it weren’t profitable, Horne reminds his audience that slavery boasted profits up to 1700%, and many capitalists would “sell their firstborn” for that sort of ROI. What should be clear from the disparity between a movement gatekeeper like McKesson and a radical scholar like Horne is that there is a push to denature any radical content from that which is understood as the political left, to turn “radicalism” into nothing more than an incoherent mish-mash of superficial postures. What the moneyed interests that elevate people like McKesson are trying to do is make activists deaf, dumb, and blind to the economic relations that are the system, and hobble any protest movement by dooming them to repeat the mistakes of past struggles. The drive to remove economics from politics is nothing less than an attempt to roll back socialism, which centers these relationships and is thus the ruling class’s greatest fear.

Horne currently holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and has been affiliated for many years with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). He has written over 30 books and more than 100 scholarly articles, and is a contributing editor to the CPUSA’a Political Affairs magazine. Horne’s rate of publication and the substantive nature of his critique is matched by his adeptness as a public speaker. Few and far-between are the commenters who articulate a radical critique of the American project to such diverse audiences. In fact, there’s likely no one else who can manage to simultaneously publish for so long in Marxist-identified journals like Political Affairs, condemn police brutality on RT, and get derided as a “Stalinist” while still receiving a career retrospective on C-SPAN’s Book TV, getting invited on NPR, earning rave reviews from Michael Eric Dyson, and staying in the good graces of so many large institutions.

Of course, even the most illustrious gig at C-SPAN is a far cry from a place in the MSNBC line-up. Still, Horne’s voluminous scholarship has rightly earned him a pre-eminent place among radical thinkers, and while he’s no household name, few in his line of work can boast of his prominence. One interviewer praises Horne for a body of work dealing with “unapologetically Marxist themes,” making it all the more remarkable that Horne can be so visible and can claim to generally be able to write unencumbered, with very little institutional interference. In his Book TV Q&A, a caller asks if he’s encountered any hindrances in tackling such radical subjects, and Horne only describes prickly archivists. According to Horne, “fundamentally what [having a chair at a university history department] means is that you have research funds,” which he enjoys despite the fact that with books like 2014’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776, “I’m flagrantly contradicting what [historians] think and believe.”

The reason Horne can enjoy such prominence among a radical milieu, and the skill he manifests in speaking to such different audiences, is due to his deftness at conceding to the status quo when he must and barely seem like he’s doing it. In short, while Horne has produced a tremendous amount of scholarship on 20th century communism, black liberation, and the true face of America’s settler-colonial nature, and the reason he is able to do so is because of how he respects certain top-down prohibitions, in order to avoid the sanctions that typically follow such work. Horne has clearly identified the red-lines that commenters are not allowed to cross, under penalty of marginalization, and he assiduously stays on the right side of those boundaries with a great deal of rhetorical skill.

This will be familiar territory for anyone who is interested in radical scholarship, who are used to certain people issuing lucid and damning critiques that end up conspicuously advocating compliance. Even people who issue blistering denunciations of the current system seem to pull their punches at certain crucial points—like the quadrennial “lesser-evilism” of Dr. Cornel West, or the steadfast Christian pacifism of Chris Hedges. Professor Horne is no exception, for the simple reason that the ruling class’ media system allows no exceptions.

In a series comparing the output of Professors Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti, six major differences were identified. These were areas where Chomsky, a household name, aligns with the mainstream view from which Parenti departs. By highlighting these divergent perspectives, it’s possible to see what ideas constitute genuinely unacceptable radical opinions. A thinker who stays within the boundaries gets to be heard, and beyond those lines lay marginalization and disrepute. Horne is an exceptionally useful case study because his scholarship is so radical, and his critiques so provocative, in almost every area. Where figures like Noam Chomsky and Leo Panitch largely hold America’s nationalist truths to be self-evident, Horne eviscerates these myths. While a Chomsky will draw a thick line between American imperialism abroad and its actions at home, Horne explains that “the foreign policy of the state is usually an extension of the domestic policy.” And where prominent liberals unanimously discuss actually existing socialism in demonic terms, Horne will argue that the worst of communism is no uglier than the worst of capitalism. Professor Horne is able to do the work he does because he stays within the boundaries of acceptability on at least two key issues: support for actually existing socialism and the “lesser evil” doctrine, the latter of which means perpetual support for the US’s Democratic Party and its affiliated organs. By virtue of being so radical, Horne helps show exactly where the lines are, and he has remained a prolific and prominent scholar by putting out radical work while deftly acceding to those establishment taboos which are absolutely necessary.

It’s important to note what this post is and isn’t trying to do. This isn’t a call to abandon Horne’s voluminous scholarship. The purpose here is definitely not to try and parse the morality or effectiveness of making compromises in order to be heard. This is what’s often said to be at stake when a prominent figure is criticized for saying decidedly un-radical things, and it’s not a question that’s germane here. What this post is trying to accomplish, as with the series on Chomsky, is to use those moments when a prominent radical says something power-serving, identify it as such, and shine a light on why radicals are being steered in that particular direction. If analysis of media is to provide any utility, it’s this.


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Cartoonists: the foot soldiers of “democracy”

in In January 2015, 11 people at the offices of French “satirical” cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered, allegedly by two gunmen acting under the al Qaeda banner. Driven by both political and media figures, the response generated more noise than almost any other event in recent memory. This response included widespread calls to share cartoons in order to antagonize pious Muslims for the good of Western civilization, and over 40 world leaders positioning themselves as great champions of human rights. As I wrote at the time, the sheer deafening volume of the event—and the almost-thuggish calls for skeptics to fall in line—was grounded in what the raw material of the event presented to the ruling class. With its tidy narrative of whimsical artists mercilessly “martyred” by savage Islamist demons for exercising their free speech, the response to the killings was a perfect opportunity to reinforce the narrative of the West’s essential goodness, and a related series of myths about Western civilization.

Embedded in the response was a narrative about cartoonists. According to the official accounting, democracy is powered by dialogues and discussions—and these are driven by information. By crystallizing ideas, cartoonists perform a valuable service. More than that, by acting as impish provocateurs against the predations of undemocratic, illiberal regimes, cartoonists act as “the foot soldiers of democracy.” This was a connection too hyperbolic for me to make, but fortunately the 2014 French documentary Cartoonists: the Foot Soldiers of Democracy made the point for me. Given a Charlie Hebdo editorial from this week, and certain recent successes in the world of graphic novel memoirs, the point is correct, but not in ways its advocates may have intended. “Democracy,” the euphemism used in high places for the free-market capitalist system, is well-served by cartoonists. With their generally vacuous liberal politics, cartoonists are ideally positioned to perpetuate smears against the West’s designated enemies and convey an air of authenticity to propaganda masquerading as conventional wisdom.

In an op-ed conspicuously translated and released in English, the Hebdo editorial board asks “How did we end up here,” claiming to answer the question of how the Brussels terror attack of 22 March happened. Opening by invoking “Law and order fans,” “xenophobes,” “urban-planners,” and “sociologists,” the piece thus distinguishes its authors from both ivory-tower technocrats and more vulgar authoritarian racists. According to its authors, the culprit behind Islamist terrorism is not necessarily Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who had spoken at a French research institution earlier that month. However, Ramadan, a halal baker, and a hijab-wearer all bear a collective guilt. According to the editorial, political correctness has created an “iceberg,” of which non-murderous Muslims are merely the visible minority. Soon after 9/11, the favored metaphor to describe the cause of the terrorist horror was, rather than an iceberg, a swamp, that had to be “drained” in order to “find every snake in the swamp,” as Donald Rumsfeld said. Though the op-ed doesn’t come out and advocate for a solution, it follows that the only conceivable answer, now as then, is more military violence.

This sort of advocacy stops short of an overt call for war in order to maintain credibility with its squishy left-liberal target audience, and it’s understandably popular with various progressive-branded figures who align with the US State Department. However, the capitalist class is currently dealing with numerous issues that the rest of us would call crises. As it becomes increasingly apparent that the era of social democracy has effectively ended, and numerous governments stubbornly resist the Washington consensus, that means more security and terror for the majority of human beings whose whims aren’t turned into statecraft. It also means more propaganda to invert reality, like the idea that the West has been insufficiently violent. The Charlie Hebdo editorial board echoes Tony Blair, who in the past weeks has blamed terrorism on “flabby liberalism” and excess Western humility, too many concessions to political correctness and tolerance, and what Blair identifies as the fact that millions of Muslims are primitive and backwards. In America, Donald Trump channels far-right anger over political correctness by speaking his various bigotries freely, horrifying millions of liberals in the process. However, since liberalism and fascism are slightly different dialects of the same language, the messages of Hebdo and Blair carry weight with a target audience Trump could never reach.

For cartoonists, the Charlie Hebdo editorial board was atypically open with the service they were rendering. Cartooning is obviously an art form that’s as varied as writing or filmmaking, but publishers keep pushing certain kinds of work. Two of the biggest graphic novel memoirs of the last decade were Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Perseoplis 2. Documenting the author’s journey from childhood in Iran to adulthood in Europe, the two volumes were released in 2003 and 2004, right before and after Iran joined the Axis of Evil. French-Canadian author Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang was released the year after North Korea joined Iran and Iraq on the list. A film starring Steve Carrell was in pre-production until it was cancelled in 2014 following the very excellent Sony leaks and subsequent cancellation of The Interview. Last year, I was struck by how hard Riad Sattouf’s graphic novel memoir The Arab of the Future was being marketed, and it’s not hard to see why.

Translated into 15 languages, former Hebdo contributor Sattouf tells the story of his upbringing in 3 different countries: the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya under Muammar Gaddafi, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, and France. In the last 5 years, a NATO war killed Gaddafi and reduced Libya to a failed state controlled by armed factions—a fate numerous NATO countries and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council are trying to impose on Syria. With this background, a book that’s already being hailed as a modern classic offers a look at life in these countries. Despite being a child, Sattouf—and by proxy, the reader—“gets a serious education in the mysterious vectors of power that shape…the political world.” The book “takes its place alongside other classic animated retrospectives memoirs from the region, Persepolis…and [Israeli shoot-and-cry] Waltz with Bashir.” A reviewer for The New York Times fills us in on the specifics:

The Sattouf family lands in Tripoli in 1978. It has been almost a decade since Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi took power and three years since the publication of the first volume of the Green Book, which presents his “vision of society.” The country resembles a construction site, with many buildings in states of repair or disrepair. From this point forward, the story relies on Riad’s perception of the family’s experiences in Libya, even though he was only a toddler at the time. We are being given not memories but reconstructions of memories, whose sources are unclear.

[Sattouf’s father] gets another job, this time in Syria. Like all exiles and immigrants, he returns home dreaming of glory. But Syria under Hafez al-Assad is its own nightmare. There too a cult of personality persists. There too everything is in disrepair.

The Arab of the Future Libya panels

From “The Arab of the Future,” via “The New York Times.”

As ironic introduction, the Times story opens with two panels of the book: a local grotesque claiming that Libya is the most advanced country in the world, among other social achievements. A reader whose knowledge of Libya came from graphic novel autobiographies and the Times would come away with an understanding that Libya was a shambolic, dilapidated ruin—not unlike Syria, which was a “nightmare” of “disrepair.” One would have to get their Libya news from sources other than the Times, or anything hailed as a modern classic, to know that the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya had the highest GDP per capita and life expectancy on the African continent. In interviews, Sattouf cautions that he’s no expert on the Middle East/North Africa region, claiming “It’s inevitable that people ask me my opinion…I knew Syria in the 1980s but I can’t say I know anything about Syria today. I’m no more informed about the situation in the Middle East than the average person who watches TV.” It would be a strange divide that the author professes such a surface-level knowledge of Libya and Syria, given that Sattouf’s graphic novel is hailed as something educational. Obviously, though, what’s useful about a comic memoir of the two most recent victims of NATO violence is precisely that it conveys the same political information one would get from a steady diet of CNN or MSNBC. This way, the State Department line can reach the sort of urbane reader who might think themselves above watching cable news. “The Arab of the Future,” writes the Times reviewer, “will do little to complicate most people’s perceptions of Libya or Syria. Life in both countries seems like a living hell, with no moments of relief or pleasure.” In other words, life before a NATO war doesn’t sound appreciably worse than life after a NATO war—no harm, no foul.

Cartoonists are the perfect vectors for delivering these messages, because of both who they are and what they’re doing. Most don’t evince openly crypto-fascist leanings like the Charlie Hebdo editorial board, and the far-right in America has traditionally been drawn to editorial cartooning. The ones who publish autobiographical travelogues of the designated enemies generally have vague centrist core, consequently they can reliably parrot whatever the mainstream line is on a given target country. As a writer for The New Statesman claimed in a piece on Tintin, cartoonist “Hergé was a sponge. Not known for being a very political person, he often absorbed the dominant narrative on an issue and made it part of his comics.” The same could be said about nearly everyone doing similar work today. Continue reading

The Best the Culture Industry Has To Offer, Circa 2015

I spend a lot of time thinking about the pop culture that’s broadcast out to the rest of us, and the end of 2015 is a weird time. This past year, it’s become clear that there’s an extraordinary gap between the messages that the culture industry puts out, and what we’re told is their value. The messaging of these texts occupies a very limited part of a spectrum, both homogenous and uninspiring; at the same time we’re being told that what we’re being sold is simultaneously daring, progressive, multifaceted, and challenging. The thing charmingly called pop culture is getting more bland, reactionary, and corporatized while we’re being told it’s the opposite. A few recent things have illustrated this divide very starkly for me, although they come at the tail end of a year’s worth of similar texts.

The first is the trailer for Eye In The Sky, an upcoming release directed by Gavin Hood. Hood, like many of his contemporaries making films about the endless conflict once called the War on Terror, describes himself as something very similar to a journalist, working to “generate…discussion” and “engage the public in the issues of the day.” Under George W. Bush, Hood made the film Rendition, a thinly veiled adaptation of the kidnapping of Khaled al-Masri. With Barack Obama in office and the War on Terror now the “Overseas Contingency Operations,” Hood’s contribution to the public discourse is something very contemporary:

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads a secret drone mission to capture a terrorist group living in a safehouse in Nairobi, Kenya. When Powell learns that the group plans to carry out a suicide attack, her objective is changed to kill the terrorists. Drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) targets the safehouse for destruction but reports a nine-year-old girl entering the kill zone. Powell contacts politicians and lawyers to determine whether or not to take action. [Wikipedia]

In just over 2 minutes, the trailer for Eye In The Sky manages to contain almost every liberal imperialist trope. Continue reading