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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The Mainstream and the Margins: Noam Chomsky vs. Michael Parenti

Noam Chomsky is, as anyone reading this knows, a linguist, MIT professor, and the English-speaking world’s foremost radical dissident intellectual. Chomsky’s work in this latter capacity is so well-documented that it’s not necessary to recapitulate too much—however, a few choice high notes include decades of criticism of US foreign policy, some decent commentary on then-President-elect Barack Obama at a time nearly all of the Western commentariat had turned into a deranged Borg-like collective, and producing the second comprehensive study of corporate constraints on the media along with Edward Herman. As co-author of Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky provided a model illuminating the “political economy of the mass media,” and from this research came a great deal of very useful and incisive media criticism on issues like how concision and sound-bites help the status quo and why a journalist can be both genuine and compromised. Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model purports to show how five corporate filters enable the mass media’s owners to ensure that their interests are expressed. In this way, according to the two, democracies manufacture consent through seamlessly delivered propaganda, the way totalitarian societies do so by coercion and force.

According to Chomsky’s many high-profile boosters, his own experiences belie the myth of a “free” American press. “You’d hardly need a clearer example of his model of how dissenting views are filtered out of the western media than his own case,” writes Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, “Not surprisingly, he has been repaid with either denunciation or, far more typically, silence.” According to physicist Mano Singham, on the subject of “the attempted silencing of Noam Chomsky,” “growing up in Sri Lanka, I would find his articles and essays in the mainstream media quite regularly. But when I first came to the US in 1975, I found him completely absent from the major print and TV media and discovered that his writings were confined to niche publications.” For all his alleged silencing, by Singham’s own account, Chomsky was a relatively constant presence in Sri Lankan media. If an American intellectual enjoys a prominent platform in a country 10,000 miles from the US, where only 10% of the population speaks fluent English, it makes one wonder what the margins or obscurity actually look like. Similarly, while he may not be a daily fixture on cable news, Chomsky is regularly asked to opine at length on the issues of the day for a slew of venues ranging from centrist to lefty, from The Guardian and countless university symposia to Democracy Now! and Jacobin magazine. Right now, Netflix is recommending me two feature-length documentaries on the great dissident, both released in the past few years (Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? and the grimly named Requiem for the American Dream), with another seven currently in production according to IMDb. By way of adducing Chomsky’s invisibility, Milne says that the professor “is the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar…he is entertained by presidents, addresses the UN general assembly and commands a mass international audience…His books sell in their hundreds of thousands, [and] he is mobbed by students as a celebrity.” I can’t speak for my fellow WordPress radicals, but as someone who has made precisely zero dollars after writing hundreds of thousands of words of criticism, being even a micron as ignored as Chomsky sounds both lucrative and validating.

As mentioned earlier, Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent was the second comprehensive look at how the media’s owners determine what is broadcast. As early as 1845, Karl Marx explained that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” Though there are many books probing the nature of broadcast media, Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality (1986) was the first to provide an in-depth analysis of the corporate nature of the media using Marx’s dictum as a thesis. Despite Herman and Chomsky’s book coming two years later, the two don’t mention Parenti at all, instead thanking Australian psychologist Alex Carey for inspiring their work (John Pilger, perhaps revealingly, credits Carey as a “second Orwell”). Even a cursory glance at Inventing Reality’s contents reveals extensive similarities between Parenti’s analysis and that of Herman and Chomsky—hearing Parenti discuss his book at length further cements the commonalities. In fact, beyond these two works, Chomsky and Parenti share a great deal alike. Like his superstar counterpart, Parenti has produced mountains of scholarship and given dozens of easily accessible speeches and presentations. Parenti has been a strident critic of capitalism and imperialism for decades, writing over two dozen books on nearly every conceivable issue that relates to those subjects. In a neat biographical synchronicity, both are even octogenarian New Yorkers. However, unlike Chomsky, Parenti can’t claim everyone from Bono to Radiohead as prominent fans. Chomsky’s influence is particularly felt now during the interminable American election cycle; as Kevin Dooley points out in an excellent post on Chomsky, he “is always at his most visible during election season,” when he can be found churning out almost-weekly interviews warning about the dangers of not voting Democrat. Video of Noam Chomsky’s latest event was uploaded less than a week ago, from a discussion with former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis held at the New York Public Library; in contrast, Parenti’s last uploaded speech was from a decidedly more low-key affair held at a Canadian university in 2014.

All this is to say that, despite their similar territory and Chomsky’s reputation, Noam Chomsky looks very much like a mainstream figure, and the label of marginalized outsider would be applied more appropriately to Parenti. A 2005 issue of the liberal American Prospect magazine, for instance, defined Chomsky and Dick Cheney as the two extremes in American political life. To one who is skeptical of Chomsky’s outsider reputation, he looks less like a silenced dissident and more like the leftmost margin of permissible criticism—the point at which an idea decisively departs the realm of mainstream acceptability and automatically becomes tinfoil-hat territory. If their scholarship on media filters and corporate ownership is to mean anything, it means that there is a reason for this, and it has to do with their respective positions and service (or lack thereof) to those in power. This piece is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of Chomsky’s career, or the history that brought him to his sinecure as the West’s pre-eminent radical thinker. There are much more focused pieces touching on these issues, which will be linked throughout and shared again at the end. This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers.

This post will be quite long, as it is made of six different parts. A table of contents is below, use it to either skip ahead or open that part in its own post:

Part 1: Inept Empire

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Part 2: “Conspiracy Theorism”

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Part 3: Support For “Actually Existing” Systems – Anti-Communism

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Part 4: Support For “Actually Existing” Systems – Humanitarian Interventions 

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Part 5: Lesser Evilism

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Part 6: Description vs. Prescription 

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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

News: Brought to You by the US State Department

I found this interview in the middle section of a 3-part BBC series called Iran and the West. Though the subject is a 1998 interview between Christiane Amanpour and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, the brief segment captures the essence of US news:

Christiane Amanpour: We got final word, CNN, that this [interview with president Khatami] was going to happen. I was on my first holiday with my very serious boyfriend, who happened to be a State Department official.

US State Department Spokesman James Rubin: Her due diligence was to find out what the US government was waiting to hear from the Iranians, and she had the US government right beside her. So she did what any journalist would do.

Christiane Amanpour: I went into “what shall I ask him” mode.

James Rubin: And I did what was supposed to do, which was identify for her the things the US government cared about.


Obviously there are countless more people exactly like Amanpour doing the same thing for any line that needs to be pushed. But it’s nice on the rare occasions when they just come out and say it.

SICARIO and America’s dark new frontier

Sicario-Movie-Reviews-2015

Down into the heart of darkness.

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a thriller about the drug war starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro. It’s getting rave reviews, is already considered a financial success, and will probably win quite a few awards. I had a feeling it would fit into a wider set of Obama-era war on terror fiction for a few reasons. First, Villeneuve had previously made an appearance on this blog for his 2013 film Prisoners, part of a series of “morally ambiguous” torture films in which anguished heroes do evil things for the right reasons. Now, I haven’t seen either of Villeneuve’s other films, Incendies and Enemies, but given what happens in his movies I’ve seen, I have to assume that both have moments where the hero has to pull someone’s fingernails out to save the day. Second, since its release a couple weeks ago, the film has garnered almost unanimous comparisons to Francis Ford Coppola’s warfare-and-madness classic Apocalypse Now. Finally, friend of the blog George Bell told me that the film had every criterion of a contemporary shoot-and-cry—and boy, was he right. Sicario is that film, but it combines a lot of insidious messages into something new.

As I’ve outlined in previous blog posts, and in greater depth for my upcoming book, the shoot-and-cry, cloaked in faux “moral ambiguity,” is the dominant narrative framework for middle- and high-brow films dealing with the military and the homeland today. It’s necessary to specify that these are films about “the military and the homeland,” rather than just “war,” since these films engage in a conscious blurring of the lines between wartime and peace. This new kind of American film is the result of an endless war, prosecuted by someone liberals like, who has both escalated it overseas and made countering an enemy within a cornerstone of his policies. Sicario in particular is a new escalation, reflecting the state’s creation homeland security as a nebulous category of militarized, lawless, endless force.

As is always the case with these American shoot-and-cries and “morally ambiguous” torture films, most of the discussion from paid critics and middle-brow aesthetes on twitter gets some fundamentals wrong. First, the prime point of comparison for Sicario shouldn’t be Apocalypse Now, although that film is important. More accurately, Sicario has the DNA of Zero Dark Thirty cross-polinated with the earlier spook thriller The Recruit. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is, of course, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1898 novella Heart of Darkness. According to film professor Neda Atanasoski, Heart of Darkness is “the touchstone of post-Vietnam US historical fiction.” Heart of Darkness is about a descent into a moral void, resuscitated by ethical feeling and ultimately, redemption. According to the narrative, only by having one’s naïve assumptions revoked by an ugly reality can someone incorporate that reality and progress morally. Obviously, this doesn’t lead to a critique of imperialism, since Conrad was a big fan of the transformative power of the British empire. And just like Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness while waving the Butcher’s Apron, these “morally ambiguous” films are about re-writing evil as a gray area.

Sicario is worth paying attention to for a few reasons. First, the film’s reputation and subject matter give it clout as a cultural reference point. The film is hailed, by people paid to do this sort of thing, for grappling with serious moral and political questions. This is a signal that the viewing public is supposed to give weight to the ideological messages that this film imparts. Its release also signals that Villeneuve deserves to be considered alongside Katherine Bigelow and Christopher Nolan as a mediator of centrist anxieties over American power. And Sicario may be unique among these films in that its premises are even murkier to identify. All these films wallow in misery in order to obscure what they’re saying, to seem “ambiguous” when they really have an uncomplicated ethical stance. Sicario uses the main protagonist as an audience surrogate to an extraordinary degree, and the horrors she’s put through leave the viewer seemingly bereft of neat conclusions. But the film has discernable messages and subtext, echoed by the filmmaker, which are easier to pick up on if you know what the dominant messages are that Hollywood’s putting out about American power-projection.

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