Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 1: Inept Empire

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. Click here for an all-in-one post.

There’s a very popular theory of politics that sees the destruction and misery wrought by regimes like the Wars on Terror and Drugs, compares the professed motives with the outcomes, and concludes that those in power are some combination of utterly incompetent, shortsighted, and ignorant of how to build a decent world. The image offered by journalist Jeremy Scahill, in response to yet another US military intervention in the Middle East/North Africa region (MENA) in 2014, was the classic gag of Simpsons villain Sideshow Bob repeatedly stepping on dozens of garden rakes. Kevin Dooley termed this idea the “Inept Empire” theory, and “the implication is, of course, that the ruling elite are a bunch of fucking morons.” According to proponents of “inept empire,” real-world proof is everywhere. The fact that the War on Drugs has had no impact on drug use, but instead created a permanent, almost-entirely black underclass comprised of many millions is such proof. The fact that the War on Terror has destroyed multiple societies and only created more terror is further evidence. The old sawhorse-turned-bumper sticker that schools have to hold bake sales to raise money but the air force has unlimited funds to buy bombers is essentially an iteration of this idea.

This theory of power finds greatest purchase among prominent liberals and the permissible left. Chomsky is currently an advocate of this theory, arguing in 2015 that “destabilization and what I call the ‘creation of black holes’ is the principal aim of the Empire of Chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, but it is also clear that the US is sailing in a turbulent sea with no sense of direction and is, in fact, quite clueless in terms of what needs to be done once the task of destruction has been completed.” In other words, “chaos and destabilization are real, but I don’t think that’s the aim. Rather, it is a consequence of hitting fragile systems that one does not understand with the sledgehammer that is the main tool, as in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere.”

Vijay Prashad, a Marxist historian who enjoys a large platform courtesy of institutions like AlterNet, Verso Books, and Trinity College among others, argued over the course of a week that “Obama said something about success of US strategy in Yemen and Somalia? Somalia continues in distress; Houthi rebels just seized state TV. US bombing is an easy way to ‘do something.’ Won’t improve situation on the ground. Increases chaos, moves more fighters to extremism. I fear this bombing run is going to escalate frenzy on the ground—price for this bombing is going to be paid with terrible violence. Obama didn’t mention Libya in his speech (once briefly at end on Israel-Palestine). US policy in Syria is set to produce another Libya.” Prashad typically issues what sound like scathing criticisms of the existing system, as in a 2013 speech with Noam Chomsky when Prashad said “the political establishment is full of shit.” Still, for Chomsky, Prashad, Scahill, Wire creatorDavid SimonJohn “the War Nerd” Dolan, and countless other high-profile commentators, as bad as the ruling elites are, the idea that their functionaries would intentionally make the world as it is seems a bridge too far.

Chomsky has not always taken this position. In 2002, speaking on comparisons between the upcoming invasion of Iraq and the war on Vietnam, Chomsky argued that “The United States went to war in Vietnam for a very good reason. They were afraid Vietnam would be a successful model of independent development and that would have a virus effect—infect others who might try to follow the same course. There was a very simple war aim—destroy Vietnam. And they did it. The United States basically achieved its war aims in Vietnam by [1967]. It’s called a loss, a defeat, because they didn’t achieve the maximal aims, the maximal aims being turning it into something like the Philippines. [But] they did achieve the major aims.” What Chomsky is pointing out is that there are often hidden rationales for doing things like destroying an entire country and unleashing almost-genocidal violence against its people. Though the outcome would seem like a human rights-atrocity to any decent person, the ruling class that drives policy sees a handsome return-on-investment. It’s no stretch of imagination that a capitalist state will act to maximize profits of its corporations. It’s a fundamental rule of economics that one is either making money or not, and in any capitalist society, the profit motive is paramount. That’s why corporations are legally required to maximize profits, and while most corporations willingly maximize shareholder value, a company can be taken to court for not doing so. One sees corporations make mistakes, even New Coke-sized ones, but the biggest and most successful ones don’t repeatedly act contrary to their own interests—and if something enriches their shareholders, that means it’s working. Even single-celled organisms are capable of avoiding negative stimuli, and will do so in order to prolong their survival. A state and its executive bureaucracy is a gargantuan and often-unwieldy entity, but there’s no reason to assume that this is the only body that isn’t governed by simple laws of cause and effect.

Michael Parenti’s comments on IMF structural adjustment programs “not working” apply just as easily on the subject of imperial ineptitude: “In their perpetual confusion, some liberal critics conclude that foreign aid and IMF and World Bank structural adjustments ‘do not work’; the end result is less self-sufficiency and more poverty for the recipient nations, they point out. Why then do the rich member states continue to fund the IMF and World Bank? Are their leaders just less intelligent than the critics who keep pointing out to them that their policies are having the opposite effect? No, it is the critics who are stupid not the western leaders and investors who own so much of the world and enjoy such immense wealth and success. They pursue their aid and foreign loan programs because such programs do work. The question is, work for whom? Cui bono?” Continue reading

The conservative anger of David Simon

The HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero just premiered, which means that the public gets to enjoy the same spectacle we do every time a sanctified liberal hero puts out something new for us to buy: a fresh slew of hagiographies, all recapitulating the same few points about why the artist is so uniquely valuable to our democratic experiment. Having just properly honored the new James Baldwin, it’s time for yet another celebration of David Simon, America’s anguished liberal Cassandra.

The most effusive praise for Simon comes from Matt Zoller Seitz, and his piece “the Radical Humanism of David Simon.” To properly honor a man who was “elevate[d] to the Western canon” sometime between his second and third shows, the piece opens with an apology. After 1200 words praising Simon’s new program, we get to the apology itself, which regrets not sufficiently appreciating Simon’s work until now, for not caring “as much as he does,” this man who “truly cares, as a democratically minded American citizen should care.” Simon’s work isn’t just extraordinary, but vital, bringing any of us who will likewise care a perspective “necessary for the survival of the United States.” According to Zoller Seitz, “His work is more morally and politically and dramatically advanced than almost anyone who naysays it.” Evidently there’s something other than unanimous critical ejaculation for Simon out there—and like the mightiest liberal creative titans, to be one of these critics is to reveal oneself as a pathetic, basement-dwelling cretin.

The only thing besides gushing praise for Simon is a reference to the artist as “legendarily grumpy and hectoring,” an understandable outcome of being such a clear-eyed and lonely prophet of American decline, a side-effect of his radical humanism. Zoller Seitz doesn’t quote any of Simon’s “grumpy” statements, but these constitute a genre of their own and the essence of his status as a modern Jeremiah. “The audacity of despair” is a cornerstone of the Simon brand; the title of a far-reaching public speech on American decay, the name of his blog, and his twitter handle (@AoDespair). In countless talks with minatory titles like “the end of the American empire” and “America is a horror show,” Simon charts a course of decline, which has brought America to the low point it currently occupies. A January 2015 piece in Grantland is a useful guide to the salient points about Simon’s worldview, which have gained him his reputation for aggrieved seriousness and world-weary miserabilism.

The interview and career retrospective is titled “David Simon Does Not Care What You Think Is Cool About His TV Shows,” in a nod to his misanthropic aura. It’s also a reference to something on which Simon and I are simpatico, in that both of us find it extremely tedious to hear how cool Omar is, again. Simon was a reporter on the police beat for the Baltimore Sun in the ’80s before budget cutbacks. He wrote a “classic” crime book, Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets, which became a 7-season TV series. He and cop Ed Burns then got together and wrote The Corner, The Wire, then Generation Kill. “No one,” according to Simon, watched The Wire or Treme, just like no one watched Generation Kill, since in the latter case America wasn’t ready for “a piece about the American misadventure in Iraq when people still have a taste of Fallujah in their mouths.” Simon keeps giving America truths no one can handle, and for it he’s scorned like Prometheus.

Still, David Simon does get to be celebrated as one of the greatest American creative geniuses, and Wire fans are quick to remind you that the Great American Novel is actually a show called The Wire. David Simon got to interview the Drug Warrior-in-Chief, who, along with America’s former top cop, has praised Simon’s genius along similar lines. Maybe no one watched The Wire or Treme, but those shows were on for 5 and 3 and a half seasons, respectively, which might mean some of the self-flagellating is just so much brand-building–and standard procedure for rewriting conventional bourgeois disaffection as radical critique.

More interesting is his cynicism about the 2005 Marine Corps drama Generation Kill, about “the American misadventure in Iraq.” Generation Kill was written by Evan Wright, based on his account of the first weeks of the invasion while embedded with the 1st Recon Battalion. The show itself doesn’t depict much in the way of “misadventures,” beside the standard amounts of fucking-around and shit-talking common to any group of hyper-aggressive 20-something men. The show is 7 hours of vulgar but competent, brave, and decent Marines doing their duty to liberate the Iraqis and fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here. In interviews from the time of the show’s release, Wright reiterates that the experience left him above all with a deep respect for the American military, primarily blaming the public for the failures of “their” media and leaders. Some viewers may associate Generation Kill with flag-draped coffins rolling out of C-130s at Dover AFB, but the show itself is exactly the sort of pro-military story that lead the Pentagon to create the embedding process in the first place. Kill isn’t an indictment of American warmaking, but an ode to the courage of America’s warrior sons, with an elegiac undertone for those troops betrayed by public indifference and government incompetence—in other words, a work that liberals, centrists, and reactionaries alike can enjoy. However, Simon sees his show, which actually tells the most popular type of story in America, as something insurgent, dangerous, and too-hot-to-handle for the ‘Muricans glued to their idiot-boxes. Continue reading