Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 6: Description vs. Prescription

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.

If you haven’t seen it before, and even if you have, take the opportunity to watch this brief clip of Michael Parenti discussing the Cuban Revolution, from a 1986 lecture:

While this clip represents Parenti at his best, it’s quite typical of his work. In addition to being well-informed and well-argued, Parenti is passionate and inspiring. Watching this video would make most listeners feel quite good about what humanity is capable of when we band together and demand our fair share. If this segment has any shortcomings, it’s that it doesn’t convey how funny Michael Parenti is. It also contains a clear prescription: if people want to enjoy lives of safety, welfare, and dignity, they can do as Cubans did in 1959—organize and seize society’s productive forces from the exploitative ruling class, and employ those forces for the good of the many. Keep this clip in mind for later. 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

Free Speech spectacles are civic-religious rituals in service of colonial civilization

“Imperialism is becoming everyday less and less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of a nation.” –Lord Curzon, 1898, governor general and viceroy of India

“‘The power that dominates the United States’ [is] unwilling to tolerate the slightest suggestion of culpability for the crimes that it has perpetrated across the globe. At the height of the ideological society lies the conviction of a moral mission, even a divine destiny, authorizing its almost inadvertent drive towards global domination.” -Hamid Dabashi

Colonialism and imperialism, in their classical or contemporary guises, have many ways of appearing palatable, even decent. Those tropes are easy to identify, because they’ve been reliably deployed for hundreds of years without changing. First, Empire targets a group of people, usually because the population sits on top of great territory or resources, then reduces them to an undifferentiated mass (“Muslims,” for instance). They’re given essential characteristics in order to obscure the aggression against them (“Why are Muslims so angry?”), and imbecilic, power-serving bromides are proffered as an explanation for the current historical moment (“They must hate us for our freedom”). One of the central characteristics, attributed to all targeted groups, is an inherent primitiveness, a lack of civilized values if not civilization itself (“They don’t understand our noble, enlightened Free Speech.”)

It’s that last point, about how progressive values are invoked in the service of imperialism, that makes the fact that Charlie Hebdo is liberal a non-substantive point. It’s been said that the magazine antagonized France’s neo-fascists and advocated for immigrant rights, but those aren’t the ideas being mined from this week’s events. In the English-speaking media, there’s been a back-and-forth about how the more shocking images in Charlie Hebdo are meant to be received. However, even defenses of the magazine from charges of racism concede that the magazine itself (and “the French satire tradition” as a whole) has often made a target of Muslims. Sure, Charlie Hebdo mocked the Pope—if it frequently dehumanized a marginalized group in the Empire’s sights as though they’re as strong as one of the world’s most powerful men, then it’s easy to see how that’s useful to power.

While Charlie‘s cartoonists may have claimed that they targeted Islam’s “extremists,” this project fits firmly in the liberal wing of imperialism. According to Professor Deepa Kumar, a key characteristic of liberal Islamophobia is “the recognition that there are ‘good Muslims’ with whom diplomatic relations can be forged.” As opposed to Islamophobia’s “troglodyte version, which is just blatant,” Kumar explains, “there are very complex, sophisticated, and liberal forms,” which make allowances for two types of Muslims: extremist/fundamentalist/terrorist “bad” ones, and “good Muslims, which is people who actually support what the U.S. is trying to do, and nothing in the middle.” According to Vox, separating “bad” Muslims from “good” ones is exactly what Charlie‘s editors claimed to be doing: “The magazine’s own editors have said…its lampooning of radical Islam is aimed at separating out radicalism from mainstream Islam, which is ultimately a service in favor of Islam.” For the sake of progress, Charlie was circulating Arab caricatures to save Islam from itself.

Liberal ideas of progress aren’t opposed to racism and colonialism, nor are they just complementary, but essential to those projects of domination. This has been the case since at least the 18th century—empires have always presented conquest as gifting reason and pluralism to backwards people. Plenty of today’s most strident anti-Muslim bigots, like the New Atheist luminaries, identify as liberals defending the Enlightenment tradition, and they sound identical to both colonial proconsuls and Anders Breivik. Liberalism’s role in Empire is why John Kerry sounds identical to George Bush on the question of why the terrorists hate us (it’s our freedom). France offered pluralist reasons for banning both the wearing of hijab and pro-Palestinian demonstrations last summer during Operation Protective Edge.

Newsweek Muslim RageWithin the construct of liberal imperialism, our advanced values are presented as a decisive fault line marking “Western” societies from other, contradistinct civilizations. Spectacles surrounding “Free Speech” are crucial moments for the manufacturing the borders of Empire’s imagined community and creating the Other. These events—often centered on racist cartoons and the consumption of pork—are wrapped up with a panoply of innocuous political stances and capitalist consumer choices “that trigger a warm feeling of self-recognition and superiority among cosmopolitans,” in the words of Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. After 9/11, Salman Rushdie offered that “to prove [the fundamentalist] wrong, we must agree on what matters: bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, movies, [and] freedom of thought,” along with other basic physical and emotional needs that “the fundamentalist” doesn’t share with humanity, like water and love. This is part of constructing the “assumption of collective Muslim guilt [which] is a common staple of the American mass media,” as Hamid Dabashi recounts in Brown Skin, White Masks. “A particular paragon of twisted reasoning is the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wondered why Muslims around the globe (not just Pakistanis) did not ‘take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people?’ Why would they do so when their Prophet is caricatured in Danish newspapers, but stay home when real human beings had been murdered?”

One of the liberal mantras that’s been repeated a lot since the 2006 Jyllands-Posten event involves depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH…how’s that for edgy speech?). Liberals are wont to shake their heads and say that they just don’t understand how Muslims can be so attached to a mere image. The emphasis on a picture is another invocation of the enlightened status of the speaker and their membership in “Western civilization,” versus the inscrutability of a group so atavistic and primitive that they’re made furious by a cartoon of their Holy Prophet. Like every aspect of these spectacles, in which the mob condemns and repudiates and declares what the Bad Men did “unthinkable,” this is meant to delineate civilization against barbarism—the logic that undergirds colonialism.

It’s strange hearing liberals repudiate blind religious totemism during these spectacles, because a reliable constant is the invocation of “Free Speech” like some sort of fetish-object. Free Speech is a value about which “we” must be absolute, since it protects “our” rights like a guardian angel. Furthermore, the story is that Free Speech is something that actually exists, rather than being a socially transmitted, power-serving fiction. In reality, Free Speech spectacles are liturgies for a secular religion—what Dabashi calls “the ideological society”— one that’s driven by domination and demands as much blind obedience as any other faith. Continue reading

Liberals vs. Radicals on the Power of Information

In my last piece, “The Work of Revelations” on the diminishing returns of info-spectacles, I mentioned the liberal-radical split on the power of information:

The notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

In order to keep a long piece from being even longer, I left a lot out, but I wanted to mention a perfectly evocative exchange in an interview last month between scholar/broadcaster Jared Ball and media theorist Sut Jhally. The interview is a wide-ranging discussion about race and class in media, which at one point touches on Michelle Alexander’s vaunted book on Mass Incarceration called New New Jim Crow. In 2012, Ball’s website i Mix What i Like! published one of the best leftist critiques of Alexander’s book, titled “Why Some Like The New Jim Crow So Much” by Greg Thomas. Continue reading

The Work of Revelations: Snowden, the Torture Report, and the Diminishing Returns of Info-Spectacles

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo. Isn’t that ultimately the message of Les Misérables? In contrast to the revolutionaries hopelessly slaughtered en masse at the barricades, it’s Jean Valjean’s unimpeachable righteousness alone that ultimately drives his longtime tormentor to suicide. I dreamed a dream…

Rather than just being the domain of French Romantics and office motivational posters, the notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress. This coincides happily with the preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of mainstream human rights and civil liberties groups, for whom information is the sine qua non of preparing briefs and mounting cases.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

For its part, progressive e-magazine TruthDig doesn’t want people messing with this line of thinking in the case of the Senate Torture report: “When the truth is spoken by politicians…skeptics are right to suspect it’s not merely the truth. It is always tailored to redound to some benefit to the speaker. But there are moments in history when that doesn’t matter.”

We’re being told it’s one such moment now. The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a heavily redacted, heavily abridged “Executive Summary” of its 6,000 page report on CIA torture. Adding to the report’s mystique is the fact that the White House and CIA wanted to suppress the information contained within, with the CIA even hacking the computers of Senate staffers compiling the report. The torture report seems like the most illicit kind of revelatory information, so it’s created an enormous amount of commentary and condemnation.

However, with the exceptions of some specific ghoulish details, most of the information was already known. The most horrific facts—that the CIA raped prisoners, that torture was used to fabricate justifications for the War in Iraq, that human beings were tortured to death, that almost a quarter of torture cases were the result of mistaken identity—had all been reported on within the last decade.

There’s a disconnect between the content of the torture report and the narrative that now surrounds the event itself. When TruthDig called for putting skepticism aside, it was in a piece hailing Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain as their progressive heroes of the week. Feinstein’s fingerprints are on many of the US’s worst abuses of this century, and McCain is one of the most bloodthirsty figures in the US government, and by extension the planet. Given that these newly minted progressive heroes are some of the worst imperialists, and the torture report’s aura doesn’t reflect reality, this seems like exactly the right moment for those meddlesome skeptics to be asking questions.

The journalists and public figures who promote the torture report present it as transformative information, but it’s shaping up to be a spectacle that sets the left back yet again. The report has followed many parallels with the last time this happened, the spectacle surrounding Ed Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald et al. The Snowden drama provided a useful template for how dissent is going to be managed, channeled, and moderated going forward. The way the NSA leaks were handled has provided the elites a scalable model for taking the release of even revelatory information and using it to come out on top and consolidate their power.

***

Fortunately, last October Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media had an acrimonious public divorce with once-hire Matt Taibbi. If Taibbi had been someone with less social capital, then the failure of Racket might’ve just been a momentary hiccup for the internet’s hottest journalistic “insurgency.” As it stands, the fact that people want to be in Taibbi’s orbit has opened up a lot of space for analysis of Omidyar’s would-be media empire, where the establishment consensus was once airtight. It’s certainly vindicated what Taibbi said about journalists being akin to an easily spooked herd of deer, who only get around to asking the right questions “eventually. But far after the fact.”

When the leaks began, they painted a complete picture of a monster whose contours had only previously been hinted at. Stories about warrantless wiretapping and the size of “Top Secret America” had won their authors Pulitzers and hinted that the US government was spying on all of us. There were reports of a secret government data-storage facility of gargantuan proportions being built in Utah. Stories had periodically cropped up in unexpected places about the government’s ability to record and store all our communications. However, now the public knew the truth definitively. There was excitement, talk of change, reform, maybe even something more drastic. Soon, the whistleblower went public. More stories came out, about more countries. Continue reading