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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Fascism is only fascism when it’s bad for business

May saw two big elections: a European Union-wide contest for Members of European Parliament (MEPs), and India’s election of a new Prime Minister. Both held similar results: the empowerment of neo-fascist elements. However, though the far-right has been victorious in both Europe and India, the reporting has been alarmist in the former, ecstatic in the latter. The way most places reported it, one might not even know that the Indian far-right won anything at all.

Map of European far-right Parliamentary gains from the Telegraph.

Map of European far-right Parliamentary gains from the Telegraph.

In the European Union, reactionary parties took advantage of the widespread misery caused by EU-imposed austerity measures. All speak the usual language of right-wing populism–xenophobia, racism, and ethnic supremacy. Ghouls who’ve long haunted the fringes of European politics like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or the Le Pen dynasty in France benefited as much as relative newcomers like Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party. Europe knows first-hand that long-term economic deprivation leads to resurgent fascism, and overt neo-Nazi parties saw gains in Hungary and Greece. Even Germany–where the swastika is banned outright–elected a neo-Nazi MEP.

In India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory. The election was a “presidentialization” of the campaign for India’s Head of State: rather than resemble a traditional Parliamentary campaign, the contest was a slick, American-style PR offensive. The BJP is India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party, and during Modi’s tenure as governor of Gujarat, he governed as any reactionary ethnic supremacist would. Civil unrest in Gujarat turned into a pogrom in 2002, which killed over 1,000 people, mostly Gujarati Muslims. When he takes office, Modi will be the only Head of State with a US visa-ban, imposed on him by the State Department after his administration’s tacit approval of the violence. Modi will be forming his coalition government with members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the “ideological fountainhead” of Modi’s MJP. It was a member of the RSS who murdered Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, for Gandhi’s perceived accommodation of Muslims. Continue reading

The Continuing Appeal of the “Artificial Borders” Theory

The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, 1916.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, 1916.

There’s a popular idea that global strife is caused by the “artificial borders” of “man-made” countries, moreso than the economic designs of oligarchs and the imperial wars that enforce them. The narrative holds that ethnic groups prone to internecine conflict were thrown into a temporary coexistence by the whims of (usually Victorian) cartographers. This trope is deployed most often in the Middle East, but it can be applied anywhere there’s an operation underway to bend that country to the Washington consensus.

Undoubtedly, this theory is only treated as plausible, serious, and self-evident only when used for Washington’s benefit. Compare the conventional wisdom on Syria and Iraq with the way Russian claims that Ukraine’s borders are artificial are dismissed as irredentist propaganda.

Now, during a long-term American campaign to militarize Africa, the Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram has fueled calls for the US to “do something.” When there’s a country in the global south and the US military is involved, odds are you’ll hear about the country’s “artificiality.” Sure enough, a long piece on PolicyMic breaks finds Nigeria’s woes more rooted in 19th century politics than contemporary ones. With another “man-made” country in the headlines, it’s worth examining why the “artificial borders” theory is so popular.

1. It blames a harmless, bygone empire and absolves the world’s existing one.
This, more than Western economic interests, is responsible for corruption.

This, more than Western economic interests, is responsible for corruption.

“To understand Boko Haram,” PolicyMic explains, “the West must look more closely at itself than Nigeria.” So far so good; if anyone’s an advocate of looking more closely at the West, it’s me. However, as in the Middle East, the West’s culpability is limited to the late British Empire. “The history of colonialism” is behind “a century of destabilization, poor infrastructure, and corrupt leaders.” Continue reading

Women lose and patriarchy wins when we ask “who’s more sexist?”

Check out these two pieces, and see if anything jumps out at you. The first, from Al Jazeera, is titled “Chronic Violence against European women” (3/15/14).

double_standard 1

In early March the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published a startling new study about violence against women in the European Union. Results show that abuse is pandemic: 62 million women, or one in three, have suffered from violent acts since the age of 15. It is clear that European women continue to endure high levels of violence.

Morten Kjaerum, director of FRA, said of the results: “Violence against women, and specifically gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women, is an extensive human rights abuse that the EU cannot afford to overlook.”

Findings confirm Kjaerum’s conclusions. According to the investigation, 55 percent of women have been sexually harassed and 18 percent have been stalked and 43 percent have faced psychological abuse. One in 10 has experienced sexual violence; one in 20 has been raped and 8 percent of women have been abused in the last 12 months. Of all the age groups polled, young women were found to be particularly vulnerable to violent acts. [Emphasis added]

Europe, like everywhere else on Earth, has a serious problem with violence against women. “Abuse is pandemic”… “high levels of violence” constitute “an extensive human rights abuse.”

Usually, reporting on sexism looks more like this–or, not so much like this, because this looks like an Onion headline:

double_standard 2

The latter, from NPR’s Parallels blog, (“Which place is more sexist: the Middle East or Latin America?” 3/16/14) is probably what American readers are more accustomed to seeing. Forget patriarchy’s global war on women, let’s talk Burqas vs. Bikinis. After you’ve scraped your mind off the back wall WHERE NPR JUST BLEW IT by contrasting women who are like, super covered-up to women who are totally naked (makes u think), we can parse the true nature of sexism: a struggle situated in the global south, embodied by the duality of sexually repressed Muslims against lusty Latinos. A yin-yang of nonwhite sexist depravity.

One of the most interesting things about analyzing media is how much coverage of other countries says about us. For instance, we celebrate other countries’s dissidents to tell ourselves we value their principles, no matter how transparently false that is. Our favorite way of embedding our own exceptionalism is to highlight crimes in other countries as a way to erase those crimes when they happen here. If the perpetrators are non-white, then racism and colonialism will get mixed in to implicate entire groups, and absolve us. Though the contrast between these two pieces is stark, the NPR post is typical of the way we talk about gendered violence.

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Stewart Sanitizes Barry’s Bombs

A recent popular Daily Show segment exemplifies the worst aspects of the show’s tepid centrism

Though Jon Stewart is quick to tell people that he’s “just a comedian,” The Daily Show has a unique ability to frame politics in the public consciousness. As a comedy show, it’s able to reach viewers who would otherwise be politically disengaged. Large numbers of people who get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and these people tend to be better informed than consumers of other media sources—belying the idea that it’s “just a comedy show.” The fact that the show appeals to both an audience who considers themselves politically left-leaning and a wider audience that’s more apolitical gives it the ability to shape the popular discourse that a lot of traditional news shows would envy.

However, though the show is a liberal pop-culture institution, the show is profoundly respectful of the status quo. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert skewer the most obvious hypocrisies of our political system, they show respect and deference to a political system that exports tremendous violence abroad and increasing repression and inequality at home. A widely shared Daily Show segment from February 19th illustrates how pernicious show can be. Reflecting the show’s broad appeal, the opening segment received praise and exposure in both mainstream outlets like Yahoo! TV and leftist news sites like TruthDig.  TruthDig called the video “hilarious and scathing,” but it’s anything but.

The opening segment, with the headline “Jon Stewart calls Obama the ‘Barry Bombs’ of drone strikes,” dealt with the Obama administration’s extrajudicial killing policy, specifically the issue of targeting Americans for assassination without due process. When discussing a state claiming an Imperial prerogative to kill its own citizens, Stewart offers only a mild reproach of individual foibles. Worse than insufficient criticism, though, the segment is an active whitewashing of Obama’s assassination policies and his administration’s theories of limitless executive power. The piece is embedded with multiple misleading claims, actually flattering Obama in the guise of a critique. The segment encapsulates all the worst aspects of The Daily Show’s tepid, establishment-serving centrism. Continue reading

The Middle East’s “artificial borders” and America’s history of unleashing chaos

On a recent road trip from the Bay Area to northern Washington, I noticed a strange phenomenon: the borders between US states, and even the border between America and Canada, were only indicated via man-made cues like signs and checkpoints. It was strange because I keep hearing about violence in the Middle East, chiefly in Syria and Iraq, and how the region’s problem is its “artificial” borders. Conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that the original sin that’s lead to the Syrian Civil War and the resurgence of violence in Iraq is that those countries are “invented,” with illegitimate borders decided upon by the whims of mere humans. What I saw on my road trip made me think that all borders are invented, and maybe every country is man-made, not just Middle East regimes outside the Washington consensus. But who am I to argue with this kind of establishment consensus! Talking about the resurgence of Al Qaeda, journalist Dexter Filkins explained:

“What’s developing in front of our eyes is this very terrifying kind of regional, sectarian war that is basically stretching from the Iranian border all the way to the Mediterranean. The longer this war goes on in Syria, the greater the impact in the region, whether it’s Lebanon, or Iraq, or Jordan. These countries are artificial countries, most of them were drawn on a map in 1919 after World War One.”

The current Middle East conflicts, as Filkins explains, are due to the “artificial” nature of the countries in question. As opposed, one presumes, to the countries of North America and Europe, whose shapes were ordained by Providence. Filkins isn’t alone in ascribing the current violence in the Middle East to the arrogant whims of Sykes and Picot. The idea that century-old cartographic laziness is at the root of today’s Mideast violence is a popular one, repeated in the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and by Fareed Zakaria, one of the theory’s early adopters. In a segment on The Daily Show, a personification of the British Empire named Sir Archibald Mapsalot explains the “bad borders” theory as the unfortunate result of British imperialism and the ignorance of its administrators. America’s wisest pundits have found the culprit behind the current bloodshed in the Middle East, and it is the 19th Century British Empire. How convenient, and by sheer coincidence, exculpatory for the Middle East’s current imperial master, the United States. Continue reading