Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 4: Support For “Actually Existing” Systems – Humanitarian Interventions

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.

In a piece titled “Scholars or Bamboozlers?,” Stephen Gowans discusses several lefty figures who embraced the 2011 NATO War on Libya, and their professed rationales for doing so. Gowans describes one of these pieces, Paul Street’s “Libya: the Left and Losing Our Way,” as an example of an author “making a case whose support was largely that his position was based on what Chomsky told him. He was hoping to earn instant credibility by exploiting the cognitive heuristic that makes you deem anything Chomsky says as probably true (or probably wrong if you dislike him) without actually having to do the leg-work to figure it out yourself.” Chomsky occupies this position for many people: one of Street’s commenters laments that “I’m a little upset with Chomsky being so relatively silent about this. His guidance on this issue has been sorely needed.” Street begins by placing his own position between the US State Department on one end and “the knee-jerk, almost self-caricaturing” “so-called radical left” that “says that it’s all about Washington’ desire to grab Libya’s oil” on the other. Street explains that his position is “significantly influenced by the reflections of the two leading left intellectuals on U.S. policy in the Middle East”: Gilbert Achcar and Noam Chomsky. In private correspondence, Chomsky informed Street that “the humanitarian talk is too cynical even to discuss,” and the “no-fly zone (NFZ) was from the first…a cover for participation in the rebellion.” Chomsky continued, “‘It’s a French and British affair, primarily, with virtually no international support, incidentally, in the region or beyond.’” This sounds critical enough so far, as Chomsky rejects ideas that the US’s motives were purely humanitarian and the idea that the war enjoyed broad international legitimacy. He continues, “The older colonial powers have led the way and the U.S. was ‘dragged in reluctantly,’ trying to ‘move into the background’ at a rapid pace—no doubt part of why Obama did not feel compelled to obtain authorization to use force from the U.S. Congress. There’s no prolonged U.S. occupation being planned, of course.” Street also points out that “the United States stayed with Gaddafi ‘until the last minute’ (Chomsky) – very different than its long-term demonization of evil Saddam Hussein…At the same time, the White House is certainly aware that, as Chomsky told me, ‘a massacre in Benghazi would have been blamed on Washington, something they didn’t want to face.’ Think like Obama from a realpolitik perspective on the potential deadly political consequences of letting Gadaffi move forward with a massacre: significant global and Western public outrage over standing to the side + a worsened economic situation exacerbated by an inevitable embargo = a no-brainer self-interested equation for ‘humanitarian intervention.’”

Chomsky’s position on Libya was publicly expounded-upon in a few other places. He argued that the NFZ was “cover for participation in the rebellion,” a rebellion which he elsewhere called “wonderful” and “liberation” (quoted in Max Forte’s Slouching Towards Sirte). Chomsky tacitly criticized the war for enjoying little international legitimacy, while presenting it as “a French and British affair, primarily,” which Washington was “dragged in reluctantly.” According to Chomsky, unlike Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Gaddafi enjoyed US backing “until the last minute,” and the US only intervened in order to stop “a massacre in Benghazi,” which would have been politically unpalatable for the Obama administration. In an interview from the same time, Chomsky reiterated that “Libya is rich in oil, and though the US and UK have often given quite remarkable support to its cruel dictator, right to the present, he is not reliable.” According to Chomsky, the prime motivator for intervention was the fact that “When a non-violent uprising began, Qaddafi crushed it violently, and a rebellion broke out that liberated Benghazi,” which faced an imminent “slaughter” at the hands of Qaddafi’s forces, which would have reflected poorly on the White House. Chomsky was asked if there are grounds for progressives to support the destruction of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. He replied that “In the case of intervention by [NATO in Libya], the burden is particularly heavy,” but “it would be too strong to hold that it can never be satisfied in principle” and that “Preventing a likely massacre in Benghazi is no small matter, whatever one thinks of the motives.” Chomsky concluded that post-war Libya would likely be composed “an oil-rich Eastern region heavily dependent on the Western imperial powers and an impoverished West under the control of a brutal tyrant with fading capacity, or a victory by the Western-backed forces.” Chomsky advised that “Those concerned for peace, justice, freedom and democracy should try to find ways to lend support and assistance to Libyans who seek to shape their own future.” Continue reading

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Checking Chickenhawks: the limited leverage of enlisting the elites

For a term deployed so often on the left, chickenhawk has a conservative core. The accusation—that someone is agitating for war only because they’re not affected—implies that someone should be fighting in a war, rather than war should be opposed, point blank. Maz Hussain has a piece at The Intercept on the latest generation of Americans to serve in what was once called the Global War on Terror, which he concludes with a bellicose call to “finish the job,” preferably using the children of the Bush administration and their supporters.

Millions of moviegoers might remember this idea from the highest-grossing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. In the film, Michael Moore, a Marine, and his crew cruise Capitol Hill, trying to convince Congresspeople to enlist their kids for the war in Iraq. In Rachel Maddow’s 2012 book Drift, she connects the “unmooring of American military power” to a constellation of factors, one of which is the perceived disconnect between America’s leaders and the families who fight “our” wars for us. Conservative historian Andrew Bacevich makes a similar point in his 2013 book Breach of Trust.

The idea is that if the elites bore a greater brunt of the suffering, there would be less war. Again, there’s a conservative idea at the core, and it’s an appeal to an imagined time when such a relationship restrained American warmaking. In their critiques of American power, conservatives like Bacevich or Garry Wills harken back to a pre-Cold War golden age, when Edna and Mabel happily forewent their nylon stockings for our boys Over There. A liberal may point to Vietnam as a high-water mark—Maddow’s book begins with this period. In the ’70s, the draft caused such opposition to the war that President Nixon felt compelled to sneak out of the White House for 4am parlays with anti-war demonstrators.

The narrative goes that these links created leaders who were circumspect about the use of American power—like Colin Powell, the “most popular man in America” circa 2000. The “Powell doctrine” provided a template for a war that even liberals can love, and sure enough, Powell enumerated it on the Rachel Maddow Show in April 2009. The archetypal divide between the “reluctant warrior” produced by a holistic elite-military connection and irresponsible, trigger-happy politician is best illustrated in an anecdote from the Clinton administration. Powell, with his knowledge of the realities of combat and son in the Army, sagely reined in American military power, leading an exasperated Madeleine Albright to scream “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

American imperialism would like to align itself with the image of the “reluctant warrior”: reasoned and mature, strong but justified. However, the Empire isn’t Colin Powell, it’s Madeline Albright—nakedly, murderously amoral in the calculus of its own interests. Though the Bush administration obliterated Iraq, it was Clinton’s “genocidal” sanctions regime that murdered more than half a million Iraqi children. In 1996, Albright famously remarked it was “worth it.” War is a racket, but traditional wars are just one tool of opening up markets. More often, as with sanctions, Empire exploits, immiserates, and kills without firing a shot.

The idea that war would be “better” with a more ideal alignment of the elites and the armed forces sacrifices this wider critique for a criticism riddled with conservative tropes: it’s rhetorically tepid, substantively empty, and strategically counterproductive.

As Nathan Fuller points out, the accusation of chickenhawk-ism is weak. It can’t be leveraged because it’s not remotely actionable. Is it a call for a 1% draft? Does it attend a proposal for a ratio of elites, which the armed services must meet before war can be waged? If a hawkish Senator supports war and has military-age male children at Georgetown instead of Forward Operating Base Lightning, what then, exactly? Continue reading

Tortured Conscience: the Rise of the “Morally Ambiguous” Torture Film

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional cultural ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” –Unknown

“Some men are created evil” Big Bad Wolves Tagline

Contiguous with our “golden age of television” is a cycle of works, in both TV and film, whose protagonists’ “moral ambiguity” is a selling point. From Jay Gatsby and Walter White to Louis CK and Hannah Horvath, moral ambiguity marks a work as mature, complex, and thought-provoking—worthy of being called great art. The last few years have also seen the rise of a new genre with deep political ramifications: the “morally ambiguous” torture film.

The most recent entry in the genre is Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli film that Rex Reed called “a sensation” and Quentin Tarantino called “the best film of the year.” The film deals with a group of men who kidnap and torture a suspected child-murderer, and is visually and thematically dark. Among positive reviews (the film enjoys a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes), the film is widely praised for its “moral ambiguity.” The film has been called a “morally ambiguous fairy tale,” whose “haunting meditation on the morality and efficacy of torture…only increases the moral ambiguity,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Thematically and ideologically, the film shares the most DNA with another dark revenge-thriller from 2013, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Prisoners also deals with a missing girl, whose father then kidnaps and tortures the suspected abductor. Villeneuve’s film was similarly hailed as another “morally ambiguous” film, sophisticated enough to “navigate a maze of moral ambiguity.” “Prisoners puts all other morally ambiguous movies to shame,” in the words of one breathless reviewer.

Both Big Bad Wolves and Prisoners follow the first “morally ambiguous” torture film: 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. When it was released, Katherine Bigelow’s film about the manhunt and murder of Osama bin Laden rightly generated a lot of controversy around its depiction of torture. However, for as many people who called the film out for its torture apologia, there were many who praised the film for its “moral ambiguity,” erecting the strawman that to not depict torture would constitute a whitewash. In a Time magazine interview, Bigelow defended the film as “a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force.” Where Zero Dark Thirty generated controversy, Prisoners and Big Bad Wolves have generated unreserved praise. Mother Jones celebrated Prisoners as a welcome corrective to Zero Dark Thirty, calling it “the strongest anti-torture argument that has come out of the movies in years.”

The idea that these films are “morally ambiguous” is central to their reception. It tells viewers that, rather than functioning as torture apologia, there’s a nuance at their core that prompts deep ethical probing. However, viewers tend to side with the character through whom they see the world. Dodge paid for Walter White to drive their cars for a reason, and Jay Gatsby’s parties look pretty fun. Quentin Tarantino’s sensibility draws heavily from the simplistic worlds of comic books and exploitation films—If Big Bad Wolves gets the Tarantino seal-of-approval, the ethical complexity of this genre is probably being oversold. The man’s most morally ambiguous choice is giving the world of cinema its most congenial Nazi—he’s not exactly St. Augustine.

These films share the same ideological core, and it’s not one built on great complexity and shades of gray. The moral world these films create is one of dueling, good-vs.-evil extremes: heroes who grudgingly use torture to defeat monstrous villains. Moral ambiguity is a superficial affectation achieved by a dour visual palette, extended onscreen suffering, and a disingenuous air of ideological neutrality. Films in the “morally ambiguous” pro-torture cycle obfuscate their Manichaean moral framework to remake an unambiguous evil into an ethical gray-area and interpellate subjects into their authoritarian worldview.

Torture Creep

Today, more Americans support torture than believe in evolution. In a piece on Zero Dark Thirty’s “torturer-as-feminist-icon” narrative, Matt Cornell breaks down the shift in public attitudes:

In August of 2012, the Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart conducted a poll on American attitudes toward torture, and found that Americans had become more supportive of the use of torture in the previous half decade. Zegart reported that: “[between 2007 and 2012,] 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.” Among the reasons for this shift in consensus, she cited the possible influence of spy movies and TV shows, which have increasingly depicted torture as heroic. According to her poll, so-called “spy TV watchers” were more likely to support a range of abusive tactics.

Zegart’s findings were predicted in 2008 by a Parent’s Television Council report which observed a significant spike in the depiction of torture on prime time television—and more critically a shift in which characters were using torture. Increasingly, it was the “good guys” carrying out the torture.

2012 was a decade after the Bush administration legalized torture and four years into the administration of Barack Obama, who didn’t consider torture a “grave [or] intentional breach” of Presidential powers and consequently immunized torturers. This isn’t to frame America’s current acceptance of torture in liberal declinist terms. From the torture inflicted on black slaves to torture as a tactic to crush the Philippine insurgency to the CIA’s KUBARK manual to the torture lessons at the School of the Americas, torture is as American as an apple with a razorblade in it. Recently, legalizing and immunizing torture has signaled to the culture industry that torture is now something “the good guys” do, too. However, torture is best depicted with a bit of handwringing, and a ghastly villain to justify it. Continue reading

Yasiin Bey’s travel ban wasn’t true, but it was plausible

Hey, did you hear about Yasiin Bey? In late May, a music festival in Boston announced that Bey’s upcoming shows would be cancelled due to problems re-entering the US. Turns out it’s false: a newspaper in South Africa, where Bey is living, has reported that the story was untrue.

All’s well that ends well! Since the artist formerly known as Mos Def is an American citizen, a travel ban would be an incredibly disturbing development. Especially since the rapper, who is Muslim, was most recently known for bringing attention to the legalized torture currently going on in Guantánamo Bay. In a video for The Guardian, Bey undergoes the excruciating force-feeding procedure to which over a hundred hunger-striking detainees have been subjected. As of now, the video has been viewed over 6 million times.

But it turns out there’s nothing to see here! For some reason, people believed that an American citizen would be subjected to some sort of unequal treatment, just because he’s a black Muslim-American whose political activism sheds light on American government torture. Maybe those credulous people had heard something about Saadiq Long, the Muslim American citizen from Oklahoma who was stuck in de facto exile for more than a decade. Long, an Air Force veteran, was forced to live in Qatar due to placement on the No-Fly list for unknown reasons. Maybe they had heard about Gulet Mohamed, a naturalized American citizen who was beaten by Kuwaiti authorities on behalf of the US, intimidated by the FBI, and then told he was on the No-Fly list when he tried to return home.

If they hadn’t heard either of these specific stories, maybe they had some idea of the tens of thousands of other Americans on the No-Fly list. Or maybe they think that being an American citizen just doesn’t go as far as it used to. The British are publicly stripping terrorism suspects of citizenship, and there is evidence that the US is already holding American citizens in secret, lawless captivity under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. There are Americans for whom citizenship couldn’t protect even from murder, much less exile.

Centering around a hip-hop artist, pieces debunking the travel ban story also have the aspect of playing into gaslight-y tropes about conspiracism in the African-American community. Serious, savvy types sneer at beliefs amongst some black Americans that the government played a role in the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics. Of course, if you’re a member of a group who’s historically fucked-over by the powerful, it creates a strong incentive–even a self-preservation imperative–to know how power really works. As with Muslims receiving a different tier of citizenship, these theories dismissed as conspiracism have aspects of truth, from the long history of American medical experimentation on people of color to the CIA’s documented collusion with Contra drug smugglers.

Rather than being self-evidently ridiculous, the original story of Bey’s travel ban is actually pretty credible. The only unrealistic aspect is it happening to a famous person.

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

The Mysteries of Deep States

Following the military’s overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, the New York Times has reported that a “miraculous” restoration of civil services hints at an intentional campaign to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood government. The Times writes:

As the interim government struggles to unite a divided nation, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi’s supporters say the sudden turnaround proves that their opponents conspired to make Mr. Morsi fail. Not only did police officers seem to disappear, but the state agencies responsible for providing electricity and ensuring gas supplies failed so fundamentally that gas lines and rolling blackouts fed widespread anger and frustration.

“This was preparing for the coup,” said Naser el-Farash, who served as the spokesman for the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade under Mr. Morsi. “Different circles in the state, from the storage facilities to the cars that transport petrol products to the gas stations, all participated in creating the crisis.”

Despite coming to power through the freest elections in Egyptian history, Mr. Morsi was unable to extend his authority over the sprawling state apparatus, and his allies complained that what they called the “deep state” was undermining their efforts at governing.

The Times presents compelling evidence that behind-the-scenes in Egypt, bureaucrats and private factions acted in concert to undermine the basic functions of government, with the aim of fomenting public support for the military coup which ended up ousting Morsi. The “deep state” is inextricably embedded within the structures of government and willing to undermine civilian rule in order to protect its interests. A deep state with this makeup has disturbing ramifications: an amorphous, undemocratic shadow government will harm, terrorize and deprive the citizens it ostensibly serves if it perceives its interests to be threatened. It’s one of those ideas that we as Americans would prefer to think happens in Those Countries Over There™. However, there are parallels to a chilling series of reports from early in Barack Obama’s presidency that hints at the power and depth of America’s own deep state. Continue reading

Life In The Conflict Zone, Art In The Comfort Zone

Opening Image

New Media artist Wafaa Bilal critiques the divide between public and political life

The United States has cultivated a casual indifference to how often we make war. Marita Sturken observes that “the way a nation remembers a war is directly related to the way that nation further propagates war.” Since the Persian Gulf War what Jean Baudrillard called “the First Postmodern War” Americans remember war as a video game. Consequently, we as a nation show little reluctance to unleash our military might. Iraqi new media artist Wafaa Bilal is one of those millions of people for whom America’s unfettered war-making has had tragic consequences. Bilal recognizes that the suffering unleashed by war is sanitized through the antiseptic, video game images that simulate war for Americans. Living between two worlds“ one of comfort versus one of conflict” Bilal’s new-media interventions and performance art installations try to pierce this simulation, to make the nature of warfare visible to a viewer. In his artistic practice, Bilal has been shot at 60,000 times with a paintball gun, received 25,000 tattoos, and been waterboarded. For his latest project, “The Third I,” he has become a cyborg. Bilal’s goals are ambitious: trying to remediate America’s understanding of our relationship to the world. In trying to achieve this goal, Bilal has placed himself at the forefront of both articulating what a new-media artist can be and at the extreme end of the spectrum of what a performance artist will do in his practice. Continue reading