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

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.

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

John Oliver isn’t Mad Max, he’s part of the problem

When I was first recommended John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time. Oliver had the benefit of coming from The Daily Show, which became a cherished liberal institution under Jon Stewart and had a unique power to shape conversations among a lot of progressive internet users. If anything, Oliver has the potential to be more influential than the show that birthed him. “That John Oliver’s weekly video(s) will go viral is a given,” wrote John Herrman in a post on a clickbait ritual he calls the “John Oliver video sweepstakes.” John Oliver is “winning the internet.” More than just a content factory, though, on his HBO show Oliver is getting credit for something like prime-time activism—Time lauds what they call the “John Oliver effect.”

He’s really, really, popular. When I watched the first clip I HAD TO SEE from his show, though, it was obvious why it’s gotten so much traction. The clip I saw, covering the election that would make Narendra Modi the Prime Minister of India, was from Last Week Tonight’s 1st season, back in June 2014. The election of Narendra Modi was consequential, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are:

Modi’s election proved all sorts of points, from capitalism’s extremely cozy relationship with the militant far-right to the way that the media whitewashes fascism when the fascist in question advances the ruling class’s interests.

According to Oliver’s widely shared reckoning, though, the important aspects of India’s 2014 election are:

  • It was big.
  • It was under-reported.

For something ostensibly journalistic, the segment was light on specifics. Between jokes about Modi’s holograms, Oliver makes one brief point about Modi’s culpability in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogroms, which he diminishingly describes by saying that Modi “arguably failed to stop a massacre.” The problem here, according to Last Week Tonight, is just that The People need more information. “Our cable news has been ignoring India” is the segment’s leitmotif, and it offers nothing deeper than hand-wringing over the vapid US media. The only intervention to inject something of substance is a whitewash of Modi’s participation in racist mob violence. All viewers need to do is just know about the election, which puts Last Week Tonight’s viewers miles ahead of the bovine Faux Snooze-watchers in the flyover states. The fetishizing of information for its own sake, the low-context bathos, the whitewashing, the signaling that lets liberal viewers feel superior to their Republican relatives—I could tell this was going to be bigger than The Daily Show!

When Stewart announced his retirement a few months ago, amidst the slew of identical thinkpieces praising his show was another more measured response. Stewart, the alternative consensus went, had done a lot of good satire but gotten soft following the departure of George W. When he held his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” he had gotten too high on his own supply of above-the-fray centrism. Since I stopped checking Salon sometime around their billionth listicle of epic Tea Party fails, I hadn’t kept up with Oliver’s show, besides occasionally seeing his clips ricocheting around the internet. Based on the fact that many came to see Stewart’s “jester liberalism” shtick for what it was—toothless and overly servile—I had assumed, naïvely, that there would be some latent skepticism to Oliver. At least, instead of restarting at square one like every time a new vaguely leftish celebrity comes along, we could start from an understanding that radicals don’t make it on TV, and moderate hopes for late-night hosts accordingly.

I was a little too starry-eyed, judging from a piece that Jacobin published yesterday by Thomas Crowley. Titled “John Oliver Should Be More Like Mad Max” for maximum zeitgeisty-ness, the subheader explains that “John Oliver is mad at corporations but not capitalism.” So far, so true. The piece begins by explaining how Oliver favorably compares to Stewart and Stephen Colbert, since “Oliver was exciting because he took on corporations so directly, and with such gusto.” However, Crowley is disappointed that Oliver limits his criticism to extreme corporate excess, rather than the capitalist system itself. Continue reading

Copaganda Theater: “End of Watch”

Occupy LA Anti-Social Media (OLAASM) has published an excellent piece on the historical role of the Los Angeles police department, called “The LAPD: Not Your Model Police Department – But Definitely Theirs.” OLAASM writes that:

Los Angeles has long served as a proving ground where the counterinsurgency tactics later adopted by police throughout the United States were first domestically deployed. Ever since the nation’s very first no-knock SWAT raid on the Black Panther Party headquarters at 41st & Central and the CIA-facilitated, “crack cocaine explosion” that was first unleashed on South Central to more recent, repressive innovations like so-called “Community Policing” and today’s “Predpol,” (Minority Report-style pre-crime tactics –ed) the City of Angels has repeatedly been lauded as a “model” for “modern” policing.

OLAASM’s piece about how the LAPD is a “model” police department got me thinking about a film I just watched, which struck me as one of the cop-iest piece of copaganda ever dressed up as “found” footage. David Ayer’s 2012 End of Watch is both a critically acclaimed cop thriller and a text that broadcasts police forces’ most deeply embedded myths.

The LAPD is a model police department, but a model for how the state can more effectively and invisibly defuse challenges to its power. For instance, when a militarized police response to the Ferguson protests failed to quell the resistance, the cops sent out a lovable Captain in his dress blues to hug and hold hands with community members. OLAASM calls this part of the “LA Model,” and discusses the tactic’s roots in counterinsurgency strategy (COIN). One of the central planks of COIN is “perception management,” a.k.a. propaganda and related psychological operations. In the case of the America’s police forces, OLAASM calls the carefully cultivated media relations model copaganda.

coin fergusonHollywood usually engages in “perception management” in a pretty direct way—with a cop, spy, or soldier telling screenwriters “add more of this” or “take that part out.” This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but it is well-established conspiracy fact. Just last month during the bizarre spectacle surrounding The Interview, it was reported both that CIA contractors were consulting Seth Rogen during the production, and State Department officials and RAND corporation employees were pushing the screenwriter and the studio to target North Korea ever more belligerently.

Similarly, when David Ayer set about writing End of Watch, he consulted cops (“I’m a good researcher”), to ensure that viewers are sutured into the LAPD’s perspective. The result is a film that mirrors the most successful relationship Hollywood has ever cultivated: the one with the US military. According to Peter Debruge at Variety, “End of Watch affords the LAPD the respectful portrayal the U.S. military seeks when partnering with Hollywood: Instead of glorifying the individual, the film depicts an honorable and efficient organization of people working together.”

One of the most consistent aspects of film reception is that “realism” in form is taken as indicative of realism in content—a film shot with steadicam-immediacy is discussed critically as though its narrative must similarly reflect “real” life. End of Watch is shot in found-footage style, with the conceit that the film is recorded from the officers’ body-cams and Taylor’s handheld digital video camera (Presumably, if all cops were outfitted with body-cams, the footage would show what a bunch of chill guys they are). 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 Good and Evil of Left-Libertarian Transpartisanship

On October 26, in Washington, DC, thousands gathered as part of the “Stop Watching Us” rally to demonstrate against the American surveillance state. Describing itself as a coalition of “over 100 public advocacy organizations and companies from across the US,” the protest featured attendees, speakers, and sponsors from both the anti-authoritarian Left and the Libertarian right.

The nature of an entrenched, bipartisan national security state means that the most powerful members of both parties have an interest in perpetuating government power. The Obama administration carried on the previous administration’s spying programs, and today a Democratic president finds vociferous defenders amongst the most authoritarian members of the “opposing” party.

Consequently, opposition to excessive government intrusion takes on a transpartisan nature. At the Stop Watching Us rally, Dennis Kucinich and Naomi Wolf shared the stage with Tea Party Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. The roster of backers included Code Pink, the ACLU, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (whom I’d not heard of, but come on, “Competitive Enterprise?” Going to go ahead and put that on the Libertarian side).

The Left-Libertarian crowd that showed up on Saturday mirrors the one in Congress that came 12 votes short of defunding the NSA’s mass telephone surveillance last July. The July 24th House bill was co-sponsored by fellow Michiganders Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican, and John Conyers, a Democrat who co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. The Amendment would’ve “limit[ed] the government’s collection of records…to those records that pertain to a person who is subject to an investigation.” No more blanket collection.

More importantly, the bill managed to accumulate such significant, bipartisan support despite the fact that the nation’s most powerful lawmakers vehemently opposed its passage. The leadership of both parties was arrayed against Amash-Conyers, and as often happens in matters of national security, the Obama administration found a staunch supporter in Michelle Bachmann. Given bills like the Amash-Conyers Amendment, it looks like a Left-Libertarian alliance is the sort of transpartisan project that can finally rein in the surveillance state. Continue reading