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

Advertisements

Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 1: Inept Empire

This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.

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

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

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

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

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

The Mainstream and the Margins: Noam Chomsky vs. Michael Parenti

Noam Chomsky is, as anyone reading this knows, a linguist, MIT professor, and the English-speaking world’s foremost radical dissident intellectual. Chomsky’s work in this latter capacity is so well-documented that it’s not necessary to recapitulate too much—however, a few choice high notes include decades of criticism of US foreign policy, some decent commentary on then-President-elect Barack Obama at a time nearly all of the Western commentariat had turned into a deranged Borg-like collective, and producing the second comprehensive study of corporate constraints on the media along with Edward Herman. As co-author of Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky provided a model illuminating the “political economy of the mass media,” and from this research came a great deal of very useful and incisive media criticism on issues like how concision and sound-bites help the status quo and why a journalist can be both genuine and compromised. Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model purports to show how five corporate filters enable the mass media’s owners to ensure that their interests are expressed. In this way, according to the two, democracies manufacture consent through seamlessly delivered propaganda, the way totalitarian societies do so by coercion and force.

According to Chomsky’s many high-profile boosters, his own experiences belie the myth of a “free” American press. “You’d hardly need a clearer example of his model of how dissenting views are filtered out of the western media than his own case,” writes Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, “Not surprisingly, he has been repaid with either denunciation or, far more typically, silence.” According to physicist Mano Singham, on the subject of “the attempted silencing of Noam Chomsky,” “growing up in Sri Lanka, I would find his articles and essays in the mainstream media quite regularly. But when I first came to the US in 1975, I found him completely absent from the major print and TV media and discovered that his writings were confined to niche publications.” For all his alleged silencing, by Singham’s own account, Chomsky was a relatively constant presence in Sri Lankan media. If an American intellectual enjoys a prominent platform in a country 10,000 miles from the US, where only 10% of the population speaks fluent English, it makes one wonder what the margins or obscurity actually look like. Similarly, while he may not be a daily fixture on cable news, Chomsky is regularly asked to opine at length on the issues of the day for a slew of venues ranging from centrist to lefty, from The Guardian and countless university symposia to Democracy Now! and Jacobin magazine. Right now, Netflix is recommending me two feature-length documentaries on the great dissident, both released in the past few years (Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? and the grimly named Requiem for the American Dream), with another seven currently in production according to IMDb. By way of adducing Chomsky’s invisibility, Milne says that the professor “is the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar…he is entertained by presidents, addresses the UN general assembly and commands a mass international audience…His books sell in their hundreds of thousands, [and] he is mobbed by students as a celebrity.” I can’t speak for my fellow WordPress radicals, but as someone who has made precisely zero dollars after writing hundreds of thousands of words of criticism, being even a micron as ignored as Chomsky sounds both lucrative and validating.

As mentioned earlier, Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent was the second comprehensive look at how the media’s owners determine what is broadcast. As early as 1845, Karl Marx explained that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” Though there are many books probing the nature of broadcast media, Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality (1986) was the first to provide an in-depth analysis of the corporate nature of the media using Marx’s dictum as a thesis. Despite Herman and Chomsky’s book coming two years later, the two don’t mention Parenti at all, instead thanking Australian psychologist Alex Carey for inspiring their work (John Pilger, perhaps revealingly, credits Carey as a “second Orwell”). Even a cursory glance at Inventing Reality’s contents reveals extensive similarities between Parenti’s analysis and that of Herman and Chomsky—hearing Parenti discuss his book at length further cements the commonalities. In fact, beyond these two works, Chomsky and Parenti share a great deal alike. Like his superstar counterpart, Parenti has produced mountains of scholarship and given dozens of easily accessible speeches and presentations. Parenti has been a strident critic of capitalism and imperialism for decades, writing over two dozen books on nearly every conceivable issue that relates to those subjects. In a neat biographical synchronicity, both are even octogenarian New Yorkers. However, unlike Chomsky, Parenti can’t claim everyone from Bono to Radiohead as prominent fans. Chomsky’s influence is particularly felt now during the interminable American election cycle; as Kevin Dooley points out in an excellent post on Chomsky, he “is always at his most visible during election season,” when he can be found churning out almost-weekly interviews warning about the dangers of not voting Democrat. Video of Noam Chomsky’s latest event was uploaded less than a week ago, from a discussion with former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis held at the New York Public Library; in contrast, Parenti’s last uploaded speech was from a decidedly more low-key affair held at a Canadian university in 2014.

All this is to say that, despite their similar territory and Chomsky’s reputation, Noam Chomsky looks very much like a mainstream figure, and the label of marginalized outsider would be applied more appropriately to Parenti. A 2005 issue of the liberal American Prospect magazine, for instance, defined Chomsky and Dick Cheney as the two extremes in American political life. To one who is skeptical of Chomsky’s outsider reputation, he looks less like a silenced dissident and more like the leftmost margin of permissible criticism—the point at which an idea decisively departs the realm of mainstream acceptability and automatically becomes tinfoil-hat territory. If their scholarship on media filters and corporate ownership is to mean anything, it means that there is a reason for this, and it has to do with their respective positions and service (or lack thereof) to those in power. This piece is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of Chomsky’s career, or the history that brought him to his sinecure as the West’s pre-eminent radical thinker. There are much more focused pieces touching on these issues, which will be linked throughout and shared again at the end. 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.

This post will be quite long, as it is made of six different parts. A table of contents is below, use it to either skip ahead or open that part in its own post:

Part 1: Inept Empire

^[skip to this part or OPEN AS A NEW POST]^

Part 2: “Conspiracy Theorism”

^[skip to this part or OPEN AS A NEW POST]^

Part 3: Support For “Actually Existing” Systems – Anti-Communism

^[skip to this part or OPEN AS A NEW POST]^

Part 4: Support For “Actually Existing” Systems – Humanitarian Interventions 

^[skip to this part or open as a new post]^

Part 5: Lesser Evilism

^[skip to this part or open as a new post]^

Part 6: Description vs. Prescription 

^[skip to this part or open as a new post]^

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

Election 2016 Snapshot

Did you hear about what that awful Rethuglican turkey Marco Rubio said this week? In a speech laying out a future foreign policy vision for the Rubio administration, the senator claimed that

We must recognize that our nation is a global leader not just because it has superior arms, but because it has superior aims. America is the first power in history motivated by a desire to expand freedom rather than its own territory.

According to the straight-shooters at Democratic party astroturf factory Crooks & Liars, this statement is “the big lie” undergirding his foreign policy approach, “which also will disqualify him from the White House for ignorance if not warmongering.”

Hear, hear! As far as historical whitewashes go, this kind of exceptionalist garbage is as ahistorical as it is evil. “And it’s a line that helps explain why this would-be president is campaigning with a truly extremist foreign policy ‘doctrine,'” according to reliable liberal click-miner Elias Isquith, “and it is utterly insane.” These two articles set the tone for a slew of pieces currently populating the Proggy corners of the internet, which differ only in varying amounts of sub-Colbert riffing leading up to the same capitulation of the US’s bloody settler-colonial, imperialist history.

If Rubio’s “utterly insane” words, animating a “truly extremist” set of quote-unquote ideas sound familiar, it’s probably because they’re almost identical to similar comments from the current occupant of the Oval Office. In the blessed Erewhon called the days before the current presidential election cycle, a.k.a. March 2014, Barack Obama defended the Iraq war by claiming that

it is true that the Iraq war was a subject of vigorous debate, not just around the world but in the United States, as well. I participated in that debate, and I opposed our military intervention there. But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.

Rubio probably would’ve played better to the Daily Kos crowd if he’d referenced “vigorous debate” like Obama did, since those code-words invoke hand-wringing, parliamentary procedure, and Aaron Sorkin-esque speechifying in a trifecta of self-regard that leaves liberal chumps at half-mast.

That’s how Obama’s comments went over last year, anyway. Obama “struggled” to adequately make his case. At worse, Obama “inflamed…accusations of hypocrisy,” which really isn’t as bad as being insane. Digby was “embarrassed for him,” the poor guy. Liberal responses didn’t disqualify Obama from the presidency, nor did they explicate how his whitewash was well in keeping with the imperialist political core which he’d articulated dating back to his days as an Illinois state senator. It’s high on excuse-making for powerful individuals and context-free outrage, low on analysis and anything resembling the journalism that liberals love to wail and keen about. Given that establishment wisdom is morally vile, at least when voiced by someone from Team Red, there should be much-needed bullshit-calling on the whole rotten enterprise.

Anyone who ends up reading this blog probably isn’t too keen on America’s endless election spectacle, either. I know I’m definitely not intending to write about the election again in any capacity; 2008 felt like living through a creepy year-and-a-half long Twilight Zone episode, 2012 was more discipline- than hope-oriented. I have little doubt this one will be more like the latter. Avoiding another presidential election was a sizable motivator for finally expatriating: I’d genuinely rather be strapped down, Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to watch every single Eurovision contest than hear the words Hillary Clinton again, unless that name is followed immediately by the words “…is a walking profanity.”

Because in between the starry-eyed marketing operations and vicious power-serving smear campaigns, elections are a nearly endless stream of moments in which propaganda blows up a micron of difference into the fantasy called democracy. Or worse, moments like this one–in which ruling-class unanimity is remade as something else. Here’s how the sacred experiment really works, as the differences are wholly manufactured and a bipartisan cast of ruthless moral cretins is turned into tableau of good vs. evil.

On the plus side, though, at least there are only 18 more months of this shit. Enjoy, everyone! It’s going to fucking suck.

No wonder it made $100m last weekend: “American Sniper” is a unique hybrid of right-wing and liberal pro-war movies

if Zero Dark Thirty (a film I really love a lot) had been anything like the flag-waving, jingoistic, torture-endorsing film its detractors claim it to be, it probably would have made twice as much money. –Film website comment

The past week, Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper made $120 million over its 4-day opening weekend. Not only is Sniper the highest-grossing January release ever, it’s the biggest opening weekend of any film not part of a franchise—Warner Bros. pictures was expecting an opening-weekend gross of between $40 and $50 million. Not only was Sniper a huge commercial success, it’s been lauded by critics. The film’s huge success with both the “real America” contingent and coastal élites would indicate that the film is something unique—“a bona fide cultural phenomenon,” in the breathless words of CNN’s Brandon Griggs. Despite the protestations of critics like Griggs that Sniper is “a human story, not a political one,” though, there’s been a political controversy.

However, one of the first misconceptions is that American Sniper has prompted a controversy—rather, there are two. One dispute is between the left and right, over the valorization of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with cryptofascist politics and a gargantuan body count. This is sometimes diminishingly lumped in with a discussion about Selma and tepidly called an issue with historical accuracy—as though making a hero of a cruel mass-murderer is analogous to a PR headache for the estate of Lyndon Johnson. The second controversy is between liberal film critics and American Sniper’s detractors. These critics, bolstering the film’s reputation against the ugly facts about the late Chris Kyle, are arguing for the film to be appreciated as a liberal war movie, rather than a right-wing one.

Against claims that Kyle was a vile individual, the film’s liberal supporters argue that it’s not an overtly jingoistic work, but a “morally ambiguous” one. Both sides are correct, in their respective, separate discussions—Chris Kyle was a reprehensible human being, but Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is informed by liberal conceptions of warmaking. The film’s tremendous huge box-office and critical success is due to Eastwood’s accomplishing a unique hybrid—the story of the ultimate right-wing war hero, with the themes and narrative signals of liberal pro-war films. The resulting intervention on the part of supportive film critics, arguing for an ahistorical and apolitical reception of American Sniper, is about shoring up liberal imperialism versus its more distasteful, unsophisticated sibling.

American Sniper’s subject, along with its mass appeal and huge box office success, might indicate that it’s a right-wing war movie—something overtly bellicose, jingoistic, and “flag-waving.” The film has definitely been a success with right-wing audiences, who’ve both turned out in droves and targeted what Sarah Palin called “Hollywood leftist” critics. Directed by a filmmaker whose last prominent work starred an empty chair at the RNC, Sniper isn’t just about any hero, but the epitome of reactionary heroism. The actual Kyle, in his own words, was an unrepentant mass-killer—someone who “loved” killing the “damn savages” that he “hated,” even finding it “fun,” and whose only wish was that he “had killed more.” Kyle saw himself as a Christian warrior in a civilizational battle against Islam, adorning himself with a tattoo of the red Crusader’s cross popular among other identitarian Christian fascists like Anders Breivik. However, not only was Kyle an enthusiastic racist murderer in reality, but in the legend he cultivated about himself. Kyle was an unrepentant bullshit artist, building himself up as the embodiment of a violent right-wing archetype—a Free Republic comment come to life.

Amongst his many lies, Kyle repeated a popular authoritarian myth about liberal treachery, claiming to have been called a baby-killer in the highly right-wing area of San Diego where the SEALs are based. He claimed to have found WMDs in Iraq. He also claimed to have acted out the sort of racialized vengeance fantasies that fuel the right-wing id: inventing stories about shooting two carjackers, and gunning down “looters” in post-Katrina New Orleans with impunity. The last point is particularly ironic since Kyle described looting Iraqi homes during the war, making him the sort of thieving petty criminal that private property-loving “stand your ground” types see as the lowest form of scum. It’s actually surprising that Kyle never claimed to have taught a lesson to an avowed atheist and ACLU-member college professor, who one day challenged God to knock him off his platform.

This is the Chris Kyle in the public record leading up the release of Eastwood’s film. He is firmly associated with the American right—and one controversy has played out along these lines. Americans of the cryptofascist political persuasion send those who denigrate him death threats. Some liberal celebrities, like Seth Rogen and Michael Moore, have made mild critical comments, which they immediately walked back under pressure from the right. However, Seth Rogen provides a valuable object lesson in what division is manifesting itself here. Among many critics with principled stands against warmongering are liberals like Rogen. Famously, Rogen propagandized on Israel’s behalf during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, so he obviously doesn’t have a substantive issue with slaughtering Arabs. However, people like Rogen, who support warfare in the name of democratic pluralism, are actually one of the film’s natural constituencies. 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