Following the missile strike on Shayrat in Western Syria last Thursday, a wave of protests broke out across the United States. These proved something of a mixed bag, as one might expect. In addition to those who support the Free Syrian Army but oppose further American intervention, a number of unsavory sorts also showed up. Portraits of Putin and Assad could be seen alongside yellow signs put out by the ANSWER Coalition. A few flags featuring the modified orange tornado-swastika of the fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party or SSNP, a close ally of the Ba’athist regime, also appeared at the demonstrations. Some organizers took a more principled stand, however, rejecting calls for a heightened US military role while at the same time refusing to march with Assadists.
While I’m heartened by such unequivocal declarations of principle, we are still all too ready to forgive those who make excuses for…
Every once in a while, this space christened the Left—of whose foundational texts and core values I largely hold in regard—feels like a foreign place. The paradox is that occupying a place on the Left, a priori, is “supposed” to feel like refuge.
A curious phenomenon I’ve come across on the Left is a politics of pro-Muslim islamophobia. Take for instance Angela Merkel’s proposition to ban the Niqab, or the face-veil. Of course, a ban would be an affront to egalitarian ideals. And a ban should be very much be opposed. But one noticeable knee-jerk reaction—even cliche—that many progressives have produced is that such an initiative would alienate German—and by extension all—Muslims, if not impel them to active opposition or radicalization. This is profoundly mistaken. There is no data that supports such a conclusion.
But it’s worth noting, first, the problematic nature of the underlying presumption: that Muslims define themselves by loyalty to tribe and religion first. Nation—and the liberal democratic values it embodies—coming last. Second, much of these discussions have the familiar feel of a “gotcha” game between a strand of Euro-American feminism that is supportive of such measures and a strand which is critical of them.What’s not accounted for is an ongoing and long-tradition of intra-Islamic debates on women’s rights—led by Muslim feminists—and secularism.
If Islamophobia is in fact a form of irrational fear, then perhaps we can presume that there’s a fear of Muslims when one is unwilling or incurious to engage with these discussions in their own terms. They speak of Muslims, but not with Muslims, or rather they’d only speak with those best tokenized. The subaltern can in fact speak, but they must say what fulfills the our constant desire for self-problematization. When the Other is invoked, he or she is held up as mirror to ourselves. Tell us about our qualities.
Frederic Jameson once wondered if capitalism can’t survive without the fantasy of a socialist utopia on the horizon. In the same breath, we can ask if imperialism and racism can’t survive without the fantasy of a non-imperialist, non-racist utopia. Not that those utopias are beyond the possible, as there’s no way to prove that. The point is that a certain dominant strand of anti-capitalist or anti-racist or anti-imperialist ideology ultimately ends up reproducing its object of negation precisely those ideologies place themselves mainly in negation, rather than in offering a way out and a positive vision. In other words, anti-islamophobia defines itself against a Big Other and eschews challenging the legitimacy of key Islamophobic premises. In form, such a politics challenges Islamophobic discourse but in substance it keeps in place and reduces the dominant signs and symbols, opting to only invert them. In practise, what contemporary anti-Islmaophobia does is to adapt better to the ever-widening goalposts determined by the Right. “Trump is a hypocrite because he didn’t ban Saudis and Egyptians in his executive order,” as somehave argued. Ergo, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that any political activity will ultimately mimic what it defines itself against.
To gnaw at identifying the sources of the issue, one must carefully probe the singularity of the Muslim Question.
Anne Norton, author of The Muslim Question, has argued that she sees the “Muslim question as the Jewish question of our time: standing at the site where politics and ethics, philosophy and theology meet. This is the knot where the politics of class, sex, and sexuality, of culture, race, and ethnicity are entangled; the site where structures of hierarchy and subordination are anchored. It is here, on this terrain, that the question of the democratic — its resurgence or further repression — is being fought out.”
This aspect is fairly well-known and correct. But the risk of reducing the rights of the Muslim into a touchstone of progress or fraudulence of liberal democracy inevitably comes with the risk of solipsism about a question that is by no means limited to the geographic confines of the West. It is precisely failing to note the global aspect of the Muslim Question that leads to the supposedly paradoxical nature of anti-Islamophobic islamophobia.
“si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu.” (If you are trapped in the dream of the other, you are screwed)—Gilles Deleuze
Some on the Left attempt to speak of the global dimension—often only by obligation when an Islamist terror attack in the West takes place—but their failure to go beyond superficial gyrations indicates why the discussions of Muslims in the West is flawed.
Ranging from the bien-pensant liberal to the generic Marxist, the figure of the Muslim is akin to a transistor on a circuit board. They’re there receive and amplify the force of current exerted upon them. Accordingly, such current take form in racist exclusion, legal inequity, (neo)colonialism, or crude bombs made in the West—never indigenous oppression. If we wish to turn off violence perpetrated by the Muslim, we shall stick to the mechanistic laws of physics: just switch off the current! The active role is Western racism and imperialism, the passive role is occupied by the Muslim. We are the reason they exist in the way they exist. They have no history before we show up. We ultimately pay the price for what our governments do abroad. Sometimes it is admitted that there is a mediating ideological factor, such as Wahabist and Salafi-Jihadist ideology. But it is only “forced” upon Muslims against their will by the Saudi authorities worldwide. Of course, this too presumes that Muslims are passive actors readily vulnerable to be imbued by radicalizing influences.
After this has been established, any discussion of the radicalization of Muslims assumes the familiar feel of it approaching the end. This depoliticized framework results in the disarmament in the face of the the Islamophobic Right. As Hannah Arendt noted, “It has been one of the most unfortunate facts in the history of the Jewish people that only its enemies, and almost never its friends, understood that the Jewish question was a political one.”
If the constant rise of Islamophobia is any indicator or the fact that the fall of anti-Muslim prejudice has not been coeval with the fall in other forms of prejudice, it’s that the Islamophobic Right has been winning this battle precisely because it has politicized the Muslim Question. The Left doesn’t politicize the Muslim Question, whereas the Right does just that —though in a deliberately malevolent fashion. The Left, by definition the active agent of history, has decided that its role is to provide the Right with the driving seat on this question, opting for the role of simply opposing its every action.
Consider the dilemma: how is it that the Left is more or less opposed to the bigotry led by theRight against Syrian and Muslim refugees, but some sections of the Left are in agreement with the Right that all, or most, of the opposition to supposedly anti-Western regimes like Bashar Al-Assad’s or Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime is led by proxy groups and/or fanatical jihadists? Why is it that it’s ubiquitous to see Leftists warn of instability if Assad is deposed, but no warnings are ever pronounced of a withdrawal of Israel occupation from the West Bank?
Examples abound. Stephen Kinzer thanks Russia for its bombing campaign, Robert Fisk, Vijay Prashad and Ajamu Baraka argue that there are “no good guys” in the opposition—despite Assad bearing the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties. Tariq Ali has called for a joint Russian-US campaign to destroy the opposition and ISIS. Jill Stein has even went as far to say that the goal of the US government is to help “restore all of Syria to control by the government.” United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) staged a demonstration where they carried the regime’s flag. Veterans For Peace has sent a delegation to meet Assad in his palace in Damascus. Stop The War Coalition in the U.K. has went as far as to refuse a platform for anti-Assad Syrian and even call on the police to arrest them. Examples abound.
A close inspection of the mainstream armed Syrian opposition would demonstrate that they are more or less just as fundamentalist as Hamas and Hezbollah. Leaving the fact that there are democratic and anti-sectarian elements opposed to Assad, it appears that the Syrian opposition’s curse is that they aren’t fighting Western imperialism, but Russian imperialism. Which at any rate hardly qualifies as imperialism at all in certain Left quarters. Of course, it’s hard to find an example of a Leftist voicing concern about the populations that are living under the boot fundamentalist groups like Hamas or Hezbollah. Let alone those groups’ exploitation of workers. But once the fairytale of a fanatical Syrian opposition controlled by the West has been established, the victims of those groups are recognized because they are “our victims.” Their goal is not to challenge those who are committing and justifying the largest perpetrators of crimes—of which there are plenty of on both Left and Right—but to challenge the “Western” narrative.
Minimalism for anti-Western groups and regimes, maximalism for those whose direct target is anti-Western regimes. Remaining trapped in the dreams of the Left.
Such is the false and deadly dualism that sees Muslims as either victims or suspects, leaving no room for complexity. Such is the politics of score-settling that invokes the Other as a tool to hammer home a point, at home. Ensconced in a solipsistic ontology, they see the victims not because they recognize them in themselves, but only when they can recognize the perpetrators, who often look and speak like them. It’s the perpetrators that are relatable, not the victims. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the most creative anti-war slogan that one can hear in London, New York and Paris is “not in our name.” Just not in our name, we are better than this. Speaking to Israeli journalist Judith Lerner, Mahmoud Darwish noted that “Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interest in us stems from the interest in the Jewish issue. The interest is in you, not in me.”
After all, how many on the Left could talk about Syria without succumbing to yelling “What about U.S. atrocities?” At this point, such a cliche should sound like “What about me?” The outside exists only as a motif to speak of the cordoned inside. Wallowing in self-problematization, one can even feel exonerated.Navel gazing and guilt, it turns out, have a tendency to centre the Self.
More, how many on the Left staged a defence of Syrian refugees’ demands of the European Union by pointing out that Syrian refugees’ radical demands of the European Union have a direct genealogy to the chants of the Syrian uprising: “Bread, Freedom and social justice.” But the defence of Syrian refugees’ right to shelter we’ve heard from radical quarters has relied on sediments of liberal bromides such as the virtue of diversity, inclusivity and tolerance for its own sake. Difference doesn’t exist in a free floating abstract world, it resides in politics, always. In fact, Leftists who have argued that the regime of Assad is legitimate have directly contributed to the toxic environment of Islamophobia by way of opening the space for the far-right to freely argue that Syrian refugees are traitors for refusing join the supposedly secular Syrian Arab Army. To borrow Brecht’s line about the difference between robbing a bank and founding one, we could ask what is robbing Syrians’ agency to founding an anti-refugee and islamophobic politics?
In this sense, one can be simultaneously espouse an imperialist and anti-imperialist mindset. The largest radicalizing factor today in the world is the carnage in Syria and the biggest perpetrators are not Western. That fact is inescapable.
As Edward Said noted of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo:
All Conrad can see is a world totally dominated by the Atlantic West, in which every opposition to the West only confirms the West’s wicked power. What Conrad cannot seeis an alternative to this cruel tautology. He could neither understand that India, Africa, and South America also had lives and cultures with integrities not totally controlled by the gringo imperialists and reformers of this·· world, nor allow himself to believe that anti-imperialist independence movements were not all corrupt and in the pay of the puppet masters in London or Washington.
This ontological and epistemological weakness results in a foreclosure of any possibility for a politics. This approach fails at home precisely because it fails abroad, and vice versa. As we have seen with the near-absent knowledge of the Syrian uprising, the Left has betrayed its core historical provenance—Revolution. To try to account for the lacuna of solidarity with Syrians on the Left, some have offered despair as an entrée: “What do you propose we do? How do you know it’s going to work?” Of course none of these questions were posed to those who marched in the streets of Washington, London and Paris during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Something is malfunctioning and the contradictions will eventually have to explode. To paraphrase Benjamin, the Left’s progress is but a document of barbarism.
“Only one thing could have stopped us – if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.” – Adolf Hitler
I take no personal gratification in watching physical assault take place. I recall the trauma of being punched at 14-years old in a racist incident. I was intimidated for years by even the most frivolous fights in high-school and even desisted from playing sports for a long time as a result. I know how intimidating violence can be.
Which is why I believe in violence against fascists. The New York Times today reported that Richard Spencer won’t be going on speaking tours for a long time as a result of being assaulted. He’s even afraid to go out for dinner. Before we conclude that that’s indubitably a good thing, I’d like to turn to the topic of collaboration.
We expect collaborators to appear in the form of the Devil himself. In other words, recognizable. But of course that’s far from the reality. The Biblical story of how Satan himself transmogrifies into the Devil is itself just as implausible. Collaboration, where it most matters, is passive. Collaboration is reduced to executing “normal” tasks in a programmatic manner. Nothing could be more “natural.” This was the insight of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: modern evil is banal. It is the work of millions of men and women. As she argues in The Origins of Totalitarianism, genocide requires the participation of engineers, physicians, accountants, scientists, journalists, small business owners, corporate executives and civil servants. It is an archipelago of labor in the narrowest sense of the term: tedious and mundane.
The most effective prophylactic against any infection is to deny it its conditions of survival. Today our infection is the prospect of collaboration. Evil, according to Arendt, is committed by those who “never make up their minds to be good or evil,” but underlying that is careerism. Eichmann, the chief architect for the extermination of half ofEuropean Jewry, had “no motives at all” she argued, “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement.” And the problem, as Arendt pointed out, was that there were too many Eichmanns. There is no cure for collaboration. The only solution is to prevent the conditions in which passive collaborators have the excuse to say that they were only doing their jobs.
There is a crucial lesson to be learned from how Mussolini and Hitler consolidated power. It wasn’t overnight. It took years. And in those years paramilitary groups roamed the streets ravaging any potential threat. The threat of chaos that they incubated was crucial to the conservative governments’ decisions to permit them into the halls of total power. Violence, as any good anthropologist would tell you, is steeped in symbolism. State and, when allowed, non-State violence intends to send a message “We Are The Only Game In Town.” And in their violence, they assert their convictions. Citizens, too busy and exhausted to think politically, are always ready to acquiesce that point faute de mieux: if someone is violent and angry, then their demands, even ideology, must be somewhat rooted valid grievances and ideas.
The essence of fascism, as historians like Robert Paxton never fail to remind us, is not in ideas but in emotions. Robbing fascism of its virility and hyper masculine pretence is to rob it of its primary capacity to grow and survive. We have to confront the crucial question: are we more interested in upholding the slogan “Don’t Be Evil” or in making sure that no evil occurs? Is instilling fear in the hearts of fascists or fascist-curious individuals, even at the cost of isolated violence preferable to allowing fascists to consolidate power and therefore commit greater atrocities?
In this particular instance, we must utilize fear to our advantage. The continuation of protests and the show of strength must not only intimidate fascists, but also send a clear message to the three most important institutions that fascists require for total power: big business, media and state institutions. They must be constantly fear any form of collaboration with Trump’s administration. They must fear how the nation’s history books will view them but to accomplish that we must compel them to think that future historians will not be fascists. The fascist future must be cancelled, today. We can take it from the tip of fascist reaction today: “The point is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.” (Trump, The Art of the Deal, p. 57)
Take for instance a recent example in Egypt. Large large sections of civil servants and big business sabotaged Morsi’s presidency. Hoping against the grain that he would be overthrown by the military, they felt compelled enough to sacrifice their jobs and careers. But the background to this was fierce street violence against fundamentalist supporters of Morsi and weekly mass protests. They had mistakenly placed their faith in the military, but Americans can take comfort in the fact that a genuine opposition in Congress can represent them politically. Americans who will be torn about collaboration must likewise feel compelled to sacrifice their livelihoods and future; but only if the protest and civil disobedience continue unabated and if there exists a genuine political opposition in Congress.
We must be ready to meet their intimidation with greater intimidation. What fascism does is to returns politics to its fundamentals. Those of us who are united in the right of women and LGBTQ folks to their bodies, those of us who believe in the right of life for Black, Native, colored and Muslim communities have to confront that our primary task in the coming months and years is to defend the most basic of political rights: life itself. Politics is back to the visceral for those of us who have long grown accustomed to middle-class bourgeois bubbles. We must consign bourgeois morality to the ash heap before it does us in.
A statement in solidarity with the multi-pronged Israeli assaults on Hezbollah and Hamas in 2006 read:
“We offer solidarity and support to the victims of th[e] brutality [in Lebanon and Palestine] and to those who mount a resistance against it”
The gist of the statement is that no matter how fundamentalist and sectarian someone is, they have the right to resist oppression.
Tariq Ali, one of the signatories, 9 years later would argue that in order to defeat ISIS,
“[Y]ou should be fighting side by side with Assad and the Russians . . . that’s the logic.”
In other words, we must join hands with other imperialists and mass murders to . . . fight imperialism. He went on to assert that
“This notion that there is a liberal third force is nonsense… 70,000 people collected together by the CIA, no, it’s not true, it’s a lie”
They just don’t exist, it’s a Muslim country after all!
Another signatory, Lindsay German, later went on to assert in 2015 that
“[T]he majority of the so-called “rebels” are and always have been foreign invaders and not domestic insurgents . . .”
Another signatory, John Rees—who in 2001 went as far as to argue that “whether or not to oppose imperialism” shouldn’t be premised “on whether or not we find the past or present behaviour of the [opposing] regime to be progressive”—would later insist that any rebel group in Syria that’s demanding arms and money from the West, the Gulf and Turkey shouldn’t be supported by the Left. By that logic, of course, the Spanish Republicans shouldn’t be supported for demanding arms of France. And the same would go for Hezbollah and Hamas who are both funded by Iran and, in the latter case, by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The task of defining Assadism is useful for specific purposes only—such as identifying arguments that legitimate or exonerate Assad’s iron fist rule and crimes. But to even gnaw at what Assadism exactly is, it is necessary to adopt a holistic approach and thus move on to define what conservatism exactly is.
I wish to argue that Assadism is conservatism. It should be clear as day, but this argument should be elucidated. So what is conservatism? If we wish to define it narrowly: conservatism is the ideology of reaction to demands for egalitarianism. Historians of conservatism trace its progeny to the reaction to the events in Revolutionary France that began in 1789—all the way down to opposition to feminism and racial equality. Commonly thought to be conceived by Edmund Burke, conservatism has been embellished and re-produced by thinkers stretching from slaveholder intellectuals such John C. Calhoun to Ayn Rand and Ludwig Von Mises. One would reasonably ask: why would such an impulse—to conserve power in the hands of so few—only “begin” in 1789, much less require original thinkers at each turn? The answer is that by virtue of the fact that conservatism is anideology for defending privilege, it necessarily arose at a time when power had to be established and maintained by consent and hegemony. The baroque ways of domination just didn’t achieve their task anymore. What was different about conservatism was that it constructed ex nihilo “the people” and pitted them against the forces of egalitarianism. “The people” were authentic, pure and facing them were the forces of destabilizing modernity.
The rest of the story is that conservatism is often haunted by its own victories. Once it clings to the levers of power, it sheds its drapes and becomes associated with its eternal core—the preservation of hierarchies of power. Its rhetoric may valourize The People and claim to speak for them against “foreign influences,” but its essence is the enslavement and domination of those who are neither of the aristocracy or the bourgeoise.
Which brings us to the question: what is the significance of this to Assadism?
Assad increasingly appears to be re-monopolizing power. Regardless if they’re true, one common trope we’ve heard is that Assad is the only one who stands between barbarism and secularism. Sectarian division—he has so carefully germinated—is adopted as a primary lens, to interpret the revolutionary processes, not struggle for class or political equality
“With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class.”—John C. Calhoun
“He’s a moderate and was only provoked.”
“But [French revolutionaries,] who began with refusing to submit to the most moderate restraints, have ended by establishing an unheard-of despotism.”—Edmund Burke, Reflections On The French Revolution
And so on and so forth. Conservatives have historically branded themselves as the last bulwarks of order against the chaos self-government. Moderation against the fanaticism of the guillotine, or the “headchoppers.”
But this is all coming unstuck. Consider the dilemma: despite his defenders’ denial of his crimes against fleeing civilians, none of them have found an argument against one stark fact: civilians are being evacuated. They will doubt the existence of a 7-year old girl with Twitter account in Aleppo, they will scrutinize activists who can speak English and have internet connection (the crime!) they will doubt the veracity of human rights organizations’ reports on his crimes, they can claim that the White Helmets are in bed in Al-Qaeda/funded by shady organizations in the West but they won’t ever deny the fact that ethnic cleansing is in fact occurring. That is not a paradox. The defence of hierarchy by any means is the essence of conservatism. To deny that displacement is occurring is to deny the legitimacy of Assad’s rule.
Considering the fact that many on the Left and the Right share almost the same exact opinions of Assad and Putin today, it may not be a coincidence that conservatism was born of the same womb—Revolutionary France—that gave us the categories “Right” and “Left.” Perhaps a rearrangement is in order.
As half a million souls have evaporated into smoke, largely at the hands of the Assad regime, Max Blumenthal instructs his readers to be suspicious of the organizations dedicated to putting a lid on the suffering.
He performs this by making a few salient points about the problematic nature of NGOization, funding channels and influence of big powers which tend to haunt aid organizations everywhere, particularly those operating in desperate situations. He goes on to point out that those organizations are toeing the line of Washington’s foreign policy elites who are calling for an NFZ in order to overthrow the regime. Of course, one needn’t wonder if maybe, just maybe, the countless barrel bombs, cluster bombs, chlorine bombs, thermite bombs and bunker busters may have anything to do with compelling one to calling for an NFZ.
I don’t have to rehearse the criticism made but you can read Scott Lucas’ forceful rebuttal to his piece here and others’ here.
What I’m interested in what went on in his head before he sharpened his pencils. What is the purpose of transforming aid organizations during the time of war and genocide into objects of scrutiny and suspicion? Who does that serve?
The task is made difficult once one recalls that Blumenthal, after all, used to be one of us—that is, on the side of Syria’s democrats and revolutionaries. In 2012, he resigned from al-Akhbar over what he called the “newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency”, pointing out that:
“Yet the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a “frontline resisting state,” as Ghorayeb has sought to paint him. Nor does it offer any legitimate grounds for nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, blaming the victims of his regime, or hyping the Muslim Threat Factor to delegitimize the internal opposition . . . Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria . . .In joining the Assad regime’s campaign to delegitimize the Syrian opposition by casting it as a bunch of irrational jihadis (ironically, they seem to have little problem with Hezbollah’s core Islamist values), Assad’s apologists have unwittingly adopted the “war on terror” lexicon introduced by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the neocon cabal after 9-11. Not only have they invoked the scary specter of The Terrorists (gasp!) to justify morally indefensible acts of violent repression . . . “
What bothers Blumenthal today isn’t the somewhat common silence or apologia for Assad and Putin in alt-journalism and left-wing circles, nor is it the ongoing intervention of Russia, Iran and sectarian militias on behalf of a brutal regime. What bothers him is a hypothetical regime change operation undertaken by the United States. These are classic, even caricatural, tropes that he railed against not too long ago.
Enquiring minds wish to know: how can someone who has stood on the side of justice consistently suddenly barbarize themselves this quickly?
“The great Indian disaster of 1947 has barely entered the public consciousness. Distance, and a sense of helplessness, presumably account nowadays for this seeming indifference, just as they account for the relative calm that greets the news from Nigeria. What can one do about it, and who cares about dead African babies anyway? Certainly not the New Left: its leaders have not uttered a sound on the subject. But then there is no political mileage to be got out of a conflict which opposes Africans (with some foreign backing) to each other. As for morality, we all know by now what the Realpolitiker of the New Left (not to mention the Old Right) think of such sickly bourgeois sentiments.”—George Lichtheim
If it has been said that the institution of slavery is war and can only be defeated by war, the same can be said about the Assad regime. No serious observer thinks that Assad will cede an inch of power to the opposition without military defeat or threat. The regime has made up its mind about a Final Solution a long time ago. “Assad or we burn the country” as a pro-regime graffiti encapsulates the logic.
Blumenthal is forcefully aware of all of this. In fact, he’s written about it and has likely concluded that the war of extermination will continue unabated unless there’s some limited form of foreign intervention.
But he’s grown torn between maintaining an internationalist commitment to Syrian democrats and the fear of being in the bad company of neocons. It’s clear that Blumenthal simply sees no other way—or lacks the confidence to do so—to appear to be in such bad company without compromising himself morally.
Knowing this, he inserts his head and hands into the pillory. Thinking to himself that only by earning the scorn of neoconseratives—whom he could represent as the spear of the backlash—can he turn himself into a victim deserving commiseration and, in his mind, self-exoneration from the guilt of silence. And here’s something he could really believe in. But what he doesn’t know is that in the process he has doubly compromised himself by turning the figure of the neocon into a straw man that can be hung over the head of the defenceless and their advocates in the West.
Hence why I don’t think what he wrote is journalism. It’s an exercise in a sort of secularized Catholic penance for the white man’s burden. In other words, he has contrived an all-too solipsistic performance of self-flaeggelation that has effectively shut Syrians’ voices out, hence why he didn’t interview a single Syrian for his piece. The issue isn’t what Syrians think, the issue is that John McCain happens to agree with some of their demands.
Blumenthal wants to have it both ways. He, and his contemporaries, think they can sustain a politics of Realpolitik while avoiding the impression that they are callous. He wants to maintain the commitment of refusing a compromise with U.S. imperialism in a world far from ideal (such virtue! such courage!) while avoiding an uneasy conscience. Why call for some form of limited intervention when it can fail and perhaps haunt your career forever? After all, it’s only dead Syrians.
“I was right to be wrong, while you and your kind were wrong to be right”—Pierre Coutrade
But he sees a bigger payoff with what he’s written. He’s banking on the likelihood that sooner or later the United States and its European allies will intervene to put a halt to the carnage that is tearing not just the Middle-East apart, but at the very fabric of European democracy. In other words, he wants the United States to intervene.
That is the only way he can be redeemed for what he wrote. And when that happens, he’d like to be there to tell us that despite his Machiavellian cynicism that was fiercely criticized, he was right all along. He has crucified himself on the cross, and like the Christ’s body, he carries within him the prospect of redemption. In his mind, he may be wrong but he’s wrong for the right reasons.
It is worth noting that Christopher Hitchens took such a gamble too when he decided to support the invasion of Iraq—betraying his own principles and friends in the process. Like Hitchens, he carries a violently contemptuous attitude towards his former comrades whom he derides for their naïveté, principle and “idealism.” Despite adopting the symbols of liberation and inverting the signs, Hitchens after all still considered himself a leftist, even a Marxist, as late as 2010. Because isn’t that an effective prophylactic against an uneasy conscience?
By attacking the only groups and individuals who are committed to the protection of civilians in Syria, Blumenthal has found a target to sublimate and project what he called his “anguish” at the carnival of apologia and conspicuous silence from those on the Left After all, we—those who stress political and arms support for Syria’s democrats—have been fighting a lost battle for the hearts and minds of progressives in the West. Not knowing how to help without committing the Great Apostasy of demanding that the liberal democracies pull their weight around Syria’s democrats, Blumenthal has come to be tired of the despair and discomfort of calling for help from the imperium—who wouldn’t? What he wants instead is to make sense of it all. He wants to give his life and its place in History meaning.
That’s why he thinks it’s 2003. Those were simpler times, when the world was divided between the Good and the Neocon. When opposing your government’s war assured you immunity from moral conundrums. And if you buy the thesis that history does indeed repeat itself, you can avoid ruminating on the constantly terrifying novelty of the present.
Shorn of all substance, all that remains is the affect and optics of interrogating imperialism. But if you look past the optics, you realize that the ontology at play remains deeply entrenched in a colonial unconscious. “We are the prime movers of History” is a fairly therapeutic thought amidst the chaos.