A Disquieting Suggestion

Precedents of cruelty can rarely, if ever, be left in the past. This psychodynamic is a rule in any relationship that’s presumably based on mutual trust. “The past never dies,” as Faulkner would remind us. Humans are hardwired to believe that if something has occurred once, it likely will happen again.

But how does this rule apply to large subsets of individuals? Particularly for a group of organized individuals who define their existence as one of a Promethean toiling for definite egalitarianism in every social and economic domain, i.e. the historic project of the Left. What happens when large segments of this group engage in widespread apologia for terror and murder? That is in fact what has happened over the past decade. Yet this transgression of values and principles for which the Left stands receives virtually no comment from its own intelligentsia.

After all, the spectacle of seeing comrades come to barbarize themselves in apologia for terror is a perturbing one. We marched with those people, organized with them and thought with them, only to see them go down in the flames of self-inflicted indignity. How does one deal with this fact? Some have dealt with it by unambiguous condemnation yet most have simply decided to look away from this unseemly sight. Why is that?

Analogizing this with another nation of strangers, France, is instrumental. As Eugene Weber argued, France had to stand for Patrie, as well as Progress, to transform its peasants into Frenchmen. Likewise, the Left had to stand for the universal emancipation of mankind and internationalism in order to transform an army of thick-skulled syndicalists, merely utopian pamphleteers and chauvinistic union organizers into socialists and communists. This is where both the Left and France draw most of their historic larger-than-life quality in the public’s imagination.

What happens when those values for which those groups stand for comes to clash with reality? A decade after the French State had ruthlessly massacred thousands of its own citizens in the streets of Paris during an uprising, Ernst Renan noted that, “Forgetting . . . is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”

That, I believe, accounts for the conspicuous lack of engagement with the question of Left-wing apologia for terror on the part of leftist public intellectuals. The Left, after all, isn’t above history. Like every other nation or group, there’s a degree of trust and loyalty that must be safeguarded among its members. The more Left public intellectuals engage with this question, and the more leftists acknowledge the great crime of betrayal committed against Syrian leftists and democrats, the more difficult it will be to imagine a Left at all. If your comrades have betrayed leftists on the other side of the globe, what makes one think they won’t betray you? This must be brushed aside. In a strange reversal of Robespierre’s maxim, “The King must die so that the country can live,” Syrians and what has been said about them in the name of the Left must be forgotten in order for the Left to live. Without perceived loyalty and trust in the cadres, so to speak, the historic project of the Left and its raison d’etre is no more.

A reckoning may not bring redemption, but destruction, so the logic goes. And that may well all be correct. Yet that one too many Left public intellectuals think this actually will work should give us all pause on the question of whether the Left will continue exist. 

 

The Permutations of Assadism

Splintered Eye

The history of the past century is littered with episodes of anthropogenic evil: Armenia, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. In their aftermaths, reverberated the collective riposte of “never again.” Only to be followed by Syria, awaiting its eventual transcription into modernity’s catalog of barbarism.

Seven years in the making, the internecine conflict has mutated into nothing short of a global catastrophe: culminating in the worst humanitarian tragedy of the postwar period, spawning a refugee crisis of unparalleled proportions, and fermenting a belligerent sectarianism where ‘disaster Islamism’ wound up thriving. As the world looked on in horror and outrage, it simultaneously resigned itself to the conclusion that the Syrian byzantine precluded any objective extrapolation; that it is far too “complicated” to acquire neutral information is invoked with almost chronic exhortation.

A sub-thread to this sophism of withdrawal is a rancid Assadist discourse that has colonized debate in radical circles…

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Stop pretending that you can’t do anything to save Syrians

This open letter was first published at the New York Review of Books.

The UN says it has run out of words on Syria, but we, the undersigned, still have some for the governments, parliamentarians, electorates and opinion leaders of the powers on whom the international legal order has hitherto depended.

The world is a bystander to the carnage that has ravaged the lives of Syrians. All has happened in full view of a global audience that sees everything but refuses to act.

Through Russian obstruction and western irresolution, the UN Security Council has failed to protect Syrians. To the extent that it has been able to pass resolutions, they have proved ineffectual. All they have done is provide a fig leaf to an institution that appears moribund. Perhaps conscious of the stain this might leave on its legacy, the UN has even stopped counting Syria’s dead. After seven years, these nations appear united only in their apathy.

It will be redundant to list the nature and magnitude of all the crimes that the Assad regime has committed against Syrians, aided by local and foreign militias, by Iranian strategic and financial aid, by Russian airpower and mercenaries—and by international indifference. The world that watched and averted its eyes is its passive enabler.

Syrians were shot and killed in broad daylight for protesting injustice. They were imprisoned, tortured and executed. They were bombed and shelled. They were besieged, raped and humiliated. They were gassed. They were Adisplaced and dispossessed.

Continue reading “Stop pretending that you can’t do anything to save Syrians”

Hope: two new books

the-hope-store-okitaIt just so happens that two friends of mine have new books out on hope — one fiction, one nonfiction. And both are doing readings in Chicago this month:

The Hope Store, by Dwight Okita

Book launch at Women & Children First, Thursday January 11 at 7:30 pm

Two Asian American friends, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next no one could have predicted. Meanwhile an activist group called the Natural Hopers emerges, warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store.

 

We: Reviving Social Hope, by Ronald Aronson

Reading at The Book Cellar, Saturday January 20 at 6:00 pm

The election of Donald Trump has exposed American society’s profound crisis of hope. By 2016 a generation of shrinking employment, rising inequality, the attack on public education, and the shredding of the social safety net, had set the stage for stunning insurgencies at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Against this dire background, Ronald Aronson offers an answer. He argues for a unique conception of social hope, one with the power for understanding and acting upon the present situation. Hope, he argues, is far more than a mood or feeling—it is the very basis of social will and political action. It is this kind of hope that Aronson sees brewing in the supporters of Bernie Sanders, who advocated the tough-minded and inspired disposition to act collectively to make the world more equal, more democratic, more peaceful, and more just.  And it was directly contrasted by Trump’s supporters who showed a cynical and nostalgic faith in an authoritarian strongman replete with bigotry and misogyny.

Beneath today’s crisis Aronson examines our heartbreaking story: a century of catastrophic violence and the bewildering ambiguity of progress—all of which have contributed to the evaporation of social hope. As he shows, we are now in a time when hope is increasingly privatized, when—despite all the ways we are connected to each other—we are desperately alone, struggling to weather the maelstrom around us, demoralized by the cynicism that permeates our culture and politics, and burdened with finding personal solutions to social problems.

Yet, Aronson argues, even at a time when false hopes are rife, social hope still persists. Carefully exploring what we mean when we say we “hope” and teasing hope apart from its dangerously misconstrued sibling, “progress,” he locates seeds of real change. He argues that always underlying our experience—even if we completely ignore it—is the fact of our social belonging, and that this can be reactivated into a powerful collective force, an active we. He looks to various political movements, from the massive collective force of environmentalists to the movements around Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, as powerful examples of socially energized, politically determined, and actionably engaged forms of hope. Even in this age of Donald Trump, the result is an illuminating and inspiring call that anyone can clearly hear: we can still create a better future for everyone, but only if we resist false hopes and act together.

 

On The Astonishment That Nazis Can “Still” Have Taste

Evelyn Waugh, on a visit to Germany in 1933 shortly after the boycott of Jewish businesses, wrote: “I had come across antisemitism in Eastern Europe before, but I thought racial persecution belonged to another age. Half-civilized peoples might still indulge in it but surely not the Germany I had known.”

 

Waugh’s inability to amputate the image of the exceeding greatness of the German kulturnation from the barbarism it could thus deport itself to was by no means uncharacteristic of his age, nor, apparently, ours. Consider the New York Times article in which its author is too incapacitated in his fascination with a self-described white nationalist’ highbrow cultural tastes and lifestyle (he watches Seinfeld!) to aptly represent the danger that his subject poses. The New York Times’ decision to publish it—if the institution is to be taken as a yardstick for enlightened opinion—suggests that the intellectual class, or at least a fraction of it, is no longer able to imagine, along with George Steiner, that we “now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”

 

It’s not incidental that no other killing field can compete with symbolic resonance of the Nazis’ concentration camps in the postwar moral economy. For Tony Judt, National Socialism’s ultimate demonic status serves “a rather distinctive reminder—or a distinctive warning—of what happens when the patina cracks . . . civil society, public life, open political systems and the forms of behavior they encourage and on which they depend, are all paper-thin constructions. They are all more fragile than it suits us to believe.” Judt here is arguing in an idiosyncratically Benjaminian spirit in tangible terms. That which appears as progress—and that cultivation which Fauccet and Waugh are disarmed by in fascists’ tastes contra their monstrous beliefs—is in fact the storm that drives the Angel of History “irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.”

The Nazis’ uniqueness was in their ability to successfully conceal their true nature behind the sheen of Progress to a public easily astonished by Speer’s grandiose architecture and august Wagner symphonies. At any rate, we came to see that our prewar narcissistic obsession with the modern, civilized and sophisticated causes one to be too disoriented to suspect that the civilizing mission may perhaps be a pretence for something sinister—the bread and butter of colonialism’s stated historic mission and moral valence. Hitler’s crimes occurred in the house next door. Not against faceless peasants in the Congo or the Soviet Union, but against a key, though problematic, component of Western civilization: European Jewry. This time, as Philip Lopate pointed out, it was “gentle, scholarly, middle-class, civilized people who are then packed into cattle cars . . . images of Jews lined up in their fedoras and overcoats tug at our hearts precisely because we see them as individuals.” Civilization was not a guarantee against barbarism, neither at home nor abroad.

This somewhat commonplace realization and its impingement on Europeans’ conscience in the post-war era necessitated the popularization of that now-familiar epoch-defining Herculean-pledge—“Never Again.” Lest it loses its moral valence, it had to be universalized. Atrocities at the edges of Europe and beyond were rendered more or less visible. The entire affair of memorializing genocide—be it that of the Armenian genocide or Stalin’s Gulags—wasn’t a reality before the aftermath of the Shoah. When Europeans had learned that, in Steiner’s words, “the high places of literacy, of philosophy, of artistic expression, became the setting for Belsen,” the crimes their states were committing against Non-Europeans were too unbearable to imagine. As Jeremy Rifkin noted, the developed postwar societies saw “the greatest single empathic surge in history . . . When we say to civilize, we mean to empathize.” This is a key paradigmatic shift which has facilitated de-colonization and the ascent of human rights discourse in the West. The Holocaust’s capacity to solidify this paradigmatic shift, for Judt, was in its ability to capture “something for which we lack a modern vocabulary, but which lies at the heart of our recent past and thus our present inheritance. That something is the idea of evil.”

That something seems to be an anachronism today and it can be attested to in the nation’s “paper of record.”

‘We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled’ — a reading

Our friend Stanley Heller has recorded this excellent reading by Wendy Pearlman of her classic-in-the-making book We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled. The event was introduced by Molly Crabapple and the reading was followed by a discussion between the two.

Did a Kremlin Pilgrimage cause Alternet blogger’s Damascene conversion?

A blogger who once supported the Syrian revolution has reinvented himself as an advocate for Bashar al Assad. Did his pilgrimage to Moscow occasion this conversion?

by Sam Charles Hamad and Oz Katerji

Last March, a live performance in support of Syrian first responders by a flashmob orchestra at New York’s Grand Central Station was physically disrupted by a group of six protesters. Within hours, the video of the disruption was uploaded to social media and promoted by an RT employee. Max Blumenthal, a blogger at Alternet, soon released documents that suggested the performance was organized by a pro-Syrian campaign group. In characteristic inversion of reality, RT billed the disruption as a triumph for “anti-war” direct action.

Three participants in the protest have so far been identified: all have links to RT, the Russian state-funded propaganda network now under investigation by the U.S. government for its alleged interference in the last presidential election. Alexander Rubinstein, the man who filmed the protest, is an RT employee, and Taryn Fivek and Sara Flounders, the two protesters, are RT contributors. Blumenthal, who amplified the story, is also a regular on RT.

Fivek was an officer with the International Organization for Migration until she was found to have used the pseudonym Emma Quangel on Twitter to cheer Russia’s actions in Syria and mock civilian suffering. Flounders, a steering committee member of the pro-Assad Syria Solidarity Movement, has graduated from denying Serb atrocities in Bosnia to denying Assad regime atrocities in Syria. Both have limited influence.  It is Blumenthal who with Alternet has created an effective beachhead in the US for Kremlin propaganda.

Things were not always thus. In 2012, Blumenthal had publicly resigned as a columnist from the pro-Assad Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, citing as his reason the paper’s publishing of cheerleaders who blamed Assad’s victims and maligned critical journalists. He likened their behavior to that of Israel’s apologists. Blumenthal has now dramatically resurrected himself as an apologist for Assad, a scourge of critical journalists, and a mirror image—by his own logic—of Israel’s apologists.

What happened in between to occasion this dramatic reversal?  Continue reading “Did a Kremlin Pilgrimage cause Alternet blogger’s Damascene conversion?”

Trump’s new war plan is an awful lot like the old one

Capture

The Trump administration has a new plan for the war in Syria, Spencer Ackerman reports for The Daily Beast, and it’s the same as the old one: bomb the hell out of the Islamic State and other extremists while not just leaving the greatest purveyor of violence there alone, but treating it as a de facto partner.

This is, for those following along, broadly the same plan that the previous U.S. administration pursued. Despite the Assad regime crossing President Barack Obama’s self-imposed “red line” in 2013, it wasn’t until a year later that the U.S. bombs began falling on the Islamic State and other extremists. The hereditary dictator and his forces were spared, and not for a lack of humanitarian justification, but because U.S. foreign policy elites had long before decided that a change in regime posed the greatest threat to perceived U.S. interests.

Leftists who embraced realists’ perverted version of anti-imperialism — support for dictators in the name of stability, not just when threatened by Western invasions but in the face of popular uprisings overlooked this thematically inconvenient war on terror and the new president’s repeated desire to escalate it. As late as last fall left-liberal pundits were continuing to gravely warn of a coming war, portraying better informed critics of the regime-change storyline as the warmongers even as they ignored the thousands of U.S. airstrikes those purported warmongers decried. The latter’s crime was decrying Syrian and Russian airstrikes, too, which is well established as the road to World War III.

Continue reading “Trump’s new war plan is an awful lot like the old one”

Reality Leigh Winner: The Whistleblower We Didn’t Want

It’s a story as old as the 21st century: A young NSA contractor with more access to classified information than they probably should have had leaks that information to the press, believing the public has a right to know that which their elected officials would never allow to see the light of day. That leaker’s identity is then revealed, the idealistic millennial facing a loss of liberty for doing that which they believed was a civic duty.

“In any other circumstances this would be an earthquake,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

But this story is missing that next crucial step: the leaker being lauded — controversially, but nonetheless — for their courage and assigned the label “whistleblower” by those who typically defend such people. Reality Leigh Winner is not Edward Snowden, it seems, outside of the bipartisan condemnation both have received (McCaskill herself condemned the leak, while right-wing media declares Winner a traitor). And while it’s still early, it appears this NSA contractor, who leaked a report documenting Russian efforts to hack local U.S. election officials, won’t be getting the book-and-a-movie hero treatment.

Winner, 25, was arrested June 6 just hours after The Intercept published a story on a top-secret NSA report it obtained detailing alleged efforts by Russian military intelligence to hack “a U.S. voting software supplier and more than 100 local election officials in the days before voters went to the polls” in November 2016, per The Washington Post.

“I think they’re going to try to make an example out of her because of the political climate right now,” said Reality’s father, Billie Winner-Davis.

 

That the Russian government was, allegedly, attempting to tamper with the infrastructure of the 2016 election itself — beyond just deploying “active measures” like selective leaks and partisan disinformation — wasn’t itself breaking news. It was reported last year that the FBI had spotted attempts to compromise voter registration databases, with U.S. intelligence officials attributing the intrusions to Moscow. But as Bloomberg added reported on June 13, the cyberattacks were “far more widespread” than publicly revealed, affecting “a total of 39 states.”

That’s a big revelation, “buttressed by a classified National Security Agency document recently disclosed by the Intercept.” Winner apparently believed the U.S. public has a right to know if the integrity of its elections has been compromised by a foreign government at a time when the campaign of a U.S. president — who rejects charges of Russian interference in the election as “fake news” from sore-loser Democrats — is being investigated for possibly colluding with that government.

But it’s not just Trump and his reactionary allies who suspect this Russia stuff is fake news.

As ABC News noted, on the March 22 edition of The Intercept’s podcast, Intercepted, founding editor Jeremy Scahill discussed “tremendous amount of hysterics” and “premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia stuff.”

“We still haven’t seen any evidence for it,” commented Glenn Greenwald, another founding editor.

We don’t know if Winner listened to that particular episode, but according to the federal complaint, she leaked the NSA report on Russian hacking, to one of the most prominently skeptical outlets, after emailing The Intercept and requesting “transcripts of a podcast.” (Scahill and Greenwald confirmed the FBI’s assertion that transcripts were requested, but said it was for another episode, with the former expanding on that in another podcast, calling her treatment “horrid”).

It makes sense that a woman with access to top-secret evidence of Russian electoral interference might think that evidence would be buried, given who is president, and a desire to share that evidence with the still-skeptical would explain Winner’s alleged decision to go to The Intercept and not a major newspaper.

But that lingering skepticism also explains why Winner is no hero — no Snowden — in the eyes of the skeptics. When the story first broke, Scahill, for example, stressed the need for caution, highlighting a section of The Intercept’s story noting the leaked report “does not show the underlying ‘raw’ intelligence on which the analysis is based.” Greenwald, likewise, said that while journalism “requires that document be published… Rationality requires it be read skeptically.”

“If the NSA asserts something, that’s proof enough for me,” he added, sarcastically, referring to the leaked report on Russia — skepticism not apparent with respect to NSA PowerPoint presentations on the agency’s surveillance capabilities. “They never lie or err[.] Rationality is about blind belief in official conclusions.”

Since Winner’s indictment, both Greenwald and Scahill have largely kept quiet on the matter. The outlet itself did respond in a June 6 statement, however, saying it had “no knowledge of the identity of the person who provided us with the document” (the government claims Winner was identified as the leaker after an Intercept reporter shared the NSA document with an intelligence official, revealing that it had been printed out).

On June 13, Greenwald and Schahill broke their silence, revealing that while their colleagues have been limited in what they can say, “We do not face these same constraints.” They then go on to identify several victims of Trump’s Department of Justice: themselves. Reporters, they wrote, had accepted “unproven FBI claims in a contested criminal case as Truth,” though in doing so they confirmed the FBI’s widely reported claim: that someone “appeared to request transcripts of a podcast” (it was ABC, not the FBI, that suggested one of those transcripts may have been for the episode in which the two discussed “all of this Russia stuff”).

Missing from the statement, which comments directly on the FBI’s alleged chain of events, is any comment on the FBI’s arrest (and the Trump Department of Justice’s detention) of an alleged NSA leaker. That’s a curious omission given that, by their own admission, there are no constraints on what they can say, or what emergency defense funds they can publicize.

Given the void, one is left with speculation: that a commentator like Greenwald, who believes there’s a “deep state,” “military-industrial complex” “war” against a “duly elected” president — fought with weaponized leaks about things the president and his staff have said and done, centering on this Russia stuff — is perhaps not convinced this deep state-adjacent leaker is a whistleblower at all.

What’s important for readers to know, to The Intercept’s founding editors, is that their publication’s alleged source was not motivated by their Russia skepticism, or at least not spurred by the transcript of one recorded expression of it. What’s conspicuously lacking is that express solidarity with a woman — source or not — who is accused of, and facing prison time for, releasing a report that revealed no raw intelligence or intelligence-gathering methods but demonstrated, for the skeptics, that at least the U.S. intelligence community’s internal assessments track with its public statements.

But that, again, may be unwelcome for those who have devoted a year to a nothing-to-see-here line. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who fled Sweden after being accused of sexual assault, hinted at that conflict when he nonetheless declared that, “Alleged NSA whistleblower Reality Leigh Winner must be supported.”

“It doesn’t matter why she did it,” he added, “or the quality [of] the report.”

To some it does. Liberal activist David Swanson, for instance, was skeptical Winner’s alleged revelations would convince any skeptics. “Hey, @theintercept, you want proof? I’ve got your . . . um, vague evidence-free ‘assessments.’ Take that!” Winner, as some see it, risked and lost her liberty to leak a report that — the NSA internally lying to itself, presumably in the hopes a leak would happen — only furthers a deep-state push for a new Cold War.

Evan Greer, a campaigner with the group Fight for the Future, believes something else may be at play. “There is something extremely gendered about the way Reality Leigh Winner has been treated by the media and public vs. Edward Snowden,” she posted on Twitter. While many are focused on blame or exculpation for her arrest, “where’s the [conversation] about how Reality is brave as fuck [and] took a tremendous risk to expose something she thought the public needed to know?”

That conversation has been buried before it could begin by those with the platforms capable of starting it. In these times, we not only need more whistleblowers, but a new and better commitment to defending them, not waiting for the pundits once on the front lines to lead the charge again. Young idealists can do more than just leak what older generations wish to hide; they can and will lead the fights to which others, for reasons of dated ideology or ego, are unwilling to contribute.

They seem to get that.

“To hold a citizen incommunicado and indefinitely while awaiting trial for the alleged crime of serving as a journalistic source should outrage us all,” said Edward Snowden, 33, in a statement that was ignored by those to whom he leaked.

Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles, California.