Dancing in Damascus

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This review of miriam cooke’s new book was published at the Guardian.

Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?

“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.

Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.

Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.

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“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”

As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.

Explicit representations of “brute physicality and raw emotion”, from mobile phone footage to Samar Yazbek’s literary reportage, soon gave way to formal experimentation. Notable examples include “Death is Hard Work”, Khaled Khalifa’s Faulknerian novel of a deferred burial, the ‘bullet films’ of the Abounaddara Collective, and Azza Hamwi’s ironic short “Art of Surviving”, about a man who turns spent ordinance into heaters, telephones, even a toilet. “We didn’t paint it,” he tells the camera, “so it stays as it arrived from Russia especially for the Syrian people.”

This section also covers full-length films such as “Return to Homs”, which follows the transformation of Abdul-Basit Sarut from star goalkeeper to protest leader to resistance fighter.

Cooke’s consideration of the role of social media is better informed than the somewhat superficial journalistic takes on the cyber aspects of the Arab Spring which filled commentary in 2011. The internet provides activists anonymity and therefore relative safety. It also offers a space in which to display and preserve art, even while Syria’s physical heritage, from Aleppo’s mosques to Palmyra’s temples, is demolished by regime bombs and jihadist vandalism. Online gallery sites archive the uprising’s creative breadth and complexity. One such is the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, whose multimedia approach sometimes “connects specific elements within each genre to produce a film about the process of painting that responds to music.”

Certain digital images ‘aestheticise’ sites of destruction in order to both lament and humanise the war. The best known are works by Tammam Azzam which superimpose Klimt’s “The Kiss” on a crumbling residential block, Matisse’s circle dancers against a rubble-strewn street, and Gaugin’s Tahitian women on a refugee camp.

A section on arts produced in exile examines refugee theatre created in the youth centres of camps and urban slums. Via Skype, a cross-border Shakespeare production played by Syrian children cast Romeo in Jordan and Juliette in Homs. The performance was completed despite bombs, snipers and frequent communication cuts. The play’s conclusion was optimistically adapted. The doomed lovers threw away their poison and declared, “Enough blood! Why are you killing us? We want to live like the rest of the world!”

Through ‘applied theatre’ techniques women performed Euripides’ “Trojan Women” and so found a way to talk about the regime’s mass rape campaign. Director Yasmin Fedda incorporated the rehearsals into her prize-winning documentary “Queens of Syria”.

Of course, “Dancing in Damascus” doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s nothing on hip hop or several other important genres. The book tends to concentrate on ‘high art’ rather than the arguably more significant bottom-up production. Yet, with admirable concision and fluency, it assists what journalist Ammar al-Mamoun calls “an alternative revolutionary narrative to contest the media stories of Syrian refugees and victims”. It shows how, despite everything thrown at it, the revolution has democratised moral authority, turning artist-activists into the Arab world’s new “organic intellectuals”. As such it is an indispensable corrective to accounts which erase the Syrian people’s agency in favour of grand and often inaccurate geo-political representations. Beyond Syrian specifics, it is a testament to the essential role of culture anywhere in times of crisis.

2084: The Recurring Liberal Apocalypse

2084This was first published at the National.

The true subject of science fiction is always the present. Its imagined futures are mirrors to today’s hopes and fears. George Orwell’s “1984” simply shifted the numbers of the year in which he wrote the book – 1948 – and made a metaphor of that time’s dark politics. Likewise “2084”, the latest from Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, is addressed to, and in some way is part of, very contemporary woes.

Sansal lays out a fantastically detailed dystopia in complex and often elegant prose. After the Great Holy War killed hundreds of millions, an absolutist theocracy has been founded by Abi the Delegate, servant of the god Yolah. Abi’s rule is secured by such institutions as the Apparatus and the Ministry of Moral Health, and displayed by frequent mass slaughters of heretics in stadia built for the purpose. The nine daily prayers are compulsory. Women must cloak themselves in thick ‘burniqabs’.

Dissent, individuality, and progress have been abolished. The future must be a strict replica of the past. All languages are banned save the state-invented ‘Abilang’.

Ati, the story’s vague hero, is sent to a sanatorium in the mountains to cure his tuberculosis. Here he hears rumours of a nearby border, a limit to Abi’s reign. The notion “that the world might be divided, divisible, and humankind might be multiple” sparks a crisis of doubt in him, and then a journey of discovery.

At times “2084” suffers from science fiction’s most common pitfall: an unwieldy listing of technical or political information describing the imagined world outweighs and obscures the necessary human information. Sansal’s characters are somewhat two-dimensional, and the plot can seem almost accidental.

It is best, therefore, not to read this as a conventional novel but as a mix of satire, fable, and polemic.

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Glenn Greenwald Sides with the Deep State on Trump and Russia

When it was a race between a middling neoliberal and a neofascist buffoon, the way a certain sort of leftist with a social media presence chose to demonstrate their enviable, contrarian wisdom was to deride the former — while not endorsing the latter, mind you, but — for engaging in McCarthyist “red-baiting” against a right-wing authoritarian. It was accepted as self-evidently false, and laughably so, that the right-wing authoritarian in Moscow would seek to swing the U.S. election to an ally. Those positing that there was, in fact, something to the claim that the Russian state hacked the DNC (and selectively leaked what it found on behalf of the new Republican president) were either naively or cynically falling for a line put forward by shadowy and unelected Deep State operatives; leave it to liberals, the savvy leftist blogged, to find a way to side with the establishment against a billionaire.

Donald J. Trump defeating Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College, if not the popular vote, presented a new challenge: How to continue shitting on liberals as the most problematic threat, post November 8, at a time when an unhinged billionaire is about to get the nuclear launch codes? Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept’s approach: Keep acting like the (U.S.) Deep State that couldn’t stop Trump’s win is — I’m no supporter, but — seeking to undermine the legitimacy of a democratically elected leader, as (don’t you know) it’s done many times before, abroad. In this telling, news of Russian intervention continues to be self-evidently #FakeNews pushed by a media elite with known ties to The Agency, and the take serves a dual function: validating the absurd nonsense pushed during the election by Greenwald and his quasi-left fellow travelers, from Rania Khalek to Michael Tracey, that Trump was, relative to Killary, the candidate of peace — the man who, say what you will, didn’t want to start World War III on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Key to the argument that Trump is Salvador Allende and liberals (eyeroll) are being liberals (spit) by noting the CIA’s assessment Russia intervened in the U.S. election on the new president’s behalf is: ignoring the fact that 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI believe it did too, disagreement coming only on the question of whether the obviously selective leaks that had an obviously partisan impact were explicitly designed to help the man that, as one Russian communist told me, the entire Russian state media was promoting as the globe’s salvation. Greenwald, for instance, along with the boys of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, have long posited that there’s nothing to this hacking stuff; “neither the FBI nor the CIA is on board, at least publicly” blogger Ben Norton wrote last summer, lamenting coverage of the “Russia Hack Conspiracy.”

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In Defence of Assaulting Fascists

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“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 of European 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.

Culture and Imperialism

A version of this first appeared in The National.

During the Cold War there was an attempt by both major powers to instrumentalise art as a means of ideological domination. The artistic landscape was fraught with political landmines. Artists had to navigate this terrain with caution. Some became willing instruments of policy, some were coerced into it, some made expedient compromises—but many were snared unwittingly.

The eastern bloc’s means of control were explicit, hence better known. They were exemplified in the persecution, fear, and exile suffered by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mendelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They have also been fictionalized in popular films like Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.

Less known however are the means that the ‘free world’ used to engineer a favourable intellectual climate. Decidedly more tolerant of dissent than its eastern counterpart, the west developed a system of rewards and exclusion to amplify favourable voices and marginalise critical ones.

This vast apparatus was orchestrated and conducted by the analytical wing of the CIA, which in its halcyon days relied on Ivy League recruits, often with backgrounds in the humanities. Erudite and urbane, these recruits were seen as the ideal candidates to erode the seductive appeal of Soviet communism. They could counteract it through a strong anti-communist line that emphasized the western ideals of freedom and openness.

finks_cvfFinks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers is Joel Whitney’s riveting account of the CIA’s machinations to enlist some of the world’s leading writers in this ideological contest. Part literary history, part investigative journalism, the book unravels hitherto unknown details about the CIA’s vast cultural offensive.

Whitney’s story pivots around The Paris Review, a highly regarded literary publications best know for its series of interviews with literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Vladimir Nabokov, and fiction and poetry from the likes of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, V.S. Naipaul and Philip Roth.

But in 1953 when it was launched, one of The Paris Review’s three co-founders, the novelist Peter Mathiessen, was working for the CIA and using the magazine as cover. George Plimpton, the Review’s other co-founder, was also aware that the magazine’s benefactor, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), was heavily funded the by the CIA. The CCF sustained The Paris Review by mass purchasing its copies, syndicating its content, and paying extra for material that aligned with Cold War imperatives. The CCF also tried to influence the magazine editorially. This despite the fact that the Paris Review wasn’t even part of the large stable of magazine’s that CCF directly funded and controlled.

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Russia Is Not Iraq (and Neither Was Syria)

With right-wing authoritarians ruling in Moscow and Washington, leftists should find it easy to oppose these evil empires — but some, poisoned by pre-election contrarianism, are too busy what-abouting their evils and conflating legitimate fears of demonstrable collusion with bigoted, liberal hysteria.

“If you look, for example, at the agency that has led the way in pushing these allegations about Russia, which is the CIA…. The CIA was very aggressively in favor of Hillary Clinton’s victory. And there’s a lot of different reasons for that, but I think the primary one is that the CIA proxy war in Syria is something that Hillary Clinton had promised not just to support, but to escalate.”

— Glenn Greenwald on Democracy Now!

One thing  we really ought to sneak up on with a cloth soaked in ether, nudge into a ditch on the side of the trading route and leave behind for dead in 2016 is the notion, pushed by a social media left and libertarian fellow travelers poisoned by brand-conscious contrarianism, that Donald J. Trump — reminder: right-wing authoritarian scumbag — is a victim of liberal McCarthyist red-baiting over his fondness for a kleptocrat in Russia whose intelligence agencies worked as an arm of the Republican billionaire’s opposition research team. And buried with this notion, in a lead-lined coffin incapable of penetration by a WiFi signal, we ought to lay the accompanying dogma that to express concern about this budding geopolitical realignment (and the clear and present evidence that of course the Russian state had an interest in aiding the election of an avowed ally, and indeed did) is the product of a decidedly normie faith in the CIA that — betcha didn’t know — was wrong about Iraq.

One might have thought the alarming spectacle of an actually-going-to-be-president Trump, and his continued, open embrace of a foreign war criminal, would wake the sophists of the left from their intellectual slumber, but paradigms, like Russia as a universally loathed official enemy and Hillary as the next U.S. president, are awful hard to kick. And so the trite response to the unsurprising revelations of the Russian state’s perfectly sensible partisan hacking operations is itself lacking in shock value. This was to be expected from a left that’s only frame of reference appears to the be the 2003 invasion of Iraq, supported by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, and which long ago decided to serve penance for the crimes of the U.S. empire by reflexively countering indictments of others’ crimes with something moderately less rank than outright apologism: increasingly stale reminders that the U.S., also, meddles and bombs.

What’s lacking in the response to Russian intelligence operations — different from the U.S. variety only in that the hacked information was selectively made public — is any attempt at a counter narrative: If not them, then who? No, bumper-sticker leftism requires the centering of the U.S. for the purposes of battle-tested talking points, like: If not us, then who cares? We’ve got plenty for which to atone, mister. It’s a leftism divorced from the trials of reality and the difficulties of grappling with multiple poles of power as they actually exist in a world from which a certain brand of “left” (“pseudo-” if one prefers that to mocking quote marks) has retreated, preferring the smugness of a contrarian subculture and a reactionary (and boring) anti-liberalism with its self-satisfied truisms to truly independent socialist critique.

Another Iran, Not Iraq

The truth is Russia is not Iraq, nor is evidence that Moscow hacked and disseminated information that helped a friend akin to saying Baghdad had WMDs — and neither claim, true or not, could possibly justify U.S. militarism. The claims are dissimilar in another respect: The intelligence in the lead-up to Iraq was manufactured from the top down by political appointees that accused the CIA of housing liberals who just didn’t get that the intelligence its agents had discarded as unreliable or fake could, in fact, be useful to its boss, Dick Cheney. Today, we witness the spectacle of the CIA and the FBI and the NSA all concurring on a matter that President Barack Obama reportedly sought to delay addressing until after Trump’s election, and which (badump) doesn’t ingratiate the intelligence community to the next man that community will call “dad,” and who will have the power to dismantle it.

If there’s a historic parallel, it’s not Iraq, but Iran: As with Russia’s hacking, it was also the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus that Iran was not building nuclear weapons, a finding that didn’t please the “real men” in the Bush administration who wanted to follow up the bombing of Baghdad with airstrikes on Tehran.

But that said, did you know (I bet you didn’t) that there were, in fact, no WMDs in Iraq? It’s a reference that is damning, on the surface, for those unfamiliar with how the U.S. came to invade that country, and so those who prefer their politics superficial will return to it time and again, just as they do a narrative on Syria, the next Iraq that wasn’t.

Appearing on Democracy Now!, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald helpfully united both Russia and Syria in the “next Iraq” take we didn’t know we wanted but which we, as inhabitants of an evil empire, totally deserve. Asked why revelations of Russian responsibility were coming out now, Greenwald suggested we were on the road to Damascus. “There’s a lot of different reasons,” Greenwald said, “but I think the primary one is that the CIA proxy war in Syria is something that Hillary Clinton had promised not just to support, but to escalate.” The CIA, Greenwald maintained, “is attempting to undermine and subvert Trump because they never wanted him to be president in the first place, and now they’re trying to weaken and subvert his agenda, that they oppose.”

Trump, in other words, poses a challenge to the deep state because he threatened to pursue the same policy as his predecessor: regime preservation, not change, with Obama even pursuing a deal with Russia to jointly bomb Syria together. Greenwald, who failed to recognize the latter’s joint bombing plans until it was useful to deploy against liberal “Russophobic” hysterics, is here seeking to salvage his pre-election take that Trump has a “non-interventionist mindset” by portraying his non-interventionism as under assault by the deep state; when the bombs do inevitably fall, then, they can then be spun as the spoils of that deep state’s victory against a president “they never wanted.” And so, even post-November, harping on liberals and their intelligence allies as the greater evil can continue to be the woke call despite a proto-fascist’s assumption of power. Hillary, after all, would have started World War III for Jabhat al-Nusra, and it doesn’t take supporting Trump to oppose that!

End this, please. A new year and a new U.S. head of state requires more from the ironically detached left than the cock-sure scumbaggery of vapid owns of liberals and asinine comparisons to earlier , more easily understood times that only demonstrate one’s inability to accept that times change and alliances shift.

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Whatever This Is, I’m Against It

Whatever the reasons — likes and shares or an intellectual laziness that prevents them from abandoning old paradigms — it is disappointing and sad that many old comrades cannot abide their analysis, proven woke and true in the mid-2000s, being affected by new developments, like Russia no longer being red and non-U.S. imperialisms having eclipsed the American empire’s body count in the 21st century. We sneer at Democratic elites’ unwillingness to own their failures, and that perhaps explains the unwillingness to concede the reality of Russian hacking lest we excuse those failings, but the left’s most confident pundits have, like the liberals they deride, fallen into the comfortable habit of preaching to their own social media cluster, where possessing superior politics, in the abstract, is a license for not having to grapple with the world through anything but the comfortably distorting prism of ahistorical slogans.

The world, as it exists, is defined by a resurgent threat of fascism that a swathe of the left is content to challenge by blaming everyone and everything but itself, a self-defeating and self-satisfied impotence — literally nothing a leftist says or does matters because the left doesn’t hold power which is totally not its own fault in any fashion — absolving the savviest from having to wake up and notice that the Russian state is objectively bad, even if liberals say it too, and that the right-wing authoritarian who rules from Moscow is about to have an ally in Washington that his intelligence services helped elect. Instead of retreating to the comfort of takes we knew to be true in an earlier, more innocent time, when the laughter of children wasn’t at plausible risk of being extinguished by an unhinged megalomaniac with a greater-than-zero chance of firing off some nukes because he finds that laughter annoying, the left should consider that rejecting Moscow and Washington alike was leftists’ proudest moment, and that we live in a time when both empires are set to work in concert, with Syria likely to be the first testing grounds for this alliance — making it all the more easy and refreshingly unproblematic to oppose them both.

Let’s do that, not whatever it is Greenwald and his imitators think they’re doing.

Charles Davis is a journalist based in Los Angeles.