On Monsterphilia and Assad

My latest for Guernica Magazine.

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Earlier this month, the British street artist Banksy produced a video on Syria that attracted over five million viewers in three days. At a time of intensifying state repression, the target of Bansky’s satire was not the regime in Damascus but its opponents.  By contrast, the most watched video from the chemical attack in August, showing a traumatized young survivor, managed only half a million hits in over a month.

Six weeks after the attacks on Ghouta that killed hundreds of civilians, regime forces have choked off food supplies to the targeted neighborhoods. Survivors of the chemical attack are now facing the threat of starvation. Children have been reduced to eating leaves; and clerics have issued fatwas allowing people to eat cats and dogs.

The belated discovery of the Syrian conflict by “anti-imperialists” after the US government threatened war inspired impassioned commentary. The strangulation of its vulnerable population has occasioned silence. But dog whistles from issue-surfing provocateurs like Banksy are unexceptional; they merit closer scrutiny when they come from respected essayists like David Bromwich.

In a recent front-page article for the London Review of Books, Bromwich identifies many rogues in the Syrian drama: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, “the jihadists”.  But conspicuously absent is Assad’s Baathist regime. Vladimir Putin is the closest Bromwich admits to a hero. The Syrian people are denied even a cameo.

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Obama and the measure of Lincoln

In yet another insightful interview with Radio Open Source, Yale professor David Bromich analyzes the political failings of the US president Barack Obama. He observes:

David Bromwich

At a time of crisis you hope for something more than proficiency of maneuver. You hope for consistency of explanation and the kind of reassurance that can come to people in a democracy from actually learning from somebody who is leading them where they are headed. … It’s not beyond a capable president actually to give a lesson in history. What real leadership comes from is finding the principle and the action that goes with it on which people could agree though they don’t yet realize that they would agree, what they most care about it even though it hasn’t yet found words, what their longterm interests, not their present opinions are… [Leadership comes from] deciding what the commitments are, standing to them, and then repeating, phrase by phrase and precept by precept, what it is you believe and how B follows A and C follows B.

David Bromwich on Obama’s Middle East Rhetoric

David Bromwich, one of PULSE’s top 10 intellectuals for 2010, is a highly astute political analyst, with an extraordinary capacity for parsing the nuances of language and character. He has must-read essay in the New York Review of Books on the gap between Obama’s Middle East rhetoric and reality.

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House, Friday, May 20, 2011.

Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. The Cairo speech of June 2009 was his first performance in that role, and he said many things surprising to hear from an American leader—among them, the statement that “it is time for [Israeli] settlements to stop.” But as is now widely understood, the aftermath of Cairo was not properly planned for. Though Obama had called on Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the expansion of settlements, he never backed his demand with a specific sanction or the threat of a loss of favor. His contact with peaceful dissidents in the Arab world remained invisible and was clearly not a major concern of his foreign policy. Soon after the Cairo speech, the Afghan war and drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal regions took center stage.

Yet Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy—a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions. The command to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and the attempt to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike, which closely followed the bin Laden success, are the exceptions that prove the rule: actions of a moment, decided and triggered by the president alone. His new Middle East speech, at the State Department on May 19, was in this sense a return to a favorite genre.

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Obama, Inc.

Obama's teleprompter

In an earlier essay, David Bromwich noted that whereas other presidents’ have been judged for their performance, Obama is unique in so far as his performance is measured mainly in terms of his oratory. Following the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, Obama garnered much praise for peroration at the memorial service. For many it was the return of the yes-we-can, inspirational preacher politician. The same style — what Bromwich calls ‘a mostly fact-free summons to a new era of striving and achievement, and a solemn cheer to raise our spirits as we try to get there’ — also carried over into his 2011 State of the Union speech (video at bottom). In this excellent piece, Bromwich — one of PULSE’s Top 10 Thinkers of 2010, and one of the most astute observers of Washington politics — once again subjects Obama to his extraordinarily perceptive analysis.

Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address was an organized sprawl of good intentions—a mostly fact-free summons to a new era of striving and achievement, and a solemn cheer to raise our spirits as we try to get there. And it did not fail to celebrate the American Dream.

In short, it resembled most State of the Union addresses since Ronald Reagan’s first in 1982. Perhaps its most notable feature was an omission. With applause lines given to shunning the very idea of government spending, and a gratuitous promise to extend a freeze on domestic spending from three years to five, there was only the briefest mention of the American war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The situation in each country was summarized and dismissed in three sentences, and the sentences took misleading care to name only enemies with familiar names: the Taliban, al-Qaeda. But these wars, too, cost money, and as surely as the lost jobs in de-industrialized cities they carry a cost in human suffering.

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PULSE’s Top 10 Global Thinkers of 2010

In response to the curious choices in Foreign Policy magazine’s ’Top 100 Global Thinkers’ list last year, we decided to publish our own. In 2010, Foreign Policy‘s selections were even more abysmal: among others it included Robert Gates, Ben Bernanke, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, Thomas Friedman, Ahmed Rashid, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bjorn Lomborg, Richard Clarke, Madeleine Albright, Salam Fayyad…and John Bolton! Would anyone outside FP’s editorial board confuse them for a thinker? Once again, it appears FP chose based on the alignment of an individual’s work with the global military and economic agenda of the US government. We therefore asked our writers and editors to nominate once again their own top 10 global thinkers. The following list was the result. (Also see our Top 10 Media Figures of 2010)

Tony Judt

A towering intellect, a moral giant, a master of prose, and an outstanding historian, Tony Judt did what only the greatest of thinkers do: he constantly evolved. More significantly, he never succumbed to orthodoxies, he was always on the edge. In his later years, he also outgrew his middle-of-the-road liberalism to adopt principled, at times radical, positions on war and capitalism. He also jettisoned his youthful Zionism to emerge as the proponent of a single binational state in Palestine. In 2006 he was the only mainstream figure to come to the defence of Mearsheimer & Walt for their groundbreaking London Review essay. He later excoriated Israel as the ‘country that wouldn’t grow up.’ He was also the author of Postwar, an elegant and expansive history of Europe since 1945. We mourn his loss.

Chalmers Johnson

An exemplary scholar, Chalmers Johnson metamorphosed from a hardline Cold Warrior into one of the most formidable critics of US militarism, mapping America’s expanding imperium of bases and spotlighting the fraying edges of its republic. His 2000 book Blowback was as prophetic as his subsequent books The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis were prescient. His longtime JPRI associate Steve Clemons has described him as the ‘acknowledged godfather of the conceptualization of the “developmental state“’ and as ‘an apostate and heretic in the field of political economy’ in the neoliberal hive at the University of Chicago. Johnson was also a literary critic, a skill he deftly used in his later writings to show how the imperial imagination was reflected in the language of metropolitan literature. His departure  has greatly impoverished the intellectual world.

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David Bromwich on Obama, the Establishment President

David Bromwich is the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, and easily the most astute observer of Barack Obama’s performance and character. He has written some of the most insightful articles on the Obama presidency in which he subjects Obama’s oratory and style to close textual and formal analysis, and highlights the various traits that are symptomatic of his approach to politics. In this wide ranging discussion with Christopher Lydon of the excellent Radio Open Source (based at Brown University’s Watson Institute) Bromwich brings his formidable analytical skills to bear on Obama’s langauge, the difference between his improptu and scripted speech, his attempts at humour, and what it reveals about the man. He also makes an interesting comparison between Obama’s style and that of former presidents such as Lincoln, Reagan and Kennedy.

Careless Words and Callous Deeds

by David Bromwich

It has lately become usual for right-wing columnists, bloggers, and jingo lawmakers to call for the assassination of people abroad whom we don’t like, or people who carry out functions that we don’t want to see performed. There was nothing like this in our popular commentary before 2003; but the callousness has grown more marked in the past year, and especially in the past six months. Why? A major factor was President Obama’s order of the assassination of an American citizen living in Yemen, the terrorist suspect Anwar al-Awlaki. This gave legal permission to a gangster shortcut Americans historically had been taught to shun. The cult of Predator-drone warfare generally has also played a part. But how did such remote-control killings pick up glamor and legitimacy? Here again, the president did some of the work. On May 1, at the White House Correspondents dinner, he made an unexpected joke: “Jonas Brothers are here tonight. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words: predator drones. You will never see it coming.” The line caught a laugh but it should have caused an intake of breath. A joke (it has been said) is an epigram on the death of a feeling. By turning the killings he orders into an occasion for stand-up comedy, the new president marked the death of a feeling that had seemed to differentiate him from George W. Bush. A change in the mood of a people may occur like a slip of the tongue. A word becomes a phrase, the phrase a sentence, and when enough speakers fall into the barbarous dialect, we forget that we ever talked differently.

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