Sunday, December 20, 2015

Interview with Noam Chomsky

I sent Noam Chomsky, long-time linguistics Professor at MIT, leftist intellectual, and possibly the world's strongest critic of imperialism and American foreign policy, a list of questions about Venezuela, fascism in the U.S., the Civil War and a potential boycott of the United States. While he regretted not having the time to answer in more depth, he was kind enough to offer a response to each of my questions. Below is the transcript of his email response: 

Matt Peppe: Do you believe the progressive gains made in Venezuela over the last 15 years by the Bolivarian Revolution are in danger of being rolled back after the United Social Party of Venezuela’s recent electoral defeat? Have the people of Venezuela, like Nicaragua in 1990, succumbed to imperialism’s subversion and economic sabotage? 


Noam Chomsky: It’s true that the US has been trying to undermine the Bolivarian project from the start, and there is some economic sabotage (and huge capital flight).  But I don’t think that’s the source of the problem.  Rather, it was undermined by incompetence, corruption, the inherent problem of trying to create a social revolution from above, and the complete failure to shift the economy from oil-based to more diversified, so when oil prices crashed it all fell apart.  In the vote, the opposition didn’t gain much.  The landslide came from chavista abstention, in disgust about what has happened since Chavez died.  The future is unpredictable.

Matt PeppeYou often say that if power structures can not justify themselves, they should be dismantled and something more just and equitable should take their place. In practice, all governments believe they are justified and act on behalf their populations. How could the public demonstrate their lack of consent to the rule of oppressive regimes? As the uprising in Baltimore earlier this year demonstrated, the media will consistently echo the state's narrative that popular revolts are criminal rather than political in nature.

Noam Chomsky: That was significant, but a very small uprising.  There have been much larger ones, in the US too.  The 1930s mass activism that led to the New Deal, for example.  Or popular uprisings that have completely overthrown economic institutions and governments.  In relatively free societies like the US, massive change could come the way Marx anticipated for England: by peaceful parliamentary means.  But it would take hard dedicated work.

Matt Peppe: You support voluntary socialism, similar to what existed in many traditional societies. Karl Polyani writes that in such socioeconomic systems, certain factors were necessary for their successful operation: “Custom and law, magic and religion cooperated in inducing the individual to comply with rules of behavior which, eventually, ensured his functioning in the economic system.” There have now been more than 200 years capitalist dominance, and neoliberal globalization is the rule across most of the world. The omnipresence of this capitalist ideology has created a perceived right to unlimited accumulation, and normalized individual gain at the expense of the rest of society. Would it be possible in such an environment to return to a state of voluntary socialism?  

Noam Chomsky: Not only possible but necessary.  Unconstrained accumulation is on the verge of destroying the prospects for decent human survival.

Matt Peppe: Is it possible to prevent governments from using the criminal justice system for social control and to punish political dissidence?

Noam Chomsky: Sure, and to a large extent that’s been achieved.  We shouldn’t underestimate the freedom that has been won.

Matt Peppe: In an anarchic society of voluntary association, what would the criminal justice system look like? Would prison abolition be a realistic possibility? 

Noam Chomsky: Presumably, communities would devise means to control people who are a real threat to the community.  The goal would be rehabilitation, not punishment, as is already partial the case in more civilized societies like Norway – where the prisons, even for the worst monsters (like Breivik) look like college dorms in comparison to the US.

MP: American presidential candidates today such as Donald Trump, who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country, and Ben Carson, who says he would kill thousands of civilians to carry out a war, unabashedly appeal to anti-democratic sentiments. This is authoritarianism, if not outright fascism. How severe is this fascist undercurrent in American politics by historical comparison, and at what point would it render a functional parliamentary political system impossible? 

Noam Chomsky: It’s been feared for a long time that nativist and racist currents could lead to some form of fascism in this strange country, which is the safest in the world and probably the most frightened.  At what point?  Best not to find out.

Matt Peppe: Do you believe Lincoln justified in waging war on the South to preserve the Union? Was he personally responsible for the atrocities that ensued on the part of his Army, such as Sherman’s March to the Sea, as such atrocities are an inevitable product of any war? 

Noam Chomsky: I think it was justified, and even though slavery --- the most hideous crime of the modern era – was not the immediate cause, it was in the background.  Sherman’s atrocities were not inevitable.  Lincoln can’t be blamed for them.  He did not exercise direct operational control over his generals.

Matt Peppe: After many decades of unchecked military aggression and human rights violations by the United States government and its armed forces, would boycott and divestment of the United States be an appropriate response?  

Noam Chomsky: By whom?  Not in the cards, I don’t think.  The changes will have to come from within.  Up to us.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Liberal Extremism Disguised as Defense of Muslims

After 14 people were killed and 22 more injured in the San Bernardino massacre by a couple whom authorities claim were "radicalized" by Islamist ideology, Islamophobia among the American public has seemingly reached a fever pitch. But while many people are fighting back against hateful discrimination against Muslims, many are doing so with a liberal narrative of American values that rationalizes and perpetuates American state violence, while failing to recognize this violence as its own form of extremism. 

Since San Bernardino, hate crimes against Muslims have been widely reported across the country. In one week alone, a hijab-wearing woman was shot at and several mosques firebombed. Additionally, there have been attacks against storeownerscommunity centers, and civic organizations. Muslims have been intimidated outside their places of worship by armed, right-wing vigilantes. 

Donald Trump, the current Republican front-runner for the Presidential nomination, whose racist demagoguery has prompted debate over whether he is a fascist, reacted with the most extreme policy proposal of any politician. Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the United States because of the "dangerous threat" they pose. 

One popular way people have been denouncing bigotry against Muslims is through seemingly-progressive stories of American and British soldiers who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan vocally embracing Muslims, despite their experiences on the battlefield and the loss of their friends and fellow servicemen.

In a post on Medium, former US Army soldier David Swan writes an open letter to Muslims in which he states, "I don't hate you. I don't fear you. I don't want you to leave this country." Swan goes on to say he would like to have Muslims over for a barbecue, to talk about fantasy football, and for their children to play together.

Swan differentiates Muslims that are willing to accept this type of assimilation from"the radical Islamist." The moderates, he claims, share the American value of being "peace loving." On the other hand, the Islamists who have been radicalized are "wolves" - irrational, barbaric and inherently violent - who "will not stop killing sheep until they are put down... Please do not blame us for using our staff to protect the flock." 

Radicalism is seen as a virus that can turn normal people into the equivalent of bloodthirsty zombies. The notion that someone's beliefs - if taken too literally or too seriously - can turn them from a normal person deserving rights into a subhuman is problematic, to say the least. Though it is unsaid, this virus is implicitly understood as unique to Muslims. There is no such popular imagery of radical Christian, Jewish or Mormon death cults. 

The United States and its imagined values are seen as impartial and neutral. Swan sees his own actions as purely reactive. The Army was forced to invade and occupy Iraq because the radical Islamists gave them no choice. "We take no joy in killing you, but we will do it because you have forced our hand," he writes. 

Rather than being an innocent bystander simply seeking a peaceful coexistence among nations, the United States has a long, sordid history of bloody interventions and human rights violations across Muslim countries in the Middle East and beyond. 

For the last 70 years, the US government has been an active participant in dispossessing Palestinians from their lands, erasing their culture and endangering their very survival as a people. They have enabled the illegal occupation by giving Israel more than $100 billion in military aid, and vetoed 42 UN Security Council resolutions and countless more General Assembly resolutions seeking to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law.

Starting in the early 1950s, the US government meddled in Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian politics to prevent moderate nationalist forces who sought to utilize their countries' natural resources (primarily oil) for the social and economic benefit of their populations. 

The US government recruited, armed and trained foreigners and sent them on a mission in the 1980s to go to Afghanistan and fight a Holy War against the "infidels." Under the Carter Doctrine, the US government declared that the Persian Gulf region was of "vital interest" to the United States, thereby justifying a proliferation of bases in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East to protect access to petroleum reserves.

The US government invaded Iraq twice, killing hundreds of thousands of people and reducing what was a modern nation with advanced highways, infrastructure, hospitals and cultural sites to crumbling ruins. In the 12 years between illegal invasions of sovereign Iraqi territory, the US enforced horrifyingly deadly sanctions that caused the deaths of 576,000 children. Two UN officials overseeing the sanctions regime resigned when their protests against the inhumanity of the program were ignored. Confronted with the shocking toll of lives lost, a Clinton administration official said "it was worth it." 

Groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS did not form in a vacuum but as a reaction to this historical context . They are not a manifestation of Islamic theology found in texts like the Quran, but of specific social, political and cultural conditions - conditions the United States played no small role in creating. Some people who feel powerless and desperate will inevitably resort to violence against those they see as responsible. While indiscriminate violence is not morally justifiable, it is also not irrational.

Swan's metaphor of radical Islamists as wolves mercilessly attacking a flock of sheep, detached from any social or political objectives, evokes Edward Said's description of Islam symbolizing among Westerners "terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians." 

"The argument, when reduced to its simplest form, was clear, it was precise, it was easy to grasp," Said writes in Orientalism. "There are Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominate; the latter must be dominated, which usually means having their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another Western power." 

While America is imagined as being free of the toxic ideology infecting radical Islamists, the narratives driving the US's many violent interventions across the Middle East can be seen as a manifestation of Said's description of Orientalism. The assumption that Muslims acting without reason must be brought under control by more civilized nations is itself a highly ideological position. 

As Arun Kundnani explains in The Muslims Are Coming!, the dominant discourse about Muslims has changed since the days after 9/11 when blanket fear of all Muslims was prevalent:
But now, liberals say, we have moved beyond that, and we understand that Muslims in America are just like the rest of us. However, just as in The Russians Are Coming!, the liberal caveat is that Muslims are acceptable when depoliticized: they should be silent about politics, particularly US foreign policy and the domestic national security system, and not embrace an alien ideology that removes them from the liberal norm. 
In other words, Muslims should feel free to barbecue and talk about fantasy football. But speaking out against American imperial wars in Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, questioning whether they are really a battle of good versus evil, would indicate extremist ideology - which, in turn, would suggest a disposition for terrorism. 

"Those defined as moderate Muslims can have their religious traditions valued within the parameters of Western tolerance," writes Kundnani, "while the state focuses its powers on surveillance, coercion, and violence on those categorized as extremist." 

A former British soldier who lost his leg in the Iraq war writes that despite people expecting him to hate Muslims because of what happened to him he refuses to hold an entire religion responsible for groups and individuals who sought him harm. 

This is an admirable sentiment. But it presupposes that the violence against the soldier was more reprehensible than the violence he was himself responsible for. The soldier was a combatant taking part in an illegal war of aggression. The people who took up arms in resistance against him have a legal and moral right to do so, just as he would have a right to defend his own country from a foreign invasion. If people selectively condemn individual Muslims for violence, it should be no surprise that many people will use this to fuel racist stereotypes. 

Murderous assaults on hospitals, sadistic torture, "shock and awe" aerial bombardment, and assassinations against unknown targets are terrorism just as much as indiscriminate shooting sprees, suicide bombings or summary executions of hostages. Those seeking to defend Muslims would be well served to question whether their own their own nationalist doctrines help rationalize the plague of state terrorism that the War on Terror has normalized, and which is falsely portrayed as moderate and noble.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Putative US-Israeli Rift Has Not Dampened Partnership in Oppression of Palestinians

In March, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made denying a Palestinian state a pillar of his winning re-election campaign, officials in the Obama administration signaled to the media that they would reconsider the U.S. government's staunch diplomatic support for Israel in the United Nations. The U.S. government feigned "very substantive concerns" and declared the administration may "reassess (its) options going forward" in response to Netanyahu's explicit rejection of a two-state solution.

Mainstream media focused on the personal dynamics between the leaders of the two countries. CNN said the Obama administration felt "outright hostility" toward Netanyahu and the New York Times said the leaders had a "poisonous relationship." They presumed the professed discord would imperil the political alliance between the two governments. In reality, there was no reason to believe a personal conflict would jeopardize the nearly 50-year-old U.S. government policy of providing Israel an unconditional shield in the General Assembly and the Security Council.

It was obvious even at the time the Obama administration's anonymous threats to reconsider its diplomatic protection of Israel were nothing more than posturing. Netanyahu had broken an unwritten rule when he said in front of the camera's what is stated in his Likud party's platform: "The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river." Not only had this been written policy since 1999, but Netanyahu's government - and every other Israeli administration since the state's illegitimate formation in 1948 - has been carrying it out in practice.

Obama has demonstrated little interest in supporting progressive policies in favor of human rights and social justice, but he shown himself zealously concerned with them in the abstract through grandiose and noble rhetoric. During the first six years of his presidency, Netanyahu actively opposed a Palestinian state without Obama's administration withholding any of the ideological, diplomatic, military and economic support that is a necessary condition for the occupation's survival. As long as Netanyahu kept quiet, Obama could pretend his administration's support for Israel was contingent on Israel seeking a permanent peace deal with Palestinians.

Obama urged "cooperation and compromise" and continued the pretense that a "peace process" was not already long dead. But when Netanyahu publicly declared in stark terms that he has no intention of permitting a just solution to Israel's colonization of Palestine, he made it impossible for Obama to continue the charade. Netanyahu and his fanatical government ministers long ago realized that Obama had no intention of seeking actual concessions from them regardless of how much land and water they stole, or how many Palestinians (or Americans) they killed.

In reality, Obama was happy to let the Israeli government keep slaughtering Palestinians in Gaza, expanding checkpoints and repression in the West Bank, and further carving up the West Bank with new illegal settlements while offering nothing but the most mild, toothless complaints.

As Ali Abunimah noted in the Electronic Intifada, "for the Palestinians, there is no meaningful Obama-Netanyahu rift. Indeed US-Israeli relations have never been stronger, nor more damaging to the prospects for peace and justice and for the very survival of the Palestinian people."

This was not inevitable. In January 2009, Netanyahu had ordered an immediate halt to the IDF's destructive rampage in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, which had killed more than 1,400 people in Gaza, the day before Obama's inauguration ceremony. Presumably Netanyahu believed the failure stop the second assault on the blockaded territory in a year would cause the incoming Obama administration to support an independent investigation, cut military aid, dispute Israel's argument that it "had a right to defend itself," or end the U.S. government's facilitation of the carnage.

But it turns out Netanyahu and the Israeli regime needn't have worried, as no such change in policy was in the cards. Obama's new administration would block the Goldstone Report presented to the Human Rights Council, and ensure complete impunity for the Israeli crimes that occurred subsequent to Obama's election. This likely emboldened Netanyahu to unleash even more wanton destruction and horror in July 2014, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on trumped up accusations against Hamas.

"Having falsely accused Hamas leadership of orchestrating the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens in June, and then assailing the group for 'purposely playing politics' when it rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal that offered it nothing beyond a return to the status quo of the siege, (Secretary of State John) Kerry and the Obama administration once again provided the Israeli military with the diplomatic cover it needed to escalate the violence," writes Max Blumenthal in The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza.

Despite extensive documentation from the start of the military campaign that the captive civilian population in Gaza comprised the vast majority of the dead and injured from tank and naval shelling, drone missiles, F-16 bombs and heavy artillery, the Obama administration cast the only vote against establishing a war crimes investigation by the United Nations. A few days later, the administration helped resupply the Israeli army with weapons, including 102mm mortar rounds and 40mm grenades, that the IDF could use to keep up their prolific killing spree.

In May, any doubts that the personality conflicts had actually imperiled the hand-in-glove military cooperation between the two countries, as mainstream pundits so forcefully proclaimed, was put to rest. The Obama administration approved an arms sale for $1.9 billion to Israel - in violation of domestic and international law, and against the explicit demands of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

The Electronic Intifada reported: "Among the tens of thousands of bombs included in the weapons package are 3,000 Hellfire missiles, 12,000 general purpose bombs and 750 bunker buster bombs that can penetrate up to 20 feet, or six meters, of reinforced concrete."

Much as the military cooperation between the two states has carried on seamlessly, so has the diplomatic cooperation. Despite Israeli officials hinting the government might finally decline to vote with the U.S. in the 24th annual UNGA condemnation of the Cuban embargo, predictably Israel was the only country in the entire world to join the U.S. in defense of the embargo. The measure passed by a vote of 191-2.

Not surprisingly, unconditional U.S. support for Israel in the United Nations has also continued uninterrupted. "Traditional Voting Pattern Reflected in General Assembly's Adoption of Drafts on Question of Palestine, Broader Middle East Issues," states a U.N. press release after the passage of six resolutions concerning Israel. Indeed, the pattern was traditional: the U.S. and Israel, with a few Pacific Island states, voting against the rest of the world (minus whoever the U.S.-Israel alliance could persuade to abstain).

In a resolution on the illegally occupied Syrian Golan Heights, from which Israel steals valuable natural resources and where many prestigious Israeli wineries are located, the U.S. government rejected the position that Israel follow previous Security Council resolutions and withdraw to the 1967 borders.

Concerning Jerusalem, the U.S. rejected a measure stating that Israel, as the occupying power, had no right to "impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration on the Holy City of Jerusalem," and that they show "respect for the historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem."

Additionally, the U.S. rejected a call "to exert all efforts to promote the realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to self-determination, to support the achievement without delay of an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and of the two-State solution on the basis of pre-1967 borders and the just resolution of all final status issues and to mobilize international support for and assistance to the Palestinian people."

As these votes were not reported in the mainstream American press, the American public can be forgiven for not realizing the meaninglessness of the "rift" between American and Israeli government officials, which has not impacted at all the U.S. government's longstanding record of rejecting world opinion and cooperative efforts to achieve a just peace.

The corporate press have demonstrated that their policy analysis consists primarily - if not entirely - of dissecting style, empty rhetoric and official proclamations. Concrete actions and their consequences are of little concern.